Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Crete - Stuffed with Raptors

A family holiday took us to Crete, Rethymno to be precise. The birding around the hotel was pants and there weren't any herps or butterflies either! Despite this I managed to slip away into the mountains for a couple of days and saw some things.

Griffon Vulture
The headline is that I managed to connect with Lammergeier. Not only that but I had excellent views of an adult meandering along a spine to the south-west of Mount Psiloritis within 15 minutes of getting into the right sort of habitat. So so jammy. I was showing my brother-in-law Ady what I do when I go birding and gave him a tour of the closest mountains keeping my powder dry for the following day. As it was we had phenomenal success and he seemed to enjoy my passion and insanity...

Gorge for breakfast
I picked up a distant Honey Buzzard circling on the flank of the spine just above some olive groves. Honey Buzzard doesn't breed on Crete so presumably a non-breeder or failed breeder ambling south. It had just come up out of the olive grove where it must have roosted and I handed the bins to Ady. He couldn't pick it but got on something else higher up and handed the bins to me. I expected it to be a Griffon Vulture as these were extremely common in all upland areas of Crete I had seen. What I got was a massive long, thin winged raptor which had a passing resemblance to a large eagle but with a much more active flight style and bringing its wings in a downward V to turn. A Griffon floated about above and this was 10-15% smaller than the Lammergeier. The orange head and breast glinted briefly in the sun showing that it was an adult Ossifrage. I handed the bins to Ady who enjoyed the bird for another minute or so before it dropped over the back of the spine not to re-emerge. I was frankly ecstatic, my hope of seeing one tempered by the knowledge of the difficulty in connecting and the short duration I had to go birding. Amazing amazing birds.Sadly no photograph or film as just a little too distant.

The mountains in the background were the scene of the Lammergeier
The birding in total was restricted to two mornings in the car and two walks around the local area (which was dire). Aside from the resident Feral Pigeons, Collared Doves, Swallows and Italian Sparrows (lifer - woo) there were a couple of Woodchats, a sprinkle of Sardinian Warblers and a handful of Crested Larks. No gulls or shearwaters on the sea and no geckos. My sister and daughter saw a Balkan Green Lizard swim across the pool before diving to cover and there was a pretty cracking Swallow roost of perhaps 1,000 birds that came in at night.

The coach across to the hotel from the airport revealed the first Griffons, Buzzards and Hooded Crows whilst incidentally I bumped into Great Tit, Pallid Swift, Blackbird and a Grey Heron. A further heron on the move along the coast appeared to be a Night Heron but was seen badly from a moving vehicle. A trip to Chania to swim with the Sirens of myth and legend gave up Yellow-legged Gull whilst seen from the coach was a single Eleonora's Falcon over coastal woodland (my only one of the trip) and a distant Bonelli's Eagle over a coastal gorge. Best of all a very big Loggerhead Turtle in Chania's Venetian harbour.

The first mornings birding was to the west of Mount Psiloritis and a breakfast of Ravens and Red-rumped Swallows with a side order of Pain au chocolat and Lattes. Moving from a gorge just above the resort into the hills of Arkadi. Here we had Black Kites and Kestrels tussling with Buzzards and Ravens later joined by a female Honey Buzzard in the heaviest of natural moults. Greenfinches and Goldfinches were in the trees and a White Stork circled Arkadi Tip. A handful of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears roamed and these proved very common in the mountains.

White Stork
Into the raised farmland Griffon's were on the hunt and a giant sylvia with a white eye proved to be Eastern Orphean Warbler, my first of this species. Bee-eaters farted overhead and I attempted to explain how gloriously coloured they were to my brother-in-law whilst they appeared to be monochrome pinpricks in the sky. Crag Martins were seen briefly at this point too. The Lammergeier happened soon after and then we moved onto a sad looking reservoir and the results were predictable with a handful of Coots, Mallard and Little Grebe the sum total. A couple of Turtle Doves darted across the road and further stops yielded more raptors and a Grey Heron at Amari Dam Reservoir. From here looking south two super distant large raptors gave the distinctive jizz of further Lammergeiers over a high peak and a Black Kite was escorted across the lake by 2 Buzzards. It was getting very hot at this stage and coffee and ice cream were essential. We knocked it on the head soon after.

Nida Plateau with the Western Peak of Mount Psiloritis in the background
The following day saw me head to the Nida Plateau nestled between the peaks of Mount Psiloritis at 1400m after dropping down from 1700m. These were some serious roads and I wound myself up through village after village until finally I left Anogeia. I had already seen a brace of Hobbys bombing one of the almost infinite number of Griffons. Moving onward there were further Black-eared Wheatears and then the drop onto the plateau. My only Hoopoe of the trip was present on the cropped turf used for grazing goats. A strong breeze blew and the distinctive 'chow chow' of Red-billed Chough filled the air as two flew high overhead. This was not the Chough I was hoping for alas. There were a few butterflies in evidence with Cretan Small Heath and Clouded Yellow amongst the large numbers of Small Whites. Also in evidence in the bushes around the plateau were Blue Tit, Wren and Stonechat. On trying to leave the plateau I went the wrong way and found myself on a gravelled road with no barrier and several hundred metres of sheer drop. I did a very ginger 7 point turn in my tiny Suzuki. An aquiline dot at that point remained unidentified.

Cretan Small Heath
That was pretty much it for birding. We did see a few Feral Goats as our one mammal of the trip. A Cretan Water Frog was seen hiding by a water feature at the cafe by the dam and bothered by the kids on a trip out. Other butterflies included Cretan Grayling whilst frog bothering, Painted Lady, Speckled Wood and quite a few Swallowtails. An additional lepidoptera in the form of Hummingbird Hawkmoth was great whilst a larger hawkmoth species visited us at dinner one night to try and sample our wine. We didn't let it. And that was our trip to Crete.

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