Sunday, August 17, 2008

August - Postcards from Linosa

"To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who beguile all men whosoever comes to them. Whoso in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens' voice, he nevermore returns, that his wife and little children may stand at his side rejoicing, but the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling. " (Homer, Odyssey - Book 12.)

Infant-like screams "gaooh-ak!...gaooh-ak!" calling all around me and thousands of wings flash in the beam of my headlamp as we walk in the darkness. It is a pitch-black night at a large Cory's shearwaters' colony on Linosa, tiny vulcanic island in the very middle of the Mediterranean Sea. On this remote dot of land, Italian soil halfway between the European continent and Africa, these pelagic birds still nest in large numbers in the holes among the black, razor-sharp lavic stones. Spending most of their lives in the open sea, shearwaters come to land just to breed and raise their youngs. It is the second half of July and, each night, protected by an almost complete darkness, the birds come back to their hollows, to exchange postion on the egg with their brooding partner -either male or female, or to feed the chicks that just hatched. As soon as the moon peers behind the sleepy volcanoes or the sun start to rises, this frenzy of wings and loud calls ends almost immediately and the elegant silhouettes of the sheawaters glide toward the immensity of the sea.

Where do they go during the day? How long do they stay away from their youngs? Where do they look for prey?

All questions, these, to which keen ornithologists, with the aid of most developed technologies, try to find answers in order to know more about this elusive species and help its conservation. I've spent about one week with one of these dedicated people -the friend and extraordinary field researcher Jacopo Cecere, who lived almost five months on Linosa surveying, observing, handling, measuring and ringing dozen of birds each night. Anytime he can put hands on a new bird, this would get a tiny, highly sophisticated and very expensive device -either a micro GPS satellitar transmitter or compass. With a bit of luck, once the bird would get caught a second time, at the entrance of its nest for example, the data collected by this instruments will tell Jacopo a lot about the life of the animal during its wanderings.

I have followed Jacopo every night on the rugged lava fields, wearing trekking shoes, kee-pads and elbow protections, to watch his work and portray the birds, crawling into warm and stinky hollows to photograph their nests (Thank you, Paulo! For your help, your ideas and...your second flash!;-)). But I have also managed to explore everyday the harsh, yet charming nature of the island, with its walls of black stones and cacti, which conceals lushy gardens and plants of delicious capers. Meet the hospital and proud people who live there. Observe the five colours of the Cala Pozzolana at sunset, glimpse smooth Ocellated skinks and the ubiquitous Maltese wall lizards in the bushes. Be on a boat among dolphins, with camera in one hand and white wine in the other...Eat great meals every single day and swim in clear waters so rich of life as I've never seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Oh, how much I love this job! ;-)