Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Thursday, 16 July 2015


(When is a butterfly not a butterfly?)

I've seen some wonderful sights in recent months - including some great birds. One that I hadn't necessarily expected to encounter in spring or summer on Cyprus is Honey Buzzard. Spring passage tends to be rather fleeting with birds generally scarce, it's autumn when the classic spectacle of birds massing on migration occurs.

Surveying near Amiandos, up in the hills, on Saturday, I caught sight of a large bird of prey cruising way up over the forest. Watching for a moment, I expected the form to become a Long-legged Buzzard, the most commonly encountered Buteo here, but it wasn't happening - too dark and as it drifted closer, the shape was off. Then as I turned my mind to other buzzards it accelerated, moving with carpals thrust forward, its head up and cruised was a Honey Buzzard.

I watched it move over the valley, always at height and made a note for the 'other species' part of the survey sheet.

It was an unexpected encounter, but it got better. As I watched it started folding its wings and plummeting short distances in the air while making rapid, fluttering wing-beats. I have read this described as its territorial or pairing 'butterfly display' but this was the first time I've seen it. Beautiful, it has great agility for a large bird. Honey buzzard doesn't breed in Cyprus (does it?), so perhaps this was an immature bird 'rehearsing' for the future.

From top, some butterflies of Cyprus: Southern White Admiral, Long-tailed Blue, Grayling sp.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

City of Swifts

It’s a strange feeling to walk through the old town of Nicosia and find streets and buildings cut in half. Running across the city, from East to West, is a wall that looks like it was thrown together in places with oil drums, salvaged wood and chainlink fencing; barbed wire is the thread holding it all together. The blue and white striped pedestrian border crossing at the end of Ledra Street feels more like an interactive museum piece the first time I see it. In other places bored teenage soldiers eyeball passersby while listening to the radio. A sign at the crossing points out that Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe.

From the balcony of the youth hostel in the furthest corner of the old town, I could throw a stone into no-man’s land. Beyond it is the Turkish occupied territory, the main difference on the skyline being the tall turrets of the stunning Selimiye Mosque, formerly the 13th Century cathedral of Saint Sophie, which the sun drops over every evening. The churches of the town are mostly quite exotic buildings, small and sturdy and shaped so much that I can’t shake the feeling that they look more like sandstone forts. Of course, there may be something to this impression. The history of the city that is told so well at the excellent Leventis Municipal Museum is one of shifting fortunes and political unrest. The city walls, so beautifully planned and realised in the Venetian era as a series of eleven heart-shaped bastions with several discreet access gates, are the stuff of fantasy novels but it’s possible they worked better as a lesson in renaissance architecture than defence.

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the old town. I particularly love the merchant’s quarter and the clues as to the former industries that used to be found here; how each street had a different role to fill, woodworkers, shoemakers and metalworkers among them. Now the area seems to be being adopted by local artists, colourfully filling a void in that way. Many of the old workshops are now boarded up but retain original fa├žades that must have looked fine at the turn of the 20th century. Here and there are odd remnants of the past, dusty signs filled with letters that I cannot understand; Greek is a delightful looking alphabet. Broken windows abound and wooden doors with subtle, ornate features that haven’t been opened for a long time. The streets are mostly quiet but it’s upstairs, up, up, up over the rooftops where the noisiest residents reside.

Nicosia is a city of swifts. You cannot walk a few paces in the old town without their calls drifting down into the shady, winding lanes; it is as if a kettle were constantly rolling to a boil, whistling incessantly. It is most impressive before dusk as hundreds gather in screaming parties, chasing and cavorting over the rooftops. In places they swoop low and then disappear up under the eaves with an effective but graceless scramble. I see it as a breath of life in those old, faded buildings.