Lasithi

Well, I spent a couple of days in Tzermiado on the Lasithi plateau, which is like a little chunk of Holland – flat fields and fruit trees – randomly inserted in among the Cretan mountains. Some good birds (wryneck, quail, cirl bunting, black eared wheatear, griffon vulture, peregrine, blue rock thrush), and up on the mountainsides, incredible flowers, including about 6 or seven species of orchid, as well as asphodel, cyclamens, and so on.

I’m nearly home now, so soon I’ll be able to show you the pictures :)

napowrimo #24-28

Greeku

An old man in a suit
gathers wild fennel from the verge.
A wryneck calling.

Fried Beauty

Glory be to cod for battered things,
for chips as golden-glisten as a suntanned thigh;
for fresh-made doughnuts, croutons, chicken wings.
All things that saute, sizzle, fry,
praise them.

A poem

Her breath is vine leaves, crushed in the hand,
and her sweat is green olives.

Under the plane tree three old men
watch the shadows creep across the square.

His hair is the wing of a swallow
his mouth a pebble wet from the stream.

Sitting in doorways headscarved women
slowly and precisely stitch.

In all the village the only sound
is the rustle of lizards.

Aphorism, shamelessly made into a poem via the addition of line breaks

A poem should be true;
not like an axiom,
but like a bell.

Hell in waiting

Well, I’ve made it to Malia. I described this place as being a good birding site and a Minoan palace, but it’s so much more than that. In the summer, it’s a place for the youth of Northern Europe to come and get sunburnt and wasted. I’m in an internet place on the ‘beach road’ – a long string of continuous bars, cafes, clubs and fast food joints between the town and the beach. And we’re not talking about the kind of sophisticated little bar where people quietly drink single malt and discuss literature; it’s sticky cocktail and dance music territory. In August this place must be hell on earth, covered in broken glass, stinking of burgers, vomit, piss and beer, and full of chanting tattooed Brits, Germans and Dutch getting drunk as quickly as they can. And getting into fights and smashing the place up. And getting their tits out for the lads.

The Minoan town, which at the time must have been one of the biggest settlements in Europe, wasn’t that much bigger than some of the clubs here. But right now only about one bar in ten is open, and those are empty. So that’s OK. And I’m going to be getting up at first light, walking to a marsh and watching birds whose ancestors were here, getting on with their lives, a long time before the Minoans. Let alone the invention of southern fried chicken or the slippery nipple.

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napowrimo 24: no title

Looking down into the valley
and seeing them fly one after another
across the olive groves
like flakes of gold,
or sparks, or dandelion petals,
or some kind of elemental spirit,
eight golden orioles;
I find myself thinking
I do not deserve this.

Long day planned

I’m jut killing time until I get the first bus of a planned three-bus, five or six hour journey halfway across Crete. Maybe even three-quarters. I considered breaking it up by stopping somewhere for a night halfway, but actually time is a limited resource and there’s no point using up extra days of my holiday hanging around in bus stations. Fortunately there are lots of buses for the second and third sections (Hania-Iraklion and Iraklion-Malia) so the plan should be fairly robust in the face of any little cock-ups.

Then I’m currently intending, after a morning’s birding at Malia, to take another couple of buses tomorrow and get up to the Lasithi plateau for a couple of nights before coming home. That’s a slightly flakier plan, and depends whether I feel like doing the extra bussing, but it sounds like a nice place, and sort of a substitute for going to Omalos.

I’m sure all this must be fascinating for you all :)

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Bio Blitz bust

It turns out I was a bit optimstic planning to ID flowers for the bio-blitz. There are just too many different little yellow compositidae and white umbellifers to try to ID them from descriptions of petal length and leaf shape. If I do it again next year, I’ll make sure I have a field guide I can actually use. I’ll probably submit one of my days’ birds lists just to take part, but it’s disappointing.

Irritatingly, I think going to the Omalos plateau, which was my preferred next step, is not going to be practical. The buses only start running there when the Samaria Gorge is safe enough to open for tourists, and that’s not going to be for another fortnight at least. I don’t actually want to walk the gorge, but I suppose I can’t expect them to lay on a bus just for me. I did consider getting a taxi there, which would be expensive but possible, but then I’d have to get out again afterwards, which would basically mean ordering an even more expensive taxi to come and fetch me from Hania. So I’m going to have to quickly come up with a plan for my last few days; I think I’ve done Paleohora now. There’s a good birding site and Minoan palace at Malia, which is a simple bus trip from Heraklion, but I don’t think I want to spend three days there. Perhaps I’ll stop an Rethymno (sp?) and check out the town.

Hmm. Decisions decisions.

Yesterday’s napo poem has been written but I’m not going to post it just now.

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napowrimo 23: Just theory

The ball is round, the game lasts 90 minutes; everything else is just theory. Sepp Herberger.

Except that the ball is oval.
The bar has spent a lot of money
on a widescreen telly
and isn’t going to waste it.

Passes from end to end
are noticeably quicker
that the ones from side to side,
and when a player bends over
to rearrange his socks,
his head is warped disturbingly
from short and wide
to long and thin.

Football never seems right, anyway,
without the sound on.
It’s like some kind of solemn ritual theatre;
with Giggs as the Three Muses
and Rooney symbolising Discord.

They take their turns to mime
frustration, anger, outraged innocence
a stylised repertoire of gesture
before a silent crowd.

Red-letter day

For me, one of the nice things about birding in Europe is that, in a sense, every new bird represents a lifetime ambition fulfilled. If you live in the UK, soon after you start taking an interest in birds, you get a book of birds of Britain and Europe, and spend time looking at all the intriguing species that aren’t found in the UK. Obviously, not all the ambitions are equally deeply held; not even the most geekily bird-obsessed six-year old is going to get that excited by the drabber waders and warblers. But at least you’ve known the names for years; it’s not like birding in South America or Africa, where often the first time I consciously register the bird’s name is when I identify it.

There’s one group of birds, though, that I can sincerely say represent a lifetime’s ambition for me. One of the first bird books we had in the house was not a field guide exactly, but a large format book of British birds for the family library. I’m not sure it even had all the British breeding species, and it certainly didn’t have many rarities. But it did make room for one set, chosen more for their visual appeal than because the reader was likely to see them. On what was effectively the ‘colourful birds’ page, along with kingfisher and golden oriole, there were three species that are occasional vagrants to the UK: bee-eater, hoopoe and roller.

Well, as of today, I’ve finally seen the whole set, because today I saw a roller for the first time. I’ve actually seen other species of roller in Africa, but I’d never seen European Roller, and it was even better than I expected. I saw it flutter up onto a bare tree, where it was sitting facing me in full sunlight, and I knew they were blue, but it was just the most beautiful, unreal sky blue colour.

So this is a big day for me. I’ve also seen Golden Oriole, Woodchat Shrike, Quail and Peregrine Falcon, which would be pretty good by normal standards, but today is all about that roller.

EDIT: what’s more, I’ve now discovered that according to the book, Roller is a ‘Very Rare’ passage migrant here, so not only is it a beautiful bird and an exciting one for me personally, it’s actually a good record for Crete! Which isn’t really that important to me but adds a little extra je ne sais quoi.

napowrimo #21-22: Greek snippets

21:

The waiter asks “How was the food?
Was everything OK?”
But I don’t know the Greek for
“The cumin cured pork was so salty
that my tongue is puckered.”
So I said “yes.”

22:

As the waves break high
against the rocks,
a small boy throws the town into the sea
one rock at a time.

napowrimo #something: not just yet

I have actually written a poem of a sort, but this internet connection is in a travel agent, and even by the low standards of ambience typical of internet cafes, it’s just not terribly thrilling.

And possibly more to the point, all I’d had to eat all day is a cheese pie. I came in here to fill time before going to get some food, but I might just have to go and eat. So toodles.

Paleohora

I’m in Paleohora. I don’t really know why I need to share that with you all, but there you go.

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The lake of crakes

I went out to a reservoir near Hania today. The guide to birdwatching in Crete listed, among the possible birds for the site, Little Crake, Spotted Crake and Baillon’s Crake. I’ve never seen any of those before, but I didn’t get my hopes up because all the crakes are notoriously difficult to see; they skulk.

So I arrived and pretty much the first thing I saw? A crake! In full view! And I had one of those panicky moments of trying to put down the telescope in a controlled fashion and get a proper look at the bird and check the field guide, all at the same time, thinking I had to make use of my lucky moment, while the crake just kept pottering about at the edge of the reeds. After I’d had a long look at it and decided it was Little Crake (plain blue underside and no barring on the flanks, since you ask) I had a quick check in the other direction along the lake, and there was another one! And it became apparent that not only were they not bothering to skulk, they were extremely approachable. I now have lots and lots of blurry crake photos. I don’t know how many individual birds there were – maybe eight, in total? – but I certainly had incredible views of them. All the same species, but it would be churlish to complain about that.

I can only assume that they are so tame because they’re on migration and their priority is eating furiously to get their strength up. From Africa to, say, Poland is a long way to fly for a little bird with stubby wings. I also got incredibly good views of a Little Bittern that just sat and looked at me as I approached instead of ducking into the reeds. Again, it was probably knackered from all the flying.

Being in Crete at the moment really brings home the scale of migration. The whole island is full of birds, but nearly all of them are just passing through. Even many species which are common all over Europe – hoopoe, cuckoo, grey
heron, little egret – don’t breed on Crete. I’ve seen all those species, and if I didn’t have a birdwatching guide to Crete with me I’d assume they were residents, but they’re all on their way somewhere else.

napowrimo #20 – shameless filler poem

Down in the benthic darkness
among the ghosts and mud
hagfish gnaw at the bones of a whale
as death rains from above.

I think I’ve recycled not just the first line from yesterday’s poem, but the last line from some previous poem a while ago. But it’ll have to do.

birding at Aghia Triada

‘Aghia Triada’ is ‘Holy Trinity’, and it’s a monastery on Akrotiri. I went there not just to look at the monastery, but mainly to do birding.

It was a good birding day, I’m pleased to say. Lots of birds, but the most notable were the black-headed race of Yellow Wagtail, Golden Oriole and two which are new for me: Black-eared Wheatear and Collared Flycatcher.

Also lots of flowers; my first orchid of the trip, a serapsis of some kind, and some extraordinary huge dark purple arums that looked like something from Day of the Triffids. So that was all good.

Cloudy all day, which was good for my personal comfort but not so good for photography.

napowrimo #19: Down in the benthic darkness

Down in the benthic darkness
where curious creatures dwell
is a species of hermit crab so big
it uses a boat for a shell.

The hatchlings start in a bathtub or fridge
and when that gets too snug,
first they move to a dinghy or sloop
and then to a sampan or tug.

Nobody knows how big they can grow
but don’t be surprised if one day
the wreck of Titanic lifts on its toes
and silently scuttles away.

I know it’s not actually Thursday any more, but this is yesterday’s poem for napowrimo so I guess it can be my poem for Poetry Thursday as well :)

Hania, still.

Well, I’ve been to the Hania Archeological Museum, the Cretan Folklore Museum and the Byzantine Museum this morning, so I’m all cultured up good. The Archeology is not doubt a pale shadow of what iwould have seen if the Heraklion museum had been open, but they had some nice stuff. The Folklore Museum was probably the most fun; certainly the most colourful, since Cretan textiles are very flamboyant.  They taken a little house and absolutely packed it with tools, costume, knick-knacks; every conceivable aspect of everyday life from the nuptial bed to the threshing yard. Some of these, like the threshing yard, and illustrated with little models which have exactly the folk-art quality to go with everything else.

This afternoon I think I’ll do some flower ID-ing as preparation for the bio blitz, and take a few pictures.

I had some delicious kolokithokeftedes yesterday; the menu described them as ‘zucchini croquettes’ which didn’t sound that exciting, but they were made of grated courgette, cheese, dill and mint, maybe some onion, and they were delicious. Then I had some kind of slow-cooked baby goat which was also nice but didn’t excite me as much as the keftedes.

I was slightly disappointed in  Heraklion to see that all the trendier-looking cafes advertised themselves as espresso places. I mean America and the UK needed the Starbucks revolution because our coffee was crap, but Greek coffee is delicious. I hope it’s not just becoming an old man’s drink.

Thanks to the very helpful municipal tourist office I have a couple of days birding planned – to the Aghi Triada monastery on Aktrotiri and Agia Lake. So that’s good; I was starting to worry about how much actual birding I would be able to do.

Hania/Chania/Xania/Canea

Well, here I am in Hania, and it has to said that it is extremely pretty. Turquoise waters, picturesque buildings, bright sun on stone walls; they’ve got the whole Mediterranean thing working well for them. I’m slightly antsy about getting some actual birding done, not least because my cunning plan to go to Omalos has been messed up by the fact the buses don’t start running there until May.

But I’m sure I’ll work something out. And I did see Griffon Vulture from the bus.

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napowrimo 17: The Death of Maradona

I’m in a Greek bar, watching football;
Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo on the break
so fast and effortless
it almost seems like cheating.

Then at half time,
among the trailers for upcoming matches
in the Bundesliga and the NBA,
a slow-mo montage of Diego Maradona.

Mainly the fat Maradona;
waving to an screaming crowd,
singing with some chisel-cheekboned pop star,
waddling out onto a football pitch
in a tent-like no. 10 shirt,
his mouth and eyes reduced to creases in his face.

Does this mean he’s dead?
Or dying?
Perhaps they just think that it can’t be long now,
and want to advertise the wallowing
in grief, nostalgia
and self-righteous pity
as an upcoming attraction
for the fans.

Knossos

blogger bioblitz

It turns out the Heraklion Archaeological Museum is closed for renovations until July. Which is disappointing, because it holds a world-class collection of Minoan artefacts and I was looking forward to going there.

Oh well. Instead I got on a bus to Knossos, one of the sites where a lot of the stuff in the museum came from. Knossos isn’t the most evocative archeological site I’ve ever visited: too much reconstruction, too much concrete and too much scaffolding. But it was quite interesting to see it, and it was a nice sunny day, on and off, and there were hooded crows and collared doves and goldfinches and things around the place. Wood Warbler and Willow Warbler passing through on their migration north. Best bird was Italian Sparrow, which my field guide treats as a ‘stable hybrid’ of Spanish Sparrow and House Sparrow, but Avibase has as a full species. So it was either a half tick or a full tick for my life list.

After looking round the site I had a plate of chicken and chips and went for a birdy wander. Not that much around, but I saw Hoopoe, which is always a pleasure. There are lots of flowers everywhere. When I do the Blogger Bio Blitz, wherever that ends up being, there should be plenty to keep me occupied even if I don’t have a good bird day. That barn owl bio blitz button, btw, is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is therefore available under the same licence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jennifer’s BBB buttons, but I wanted something to match my colour scheme.

napowrimo #15 & 16: ‘Gatwick, 5am’ and a haiku.

Poems for the last two days; I haven’t written today’s yet.

Gatwick, 5am

Were Dante writing the Commedia today
he’d surely model one infernal circle
on 5am at Gatwick airport.

Well, maybe not. Even piped music,
sulry staff, strip lighting
and the vacant stares
of travellers only awake enough
to slowly masticate
a sandwich
are not as bad as being made
to swim in boiling pitch.

In fact, he’d probably admire
the palatial scale of it,
the cleanliness and stretches of sheet glass,
the light, the WH Smith stacked high
with printed books,
the clocks on sale
small enough to wear as jewellery.

To think the inconveniences of modern life-
the pharma-spam, the traffic,
the people using mobiles on the train-
are uniquely dreadful
is as egotistical as thinking
you are the pinnacle of human culture,
the culmination of a thousand years
or progress.

We may not have Dante or Botticelli;
we don’t have the Black Death either.

—-

Started out kind of jokey, ended up worryingly portentous. Oh well, that napowrimo for you.

#16 is a haiku-type thing:

Preparing for take-off;
skylarks.