This essay was a “Birdman” first, posted in 2006 and entitled:
A thunderous tropical rain storm was arriving, most unusually out of the north. A tsunami of cloud breaking against the great black massifs of Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro in the early hours of November 23, 2006.
Shortly after daybreak Dismus and I once again escaped Arusha via the northbound Nairobi road. For a little while yet this African highway is both dangerously and delightfully narrow – all too soon it will be upgraded by engineers of the next dynasty to a far more murderous, three-lane “Chinese modern standard”. Maybe.
That was in the future! But today, in 2006, raging torrents of coffee-coloured water frequently impede our progress as these temporary rivers rush the great slopes down. Once again we have descended to my best local patch. To the desert plain of larks. And it is clear, very few cars are making it through from Kenya. From whence the rainstorms come.
By eight thirty we are watching the adult Maasai (Beesley’s) Larks behaving as if their young were alive and near, if not at, the nest site we found on Tuesday. The grasses are already a centimetre higher, which makes observation in the percussive rainfall very difficult. And once we stop the LandRover a couple of bedraggled shepherd boys, in khaki rags inevitably start to make a bee-line for us across the sodden prairie. So we are forced (in order to spare the nest site from any further disturbance) to move the LandRover farther along what I’ve called ‘Longido lane’. Longido denotes a specific mountain and a stone, a hulk in the gloom to our north, upon which the Maasai still sharpen the blades of their iconic spears.
We drive a couple of hundred metres in the grey persistent rain until abruptly we are stopped by no less than five bright apricot-chested beesleyi who are foraging just here, right beside this vehicle track. We watch them stumbling around between the low-lying grass tussocks, darkly drenched feathers of crown and tail, for five minutes as thankfully the rain eases. And then abruptly stops. I make notes on their foraging. Their feeding behaviour alters however, immediately the rains fall silent.
The plain is blanketed by a low-flying mist of ants emerging from sunken bunker hollows in which many a twisted honey-maker’s acacia Acacia mellifera skirt the northern edge of the plain. Close-up the ant abdomens shine juicy and black like tiny succulent grapes. Queens and their male consorts – or perhaps two different species are involved, one smaller, one much larger? Countless hundreds of thousands of them are being consumed by birds, by scores of territory-holding Red-capped Larks and Grassland Pipits who can be seen rising vertically from the ground, to a height of a couple of metres, before abruptly dropping back. This is happening away into the distance as far as sight with bins can reach. A couple of the Maasai Beesley Larks make clumsy, yet effective, near-vertical sallies in pursuit of the feast from above.
Then, faint at first, awareness of a much-loved voice to me, thin and reedy yet simultaneously rich and deliciously liquid, it’s a bugle call of old comrades from afar – ringing ever louder in an otherwise slightly ominous pin-drop calm, in a far-seeing yet sombre sharpness, a phenomenon seemingly unique to cyclonic conditions. The hanging eye of a slowly rotating air mass, a low pressure cell.
I scan and strain my eyes forward, peering into the gloomy north for some faint sight of those trilling, thrilling voices. I know they’re somewhere near. Perhaps behind the fringing fresh green of the acacia crowns that dominate the rising ground, between us and the tin roofs of two churches in Engikaret village. White concrete churches, etched with crimson paint lines, on a low hill, maybe three thousand metres from our position.
However, the flying specks that I do see, instead of darting in the manner of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, are clearly larger and rapidly assembling into a cloud of wheeling raptors – aerodynamic, insect-eating little falcons no less.
“But wait! they’re not Lesser Kestrels; happily to be expected here this month.
Oh no! Of course not – my God! They are Amur Falcons. At least a thousand, circling there!”
The cloud of agile, angular anchor-like silhouettes rise, and their numbers grow and grow. Some, like stocky swifts, are diving, others abruptly stall or bank to left and right, this way and that to capture the ants as together they swirl en masse beneath the pewter sky. We watch, by now with mouths agape, as the uppermost birds begin to peel-off from the flock and stream directly overhead, passing over us at between two and three hundred feet, above earth’s bound slaves, two bipeds, one black, one white. The pale face, by now more than slightly shaky, on the steaming sodden soil, beside a gun-metal crustacean – our Land Rover carapace.
Although the sky is watery, and my vision dulled and grey, one can tell that the streaming flock is composed mostly of immatures and females. Their streaked breasts and contrasting clean white throats very neatly set-off by the black moustachials and dark hoods. Nevertheless many softly grey-blue tiercels are up there, flashing white wing linings, as they too winnow south within this magnificent procession of falcons old and young. Many birds almost pause above us, fluttering and wet-dog shuddering, as each in turn shakes, to jettison excessive water from those amazing feathers of flight. The entire column, estimated to have contained at least two thousand three hundred birds, advances steadily south, seemingly insane, straight toward the charcoal base of Mount Meru, glowering beneath a colossal heap of stacked, black cloud. Incredulous I watch them going, tiny midge like specks, against that fearful wall of cloud.
Layers of distracting thought now rise scrabbling within my brain, and for whose attention?
Disciples of animal migration, in human form, upon considering the movements of Falco amurensis: these birds traveling each autumn, at the height of the jet across the greatest breadth of the Indian Ocean. Day and night after day, after night, for perhaps a week. This is a journey whose beginnings are east of Vladivostok, onward via NE India to an ending that is to the south of the “Orange Free State”. These are falcons, yet a gentler sort of raptorial bird, who start to travel back north in February, through March and into April, fuelled and refuelled as they come, and they go, by the fat of the wild living, skittering hordes, of African orthopterans, the grasshoppers and locusts of the savanna.
We the disciples of “vis-mig” might be well advised to prostrate ourselves upon chance meeting, with reverence and in awe. Showing our respect to the the invisible gods of life-migration.
Yes! Long had I yearned to enter more fully into the Amur migration movement. In fact since late May of 1994, when I first met the species.
At that time, exploring opportunities, I was co-leader with a “BirdQuest” tourism group on manoeuvres, one might say, travelling through Ussuriland. In Promorskiye-krai.
I clearly recall admiring their fluttering display flights, high above the floppy, black Rooks, whose vacated nests they were about to occupy. Those flights were among the soft sunlight on fruit blossom, the elations and the joys of being in a perfect spring-time village, on the eastern shore of Lake Khanka (south east of the Chinese border) in Mother Russia’s Far-Farthest East.
In those now dream-like days, those few years, at the height of crass western triumphalism, I remember also watching a scattered and precious few of these self same falcons, one of the most inspiring no doubt, a hazy eastbound gang of seven, as they were crossing the wide, brown Irrawaddy, within the lung-blasting furnace of a May in central Burma. At the same time I happened to find an Isabelline Wheatear, a first for the region.
But in Africa, until that moment on the plains, I’d met with only straggling southbound singletons, stumbled upon here and there, often in the sheeting rain, near Moshi or out in Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a national park) and also right here at Angyata Osugat; a very tired individual clinging to a bush in a soft drizzle (an immature that was photographed by the phenomenal Steve Bird in November 2005 – on tour as “Bird Seekers” now defunct).
But back to today, right now, watching this flock of Amurs over two thousand strong, who are so very recently ‘in-off’ the great dividing ocean that kept Asia a little at bay, our from our African east, I wonder:
“Could any of we have met before?” In Russia, thirteen years ago, at the breeding business end of this, easily the most epic of all raptor migrations?
Suddenly my post connection, discursive reverie, it is thrust aside, by a bird calling here, in the now steaming heat of noon, as if it were entering a sauna.
Utterly brilliant and now so very noisy, the Blue-cheeks (bee-eaters) slalom round the three of us – Dismus, Pie-dog and I, they are rushing skyward; calling-out the sun as only the Merops may. The bejewelled opal vanguard is already weaving and darting upward, amongst the last few, slightly struggling, Amur Falcons.
And in this moment, above all these living beings, a celestial whiteness thins to a star’s egg blue, and the sun’s energy pierces the cloying murk of this perfect desert storm.
Up into that swirling spire of blue … all around us taking heart, tapping-right-into the power-source of Earth’s equatorial energy, these exquisite feathered insectivores, our all too momentary companions, pointed, emerald and bronze or hooked, slaty and blue .. they vanish!
They’ve gone; gone more abruptly even than they had arrived. Invisible now. Inaudible. Departed.
Dancing with the angels, returned unto sunlight, on a coolest cushion of air, so far from we sleep-walking pedestrians, in our ground-down human lives.
And my heart is punched by sadness and regret, for time had scarce stood still.
My sincere thanks to one Yuri Pator via Wiki for the AF footer photo and to WTI, and the people at the lake in Nagaland, India. Thank You for your great efforts in helping to save this lovely bird species.