Wing over Corfu

The heron appeared larger and proportionally longer in the wing than ours but, when I look it up in the book the Purple Heron is actually a bit smaller than our Grey. As we waited in the departure lounge we looked out towards Mount Pantokrator, the highest mountain in Corfu. We’ll have to return to explore further.

The runway goes out along the edge of an inlet, straight towards Mouse Island. It cuts off a lagoon which was the ancient port of the town. A large bird, which I’m able to confirm from my quick sketch was a White Stork, flies down to the scrub at the edge of the runway but we’re called to board the plane before we can get out our binoculars and focus on it.

Our plane heads not out over Mouse Island but over the town, giving us an amazing view of the fortress and old town and then the green and hilly north of the Island as we head north west along the Adriatic Coast of Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia.

Corfu Town

OUR FINAL full day and we walk up via the hairpin bends through the olives and pines for a last coffee at the Garden of Dreams, at the San Merino wine and snack bar at Milia, on the terrace opposite the Achillion Palace. Theodorus Vassilakis the owner (above) treats us to a glass of red wine made with grapes from his vineyard, a five year old vintage, and a toasted olive sandwich – his own olives of course – which is delicious. He sits patiently as I draw him. He runs a traditional Corfiot distillery, producing kumquat liqueur, which you can sample here.

After lunch we’re probably a little overenthusiastic as we set off along the road to Corfu town, a walk that takes us about 3 hours to complete and which takes us alongside one of the islands busiest roads with no pavement in several places.

We stop at a small bar halfway and manage by gestures to make the barman understand that we’d like two mugs of tea but, when he brings them, we have the problem of asking for the milk. In the three weeks before the holiday I made a half-hearted attempt to learn some basic Greek phrases but I had to resort to an internationally understood impression to make myself understood by saying ‘MOOoooo!’

We find our way to the Liston Square, where we sit at a cafe table at the Libro d’Oro in an arcade overlooking the park in front of the fortress and have a fresh fruit salad, which is something of a work of art. I try the honeyed tea. The waiter speaks English so there’s no need to do my impression of a bee.

We walk back through the old town along streets wide enough for two donkeys to pass each other then take the bus back to Benitses.

Link Vassilakis and Sons

Merlin and the Kumquat

MUCH OF the bedrock that I’ve seen in rocks on the shore or in roadside cuttings is like this; it’s full of fragments of limestone, strongly bound in a cement of pulverised and powdered rock.

The 1 to 2 millimetre deep indentations on this pebble (right) are in rows too regular, I think, to be part of any geological erosion process. But I can’t imagine why any marine creature would go to the trouble of pitting out patterns in this way so my guess is that it is some kind of a fossil.

I’m not sure what species this large thistle was but it looked different to our Spear and Creeping Thistles.


The Kumquat was introduced to Corfu by an English botanist called Merlin. The fruits are turned into marmalade and also distilled to make a fruity liqueur. A Merlin variety of orange is still grown on the island.

This Spotted Flycatcher was perching on aerial, veranda and wire, darting off and hovering below the balcony of an empty villa.

This White Wagtail is the same species as our British Pied Wagtail but a different race. The continental male has a grey back, as shown in my sketch, while our Pied has a black back. The continental variety is Moticilla abla alba and the British race Moticilla abla yarellii.


The Ionian Sea

OUR BALCONY looks out towards the rugged limestone hills of the Greek mainland across the calm (while we were there) Ionian Sea. Every evening and morning there were a few small fishing boats about. I was impressed by the variety of fish at the fish stalls by the harbour; anchovies and sardines, the occasional pipefish, Red Scorpion-fish, still alive but gasping in their crate, which the fishermen warned us were difficult to prepare, a swordfish and other species which looked vaguely familiar but which I couldn’t put a name to. I did feel that some of the fish were rather small, particularly the swordfish which was little more than eighteen inches long including the sword. Hope that’s not an indication of overfishing. If you’ve caught a small swordfish, I guess that it’s then too late throw it back in to grow to adult size, so it might as well be eaten.

Common Wall Lizard, Podarcis muralis, this lizard with an orange underside and blue beneath the chin is the one that we see basking at the edge of the pavement as we walk into Benitses.

Naked Man Orchid

The Naked Man Orchid, Orchis italica, is found throughout the Mediterranean on grassy slopes, as here amongst the olives and cyrpresses, and in heathy garrigue and maquis habitats. Edward Lear was an enthusiastic visitor to Corfu and made watercolour sketches here. These flowers, with ‘arms’, ‘legs’ and anatomical details, remind me of the species Manypeeplia upsidedownia in his Nonsense Botany.

According to Collins Complete Guide to Mediterranean Wildlife, Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra, ‘favours dry, shady woodlands, invariably on calcareous soils’, which is a good description of this clearing amongst the olives.

A Blue Pimpernel

The intense blue put me off but I should have realised that this flower growing by a dry path on an east-facing slope through the olives is a relative of our Scarlet Pimpernel, that grows in similar situations back home. It’s Anagallis foemina.

The Feast of St Thomas

WE’D BEEN invited to see the church procession at the Achillion Palace by Fedon and Christina who run the apartments because their son was playing the euphonium in the Milea village band. The procession marked the feast day of Doubting Thomas.

The word iconic tends to get overused so it was interesting to see icons, the genuine item, being used in this Greek Orthodox ceremony. Two paintings formed the centre piece of the procession. Flag and banner bearers led the way followed by the village band, a  women’s choir (singing ‘A capella’ which means in the manner of the church, unaccompanied by music in the Greek Orthodox tradition), the priest and his attentdants, incense censers, cross bearers and others with bronze starburst or sun emblems on poles (heavy things to carry in the midday heat for a couple of miles) followed by what appeared to be centuries old iconic paintings of the Virgin and the saints, the second of which was further protected by a large canopy supported by polebearers.

There was a short service with hymns, prayers and a reading before the procession entered the grounds of the Achillion and another back in the village.

At the end of the ceremony, as the black-suited church elders kissed the silver cover of the priest’s Bible, Fedon explained; ‘They’re praying for the politicians who are going to take over Greece!’

We followed the procession down narrow streets – so narrow that they had to dismantle the canopy and walk single file through one alley – back down to the church.

The bells were ringing; a man had climbed a ladder to the bell tower and he was alternately ringing the bells, using straps hanging from their clappers.

Trying to use the free tourist map as a walking map didn’t work out for us as we tried to find a way across the hill from the Achillion Palace to Benitses. We found ourselves on a crag, frustratingly close, high above the rooftops of the village but with no path down. We had to retrace our steps and unfortunately by then we’d almost finished our bottle of water. But the walk did work out well for wildlife. We spotted some orchids which we came back to draw another day and on the top of the crag I disturbed an Agama, a stocky lizard with spiky scales. We got a better view of two of on the last full day of our holiday on a little crag by the road through Milia. One of those had a bright yellow patch beneath its chin.

When we finally retraced our steps back to the sea front at Benitses we got a good view of a Yellow-legged Gull, its yellow legs showing up well as it stood on the breakwater by the harbour.

The Green Sandpiper probing along the water’s edge attracted Barbara’s attention with its wagtail-like bobbing and the white on its rump.

Lemons at Andromaches: ‘help yourself if you need one!’ said Christina.

Spectacled Warbler

WITH SUCH a brief glimpse, this bird, which was checking out the leaves and the trunk of an olive tree, might have been an Olivaceous Warbler or an Olive Tree Warbler – two fairly indistinct birds. But I noticed a darker head and whitish breast and Barbara got an impression of an eye-ring and of chestnut on the wings, I’m going for Spectacled Warbler, Sylvia conspicullata, especially since neither of us noticed any eye-stripe.

Female Spectacled Warblers are less distinctive than males. It appeared to be chattering to itself.


Cleopatra, Gonepteryx cleopatra, with a fluttery flight, touching down briefly on the geraniums in my sketch, was the most conspicuous butterfly of our holiday. It’s pastel yellow and larger that our Large ‘Cabbage’ White.

We got a better view (top) of what I’m now convinced is a male Spectacled Warbler. It was a softly chattering little trill and what looked like a small white pennant that attracted my attention to it on the top of a telephone pole. It then flew to the top of an olive.

It was greyer brown than I’d shown the bird this morning, with a markedly darker head. It’s silhouette was more ‘perky’ – tail up, larger head – than your average warbler.

And – the clinching detail – this time I could see a small white ring around its eye.

Woodchat Shrike

THE CONES of this cypress have 12 scales. On this fallen fragment the dark green scaly leaflets have dried to ochre brown. In colour, shape and texture these plates, and the tiny scales that cover the leaf stems when seen through a hand lens, remind me of the armour of an armadillo.

10.34 a.m.; the Woodchat Shrike is a summer visitor to Corfu. At 18 cm, it’s almost Song Thrush size.

This bird (right) looked very much like a buzzard but birds of prey are so difficult to identify, especially when circling against a bright sky. We saw two later and heard a buzzard-like peevish ‘mewing’ call.

As I drew this flower at the car parking area at our apartments I didn’t realise that it was a buttercup; the petals are more pointed than those of our British buttercups but I should have guessed as its mace-like seed-heads remind me of the largest of our native buttercups, Kingcups.

The nearest that I can find in the book is Jersey Buttercup, Ranunculus paludosus, which fits in almost every detail, except that I wouldn’t have described it as a ‘hairy perennial’.

I tried pencil when I started drawing the buttercup but soon resorted to the precision of a 01 sized nibbed Pilot Drawing Pen. I didn’t bring my favourite ArtPen with me because, as a fountain pen, it has a tendency to go blotty after being taken on a plane because of the pressure difference. A selection of Pilot Drawing Pens will be fine for the all too short time that we’re here.

11.40 a.m.; Soft quizzical two note call of a Jay. If flies down to a shady spot then up to the branch of an olive. It eats whatever it picked up – an olive or a snail? – then wipes its bill on the branch.

Temp. 29°C, 50% cumulus

Despite the name, Woolly Trefoil, Trifolium tomentosum, is hairless but as the flowerhead grows it becomes more rounded and woolly. These plants at the car parking area were up to 20 cm (8 inches) tall with flowerheads spreading to 1 cm. It is the dominant plant on areas where limestone chippings have been spread.

I draw these spiral seed-pods alongside my sketch of trefoil flowers later, thinking that they belong to it, but they’re actually those of the appropriately named Large Disk Medick, Medicago orbicularis. It grows alongside the trefoil by a path through the olives.

12.50 p.m.; A small, hovering bee-fly, 8 mm long with a straight tongue almost as long again, like a tiny flying kiwi, visits red and white clovers.

1.40 p.m., Benitses Taverna; A large black bumble-bee with blue on it’s rear end has a different, more direct flight to our bumbling varieties. It’s a Carpenter Bee, perhaps Xylocopa violacea.

The Canary Island Date Palm, Phoenix canariensis, introduced and planted widely around the Mediterranean, has inedible fruits.

I’m trying to get in holiday mood, so I feel that I should be trying media that I wouldn’t normally use for my regular work so I did try starting to draw the palm with an Artline ErgoLine Calligraphy Pen with a 2 millimetre nib, a pen that my illustrator friend John Welding is experimenting with at the moment. He gave me this one to try out but the unfamiliar feel made it seem a bit awkward for me, so again, as with the pencil, I went back to my everyday media.

Some day I will experiment! But I’m only here for a week and there is so much to draw so I need to get on with it in reassuringly familiar pen and watercolour wash. At least I drew the palm in pencil rather than ink!

Not so easy to identify when you see it in the water when its legs are hidden, this gull closely resembles our Herring Gull but, as we would have seen immediately if it had been standing on the rocks by the harbour, it’s actually a Yellow-legged Gull, a familiar species in the Mediterranean.

The Beech Marten, Martes foina, was, as many of them unfortunately are, a roadside casualty. It was about the size of a slim, small cat.

This Whinchat was perching on a wire by the substantial ruins of the Roman baths on the slope behind the sea-front properties at Benitses.

Fern Grass

IT’S SO GOOD to have the time to sit and draw whatever I feel like drawing. I don’t aim to try to identify every flower, I’m happy just to get an impression of the Mediterranean flora. The grassy car parking area right outside our apartment is a good place to start. Because it had been wet here before we arrived it’s overdue for mowing, so that gives me a chance to take a close look at the commoner species, such as this distinctive grass, named Fern-Grass because of the shape of its seed-heads.

A grey brown locust was sunning itself on the pavement next to a similar looking twig. Either it had chosen to rest alongside it to provide camouflage or it had homed in on it in a search for another of its kind.

We saw the locust only once as we walked along the sea front pavement into the village but we always saw lizards sunbathing on the paving stones.

A lizard, 20 cm long, scurried up the wall of the ruins of the Roman baths in Benitses. It hid behind a clump of plant growing from a crack in the wall with only its long narrow tail hanging down giving it away.

The cigareli that we had as a starter this evening are spiced green leaves. A cigar is a cylinder of tobacco leaves so cigareli are small leaves. Penelope the waitress tells us that they aren’t cabbage or spinach, they’re leaves that you can find growing in the hills but also in olive groves and in gardens. We spotted some growing in a vegetable garden and they looked like what we’d call mixed salad leaves. She tells us that they’re available only at this time of the year.

P is for Pi

We’re eating at the Paxinos restaurant in Benitses which specialises in fresh fish dishes. It gets its name because it is run by people from Paxos, a small island to the south of Corfu. I’m intrigued by the name printed on the table cloths and I copy it into my sketchbook. When it’s pointed out to me it should have been obvious to me what it says; it’s the name of the restaurant;

The A, I, N and O are as they would be in English. The Σ, sigma or S and the X are very different to our own letters but the one I should have recognised is the initial letter; π, pi is our P, the Greek letter used in Pythagorus to represent the proportion of the circumference of a circle to its radius.


Although after the first night that we saw them I wrote that the ‘fireflies’ we saw on our walk back to the apartments were ‘yellowish white not greenish like a glow-worm’, we later decided that this was an optical illusion. They really did produce a greenish light but because this flashed on for such a brief moment the impression that stayed with you was of the after image. If you stare at a greenish light then the after image that you’re left with is red. I think that the ‘yellowish white’ we were seeing was the impression left by the brief but brilliant green flash.

On one occasion we spotted one of the ‘fireflies’ on the pavement. It was a beetle, about 1 cm long. With our British glow-worms it’s the female who produces the light, to advertise her presence to the male but she is wingless, so the Corfu ‘fireflies’ must be a different species. I wouldn’t like to guess whether it was the males or the females that we were seeing.

We never saw the bird (or toad) that made the ‘sonar blip’ noise but because of the variety of places that we heard it we’re convinced that it was a Scops Owl. I’ve shown it with twin peaks in my imagined sonagraph. Sometimes the male and the female call and reply to each other in a duet. BUT the Midwife Toad, which occurs on Corfu, sounds like a Scops Owl.

And, to confuse things still further, the Green Toad sounds like a cicada. We could hear something like a cicada but not as continuous coming from where a water course passes through the grounds of the apartments.

The next evening it was warmer and stiller and we saw lots of bats on our walk back from the restaurant.

Turn Right after the Alps

WE’RE ON the Ryanair flight from Leeds to Corfu and, from a geographical point of view, the route is simple to follow. It’s not so much a case of turn right after the Alps, it’s more just drawing a diagonal across Europe from Leeds to the island, off the north-east corner of Greece.

As we take off, heading towards Amsterdam, England is swathed in cloud.

Low Countries

I don’t get a glimpse of the North Sea but as we reach what must be the Netherlands I can see field strips, waterways and flooded gravel pits through gaps in the cloud. The long thin fields are so different from the usual patchwork of English midlands fields. They radiate out like huge chevrons from a central point and I suspect the reason for this pattern is to allow for drainage, so the centre of the chevrons might represent a ridge of slightly higher ground in a landscape that is so close to being flat that no slopes are perceptable from up here at 3700 feet.

Unfortunately we soon run into cloud again. I try to take in the overall pattern of clouds in a quick pen and ink sketch. This serves as a diagram but I try pencil in an attempt to show the tones of the expanse of cloud that we fly over next.

Pencil never seems to work as I’d like it to!

But I’m soon peering down through gaps in the clouds again. It’s still a landscape of low fields and lagoons but now there are more wooded areas. White fields may be covered in cling-film, or perhaps it’s some unfamiliar crop that I don’t recognise.

Ridge and Valley

We fly over a wooded ridge, broken at regular intervals by small valleys. Where you’d expect there to be a fan of debris from each tributary valley’s stream there are a series of small settlements.

This reminds me of a pattern of settlements that you’d find in parts of England settled by the Anglo Saxons, some of whom might have migrated to our country from this part of the Europe after the collapse of Roman rule.

In places where there’s a ridge like this, the western edge of the Cotswolds is, I think, an example, you’ll get parishes laid out in this way. Each village is sited on an alluvial fan which keeps it above the level of regular flooding in the main valley, each village gets a fair share of different land; perhaps for pasture on the hill, woodland on the scarp slope and arable on the alluvium in the valley.

We’re soon above hillier country, flying over parts of Germany, I should think. Again the steeper slopes are picked out with strips of woodland. The valley here is filled with a town but not far away on the hill it still looks rural with villages and green pastures.

Woodlands become a major feature of the increasingly hilly landscape. Perhaps this is the Black Forest.

Alpine Panorama

There are frosty-looking blue green forests of conifers as we reach the Alps. After getting to know a small area, from the Top of Europe down to Interlaken, on our holiday in Switzerland last year it’s great to have the opportunity to see the mountain range from a wider perspective.

The higher peaks and valleys are entirely snow-covered and I spot a glacier flowing through a high valley, cracks appearing in its surface as it turns a corner in its valley.

It’s strange to think that we’re heading for a Mediterranean holiday and that we’ll be touching down in a very different landscape in about an hour.

As I wrote in my sketchbook, ‘there was a cloud-filled gap at the eastern end of the Alps, then a range of lower mountains, still snow-capped peak but with more forest on the slopes.’

We were probably flying over the Brenner Pass then reaching the Hohe Tauern or High Tauern mountain range of the Central Eastern Alps.

Gulf of Venice

Over the years a lot of sediment has been eroded from these mountains, cutting down to create the valleys and enlarge the passes. You can see some of the sediment in this braided river channel. I think this is the river Tagliamento, or possibly the Bóite, which lies a little to the east.

Rivers like these have over thousands, probably millions, of years built up the Italian lowlands around the Gulf of Venice. I couldn’t spot Venice itself but these two rivers (the Piave, top, and Bóite?) reach the sea to the east of Venice.

The Dalmatian Coast

There’s quite a contrast as we continue south-east, along the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea. After all the earthy colours of northern Europe, the islands look as if they’ve been designed by a Manga cartoon illustrator. They’re set in a sea which is as blue as the sky above and they’re outlined by a sandy shoreline, rounded in cartoon style.

There’s a string of little islands. In each case the village is set around a bay, sometimes with a satellite island just offshore, offering additional shelter from the elements and, perhaps in historical times, keeping them out of sight of pirates and predatory naval powers.


The last time we were here this was the coast of Yugoslavia, now this Croatia but the final country that we fly along the coast of before we descend is Albania. An appropriate name for a country where snow caps limestone mountains.

We pass a river mouth which, as fare as I can tell from my atlas, is the Vijosë, an Albanian river.

There’s a plume of sediment which looks sandy where the river enters the sea and darker in colour, and deeper underwater, further out. This is probably finer, muddier sediment. To judge from the direction this sediment disgorges into the Adriatic Sea, the prevailing current is northwards on this coast.

Descending to Corfu

The northern end of Corfu lies only a couple of kilometres from the Albanian coast so I’m not sure exactly in my sketchbook where the mainland ends and island begins. I think that the vertical strata of limestone, fringed by wooded slopes are mountains at the north end of Corfu. The highest point, Mount Pantokrator, rises to 912 metres.

There are inlets and marinas on the north-east coast of Corfu. I think this (right) is Gouvia Bay.

Corfu is long and thin, like a mishapen boomerang, so we’re soon passing over the west coast where Chalikounas Beach separates Korisson Lake from the sea.

We turn around over the southern tip of the island, Cape Asprokavos to approach the airport from the south.


It’s a short taxi ride along the coast road to get to our apartment near Benitses and after checking we go for a late lunch – moussaka, what else? – at one of the tavernas near the little harbour.

Later, sitting on the veranda at the back of our apartment, I draw the crags on the hillside, rising amongst the terraces of olives.

Those are a couple of tall cypresses at the top of the crag.


I WOULDN’T have thought that a south-west-facing bank below a quarry face would be ideal for Bluebells but they’re growing like weeds on this slope by Addingford Steps. Although they’re a woodland plant they don’t do well in full shade.

Spring goes by so quickly and each year I find myself missing out on drawing woodland flowers so, as I’m walking back this way anyway, I decide to give myself half an hour drawing the flowers on a mossy bank between the railway and a derelict railway embankment.

This can’t be ancient woodland but the dark soil appears to be rich in leaf mould. The Bluebells here are growing beneath small Ash trees. Brambles run through the herb layer without dominating the habitat by forming a dense tangle. There are a lot of seedlings with bright green toothed leaves which I guess are Himalayan Balsam.

House-hunting Bee

As I’m drawing, a Red-tailed Bee lands on a bare patch of soil and starts digging. It turns around and pushes soil out of its thimble-sized excavation. Three minutes later it cleans its fur by rubbing with front and back legs but it then gives up on the hole.

It flies a short distance further up the bank and I photograph it at work, but after a few minutes it gives up on that hole too. I assume that this is a young queen which has recently emerged and that it’s prospecting for a suitable bank in which to start a new colony.

Broad Buckler Fern

One fern looks very much like another but I know that something to take a closer look at is the colour of the scales on the stem, if there are any. These had a dark brown streak along the centre with pale margins, so this is Broad Buckler Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, a common fern of woods, hedgerows and shaded rocky ledges.

I recently bought a Victorian book, Ferns of Great Britain, by Anne Pratt, so I checked out the species in it. I was surprised that, despite that traditional sounding name of ‘Broad Buckler’, at that time it then went under the name of Broad Prickly-toothed or Crested Fern, and had a different genus name; Lastréa instead of Dryopteris.

Although the streaked scales are described in the text, they aren’t shown as streaked in this illustration.

The illustration is credited to ‘W. Dickes del et sc.’. ‘Del. et sc. is an abbreviation for ‘delineavit et sculpsit’, meaning ‘drew and engraved’.

Much as I like Victorian natural history books, they wouldn’t be of much use as field guides. An attached poem doesn’t really help with identity but it does evoke the Victorian attitude to natural history:

“The feathery Fern ! the feathery Fern !
It groweth wild, and it groweth free,
By the rippling brook, and the dimpling burn,
And the tall and stately forest tree ;
Where the merle and the mavis sweetly sing,
And the blue jay makes the woods to ring,
And the pheasant flies on whirring wing,
Beneath a verdurous canopy.”

The merle and the mavis are the Blackbird and Song Thrush. I don’t hear them today but there’s a Chiff-chaff singing almost continuously and, briefly, a Wren.

Ground Ivy

Three members of the mint family, the Labiates, that I tend to get mixed up are Bugle, Skullcap and Ground Ivy, so I draw this plant by the path side with some care. It’s Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, a common plant of woods, hedges and disturbed ground. It is softly hairy and, according to the field guide, smells strongly when crushed. I must try crushing a leaf next time I see it.