Wednesday 25 February 2015

Over The Ridge

Route to the ridge

The sun is shining, the thermometer is reading twenty degrees Centigrade and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky. Down here in the south east of Crete we do have winter, complete with biting north winds and flurries of sleet and snow, but it usually only lasts for about a fortnight and that fortnight has now passed. If you look out from the terrace here you’ll see a faint track above the pink house. I’ve walked this many times but I’ve never gone ‘off road’ as it were and attempted to scale the ridge above it so, as we’re all feeling revitalised by the sun, I thought we’d take advantage of this Spring-like day and see what’s up there. We’ll drive up to the track (I’m not feeling that energetic) and hike off into the wilderness together.

(Clockwise) Storksbill, Groundsel, Henbit, Small White

This is a promising start. Not ten yards from the car and already we have a profusion of small flowers growing amid the grass and Wood-sorrel at the edge of the track. There’s Mallow-leaved Storksbill, Common Groundsel and Greater Henbit in this little patch alone and they’re all being fussed over by a Small White butterfly. Not having a good eye for size, I used to get confused by Small and Large Whites. Here’s the trick: Small Whites only have a black smudge at the corner of the wing; in the Large White that smudge extends at least half way down the edge of the wing. Females of both species have two black dots on the topside of the wing, the Small White Male has one dot and the Large White male has none. They all have two dots on the underside of the wing and this sometimes shows through as a faint smudge on the top side just to confuse the issue but this fellow here is most definitely a Small White male.
As we start our climb we are passing through a habitat known as phrygana, a limestone scrubland where the plants are well adapted to the ferocious summer sun. Many of them are dense, low growing and have spiny leaves so watch your legs. The stiff, twiggy branches also make great anchor plants for the Orb Weaver Spiders. These are the familiar spiral webs that trap insects which we discussed in The Incredible Shrinking Safari  last May. I said then that not all of the web is sticky but there was one thing I neglected to mention: the spider has a special third claw designed specifically for walking on the non sticky parts of the web so he doesn’t get caught in his own trap. Neat huh? Incidentally similar habitats around the world have different names such as garrigue and maquis and those of you of a certain age may have unwittingly come across another, chaparral, as immortalised in the 1960’s American TV series The High Chaparral.

A walk through the firs

Ah, the ground has levelled out a bit as we enter a stretch of pine woodland so let’s stop for a breather and listen to the birds. I can hear chaffinch (with his descending trill at the end), the rattling song of a Sardinian Warbler and the liquid warblings of blackbirds. How absolutely delightful. No, I won’t sit down thank you. To tell the truth when I was photographing the last orb weaver the loose stones slipped beneath me and I found myself reversing at some speed into a bush whose leaves must have been the original template for the hypodermic needle. Consequently my rear end now has more perforations than a Tetley tea bag. Such are the delights of wildlife photography. Oh look, a Speckled Wood butterfly making his way purposefully along the path. I think he must be a patroller. Male Speckled Woods mate as often as they can in their adult lives and have two distinctive mating techniques. Some, the territorials, will find an appealing sunny spot and defend it throughout the day, waiting for a female to fly by. Others, the patrollers, will fly through the trees actively searching out a female. The female, who only mates once, has the final choice of the type of male they prefer. Sounds familiar. OK, once more unto the ridge dear friends. What an amazing number of grasshoppers up here, mainly Red-winged but that was definitely a big Egyptian that just went whirring by like a clockwork flying machine. 

Summit Approach

Out of the trees and it looks as though we have a bit of a climb ahead of us. The plants are beginning to thin out now but here’s one on the phenology list. Just starting to come into flower: it’s Cretan Ebony. Between 2004 and 2010 I observed this flowering locally between February and April.  Since then I’ve seen it between March and June. True, it is late in the month and it’s hardly in full flower but a noteworthy sighting all the same.
“Are there any geologists in the group?” Correct me if I’m wrong but this grey lump, wedged in amongst the conglomerate, looks suspiciously like volcanic lava.  This is interesting because, as far as I know, Crete has never been a volcanic island. However, as I mentioned last week as we were following our nature trail around The National Archeological Museum in Athens, there was a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Thira (Santorini) about three and a half thousand years ago which had a devastating effect here on Crete. Could this have flown a hundred miles through the air all those years ago? [Answers in the comment box below please. SD].

View from the summit

Well, here we are at the summit and just look at that view. If you look at the horizon you can actually see the curvature of the Earth from up here. If you’re wondering what those white eyesores are dotted among the olive groves down there, they’re greenhouses covered in plastic sheeting. However, of late I’ve noticed that some of the newer greenhouses like those down there in the middle have utilised a far more harmonious green covering. I do hope this trend continues. We may as well have a poke about while we’re up here. Some lovely foliose lichen over there and my first rhinoceros beetle of the year, hello little fellow, one of the Pentadon species I believe. And here’s a bird to round the expedition off nicely, a Blue Rock Thrush. I only ever see them down here at this time of year and then, not often. Usually they’re much higher up but the winter must have driven him down. Talking of ‘down’, that is the direction in which we must now go. Watch out for loose stones and prickly bushes on the way back, certain tender portions of my anatomy are still smarting from my earlier encounter.

Until next week – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you Steve. I'm reading this on a wet Wiltshire morning with my first cuppa of the day and it's almost like being there. I sympathise for the thorns you've gained. Last time I went 'off piste' I fell into a similar bush, and my knees took two weeks to give up all of the debris!

  3. A Wiltshire winter has its own delights Yvonne. I spent two of the happiest years of my childhood in Malmesbury - winters included.

    1. So glad I found this, reminded me of the two holidays we spent here many years ago when I was a kid, I've written stories based on my time in Elounda. I caught grey mullet with bits of bread, and got terrified of the huge hornets

  4. Lovely post, Steve. Can't wait to shift this bronchitis and get out there! By the way, we have had a Blue Rock Thrush pair nest around our house for the last six years.


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