Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Asphodel Meadows (Welcome to the Underworld)

Common Grazing Land  near Ierapetra

"Erebus this is Erebus, gathering point for the recently deceased. Please take your tickets and form an orderly queue at piers one to infinity. Charon Ferries hope that you enjoy your brief trip across the river Styx and the onward journey to your final destination."
If you are related to a Greek god, or a mere mortal chosen by the gods because of your exceptional heroism or righteousness you can expect to have a blessed and happy afterlife lazing around in the Elysian Fields.  Murderers and people of an otherwise evil disposition have a nine day trip in a downward direction to the depths of Tartarus where novel forms of punishment, specifically tailored to their particular crime, await their displeasure.

Asphodel (Family: Xanthorrhoeaceae)
Ordinary folk like us can look forward to eternity in the Asphodel  Meadows which are neither heavenly nor hellish but pleasantly peaceful so if you’re curious about what awaits you on the other side come with me today for a sneak preview.

Here between Ferma and Ierapetra is a large area of grassland leading down to the sea and at this time of the year it is liberally punctuated with asphodels, if not with the souls of the dearly departed. Often connected with the pleasanter aspects of the beyond this flower has also been used at various times as a snake-bite remedy, a mouse poison, a preventative medicine for pigs and a cheese wrap with built in use-by-date (when the leaves wither, throw the cheese away).

Field Grasshoppers (Family: Acrididae)
As we stand here listening to the crash of the sea upon the shore, being buffeted by the breeze and generally admiring ‘ten thousand acres of sky’ I can hear a bird making a rather loud 'wheeping, call somewhere behind us so let us wander northwards and see if we can find out who it is. Notice how the grass seems alive as we walk across it with small insects bouncing out of our way. These are Field Grasshoppers, interesting little animals that can smell with their antennae and hear with their legs thus showing the infinite variety of design in the animal world. Together with crickets they make up the order Orthoptera who have been with us since the Carboniferous period some 300-360 million years ago.

European Green Toad (Family: Bufonidae)
I see we have a little winter water flowing through a slight depression here and a number of large-ish stones lying around.  Stone flipping comes second to log turning on my list of simple pleasures so let’s have a flip and see what we can find. The usual centipedes, millipedes and snails and here’s someone we were hearing but not seeing a few weeks back on The Road to Nowhereit’s a Green Toad. The green markings are quite visible but the red has yet to fully develop. Wait until you see them in full mating livery, they really are most beautiful toads. He looks a little discomfited at being disturbed so we’ll gently replace the stone and leave him be.

Isabelline Wheatear (Family: Muscicapidae)

That 'wheeping' is getting closer so softly, softly now and we’ll see if we can find who’s calling. There, on those thistles over by the bushes, standing proud on little black legs. A female flycatcher? No, I think there’s a line of white above the eye (supercilium in ornithologist-speak). I do believe that it’s an Isabelline Wheatear. I’ve seen them up here before at this time of year. Wheatears are rather drab little birds in my opinion, best told apart by the patterns on the underside of their tails, but their name is more fascinating. It has nothing to do with ears of wheat at all but is a corruption of ‘white arse’ from a few centuries back. These misnomers occur quite regularly in the animal world which is why the white rhino can be slightly darker than the black rhino. “White” is thought to be a corruption of the Dutch “wijd” or wide in English referring to the width of its mouth although I understand that this is now disputed by linguists. Shame really, I rather like that story.

The wind is getting up a bit now and we’re rather exposed to it out here so I think it’s time to head for home and a nice hot cup of tea. You’re welcome to come back for a chat on my Naturalists Group page but if I don’t see you there; then until next week – happy hunting.


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Thanks this week to: Cosmin Manci and Alexandru Pintilioaie at Coleoptera on Facebook
for their help with the identification of the Ground Beetle Licinus sp. and
Matt Wilson at Manchester Metropolitan Universtiy for his perennial help in all matters herpetological.
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