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Saturday, 16 December 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #29

Here's a butterfly that many of you will be familiar with, the Cabbage White, Pieris brassicae, but which of these is NOT a food plant for its caterpillars?

a) Cabbage, Brassica oleracea

b) Black Mustard, Brassica nigra

c) Caper, Capparis spinosa


If you answered c) Caper, Capparis spinosa, then up until the end of last month you'd have been correct but that was before the #CreteNature blog visited Sklavoi – Village of the Slaves. It was there that we observed the caterpillars of this butterfly happily munching away on Caper leaves and added a new piece of information to our knowledge of this very common butterfly. So now the answer is ALL are food plants for its caterpillars.

I can't promise you new discoveries every week but there's usually something to make you say "Gosh! I never knew that," as well as some beautiful scenery and a few laughs along the way. So why not join us as we stroll around the countryside of Crete poking our noses into bushes, streams and under stones to unearth some of the many wonders of nature? Just follow the #CreteNature blog.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Perivolakia – Rooftops and Pergolas

From Voila we'll make our way back to the main Sitia-Makrigialos road, travel south for a bit and then take the turn off for the village of Perivolakia. We could take a left at Etia and cut across country but I'm none too sure about the road surface and I'm a coward. Sometimes this village is spelt Perivolakia (which means pergolas) and sometimes Pervolakia (which means rooftops) and we have one of each on the left here. We also have a cascade of Mesembryanthemum flowing down this wall being pollinated by a couple of Hymenopterans. The big purple/black one is a Carpenter Bee and the little black one with the red legs is an Ichneumon Wasp. These wasps lay their eggs in the larvae of other living insects which troubled Charles Darwin somewhat. In a letter to Asa Gray, an American naturalist who spent much of his time promoting the idea that God and science were not mutually incompatible, Darwin wrote “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”. It all depends upon your interpretation of “God” I suppose.

The path that we're on leads eventually through the Per(i)volakia Gorge to the Kapsa monastery and is waymarked with red arrows apart from at this little gully where it isn't. Which shall we take; left, right or centre? Middle for diddle? That was lucky, a little red arrow about twenty yards up the track (well, the Cretans did invent the labyrinth). I think we'll just go as far as those Cypress trees up there and have a scrabble around. Can you hear that Raven cronking away to our right somewhere? There he is, announcing our presence to all and sundry. Incidentally, the Cypress tree is named after Kyparissos, one of Apollo's boyfriends who accidentally killed his pet stag. Overwhelmed by grief he turned into a Cypress tree. Not a common occurrence, even in ancient Greece.










That was quite a hill that we just climbed so I think we'll rest by the wayside and take a look under a few rocks while we get our breath back. A nice couple of snails here, the two-toned job sitting on the fennel stalk is a Chocolate-banded Snail, Eobania vermiculata. The vermiculata part means noodles. Apparently the shell pattern reminded its discoverer of vermicelli which goes to show that you should never ask a malacologist to name something just before lunch. The other one is a Green Garden Snail which are collected from the wild in these parts at this time of year when they are most active. We humans have been roasting snails and eating them for over 25,000 years and it wasn't the French who started the trend in Europe but the Spaniards (or least-ways the Homo sapiens who were living on the Iberian peninsula at the time 1).

Having found our snails we could do with a few vegetables to accompany them so how about some asparagus? As you go trampling over this golden hillside in search of it (which I doubt you'll find) you are crushing beneath your feet a perfectly acceptable substitute. This is Field Eryngo and, although it is the young shoots that you can use in place of asparagus, the roots can also be cooked as a vegetable and in addition you can candy them for dessert if you wish. That's lunch settled then. Looking down the hillside you can see the rooftops of the village so I think that Pervolakia without the 'i' is probably the more appropriate name.

Let's walk back down over these heather covered rocks until we regain the track once more. I have read tales recently of rather aggressive so called 'gypsy' heather sellers in the UK chasing people down the street trying to force their foil wrapped sprigs of lucky purple heather onto people. Here is a quick answer to them: “It's the wrong colour”. Purple heather is no more lucky than a three leaf clover, it is white heather that is supposed to bring good luck. The origin of the superstition is Scottish where it is purported to grow on ground where no blood has been shed. Given the country's bloody history it is somewhat scarce. An alternative derivation from that same country is that it grows over the final resting place of faeries but that's just heaping one myth upon another. Here in Crete we have two species; this pink heather, Erica manipulaflora, and the Tree Heath (which is white), Erica arborea. Scottish heather by contrast is Calluna vulgaris which is predominantly mauve with the occasional white variation. So you can tell your 'gypsy' charm seller that if she'd care to pop up a Scottish ben and get you some lucky white heather you'll consider buying a sprig.

Back down in the village the taverna has a colourful display of pot plants and on one of these we have a Large White butterfly, Pieris brassicae. You may recall that a couple of weeks back in Sklavoi we came across some of her caterpillars feeding on a caper bush, Capparis spinosa. I mentioned at the time that although they preferred Brassicas they had quite a range of food plants. I am indebted to Antonia Aga at Butterflies & Moths of Greece & Cyprus for alerting me to the fact that this is a new host plant observation for this species and a check with the World's Lepidopteran Hostplants Database at the Natural History Museum of London confirms this. Which just goes to show that there are new observations to be made even with regard to such commonplace insects as the Large White butterfly.

The Extra Bit



For the stargazers among you there is quite a lot going on this week. If you venture out after midnight tonight (13th) you can observe the Geminid meteor shower. Just before the dawn you can see Jupiter and Mars between the Moon and the Horizon and on Saturday evening, with the aid of a small telescope, you may be able to see the rock-comet 3200 Phaeton. http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/3200-phaethon-rock-comet-how-to-see






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 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 6  Canon EOS 1300D
Inset 2 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



Saturday, 9 December 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #28

We found our first mushrooms of the season in this week's #CreteNature; these edible (if tricky) Mica Caps, but what percentage of wild mushrooms are worth taking home for the pot?

a) 4%

b) 14%

c) 40%


A tricky question as 'mushrooms' as we know them are part of the kingdom of fungi and the great majority of them have yet to be scientifically described let alone tested for their edibility or otherwise. However the American Journal of Wild Mushrooming gives the following answer subject to the given caveat:

50% inedible
25% edible but not incredible (like the Mica Caps above)
20% will make you sick
 4% will be tasty to excellent
 1% will kill you

So the answer is a) about 4%, the other 96% are best left to get on with the job of being mushrooms.

More nature facts and trivia in this week's #CreteNature Blog: Voila - Turkish Delight

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Voila – Turkish Delight

What a beautiful late Autumn day. Just the sort of day for strolling around an uninhabited historic village and looking for wildlife. This one, called Voila (pronounced Vo-i-la as opposed to the French voilĂ ) is Venetian in origin under the fiefdom of the Salomon family but when Crete was taken over by the Ottoman Empire[1] in the mid seventeenth century it became the headquarters of one Jen Ali, a famous commander in his day. Nowadays the tower, on which Turkish motifs can be readily discerned, are guarded by a small Cretan frog where armed janissaries once stood. I wonder if there are any bat roosts hidden within?

Unfortunately not, nor anything more remarkable than an old pigeon's nest. It was also rather chilly in there and as the sun is shining down magnificently on the south east side of the village I suggest we make our way over there, nosing through the ruins as we go, and see if we can find some more wildlife. That's better, the ground is covered in lichen covered stones and a host of tiny flowers. These lovely little crocuses, Crocus laevigatus, are particularly attractive I think before they are fully open. Those deep lilac streaks on the underside contrasting strikingly with the snow white petals and then, gradually, the divided orange stigma are revealed. Like a firework in slow motion.

And where we have flowers then of course we have insects and it really is a thriving metropolis down here. Let us repose upon the carpet of Wood Sorrel leaves and observe the action at eye level. There's a small black wasp doing a complicated waggle dance amid an audience of harvester ants here and on one of the crocuses a red and black Soldier Bug nymph is exploring his new world. A few minute black fly-like insects on that Colchicum over there, no bigger than its stamens, require closer inspection and a Marmalade Hoverfly has been attracted to the bright yellow composites that are also dotting the scene like Belisha Beacons along the highways. Sunbathing on the stones a Short-horned grasshopper is looking forward to a light salad lunch whilst nearby an Ameles mantis waits in motionless ambush for a somewhat meatier meal. I could lie here all morning fascinated by this miniature world but there is something I have yet to see this autumn and I wonder if we'll find any examples up by that church up yonder?

This is the church of Agios Giorgos and the last resting place of the Salomon family (they're in the extension apparently if you'd like to go in and say hello). Personally I'm going to do a bit of bird watching. There's a great view of the village, the valley and the windmill dominated hills behind and the first thing I see is a pair of large birds of prey rapidly approaching the spinning blades. A bit distant but I think that the lead bird, at least, may be a Griffon Vulture. There's also a Buzzard on the corner of that building down there. He's spotted something... and he's off. And scanning around to that stand of Weaver's Broom down to our right a Stonechat has just landed. I saw a Black Redstart as we passed through the village of Chandras as well. They started arriving in the second week of November and my own personal lodger has occasionally roosted above my bedroom window when the weather has been less than conducive to spending the night in the open.

Meanwhile I do believe that the items for which I've been looking are lurking alonside the roots of this tree. Our first fungi of the autumn and edible ones at that. These are Mica Caps and if you look closely at the cap you can see the tiny glistening specks that give it the name. A couple of words of warning before you squirrel them away into your bag. Firstly, they must be cooked within the hour or they dissolve into a horrible squidgy inedible mess. Secondly, some related species react with any alcohol in your stomach so it is inadvisable to drink about three hours either side of eating them. Thirdly, they're rather good at picking up heavy metals from the soil so avoid collecting them from roadsides or polluted sites. And finally... I think I see the local priest arriving and he may have something to say about you pinching his breakfast. In all honesty, once you've covered points one to four and checked that there are no fly larvae lurking within, their flavour is so very delicate that you wonder if they were worth the trouble.

The Extra Bit

[1] If you would like a good read about this period of Cretan history in the east of the island then Yvonne Payne's dramatic account of the Kritsa heroine, Rodanthe is well worth adding to your library. Details here.

Now, cast your mind back two years ago to the day we explored the grounds of the Porto Belissario Hotel. There we found a Western Conifer Seed Bug and I opined that it was the first time that it had been recorded on Crete. It turns out that I was correct and I am most grateful to Torsten van der Heyden for crediting me with its discovery on the island in his paper published on November 20th in the entomological journal Arquivos Entomoloxicos Galegos


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 1 Canon EOS 1300D 2,3 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Picture 2 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets 1 Canon EOS 1300D 2,3 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Picture 5 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit Konica Minolta

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, 2 December 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz # 27

Continuing from the explosive start of this week's #CreteNature blog which of the featured plants has an explosive method of seed dispersal?

a) Autumn Squill

b) Autumn Crocus

c) Squirting Cucumber

Autumn Squill (top), Autumn Crocus (Bottom)                                      Squirting Cucumber
The Autumn Squill has a very gentle method of seed dispersal; when their seeds dry out they are lifted by the wind and blown to pastures new. The Autumn Crocus, on the other hand, has its own delivery service; its seeds are taken away and buried by ants. The Squirting Cucumber is more self sufficient; those seed pods which you can see bottom right are filled with a mucilaginous liquid and when the fluid pressure reaches critical the pods explode squirting the seeds up to twenty feet away. So the answer is C.

More fascinating nature facts and tales of the Cretan countryside in this week's #CreteNature blog Sklavoi – Village of the Slaves