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Snowy Mountains: Summer snow in Australia

Following on from my last post, we continue our Australian adventure with a trip to the Snowy Mountains. First though, another day or two in the beautiful city of Canberra, starting with a trip to the National Botanic Gardens.

Having walked our niece to school, we set off fairly early in the day to avoid the heat of the sun. I was particularly interested that the gardens only showcase Australian species and keen to see whether I could find out more about some of the plants we had already seen elsewhere.

We were immediately greeted with some impressive and rather characterful Gippsland Water Dragons which seemed to be quite at home all over the gardens. This individual was lounging on a bench!

 

 

Continuing round, my eye was drawn to a butterfly, the first other than a familiar Small White and a distant Swallowtail that I had seen. Having done a little research since my return home I’ve discovered that this is a type of butterfly known as a “Dart” or “Darter”. They are related to our Skippers which is what I had initially expected. Similarly to our Skippers, they are also very tricky to tell apart, particularly for people who are unfamiliar with them like me. I haven’t been able to narrow it down any further but if anyone knows any more, do let me know! Anyhow, this one was nectaring on a Daisy.

 

 

Next, our brother in law took us to his favourite part of the garden and it wasn’t hard to see why he loves it so much. The rainforest gully is somehow more tranquil than some of the other areas and very atmospheric with the misters that keep the vegetation looking its best in the Australian heat. I couldn’t resist a quick snap on my phone to capture it.

 

 

You may be wondering why I took this on my phone and the answer is a simple one. I don’t always like to carry all my equipment and be constantly changing lenses, particularly when I’m on holiday. Phone cameras these days are pretty decent and therefore, for wider angle shots like this it is ideal. Not only that but it fits in my pocket! On this occasion, I had my macro lens on my SLR and didn’t take much extra gear with me because I just wanted to enjoy my day out. Sometimes it’s all about experiencing life rather than just taking pictures!

Having enjoyed a tour of the gardens, spent a while watching a New Holland Honeyeater feeding on a wattle bush and wandered round the bookshop we set off to the National Arboretum where we had a lovely lunch. The views over the city were spectacular and got better by the moment as we took the short walk from the visitor centre up to a look out point which mapped it all out for us. On the way up we had great views of a White Fronted Chat and found lots more lovely wild flowers growing beside the path amongst the unmown grass. One such flower was an Australian Bluebell, Wahlenbergia sp. I do have a soft spot for Campanulas!

 

 

From the top we had a wonderful view of course, not only of the city of Canberra and it’s suburbs but also in the opposite direction looking towards the Australian Alps. The hills stretch into mountains and the mountains stretch into the distance. It’s a beautiful spot and we enjoyed the view for a while before heading back to pick up our niece from school.

The following day we set off for more adventures. This time, we were heading towards the Snowy Mountains for a long weekend away with the family, but as my sister in law was working during the day they would join us later so we had time to take a detour and explore a little on the way. We started out by taking the road out past the arboretum and across the Scrivener Dam which transforms the Molonglo River into the magnificent Lake Burley Griffin. From here we took a right on Cotter Road and headed out past Stromlo towards Tidbinbilla. Our first stop was Gibraltar Falls.

 

 

A short walk from the car park down some rather steep steps led us to the viewing platform from which I took the above photo. The falls continued a good distance down beneath us but were largely out of sight. Nevertheless, the view of the top half was spectacular enough and the beautiful weather capped off the experience. We re-traced our steps and took a quick detour down a side path above the falls which took us over the creek. Here the water was misleadingly calm, you wouldn’t have guessed at the tumble it was about to make if not for the abrupt disappearance of the landscape between us and the distant horizon.

 

 

We took a few minutes to explore the trail and see if there was another point from which to look back at the falls. There may have been beyond the point we stopped but we didn’t find one and weren’t prepared for a full on hike. On the way back to the car though, I came across more of the gorgeous Tiger/Hornet Orchids that I’d first found on Mount Ainslie. I must have been too preoccupied with the view to spot them on the way out. Not only were these blousy yellow beauties making themselves apparent but I also spotted a couple of other orchids nestled amongst the low vegetation. The first was a lovely species called Pink Fingers for fairly obvious reasons, which has beautiful delicate pale pink petals and lovely stripes inside the labellum. The other I was a little less sure but I think it was a related specimen known as Lesser Fingers. The alternative was that it was a paler form of the first one but it had to many slight differences to my eye. When it comes to Australian orchids, I’m no expert though unfortunately so unless any of you can tell me I will have to settle for best guess! Either way, these are both record shots but I thought you’d like to seem them nonetheless.

 

 

As we still had a fair distance to travel, we were soon on our way once more. We made a brief stop at Lambrigg’s Lookout to stretch our legs and take in the view. From here, we drove on through Tharwa and into Namadgi National Park where we were soon on the gravel track that would lead us through the park and out the other side. Contrary to our concerns that this might not make for easy driving, the track was incredibly well maintained and we barely saw another vehicle. We next stopped at an excellent viewpoint overlooking Gudgenby Valley towards Mount Kelly in the distance. The sun was shining with us but the sky was particularly moody here and it resulted in just a few patches of sunlight hitting the valley floor. I therefore decided that it worked better as a monochrome image; I don’t often process into black and white but sometimes it is the best option.

 

 

Continuing on our route, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the aptly named Gate of Lost Soles where a mass of odd shoes had been strung to a five bar in typical Aussie humour. This signified our departure from Namadgi National Park and we drove through some beautiful open grass plains and past some large farmsteads. I spotted a Short Beaked Echidna bumbling about in a field beside the road which we were both quite excited about and not much further along the road we came across another which was much closer to us and we watched it for a few minutes. Before long we were arriving at our Airbnb property on the edge of the village of Dalgety. We opened the gate and started down the drive only to see not one but two Echidnas in the garden! They were searching for ants among the grass and we soon discovered that by getting down wind of them you could get surprisingly close as they have appalling eye sight.

 

 

I cannot tell you how much joy these extraordinary little animals gave me. I also should confess for those of you that haven’t seen one in the flesh that they aren’t so little! They are over a foot long and rather like our hedgehogs they tend to be prone to parasites – we saw several with ticks. Another fun fact which I think I ought to share if only for the quirkiness of it is that their babies (hatched from an egg, as these are egg-laying mammals called monotremes along with Platypuses) are called Puggles!

We unloaded the car and had a quiet wander round the small plot. There was a beautiful male Flame Robin on the fence by the creek at the bottom and a variety of wildflowers growing in the rough lawn. I decided that I would have a go at photographing some another day as the light was fading. Having settled in and been joined by the family later that evening we got some rest ready for adventures the next day. In the morning, we set out for the small town of Jindabyne to stock up with a few provisions before heading into the mountains. We set off towards Thredbo and having been slightly later in getting going decided to stop for lunch at the Wild Brumby distillery – cue some awesome German style food and gin tasting, because…why not!? Anyhow, we didn’t see any of the wild horses that the distillery was named after, but we did enjoy our stop but it was time to continue on our way.

It seemed only right that we stop for tea and cake in Thredbo village and we were rewarded with the discovery of Lamingtons – if you haven’t tried this sweet Aussie delight, you should! In a small gallery next door, I was pleased to find a suitable echidna card to send my Mum and delighted that it was by a photographer whose work I’ve admired for a while, Charles Davis. We were soon off on a wander round town and enjoyed a stroll along the riverside, capped off with a spin on the Thredbo Bobsled experience (not something I had considered would be on the agenda in Australia!) and some time on the trampolines with our niece. The rain crept in at this point and we adjourned back to the car for a short drive onward to explore as far as possible before we had to turn for home. Our turning point was at Leatherbarrel Creek where we paused briefly to watch the river and take in the splendour of the forest around us.

On the way back down the hill towards Thredbo it became apparent just how much of a problem the Eucalypt dieback is becoming with vast swathes of the hillside supporting just grey, bare branches of what was once vibrant eucalyptus forest. Not much further on, our most exciting find of the day was an Emu right next to the road. We had seen a grand total of eight over the course of the day but this was the closest yet. Unfortunately for me, my camera gear was in the boot of the car as we were quite cramped for space. I therefore only managed a rather dodgy phone shot but nevertheless it will be a lasting memory.

 

 

After a lovely day out we enjoyed a barbecue while the sun went down and followed it up with toasting some marshmallows over the fire pit. It was pretty wonderful as the stars were spectacular from our remote location and all we could hear was the frogs in the tiny creek at the bottom of the garden.

Our second day in the Snowy Mountains dawned bright and I spent a few minutes wandering round the garden with my macro lens before we set off for the day. On closer inspection, a good proportion of the flowers were European species that have been introduced although there were a few less familiar ones too. One of the more interesting subjects I captured was rather unexpected.

 

 

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking at to begin with but with some help from entomologist friends I was able to clarify the matter. This is a pair of Tiphiid wasps. The male (on the right) is carrying the wingless female from flower to flower so that she can feed on them and ultimately so that they can mate. It seems strange that one must carry the other around but it provides a really interesting insight into their lifecycle and one that I feel I was fortuitous to capture.

It wasn’t long before we were ready to get going for the day and we grabbed some picnic provisions from Jindabyne before driving up the Charlotte Pass. Our first stop on the way was at a Hydro-electric Surge Tower. This may not have been a typical port of call for us but the views back over lake Jindabyne below were well worth stopping for and we also got to see a pair of Wedge Tailed Eagles soaring on a thermal below us which was great.

 

 

Our drive on up the mountain pass took us past some lovely scenery and we emerged at the top in summer clothing to play in the snow! It certainly seemed strange to have snow on such a warm day but it was definitely melting and decidedly patchy though that didn’t dampen our spirits. According to a lady we met, it was the largest dump of late snow that they had had in 17 years and they were saying that normally by this time there were more alpine flowers blooming but the weather had delayed the season.

We had parked up and decided to take a short walk up to a higher viewpoint away from the main carpark. On the way up we marvelled at the variety of colours in the twisting bark of the Snow Gums and found several Spotted Mountain Grasshoppers in a variety of shades of olivey green.

 

 

 

On reaching the viewpoint we could see the summit of Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, although from our already lofty altitude it didn’t seem much higher. After a few photos we headed back down, pausing for a snowball fight on the way, as one does!

 

snowy mountains

 

Turning back down the mountain we found a nice place to stop for our picnic and had no sooner finished and climbed into the car than the heavens opened. Chatting about our excellent timing, we wound our way back to Jindabyne where we paused for a walk along the lake edge. There were masses of frogs calling, several species too, though we couldn’t see a single one. We spotted a Cunningham’s Skink basking in the sunshine on a large rock and came across a bundle of Spitfire Sawfly larvae clasped around a eucalyptus twig, a rather extraordinary sight.

 

 

Retiring to our cosy cottage, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner and watched the sunset in a blaze of colour. The soft, fading light allowed me one final image to round off the weekend.

 

 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the second part of our Australian visit. The next post will cover a trip to a fantastic nature reserve on our way back to Canberra. I had originally planned on including it here but realised I’ve waffled on for long enough!

 

 

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Autumn sunshine in Greece

Following on from last week’s post, this week I’m sharing the rest of my autumn trip leading a tour for Greentours to sunny Greece. Our first couple of days had been most enjoyable and there was plenty more to come. We piled into vehicles after yet another delicious breakfast and set off for our third full day of exploring. This time, we headed uphill, through the town and up to the higher slopes of Mount Parnassus.

Our first stop was near the ski resort and for the first time on the trip, we were glad of our jumpers as the morning air was quite crisp and cool. There were a few birds in the trees around us, mostly Coal tits and Great tits but a Treecreeper was spotted too and a Robin was singing somewhere nearby. It was here that we had our first glimpse of a lizard – it was far too quick for us to get a good look as it darted back into the undergrowth from its basking spot but it was encouraging nevertheless. I had been surprised not to have found them at Delphi. Anyhow, the reason for our stop here was Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus which we found in small numbers and a possibility of finding Sternbergia colchiciflora which is harder to find. We were successful though with 3 good specimens and a couple going over. We moved on in energetic spirits and continued uphill.

Our next stop was at the tiny woodland chapel of Agios Nikolaos where we wandered for a while among pine trees covered in mistletoe (Viscum album ssp. abietis). In the clearing by the chapel we found Colchicum bossieri alongside leaves of Digitalis ferruginea and Helleborus cyclophyllus. We found a Common Earth Star fungus in perfect condition nestled among the pine needles too and, here and there, remnants of summer flowers as well as emerging cyclamen. There were lots of birds here too with Jays and Green Woodpeckers being particularly noisy and the trees were full of foraging Blue tits and Coal tits. The highlight was a flock of six Hawfinches flying over.

We made another stop nearer the top of the mountain to look at the Colchicum boissieri which were flourishing here in larger numbers and being visited by Wall butterflies while Linnets chattered as they flew overhead. Moving on once more we made an unscheduled brief stop to look at some lovely examples of Campanula versicolor growing on a rock face by the road.

Our next stop was for a picnic lunch by the delightful chapel of Agia Marina above the town of Amfikleia. There were some good clumps of Cyclamen hederifolia under the trees of a walnut grove on the opposite side of the road. The Calamintha nepeta which adorned the roadside was covered in insect life and we got a brief glimpse of a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly as it came to take sap from a tree trunk.

Suitably replete, we drove on to a roadside spot just outside the village of Stromi where we found Colchicum bivonae. Interestingly the best specimen was growing up through the gravel almost on the road but the beautifully patterned petals looked resplendent in the sunshine regardless of its location.

Clambering further up the verge, we were rewarded not only with a lovely view across the mountains, but with a good number of Spiranthes spiralis, the Autumn Ladies’ Tresses Orchid.

We were debating which route to take back when one of my co-leader’s mentioned that we had passed some lovely cyclamen in the woods and our path was decided for us. We turned around and headed the short distance back to where they had been spotted. This turned out to be the absolute highlight of the day for me. I could not possibly have imagined the sheer volume of Cyclamen hederifolium that we would see in one place. The floor of this beautiful oak wood was carpeted with them, much like an English Bluebell wood and it turns out that the equivalent in Greece is just as good! They stretched almost as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road and the air was thick with their delicate scent.

Needless to say, the journey home to our hotel was undertaken with a buzz of chatter about the wonderful spectacle we had witnessed and the talk continued on around the dinner table that evening.

The next morning we were departing our lovely hotel for a new base and having said our farewells to the wonderful proprietors we set out. The first part of our journey was slightly contrary to our intended direction as we wanted to visit Hosios Loukas Monastery before leaving the area. I took this phone snap before we went through the small archway into the courtyard complex to explore further.

Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece

The monastery is one of the best surviving examples of middle Byzantine art in the form of mosaics. We were given a taster as we entered with this little restored piece above the archway.

The main church there is quite extraordinary. It reminded me a little of the interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice – lots of scenes on a gold ground, mostly depicting pertinent saints and parts of the story of Jesus’ life. It was a beautiful and very serene space, quite a change to what we had been seeing over the previous days.

Needless to say, some parts were in better condition than others, clearly a few of the mosaics had received some extensive TLC but the overall effect was stunning. The crypt was equally decorated but with less of the gold hues.

I also came across a monk doing some watering and asked if I could take his photo. He was very obliging and I was quite pleased with the result as the architecture was lovely on it’s own but adding a figure to the image gives the whole thing a sense of scale and reverence.

Having done my degree in Art History (and thoroughly enjoyed it) before realising that it was nature and photography that I was passionate about, Hosios Loukas was a delightful interlude. There was plenty more to see there too. In the orchard by the car park there were Cirl Buntings singing and Colchicum cupanii flowering under the trees. Walking the short distance to another outlying chapel we found the small churchyard to be absolutely full of Sternbergia lutea ssp. sicula in prime condition. There was a juvenile Balkan Whip Snake there too and a Greek Stream Frog sheltering in the shade of a small spring.

In addition to this, there was a huge Rosemary bush flowering which absolutely hummed with life including Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Lang’s Short Tailed Blue, Krueper’s Small White and various other butterflies. Several types of seed bug joined the mix and a loud, deep buzz warned of an incoming Violet Carpenter Bee.

We were reluctant to leave this haven but eventually had to and so we were back on the road once more. We drove West along the coast to the small coastal town of Galaxidi where we stopped for lunch in a waterside restaurant. Of course, this didn’t mean that we would stop watching the world around us and we watched Yellow Legged Gulls flapping lazily over the water and a White Wagtail catching insects from the sea wall. The most interesting thing though was the number and variety of small fish in the water which was crystal clear. You could be forgiven for thinking that the next photo was taken at an aquarium but this is a phone grab looking straight down into the waters of the harbour!

The afternoon was spent travelling towards Diakopto on the Northern shore of the Peloponnese. The route took us along the coast to Rio Antirrio, past masses of Sea Squill and with odd glimpses of birds like Goldfinch and Crested Lark, to the bridge over the Gulf of Corinth. The last part of our journey was less interesting being on the motorway but we were soon checking into our new base for the rest of the trip before heading to dinner in a local restaurant.

Another clear sky greeted us the next day and we set out away from the coast following roughly the direction of the rack railway which runs from Diakopto to Kalavryta. We paused briefly on the way to look at Crocus hadriaticus and Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus growing together in the verge. Passing through Kalavryta we headed up to the ski centre on Mount Chelmos. Here we would spend a couple of hours exploring and enjoying the sunshine with spectacular views over the valley of the River Styx. There were quite a lots of birds around even at this high altitude; Ravens crocking above, Linnets gathering in large flocks in the trees by the car park as well as Northern Wheatear, Black Redstart and Sombre Tit flitting about between the pine trees. We found good numbers of Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus growing among the wiry grasses and a couple more Sternbergia colchiciflora. There was also a new butterfly for the trip in the shape of a Mountain Small White which has a rather weak and flimsy flight, somewhat reminiscent of the Wood Whites back home.

After a lovely picnic up here, we returned to Kalavryta and stopped for a lovely stroll round town and a coffee on the town square. Continuing on downhill, some of the group chose to return to the hotel while the rest of us took a short journey back out of town to walk up a steep track to look for Colchicum peloponnesiacum. There was lots of Coridothymus capitatus flowering in the track and we found a few lovely Praying Mantis in the low growing shrubs to either side but to begin with we were not seeing any of these endemic bulbs. Nearing the top, we finally found one growing on the edge of the track and reaching the top we were rewarded with fantastic views back towards Mount Parnassus – you could just make out Delphi and Arahova. On the way back down, our luck changed further as I found a whole lot more of the little Colchicums and we returned to the hotel to cool down a happy bunch.

The next day we took a similar route out of town but this time we followed the Kerenitis river valley. Our first stop was another rock face where there were more lovely Campanula versicolor but the most surprising thing there greeted us as soon as we stepped from the vehicles. In the middle of the road was a freshwater crab which took one look at us and went for cover – initially under my walking boot (which I was wearing!) and then under my car tyre. Not wanting it to get squashed I carefully moved it to the verge.

Our next stop was by another chapel, Agios Georgios, which had beautiful views over the hills which were blanketed in vineyards rich with autumn colours. Here we found lots more Crocus cancellatus ssp. mazziaricus.

There were also quite a few dung beetles here, demonstrating perfectly how the pack their prize into a neat ball before rolling it away, making sure to stop and stand on top to gauge the direction periodically. It was fascinating to watch.

After lunch, we made another afternoon coffee stop, this time in the village of Plataniotissa which is home to the most incredible church inside an ancient Plane Tree with the church bells hung from the branches. I snapped a couple of photos on my phone so you can get an idea of scale.

There is a little stained glass door leading into the tree and once inside there is space for several people to sit and stand around a tiny altar. It is a very unusual, beautiful place and very tranquil too.

Having enjoyed our coffee we meandered back down the hill making a couple more roadside stops along the way to investigate different flowers that we had spotted. It was a leisurely trip back to the hotel where, having packed our bags ready for the morning, a few of us decided to take a wander down to the sea front. In the low afternoon light it was another tranquil spot and a lovely walk to end the day.

The following morning it was time to head back to Athens for our flight home. We made one last stop on the way to marvel at the Corinth Canal, an impressive piece of engineering that was dug by hand at the end of the nineteenth century.

We had had a wonderful week in gloriously sunny Greece, it was time to go home and hope that the British weather would not be too unkind on our return.

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