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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

This Is Ferma

Ferma is a settlement in the municipality of Ierapetra on the island of Crete. It is situated at the coast, 11 kilometers east of Ierapetra. Its beach is well known for its beauty.”

That's the Wikipedia entry for our village which ranks, for completeness, marginally above The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy entry for Earth as “Mostly harmless.” I thought that before we set off on our next expedition it would be nice to fill in a few more details. Last week we were down in the bay on the “beach well known for its beauty” so let's wander up onto the cliffs and take a look at the west end of the village.

The cliff top path runs from the little harbour and joins the main Ierapetra to Sitia road near the petrol station. It's a very pleasant walk with plenty of wild flowers and birds which we did a few years back (A Walk on the Cliffs) but we'll turn off here at this juniper bush and walk up into the village. I mentioned before that juniper berries are used to flavour gin but they're good in the kitchen as well. My favourite is Casseroled Pork Chops with Juniper and Thyme Gravy. 

Here in the olive groves we have a little overgrown ditch and if we get down in amongst the greenery we should find a few beetles. Here's one – a Malachite Beetle, so named from the greenish colour of his wing cases; malachite being a copper based mineral of similar hue. I see that you've found another of those black Flower Weevils that we saw a couple of weeks back (If Spring Never Sprung) and the little brown job is a Danacea of which we have half a dozen similar looking species here on Crete. The first and last are both in the same family, the Melyridae or Soft-winged Flower Beetles.

As you can see some of the olive groves are meticulously rotovated while others are left to their own devices. This is useful for us as we can hide ourselves in the herbage here and watch the birds in the cleared grove next door. Male blackbirds, which are all black, have bills ranging from deep orange to yellow apart from the juveniles which have brown bills. A male defending his territory will react more aggressively towards an orange bill than a yellow one and won't deign to bother with a brown bill – they're a bit like judo belts really. Incidentally the females aren't too fussed about the colour so long as the bill is shiny. But that's females for you.

We're coming up to the main road now, the path is a bit more worn and we can see the water. Let's flip a few stones and see who's lurking beneath. Aha, a spider. It looks to be a Ground Spider. Let's see if we can persuade it out of its silk pouch for a moment. These spend their day concealed like this and come out to hunt at night. They run their prey down and sink their fangs in rather than sit in a web. Venomous, but not dangerous to us humans.

There are quite a few places to get a bite to eat and a drink in the village, what say we go and find one?

The Extra Bit

Those of you with a keen eye may have spotted a slight difference in the quality of the photographs this week. This is because my Konica Minolta, which has given me stalwart service over many years, has finally given up the ghost and I'm relying on my little Nikon Coolpix S33.

Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)
Explore the region with the #CreteNature interactive Hiking and Nature Map

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Taking It Easy

What a lovely day for wandering along the beach and taking it easy after our exertions down the valley. I see that we have another of those Bee flies that we were discussing a few weeks back (see The Sweet Smell of Rain) investigating the sand. Quite an absorbing pastime and there are hobbyists who collect sand, studying its composition from places around the world. The bit that the bee fly is studying for instance contains dark grains, pure white grains and at least fifty shades of grey in between. The colours are determined by the mineral content and the shape depends upon whether it has been washed down from the hills or transported by wind and waves. Ours is angular suggesting that it has come down the valley like us and the colouration is typical of quartz and chert with that odd orange bit by his abdomen probably coming from one of the iron bearing rocks that we observed in How To Get Blood Out Of A Stone.

Let's walk along the back of the beach and see what else we can find. Those bunches of strap like leaves will throw up fragrant blooms of white Sea Daffodils in the summer but we have one common beach plant blossoming here and now and that's Sea Rocket. The seed pods have a very high concentration of erucic acid which is an omega 9 fatty acid and has a bit of a story behind it. You may be familiar with great yellow fields of rape, from which we get rapeseed oil. Rape and sea rocket are closely related and both contain high levels of this acid. We cultivate rapeseed oil for biofuel, animal feed and edible oil but the high levels of erucic acid became a cause of concern after laboratory tests in the 1970s showed that if you stuffed rats full of the stuff then it had a toxic effect on the heart. To be honest, if you pig out exclusively on anything it will probably do you harm – even water can poison you in high enough doses. Enter two bright sparks from the University of Manitoba in Canada who bred rapeseed low in erucic acid and called it Canola oil. Nowadays we just genetically modify the plant of course and canola is widely marketed as the healthy cooking oil. I'll let you make your own mind up on that one.

Here's a pretty little lady, she's a Long tailed Blue. Not as showy as the male who has a lot more blue on his upper wings but it pays not to be too conspicuous when you're sitting there egg laying. This maybe what she has in mind now. Her caterpillars feed on a wide range of leguminous plants in the Fabaceae family such as this Cretan Ebony which is just coming into flower. Shall we take a wander down to the sea and clamber along those interesting looking rocks over there?

That seems like a nice place to stop and watch the marine world go by. Not much in the way of fish today... the odd shore crab scuttling about... but there's some seaweed down there which may be harbouring some microscopic life. Let's have a look. Ah, our old friends the diatoms, the very basis of the food web. These are marine diatoms and different to those that we found under the dripping stalactite in A Recipe For Life.
Those wedge shaped ones often cluster together, narrow ends facing inwards, so that they make a complete circle like a flower head. I expect that we disturbed them when we rudely hauled them out of the sea and plonked them on a microscope slide. I think we'll rinse the slide and put them back. You know, it's almost warm enough to join them in there. Maybe in a couple of weeks. When the sea's had a chance to warm up a bit.

The Extra Bit

If you'd like to become an arenophile and collect sand as a hobby there's a society just for you:

Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Once More Onto The Beach, Dear Friends

Back in the middle of November last year we began our Descent into the Milonas Valley and here we are in the middle of April rapidly approaching the sea. Back then we were accompanied by Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies and now the Old World Swallowtails have joined us. I saw the first ones at the end of March and like the poppies that we saw last week they are now appearing about a month later than in 2006. A similar trend can be seen with the first swallows although the swifts are much the same as they were then. Only the vine leaves seem to be bucking the trend; they are now appearing about a month earlier. As we were discussing last week, the seasons are going out of synch.

No matter, we will enjoy the spring while there is still a spring to be enjoyed and I see that the Silver Wattle is now bursting into golden globes of flower. This shrubby tree, which is also known as Mimosa, was originally a native of Australia but has been widely introduced into the Mediterranean and is pretty well naturalised here in Crete. Apparently these are traditionally given on International Women’s Day in Italy and a few other European countries. Seeing as that was on March 8th I can only presume that it flowers earlier up there – or it did when the tradition began.

The stream is now placidly flowing between banks of vegetation: great tall reeds and the pungent tree spurge are on the opposite bank while over here straggly asters are poking through the lesser reeds and grasses. I see that we have a flower chafer taking a rest in the sun on this one. These are big, bumbling beetles which emerge in considerable numbers in the spring months and give rise to various stories in folklore. Their relatives are known as May bugs or June beetles in the UK.

Here’s an interesting little critter; it’s a Grove Snail and the interesting thing about these are that they come in many guises, from pale and almost unmarked like this one to bright yellow with chocolate bands. The one thing that they all have in common is the brown, slightly protuberant lip at the base of the shell. Snails with different patterns are called ‘morphs’ (having more than one appearance in nature is known as polymorphism) and which morph is prevalent in an area is determined partly by the genetic make-up and partly down to the preferences of their predators (who tend to go for the commonest morph as being tried and tested as it were).

Here we are at the end of the vegetation; a sprawling tamarisk and then the beach. There’s also a lentisc bush with a nice orb web stretched across it and the architect has just spotted us. It has run along the top anchor line and taken refuge under a leaf. You may wonder how they get that first anchor line, which may be metres long, into place. The answer, as Bob Dylan observed, is blowin’ in the wind. The spider produces a very thin line of silk and just lets it drift. When it snags on a distant piece of vegetation the spider feels the vibrations and reels it in until it’s taut. It then runs back and forth along the line, like a demented tightrope walker, laying strengthening lines until it has a cable strong enough to support the rest of the web (the construction of which we discussed in The Incredible Shrinking Safari).

The Extra Bit

And so we reach the end of the Milonas Valley having followed the stream from its origins in the Thriptis mountains all the way down here to Ferma Bay. Would you believe it? Even down here on the beach we still have tadpoes. I don’t give much for their chances of survival but toads are r-strategists like last week’s kestrel and produce far more offspring than could ever hope to survive. Might make a nice lunch for that Little Ringed Plover though. Talking of lunch there’s a nice little taverna by the beach - a drop of ouzo and a few mezedes would go down a treat in the spring sunshine.

Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures on Flickr
Read more about the flora and flora of the island in The Nature of Crete (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

If Spring Never Sprung

Crown Daisies, Glebionis coronaria
We are nearly at the end of our journey down the Milonas Valley but before we reach the point where the little river enters the sea I want to take a slight detour to a small, fallow field nearby because it sums up this season of spring so succinctly. In this one field I counted twenty different wild flowers when I chanced upon it the other day so let us wander among the crown daisies and the poppies and watch spring in action.

Buff-tailed Bumble bee, Bombus terrestris Common Poppy, Papaver rhoeas

This is no quiet landscape; a veritable orchestra of insects are chirruping, buzzing and droning as they go about their business of collecting from the flowers, pollinating as they go. The deep bass notes of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee down in this Common Poppy are counterpointed by the Honey Bees investigating the Yellow Asphodels around the edges of the field.

Flower Weevils,  Malvaevora timida Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris

The beetles too are adding a further layer to the symphony. All our old friends are here; the Soldier Beetles, the Flower Chafers and the carpet Beetles but who are these small fellows hiding in the folds of the Mallows? Some tiny little Flower Weevils and not all fellows it would appear. There is definitely some action going on here that you wouldn’t expect of the Royal Philharmonic (not during a concert at any rate). 

Pale Shoulder, Acontia lucida Mediterranean Sand-spurrey, Spergularia diandra
I think we’ll take our lead from this Pale Shoulder moth and laze awhile on these soft beds of Spurrey. The larvae of the Pale Shoulder feed on Goosefoots and Mallows among others and this field hosts plenty of both so it’s no surprise to find it here. No great wonder to find so much Spurrey either as it is a very salt tolerant plant and we’re very close to the sea. You know, I could lay here in the spring sunshine for hours just listening and watching but there are so many intriguing sights, scents and sounds that are just crying out to be investigated. Let us move on.

juvenile Balkan Green Lizard, Lacerta trilineata
Where you have insects you have predators of course and here among the stones at the edge of the fields the lizards are lurking ready to snap at any unwary insect that comes too close. Just stop and listen for a while: overlaying the rhythmic background of the insects you can hear the intertwined melodies of the songbirds in the olive groves that surround us. The trilling piccolos of the finches, the percussive rattling song of the Sardinian warbler and the beautiful flute solo of the Blackbird. Spring is indeed the most wonderful of seasons.

The Extra Bit

Spring has definitely sprung; the flowers are blooming, the insects are pollinating and the birds are singing for mates in the trees. But what if spring never sprung?* Or leastways, if it failed to spring in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed? Unfortunately this is happening right now. From my own notes I know that the rainfall patterns have shifted forward by a month in the last ten years, the Crown Daisies that used to start flowering in November/December are now rarely seen before January and the insects aren’t always keeping pace with the changes. That Pale Shoulder moth was one of the few noctuid moths that I’ve seen this winter whereas ten years ago I was photographing species by the score. Worldwide the climate is changing. Of that there is no doubt and arguing about whether we are to blame or whether it is part of a natural cycle is pointless now. If the flowers, insects and birds go out of synchronisation (and evidence shows that they are) then our agriculture also slips out of gear. We are going to have to adapt to survive. Sure we can do it, by cobbling together artificial solutions to crises as they arrive, but days like this will be lost.  The Mayans, Romans and Ancient Egyptians have shown us that civilisations don’t last forever and western civilisation as we now know it is in for an interesting century.

For pedants and students of the English language the phrase "If Spring Never Sprung" is grammatically incorrect. Either "If Spring Never  Sprang" or "If Spring had Never Sprung" would be correct but they do not have the same impact as a title.
Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)
See detailed pictures at  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)