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Stray Feathers, Wings upon the Wind – our nature remix

Lui and Toran, mes hijos, Las Habas en 2004

An essay first written in the autumn of 2004 …

Each year, even in “the same place”, my one man’s dialogue with nature is different. Not just through each changing season but during each day that is spent in the field.

Each experience is unique when compared with ‘the same’ winter, spring, summer or autumn day of seasons gone by. That was always the natural way. It remains ever changing, always now – we are all evolutionary processes in action.

In our ever-more technologically-dominated world one may wonder every day exactly which human activities, and in what proportion, are contributing  to natural events, often labelled disasters. Processes such as the widespread sea- and shore-bird breeding failures (of 2004 and subsequently) on the one hand, or the continuing increase in Stonechats Saxicola torquata across much of Europe on the other. Or consider fpr a moment the ongoing steep decline across much, if not all, of Europe of the once abundant Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, set against the rapid rise of a closely related currently synanthropic bird, evidently far better adapted to the agricultural-factory landscape of our new world order, the Collared Dove S. decaocto. There we have just a very few avian examples.

Nowadays one wonders if any of these changing natural phenomena are truly natural events? Or are they all to varying degrees the anthropogenic outcome of our constant and accelerating striving to mould everything on this planet into a product of our own imagination.

I used to go birding to escape such annoying and worrying thoughts!

Today I realise that escape is impossible. As I walk the fields of “my patch” each day – my mobile human-island view – I attempt to allow my mind to settle into quiet observation, and try to be as dispassionate as possible. Watching the activities of my fellow travelers here on our one and only “spaceship” Earth.

El campo (literally the field and by extension the countryside) of Southernmost Andalucia is certainly as good a place as any to observe such rapid changes. Whether they be the wholesale landscape transformation of the lowlands funded by invisible actors from afar, or seemingly discrete fluctuations in the number and phenology (the annual periodicity of natural phenomena) of say a single insect species on these hillside pastures. Whichever way one looks one realises that everything is connected to everything else, so it is clearly difficult to convince oneself of any linear causal relationships no matter how inviting or somehow necessary this type of thinking might be.

We have lived on Las Habas farm for fourteen months – so this is the beginning of my second autumn observing the rhythms of change just here. The gradual waning of this second boreal summer has differed markedly from my recollections of the first. The summer and early autumn of 2003 was a period of strong dry easterly winds – the Levante which by September had toasted almost the entire land surface to a dusty tumbleweed crispness of brown. Superficially, say for an observer in an inbound jetliner at twenty thousand feet, the surface of this patch of Europe today might look the same as it did one year ago. Not so down here in the living fabric at a focus height of just less than two metres above ground – which incidentally is surely an achievable minimum for a pair of bins costing one thousand pounds? In contrast to 2003 this summer has been very much an Atlantic one – a Poniente guapo perhaps best translated as “a sweet westerly”. Most days the wind has been little more than a soft and gentle breeze off the ocean. Early each morning delightful ocean-cooled maritime air arrives off the Bay of Cádiz from the Atlantic beyond. After dawn it is coaxed by the incandescent sun into condensing those vapours upon the jagged coastal sierras, like great torn drifts of a soft white towel – they moisturise the hard earth’s surface under the shifting mists of morning. 

By evening the dampness and the mists are long gone. If we have not been out before, then this is when the dog and I make our daily patrol. We perform a circuit around the thistle-armoured fields revelling in the crackly warmth of sundown where a thousand crickets of several species take the stand from the Thekla Larks Galerida theklae, Zitting Cisticolas Cisticola juncidis and Corn Buntings Miliaria calandra who drift away “sip-ticking”  to roost. We clamber through straggling rusty fencelines and skirt lank hedgerows of giant prickly pear cactus searching the old cattle farm for field identifiable life forms of any colour, caste or creed. Later, after dark and hopefully after some dinner, notes are made of what has been seen this day – to be compared with the various memory banks from 2003.

In many ways this cattle farm feels like and, increasingly it seems to be an oasis, an island even. We are perched upon a gentle eastward-sloping shelf, at one hundred metres above sea level, that extends westward from the low grey sierras behind. The horticulture of the Las Habas settlement is largely run along organic lines. The cattle farm not quite so, but here too chemical inputs, other than some highly unsavoury veterinary prescriptions, thankfully remain minimal in order to produce the high quality Retinta beef for which the region is famous.

But Las Habas nowadays overlooks a great swathe of unashamedly rectilinear hyper-agriculture, where biocides and inorganic fertiliser are spread with gusto and not with care. Sadly, agribusiness has temporarily at least, taken control of the valley below.

This valley, still known as the Laguna de la Janda, is on paper anyway a designated, albeit woefully degraded, Important Bird Area  (Spain – number 250). Just prior to “3 -11” and the unexpected change of national government, the drainage of the erstwhile lagoon, (begun under the ascetic but arguably less-duplicitous regime of a certain military general now long dead), was finally completed.  The morning view west from here remains an uncompromising reminder of the net result of a two-dimensional world view. A very contemporary scene, of grid-like sub-urbanisation, with a fine display of corporate insignia ‘on offer’, glinting in the early sunlight.

Of an evening the sinking sun thankfully leads the eye up and away, as no doubt it always has, beyond these near-sterile factory fields, across the logjam of delivery trucks upon the highway, and over the one hundred and fifty bright white windmills that have erupted from the uncultivated ground like giant stinkhorn fungi and in as many days – taking the mind to a softer ocean vista where chrome and chiselled shadows finally give way to untamed yellows and that indescribable saffron orange of sunset – the leopard light of evening.

Despite the ever more devastating changes wrought upon this valley landscape of late, valid comparisons can hopefully be made between the migrations of 2003 and those of 2004; and guesses hazarded at the relative success of these last two breeding seasons. With westerly winds dominant for the past month the main river of southbound soaring birds has this autumn passed well to the east of us. This gave the Gibraltar area its highest ever count of Black Kites Milvus migrans in one day – when 38,000 birds were estimated to have made the crossing on August 16. By now one hopes that they will be feeding along the River Niger and foraging for discarded fish and offal over the rivers and fresh green wetlands of the Sahel zone at the height of the monsoon rains prior to pushing further south into sub-Saharan Africa.

In early March 2003 I was amazed to watch a Black Kite arriving in Europe at the Isla de Tarifa on the Strait of Gibraltar carrying a bleached animal bone in its talons, a trophy perhaps from the other side – out of old Africa. So supremely adaptable and hence highly successful even in Europe these large brown raptors are wintering in Spain with increasing frequency. Nevertheless any individual, and especially any flock, out of their principal season (i.e. any birds seen between early September and early February) around Tarifa or La Janda is worthy of note. Already I am eagerly looking forward to my next important meeting with Milano Negro.

Another conspicuous early autumn migrant, less influenced by the direction of the wind, is the European Bee-eater Merops apiaster  whose departure this year appears to have peaked at the end of August. On warm clear days several flocks continue to pass (September 8) south over the farm but nowadays in reduced numbers. They always demand attention, even from a great distance or at a great height, their constant liquid calling back and forth, which occasionally bursts into exuberant jamming sessions of beautiful chirruping trills as if they are calling a fond farewell to the land of their birth. Interestingly this year there was what appeared to be a pronounced exodus of this species in late May and June which if real might have been in response to the deteriorating weather conditions both in Iberia and further north during the late spring. Exceptional rains in Northern Africa during the same period might well have created suitable breeding areas along the northern fringes of the Sahara. Certainly this year has been a poor one (in comparison to 2003) around La Janda for larger aculeate Hymenoptera (generally the sting-bearing bees and wasps) upon which of course the bee-eaters largely depend for successful breeding.

Early mornings in August and September are also characterised by those passerine delights of open country birding in Europe. The Tawny Pipit and Yellow Wagtail who bound south through the farm landscape in conspicuous undulating flight; each species announcing its presence with one or more of a series of distinctive call notes. The dry chirruping calls of Tawny Pipits seem to echo the warm steppe habitats in which they breed whilst I like to think that the wagtails’ softer squeaky calls hail from paddling in the damp pastures and wetland fringes that they frequent year round – during winter in Africa and tropical Asia and in summer in any less intensively managed farmland of northern Eurasia.

The local race of Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava iberiae arrives in and departs from Andalucia earlier, leaving from early-July onwards and it seems to me that their principal flight call, a rasping almost harsh skiewp, differs significantly from those softer sqweeps of their northern European relatives M.f.flava, M.f.flavissima and perhaps M. f thunbergi who continue passing south as I write.

Tawny Pipits are certainly far commoner here this autumn than last. I hope that this abundance is real. Perhaps it is the result of the same cool wet period during May which must have favoured the development of eminently suitable ‘dry grasslands’ in the sparsely peopled steppic zones of the central tablelands – the vast meseta of Spain’s interior. Where this time last year I would only see two or three individuals on my daily round this autumn I am seeing between ten and twenty birds. However there may be another explanation. There has been a significant change of management on our farm which might have favoured this species in particular. After a widespread fear of wild fires brought about by observing last year’s conflagration across Portugal and Extremadura (not far to the north) local landowners have ploughed snaking fire breaks around the periphery of their properties and these often run through what was otherwise virtually virgin pastureland. Such freshly ploughed ground is clearly proving very popular not only with Anthus campestris but also, provided that there are big stones or larger clods of earth that create vantage points, with migrant Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe who have also been foraging in these areas in good numbers. The more locally-bred Black-eared Wheatears O. hispanica have, but for a few tardy juveniles, completely disappeared at the end of August – exactly the same time as they left last year. If Tawny Pipit has done particularly well this year in Spain then it is conceivable that more juveniles than usual might wander northwards into British and Irish air space and be found – perhaps in Scilly, on Portand or at Cape Clear?

Northrrn Wheatears – father and child

How has this summer fared as regards movements of the more conspicuous southern migrant insects? Such insects are frequently considered as potential indicators of a widespread natural response to global warming (now climate change) when they are for example recorded in increasing numbers in the well-watched British Isles. After 2003 which in retrospect must have been “a good year”  in Andalucia for such species, 2004 has been almost a disappointment. Although February, March and April produced some early and interesting records suggesting another year of major insect immigration in prospect, I suspect that the wet cool weather throughout May became a crucial hinge point in the year, from which the northward momentum of some species has never fully recovered. Hummingbird Hawkmoth Macroglossum stellatarum movements for example never showed any real promise and it is only since I returned from the Rutland Birdfair that I have noticed more than a couple of individuals together; always at the flowering jasmine in the overgrown courtyard. Who knows for sure which direction they are going now – I have to say that it seems to be south!Another endearingly conspicuous semi-diurnal moth, the Crimson-speckled Utetheisa pulchella, has been very scarce around the farm this year, where last year it was common. In fact it is only in the past week that we have even begun to see them.

The Red-veined Darter dragonfly Sympetrum fonscolombei which has recently established a “nymph hold” across southern Britain has possibly been less plentiful in 2004 than last year although there were certainly many tens of thousands moving through the valley during July and they were still passing north, frequently in tandem on September 5. Some days they have been accompanied by very small numbers (single figures) of the much larger Lesser Emperor Anax parthenope. Both species are no doubt benefitting from the huge expansion in rice-field cultivation and associated ditches that has taken place in the river valleys of Iberia over the past two decades. The fields are flooded in late May and it seems possible that the large numbers of darters appearing in late July each year are closely associated with this ‘new system’ of irrigated agriculture. I have watched Red-veined Darters arriving across the Strait from early April, the same time that they first appear in La Janda. Both this species and the extremely impressive Scarlet Darter Crocothemis erythraea are capable of having two generations in one year in southern Europe. Numbers of the latter warmth-loving dragonfly are relatively small but they appear to be at least as frequent this year as they were last.

Movements of migrant hoverflies have been unremarkable since the anticipated “big push” of Eristalis species during late April and I cannot confirm whether there have been any significant fresh arrivals of Migratory Locust Locusta migratoria since that time – it does not appear so.

Barn Swallow

Undoubtedly the quintessential migrant taxon for most people in the northern hemisphere is the Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica.  Barn Swallows started passing south from here well before May was over and it is likely that we  were then watching individuals from Scandinavian populations passing those from southern Iberia, the two streams travelling in completely opposite directions on the same day. I well remember being speechless last year when I saw my first northbound swallows on November 27. Two brightly contrasting metallic blue-backed and clean white beneath, wire-streamer tailed adults that were cutting through the cool northerly breeze of that autumn afternoon low to the ground with manifest determination! In favoured places in Andalucia and Extremadura I am sure some pairs occasionally have a full clutch of eggs before the end of the calendar year. Our own birds were incubating before the end of February and this year the five pairs certainly managed a better second brood than first, again I suspect, largely as a result of the wetter more oceanic summer. Last year many swallows definitely left Iberia quite early; we watched small parties crossing the Strait out from the Isla de Tarifa in early June. This year no detailed observations have been undertaken from there but at Las Habas farm some of the breeding birds lingered well into August, whereas in 2003 the ramshackle cottage with the hole in the roof where four pairs annually choose to nest was completely deserted by mid-July.

My observations of what might be happening with our local swallow populations and other insectivorous birds and their prey could be partially corroborated or at least illuminated by observations of annual changes in the resident insect fauna hereabouts.  This summer compared with last has pestered us with many fewer Common House-flies Musca domestica and related muscids flies, something upon which all who live here wholeheartedly agree. As to the reason, at this stage we can only speculate. By contrast I have recorded occasional crane flies Tipula sp. and other moisture dependent fly species about the farm even in mid-summer 2004 – insects that were completely absent at the same time last year. As mentioned earlier, this summer Hymenoptera have been fewer in both number of individuals and variety of species than last, although interestingly flower-foraging nectar feeders have seemingly done better e.g. there have been larger numbers of the unusually hefty black and yellow Scolia genus (which includes one of the largest wasps in Europe Scolia flavifrons) whilst the almost equally large and impressive thermophilous burrow-making Ammophila wasps have been decidedly scarce. That greater humidity has been a major factor in all of this is perhaps best demonstrated by the humble Meadow Brown butterfly Maniola jurtina of the large bright tawny southern subspecies hispulla. Last year it was very hard to find a single individual reappearing in September after their period of apparent aestivation, let alone finding any flying during August . This year they have remained active to this very day and are now the commonest butterfly. At midday September 7 we flushed dozens from the shady ground beneath the towering red gum Eucalyptus shelter-belt which surrounds the horse enclosure. The Meadow Brown’s larval food plants are various kinds of grasses and this year it seems to me that the absence of desiccating easterlies and the preponderance of morning moisture from the Atlantic has enabled these grasses to continue producing fresh green shoots, if not to flourish, throughout the summer where last year all was parched and yellow.  Similarly, last year it was late September before I saw an autumn skipper butterfly Hesperidae of any species around the farm, this autumn we have already recorded three species, and one – the Marbled Skipper Carcharodus lavatherae has been seen almost daily. My conclusion is that the cool moist conditions of May especially would seem to have favoured some insect species whilst suppressing the populations of others. By extension one can suggest that the populations of many bird species in this part of Spain at least have been influenced by the ever-more changing weather patterns of the interesting times in which we happen to live.

James Wolstencroft

First published to the web on September 8, 2004; edited version posted here on November 2, 2021

Retinta cattle at Las Habas in February 2021

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