Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How to See What Isn’t There

Good morning, good morning, good morning. I thought we’d make an early start today as it is going to be another scorcher and the temperatures are likely to reach thirty Celsius by mid morning. Time? About ten to five. Come on, don’t just lay there yawning, there’s a whole new day waiting to be explored. Get dressed, come downstairs where tea and toast await, I’ve a photograph to show you.

Force 9 Wind Damage
Ah, there you are. As you know, last time we met up we were confined to barracks by the Meltemi wind running at a Beaufort Force 8 and we spent our time discussing Elemental Forces in general and the effects of wind on wildlife in particular.  This wind, which has been tormenting us on and off for the past fortnight, eventually reached a Force 9 with speeds of 75–88 km/h which is enough to break branches from trees, and here’s the proof. As you can see this was quite a sizeable bough which I found ripped away and dangling in the herb bed the other morning.

Yellow-legged Gull colony at Bramiana
So, what with the wind, the heat (and even an unseasonable drop of tropical rain last week) getting out and about hasn’t been easy. Hence the early start this morning. I thought we’d take a trip out to Bramiana and take our quarterly look at the reservoir and see what goes on there at dawn. Look at that magnificent sheet of still water under a forget-me-not sky just dotted here and there with a couple of fluffy pillows of clouds. Sorry, shouldn’t have mentioned sheets and fluffy pillows, some of you don’t seem to be fully awake yet. The water level is extremely low and the curious thing is, apart from the Yellow-legged Gull colony on the spit, there isn’t a bird to be seen. I wouldn’t expect to see Mallard, Teal or Pochard at this time of year but I can’t recall ever being out here and not seeing a coot and there should surely be the odd Grey Heron or a Sandpiper or two foraging along the water’s edge? This shows the importance of keeping monthly observation records because it is only by recording what you see and where and when you see it that you can “see what isn’t there” so to speak and noting disappearances is as vital a piece of phenology as noting first appearances.

Caper flower
Let’s turn our attention to the hinterland and see what flowers and insects we can find. You never know we might even come across the odd reptile or two. As you can see there isn’t much in flower at the moment; a few patches of Thyme and some Yellow Henbane but here’s one I wanted to show you over here. This stunning flower, being lovingly tended by black ants, is more familiar than you may think. If you like pizza then you’ve probably eaten a few of these in your time because this is the caper flower; traditionally picked and pickled before the flower develops. Incidentally it is not just the flower buds that can be treated in this way, the Italians pickle the leaves in the same way and the fruits (inaccurately known as caperberries) can also be treated thus. They should be out soon. Do chew on a leaf if you have any irritating insect bites – they contain a natural antihistamine.

Black and Yellow Mud-dauber Wasp
With so few plants in flower it is not surprising that there aren’t as many insects about as there were in the Spring when we were out here last. It is early in the day as yet of course, even the cicadas have only just woken up, but here is an insect that I haven’t come across before in the flesh although I have seen plenty of evidence of their existence. This is a Black and Yellow Mud-dauber Wasp. Difficult to see it properly as it’s darting in and out of this Lentisc bush. They are called Mud-daubers because they build their nests from mud, laying a single egg in each cylindrical chamber. These they provision primarily with a small spider which they first paralyse with their venom and then leave in suspended animation as a sort of living ready-meal for when the egg hatches. Gruesome isn’t it?

I have to admit that I was hoping to see a little more than we have this morning but we are approaching the height of summer which, at these latitudes, is akin to the depths of winter in more northerly regions. Nature avoids extremes and when the winters get too cold up north things either hibernate or migrate and so it is down south: when the summer gets too hot things either aestivate or migrate. I suggest that we follow their lead and meet up again in September. I’ll continue to publish the occasional blog throughout the summer and if you click on the little red G+ sign at the top of the page then you’ll be notified when I do or alternatively join my Naturalists Group on facebook. Until then enjoy your summer wherever you may be and good hunting. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with one of my favourite summertime birds, a small flock of which has just landed in that bush over there, the colourful, ever chattering Goldfinch.
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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Elemental Forces

Back in the days of the Ancient Greeks there were four elements: Fire (represented by the sun), Air, Water and Earth and these corresponded to the four states of matter we still refer to today: plasma, gas, liquid and solid. The reason I mention this is that one of those elements, Air, is currently moving past us at about 70kph in what is known as a gale force wind. This is a seasonal wind called the Meltemi caused by low pressure to the east of us and high pressure to the north. The air whizzes round the low pressure system over Turkey in an anticlockwise direction (or widdershins as we used to call it), meets the air travelling in a clockwise direction round the high pressure system over mainland Greece and they join forces and trumpet their way down the Aegean merrily making havoc with everything in their path. The practical upshot of which is that we’re rather confined to barracks this week but never mind, we’ll battle our way up the outside staircase to what I laughingly call my laboratory and potter about in there for a while.

Not that air moving about the planet is a bad thing of course. Without it eroding the rocks we wouldn’t have any soil in which to grow our crops. The mountains might look even more majestic but they’d be exceedingly barren without any flowering plants. Not only do the flowers need the soil in which to grow but many of them, particularly the Asteraceae family, need the wind to spread their seeds. The Asteraceae  family include all those flowers, like dandelions, sow-thistles and groundsels , who’s flowers turn to fluffy seed heads and float away on the breeze like tiny parachutes. Sycamores and maples have winged seeds like helicopter blades that fly them away from the parent tree and tumbleweeds simply uproot themselves and go where the wind doth blow. Actually, if you think of yourself jumping out of a helicopter, parachuting to the ground then rolling out on landing you’ve pretty well covered the subject of anemochory or wind dispersal of plants in one go.

Not only plants but animals, particularly the birds of course, need wind as well. Not just to assist in take-off and landing but larger birds of prey use air currents called thermals to glide around on and birds of all kinds have been using high altitude wind lanes for migration long before we ever thought of doing so. But even the birds don’t like this howling gale. A couple of years ago I came down this staircase in the morning and found a Golden Oriole trapped and exhausted in the pomegranate down there and I had to bring her in and put her in a dark box to give her a fighting chance of recovery.

Some butterflies and moths migrate as well, like the Humming-bird Hawk Moth which I only ever see down here in the autumn. Unlike birds however moths and butterflies only migrate once in their lifetimes. Some species that make long migratory journeys, like the Painted Lady (which we met back in April in Cretan Fortress Invaded by Nature ) rely on a tail wind of about 35kph to complete their journey from Africa to southern Europe.

Watch out as you get to the top of the steps as it’s very blustery up on the terrace here. I can’t see any sensible bird or butterfly flying in weather like this. I see that the restaurant at the top of the hill is in danger of losing its canopy. If it comes flying this way grab hold of it someone – we could do with some shade up here when this Meltemi blows itself out. Here we are at the laboratory but there’s one last interesting thing about insects and air movements which I’ve just remembered. It involves an insect that you won’t find in here unless it has snuck through my elaborate defences because, quite frankly, they give me the heebie-jeebies. 

It involves the cockroach, universally despised but you have to begrudgingly admire an insect that’s been around for the last 300,000,000 years or so even if it has stubbornly refused to evolve into something more appealing. At the back end of the beast are a pair of appendages called cerci that are so sensitive to air movement that they can detect the subtle pressure wave of a pouncing predator and the cockroach can take evasive action before the predator lands. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em that’s a pretty neat trick in anybody’s book.

Come on in and shut the door. That’s better. Is that the hour? I’ve been so long-winded gassing on about air movements that we’ve quite run out of time. You’ll have to excuse me but I’ve been in my element as it were. Sorry, enough of the bad puns. I don’t know about you but I could do with something hot and refreshing. Turn that Bunsen burner on would you? I think I have a retort here that hasn’t been used for anything too disgusting lately. Tea anyone?
Until next week – good hunting.

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