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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

White River (Makry Gialos - Aspros Potamos)

Considering that this is supposed to be a tour of the upland villages of east Crete you could be forgiven for wondering why I have brought you down here to the coastal resort of Makry Gialos. Apart from the fact that it is a beautiful little place and well worth visiting in its own right it is also the point where one of the main winter watersheds reaches the sea. If you remember back to Chrysopigi and Skordilo we passed beneath the massif of the Ornos mountains and we have now circled around to the mouth of what is grandly called the White River (or Aspros Potamos) in Greek. So today I thought we'd take a gentle riverside stroll and see what is about before motoring up to Pefki next week.




Well, this is it folks and if you are wondering where the water is then I have to tell you that we are still awaiting any significant rainfall. What little flow there is appears to be choked with Giant Cane and after last week's escapade I'm in no hurry to get down amongst it. We'll cross the road up there and when the reeds clear a bit keep your eyes peeled for Wagtails. The White Wagtails, Motacilla alba are quite abundant and there is also a good chance of seeing a Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea. We are probably a bit early for the Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava as they don't usually turn up until late March or April but if you do spot one take a good look at the head colouring as they come in a number of different flavours: black-headed; ashy-headed, blue-headed etc.






Here on the wall of the Villea Village we have a handy map which shows the route all the way up to Pefki. We're only going as far as Aspros Potamos today which is a pleasant, flat stroll suitable for all but there's plenty to see just along this little stretch. As far as winter flowers are concerned mauve is the colour to look out for starting with the Windflowers, Anemone coronaria. These actually come in a variety of shades ranging from pure white to pink but there are a few mauve ones down here at our feet conveniently illustrating my point. In the soft earth at the side of the track we also have the much maligned Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, which, contrary to folklore does not scream and send you mad if you pull it up by the roots. It is however, highly poisonous, being packed full of tropane alkaloids and is best admired from a distance. Finally we have that well known garden herb, Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, which this newly emerged Large White is drying her fresh wings upon. In the kitchen most of us associate the leaves of this plant with lamb as they have a strong flavour and need a similarly robust meat to accompany. The flowers though have a more delicate and sweeter flavour and sprinkled over a chicken breast or pork escalope pan fried in butter at the last moment add a lovely twist to the meal.





Now here's a little butterfly that you won't come across very often. It's a Mallow Skipper, Carcharodus alceae. Other species are available but as far as I am aware this is the only species recorded for Crete and I have seen them before on this track. The adults will feed on a variety of flowers (this one is enjoying the Wood Sorrel) but they lay little pink, knobbly eggs upon various species of Mallow which is the preferred foodplant of their caterpillars, although they are not averse to Hisbiscus as an alternative, both of which are in plentiful supply in these parts although the Hibiscus is imported.











Well, this is as far as we go today. As you can see, it's all uphill from here but it is a lovely walk if you don't mind a bit of climbing. Meanwhile I'm a little disappointed that we haven't found any fungi today but, as I say, we're still waiting for the rain. However, it just so happens, that down by the harbour I know of a lovely little taverna that boasts a magnificent bracket fungus, Innotus tamaricis, growing on a tamarisk tree at a very convenient distance from a table. I really do think that we should go and see how it's getting on.






Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so 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.Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Nose For Navigation

Last time we were together we finished up looking at a dead grasshopper so this week we'll start with a live one. We're very much in grasshopper territory here and this is our local version of the Meadow Grasshopper, Chorthippus bornhalmi. Crickets and grasshoppers are well known for their songs and it is a common myth that they sing by rubbing their legs together. Almost true. Generally speaking crickets chirp by rubbing their wings together whereas grasshoppers rub their wings against their legs. I see that there's an old stone bridge down there crossing a small gully that gets considerably deeper as it heads southwards. Definitely worth investigating methinks.


The gully seems to be running into a bit of a ravine which is absolutely inundated with Giant Cane. Despite its massive height it is, like bamboo, a type of grass. Also, like bamboo, the young shoots are edible and you can eat the boiled rhizomes apparently. I haven't tried it myself and I've never seen any recipes for it (so I'd be inclined to take that information with a bit of caution or maybe even a pinch of salt) but I'll pass it on anyway. It also looks fairly impenetrable but we won't let a little fact like that put off intrepid explorers like us. I'm sure that we can slide our way through somehow.

OK so they were pretty unforgiving but look who's waiting for us; a Common Darter. Only he's not so common, not at this time of year anyway. It's a fairly recent discovery that certain dragonflies migrate, the same as birds do [1]. And how do we know that? Because some fool entomologist managed to fit a dozen of them with the world's smallest transmitters and follow them in a light aircraft for 58km over six days. Research is ongoing and I'll put in my fourpenn'orth with this set of seasonal maps which I've put together from iNaturalist. As you can see you'll only find them in Winter around the Mediterranean. By Spring they're up as far north as the Netherlands and in Summer and Autumn they're in Scotland and Denmark.



You may have noticed that these canes are getting thicker and I'm beginning to think that someone should have put an electronic transmitter on me as I'm not sure which is our best route out of here. Meanwhile we have some pretty little Clematis cirrhosa down here which is quite, quite poisonous (see Entrapment In A Virgin's Bower) and some Myrtle berries, Myrtus communis, which are most definitely edible (see Fly Feet And Lizards' Ears). All of which is rather academic at the moment as we seem to be effectively caged in on all sides and we've traced a tortuous and probably unretraceable route to get this far. All is not lost however as I am indebted to Phil Bebbington who sent me this handy little GPS tracker for our travels. As I've been marking our finds as we go along I should at least be able to track our route back by following the trail of breadcrumbs as it were. So, if I just pick the appropriate screen I get a picture of... what appears to be an earthworm in its death throes. Our route has been more circuitous than I thought. Another feature of this little gizmo is that we can combine our current position with satellite images which means, in theory, that we can see our shortest route out. I say 'in theory' because I haven't yet mastered how to do that yet. I can tell you where we are to eight decimal places of latitude and longitude but that's not exactly helpful at this moment. We will have to rely on the old naturalists' trick of escaping from river gullies: proceed in any direction you like so long as it's up.

It never fails and we seem to have emerged on the same side of the gully as we entered which is a bonus. There's a whole flock of feral pigeons sitting on a telephone wire over there and I swear that they're laughing at us. Ignoring the incongruity of a telephone wire stretching over a pinnacle of rock and dangling down into an inaccessible cave (this is Crete and it's best not to dwell on such conundrums if you wish to preserve your sanity for any length of time), the reason the pigeons are laughing is that they don't get lost in cane breaks. Exactly how they manage to navigate long distances is still under investigation but if, like me, you thought that it was all down to reading the Earth's magnetic field and/or following the sun's arc then you'd be wrong. Both are useful as compasses but not much cop if you don't know where you're heading for. Like ourselves in the cane break, without a satellite image to see where we were in relation to the edge of the canes, knowing our latitude and longitude and the direction of north was of no help. You need a map and so do the pigeons. After forty years of research[2] it would appear that your homing pigeon probably uses olfactory mapping as a primary navigation tool. They know what home smells like and if you take them to a new location they'll sniff their way back. And on that incredible note I think we'll make our way back. Can anyone smell the car?

The Extra Bit

On the subject of navigation I would propose a study of island postmen. Here on Crete the smaller villages have no road names and no house numbers. If, like Phil Bebbington, you are kind enough to send me a piece of equipment that you have finished with and pay extra for parcel tracking then the Post Office will hand over delivery to a courier. This means that it will eventually arrive in the near vicinity of my home, having travelled across Europe in ever decreasing circles, and after a flurry of telephone calls I will retrieve the package from an exasperated man in a little white van from outside the village shop. Pop it in the regular post and my postman will (almost) invariably deliver it to my door a week or two later. How he memorises where everybody lives is a feat worthy of scientific investigation.

Thanks again for the GPS Phil, it really is a most appreciated gift and I will get to grips with combining it with satellite images!


Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so 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. Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Problem With Icarus

A beautiful sunny start to 2018 and I wish you all a Happy New Year. The other day I passed the back of a curious concrete structure south of Lithines and I decided to stop and walk around to the front of it. Here it is, come on I'll show you. Once upon a time these hexagons were all mirrored which would have been a spectacular sight for that buzzard up there. Despite looking like something out of a Bond movie, it was actually an early solar power experiment. Crete is no stranger to discovering the power of the sun of course. Back in the day an engineer called Daedalus was imprisoned on Crete with his son Icarus by King Minos. In an ingenious escape plan Daedalus made wings of feathers and wax for the pair of them. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he fell back to earth with a splat. Actually both Icarus and the story crash at this point because the higher you fly, the colder it gets. Far from melting, the wax was more in danger of icing up. The result would have been the same of course.

Many animals shun the heat of the Cretan sun by hiding under rocks and with so many of these hexagons lying around in the undergrowth I reckon we can have a flipping good day finding some of them. Lets start with a couple of myriapods and dispel a few myths about legs. As children we were taught that centipedes had a hundred legs and millipedes a thousand (and their names reflect this). Neither fact is true. Myriapods, the group to which they belong means ten thousand legs and that's wrong also. Centipedes can have anywhere between 30 and about 350 legs (this one has about 40) and even the most leggy of millipedes only has 750. Our curled up friend here has about120. In addition to this they grow to adulthood by adding segments and legs as they develop, starting with as little as three segments and six legs, so counting legs is not a good way of differentiating the two animals. The trick is to look at the arrangement: centipedes have one pair of legs per body segment, millipedes have two.

I don't know if you've noticed but there's a door in the floor over there which can only mean one of two things. It's either a portal to another dimension or a flat-pack fridge (I often wonder what IKEA do with ideas that don't quite work). Let's open it up and find out what lies within. Corrugated cardboard which seems to be of interest to hundreds and hundreds of ants. I wonder what they find so fascinating? When reading about ants one often comes across the prefix 'myrm' (people who study ants are myrmecologists, seed dispersal by ants is called myrmecochory and so on) and the words come from the Greek 'myrmex'. There is an ancient Greek myth regarding Aeacus and Aegina who grew up alone on the island of Aegina. Getting rather bored of calling out “Aegina” and getting the response “Are you talking to me or the island?” (which wasn't a very good joke in the first place but pales considerably after the hundredth repetition) Aeacus asked Zeus to provide a bit of alternative company. Never one to do things by halves Zeus turned all the ants on the island into men and women and they were known as the Myrmidons who later fought with Achilles at Troy. There is an alternative version in which the Myrmidons were supposed to have been descended from the son of Zeus and Eurymedusa whom he seduced whilst appearing in the form of an ant but that seems somewhat impractical on many levels, even for Zeus.

Moving on to this Lentisc bush for a moment we seem to have something interesting going on. The spider is our old friend Cytophora, the Tropical Tent Web Spider, going about her business of cocooning food trapped in her web. But I'm rather more interested in this little bug that she seems to be ignoring. If I just extract it and turn it over in my hand... Yes, despite the faded colours which indicates that it may have been trapped for some time, it is definitely Zelus renardii. This Assassin Bug, you may recall, is a newcomer to Europe having been discovered on mainland Greece in 2011and here on Crete by ourselves in 2014 (see Red Autumn). Now the question is, why has she not parcelled it up for later consumption? We'll have to keep our eyes out for further instances and see if this is just a one-off or a more general occurrence.

Whilst we're on the subject of dead insects I've just spotted a deceased grasshopper on the floor here. This is one of at least three types of bandwing grasshoppers with reddish wings on Crete which you normally see as just a flash of red, like a miniature firework exploding beneath your feet, as you walk through dry scrubland like this. It is only when they have passed on that you can get a chance to open up their wings and admire their exquisite tracery. The patterning also helps to identify the species. This one is the Slender Digging Grasshopper, Acrotylus patruelis.

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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Purple Ponds of Lithines

The purple ponds are teeming with microscopic life. 
We'll make our way back to the main Sitia-Makry Gialos road to Lithines where there are a few interesting ponds to the north west of the village that are worthy of investigation not least of all for their intriguing colour at this time of year. We are still awaiting significant rainfall and the ponds are very shallow at the moment but packed full of nutrients and it is these that are responsible for their unusual colour. If you check them out under the microscope they are absolutely teeming with microscopic life with nematodes, desmids and the like flitting about at tremendous speeds all over the place. But before we get down to them lets see what we can find on the way.

The first signs of the upcoming change of season are here by the track with these Wood Sorrels or Bermuda Buttercups which will soon be adorning every roadside and olive grove. You can make a nice warming winter soup with these; just bring a pot of chicken or vegetable broth up to the boil, chuck in a handful of cooked rice and a handful of wood sorrel leaves, simmer for about eight minutes. Finally stir in a dollop of cream, salt and pepper to taste and serve with a couple of the flowers floating on the top. (Obligatory word of caution: Wood sorrel contains oxalic acid so if you suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity then it may aggravate the complaint but for the rest of us the odd bowl or two is fine). You can also add flowers or leaves to salads for a sharp, lemony bite if you wish as well. As with all wild plants, wash them well, remove any bugs such as this Shield Bug nymph and pick away from roadsides or other contaminated areas.

There are the ponds down there which we have to find our way down to somehow but first a Small Copper has just landed nearby. They like to lay their eggs on Sorrel which is their caterpillar's food plant and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is rather handy as we have some wood sorrel nearby but not so. This is the old confusion of common names. The Wood Sorrel is Oxalis pes-carpe in the family Oxalidaceae; Sorrels (without the wood) are plants of the Rumex genus in the Polygonaceae family. The ambiguity arises because they are all acidic tasting and the word Sorrel reflects this being derived from the old French 'sorele' meaning sour.

Here we are, down at the ponds without too much difficulty and there doesn't seem to be too much activity on the surface but just take a look at this rainwater ditch nearby where the water is a little more free draining. The dragonflies are having a high old time, there must be six pairs here at least, flying along in tandem with the males clasping the females' necks with their special pincers. These little Darters stay together after copulation and then the female gently dips her abdomen into the water and lays an egg which, if we sit and watch them for a few moments we can witness. There she goes, and another, and another. These will hatch out into extremely predatory nymphs and providing that the ditch doesn't dry up they can spend up to three years in this stage before emerging as adults.

And finally the ponds themselves and what an unusual, attractive colour they are at this time of day. Not entirely devoid of life on the surface, I can see one small, white insect skating along on the surface but what precisely it is I cannot tell. No, I am not going to wade in and take a closer look. I have a strong suspicion that beneath this shallow water there lurks a good few inches or more of evil smelling sludge with which I have no desire to get better acquainted thank you. Well, that just about wraps it up for Autumn. Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice and if you'd care to join me in raising a glass to the shortest day of the year the the time of the solstice, when the Earth is at its furthest point from the sun, is 16.48 Universal Time or almost ten to five Greenwich Mean Time as us oldies prefer to call it. That's a most convivial time for a libation out here in Crete being about ten to seven in the evening. So, wherever you are and whatever you're celebrating, have a good one and we'll meet up again on January 3rd 2018. Cheers!

Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so 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. Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.
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LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


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.




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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