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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Series 7 The Forty Saints


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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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Agios Stefanos – The First Flower

Last week we were at Pefki, the village of the pines where, somewhat surprisingly, there weren't many pine trees to be seen. There is however quite a magnificent pine forest a little to the west, just past the village of Agios Stefanos which brings us round full circle on our upland village tour of east Crete. Agios Stefanos, or Saint Stephen would have been my personal saint, had I been born here in Crete but I must confess that I had to look him up because apart from the fact that Good King Wenceslas had a predilection for musing out of his bedroom window on said saint's feast day I knew nothing about him. Turns out he was a clever fellow who managed to prove, by theological argument, that Jesus upheld the precepts of Judaism better than the Jewish elders did. Clever, but not wise, seeing as he was on trial for blasphemy by those same Jewish elders at the time. They sentenced him to be stoned to death. Incidentally this gave us two important precepts which still hold true today: one, never conduct your own defense and two, nobody like a smart-ass.

But I digress. Apart from exploring the pine wood itself I noticed a beautiful glade when I passed by the other day, absolutely carpeted with wood sorrel, windflowers, and other small anemones which looks a delightful place to start. Here we are and I see that the honey bees are queueing up for nectar. We've talked about pollination before of course but while we're surrounded by pine trees and looking at flowers it makes you wonder how we got from one to the other. If you look at the centre of the windflower (just move the bees out of the way a second) you can see the female organ, the carpel, surrounded by the male organs, the stamens. Pine trees have carpels and stamens too but the key point is that they are separate. There are female cones that you see all the time and male cones that appear (here in Crete) in the spring (see Evolution: Top to Bottom for pictures). Somewhere between 130 and 160 million years ago a particularly enterprising pine flicked a genetic switch, combined the male and female parts into one structure and the world of flowering plants was born. Since then flowers have done a lot of experimenting with some going back to having separate male and female flowers on one plant, some producing different male and female plants and various shades of sexuality in between.

So that's the flowering plants but where did the pine trees come from? We've got a little shady gully feeding the glade and I think that the answer may lie up there. Come and meet the ancestors. In here amongst the shady rocks we have a few ferns. These first appear in the fossil record some 360 million years ago which is a heck of a long time just sitting about being a fern. Ferns reproduce by means of spores which you can see on the underside of the leaves, male and female, which require external moisture to get together. The breakthrough came with wrapping the spores in a protective coating and providing them with internal moisture and this was the origin of the seed. How long this mutation had been going on in various individuals is anybody's guess because as long as ferns had a moist environment seeds weren't needed. But around 300 million years ago when the Earth's land masses were having one of their little huddles called Pangaea there were a lot of arid bits where spores couldn't germinate but seeds could and the seed plants came into their own.

Where did ferns come from? Come and meet the bryophytes; mosses like these, along with similar looking hornworts and liverworts. The most obvious difference between these and the ferns is their size. Mosses are perfect little plants but their size is restricted because they lack the internal vessels needed to transport water. This was another little genetic tweak that proved useful some 440 million years ago due to falling levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants need CO2 to photosynthesise but when you let it in, you let water out and there's the nub of the problem. When CO2 levels are low you have to keep your pores open longer. You either grow low and close to the water or you develop a way of moving the water. The bryophytes that solved the problem developed into the ferns.

Now if we had some water in this gully we might have found some Chara as we did in the Dew Ponds of Katharo. Chara is a green algae and it is from these that the early bryophytes evolved. Some of the green algae went on to become bryophytes, some stayed as green algae and others went a completely different route and set up a symbiotic relationship with fungi creating a whole new group of organisms called lichens such as this sunburst lichen, Xanthoria parietina, which is a combination of a fungus and a green algae called Trebouxia.


So with that little round-up of how algae became bryophytes, became ferns, became pines, became flowers, we end our tour of the upland villages of East Crete. From here, if you own a rugged vehicle you can continue along the rough road back to Stavrochori or return to Agios Stefanos and turn right in the village to get back to the coast road at Makry Gialos

The Extra Bit

Personally I think we'll opt for the latter option and pop into Dasakis, a lovely little taverna (now open all year) at the entrance to Butterfly Gorge. We can spend a pleasant hour chatting around the wood stove whilst admiring a pair of Muscovy Ducks in the car park.






Next week we'll be starting a whole new walking tour in the hills above Koutsounari. This is new territory for me so we'll be exploring it together and who knows what we'll find up there.

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.

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LINKS:
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Tuesday, 30 January 2018

#CreteNature Almanack 2018 – Late Winter






A little break as we wind towards the end of our East Crete Upland Village Tour. This week sees the true midwinter between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This is the coldest part of the year here in Crete (as it is in the rest of the northern hemisphere) so I thought I'd compile a little list of some of the things to look out for in the coming weeks. February 1st was long considered the beginning of the year before Julius Ceasar got his hands on the calendar and it is still celebrated as such in the Pagan wheel of the year as Imbolc. A time for resolutions (in case your January 1st ones have gone by the board) and for starting the spring cleaning (watch out for the Greek version: Clean Monday on February 19th which is a national holiday). Or if all that sounds a bit onerous why not have a midwinter party instead and celebrate the oncoming warmer weather?

Flowers

Cretan Sowbread, Cyclamen creticum

This is a lovely little Cyclamen endemic to Crete, where it is widespread, as well as to a couple of locations on Karpathos. Look for it in damp rocky places, such as winter stream gullies, growing in the shade. Keep an eye out also for Iris unguicularis, Almond trees coming into flower (Prunus dulcis) and the first appearance of Cretan Ebony (Ebenus cretica).




Insects

Pine Processionary Caterpillars, Thaumetopoea pityocampa

These are they guys that make the pine trees look as though they are hoarding candyfloss in their branches. They will be leaving their nests in the next few weeks and heading down to the ground, nose to tail, in long columns where they will pupate in the earth, emerging as adult moths in late spring or early summer. Late winter is also a good time to watch for migratory moths taking advantage of the warmer temperatures here in the south. Look out too for the Oil Beetle, Meloe tuccius foraging about in the grasslands, looking as though he is wearing some other beetle's wing cases that are a few sizes too small for him.





Reptiles & Amphibians

Green Toad spawn, Bufotes viridis

Time to be children again and collect a bit of toad spawn. If you haven't got a pond in your garden yet then build one and stock it with a few of these long strands (toads lay spawn in strings, frogs lay spawn in clumps). Not only do they provide hours of interest for all ages as they develop into tadpoles and then toads but as adults they are particularly adept at mollusc management in the garden. Whilst you are out collecting try a bit of rock flipping to look for hibernating Ocellated Bronze Skinks, Chalcides ocellatus, or maybe, if you're exceptionally lucky, a Leopard Snake, Zamenis situla.


Birds

Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis

Although the Goldfinch is resident all year round here in Crete their numbers are swollen considerably at this time as they migrate down from the colder areas of northern Europe to visit their cousins for a winter warm up. With less vegetation about at this time of year they are also considerably easier to spot. This is also a good time of year to visit your local reservoir as a great variety of waterfowl visit Crete in the winter.





Next week it's back to the tour and I've found an interesting clearing in a pine wood to the west of Agios Stefanos that is just itching to be investigated.




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Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Pefki - Top of the Gorge

Last week we were walking down by the White River at Makry Gialos. If we had continued up the gorge this is the village at which we would have arrived. It is called Pefki (or Pefkoi) which means Pine Trees in Greek. The Pines to which the name relates are these, the Turkish Pine, Pinus brutia. Although native to the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Turkey, you will also find them in Australia and New Zealand and the reason for this goes back a little over 100 years to the 25th April 1915. Aussies and Kiwis will recognise this immediately as Anzac day which commemorates the Gallipoli campaign where many Australian and New Zealand lives were lost. 

One of the major landmarks of the Gallipoli landings was a lone pine tree and in the aftermath of the campaign soldiers took cones from the battlefield and planted the seeds back home as living memorials to the fallen. Which is why you have Turkish Pines half a world away in Australia and New Zealand.


But to pleasanter thoughts – this is the track down into the gorge and immediately we have an old friend waiting for us on the path. This is the Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta and it is one of two Vanessid butterflies that often accompany us on our walks in the winter. The other is the Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui and if you remember back to last year when we were coming down the Milonas Valley both species were flitting about all over the place. This winter I haven't seen a single Painted Lady. They are a migratory species that come over on the African winds but this year, not a sign of one as yet. Keep your eyes peeled.



I mentioned the Mandrake in passing last week and here, under this Carob tree is one of the most magnificent I've ever seen. Mandrakes are part of the Nightshade family, a somewhat diverse group of plants containing such poisonous personalities as Deadly Nightshade, Henbane and Thorn Apple as well as the table friendly Potato, Tomato, Aubergine (Eggplant) and Bell Pepper. Which begs the question; how can such diverse plants be grouped together in one family? Nowadays we are using genome sequencing to see who is related to whom but since the 19th century we have been using floral formulae and the formula for the Solanaceae family is this:


This tells us that they have bracts, are actinomorphic, hermaphrodite and more than anyone other than a dedicated botanist would want to know about the number and position of their sexual organs. Fundamentally, plants are grouped together on the basis of similarities in their anatomies which have evolved over time rather than on the basis of how they affect us. In practical terms it means that you can take any flower, determine its floral formula and work out to which family it belongs.


Whilst we're on the subject of flowers come and take a look at this Mediterranean Spurge a moment. Not the most pleasant smelling plant to us but irresistible to flies as you can see. We've long known that colour and smell attracts insects to plants and when the insect goes in for the nectar it gets coated in pollen grains. These are then transferred to the next plant it visits and thus it becomes pollinated. But not all plants are pollinated by insects, some are pollinated by birds, so how do you attract a bird and repel an insect (or vice versa)? Here's the trick. Plants have a gene that controls a protein which determines the shape of the cells on the petal surface. Turned on it produces conical cells which an insect can get a grip on, even in windy conditions; turned off and it produces flat cells that insects just slide off. This Spurge has gone one better. See how the surface is covered in tiny hairs which the flies are using to anchor themselves into position? Perfect target audience marketing – attract them in with the correct fragrance and make it simple to obtain the product. We could learn a thing or two here. After all, flowers have been in the selling game a lot longer than we have.

That's enough science for one day I think, let's just mosey on down the track awhile and enjoy the rural landscape. Most people, I suspect, miss this part of the gorge. They're either hurrying down to get to the spectacular rock walls below or thankful to have nearly reached the top if they're coming the other way. But this is really quite an idyllic rural stroll in itself with the gourds out drying in the sun and the chickens ambling about in the winter warmth. Crete, there's nowhere quite like it really.




The Extra Bit





We had rather a lot of plants this week but I've just one more to share with you as it's a type of Stonecrop (Sedum sediforme) which hasn't been recorded in this location before. 







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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

White River (Makry Gialos - Aspros Potamos)

Considering that this is supposed to be a tour of the upland villages of east Crete you could be forgiven for wondering why I have brought you down here to the coastal resort of Makry Gialos. Apart from the fact that it is a beautiful little place and well worth visiting in its own right it is also the point where one of the main winter watersheds reaches the sea. If you remember back to Chrysopigi and Skordilo we passed beneath the massif of the Ornos mountains and we have now circled around to the mouth of what is grandly called the White River (or Aspros Potamos) in Greek. So today I thought we'd take a gentle riverside stroll and see what is about before motoring up to Pefki next week.




Well, this is it folks and if you are wondering where the water is then I have to tell you that we are still awaiting any significant rainfall. What little flow there is appears to be choked with Giant Cane and after last week's escapade I'm in no hurry to get down amongst it. We'll cross the road up there and when the reeds clear a bit keep your eyes peeled for Wagtails. The White Wagtails, Motacilla alba are quite abundant and there is also a good chance of seeing a Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea. We are probably a bit early for the Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava as they don't usually turn up until late March or April but if you do spot one take a good look at the head colouring as they come in a number of different flavours: black-headed; ashy-headed, blue-headed etc.






Here on the wall of the Villea Village we have a handy map which shows the route all the way up to Pefki. We're only going as far as Aspros Potamos today which is a pleasant, flat stroll suitable for all but there's plenty to see just along this little stretch. As far as winter flowers are concerned mauve is the colour to look out for starting with the Windflowers, Anemone coronaria. These actually come in a variety of shades ranging from pure white to pink but there are a few mauve ones down here at our feet conveniently illustrating my point. In the soft earth at the side of the track we also have the much maligned Mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, which, contrary to folklore does not scream and send you mad if you pull it up by the roots. It is however, highly poisonous, being packed full of tropane alkaloids and is best admired from a distance. Finally we have that well known garden herb, Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, which this newly emerged Large White is drying her fresh wings upon. In the kitchen most of us associate the leaves of this plant with lamb as they have a strong flavour and need a similarly robust meat to accompany. The flowers though have a more delicate and sweeter flavour and sprinkled over a chicken breast or pork escalope pan fried in butter at the last moment add a lovely twist to the meal.





Now here's a little butterfly that you won't come across very often. It's a Mallow Skipper, Carcharodus alceae. Other species are available but as far as I am aware this is the only species recorded for Crete and I have seen them before on this track. The adults will feed on a variety of flowers (this one is enjoying the Wood Sorrel) but they lay little pink, knobbly eggs upon various species of Mallow which is the preferred foodplant of their caterpillars, although they are not averse to Hisbiscus as an alternative, both of which are in plentiful supply in these parts although the Hibiscus is imported.











Well, this is as far as we go today. As you can see, it's all uphill from here but it is a lovely walk if you don't mind a bit of climbing. Meanwhile I'm a little disappointed that we haven't found any fungi today but, as I say, we're still waiting for the rain. However, it just so happens, that down by the harbour I know of a lovely little taverna that boasts a magnificent bracket fungus, Innotus tamaricis, growing on a tamarisk tree at a very convenient distance from a table. I really do think that we should go and see how it's getting on.






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.

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LINKS:
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Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Nose For Navigation

Last time we were together we finished up looking at a dead grasshopper so this week we'll start with a live one. We're very much in grasshopper territory here and this is our local version of the Meadow Grasshopper, Chorthippus bornhalmi. Crickets and grasshoppers are well known for their songs and it is a common myth that they sing by rubbing their legs together. Almost true. Generally speaking crickets chirp by rubbing their wings together whereas grasshoppers rub their wings against their legs. I see that there's an old stone bridge down there crossing a small gully that gets considerably deeper as it heads southwards. Definitely worth investigating methinks.


The gully seems to be running into a bit of a ravine which is absolutely inundated with Giant Cane. Despite its massive height it is, like bamboo, a type of grass. Also, like bamboo, the young shoots are edible and you can eat the boiled rhizomes apparently. I haven't tried it myself and I've never seen any recipes for it (so I'd be inclined to take that information with a bit of caution or maybe even a pinch of salt) but I'll pass it on anyway. It also looks fairly impenetrable but we won't let a little fact like that put off intrepid explorers like us. I'm sure that we can slide our way through somehow.

OK so they were pretty unforgiving but look who's waiting for us; a Common Darter. Only he's not so common, not at this time of year anyway. It's a fairly recent discovery that certain dragonflies migrate, the same as birds do [1]. And how do we know that? Because some fool entomologist managed to fit a dozen of them with the world's smallest transmitters and follow them in a light aircraft for 58km over six days. Research is ongoing and I'll put in my fourpenn'orth with this set of seasonal maps which I've put together from iNaturalist. As you can see you'll only find them in Winter around the Mediterranean. By Spring they're up as far north as the Netherlands and in Summer and Autumn they're in Scotland and Denmark.



You may have noticed that these canes are getting thicker and I'm beginning to think that someone should have put an electronic transmitter on me as I'm not sure which is our best route out of here. Meanwhile we have some pretty little Clematis cirrhosa down here which is quite, quite poisonous (see Entrapment In A Virgin's Bower) and some Myrtle berries, Myrtus communis, which are most definitely edible (see Fly Feet And Lizards' Ears). All of which is rather academic at the moment as we seem to be effectively caged in on all sides and we've traced a tortuous and probably unretraceable route to get this far. All is not lost however as I am indebted to Phil Bebbington who sent me this handy little GPS tracker for our travels. As I've been marking our finds as we go along I should at least be able to track our route back by following the trail of breadcrumbs as it were. So, if I just pick the appropriate screen I get a picture of... what appears to be an earthworm in its death throes. Our route has been more circuitous than I thought. Another feature of this little gizmo is that we can combine our current position with satellite images which means, in theory, that we can see our shortest route out. I say 'in theory' because I haven't yet mastered how to do that yet. I can tell you where we are to eight decimal places of latitude and longitude but that's not exactly helpful at this moment. We will have to rely on the old naturalists' trick of escaping from river gullies: proceed in any direction you like so long as it's up.

It never fails and we seem to have emerged on the same side of the gully as we entered which is a bonus. There's a whole flock of feral pigeons sitting on a telephone wire over there and I swear that they're laughing at us. Ignoring the incongruity of a telephone wire stretching over a pinnacle of rock and dangling down into an inaccessible cave (this is Crete and it's best not to dwell on such conundrums if you wish to preserve your sanity for any length of time), the reason the pigeons are laughing is that they don't get lost in cane breaks. Exactly how they manage to navigate long distances is still under investigation but if, like me, you thought that it was all down to reading the Earth's magnetic field and/or following the sun's arc then you'd be wrong. Both are useful as compasses but not much cop if you don't know where you're heading for. Like ourselves in the cane break, without a satellite image to see where we were in relation to the edge of the canes, knowing our latitude and longitude and the direction of north was of no help. You need a map and so do the pigeons. After forty years of research[2] it would appear that your homing pigeon probably uses olfactory mapping as a primary navigation tool. They know what home smells like and if you take them to a new location they'll sniff their way back. And on that incredible note I think we'll make our way back. Can anyone smell the car?

The Extra Bit

On the subject of navigation I would propose a study of island postmen. Here on Crete the smaller villages have no road names and no house numbers. If, like Phil Bebbington, you are kind enough to send me a piece of equipment that you have finished with and pay extra for parcel tracking then the Post Office will hand over delivery to a courier. This means that it will eventually arrive in the near vicinity of my home, having travelled across Europe in ever decreasing circles, and after a flurry of telephone calls I will retrieve the package from an exasperated man in a little white van from outside the village shop. Pop it in the regular post and my postman will (almost) invariably deliver it to my door a week or two later. How he memorises where everybody lives is a feat worthy of scientific investigation.

Thanks again for the GPS Phil, it really is a most appreciated gift and I will get to grips with combining it with satellite images!


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.

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LINKS:
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