Wednesday 14 May 2014


The dunes at Long Beach, Crete

Dune was a famous science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert in 1965. It is set on a desert world which is home to an endemic and valuable spice and is essentially a story of the usual human shortcomings of greed, control and power. I thought I’d take you to visit some of our local dunes this week. Plenty of greed, control and power but neither a rare spice nor human in sight.  Like most coastal dunes these are wind formed with the lighter sand particles being blown to the back of the beach along with the lighter sea shells and dry seaweed. 

Very often, the first plants to colonise a dune are tough grasses with deep roots which can reach down to the water table and these help to bind the sand together and add nitrogen to what will become a complex ecosystem as we shall see. I don’t claim to be an expert on grasses (or anything else for that matter) but this one I think is Albardin or False Esparto Grass which has been used since antiquity for making rope, baskets, shoes and paper.

From this beginning the slightly enriched dune allows more plants to make a home and if we do a quick count I can see at least a dozen plants including thyme, thistles, plantains (including one I haven’t seen before) and even small juniper bushes. If we get down on our hands and knees we should find a rich variety of insect life scurrying around in the sand. Here look, a beetle making his way through the campions, and there a grasshopper chewing on a leaf and that flash of yellow that has just gone by was a Clouded Yellow Butterfly. Three different orders of insects: Coleoptera (Beetles); Orthoptera (Grasshoppers and Crickets); Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) in as many minutes, to say nothing of the stunning variety of flies (Diptera).

Mammoth Wasp
Oh, and a fifth order: Hymenoptera (Bees, wasps and Ants). Just take a look at this lady feeding on the thistle head. She’s a Mammoth Wasp, the largest wasp in Europe (and, so I’ve been told, she has a sting to match her size). Just observe quietly from a distance and she’ll ignore you. She is one of the ‘beetle parasitic wasps’ and when she’s ready to lay she’ll dig out the larvae of European Rhinoceros Beetles, paralyse them with her sting and then lay a single egg in each larva. When her egg hatches it will consume the larva from the inside. Not nice but I like them.

So much for insects eating other insects, I wonder if we can find anything bigger? You’ve guessed it – I’ve spotted a log and for those of you who’ve been following the blog throughout the year you know I can’t resist log turning. Oh beautiful, please allow me to introduce to one of my favourite little animals on the island – the gecko. Geckos are a type of lizard with really adhesive toe pads that allow them to skim up and down walls and even across the ceiling like a curling stone on ice. I love having them around the house as they feast on the small biting insects that get in despite the mosquito netting (how the geckos get into the house is a trick known only to them but I suspect that they flatten themselves down and squeeze under the door). He was obviously happy under his log, re-growing his tail by the looks of things, so we’ll put him back.

Crested lark
That was a great finale to our dune walk but as we wander back in search of a bit of lunch let’s take a look to the skies. We’ve been accompanied all morning by swallows swooping and diving around and taking advantage of the airborne insect fauna but I’ve also heard a couple of larks about. We crossed a flat, open bit of ground on the way here which is the favourite habitat of Crested Larks so we’ll see if we can find some. There’s one pottering about over there. Smashing little birds aren’t they and the Mohican hair style would be the envy of any punk rocker. They’re common residents here on Crete and I see them most months of the year, usually down near the coast.
There have been a lot of plants and insects this week and I’ll try to add some more pictures to the Naturalists facebook page later in the week and if you want to add your own dune pictures and experiences, feel free. Until next week – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)



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