Encounters. 2: "The bird with TWO dark sides?"

March 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Oh about six or seven years ago now, I decided that I'd perhaps start to pen a few wildlife blog posts on this website, detailing some of my animalian "encounters" over the past few decades.

I was inspired at the time by a couple of stoats I saw on a drive earlier that day, so decided to write about another time, the first time in fact, I saw stoats in the wild - and I had in mind, like I say, six or seven years ago now, that I'd write about a number of past "encounters" each year.

Wind the clock forward these six or seven years then - and I never did add to my first "encounters" post.

Until today that is.

You see, on today's pre-dawn walk around the 'hood' (as has been my way during the "Covid year") I listened to a wildlife podcast as I walked - and was reminded of a wonderful encounter I had over thirty years ago - and pretty-well exactly 2000 miles from my English childhood home. Grab a mug of tea and I'll tell you about it if you like. I'll wait.




It's mid August 1989. 

Jive Bunny was number one in the UK charts and the UK Prime Minister at the time was still (for another year only) Margaret Thatcher.

Richard Marx was number one in the US charts and its president was George Bush (Snr) in his first year as president 41.

"Sex Lies and Video tape", "Uncle Buck" and "Nightmare on Elm Street FIVE" were movies released that year.

F.W. de Clerk was just about to take over from P.W. Botha as the final state president of South Africa.

Mandela was still in prison at this time, by the way.

The Ayatullah Khomeini had just died in Iran  (after calling for a 'Fatwa' against Salman Rushdie and his "Satanic Verses" earlier that year, remember?) and there had just been the student protests in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

The dreadful Hillsborough tragedy had happened in the Spring of 1989 and the last golden toad was recorded in Costa Rica in May. It's now extinct, sadly.

OK. It wasn't all bad in 1989, you know.

The Berlin wall was about to be pulled down in a month or three. It was still in place in August of 1989, mind - and if you want more... well... important world events... to really remind you of that time... "Baywatch" was still a month or so away from beginning its very first season on our televisions, as was "The Simpsons", as was... "Challenge Aneka". Ahem.


I have no idea what you were doing in mid August 1989 - but I can vividly remember what I was up to.

I was a gangly 18 year old, on a "coming-of-age" extended holiday with similar-aged youths on the Greek (and Turkish) island of Cyprus at the time. We were based in my cousin's large villa in a traditional Greek Cypriot village called Pissouri, just inland from the south coast. I was waiting for the phone call to discover my A level results* that summer on the island... and was waking up each morning with a thick head after another late night of Brandy Sours and general debauchery.

We, as a group of ten or so young adults (5 or so women and 5 or so blokes), had spent a night on Aphrodite's Rock off the south coast of the island, watching the total lunar eclipse over a bottle (or three of) 'Ouzo' and the encounter I wanted to write about here, happened the next day, 5 miles down the coast from Aphrodite's rock.

Several of the lads on this holiday, me included, and tomboyish Kiwi woman called Liz, decided to walk westwards along Pissouri beach then swim around the headland ... (the headland pictured in the middle of this photo below, taken from Pissouri beach itself)

to the see the white cliffs of Cape Aspro. (Aspro literally means "white" in Greek).

I don't quite remember WHY we decided to do that, as the swim around the rocky headland was far from easy - in fact at the time it felt pretty dicey.

I expect that I had suggested it, as I've never been the best "sitter around" on beaches on holiday. My wife Anna calls such activity "being days" and what I like to do on holidays as "doing days". Yeah - I've never been much good at "being days" on beach holidays.

Anyway... a few of us boys and Liz walked for about an hour  (the trail has been washed away now I hear)

then dived into the wine-dark (you've not read Homer have you?) sea and swam for five or ten minutes around the towering white cliffs to be pretty-well washed up onto a deserted shingle and sand beach hidden from the Kap Aspro trail high above on top of these limestone monsters.

I looked up and immediately found myself looking into the piercing dark eyes of several (perhaps five or six) medium-sized, rakish falcons - which had flown down to investigate me. I was, I suppose, trespassing in their 'hood.

I knew exactly what they were - having read up on them before we got our flight. (The furthest I'd been before then was The Black Isle so I was excited not only to see a lot of "birds" in bikinis on holiday in the Med, but also some exotic, feathered birds - and had researched them with my 16th birthday present  -see below (my handwritten notes in that 1987 book, alongside the bird were written by me in September 1989).

They were the rare and exotic and dashing ELEONORA'S FALCONS! And the cliff that we sat below just happened to be one of their few strongholds on the island of Cyprus.

Now, looking back, knowing what I do now, I expect that even though we didn't stay long on the beach below this colony of rare falcons (there was nothing else on the beach - and to be honest I think it was really only me that was interested in the falcons at all anyway!) we probably still temporarily disturbed them - and it was something that I'd probably not suggest YOU do now. (The entire area is now an "IBA" (an Important Bird Area) and is almost certainly protected as such).

But at the time. I was blown away.

These MAGNIFICENT birds - much more exotic than our hobbies or kestrels.

Were RIGHT ABOVE MY HEAD  -  on a sun-baked Mediterranean island.

Surrounded by tanned, bikini-clad women, cocktails and crates of Keo beer.


At least to me.



Forget the bikinis and beer for a few minutes. Yep. Hard I know. 

Let's concentrate briefly on the falcons.

If you don't know much about these wonderful birds, please allow me to tell you a little about them. I don't think you'll regret it. I hope not, anyway.


Admittedly - I'm often into strange or unique wildlife.

I do like my swifts for example. 

And my nightjars.

And toads, bats, glow worms.

This sort of stuff.

The weird stuff.

The different stuff.

The wonderful stuff.

The stuff that sadly, natural history TV producers often deliberately fail to fill our screens with, instead concentrating on the glory boys - you know... the big cats and monkeys and crocodiles and penguins.

Eleonora's falcons are indeed, weird birds. 

Wonderful birds.

Perhaps even EVIL GENIUS birds?


They're named after the Lady Judge (a Queen really, rather than any administer of justice as such) and Sardinia's most famous heroine, Eleanor of Arborea.

Eleanor, like many nobles of the time around Europe, was bang into her falconry - and it was indeed her that passed into law the protection of falcons' nests and eggs during the 14th Century - the Eleonora's falcon, which would have been nesting on Sardinia at the time for sure (and still is of course) was so-named after her.

Regarding her name. I've always (incorrectly) known these birds as ELEANORAS FALCON (Two "As"). But their name actually is "ELEONORA'S FALCON".  (Two "Os"). This is because whilst in Sardinia, her name would have been: Elianora de Arbaree, in Italy (FAR more important as far as zoological nomenclature would be concerned) it would have been: Eleonora d'Arborea (two "Os").

The falcon itself is a handsome bird. A little smaller and more athletic-looking than the peregrine and a little larger than the hobby, which it looks very similar too, with its russet pyjama bottoms.

Eleonora's falcons could be considered strange for a few reasons.

1 - Eleonora's falcons nest in loose colonies. Rare indeed, for raptors. They nest solely on islands in and around the Mediterranean.

2 - Eleonora's falcons exhibit dimorphism. Not sexual dimorphism... but just simple dimorphism. That is to say there are two types of Eleonora's falcons. A pale type - typical falcon colours of a dark back with pale striped underparts and a visible "moustache" - and a second type which is basically dark all over. Almost black. A cool, gothic raptor. This should explain the first "dark side" to these wonderful raptors I mentioned in the title to this blog post.

3 - Eleonora's falcons are migratory raptors. Not as rare as colony nesting raptors but notable nonetheless. EVERY Eleonora's falcon breeds on Mediterranean islands but overwinters over the central plains of Madagascar, hawking for large insects, primarily.

4 - Eleonora's falcons breed in the early autumn each year - long after most migratory birds have bred in the spring or early summer. There is a reason for this... keep reading.



Why do Eleonora's falcons wait until late July or even August and September to breed then? What on earth could be the reason for that?

The answer is relatively straightforward.

Each April or May Eleonora's falcons  leave Madagascar and return to their breeding islands in the Mediterranean.  They spend a few months hawking for cicadas, beetles etc - large insects in the main - but also take the odd bird and lizard etc. Quite often they fly vast distances from their island homes to hunt these insects. They often need to.

They start to court in the heat of the summer (July) and egg laying happens as late as August often and in September (generally) their whole modus operandi changes.

They become BIRD EATERS.

Migratory bird eaters.

Yes. They've waited until all the smaller migratory birds have finished breeding oop north, in mainland Europe and started their migration south again towards central Africa.

Eleonora's falcons then, and only then, using their rocky white Mediterranean islands as "air bases" fan out across the Med like jet fighters, and take down these small migratory birds (often birds such as willow warblers and whitethroats ( but they can take much larger birds)) as food for themselves, but much more importantly, their developing young.

They've cleverly waited until the sky literally delivers millions of food parcels past their nests, each September and October.

That isn't all though.

In 2014, it was allegedly discovered, on a Moroccan island called Mogador (which is really an Atlantic island not a Mediterranean island)...

...that the population of Eleonora's falcons there... sure... caught small, migratory birds... but instead of biting their heads off and caching the small avian corpses near their nests, for their young to eat in leaner times.... they plucked the tail feathers and primaries from their hapless prey, wedged the live birds into fissures in rocks near their nests and were therefore disabling and caching LIVE avian prey for their young. They were disabling small birds, so they couldn't fly away or escape - and keeping them alive and imprisoned or captured... so they would remain as fresh food for their young and not dry out or rot in a few days, under the hot sun. Wow and indeed, wee.

That. In case you'd not worked it out. Would be the second VERY "dark side" (of my title to this blog post) to these birds.


This caching of live prey by Eleonora's falcons has only been documented formally by researchers, once.

And quite widely poo-pooed by most other Eleonora's falcons researches who had spent years watching and documenting the more Mediterranean birds and not seen this "evil" live caching behaviour once. Not at all. Ever.

These (slightly disgruntled) experts regard this "evil falcon behaviour" to be nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the Moroccan researchers and perhaps... on I don't know, the Mogador Tourist board.

I suppose it's entirely possible of course that the falcons of Mogador island could have learned to become evil geniuses and to cache live prey for their young - but it does seem a little unlikely, doesn't it?

Makes for a good story though, eh?

Anyway - if you are interested, do read more on this subject here and  here. Please be warned though - there are photos on those links, which show disabled (by the researchers, or fishermen of Mogador, or the falcons themselves as the researchers still earnestly-maintain) warblers, trapped on Mogador Island - as live food for the young falcon nestlings.



There you have it then.

The colony-nesting, small dark fighter jets of the Med.

The wonderfully-strange, dashing and perhaps "evil" Eleonora's falcons.

The bird with two "dark sides"?

Something I'll never forget seeing whilst swimming off the coast of Cyprus, 32 years ago this August and something I hope my boys get to see one day for themselves.




* I got an A and a B and a C by the way - and started my Zoology degree at Bristol university a month later.

Oh... and if you'd like to listen to the (quite excellent) podcast that I listened to the other day, which inspired me to write this latest blog post - you can do so here.










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