Ghost Birding Up Memory Lane

Monday, March 10, 2003 WMD: Snake-Eagle Down!

Foreword: Just as now, in the ongoing “Black & Baltic Seas” War, in 2003 our family was based at Tarifa, a maritime choke point known as The Strait of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is Djebel (Jebel) Tariq, the northern pillar and Djebel Mousa the southern one of the fabled Pillars of Hercules. Therefore this narrow Strait equally could have been ‘christened’ the “Strait of Mount Moses”.

My telescope in the old castello (2003)

Elsie and our two young boys, Lui and Toran, drop me at the start of the school run. A causeway in the ocean, where two seas go to war, the last grey street in all of Europe. The south-easterly broadside of a Levante gale is brutal, unavoidably intense. I struggle out of the car into buffeting gusts of Beaufort eight, maybe more. Such a gale offers no mercy to the walking man. Horizontal plumes of super salty spray at erratic intervals, out of the Mediterranean Sea, drench the narrow causeway that leads to the Isla de Tarifa. So begins a three hundred metre gauntlet dash, shouldering full pack, for the security of the rusting gate. The security of the island. My calculated sprint, between each seventh wave, is constricted and constrained by metre high drifts of wind blown sand, they partly block the way.

I reach the gate breathless, yet dry enough. Not so the carbon fibre tripod, corrosively encrusted with blown sand. A welcome sign on the gate in red capitals on green background shouts out : “ZONA MILITAR – NO PASSAR”. But I have a pass!

Raven-haired and always friendly Manolo is the lonely civil guard on duty. He ushers me through. As ever he is cheerful and dismissive of the status quo. After a little of what one might call Spanish elevator chat, chiefly about the weather and the non-durability of aluminium as a tripod component, I hurry-on towards the crumbling castello. David and Oriol are already there, monitoring seabird migrations from the upper floor. Bedecked in woolly hats and muffled by Palestinian scarves, their telescopes protrude pointedly from the long blown-out and frameless windows. For all the world they might be snipers in some shattered war-torn villa of the “near or Middle East”!

The Castello (now destroyed) and the Faro de Tarifa in 2003

A land bird, in the form of a dumpy brown Corn Bunting, passes up the west side, “sip-tick-ticking”, heading for some surviving weedy wheat fields of the Andalucian mainland. The month of March has already brought a small movement of this species through this frontier town of Tarifa. Seventeen Oystercatchers, only our third group of the spring migration, includes one bird with an aluminium ring. They are sheltering on the thinly sea weed-encrusted flat reddish rocks of the coralline shelf, right now only a fingers width above the white and roaring surf.

The first of four Black Kites to brave the crossing from Tangier today arrives at 10:15. It lands clumsily on a discarded pile of builder’s sand in the lee of the EU immigrant detention centre. It spooks a Feral Pigeon or Rock Dove who hurtles off out into the wind, south-east across the roiling Strait. Weaving between the wave crests, seemingly impervious to the danger of such a crossing, it demonstrates the long-respected resilience and aerial skill of what is nowadays one of our most maligned companion species.

Djebel Mousa in the far distance (2003). The castello was demolished when the lighthouse accommodation (see in the shadow) was converted into a museum last year (2022)

It is nearly noon before the first Snake Eagles reach European waters. A ragged line of four battle the wind. Tossed up and down they drift dangerously far to the west, far out into the Golfo de Cadiz, into the Atlantic Ocean, before they regain their long and wobbly diagonal course, from south south-east near Jebel Mousa in Africa, to north north-west near Punta Paloma in Europe. By contrast a Sparrowhawk heedlessly rockets through the island, with the wind behind it, flushing the four Whimbrel, nine Turnstone and eight Sanderling off the whiteness of the wave-cut platform now awash. The female of the resident pair of Kestrels, who are nesting in the derelict military church hidden away largely below ground in the island centre, rises in half-hearted interception.

The tide is high now and Gannets (mostly sub-adults, probably in their third and fourth years) are streaming into the Mediterranean. Two Balearic Shearwaters pass quickly east; their prenuptial passage is considered insignificant here. A Greenfinch arrives, rests briefly among the showy pink and purple blooms of a succulent ‘invasive’, the ground-carpeting cape or hottentot fig, aka mesembryanthemum.

The bright light of the midday hours illuminates the ground around me with razor sharp contrast. I watch black ants, both soldiers and workers, carrying away fallen crumbs of dry rye bread. To both north and south, along the landward skylines of two continents, lie soft buff-white bonnets of cumulus, draped there by the morning’s convective heating. Across ragged sierra and jebel alike they unravel to drift like poplar pappus on the wind. In the near distance, around my position, are swathes of many yellows: at least four hawkweed species, several daisies, trefoils and oxalis all echoing the sun’s warmth. The soft terracotta of broken-tiled roofs blends with burnt siennas against the pinkish white and rusty-red of military buildings, collapsing upon their salt-mouldered walls. All of we, seem to huddle, below the singing azure sky. Together we may transform this derelict and desolate former Cold War garrison into an isolated hamlet of a flooded Tibet.

Just after two pm the second naval convoy of the day, concealing hyper-weapons of “the coalition”, approaches the entrance to The Strait. An immature Egyptian Vulture careers into view, passing between the dark ships, desperately it flaps to keep above the churning whitecaps that froth and writhe over the silvered greys and greens of the burnished sea. Above my vantage point, huddled in the lee of the crumbling castello next to the beautifully solid white lighthouse, peeking out over the southern bank, the Levante howls. Screaming through the guide wires of the radar baubles and whistling between the radio masts and metal sonar beacons on this old white ´faro´.

1440 : “two Snake Eagles closing”. One whizzes past and is carried way out west over the ocean. The other, evidently struggling, is going down. Gaping visibly and, at two hundred metres out, perilously close to the sea’s surface, it only just manages to cross the shoreline, a little east of the lighthouse and less than a metre above the jagged rocks. After almost cartwheeling across the island, scattering squads of iridescent black and spotless starlings who are feeding on the former field of sports, it tumbles gasping onto the sandpile. That’s exactly where the Black Kite landed earlier, in the shelter of the immigrant detention centre! There it rocks back-and-forth on splayed talons in the eddying gusts, for about eight minutes, looking all about it. Golden eyes in soft shawled, tightly feathered head, it really is like some beautiful feathered cat. Then it rises. And instantly disappears, past the ancient rusted artillery pieces from the Civil War that point north-westwards over the outer cliffs.

An exhausted arriving African migrant’s eye view of the site

By five pm all raptors on the African coast must have abandoned any hope of making landfall in Europe on this day. My attention turns once more to sea birds and first of all to the tube-noses. Over the upwelling turbulence where the sea waters meet Atlantic-spanning Cory’s Shearwaters pass in an almost constant procession. Each and everyone is a perfect composition of wavy fawn brown upper side contrasting with dark trimmed clean white underwings and under-tail. Languidly they cut through the roaring air with an ease that is impossible to comprehend. Some of them even pause briefly to hang there, foot paddling, dipping their heads to feed. Over their heads black-crowned Sandwich Terns dance and dip, then wheel about and drift, before retracing their measured beat into the wind. All silvered white and nuptial black with that tiny peck of yellow at the end of their bill. Between us the waves of the boiling strait pound into this Punta Maroqui’s ancient coralline shelf in a spectacular and perpetual dance as seven veils of innocence. Whilst over us all adult Gannets continue to leave the Mediterranean bound for their natal northern rocks. Northern ships too there are a plenty. And on cue “The City of Glasgow” passes-by westward.

Suddenly, yet once again, a tell-tale, many times a day droning arrives from ocean side, against the wind, so already it’s almost overhead. The plane, a radio-monitoring turboprop heralds yet another convoy from the west. Soon, as always since the beginning of March, my little earthbound existence here is being checked. Now a grey, long-snouted helicopter appears, it weaves and buzzes aloft, fussily scrutinising little fishing boats and any larger piles of flotsam. It’s like an alien dragonfly sent by “The Emperor”. Beady eyes and plastic electrified ears aloft inspect anyone and anything who is out and about just now; probably they can suck-up even our helpless words.

This afternoon heading west, many of the great grey war ships are riding high, their heavy cargo disembarked weeks ago in Turkey or Bulgaria or in one of the more friendly sheikhdoms of the Gulf. Small, but unquestioning and faithful the grey dog-ships of Consigliere Aznar’s naval armada escort, steam close-by, to portside. They pass there to block that one-in-a-million chance that some piece of ordnance might be fired from the rough and ragged shoreline of old Maroc, only a few kilometres distant. Fired from angry folk on the other side.

And so, accepting defeat, my field day draws to a close.

It was busy this past Christmas at the Museum by the Faro

As I write this now, at night, the Levante continues to roar and to rattle, with an unseasonal vengeance. Howling ghouls and whistling ghosties prowl the darkness frightening the minds of children. Lui sleeps curled-up near me on the couch. All through today, although the world was flooded with such a brilliant light, it was inescapable that dragons of darkness are awake. Uncoiling from their lairs after over sixty years suppressed. Yet again, on March 10 2003, I saw for myself the shining scales, of an almost forgotten enmity, sliding out across the seas. As a rapacious greed is now released, a feral determination to strangle many of the recent freedoms of our world.

In the Eurasian northlands birds are returning to where they chipped the egg. Below them, often far below, a bare-faced biped monster, in conquering global casts, is unable or unwilling to adapt its gridlocked operating system to the changing climates of our world.

Snake-Eagle view. Drones are of course incarnate nowadays

Great grey gun-metal beasts traverse the seas where a century past such might first came en masse. Driven here by entities, just as wicked then. And now, and again now, they’re invading Eurasian lands. Trying to destroy the past and gorge themselves again. Because monstrous profit may still be sucked from viscous black lagoons. Over by the Rivers of Babylon and in all those arid lands beyond.

But Wait! What’s the distant wailings I can hear, or those whispering commands from the gaunt and ragged mountain?

Allah-u-akba! Go Snake-Eagle Down” !

Please tell me Djebel Mousa, is War Forever?
March 1991 Oil War One where “The Depleted Nikoniums “ scope the slick (photo credit: Arnoud van den Berg)

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