SUMMERS OF FIRE, AND CHAOS IN THE U.K. PART 2.

Britain has become rather different from the way it was when I left 20 years ago. It was decided recently, that Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, would have to go because some considered him to have had a tenuous relationship with the truth — he could no longer be taken seriously. A handful of people (members of the Conservative Party and less than 1% of the British population) were given the pleasure of electing a new leader. In the end this came down to a choice between two individuals, and neither appeared much interested in the current environmental problems. Liz Truss was duly elected and the first time I saw her, I had a sudden memory of Liza Marie doing the Martian Girl walk in the 1996 film ‘Mars Attack’, although Ms. Truss was faster in her movements. This wasn’t necessarily a bad look, but it did suggest a certain lack of familiarity with the human condition. Critics noticed the problem mostly involved erratic movements of the arms — give her something to hold onto — a strapless bag perhaps — then everything will be alright… Apart from her policies of course.

The Queen died on the 8th of September, and the BBC covered the event and subsequent period of mourning as if there had been no other news: no war in Ukraine, no economic problems for the country; and this non-stop coverage helped stoke the grief that many people felt for a person they didn’t know, but thought they did.

19th September 2022: The Queen’s State Funeral Service was held in Westminster Abbey.

People as important as the Queen are so regularly viewed on television and social media, they are considered by some to be part of the family, and many of those waiting in the long queue that would eventually file past the Queen’s lying in state in Westminster Hall definitely thought this: “She has been around all our lives and was like a grandmother to us”, was an often repeated comment … So much so, I was beginning to wonder if some had stopped visiting their grandmothers altogether and had just showed up for the funeral. As I watched the ancient rituals unfold on television it was clear the British tradition of queuing was alive and well. Emerging from the Hall many said they felt part of history, and I couldn’t help feeling this assumed relationship with the Queen was at best a fiction; and the idea that walking past a dead person’s coffin, even a queen’s, could make you part of history was delusional… Something odd was going on in Britain that I hadn’t witnesses since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

After the Queen’s funereal in Westminster Abbey, across the road at the Palace of Westminster, events were about to become more farcical than usual.
The Queen’s Coronation was celebrated in 1953 with mugs.

Unlike many politicians hanging out at the Palace of Westminster, throughout her reign the Queen could be relied upon to begin and end a sentence without slipping into a different tense. A little education is a wonderful thing; above all else it hides inconsistencies common to politicians engaged in one of the few jobs that require no training or qualifications, and as was soon to be demonstrated, very little intelligence, which has lead to a greater percentage of halfwits controlling the system than is desirable.

Westminster Abbey where the funeral service was held for Queen Elizabeth ll, after her laying is state in Westminster Hall.

King Charles lll‘s first speech as monarch came very soon after the Queen’s death and it was brilliant, but three hours after the announcement I was driving somewhere in Canada and people who knew nothing about the Queen were phoning in to a radio station, relating stories of relatives who had written to Her Majesty — one had even sent a recording of a song that she had composed: there had been a favourable reply from a lady in waiting and this had been dutifully framed. The woman concerned gave a rendition of her song and it was perfectly dreadful. Another wanted to tell a joke about the Queen. “Trust me she said… it’ isn’t disrespectful”, and then proceeded to tell a horse fart joke — the Queen had been dead for just a few hours, and the story clearly inappropriate. The woman was not however as quick off the mark as India. Reports were coming in that an official request had been made for the return of the ‘stolen’ Koh-i-Noor diamond that adorns the Queen Mother’s crown within 15 minutes of the announcement that the Queen had died.

In contrast to my Canadian experience, King Charles lll spoke quite brilliantly about his mother, but in fairness he has had plenty of time to practice. He spoke warmly and with great subtlety, at one point using a quote from Shakespeare that had also been used at the funeral of Princess Diana; and that should have been enough, but as the speech was nearing its end the new king could not resist giving close members of his family titles; and then went on to give this years proceeds from ‘The Duchy of Cornwall‘ to the many senior citizens who will otherwise die this winter because they will have to choose between heating their homes and eating. Sorry, I got carried away… I should have said that the king gave ‘The Duchy of Cornwall’ — a nice little earner, to his son, the future king, William, who I assume, would otherwise become destitute.

It would be reasonable to hang onto the family home at Windsor owned by ‘the Crown’: a nice little castle conversion. Water colour painted by Cyril Ward prior to 1912.

And then there was the bit about not needing more than 10 stately homes and castles to live in. At least one would be given over to his subjects — perhaps to those sleeping rough on the street because they can no longer afford to buy or rent a home… O.K. he didn’t say that either, but it does seem odd that any individual regardless of their inherited status should require quite so many places to live… and on such a grand scale.

Sandringham, a 20,000 acre estate in Norfolk is one of two private homes owned by the Royal Family, the other is Balmoral in Scotland (a castle set in 50,000 acres) where the Queen spent her summers and recently died. The family traditionally gather at Sandringham for Christmas, but with the present state of the economy, why not give the accommodation over to underprivileged subjects. Picture: water colour — Cyril Ward prior to 1912.

With the mourning period completed the new Prime Minister and her Chancellor of the Exchequer — Kwasi Kwarteng, gave the richest people in Britain a tax break, with no obvious means of paying for it, assuring the public that the benefits would trickle down to the less fortunate. The problem is, trickle down economics has been attempted before in a previous century… and it didn’t work. Within 24 hours the pair had crashed the pound, but for some reason stuck to their guns, making it necessary for the Bank of England step in and bolster the pound, while The International Monetary Fund indicated that the policies had been poorly thought out and had no chance of success.

In consequence, Britain has been accused of behaving with all the pizzazz of a banana republic; and there was a whole raft of other issues. The mantra of the Prime Minister was that Britain’s future depended on three things: growth, growth and growth, which is based upon a property joke, where the three most important things are — location, location, location; but for anybody who understands the finite nature of natural resources, countenancing continuous growth is not a realistic option. Add to this, the new King being advised by the Prime Minister not to attend the COP27 Climate Conference and the decision making becomes very suspect, amplifying fears over Truss’s commitments to net zero.

King Charles’s previous record as a prince demonstrates that he has a genuine concern for the environment and will no doubt be disappointed, but my guess is that when the time comes, Truss will no longer be Prime Minister, and the King will attend. The Egyptian Government — host of the next U.N. climate summit warned the U.K. not to backtrack on the global climate agenda — such a suggestion coming as it does from Egypt was shocking. There are obvious concerns over a politician making decisions when she is not very good at explaining herself, and if, as some have suggested, not fully in control of her arms, she is unlikely to be in control of very much else. Her policies are questionable because they are extreme, and very much different from the ones that won her predecessor, Boris Johnson, a considerable majority.

14th October 2022: It has been difficult to keep up with events: during the writing of this paragraph, we have gone from a chancellor who yesterday said he would be here for as long as it takes; but today has been sacked — thrown under the bus by his Prime Minister for a policy that she instigated. Interest rates have shot up from 2% to 6% since the announcement of tax cuts for the rich; and while most people are struggling to pay ever increasing energy bills, they also find themselves unable to pay their mortgages, and their pensions are suddenly in danger of collapsing. With all the financial turmoil, many are facing ruin. The question is: when will the precarious state of the environment (which we rely upon for our very survival), reappear as a topic for consideration.

Given the state of the economy, there is also discussion as to whether the king and his consort should travel to the coronation at Westminster Abbey on 6th May 2023 in ‘The Gold State Coach’ at a time when there will likely be a financial crisis and enormous hardship. But never mind that, this ancient ‘fairy story’ coach is considered by the Royals one of the most uncomfortable means of transport on the Planet and they will do almost anything to avoid getting into it.

2,000 years ago Boudica would have experienced a more comfortable ride through London, but the only thing she would have in common with the coronation journey is not stopping at any of the traffic lights.

The royal family have the equivalent of the clown car because they rely on visuals — unlike the ‘not so far away’ politicians in the House of Commons the Royals aren’t supposed to comment on political matters. But if you want to see pantomime costume at its best, watch for any royal event that involves an outing onto the Buckingham Palace balcony.

King Charles lll we are told, is down to earth — it is rumoured he loves a boiled egg for breakfast. At one time so did I, until I become allergic to eggs, but I’m keeping the egg cups.

It must have been something to stand at the gates of Buckingham Palace during celebrations for Victory in Europe on 8th May 1945 when the Royal family (including the Queen as a young woman) went with Winston Churchill, all dressed pretty much in everyday attire, onto the Buckingham Palace balcony.

In contrast, most royal appearances on the balcony are an absurd visual treat — the male member in particular having spent time selecting their outfits from the dressing up basket. In recent years there must have been several wars that I have missed, because some carry so many medals on their chests, that should they lean forward, they would be a danger of toppling into the courtyard.

In Britain politicians and the royal family now offer endless comic relief, ranging from Whitehall farce to all the colour of the circus; and now that Liz Truss has hammered the final nail in the coffin, the British will never again be taken seriously.

On 13th October the WWF’s Living Planet Report related a 69% decline in worldwide wildlife populations since 1970. I can remember how things were in 1970, when there was concern over the startling decrease in wildlife populations since the 1930s. Forty or fifty year increments seem a long time, especially when nothing changes to give hope that anything ever will. A spokesmen for the WWF said that the expansionist economic growth model we rely on is dead, and we must develop cyclical economies that do not rely on wholesale extraction of natural resources, but I haven’t heard a single politician speak about anything other than growth. It is as if they live on other planet.

This then is where the real story with Britain one of the most nature depleted countries in the World. The report studied 32,000 populations of 5,230 species including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the World to come to a figure of a 69% reduction in 50 years. Some habitats have done worse: species living in freshwater lakes and wetlands have suffered an 83% decline on average. Africa saw a 55% decrease. Asia was at 55%. These continents have done better than average, but considering how important they are for species diversity, the results are disappointing. Deforestation — often by fire, and climate change are the most important factors along with collection for bush meat and the pet trade. Add to this, the BBC when reporting, keep using the term ‘animals’ when they mean ‘mammals’, as if all other animals are something different — a small point but if the BBC doesn’t know how can the rest of us be expected to be any less ignorant.

In East Asia and the story is much the same, with fires intentionally set that cause noticable drops in air quality. Here, rainforest is being cleared for a palm oil plantation in Malaysia.

Where I presently live in Canada the sun is shining, but only just, through a sickly haze. The weather has been uncharacteristically dry for the time of year, and several B.C. forests are on fire. Another reminder that we are facing a potential global catastrophe brought about by our own stupidity.

18th October 2022: back in Britain, Liz Truss could be gone tomorrow, in a weeks time, or in two years, but the last of these options is wishful thinking on her part. Politicians come and go, as they attempt the same old tricks over and over again with slightly different packaging. But how you package the wholesale destruction of the natural world is on a different scale from the present political meltdown in the U.K.; although if you can’t pay the rent or afford to eat, I do understand the priorities.

A sad orangutan wondering if it is too late. Quite honestly, I have no idea what this primate is thinking, but I do know that habitats are on fire and numbers are in serious decline.

At some stage there must be a fundamental change in the way we do things. The question is when? Because it might already be too late; which is a shame because scientists have been warnings for years about the declining state of the Planet. Few of us seem bothered enough to demand change, but we don’t really have a choice. A great many short term solutions will be required to what are essentially long term problems; and it could be we have already gone past the point of no return.

The fear is that nothing will improve until economic imperative forces change, because we are tied to a system dominated by money. ‘Doing the right thing because it is the right thing’ clearly isn’t working, and if it were possible to add a financial incentive, it might encourage people act more proactively, and drive behaviours to more positive ends. However, the chances are, that it is already be too late to turn the inevitable tide of environmental destruction. With the Planet indifferent to our plight, livability on its surface continues to move steadily away. In the end, all that might be left to us, is the pointless recording of our own demise.

From The London Eye there is plenty to see, whilst just across the river politicians are also going around in circles, but are seeing very little.

19th October: the Home Secretary steps down having been in the job for about a month. When a new one is appointed Britain will have had its third home secretary in eight weeks, along with the fourth finance minister in as many months Obviously increasing temperatures in the U.K. ‘growing bananas’ is now a viable option… Although ‘going bananas’ is a more accurate description.

I started recording this comedy of errors a month and a half ago with the longest reigning Queen in British history, and I finish with the shortest tenure of any serving British Prime Minister. On the 19th October, Liz Truss said in the House of Commons that she would not resign because she is a fighter, not a quitter; but within a day she had quit. Forty four days ago she was shaking hands with the Queen. Now both are gone. At the time of writing Ms Truss is entitled to claim the Public Duty Cost Allowance of up to £115,000 per year plus other perks. Presently, it is not known what she will claim… But this really doesn’t change anything — the World is still on fire; and many self-serving politicians don’t appear to be the least bit concerned.

27th October 2022: The loser of the battle to become Prime Minster just a few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak, is now the new, new Prime Minister… It was announced today that he is too busy to attend the ‘COP27 Climate Conference’.

2nd November 2022: The Prime Minister has been embarrassed into attending COP27, having been pressured by environmentalists and M.P.’s. The opposition said he had been dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing. A recent climate report has indicated that global temperature increases in Europe have been amongst the highest in the world at around an 0.5ºC per decade over the last 30 years — not very encouraging at a time when climate change has been described as catastrophic.

SUMMERS OF FIRE, AND CHAOS IN THE U.K.. PART 1.

The day I started writing, the Queen died quite suddenly, but I don’t think it was my fault. Two days before the sad event, Liz Truss visited the Queen to form a new government, and nobody is pointing the finger at her… at least, not for that. Life is full of coincidences: the day Davie Bowie died I found a white Lego figure washed up on the beach, it reminded me of Bowie’s persona ‘The Thin White Duke’, but I’m old enough to remember the character dressed mostly in black, otherwise I might have spun a spooky yarn. Odd things happen… and right now, they’re happening in Britain. I intended to write about increasingly hot summers, but circumstances are so extraordinary back in ‘the old country’, I feel obliged to consider them. I’m slow… it takes six weeks for me to write anything, but apparently that’s more than enough time for a new prime minister (unelected by the people) to tank the British economy and disappear. Such oddness in political behaviour might, in part, also explain why we are experiencing fundamental environmental problems that include the heatwaves and droughts I intend to outline.

Back on June 6th 1977, the Queen lit a beacon at Windsor to celebrate her diamond Jubilee, which set off a chain of events that ruined my evening. Beacon lighting goes back a long way. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a beacon was lit at Kynance Point to indicate the sighting of the Spanish Armanda off the tip of Cornwall; soon beacons were alight around many parts of Britain, but lighting beacons can’t convey much in the way of detail… That’s the problem with fire, it’s not a great way to communicate, but it was at the time better than nothing… but not a lot.

Real problems start in out of the way places where there are no beacons, some people just get creative and set fire to whatever is available, and that’s exactly what happened during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations — I was witness to the event when checking out great crested newt efts in a pond in the New Forest — these newt larvae will come to the surface at night and checking them out with a torch provides a more reliable estimate of numbers than splashing about during the day with a net.

In hot dry summers, the earliest newt larvae to hatch from eggs are the ones most likely to leave the pond before it dries out; they feed on younger smaller individuals, and any that survive that do not have fully developed lungs, will flounder in the drying mud and die.

I was busy counting, when a man walked out of a nearby pub and set fire to a gorse bush, and pretty soon the surrounding heathland was ablaze. With conditions dry and houses nearby — some with thatched roof, this behaviour seemed madness; so I ran to the pub and asked the landlord to phone the fire brigade, and got some very strange looks from the local clientele. It was like a horror movie when a witless, well-meaning character comes off the moor and goes into an inn to report something peculiar. Everybody in the house knows what’s going on…. It’s never good. And that’s the way it was for me.

The fire brigade showed up quite quickly to put the fire out. Then there was the police. A friend was with me and we were asked if we could identify the culprit by the light of the fire… We thought we could and went to the station to give statements. It was 1.00 a.m. before we got away and on leaving we noticed somebody breaking into the local pier, but there are only so many visits you can make to a police station in a single night, so we let that one go. A few days later we were attending a police line-up — the constabulary were taking events very seriously. A politician, active in gay rights, had recently been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and the force had been told to tighten up on procedure. ‘The one on the end?’ said my friend as I emerged from the line up room. ‘The one in the middle!” I responded. Fortunately he was joking. We had both identified the culprit independently and he was later found guilty of starting a fire — to make things worse, he was a volunteer firefighter.

We hadn’t wanted to get anybody into trouble, but the previous summer of 1976 had taught us something — hot dry summers and fires don’t go well together. In recent years extended hot dry periods have resulted in fires of such intensity, they have destroyed both property and swathes of natural habitat around the World: in particular devastating extensive areas of Europe, Australia, the U.S.A., and Russia, this mostly the result of global climate change.

Hot summers inevitably lead to deep burns on heathlands, as was the case in 1976.

The heatwave that hit Britain during the summer of 76 was one of the hottest on record and a great deal was learnt from it, but it was the previous year that had set the ball rolling: June of 75 was cool, followed by two months of intense heat; then came a dry winter and the problems associated with the summer of 76 were inevitable. Besides the fires there was also a drought, resulting in severe water shortages, and in some areas people queued on streets to collect water from standpipes

The 76 fires on the lowland heaths of Hampshire, Dorset and Surrey were extensive. Surrey suffered the worst, with nearly one third of heathlands consumed. Of the four major sites, 55% of the total area was burned. Dorset only lost 11%, but witnessing the destruction first hand was alarming.

The late summer heatwave of 75 is mostly forgotten, because the drought of 76 was one of the most significant in the U.K. for 150 years and so it is remembered.

What we recall from the past usually relates to what is most important to us. I worked abroad for extensive periods of the 1980s and was in Vermont when Britain went to war with the Falklands. I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the US papers on the day it started, although it was difficult to know exactly what was going on because the U.S. is notoriously disinterested in anything that doesn’t prominently feature an American. It seemed ridiculous for Britain to be at war with Argentina, and the oddness of the event made it memorable. I mention this because the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had not yet implemented the policies she became famous for and would required a second term of office (and then a third) to do so. Her popularity had been flagging… but once the war had been won, her ratings went through the roof. It is difficult not to think of the 1980s without remembering the impact of Thatcher’s policies. What is presently happening in Britain we are also going to remember, but not for the same reasons.

With weather, we mostly recall days when the sun was shining — I would always be out filming when it was. Our minds fixate on memorable events, including hot summers, which until recently were something of a luxury in Britain. Just a few hot days can activate our recollections, but if nothing much changes it is difficult to recall one year from another.

I filmed the aftermath of many heathland fires during the last quarter of the 20th Century; and one in particular on Hartland Moor in Dorset was environmentally significant. The 76 burns had been extensive and deep, which made recovery slow. By the summer of 77 bell heather was present, but there was still many seemingly out of place plants — like rosebay willowherb , which for obvious reasons is known as fireweed.
By 1978 Hartland Moor was showing signs of recovery with bell heather growing well. Some heathlands recovered very quickly, others did not — the outcome depended on the intensity of the burn, wind speed, ground temperatures and how dry the habitat was when the fire occurred.

1976 was an important year for me — I was trying to establish myself in television and on the lookout for news stories that related to the natural world. On summer weekends I would drive into the New Forest and sit outside of Beaulieu Fire Station and wait for a heath to catch fire. Initially there was nothing, but on 6th August everything changed. A man who had been looking at the the rubber pulls that held the bonnet onto my mini asked if they were legal. “Probably not”, I responded, and we got into conversation. He wondered why I was sitting outside of a fire station. I told him, and he responded by saying I was outside of the wrong one, explaining that he’d heard of a big one on the other side of the Forest near Ringwood. I was off like a shot, but it wasn’t easy to find. Going South towards Bournemouth the heathlands become dry and sandy and vulnerable to summer fires. I eventually found what I had been looking for near Ferndown, but by the time I got there, the fire brigade had everything under control. I missed most of the action, but learned a lot about where I could and could not go; and the firemen were helpful, asking only that I didn’t film when they weren’t wearing helmets.

I often filmed in colour, but took stills in black and white, as this was then standard for written news stories.

On 28th August I went to a heathland fire and soon learned of another burning out of control at Matchams, west of the New Forest. Somebody told me it was was one of the ‘wildfires of the century’, but I was doubtful. I needed to get onto the A338 between Ringwood and Bournemouth, but the road was closed. I managed to get onto it using a back road, only to discovered a scene from a disaster movie — there were no people or vehicles — the road stretched away empty, for as far as I could see. I kept going until I got to Matchams where smoke was rising from behind a hill. The undergrowth was shrubby and dense; and there were a lot of rhododendron — mature old plants that drop their leaves which make for a significant fire hazard. Hoping it wouldn’t be on fire by the time I got back, I left my car beside the road and headed in, but didn’t get more than a hundred yards before I could hear and smell the fire approaching, but I never saw a flame. However, with a light wind blowing I knew it was moving more quickly than I could, so I turned and hurried out, but my gear got entangled in the undergrowth, It was a struggle, but I got back to the road unscathed. With an overwhelming desire to record the event, I had approached the fire from the wrong direction — a serious error in judgement that I was lucky to get away with.

Having recovered my composure, I moved to a more open location so that I could keep track of the fire’s movements and ended up close to a farm. Here I found myself amongst people clearing a house, with firemen damping down the area ahead. The crew were standing in a line across the front of a stand of pines and I joined them. They were hosing water into the tops of the trees when the fireman next to me calmly said, “In a minute we will pick up the hoses and run back. When we do, you go with us.” Shortly after he spoke, the men were in rapid retreat. I did as I was told and moved with them, running the camera as I went. There was a sudden roar as fire swept out through the tops of the trees, which were by no means small; it then dipped into the area where we had been standing, sweeping down as if directed by dragon breath to incinerated everything ahead. I still have the footage somewhere — it was spectacular, but once down into the heavily watered area the fire lost enthusiasm, and gave up the fight.

For those who like figures: 1995 was then for Britain the hottest August on record since 1659 and the summer the driest on record since 1766. In the USA between July 12th-15th the midwest was overwhelmed by a heatwave — many died as a direct result, but the experience revolutionized the way Chicago deals with periods of extreme heat.

Through the 1990s there was an increase in hot summers and once into the 21st Century, heat records were being beaten with such regularity that climate deniers had trouble refuting anthropomorphic global warming as a reality, and moving at such a pace, even scientists — experts in their field — have been surprised by how quickly global temperatures are rising.

Lowland sandy heathland is a habitat that left unmanaged will at some stage burn dramatically. Such heathlands were once extensive but they are now much fragmented by development. Today a complete heathland burning may destroy whole populations of animals that cannot easily escape the fire. Featured above is a rare and endangered sand lizard: those that don’t get burned alive may survive for a time in their burrows, but will at some stage have to come above ground onto an incinerated habitat devoid of cover, where predators such as crows are waiting.

2022 will surpass anything that 1976 could manage and become the hottest summer on record for Europe. We know this even though the yearly figures at the time of writing are not complete. The hottest summer on record for the United States is 2021 — the situation has now become so bad we can easily predict the way things are going. Sadly the big money has politicians by the throat with the most powerful hoping to convince us that business should continue as usual — we just need to stop using plastic straws and everything will be hunky-dory. 

In Britain, recent political events have led to both shock and amusement around the World.

The question is: for how much longer can political decision making bolster economies by making the wealthiest people wealthier at the expense of everybody else, and most disturbingly, at the expense of the Planet. Present policies that rely upon the exponential and unsustainable extraction of natural resources — as if they were tokens in some global ponzi scheme — makes no sense. The result has been a tumbling of the diversity of ‘life on earth’ and shockingly, a ramping up of the ever increasing rate of climate change.

Surprisingly, it is Britain (regarded by some as a model for the democratic process) that has destroyed its political credibility by the incompetence a handful of politicians in recent moments of political madness that have trashed Britain’s economic credibility; indicating serious environmental problems cannot be left entirely in the hands of politicians who are either too stupid, or two self interested to make the difficult decisions required that will lead to necessary change . Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but the present fiddling is on a massive global scale as politicians make short term unsustainable economic decisions that have now move past simply allowing the Amazon to burn for decades without making an effort to stop it.

A recent WWF Living Planet Report indicates a massive decline in biodiversity and wildlife populations around the World. Latin American countries have seen the greatest decline with losses in the Amazon region having fallen by an almost unbelievable 94% in the last 50 years — this primarily due to deforestation.

27th October 2022:The U.N. warns there is no credible way of limiting the rise in global warming, and a preCOP27 report has suggested woefully inadequate action by World governments. In recent years we’ve had a taste of what it’s like to have a World that is on fire and if changes are not forthcoming, an already desperate situation will move beyond its tipping point and there will be nothing we can do to stop it.

Please read PART 2 which provides an outline of the devastating incompetence of British politicians as the crisis unfolded over the past few weeks; it ask questions about the role of Royalty in our time — and on both counts it is difficult to avoid satire. Further details are given on the WWF Report on wildlife decline, along with Britain’s political reaction to COP27.

Monsters From the Deep — Sometimes It’s Personal.

So, I got this phone call — it was a while ago now, but I don’t mind looking back if things are interesting. The spider I was filming at the time certainly wasn’t… Spiders don’t do anything on demand and by comparison the telephone conversation seemed promising. It was from BBC Natural History Unit producer Roger Jones offering me the boat trip of a lifetime on his three part series ‘Atlantic Realm‘ — he was just so enthusiastic… but then he didn’t have to go.

It was a research vessel… I imagined a rusty old ship; I’d be the odd fish out in a shoal of scientists. My bunk would be next to the engine which would thump away pumping out noxious fumes… It would be a miserable experience. And in fairness I was right about most of that.

The 3rd Royal Research Ship Discovery is no longer in service, and when I went on board it was difficult not to notice the patina of rust.

‘We really want you to do it.’ said Roger — maybe this was code for, ‘Nobody else wants to.’… because I wasn’t convinced that RRS Discovery Cruise 168 was an opportunity not to be missed? Few people had attempted to film creatures — dragged from the ocean depths, in tanks on a rocking boat… That was the job: I would get closer than was possible in a deep sea submersible, and could light subjects in an interesting way… but would the fish be alive enough to warrant the effort. I had my doubts as the pressure changes would be extreme.

I made this model of the bathyscaphe Trieste for a film. In 1960 the real thing reached the Pacific Ocean floor of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench near Guam. It went down almost 11,000 meters — presently the deepest point known to exist in the Ocean. The crew, Piccard and Walsh, claimed to have seen flatfish (what else would they be at that depth!!?), but later admitted they didn’t know much about biology and were probably mistaken. Fish are not thought to exist beyond around 8,500 meters, where the pressure is 850 times greater than at the surface.

I find it soothing to watch fish swim, but didn’t imagine my deep sea subjects would be doing much of that — they’d mostly be dead or dying, and that wasn’t very appealing. I had a tank of pregnant seahorses set up in my studio, and if I went I’d miss the births, but as this was for the same project, it was a question of priorities rather than a conflict of interests.

I doubted anybody else could do this job at short notice; but to take it on was to risk an expensive flop (fish pun intended). All in all, it was a potential career ender; but I was getting bored with the spider now — she still wasn’t doing anything — creatures from the deep seemed suddenly more interesting, and I rashly agreed to take the job.

Production usually sends enough scientific bumph about film subjects to paper a hallway… but not this time. I had two written sides of A4 with instructions on glass tank sizes, and when production prioritises that, you know you’re in trouble. There was no helpful behavioural advice… a sure sign that little was known about the creatures coming up from the deep. At surface level I was certain none of my subjects would be in great shape, and I would need to devise convincing scenarios to the contrary.

If my father hadn’t died in 2021, I probably wouldn’t be writing ancient history. We had lived the last 20 years on different continents, and organising a funeral at a distance during a Covid epidemic proved challenging. As a distraction I began sorting through my old pre-digital images, none of which I’d examined closely before.

Starting randomly on boxes labelled June 1987, filled me with enthusiasm — I had been photographing racing cars… in particular Derek Bell winning the Le Mans 24 Hour Race in a Porsche… I’d gone specifically to see Jaguar do this, but it wouldn’t happen for another year. The day after the race I spoke with Derek: he told me he usually enjoyed driving the Mulsanne Straight (this involved around minute travelling at more than 240 miles an hour), but this year there was a rattling windscreen held in place by duct tape, so it wasn’t quite so much fun. This wasn’t the sort of thing that would happen for very much longer. In 1990, to improve safety, two chicanes went into the Mulsanne’s 6K length (previously the longest straight section on any racetrack in the world) and this would make Le Mans a slightly different race. Some drivers liked it the way it was — Derek said that driving down the straight at night was a chance to relax, but then he always was a rather exceptional racing driver.

Derek Bell won at Le Mans five times and this was the last year he would do so. For some reason all the noise and speed seemed more exciting than the fishing trip about to come.
The only Jag to finish in 1987 to finish came in 5th, 30 laps behind the winner.

Film boxes from a week later showed images of the deep water expedition I’d agreed to and almost forgotten about; and once I was into that, some very odd looking creatures began to show up. I kept going, and eventually arrived at pictures of robots in Japan, indicating that I had survived the Atlantic tsunami of death and moved on. The motor racing had been all speed and noise; the robots a rapid ‘smash and grab’ trip around the world with not a second to spare between flights — a hire car left outside a LAX airport terminal comes to mind — in was abandoned it haste with the doors left open to make a flight, and for all I know might still be there. The deep sea expedition had been a moment of calm sandwiched between two projects involving breakneck speed; and when I returned from the ocean trip, my wife said she had never seen me so relaxed, but I don’t recall feeling any different. Whatever the case, visually the results seemed encouraging, although I was just holding transparencies up to light from a window. Then I started scanning the oddities, and began to realise that some were even more unusual than I had remembered.

A golden treasure from the deep.

The trip didn’t start well. I drove to Barry in South Wales where RRS Discovery was docked and needed to be there two days before most of the others to get my gear on board. This left me at a loose end in Barry for longer than I would have liked — my grandfather’s birth certificate indicates that he was born there — odd because he was Scottish. I’d never been there myself and knew nothing about the place, but immediately found it rather depressing.

I’ve still got the T-shirt, so I must have been on the boat.

With time to sit around I began to wonder what I’d forgotten. You can’t be part of a multi-million pound ocean expedition only to discover that you’ve forgotten your tubes of sealant and can’t build the tanks… and there’s no point in looking to scientists for help, they’ll have is a pair of tweezers, a microscope, a notebook and sometimes a pencil — it occurred to me that specialist film-makers required far too much stuff. Any small slip up can put you completely out of your depth even when there is a boat between you and the water. Every project throws up different problems and things quickly turn to bilge if you’re not prepared, especially when something needs fixing. A more positive spin is that expeditions provide opportunities for problem solving — the alternative is panic, but it serves no purpose. Both Scott and Shackleton undertook expeditions on the first RRS Discovery… and did they panic? I don’t think so… although on a later expedition one of them freeze to death and remains buried somewhere beneath the Antarctic snow.

Boarding early, I needed to stay out of the way of everything else coming on board and soon discovered a local bookshop and started reading in my cabin. Removed from my usual state of hyperactivity I became one of the unbusiest people on the Planet and that didn’t suit me… There is that strange feeling you get when you push your chair back and just catch yourself before going over — well, I feel like that most of the time, and sitting in a chair that was screwed to the floor didn’t make me any calmer.

After a couple of days we were underway, but getting to distant places on a boat takes time. Passing between the Azores and Portugal threw up several bronco bucking moments and all three of the usual sea conditions prevailed — apart from actually sinking. There was standing upright and moving about comfortably; then staggering from side to side and pitching forward whilst trying to maintain some semblance of dignity; and finally, being thrown about like a bowling ball until you squeezed yourself into a tight corner.

Fortunately, RRS Discovery was big and most of the time I could work with sheets of glass without mortal danger, but in rough weather, tanks filled with sea water, surrounded by electric lights and cables, pitching about on a metal structure did not meet the usual standards of health and safety. The upside was that I had plenty of sailing time to get prepared. When it was too rough I’d go up on deck and watch the sea go by. Pretty soon it was clear who had the better end of the stick, as I watched the crew hammering away at rust, painting the boat inch by inch as the days went by.

The project was led, very impressively by Peter Herring… You can’t make these things up. Captain Haddock was up on the bridge… O.K. that last bit was just silly.

The best part of the trip was the scientists. I felt comfortable with them because few seemed bothered by the everyday things that plague most people; each was preoccupied with the study of some obscure creature that nobody else knew anything about, and none of them tried to show me pictures of their children, or asked if I played golf.

The worst part was the waiting… On reaching the West Coast of Africa the deep sea trawling began and it went on for hours. Nets were craned off the back of the boat and let out into deep water; then, having been dragged for some distance were reeled back in and half the day had gone by. To make collection more efficient, each deep sea trawl combined several nets of different gauges, each relating to the size of creatures to be captured and the depth at which this might best be achieved.

The nets organised on the rear deck in preparation for their run into deep water. The study site was between Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands. We avoided getting close to the African coastline because a couple of countries were at war.

After the trawl the catch was laid out on a big table, and everybody held back until I’d made my selection. Many scientists had waited a long time for this opportunity and I could feel the tension mounting behind me, but I had priority, because I needed to get specimens back into seawater as soon as possible. I selected the least damaged and anything that was still alive was a bonus. When making a movie the clue is in the name; without movement the audience might just as well go look at a picture book.

A Cephalopod, forgive me for not being species specific.

There were some rare fish on the slab, some new to science, but there are only so many weird creatures you can cram into a 50 minute documentary. The brief was clear — I was to seek out ‘the big teeth, the bad and the ugly’ — the sort of thing people wanted to see on television at 7.30 on a Sunday evening as an alternative to the ‘God Slot’, and nobody was going to get excited about a fish that looked like a sprat, even if it had never been seen before; what audiences really wanted was something that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film.

My job wasn’t to look for new species it was to pander to the monsters in our minds. Some, like the viperfish, are voracious predators. Is that a surprise? The clue is in the teeth.

Scientist are naturally interested in the limits of vertebrate existence, but the attrition rate amongst the animals coming up was high. On the up side we were catching an infinitesimally small sample of what was down there. Quite literally a drop in the ocean compared with the many ships that were fishing commercially – not that anybody would be eating any of the monsters we were dragging up. However, nothing compares to the ugliness of human behaviour. Too often we consider fish from the sea an unlimited resource, and rarely consider the sustainability of Ocean ecosystems. All we require is for the fish to keep swimming into our nets, with very little concern for the many other species that rely on the same resources as we do. It is a shocking state of affairs, and I have no doubt that scientific expeditions remain our best option to gaining knowledge in the likely event that our oceans become irreparably damaged.

As I had feared, most of the deep sea creatures made poor subjects. Having been dragged from the depths over a period of several hours, many of them were battered… and I don’t mean with chips… and most were not pretty to start with. The first thing these stressed out fish did was to shed an outer layer of epithelial mucous and my filtering system could not keep pace with it.

Lighting revealed the expansive reflective surfaces on many fish — this is a hatchet fish — and I wondered if a bioluminescent flash would be enough to locate them in the darkness. If so, this might prove useful to individuals of the same species, but not so helpful to those trying to avoid predators… but this is more speculation than science.

I kept a look out for signs of life, but there was very little. With the extreme changes in pressure, most of the fish had blown their swim bladders, and given the chance to swim they no longer remained upright… It was depressing but entirely predictable.

Keeping fish on an even keel was a major problem, and I ended up supporting a great many in a grove between two gently sloping sheets of glass, these set a little back from the front of the tank. A few fish waggled their fins and even moved forward, but few did so convincingly. I began panning across them in the hope of giving the impression that they were making their way forward, but it was a far cry from reality. Nevertheless, through the view-finder, some fish were coming to life more convincingly than Frankenstein’s monster. The results were contrived — it wasn’t cricket… but it was television.

I was as if I had become required to support individual fish after a serious accident, although rehabilitation was not a realistic option.

Sadly, no fish ever recovered enough to be returned to the sea; but even to suggest such a thing is missing the point. Almost everything brought up from deep water had scientific value. However, never before had I been required to bring life back to the dead and the dying. I had become a ghoulish mortician, making unfortunate fish presentable for a viewing audience, although this didn’t include their relatives, as most of them were lying around on the same slab that made up our ‘fish market of the macabre’.

There was no possibility of demonstrating behaviour; all I could do was feature fish that were otherwise not easily observed. In a submersible it would be impossible to provide an appropriate sense of drama using front lighting; although some might consider any form artificial illumination inappropriate, and if that was the case, then none of these unusual creatures would feature in our film.

There is a lot of intermittent bioluminescent flashing in the depths, mostly too brief and weak to achieve useful images. Imagine though, if it were possible to utilize the bioluminescent flashes — the results might prove quite dramatic. I envisioned creating short flashes of blue light in keeping with the bursts from photophores carried by many deep sea creatures, and thereby briefly reveal the fearful looking creature I was filming. But flashes of light on television usually carry a health warning and I knew the BBC wouldn’t use any of it. ‘Give me something different’, a producer might say, even when they weren’t quite sure what that might be. Often I did… but nothing I attempted was ever ‘BBC enough’ to get used.

On occasions I wasn’t sure what I was filming, so when in doubt made it look pretty.

Some days I was lucky to get any pictures at all . Working in an open space on the ship, ambient light was coming in from a variety of directions, and it was impossible to achieve the necessary dark backgrounds; so when catch times allowed, I filmed through the night.

In the tanks my nightmare didn’t let up. Apart from slime in the water, there was the problem of air bubbles forming on the glass. In rough weather the boat rolled and pitched, and when it didn’t, there was still the throbbing engine vibrating up through the tripod’s legs. Sorting each problem out in turn was becoming more complicated than some of the science going on elsewhere on the ship. It was a painstaking and sometimes impossible process. I imagined going down in a submersible to film healthy fish; then remembered I’d been told that changes in pressure cause people to break wind more in deep water vessels, but as they don’t go into that sort if thing in top notch documentaries, I didn’t know. On the up side I could use the idea to convince myself that my present method of sorting impossible problems was the more agreeable option; and having finally lit my subjects to best advantage I began to notice that once you are past the weirdness of appearance, and the mouths full of teeth, many fish were in their own way, oddly beautiful.

One fish appeared to have bite marks near the tail. I had seen something similar as a child when fishing with my father. He was reeling in a trout when the line suddenly jerked; and on bringing the fish in, we discovered that a chunk had been taken out in front of the tail by a predatory pike. The marks on the deep sea fish looked like a similar injury, but as they existed on both the lower and upper body, there was something more complex going on; and closer examination (which means looking properly!) revealed these to be organs of bioluminescence.

A Lanternfish with bioluminescent organs near the tail.

On board were some exceptional scientists; one of them Mike Land, who was a world expert on how differently eyes are adapted to see throughout the animal kingdom. His main interest on this trip was to study not a fish, but the crustacean amphipod Phronima, which is an altogether very odd creature from mid-ocean depths, and not so a tiny creature as to require a microscope to film. The females of the species did something very interesting; they lived in a transparent barrels constructed from the spare parts of a gelatinous salp.

Mike Land (on Discovery June 1987) discovered that Phronima has a double eye, which combines visual information to best advantage.

Initially I thought Phronima was akin to a cartoon character, but soon discovered that when it comes to feeding and looking after young, the females really do mean business, and there was nothing remotely amusing about their behaviour. If it is possible to describe a deep sea hyperiid amphipod as ingenious, then the females of this species would certainly be that. They attack a salp and hollow out the gelatinous shell of their prey to make a barrel in which to lay eggs, then rear their young by utilising the fresh food that flows in as they propel the transparent barrel through the pelagic zones of the ocean; something that puts them right up there in the sci-fi stakes with the many other grotesques I was attempting to film.

This female Phronima scooting along in her barrel seemed unphased by events. It was the only creature brought up from the depths that remained alive enough to continue doing its thing. I worked with several and felt duty bound to throw them back into the sea after filming, although I doubted that any would ever make it back to the level where they belonged. However, if any did return successfully to their deep sea homes, I imagined them telling other Phronima stories of divine intervention, informing their audience that if they ever did have a near death experience, they should on no account swim towards the light.

It seems trivial to mention the T-shirt design competition, but I will. I’m against art and photography competitions because I don’t think it make sense to judge artistic endeavour; but this was a competition I really wanted to win. You just have to find the right trigger to make a human competitive, and in my case it was a big fish eating a very big boat.

If I’m honest the only fish I could claim to know anything about before the trip was the anglerfish: the specimens I filmed were quite spectacular, despite suffering ill health followed by a real death experience before crossing over into preservative, which is probably the fish equivalent of eternity.

A female anglerfish. Males are usually much smaller and lack this dramatic appearance. At some stage they attach themselves to the female and wither away; their only role in life — to provide the female with genetic material for reproduction.

The deep sea anglers are perhaps best known for their bioluminescent lures and it is likely these fish don’t see too well. Because natural light doesn’t get down to them, they generally rely on vibrations to locate their prey, and once it is close enough catch it by surprise. The fish simply opens a very large mouth and it is a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the unsuspecting prey is sucked into this wonderfully adapted eating machine. I of course witnessed no such thing, and most of the information that has been gleaned on the subject is from anglerfish species that live in shallower water.

Some of the fish I photographed were not just flashy with bioluminescence, they were also colourful. Indeed, some had such reflective surfaces they gleamed with a silver intensity in my lights, which suggests there might be more bioluminescent activity than we are presently aware of; otherwise, why the need for colour and reflective surfaces. We still know very little about the strange creatures of the deep, but as our knowledge progresses, my experiences will likely become little more than of historical interest; although I do have enough sense to realise that despite all of the difficulties, this trip really was the opportunity of a lifetime.

In memory of Mike Land FRS 1942 — 2020, who had a unique way of seeing what other organisms saw.

PHOTOGRAPHING BIRDS OF PREY ON A BUDGET.

The coastline of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia is a great place to watch birds — particularly ducks, geese and waders. As winter approaches, large numbers migrate through the region on their way south to warmer climes — and who can blame them? The hardiest find the many beaches and inlets of the region mild enough to overwinter, and unless temperatures drop to extremes they appear disinclined to expend their energy by moving further south, . In spring the birds will fly in the opposite direction, returning to their summer breeding grounds, and in doing so will cover enormous distances.

The event reminds me of the Wildebeest migration around the Serengeti Plain in East Africa, but there are obvious differences.

The wildebeest migration during May on the Serengeti Plain

Presently, over a million blue wildebeest and around two hundred thousand zebra travel up to 500 miles on a yearly cycle around the Serengeti in East Africa. Essentially the animals follow the rain; or put another way, they are moving on to fresher grass as it begins to show. I witnessed the migration when numbers were higher than they are today, but the event is still the most impressive migration of mammals on Earth.

The bird migration I can witness closer to home; it involves millions of individuals travelling along the ‘Pacific Flyway‘. Some birds even fly right over my house. These journeys along the western coastline of the Americas are impressive, and not just because I can watch T.V. and look out of the window and witness the event. There’s an advert on television promoting BBC World; to the right of the screen ‘on sky’, there are geese skeining across in great numbers. Three birds have become detached from a V formation and I go outside to watch. It’s getting dark, I can hear the birds plaintively honking and the main group suddenly swings a little to the right and the lonersput on a sprint, cut across the angle and catch up. It’s more dramatic than watching television, but there’s no cut to the close up, the geese just keep going until they are too small to see — I wonder how they keep going, the expenditure of energy must be enormous, but standing out in the cold to consider such things seems pointless… I go back and sit on the sofa.

The migrating birds exhibit similar patterns of behaviour to the wildebeest — both groups are following the food and seeking out better conditions. It would be unfair to say the Serengeti event pales by comparison, but the numbers of birds and the distances they travel are in a different order of magnitude — and as long as their journeys continue, this will remain one of the World’s greatest natural wonders.

American Wigeon are common winter visitors, but they will be somewhere else in May.

If migrating birds are to be successful they must find wild places along their flight paths where they can feed; and just as there are predators waiting for the wildebeest, there will be predators waiting for the birds as they come flying through. Few thing can hunt a bird more successfully than other bird, and during winter, the coastlines of the Pacific Northwest are ideal places to observe these avian hunters as raptors gather in numbers to seize the day. Not all will be feeding on birds flying through, some are looking for rodents living in grassland habitats along the route; and to be able to observe so many birds of prey is quite something, and the opportunity to photograph them is a bonus.

Bald eagles gather along coastal areas and the Fraser River during winter to feed. They are considered fish eaters, but seldom turn down a duck dinner.

When photographing raptors, the usual problem is having an appropriate telephoto-lens to achieve the best results. Few of us can afford to buy the really long lenses — the ones where you need to train in a gym for months just to carry them; and then of course there’s the mortgage that has to be take out to buy one. My longest lens is 400mm and it’s a good one; with a converter I can extend its range to 800mm, but unless conditions are optimal and there is plenty of light, my pictures will be reduced in quality… When you can afford the longest and most expensive lenses what you are really doing is getting closer, is buying extra light.

Bird photographers pay big money to own these expensive lenses with wider apertures that effectively gather more light; with focal lengths that allow them to work at a greater distances they are effectively closer to the birds than the rest of us; and most are disciplined enough not to wander from the paths and disturb the wildlife.

For those who are doing things on the cheap, unable to afford those very long lenses with wider of apertures, it is necessary to think more creatively. Good pictures of birds are still possible, but the less well equipped find themselves out on only the sunniest days, because when you start shooting in lousy light with an inferior lens, your success rate will drop like a stone.

A Different Approach.

Apart from shelling out big bucks, perhaps there’s another way to deal with the situation. It is now almost impossible to get a better close up of a bird of prey — they are already out there somewhere; and the most impressive close ups are not always achieved with wild birds… not that it matters — better a tight shot of a captive bird than a disturbance in the wild because some idiot wants to get unreasonably close.

If you have an average to good camera — say an SLR with interchangeable lenses, and can afford one of the shorter telephoto lenses, something between 200 to 400mm, it is possible to take very good pictures of wild birds, providing the photographer is prepared to accept a wider frame than might initially have been hoped for. With the right background and appropriate exposure and framing, it is possible to achieve interesting results, although these might have more in common with landscape than wildlife photography — if we find it necessary to pigeonhole our endeavours. Whatever the label, the addition of a bird somewhere in the frame can raise an image beyond the expectations of a straight forward landscape picture.

I waited an hour for this one, and admittedly it was necessary to take a series of shots to achieve it. I wanted to mirror the curvature of the wings of the bird with the shape of the bare bramble stems in the foreground. It isn’t necessary to identify the bird, ornithology isn’t the priority. The picture is mostly about shape, form and colour — there has been no attempt to manipulate the image which is tonal in nature.

I won’t suggest that a wide of a bird in the landscape is the same as a good close up; they are very different approaches to the same subject; but from a photographic perspective it is sometimes more interesting to see a bird in a natural environment, than a portrait of the creature in all its feathery detail. The important thing is to do the best that we can with the equipment we’ve got, rather than bleat on about all the things we don’t have and can’t do. When I started working as a wildlife film-maker I did so as a macro-photographer because I couldn’t afford the longer lenses, specialising in close-up photography; but when I could afford the longer lenses, it was possible to cover both disciplines. If you find yourself in a box, it’s good to climb out of it, but carrying the extra gear when you do so, is not quite so wonderful.

When I lived in Southern England I would travel from my home on the edge of town into the surrounding countryside to film wildlife. One day while driving to a friend’s house, I saw a barn owl flying low along a hedge line just before sunset, and noted there was enough light for an exposure. I returned the next day, and set up close by the field. The owl made a similar fly past to the previous day, but it did so a little later — this is common to many wild animals that set their internal alarm clocks to times dependent upon where the sun is in the sky. We no longer make such precise measurement in relation to the sun because we have lost contact with nature, but wild birds have not.

This was not the owl I filmed… I never managed a good stills photograph of a barn owl flying in good light when living in Britain;, and nothing changed until I arrived in British Columbia. This bird was happy enough hunting during the day.

But I’m getting ahead of my story, back in the U.K. my ‘just before sunset barn owl’ allowed me only one shot per evening over the course of a week. The owl did its pass and was gone, and just after that, so was the light. Building an atmospheric evening sequence with two shots of an owl using a wide and a closer shot turned into many hours work, because I was attempting to film a barn owl in Britain when numbers were at their lowest ebb.

Living where I do now, I see owls more regularly, and often during daylight hours, which provides a greater opportunity to gain a variety of shots, as each is no longer that once in a blue moon event I had become used to. The point of the story is that being in the right place at the right time is 90% of the battle; and it makes sense to photograph events when they are both close to home and regularly available. Photography is a bit like life — the more chances you get, the easier things become.

Dingle.

This barn owl was hunting at 3.00 p.m. on a sunny winter’s afternoon; and I prepared for the flight behind undergrowth — there was a shot to be had providing I didn’t rely on autofocus… if I had done so, the focus would have shifted to the foreground leaves.

When I was filming wildlife for television. I often used to shoot with something hanging in the foreground — the natural world has clarity, but how we see the natural world is not so clear at all. I would find an interesting piece of vegetation and hang it between the lens and the subject. Ironically, this artifice often makes things more real in our heads.

This intrusion into the frame is known as a ‘dingle’. But more recently, with the event of high definition digital images, the fashion for super-sharp images has caused ‘dingles’ which provide more impressionistic results, to fall out of favour… but not in my world. If the ‘dingle’ is several red berries and they are positioned very close to the camera, they will appear as out of focus orbs in the foreground and with a predator in mind, this adds something to the image. For this picture I waited for the owl to fly behind vegetation that looked colourful enough, and hoped that at some stage the actual event would occur. The risk was that the owl would continue hunting in full view, but never fly into the position required to make the shot; and I’d lost the opportunity to cover a range of other images because I was entirely committed to one event. This is one of the reasons why professional photographers often use captive predatory birds, although it takes a very special arrangement for such a bird to be flown without jesses — if there is a sudden urge to return to the wild, the bird might be lost.

Sometimes a bird comes close and does something interesting, and even with a short telephoto lens you get a good shot, but there are never any guarantees. This owl has come down on prey, most likely a vole. The stalks of grass provide an abstract quality and to me that’s interesting, but this isn’t an image that will appeal to everybody, but at least there is nothing contrived about it.

A short-eared owl provides a free advert for The Nature Trust; this owl sits next to the path, and there are at least 10 other photographers with their cameras trained on the bird which doesn’t appear in any way disturbed. You could take this shot quite easily on a point and shoot camera or a mobile phone, but it is clear from the lenses being used around me that some are taking advantage of the close proximity of the bird for a head and shoulders close-up; but I think that is rather too obvious, but then, one might equally say… so is my picture.

Birds should, of course, should be photographed in flight and I think this short-eared owl makes an interesting image; although I appreciate that with those extraordinary wings a closer shot would have been a lot more than’ just another portrait’.

No Worries!

I like to to playing with framing, and never worry about such things as the golden ratio; there is more nonsense talked about the correct balance of a picture than almost anything else in photography. Sometimes it’s good to feel uncomfortable. Out of kilter is interesting, and sometimes makes for a more dynamic picture. Framing in any case is a matter of opinion. One of the few good things about a short telephoto lens is that the birds being photographed don’t fill the frame unless they fly very close; this has the advantage of giving enough leeway to edit the framing later; and a lot can be done if your camera has plenty of pixels to play with, although pixels are not the answer to everything: the way sensors in the camera collect information and quite a lot else also comes into play.

How we see is also consequential. This century we have come to accept high definition images as standard, but because of the way our minds operate, motion blur seems very natural to us especially when we watch a movie, and if it isn’t there, things don’t feel quite right. This also carries across to still images, when something is moving quickly. Blur is still a major component of ‘looking natural’, with faces, particularly the eyes the preferential point of focus. No wonder we love owls… the birds are so flat-faced it makes focusing easy; but if the bird are in flight it’s nice to have the wingtips in motion, and achieving both at the same time can be a very fine balance.

Maybe our appreciation of sharper images will increase as the high definition capabilities of modern cameras becomes so good that ‘frozen in time’ is the norm. The irony is that to put our images up on the internet we have to downgrade the quality so that up-loading times are reasonable… and also because good H.D. images are likely to be stolen! Then we view the results on tiny phone screens… and just get the gist of what’s in the picture; even computer screens have limited definition. You have to question the logic — we are encouraged to spend small fortunes on regular upgrades to keep pace with technologies that move faster than a peregrine falcon can fall out of the sky, but in the end, don’t gain very much.

Framing a picture is down to personal choice.

If the sky is interesting, why not incorporate more of it into the picture.

A northern harrier — too low in the frame perhaps? Maybe, but I’m not trying to sell product. I’m fond of that little pink cloud and inclined to frame things the way I want.

My fear is that with the rapidly increasing development of natural environments, and the additional problem of climate change, ‘Pacific Skyway’ migration routes might become disrupted. Taking pictures of the birds is a great way to record what is happening along the way and how things change: every time somebody takes a picture and stores it, they inadvertently record events in a manner that, until recently, was impossible. Many cameras have GPS and each photographic event is dated, and this inadvertently provides data for the future.

This short-eared owl was not a difficult subject to capture. Incorporating the log made for an interesting picture and I didn’t need to get too close.

For those who are not thinking

about how important recording natural events may prove to be in the future, there is always the simple pleasure of taking wildlife pictures just for the pleasure of it; and for those behaving responsibly there are still great opportunities. Wildlife pictures can be taken without disturbance, even without the most expensive, or the most powerful telephotos lenses.

There is a lot of one-upmanship with photography, partly because picture taking is so easy. Those who are good at it, often consider the process a special skill, but with cameras now doing so much of the work, it has become a fairly simple process that most of us can learn.

  • There’s no point in being precious about it. Almost anybody is capable of taking an interesting picture of the natural world… *when they’ve learnt to stand in the right place!* And that’s encouraging. Rather than finding fault with images that don’t fit the repetitive formulaic approach commonly encouraged by photographic competitions, we should welcome different perspectives. Fresh ideas and new ways of doing things are to be encouraged; and if some people take pictures that do not win prizes, or fit in with the chocolate box school of photography, then maybe that’s no bad thing.

All the pictures of birds in this feature are wild — nothing is staged. No more than two hours was spent in one place at any one time; and apart from the wildebeest, all the pictures were taken during three visits to a single location totalling less than six hours of photography. There was no getting out of bed at the crack of dawn for better results… or any need to step off the path. I mention this only to indicate that ‘locations’ are the key to success, although some might say, ‘Get up earlier, spend more time, and you’d get better results’, but I’ve heard that before! A head of ‘The BBC Natural History Unit’ once told me that wildlife cameramen didn’t get up early enough for the best results. I laughed a lot — there weren’t that many of us doing it when I started — filming wildlife was an obsessive behaviour that teetered at the edge of mental illness, and I knew that most of us were getting up far too early; although almost certainly, I was the only one moaning about it.

Dragonflies: 300 million Years of Success… and Still Going Strong.

Smooth newts during springtime lived in a tank in my bedroom.

When I was young, just like many other children, I was obsessed with dinosaurs… but there were other creatures that seemed more real to me, probably because they were still around… and also living in the same house. Other children kept guinea pigs and hamsters, but my preference was for the cold blooded killers — mostly reptiles and amphibians, and then there were the spiders… I really liked spiders. A friendly neighbour told my mother that it was a phase I was going through and I’d get over it… but I never did.

Beyond all the beastliness indoors, there was the garden where the extraordinary appearance and behaviour of one group of insects in particular grabbed my attention, and although I didn’t know it at the time, little changed from those to be found in the early fossil record. These wonderful creatures were dragonflies — the Odonata, an order of insects that predate dinosaurs by around 70 million years. Isn’t that something?… And it’s almost true.

Darner dragonflies were named after their slim needle like abdomens and are amongst the largest insects living today.

Homo sapiens have been around for perhaps 30,000 years. It isn’t comparable anymore than it’s a competition, but a palaeontologist will tell you that to claim dragonflies have been around for 300 million years is pushing things a bit, because the ‘dragonflies’ of the distant past appear less developed than the ones we see today, and how closely related they are is open to question. In consequence they have been classified into a separate order: the Meganisoptera, formerly known as the Protodonata. Pro meaning prior (Pro-Odonata) and this makes sense, because no representatives of this order have survived to the present day — they have been seen off by chance and evolution and long ago superseded.

This dragonfly like creature Meganeura monyi is a griffinfly; it took to the air during the Carboniferous period, and with a wingspan of around 2 feet was probably the largest insect ever to have lived on Earth.

When I sketched the above image from a fossil, it was obvious that this creature had eyes smaller than those of modern dragonflies where they take up most of the head. There are also differences in the structure of the wings, but making comparisons from a fossil embedded in a rock that is millions of years old isn’t easy, and probably best left to the taxonomists.

When it comes to photographing insects, the bigger the better; but if we are having a competition, making a list of the largest, then weight rather than wingspan and body length is an option; in which case the larger Tryichogomphus beetles — the rhinos of the insect world would make it onto the list, although a zoologists might think it more interesting to consider whether armour and horns developed in males as a defence against predators, or equipped them more efficiently for battle with competing males.

The answer is that rhinoceros beetles evolved horns to enable males to achieve dominance over other males, giving them a better chance of mating with attendant females — in evolutionary terms this is sexual selection. Interestingly, the development of horns on these beetles has been ebbing and flowing for millions of years.

Beetles began their evolutionary journey around the same time as dragonflies, but meandered a very different path to the future. Trychogomphus beetles, despite their tough tank-like appearance are herbivores, whereas dragonflies are fierce predators and during the Jurassic Period were the top predators of their time, although back then, they had not been honed by predation to the complexity we see today. Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to take flight in the late Jurassic; the dentition of some smaller species indicate that they fed on insects, and dragonflies would certainly have been on their menu.

A pterosaur from the Solnhofen Limestone — Germany. I once filmed hundreds of specimens from this Jurassic bed for a documentary, and it was easy to think such perfectly preserved specimens commonplace, but in reality locations with such profusion are rare.

Later, in the Lower Cretaceous a branch of theropod dinosaur took to the air as birds, and were soon competing with the pterosaurs for food, although by this time many of the pterosaurs had evolved into far larger forms and taken up fishing.

Young herons in the Florida Everglades have a distinctly Sauropod appearance.

Imagine a world before birds evolved — there would have been no birdsong and the most impressive creatures of the air would have been dragonflies; but when birds joined the foodfest they would have put pressure on ‘early dragonflies’ to adapt or disappear.

Suddenly, dragonflies were no longer the apex predator of the time, they were now being preyed upon, and the evolutionary arms race to follow would put them on the road to the complexity we see today.

As some dinosaurs evolved to greater size, I imagine dragonflies perching upon them in much the same way they do today on crocodiles and photographers. I won’t make further comparisons — T. rex would have been hopeless at photography, what with those tiny little arms and a couple of spindly fingers at their ends.

Only recently has the evolutionary history of dragonflies been more fully understood. It is now accepted that dragonflies ‘proper’ made their appearance around 200 million years ago. Throughout their development there have been pronounced differences between taxonomic groups and this has taken some unravelling.

This time line is a simplified illustration of early influences on dragonfly evolution. Note: the gap between the Carboniferous and the Ordovician covers several geological periods.

It might seem extreme to concern ourselves with evolutionary change in the distant past, but it is important — there is much to be gained by understanding how things change. If we could time-travel back to see members of the long extinct Meganisoptera, most of us would say, ‘Those are dragonflyies’ and it is only with the precision common to scientists that this would be a hanging offence. Most of us have more pressing issues to consider, nevertheless, the past is the foundation of the future and we ignore it at our peril. If the evolution of dragonflies tells us anything, it is that nothing stays the same forever; although most of us are content to leave the detail to experts… and then get annoyed with their irritating precision when our preference is for broad generalisations — but getting small things right is the foundation for sorting out many of the bigger issues we all must face.

Making a judgement when identifying fossils is often difficult. If this is a dragonfly maybe the wings have been preserved in a slightly unnatural position; and the head region is also problematic — it hasn’t been well preserved, and many fossils look far worse than this.

How easy it is to identify a specimen depends on the availability of evidence and this traditionally comes from the geological record.

Today there are many other ways to glean information — there may be chemical remnants that can sometimes provide extra information; and in recent time cladistics — the science of judging relatedness by comparing shared characteristics amongst different species has become increasingly important; add to this DNA evidence that can links species still around and half a dozen another techniques that include computer modelling, and it is clear, things are better now than they were for Victorian naturalists who relied entirely on the fossil record.

Fossil evidence can be very thin. Imagine, on a Thursday afternoon two hundred million years ago, it rained heavily and a flood swept large numbers of animals away, covered them in sediment, and preserved some as fossils. Much latter a palaeontologist stumbles across them and begins to make value judgements about the past. Such happy accidents of mass preservation (as with the previously mentioned Solnhofen limestone beds) are unusual. Add further geological upheavals and erosion, and it is no wonder there are huge gaps in the geological record. Everything we know about the plants and animals of the past has been hard won, and the importance of this all should not be underestimated.

Damselflies are closely related to dragonflies, but there are obvious differences: they are smaller, and their wings fold back above their abdomens — which I thought big thing, but there is evidence to suggest that rejigging the muscles to achieve a new wing position might not be such a huge evolutionary leap.

Some people think the next great human endeavour will be to visit Mars — a strange priority when our own planet is facing a potential mass extinction. It is as if when we get through wrecking the complex systems that presently support us, we can just get on a spaceship and move to another planet, when the priority should be to conserve the diversity of life on Earth — there is plenty of talk about this but very little action, and no shortage of wealthy old men prioritising their dreams to touch the edge of space.

Mars will be a disappointment: nothing as remotely interesting as a dragonfly will be discovered, and there won’t be any rhinoceros beetles. There is nothing quite so alien as the strange life forms to be found on Earth, which sounds ridiculous, but the most terrifying creatures are usually small and we barely notice them. If a colourful predatory insect was discovered on the Red Planet, it would make headlines on the Blue Planet in exactly the same way that a dragonfly showing up in your garden would not.

An impression of the surface of Mars requires little more than a trip to the fridge, such a short distance to a place that never hits the lows the other Mars experiences where temperatures can drop to minus 153ºC.

Out in the garden there are probably more natural wonders to be found than anywhere else in our solar system. Other planets are interesting, but biologically it is Earth that has hit the jack-pot. Without doubt, we should be exploring space, but with our present limitations, should be doing so with robots. allowing us to spend the big money on preserving the natural biodiversity of our planet. Sadly, our minds are programmed to appreciate novelty — a trip to another world would certainly provide the ultimate social media selfie… and what could be more important than that? Tiring of the familiar, we hardly notice the small creatures in passing as we wander down the garden path… we think we know them, but really we do not.

When I see a dragonfly I can hardly believe my luck – it is as if I am still 7 years old. Those around me are moving on and I’m thinking, “Wow… That’s incredible!” Then I take a photograph, which always leads to more questions than answers — looking at the natural world in detail always increases our awareness of how little we know.

For example, the general complexity to dragonfly wings is noticeable — look carefully and it is not too difficult to appreciate that the incredibly ornate vein patterns exist for entirely practical reasons.

Where the wings meet the body, even externally there appears to be a lot going on, internally there are nerves and muscles responsible for the fine control of wing movement — a lot is happening in a very confined space and that’s before we begin to think about how an insect dissipates all the heat generated by energetic flight.

Consider those marks on the leading edge of the front wings of dragonflies. Darker, and usually coloured in appearance they are the pterostigma — a thickening that improves efficiency when a dragonfly is gliding. Similar species that were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth didn’t have them; and that’s a big deal — the thickening would have provided a distinct advantage to forms that developed them, outcompeting others that did not. Once you know this, it is difficult not to notice other things about dragonflies that need explaining.

The pterostigma is quite small in terms of wing area — it is the small elongated brown block at the front corner edge of the leading wing — and on this dragonfly also on the hind wing — this thickening regulates wing pitch and can raise critical gliding speed by between 10 and 25%.

The leading edge of a cardinal meadow hawk’s wing — pictured below — shows a clear pattern of venation and it’s difficult not to wonder why. Look closely and it is obvious that the dragonfly wing is corrugated to increase rigidity, but that’s only part of a bigger story, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about the hows and the whys of such complexity.

A cardinal meadowhawk is a member of the Libellulidae, they have shorter, broader, flatter abdomens than do darners, but the major point of interest here is the leading edge of the left front wing, a delicate curvature is apparent, and this aids aerodynamic flight.

When such puzzles are answered, we may incorporate the information into structures that we build for ourselves. Aerodynamic flight is about gaining optimal strength without over-engineering structures that need to be light. But there is a lot more to consider — flexing for example. A dragonfly wing looks rigid when the insect is perched waiting for a meal to go by, but when flying, the wings need to flex to increase stability. From our perspective the developmental work has been done and our thoughts can take flight by simply observing — dragonfly wings have been millions of years in the making and are tried and tested blueprints for our own endeavours. Currently a new generation of agile tiny drones with insect like wings are in development with dragonflies the basic plan.

High speed images of flight provide information about the way a dragonfly wing moves: rigidity is required, but also flexibility because they must also curve.

Photography reveals that when in flight dragonfly wings do not simply move up and down in relation to their bodies — the movement more closely follows a figure of eight. It is much the same with hummingbirds where this motion has evolved independently, and allows both insect and bird to be more maneuverable.

When the adult form emerges from its larval encasement it takes a few hours for the body and wings to pump up — during the drying and hardening of the outer body parts the creature is unable to fly and remains vulnerable. If things get really bad and it rains hard, the impact can prove entirely disabling. Yet the process of becoming an extraordinary maneuverable air ace with millions of air miles on the clock has worked well for the Odonata — they have managed to exist for a very long time without major changes in form, perhaps because evolution operates on the simple maxim: if it an’t broke, don’t fix it!

When you watch a dragonfly in flight the narrow join between the thorax and the abdomen appears almost too narrow for the creature to be robust and functional, but obviously this is not the case.

There was at times during the Carboniferous Period when atmospheric Oxygen levels were twice what they are today because there were a greater numbers of plants photosynthesizing. If we were able to travel back to this earlier time, we’d be in trouble, because despite Oxygen’s essential role in life on Earth, at high concentrations it is poisonous to a great many life forms. Nevertheless, dragonflies were able to grow bigger (as was the case for Meganeura mentioned previously), but there are limits as how big an animal with an externally supportive skeleton can get — it is the case for all insect; they have air tubes carrying oxygen to body parts rather than the more efficient lungs that help drive mammalian activity. Dragonflies have soft abdomens which allows them to pump a little air, but size is always limited by structure. There is a theory that in order to cope with higher Oxygen levels dragonflies of the period would have developed narrower breathing tubes and increased body size.

Some scientists have questioned whether this is accurate, but laboratory experiment with developing dragonfly larvae still around today has demonstrated that this is exactly what happens, although not to the same degree as it did for Carboniferous species. The general rule seems to be — supply more oxygen and the ‘breathing “tubes become narrower and the body size increases; give the larvae less oxygen and the ‘breathing’ tubes become wider and the insects that emerge are smaller, which suggests the Oxygen theory isn’t pie in the sky ridiculous.

And what about those eyes? Dragonflies and bees have the largest eyes in the insect world with about 30,000 facets in each compound eye. We have a reasonable idea of how much information this kind of eye provides, but how the brain interprets input is open to question, although by observing how insects react it is clear that almost any stimulus elicits and an immediate reaction, and is to be expected with any efficient predator.

For most of their lives dragonflies are not dragonflies at all — they are underwater larval forms that breathe through gills and although small, might best be described as monstrous. If today they grew to the size of similar species during the Carboniferous, we might think twice about going into the water where they lived.

The intense green colour of this common green darner is rather extraordinary after emergence and will not usually hold this intensity. The larval exuvia can be seen attached to the log below the lower left wing.

The larval forms of dragonflies (nymhs) spend from one to several years underwater, living as fierce submersible predators shedding exoskeletons as they grow, until one day they are ready to emerge from the water. Once into what we consider ‘our world’, they climb upwards, then grasp whatever they have climbed to emerge from their capsule.

This ‘husk’ or exuvia from which an adult dragonfly has emerged — has a very alien feel. Many alien forms from science fiction are little more than scaled up versions of creatures like this from our own planet, not because the makers of horror movies are lazy, but because scary things are more relatable when they are real.

One day they are deadly aquatic assassins, the next, fierce aerial predators driven now by the priority to reproduce. Most dragonflies have shorter lives above than they do under water, and although some take time away from the ponds lakes and rivers to feed, at the top of their ‘to do list’ is mate and lay eggs successfully before they die. On more than one occasion when taking pictures, I have lost my subject to a hungry bird — over millions of years nothing about this appears to have changed; but this is an illusion, as both birds and dragonflies are continually improving their chances by the process of natural selection in what has become a rather one sided flight to the death.

A female darner laying eggs on a rotting plant stem under the water.
A tandem pair of autumn meadowhawks linked in the wheel position. The female (below) is receiving sperm stored in a space in the males abdomen.

The sex life of dragonflies is rather unusual. The males store sperm up near their thorax, transferring this from the end of their abdomens by curling these under and forward along their bodies. When females link up, the two bodies loop together in the wheel position that allows for the transfer of sperm to the female for the fertilization of her eggs.

In some species males can remove sperm previously deposited by a rival male, or reposition it so there is less likelihood of fertilising the female’s eggs — the process relies on anatomical adaptions of the males reproductive system. How long pairs remain in tandem is dependent upon which strategy is operating; in some species the couple remain linked when egg laying commences, preventing other males from engaging with the female ensuring the accompanying males’ genetic line, although in some cases the female will break free to lay eggs independently and is them subjected to the attentions of other suitors. How long and whether females remains linked to a male depends on both circumstances and species. There is a lot more to be understood about the processes, particularly in relation to natural selection — with the Odonata providing the best examples so far observed of anatomical traits that relate to sperm competition.

A pair of autumn meadowhawks in tandem – the female laying eggs from above the water.

By any standards dragonflies have been successful for millions of years and this isn’t over. Impressively, Britain has gained eight new dragonfly species since 1985 — in a country where many other plants and animals are rapidly disappearing. It is too early to say if this move northwards due to global climate change is permanent, and there could be other problems on the horizon if weather patterns continue to become more extreme.

The order of dragonflies has already survived several mass extinction events including the one that took out the dinosaurs; and if I was a gambler I’d bet they’d probably survive the next one, but there is a no denying the possibility that our species may not… Whether I might win such a bet would depend on the urgent need for us to deal with both climate change and the continuing reduction of species diversity, because if nothing changes, making a killing will inevitably take on a broader and more devastating meaning.

Life, Death and Landscape Photography… With a Mobile Phone.

My father died on 22nd January 2021 and I recently travelled from Canada to the U.K. to sort out his flat. Last year I tried visiting him, but with the pandemic underway it turned into little more than a game of chicken with the airline; in the end Canada Air cancelled my flight just a few days before I was due to fly — still waiting for a refund, I bought another ticket. Maybe this is symptomatic of the times we live in, but it might also be a case of — ‘Who said life was fair?’

My father with my daughter. New Zealand 2003.

Although my father had a massive brain hemorrhage, it is likely he went peacefully during an afternoon doze on the sofa, but prior to his death there was no doubt the Covid lockdown had affected him — he’d told me that it had been worse than the 2nd World War. Worse than bombing Germany? I asked; and he’d not forgotten the horror of that; but the more recent experience of isolation had been very difficult for him.

I spoke with him every day until the last when there was no response to his ringing phone — he was mid-way through his 99th year and had lived a charmed life.

My parents are buried in the cemetery of St Nicholas Church, Brockenhurst — the oldest church in the New Forest — and I never tire of taking pictures of it.

It wasn’t until months later at the end of July that there was a realistic option to fly to the U.K. and sort out his home and possessions; autumn would soon be approaching and with everybody returning to indoor living, the disease might return more forcefully; and so I decided to make use of this window of opportunity.

My father lived on Southampton Water; and as a child our home had overlooked the tidal estuary of the River Itchen; once you have lived close to the sea, it is difficult to be entirely happy anywhere else.

The end of my 10 day lockdown coincided with the return of cruising and I soon found myself photographing the same ships leaving on a regular basis as most were making only short excursions. The Disney one was a bit Mickey Mouse though, with 🎶M I C K E Y M O U S E 🎶. blasting out across the water. This wasn’t the way I remembered things when I was a child as the Queen Mary sailed out gracefully along the same stretch of water without any fuss as she started out on her journey to New York.

What was it about Britain I wondered that made me feel good despite the death of a parent. Certainly it wasn’t turning up to find myself so predictably ripped off; and Covid-19 hadn’t helped, with so many companies attempting to recoup their pandemic losses. Hire car companies I noticed had become increasingly expensive, especially when you needed to make a change as I did when extending my stay to a fifth week… It was then they turned the screws.

On the third morning after lockdown there was a horn blowing which woke me at 6.00 a.m.. A cruiser had no business going out so early, and I got up to check things out: it was a fog horn blasting a melancholic warning; and I noticed a replica hull of King George V’s Britannia floating forlornly in the mist — over a century ago the king had requested that upon his death, the real thing be scuttled off the Isle of Wight.

“Don’t whatever you do attempt to visit a beach in Dorset,” a friend insisted — which is what I really wanted to do. “Very few Brits are travelling abroad this year”, he continued, “you’ll drive down a lane and find double yellow lines everywhere; then you’ll get to a field and there will be a man in a little hut asking for 20 quid to park.” I avoided this potential disappointment by being too busy to check it out. Then there were my Covid tests — free in many countries… but not in Britain. My last one cost £119. I took five in all and in the end they were probably more expensive and time consuming than my flights.

I don’t like cats, so why do they like me?

On the first morning of my last visit two years ago, I came into the living room to discover a cat, which had recently adopted my father, it was attempting to kill a wild bird that it had just brought in. I quickly rescued the bird and released it. On this my most recent visit, I had only been in the flat for a day when I saw a cat outside, hunting a blackbird as she gathered food. I quickly chased the bird away, but the cat, unused to such fuss, completely ignored me. The day after I experienced more or less the same thing, but with a different cat and a different bird. Then, when I was allowed out, I saw a young couple feeding a group of cats in a local car park — I could tell that all had homes because each was extremely well fed. I was more used to seeing this kind of thing in developing countries and had never experienced anything like it in Britain. Domestic cats kill millions of song birds every year. ‘It’s only natural,’ people say, but that’s an intolerably stupid way of thinking.

Another cat visiting the sea wall wouldn’t leave me alone. This was possibly the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen… but the logic of allowing these unnatural stealthy predators to roam so freely is beyond my understanding.

At the end of quarantine I was out on what was rubbish collection day gathering cardboard boxes to pack my father’s stuff in… I’d quite forgotten about the grumpy old men (the kind of people who used to say to me, ‘More than my job’s worth governor to let you do that’… whatever it was I was doing). There was an older man standing at the gate of his house and suddenly he began shouting at a near neighbour who had put his bag down within 20 metres of Mr Grumpy’s home. ‘Go and put it outside your own place’ he yelled. The old gentleman put down his bag; and due I think to deafness, moved closer before fully appreciating the abuse he was getting.

The first butterfly I saw on the New Forest as a child was a gatekeeper and the last I photographed (under lockdown) on lavender at the back door of my father’s flat.

The day before I left for Canada, there was another incident. I had gone to the bank and didn’t notice an older man hiding out in an internal doorway; he ignored me until I was leaving and then had a go at me because I had jumped a queue that I didn’t know existed. “Why weren’t you queuing outside like everybody else does?” I asked. “I came in to get out of the rain.’ he sarcastically yelled — it was a beautiful sunny day. Try that with a real Canadian I thought, and all you’ll get is a puzzled look, but I’d understood his meaning and didn’t respond. This of course made him angrier. I had the feeling that if I had noticed him loitering in a recess of the bank and hadn’t walked straight past, he would have been disappointed — where else would he have got his daily dose of hate… We’ll pretend it’s a Covid problem, but I’ve noticed that some Brits carry an underlying frustration; a kind of powerlessness in those who feel nobody is paying them much attention.

Sorting through my father’s stuff was like wading through treacle — nothing was sticky, but the volume of accumulated paperwork made it impossible to make headway — he’d saved everything from the last 30 years and a lot of it needed shredding. I was dealing with some important house documents, when suddenly I realised they had been saved from two houses previous to the one I was now sitting in. This was the way it would be for my first 10 days of lockdown — looking at thousands of bits of paper and then destroying most of what was printed upon them. It was exhausting.

I took a break at the end of the first release day and began my mobile phone landscape project — starting on the beach, this just a short walk from the paper mountain I was presently living under. Evening light would make quite a difference to my images and I’d quite forgotten about the expansive coastal skies of my youth.

Back in the flat I took a mug from cupboard to make tea, and as I poured hot water into it, the bloody thing leaked all over the counter top. Nice one dad! It would have been madness to throw this one away. Then I found a series of magazines on the Second World War, documenting the action as it happened; unfortunately they were in order number from the very first issue in 1939 — I just couldn’t throw them away — clearly I was turning into my father.

Another evening on the beach, another picture — and this one had two things going for it, both of them personal. The last time I photographed egrets was for ‘The New Forest Landscapes’ book I’d compiled more than 20 years ago. At the turn of the Century when I lived in the U.K. seeing egrets was still an event, but now they are common. More personally it was good to see Victoria Country Park across the water where I used to take my children to play when they were young.

The photography thing was also a big thing in my father’s flat — it seemed everybody in the family at some stage had taken pictures — they were everywhere. My dad gave it up at around 80, but my step-mother never stopped… and she was good. ‘But isn’t everybody?’ I thought. My wife takes a nice picture; as do my children. How did I manage to make a living from something that almost everybody now does very adequately? I mentioned this to my wife and she agreed that many people take good pictures and it’s become a lot easier now that so much is automatic. Then she said, but you have the advantage of seeing where the real picture is, and very few people can do that. What a nice thing to say I thought… did she want something I wondered? She’s never big on compliments and I’m still mildly in shock.

A friend who was visiting, felt rewarded when he discovered sea lavender on the local beach.
And I felt something similar when I found a micro moth hanging out on the marshland and occasionally feeding on sea lavender flowers. The salt-marsh plume moth Agdistis bennetii demonstrates my phone’s versatility, as I took this close up in very poor light just as it was getting dark.

During my stay in the flat I had very little time to go out and do photography; and hadn’t in any case brought a proper camera… but that’s not quite true — I had my I-phone which I use almost exclusively as a camera now… anything other than emergency communication is wasted on me — nobody knows my number in any case… not even me.

But I had other things to consider as I steadily became overwhelmed by all the stuff my dad had accumulated. I would opened a cupboard and things would gush out like water coming over Niagara Falls — it never stopped. I had to get away from the torrent or was it torment… Yes, torment sums it up… I could only spare a few hours to go out, and apart from the short evening walks along the coast, I only managed three on the New Forest itself, and didn’t get far beyond the boundary closest to where I was staying. I literally drove over the nearest cattle grid, parked in the first place I could find, got out of the car, walked no more than 20 metres and started taking pictures — it’s so much easier when time is limited.

‘All those amazing images taken by amateurs that win competitions,’ I thought…Is it any wonder… they’ll sit for days in one place and when something finally happens they’ll shoot of a hundred exposures on auto-blunder. Over the course of a year how could they fail not to achieve a picture good enough to enter in one of those chocolate box school of photography competitions that are all the rage now: it’s like monkeys typing for an infinite time and writing the complete works of Shakespeare. Sadly, I’ll never get beyond the basics. For me it is just: ‘To be, or not to be? There are no further questions.’ I take one picture at a time, and have no inclination to spend too much minutes doing it. I take photos like they are a disease that won’t go way and expect good images on a daily basis; achieved I think, by a lifetime of practice and persistent failure.

During my three evenings I optimised my chances by going out only when it was sunny, which offered the chance of a sunset, although with a decent phone camera it is possible to get good pictures consistently, because they usually achieve good definition and colour saturation even in the dullest light.

I stayed out on only two of my designated evenings until the sun had set, and each time tried my best to expose correctly for the sky — which in this case appeared to be ‘on fire’, but to do so I had to let the foreground go.

I walked 200 metres to get around this white pony — technically it’s a grey, (it’s a pigment thing), but in my world the pony was stone cold white. I knew before my walk started I’d be leaving an accompanying darker pony out of the shot because it wouldn’t register under the extreme lighting conditions — and I refuse to use a fill in flash. Add to that, ones and threes are more comfortable in a framing than are twos, and I pretty much knew what the picture would look like before I was in place.

My mobile has two lenses one for wides which is equivalent to about 26mm on a full frame camera. The second — described as a telephoto, has a fairly standard focal length on a full frame camera at around 50 mm, which many years ago when I started out, was my standard lens of choice (or rather, it was the one that came with the camera and the only one I could afford).

On the phone screen you can zoom in, but if you get carried away the image quality goes. Nevertheless, work sensibly with a phone camera and it usually provides exceptional results especially when doing landscape photography, but don’t expect to be out there getting great photographs of wild birds. If the results are going to be disappointing, then there is no point in pushing your phone camera beyond its capabilities unless you are attempting an I.D. or need to show that you saw something unusual.

I don’t really look at the screen once I have my frame I watch to see where the legs and heads are going, because if your donkey looks uncomfortable in the final image you’ll never show the picture to anybody.

Many phones also zoom out wider and this shouldn’t reduce image quality, but it needs to be used sparingly. I drive my cameras the way I do a car: get into it and get things moving — the other stuff you can do later — learn it as you go along, even if occasionally you find yourself defeated by the machinery. On the trip down from Heathrow I didn’t turn the air conditioner off because I couldn’t figure how to; and when the seat is set up wrongly, I usually adapt my posture because moving your seat at 70mph is a definite no, no. Uncomfortable is good and I usually drive more carefully to compensate… Alright, now I’m making things up! But the parallel is that if you are out of your comfort zone when working with a camera you sometimes get better pictures.

Unfortunately I don’t know any of the modes on a camera unless I regularly use them. Wildlife photography is a very immediate thing and a bit like war, but without the killing; although you do get to do the aiming and shooting. And just like war, mostly nothing happens, but when you’re suddenly in the thick of it, there’s rarely time to make changes: if you’re not ready to go you’re probably going to miss the picture even if it is only a landscape picture — which is about the easiest photography you’ll ever do. Being prepared is still the best way to get a result, although of course it’s a struggle to think what else you need to do with a phone camera other than have it on.

Taking a good landscape picture has less to do with what’s in front of you, than where you’re standing in relation to what you can see. You make the picture by walking parallel to the view which changes the foreground in relation to the background, such moves are sometimes very minor but they can make a big difference. Here I was just on the look out for standing water running out to the right to mirror the movement of the sky — subconsciously this image might be viewed as a reflection.

Wildlife photography at least teaches you to look at the lie of the land and decide what your subject is most likely to be doing before it happens; and let’s face it, your subject will not be doing it all over again if you miss your opportunity. Once you get the hang of it, the process becomes automatic, but if you can’t, then take up ballroom dancing or something that comes more naturally. I don’t seriously mean that, because I don’t believe there’s a person alive who can’t manage something half decent with a camera. Nevertheless, although it is possible to learn a lot, whatever comes to you instinctively is the quickest route to where you want to be.

There is never a good time to mention the advice given in camera books — the problem with camera books… and this is difficult for me to say, because I’ve never actually read one, but I have flicked through a few and gotten the gist from the pictures. I get the impression that some claim that if you understand the science of optics you can take better picture; and I’ve seen plenty of people who love science giving advise on this, but they still manage to take lousy pictures, and rather embarrassingly, fail to notice.

If the advice in the book doesn’t adopt a scientific approach, then it will often move down a more magical or spiritual route… suggesting that what you are really doing is an art form that requires a particular attitude or approach, but I think it rather pretentious to suggest that what we are doing is art — that kind of judgement should be left to others. The process of photography may be based on a combination of science, mathematics and art, but you don’t need any of that to take a good picture.

A favourite myth is to tell us where to place our subject in the frame in accordance with the Golden Ratio — you can read up on this if you like, but in truth, if you measure up for the rule exactly, it hardly ever works out. What people who paint and take photographs do is far more complicated; they come close to following the rule but seldom do so to the letter; and in many cases, belief in the ratio is little more than an illusion.

Sometimes it is good to be uncomfortable with an image. Tension can make for an interesting picture, but given every photgraph featured here was taken within a few hours, I am happy to have gone down the chocolate box route to demonstrate that there is nothing wrong with capturing images that people like; but once you get the hang of it, sometimes it’s a lot more fun to be irritating and try something different. In the end whatever you do is a matter of taste, but if you don’t vary your style, your photographs will begin to look very much like all the others that are being taken.

To move or not to move? Should this foreground stick stay or go. Whatever the case I’d always put it back, many a social insect has lost its way home due to a careless change of topography.

When taking pictures, my view is that, when starting out, you should rely on only three things. 1. stand in the right place. 2. Frame the picture well, and 3. Make the right exposure, but the last of these you can leave entirely to your phone camera. The one exception is when dealing with sky, especially early or late in the day. The way phones are set up is to give the best exposure compromise possible. Essentially no camera sees the way a human eye does, as we rapidly adapt to different levels and where the light is coming from in order to best see what we need to, and we are continually compensating; the camera on the other hand is stuck with what you point it at and will read only that value, unless you have set up some internal camera compensation….

With my phone I don’t need to do very much. I just point it at the sky which gives a pretty good exposure for the lightest part of the picture and this also gives a fairly good impression on the screen as to how the sky is looking; but that won’t provide the best value for the rest of the picture, especially at sunrise or sunset, when nearly always you will experience a dark foreground, even though electronic cameras are far more forgiving than film cameras ever were. The advantage of a phone camera is that you can adjust accordingly because your phone camera does things more slowly than your eye and brain combined, and by tilting down from the sky to your final framing you will have time to take advantage of the changes that your camera is making as it compensates for exposure. Work out where your final framing will be and then take several picture when you’ve done your tilting, watching as the exposure changes and each time varying when you press the button. Then select the exposure you want from your series.

This picture was taken within a few seconds of the picture below.
It is up to you to decide how you want the image to look, otherwise there is nothing much else to do but point the camera!

To expose for the landmass the sky will inevitably blow out a bit, but that’s O.K., you just don’t want to lose all of it’s contrast and colour. You don’t even need to practice this — just keep taking pictures until you get what you want and don’t dump too many until you get home and see the results under normal lighting conditions: it is very easy to discard the best picture by dumping them in the half light. Remember that your phone is your friend and it is trying to give you the best compromise by being very forgiving of your human incompetence.

Most phone cameras will also reduce blur and this is helpful if you are unsteady, but don’t rely on it too much, especially in very low light conditions. If you can prop the camera on something, then do so, hold your breath, and try not to snatch when pressing the button. You also need to keep your fingers out of the shot — and that’s sometimes easier said than done.

With electronic cameras, unlike the old days of film, your images are free and you can take as many pictures as you like without cost and sort out the best ones. Fortunately photography isn’t a matter of life and death, and we should all enjoy the process — because in the grand scheme of things it is a trivial pursuit, but by looking back on what we have achieved, we are sometimes reminded of the many happy experiences of living, and the benefits of that should not be underestimated.

With thanks to my friend Dr Mathew Cock for identifying the wetland moth.

Denaturing: The Fast-Track to Economic Growth… and the Snow Geese Bucking the Trend.

When I first moved to the Lower Mainland of British Colombia I wondered what Canadians did for a living; as a child brought up in Britain, I was led to believe that what they mostly did was chop down trees. I remember Monty Python singing a song about it: ‘lumberjacks’ apparently were O.K. — but as the verses progressed a different story emerged — all nonsense for comic effect, but even in the real world things aren’t always what they seem and mostly not quite so funny.

There are very few trees like this on the Lower Mainland.

A couple of hundred years ago the coastal lowlands of British Columbia were covered in unspoiled temperate rainforest; but all of that was gone at least a couple of generations before I was born. I’m a Canadian now, but the tag is presumptuous: in my English imagination, men in red checked shirts still chop down trees somewhere close to home, although I’ve never seen them doing it… But of course, I should have twigged — there are no ‘grand old trees’ still standing in my neighbourhood, and in consequence lumberjacks in tartan shirts, looking to get things done, are few and far between… Come to think of it, I’ve never even seen a mounty ride by on a horse… When you start looking closely, life is full of little disappointments.

Once the trees were felled, people made a living farming the fertile land where the trees once stood, but even that wouldn’t last. These days, there isn’t very much money in farming, unless it comes as a subsidy for not bothering to grow anything. Profits are mostly tied to land values; and it’s no surprise that speculators are buying up blueberry fields, giving the impression they have suddenly become fruit growers, what they are really doing is submitting planning applications to re-zone agricultural land for residential use, and cash in on the current housing boom. There’s a lot of money involved, and a variety of ways to hit the jackpot.

A green belt area in West Sussex. U.K.. Green belts in Britain are not as secure as they once were, but when environmentally sensitive areas are threatened, local opposition often proves successful. Considering the number of people now living in Britain it is surprising how much green there is.

Having lived most of my life in England I am used to green belts that can’t so easily be re-zoned; which makes sense, because in future food will need to be grown closer to where it is consumed. Unfortunately, the chances of doing this where I live now are rapidly decreasing, as much of the arable land across the Lower Mainland has become urban sprawl, and I don’t think there are any plans to discontinue the policy.

The long term future of the area looks bleak, although there are many who don’t see it that way, as few are inclined to stifle an apparently successful economy, even when it’s built on the false premise that we can all live off the back of a housing boom. The Lower Mainland is expansive but continued development between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains is finite, and always at the expense of agriculture and the natural world.

Seattle is an interesting mix of old style and modern.

In the Pacific North West, Vancouver and Seattle are maritime cities that have evolved historically as ports exporting locally felled timber. But with the old growth forests long gone, both have taken on new roles that include thriving film industries and tourism. Vancouver is especially well placed as it is possible to be on a beach in the morning, then lunch in the city and get over to the North Shore mountains for an afternoon ski, or a walk on the wild side, depending on the season.

Vancouver is scruffier than it once was, it has a homeless problem, and like many places on the Lower Mainland has an abundance of rats, but the overall impression to visitors is of a vibrant city.
When I came to the area 10 years ago Surrey had 3 high rise buildings, but high density living has become a feature — a year ago these towers didn’t exist.

I live on the Canadian side of the border between the two impressive cities, and every day the natural world moves a little further away. My nearest city is Surrey which hasn’t a lot going for it — landlocked, and developing rapidly, it remains uninspiring.

The land that surrounds the city has been utilised principally for the purpose of building houses, fuelled by a never ending influx of people from elsewhere (myself included): there is a plan to have more people living in the area than live in Vancouver within 10 years. One might think the urban sprawl is driven by quick money rather than any sustainable plan for a long term future. Presently, little is produced other than housing, which has resulted in a service industry — but what will happen when the available land runs out? Not everybody will be able to make a living working in a shop or driving a taxi.

In only one respect does the city follow in the footsteps of Vancouver — increasingly, as more people flood in, local people are priced out of the housing market; or at least have to live in far less space. When more people are crammed in, there is inevitably less natural space, which is detrimental to health, but probably still good for council coffers. I remember a time when people lived in places they actually liked, but now the priority is to simply find affordable accommodation… and if you don’t like high density living, then that’s just too bad — your loss will always be somebody else’s gain.

There are of course many houses that are not crammed in, but such benefits are reflected in price. This development was completed in 2015 — a year earlier it had been woodland adjoining a nature reserve, providing an important natural buffer.

Early in 2020, experts predicted that house prices in Canada would drop as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but this turned out to be about as reliable as the predictions that our computers would crash when 1999 turned to 2000; and more recently there were those who told us that Donald Trump was unelectable; then came Brexit with warnings of dire consequences if Britain left the European Union — and we’re still waiting on that one. Not surprisingly, in April 2021, when it was predicted that Canadians house prices would fall dramatically, they did exactly the opposite and rose at the fastest rate on record. Unfortunately, we don’t remember those who gave us all the duff information, if we did we’d never listen to them again… Instead we just keep getting fooled… In the worlds of Homer Simpson… ‘Dooh!

Predicting the future is never easy, but there’s little need for pundits to get mouthy about what my local city does best — it orchestrates the urban sprawl that surrounds it; and with more vehicles come traffic jams and a decline in air quality, while infrastructure barely keeps pace with the rapidly increasing population: predictions are unnecessary because ‘progress’ (if you can call it that), is moving at break-neck speed.

A local corner plot developed for town housing during late summer 2016, which led to higher density living and fewer trees.

A few designated areas provide wildlife respite, but most are quite small and do little more than service the burgeoning dog population’s pooing requirements. There are only a few links between ‘natural’ spaces; but in my area this means little more than weaving between dog doos under a buzz of electric pylons — pointless really, because the nature route is low priority and incomplete. All of this is unfortunate, but for reasons that are puzzling, Canadians are reticent to complain as things around them get steadily worse.

Despite the dismal outlook, there is something to be grateful for: despite the extensive and rapid development across the Lower Mainland, local coastlines provide important habitats for large numbers of migrating birds, with many remaining quite natural along route. Move away from the city towards the mountains or the sea, and the human population often drops away, especially in low lying coastal areas where the possibility of rising sea levels dissuades many from attempting to live there.

Wherever the land touches the sea, the tidal zone offers one of the most difficult and expensive areas for humans to conquer, with the result that long strips of mostly undisturbed natural habit are still intact. We don’t always appreciate the large numbers of plants and small invertebrates that live in such places, but the waders, ducks and geese that come flying in to feed on them certainly do.

Goldeneye are winter residents; arriving during the fall they leave in the spring.

On the Lower Mainland as winter approaches, it is difficult not to notice the steadily increasing numbers of migrating ducks and geese flying in, but their arrival is not considered consequential: the local economy will always take precedence with the birds considered only for their amenity value. Unfortunately, as our economies become more globalised the natural world hardly features at all.

Getting the best of nature has become second nature to us. When a site is designated for a new airport in places where birds have been flying along migratory routes for thousand of years, the natural aviators become a sudden inconvenience and efforts are made to ground them. In dealing with the natural world, our hypocrisy can be breath-taking, especially when there’s a dollars to be made.

At some stage, we will be forced to re-evaluate our absurdly homocentric views towards every natural environment we come into contact with: presently we consider such places as just waiting for us to repurpose them. We start by asking what benefits conserving them will have for us, and if there is uncertainty, fall back on that old favourite: ‘You can’t get in the way of progress’. So locked are we into following the money, that on coming up against wilderness, habitually, our first impulse is to destroy it — the natural world gets a reprieve only when we can find no immediate economic reason to exploit it.

Fortunately, large numbers of birds continue to migrate through many of our coastal regions. In the Northern Hemisphere the birds usually travel along migratory routes that run from north to south in the fall, and in the opposite direction during the spring; the resultant spectacle is one of the great natural wonders of the world. I consider myself lucky to live close to a major migratory route — ‘The Pacific Flyway’ involving a great many species and an enormous number of birds: everything from hummingbirds to songbirds and waders, are making their journeys, but it is the swans, ducks and geese as they skein above us in orderly patterns that we are most likely to hear, see and notice.

American Wigeon are common winter residents on the Lower Mainland.

At the approach of winter many birds are looking to move away from the harsh weather conditions they are experiencing to the north. The solution is obvious: fly south to where things are easier and return to traditional breeding grounds as spring arrives. Many birds will come all the way from the Arctic but not all will move on to warmer climes; indeed, some will not go much further south than the Lower Mainland where temperate coastal conditions provide a manageable climate for overwintering. It is essential to protect the traditional feeding grounds annually visited by birds arriving in the fall — because if these are lost, the repercussions for the natural world, inevitably, will extend far beyond local areas.

Large numbers of waders moving along a local coastline in winter.

The coastal regions of the Pacific North West have extensive inlets and large numbers of islands providing almost endless opportunities for migrating birds to feed. However, not every species can exist exclusively in the tidal zone: many wildfowl also require grasslands for their survival, and if extensive reserves are not available then winter farmland lying fallow remains their only alternative.

In years when winter birds show up in numbers, food supplies can sometimes become limited by extensive grazing and this can prove destructive to agriculture; although on the upside, bird droppings usually increases soil fertility. When bird numbers stay within certain limits, the relationship between migrating birds and local farmers can be a good one, especially if farmers are compensated adequately for the losses caused by visiting grazers. In fairness to the birds, it should be remembered that their ancestors were utilising local habitats long before these were repurposed for agriculture; an argument that hasn’t worked well for native people in the past, and is unlikely to prove more successful in the conservation of native birds.

Trumpeter Swans feeding on open grassland in winter. When their heads are up and bobbing, the photographer is probably too close; and when the birds start honking, most likely they will take flight. Managing energy expenditure is a feature of life for many birds especially those that migrate — because unlike most of us, none of them will be going back to warmer conditions for a hot meal at the end of the day.

Because I lived much of my life outside British Columbia, the birds I didn’t get to see in the wild before coming to live in Western Canada hold a certain novelty value, with snow geese amongst my favourites.

Snow Geese are a spectacle as they arrive on the Lower Mainland in numbers — it is always a privilege to spend time with them.

Migrating in from Arctic regions, the snow goose journey is epic in nature: most of the birds that overwinter on the Lower Mainland migrate from summer breeding grounds as far away as Wrangel Island, Siberia. They fly across The Bering Sea and North Pacific before moving down the west coast of North America. Many bird species will continue further south on their extraordinary journeys, but the snow geese arriving during November will stay for a while, then move a little further south to graze on grasslands in Washington State before flying North again as spring approaches.

Photographing wild geese can be a bit hit and miss, but in years when adults have been particularly successful in rearing young, the large number of arrivals makes doing so easier.

Snow geese provide the best opportunities for photography when they are feeding; and are most easily approached along footpaths where people regularly walk fence lines. Providing nobody attempts to enter the field the birds remain calm unless they have been recently shot at. It is however natural for the birds to move away from you as they graze but if too many heads are raised and stay up, and the geese get agitated and noisy, as with the Trumpeter swans mentioned earlier, it is best to move away before the birds take flight.

Better in the sky than the china ‘ducks’ I remember seeing on a living room wall when I was a child. For a while they were naff; they moved on to being kitsch, but now they are ironic.

There is no excuse for disturbing wild birds even when there are so many it doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes wild geese will feed on local parks and golf courses; and just because we might walk in these places, there’s no reason to put them up for fun, or for a picture. Birds that are forced to keep moving on deplete their energy reserves rapidly, and this may prove consequential on colder nights. The fewer unnecessary flights they have to make the easier life becomes. Developing a sensitivity to wildlife should be encouraged, although such behaviour doesn’t come naturally to everybody. It’s never too late to learn though — and if it costs us nothing, why not behave appropriately? When I was young I’d have been in trouble for chasing the ducks, but many people think it cute when their child or dog chases a wild animal; and perhaps therein lies the problem to ‘wild goose chasing’… and quite a lot else.

In a world where positive stories about wildlife are increasingly difficult to find, snow geese are running against the trend, with their numbers increasing dramatically in recent years, in part because over the last half century, more arable land has become available across their winter feeding grounds — the general view is that there are now too many birds to support. In Arctic regions, summer temperatures are increasing and as so many young birds are being reared successfully, grasslands across Arctic feeding grounds are also becoming overgrazed and this is now a major concern. In consequence, there has been a relaxation of the number of birds that may be shot annually to allow habitats to recover.

The only shooting I’ll ever do is with a camera, but appreciate the potential for a snow goose problem. Nevertheless I remain an admirer of any bird that can fly at high altitude over great distances to achieve hard won success. A snow goose may live for 16 years and if you can imagine following the progress of a single bird over the course of a lifetime, you’d likely feel upset if your bird ‘got the bullet’. It is however necessary to maintain a realistic attitude as to how nature is balanced: predation and culls seem shocking, but they are often better options than birds eating themselves out of their available food source, with disease and loss of condition inevitably causing birds to suffer as they starve to death.

Watching a flock of white birds at sunset communicating vocally with one another is a wonderful experience.

The migratory cycle appears to be a successful and never ending process, but as migrating birds rely on so many habitats during their passage, they could easily disappear as quickly as the native forests of the Lower Mainland already have. For millennia birds have utilised large numbers of individual feeding grounds as they make these journeys, and if our actions destroysjust a few essential places, the viability of many bird species could be thrown into question. There are no mystical guiding forces; the longterm future of the natural world is entirely at our disposal — disposal being the operative word.

We can open small nature reserves as easily as we create zoos in an attempt to maintain species, but in the longterm it is the conservation of natural ecosystems that is most important; and in future we will need to develop more effective ways to live alongside nature. Extending our reach to every region of the globe to support ever expanding economies is unsustainable; ecosystems are finite and complex beyond our wildest imaginations and once gone cannot be recreated. There can be no doubt that presently, we are disrupting many natural environments beyond repair.

Birds are part of the many complex ecological systems that surround us, and are not simply flying around for our amusement — but if we can’t get past that notion, it is as well to consider that migratory routes are defined entirely by the ecosystems they pass through, their success or failure an indicator as to how sustainable and healthy is our world — and if we choose to disrupt them… we do so at our peril.

Owls — Not Quite as Clever as We Think.

You know how it is, you’re having a perfectly normal conversation with somebody you think you know, and suddenly they say, ‘That’s just not like me, I’m a Capricorn’, and you’re thinking, ‘I hadn’t realised you were as daft as a brush’…

The great thing about owls is they aren’t like that — millions of years of evolution have honed them into ultra-efficient killing machines and none will make a judgement based on your star signs. Probably what they’re thinking when looking at you is, ‘I’m sure that thing’s too big to eat; but I’ll keep watching in case it’s dangerous?’

All that owls need to do is catch and kill prey on a regular basis; find a mate, then a suitable place to nest and rear offspring successfully; and for all of these things natural selection has adapted them well… otherwise they’d be extinct. Survival doesn’t require cleverness in the way that we think of it; no owl will be entering a pub quiz any time soon, because that’s not what ‘wise owls’ do.

Here’s ‘a wise owl’. Certainly this one’s fairly cute for a killing machine, but clever?…That’s a different story.

The impression we have is that owls are thoughtful, because unlike most birds they have flat faces and as predators need to judge distance using binocular vision; consequently, their eyes are located at the front of their heads, and these organs of vision are usually so big and adorable they are a super stimulus for our brains and this encourages us to like them. Add to this, beaks that look a bit like noses and suddenly we’re thinking, these creatures look a bit like us, so they must think like us… but that’s really stretching it.

When I turned my wife into Christina Robin for her birthday, the joke wasn’t so much about her mild mannered attitude towards childhood friends, but rather, that none of them were very bright — Wol couldn’t even spell his own name and he was supposed to be the clever one; and despite not being a stuffed toy like the others, his general lack of knowledge suggested that it was a close run thing.
An owl that has hung on a bedpost for more than 25 years was a gift to my son.

Various animals seem to grab our attention — mostly mammals; but frogs, toads, parrots, owls and even snails have their fans. Owl enthusiasts will surround themselves with imagery relating to their favourite subject — pictures on the wall, place mats on the table and cuddly toys in the bedroom.

My grandfather’s collar-stud and cufflinks jar is on a shelf at the top of the stairs, and with more than 100 years of use, is beginning to show its age.

For the love of owls...

I don’t see myself as a rabid owl enthusiast and yet after a head count I’ve noticed quite a few dotted around the house. Rooted somewhere deep in our psyche these unusual looking bird are just waiting to come to mind, but over the years my relationship with them has been mostly practical: every now and again I’ve been required to film one, and suddenly they’re part of making a living.

The first owl I filmed for television was for a documentary on the wildlife of churchyards — it was a barn owl… or to be precise, it was three barn owls, and they taught me something… These are beautiful birds but have a habit of making their surroundings surprisingly dirty for all their hauntingly pristine whiteness. Clearly, the magic hold that owls have over our minds turns almost everything that they do into a positive.

A beautiful bird, but not one of my favourites

Owls push out waste material from both ends, which you really start to notice when you spend long hours working with them. Most creatures excrete from their rear ends, but owls also regularly throw up pellets — waste materials of digestion that attract flies and other small creatures to feed and lay eggs upon these macabre little parcels.

One of the barn owl trio.

During the spring of the project I was suddenly looking after three young captive barn owls, converting my Victorian outhouse into a film set, and constructing a window from which they would hopefully emerge as if from a church tower.

In reality churches haven’t had owls or even bats in their belfries for a very long time, because those responsible for maintaining the interiors of churches prefer to avoid accumulating bat poo, bird droppings and owl pellets.

The front of the outbuilding beside my old Victorian house, becoming a church tower window.

For years now, the chances of finding owls spending their days hiding away in church towers has been reduced to almost zero, as most windows have been meshed to prevent birds from entering.

However, if owls had still been living a church going lifestyle, the only other option would have been to build a scaffold next to a church tower from which I need to film a single shot, and that wasn’t very cost effective. Back in the 1980s, it was easier for me to build a church window set and film captive owls coming and going, even if in reality they’d be unlikely to do so.

Wildlife film-makers rarely admit to deception, but we all have to own up to the realities of what is possible in a world that is rapidly disappearing. I don’t think it matters one hoot whether an owl exits a real window, or a fake one, because nothing about the bird’s behaviour changes. Nobody questions an edit in a natural history film, because if an audience wanted to experience natural events in real-time they’d be waiting for days. However, as soon as you tighten up the progress of events the result is a story; and the real problem with telling a story is the disappointment of the viewer should they discover the deception.

A discontentment of barn owls.

So, there I was… faking it; building a facade on the front of my outhouse and using the outdoor toilet next to it as a hide to film from, essentially by knocking a small hole in the wall. On the outside of the set window was an outdoor enclosure into which the owls could emerge, but they never did. Even sitting in the window would have been helpful; and if flying was beyond them, just hopping out of frame would have been enough, but they wouldn’t do any of these things. It was a complete waste of time, and I ended up feeding the birds inside the little room they’d adopted as their home, a home that I never managed to persuade them to leave.

All that was needed was the grouting between the bricks, and the scene, when lit for night, would be quite believable; but as not a single owl ever exited through this window, my efforts were a waste of time.

The outhouse was next to the kitchen, and the flies coming to visit the mess the bird’s created was disagreeable. The owls weren’t equipped to fly any distance; and after a couple of months I returned them to the person who had reared them in preparation for release into the wild. I am aware that most owl enthusiasts would be singing the praises of experiencing such wonderful birds first hand, but I couldn’t wait to see the back of them. They whole thing had been a time consuming failure. I’d been unintentionally mislead about what these owls would do, and was a long way past the point where I was going to train them to fly through my phoney window. They were the wrong birds for the job and never again did I make such an expensive mistake.

One Man’s Owl‘ Bubo, when a young bird.

Soon after my year of filming in graveyards, I moved onto another film project for the BBC in the backwoods of Maine where I would meet a great horned owl destined to become one of the most famous owls in natural history writing. I returned to Maine on several occasions over the course of the next year and a half, spending much of my time high on a wooded hill at the camp of scientist and writer Professor Bernd Heinrich. The thing about Bernd is that he is not only an exceptional naturalists but one of the most impressive zoologists of his generation. He’d rescued a fledgling great horned owl from the snow and the bird was always somewhere close to his cabin, either sitting on a log, or in a tree close by. He had been named Bubo: if you can name a hobbit Bilbo, then why not an owl Bubo, after all it is latin for his Genus — the New World horned owls and Old World eagle owls make up the genus Bubo.

Eventually, after many hours of observation, Bernd wrote ‘One Man’s Owl‘ which like most of his books became a classic of natural history writing. The bird was semi-wild, and would come to Bernd without much trouble; better than that, he would fly to food in a manner that was entirely predictable. One day Bernd dangled something dead and unpleasant just behind my head and young Bubo came swooping in to take it, providing a shot I could never have achieved in the wild. We repeated this several times, the owl on each occasion dropping from it’s perch just a little way off and then gliding towards the lens, dipping low enough to appear as if he might be about to crash into me, but rising at the last moment to a position just above my head — each time I felt claws brushing through my hair, but they didn’t close until locked onto the free lunch that I couldn’t exactly feel behind my head, but could faintly smell. When a bird of prey’s talons touch prey, they usually snap closed as a reflex action and my hair got pulled, but it was nothing personal. If an owl really flies at you with intent… then you certainly know about it.

A great horned owl has a pounds per square inch (psi) grip of around 300 — 500, whereas most humans manage a grip of just a few pounds per square inch.

A few years later I found myself in the high mountain woodlands of New Mexico filming the small nocturnal flammulated owl. It was a surprise when the scientist working with the birds told me he could chainsaw out the back of the tree they were nesting in and they would remain entirely undisturbed. If you needed to observe or weight young birds this was perhaps an effective way of doing it, but I was sceptical. Chainsawing a tree before the owls started nesting seemed a better option, but how many trees would you need to cut into to guarantee a nest being present later in the year? Predicting such events is very hit and miss.

This picture was taken to reference an owl in place: it is obvious that the sudden daylight was inconvenient, and although woken the bird wasn’t stressed. It is important to read an animal’s demeanour, because that will indicate what you can or cannot do. The film sequence involved more directional lighting, with a suitable exposure to create the impression that the bird was tucked away in the tree; and tightening up the shot to reveal only the interior made the sequence believable.
A flammulated owl watching from a nest hole in a broken off pine tree. The bird can be seen looking out about 10 inches above the top of the ladder. Mostly, I would secure the ladder to the rear of the tree to film the nest internally.

The section removed from the back of the nest could be taken out when filming, then set back and wired into place very quickly. There are probably a dozen good reasons why this wouldn’t be done today, one of which is that flammulated owls are now endangered in some areas of their range. For the most part this has been down to habitat loss. After being set up by the bird biologist, I filmed the owls both during the day and at night using artificial light — but standing at the top of a ladder tied almost perpendicular to what remained of an old conifer miles from anywhere, in otherwise total darkness, was rather spooky.

The filming occurred more than 35 years ago when a great many species were far less threatened than they are today; but even back then if I hadn’t been confident about what I was doing, I wouldn’t have been filming; and in this case, certainly not without the supervision of a scientific advisor who had been working closely with the birds. I haven’t named him because many will consider this kind of intrusiveness unacceptable; but as none of his birds ever seemed disturbed and the information gleaned went into conserving the species, I didn’t have a problem with it. Nevertheless, I am not sure we need to see every wild bird on the nest just for a television programme, although there is no doubt that this kind of media exposure is the best way to get a general audience informed and proactive in conservation… But don’t try this at home… you might lose an eye! The alternative is to film captive birds on sets and there are many people who are equally disturbed by this alternative dishonesty.

A flammulated owl on the nest.

Using artificial light attracted more moths that I have ever seen at any one time outside of the tropics. The owls were easy going, but there was always the potential danger that an adult bird arriving back at the nest might get spooked and launch into my face. Owls have inflicted serious damage to people who have worked this closely with them in the wild, causing facial damage and even the loss of an eye.

I was filming less than a foot from the bird, and couldn’t believe how tolerant the flammulated owls were, although I only worked with birds for very short periods, never more than 20 minutes a night before leaving them to get on with their lives. The success of the project was mostly in the planning; followed by working quickly without any sudden movements that might disturb them. I used a variety of techniques to minimise disturbance: a light source that could be turned up rather than one that could only be turned on, and dark gloves to prevent sudden glare from my hands. Simple things but very effective.

Unless a hide has been set up and birds are entirely unaware of your presence, the 20 minute rule is a good one. I’ve worked in this way with several bat species including vampire bats at their roost as well as variety of nesting birds, but you can’t do this with every species.

Some birds are not troubled by this kind of exposure, but many will be, unless you have almost unlimited time to get them used to a new experience; most importantly you can’t just try it out to see, and that is why such filming endeavours work best if they are associated with a research project that has already clearly defined the ground rules.

These flammulated owl chicks were filmed successfully from the back side of the nest.

It would be impossible to list every owl I’ve filmed or photographed because there have been so many — some have been captive, but most have been truly wild.

This tawny owl sitting on a camera in my studio was a star. If there was ever an owl that made me question my view that owls aren’t especially bright, then this was the one.

I have in the past been fairly mean when using film stock and there are many occasions when I didn’t wind on far enough before taking pictures, resulting in a light leak that affected the first frame of the roll. For some reason when I photographed owls this happened rather a lot, but I often quite liked the results. I could claim that these were artful pictures, but I won’t go that far — although the random nature of what turned out was often quite interesting.

‘Tawny in Red’ was a resident at the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Weyhill, Hampshire and it was an extraordinary bird. This owl would fly to wherever was required and land to order; and rather usefully could fly slowly alongside a moving vehicle so that it might be easily tracked by a camera. Straight away I must admit that owls are capable of remarkable things, but in fairness this birds super abilities were to some degree down to handler and Trust Founder Ashley Smith, but there was no doubt in my mind that this was a very special bird.

A Rothkoesque image of a burrowing owl — a species that I’m fond of.

This wild burrowing owl was photographed on open grassland, and had the habit of standing tall, stretching itself up to gain a little extra height when it was trying to make out anything that was moving, often at some distance. This was accompanied by complicated head movements, giving the bird a comic demeanour. The behaviour however was strictly functional, allowing the bird to judge distance. The owl would react this way when anything new came into view: this might be an old bag blowing in the wind, a coyote, or just a human who hadn’t yet noticed the owl was there — in the reverse situation the observations were seldom as acute: people just don’t notice as much as an owl does; certainly any owl that takes the trouble to monitor its surroundings is more likely to survive than one that doesn’t.

An old pipe is a very suitable home for a burrowing owl.

Everybody has favourites, but more often than not, mine are functional. Burrowing owls are high on my list because they are active during the day which gives a film-maker at least a chance. In the mid 1980s I worked with these delightful birds on a site in New Mexico and became quite enamoured by their behaviour.

They would sit outside of their burrows during the day, or on top of a dead tree stump or power line pole, but unlike most owls, were more inclined to present more interesting daytime behaviour. Many species remain at rest during daylight hours, giving you little more to film than a rotating head and the occasional blink; but burrowing owls are different — they are generally more dynamic, even if sometimes this involves little more than moving in and out of their burrows. Movement is essential to a television audience’s experience; and usefully the most dramatic activity these owls would perform was to dive-bomb walkers and joggers; joggers being the preferential targets, perhaps because they were moving faster and considered more of a threat.

A young burrowing owl exercising its wings. Perhaps because I’ve been involved with moving pictures for most of my working life, I also like to see some movement in my stills, although achieving the appropriate amount of blur can be very hit and miss. I hardly ever use flash photography, although doing so provides a sharper image which is preferential to some, but it isn’t a priority for me; and I wouldn’t in any case use flash with owls because they are such light sensitive creatures.

Several years after filming the flammulated owls, I took a road trip with my wife Jen across Route 66 and made a slight detour to re-visit my old favourites. Unlike so many animals I have returned to see, the owls had not been swamped by development or disturbance. They were living their lives pretty much the way they had been on my previous visit when I’d had the luxury of being paid to be in their presence and could give them far more time.

Good telephoto lenses are expensive, and increasingly photographers are getting far too close to wildlife trying to get a better shot, and they are often doing so using mobile phones. As a group, photographers are becoming a nuisance and it’s way past the time when we need to be thinking about our priorities, because no matter how hard we try, somebody will always have a better picture of the animals we are trying to photograph than we are ever going to get on the inappropriate cameras and lenses many of us are using. Clearly it’s time for all of us to ease off a bit and give what remains of the natural world a bit more space.

A picture given to me by John Northcott in the early 1980s He’s may well have grown up by now and lost this skill.

When working with animals I’ve always attempt two styles of photography. The first and most essential is to record events at a specific moment in time: it is rewarding to take a great picture but on occasions this isn’t the point. The second kind of picture is taken with a view to getting an attractive image, usually playing with framing and exposure to create a mood, and this isn’t as difficult as it sounds, and most of us can manage it with a bit of practice. However, now and again something special comes together — an animal is in the right place at the right time and suddenly the lighting comes good and you grab the moment, which is about as authentic as it gets for a photographer.

I presently live in a Canadian suburb, which isn’t the best place to take pictures of wildlife, but even developed areas have something to offer, especially if you can find a bit of woodland that hasn’t been felled somewhere between all of that housing. In my case, ‘a river runs through it’ with natural woodland on either side: this is a byway for many animal species, and there is no telling what might show up. Recently a beaver took up residence and started chewing down small trees. Now and again I see a barred owl that likes to sit in a particular stand of trees. My son walks a different route and he sees a different owl. Yesterday his owl was sat in its usual place, but on this occasion it was being mobbed from above by a heron. The owl on my walk seldom has anything that interesting going on, but a couple of years ago the owl was sitting unusually low in a tree close to the path. The sun was going down and I could see the light would come good in just a few minutes and all I needed to do was photograph it, but I wasn’t carrying a long lens. The question was, could I jog home, pick one up and get back in time? It took fifteen minutes to turn that around, and when I got back the owl was still there, and suddenly looking at me wondering what all the fuss was about.

The sun was casting its rays through the branches and there was very little life left in them, but there was enough. The owl bobbed her head at me, trying to work out what I was doing. I imagined she was thinking, ‘What are you up to you fool?’… but that’s just the’ psych bending power of the owl’ driving me to put human thoughts into her skull. She soon lost interest and turned her head to one side and I took my picture. My preference was to think that she’d worked it all out — the meaning of life and all that goes with it, but that of course was preposterous. Everything that was clever about this owl was inside my head. But never mind that — there before me was the most extraordinary creature… and that should have been enough, because this was as good as it was ever going to get.

In memory of my father — Elliott Keith Bolwell. 22/8/22 – 22/1/21.

Some Days I Just Can’t Tell my Ground Squirrel from my Marmot.

Pre-covid, but not so long ago, Jen and I took a trip to Manning Park in British Columbia intending to visit upland meadows in full flower; but you know how it is with the natural world — get your timing out by a week one way or the other, and you’re either too early and there’s nothing to see, or you’re too late and everything’s gone to seed. It’s a bit like life  really — there are plenty of opportunities to miss.

Visiting mountains in summer is a wonderful experience, even when the period between consecutive winters is disturbingly short.

Living on the coast as we do, the time schedule for many natural events runs seasonally ahead of events further inland. The nearer to the sea, the more temperate and mild it is. Go north (or in the Southern Hemisphere, south), or anywhere where altitude increases and natural events are playing catch up. In the case of Manning Park not only did we travel inland across a great land-mass, but we also rose well above sea-level, consequently the upland meadows hadn’t quite reached their best; but when you’ve come a distance, you’re duty bound to find something interesting. In our case it was ground squirrels; and not just because they’re cute; there was also a good story.

My first awareness of chipmunks as a small child living in Britain can from cartoons.
My first awareness of chipmunks as a small child living in Britain came from cartoon characters.

But before we got acquainted with the local rodents; we would need to deal with the disappointment of what we wouldn’t be seeing — a delightful expanse of upland meadows with colourful flowers waving in the wind.

A trip to the visitors centre is always the best place to start when a park is new to you and there we obtained a map marked with flower meadow locations and set off to see them; but not before I’d asked the pleasant park official if there had been any recent bear sightings? She said she had never seen a bear in the park, and I responded by saying, “You need to get out more.” The kind of remark that is better thought than said in these enlightened times when to say almost anything can cause offence. I must try harder, or failing that, stop leaving the house. Fortunately, this is Canada, and the woman concerned wasn’t the least offended; either because Canadians are such polite people, or because you have to say everything twice to be sure they are listening… I notice the hole I am digging is getting deeper…

The Meadows on Strawberry Flats were just coming into flower -- it was clear we were a little to early
The Meadows on Strawberry Flats were just coming into flower, but it was clear we had arrived too early.

Very soon we parked up close by an alpine meadow, and before we’d walked 20 metres a couple emerging from a nearby trail told us there was a black bear on the corner, but by the time we arrived the bear had moved on — bears having the advantage over plants by not being rooted to the spot. 

All was not lost though: the red columbine Aquilegia formosa was at least in flower.
A longhorn beetle feeding and pollinating flowers.

Bear free we inspected the meadows more closely. There were certainly flowers and insects to photograph, but the general paucity of flowers encouraged us to move on to a nearby beaver pond because the presence of fresh water always ups the chances of seeing something interesting.  

Adding another habitat type invariably increases diversity, and water is exceptional at increasing the species count and the effect can be very noticeable.

A rein orchid.

We soon come across a rein orchid Platanthera dilatata which prefers boggy upland conditions, along with a dragonfly we don’t so often see on The Lower Mainland.

I’m probably the only person happy enough to trade a bear sighting for a dragonfly, especially if it’s a species I don’t regularly see — for some reason I find these extraordinary insects more interesting than bears and there’s no shortage of them here and a great many are rattling around. We take time to photograph any individual that land close by; and the calmness of the open water encourages us to spend more time by the pond than we might have done.

The Crimson-ringed whiteface Leucorrhinia glacialis was the most common dragonfly present

We spend a pleasant hour observing creatures that haven’t changed much since before the time of the dinosaurs, although some dragonflies during the Carboniferous Period were far larger than those flying around us today, back then the oxygen content of the atmosphere was higher, allowing them to supersize. Thankfully the ones landing on us are far smaller and less terrifying than would have been the case in a similar boggy conditions 350 million years ago. Once the novelty of being perched on by these harmless little predators had worn off, we returned to the vehicle.

Entering the car park there was a scurry at my feet. Such an event would usually be a disappointment where we come from, indicating the presence of a rat, but this particular scurry was far too delicate. We sat in the car and ate our lunch, in the hope that the scurrier might return; and it did so almost before I’d had time to get the lid off my sandwiches. The rapid response rodent in question turned out to be a chipmunk; more agreeable than a rat, there are few creatures more pleasing to observe than a little munky going about its business.

A motorised procession of visitors to the car park had taught the chipmunk to forage in close proximity to the area, as a potential meal might be shared by a visitor. Strictly speaking it is wrong to feed wild animals in national parks: certainly feeding bears will encourage them to hang out where there are people and this can be a death sentence for a bear, or even a visitor; but chipmunks usually get the better of the situation, although eating food that doesn’t come naturally may put an animal’s health at risk, because humans so often provide ridiculously inappropriate food.

Coming out of the forest at the edge of the car park, the ground is more open, providing a suitable habitat for various animals including chipmunks, particularly in places where trees have gone over and provided low cover.

Fortunately, we don’t need to feed the chipmunk to get pictures; other visitors had already done that, and we’d interrupted the chipmunk’s searching. As we eat our lunch I photograph the little creature, and encouragingly she is finding food growing naturally. This seems rather unusual, as I’m accustomed to seeing wild animals eating anything but natural food in and around car parks — usually it is something sugary and sticky attached to a plastic wrapper.

I started to imagine a scenario relating specifically to car parks and their surrounding ecology. In could see in my mind mature fruit trees and other non-native plants growing about the place, having established themselves from the scatterings of various seeds and fruits tossed from car windows and missed by local animals. I imagined a new species of chipmunk evolving under these circumstances, one that could only exist around old car parks, entirely reliant on introduced fruit trees for their meals; but it was a silly idea — we are far better at destroying useful habitats than creating new ones… our speciality is to reduce diversity and cause species loss.

At higher altitudes flowering plants become sparse, and anything in flower grabs our attention.
A red paint brush Castilleja miniata, growing at altitude.

We move on to a car park higher in the mountains, where the air is much cleaner than we are used to, and walk across the screes of an alpine desert. Our route takes the usual form of a circuit, but I have difficulty in making progress because there is so much to photograph in an environment that is entirely new to me. The walk is not strenuous, but it takes time to get back to the car park, where things are getting interesting.

Some ground squirrels come into the car park through drainage holes.

I noticed at once a golden-mantled ground squirrel that seemed a little bigger than the ones I was used to seeing. It wasn’t the newly evolved form I’d imagined earlier so reliant on car parks, but there was no doubt that these squirrels were accustomed to getting free meals from visitors. Further investigation revealed that the ‘new’ rodent was a cascade golden-mantled ground squirrel Callospermophilus saturatus, a species close to becoming endangered with a very restricted range.

The most confident ground squirrels come over the top.

To see ground squirrels amongst the smaller chipmunks was a surprise and although I’ve photographed a good many during my 40 years travelling around North America, today the challenge would be to get both in the same picture to demonstrate the size difference, but try as I might I couldn’t manage to do so despite an hour of trying.

But everything would change for the better when a girl drove into the car park and began attracting attention… in particular from the rodents I was trying to photograph. Very quickly they left me and went over to the young woman who had arrived carrying appropriate food — a mixture of seeds and unsalted nuts, and very soon she was feeding both species next to her car causing the little creatures to show up in numbers.

The young woman feeding a rare cascade golden-mantled ground squirrel: although to most people it’s just a monster chipmunk, but this squirrel doesn’t have stripes on either side of its head running to the eyes.

From an animal welfare perspective she knew exactly what was safe for ground squirrels to eat. I asked if I might take photographs and she had no objection, but I won’t reveal her identity because there are rules about feeding wild animals in national parks, even when doing so provides a rare and vulnerable species with a little extra food to help them through what, up in the mountain, is  a long harsh winter: the ground squirrel will be up and about feeding through summer for little more than four months of the year.

Usually, people who scatter seed indiscriminately (mostly for song birds), will do more harm than good because any surplus food will attract vermin; frequently rats will show up to the party and there is a direct link between increasing rat populations and the damage they will do the following spring raiding bird nest in increased numbers. This makes over-supplying food in a previous season counterproductive; but if the time between feeding and nest raiding is over a long period, it becomes difficult for people to link the two: feeding wild animals is certainly a mistake unless it is done sparingly.

The chipmunks are to the left of picture; to the right is a single much larger cascade golden-mantled ground squirrel — clearly it has different markings with fewer stripes along it’s body; and in the sunny area in the background a chipmunk is approaching; obviously a much smaller animal with the face stripes the ground squirrel does not have.

The young woman provided only what the animals could carry away, no more and no less, and although some purists might disagree; her actions probably were not too much of a problem; and certainly she provided the added bonus for me of pictures. If I’m honest about 20% of my career has been spent photographing wildlife that is hanging around close to car parks. In such places animals become accustomed to the presence of people and pick up an opportunistic meal, although in most cases a not especially healthy one.

Like a pet hamsters, a ground squirrel fills its cheek pouches so that it might carry food away to consume later.

Trails can be equally productive at attracting wildlife, especially when they cut through a forest. Along the borders of woodland, some species become easier to find than in the forest, perhaps visiting a tree or shrub that is flowering or fruiting in the more open conditions and such places are ideal for wildlife photography. When I have time I wait and allow wildlife to come to me, but more often than not the best results are achieved by a stake out. Sometimes, the open trail as you walk along it is enough in itself. I’m usually on the look out for reptiles basking in the undergrowth in sunny areas on either side of a path, and such opportunities can also work out well for seeing small mammals.

Ground Squirrel habitat along the Athabasca River in the Canadian Rockies.

A few years ago Jen and I were walking a trail high in the Rocky mountains, when we noticed a ground squirrel that seemed very accustomed to people showing no signs of fear as we passed by. So we hung around to see how close the animal would come to us. After a while the chipmunk came right up to our feet with the intention I believe of gaining what he or she had obtained from other walkers – a free meal, but we had no suitable food to offer; in any case the chipmunk was clearly very well fed and did not need a supplementary feed, although this didn’t stop the little creature from making a thorough seach of the camera bag put down beside the trail.

After we had been watching the squirrel for quite some time, Jen crouched down to get a closer picture with her small point and shoot camera and the squirrel which had still not been offered any food took its chance to do a search of her clothing, and pretty soon was up in the hood of her coat, doing a fair bit of damage to the lining, just in case she was hiding contraband there of an edible nature; then perhaps frustrated by finding nothing to eat started and intensive investigation of her hair which involved pulling at it. I of course asked Jen to just put up with the situation, while I took a series of photographs.

Offering only what I can find on the trail is a mean trick.

We were with the little munky for perhaps 20 minutes and then thought it best to move on. The squirrel followed us for a while, until she decided we were a lost cause and started off back along the trail to where we had first encountered it, to no doubt wait for the next muggable passer by. The scenery we walked through that day was extraordinary, but in retrospect it was the memory of a small rodent engaging with us in the hope of finding an easy meal that we remember… How pleased we were to not have engaged in similar fashion with a bear.

 

A chipmunk foraging; the cuteness factor probably down to small size.

High in the mountains ground squirrels have only a short period of time to  forage for food before going into hibernation. As chipmunks are small they would find it difficult to get through seven or eight months in full hibernation, so they store food in their burrows during the summer months and regularly wake up to feed during the winter. The larger ground squirrels however build up fat reserves through the summer and hibernate right through without waking to feed, surviving entirely on accumulated body fat.

A Columbian Ground Squirrel.

I won’t pretend that the identification of ground squirrels is that difficult once you get the hang of it: chipmunks, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are all part of the same group and known are known as marmots. The Columbian ground squirrel that we are familiar with is one of the mid-sized squirrels and has a similar distribution to golden-mantled ground squirrels, with a restricted range that runs down from the Rocky Mountain region of  Alberta and British Columbia into the USA.

I have photographed ground squirrels in several States of North America, but the last time I spent a lot of time filming them for television was way back in the mid-1980s, in and around Albuquerque where they were common on flat expanses of open prairie isolated by surrounding development; but in recent years things have been breaking bad for the ones I filmed in Albuquerque; as their habitat has been steadily over-run by urban development.

A prairie dog making the best of things.

On open plains these animals spend a lot of time standing on their hind legs watching out for predators which makes it difficult to approach them to get a picture, because out on a prairie they usually dive away into their communal burrows when they see you coming and living communally they will kick up  racket and warn others of your approach.

‘Behind You!’

Many people call almost anything that lives underground a gopher — there is even a gopher snake, but a true gopher is from  family Geomyidae and not closely related to the ground squirrels mentioned here. They have prominent incisor teeth, bare tails and rarely come to the surface… which is probably why I’ve never managed to photograph one.

It isn’t worth getting too worked up about terminology: when it comes to members of the ground squirrel family Sciuridae: they spend only part of their lives underground as opposed to true gophers which live most of their lives below ground. The climbing squirrels most commonly seen in and around trees are not easily misidentified. You don’t usually see ground squirrel’s bouncing around high above in trees, so they do not need big tails for balancing, these would in any case prove a nuisance underground and are consequently much reduced in size.

On the open prairie standing tall to view whatever is approaching usually gives ground squirrels an advantage over predators.

The smallest members of the family are the chipmunks, the medium sized ones are usually termed ground squirrels and the larger family members such as the prairie dogs are commonly described as Marmots. Filming the bigger ones, especially groundhogs often becomes ‘just another one of those days’. The process can be bleak because you have to repeat the same day over and over again until you film a sequence right before you can give up and go home… and when you’ve been doing that repeatedly, you sometimes feel like killing yourself.

Thirty years ago I photographed this black-tailed prairie dog clearing out the entrance to its burrow in the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona.

Prairie dogs (of the Genus Cynomys) are herbivorous burrowing rodents and were once widespread across the plains of North America, However their numbers have been much reduced in the last hundred years or so because they are considered to be a pest by many and have been much persecuted, despite being a native species very much tied to the landscape. In semi-desert areas their burrows allow rainfall to get more directly to the water table before it can evaporate; and their nibbling ways stimulates the growth of several plant species making the squirrels an essential part of the prairie ecosystem. They do compete with grazing livestock, but this is a recent phenomenon, and unlike cattle and horses, have a very long association with the prairies of North America.

My favourite family member will always be the chipmunk which has a widespread distribution across the continent. This little creature seems to be always busy, always inquisitive, and with such endearing behaviours it is not difficult to see why chipmunks are amongst the most well liked members of the rodent family.

 

Forest Dump.

For many years I travelled to interesting places to film wildlife, and would usually pointed my camera in the direction that would achieve the most agreeable results, because if I turned in the opposite direction it was often impossible to hide the impact of human activity: sometimes there would be plastic flapping in the wind on a barbed-wire fence; or a forest with its under-storey eaten bare by livestock, perhaps even a forest being felled. My job it seemed was to give a positive spin to the way the natural world looked, even when things weren’t quite right.

Turn the other way and things don’t always look so good. This is rainforest clearance on Island Malaysia for a palm oil plantation back in 1984. And how are things today?… They’re very much worse. Palm oil has accounted for 39% of forest loss since 2000 and the trees are still rapidly disappearing. Recent figures estimate forest loss for palm oil at 65%, which makes it impossible to continue looking the other way, because soon palm oil might well be stretching away in every direction.

As time passes, getting agreeable results when filming wildlife has become increasingly difficult with many natural environments now so degraded they can no longer support complex ecosystems. This unfortunate situation suggests that it’s time to tell things the way they are, even when the audience doesn’t want to hear bad news. It seems there always has to be a positive spin to keep people watching, but rescuing a handful of orangutans will not make a meaningful difference to their impending extinction. There is no doubt that our minds are like little story boxes that prefer the dishonest comfort of happy endings rather than the truth, even when reality runs against our beliefs.

I live not far from a park which is close to a Canadian city centre, but despite this, it still manages to look fairly natural, although everything that surrounds the park has been developed. I say looks fairly natural, but the truth is, all the old growth forests was logged out by the 1930s; but the environment still appears agreeable when viewed uncritically, because the damp, temperate local conditions encourage the growth of fungi, mosses, lichens and ferns, which make the place look quite photogenic, despite there being no original forest left standing. The parks present appearance fools most people into thinking that it is useful natural environment, when in reality the young secondary forest lacks the diversity of the once expansive virgin forest that covered the region less than 150 years ago. Our preference though is to remain ignorant of information that makes us feel uncomfortable: the logging caused the destruction of a complex habitat over a very short period of time; and for very short term ‘profit’. Most of us accept this as ‘progress’, but there is an environmental cost that many of us fail to recognize.

In the park, the stumps that remain from the original forest can still be seen.

One might expect this small remnant of woodland to be much appreciated, but it is not respected by all who enter. The question is: should we be surprised, with today, so many North Americans losing contact with both the natural world and with reality; although in Canada, people manage to do it very politely.

The increasingly poor state of natural environments is a warning sign: when we fail to respect the natural world it inevitably bites back. Presently, the spread of COVID-19 is the most pressing problem we face, with infection rates once again rising, but a few miles to the south, across the border in the USA, things are very much worse.

In the US the leader of the free world has just been beaten in an election by a Democrat, but he remains holed up in the White House in denial. Two weeks after polling, the President has still been claiming victory, venturing out only to play golf and with nothing much else on the to-do list; this at a time when COVID-19 has totalled a loss of 240,000 lives, and with ever increasing rates of infection, people have been dying in record numbers. It would not be unfair to say that President Trump has not been especially proactive in responding to the epidemic anymore than he has in dealing with environmental issues, and yet he has still managed to achieved almost 74 million votes, that’s close to 7 million more than he achieved when first elected to office in 2016. There is something odd about all of this though, because many of his supporters would traditionally be expected to vote for a Democrat, but many feel let down by recent Liberal priorities, and have gone with what they consider an outsider to politics. Certainly Trump supporters are disappointed that he has lost the election; but it is odd that so many found it necessary to stand outside of polling stations in militaristic dress, carrying automatic weapons as if they were living in a banana republic, rather than what they consider to be the greatest country in the world.

Four years on from Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency the tables have turned, and now Democrats are thinking it is their turn to drain the swamp; the problem is the electorate is polarised with both sides believing the opposition to be dangerously unreliable and many draw their conclusions without reference to the facts.

The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is President Elect having achieved close to 80 million votes in the recent 2020 election — more than any other president in US history, but he is having trouble gaining co-operation from the present incumbent. Historically after most elections the change of power has progressed through a transition period in a smooth and civilised manner, but not this time. There is talk of civil war, but dissent is both fragmented and disorganized and hopefully it won’t come to that.

Despite the enormous political divide, after the election Joe Biden attempted a unifying speech in Delaware and referred to important issues being guided by science, particularly COVID-19 for which he is setting up a task force. However, Biden only managed to speak for around 5 minutes before quoting the Bible, and over the course of a 15 minute speech made more than half a dozen references to the supernatural; including angels, an uplifting hymn and various blessings from God. The American Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention God, and it is therefore surprising that a supernatural being is featured in all the individual state constitutions; and many Americans do not find it incongruous that their politicians frequently refer to science and religion in the same breath, given that one discipline is based on rational thought and the other isn’t; but then I’ve spent most of my formative years in Britain where any mention of God by a politician is usually considered political suicide.

Back in ‘the old country’ (as Brits who no longer live there fondly call it) the figures for COVID-19 are worrying. Taken as a percentage of population they are even higher than in the USA, with the number of deaths recently passing 50,000, the highest figure amongst all the European countries, with a record 33,470 cases in a single day (12/11/20).

Essentially the disease is not being effectively dealt with in a great many countries, and the recent news that three vaccines are to be made available next year (one claimed more than 90% effective, the other two 95%), has offered as a ray of hope to what has become a truly depressing run of the disease. Despite the good news it has been suggested that 25% of people in developed countries may decline the vaccine because they prioritise conspiracy theories over science, despite the latter providing most of the improvements achieved in health and living standards over the last 120 years.

The point is, that if this is the way things are with a global pandemic, what hope is there for species loss and climate change, both of which are presently very much on the back burner. The question is: will we ever overcome our superstious natures and innate tribalism to work together more co-operatively on troubling global issues; or are we destined to stumble along plagued by superstition with so many of us searcing out ‘alternative facts’ of which there of course none. Sadly if the prevailing stupidity continues we might be destined to go the same way as my local forest, which is certainly not as it should be and in consequence may have limited long-term viability.

Sometimes we just can’t see the wood for the trees.

It could be that humans are not programmed for planning ahead on a global scale, with our powers of destruction outstripping our ability to think rationally. So, perhaps it would be better for my state of mind, if I continued to look the other way, just as I once did when filming nature, and ignore the obvious problems around me. The trouble is, as with palm oil plantations, there are increasingly fewer directions to look for a positive view, and so it is necessary to start making excuses not only for all the crap that’s happening in the natural world, but also all the crap that’s going on inside our heads, because very little appears to be changing for the better.

The secret of remaining sane in these troubled times, is to think delusionally… no problem, I can make this change straight away as I assess the trip I recently made with my wife to the local woodland I referred to earlier, where we spent a pleasant afternoon walking around taking pictures of all the things that weren’t quite right.

Into the woods:

The entrance to the forest park was made far more interesting than I could have hoped for, with a set of worn car tyres thoughtfully discarded by a motorist. Presumably the owner had new tyres fitted, and we just got lucky when the decision was made to bring the old ones here rather than leave them with the retailer for recycling. This stroke of good fortune certainly added to the foreground interest of what might otherwise have been a very dull picture.
Snowberries.

Once in the forest, our walk seemed to lack a diversity of colour; we noticed a lot of unnecessary dun browns with altogether too many shades of green, when what was really required was the complimentary colour red (from the opposite side of the colour wheel), to set things off nicely. A painter might easily add a traveller wearing a red jacket to his landscape, but for the photographer in the woods, red is not always forthcoming, unless there are berries… but only if they are red berries.

Then I saw my opportunity.

Before me was, not only a splash of red to invigorate the landscape but also a dash of blue, and in plastic! Nothing is better than the vibrant colours of polyethylene terephthalate to make a picture pop; and when the rains come these wonderfully buoyant containers will no doubt be carried away to the Pacific Ocean where over a number of years they will breakdown into micro-particles that will be eaten by fish — if there are any fish left in the sea by then, because plastic breakdown takes a little time; but in the short-term these wonderfully buoyant objects might just make it as far as ‘The Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch’ which in itself is remarkable.
A little dog poo on the path keeps you alert to the wonders of the nature, but how much more colourful it is when somebody takes the trouble to preserve this agreeable organic material by sealing it in plastic.
A splash of blue amongst the leaf litter… Usually these wonders are cast into the trees where they remain hanging for months, tantalisingly just out of reach. How I sympathise with the encumbered dog walker who simply flings his pet poo into the branches for others to enjoy — this is liberating for the dog walker and a visual treat for the rest of us… What a pity there aren’t more dogs out there that need emptying in the woods; and here’s hoping for a greater variety of bag colours?
The stag horn fungus has got it right — doing its best to look like cheap plastic.

Many years ago the British naturalist William Gilpin extolled the wonder of a tree, by pointing out how each is formed by circumstances of environment and weather into a unique individuals — no two are ever the same; but these observations were made long before plastic was invented and had Gilpin the good fortune to be confronted by the many varied forms of the plastic bag.

Liberated into the wild they are carried by wind and water to wherever fortune takes them, travelling in their millions to every part of the globe, raising our spirits as an international symbol of freedom. You can’t help but admire the wild bag o’ the forest — it fits right in.

It was also a delight to discover a discarded umbrella — if it could talk what stories an old umbrella might tell. This one has become so much part of the landscape. it might be considered as nothing short of a work of art.

Who amongst the art community could fail to appreciate this as a sculptural form in the landscape. If it were bigger, connoisseurs would consider it monumental.
Fallen leaves will fade away, but Polypropylene ribbon soldiers on for 20 years or more before falling to bits and contaminating the environment, but perhaps this colourful strip is better off here, because as a material it remains unrecyclable.

We were fortunate enough to also see a woodland bird, a varied thrush, which we don’t see as often as we did when we arrived on the Lower Mainland 10 years ago. This is because during that time, woodland areas have been reduced; but I’m not sure it matters. There’s a good deal more colouful plastic to look at now than there used to be, and the thrush’s plumage can’t compete; if the bird should disappear, there will be no shortage of colourful plastic on the forest floor to replace it.

Colourful plastic, or dull old varied thrush? I know which one I’d choose.

This looks like one of those back packs that can be used as a small child carrier; left on a bridge post it added yet another beautiful blue to the forest landscape. But why would such a thing have been left by a woodland stream — I can only think that by some miracle, a child was carried in and then suddenly developed the ability to walk and toddled cheerfully out of the forest to the delight of its parents.

A daring splash of blue that must leave even the most casual observer wondering… Why???

Jen stops to take a picture of a group of toadstools growing on a log by the path, and it occurs to me how colourful her jacket of Perfluorocarbons appears in a woodland setting, and I at once make a suggestion.

“Why not leave your jacket by the side of the path” I ask her, “as a visual treat for others? So many visitors are thoughtfully leaving their plastic items to cheer up this dreary woodland”. But she is not that selfless and refuses, complaining of the cold.
What better place to discard your PPE as a mark of respect to local healthcare workers — like a round of applause it will cost you nothing.

Back in the world where we don’t need to put a positive spin on just about everything, it occurs to me that if we aren’t that bothered about the dumping of plastics in the only natural space close to the city, then something as urgent as climate change; the destruction of natural ecosystems, and the threat of COVID-19, might prove us to be really too stupid to save ourselves.

Certainly it’s easier to look the other way, than fight the large scale indifference many of us have adopted. After all, who wants to face up to bad news and put a lot of effort into making things better when all we need is ignorance and a positive attitude. Let’s all go for a walk in the woods and in the face of what might now be insurmountable problems, go down indifferent but smiling. 

Pictures don't just tell stories – they change the world