Great Bustard wheels
|Great Bustard (John Hawkins)|
In Spanish it is called the rueda (the wheel), in English it is described often as a foam bath....quite different images come to mind, but in spring on the plains of Extremadura they converge to a single meaning....that extraordinary performance of a displaying male Great Bustard. Early this month, on a calm and sunny morning just twenty minutes from home, we stood mesmerised. Across a span of 180 degrees, on fields with sward shaped by sheep, there were six white objects, contrasting strongly with spring's green flush on the meadows. These shapes transformed before us: sometimes pyramidal, sometimes round, the white changing to deep orange. The form depended on the bird's aspect. As it wheeled around slowly, it paused seemingly at 90 degree turns. From the rear it was triangular and white, with the tail pushed upwards and forwards, so all that one could see at the apex of this shape were the white under-tail covert feathers. The sides were composed by the feathers of the wing, but these no longer confined to the normal contour of the body, but each set partially erect, each slightly separate from each other. This could be seem more clearly as the bird wheeled laterally, giving us its profile. The white inner secondaries and wing covert feathers created what looked like a huge rosette. But even more striking was the front half of this view. The bird's head was pushed back, so that it appeared to just about touch the tip of the tail, arched over the back. Large nuptual whiskers struck a taut vertical position, catching the morning sunshine. From the bill downwards, feathers had parted to reveal a dramatic dark slash-like streak which took us to the most astonishing part of all: its inflated neck pouch: deep orange, so massive that it looked like a wobbly medicine ball which brushed the ground on which the bird stood. An abrupt ninety degree shift and the bird presented its front view. Now the neck pouch dominated and the bird by a single half-circle turn had changed from a pure white pyramid, to a spectacular rich-cream to russet-orange, with deeper hues around the base of this globulous shape.
|Great Bustards (John Hawkins)|
Close to him, was a slender, greyer form; a female, inquisitive but wary. Her approach excited him, his wings quivered, and he wheeled with great aplomb. But her game was caution. She could play the field, as dotted across the landscape were other performing hopefuls. This widely dispersed lek, where males competed against each other and the female had the last word recalled a ballroom scene from Jane Austen. As she got closer so he seemed to puff himself up even further, and then she glided past, turning away and the male struck one as almost crestfallen, his esteem struck and his dance subsided, the wings closed and his balloon-like pouch visibly deflated. The closure of his wings transformed their colour from white to the gorgeously intricate pattern of rich bars of black and golden brown, and he strutted, tail still erect over his back, with slow stately paces, like a dandy put in his place.
Now as the month draws to a close, so the rueda of the Great Bustards slowly ends. Today we watched a foam bath male, the sight, as always, spectacular, but perhaps now rather poignant, the closing days of this spring frenzy. Three females stood close-by, perhaps those still yet to choose. His ertswhile competitors are now forming the summer groups of males, their rivalry over as they feed together, whilst females quietly move on to find secluded spots to nest.