Rosamond is captivated by the sight of an Egyptian Vulture and a Lanner Falcon
Rosamond Richardson gets up close with an Egyptian Vulture and a Lanner Falcon
IT COULD HAVE been a scene out of The African Queen: a flat-bottomed boat with iron railings and tarpaulin roof, plastic chairs on deck around a rusty steel-framed table, moored up with a frayed rope. The wide water was a sheet of glass, the lake deserted. Forested mountains sloped down to the lakeshore on either side, increasingly lovely the further we sailed from human habitation. A man who knew the nesting site of every vulture in Macedonia had agreed to take us on an expedition to look for Egyptian Vultures – with the promise of much more besides: a river trip along the shores of Lake Titvés. His name was Emil. Two Short-toed Eagles circled overhead, their nest clearly visible in a shrub growing out of a crevice on one of the escarpments. We spotted Alpine Swifts and a Rock Partridge before suddenly, to Emil’s excitement, a pair of Egyptian Vultures soared into view. Known as the ‘white-plumed sage’, it has lived alongside mankind since the beginning of history, sacred to the people who admired it. Pharoah’s Chicken, others called it, this two-foot long bird whose stance is, it is true, faintly chicken-like. But Neophron percnopterus, smallest of the vultures and by far the prettiest, is a good-looker, predominantly white, but with dramatic black flight feathers. A punk hairdo haloes its wrinkled yellow nares and orangey-yellow, black-tipped beak. As we watched, a Raven started harrying the vultures and was energetically chased off by one of them who turned on the potential predator, twisting in the air with surprising agility for its size, seeing it off. Emil’s sunburned face became animated as he pointed to where one of the parent birds had swooped to the nest, almost hidden on a ledge, carrying food for the chick now visible with its fluffy white feathers. We watched entranced as the boat sailed slowly past, a rare sighting of a pair of breeding Egyptian Vultures, flying together and feeding their youngster. It was a thrilling sight, made all the more memorable by Emil’s joy. Sensing our enthusiasm, Emil came up with an idea: if we had been captivated by the Egyptian Vulture with its long history, we should see a member of perhaps the oldest surviving ‘hierofalcon’ on earth, traceable back to the Late Pleistocene more than a hundred thousand years ago. We drove to a remote place called Gradsko – west of where the Crna meets the Vardar river in southern Macedonia, steppe unfolded under a cloudless sky, wide and blue, flooding the landscape with lovely evening light. Emil led us to the brow of a hill. In the distance we could see a line of electricity pylons stretching across the land, and this was as near as he was willing to take us. He set up the scope. There, with his back to us, was a Lanner Falcon perched on the upper echelons of the pylon. Unmistakably a falcon, proud head turned in profile: hooked beak, black moustachial stripe, large dark eye rimmed with yellow under a light chestnut supercilium. He was completely, utterly beautiful. There are just 25 pairs of Lanner Falcons in an area of Macedonia the size of Norfolk, of only a few hundred pairs in Europe. This one had taken over a deserted Raven’s nest built high inside the pylon, a crude raft of twigs and branches into which a colony of Spanish Sparrows had woven grassy nests. They were buzzing around like wasps, and although the Lanner lives on a diet of small birds – including those Calandra Larks that had been entertaining us – it leaves the sparrows alone. Emil explains the mutual benefit involved, how the sparrows’ grass-weaving insulates the raptor’s nest and holds it together, while the proximity of a top predator protects the passerines and their young. Serenely poised among the hectic sparrows, the Lanner, perched in silhouette, was drenched in clear light that picked out every detail of his plumage. What was it about this handsome bird that made him so unforgettable? I can’t honestly say, only that looking at the Lanner Falcon surveying his patch from on high on an electricity pylon on the steppes of Macedonia, I felt I was in the presence of the most beautiful of all the raptors.
Unmistakably a falcon, proud head turned in profile: hooked beak, black moustachial stripe, large dark eye rimmed with yellow under a light chestnut supercilium. He was completely, utterly beautiful
LANNER They don’t always pose on the pylons where they nest