Bittersweet steppes

Melanistic Montagu's Harrier (John Hawkins)
It was the sight of the oddly dusky-looking bird of prey that made us stop and get out of the car. The prolonged glide on rather stiff, slender and angled wings with the slim horizontal form of the tail said Montagu's Harrier. But the dark sooty plumage, interrupted only by almost vestigial barring on the primaries was not the norm: we were looking at the very uncommon melanistic form of the species, indeed the second such individual we had seen that week.

It was the middle of April and thanks to this encounter there unfolded a series, a juxaposition of sightings that it would be hard to imagine happening anywhere else than Extremadura and all taking place from where we now stood, with the Sierra de los Lagares, the hill beside which our home nestles. in view and just twenty kilometres in a straight line from us.

Free from the confines of the vehicle, now parked in a convenient gateway, we looked across a small valley of pasture on soils so thin that the bedrock erupted from the sheep-grazed sward as jagged dog's teeth typical of the area. A light breeze carried towards me the short farting-sound of a displaying male Little Bustard, but it took me longer to locate the bird by sight: the sound carries much further than one imagines. Finally I found it, standing beside a small outcrop, its chevron-patterned nuptial neck feathers held erect like a cobra's hood, its head jerking backwards. This visual cue preceded by the differential between the relative speeds of light and sound its abrupt raspberry-vocalisation. The separation in time between our visual and audio experience of this display could not be a finer way of demonstrating the physics of light and sound.

Just a few metres from the Little Bustard, a Great Bustard was slowly making its way across the field. A female, lacking the spring-like rich orange of the male's lower neck and throat, but still appearing perhaps twice the size of the displaying male Little Bustard. On slow, considered strides it approached the Little Bustard and with a gesture of faint curiosity, lowered its head as it got closer and gave the Little Bustard a small shove. This was enough for the latter to move a few paces from its chosen spot and attempt to resume its luring of a female elsewhere.

To the right, by a small turn of our heads, we could see on a further slope a spendid male Great Bustard in display, quivering in its comical lumbering form, a tussle of white brilliance. Beyond it another male in stately gait reminded one of our party of a galleon in full sail: the bird did not seem to walk, rather it glided, sailed forward, its body hardly registering the momentum of the slow strides taken by its legs.

In the same field of view as the Great Bustard, we could see a pair of Rollers perched on an electricity cable, taking periodic flights on their broad, almost dazzlingly, turquoise wings. Around the adjacent barn, three Lesser Kestrels were hovering. Moving our glance a little more to the right, but without leaving the spot where we stood, we could see a pair of Stone Curlew, motionless with the sun catching the yellow base to the bill and the broad diagonal wing markings adding to the cryptic plumage.

The uup-uupping call of a Hoopoe made us swing leftwards, just in time to see a bird fly up from the exposed rock close-by. The soundscape was further added to by the sweet and musical song of Thekla Larks, whilst way above us thoughout the whole of our sojourn here, a Calandra Lark sang without a break.
Little Bustard calling (John  Hawkins)
And it was skyward too, that we could watch the smooth passage overhead of two Griffon Vultures and a Black Vulture, crossing the entire dome of the sky on a linear trajectory without a single flap of their wings.

Without moving a yard, we had become embraced by spring on the steppes of Extremadura. It was as exhilarating as it had been unexpected, and certainly unplanned. But as I stood my own sense of joy was dulled by the weight of apprehension. Knowing these plains as I do, today's experience whilst unlikely to be matched by anywhere else, was now becoming a rare gem here too. This could not be better symbolised by the cobra-necked Little Bustard. During the last few years, this species has undergone a catastrophic decline in Extremadura, for reasons still not fully understood. And for me now, every single encounter with this species is both treasured and bittersweet. The latter because it evokes in me a profound sense of loss and the desperation of helplessness.


Unknown said…
Such amazing birding. I felt like I was there, you related it so well. The noticeable absence of the Little Bustard in many places does give rise to concern.

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