(Macrovipera schweizeri) (Werner, 1935)
A rare red individual waiting in ambush by the edge of a pool of water for birds.
My first Greece trip since the hateful Covid made an appearance, just under four weeks across six islands in the Cyclades including some of my favourites. Most of my previous trips to the Greek islands have been in summer as that is all I can do with school holidays now that I live almost at the other side of the world. Circumstances outside of my control allowed me to have several months free so I couldn’t resist an extended trip to my favourite place! Although searching alone is somewhat harder work, I enjoyed going at my own pace during this trip. Thanks to Ilias Strachinis, Thomas Daftsios, Andre Schmid, Peter Engelen, Budi Lord, Panayotis Sachas, Mario Schweiger and Bobby Bok for some sneaky hints along the way.
I flew from the chaotic Manchester airport to Santorini where I would spend the first few days of my Cyclades island hopping trip. Despite the very poor number of species occurring here (3 lizards, 2 snakes) it is quite a nice island and very different from the others in the Cyclades due to its volcanic nature. That being said it was super busy and I spent quite a bit of time sitting in traffic. Taking things quite easy to begin with I did some extensive hikes in the more natural parts of Santorini while keeping an eye out for the species present here. Erhard’s wall lizard (Podarcis erhardii) were seen everywhere in very large numbers. Also commonly basking were Kotschy’s gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi) and some Turkish gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) were found under rocks.
Under one rock I found an Ocellated skink (Chalcides ocellatus), a new species for the island. It was the only individual I saw which may indicate that it is not at all common. During previous visits to Santorini I have seen several Cretan cat snakes (Telescopus fallax pallidus) and lots of skins protruding from the many drystone walls. This time I didn’t see a single shed skin and the only sign of this snake was a dead animal found under a rock. However, moments after setting out in the hire car after my arrival I found a pre-slough Leopard snake (Zamenis situla) which is not at all common on Santorini. I was very happy about that as this snake was the one I least expected to find on this trip as only Milos seems to give a reasonable chance of seeing it.
The small Cyclades south of Naxos consist of Iraklia, Schinoussa, Kato Koufonisi, Epano Koufonisi, the large, uninhabited island of Keros and other islets. Some of these islands have Nose-horned vipers (Vipera ammodytes) and all have Sand boas (Eryx jaculus) although they are harder to find here compared to larger, nearby islands like Naxos and Amorgos. My arrival here was soured by food poisoning so I spent the first 2/4 days in bed or running to the bathroom. Once I got my strength back I managed to find five Nose-horned vipers, and also a DOR individual that had been consuming a large centipede when it has been crushed. One of the living vipers managed to escape into a stone wall by the side of the road on a hot afternoon before I could take photos. I heard it hissing to the sound of “see you never malaka” at my presence as I walked to the supermarket and then I saw a flash of zig-zag as it vanished. Erhard’s wall lizards occur here in smaller densities than on larger islands but both gecko species live in very dense numbers.
It seems that I cannot do a trip to the Cyclades without going to Ios. I really like this island, it has a good vibe about it, plenty of open access countryside, great food and some nice reptiles. I have found all species here before albeit in small numbers as I have only visited the island in the summer on previous occasions. My six days here on this trip was a much greater success compared to my previous visits with the countryside in full spring bloom. I saw all 10 species of recorded herpetofauna although some were much harder to track down than others. Erhard’s wall lizard, the two geckos and Sand boas (Eryx jaculus) were super common and found pretty much everywhere. I lost count of how many boas I saw but it was well over 20. They were mostly found under rocks but also crossing the road, even in the afternoon on warm, sunny days. Also, more abundant this time were Nose-horned vipers, here a little bigger than on the Small Cyclades. I found six vipers (3 females and 3 males), an additional male freshly killed on the road as well as a juvenile Four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata muenteri). Snake-eyed skinks (Ablepharus kitaibelli) were occasionally seen but not photographed.
Two amphibians occur on Ios, the Water frog (Pelophylax sp) and Green toad (Bufotes viridis). Both are uncommon and very localised, the toad was not even recorded from here until a few years ago. This time I could only find frogs at one locality, and there in only very small numbers. I only saw perhaps 5-6 individuals. The toads did better it seems and I found a couple of breeding pools. One was in a very remote area of the island in the form of a water hole where livestock can take a drink. I went there one night and found a male singing from the pool and other adults around the edges and on the road. Eleanora’s falcons (Falco eleonorae) were also seen in big numbers on the island.
The species most on my wishlist was the Tinos green lizard (Lacerta citrovittata). Not green at all but here more of a grey or bluish colour. In 2014 I saw a male and a female at one spot but that was it. I revisited this area pretty much every day but I could not find a single lizard. I searched many areas of the island and after six days I had not seen one despite seeing the other species in good abundance. On my last day on Ios I nearly decided to take a day off and return the hire car. Luckily I came to my senses and kept the car until my evening ferry to Milos. Not only did I find another viper and two adult Four-lined snakes (I had only found a juvenile a few days before) but I finally found the Tinos green lizard! I turned a corner on a sharp bend and I could see the lizard sitting by the side of the road. I quickly messed around to get my 300mm lens onto the camera and amazingly this normally very shy lizard allowed for a close approach. A great way to end my stay on Ios! I’ve no idea why these lizards are so hard to find here but one individual in six days during the peak season for reptiles says it all. Thanks again to Malcolm, an Ios resident who again shared some of the island’s best culinary experiences with me during my stay.
So I wasn’t planning on coming to Milos on this trip as I knew that the island would be busy with other people looking for snakes at this time of year, especially the Milos viper (Macrovipera schweizeri). I wanted to take in situ photos of the vipers showing their spring behaviour of ambushing small birds close to water sources. I assumed that if other people were going and catching vipers etc that the snakes would be disturbed too frequently and there would be reduced numbers near the water holes. But I decided to go for it anyway and I’m glad I did!
The Milos wall lizard (Podarcis milensis), the common yet super shy endemic lizard was a pleasure as always. Once again my reliable spot where they are a little more used to people came in handy as most lizards encountered were off before I could get a photo. The two geckos were again common and seen everywhere. The Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata hanschweizeri) was seen a few times without any photos taken. I was too lazy to hike to a place somewhat uphill where I had seen them in greater abundance on previous trips to Milos.
As for the vipers I saw 10 individuals, 6 ambushing birds and 4 in cultivated areas near stone walls etc. I also saw two vipers that had been killed on the roads. On my first day of searching I struck gold with a reddish viper sitting in ambush near a small pool of water. I managed to take lots of in situ photos of this individual without it knowing that I was there which was one of the highlights of the entire trip. Watching the other vipers setting up their ambush from a distance was also a great experience compared to my other trips to see these vipers in the past. I did less well with the other snakes found on the island. I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to get better photos of the Milos grass snake (Natrix natrix schweizeri). This snake was actually the other main reason I came to Milos on this trip as herping friends had quite some success in finding this rare subspecies a few weeks previously. However, a fleeting glimpse of a melanistic individual was all I was permitted to have for this visit. I tried early in the morning, middle of the day, the evening and even at night to no avail. My excuse was that the vegetation around their water sources was too dense for me to see them basking or reach the water’s edge. Poor excuse but that’s all I’ve got. As for the rest, quite cool nights didn’t allow me to see any Cat snake (Telescopus fallax) although I did find one killed on the road. Same for the Leopard snake (Zamenis situla), a large 110cm road kill was found one morning.
After my last visit to this island in 2019 I decided that it deserved at least a few days during this trip. Sifnos has quite a different landscape compared to the other three islands where the Milos viper occurs with lots of steep cultivated land with endless drystone walls. I was hoping to try and see vipers here ambushing birds near water sources like I had done in Milos. However, after visiting four such locations during my first half day I realised this would be a lot trickier on Sifnos. Although some natural water sources are still present in steep valleys on the island, they are heavily cultivated and most have all of the surrounding vegetation completely cleared. No doubt some vipers still use such places for hunting birds, but the landscape of this island has been changed significantly enough that seeing such behaviour would be a lot more difficult. In the end I did not see any vipers near such water holes. But I did find three individuals in other habitats and one juvenile crossing the road which escaped before I could take photos. The three adults were all large, bigger than any of the vipers I saw on Milos this trip although this could be a coincidence. I only bothered one of the vipers for photos, the other two retreated into a stone wall and a dense bush.
As for the other herpetofauna, I heard but did not see Marsh frogs (Pelophylax sp), Erhard’s wall lizard and Kotschy’s gecko were omnipresent like everywhere and I saw a few retreating Balkan green lizards without managing a photo. I also saw a lightning fast Caspian whip snake (Dolichophis caspius) vanish into a bush one morning and I also found a juvenile of the same species. A further adult was seen crossing the road and another was found dead on the road. The Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata) is probably extinct here now that the coastal wetlands in Kamares no longer exist. In the end I was sad to leave Sifnos and I wished I had stayed there for more days. It is a quiet island at this time of year, even compared to Milos and certainly a stark contrast to the next island I would visit…
Why oh why did I choose to go to Mykonos? Over-priced, hectic and not the kind of island for looking for wildlife, you would think. Well, there are direct flights to Manchester so that made an easier end to my trip than going to Athens. But also this chaotic island does have some positive sides. The eastern half of Mykonos feels like a different place, perhaps like you are on Tinos or Andros as it is much quieter and less developed. The Milos grass snake also occurs here, but like in Milos it is rare and not easy to find. I stayed for 3 days on the island and despite the expected nasty prices for pretty much everything, chaotic traffic etc, I actually kind of enjoyed looking for reptiles here.
The Starred agama (Stellagama stellio) is super common everywhere here and they are always a pleasure to see. Wall lizards (Podarcis erhardii mykonensis) are also very common. One Tinos green lizard was seen fleeing into a dense bush one morning. They are so tricky to photograph! At some fairly decent water sources there are Water frogs (Pelophylax sp) and the occasional Balkan terrapin (Mauremys rivulata). Terrapins in particular seem to be an endangered species in the Cyclades in general and more needs to be done to protect their vanishing fresh water sources. For such an up market and expensive island you would think that these precious water sources would be valued more from a conservation perspective. Sadly they are mostly just rubbish dumps for nearby hotels and beach clubs.
Things really seemed to heat up on Mykonos, and the temperatures were starting to feel like summer. The landscape was also starting to turn brown in contrast to the blooming fields a few weeks ago. By 9am it was too hot for me to be out walking around so not surprisingly most of the snakes were found at night. However, two Nose-horned vipers were found early in the morning and at dusk while the three others were found after dark. The male vipers on these more northerly islands are a darker grey compared to those from Naxos, Ios, Paros etc. A sub-adult Four-lined snake was also found out crawling after nightfall and an adult was seen hunting a drystone wall early in the morning. Despite more considerable efforts I once again missed the Grass snake, this species was the biggest fail of the trip. However, with over 60 live snakes observed during my stay on the islands I cannot complain! And missing things is always a good excuse to return, although I will search for them on Milos and leave Mykonos alone next time!