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Stray Sketches from Spain

Occasional diary entries from a naturalist, whereabouts unknown, behind the Covid curtain.

Sunday February 7, Year One PC

Thankfully we now live where the westernmost peninsula of Asia almost touches Africa. It’s a bottleneck for life, because Iberia is nowadays separated from the dry old continent by only the dozen deep kilometres of a Strait. Thankfully we can still see the gaunt and jagged peaks of Africa’s northernmost mountains from the gate of our crumbling rustic abode in Europa.

For the past six weeks it’s been wet here, far more than it’s been dry. Successive Atlantic cyclonic disturbances, too numerous to monitor, have swept across us and into the Mediterranean. Two gales per week at least, beginning with great Storm Filomena who arrived three days after the Gregorian new year. The day our bedroom ceiling caved-in.

On Mondays and Tuesdays this month Elsie and I must get up extra specially early, because she is timetabled to zoom-in with the youth in China. Now if the skies are clear then the birds are singing by 7:30, but when the skies are gloomy and grey life does not get properly illuminated until well after eight. However such late starts on the clock mean we can still be outside, exercising, late-on in the day. I go for a “bird-walk”, which after all is just a long enduring form, among many incarnations, of what must be considered an essential outdoor activity. These walks may continue until sometime after seven of an evening.

In the morning, on the farm, the first birds that one hears are usually either Stonechats or Thekla Larks. However sometimes during these three months of winter it is the haunting bugling of Cranes (now Common again) that greets our daily day. Formerly there was a chain of fresh water lagoons, in the bottom of the vale below us, that was their last breeding holdout in all of Iberia. But during the nineteen fifties old school fascists drained it. And the cranes were thrown away.

In the morning, on the farm, the first birds that one hears are usually either Stonechats or Thekla Larks. However sometimes during these three months of winter it is the haunting bugling of Cranes (now Common again) that greets our daily day. Formerly there was a chain of fresh water lagoons, in the bottom of the vale below us, that was their last breeding holdout in all of Iberia. But during the nineteen fifties old school fascists drained it. And the cranes were thrown away.

Anyway on Sunday last, a couple of hours prior to solar noon, I took a constitutional eastward from the cottages, out through the verdant grassland, across the Pozo field (a pozo is a fresh water spring).

It was bright and sunny, yet feeling cool, so I was keen to get as near as permissible to the ‘wild land’ of the forbidden karst-like sierra. The low mountains whose embrace creates an eastern boundary for the great vale of “La Janda”.

I aimed to quickly cross the farm plateau area (the valley side’s shelf), upon which this cortijada, our farmhouse complex, is situated. The very few remaining land lubbers here live at ninety metres above the now turbulent waters of the North Atlantic coastline, our nearest, lying ten kilometres west.

Being a naturalist by trade – an activity increasingly unvalued  – I noticed five or six of our recently arrived Barn Swallows, (for they are very early to breed here), as soon as I had squeezed through the rusted barbed wires into the field. These few golondrinas were super busy, as their kind almost always is. Darts of royal blue, foraging for airborne insects, skimming here, dancing there, yet always keeping low to the grasses. Coursing up and down, they were temporarily confined within an invisible corridor of eddies in the lea of the estate’s only tall trees. The four planted rows of, (and I guess they are about seventy years of age), big red gum eucalyptus.

I had already made a mental note that there were many yellow dung flies. Most of them jumping around on the abundant loose cowpats. The flat black blots that lay scattered right across the field. There were so many of these golden teddy bear flies today, more than on any day previous, in this cool season at least.

The sky on Sunday was mostly clear and, without any trace of smearing jets, a crisp and beautiful blue. The breeze was a fresh westerly off the adjacent ocean, blowing at anything between two and six Beaufort and for much of the day at force four or more.

Whilst weaving my route between shoulder high clumps of spiky ‘dwarf’ palmetto, I was flushing large numbers of grey-backed Meadow Pipits from the close cropped sward. These wintering birds were no doubt assembling here to feast upon the vast numbers of ‘leatherjackets’. That’s near archaic English for the larvae, in this case one species, of medium-sized dark crane flies. These ‘daddy long legs’ have been emerging chiefly toward the close of each afternoon, for at least ten days. They scramble up the grass stalks toward a very uncertain fate, out from what I feel has become excessively damp turf, even for these moisture loving flies. Turf that forms the least valuable land, and the more ecological therefore, ie the least abused, of this farm’s permanent cattle pastures. Since Filomena the more-heavily grazed cattle fields are puddling into a quagmire. Clay and gley, a gooey mud that in places is worthy of what was the, all too easily forgotten, wastes of the western front.

As I continued my walk eastwards an occasional ultra wary Blackbird (think target) would clatter our from the thicker clumps of the palmetto, typically those clumps that shelter the many veteran wild olives of this ‘dehesa’.

Several male Stonechats were still singing at noon across this wooded pasture; as were both Corn Buntings and Sardinian Warblers. For these three species are seemingly the most successful avian breeders out here, in the latest corporate permutation of pseudo-capitalist, finance subsidy culture.

Just after twelve noon (not solar noon) I was moved to look up, all of a sudden, from a rambling scrutiny of the ground around my feet.

I was being made aware of a quick flicker of little black wings. For at that moment, at chest height, and deliciously tight around me, was a weaving, bounding flight of House Martins. Dapper of dress, crisp and fresh (-in), ‘home’ from several wholesome months soaring over the unkempt old woodlands in the bosom of Mother Guinea. 

The martins hadn’t called and they carried on all too quickly northwards, leaving me as if alone, after they had flown off into the pale blue north horizons; their direction of flight was nearly parallel to the ragged line of the ochre-coloured, cork oak, sierras.

That all too brief avian encounter was brief immersion in VisMig. It felt as if I was literally being lifted off my feet.

I don’t know what or how it is. But I do know, that these unanticipated joys arise so very strongly when one is led to witness the migration of animals. More especially when their movement is close at hand, feeling as if all around. This must surely be one of the cleanest of cognitive conditions for any bumbling human being. Is it not an absolute, uplifting and highly exhilarating experience of pure enjoyment? A delight that it has ever been my drive and good fortune to seek out and to savour.

Nature on the move. Unsheltered and clearly not in place.

So I pray to all that’s Holy :

Long may the wild spirits continue.

Long may life outside the box survive and prosper. 

To migrate, to reproduce the life. Livingness, it’s simple, that’s natural cleanliness, it’s healthy and yet oh! yes, there’s death.

Long, long may nature outwit, and continue to undeniably outshine the sacrilegious smugness of our ugly overlords, the wannabe cyborgs, the smartphone innovators bound as always by the fat controllers. The swollen rentier class. All those folk indeed, who clearly do conspire to rule our human, or are they rodent, lives?

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2 thoughts on “Stray Sketches from Spain

  1. Debbie Hilaire says:

    I’ve since read this piece again and love the addition of photos. Please tell me what lovely bird is singing in the audio clip with the sunrise. EBird did not help me on this one.

    Like

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