Hummingbirds – They’re Almost as ‘Big’ as Africa!

I was out in the garden yesterday

trying to convince plants to grow when I was buzzed by a drone – an exceedingly stealthy one. I didn’t see it, but certainly I heard it, hovering behind my head before making off at speed.

My wife sitting in a nearby lounger was able to make a more realistic observation – I was standing on the flight path of a rufous hummingbird, a creature weighing no more than a spoonful of sugar… it was attempting to visit a bee balm flower. Not quite a drone then, but even the most technically advanced machinery can’t come close to the manouvreability of a hummingbird - this the only bird that can fly backwards due to some fairly unique muscle structures that control the wings… wings that can quickly carry them from a standing start to a top speed of 30 m.p.h.. Right now the brain of a tiny bird easily outstrips anything human technology can achieve, but who knows, maybe one day?

The odd thing about rufous hummingbirds is just how noisy they can be as they fly past you, their wing feathers humming loudly as air rushes through them which is usually the first indication that the birds are around. They can also be quite vociferous with their repetitive vocal clickings; these are usually directed at other birds but also at me when I’m standing in the wrong place! 

The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila - hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you'd still be thinking 'wow'!
The Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia rutila – hummingbirds are at their most spectacular in flight, but if they just sat around all day, you’d still be thinking ‘wow’!

My most recent hummingbird encounter

was one of many. Going back to earlier wildlife filming trips to the Americas that began back in the 1980s – there was hardly a visit when I didn’t see one. If I hated Canada – which I don’t – I might still chose to live, as I do now, close to Vancouver because hummingbirds hang out here right through the year. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, only Africa would get a higher rating, and yes, it is odd to make comparisons between a large continent and a small bird.

I should perhaps steer clear of mentioning the Old World because hummingbirds are a New World species that most likely originated in South America; ever resourceful birds they can now be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

A native Zuni hummingbird on yucca flower - New Mexico. Their is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbird are bringers of water and a stoppers of time and if you've ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, that's how it seemss - for a moment time is standing still - the bird stationary in flight with only the wings a blur.
A native Zuni hummingbird on a yucca flower – New Mexico. There is a belief amongst Zuni people that hummingbirds are bringers of water and stoppers of time and if you’ve ever watched a hummingbird feed in flight, there are moments when time appears to stand still – the bird stationary with wings ablur.

When my family and I first arrived in Canada we had only a balcony to attract wildlife and so we put up a bird feeder – a big cedar provided an agreeable background which like so many trees in Canadian gardens was attempting to take over the whole plot. My bird photography was going well, then one day to my surprise a hummingbird showed up and started licking at the peanuts and we responded by putting a hummingbird feeder in place. Soon after a family of Anna’s hummingbirds were regular visitors – there was an adult male, a female and three youngsters… each sibling completely intolerant of the others, aggressively buzzing their brothers or sisters whenever they started to feed. They seemed to have a real attitude problem, but that’s a very human response – all they are really doing is ‘grabbing’ at their best chance of survival.

A young Anna's hummingbird making use of the feeder.
A young Anna’s hummingbird making use of our feeder with red Christmas ribbon getting a second outing tied around the feeder as a visual cue for the birds.

The next year, I’m guessing it was the same pair of adults that showed up again and things went much the way they had done the previous year. Then came the fall and once again the Anna’s moved on, but in case there were any stragglers I left the feeder out and something interesting happened… another species, the rufous hummingbird suddenly showed up to feed, and continued to do so right through the winter.

An immature male Anna's Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.
An immature male Anna’s Hummingbird with developing irridescent throat feathers.

This never got old -

you’d be washing up on another desperately miserable day, and this beautiful bird would suddenly appear and hover just a few feet infront of your face – eliciting a feel good factor much appreciated in the middle of winter – these seemingly delicate creatures just the other side of a kitchen window in conditions that a human would not so easily deal with if they gave up on the chores and walked out of the back door.

Early one frosty morning I noticed a hummingbird working the nectar feeder at a really odd angle, and I soon realized that it was cold enough (at about -7ºC) for the sugar water in the container to freeze and make feeding a problem. From then on I would check every morning before doing anything else and thaw out the enegy drink whenever it was necessary. We were soon to move house and my first thought was that we couldn’t leave during the winter because the local hummingbirds had become reliant on the high energy food we were providing.

On our baclony the rufous hummingbirds that hung out with us through winter would perch under the eaves on an old seed block container to sit out a downpour. 

A wet cold winters day and two hummers shelter under the eave of the roof.
Hummers sheltering under the eaves.

Our winter feeding rufous hummingbirds would get a jump start on  potential nesting sites when they moved further north the following spring, and some might travel as far north as Alaska – a neighbour told me that it was proven that hummingbirds hitch a ride on the backs of geese, although I’m not quite sure which nursery rhyme she got that one from! 

A rufous hummingbird.
The record distance travelled by a hummer during migration is presently held by a rufous hummingbird at a little over 3,500 miles. 

Hummingbird migration.

Living on the Edge.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.

It was a surprise to see hummingbirds waiting out winter in difficult conditions at the back of our house and I began to wonder how these little birds managed to survive so many cold nights when it was clear their feathers provided very little insulation.

The answer to this question sounds more like science fiction than science fact: each cold night the birds endure a near death experience; an evolutionary adaptation of their metabolic system which provides them with an extreme solution to an almost insurmountable problem.

They are able to survive falling temperatures by going into a form of suspended animation which parallels the Zuni claim that hummingbirds can slow down time. For the birds it is as if life is standing still; their existence hanging on a thread as they become hypothermic and go into torpor, with body temperatures dropping well below their active daytime body temperatures which are usually maintained at over 100˚ F.

After a cold night, it takes a while for hummingbirds to come back from the dead, and  they do so by vibrating muscles in a similar manner to a moth or bumblebee generating heat before taking off from a cold start. Then it’s a race to find food; there are no lazy hummingbirds, individuals get busy as soon as their flight muscles will allow and quickly begin searching for food just to stay alive. 

Spectacular in hovering flight a rufous hummingbird.
A rufous hummingbird – spectacular in hovering flight.

Small warm blooded animals have a large surface area in relation to their body mass, which means they lose heat far more quickly than do larger animals; in consequence hummingbirds are continually seeking out  food, living fast food lifestyles without the downside of obesity.  

Hummingbirds are exceptional in many ways:

they can achieve the highest heartbeat of any animal when fully active – at about 500 beats per second; and have the ability to convert sugar into energy far more quickly than any other warm blooded animal with adaptations to the digestive system that allow for rapid absorption of liquid sugars. The gizzard/stomach is comparatively large in relation to the bird’s size and the solution can pass quickly into the hummingbird’s intestine facilitating the generation of energy in a very short space of time. Hummingbirds however cannot survive entirely on the sugary juices provided by flowers and bird feeders, they require proteins gained from searching out invertebrates such as insects and spiders; this is necessary for growth and essential metabolic functions, and especially important during the rearing of offspring.

A hummingbird can metabolise sugars very quickly making an early morning intake of nectar avaibale as useful energy within about 20 minutes of feeding which is absolutely essential to survival.
Hummingbirds can metabolise sugars very quickly converting an early morning intake of nectar into useful energy within about 20 minutes which is essential for their survival.

A Bit Flash

The skin, hair and feathers of most animals are usually made up of pigmented surfaces that absorb some light wavelengths and reflect others which we see as colour.  Hummingbirds also have the advantage of irridescent plumage which is made all the more noticeable with sudden flashes of bright colour. 

At a particular angle or in poor light the irridescent throat of this male Anna's hummingbird is not clearly differentiated.
At a particular angle, or in poor light, the irridescent throat of this male Anna’s hummingbird is not so clearly differentiated.

Irridescent feathers have a different structure from non-iridescent feathers which allows light to be refracted rather than reflected back; the process occurs at different levels in the feather and the light combination results in irridescence – some wavelengths combine and cancel one another out, while others combine and intensify the colours we see. The angle that light hits the feathers and our view point results in us seeing bright flashes of intense colour as the bird moves.

At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat which most likely attacts the attention of their partner or a potential mate.
At the correct angle the irridescent feathers produce an intensity of colour around the birds throat that might attact the attention of a partner, or confuse a potential predator.

The great thing about hummingbirds is that you don’t have to go far to see them.

In the summer of 2014 I spent a week photographing rufous hummingbirds coming to feed on bee balm flowers in our local public gardens not far from the house. It was clear that when we had a garden of our own we might easily plant appropriate flowers to attract the birds in, and anybody living in the Americas can do the same.  I noticed the birds had feeding patterns – early in the morning was best if the light was good, because they were eager to get started and the flowers were brimming with nectar. Young birds had recently come off the nest and I had to be quick to get shots of them because the siblings were very competitive over this small patch of food scrapping and chasing one another relentlessly. 

Hummingbirds feeding on bee balm.

A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee-balm flowers.
A rufous hummingbird feeding on bee balm flowers during the spring of 2014.

Hummingbirds do well feeding in small gardens, but sadly they have to run the gauntlet of urban cats. This isn’t a favourite subject for some cat owners who are in denial about what their cats really get up to once out of doors. Domestic cats kill more hummingbirds in North America than any other predator, and by a large margin so it makes sense for those who wish to attract wild birds into their gardens not to keep one.

Flying between low flowering plants presents a danger to hummingbirds from predators such as cats which are out of all proportion to predator numbers in a natural environment.
Flying between low flowering garden plants, hummingbirds are in danger of predation by cats and they are killed in numbers out of all proportion to predators in a natural environment.

Going South

When we lived in New Zealand I created a native wildlife garden from scratch and it didn’t take long to realise that the key to success in attracting native birds was improved pest control, available nesting sites, and the provision of appropriate food plants. Coming from Europe, nectar feeding birds were a novelty and so we were especially keen to attract in the honeyeaters – these members of the Meliphagidae family which includes tuis and bellbirds, species that were almost non-existent in our garden when we arrived in 2002, but prolific by the time we left in 2010.

This feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009. Only a few years earlier this had been sheep pasture.
Young tuis feeding on flax flowers in our New Zealand garden in 2009 on what only a few years earlier had been sheep pasture.
Tuis are nectar feeders, great birds, but they don't quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.
Nectar feeding tuis are  great birds, but they don’t quite have the aerial majesty of hummingbirds.

Today, our New Zealand neighbours are woken by a dawn chorus of native birds, something that would have been unthinkable on our bird silent property when we arrived. The native garden not only provides an important energy source in the form of nectar for birds, it also feeds many insects which provide the honeyeaters with their essential proteins – and the same is true for hummingbirds in the Americas.

Planting a rich nectar source in a garden is a no brainer, but it must be done withouth the use of toxic insecticides, which in any case shouldn’t be necessary if a garden is busy with insectivorous birds.

See ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep.’

Mexico

Getting going in the morning isn't such a problem if you live in Mexico!
Getting going in the morning isn’t such a problem if you live in a tropical region of Mexico!

 A recent trip to Mexico provided us with a chance to see a variety of hummingbirds that we never get in Canada, and at the start of the rainy season there was no shortage of opportunities to observe them. With that intention we spent several days in Vallarta Botanical Gardens, a place so packed with flowers, it fulfils an important secondary purpose supplying energy to nectar feeders.

A cinnamon Hummingbird getting angry about someting or other.
A cinnamon hummingbird getting angry with just about anything that came close to him.

Outside of the gardens in the surrounding environment it was possible to see the occasional hummingbird, but in the gardens where there was a super-source of food, there were dozens to be observed through the course of a day with very little effort.

Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.
Plain-capped star throat hummingbird Heliomaster constantii photographed in western Mexico.

 If the loss of natural habitats continues at the present rate, gardens and reserves may provide the best chance of survival for many species of plants and small animals. Certainly hummingbird nesting habitat is rapidly disappearing and although a great garden surrounded by protected woodland and scrub isn’t a longterm solution, until we wake up to the problems of habitat loss and instigate a more harmonious relationship with nature, it is the sort of place that will help and, in the end, may prove essential. 

Vallarta Botanical Gardens - seldom have I felt more comfortable - it was the the beginning of the rainy season busy with my favourite birds - this a broad-billed hummingbird Cynanthus latirostris.
A broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris feeding. 

Seldom have I felt more comfortable than in Vallarta Botanical Gardens at the beginning of the rainy season when it is busy hummingbirds.

A restaurant on the top floor of the visitors centre provides great margaritas and fine Mexican food; it also offers stunning views, not just over the river and surrounding forest, but closer to the balcony rail there are hummingbird feeders that are constantly busy.

One of the hummingbird feeders that never seemed to be short of visitors.
One of the Vallarta Botanical Garden busy hummingbird feeders – this one with perches for lazy hummers – but why fly if you can sit!?
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder gets refilled with 'liquid energy'.
A waiter in the restaurant hand feeds a hummingbird while the bird feeder is being refilled with ‘liquid energy’.

One thing I saw in the garden I’d never seen before was hummingbirds feeding on bromeliads. the botanic garden has an extensive collection and it is difficult to know which plant will be getting the next visit. My wife Jen acted as a spotter, which is very considerate with afternoon temperatures pushing past 100ºF.

A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the garden.
A cinnamon hummingbird visiting a bromeliad flowering in the botanic garden.

On returning to B.C. we quickly discover that there is little change in our local weather since we left, but despite less than ideal conditions, hummingbirds were still visiting our garden flowers.

We moved to our new house in the spring of 2015 and almost before I did anything else I was putting in  plants with flowers attractive to the hummers and it didn’t taken long for rufous hummingbirds to find them – this year the flower count is higher and the rufous are now here feeding on a daily basis. Maybe we will get to stage where we don’t stop whatever we are doing to marvel at their extrordinary beauty and stunning aerial ability… but so far, there seems to be no chance of that happening.

IMG_5465.FRAME.FIX2.SMALL

I will continue to take pictures of hummingbirds wherever I see them. If you have local birds that are easily captured on camera then please do the same – keeping a pictorial record of species whenever possible is essential because we can never be certain how much longer they will be with us; even if it were true that every time a hummingbird arrives – time stands still.

With thanks to Vallarta Botanical Gardens. www.vbgardens.org

Wildlife Photography in 20 Cubic Metres of Mexico.

The patch of forest I’m about to take pictures in is about an hours drive south of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico in the Bay of Banderas.

Selecting a site to take nature pictures isn’t always easy, especially in tropical and sub-tropical forests where lush plant growth limits the chances of a clear view; there is nothing quite so infuriating as hearing a bird close by and not being able to see it. The second problem with dense leaf cover is the limitation on light, which can inhibit making good exposures adding yet another layer of complexity to working in the woods.

When the canopy gets dense there is less light. On the walk I am about to take I will see interesting birds like this golden-cheeked woodpecker showing off his punk hairdo. Light is coming in from above, but very little is reflected back onto the subject - there is consequently a lot of backlight to deal with, but here it works nicely, demonstrrating that it isn't always necessary to take the obvious route of frontal flashlight photography. Some say, that if you do it properly, you don't notice?  But of course,  if you're really looking... you do, but In our own minds we can believe anything we want.
 On the walk I am about to take I will see interesting birds like this golden-cheeked woodpecker as he shows off his punk hairdo. When the canopy is dense, less light gets in and it comes from above and very little is reflected back onto the subject and from the ground most will be backlight, but here the effect works nicely, demonstrating that it isn’t always necessary to be so obvious as to resort to flash photography. Some say, that if you do it right, nobody will notice -but of course you do if you are really looking. It goes without saying, that in our own minds we can believe whatever we want to.

It is now only about three and a half hours before my wife and I will take a taxi to the airport and reluctantly fly out of Mexico, which means I need to optimise my chances of getting a handful of wildife pictures in the limited time available, and this is how I’ve chosen to do it.

I’m walking to a site that is approximately half an hour from our hotel, which is a little further out from the ones that most tourists stay in, centred as they are on the main beach resorts which don’t usually have such ready access into the forest as the one we are staying in.

The local forest isn't pristine wilderness, but the further you walk up the hill away from agriculture and the local village, the more natural things become.
Most habitats that are close to humans are  no longer pristine, but the further I walk up the hill away from the local village and its agriculture, the more natural things begin to look. This is tropical dry forest, but during the rainy season the distinction isn’t quite so apparent.

It is now after 10.00 a.m., but I’m not overly concerned by a late start because an overnight rainstorm has continued into the morning, and earlier, the light was poor. The suggestion that you have to be up and out before the crack of dawn to see wildlife is a myth as it very much depends on where you are and what you are hoping to see. 

On open plains early morning and evening are key times for animal activity.
On the flat open East African plains early morning and evening  are ideal times to observe and photograph wildlife.

In flat open places getting out early makes sense; the light can be dramatic and provide more interesting photos, but in forest, there is sometimes an advantage to moving out a little later; you may not see as many birds as you would have earlier in the day, but then you probably wouldn’t have had enough light to photograph them anyway. All is not lost by waiting until after breakfast when sun dependent species such as reptiles and butterflies are usually more frequently seen, and I’m hoping to photograph some of these today before heading back to eat, shower and make our pre 4.00 p.m. departure time.

I follow a dirt road along the river, heading into the hills and stop close by a swimming hole, where the forest opens out. There is seldom anybody here before mid-day during the week, and at the edge of the forest good light is available. The river is only about 20 meteres down a rocky slope – this proximity to water ups the species count and overnight rain has freshened everything up.

After rain, the varied greens of the forest are often intensified.
After rain, the varied greens of leaf growth intensify in sunlight, but futher up in the hills the forest remains hidden beneath a steaming mist.

Because time is limited I will remain in one place, moving no more than 20 metres in any direction and for most of the time I’ll be standing still, hoping to photograph anything that passes through. Looking up into the canopy visibility is limited and this combined with my self imposed range esentially confines any activity to an approximate 20 cubic metres.

This is secondary forest and sometimes what appears to be natural… isn’t. There is a well established mango tree close by, but this isn’t a species native to Mexico. Mango arrived during the early 19th Century by a circuitous route from its native land of South Asia, and the ancestors of this tree probably started out in Burma or eastern India.

The river next to my chosen 20 metre cube is beautiful.
The river next to my chosen site of activity is quite beautiful.

For several hundred years it has been difficult to guarantee that what you see in a forest really belongs there because we have a tendancy to transport plants with agreeable fruits from one place to another, and we move many other plants that can be utilised for other purposes e.g. trees for timber and rubber plants for rubber, along with a wide range of plants that we just find visually pleasing.

A great many species have been moved to where we think they will grow best and a lot have colonised their new surroundings as successful plants tend to do. I’d prefer to photograph a native animal feeding on a native tree, but if an interesting bird shows up and starts ripping into the fruit above me, I won’t be ignoring it. 

Trees at the edge of the forest are sometimes interlopers especially in agricultural areas.
Trees at the edge of the forest are sometimes interlopers, especially in agricultural areas.

I have visited this location three times over the past week, and have a fair idea of what shows up. Yesterday evening I noticed some fruit had been dropping – a ripening that can be attractive to many birds and insects – one fallen fruit has been cleanly sliced, possibly by a beak, and I suspect parrots have been feeding here recently. There is very little sign of bird droppings, but as the fruit is only just ripening, visits may have only just started. Where rivers cut through the forest we’ve seen noisey flocks of parrots flying along the corridors they create, but I’ve not yet managed to photograph any birds, and it is perhaps a little hopeful to think that I might do so in the limited time left to me, but nevertheless, it is one of the reasons I’ve returned to this spot.

In most cases standing in one place on the off chance that something might pass through is a waste of time – waiting requires logic and reasoning, unless of course you think this is going to be your lucky day; with a limited number of heartbeats available to each of us it is perhaps better to make decisions based on observation rather than gamble time away.

Fruits and seeds on the forest floor are often a good indication that interesting might visit the canopy above.
Fruits and seeds on the forest floor are often a good indication that interesting visitors might be coming into the canopy above.

Ripe fruit and seeds are powerful attractors, but to photograph nectar feeders and pollinators it is necessary to seek out flowers.

Hummingbirds in particular utilise flowers colour.
Hummingbirds rely on recognizing a flower’s colour.

It is not essential to know what species they are – anything with bright colours is good, although many insects utilize ultra-violet and don’t see colours the way we do.

A strong scent is another indication that flowers are attempting to attract pollinators and there is nothing to be gained by waiting beside a plant that is wind pollinated – such flowers can be plentiful but are often small with muted colours, however very few wind-pollinated plants will show up in the lower section of a forest where still conditions make the process impractictical.

 

There is no magic to being in the right place at the right time; the signs are usually obvious; it is just a question of clocking up the plus points to optimise the chances of seeing an interesting animal. Careful observation also opens up the opportunity of learning something new, and in tropical forests there’s a real chance of photographing a species that hasn’t been recorded before.

Almost in paradise!
Almost in paradise!

In a previous post I mentioned that Mexico has a litter problem, but for the most part I’ll conveniently ignore the rubbish pile that is increasing by the day about 10 metres to my right in what in all other respects is paradise. Instead, I’ll do what I’ve done so often before when filming wildlife – point the camera in a direction of whatever accentuates the positive and minimises the negative. Positivity is generally highly regarded – our brains like that sort of thing – but there is a time and a place for everything, and if we continue to ignore the terrible state of many natural environments, we must do so at our peril: our negligence has now reached epidemic proportions. T.V. wildilfe documentaries in particular continue to lull us into a false sense of security – buoying  us up on a tide of beautiful pictures, until we pretty much believe that everything is going to be alright, when the truth is… it really isn’t.

Whether this edge of the forest will remain intact for another ten years is open to question because development for tourism is rampant and almost everything is up for grabs if the money is right.

I said that I would avoid litter, but once you are taking pictures on the ground it can be difficult.
It is impossible to avoid the ‘L’ word once down in the leaf litter because alien litter is everywhere. 

When taking photographs I am often a lone Englishman amongst local people. Presently, there are very few tourists around because it is the start of the rainy season – a discouraging period for sun seekers, but there are also those too frightened to come out of the resorts into Mexico proper because news reports back home suggest that they might be kidnapped and held for ransom. In most out of the way places here nothing could be further from the truth. Mexicans are a friendly and courteous people and it is safer walking out in this location than it is in many parts of the U.K.. You might feel especially safe visiting the Isle of Wight in the South of England, but if you cross Southampton water and wander along the sea wall in the old town of Portsmouth on a hot summers afternoon when the local lads have been drinking it might be another story. And then of course there’s Syria…Everything is relative.

A couple of days ago, I saw and photgraphed a  pair of basilisk lizards basking on rocks only a few feet from where I am presently standing, the sun was intense and I didn’t manage any really good pictures, so I’m on the look out for the lizards again.  There was one here yesterday evening sat on a rock in the river and he did a really good job of avoiding having his picture taken.

This pair of basilisks remained together for some time, largely ignoring me as I didn't get too close and went only when their chosen sight went into shadow. rock.
This pair of basilisk lizards largely ignored me because I didn’t get too close. I photographed them on a tripod using a 400mm lens with a long exposure at f32 to optimise depth of field, and made the best of things by focusing on a point between the two, which has worked. The slow exposure wasn’t a problem because they might just as well have been one of the rolling statue exhibits on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – they remained completely still and only moved when their chosen basking site went into shadow.

Today, there is a sizeable iguana close by the rock where the baselisks were playing at statues a couple of days ago and is keeping a warey eye on me. I get close enough for a  picture on the 400 mm without causing any disturbance and get lucky with some fairly even light – I wait for a cloud to partially obscure the sun – the exposure still looks like a full sun exposure but really it isn’t – the contrast has just dropped enough not to blast out the highlights on the rock (our brains are better at compensating for extremes of light than a camera and so we make images in photography work to fit that, and  this situation might encourage some to even things out by using flash, but I never do that, although I will admit to sometimes bouncing light back onto a subject using a reflector, but not today – this is as near to our brains reality as a photograph can get.

I've seen this iguana before, the last time he was more cautious, observing me by poking his head up from behind a rock.
I’ve seen this iguana before, but the last time out he was more cautious, observing me in peek a boo fashion, poking his head up over the rocks.

There are now several butterflies taking turns to sit out on twigs and leaves right infront of me – they do so one at a time, until a sitter takes flight to interact with another flying over and then returns to land indicating that these are probably territorial males. I take loads of pictures, few of which are any good as these butterflies don’t remain in place for very long. I’m never going to capture a shot of an individual with its wings open, as might have been possible earlier in the day (so much for a late start being no problem!). It is now well over a hundred degrees F and all sit with their wings closed, orientating to minimise their surface areas to the sun which aids in the regulation of their body temperatures.

I managed only one decent picture of this butterfly - but one is all you need. I have no idea why so many of the others failed, but then digital images come cheap and its worth taking more than I might have done if I were still using expensive film, especially as I live thousands of miles away and am unlikely to be passing by this way anytime soon.
I managed only one decent picture of this butterfly a simple checkerspot. Chlosyne h. hippodrome – but one is all you need. I have no idea why so many other pictures have failed, but digital images come cheap and its worth taking more than I might have done back when I was using expensive film, especially as I live thousands of miles away and am unlikely to be passing by this way anytime soon.

While I’ve been absorbed in butterfly behaviour a bird I’ve never seen before lands on a branch straight ahead of me and it would be difficult not to have noticed the flash of lemon that signals the upfront arrival of this bird. Usually I am careful to move slowly so as not to frighten a twitchy bird and sometimes it is a toss up between not missing the shot and not moving too fast, but I know by this birds confident posture that it isn’t likely to leave anytime soon; it moves its head from side to side, holds each pose for a time to provide full opportunity for a variety of shots, and I begin to wonder if it has shown up with the expectation of being fed.

A great kisadee shows up and sits right infont of me. This is not a rare bird, but none the less startlingly impressive - probably because I've never seen one before.
A great kisadee sits right infont of me. This is not a rare bird, but none the less it is startlingly impressive – probably because I’ve never seen one before.

 Then I hear the parrots, a large flock have just crashed into the tree above me and I know they are feeding on the fruit, because all sorts of stuff is dropping out of the tree. Their noise is raucous and continuous as they bash about in the upper branches, but I can’t see a single bird – it’s very frustrating. I move about a little in order to get a view of at least one, but the leaf cover is dense and I see absolutely nothing. After a few minutes the flock moves forward into an adjacent tree and now I get a glimpse of this tumbling sprawl of birds, with one group flying a few feet and then landing, followed by another, then another, until the first group moves forwards again… and so on.

I move with them fearing that they will keep going beyond my range, but then I get lucky, they land and settle in a tree  – the forest looks natural but for some reason a wire fence runs down between me and the tree ending about 25 metres before the river leaving a walkway through at the top of the rocks wide enough for me to walk through with the gear. The parrots are now settled and preening and are going to be there for some time – if they hadn’t moved I’d have shot everything within 10 cubic metres, but they’ve doubled my range. I’m ducking this way and that trying to get a clear view of one or other of the preening groups. I settle on three that are squashed close together and watch as one or other offers a head for a group head preen; now the one in the centre is swinging under the bough and nibbling at another’s claw – the other two are engaged in preening themselves and frequently bury their heads so deeply ito their wing feathers that they appear headless – it is difficult enough getting shots through the branches, without two of the birds appearing decapitate for 80% of the time.

It's the Marx Brothers after Zeppo the one who wan't funny no longer appeared on screen, and now they are in full colour.
It’s the Marx Brothers after Zeppo (the one who wasn’t funny) left the group. Now their act is in glorious colour.

Add to this the lack of light and my rapid uprating of the ASA and I am dubious about the grain on the pictures I am taking, but there are now several groups of birds partially clear of the foliage, and so I just keep taking pictures until I run out of memory on my card and then replace it with one which is also part filled and soon I have to take a third card from another camera in order to keep going, I know I should take some flash pictures but resist the temptation. I don’t have a top of the range camera, and it can be slow and I don’t want to have wait for it to load up as well as recharge for the flash. I just keep taking pictures as quickly as I can -other than being in the right place, there is no skill required to do any of this.

These are orange-fronted parakeets, despite their name they look more parrot than parakeet.
These are orange-fronted parakeets; despite their name they look more like parrots to me than the long tailed parakeets I have become used to seeing over the years… But then what do I know?

I once rescued a parrot from a pet shop that looked a bit like these, although his head and wing markings were slightly different. Wally was, I think, a white-fronted Amazon, but he probably never saw the river because most likely he was captive bred. This was a bird pining for his owner – an older gentleman who had recently died; he wasn’t eating and pretty soon he would become ‘a late parrot'; so, for a time I took him everywhere with me, even allowing him to sit on my shoulder as I drove the car… don’t try that though, it’s probably illegal and certainly a distraction to other drivers. Slowly Wally came out of his depression and began eating again; once he was feeling better it was as if he’d suddenly remembered that he was at the centre of the Universe. Key words would set him off and he’d start raucously screaching a repeat of things you said whilst bobbing about madly; when you laughed, he laughed. It was cyclical hilarity and often became hysterical. Then one day he met my father and it was love at first sight, he would do little dances turning this way and that, and then flash his wings to impress him…  and soon they moved in together and Wally would become very bad tempered when they were seperated – perhaps my father reminded him of his previous owner. I don’t advocate keeping parrots, but completely understand why people want to do it.

I see another pair of parrots in good light and start taking shots of them… then a single parrot is wandering about in even better light and grab a picture as he walks along a branch.

A single parrot moves into the light, and I get a picture before it dissolves into branches and leaves.
A single parrot moves into the light, and I get a quick picture before he dissolves once more into branches and leaves – in both senses of the word.

The parrots hang around for about twenty minutes before they start moving on. The three break up and then there are two, now too far apart to frame together comfortably. I take this as a sign to give up and get on back down the road to eat by the pool with my wife and take a shower while she organises a taxi which she manages before I’ve cleared the room of luggage. Once again it’s about heartbeats and we aren’t wasting any of them.

Within the hour we are in an air-conditioned airport which seems a million miles from the green encompassing humidity of the morning where wringing wet I could hardly see for the salt in my eyes as I strained my head back and I manoeuvred my tripod to keep a small group of parrots in frame. Parrots that were completely indifferent to my presence, and if it weren’t for the pictures I’d be tempted to think I’d simply dreamt the whole thing up. It was fabulous. There is something agreeable about not being part of it – I was there, but for all the difference it made, it was as if I hadn’t been there at all. In twenty years time it might be interesting to return and see how much of paradise remains, by then it might be neck deep in litter or a hotel complex with the name ‘The orange-fronted Parakeet’ although of course there will be no sign of anything resembling a parrot apart from a relief picture on the wall because ironically, we have a habit of destroying the very things that we think we care most about.

With thanks to my friend Dr Mathew Cock for confirming and identifying my Mexican butterfly pictures without whose help some of my images might well have been misidentified. 

 

The New Forest – Living in the Past With Lots of Litter.

For most of my life I lived close by the New Forest in Hampshire and have always considered it special, because although busy with visitors during summer, it has remained an important haven for wildlife as the surrounding countryside has steadily urbanised.

The New Forest looks natural, but in reality it is heavily managed, and with increasing pressures from both inside and out, some say that it is no longer the place that it once was – but people have been saying that for generations. A more considered analysis suggests, that it is just a question of how far back you want to go before you start moaning about what you think has changed.

In many ways this is a notoriously conservative area, stuck architecturally somewhere between the Middle Ages and the early 20th Century. The Forest certainly isn’t noted for its modern energy saving buildings and panoramic views across the heath, because few such places exist.

It is difficult to make the case for modernity, when there are cottages as beautiful as this one near Lyndhurst. I am guessing it was named Bee Hive Cottage because of the similarity of the thatch over the door to a traditional straw beehive.
New Forest cottages are often small utilitarian buildings and not many are as beautiful as this one close to the main town of Lyndhurst. Its name Beehive Cottage might have something to do with the thatch over the door which is not dissimilar to a traditional straw beehive.

There has been very little movement beyond Edwardian  times, apart that is, from the traffic – almost everything else appears to have stalled around 1910, and ‘being there’ sometimes feels more like a museum or theme park experience than any modern reality… and this is unlikely to change now that the New Forest has become a National Park because Britain’s National Parks seem habitually locked into some imaginary idyl of the past. But then that’s essentially what us Brits do best – don’t you know?  We look back fondly and say, ‘things were better back then’ – which of course is little more than delightful delusion. 

The creation of the New Forest landscape is down to management with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock but its scenic beauty is not in question.
The creation of the New Forest landscape is very much down to management, with particular emphasis on the grazing of livestock, not that this detracts from its scenic beauty.

I once considered buying a house in the Forest, but was put off by the crumbling mud wall of an outbuilding that had to remain exactly as it was for historical reasons, along with a rusting tin roof that on no account could be replaced by something more appropriate; such exacting attention to detail can only have heighten my appreciation that the Forest is at least genuinely old.

A Brief History of The New Forest.

In the past the Forest was often referred to as ‘a furzey waste’ (meaning gorse covered) a term that goes back well before 1079 – the year the New Forest was designated a royal hunting ground, primarily to provide Norman kings with somewhere to pursue and kill deer which appears to have been their favoured leisure activity. Having fun was often unsophisticated and violent; and back then, the notion of ‘fun’ didn’t feature in many people’s lives. If for example you were a peasant trying to make a meagre living off of the Forest, and got caught killing a deer to feed your family, the penalty could be the loss of a hand, and in a worse case scenario, an unpleasant hanging.

Even kings didn’t have it all their own way. On 22nd of August 1100 King William (Rufus) – the son of William Conqueror – was hit in the chest by an arrow and killed outright. There is a stone to commemorate the event, although even the briefest of research indicates that this was no more than an 18th Century vanity project, and the original site remains to this day, uncertain.

Beauileu Road pony sales some time during the 1990s, but that doesn't really matter - not a lot has changed over the years apart from ladies hairstyles. It was just such a local named Purkis that found and hauled the kings body to Winchester. Purchase is a local name and until fairly recently there was a butchers shop run under that name in Brockenhurst.
Beauileu Road pony sales during the 1990s, the exact date doesn’t really matter because other than women’s hairstyles not a lot else has changed over the years. For generations locals have been coming here on a yearly basis to sell their ponies. Around 900 years ago it would have been just such a local who found and hauled William Rufus’s body to Winchester; we know his name was Purkis, a common surname in the Forest, and until fairly recently there was a Purkis  butchers shop in Brockenhurst.

So, a peasant called Purkis slung the king’s body onto a cart and transported it to nearby Winchester  – those were the days! The Normans reigned through a time when history was really happening in the area, much of it of their own making. To have a king shot more or less on your doorstep must have been quite something, but when all the excitement died down, the Forest subsided back into its usual state of Snoozeville and nothing much else happened over the centuries until the arrival of the M27. However, if you had been a biologist back at the time when the New Forest was founded (admittedly long before biologists existed) and could magically have lived for a thousand years, you’d certainly have noticed a great many changes in the formation of the landscape we see today.

'Forest' might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, but there is a timeless quality here. This might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but sadly bak then there were no cameras to show exactly how it looked.
‘Forest’ might seem an odd description for a place with so much open heathland, and despite its man made origin there is a timeless quality to the landscape. This picture might have been taken during the Middle Ages, but back then of course, there were no cameras to show exactly how it might have looked.

When I was a child this agreeable place was crown-land managed by the Forestry Commission and that’s the way things would remain until 1st March 2005 when the Forest transitioned into the smallest National Park in the country, a status initially unpopular with many locals, but under different management livestock grazing became a priority (not that it was’t a major consideration before); this would be of great benefit to the commoners (the locals who live here) who for centuries have exercised their right to graze stock on the open forest.

When kings began to find more interesting things to do than take pot shots at deer, forestry quickly became the key activity and the woodlands would soon provide an important source of timber – in particular the provision of oak trees for the building of naval ships. Enclosure (usually referred to as Inclosure) of wooded areas to protect trees from grazers, started under the reign of Elizabeth I, a procedure that became more rigorous during the 1700s and was further refined as time passed. Over the years there have been periods when trees have been the priority and periods when they have not – and the same might also be said of the grazing of livestock and the management of deer.

Besides livestock, a great many deer graze within the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced by the Romans and they remain very successful.
Along with commoners animals, there are  a great many deer grazing upon the Forest. Fallow are though to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans and remain consequential modellers of the landscape.

In the early 1850s there was an attempt to get rid of the deer altogether with the passing of  ‘The Deer Removal Act’ – no doubt the Norman kings must have been turning in their graves; but clearly the policy didn’t achieve its longterm aim, although it did herald the modern period of silviculture that the Forestry Commission has carried through to the present day.

Clearly The Forest has seen a rollercoaster of changes, but from our modern viewpoint of rapid economic growth, this interesting mix of woodland, heaths and open lawns seems to have hardly changed at all, and from a layman’s point of view it is an ancient place that has been standing still for centuries.

Classic New Forest Heathland during summer as it was at the end of the 1990s as ponies come to a lone holly tree to seek shelter.
Ponies seek out a lone holly tree for shade on a hot sunmer’s day towards the end of the 20th Century.

There have always been many different opinions as to how the New Forest should be run and the resulting issues are wide ranging: is there too much grazing or too little (sadly, I’ve never witnessed too little!). Other considerations include commoners rights, shooting, horse riding, bike trails, heather management  (burn it or cut it, and then how frequently), deer culling, tourism, nature conservation… the list goes on; and with so many interested parties, co-ordinating management is a nightmare, especially when the pressures on the Forest are ever increasing.

In total, the New Forest covers about 25 square miles, and considering all that is expected of it, this is is not a very extensive area.  Its borders now end abruptly, which wasn’t the case when I was a child. Rapid urbanisation and population growth to the east and west have squeezed it, and this is one of the reasons the New Forest is now such an important recreational area. Add to this how accessible the Forest has become in the last fifty years. The M27 (developed during the 1970s) ripped through its heart as devastatingly as the arrow that ripped through Rufus, with its ‘straight as an arrow’ functionality in stark contrast to the narrow backroads that meander through other regions of the Forest, many of which haven’t changed for years.

During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies - but it is wet and cold rather than dry and cold that really gets to them.
During winter conditions can be harsh even for hardy New Forest ponies – but it is continuous wet weather rather than cold weather that really gets them down.

Changes.

I returned for a visit the New Forest a few weeks ago; living as I do on the west coast of North America I haven’t spent much time in the area since leaving Britain in 2002, which has been rather useful, because it is easier to notice changes that I might otherwise have missed had I continued to wander the Forest on a daily basis.

Prior to leaving Britain I was frequently out there filming wildlife films for television, along with videos of the area. Sometimes I would just wander through for pleasure, but I rarely did so without a camera, which over the years has resulted in the taking of thousands of photographs, in particular during the last quarter of the 20th Century – this period became the subject of a book – but more importantly it is pictures that have provided a reliable method of making comparisons of change.

The Landcacpes of The New Forest. A look at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century.
The Landscapes of The New Forest looked back at the seasons of the Forest over the last twenty five years of the 20th Century (first edition only and now out of print).

 Since my childhood I’ve observed visitor numbers steadily rise on the open forest, and this is especially noticeable during holiday periods, but in general I’ve avoided photographing this aspect of life – even I am locked into my own interpretation of how the Forest should be – essentially devoid of people. People will occasionally get in the way of a decent photograph, but few wander very far from the car parks and their presence is easy to ignore, although of course there is a bigger picture to consider – one that involves increasing pressures upon the landscape. 

An Image used for one of  videos and a DVD's on the New Forest.
An image used for the cover of one of my videos/DVDs – ‘An English Forest’ which was available around the Millennium.

So, is it an increase in visitor numbers that has caused the Forest to become so blighted by litter? The very first scene I filmed for the B.B.C was a seemingly timeless view across a pond, but when I viewed the result, there was a Coke can bobbing in the lower left hand corner of the frame which meant I had to go back and film the scene again. This was embarrassing, because even an exceptional liar would find it difficult to deny the presence of something once it has been recorded on film or video; but the fact is, having litter in your frame of view was a far less common event back in the mid-1970s than it is today.

I never made this mistake again, and since then, havealways carefully checked the frame of view before making a picture. Increasing New Forest litter isn’t then a matter of opinion, or a false memory of better times; it is a judgement that can be empirically measured by the time it takes to clean up before going all happy snappy with the camera. Thirty years ago, clearing up litter before taking a photograph wasn’t a prime consideration… and now it is.

A certain percentage of the population will always be morons - and when visitor numbers goes up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discard bottle is green, so should this be a little less disturbed - I don't think so.
A certain percentage of the population will always be morons, and when visitor numbers go up inevitably the litter count increases. In this case at least the discarded bottle is green.  Should this then be a little less disturbing?…  I don’t think so.
A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures that once in cannot escape.
A bottle in a natural area will often provide a tomb for small creatures – once they have found their way in, many cannot get out and the process of dying is often prolonged and unpleasant.

On the 29th April 2016 I parked my car in a New Forest car park ignoring the obvious litter in the immediate vicinity and walked along the roadside noting the spread of rubbish to as far as about five metres from the carriageway. There was clearly no shortage of the stuff, but it dropped off as I moved towards the heathland, which suggested that most of it was flung from moving cars, but even at a distance way past the range of an Olympic javelin thrower there was still plenty of rubbish to be found strewn across the open heath.

It is great to see such variety, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular groups - when it comes to a drinking there seems to be something out there for every taste. All of these were photographed within about 20 minutes of walking plus a whole lot else, which suggests that there is a problem.
It is just great to see such a variety of taste, which suggests that litter may not be attributable to particular sections of society – when it comes to drinking there is something here for everybody. All of these beverage containers were photographed during a 20 minute walk and there was a whole lot else thrown down as well, which indicates that there is a real problem.

One of the reasons that I wanted to leave Britain was litter, because it was almost impossible to ignore, as was the response of foul language and abuse that I usually received when I politely asked people to pick up what they had discarded  – this most noticeably from children… which was depressing.

When my family and I moved to New Zealand in 2002, one of the best things about the change was that litter was less a feature of the N.Z. landscape than it was in Britain, and you might reasonably consider this to be down to a lower population… but it was more than that; in New Zealand there was a different attitude – people were actively searching out bins to put their rubbish in, and throwing rubbish onto the ground didn’t come naturally to that many people. The one time I did ask a child to pick up his discarded rubbish when walking along a street in the small town of Te Awamutu he did so at once, if rather sheepishly, and then apologised – which really stuck in my mind because this had never happened before. Living on the opposite side of the world away from what I considered a cultured society, I suddenly discover that what I might initially have considered to be the back end of nowhere was altogether more civilized than what I had become used to in Britain, and this was a real culture shock.

Back on the Forest I'm still finding litter. Fast food packaging forms a major part go it, and judging by how washed out these containers are some have been out on the open heath for some time.
Back on the Forest I’m still finding litter and fast food packaging forms a major part of it. Judging by how washed out these containers are it is clear they have been out on the open heath for some time.

I’ve lived in Canada now for about six years, and it would be crazy to suggest that Canadians don’t litter, but they don’t do it to anything like the degree that some people do in the U.K.. The writer and humorist David Sedaris has written and talked about littering in Britain and believes heavy fines would make a difference. By his own admission Mr Sedaris is disturbed by this oddly British problem, and some might say he is a little obsessive judging by the amount of time he is prepared to spend picking it up. He is a native of the U.S.A. but has lived elsewhere and travelled extensively – he clearly knows what he is talking about and Britain is lucky to have him.

When I lived in the U.K. I used to walk to the letterbox at the end of the road and I’d pick up all the litter on one side of the road going down and pick up the rest on the opposite side coming back. My neighbours thought I was barking mad, but to me it just seemed the responsible thing to do. If I was now living close to the Forest I’d take a bin liner out with me once a week and pick up as much as I could during my walk.

There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The only bramble I saw where once it was extensive - maybe the aroma puts the grazers off.
There was witty litter on the open Forest as well. The freshener was attached to the only bramble I saw where once it was extensive – maybe the aroma puts grazing livestock off.

Fining people isn’t going to solve the problem in out of the way places where they are unlikely to be watched . Littering is a mind set in Britain and many won’t readily change their behaviour with good grace, and so sadly, it falls to the rest of us to clean up if local authorities are not going to do it, because littering will only get worse if we decline to rise to the challenge.

When I was regularly using the New Forest as a subject for my photographs I had no trouble clearing up litter when I saw it – and I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that if you walk your dog on the Forest then you should consider doing the same. Anybody who walks on the open forest regularly should be  prepared to occasionally take a bag out and pick stuff up.

I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I owned dogs myself and they often accompanied me... when I wasn't filming deer!
I have no problem with dog owners on the Forest, I had dogs myself and they often accompanied me on photgraphic outings. If people are happy to pick up their dogs faeces, picking up a bit of  litter really shouldn’t be too much of an ask.

 There are people who expect to find a bin wherever they go – even in the natural world – and when they don’t, they find it acceptable to discard their rubbish wherever they are. I have no idea what must be going through their pea sized brains… but I suspect very little.

The discarding of rubbish when the bins run out isn’t a problem restricted entirely to Britain. I am presently in Mexico photographing parrots in what I consider a remote place, but of course it isn’t remote to the locals who live here. Today I’ve walked along a gravel road and it is this which allows easy access by vehicle to a swimming hole on a river that runs parallel to it and it is close to there that I am taking pictures.

I am having trouble photographing orange fronted parakeets in the gloom of the canopy above me.
Looking up into the gloom of the canopy above, I am attempting to photograph orange fronted parakeets preening.
The locals say they live in paradise, but at ground level almost directly beneath were the parrots are preening it is a different story.
But look down and things are very different. This is an area that even local people call paradise. Less that twenty metres to my left there is a pile of rubbish steadily building day by day. There is no bin here because other than a parking area this is essentially a natural setting.

Rather than take their litter home, people are steadily adding to the pile – its very presence seems to have validated this as a place to dump. The rubbish might at some stage be cleared by a local authority, but in the meantime it will take only one windy day to redistribute this junk into the river and surrounding forest and that is depressing, because in every other respects this is paradise.

Look carefully on the other side of the rocks the redistribution of litter is already happening along the river.
Just over the rocks is the river and if you look carefully you will notice the redistribution of junk has already started in particular light polystyrene.
In another location walking out of the beautiful coastal town of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the track, but litter reappears by the riverside once into the countryside where the collection bags run out.
In an entirely different location walking out of the beautiful coastal village of Yelapa, litter dutifully goes into bags along the trackway and the area remains very clean, but further on, once out into the coutryside, the collection bags run out, and litter soon begins to appear along the riverbank.

I hate to be critical of Mexico because it is such a wonderful place, but it does have a litter problem, although of course I’m selecting by recent experience. The truth is, that with just a few exceptions, littering is a worldwide problem.

It seems that no matter where we are, when the bins run out, so does our restraint. To see piles of rubbish elsewhere in the world certainly puts the New Forest problem into perspective, but the pertinent question remains, in a place where there is no shortage of wealth and education… should we be seeing litter there at all?

 

On the Verge of Something Interesting.

I recently left the West Coast of Canada to visit my father in the U.K. and was surprised at how beautiful ‘the old country’ still is, despite over the last ten years, having Europe’s most rapidly growing population, essentially because more people are arriving than are leaving.

I left in 2002 and if I thought the roads were busy then, it is nothing to the way they are now – driving anywhere during rush hour is inadvisable, because more often than not, it takes ages to move only a short distance – but the biggest surprise is what is growing either side of the traffic which you have plenty of time to observe when you are barely moving. It is springtime and on the  verges a great many flowers are opening and turning the roadside into a place of beauty, or at least that was the way it was for most of the journey as I drove on backroads across West Sussex and East Hampshire to the edge of the New Forest. 

Leaving London Gatwick and driving West on the backroads travelling towards the New Forest in Hampshire the roadside verges spill spring flowers down to the roadside.
Leaving Gatwick Airport I drove west across country towards the New Forest and for most of the way the verges were spilling spring flowers down to the roadside.

When you fly north-east out from Vancouver, the landscape below is very different -

as you rise into the clouds what you see is a winter wilderness of snow-clad mountains even though it is near the end of April.

 As you fly north east out of Vancouver, it isn't long before you are over wilderness
As you rise above the mountains close to Vancouver, it isn’t long before you are flying over wilderness.

Nine hours later, at the other end of the journey, flying into London Gatwick Airport what comes into view is an irregular man-made field system, certainly this isn’t wilderness but in its own way is still very agreeable.  

London isn't so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem oddly from an earlier time and I imagine the shadows of spitfires ghosting defiantly across them.
London isn’t so far away from Gatwick Airport and yet the fields on the approach seem as if from an earlier time – I imagine the shadow of a spitfire ghosting defiantly across this patchwork of green rather than that of an Airbus A330 .

There is no mistaking that the landscape below is far from wilderness which Britain doesn’t do on a grand scale. Although a couple of hundred years ago the Lakeland poets and a flurry of writers and painters set the tone with their representations of the great British outdoors, but this was an interpretation rather different from reality. Admittedly the Romanticists didn’t restrict themselves to rural roadside verges, preferring instead the ruggedness of largely uninhabited upland areas, but essentially their analysis was flawed – what they mostly saw were man made environments conveniently labelled as natural, and this mythology has carried through even to the present day. 

For generations, most of Britain has been heavily managed, and if somebody can get their sheep up onto the higher slopes during summer then they will do so, with the result that a great deal of Britain’s countryside is grazed far beyond anything that is natural – something that the majority of us conveniently fail to notice. The British interpretation of ‘wild’ is a construct, a romantic interpretation of the way we think nature should be after we’ve utilised it for our own ends, and that’s a far more positive approach than admitting that perhaps we’ve rather messed things up.

This is Scotand and the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness - so, I've been a little unfair... the foreground however is grazed by red deer without the intervention of large predators - other than of course men with guns, who will  predomonentlyt be hunting trophy animals which is not a very nature process. I am not moaning, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is - a place to grow food and hunt animals, although most of us think it is just a place to walk the dog.
This is Scotland – the distant mountains are cold an inhospitable enough to be considered wilderness, the foreground however is grazed by red deer that have for centuries remained untroubled by large predators  – all long ago eliminated by man. The deer of course are now taken out by humans with guns, and predominantly their populations are managed by trophy hunting – a process that is far from  natural. This is not a criticism, but we should recognise the British countryside for what it is – a place to grow food and hunt animals, although of course, most of us mistakenly think that it is just a place to empty the dog.

It is certainly not unreasonable to assert that there is more ‘wild’ in Britain’s hedgerows and roadside verges during spring than can be  found in many upland areas. That seems a very odd thing to say, because roadside verges are hardly natural, but the plants that flower along them during spring are growing exactly the way they would have done in the ancient past, at a time before many environments were taken over by the formalities of agriculture.

Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.
Letting the verges go in spring makes a huge difference to the conservation of nature.

The evolutionary imperative of spring flowers to show early in the year and reproduce before they are cast into shadow by leaf cover was a predominant feature across most of England before the first forests were cleared for timber and agriculture. Many of the plants that flower during spring, have evolved for millions of years alongside, or more correctly, ‘under’ deciduous trees. The fact that their best hope is now roadside management is neither here nor there. Later in the year the verges will be cut, and this will prohibit engulfment by a scrubland that would otherwise eventually progress towards forest.

My favourites are primroses.
My favourites are primroses….
Until the bluebells are underway!
….until the bluebells are underway!

It isn’t practical to have our roadsides totally engulfed by overhanging scrub and trees, and so it is by management that a suitable habitat is preserved for low cover spring  plants to thrive and spread. For obvious reasons grazing by deer is less intense along roadsides than it is in the forest, and rabbits at low density will often feed preferentially on the grass between clumps of flowers, which is all to the good.

Cutting later in the year rather than grazing is an accepted method of management and the result, during spring, along Britain’s winding country roads is a spectacular floral display that most of us appreciate.

 In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically for nature; but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has come specifically to roadside verges to gorge on spring dandelions – a non-native weed and high energy snack that is favoured by bears recently emerged from hibernation.

In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically to nature, but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has specifically come to the roadside verge to gorge on spring dandelions - a non-native weed that is favoured by bears not so long out of hibernation something you don't see very often in West Sussex.
Roadside bears are something that you don’t see very often in West Sussex, although a few hundred years ago they would have been present.

From the 1930s farming in Europe began to developed on an industrial scale and the control of pests, such as weeds, insect and rodents was beginning to be achieved by the use of chemicals, many of them toxic to the native flora and fauna. The loss of nature as a result of this intensive agricultural process has in recent times resulted in subsidies to encourage farmers to protect verges and hedgerows; in some cases broad areas of land are left uncultivated along the sides of fields to minimise the passage of sprayed herbicides and insecticides that might otherwise carry across these fallow conservation areas.

Along my meandering route on the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land can be clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the road - a haven for wild plants and animals.
Along my meandering route across the South Downs close by the small village of Bignor a broad expanse of uncultivated land is clearly differentiated between the growing crop and the roadside which provides a haven for many wild plants and animals.

This expanse of uncultivated land provides not only a wildlife habitat, but also an interconnected corridor for many plant and animal species to move along. There are farmers keen to provide such environmentally friendly areas, but for many, a restriction of land use carries an economic penalty, and in consequence European farmers are paid large subsidies to farm in a progressive and environmentally sensitive manner, although the exact cost of doing this isn’t so easy to ascertain, but the total is self-evidently substantial.  

A recent report from ISARA Lyon however concludes that the uptake of agroecological practices has so far been low, and there has been no clear EU strategy for agroecological practices and sustainable agriculture, while the political will to move things forward remains marginal, and although the Common Agricultural Policy for 2014 – 2020 includes further elements, in addition to existing measures, which are orientated towards some agroecological practices, a broad strategy to deal with the situation is still missing.

Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.
Roadside wild stitchwort flowers.

This all sounds rather disappointing, and from a personal viewpoint it would be difficult not to have noticed a decrease in both populations and the diversity of Britain’s flora and fauna over recent years – butterflies are a good example because we tend to notice them above other insects, and consequently they have become indictors as to the health of natural environments. Their decline during my lifetime has been substantial and this can be linked to more intensive methods of agriculture, which have become increasingly reliant upon man made chemicals, in particular the use of indiscriminate pesticides.

I have only witnessed changes since the 1950s and I wouldn’t want to imply that as a child I was capable of passing value judgements on my early recollections of the countryside; but people who have lived out of town since the 1930s tell me that they have seen changes on a completely different scale, over a period that co-incides almost exactly with the advent of farming as an intensive activity, and the increasing reliance on artificial fertilisers and synthetic pesticides to improve productivity.

Celandines growing by the roadside.
Celandines growing by the side of a country lane.

97% of all wildflower-rich grassland has been lost in the U.K. since the Second World War.  Worldwide one fifth of all vascular plants are threatened with extinction – these figures are disturbing, but at least there have been small improvements in recent years: in some areas hedgerows have been replanted, and roadside verges are in many cases better managed than they have been for many years, and such improvements should be appreciated as minor steps forward.

However, many people still advocate poisoning to prohibit natural growth along Britain’s roadsides; increasingly this has become an outmoded way of thinking, with most of the changes that have so far occurred brought about by a combination of education, forward thinking councils, and European subsidies. As individuals we need to get our heads around our interpretation of what is untidy and what is natural, and until we do this, environmental problems will be a perpetual feature of our World.

When roadside  spring flowers are combined with woodland trees  - in this case oaks - the result is a reminder of how much of Britain must have looked before modern agricultural transformed Britain, although the roadway is a bit of a give away.
When roadside spring flowers are combined with woodland trees, especially oaks – the result is a reminder of how Britain must have looked before modern agriculture transformed the landscape, although the roadway is of course a bit of a give away.

If Britain decides to leave the European community it will be of interest to see how much difference a reduction, or even an elimination of subsidies makes to  the countryside, and that includes roadside verges. Certainly it is worth having a camera ready to record the changes that might occur in the years ahead, and to note whether the political will to do the right thing gathers strength or weakens.

In the end it may come down to what Governments decide they can afford to do – and often that turns out to be the bare minimum they think they can get away with. So, go ahead… take a picture and save the planet. The will to make changes is in the end down to us, and that’s not always easy unless we bear witness to exactly what is going on. 

 

 

There’s More to a Raccoon Than a Davey Crockett Hat.

A Scottish wildlife organisation recently took a picture that might help save the planet – well, the Highlands of Scotland at least. It was on one of those automatic cameras used to monitor animals – and triggered on 17th March 2016 by a Procyon lotor – that’s a raccoon for those of us who don’t have the Latin – standing on it’s hind feet it looked as if it was feeding on some form of bait attached to a post: www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-35942952     The image is technically limited and in contrasty black and white, but there is no doubting this is a raccoon. Baiting certainly works when it comes to attracting raccoons to cameras, but this shouldn’t be possible in the U.K. where they are not supposed to be, and catching one on camera is a real surprise when what you’re really expecting to see is a badger.

If you've seen a raccoon in the U.K. and don't get a picture... they'll tell you it is one of these...
If you seen a raccoon in the U.K. and you don’t get a picture… they’ll tell you that you saw one of these.

Failing a deliberate release, this Highland raccoon must have escaped from captivity, but that’s not exactly an environmental disaster, providing it’s not a pregnant female, or has the opportunity to meet up with a raccoon of the opposite sex… And what are the chances of that? Well, surprisingly good it seems, because a week earlier, on the 11th March, a raccoon was recorded on video just thirty miles away. The same raccoon perhaps? Well possibly, but that’s a bit of a hike for a raccoon in just a week; although when food is in short supply a healthy animal might range that distance, especially if it is a recent roaming escapee that has not yet found a favourable place to set up home. If it turns out there are two raccoons however, this could be the start of a much bigger problem.

A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.
A young racoon living appropriately where he belongs in North America.

I saw my first raccoon as a child – it was perched upon Davey Crockett’s head in a mid 1950s movie that made the most famous backwoodsman of all time a huge box office success in Britain – there was also a popular song that kept ‘The King of the Wild Frontier’ popular for a time – although I’m not sure how long – when you’re small things seem to go on forever. It lasted until the Lone Ranger and Tonto showed up on our T.V. screens to replace him. And surprisingly the Lone Ranger would continue with Crockett’s raccoon theme. More than half a century separated the two characters (and quite bit of fiction);  the raccoon hat had been replaced by a white stetson, with the raccoon identity slipping down onto the rangers face in the form of a raccoon mask – this along with an outfit rather too tight for general ‘lone ranging’ comfort, made the character somewhat laughable even to a child. It seemed that back in the old days whether, ‘way down South’ or out there in ‘the wild west’ you were never far from a raccoon, or at least a reference to one, and today this remains pretty much the case right across North America and there is a suggestion that in some states there are more raccoons around today than there were during the 19th Century when fur trapping was hugely consequential.

A raccoon in natural habitat on the North East Coast of North America.
A wild raccoon in its natural habitat somewhere south of Boston.

Raccoons are generalists: if they can find food, they will usually adapt to their surroundings and live almost anywhere. In their native land they avoid only the extreme cold of the frozen north and have managed to become one of the most successful mammals ever to have lived on the continent. In urban situations they have become equally successful, and often considered pests because of their habit of competing with humans.

I must admit, I don’t feel too much competition from the large individual that walks the fence-line around our garden. My family and I live in the Vancouver area of British Columbia where raccoons are commonplace – and not only is this individual a real beauty, it is also one of the largest racoons I have ever seen. Certainly in the northwest racoons can grow to about as big as this species will get. Further south where winters are warmer and summers hotter – in Florida and Mexico for example – a large body mass isn’t so important for retaining body heat and individuals are usually smaller.

Raccoons are mostly active during the night and our local animals will occasionally dig up the garden for grubs, but I don’t mind that. My habit of leaving the garage door open will have to stop though.  I accidentally shut a domestic cat into my garage one night when living in the U.K. – the cat wasn’t bothered, and apart from a slight smell of cat the garage was fine, the same thing happened with an owl when living in New Zealand – again no problem – although the cat smell was replaced by a pile of poo under the roost were the bird had chosen to spend the night. All well and good, but if I accidentally shut a raccoon into my garage overnight in Canada, I might just as well opened up the place up to a marauding bear.

Not the best of pictures - taken by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot. This was probably my first attempt at filming raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of small bits and pieces in my camera case they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had almost no recollection of this event until I discovered the old picture, obviously my subconcious had blotted out this wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter.
Maybe not the best of pictures – taken many years ago by a sympathetic observer who picked up my stills camera and grabbed this shot as I wrestled with a couple of raccoons. The two youngsters started off infront of the camera, but attracted by the sparkle of the small bits and pieces in my camera case, they quickly became less than ideal subjects. I had no recollection of the event until I recently re-discovered this photo –  obviously my subconscious had blotted out my first and most wildly unsuccessful raccoon filming encounter, somewhere in Vermont.

I loved the suggestion from a spokesman for the attempted capture of the photogenic Scottish raccoon, that, if it could be achieved without personal risk, it would be great if somebody simply contained the creature in a shed or outbuilding. Now, containing a raccoon is  a novel idea – but the last shed I walked through that might adequately ‘contain’ a raccoon was on the island of Alcatraz – maybe Scottish sheds are a cut above the sheds I got used to when living in the South of England as a child; back then you had to turf the wildlife out before you could put the garden tools away; and the door was always left open during the summer months because robins were busy rearing young in an old teapot on a shelf at the back.

A spokesman also said that their organisation had set a humane trap to catch the Highland raccoon…  but there had been no sign of it yet, and that’s not a huge surprise. All too frequently raccoons are caught and held by unpleasant limb holding traps, but getting a raccoon secure in an humane alternative isn’t quite so easy: if you don’t capture your raccoon first time around you may not get a second chance – raccoons clearly didn’t spread across a whole continent because they were stupid.

A recent digital image - and an impossible shot to make successfully on film in very low light conditions. How can you resist these critters, trying to bat one another off a low branch - just for fun!
A digital image taken recently. This is a difficult shot to make successfully on film because it was taken in very low light. How can you resist these little critters? Trying to bat one another off of a low branch just for fun! Their rotund body shape belying an extraordinary ability to balance.

Over the years I’ve photographed, filmed and videod raccoons in many different situations, both captive and wild and there was rarely a moment when they weren’t attempting the impossible.

When filming cheetahs, you can spend days sitting around waiting for them to move, and you’re thinking ‘Just do something interesting… Something I can film… Anything other than just gazing into the far distance!’. Then after a couple of days they will get up and go for a mobile lunch and you can hardly keep up, even in a Land Rover. Raccoons on the other hand are the exact opposite, when they are awake, they never stop moving – sure they rest up, but if a raccoon isn’t hidden away having a kip, it will usually be ambling along doing something interesting, and providing you aren’t hassling the creature, you can usually keep pace on foot.

With cheetahs - there's a lot of sitting around waiting.
Cheetahs are just about my favourite animal – they are beautiful, but there’s a lot of sitting around waiting, and to be honest… they can sometimes be rather dull.

A raccoon is an inquisitive creature – brighter than a rat, a cat, or a dog, they have a never say die attitude that provides an easy fit for those who think they’re a little bit like us… and in some ways, perhaps they are. It doesn’t make sense zoologically, but it’s fun to think of the raccoon species as evolving along a different route to create a creature that ostensibly does things the way we do, but without the advantage of starting from a primate.

Their little paws are superficially hand-like and with great sensitivity   can manipulate objects – in particular food, and their alert little brains will get them into just about everything, which helps them survive in all manner of circumstances. It all sounds familiar – especially the little brains!… We can anthropomorphise them to our hearts content and that’s certainly the reason they make such good cartoon characters… we relate to them, and their little bandit masks in particular trigger our imaginations. They appear to us as devilish little bandits behaving without restraint, which is exactly the mindset of any raccoon worth its salt – as anybody who has ever tried to keep one will tell you. 

Another raccoon in a natural situation in Canada.
Raccoons in a natural situations do not shy away from water – this one is Canadian.

If you’re thinking that keeping a raccoon should be on your bucket list… forget it! It takes a very forgiving nature to become a raccoon’s best buddy. There are however people – like Dorcas MacClintock, who have managed to do so successfully, and on numerous occasions. In the mid-1980s Dorcas became my mentor in all things raccoon related; somehow she managed to bridge the gap between art and science; as both an award winning sculptor, and a respected mammalogist she had moved beyond the simplistic recording and analysis of racoons as living organisms to see the bigger picture. Dorcas also has a sense of humour which is not only helpful, but an absolute necessity when dealing with raccoons. David Niven once said of his friend Errol Flynn, that you always knew where you were with Flynn because he would always let you down – and that’s more or less the way it is with raccoons – you can’t  just turn your back and expect them to sit quietly – they’re going to get into mischief.

I had to empty the bookcase for my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book (left) 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out. I had to empty the bookcase to find my own impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock's book is to the left; her 'A Natural History of Raccoons' is well worth searching out to learn more about this interesting creature.
I had to empty the bookcase to find my impression of Rocky Racoon. Dorcas MacClintock’s book is to the left: ‘A Natural History of Raccoons’  and is well worth searching out if you want to learn more about these interesting creatures.

Dorcas taught me how best to understand what a raccoon will do next, which is essential when trying to film them. I learnt how to second guess their behaviour and anything Dorcas had forgotten to tell me, she had already written down in a book which she gave me. I learnt for example that you don’t try to stop raccoons from doing just about anything they want, instead you divert their attention with something more interesting and usually, that something is food.

A wild raccoon in a not quite so wild urban setting in the U.S.A.. The only part of the set up is extra lighting and  extra food, although dumped food is not exactly unusual in any unrban situation.
A wild raccoon in a not so wild urban setting somewhere in the U.S.A.. The only part that is set up is extra lighting plus a little extra food, although finding dumped food is not exactly unusual in today’s urban landscape.

The truth is, I usually leave the captive raccoon diverting to somebody else because it’s a full time job and I just do my best to record the action. Working with a wild raccoon is pretty much the same – you grab what you can, because if a raccoon is doing anything, it’s most definitely worth running the camera.

With a racoon in the wild there is no doubting that the setting is natural, but with a captive animal, which parts of the process touch base with reality? Well, whatever a raccoon does is his or her own reality… because they will never do anything that they don’t want to, or anything that doesn’t come naturally. So, if the intention is to demonstrate some aspect of behaviour, I don’t think filming a captive raccoon is a major deceit, but if you are supposedly telling the life story of a wild animal and filming most of it on a set, essentially what you have is a soap opera, which is fine, but of no particular interest to me.

This is a raccoon on an open outdoor set, his name was Wille and he's been given water and appropriate food - so that I can film him dabbling - searching with his front paws and then washing his food.
This raccoon was cared for by Dorcas and his name was Willie. He was filmed on an open outdoor set with an artificial pool and given appropriate food so that he could dabble – that’s essentially searching for food in water using the front paws. There is some question as to whether this continues through to actually washing a potential meal – but that’s certainly the way it looks to us. Interestingly, Willie isn’t looking down too much, instead  he relies on his sensitive paws to feel what he is doing and appears entirely absorbed in his food gathering activity – but with his head up, he remains aware of his surroundings – even if, as is the case for all raccoons – he is rather short sighted.

The thing about filming natural activity is that unless you plan to make a twelve hour nature film, there has to be some editing, and I’m more worried about that than many other aspects of the process. One very good reason for editing your own material is that there is a better chance of telling the truth, simply because you were there. The alternative and often preferential route is to put a story together from bits and pieces filmed over a period of time, and some professional film makers might say that it will be a dull story if it isn’t done in this way. Which might be the case, but I think it far more interesting and informative to watch things the way they really happened. There is however compromise to any edit –  it might be necessary for example to drop  a close up in to move the action along, and so keeping the flow authentic is a constant challenge.

The viewer is always in the hands of the movie-maker, who has the option to tell it as it is, or alternatively, make a story up, and  to a point there is always a degree of manipulation. Secondly, nature isn’t    simply about getting bloody in tooth and and claw – animals attacking has become fashionable on both television and the internet, but watching animals going about their daily lives demonstrates that there is a lot more going on. Just as with us, everyday activities may not be quite as exciting as a battle, but raccoons tend to do things with more gusto than most and their behaviour is often comic, a combination that will always provide cinematographic value.

This YouTube of a raccoon dabbling is captivating, but clearly not of a captive animal – without edits the action retains a feeling of authenticity.  You might not want to watch the same behaviour for an hour, but a short clip like this is absorbing, and you learn something about the habits of a wild animal:  raccoon dabbling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0lI3ub3DI8

This is a wide view of Willie that shows him on the set I had built - you can see a flag to the left of frame (this used to take light out of an area - which might sound odd, but is a good way to create shadow where it is required. Filmed in daylight, it can also be used as a night scene. I dropped two f stops to create the mood (seen in the closer shot above). I could also have blued it for night, but have left that for the producer to make that decision as it may also be done in post production.
Here is a wide view of Willie, showing him on a set built for a dabbling sequence – you can see a metal flag to the left of frame (used to create a shadow in one particular area). Filmed in daylight, the image might also be used as a night scene by dropping the aperture a couple of f stops to create a darker mood (this shown below). I could also have blued up the image for night, but have left that for the producer to decide, as a final decision can be made later… and it also gives the producer a chance to make a contribution! O.K., just kidding!
Here the exposure is taken down to give the impression of night - it might be taken down further and blued - this is why it is important to light the areas of action precisely - as you need to see what is going on. I could have also done the sequence at night and lit that. The technical possibilities are endless and all without changing the raccoons natural behaviour.
When the exposure is taken down it can give the impression that this is night time and might be taken down even further and blued up for a cooler night time feel, this darkening of the image is the reason that it is important that the light is directed precisely towards where the action is happening, because above all else, the viewer must be able to see what is going on. Another option would have been to film the sequence at night and light appropriately, or use an infra-red camera. The technical possibilities are endless, but most importantly, they don’t change the raccoon’s natural behaviour. Working today with video many people are inclined to record exactly what they see through the view finder, often in low light conditions, which gives a very narrow depth of field (that’s overall focus front to back). It is quite tricky juggling light levels to create a mood on film, especially when the final image isn’t visible to you through the view finder which is the way it usually is if you are lighting creatively. Our eyes can read light levels more broadly than film stock and that’s useful, and without it, going to the movies wouldn’t be half so interesting.

Whether in captivity or in the wild raccoons appear delighted to have something to do – it is simply in their nature.   Out in the wild, much of what they attempt seems destructive to us, but really they are just making a living much the same as we do when going about our business, except that we trash quite a bit more of the environment than they do in the process. I understand why many people view them as a nuisance, nevertheless it is ironic that as we start to move into their world they have a habit of pushing back, and at some level, you have to admire that.

This is a wild raccoon. I watched his progress from behind, worked out that he was going for a swim -ran along the bank and found a bridge and returned to catch him arriving on the bank from the front. I could see it in his eyes - 'Oh, it's you again!'
This raccoon was photographed in the wild. I watched her progress towards the water ahead, and worked out the position she was most likely to enter the water – then ran along the bank of the stream, found a bridge and made my way close to the spot where I thought she would arrive on the opposite bank. I could see it in her eyes – ‘Oh no, it’s you again!’ But I was long gone before her arrival.

In all honesty, if you take a picture of a raccoon in its native country you probably won’t contribute very much to saving the planet, but if you live outside of North America and get a shot of one in the wild, it might prove very important to conservation. Certainly if this species takes off in Britain – a place where raccoons really don’t belong – they would undoubtedly compete with native species that are already under pressure and their presence create environmental havoc. If a raccoon really did think and behave exactly the way that we do, he’d probably be saying ‘ Nice one… Bring it On!’ But in truth, Rocky is just doing what all raccoons naturally do… and he doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. 

 

 

As Dismissed As a Newt.

There was a man on the Radio today talking about great crested newts, and that got me listening carefully, because for many years I had an eventful relationship with these fascinating creatures;  which might sound odd, but not entirely ridiculous considering that this was the first animal I filmed for prime time television, and the fact that I was suddenly earning a living from what most regarded as a pointless childhood interest at least impressed my father.

My parents were tolerant of my preoccupation with all things amphibian, even allowing me to keep a tank of salamanders in their bedroom – suitable because it was north facing and cool during the summer months; but at the time there was no indication the little creatures that arrived as a gift, would be around for more than 25 years and produce quite so many offspring.

Although I wasn’t obsessive about keeping amphibians, their behaviour fascinated me. My introduction came through a neighbour when I was about eight years old; she worked in a plant nursery and noticed a pond where large numbers of newts were engaged in courtship. She offered to bring some home for me to observe, and I didn’t need to be asked twice, quickly organising an old fish tank to house them, and a regular supply of earthworms to keep them fed.

The first newts I kept as a child were smooth newts, at the time relatively common. This male is at his most  crested and colourful and has just a mass of frog spawn on which he has been feeding and no doubt cutting down any competition for his offspring by taking out future frog tadpoles.
The first anphibians I observed as a child were smooth newts – at the time they were relatively common. This male has been feeding on a mass of frog spawn  to the right; taking in this high protein meal will also reduce competition for his future offspring.

I couldn’t believe my luck when they arrived – newts are nothing much to look at on land, but as soon as they enter water, their transformation is extraordinary – and I was surprised how much there was to learnt by simply watching them: I noticed for example, that an amorous male would delay coming up for air when he was busy flickering his tail at a potential mate, but if she remained indifferent, he would eventually have to break away and rocket to the surface for a gulp of air, then quickly return before another male could engage her.

The male smooth newt is a beautiful creature that most of us remain indifferent to  - essentially we have a goldfish mentality and until that aesthetic changes, amphibians will remain in general decline.
The smooth newt in full courtship spleandour is an impressive creature that most of us will never encounter. The majority of us would in any case prefer to see a goldfish and until our ‘goldfish’ mentalities take an aesthetic turn for the better, amphibians will continue to be in general decline.

At their best amphibians are quite beautiful and they have uncomplicated lifestyles that can be easily analysed – which makes for an entrancing combination. Not so much for my grandfather though who said he wouldn’t visit again until I ditched ‘the dreadful creatures’. Needless to say I didn’t see him again until early summer when the newts had finished their reproductive phase and left the water; they were then transferred to an overgrown part of the garden from where they would eventually find their way to our fish pond each spring to reproduce; and, if the pond still exists, their descendants will still be doing that.

This North American red salamander is also very colourful, but many species are less inclined to be dandies.
This North American red salamander is very colourful, but there are many other species that are not such dandies, retaining drabber colours to avoid attention..

In North America newts are referred to as salamanders, but in Europe the name is restricted to the really colourful ones that dress as court jesters – usually in black and yellow – essentially a warning that say’s ‘Don’t eat me, or l’ll make you vomit’. This colour combination is a worldwide warning displayed by many small animals likely to make a potential lunch for hungry predators: spiders, bees, wasps, beetles and others all make use of this contrasting colour combo, and although many predators don’t see in colour in the same way that we do, it is a defence mechanism that seems to work. 

A female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth to her offspring.
A plump female European spotted salamander comes to water to give birth.

Imagine you’re a peasant living in central Europe long before the internet, television, or even the radio – infact so long ago candles are the latest thing. It’s a cold winter’s night and you throw a log on the fire, and pretty soon, in the flickering light of the rekindled embers, a strange creature walks out onto the hearth. It’s no more than a salamander rudely awoken from a peaceful winter’s slumber, but you don’t know that because science hasn’t been invented yet, or at least it hasn’t where you live – halfway up a mountain somewhere at the back end of Austria. You’re naturally terrified because you still organise your life around the time-honoured habit of superstition, and on seeing the creature, you know you’ve been stricken by a curse. Months later a very old man dies in the village, or perhaps a crop fails… it doesn’t matter… bad things happen because this is the Middle Ages, and everything can be traced back to that fateful encounter with the devil’s fire creature. If only you could have looked it up on the internet, but no…  just like my grandfather, you were living in the past and totally ignorant of just how interesting a salamander can be. Today, this rubbery little animal seems far less terrifying, but is still sometimes referred to as a fire salamander.

 Britain has only three native species of newt

and none are court jesters. It isn’t so much that newts lack colour, but rather that a great many restrict bright colouration to their bellies. Once again black and yellow or black and orange are colours that might be flashed as a warning and as an opulent display might also be helpful during courtship, but colour can also be a bit of a giveaway, which has led to many species retaining muted upper-sides, to reduce predatory attacks from above.

A newt or salamander that isn't careful can end up inside one of these.
A newt or salamander that isn’t careful might end up inside one of these.
To exist alongside herons and many other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring and all are of the larval stages are initially tied to the water.
To maintain an existence alongside herons and other predators amphibians usually produce large numbers of offspring with their larval stages tied to the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, most people dismiss newts as rather boring, probably because they are only noticed when they come to breeding ponds during the spring. Water is necessary during reproduction, but outside of that many will remain land based, hiding away during the day under logs, in crevices, or in the soil, venturing out only on damp nights to feed.

The second species I came into contact with in my childhood was the palmate newt, so named because courting males develop a sooty black webbing between the toes of their hind-feet. Palmates are the smallest of the three British species and I first noticed them in water filled tyre ruts when out picnicking with my parents in the New Forest, where heathland soils provide an acidic environment that the palmates seem well adapted to.

A pair of palmate newts, the female above right and the male below left.
A pair of palmate newts, the female above right, the male below left.

Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:

during spring, smooth newt males develop a complete crest along the back and tail; palmate males do not, they have a small crest along the tail; but nothing along the back, instead there are two small ridges that run along the upper sides of the body producing a rather boxy shape in cross-section, this in contrast to the rounded curves of smooth newt males and the females of all the other British species. Palmate males have a strong black bar marking running through the eye and a little black pointer that develops at the tip of of the tail. Smooth newts may also have an eye bar, but this is often less pronounced.

The black hind feet and the tail pointer in palmate males makes identification easy, but the females are less easily differentiated from smooth newt females; I remember trying to explain the key differences to an expert just before he was about to give a broadcast on the subject, but for the most part it is a question of experience. The female palmate, just like the male, has a pinkish tinge down the centre of the tail bordered above and below by a darker, often jagged line – but this feature can be very subtle. Outside of the breeding season newts become solitary and maintaining these visual signals is no longer necessary and they become muted or disappear altogether. 

A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it - perhaps she judges the leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.
A palmate female plays pat-a-cake with her hind feet to determine whether she will lay an egg and decides against it; perhaps she judges this leaf too slender to hide or support her egg.

The largest of the three British species is the great crested newt,

which has become one of Britain’s most controversial animals; the reason for this relates almost entirely to politics and money, but more about that later. Identifying a great crested from a smooth or palmate is easy – because a mature great crested newt is about twice the size of the other two and reaches about 16 cm in length. The upper body is dark and warty with spots that are darker still –  these continue to the orange underside where they make a striking combination. There are sometimes white speckles on the face and along the lower sides of the body, and the male has a white bar that runs along the centre of the tail during courtship and the body crest is clearly serrated – all features that make identification a doddle. 

A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.
A female great crested newt, her abdomen full of eggs.

In the mid-1970s the Sunday Times published an article I submitted on the status of great crested newts in Britain. It ended with an informal survey, asking readers to give details of any great crested ponds they knew of in their area.

The response went well beyond expectation – it seemed that great crested newts were more widely distributed than had been previously thought – it really was great crested news! That was until I travelled to look into some of the ponds that readers had mentioned, only to discover that in many cases smooth newts were being misidentified as great crested newts, which seemed impossible to me, if only because of the clear size difference, the warts and the obvious crest serrations that smooth newt males clearly don’t have. Disappointingly, far too many observations were unreliable and I began to think that some people would have had trouble differentiating a big newt from a baby crocodile, and there were a few who would have been pushed to make a reliable I.D. against a hippopotamus. Even today the great crested newt’s status in Britain is in question, which is an unusual situation for a species that many consider to be in need of protection.

Newts discard their old wet suits.. or are they dry suits, I'm not sure?
Newts discard their old wet suits… Or are they dry suits? I’m not sure.

Back in the 1970s making a film wasn’t something that many people could afford to do. Between 1974 and 1977 I managed to put together a couple of movies which proved both time consuming and expensive. Today, working on video would have made the process far easier – even a phone can turn out some pretty impressive results, but back then, getting hold of a 16mm film camera (for broadcast quality), and buying filmstock, was a money pit .Half my monthly income was going towards buying just ten minutes of film running time, and it would take several years to shoot a movie devoted entirely to British reptiles and amphibians… How stupid was that? Working on a subject with such limited appeal seemed foolish… but then I got lucky.

Great crested newts are difficult for most of us to appreciate - there lifestyles mean that we don't see them very often.
Great crested newts like many other amphibians are difficult to appreciate, because their lifestyles dictate that we don’t see them very often.

The B.B.C. Natural History Unit became involved in a series that David Attenborough had been wanting to make for some time –  a television presenter during the 1950s and early 60s, he’d moved into management but now wished to return to the subject that interested him most. The result would emerge in 1979 as ‘Life on Earth’. and it was my good fortune that the series included a film dedicated entirely to amphibians. The producer of the programme, Richard Brock, was brave enough to allow me to film the British amphibians that were to be included, and in the grand scheme of things my contribution would be small, but my sequences would nevertheless involve months of work.

I had been in the right place at the right time and fortunately, the amphibians programme was selected to represent the series for publicity purposes. These cold-blooded animals had turned out to be rather more interesting than most people had thought possibe and the programme won a number of awards, but by that time I was too busy filming other projects to look back,  although I fully appreciated that for me, amphibians had been an unlikely but useful start.

An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is very beautiful, but it gives little away.
An edible frogs eye. The amphibian eye is often very beautiful, but it gives little away.

When I first met Richard Brock he told me all about ‘Frogs Law’ a term that had come to signify one of the biggest problems to be faced when filming amphibians – they are essentially unpredictable and usually move only after the camera has stopped runnning; there is not a glimmer in an amphibian eye that will tell you they are going to do something before they do. Animals further up the food chain usually give themselves away somewhere around the eyes, but a frog or salamander will give you nothing, and it isn’t as if they have the flat dead eyes  of a shark – quite the opposite – amphibians display some of the most beautiful eyes in the animal world. The truth of the matter is, that if you spend hundreds of hours watching any animal, you eventually learn to pick up on something and run the camera appropriately. Good to know then that all those hours of watching during childhood, weren’t entirely wasted. 

A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, it is impossible to film - here, he has cleaned away most of the detritus  on the gravel around him
A male great crested newt displays to a receptive female. He will arch his body, waggle his tail and often thrash violently towards her. This soon clouds the water, so much so, that it is often impossible to film, and here he has cleaned away most of the detritus on the gravel around him.

Sometimes a male newt displays to a female and she isn’t responsive to his love dance. Perhaps the male doesn’t suit her, or maybe she just isn’t ready, in which case she will usually break away, but often she will just hang around; there is something almost imperceptible about her body language that tells you there is no chance of getting the shot today… maybe tomorrow… and this understanding saves both time and money. Certainly you can’t afford to miss the action, but on the other hand, you can’t watch newts 24 hours a day, because down that road lies only madness.

If you fail to recognise when the female becomes receptive you won’t catch the moment when the male releases his little packet of sperm, after which he will back away still displaying as the female moves forward to pick up the packet on her cloaca. The male knows exactly when to make his release, and if you can’t pre-judge his behaviour and run the camera appropriately, you’re pretty soon looking for another job. And there’s another problem – amphibians respond to chemical signals – pheremones that have been released into the water, but you have only newt body language and the clock to go on – usually when one thing happens, something else will follow. Newts are little reproductive computing machines that with careful observation, are not beyond our understanding.

 I filmed my first T.V. newt on 12th February 1977 before filling in the details on a dope sheet wondering if ‘dope’ specifically applied to me – fortunately, it did not. I labelled the roll, ‘Test. Great Crested Newt. Daylight.’ and sent it off to the lab for processing – my wildlife filming career had started. 

Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf - they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they may sniff at eggs and eat those that weren't laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved snd this mechanistic behaviour appears totally orrganised but requires very little cognitive input.
Two females laying their fertilised eggs in the roll of a leaf – they pad the egg in with their hind feet until it is glued into place, which is wonderful to see. Later they will sniff at eggs and sometimes eat the ones that have not been laid by them. Millions of years ago these simple actions evolved and this mechanistic behaviour, although totally organised, requires very little cognitive input. 

So, back to the man on the radio – he’s outlining the  fact that great crested newts are less common in some parts of Europe than they are in the U.K. and consequently may not require as much protection as they presently receive from European law. For some time great cresteds have been protected under British law, but since the late 1980s they’ve also received an extra layer of care from Brussels due to a policy known as ‘The Habitats Directive’. Under this ruling, 18% of natural habitats in European countries are now under protection. The question is – if Britain opts out of the European Community, will great crested newts suffer because the European Directive no longer applies to them?

The developing larvae of a great crested newt sometimes known as an eft.
The developing larvae of a great crested newt is known as an eft.

I don’t know enough about environmental policy to be certain either way, but clearly the man on the radio was being reasonable. His company built a reservoir, in an area where several ponds had existed that at one time had probably been visited by great crested newts. Under ‘The European Directive’ these ponds had to be monitored, and if great crested newts were found present, these would have to be relocated. The whole process took a couple of years to complete and in the end only 10 great crested newts were found – the conclusion was that the cost of conserving each newt was six thousand five hundred pounds, but the company representative wasn’t making a fuss about that; instead he focused his attention on the newt habitat that had been created and on the whole his attitude was commendable.

This eft still has gills, but has fully developed functional lungs and gulping air, it will soon be leaving the water.
This eft still has gills, but now has lungs and will soon be leaving the water.

There are however issues concerning the relocation of species that are troubling.

Newts aren’t like higher mammals, which might sound obvious, but what is relevant in this case is how their populations are maintained. If only 10 newts are found in a habitat, and say only four of them are females, between them these individuals might lay around 1,200 eggs during a single spring. Certainly predation will take a toll, but amphibian populations often bounce back very quickly – it’s a numbers game; and not withstanding the problems that a reduction in the gene pool may cause, amphibians have a better chance of surviving a decline to very low numbers than do animals with much lower reproduction rates, and so protecting 10 newts as opposed to 10 bears or 10 tigers, may result in a much more successful outcome. The truth is, the success of a species that has suffered massive decline depends to a large extent on what that species is.

Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and can look less impressive once out of the water.
Newts usually move on land under the cover of darkness, and look far less impressive once out of the water.

In Britain I was fortunate enough to have great crested newts in my garden and know how difficult they are to find. Clearly the best time to move them successfully is when they have returned to the pond during the spring, although this species may remain in the water for extended periods throughout the year. There will however always be immature individuals not yet ready to visit the pond and these are always difficult to locate. Away from water newts are masters of hiding – on occasions I’ve found great cresteds a foot down under soil and one perfectly healthy individual was discovered living five feet down a drain. Even when captive in a tank of moss and soil newts are difficult to find and care must be taken to avoid physical damage when searching them out. In an expansive natural habitat locating every individual is impossible to achieve and the loss of a great many immatures will adversely affect the population in years to come. I know from experience that relocation works, but it should perhaps be regarded as a last resort rather than accepted as a matter of course. As a conservation  tool, it is simply better than doing nothing at all.

The presence of a wild animal should on occasions be enough to keep an environment intact and perhaps we shouldn’t move into every location available to us, just because we feel the need to expand – there is a strange arrogance in thinking that the whole planet is there for us to colonies and trash as we please. Great crested newts are just one small part of a complex natural ecosystem and the idea that we should move them or their environment any time that suits us is flawed. Creating habitats for plant and animal populations to expand into can work very well, but moving the complxity of the natural world around like some giant game of musical chairs lacks forethought – ultimately the only species left with a seat might be us and our attendant parasites, thus limiting the sort of games we might be left to play in future.

A salamander in the wrong place. This axolotl was found by my friend Chris Balcombe in a pond in the New Forest. Southern England. It would be more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don't always get a choice. This species remains in the larval form and can reproduce successfully without ever growing up. This one was very healthy, very big and steadily eating its way through all of the native species and their offspring until it was removed from the pond.
Extreme cases of relocation can be a problem even when it concerns only a single animal. This axolotl was found in a New Forest pond in Southern England by my friend Chris Balcombe; it probably would have felt more at home in a cave in Mexico, but pets that get dumped don’t always have a choice. Axolotls can remain in their larval form and still reproduce successfully. This one was big and healthy, and until it was removed, steadily eating its way through much of the ponds native fauna.

It may be that great crested newts are not endangered to the point of extinction in Britain, but there can be no arguing that along with their ponds and surrounding habitat this species has been in steady decline for decades.

The common response, ‘It is happening everywhere. What can you do?’  won’t solve the problem, and neither will our expansion into every natural space that is available. It isn’t in our longterm best interest, let alone the many other species we are pushing out as we do so. In many cases we are simply following the money, and then building arguments to justify our actions – ultimately another generation will have to face the consequences, because we did not tread lightly and leave things as we found them. 

It is of course ridiculous to think that we can save every newt or salamander from disturbance, but at the very least it makes sense to move beyond the point where we regard protecting other species as a benevolent eccentricity. So, if you uncover something as seemingly insignificant as a newt, or other small creature that you’ve never seen before, then record the time and the place, and always take a photograph to dispel doubt in others. Be proactive –  take a picture and maybe in some small way you might help save the planet, even if only by increasing awareness in others.

All the underwater photographs above were taken in tanks using natural light. Please be aware that permits may we required to keep some amphibians in captivity and this should not be attempted without a full understaning of lifestyles requirements.

Dedicated to eight year old Nolan Gagnon who recently donated his birthday money to ‘The Burns Bog Conservation Foundation’. This 3,000 hectare bog is recognised as the largest raised peat bog remaining on the west coast of North America and one of the last major undeveloped natural habitats in lower mainland B.C.. The bog’s survival is down to the persistence and hard work of local people and needless to say, is busy with salamanders and other amphibians which are the key indicators to the health of life on planet Earth.

 

 

 

 

Between the Tides – Walking Across Water.

 ‘How’s Southampton Pier’ I asked my father on the phone today.  ‘Mostly boarded up.’ he said, ‘and I miss it… I used to enjoy going down there and playing in the penny arcade.’ I presume he meant when he was a child, because I couldn’t imagine him doing that today. Maybe it’s genetic; my son would have done exactly the same  – he’s into arcade games, although now they are electronic and rather more sophisticated.

This interest must have skipped a generation because when I was a child I hated them. Like fairgrounds these were grubby places and I didn’t want to touch the machines let alone play on them. I hated everything about a decrepit British seaside town and at top of the list was the scruffy Victorian pier.

Others were making better use than I was of rusting piers.
Others sometimes make better use of old rusting piers than I do .

In the 1950s a pier visit was a common Sunday afternoon outing and for me it was a bit of a downer  – there would be couples promenading along the decking – men in gabardine macs with women at their sides clutching their coats to their throats as the wind tried to blow them into the sea whilst rain threatened  from the leaden sky above. Older people too frail to face the conditions sat on seats protected by glazed windbreaks on every side but the front, and dozed or peered out to sea as they waited for a change in the weather so they could get home for their tea.

Once you were at the end of the pier there was the reward of watching a group of  fishermen quietly standing with their thick rods lent against the rail. And on the way back those terrible arcades would be rattling away as pennies entered slots, or mechanically flicked ballbearings whizzed around a curved metal track before they ran out of energy and dropped towards a central row of reward slots where they would bounce for a while before dropping again to the gloom of the no win hole. It was so depressing. Most visitors would have paid to get onto the pier and now some machine was eating their money… The long walk back would be wet, windy and miserable. and this was supposed to be fun!

No fun for cormorants though - just a great place to rest up after a busy day's fishing.
No fun for cormorants either – just a great place to rest up after a busy day’s fishing.

But let’s be fair this was the 1950s –  a time when many adults were still traumatised by a war that had ended years earlier; buttoned up with no idea of how to enjoy themselves they came to the pier to break the monotony of everyday life only to discover that their leisure time was no less monotonous than the rest of their existence. The main thing was to keep smiling… to just get out there and make the best of things – above all else you were supposed to stay cheerful in the face of insurmountable dullness.  I didn’t know it then, but I was just  waiting for the 1960s to arrive, and that didn’t happen in Britain until 1963.

I enjoy looking through old black and white photogaph albums, and usually it isn’t long before you come aross a picture of a pier. Back then they even put piers on postcards – an unintentional warning that at the seaside this was about as interesting as things were going to get?

This is a card from Margate. In the foreground is The Winter Gardens, Cliftonville. Postmarked 1959, the sender says, 'There was so much to do, we didn't know what to do next - just been to see underwater diving'. Which sounds odly impossible, but maybe I'm being too literal.
This card is from Margate and in the foreground is The Winter Gardens, Cliftonville. Postmarked 1959, the sender says, ‘There was so much to do, we didn’t know what to do next – just been to see underwater diving’. Which sounds oddly impossible, but maybe I’m being too literal.

So, what’s the up side?  Well, perhaps we should consider the seaside pier as the most ingenious method that our species has contrived to invade the tidal zone. Maybe you have to think beyond all the fun and just consider these giants as magnificent achievements of heavy engineering – like somebody taking the Eiffel Tower and laying it on its side – then pushing it out to sea – would it make the structure any less extraordinary? O.K. it was a nice try, but I’m not convinced either.

It all started in 1814 when the first pleasure pier opened at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, but promenading wouldn’t reach its heyday for another fifty years when in the mid to late Victorian era piers become fashionable places to walk rather than just somewhere to park a boat in deeper water. Leisure time had just been invented and initially pier activities were a peculiarly British thing. There is nowhere in Britain that is far from the coast; it was as if Victorian engineers felt obliged to do something interesting along the island’s coastline, allowing promenaders to defy reality, caught as they were in this magical world between the land and the sea – try it on a foggy day and you’ll know what I mean. But this notion would wane during the 20th Century as the thrill of walking along a pier became progressively degraded by familiarity, to the point where in the end it became just another trip down the uneven boards to candyfloss-land.

My childhood caught the seedy end of this mundane amusement at around the same time as many of the grand old Victorian structures started falling into the sea. About fifty-five cast iron piers are all that remain standing now and many of these are in poor repair, a far cry from the time when there were more than a hundred such structures dotted around Britain’s coastline, and no seaside town worth its salt was complete without one.

When you consider that the cast iron super-structure of a Victorian pier has spent half of the last 100 to 150 years under sea water and has withstood the pounding of northern coastal sea conditions it is a wonder that any remain standing and certainly those that remain are a tribute Victorian engineering .
The cast iron super-structure of any Victorian pier will have spent half of its life under the sea and taken a constant pounding from brutal sea conditions; it is a wonder that any remain standing at all and those that still do are testimony to the durability of Victorian engineering.

During my childhood I would go with my parents to see summer shows in theatres at the ends of piers, which for a small boy was a pleasantly unsophisticated entertainment. We often visited Bournemouth Pier which was close to home, and this one at least, is still going strong. 

Vaudeville though is dead, as are many of the piers that kept it alive. A few  have been restored and weathered the storm of social change, but many others have simply rusted away and fallen into the sea. Film director Ken Russell symbolically brought a well publised finale to ‘the end of the pier’ era when Southsea’s South Parade Pier caught fire during the making the rock opera film ‘Tommy’. The blaze could be seen for miles down the coast, and for me this seemed a fitting end to these old fashioned monsters that belonged to a bygone era.

But this was by no means the first time that South Parade Pier has been in flames – it has happened on several occasions – most notably in 1904 when it was completely destroyed and was then rebuilt. Fire is a hazard that has plagued many old piers over the years, and a cynic might suggest that this is another good reason to avoid them. 

If a pier goes up in flames you are at least close to water, but with everybody heading in the same direction over timber decking I'm thinking I really don't need to be there.
Getting stuck tens of feet up out of water when a pier goes up in flames with everybody heading in the same direction over old timber decking is not my idea of a fun outing, but maybe that’s just me.

Graham Green features Brighton Pier in his novel ‘Brighton Rock': the book is set in the run down seediness of 1930s Brighton, and is very much in line with the way I viewed them during my early childhood in the 1950s. There were once two piers on the front, only one of which remains.  Iron, salt water and oxygen are not a good mix unless rust is regarded as a great success and this may be the case for those with an appreciation of patina, but there is a certain point beyond which this appeal is lost to structural engineers, and with this in mind it is little wonder that so may Victorian Piers have been lost to the sea.

Brighton is about 70 miles east of Southampton 

and in 1980 it took about two hours to get there when one Sunday afternoon I drove a girlfriend out along the coastal road to see something that back then passed for an interesting day out. It was the Athina-B, a 3,500 ton merchant ship that had been driven onto the shore by gale force winds. Left high and dry on Brighton’s shingle beach, it narrowly missed taking out the Palace Pier as waves just carried it past during a storm.

A near miss for the Palace Pier. The Athena-B left high and dry on Brighton beach.
A near miss for the Palace Pier. The Athena-B left high and dry on Brighton beach. Where the land meets the sea there is always a greater appreciation of the force  of nature.

When a boat like this ends up on a beach it is impossible to disregard the dangers that can so easily come to the tidal zone. If a vessel this size breaks up and releases oil it would be a disaster, but nothing in comparison to the devastation that might occur if an oil taker did something similar. Considering the number of oil tankers carrying crude oil around the world on the high seas at any one time, it is remarkable how few spills there have been.

Going to see one of Brighton's leading tourist attractions, the Athena-B for the month it remained on the beach before it was towed away for salvage.
Many people went to see one of Brighton’s leading tourist attractions, the Athena-B, for the month it remained on the beach before the vessel was towed away for salvage.

If you’ve ever walked down an old pier during a storm then you’ll have gained a better understanding of the power of the sea, even at low tide this remains the most ferocious strip of the natural world that most of us are ever likely to walk across. Without a pier we simply couldn’t exist in such a place, and that’s great for nature… because with or without a pier, it mostly can.

The Palace Pier Brighton on one of those rough days when I didn't want to be on it.
The Palace Pier Brighton on one of those rough days when you wouldn’t want to be at the end of it, especially in the early 1980s when this picture was taken, because ‘the end’ wasn’t there. The Palace pier is now known as Brighton Pier and in far better condition than it was back then. 

I recently visited Santa Monica Pier with my wife and daughter, which might seem a world away from Britain’s Victorian piers – in reality as the crow flies it is about one fifth of the world away – and there are surprising similarities. Age for a start; Santa Monica’s is more than a hundred years old and it certainly looks its age, but I prefer it to any of the British piers that I am more familiar with, and this probably has a lot to do with the L.A. climate. People always moan about the weather in the U.K., but really it isn’t so bad until you try walking down a long pier in really bad weather. The other thing is atmosphere and Sanata Monica Pier has that in spades – it is a far cry from anything I remember from the British piers of my youth, and it just seems a far more comfortable place to be amused.

Santa Monica Pier si essentially two piers joined together - the long narrow Municipal pier was built originally for the sole purpose of getting sewage out beyond the breakers - there were no amenities to go down and look at which under the circumstance is hardly surprising.
Santa Monica Pier is essentially two piers joined together. 

The pier was once just a long narrow Municipal pier that was built in 1909 for the sole purpose of getting sewage out beyond the breakers – there were no amenities to go and see back then, which under the circumstance seems hardly surprising.

The adjoining pleasure pier is the reason most people take a walk down the old wooden boards today and on a Saturday evening things are very busy – there are cafes and other attractions, and the most popular of all is Pacific Park. 

Pacific Park with it's ferris wheel and rides is a major attraction.
Pacific Park with it’s brightly lit ferris wheel, carousel and other rides draws you in after dark.

It is perhaps surprising to find the pier still standing because over the years it has had to weather more than just the Pacific breakers: threatened during the 1930s by lack of use during the depression it almost went the way of many other failing concerns but managed to survive. Demolition seemed likely on a number of occasions and a couple of major storms during the 1980s, took a terrible toll, but local enthusiasm and funding have enabled essential renovations to keep the old structure going. To an outsider it is unimaginable that Santa Monica could exist without its famous pier.

My daughter flashes by on the West Coaster (roller coaster) ride.
My daughter flashes by on the West Coaster – an exuberant roller coaster ride.

Nearby, Hollywood has added to the mystique by featuring this old and well loved structure in an ‘awful lot of movies’… or should that be ‘a lot of awful movies’. On balance, the first description is the fairest. In the real world this pier has a laid back west coast charm that you won’t find anywhere else, although when we visited on the evening of the 7th November 2016 a UFO appeared in the sky not long after sunset and almost everybody looked up to see it. Later, we discovered that an unarmed nuclear missile had been tested along the L.A. costline, fired from a navy submarine. What a shame… the story was so much more interesting when there was a chance that E.T. was making a return visit to Hollywood. 

This was a quickly grabbed rather hopeful picture, the two bright lights are an anomaly of the exposure time, the missile is above them with the busy green trail moving left to right.
This was a grabbed and rather hopeful picture – the two bright lights are an anomaly of the exposure time. The missile is fainter and above the lights moving from left to right with a bluish green trail.

It is practical piers that work best for me – 

like this one just a stone’s throw from my fathers home in Hythe. The piers main function is to get pedestrians out to deeper water so that they can take a ferry across Southampton Water to the City.

I once fished off of Hythe Pier as a child - you can't do that any more. What I like most is it's unsophisticated functionality. There are no bells and whistles... but there is a train.
I once fished off of Hythe Pier as a child – but you can’t do that any more. What I like most is the unsophisticated functionality of the structure. There are no bells or whistles… but there is a train.

 

And here is a compartment of that train. The doors close, but rattle open as you go along - I just love it.
The trains compartments are adequate for the short journey too and from the end of the pier. The doors close, but rattle open as you go along – it is wonderfully practical, yet quite unsophisticated… I love it. 

The nearest pier to where I live now is in the city of White Rock on B.C.’s Lower Mainland. The word ‘city’ is stretching it a bit though because this is a pleasant seaside town and one that is easy to find – just head south down the B.C. coastline, and when you find yourself at the U. S border – you’ve gone too far. White Rock is as far south as you can go in Canada if all you want to do is promenade along a traditional old pier – and this one is a good one. The shore doesn’t run out over a classic sandy beach, although there is certainly enough here to build a sandcastle. The tidal region is a bit weedy and that’s fine, but you need to cross a railway line to get onto both the beach and the pier.

There are no attractions at the end of this pier other than those provided by nature.
There are no attractions at the end of White Rock pier other than those provided by nature.

The advantage of this pier is that it is a great base from which to observe wildlife:

effectively you can walk across the tidal zone and look down from above as the shoreline changes across its full range.

A gull takes on the remains of a crab in the tidal area - the view maybe an observation from above, but you can see what is going on very successfully, at ground level you probably wouldn't get this close.
A gull takes on the remains of a crab low in the tidal area – from a pier the view is always going to be from above, but at least you can easily see what is going on, and without the pier it might not be so easy to get a close up without a telephoto lens.

I have watched salmon pass under White Rock pier as they make for one of the many inlets along the coastline to swim up river and spawn; and I recently tried  to get a close-up of a  seal – it watched me for a while, then dived and moved parallel to the pier before passing under the structure some 20 metres from where I was standing, so I missed the shot. But sometimes you get lucky and find yourself closer to animals than you might expect; and you are standing on a more stable platform than a boat can provide. A pier is then an ideal place for taking pictures, although you sometimes have to wait for walkers to pass to minimize the bounce of the boardwalk, especially if you are making a long exposure.

These Otters were photographed at another B.C. location, but it demonstrates how close it is possible to get using a pier as a viewing platform - this taken on a standard happy snappy without a   telephoto lens.
These river otters were photographed at another B.C. coastal location, and demonstrates how close it is possible to get to wildlife when a pier is used as a viewing platform – this image was captured on a standard happy snappy without a telephoto lens.

When I first arrived in B.C. six years ago I would regularly photograph the many purple ochre stars that lived in the tidal zone – you are not supposed to call them starfish any more, presumably so as not to confuse the sort of person who might think a sea horse could win a race.

Purple ochre stars on rocks at the end of the pier.
Purple ochre stars on rocks at the end of the pier.

When I visited the pier in late 2013 the stars had all gone. I asked several locals if they knew why, but surprisingly few had even noticed their disappearance. Many animal populations fluctuate in cycles that run over several years; usually this is part of a war game played out between predators and their prey, and these strategies can sometimes take millions of years to refine. But the sudden disappearance of the stars seemed rather more ominous and might instead be related to increasing water temperatures, pollution, or a combination of other factors induced by human activity. The truth is nobody really knows, and that’s a real worry.

At the end of the pier the water doesn't drop to the shore for very long tide and here is a proliferation of plants and animals living on the structure o=f the pier - which includes the purple stars.
At the end of the pier the water doesn’t drop to shore level for very long, and there is a proliferation of plants and animals living on the supporting structures which includes purple ochre stars (massed together left and right).

The disappearance has occured over a wide area, but the sea is a vast interconnected environment and hopefully recolonization will happen at sometime in the near future because population crashes of this kind have happened before – there are however still no purple ochre stars to be seen at the time of posting this article in March 2016. 

A beautiful and healthy purple star photographed in early October 2013 before they creatures began disintegrating into a pulpy mess.
A beautiful and healthy purple ochre star photographed in early October 2013 before the creatures began disintegrating into gelatinous blobs.

This disappearance of the purple ochre stars is a good example of how taking a picture can provide precise information about a species before a sudden and unexpected decline. Not many people bother to photograph everything around them on the off chance one image might be useful, but there are enough people taking pictures now, that between us we are unwittingly capturing important changes in the natural world, and if the ‘when’ and ‘where’ are verifiably recorded these pictures could in future provide useful scientific information. Sometimes it is as if we are photographing a crime scene without really knowing that we are doing so – just like photographing the purple ochre stars when I had no idea that they were about to quite literally start falling apart.

Piers add an extra dimension to any beach, they even provide shade which is rare in the tidal zone.
Piers add an extra dimension to a beach, they even provide shade rarely found in the tidal zone.

Wouldn’t it be great if we threw away our selfie sticks and instead become more engaged with photographing our rapidly changing world. Not everything is about us, and  perhaps we should take fewer pictures of our favourite subject and more of what nature has to offer. In future such visual records might in some small way help save the planet, even if most of the time, all we end up with, is an interesting  picture of some little creature living at the end of the pier.

 

 

 

 

Between the Tides – Photographing Waders.

 It is the first afternoon of 2016 and I’m standing in the tidal zone of a very beautiful place – Boundary Bay, which sits on the border between Canada and the United States on the north western coastline of North America. The bay  extends into both countries – geology doesn’t care about our version of the World – or it didn’t the other evening when a magnitude 4.2 earth tremour spilled piles of books and pictures across my home office floor.

There is something very special about the tidal zone, it is one of only a few natural environments that our species has trouble residing in; and where we think this absolutely necessary we will dump huge amounts of concrete onto the foreshore and re-inforce any structure against the power of the sea. In simple terms, it is difficult to live in tidal areas on the cheap. Often we will build at the top of the beach, or on the cliffs above, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. These are environments that are ever-changing and more often than not, best left to nature.

Looking West from Blacking Chine on the Isle of Wight where landslips are occurring - a combination of geology and water content in the cliff is dumping the cliff into the tidal zone.
Looking west from Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight. England, where landslips occur regularly – a combination of sedimentary faults and water in the cliff cause the frequent dumping of whole sections of the coastline into the tidal zone.

We commonly pollute such places, often in the hope that the sea will just wash it all away – which it usually does… but then the mess just shows up somewhere else, unless it is chemical waste (run off from agricultural areas for example), in which case we may not even see it. For as long as I can remember, natural places seem almost incomplete without a lump of polystyrene, a collection of plastic bags and maybe an old fridge – or that’s what you’d think if you suddenly arrived here from Mars.

When I lived in Southern England we knew exactly where to dump our rubbish because local councils made a lawn and planted daffodils as a sign of loveliness, while anything that looked the least bit natural appeared to be giving a clear signal that dumping was O.K., or at least that’s the way many places in Britain were beginning to look when I left in 2002. Hopefully things are changing.

ture dump in paradise - this close by a beach cafe in a remote region of Mexico.
A nature dump in paradise – this one close by a beach cafe in a remote region of Mexico. Even the most beautiful birds can be effetive scavengers, cleaning up potentially unhealthy organic waste.

When in Malaysia in the early 1980s I decided to spend a night on a desert island with only the bare essentials – in those days a girlfriend, a box of matches, a bottle of water, and a camera (top of the list was always chocolate, but in the tropics this just melts). The boatman considered it essential to take us to one tidal zone in particular to see houses on stilts; and I’d like to think this the exception that proves the rule – ‘you really can’t build in such places on the cheap’, but I’ve seen low tech accomodation like this elsewhere, and when a big storm arrives, this becomes a very temporary form of housing; between the tides really isn’t the best place for us to undertake longterm living.

As I was writing about the difficulties of living in the tidal zone, it came to mind that I'd previously photographed this activity in I
As I was writing about the difficulties of living in the tidal zone, it came to mind that I’d previously photographed this activity in Malaysia.

 Back to the present and I’m enjoying beautiful British Columbia as I stand on Crescent Beach. My wife is taking a walk along the coastal path, which gives me less than an hour to grab a few pictures of birds feeding on a rising tide before she returns. The problem is, this is a sunny New Year’s Day and the whole place is remininiscent of a bubbling ants nest of activity – there are people just about everywhere, but despite this I’m seeing lots of birds and that’s a surprise.

The birds here seem to have a certain indifference to people, possibly because of the pay off – there’s plenty of food – and I don’t mean chips and leftover sandwiches –  a great deal of naturally available food is on offer and I think there are good reasons for this.

The tidal area is fairly quiet whilst up on the path people are promenading and there is even a dog meet. It is however still fairly busy on the beach, with children running about and the birds, for the most part,  are happily feeding.
The tidal area isn’t too busy, but up on the path people are promenading along the front like it’s 1874, but without the crinolines and sun umbrellas; there’s even a dog meet in progress. Fewer people are on the beach, but most are active, in particular children running about. Despite this birds are present in numbers and happily feeding.

It is common in Southern B.C. to see warnings about collecting shellfish from coastal areas, although some people continue to do so illegally,  Lower Mainland beaches haven’t been over harvested, not because anybody is worried about the birds getting enough to eat, but because there has been a ban on harvesting shellfish in the region for more than 40 years. Local waters are contaminated with bacteria from human and animal sewage, and there is also an assortment of toxins from motor oil, pesticides and fertilisers. This is a real concern –  if you fancy a dose of salmonella or hepatitis, eating shellfish from this area should go right to the top of your ‘to do’ list. Essentially we don’t eat what the sea has on offer here for one very good reason… it might kill us. The birds however can’t read the warning signs and feast on shellfish and other small creatures that are readily available in the tidal zone because we leave them alone.

There is no shortage of molluscs for the gulls to break into, this bird has been flying thirty feet up into the air and dropping closed shells to smash them before coming down dropping down to extract the exposed contents.
There is no shortage of molluscs for the gulls to break into, this bird has been flying thirty feet into the air and dropping tightly closed shells in order to smash them before coming down to extract the exposed contents.

And it isn’t just the Lower Mainland, there are many areas along the B.C. coastline with restrictions on shellfish harvesting.

 

The Greater Vancouver area has been closed to the harvesting of all shellfish since 1970. How can that be? This is beautiful British Columbia. Surely I must be mistaken.
The Greater Vancouver area has been closed to the harvesting of all shellfish since 1970. How can that be? This is beautiful British Columbia. Surely I must be mistaken.

This was the first of many warning signs dotted along the coast that I noticed after moving to the region nearly six years ago, it was on a beach close to Victoria (the capital of British Colombia) which is located on Vancouver Island. This warning was a real surprise – I naively thought that this place couldn’t be anything other than pristine… An important city where government sits that doesn’t have sewage treatment seemed very unlikely to me, especially because the province trades on its natural beauty – I mean it’s written on our number plates.

The City’s dumping of raw sewage and the run off from pesticides into the sea without appropriate treatment isn’t something that most locals go on about, but one of them did… and to me. Well, obviously this fool was mistaken. I mean who in their right mind would allow that to happen in one of the most impressive natural environments on Earth? After all, this isn’t a ‘developing’ or what we used to call a ‘third world’ country – this is Canada, and that really couldn’t happen here?

Earlier, during a warm summer there were hardly any people swimming here - even in the cordoned off swimming zone and there were birds along the tideline.
Earlier, during a warm summer there were hardly any people in the sea off Crescent Beach – even in the cordoned off swimming area, while birds were obvious along the tideline.

During the warm summer of 2015 there were also warning notices posted around the Bay about ‘swimmers itch’. This condition is due to the presence of parasitic schistosomes concentrated in the water which is a nuisance to bathers. In the tropics there is another more dangerous form ‘schistosomiasis’ or ‘bilharzia’which is a serious threat to people, but the tiny parasites that occurs here are little more than a nuisance. When the weather is hot their numbers increase and they burrow into the skin of seabirds (their natural host). When they burrow into the skin of humans (the wrong host), they die but will sometimes cause irritation – an itching of the skin. People are therefore disinclined to go into the water during the summer months and in winter, when the water is clear, it is just too cold to bother. The presence of this parasite is another factor in reducing human disturbance to shore birds and they have quickly taken advantage of the situation.

A combination of food availability and less disturbance provides a more user-friendly if not cleaner environment for marine birds in this otherwise developing area. The tidal zone has become at least one natural environment where wildlife and humans live in close proximity without disastrous consequences, and that at least is encouraging.

A juvenile yellow legs walks towards the camera, when birds re disturbed by photographers often they are pictured moving away.
A juvenile greater yellow legs walks confidently towards the camera. If birds are disturbed by photographers they are often pictured walking hesitantly away.

When I was younger my earliest attempts at filming waders was from a toilet tent staked out above the water line in the tidal zone. I’d rig it before the birds arrived and then get in and wait for the water to rise. This would provide about 20 minutes of  ‘waders feeding closely’ time on the incoming tide without the birds being aware of my presence; then as I got flooded out – there would be a slight disturbance as I moved my gear out and saved the tent from the waves, but my retreat was only a brief inconvenience and the birds would soon return to feed.

I later graduated to a hide or blind as it is sometimes called, but I always thought the waterproofing of the toilet tent gave it the edge, even though if it returned to its original use, I’d cut holes in inconvenient places. I once spent several days filming from a floating hide in Cornwall, a one off metal construction that had been made and positioned way down into the tidal zone, but once in place there was no possibility of getting out until the tide had run a full cycle and you’d have to sit it out, no matter the weather, until the water receded.

A western-crowned sandpiper on a beach in the West Indies. I do my best naming waders, but some are so similar and can be found in so many different places I often need help.
I do my best at naming waders, but just like warblers the similarities between species can be overwhelming and many waders have a wide geographical range. This western sandpiper photographed on a beach in the West Indies might just as easily have been photographed in California or coastal regions of Central and South America, and I might also have expected to have seen it today.

My preferred choice is not to use a hide at all but rather to repeatedly return to an area, wearing similar clothes and a hat which usually singles me out from other people. I wear nothing camouflaged as I am not overtly hiding and hang out at a distance until the local birds begin to ignore me; usually I allow them to approach me rather than the other way around. This is a good technique for many animals, but there are always some that it is impossible to get close to without a hide. Some species of birds (on the nest) will desert their eggs or offspring with very little provocation and it is wise to be careful when videoing or photographing any creature and adhere to any legal requirements. Professional photographers on a tight schedule will often hide away in a tent because the stand and wait technique in full view can require a lot of time and patience, although in busy public places where the passage of people is constant the opposite may also be the case.

Photographing waders in particular, by standing out in the open can be very tricky because they live in open environments – just standing next to a bush can make a difference, but there is no chance of that out on a beach and most birds will avoid coming too close if you are an unfamiliar form, or if they have previously been shot at – long lenses and guns have a certain similarity, although most birds can tell the difference. Certainly none of the birds are twitchy today, nothing is bothering them – there is plenty of food to be had and they are just getting on with it. 

These birds I initially thought were Western sandpiper, but more likely they are dunlin. These have flown in to feed quite close to me. I remain in one place about thirty feet away and their indifference to me is encourging.
Initially I thought these birds were western sandpiper, but more likely they are dunlin – they have flown in to feed quite close to me. I remain in place at about thirty feet and their indifference is encouraging.

The most interesting thing is that I can see what they are eating – a variety of small invertebrates, the one on the left has a little crab in its beak; a camera often allows you to catch what you might otherwise miss during a rapid capture, manipulate and swallow. Presently, there are many hundreds of dunlin feeding here in discreet flocks, sometimes as few as a dozen but in many cases in far greater numbers. Across the whole bay area there will be many thousands of dunlin overwintering or passing through.

The great thing about these little waders is that despite their numbers most people don't notice them unless they are disturbed and fly.
The great thing about these little waders is that despite their numbers most people don’t notice them unless they are disturbed into flight

These birds are really well camouflaged once they are amongst the rocks, with heads down their curved backs and disruptive colouration give the impression (from a distance), that they are just part of the shoreline.

The biggest problem I usually have when working with waders is dog walkers – the ones who permanently have their dogs off of the lead. They know their dog won’t harm the birds, but forget that every five minutes there will be another enthusiastic dog charging into the water. Taking flight is one of the most efficient burners of energy that a bird can undertake and that’s really bad news on a cold day – essentially waders are feeding through small windows of opportunity usually on a rising tide, taking advantage of prey emerging from places of hiding as water flows around them. The birds need to use their time efficiently and being chased by dogs isn’t very helpful. 

A minor disturbance puts these waders to flight, but they are soon feeding again fifty metres along the shoreline, but continued disturbance can be life threatening.
A minor disturbance puts these waders to flight, but they are soon feeding again fifty metres along the shoreline, nevertheless repeated relocation can be a life threatening activity during cold weather. 

If we more easily recognised the feeding regimes that waders are programmed to use and acted accordingly, these birds might be even more tolerant of our presence. We are no longer completely wrapped up in the primitive mindset of can we eat it and how should we cook it?  Many of us just like watching birds. Prior to the mid-20th Century, natural science was primarily concerned with the collection and identification of specimens – certainly a necessary phase in our understanding, and then ecology, conservation and animal behaviour were in their infancy.  There is no doubt that we have come a long way in a very short space of time. Sadly, the main threat to wildlife today lies in our increasing numbers, this causes problems that range from pollution to habitat destruction with human disturbance the predominant feature along coastlines. 

Common goldeneye passing through as the tide comes in.
Common goldeneye passing through as the tide comes in.

Today however is an exceptional day – most people have their dogs under control and none of the children are actively chasing the birds, which is mostly how it is in Canada where people are defined by their considerate and tolerant natures. Ignorance is always the enemy and it takes only a small percentage of people not thinking straight to cause unnecessary disturbance to wildlife.

What a beautifully still and sunny afternoon the first day of January 2016 provided for photographing the waders on this agreeable stretch of coastline and a good deal easier than my woodland woes of yesterday (see previous post – Into the Woods). Every outing into the natural world is different and that’s what keeps it interesting. The more you learn, the more you discover there is to learn; and once in a while you discover things that make it difficult to remain upbeat and optimistic.

A merganser - one of perhaps a dozen, moving down this beautiful coastline as the sun sets.
A merganser – one of perhaps a dozen, moving down this beautiful coastline as the sun is setting.

In the act of taking a picture you become witness to future change, and if at some stage southern British Columbia cleans up its act and people once again harvest the tidal zone and re-set the ecological balance, it would be ironic if this ended up as just another way of competing with the birds.

With thanks to John Gordon and Chris Packham for advice on bird identification, although if mistakes have been made they are entirely my own, and neither John nor Chris can they be held responsible for the views expressed above.

Their Websites:

www.johngordonphotography.com/

 www.chrispackham.co.uk/


 

Into the Woods – Wildlife Photography as a Surrealist Nightmare.

In Search of the Varied Thrush.

The varied thrush is not a rare bird where I live on the Lower Mainland. B.C.. Usually it overwinters in lowland forest and scrubland, but with ever increasing urbanisation many of its natural habitats are disappearing. Worldwide, woodland birds are under pressure as our numbers continue to rise and many natural areas are given over to agriculture, industry and housing.

Once, when a student, I went for a jog in Central London. Setting out from my hall of residence in South Kensington at 5.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon I ran diagonally across Hyde Park to Marble Arch and back. It took a while, and on returning I lay on my bed for several hours wondering if I might be dying… I was 21 and my condition wasn’t down to over exertion, it was carbon monoxide poising, along with an unhealthy cocktail of other exhaust pollutants which then included lead. In those days, running in a town or city was a death wish… and probably, it still is.

If you Jog across Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture 'Physical Energy'. Whatever the rider is looking at, he's been doing it since 1907 and won't have seen great changes apart from the trees growing. It is then odd and a little worrying that the wilder the surroundings I have lived in the greater the changes to my surroundings I have seen during my lifetime.
Crossing Hyde Park, it is difficult to miss the George Frederic Watts sculpture ‘Physical Energy’. Whatever the rider is looking at, he’s been doing it since 1907 and won’t have noticed a lot of change over the years, apart from trees growing. It is disconcerting that outside of city parks so many natural areas have disappeared in my lifetime.

I remember a time when only sporty people in training went for a jog. Ask my father when he last voluntarily ran and he’d look at you as if you were crazy. Working a sedentary office job for most of his life he didn’t even do walking for exercise, unless there was a ’99’ at the end of it –  that, if I remember correctly is a cone of soft ice-cream with a chocolate flake shoved into it.

My father is now 93, has always been active, but has never ‘run for fun’, and remains in reasonable health for his age. Without the hook of an exercise induced endorphin rush, he’s managed to hang onto his own hips and knees, which is more than can be said for a great many of old joggers.

And that’s what I’m seeing today – lots of joggers of all ages, shapes and sizes as I walk through the urban reserve in search of varied thrushes, for no better reason than they are beautiful. I’d prefer to do this in wilderness, but that’s a good hour away. I live in suburbia now, and visiting a local reserve is altogether more practical. Nevertheless, this will be my worst day photographing wildlife for a very long time – it appears a group of people have met up in the car park to organize a major surrealist experience for me… but I don’t know that yet.

I watch a woman jog by; she’s wearing the sort of clothes that others sport if they want to look smart when out shopping, except few will wheeze like she does even walking through a mall let alone running. Well, I say running…  if I left the camera I could walk three times faster, and possibly backwards. Like the frog that halves it’s distance with every jump across the path, logic suggests that given infinite time, this woman will never make it back to the car park.

I’m not complaining you understand, this is after all a public place – so what can you expect…More importantly, what might you hope for – fewer dogs perhaps. I think back to my childhood, to a time when dogs jumped over garden gates to exercise themselves, usually inappropriately, as without supervision they invariably get into mischief. It is of course much better now that they are on leashes and accompanied by responsible owners. But when did this mass dog walking thing start? I’ve never seen so many. It’s two in the afternoon and suddenly finals day at Crufts.

Usually I wouldn’t mind, but after a long search I’ve found a small group of varied thrushes coming down from the trees to feed; they are on the opposite side of the path working around the base of a stump and sometimes feeding on top of it. I’m trying to get a few shots, but with the constant procession of people and pets, my chances have been fleeting.

There is for a moment a lull and it looks as if I might get something, then suddenly a coyote dashes though in the back of frame. Perhaps it’s the big one I saw this morning crossing a wetland on the boardwalk, the one that eyed me with complete indifference. But this ‘Wile E.’ is the wrong colour, and I soon recognize it as a big brown dog crashing through the undergrowth with considerable force. There is a flurry of activity as two squirrels dash past, and the back ends of three thrushes rapidly diminish in size as they missile away. Seconds later, the dog flashes past me as well, and he’s having the time of his life. Then his owner comes into view around a curve in the path.

‘Is that your dog? I ask, sounding indignant, which I do really well.

‘Yea it is, and he just loves those squirrels!’

I’m guessing he means in the same way that I love a prawn curry. As quickly as the dog and his man arrived they disappear and after a few minutes things settle down again – just like one of those few happy scenes in ‘Bambi’, the animals return to the space in front of where I am sitting.

Birds working for insects in the trees above like this chestnut-backed chickadee, are less bothered by all the fuss below them.
Birds working for insects in the trees above, like this chestnut-backed chickadee, seem less bothered by all the commotion going on below.

Just as I’m thinking that all is not lost… I realise I am mistaken… Another dog, this time a grey one, comes dashing around the corner and it looks like a pointer – the sort of dog that has most of its brain connected to its nose with not a lot left over for everything else; he’s moving at speed and co-ordination appears to be a problem; there’s never a time when this creature doesn’t look as if he is going to crash into something. Miraculously, the dog stays on its feet as he passes me, and fortunately there are no small children around to take out. Then, as quickly as his arrival, the creature has gone and the madness over… But no… he’s back and passing me again, this time in the opposite direction, and at breakneck speed only just re-takes the corner.

Thank goodness, it’s finally over… But hang on, it’s not… Like a bad case of deja vu, this doggy nightmare has returned to do it all over again, but now with a  seven foot chunk of tree in his mouth. The strength of this animal’s neck is incredible – the branch is held at one end, with the rest barely touching the ground – and he’s still coming – which is troublesome.

The path is about five feet wide and if Muttley stays on course, both the tripod and camera will be toast. I can either grab the tripod or my camera bag… I opt for the tripod because most my money is on top of that. At the very last moment, as I prepare to jump into the undergrowth, the dog veers across to my left and into the woodland, sything everything in his path. It has been freezing cold for days, and up until now, the ferns have managed to withstand the onslaught of permanent frost, but they are no match for this new threat. Fern fronds and frost flakes flash and fall in the sharp light of a sun now dropping ever lower into the trees.

A winter visitor the varied thrush is the bird I have really come to photograph.
A winter visitor in lowland forest, the varied thrush is a real treat to see.

Not long after, as things quieten down again, a young woman rounds the bend.

‘Is that your dog?’… my words of indignation are now well practiced.

‘Yes, he’s mine’, she says with pride.

‘He should be on a lead. This is a conservation area.’

Is it? I didn’t know that.’

Shortly after, as she passes by, the young woman becomes embroiled in conversation with an older lady who is walking a dog in the opposite direction – the pointer is long gone, and the older lady offers friendly advice.

‘It is as well to have your dog on a leash’ here. she suggests, ‘The wardens were around yesterday and they take a dim view of dogs away from their owners.’

‘Missed it by a day’, I’m thinking. The irritation hasn’t subsided yet, and feel obliged to say,

‘I don’t mind your dog off of the lead so much as it being totally out of control’.

There’s no response to this, which at the very least, saves a lot of time.

Not all bad - a Christmas tree decorated in the forest is certainly in keeping with this odd afternoon
Not all bad – a decorated Christmas tree in the forest is in keeping with the oddness of the afternoon.

Earlier in the day I heard somebody ask a dog walker to put his dog on a lead because there were young children about. The request was accompanied by a please and the dog owner immediately complied. Not the sort of response I would get when living in Britain, where asking a dog owner to leash their dog was frequently greeted with a hostility more in keeping with an assault on their mother.

But this is Canada and most Canadians are relentlessly reasonable – in fact, they can wear you down with their reasonableness – but you can’t help but like them, although often, when out in the nature some will speak very loudly and you hear them coming a mile away, but I’m guessing that’s to scare the bears away, because it scares away just about everything else. When the voicesters eventually pass, invariably they apologise, presumably for being alive and too close to you, even though they have every right to be. I always feel bad about this, because nobody should be expected to have to deal with such nice people.

I really am running out of light now – as the sun drops things get increasingly cooler. I’ve been out all day, and can no longer touch the camera without shaking it. There’s still a little time though, so I take the obvious course and attach a flexible cable release.

The frost has been around for days - nothing thaws and the birds are suitably fluffed up - this song sparrow is't singing now - but if he makes it through to spring he will be.
The frost has been around for days – nothing thaws and the birds remain suitably fluffed up. This song sparrow isn’t singing now, but if he makes it through to the spring – he will do so then.

The thing is, the joggers, the dog walkers and me… we will all get to go home for our evening meal. But right now, the birds are on the brink of roosting and if they haven’t fuelled up adequately during the day, some will not see tomorrow’s sunrise. When you live in a centrally heated condo and have totally lost contact with the outside world, understanding the most obvious things about nature is a big ask. We simply lose awareness. It all looks so beautiful; the birds are all in fantastic condition, and that’s because, those that aren’t… are already dead.

I begin to feel as if this is my last chance with the thrushes. It seems odd that I should feel this so repeatedly. A nun goes by and she smiles as she says hello, and I’m thinking – now I’m in a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, but this is no man dressed up as a woman, she’s authentically normal and quietly reading something. I really want to know what it is, and strain my neck to see. I’m guessing it is a religious text, but hoping that it might be ‘Catcher in the Rye’. an altogether more appropriate read for this particular afternoon. Sadly, I will never know.

The Douglas Squirrel is a true native to the area and one of my favourites
The Douglas Squirrel is a true native of the area and a favourite of mine.

Then the reason I am here shows up. Or rather the husband of the reason I am here shows up; soon to be followed by the reason I am here. Just as I’m getting a good shot of the thrushes, a voice behind me says. It’s a tui isn’t it? because whatever I am doing appears totally inconsequential to the voice owner.

‘No!’ I say, but nothing follows, because I’m thinking that a tui is a bird that isn’t even on this continent. Much later I realise that he must be saying ‘Towee’, but not before my wife has worked this out and explained it to me.

Then his wife and I  say in unison: ‘It’s a thrush’.

Which is quite something, because as yet I still haven’t seen her.

A New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere more appropriately upside down, but in this case it's just coincidence. appropriate upside downto be a
The New Zealand Tui. A Brit. might consider a Southern Hemisphere bird more appropriate upside down, but in this case it really is coincidental. 

  

This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towee.
This is the local Southern B.C. spotted towhee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tall man of some age moves past me and what is most striking about him is that attached to his front is a harness and pulling at the harness is a dog. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world I am now living in I begin to wonder if this is the way that old people get around now. I’ve seen plenty of people dragged along by their dogs, but this is the most novel method of increasing mobility for the aged I’ve come across and wonder if it will catch on. I hope so, because presently the old gentleman is standing right in front of the camera.

Then his wife passes by and moves ahead of him, scattering peanuts and seed to either side of the track as she goes, which immediately reminds me of ‘The Sower’ – a picture by Jean Everett Millais. An artist who was born in the same place as I was – Southampton, England. Although at the time of writing I’m around 124 years younger than he is, which doesn’t seem unusual on a day when anything seems possible.

Sower and Seed by Millet reminds me of the woman casting peanuts and seeds as she walks along the path.
‘The Sower’ (a theme often repeated in art) by Jean Everett Millais, comes at once to mind. This wood engraving is sometimes confused with ‘The Sower’ by Jean Francois Millet which might be a more appropriate surname under the circumstances.

Once the couple have gone, the birds return and begin to feed more unpredictably in all of the places the woman has cast her nuts and seeds. I have been picking off shots through the afternoon as birds and squirrels come and go, essentially because they are finishing up the remains of her previous food drop, but now she has provided too many options for me to cover.

Feeding wild animals can be a problem. Knock up the grey squirrel population and they’ll be eating young birds in the nest come spring. It’s difficult to know what best to do. For much of the year feeding is unnecessary anyway, but without doubt, this activity gets more birds through the winter, especially in this very cold weather with all the human disturbance they have to endure, and with so little natural habitat left in the surrounding area. Present regulations no longer provide a completely sustainable environments for wildlife in suburban areas and how we conserve what remains is open to question. With well meaning people out feeding local ferrel cats, it is apparent that bird conservation is not top of the list for everybody. Some just have other priorities.

O.K. So I'm getting a few shots of the bird I came to photograph - this, with the more delicate plumage colours is a female varied thrush.
It hasn’t been easy, but to be fair I am getting a few shots of this lovely thrush –  a more delicate plumage colouration, indicates that this is a female.

There are now birds and squirrels all around me picking off the food that has been scattered – a last chance to feed before nightfall. With only a few minutes before the light goes altogether I set to my task with renewed enthusiasm – I just want to get a little more, but a group arrives and stands right in front of me as if they haven’t noticed my existence, even though I’m crouched almost at their feet. They have chosen to have a meeting, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but it’s a dog poo moment for me. Clearly this isn’t my afternoon.

‘Sorry,’  a girl has already said as she passed me on the path, at just about the same time as a lady from the approaching group of five recognised her. What are the chances of that eh? My lucky day!

‘Hey there! I know you. You’re Wendy… I nearly didn’t recognize you. You’ve really grown. Where are you now?’

I think I know the answer to this one, because it is written in big letters across her chest, but all I can see from my position is the end of a word and that spells GINA, which sets alarm bells ringing.

I’m at Regina’, says the girl.’

A university! Thank goodness for that, because people put the oddest things on t-shirts these days.

‘And what are you doing now.’

‘Running, I’m soccer training.’

I’ve lost interest in the birds by now and am thinking, ‘Wake up girl! … she doesn’t mean ‘RIGHT’ this minute’. ‘University education isn’t what it used to be’, thinks one of the older people – the old one that was me.

The conversation continues for two or three minutes, mostly at cross purposes and I’m still getting colder – which I didn’t think possible. I’ve lost the feeling in several of my fingers. Then everybody moves on and the birds return once again, but just as they do, a couple of lads come around the bend. One is swishing a stick at the fern fronds ahead of him (as if they haven’t had enough trouble today). The other boy is not so erratic in his movements, and seems calmed by something on a wooden support by the path – he’s completely transfixed by it, and kneels down to undertake the improbable task of unscrewing the object using only the palm of his left hand. What has happened is clear. I have been bombed by a group of special needs teenagers.

Am I allowed to say that this is really inconvenient? Even if really it isn’t. The circumstances just provide the impetus for me to say what my brain needs to hear. ‘I’m out of here’. It’s beyond cold now, the boys have done me a favour. It is almost dark as I pack up my gear. The lad with the stick has apparently dropped it and as I leave, is looking at something in the sky that doesn’t appear to be there. A bit like my whole afternoon to be honest.

As I wander off, the other boy is joined by a helper who is clearly trying to think of the best way to tell his care that trying to unscrew whatever it  is, is futile, but words fail him; instead he stands waiting for the boy to discover the inevitable for himself. There is something rather soothing about this – the carer smiles philosophically as I walk by – there is a lot to be said for waiting for things to take their natural course, but I for one, never seem to have the time. ‘Happy New Year’, I say as we pass.

Perhaps the nicest picture I managed of the varied thrush before I lost the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with this surrealist afternoon
This is perhaps the nicest picture of a varied thrush that I manage before losing the light, but nevertheless a third leg appears to have fallen onto the ground beneath the bird, which is entirely in keeping with a surrealist afternoon.

I’ve spent the best part of a day and a half,  frozen to the bone,  looking for thrushes, followed by an afternoon photographing them, and my success has been fleeting, but I’ve enjoyed being out there – any time with nature makes you feel more alive, even when you’re cold.

On this interesting afternoon all the ingredients were available for a perfect shot – the light was for a time quite beautiful and the birds were present. But in the end, fate conspired against me, although that’s an egocentric viewpoint that probably has no basis in reality.

In retrospect, this, the last day of 2015 has been the most surreal and interesting afternoon of the year for me, but when 2016 arrives… please… not another one quite like this.

N.B. Species diversity is the best measure of the health of our Planet and inevitably, that has consequences for us all. Human populations continue to expand in almost all inhabitable lowland areas of the world and nature reserves have an essential role to play in supporting wildlife, but increasingly, as our numbers increase, reserves are under pressure and it may be necessary to reconsider how much land we put aside to make the word ‘conserve’, meaningful. Presently, we do little more than congratulate ourselves for having reserves at all – in many cases these are multi-purpose and are sold to the public as amenity areas. In truth there are few politicians who have grasped the reality that sometimes you can’t conserve wildlife successfully in areas where people have other priorities – it only works if everybody understands what is required and behaves accordingly – a situation that politicians either can’t comprehend or simply don’t chose to. It would of course be different if birds had the vote – and in my parallel alternative surrealist world… they would.

The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being.
The preservation of our lowland forests is essential to our well being, but we need to look beyond that and ask whether we should do more than simply manage these areas for our own needs.

The truth is, we can do more or less whatever we like, providing we don’t reduce species diversity. In the end, whether a single species of bird continues to overwinter at a local reserve, wherever that might be, has far-reaching effects, because what happens radiates out in a three dimensional ball of environmental consequences. If wildlife is decreasing (and we know, broadly speaking, that it is) we must either provide more reserves, or limit our own longterm expansion. If we fail even common birds like the varied thrush, the results could be far reaching and make my surrealist nightmare of a day look like…  Well…  Just another walk in the park. 

Hawaii: Green Sea Turtles – a glimpse of life at the edge of the oceans.

As a child I was fascinated by a sea turtle’s shell that stood in the fireplace of my grandparents house during the summer months of the year to hide a coal-dusted grate. I was small back then, and it seemed so big.

Then, when I went to school I learned more: sea turtles were often eaten by people in tropical coastal regions, and their subsistence lifestyles could be improved by selling turtle shells to travellers as tangible reminders of visits to exotic places.

My grandfather had been at sea for much of his life, which explained how one turtle carapace found its way to the then seafaring town of Southampton, England. No doubt many other shells made similar journeys, until a realisation dawned that sea turtles were suffering overexploitation and the importation of turtle products was made illegal.

Up until the 1960s travel to distant places was mostly undertaken by boat and at a far more leisurely pace than it is today by plane. Earlier in his life my grandfather had worked on passenger ships and learned around 130 ways to make a serviette more interesting - a tradition that continues on cruise ships today, although the preferred medium is now a towel. Last week, this turtle (made by Mani) was found crawling across a bed on a cruise ship rather than up a tropical beach. Each evening  out on the world's oceans thousands of white towels transform into ghostly creatures - an art form that is largely unrecognised, although it is often superior to the junk art that some cruise companies peddle to their passengers.*
Up until the 1960s travel to distant places was mostly undertaken by boat and at a far more leisurely pace than it is today by plane. Earlier in his life my grandfather had worked on passenger ships and learned around 130 ways to make a serviette more interesting – a tradition that continues on cruise ships today, although the preferred medium is now a towel. Last week, this turtle (made by Mani) was found crawling across a bed on a cruise ship rather than up a tropical beach. Each evening  out on the world’s oceans thousands of white towels transform into ghostly creatures – an art form that is largely unrecognised, although it is often superior to the junk art that some cruise companies peddle to their passengers.

By the time I was a teenager all sea turtles were in decline and the old shell in the grate was now something of an eye opener: if creatures that swam in the remoteness of the oceans faced possible extinction, then many other plants and animals more accessible to humans must surely suffer the same fate.

This turned out to be true, but sea turtles are especially vulnerable due to an evolutionary past that ties them to the land – if only for brief periods. This land based connection goes back a couple of hundred million years – then, around 120 million years ago they experienced a rapid evolutionary change that led to a lifestyle that confined them almost entirely to the sea.

In Hawaii a green sea turtle comes up for air to the delight of a group of holiday makers.
In Hawaii a green sea turtle comes up for air to the delight of a group of holiday makers.

Some sea turtle species occasionally haul out onto rocks to rest or sun bathe, but mostly they live beneath the waves. All however must come regularly to the surface to breathe, and females have a tie to the land that has never been broken – mature individuals must emerge onto sandy beaches to lay their eggs; this can occur several times during the nesting season, although once egg laying is completed a female might not return for two or three years.

Usually females arrive at night, and their egg laying habits are often predictable, which makes adult females and their eggs vulnerable to over-harvesting by humans. This land based contact has become a disaster for sea turtles, an unfortunate situation for creatures that have successfully negotiated the world’s oceans without much change in structure or lifestyle for millions of years.

In recent times sea turtles have been disappearing at an alarming rate. All of the seven species that inhabit the world’s oceans are declining in numbers, although in some places legal protection and concerted conservation efforts have slowed the process. Nevertheless, it is difficult to protect animals that range so widely, and care under one jurisdiction may not be as diligent or forthcoming as it is under another.

Like many others, my family has a fondness for tortoises and turtles and my sons first toy reflects this. Certainly this little guy is green, but it is probably the colour of the turtles flesh that is responsible for its name.
Like many others, my family has a fondness for tortoises and turtles and my sons first toy reflects this. Certainly this little guy is green, but it is probably the colour of the turtles flesh that is responsible for its name.

Seldom has so much research gone into a group of animals with so little return, although a great deal has been discovered in recent years. It is now known that temperatures within the nest decide the sex of emerging babies, and it is apparent that during infancy mortality is high – not only are hatchlings vulnerable travelling down the beach to get into the water but they also suffer heavy predation during the early years of life.

There is still much to learn about where young sea turtles go once they are at sea and how they navigate to wherever they need to be. Later in life, mature females will return to lay eggs on beaches, where many years earlier, they also started out. The problems of surviving to maturity seem insurmountable; predation and hits by boats take their toll, many are drowned when caught in fishing nets and all are vulnerable to pollution. It can take half a lifetime for a sea turtle to reach maturity and for those that make it, a life spanning more than a hundred years is a possibility. 

A mature female green turtle might return to a beach once or several times during the egg laying season, others may come to just rest up for a night, but unlike T.V. shows where there is often additional lighting it is often difficult to pick a turtle out on a beach at night when it has been churned by the comings and goings of other females. If the urge can be resisted it is best not to photograph or video turtles during egg laying, although camera technology has improved to the point where additional lighting  may be unnecessary and a long shot without lighting is less likely to cause a disturbance. Mobile phones are a curse - not because turtles find it difficult to take calls when they are egg laying, but because mobiles are carried by people who photograph everything from lunch through to coffee and such people are unlikely to pass up a picture of a chance encounter with a chance encounter with a turtle, they will often have their devices set on automatic which means flash photography should be avoided. IN this situation it is best to leave turtles alone to get on with this essential part of their lives.
A mature female green turtle may return to a beach once or several times during the nesting season. Wildlife television programmes will often use lighting to record this activity because mostly it occurs at night, but in natural light it is difficult to pick a female out on a beach that has been churned by the comings and goings of many individuals. Because female sea turtles are easily disturbed when egg laying they are best left alone. However, low light camera technology has greatly improved in recent years and a long shot such as the one above, using only available light is unlikely to cause problems. Unfortunately, mobile phones can be a curse – this has nothing to do with turtles not picking up when they are egg laying and everything to do with those who see themselves as at the centre of the Universe… photographing everything from lunch to coffee. These people are unlikely to pass up a chance encounter with a turtle and will often get too close with their devices set on automatic – the resultant flash photography can seriously disturb egg laying females.   

I didn’t attempt to view sea turtles until I was in my 30s and it happened quite by accident… Sadly, this wasn’t a great success. I had gone to Costa Rica to film bats, taking with me a young freeloader who had attached himself to the B.B.C. by claiming special knowledge of the area I was visiting and with the promise of help in return for a ticket to paradise.

In this manner I got stuck with a guy who was clearly out to make a name for himself by journeying to remote places simply to write about them. There was, he said, only one place where we could be guaranteed to see one particular species of bat, which straight away sounded suspicious, coming from somebody who was either too busy catching up on his sleep or not feeling well enough to do anything at all. With limited time available to locate bats I allowed myself to be drawn into his scheme and rented a light aircraft and a pilot to fly us halfway across Costa Rica to a remote location on the Pacific Coast.

It wasn’t long before we were dropping down and bumping along a  remote airfield which had been cut into the forest, but during the flight it became clear that my helper had another agenda. He had begun talking excitedly about the beach at the end of the landing strip famous for its ‘arribada’ – a Spanish word that means arrival – in this case the arrival of female Eastern Pacific olive ridleys sea turtles, that were expected just prior to the full moon to lay their eggs’. Ridleys are not large turtles and were once far more common than they are today, but like their close relative the Kemp’s sea turtle, they have a habit of synchronising their visits as a single spectacular event.

A couple of scientists were working the area, otherwise there was nobody else about. Accommodation was limited and the turtles hadn’t so far shown up. I soon got busy searching the local forest for roosting bats and managed to find and film a couple of species without disturbing them, but the bats weren’t unusual and it was down to good fortune rather than any special knowledge provided by my helper who preferred to sleep through the day rather than search out bats.

The proboscis bat is a species of South and Central America; and in terms of markings these were the nicest I have seen, but in retrospect they didn't warrant the journey... and were, some might say, hardly a substitute for ridley sea turtles.
The proboscis bat is a species of South and Central America; and in terms of markings these were the nicest I have seen, but in retrospect they didn’t warrant the journey… and were, some might say, hardly a substitute for ridley sea turtles.

Another night passed without any sign of the turtles and I told my colleague that we would have to fly out the next day because there was filming to be done and time was limited, but he refused to leave, claiming he felt too rough to help move my gear back to the runway. Unfortunately, I had no alternative but to leave him to freeload off of the scientists because as far as I could tell, he had no visible means of support and certainly no way of paying for a flight out, for all I know he might still be there, buried in a shallow grave close by the turtle eggs… but more likely, he has done very well for himself as chances often do.

Sea turtles continued to eluded me for another thirty years until one day a green sea turtle popped its head out of the ocean while I was standing on a beach and I finally got my chance to photograph one in its natural habitat. 

In 2010, with my wife and daughter, I encountered green turtles in the surf in Hawaii – quite shockingly they were the size of coffee tables as they washed back and forth in the tidal zone feeding on algae; and they were potentially dangerous if they crashed into you, especially if you were caught standing on the sand rather than floating alongside them in the water.

Quite recently we had left New Zealand where my neighbour had imparted some useful information; he told me that if a sheep runs in your direction you should bend your legs and point them away from the impact, this keeps your knee caps intact because essentially they bend willingly only in one direction. This also worked well with turtles  – although dealing with them surging back and forth in the surf wasn’t an everyday event for me, in the absence of sheep the advice was useful.

Alice and I watch a green turtle surging back and forth in shallow water.
Alice and I watch a green turtle surge back and forth in shallow water.

More recently, I was sitting on a Maui beach, whilst my wife and daughter snorkelled in the ocean. When they go into the sea they swim as mermaids might. I on the other hand have no affinity with water and float the way that concrete usually doesn’t. This is always a surprise, because despite having no natural buoyancy, I  feel confident in the sea until things begin to go wrong and then it’s a different story. Earlier in the week whilst snorkelling over a coral reef, my mask had filled with water and whilst trying to clear it… I gulped in water. One near drowning experience a week should be enough for anybody and I decided to sit this one out. 

My wife and daughter are more at home in the ocean than I am.
My wife and daughter are more at home in the ocean than I am.

Add to the mix a couple of recent local shark attacks and it wasn’t that difficult to stay out of the water. Understandably, fewer people had been swimming offshore of late. Tourist boards don’t usually advertise shark attacks on their lists of interesting local events, but the snorkel shop had mentioned this tiny detail… and when they advise staying out of the water – you take notice.

In reality, the chances of your surfboard getting bitten in half by a shark, or worse still your leg, are small compared with drowning without a shark in sight, or a motoring accident on the way back from the beach; even getting struck by lightning is easier to achieve than becoming a shark’s lunch, if you hang out in the right place.

All the same my anxiety level shoots up when I think about swimming in low visibility tropical waters as was the case on this day, but it wasn’t the thought of sharks that bothered me, it was the reduced chances of taking a decent photo in the murkiness – otherwise I’d have been out there.

By mid-afternoon the tropical light was busy smashing intense colour out of everything around me, and the beach was intensely beautiful.
By mid-afternoon the tropical light was busy smashing intense colour out of everything around me and the beach was intensely beautiful.

It wasn’t long before I noticed a large walrus of a man sitting close by staring out to sea. Then a teenage boy came running up the beach and called out, ‘There’s a turtle out there you just gotta see. I’ve never seen one that big before.’ But the old man was in no rush, he knew that green sea turtles were grazing algae off rocks in the shallows below us, as occasionally a shell would appear above the water as a turtle was caught by an incoming wave, and now and again a head would pop up for a gulp of air. You might blink and miss it, but turtle watching isn’t like bird watching once in the water: observing turtles grazing is a slow relaxing experience, although in rough surf there is always a chance of a bashing. As I dwelt on this thought the man sauntered down the beach, waded out to his waist and then flopped gently into the water. He wore no flippers and seemed comfortable in the ocean. Around 20 minutes later he was back. ‘She’s a big one alright’, he said, as he flopped down onto his beach towel and I knew then that I had to go and see for myself.

Entering the sea I felt comfortable snorkelling in shallow water and once beyond the point where the waves were breaking, I was still getting dragged back and forth on the swell.

Beneath the waves I am drawn backwards and forwards with the pulse of each wave just like the fish, but once I get the hang of the motion I move into deeper water.
Beneath the waves I am drawn backwards and forwards with the pulse of each wave just like the fish, but once I get the hang of the motion I move into deeper water.

 As I got further out it was still possible to stand on rocks with my head above water, but it was better not to, as I would certainly have been bowled over by the waves;  it sounds counterintuitive but once amongst rocks it is safer to stay under water to negotiate them. I kept going, with no clear idea now of how far I was from the beach.

On my way out a variety of different fish, these kihikihi, hold my attention as the waves above gurgle and bubble, with my breathing audibly loud and clear in a way that it never is on land.
On my way out a variety of different fish, these kihikihi, hold my attention as the waves above gurgle and bubble, with my breathing audibly loud and clear in a way that it never is on land.

The whole process became hypnotic and I felt relaxed… which was good, but in my case, best not to get lulled into a false sense of security.  Then about fifteen feet ahead something big was moving in the water and I was thinking – this is about the right depth to meet up with a shark along the beach line, but thinking ‘shark!’ wasn’t going to be helpful, so I pushed on until the silhouette of a large turtle began to take shape.

What was most surprising was how far the turtle moved back and forth with the wave action, and I watched as this enormous creature swung around the axis of its head in an attempt to keep feeding in the same place; for a moment the weed fanned across the rocks before it was closely cropped by a munch of the turtles ‘beak’ pushing up a puff of detritus that clouded the water. The turtle then moved methodically on to the next growth – some of it already cropped by other turtles.

Along side the big one.
Along side the big one.

 I remained parallel to the turtle for the most part allowing myself to be pulled on the swell whilst remaining at a constant distance, and avoided moving seaward side so that I was not pushed onto the turtle. This is important because touching a turtle in Hawaii is not only illegal but also detrimental to its health. Many green turtles around the Islands suffer from skin lesions which may be caused by pathogens transferred directly from human to a turtle skin. The presence of suntan lotion may also be a factor and so it is best not to apply it when snorkelling.

Total internal reflection - coming up for air creates an interesting image.
Total internal reflection – coming up for air creates an interesting image.

I was so absorbed in the great creature that I didn’t notice until fairly late, something looming to my left. Suddenly there was another turtle… the one I had been watching had moved closer to another, and soon they were almost touching.

I back off a little to avoid contact as the turtles increase the claggyness of the water as they feed.
I back off a little to avoid contact as the turtles increase the claggyness of the water as they feed.

For the most part turtles ignore one another, but for a moment the larger individual used its bulk to push the smaller one from where it had been feeding (see video below). Perhaps this was no more than a coming together of shells – I was too busy avoiding contact with the pair to be certain – for a while I was the filling in a turtle sandwich and the three of us washed backwards and forwards across the reef until I could get clear.

There was a sudden flash of yellow as I was joined by my daughter; we held our positions on either side of the turtle just long enough for this photo.

Wide angle lenses are frequently used to make foreground animals look bigger in comparison with a person in the background - nevertheless, this was a good sized turtle.
Wide angle lenses are frequently used to make foreground animals look bigger in comparison with a person in the background – nevertheless, this was a good sized turtle.

Animals that have eyes on the sides of their heads, as turtles do, are usually herbivores that require a wider range of visibility than we do, essentially to avoid predators and it is likely they process visual information slightly differently from us. Our frontally positioned eyes prioritise depth perception which is usually a feature of predatory animals. Hanging around on either side of a turtle gives it two visual images to process which for a turtle might indicate double the trouble. Because reptiles are expressionless and have limited use of body language it is often difficult to assess when they are being disturbed until they move away. For this reason, if another snorkeler shows up, I usually move away as the new arrival will sometimes get excited by the encounter and move about too much when the appropriate mode is to just be another turtle. Alice and I keep our joint encounter brief and soon return to the beach. 

A quick picture such as this one (taken without flash) will often be enough to identify an individual at a later date.
A quick picture such as this one (taken without flash) will often be enough to identify an individual at a later date.

Green sea turtles are not especially bothered about being observed in areas where they are free from persecution, but any observation should be short in duration and not too close. Being at one with nature can be a selfish activity, and it is important to know when to move on.

Turtles have clear markings and scale shapes that aid in their identification even when individuals are observed years apart. A picture will requires other essential data if it is to be useful  – when and where the picture was taken with a brief description of the conditions. If reliable pictures could be co-ordinated in the future they might provide a better understanding of turtle movements, their lifestyles and even population numbers.

Turtles are declining so rapidly, almost any information that can be gleaned might one day prove useful, but only if it can be achieved without disturbance. On the plus side it is encouraging to think that taking a picture might hold more than simply aesthetic value and might in some small way be a future aid to conservation.

A short video on Pacific green turtles grazing algae in a tidal zone. 

N.B. Do not swim close to rocks in rough surf, snorkel with a partner and use buoyancy aids when necessary – even good swimmers drown. Please do not touch or follow turtles, never visit in numbers and always maintain a respectful distance in order to allow them to get on with their lives without distraction.