Thursday, 13 June 2013

A naturalists holiday

Well, as some of you may know, for the last couple of weeks I've been incredibly busy sunning myself on Kos, a little Greek island not far from Turkey. However, it's not all been sun, sea, sand and sangria. Oh no, much to the amusement of my family, I've been busy bug hunting too. Yes, they have rolled around in fits of laughter as I've run around trying to catch (unsuccessfully) Swallowtail butterflies, creeping up on Egyptian grasshoppers and I've also had them shrieking and running away like big girlies when trying to show them cute little mole crickets (well I think they're cute anyway).

The preparation

I prepared myself for the journey by trying to pack only the essentials any good naturalist would need without the wifey getting suspicious of my intentions. I even managed to smuggle the bat detector into my bag without her knowledge, however, trying to find out ANY information on Greek bats or bats in Kos was next to impossible. I was also considering buying a portable moth trap and smuggling that over with me, but I thought best not to push it too far! So, I bagged my insect net, some specimen tubes, an eye glass and a general nature book for the area, for which, after many hours of trawling the internet looking for such a book I came across this one:

This is not the book you're looking for.
Now when I started getting into natural history I had the british version of this book and it proved very helpful on many an occasion. In fact, although hardly used nowadays, it's still on my bookshelf and gets the odd flick through occasionally. So, when I saw this and it being the only thing near to what I was looking for, I bought it. It's OK-ish, some of the photos are pretty pointless as they don't show enough detail to give a proper ID. However, the problem with this book is that, unlike the British version, the Mediterranean is a HUGE area and is such a diverse area as well, that it's impossible to cover in just one book! In fact, this book really should be had up under the trade descriptions act. Complete Guide to Mediterranean Wildlife. Hmm, I don't know if anyone's told Collins, but there really is a lot of wildlife in the Mediterranean area. In my first week alone I came across many common insects that were not in this book. At least 2 species of bird were also not present, I can't tell which birds they were as they weren't in the book! The guide to bats was pretty pointless too, unless you were actually catching the bats to hold in the hand to ID. There was no reference given as to what frequencies the bats listed echolocated at. Although, saying that, I only recorded two species of bat, a common pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus and an unknown one being either a Nathusius pipistrelle P nathusii or possibly a Long-fingered bat Myotis capaccinii. I'm thinking it may be the former, but you'll have to wait until I've studied the recording in more detail.
As I mentioned, before I left for Kos, I trawled the net looking for details on Greek bats but found little info and the same can be said for Greek moths too. But, I have a cunning plan which I'm working on, so watch this space.
Anyway, I wasn't going to stop this lack of information in the 'information age' stop me from enjoying a wonderful 2 week break with the wifey and family. Our accommodation was a 5 minute walk from the beach in the middle of some farmland next to a rather large (dry) drainage ditch. That might not sound too pleasant to some, but to be honest, it wasn't that bad. It was quiet, no other screaming holiday makers children around, plenty of wildlife in the form of skylarks over the fields and warblers in the ditch and we could see the sea, in fact we could also see Turkey on the other side of the sea, so no complaints about the view either. The first thing any naturalist would notice on arrival, was the amount of Roesel's Bush crickets about, loads of them. Three different types of ant, all of three different sizes and not one of them in the book and quite a lot of garden type snails. There were swifts and swallows a plenty whizzing around in the skies above us and many butterflies flitting back and forth too, I was in heaven :)

Creatures of the night!

The night soon fell and after liberally slapping on the mosi repellent all over we sat down for some dinner outside. I left the bat detector on to see what it would pick up and it wasn't long before Common pips started passing overhead on the way to feeding grounds. There were also quite a few moths gathering around the outside light, but without a guide, I had no real idea as to what species they were.
Every night was pretty much the same when we ate outside at our apartments. I was under strict instructions from the wifey that when we ate out at restaurants, I was not, under any circumstances, allowed to jump up to chase/investigate/point at or comment on any passing insect that may fly by, crawl past or land next to me. This was very hard at times, especially when I saw a hawkmoth fly into the restaurant, over our table and out the other side.
But there were plenty more creatures to see on the way home including this wonderful Pine Chafer:

Polyphylla fullo The actual picture is better than this (bar the dodgy focus),
but Blogger seems to be playing up and squashing some of my pictures!

This chafer is easily twice the size of our Cock chafer's back home, but still just as grippy with their little hook type feet. There was also an added bonus with these fellows too. When I tried to pick them off my hand, they would hunker down gripping even more and then 'hiss' at me! Cool! Beetles with attitude!
Another insect of the night that would often be found scampering around on the tiled floor outside our apartment was a mole cricket Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa.

Mole cricket G gryllotalpa taken by the Father-in-law.
This cricket is a fascinating insect who's front legs have evolved into powerful spade like instruments that allow it to dig through the earth.

A close up of the adapted front legs.

Another view to give an idea of scale.
Apparently, there is a small population of these in Oxfordshire which most likely arrived into the country via potted plants. Again showing how non-native insects get into the country through our governments non-existent biosecurity measures. The mole cricket is quite common in Europe, but rare in the UK.

Another interesting insect that I wanted to get a closer look at was the Swallowtail butterfly Papilio machaon. These occur in the UK but only in East Anglia. I think I saw one once, many years ago when I lived on a boat on the broads. But I was chugging along and was unable to stop to investigate. However, out here in Greece, they were passing me every 5 minutes along the dried up drainage ditch. this ditch seemed to be a haven for many insects as it provided a vegetation walled corridor that sheltered all within from the winds that blew across the open farmland. One morning, I was up early and decided to investigate the ditch. I came across plenty of Skippers Thymelicus sp, Common Blues Polyommatus icarus, Gatekeeper's Pyronia tithonus. There were also some large Harvestmen that I kept coming across, but again, they wasn't in the book so I can't tell you what species they were.
Lizards were also in abundance and I managed to spot a beautiful coloured Balkan wall lizard Podarcis taurica, an Agama Agama agama and a small Gecko which was far too fast for me to identify. 
Getting a look at the Swallowtail however, was going to be hard as they just don't stop. They are continually flitting all over the place. But my luck was in on one particular day when it was quite windy. My good old father-in-law spotted a swallowtail clinging to a bush and knowing I wanted a closer look, he crept up and gently placed his hands around it a brought it to me. Excellent!

Swallowtail butterfly. Rather worn and past its best, but it was blowing a
gale outside, poor thing.

Here's some pictures of other butterflies I spotted, which I must also add, that if it wasn't for my good friend Matt Berry of Greenwing's, I'd still be struggling to ID them.

Loew's Blue Plebejus loewii

Common blue P icarus

Wall Brown Lasiommata megera

Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli

All about the observation

So as you can imagine, I'd seen quite a lot of foreign wildlife by now. But the wildlife I wanted to get to know more about was the one that was much harder to see, bats. Yes, until now, the good old (well, new actually) bat detector was only picking up Common pips, yet according to the (now dubious) book, there were a few more species about. Problem is, the book doesn't really say where I'd find these species. Doesn't even say what islands/areas these species are in, so I took the good old naturalist/adventurer approach and went off in search of bats. As I lacked any proper means of transport, my area of searching was limited, I was also unsure of Greek trespass laws and didn't want to find myself on the wrong side of the law (not that I had actually seen any police during the 2 week period). So I more or less kept to the main road that run by the beach. It also passed by some marshy reed bed areas which were full of the noisiest frogs I've ever heard as well as a strong population of mosquitos. However, the bats were nowhere to be seen/heard. Except for one bat that passed nearby on the beach and it's echolocation calls were similar to a common pip except lower in frequency, suggesting it was possibly a Nathusius pip. I did say earlier it could be a Long-fingered bat, but on second thoughts, that's a Myotis species and their call structure is somewhat different to that of a pipistrelle (please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on that one).
So, with no other bats in sight I wandered back to the accommodation to see the 45's whizzing past and watched them as they flew over the open farmland into the distance. It was then I suddenly realised that back home in the UK, our bats (pips especially) like to follow linear structures such as hedgerows, tree lines, etc. But here, there are no linear structures, no hedgerows or tree lines or walls and the bats were flying 10-15ft off the ground in the open. There were owls about and I often saw a kestrel flying till quite late, yet the bats flew in their same winding, weaving way as if the lack of cover, didn't bother them. Yet, back home, the destruction of hedgerows was linked to the decline in bats by marooning them in the middle of vast swathes of agricultural land. Are there any bat evolution experts out there who can help explain why these bats of the same species have adapted in one part of the world to fly in the open, yet not in the other?

Just for fun

Yes, just for the fun of it, I have a little competition for you. Can anyone identify this cricket I found up in the mountains of Kos? 

What species of cricket is this?

Like I say, it's just for fun, there are NO PRIZES.

That's all for now, but there'll be plenty more to tell next time.

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