The Mediterranean dawn chorus

Today I wake early to immense light that we’ve not experienced since we arrived in Crete. Waves brim just outside the window beyond the broom scrub and blackbirds sing as they have done every morning through the rain, despite its attempts to silence them, their song rising and rising at intervals when light poured through momentarily. Finally, the pesky wind and low, solid clouds have moved east and the sky is clear. Even at this early hour, the sun is warm. At last we can get out to the high moutain reaches and spend whole, hot days walking in Crete’s famous gorges. A chaffinch chivvies its descending notes. A nightingale singing again, briefly. The bird arrived much the same time as we did on the island and has been warming up with subsong notes, finally throwing out its full licks, swoops and reels this morning as though announcing spring. I think of how much fantasy this song has inspired, and right here in the Aegean too; Sappho and Homer responding all those thousands of years ago. The resident Sardinian warblers are as encouraged by the warmth as I am. I step outside quitely. There they are on the broom, skitting from every top and scratching the air with their Mediterranean song, displaying in loops from the yellow tips. A male woodchat shrike, just in, perches on the tops near the warblers, who do not seem remotely bothered.

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Today is what we’ve been waiting for so that we can head to Zakros Gorge and do some proper walking in the warmth. Hopefully the burst of birdlife from our balcony might indicate the arrival of migrants elsewhere on the island.

The road to Zakros is winding, wild, and you barely see another person. In mountains like this, only yesterday, up on the Lassithi Plateau where snow still lingered and the wind gusted through, I found my first lammergeier; broad, huge and wedge-tailed amongst the many griffon vultures. It sailed over without a single wingbeat, slowly moving west until I lost it to the haze. No vultures today, but plenty of shrikes on the telegraph wires, and swallows. There are red-rumped swallows and alpine swifts, too. After leaving the main road just before Chandrasekhar, you drive through one of the least populated reigns of the island – arid mountainous terrain with olive groves in the lower climes or small plateaus, but mostly tenacious, thorny scrub clinging from every possible angle. Scree and ochre rock. The road snakes up through tiny villages, looping and double-backing, switchback and harepin.

The head of the gorge is accessible from the village itself, Ano Zakros (Ano means ‘upper’) or from a little further south towards Kato (lower) from a sandy passing spot on the left of the road. Taking the left hand of the two paths (by the well with the ornate dragon’s head tap), you enter the maw of the mountain, descending to the river which flows out to the Libyan sea along ‘Dead’s Gorge’ (in Minoan times the caves in the cliffs were used as sacred burial sites). At this time of year, it is still moving and needs to be forged at several places – a shoes-and-socks-off job, or a wet behind in my case at one crossing. At midday, the whole canyon is fully lit by a harsh vertical sun, but there are still turnings that leave you under the immense shadow of the south rock face.

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There are collared flycatchers in the gorge, distinctive males with their full white-through-black bands all the way around the back of the head. A pair of kestrels beat high up, circling and calling at our presence. The foot of the gorge exits to the smallest Minoan place settlement on Crete, built below a conspicuous arched cave high up in the cliff face above it. We arrived through olive groves with more flycatchers – plucking fat, knobbled, wild lemons from overhanging trees to pair with the handfuls of oregano and thyme we picked earlier – down to one of the most perfect beaches on the island. Even today, Greek Easter Sunday, the tavernas were open and lively with local Greeks and tourists. We chose one with the roof propped up by mature trees, right on the beach, drank ice cool Fix beers and ate spit-roasted lamb (a special for the day’s ceremony).

On our return walk, a splendid male rock thrush singing and swooping from one side of the gorge to the next.

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