Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Snakeless in Sisi




I had two reasons for wanting to visit Sisi on the north coast of Crete; firstly I'd never been there, despite having been living on the island for 14 years and secondly I'd been promised that I would find Dice Snakes lounging in the rock pools just waiting to have their photographs taken. What better way to start my series of Sunday Strolls with an enthusiastic band of budding amateur naturalists in tow? Sisi is only a small village but somehow Betty managed to get lost in it before we had even started but after a slight delay whilst we phoned her with directions we descended upon the rock pools. I should point out at this juncture that to avoid confusion and boredom by introducing loads of names into these stories (to say nothing of potential ostracism and/or libel actions) all of the ladies will be referred to as Betty and the gentlemen as Bert.






We found plenty of life in the rock pools; everything from Peacock's Tails (see Creature's of the Blue Lagoon if you'd like to know where you put them on your body and why), a couple of nice anemones including the Beadlet that was just coming out to feed, a few young gobies and an intense ecological battle. On one side of the battlefield there were a goodly number of small but beautifully formed, Marble Crabs, which are a native Mediterranean species and, lurking half under a rock, a much larger Sally Lightfoot which is probably the most invasive crab in the Mediterranean. First reported simultaneously off Ibiza and Italy in 1999 and off Crete in 2006 they're eating the poor Marble Crabs out of house and home. Where I live, in Ferma on the south east coast, it's not unusual to see half a dozen or more on one short snorkeling session. The main culprit? Increased shipping in the Mediterranean.






Growing around the rock pools was a fair amount of Rock Samphire, an edible plant that one can pickle in vinegar or brine or use the leaves raw on salads. I handed a few leaves round and I think that we all agreed that we'd rather not. Whereas the unrelated Marsh Samphire has a pleasant, salty taste that goes well with fish dishes, Rock Samphire has a distinctly medicinal tang and could only accompany dental mouthwash in my opinion. As we continued on our leisurely way around the inlet, where ducks and geese lazed on the shore or honked across the water impersonating fog horns' Betty came upon a bush of black berries. As she correctly observed, they looked almost, but not quite, like blackberries.

Are they a close relative?” she asked.

Not remotely”, I replied, “and what is more, the berries are poisonous.”

You can't eat them then?” added Bert, just wanting to get everything absolutely clear in his mind (which is always a top idea when contemplating the consumption of anything in the wild).

Er, no,” I confirmed.

Betty gave Bert a look which, if she'd turned it on the plant, would have had the berries withering on the stalk but left Bert totally unfazed.

The plant in question was Common Lantana, also known as the Bacon and Egg Plant as its tricolour flowers, radiating from centre, are yellow, white and raw bacon pink.


Of more use around the home were the Chaste Trees that grew alongside the road. Although used in herbal medicine as supposedly fine tuning our circadian rhythms, its efficacy has yet to be proven scientifically. Their common name derives from the fact that it was considered an anaphrodisiac in ancient times and, according to Pliny, it was used by Athenian women to cool the heat of lust in their menfolk. Personally I use it as pot pourri because, even to my anosmic snozzle, it smells pleasantly like lavender.


Insects were a bit thin on the ground this week but as we passed through the Bougainvillea bedecked arbour that leads back down to the sea I managed to capture an Egyptian Grasshopper or Locust who seemed quite happy to swap his resting place on the side of a tree for a similar position on my index finger whilst Betty and Bert admired him.



What's the difference between a locust and a grasshopper?” asked Betty.

Scientifically, none,” I informed her, “but in common parlance, locusts usually refer to the larger, strong flying grasshoppers such as this fellow, that occasionally form migratory swarms and do significant damage to crops on their way.”

Returning said Grasshopper/Locust to a nearby tree where he promptly continued his siesta, we made our way down to the spit that protects the little harbour in search of birdies.








We were instantly rewarded by a group of about fifteen large birds flying in a somewhat ragged formation out to sea which I at first took to be a phalanx of storks but on closer inspection of the photograph back in the lab, turned out to be a flight of herons, possibly a mixture of grey and purple herons but that could be a trick of the light. On the spit itself we were entertained by a couple of kingfishers chasing each other around the rocks. Autumn is the season when Kingfishers begin their courtship with the male chasing the female, calling after her almost incessantly. Later she will accept presents of fish but they will not merge their territories until the spring as each bird needs to eat 60% of its body weight each day.

So, no snakes, but plenty of other wildlife and we meandered back to one of the many seafront tavernas where we played at being kingfishers and attempted to consume 60% of our bodyweight in gyros and chips. If you'd like to join Betty, Bert and I then details of the next two Sunday strolls are below. Otherwise just click on the 'G+ Follow' icon in the top left panel to keep abreast of our adventures. Until next week, when I let Betty and Bert loose in a wildlife refuge, enjoy your autumn wherever you are.




Diary Dates




Stroll #2
Sunday 30th September
11 am
Ag. Charalampos, Lassithi Plateau





A gentle walk around the lower slopes of the Plathini-Lagkada Wildlife Refuge where I hope that we shall see some Griffon Vultures (unless they see me coming and decamp like the Dice Snakes).










Stroll #3
Sunday 7th October
11 am
Kroustas Forest
(Details next week)











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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LINKS:


Not Just For Twisted Women by Steve Daniels 

A light-hearted look at life through the eyes of the fairer sex. 

Kindle Edition 1.99 pounds sterling (or equivalent).

Paperback edition will be available in time for Christmas.





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, 18 September 2018

Crete Nature Almanack 2018 Autumn


Autumn is nearly upon us and the birds are already flying south from northern Europe and either staying or passing through Crete on their way to sub-Saharan Africa. Find any stretch of water and you are likely to see birds such as Ruddy Turnstones, Arenaria interpres (top left); Common Sandpipers, Actitis hypoleucos (top right); and possibly even a Spotted Redshank, Tringa erythropus (bottom right). Look out also for the first appearance of the Black Redstart, Phoenicurus ochruros (bottom left), which usually arrives down here on the south east coast somewhere between late October and the end of November.



The flowers will start to appear after the first autumnal rains which have been getting gradually later over the past five years; from September 16th in 2013 to September 29th in 2017. I have chosen just three of them, but can you spot the connection? The first one is the Autumn Buttercup, Ranunculus bullatus, which grows throughout the Mediterranean, including north Africa. The second is the Autumn Squill, Prospero autumnale, which although it can be found throughout southern Europe and the Middle East, for some reason can also be found in Great Britain according to Kew Garden's world checklist. The third one is Crocus laevigatus, which is endemic to Crete and is one of a number of crocuses sometimes known as the Autumn Crocus as, like the others, it flowers at this time of year.




The rains also bring forth the snails, of course, and the familiar Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, starts to appear in considerable numbers in gardens and supermarkets across the island. Apart from being edible did you know that its yucky, slimy secretions are used in American skin creams? The second one is the Chocolate-band Snail, Eobania vermiculata, which also appears in gardens but not so often in supermarkets. They are edible but considered inferior to Garden Snails by the Greeks so we export them to France (mind you, that little nugget of information is 37 years old, so don't quote me on it). Finally, the Green Garden Snail, Cantareus apertus, which has a shell that can vary from creamy yellow, through olive green, to almost black but is easily recognisable if you pick it up. It will blow bubbles all over your hand which reeks of slightly off garlic and lasts for days. Incidentally Wikipedia notes that In Crete this species is active for 3–4 months after the first rainfalls in October.” Rubbish; I've found them out and about at the end of March.


As the seasonal rivers and streams start to fill, listen out for the a capella amphibian assembly after dark. The frogs and toads become very vocal in the autumn. The main singers being the Green Toad, Bufotes viridis, (left) which I think is a very dull name for such a beautiful animal, the endemic Cretan Frog, Pelophylax cretensis (middle). This is a particularly vivid specimen, they are usually much duller, and the diminutive European Tree Frog, Hyla arborea, which, although small, certainly holds his own in the croaking stakes.




Autumn also sees the opening of the mushroom season and lets hope we have a better one than last year when they were very few and far between. In fact, the only ones I found were these Mica Caps, Coprinellus micaceus, a nice, edible mushroom but you have to get them in the pan within the hour and, given the other caveats (see Voila - Turkish Delight ) one wonders whether they're worth collecting at all. Hopefully, this year we'll find a few more species.

That's it for the almanack; next week sees the start of Steve's Sunday Strolls and for those of you who are on the island during the next fortnight here is where you can join me:

Sunday 23rd September
11 am
Sisi
(see last week's post for details).







Sunday 30th September
11 am
Ag. Charalampos, Lassithi Plateau









A gentle stroll around one corner of the Plathini-Lagkada Wildlife Refuge and a handy village taverna where we can chat about what we have seen afterwards.










The Extra Bit

A big thank you to all who have taken the time to investigate my book of short stories and an even bigger thank you to those of you who have actually bought a copy (Amazon Kindle £1.99 or currency equivalent).







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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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, 11 September 2018

Here We Go Again!



Yes, the autumn equinox is nearly upon us and it's time for me to stop loafing around and take you trundling off around the natural beauties of east Crete once more. Only this time you really can come with me. Series 8 is called Steve's Sunday Strolls and I'll be giving you a couple of weeks notice of where I'll be at 11am on Sunday morning and you can either join me or avoid me, as is your wont. For instance, on Sunday 23rd of September I shall be here in Sisi.




We'll do a bit of rock pooling along the front and see if we can find some Dice snakes (don't worry, they're not dangerous). Then we'll go around the harbour and explore the inlet and the woods along the far side and finally, if time allows, we'll see if there are any nice birdies out on the spit. Then it's back to the Plori Restaurant-Cafe where we can chat about what we've seen and I'll try and identify anything that you've photographed and tell you a bit about it.

So, bring yourselves, bring a camera, and maybe even a swimming costume and snorkel as we may have a quick dip after our lunch has settled.





I haven't been aestivating completely over the summer months. Steve Lenton (our botanist friend) and I took a trip up on to The Lassithi Plateau where we found a delightful array of wildlife including the amazing Humming Bird Hawk Moth, Macroglossum stellatarum; Grey Heron, Ardea cinera, on the prowl for amphibians such as the European Tree Frog, Hyla arborea; and the female Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator, even found some water in the stream (reduced to occasional puddles in the height of summer) to lay some eggs. Incidentally, the Plathiani Lagkada Wildlife Refuge on the southern edge of the Lassithi Plateau will be the venue for our second Sunday Stroll on 30th September.




I have also been under the sea in a yellow submarine, or to be more accurate, the semi-submarine Nautilus operating out of Agios Nikolaos. Unfortunately we did not see any Loggerhead Turtles, Caretta caretta, but plenty of fish including shoals of Mediterranean Damselfish, Chromis chromis; Bogue, with the marvellous scientific name of Boops boops, and also a fair few Pompano, Trachinotus ovatus, a game fish of the Carangidae family. The undersea windows aren't clear enough for good photography but the human eye is better at adjusting to the mist and the views are quite clear.




I have also put together a book of short stories that I wrote back in the 1980s in which I take a light-hearted look at the human animal, Homo sapiens, in particular the female of the species and how, more often than not, they get the better of us males. One of the stories even has a nature theme and you can read it here for free: Mary and the Spider Man as well as all the necessary info on how to download it to your Kindle. (The paperback version will be available later this year).



That's just about it from me this week. Next week I shall post the Crete Nature Almanack for Autumn and after that we'll be into series 8 proper. 




Don't forget the dates for your diary:

Sunday September 23rd - Steve's Sunday Stroll: Sisi

Sunday September 30th - Steve's Sunday Stroll: Plathiani Lagkada Wildlife Refuge

The Extra Bit


Death of a Naturalist

And some sad news to finish up with: after a long and often arduous fight against cancer I am sorry to have to tell you that my fellow naturalist and wife of 36 years finally lost her battle and died in July aged 68 years. Needless to say, she is very much missed.





*********************************************************************
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

Upload your photos to https://www.inaturalist.org and help to catalogue the world's biodiversity.


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