For three years, 2013-16, we escaped the cold, dark, barren northern winters and flew south, like migrating birds, to the welcoming warmth of the Southern American summers. Each year we rented the same apartment in Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo. Our serviced eleventh floor apartment was just above the top of the trees that completely shaded the street below. It was a perfect location for us, just two short blocks and three minutes from the river.
From Montevideo, the Río de la Plata does not look like a freshwater river, for it is so wide that one cannot see Argentina, about 100 kilometers away at the closest point. Massive container ships, tankers and cruise ships, on their way upriver to Buenos Aires and beyond, look like tiny toy boats on the distant horizon. When one of the regular earth-shaking tropical storms hits the upper reaches of the river, for days the water is brown with sediment.
Along the river runs La Rambla, a wide promenade, that stretches along the coast for more than 30 km, and is reputedly the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk. Every day, almost without exception, we walked on La Rambla, first in one direction, then in the other. After a short time, we started to recognize the locals, and before long we were greeting each other like neighbours. Some times we would count how many people we had spoken to in the course of a walk, and the number would usually end up in double figures. We felt very much as part of the community, for Pocitos had the feel of a village.
On La Rambla we also got to recognize the local birds, not just the species, but in some cases the individuals. There were numerous birds along the river, some quite exotic. There are reputedly more than 450 different bird species to be found in the relatively small country of Uruguay; the internet site, Avibase, lists 479. Not only is Uruguay on the major migration path for many birds, but the country has plentiful water and a climate without extremes. It was not long before I bought a book on Uruguayan birds and in the second year Lotta turned up with a new camera to photograph them.
Most days when we passed the end of the beach at Pocitos, there were several small snowy egrets with yellow feet, fishing at the edge of the water. Often there was also a much larger great egret.
We once spotted a great egret sitting on top of a tree, near the small harbour at Punta Carretas. When we went around and through the trees to get closer, we saw a black-crowned night heron. It was a young one and it flapped away before Lotta could get a second shot. Although we went back on other days, we never saw it again.
Where there were rocks by the river, inevitably there were cormorants with wings outstretched, drying their feathers. Once we were very fortunate to witness a large flock of cormorants in a long semi-circle, hunting together, driving a shoal towards the shore. We could see the fish splashing in the water, trying to escape their predators.
Everywhere where there were mature palm trees, there seemed to be colonies of monk parakeets. When they are feeding on the grass, they are well disguised, but when they are flying or gathered on a palm tree, they make their presence well known, for they make quite a racket.
Humming birds are tiny; they hover and then move so quickly that one has to be lucky to see one, and even more fortunate to take a photograph of it. One day we hit the jackpot, just up the hill from Playa Ramírez; a tree in full flower with many humming birds feeding on the nectar. And for several days they had a banquet on that tree.
Above the hill behind Playa Buceo, we often saw this little hawk, resting on a light pole. If not an american kestrel, it was similar. Even in the strongest wind it was able to hover motionless for several minutes, sometimes not far from us, then it would suddenly drop, grab its prey and fly off to nearby trees.
The southern lapwing is Uruguay’s national bird and in the summer they are plentiful, especially on the parkland between the golf course and the river, after heavy rain. The lapwings have a strange hesitant walk, that always reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
During our first year in Pocitos, we used to see one lapwing that was always on its own. At first we thought that it was always standing on one leg, but when it started to hop, it was obvious that it had only one leg. It appeared to be quite healthy, but perhaps the rest of the flock rejected it for not being quite normal. I guess that handicapped people in our society can suffer the same rejection.
The last year that I arrived back in Pocitos, I settled my few possessions in the apartment and then went out for a short walk along La Rambla. At the end of the beach, there is a small park and there on the edge of the park, waiting for me, was the southern lapwing with only one leg.
I felt as if I had come home.