A greentours Tour Report

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Spili & The White Mountains
A Greentours Tour Report

9th – 22nd April 2015

Led by Ian Bennallick, Fiona Dunbar & Amanda Da Rocha
Daily Report – Fiona Dunbar; Vascular Flora systematic list – Ian Bennallick;

& Fauna systematic lists – Amanda Borrows

Day 1 Thursday 9th April
To Spili
After a straight forward flight, the group landed at Heraklion Airport, met Stewart and Joy who had arrived the day before from New Zealand, collected our three minibuses and set off. A very good lunch was had at a taverna overlooking cliffs and the crashing waves caused by a strong Northerly wind. Then onward for the second half of the two-hour drive to Spili, turning off the sea road and heading into the hills as we passed the old Fortessa at Rethymnon. The built up coastal strip was left behind and the wooded hills and old olive groves began. Orchis italica or Naked Man Orchid and Himantoglossum robertianum or Giant Orchid were spotted along the way before we arrived in the small town of Spili to be greeted by Herakles, his wife Christina and their very new son baby Yannis Manolis. We gave Christina and Heracles a bottle of fizz to wet the babies’ head.

There were a couple of hours to relax and unpack before meeting at Herakles' for a short orientation talk from Ian before crossing the road to Costas and Marias' taverna for a most welcome meal of hot Greek dishes such as rabbit or lamb in wine, with Greek salads and local wine. A pleasant surprise on a cheery evening was the familiar faces of regular Greentours customers - Pierre Guillet and his wife Michelle, at the table next to us.

Day 2 Friday 10th April
Phaestos and Agia Triada
After the high winds and hail storms of the previous evening, we decided it would be a good day to head down to lower altitudes. So after fresh orange juice, bread, boiled eggs, honey and Greek yoghurt for breakfast we headed out to the Minoan palace of Phaestos. Phaestos was one of the most important centres of the Minoan civilisation, and the most wealthy and powerful city in Southern Crete. It was inhabited from the Neolithic period right through to the 15th century BC. Verges were full of Ranunculus asiaticus, or Turban Buttercup, frequent Giant Fennel, their stately bright green leaves and yellow flowers a metre and a half tall, Roadside trees included fig and carob, with numerous olive groves behind, ranging from huge gnarled thousand year old individuals to ones newly planted in lines. The banks of thousands of white and pink Ranunculus asiaticus stopped us, mixed the odd red form and our first blue Anemone coronaria. As we drove along, the bulk of Kedros and then the hills below Psiloritis were generously topped with fresh snow – more than I had seen before on previous trips. The challenge was to combine blue sky over the snowy mountains as the backdrop to the flower group of choice. Himantoglossum robertianum, Anacamptis collina and Serapias bergonii were scattered but plentiful amongst the Turban Buttercups, with some specimens of Orchis italica a few Ophrys fusca, and our first Anacamptis pyramidalis. A low wall forming an old terraced field had a lovely collection of deep pink, delicate little Orchis quadripunctata. We continued on our way down the winding road. The heavily cultivated plain of Timbaki and a turquoise sea came into view, and after the town of Timbaki the sky became filled with hirundines. We parked up and for the rest of our time there the sky was full of low swooping Swifts, Pallid Swifts and Alpine Swifts, their clear white bellies and sickle wings easy to spot. A Honey Buzzard and a juvenile Golden Eagle made an appearance before the group split, some exploring the archaeology of Phaestos, some unable to resist the call of the nearby slopes. The ruins are extensive, with the remains of alabaster walls, the outlines of ancient 'shops' lining the streets, store rooms with huge pithoi or storage jars still in situ, a stepped amphitheatre... It must have been a wonder its time. The hillside, amongst the broom and hedgehog plants, was scattered with bee orchids– many looking somewhat battered by the recent weather. Dragon arums with their lizard skin patterns were mainly in bud, and the flowers included Ophrys kotschyi subsp. cretica or Cretan Bee Orchid with many and varied white patterns on the lip, a few Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa, many Serapias bergonii, and Ophrys bombyliflora (Bumblebee Orchid) in family group. There were Common Swallowtails flitting past as we attacked the picnic prepared by Amanda, in bright sun but with a strongly gusting wind which took lighter food items and entire plates if not well anchored. Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow butterflies were also seen here.

From here we walked the three kilometres down the quiet road to the neighbouring site of Agia Triada, or the half way point depending on how much leg stretching was required. Verges were full of Ebenus cretica, just coming into pink furry flower, with the Yellow Asphodel Asphodeline lutea and the pale salmon, branched Asphodelus ramosus. Various shrubby plants dominated, Cistus creticus and salviifolius, Phlomis fruticosa or Jerusalem Sage, and Fumana arabica. Other nice plants were Euphorbia characias, Erodium moschatum, Briza maxima or Quaking Grass, Lagurus ovatus or Hare’s-tail Grass and the fragile Papaver hybridum. White Gagea graeca were common throughout under the olive trees as were the Goatsbeards Tragopogon sinuatus and Geropogon hybridus. The insidious yellow Bermuda Buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae was a common weed on more disturbed areas under the olives. There was a pretty white Allium, Allium trifoliatum, and we added more Ophrys to the list, with some fine (or less wind battered) specimens of what I would call Ophrys lutea and Ophrys lutea subsp. galilaea (both Yellow Bee Orchid types), Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa with the fine, deep aubergine lip, and a couple of very lovely Ophrys fuciflora (which we were calling by the old name O. episcopalis) with their wide-spread lip. A fine pair of orchids seemed to be one of each of the two subspecies of Early Spider Orchid– Ophrys sphegodes subsp. gortynia and subsp. cretensis - one with the yellow edged lip, one without. The odd Wall Brown was about, and some Common Blue butterflies, difficult to see in the windy conditions. Eventually we piled back into the minibuses and headed back to Spili.

One last stop on the return journey was at a spot where a land slide had half–blocked the road. Here were Stonechat, Whinchat and Sardinian Warblers calling from the various perches or shrubby area. We met at Herakles rooms to have a run through the plant list before adjourning in Yannis Taverna for supper. Today was Easter Friday, but the expected candlelit procession did not take place due to the windy conditions. Amanda R took the opportunity to try the snails on the menu, and we had plates of horta - spring greens picked off the mountains – as well as a selection of different starters, with Greek sausages, tiny myzithra cheese pies etc etc...
Day 3 11th April – Easter Saturday
Pre-breakfast birding by Keith and Brian found lots of Blackcaps, Stonechat and Wryneck calling from the surrounding olive groves. As the wind was still very strong we again headed down towards the coast, this time at Triopetra. There were of course stops along the way to explore. At the first there were, amongst a fine display of Anemone coronaria, nice things such as a white Serapias bergonii, Anacamptis collina, and Ophrys sphegodes subsp. cretensis. At every stop today there were numerous Himantoglossum robertianum. Richard saw the first of the days Woodchat Shrikes.

The second stop was memorable for many glorious Ophrys fuciflora by an ancient olive tree, budding Dragon Arums and Common Myrtle by the steam in amongst the Carob trees, and a fine white Himantoglossum robertianum or Giant Orchid. A Cretan Festoon put in an appearance too, and a stick insect Snouted Grasshopper (Acrida ungarica mediterranea). A Woodlark displayed above The views were really quite outstanding, and the many splendid Giant Fennels made a fine foreground to the mountainous scenes. Frequently common were Asphodeline lutea and Asphodelus ramosus. Chrysanthemum coronaria var. bicolor was frequent by the roadside and in rough ground, today and many other days.

At Triopetra beach there were a good number of Whinchats and Black-eared Wheatears. Ian and most of the group braved the sand-blasting that the wind whipped up to take a look at the coastal vegetation including Yellow-horned Poppy, leaves of Sea Daffodil, pink Silene colorata and yellow Medicago marina or Sea Medick. The main low bushy plants included Helichrysum barrelieri, Phagnolon graecum, Myrtus communis or Common Myrtle and Pistacia lentiscus or Mastic Tree with Smilax aspera and pink Convolvulus oleifolius threaded through. Our picnic was taken sheltering from the wind in the taverna. Pied Flycatcher was seen. The taverna was closed but the owner kindly let us use the tables and other facilities for our picnic. Eight Little Egrets flew over, very swiftly, and a migrating Anax ephippiger (Vagrant Emperor) came to look at us. We returned to Spili via the Saktouria road, with superb views of the sea and hillsides, and the snow topped White Mountains, Kedros and Psiloritis. We stopped for a lovely Whinchat on the fence, and a Woodchat Shrike in a tree. Just before Saktouria Ian found a white Pyramidal orchid amongst the many in bud. The clarity of the air and the sunshine were excellent, shame about the gale-force gusts of wind! One stop for a colony of Pink Butterfly Orchids (Anacamptis papilionacea) was on a slope that was being thoroughly thrashed by the Northerly wind and very many of the orchids were scorched or broken. The Orchis italicas looked quite odd with one side wind-shrivelled and one side perfect. But we found some lovely specimens of the Pink Butterfly Orchids sheltered in amongst the Spiny Burnet. A very attractive shrub here with huge spines was Almond-leaved Pear, and Anacamptis coriophora, the Fragrant Bug Orchid was spotted right next to the van. Several Lupins were seen this afternoon, the hairy blue Lupinus pilosus, and blue and white Lupinus angustifolium. The flowers and fascinating fruit of Disk Medick and Hop Trefoil were admired, and also Briza maxima. There were numerous gorgeously coloured peas, the fine red Dragon’s Blood, and Lathyrus setifolius. We had a few more brief stops for views and plants, (Maidenhair fern on a damp roadside cutting, also where Alistair photographed Aristolochia sempervirens, Mandrake in bud, and we were nearly home. At the very last stop, Roger noticed an old watermill, nicely juxtaposed with modern windmills on the hilltop behind.

The evenings’ meal was very cheerful, though all were looking somewhat wind-burnt! Saganaki and Baklava very fine tonight.

Day 4 12th April Easter Sunday
The Gious Kambos
At last the wind was gone. Amanda’s van stopped for a Wryneck on a fence post on the way up to the plateau above Spili. There was a corn bunting singing away at our first stopping place. We parked up and walked on a track which took us past some limestone outcrops amongst the limestone karst that covers most of the plateau. As the years pass, the area that is ploughed and cultivated has increased slowly, with EEC grant money, but there are still large areas untouched. On the flatter areas and gentle slopes between the knolls and outcrops ancient abandoned terraces are visible, as well as features such as threshing circles. One outcrop which we gave our attention to had many and varied plants growing out of fissures and holes in the limestone- Iris unguicularis subsp. cretensis, Umbilicus horizontalis, Anemone coronaria and Anemone hortensis subsp. heldreichii and, Ophrys lutea. With the clear blue skies and snow topped mountains I think we all got some lovely shots. Each knoll we passed was explored in turn – this one had what was probably a sheep enclosure, the walls of which were built to include several natural limestone monoliths. Here were some fresh Neotinea lactea – a species to cause much discussion later as to whether Neotinea tridentata was also present or in fact even existed. Also growing there were Anthemis chia, a small orange marigold, Cynoglossum columnae and the endemic wall flower Erysimum raulinii. This was amongst a thick display of buttercups and Bellis annua, and the effect was very flowery! Many of the group were now stripped down to tee-shirts. The Griffon Vultures were also aware of the rising temperature and five soared above us. We continued round and regained the tarmac road. Fiona and Nina checked out the field abutting the stream looking for Narcissus tazetta that might still be in flower amongst other things, and were rewarded with a good number of the pale white-green and black velvet Widow Irises. The plants were so numerous, both Iris tuberosa (widow irises) and budding Tulipa doerfleri that one had to tread very carefully and stay at the edges of the field, with the fruiting Narcissi and Alexanders.

Using a huge fallen willow we were able to cross the stream to the 'Spili bump'. There were abundant Neotinea lactea and Orchis pauciflora, Anacamptis boryi and many budding Orchis italica. There were smaller numbers of Orchis quadripunctata, including a white form.

By now it was time to adjourn to the little chapel which had a seating area and a large table on which the picnic was prepared and set, under the biggest Plane Tree (Platanus orientalis) I have ever seen. The grass in front of the chapel was scattered with the red form of Anemone coronaria. An enclosed spring-fed pool was full of a Stonewort – an alga that indicates unpolluted water. Butterflies were more in evidence today with Cleopatra, Cretan Grayling, Speckled Wood and Small Copper flying.

The group spread out in the afternoon, some stretching legs and walking on down into the gorge, some pottering by the track, some wandering over the limestone knolls. Amanda R. found the most perfect group of Tulipa saxatilis. One of the abandoned and picturesque shepherd huts was home to a pair of Balkan Green Lizards, one of whom captured and ate something large and crunchy as we watched. The group gradually gathered by a bank covered with thousands of blue Anemone coronaria, which despite the wind of the previous days still had many in good flower. Back into the minibuses and we moved a short distance down into the gorge, parking up where a smaller gorge broke through the limestone cliffs. Here there is a series of deep pools of green water scoured out of the limestone by winter storms. I had a marvellous swim here, swimming companions noticeable by their absence, but I think I provided entertainment to the onlookers. Ian found Dittany (Origanum dictamnus) growing on the cliffs, and a pair of Buzzards soared over head, they don’t mate in the sky above. Round the corner below we studied the cliffs, watching a pair of Ravens and a pair of Kestrels displaying and carrying food to their nests.

As we gathered to go through the species lists for the day, I heard and then found an absolutely gorgeous, lovely, wonderful, fluffy lovely lovely sunlit lovely pair of lovely sleepy Scops Owls in the tree next to Heracles rooms. Just about everyone had great views of them. (Sorry Alistair, I lost control of my adjectives). Supper was of course a traditional roast lamb for most as it was Easter Sunday.

Day 5 Monday13th April
The Mourne – Drimiskos Pass (Vatos Village)
This area has a very different rock type - a green serpentine – and therefore a different soil and different plants. Our first stop was a hillside covered with Cistus rockroses – the large pink Cistus creticus, C. salviifolius in white and Fumana arabica with a yellow flower. The slope had moderate amounts of Orchis sitiaca and anatolica, the former with green in the sepals. There were good numbers of Ophrys tenthredinifera, one with a large yellow Crab Spider on it. Raptors were good all day, with the calmed winds and a temperature of 20 degrees C, Golden Eagle, Griffon Vultures, Honey Buzzard and Buzzard at this stop. There were some good Orchis simia or Monkey Orchid and Orchis italica or Naked Man Orchid. A little further on we stopped in Mourne to visit the chapel and see the fascinating thirteenth century frescos. A good number of Buzzards were migrating through, and there was a Pied Flycatcher in the graveyard.

We left the tarmac behind and walked down a rough track towards an isolated chapel where we would have lunch. The hillside above the slope was covered in Orchis pauciflora, one of the most frequent orchids here, and the low-growing bright red Rumex bucephalophorus. There were a couple of Widow Irises in good shape right by the road and the first Ophrys fusca subsp. iricolor of the trip, though not in the best condition. Further down, by a rocky outcrop, where we had previously seen Orchis provincialis, Brian and Keith found signs of orchids being dug up. Explorations around the chapel found some very good condition Himantoglossum robertianum, and five or so more beautiful Ophrys fusca subsp. iricolor. Vicia villosa was common, and also Eastern Milkwort – Polygala venulosa. Cuckoo was seen and heard. A nice plant was Valeriana asarifolia, near a bush of Thymelaea tartonraira. This soil and rock seems to favour the prickly leaved Kermes Oak. After lunch (tinned octopus, cream pies and wine went down well) the group made their way back up the hill or cadged a lift in a minibus. We had fantastic views of a male Montagu's Harrier which flew back and forth across the hillside and then sat in a field to feed on something, even letting us move considerably closer for a good look and photographs. Fi's minibus was used as a mobile hide. A second, paler male Montagu's Harrier was gliding over the hillside as we drove towards the serpentine 'slag heap'. This serpentine hillock was covered with pale pink Tulipa cretica just an inch or two high, with curving leaves The lovely series of terraces below were full of orchids – 17 species in all. The base of the limestone cliff nearby had numerous tiny, white Cyclamen creticum and some larger Tulipa cretica growing in fissures and holes in the cliff and amongst the scree below.

Back in Spili, the Scops Owl (only one this time) was in his tree and available for photographs. Heracles' wife Christina saw it for the first time despite having lived a few feet away from its tree for years. For the evening meal we drove out to the Panorama restaurant. The food was really excellent, as was the view from our balcony overlooking the bay of Plakias far below. Once again the wine and raki flowed. A Cretan Badger lumbered off the side of the road as we drove back, spotted by Amanda R.
Day 6 Tuesday 14th April
Armeni Cemetery and Kotsifou Gorge
Another fine sunny calm day. We began by exploring the (pleasingly flat and shady) ground around the Minoan crypts for flowers such as Ophrys tenthredinifera, and Orchis italica. This is recorded as the best Minoan burial site in the Mediterranean, dating back to the1340BC and consisting of 233 crypts carved out of the rock. Over 1000 skeletons have been excavated of which 159 were in the largest chamber. The dappled shade was provided by a grove of Quercus ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis or Valonia Oaks with very large acorns and in the sunnier parts there were several dense groups of Orchis italica, over a hundred individual flowering spikes, and a hyperchromatic deep pink individual. Throughout the dominant and interestingly shaped Goat-grass Aegilops geniculata, the tongue-orchids (Serapias spp.) were very good here too and we spent some time getting to grips with Serapias bergonii, lingua, orientalis and parviflora. There were Wood and Willow Warbler here, and a pretty chaffinch nest. Honey Buzzard and Griffon Vultures passed overhead. The latter part of the morning was spent in a small area, exploring and enjoying a limestone slope and outcrop with many, many large yellow Arum creticum and a thick covering of Cyclamen creticum, with pink and un-reflexed variants. There was an area of Saxifraga chrysosplenifolia, and many lovely Friars Cowls. Several patches of Paeonia clusii were found, with a few days to go before the buds would open though. After lunch and a strangely marked Buzzard we made our way to the Kotsifou Gorge. Walking down the road near the bottom of the spectacularly narrow gorge there were many chasmophytes such as Linum arboreum, Verbascum acturus and Brassica cretica, and Griffon Vultures and Red-billed Chough overhead. Keith found a group of five Griffon Vultures perched on the cliff face which we all had a good look at through the scope. Stopping on the return journey in the Kourtaliotis Gorge we looked again for vultures before heading back to Spili. There were last photo stops for the view above Plakias and several tiny fields choc-full of Barbary Nut in full flower and afternoon sun were a nice finalé.
Day 7 Wednesday 15th April
Viglotopi, Kourtaliotis and Kotsifou Gorges
A pre-breakfast walk with Amanda and I below Spili found Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat, Cetti’s Warbler, Wryneck, Nightingale and a lovely male Cirl Bunting.

The Scops Owl was again at his roost, in really wonderful light. He opened his eyes and had a good look round, and photographers got some excellent shots.

At the wet flush below Viglotopi, we walked though swathes of Dragon’s Blood to a pool where several spikes of Orchis laxiflora were emerging at the edge, some in good flower. There were other spikes in drier locations too, and a Scarlet Darter.

Then onward to a wooded area of Cypress trees, where we found Dactylorhiza romana growing, dark pink or two-tone dark and pale, (but no yellow ones this year) in small old terraces below the chapel. Further down under the trees and over a large area were fantastic displays of Cyclamen creticum. There were some spikes of Violet Limodore in bud by the trackside. There were many good butterflies such as Cretan Festoon and Large Tortoiseshell. The village of Agios Ioannis which we walked through to reach this was very friendly, with the locals offering us directions for the best walks and glasses of raki! There were some lovely old houses and arches. Lunch was at the excellent taverna Iliosmanolis above Kotsifou gorge, with casseroles and stews of beef, lamb rabbit, chicken, green beans, broad beans, meat balls.... and Muscari comosum bulbs in oil and vinegar as a side dish. All very good. After lunch some of the group who had not walked up to the Dactylorhiza romana site drove up to the chapel in the van, and the rest of us explored the fields at the top of the gorge. Keith and Brian saw 10 species of orchid higher up the slopes, most of the rest of us just got wet feet in the steam! There were however some lovely pools and waterfalls, a heavily blossomed Almond-leaved Pear, and Matty found a lush bush of Origanum dictamnus on the cliff below.

Driving round to the Kourtaliotis gorge we parked up by the arch where a well-made path descends to the bottom of the gorge. The views were spectacular, as were the waterfalls. There was a lone Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa, and some outstanding growth of Maidenhair Fern. There was time to watch Griffon Vultures, Red-billed Chough, Ravens, Black-eared Wheatear, Red-rumped Swallow and Blue Rock Thrush above us, and one van stopped for the Barbary Nut fields on the way back.

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