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Saturday, 19 August 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #17

Is Turkey Tangle Frogfruit effective against

a)  suppurating sores

b) stones

c) the common cold


According to Sanskrit literature Turkey Tangle Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) is/was considered by the Hindus to be efficacious against all three. Phytochemical analysis by  the Department of Plant Biology and Biotechnology at Loyola College in Chennai, India in 2015 showed that "All the extracts from Phyla nodiflora had inhibitory effects in both bacteria and fungi. The results of this study clearly proved that (the) plant is a potential source of natural antimicrobial agents." Good for suppurating sores then and possibly against the common cold if it is bacterial and not viral in origin but not necessarily against stones.
More fascinating facts and photos in this week's #CreteNature blog Ferma's Covert Coves

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Ferma's Covert Coves

I thought I'd save the best until last. For the past weeks we've been ambling around the village of Ferma from the hills above to the underwater world of Livadi bay but at the eastern end of the village there are a series of tiny coves that few know about. From up here on the eastern cliff you can see the curvature of the horizon which means that we have a fair few steps to negotiate to get down there. 




It's over forty degrees today and I pity this poor spider with a mass of egg cases on her back. That's one hot mamma. Spiders of course are arachnids, named after a Greek peasant girl called Arachne and I'll tell you her story as we make our descent. Arachne had a talent for weaving, quite a prodigious talent in fact. So much so that she came to the notice of Athena (the goddess after whom Athens is named) who also considered herself a dab hand at the loom. Now gods and goddesses tend to get a bit sulky when us mere mortals approach their standards of excellence and Arachne was in danger of not just approaching but surpassing Athena's talent so Athena decided that a competition should be held to prove who was best. In most versions of the story Arachne won (although it was a close run thing). Whichever, Athena still claimed the ultimate victory on the grounds that Arachne's talent could only have been given to her from the gods and therefore she was only a mere instrument of Athena's own talent. “Nice try,” says Arachne, (somewhat unwisely) “but how about just admitting you've been beaten and being magnanimous in defeat?” Not being particularly fond of eating humble pie Athena promptly turned Arachne into a spider and cursed her and her descendants to weave nothing but webs forever more. 

Here we are at last and a nice little overhang to keep the sun off our heads. Do you see that little fish down there? Look at the way he's probing the sand with those two feelers. He's a goatfish (often called a red mullet although he's not closely related to the grey mullets in the way that red and grey squirrels are which is rather confusing). Those feelers are called barbels and he's using them to probe for food. This one is probably a youngster judging by his size and the fact that he's so close to shore. When he gets bigger and bolder he'll brave the deeper waters. 

There's a little channel here leading to another cove, what say we crawl through and investigate? There's another little fish here, superbly camouflaged against the sandy bottom. This one is a Goby, scientifically Gobius incognitus and I mention this only because the incognitus refers to the fact that, despite being common and widespread, it was only discovered to be a separate species from other gobies a couple of years ago.





Well, well, well, another private little cove, not only with built-in sun shade but a sandy beach as well. The little fish that we saw with the black and white markings near the tail as we swam in were Saddled Bream. It is one of a number of different sea breams that are important food fish in the Mediterranean. As a group, sea breams have been around for about 55 million years with the Saddled Bream making its first appearance about 48 million years ago so we've been eating them for as long as we've been in existence. All this lazing about in the shallows is very nice but I think we'd better start the long climb back.

Anyone for Turkey Tangle Frogfruit? A lovely little plant of the Verbena family but what a weird name. It makes one think that frogs like to eat it whilst turkeys trip over it but honestly, I've no idea how it came to be called that. I know that two or three species of caterpillar like to dine on it and it is supposed to cure everything from suppurating sores to stones to the common cold (or leastways to aid in recovery from same). Meanwhile we don't have any caterpillars but we do have a nice little bee fly come in for lunch. I think that this one is of the Exoprosopa genus, a useful little fly as it parasitises, among other insects, the larvae of locusts and wasps. I've seen neither the plant nor the fly around here before so that's a lovely way to finish our tour of the village of Ferma. And now I think... a cool beer in one of our tavernas is in order.

The Extra Bit

It really is getting stupidly hot now so I suggest that we take a little break for a few weeks and get together when the weather cools down a bit towards the end of next month. Until then, enjoy the rest of the summer (or winter if you're in the southern hemisphere) and follow me on Google+, Facebook Naturalists  or Twitter @cretenaturalist for details of Series 6 of the #Cretenature Blog.

Having just published this and checked it I noticed an advert in the side panel for Life Science Toolbox that looked interesting. I generally ignore adverts (like you do I expect) but the ads are starting to come in that are relevant to our interests so keep an eye on them, you never know what you may find. 

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
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Nikon Coolpix S33
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Nikon Coolpix S33
Picture 5 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Nikon Coolpix S33
Picture 6 Canon EOS 1300D
Inset Canon EOS 1300D

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


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #16

Dragonflies have been the theme for the week so was the wingspan of the biggest ever dragonfly nearest to that of

a) a sparrow

b) a kestrel

c) an albatross


The biggest dragonfly ancestor from the fossil record is the Meganeura which flew around 300 million years ago towards the end of the carboniferous period. It had a wingspan of about 70 cm (which is over two feet in old money), just a little under that of a modern kestrel. By contrast the largest living member of the Odonata today is the Forest Giant Damselfly (Megaloprepus caerulatusof  Central and South America which has a wingspan of 19cm (7.5") which is about the same as a Blue Tit or American Redstart.

For more on dragonflies and more besides see this week's #CreteNature Blog: Dragonfly Summer

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Dragonfly Summer

One of the loveliest sights of the summer has to be the dragonflies like this beautiful Scarlet Darter sitting on a fennel stalk. They are quite distinguishable from other red dragonflies by the orange flash at the base of the wing but have you ever wondered why we associate dragonflies with summer? Well, there isn't quite so much flying about for one thing but mainly it is because the majority of dragonflies are busy in the other seasons developing from an egg into a nymph, a process that takes place in freshwater where they look very different as you can see.

Ants are still about of course and the grasshoppers are skittering around our feet but generally anything with any sense goes into aestivation round here in the summer and with temperatures hovering around the 40C mark it's only mad dogs and Englishmen (like me) that go out in the midday sun. Thankfully our journey is all downhill from now on.


Many insects of course draw a substantial part of their diet from flowers and they are few and far between in the summer in Crete because there is such a scarcity of water in the summer months.
However, I see a few reeds off to our right which means there's a little dampness about so we may find the odd wild flower about if we get down on our hands and knees. This little beauty is Lesser Centaury named after the centaur Chiron of Greek myth. Chiron was known for his skill with medicinal plants which is strange for, as far as I know, Centauries have no medicinal properties whatsoever. The grimoires suggest that burning it will ward off snakes but there again I should think that setting fire to anything would have much the same effect.



What else can we find down this hill? Aha, I said that there were plenty of grasshoppers about. Just look how well camouflaged this one is against this grey stick. He's hiding his true colours, his hind wings are bright blue as you can see if we just persuade him to fly off. Incidentally, this set of apartments is called La Luna Blu and it is Italian run so if you're Italian, fancy a holiday in Ferma but are worried about not being able to speak Greek this is probably just the place for you.


Ok, so you think you know what an insect looks like? What do you make of this little lady? Yes, she is an insect, a female wax scale insect to be precise. So, where are the six legs? Scale insects are really weird. When they first hatch from the egg they have six legs and are known as crawlers but both species quickly metamorphose into something resembling a white fish scale (hence their common name). The females then grow in a series of moults until they look like this. Males on the other hand undergo complete metamorphosis and after pupating emerge as a six legged winged insect which we would all recognise as such. The males only live a day or two in the adult form, just long enough to mate with a female scale insect (and I can't help feeling that most of that time must be spent in working out how to mate with a female scale insect). As I say, scale insects are seriously weird insects.

Now, if we just trundle on down this hill and turn right at the bottom we'll come to the oasis that is known as Katerina's, a lovely little taverna where something cool and refreshing awaits.




The Extra Bit

In How to be a Naturalist – Anywhere the last item was about the bats at Ierapetra hospital. I have now processed a short video of them flying at dusk which you can view here:https://youtu.be/U6BvgfUdCdo

Talking of Scale insects, I found some new ones at Ierapetra Hospital. As far as I can make out these are Red Gum Lerp Psyllids (Glycaspis brimblecombe) which infest Crete's only (naturalised) Gum Tree, the River Redgum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis.

This is the link for La Luna Blu

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 Canon EOS 1300D
Inset Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon Coolpix S33
Inset Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit picture  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, 5 August 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #15

In the UK there were an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs of Collared Doves in 1964. How many breeding pairs were recorded in 2008?

a) 300

b) 30,000

c) 300,000


In the USA less than fifty escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in 1974. They can now be found in virtually every U.S. State as well as Mexico. Such is the phenomenal spread and increase in the population of the Collared Dove that the answer is c) 300,000 breeding pairs were recorded in the UK in 2008, a one hundred fold increase.

Taken from this week's Crete Nature Blog: In The Quietest Moments 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

In The Quietest Moments

Last time we were out and about we finished up being bitten to death by Stable Flies in an old stone structure but I couldn't tell you anything about the origins of the building. Today we're going to start off in a similar structure a little way down the road (but without the flies). These structures are about two and a half metres long by two wide, square at one end with a cut out that suggests a large pair of doors once stood and rounded at the other. I now think that I know what they were: Venetian windmills [1]. The Venetians held Crete from 1205–1669 and these milotopi, as they are called, were one of their legacies. This morning though, the dried grasses poking up through the floor are proving of great interest to some small, pale insects flitting about in the morning sun. Sweep net time.


Grass Jewel, Chilades trochylus
I didn't catch one but I did get one of the small blue butterflies; the rippling waves, two eye spots and double tail protruding from the wing are enough to identify it as a Lang's Short-tailed Blue, Leptotes pirithous (named after the 19th century British lepidopterist Henry Charles Lang). Like most butterflies in the Lycaenidae family it is small with a wingspan of 3cm at most. However I see that you have caught one of our small, flitting insects and lo and behold it is a not dissimilar looking butterfly but it's absolutely minute. If I sit him on my thumb his wings wouldn't reach to the edge of my thumbnail even at full stretch. It's a Grass Jewel, Chilades trochylus which, in Europe, you'll only find in Greece and on some of the Greek islands such as here on Crete and, not surprisingly given its general appearance, it is a diminutive member of the same family.

Let's go out through the doors and investigate those pine trees in the middle distance. It looks like someone has built their house on windy ground as there's rather a large nest on the floor here that seems to have been dislodged from the branches above. The construction of a nest can often tell you a lot about the architect as all birds have their own methods of nest building passed down from generation to generation. This one starts with a substantial base of interwoven large twigs in the centre of which a nest proper has been woven out of dried pine needles. This has then been lined with softer material, sheep's wool by the looks of it. Very comfy. Back in the early spring that would have held up to six, brown speckled, blue eggs for it is the nest of the Hooded Crow.

Interesting though this little gully is we are now heading in the wrong direction so lets go back to the track and see what else we can find. Some dilapidated old dwellings – they're always good to poke around in. Oops, someone's home, it was a mouse I think (too small for a rat). I noticed a hole outside with a fair amount of debris around it so we'll take a look at the midden and see if it can tell us anything about the occupant. Firstly it has an inordinate fondness for snails by the look of it. There are a couple of rodents on the island that I know eat snails: The Wood Mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus and the Broad-toothed Field Mouse, Apodemus mystacinus and the rats, black and brown, are omnivorous so they can't be ruled out. We also have a couple of species of Hedgehog, Erinaceus concolor and Erinaceus roumanicus who are partial to the odd snail or two but unlike the European Hedgehog they tend to build grass nests. There is also the endemic Cretan Least Weasel Mustela nivalis galinthias which is known to live in the walls of derelict old buildings such as this. However, he's more likely to eat the small rodents rather than this amount of snails. Finally we have three species of Shrew, two of which are possible contenders (the third, the endemic Cretan White-toothed Shrew, Crocidura zimmermanni lives only in the high mountains). What we really need at this point is the naturalist's old favourite; some pooh, but I've scoured the surrounding area and there's no sign of a scat anywhere. My money is on one of the mice, particularly as we've just seen one, but the evidence is purely circumstantial.

Behind the house we have some sun scorched grassland but down in the shady hollow there is still some fennel in flower which may still hold some late morning activity so lets go and take a look. I see we have our new beetle friend, Chlorophorus varius. That makes three sightings in three outings. Either he's very fond of us or there are a few of them about. Now this is interesting, what on earth is that Mud Dauber Wasp doing with that Chocolate Banded Snail? Mud Dauber Wasps have a tendency to be quite prey specific, provisioning their young with moth and sawfly caterpillars in the case of Ammophila species, grasshoppers for Prionyx species, spiders for Scleriphon species and Crickets for Sphex species. I have never heard of a mud dauber tackling a snail. Maybe it's not a mud dauber at all but another insect imitating a mud dauber? It won't be the first time I've been fooled (nor will it be the last). Ah well, your thoughts in the comments box as usual please -like all naturalists I'm always ready to learn something new.

I'm on safer ground now; those are definitely Feral Pigeons flying overhead. Twenty four of them which is good news. Three years ago I told you that “we used to have a regular flock of 17-18 Feral Pigeons and one pair of Collared Doves. Last year the flock was down to 14 and we had two pairs of Collared Doves.” (See Hey Hay!) Now, as you can see we have two dozen in the flock of feral pigeons and we're back to the one pair of Collared Doves plus another male chancing his arm (or wing I suppose). In Ierapetra however, I didn't do a count but it seems that the Collared Dove has almost fully replaced the Feral Pigeon and they've certainly taken all the best nest sites around the hospital. This is happening all over the northern hemisphere, particularly in urban areas. For instance in the UK there were an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs of Collared Doves in 1964. In 2008 there were just short of 300,000 breeding pairs. In the USA less than fifty escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in 1974. They can now be found in virtually every U.S. State as well as Mexico. However, the Feral Pigeon seems to be holding on – for the moment. And now I see that our paths are diverging. I think we'll take the left one and make our way back down the hill next week. But for now let us be content to sit a while and enjoy a quiet moment or two just drinking in the wonders of nature that surround us.

The Extra Bit

In some respects we're quite up-to-date in Ferma – we even have wall art! I found this lovely depiction of a butterfly on the whitewashed wall inside one of those derelict buildings.


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 nest: Canon EOS 1300D, Hooded Crow: Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Nikon Coolpix S33
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Flock: Canon EOS 1300D Individual birds: Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
Extra Bit pictures 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

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Cool of the Morning

With afternoon temperatures hovering listlessly around the forty Celcius mark the best time for walking the hills around Ferma is, without doubt, just as the sun is beginning to rise. As the pre-dawn blues of Strongoli begin to melt in its rays only the olives, pines and lentisc retain their green. A lingering Bugloss fades its final flowers from pink to violet but the overriding impression is one of a sepia landscape. It is a time of grasshoppers, crickets and dragonflies.

I think we'll head off into those pines for a bit and try to find some shade. This is a part of the gully we explored a few years back in A Kingdom in the Pine Woods



I see we still have a couple of beetles about; a False Blister beetle feeding on the last remaining nectar of the Fennel (all adult False Blisters are pollen feeding) and in this dying Globe Thistle another Chlorophorus varius. This is the beetle we found last time out that we think is new to the island (see The Ultimate Jigsaw Puzzle). He looks to be on his last legs – insects don't tend to live very long once they've reached adulthood and mated – so lets box him up and let him die in peace. No-one has let me know of a previous sighting of this beetle yet on the island so a physical specimen may be needed at some point to find out a little bit more about his origins. It's amazing what you can find out these days with a little genomic sequencing but you can't do it from a photograph.

We'll just rest quietly here for a while, listen to the birds and see who comes to visit. I can hear greenfinch, chaffinch and great tit flitting around in the foliage and... “Good morning to you Sir (or Madam – I'm never too sure which with buzzards)” A nice little early morning encounter. Pity it saw us and decided not to grace us with its company a little longer. This may be one of its favourite breakfasting spots, Buzzards always catch their prey on the ground and there are plenty of vantage points here to spot anything rustling the dry grasses in this little clearing.

The cicadas will be safe on the trunks of the trees, there must be dozens of them here this morning. I can hardly hear myself think. The cicada song (if one can dignify such a horrendous racket with the term) almost defines Mediterranean summer nights in literature and, on my recent exile to the bustling town of Ierapetra, I did indeed hear cicadas in the wee small hours, but out here in the country they start at sunrise and cease at sunset. Incredibly difficult to spot, cicadas, unless you see them land. There are two above your head, look. Just there on the trunk. Much as I'd like to stay on my back here, gazing up at the moon there's another little place up the road that I want to show you where we can look for some lizards.

This is Ferma, ancient and modern so to speak. Behind this old stone structure you can see our new solar electricity generating plant but it's in the old bit (and I've never been able to determine what it was) where you can find lizards coming out to bask on the stone walls. If we just crouch here in the shadows and wait for a bit. Ouch! And ouch again! I don't know about you but I appear to be being bitten by house flies. Now this is odd, not to say painful, because house flies don't bite. If you look at this picture that I took a while back of a fly rubbing his legs whilst sitting on a red leather purse you can just make out his mouth parts which act like a sort of sponge for mopping up liquid nutrients. This little expletive on my leg however seems to have a pneumatic hypodermic attached to his face. Although he looks very much like a house fly, albeit a little smaller, he is in fact a Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, also known as the biting house fly and the power mower fly. These can pass on diseases to horses, cattle and poultry but thankfully, in this part of the world at least, not to humans. It's quite a painful little bite though and I'm beginning to swell up already so I think we'll leave the lizards for another day. Besides which I really do think that it's time for breakfast.

The Extra Bit

For anyone requiring further information about Chlorophorus varius I have diagnostic photos available and a specimen. Email me at Chlorophorusvarius@outlook.com

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, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3, Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit pictures Canon EOS 1300D
Pictures cropped and lighting adjusted with FastStone Image Viewer


And finally...thanks for all your good wishes for my wife who is now recovering at home.


*********************************************************************
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