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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

If we just push our way through these giant canes we should find the…splash!...stream. I’ve found the water; my right foot has at any rate. I’ve also found a rather interesting character wandering over this rock here. An eight legged arachnid but not a spider. She is one of the hard backed ticks (like books, they come in hard back and soft back) and I think that she’s a Brown Dog Tick. Although they prefer dogs as hosts (and we have plenty of hunting dogs in this area) they will take blood from any mammal including us. As she can host bacteria that would result in us catching Mediterranean spotted fever she is best avoided – like the plague as it were. I think we’ll press on.

This looks like a nice spot to sit and rest for a while with a little waterfall gurgling beside us. I don’t see any ticks about and fortunately they are not particularly numerous so let’s probe about in the leaf litter and see who’s at home. Ah, a tiny, bright red, harmless bug. Very small, very colourful and very vulnerable; which is probably why it’s hiding in the leaf litter.  Bugs have to grow up just like we do and this one is just a toddler so to speak. Later on it will moult into new clothing, changing styles (much as our children do when growing up) and finally reaching the full adult livery of our old friend the Soldier Bug. Then, of course, it’s off to find a mate and start the cycle again as we saw last week.

Well, we’d better move on but it looks as though we’ll have to crawl through the undergrowth once again. These magnificent plants with the mottled stems and white patched leaves are Dragon Arums which will throw up a huge purple spathe next month. Very impressive and I’m sure we’ll see some when the time comes. Meanwhile, I’ve just dislodged a piece of bark from a rotting tree stump and a couple of woodlice have rolled out. Some woodlice can roll up into a tight ball like this and, like Ernie Wise’s wig, you can’t see the join. These are commonly known as pill bugs in the family Armadillidiidae. The odd thing about these two are those lumpy bits called tubercles. They’re very pronounced and require a bit more investigation as I don’t think that they’re common woodlice. You may think that a woodlouse is a woodlouse is a woodlouse but there are over 200 species in Greece alone and they’re a fascinating group of animals to study.

The river bank is a great place to find rotting logs and tree stumps and gently peeling away the outer bark can often reveal a kaleidoscope of life going on. Let’s have a look under this one. A worm, but not an earthworm. See the way that it’s anchored its backside to the wood and is swishing away at the front? That is characteristic of a Nematode. They don’t have the ability to crawl like earthworms. Did you know that they can eat up to five thousand bacteria a minute? That is, if they don’t get eaten themselves first. There seems to be a fungus growing up not far from its head and there are such things as nematophagous fungi that prey specifically on nematodes; catching them in glue traps or lassoing them. I don’t think that this is one of those though. I think that it is in far more danger from that little scorpion there. I have an irresistible urge to call “He’s behind you!” in true pantomime tradition. By the way, the nematode is definitely an ‘it’ and not a he or she. Like slugs and snails, nematodes are hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual organs.

I think that we can stand up now and if we push our way through these canes we should get back to the track – eventually. It’s like trying to break out of prison isn’t it? Here we are, scratched, torn but happy, back on terra firma and there’s an inconspicuous little flower down by our feet. A little flower with a big history. It has been used to mummify Egyptian royalty, sail Roman ships,  provide a good night’s sleep for European nobles and oil the bats of the England Cricket team. It is Linum bienne or pale flax, the wild ancestor of the cultivated flax that has been used to make linen for millennia and the source of linseed oil. It also gave us the words line, lining, lingerie and linoleum; and to think I almost trod on it.

The Extra Bit

Flax and linen have gone out of fashion a bit but a couple of years ago I was at the Cotswold Show in England when I came across this flax fabric and flax oil resin canoe from Flaxland. I want one. I wonder if they’ll give me a discount on the strength of this link? (They make lots of other marvellous linen products as well).






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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

To St. John’s Ford

Algerian Iris, Iris unguicularis
Here we are below the Milonas waterfall and the cataract is still tumbling down through the rocks sounding like a symphony of swirling streams. A veritable jungle of giant cane and oleander surround us and up among the rocks small flowers like this Algerian Iris are taking advantage of every crack and crevice that holds a modicum of soil.  Not only is it a ridiculously pretty little flower but its rhizomes - the underground stems - contain some useful compounds (Kaempferol and 8-Methoxyeriodictyol if you're into phytochemistry), both of which are important in the fight against diabetes and a wide range of cancers[1].



 
Tropinota beetle and Spilostethus Seed Bugs
It looks as though machetes will be needed to get through this next bit so I think we’ll take a detour up over the bank. With the temperatures now in the upper twenties Celsius and wall-to-wall sunshine the insects are anticipating next week’s spring equinox. The hairy Tropinota Beetles are all over the place and this one is gorging himself on a Cretan Cistus. Some insects, like the bees, flit from flower to flower but he’ll be there for an hour or more availing himself of every last bit of nourishment. Meanwhile the seed bugs are busy making more seed bugs. Unlike the Tiger Beetles who go for the direct mounting technique (see last week) Seed Bugs prefer the back-to-back method of mating. Not particularly romantic but equally effective.

Caddisfly larva, Trichoptera sp.
I can see a light at the end of the tunnel; if we just thrust our way through this bush… ah, we’re back to the stream. Let’s sit and peer into it for a bit and get our breath back. Pass me the net will you, I think there’s something going on down by that rock. Now why do you think that this little nymph is poking his head into that pile of sand? He’s not doing it voluntarily. That pile of sand is hiding a Caddisfly larva. There’s another one down there look. They spin a cocoon of sticky silk around themselves and cunningly cover it with surrounding materials; sand and grit in this case, then lay in wait and ambush unsuspecting prey. Our poor nymph is being eaten head first.

Diatoms
If you look at some of these rocks they’re covered with rather uninteresting looking brown slime. This is the next stage of the biofilm that we saw developing in A Recipe For Life. If you take the sampling kit – yes, that’s it: a screw top container and an old toothbrush. Just half fill the container with water, scrape the rock with the toothbrush and stir item 1 with item 2 – I’ll set up the field microscope and we’ll see what’s lurking within. Look at that, no less than nine species of diatoms; those minute life forms at the base of the food web. Fascinating aren’t they?



Spawn of the Green Toad, Bufotes viridis
Signs of civilisation, a vehicle track. If we were to follow it round to the left we’d find a waymarked path to the waterfall (but it wouldn’t have been as much fun as hacking through the undergrowth). To the right it goes down to Ferma Bay one way and up to Agios Ioannis the other. As I’ve said previously Agios Ioannis translates as St. John so I’ve always called this place St. John’s Ford but you won’t find it marked as such on any map. I see that the Green Toads have been busy. That clump of what looks like spotted snakes coiled around those reeds is toadspawn and the black dots are emerging tadpoles, there are a few swimming around look. You can tell that it’s toadspawn and not frogspawn because toads lay their spawn in long strings whereas frogs lay theirs in a jelly-like mass. Worldwide, amphibians are suffering deaths to the point of extinction in some species from ranaviruses[2] but thankfully I’ve seen no signs of it locally. However, we’ll keep an eye on them on our travels.

 Talking of which, I think we’ll call that it for today and explore downstream next week. Spring will have well and truly sprung by then so it will be ‘eyes everywhere’ to catch all that’s going on.


The Extra Bit

Those diatoms we were looking at under the microscope are interesting enough when they’re still but when you watch them going about their daily business they are absolutely mesmerising. Here’s a short video for you:  https://youtu.be/DWctIwT3dFI 






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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)






Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Milonas Waterfall of Crete

Cyclamen creticus, Anacamptis collina, Fumana arabica
We seem to have emerged from the woods unscathed and the waterfall now lies directly ahead of us. We’ve had to take quite a detour to get around those imposing cliffs but it should be quite a gentle stroll today (famous last words) with plenty of opportunities to look about us. Let’s start with a few flowers that are heralding the arrival of spring later this month. In the shade of the rocks among the pine litter we have the white nodding heads of the Cretan Sowbread which is a type of Cyclamen; the yellow Fumana, a type of rock rose which we saw budding a few weeks back, is now in full flower; and our first orchid of the season: The Fan Lipped Orchid. 

Lucilia ceasar visiting Euphorbia dendroides
Many flowers have lovely scents to attract insect pollinators which we greatly appreciate but some, like this tree spurge here, have a pungent odour which we find somewhat off-putting. Some people have likened it to a decomposing corpse. Fortunately I have never had the experience of smelling a three day dead body so I can neither confirm nor deny but it certainly seems to be attracting these Greenbottles. Not everybody’s favourite insect but they’re quite beautiful when you look at them closely and useful too. Not only do they help to cleanse the planet of rotting bodies but their maggots (which feed on dead animal tissue) have been, and still are, used medically in maggot therapy. They are dropped into a wound such as an ulcer where they not only remove all the dead tissue but also secrete antimicrobial fluids that sterilise the wound.

Cicindela campestris mating
Have you noticed these little green beetles scurrying around on the sandy ground? They’re Tiger Beetles, so called because of their predatory nature. Notice the way that they sprint and stop in a series of jerky runs. This is because they run too fast to see where they’re going and they have to stop and visually reorient themselves. They hold their antennae straight out in front of them to stop them bumping into things. There’s a pair mating here look (in graphic detail if you look closely). I hope he wasn’t running at full tilt when he commenced – the female would have got the shock of her life.

Chalcides ocellata, Rumina decollata, Julidae family
We’re nearly there now and I see that we’re into stone flipping territory so let’s see if anyone is at home. Now here’s a strange group of bedfellows. An Ocellated skink, still hibernating by the way he’s remaining immobile and blinking at me sleepily, three Decollate snails and a Julid millipede. I say odd bedfellows because a skink’s diet generally includes snails and millipedes although I believe that this particular species prefers spiders and beetles. I wonder if the snails and millipede know that? It still seems like us cuddling up to a hibernating bear but nature is full of surprises.

Veliidae family




Well, here it is at last, the Milonas Waterfall, at 40m vertical drop it is the highest streaming waterfall in Crete. There’s a lovely pool here at the base that looks ripe for a bit of pond dipping so let’s go for a paddle. That’s rather refreshing isn’t it? We seem to have some small bugs swimming on the surface that may be worth a closer look. They’re rather quick and not easy to photograph but the body shape and size, the fact that they’re not doing the backstroke and the plated appearance of the abdomen make me think that they are Riffle Bugs. These are small predatory water striders typical of this sort of habitat but I’m not 100% sure. What do you think?




The Extra Bit

You know, that pool does look rather inviting, did you bring a towel? Come on then. Let’s go for a dip. Don’t be a sissy, the snow’s melted and there’s not even any ice on the surface.

Time for a dip (short video):  https://youtu.be/RUybOxhLqRg 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Into A Dark, Dark Place

The next obstacle on our route to the Milonas Waterfall would appear to be a densely wooded slope but before we venture down into the sylvan gloom just listen to the birds this morning. The descending trill of the chaffinch; the harsh dzeee of the greenfinch; the machine gun rattle of the Sardinian Warbler all coming from the trees and bushes around us whilst up above the ravens are cronking and a buzzard is mewing. What a lovely start to the day.




Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees as the saying goes but all too often we fail to see the trees for the wood so let’s take a closer look at the woodland make up. The majority of trees are the familiar needle leaved, cone bearing pines but we also some with thin branching, rather scaly leaves and cones that look a bit like footballs. These are cypress trees, named after Cyparissus, Apollo’s young boyfriend who’s grief was so strong after he accidentally killed his pet stag that he turned into a tree. These are both coniferous trees but we also have some Kermes Oaks in here which are deciduous and bear acorns rather than cones. All three are going to be invaluable in stopping us tumbling down this precipitous slope faster than we intend.

The majority of what we are walking on is pine litter and you can see great clumps of it wedged into crevices in the rocks. The good thing about these clumps is that you can wedge a stick underneath and lift them up in one go. Let’s see what’s underneath this one. A couple of mushrooms growing in total darkness and a julid millipede. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the organism of course but by far the greatest mass of the fungus is the mycelium made up of white threads called hyphae which you can see working its way through the dead pine needles. These hyphae secrete enzymes which break down the litter and convert it into fungus food. They are also the reason that we could pull the clump off in one go.






This bank will give us a chance to have a look at the soil profile if I just scrape it back with my trowel. There are three distinct layers and we’ll take a sample and see what we can find. The top layer of recently fallen needles is home to this tiny Goblin Spider on the hunt for even smaller prey such as this Snout Mite that I’ve just liberated from the second partly decomposed layer called the acid mor, a slowly decaying  type of humus particular to coniferous woodlands and moorland. Snout mites are also predatory on things like springtails and nematode worms. The third, paler layer is called the leached horizon where most of the nutrients have been washed out. We’ll take some back to the lab and look at it more closely later.

We seem to have come into a clearing and it’s nice to see the sun again. You don’t see so many flowers in the depths of the conifer wood but up here we have a nice little Romulea, a flower that looks like a crocus but isn’t – they just evolved along similar lines. Have you noticed that many flowers have different coloured centres? This is thought to help guide the pollinating insects in to the food source. The same with those buttercups that we found in the gorge a couple of weeks back. Yes, I know that they look all yellow but that’s because you’re not an insect (not the last time I counted your legs anyway). Being human your colour spectrum only ranges from red to violet (see Inside The Rainbow) but if you were an insect you could see down into the ultraviolet and the buttercup would look something like this – give or take my lousy artwork. Our senses are rather dull compared with most animals and in nature you can’t always believe what you see.

I can hear the roar of the waterfall quite strongly now and I’m pretty sure that will be our destination next week. Unless we find something else to divert our attention on the way.


The Extra Bit

I’ve finally managed to get around to a project that I’ve been meaning to undertake for some time and that is to put all of our little walks onto an interactive map. By clicking on to any of the green hiker icons you can view the blog post for that particular location. Don’t forget that you can also use the search engine on the right hand side of each blog to search for anything in particular. For instance if orchids are your particular thing then just type ‘orchid’ into the search box and your browser will display all the blog posts that feature orchids. You can then use the map to find the exact location of that post. Neat huh? Interactive Hiking and Nature Map

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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A Recipe For Life

We seem to have taken quite a detour last week to get down to this level and the waterfall should be over there somewhere. We’ll follow our ears and get there somehow but first, that looks interesting. There’s probably a correct technical term for these shallow erosions but I just call them cavelets. Let’s climb up and take a look. As you can see from the staining of the rock face, water is leaching minerals from the rocks and if you look up there you can see small stalactites forming. There are also white deposits blooming on the walls which my geologist friends tell me is probably gypsum/selenite.  They contain calcium and sulphur so, along with the limestone rocks which contain calcium and carbon, and the water, we have carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (the basic elements of life) plus at least a couple of others to add to the recipe. We’ll push our way up through these bushes using this tumbling water course as our stairs and see what’s going on.

And up here, below the dripping stalactite, if you look carefully you can just see some threads of green algae forming. There’s a whole world of wonder in this little splash pool which began when large molecules of dissolved organic substances from the stalactite attached themselves to the wet rock. These neutralised the electrical charge of the water surface and allowed bacteria to colonise and they, in turn, secreted sticky strands that formed a nutrient trapping matrix. This matrix, known as the biofilm to periphytologists (people who study slimy rocks – yes, there really are such people), then served as a base for more bacteria to expand and diversify the biofilm and then for our green algae to grow. The algae, in its turn, will provide a home for microscopic life forms such as the ciliate we found in Life In The Olive Grove .

Algae are very basic life forms but we also have some higher forms of plant life up here. These fig branches, tenaciously clinging to the underside of this crack are just coming into bud and down in the damp crevices we have some lip ferns whilst out on the dry, stony ground, the beautiful but dangerous mandrakes are coming into flower. Their relative simplicity or complexity is reflected in their evolution: the flowering plants which include the fig and mandrake have been with us for about 120 million years, the ferns about 320 million years and the green algae maybe as long as 500 million years. Us? Well, as primates about 55 million years but as Homo sapiens only a couple of hundred thousand years.

Have you noticed these cottony threads in amongst the berries of this lentisc bush here? Alongside the evolution of plants came the evolution of insects and these threads look like the work of woolly aphids. Pass me the field microscope and I’ll see if I can find one for you. There’s one look, if you study him closely you can see him sucking up the sap from the plant. And where there are insects there are predators; there’s a minute spider that has his eye on stuffed aphid for lunch. Talking of which, let’s see if we can find some cave spiders lurking in the deeper recesses.

Do you think that you can wedge yourself up into that crack and see if there’s anyone about? Plenty of webs? That’s a good sign. You’ve found one? Good, I’ll squeeze in beside you and take a look. Hmm. It’s not a cave spider but he is rather interesting. Do you remember me telling you that you don’t have to worry about spiders in Crete because we only have one venomous one and you’re unlikely to come across it? Guess what? You’ve found one. Sorry, probably not the best time to impart that information when you’re perched precariously thirty metres up a cliff face, but don’t worry they’re pretty shy creatures and he won’t bother you unless you threaten him. All the same I think we’ll climb down. That was a Mediterranean Recluse Spider and although his bite can cause nasty skin lesions, a condition known as loxoscelism for which there’s no known treatment, it is rarely fatal. Having said that, there was a fatality last year in Italy but I believe that the unfortunate victim was already suffering from some sort of immune deficiency, which would have been a contributing factor.

Still, venomous spiders aside, a pleasant little diversion and a different angle from which to look at this wonderful thing called life. Now how are we going to get down from here?

The Extra Bit

Last week I glibly said that there is “only one authentic palm lined beach on the whole continent [of Europe]” and that was at Vai on the east coast of Crete. I am indebted to Jackie Strasis for reminding me that Phoenix theophrasti also lines Preveli Beach in southern Crete and I have also learnt that there are yet more at Ayios Nikitas in Heraklion Prefecture. Further research has turned up one other native European palm, The Mediterranean Dwarf palm, Chamaerops humilis, which lives in south west Europe. Just goes to show – you can’t believe a word that I say. Thanks for correcting me Jackie.

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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Worlds Within Worlds

Do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is that we’ve made it safely through the Milonas Gorge. The bad news is that we have a flipping great waterfall ahead of us which means we’ll have to find a way around and down and there are no paths to follow.

No matter, the sun is shining and there’s a flying circus in the sky. In case that seems a bit odd, forget the tents, clowns and performing seals and think of the origin of the word. Circus comes from the Greek kirkos meaning a circle or ring and was applied to a place of entertainment where the seats were arranged in a circle around the performing area. It is also the generic name of the birds that circle as they hunt which we know as Harriers. There have been four species recorded on Crete: the Marsh; Hen (or Northern); Pallid; and Montagu’s. The last three are rare and the Marsh, although a frequent passage migrant in the spring, only overwinters here in small numbers. It’s a bit too high to make out details but it’s still an exciting start to the day as it’s the first Harrier of any type that I’ve seen in these parts.

This really is an impressive bit of landscape with the lower valley stretched out before us and the great towering limestone cliffs at our backs. Hard to imagine that this was once a sea bed. Look up to that patch of blue sky and try to visualise yourself looking up to the surface of the ocean instead. That it may also once have been a tropical beach is easier to imagine because the evidence is here at our feet. The thing about limestone is that it is good at preserving fossils and we’ve got a smashing fossilized palm fan here. Pity it’s too heavy to lift, it would have looked nice by my fireside at home. Palm trees aren’t entirely tropical, there is one species (Phoenix theophrastii) that is native to Europe but there is only one authentic palm lined beach on the whole continent. Where? Crete of course, at a little place called Vai on the east coast. Remind me to take you there some time.




The water here is pushing its way around the rocks, trying to get to the head of the waterfall, which means that there are some intriguing little pools around. Let’s get a sample under the field microscope and see if there’s anyone at home. That little patch of algae clinging to the rock looks promising. Ooh look, an aquatic worm. There are three types of worm that you can find in pools like these. There are nematodes which thrash about frantically (you may remember that we found some three years ago down at Ferma rock pools – see Rockin' All Over The Shore); flatworms which glide around rather gracefully; and oligochaetes like this one which are rather squirmy wormies related to the common earthworm.

We seem to be making our way steadily downwards with loads of lichens, masses of mosses and cascades of chasmophytes (rock loving plants) lining our route but I see that we also have some lovely little yellow fungi down near our feet. Do you see that milky droplet exuding from the stem?  It looks like latex (but not the same latex that you find in plants) which is exuded by members of the milk cap family. However they exude latex from outside the mushroom not from the stem and there are no milk caps with this colour and habit so it’s a waxy cap like the ones we found in the gorge last week. Just when you thought fungi couldn’t get more confusing!

Hello, we’re into the jungle. It looks as though we’ll have to crawl through this bit. Still, while we’re down here we may as well have a look about and see what’s going on. How delightful, an ants’ nest, just what we need when we’re crawling along on our stomachs. But what’s this in the nest with them? You see the little orange insect trying to hide? It’s an Ant-loving Cricket (Myrmecophilus). Ants’ nests aren’t just for ants. They are like big cities and, just as with our cities, they have a diverse wildlife all of their own. Hundreds of different species have adapted to ant city life and this is just one of them. Absolutely tiny for a cricket, they never grow wings because they never leave the city, they’re deaf and mute and have very poor eyesight. They don’t have sex either, the females have virgin births, a process known as parthenogenesis. Doesn’t sound like much of a life but they seem to get by.

The Extra Bit

At last we’ve emerged into the open and even though we’re approaching midwinter a few of the flowers are beginning to emerge. We’ve got anemones, fumana, Cretan cistus and field marigolds all beginning to open their petals in the midwinter sun. If you look over there you can see the waterfall and that’s the direction in which we’ll be heading next week.

Thanks to JJ Wuilbaut at  Mediterranean Fungi for educating me on the difference between Waxy Caps and Milk Caps and to various members of Crete Birding for chatting about the various Harriers on Crete.


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LINKS:
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)