Thursday, 31 January 2019

Elegy for the Little Bustard

Little Bustards in winter (Martin Kelsey)

It was the second of March 2006 and the late afternoon light was just at the right angle to push through the ashen-grey stems of the dead thistles and reflect against the white feathers on their bellies. Their upperparts were a marginally sandier tone than the thistles that gave them cover, but the vermiculations of darker streaking on the feathers gave crypsis, blending their outline into the jarring, discontinuities of the withered spiky plants. Nevertheless, from where I stood, my back to the sun, I could scan across the slope where they stood. The flock was at rest, stationary, and I could count them one-by-one. There were 330 individuals all told (give or take a couple) and they were Little Bustards.

For a few winters after that, I could still come across sizeable flocks, but never much more than 150. But by the time I was helping with fieldwork in 2016 for the winter census of the species across the whole of Spain, the largest flock I found was 92 birds. Indeed at the national level there were only two flocks bigger than the group that I had counted ten years earlier (and only 14 flocks greater than 100 birds counted in the whole of the country!). This winter the biggest flock I have seen was 39 birds.

SEO/BirdLife has just published the results of the 2016 Little Bustard census. There are two populations of the species: an eastern one which extends through Central Asia to North-east China and which appears to be in good numbers, and the western one, in the Iberian Peninsula, France and Sardinia (with populations on mainland Italy and Morroco practically extinct). The western population is in very fast decline. In western France the species suffered an extraordinary drop of 94% of its population over the last two decades of the twentieth century, whilst the SEO/BirdLife census documents a fall in Spain of both the wintering population and the count of males in spring of 48% between 2005 and 2016. In Extremadura the decline is somewhat sharper, with a drop of 56% of males in spring and a decline of 33% in the winter population.

It is estimated that across Spain over the same period, 17% of suitable habitat was lost. But what is a telling indicator is the lower density of the birds compared with a decade earlier (1.13 males/square kilometre to 0.67). This is showing that, more important than habitat loss, is the reduction in the quality of the habitat. It is a creeping, insiduous threat, invisible, but happening under our very noses, under our watch. If I look at photos I have taken across the plains of Extrenadura over that period, it is hard to see any obvious  difference. But when I walk across the plains in late spring, every footstep I take tells the same story.

When I first visited Extremadura over 25 years ago, I wrote down in my notebook the number of Great Bustards I saw at each place I visited. To my subsequent regret, I did not count the Little Bustards: they were present everywhere I stopped. And on the ground, as I walked, there was an eruption of leaping grasshoppers. Even ten years ago, each step through the vegetation spoke of a vast biomass of invertebrates.  No more. Changes to the plains have not dramatically changed the landscape, but are breaking the trophic pyramid. Shifts towards more intensive grazing, less arable land - and those crops that are grown are now harvested earlier in the season, destined as they are for livestock feed.

As Nigel Collar in his prologue to the findings of the Little Bustard census says, there is the danger of shifting baselines. Twenty years ago people found winter flocks of a thousand Little Bustards, ten years ago we looked for flocks of a hundred, now I am relieved to come across two dozen. Is that now our norm?  Mark Cocker in his book Our Place speaks of environmental melancholia. It is a syndrome I recognise when I see these wonderful creatures hunched amongst the dead thistles on a winter's day, or springing with a shock of white in their whirring wings which sing their Spanish name "Sisón, sisón" as they take flight. I do not believe I shall ever see a flock of 330 Little Bustards again.

A flock of Little Bustard (Martin Kelsey)