Andrew Bell's Diary of Happenings in the Cretan Countryside


February, 20th: What a day! After a week (it seemed like a month) in which we experienced an earthquake, snow, sleet, hail, rain, plunging temperatures and storm force northerly winds, the 20th dawned to a cloudless sky and at last a changed wind direction. The sun was at least 7 days higher and hotter than when we had seen it last. The damage in the garden due to wind-burn is significant, but everything will recover. Of course there will be more rain and low temperatures this winter, but somehow we seem to have a turned a corner.

Along with the improved weather, the birds – which are looking much brighter – have turned up the volume. The finches, tits and warblers in the olive trees around the house are really entertaining us with their songs. Take a minute to focus the binoculars on the finches. The cock chaffinch with his subtle combinations of dark pinks and browns, greys and blues, and a greenish tinge on his rump; the gorgeous greens and yellows of the cock greenfinch; the bright crimson ‘face’ of the goldfinch contrasting with the jet black and white of his head and nape, and the deep yellow and black on his wings. Living in Crete it is very easy to concentrate on the majestic vultures and eagles, or the herons and waders as they pass by us twice a year, but these small residents – common throughout most of Western Europe - take some beating.


Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermudan buttercup) is:-

EITHER… That delightful plant which carpets the olive groves with a luscious green layer promptly after the start of the October rains. Later in the winter it produces its attractive, buttercup-yellow flowers. It disappears in the early summer either as a result of the olive growers’ rotavators or due to the drying out of the soil…

Springtime olive grove with swarming Oxalis pes-caprae. NW Crete.

OR… That tenacious weed which I seem to have spent the entire winter trying to remove from the garden. An impossible job, of course. Spade, hoe, mattock or just pulling up by hand, all methods are ineffective. An area looks clear, then within hours of the next shower of rain there it is again. Apparently it is edible (although rather bitter as it contains Oxalic acid – which I always understood is what makes rhubarb leaves poisonous) but I will not try clearing the garden by eating it! Like me, Oxalis pes-caprae is not a native of Crete; it is indigenous to South Africa, but has invaded many other countries where it has become a problem due to the difficulty of eradicating it.


Our landlady, Aretti, is as amused by the efforts I put into weeding the garden as she is by my growing vegetables in straight rows. The relationship between us, our landlady, and the garden is confusing. When we moved to this house last April it was understood (by us at least) the garden was ours to do with as we pleased. With a little help from a neighbour with a rotavator the side garden became the vegetable patch, but we have been developing the front garden more slowly, adding to the existing shrubs one by one and trying to plan the final result. But when Aretti makes one of her visits, she just can’t leave the garden alone. In January she scratched a few holes, threw down some broad bean seeds, then scattered a little fertiliser. All this in the part of the garden we have (or had!) earmarked for roses. We will surely achieve a satisfactory compromise in our joint flower/vegetable garden in time, but what really hurts is that her random bean plants are further advanced than my neat straight row, sown within a few days of hers! However, I cannot mention Aretti without referring to her generosity; she nearly always brings a gift with her – fresh eggs, wine, tsikouthia or cakes.


Around Christmas time, bird watching friend Bob and I were trying to make an accurate identification of the warblers we were observing. Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler, that was the question. They flitted in and out of the olive trees so quickly that it seemed impossible to train the binoculars on to them for long enough to see the identifying features. However, with a little patience I was able to snap a photograph of one.

Chiffchaff in NW Crete.Thanks to the marvels of digital cameras and computer software I was able to enlarge it sufficiently to identify the prominent, whitish eye-ring, divided by a dark eye-stripe, of the Chiffchaff. It also has darker legs than the Willow Warbler.

Our pleasure at making the identification was diminished when we later learned that Willow Warblers are not found here at that time of the year.

Paul Smith was very concerned about the loss of land – to building – in the coastal plains. These areas flood during the winter providing an essential habitat for migrating waders. Not only does building take away this valuable land, but the associated drainage further reduces the available habitat.

I must be careful not to be accused of NIMBY-ism, but the loss of the countryside to building does concern me. Not only is valuable habitat disappearing, but there is also the problem of the extra demands on the local infrastructure – especially the electricity and water supplies. Building swimming pools within a few kilometres of the sea seems to me to be entirely unnecessary. Furthermore, I cannot believe that the increase in the supply of bed spaces resulting from the current spate of building hotels and apartments will be matched by the demand for them.


Google Earth™ users in the Kissamos area will have been delighted that the image of the area has been upgraded. Marking walks, sites of interest, and friends’ houses is great fun; measuring distances and finding altitudes can be useful. For a gentle walk to Milia, leave the car at 35º 25’ 32.8” N, 23º 40’ 17.61” E. Starting altitude 325 m., Milia is at 542 m. Look out for Blue Rock Thrushes on the way.


The Countryside diary commences - February 2008.  The current diary is moved to the diary archive at the end of each month - if you are considering visiting NW Crete for the countryside seeking the flora and fauna, these previous highlights may well help you decide the best month for your visit. Certainly if you seek particular aspects you will need to get your timing right and remember that things can change quickly. Your link to the diary archive is below.