The morning was already bright when we arrived at our secret rendezvous. A blackbird sang his melodious heart out. Our guide was there, dressed in a green fleece – to blend in with the grasses and shrubs of the Plain. We and several other bird-lovers transferred to her series two Land Rover and she drove us away from the thatched cottages of our rendezvous village and over a tiny bridge where fluffy ducklings darted about in newly-hatched exuberance snapping at flies that skimmed the quiet little river. We progressed along narrow overhung lanes, over tank crossing points, past military Keep Out signs, not even pausing at the red flags that announced there was firing that day. Lynn explained that farms at the edge of the military zone are run by tenants so there isn’t too much trouble, or compensation to pay, when shells destroy crops or livestock. I wondered about texting the kids to tell them where to find our car if one landed on us.
The winding track started off all right but it became deeply rutted and deteriorated the further we progressed along it. I jumped out to let us through a farmer’s gate and soon we pulled up at a hide. It looked across a small valley in the chalk downland to strip lynchets, evidence of a medieval strip field system. I trained my binoculars on a couple of birds I’d spotted from the Land River, to discover they were decoys. Lynn explained these were to signal to other birds that this was a safe place to land.
The other in our group were proper twitchers, and as usual in such expert company, I felt incomplete with only a pair of binoculars between the two of us. Others sported powerful telescopes on tripods and wielded telephoto lenses costing thousands. Nevertheless, I scanned the escarpment with our inadequate bins. The ancient terraces in my view had once been hand- or ox-ploughed along contour lines but now they were especially managed to please birds. I saw movement. A stocky, self-confident, long-legged, waist-high bird, strutted amongst the long grass. He stooped often to gobble down big-leaved plants. He was a lovely chestnut brown with a soft grey head and rufous neck and breast feathers. Some describe these birds as part way between an ostrich and a turkey but this one was far more magnificent than either. He held his fan-tail aloft and his moustaches moved in the light breeze. Admittedly he was almost ostrich-like in the way he patrolled his patch of downland, and like an ostrich has no backward facing toe so cannot perch in trees. Another, less ornate but equally long-legged and long-necked Bustard, strode over to the first, who folded and inflated his neck into an aggressive posture. The older male had declared who was boss without resorting to violence. Sometimes violence does break out though, and often the decoys are the brunt of it. Males attack decoys painted to look like other males thinking they are rivals, and decoys painted to resemble females can be attacked when they fail to respond adequately to amorous advances.
Lynn suggested training our binoculars on a patch of bare earth. I looked and looked, convincing myself that one clod after another could be a bird. Finally I settled on a small shape like an elongated heart. Its browns were slightly darker than the surrounding soil and there were probably markings that with the eye of faith might be feathers.
“See her?” Lynn enthused.
“I think so.”
Nothing moved, even when the heavy artillery started up. I watched for a long time. Then finally I realised that there was a head above the heart shape of a pair of folded wings. The sitting bird turned to show her profile. She cocked her head, listening. Then she seemed to wake and I saw the huge yellow eye characteristic of a Stone Curlew. How had Lynn spotted her sitting there on her “nest”?
Stone Curlews are rare, and rarely seen too, but the two male Great Bustards caught my attention again as they strode about. The bigger older Bustard looked like he knew just how handsome he was, and with his head tipped skywards, he looked especially haughty.
Salisbury Plain is a good environment for Great Bustards, even if the region is used for artillery practice and military manoeuvres involving tanks and helicopters. Neither helicopters nor buzzards scare them though, they are only nervous of the relatively new species on the scene – the Red Kite. A big male can weigh up to 18kg so, although they can fly, they are reluctant to do so. They can outrun a fox so seldom need to take to the air: launching must take a lot of energy. Bustards like the cover of long grass, or wheat and barley, and they like eating oil seed rape. Like Stone Curlews, they don’t really build nests: the female lays her eggs on the ground in a place where she can remain hidden while she incubates them.
Bustards used to be found on the wolds and heaths throughout England and even southern Scotland but were pushed out by modernising agricultural practises and hunting. They are good eating. They became extinct here in the early 1800s. Beginning in 2003, astonishingly dedicated enthusiasts brought tiny spotty Bustard chicks from Russia and started to be released on Salisbury Plain. Releases have happened each year since. Latterly some were brought as incubating eggs from Spain so reintroductions have been going on for over a decade now. Staff and volunteers from the Great Bustard Group are careful to ensure the chicks don’t come to see people as friends and food-givers. Chicks are fed by bird glove puppets and “carers” dress in white-breasted, brown-backed teabag like garments to disguise their human shape. Have a look at the group's site for some photos and updates by clicking on Bustards
Now these reintroduced birds are starting to breed on the Plain. A few wild-bred chicks have hatched and survived so that now it is worth looking carefully if you see an over-sized swan-like bird in flight: it could be a Great Bustard. They do fly great distances on occasion. One visited Alderney recently and birds released on Salisbury Plain have also been seen in Suffolk. I look forward to the day when Great Bustards properly return to East Anglia and can be seen strutting their stuff again amongst the racehorses on Newmarket Heath. After all, bustards adorn the Cambridgeshire coat of arms so we need them here.
Lynn drove us back to our car but we opted to walk up out of the village and into rolling downland, thinking how great it would be to see other bustards, and maybe even spot one in flight. The day was hot though and we were distracted by photographing tortoiseshells and brimstones. A patch of long grass provided a comfortable place to recline and watch skylarks. Artillery fire reminded us we were still close to the military zone which explained why so many people were jumping out of light aircraft. Soon we were flat out, soaking up the rays, no longer even pretending to bird watch.
Some time later, my drowsing brain registered a low whistle. This was not a bird call. I sat up. We were surrounded by eight young men in camouflage paint, full army kit and assault rifles. None of them spoke. None of them looked at us. They’d arrived cross country. Maybe they were checking out whether we were the enemy. There were hand signals, a bit more whistling and they walked on down the track we’d come along.
A little later there was an exchange of automatic weapon fire. A battle was going on in a thicket in the valley bottom. I guess the bustards are well protected here amongst the military. I reckon a squaddie might enjoy taking out a poacher. I’d forgotten that the Army can be a force for wildlife conservation. It is good to think of them this way.