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There is a hidden place, on the side of a slab of granite, high above the village of Ayios Yermanos, where a formidable builder has conquered the slopes and builds its nest every year.
By March the snows had melted from the village and the lower slopes that encircle it. As we ventured out on a walk with local nature writer, Julian Hoffman, we heard the Rock nuthatch sing, but after scrambling around the boulders and crags we found no sign of its nest, just some mighty large wasp or bee nests.
Julian had seen Rock nuthatch nests in this small valley for some years, and, knowing that the breeding season can start in late March, we kept visiting the spot over a couple of weeks. Equipped with telescope and an iPhone digi-scope attachment we were hoping to get the nest on camera from a safe distance. We were in luck, as we finally found one on the same granite rocks that Julian had pointed us towards, above the ruined sheepfolds.
Only half a century ago, thousands of sheep would have grazed the same south-facing, treeless slopes in which we found the Rock nuthatch nest. And whereas the birds carefully choose a sheltered rock face, as sheep left to their own volition might, man protected his livestock on these hills inside dozens of sheepfolds. They were simple constructions, made mostly out of mud and sometimes granite cornerstones. Indeed, Pliny the Elder believed that it might have been the Rock nuthatch that inspired man to build from earth in imitation of their nests. One can believe that here, where the buildings seem part of the barren mountain slope, folding into the landscape.
These thousands of sheep sustained an equally large human population. Before the Greek Civil War of 1945-49 the village had more than 2,000 inhabitants, but the region was evacuated during the war and many of its people ended up in Eastern Europe then Germany, North America and Australia. Over the ensuing decades few were able to return or resettle, due to a mix of political and economic reasons. Ayios Yermanos and other villages in the wider region now count their populations in tens rather than thousands, but the ruins of the sheepfolds remain, reminding us of the size of the villages only 70 years ago.
The Rock nuthatch appears to have been unperturbed by the human tragedy and it reliably breeds here, every year, above the ruins. A largely resident bird, it breeds from Croatia to Iran, through Greece and Turkey, occupying barren areas with low shrubs, herbs and grasses, and occasionally woodland with scattered rocks. For its nest it will choose sites with bare rocky slopes, such as the slopes above Ayios Yermanos, or cliffs and gorges in dry or arid regions, including walls, old buildings and ancient ruins. Mostly it feeds on the ground, hunting for insects and spiders in summer, and seeds and snails in winter, but it is also a decent climber and can move and forage adeptly through trees.
The nest is built mainly by the male, who may use anything from mud and animal dung to hair, feathers and beetle wings. It is a remarkable structure complete with its own small entrance tunnel. In the photo above, near Ayios Yermanos, it has built the nest on a rock face, under a slight overhang, but elsewhere in their range they have been known to use buildings or other man-made structures. Remarkably, once it’s ready the female can lay 4-10 eggs inside.