This is the first of a series of photo-rich blogs on the trip. My primary motive for the visit was to experience the vast flocks of Common Cranes that winter in Extremadura: a staggering 131,000 according to the monthly census made just a week before my visit. So this blog will focus on the grullos.
I have just returned from a four-day press trip to Extremadura, Spain. The visit was designed to get me material for my forthcoming travel guide to the best wildlife watching experiences in Europe. It was kindly organised and funded by Extremadura Turismo (particular thanks to Vanesa Palacios) and the Spanish Tourist Board, to whom I am very grateful. The excellentMartin Kelsey guided me - and was great fun to be with. I stayed at the equally excellent Casa Rural El Recuerdo, run by Martin and his wife Claudia, in Pago de San Clemente, a few minutes south-east of the amazing town of Turjillo. It was so good that I shall be going back on a family holiday in late May!
What struck me most was quite how many different ways there are to enjoy cranes. These are not one-dimensional beasts! A pair and its offspring moseying around maize stubble, within yards of a smallholding. A pair calling to each other, head thrown back. And what a call! The chorus of cranes resounded across the entire day: 'bugling' doesn't really do it justice, and I shall need to find the words to describe it when I come to write the book. Add to this the quiet, wary whistling of juveniles, seeking counsel from their parents.
More family groups, some with hangers on, tiptoeing through the rice fields that have spread across this part of Extremadura in recent decades - providing food for an ever-burgeoning population of cranes and many other birds, but at the expense of the semi-natural steppe grasslands favoured by bustards and sandgrouse. You win some, but you also lose some.
Cranes, then. Measured yet emotive. Hefty yet insecure. Noisy yet orchestral. A worthy inclusion in a book showcasing the very best of European wildlife.
We spent a day investigating the various experiences that cranes offer, largely in the area around Altas Vegas and Madrigalejo.
Cranes in flight, of course. All legs and neck accompanied by stately, unruffled wingbeats. (And, yes, that is a male Hen Harrier photobombing the image below.)
Then cranes in the habitat that originally brought them to Extremadura: the holm-oak dehesa, with its ready supply of acorns. This is how Extremaduran cranes are meant to be. It was a treat to watch flocks of hundreds mooch around between the stocky trees with their afro of foliage.