Here we are, having turned sharp left at the Asteria Taverna in Koutsounari and that massive block of limestone before us is the area which we shall be exploring together for the remaining winter weeks and on into spring. It is designated Agioi Saranta, or the Forty Saints. These were a group of Roman Christian soldiers who were martyred for their beliefs, at Sebaste in Turkey, in 360AD. The method of their martyrdom sends shivers down your spine. They were stripped naked and left on a frozen pond all night in sub zero temperatures. Why they should be commemorated here is something which we may or may not find out along the way but first we have to get up there. So we'll leave the old jalopy at the end of the road and walk up that track to our left and see what adventures await.
A fairly steep climb to begin with to get the muscles working and a fairly typical phrygana landscape with low, mat growing plants including this little Rock Rose that is just coming into flower; Fumana. Like all rock roses (family Cistaceae) they have a couple of tricks that help them cope with this harsh environment. Firstly, they do not work alone. Beneath the soil they work in tandem with fungi of the Tuber genus (the genus which includes truffles) to absorb the scarce nutrients. Secondly, they have a very hard coating to their seeds, some of which remain dormant in the soil for long periods. Should there be a wildfire, to which this type of habitat is prone, the seeds split open and germinate giving them an advantage over other plants. Onwards and upwards. This is beginning to look like an expedition to “The Land That Time Forgot”.
Another plant here where we turn right and head eastwards. This is one of the Asphodels which will soon be coming into flower and if you look closely at these leaves you can see that it is swarming with tiny bug nymphs. Many of these look very similar so trying to identify them can be a problem. Having said that, I think that these may be Dionconotus neglectus and the reason I think that is because we've come across them before. Cast your mind back to March 2015 when we found The Chamomile Lawn. We found a host of these in their adult livery on some Yellow Asphodels. Although the literature says that they are polyphagous (eating many plant types), on a regional basis it makes sense for them to stick to the type of plant with which they are most familiar if it is in plentiful supply.
Now this is what I've been aiming us towards today, a little cave perched half way up the rock face. It doesn't look like too difficult a climb. Give me your hand and we'll attempt an ascent. Reasonably accessible in a trouser ripping sort of way; now who's lurking within? A bit of a midden where some small animal has been having a feed (we must get round to investigating some of these middens as they provide a wealth of information) but for the moment we have a fine example of the architecture of a Funnel Web Spider. Don't be alarmed, the Funnel webs (family Agelenidae) are a pretty harmless bunch and not related to the infamous Sydney Funnel-web which is a type of funnel-web tarantula from a different family.
Take a closer look at the web. Hang on, I'll give you a leg up. It's like a perfectly woven hammock, anchored at the top by a couple of lines and positioned to catch anything tumbling from above. It isn't adhesive but insects have a number of sticky out bits that get entangled in the mesh. The spider resides in that silk tunnel at the back to which one corner of the hammock is attached allowing the spider quick and easy access. Drop a little stone into the hammock and see if anyone comes to investigate. What a shame; it appears to be unoccupied. Ah well, lets go back to the entrance and sit and admire the view for a while before we continue.
There are some great views even at this low level. I should imagine that they'll be quite spectacular when we get up top but for today I think we'll just concentrate on the mid level because, if my eyes don't deceive me, that is a butterfly that we haven't seen before. You may be familiar with the Comma (Polygonia c-album) which is widespread over Europe but this is it's cousin, the Southern Comma (Polygonia egea). According to IUCN it's major caterpillar food plant is Common Pellitory (which isn't common round here) with a note that it also probably feeds on Nettles (also not particularly abundant in these parts) as well as Willows and Elms which are non existent here. So keep your eyes peeled for little grey caterpillars that appear to be sprouting yellow Christmas trees and see what they're feeding upon. You never know, we may discover a new host plant.
Have you noticed that deep cronking sound that's been accompanying us for most of the morning? The owners of those sonorous, if somewhat unmelodic, calls are flying above us. They're a pair of ravens and they seem to be orbiting the very summit. I wonder if they are a breeding pair? As we're going to be up here for the next few weeks we'll keep a close eye on them and see if they'll allow us a little glimpse into their lives. As we hope to become more intimately acquainted I suppose we had better give them names. How about Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) after Odin's corvid companions in Norse mythology?
Next week we'll continue circling the summit and see who else lives among the forty saints and hopefully Huginn and Muginn will continue to keep us company.
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