I am not an ornithologist but…… you move to Spain with the intention of starting afresh. You have had enough of the rat race. Something has got to give. It is time for a new challenge in a place with a better climate and a more relaxed way of life. And most of you probably don’t regard yourselves as being wildlife buffs.
Then one morning in, say, mid February, you are having a caña outside your favourite bar and you hear a curious noise. A rapid clacking sound slightly reminiscent of those old fashioned rattles that people used to take to football matches in the days when everybody wore a hat. You crane your neck to get a look at the thing responsible for this racket and there on the roof of the ayuntamiento you see a pair of storks. You don’t need to be an expert to identify them as storks, because everybody knows what the bird that brings the babies looks like. You notice the locals smiling benevolently upwards too. And why not; everybody in Spain knows that on the day you see your first stork of the year, if you have money in your pocket, you will have money in your pocket for the rest of the year.
You go back to your beer and think little more of your encounter with this most benevolent of birds. Later on that same evening, you might notice a bat or two flitting noiselessly about in search of insects. And you might think to yourself that it seems early in the year to be seeing bats out and about. But the old Spanish adage has it that, “In February, dogs seek out the shade.” And then you realise that it is a while since you felt the chills of winter and in much of the Iberian Peninsula February marks the beginning of six months of uninterrupted sunshine.
Your encounters may just have piqued your interest. You might start to look to the skies hoping to see something exotic. In most of Spain’s fifty provincial capital cities, you can with a bit of luck and patience, see something that you won’t see back home. With an eight foot wingspan, a griffon vulture is not a bird that is easily missed. But in this case it won’t be the noise that alerts you to its presence. On occasion you might think a large cloud has obscured the sun and when the temperature dips in the momentary shade, you look up from your beer and see one of nature’s giants overhead. If you are not hooked by this time, then may God have mercy on your immortal soul, for you are surely one of those sad, benighted people who have absolutely no interest in the natural world.
Normal people, however, will probably go out and buy some sort of a field guide. They may even start to keep a list. Then the spring migration starts in earnest. Throughout most of Spain black and red kites fill the skies in March and April. Soon you will be telling your ,as yet, uninfected friends how the red kites have a deeply forked tail, while their black cousins have only a shallow indentation in theirs. You may even start talking about the silvery head plumage of the male red kite as being a, “Diagnostic feature.” By this time you are hopelessly hooked.
Once you have been exposed to a bit of Spanish, you might start referring to all small animals as bichos, if you live in the south of the country, you might well pronounce this word as vishos or, if you have assimilated totally – visho even when they are in the plural. By the time this has happened you will know that those little cigar shaped lumps of grey matter that you find around the house are the droppings of geckoes. You won’t get too worked up about their offerings though, as you will be aware that the little parcels are the remains of flies and mosquitoes and the gecko is a lot more welcome than they are.
By the time midsummer arrives, you will know that the early morning is the best time of day to see lizards; as cold blooded animals would surely overheat if they were left exposed to the unfiltered glare of the summer sun. When you are out for your morning constitutional you will be alive to the skittering noises that mean you have disturbed a lizard. You might even hear the grass hiss as a snake passes by. And you will know that in Spain, as in most places, non-poisonous snakes far outnumber their venomous colleagues.
If you are lucky enough to live in the wild places still inhabited by wolves or bears, you might have an encounter with one of these apex predators. (The truth is that bears are much more omnivorous than carnivorous, but you already know that, don’t you?). You may see a couple of animals that crossed the straits of Gibraltar with the Moors: the genet and the mongoose. I have yet to see a genet, but I live in hope. I have seen a family of mongooses though, making their way Indian file through the scrub of a natural park. And no matter what the dictionary might have to say on the matter, Spanish people call the mongoose el meloncillo. These two furtive hunters were probably brought to Spain for their skill in killing rats and snakes, although there are those who reckon the genet was often kept as a pet.
So there you have it: a few short months ago you would not have been able to tell stork from butter. Now you know that the white stork is common enough: the kudos come when you have seen the rare and elusive black stork. After a while you become blasé about boring, old, bog-standard griffon vultures. You crave the exotic, giant, black vultures, or their scruffy white cousins – the Egyptian vultures. As for the fourth species of vulture in Spain; you know you are a lost cause when you take a trip up to that special place in Huesca, to see the legendary quebrantahuesos: the bone breaker. The lammergeier is famed for being the bird that, according to legend, killed the Greek playwright Aeschylus by dropping a tortoise on his bald pate. The world’s only bone-eating bird, takes the thigh bones of cattle (and the occasional tortoise) up to a great height, before releasing them to shatter on the rocks below, releasing the nutritious marrow on which they feed. But you knew that, didn’t you?