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.

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.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

This is rather less heavily drenched in the smell of male sweat than Freedom and Death, but it has rather similar themes of the relationship between education, thought, action and masculinity. Again I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence, and the Buddhism in this one brought Herman Hesse to mind; you could draw a parallel with Steppenwolf, for example.

The narrator is an intellectual, working on a book about Buddha, who buys a lignite mine, and develops a friendship with the man he has employed to run it—Zorba. There’s a very clear dynamic set up between the narrator’s intellectualism on the one hand and Zorba’s spontaneity and openness on the other. The bookish man learns all sorts of lessons from the enthusiasm for life of the man of action, as well as his untutored philosophy.

It would be very easy to make into the most awful kind of Hollywood movie* because of the rather obvious nature of that relationship, but the novel is better than the summary would suggest. Mainly because Kazantzakis writes good characters, dramatic situations and generally has the storytelling virtues that one associates with the great C19th novelists. And the details are interesting and unexpected enough to lift it above the obvious.

*I haven’t seen the movie version, so this isn’t a comment on that one way or the 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:

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.

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?

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