Paul Smith on Bird-Watching on North West Crete

This page is a new and welcome addition to the "countryside" aspect of this site.  We are very lucky to be able to have the services of Paul Smith to cover bird watching and hope that the ornithologists out there will let us have some feedback for Paul.  We copy his monthly diary highlights - current month below - to a separate archive page each month to speed up searching.  We are still desperately short of photographs but are working on this. At the present time any contributions are welcome.  Copyright of any contributions will be respected and acknowledged and photo's returned.  Please, contact us first.

In a word, fantastic!  The Greek bird list currently stands at 422 species.  Many of these never occur in North or Western Europe or only as vagrants.  This means that you can come and get to know many species that you would never see otherwise.  Many of the birds here are as likely to have their origins in the Middle East or Africa rather than in Europe.  Just to tempt you, bearded and Griffon vultures as well as bonellis and golden eagles breed here and Lanner Falcons are trying to.  Look out for the red breasted flycatchers after you have seen moustached and fan-tailed warblers!

At migration time just about anything can (and does) turn up.  Spring migration does not end until early July and Autumn migration is well under way my mid August so there is something moving for most of the year.

The numbers of birds involved can be huge - flocks of eleanoras falcons and red footed falcons counted in the hundreds are seen when conditions are right.  Flocks of swallows and Martins go by in tens of thousands - so too are the warblers and other song birds that twice yearly use the island as a stepping stone on their journeys.  Mixed in with them are the true rarities and if you are into finding and identifying these then you will really enjoy the challenge.  How are you at identifying a rufous turtle dove or blue cheeked bee-eater?


The inevitable question.  The answer has to be elastic as it all depends on your circumstances and what you want to see.  The tourist season lasts from May until October so package flights are easily available and so too is accommodation, but outside these times things are a little more difficult unless you have friends who can point you to the where and when.  For the really dedicated ornithologist, February and March are especially good for Raptor migration when birds like imperial eagles appear and short toed and booted eagles as well as Steppe and honey buzzards all pass by in flocks.  At these times you might get wet for despite the pictures in the glossy brochures it does rain here at this time of the year.

For the average enthusiastic birdwatcher May and September are probably the best months to come.  In May the weather is not yet too hot and everywhere is still green from the winter rains and the rivers are still flowing so migrants can find food and water.  They tend to stay longer in autumn as they often have to wait for suitable weather before moving north again.  September is good as the hottest of the weather is over and is the only time that loop migrants like red backed shrikes are seen.

The resident species would impress any European birdwatcher.  The status of many of them is unclear as often they are nesting when others of the same species are clearly still on migration.  For instance pallid swifts and red rumped swallows in late April could be doing either thing.  The few resident ornithologists are working on this issue but for the visitor it is the enjoyment of seeing so many different species to those encountered in Europe that counts.

Of course there are, no-where is ever perfect.  Newcomers are always surprised at how elusive many of the birds are.  Instead of perching on posts, fences or tops of bushes many birds are concealed in dense foliage.  This is because, along with other Mediterranean countries, there is a long tradition of shooting birds.  In the past this was for the pot but nowadays is more for sport.  Passing laws to protect bird species has been done but in most areas is not enforced at all.  My next door neighbour cannot resist rushing out with his shotgun and blasting away as soon as a flock of bee-eaters goes by.  Also there is a high raptor population so small birds sensibly keep close to cover.
Seeing is different to looking when it comes to birds.

Seen against the mountains even large birds large birds can be difficult to spot.  If it takes you more than three seconds to spot the griffon vulture in this picture then you will have problems here.
From below they are easy....
Otherwise the only problem is heat haze, especially if you like to use a telescope.  The answer is to get as close as possible.  An advantage is that the light is generally extremely good for making observations and photography.

Birdwatchers will automatically head for fresh water so start with the rivers.  This is easy in spring as the winter rains will still keep the rivers flowing but in the autumn they will have all dried up.  Even then the river mouths usually still contain brackish pools that attract whatever is about.  There are only two permanent areas of fresh water.  The man-made reservoir at Agia, just west of Chania, and the natural lake Kournas to the south of Giorgiopoli.  These are a must but before you go brush up on identification - there are five species of heron and three of egrets to be seen and that is before you move on to waders and wildfowl.

Otherwise, you can take your pick from dozens of different habitats that exist here and depending upon your enthusiasm, find plenty of birds.  The less adventurous can lie on the beach soaking up the sun while enjoying flocks of white storks and glossy ibis moving along the coast.  The more adventurous can quickly hire a car, get up into the mountains and find the raptors, both large and small.  Apart from the eagles and vultures look out for eleonoras and lanner falcons as well as red footed falcons, hobby and lesser kestrel.  (Travel-tip - insurance on any vehicle does not cover damage to the tyres or underbody so take car on mountain tracks).  Please bear in mind that many of ??? especially the larger raptors are very sensitive to disturbance particularly in the breeding season when they should not be disturbed at all.

Both Rodopou and Gramvousa peninsulas are worth investigating as they appear to be important migration routes.  In spring especially they come alive with collared fly catchers, woodchat shrikes (and occasional masked shrike) and huge flocks of all kinds of warblers.  Being waterless, in high summer they seem empty though there are still woodlarks and black eared warbler breeding.
bullet'The Birds of Greece' by Handrinos and Akriotis published by Helm is an up to date and authoritative book and includes distribution maps for the whole of Greece.
bullet'Bird Watching on Crete' by Stephanie Coghlan gives instructions on how to get to the best bird watching sites on the whole island. It includes lists of which species have been seen at each by various birdwatchers.
bullet'The birds of Crete' soon to be published by the British Ornithologists Union.
bulletRight here on the website and associated domains at; .com and; .com; .org; .net
Paul is providing the site with a regular monthly update in the form of Diary Highlight listings of his bird watching right here from North Western Crete, so that anyone interested can see exactly how good it is at anytime during the year.  His sightings are without doubt accurate and reliable as he contributes to, for example, research conducted by the University of Crete.  If you are considering spending money on an expedition to Crete you could do a lot worse than watch this space.  e-mails to Paul are possible via with "Paul Smith" in the subject line.



1st Sept.  At Malame. 100 plus purple herons.


2nd Aug.  At Galatas. On the  National road, a dead barn owl.
                At Sirili. We saw 2 honey buzzards.


4th Sept.  At Neo Chorio. A short toed eagle - the right hand mans favourite bird.
At Tavronitis. There were flocks of gargeney, 30 plus another 20; and 13 sandwich terns. 


6th Sept.  At Neo Chorio. A flock of bee eaters passed by.


7th Sept.  At Gerani. Were 12 plus bee eaters.


8th Sept.  At Neo Chorio. A single kestrel.


9th Sept.  At Neo Chorio. We saw a short toed eagle.


10th Sept. At Tavronitis. A little egret, while:-
At Sirili. There was a booted eagle.


13th Sept. At Neo Chorio. Bee eaters heard passing overhead, plus gun shots, presumably from locals hunters.
At Maleme. 2 purple heron.


14th Sept. At Neo Chorio. There was a Robin singing.


18th Sept. At Neradzia.  More bee eaters. If only they would learn to be quiet they would have a better survival rate.
At Sirili. 2 honey buzzards.
At Tavronitis. A kingfisher.


19th Sept. At Tavronitis. There was a lesser spotted eagle; 1 adult and 1 juvenile purple heron; a sakar;  a white wagtail; a female hen harrier; plus more bee eaters.


20th Sept. At Galatas. A turtle dove, whilst:-
At Tavronitis. Were purple heron; sandwich terns; wood sandpipers; and a light phase eleonoras falcon.

Editors Note: An eleonoras falcon at Tavronitis was the last recorded bird-sighting in Paul
Smiths diary. Paul died from cancer on October 2nd at Chania General Hospital - where he had been admitted just hours previously - and but a few days after his last sighting was recorded. His loss to the bird-watching community is great, his contribution of enormous importance. We will ensure that his diary recordings here at CretanVista continue to be available. **Copyright is now the property of his widow Sandra, and all rights are asserted. Her permission is required for any reproduction in any form. It can be sought via our contact address which will be found on the home page. A link to that page is below.

A few final words for September.
This final time from his widow and 'Right hand man' Sandra, who so selflessly sent the extract from Pauls' diary just a short time after her sad loss.  This is what she wrote:-

"This is the last sightings from your resident bird man and I apologise for it not being up to Paul's standards. He always said that if a job is worth doing it is worth doing properly. Many thanks for reading and hopefully enjoying Paul's pages,  I know that he enjoyed doing them. Take care and God Bless. The Right Hand Man."

Ed: We will try to find someone to resume the bird-watching page, but this may well prove very, very difficult. We are certain that Paul would have wanted his sign-off added, so.....

Until next time, Good watching....

Paul's Diary highlights commenced at the end of August 2001.  The current diary is moved to the diary archive at the end of each month - if you are considering a bird watching trip to NW Crete, the previous highlights may well help you decide the best month for your visit - your link to the diary archive is below.