The Sparrowhawk

Jim picked me up from work at The Old Forge yesterday and, as I loaded my tools into the car, told me that he’d almost driven over a sparrowhawk crouched on the lane leading up to the house.  Luckily, he had braked in time and the bird flew away, as did an injured pigeon it had caught.

Buzzards circling lazily overhead are now a common sight on the South Downs; but other than those and an almost tame host of wild rabbits eyeing this gardener with ill-concealed contempt, I hadn’t seen any wildlife of interest whilst working and felt a little peeved at missing an up-close bird of prey.

After locking up the outbuildings and casting a satisfied eye over the freshly mown lawns, I climbed into the car, ramped up the air-conditioning, took off my sun-hat and gratefully grabbed the proffered can of cold coke.  It had been a long, hot, tiring day’s mowing.

Sparrowhawk (1)

Pulling away through The Forge’s gate and onto the road, we were both excited to see that the sparrowhawk was back.  With its recaptured prey.

Sparrowhawk (2)

Jim cut the engine and we coasted to a slow halt feet from where the hawk tore at the freshly caught pigeon.

Feverishly, I fished about on the back seat for my camera bag: unzipped it, took out my Nikon, removed its case, unlocked the standard lens, placed it carefully on the dashboard, found my telephoto, took it out of its case, attached it to the camera, took off the lens-cap, turned on the camera, pressed buttons and swivelled dials, looked through the viewfinder, swivelled dials some more – all the while knowing that the hawk would be long gone by the time I was finally ready for my first shot.

Sparrowhawk (3)

But it wasn’t.  As their name suggests, sparrowhawks hunt small birds and it’s a little unusual for them to catch something as large as a pigeon.

Sparrowhawk (4)

This female wasn’t about to abandon her bounty to a couple of gawking bystanders.

Sparrowhawk (5)

I see sparrowhawks often, close up even, and only once when I had my camera in hand  but usually they’re up and away as soon as I stumble upon the scene.

Sparrowhawk (6)

Today though, our car served as a perfect bird-hide and this Accipiter nisus, unconcerned by a stationary silver box, continued feeding.  Messily.

Sparrowhawk (7)

So often when photographing chance wildlife, I have seconds in which to take a shot and  usually in poor light too.

Sparrowhawk (8)

But yesterday, the soft afternoon sunlight backlit the raptor beautifully and I couldn’t believe my luck – and the unexpected camouflage gifted by our shabby, old car.

Sparrowhawk (9)

But however thrilled we were by her gorgeous markings, her stature, her presence, her pantaloons; this was a gruesome scene with sharp beak tearing off chunks of flesh.  Especially gruesome because for overly long minutes, the pigeon was still alive.  This was no clean, quick kill.

After a while, and with the pigeon now mercifully dead, she grasped its body with her talons and flew down the lane, landing in front of a farm building.  Jim started the engine and we rolled after her, pulling up alongside.

Sparrowhawk (10)

It is always exciting to see a terrific wildlife scene worthy of a David Attenborough voice over;

Sparrowhawk (11)

if only on a quiet, Sussex byway – rather than the Serengeti or the Himalaya.  But watching that hawk eating her still-alive prey was pretty horrid and not a thing I needed to see.

Sparrowhawk (12)

My close relationship with the natural world is a marvellous bonus to gardening but occasionally it reminds me – vividly, starkly – of how indifferent to suffering that world truly is and just how precarious life is.  The sparrowhawk wasn’t being cruel in eating her quarry alive; she simply wasn’t aware, didn’t care.

The hawk’s feast and the pigeon’s demise was a bit of a conversation dampener on our short drive home.

oooOOOooo

Thursday’s encounter reminded me of two similar wildlife posts on my blog which you may not have seen: The Bedraggled Kestrel – about an even more intimate hawk encounter – and The Stoat and the Pigeon.  In the latter, and as you might guess, I’m afraid there is no happy ending for the pigeon.Save

A Postcard From Lindos, Rhodes

My holidays are often quite adventurous: cycling though the German countryside, hiking across British mountains, bobbing down the Zambezi in a barrel, play-wrestling polar bears on Svalbard – that sort of thing.

Lindos Rhodes (3)

Jim’s flip-flop time

But this year, Jim and I decided to plump for something a little more conventional, a lot more lazy.  A few weeks ago we boarded a very swish, very new Boeing 787 Dreamliner – which was a personal excitement  – and flew to the far end of Europe, to the Greek island of Rhodes.

Pallas Beach, Lindos

Our ultimate destination on the island’s eastern coast was Lindos; somewhere I know very well.  I say that but as my first visit was in 1983 and my last in 1985, perhaps I don’t know it quite as well as I like to boast.

Lindos Rhodes (9)

But thankfully, mercifully, in 32 years it has barely changed.  Lindos is still a little town of blinding-white houses clustered adoringly at the foot of a rocky acropolis.

Acropolis Lindos (3)

And what an acropolis: a site and sight as good as any in Greece.

Lindos Rhodes (31)

It is imposing, dramatic and craggy from any angle; and not a citadel I should want to storm after breakfast.

Acropolis Lindos (2)

They’ve all been here you know, on the acropolis: the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights of St John, the Ottomans, the Italians.  The Greeks.

Acropolis Lindos (1)

And now an international crowd of scantily clad tourists, thoughtfully displaying their wobbly, sun-burnt skin and once crisp, what-once-might-have-seemed-a-good-idea tattoos.  I thought it quite sweet that they thought this intimate display might lighten up my day (but then I was in a snooty frame of mind).

Lindos Rhodes (7)

With sheer force of will, I tore my eyes off the most eye-popping examples, closed my mouth and hacked my way through a thicket of selfie-sticks to the medieval walls on the western side of the acropolis.  I gazed down over the Middle-Eastern-looking town, trying to pinpoint the house I’d rented in 1983.  It had been small, square, flat-roofed and white.  So that narrowed it down a bit.

Lindos

Mountains, headlands and bays fade way northward to the tip of the island and Rhodes Town.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (1)

Whilst, to the south lies beautiful St Paul’s Bay.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (3)

St Paul was shipwrecked here, hence the name, and in August 1983 I was moped-wrecked here (which doesn’t really work as a link but never mind).  Zipping about on a rental moped, I zipped a curve too fast.  The bike slewed one way and I flew, all flailing limbs, in the other.  I clearly remember floating through the air, seemingly in slow motion, with time enough to quietly repeat the same four letter word.  Like Icarus my inaugural flight didn’t end well.  Luckily, I didn’t head-butt a rock; unluckily, and wearing shorts and a vest, I landed on knee and elbows, skidding across gravel.

Moped Crash

That smarts.

St Paul's Church, Lindos

I was laid up in my Rhodes Town room for several days; nursed, fed and fussed over by an adorable, clucking landlady before my pal, Michael, and I relocated to Lindos.  We spent our time doing not very much: riding slower-than-a-moped donkeys to near-by Pefkos, reading, exploring the hot hills and snorkelling in St Paul’s Bay.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (4)

The bay is busier now, of course, but it is just as lovely; the water as clear, as warm and as full of sea-life.  On that first visit, I spent absorbed hours with mask and snorkel: exploring the cove, chasing brightly coloured fish, seeking that elusive ancient statue or golden amulet I was convinced was waiting to be discovered on the sea-bed,

Lindos (2)

and then kicking out into the open sea.  In the bay, the water is a few feet deep but beyond the natural harbour walls a vast underwater cliff disappears into the deep and the sea bottom disappears. Suddenly, I was floating alone in the Big Blue, dazzled by flickering sun-beams, dipping down as far as I could into colder water.  But then three thoughts coalesced in my hitherto empty head: a recent report of Great White sharks in Greek waters, my moped wounds seeping blood and a half remembered fact that sharks can taste and hone in on blood from 800 miles away.  Or something.  My moment of calm in the Big Blue evaporated and, with an imagined razor toothed maw torpedoing toward me,  I splashed breathlessly back to the safe confines of St Paul’s.

And that’s my best-est anti-climatic Lindos story.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (2)

I didn’t visit the beach at the northern end of the bay in the 80’s but from memory it was deserted: no beach umbrellas, no friendly dog, no plump children, no disembodied limbs.

Lindos Rhodes (30)

But neither did it have one of the nicest tavernas I know.  Jim and I returned here most days for perfectly ripe Greek Salad with crumbly, salty, perfect feta; hot, crisp, perfect calamari; or warm, garlicky, puffy, perfect pittas served with dollops of perfect taramasalata, tzatziki, hummus and baba ganoush (all four as unrelated to supermarket tubs as I am to the Duchess of Windsor).   In short, it is perfect.

Lindos Rhodes (46)

On the slope behind the taverna is a nicely tended, terraced vegetable garden and I envied the customers who, later in the year, would bite into tomatoes, aubergines and cucumbers plucked metres from their table.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (4)

Should you ever visit Lindos, make sure you walk down to this taverna.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (6)

I don’t know its name but don’t worry you’ll find it easily enough.  Just head down to St Paul’s Bay.  The restaurant is next to the enormous dog resting her muzzle in the salt water.

Asklipio

One day, tiring of the Lindos crowds (and too chicken to rent a car and drive on Greek roads), we took a taxi to the small, inland town of Asklipeiou.  There isn’t a lot to do in Asklipeiou other than sip iced coffee; pay €1 to enter the stunning Byzantine church,  whisper our awe over the wall paintings;

Agapitos Restaurant, Rhodes

Agapitos Restaurant, Asklipio

and dawdle over a slow lunch, with maybe a cold beer.  And then maybe a second.

Asklipio castle (4)

Afterwards, we climbed a steep, dusty road (in 33º heat) to the Castle of Asklipeiou, above Asklipeiou.  (I’m repeating the name Asklipeiou simply because I suspect you have no idea how to pronounce it.  Asklipeiou.  I could have made it easier for you by providing the alternative English spelling, Asklipio, had I been so minded).

Asklipio castle (1)

The castle was deserted and, after the hubbub of Lindos, deliciously quiet save the hum of insects and my laboured, beery wheezing.  We tried to imagine the lives of the Knights of St John who built the castle in the C13th; many of whom were English.  It was hard to imagine men from Gloucestershire or Sussex living and dying in this alien, often violent landscape.  They won’t have missed mud.

Asklipio castle (2)

Greece has little money for the upkeep of her architectural treasures – nor much money for anything – but without information boards, an entrance kiosk or café, the ruin was all the more charming; if heart-stopping for any health and safety executive.  There were no no-go areas, no railings, no warnings about loose masonry or imminent death by falling.

Asklipio castle (5)

Jim took that as a challenge and clambered about the crumbly walls, precipitous falls all about, with fat cracks in the wall beneath his feet.  I watched from between my fingers.

Asklepeiou castle (3)

As we explored, bickering over reckless castle climbing and squinting at the views, I recoiled at a sudden hit of noxious smell.  After glancing suspiciously as Jim – who denied, as usual, any knowledge – I followed my nose.

Dracunculus vulgaris (3)

Dracunculus vulgaris was the culprit … and I apologised to Jim.

Dracunculus vulgaris (1)

The dragon arum is very stinky.  I had assumed, at second thought, that maybe a goat had fallen from the castle walls, its carcass baked by the sun.

Dracunculus vulgaris (2)

And that is the best description I can give for the scent of Dracunculus vulgarisNext time you sniff something rotten in Greece, it might be road-kill or it might be this extraordinary lily.  Enjoy (but best not plant one under the kitchen window).

Bougainvillea

Anyway, what was meant to be a postcard from Lindos has grown into a multi-paged letter, with tiny writing.  I’ll finish off with some pictures of less noisome, ubiquitous plants:  Bougainvillea;

Oleander

oleander;

Lindos Rhodes (48)

and jasmine –

Jasmine

swamping the lanes of Lindos with a more delectable perfume.

Greek thistle

I fell in love with Greece absolutely as a young man and it lures me back time and time again.  But I don’t suppose I shall return to Lindos.  As special as it is to me, it is too busy, too touristy for my 2017 self.  On our next visit, Jim and I will stick to our abandoned independent travel plan and revert to adventurousness: fly out, make plans on the hoof, hop amongst the islands perhaps or journey across the mainland, eat a lot, drink some, fly back.  But that’s a trip which will, I’m afraid, result in a far, far longer postcard.

Lunchtime pint

Cheers.oooOOSave

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