Herpetofauna of Europe : crete - greece (june 2009)
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Herpetological trip to Crete
19th - 29th of June 2009

All pictures (c) of Jeroen Speybroeck.

While relatively poor in species, Greece’s largest island attracted us with its endemics. Embarking on a late season trip, we expected snake hunting to be rather difficult, which partly proved to be true. Nevertheless, all 17 species of the Cretan herpetofauna were seen (4 amphibian and 13 reptile species), including 2 exogenous species and a marine one. All but one (Zamenis situla) were caught and/or photographed in the wild. Previous to our trip, Ilias had arranged for a small boat to take us to the tiny Pori islet, off Antikythira. However, unusual wind spoiled this. Thus, we had to keep Podarcis levendis, the endemic wall lizard, for a later date. Besides that, the trip turned into yet another enjoyable Greek adventure with some memorable highlights. Our rather late timing coincided with the start of the nesting season of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta), which provided some unforgettable observations.
Also the Cretan dragonflies received our attention. Usually out and about in April or May, we tend to travel too early for nice dragonfly finds, but going there in June allowed for some interesting observations. We found 19 species, including 2 endemic ones.
Our team: Jan, Gijs, Peter, Anniek, Ilias (our Greek friend - see Symi report) and me.
Many thanks to David Vuylsteke, Lasse Bergendorf, Benny Trapp, Matt Wilson, Panagiotis Kasapidis and Petros Lymberakis for info on observation sites and more. Also thanks to Jean-Pierre Boudot and Geert De Knijf for dragonfly help.


overview of prospected sites


June 19th - Agia and Kourna

Ilias had flown in to Iraklion, where he picked up our rental car and then drove to Chania, where we landed shortly afterwards. Not very far from Chania airport, we explored the Agia artificial lake. Once a water frog paradise, it is now completely invaded by American Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus). Another exogenous species here is the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), while the autochtonous Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) is still numerous. Ilias caught our first snake, a Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata). In a small ruin, the first Ocellated Skinks (Chalcides ocellatus) were found. During the hike along the lake’s shores, several Balkan Green Lizards (Lacerta trilineata) were observed. When it got too hot to search any more, we stopped for a drink and a small snack, like we did about every day. In the restaurant’s garden, around a small ornamental pond, we could spot some Common Tree Frogs (Hyla arborea). While temperatures started to drop towards the evening, we continued east and stopped at the beautiful Kourna Lake, the only natural freshwater lake of the island. Here, we spotted the Cretan endemics quite soon: Cretan Water Frog (Pelophylax cretensis) and Cretan Wall Lizard (Podarcis cretensis). Beautiful sunset at the lake; we would definitely come back here. Finally, we went to our hotel in the wider Rethymno area. A DOR Balkan Whip Snake (Hierophis gemonensis) here and after dark Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus), easily found on the balcony and elsewhere. A couple of hours after dark, we did a first exploration of the turtle nesting beach close to our hotel. We spotted the nests that were fenced by the conservationists of Archelon, but no turtle activity.


Dice Snake photography at Agia dam - Anniek, Gijs, Jan, Ilias and Peter

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)

Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)

Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata)

Common Tree Frog (Hyla arborea)

American Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

Peter at Kourna Lake

June 20th – several water sites

First it was back to Kourna. Added Balkan Terrapin to the site’s observations. Took some wall lizard photos. Then we did 2 dragonfly spots. First the mouth of Petres river. Here we spotted water frogs, wall lizards, terrapins, whip snake, green lizard and skink. After an ice cream, we went inland to one of the very few remaining running water bodies of the island. Besides excellent dragonfly observations (see below), we found tree frog, water frog, whip snake and green lizard in this beautiful lush and shady brook valley. On the way back to the hotel, green lizard, Turkish Gecko and skink in an olive orchard. A small ruin was full of bats flying in and out. Ilias and Gijs had to save one tangled up in a thorny shrub. After dark, a second beach survey at a later time of the night. Now, we found several turtle tracks and a freshly finished nest.


our favourite restaurant at Kourna

Cretan Water Frog (Pelophylax cretensis)

Cretan Wall Lizard (Podarcis cretensis)

June 21st – Elafonissi and western stops

Immediately after our nocturnal turtle search, we drove west to the extreme southwestern tip of the island. Arriving there at beautiful sunrise, we waded through the sea to the nearby Elafonissi islet. On this islet, a rather high abundance of wall lizards and skinks. Nice views. When we got back, the beaches were overrun with tourists, so we took off. On the way back, we stopped twice near a brook, finding water frogs, wall lizards and green lizards. The turtle search delivered nothing but a few empty shells (already hatched? excavated by predators or stupid tourists?).


wading towards Elafonissi - Anniek, Peter, Ilias, Jan

Peter and Anniek exploring Elafonissi

Ilias on Elafonissi

lizard tracks in the sand

Elafonissi

Elafonissi

Cretan Wall Lizard (Podarcis cretensis)

Cretan Wall Lizard (Podarcis cretensis)

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus)

also a Cretan endemic - Coenonympha thyrsis

June 22nd – Ida mountains

We drove up to 1400m absl into the Ida mountains to a site for Kotschy’s Gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi), hinted to us by Petros Lymberakis. Surprisingly, this species is very rare on Crete and the site we visited is one of the few where more than a single specimen has been found. Given the apparant strong genetic distinctness of the Cretan populations, we were eager to find this species, anticipating possible future elevation to species rank. While driving up, a Balkan Whip Snake (Hierophis gemonensis) crossed the road. At the actual gecko site, nice limestone rocky hills. Only green lizards. Then, going back a bit, at a small church and among some rubbish, we found 3 geckoes. Nearby was a water tank with tadpoles of Green Toad (Bufo viridis). At a recently dried pool hundreds of baby toads were crawling in the drying mud.
At sunset and on our way back, we stopped at an artificial pond with several Dice Snakes, Balkan Whip Snake, green lizard, tree frog, water frogs, larvae of Green Toad and our first Moorish Geckoes (Tarentola mauritanica), a species largely lacking from the more western parts of Crete, as it is likely to have originated from an Iraklion introduction. At a nearby restaurant, also plenty of these geckoes. On our way back, a freshly hit Green Toad dead on the road.
We did the same routine as the previous night, finding just a single turtle track.


Ida mountains

dry pond with hundreds of juvenile Green Toad (Bufo viridis)

juveniles of Green Toad (Bufo viridis)

Kotschy’s Gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi)

Ilias aka gecko habitat

scenery from gecko site

pond along the road

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

Balkan Whip Snake (Hierophis gemonensis)

Balkan Whip Snake (Hierophis gemonensis)

Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) on restaurant ceiling

finishing off the gecko hattrick - Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) as seen on the hotel balcony

June 23rd – Lassithi and Mochos

First up to the famous Lassithi plateau. Among others, we hoped for an adult Green Toad here, but only juveniles could be found. Near the dam, green lizard and whip snake. In the western canals, terrapins were found. A very strong wind couldn’t even cool the place down. By sunset, we explored a nice spot hinted to us by Matt Wilson, with extensively managed olive orchards, some waterbodies etc. Here we found Moorish Gecko, Balkan Green Lizard and several skins of Balkan Whip Snake. At the very last rays of sun, Anniek spotted a basking Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla) but she was unable to catch it. Too bad…
Another turtle night, on which we also explored a second, nearby beach. No turtle sighting.


Lassithi plateau

June 24th – around Kourna and turtle sighting

First to a small brook with some shady places and a chapel, hinted by Benny Trapp. Wall lizards and green lizards here. Then back to Kourna Lake for a snack and the same species as before. At sunset, we explored some nearby sites for snakes. We found Ocellated Skink, Cretan Wall Lizard, Balkan Green Lizard, Common Tree Frog, Balkan Whip Snake and Turkish Gecko.
While the rest of us decided to skip a night, Ilias went out for turtle searching by himself. At half past two, a fortunate phone call! I ran as fast as I could to the beach and called the others. Ilias and I could see the female digging and throwing sand into the air. After a while, she ended here exploratory digging and went back to the sea, at which point we took a limited number of pictures of this large and impressive reptile. The subsequent nights, we did not visit the turtle beach anymore, because we did not want to cause any more disturbance. A couple of days later, we saw a fenced nest at the exact same spot, indicating that she had come back afterwards to build a nest.


Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata)

Cretan Water Frog (Pelophylax cretensis)

Cretan Water Frog (Pelophylax cretensis)

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata) during nocturnal hunt

black Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

black Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

there she goes…

Dice Snake photography impression

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

June 25th – doing nothing much around the hotel

Overwhelmed by our nocturnal experience, we took a lazy day. At sunset, we explored a dry riverbed and its surroundings, close to our hotel. We found Ocellated Skink, Cretan Water Frog, Balkan Green Lizard, Turkish Gecko. Also many small toads were hopping around in the dark, and in the end, we also managed to find a couple of adult individuals.


fenced turtle nests

turtle hatchery

Green Toad (Bufo viridis)

June 26th – nearby, Agia and Kourna

We started off with the same site as the previous night. No extra species. Then, it was back to the west, because we had to drop off Ilias at Chania airport. Before that, we revisited Agia dam. Same species plus a single Cretan Wall Lizard, and this time Peter caught a Bull Frog. After saying goodbye to Ilias, we drove to Kourna Lake once more. On an open and warm slope near the lake, we searched at twilight. Very soon, we found two Cat Snakes (Telescopus fallax) under some fully exposed, hot stones.


our team at Agia dam - Mister Sillypants, Jan, Anniek, Peter, Gijs and Ilias

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

American Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

American Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

being the girlfriend of a snake hunter can be a heavy burdon

snake catchers - Peter and Gijs with Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) in lamplight

Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) in lamplight

June 27th – back to the dragonfly brook

We spent the day at the nice brook valley that we already visited on the 20th. Main purpose was to take some dragonfly pictures and hopefully succeed in catching a Leopard Snake. We found Ocellated Skink, Turkish Gecko and the same herps as at our previous visit. Agreeable meal and drinks at the lovely local taverna. From dusk, numerous Common Tree Frogs were hopping around and calling at the brook’s bridge.


Cretan spotted darner (Boyeria cretensis)

Cretan spotted darner (Boyeria cretensis)

Cretan bluet (Coenagrion intermedium)

Common Tree Frog (Hyla arborea)

Common Tree Frog (Hyla arborea)

June 28th – Aquaworld and final search

First a long drive east to Aghios Nikolaos. We were hoping to explore the smaller islet in the town’s harbour, but that turned out to be a protected area and a no go zone. A little bit back west, we decided to spend the hotter time of the day by paying a visit to John McLaren’s friendly Aquaworld aquarium and reptile house at Hersonissos. We received a warm welcome and a story with each animal. We were even allowed to take one of the Leopard Snakes for some pictures. After that, a meal at Mochos. The final search of our journey was in the same area where we had made our single Leopard Snake sighting earlier. While we could add Cretan Water Frog to our observations for this area, we did not succeed, so our Leopard Snake observations remained at a single escaped snake.


Anniek and Gijs in front of Aquaworld

Iguana iguana crawling up on John and our team

Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla)

June 29th – back home

We took off in the morning, so no more herping.

List of the observed species

1. Green Toad (Bufo viridis)
2. Common Tree Frog (Hyla arborea) - ssp. kretensis has been questioned
3. Cretan Water Frog (Pelophylax cretensis)
4. American Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
5. Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)
6. Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)
7. Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)
8. Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)
9. Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica)
10. Kotschy’s Gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi) - (s)sp. bartoni
11. Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata) - ssp. polylepidota
12. Cretan Wall Lizard (Podarcis cretensis)
13. Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus)
14. Balkan Whip Snake (Hierophis gemonensis)
15. Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla)
16. Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)
17. Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax) - ssp. pallidus

What we missed …

Although we failed to catch a Leopard Snake, we were able to observe all Cretan herpetofauna species. Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) may have occurred on Crete before, but no recent records exist. Some tortoise sightings (e.g. Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata)) have occurred, but no clearly established populations seem to have been reported. Very close to Crete, a single population of Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus kitaibelii) exists on the smaller islet in the Aghios Nikolaos harbour. However, it appears to be off limits, so we could not visit it and search for this species.
Not really part of the Cretan fauna, but our scheduled trip to Pori was cancelled due to bad winds at open sea, so no Pori Wall Lizard (Podarcis levendis).

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