Tuesday, 27 February 2018

40 Saints III - Fenced In


As the first part of our walk today takes us along the road from where we finished last week I thought we'd make an early start of it to see if there are any hares or badgers making use of the human highways at this time in the morning. No sign of any yet but we do have some wildlife that I suggested that we look out for in the Late Winter Almanack. Firstly the Pine Processionary Caterpillars, Thaumetopoea pityocampa, are up and about (although these are described as nocturnal in many of the texts I've often found them reluctant to go back to bed in the mornings) and secondly, as I was just bending down to photograph this Storksbill, a little movement in the undergrowth revealed a beautiful Silver Y moth, Autographa gamma, which is one of the migratory moths I mentioned. The little silver markings in the middle of his wings give him both his English name (being shaped like the letter Y) and his scientific name (being shaped like the Greek gamma).


Here's the track where we diverge from the road and get up in amongst the Forty Saints once more but there are a couple of wayside flowers to take note of before we head up into the wilderness. The little mauve job that I was about to photograph before being distracted by the Silver Y is the Storksbill and the other is a White Hedge Nettle. I always think of this as being a rather insecure plant. For a start it's name is based upon it's nettle like leaves which are just for show, they contain no sting at all and secondly you always find it growing up through other plants as if it's afraid to go out on its own.

This old ruin seems like a nice place to sit and rest awhile. I can hear chaffinches, a Sardinian warbler and the first greenfinch of the year and we may be able to spot them flitting about from the top of those steps. Meanwhile I seem to be getting infested with tiny beetles. Their wing cases are a little short and they seem to make quite a job of tucking their wings in. That, along with their minute size and their little clubbed antennae identify them as members of the Nitidulidae family which includes the Picnic Beetle. These are so named for their habit of gatecrashing picnics and diving into any alcoholic beverage that happen to be about. Their usual diet includes decaying fruit as it begins to ferment, hence their predilection for alcohol. These chaps however, belong to a different subfamily and are purely pollen eaters as you can see from that one happily feasting on the chamomile down there.

We have three tracks ahead of us and I think that if we take the left hand one we should be able to return by the middle one and save the right hand one for another day. A nice choice as there's another of those cisterns from which we've disturbed rather a nice buzzard. Which reminds me, we haven't seen our ravens, Huginn and Muninn, this morning although I did hear them cronking away in the Milonas Valley as we walked up the road earlier. Probably looking for anything that didn't make it through the night for their breakfast. Meanwhile we have another little cavelet if we just push our way through these carob trees. No signs of recent occupation so if we carefully lower ourselves down into this juniper filled gully we'll climb to the top and see what's up there.

A nice view of the Milonas valley and that defile in the centre hides the Milonas waterfall. There are absolutely loads of these tiny little crocus like flowers up here too but they're not crocuses, they are Romulea (named after Romulus) from a totally different family. A case of covergent evolution; they're more closely related to asparagus than the crocus. We also have a non-native Candelabra Aloe from South Africa up here behind the pumping station looking somewhat incongruous. There's a track leading down from the pumping station and if my calculations are right it should lead us back to the three way junction. Well, it would have done if someone hadn't erected a two metre fence across it. Oh well, we will just have to force our way through the thorny scrub on this side until we come to the end of it. Not all bad news, at least we've found an interesting little puddle. Nothing here at the moment but possibly a good place to set up a camera trap.


I can see the end of the fence – just the other side of this steep walled five metre deep gully. There's a small goat path up the other side but this side is a scramble and slide job. Here goes. Well, that was interesting but I still seem to have the seat of my trousers intact and I was right about the track; there's the little ruin where we met the pollen beetles. Next week we'll see where the third track leads us. 


Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so for details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

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Tuesday, 20 February 2018

40 Saints II – Land of the Levitating Goat


Rather a scenic little walk this morning as we continue along the track eastwards along the southern slopes of Agioi Saranta musing among the mysteries of nature as the goats pecefully levitate about a foot above the ground. (OK, so I caught him in mid air as he dashed across the track; don't spoil the llusion). Last week we were looking at the rock rose family, the Cistaceae, with that little Fumana we found. There are a couple more examples here; the Pink Rock Rose (Cistus creticus) and the white Sage-leaved Rock Rose (Cistus salviifolius). The essential oils from the leaves are used to combat psoriasis and eczema and are also held to be effective against acne and wrinkles. I wouldn't advise trying it here and now, it will just highlight your wrinkles a nice shade of green. It is a useful plant in the field though as, applied to cuts, it stops the bleeding and disinfects the wound.

I see that the goats are heading for that little cave up there, probably their Zen Temple. Meanwhile, closer to the ground it's nice to see some beetles emerging into the world. Our old friend the 7-spot Ladybird is exploring this Juniper Bush and down in the undergrowth is this hairy litle flower chafer (Tropinota). These start to appear about now, peak through the spring months and then tail off in June and July after which you rarely see them until the following year. You'll mainly find them around the Mediterranean but one adventurous little soul has been spotted and verified in The Ukraine.

Signs of humans on the landscape: a large, circular, raised compound; filled with earth and fenced in – possibly to stop that large rock from escaping. To be honest, I have no idea what it's for but I highly suspect that it has something to do with goats. From our point of view the area is littered with construction debris such as this plank of wood. I wonder if anyone is underneath? A pair of Smooth Land Slugs of the Deroceras genus cosying up together. Slugs are not everyone's favourite animal but some people, such as Dr Heike Reise in Germany, examines these creatures in intimate detail. Very intimate in the case of Deroceras. Apparently they have a huge range of different shaped penises, “some of them truly bizarre” to quote from her paper in the American Malacological Bulletin1. Who knew?

More signs of humans on the landscape. These cisterns are dotted around the hills of Crete, collecting water from the mountains and delivering it to the greenhouses below. A good place to sit and watch for a bit as I've spotted a pair of Crag Martins swooping in low for a drink. As usual when you set up a camera the birds buzz off to pastures new. Never mind, there's a nice little Hoverfly here so if I just change camera settings... the Crag Martins come back. Reset the camera, focus in... and they're off again. They're just having a laugh, aren't they?

We're nearly at the end of today's little jaunt and up to our left is that promontory of rock which I think we'll name Ravenscrag for reference. Last week we were watching a pair of ravens which we named Huginn and Muninn (from Norse Mythology) and decided to keep an eye on them to see if they are a breeding pair. I've been watching them for the past half hour and they certainly seem to have made Ravenscrag their home. There's one of them now look; just coming in to land. Maybe we'll get a better view next week when our journey takes us around the back. 

The Extra Bit



Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so for details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff.Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Series 7 The Forty Saints


Here we are, having turned sharp left at the Asteria Taverna in Koutsounari and that massive block of limestone before us is the area which we shall be exploring together for the remaining winter weeks and on into spring. It is designated Agioi Saranta, or the Forty Saints. These were a group of Roman Christian soldiers who were martyred for their beliefs, at Sebaste in Turkey, in 360AD. The method of their martyrdom sends shivers down your spine. They were stripped naked and left on a frozen pond all night in sub zero temperatures. Why they should be commemorated here is something which we may or may not find out along the way but first we have to get up there. So we'll leave the old jalopy at the end of the road and walk up that track to our left and see what adventures await.




A fairly steep climb to begin with to get the muscles working and a fairly typical phrygana landscape with low, mat growing plants including this little Rock Rose that is just coming into flower; Fumana. Like all rock roses (family Cistaceae) they have a couple of tricks that help them cope with this harsh environment. Firstly, they do not work alone. Beneath the soil they work in tandem with fungi of the Tuber genus (the genus which includes truffles) to absorb the scarce nutrients. Secondly, they have a very hard coating to their seeds, some of which remain dormant in the soil for long periods. Should there be a wildfire, to which this type of habitat is prone, the seeds split open and germinate giving them an advantage over other plants. Onwards and upwards. This is beginning to look like an expedition to “The Land That Time Forgot”.

Another plant here where we turn right and head eastwards. This is one of the Asphodels which will soon be coming into flower and if you look closely at these leaves you can see that it is swarming with tiny bug nymphs. Many of these look very similar so trying to identify them can be a problem. Having said that, I think that these may be Dionconotus neglectus and the reason I think that is because we've come across them before. Cast your mind back to March 2015 when we found The Chamomile Lawn. We found a host of these in their adult livery on some Yellow Asphodels. Although the literature says that they are polyphagous (eating many plant types), on a regional basis it makes sense for them to stick to the type of plant with which they are most familiar if it is in plentiful supply.

Now this is what I've been aiming us towards today, a little cave perched half way up the rock face. It doesn't look like too difficult a climb. Give me your hand and we'll attempt an ascent. Reasonably accessible in a trouser ripping sort of way; now who's lurking within? A bit of a midden where some small animal has been having a feed (we must get round to investigating some of these middens as they provide a wealth of information) but for the moment we have a fine example of the architecture of a Funnel Web Spider. Don't be alarmed, the Funnel webs (family Agelenidae) are a pretty harmless bunch and not related to the infamous Sydney Funnel-web which is a type of funnel-web tarantula from a different family. 

Take a closer look at the web. Hang on, I'll give you a leg up. It's like a perfectly woven hammock, anchored at the top by a couple of lines and positioned to catch anything tumbling from above. It isn't adhesive but insects have a number of sticky out bits that get entangled in the mesh. The spider resides in that silk tunnel at the back to which one corner of the hammock is attached allowing the spider quick and easy access. Drop a little stone into the hammock and see if anyone comes to investigate. What a shame; it appears to be unoccupied. Ah well, lets go back to the entrance and sit and admire the view for a while before we continue.

There are some great views even at this low level. I should imagine that they'll be quite spectacular when we get up top but for today I think we'll just concentrate on the mid level because, if my eyes don't deceive me, that is a butterfly that we haven't seen before. You may be familiar with the Comma (Polygonia c-album) which is widespread over Europe but this is it's cousin, the Southern Comma (Polygonia egea). According to IUCN it's major caterpillar food plant is Common Pellitory (which isn't common round here) with a note that it also probably feeds on Nettles (also not particularly abundant in these parts) as well as Willows and Elms which are non existent here. So keep your eyes peeled for little grey caterpillars that appear to be sprouting yellow Christmas trees and see what they're feeding upon. You never know, we may discover a new host plant.

Have you noticed that deep cronking sound that's been accompanying us for most of the morning? The owners of those sonorous, if somewhat unmelodic, calls are flying above us. They're a pair of ravens and they seem to be orbiting the very summit. I wonder if they are a breeding pair? As we're going to be up here for the next few weeks we'll keep a close eye on them and see if they'll allow us a little glimpse into their lives. As we hope to become more intimately acquainted I suppose we had better give them names. How about Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) after Odin's corvid companions in Norse mythology?


Next week we'll continue circling the summit and see who else lives among the forty saints and hopefully Huginn and Muginn will continue to keep us company.

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Agios Stefanos – The First Flower

Last week we were at Pefki, the village of the pines where, somewhat surprisingly, there weren't many pine trees to be seen. There is however quite a magnificent pine forest a little to the west, just past the village of Agios Stefanos which brings us round full circle on our upland village tour of east Crete. Agios Stefanos, or Saint Stephen would have been my personal saint, had I been born here in Crete but I must confess that I had to look him up because apart from the fact that Good King Wenceslas had a predilection for musing out of his bedroom window on said saint's feast day I knew nothing about him. Turns out he was a clever fellow who managed to prove, by theological argument, that Jesus upheld the precepts of Judaism better than the Jewish elders did. Clever, but not wise, seeing as he was on trial for blasphemy by those same Jewish elders at the time. They sentenced him to be stoned to death. Incidentally this gave us two important precepts which still hold true today: one, never conduct your own defense and two, nobody like a smart-ass.

But I digress. Apart from exploring the pine wood itself I noticed a beautiful glade when I passed by the other day, absolutely carpeted with wood sorrel, windflowers, and other small anemones which looks a delightful place to start. Here we are and I see that the honey bees are queueing up for nectar. We've talked about pollination before of course but while we're surrounded by pine trees and looking at flowers it makes you wonder how we got from one to the other. If you look at the centre of the windflower (just move the bees out of the way a second) you can see the female organ, the carpel, surrounded by the male organs, the stamens. Pine trees have carpels and stamens too but the key point is that they are separate. There are female cones that you see all the time and male cones that appear (here in Crete) in the spring (see Evolution: Top to Bottom for pictures). Somewhere between 130 and 160 million years ago a particularly enterprising pine flicked a genetic switch, combined the male and female parts into one structure and the world of flowering plants was born. Since then flowers have done a lot of experimenting with some going back to having separate male and female flowers on one plant, some producing different male and female plants and various shades of sexuality in between.

So that's the flowering plants but where did the pine trees come from? We've got a little shady gully feeding the glade and I think that the answer may lie up there. Come and meet the ancestors. In here amongst the shady rocks we have a few ferns. These first appear in the fossil record some 360 million years ago which is a heck of a long time just sitting about being a fern. Ferns reproduce by means of spores which you can see on the underside of the leaves, male and female, which require external moisture to get together. The breakthrough came with wrapping the spores in a protective coating and providing them with internal moisture and this was the origin of the seed. How long this mutation had been going on in various individuals is anybody's guess because as long as ferns had a moist environment seeds weren't needed. But around 300 million years ago when the Earth's land masses were having one of their little huddles called Pangaea there were a lot of arid bits where spores couldn't germinate but seeds could and the seed plants came into their own.

Where did ferns come from? Come and meet the bryophytes; mosses like these, along with similar looking hornworts and liverworts. The most obvious difference between these and the ferns is their size. Mosses are perfect little plants but their size is restricted because they lack the internal vessels needed to transport water. This was another little genetic tweak that proved useful some 440 million years ago due to falling levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants need CO2 to photosynthesise but when you let it in, you let water out and there's the nub of the problem. When CO2 levels are low you have to keep your pores open longer. You either grow low and close to the water or you develop a way of moving the water. The bryophytes that solved the problem developed into the ferns.

Now if we had some water in this gully we might have found some Chara as we did in the Dew Ponds of Katharo. Chara is a green algae and it is from these that the early bryophytes evolved. Some of the green algae went on to become bryophytes, some stayed as green algae and others went a completely different route and set up a symbiotic relationship with fungi creating a whole new group of organisms called lichens such as this sunburst lichen, Xanthoria parietina, which is a combination of a fungus and a green algae called Trebouxia.


So with that little round-up of how algae became bryophytes, became ferns, became pines, became flowers, we end our tour of the upland villages of East Crete. From here, if you own a rugged vehicle you can continue along the rough road back to Stavrochori or return to Agios Stefanos and turn right in the village to get back to the coast road at Makry Gialos

The Extra Bit

Personally I think we'll opt for the latter option and pop into Dasakis, a lovely little taverna (now open all year) at the entrance to Butterfly Gorge. We can spend a pleasant hour chatting around the wood stove whilst admiring a pair of Muscovy Ducks in the car park.






Next week we'll be starting a whole new walking tour in the hills above Koutsounari. This is new territory for me so we'll be exploring it together and who knows what we'll find up there.

Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so for details of aperture settings, shutter speeds etc. my pictures will be on Flickr within a few days and that has all the geeky stuff. Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.

*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map

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