Wednesday 23 September 2015

Porto Belissario

Porto Belissario - the hotel garden ecosystem

Welcome back. Did you have a good summer/winter break and are you all refreshed and eager for another season of traipsing round the Cretan countryside, sliding unintentionally down scree slopes and backing into thorn bushes? Good. With so much strenuous work ahead of us I thought we’d better start with a holiday. For our first two weeks we’ll be staying at the delightful Porto Belissario Hotel here in Ferma. There is method in my madness. As many of you are not fortunate enough to live on this beautiful island but only get to visit it for a short while then you will most probably be staying in apartments or a hotel such as this with manicured lawns and herbaceous borders. This, of course, is a totally artificial environment but one worthy of closer investigation.

Introduced plants: Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, Date palm, Frangipani
So, Cretan flower guide in hand, let’s go into the garden and see what we can find. And here we hit our first problem; the guide only lists flowers that are native to Crete and many of the plants that you will see in urban settings are introduced. So here’s the low down on four that you may well come across. The one with the showy red flowers is Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. We do have a native Hibiscus on Crete, Hibiscum trionum, but it is rare and only found in one area. This one is a cultivar originally from Africa and Asia. The second one is Bougainvillea from South America and (a good trick question for quiz enthusiasts) the petals are white. The magenta surrounds that look like petals are bracts, a specialised type of leaf. The palm tree is a Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, from Asia, producer of the well known sticky fruit. There is only one palm tree native to Europe, the Cretan Date Palm Phoenix theophrasti, which you can find behind the beach at Vai on the east coast. And finally…the beautiful white flowers with the yellow centres are Frangipani (Plumeria sp.) from South and Central America.

Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis
Now you may have noticed that the Porto Belissario is not an entomologists’ dream. The hotel is scrupulously clean and woe betide any ant that tries to set up a colony in the garden. I did however, spot this fellow on my way to breakfast who obviously hadn’t seen the warning sticker on the front door informing insects that the hotel regularly uses the services of a local insect control company. Not only should he not be in the hotel grounds, he shouldn’t even be in Europe. He is a Western Conifer Seed Bug from the USA. Hitch-hiking around the globe on exported lumber, he first turned up in Europe (northern Italy to be precise) in 1999 and has been spreading his way around mainland Europe ever since. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time it has been recorded in Crete. So, a good start to our first foray of the season, a new insect on the island (you may recall that last year we found the first Leafhopper Assassin Bug Zelus renardii on the island - see Red Autumn). Good news for us maybe but not for the pine trees as it can reduce the number of pine nuts by 95% [1] 

Feral Pigeons - flocking behaviour
Now, what do you say we have a quick dip in that rather inviting looking swimming pool followed by a spot of lunch and bird watching on the terrace? That was refreshing, pass me a slice of pizza would you? I see that the Ferma pigeon flock are giving an aerial display over the sea. As you know we have been keeping records of the number of Feral Pigeons and the number of Collared Doves in the village to see if the latter is displacing the former as it is in other parts of the world (see Hey hay!). 
The present flock is down from 18 to 16 since 2010 and Collared Doves are up from 2 to 4 in the same period. I must admit I have a fondness for the bumbling old Feral Pigeon with his makeshift nest of twigs and his idea of a perfect landing being to crash into a tree and stop. This aimless flying about and sudden change of direction that we’re watching now isn’t quite as pointless as it seems however. If you watch closely you’ll see that the same two birds are always at the front and when they veer off the rest of the flock follow suit. They’re competing for title of ‘Leader of the Flock’ and all the feeding, roosting and mating privileges that comes with rank. Keep your eye on that almost black one about a third of the way back – every now and then he breaks rank and goes walkabout. My guess is that he’s a younger bird with pretensions to becoming a flock leader. He’s hoping someone will follow him. There he goes look. Bad luck son, better luck next time. And back he comes into the flock, suitably subdued for a short while at least.

White Sea Bream, Diplodus sargus sargus
And now, after a suitable pause to digest that magnificent pizza let us descend the steps to the beach and indulge in a bit of snorkelling and I’ll introduce you to some of my fishy friends. This one, cruising along the bottom, is a White Sea Bream, one of several species of Sea Bream that you can see down here. They belong to the Sparidae family and have quite a distinctive shape with the top of the head sloping very steeply. That mouth, with lips that look as if they’ve recently visited a cosmetic surgeon, conceals a strong jaw and teeth designed for crushing the crustaceans, molluscs and corals on which it feeds. We’re more accustomed to seeing them on a plate of course with a side order of chips as they’re one of the tastiest fish around and, thankfully, still reasonably plentiful unlike many of our food fishes.

I think that’s enough excitement for one day, next time we’ll venture outside the hotel grounds and see what other habitats we can find in the locality and yes, I’m sure we can fit in another snorkelling session as well. Would it be awfully inappropriate of me if I had fish for dinner tonight?

Until next week – happy hunting.

See all the pictures including insets in detail on Flickr

[1] Roversi et al. 2011 via First record of  Leptoglossus occidentalis (Heteroptera: Coreidae) in Greece P.V. PETRAKIS 2011
Thanks also to Matt Smith at The Amateur Entomologists' Society for providing the initial identification of Leptoglossus occidentalis.  

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  1. WElcome back! I remember apartments in Elounda where large spiders and lizards in the wardrobes were the order of the day, no problem with the lizards, but to a child, the spiders...

    I used to swim around with goggles on rather than snorkel - in Elounda waters, lats of grey mullet, and saddleback and gilthead bream. I used to catch little ones of these species with bread paste.


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