Abruzzo National Park by Rose Lennard

Abruzzo (Lee Morgan)

Watching. Watching and waiting. It’s what humans have been doing since the dawn of time; it’s what our survival depended on. Scanning vast plains, rocky mountains, tangled woods, until every feature is known, and becomes a pattern, so that any movement sends urgent signals from eye to brain: fight, or flight? As a species, we’re hard-wired to look, to watch ... listening too, feeling the breeze, even sniffing the air, all our senses alert to threat or opportunity. So there’s something that feels very right about standing here in the cold dawn, watching. Watching and waiting.

Man the hunter was also a gatherer of course, and, while we walk on this holiday, we constantly check the small details of plants around us. Again, pattern recognition is key: spotting the ‘jizz’ of a plant more important than counting petals or analysing leaf shape or flower colour intellectually. We tune in to what is around us, and become immersed in the subtle richness of colour and texture, noticing the changes in plant groupings in response to different conditions: the hellebore and solomon’s seal under the beech trees, the rock rose and saxifrages on the open meadows, and higher up, the spring gentian, spreading juniper, and tiny, tough alpines.

One day on this trip, I wandered off a short distance along a wooded path, and came out into a clearing overlooking a valley. Crouching down on the damp hillside, scanning the opposite slopes through the bins, a pair of hooded crows caught my eye. At first I thought that one was chasing the other, but as I followed their flight, it seemed to me that they were flying together for the joy of it. In perfect formation they rose and fell, circled and twisted through the air. As they danced together, I saw other crows in a sycamore, and suddenly there were more and more birds joining the first pair, and improvising their own variations on the graceful interweaving of flight, until there must have been a dozen dark shapes diving and swooping across the hillside.

As I watched, I tried to understand what was going on. There were no other species involved, and they weren’t fighting over food. The birds seemed to take turns and change partners spontaneously. I’ve seen other birds delighting in flight, seen ravens tumbling high above crags, rolling like stunt planes at an airshow. But with their weightless arcs and swooping bows, these crows were more like a group of skiers, turning into the fall line of the piste and picking up speed on the smoothest of runs, criss-crossing as they raced. Save that, unlike human skiers, these birds seemed unbound by gravity, and the invisible air under their wings returned them to the tree they started from.

And then, at some signal unknown to me, the dance was over, and the birds dispersed without ceremony, back to their usual solitary crow existence of perching on posts, pecking around on the ground. I felt I had witnessed a secret ritual, stumbled across a gathering that was part witches’ coven and part fairy ball; that the birds had revealed a hidden and unguessed-at grace and light-heartedness. In English, we refer to a ‘parliament’ of rooks, evocative of their solemn dark mutterings when grouped together. I would never have imagined that the rook’s close relative, the hooded crow, which seems normally to be a solitary bird, deliberate in flight and purposeful in its foraging, should choose to flock together to perform such graceful dances that their collective noun might be a ‘waltz’ of hoodies!

Since time immemorial, humans have learnt by this watching we do, putting our world together, making sense of it. With our modern access to information I’ve since learnt that juvenile hoodies don’t yet have a territory to defend from others, and hence may be less solitary than the adults, and that all the corvid family exhibit playful behaviour. A carrion crow has even been seen apparently snowboarding repeatedly down a roof, standing on a small flat disc it had found! But flicking through cyberspace is no substitute for chancing across animal behaviour for oneself, and watching. Sometimes, when we take the time to see it, we discover unimagined beauty in surprising places.

For further information about our 8-day 'The Apennine's: Italy's Abruzzo National Park' holiday please visit the tour webpage.