It’s easy to understand why the ancients mythologized the griffons. There IS something awesome about them. Great winged critters soaring around up there in the stratosphere. Not just big birds, they’re extra-terrestrials, occupying a different realm from us earthbound mortals.
There are only about 90 pairs of griffon vultures left in all of Italy, and most of them are here in Sardinia. Antonello Cossu is Bosa’s resident ornithologist — and today he is taking us on an excursion. Our destination: the craggy headlands north of town. Our mission: to get a closer look at Italy’s largest remaining griffon colony.
Bird watching is not for dawdlers. We’re up at the dawn of crack, feet to the floor, rubbing the sleep from our eyes. A quick hit of caffeine (viva l’Italia) and we trot down to Piazza des Carmine, where Antonello is waiting. We pile into his jeep, hold tight, and head for the hills.
Within minutes, we’ve left the town’s hilltop castle behind us, and are climbing into high open country, bleached blond by the long Mediterranean summer. Beautiful long views up and down the western coast of the island.
The road narrows to a single track. We run into a couple of wiry young shepherds. There are fewer of them now, says Antonello. The traditional pastoral economy is getting squeezed out – and that’s had an impact on the griffon population. Fewer animal carcasses for the scavenging birds to swoop down and gorge upon.
We park and set off on foot, following a network of old paths, buzzing with insect life and fragrant with sweet dry grass. An overgrown stonewall, an abandoned animal pen, an uninhabited farmhouse – and ahead of us, the rocky ridge of Monte Manu. We seem to have the hills to ourselves. Great for hiking, Antonello tells us, who knows the terrain like the back of his hand.
We catch our first glimpse of griffon, a pair riding the thermals that sweep up from the sea. They are easy to identify – with wingspans reaching nine feet or more. Antonello leads us along the edge of the steep escarpment, keeping to the bushes for camouflage.
Up ahead, three more birds are perched on a high ridge, splattered white with their droppings. A regular roost, Antonello tells us. We pull out our binochs to get a closer look and spot more of them, seven or eight birds, wheeling around effortlessly high above the cliff face
Antonello is excited, gestures for us to stop and take cover. The birds are coming closer, forming a long loose queue.
Suddenly they are upon us, sailing by in a thrilling parade, just a few metres off the cliff face. There is an intense feeling of vertigo, as if we’ve been swept up into the air, caught in their slipstream – a disorienting out-of-body sensation of being in flight.
We count ‘em: fourteen in all. Antonello is ecstatic. The last one in the formation is a juvenile, he tells us. The young bird sails in closer, just feet from where we’ve hunkered down, as if to take a look at us. We’re caught momentarily in its gaze – and then it moves on, out into the blue yonder.
We return to Bosa and lunch on the terraza. Pecorino and olives. Looking out over the rooftops of the old town, I feel strangely weightless, pleasantly discombobulated – still mortal but a little less earthbound.
It’s not every day you get to climb a mountain and look a griffon in the eye.
Many thanks to Bob for an unforgettable Sardinian Experience.