Okay, yes, I’ve done this line to death, but humour me and ‘picture the scene’ anyway. Twenty keen birders are standing beside a farm gate as a rose pink sun rises quietly up above the rolling ‘false steppe’ plains near Magasca. As the light brightens enough to use the supplied Swarovski ‘scopes a line of pale shapes on a fold in the hills about 1500m away become Little Bustards. Crested and Thekla Larks begin to vocalise and follow the sun into the sky. A small group of Great Bustards can be seen picking their way carefully along a rocky hillside some kms away. A Calandra Lark flies up off the ground and starts displaying, flapping slowly on bowed wings like a Common Sandpiper, pouring a tumbling melody over the fields.
Then an loud call starts up from a clump of bushes about 500m to our left, an excited chattering that is quite raptor-like but less piercing – a Great Spotted Cuckoo, the first of the spring says our guide. It’s a bird we all want to see (especially those of us who don’t live in southern Europe), but it’s still a long way off. Suddenly the chattering is answered to our right – a second cuckoo! Remarkably this second bird floats in over a wall and perches about 300m on one of the hundreds of rocks piercing the short turf. The clicks of cameras sounds like rapid fire, but amazingly the cuckoo hops onto the ground and then glides towards us, fluttering up onto the top strand of wire of the very fence running down from the gate we’re standing by. Where it perches for several minutes, calling.
My camera lens doesn’t really do justice to the colours and patterns of this stunningly beautiful, exotic bird – the wispy silver-grey crest, the pale yellow wash to the upper breast, the white tips to the wing feathers like paint spatters – but the pros amongst us took some fabulous photos and video, often through a digiscope set-up. As a way to start the third day of an already unforgettable trip it couldn’t have been better if Swarovski could have somehow planned it…
Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius
Great Bustard Otis tarda
Of course there is no way an optics company – even one with the almost mystical power to produce something as remarkable as the EL50s – could arrange for a migrant cuckoo to appear out of the half-light and land no more than 50m away. Or could they? Because about 30 minutes later one of the very, very distant Great Bustards we’d spotted earlier had peeled away from its group and was heading straight towards where we’re all now standing, arrowing directly towards us against a cloudless blue sky. As it grew larger and larger – and flying Great Bustards get very large indeed – the sound of camera shutters grows almost explosive. Unbelievably one of the world’s heaviest (and one of the wariest) birds doesn’t shy away from a group of men with upraised arms but hurtles straight over us and disappears into the distance…
Take note anyone proposing a Launch Event because THAT is how to impress a group of birders and birding journalists…
That one moment summed up so much about this excellent trip actually. Everything seemed to go our way. The weather was supposed to be overcast with some rain: it was cloudless and the sky the most brilliant blue. The group was friendly, genuinely appreciative of every bird, relaxing into what could easily have been a very tense trip if we’d found the EL50s substandard. We didn’t build up a huge list, it’s a little early for many migrants to have reached Europe yet, but we’ve got some stunning views of the birds that are here – if I were really being fanciful I might even imagine the birds have been just as interested in getting better looks of the EL50s as we’ve been in using the EL50s to get better looks at them (but that would be silly, wouldn’t it?).
And the fact that a species that was shot out of the UK, has been blasted out of blue skies in countries from England to China, should fly over a line of people who automatically raised their arms and ‘sighted’ it as it flew towards them without deviating says a lot about Extremadura – an area of Europe I’d not been to before. I am, as many people who know me will already know, anti-hunting, but while shooting of Red-legged Partridges is almost epidemic here, the locals leave pretty much everything else well alone. Yes, it’s illegal to hunt large ‘meaty’ birds like Great and Little Bustards, Cranes, and Greylags but Extremadura is the size of Switzerland or the Netherlands with a population of just one million: who would know? Time to lay a few of my prejudices aside?
Hmm, I’m not sure even the beautiful and relatively scarcely-populated Extremadura could do that, but it has made me rethink my rather melancholic view that where food production and the natural world meet it’s always the environment that loses out. And that’s because much of Extremadura survives like it does because of the way the land is used. Once heavily forested the ‘false steppes’ were we birded in the morning have such thin soils that they’re unsuitable for growing crops intensively and need to be treated carefully , but that means they’re great for larks, bustards, and the small covey of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse we found crouching into the furrows of one of the fields. The (perhaps unique?) dehesas, with their pruned cork oaks and heavily grazed vegetation, host most of Europe’s Cranes in winter which feed on acorns from trees which exist because they provide shade for livestock, are used for firewood, and hold the soils together. The livestock in turn feed the huge population of vultures which live in the Monfrague National Park: remove the livestock or farm more intensively and the land will break down, the range of birds would change, and the impact on the Critically Endangered Spanish Imperial Eagle could be catastrophic…
Over-simplification of course, but there is a remarkable sense here that the wildlife exists not despite of us humans but because of us. For anyone who’s travelled extensively that makes quite a change…
Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra
Calandra Larks Melanocorypha calandra
And what of the EL50s in all of this? Would using my normal 7×42 SLCs have diminished Extremadura for me in anyway? Of course not. I’m a huge admirer of Swarovski products but I’m not an unquestioning fanboy, and with or without the EL50s the countryside would have looked beautiful and the villages neat and tidy, the people would still have been friendly, and the birds would have been plentiful and very special.
Having said that I’m absolutely certain though that the whole trip was enhanced by these optics. For example at lunch on this last day we parked up at the top of a hill by the signs in the photo below. The first breeze we’d felt the whole trip reached across the countryside and birds seemed to respond very quickly. Lines of migrating Cranes and Greylag Geese appeared, and vultures spiralled in from the distant hills looking for carrion. Time and time again I used the 12x50s to see – and identify – birds that were well outside the limits of my eyesight: and to see them clearly and in great detail. It was like holding two mini telescopes to my eyes, except that the EL50s are ergonomically superb, beautifully balanced in the hand, and have a much wider field of view than you’d get if you were curious enough to try to handhold two telescopes and pick up distant birds through them…which I’ve not seen done before, but doubtless someone has tried it.
The image was far better than I could have imagined through the powerful EL50s, and of course far larger than I would have seen had I be using 7x or 8x – and make no mistake the difference in the size of a bird seen in a 7x and a 12x is huge. The advantages gained by that difference would of course be nullified if there were aberration or fringing, if the binoculars were too heavy to hold up for more than a few seconds, or the image was darkened substantially. No such loss with the EL50s. They were magnificent in this sort of environment: in clear air, with good light, and with birds flying at long distances away. Heck, they were magnificent in every environment I tried them in, but they really excelled in this wide open space.
So no, perhaps my perception of the trip wouldn’t have been diminished if I’d never heard of the EL50s and gone birding with my 7x42s – but now I’ve used the 12x in situations like these I can absolutely, hand on heart, say that the experience was not only enhanced but I’ve been spoilt for life. After the 12x50s I’m rather sad to say – as I don’t have them anymore – that nothing else will do…
Greylag Geese Anser anser
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus
My thanks to the entire Swarovski Optik team for inviting me on this amazing trip, and don’t forget that as well as producing some lust-inducing optics Swarovski are also great contributors to conservation and are co-species Champions for the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing – see eg ‘The Amazing Journey‘ for details.