One of the joys of living in the village is the bird life. I have written about Eleanora's Falcons elsewhere, but I know them more intimately now. They are used to me chugging along in my little boat and know that I am harmless, so ignore me. These birds are surely the best flyers. Effortlessly they swoop, rise and fall using the wind as it tumbles down the cliffs and billows up again as it hits the sea. The display can be seen any evening from spring to autumn as the birds return to roost, but twice a year something special happens:
In the springtime the birds pair off and the females seem to chose their mate on flying ability. Two dots high on a cliff suddenly become a pair of Eleanora's, one a few centimetres behind the other as they level out and skim the waves at high speed. The male flies so close to the surface that on a calm day I see dimples in the water caused by air pressure from the wings. Off and up goes the female untill, caught by the male, the pair join feet and with much squeaking and shrieking spin back down to the sea. I do not know if others have seen this behaviour. It was many years among these birds before I recognised what was happening one evening and sat in awe in a calm sea watching and listening to the lovemaking. As it became cold and dark I made my way slowly back to the village followed by the faint sound of Eleanora's having fun above the cliffs in the pale golden embers of dusk.
Later in the year the parents teach the young to fly. Solitary, or in groups of up to a dozen, they plunge down the cliff face, caress the sea and climb up and over again with cries of excitement and joy. Again in pairs, but this time parent and child, they slide over the surface as the adult forces its young closer to the water, sometimes leaving a dappled ring as a feather, wing tip or claw touches the sea.
This complicated, learnt behaviour is essential to the Eleanora's survival. In late summer, and autumn, as the young are born and grow, their main food source is the small migrating birds making their way south to Africa. These little birds leave Rhodes and Chalki and the other islands to the north of us in the morning and arrive on this island in the evening or at night. Eleanora's form a net several kilometres out to sea and wait for the food to arrive. When they see the little birds they swoop to attack. Sometimes I see an explosion of feathers and a forlorn wisp of plumage flutters to the sea. The little birds defence is to fly as close to the sea as they can, zig zagging in terror, desperate to make the first rocks of the coast. Thus the Eleanora that flies close to the sea with greatest skill is that one that eats well and brings home the most supper; a worthy mate and parent.