Lots of European bird-watchers grew up in towns. Many, like myself – I come from northwest England – lived near the grey Atlantic, in a decidedly cool corner of our “Great Peninsula”. Here for perhaps half our days, up to seven months of each impatient youthful year we suffered a suffocating Tupperware opaqueness overhead. A grey shield of cloud that far too often blotted out the blueness of the sky. Excluding us from heaven above. From ‘freedom’.
I think that is why, for we, the child birders of the sixties and seventies, the Roller and half a dozen other southern birds portrayed in the middle of our Peterson Guide – please let’s not forget Guy Mountfort and Phil Hollom – the Kingfisher, the Bee-eater, the Hoopoe, the Golden Oriole, the Woodchat Shrike, such birds were the embodiment of our childhood’s nature fantasies. Why? Because they are exotic, colourful, pulsating with warmth and they have the freedom to roam, proof of a life worth living. To this day, in September 2014, even though I live amongst riotous colour in Equatorial Africa, whenever I catch a glimpse of the vibrant sky blue of our Roller, the blues of any Roller – for we have at Christmas time four species here around Arusha – it never fails to spark a thrill in the child’s heart within me. Despite the fact that I was seventeen when first I encountered the Roller-being in all his tropical flesh and blood.
It was near Arcos de la Frontera in southern Andalucia, Spain. A bright Sunday morning at Easter time 1973. Lucky us! We too had just flown-in, in an Iberia jet from a dull, grey Manchester airport. Whilst he of course made it all the way to Arcos by himself, recently arrived, from far exotic African lands. I was on one of my manic early-listing missions. He was much more focused, carefully scanning the open ground beneath his telegraph wire for trundling dung and darkling beetles. Oily black insects, nutrition, caught out in the open, crossing the soft earth of rabbit mounds, beside a lumpy chalky lane in what was, for a wee while yet, Franco’s Spain.
Along that narrow road beside one of Franco’s own great wheat fields bloomed an unruly renaissance of brilliant buzzing Easter flowers. Legumes mostly; deep blue vetches and blood red Italian sainfoin, out-matched only by the whispering pagan spires of purple viper’s bugloss, already standing knee-high in the verge. Humming, smiling, they were witness to terse old ladies, robed in colourless black, scuttling like the beetles, dead-eyed up the lane to the beat of the Roman gong.
My next Roller meeting was as impressive as the first. Another in-bound Easter migrant two years later it was in an ancient olive grove, on a sun-drenched hillside, beside the hazy blue Adriatic in northern Kerkira (Corfu – April 1975). I was still reeling from my first ever sighting of a male Pallid Harrier. A silent ballet in bright white spring sunshine, he had just ghosted past me on the softest of breezes, across a wet-under-foot field of wild white narcissus; the budding wayside elms and Nightingales, still ringing in my eyes and ears. I had decided to take a short cut, through a stony patch of maquis, toward some scattered twisted olives on a slope. Suddenly there was “The Roller”, on a bare antler branch etched against the sky. Thickset, powerful, a square-headed bird with a serious beak and sharp knowing eye, a distillation of blues beneath a more uniform rufous tan. Then in seemingly reckless flight there were yet more blues, ecstatic blues, blues and beauty beyond belief.
For young naturalists – increasingly they could claim to be impoverished citizens in those materially rich northern societies – it is I suppose the simultaneous mental processing, the surprise processing of so many sense experiences which is required, that reinforces the moment in our memory. Such moments ensure our allegiance, usually for life, to the life of the wild. Wedding us to wonder – if it be your will?
Stumbling upon a gorgeous Roller, finding a longed-for bird of any kind (in today’s parlance connecting with a species on your wish, dream or bucket list) charges the brain with instantaneous, 360-degree, spherical reality! Sensation that is all around and overhead. Not images on a shiny flattish screen, slap in front of our face! Likely we are struggling with at least some physical effort, we must try to concentrate and persevere, we’re plodding along with the minor discomforts and fatigue of being in the field. We might be sitting, standing or walking, running even, yet presumably quite quietly! It might be in sunshine, in wind or rain. With my roller I was smelling the healthy earth, amongst spring flowers humming with nectar, maybe as I paused amid the hum of bees and wasps, butterflies dancing, delightful evocative contact calls of diurnal migrants, imagine European Bee-eaters dashing overhead! This for sure is easy immersion in Nature. It’s becoming aware. Sensing the uniqueness of place and I suppose in the moment, fully being there, and yet somehow also footloose in space.
Forty years later, such essential, transcendental moments must be daily sacrificed by my attachment to assimilated ecological knowledge and environmental fears. Not to mention the domestic responsibilities of raising a family! Above all I worry what must have happened to the blue skies Roller, “our European” Roller, its populations, in the short 50 years of my lifetime?
We know the species was already in retreat from the north and west of Europe during the late nineteenth century. One hundred years later that range had contracted further and by the year 2000 what were apparently healthy populations survived only eastward from the European peninsula into the lands that are again called Russian.
In the aforementioned “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (sic!)” in the second and third editions, (the bible of this 1970s era rarity hunter, twitcher on the by-pass, for the list-serve listers of the future), the habitat of European Roller is summarised simply and succinctly by Phil Hollom as:
“Mature forests and fairly open country with a few trees. Breeds in old hollow trees, holes in banks, ruins etc.”
Now, and then, to reproduce in this ‘habitat’ Rollers must of course eat well. They require a lot of large to very large insects. In their African lives their diet is composed largely of Isopteran alates (that’s flying termites – and of course these are not available in Europe), Orthopterans (crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and locusts), Coleopterans (beetles) and Hymenopterans (ants, bees and wasps), also small vertebrates such as Lacerta-type lizards as well as small rodents. And of course they need safe nest sites. Rot holes in big old trees where a limb has fallen-away, rubbly creviced cliffs, earthen banks or ruined walls of old buildings and nowadays in places man-made nest boxes.
Since practically the entire population of Coracias g. garrulus and C. g. semenowi (the eastern ‘subspecies’) spend the boreal winter travelling through Africa there are also the inevitable myriad dangers of a migrant’s life, during those seven months of the year when General Winter rules the North. Months in which a European Roller once again becomes just another African Roller.
How many descendants of those mid-70s western Rollers are returning now, steadily crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara, from the expanded European Community to Africa this migration time?
Rollers going whichever way, north or south, are returning ‘home’. In so doing their dwindling population reveals how little is left of Europe’s environmentally-sensitive countryside. In the old European communities that I knew, for such a short while, the old-farmed landscape that functioned quite well even into the late seventies has in the past twenty-five years been all but obliterated. Relegated and the regulated to a few scattered bio-spherical reservations where redundant human life-styles and “species of conservation concern” are no longer viable without finance from beyond the fence to support the landscapes of cultures that are dying if not already dead.
Not one Roller I’ll wager shall utter its near-threatened throaty rattle, in tumble-round display, above the vast swathes of squared-off waste, the deserts of grain, of oilseed rape and foreign fir and the accumulating silage bags (tractor’s eggs!) rolling-out across the Union. Sour-smelling or scentless ‘fields’ increasingly surround and overwhelm the few forgotten corners where wildlife hangs-on. Whilst along the drains and invalided hedges the despised weeds of agri-business, such as Rumex and Urtica gain yet more ground. Airborne nitrates-assisted, unruly and rank – they are the dark flowers for our time. This is the brave new briefly profitable countryside of a supposedly wealthy Europe. Set-aside and sterile fields so-called, reinforced by liberalized land tenure laws, yet only occasionally visited by any of the people – let alone the dark-suited men who love them Homo ignoramus.
In our expanded Union, say after 20-15? Will there be three hundred pairs of “Vulnerable Rollers”, perhaps just fifty, when only ten? In the past sixty years our manufactured (profit-driven) need, for ever more efficient food-as-culture, which links the base production industries of oil and metal with wood, grain, meat and milk, has desecrated what remained in 1950 of the Roller’s habitat west of 25 degrees East. And with it what great proportion of those other trans-Saharan migrant birds, for whom we still call Europe home? In fairness it was likely done without intent, by crass brutality in the traumatised wake of War. Beyond contemporary understanding and without our true consent. Unwitting yes, yet many of us definitely sensed and even saw them disappearing, so arguments apportioning responsibility could drag-on yet. Whatever, we have lost the bulk of them. Killed-them-off as surely as if we had been those brutes and shot them down in Cyprus or in Malta.
It is my belief that it is not only the bird nerd, or avian geek, the boffin ornithologists, nor simple nature-lovers and naturalists who suffer this demise of Roller-land. I believe we still need those grazed and well-timbered parklands, Medieval wood pastures, muddles of heath and corn, eastern meadow-forest mosaics. We need new versions of these “cultural landscapes” who survive today only as open air museums, or in ever fewer mortal evanescent memories, or monochrome, petrified and flat, two dimensional images, locked in celluloid or in the damned computers.
Acquiescing in accelerating extirpation, we are losing something ineffable. Something that I think is more precious to our humanity than a suite of sky-god religions or even European Rollers. I think we are loosing our sense of belonging, of continuity, any spirit of communality. True freedoms these; the knowledge that an ordinary life is worth living. Living outside a box; and not always in one, not a life in front of one.
In Europe today, I hear that privileged childhood freedoms increasingly dwell within a moulded black or silver plastic case. On a screen that encapsulates electronic fantasies, played-out in a cartoon planet, crafted within crowded mega-cities that have so deeply absorbed our minds. I know the youth today, as always and quite naturally, they prefer their fantasies to those in which we lived. The ones I doubt we can now describe with anything like sufficient vitality to bring them back to life transformed. It seems to me that a civilization which requires such tranquilising pass-times has evolved within a wider landscape of great conformity. Corporate monotony, on its present trajectory, may soon deliver terror as rapacious and inimical to the human spirit as was any fearsome forest, or field of feudal or fascist wheat, or state collective farm in Soviet Russia. Insidious and stifling, highly mechanised, oil-dependent agriculture delivers our daily bread to the domestic terminal consumers who seldom see a cereal field without an intervening pane of glass; and have not the slightest idea what an ancient healthy forest might look like.
And as regards my take on sub-Saharan lands … “as long as it/they doesn’t/don’t come here, who up there cares, really?”
This thankfully brings me back home to the so-called “insoluble problems” of Africa, and its ten types of Roller.
In what’s left of old Europe, east of about 25 degrees East, the Rollers might survive for a little while yet. As with many bird species, of a primarily west-central Palearctic origin, nominally ‘European’ Rollers enter Africa in late autumn on a route that lies well to the north and west of the one by which they may leave the following April. From late September through October and November they pass through the lands of the Horn of Africa and Sudan east of the Nile into eastern Chad, and the C.A.R. and subsequently south through the eastern Congo, western Kenya and Tanzania roughly along the western axis of the Rift Valley. This is presumably so that they can take full advantage, on their leisurely southbound journey, of this vast region’s food resources. In many parts it will be leaping with life; with trillions of insects large and small. The acacia and broad-leaved savanna woodlands in the northern centre of the continent produce a luxuriance of growth, processed by countless life forms, in the wake of ITCZ rains which fall, in ever varying patterns, during the three months that follow the boreal summer solstice.
A very large proportion of our rollers (and almost all of the eastern race C.g.semenowi) continue south eastwards, pursuing the moisture-laden banks of cloud that continue to trigger a tremendous population explosion among the insects. Thus it is almost the time of the December solstice before the majority has arrived in southern Africa. Although often foraging alone, the travelling rollers frequently assemble in loose flocks, or ‘clump’ in areas of food abundance, where one bird can clearly see another, typically they are spaced 100 – 200m apart. For example: on Boxing Day 1940 around Dodoma, in the dry country of central Tanzania, R.F.Meiklejohn counted up to 5,000 Rollers in one small area of thorny Masai steppe.
This huge influx of immigrant rollers into Africa each year brings them into almost daily contact with two and sometimes three resident species, which are about the same size, yet they meet without apparent aggression or need for segregation. It seems, from all the available evidence, that very rarely does a European Roller spend more than a couple of weeks in the same place; so this species is very much itinerant whilst in Africa. Perhaps the resident birds recognize the transient nature of ‘their guests’, in much the same way as the indigenous human population, on a somewhat different time scale, appears to have been doing.
In Africa the Roller clearly prefers areas where the ground is relatively open, especially where clearance or a recent fire has significantly disturbed the local insect population. In the 1940s Reginald Moreau recorded that this roller will even eat the brightly coloured, acrid-tasting and slow moving Foam Grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans) which itself feeds upon toxin accumulating Milkweeds (Asclepias fruticososus), Senecio and Solanum. When attacked the grasshoppers produce evil-smelling foam from their thoracic joints. Livestock avoid eating from bushes containing these grasshoppers and this bubbly secretion, if ingested by dog or human, frequently proves fatal. We too watched five rollers feeding with impunity on these, and other grasshopper species, in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro International Airport on the afternoon of March 17, 2007.
The journey back north to “Europe” starts in early February. Continuing through March and April the birds follow a route toward the eastern seaboard, to areas in East Africa at, or just north of, the equator; where especially in years of bountiful “short rains” a significant number will have remained all ‘winter’; feeding avidly all the while, before either crossing the northern Indian Ocean direct, or the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and Asia Minor, in what is perforce a far more sustained and determined flight.
Reginald Moreau worked here in Tanganyika (prior to independence) mostly at Amani, in the East Usambaras, which at that time occupied what was but a small clearing in montane forest, and not a typical location in which to find European Rollers. One day in early April 1946 hundreds of European Rollers settled in the trees surrounding his home in the Amani clearing. The birds were evidently being grounded for some reason, as they were very restless, flying back and fore from tree top to tree top, raucously calling all the while. Usually European Rollers are silent, or at least fairly quiet, whilst in Africa. Eventually one individual rose, circled-up into the sky and flew off strongly in a northeasterly direction followed over a period of a few minutes by all the others. Some hours later another loose group of about eighty birds arrived at the Amani clearing and behaved in exactly the same manner. It is tempting to wonder whether these birds were contemplating an imminent departure from the African continent, as Amani is less than 100km from the coast at the Indian Ocean. On another occasion at Amani (March 25) Reg Moreau was surprised to see a pair of these rollers copulating. Such behaviour is very unusual indeed amongst Palearctic birds in Africa, Amani being some 6000km from their breeding range, and three weeks in advance of normal laying. However Rollers frequently arrive at their nesting sites in pairs, so it is possible that some bonds are formed whilst the birds are still in Africa.
Professor Erwin Stresemann writing in 1944 concluded that Rollers from the northern western periphery of the breeding range, in eastern Germany, are among those that travel farthest, as far as the Transvaal of southern Africa; a great circle route of over 10,000km. He calculated that the northbound migration in spring was considerably quicker than the southbound, birds averaging some 1000km in 8.5 days. He compared this to the migration of the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) which, although by no means a fast migrant, covers a similar distance in only half the time. He believed that this was because the Roller travels by day whilst the shrike flies at night.
Some British colonial administrators noted their observations of Rollers in East Africa. On April 5, some eighty-eight years ago, Sir Geoffrey Archer saw hundreds in the Machakos district, yet by “one week later all had vanished”. Sir Frederick Jackson, in Kenya, at the same time noted “several hundred on April 10, flying leisurely north between Samburu and Maseras, many others were resting on the telegraph wires, most were in a beautiful fresh plumage.” Colonel Stevenson Clarke records seeing a very large flock assemble at a communal roost in some thorn trees in what is now southernmost Kenya.
During the northbound migration through the acacia country of northern Tanzania some Rollers are attracted to the wires and the open areas immediately adjacent to the highway. Here they are also drawn to injured locusts and moribund beetles struggling in the red dust of the verge, sadly quite a few rollers themselves end their days like this. They are the victims of Africa’s rapidly increasing speed and the material progress of at least a few of her people. On any day in early April one may rush past several lifeless, yet still beautiful bundles of blue and tan, especially on one stretch of road some fifty kilometres either side of the town of Same, in Tanzania, yet just to the south of Tsavo. The highway that links Dar es Salaam with Arusha and Nairobi, whilst only two-lanes wide and carrying relatively few vehicles, kills an awful lot of wildlife.
In 1976, on my first African safari, I wrote in my diary for March 29:
“Having departed late from Malindi we were driven to Voi safari lodge in a small white Mazda saloon, we travelled at break-neck speed, thanks to an apprentice rally-racer called Moses. Just before entering Tsavo East National Park, driving like a bat out of hell, Moses parted a loose flock of 35 European Rollers that were crossing the grassland, and its ribbon of tarmac, northwards at waist height. We killed one roller outright and minutes later struck a flava wagtail too.”
I remember the sadness of those moments, as if it was yesterday. It wasn’t.