Wednesday 30 April 2014

The 139 Steps

The walk from the house down to the beach can be accomplished in a little under eight minutes – but then you’d miss everything along the way. We’ve walked together along the top of the cliffs before and I dare say that we’ll spend some time on the beach later in the year but this week I thought we’d take a look at the cliffs themselves and the best place to do this is the 139 steps that lead down to Livadi Beach. As well as taking in the abundance of life here I advise you to watch your step, I swear that these steps were built by someone inspired by the works of M C Escher. Every time I see a strange insect laboriously making its way up them his lithograph ‘House of Stairs’ springs immediately to mind. But given that we don't all go tumbling to the bottom in a heap I'm sure we'll find a fair few things to keep us amused.

Ant-like Flower Soldier Beetles

A few steps down and a reminder that spring is in the air. A pair of beetles making more beetles. Look carefully at the shape of their heads. They are very ant-like which immediately identifies them as members of the Anthicidae family, the Ant-like Flower Beetles. They’ll eat pretty much anything but have a particular fondness for a substance called cantharidin which is also secreted by certain other beetle families. Although this is highly poisonous to us humans they seem to be able to absorb and accumulate it as a defence against predation. Fascinating creatures. The flower head that they are using as their nuptial bed incidentally is wild carrot – the forerunner of the well known vegetable.

Hold on a minute... I am indebted to Michael Geiser at the Natural History Museum in London who has kindly pointed out that I have mixed up my beetles. These are not the cantharidin loving beetles of the family Anthicidae but cantharidin secreting soldier beetles of the family Cantharidae. Although both families have ant-like heads the Cantharids have straighter bodies and their hind legs have 5 segments, the fourth of which is bi-lobed whereas the Anthicids only have four.

This is another great thing about being an amateur naturalist - you're learning all the time and there are professional scientists like Michael who are willing to take the time to rectify your mistakes and gently show you where you went wrong. Thank you Michael.

Orb weaver Spider

Here’s a plant we’ve come across before, the Spiny Golden Star. Just look at the needles on the ends of those bracts. These are quite sturdy plants and make ideal anchors if you want to spin a decent sized web and if you look behind the bracts you can see an Orb Weaver Spider doing just that. These are beautifully patterned spiders of the family Araneidae and they usually use flower heads as bases for their distinctive wheel shaped webs beloved by cartoonists and children’s illustrators (think Charlotte’s Web).

Nerium oleander
As we’ve been coming down the steps we’ve been accompanied by quite a few butterflies; Small Whites for the most part with the occasional Speckled Wood flitting by. With so many flowers here that is hardly surprising but one which you can’t have failed to notice is this one, the Oleander, a beautiful bush of the Dogwood family. You can find it all over the island but it’s not a native species. Beautiful but deadly – well, not particularly deadly but I wouldn’t advise making tea with it – some people have tried and died.

Listen. Do you here that dzeeee call? That is the characteristic note of the Greenfinch and once you have it fixed in your mind it’s as distinctive as a cuckoo which is just as well as they’re wonderfully camouflaged birds. You can pinpoint them with your ears, fix your binoculars on them but often you still don’t see them until they fly and a flash of yellow wing bar catches your eye. As you can see it has the typically chunky bill of a bird that eats seeds and berries. Flycatchers and other insectivorous birds have much finer bills for dealing with fiddly and often highly mobile foodstuffs and this is a good key to bird identification. There is an old English saying: "You can tell a man by what he eats", a particularly shrewd observation (although I'm not sure what that says about me) that applies equally in the bird world. 

Here we are at the bottom and welcome to Livadi beach. It’s a bit blowy today but you go on and have a swim if you want to.  I’m just going to potter along the sands for a bit and admire these glorious natural wood sculptures. Until next week – happy hunting and give my regards to the fish, there are plenty out there to see.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


  1. I hope i will find these 139 steps to Livadi beach, as I am a big fan of Escher.
    You have a lovely blog, and I will add it to the links page of my web site


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