Wednesday 2 November 2016

The Only Way Is Up

Here we are back at the Church of the Holy Cross, a couple of thousand feet up in the Thripti mountains. 

Oriental Hornet, Vespa orientalis
Just before we begin our final ascent I’d like to bring your attention back to these hornets that are still busy buzzing around the ivy, as they are rather special. They are Oriental Hornets and you generally find them anywhere from Southwest Asia to North Africa and also here in the southernmost parts of Europe. You see those two yellow bands around the abdomen? When the sun hits them they react differently to the brown parts and a small amount of electricity is generated. They are, in fact, solar panels. Not content with being solar powered they are also astronauts. They were on board the 1992 Space Shuttle Endeavour mission but unfortunately nearly eighty percent of them died when their water supply failed. Probably make a good space thriller if we could persuade Matt Damon into a hornet suit. Now that’s what I call an interesting insect.

So, onwards and upwards, an intriguing looking route I think you’ll agree. Of course you can get up there, when in doubt follow the goat droppings.

We’re still among the prickly plants and I have to admit, the going is as tough as it looked from down there so we’ll pause for a moment to take a look at the sides of this gully that we’re climbing up. Look at the different colours that are streaming down the bank where the minerals have been leached out of the rocks. Reds, greens, yellows, purples, all telling a different story. Rocks are collections of minerals and each mineral has its own specific chemical composition. Certain plants require either more or less of certain chemicals and this is where botany and geology combine; as Farmer Fallowfield used to say: “the answer lies in the soil” (and if you can remember where that came from and who played him you’re getting on a bit!). The types of plants determine the types of invertebrates that can be found here so these pretty colours are literally the bedrock of our ecosystem.

Door Snails, Albinaria teres
As you can see the larger rocks are festooned with Door Snails. They’re called that because inside their shells they have a sliding door for extra protection against certain beetle larvae which are their nemesis. At the moment they are hanging around waiting for the autumn rains which shouldn’t be long in coming. Usually, although they congregate like this, each snail likes to have its own space but I see that we have three snuggled up together here which is a bit unusual. You see that little half shell up there? That’s a youngster. The snails are active in the wet season and aestivate through the dry summers and it takes two or three wet seasons for them to develop the top lip that identifies them as adults. They live here on the limestone rocks happily feeding on algae and lichen.

I spy a small cave up above that must surely be worth a detour. What’s a bit of extra rock scrambling between friends?  You’re giving me that look again. If it’s any consolation I think we must be nearly half way to the summit –probably –maybe. Ah, now, what do we have here? A shallow cave, a partly dismembered sheep’s carcass and a bird feather. What do you make of that? A large bird obviously and the way the spine of the feather bends first one way and then the other suggests one of the smaller primary flight feathers (and at 180cms that is one very large bird). The carcass leads us to think in terms of either a bird of prey or a carrion feeder. Let’s have a closer look at the feather. Creamy white with a faint brown tinge and no barring. That narrows it down a bit. We’ll have to get it confirmed but I think that this feather belonged to an Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus. If so, we’re onto something very interesting. Meanwhile bag it up and let’s have a look and see what else we can find.

Cretan Dittany, Origanum dictamnus
This is turning out to be a very amusing little cave, look what I’ve found growing in these crevices up here. If you’ve seen this before it was most likely in a shop specialising in Cretan products. Its Origanum dictamnus, or Cretan Dittany the famous herbal mountain tea. It’s meant to be an aphrodisiac of course and young men known as the erondades, or love seekers, went to dangerous lengths (and heights) to collect it. The sheer fact that they performed such heroic feats probably boosted them in the eyes of the local girls irrespective of any inherent properties of the plant. Truthfully, the oils it contains can be found in many other common herbs such as oregano and thyme to which it is related and, as such, it contains antimicrobial properties used in the pharmaceutical industry but as for its supposed magical powers, well, Crete loves its myths.

This cave really is proving to be most illuminating. I think we’ll stay and explore and make an attempt on the summit next week. Fancy a cup of tea?

The Extra Bit

Back in January (see Riding The Griffin) we were discussing whether insects had emotions, a somewhat controversial idea as it is generally accepted that their nervous systems are too simple for such complex things. Recent research at Queen Mary University of London has found “that bees exhibit not just surprising levels of intelligence, but also emotion-like states” according to senior study author Professor Lars Chittka. Looks like our theory was correct then.

Just in case “The answer lies in the soil” is now annoyingly dominating your thought processes whilst you’d rather be thinking about something else it was Kenneth Williams who played Farmer Fallowfield in the 1950s BBC radio series Beyond Our Ken. (I don’t remember the originals - I’ve been listening to the repeats – honest).

Thanks this week to malacologist Susan Hewitt at iNaturalist  for information on juvenile door snails.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)


  1. Hi Steve,

    Hasn't the Egyptian vulture been absent as a resident in Crete for some time? I know they do occasionally pass through on migration. Other suspects are Griffon vulture, although the feather colour maybe too dark, Bearded vulture or eagles including Golden, Bonelli or Booted. I see you have the blog posted on the Crete Birding Facebook page asking members to help ID it. Good idea. Michalis Dretakis may be able to help.

  2. Yes Ron, the Egyptian Vulture is a very rare passage migrant to Crete with sporadic reports coming from this end of the island. I have been in touch with a number of societies to get confirmation or otherwise regarding the feather and I am still awaiting replies. When I have further information I will post it in the 'Extra Bit' of an upcoming blog.


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