Traditional Cyprus is not a bird’s best friend

Tourist Information Office birdwatching guides to the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Occupied Northern Cyprus (Kibris) are second to none, full of information and beautiful photographs. Each of the two Cypruses want to attract birders, says Damien Enright.

In spring and autumn, many millions of migrant birds, flying from and to Africa, pass over the island and make a stop.

However, while eager twitchers may see spectacular sightings, the birds visiting the island run significant risks of ending up on a dinner plate, fricassed, roasted or baked.

The specific dish is called “ambelopulia”; it is traditional and, although mist-netting and shooting songbirds for the table has been banned for years, these practices continue illegally in certain areas.

Some locals, like the two gents I met in a bar in the laid-back town of Polis on the north coast of the Republic defend it. Their only complaint was that the law had driven up the price of a ‘plate’ (perhaps 12 sparrow-size blackcaps, warblers, robins,) from €5 to €50.

“By eating them, we are protecting the farmer” they protested. “Other people think only of protecting birds; we are protecting people by eating the birds which have, in any case, grown fat on the farmers’ crops. It is only right that the farmers should eat them!”

They were a rum pair (or maybe I should say a raki pair) these two characters, and what they were saying was clearly what makes the grass grow green in Texas.

For one thing, many species most commonly trapped are insectivores. Also, their stay is short, as they are moving north to nest in Europe, and to compare (as did my companion) their limited depredations with that of locusts, was clearly Greek (or rather Cypriot) hyperbole of a classic order.

A 2014 BirdLife Cyprus survey estimated that 1.5 million birds had been trapped for the table that year. Many were taken in the SBA areas, around British bases. Professional gangs plant acacia trees and irrigate them as they would a crop, cutting corridors between them where they string mist nests 20m long. Loudspeakers transmit bird calls to bring the migrants down to what they take to be a safe haven. When police or SBA police attempt to arrest the poachers, lookouts with mobile phones warn them to ‘up traps’ and scatter.

Meanwhile, the majority of the population in both the Republic and Kibris deplore the trapping. They rightly say that the practice lends a very negative image to their island which, I would first to agree, is a very desirable, friendly and inexpensive holiday destination.

The countryside, mountains and coast are beautiful. The people are friendly, always helpful, hotels are good and the food is delicious. I have not been offered ambelopulia in any restaurant, I might say.

Wandering the well-mapped trails, I regularly saw Cyprus warblers and Cyprus wheatears, both endemic species, the latter a striking little bird with white belly, black wings and face, and snow-white crown. I was fortunate enough to watch a Bonelli eagle cruising wide-winged over the high pine trees for all of 10 minutes. I saw a blue rock thrush, an extraordinary looking large mountain gecko, and various lizards sunning themselves on the chalk outcrops.

Wild flowers were everywhere, the mountains dressed in swathes of golden marigold, deep-blue, almost purple, vetch, shrubs all but subsumed in gorgeous white and pink, papery blossoms.

Birds do survive in Cyprus, of course. There are stilts on almost every wetland and, unusually, grey crows are common in the cities. As I sit writing this beside the ancient harbour fort of Kyrenia (Girne, the Turks call it) swifts flit by, sometimes shooting into crevices 3m above the pavement in a wall two millennium old. They are nesting; perhaps they have used these very crevices for centuries.

Later, the evening sky over the harbour was intersected by the same birds, along with martins and swallows. Hirundines, of course, often fly too high and too fast to make targets for shooters, and they do not frequent acacia corridors.

Two days before leaving Ireland, I read that a black flamingo had been sighted,on a salt lakes near Limasol, a one-in-a-million bird. However, was there a black flamingo when I visited? No. Was there a flamingo of any colour? No.

However, I met an interesting and erudite Cypriot birder, whose description was so vivid that the bird appeared large as life and almost as beautiful, deep black against the pellucid, salty water, in my mind’s eye.

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