Search This Blog

Friday, 18 May 2018

Full Circle

Here we are on the final segment of our walk around the Forty Saints and if you cast your mind back to the beginning you may recall that we saw some little Mirid Bug nymphs on some Asphodel leaves. I hazarded a guess that they may have been the young of the Orange Blossom Bug, Dionconotus neglectus, as we'd seen the adults before on Yellow Asphodels when we visited The Chamomile Lawn. However, it seems as though we have another contender because if you look closely, these Yellow Asphodels are being visited by another type of Mirid Biug, Horistus infuscatus. But what does it matter which bugs visit which plants? Simply, plants and their attendant insects move around over time as conditions on the planet change. They are climate refugees in a sense and by monitoring the direction of their migrations it helps us to predict where our future climate refugees will go as Earth temperatures continue to rise. The plants, the bugs and us all react to environmental changes in much the same way.

Now, who's for a nice hot mug of saloop? If you'd have lived in England in the 18th century you'd have kown exactly what I was talking about because this was what was sold on the streets before Starbucks and Costa or even Ye Olde British Tea Shoppe dominated the High Street. It was made from the ground up bulbs of certain orchid species such as this Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyrimidalis, down at our feet here. As it takes between one and four thousand tubers to make a kilo of orchid flour, or salep, this is rather taking its toll on the orchid population as it is still widely used, particularly in Turkey but also in Greece1.

You may have noticed these yellow signs during our perigrinations around the Cretan countryside. They are warning you that this is an official dog training zone - in other words; if you're molested by an unruly dog you can't take the owner to court (not successfully at any rate). So far I've never had a problem with an overenthusiastic hunting dog nor an overenthusiastic and trigger-happy hunter for that matter. Meanwhile, sitting on this piece of milky quartz we have a totally misnamed Gaudy Grasshopper. This particular one, Pyrgomorpha conica, couldn't be more camouflaged if he tried but some of the pyrgomorphs have very bright, warning colouration. Hence the group name.

We've nearly come full circle now and the path is lined with so called 'everlasting' flowers. They're very popular with flower arrangers because their colours hold for a long while after they've been cut. They're pretty popular with this cockchafer too who's having a good old feed on this one. Strange word, cockchafer. The chafer bit is late middle English meaning to rub abrasively, but against what I wonder? Cock, in this sense just means large or vigorous (sorry, you were thinking what?) so we're left with a large or vigorous abrasive rubber. As I say, a strange word.

And so we arrive back where we started and we're being sung home by a little chaffinch up on the rock. These are probably our most dedicated of song birds repeating their short phrase up to six thousand times a day. Back in Victorian England singing matches were held between cock birds, the winner being the one who sang his song the most times in a specified period. I was going to point out that there was no television in those days so people had to devise their own entertainment but given the state of British TV today with Bake-offs, Sewing Bees, and Pottery Throws then I wouldn't be surprised if The Great Chaffinch Sing-off wasn't already in the pipeline.

The Extra Bit

Although we have been all around the Forty Saints I am still hoping that we can have one last trip up on the top. However Mrs D is still requiring a lot of nursing and, as recovery is a long term process, I'm not sure when that will be. Stay in touch through Facebook, Twitter or by following the blog. All the best for now,

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.

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Into The Valley

Into The Valley

In last week's Almanack I introduced you to Borage, one of the hairy guys in the family Boraginaceae. The name derives fro the Latin for hairy or woolly and their stems and leaves are covered in the stuff. This particular one is Cynoglossum creticum or Blue Hound's Tongue which is native to the Mediterranean basin and not just Crete as its scientific name suggests and the leaves do indeed look a bit like hound's tongue. Some of the chemicals in this are not particularly good for us or our livestock but caterpillars of some butterflies use it to harvest and store chemical defence weaponry whereas some female moths find it an alluring addition to their pheromonal perfume. One man's meat is another man's poison as the saying goes.

Look Mum, I can see the sea! We've now come around the far side of Agioi Saranta, or the Forty Saints and we're going to head down towards that deep ravine before cutting back around the hill. The air down here is absolutely redolent with a sweet, almost blancmange like smell which is being produced by the tiny red flowers of these mastic bushes. The lumpy bits in among the leaves and flowers are the nurseries of the little Woolly Aphid, Aploneura lentisci, which we met and put under the microscope last year in the Milonas valley (see A Recipe For Life).

This is getting to be quite an olfactory outing as the musky scent of Greek sage is now beginning to pervade our nostrils. These orange and black bees are enjoying it too. Most of us are familiar with Honey Bees and Bumble Bees and we met a Mining Bee when we were up on The Orchid Hills but this one is a Leaf-cutter Bee, Megachile sicula, which gets its common name from its habit of neatly cutting up leaves or petals with which to build its nest. Like the Mining Bee, it is a solitary bee rather than a social insect and the female builds her nest alone.

Here's a wayside plant with a bit of history as well as a pleasant aroma. It's called Yellow Mignonette, Reseda lutea, and like its close relative, Dyer's Weld, its roots have been used to produce a yellow dye for about three thousand years. Small flowers attract small pollinators and here we have yet another, somewhat diminutive , bee of the Halictidae family. These are social bees (technically euscocial but we won't go into that now) with a queen, workers and drones and so on that build a communal nest, usually in the ground and they are generally know as Sweat Bees as they are attracted to our perspiration. Hope you remembered the deodorant this morning because although their stings are very minor if you find yourself walking through a cloud of them the cumulative effect can be most irritating. Fortunately there only seem to be a few about this morning.

That's enough bee-haviour for the moment as I can hear the sonorous cronks of Huginn and Muninn behind us so let's look back and see what they are up to. They would appear to be courting; flying around in tandem, almost wing to wing at times. Ravens start courting at a young age but it may take two or three years before they settle down to nest building after which they will stay together for life. Sort of like a long engagement before getting married and settling down. We'll continue to keep an eye on them while we're up here and see if we can spot them carrying nesting material this year. Meanwhile we have a choice of down into the depths on our right or up to our left. We'll leave the depths for another expedition and continue our circumnavigation of Agioi Saranta next time.

The Extra Bit

Sorry the blogs are a bit erratic at present but life is playing silly bugs at the moment. Hope to publish next week. Meanwhile the novel “The Magic of Nature/The Nature of Magic” has had a sniff of interest from a publisher in the UK. Nothing definite yet but if you'd like me to drop you a line when the deal is done just email me at and type “yes please”.

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.

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, 1 May 2018

Crete Nature Almanack 2018 – Late Spring

“Now every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire.”  Virgil

African Queen, Danaus chrysippus
Yes, the month of May is here and yesterday's May Day dances and revels marked the middle of Spring which started with the equinox in March and ends with the Summer solstice in June. So what should we be looking for in the second half of the season? In the insect world, butterflies abound at this time of year. I went for a walk earlier in the week and photographed no less than seven different species including this beautiful African Queen (also called the Plain Tiger but I prefer the former).

Borage, Borago officinalis
As the weather begins to heat up in preparation for summer it is time to get inventive with salads. Try adding a few borage flowers and shredded leaves with their delicate cucumber-like flavour and look out for other herbs in flower, many of which can be found on the Cretan Flora website in the family Labiatae.

Sardinian Warbler, Sylvia melanocephala
This is also a great time of year to catch up on your bird call identification but how to go about it, especially if you are a beginner? Start by choosing two or three birds who's calls are very distinct such as the Chaffinch, Greenfinch and this Sardinian Warbler. Now turn your speakers on and follow this link: Sardinian Warbler. Scroll down and you'll find loads of recordings. This is the xeno-canto site where you can hear nearly 10,000 bird species from around the world.

Balkan Pond Turtle, Mauremys rivulata
Sunbathing reptiles can also be found around now such as this Balkan Pond Turtle. Look out also for lizards and snakes warming up in the mornings and Geckos in the evenings on house walls.

Ornate Wrasse, Thalassoma pavo
And finally... the sea has warmed up so it's time to get the cozzie out of winter hibernation and get down and swim with the fishes. We have some really beautiful fish around the Cretan coasts which will happily swim alongside you in a calm, unhurried way.

Enjoy your Spring.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Waterfowl Special

A wooden tower gives great views over the wetlands
I promise you that we will finish off our walk around the Forty Saints but at the moment I am over 100km away just to the west of the capital, Heraklion. In between taking Mrs D for her daily zap of radiotherapy we have a fair bit of free time. You may remember that four years ago I brought you up here to visit The Electric Wetlands "an outstanding area of wetland where you can happily spend all day pottering about investigating the wildlife".  I've had another potter - but this time with a zoom lens. So here are a few pictures of some of the gorgeous waterfowl that you can find here.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Domestic Geese, Anser anser var. domestica
Coot, Fulica atra
Muscovy Duck and ducklings, Cairina moschata var. domestica 
Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus

And this is where to find the place (courtesy of Google Maps)
Incidentally, Manos Studios where we are staying is also marked on the map; highly recommended.

Saturday, 31 March 2018


If you are out and about nature watching this afternoon anywhere within 43 degrees of the equator (which includes most of the inhabited world south of the Himalayas, Pyrenees or Appalachians depending upon the continent from which you are observing) you may see a strange orange glow in the sky. For sometime today the Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, will make its fiery descent back to Earth. If you are in England and see a strange orange glow in the sky then that will probably be the sun, an astronomical object that older readers may dimly recall.

Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 did sterling service until March 2016 when it ceased to function and ground teams lost control of the thing. This means that they cannot fire the engines to make a controlled re-entry and merely pollute the Pacific Ocean with it but have to allow it to make its own inscrutable way back to the home planet. Fortunately most of it will burn up on its way down which is just as well as it is the size of a bus. The key phrase here of course is "most of it"; there is still a likelihood that chunks of fiery space debris could land in a populated area.

As I write this at 05.50 UTC (07.50 Crete Local Time) it is passing west to east over the Black Sea at an altitude of 167km. An hour or so ago it was off the north coast of New Zealand. A sentence later and it is over Afghanistan - it's coming in quickly but losing altitude slowly. If you want to track its descent in real time you can do so here.

There is an old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times" - it certainly promises to be an interesting afternoon.

Meanwhile observant followers of the #CreteNature blog will have noticed that this is not the normal day of publication, nor for that matter, the usual subject matter. Truth is that life in the Daniels household is undergoing a little medical turbulence at the moment which means that future posts are likely to be as erratic as Tiangong-1's descent for a while. It also means that I probably won't be able to remind you all when a new post is published. However, if you click the 'Follow' button in the upper right panel (as illustrated here) then you will get a friendly little email notification each time a new post is published. You can also follow me on Facebook via my Naturalists Group or on Twitter@cretenaturalist.

A big thank you to the excellent Deborah Byrd at EarthSky who provided most of the information for this post either directly through her daily blog or via a very useful set of links. Thanks Deb.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Crete Nature Almanack 2018 – Early Spring

Today, March 20th, sees the arrival of the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere (or the Autumn Equinox in the southern) where the daylight hours equal the night time hours; twelve of each. Here in Crete the weather is starting to warm up, hitting the 30C mark on some days and nothing could be pleasanter than to bask on the terrace of the Sxedia (The Raft), looking out over Ierapetra with the last vestiges of snow on the Dhikti Mountains in the background. It is also a lovely place for us to sit and chat about the things to look out for in early Spring so pull up a chair and we'll begin.


There are so many now that it is difficult to pick out any particular one but how do you know what they all are? Rushing for a field guide is all very well so long as you know to which family they belong (after all there are 93 to choose from here on Crete). To help you out a bit more than 25% of Cretan flowers fall into just four families and here's a quick guide to recognising them. Compositae (or Asteraceae): Represented by daisies, dandelions and thistles, the head of each plant is composed of many small florets often arranged in a central disk with a ray of dissimilar florets surrounding them. Leguminosae (or Fabaceae): Represented by peas, clovers and lupins, their flowers have a distinctive shape (although in the case of clovers you may need a hand lens to discern that each flower head is composed of many tiny flowers) and they all have fruits (legumes) that split into two lengthways like a pea pod. Caryophyllaceae: Represented by pinks and catchflies, these are flowers with 5 petals, very often subdivided and they have tough, coarse stems and leaves. Check out the mallow family (Malvaceae) too as they have very similar characteristics but there are fewer of them. Umbelliferae (Apiaceae): Represented by carrots, fennel and parsley these have very distinctive flower heads like the spokes of an umbrella. For a full illustrated guide to all the families see Steve Lenton's excellent on line guide Cretan Flora.


Rosemary beetles mating

With all these flowers about it is no surprise that the insects are up and about too and it's a great time to watch what they are doing. Are they young grubs crawling around trying to get as much food inside them as soon as possible? What are they eating? (Often a clue to species identification). Or are they nymphs, often very different to their adult colouration? Worth keeping if you can feed them to watch their development. Maybe they are adults, mating or laying their eggs. Which plant are they laying their eggs upon? There is so much more to entomology than simply attaching a label to a specimen. Insect lives are fascinating.


Fallen blackbird nest
The Spring migration is now beginning for many birds so look out for species flying north from subSaharan Africa to mainland Europe. We also have many resident birds here on Crete and as the insect levels increase, for many it is the nesting season. Check out what they are collecting by way of nesting materials: twigs, grasses, mosses, lichens, mud, spittle, wool. All are grist to the mill for different bird species. Our ravens for instance will be using an interlaced arrangement of sticks, lined with grass and wool  up on a rock ledge (if they're ready yet - follow the blog to see how they're getting on) whereas the chaffinch builds a very neat round nest of moss, lichens, wool, feathers and hair felted together in a bush or in the fork of a tree. On the other hand the skylark makes a very simple grass nest directly upon the ground. (The nest in the photo had fallen to the ground – obviously you don't go plucking them from the trees and bushes. The birdies might get a bit miffed!)


Stone marten
Hares, mice, weasels, martens and badgers continue to be shy and elusive but there's a beter chance of seeing them now as they too become emboldened by the urge to mate. Hedgehogs too will have emerged from hibernation. In the herpetological world listen for the frog and toad chorus after dusk and try to pick out the rising brrrrip of the green Toad and the manic chirruping of the European Tree Frog.

The Extra Bit

The other great thing about spring in Crete is that it is the start of the barbecue season. I celebrated last night with slow cooked bream over rosemary with cheesy beans and baked potato. If you want a rundown on preparation, timings etc. I'm experimenting with a new idea for a cook book which you can see here.
See you next week for more wanderings in the hills and valleys of east Crete and we'll see how much of the above that we can observe. Happy Springtime.

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, 13 March 2018

The Far Side

Chamomile tea anyone? Back down here in the olive groves, below the high peaks, the space between the trees is awash with white, scented chamomile interspersed with wood sorrel; a testament to the lack of herbicides and pesticides used in these parts. This is not the species that is used in the commercial production of chamomile tea but it is closely related and just as efficacious as a pleasant, restful beverage. Just steep 3-4 tablespoons of flower heads in a mug full of boiling water for 5 minutes and decant into a second mug.

One of the reasons that we have so much chamomile around here is due to the flies. These hard working little insects are often overlooked at best or despised at worst as irritating nuisances but they contribute hugely to the pollination of wild and agricultural plants. Just a quick look around and I can see at least four different species buzzing around, sipping nectar and thereby transferring pollen. So when you're sipping your chamomile tea give a quick thank you to the flies who made it possible.

Anyhow, enough lounging about; we're taking a trek around the northern flanks of the 40 Saints today where the winds carve hippo mouths out of the rocks. This is the damp side where rivulets of water darken the rocks like infected teeth and strange looking beetle grubs lurk under stones, feeding themselves up to mature into iridescent adults. This one is a ground beetle I think. You can tell that they're beetle larvae, rather than caterpillars, as they only have the six true legs at the front and none of the stumpy little false legs that caterpillars have.

The next part of our circumnavigation of the hills will take us into that valley way down there and the route looks interesting to say the least. We'll have to watch our step so there won't be much chance for visual observation during our descent but that's no reason that we can't keep our ears open. Listen out for the machine gun rattle of the Sardinian Warbler, the chack-a-chack alarm call of the Blackbird, the descending trill of the Chaffinch and the elongated dzeeee at the end of the Greenfinch song.

Well, we've made it without any sprained ankles or the suchlike and it's nice to be on level ground once more. There are more hills to the north, waiting to be explored but we'll content ourselves with poking around these lentisc bushes for a bit today before continuing on down the valley to our left next time. It's quite shady down here which is perfect territory for our old friend the Speckled Wood butterfly. Here in Southern Europe they are brown with orange markings but the further north you go in Europe their colour changes gradually to a deeper brown with yellow, cream or even white markings. 

The Extra Bit

It is with some sadness that I learn of the death of Stephen Hawking. His body relinquished the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis this morning some fiftyfive years after doctors gave him two years to live. The information in that brilliant mind however can never be lost from the universe, as Hawking himself demonstrated, even in a black hole. So how and where in the universe is that information stored? I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking will eventually try to solve that puzzle but in the meanwhile I hope he has a little time (if it exists in his present state) to rest in peace awhile.
SD 14th March 2018.

Next week the Spring Equinox will be upon us so look out for the next part of the #CreteNature Almanack 2018 in which I'll be illustrating some of the things to look out for in early spring.

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.

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