Life in a brackish lake

In the Marlera plain region, very close to the seashore, a couple of small brackish lakes can be found (Fig. 1), that are created by rainfall during winter and by seawater brought by the big waves caused by the two typical Adriatic winds – the Sirocco (or Jugo) and Bora (or Bura), which are frequent in the Autumn/Winter period. This water is rich in Crustaceans, a prelibate food for birds like the dunlin (Calidris alpina), a migratory species which can be seen in this area for a very short period during late Autumn (Fig 2 and 3).

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Fig. 1 Small lake near the seashore where fresh and salted water mix.

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In summertime, the hot and dry weather leads to almost all of the water evaporating, therefore only small salty ponds can be seen (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 4 The lake at the beginning of July, when only small higly salted ponds are left.

Later in the sumer, no water is left and only crystalised salt remains. However, some halophile species like the plant Salicornia europaea (Fig. 5) and the insects of the genus Cicindela (tiger beetles, Fig. 6) are able to cope with such harsh conditions.

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Crabs that used to swim in the lake and small ponds are now all dead (Fig 7, 8).

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The insects attracts various predators such the common wall lizard, subspecies maculiventris. A nice specimen can be seen in the Fig. 9, inhabiting only Slovenia and Istria.

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Fig. 9 A lizard, member of the species Podarcis muralis maculiventris.

 

Photos by Borjan Radolovic

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Enconter with the Green-underside Blue

Spring days in the Mediterranean region in May are ideal for observing butterflies and other insects, because during this period most of the plants are in full blossom. Therefore, I try not to miss any potential day for wandering with my dog in search of opportunities for a good picture. During one of these sunny and warm days of May, while trekking on Marlera, I spotted a beautiful sample of Glaucopsyche alexis or, Green-underside Blue, a member of the Lycaenidae family. It was resting on a herbaceous plant, most probably  of the Linum genus. However, their life history is accomplished on several members of the Fabaceae family and the larvae are attended by various ant species, as typical for this family of butterflies. This species is widespread and common in many European regions, and it can be easily recognised by the metallic greenish-blue flush on the light-grey hind underside wing. In the specimen on the picture (Photo 1 and 2) it is extended to the edge but in some populations it can be reduced.

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Photo 1. A specimen of Glaucopsyche alexis resting on a plant of the Linum genus; Salvia pratensis can be seen in the foreground.
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Photo 2. Glaucopsyche alexis seen in more detail: the blue-green basal flush extends to the margin.

The shiny green-bluish flush is actually a structural colour, which means that the way we see it is the consequence of how light reflects off a surface of the wing which is made of tiny scales. Watch here for more info: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/photogalleries/100624-butterfly-wing-colors-scales-pictures/

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Foto 3. A male resting on a dry pep with seeds. Females´upperside is usually brown, with the blue flush present only in the basal region, which can be qute extensive in some populations.

Curiosities:

  • Eggs are laid on a flower which will later be eaten by the larvae. The colour of the larvae is variable and depends on the colour of the flower they feed on. It can be greenish, dusky-pink or even bright yellow if they consumed the yellow flowers of Spartium junceum.
  • Larvae is whitish prior the pupation and at this stage it is attended by various ant species (Lasius, Formica, Myrmica, Camponotus etc.).

Photos by Ingrid Ugussi Vukman

Visiting Marlera

When I was living in Ližnjan, a small village on the south-eastern side of the Istrian peninsula facing the Kvarner Gulf , I used to go every day for a walk along the sea and the surrounding inland, hosting the typical garrigue and macchia plant communities. That was a quite relaxing way of spending my afternoons – walking my dog and photographing everything that caught my senses. One might think that visiting the same place every day would be quite boring, and indeed it can be so – if one does not pay attention to the little details. After a decade spent photographing nature, I could notice even the slightest changes in the light intensity and direction, and their impact on the way I experience the landscape in from of me.

I especially loved visiting Marlera, a plain area with intact garrigue and macchia vegetation and a paradise for insects and birds.

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Photo 1. The Marlera area with the Ucka montain in the background. A dry grassland can be seen in the foreground, with patches of garrigue and macchia. Here the macchia is composed prevalentrly of Spartium junceum and Erica arborea.

One beautiful and sunny day in May, I went there for the usual walk along the sea. I was lucky that the sky was so limpid that I could see the Cres and Losinj islands of the Kvarner Sea quite well and even the outlines of the mount Ucka, 80 km distant, were clearly visible. While crossing the garrigue along the way, my attention was caught by the shimmer of a wide whitish carpet spread a couple of square meters in front of me. I was quite astonished, because I´ve never seen something like this before. As I approached it in order to investigate it better, I realised that it was Anthemis tomentosa, or the Woolly Chamomile, in full blossom; that’s a daisy-like species that is very rare in this region. I´ve heard about the presence of this species in this area by two well-known local botanists (Claudio Pericin and Slavko Brana), however I have not been able to find its the exact location, even though I tried many times. In fact, this is a very local species that can be found only in this spot on Marlera and in another one at the tip of the Kamenjak peninsula, but only in Marlera it creates such vast veils of beauty at the border of the jagged and rocky coast. I decided to stay here for a while, take some pictures and enjoy the flowers along with the picturesque view of the navy blue sea and the islands of Cres and Losinj in the background. It was so soothing and pleasant just to be here, walk and mindfully feel my surroundings with all my senses and notice every detail around me. The ripples of the sea, the thousands of blue shades, that sometimes are soft but other times are interrupted by a dark, almost black blue that gives the impression of an abyss, but actually is just Posidonia oceanica, a marine plant which creates dense meadows that appear very dark from the surface. Nature is so rich of opportunities in every moment, so it is important is to be alert, and notice the patterns of colours and shapes, feel the wind, smell the air and sense the temperature.

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Photo 2. Anthemis tomentosa flowers and the Kvarner Sea in the background

I decided to come close to the plants and to observe in more detail the flower peps to feel the scent and watch the insects coming – bees, spiders, butterflies, ants etc. Their camomile-like look creates a beautiful contrast with the blue of the sea in the background. Once at home I decided to learn more about this species so I discovered something really interesting in a scientific publication: the essential oils produced by this plant have been tested against Gram-positive bacterial species, and an antibacterial activity has been detected, therefore it has a big potential as antibiotics in medicine and in the cosmetic industry http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23157016.

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Photo 3. Anthemis tomentosa flowers

While continuing my tour of exploration, I encountered a day-flying moth Zygaena filipendula (Six Spot Burnet) on a Knautia head flower.

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Foto 4. Zygaena filipendula on a Knautia flower.

Curiosities:

  • The vivid red spots on a dark green metallic background on the fore wings are actually a warning sign for potential predators, indicating that they are poisonous. In fact, their entire body contains cyanogenic glycosides, amino acid-derived toxic substances produced by various plants as a defence mechanism against grazers.
  • The sequestration of the toxic compounds takes place during the larval stage from their food plants, however they are able to synthesize those products in small amount by themselves.

Another surprise was the quite uncommon orchid species, Anacamptis coriophora (Bug Orchid), known also as Orchis fragranas Pollini (Foto 5), a name still in use by some authors, due to the vanilla-scented flowers. It is a nectar-producing species which attracts honeybees, several bumblebee species and some moths of the genus Zygaena.

Photo 5. Two specimens of Anacamptis coriophora

Butterflies of the family Lycaenidae are rather frequent in this period of the year, so I saw various species flying around. Among them I was lucky to be able to catch with my camera the beautiful Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus, Photo 6, 7 and 8), the Common Blue (Pollyommatus Icarus, Foto 9 and 10) and the Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus, Photo 11).

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Photo 6. Plebejus argus: the silvery-blue metallic spots on the ventral hind wings are distinctive for this species.

Plebejus argus is widespread and locally common across Europe, Asia and as far as Japan, however threatened due to habitat reduction in the UK. He has a wide variety of food plants (Calluna, Erica, Lotus, Tymus etc).

Curiosities:

  • Interacts with ants in the larval stages: pupation often taking place in the ant´s nest where they are protected from enemies; in exchange they secrete the honeydew-like liquid which is delicious for ants (mutualism).
  • It is always associated with Lasius ants and emerging adults are attractive to Lasius workers, a very unusual behaviour because they are normally attacked or ignored by them.
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Photo 7. Plebejus argus: a basking male; the wings are irridescent blue with a black border and a white fringe at the edges.
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Photo 8. A female of Plebejus argus; the dorsal wings are brown with orange spots at the edges of the hind wing.
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Photo 9. Polyommatus icarus on a Knautia flower
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Photo 10. Polyommatus icarus: a basking male; the upper side is irridescent lillac-blue with a thin black border and white fringes

Polyiommatus icarus curiosities:

  • The larva feeds on plants of the Leguminosae family. These plants are rich in flavonoids which they sequester on their wings in order to increase its reproductive fitness. One study made by Burghardt et al. (2000, 2001) shows that females sequestered flavonoids in their wings 59% more efficiently than males.
  • According to him, the flavonoids accumulated in the wings by the females is used in visual communication, since flavonoid rich females are more attractive to males than flavonoid-free females.
  • The chrysalis is olive green/brown and formed on the ground, where it is attended by ants, which will often take it into their nests. The larva creates a substance called honeydew, which the ants eat while the butterfly lives in the ant hill.
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Photo 11. A male of Lysandra bellargus; males are brilliant sky blue on the dorsal side whereas females are brown with orang espots around the edge of the hind wing. The white fringes at the border are crossed by dark spots.

The preferred habitat of the Lysandra bellargus (Adonis blue) is calcareous grasslands with hot and dry conditions.

In the 1980s, 70% of their colonies had gone extinct in UK, however recently a dramatic recovery has been observed thanks to increased grazing and warmer temperatures.

Curiosities:

  • One research showed that the sexes prefer flowers with different nectar compositions: males of both generations preferred flowers with high proportions of sucrose and high amounts of total sugar, whereas females preferred flowers with high portions of glucose in their nectar, and, in the spring generation, flowers rich in amino acids.
  • Flowers visited exclusively by males or females in spring differed significantly in their amino acid composition.
  • Larvae feed exclusively in nature on the leaves of two host plants, Coronilla varia and Hippocrepis comosa (both Fabaceae).

Photos by Ingrid Ugussi Vukman

 

Orchids of Cape Kamenjak (Orhideje rta Kamenjaka)

Orchids are the most evolved of all flowering plants and, at the same time, among the most demanding, thus they can thrive only in optimum conditions. Their presence is good indicator of a healthy and functioning ecosystem.

Warm climate and the presence of various succesional stages within the area of Kamenjak create ideal conditions for orchids. With abouts 30 different species, subspecies and hybrids observed so far, of which two are endemic (Serapias istriacaFig. 3, and Serapias x pulae), it is one of the richest site in Istria.

Considered as the queen of flowers, orchid flowers are indeed beautiful and provide a pleasure for careful and appasionate visitors.

Starting from mid March, first orhids, mainly of the species Anacamptis morio (Fig. 1 and 2), appear. The inflorescence is usually purple, however, other colours, such as white and pink, can be observed, see Anacamptis morio colours.

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Fig. 1 Anacamptis morio
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Fig. 2 Close-up of Anacamptis morio
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Fig. 3 Serapias istriaca

While Anacamptis morio becomes more and more widespread, other appariscent orchids species join, like Orchis papilionacea (Fig. 4) and Ophrys sphegodes subsp. atrata (Fig. 5), which harmoniously merge with the green meadow around.

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Fig. 4 Orchis papilionacea
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Fig. 5 Ophrys sphegodes subsp. atrata

Other common species that can be found from the end of March are Serapias lingua, Ophrys bertolonii (Fig. 7)  and, the smallest one, Ophrys bombyliflora (FIg. 6).

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Fig. 6 Ophrys bombyliflora
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Fig. 7 Ophrys bertolonii

Being common orchid species of Kamenjak, they all can be seen in April without too much effort. Anyway, some of the most beautiful species are also the rearest in this area. Among these is the late spider-orchid (Ophrys fuciflora, Fig. 8) and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera Fig. 9). Thery can be found only in restricted places, sometimes only one single plant flowers each year.

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Fig. 8 Ophrys fuciflora

Bee orchid and other members of the genus Ophrys have evolved a peculiar flower shape which resembles that one of pollinator insects. As a consequence, insects are attracted by this appearance and the attractive scent they produce, and then perform copulation activities which allow them to touch the male rich in pollen organs. The pollen stick to their body which is afterward transfered to the female part of another flower they visit.

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Fig. 9 Ophrys apifera

Another species which has been recorded in this area, but was very hard to find, is Aceras anthropophorum (Fig. 10). It is also called Man orchid, due to the shape of the flowers that resemble a human figure. Having pale and inconspicuous coloursm, it is usually difficult to notice. Anyway, after years of search, it has been observed by me only in a single location in the area of Kamenjak, more precisely, at the very tip of the peninsula.

One really beautiful species is the monkey orchid (Orchis simia), Fig. 11, whose shape resembles a monkey is in this area not very common. Another less common Serapias species is Serapias cordigera, Fig. 12,  whose name derive form the latin cor=heart and ergere=carry, due to the heart-like shape of the labellum.

Most of the orchids disappears in June, when the pyramidal orchid or Anacamptis pyramidalis (Fig. 13) appears, whose size and colour contribute to the spring atmosphere. However, as the season gets dryer, most of  flowers end theyr life-cycle and enter into dormancy.

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Fig. 13 Spiranthes spiralis

Photos by Ingrid Ugussi Vukman

Cape Kamenjak blossom (Rt Kamenjak u cvatu)

At the tip of the Istrian peninsula (Croatia), there is a small peninsula called Cape Kamenjak (Rt Kamenjak), an area of immense beauty which is for good reasons under protection at the level of Protected Landscape. The rugged coastline creates small bays where pebbles and gravels are transported by the waves during windy days. However, most of the coast is rocky, and at the tip forms walls of up to 5m in height (Fig.1).

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Fig.1 The rocky coast at the tip of the peninsula.

A stunning view can be seen from the highest point of the peninsula of about 60m, which is created by the crystal blue sea, and the 11 scattered small islands, in one of which dominates a picturesque lighthouse called Porer.

The mediterranean climate of  Kamenjak creates the ideal condition for the developement of a rich flora community. In fact, in this small area there are about 500 plant species. Thypical vegetation that can be found here are dry grasslands combined with garrigue and macchia, a degradation stage of an once-existing mediterranean forest.

For nature lovers, spring is the best season to visit. The first flowers appear very early, since the very beginning of February where Croculs biflorus (Fig. 4) emerges first, followed by Romulea bulbocodium, both members of the Liliaceae family. About two weeks later, Ranunculus ficaria will emerge, a small Ranunculaceae with bright yellow flowers and flashy heart shaped leaves. Leaves of this blant ar eadible and vitamin C rich, and are better consumed before flowering; later on, nutrients are realesed for the blooming.

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Fig. 4 Crocus biflorus
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Fig. 5 Anemone hortensis

As the days become longer and warmer, more flowers come up. Among numerous yellow Taraxacum sp., the fuxia of Anemone hortensis (Fig. 5) brightens the meadows in April. A close up vew of the inner part of those flowers, formed by the stamens and blue anteras, attracts various insects and sometimes offers a temporary shelter for the nymph stage of green grasshoppers.

Spartium junceum (Fig. 11) and Erica arborea (Fig. 6 and 7) create a spectacular combination in May, when both are in full blossom. However, Erica shows its tiny beautiful flowers already in April.

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Fig. 11 Spartium junceum in the first plan

 

Photos by Ingrid Ugussi Vukman