Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Cepe culón

A swallow was the first bird I noticed from my windows this morning and now there's a greenfinch singing in the street. There's never a greenfinch singing in the street. But today there is, and I hope he stays. These are the little pleasures that come from watching wildlife and letting wildlife watch you.

All this week I'm stuck indoors, with reports, accounts and plans, so I'll continue rooting out memories from Bolivia. This was written, in another context, in November last year:

November was also the month of the cepe culón; literally the big-arsed leaf-cutters. These winged automata, so briefly virgin, would emerge in clouds on heavy November days. Two-centimetres in length and disarmingly mechanical, each red-tan insect sported a large, perfectly round bum, charged with the fat, the eggs, the life necessary for forging her own colony. For singing her stanza of the song.

But most would never do so. These fat packets of protein were a too-good titbit to miss and all the birds of the barrio would swing into a frenzy on these cepe days. The flat black maúris – smooth-billed anis – would hop and shimmy round the emerging ants in an ecstasy of gluttony. With them would come their dishevelled cousins the sereres, flop-crested guira cuckoos, wagging their improbable tails and gargling their high sci-fi trills. On power lines above, the more circumspect tropical kingbirds sat in wait, the hot yellow of their bellies melting into their clean grey chests through a no-man’s-land of exquisite olive.

One November day friends and I walked for miles along the railway track, bound for the Chaco, which leaves the city to the south at Palmasola. This had been a common jaunt during the early days of my Bolivian life but by now work and responsibilities had conspired to render this walk rare. That day saw a magnificent emergence of cepe. The ants clicked their stiff legs along the hot metal track and we watched as, their flying done and their subterranean life beginning, they scraped off their own wings with their feet.

From the hot grass of these sandy pampas the big red-winged tinamous whistled their four-note plaints, answered by the sad single note of a white-bellied nothura. On fenceposts perched skinny-chicken upland sandpipers, newly here; and the chiñi – the burrowing owl – scowled his fierce scowl before flapping away as if tugged by crude strings.

Yes, these grasslands of Santa Cruz were a home to me and it is happy to recall them now.

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