The Al'Syrr Sandbird is a symbol of desert survival! It spends its whole life in various parts of the great Ráhaz-Dáth Desert and outlying regions, despite the inhospitality. It moves with the seasons, adapting its behaviour and diet to match current temperature, amount of rain and available food sources, like a true survivor. - After years of study, following in the footsteps of Thuja (the first to document Al'Syrr), we can't help but admire such a seemingly ordinary bird. To follow are the notes of the extensive research.
Appearance. The Al'Syrr, also known simply as the Sandbird, are typically a fore in length, although this can vary by almost a palmspan. Such variations will depend on an individual's life. With an abundance of food and water during its adolescence, this bird will just keep growing. One has to wonder just how big it could get if it lived outside of such an arid climate, although clearly it's no Sarvonian mathmoor!
The species can be split into two distinct populations, based on migration habits. To make classification simple, we refer to these simply as the Eastern Al'Syrr and the Western.
Both species are very similar in appearance. They are a rounded, short-legged bird with a yellowish brown color to the body. The throat, fore breast, ear area and crown feathers are all a light grey. The face, eyes and cheeks start a light yellow at the beak and blend into a dusky orange in males. In females, the blend matches the main shading of their body. Their backs and wings are barred by thin, light brown stripes. The beak is a dull grey, blunt and rounded with a slight hook to the top bill.
Predominately a ground bird, both species feature strong legs about eight nailsbreath long, and are very capable on land. When pressured they can move at quite a pace, using their legs and flaps of their wings, to cover distance in a series of long jumps. If not in danger this becomes a more leisurely walk, albeit with a slight waddle when they have their pre-migration fats built up.
The birds are typically a couple of palmspans, to a fore in height. The females a little smaller. Their weight varies, depending on how recent a migration was. They can be as much as two or three ods with their full fats stored, and this will drop to an od, five mut or so toward the end of a seasonal flight.
The Western Al'Syrr
The Western Al'Syrr vary slightly from their cousins. Their feathers tend to have a few extra tints, particularly of subtle reds, to help their camouflage in the varying western sands. Red sand from the Lands of Pain blows south, and mix with the typical golden sands directly north of the Yar'Dangs.
Their necks are also longer, several nailbreaths in most cases, which is believed to be a direct result of their diet relying much more on fruit from high bushes.
The Eastern Al'Syrr
The only discernable difference noted about the Eastern Al'Syrr is a greater hooking of their beak, believed to be a result of their diet more reliant on grazing the tough grass stalks of the Narfost Plains.
Special Abilities. The Al'Syrr feature a number of specialisms allowing them to survive the way they do. - The Injèrá is the biggest threat to most within a desert. As the heat pounds down, all creatures have to cope some way. Most hide during the hottest hours, and many only emerge at night.
The Al'Syrr is one of the rare species active throughout the day (although during the height of Sunblaze this activity might be restricted to drinking, bathing or feeding within a shaded spot). It can do this because of a special oil secreted from its body (we haven't managed to discover where from) which coats its feathers and prevents water loss from the skin. A large portion of each daybreak is spent preening, which is assumed to spread this oil evenly and ensure full protection. The oil dries quickly in the morning sun to leave no visible trace, although the feathers do feel slightly sticky to the touch.
Fruit from various bushes (especially from the desert rose) serves as a large part of the Al'Syrr diet. Whilst many fruits do fall to the ground, an enterprising Al'syrr can reap much greater harvests by jumping and using their long necks to their advantage. Strong legs and careful flaps of wings allow impressive jumps straight up. On average no more than a ped was reached, but in some instances (Western Al'Syrr only) they could go as high as two peds. Quite the sight to see amongst the monoliths of the Yar Dangs! A sore shame there was no artist available to capture such a spectacle.
It is their hooked bill which allows them to rip into the tough stalks of the various grasses they feast on. It also allows them to dig into the thin soil and pull out the much more satisfying root tubers. Significantly more water can be found this way, allowing the Al'Syrr to go a considerable time without drinking if the grazing is good.
Al'Syrr also has very well adapted camouflage, which forms their only real defense from the many desert predators. When there is danger they will flatten out and not move, relying on their colouring to hide. As a last resort, Al'Syrr will take to the air and fly away.
Territory. Tracking these birds proved to be a great challenge. Both species have entirely independent migration paths. If it wasn't for Shendar guides, and experts, there would have been no chance of following them.
The Western Al'Syrr's movements are complicated, but in simple terms these birds spend their time between the spectacular Aj'Nuvic Grounds in the north, and the warm, comfortable water pools to the southeast of the Yar'Dangs. The year begins in deep winter. The colony is all together enjoying the warmth of the Yar Dangs, the only time of the year they gather in any numbers. In late spring/early summer, depending on how long the food and water last in the Yar'Dangs, they will all fly north, separating as they travel, to spend several months in the Aj'Nuvic Grounds feeding in solitary. Breeding pairs will stay together.
The Eastern Al'Syrrs also summer and autumn in the north, but on the cliffs and grasslands of the Narfost Plains instead. Their wintering ground is in the collection of year round lakes known as the Jewels. The year begins in deep winter. Breeding pairs or young solitary birds yet to find a mate, will be spread out amongst the multitude of lakes that make up the Jewels. In early spring they will begin their migration north, meeting up with other birds as they fly. By the time they reach the cliffs of the Narfost Plains, the whole colony is together. All along the bottom of the cliffs they will scrape out their shallow nests in the sand, or within holes between the rocky base, relying on their camouflage and the leaves of the surrounding desert rose and false heart to hide their eggs. They begin a breeding frenzy. In just a few short months they give birth to their young and let them grow enough to make the long journey back south to the Jewels for the winter.
Habitat/Behaviour. The habitat and behaviour of the two species of Sandbirds are best described seperatel:
The Western Al'Syrr
Around the base of the great rocks that form the Yar Dangs grows a special flower. A rose, known as the desert, or brown rose. During late summer, early autumn, it produces its rose hips and they slowly drop away. These are a very welcome treat for tired Al'Syrr at the end of their flight south.
The entire colony establish crude nests near the water pools just off the south east edge of the Yar Dangs and begin each day (after their morning preening of course) with a short flight north, into the midst of the rock maze and feast on the fallen fruit. Their longer necks and hooked bill prove most effective at plucking the hips from within rocky crevices. As they move from rock to rock, they spread the indigestable seeds in their droppings, much to the plants approval. Very quickly they put their lost weight back on, ready for the breeding season ahead.
By the time the winter sets in this food source becomes more or less extinct, so the Al'Syrr has to switch to alternatives. Sparse grasses around the pools, other fruits from bushes, and seeds.
As soon as their young are strong enough, they have to migrate north for the summer. Coming together for breeding is a good defence, but by the time they leave, the colony will have eaten much of the local food and must seperate again to survive and give the Yar'Dangs time to recover. Towards the end, the Yar'Dang pools will be drying up, giving urgency to the birds to begin their journey, but also revealing a last bounty to help them on their way. Within the reducing shallows, trapped fish and water plants become visible. Typically Al'Syrr are not fish eaters, lacking the skill to catch them, but they don't waste this opportunity. The richness of the meat seems to be just the boost the young Al'Syrr need to make them strong enough to join their parents.
The flight is non-stop, relying on fat reserves for energy. However, some of the youngest and oldest birds struggle to keep up, and we did find traces of them leaving the rest and stopping off in the Oka'Seri Swamp to rest for a few days. Guided by deep rooted instincts, they seem to have no trouble finding the Grounds without their guiding parents.
As the summer hits, the colony will be strung out across all areas of the Aj'Nuvic Grounds where they'll spend the following months eating.
Early spring grasses are shooting up after the cold winter, and the Al'Syrr are fast to enjoy the young shoots. Those who spread to the north also take advantage of the vast variety of cacti growing there. Using techniques passed down through generations, they snip thorns off with their beaks so they can reach the fruits and seeds that fall near the bottom.
A number of predators prey on the Al'Syrr. Aj'Nuvics and elfcats stalk the Grounds, enjoying the arrival of the Al'syrr to help feed their young. These cats make short work of the birds, if they find them. The Al'Syrr have to stay alert and ready to hide at all times during their summer in the north. Occasionally, the bigger Puon Mazá cats also ascend from the Nirmenith Mountains and wouldn't pass up an Al'Syrr if they see one. Nirmenith eagles soar the skies, and whilst it is hard for them to spot an Al'Syrr from the air, wouldn't hesitate in the kill if they did.
Those who spread to the hotter, southern parts of the Grounds have to also contend with the strange falserock lizards. These colour-changing predators, like tiny dragons, would prefer some easy eggs, but will quite willingly take one of the last season's young birds if they appear weak or injured after the migration.
As the summer progresses, grass is replaced by seeds, and the mil'no plant, and importantly, the ai'le bush (amongst others), drop their fruit. Feeding almost constantly, the Al'syrr build up their fat ready for the flight back south for the winter.
The Eastern Al'Syrr
The Eastern Al'Syrr spend the winter alone, or in pairs, amongst the various lakes of the Jewels. These areas of permanent water provide a good supply of seeds, grasses and small fruits to allow the Al'Syrr to escape the cold of their northern breeding grounds, and build up their strength ready for the following year. Of course, in a desert, such areas of water are attractive to all animals, and the usual host of predators also stalk the region preying on the Al'Syrr when they can.
In spring the whole colony comes together for protection and they make their nests at the cliff base of the Narfost, in the southern most parts where the Déra'Már empties its waters in the desert sands. As the spring warmth returns the grasslands bloom and each morning the Al'Syrr use the early thermals to circle up the cliffs, fly inland and go to work on the young shoots.
In short order they'll have young to feed and they work relentlessly to provide enough food for their offspring, the male and female taking it in turns to sit at the nest, or gather food.
In this vast grassland, elfcats give way to a similar predator, the oracau: A wild cat species that prowl the ridge. Very dangerous and cunningly mean more than a few Al'Syrr fall victim to their stealthy attacks. Also amongst the sun baked rocks of the cliffs, the falserock lizards can be found again. With this species of Al'Syrr actually breeding in their territory (unlike the Western Al'Syrr) it means these mini-dragons have access to large numbers of their eggs. There's little the Al'Syrr can do individually, but nesting as a colony does help limit the impact of these vicious colour-changers; they rarely risk hunting in the centre of the colony.
By late summer, the desert rose, also found in the rocky cliff bottoms of the Narfost Plains, start to fruit, and the Eastern Al'Syrr takes advantage. Not being as acrobatic as their Western cousins they content themselves with just the dropped fruits.
One strange behaviour was witnessed by researchers, which Shendarian guides tell us is typical behaviour. The hips from the rose are covered in thick hairs, and have a small hook at the end. A horse-type creature, known locally as a Zahbriny, (later found out to be a species of quaggae) eat nearly any type of plant. As they graze at the bottom of the cliffs, winds can blow the rose hips down the rocky slope and they end up stuck in the coats of these striped horses. A special relationship has somehow been established between the Zahbriny and the Al'Syrr. They will stand quite still as an Al'Syrr perches on their back and pluck out the tasty fruit.
“The concept of Arvins' Balance was always a mystery to me. I have visited many of the libraries of Santharia, studied some books on the Aviaría and read about to the Huntlord and his stewardship of nature. It was not until a Shendar woman showed me the hidden cooperation between rose, bird and horse that I knew what I had to look for. Suddenly, Arvins was everywhere around me.” ("Desert Journeys", written by the Historian Gean Firefeet)"
The same fantastic event was later witnessed in the rocks of the Yar'Dangs.
Diet. As has been covered in various parts of these notes so far, the Al'Syrr is not too fussy about what it eats. It will adapt its diet to take advantage of what is available. This is restricted to grasses, fruits and seeds in general, but some sources like the fish of the Yar'Dangs and the desert rose hips form a particularly important boost at certain parts of the year. And as we have discovered this has built into a special relationship between rose and bird. Indeed, aside from a species of desert butterfly which pollinates the flowers, Al'Syrr is the most important creature to the desert rose, for spreading the seed.
For those who spend the summer in the northern parts of the Aj'Nuvic Grounds, the bounty of the many species of cacti is there for them to enjoy, in particular the crucial fruit from the már'kál cactus which contains drinkable water.
The other major food source, particularly for the eastern species, is grass shoots and bulbs. Mainly the alth'ho grass which forms much of the Narfost Plains.
An Al'syrr egg, easy to recognize. Picture by Bard Judith.
Mating. Despite their separation, the two species still follow distinctly similar mating behaviours. By far the biggest difference between them is in the timings of the mating season. The Western Al'Syrr is mating early, in their wintering grounds before heading north. The Eastern is waiting until in their spring/summer habitat. Aside from that, they're almost identical.
In both cases, each of the species, at the time of mating, are gathered together in a large colony to help protect the majority of their young from predators. Predominately a solitary bird, this can lead to fairly nasty squabbles amongst neighbours and particularly with the young males, competing for a mate, whom they will stay with for life.
Once a male has established his position amongst the other males, he will court his chosen female on the ground, pursuing her with his neck feathers expanded. His head will bob in time to a continuous and monotonous low whistling. If she finds him acceptable, they will mate and the next male in line can approach a female. The female will lay three or four eggs in a shallow scrape on the ground. The eggs are yellow and brown, matching well the colouration of their sandy nest. Both parents take it in turn to sit on the eggs, whilst the other goes to feed, and they continue this pattern once the chicks have hatched. One parent will defend, whilst the other brings back food to the hungry young.
Especially for the Western Al'syrr, there is an urgency to get their young strong enough for the migration north before the food runs out. As such, they will continue throughout the night, in a non-stop feeding process, taking time to rest whilst the other gathers food. So strenuous is this on the parents, it is quite common for them to lay fewer eggs, and for one or more chicks to simply die as their stronger siblings beat them to the food their parents bring back. As mentioned, the unusual addition of fish to their diet at this time proves to be a crucial boost to this late season feeding.
Usages. The birds themselves aren't particularly useful to the Shendar. The oil secreted over their feathers throughout their lives makes their meat unpleasant to the taste, although that doesn't seem to bother the various predators whom prey of them. In tough times, the Shendar won't ignore a food supply and with enough boiling and liberal use of herbs, can remove most of the oil, and make the meat edible.
Their eggs, however, are very tasty, and quite a delicacy. The Shendar will take a few each season for special occasions, but never enough to damage the population and are very harsh to any poachers they catch robbing nests.
In addition, a recent discovery has found that the long feathers from an Al'Syrr's wing make quite adequate quills. It seems the regular coating of the oil on their feathers makes them tough, waterproof and durable as writing implements.