Age is just a number. Not unless you turn forty it aint. So I made it to the big 4-0 which still doesn't compute with me but I will just have to trust the integrity of the date on my birth certificate. Those who said you will not feel any different were guilty of lies against humanity. I felt totally different. Every time I closed my eyes I could see those two numbers etched onto the inside of my eyelids. I felt panicky, queasy, time has slipped by into middle-age and I'm still no clearer on what to do when I grow up. I think that's it. I've turned forty and I've not grown up. Maybe it's time to start shouting at other people's children and ironing my underwear. There are things to look forward to after all.
The plan then for said birthday. A four day trip to Extremadura to ease the pain.
A champagne breakfast at Heathrow's Terminal Five overlooking the westerly apron and watching the planes disappear into the low cloud as they departed from runway 27R. I was getting the best of both worlds.
Arrived in Madrid on a BA/Iberia flight without any drama which of course all starts when picking up a hire car. I'm not entirely sure what part of my brain is missing but I have lost that once innate aptitude for orientation. It's an age thing. Four and a half hours later, having re-routed via many of the Spanish cities, the comforting sight of Trujillo was upon us.
Trujillo should be a three hour drive south-west of Madrid towards Badajoz on the Portuguese border. A stunning fortified town set in the province of Caceres that throughout the generations has been inhabited by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The architecture is stunning, the narrow cobbled streets are a joy to walk through, the town remains untouched by commercialism. It was also an opportunity to practice my Spanish - some amusing moments but all good.
View from Monfrague Castle
Iberian Grey Shrike
Birding was carried out at a leisurely pace. No rush. This was a holiday, but there were certain targets I had to hunt down that involved two sites.
The first site at Vegas Altas was an hour out of Trujillo. Here, Crane were present in large numbers. Huge flocks feeding on the rice fields, moving through in flocks as they wheeled around pronouncing their anxious 'kraw'. Difficult to count but I estimated around 5000 birds in the area and such a fantastic sight. Definitely the bird of the trip.
In the area were three lifers. In the ditches that ran alongside the rice fields, Red Avadavat flew round in flocks, jumping out of the reeds and disappearing into cover. Some bright red individuals were seen, but there were mainly transistional males, females, and juveniles. Sharing the habitat were a few gaudy Common Waxbill, a stunning bird with their diagniostic red eye-mask. Flitty Zitting Cisticola were common. A few Willow Warbler were present too, a couple of bright juveniles enjoying the relatively mild conditions.
Just the numbers of birds here was astounding. Clouds of Spanish Sparrow and House Sparrow along the roadside, Spotless Starling, Corn Bunting, Marsh Harrier quartering the rice fields, Iberian Grey Shrike sat on the telegraph wires, and hundreds of Cattle Egret following tractors as they churned up the fertile soil. A majestic male Hen Harrier flew through flushing gulls and smaller birds as it ruthlessly hunted the dense populations of birdlife.
Further away from the main road, the hunt was on. Driving through sandy tracks, fields were scanned successfully for Great Bustard, a flock of 75 together feeding at distance as they nervously creeped through the wheat fields.
Taking a route past Mohena Alta, Crane again were present in number, stalking through the orchards obscurely resembling mammals on the Kenyan plains. Here, good numbers of Azure-Winged Magpies gregariously passed between the trees, energetic and boisterous.
Other highlights were the Hoopoe that lined the roadside, up to 15 feeding individuals interspersed by short flights as the car creeped forward toward them. Very confiding. A single Merlin was seen dashing low over the fields, a Green Sandpiper flew round one of the rice fields, as did a couple of Kingfisher. There were birds everywhere - this was the end of November.
Monfrague National Park
An iconic area of Extremadura, Monfrague National Park with breathtaking scenery enhanced by a short climb up to the Castillo where thermalling groups of Griffon Vulture can be seen at close quarters partrolling the barren slopes. Beneath, the River Tagus flows through disappearing into the misty horizon as it meanders past the rolling hills. As well as the Griffs, Black Vulture were here too, with at least eight seen, immense yet serene.
The climb up to the Castillo on a cool clear day routed through semi-coniferous and deciduous woodland where Nuthatch were active, Woodlark were in brief song, and Crag Martin numbering up to a hundred flirted with the rocky scree.
This place deserves time, but there is more to be seen. The road traverses the river via the bridge pictured in the photo above. A further fifteen minutes down the road is a traditional site for Spanish Imperial Eagle where two were immediately noted sitting high up on a rock, commanding their positions ruling authoratitively over their vultuorous rivals. Both were adults, and the pale shoulders were clearly visible. They were present for around twenty-five minutes before soaring away. Both Griffon and Black Vulture were present as was a single Blue Rock Thrush that sat high upon a tapered rock. There were decent flocks of Azure-Winged Magpie seen from the roadside here.
A return trip the next day back to Vegas Altas was a disappointing and fruitless search for the rare and localised Black-Shouldered Kite. They do winter in this area, but I will one day catch up with it.
Extremadura will be the first of many visits.
We got lost driving back to the airport.