For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Friday, 5 March 2010

A Passion For Birds

I'm no expert ornithologist - truth to tell I'm expert in very little - but I do have a keen, general, amateur interest in nature and wildlife, particularly in birds. I remember developing this passion at a very young age. My first bird book - which I still own and have written about here - was called The Observer's Book Of Birds, published in a revised edition by Frederick Warne in 1964. (It originally came out as early as 1937, and was the very first book in the Observer's Pocket Series.) However, although its illustrations (by Archibald Thorburn and other well-known bird artists) were absolutely lovely, it must be acknowledged they were hardly the most ideal aids to identification. Half were in black and white for a start - just about OK for the magpie or oystercatcher, but of little use for the goldcrest or shoveler duck.

Still, with its modest help, and a pair of my mother's unwieldy, brown-leather-cased, 1950s binoculars (which verged on the useless, having little depth of field and desperately poor magnification), I gained a rudimentary knowledge of the commoner garden, woodland and streamside birds, and soon hankered after spotting some of the rarer, migrant, more exotic species on the British list, such as the golden oriole and the hoopoe. So I was completely thrilled to see, for the first time in my life, not just one hoopoe, but several of these stunning creatures, on my walk along Spain's Vía de la Plata...



The southern half of Spain and the tip of north-west Africa is where you'll find these colourful, beautifully marked birds in the winter - though in the breeding season they migrate into much of mainland Europe. The ones I spied were either flying jerkily from one holm oak to another, or feeding in the grass beneath the trees. I mostly only got brief sightings rather than uninterrupted views, for they're rather shy. Usually they're swooping, woodpecker-like, away from you, and you just get a tantalisingly brief glimpse of those broad, raggy-edged, black and white wings, and that wedge-shaped, black and white tail.

A bird that used to be quite common in the UK is the lapwing, aka peewit, aka green plover. Nowadays there are far fewer than there used to be, due to the draining of wet areas and the cultivation of marshy farmland. But in Spain I saw more than I've ever seen previously - hundreds if not thousands of them - making the most of the rough, uncultivated Spanish pastures which had been deluged with rain over the past few months. It was a delight to see them, and to see them in such numbers, for they're gorgeous birds...




For the first half of my walk along the Vía de la Plata, through Andalusia and Extremadura, birds were my constant companions. I heard birdsong all the way - finches, buntings, tits, larks, all sorts of other small birds I couldn't identify - though this gradually lessened as I went further north into the higher, colder region of Castilla y León. Storks were commonplace - unmistakeable with their clacking bills, broad black and white wings, and huge untidy nests on the tops of telegraph poles, electricity pylons and church bell towers. There were egrets - mainly cattle egrets - in fields full of cows, or standing in isolated meditation by some pool or other. Birds of prey were a daily occurrence - lone red kites with their forked tails silently gliding across vineyards, golden eagles drifting over rocky cliffs and bluffs.

One day a group of twelve Egyptian vultures flew straight over me (they'd been circling and scavenging above a nearby motorway) - very easy to identify with their black and white underwing markings, white heads and diamond-shaped tails. Unlike griffon vultures, whose numbers have been increasing, Egyptian vulture numbers have been declining, so I was lucky to see them, though I think more and more are overwintering in Spain because of global warming...




But best of all were the cranes. They're present in parts of southern and central Spain all winter long. First of all I heard them - a loud, jarring, trumpeting cacophony - and then I saw them, a large flock taking off from a wide, open grassy space where they'd been feeding beneath the holm oaks. Soon the sky was chock-full of hundreds of cranes, their necks and legs outstretched, climbing higher and higher, soaring into the blue. I must have heard them for almost an hour as I walked through that sublime grassland region - strewn with oak trees, fringed with snow-capped mountains - which lies just south of the small town and thermal spa resort of Baños de Montemayor.



Yes, birds... Pure magic! Life would be immeasurably the poorer without them. And the countryside so funereally quiet...

1 comment:

am said...

Wonderful bird book!!

The last birthday present from my mother before she died was a copy Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Until I read that book, I had never heard of Hoopoes. Your post with the Jung quote reminds of what I learned from that book.

Thank you!