Greek islands summer 2019 (Ios, Sifnos, Symi)
Since I moved to Thailand I have longed for a return trip to Greece. The notable limitation is that I am now only able to visit in July because of school holidays. This is certainly not the time to visit and search for reptiles, especially not on some of the islands I chose to visit! I wanted to revisit some old favourites and try at least one new island. Not so easy now that I have visited over thirty Greek islands.
I have always had a tendency to try to avoid the ‘hotspot’ parts of Greece for seeing reptiles, usually because I’ve done them all before or because I like a challenge to visit relatively unknown places for herpetofauna. Needless to say that is what brought me previously to Symi in the Dodecanese over 15 years ago and to Ios in the Cyclades. I followed the limited amount of previous literature on the occurrence of species and then just did my own thing and hoped for the best. Sifnos was a new island for me and I had been curious about the abundance (or rarity) of the vipers occurring there, having only come across historical reports. However, a month before my visit Andre Schmid visited Sifnos and shared some more contemporary observations from this island. Ios is one of my favourite islands, not necessarily because of the reptiles, which do not occur there in big numbers. Symi I had visited many times before and I wished to visit my friends and do some herping. I also had the opportunity to team up with Philippos Katsiyiannis. Needless to say, most searching at this time of year was done at night and generally speaking finding reptiles was very hard work, especially on Symi. With persistence on the three islands I managed to find 20 species (1 amphibian, 9 lizards, 1 tortoise, and 9 snakes). I cannot complain at finding 26 live snakes in July (although 10 of those were Eryx jaculus), 21 of which were found at night.
For sharing experience, tips, taxonomy updates and general conversation prior and during my trip I thank David Buttle, Bo Stille, Stephen Roussos, Andre Schmid, Benny Trapp, Peter Van Issem, Ioannis Ioannidis and Peter Engelen. It was great to finally meet Philippos Katsiyiannis in Symi and have several evenings and mornings out searching together. I also owe an extra special thank you to my friends Nicholas and Adriana Shum (Symi) who allowed me to stay with them once more and to Malcolm Kinnear for his hospitality and funny banter in Ios.
Ios (25th-30th June)
Kat joined me for this part of the trip before heading to Slovakia. I promised I would turn into a ‘beach boy’ on this trip and I did not disappoint. I went to the beach EVERY, SINGLE DAY and I did not hate this. Odd considering that you would have to drag me (probably while sedated) to any beach in Thailand. We had to spend a night in Santorini before heading to Ios. I do like Santorini I just hate the kind of people that the island attracts and the numbers in which they appear in summer. I had a walk in the evening and saw lots of Erhard’s wall lizards (Podarcis erhardi), some Kotschy’s geckos (Mediodactylus kotschyi) and five skins of Cat snake (Telescopus fallax pallidus). I didn’t do a nocturnal hike and went to bed early. Hardcore. Next morning off to Ios where we drove to a remote beach where there was only one accommodation (Air Bnb), which turned out to be very nice. Over the next five days I spent most of the day at one of the beaches and did some occasional evening walks. The island had a lot of rain in the spring so my friend Malcolm was able to show me some ponds which are dry most years. These contained a moderate amount of Water frogs (Pelophylax sp). However, my searches for reptiles were usually during the night. This produced many Kotschy’s geckos, Turkish geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus), 10 Sand boas (Eryx jaculus) (mostly crawling on the roads or in the fields), 2 Four-lined snakes (Elaphe quatuorlineata) and a Nose-horned viper (Vipera ammodytes). The latter was the source of some frustration. I have found vipers on most of the islands surrounding Ios (Sikinos, Iraklia, Antiparos etc) but never on Ios itself. On my final evening on Ios I found a fresh slough of a large female (on the Cyclades 45cm is large!). I returned to the place at night only to find two Sand boas but not the viper I wanted. The following morning as I drove to the port to leave I came across a viper by the side of the road, it has only just been hit although without any obvious damage. A frustrating end to the first part of my trip! However, I found all species occurring on the island apart from the Green toad (Bufotes viridis), which appears to be extremely rare in any case.
Sifnos (1st-6th July)
Firstly, I had no expectations of finding anything interesting on this island but of course I hoped I would be successful nonetheless. A number of people told me that finding the Blunt-nosed viper (Macrovipera schweizeri “siphnensis”) was much harder here than on the other islands. I nearly decided to cancel and just do Milos again, however Bo Stille and Andre Schmid gave a more positive picture of the island and finding it’s herpetofauna. So I stuck to my original plan! After Kat headed home I took one of the few ferries which goes from Ios to Sifnos and four hours later I arrived and picked up my hire car. Then, I drove around the island to pin point likely locations for evening searches. I marked a number of places where I could perhaps find a viper. Immediately after nightfall I had a nice surprise, well two surprises actually. While driving to one of these places I found two vipers (a sub-adult and an adult) crossing the road. Then when I got to the place and started searching I only found some geckos. Over the five nights on Sifnos I found six Blunt-nosed vipers (2 adults, 1 sub-adult and three juveniles), however only one of the adults looked any different to the vipers occurring on the other three islands. In addition, I found two places where I heard (but did not see) Water frogs (Pelophylax sp), Erhard’s wall lizards (Podarcis erhardi), only one adult male Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata hannschweizeri) and a dead on road Caspian whip snake (Dolichophis caspius). These whip snakes are very small compared to elsewhere in their distribution, this one had adult coloration and it was only about 70cm. Overall Sifnos was a very nice island, however it was very busy with traffic but amazingly I did not find any road killed vipers. In Milos I always saw vipers killed on the road in spring and in summer, however the case in Sifnos was probably just coincidence as this island has a lot more traffic.
Okay, so why Symi? Not many species live here and finding what does live there is very hard work. Well, I like the island very much and I have very welcoming and accommodating friends there and of course there are some very nice reptiles too. I have visited this island many times now and I have written and published some works on the herpetofauna. As mentioned, finding some reptiles (especially snakes) is very hard work on Symi, even in spring. You can spend ridiculous amounts of time searching stonewalls without finding anything but cast skins. In the end you know the places by heart and finding any snake feels like a real achievement. In summer time many animals seem to aestivate due to the unbearable heat, this was especially noticeable with Spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca), a very common species on the island, which was nowhere to be seen at any time of day apart from one adult found aestivating inside the hollow of a drystone wall. I knew that Philippos was arriving on the island for herping a few days after me so I took things slowly those first days. Despite the heat the common species were still out at certain times of day; Starred agama (Laudakia stellio), Oertzen’s rock lizard (Anatolacerta pelasgiana), Snake-eyed lacertid (Ophisops elegans), Turkish gecko, Kotschy’s gecko and a road killed Dwarf snake (Eirenis modestus). One night I found a large Cat snake (Telescopus fallax) out crawling and I spent some time tracking and photographing Scops owls (Otus scops). One day as I walked back from the beach I saw a Black whip snake (Dolichophis jugularis) vanishing into a crevice by the roadside in 40c heat. Once Philippos arrived I got back into searching (mostly at night of course) and although our searches were mostly frustrating and fruitless we can look back on some highlights, although probably because of exceptional luck! Also, moments before Philippos arrived on Symi I did a rare daytime (evening) search and I found an active Dwarf snake (Eirenis modestus) crawling at the base of a stonewall. During three nights of intense searching we found only two active snakes; a Cat snake (Telescopus fallax) found by Philippos and then I had the honour of finding the highlight of the trip, a beautiful male Ottoman viper (Montivipera xanthina). That previous morning we had a found a fresh slough of a very large viper but despite revisiting the spot several evenings, mornings and nights, we never saw the beast. Occasional morning searches were mostly not productive but we did see a couple of vanishing Black whip snakes and found several sloughed skins of the same species. One night we found our only live Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), this one clearly aestivating inside of a drystone wall. The only other species I was able to find was a Golden skink (Trachylepis aurata), not so common here and sadly I didn’t manage to take a photograph before it disappeared into a pile of rocks. The Coin-marked snake (Hemorrhois nummifer) was the ultimate prize for Philippos but despite searching tirelessly in places I had seen them before we could not find this species, day or night. Interestingly my friend Nicholas twice saw a juvenile specimen while out working during my stay and he was able to take a photo on his phone. A large portion of luck is needed while searching at this time of year! The island’s only amphibian species, the Green toad (Bufotes viridis) was nowhere to be seen.
Pelophylax sp Ios and Sifnos
Podarcis erhardi (ssp erhardi) Sifnos, Ios, Santorini
Anatolacerta pelasgiana Symi
Ophisops elegans Symi
Lacerta trilineata (ssp hanschweizeri) Sifnos
Ablepharus kitaibelli Sifnos, Symi
Mediodactylus kotschyi (ssp buckovi and spp….) Santorini, Ios, Sifnos and Symi
Hemidactylus turcicus Santorini, Ios, Sifnos and Symi
Stellagama stellio Symi
Trachylepis auratus (1) Symi
Testudo graeca (1 live, 1 dead) Symi
Eryx jaculus (10 live + 3 DOR) Ios
Dolichophis caspius (1 DOR) Sifnos
Dolichophis jugularis (2 adults, 5 sloughs) Symi
Telescopus fallax pallidus (10 sloughs) Santorini
Telescopus fallax ‘rhodicus’ (2 adults) Symi
Elaphe quatuorlineata muenteri (1 adult, 1 juvenile) Ios
Eirenis modestus (1 live, 1 DOR) Symi
Vipera ammodytes (1 DOR, 1 fresh slough) Ios
Macrovipera schweizeri “siphnensis” (6 specimens) Sifnos
Montivipera xanthina (1 adult male and x1 95cm slough) Symi
What I missed:
Sifnos: Mauremys rivulata (extinct?), Zamenis situla
Symi: Bufotes viridis, Blanus strauchi, Typhlops vermicularis, Hemorrhois nummifer