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.

Culture Nature Other

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:

European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
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)


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)


Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)


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.

Nature Other

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.

Me Nature


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.