A moving feast

Collared Pratincole (Martin Kelsey)

The rice fields are at their most uniform. A vast spread of small rectangular plots, all with lush lime-green growing crop, are fed by a hierarchy of canals, channels, ditches and plastic-lined breaks in the bunds. The water is gravity-carried from the Sierra Brava Reservoir. Bare-earth bunds retain the paddies, their upper part baked by the 40º heat, the lower half of the bank darkened by the osmotic rise of moisture. These bunds are alleyways for the birds hanging out here: freshly arrived Northern Lapwings, gangs of Tree Sparrows, rows of White Storks and Cattle Egrets and the clay-coloured Collared Pratincoles. These anomalous waders shuffle on their short legs, but maintain an elegance thanks to their long wings neatly folded over their forked tails. When at rest at a distance they appear rather dowdy, but when closer, my attention is carried to their heads and necks: their short, curved bill, reddish at its base, a creamy throat neatly defined in black.

In the thumping heat, the birds on these raised banks appear to be the only sign of animal life. But as I gaze across the blank green monoculture, flakes of gold glint in constant horizontal motion above the crop. Hundreds, no thousands, are in view. They zigzag and cruise, rise and drop. The Typha shoots growing in the irrigation ditches are tipped by them at rest. This is a colossal biomass of dragonflies, all of a single species: Red-veined Darters. In the space of just a couple of weeks since my last visit, they have emerged into a magnificent celebration of summer. 

Red-veined Darters (Martin Kelsey)

Their arrival is celebrated too. I notice a Bee-eater on a wire, its bill swiping the dragonfly against its perch in a well-practised manoeuvre. But it is the Collared Pratincoles that are feasting this morning. They rise from the bunds, their long tern-like wings carrying them on a pursuit flight that is sweeping and erratic, echoing that of the darters. They make a return, dragonflies in their bills, borne for their fledged young, standing in wait, spotty and expectant on the bund.

Juvenile Collared Pratincole (Martin Kelsey)

One bird close to me has opted for a less energetic way to snatch the dragonflies. Noticing how there is a continuous movement of Red-veined Darters leaving the  field and how they lose height as they cross the interface of crop and track, this Collared Pratincole stands in wait. As a dragonfly passes close enough, the bird crouches in readiness to attack. 

Collared Pratincole ready to strike (Martin Kelsey)

As released by a trigger, the pratincole springs forward with a lunge and a rapid series of steps. Sometimes this is climaxed by a short flutter, wings outstretched, showing the ochre-red underwing, and its tail spread  - an unexpected striking white, tipped with black.

With Red-veined Darter (Martin Kelsey)

A rice-farmer on a bicycle, a mattock across the handlebars, wobbles into view and the pratincole is pursuaded to fly across the field to the bund on the opposite side. As I continue on my way, the stream of countless darters remains in flow.


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