Good bird days

I’ve had a couple of good days of birding. Yesterday we had a walk in some dry scrubby brush – cistus (ie rock rose), wild lavender, broom and flowers like wild gladiolus, orchids and so on. There were nightingales and woodlarks singing, and I also saw Dartford warbler, woodchat shrike, black kite and possibly most exciting, turtle dove, a bird I haven’t seen for a surprisingly long time.

Then today we went for a walk somewhere picked for no other reason than there was a big lake on the map, and again it was a lovely landscape with masses of flowers. Nightingales singing beautifully, and this time I managed to see subalpine warbler. And even better, red-backed shrike, which is a bird I’ve only seen once before, many years ago, and then I saw a juvenile or a female, so it was a boring mottled brown instead of the attractive male I saw today with a pink tummy, a rufous back, grey head and a rakish highwayman’s mask.

Then just to top it off, a family of crested tits turned up at the villa during lunch. So that was nice.

Exciting wildlife update

The wildlife picked up a bit today: some very camouflaged geckos on the walls of the house (I’ll post a pic when I get back to England), a raven flying over, bee-eaters heard but not seen.

And the treecreepers nesting in the roof, which I think I mentioned on Twitter but not here, turned out to be Short-toed Treecreeper. I thought initially it was a new bird for my life list, but I realised I saw them in Spain a couple of years ago. Still, it was a challenge to identify them, so I’m glad I managed.

And most exciting, what initially looked like a big fat bumblebee but turned out to be a bee mimic: the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. I’d post a link but I’m blogging from the iPhone and it’s a PITA. I’ve wanted to see one of these little clear winged hawkmoths for years and years and years, though, so that was very pleasing.

Holiday update

I’m still in France; no hot news on the bird front or indeed any other front, but it’s all very pleasant.

Some kind of lizard orchid. Not the prettiest orchid I’ve found, but maybe the coolest.

There’s a gecko behind the sofa on the other side of the room.

Holiday

I am in France, in a villa (or at least C17th farmhouse) in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur. Cork oak, cypresses, asphodel, thyme, broom, lavender, poppies etc etc. Scarce swallowtail butterflies, Sardinian warbler.

I’ll post some pics tomorrow. If I feel like it.

Araf

One of the few ways that being in Wales is noticeably different to being in England is the presence of Welsh everywhere. Not spoken Welsh — there was some of that, but not much, at least in the part of Wales I was visiting — but written. Every piece of public information — every road sign, every bus timetable — is written in both Welsh and English. And although a lot of smaller businesses just run in English, the bigger organisations like banks and supermarkets are also bilingual. The result is a continual sequence of double-takes as you go to read something and stare blankly for a moment before realising that you’re looking at the wrong bit.

At times this feels more like a political statement than a vital public service: I know that the language is relatively healthy these days — apart from anything else, Welsh is now a useful career skill because of the need to produce translations of everything — but people who are so profoundly monoglot that they need SLOW to be painted on the road in Welsh as well as English must be vanishingly rare.

It is often said, in fact, and it seems plausible, that Welsh is the most heavily subsidised language in the world. That’s not just the cost of all the signage and government literature; there’s also BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, for a start.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a bad thing. Of all the things a government can do with its money, helping keep a language alive seems pretty benign. 

» untitled photo of a Welsh road posted to Flickr by Herr Julian.

Wales photos

I’ve uploaded a set of photos from Welsh trip to Flickr. Here’s one of them, a singing whitethroat:

Singing whitethroat

I somewhat felt the lack of a wide-angle lens, with all that scenery all over the place, and I’ve held back some of the best ones for my photoblog Clouded Drab (there’s a couple already posted), but I hope you can find some you like. Over the next week or so I’ll decide which others to post to Clouded Drab and post the ones which don’t make the cut to Flickr.

I have returned!

I am back from Wales. Debriefing, holiday book report, lots of photos, and musings on the Welsh language and widescreen television to follow. Possibly. In the meantime, here’s a shot of ox-eye daisies with cliffs and sea in the background.

Not only does it illustrate some of the many pretty flowers to be seen in Pembrokeshire, it’s an example of something emphasised by the presence of a flat horizon in so many of the pictures: my apparently complete inability to hold a camera straight.

» daisies in Pembrokeshire, uploaded to Flickr by me.

Rain, rain go away

Don’t get me wrong, this place looks beautiful even when it is raining, but I think I’m ready for some more sun now.

I would say it was no more than I expect of Wales — it’s not a coincidence that the principality is famous for sheep rather than, say, vineyards — but in fact I read somewhere that St. David’s Head has more hours of sunshine every year than anywhere else in the country, so perhaps I’m just unlucky.

Still, I had a wet but mostly enjoyable walk today: the flowers are amazing. As well as all the gorse, bluebells, campion and thrift, there were little blue flowers I think might be called squills, and little wild white roses, and milkwort and cuckooflower and scabious and foxgloves and about a hundred others. It really is rather lovely. And I saw nesting ravens, and a couple of choughs, and there were whitethroats singing from every bush.

I also went to the cathedral today. If you use the criterion that a city is a town with a cathedral, St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK. I think it might be going a bit far to describe it as a ‘village’, but in more densely populated parts of the country it would certainly be a very small town. The cathedral is really attractive: lots of good medieval stuff and some unusually attractive Victorian restoration as well.

When they built the nave in [about] the C13th, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and standing in the cathedral looking along the nave you can see the north wall is visibly leaning outwards, which is quite disconcerting. So in the C16th they put in some internal buttressing and lowered the ceiling: there’s a beautiful ornately carved wooden Tudor ceiling with huge protruding bosses which you can see is just cutting across the top of the arched window in the west wall. And the exterior of the west wall is covered in the fabulous purple Pembrokeshire stone: I think it must be something like an iron-rich sandstone, but it’s a sort of aubergine colour.

Like most medieval cathedrals in this country, it had some of its best stuff — windows and statues and so on — demolished either during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s men; and no doubt in the middle ages all the interior would have been covered in murals and other decoration. But that’s just par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s ironic or highly appropriate that Christians created so much of the country’s artistic heritage and then it was other Christians who came along a bit later and destroyed most of it.

I’m in Wales

In a cafe in St David’s to be exact. I spent the last couple of days in the southern part of Pembrokeshire, in a village called Marloes; it’s the kind of place which, in England, would be one street, one pub, one shop and one church; being Wales, it has a pub, a shop, a church and a chapel. Anyway, I went there because of its proximity to an island called Skomer, known for its population of puffins. Puffin was my target species for this trip, really: everything else is just a bonus.

The first day I tried to get out to the island it was beautiful blazing sunshine and the sea was like glass, but the forecast was for the wind to come up in the afternoon, so they weren’t running boats to the island because they didn’t want everyone to get stuck there. Frustrating, but I took the round-island boat trip instead and walked back along the coastal path to the village. And I have to say, it was seriously beautiful: cliffs, blue seas, the cliff-tops covered in flowers.

The next day it was wetter but the wind was from the right direction, so I got onto the island: it’s an amazing place. The whole top of the island is covered in bluebells and campion and thrift, there are gulls nesting everywhere, huge colonies of auks on the cliffsides, and best of all the puffins, which nest in rabbit burrows at the tops of the cliffs. They are fabulously cute and extremely tame, apparently completely impervious to people.  I went to the Galapagos the year before last, and Skomer is as magical a place as any of those islands – or at the very least almost as magical and a hell of a lot easier to get to. It was raining for the first hour or so I was on Skomer and cloudy thereafter, so not great for photography, but actually the soft grey light, lush grass, stone walls and bluebells made a rather lovely combination. Sun would have been even better, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

And as well as puffins: guillemot, razorbill, shag, raven, chough, peregrine, fulmar, kittiwake. It was a lovely day. I’ll show you the photos when I get home :)

Hiatus!

I’m off to Wales tomorrow morning to look for birds and scenery and photographs. I daresay at some stage I’ll find an internet café or something, but if not, that’s why I’m not posting. Keep your fingers crossed for the weather for me…

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.

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.

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