SKY SICK­LES

Bird Watching (UK) - - Photo Feature David Tipling -

There is no more ex­otic look­ing British bird than the Swift squeezed be­tween tall build­ings. At the top of a wind­ing stair­way with cast-iron balustrade and snaking ma­hogany banis­ter, my room faced the street. French win­dows opened on to a tiny bal­cony look­ing down over stalls selling fruit and veg­eta­bles. Sit­ting on a wooden chair out­side his olive-oil shop, an old man was read­ing a news­pa­per. Two women in black were stand­ing talk­ing, laden with shop­ping bags. Con­stant cheep­ing of Spar­rows pen­e­trated the din of scoot­ers and honk­ing horns in the hu­mid evening heat. An­cient bells clanged for Ves­pers. A tun­nel of sky above the street led my eye out into the square where, in open spa­ces high above the set­ting sun, a vol­ley of Swifts hur­tled into vi­sion, squeal­ing, scream­ing, swerv­ing, wheel­ing and div­ing, stream­lined scim­i­tars in flight with beaks agape for in­sects, a gy­ro­scope of birds skim­ming, sky-rac­ing, veer­ing, bank­ing and tum­bling, fall­ing ver­tig­i­nously into long sail­ings on swept-back wings, float­ing and glid­ing on ther­mals. I was watch­ing birds with the abil­ity to shoot like an ar­row or turn on a coin, birds who fly three and a half thou­sand miles a week, catch­ing rain­drops in the air or skim­ming over the sur­face of wa­ter to drink, mat­ing on the wing in a split-se­cond ac­tion. In this town, cra­dle of the an­cient Greek and Ro­man civil­i­sa­tions of Western Europe, I was look­ing at birds that have been around for per­haps mil­lions of years. That evening in Thes­sa­loniki, Swifts scrib­bled the sky with aero­dy­namic gam­bits, plung­ing and roil­ing against the white sun as they have done for mil­len­nia. They ap­peared to own the sky, their king­dom, but when I walked out into the street 20 min­utes later, all had gone ex­cept for a lone ac­ro­bat loop­ing and scyth­ing the heav­ens. Rosa­mond Richard­son

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