Monday, 28 September 2015

Contrast and constancy

A garland of House Martins (Martin Kelsey)
I sat down in front of the computer to write this post at 06.20. A pitch-dark quiet pre-dawn moment from a night of a super-moon. Our eleven year-old dog, Moro, made a gentle request to come into the house and as he settled beside me, a pattering sound started outside. So unfamiliar was the noise that I got up to take a look. It was the percussion of heavy, slow rain drops. Moonlight still framed the edges of the clouds, so the sky was far from overcast. There was a very distant rumble of thunder - that was why Moro had wanted to come in. But this shower is short-lived.

I cannot recall such a prolonged summer here, an autumn put off for so long. Two weeks ago we had a day with rain and it was first since the spring, or so it felt. I have been driven to comparing photos from late September last year with this, as if to convince myself that autumns are not always like this: seeking reassurance. Last year we had witnessed by now the warmly anticipated second spring in Extremadura. The wholly rain-fed plains were green. This year they are parched and increasingly threadbare with the remaining blond stems of withered spring growth now starting to disintegrate. In late September last year I walked beside rivers that flowed, this year there are just isolated still pools, tiny oases along stretches of grey dusty pebbles and smooth water-worn boulders. The perennial pessimism of true rural dwellers means that each conversation explores the theme of the "roasted" and "burnt" landscape and how the olives are wrinkling-up on the trees.

Yet despite this contrast, there is a striking constancy too, driven by cycles more fundamental than weather. On cue this year, as they were last year too, the landscape is also full of birds on the move, that quiet wave of Whinchats and Willow Warblers, Common Redstarts and flycatchers, perched on fences on the plains and exploring the pockets of shade below the encinas in the dehesa. Even more serruptitious and almost undetected are Grasshopper Warblers and Wrynecks: ground-hugging migrants. For me too, the arrival of our wintering Robins and the sweet morning autumnal song of Woodlark are cues enough.

Most dramatic are the House Martin gatherings. Here in the village, they form dense garlands, as if taking a mid-morning pause, congregating on the wires. I am totally engaged watching them snuggle-up to each other, filling the tiniest of gaps on a section of overhead cables, choosing just that section and ignoring the rest. Hundreds are tightly packed, mobile and shuffling, in a warming chirping conversation.  But even more staggering were the House Martins at the new dam wall of the Alcollarín reservoir. Last year I discovered these for the first time, thousands spread on the smooth warm concrete. Most appeared to be sunning themselves, whilst a few gathered in a band of shade below an overhang.

House Martins (Martin Kelsey)
My photo (above) was dated 22nd September. This year, just one day later and again on a late morning visit to the same site, there were again several thousand House Martins assembled. The dark specks of those taking restless short flights from the dam wall giving the appearance of a massive insect swarm, an eruption of flying ants perhaps. And like last year too, just an hour or two later, the wall was almost empty. The same question also came to mind.....where had these House Martins come from? Surely they are more than a simple sum of local birds, are these birds too, like the Whinchats and Redstarts, already on the move, pausing before their Saharan crossing? A question that for the time being remains unanswerable.