Thursday, 27 June 2019

Trespassing on ghosts

"What's Bill up to over there?"
"I've just put in an offer for €30,000 and it's been accepted! Just needs a lick of paint... bird observatory or taverna?"
At the southern end of Elounda, a thin spit of land runs away east for several hundred metres before joining the Spinalonga peninsula, also known as Kalydon. In essence it is a series of hills that run north for maybe 4km and are, at their widest, 1km. Steep slopes run down to a rocky beach. There are a series of footpaths than criss-cross this area, but apart from those that service the beaches they are seldom walked. Brother-in-law Bill and myself spent several hours exploring the higher ground and were taken with what we found - a series of abandoned dwellings, linked together by miles (or, if you prefer, kilometres) of dry stone walls that, in turn, defined small parcels of land. There must have been hundreds of people that once settled here, tending olive groves, simple crops, sheep and goats. Larger, circular clearings suggested communal areas. Water conduits, wells and pumps also hinted at more recent habitation. There was so much infrastructure spread along the hill tops we concluded that there must have been centuries worth of human activity set out in front of us.

Until the mid 15th century the region was largely abandoned due to Arabic pirate activity, but by then, when the Venetians constructed salt-pans and fortifications, people had returned. Speaking to a local woman we learnt that it was but two generations ago that these hill-top communities were abandoned. They were lived in only during the 'summer' months, when people from Elounda made the short journey and tended to the animals and crops. No doubt modern living had finally rendered such activity as not being worth the time and effort. But what is left behind is a museum in which you can walk the same paths and enter the very buildings that the Cretan farmers did over the past 600 years. You can feel them watching you from the doorways and hear the bells on the goats ringing in the scrub. It is evocative. Like trespassing on ghosts.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Elounda birding

I'm sure that most of us have gone on a 'family' holiday and made the decision that, although there will be birding potential, it is best not to show any intent to act upon it. The binoculars, of course, still come along for the trip - just in case we might find ourselves near to a bit of decent habitat - but the scope will be left behind, as that would be a dead give-away of our true intentions!

This is how I treated our recent holiday to Crete, although I'm sure that I fooled nobody. I'm not the most widely travelled world birder, but have seen a good cross-section of what Southern Europe has to offer, and there was just Lammergeier and Italian Sparrow present on the island that I had yet to see elsewhere. We were staying at the fairly small coastal resort of Elounda in the north-east, nestled underneath a range of imposing hills.

I spent a good couple of hours each day mooching about the surrounding countryside, wandering no further away than 3km. I got up early on just the one morning and spent a couple of afternoons in the hills. Even with so little effort, and with no travelling, it was still possible to find some notable species.

From the town itself I was able to watch Griffon Vultures on a daily basis, that circled the hill tops west of the resort, which were joined by an Eleonora's Falcon on one occasion and regularly sharing the skies with up to 25 Alpine Swifts. All of the sparrows that grubbed around the houses, gardens and pavements appeared to be Italian, with some authorities treating it as a full species. Hooded Crows and Ravens were always on show. Sardinian Warblers (above), Crested Larks and Red-rumped Swallows were easily found in the nearest areas of scrub. From the beach a small number of Audouin's Gulls were observed every day.

The closest hills were very dry, steep and rocky. There were times when it was hard work to winkle out any birds at all, but a bit of perseverance yielded Pallid Swift, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (a family party, below), Chukar and Blue Rock Thrush.

Mid-June is not a good time of year to go birding in Crete, but as can be seen, there is still enough present to make a little birding effort worthwhile. A visit in the spring and autumn will throw up a good cross-section of species and, at times, in great numbers. There are salt-pans at Elounda that can, at times of passage, be full of birds - apart from the odd Yellow-legged Gull and Little Egret they were deathly quiet when we were there.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Cretan Small Heath

Now, where was I? That's right, I was moaning about losing my mojo/religion and finding things a bit of a chore... the remedy was to disappear to Crete for a (mainly) non-natural history holiday with Katrina in the company of Fiona and Bill.

Of course I packed my binoculars and camera...

A modest bird and butterfly tally was made, and these - plus a bit of the scenery - will make up a few future posts. Until then, and as an appetiser, here is a Cretan butterfly endemic, the Cretan Small Heath. I found a handful on the Spinalonga peninsula, close to where we were staying in Elounda, on the north-east coast.

Friday, 14 June 2019

A life beyond

Hogweed, similar to the one that I was staring at this week, sans the insects.
I bumped into Yossarian (aka Adam) this lunchtime. He is a much valued visitor to this blog and a fellow Spurs supporter to boot. We got chatting about many things, including my recent 'slump' - see the last post for an explanation of that. Adam appreciates natural history on a wider scale to me. He goes out into the countryside and takes in the 'greater whole' around him, whereas I tend to go out and obsess on the minutiae, trying to disentangle and identify the species that are before me. He said that he wanted to get closer to my approach and I replied that I was having a break from all of that and was moving closer to his! It was brought home to me earlier this week as I stared at the flowerheads of a stand of Hogweed. They were all crawling with life - bees, wasps, hoverflies, beetles, micro moths - and I stood entranced. So many species, with dazzling colours and varied shapes. I could put a specific name to a few, but there were many that I couldn't. And do you know what? It didn't take anything away from the experience. I could have stood and stared for hours on end. The insects came and went, the variety shifted but were never anything other than fascinating. And then I looked along the line of vegetation, across the meadows and onto the wood-clothed hillside beyond. Would that fine panorama become all the better if I were to make a list of the species that comprised what I was observing? No, it wouldn’t. A list would have been superfluous.

I reckon I'll be back to normal soon, but being able to wander across the downs without optics and camera has been strangely liberating, although, if I'm being honest, a bit nervy and daring. A life beyond the naming of parts? Yes. There is.

Thursday, 6 June 2019


I was pleased to see that it isn't just me who is suffering from a bit of birding lethargy, as Jono seems to be likewise inflicted.

It has crept up on me. I had most probably birded as heavily as I have done for many years over the period of January to April. All of it locally and, bar the odd day, most of it disappointing - maybe that is why my efforts during May have receded and my feelings are ones of deflation. In fact, a two-week break to the Dungeness shingle failed to wake me up from this malaise, and there were times when, even down on the coast, I felt positively jaded. And not just the birding. Plants, moths, you name it, I have approached it all with half-heartedness.

But it is not as simple as suffering from a bout of phasing. I still look up at the Swifts scything overhead and get excited. A field in full flower brings me out in pleasure. I've identified that part of this flatness is the belief that I have to identify and count everything. I've used the word 'have' in that last sentence. 'Have' as in it being a chore. A task. Something to be done against my will.

So why do it...

When I was down at Dungeness I started to make a list of all the plants that I found in flower. After ten minutes I put the notebook away as I just wasn't enjoying it. I didn't want to get the field guide out to put a name to a difficult crucifer. Was the plant before me a Smooth or Hairy Tare? I couldn't care less. Most unlike me. In fact one afternoon, instead of going off birding I went into New Romney to look around the old church. Had there been a rarity found down at the point during my time among the pews then I would have shrugged my shoulders and carried on looking at the memorial plates and grave stones. The bird would have had to wait.

I've been back home for four days and have not even considered going out. It's a great time of year for moths, plants and butterflies. Somehow there is repetition creeping into my natural history world. I may have willingly checked on the Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander plants at Fames Rough for the past twenty summers, but I reckon that this year I might give them a miss.

It will all come back again. I just need a break. I have writing and artwork projects on the go, a trip to Crete coming up (and I'm looking forward to a few butterfly ticks). New sites need to be found to explore. Different approaches. The 'same old, same old' just isn't cutting it any longer.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Picture this - a late-May round-up

Red-backed Shrike, Dungeness. This splendid male spent all day long in, and around, the moat. I can just about remember when they regularly bred in the UK. Yes, I know that I don't look old enough...
Marsh Frog, Romney Marsh. The ditches and dykes are full of them, and once one starts to 'laugh' it sets them all off.
Turtle Dove on Romney Marsh. I cannot think of a better looking (and sounding) dove than this species. 

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Art or out-of-focus?

It's not too late to see the Littlestone Green Sand Catchflies! They are a devil to photograph, being small and no higher than the blades of grass that grow among them. I resorted to my ancient DSLR with macro lens to get something passable. Not for me the mucking around with f-stops and exposure times - just focus on one plant and claim that those that are out-of-focus around it makes the shot 'arty'.

That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!