Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Secret Hollow

Butterfly Orchid in the Pine Woods

Have I told you that Crete is a magical island? Well, today I shall attempt to prove it to you. I am going to take you to a hidden basin that can only be reached by a steep and unmarked climb through the hills. It starts right here at this track and we have to make our way up into those pine woods high above us. So gird your loins and look out for the prickly bushes on the way up (lastweek I slid backwards into one and suffered the consequences. Believe me, falling forwards into one brings tears to your eyes a whole lot quicker). Not that all the plants up here have murderous intentions; look, the first Butterfly Orchid of the season. 

"The castle" and patrolling Buzzard

Up through the pines and we emerge onto a small plateau of rocks and small shrubs. A bit of a respite after our strenuous ascent so take a breather then go and look over the far edge. It’s eerily quiet up here isn’t it? Just the eldritch cries of a pair of buzzards wheeling high above us. This is one of the three hunting techniques that buzzards use in their search for small rodents, lizards and large insects. Sometimes they perch in a tree and swoop when something moves and sometimes they simply stand on the ground or walk around looking for small invertebrates. Have you noticed that rock formation down there? It almost looks like a castle. It’s obviously magical, let’s see if we can get into it.
Yelow Lichen points the way
How does one find one’s way into a magic castle ? We follow the yellow brick road of course. Or, in our case, this trail of yellow lichen that is clearly marking our path.  Why is it so yellow you ask? It’s all down to a chemical called usnic acid which, we think, protects it from harsh sunlight. It is also very bitter which deters grazing animals. A German scientist with the delightful name of Knop first isolated usnic acid from yellow lichen in 1844 and it’s a powerful antibiotic against streps, staphs and pneumococcus bacteria.  I see the trail is leading us around the back of the castle. Perhaps there’s a way in.

African Match Grasshoppers guard "The Fortress"
And here it is. Let’s climb up inside to the ramparts. A pine tree growing out of the very rock itself. That’s convenient. The clouds have been closing in and it’s starting to rain. We’ll shelter here and take a look around. If this is a castle then those rocks up there look like a fortress guarding our secret hollow. The rain is easing a bit so let us go and investigate. Aha! There is animal life up here, grasshoppers. Quite a few Red-winged Grasshoppers about but this one’s a bit special. It’s an African Match Grasshopper of the genus Ochrilidia. I mention this because it is a genus that has taxonomists in a bit of a spin at the moment. There is some confusion as to which species are actually present in Europe so if any orthopterists want to come over and take a look for themselves then feel free to drop me a line.

Cumulus Clouds threaten a squall of rain

So here we are at the fortress and just look at those cumulus clouds building up over the sea. I don’t think we should spend too long up here. The route down is difficult enough as it is, if it becomes wet and slippery it could be treacherous. From my own meteorological observations I can see that south east Crete is getting wetter in the winter year on year (as this handy little graph which I happen to have in my pack shows).  That helps to counteract the fact that this part of the island is also getting hotter. If you remember the mean annual temperature graph that I showed you when we were discussing phenology you’ll have noticed that the upward trend is loosely divided into three year steps and the two graphs mirror each other quite closely. Sorry, that Englishman’s preoccupation with weather again but there’s no getting away from it; weather, climate, plant life, animal life (which obviously includes our life) are all inextricably linked. An increase in rainfall here, an increase in temperature there is like knocking over the first in a long line of dominoes and we’re sitting under the last domino. What a happy thought! Let’s get down before we get drenched. Look, there are some caves over there. Let’s hope for some sunshine next week and we’ll come up this way again.

Until next week – happy hunting.

With special thanks this week to Axel Hochkirch of The Orthopterists' Society for information about Ochrilidia grasshoppers.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


  1. So beautiful up there, many memories stirred again. Are you somewhere near Ierepatra?

  2. About 11km to the East, at Ferma.


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