I am constantly being surprised by the number of people, in different parts of the world, who seem to be quite oblivious to the animal life around them
To them, the tropical forests or the savannah or the mountains in which they live are apparently devoid of life. All they see is a sterile landscape.
This was brought home most forcibly to me when I was in Argentina In Buenos Aires, I met a man, an Englishman who had spent his whole life in Argentina, and when he learned that my wife and I intended to go out into the pampa to look for animals he stared at us in genuine astonishment.
‘But, my dear chap, you won’t find anything there,’ he exclaimed.
‘Why not?’ I inquired, rather puzzled, for he seemed an intelligent person.
‘But the pampa is just a lot of grass,’ he explained, waving his arms wildly in an attempt to show the extent of the grass, ‘nothing, my dear fellow, absolutely nothing but grass punctuated by cows.
’ Now, as a rough description of the pampa this is not so very wide of the mark except that life on this vast plain does not consist entirely of cows and gauchos.
Standing in the pampa you can turn slowly around and on all sides of you, stretching away to the horizon, the grass lies flat as a billiard-table, broken here and there by the clumps of giant thistles, six or seven feet high, like some extraordinary surrealist candelabra.
Under the hot blue sky it does seem to be a dead landscape, but under the shimmering cloak of grass, and in the small forests of dry, brittle thistle-stalks the amount of life is extraordinary. During the hot part of the day, riding on horseback across the thick carpet of grass, or pushing through a giant thistle-forest so that the brittle stems cracked and rattled like fireworks, there was little to be seen except the birds.
Every forty or fifty yards there would be burrowing owls, perched straight as guardsmen on a tussock of grass near their holes, regarding you with astonishing frosty-cold eyes, and, when you got close,
doing a little bobbing dance of anxiety before taking off and wheeling over the grass on silent wings.
Inevitably your progress would be observed and reported on by the watchdogs of the pampa, the black-and-white spur-winged plovers, who would run furtively to and fro,
ducking their heads and watching you carefully, eventually taking off and swooping round and round you on piebald wings, screaming ‘Tero-tero-tero … tero … tero,’ the alarm cry that warned everything for miles around of your presence.
Once this strident warning had been given, other plovers in the distance would take it up, until it seemed as though the whole pampa rang with their cries. Every living thing was now alert and suspicious. Ahead, from the skeleton of a dead tree, what appeared to be two dead branches would suddenly take wing and soar up into the hot blue sky:
chimango hawks with handsome rust-and-white plumage and long slender legs.
What you had thought was merely an extra-large tussock of sun-dried grass would suddenly hoist itself up on to long stout legs and speed away across the grass in great loping strides, neck stretched out, dodging and twisting between the thistles, and you realized that your grass tussock had been a rhea, crouching low in the hope that you would pass it by.
So, while the plovers were a nuisance in advertising your advance, they helped to panic the other inhabitants of the pampa into showing themselves.
Occasionally you would come across a ‘laguna’, a small shallow lake fringed with reeds and a few stunted trees. Here there were fat green frogs, but frogs which, if molested, jumped at you with open mouth, uttering fearsome lurking noises. In pursuit of the frogs were slender snakes marked in grey, black, and vermilion red, like old school ties, slithering through the grass.
In the rushes you would be almost sure to find the nest of a screamer, a bird-like a great grey turkey: the youngster crouching in the slight depression in the sun-baked ground, yellow as a buttercup, but keeping absolutely still even when your horse’s legs straddled it, while its parents paced frantically about, giving plaintive trumpeting cries of anxiety, intermixed with softer instructions to their chick.
This was the pampa during the day. In the evening, as you rode homeward, the sun was setting in a blaze of colored clouds, and on the iguanas various ducks were flighting in, arrowing the smooth water with ripples as they landed. Small flocks of spoonbills drifted down like pink clouds to feed in the shallows among snowdrifts of black-necked swans.
As you rode among the thistles and it grew darker you might meet armadillos, hunched and intent, trotting like strange mechanical toys on their nightly scavenging; or perhaps a skunk who would stand, gleaming vividly black and white in the twilight, holding his tail stiffly erect while he stamped his front feet in petulant warning.
This, then, was what I saw of the pampa in the first few days. My friend had lived in Argentina all his life and had never realized that this small world of birds and animals existed. To him, the pampa was ‘nothing but grass punctuated by cows’. I felt sorry for him.