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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 voilà) 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

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Sklavoi – Village of the Slaves

When you look at a map of an area there are often a number of exciting looking places to investigate but at first glance Sklavoi does not appear to be one of them. Which is why I want to go there for I often find the most interesting things where they are least expected. For instance the connection between this little church down here, grasshoppers and the bomb disposal squad. The church is dedicated to St. Barbara, a young lady of Christian persuasion who's father was an out and out pagan. When he learnt of her conversion he went at her with a sword whereupon the wall of the tower (in which he kept her) exploded. Babs finished up, unharmed, in a mountain gorge alongside two very surprised shepherds. Her father pursued her, one of the shepherds betrayed her and he was turned to stone for his treachery. Not only that, his entire flock was turned into grasshoppers (which seems to have been quite popular in the past – see Chrysopigi - Source of Gold). She was caught and tortured and about to be beheaded by her father as a final punishment when he too was detonated by a bolt of lightning and Barbara escaped. In honour of her going out with a bang as it were, she is now the patron saint of all those who work with explosives.

I am also intrigued by the village name for Sklavoi is Greek for slaves and Crete was never big on slavery. What slaves there were seem to have been reasonably well treated and it was here in Crete that the tradition of the 'servants-day-off' where the slaves were waited upon by their masters probably first originated [1]. We are not the only animals to indulge in a bit of slavery. These ants down here are workers busy dismembering a dead gecko. These particular ants were born in the colony but the Blood Red Ant of Northern Europe, the U.S. And Asia will raid the nests of other ants and kidnap the pupae and larvae and enslave them. I sometimes wonder if we humans were ever the first to do anything.






Let's wander down out of the village and see if we can find any autumn flowers. Quite a variety in the environs of this magnificently twisted old olive tree. Quick quiz: look closely and see if you can spot the odd one out. Did you spot the little Mirid Bug peering over the edge of the right hand petal of the yellow Squirting Cucumber? How about the Southern Green Shieldbug nymph nestling between its fruits below? Or the pair of beetles investigating the centre of the Autumn Crocus to the left? A little Autumn rain, the flowers come out, the insects appear and nature's larder is re-stocked once more. The only one without an entomological attendant appears to be the budding Autumn Squill.





This really is a delightful little stroll and beautifully warm for the time of year and I see that we have caper bushes in great abundance. I still haven't tried pickling the leaves as they do in Italy but the little flower buds are delicious on a bit of fish or a pizza. Seems like I'm not the only one who likes capers. A brood of caterpillars. These are Large Whites. Traditionally they are associated with cabbages or other brassicas but although their preferred food plants do indeed tend to be members of the Brassicacae family they have quite a range of host plants from different families.

What a wealth of life we have along the roadside here. I told you that Sklavoi would be interesting. Down on the road we have another of those Huntsman Spiders that we found up in Praesos and sitting on a leaf a little Crab Spider that's recently migrated from a yellow flower and hasn't got round to changing colour yet. Plenty of wasps around the ivy flowers, mainly the common European Wasps which the Americans call Yellowjackets, but also this red and black one which is a Spider Wasp. The adults feed on nectar but their young dine on live spiders. When the female lays an egg she'll seal a spider in with it that she's previously paralysed with her venom. The spider has to be large enough to feed the youngster until he's large enough to fend for himself so the little Crab Spider is probably safe but I'd advise the Huntsman to keep at least one of his eight eyes on the sky above him. And finally... one of those tall plants with small flowers that may be overlooked. Pity really because their flowers are quite charming and the plant, which is a Verbascum or Mullein, contains high levels of Rotenone which we use to treat head lice and scabies. Apparently the US government also uses it to kill fish in rivers but why they should wish to do this is beyond me.

This little track seems to lead back up into the village so that will make a nice circular walk. 

The Extra Bit


So far on the bird table we've had birds, cats and a black rat but this is one animal that I was rather surprised to see, especially as the bird table is only four feet from my bedroom window. It's an endemic Cretan Stone Marten which lives only here and on a few islands in the eastern Mediterranean. It is slightly smaller than the European Stone (or Beech) Marten of which it is a subspecies. It's not totally unusual to find them around human habitation at night but even so, four feet is quite close. I'm taking it as the ultimate proof that I do not snore like a chainsaw (whatever Christina might say).

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 Konica Minolta
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Konica Minolta
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
Extra Bit Trail Camera RD1000

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, 25 November 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #26

In last week's #CreteNature blog we finished up in a taverna talking about mermaids. But from which country did the mermaid myth originate?

a) Syria

b) Greece

c) Iraq


If ever a quiz question was designed to court controversy then a question regarding myth origins has to be it. At the risk of being shot down in flames I will tentatively assert that the first mermaid was the Assyrian goddess Atargatis from around 1,000 BC. Like many a goddess before and since she fell in love with a mortal (this one was a shepherd) and accidentally killed him. Mortified, she jumped into a lake and turned herself into a fish. Even that seems to have gone off half cock as she only managed the transition from the waist down. It is somewhat comforting to know that even goddesses sometimes have days when things just don't go right. Assyria equates with modern day Syria and so the answer is A.

A little more on mermaids but much more on modern day wildlife can be found in this week's #CreteNature blog Sikia Beach – Frozen in Time

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Sikia Beach – Frozen in Time

In previous weeks we've been back in time 800 years and joined the Venetians in their hill fort at Monte Forte and 2,000 years with the last of the Minoans at their place in Praesos. This week we're going back over 20 million years into the geological past to a beach that you will no longer find in any good beach guide to Crete. Lift a little patch of this massive slab of rock with your fingers (which is surprisingly easy to do) and you can rub the sand away from the underside with your thumb. It's covered with various lichens on the surface but let's go up and see what plants have colonised the edges. Plenty of Heather, as you'd expect on a sandy soil, and down among the roots some beautiful little autumn flowering Narcissi. We also have some spherical heads of Alliums. Garlic, onion, chive and shallot are all Alliums and we have about fifteen different species growing wild here on Crete. As to which these are I'd have to check with our botanist friend, Steve Lenton who is a man who really knows his onions. I never could get the hang of them: when I was a young man I disappointed my future father-in-law by confusing his onions with his gladioli but in fairness his vegetable plot did abut his flower border.

We also have plenty of stones and rocks for flipping which, as you know, can keep me amused for hours. Oh look, our first beetle of the autumn. In fact, this is quite a rare one called Pimelia minos, which is endemic to this end of the island and fairly easy to recognise as his back has the appearance of avocado pear skin. I've only come across this species twice before; on Koutsounari beach and at Bramiana resevoir. Pimelia may be a rare species but he is one of a group of 20,000 or more Darkling Beetles that can be found worldwide very often in dark places such as under stones which gives them their common name. 







Now who do we have here pollinating our heather? This is one of the Tachinids, a rather bristly bunch of flies as you can see. They have a tendency to lay their eggs in the larvae of other insects, particularly the caterpillars of butterflies and moths, but some prefer adult beetles or their larvae so it's no wonder our Pimelia friend likes to spend his time hiding under rocks. So would I.











I've found some old bricks over here. Let's rummage. You've got some little orange dots moving about on the bottom of that one. Here, take the hand lens and tell me what you see. They're sort of peachy? Nice. How many legs have they got? A very small, eight legged creature with peachy skin. May I take a look? What you have there is a Red Velvet Mite, quite pretty in their own way but rather predatory when they are adults. In their earlier life stages however they are parasitic on other insects. I've just found another Pimelia over here and look what's nestling in the crook of his front leg, a little velvety orange dot. Poor old Pimelia, he's not safe anywhere.







Well, what do you think? Quite a lot of life for a bare stone slab isn't there? But there's another strange creature that I want to introduce you to and you'll be pleased to hear that it is best observed from a small taverna in the nearby village of Sikia. You'd have thought that with so many wonderful creatures in the world there would be no need to make them up but mythology is full of them such as that lovely mermaid over there. If you are crossing the Aegean in a boat you may meet up with Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, who was turned into a mermaid after her death. If she asks after her brother tell her that he's alive and doing well. This seems to pacify her. If you tell her he's been dead for centuries she gets all upset and starts churning up the waters.

The Extra Bit

The trailcam has been busy photographing Great Tits and Italian Sparrows galore during the day but this little fellow appeared overnight. He's a Black Rat, Rattus rattus. I'm not too worried about the occasional Brown rat around the garden but I'm not so keen on having the black ones about. However, as the trailcam also picked up three different cats investigating the bird table at night it is hoped that he won't stick around too long.






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
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 4 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Extra Bit Trail Camera RD1000

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)

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #25

In this week's #CreteNature blog we were looking at herbs but which is the correct pronunciation of the word 'herb'?

a) herb

b) 'erb

c) both are correct.


It all rather depends on when and where you lived. 'erb used to be the accepted pronunciation in England and it is still the accepted pronunciation in America. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the Brits decided that as the H was there it may as well be used and herb became the standard. So the answer is c) both are correct.

Not only were we discovering herbs or 'erbs this week but also butterflies, lizards and spiders with a bit of ancient history thrown in for good measure. Join us for our weekly wander around the idyllic Cretan countryside with this week's walk Further Back in Time to Praesos