Dipping a Toe into the Natural History of Crete

A week ago, I begrudgingly returned home from a spur of the moment family holiday in Crete – a part of Europe I had yet to visit which, in retrospect, turned out to be rather beautiful. The week was marked by blissful temperatures, great food, a lively local culture and numerous excursions on foot to investigate the natural history of the rugged, olive-riddled land around Elounda.

As ever, birds formed the basis of most of my forays. The undisputed highlight of my time here comes from the countless Griffon Vultures noted high above the crags to the rear of our apartment. An undeniably awe-inspiring species which I will never tire of, joined on occasion by the odd Buzzard, Kestrel and, as the week drew to a close, a Golden Eagle lazily riding the thermals thrust upwards from the crumbling limestone escarpment. I am led to believe that Golden Eagles are not all that abundant on the island, thus I am quite happy with this one.

Elsewhere, multiple trips into the tightly-packed olive growths carpeting the land around Elounda provided some welcome sightings. A small flock of European Beeater, kaleidoscopic in the midday sun; a pair of Red-backed Shrike, multiple Blue Rock Thrush and a healthy number of both Crested Lark and Sardinian Warbler. Species one would struggle to encounter in the UK. Although, that said, more familiar species were abundant also: the gnarled old trees, rife with succulent purple fruits, teeming with Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warbler, Great Tit, Goldfinch and House Sparrow – at least some of which turned out the be Italian Sparrow. The persistent kronking of Ravens overhead, a welcome soundtrack to the week’s sweaty wanders.

A further highlight came from the swirling mixed flocks of hirundines and swifts noted early each day in the skies above the resort. Familiar species, House Martin and Barn Swallow, mixed with the less familiar shapes of Crag Martin and Red-rumped Swallow. As for the swifts, it was lovely to finally gain good views of Alpine and Pallid Swift.

Scrutinising the botanical community of the local area, it was interesting (if a little troubling) to note the sheer abundance of invasive species present within what was a relatively small corner of the island.  Prickly Pear, Opuntia ficus-indica, and fearsome looking Eve’s-pin Cactus, Austrocylindropuntia subulata, added an element of peril to walks in rocky areas; whilst sprawling drifts of Hottentot Fig, Carpobrotus edulis, carpeted the ground in more shaded locations. Add to these no end of Century Plant, Agave americana, naturalised Hibiscus and Aloe Vera and the problems facing this Mediterranean Island become quite clear. The sheer domination of invasive species here is further emphasised by the presence in a wild setting of three species familiar from my own living room: Jade, Crassula ovata, Mother of Thousands, Bryophyllum daigremontianum, and African Milk Tree, Euphorbia trigona.

I should note that I did also find time to enjoy some native botanicals, albeit those that had not yet withered beyond recognition due to lack of rainfall. A personal favourite coming from the curious looking Exploding Cucumber, Ecballium elaterium.

Exploding Cucumber (Ecballium elaterium)

Moving on to the insect life present in close proximity to our temporary abode and as far as butterflies go, pickings were surprisingly slim. The most abundant species being Painted Lady, closely followed by the stunning Swallowtail. The smaller blues, warmed and energised by the persistent sun, were far too quick to identify, unfortunately. Although, multiple run-ins with Hummingbird Hawk-moth more than made up for this. As did my first encounter with the Cretan Cicada, Cicada cretensis.

Generally speaking, insects were few and far between on Crete. By far the most prevalent, at least in terms of biomass, were the hornets which, despite spreading fear among the ranks of the countless tourists beached around the pool, proved far from intimidating. Initially, I had assumed these were European Hornet; although upon closer inspection, they turned out to be Oriental Hornet, Vespa orientalis. A new species for me and one whose European distribution is limited only to Greece and other nations in the Southeast.

The abundance of hornets in the area was matched only by that of the aptly named Black-and-Red-bug, Lygaeus equestris. A species which managed to find its way everywhere: from inside our room, to inside my glass of Ouzo on more than one occasion. Numbers, however, are not everything and an honourable mention goes to the large, impressive and extremely vivid Socalid Wasp pictured below. I confess that I have not been able to identify this species. Any thoughts?

These are only a few observations from what was a holiday intended not as a ‘nature expedition’ but as an opportunity to relax and catch up with family. As I am sure readers of this blog will testify, however, it is difficult not to at least try to observe wildlife when travelling abroad. I, for one, am quite satisfied with the variety of life unearthed in the vicinity of Elounda, particularly given my inability to travel further afield, and would very much like to revisit the island in the future. This time, with the express intent of observing and enjoying the more iconic species that call Crete home.

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