Wednesday 26 February 2014

A Garden of Small Delights

Canes, herbs and logs attract wildlife

The house looks not unlike a shoe box with half a shoe box on top. The missing half of the upper shoe box is a walled terrace from which a stone staircase winds its way down into what Gerald Durrell used to refer to as “a pocket handkerchief sized garden”.  Decorated with small flat pebbles from the beach for the most part it nevertheless manages to contain two olive trees, a pomegranate, a small herb garden and a border in which I occasionally try (and usually fail) to grow a few vegetables. For all its limitations it contains an enormous diversity of wildlife; from birds to visiting amphibians, resident reptiles, the occasional passing small mammal and a myriad of fascinating invertebrates. I do my best to encourage wildlife into the garden with nest sites for the birds, a collection of short canes stuck in the fence for the bees and a log pile for whoever happens to need it.

Black Garden Ant (Family: Formicidae)
Although things don’t really get going until the beginning of Spring next month, even now in the middle of the mild Cretan winter there is always something going on. For instance a gecko that didn’t make it through the winter provides a lavish banquet for a colony of Black Garden Ants just outside the garden gate.

Harvestman (Order: Opiliones)
On a nearby wall a Harvestman lays in wait for a meal. Sitting there with his eight legs splayed for a firm purchase you may be forgiven for thinking that he is a type of spider. But if you look a little more closely at the body shape you notice that the two main sections are broadly joined, so that they appear to be one oval structure whereas in the spider (such as this little jumping spider pictured below) there are clearly two main body parts separated by a waist. Unlike spiders who inject digestive enzymes into their victims and then suck up the juices Harvestmen are far more civilised, taking dainty morsels and digesting them internally and they are far less fussy in their diet happily devouring insects, plants, fungi and even bird dung. 

Jumping Spider (Family: Salticidae)
One final note; you have more chance of finding a unicorn’s egg than you do a harvestman’s web – unlike spiders they have no silk glands and are incapable of spinning anything.

House Centipede (Family: Scutigeridae)

Whilst we’re in the world of the arachnids here’s another little creature you may find running around the house or garden at this time of year. It’s a House Centipede. Granted they can be a little disconcerting when they’re scooting round the bath at full gallop on up to thirty legs but anything that includes in its diet household pests from bed bugs to cockroaches is welcome in my house at any time. Close up they look rather pretty (although I do draw the line at sharing a bath with one).

Sparrow (Family Passeridae)
That’s enough creepy-crawlies for now. I know that there are those of you out there that shudder at anything smaller than a kitten so let’s spend a little time in the world of birds. Come with me up on to the terrace and we’ll take a look at the bird table. I always feed them throughout the winter but I’m afraid that their numbers have declined badly over recent years, particularly the little house sparrow. Back in February 2011 we had what can only be described as a population crash. Whereas we’d previously had between six and nine sparrows feeding on the table at any one time we were suddenly down to two. Checking their favourite roosting tree in the village in the evenings I found it silent and deserted whereas it should have contained a veritable cacophony of bird chatter. There had been no discernible changes in agricultural practices locally, everyone was still ploughing round the olive groves rather than spraying and we weren’t knee deep in dead birds. They’d simply moved away. I could only find one thing that had changed and that was the installation of a third generation mobile phone mast. I did a little checking around the Internet and found that studies in Spain and Belgium had determined a positive correlation between the installation of third generation (3G) mobile phone base stations and the decline of house sparrows and white storks as well as other wildlife. How ironic that our tweeting could be the cause of a lack of more natural tweeting. (Call me an old fool if you like but I still don’t possess a mobile phone or a twitter account).

Corn and Crown Daisy (Family Asteraceae)

And finally, a pair of flowers to look out for if you live on the island (or if they grow in your locality elsewhere in the world): The crown daisy and the corn daisy. “Look out for?” I hear you cry, “Very soon we won’t be able to move for them.” True, they are one of the most prolific flowers on the island and I saw the first ones of the year down here just last week. In fact they are so ubiquitous that we tend not to give them a second glance. They are worth dwelling on though. Not only are the young leaves edible to us humans and apparently full of goodies for long term health but they are a great source of nectar for our insect life. I think I’ve photographed more pollinating insects on these two flowers than on all the rest of the flora of the island combined.

Share your observations and thoughts with others in  Steve's Naturalists Group or simply leave a comment in the box below. Until next week - good hunting.


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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Rich.

    2. Dear Steve
      Read my blogs and give valuable comments.

      Thank You

    3. I have read through the work and, having worked in antimicrobial resistance back in the 1970s, I can understand it's significance. However I don't feel qualified to make a professional comment as my knowledge of the subject is far too out of date. I wish you success in getting funding for further research.

  2. Maybe a harvestman's web could attract unicorn eggs. (This was a joke.) I enjoyed the blog.


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