Saturday, March 18, 2017

Post #96 - Birding in Extremadura, Spain - Part 1 (of 2) - History, geography, and what to expect on your visit!

Just a quick administrative note before we get started. At least one regular reader emailed me that he has had issues commenting on recent entries. Apparently a filter that I was unaware of was somehow triggered and blocked some people from commenting. I have removed that filter, and everyone - registered with Google or not - should now be able to comment. I would greatly appreciate it if folks would give it a go to let me see how it is working! Thanks. Also, please consider "following" this blog if you haven't already done so (a link to do this is below the Blog Archives in the right hand column of the blog.)

Now on with Spain!

This is the first of two posts I will use to recap my recent travels to and birdwatching experiences in Extremadura, Spain (Feb 18-28, 2017)! This first post will introduce you to the region and highlight some of its history and demographics. I will also outline some general birding expectations for your visit. In my second post, I will review the precise birding areas I visited and the exact species that I observed in each. OK, let's get going!

Extremadura is 1 of the 17 autonomous units within Spain, and, with a population just over a million, is one of the least populated regions of the country (Spain has 46 million people total). Agriculture and livestock are the major industries, though deer hunting and ecotourism are growing rapidly in popularity. At 16,000 square miles, Extremadura is quite small; It is quite possible to bird most of it in 4 or 5 days (for those from the US, Massachusetts is 10,500 sq mi and and West Virginia is 24,000). A central or semi-central location will leave only 2 hours driving time to all of the birding locations that I will describe in the second installment. Extremadura itself is less than a 3 hour drive from Madrid or Lisbon, so reaching the destination from either Spain or Portugal is very straightforward. Roads are easy to drive and in good shape. I wouldn't hesitate to rent a car and drive myself around on a return visit.

The regions of Spain with Extremadura highlighted.
Madrid is dead center.

Extremadura is comprised of two provinces, 
ceres in the north and Badajoz in the south.

Extremadura flag

To fully appreciate the amazing bird watching opportunities in Extremadura, it is first helpful to understand at least a small amount of Spanish history and how it contributed to present day demographics. Prior to the arrival of the Romans in the second century BC, the Iberian Peninsula was loosely inhabited by many groups including - among others - Iberians, Celts, Basques, and Phoenicians. The Romans conquered and subjugated these various folks and, in 27 BC, established the province of Lusitania. This municipality encompassed present day Extremadura as well as neighboring Portugal. Mérida was designated as the provincial capital in 25 BC and was subsequently used as a retirement community for Roman Legions (soldiers). The Romans ruled Lusitania until the early 8th century when the region was conquered by Muslim armies. Christians retook the region in the 13th century and held the territory until the arrival of the Napoleonic forces in the 18th century.

Roman bridge in rida

Roman amphitheater in rida.
This was built before Rome's Coliseum!

Roman theater in rida - all but 3 columns are original.

The 20th century saw a brutal civil war that ultimately installed General Francisco Franco - a facist - as dictator in 1939. He ruled until his death in 1975 whereupon democracy was reinstituted. The 1978 constitution designated 17 autonomous states and 2 autonomous cities with the country. These units are still intact today, but rumblings of complete independence for some, particularly from Catalonia in the Northeast, seem to be a continued source of discussion within Spain.

The square towers of Trujillo's fortress 
identify it as Islamic

Catholic Church in the
religious center of Guadalupe

This rather turbulent history manifests itself in a demographic unlike that of anywhere else I have traveled. It seems as though absolutely everyone lives in established villages and towns, none of which sprawl or have any sort of suburbs. This was historically done for protection, and today guarantees that the vast majority of the Extremadura landscape is unsettled. This means lots of habitat is available for birds!

Trujillo and Extremadura countryside beyond.
A large festival associated with Carnival 
can be seen at town's center.

Contemporary habitats range from rocky ridges, to mixed oak woodlands, to forested grazing pastures, to open farmland in the plains, or steppe, regions. Hundreds of small dams create an equal number of artificial ponds and lakes that attract a host of water birds. This variety of habitats regularly supports ~280 species, and over 350 species have been recorded in the region. My visit occurred in late February, a time when wintering species, most notably cranes and waterfowl, are still present and the first spring migrants are arriving.


Steppe pasture

Rocky ridge 

Wooded hillside

If traveling a long distance to Extremadura (i.e. from the US), I would suggest a visit sometime between mid-April and early May. This will guarantee that more of the migratory, southern European and Mediterranean specialty birds are present. A solid week of spring birding should yield ~175 species, virtually all of which will be new for birders making their inaugural European venture. Weather in late February was pleasant but not particularly balmy. Temperatures rise as spring progresses, but so does the chance of rain. I had no rain of consequence in 9 full days of birding, so that's one huge perk to coming a bit earlier. Lodging fills faster later in the spring, so coming earlier will make finding places to stay a bit easier. Bustards and sandgrouse might require a bit a more work later in the spring as the steppe grasses grow in with the spring rains. I've been told though that finding those species in April/May is still possible, so please don't let this qualification dissuade you from coming later if you wish to see those species. Summer is very hot and should be generally avoided.

Biking for Birds, Spain edition!

With basically zero traffic, getting from place to place is a snap. We spent several nights in Torrejon El Rubio (Adjacent to Monfragüe National Park) and a few more in Trujillo. There's not much lodging between towns, but staying anywhere basically gives you access to everywhere. Most of the lodgings are boutique hotels or converted family estates. Airbnb is a possibility as well and would offer a similarly immersive lodging experience. Everywhere we stayed had character and contributed to our experience in ways that staying in some big box hotel chain would not have. At one place, the owner's son played his clarinet while we ate dessert. It was super classy an reminded me of my clarinet days as 14 year old - except that I was beyond awful at it.

Hotel lodging in Torrejon El Rubio

 Our guest house outside Trujillo

I hope that this post gives you a general overview of what to expect in Extremadura. The real beauty of birding in Extremadura is that there is so much history and culture to experience beyond the birds. In that respect, Extremadura (and Spain, more generally) is an idea destination if you've got a non-birding spouse in tow. In the next installment, I will focus on those birds and the locations where one can view them. Please stay tuned for that in the next few days!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Post #95 - Announcing my contribution to "Real Birders Still Don't Wear White"!

I leave for Belize and Guatemala in a few hours, but I wanted to leave you guys with at least something since I'm still grinding away on the Spain recap. That something is "Real Birders Still Don't Wear White". This just-released collection of essays is a follow-up to "Real Birders Don't Wear White" which was originally published in 2007. The most recent installment, like its predecessor, features essays by well-known birding personalities on a wide variety of birding and conservation topics. Most of the authors are true heavy-hitters in the bird world, so I was understandably surprised when the publisher contacted me about contributing. It took me a bit of time to come up with a topic, but I eventually settled on the relationship between birders and hunters. My general message is that birders would be well-served to liaise with hunters for conservation purposes, but you'll have to read the chapter to see how I reached that assertion. 

Without getting too political, I would say that recent attempts to sell off public lands to the highest corporate bidder have highlighted the importance of a birder-hunter conservation alliance. Hunters actually put up the greatest resistance to the proposed sales, and as a result many of the politicians pushing for those sales backed off for fear of marginalizing the hunting and gun-owning voting block. I don't understand hunting and I never will, but that doesn't mean that hunters can't be powerful allies in the conservation fight moving forward. It's really important to see that we have more in common than might be gleaned from a quick and dirty, surface inspection. Like I said, I write more about this connection in my essay in the book. 

Lastly, please consider following the blog is you haven't done so already. It will make you the life of any party! You can do this using the link below the "Blog Archives" on the right hand side of this page. Thanks! 

Here's one I got at my local patch yesterday afternoon. I just went over there with my camera to work out a few settings before my trip and BAM - I unexpectedly got this!

Ruddy Duck - Oxyura jamaicensis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 2x III TC on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 640, handheld

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Post #94 - Seeing rarities where they aren't rare is the best.........

I am back from Spain! It was an incredible trip, and I promise a full recap in the very near future. But I must first make a really important plea. I have added a "Followers" gadget under the "Blog Archive" tab on the right hand side of the page. PLEASE considering following this blog if you like it. All it takes is a Google account (i.e. email) and you'll be set to go. You'll get email updates about new posts, and you'll really, really help me quantify and display the collective interest in this blog. As I have resigned my scientific position at USC, I am now officially unemployed, starting all over as an aspiring writer/photographer. I have no idea where this path is going to take me, but I do know that a blog with a loyal (and hopefully large) readership will certainly help me grow my writing brand moving forward. Please share this blog with friends and please also consider following me on Instagram (dorian_anderson_photography) as that platform will help me advance the photography arm of my new career/brand. My content is 100% free, so please take just a minute to help with this. It would really mean a lot to me. I'll just say 'Thank you' in advance!

The referenced Spain recap is being temporarily held up as I am now in San Francisco searching for an apartment ahead of our upcoming Bay Area move. I'm here for a few more days, then back to LA for 2 days before heading to Belize and Guatemala for the following 10 days. We'll move after that trip and then - finally - things will settle down a bit. At that time, I'll crank out the Spain recap (to be followed thereafter by the Belize/Guatemala recap).

I did en route to SF collect the now long-staying Emperor Goose in Pacifica. The bird was initially reported to the birding community by a non-birding local on January 24th. In the days that followed, the bird behaved very predictably, as though it already had an established routine. This suggested that the bird might have been present well before the 24th and therefore might be wintering in that precise spot. Knowing that I would be SF in early March, I decided to forgo chasing the bird in that last week of January. That strategy paid off, and I was this week rewarded with my first ABA bird of 2017!

ABA seen bird #714 - Emperor Goose!
(Record shot only, shooting east, into the morning sun)

He's the normal range of Emperor Goose.
The above bird is well off course in CA!

Emperor Goose records away from Alaska.
The species is a rare but regular visitor to the Pacific Coast.

I will confess that seeing this magnificent bird on a California golf course was quite anticlimactic. Some of the lackluster was due to the fact the the bird behaved so predictably and was all but guaranteed to be found, but some of it was the precise setting in which I saw the bird. Emperor Goose is a rugged species, a species that survives on the edge of the world in the Bering Sea. I always figured that I'd see this species when I finally made it to Alaska, possibly as it winged its way past me at Nome, Gambel, or Dutch Harbor. I envisioned a small group of them fighting into the wind, winging over the churning waves with distant but unspoiled lands as a backdrop. Instead I got a golf course with dozens of adjacent houses. Don't get me wrong, I was stoked to see the bird, but the sighting just lacked some of the splendor that I had envisioned. I probably won't stop chasing would-be ABA life birds anytime soon, but I will try to appreciate observing species in their more usually habitats and haunts whenever possible. Just some thoughts. I'd love to hear yours on the same subject!

I'll leave you with another recent shot. I think this guy looks as though he was just caught with his hand in the cookie/acorn jar!

*click for higher resolution vew*
Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Orange County, CA
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/8, ISO 800

That's it for now. Much more coming moving forward!