Strays focused – Nature Noted – out and about in Andalucia

Unseen patterns in a spring sky

When we are no longer fit and able isn’t it comforting, if not essential, to review our former lives?

Remember my friends : Nature will never be Locked-down.

It’s early morning. Despite welcome bird song, and a lone Black Kite quartering the paddock, there’s gentle rain. It’s uncomfortably wet, despite ragged blue patches across the sky. In my memory-life it feels remarkably like England in those lost, soft Aprils of my youth. The quiet of April showers. The ones Blackbirds love to sing about.

For some dull reasons I am more or less confined within the crumbly walls of our Cortijada – the old courtyards of a traditional Andalusian farm. Therefore in order to be kind to both our spirits I will relive some spacious moments from sunny yesterday.

Jueves was yet another day of powerful easterlies. Relentlessly it seems, they continue to stream out of the great marine basin of Alboran in the Western Mediterranean.

As the moist maritime air is pushed up over the Sierras, to the east of us, it quickly cools and overnight grey coliform clouds form thickly there. Late in the morning when the clouds are herded out toward the Atlantic Ocean, over the great vale of La Janda, the moisture all but evaporates. Whilst disappearing some water falls to earth, as a super fine mist of spittle-on-the-wind. It’s cool and if you have a polished bald head like I do, you can feel its sporadic touch; gentle but definite, even though the sky above you is improbably bright, almost a Saint Andrews blue, filled with that hazy celandine sun of springtime.

About hour and a half prior to solar noon I set-off from home across the ‘Pozo field’, a field of a fresh water spring. Out amongst head high ‘dwarf’ palmettos and the scattered old and twisted olives in an old fashioned dehesa of Al-Andalus. So enjoyable to be among the sweet scent of asphodel, the tallest of the pinkish-white flowers of the dehesa, now in the fullness of bloom.

The wind was strong, so strong that our local fulvous-breasted Griffon Vultures struggled on their way past me. Their great wings flapping heavily, progressing over some stretches at less than a metre above the asphodel sward. One or two of them would stall and bounce down clumsily into the green embrace of the pasture. They were crop-full. All weaving, like drunken aviators might, back to their pyramidal fortress of Asciscar. A giant of stone, who fronts the fault line of the ‘serra’ like a mighty stained canine tooth. Some were almost too full to fly. But they were determined to get back home. Home after feasting on a cow carcass out in the campo to our west.

For those of us karmically pedestrianised, utterly terrestrial in this wearisome wind, it was a joy to find, in one relatively sunny sheltered spot between palmetto clumps, my second Spanish Festoon butterfly of the year. Sadly though it would not alight.

Happily there was a dozen Lesser Kestrels foraging, although quite far away. They were dipping and diving in the turbulent air. Foraging above a rocky reddish ridge that forms the spine of the great pasture of the plateau west of the farm. Always such a joy to see, these little falcons.

But pride of place this Thor’s day for “adrenalin, endorphin and dopamine inducement” must go, as one might expect for one human being birding hereabouts, to the bigger raptors or, should we say, ‘raptor-like’ birds.

Some time after solar noon I was sitting on a small rectangular cement block, beside the spring-line seepage. I was an observer more or less sheltered from the Levante within a south facing hollow. Screened from view to the west by two wild olives and by a tall clump of eucalyptus beyond the boundary fence, my eastern flank.

Thus I was largely hidden from airborne view. In the course of only half an hour I was privileged to witness, and up close too, recently arrived (‘home’ to Europe) six adult Egyptian Vultures; all naked and yellow about their undeniably scrawny heads. More serene were two adult Short-toed Eagles, with deep grey chests and white yet macular breasts. And an absolutely beautiful, light and buoyant five-tone male Marsh Harrier who swept past at head height. There was also a resident Buzzard circling in the firmament and a hovering hunting Kestrel; both historically and more properly they were “Common”, of course!

The Egyptian Vultures were presumably and understandably feeling peckish. The more so after this morning’s long ordeal of passage. No doubt they had all been, only a couple of hours earlier, drifting west by the strength of the Levante. West and away from Iberia lands, out there holding the line but over forbidding cold grey sea water.

So now they were happy to spend some time circling over and low, around a motly herd of half-breed cattle and their followers scattered across the valley below my vantage position. To this day it remains, mercifully, a beautiful pasture. It is carpeted in the lower places by low growing pink and purple meadow flowers; and is thereby tolerably reminiscent of how it looked in the past. Even as recently as when we used to live here, all of sixteen springs, and more, ago.

I cannot fathom why but the corrupted minds, of absentee corporate bureaucrats and their mates in entitled ‘ownership’, seemingly have yet to work out a way to wreck it!

The thousands of Common Cranes have nearly all departed from our pastures now. For the first time in three moons their bugling cries are absent from the scene. However the creamy sky above me was full of the glorious buzzing lullabies of a score of Calandra Larks together with the happy fluting of more earthly Theklas. As always, or so it seems, Corn Buntings were rattling from rusted wire fences or from last year’s tumbled thistle clumps.

Suddenly I was aware of a deep commotion in the soundscape. A disturbing realisation; two cattlemen had driven in their rickety old van out into the middle of the stony Pozo meadow above and behind me. They were distributing bright yellow straw to the lovely Retina cows, for this eminent pasture is undeniably overstocked. The bulky, chestnut bovines are the traditional breed of Andalucia and thankfully the common one hereabouts. Their meat is prized. Because typically it is, or was, reared in a more traditional manner, within an ‘extensivised ‘ (less intensive) 100% outdoor grazing ‘regime’.

I roused myself, as a guilty old fox might, and plodding on my way. Not long afterwards, once I had regained the flat land of the plateau, upon which the farm is situated, I crossed the wire fence lines out of the pastures into the donkey paddock of the homestead. We have three donkeys here, two sedate, bleached and elderly parents (who were already well ensconced here in 2003) and their slightly more frisky daughter. Dad’s been done!

As one crosses from one regime of grazing to another, to a field of a very different nature, you are inevitably and immediately struck by the changes. For on our side is a vast ‘crop’ of margarita crown daisy. One of the few plants which the donkeys seem unwilling to even sample, let alone to eat. These March days this plant, and a species of tall mallow, already create a waist-high jungle in the paddock. And that is more than okay, if the times they are dry. It was dry yesterday, so I ploughed my way through this unusual botanic community back to the house. Doing so I entered a feeding flock of at least twenty Barn Swallows, by far the largest number I have encountered this year.

The swallows were darting all around me. Twittering and feeding, for one could hear the sound of little black mandibles repeatedly clicking shut. They were foraging on disorientated grassland insects. A movable feast, bring kicked-up by the milling cows beyond the wire. A rare abundance of insects – in this Bayer-nighted biotech era – for these delightful insectivores. Great friends of man unkind they’ve been, since long before the first farms were being scratched out of the bush in what became for a while in time the Fertile Crescent.

Their diet today was flies and beetles mostly. All of these little lives were being caught up in an invisible, yet turbulent, slipstream rushing out between the old red gum trees of the eucalyptus belt. This is one weary line of trees. Most of them, after fifty years are giving up the ghost, surrendering to the winds of climate change. Nowadays without the prickly pear cacti hedge that used to grow beneath, they form an ineffective wind break. Bu they hold the line between our old place and those cattle pastures. Our diversifying jungle paddock around a jumbled hamlet of old walls and the “Asphodel Fields” – as near as damn it to those ancient ones in Greece and Rome, out there. And nearer to Elysium, somehow it’s always to our east.

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