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Threatened beauty

“What about nature in Cyprus?” you might ask. “Where are the birds, the mammals?”
Let’s start with the most famous eye-catchers: the flamingos. South of Larnaca, in the salt lakes. Larges groups and easy to see.

Apart from the flamingos, the first few days I hardly saw any birds. Very disappointing. A few common stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) – don’t need to go to Cyprus to see them. This one showed up shortly after sunrise, in the early orange light.

I soon found out why I saw so few birds. They are afraid! It is quite dangerous to be beautiful. In Cyprus, people shoot. Right after my beach house, there was a small nature reserve with a salt marsh. Information panels proudly stated how special the vegetation was. There were huge signs: Nature conservation area. No Hunting! And right after these signs, you find the empty shells. One at least at every 20 meter. No wonder I didn’t see any birds. And the ones I did see – quite special, endemic species – kept well hidden and so far away, that it was pointless to try and take pictures. I do Like Cyprus, but the hunting and shooting – even in nature reserves! – is awful.

Lots of lizards though. For instance this rock agame near Aphrodite’s bath. Previously this reptile was considered a subspecies of Laudakia stellio, but DNA research showed that Cyprus truly has its own endemic species: Laudakia cypriaca.

And another lizard, Schreiber’s fringe-fingered lizard (Acanthodactylus schreiberi). Quite a lot of them – even saw one on the beach.

Lots of dragonflies as well here. For instance the globe skimmer (Pantala flavescens) – a species found all over the world, able to migrate many thousands of miles during the year.

So what about the mammals in Cyprus? Of course they are present, but very, very well hidden. In between the shells, the silent witnesses of hunting in nature conservation areas, I also found fresh footprints of roe deer. The kind of deer that I can see almost daily where I live, where hunting is largely banned, but that are invisible ghosts here.

With these final remarks, I close off with some shaky air during another stunning sunrise.

Aphrodite’s bath

According to the legends, there is a pond near Polis in the north of Cyprus where the goddess of love and fertility and beauty used to take her bath when she was tired after a long walk in the mountains. This is the place where she met Adonis, and both of them bathed together. Not really a waterfall, just a cave where small streams of water are dripping from the rocks in a tiny pond. Not allowed to go into the water nowadays. But we have touched the water and felt it flowing through our fingers.

The nicest way to enter Aphrodite’s bath is through the botanical garden of Polis. Lush vegetation, lots of birds singing… no wonder the goddess loved to walk here. But then, right across the street there was a good restaurant – cleverly named ‘Aphrodite’s bath’ – with a breathtaking view over coast. An excellent moussaka and this great view – is there anything more one could wish for?

Did I mention that we had the most beautiful sunrises? Every morning I woke up at six and took my coffee to the beach. Taking  a swim in the orange water, and watching the first runners passing by.

Aphrodite´s mercy

After the hailstorm Aphrodite showed her kindness. When we drove back along the coast, right at the place where according to the legends she had come ashore so long ago, she surprised us with a stunning sunset. Aphrodite’s rock, near Paphos, is a mythical place. It is said that if you swim around the rock, you will find true love. I’m afraid I only read that the next day…

Aphrodite’s rage

Was she angry? For three days already we were on the island and still had not visited her temple to pay her tribute. This was after all her island. Kronos, leader of the Titans, had castrated his tyrannical father Uranus and thrown his thingy in the sea. Then the water had started to fizz and out of the foam arose Aphrodite, goddess of love, sexuality, fertility and beauty.

On the way to her sanctuary we stopped at the remnants of the ancient city Koúrion. We barely had time to see it. Dark clouds descended from the Olympus, and a hailstorm came upon us so fiercely that it damaged the front window of our car. With the last hailstones still drumming on the car, we drove directly towards the holy temple of the Aphrodite near Paphos. Immediately her mood improved, for the dark clouds drifted to the sea and soon even the sun showed itself again.

Thousands of years ago this place had attracted people from all over the world: the Mediterranean sea with all its islands and many countries in Europe, the Middle-East and Africa. People attended ceremonies and made offerings. The Roman historian Tacitus described the altar and a sacred stone: “Blood may not be shed upon the altar, but offering is made only with prayers and pure fire. The altar is never wet by any rain, although it is in the open air. The representation of the goddess is not in human form, but it is a circular mass that is broader at the base and rises like a turning-post to a small circumference at the top. The reason for this is obscure.”

This was the very stone.

Aphrodite was also depicted in her human form. For the goddess of love and fertility and sexuality, an offer could be to sacrifice the own body as in ancient times, making love was seen as a sacred act.

This idea has roots that go back more than 7.000 years ago, to the Sumerian cult of Inanna. In Cyprus the first settlements dated from 3.300 year before Christ. In that time the Phoenician goddess of Astarte was worshipped, also a goddess of sexuality, fertility and war. In the Greek period, Astarte became Aphrodite, and the city of Paphos was known throughout the world for it’s parties, wine and prostitutes. The stone at this sanctuary never became Venus, as the Roman Emperor Theodosius I outlawed all pagan religions in the year 391 and the sanctuary of Aphrodite fell into ruins.

Partial eclipse of October 25, 2022

A few days ago I was on the ground with my nose in mushrooms. Today I looked up in the sky. I had completely forgotten about it: the partial eclipse. Fortunately a colleague sent a message: “It’s happening right now!”

I grabbed my camera and ran outside – just in time to see the moon at its maximum cover of one third of the sun.

Same picture twice, just a different crop.

Next show in the Netherlands is predicted in 2025. Already looking forward to it.

Magical mushroom shedding spores by night

I saw a group of fly agarics, very nice for a beautiful night portrait. But when I arrived at the site in the dark, they had disappeared, broken down. Maybe run over by dogs, maybe taken by passers-by, but gone.

Fortunately the flashlight showed a few nice specimens in a meadow along the path. I knelt in the grass, put the flashlight on the camera bag and started to set up my gear: small tripod under the camera, setting ISO / shutter speed / aperture, focus… and then I heard something buzzing and rustling in front of me.

“Must be a beetle!” I thought hopefully. It sounded like a big one. Also nice for a night photo!

The insect jumped to the light, and tried to sort of crawl into the flashlight.

Not a beetle, but a European hornet. Our largest native wasp, even larger than the so-called terror wasp, the Asian hornet. One of those whoppers that you can hear flying by like a helicopter. Immediately afterwards, a second one landed in the illuminated grass. That one also seemed very interested in the light.

European hornets are quite large in their own right, but I did not know that they grew even three times as large in the dark. And that each hornet split into several individuals during the night. That is to say, these two insects sounded like there were five or ten of them.

The first one became bored with the flashlight, and began to inspect my camera. The second one flew first to the light, then to my camera bag. I wondered how I could lie down and operate my gear without running the risk of accidentally grabbing an insect. And I wondered if these two would be the only ones. A memory came to mind: that time when I accidentally sat on the edge of a lake on top of a wasp’s nest in the ground, and after being stung twice in my leg had to run to avoid worse. And I remembered the articles I’d collected about dogs, hikers, and cyclists accidentally getting too close to a ground nest of European hornets and being attacked by an angry swarm. Then the first hornet decided to inspect me.

I turned off the light and took a little distance. And after a minute or so, when all movement and noise subsided, I carefully walked back to get my stuff and go home. No night photo of the fly agarics today.

I didn’t go back until two days later. And what I hoped for, succeeded this time: catching the spores being spread by the fly agaric. There is a lot of Photoshop in this photo, but the spores are really real! Wonderful to experience the magic of the forest this way.

I learned a few things. The fly agarics are always redder on the other side of the path. European hornets are three times larger at night than during the day, and split into several individuals at night. And for forest photography you sometimes need a little patience

Unknown territories (more ugly creatures)

So I went on this journey of discoveries. Into the unknown. Looking for flatworms…

You might think that in the Netherlands we know all about nature, and have discovered everything there is to be discovered. At least that was my assumption. But a few years ago two scientist went out to look for flatworms. Especially for the New Zealand flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulatus – Nieuw Zeelandse landplatworm) that was put on the European Union list of invasive alien species in 2019 as it is a predator of earthworms – the worms that we need to create fertile soils. Those of you who read The Hitchhikers’ guide to the Galaxy will recognise it’s scientific name 😊. Anyhow, apparently these creatures are so unattractive, that no one ever bothered to look at them or report any findings. There are bird groups, insect huggers and botanical twitchers, but there is not one single flatworm – society.

Fortunately, they didn´t encounter any New Zealand flatworms. But just few visits to zoos, greenhouses, botanical gardens and city backyards resulted in a handful of new species, never before recorded in the Netherlands. If you want the full background, look here.

Nobody cares for flatworms. And I can’t  blame anyone. They look like their relatives, the leeches. And I really, really dislike leeches.

This weekend we did a search party in a butterfly garden. Turning pots and bricks to see what lives beneath. Perfect conditions for flatworms: humid, warm, organic material and lots of tiny creatures crawling in and on the soil. I was very proud to find two individuals of the yellow-striped terrestrial planarian (Caenoplana bicolor or Caenoplana variegata – Grote Australische geelstreep). As the name indicates, it is alien to Europe (look here). Alien, but no threat to biodiversity so not classified as ‘invasive’.

To ease your mind and make you sleep well, I’ll end this story with one of the butterflies of the garden. Sheer beauty.

Ugly little plant


It´s not what you see. It never is.
It´s what you think you see.
 
This is an ugly little plant. You might think it is nice, with delicate flowers, but that is because I´m a great photographer (– cough! –). It has been in our family for sixty years. It is tiny, with small leaves and even smaller flowers, and after flowering it shrivels, dies and disappears again.

And then after a short while, it comes back alive.
As long as I can remember it has been in our house. My father made a little note that lies besides it: “No one ever said: ‘What a nice little plant!’ We don’t think much of it either.”
 
But it’s not  about what we see with our eyes. It’s what we see with our minds. It is a sole survivor of the flowers arrangements of my parent’s wedding. If I look at it, I see my parents wedding pictures. Amsterdam, black and white, sunny day and everyone radiating from happiness! A strong little fellow. It survived my mother, and it will probably survive my father as well. Who knows, it might even survive me…
 
I secretly took a cutting of it, and grew it at home. It needs little care, just a little light and a little water – not too much! It keeps on growing, flowering, dying and rising up again.
Look really, really close, and see how beautiful these tiny flowers are!
 
I do think it is a nice little plant after all