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Nature Notes from the end of Europe

Like it or not Eurocentric imperialism must be deconstructed

Do you ever feel there’s a little bird inside your head telling you something, whilst fluttering to escape. Trapped, just dancing there. Tied to a perch in your heart?

For me, recent months, the regime of a year almost, have truly brought such feelings home.

Yesterday, for example, was another grey and cloudy day under a buffeting, drizzly, eastern wind. Yet more of an ‘unseasonal’ Levante battering us, spun off the polar jet stream. That river of air high in the atmosphere of the northern hemisphere, nowadays prone to sticking in idling loops, sagging meanders, that course ever wider, up and down, melting the cold heart of our Anthropocene anomalies. And the old heart of the North Atlantic, as if in secret, she just cools and cools.

For birders : it’s AWC. Adverse weather conditions yesterday. And for much of the week prior. So, for this fair weather naturalist, opportunities for happiness outdoors have seemed sadly limited. Depression, like a ghost, has stalked the corridors of our crumbly farmhouse.

Nevertheless, at about five in the afternoon, we managed to drag our collection of old bones out in the hire car. Off to nearby Punta Paloma, a point of coastal treasure, and often times as you might expect, of migrant birds. Don’t worry ‘Teutons’ it’s in the core of our fekking municipality.

Anyway, in meteorological conditions such as those of yesterday (and much of February) the ragged, pallid, sierras of the Tarifa peninsula cut narrow rips in the sky; through the shallow cloud-wrap that streams off the easterly wind. Bright slices that yesterday afternoon were sufficiently wide to let-in long silver shafts of crepuscular sun. Light reaching down to kiss the ocean. They welcome rays called-up countless silver spangles, onto the rolling swell beyond the reef, out on the surface of the deep.

As soon as we got out of the long black car, secreted between stunted sand dune pines, Elsie looking skywards, called out to me:
“What are these?”

It took me a while, to extricate myself from the moulded plastic of the volk’s chariot, but eventually I saw :
Yes! in a flash.
Black Kites. On the move, back in Spain and home again!

For the third time this year; moving kites, a band of brothers sisters and mothers; big black life birds struggling north, resolute, getting back ‘home’ to the skies of Europe. Here to breed and carry on.

They formed a steady, well spaced trickle across the sky, as migrating Black Kites so often do. I suppose in all we saw only sixty, to be honest. But these big anchor birds were coming low, one by glorious and beautifully detailed one, right over the sands of our little parking spot. Our pin, our drop, on an invisible line.

Checking back along their way, eager to see from whence they came, we hurried off down a narrow track toward the ocean. A quick pace between the brush and broom of new age ‘coast-wise’ windswept mattoral. This is the fastest way to the ocean interface. To get quickly yourself into the vista, and to the feast of space. An emptiness where on Wednesday no one was.

Nevertheless, this remains AD 2021 not for example 1021.
So in the Strait we could make out dark lumbering shapes, of leviathans, spewing mists of carbon, guts choc-a-bloc with containers, billion’s in sealed blood-plastic. You know, all that mind numbing consumer crap – essential even in lockdown . Yes, the toxic monsters were there alright, plodding heavy laden east to Algeciras, or steaming high, streaming murky brown, west to Shanghai via Panama or the Horn, and first stop Fortaleza.

The way out of Europe appeared murky

They were far enough offshore to almost fully ignore. And the only noise was the wind. And the wind was of course the great Levante. Wind and the rolling thunder of the breakers of the swell.

Getting back on “the track”, of the Black Kites and my mind, each one on its own? More likely not. Big birds making landfall at the Punta, just to westward.
For me, the genie of life, of hopes incarnate. Morphing bird-livingness out of somebody’s ancient lamp. A lamp of formless pewter, maybe gun metal grey: out of the great ionising Atlantic haze. Almost like shadows the kites were coming in low. Weaving through gaunt and stratified silver mists, in a Levanter of late winter.

Because of the two day dry-gale previous, they had been drifted several kilometres westward, off their chosen route. The flight line of their kind. True through time. A line that’s held. Kite memory stretching back above and beyond thousands of human generations. Back to the beginnings of a climatic amelioration. Our own source, now lost. A world spoken of in the times, of what were possibly little more than stuttered monosyllables, the lingua franca of the early Holocene. And now, today, here in Electropolis, the big dark birds were obviously as determined as ever. Resolute, confident, sure that they would get back, onto that invisible track.

So they came powering along the beach. To pass over our newly taken position on the beach crest – standing facing the ocean.

But as if recalling that they were no longer living in a Bronze Age of man, nor among settlements of the live-more-kindly Bantu, (there are many to this day), the big birds skilfully just slipped aside, with a few deep flaps. And, as they realised our pale screw faces were paying rapt attention to their moves, they dipped and disappeared behind the pines.

Out to the south, in the mists, perhaps five hundred metres from the low tide sand, far out beyond this beach, the last of the tardy kites came plodding in. Landfall, or rather, air-over-land, after crossing twenty Ks of ocean and with only half an hour remaining until sundown. When in darkness, safely down, at dusk to roost, in a big ploughed Euro field in the vale of La Janda.

Putting up my bins, to pan eastwards out to sea, possibly in an effort to exhort or encourage any more stragglers, I was surprised to encounter the dance of some other big bird species. And, all of a sudden, I was stepping very lightly once again, joyously rejuvenating.

Oh! how so beautiful. A tight gyrating flock of Scopoli’s Shearwaters, (possibly with Cory’s in there too) burst into this one human’s conscious awareness. These seabirds were close-in. Well, relatively close. Certainly closer than any of the few large shearwaters with whom I’ve had opportunity to cross over the invisible, in sixteen years and more. Not since these same damp winter months of 2005. For that was when we made our decision, we upped and left, went from here, to go and live, back in old Africa. Where the system I suppose began.

But it was not just the wonderful alternating tones and graceful motions of the Med-bound shearwaters that hoisted my earth-locked spirits higher. Closer yet, than the Atlantic-spanning tubenoses, an adult Audouin’s Gull burst into view on the same line of latitude, it sliced, with what one might call exquisite elegance, across the foaming clean white froth of this lovely blue-flag beach.

More, more-ish, and Gannets, old bassanus, Morus of all ages, were passing both ways; above the surf, in straggly lines, most of them only a little further out. Then three Kittiwakes small, back stage in the wall, in the gathering murk, the tidy “tarracks” were heading out and west into the vast Atlantic. Sandwich Terns too, they winter here of course, the “kirricks” were milling about only in ones and twos, so just a few. Whilst resident Yellow-legged Gulls were rowing west, heading home to the fishing port of Barbate, to an urban roof top roost. Least and last two Turnstones, Ruddy of course, flew off the rocks towards us, from the reef, one was carrying a large item of unidentifiable food. But “tak-tak-arak”, going auditory now, right behind us, a Blackbird, who had innocently and unwittingly emerged upon this very spot, from under a wind-blown beach crest juniper next to us. He clattered-off. Scolding us, a black flurry, off up the slope, into the depths of the head-high pines that secure the next sand ridge inland.

I don’t know how long it all took really. Probably less than fifteen minutes of our day. But this brief interlude; this immersion in the dynamism of bird movement for migration; was more than sufficient to turn the tables on a day of enervating lockdown grey. I was as if let out. Out through the declining. Through the migration blues of our ever more sterile … modernity. Out into the exulted happy hunting grounds. At one, with the mind of our far parents, that truly incalculable number, our gatherer-forager forebears. Yes indeed, for a few moments I was at home.

And that my dear friends, is my kind of freedom. True freedom as I feel it in an otherwise crowded and claustrophobic age. An age that for far too many has descended into a box-set of electronic disconnect.

For whom the pin drops

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