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Birds and Hogs, Cranes and Dogs!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

These photos were taken Dec. 21,  2019, on Liam's and my epic trip to mainland Spain to be with Phoebe and, later, Oscar and his family way out in the Canary Islands. Despite my life's barrelling on apace, I am dogged about getting this Spain stuff posted, so my kids and I will have something semi-coherent to remember the trip by. I can see by the numbers that you really prefer the day-to-day Indigo Hill reportage, and I get that. It's more accessible and personal.  I thank those of you who stick with me here on the blog as I travel a bit.  

Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura, south central Spain, is a wild and windy place. Being winter, it was also cold, though I understand it can be broiling hot in summer. We carried on despite the howling wind, and managed to see some sights and some wildlife.  
This is a very distant blue rock thrush. I'm sure in proper light it's lovely, its blue being more of a slate color. There are similar birds in South Africa.

The cork oaks in the dehesa forest are laid out so regularly you wonder if they were planted like this, or if they somehow assert their space and keep all other oaks away with root poisons. I don't know the answer to this. I've been rooting around to try to understand more about this strange oak savannah ecosystem. Suffice it to say it's probably anthropogenic in origin, and dates back thousands of years, yet it provides both for livestock and wildlife in myriad ways.

 It's an acorn-based economy! Sheep and pigs and cattle graze the grass beneath the oaks and wild olives; shepherds take the sheep, especially, to the highlands in summer, which prevents overgrazing of the dehesa plain, in a process called transhumancia. It's much like the cattle drives of the old American west, but it's still going on.

I was beyond thrilled to get a close look at a Mastin de Extremadura, and a brindle one to boot! This Spanish mastiff, a specialty of the region, was wandering out by the road, with no humans in sight, but his job is to guard the sheep. These dogs are raised with sheep from the time they're tiny; they seem to think they're sheep, and want only to be with sheep. But let someone approach their herd, and their protective nature comes out. They'll follow you with the evil eye until you give up the pursuit. And they can back it up with massive jaws and great speed.

I just couldn't get over the beauty of this dog, with a tail like a tiger's, and brindle stripes running through its long fur. I will admit to a new fascination with brindling. Not sure where that came from.

It wanted nothing at all to do with us, and retreated to the top of the bank.

There, I got a shot of its kind and gentle face. Still, not a dog to be challenged or trifled with. It's got a job to do!

I will sit here until you drive away. Please go away. I have sheep to guard.

Meanwhile, nicely rounded Iberian hogs and sheep, cattle and goats, kept in by wire and impossibly ancient mortar-free stone fences, all eat the acorns that fall from the oaks, and that  diet gives the hogs' hams their unique flavor. But they're not the only ones who eat the acorns. 

Cranes (which look like nothing unless you click on the photo) do too!

Click on the photo to see a juenile crane, with its featureless head. This was as close as we ever got to them, and they were in a hurry to right that wrong, walking off immediately.

I managed to catch a few in transit.

The hogs were pretty wild, too, come to think of it.

Cattle were more approachable.

A couple of the famous fighting bulls for which the region is known. Oscar is a born Spaniard, but he detests bullfighting, as do many of his peers. One hopes we are entering a different age, one a bit more advanced than that of the Roman emperors and their bloodlust.

There was so much to take in here that my mind was whirling the whole time. The interconnectedness of the dehesa oaks and olives; the livestock living cheek to jowl with cranes and vultures and azure-winged magpies

You may be quite sure I bemoaned my craptastic shots of these beautiful magpies. You can only see their azure if you click. Oh how I wanted to be closer, but they were too wild.

A crested lark amongst the cowpies. We loved his up-do. 

A beautiful linnet in winter plumage!

Linnet reprise.

A pair of siskins with Moorish architecture behind.

And a wood pigeon. Man, I was under-equipped in the camera realm. An 800 mm lens might have gotten something; my 300 was smoking and still I got so little. No wonder European birders flip all the way out when they come to America and especially the Neotropics. It's like a dang petting zoo compared to Extremadura. 

A confiding great tit. It was wonderful to have any bird confide in us, so skittish were they all. There aren't many bird families whose European representatives are prettier than the American species, but man, the tits in Europe are really beautiful. Insert whatever middle-school level joke you wish here _____________.  I saw long-tailed tits flying over Caceres this same evening, but getting photos of them would have been an impossible dream.

All right. I've gone on long enough. Until next time!! Olé!


I love to read about your travels! I live vicariously through your posts and photos. Hope you have some more from Spain. And I have 2 sheep guard dogs who are 3/4 Spanish Mastiffs, one who has the gorgeous brindling too.

I’m with Laura – reading about your travels feeds my wanderlust, though I’m happy to read about Whipple, too!

@Laura L oh oh oh!! How cool! I didn't know the Mastin de Extremadura had made it over to this country. What are their temperaments like?

Keep telling us about your trip. I’m sure I’ll never get there and how would i learn all of this without your writing.? Don't stop! And thanks! Caroline

On one of our trips to Spain (only took two, so not really bragging), we drove past several cork oak groves. Our guide gave us a careful and detailed instruction on how cork is harvested. He said trees have to be a certain age (frankly, don't remember what) and that the cork bark is stripped from a tree only so many years--not every year, but time in between to recover. The harvesting task is very organized, so I would assume the neat row of the trees you picture is due to intentional planting.

I like and read ALL your posts – the ones that take me places I will never get to go and show me their special species, and the ones closer to your home and heart. ❤️ ♥️ 💜

I love to travel vicariously with you every now and again.

I’ll read anything you write! Love traveling “with” you. Very interesting about the oaks, wonder if that was what it was like here in OR with all the White Oaks before they were chopped down. LOVE tits, our Bush Tits are one of my favs, always moving enmasse! So cute!

I have a Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD)to protect my goats, chickens, and occasional milk cow. LGD's are at once the sweetest and most terrifying dogs you'll ever meet. They love their animals and their people with all their floofy heart, and as soon as they detect a threat to what they love, they will kill it.

I'm enjoying your Spain posts! So fascinating about the birds being so skittish there. I never would have thought such a difference existed. Loved the pooch! And interesting how a whole ecosystem can be based on one species.

No need to apologize for these posts. I love seeing you relax and find joy with your family. As someone who can't get enough of the glories and beauties of the world outside, I also greatly enjoy experiencing that through your eyes. Keep em' coming, Julie!

They are super sweet and snuggle up to their people. A little more standoffish with strangers because they know their job. They are excellent as guard dogs for the sheep. It has been years since we've lost anything to coyotes. When I get back to my computer I will send you some pictures.

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