Wednesday 28 September 2016

Where Mary Sleeps

Following last week’s debacle at navigating by churches and chapels I thought we’d give it another go this week and, starting where we emerged onto the road, attempt to find another church further up the valley. 

Ivy (Hedera helix) on Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis)

It’s a lovely mountain road to walk, alongside the plane trees which are absolutely festooned with ivy. Evidence suggests that this does little or no harm to the tree at all in most cases but is, in fact, an incredibly useful plant. Its greenish yellow flowers which should be showing soon are very rich in nectar, so much so that the Ivy Bee runs its entire life around it, and the berries which come in the spring are an important food source for birds. Not content with that, the leaves are eaten by many caterpillar species including that of the Small Dusty Wave Moth which eats nothing else and one of the chemical compounds in the leaves, called Falcarinol, has been shown to kill breast cancer cells. Not bad for a plant so common that we usually walk past it without a second glance.

Seeds buried in leaf litter
Now, before you revert to childhood and start kicking through the autumn leaves, let’s get down on our hands and knees and see who we’d be disturbing. A few small beetles and the odd spider… but this is interesting, look what I’ve found under this stone. It appears to be a small cache or hoard of seeds. Many animals store up food for the winter; traditionally birds are said to cache and rodents to hoard. By the way that this has been placed quite deep and under a stone I would guess that it’s a rodent hoard. There are two types of hoarding behaviour, larder hoarding where a large amount of food is taken back and stored at home as it were – hamsters are well known for this but the wood mouse will do it too. The other type is scatter hoarding, as this appears to be, where small amounts of food are distributed at various locations. Squirrels, chipmunks and wood mice are famous for this and, given the habitat and the fact that we have no chipmunks or squirrels on Crete I shouldn’t be surprised if this was the work of a wood mouse.

Nymphalidae: Hipparchia cretica, Vanessa cardui, Pararge aegerea
That strange creaking and cracking sound? Nothing of great interest I’m afraid – just my knees complaining as I got up. Ah, this would seem to be a far better way to find a church, signposted steps. What a wonderful array of butterflies we have here. There’s the Cretan Grayling that we met last week (see The Journey Continues) as well as Painted Ladies and Speckled Wood bringing the morning alive. These are all members of the same family of butterflies, the Nymphalidae, also known as the four footed or brush footed butterflies. The reason for this being that when they’re standing they appear to have only four legs, the front pair are held curled up under the chin so to speak. These fore-legs, in many species, have a brush like set of hairs upon them. The purpose of these short, fat, hairy legs hasn’t been fully investigated as yet but the two most popular theories are that they enhance the butterfly’s sense of smell or that they’re an aid to communication. So much still to be found out about nature, even amongst our commonest friends.

Kermes Oak, Quercus coccifera with Cynipid wasp gall
Down here a bit further we have some Kermes Oaks. These are very hardy little oaks of the Mediterranean and their name derives from the Persian or Arabic for crimson. You remember that curious looking little scale insect that we found on the plane trees last week? Well, the Kermes oak has its own particular scale insect which was used in the manufacture of an exquisite crimson dye by the ancient Greeks and Romans. I can’t see any on this particular oak but I have found an interesting little gall. This would have been made by a tiny wasp (exactly how is another thing that we still don’t know) and inside is a minute larva thinking itself all safe and snug. It isn’t. That hole on the side could have been made by the larva emerging or by another type of wasp injecting one of her eggs into the larva as it develops. It’s a wasp eats wasp world in there.

Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus
Finally, we have reached our little church. This one isn’t dedicated to a particular saint but to an event: The Dormition of the Theotikros, which, in simple terms means the going to sleep (a euphemism for dying) of the Virgin Mary which is commemorated annually by the Greek Orthodox Church on August 15th. I expect that it’s prettier inside, let’s take a peek. Oh look, there’s a little Mediterranean House Gecko under the eaves. We must have disturbed him as he’s a truly nocturnal animal. I don’t suppose he gives a fig about whether Mary is sleeping or not, he’s just found a good place to lurk and catch insects. Did you know that they chirp like a bird? I’ve never heard it myself but apparently they can also imitate a male cricket and when the female turns up to investigate they pounce and gobble her up. Rather caddish behaviour in my view, after all, it’s just not cricket is it?

News Update
I said last week that one of the reasons for my sudden disappearance at the end of the last series was the crash of my database and the need to relocate it. The other reason is that I have been writing a book which is now about three quarters finished. It takes us on a journey from the top of the Thriptis Mountains here in Crete to beneath the waves of the Libyan Sea – but there’s a twist in the form of a nineteenth century naturalist who seems to be accompanying us on our journey. The result, I hope, is literally quite magical and I’ll keep you posted on developments. 

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
Visit Greece (National Government Tourist Office) 


  1. Great post and teaser for your book. Look forward to reading it. X

  2. Great and very interesting post! The book sounds exciting too!

  3. Hi Steve,

    Glad to have you back blogging and enjoying your nature experiences. Do you have a publication date in mind for your book?

    1. Thanks Ron, I hope to finish it by the end of December and have it published in 2017.


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