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 Post subject: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 14th, 2013, 9:23 pm 
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Location: Monterey Peninsula, CA
I recently spent 12 days on a Holland America big-ship cruise in the Mediterranean Sea with my wife Monica and her sister and her mom. Opportunities for herping were few and brief: we mostly visited cultural sites, and mostly in tour groups with limited autonomy. We slept on the ship every night, and had to be back aboard well before dark, so there were no chances to see any nighttime critters. I had set my sights low; my goal was to see at least one herp on the trip. But I took what few opportunities I had and was pleasantly surprised to return with a list of 10 species, all new to me since I had never done any herping in Europe.

Our first stop was Athens, Greece. I didn't see any herps in Athens proper, except for some turtles glimpsed at a distance at night in an artificial pond, which could very well have been red-eared sliders. But one afternoon we drove about 40 miles to Cape Sounion to see the remains of the ancient Temple of Poseidon. At the top of the short walk up the hill I turned my head to see a Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata) plodding along.

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Habitat shot:

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The next stop was the island of Thira, better known by the unofficial name of Santorini, which is apparently the most visited and most famous island in Greece. (Though not to me; the only Greek island I could have named before this trip was Corfu, about which more later.) The tour guide tried to explain why it is now so famous. I think I misunderstood or simply missed part of this explanation, but the short form that stuck in my head is "It used to be a large island, but most of it blew away in a huge volcanic explosion, so now it is adjacent to the world's largest caldera. Also, archaeologists found some really old ruins on it. Also, all the buildings were demolished by an earthquake in 1956 and have since been rebuilt. Also, it has cool curvy white buildings built around the lumpy volcanic structure, and a thriving artist community." To me, that was not a clear explanation of why it is such a popular destination. Nonetheless, the curvy white buildings were cool. And it has one species of wall lizard, Erhard's Wall Lizard (Podarcis erhardii), a few of which I saw around town.

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Habitat shot:

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The next day we docked in the port of Katakolon, on Greece's Pelloponese peninsula. Monica and I had about an hour to wander about the small port town by ourselves in the morning. Katakolon basically consists of two short parallel streets full of tourist shops, and a small beach. We walked along the beach and then back through the street o' shops. A few concrete posts harbored wary lizards, which turned out to be Moorish Geckos (Tarentola mauritanica). These largeish geckos are primarily nocturnal but do sometimes bask in the sun when it's not too hot. They did not tolerate close approach. This is the closest photo I could get with my 100mm lens:

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From Katakolon we boarded a tour bus to drive inland to the site of the ancient Olympics, in a town named (you guessed it!) Olympia. As our tour guide told tales of the naked athletes of old, I noticed Peloponnese Wall Lizards (Podarcis peloponnesiaca) perched on rocks and stone wall ruins.

Males:

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Female:

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Habitat shot:

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After the tour, while Monica and her family members finished some spanakopita and Mythos beer at a cafe just outside the entrance to Ancient Olympia, I had a fifteen-minute opportunity to look around. I found a walking path that paralleled a small stream, and saw a bunch of frogs jump into the water and disappear. With my remaining minutes of freedom ticking away, I finally spotted one of the frogs before it leapt away. I guessed that this was a Balkan Stream Frog (Rana graeca), but krismunk suggested that it is more likely a Balkan Frog (Pelophylax kurtmuelleri), and I agree.

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In two days in Venice, I did not scare up any herps at all.

Next we visited Croatia for two days. On the first day we docked at the city of Split, which has lots of history involving a Christian-oppressing early-retiring emperor of Rome named Diocletian. But we skipped all that to opt instead for a trip inland to visit the town of Sibenik (no herps encountered) and a beautiful park most known for its impressive waterfalls, Krka National Park. We had about an hour and a half to circumnavigate the main falls area on a network of paths and boardwalks along with hundreds of other people. I spotted a few Marsh Frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus, formerly Rana ridibunda) in and around shallow areas of relatively still water. Each time I stopped, I would attract a crowd of other tourists first trying to figure out what I was photographing and then taking their turns at photos. So these particular frogs are probably going to appear in dozens of iPhoto albums, Flickr sets, and scrapbooks.

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We returned to the bus about ten minutes before the deadline, and I took about eight of those precious minutes to check out a quiet little vegetated site along the water's edge that I had noticed when we had arrived. I spooked four or five more frogs into splashing out of sight before I saw a plain-colored, adult-garter-snake-sized serpent slither off into the water and lose itself in some semi-submerged vegetation. Thirty seconds later I had seen another similarly-sized one, and also a small one, but they too vanished within a couple of seconds of being sighted. I was happy to have finally seen some European snakes, but a little bummed that I hadn't gotten any photos, when my eye caught the movement of a tiny snake still on land, heading toward the water that was a couple of feet away. I prefer in situ photos whenever possible, but I wasn't about to let this little guy reach the water and escape, so I gently picked it up and coerced it into holding a pose for a few seconds a little bit further from the watery freedom of which it was no doubt dreaming. This is a neonate Dice Snake (Natrix tesselata).

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Habitat shot:

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The bus then took us to a restaurant near the entrance to Krka. A small rock garden outside the restaurant was home to a few pretty green Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis sicula campestris).

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After lunch I had a few minutes to poke around the outside of the restaurant before all the other tourists made their way back to the bus. I saw only one more lizard. At the time I thought it was a different species because its stripes were much more delineated and it lacked any prominent green coloration. But after later consulting my field guide (E. Nichols Arnold and Denys W. Ovenden's "Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe"), I concluded that it was probably a juvenile and/or female P. s. campestris after all. krismunk, who knows the European herps far better than I do, suggests that it might be a Dalmatian Wall Lizard (Podarcis melissellensis). I asked on fieldherping.eu (thread http://fieldherping.eu/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=1611) and people have agreed. So I'm calling this one a Dalmatian Wall Lizard now. Apparently P. sicula is the more dominant species, and pushes P. melissellensis into less desirable habitat, akin to the situation in Florida with Anolis sagrei and Anolis carolinensis.

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Our second day in Croatia was spent in the walled city of Dubrovnik, which has essentially no greenery and as far as I could tell no wild animals except pigeons. But oh my, are there ever a lot of pigeons. This is what happens when they are fed as a noon-time tourist entertainment:

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The penultimate stop for our ship was at the Greek island of Kerkyra, better known as Corfu to the English-speaking world. "Corfu" is a magical word to me, as it means one thing and one thing only: it is where the great writer and conservationist Gerald Durrell spent his formative years, and thus is the setting of his first and finest book My Family and Other Animals. (Some of his other books contain more stories from his days on Corfu too.) If you have never read My Family and Other Animals then you should be reading that instead of this. No, really, go read it now. Come back here when you're done.

I was really hoping to see some sort of herp -- any sort of herp -- on Corfu, to honor the memory of the late Mr. Durrell. We started the day with a visit to the Achilleion, which is a palace that intentionally looks like something from ancient Greece but was actually built in 1890 by the grieving empress of Austria to honor her son who had the previous year scandalously killed his mistress and then himself in a murder-suicide pact whose repercussions eventually led to the assassination that kicked of World War I. (It seems that everywhere you turn in Europe, history looms.) As we wandered the gardens of the Achilleion, I spied a few Blue-throated Keeled Lizards a.k.a. Dalmatian Algyroides (Algyroides nigropunctatus) warming up on rock walls and tree trunks in the morning sun.

Males:

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Female:

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Yay! Herps from Corfu! If our cruise ship sank now, I would die happy.

Then our tour group entered the building, where there was much art, and many, many people. I opted out of this part of the tour to further check out the grounds. I soon spotted a large and robust agamid perched on a rock wall. It was a Starred Agama (Stellagama (Laudakia) stellio), the only agamid species whose range reaches north to Europe. S. stellio is not native to Corfu though; it was apparently introduced there in about 1915. But that's still before Gerald Durrell was on Corfu, so that counts as native in my book.

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Habitat shots:

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We next visited the Old Town of Corfu. Between the shoreline and the fortified town lies a grassy park called Esplanade Square. Our tour guide mentioned that there was a "big, rare lizard" that "only lived in this square". This latter claim seemed pretty dubious to me, but hey, I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to look for a lizard that our tour guide had specifically mentioned. So after a delicious lunch at an outdoor cafe, I split off from Monica and her family so that they could enjoy a leisurely extra beer and meander about Old Town while I did some public park herping, Corfu-style.

More Algyroides nigropunctatus scuttled about on rocks and pavement alike. You gotta love those blue heads.

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Habitat shots:

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While wandering about the park, camera in hand, I struck up a conversation with a British woman who was out walking her dog. Soon the topic turned to Gerald Durrell and she told me that he and his brother Lawrence (Larry!) were honored by small monuments in this very park, over near the shoreline side. I tracked the Durrells down:

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I ended up seeing the "big, rare lizards" all around the park, but the most cooperative one was basking on a stump appropriately close to the statue/bust/plaque/whatever of Gerald Durrell, lover of all wildlife:

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As you can guess if you've been paying attention, these were the same Stellagama stellio that I had seen earlier in the day at the Achilleion. So much for "only lived in this square". Ah well, they are still very fine lizards, and seeing them near a monument to Gerald Durrell was a very satisfying way to end the bits of herping that I squeezed into our cruise vacation.

On our final day we went to Rome and Vatican City. These areas were tragically herp-free, if you don't count the snake in the Garden of Eden part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 12:14 am 

Joined: June 7th, 2010, 6:53 am
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Location: Stroud , UK
Congratulations, for somebody that was just walking around in spare moments you certainly saw some nice species.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 6:09 am 
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Interesting post!
:beer:


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 6:11 am 
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Location: Yorkshire, England
Not a bad list considering you didn't have much time to herp! Shame you didn't have more time to spend on Corfu.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 8:25 am 
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Nice stuff. As the previous commenter have said, you did really well considering it not being a herping trip.

Your cruise must have been a nice way to see the important historical and natural sites efficiently and in comfort, but I'd highly recommend flying over and hiring a car for a week or two. Croatia is great for this sort of thing. Decent roads, accommodation everywhere (by the roadside, so no need to plan ahead) and highly variable environments. Definitely one of my top countries to visit.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 8:35 am 
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I love this post because it shows the angst of the field herper. We might be in one of the most beautiful and historical parts of the word, but it is made that much better when we can knock off 10 species of herp. Best part of the trip :thumb:


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 15th, 2013, 8:52 am 
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My only complaint about your posts is that there aren't more of them. Great photos, and a very cool mix of creatures! The "habitat" shots were pretty great, too, as were the literary recommendations...

JimM


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 5:22 am 
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Thanks everyone!

kevinb: I was definitely happy to see as many animals as I did, even though I could obviously have found many more if the emphasis of the trip had been different.

reptilist: I will assume that one of those beers is a Mythos from Greece and the other is an Ozujsko from Croatia.

mrichardson: Corfu looks like a great place to herp -- lots of greenery and lots of changes in elevation. Perhaps someday!

Martti: It's good to hear that navigation in Croatia is easy. The scenery was fantastic, and there was lots of undeveloped/uninhabited land for herps. I would love to get back there.

Mike: For sure.

JAMAUGHN: I have been pretty remiss in posting to FHF. I will try to do so more often. Of course that means I'll have to go find some post-worthy animals. Sounds like a plan.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 7:40 am 

Joined: June 7th, 2010, 11:17 am
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Great Post Ribbit! And beautiful habitat shots!

Quote:
On our final day we went to Rome and Vatican City. These areas were tragically herp-free


I'm a little surprised that you struck out on herps in Rome though. I think I saw a higher density of Podarcis sp. at the Palatine Hill than anywhere else in Italy when I went on a non-herping trip a few years ago.

Chris


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 7:45 am 
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Thanks Chris. I'm sure the green(-ish) spaces in Rome are full of wall lizards at least. But we spent most of the day inside the Vatican Museum, and then just an hour or two walking around downtown where it's pretty much solid buildings.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 9:20 am 
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Thanks for an nice thread with an enjoyable mix of narrative, herp & habitat shots :)

A couple of remarks on the ID's, though...

You're "Rana graeca" looks rather like Pelophylax sp.. In the Peloponnese that leaves two possibilities - P. epeiroticus and P. kurtmuelleri. I'm not comfortable trying to make an ID based on the picture but the location should make it the latter.

... & your "different" looking Podarcis sicula looks more like P. melisellensis to me. The two can be quite difficult to tell apart, however.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 10:34 am 
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Thanks krismunk!

I see that Pelophylax has been resurrected but I guess too late to be included in my Arnold and Ovenden field guide. I also see that my field guide does list a bunch more frog species than I thought -- I was starting with the illustrations, then looking at the ranges, then looking at the descriptions. But there are a bunch of species that aren't illustrated, so I overlooked those completely.

I agree that it looks more like Pelophylax. I'll amend the text and my notes.

I tried to read up earlier on how to distinguish Podarcis sicula from P. melisellensis. My field guide showed a difference in the masseteric scale between the eye and ear. When I zoom in on my original photos, it looks to me like that scale more closely matches the figure for P. sicula than P. melisellensis. On the other hand, the image I've found that looks the most like mine is identified as P. melisellensis (the second one on this page: http://www.focusnatura.at/mediterranean/vertebrata/reptilia-reptilien/lacertidae-eidechsen-lizards). (On the other hand, that photograph might be misidentified.) Also, P. sicula is described as "often more flattened" than P. melisellensis, and my photo of the ambiguous lizard does look less flattened than the photos of the green ones. But it seems surprising that two such closely related species would coexist on the grounds of a small restaurant. Are they that sympatric? Any other clues to distinguish the two species?

Thanks again,

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 10:54 am 
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Excellent report. Looks like a wonderful trip, John. Santorini is certainly a beautiful place.

I saw Moorish Geckos (Tarentola mauritanica) a couple of years ago in Italy. They also were active by day. From a distance, I always thought "Sceloporus" when I saw these on a fence or rock pile.

Those Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis sicula campestris) and the Dalmatian Algyroides (Algyroides nigropunctatus) were incredible ... such vivid colours.


Regards,
David


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 11:00 am 
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Thanks David. You nailed it with the Sceloporus comparison. The Moorish Geckos moved much more like U.S. fence lizards than like typical geckos.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 11:50 am 
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Ribbit wrote:
I tried to read up earlier on how to distinguish Podarcis sicula from P. melisellensis. My field guide showed a difference in the masseteric scale between the eye and ear. When I zoom in on my original photos, it looks to me like that scale more closely matches the figure for P. sicula than P. melisellensis. On the other hand, the image I've found that looks the most like mine is identified as P. melisellensis (the second one on this page: http://www.focusnatura.at/mediterranean/vertebrata/reptilia-reptilien/lacertidae-eidechsen-lizards). (On the other hand, that photograph might be misidentified.) Also, P. sicula is described as "often more flattened" than P. melisellensis, and my photo of the ambiguous lizard does look less flattened than the photos of the green ones. But it seems surprising that two such closely related species would coexist on the grounds of a small restaurant. Are they that sympatric? Any other clues to distinguish the two species?


Usually, the two species are not syntopic, the larger, more aggressive sicula a recent Italian invader displacing the autochtonous melisellensis through competitive exclusion. Syntopy is known, though, but it seems sicula in these case tends to be more abundant, generally forcing melisellensis into less favourable microhabitats.

In relation to identification, I have no knowledge of any distinguishing features besides those mentioned in Arnold's field guide. My somewhat tentative ID was based on jizz rather than any specicfic features. I must admit to limited experience with melisellensis, though, so you might want to seek confirmation elsewhere. Post the pic on fieldherping.eu and you'll be sure to get a positive ID ;-)


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 12:23 pm 
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krismunk, thanks for the additional info. I've now registered for fieldherping.eu and will ask there once my account has been activated.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 16th, 2013, 2:38 pm 
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krismunk wrote:
In relation to identification, I have no knowledge of any distinguishing features besides those mentioned in Arnold's field guide. My somewhat tentative ID was based on jizz rather than any specicfic features. I must admit to limited experience with melisellensis, though, so you might want to seek confirmation elsewhere. Post the pic on fieldherping.eu and you'll be sure to get a positive ID ;-)


Missed that on the first read. It certainly has a melisellensis look to it with the undisrupted dorsolateral lines.

*Look to fieldherping.eu for actual expertise*


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 18th, 2013, 9:50 am 
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The consensus (at least so far) on fieldherping.eu is that the brown-ish lizard is indeed P. melissellensis. Thanks again to krismunk and Martti for sending me that direction.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 21st, 2013, 7:49 am 
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Great post. Great photos, love the "habitat shots". But the best thing in your post was

Quote:
"Corfu" is a magical word to me, as it means one thing and one thing only: it is where the great writer and conservationist Gerald Durrell spent his formative years, and thus is the setting of his first and finest book My Family and Other Animals. (Some of his other books contain more stories from his days on Corfu too.) If you have never read My Family and Other Animals then you should be reading that instead of this. No, really, go read it now. Come back here when you're done.


I couldn't agree more. It may be hard for the younger FHF users (like under 30! :lol: ) to imagine, but there was a time that to do what we are doing here and be transported to far-away lands to read adventures about herping (or other animal finding), you only had access to B-O-O-K-S like My Family and Other Animals. (Man, I can't believe I just typed that. What an old codger!)

Durrell's books are magnificent and a must read for all herpers and animal lovers. I much prefer them to Kauffeld's books, for example. Pick one up, start the first chapter, you'll be hooked.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 21st, 2013, 3:20 pm 
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Thanks cherish. I was just looking into Durrell's bibliography and discovered that memory was faulty. My Family and Other Animals was his sixth book rather than his first, following The Overloaded Ark, The Bafut Beagles, Three Singles to Adventure (Three Tickets to Adventure in the USA), The New Noah, and the Drunken Forest. I've read them all and they're all great.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 25th, 2013, 7:42 am 
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Talk about maximizing your chances! Very cool, John.

I have not read My Family and Other Animals, but will do so, in honor of this fine post.

-Mike


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 25th, 2013, 8:16 am 

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Cool!

I needed a new book, so thanx for that too.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 25th, 2013, 8:08 pm 
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Mike and Matt: I'll bet you get hooked on Durrell. He's a pretty irresistible writer for wild animal lovers.

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 26th, 2013, 11:32 am 

Joined: June 25th, 2010, 10:32 am
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What? No feral chameleons, John. Beautiful post.
We have every Durrell book we've ever been able to scare up here. All are very well thumbed.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 27th, 2013, 8:37 am 
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Tragically, Dick, I saw neither feral nor native chameleons. I guess I'll have to head back to Florida to get my next chameleon hit! (Hmm, now you've got me thinking about chameleons, and I haven't been to Madagascar in awhile...)

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 27th, 2013, 11:24 am 
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Ribbit wrote:
Tragically, Dick, I saw neither feral nor native chameleons. I guess I'll have to head back to Florida to get my next chameleon hit! (Hmm, now you've got me thinking about chameleons, and I haven't been to Madagascar in awhile...)


No native chameleons where you went, I'm afraid.
Madagascar is obviously another story.


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 27th, 2013, 1:03 pm 

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John

Great post, I really enjoyed it! I'm glad you saw some very cool things on the trip. I just did some cruise ship herping myself. Thanks for the narrative!

Matt


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 27th, 2013, 1:18 pm 
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Thanks Matt! Where can we see the results of your cruise herping?

John


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 Post subject: Re: Opportunistic Mediterranean cruise herping
PostPosted: June 27th, 2013, 1:22 pm 
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Martti, it looks like we were close to the native range of Chamaeleo chamaeleon -- we "sailed" past Sicily, e.g. But not quite close enough!

John


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