Friday, 28 October 2016

Transformations

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Raymond de Smet)

Daybreak on the plains north of Trujillo and finally the relief of heavy skies and shrouds of rain. Autumn made us wait this year, but as the landscape turned green in the space of a week, my friends' faces have become brighter: a transformation of mood as profound as that of their surroundings. I stand beside a shower of white Serotine Narcissus and look across the field, the gloaming of dawn extended by the overcast sky. Over two hundred Lapwing are evenly spread in front of me, facing the prevailing weather, taking long pauses between their almost mechanical strides. Beyond them, on a gentle rise, are what I first take to be a scatter of rounded stones, but as I struggle to get a better view through the raindrop-splattered telescope, one object shifts position and provides a view of a white belly, so close to the ground it appears to almost to touch it. Others make little shuffling movements and thus the stones transmute to Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, a group of forty or more.

Serotine Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

Few birds can match the temperament of the weather than sandgrouse. On such a morning, they crouch huddled, as if wrapping themselves in heavy wool blankets, small-headed, broad-backed, short-legged. In the poor light, the upperparts appear dark greyish-brown, pressing further the imagery of foot soldiers, moping at rest, their cloaks draping to the soggy ground. They trudge, then pause and peck, barely a signal of movement from their forms. But find such a flock when the sun is shining and it is as if the squad of troopers has been promoted. Their upperparts spangle with golden medallions, their wing coverts appear laden with braid and their chests show panels of black-bordered russet-orange, The flock explores the ground with more animated shuffles and occasionally a bird lifts its body up to stretch its wings, flashing the pure-whiteness of its belly.

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (John Hawkins)

Ever vigilant and always forsaking tall vegetation where their vision is contained, sandgrouse are nervous. All it takes is the appearance of a Spanish Imperial Eagle slowly flapping in take-off from a nearby roost for the flock to erupt. Their strident gull-like cries seem out of character to their rather dove-like bearing on the ground, but it is a far-carrying and evocatively haunting sound of open expanses. They metamorphose again in flight when we are confronted with a tight flock of surprisingly pointed-winged agile birds which twist and turn on rapid wing beats, rising in unison. Our final reward is yet another change of act, as the flock reaches its highest point and then bursts like a star, shattering into shrapnel with the birds, now in twos or threes, dispersing in all directions on long glides against a clear blue sky, becoming ever more difficult to follow and yet still vocal: a flock that disappears above us before our very eyes.