Of kingfishers…and genets

The Ribera Grande dries up every summer, leaving only pools of varying depths on either side of the channel. I like to walk the dog there. Sometimes, I pack a picnic, bring my book, and go with the children to one of the larger, deeper pools to swim. On a hot summer morning, it’s a great walk. When it’s already 30˚C by 9am, I can do a lazy slow 1.5km walk, while Lady covers three times as much ground at least, running ahead, running back to me, swimming in most of the pools we encounter. She gets a ton of exercise but stays cool and I don’t get heat stroke from doing one of my more usual 7 or 10km walks.

I rarely meet anyone. In the three years I’ve been walking that river bed, I can only remember three occasions when I met another person. The place is devoid of human sounds and full of life. Steep rock walls rise up on one side of the river – with the deepest pools at the base of those cliffs – and, on the other side, the hills are somewhat less steep. We usually disturb partridges and larks and, occasionally, I see vultures flying overhead.

A few weeks ago, the dog, the kids and I went there for a walk. A disturbance in the river to my left caught my attention. I turned to see a flash of iridescent blue and orange. Two flashes, in fact. I whispered to the girls to stop and look. Two kingfishers were in a mid-air battle over a fish. The fish’s head was in the mouth of one bird and its tail in the mouth of the other. The two birds flapped their wings furiously, each pulling in the opposite direction as they tried to stay in flight – a mid-air fishy tug-of-war. At one point, they lost momentum and both fell to the surface of the river, neither losing its grip on the fish, splashing through but then rising again from the river, with the fish still extended between them. I was in awe; mesmerized. They can’t have been unaware of our presence; we were very close to them. But their aerial battle for breakfast was more important to them than the presence of three curious humans and a dog.

I can’t be sure of what happened next, because it happened so quickly. Did one of them win the battle, turn tail and fly up river? Or did they both lose, as the fish fell from their mouths and into the water? I don’t know. But one of them did turn heel and dart up the river, zipping along about a metre above the water, with the other in hot pursuit.

Recently, as I recounted this story to some friends, I recalled another mesmerizing encounter along the same stretch of river at almost exactly the same time last year. That time it was just Lady and me. Something halfway up the hillside caught Lady’s attention and I turned to look. There, on the hill, were three cats, the most unusual looking cats I had ever seen. From that distance, all three looked identical and each was about the size of Lady – in other words, a medium sized dog. They were spotty and had distinctive long and full ringed tails, like lemur tails. They eyed Lady and me and we eyed them. I was in awe, and had no idea what they were, but assumed they must be Iberian lynx. The three suddenly turned tail and ran farther up the hill, keeping low to the ground, and eventually were over the hill and out of sight.

When I came home, I Googled lynx. They certainly weren’t lynx. And someone who knows the ecology of the area better than I do later told me that there aren’t any lynx around here. For a year, I have wondered what those strange cat-like creatures were.

And so, when I recounted the kingfisher story to my friends, and followed it up with my story of those strange cats, one of my friends immediately said, ‘They’re genets.’ We Googled them and, sure enough, the Google images were of precisely the creatures I had seen last summer. Genets are an African animal in the mammalian suborder feliforma. They are distantly related to cats, sharing a common ancestor many millions of years ago. They are native to Africa, but one subspecies, the common genet, was introduced to Iberia in historical times and is now also found in France and Italy.

The mystery was solved, I was now aware of the existence of another medium-sized mammal species, and I was delighted. Every time Lady and I go on that walk, I am filled with a sense of anticipation. I hear a rustle in the undergrowth, disturb a locust resting on a rock, delight in butterflies flitting from shrub to shrub. My heart lifts at the plop plop of frogs leaping into the pools, at the families of partridges running across our path, taking impossibly long to take to flight. I feel eyes on me as I walk. Even if I see only birds and insects, I know there are other animals watching us, keeping us in their sights, interlopers in their home.

It is a giving place. At a time of year when other much-loved walks are too hot or too cumbersome to undertake, the river dries up just enough to allow me to walk on the dry bed, but leaving pools deep enough for the dog, the children and I to cool down in. It is a place to be cherished.