Hunting Ghosts; between the desert and the deep blue sea.
The strong wind, from which the island derives its Spanish name, Fuerteventura, buffets me as I sit on a craggy outcrop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The wind carries with it the wash of the waves that leap and fizz over the rocky platforms below me. I gaze past them at the ocean, the wind scarring the wave tops which appear to bleed white blood as they break into foam and between them the shearwaters cut their path gaining lift from their movement and form.
Behind me there are arid plains and mountains in which I have seen majestic bustards, swift coursers, dashing pipits and buzzy finches. In the barrancos which have been cut through the plains by the occasional deluge I have seen an endemic chat and a small vagrant bittern. I have even seen a Eurasian Stone-Curlew Burhinus oedicnemus illuminated by a full moon; but it is the ghost of a bird that haunts me here.
Out of sight over the horizon are other islands, but they are beyond where the ocean kisses the sky. Indeed, I am closer to Africa here than I am to Tenerife, the largest island in the archipelago. Further still, beyond the ocean, are the Americas. I am reminded of how Columbus must have gazed westward thus and wondered what lay beyond. I have been there, to where his imagination, and later he himself travelled, but it is a bird that he could have seen here and which I cannot, that occupies my thoughts.
In the swirl and shriek of the wind and the whoosh and gurgle of the waves I fancy I hear the cry of an oystercatcher, but it is an eerie cry, not that of a living bird, more the lament of a long lost bird soul. The spectral piping is gone in an instant, chased away by a wave hitting a cavity in the volcanic rock recalling the report of a collector’s gun; I hear the ethereal piping no more.
Were I able to transport myself back to a time before the collector, before the Spanish colonization and Columbus, before the Portuguese, French, Moors and European slave traders, before the Phoenicians and even the cave dwelling Mahos from Africa, what would I see? What would I hear? What would I feel?
I’d feel the wind certainly, and hear the incessant waves, but would I see the rocks dotted with what the Spanish colonisers of Fuerteventura were to call the cuervo marino; the sea raven? Probably not, there were unlikely to have been huge numbers of Canarian Black Oystercatcher Haematopus meadewoldoi even at their peak. They would perhaps have occurred in small groups, or pairs, but habitat availability would have limited the numbers even then; either way, now there are none.
I find myself at the southern tip of Fuerteventura on the Jandía peninsula which was once a kingdom and now forms part of the municipality of Pájara. This is where the type specimen of the species Canarian Black Oystercatcher was taken by Edmund G. B. Meade-Waldo on the 7th of April 1888, although the exact location I do not know. This individual was a breeding female and two well-developed eggs were found within her unfortunate corpse. The skin, which is now labelled 1905.12.22.323, resides in the British Natural History Museum at Tring, in the Extinct and Endangered Birds collection.
Two years later, almost to the day on 6th April 1890 on Graciosa, the same collector took another bird, now dubbed 1905.12.22.322. This was another female and one of a pair, the male, was collected by Canon Henry B. Tristram. The last of the three skins languishing in the collection at Tring is 19126.96.36.199, a male, and this was collected by David A. Bannerman on the 3rd June 1913, 105 years before my visit to their former haunts and that proved to be the last material evidence of the species we have.
In 1985 an expedition was carried out to search for any remaining individuals; none were found and indeed local knowledge asserts that they were gone by around 1940.
What caused the demise of these birds? One can only speculate, a suggestion formed on the basis of some knowledge of other all-black oystercatchers. Most black oystercatchers are primarily rock dwellers and eschew beaches, except perhaps outside the breeding season. Life was hard for the colonists of the island, which is mainly desert with few food resources. This means that there would have been a great reliance on the coast, which may have provided food in the form of marine fare such as shellfish, the very items that the oystercatchers themselves would have needed for their survival. This competition between birds and man and their attendant rats, cats and dogs inevitably ended, as they always do, with the birds coming off second best. With not much else to eat the oystercatchers may well have been on the menu too, as would their eggs.
I shook myself from my musings to take in the scene before me once again and wondered how it might have been and how, had things been different, I would have heard the calls of those beautiful birds for myself.
What was this that I was feeling? Was it a sense of loss, a longing for what might have been? Was I feeling cheated? Was it regret for what has taken place, a story that I had no hand in? In case, I whispered a heartfelt apology to the souls of a bird departed that I cannot see, but that I can nevertheless feel, deep within me.
A tear coursed down my cheek, I swiftly wiped it away and blamed the wind catching the corner of my eye.