Large Birds of Prey in Crete

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

This, also known as the Lammergeier, is the rarest of vultures in Europe and the wider Mediterranean habitat. The largest of all the local raptors it can measure from beak to tail tip 1.10 m, with a wingspan of over 2.50 m; its weight though is relatively light at only 5-8 kg, depending on the sex of the individual (Cramp and Simmons 1980, Brown 1989). Its welfare is a matter of concern in the EU: the animal is protected by EU Directive 79/409/EOK (app. 1). It is also listed as a species ‘at risk of extinction’ in the European and Greek Red Data Books of Threatened Vertebrates.

Crete hosts – at the present – the only viable population in Greece – with only 4 breeding pairs, and a population of no more than 25. The decline of the species has been dramatic over the last two decades, and especially since the late 1990s. The bird is distributed throughout all the Cretan mountain ranges (13 known domains), but – the 4 breeding pairs apart – all are unattached and solitary. Kokalas (Bones) is the name given to the species locally: fittingly, as the bird basically eats only... bones!

The average territory size is some 350 sq. km, within which each bird seeks its daily fare. The nests are located between 350-1500 m, always in small caves in vertical cliff-faces.


Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Όρνιο (Gyps fulvus)

The Cretan mountains are important ecosystems for providing this bird with its food. We can observe large concentrations (up to 40-50, especially in the summer) of them out looking for food. The birds breed in colonies, nesting in mountainous regions where flocks overwinter. In this way they escape the worst weather conditions, whilst remaining close to a food source.


Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Χρυσαετός (Aquila chrysaetos)

Once again the Cretan mountains hold important habitats for the breeding and maintenance of the Golden Eagle. They are under intense pressure from humans: the one thing keeping the species in relatively good shape is the relative abundance of their prey (mainly partridges). The supply of immature youngsters makes up for adult losses.

Typical for Crete is the broader region of Psiloritis: this massif supports four regions they inhabit: the NE, E, SE and W flanks. Breeding pairs hold the E and SE regions, whilst in the other two immature birds or solitary adults are to be seen.


Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus)

Σπιζαετός (Hieraaetus fasciatus)

Bonelli’s Eagle, or Spizaetos or Skarovitsila as it may be called in Crete, is a medium-sized eagle – some 65-72 cm in body length, with a wingspan of 150-180 cm. Though relatively small, it is particularly aggressive, and remarkable for its speed in flight. Adults are black above with a white back, from below predominately light-coloured with flecks all over.

They inhabit mountainous regions at low to medium levels of altitude (up to 1500 m), preferring warm and rocky terrain with maquis and phrygana-types of vegetation. Typical for Crete are the Asteroussia Mountains. They nest not in trees usually, but on rocky faces: each couple build several nests (up to 6) which they use in rotation. Their prey are birds and medium-sized mammals (rabbits, hares, rodents, partridges, pigeons etc), which they take on the ground.

About half the Greek population lives on the islands and on Crete. It is judged a Vulnerable Species in the Greek Red Book. The major threats are poaching, habitat loss and the overuse of pesticides.


Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Πετρίτης (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon, the Petritis of Falconas to the Cretans, is the fastest animal known – and the most powerful of the hawks known in Greece. Flat out it can reach over 300 kph, with one recorded closer to 400 kph! It has a body length of only 35-50 cm, and a wingspan of 90-115 cm. Adults are a blue-grey colour, with horizontal stripes on chest and legs; their eyes are yellow. The immature are dark brown with grey legs. A distinct feature is that on the side of the head are black stripes – a bit like whiskers or a moustache (how very Cretan!). In flight it can be recognized by the pointed wing tips and short tail.

Its prey is generally medium-sized birds which they take in the air by stooping ( a steep to vertical attack from above); they will also eat at times small mammals and reptiles. They nest on steep slopes or in trees.

Peregrines are very sensitive to pesticides: excessive use has led to a decline in population. For this reason the presence (or not) of peregrines is a good indicator of the health (or not) of an ecosystem.


Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonora)

Μαυροπετρίτης (Falco eleonora)

Eleonora'a Falcon is a migratory hawk, of medium size: they overwinter in East Africa (mainly Madagascar), moving in April into the Mediterranean. Greece hold 80% of the world population. It is called the Mavropetritis (the Black Falcon) locally – as well as Koustogerako (geraki = falcon), the Sea-Falcon or Varvaki.

The body length is only 36-40 cm, with a wingspan of 84-103 cm. It is jet black or black above and a reddish-brown below, with a barred chest. They rarely hunt by themselves, feeding off large insects (eg. beetles) or small birds. It is wont to nest on cliffs in natural cavities or crevices – preferring large islands or uninhabited islets. It is very desirous of isolation and so security.

Colonies in Crete are normally located on the off-shore islets – such as Dia (opposite Heraklion): the eastern end contains most of the nesting sites. The bird suffers from illegal hunting, tourist development of smaller islands where it nests, and again insecticides.


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