By February and through March farmers are hoeing and digging over the terraces up and down the valley. They have pruned the vines and in the next month will be trimming the olive trees. You can see plumes of smoke as the weeds are burnt off (the ash can go back on the land, and burnt seedheads won’t sprout). Am I worried to see these wildflowers dug out?
Pffff! horrible near miss. Not a car-crash (well, not quite). A road-bound chameleon, looking like a straw-yellow, wind-blown twig, partway into the road.
I threatened to share 285 photos from the short walk I took up the hill the other day (see Heading Uphill). I was kidding … but I had probably taken that many. This is partly because I’m an amateur without a specialist’s camera. Small, rapidly moving creatures are hard to focus on by eye, let alone lens, and the camera cannot distinguish bug from leaf, even before the wretched creature jumps.
The effort of trying to capture them on camera is worth it: it helps me to see these fantastic creatures more clearly. I notice and admire their defence systems, their camoflage, success and failure. I have become more aware of how our own hunting instincts rely on sound and (most of all) movement – rather like a cat’s but less good in low light!
I was fascinated, in autumn, to see that the birds I had seen fluttering about the vineyard disappeared in my photos. These were warblers and larks hopping in and out of low weeds: easy to spot. But though my eye had caught their movement; frozen in the photograph their superb camoflage came into its own.
Even an insect as flamboyant as the Thread Lacewing blends into a handful of grasses and disappears. I caught one lacewing (a different species) that is a superb grass mimic on camera but it took about 20 shots to get one in which my camera could ‘see’ that this wasn’t a grass stem, and focus on the damn thing!
As I am Grasshopper I can hardly fail to mention my own family’s talent in this area. Many of us grasshoppers are quite smart looking when we are in the open but you soon see – or don’t see – that on the right background we are virtually invisible.
My favourite grass-mimic is the Conehead Mantis. It is the most ridiculous shape, but appears a perfect scrap of grass, swaying as it stalks through the furze. My best shots got it off-scene, on a picnic cloth. Funnily enough its shadow helped show it up: without colour and pattern you see the outline.
Movement is the best clue though and helps you spot even the European Chameleon, a wonderfully bizarre colour-changing reptile. Yes, they really do change their colour to match their background. I have seen it said that their colour changing is “actually” to communicate emotion. This may be true in some species but the fact that I have seen the chameleons here change colour from one background match to another makes me skeptical of it applying to them. Camoflage has more immediate logic.
They don’t seem to know when they are right out of cover. I have stopped for one that was in the middle of a tarmac road. On approaching it, it tried to look more like the leaves it must have recently been hidden in by swaying. Who are you trying to kid? All the same, once it had been gently reintroduced to the overgrown bank beside the road, it vanished in the blink of an eye. That’s the super-power I’d choose to have: invisibility!