Wednesday 3 December 2014

A Saunter Round The Salt Pans

I have to collect some lab results from Agios Nikolaos today so I thought I’d take you with me and together we’ll take a trip up to one of my favourite birding spots, the salt pans at Elounda. It’s usually a great place for herons and egrets.

We’ll just stop here at Ellinika on our way through because it offers a great view of where we’re going which is just in front of the causeway that connects the mainland to the peninsula on the right. The locals call it Kolokytha (or Pumpkin Peninsula in English). You wouldn’t think it to look at it now but that area around the little bridge of Poros was once the ancient city-state of Olous some 2,200 years ago.  You can still see some of the old walls if you go snorkeling but, despite the glorious sunshine this morning, I think we’ll forego that experience until next summer. Lets truckle on down and see what we can find.

Stonechat (female)
No herons or egrets at the moment but our old friend the kingfisher is darting about, low over the water like an azure torpedo with his high pitched staccato peeping call and up here on the headland we have wagtails and black redstarts merrily bobbing. We’re being watched. See that little brown job keeping a wary eye on us from the fence over there? That’s a female stonechat. Not as showy as her mate of course with his orange/red waistcoat, shiny white collar and black hat but an endearing little bird all the same.  

 I often find that bird watching is very much a two way thing, the trouble is the birds usually spot me before I spot them and most of them don’t hang around for their photograph to be taken like this little lady. 

Oh look, a bush full of sparrows (I wonder how long it will be before that sight becomes a rarity? Their decline over the past 30 years is catastrophic, up to 90% in some areas I read recently).

Millipede and Centipede
You may also have noticed that there are a lot of largeish stones about that centuries ago probably formed the walls of grain houses and the like. This accounts for the gleam in my eye – you know I can never resist stone flipping – let’s knock on a few doors and see who’s about. Ants and snails in great abundance of course and no less than three geckos but here’s a couple of creatures we haven’t discussed yet; millipedes and centipedes. These are Myriapods (meaning countless feet) and to dispel an old myth Millipedes do not have a thousand feet as their name suggests nor do centipedes have a hundred, commonly they have between twenty and four hundred depending on the species. The Millipedes are harmless little animals going about their daily business of eating decomposing matter for the most part and helping to enrich the soil (although some are herbivorous) but centipedes are swift moving predators that inject venom into their prey. Larger ones such as this can even give us humans a nasty nip.

Marine Pill Bug
Let’s wander down to the salt pans and see what’s lurking in the water. More stone flipping but try not to disturb the sediment. Another little armoured animal. Now this is curious. My first thought is that we are looking at a sea slater but those paddle-like projections at the rear don’t look quite right. You keep spuddling about in the shallows whilst I have a quick chat with some people who know a lot more about isopods than I do. [First rule of the naturalist: never be afraid to show your ignorance – if you don’t know, ask.] The consensus of opinion is a Marine Pill Bug (family Sphaeromatidae) which, as far as I know, has only been recorded in the Adriatic and Switzerland. If anyone can shed any further light on this animal then please let me know.

Mediterranean Saltbush
We haven’t seen much in the way of flowers this morning other than a fair carpet of diminutive yellow Field Marigolds but here’s an interesting one that’s easily overlooked. It’s the Mediterranean Saltbush that grows well in saline conditions. I’m told that the leaves have been eaten since Biblical times and the seeds, when ground, can be used to thicken soups and stews. Although I haven’t tried them myself, I wouldn’t think you’d need to add any salt in the cooking. Studies on the Sand Rat (a type of gerbil) in Israel indicate that the plant may have a use in combating diabetes.  I can’t help feeling that there’s a certain irony when plush new, all-inclusive, eat-as-much-as-you-want hotels are erected, the plant that invariably gets cleared out of the way may hold the cure for a disease that’s on the increase - in part from an eat-as-much-as-you-want lifestyle.

Noah's Ark
Enough of the pontificating let’s see if there are any interesting sea shells on the beach.  These are nice, they’re a little bivalve mollusc called Noah’s Ark found in the Mediterranean and Adriatic (although they had a tough time of it in the Adriatic in the second half of the last century but apparently they’re making a comeback). They’re often found in association with Horsemussels and they’re somewhat susceptible to hitch-hikers (epibonts in scientific terminology) such as barnacles as the one on the right is demonstrating. I wonder why that should be… a barnacle likes to live on Noah’s Ark which likes to live around Horsemussels – or do the Horsemussels like to live with Noah’s Arks? 

So many questions still to be answered, I’ve quite worked up an appetite. As it happens there’s a nice little grill house in the village that’s open at this time of year and they do a very nice souvlaki and tzatziki. Maybe we should discuss it over lunch?
Special thanks this week to Susannah Anderson AKA Wanderin' Weeta and also Tracy Clark in the Crustaceans Group on Facebook for their help with the Marine Pill Bug.
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


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