Symi:  Rambling around the past

WARNING:  make yourself comfortable and a cup of coffee before starting to read this.

If there is anyone out there hooked on Barry’s Ramblings and having withdrawal symptoms, apologies!  I have had people staying with me most of the time on Symi and have been out trekking in the mountains every day.  Very little time to write.

I haven’t been wandering aimlessly but when I haven’t been introducing people to the many walks on the island, or quaffing the occasional beer, I have been pursuing a pet project – trying to track down old settlements and piece together a pattern.  Scrutinise the Google satellite images, go off-piste, and it is surprising how many there are.  It’s a work in progress but somethings are starting to emerge.

The SKAÏ map of Symi, the best available though with significant omissions, marks ‘archaeological sites’.  Trekking little-used paths and scrutinising the track from my phone overlain on Google Earth a number of others have come to light.  None of these sites can be reached by using marked routes though most can be accessed by locating ancient, very obscure and ‘thin’ paths which I suspect are now only used by goats.

I concentrated on the northernmost part of the island and have indicated seven of these sites on the map below.

In the same way that ancient Celtic Christians hid their churches from pillaging Vikings sailing around the coast of Wales (most notably St David’s Cathedral hidden around a bend in the river and with a low, squat tower) so most of these defensive settlements are located in places hidden from view from the sea once plagued by pirates.  Though none is on a scale approaching the massive construction of the Paleocastro on nearby Nisyros, remnants of outer walls built with large dressed stones were an exciting find.

I can’t begin to put a timescale on any of these locations, I’m not even an amateur archaeologist, just an observer, but I draw a couple of conclusions.  The three sites marked on the SKAÏ map are labelled ‘Classic Period Ruins’, ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’, and simply ‘Ruins’.  I can neither refute nor confirm any of this …. other than to affirm that they are ruins.  With one possible exception.

Sites A, B and C are clustered around Toli Bay and reached by going off-piste from the track down to Toli Beach.  Sites D, E, F and G on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula are reached by taking the well marked path (not shown on the SKAÏ map) up to the ridge-top Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery, diverting off that close to the top onto a well-trodden but unmarked  donkey trail and then going off-piste from that.

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Sites around Toli Bay

A  Hidden to view from the sea behind a hillock forming a small headland this site is visible from the track recently bulldozed down to Toli Beach – if you know it’s there and look for it.  Built with stone from the immediate locality it blends in with the hillside.  Getting down to the site requires first negotiating the loose rubble pushed over the side by the bulldozing of the track and then picking a way over loose ground through dense oregano and thyme.

Much of the outer walls consist of three or four courses of large dressed blocks each as much as 1½ metres long and about ½ metre high and wide.  The entrance is on the landward side, no entrance directly down to the sea, and the walls were obviously built for purely defensive purposes.  A number of large dressed-stone blocks are scattered about in the surrounding vegetation.

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The site seen from the track down to Toli beach

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Zooming in

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One of the well preserved corners

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Large stone gateposts at the entrance to the site

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Looking along the remains of the wall at the seaward edge of the site

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….. and from the other end

 

B  The next site is very steeply uphill from the Toli dirt track. Having spotted a faint outline on the satellite image and gone in search of it last year, so knowing roughly where it was, this site can be seen against the skyline from Site A and indeed from part of the Toli track.  With walls built of similarly large blocks but in this case made of limestone it is probable that they would have blended into the craggy backdrop when viewed from the sea and without the advantage of modern optics.

Slightly smaller in area than Site A, with the main entrance also on the side of the enclosure, the inside is cluttered with rocks and smaller dressed stone.  Many large dressed stone blocks lie around the outside of the site showing that the walls must at one time have been much higher.  Scrambling around the inside of the site this year I spotted a large rectangular block with cut slots at each end and a shaped groove on one side which struck a chord with one I found at Site D last year.

A depression towards the back of the site indicates that at one time it may have been used for water storage though with limestone bedrock I guess it would have to have been lined in some way.  It would be interesting to revisit the site in the wet season.

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Zooming in on Site B from the walls of Site A

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Reaching the site after a steep climb

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Well preserved corner, here built with limestone blocks

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Looking along the seaward edge of the wall

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Standing on top of it looking towards Site A which blends into the hillside

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Many large dressed stone blocks scattered nearby

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…. and in the centre of the site a very precisely cut stone block

 

This site is on the headland above Toli Beach and much smaller than the previous two.  The remains of the limestone building and walls again blend into the crags in which they are built.  It looks more like a small homestead rather than a defensive site.  It is reached by means of a well trodden but unmarked path, the start of which is obscured by, as so often on Symi, the thoughtless bulldozing of the track.  Marked on the SKAÏ map as ‘Ruins’ I trekked to it a few years ago but didn’t revisit this year.

 

Sites on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula

D  Like Site A this is close to sea level and hidden behind a hillock forming a small headland but differs from it in a number of respects.  It is reached by dropping down steeply from the ridge-top path along the peninsula over loose ground through dense thyme but there are thin remnants of an old path which can be picked up lower down the slope and even what may be an old ‘stone-on-a-rock’ route marker.

None of the walls are made from the massive stone blocks characteristic of Sites A and B and so no neat rectangular corners.  Rather they are built of random, undressed stones of varying size and geology.  It is more extensive than any of the other sites with multiple internal walls, a building which was clearly used as a dwelling probably into the 20th Century, possibly within living memory, and a communal bread oven in the centre of the enclosure.  It has two entrances, a ‘backdoor’ at the top giving access inland and a main entrance flanked by large white gateposts leading down to the beach.

There are a number of large white semi-dressed stones built into the random-stone walls at various points but most dramatic is a large, finely shaped rectangular block with the same configuration as that in the centre of Site B, cannibalised from an earlier structure of much greater architectural sophistication.

Some distance away in a stream bed filled with dense oleander and other vegetation is another walled enclosure, still to be investigated but possibly associated with water supply.

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The site seen from the ridge-top path along the Kokkinochoma Peninsula

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…. and zooming in for a closer look

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Reaching the top entrance, ‘back-door’ of the site

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The main entrance to the site shows the principal access was via the sea, not inland

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The community bread oven on a prominent position in the enclosure

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Looking from the bread oven up to the back entrance

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Looking up through the main entrance

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Walls built of random undressed stones

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…. except for one piece cannibalised from earlier more sophisticated architecture

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The remains of a dwelling which artefacts show was occupied in ‘modern’ times

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The stone-walled enclosure in the streambed

 

E  From the top of the jagged limestone crags towards the mid-point of the ridge I had spotted what I thought could possibly be the top of another wall of large limestone blocks in a valley dipping away to the east.  Dropping down the donkey path into the col and then left downhill into the small valley, with dense thickets of oleander indicating more water than the surrounding arid mountainside, a very thin but trodden path led towards it.  Disappointingly it turned out to be simply an outcrop of rock.

However, hidden inside the oleander thicket is a tiny spring-fed pond with stone walls hidden from view from the crags above.  Once again low down and close to the sea but completely out of view from it, my guess is that this is another ancient settlement.  The steps leading down to the pond are well polished by feet and hooves though the number of wasps attracted to the fresh water put me off getting too close.

The walls don’t seem to form a defensive enclosure but rather a rampart on the side of the valley which could be defended if it ever attracted any piratical interest.  The construction is of random, undressed stone but a few slightly larger blocks scattered around had been cut and dressed.

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From the top of the crag forming the ridge-top and then zooming in, what appeared to be another wall of large blocks … but is just a rock outcrop

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The small spring-fed pond hidden in the oleander

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The rough stone wall in the foreground is probably simply supporting the terrace behind but the wall in the background may well have been a defensive rampart.

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Dressed stones indicate there may have been more sophisticated architecture.

 

F  The donkey path along the Kokkinochoma ridge drops into and finishes in a col with a small settlement which is still occupied and farmed with many indications of modernisation rather than abandonment.

Completely out of site from the sea it is clearly very old.  To the West the cliffs are virtually unclimbable because they are so loose.  To the East the col could be reached by climbing up the oleander-studded valley from sea-level in days when the sea was the main means of transport and communication.  Now the only access is by foot or donkey along the ridge top from the Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery.  That the path is still used to transport produce, including honey, is evidence by the well trodden earth, donkey droppings …. and the fact that I have seen an elderly guy with his laden donkey heading down to the beach at Nimborio.

I have checked around walls of the settlement, avoiding being intrusive, but have failed to find any evidence of the ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’ marked on the SKAÏ map.  It may be that the settlement are the ‘ruins’ in which case they may be the only Hellenistic ruins still occupied and with a photovoltaic power supply.  Certainly there is an atmosphere of antiquity about the enclosures and the buildings.  The extreme edge of Europe.

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Looking down from the limestone crags to the settlement in the col

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Zooming in on the oldest part of the settlement … and the photovoltaic panels

 

G  Set into the top of the jagged limestone crags from which E and F are viewed are what could be the oldest structures on Symi.  Into one crag a platform has been built, so basic in its construction that it makes me (in my ignorance) suspect it may be Neolithic.  It is very small, no more than 5 metres at its widest, but large enough to suggest it may be used for defensive purposes to protect a family or community rather than simply a lookout platform.  To get onto the platform requires some exposed scrambling and climbing.

On top of the adjoining crag and slightly higher is a structure which looks like a small cromlech or dolmen, a miniature version of those found throughout Wales and indeed many other parts of the world.   Certainly it is man-made not naturally occurring and if indeed it is a dolmen that would support the Neolithic assumption of the nearby platform.

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The construction built into the top of the crag

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On top of the platform

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The dolmen-like structure seen from the direction of the platform

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…. and from another angle.

 

Still a lot more wild rambling and investigating to do.

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Symi:  Going wild again

Flight back to Rhodes Saturday.  Ferry to Symi early Sunday morning.  A few hours putting the house back to rights after leaving it packed up in a hurry not knowing when, or if, I would return.  Sunday afternoon I took to the hills.

Only a short walk, about five miles, but it was intoxicating.  When you face the possibility that something you deeply enjoy may be taken away from you, the pleasure you get when you return to it is greater than before.  I wasn’t exactly skipping along bellowing the ditty from The Sound of Music but there was a bounce in my step and I was more than ever aware of my surroundings.

First up through the shade of the narrow, twisty alleys of Horio between old houses many damaged by war and left derelict as the owners emigrated to the USA or Australia.  Some survive intact and still afford the basic standards of maybe a century ago to the elderly of the village who have lived in them all their lives.  Increasing numbers are being renovated to modern standards, often for renting out to visitors.  Access up these alleys is tortuous, furniture must be built in the home or arrive in flat packs.  You find your way around by making mistakes and getting lost.

Extension cables stretch from house to house to provide power for tools until connection to the island’s grid.  Black plastic pipes are draped everywhere carrying water supply, a reminder that what is going to come out of the tap is hot enough to shower in, heated by 40 degree summer sunshine and definitely not for drinking.

Then, as so often, out of the village, onto steps leading up to The Viewpoint and a pause to soak in the panorama.

The route from here is a variety of kalderimia (donkey paths) and footpaths, sometimes enclosed between stone walls, sometimes built up on small terraces with flat slabs along the edge, sometimes so obscure as to require an ability to ‘read’ the ground with occasional confirmation by faded red and blue spots if you get it right.  All the time keeping an eye open for wildlife while taking in the broader landscape and making sure of every step.

I love this kind of walking and now it was all the more enjoyable because I was returning to it when I feared I might not be able to.

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Narrow alleys, sometimes between renovated and modernised houses

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…. sometimes bounded by continuing dereliction.

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Rising up steep steps, sometimes narrow

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…. sometimes broad

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an alley crosses the stream bed of the Cataractis, a torrent in heavy rain but dry most of the time

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Out of the village and rough steps rise steeply to ……….

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………The Viewpoint

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Looking over the main harbour

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…. and over Horio, a tight mass of derelict and restored houses with a scatter of churches

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Out on the mountain the views from the path are spectacular

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The old kalderimi breaking apart but still edged in places by large slabs

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In other places contained between stone walls

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Sometimes just trodden earth but clear

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Elsewhere requiring a a practiced eye to see it.

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Symi: going wild

I was discharged from hospital on Rhodes on a Wednesday, six days after having been rushed there by a combination of ambulances and fast coastguard cutter.  Engine management system rebooted, once again firing on all four cylinders, on the Tuesday I had been like a boy-racer gunning the engine as I paced two and a quarter miles along the corridors on doctor’s orders.

Back on Symi I spent Thursday doing chores in the house which I had left a week earlier to pop out for an hour to buy a ferry ticket.  I booked another flight so I could return home to show the family that I was still in the land of the living ….. and bought another ferry ticket.

Then on Friday, 48 hours after I left hospital and the day before I was to fly back to the UK, I went out for a walk with friends, excited to get back into the mountains though slightly apprehensive.   I had seriously doubted when I arrived on Symi in mid-April if I would be fit enough to venture beyond the easiest of short routes with minimum gradient.  I had tried not to be depressed as I sat on the balcony reading a book, looking at the mountain ridge and nostalging about the paths I had walked and off-piste routes I had explored.  Now I was reinvigorated, wondering how far I could push it on this, my first proper trek since Canada and having spent the best part of a week on my back tethered to an intravenous drip, ECG machine and oxygen supply.

First target was to go up to The Viewpoint (Walk 1 on the Greek Island Walks page of the blog).  It would be a test of whether electrocution had indeed given me back a fully functioning engine. It also meant taking my own advice that “If you only do one walk on Symi, this should be it!!!”.   I knew that up to now this year even this simple walk had been beyond my capability.

We followed the narrow, twisting alleys and steep steps up through the old village and then out onto the beginning of the kalderimi (donkey path) to reach the stunted tree overlooking the harbour, one of the best views on the island looking over Horio with the main harbour and Pedi Bay far below, and beyond that Turkey.

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Panorama from The Viewpoint

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Closer look at Yialos

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….. and over Horio and Pedi Bay

Many years ago I adopted the ‘alpine principle’ in the mountains, setting a pace which I reckoned I could maintain to the top, avoiding stops which would mean lactic acid build-up in the muscles.  The pace I set now was steady though a little slower than usual but when we reached The Viewpoint, 200 metres ASL and 100 metres above the start point at Lefteris’s kafenion, I was hardly out of breath and brimming with energy.  So we agreed the plan I had been optimistically mulling over, to continue up to the ridge-top and a circuit back to the harbour.

Another 40 metres more gradual climb on the dramatic kalderimi to shade at the tiny church of Agia Paraskevi and, still feeling fresh and increasingly exuberant, a pause for a slug of water.

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A rough stone paved section of the kalderimi overhung by a stunted tree finally killed by increasing drought

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Shade at Agia Paraskevi

Soon after, a house on the left marks the start of a clear but more broken path forking off to the right and winding to slabs of rock looking straight down the valley to Yialos.

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Looking from the slabs at the head of the valley down to Yialos

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…. and a closer look at the main harbour, few boats this early in the year

Then on to the end of the kalderimi where it meets the tarmac, a short trudge along the road before diverting off to the right onto a little used, very rough and indistinct path dropping down steeply to the col at the top of the Nimborio gorge.

A large slab of rock here is an ideal place to sit for mid-day snack.  The carved stone is thought by some to have once stood vertically and to have had symbolic connection to wine production and it is indeed near to an enclosed Byzantine stone wine press.  However, my view is that its location near to the wine press simply indicates that there was an agricultural community here and that it is purely functional, the base of a primitive olive press.  I was told by a local historian that this was the function of a similar stone high in the cliffs at the fortified Kastri near Emborios on Kalymnos.

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Ancient olive press

From the olive press in the col a good but narrow path tracks high on ridge along the western side of peaceful Nimborio Bay, impossibly blue and turquoise sea enticing far below.  Eventually the route drops down into the back of the harbour at Yialos and the prospect of a welcome drink.

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Blue sea and a peaceful mooring in Nimborio Bay

We finished the walk a week almost to the hour after I was electrocuted in hospital. It was by no means the longest or the most arduous or the wildest of treks but five miles of kalderimi and rough path with dramatic views all the way was under the circumstances more than I thought a week earlier I would manage this trip.  Exhilerating!  Prospects for wilder walks looking good.

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Symi:  the 15 minute walk that took 6 days, or, Notes on How to Use a Bedpan.

And now for something completely different

“What are you doing? “ The tone was reprovingly incredulous, not inquisitorial.

“I need to use the toilet.”

“No!  The doctor says you must stay in bed.”

The nurse was much smaller than me and I was tempted to bully past her.  Two things stopped me.  The grim look on her face and the fact that I was tethered to an ECG machine and an intravenous drip both of which were plugged by short leads into sockets in the wall.

Facing me hand outstretched palm forward like a police-person on point duty and used to dealing with argumentative and voluble Greeks, a mild-mannered, quietly spoken Welshman like me stood no chance against the determination of Greek nursedom.  I sank back to horizontal on the bed like a scolded schoolboy caught out in a misdemeanour.

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It began a couple of days earlier.  I had flown to Rhodes and crossed to Symi after agreeing with my doctor that the recently diagnosed health issue was not a serious problem and advising the travel insurance company accordingly.  The plan was to slowly increase stamina by short walks, adding a little distance or gradient each day.  It was depressing doing routes easier than those I would normally bother with even at the start of the season but I drew comfort from thinking positive, focusing on the end result.

Then the misfiring on two cylinders became unexpectedly and significantly worse and I decided I should return home sooner than planned. Flight for Saturday booked on the internet, Thursday morning I set out to walk the 15 minutes down the 100 metres of the broad steps of the Kali Strata to the harbour to book a ferry ticket to Rhodes for the flight.

Renting a house in Horio, in recent years it has been not unusual for me to walk down and then back up the Kali Strata two or three times a day as well as a trek in the mountains.  But this time I was in a bad way.  Struggling for breath, chest heaving, I had to sit on a harbourside bench to recover before doing the things I had come for.  Visit the ATM.  Buy a ticket. The stairs up to the accommodation office to pay my monthly rent were the last straw.  I must have looked bad too because friends in the office insisted I went straight to the doctor’s surgery around the corner.

From that point on everything was out of my hands, I was carried along on a wave of rapid and efficient action.  I was the focus of attention but a non–participant.

Laid out flat on a doctors’ couch in the small surgery, assessed by four medical staff, I was soon wired up to an ECG machine, intravenous drip and oxygen.

Transferred to a wheeled stretcher (gurney) and, with someone carrying an oxygen cylinder and the intravenous drip,  I was manhandled down the narrow alley to a waiting ambulance which whisked along the harbourside.

From the ambulance loaded onto a Hellenic Coastguard cutter, accompanied by the doctor, then at high speed down the narrow channel between Turkey and Symi, which it usually patrols picking up refugees in sinking boats, before crossing to Rhodes.

In Rhodes Kolona harbour transferred onto another trolley and into another ambulance for the trip through congested streets to Rhodes General Hospital, siren muted out of consideration for my sensitive hearing – and misfiring cylinders.

Unloaded, wheels down and fast along the corridor to the emergency suite, where, rather than demanding my credit card before they would let me in, as happened in Canadian Banff when I dislocated my shoulder, I was immediately attended by two consultants who rapidly concluded that I should be admitted.

Amazingly speedily and efficiently I was taken up to a ward via an X-ray and echocardiogram.  The irony of the latter is that the grindingly inefficient NHS back home took a month to tell me I am on a waiting list and by the time I have it the scan will have taken 4 months to arrange. There will be a further delay before I get to see a consultant to interpret the scan.  On a small island in Greece, with all its economic and refugee problems, the process took 15 minutes including assessment by a consultant who carried out the scan in the first place.  Not surprising that the WHO puts Greece 4 places above the UK (17 places above the USA!) in its ranking of health systems (see).

There then followed a process of sorting out the problem, starting with intravenous medication, the least invasive option.  Thorough, methodical, efficient.  Twenty four hours after being admitted the medics concluded that medication alone wouldn’t be effective and that something more was needed.  Quick explanation and I was wheeled down to a treatment and intensive care ward for electrocution (technically ‘cardioversion’).  Unfortunately I missed the fun bit because when they electrocute you they anaesthetise you first.  It would have been fascinating to see if it is like they show on TV, body arching on the bed as it convulses up and down.

When I returned to this planet it was far more peaceful and restful than it had been for months.  Electrocution had worked.  But to make sure, I was monitored 24 hours a day for the next 3 days before going back up to the ward.

For 4 days I wasn’t allowed out of bed on doctors’ orders.  That’s when I learned a new skill.

On the second day the batteries in my phone and Kindle went flat so there was nothing to do but lie on my back and imagine what pleasure and excitement there would be in watching paint dry.  The friend who came across from Symi with essential supplies, including tooth brush, towels, spare clothes and charging cables, neglected to bring any paint despite the fact that he is an artist.  But at least I could wash, read again, and communicate with the outside.

Then on day 5 I went back up to the ward, was untethered and encouraged to walk around.  Firing on all four cylinders once more, that day I walked two and a quarter miles of hospital corridors, glad to be on my feet again and unable to sit still for long.

End of the morning on day six I was let loose on the world.  Taxi into town. M&S for purchase of essential (very personal) clothing.  Visit to the washroom to change.  Frappé and WiFix in cool gardens across the road.  Blue Star ferry at 15.00 back to Symi and I returned to the house 6 days after I popped out to buy a ferry ticket.

Those notes on how to use a bed-pan?

1  Discretely

2  Carefully

3  As infrequently as possible

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Symi: not-so-wild walks

Well, I made it to Symi.  At first the weather was great, sunny with temperatures mid to high twenties.  One day it dropped to a chilly low twenties with heavy overnight rain depositing half of the Sahara on the island.  Always a mixed bag of weather at this time of year.  Take it as it comes.

Been meeting up with friends some who live here, some visiting.  Sadly I’m misfiring on two out of four cylinders and am reluctantly reconciled to the fact that walks are likely to be somewhat less than wild for a while.  But I’m working on it, trying to do a little more each day.

Knowing this would be the case I thought it would be a good opportunity to focus the camera on spring flowers which swathe the island.  Because of the extreme drought the flowering period for most plants is very short, survival of the species depends on getting seeds out there as soon as possible.  Winter 2014-15 was unusually wet on the island and so in Spring 2015 plants were in flower longer and later than usual.  This winter has not been so wet and it quickly became clear that most of the flowering has finished in sharp contrast with the same time last year (see last years’ blogs beginning here) when it stretched well into May.  But there is still colour to be seen and maybe more to come.

 

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April 2015 there were carpets of cyclamen, now only  a few remain in flower in shady spots, this one in a dry-stone wall

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Dragon Arums, one of the most dramatic with deep purple spathes up to 2 feet long, certainly the worst smelling, attracting bluebottles to pollinate them with an overpowering stench of rotting flesh.  Now only a few left in flower.

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Wild hollyhocks, again just a few remaining

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Brilliant blue of a bush legume.  Most are now in pod.

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Spindly cornflowers sway on long stems in the breeze.

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Pale blue, about two centimetres across and surviving in the most inhospitable soil

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Flowers including Crown Daises (Edible Chrysanthemum)  remaining in a field of wild barley soon to be harvested for fodder

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I dig this stuff out of my garden but in places the wild bindweed (convolvulus) is still in full flower

Early spring and few people around means that you get places to yourself, especially as there are as yet no taxi boats in the water.

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Very few tourist boats in Pedi Bay, a lone fishing boat moored

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Looking along the length of Pedi Bay, in summer usually a mass of gin palaces and sailing boats, Turkey clear just across the narrow channel

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The beach at Agios Nikolaos out of season

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… time to relax in the sun

Climbing the ridge towards Agia Marina and you are reminded not to take the breathtaking main harbour for granted.  Very few boats parked at this time of year, in a couple of months multimillion-euro gin palaces and wooden gullets will be crammed in to every inch of harbourside, some having to moor in the bay beyond.  But for now, the few there are can spread out.

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One side of the main harbour of Yialos

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Zooming in on the corner with the clock tower, the Italianate Police Station ….. and the new processing centre for refugees

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A reminder that the ridge overlooking the harbour is made up of razor-sharp limestone.  Care needed

x  

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Wales and Greece: life on the wild side

I first became fascinated by birds of prey when I was a research student and lived with friends in a tiny former lead-mining village in the mountains inland of Aberystwyth.  The closest house was about half a mile away.   The closest neighbours were a pair of Red Kites (Milvus milvus) nesting in the altitude-stunted oak woodland above the house.  The kites with their distinctive tails flew overhead every day, occasionally giving a distinctive shrill whistle.  I knew they were rare but only years later did I discover that they were one of only three pairs left in Britain, brought near to extinction largely because they were poisoned by hill-farmers.  During the nesting season the then Nature Conservancy mounted a clandestine 24/7 watch over them to prevent nest-robbing.  I didn’t realise at the time how privileged we were to have such rare birds as neighbours.

The conservation measures were successful, a viable population of kites built up gradually to the point where they were introduced from Mid-Wales to Oxfordshire and can now be seen hovering over the M4.

Their territory has expanded in Wales, into the English border country, and they have now crossed the Brecon Beacons southwards and we have seen them soaring the ridge behind our house.  Numbers here do not seem to be increasing, largely I guess because of stiff competition from a well established population of Buzzards (Buteo buteo).

When in 1975 we moved from Cardiff into our house at the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park we loved to sit in the back garden with a coffee and watch buzzards soaring overhead. In the breeding season it was the odd one but when the young fledged there would be a family of four, the adults calling to the youngsters with a sound like stroppy cats, occasionally mobbed by crows but majestically ignoring and out-flying them.  When I started paragliding and learned the art of soaring thermals I appreciated their flying skills even more.  With a dip of the wing or nonchalant twist of the tail they would change direction effortlessly and pick up more height. Driving along the newly opened dual carriageway we spotted them regularly perched motionless on lamp-posts, waiting an opportunity to pounce on road-kill.

Walk up the ridge to Garn Wen and it was difficult to know whether to focus on the Buzzards, or the Kestrels (name given to several members of the Falco genus).  When their young fledged they could be seen in families of four, five or six being given flying lessons.  You can spot and identify kestrels a long way off because they alone can hold their position over the ground in both howling gale and flat calm, eye-balling prey below.  One of the high spots of my paragliding career had nothing to do with distance flown but was circling over my local pub with a kestrel hovering below me, before it tucked in its wings and dropped like a stone on its quarry.  Another fond memory from paragliding was watching a friend soaring the gentle evening ridge-lift at the highest point of the South Wales Valleys with a kestrel soaring the air above the upper edge of his wingtip, turning in synchrony as he turned.

One memorable summer’s evening my wife called me to the landing window and pointed to a bird of prey in a tree in a neighbour’s garden.  It was massive.  An aggressively cheeky magpie which settled on the branch alongside it was dwarfed.  My wife, a keen and knowledgeable ornithologist identified it as a juvenile Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), presumably blown many miles off course in recent storms.  The local ornithological society refused to acknowledge the sighting because I wasn’t a member of the club and it takes two to tango … or confirm a bird sighting.  But we knew what we saw and there was no doubt.

Imagine our pleasure when we started trekking in the Greek islands and seeing more and bigger birds of prey.

The first time was on the Saronic island of Aegina.  A bus ride to the southern end of the island and climbing up the eastern and uninhabited side of the ridge we spotted four large birds lazily thermaling upwards.  As a rule of thumb I generally spotted things first but my wife could identify what we were looking at and informed my ignorance.  These were Imperial Eagles (Aquila heliacal) which can have a wing span of up to 7 feet.  Impressive.

One evening we were eating on a rooftop restaurant on Symi when a Little Owl (Athene noctua) perched on a cable at eye level barely feet away.  Little Owls are comparatively easy to identify, partly because of their small size and partly because they are the only owls which hunt in the day.  This makes them easier to photograph for an amateur like me with ordinary kit.  They are the birds of prey I see most often, especially in narrow gorges where few people go, like the Pedi Gorge and the Vasilios Gorge on Symi, where they perch on vertical rock sides.  They are not easily frightened and well camouflaged until they fly off silently when they consider you are getting too close, feathers designed to be soundless in flight.  Sometimes they will perch on a rock or a post and watch with their massive eyes as you approach, maybe as inquisitive about you as you are about them.  Then they lift off and fly to a more remote vantage point to watch.  One thing is sure, if they don’t want you to get any closer, they can see you well before you see them and are not hampered by moving rapidly over rocky ground.

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Little Owl sitting on a rock at the side of the path, unphased

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Half an hour later I spotted another in the crags  and walked directly towards it, taking my SLR out of my backpack as I went.

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It watched me impassively while I halved the distance and then took off.

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It settled and watched me as I moved towards it again

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Then like a Harrier Jump Jet it took off and flew up a vertical crag where I couldn’t easily follow.

Trekking up to the main ridge on Tilos and then traversing through a col between vertical cliffs in the early Noughties and we disturbed Bonelli’s Eagles (Aquila fasciata).  They were there very predictably for many years, pleasing to watch as effortlessly, but clearly irritated, they switched crags to stay away from us.  Then in 2014 they disappeared.  Explanations varied but homed in on a drastic reduction in the number of Chukkar Partridges, their main food.  Explanations for the reduction of Chukkars varied from a virus infestation to lack of food supply.  They disappeared from Symi the same year.  A comment from Jen Barclay on Tilos in February this year indicates that the eagles may have returned.

Trekking in more remote parts of the islands or the Greek mainland and the chances of spotting eagles is fairly high.  I saw several in the far south of The Mani, the central and southernmost peninsula of the Peloponnisos, thriving in the rugged landscape of the Taygetos Mountains.  It was while negotiating a scree close to the top of Profitis Ilias inland of Areopoli that I disturbed a pair of eagles nesting or perching on the vertical crags above.  I had a very good view of them before they soared away, screeching their annoyance at having their solitude disturbed.  Despite the close-up there was no possibility of getting the camera out of the rucksack, it was difficult enough keeping myself in place without separating myself into bits which might disappear over the edge.   A few days later I disturbed another pair.  Fortunately, as I was now on a track rather than a loose scree slope, I was able to get a couple of passable photos.  They wouldn’t impress an ornithological society but I was quite pleased to capture something for the record.

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One of the eagles soaring, wings curved at full stretch to lift it effortlessly in the light breeze in a thermal

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Almost directly overhead and still going up.

I frequently see birds of prey when I’m out trekking but sitting outside an apartment on Tilos at dusk one evening and our attention was taken by large numbers of birds flying erratically high overhead at high speed.  With long, narrow, very pointed wings, amazingly aerobatic like swallows or Alpine swifts, they looked much bigger. They turned out to be Eleonora’s Falcons (Falco eleonorae), taking insects on the wing.  They eat larger prey but millions of insects rising on air currents keep them going.  Swimming from one of the secluded beaches on the other side of the island earlier in the season the following year, we watched a pair swooping low over the sea and returning every few minutes to a nest in the cliff face. Another evening, another island and we watched large numbers swooping over the volcanic caldera at Nikia on Nisyros.  Dizzying.

And a reminder that interesting stuff is going on right on the doorstep when I looked out of the window at home the other day and spotted a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) sitting on the bird feeders.  A few days earlier it took one of the Siskins feeding on the nuts.

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Sparrowhawk on the bird feeder

I’m looking forward to seeing if the eagles have returned to Symi and Tilos.

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Canadian Rockies and Greek Islands: twittering and tweeting

2016 is not going at all well for me.  Just diagnosed, I now have a long-term health issue, probably triggered by the flu, which means a period of monitoring and the need to review plans and maybe lifestyle.  So, still looking back and looking forward hopefully.

Flashback 1

Walking along Bear Street in Banff, middle of December, having been in Barpa Bill’s the Greek takeaway (carry-out) for a mid-day spanakopita, down jacket zipped to the chin against minus 20oC, I became aware of frenetic twittering.   The tree overhead, bare of leaves, was full of sparrows, downy chests puffed up against minus 20oC, twittering noisily and, like most tweeting, presumably inconsequentially.

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The twittering tree in Bear Street, Banff

Flashback 2 ….. and looking forward

Looking back even further I was reminded of the swallows which swoop overhead on Symi.  In spring and early summer they zoom into derelict houses desperately trying to sate the appetites of squawking broods.  The adults pause now and again to perch on overhead wires and sit twittering.  When the young fledge it is amusing to watch them learning to adjust their flight to land and perch by their parents, failing time and again before getting the hang of it. By midsummer the overhead wires are filling up.

Something to look forward to.

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Familes of swallows gather on overhead wires

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…… musically

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Close up

For some reason both flashbacks reminded me of the picture by Paul Klee.  Maybe it was all the twittering.

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Die Ztwitscher Maschine (The Twittering Machine) by Paul Klee

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