Last Bird Call

Fugitive Owl

Shirley is borrowing The Fisher King. Lizzie enjoyed it. I found it rather turgid and soon lost patience, so I can part with an uncherished book with the same unconcern as Redbridge Central Library parts with its treasury, stamped and with a return date. My miserly concern is entailed in a notebook simply titled "To Whom," for I hate lending books. Lizzie, far less possessive than I, willingly shares her bounty. In hard cover at £9.95 The Fisher King came out in 1986.

(Shirley Uffington Nov 1990 The Fisher King)

"Indian music is expected to have nothing new, mainly traditional."

My musical ear is not sufficiently attuned to sitar and drums and background singing, but it is pleasant enough while I wait for the home made tarts. "Erm, with apologies, Shirl, it's hard to tell the new from the old, though I was inveigled, nay forced, by fellow students to a concert by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin and found it quite amazing."

"Ah! That's because of the mixture of musical idioms. I mean, you don't hear Indian music, I mean hear it in depth. English music is just as difficult for my people, sort of plodding, all diatonic with minor variations; compared with birdsong of course which we all appreciate in any language, in any culture, it is sweet to hear and fills the whole sky. You don't have to understand it."

"Nicely put, Shirley. Are these Indian tarts?"

"Chinese, actually. Share them with Peter. Make sure he's got spare water."

We meet other people at La Laguna in a sort of commissary full of noise. This is the first time I've actually been inside a university building; this one, started in 1701 by the Augustinians as a centre for advanced studies, has an intellectual grandeur, whereas my centre for advanced studies, The Northern Polytechnic Institute on Holloway Road, started in 1848 as evening classes to improve the moral, intellectual and spiritual condition of young men - which, with its plastic cups and fag ends, is hardly a fit comparison with these hallowed halls. Peter shouts "Birders meet on a Saturday", steers past tables dotted with student-type people to a large round table in a corner where sit several older people, "Are these all your people Peter?"

"Different departments. All birders."

"Are we all seeking the fish eagle?"

"Not en masse. And certainly not today"

"Peter, there's a theory that if you watch a kettle come to the boil it takes longer. If we all watch for this eagle it'll go all bashful and won't appear."

"Not a theory, a proposition, dear boy. Too many silly propositions coming in from all this free public education. Spain is suffering the way British education suffered when education became ad lib. It has given voice and a new understanding to the children and grandchildren of the clodhopping illiterates who now know that the world is not flat, it is an oppressor not a liberator, and that our existence in it is pointless - all thanks to the University of La Laguna. It is the oldest university in the Canary Islands dating from 1701 and has the highest student population of any university in these Islands."

"Really Peter! Then why are there so many illiterate people here?"

"The distinction between Town and Gown exists here also. I remember as a boy in Cambridge the man who swept our chimneys couldn't read or write."

Well, yes, that sounds familiar. As a boy I remember the bargees on Beeston canal couldn't read or write either, neither could Old Jack the lock keeper - though his wife could.

He is in a strange mood. Is this uncherished and pointless world a wasteland? Is my friend Peter a nihilist? What about birds, then? Are birds part of his seeking for an inner balance? These are all birding people, and what fascinates me is the preponderance of the English language from people who are obviously not English. English then, is the lingua franca of birding? No. I overhear Peter talking to Manfred in German. And this raises the old hackles. What did Manfred do during the war? I know what Peter did; he built bridges for tanks and armoured vehicles.

"What we want to know, Alan, is: will you agree to write up our sightings for the mag Bird Call?"

"I'm not a bird person, Peter. Whose sightings?"

"Mine and Manfred's."

"I can't guarantee to be with you on every bird bash. I have other work to do."

"I heard Lizzie say you were shedding some of your load."

"Yes, but I don't intend to fill up the vacant space with bird sightings, Peter Duck. You need Lizzie for this. She does shorthand. Mind you, she also has other work to do. Why not get Shirley to do your Bird Call stuff?"

"Birding is a virtue we can cling onto. It does no great harm, but it does a lot of good. It helps us find a calmer existence away from the dismal science of politics. And you are a writing person, writing is a joyous occupation."

"Sort of joyous. Often painful, Fred. But I'm not related to the great man. Why not ask Shirley?"

"Mann and Lawrence, two of the last literary prophets."

"I had no prophet training, Fred, just reading writing and 'rithmatic. I was also ink monitor in my last year, a service which would have appealed to Lawrence who went to school in my area."

"Which school was that?"

"Walker Street School in Eastwood."

"Were you at the same school?"

"No. I was at Beeston Fields School."


I'm in deep water here. They are trying to work out where Beeston Fields fits into the hierarchy of education. I moderate with: "If it hadn't been for the war I could have gone to university."

"Ah, quite!"

"And we had nib-pens and inkwells in those days."

"Of course, dear boy. Verily thou art a scholar of the old school!"

Thankfully, this brings their enquiry into my education to an end. "Alan, we had an Algerian Nut Hatch a few months ago, but we didn't get any pictures. What we need is a photographer. We are planning a five day trip to Andalucia which is the main gateway for migrating birds. You can collect 60 different species in a day."

This doesn't appeal to me very much; collecting birds is a bit like collecting cigarette cards and flashing them around. And I am certainly not down for a five day trip to Andalucia, thank you very much! "I'm afraid I'm no good with a camera, Peter. Manfred is big on cameras. Give him the job."

"You could write up for us."

"I don't think you will like my style of writing, Peter. I just don't want to disappoint you. Lizzie says my style is too flowery anyway."

I really don't want to get into this bird mob. I love looking at birds, their grace, their music. But my level is not even close to the serious bird person who counts numbers. Why not just enjoy the bird and let it go? Inner voices are telling me that these people are not my style, their plateau is far above mine. The Red-crested Pochard is classified vulnerable, and really I had no idea that so many different species were classified as vulnerable until I sat and listened - and that Emil guy over there said he'd collected twenty of them. What on earth do you do with twenty Red-crested Pochard you've collected?

"Those Cory Shearwaters. There must have been hundreds. How do you count a mob like that, Emil?"

"The same technique for counting a shoal of fish. You can get sardines by the thousand!"

"Try counting Canaries when they're drinking. We got the police assisting us. We never saw Bonelli's bloody eagle. The whole day buggered up. How many Canaries did we get, Alan?"

"Thirty, plus or minus - and fifteen Guardia Civil in winter plumage, including the four who searched the car."

"I think, my friend, your interests are more widely focused," says Manfred with a smile.

"Well, yes. I mean, why count the birds? It can't be an exact process. Just inspired guesswork, surely."

"Sightings help keep account of numbers. It's a consensus, an agreement of opinion, for what counts in scholarship is not the quality of the object but the quality of the method. It is not a science. It is an interpretive technique. Some species are threatened, their numbers go down and we start to worry. By the way, I'd like you to meet Brenda Taylor, research assistant from Hull Uni. She's working with conservation groups who have called attention to about 50% of European mountain birds that are in danger of extinction in some areas. Thirty of Europe's 73 mountain birds are threatened by human exploitation, farming, forestry and tourism."

To avoid any further displays of ignorance I'll just nod and keep shtum. Across the table conversation flourishes; does the weak nature of gravitational force have any effect on migratory flight as does magnetic force? Patterns will change as the Earth gets warmer. Agreed; but no measurable effect of warming as yet; but, yes, certainly, an additional factor to take note of. The Caucasian Black Grouse may disappear within twenty years. Conservation is vital. Some birds are more vulnerable to change than others. A change in polarity North to South will kill millions. But the crows will survive, for the corvus corax - or corvids if you prefer the collective for crows and ravens - have a special place in mythology....Extremely intelligent birds. They pair for life, you know.

Conversation turns to the mighty and universal spirit of grievance so long in abeyance that has now overtaken the highest centres of learning. The fisherman no longer counts fish. Many of them were illiterate, but they could tell by spreading their hands how many fish they'd got. But now they graduate in accountancy and their voices can be heard in European politics... And more than just a hint of strife among the student body ...there's going to be a sit-in... I hear there's seventy per cent in favour. We must be prepared ... we must call a meeting, talk sense into them...

We had a sit-in at Ladbroke House when I was a mature student. The majority student body, young and feverishly active, didn't like we few mature students because we were sensible, worldly wise and asked awkward questions - and worse, we stepped over them while they sat. And if that wasn't asking for trouble...!

Going back to my pre-college days as a shop steward at Ericsson Telephone Co., my combative tendency towards management still lurks in the background. Fishermen have gone forward and upward: and Peter is telling me that Spain still has the biggest and most widely varied bird population in Europe... And Brenda would love somebody to take notes... Academia, alas, is not in my line. I want to leave now, before the dreaded Brenda appears and tries to nail me down. "Peter can we go soon?"

"Do you realise, Alan, that those pratincoles we went to collect five years ago were probably the last pair seen here for decades. I didn't realise at the time. Anyway, talking of crows, I hear a mob of crows around Taganana have been attacking chickens. Let's go take a look."

Manfred declines. He's staying for coffee.

There's a long winding descent into Taganana with its brilliant white houses, palm-laden streets and gardens, then down still further to the sea, along the coast road passing Playa del Roque to Almaciga. Coming back up is where we are likely to run out of water. Have we got enough? Going back it's a hell of a long steep winding climb from sea level up into the Anaga range. Here on the craggy North-East corner of this island are beautifully terraced slopes with retaining walls reminiscent of the old banana plantation behind Cristimar - and not a soul in sight! In the rear footwell I can hear water sloshing around in a five gallon can. I hope to hell it's enough.

Canarian crow trap

"The coffee trade started in the Canaries, you know. It was exported to South America where coffee rapidly swamped the Canarian source which died out. The Canaries supplied crows as well as food and fresh water to mariners in the old days when sailing the Atlantic was a death-defying venture. Crows were sold in bamboo cages. Now we are going to get a few! Well, not get exactly. The farmers do that with catapults and bird shot. I don't have the fisherman's traditional skill of counting a net-full of fish, even less a tree-full of crows. Osprey and Imperial Eagle attack livestock. Farmers poison them. There are even a few country people who still know how to make cages for crows. Then they drown them."

"Nice!" Totally engrossed as always the irony escapes Peter, but for me the thought of airborne creatures drowning in cages is repugnant.

"Yes, they hang on to the old things, these people. They hang the dead crows on a gibbet like they used to do in England."

"Peter, how do you count a tree-full of crows?"

"The locals call that rock the Stairway to Heaven."

Escalera al Cielo: the Stairway to Heaven

We park up, get out and walk the main street. Innocently silent. Just like the cunning crow to keep shtum when hunters are around. Probably sizing us up, like Sir Jasper used to do before breaking out in hoarse welcome. A longish walk, passing the Stairway to Heaven, which nobody I know has ever dared to climb, before turning back. Not a crow in sight.

"Buggered if I know! Take a guess on the volume of sound. Not like in the open where sound carries. A Blackbird can be heard more than 500 yards away. The canopy of a tree muffles bird calls, and if you bear in mind that sound decreases in proportion to the square of the distance travelled, then you really have a serious locating problem with half a ton of canopy in the way."

A helpful old lady passing by with two seaweed-laden donkeys nods and points. It is that nearby oak tree where they gather to talk. "Chicks are now behind the wire - Peter translates - "Now maybe el cuervo will leave us in peace, she says. The crows just peck the eyes out and leave the rest."

Drawing nearer we hear the hoarse cawing - a shop-floor meeting discussing a matter of exploitation, or maybe a shop steward calling for order amid interruptions from the floor. A good animal, true to my animal instincts, I say, "Sounds like something from my dark and dirty past, Peter."

"I'll get them out. Get some idea of numbers. It's only a small tree. Can't be many." The stick he throws - a management tool - hits the canopy fair and square. And suddenly the air is alive with birds, including an owl.

Tawny Owl mobbed by crows

"They've got an owl!" he yells. "Where's he off to?"

We scramble to follow. The crows are diving and squawking at the fleeing owl. "Peter, what are we doing in this man's orchard?" Such niceties as asking permission have escaped him.

"They chased him into that orange tree. How many crows do you reckon, Alan?"

"What are we treading on, Peter? We're trespassing."

"Nobody minds birders. These trees need thinning."

To my mind birders are like hikers. Trespass on private land you get shouted at. "The man's yelling at us, Peter."

"Let's take a look."

Sometimes his superiority annoys me, but he is the boss of this combo and he helped us a lot when we first moved in, so I let it ride. Close up our target is just a thick bushy fruit tree and, against the sun, I can't see a thing. But something is hiding in there, and whatever it is, it wants to stay hidden, for I can see that mob of crows circling and blasting away... Aha! A momentary absence of light as he blinks and then I see him fully revealed, staring straight at me. Dogs and cats, you recognise their faces. But how do you recognise an owl's face? OK, you see only what you want to see - I see a long-suffering owl saying 'please leave me alone.'

Peter wants to put the bird up. I want none of it. With my eye on the burly farmer rapidly approaching I say "I think we've got the wrong tree, Peter."

"Can't be the wrong tree, it's alive with bloody crows. Looked like a Spotted Owl to me. These trees definitely need thinning."

"Too small for a Spotted. More like a Tawny."

We leave hurriedly, mumbling apologies. The man has big hands and two ominously silent Canarian hunting dogs. We agree to sight it as a Tawny Owl (in flight) and ten crows.

"We will never get rid of crows, Alan. They can live anywhere. It's migrating birds that will suffer as the world changes. Migrating patterns will be destroyed. We will lose millions. Already, in Spain alone, almost a hundred species are endangered through loss of habitat."

Half hidden as it was in dense shade, Peter with his birder's eye should have seen that owl. We know his eyesight isn't so good, but that owl was obvious to me. I cheated him out of it because, being a sentimental idiot, I thought more of the owl's feelings than his. He's certainly very distracted lately, as if he's doing a lot of worry work. So something's up.

While climbing out of Taganana he prattles on about Milano Real - "Pardon? The Red Kite. Thank you, Peter" - Urgently I must get to Lizzie and get her to sound out Shirley.

"Peter, turn the heater on full blast and open the windows wide. With any luck it will stop the radiator boiling over!"

El Granjero estaba muy enfadado - the angry farmer

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