Friday, 31 August 2018

Gentle dawn

Great Bustard on the late-summer plains (Martin Kelsey)
There was no fanfare of bird song to greet dawn on the plains this morning, just the caress of distant sheeps' bells. Late summer days start gently. I stood to watch the roseate sun break the horizon and rise until the orb was entirely in view, with just a gossamer strand of cloud breaking its purity. In lieu of sound there was purposeful motion. Strings of Cattle Egrets ventured forth from their roosts in search of grazing sheep, probably heading back to same field that they foraged in the day before. Packs of Spotless Starlings sped low across the flaxen dried grasses, landing too amongst livestock. Almost all appeared to be juvenile birds, entering puberty as it were, with the oily black feathers of adulthood growing amongst grey brown juvenile plumage, like adolescent bumfluff on the chin. A male Montagu's Harrier crossed my vision, in a long low glide, wavering in unseen currents, without a single flap of the wings, until it banked and turned, plunging out of sight.

There were flurries of Calandra Larks, with buzzing, tweezling calls, some groups almost a hundred strong. A party of twelve Greater Short-toed Larks rose from a strip of plough, delivering short, dry rattles, befitting the landscape. Lesser Kestrels were perched along the fence beside the track, eleven birds, waiting for the sun to gain a little more height before spreading themselves across the field, hovering. An all important departure awaits them soon, a five-day flight to West Africa - they need all the nourishment they can get. Over the crest of a rise, heads and necks appeared, attached, as it became clear just a few seconds later, to heavy bodies held in horizontal carriage: Great Bustards. Silently they spread themselves across the hillside, sixteen of them, appearing as little more than silhouettes against the light. Diagnostically they portrayed themselves as horizontals (the head and body) and verticals (the neck, legs and tail), a bird measured in right-angles, striding slowly across the meadow in dawn's gloaming. Their stately, measured strides had a Jurassic-era gait.

On one pylon sat a Short-toed Eagle waiting for the first movements of snakes, whilst on another is an adult Peregrine. The eagle, like the Lesser Kestrels is poised for departure, for a trans-Saharan crossing, whilst the Peregrine is newly arrived and perhaps may stay around all winter. Its slightly buffish-toned underparts suggests that it is of the local race brookei, a bird merely moving out from nearby breeding haunts. I am struck by the length of its toes, a feature that I had not appreciated before, presumably well-adapted for grabbing out to seize birds in flight.
Peregrine (Martin Kelsey)

As the sun gains height, I return home and complete the annual task that I had started yesterday. With a small axe, I chop off the suckers that have erupted from the base of the olives. One by one, each of the trees are smartened-up and cleaned. This will make harvesting in the winter much easier, ensuring that the net laid out below the tree does not get snared. As the temperature rises to the mid 30s, it is hot work, but deeply satisfying. I look back at the grove with the job finished, the broad base of the trunk of each tree now clearly visible, its own landscape now recovered. This characteristic pear-shaped bole is probably the result of the decades of scar tissue from this annual piece of work.
Our olive grove, tidied-up and ready for the autumn (Martin Kelsey)

I stop and pay homage to my favourite of the olive trees. It offers a good yield of olives each year and its massive base is easy to clean because it is solid with no large cavities where the suckers emerge like forests and can be difficult to remove. Its only aperture is one chosen by a pair of Hoopoes. Here they nest every year.  Another good reason to venerate this noble tree.