Saturday, 31 March 2018


If you are out and about nature watching this afternoon anywhere within 43 degrees of the equator (which includes most of the inhabited world south of the Himalayas, Pyrenees or Appalachians depending upon the continent from which you are observing) you may see a strange orange glow in the sky. For sometime today the Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, will make its fiery descent back to Earth. If you are in England and see a strange orange glow in the sky then that will probably be the sun, an astronomical object that older readers may dimly recall.

Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 did sterling service until March 2016 when it ceased to function and ground teams lost control of the thing. This means that they cannot fire the engines to make a controlled re-entry and merely pollute the Pacific Ocean with it but have to allow it to make its own inscrutable way back to the home planet. Fortunately most of it will burn up on its way down which is just as well as it is the size of a bus. The key phrase here of course is "most of it"; there is still a likelihood that chunks of fiery space debris could land in a populated area.

As I write this at 05.50 UTC (07.50 Crete Local Time) it is passing west to east over the Black Sea at an altitude of 167km. An hour or so ago it was off the north coast of New Zealand. A sentence later and it is over Afghanistan - it's coming in quickly but losing altitude slowly. If you want to track its descent in real time you can do so here.

There is an old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times" - it certainly promises to be an interesting afternoon.

Meanwhile observant followers of the #CreteNature blog will have noticed that this is not the normal day of publication, nor for that matter, the usual subject matter. Truth is that life in the Daniels household is undergoing a little medical turbulence at the moment which means that future posts are likely to be as erratic as Tiangong-1's descent for a while. It also means that I probably won't be able to remind you all when a new post is published. However, if you click the 'Follow' button in the upper right panel (as illustrated here) then you will get a friendly little email notification each time a new post is published. You can also follow me on Facebook via my Naturalists Group or on Twitter@cretenaturalist.

A big thank you to the excellent Deborah Byrd at EarthSky who provided most of the information for this post either directly through her daily blog or via a very useful set of links. Thanks Deb.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Crete Nature Almanack 2018 – Early Spring

Today, March 20th, sees the arrival of the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere (or the Autumn Equinox in the southern) where the daylight hours equal the night time hours; twelve of each. Here in Crete the weather is starting to warm up, hitting the 30C mark on some days and nothing could be pleasanter than to bask on the terrace of the Sxedia (The Raft), looking out over Ierapetra with the last vestiges of snow on the Dhikti Mountains in the background. It is also a lovely place for us to sit and chat about the things to look out for in early Spring so pull up a chair and we'll begin.


There are so many now that it is difficult to pick out any particular one but how do you know what they all are? Rushing for a field guide is all very well so long as you know to which family they belong (after all there are 93 to choose from here on Crete). To help you out a bit more than 25% of Cretan flowers fall into just four families and here's a quick guide to recognising them. Compositae (or Asteraceae): Represented by daisies, dandelions and thistles, the head of each plant is composed of many small florets often arranged in a central disk with a ray of dissimilar florets surrounding them. Leguminosae (or Fabaceae): Represented by peas, clovers and lupins, their flowers have a distinctive shape (although in the case of clovers you may need a hand lens to discern that each flower head is composed of many tiny flowers) and they all have fruits (legumes) that split into two lengthways like a pea pod. Caryophyllaceae: Represented by pinks and catchflies, these are flowers with 5 petals, very often subdivided and they have tough, coarse stems and leaves. Check out the mallow family (Malvaceae) too as they have very similar characteristics but there are fewer of them. Umbelliferae (Apiaceae): Represented by carrots, fennel and parsley these have very distinctive flower heads like the spokes of an umbrella. For a full illustrated guide to all the families see Steve Lenton's excellent on line guide Cretan Flora.


Rosemary beetles mating

With all these flowers about it is no surprise that the insects are up and about too and it's a great time to watch what they are doing. Are they young grubs crawling around trying to get as much food inside them as soon as possible? What are they eating? (Often a clue to species identification). Or are they nymphs, often very different to their adult colouration? Worth keeping if you can feed them to watch their development. Maybe they are adults, mating or laying their eggs. Which plant are they laying their eggs upon? There is so much more to entomology than simply attaching a label to a specimen. Insect lives are fascinating.


Fallen blackbird nest
The Spring migration is now beginning for many birds so look out for species flying north from subSaharan Africa to mainland Europe. We also have many resident birds here on Crete and as the insect levels increase, for many it is the nesting season. Check out what they are collecting by way of nesting materials: twigs, grasses, mosses, lichens, mud, spittle, wool. All are grist to the mill for different bird species. Our ravens for instance will be using an interlaced arrangement of sticks, lined with grass and wool  up on a rock ledge (if they're ready yet - follow the blog to see how they're getting on) whereas the chaffinch builds a very neat round nest of moss, lichens, wool, feathers and hair felted together in a bush or in the fork of a tree. On the other hand the skylark makes a very simple grass nest directly upon the ground. (The nest in the photo had fallen to the ground – obviously you don't go plucking them from the trees and bushes. The birdies might get a bit miffed!)


Stone marten
Hares, mice, weasels, martens and badgers continue to be shy and elusive but there's a beter chance of seeing them now as they too become emboldened by the urge to mate. Hedgehogs too will have emerged from hibernation. In the herpetological world listen for the frog and toad chorus after dusk and try to pick out the rising brrrrip of the green Toad and the manic chirruping of the European Tree Frog.

The Extra Bit

The other great thing about spring in Crete is that it is the start of the barbecue season. I celebrated last night with slow cooked bream over rosemary with cheesy beans and baked potato. If you want a rundown on preparation, timings etc. I'm experimenting with a new idea for a cook book which you can see here.
See you next week for more wanderings in the hills and valleys of east Crete and we'll see how much of the above that we can observe. Happy Springtime.

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

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Far Side

Chamomile tea anyone? Back down here in the olive groves, below the high peaks, the space between the trees is awash with white, scented chamomile interspersed with wood sorrel; a testament to the lack of herbicides and pesticides used in these parts. This is not the species that is used in the commercial production of chamomile tea but it is closely related and just as efficacious as a pleasant, restful beverage. Just steep 3-4 tablespoons of flower heads in a mug full of boiling water for 5 minutes and decant into a second mug.

One of the reasons that we have so much chamomile around here is due to the flies. These hard working little insects are often overlooked at best or despised at worst as irritating nuisances but they contribute hugely to the pollination of wild and agricultural plants. Just a quick look around and I can see at least four different species buzzing around, sipping nectar and thereby transferring pollen. So when you're sipping your chamomile tea give a quick thank you to the flies who made it possible.

Anyhow, enough lounging about; we're taking a trek around the northern flanks of the 40 Saints today where the winds carve hippo mouths out of the rocks. This is the damp side where rivulets of water darken the rocks like infected teeth and strange looking beetle grubs lurk under stones, feeding themselves up to mature into iridescent adults. This one is a ground beetle I think. You can tell that they're beetle larvae, rather than caterpillars, as they only have the six true legs at the front and none of the stumpy little false legs that caterpillars have.

The next part of our circumnavigation of the hills will take us into that valley way down there and the route looks interesting to say the least. We'll have to watch our step so there won't be much chance for visual observation during our descent but that's no reason that we can't keep our ears open. Listen out for the machine gun rattle of the Sardinian Warbler, the chack-a-chack alarm call of the Blackbird, the descending trill of the Chaffinch and the elongated dzeeee at the end of the Greenfinch song.

Well, we've made it without any sprained ankles or the suchlike and it's nice to be on level ground once more. There are more hills to the north, waiting to be explored but we'll content ourselves with poking around these lentisc bushes for a bit today before continuing on down the valley to our left next time. It's quite shady down here which is perfect territory for our old friend the Speckled Wood butterfly. Here in Southern Europe they are brown with orange markings but the further north you go in Europe their colour changes gradually to a deeper brown with yellow, cream or even white markings. 

The Extra Bit

It is with some sadness that I learn of the death of Stephen Hawking. His body relinquished the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis this morning some fiftyfive years after doctors gave him two years to live. The information in that brilliant mind however can never be lost from the universe, as Hawking himself demonstrated, even in a black hole. So how and where in the universe is that information stored? I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking will eventually try to solve that puzzle but in the meanwhile I hope he has a little time (if it exists in his present state) to rest in peace awhile.
SD 14th March 2018.

Next week the Spring Equinox will be upon us so look out for the next part of the #CreteNature Almanack 2018 in which I'll be illustrating some of the things to look out for in early spring.

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.

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, 6 March 2018

The Orchid Hills

The rain has been; the sun is shining and orchids are appearing all over the Kritiweb. I have a confession to make: I am not a great fan of orchids (but I'm sure we'll find some later on for those of you who are). Meanwhile, we have some serious climbing to do today to get onto that rocky ridge up there so let's have a look at some of the other flowers that are dotted around the hills. The tall white ones that our friend the Tropinota beetle is pollinating are Asphodels and the exquisite little purple and gold blooms are a subspecies of dwarf Algerian Iris that is endemic to Crete and Karpathos. Not everything is in flower yet but this rock lettuce (another Cretan endemic which will have spectacular 80cm blooms in April) is just ripe for picking a few salad leaves. Finally, these little clusters of golden sunshine are Gageas, one of seven species that we have here on Crete.

We also have the usual array of 'damned yellow composites' as botanists fondly call them and this one is being pollinated by a Mining Bee. When she's finished collecting the pollen she'll go and find a patch of sandy soil and start to excavate a mine. Down in the mine she'll construct a series of cells, lay in a pollen food store, lay a single egg on each heap of pollen and seal them up. There they will hatch, feed and grow and pupate to emerge about this time next year. Mining bees can be found all over the world except South America and Oceania (Australia, NZ, New Guinea area) particularly where the soil is sandy as it is around here.

Now we have a bit of serious rock scrambling to do. Ah, there's the pumping station where we were ferreting about last time. Nice to get a reference point as we've zigged and zagged a bit to get up here. This rock is what is known as a composite rock, that is, it is composed of many different types of rock (most of which appear to be unnecessarily sharp) and my eye is drawn to that green one sitting alone on the edge. Let's take a closer look. How strange, it is entirely coated with a crustose lichen. I wonder why that should be? I think I'll take a scraping to look at under the microscope later1.

Here we are at the summit which looks to be an ideal place to sit and look at the orchid photographs that we've taken on the way up. The first two are Bee Orchids which mimic insects, very often bees, in order to entice them to come and mate and thus get covered in pollen. Sneaky little things but all's fair in love and war. They are also highly promiscuous and hybridize quite readily so it's rather difficult to identify them to species level with any accuracy. Still, it keeps the botanists amused almost indefinitely. We're on safer ground with the purple one which is a Butterfly Orchid. Not because it is pollinated by butterflies specifically (which would be far too logical) but because it resembles a pea flower. It's scientific name is Anacamptis papilionaceae which means 'like a pea flower with a bent back spur' but as papilio is Latin for butterfly it's finished up being named as a flower that looks like another flower which looks like a butterfly (if you squint at it in a certain light). Finally we have quite a few Robert's Giant Orchids around. It's a fairly robust orchid but by no means the biggest of the Cretan orchids and who Robert was seems to have been lost in the mists of time but there you go, that's orchids for you. Give me a Broomrape any day of the week.

We'll make our way back down now and see what else we can find on the way.

Huginn and Muninn are having a laugh at our expense again. Having neither heard nor seen a feather of them this morning they decide on a fly past with a third Raven in tow just as we're negotiating this tricky bit of rockery. Never mind, there's something even more interesting here: a spring -  and some of the water has collected right here, just as it emerges from the rock.

Here's a little puzzle for you to ponder while I set up the field microscope on this ledge. What photosynthesises like a plant, is made of glass and gets smaller as it grows? In the words of Dr Spock in Star Trek - “It's life Jim, but not as we know it.” These are diatoms. Microscopic life forms who's cell walls are made of silica and because of the unique way in which they divide and reproduce the offspring are smaller (and often a different shape) than the original. Curious little critters all round really but they are responsible for fixing more of the Earth's carbon than all of the world's rainforests put together. Even so, the trees and diatoms combined can't cope with the amount of carbon which we are still releasing into the atmosphere.

The Extra Bit

1 I hadn't noticed quite how precariously I was perched when collecting the lichen sample and you may be wondering how I managed to take the photo whilst both my hands were otherwise occupied. Truth to tell, I was accompanied on this hike by my friend and neighbour Nico and two of his teenage girls and it was great having some young, enthusiastic company. It was Nico who took the photograph.

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.

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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