Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sites: Kareas, Mount Hymettos, Athens

April 25th 2012. Walk with students up a hillside on Mount Hymettos, near the Monastery of Agios Ioannis of Kareas. It took us just a 15 minute taxi ride to get hear from the center of Athens. There is nature here. Simple, diverse, and an outdoor classroom for the students of Collage Year in Athens. All we needed were two hours - a simple loop walk. Some snapshots from our walk follow...

Start of the walk just beyond the Monastery - bright sun at about 17:00. 

A Euphorbia acanthothamnos - Greek Spiny Spurge. A typical plant of the Greek phrygana scrublands. 

Aleppo Pine forest. Woods existed on the mountain in the past - but the recent forests were planted after WWII. 

We studied the differences inside the forest. If felt different. Under rocks we say huge centipedes, spiders, some-one found a tortoise shell. We could have searched more. 

Beyond the forest was a huge burn - a recent fire had swept through. But it was full of life and regeneration. 
An amazing view of the city from the near-silence of the hills. The city is like a sea of buildings - and inside that sea are small parks and hillocks - islets.

Another spurge: Red Spurge Euphorbia characias. Exotic-looking but native.  Actually very few non-indigenous plants grow in this species-rich hillside.
Close look at the flowers - they vaguely resemble a Poinsettia's because they are both in the Euphorbia family. 
A delicacy: Wild Asparagus grows in the scrublands. We chose not to eat this specimen. Constraint is good. 

We climbed up above the city-scape. Higher up some plants were in full flower - the Asphodel.
Asphodel is one of the most widespread plants in the Phrygana and within the pine woods. This is a plant in the Lily Family - typical lily flowers. 

My friend, the Forester and Artist Vassilis Hatzirvassanis joined  us and helped guide us. Here he helped explain details  of the fire history of these slopes.

Successive fires leave a patchwork of woods, regenerating pine thickets, phrygana and  evergreen scrub thickets. If the pine tree-lets are burned before their cones mature they will not regenerate and scrubland will take over. 

Vegetation  dresses up the landscape - its alive and dynamic. People should accept fire - and its affects on the Mediterranean landscape: its not all that bad. And there is so much diversity because of fire! 
Helichrysum is a kind of 'Everlasting'growing on the dry rocky soils.  Many of the really most spectacular plants I did not photograph. It was like a rock gardent - but totally wild...

We saw a huge number of plnats in flower - some are special because they are scarce or are found only in a small part of Greece. This thistle - Centaurea raphanina is endemic to Greece.

Hatzirvassanis explain how the flower of Jerusalem Sage is pollinated. Ingeniously set brush on the flower dusts the  insect with pollen. 

A grasshopper. There were many insects out today about -mostly bees and wasps; only a very few butterflies. 

We sat on the forest floor on our descent. We contemplated what this place would have looked like 100 years ago. Beneath us was an old stone-built terrace, and land on this soil was cultivated - orchards, vinyeards right beside the monastery. 

Today its a forest. And most people may consider it static - it is ever-changing just like any cultural landscape in the Mediterranean. 

I think we had a nice day. Back at the parking lot of the Monastery at exactly 19:00. That's all it takes. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cyprus: Exploratory River Survey

Mid April 2012.

Having spent ten days surveying rivers and wetlands in Cyprus, I think I should start off by explaining what I do. I want to inform friends and students of Natural History on aspects of our team's method. Obviously, this is not a scientific paper or report, I'll just try to briefly explain part of the day-job, the intrigue, the fascination we have with nature exploration in inland waters. 

Firstly, "exploratory field survey"' is nowadays a very scarce experience in Europe. It is the kind of survey where your team is the FIRST to search-out something specific over an extensive area for the FIRST time. Its pioneering Natural History survey. In Cyprus our team and associated local researchers  search for the following:

  •  Fish in inland waters: There is no published or layman's report on any report of any kind on the inland waters ichthyofauna of Cyprus (excluding our team's recent interim reports for this specific project!). Cyprus is said to have about 20 species of fish; most are non-indigenous. One of the island's rarest, most threatened and most mysterious vertebrates is a fish (the River Blenny). 

  • Amphibians: Although the island has only three anuran species, their ecology and specific distributions have not been well studied; and there is still poor knowledge of their habitat requirements besides other basic natural history aspects. Of course, they have never been used as environmental indicators of any sort on Cyprus. 

  • Wetlands: Natural or artificial wet inland habitats where shallow waters, or periodic flooding create conditions with wetland vegetation or wet/wetland soils are biodiversity oases in a dry island such as Cyprus. A broader definition would include temporary lakes and ponds, or pooling shallow waters of any kind, small temporarily wet patches of ground, even shallow marine embayments and lagoon-like transitional waters of all kinds. No completed inventory of Cyprus wetlands exists. 

  • Stream or River Condition: This refers to the ecological state or integrity or generally the health of rivers and streams. Cyprus is obligated by the EU to assess all its stream water bodies using environmental (and biological) indicators. Generally, because the "rivers" of Cyprus are mostly intermittently flowing, most past researches didn't consider them "rivers" at all, and this issue is very poorly researched. Also the former or near-natural state of these rivers is poorly understood. What is a natural river in a land with such humanized landscapes - and so many modern dams (108 dams!!!). 
Doing field research is unique here due to Cyprus' peculiar geo-political and historical situation. Cyprus is located in the Middle East but it joined the EU in 2004. Before that, inland waters research was totally anthropocentric: few considered biodiversity in the waters. Cyprus has been through a lot of troubles - there is pain here. The island-state could maybe be excused for re-locating its international airport on a major wetland after its normal airport became dysfunctional when the country was invaded by the Turkish Armed Forces in 1974. Generally the main issue for the Republic during the last few decades has been dealing with a de facto divided-state situation and managing a myriad problems related to this disturbing un-resolved international conflict. Cyprus is difficult to navigate for a Greek national like myself: About 37% of the northern part of the island is like an "occupied territory" under a self-proclaimed Turkish administration recognized only by Turkey; 6% of the country is in a UN-controlled Buffer Zone (known as the "Dead Zone" by Greek Cypriots), and large areas are within British Sovereign Military Bases and associated installations. Oftentimes, working in the field here feels like being near a war zone - a "cold-war" feeling can be pervasive. 

So what am I doing on Cyprus? Basically I'm fortunate enough to be working on a government-funded project exploring aquatic nature here. In this work, the priority is to explore the potential for assessing river ecological conditions using fishes as environmental indicators. Our team includes prestigious Portuguese scientists also; and we work with many many locals... In fact without the local inhabitats, both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot naturalists and students we would have been completely lost. Often locals come along to help us. The day-to-day river survey calls for carrying with us a load of sampling equipment, nets, boots, protocol field sheets - all packed into a huge 4X4 jeep. We use Google Earth and a GPS Navigator a lot to find potential survey sites. When we locate a representative site on a river - we "electrofish" a typical stretch of the river (usually about 100-200 meters segment walking upstream). We catch-release nearly all organisms - but some fish are sacrificed for lab investigations back in Athens. We record many parameters in this stretch of river: In-stream habitat and riparian condition, and some other mega-wildlife species, especially amphibians, reptiles and the Cypriot freshwater crab. And we record anthropogenic pressures - damage to the environment at the site and river segment scale. All this takes time - roughly about two hours per site. Since NO ONE has ever done this before on Cyprus, it is totally exploratory - which means at many sites we don't know what we will encounter. Often times, there are exciting moments: getting totally lost, treating small injuries, extricating ourselves from impenetrable reed-cane thickets, being swept away by a river, trying to avoid land-mines near hostile territory....and finally, finding a lot of fascinating wildlife. 

Photos below are from the mid-April 2012 trip where the water levels and flow were at a remarkably high state - this happens probably every 15 years or so on the island - a special year.  And finally we found eels in many places...
Kryos near Kouris Dam.

Avakas stream in the Akamas.

Small rivulet pushing through Pissuri Beach.

Searching for Eel under a bridge - Tremithos - no luck!

Carp at Moni quarry pit.
Using the fry net on a rainy day at Diarizos rivermouth!

Chapotami Rivermouth on a lovely April afternoon.

With DFMR team at the Ezousas - mid April river was huge.

Germasogeia River below the Dam in Mid April - water flowing and eels present!

Pouzi river mouth near Larnaka.
With Haris exploring Oroklini, near Larnaka.

Ioulianos and Kostas from DFMR - they helped lots.

Amazing situation of the Kouris trickling towards the sea.

Fish farm ditch near Kouklia with Eel presnt!

Chapotami flowing to the sea - many eels upstream found.

Fry net catch at Moni stream - mugilids and Sea Bass.

A small stream near Moni - flowing to the sea!

Beach pool fed by Avakas stream - eels do enter...

Tremithos - no fishes here!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Contemplations: Anticipating Cyprus

The spectacular creature known as Macrovipera  lebentina  cypriensis, or Cyprus Blunt-Nosed  Viper. One of the most misunderstood and hated denizens on the island. We encountered this largish specimen last May in the Pafos Forest while sampling for fishes in Cyprus' streams.

I am preparing for a survey trip to Cyprus focusing on fishes, rivers, wetlands. Packing checklist in hand: Electrofisher, binocs, guides, notebooks, fry-nets, field forms. When Spring comes - we, the lucky few professional naturalists get prepared. We will be out there - what an exciting feeling. We'll explore. We'll try to do things that will both get research done and hopefully help conservation on the ground. I think its the best job in the world. My current project on the island is studying fishes as indicators of the ecological quality of rivers -a complicated concept that certainly touches on managing nature's waters. I've seen so much, learned so much; and hope I can share the wonder... Thank You Cyprus. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sites: Philopappos Hill Athens

Philopappos Hill provides one of the most spectacular views in Western Civilization. Here we explore the vegetation- no mention made of the monuments.

Monday Class, April 2nd 2012. Our CYA students climbed up Philopappos Hill, located opposite of the Acropolis of Athens . The objective was to apply a rapid assessment vegetation study of the field layer.  The field layer relates to the grasses and forbs on the ground - below the trees. Actually all trees here have been planted - so this aspect of the vegetation should help gain a better appreciation of urban greenery. We do things like this as a field lab projects. The parks are our outdoor classrooms. After being instructed, the students were off  - working hard and learning to observe and interpret. This was a rapid study - we ascended from the Acropolis Metro station at 16:50 and were back at 18:15. Good class.
The lower part of the hill was plated primarily with pines, olives and cypress, but soil conditions where degraded, rocky arid-like soil after centuries of  grazing, rock-flinching, burning, wood-cutting. These trees are over 60 years old but very thin and brittle-looking. 

Protocol in hand, how to choose a site to survey? Representative patch attributes after surveying of the general area helped. Much of this lower site was trampled.
The lower site was full of Stinging Nettle! Damper micro-habitat under the trees. Species poor under the tree!  Its still just like a plantation - I think it would look better as phrygana (with scattered trees). 
We climbed to the top of the hill in 10 mins. flat. A brisk walk - warm,sunny, green. Lots of grassy areas mainly with oats and barley - many hues of green in the field layer. However I was surprised at the low species richness - few flowers for peak blooming time!
Gynandriris sisyrinchium is an Iris that flourishes in parts of the tiny steppe-like patches in the openings of the planted trees on top of Philopappos Hill. 
Gynandriris sisyrinchium is called colloquially by gardeners as "Barbary Nut". The neat thing about it is that it flowers in the late afternoon. So if you go walking at mid-day you'll often see none!
Variety of short grasses and forbs on the hill-top beside the monument. We interpreted that human trampling probably affects the patchy pattern of the field layer here. I saw a painted butterfly here - some students found beetles; and I assume a lot of the dead snails were predated upon by beetles. So there is life here. 
I was surprised at how lush the vegetation was and how green but generally, on other hills in Athens (such as Tourkovounia Hills) the species-richness is much higher. 
I can bet that these carefully positioned marble ruins (from classical times) are a great habitat for skinks, centipedes, millipedes, maybe even a snake. 
Another view of the heavy ancient marble slabs - an interesting landscape element - good for wildlife that can hide in the crevices around them.
Paved pathway built after Pikionis' design in the 1950s. This kind of stone work is to be seen primarily  around the Acropolis and on this hill and is a masterpiece of park-scaping worldwide.