Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

Bird of the Year 2007

It’s that time again. Last year when I did this, I’d been birding in Spain in the spring and then the Galapagos and Ecuador in the autumn. This year has been less dramatic—no albatrosses or toucans—but I did see some great stuff in Crete in April.

First, though, some local stuff. There have been Little Grebes in the local park this year, I think for the first time, and they successfully raised a chick, so that was good. And also in the park, a Mandarin Duck (an Asian species, but there’s quite a large breeding population in the UK now). Back in February, this Stock Dove was the year’s only new bird for my garden list:

stock dove

And there were also a couple of birds which I haven’t had in the garden for a long time; I heard a Tawny Owl in July, and perhaps the most exciting of the lot, I saw a House Sparrow on the bird feeders in August. Sadly, she was the only one.

On, then, to Crete. Crete was pretty fabulous, bird-wise. Lots of stuff, and some of it special. Apart from anything else, what could be nicer than being in the Mediterranean in the springtime? It’s nice just seeing all the common Mediterranean species like Crested Lark, Serin, and Sardinian Warbler:

Sardinian Warbler

Then there were species I’d seen before, but not for a long time, or not very well, which I had great views of; like the amazing flock of Golden Orioles flying one by one up the valley above Paleohora, or the oh-so-elegantly coloured Blue Rock Thrush nesting in a cliff face I saw from about the same spot, or the Wryneck I eventually saw after about an hour spent wandering around the Lasithi Plateau, trying to track them down by their call. Or this Cirl Bunting, a bird I think I last saw at Mycenae when I was 18.

Cirl Bunting

And Woodchat Shrike, Griffon Vulture, Squacco Heron and Purple Heron, which were all species I also saw last spring in Andalucia, but no less pleasing for all that.

I saw eight lifers in Crete, which I think is pretty good for a holiday in Europe. Any life tick is pleasing, but the least exciting would be Short-toed Lark (small, brown, distant; even the name is boring) and Ferruginous Duck (a good bird, but a very brief, distant sighting). Black-eared Wheatear [below] and Collared Flycatcher are both really attractive birds; Quail are famously skulking and difficult to see in Britain, so when a couple of them suddenly flushed out from almost under my feet it was a bit of a rush.

Black-eared Wheatear

But my best photographic opportunity came at the reservoir at Ayia. A lot of the birds were remarkably approachable, I think because they were simply exhausted by migration. I got close to some commoner species, like Whinchat and Cuckoo, but the really amazing sightings were two species that are, normally, very difficult to see because they spend all their time lurking in deep vegetation. The first was a species I’ve seen before, but never expected to see as well as this: Little Bittern.

Little Bittern

Both times I’ve seen them before, it was just a quick moment as a bird flew from one reedbed to another. I never expected to be able to approach one to about 25 feet, set up a telescope and take a picture. Even better, though, was another species, Little Crake. The bittern eventually, when I got really close, ducked into the reeds and stayed hidden. But the crakes just wandered around feeding at the water’s edge, blithely ignoring any birders nearby as though they were natural exhibitionists. I saw about eight individuals, and the only reason I didn’t get more good photos of them was that the little buggers never stayed still for a moment. Still, I’m particularly pleased with this one:

Little Crake

But even that wasn’t my bird of the year. My bird of the year was a European Roller. It’s big and colourful, I’ve wanted to see one ever since I had my first bird book—so probably for about 25 years now—and, just as icing on the cake, it’s even a rarity for Crete. I didn’t have my telescope with me when I saw it, so I couldn’t take a picture, but since it’s my bird of the year, here’s one taken by someone else:

» ROLIEIRO, posted to Flickr by sparkyfaisca.

Kolokithokeftedes (sort of)

This recipe is my attempt to reconstruct a dish I had in Crete. I don’t know if it would pass the Greek grandmother test, but it’s probably close enough that she’d recognise what it was attempting.

Kolokithokeftedes [courgette balls/fritters/croquettes]

4 courgettes (zucchini)
3 spring onions (scallions), including most of the green bit
a clove of garlic
fresh dill
fresh mint
100g feta cheese

& plain flour and olive oil

Grate the courgettes, salt them, and leave in a colander for half an hour. Then squeeze out as much of the juice as possible.

Crush the garlic, chop the onion, herbs and feta, and mix it all together with the courgette. Season it (though remember the feta is quite salty). Form this mixture into little patties, flour them and fry them in olive oil. You can also just eat the raw mixture by the spoonful; it would make a nice salad in its own right.

A couple of notes: I pan-fried them in quite a couple of millimetres of oil; you could probably deep-fry them if you prefer. Handle them carefully and don’t poke them around too much, because there’s not much in the mixture to bind it together. Make sure there’s enough flour on them, because it helps them colour up and hold together. And make sure the oil is reasonably hot; you want the outside browned but the inside still green and fresh-tasting.

These were good, and certainly similar to the ones I had in Crete, though not quite the same, somehow. If I was going to change one thing I might put in marginally less feta, to let the green flavours come through better.

Blogger Bio-blitz #3: Lasithi plateau

blogger bioblitz

The last of the three locations in Crete that I bio-blitzed was the Lasithi plateau, where I was from the 27th-28th of April. The plateau is just the prettiest place in the world, as well as providing some good birding for me. Apparently, it’s formed by the build-up of silt from the surrounding rivers creating a little flat fertile area high in the mountains. It’s like someone has taken a little slice of Holland nine kilometres by five and placed it 840m up in the middle of Crete. It even has windmills—little ones for pumping water, since although it floods in winter, in summer it gets dry enough to need irrigation.

Spring was a bit less advanced here; whereas on the south coast the flowers were looking a bit sun-blasted, here they were absolutely amazing. Real alpine meadow stuff anywhere there was enough room for it; higher up the mountain, where it got really rocky, lots of tiny little flowers growing amid the rocks. I was particularly pleased to find about 7 species of orchid.

Which makes it slightly embarrassing to admit that I didn’t actually blitz the flowers; I did have a couple of flower books with me with that in mind, but I found I was only able to ID such a small proportion of them to the species level that my list would have been seriously unrepresentative. So I’ve just got a bird list. The bird I was most pleased with was Wryneck, but there were lots of good things. The list appears below, but first, a selection of photos. The first three (the wheatear, lark and warbler) weren’t actually taken on the plateau, but they were at least taken while I was in Crete.

You can either navigate using the strip at the bottom or just click on the photo to see the next one in the set.

Common Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Eurasian Griffon Vulture
Common Buzzard

Common Quail

Yellow-legged Gull

Eurasian Collared Dove
Woodpigeon

Common Cuckoo

Eurasian Wryneck

Crested Lark
Woodlark

Barn Swallow

Tree Pipit
Yellow Wagtail

Common Blackbird

Sardinian Warbler
Great Reed Warbler

Spotted Flycatcher
Blue Rock-Thrush
European Stonechat
Whinchat
Northern Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear

Great Tit
Blue Tit

Woodchat Shrike

Common Raven
Hooded Crow
Eurasian Jay

House Sparrow

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

Corn Bunting
Cirl Bunting

That barn owl bio blitz button is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is 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.

Blogger Bio-blitz #2: Paleohora

blogger bioblitz

Paleohora is a little town on the south coast of the western end of Crete. It’s an expanding resort town with plenty of tavernas and cafes, but still small and quiet compared to the established resorts. Especially quiet in April, which is really before the tourist season starts in earnest. The town sits on a little headland with the ruins of (Venetian?) castle on the end. Immediately behind the town is the start of the mountains, all rocky scrubby stuff, and to one side there’s a little river valley with olive groves and trees and things, which goes down to form a little reed-lined pool. So there’s a range of habitats present and it’s well-placed to pick up migrant birds. This is a shot of the town looking back from the castle site; I haven’t got a picture of the castle because it’s just a few wall-bases and really not picturesque at all.

Paleohora

My best birds here were Common Quail—a species that is relatively common across Europe but very difficult to see—and, especially, European Roller, a great big blue thing I’ve wanted to see for years and is even a rarity for Crete. Oh, and a whole flock of eight Golden Orioles, spectacular yellow birds that are normally shy and reclusive, but which I had a good view of as the flew one by one across the olive groves. But I don’t have any bird pictures from here; I didn’t feel like carrying my telescope around. So here’s my bird list for April 22nd-25th with interspersed photos of the area just for local colour.

Squacco Heron
Purple Heron
Little Egret

Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon
Common Kestrel

grasshopper on prickly pear
A big grasshopper/locust thing perched on a prickly pear. Prickly pear is an introduced species; from Mexico, I think? that’s fairly common in various places around the Med.

Common Quail

Common Sandpiper
Yellow-legged Gull

Collared Dove
Turtle Dove

river valley
This is part of the river valley from up on the hill. You can see olive groves, obviously; the common tree tended to be some species of plane.

European Scops Owl (heard)

Common Swift

European Roller
European Bee-eater

Silene
I’m pretty sure that’s some species of Silene, but I don’t know which one.

Crested Lark

Barn Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

Tree Pipit

wasp nest
An empty wasp nest on what I think might be myrtle. Taken down on the beach.

Common Blackbird

Sardinian Warbler
Common Whitethroat
Blackcap
Garden Warbler
Wood Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Sedge Warbler

pebbly beach
A shot of the shingle beach. There’s a sandy beach on the other side of the headland, but it seemed less productive for birdwatching so I didn’t go there much.

Spotted Flycatcher
Whinchat
Common Redstart
Common Nightingale
Blue Rock-Thrush

Great Tit
Blue Tit

Woodchat Shrike

Hooded Crow

Golden Oriole

waves breaking on the rocks
Waves breaking on the rocks.

House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow

European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

That barn owl bio blitz button 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.

Crete by Antony Beevor

The story of the German invasion of Crete during WW2 and, to a lesser extent, the resistance thereafter.

This is really a book of cockups all round; the Germans had already taken the Greek mainland and planned a completely airborne invasion of Crete using paratroops and gliders which was, as it turned out, wildly ambitious, not least because a man floating down on a parachute is an easy target for someone on the ground. Moreover, thanks to Bletchley Park, the Allied commander had access to information derived directly from German radio traffic.

Nonetheless, thanks to bad planning (for example, the Allies had been in the island for many months, but they still didn’t have a robust communications network in place), lack of initiative, and most crucially, the Allied CO’s misunderstanding of the intelligence he was being given, the Germans managed to take Crete, although with enormous losses, and the Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders had to make a scrambled retreat across the island. Helped by the terrifying ferocity of the Cretans, who had several centuries of experience fighting guerrilla wars against the Ottoman Empire, and since becoming part of Greece in 1918, had kept in practice with hunting and blood-feuds.

And of course with the Allies gone, the Germans then had a brutal crack-down on the Cretans. After the invasion the British helped set up a resistance network on the island, and eventually as the tide of the war turned, Crete was won back.

The overriding thing I was left with from the book was Crete once again getting caught up in the violent arguments of big countries that really had nothing to do with them.

The book feels a bit British-centric, but other than that it seemed to give a good account of what happened, and Beevor writes well.

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

Based on this and Zorba, Kazantzakis was a bit like D.H. Lawrence: the first highly educated member of a working family, and suffering a crisis of masculinity as a result. But with Cretan shepherds instead of Nottinghamshire miners.

This book in particular, which is about a rebellion against the Turks, exhibits a glamorous, nostalgic view of the macho culture of Crete; manly men who sweat and fight and drink and feud and hold to the kind of code of honour that largely involves killing people at the smallest perceived slight. And who despise book-learning.

I don’t want to be unfair; the book is more nuanced than that account might suggest, and I don’t think Kazantzakis is whole-heartedly endorsing the palikari warrior culture he portrays. But considering the way his characters behave, he manages to seem a lot more admiring of them than I would be.

It’s also worth pointing out that the main Turkish character in the book is just as much of a palikari as any of the Greeks, so it’s not completely one-sided in that respect.

Anyway, leaving nationalism, gender politics and Kazantzakis’s internal class struggle aside for a minute, I enjoyed it. It’s a big dramatic novel full of striking characters and action, and if it edges into melodrama and stereotype, well, it’s that kind of book.

Blogger Bio-blitz #1: Ayia Lake

blogger bioblitz

On April 21st, I went birding to a reservoir near the village of Αγια, written as either Agia or Ayia in Roman characters. Ayia is about 9 km SW of Chania, the capital of the westernmost province of Crete, and the reservoir is a good spot for migrating waterbirds. The reservoir is surrounded by reedbeds and then agricultural land; the walk down to the lake goes past orange groves.

To quote the post I wrote on the day, now with some pictures: “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.

male Little Crake

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.”

female Little Bittern

All that black around the edge of the picture is vignetting from the scope. Normally I’d zoom the camera to cut it off, but the bird was so close that I’d have to cut off its feet.

Here’s the rest of the list for the day, with a few comments:

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

These finches are all residents on Crete, and may well have raised one brood already, even though the passage migrants are still heading north.

Spotted Flycatcher
European Pied Flycatcher
European Stonechat
Whinchat (below)

Whinchat

Nightingale (only heard)
Great Tit
Yellow Wagtail (the black-headed subspecies, Motacilla flava feldegg)
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Blackbird

Barn Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

sand martins and swallow
Barn Swallow and some Sand Martins resting in the reeds. Most Barn Swallows in Europe have pure white underparts; the reddish breast of the one here is typical of the eastern Mediterranean. And I’ve just learnt that what I call a Sand Martin is known as a Bank Swallow in the US, so if you were thinking they looked familiar, that might be why.

House Sparrow – the subspecies known as ‘Italian Sparrow’, Passer domesticus italiae.

Hooded Crow

Common Swift
Alpine Swift

Eurasian Coot
Common Moorhen
Little Crake

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Grey Heron
Little Egret (below)

Little Egret

Little Stint
Common Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-legged Gull

Common Kingfisher (below)

kingfisher

Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)

cuckoo

Little Grebe
Ferruginous Duck
My second lifetime tick for the day, after Little Crake. I was just settling down to a coffee (Greek, medium sugar) and saw a couple of birders intently peering through a scope at something which, when I wandered over, turned out to be a distant but definite Ferruginous Duck. It obviously pays to be nosy.

European Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon

And one non-bird:

European Tree Frog

tree frog

That barn owl bio blitz button 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.

Blogger Bio-blitz: Crete overview

blogger bioblitz

Well, I’ve got back from Crete, and now’s my opportunity to write up some of my birding as full Blogger Bio Blitz posts. Now with pictures!

Some general scene setting, first. Crete is a beautiful island, mainly consisting of spectacular mountains surrounded by blue Mediterranean water. But it’s not a forgiving place; in the interior of the island you’d be hard-pressed to find a patch of flat ground big enough to lay out a tennis court. Apparently, a few thousand years ago, Crete and the rest of the Greek islands were covered in forest, but thanks to a thriving goat population, they are now mainly bare, rocky terrain covered in low, scrubby, thorny vegetation, which, thanks especially to the wild thyme, the locals boast is the source of the best honey in the world. And where possible, they grow olives—there are miles and miles of grey-green olive groves—or if there’s a bit more water, grapes, oranges and other crops.

In January or August it must be a seriously harsh landscape; but in spring the island is covered in wild flowers. There are more species of plant in Crete than Great Britain, and 1 in 10 is endemic. And even more than the flowers, the reason I went in April is for the spring migration. The list of breeding birds for Crete is surprisingly short, and many species that are common all over Europe—Grey Heron, Cuckoo, Hoopoe—are missing. But in the spring, many of the birds migrating from Africa to Europe stop in Crete on their way over the Mediterranean.

I went primarily for the birding, and I was hoping to ID a few flowers for the Bio Blitz; but I found the flower guides I had just weren’t adequate to confidently identify many flowers down to the species level. So I’ll be posting a few pictures of flowers, but not, generally speaking, confident IDs for them. I do have lots of birds to report, though :)

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.

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 :)

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.

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 :)

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.

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.

Paleohora

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

nopowriday

I’m off to Crete tomorrow, and with all the packing and procrastinating I didn’t write a poem. And I have to get up in about 4 hours time [yipes] so no poem today. I’ll try to write two tomorrow— I have a longish flight to fill time on.

Posting may be sporadic in the next couple of weeks while I’m on holiday, although I expect I’ll pop into an internet cafe most days. I’m travelling on my own, so I’ll have the spare time. And I will try to keep up napowrimo, though obviously I may not be able to post all of them while they’re fresh.

Toodles.

A cunning plan

I just realised that my camera can screw directly on to my telescope tripod. Expect me to come back from Crete with lots of attempted panoramas.

Can you tell I’m procrastinating because I don’t want to pack?

Close Menu