Kouphonissia- field frustrations and redemption

I arrived in Kouphonissia early Tuesday morning, well before Johannes arrived on the island, so I decided to take a quick excursion to a nearby island that had never been surveyed for reptiles. As, for this I was working for Johannes, I was given permits to collect any reptiles I could find so we could add them to the range database and piece them into the genetic puzzle slowly coming together across the Cyclades. I was very excited to get out there and “make a contribution.”

I arranged a ferry ride with a salty old sailor wearing what I found out was a signature bandana and sporting a big mustache. We communicated inefficiently, but he knew Johannes and we soon got the idea sorted out; he’d take me at 11 and return to pick me up at 5. Perfect! Six whole hours in the field with plenty of time to catch some lizards.

The ride to the island was nice and short as much of the island was easily visible from Kouphonissia. We were dropped off at the only few houses on the island and I walked fast as I could carrying all of my gear through town and into the fields. My plan was to leave the little town and the touristy beaches behind and get a look at some pristine island life.

After squirreling my way through many rusty goat fences and walking a couple of kilometers into the heart of the island, I decided to put my things down under a big shady tree and test my luck. I’d already seen a handful of the Podarcis species most common on the islands, so at first I didn’t make much of an effort to catch them. I decided I first wanted to get some good photographs of the species with my camera. Armed with the telephoto lens I began stalking my quarry. All of a sudden, there were next to no lizards!

Talking with Johannes later I learned that these lizards (like just about all of the people inhabitants of Greece) stay very close to home during the heat of the day. From about 1:00 pm to 4:00 when the sun is scorching overhead, these little lizards are perfectly content to spend their time under cover in bushes where they still get all of the heat they need.

I was working in this heat, frantically trying to capture a lizard first with my camera and then when I realized how unlikely it was going to be for me to catch anything, with a fishing pole and lizard noose. Eventually I even resorted to tearing apart my ham and cheese croissant lunch and using the ham as bait. Still… None of my tricks worked. I could hear the occasional lizard rustling in the bushes but they eluded my lens and my hand.

I took the ferry back feeling dejected. I wasn’t looking forward to telling Johannes I’d missed this chance for new data because for some reason my skills weren’t up to snuff. Of course, as soon as I got off the ferry Johannes and an undergraduate research assistant were there to greet me. I shared the bad news feeling in no bit like a “real herpetologist” though Johannes did cheer me up by saying that he wasn’t surprised that the lizards were so wary given how hot the day had been. He went on to say that now (about 6:00 pm) would be a terrific time to catch lizards around Kouphonissia and so, anxious to prove myself, I set out hiking out of town with the research assistant.

Kouphonissia, like many towns in this area is ringed with fields lined with tall stone walls. Lizards love stone walls so we decided to spend our time walking some of these with out eyes open and nooses ready. After several misses I began regretting my promise that we wouldn’t come back for dinner until we had a lizard in hand, but finally I caught my first Podarcis erhardii. Victory! We wouldn’t be going back to Johannes empty handed! As the light faded the geckos came out and we managed to also snag several of them. Feeling quite good about our catch we decided to wander into a farmer’s plot to flip some trash in search of more lizards or perhaps a snake.

Property laws are quite different in Greece. Everyone is pretty lax about walking across each other’s fields, but we still felt a bit guilty as we hopped over a gate and began looking through scraps of wood. Much to our surprise and consternation the first car we’d seen in at least 20 minutes of lizard searching happened to belong to the owner of the field we were tromping through! He stopped his car outside the gate, got out, swung the gate wide and motioned to us as we walked towards him. I was frantically trying to remember how to say I’m sorry in Greek but the field assistant, a classics major at U of M saved the day by (he translated later) saying that we were from the university and looking for lizards. The farmer gave a big smile and said we were welcome to search around.

Surprised and relieved we went back to our work flipping rocks and boards. All of a sudden, flipping some long boards on top of a fishing net I spotted a tail slithering away, deeper into the nets. It was a snake, and more excitingly, a venomous viper! I sent the field assistant running for the bucket as I began digging through the pile after it. The field assistant returned at a run with a bucket just as I was removing the last layer of nets to find the viper cornered. We put down the bucket in front of the snake and I began trying to lift it into the bucket with a stick, but the stick broke and the snake made a dash for a hole in the ground. The field assistant pinned the last third of the body outside of the hole, after the first half was already in. At this point it was all or nothing, I grabbed the tail with my gloved hand and ever so carefully lifted the snake into the bucket. We let out an immense sigh of relief and, beaming, we both started walking to the road with the day ending better than I had even hoped.

Watching the commotion the farmer came over to investigate what we’d captured in his field. I don’t speak any Greek but no translation was needed of the “choice” words he stammered after peaking into the bucket expecting a lizard. He turned tail and made it back to his car in impressive time. After we’d transferred the snake from the bucket to a pillowcase we walked back to town anxious to show Johannes and grinning enormously at our find and successful capture. The animal will be an extremely important datapoint in the research happening in the area and, well, any day that ends with a snake is a good day.

I should add (so I don’t get called home and sent to do research in snake-free boreal zones) these island vipers in the Cyclades are very small and while their venom is toxic and potentially dangerous, it is far less so than many of their larger relatives in other areas. The viper I handled was fully grown but only about 10 inches in length with fangs that would be hard pressed to significantly pierce both my gloves and skin. All in all, it was a very good first “hot snake” to catch in the wild. So. Don’t worry! I wouldn’t have captured it without feeling pretty confident that the situation was well under control. For that reason I don’t actually have a picture of the specimen because once it was captured it seemed like an unnecessary risk to take it out again, in a room in a house just to take pictures.

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One thought on “Kouphonissia- field frustrations and redemption

  1. Wow! Thanks for the comment about the viper’s length and toxicity. I was concerned. Why is the snake so important to a lizard study?

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