A thunderous tropical rain storm arriving, most unusually out of the north, broke against the great black massifs of Meru and Manjaro in the early hours of November 23. Shortly after daybreak Dismus and I once again escaped Arusha via the northbound "Nairobi road"; for a while yet this African highway is both dangerously and delightfully narrow - all too soon it will be upgraded by engineers of the next dynasty to a far more murderous, three-lane 'Chinese modern standard'. Maybe. Because today raging torrents of coffee-coloured water frequently impede our progress as they rush the great slopes down. And, once we have descended to the desert plain of larks, it is clear, very few cars are making it through from Kenya.
By eight thirty we were watching the adult Maasai (Beesley's) Larks behaving as if their young were alive and near, if not at, the nest site found on Tuesday. The grasses are already a centimetre higher, which makes observation in the percussive rainfall very difficult, and once we stop a couple of bedraggled shepherd boys in khaki rags inevitably start to make a bee-line for us across the sodden prairie. So we are forced (in order to spare the nest site from any disturbance) to move the Land Rover farther down what I've called 'Longido lane'. Longido is a mountain and a stone, upon which the Maasai still sharpen the blades of their iconic spears.
We drive a couple of hundred metres in the grey persistent rain until abruptly we are stopped by no less than five bright apricot-chested beesleyi who are foraging right here beside this vehicle track. We watch them stumbling around between the low-lying grass tussocks, darkly drenched on crown and tail, for five minutes whilst the rain eases. And then abruptly it stops. I make notes on their foraging behaviour. Their feeding behaviour alters immediately the rains fall silent.
The plain is blanketed by a low-flying mist of ants emerging from bunker hollows in many a twisted Acacia mellifera that skirt the plain. Close-up their abdomens shine juicy and black like tiny succulent grapes. Queens and their male consorts - or perhaps two different species are involved, one small, one large - thousands of them are being consumed by scores of territory-holding Red-capped Larks and Grassland Pipits who can be seen rising vertically from the ground, to a height of a couple of metres, before abruptly dropping back. This is happening away into the distance as far as sight with bins can reach. A couple of the Maasai Larks make clumsy, yet effective, near-vertical sallies in pursuit of the feast from above.
Then, faint at first, awareness of a much-loved voice, thin and reedy yet simultaneously rich and deliciously liquid, a bugle call of comrades from afar – ringing ever louder in an otherwise slightly ominous pin-drop calm, a far-seeing yet sombre sharpness, seemingly unique to cyclonic conditions. The hanging eye of a slow, low pressure cell.
I scan and strain forward, peering into the gloomy north for some sight of those trilling voices; they’re somewhere near the fringing green acacia crowns that dominate the rising ground between us and the tin roofs of two churches in Engikaret village. Somewhere on a low hill, maybe three thousand metres from our position. However, the flying specks I see, instead of darting in the manner of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, are rapidly assembling into a cloud of wheeling raptors – aerodynamic insect-eating falcons no less.
"But they're not Lesser Kestrels; happily to be expected here.
Oh no! Of course - my God! Amur Falcons, and at least a thousand, circling there!”
The cloud of agile, angular anchor-like silhouettes rise, and their numbers grow and grow. Some, like stocky swifts, are diving, others abruptly stall or bank to left and right, this way and that to capture the ants as together they swirl en masse beneath the pewter sky. We watch, by now with mouths agape, as the uppermost birds begin to peel-off from the flock and stream directly overhead, passing over us at between two and three hundred feet, above earth’s bound slaves, two bipeds, one black, one white. The pale face, by now more than slightly shaky, on the steaming sodden soil, beside a gun-metal crustacean – our Land Rover carapace.
Although the sky is watery, and vision dulled and grey, one can tell that the streaming flock is composed mostly of immatures and females. Their streaked breasts and contrasting clean white throats very neatly set-off by the black moustachials and dark hoods. Nevertheless many softly grey-blue tiercels are up there, flashing white wing linings, as they too winnow south within this magnificent procession of falcons old and young. Many birds almost pause above us, fluttering and wet-dog shuddering, as each in turn shakes, to jettison excessive water from those amazing feathers of flight. The entire column, estimated to have contained at least two thousand three hundred birds, advances steadily south, seemingly insane, straight toward the charcoal base of Mount Meru, glowering beneath a colossal heap of stacked, black cloud. Incredulous I watch them going, tiny midge like specks, against that fearful wall of cloud.
Layers of distracting thought now rise scrabbling within my brain, and for whose attention?
"Disciples of animal migration upon considering the movements of Falco amurensis; birds traveling each autumn at the height of the jet, across the greatest breadth of the Indian Ocean, night after day, after night, for perhaps a week, a journey whose beginnings are east of Vladivostok and end south of the Free State, birds who come February, March and April fuelled by the fat of African orthopterans, fly all the way back; might be well advised to prostrate themselves in reverence and awe.
Long have I yearned to enter the Amur migration movement.
In fact since late May of 1994, when I first met the species. I was co-leader with a Bird Quest tour group on maneuvers through Ussuriland. I clearly recall admiring their fluttering display flights, high above the floppy, black Rooks, whose vacated nests they were about to use. That was among the fruit blossom, of a perfect spring-time village, on the eastern shore of Lake Khanka (south of the Chinese border) in Russia's Farthest East. Since those now dream-like days I remember scattered and precious few; most inspiring no doubt, that hazy eastbound gang of seven crossing the wide, brown Irrawaddy, within the lung-blasting furnace that is May in central Burma. In Africa until now I've met with only straggling southbound singletons, stumbled on here and there, in the sheeting rain near Moshi or out at Mkomazi, and right here at Angyata Osugat; a very tired individual clinging to a bush in a soft drizzle (the immature photographed by Steve Bird in 2005 - on tour with Bird Seekers).
But now, watching this flock of over two thousand strong, very recently ‘in-off’ the great ocean that keeps Asia to our east, I wonder:
“Could we have met before? In Russia, thirteen years ago, at the business end of this, easily the most epic of all raptor migrations?"
Suddenly my discursive reverie is thrust aside, by a calling here in the steaming heat, as if entering a sauna.
Utterly brilliant and now so very noisy, the Blue-cheeks slalom round us – rushing skyward; calling forth the sun as only a Merops may. The vanguard is already weaving and darting amongst the last few, slightly struggling, Amur Falcons. And in this moment, above all these living beings, a celestial whiteness thins to star's egg blue, and the sun's energy pierces the cloying murk of this perfect desert storm. Up into that swirling spire of blue; all around us taking heart, tapping-into the power-source of Earth’s equatorial energy; these exquisite feathered insectivores, our all too momentary companions; sharp, emerald and bronze; hooked, slaty and blue .. vanish.
They've gone; more abruptly than they arrived.
Invisible. Dancing with the angels, returned to sunlight, on the coolest cushion of air, so far from sleep-walking pedestrians, in ground-down human lives.
And my heart is touched by sadness and regret, for time has scarce stood still.