Tilos: wildlife at your feet

WARNING: this is a long blog, take care if you have a short attention span or if you suspect that your demise is imminent !

I have been a long-time proponent of walking in sandals in Greece.  Probably the same considerations apply in other Mediterranean countries but Greece I know best.  One advantage which is relevant here is that you need to pay more attention to foot placement rather than ploughing along in leather boots …………. so you see more stuff scurrying for cover.

But even before I set foot on a path, ‘nature’ came to my doorstep.  Literally!  I was enjoying a coffee on the small lower terrace of my apartment (I don’t want to sound posh but I have a lower and an upper terrace, the former affording shade and the upper, on the roof of the apartment in front, enjoying unparalleled views of the bay …. I think that is the longest parenthesis I have ever written!) when a house sparrow flew onto the low wall at the edge, dived onto the terrace and started very skilfully and quickly dismembering a large winged beastie.  Wings stripped off in a nanosecond with a deft sideways swipe of the beak then meaty bit deftly picked out with a few quick pecks and the husk discarded.  Newly hatched (or whatever the correct term is) cicadas were being picked up as they dug themselves out of the ground and sparrows were having a feast,  flying in at frequent intervals.  I counted them out and I counted them back in (acknowledgement to Brian Hanrahan’s famous Falklands coverage).

This happened every few minutes and the terrace was becoming littered with corpses … and with sparrow shit.  I thought my terrace may soon rival Chile for production of guano the way it was going.  Except that the corpses were moving.  The husks and the wings were being picked up and moved off by ants even before the sparrow had finished snacking.  The ants seemed to clear anything organic including spiders.

I hesitate to confide this but the ants were also observed clearing away toe nail clippings before they were properly off my toe!!!!!  Purely in the interests of scientific experiment you understand, I made a small collection of nail clippings in one corner of the terrace and by the time I returned from my evening meal they had all gone.  I’m now working on a scientific publication with the working title ‘Predeliction of Tylian ants for cicada hatchling husks and toenail clippings”.   The Royal Society has expressed no interest but I’m hopeful of a positive response from the Royal Slovenian Journal (the RSJ, a heavyweight publication on the fringes of scientific enquiry).  But as it’s work in progress, let’s not go there now.

Wings removed, body being reduced to a husk

Wings removed, body being reduced to a husk

Ants come and carry off the leftovers

Ants come and carry off the leftovers

This spider not to the bird's taste so ants get the lot

This spider not to the bird’s taste so ants get the lot

Instead let’s get down to the real wild life.

Goats have already been covered.  Just to confirm that they are beyond agricultural control on Tilos and therefore truly ‘wild’.  A conservative estimate seems to put numbers at a minimum of 7,000 and possibly as many as 10,000 …….. all on about 61 hectares of island with a resident human population of 200.  As a ratio that handsomely beats new Zealand’s 60 million sheep to 3 million people.

The island has taken a very strong nature conservation position and is a designated Nature Park. Shooting birds, specifically a type of  small rock partridge known as a ‘chukka’, is prohibited, unlike some islands where in September blood-lust and gun culture is very evident.  It is therefore surprising that the numbers of chukkas on Tilos is this year significantly reduced.

They are pretty stupid birds which, if truth be told, deserve to be shot.  They are amazingly well camouflaged in the low growing thorn scrub, totally invisible, yet choose to fly off en flock in a panic if you approach within about 20 feet.  This panic flight is all too obvious simply because they are lumbering birds with a rapid, heavy wing beat but that is compounded by a panicky shriek as they fly …. and they fly straight in front of you going downwards.  Because they always fly off at least 10 or more at a time even the most incompetent or inebriated hunter is guaranteed to hit something.

The chicken and egg thing gets complicated here.  For many years there has been a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles nesting/roosting in one of the crags overlooking Livadia Bay (photos on previous years’ blog) but this year they have gone.  One of their food sources has been chukkas.  Have they eaten the chukkas to the point where there is nolonger a sufficient supply of food?  Or has the reduction in chukka numbers, perhaps from virus infection, forced them to seek happier hunting grounds?

I propound here another theory for the apparent reduction of chukkas, with no scientific support whatever, that it’s all down to natural selection.  Think hedgehogs.  Time was that British roads were littered with squashed hedgehogs which saw approaching cars, froze with fear and got run over. At one time the number of dead hedgehogs seemed to outnumber cats’ eyes and there were even Dead Hedgehog Crisps, (apparently no hedgehogs were harmed in their production, nor indeed were any cats). The ones which survived were the ones which instinctively ran and escaped the two tonnes of rapidly approaching metal mayhem and now this genetically advantaged group make up most of the hedgehog population.  Maybe there are unseen flocks of chukkas which cleverly don’t panic at the sight of predators but stay hidden, camouflaged by inactivity.  I like to think that there are large colonies of them scurrying unseen around the mountains.

Now a few photos. I’m a walker who photographs what I see, not  a photographer who walks to get ‘The Shot’.  So, to get back to sandals, I try to tread lightly and what I photograph is usually at my feet or in close proximity.  The photos below are  just a few of the beasties seen in the last two weeks.  I’m not  a zoologist either so most of what I see is only identified generically, not specifically.

Lizards are a fairly common sight though difficult to photograph because they generally sense the vibration of your approach and dart off into some dark hole.  Occasionally they aren’t quick enough and freeze when they spot that they have been spotted.  Occasionally if you sit still in the shade for long enough they will come out to play.

Canon S100 in hand meant I could photograph this chap before it darted off into thew wall

Canon S100 in hand meant I could photograph this chap before it darted off into thew wall

The resolution was good enough to crop and see more detail

The resolution was good enough to crop and see more detail

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One of the smaller lizards which seem to be in fewer numbers this year

While I was sitting under a shade tree Liz came out among the pine cones

While I was sitting under a shade tree Liz came out among the pine cones

..... became suspicious as I crept closer

….. became suspicious as I crept closer

..... jumped up on top of a low wall

….. jumped up on top of a low wall

..... and crossed to the other side before darting down and out of sight

….. and crossed to the other side before darting down and out of sight

Dragonflies I have a always associated with ponds and wetland but I have seen them here on arid, rocky mountain tops.  For some reason they often seem to perch on the top of dry sticks as if they using them as drinking straws. I have no idea what this behaviour is.

Where I would expect to see it, on reeds by a spring

Where I would expect to see it, on reeds by a spring

.... and then down next to the water

…. and then down next to the water

At the highest point on an arid mountain

At the highest point on an arid mountain

13Tilos071w0130jpg

Nothing but blue sky beyond

What do they do with those sticks?

What do they do with those sticks?

Perched right on the top

Perched right on the top

Ravens are easily distinguishable from the far more numerous hooded crows as soon as they open their beaks, the deep ‘croink’ being a dead giveaway even when flying high overhead and only visible in silhouette.  On the ground they are distinguished by being significantly larger and not having a grey back but uniformly rich black.

Maximum 200x zoom with my SLR and cropped around the ravens

Maximum 200x zoom with my SLR and cropped around the ravens

Just enough resolution to zoom in more and see that the lead bird is carrying a lizard

Just enough resolution to zoom in more and see that the lead bird is carrying a lizard

Butterflies flit around and make difficult targets for the camera unless you take time.

Flitting around on top of the mountain

Flitting around on top of the mountain

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2 Responses to Tilos: wildlife at your feet

  1. Chris says:

    Some excellent photos Barry, and a particularly interesting blog.

  2. chrisange says:

    Lovely photos! Would imagine the clippings would make good arch doorways!

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