The area of the Municipality of Archanes-Asterousia is ideal for bird watching.
Its mountainous masses, the hilly ridges in its middle region, the reservoirs-dams of Damania and Armanogeia that have become wetlands, and the seafront, are nesting and mating habitats for small birds, predatory birds and migratory species that one may encounter in large populations.
The species that are the trademark for the entire region are the birds of prey, especially the griffon vulture and the bearded vulture. Their protection has been the main goal in the management framework of the two mountainous masses of Mt. Juktas and the Asterousia Mountain Range, which, to this end, have been incorporated in the European Protected Areas Network (NATURA).
At the Asterousia Protected Area Information Centre in Ethia you can borrow observation equipment (telescopes, binoculars, covers, and specialised books1).
BIRDS OF PREY
Crete is home to 13 significant species of diurnal birds of prey, 7 of which are considered important, and the island is a vital refuge for them. Especially for the Bearded Vulture and the Griffon Vulture, Crete is the last safe haven!
Feeding hierarchy in the birds of prey: If there are only vultures in the feeding area, Eleonora’s Falcon does all the “hard work”, which is breaking up the external parts of the animal (skin, sinew, etc.) with its powerful beak. Then follows the Griffon Vulture, which, usually, eats all soft tissue of the animal.
Then it is the turn of the Egyptian Vulture for anything that might have been left over, and last arrives the Bearded Vulture (or Bonetaker) who feeds on the bones of carrion. In areas where there are other predators, such as wolves and jackals, vultures are still the dominant species.
The predatory birds of Crete. Populations – reproductive pairs throughout Crete:
- Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus): 20-25 individuals / 4-6 reproducing pairs (the only ones in Greece). Endangered species close to becoming extinct
- Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus): 380 individuals / 140 reproducing pairs (≈ 70% of the population in Greece and the largest island population in the world)
- Golden Eagle (Homeyeri): 16-18 pairs (≈ 10% of the Greek population)
- Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus): 15 pairs (≈ 10-20% of the population in Greece). Crete is one of the most important refuges of the species. It belongs to the vulnerable species category (those whose population is under constant pressure)
- Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus): 6-9 pairs. It belongs to the vulnerable species category
- Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus): 70 pairs
- Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonore): 1106 pairs (≈ 9% of the population in Greece and 8% of the population in the world)
- Long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus): Listed as a rare species
BEARDED VULTURE (Gypaetus barbatus)
The Bearded Vulture is the rarest type of vulture in the European continent and in the broader Mediterranean region. It is the largest bird of prey on earth (>110cm, due to its tail), while its wingspan is wider than 2.50m. Its weight is quite small in relation to its size, around 5-7 kilos, depending on the sex of the animal. Its characteristics are a short neck, in relation to the buzzard, and its “beard” under its beak, which is where it got its name (“barbatus” in Latin means “bearded”). In general it has a long, thin body, which often seems rounder due to its hunched over stance.
Adults are mainly dark grey in colour, their back tinted blue or black. Their underside is off-white but you will rarely see this as it usually turns rust coloured.
Its average territory, in which it searches for food on a daily basis, is 350 sq.km. Its diet consists mainly of sheep and goats or small hoofed animals, such as wild goats and wild sheep, in their natural mountainous habitats, as well as rodents and migratory birds that it locates dead in the snow. What characterises it, however, is that it shuns flesh and mainly – 85-90% – feeds on bones and marrow! In reality, it is the only species of bird that specialises in this specific source of food. To break the bones of dead animals it usually drops them from high above, thus the name ‘kokkalas’ (bonetaker) they have given it in Crete.
BEARDED VULTURE – Threat and protection:
The Bearded Vulture is a priority species for the European Union and it is protected by Community Directive 79/409/EEC, because over the last decades its population has decreased dramatically. It has also been listed among species that are endangered of becoming extinct in the European and in the Greek Red Book of Endangered Vertebrates.
The most significant threats are human activity, specifically poaching, the use of poisoned bate, killing for taxidermy purposes, target practice, sparse food (especially in areas where nomadic animal farming is in decline) and the destruction of its habitats, mainly due to the development of mountain tourism and the opening of forest and agricultural roads that increase disturbance to this species, which is especially sensitive to human presence.
For a species with such a slow reproductive pace (every one to two years) and such a long reproductive cycle (8 months), it is impossible to make up for the losses caused by human causes.
Over the last few years some efforts have been made to protect the species by the Natural History Museum of Crete with funding from the EU, aiming at applying special management measures, such as a detailed population census, nesting ground protection, installation of feeding trays (as is the case on Mt. Juktas), etc.
Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
The Griffon Vulture is a type of vulture encountered in Greece. The top part of adults is generally brown or reddish brown in colour and their bottom half is cream coloured. Their head and long neck is covered in greyish white feathers, cream coloured at the top of the head and the bottom of the neck. Their fluffy, full “mane” (ruff) is white, but can rarely be made out at a distance. Its sharp, powerful beak is yellowish-greenish in colour and light grey at its base. Body length: (93-) 100 to 110 (-112) centimetres / Wing span: (234-)236 to 274(-280) centimetres / Weight: (6.2-) 6.5 to 8.2 (-8.5) kilos. This species forms colonies and is encountered in open expanses with sparse vegetation, while it nests in steep cliffs at low altitudes. The territory in which they search for food has a radius of 30-40km from the colony, but wandering individuals may be spotted searching for food much further away (200-300km). It feeds on medium to large farm animal carrion, such as equine or bovine species. It mainly favours the tender parts of dead animals, with a great preference for entrails. Its sharp vision, flying habits and mainly its “pack” behaviour help it locate carrion before it begins to rot, which is very useful in such hot climates, where dead animals can also be sources of disease. A group of 60-80 vultures can consume a dead sheep in 5-10 minutes or a lager animal (cow, horse, etc.) in 3-4 hours.
Locations for the observation of birds of prey in the Asterousia Mountains
- Abas Gorge: Drive to the village of Paranymfoi and keep going towards the village of Mournia. As you drive you will come to a sign that says “Abas”. Follow the sign and park where the road ends. From there follow the trail that leads to the renowned horseshoe formed by the cliffs of Abas Gorge, from where you can enjoy the view of Treis Ekklisies beach, the 140m waterfall (during the rainy season) and the large number of birds of prey that nest there.
- Kofinas Peak: One of the most impressive views of southern Crete and an exceptional location for the observation of birds of prey, flying in groups of five or ten over the limestone outcrops of the ‘Holy Mountain’.
- Observation point on the way to Koudoumas: A wooden hut built to be used as an observation point. If it is not open when you visit, the spot is still a good location for bird watching.