TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
15 - 22 April 2003
Tuesday 15 April
The group assembled in Gatwick at 4.00 to check in. We were all disappointed for Geoff and Joyce who unfortunately had to withdraw from the tour at the last minute. The flight got away promptly at 6.05 and we enjoyed breakfast, the latest Harry Potter film and glimpses of snow-covered Alpine ranges before arriving early at Heraklion at 11.35. The weather outside left something to be desired a cool 15ºC, northerly wind off the sea, overcast, murky and no sign of the high mountains inland. Ursula from Lyttos Travel met us, introduced George who would drive our minibus and we agreed that German would be the best communication language, with English and Greek interludes as required.
We headed west towards Chania along roads with lush green verges holding Crown Daisy, Salsify and Mallow. The sea was rough in the wind as we turned off the main road and went in to Rethymnon harbour for a lunch stop, along the way passing tourists huddled for warmth at bus stops. We were easily enticed by a restaurant proprietor who offered "central heating" inside a screened taverna. Things looked up however as we set about some Greek salad, Tsatziki and stuffed vine leaves, and the sun came out, the sun blinds were drawn and the temperature rose at last. A walk to the Venetian harbour walls after lunch, where Henbane and Yellow-Horned Poppy were among our first plant finds. We made use of Tonys mobile to contact George when we were ready to continue after our exploration.
We stopped briefly at Petres Bridge to see what might be there: Griffon Vulture, Peregrine, two Kingfishers and Wood Sandpiper made a good start to the bird list, while Blue Houndstongue, and Yellow Bee Orchid, were added to the plants. Further along our route we started to see fruit trees in blossom, red and white flowered Cistus, Jerusalem Sage, Spanish Broom and patches of Purple Vipers Bugloss.
We located the Silver Beach hotel at 5.30 after a few small detours, and arrived alongside a small stream and parking just yards from the beach. The afternoon had improved considerably since leaving Rethymnon and was now hot.
Drinks in the lounge were followed by a self-service buffet meal of salad, various hot main courses in a good local style and desserts including Walnut and Honey cake for dessert. We made for bed after a long day, with the sound of the surf outside giving a soothing background noise
Wednesday 16 April
A perfect morning, with light wind as the sun rose just before 7.00 am, but a bank of cloud obscured the mountains. The morning walk group found Common Sandpiper on the stream outside, Cetti's Warbler was heard, a Squacco Heron flew, Goldfinches were in the Giant Reed and Swift, Whinchat, Sardinian Warbler and Serins helped to make a good start to the day. The ground too was interesting, and plants included sheets of red Silene colorata, Three-horned Stock, Sea Holly and the leaves of Sea Daffodil.
After a good breakfast we set off to explore locally. First stop was for a walk below the bridge at the Tavronitis River. A mass of flowers in the fields and on the river bank included Pale Flax, Blue and Red version of Scarlet Pimpernel, and Ramping Fumitory. Buzzard, Whinchat and Bee-eaters kept the bird list going. Continuing down to the Tavronitis river mouth, we added a flock of Common Sandpipers, Red-footed Falcons, Red-throated Pipits and Blue-headed Yellow Wagtails. Insects were starting to move in the warmth and 22-spot Ladybird and Carpenter Bee were noted. Our coffee and drinks morning break was taken in the sun outside a taverna near Kolimbari, then we stopped near the harbour to explore the little chapel above the road and the flowery area below which had Small-flowered Serapias and Early Spider Orchid; Henbane, Salsify and Jerusalem Sage and many others were also seen. A Blue Rock Thrush sang from a small gorge and the harbour had attracted a Mediterranean Shag.
We enjoyed our picnic by the sea near Gouvernetou Monastery before heading for Afrata. Here George became both helpful and mystified. He drove us down to the sea and then back up towards the village. Some of the group got out at the half-way stage to look at the chapel and gorge, while the rest of us were taken back up to the village to walk back down again more slowly; George was to await a call on his mobile to pick us up at the half-way point. The groves held a lot of birds including Pied and Collared Flycatchers, Whitethroat, a flock of Spanish Sparrows and Nightingale and there were wonderful close views of Wood Warblers to enable Mike to point out the identification features. The flowers also were a treat, and Carol and Jim had quite a list which included Lesser Snapdragon, a Figwort, Golden Drop and Black Bryony.
The party regrouped as arranged near the chapel, but finding a steady mobile signal proved elusive. Tonys mobile was carried about and George was rung numerous times, but the signal was always lost. However, the series of calls without messages had the desired effect, and George soon appeared to take us back to the hotel. The log session was held in the lounge, followed by another good dinner.
Thursday 17 April
The weather was not too promising at 7.00 am for our walk under a low cloud-filled sky and light north-easterly wind. Little Egret, Little Ringed Plover started the day followed by Swifts and Yellow Wagtails as we walked along the beach. A bare, recently cultivated field surrounded by good scrub cover held more Yellow Wagtails, Tree Pipit, Woodchat Shrike and Crested Lark amongst others. The flowers too were very interesting, and we noted Yellow-horned Poppy, Agave, Common Fumitory and Buckshorn Plantain on the way back. The White Mountains were now visible, but looking grey despite their snow-covered tops.
We set off at 9.00 for a two-gorge tour with the weather still cool and grey. However, only a few drops of rain fell before we made a short stop at the Petres River. No raptors this morning, but Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchat, Wood Warbler and Common Sandpiper and Anchusa with lots of Thistle Broomrape on the ground. Our next stop was at the Armeni Minoan cemetery. Few visitors here, and the Vallonia Oaks were barely coming into leaf but a nice selection of flowers included Gagea graeca, Salsify, white Anemones, Star of Bethlehem and Proliferous Pink. A pleasing variety of orchids too: Yellow Bee, Bumble Bee, Woodcock, Italian Man, Small-flowered Tongue, Sawfly, and Giant Orchids. Not too many birds to be found but Cirl Bunting was a new addition and several more Wood Warblers.
But the rain started as we left at 12.00 and was falling very heavily when we stopped at Armeni village for refreshments. Our chosen taverna was full of locals and smoke-laden air, but they rapidly cleared tables for us and commiserated about the weather. Once the coffees had arrived, the proprietor turned up with a small flagon of Raki and sticks of cheese to warm and nourish the inner tourist.
Not much sign of the rain easing, so we continued in the hope of finding better conditions lower down near the south coast. Despite the rain and wind, the imposing and richly coloured cliffs and ravine of the Kouraliotikos gorge impressed greatly, and even inspired George to gasp in admiration. Driven back by the heavy rain, we had our picnic in the bus. A short venture outside found Crag Martin and Griffon Vultures in the mist, few flowers other than O. Italica and Silene colorata; everything else still waited for warmer conditions. On slowly then, over a road badly degraded and undercut in places (the same all over Greece after the wet winter, says George) to the village of Mariou for a further coffee stop and to look down towards the Libyan Sea and the cliffs near Plakias. Driving on, we came back up the Kotsifos Gorge, impressive in the rain but smaller than the Kourtaliotikos; glimpses of Cretan Arum here. A drive on through small villages was slowed when we encountered the aftermath of an impact between some local vehicles. The muddy skid marks on a wet road at a sharp curve showed the history; nobody injured but the road blocked to the large coach in front of us. Here we had the benefit of our smaller vehicle, and were able to edge past and continue towards Rethymnon and the North coast. The rain had stopped when we reached Georgioupolis so we made a detour to the fresh water lake to view a large number of hirundines (mainly Sand and House Martins), two Little Stints, Coots and Moorhens as well as a Little Egret in breeding plumage. There was also a nice Red-flowered Houndstongue at our viewing point.
Back to the hotel for a log in the lounge with drinks, and on to dinner.
Friday 18 April
We were woken at 3.45am by torrential rain and a thunderstorm immediately overhead which lasted for some time. At 6.15 it was little better: lightning flashes, heavy rain from the North, a very misty atmosphere and no power, so the morning walk was abandoned. The power returned at breakfast-time, but the days plans were in doubt because of the weather. However, it eased later and we set off to Chania at 9.30 via the coast road. Some unintended diversions took us through the main square and gave an opportunity to orientate ourselves and locate some cash machines for later use. Having parked near the old town walls, we headed for town in light rain past the harbour, where a strong northerly wind sent heavy seas washing over the edge. Bookshops, the Archaeological Museum, the Market and assorted coffee shops were popular destinations for the next couple of hours. The return to the bus later gave some exciting dashes along the harbour as the water washed well over when a wave came in. Before leaving we had a very good view of a Kingfisher sheltering from the wind on the edge of an empty swimming pool near the sea.
Arriving at the Venezelou Graves Park overlooking the town, we found a reasonably wind-free spot outside the souvenir shop and had our lunch with only occasional spots of rain. Several species of flycatcher and Serins fed among the olive trees.
Continuing as planned, we headed out to Akrotiri past the airport, and out to the headland monastery of Gouvernetou. The very strong Northerly wind persisted, but we had seen glimpses of birds in the woody area and valley below the monastery as we arrived so we had a closer look there and farther down the sheltered valley. Sheltering like us were Golden Orioles, Cuckoos, Turtle Dove Black-eared Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike amongst others. The flowers here had barely started, but we did find Yellow Bee Orchid and Turban Buttercup. Having returned slowly to the orchards of Agia Triada monastery, we found more Golden Orioles and a nice set of Hobby, Kestrel and Red-footed Falcons close together. The vineyard held Yellow Wagtails of several races and a Tawny Pipit. We had time for a visit to the monastery and see the famous Orange / Lemon / Grapefruit tree as well as Cretan Mullein growing on the walls.
George leaves us tomorrow, so we had a little presentation before driving back to the hotel for 6.00. We felt wind-blown, but pleased to have achieved so much despite the weather.
Saturday 19 April
A clear cool, morning with light wind and the mountains and the Rodopi peninsula clear. Sand Martins and Swallows flying close. Four Golden Orioles and 22 Turtle Doves flew west, eight Squacco Herons in the stream and a Pied Flycatcher.
Dimitris our new driver turned up with a small coach and we left for Agia Reservoir after a somewhat tongue in cheek call is it a two or three jumper day. It was a lovely sunny morning when we arrived, with sounds of a service coming over the water from the village church. A lot of birds were seen, including Alpine and Common Swift, a flock of Garganey, Marsh Harrier, 6 Squacco and a Purple Heron and at least 10 Little Crakes. The rough area below the dam was only just starting to flower, but had French Lavender, Pale Flax, Orchis laxiflora, and Small-flowered Serapias. Taverna coffees followed, giving time to admire the snow-covered mountains, and to search for tree frogs in the taverna garden wall.
On towards the mountains, we made a stop above the village of Laki and found a few flowers of interest coming: Anemone heldreichii, Picnomon Thistle, and Sun Spurge. The Omalos plateau looked impressive but rather bleak when we arrived, and with few flowers visible as yet. A stop near the hotels however did find two attractive types of sand crocus: the white Romulea bulbocodium and a purple version. A few birds were found in the fields including Northern Wheatears, Tree Pipits, Woodlark and a Redstart. Lunch was taken at Xyloskala at the top of the Samaria Gorge in very cool but still air. This area was of interest to Sue and Alastair who had last passed this way at a very early hour en route to walk down the Gorge to the sea. Various parties then went to look for flowers (little other than multicolored buds of Crown Anemones) and up to the nearby mountain hut to look without success for Alpine Accentor, however several Red-billed Chough, Raven and a pair of calling Chukar were noted. All then adjourned for hot drinks in the comfort of the cafe nearby.
Driving down we stopped on the plateau. A diligent search found a few plants of interest: Widow Iris, Yellow Gagea, more Sand Crocus and some Tulip buds just starting, growing in the lee of steel-mesh field fencing and in the shelter of some small trees. Tony glimpsed a Hoopoe and led a pursuit up the hillside in chase. As it was now clouding over and getting quite cool, we continued on to pause at the swallow hole - lots of water there. Woodlarks, Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails and a fine Rock Thrush were seen from the comfort of the small coach which gave excellent visibility. A further stop on the ridge near Agia Irini gave very hazy views to both North and South, and views of Strawberry Tree and Tree Heather. On past Prasses and the orange groves where we passed large numbers of hirundines. Back to the hotel soon after 6. Hotel is quiet tonight. We viewed Tony's digital camera images of Squacco Heron (hand-held through the telescope) and the flowers of Omalos before heading for dinner.
Sunday 20 April
7.00 walk with the sun rising behind Ag Theodori island: mild with a light NW breeze, but the mountains a little gloomy and unclear. First a Common Sandpiper on the stream then we picked up Corys Shearwater following a trawler out to sea. A splendid V-formation of 18 Glossy Ibis flew past. The bare field had Corn Bunting perched and Short-toed Larks on the ground. Whinchat, Yellow Wagtails and Woodchat Shrike followed. Returning to breakfast we passed masses of Silene Colorata and Ramping Fumitory, and were able to spot several Corys Shearwaters close to the same trawler as it hauled its nets.
Easter Sunday at home, and Elizabeth presented us all with chocolate eggs to mark the event.
Dimitris turned up at 9.00 with a somewhat larger coach a tyre problem with the other, unfixable on a Sunday and set off for another visit to Agia reservoir. As yesterday, the chanting of the morning service floated across the water to us. More Little Crakes were found, 8 Squacco Herons, a couple of Red-rumped Swallows and Penduline Tits which were well seen by all. The flowers seemed to have come on even since yesterday, and Pale Flax, Spotted Rockrose, Small Melilot and both Doves foot and Cut-leaved Cranesbills were found. Morning coffee time gave us Marsh Harrier and good telescope views of Penduline Tits.
The village of Therisso reached via the edge of Chania was our next destination and gave views of the narrow and impressive Therisso gorge. We enjoyed our picnic lunch on the walls above the stream by the church where we could see Cretan Cyclamen and Nettle-leaved Figwort. As we ate, a bat (larger than a Pipistrelle) arrived and started to fly around hunting as though it were dusk rather than mid-day. After lunch we strolled downhill through the village and towards the gorge, finding Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Griffon Vulture and Raven along the way. Wayside verges and fields held Milk and Picnomon Thistles, Graceful Buttercup, Shiny Cranesbill, Bur Forget-me-not and Ivy-leaved Speedwell.
Dimitris drove down to collect us as arranged, and we were back at the hotel by 4 oclock on a lovely sunny afternoon. Time for swimming, lazing by the pool in the sun, or just pottering along the beach.
A final log for this location and off to dinner.
Monday 21 April
The day started with a clear but with a hazy mist over sea and mountains. Sheilas birthday started with a feeling of déja vu with a fly-past of 18 Glossy Ibis as we took our morning walk. We also saw Spanish Sparrows and a flock of 15 Turtle Doves. After breakfast, it was time to say farewell to the Silver Beach hotel and move east again. Dimitris arrived with his original bus and we headed for the British Cemetery at Souda Bay. It was a perfect morning at this beautiful location. The grassy area near the Bay produced lots of Serapias orchids, with Lupin and Rosy Garlic which were still in bud. Birds included several Tree Sparrows, Little Egret, Hoopoe and White Wagtail.
After the best part of an hour we moved on to the round, freshwater, Lake Kournas which was empty of birds as it often is in springtime. We enjoyed coffees here, and the small flask of Raki provided by the management. So we continued to Knossos and arrived there about 1.45. The picnic was eaten in the shady area outside the entrance, and we then went on a tour of the ancient site. This was led by our guide Katerini who wore a splendid all-black outfit in traditional Cretan style. Her presentation of the complex site was very good. Competition among guides is obviously keen, as we were later quizzed by two of her colleagues about the price paid; we were suitably vague in reply. The drinks kitty provided ice-creams for all in a last flourish, and we continued to the Creta Sun. Not quite directly however, as Dimitris did not know the hotel as well as he said he did. A slight detour round the nearby resort of Gouves gave another touch of local colour before we finally reached our destination. The light in the west was good for birdwatching over the saltmarsh, so we found our rooms and then set off along the beach for the lagoon areas. First sightings were of Corys Shearwater following a trawler in the bay. Although distant the birds were readily seen in a telescope. There was a lot of water in the marshy area and the pools held a good variety of waders including Ruff, Wood and Marsh Sandpiper but even more surprising was a breeding-plumaged Cattle Egret with Little Egrets.
We felt we had done well when we adjourned to change for dinner. And then we were disappointed by the normally impecccable Crete Sun - the water was at best lukewarm i.e. cold. They did say that it was a hotel wide problem and technicians were working on it. Indeed they were, as the water was hot later in the evening. The buffet dinner was the chance to make good. Although we had got the general idea of labyrinths from the Knossos tour, we still found it difficult to find our way around the huge selection of dishes available. Tasting notes and selection suggestions were compared, and we did well. Just as we sat back at last, the hotel manager and a waitress stepped forward with a birthday cake complete with sparkler and token candle to celebrate Sheilas birthday. The cake was cut and demolished quickly to end a good day. And so final packing and bed.
Tuesday 22 April
The entire party gathered at 7.15 for a morning walk in still conditions with high flat cloud, and a calm sea with light mist. Shearwaters flying near the island of Dia were visible in the telescope and a fine selection of birds were found on the saltmarsh: a flight of three Squacco Herons, a flying Purple Heron, and two Greenshanks were heard and seen. The vegetation was quite similar to our previous location: a lot of Sea Holly, Sea Medick and Sea Daffodils with Glasswort on the salt marsh area. Interesting birds kept on appearing in style: Marsh Sandpiper with a fine reflection in the water, flights of Ruff and a good view of them when they landed in a long strip of vegetation between pools. Likewise Wood Sandpipers and Little Stint waded together for size comparison and finally a Little Bittern and Cuckoo shot through the sedge grass for quick sightings.
At last, to the sound of Crested Lark song, we went off to another phenomenal buffet. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and last discussion before adjourning to collect cases and assemble in the lounge for a final checklist. The Lyttos coach, driven by Lefteris, arrived promptly at 10.30 and it seemed enormous after our other transport of the week. Jim, who was staying on in Crete, said farewell at this stage and Mike and the group headed off to the airport as a flight of twelve Glossy Ibis dropped into the lagoons. The disappointment of the Duty Free shops being shut was made up for when the Gatwick flight departed and arrived home earlier than scheduled. Luggage collected, we said our final goodbyes and headed our separate ways.
Jim Coghlan and Mike Langman
Pinus brutia 2 Pinus pinea Stone Pine 3
Quercus aegilops Valonia Oak 28
Morus alba White Mulberry 41
Kohlrauschia velutina Proliferous Pink 187
Anemone coronaria Crown Anemone 211
Anemone heldreichii 215
Ranunculus gracilis 247
Ranunculus asiaticus Turban Buttercup 257
Fumaria officinalis Common Fumitory 306
Umbilicus sp. Navelwort 396
Platanus orientalis Plane 400
Eriobotrya japonica Loquat 429
Cercis siliquastrum Judas Tree 430
Melilotus indicus Small Melilot 579
Trifolium tomentosum Woolly Trefoil 658
Oxalis pes-caprae Bermuda Buttercup 735
Geranium molle Dovesfoot Cranesbill 741
Geranium lucidum Shining Cranesbill 749
Erodium chium 751
Mercurialis annua Annual Mercury 820
Citrus limon Lemon Tree 832
Cistus salvifolius Sage-leaved Cistus 965
Ecballium elaterium Squirting Cucumber 1032
Arundo donax Giant Reed 2494