Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Life In The Uplands

That nice little mountain road that we found last week soon petered out into a dirt track but what the heck, we’ll see more by cutting across country anyway. Now that autumn is getting underway and there’s a bit more moisture about a few more flowers are starting to appear. They’re usually small up here remember so keep your eyes peeled and look in the nooks and crannies of the rocks.

Autumn Flowers of the Uplands
We seem to have a nice little collection: firstly the shade loving Friar’s Cowl, Arisarum vulgare; some Spiny Restharrow, Ononis spinosa,in a damp hollow; a type of Dandelion with inward rolling florets, Taraxacum bithynicum; a stemless Thistle keeping out of the wind, Carlina gummifera; and a beautiful little crocus-like flower called Sternbergia greuteriana which is a bit of a rarity that requires a CITES permit to export so we won’t tell everyone exactly where we found it or those insidious bulb collectors will be up here with their trowels.

The two faces of Euphorbia dimorphocaulon
Now how did you miss this little beauty? Because it looks green and boring and hasn’t got any flowers. Not so my friend, this little lady is Euphorbia dimorphocaulon. I know I said that the little brown job we found last week was called that but they’re the same plant. He was male. The clue is in the ‘dimorph’ part of the name which means two shapes. Although most plants are hermaphrodite (both male and female) about six percent, including this one, are dioecious,  having distinct male and female types. This is just one of the ruses that plants use to get the most out of their pollinators.

The robust cerci of the Calliptamus grasshopper
Take a look at this little fellow a second. When I first picked him up I thought his rear end was being attacked by a louse or something. Not an unreasonable supposition seeing as how something has already had one of his back legs but it is actually a part of the grasshopper called the cerci, pincer like attachments like those you see on earwigs. This particular grasshopper belongs to the Calliptamus genus (either C. italicus or C. barbarus – you have to examine his penis in minute detail to tell them apart and I think that he’s suffered enough indignities for one day) and they are noted for their robust cerci. They are primarily sensory organs although they may be used to assist copulation as well. I’ll put him back, I expect he’s beginning to wish he hadn’t bothered getting up this morning.

Bees, Butterflies and Hornets on Ivy

I make no apologies for banging on about Ivy again this week. I mean, just look, have you ever seen such an effusive expanse of flowers? A couple of weeks back (see Where Mary Sleeps ) I said how useful this plant was at this time of year to insects and now you can see the evidence with your own eyes. It’s absolutely buzzing with Honey Bees, Apis melifera, and Oriental Hornets, Vespa orientalis and also a goodly number of Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, which have been particularly prolific in Crete this year.

Church of the Holy Cross with Scorpion
Well, here we are at the Church of the Holy Cross, thus dedicated to many churches at high locations in remembrance of the Universal Elevation of the cross. This is the most sacred symbol of the Orthodox Church, as it guards the entire universe. Remember to take your headgear off when you get inside and not before. This is not a religious ritual as such but in these remote churches you never know who you might dislodge as you open the door. That Scorpion for instance, Euscorpia sp. is much better appreciated having bounced off my hat and onto the floor rather than blundering about in what's left of my hair. The venom in that stinger may not be fatal but I’m assured that it packs one heck of a punch. We've got a big climb ahead of us next week so if you fancy saying a quick prayer for fortitude now is your chance. 

Until next week then.

The Extra Bit

I’m not usually given to taking selfies but I seem to have photo bombed myself  whilst taking this picture of the interior of the church. If you look at the right hand panel of the Templon (the screen dividing the sanctuary from the nave) you can clearly see me reflected in the glass. Does this mean that I am now an icon?

Contrary to popular opinion this blog is not just thrown together but is actually researched. I’d particularly like to thank Ralf Jahn at Cretan Flora for species identification of the flowers this week as well as Josip Skejo and Ammar Azil at The Orthoptera Group for details regarding the cerci of the Calliptamus genus of Grasshoppers.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

North By North West

The thing about walking on these mountain roads is finding a place to get off them and strike out across country. As they are cut into the hillside you usually find yourself hemmed in by a high and unclimbable bank. The trick here is to look for the place where water crosses the road which can often be spotted by lines of Oleander straggling up and down. Where water comes down we can often go up such as at this spot here. Let’s give it a try. A couple of weeks ago (see The Dew Ponds of Katharo) I suggested that murdering someone by drowning them in a pond where diatoms were present was not a good idea if you want to get away with it; the same applies to poisoning them with Oleander. The mix of toxins in all parts of the plant are far too easily detectable. Just thought you’d like to know. In case you were thinking of murdering anybody.

Autumn birds of the Cretan uplands
Listen to the birds up here this morning. When you’re trying to identify a bird at a distance, as we are here, you can often narrow the field down a bit by watching what they’re doing. The Stonechat likes to perch on the top of bushes whereas the Spotted Flycatcher will use not only bushes but wires, fences or any similar vantage point. Blue Rock Thrushes, as their name suggests, prefer to survey the landscape from the rocks whilst Crag Martins, like Swallows and Swifts, swoop through the air hawking for insects. If you look high in the sky above us there’s a Griffon Vulture who, with his incredible eyesight, takes a wide angle view of the entire valley.

Thorny Broom, Calicotome villosa
We’ll make our way up to the rocks and, although those shorts of yours look very snazzy, I think you’re going to regret them soon. The flip-flops might not have been a wise choice either. This is a very exposed hillside up here and consequently the plants that we’re walking through have to be tough to survive. They’re narrow leaved to conserve water in the blistering summer sun, and low growing and mat forming to protect themselves from the vicious winds that can occur at any time of the year and, as you’ve noticed, incredibly thorny to deter browsers. Many of them bear very similar small yellow flowers and a tip to identification is to try and find the seed. Pods that split open down the side like a pea are all members of the Fabaceae family (also known as the Leguminosae) and this particular hairy pod is characteristic of Thorny Broom, Calicotome villosa, used for beating tyrants by the torturers in Hades according to the ancient Greeks (The thorny bits, not the pods that is).

Autumn Flowers of the Cretan uplands.
The other way of protecting yourself if you’re a plant of course is to be very small and hide yourself in the rocks so let’s scramble up to the top and see what we can find. This is a nice one; Narcissus serotinus. At about four inches tall this is one of the smallest daffodils that you will ever see. The fragile looking little brown job is Euphorbia dimorphocaulon, a diminutive member of the spurge family and the tiniest of them all which you’re almost sitting on is the Autumn Squill, Prospero autumnale. Spotting these little beauties is a matter of  practice and luck. After a while you develop a knack.

Wild Pear and Capnodis Beetle
Here we are at the top and so far not a creepy crawly to brighten our day but if you look over there to our left there’s a story going on which involves fruit, worms and beetles and this is how it goes. Those small, shrubby trees are Wild Pear, Pyrus spinosa, and as you can see someone has been assiduously cutting them back, protecting the cut surface with plastic and leaving just one live twig. The reason that they’ve done this I suspect can be found in the sawn logs on the floor. They have some rather obvious holes in them which, if I excavate them with my pen knife, reveal some tunnels of considerable width. Now it just so happens that when I was up here a week or two back I met up with this rather robust and sinister looking beetle. He’s one of the Capnodis who’s larvae are well known for excavating fruit trees from the roots up and is, therefore, our prime suspect. The holes, I presume, would have been made when the adults emerged. A bit more work would need to be done to prove the case for the prosecution but the punishment could be severe. The modern biological control method is to introduce tiny nematode worms into the tree which feed on the larvae.

I am always a bit sceptical of biological control methods especially when introducing new species into an ecosystem (the Harlequin Ladybird for example) as they can do more harm than good but the general consensus on nematodes is that there are good guys and bad guys. Nematodes that target a specific pest like Capnodis larvae apparently fit into the good guys category and no side effects have been reported from their use.

There’s another little mountain road up here signposted to the Church of the Holy Cross. Looks like an interesting one to follow next week.

News Update

If you’re enjoying our weekly wanders around east Crete and are thinking that maybe it’s a good place to come for a holiday (you’d be right) then you may be interested in a new web site that I’ve been asked to co-author. It’s very much under construction at the moment but you can find it here and add it to your favourites for later:  https://exploringeastcrete.net/
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)


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