Wednesday 11 June 2014

Gorgeous Gorge

Above Ha Gorge with Holly Oak inset

The temperatures are just touching the thirty centigrade mark down here on the south east coast so I thought I’d take you somewhere cooler today – up into the Thriptis mountains. This is one of four mountain ranges on the island and dominates the eastern end and we are currently looking down upon Ha Gorge where I‘m hoping we’ll find a very particular bird. But more of that later: for now just breathe in that mountain air, redolent with pine, sage and thyme and we’ll walk along the road a bit and then cautiously make our way down. Notice the wind twisted, stunted trees with tiny leaves like holly? They’re oak trees – honestly, despite their leaves they produce acorns not berries, almost as if they couldn’t quite decide  what type of tree to be.  We couldn’t decide either which is why we call them Holly Oaks or, scientifically, Quercus (oak) ilex (holly).

Yellow Star-thistle 
If, like me, you always thought of thistles as annoyingly prickly plants with rather dull mauve flowers take a closer look at these little guys by the roadside currently attacking our ankles. These are Yellow Star-thistles and those spines look positively lethal, like some mediaeval weapon or instrument of torture. These spines only appear during summer to stop it being eaten during its flowering (and thus reproductive) cycle.  It deters virtually everything bar the ubiquitous goats who’s bells I can hear clonking away somewhere below us. 

Cretan Small Heath
As we descend the hillside we lose the thistles as the sage and thyme out compete them and relegate them to the roadsides. In other places where they have been introduced, such as California in the USA, Australia and South America these natural competitors aren’t around to keep them in check and they have become an invasive nuisance. As we tread our way down the herb strewn hillside releasing all these wonderful aromas we are disturbing a number of very small butterflies with every step. They are Cretan Small Heath butterflies that are endemic to the island and particularly abundant in June when many of the herbs come into flower. Although they are inordinately fond of herbs as a source of nectar when they are adults as caterpillars they are grass eaters which is where the females lay their eggs.

Foliose Lichen

If you cast your mind back to early February when we visited A Kingdom in the Pine Woods you may recall that we found some crustose lichens. Well this is another type of lichen: a foliose lichen. The word foliose means leaf-like and unlike the crustose lichens that form a crust upon the rocks these are more three dimensional and their branches do look vaguely leaf-like. Personally they remind me more of a branching coral but maybe that’s just me.

Mistletoe growing on Pine
Taking our noses from the rocks for a moment and looking upwards, check out the branches of that pine tree over there. The plant with the white berries festooning its branches is Mistletoe, a parasitic plant that draws nutrients from the host plant’s tissues. Now, if you’re English like me you’ll be saying “hang on a minute, I thought mistletoe grew on apple trees?” True, in England it does grow on apple and certain other broad leaved trees but here in Crete we have our own subspecies Viscum album subsp. Creticum  which grows only on this particular species of pine: Pinus brutia. It was only scientifically described  very recently (in 2003 to be precise) so it was worth trekking down here just for that.

View from the top of Ha Gorge
And the view of course. This is about as far down as we can go without ropes and other specialist equipment. At this point the Thriptis mountains end in a sheer wall of rock, hundreds of feet high and cleft in two from the top to the bottom by one of the wildest canyons in Crete, the Ha Gorge. Beyond is a flat isthmus of land that runs across the island from Pachia Ammos to Ierapetra and on the other side of the isthmus are the foothills of the Dhikti mountains. At the top you can see the Gulf of Mirabello and a mere 88 miles to the north east (or 142km if you’re that way inclined) lies the volcanic island of Thira (aka Thera or Santorini). This is the volcano that blew apart the Minoan civilisation in Crete some 3,600 years ago. Hopefully it won’t do it again (although it erupted three times last century so it may be warming up for something) because that isthmus down there could be drowned in the resulting tidal wave and Ierapetra would become the new Atlantis.

Alpine Chough (c) Nikos Samaritakis
But listen! What a cacophony of sound bouncing off the walls of the canyon below. There they go, those are the particular birds I was hoping to show you. A whole flock of about two dozen choughs streaming up the gorge. What a shame they’re just that bit too far down for us to see them properly. I really wanted to see the colour of their bills as I’ve read that both Red-billed Choughs and the rarer yellow billed Alpine Choughs are to be found here. I’ll tell you what, next week we’ll go and explore the foot of the gorge and maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of them from there.

Until next week – happy hunting.

With thanks this week to Steve Lenton at Flowers of Crete; for the species identification of the Yellow Star-thistle Centaurea idaea and a big thank you to Nikos Samaritakis at Crete Birding for lending me his excellent picture of the Alpine Chough.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


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