Bird Song

A trip is mooted to San Andres on the other side of Santa Cruz. A pair of Bonelli's eagles have been seen in the area and nobody has yet booked a sighting. Well somebody must have, otherwise how do we know?

"Surveyors, dear boy. They found a dead one at the bottom of a high voltage pylon. Peter wants to get out there to spot one. Bloody awful trip. Road-works. Wouldn't be found dead me'self."

Birding for Bonelli's Eagle

Renton is past the age when the find is worth the searching, and, kindly, he did not mention Peter's perilous driving. The new autopista carries its trailing debris over older roads that are scarce wide or firm enough to take the strain and themselves require road-works to sustain them. From Los Cristianos on to Los Abrigos there is the narrow old old road once used for pack animals, goats and carts, where we can still see the crumbling remains of white markings. In places it disappears totally beneath rubble and scrub to reappear a few miles further on alongside the slightly wider new old road which runs more or less parallel and occasionally crosses its older companion. Alongside this pair of ancient roadways will appear the new autopista already marked out and levelled. Trouble is, when you get road-building equipment chugging along the new old road there is no way you can pass unless you are prepared to hit the dirt and masses of rocks hiding in the boscage.

"Is it worth the trip, Peter?"

"Not for Renton. How are you fixed?"

"I'm game."

Sandwiches would be nice, and bottles of water, for it's going to be a long trip. Peter knows where the hide is, just an old raincoat strung between bushes and a deep trench to stand in. An irrigation pipe crosses in front. For many years this pipe has slightly leaked creating a small pool where canaries love to splash and chirp, an ideal spot for a hungry raptor to snatch a meal.

"Once past Los Abrigos it should be a damn sight easier," says Peter. The dumper driver in front turns back to us with an apologetic shrug. Peter in sour non-academic mood says tartly, "I reckon he's on the juice, otherwise he'd ignore us. On these intolerably awful tracks he can be king of the road when he stops to light a fag." Peter's old car, getting hot under the bonnet, compels a halt so we stop on this deserted unsheltered track to let the dumper get well ahead. The radiator is steaming. I warn Peter not to raise the bonnet just yet - luminant Phd he may be, but hands-on car mechanic he is not! To add to our discomfort, clouds of peppery dust are covering us from the new road-works alongside. And now curious goats are moving in our direction from the old old road. The cabrero stands with his stick and two dogs staring at us.

"Oh God! I can't stand the stink. We'll have to move on."

For me, with no sense of smell to speak of, the proximity of goats is no great hardship. However, the proximity of a boiling radiator is. "Peter, do you have a can of water?"

"I have a can but no water. I used it up yesterday."

"Peter! Here we are driving to the far end of Tenerife on a hot September day - and we have no spare water only small bottles of drinking water - and I don't propose to die of thirst!"

Cursing in Spanish he gets out, hauls out the empty can, climbs the rocky encumbrances to the new road-works and accosts the foreman who turns and points towards Los Abrigos.

Peter returns po-faced, obviously our problem will not factorise, solution beyond reach. "Erm, bad situation. The water lorry has just returned to Los Abrigos."

Bad has just got worse: there is now a dumper truck coming up behind us, its empty shovel clattering loudly. Behind the dumper is a car crawling forward in third gear. The dumper stops abruptly, diesel chuntering. In the cab a lot of thinking is being done. Suddenly inspired the driver signals to the following car, then he backs off slightly, lowers his shovel, turns off the road and ploughs a rough pathway through the rocks and rubble. Gingerly the car follows to rejoin the road ahead of us, then stops and toots in friendly fashion.

"There are two Berthalot's Pipits over there, Peter."

"Pleased to see you, Manfred. Sod the pipits! We need water before we can make Los Abrigos."

"Where are you off?"

"Longish trip. Other side of Santa Cruz."

"Not by chance to find Bonelli's Eagle? A lot of birders have heard about it already, Peter."


"Quite! One bird was found electrocuted up by San Andres. Don't go. There'll be crowds. Stick with small brown jobs today. I'll get you some water."

Once past Los Abrigos the beautiful new autopista stretches invitingly all the way back to Santa Cruz. "We go," says Peter. "Many thanks Manfred. Tally ho chaps!"

It takes an hour and a half to make Santa Cruz, another half hour to reach the hills over San Andres. "This is it," says Peter. "Down-hill run from here. We'll coast in."

Without the engine nothing works properly. We are coasting slowly downhill, steering heavy, footbrake barely functional; the handbrake, working hard, starts to squeal and we have coasted up to ten miles an hour and beyond. Peter starts the engine to restore function. The footbrake bites hard and tyres shriek. I crack my shoulder on the dash. More from fear than bright goodwill I enquire "Shall I get out, Peter? I'm not risking all for science, I'd rather die in bed than by the roadside!"

"No problem. We're here."

"You've scared off the birds, Peter,"

Here is a sort of lay-by cut into the forest. No other cars are parked, a welcome sign. A pathway formed by birders or backpackers leads up and away. "Nobody's here," hisses Peter. "Dead lucky."

"It's also very quiet, Peter. They heard you coming."

"They'll be back for water. I'll lead the way."

"I refuse to adopt his ridiculous crouching posture for he's beginning to look like Groucho Marx... I shall adopt a more suitable birding mode when I reach the hide.

Creeping quietly into position we are almost deafened by a host of Canaries fluttering round the pool. There is mud beneath our feet, round our heads and arms are those virulent black flies that bite. Ten minutes of silent watching and already I'm fed up with flies and mud. Then Peter spots a male Blue Chaffinch which is promptly noted, he is joined by a female, dull and business-like. Then a Blackcap, female, appears and is serenaded by a male hidden in an oak tree.

"Definitely a Blackcap, the Nightingale of the Canary Islands." Chatting and scribbling, he wants to know how many Wild Canaries there are. I reckon around thirty.

"Plus two Greenfinch," he adds, scarcely looking up.

Untitled drawing: two birders

Today is for serious birding and I can't tell a Greenfinch from a Wild Canary! So I listen to the Blackcap's pretty song. "Why do some birds sing, and others like magpies who perch on the roof of my shed just make a disgusting cackle, Peter?"

"Perching birds sing. But all birds make noise to communicate amongst themselves."

"My magpies make a hell of a racket."

"So do a parliament of rooks."

"Behind our house is Nightingale Lane and the trees of Wanstead Hospital. I mention this because we get a nightingale occasionally. We've been on our front doorstep before dawn's early light listening to it. Never heard one here."

"They don't just sing for us, Alan. Birds were singing millions of years ago before we were around. Not all birds sing. Singing is limited to the order Passeriformes, or perching birds. So a great many of the birds around the world do not sing - like your magpies for example."

Peter has a way of expounding slowly as if he expects me to take notes. "Birds sing for other birds - Hey!"

The canaries are gone. Scattered in a feathery flash. Behind us there is movement. Hissing like a snake Peter curses, rises to his feet and turns - "If you had the brains of a warthog you would - Oh bollocks!"

These are not bird people. The military stance makes it clear. The Guardia Civil are in readiness, weapons at the port.

"Oh shit!"

An officer appears, salutes politely. Peter, somewhat shocked, translates. "He wants to know why we came here. I am telling him we crept along the path to the hide. Apparently he allowed us through his perimeter unchallenged. Obviously they were expecting to make a bust and we've actually ruined it for them."

Our bags are searched. The car is searched. Our residencies are examined. Then we are dismissed with a smart salute.

"Don't ask," says Peter as we drive away. "They're stopping cars on the mountain roads again, looking for narcoticos. All we need! A platoon of bloody policemen!"

"Actually there were nine, Peter. I counted them."

Later we heard of innocent picknickers being stopped on the mountain roads. I wrote it up thinking it could make an interesting article for Island Gazette.

"There's only one 'k' in picnickers," Lizzie informed me.

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