Translate

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Springs of Paraspori

Autumn crocus, Colchicum pusillum
We'll continue to make our way northwards today and gradually drift eastwards as we approach the zenith of our circular tour. I have found, in the thirteen years I've been on the island, that Crete has very distinct changes of seasons. Soon after the autumn equinox, clouds begin to make their way back, nervously encroaching upon the wall-to-wall sunshine and blue skies of summer, and eventually the rains will come. This valley to our right is the perfect place to admire the acres of sky above us and there's a rocky outcrop just here where we can be monarchs of all we survey so let's get out and do a bit of rock scrambling. Magnificent view isn't it? But look what I've found nestling in between the rocks at our feet. The first Autumn Crocus of the year. This is the earliest that I've seen one, my previous observations have been three or four weeks later in the year.

Hello, what's this? It appears to be a pot handle of some kind. I've no idea how old it is, it could be Minoan, Roman or made last week. I shall have to take it home and show it to a lady I know who's potty about such things. I'll let you know when I find out a bit more about it. Meanwhile we may or may not have a clue in the landscape. If you look down there to our left you can see a pair of incongruous outcrops. These are the remains of a hill fort called Monte Forte (which, rather unimaginatively, is Italian for Hill Fort). It was built early in the 13th century when the Venetians held the island and spent about a hundred years amusing itself by being occupied and reoccupied by opposing forces before an earthquake put a stop to all that malarkey in 1303. It was rebuilt in the 14th century but no-one seemed to have a use for it and it gradually fell into rack and ruin. Whether or not this has anything to do with our pot handle I'm not sure but the Museum of London is in possession of a jug of similar vintage, the handle of which looks remarkably similar (to my untrained eye at least).

Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea
Enough of the history, let us carry on to Paraspori and have a look at these springs and see if we can find some wildlife. So, this is the spring, set in a pleasant picnic area shaded by massive plane trees and I've found someone rather interesting on this stone wall. Most shield bugs, and this is one, are not renowned for being particularly attentive mothers; they lay their eggs in little cases and then wander off and forget about them. This one however is called the Parent Bug and she will look after her offspring, carefully rounding up any adventurous individuals with her antennae, right up until the third instar (which roughly equates to our teenage years) when she will allow them to move off in small groups to forage for their favourite foodstuffs which is the sap of various trees. After that they gradually disperse. 

There's a little path leading down from the picnic area with a rather fine Ivy hedgerow alongside it. Ivy is very important at this time of year as it is coming into flower when many other plants are still waiting for a decent drop of rain and as you can see the wasps and bees are loving it. There's a Speckled Wood butterfly flitting about as well and some tiny white blobs that one may not immediately recognise as insects. These are Oleander or Ivy Scale Insects (Aspidiotus nerii) which attack both plants as well as palms and citrus trees among others. These are females and they will remain attached to the leaf beneath these waxy plates and give birth. The males, having done their job, fly off and die within a couple of days so they are rather more difficult to spot.

Penicillium mould on a fallen orange
Now, what do we have on the floor down here? An early fallen orange covered in a blue/green mould. Moulds are part of the fungi kingdom and are very important (though not always welcome) in the decay cycle of an ecosystem. This one is probably Penicillium digitatum (although it may be P. italicum they are very similar) and it lurks around in the soil of citrus growing areas such as this just waiting for the fruit to fall. It only needs a small chink in the fruit's waxy armour and it's in to the rich juices inside. Once there it reproduces millions of times, sending its thread like mycelia throughout the interior and producing its own spore filled fruits on the outside. The spores, when they hatch, are carried by the air; some to fall upon the soil and some to adhere to undamaged fruits. For this reason great care has to be taken when harvesting and handling the fruit because if it is damaged in any way then they're in like Flynn once more. These microscopic fungi are responsible for 90% of citrus fruits lost to infection after harvesting which is not good news for us but without them, then in the natural order of things, the nutrients bound up in the fruit would not be returned to the soil and it would soon become impoverished. Rot and decay isn't pretty but it is essential and a major part of the autumn season.

The Extra Bit

A couple of weeks ago we were debating whether we had found signs of a meteor strike. I am indebted to Chad Johnson at Learning Geology for showing me that this type of geological feature can be caused by the natural erosion of a dome. Thanks Chad.

Do you remember the mantis I found eating a shield bug last week? Well she's still sitting motionless in the same patch of fennel a week later apparently having moved no more than a few inches in the entire week. I haven't seen any more potential prey items on the fennel so she's either been snaffling them while I haven't been looking or she's getting very hungry. As her scientific name is Iris oratorio I've taken to saying “Good morning Iris” to her when I go out (much to the consternation of my neighbours who are wondering if they should send for the man with the straitjacket).


Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. For details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.

Picture 1 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Handle: Canon EOS 1300D Jug: Museum of London (via Pinterest)
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Extra Bit Canon EOS 1300D

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #22

Mantis, to most of us, conjures up a picture of the familiar Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa). In this week's #CreteNature blog I introduced you to another, the Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria) but how many types of Mantis are there in the world?

a) 24

b) 240

c) 2,400

Mediterranean Mantis, Iris oratoria
Somewhat surprisingly there are over 2,400 species of Mantis in the world (and probably many more that we've yet to discover). They are a distinct order of insects (Mantodea) on a par with Flies (Diptera) or Beetles (Coleoptera) and there are fifteen different families of Mantises within the order Mantodea. Here in Greece the ancients believed that Mantises had supernatural powers and could show you the way home. I wouldn't rely upon it; this one is pointing away from my front gate!

More on mantises, as well as frogs, flowers, stone chats and grasshoppers plus a bit of folklore in this week's #CreteNature blog: Skordilo, Where God and the Devil Meet

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Skordilo, Where God and the Devil Meet

As we wend our way from the village of Chrysopiggi around the base of Mt. Ornos I thought that we'd stop off about half way, admire the scenery and see what we can find along these seldom visited tracks that diverge from the road to who knows where. You can see the end of the Ornos range to our right and the end of the Thriptis range ahead. Between them runs a rough road from Chrysopiggi to Kavousi on the north coast. But turning our attention to the track at our feet, notice these little clumps of purple plants budding at our feet. It isn't always easy to tell what a plant will become at this stage of its development but if you're lucky enough to find the plant at different growth stages along the track, as we are here, then it's worth taking a couple of photographs so that you can recognise it the next time you see it. This one will grow up to be Galatella cretica whose flowers turn from yellow to mauve to purple as they age and whose leaves are decidedly green rather than purple (see Just When You Thought It Was Safe ). 

Glancing over our shoulders we could be forgiven for thinking that we have entered the War of the Worlds with the Martians advancing over the hill towards us. They are, of course, wind turbines and if you look up in the sky above them there is a very large bird (too distant to identify) who is possibly taking advantage of the updraughts that the turbines produce. We have exemplary conditions for wind and solar power here in Crete both of which will hopefully play an integral part in Greece's ongoing economic recovery as we export much needed power to less advantageously situated European states. Unfortunately birds and turbines do not make the best of bedfellows and although estimates vary wildly on the number of birds killed we need to find a way to reduce the impact on our avian friends. Surely it can't be too difficult to come up with some sort of sonic scarecrow? Any inventors out there fancy the challenge?

Acrotylus insubricus
Last week I introduced you to the lovers Eos and Tithonus and the story of the first grasshopper according to Greek mythology. Well, it would appear that Tithonus wasn't quite as devoted as Eos as she was to him because his offspring are jumping about all over the place. This little one here, trying to look more like a dead bit of grass than the dead grass itself, is one of the Band-winged Grasshoppers and although he is well camouflaged down here if, by any chance, he is spotted he has a clever method of defence: he turns into a butterfly. Well, he appears to at any rate. Beneath those bland brown forewings he has a pair of bright red hind wings. A quick leap, a bit of a seductive flutter and the would be predator is looking for the plant on which the “butterfly” has landed. Meanwhile he's back on the ground sitting very still doing his dead grass impersonation once more. 

Pelophylax cretensis
Here we are in the little village of Skordilo; two churches and no taverna. Very small and quaint (if not exactly coinciding with my priorities on a warm October lunchtime) and this little cottage has a cistern alongside it containing two frogs. Back in 2007 a failed entrepreneur released his stock of edible American Bullfrogs into lake Agia at the other end of the island. Given that they are bigger and different colours to the Cretan Frogs that we saw a couple of weeks ago in Orino my first rather frightening thought was that they had spread all this way in the intervening ten years. My froggy friends at iNaturalist assure me however that these are still Cretan Frogs which just goes to show that frogs, like us, can come in different colours and sizes and still belong to the same species.




Now there's something that you don't often see: God and the Devil in the same picture. God is very prominent in the form of His church but the Devil is a little harder to spot. Down there in those bushes look, a little male stonechat. The superstitious belief that the stonechat carries a drop of the Devil's blood is part of Scottish folklore, particularly around Galloway where the old rhyme warns:



Stane-chack!
Deevil tak!
They wha harry my nest
Will never rest
Will meet the pest!
De'il brack they lang back
Wha my eggs wad tak, tak!

Which, by my loose translation, means: the Devil take anyone who messes with my nest (you'll never rest and get the pestilence) and should you dare to take my eggs the Devil will either break your long back or possibly cause you misery for generations to come, depending on your interpretation of “De'il brack they lang back”. The “tak, tak!” at the end of the rhyme recalls the Stonechat's peculiar call which is often likened to two stones being chinked together. 

The Extra Bit



On my way out this morning I chanced to see a Red Shieldbug (Carpocoris mediterraneus) on the fennel by the gate.








What I, and he, failed to notice was a Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria) hovering nearby.









The result was, I'm afraid, rather inevitable.











Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. For details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.

Picture 1 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit Canon EOS 1300D

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #21

Nature isn't just about flowers and animals, it's about the soil and rocks and everything else that allows them to exist. This week we met up with Gypsum but which city is most associated with this rock?

a) Beijing
b) Sao Paolo
c) Paris

Gypsum, Chrysopigi. east Crete
Gypsum is used to make plaster, as used in artistic molds, construction and most famously for plaster casts when setting broken bones. Although plaster was probably first made by the Egyptians for architectural purposes and then taken up by the Greeks (gypsum is Greek for plaster) a large deposit was discovered near Montmartre, Paris in the 1600s and calcined gypsum (which involves heating it to a very high temperature and then grinding it to a fine white powder) has been known as Plaster-of-Paris ever since.

For more fascinating insights into the natural world follow the #CreteNature blog 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Chrysopigi – Source of Gold

There's gold in them thar hills! (or so the saying goes) and the name of the next village on our route means just that. I can't promise you gold but there are plenty of blues and whites, the colours of Greece; from the light fluffy clouds in a forget-me-not sky to the small white and common blue butterflies that dance along the roadside verges. The former preferring the smelly Henbane whilst the latter opt for the more delicate European Heliotrope. But let us delve down between these two rock pillars and see what we can find in the hidden depths.








In a month or two's time there will be torrents of water rushing through here but now there are treasures to be found in the sylvan gloom (if you'll just stop looking for gold nuggets under the rocks a moment). These magnificent berries ripening from green to gold (found some!) to brilliant red are the fruits of Black Bryony (Dioscorea communis). Definitely not on the menu though as they are highly poisonous. It is a climbing plant and always entwines itself clockwise, following the sun. It's eerily quiet and still isn't it, but I just caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.












There look, it's just landed beside you. Despite its name, the Common Winter Damselfly (Sympecma fusca), I think it's a lovely little insect. They are unusual in that they are the only dragon/damselflies that overwinter as adults, according to the literature at any rate. Here in Crete I've seen Red-veined Darters in January but maybe they don't read the right field guides. I think that we've exhausted the possibilities of this habitat for the moment so let's continue on to the village which nestles at the base of the Ornos Mountains. As Ornos means mountain this is a bit of a tautology, much like naming a river Avon. Funny old thing, language.





I see that the swallows are still flying above the cliffs, way up in the sky and there are a couple of distant ravens about but what do you make of these white crumbly rocks amid the limestone greys? You can scratch them with your thumbnail. A look at the geological map shows a black square representing gypsum just about where we are standing and this is it. This is the stuff that plaster casts are made from and if you were to scramble up there – not wise as it's very crumbly – you'd very likely fall and break a leg. With a decent pen-knife and a bottle of water you could set your own fracture. An interesting example of nature providing the problem and solution in the same place.

If you look at the Google map you can clearly see the gypsum deposit but look at the wider picture of Mt. Ornos, it seems to be made up of concentric rings. I only know of two ways in which rings like this are formed; volcanoes and meteors. As far as I am aware Crete has never had a volcano of its own but I have found a reference to a significant meteor strike1 around 333AD and I wonder if this is the result? I'm no geologist so I could be wide of the mark but if anyone can shed some light on this I'm really intrigued.



Calliptamus barbarus
We haven't looked at grasshoppers yet this series, despite the fact that they've been bounding around our feet every time we move, so lets remedy that by getting up close and personal to old Tithonus here. You don't know Tithonus? Well, a very long time ago he was a mortal in love with Eos, the goddess of the dawn. The feeling being mutual Eos asked Zeus to make him immortal which he did... and Tithonus got older and older and older. Not exactly what Eos had planned but as Zeus pointed out to her “You never actually asked for the eternal youth bit, did you?” Eos left with a “Humph!' whilst Zeus chuckled away to himself for several hundred years and Tithonus withered away until little was left of him but his voice. Eos cared for him all this time but felt so sorry for him that she changed him into the insect that we now know as a grasshopper and he's been chirruping away, welcoming the dawn, ever since.

OK, so not biologically accurate but a nice little story to finish up with after all that geology.


The Extra Bit

1 The reference to the meteor strike can be found in the following paper https://www.knowledgeminer.eu/climate/pdf/hc6.pdf

Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. For details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.

Picture 1 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Nikon Coolpix S33
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets 1. Map from Rackham, O. and Moody, J., The Making of the Cretan Landscape 2. Nikon Coolpix S33 3. Brunel SP-20 Light microscope 4. Google maps
Picture 5 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Extra Bit pictures

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #20

This is a male Common Darter dragonfly but where does the female drop her eggs?

In the soil?

In the water?

In the air?

Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum


The male clasps the female as they fly through the air and they swoop down over the water in tandem. Then, at the lowest point of the arc the female releases her eggs where they scatter over the water. So, if you said water then you were partially right but she actually drops them from the air.

More fascinating nature facts as this week's #CreteNature Blog explores the area around the village of Stavrohouri in east Crete.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

To Stavrochori

As we leave the village of Orino we have a decision to make. There are two ways in which we can drive on to our next port of call which is Stavrochori; we can go over the mountains (which is prettier) or return to the coast road (which is less painful). Although there is a lovely tarmacadamed road leading out of Orino it isn't quite finished yet and the last couple of miles into Stavrochori is a dirt track. Quite drivable in a 4x4 but a bit rough on our little Alto. Now may be a good point to mention hire car insurance: you are not automatically covered for off-roading (not even for a quad bike). In view of that, and the fact that there's a little reservoir I want us to take a look at, we'll drop back down to the coast, turn left at Koutsouras and come up through the valley.

According to my reckoning the reservoir should be somewhere down beyond that church.

OK, so it wasn't. No matter, I'm sure we'll find it somewhere nearby. Meanwhile here's a lovely bit of rocky valley which we can explore so let's see who's about. Autumnal reds and browns seem to be predominating which makes the occupants a little hard to detect but a Common Darter has just landed down there ahead of you. As their name suggests, they are one of the most common dragonflies in Europe. In the more northerly latitudes you'll only find them on the wing in summer and autumn but down here in the south they fly all the year round. The butterfly that has just landed on that pine tree over there, on the other hand, is not so common. It is a Cretan Grayling and you'll only find it here on Crete where it is fairly abundant. A couple of nice insects to start with but let's go on back up the road a little and have another go at finding this reservoir.

Well, here it is, and what a sorry sight it looks – at first glance but the film buffs among you will doubtless be aware that Deadpools have amazing powers of recovery and this one will be no exception. The autumn rains will be upon us soon for the first time since May and a myriad plants and creatures will return. There must be some moisture still down there because we have a fine covering of Nettle-leaved Goosefoot. This is a common edible plant of Europe, Asia and North Africa which is also well established in parts of the New World. It is part of the Amaranth family which makes it a close relative of Spinach and you can eat both the leaves and the seeds. The seeds however, which can be ground to make flour, should be soaked first to remove the saponins which are somewhat bitter. Let's have a poke about down there and see what we can find.




Butterflies are beautiful and moths are drab is a widespread misconception. Moths can be just as attractive, you just have to look a little closer sometimes. Take this little fellow for instance; a lovely little moth of the Noctuidae family called the Pale Shoulder. As a caterpillar he's not over fussy about foodstuffs but prefers mallows, bindweeds, dandelions and also goosefoots which is why it is not surprising to see him here.








Hello, who is this grinning at us like a petrified cartoon character? It's alright, we won't harm you. This is a Grasshopper of the Calliptamus genus and despite that formidable dentistry he is a vegetarian (or herbivore in zoological parlance). The dentistry of any animal can tell you a lot about its evolution and current eating preferences. We, for instance, are omnivores with teeth that have evolved for eating both meat and vegetable matter and our digestive systems have likewise evolved to digest and utilise both food sources. Vegetarianism is a valid lifestyle preference but rather goes against our biology as a species but each to his own. Hark! Did you hear that mechanical shriek like rusty farm machinery? That was either a local farmer trying to coax some life into his rotavator or...




There it is look, just popped out of that olive tree onto the fence. It's a Red-backed Shrike, either a female or a juvenile, and I only ever see them at this time of year. They have a somewhat eccentric migratory pattern. Those that spend the summer in Spain or the south of France head east to northern Italy or Greece before wheeling right to come down over us on their way to the eastern end of the north African coast. Scandinavian birds fly south west to Italy initially before turning south east and following their French and Spanish brethren. What is more, they do it at night and are not above breakfasting on other small migrating birds. They'll also go for reptiles and small mammals but chiefly they'll sit on a perch like this and then dive in to the undergrowth for insects like our friends the moth and the grasshopper. Having caught its prey it will often impale it upon a tree thorn for later consumption and for this reason Shrikes are also known as Butcher Birds.

All of which is making me feel rather peckish so let's head off into the village where there are no fewer than three good tavernas to choose from.

The Extra Bit


Stavrochori is quite a large village and somewhat spread out but I think that if we make our entrance through this alleyway then the square should be up here somewhere, or maybe just around this corner, and down these steps, or possibly round the back of that church. We seem to be back on the main road. I know it's in here somewhere. Try those steps. OK lets' go back to the car and drive around to the other end of the village and attack from the other side.



Can anyone smell souvlaki cooking? You can? Follow that nose! There. Simple when you now how. Just like buses really, you don't see a taverna for half an hour then two come along at once. A nice bit of shade though and they've even got an ornamental pond. Now, where's the beer fridge?





Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. For details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.

Picture 1  Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Google Maps
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 6 Nikon Coolpix S33
Extra Bit pictures Nikon Coolpix S33

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map