Winter crept silently over the woods and banished autumn

Winter crept silently over the woods and banished autumn
On the streets of Greece cats lounge and stretch like sunbathers on beaches, dozens of them, fat and contented and, apparently, universally loved.

Here, it was a chilly ending to October; there, on the Greek island which we left just 48 hours ago, it was a warm sea and a white beach and the infinity of space above us a cloudless blue.

The sky in Ireland the other morning when we stepped out of our car at 5.30am. after, a 21-hour (heroic!) journey, was also blue — blue-black — the ‘floor of heaven’ pinpricked with silver stars. It was cold, a winter night, sharp and clear.

Softened by our two weeks in a world of idyllic weather, we felt the chill. No doubt about it; since we’d left home, autumn had become winter. The trees above the house were almost leafless; through them, we could see the sky filled with stars.

A cup of Barry’s Tea warmed us after trips out door to bring in the luggage, while another kettle boiled to fill a hot water bottle — no time to be fiddling with an electric blanket — to warm the bed. Oh, but what a shock, the drop from 22C to 9C. Traumatic!

However, there’s always excitement in being home again and by 12pm next day, we were back again in the warm light of domestic reality. In any case, in our last few days in the Greek islands, a sharp wind had begun to sweep the streets and beaches; winter was coming in. An agitated sea drove small waves ashore.

We swam in the warm Mediterranean but the water was no longer so clear that we could see the apparent constant movement of the sand on the sea bottom patterned by the sun’s reflection the surface above.

The giant ferries plying between the islands were still quite crowded: all but the most remote outposts seem to be an integral part of Greek economic life, people in constant transit between islands and mainland, huge trucks and cars making the passage daily.

No more the open-decked ferries I’d used in the 1960s. That ingredient of the romance was gone.

From four storeys above the water, I scanned the seascape for signs of life. In the four-hour ferry passage from Piraeus, I spotted a single bird, far from land, gliding over the white caps: It could, just possibly, have been an audouin’s gull, a deep-sea species that, like the wandering albatross comes to land only to breed and then on remote, uninhabited islands, often mere rocks. It is pelagic, a fish-hunter, rather than a scavenger like other gulls.

There were, indeed, bare rocks on the near horizon but as to the bird’s identity, smaller than a herring gull, 200m distant from my perch and skimming waves with crests of spray and deep troughs between, I could only make a guess based on behaviour and location. Audouin’s does breed in Greece, but is one of the rarest of the gull family, in which it is classified. Twitchers would envy me if I am right.

Otherwise Greece, while practically paved with cats (in the towns) was seemingly devoid of birds. I know this can’t be true, but carrying my heavy, battered old Birds of Europe (Collins 1972) and my heavy, paint-chipped but still brilliant Zeiss east German-made Jenoptem binoculars was a testing, thankless, labour of love for all I saw of feathered creatures during my fortnight of wandering.

I saw grey crows, a few , exact replicas of the ones I see in my own West Cork backyard, stealing the apples in my garden, and sparrows, the same as the half dozen that patronise our peanut-feeder though the bibs beneath the chins of the cocks were paler than those of our own, and the tribes gathering each evening on the palm trees gracing town and city squares numbered thousands, veritable murmurations of sparrows without the co-ordination to pattern the sky.

In towns, perhaps the presence of cats may have had to do with the absence of garden birds. Divil a single wagtail, greenfinch, blackbird, or redbreast robin did I see. Lugging my reference book, binoculars, and camera was not easy. In future, perhaps I should carry only my mobile phone and when I see a bird take its picture and identify it from the dozens of serious bird books of various nations and continents that weigh down the shelves at home.

The cats in Greece exercised me more than usual. I am not a fan of cats (unless they wear a bell) because of the millions of birds and other wildlife they kill, very often for sport. I will not here publish the enormous kill-rates ascribed to them by researchers. But on the streets of Greece, they lounge and stretch like sunbathers on beaches, dozens of them, fat and contented and, apparently, universally loved.

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