Translate

Search This Blog

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Sklavoi – Village of the Slaves

When you look at a map of an area there are often a number of exciting looking places to investigate but at first glance Sklavoi does not appear to be one of them. Which is why I want to go there for I often find the most interesting things where they are least expected. For instance the connection between this little church down here, grasshoppers and the bomb disposal squad. The church is dedicated to St. Barbara, a young lady of Christian persuasion who's father was an out and out pagan. When he learnt of her conversion he went at her with a sword whereupon the wall of the tower (in which he kept her) exploded. Babs finished up, unharmed, in a mountain gorge alongside two very surprised shepherds. Her father pursued her, one of the shepherds betrayed her and he was turned to stone for his treachery. Not only that, his entire flock was turned into grasshoppers (which seems to have been quite popular in the past – see Chrysopigi - Source of Gold). She was caught and tortured and about to be beheaded by her father as a final punishment when he too was detonated by a bolt of lightning and Barbara escaped. In honour of her going out with a bang as it were, she is now the patron saint of all those who work with explosives.

I am also intrigued by the village name for Sklavoi is Greek for slaves and Crete was never big on slavery. What slaves there were seem to have been reasonably well treated and it was here in Crete that the tradition of the 'servants-day-off' where the slaves were waited upon by their masters probably first originated [1]. We are not the only animals to indulge in a bit of slavery. These ants down here are workers busy dismembering a dead gecko. These particular ants were born in the colony but the Blood Red Ant of Northern Europe, the U.S. And Asia will raid the nests of other ants and kidnap the pupae and larvae and enslave them. I sometimes wonder if we humans were ever the first to do anything.






Let's wander down out of the village and see if we can find any autumn flowers. Quite a variety in the environs of this magnificently twisted old olive tree. Quick quiz: look closely and see if you can spot the odd one out. Did you spot the little Mirid Bug peering over the edge of the right hand petal of the yellow Squirting Cucumber? How about the Southern Green Shieldbug nymph nestling between its fruits below? Or the pair of beetles investigating the centre of the Autumn Crocus to the left? A little Autumn rain, the flowers come out, the insects appear and nature's larder is re-stocked once more. The only one without an entomological attendant appears to be the budding Autumn Squill.





This really is a delightful little stroll and beautifully warm for the time of year and I see that we have caper bushes in great abundance. I still haven't tried pickling the leaves as they do in Italy but the little flower buds are delicious on a bit of fish or a pizza. Seems like I'm not the only one who likes capers. A brood of caterpillars. These are Large Whites. Traditionally they are associated with cabbages or other brassicas but although their preferred food plants do indeed tend to be members of the Brassicacae family they have quite a range of host plants from different families.

What a wealth of life we have along the roadside here. I told you that Sklavoi would be interesting. Down on the road we have another of those Huntsman Spiders that we found up in Praesos and sitting on a leaf a little Crab Spider that's recently migrated from a yellow flower and hasn't got round to changing colour yet. Plenty of wasps around the ivy flowers, mainly the common European Wasps which the Americans call Yellowjackets, but also this red and black one which is a Spider Wasp. The adults feed on nectar but their young dine on live spiders. When the female lays an egg she'll seal a spider in with it that she's previously paralysed with her venom. The spider has to be large enough to feed the youngster until he's large enough to fend for himself so the little Crab Spider is probably safe but I'd advise the Huntsman to keep at least one of his eight eyes on the sky above him. And finally... one of those tall plants with small flowers that may be overlooked. Pity really because their flowers are quite charming and the plant, which is a Verbascum or Mullein, contains high levels of Rotenone which we use to treat head lice and scabies. Apparently the US government also uses it to kill fish in rivers but why they should wish to do this is beyond me.

This little track seems to lead back up into the village so that will make a nice circular walk. 

The Extra Bit


So far on the bird table we've had birds, cats and a black rat but this is one animal that I was rather surprised to see, especially as the bird table is only four feet from my bedroom window. It's an endemic Cretan Stone Marten which lives only here and on a few islands in the eastern Mediterranean. It is slightly smaller than the European Stone (or Beech) Marten of which it is a subspecies. It's not totally unusual to find them around human habitation at night but even so, four feet is quite close. I'm taking it as the ultimate proof that I do not snore like a chainsaw (whatever Christina might say).

Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. 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.

Picture 1 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Konica Minolta
Picture 2 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Konica Minolta
Picture 3 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 4 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit Trail Camera RD1000

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
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

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #26

In last week's #CreteNature blog we finished up in a taverna talking about mermaids. But from which country did the mermaid myth originate?

a) Syria

b) Greece

c) Iraq


If ever a quiz question was designed to court controversy then a question regarding myth origins has to be it. At the risk of being shot down in flames I will tentatively assert that the first mermaid was the Assyrian goddess Atargatis from around 1,000 BC. Like many a goddess before and since she fell in love with a mortal (this one was a shepherd) and accidentally killed him. Mortified, she jumped into a lake and turned herself into a fish. Even that seems to have gone off half cock as she only managed the transition from the waist down. It is somewhat comforting to know that even goddesses sometimes have days when things just don't go right. Assyria equates with modern day Syria and so the answer is A.

A little more on mermaids but much more on modern day wildlife can be found in this week's #CreteNature blog Sikia Beach – Frozen in Time

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Sikia Beach – Frozen in Time

In previous weeks we've been back in time 800 years and joined the Venetians in their hill fort at Monte Forte and 2,000 years with the last of the Minoans at their place in Praesos. This week we're going back over 20 million years into the geological past to a beach that you will no longer find in any good beach guide to Crete. Lift a little patch of this massive slab of rock with your fingers (which is surprisingly easy to do) and you can rub the sand away from the underside with your thumb. It's covered with various lichens on the surface but let's go up and see what plants have colonised the edges. Plenty of Heather, as you'd expect on a sandy soil, and down among the roots some beautiful little autumn flowering Narcissi. We also have some spherical heads of Alliums. Garlic, onion, chive and shallot are all Alliums and we have about fifteen different species growing wild here on Crete. As to which these are I'd have to check with our botanist friend, Steve Lenton who is a man who really knows his onions. I never could get the hang of them: when I was a young man I disappointed my future father-in-law by confusing his onions with his gladioli but in fairness his vegetable plot did abut his flower border.

We also have plenty of stones and rocks for flipping which, as you know, can keep me amused for hours. Oh look, our first beetle of the autumn. In fact, this is quite a rare one called Pimelia minos, which is endemic to this end of the island and fairly easy to recognise as his back has the appearance of avocado pear skin. I've only come across this species twice before; on Koutsounari beach and at Bramiana resevoir. Pimelia may be a rare species but he is one of a group of 20,000 or more Darkling Beetles that can be found worldwide very often in dark places such as under stones which gives them their common name. 







Now who do we have here pollinating our heather? This is one of the Tachinids, a rather bristly bunch of flies as you can see. They have a tendency to lay their eggs in the larvae of other insects, particularly the caterpillars of butterflies and moths, but some prefer adult beetles or their larvae so it's no wonder our Pimelia friend likes to spend his time hiding under rocks. So would I.











I've found some old bricks over here. Let's rummage. You've got some little orange dots moving about on the bottom of that one. Here, take the hand lens and tell me what you see. They're sort of peachy? Nice. How many legs have they got? A very small, eight legged creature with peachy skin. May I take a look? What you have there is a Red Velvet Mite, quite pretty in their own way but rather predatory when they are adults. In their earlier life stages however they are parasitic on other insects. I've just found another Pimelia over here and look what's nestling in the crook of his front leg, a little velvety orange dot. Poor old Pimelia, he's not safe anywhere.







Well, what do you think? Quite a lot of life for a bare stone slab isn't there? But there's another strange creature that I want to introduce you to and you'll be pleased to hear that it is best observed from a small taverna in the nearby village of Sikia. You'd have thought that with so many wonderful creatures in the world there would be no need to make them up but mythology is full of them such as that lovely mermaid over there. If you are crossing the Aegean in a boat you may meet up with Alexander the Great's sister, Thessalonike, who was turned into a mermaid after her death. If she asks after her brother tell her that he's alive and doing well. This seems to pacify her. If you tell her he's been dead for centuries she gets all upset and starts churning up the waters.

The Extra Bit

The trailcam has been busy photographing Great Tits and Italian Sparrows galore during the day but this little fellow appeared overnight. He's a Black Rat, Rattus rattus. I'm not too worried about the occasional Brown rat around the garden but I'm not so keen on having the black ones about. However, as the trailcam also picked up three different cats investigating the bird table at night it is hoped that he won't stick around too long.






Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. 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.

Picture 1 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 4 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Extra Bit Trail Camera RD1000

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
Share your nature thoughts, photos and comments on Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #25

In this week's #CreteNature blog we were looking at herbs but which is the correct pronunciation of the word 'herb'?

a) herb

b) 'erb

c) both are correct.


It all rather depends on when and where you lived. 'erb used to be the accepted pronunciation in England and it is still the accepted pronunciation in America. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the Brits decided that as the H was there it may as well be used and herb became the standard. So the answer is c) both are correct.

Not only were we discovering herbs or 'erbs this week but also butterflies, lizards and spiders with a bit of ancient history thrown in for good measure. Join us for our weekly wander around the idyllic Cretan countryside with this week's walk Further Back in Time to Praesos

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Further back in Time – to Praesos

Praesos archaeological site
A couple of weeks back we were overlooking the Venetian hill fort of Monte Forte and this week's little excursion takes us even further back in time to the Ancient town of Praesos. It's pretty well an old pile of stones now and nobody lives there but hopefully we'll find some wildlife. Well, here it is and it looks like we've got a hill to climb so I'll tell you what I know about the place on the way up. Two thousand two hundred years ago it was inhabited by the descendants of the Minoans and they were having a pretty hard time of it. This was because most of Crete had been taken over by the Dorians from mainland Greece and Praesos was one of the last outposts. These Dorians held Itanos to the north and Ierapetra to the south and Praesos finally fell to the Ierapetran Dorians in 155BC. Incidentally Praesos is also a genus of Geometer moths but as to why is a bit of a mystery as they are found in Australia I believe. 

When they weren't being attacked they lived pretty well. There were more animals about in those days including deer and boar which are no longer here and they farmed both livestock and crops. Roasted and stewed meats were both on the menu along with green vegetables and, looking around, they certainly seemed to have a wide variety of herbs to flavour things up with. Just in this small area I can see Sage, Fennel and even some Pot Marjoram. Such a redolent array is also very attractive to butterflies of course and I can see quite a number flitting about. Let's try to get on closer terms with some of them.

Wall Butterflies, Lasiommata megara
Hmm, voyeuristically close it would seem. These are a pair of Wall Butterflies,  doing what comes naturally. The female is underneath with her wings spread while the male is on top, facing backwards, with his wings closed (a position I doubt you'll find in the Kama Sutra). Often, when they are not mating, they hold their wings two thirds open on a flat surface (such as a wall which is how they got their common English name) in order to get the warmth from both direct and reflected sunlight. However, in the heat of the Cretan day you are as likely to find them sheltering in the shade.



Huntsman Spider, Eusparassus walckenaerius
Oh look, a little room. I wonder if there's anybody in? I've found someone under a stone in the corner – come and meet her. This lady (and I think that from her size we may assume that she's a lady) goes by the delightful name of Eusparassus walckenaerius and she and her kin are fairly common Huntsman Spiders here in Crete. I appreciate that if you are not fond of spiders then she may give you the heebie-jeebies and this is why you've just demonstrated the old stage direction 'exeunt omnes in divers alarums' (or something of that ilk) but she's an incredibly useful little predator. For one thing she'll take on some of the larger insects like cockroaches which none of us particularly want hanging about the house. Anyhow, I'll gently replace her stone and we'll see if we can find something a little cuter to have a look at.

Balkan Green Lizards, Lacerta trilineata
How about these fellows? You've got to love a lizard and they're darting about all over the place up here. These are Balkan Green Lizards and they are the largest lizards that you will find on Crete, or indeed, in Greece. Yes, I appreciate that they are rather small and brown but that is because they haven't grown up yet. When they do they will be big and bright green. Their scientific name is Lacerta trilineata, the trilineata bit referring to the three lines which you can clearly see when you look down upon them. When they mature and turn green you rather lose sight of these lines and the English name becomes more descriptive than the scientific one.

We are now at the top so it seems to be a good place to lounge with the lizards in the sunshine and admire the view. That's Sitia that you can see in the distance nestling on the shores of the Aegean.

The Extra Bit

It is about this time of the year that I start to feed the birds at home and this year I've set up the trailcam to record the various species and any other non avian visitors to the table. So far I've only had a trio of Great Tits and a handful of Italian Sparrows but it's early days yet. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Iris the Mediterranean Mantis is still clinging to the Fennel by the gate.







Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. 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.

Picture 1 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 2 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 3 Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 4 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 5 Nikon COOLPIX S33
Insets Canon EOS 1300D
Extra Bit pictures Trail Camera RD1000

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
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

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Steve's Nature Quiz #24

We are now well into the third season of the year but which is the most recent term for this period of the year?

a) harvest

b) autumn

c) fall

The Autumn Crocus, Colchicum pusillum
No trick question this week, if you said Fall then you'd be right (but it's a close run thing). Prior to the 1500s the term Harvest was used in England to mark the season between Summer and Winter and many European languages still use a variation of this word. Gradually in the 1500s Autumn, from the Latin autumnus took over in England and harvest began to change its meaning to the specific gathering in of crops. In the 1540s the phrase 'fall of leaves' also came into use but it wasn't until the 1660s that this was reduced to simply the Fall. Fall and Autumn battled it out and Autumn eventually won through in England. The colonists took both to America with them but Fall won through which is why the Americans refer to the season as the Fall whilst the English call it Autumn.

More Autumnal observations in this week's #CreteNature blog: Achladia (It's All Gone Pear Shaped)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Achladia (It's All Gone Pear Shaped)

Almond leaved Pear, Pyrus spinosa
From the springs of Paraspori it is a short hop to the village of Achladia which, in Greek, means pears which is as good a reason as any to stop by the side of the road and take a look at some wild ones. Now you may think that a pear is a pear is a pear but there are over twenty different species of wild pear to say nothing of the three thousand or so varieties that have been cultivated from just three of those species; Pyrus communis being the one we are most familiar with in Europe and America. This one however is not Pyrus communis but Pyrus spinosa, the Almond leaved Pear. One of the main differences between the two species, which I feel duty bound to point out before you finish filling your bag with them, is that these are not only inedible but toxic. Foraging is a delightful hobby but can be deadly. A golden rule should be Never assume that you can consume.

Grapevine, Vitis sp.
And now to a plant that is not only edible but deliciously quaffable when fermented and bottled. As far as I am aware there are no poisonous grapes but before you go a-snaffling have you checked that they haven't been sprayed with something unpleasant? Just a thought. We are now in the wine making area of Sitia where some of the best wines in Crete are produced (yes, we can try some later – in the spirit of research of course). Wine has been made on the island for maybe four thousand years [1] and Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos was fond of a glass or two with Dionysos and, seeing as he is the Greek God of wine, he should have known where to come for a good tipple. Everyone has a grapevine so lets take a closer look at this one straggling along the fence at the edge of the car park (grapevines are not fussy about where they grow).

Vine Hawkmoth, Hippotion celerio
Now here's a familiar face poking out from beneath this leaf, it's the caterpillar of a Vine Hawkmoth Hippotion celerio. At first glance one may think that this is a large eyed caterpillar with a ferocious stinger about to decimate the grape harvest but it's all smoke and mirrors. The eyespot is pure mimicry to confuse predators and has no physiological function at all. Similarly that stinger is purely decorative as well. Leastways no-one has found a function for it as far as I know – it certainly doesn't sting. In fact it is quite soft to the touch. All caterpillars of the hawkmoth family have them and in some countries they are known as hornworms (a misnomer as they are not worms at all of course). Finally, he's no great pest to the grapevine. If you remember I had one on my grapevine back in May which I named Jeremy. He ate seven leaves before he pupated and they soon grew back. Incidentally I promised to show him to you when he emerged but I'm not sure that I ever did so here he is. Splendid looking fellow isn't he?

Shield Bug egg cases




Now, what else do we have? This beautiful piece of geometric artwork on the underside of this leaf comes to us from our old friend the Shield bug. Each of these little cells contained a single egg with a provision of food from which emerged a miniature adult bug, albeit with different colouration to its final livery. I count about one hundred cases here, each with a tiny lid, and it would appear that about seventy of them hatched which isn't a bad success rate. I'll take them home and see if there are any late developers but don't hold your breath. I think that this clutch is done.






Hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
That seems to have exhausted the possibilities of this little vine so let's wander back through the village and have a quick look at the flowers. Many of the flowers that you see adorning the villages don't appear in Cretan flora guides for the simple reason that they are not native to the island. What you see here for instance (no, not the taverna) is an Hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis which is native to Africa and Asia. One of its more unusual local names in India and something similar in Indonesia is the Shoeblack plant as it is used by the street side shoe-shine boys in the pursuance of their trade. I must try it on my next annual shoe cleaning day. Meanwhile the taverna beckons and so I suppose we must go and research these local wines. It's a tough job but somebody has to do it.

The Extra Bit

I took those egg cases home but as I suspected no more shield bugs emerged. It did however give me a chance to examine them under the microscope and, as you can see, some of the bugs started to develop but didn't quite make it.









Meanwhile Iris is still clinging on to the fennel by the gate despite some wet and windy weather and managed to catch a hoverfly in mid air last week.



[1] History of Wine in Crete (with thanks to Dill Childs via Flowers of Crete for correcting my earlier assertion that wine had been produced on Crete for a mere 2000 years).



Photographic Bit

Many of you have asked me what photographic equipment I use so here's a quick rundown on the cameras used for each picture. 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.

Picture 1                   Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets                        Canon EOS 1300D
Picture 2                   Nikon Coolpix S33
Insets                        Konica Minolta
Picture 3                   Canon EOS 1300D, Konica Minolta
Insets
Picture 4                   Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Picture 5                   Canon EOS 1300D
Insets
Extra Bit pictures       Brunel Light Microscope SP-20, Nikon Coolpix S33

Pictures were edited with FastStone Image Viewer and combined with Microsoft Paint.




*********************************************************************
LINKS:
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