Andrew Bell's Diary of Happenings in the Cretan Countryside

APRIL 2008

I have heard it said that there are 54 million olive trees on Crete.  Other suggestions vary by millions on either side of this figure.  I would be interested to know the correct number, but searching the internet neither EU nor Greek agricultural data have been able to provide an answer.  Could they be counted?  Walking at a gentle pace through an olive grove, I passed 1 tree every 4 seconds.  Assuming I could walk continuously from olive grove to olive grove, and assuming a 12 hour day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, I could count them in a little under 14 years.  What if I reached 54 million and the end was not in sight?  What if I lost count with only a couple of million to go?  Any volunteers?

The olive trees of Crete are renowned for the quality of the oil they produce, but they provide so much more.  From the olive and its stone comes a poorer quality oil used as a heating oil, in the production of soap, and as an ingredient in animal feed; also a dry fuel.  The leaves (separated from the olives at the start of the oil extraction process) and the small branches (removed during pruning) provide fodder for sheep and goats and are used as a mulch.  The wood is used as a fuel, for furniture, and for the many small items on sale to tourists.  Most appreciated of all, perhaps, is the shade that the trees give us on hot Cretan days. 

Returning home one evening in February a rabbit was caught in the car headlights.  Not a wild rabbit, of course, but a very large, white and grey one which had clearly managed to avoid Sunday lunch.  We saw the rabbit on a few occasions after this, never in the garden, but I was beginning to wonder if he would be attracted by lettuce  and carrot crops.  Towards the end of March, as the weather warmed up, we discovered him lying in the shade under the car.  We chased him away through the olive grove, but the next day he was back again.  Since then he returns whenever it is hot.  On a few occasions I have driven the car out of the drive and he just remains sitting there.  Neighbours who breed rabbits have all denied ownership, but I am suspicious that this is because they don’t want the task of trying to catch him, or maybe he has been released because he is at the end of his breeding life and is too old to eat.  Surprisingly he has not yet eaten anything in the garden.


On March 8th, looking out of the kitchen window, I saw my first Hoopoe of 2008.  What unusual birds they are.  As they fly from tree to ground they look like giant moths with their broad wings.  On the ground they take on a completely different appearance with their heads held high and their furled crests.  Despite their visibility when in the air, in trees or on the ground they can be very difficult to spot, especially when only their heads can be seen above the vegetation!


Spot the Hoopoes!


Around March 18th there appeared to be a considerable increase in the aerial insect activity over the olive groves.  Two days later the first swallows appeared, feeding very actively.  How do they know?

As we moved into April the migrants started arriving in numbers.  The first Woodchat of the year was perched on the telephone wires on April 2nd, and then on April 5th a Collared Flycatcher perched almost above my head in the olive tree beside the back door.  He even stayed quite close as I went indoors for my camera.

On April 17th birdwatcher Bob and I went for a walk around Mithimna, hoping to see something interesting.  Apart from a single Little Egret on the beach, it was as if all the birds had disappeared.  The following day, sitting in my favourite spot outside the back door, I saw a pair of Whinchats, a number of Spotted Flycatchers, Pied Flycatchers and Swifts, and a pair of Tree Pippits.  Such are the vagaries of bird watching.  Later in the day a number of Yellow Wagtails passed through.

During a short walk near the house on April 25th I caught the briefest of glances of a female Golden Oriole.  A text message to Bob elicited the reply that there was a small flock of them visible from his balcony.  I ran down there as fast as I could and was rewarded with the best sighting I have ever had of Golden Orioles.  It was about 7:30 p.m. and they were beginning to settle down to roost in some tall trees.  What surprised me was that they were so visible in the trees.  The next evening I hid in the vegetation and managed to take some photographs.

“Yellow is the colour of … “   - April in Crete - and golden birds!

In the garden of the house where we spent our first year in Crete there were two large walnut trees.  During that year – from April to April  - we saw the complete annual cycle from leaf emergence to fall, including an excellent crop of nuts.  A month or so after moving to this house I was looking closely at the plants in our hanging baskets, and noticed – in each basket - a plant I did not immediately recognise.  On closer inspection I realised they were small walnut saplings, about 8 inches high, grown from walnuts which had dropped into the baskets.  I managed to remove them from the hanging baskets and re-pot them.  They survived, grew through the summer, dropped their leaves last Autumn, and now new leaves are emerging.  It may be a few years before they produce any walnuts, but it will be interesting to see how much they grow each year.

It is difficult not to comment on the weather, especially as it has been so varied during the last few weeks.  As this is only our third April in Crete, I cannot claim to have much experience of the Spring weather patterns, but certainly this April has been much more windy than the previous two.  Most noticeable has been the proportion of hot Southerly winds (“Gadaffi Winds”), producing a heat that you cannot escape from.  On Sunday, April 20th the wind was extremely hot and strong, fanning the flames of the first forest fire of the year, up in the hills behind us.  Two days later, between 2 p.m. and 3  p.m., the temperature shown on the thermometer outside the house dropped 13°, from 34°C to 21°C.  It was like being moved from the oven to the fridge!
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Click Picture to Enlarge

Google Earth™  users who are also birdwatchers will be familiar with the site at 35°28’35.10” N, 23°55’59.72” E.  Especially good during migration, but whatever time of the year you are almost guaranteed to see a Marsh Harrier.  If you are VERY lucky (I have not yet been) you may see an Osprey.  The two tavernas there help make the trip even more enjoyable.

The Countryside diary commenced - 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.