Out and About March 2011

UNDER CONSTRUCTION
 

Hi Everyone,


Birs BIRDS

A               All photographs by and © A@M

A trip to Omalos and Temenia at the beginning of the month turned up no birds worth photographing. A brief sighting of a female hen harrier near the Kandanos refuse tip is worth a mention. Back up at Omalos we had several sightings of cirl buntings, woodlark and jays, and one flock of c.50 red-billed choughs. We also had an interesting “birds and bees” moment, which you’ll find under the Animals heading. I’ve mentioned that here, simply because we thought we were looking at a bird to start with!
 

The flooded meadows behind Kalivaki beach revealed the greenshank, accompanied by three green sandpipers and a single common sandpiper. Later in the month, on a drizzly afternoon, I found two greenshanks and three redshanks making a small flock of five flying around the same area. When they settled they made a nice group to photograph, as below. The single bird shows it going into summer plumage.


 

A day out to Spili high meadows and the south coast gave us the usual griffon, raven and buzzard sightings. One sparrowhawk crashed through a nearby tree, scattering several smaller birds. Near Kourtaliotis Gorge we saw a flock of c30 jackdaws, and as we neared home, a female marsh harrier was being mobbed by yellow-legged gulls along the coast at Kavros. In this area we also saw a flock of ten cattle egret, with sheep. A photo of one shows that bird has encountered some oil – fortunately, not too much. ().

 

8th of the month gave us our coldest day since the snow in mid December. Though not as cold as the UK, temperatures around 5 – 6c with a biting north wind is as uncomfortable as it gets here, and unusual for March. Because of the huge sea swell and winds we had an afternoon look at Petres rivermouth. About 30 Mediterranean gulls were enjoying the rough sea as breakers crashed onto the beach. ().

 Up at the gorge, two griffons were motionless, holding up against the strong winds. Enroute home, we encountered our first alpine swifts of the year – just two.

 

At Agia mid-month, very little activity on the water. Four grey herons stalked the reeds on the far side, but in the sky, hundreds of crag martins, housemartins and our first swifts of the year. I’m tempted to say that some of the swifts looked paler underneath, and I should have tried longer to get photos – if they were pallid swifts, it would have been a first for us. As it was, I had to be content with a chiffchaff posing on the reeds. ().

Mid-month snow on the lower mountain slopes gave us very scenic views around Omalos, but no birds. A couple of days later we took our grandson, Alex, to the area above Askifou, called Tableland. The road had been cleared, but the snow lay deep. Above us, a couple of griffons circulated, and then a small flock of rock doves flew over at speed. (). As we continued climbing, a wren was ticking in a conifer, and I just managed a photo.

Back on the Askifou plain, we did a little detour though the plain itself and saw our first wood sandpiper of the year.


 

We can’t resist frequent trips to the Anopoli and Aradena area on the south coast – it’s such a scenic area, and we have often been lucky with bird sightings there over the years. There are always griffons, blue rock thrush and crested lark about, but in the past we have had memorable sightings of black stork, lammergeier, golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle, peregrine, red-footed falcon, tawny pipit, icterine warbler and wryneck. Today, 16th, our first northern and black-eared wheatears of the year, and a photo of one below we can’t quite identify – possibly an isabelline wheatear?

As we drove back through the Imbros Gorge, a golden eagle soared high above, giving me a reasonable opportunity for a photo.

 

Word got round that a black-tailed godwit had been seen at Georgioupoli. After a couple of searches, and another tip-off, I found it at the Viewpoint late one afternoon. Its head was almost continuously underwater, and moving when above, but a photo record was obtained eventually, plus another with a male teal.

On 17th March we saw our first hoopoe at Kalivaki meadows, accompanied by northern and black-eared wheatears and yellow wagtails, feldegg variety. The next day Margaret and I spent the afternoon “touring” the best known spots for birds. At the viewpoint, the godwit seems to have moved on, now replaced by a single black-winged stilt. At Kalivaki, now six hoopoes in one small area, with one having a dust bath, as shown below.

One flooded meadow had three little egrets, three green sandpipers, and singles of common and wood sandpiper – photo of the latter below.

At Kavros, in a newly ploughed field, we counted about twenty yellow wagtails, this time both feldegg and flava varieties, plus singles of northern wheatear, little-ringed plover, and meadow pipit. However, the highlight of this trip was to have an eagle fly low above the car, just as we were about to turn into the Kalivaki approach road. I jumped out the car, with the bird now making height and heading towards the sea. As I took a couple of photos it was joined by a second bird – so maybe a pair. We identified them as lesser spotted eagles, which were obviously on their spring migration, with the European mainland their next stop. Some photos below.

 

19th March and we had our first sighting of hen harrier from the house. It was a lovely male, but mobbed by two buzzards, which saw it off before I could find my camera. A quick look at Kalivaki in the afternoon revealed plenty of wheatears, two hoopoes and a female marsh harrier.

With the spring migration well and truly underway, we set off for Ano Mallaki and the south coast. We had another good hen harrier sighting near Ano Mallaki, a female, but nothing much else all day. Then, as we returned through the Kotsifou Gorge, we encountered jackdaws – there is often a flock to be seen, and heard, in this area. But these were perched on a telegraph wire, seemingly in pairs as in picture below.

If the photo above stretches the imagination a little in showing pairs, the next photo is how we first saw these birds!


So many wet days this month! On one, while driving to Rethymno for some shopping, Margaret noticed a flash of white on a big bird, probably a harrier. I don’t usually take the camera on shopping trips, but I did have it in the back of the car. We turned off the national highway and explored the area, which was near the Pilot Beach Hotel at Kavros. Almost immediately we saw a male marsh harrier hunting low over the fields. Then another, and another. We guess they had roosted locally because of the awful weather the day before, and there were probably more than three. One pictured below, taken through the drizzle.

Mature Male - marsh Harrier
 

On 25th we had a trip to the south coast with John and Patti Bayley. Our destination was Kokkinos Pirgos, near Timbaki. On previous drives to this area Margaret and I had found a “lagoon” at the end of the seafront promenade, and thought this time of year could be productive – and it was. Our first sighting was of a single adult greater flamingo in excellent plumage. It was attracting interest from locals – even the local police turned up. We thought they were going to move us on, but instead they all took photos and then left on their motorbikes!

 

 We then spent a pleasant hour before lunch watching black-winged stilt, redshank, ruff, marsh sandpiper, little crake, little stint, grey heron, water pipit and yellow wagtail. More pictures below.

After lunch we toured some other local countryside with the best sighting being three lesser kestrels. John and I believe they were this species, but photographing them was difficult against the sun, and at some distance. They were entering a disused building and were very excitable in the air, their actions seemingly different to what we see with common kestrel.

26th, and back on my local patch, Kalivaki is filling up! This afternoon twelve little egrets, common sandpiper, five green sandpipers, two wood sandpipers, two ruff, redshank and five little-ringed plovers. Beyond the flooded meadows, three hoopoe, a few northern wheatears, and my first woodchat shrike of the year. House sparrows and serins everywhere. Some of the egrets in photo below.

Before arriving at Kalivaki I had a quick look at the Viewpoint. Apart from the usual coots, moorhens and little grebes, singles of cormorant, wigeon and garganey were seen. High above two common buzzards were mobbing a much larger bird. It was too high for good identification, but almost had to be a young golden eagle owing to its size, and the large amount of white on the underwing.

ANIMALS

Our “birds and bees” moment happened while we were on the Omalos plateau, driving slowly near the central ponds. Margaret noticed a bird crossing the road, maybe 80 metres ahead of us. As we watched, the bird appeared to be moving clumsily, and I thought it was hurt. By now, with our binoculars trained on it, we found it to be a frog or toad. As it reached the verge, we drove up for a closer look. Well, no wonder movement was “awkward”, this amorous pair crossed as one, and seemed happy enough for us to take the picture below - European green toads in their mating position.


 

We see many bugs along the paths and tracks we walk. Margaret photographed this pair – we think they are lygaeus equestris, but there are many types of red and black bug, and we may need a more detailed reference book to be sure.


 

Enroute to Omalos after the snowfall, we came across a small traffic jam. Ahead, a nanny goat had just given birth to her kid – in the road! She was licking it clean. Margaret managed a photo, but only through the windscreen, as we didn’t want to disturb proceedings. For the record, the outside temperature was 4c.


 

On a somewhat warmer day than above, I had a surprise arrival on the car’s windscreen in the form of a dragonfly, which I was able to photograph at close quarters. I can identify some species, but not this one. With Roy’s help, it has been identified as a female vagrant emperor dragonfly – more likely to occur in Africa and Asia, but known to occur in Europe if carried on strong southerly winds.


 

I have my wife’s permission to include a photo of her under the “Animals” heading! Pigs often forage on the meadows behind Kalivaki beach, and I only got this photo when I turned round looking for Margaret. There must be a caption here somewhere! - “You don’t need binoculars, I’m down here!”

WILD FLOWERS

Our picnic site for the Temenia trip was under some cypress trees that we discovered last year. There was a lovely view down to Temenia, whose claim to fame is the soft drinks factory, whose produce bears the village name. Before we left, Margaret collected some cones, and then came across our first orchid of the year – a single pink butterfly orchid (orchis papilionacae) in bud.

 On a hillside enroute home we also saw three giant orchids (barlia robertiana) This time last year, the driest and warmest winter on record, there was a profusion of all types of orchids – this year they seem to be about a month later.
 

A favourite stroll looking for wild flowers, particularly orchids, is a track off the Ombriasgalos road, near Paleloni. On 5th we found four orchid species, the above two, plus milky and a single early spider orchid. The area was strewn with barbary nut, in a variety of blues from light to dark. Several small clumps of ornithogalum divergens (one of many called star of Bethlehem) were also seen, as was our first salsify (goat’s beard) for this year. A few pictures below.

 

Up at the Spili high meadows, the tulips are just beginning to show on the east side of the ”mound”. We have previously thought these to be tulipa saxatilis, but now realise that, as the leaves are not shiny, this is tulipa cretica, endemic to Crete. Attractive clumps of narcissus tazetta were to be seen on the west side. One or two milky orchid (orchis lacteal), otherwise no orchids here yet (6th). Some photos from Margaret and me below. ().


 

During a trip to the south coast late in the month we came across bumblebee orchid and late spider orchid. Margaret’s photos of these are below, together with my photo of the early spider orchid. (). Roy - the two spider orchids side by side please?
 

Enroute home from our trip to Kokkinos Pirgos, mentioned above, we stopped off at another spot we had found fruitful for orchids last year. Margaret had her camera busy taking the photos below. ().

 

LANDSCAPES

As we drive around western Crete, we increasingly find new installations of large solar panels being erected at ground level on previously green sites. During our trip to Temenia at the beginning of the month, we descended to Kandanos and saw yet another installation, but this one with wind turbines on the same site, as shown below. ().

 

During a trip to the south coast, we made a coffee stop at the 150 year old Turkish styled bridge just before the Old Preveli Monastery. The stream is full, making it more photogenic at this time of year. ().
 

The cold day, mentioned above, gave some dramatic seascapes. The first photo shows the beach from Petres, westward to Georgioupoli – a very cold looking scene. The second, taken just beyond Petres bridge, gives an idea of the rough sea at a point best known as a scuba diving centre! ().
 

We expect some snow on the mountains, and occasionally on the lower hills, every winter. This year we experienced a damp and dull winter generally, and then the coldest period occurred in March! For two days we had daytime temperatures around 6c at sea level, with fierce north winds. The rain was sleety and we knew there would have been a good snowfall in the mountains. A couple of days after, the skies cleared, and we took the decision to explore the Omalos area – if we could get there! The Cretans are very good at clearing roads quickly and we found we could reach the Omalos plateau, but not the Samaria Gorge approach , or the perimeter road around the plateau. Nearly half a metre of snow lay on the plateau, and with the temperature at 1c (daytime) it wasn’t going to go away any time soon. Unfortunately there were no birds for us to see - but a photographer’s paradise it was! Some memories of this trip below include icicles above a cave entrance – this is the cave on the right just before entering the Omalos plateau from Lakki. The Omalos approach road, “finished” at the Kallergi Hut junction – after that it was only JCB’s at work. ().

 

A quick look at Agia on the way home, and the distant mountains were looking lovely in late afternoon sun. ().

 

A couple of days later, as mentioned above, we took Alex to Tableland, above Askifou. It was 13th March, and very late for significant snowfall in this area. The view down to the Askifou plain was stunning, despite milky skies. ().


 

Our daughter, Alison, was visiting when she said that tonight (19th) the moon will be at its closest to earth since 1992, a so-called supermoon. The night sky was partly cloudy, but the moon showed through at times, and so a photo below taken from our kitchen window. ().


 

A coffee stop near Ano Mallaki, and apart from seeing a distant hen harrier, the weather was about to change dramatically. We were trying to “escape” the stormy weather by driving to the south coast, but the weather was catching up with us! ().


 

The snow is receding now, but will remain on the uppermost peaks for several weeks yet. In the afternoon, the sun sends a shimmering light onto the west facing slopes – as seen below. ().


THIS IS CRETE

 

I don’t expect to use this heading much, but Margaret and I have always commented on the road signs here in Crete. Apart from the traditional sight of signs with bullet holes through them, and signs warning of deer, when there are none, the sign below has always intrigued us. Distances are always given in whole kilometres, but what possessed this sign-writer to express it in metres – and this many!

 
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