Re­flec­tions

Rosa­mond is cap­ti­vated by the sight of an Egyp­tian Vul­ture and a Lanner Fal­con

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - ROSA­MOND RICHARD­SON’S Rosa­mond Richard­son is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist who also writes for The Coun­try­man, and her Wait­ing for the Al­bino Dun­nock will be pub­lished in spring 2017

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

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