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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One Response to Wales and Greece: life on the wild side

  1. Jennifer says:

    Hi Barry,
    I finally got around to reading this post properly and think it’s lovely. Thanks for the mention – and for sharing.
    All best,
    Jen

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