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Birding On The Sly In Greece

No Q&A column this week.

My wife celebrated a significant birthday a few Sundays ago and my gift to her (mostly because she wouldn’t stop asking) was to take her on a trip to a Greek island. She’s always wanted to go and I’ve always wanted to avoid going. It’s not that I have anything against the Greeks. I love that they invented democracy and I like their trendy yogurt. But if I’m going to travel 4,000 miles and spend all kinds of money, I’d rather visit a place famous for birds…not statues of assorted gods. But then I figured, anyone brave enough to stay married to me all these many years deserves a reward of some kind. So I booked the trip.

There would be no birding on this vacation. After all, this was a couple’s trip and thus my binoculars and bird books would have to stay home. Then, just before we left, I read a blog written by a guy who did some birding on Santorini (the Greek island we would be visiting). He reported spotting thirty-two different species of birds on the island. I thought: Only thirty-two? That’s nothin’. I’ll bet I can see way more birds than that without my wife ever knowing. So I quickly came up with a scheme to do some surreptitious birding on the side. It was a great plan…or so I thought.

The first thing I did was to download the Birds of Europe app on my iPhone. By using an app I could avoid packing any telltale bird books. I then snuck a tiny pair of binoculars into my travel bag and hid them in my underwear. They’d be safe there. (Even customs agents know better than to go near my underwear.) My plan worked perfectly. I made it all the way to Santorini without her knowing about my contraband binos and bird app. I got up early on our first morning and told my wife that I was going for a walk to “see what the weather was like.” We had rented a villa that overlooked the Aegean Sea and by our front door was a trail that led to the beach. It was a perfect place for me to go to “check the weather.” On my fifteen-minute walk I saw at least seven different birds, including a Chukar (a quail-ish bird with red lips), a Crested Lark (a bland bird with a funky hairdo), a Blue Rock Thrush (a pretty blackbird-bluebird combination) and a mystery bird. I was off to a great start. If I could see seven birds in just fifteen minutes, in the course of a week I should easily top that blog guy’s total of thirty-two… and my wife would never know I was secretly birding. Sweet!

The next day we rented a car and drove around to see some ancient ruins (after all, we were in Greece). The car we rented was a convertible Smart car, which seemed like a good idea at the time…but it wasn’t. I quickly learned why they are called “Smart” cars; because the smart thing to do is never rent one. This particular car had 90,000 kilometers on it (whatever that means) and was ready for early retirement. The engine had the power of a used moped and the gas pedal was merely a decoration. Anytime we tried to go uphill we were quickly passed by other cars or tourists on bikes, and one time by a goat with a limp. But going slowly allowed me to slyly spot birds and this is when things got exciting. On a drive through a vineyard a falcon flew over the car. At this point I could blow my cover by grabbing my binoculars from my pack and jump out of the car to ID the falcon. Or just keep driving so my wife wouldn’t know about my birding agenda. What do you think I did? I grabbed my binos and went for the falcon, of course.

When my wife spotted the binoculars she just rolled her eyes. But she wasn’t mad; it was more of the “I should have known” kind of eye-roll. Now that the jig was up I launched into full birding mode. I seized my iPhone and fired up the Birds of Europe app so I could figure out what kind of falcon I had just seen. Here’s where my little non-birding ploy started to backfire. The phone app wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be. I really needed a proper bird book. No worries, I just drove to the nearest bookstore to buy a book. Unfortunately, I forgot one thing: I don’t read Greek. For some reason all of the bird books in Greece are written in Greek. What’s up with that? Okay, fine. I’ll just study the birds, remember their field marks and then look them up when I get home. Yeah, fat chance of doing that. I couldn’t memorize that much information. I had already walked into the wrong villa three times. There was no way I was going to remember all of those field marks for an entire week. Rats! The blog guy’s record of thirty-two birds would stand and there wasn’t much I could do about it. For the rest of the week I would be looking at ruins and waiting for my wife while she visited every shop on the island. Oh, well. I gave it a shot.

By the end of my time on Santorini I had only seen twenty-four species of birds, including the mystery bird. But it turns out I’m not a total loser (at least not in this case). While Santorini is only a few hundred miles from Africa, it actually doesn’t have a lot of birds. The island has no freshwater or trees (except for grapevines), so the bird life is minimal. Yet, with everything going against me, I still managed to see a handful of pretty darn cool birds, birds that I would never have seen if I had stayed home. 🙂

Finally, I must admit that I was wrong about visiting Greece. Oh sure, Santorini isn’t the best place for birds or bird watching, but the island is absolutely gorgeous and the people are super-nice. It’s the perfect place to go to spend time with someone you really care about…and that’s the real reason I went.