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Dances With Lions.

Everybody who meets a lion in the wild has a story to tell and I am no exception – all the pictures of wild animals were taken on the Serengeti (apart from the Cape buffalo photographed at Ngorongoro Crater).

When I was a child my first sighting of a lion was on a Tate & Lyle golden treacle tin, the one that showed up on the table whenever there was steamed pudding. On the front was a picture of a male lion surrounded by a swarm of bees: this, I was told showed the lion to be the king of the jungle because nothing could bother him; but the truth is rather more shocking: the lion is dead and the bees have come from his body – this image relates to a biblical story involving Samson killing a lion – on his return to the body he noticed, as it says on the tin, that ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. I had not an inkling of this symbolism when I was a child, but it didn’t matter, there are few animals, dead or alive, more impressive than a lion, especially when you are small.

Throughout my childhood I was taken to the zoo to see leopards, jaguars, lions and tigers. This wasn’t pleasurable – it was just something everybody did.

Not long after I was taken to see caged lions at the zoo, back then this was not an edifying experience as big cats were invariably kept in small enclosures surrounded by bars. The pacing creatures were dead behind the eyes, and what was left of their minds seemed damaged.

Lions featured only occasionally during my childhood and apart from a few soft toys all were caged. When safari parks began to open, living conditions improved, but most captive cats didn’t lead natural lives; my impression was that many were bored and just waiting patiently for their keepers to make a mistake.

When I grew up and began photographing wildlife, I experienced big cats both in zoos and in their natural habitats; and without doubt some of the captive animals were more dangerous than their counterparts in the wild, although for me, it was a long time before I saw them wandering free.

By my mid-twenties the closest I managed to get to a lion was when working at a television station. I stole away from my office to join the circus. A ring had been set up in one of the studios and as the lions came into their arena they passed along a flimsy wire passage and I stood at a small gap between the two as they rushed by; it was an exhilarating moment, but hardly natural, and it would be another four years before I got close to big cats in the wild after receiving the telephone call of a lifetime.

When the call came early in 1979 I was working in a high-rise building close by London’s South Bank, writing film scripts for the Government’s Central Office of Information – a job that I wasn’t very good at. I remember thinking we were all hurtling towards 1984 and my position was similar to Winston Smith’s in George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name, although in truth my role in government propaganda was fairly harmless, nevertheless I was struggling with it. This was my chance to get valuable production experience, but all I wanted to do was get away on some expedition or other, and with my limited finances that was just wishful thinking. The desire to walk out and never return was extreme and the unexpected incoming call was about to make that possible. It came from BBC Natural History Unit producer Barry Paine who had seen some of my film work and was now inviting me to join him and a small crew on a safari to Tanzania. Barry was making two wildlife documentaries on the Serengeti and was offering me the chance of a lifetime. So, I finished up my work, said goodbye to my colleagues and walked out: my lifestyle had taken a turn for the better and pretty soon I would be travelling to remote destinations to film the natural world.

In 1979 the Serengeti wasn’t the easiest place to get to from Britain, it was an expensive destination and once you’d made it to Tanzania there were still difficult roads to negotiate, especially during the rainy seasons which come twice a year, but it hardly ever rains for long. One day there might be a downpour, then things clear very quickly and this can make travelling a matter of pot luck.

After rain, routes into the Serengeti were often flooded, with some people reduced to carrying their beds from one place to another.

To the north, Kenya’s National Parks were an easier option for tourists – essentially this is a matter of travelling times – nobody wants to spend half their holiday just getting too and from their destination, but places worth seeing often take longer to get to… It’s part of what makes them special.

We would visit the Serengeti twice over the course of a year to cover both a dry and a wet season, with a total safari time measuring in months rather than weeks – the trips were well beyond anything I could afford, especially to move the equipment – back then the flight excess baggage bills alone would have covered a substantial down payment on a very nice house, but the experience of a special place is always worthwhile, especially when somebody else is paying.

We travelled from London Heathrow to Kilimanjaro Airport and then drove to the old hunting capital of Arusha, then a two day journey to Seronera Wildlife Lodge in the middle of the Serengeti: the length of the journey being entirely dependent on the state of the roads.

Ngorongoro

Moody old Cape buffalo up on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.

We had an overnight at a Lodge on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and I instantly got myself into trouble, stepping out of the vehicle and walking too close to a Cape buffalo to take a picture. Old bulls pushed out of the herd on the crater floor often come up to the rim to feed and invariably they are bad tempered.

An old buffalo taken in fading evening light was worth a picture, but not a trampling. We had heard a story about a man who had laid down when he was charged by a Cape buffalo because he had been told that the horns were too curved to do him very much damage and it worked, but not entirely – the buffalo proceeded to trample him to a pulp.

One minute the old bull was eating grass, the next, his head was up and he was moving towards me, but his intent didn’t seem convincing. A group of locals close by went suddenly quiet, I could see they were interested in my unfortunate situation as I was a good deal nearer the buffalo than any building or vehicle. There didn’t seem much else to do but stand my ground and whether this tempered the creature’s mood I will never know; I thought it more likely that this bulky animal couldn’t be bothered to relocate to where I was standing. I didn’t maintain eye contact, looking away to avoid challenging him… maybe he’d think I wasn’t even there! The standing around seemed to go on for an eternity, but outside of my world, it was probably no more than thirty seconds. Tired of looking at me, the bull snorted, waved his head a little and then went back to eating grass. The light was now almost too poor for an exposure, but I took a couple of pictures anyway and then slowly backed away. Two of the boys who had been watching, whistled through their teeth and were now cheerfully smiling at my good fortune. It was unusual for me to do something without calculating the risk, but the experience proved a positive one – a reminder that you must never take Africa for granted: despite its many wonders, a disrespected Africa can ruin your day.

My colleagues Hugh Maynard, Robin Pellew and Barry Paine looking down into the crater.

Our small team of four went off to our rooms and within an hour were ready to walk the short distance to the dinning area – this a large thatched building busy with pictures taken by photographers who had been working the area for many years.

Before we started out, Robin had heard a knocking at his door and thinking this the arrival of another member of our party he had opened it, only to find an old bull standing directly in-front of him, the animal’s horns spanning too widely to enter the room. ‘So, what did you do?’  I later asked him. ‘I just shut the door’, he replied. Shortly after this incident we were gathered together and escorted to the dining area by a very small man carrying a very big spear.

My introduction to East Africa had been a little absurd, but there wasn’t a hint of any of that in the breath taking views. In spite of an increasing human population, there are large tracts of wilderness that remain intact. The National Parks however face many problems – local people have for generations driven their stock animals across borders into conservation areas, and poachers are regular visitors. Sadly, the same old problems that have existed for generations are still around and they have been increasing in recent years.

To come across a lion on the open Plain is very special, even if he’s seems a bit bored by it all.

Barry had decided to give a new operator a chance at organising our safari, and in doing so he probably achieved a really good deal: our safari was by no means plush, but the staff were at least reliable and initially things ran very smoothly, but it soon  became clear that servicing our remote locations was going to be a problem: at one point we ran out of food and had to eat rotten meat that tasted of ammonia – for safety reasons we ate it almost burnt to a cinder. In the end, all that was available was a local maize porridge, which I would happily fill up on at any time of the day until even that ran out: the situation was less than ideal and we all came away a little thinner than we started out.

The experience was worth it though, because back then the Serengeti was mostly unbroken grassland; more recently some areas have become criss-crossed with tyre tracks, but I remember the Savannah as pristine; at no time did we see another vehicle or person who wasn’t a member of our team (apart from a couple of scientists who were working on ecology projects). The Serengeti seemed, back then, very isolated from the outside world: it was the first place I had visited so completely free from sound pollution that I was conscious of my heart beating.

Wildebeest on migration move quickly past a kopje, probably because such areas provide good cover for the predators that prey upon them.

Our Safari organiser was a South African – I’ll call him Donald (although that wasn’t his real name).  Around Donald unusual things would happened: he had for example a fairly cavalier attitude to the potential dangers of the Serengeti. On several occasions when his vehicle broke down, he would walk miles to get to the camp; and on one occasion arrived so close to nightfall, he was followed in by a gaggle of lions.

One of our camps was set at the remote Simba Kopje: the name in itself should have been a give away, but the lions that hung out there were disturbed when the camp was being set up and they moved out, but after a week or so began to return to this their favoured rocky outcrop.

We camped close by various kopjes, all were unambiguously functional and mostly adequate for our needs.

Almost any sound is enough to wake me from sleep and hyenas would occasionally do so when padding past my tent at night. These carnivores are more closely related to cats than dogs, but classified in a family of their own. We always referred to them as paddies, perhaps because of their facial similarity to Paddington Bear, or maybe it was for no better reason than they would pad about the place – I never thought to ask.

Early on, we heard there had been a recent attack on a young German who was sharing a tent with a friend. He was keen on astronomy and had been sleeping with his head outside of the tent in order to gaze up at the stars as he dropped off to sleep. One morning his friend, who slept entirely under canvas, unzipped the entrance to discover that the star gazers head had gone. Whether it is possible for a hyena to remove a human head without disturbing its associated body is open to question, but this was not an encouraging story to hear at a time when hyenas were coming close by your tent on a nightly basis. 

Spotted Hyenas were frequent visitors to our camp at night, but I only attempted to photograph them during the day.

On a night to remember

I heard a hyena pad along close by the end of my tent, its proximity was unnerving, but there was worse to come. I was laying awake thinking the hyena might return when quite suddenly there was a considerable noise and several things began to go over around the camp… in particular around a tent just one down from mine. Then I heard a voice, ‘Shoo, shoo …’ it was saying, and I undid my tent flaps to see what was going on: it was the time of a full moon which made observations easier, and to my surprise Donald, who was a slight wiry man, was running about after a lioness. I soon noticed that there were several more, he’d be following one and then suddenly turning he’d run after another – it was madness. So far the cats were just trying to avoid Donland’s attentions, but how much longer they’d put up with him was anybodies guess. Everybody else in the camp appeared to have gone mute, and because Donald was now quite close to my tent I felt obliged to try and talk him back into his – it was the least I could do as I certainly had no intention of going out to help him. I began speaking in an odd, but to my mind, encouraging whisper. ‘Get back in your tent Donald – you know you have to stay in your tent’. This one way conversation continued for some time, but to no avail; Donald took absolutely no notice and continued with his hectic shooing. The light was hyper-luminous, the moon casting long black shadows across the landscape as Donald continued to participate in this strange hypnotic ‘ballet of the big cats’. Before me were all the features of a surrealist dream, the only problem – I was wide awake. It seemed extraordinary, to be thousands of miles from my usual life experiences, in an East African wilderness trying to encourage a small man not to dance with lions in the moonlight.

At night we didn’t usually wander on the kopje that was close by our tents, but with the full moon Hugh is still up there looking out over the plain at a quarter past lion.

The next day we found Douglas in the back of his Land Rover – he told us that on the previous night he had been lying on his camp bed when several young lionesses had started playing around his tent – I remember the relief that it was his tent and not mine. Donald remained calm until his tent started to lurch about, but the final straw was a front paw tearing through canvas close by his head, which quite understandably caused him to lose his cool and burst out into the moonlight and run about like a madman.

It’s one thing to sit and watch large wild animals pass 20 metres from an open ended dining tent before darkness falls, but quite another to have your tent invaded by lions at night. This situation helped us decide to move away from Simba Kopje for a while. We did however return and on our second trip we also camped again beside Simba Kopje (not the outcrop of the same name said to look like the one in Disney’s animated film ‘The Lion King’). There were always lions moving about at night moving through the various kopjes, but we never had a second break in.

It was not uncommon  for us to lie on our beds in the dark listening out for three single males that were wandering our area; we would be assessing whether they were coming in our direction or moving away. From a distance their low bellowing contact calls could be heard carrying for miles across the open plain; and there were often several minutes between vocalisations, but never was there a time when these contact calls didn’t sound close – and when they were, it was almost as terrifying as having a lion in your tent. Our cook was philosophical about the situation – telling me in all seriousness, that a bellowing lion always sounds close, but there was no need to worry until you could smell his terrible breath.

I preferred to work the expansive flat topped Kopjes rather than those that were a mass of strewn boulders – they allowed for a clearer view of what was around. I saw both baboons and hyenas moving across this one, but never were there any sudden reveals of animals I didn’t want to see.

The one thing it was unwise to do too frequently on the Serengeti was to walk about by yourself, but it was often necessary for me to do so. The crew would drop me off at a location and then drive off for a couple of hours to film something else.

Usually I would wander alone, but sometimes our guide Isiaka would accompany me; he carried an old Lee-Enfield rifle to protect us – I think from poachers rather than big animals. We knew that most poachers were well armed and we didn’t want to come across them, but as we rarely went out at night when they were most likely to be active, there were never any problems.

Walking across the Serengeti is best left to the Maasai, but when you are filming small animals it is unavoidable.

Working kopjes on foot has its dangers – but it was the only way to get good shots of insects, spiders, reptiles and rodents; which usually require a short or macro lens rather than the long lenses used to film larger animals from a vehicle.  It was particularly foolhardy to spend too much time laying down without a lookout and this may be one of the reasons why smaller creatures are such frequently overlooked subjects here.

On one occasion I was set down beside a kopje with cameraman Hugh Maynard and he at once noticed a kestrel sitting on the branch of a tree growing up between two large rocks. Hugh suggested that I should walk up into the kopje where my presence might cause the bird to take off and improve his shot. As we weren’t regularly disturbing animals this didn’t seem unreasonable, but I needed to go deep into the rocky outcrop before I could get anywhere near the bird. All was going well until I came around a corner, and directly in my path was a male lion -and  I had interrupted his lunch. That he already had food seemed the only positive thing about my situation, because I hadn’t thought to bring a plate to the party. On my arrival his head jerked suddenly up and there was no doubt that we were both surprised to see one another: his eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up. It is certainly anthropomorphic to say, but his gaze seemed quizzical, and I was hoping that he wasn’t weighing me up as a potential meal. For sometime we just looked at one another and I was careful not to break eye contact. I at least hadn’t startled him enough to make him come towards me, and I slowly began to move backwards taking care not to fall over as I felt about with each footstep. As soon as I was around a corner and out of sight, I turned and started to run as best I could in the rock strewn kopje until finally emerging onto the savannah. Hugh was standing about 20 metres from the base of the rocks. ‘Did you get your shot’, I asked, ‘Yes thanks’, he said, looking absent-mindedly through his viewfinder at something else. ‘Why were you running?’, he asked, ‘Because there’s a lion in the kopje’, I replied. There wasn’t much else to be said as he was clearly concentrating on scanning across the rocks with a long lens. Not long after Barry arrived with the Land Rover and we got in and drove around to the other side to see if there was anything else to film and when we were about halfway around, there on the rocks was the lion – he had moved now to a more exposed position. ‘F— Me! There’s a lion in the kopje’. said Hugh. ‘I already told you that’ I replied. ‘I thought you were joking’  he responded, ‘you weren’t running fast enough’.

As things stand today the lion population on the Serengeti totals around 3,000 individuals, and combined with Ngorongoro holds the largest population of lions to be found anywhere in Africa.

In most places lion populations are seriously in decline, but on the Serengeti numbers are holding, despite many external pressures. National Geographic reported that there were 100,000 lions living in Africa during the 1960s, but only 32,000 were to be found at the end of 2012, the most likely reason for this loss was people pressure.

I won’t pretend that our involvement with a couple of natural history films back in 1979 was in any way consequential in conserving the Serengeti but it may have increased awareness, and certainly the experience provided me with a personal perspective on what was then a near pristine environment.

Every 30 years or so, we worry a little more about the changes each generation exerts on nature; with our observations usually recording a steady deterioration of ecosystems and the reduction of species within them. Worldwide this deterioration is rapidly accelerating, but once in a while somewhere special like the Serengeti holds out; nevertheless, there can be no certainties about the future and it is difficult to remain optimistic when the general trend continues to run so strongly against the natural world. 

The films we were making: ‘Tree of Thorns’ and ‘Kopje: A Rock for All Seasons’ both written and narrated by Barry Paine. First transmissions on BBC 2 during 1980.

 

 

 

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When In Doubt – Go To The Beach.

I presently live in British Columbia, where the car number plates say ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ – but really, it isn’t like that down on the Lower Mainland where there’s a competition to see how quickly the whole area can be covered with houses; planning isn’t an issue though because there doesn’t seem to be too much of that – it’s just one big urban sprawl of grey and drab cow dung coloured houses, which, more often than not, are oversized for the land that they stand upon – it’s ugly stuff and to add to the nastiness of the burgeoning suburbs there is now a rat problem – these creatures seem to be almost everywhere. None of this to me appears very Canadian, but I come from another place and possibly another time.

Some local residents such as this barred owl are happy to see a few extra rats on the menu.

As every inch of wild space becomes filled in with development the bird population has gone into decline and this has been noticeable in just the eight years I have lived here.

The other day, a lady in a neighbouring garden was throwing huge chunks of bread from her balcony to feed the crows, and what they didn’t manage to eat would soon make a very fine supper for the rats.

With fewer natural spaces, it would be difficult not to notice a decrease of wildlife in urban areas. There are fewer coyotes in my area than there once were which is allowing the domestic cat population to rise. Three cats now regularly show up in my garden  to hunt the few remaining song birds that come to feed; or they will sit hopefully waiting under the hummingbird feeder…. Rats, crows and cats – each of these (when increased in numbers) are voracious predators of any animals smaller than themselves, and all are well catered for in suburban areas on the Lower Mainland. It’s a depressing situation.

A monster leaving the water on Crescent Beach.

So, what do you do when facing this sadly familiar land-based situation? You go to the beach is what you do, because here the tide comes in and out, making things just a little more difficult for humans to screw up. Mind you, we still do our best: there are often signs up along the front to let people know that the local waters are polluted and seafoods should not be gathered from the shoreline -these are good signs because they discourage people who think the only use for a beach is the collection of free food; and if there is no profit to be made from molluscs on the open market there is a chance that shore birds will be able to feed on their natural food without unnecessary competition.

My birthday falls in January, and if the weather is good I’m usually on the beach. My wife, daughter and l usually hang out somewhere on the coastline when our birthdays come around. This year mine arrived on a cool but not excessively cold day – the water was calm, but only a few ducks were bobbing on the water and apart from a single heron there were no other birds to be seen.

Surf Scoters moved slowly across the water.
A male bufflehead duck suddenly decided that he needed to be somewhere else.

We went back the day after because the weather was still pleasant and very mild for the time of year, but there was not a single duck to be seen, and on this second outing I was pushed to observe the gulls which are never my first choice for observation, but nevertheless it is interesting to watch any bird that is working the shoreline for molluscs on a rising tide.

Gulls waiting to feed on the bounty of a rising tide.

A lot of the time they scavenge along the shore for whatever can be found – easy meat that is past its best: an already broken mussel, or a recently dead crab, but the big prize – if they don’t manage to grab your pizza or ice cream (presently out of season), is a large healthy mollusc stimulated to life when the sea starts to flow in around them.

The cleverest gulls have learnt that if they bring their catch up the beach to where the sand ends and the stones begin (although some authorities believe the dropping to be random and is not selected by substrate), they can drop their packed lunch and let the force of gravity do the breaking – this they attempt repeatedly until the shell is smashed. Often it is necessary to drop a shelled creature just once to achieve a result, an activity that works best from a height – say 20 feet or more, but flying high can also be a problem because other gulls will often swoop in more quickly to claim the  exposed meal – there are always others loitering on the periphery that haven’t learnt the trick and rely entirely on larceny for their lunch.

The gull that operates a lower drop strategy may have to try several times to crack a shell open and in doing so they will expend more energy, but he or she stands a better chance of retrieving a meal before it is grabbed by a competitor because they have remained closer to their bouncing lunch-box. Success in life is all about working the percentages.

There’s a PhD here, ready and waiting for a student of zoology – that is, if it hasn’t already been done. The question is, what percentage of gulls know how to do the gravity trick, and, did they learn it by observing others; or is any part of the behaviour innate – perhaps it is a bit of both. Then there is the interesting question of whether it is more productive to be a clever gull or simply profit by being a thief? To answer such questions by observation and experimentation might also lead to a better understanding of more complicated issues – the evolution of behaviour for example. If only I had three spare years and a grant to take on the challenge.
Last year I was on the same beach in February when five young bald eagles were feasting off of a rotting fish carcass on the tide line – this too had been a competitive meal, made even more challenging by the arrival of a stupid woman who set her dog loose on the birds with the words, ‘Go and get em.’ The clueless but exuberant dog rushed forward; the eagles nonchalantly rose and the dog wondered where they had gone, this was a dog that couldn’t fly and did not have enough imagination to comprehend that other things might.  Once the birds were in the air, it was a case of out of sight out of mind and the dog just ran about sniffing unproductively at the salt wet sand. Had there been a fight – which I was rather hoping for – the dog would have been a goner and the headlines would probably have read: ‘Eagles Attack Dog On Beach’ – Women Heartbroken by Loss of Beloved Pet’. The more prosaic truth might have read, ‘Idiot Woman Encourages Stupid Dog to Chase Eagles’, or ‘Dog Duped by Unruffled Eagles Ability to Fly’… but neither of these made the news.

Despite the occasional idiot –

it is a delight to be out there on the beach, away from the urbanity of the rats, the cats and the dog poo, standing at the point where a land that has lost all sense of the natural world meets the wild; and in the calm reflection of a setting sun, this is a wonderful place to be.

 

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Are we too Stupid to Save the Planet? Part 2 – Beyond Rational Thinking.

From Gambling to God.

For reasons that seem inexplicable there’s no shortage of stupidity…

It’s everywhere… In politics, in the pub, even on street corners – out there at this very moment there will be somebody carrying a placard that says, ‘The end of the world in nigh’… a person a bit like me perhaps, although my preference is to garner at least a little scientific evidence before making a startling claim.

There’s a man who stands at a road junction close to where I live, and he carries a sign that says, ‘Jesus Comes Soon’. I’ve been wanting to tell him that his wording could be better, but sadly the lights always change before I can get his attention. Incorrect use of language is not necessarily a sign of stupidity, but spending most of your waking hours at a road junction with a message from God is a whole other thing.

I could tell you I’d visited another planet, and I could go further by saying I’d photographed a light fitting in an LA restaurant to prove it. Questioning what you are prepared to believe is perhaps the best antidote to thinking stupid.

Stupid is as Stupid Does.

We all do daft things and for that reason alone we should be judged by our actions rather than our I.Qs. Social media perhaps demonstrates how to reward stupidity best. Clearly, gathering ‘likes’ from ‘like’ minded people reinforces beliefs in ill-considered opinions; and it works so well  because almost the entire world is available on line.

Even those who aspire to wallow down amongst the stupidest people on the planet can attract an appreciative audience. All that is required is an opinion, the ability to type into a computer…and then press enter. In an instant a nonsensical view is made available to a huge number of ‘like’ minded individuals… and that’s not such a good thing. Technology is there for us to make use of, and it isn’t technology’s fault that we find ourselves so frequently sinking to the depths rather than rising to a challenge.

You don’t always need to go down a small pier to discover there’s nothing at the end of it, unless perhaps you are looking for a boat ride. Thinking things through helps to avoid disappointment.

Nevertheless, for the more intelligent members of society who are operating above the lowest common denominator, it is still possible to get caught out when believing without evidence. Predicting the chances that something might happen is now fairly well understood, but many of us can still be fooled by the icing on the cake – all the sugary stuff that we just can’t resist absorbing.

Amongst the commonest of these beliefs is that we can somehow beat the odds using nothing more than our own good fortune at times when we just feel lucky. Gambling can be both thrilling and addictive, but when the odds are running against us, longterm outcomes can be disappointing and sometimes life changing. 

Do you feel lucky... or are you just out to make somebody else's day? But with a bit planning and foresight, it might not be you who has to dodge a bullet.
Do you feel lucky… or are you just out to make somebody else’s day? With a bit of planning and foresight, it might not be you who has to dodge the bullet.

Some argue that most accidents are avoidable,

especially for the brightest amongst us who think ahead and prepare accordingly; certainly insurance companies understand the odds of ‘getting things right’, because insurance depends for its success on predicting who will and who will not ‘get lucky’ – this because our genetic make ups and behaviours skew our lives towards certain outcomes which can be analysed mathematically. Most accidents are no longer regarded as random, even when the results are down to external forces. Closer to home a lot may now be predicted by looking at the genes we carry,  this just another tool for measuring when the odds are running against us.

With a rise in political correctness it has become increasingly difficult to ask questions about who is really being stupid and why; and sometimes when you get on the wrong side of the word it really does get personal. As I child I was told not to discuss religion or politics and the reason given was simple – ‘it upsets people’, but at an early age I wondered if this really mattered: when people are thinking and doing irrational things it makes sense to ask the question – why?

Sometimes a white bird isn’t a sign of spirituality it’s just a seagull after your chips.

God is right up there when it comes to asking questions and upsetting people. Those who hear voices in their heads or receive information from entities that can’t be demonstrated to exist are often thought to be suffering from mental illness, but sometimes not so much when they think God is speaking directly to them. It is difficult to understand why being religious gives you a free pass when it comes to irrational behaviour, which it must be said, cannot always be correlated directly with a person’s intelligence. Whether God exists or not is a controversial subject for some, but not liking the answers is never a good enough reason not to asking the questions.

Maybe this really is all there is and we should take time to enjoy it rather than spend too much time thinking wishfully about the other side of dead.

Influencing young minds sets beliefs systems for life – lying to children is the ultimate obscenity:

I must admit to having had an odd childhood. There were no small children living in my neighbourhood and consequently I had no regular contact with people of my own age until I went to school at the age of five. My mother did have a friend who would visit our house on Tuesday afternoons with her daughter and this was no doubt regarded as a social opportunity for us children, but all that I remember about the girl, is that without provocation, she hit me very hard over the head with an enamel bowl. It was an inauspicious introduction to other children and my first experience of being attacked by another human being.

I have only just noticed that Mr Tidridge’s influence extended to what I was prepared to wear on my head.

My best friend was and old neighbour – his name was Mr Tidridge and he had no children of his own which was unfortunate because he would have made somebody a great parent or grandfather. I called him Uncle Tid and spent most of my daytime hours in his presence – he was a man of infinite patience and taught me many things. We would spent most of our time  in the garden and I was probably four years old when this picture was taken, as I busily moved what I thought were logs, in my wheel barrow.

One day it came onto rain heavily and I remember we were standing in the doorway of an old shed when Uncle Tid said, ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, and I was curious to know what this meant, which led him to give me a very basic outline of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Technically, his reference was off the mark, because ‘not a drop to drink’ refers to the presence of salt water. However, this mismatch between story telling and reality was harmless enough and there was no sense of indoctrination, it was simply the provision of knowledge through story telling.

It rained hard, but Mr Tidridge’s story did not put me in fear of being becalmed at sea without fresh water. But not long after I was about to go to school and there I would discover a whole new way of learning things – by indoctrination. I didn’t know the word for it back then, but I knew it was happening.

As far as I was concerned time with Uncle Tid was better spent than with children of my own age, but I’d failed to understand that being with other children was just another part of developing normal social behaviour; and when the time came I was ill prepared for the next step – going to school and meeting people of my own age.

This was for me a very different world from the one I was used to and with no previous meaningful contact with other children it was a difficult experience. To me, these little people all seemed so loud and rough, and the thing I remember above all else was that they somehow managed to make the plasticine smell of poo. I really wanted to get out of my new situation at any cost and cried every morning I was re-introduced to this new and disgusting world because there was no escape.

The small preparatory private school I attended was set up in an old Victorian property. It was a dark dismal house of horrors that still had most of its original decor and it smelt of dog – I had apparently gone back to another era; but this didn’t bother me that much because the house had one saving grace – it was full of old books and the second one that I read, quite by accident, turned out to be ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll, and at I at once found myself in a far more logical world than the one I was being forced to live in: the madness contained within its covers appeared to me to make perfect sense… I just loved it.

My version of one of Tenniel’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ illustrations breaks a few rules but remains true to the spirit of the rational madness of the story. Lewis Carroll, in the real world, was Oxford don Arthur L. Dodgson whose academic work revolved around maths and logic.

In the 1951 animated Disney version of Alice, Disney got the colour of Alice’s dress wrong, and I made a point of doing the same in my illustration, which was painted many years ago: the original John Tenniel colour illustrations of the dress were made in corn yellow. Blue might simply have been a better colour for movie illustration, but judging from the fact that Lewis Carroll’s name was mis-spelt in the front credits of the film there might be other reasons entirely. I mention these details because they are good examples of the things we often confuse with stupidity, namely ignorance and indifference and neither sit very well amongst the logical thinking of A. L. Dodgson.

Why does everybody in the Holy land look so white in the pictures? I’d ask… Where there are camels and dates the people are browner – I’d seen it in the other books… but in my Bible there was something wrong… and quite a lot else was wrong as well… but I never got a straight answer.

When I was forced to climb out from the organised madness of the rabbit hole, I returned to a more uncertain world, inhabited by a head mistress who was very religious; apart from her mother, she was the only teacher in the little school that she ran; and for some reason she was determined above all else, that I should be gifted a Bible – which unlike ‘Alice’ was a book I seldom opened; in particular the pictures representing the holy land were both insipid and unlikely – and to me everything about my bible seemed disagreeable – I just hated it, as I did the religious music, the Christmas carols and the prayers that went along with it. My life had been sabotaged by nonsense. Then, one day I was taken to a church service and saw adults that prior to this event I’d considered rational, but now here they were on their knees, heads bowed, mumbling in the direction of a carving of an almost naked man nailed to a cross. This was for me a genuinely shocking event and a real eye opener. It seemed that adults were just as unreliable as the children around me – they just hid it better. So much that was going on didn’t ring true… and I didn’t like it one bit. I was only seven years old, but the prevailing circumstances caused me to question everything I was learning, which must have been exasperating for any adult that came into contact with me. No adult was ever unkind during this time and in retrospect this seems remarkable because I must have been a precocious child, and my own experience of children of this sort has been that they are invariably awful. I was very polite and enjoyed education and for these reason alone I think  I was favoured. Certainly I hid my mistrust of some adults judgement when it came to religion, and could see no reason to believe in anything that wasn’t demonstrably true. However, I  didn’t make a big deal over things that clearly upset them: every morning I went along with saying the Lord’s prayer – with just one question on my mind – why didn’t they think this was twaddle?

As I got older I decided I would test everything that I was told by working things through from first principles, but  this wasn’t so easy, and I soon realised that I didn’t have the maths skills to do the job properly which made the uncertainty of not knowing for sure frustrating. Very soon after I discovered science, and the great advantage of science was that all the things I thought I needed to know had been tested and I was soon hooked on this more than useful way of dealing with information.

My head-mistresses inscription in the Bible I’d been given irritated me as much in childhood as it does as an adult.

Twenty-five years later I returned to visit my first school teacher and asked her directly if she was still a follower Jesus, and to my surprise she said that she wasn’t – she had stopped believing in Christianity some time previously and was now following the teachings of a Native American chief. I thought she was bats and wondered whether she was going to apologise for trying to fill my head, at a very impressionable age, with religious beliefs that she had since rejected, but it had clearly never occurred to her that the indoctrination of small children with information that she no longer believed had been an appalling act. To my mind  her lack of rational thought on the subject was clear stupidity, although I appreciate for some, this is a matter of opinion… But. is it really? I mean come on! We can’t continue to think the way people used to think in the 12th Century by following unsubstantiated views that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

I don’t think it unreasonable to ask why so many people follow horoscopes that cannot be accurately predicted; or  gamble in casinos that make no secret that the odds are stacked against their punters; and certainly it seems entirely reasonable to question why so many millions worldwide, pray to different versions of gods that rational thinkers might consider unlikely to exist. Clearly, there is a lot going on in our heads and it might be that faith, or certain types of  believing without question, are genetically selected for, because belief itself provides us with some selective advantage. Believing in a certain way without question might  indeed be making some of us feel more comfortable, but believing without evidence does not make things true and in many cases might be regarded as the most dangerous form of stupidity. When leaders claim their right to engage in conflict because ‘God is on their side’, we know there will be trouble; and when they think they’ve got evidence for ‘weapon of mass destruction’ without really checking, having God on your side gets them over the line. So often, the apparently harmless act of just believing can turn us into dangerously defective individuals.

As a child I was told that Christian belief was superior to other forms of faith – in particular any that worshipped graven images – but take a look around a few churches – in particular Roman Catholic ones and the hypocrisy is palpable. Many totems like those on the Pacific north west coast of North America are representative of spirit stories closely associated with the natural world and it is difficult to  argue that they are any less worthy of referencing belief than a devotion to a man nailed to a cross; and in my opinion their semi-abstract forms make them far more interesting.

Throughout many parts of Europe religious belief has been in decline for quite some time and the situation is also true for the United States although this to a lesser degree. The real question might be, not in asking what people really believe, but rather, how their belief is actually measured. Is it that  religious people are becoming less inclined towards belief, or is it that people who were not religious in the first place are feeling more comfortable about admitting it? 

In England during the middle ages, people were heavily penalised for not attending church, and might incur a heavy fine, but there was also the possibility of a physical punishment and in some cases death. Throughout Europe people were executed for their non-religious views, and it wasn’t so much down to ‘the not believing’, but more the consideration that they might be in league with the devil, a situation that seems almost too ridiculous to take seriously.

In Tudor times it was not uncommon to be fined for non-attendance at a church and it proved wise not to attract attention to yourself by openly questioning God because doing so could be life threatening. However, it does seem odd that with today’s level of education and understanding churches still have a place. The Roman Catholic Church has been largely discredited by repeated scandals, but when the Pope makes a statement his views still make the news, which suggests that despite a groundswell of unsavoury scandals Catholicism remains relevant to many of its followers.

There’s a lot of stuff going on that our brains are susceptible to and religious belief is high on the list.
Religious belief probably has a selective advantage, otherwise fewer people would make a habit of believing in things that aren’t likely to be true. 

Nobody can be sure there isn’t a god, but certainly there is no empirical evidence to support the idea that there is a benevolent one and any god that is looking out for an appreciative footballer giving thanks for having scored a goal whilst ignoring starving children somewhere else in the World, would seem to be no god at all. However, Dr Dean Hammer has claimed a God gene exits and labelled it VMAT2, and those who carry it are said to be more likely to believe in a greater spiritual force; the validity of this one off experiment has been disputed, but at least it opens up the possibility of further research into whether genes play a role in what we believe and how they operate. Certainly if there is a selective advantage to faith systems it makes sense to look for the mechanisms.

A religious order travelling to Seville Cathedral wearing pointy hats or capirotes during Holy Week. I’m guessing I can’t be the only one who thinks this rather spooky!

On the whole our brains like stories that make us feel more comfortable – having faith provides the opportunity to just believe which is far easier than formulating rational opinions. The term atheist is used to label those who don’t believe in God, but a belief in deities is a broad subject and a single word cannot cover all the bases.

If we are looking for truth, it should not be a question of believing or not believing, but rather asking why thinking rationally should need to be labelled. How in any case is it possible to claim that one supernatural God is more likely to exist than another.  The very idea that a benevolent god exists seems so unlikely it is surprising how many people find it necessary to argue that god is an illusion, but then again there are book deals, movie projects and comedy routines that indicate there is money to be made in disputing god’s existence.

Perhaps the important thing is not so much to consider the existence or non-existence of god, but rather, how the imaginary way that some people see a deity’s role in their lives affects the rest of us.

Some religious groups suggest that our dominion over the natural world is ‘all part of God’s plan’, while others claim that as we are the superior life form on the Planet, our manipulation of other species is innate, but should we follow either of these beliefs our behaviours will increasingly threaten natural environments and other life forms on the Planet. To see ourselves as above and not part of a natural system inevitably throws our continued existence into question.

If God has thoughtfully provided all of these ducks for my benefit, should I take time to enjoy them paddling by or just get on and eat them?

With or without God, our present relationship with the natural world indicates that it is necessary for us to make changes, but we continue to dither rather than behave proactively. In the face of imminent environmental disasters we do nothing because some of them haven’t quite happened yet… and we prefer to ‘hope’ that they won’t rather than ‘accept’ that most likely they will; which might be considered the ultimate demonstration of mass stupidity. The trick it seems is to pin down the essentials and then act upon them, but our minds appear to have evolved in a way that make this difficult to achieve. For some reason we prefer to try and fix things once they have gone wrong, rather than prevent them from happening in the first place.

Once we’ve seen the world through our eyes, our brains have to analyse the input and sometimes, ‘That’s All Folks’ doesn’t quite seem enough for us – surely there must be more.

Increasingly, thinking – stupidly or not – is becoming a political act, and unless science can provide a precise analysis of every situation that we face – unfavourable or not – it will be very difficult to overcome the surge of erroneous ideas that many use to support unsubstantiated beliefs. Scientific evidence is being increasingly challenged by nonsensical arguments, put forward by those gambling our futures on faith and anecdotal stories; they are attempting to impress and bewilder the ignorant amongst us by simply cherry picking what best supports their poorly thought out arguments, whilst re-engineering all of the most important questions to support the answers that their audience most wants to hear. Propagating nonsense is not necessarily a demonstration of stupidity, but if the rest of us are prepared to accept such views without recourse to the facts, then clearly it is.

We can usually discern what is and what is not real, but maybe on the really big issues we see ourselves as incapable of making a difference and consequently fall short when it comes to making good decisions.

Around the World, large numbers of  people do not appear able to move forward with rational thought based upon the evidence available because their decisions are often emotionally based. The question is, with education and reliable information so freely available, why are there so many people trying to think their way through life using faith based systems rather than thinking rationally?  

Unfortunately, the use of logic does not appear to be gaining traction at a time when essential changes in our behaviours seem essential: and the sad truth is that we may not be capable of thinking clearly enough to react appropriately to the environmental problems that we now face.

We can’t say for certain that a God didn’t create the Universe or the laws that govern its existence, but just because we don’t presently know all of the answers doesn’t mean that we should automatically jump to conclusions based on mythologies; and in any case a god working on this level would make no practical difference to our everyday lives. The possibility, that God is an interventionist and pervasive in daily outcomes also seems unlikely and not supported by any of the laws of science. The most likely possibility is that believing in sudden good fortune and divine intervention are simply illusions created by our minds, and there is a certain irony in that beliefs beneficial to our species in the past, may now prove detrimental to future success.

It might just be that the time has arrived to put magic and mystery on the back seat and allow critical thinking, based on scientific evidence, to drive us forward. For those who haven’t noticed, science has been doing this for a century or more, but increasingly we have chosen to ignore the less palatable truths that scientific discoveries have thrown up. I doubt that Jesus is coming any time soon, but major changes are on the way, and some of them might not be good; meanwhile the clock is ticking, with many of us still set on stupid time. The question is, can we learn to think more rationally, or are we stuck with what we’ve got?

 

 

 

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Are We Too Stupid to Save The Planet? Part 1: The Limitations of Perception.

It’s nothing personal – lurking in every human brain is the potential for stupidity.

Most of us think, or at least hope, that there are people out there who are far stupider than we are; and the confidence this provides, helps us feel better about ourselves; which suggests perhaps that we don’t live so much in the outside World as much as inside our heads, experiencing a virtual world brought about by our brains interpretation of external stimuli. Whatever the case, few of us are critically analytical about the way we think, or question why our brains work the way they do.

It’s been a wonderful world, but can we think far enough ahead to keep it that way.

The prime function of any brain is to guide its owner through the complicated game of life, and it seems that our brains are quite good at dealing with short term minor events, but long term consequential issues often send us scurrying away to develop a wait and see policy, that more often than not, is ridiculously hopeful.

Although we have the potential to do so, we find ourselves disinclined to look ahead and think proactively about really big issues. In particular any thoughts that concern the viability of our planet and the life that lives upon it will not usually provoke actions beyond the most trivial. Some might suggest this to be a sign of stupidity as we have proven woefully incompetent at analysing problems that may have serious longterm consequences.  

We all have a certain potential for stupidity, and this might be something we just have to live with. The real problem is that ignorance can usually be remedied – but stupidity, like a dog at Christmas, is for life. 

You don’t have to be stupid to end up here, but those who are, will sometimes get there quicker.

On a day to day basis there is of course a limit to how stupid our behaviours can become before we are forced to pay the ultimate price of prematurely checking out; but, when we restrict our particular versions of stupidity to ideas rather than actions it is surprising how much leeway we give both ourselves and others, allowing us  to spread unsubstantiated views to just about anybody who will listen.

Clearly our brains are not perfect, and naturally disinclined to promote entirely rational behaviour; but nevertheless there is still a lot going on inside our heads. Most of our decisions are made by undertaking a complex series of rapid mental processes; which means that we often get things wrong, but at least we can do so very quickly.

Sense and Sense Ability.

The world about us is busy with information, but our perception of it is limited because our sensory ability is surprisingly narrow. Evolution it seems has adapted us to perceive enough of what happens around us to get by, but not so much as to overload our brains with superfluous data that won’t significantly improve our chances of survival.
This butterfly is sensing moisture and the minerals on which it is feeding through its feet. The tips of clubed antennae and compound eyes pick up sensory information in a very different way than we do and the insects nervous system will process the input in a way we may never fully comprehend. It sees the world in a way that effectively allows it to survive. and may prove better adapted to survive than we are having existed in it's present form for many milions of years longer than we have.
This malachite butterfly senses the minerals in the moisture that it is feeding on through its feet; and its clubbed antennae and compound eyes pick up information in a very different way from the way our senses do, with an interpretation that will always remain beyond our complete understanding; but  despite all of this, these beautiful insects react very effectively to their surroundings, having existed in their present form far longer than we have managed as Homo sapiens. Our species has done very well for itself, but has not yet stood the test of time.

We have been shaped by our senses,

and our behaviours limited by our sensory range which affects our brain’s perception  – because there is a lot of information out there that we are incapable of gathering. We can’t for example utilise the infrared part of the spectrum, as snakes do when sensing the thermal radiation emitted by their prey; or utilise U.V. light as bees do when they pick out guide markings on flowers when gathering food.

On some occasions it would be useful if we could echolocate like a bat, or have sense organs along our bodies as fish do, to taste our surroundings when swimming through water, but we can’t do either. Certainly our eyes do not see with the magnified detail of a hawk, and there’s no chance of smelling or hearing with the acuity of our dogs, but despite all of these sensory limitations our species has remained quite viable in the short term. But if we expect to continue, we will need to develop broader behavioural strategies to ensure our future, because the impact we are presently having on the Planet is down to our inability to change detrimental behaviours and this is beginning to let us down. In nature every species is destined to become extinct, but by the essential act of thinking, we should at least be trying to buck the trend.

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Despite all of the information out there that we miss, our brains contribute impressively to external events by filling in the many gaps that our sensory abilities fail to perceive. Our eyes for example do not get to see everything that happens, but our brains usually make appropriate associations by logging into past experience before joining up the dots: this is particularly true when it comes to facial recognition, which has become a major feature of our social success –  what we don’t quite see, our brain smoothes over and this extraordinary ability will sometimes make us unreliable witnesses to what goes on around us.

What we think we see often falls short in the fine detail, because our brains constantly make things up to form a more complete picture and then commit this to memory; but recalling that memory will then be subjected to changes before the rejigged information is put back into storage – in essence the more times we recall an event the further it moves away from the truth. With this in mind, perhaps we should worry less about the tiny details that we miss and analyse more carefully the ones that we don’t.

Science demonstrates that our success does not rely entirely on deriving information in absolute form, and our survival has not so far depended upon knowing all of the facts; with our brains concerning themselves primarily with short term appropriate responses to each individual’s syntheses of reality. 

Our senses may not be perfect,

but the one thing we do excel at is having a generally high opinion of the achievements of our species. We should think more carefully though before allowing ourselves to become too satisfied with the length and breadth of our cleverness. The human brain is the most complex analytical organ that we have so far encountered, but with its imperfect reconstructions of the outside world we can sometimes appear a little stupid.

The most basic problem we face is that of perception.

Consider that we are floating across a lake and looking down into the water and see a number of  toads swimming this way and that in close formation – never mind that the image we see looks like something out of a digital dream populated by creatures straight out of a computer game from the 1980s.

Then the wind blows causing a series of waves to run across the surface of the water, which, rather like the toads appear too geometric  to be entirely believable, but just go with it for the sake of argument…

The sun comes out to add some sparkle to the little waves that run directly parallel to the lines of toads and the sparkle also forms at right angles, and now we should ask ourselves, are the waves really running parallel to the toads… I mean if you hadn’t seen the waves and the toads independently would you stake your live on the fact that they are?

Of course, what you may or may not see here really isn’t a measure of stupidity, but it is an indication that even at the simplest level our minds do not always recognise what is going on in the outside world. Our brains are fallible and on occasions  our interpretation totters on the edge of getting something very simple, very wrong. Such events are called optical illusions, but more properly they are optical effects, for which the brain is often responsible when it creates cognitive illusions to explain what it thinks we have seen.

My daughter was travelling in Central America with a  group of people quite unfamiliar with the area, when their driver cut power to the vehicle to demonstrate that at this particular point in the journey the vehicle was moving uphill without the power of the engine. He gave the explanation that at this place the Earth’s magnetic field ran close to the surface of the road and it was this that was drawing the vehicle up the incline. When my daughter returned in the evening to where we were staying she told me this interesting story without any sense that it was ridiculous. My reaction was unfortunate, ‘Are you stupid?’ I asked her, which didn’t go down very well as she really wanted to believe a story that had now largely been ruined by the truth, and needless to say my reaction earned me a number of bad parenting bonus points.

In retrospect I realised I had been unfair, because I had viewed the situation with the advantage of previous experience, as the very same thing had once happened to me, in another place, another time. I had the advantage of knowing that the earth’s magnetic field is a force that is spread across a huge area, but in any single place can be regarded as far weaker than even a small bar magnet, which cannot pull a large vehicle up an incline against the force of gravity. The effect is usually caused by the surrounding landscape making it appear as if something is moving uphill and is a genuine visual illusion.

 

These two pictures – taken on either side of the same road but in opposite directions (no bullet holes in one sign and a bend in the road in the other, suggest that I am not cheating) indicate that the road as it is going away provides perspective whilst taking the pictures from a standing position several feet above the road reinforces the illusion that in both directions the road is going uphill. I am not standing in a dip and the road isn’t, and in some places the landscape will amplify this illusion, which becomes extreme and stories get told.

At the time of my experience I was travelling as a cameraman and had the advantage of a spirit level on my tripod and another in my bag and I was able to demonstrated fairly quickly that our vehicle wasn’t being pulled uphill by the Earth’s magnetic field and was at once regarded as a killjoy, with none of the other passengers inclined towards a rational explanation, a response that I found rather odd. My daughter and I had experienced an illusion that could be easily demonstrated by performing a simple experiment with a blob of air in a small glass tube containing liquid. In fairness we are stupid only when we don’t learn from the first occasion something unlikely happens to us, as only stupid people fall for the same nonsense twice. All that I will add is that exposing an act of stupidity will not necessarily make you any friends.

Here are some people using their brains to think about stuff . The great thing is that nobody has any idea what’s going on in the other people’s heads despite all of them being in close proximity and sharing a similar experience. In their heads some of these people will even be thinking about somewhere or something else.

Our brain usually prioritises the recognisable and will sometimes override the recognition of certain truths –  our brains it seems are often busy with compromise, especially if we are dealing with one another when we often disguise – sometimes unwittingly – what we are really thinking or feeling for the sake of social cohesion. At such times, we are open to suggestions and the beliefs of others, when what we probably should be, is a bit more sceptical, at least inside our heads. Being part of a group can be good for our mental health, but it can also lead us away from the truth, and when that happens we tend to all get stupid together, although most of us don’t notice.

 

Clearly, the way our minds work is fundamental to our susceptibility to certain types of input. The success of advertising for example, is a clear indication that our minds are open to manipulation and young brains in particular are more plastic and vulnerable to harm from certain kinds of input, but even as we get older and more experienced the personal computing systems we carry in our heads are still open to suggestion.  A lot of the time we are just kidding ourselves, because from an evolutionary perspective, that is what has worked best for our species… Well, it has so far!

More recently with the sudden explosion of digital information, things have been moving more quickly than they ever have done before, with everything from technology to the way we receive news – which is almost continuous now, along with the speed of our social interactions, which has produced a rate of input to our brains that has not worked well for everybody; and some people are discovering that they have a better quality of life when they stop checking their mobile phones and dispense with social media altogether. Nevertheless, progress is progress and receiving information quickly is the way things happen in today’s world, but that does not alter the fact that our brains may not be adequately equipped to deal with the non-stop intensity of our modern lives and some of us are simply not keeping up. The modern age has brought with it more to consider, and consequently more mistakes are made which gives the impression that there is ‘a lot more stupidity about’.

A brain coral might remind us of a human brain in appearance and if ours could grow to such a size our computing power might be extraordinary, but there is an obvious practical limit to scull size and what we can effectively carry; and such a large brain would be expensive in terms of energy consumption. Even the fish swimming above the brain coral with its comparatively small brain, isn’t anywhere near as stupid as we once thought and the idea that fish don’t think, or feel pain is presently undergoing a serious re-evaluation. The limited memory span attributed to goldfish is certainly a mythology, although of course fish will never achieve the thinking capacity of most vertebrates.
A chickadee certainly doesn’t have a large brain, but still manages basic tool use to aid in feeding.  here holding a nut steady against a small twig.

Birds in particular appear to be very adept at working things out and for them in particular, brain size isn’t everything. Birds have much smaller brains than we do, but make very good use of them because the neurons they contain are smaller and more densely packed than is the case for mammalian brains; which might explain why so many birds demonstrate cognitive abilities that often surprise us.

Ravens are members of the crow family and surprisingly bright, which aids in their sociability.

Animals other than ourselves demonstrate varying degrees of intelligence and their close proximity to nature means that ‘stupidity’ (if we can call it that) at the most basic level will bring them closer to death. But because humans now control so thoroughly the environments they live in, and have achieved such high levels of social co-operation, the idiots amongst us usually get considerable leeway before getting penalised. We are it seems extremely tolerant of stupidity, in part because it has many facets that are difficult to quantify and when it is difficult to quantify something it is difficult to make  judgements.

Nevertheless, one might think it easy to distinguish between people who do and do not exhibit this unfortunate condition – even if today it is not politically correct to do so… although of course we all make judgements about one another in our heads. Most of us recognise a tendency in others to be a little on the dim side, but we still fail to call it when a well educated professor, brilliant in his field, finds it difficult to achieve simple practical tasks that a poorly educated streetwise kid can manage in a second… Critical thinking should not be confused with intelligence, as stupidity is clearly relative as well as complicated. 

Did I really see clouds like this, or did my brain just make them up? Sometimes taking a picture helps.

‘The Dunning-Kruger effect’

is a cognitive bias that demonstrates one of the saddest ironies of the human condition. David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that people who have the least competence at a task often have a tendency to rate their skills more highly than do people with greater competence; in effect these are people too ignorant or stupid to grasp what it means to have the skills to ‘think about things’ in the first place; and if we are happy enough to label such people ‘stupid’, the important thing to remember is that they will not have any realisation of their situation because they lack the capacity to reason with the necessary awareness to have the faintest idea of how stupid they really are. 

In the end the reliability of the way we think is a subject that many of us would prefer not to consider too deeply, just incase we fall short of the attributes necessary to not be too stupid. If the state of our Planet is anything to measure this by, then clearly we are failing to rise to the challenge of rational thought and must at some stage face the consequences. We are increasingly required to live, move, and consider events more quickly that we have ever done before, perhaps on a scale too broad for our brains to provide the necessary answers. Are we then too stupid to maintain our Planet in a liveable condition?… On the brink of a host of environmental catastrophes a rational thinker might say that it is certainly beginning to look as if we are, but we might also be on the brink of eliminating stupidity altogether… along with most everything else.

With thanks to Dr David Barlow for the use of his interesting picture of a human brain.

Part 2 to follow: ‘Beyond Rational Thinking’.

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The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by tumultuous volcanic activity – this is still happening and is presently centred on the Big Island, Hawai’i. Mt Kilauea on the south-east side of this island remains active and has been spewing lava almost continuously since 1984. Put simply, Hawaii is moving steadily over a hot spot that lies beneath the Pacific Plate.

To the west and more central to the island is the volcanic mass of Mauna Loa which rises just short of 13,700 feet; it has erupted only twice since 1950: once in 1975 for a day, and again in 1984 for three weeks. At the moment things are quiet, but it is still considered the most active volcano of recent time, having erupted 33 times since its first historical eruption in 1833. Not far away to the north across a saddle of lava stands the sister peak of Mauna Kea – presently dormant it rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and I was fortunate enough to travel up it quite recently – this sounds impressive, but getting there is a doddle because you can drive more or less all the way. It is however the toughest road journey anywhere in the world should you choose to do it on a bicycle!

Of greater interest perhaps is that the slopes of these impressive volcanoes provide a variety of habitats entirely determined by changes in altitude. The most obvious way to experience climatic change is to travel from the equator to polar regions, which takes time and money, but there is an alternative: go to Hawai’i and ascend either Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea and experience similar changes over a much shorter distance.

A good start: photographing a green turtle on the local beach.

A few weeks ago my friend David Barlow and I did exactly this, driving from sea level to within a few feet of the summit of Mauna Kea, on the way rising through a variety of different habitat types to arrive above the tree line in a very short journey time: from a tropical beach to a stark arid landscape in a matter of hours, experiencing changes that were both marked and abrupt –  and I was able to make a visual record of species before we returned to sea level in less than twelve hours without rushing about.

The first bird of the day showed up during breakfast – a member of a flock that was picking off grass seeds on the lawn behind our apartment. Introduced from South America in the 1960s this attractive bird is now well established.

We then took a short walk to the beach and along the track saw a red cardinal in a non-native acacia tree. This bird was introduced to the islands in the late 1920’s from the Eastern States of North America; it has a formidable beak essentially for seed eater, but this colourful creature will take insects and other small animals, putting it into direct competition with native birds, or would, if there were any about! Almost nothing endemic exists at sea level apart from the occasional sea bird – a shocking situation that usually passes without comment. Few people realise the birds they see are recent introductions, and no tourist operator would break the mood by broadcasting that at lower altitudes, the most commonly seen creatures are as alien to these islands as snow at Christmas.

The yellow-billed cardinal is also common, it was introduced from South America in the early 1970s and is spreading. These birds occur mostly at lower altitudes, but have been seen more recently at around 6,000 feet where they come into contact with endemic species; this causes not only straight competition, but the possibility of spreading diseases such as bird malaria which the natives have no tolerance of.

Continuing on to the beach we came across a beautiful but nevertheless non-native tree under which a silver eye was feeding two fledgling youngsters. I know this bird well because it was often in our New Zealand garden, although it originates from the opposite end of the Pacific; the NZ version arrived from Australia sometime during the 19th Century, and this version is from Japan.

A Japanese white eye Zosterops japonicus feeding its young.

The Hawai’i white eye was introduced in the late 1920s; it is an agreeable song bird and an absolute sweetie, but like the yellow-billed cardinal, has spread to higher altitudes where it too competes with native birds. White-eyes are opportunistic feeders and as nectar makes up part of their diet this puts it in direct competition with native honeycreepers that have evolved on the Hawaiian Islands and can be found nowhere else.  Back in its homeland this is a delightful bird, but on Hawai’i it is becoming a problem.

One animal that seems to be everywhere at lower altitudes is the Indian mongoose, particularly where there is broken lava flow that provides this efficient little predator with ideal hiding places. This seems an odd choice for an introduction because the Hawaiian Islands have many delicate ecosystems that until recently were totally devoid of mammalian predators.

This less than ideal newcomer was introduced in the 1880s to take on the rat population so prevalent on sugar plantations. As rats are nocturnal and the mongoose diurnal the two seldom met, and together worked around the clock consuming Hawai’i’s native birds – in particular the ground nesters. It is claimed that the mongoose is responsible for the elimination of at least 6 native species from these Islands.

Rikki Tikki Tavi appears just about everywhere including the back of the barbecue on our deck.

I could continue working through a list of all the beautiful plants, butterflies and birds around where we are staying that are clearly non-natives, but if I did, we wouldn’t get much beyond the car park  so it has to be onward and upward. 

David and I began our drive to altitude by crossing the island using Route 200, or the Saddle Road as it is commonly known. This runs between the two volcanic masses of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and as regards native species, we saw nothing until we got to around 6,000 feet.

Along the Saddle Road in the many areas that have experienced recent lava flows, plants are now re-establishing, a situation that has been repeated itself many times on Hawai’i.

At these higher altitudes in national park areas, plants appear very different from the exotic introductions commonplace at sea level. There were similarities to my New Zealand experience, with many native plants carrying smaller, more subtle flowers that many of us ignore in preference to bigger blousier forms that are easily introduced…. But what the heck, people just love dressing up their islands the way they decorate their Christmas trees  with exotic colourful tat that makes them feel more cheerful. Perhaps if we were better informed we might be inclined to consider our native plants more sympathetically, but the chances are… we  probably wouldn’t.

Pink Knotweed Perssicaria capitatum has small flowers, but isn’t a native, having arrived from Asia.

It is tempting to suggest species evolving on islands are delicate, but the reality is, most are well adapted to their surroundings, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived.  It is only when rapid changes occur that natives are found wanting, as was the case when Homo sapiens arrived on the Islands  adaptation through natural selection simply couldn’t equip the natives quickly enough to allow them to compete successfully with the many introduced pests they encountered.

Once up on the hill a mossy forest of native trees adds something quite hopeful to the stark surrounding landscape.

Just before turning off to Moana Loa we stopped to visit Hairy Hill on the opposite side of the road. It was a gentle walk up the old cinder cone that rises just a couple of hundred feet, providing enough height to survive a more recent lava flow that obliterated the flora of the surrounding area; what remains is a reservoir for native plants and trees, and amongst them there is a pleasant ambiance to the small isolated mossy forest that exists near the top, although moss is not be a surprise here because the area is often swathed in dank mists, imbibing the open lava flow below with a certain atmosphere – and it is no wonder that such places have spiritual significance for native people.

Looking down from Pu’u Huluhulu or Hairy Hill. This is a Kapuka, an older volcanic hill surrounded by a more recent lava flow.
I was surprised when a turkey crossed my path near the top of the Hairy Hill a bird very much out of place here.

On the opposite side of the road John Burns Way leads us up towards the summit of Mauna Kea. We stopped just short of the point where the tree line changed abruptly into a high altitude desert to emerge from cloud cover into bright sunlight. I pulled the car off the road at 9,000 feet so that we might acclimatise to the altitude; but had an ulterior motive: I’d hoped to photograph native birds in the area, but this would depend entirely on finding plants carrying nectar filled flowers to attract them in, otherwise we could search all afternoon and perhaps see birds only fleetingly. There is little to be gained by chasing wildlife about – if there was nothing to draw birds in to where I could stand quietly, the chances of getting worthwhile images was slim.

Common Mullien is everywhere.

 

We start searching on foot and it is at once clear that a great many unwanted plants have been introduced here, some accidentally; and eliminating them is likely to be an ongoing problem for park authorities. In fact, the weeds are so numerous and producing such copious amounts of seed, it might be a case of ‘know your enemy’ and prioritise those that are competing most harmfully with native species.

There was no shortage of Common Mullien Verbascum thapsus, originally brought to North America by settlers from Europe for medicinal purposes. It has now reached Hawaii and doing well at altitude on Mauna Kea.

David time lapses clouds as they roll up between the two volcanic peaks; every half an hour the top of Mauna Loa is revealed then disappears again, we however remain just above the cloud-line in full sunshine.

This volcanic mass we are on is the tallest mountain on the planet, but not recognised as such because the height of a land mass is always taken from sea level to provide a standard for the measurement of altitude. However, if Mauna Kea was measured from the ocean floor it rises to around 33,000 feet and there is nothing on Earth that will match it  – apart from the peak we can see across the saddle in front of us  that of Mauna Loa, which is around a 100 feet short of the volcano we are standing on.

At the time of writing Kilauea was very busy doing its thing.

To have two such massive features on an island that takes only a couple of hours to cross is remarkable. Everest is considered the highest mountain in the world at just over 29,000 feet it is part of the Himalayas – a mountain chain that pushed up like a rucked carpet when two continents collided: 50 million years ago the India plate started crashing into the Euro Asia plate and they continue to do so; but the Hawaiian peaks are perhaps even more impressive, thrusting as they do from the ocean floor driven entirely by the dynamism of volcanic activity.

Flowers of the Mamane tree Sophora chrysophylla.

It doesn’t take long to see a yellow flower, a member of the pea family, that is similar to the kowhai flower that I know from my time in New Zealand, which demonstrates that the relatedness of some plants can be clearly followed across the Pacific region, although how this member of the Sophora family arrived in Hawai’i remains a mystery.

I set up on a mamane tree and wait to see what visits.

The blooms I set up on hung from a mamane tree, a species integral to the upland forests of Hawai’i with flowers drooping down seductively from a canopy that can reach up to 50 feet. Unfortunately, the tree’s survival on the Hawaiian Islands has not been plain sailing: prior to and during the 1980s the upland slopes of Mauna Kea were ravaged by introduced grazers, and legal action was taken against the government at both local and federal level on behalf of two bird species. The resultant court case ended with a win for the endangered birds, in particular the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), a honeycreeper that relies heavily on Mamane tree seeds for food, as do  caterpillars of the Cydia moth which also feed on the young seeds of this tree and the birds in turn feed on them. Both bird and insect must avoid the mature seed coats because they are highly toxic, although these animals have developed a degree of tolerance to the alkaloid poisons that are present.  It appears the fauna remains just ahead of the flora in this evolutionary arms race and having gained the advantage, utilise the mamane seeds as an essential part of their diet.

As for the other battle – the legal one: on paper it was clearly a win for the birds and the environment, but in reality this wasn’t absolute. Soon after the judgement sheep and feral goats that for years had been decimating the upland forests were at last being removed, but the court order was never fully complied with until another court order was made in 2013 backing the protective measure, and renewing efforts to remove the pests that were pushing the Palila bird in particular to extinction. I am not certain of how successful this has been, but we at least didn’t see any alien grazers during our visit.

A tui in our New Zealand garden making use of nectar from a kowhia tree which carries one of the earliest blooms of spring. The birds beak is curved, and has co-evolved with the kowhia flowers to aid in pollination: pollen can be clearly seen on the upper side of the beak. This bird is of the honeyeater family and quite different from the honeycreepers of Hawaii, some of which have evolved similar beaks for the same nectar feeding purpose.

This is just one of a host of conservation issues that plague delicate island environments. Conservationists and volunteers do their best, but pest problems are frequently overwhelming, and there is usually a struggle for adequate funding.

The Sophora flowers blooming on Mauna Kea are as important to the native nectar feeding birds of Hawaii as the related kowhai flowers are to the tuis and bellbirds that regularly visited the trees we had planted in our New Zealand garden. Understanding such alliances is important and may prove instrumental in both protecting and bringing associated species together.

Certainly not the most exciting looking bird, but exciting for me…. I have no interest in ticking off birds, but as most of the park areas were closed due to the volcanic activity, the chance of seeing native birds was substantially reduced.

Back on the mountain I stood in the mid-day sun waiting… and it wasn’t long before a small bird came flying in to my chosen tree, but it was soon away with a dipping up and down flight that is probably peculiar to its species. I was pretty well set up by then and hopeful of a return visit – although this was not an entirely pleasurable experience, as standing in the sun at altitude with increased levels of UV will quickly sear exposed skin.

The bird made three further visits at approximately twenty to thirty minute intervals and remained completely untroubled by my presence. The little nectar feeder spent three or four minutes feeding on groups of flowers before flying off to presumably visit other flowers in the area; certainly it flew some distance beyond a point where I could see it, which suggested that it was feeding over a fairly wide range. 

Something about this bird might suggest a non-native immature white eye, but then the curve of the bill and the short tail makes me think it is a female or immature Hawai’i ‘Amakihi (Hemignathus virens virens) – not the rarest honeycreeper on Hawai’i  but nevertheless considered a distinct species for the island. This bird is also often confused with the Hawai’i Creeper (Oreomystis mana), but the creeper is rarer and does not feed so regularly on nectar. Hopefully, I might be forgiven for an uncertain identification of a bird I don’t regularly see. Even ornitholgist sometimes have trouble identifying these ‘little brown jobs’ and it might in the end come down to movement or behaviour… but most likely somebody will know from my pictures and I will soon be better informed.
Once I get to see the curve of the birds beak more clearly I feel confident that I have observed a native bird – a honey creeper with a beak adapted to feed from flowers, but still useful enough to dig out insects.

After a couple of hours acclimatisation we had achieved all that was possible and continued on to the summit. Almost at once we were on Mars, albeit a Mars with blue skies and genuine atmosphere; but the views were not as spectacular here as the Mars-scapes I’d previously seen near the summit of Haleakala which rises to just under 10,000 feet on the neighbouring island of Maui. From our vantage point we could at least see Haleakala coming and going some 35 miles away as clouds moved across the substantial peaks of both islands. Now close to  the 14,000 foot summit David framed the view and set his time lapse in motion.

David time lapsed cloud formations behind one of the Mauna Kea Observatory Telescopes with Haleakala on the island of Maui in the background – my still is rather a poor substitute.

I finished my photography fairly quickly – because wildlife opportunities are limited at this altitude – and was just admiring the view when David arrived with a young lady he had found, he left her with me and returned to his camera— the altitude had got the better of her, although her boyfriend had fared better and decided to walk back down to the visitors centre from where they had started out. David had agreed that we would drive his girlfriend down because of her condition. I sat her on the back seat of our car amongst the gear and told her how lucky I had been to photograph a honeyeater, but she seemed disinterested, obviously she wasn’t big on wildlife and so I stopped talking, at which point she shot out of the car and began projectile vomiting in a quite spectacular manner… I must admit that I did think about taking a photograph, but refrained from doing so.

The summit of Mauna Kea is not much further away, but I never made it up there, nor any other summit on any other mountain I have visited — it’s the kind of thing that can make you throw up, and I have no idea why people feel a need to do it.

Soon back in the car she began telling me how much better she was feeling. I smiled and nodded encouragingly and at once she took a turn for the worse and did it all over again. Hopefully it wasn’t the company she was keeping… more likely, having taken a meandering walk up in 40% less oxygen than there is at sea level and going that little bit further to the summit she had developed altitude sickness. It was clear that we needed to get her to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and so David’s time lapse came to an abrupt end and I was soon driving us towards the visitors centre considerably faster than when we had made our way up – thinking all the time that a four wheel drive would have now been quite useful. The dirt road had been rutted and tricky to negotiate on the ascent and I had driven slowly to look after the vehicle, but on the way down it was a different story.

Away in the distance Kilauea has a little spew.

 We were going quite fast — why wasn’t I sliding us off of the volcano? Then, it suddenly occurred to me — the grader I had noticed parked close by the visitors centre had been doing its job at an opportune moment and the track had been graded all the way to the top.

Half way to our destination, away in the distance Kilauea had a little spew of her own – signalling that tomorrow would be another murky VOG sky day, even on the other side of the island.

Hawai’i it seemed was presently troubled by one of  it’s little volcanic phases, but sadly the island also displays a good many environmental problems concerning the preservation of its endemic species… Nevertheless, even a true story should have a happy ending – so here it is. The girl and the volcano have stopped spewing now and both are doing fine.

Up above the clouds Mauna Kea is a Mars-scape but with atmosphere, where things can get very hot and very cold, but thankfully not to Martian extremes… because really, this is a very down to Earth sort of place.

There is also a moral to this story: a little bird recently told me that we all spend too much time obsessing over how beautiful things are, rather than how beautifully things fit together. Unfortunately, the latter requires far greater imagination and understanding than does the former, and more often than not, like many a good mixing of metaphors, we sometimes find ourselves on the right volcano, but chirping up the wrong tree. 

It wasn’t a great surprise that we didn’t see a Palila, but I have at least attempted a sketch.

I started the day with a little yellow bird that doesn’t belong, but didn’t manage to finish with the Palila – the yellow-headed bird that does – it was just too hopeful. Science has informed us quite thoroughly of what this rarity requires, and in that sense the tricky work has been done, but the will to save this beauty from extinction may simply not be there. And the way things are going – in the natural world at least – happy endings are increasingly difficult to find.

 

 

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New Zealand and Hawaii. Remote Islands and Why Each One Is Different.

Given the many problems caused by humans to the various species living on Pacific Islands, their rapid decline seems inevitable, but to a degree this process was happening naturally, long before we showed up. Such losses and gains were, and still are, dependent upon many factors, but as a general rule, smaller islands exhibit a greater turn over than do larger islands; and the arrival of man has now pushed the losses to the level of a major extinction event, with both New Zealand and Hawaii exhibiting clear examples of the problem. 

I mentioned Hawaii’s carnivorous caterpillars in a previous article, and do so again because they are such a great example of the unusual directions that evolution can take on islands largely isolated by distance. So far as we know, meat eating caterpillars occur only on the islands of Hawaii.

To remain camouflaged, this carnivorous caterpillar Eupithecia ochrochloris has cut a notch into a fern leaf. It has caught and is eating an Hawaiian fruit fly. The fruit flies of Hawaii are themselves unusual varying greatly in form in comparison to the tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster commonly seen elsewhere and used as research animals in laboratories. 
Eupithecia straurophragma

How plants and animals get to be on a remote island in the first place depends on several things: the size and topography of the island, and its position in relation to other nearby islands is important; as is the distance these islands are from major land areas that might act as starting points for new arrivals, and this is critical both to what will arrive and how frequently; any organism capable of parthenogenesis (the development of embryos without the need for fertilisation) will have a better chance of getting started than will animals that require both males and females for reproduction.

Each and every island has a unique story held in its geology. Consider Australasia – around a 100 million years ago this huge land mass separated from Godwana (which was at the time a supercontinent). The split from Antartica happened between 37 and 35 million years ago as it moved northward. The land that would eventually be New Zealand started moving away from the larger mass we now call Australia between 60 to 85 million years ago. 

New Zealand has many beautiful beaches, but inland the environment is significantly different from the way it was before man arrived. From the seaward side bands of native and often non-native trees give the impression of a still wild place, but once through the trees, more often than not, you’ll find yourself standing on sheep or cow pasture.

It is possible that NZ once formed part of a drowned continent, but for the millions of years the two main islands have remained above water in one form or another, extensive changes  have occurred — including climatic extremes which will have  eliminated many life forms.

 

Initially, when New Zealand sat alongside Australia, both were set in the same sub-tropical waters and in consequence had similar floras, but as the two separated, the sea flooded into the rift between them and formed the Tasman Sea. In consequence the New Zealand flora became isolated and new species began to evolve.

For the last 55 million years N.Z. has held its current position at around 2,000 kilometres to the south-east of Australia and experiences a much cooler climate than it once did, but ironically it now appears to be moving slowly back.

This Weta is one of around 70 species that occur nowhere else but New Zealand. This individual found its way onto my neck in our NZ garden, and when I tried to brush it off, it slashed out with its rasping rear legs and drew blood.

A lot can happen in 55 million years and the fine detail will  always remain uncertain, but nevertheless there is clear evidence that a great many species have come and gone during that period with most of the present New Zealand species of recent origin.

Everything in this picture is native to New Zealand… but no doubt, some hawk-eyed individual will see something here that proves me  wrong.

 

Apart from a few marine mammals and a couple of bat species, no other mammals have survived on these islands;           

and none managed to colonise successfully until the arrival of Polynesian settlers less than a thousand years ago; this was followed by a second wave of mammalian competitors that came along with Europeans when they began settling little more than 250 years ago, with dire consequences to the established native species.

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus– one of the ‘distinctives’  an ancient reptile that evolved in NZ. They appear to live forever and I’ve never seen one move.

Prior to the arrival of humans and their entourage of plants and animals, New Zealand had  been populated by a very distinctive flora and fauna that developed in isolation of the many mammalian predators evolved elsewhere. A European botanist arriving for the first time might initially consider that they had landed on another planet, because the invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and birds that fill the niches taken up by mammals elsewhere, are so extraordinary.

The North Island Kokako Callaeas wilsoni is also distinctive  and although its survival has been tenuous, isolated groups remain in only a few places on the North Island; the bird is mostly restricted to offshore islands where introduced mammalian pests have been eliminated and the birds then introduced as a conservation measure. Until fairly recently there was a South Island Kokako which had a reddish orange wattle  but this species is now thought to be extinct — the last definitive sighting was at Mt Aspiring National Park in 1967, but there are suggestions of more recent sitings and the species’ conservation status was moved from extinct to data deficient in 2013.
Waimea Falls – Kaui, Hawaii.

 

New Zealand has been around for some time, but the Hawaiian Islands were formed far more recently and exclusively by volcanic activity — they quite literally erupted from the depths of the mid-Pacific and are about  as remote from any other land area as it is possible to be. The first island, Kaui, started to push above water around 5  to 6 million years ago and is now the most westerly island in the chain. To the east at the opposite end is the Big Island (Hawai’i), and at less than a million years of age is still volcanically active.

 Recent lava flow features prominently on the Big Island Hawai’i in a way that it doesn’t on other Hawaiian Islands where lava is integral to the way the islands were formed but is no longer flowing. The older more established islands have moved on and consequently they no longer sit over the hot spot beneath the Pacific Plate responsible for volcanic eruptions.

Hawai’i is not huge, but nevertheless, it is big in comparison with the other islands in the chain. At around 10,500 square kilometres it is larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together, making up more than 60% of their total landmass.

Once the islands were formed, the possibility of a new plant or animal arriving on these tiny specks in the Pacific Ocean became a lottery. Miss the islands by only one mile or by a thousand, and the result would be the same  oblivion. Small organisms produced in large numbers will have had the best chance of arriving, with spores, seeds and tiny creatures the most likely candidates to be carried successfully on mid-altitude air currents to land against the odds on distant islands, although most of course will have perished. 

Small creatures like shore crickets might have arrived carried on flotsam.

Some species might have arrived carried across the surface of the ocean on any material that could stay afloat long enough to make landfall, but again the attrition rate would have been high and the chances of success slim.

It was a long shot that birds would arrive on Hawaiian Islands at all, given the distances involved, but when it did happen they would most likely have been carried on mid-altitude air currents. It is quite possible that only one or a small number of finch species arrived to become the honey creepers that radiated out across the Islands filling different habitats as they evolved into the 56 species that have been recorded, 18 of which are now extinct.

This article links: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of New Zealand. and: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

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The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of New Zealand.

Hawai’i is the third largest island in the Pacific after the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Each has a reputation for beautiful landscapes but all have experienced extraordinary losses of their unique flora and fauna.

When man arrived on Pacific Islands, most low altitude habitats were rapidly degraded and indigenous species either lost or pushed into rapid decline; but sadly many people fail to recognise the problem.

On islands where there are higher altitudes many indigenous species cling on, but invariably they are compromised in some way, in particular by introduced pests. 

Green Turtle and YellowTangs close by Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Park. Hawai’i. Most species found in seas around Pacific islands usually belong there, with the chances of seeing a varied bio-diversity improving considerably in protected areas, but once out of the water and up the beach, the situation rapidly changes.

To the casual observer Pacific Islands appear idyllic and it might seem peevish to dwell upon their environmental problems, but the losses are impossible to ignore. The Hawaiian Islands exhibit one of the highest species extinction rates of recent time, with New Zealand running a close second.

We can easily utilse the area above a beach, but the tidal zone is more difficult to control, consequently much of it remains natural.
Tidal zones are difficult for us to control and the reason so many remain natural, but once inland it is often easy to repurpose wild areas to our own ends.

A NEW ZEALAND STORY: When I first visited the Coromandel Peninsula – not far from where my family and I once lived on New Zealand’s North Island, the experience turned out to be very much different from expected. It was perhaps too hopeful to see expansive forests of native trees – there is a forest park here, but the ancient native forests have mostly been replaced by serried ranks of introduced commercial radiata pine along with open pasture, and this was a double disappointment.

The degradation of the landscape becomes very apparent when commercial trees are harvested. Many people are fooled into thinking non-native trees growing on hillsides are natural, but nothing in this landscape really ‘belongs’,  apart from the tree ferns growing just below the centre line, and this is rather depressing.

Ironically, Pinus radiata does not grow well in its native habitat around Monterey in California, and do much better as plantation trees in a goldilocks zone that runs in a band around the Southern Hemisphere. Growing quickly in their ‘new environment’ they may be cropped in a little over 30 years. Such rapid development makes the wood almost useless unless pumped with unpleasant chemicals to preserve the timber from the elements. There is no shortage of Pinus radiata growing on the Coromandel, but at least the Peninsula’s agreeable coastline of beaches and cliffs is cloaked in native pohutukawa trees. Sadly, some trees are prone to suddenly die: this correlates directly with a tree’s growth spoiling somebodies cherished view.

Flowering rata and Pohutukawa Metrosideros excelsa turn some regions into a sea of colour with Pohuts a spectacular feature of the Coromandel. This picture however, with very young trees, was taken above a beach on the South Island in the Abel Tasman region.

The beauty of the Coromandel relies heavily on narrow bands of coastal pohutukawas. They are visually impressive trees, especially when viewed from the sea, hanging on cliff faces. Known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, they flower spectacularly from December into the New Year. 

However, once up the beach and through the trees, we discovered the landscape changed rapidly to farmland not dissimilar to the countryside we had so recently left behind in Southern England.

Intensely red pohutukawa flowers set against an electric blue sky – once seen never forgotten.

Inland natural habitats quickly begin to deteriorate and when you’ve moved to the opposite side of the world with the expectation of great natural beauty, it is disappointing to find environments trashed and the native flora and fauna seriously depleted.

Where did all the trees go?

When Captain Cook first sailed along the Huaraki Gulf off the Coromandel  Peninsula he wasn’t just mapping the coastline, there was also an expectation that his expedition might find trees suitable for providing masts and spars to the British navy. The 20th and 21st day of November 1769 were days of discovery as Cook’s party took two longboats on an historic journey up the Waihou River.  Cook mentions massive trees on the river banks in his journal, these later identified as kahikatea or ‘white pine’,  Dacrycarpus dacrydioides. The party rowed ashore and measured a large specimen that ran to 89 feet (about 27 metres) to its first branch and at six feet from the ground, the trees girth was 19 feet 8 inches (almost 6 metres).

Later, the publication of Cook’s journal would bring major changes to the Hauraki area; within 25 years the region would be rapidly colonised by Europeans; the trees that Cook had written about felled, the surrounding lands drained and most of the natural forests replaced by farmland.

My family on our first outing to the Coromandel, above Pauanui in 2002. The view is very different from how it would have been when Cook sailed by in Mid-November of 1779. We had to get up high to find anything native (there were only the pohutukawas at sea level). Manuka – Leptospermum scoparium is in flower on the lower left hand side of the picture – a beautiful native that should be everywhere, but it isn’t. The discovery that money can be made from manuka honey, and the claim that it has ‘medicinal properties’ has increased its popularity, although, several years before we arrived a virus had eliminated it from our area, and I reintroduced it. It is rather sad that in New Zealand there needs to be very good reasons for allowing native plants to grow unhindered – the general feeling on the Waikato is that they are a bit of a nuisance. 
Manuka Flowers in our garden. Otherwise known as the tea tree, the manuka plant can be brittle and survives best when there are other plants growing around it to give shelter.

Few kahikateas trees survive today as large as the one that Cook described, and on first reading his account I wondered if the tree that had been measured was in fact a kauri. Kauris grow to become magnificent trees, and at that time there would  have been no shortage of them. Left to themselves they might stand for thousands of years and reach a spectacular girth; younger trees were so clean and straight they quickly became a favoured choice as ship’s masts, although at the time Cook had not yet come across one. The diameter of the tree he described in his journal would have been around 190 centimetres and as there is a kahikatea still standing in Pirongia Forest (close to where we were living) measuring around 220 centimetres in diameter, the comparative figures make sense – the confusion existing in my mind because it is almost impossible to find kahikateas of this size and age still standing for comparison.

This great kahikatea in Pirongia Forest was once thought to be the tallest tree in N.Z. but that honour is now claimed by a kahikatea that when last measured in 2009 had reached around 55.50 metres in height (depending on whose figures you believe). It is sited much further south near to the Matirangi Forest in Taranaki.

I planted quite a few locally grown seedling kahikateas at our place in what I considered appropriate places, but it will be the offspring of these trees that will decide where they really should be growing and the roll they will play in the future of the forest.

When we lived on the slopes of Pirongia Mountain, visiting friends would plant native trees on our land, amongst them kahikateas – which rewarded us by looking completely dead for several years – it’s just the way they are. This species was largely cleared from the once boggy surrounding lowlands of the Waikato as the wetland forest were  converted almost exclusively to pasture.

In some places, the occasional kahikata had been left standing on pasture to provide shade for livestock, but a few years ago it was suggested that cattle gathering in this manner might spread facial eczema, and for that reason many of the remaining trees were felled. On the school run I’d mourn their smoking carcasses piled and burning for days. Removing them I think was a mistake – shade for livestock is essential during the hot summer months, but as any farmer might be inclined to ask – what do I know?

Bush developing behind our house, the edges sealed in just a few years by native planting to prevent wind  damage to exposed trees.

Certainly I was keen to see the trees back, as 98% of kahikatea forests are now lost, and without a reversal of policy in both drainage and land use the situation is unlikely to change. Some consider it immoral to return pasture back to natural habitat – a mind set that unfairly labels many New Zealanders as incapable of making a living from anything unless it can be shorn, milked or eaten.

By the year 2,000 these Islands had experienced twenty to thirty generations of human presence – if we accept that Maori started settlement around 650 to 750 years prior to that date; during that period native forest has been reduced from around 85% to about 23% of the total land area.

When we arrived in 2002 there was no national Forest programme in place. Decisions were made regionally and grand old native trees were still being cut, even though outside of conservation areas there were very few mature native forests left. A Maori visitor told me that an old relative of his was busy felling an extensive area of native trees – he said, ‘There’s no point in arguing with the old B… He wants them gone. What can you do eh?’ A neighbour who had recently bought a large area of farmland close by told me that he had the right to cut a percentage of his remaining native trees, even though the previous owner had pretty much taken out most of what had been left standing. Essentially, the land had been asset stripped, and indiscriminately sprayed with herbicide, killing areas of natural bush, and generally poorly maintained. It was then sold on as real estate values rose. A win, win situation as land prices rarely go down.

Recent information from ‘Forestry New Zealand’ points out that N.Z. has one of the lowest levels of corruption and that both timber and timber products are produced legally through a strong regulatory environment. Well, that sounds great but when you live in the middle of nowhere ‘stuff happens!’

Looking across the Waikato Plain to Pirongia Mountain where we once lived, it is clear that all of the native forest has been replaced by pasture – little that is natural remains at lower altitudes. Whenever we came down from the mountain reserve, it was possible to see – where the pature began, as the streams and rivers changed from pristine clarity to cattle poo brown.

On arriving in New Zealand I thought it odd that there was a general acceptance native flora and fauna could only be preserved by fencing it off… shouldn’t the natural world be on the outside of the fence? The alternative was to place New Zealand’s unique natural wonders on small offshore islands after all of the troublesome mammalian introductions, such as stoats and rats, had been exterminated by mass poisoning. In fairness this has proven to be an essential short term measure, so inundated has the country become with introduced pests. Certainly, New Zealanders can’t be faulted over their good intentions when it comes to pest control, but there is no excuse for the continued decimation of native habitats as agriculture continues to expand into areas that are borderline as regards economic return.

Yarnley’s Bush: A woodland area of mainly kahikatea and pukatea trees that still exists in a lowland area close to where we lived – its survival little more than a fortunate accident. This natural habitat is small but nevertheless precious. Buttress root are an adaptation that allows certain species to stand in boggy wetland areas; the trees here are impressive but have a long way to go before they are fully grown.
Pukatea Laurelia novae-zelandiae commonly grows with kahikatea on wetland areas of the open plain which has long since been drained, but they will also grow on the lower slopes of the mountain. 

All of the seedlings that I planted were sourced locally – it took a couple of years to discover the particular preferences of pukatea – surprisingly they did not do well in the wettest areas close to the stream, perhaps because  light was a limiting factor, but they did grow effectively at the top of the gully on retired pasture.

There was once a woodmill close to our bush, and by the time of our tenure most of the important old trees had been logged out.

The steep gully slope, close to where our house was sited, was supported by fairly mature kamahai and towhai trees which had only remained standing because their wood was quite useless – I was told by a local that had the trees been good firewood, they would have been felled long ago.  In other places where there were no larger trees growing, the gully would occasionally slip away in wet weather. It really doesn’t make sense to cut mature trees on steep slopes and yet this is an activity that continues around the world, with often shocking consequences.

Towhai and Kamahai trees were important features on the steep gully slopes, because their roots stopped the hill from sliding away. The trees flowered annually, and once every three or four years they  would put on an exceptional display.

The presence of the trees also provided a roost for a couple of pairs of native pigeon, big birds and the only species surviving in New Zealand with a crop big enough to swallow seeds from the larger tree species that had mostly been lost from our tract of bush.

Stock animals would wander down to the stream and surrounding bush, but we put a stop to that. After a couple of years without grazing, large numbers of seedlings began to grow in the understory, carried in as seeds and excreted onto the forest floor by our welcome avian visitors.

Rewarewa Knightia excelsia is establishing with thousands of other seedlings in the bush, they require a layer of cover and cannot survive winter frosts a few feet out on open pasture.

The dense mass of seedlings growing in open spaces in the understory will eventually sort themselves out by competing with one another, but it could be a hundred years before the winners crowd the losers out. As new generations of people come to live in the house they will experience different stages of the forest as time passes, and in two or three hundred years the habitat will begin to get really interesting – but only if we humans stops messing things up as effectively as we presently are. 

Hopefully, little pockets of forest like this will survive undisturbed elsewhere, until eventually much larger forests develop to full maturity. Native forests perform various important functions – in particular they provide habitats for other native species; and will also lock up carbon and slow the present increase in land temperatures. All we really need to do is allow them to exist without interference by keeping stock animals out and avoid the temptation to rush in and chop mature trees selectively. This requires a very different mindset from the short sighted approach we presently exhibit…. who knows, it could happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

When researching native trees I was concerned to discover that almost none of the original buildings in our local town had been preserved… Obviously a case of local indifference… but sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – it soon became apparent that there was a good reason for the lack of historically significant structures  – most of the buildings had been made from kahikatea timber – a wood that rots out very quickly. Local Maori would have known this, but probably nobody thought to ask them as they were often in conflict with the first European settlers, and might have been disinclined to offer useful information. The wood did however have one thing going for it – no discernible scent, and this proved ideal for the making of boxes for the transportation of butter.

Down in our gully, growth was dense in places, but the soil is susceptible to being washed away, and it will take time for things to mature.
An establishing young Kauri in our gully. This species once grew close to the property, but maybe not on it.

On the Coromandel the large scale plunder of kauri forests started in earnest back in the 1830s. It was commonly referred to as an ‘industry’, although the almost complete destruction of a unique ecosystem might more correctly be described as a tragedy, but it was correct in one sense in that the destruction was on an industrial scale. By the end of the 19th Century 75% of the forests had been felled, yet the rate of cutting would increase for a while. In the end it would take little more than a hundred years to destroy forests that had been in existence for perhaps 20 million years.

Many tree species had been logged out in our bush, and I re-established them over an eight year period between 2002 and 2010, including  several kauris planted on forest margins, previously sheep pasture. Kauri have recently suffered from a disease known as dieback for which there is presently no cure, and there can be no harm in having small stands of these trees in out of the way places as an insurance for the future.

Kauris can live for more than 4,000 years, their upper canopies growing so expansively they may be considered complete ecosystems in themselves.

There are few big old trees standing now that haven’t been given names and that’s a bad sign. When people can remember the names of every big tree in a forest there’s probably an environmental crisis. Big trees on a grand scale can now only be found in conservation areas much reduced in area from their original forest size. 

I was working hard here framing native plants rather than pasture to make Cathedral Cove look as if it belongs in N.Z. and is not as it appears, an overgrazed stretch of Dorset coastline.

The double whammy for kauri on the Coromandel was the discovery of gold in the mid-1900s. Just when kauri seedlings were beginning to start another forest their top soil was blasted away in search of a metal considered far more precious than natural bio-diversity. 

Extracting gold has in the past been a dirty process and has involved considerable changes to the landscape, with the use of a great deal of water and rather alarmingly, liquid mercury – the worst news imaginable not only for people but also the environment. Then in 1898 the cyanide process was trialed for the first time at Karangahake on the Peninsula. This involved using dilute sodium cyanide to dissolve and separate gold from its ore and is still in use today. Commonly, tailings ponds are utilised to allow for settling with the water then available for re-use, but now and again there have been breaches that can cause environmental problems, and the ponds themselves are not ideal places for sustaining wildlife. Mining companies however manage to put a positive spin on the use of cyanide, because cyanides do not cause cancer or build up in the food chain, neither do they persist in the environment as some pesticides do; eventually breaking down in sunlight.  

However, when things go wrong, there is an obvious cause for concern, either from airborne hydrogen cyanide or the contamination of water supplies. That’s not to say that all goldmines are potential environmental disasters, but I wouldn’t want to live next to one.  Gold, of course, has easily definable important industrial uses, but if we are going to keep most of it in vaults or under our beds, we might just as well leave it in the ground… What a ridiculously common sense idea.

A gold mine can be a shocking thing, especially when you haven’t seen one before. This hole in the ground is literally part of the township of Waihi south of the Coromandel Peninsula.

Just a few hundred years ago the Coromandel was a great natural wonder. Maori certainly made their mark, but after the arrival of Europeans, things got worse. Logging, and later, the extraction of gold by blasting the land surface with water, was followed by chemical extractions that could seriously damage biological systems, and finally large areas of the peninsula have been converted to pasture. All of this has resulted in a wide scale environmental disaster that many chose to ignore, or at least fail to notice.

Now that things have settled down and the region expansively clothed in either pasture or monocultures of pine, so much of it looks just like a long distance relative of Britain, but in the past it has been so much more. Many people still love it, but historically little respect was given to its once unique and pristine environments. The Coromandel clearly missed out on the care that it more properly deserved and I don’t understand why people aren’t angry about it. The destruction happened recently and over a comparatively short time, nevertheless, many New Zealanders have no understanding of how their country once looked. And, if you point this out…”Well, what can you do? It’s the same everywhere isn’t it?” is a common response.

It is anathema now to suggest that we should be responsible for what happens around us; an attitude that makes almost anything more or less O.K.. But if natural environments are to survive in the years to come, ignoring all the stuff that we’d rather not think about isn’t the answer.

Kaka parrots will eventually return to the bush close by where we once lived, but it will take time for the environment to become exactly right. These are hungry destructive birds and there are very few places in New Zealand where, if this parrot occurs in numbers, they are not artificially fed, as too few places now exist with enough mature trees to support the fruits and seeds they require.

Clearing out the pests is just the start, the next stage will be to reinstate New Zealand’s forests. Maybe people refer to any natural area as ‘bush’ simply because there are so few mature trees left and so it is difficult to realistically call them ‘forests’. At least some recognition of this will be necessary before there will be any significant change.

If cameras had been around when Cook was exploring remote places unknown to Europeans, would pictures of magnificent forests have changed attitudes towards chopping them down… Probably not, because we have great pictures of Indonesian rain forest now and the wonderful plants and animals that live within them, but nothing much changes – presently, palm oil plantations take precedence over natural bio-diversity… It doesn’t make sense, but if there are still great forests with grand old trees standing within them, then it’s worth taking a picture, because one day there will be deniers who will try and tell us that they were never really there.

To follow: PART 2. The Downside of Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

 

 

 

 

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Kilauea: Over the Volcano – Hawai’i Makes New Ground.

When our friends David and Rosie said they wanted to fly over from the U.K. and visit us near Vancouver, my wife Jen and I didn’t think it a major leap to keep going west until we reached the Big Island of Hawai’i, well, it wasn’t for us… Jen hadn’t been well and needed a rest, and David has for a long time wanted to photograph volcanic activity. The Hawaiian Islands it seems have something for everybody. 

Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a volcaninc hot spot (which is stationary) at about three and a half inches a year forming this unique group of islands. Kaua'i the oldest at around 4 to 5 million years old and Hawai'i the youngest at around 300,000 years, this is presently the most active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has been pouring into the sea. But there is also fresh activity to the west of the Big Island where Lo'ihi is slowly rising under the ocean. and it will probably show up above water in around 50,000 years.
Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a stationary volcanic hot spot at around three and a half inches a year to form a unique chain of islands. Kaua’i is the oldest at around 5 million years of age and Hawai’i the youngest at around 300,000 years: this is presently the most volcanically active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has began to pour into the sea. There is also fresh activity to the south east of the Big Island as Lo’ihi slowly rises from the ocean floor and will probably break the water surface in around 50,000 years.

Sadly, if your holiday is going to be a good one, you now need to book well in advance to ensure affordable flights and good accommodation; it was Rosie and Jen who organised everything a year before we started out – an alien concept to me as I can’t plan much beyond Tuesday and that’s only if I start thinking things through late on Monday night. If it were left up to me, the whole thing would have fallen to pieces, but it got done; our Hawaiian adventure was perched somewhere on a distant horizon… and I promptly forgot all about it.

Then, just before our friends set out for Canada I had an e-mail from David with new information, “Kilauea is clearing her throat” he wrote, “and if the fat lady really starts to sing it might affect our flights”. I started watching the news – it seemed that Pele the Goddess of volcanoes and fire was wreaking havoc on the south east of the Island we were about to visit.

P1350165Nothing however is quite what it seems, especially with news. The first camerawork I ever did for the B.B.C. was news, this at a time when news was more important than the people who presented it; but these days ‘news’ comes with a degree of spin as reporters no longer simply report, they also have to give an opinion.

It was true that after a quiet spell, Mt Kilauea was active again, or to be more precise,  fissure 8 on the east rift zone was, but the situation was more localised than we had been led to believe. So, when we arrived at our apartment the sky was hazy, but otherwise we were unaffected by the activity on the other side of the island. Nothing was about to blow and the locals remained philosophical – news is only news it seems when it ends up somewhere else.

On the eastern side of the island, looking into the hills from sea level, air pollution would build on days when the volcano was especially active over on the opposite side.
Looking into the hills from sea level on the western side of the island, air pollution would steadily build whenever volcanic activity became more intense.

Our day usually started well, but around 10.00 a.m. the vog (volcanic smog/fog) began to build in the hills behind us until any remaining patches of blue sky disappeared. It was a bit like being in L.A. on a warm still day, when smog hangs around, but in this case it was the trade winds bringing vog around the bottom end of an island and running them up the west coast to our base in Kailua-Kona, but the pollution was continually shifting and dispersing on the wind and it wasn’t a huge problem.

Nobody was making a fuss where we were, but the international news was building the situation into an insurmountable problem and pretty soon people were cancelling their holidays here, much to the detriment of the local economy.

A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite a haze due the poorer air quality.
A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite the haze produced by the poorer air quality.

Tropical islands with stable governments, and agreeable climates attract multinational companies: they buy up beachfronts, plant palm trees, enhance beaches, and sometimes trash local environments to create the gated coastal communities that are now so popular with many holiday-makers, not so much for me though, because locals should be part of the experience, even when they are trying to sell you something.  There is however more to consider than lean times for wealthy investors, small businesses that rely on tourism are also suffering.

Nobody can say for certain that a volcano won’t suddenly go off and wreak havoc across a whole island, but the science of the way Kilauea presently operates makes this unlikely. There have in the past been violent explosive events, but in recent time lava has tended to ooze rather than fly. The key is in the name, Kilauea means to spew or spread, and not ‘explode or boom’. Presently there are no major problems for those who are not directly in the path of lava flow, or immediately down wind of the plumes of noxious chemicals that volcanic activity produces especially when lava enters the sea.

In areas where larva has recently flowed, in this case across land between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea the landscape sometimes has an unworldy feel and may remain free of vegetation for many years and is largely depending upon altitude and weather conditions.
In areas where lava has recently flowed, in this case across the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, landscapes have become unworldly. Many will remain free of vegetation for years to come depending on altitude, weather conditions and proximity to unaffected natural areas.

Spare a thought then for the people losing their homes to lava on the south east of the island, although some locals on the west coast seem pretty unsympathetic, suggesting that anybody who choses to live on the slopes of an active volcano is asking for trouble, which may be true, but the disturbing rise in land prices across the Hawaiian Islands has largely been pushed up by property speculation; in consequence local people are stuck with buying what they can afford and those with the least money must suffer the consequences. It is a sad condemnation of the way the world operates by simply following the money; and presently there is no sign of change, in fact quite the opposite.

These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air on the beach.
These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air moving down our local beach.

Despite problems for some, our visit to Hawai’i seemed fortuitous – clearly this was the right time and place to photograph volcanic activity, but as always, the better the situation gets the more likely authorities are to close down options in the interests of safety.

We decided to drive southwards around the island from Kailua-Kona to see how far we could get before the situation deteriorated, stopping for a picnic close to the South Point of the island, and soon discovered that this was a great place to get blown off the lava cliffs into the Pacific – all you had to do was stand up.

The wind was gusting so oddly here I was pleased when Jen stopped taking pictures on the cliff top.
The wind was gusting oddly at South Point. Jen had become tired of resting and started taking pictures… I was pleased when she stopped because she was standing close to the cliff edge.

Viewed from our picnic site, the ocean appeared to be dragging itself away from the coast as the winds whipped across it. Things inevitably get rough here because trade winds coming down the west coast whip around the southern tip to meet the Kona winds running up in the opposite direction.

Down around the South Point of the Island is not an ideal place for a picnic, but we did it anyway.
Anywhere around the South Point seems less than ideal for a picnic.
Trees in the area seemed to be in a continual battle to stand up and in the end gave up.
Trees in the area continually battle against harsh winds and in the end appear to give up.

The Hawaiian Islands are a small blip on the surface of the Pacific, formed by volcanoes that at some stage in their lives pushed rapidly upwards on comparatively small land areas. Hawai’i supports the volcanic masses of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa thrusting up as they do to just two or three hundred feet short of 14,000 feet respectively. If measured from their base deep on the Pacific floor, both would rise considerably above Mount Everest and their weight is telling: Hawai’i  is subsiding by about an inch every year because it is right over the hot spot where the lithosphere is both thermally weakened and heavily laden with lava.

Standing just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea just before the tree line runs out into volcanic ash at about 9,000 ft, is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa, here just peaking above the clouds.
If you stand just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea at about 9,000 feet just before the tree line runs into cinders, it is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa peeping above the clouds.

P1340834The presence of these volcanic masses also disrupts air flow across this area of the Pacific, redefining the trade winds flowing around the Island and their power is something to be reckoned with. If Captain Cook had been able to avoid the winds that broke his mast when leaving Hawai’i he wouldn’t have returned to the Big Island and been killed by locals on Valentine’s Day 1779; instead, he would have continued on in search of a north west passage and history would have turned out differently.  It is also a sobering thought, looking out to sea from the South Point, (which is  just a few hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer), that the next landmass above water is the continent of Antarctica.

We continued on, driving around the southern part of ‘Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’, looking for an entry point to photograph native birds. The best park for this is to the east and presently closed due to a plant disease and it isn’t possible to go in unless you are with a group and have an official guide.

A spotted dove I think in the forest - taken to demonstrate the vog skies that make bird photography impossible
A spotted dove (I think) in the forest – taken to demonstrate how vog skies can make bird photography pointless.

The vog in any case makes for very poor viewing conditions and it is impossible to make a good exposure of birds against such a bland colourless sky when it only produces images known in the trade as ‘pee holes in the snow’. As it happens, I saw nothing of interest and we continued on eastward towards the lava zone.

We know that getting close to the action from the ground is unlikely, although it is possible to drive along certain roads in the affected area, but it is illegal to stop. We later discover that a local has taken outsiders in to witness the activity first hand – all have since been arrested and face legal action.

As we don’t live in the restricted area there is no reason why we should be allowed to drive in. We’d like to take pictures that tell a story, but roads are breaking apart and some are now impassible whilst others have completely gone. There is also a danger from airborne gasses: it would be wrong to underestimate the dangers of carbon monoxide, which doesn’t warn of its lethal potential because it is odourless; there is also sulphur dioxide which may combine with water vapour in the air or, as it is presently doing, react with sea water to produce airborne sulphuric acid, which you really don’t want to be breathing, anymore than the micro glass particles that are also airborne in the area. On occasions it is easy to walk around a lava flow, but sometimes, especially when  close to the source, the lava flows quickly and if you don’t know the lie of the land, it is literally lethal to put a foot wrong.

We continue as far as Na’alehu some thirty five miles outside of the restricted area, here there are people who have been evacuated out for safety reasons. 

Edward Hopper should have painted in Na'alehu - it would have cheered him up a bit.
Edward Hopper could have painted in Na’alehu – the sky is appropriately dismal, but the people might have proven too cheerful for him as they don’t appear cowered by present adversities.

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As I get out of the car my back goes rogue by the road and a woman working in a food van on the opposite side hurries over to check I’m O.K. –  as if these people don’t have enough to worry about.

A few miles up the road homes are being lost to lava, but in Na’alehu life carries on much as usual and nobody is moaning. It’s a great example of the best of small town America, and a different side of life from the one that usually gets reported on world news. 

Jen hangs out with coffee from the food van in Na'alehu.

Jen is resting over at the food van with a cup of coffee, Rosie remains in the car, and David and I set about getting information on the current situation from a man who’s house was destroyed by lava back in 2005, he has subsequently rebuilt, but it looks as if he might lose his house all over again.

His name is Gary Sliek and he’s recently moved out of the danger area; he shows us a picture of the first house as it was hit by a lava flow at 4.30 in the morning – it is burning intensely. The idea that your house on fire is a photo opportunity seems perverse, but what else can you do in the circumstances – it is almost a displacement activity and Gary is surprisingly philosophical about his loss.

David speaks with Gary Sleik in A'alehu about the local volcanic activity.
David talking to Gary Sleik in Na’alehu about volcanic activity in the lava zone.

Back when it happened, he remembers the lava reaching the house, with a release of methane the building quickly ignited and burnt until the roof came down to the ground and then went back up again supported on the bulging flow.

Gary has retreated to Na’alehu, working out of his van because his new house is now under threat, but there are no hard feelings. Like a lot of Americans Gary has an adventurous spirit, he doesn’t want to be trapped by a conventional life-style and makes a living photographing the volcanic activity that goes on around him – and does so with considerable skill. It might seem like madness to keep returning to an active lava zone, but clearly there is a thrill to living close, and recording the most fundamental destruction and creativity our planet has to offer.

Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas and if they are large enough to remain viable, will retain species to eventually recolonise the area.
Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas; if they are large enough to remain viable, species may eventually recolonise from these, but it takes many years.

Once above ground magma is defined as lava – its most prominent feature is that inevitably it is unstoppable. To get the best pictures, you need to be in the right place at the right time and Gary’s pictures make it clear that anything David and I might get in a couple of days would be inferior – we can’t match what Gary has done on the ground and it is clear that to achieve anything useful we need to get into the air. 

The best option is to rent a helicopter as there are presently no heavy restrictions to stop us taking a look from the air, and we will need the doors off to get decent pictures.

Enquiries are made and pretty soon we have a flight booked for our last available day here on 4/6/18, when we take a drive across to Hilo International Airport for an afternoon flight from Paradise Helicopters, Our pilot Daniel Speller knows exactly what there is to see and we rely entirely upon his judgement as to how we might cover the three main areas we will visit.

The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking pictures.
The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking good photographs.

It didn’t take long to fly to the source of the activity, but as we flew I was shocked to see that there was nothing natural about the land below us. Most of it had been plantation in one form or another for a couple of hundred years, eventually divided in places for housing, and holiday resorts, in particular along the coast. It is naive to think that visiting a tropical Island will demonstrate the best of the natural world; it’s never like that with commercial ventures mostly taking precedence. Nobody needs it anyway, because our children will all go and live on Mars!  It’s the new big thing, although the surface of the red planet is about as hospitable as the lava flow we are about to witness and as welcoming as the complete desolation that lies ahead of us between the scudding clouds. Then on the surface a red raw gape in the distance suddeny appears and then disappears into another bank of cloud. Now I’m preoccupied with how many other helicopters might be up here, but this is suddenly forgotten as we come out the other side, to arrive almost over the raw churning rent.

IMG_0606The magma is clearly visible bubbling in the fire beneath us and I begin taking pictures. Rather prosaically it is called ‘ fissure 8 on the east rift zone’, which is presently the most active point of magma release from the slopes of Kilauea and it’s totally impressive, constantly coughing and spitting red fury; and in contrast to the steady flow of lava that  oozes from the side of this angry gash, as if a punch drunk fighter has been smashed in the face, hit the deck, and is now dribbling spittle and blood from an hideously swollen mouth, but the brutality here is on a very different scale; and had it been night time we would have picked out the glow of the lava as it slid away from the newly developing cone.  

Looking down into fissure 8, I seemed to be directly over it and if I had released my seat belt I am sure I would have tumbled straight in.
Looking down into fissure 8.

I had set a 100 – 400mm lens on my camera because I wanted close ups, but was surprised now at how close we were getting as Daniel banked the helicopter almost over the vent, avoiding a plume of dark smoke issuing from one side, the clarity was exceptional as he continued to bank in my favour, until the rent came into view full frame. It occurred to me that if I released my seat belt now, I might easily tumble into the fiery work of the Goddess Pele – the others commented on the heat, but for some reason I didn’t feel it.

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Our seating positions were organised according to body weight in order to balance the aircraft; Rosie sat centre front and I was positioned on the opposite side to the pilot. At times, I seemed to be almost hanging out – it was a tight squeeze, but we didn’t get the buffeting that David and Jen were experiencing in the back. If I refrained from poking my lens too far out, the shaking familiar to a helicopter with its doors off was manageable for pictures, although when I did lean out to pull a little extra into frame the camera felt as if it might be whipped from my hands: for this reason everything we carried was attached to us, because losing an item into the tail rotor might be fatal. For the steadiest pictures, it made sense to stay within the confines of the aircraft canopy and for most of the time I managed to do so; things were easier still when using a smaller camera for the wide shots.

Jen was on the opposite side at the back and Daniel moved the aircraft into position so that she might also get a view and take photos of the fissure, and despite the turbulence she managed a series of good pictures.

Jen's wider picture of Fissure 8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.
Jen’s wider picture of fissure  8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.

Daniel repeated the process positioning the helicopter to allow for further photo opportunities and then flew on a short distance to the north west to see the now quieter volcanic cone Pu’u ‘O’o which had until recently been responsible for much continuous activity in the area since 1983. In the last 10 years this and the summit crater were the most active regions, but more recently some 20 fissures have opened up along the east rift zone.

The previously active cone of Pu'u O'o and yes, I really have no idea how this is pronounced.
This, then is Pu’u ‘O’o – its crater floor collapsed on April 30th and the contents drained away. Two days later the summit lava lake began to drop and nobody is certain where that has gone.

This summit crater was active earlier in the year, but is presently quiet, the lava that once filled it is no longer there and the same is the case for the contents of Pu’u’O’o. If this lava were now flowing from the newly formed fissure 8, it would account for only about 2% of what has gone missing. Volcanologists are naturally concerned. “Where can it be?” I hear Daniel say over the headphones – I think it was a rhetorical question, but I’m far too busy to respond by suggesting that it might well be in our bathroom; more likely it is moving east and relates to the activity of the fissures on the east rift zone. 

A case of deja vu: once again I had that feeling that I might easily topple in.
Deja vu? Only a few minutes have passed and once again I have the feeling that I might easily topple into a crater, this one seems quieter but it remains active.

We bank once again, but this time follow the lava flow which conveniently for us has reached the sea today, throwing up clouds of toxic steam and gas, although my pictures of the event don’t seem especially dramatic.

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The lava has entered the sea in the lower Puna district and it was a surprise to see how close some houses are to the flow but so far escaped  – it is a bit of a lottery – I notice a couple burning. Getting home insurance here is of course impossible and it’s sobering to witness the loss.

Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as larva hits the water and lower in the frame, houses are on fire.
Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as lava hits the water; lower in the frame, houses are on fire.

As I am writing this, it is clear we returned to the airport without event, exhilarated, but with bad hair; wealthier in experience but not so much in pocket – it is as if we had poured our dollars directly into the volcano which in a sense we had, but without doubt, it had been worth it. Others hoping to make a later flight would not be so lucky as conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

P1350031The ground plan of the area we photographed has changed quite a bit since our flight: beach-side holiday resorts have completely disappeared and Kapoho Bay has pretty much filled with lava. There has been more activity from fissure 8 in the last month, more than during the whole of the active period of Pu’u ‘O’o that lasted nearly 35 years. The 8th fissure is now building a more substantial cone and lava is spewing higher than when we were there. It is time perhaps for the new fissure to be given an unpronounceable name! More than 30 billion gallons of lava have been thrown out of it over the last month and this has completely changed the shape of the island.

arva flowing away from Fissure 8.
Lava flowing from Fissure 8.

In reality we don’t have much control when nature confronts us so directly, although essentially it is indifferent and doesn’t target us specifically. What is certain is that we are powerless to do anything other than observe and record the extraordinary changes that are taking place here; and what a humbling experience it is to witness first-hand, this, the most fundamental process of creation.

 

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A Tale of Two Pretties – Gannets and Sandwich Terns.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

2018-01-21-0017.FIX2.©.SMALL*What the Dickens does that mean?… Well, it was ‘the best of times’ when  I found myself on an Scottish island amongst thousands of nesting gannets totally indifferent to being photographed, allowing a wide angle lens to be placed almost under their beaks and in focus from here to ‘almost’ infinity – taking infinity to be that strange little 8 lying on its side at the far end of the focusing ring, otherwise known as a lemniscate.

‘The worst of times’ had already happened a month and a half earlier, at the opposite end of Britain. I managed to get myself dumped off on a very different sort of island to photograph a colony of sandwich terns; and the process hadn’t been easy, although the birds were at least co-operating by not moving, and this probably wasn’t a big plus for a movie, but worked well for stills – you can’ have everything. Their lack of mobility however could be forgiven – the birds were sitting on eggs. The two main problems at  this location were:  a limited working time – to avoid disturbing the birds; and from a photographic perspective:  a limited depth of field, because I had to work from a distance using a telephoto lens, which made focusing critical.

he focus falls just beyond th bird centre front which is problematic.
In this picture of sandwich terns the focus fell just behind the bird centre front, which was problematic.

The gannets it turned out would get photographed on a sunnier day, against the intensity of a cerulean blue sky that spread expansively over an indigo sea. The gannets were nesting on Bass Rock, spilling in numbers both down and across a huge outcrop that had thrust up to form a volcanic plug sometime during the Carboniferous Period. This plug is all that remains now of the volcano itself, exposed dramatically above the water’s surface it provided a variety of photo opportunities. At the time I might have thought the day arranged specifically for me – but that would be pushing it: by great good fortune and a look at the weather forecast, the light and setting proved spectacular on this particular day – I’d just got lucky. On another day, on the North sea off the East Coast of Scotland the outcome might have been very different.

Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.
Just a very small part of the Bass Rock gannet colony.

The sandwich terns on the other hand were photographed nesting on a flat stoney beach which had to be viewed with a very different perspective providing little more than a letter box of a picture – a photo opportunity that would prove very much different from the gannet experience.

At the time, the terns appeared to be sited at the more benign location, set as it was, on a small island in a sheltered environment on the South coast of England. But oddly, it was this colony that faced the greater danger.

2018-01-20-0011.FIX.©.SMALL*The gannet’s nest site was a challenging outcrop exposed to the worst vagaries of The North Sea, but these are tough birds and they cope. The tern colony on the other hand was set on a low lying beach in Langstone Harbour, which seems a far easier proposition, but the reality is that the terns birds can be flooded out by a single high tide. It has happened before: such an event is disastrous for both eggs and chicks, and might even turn out to be problematic for the longterm survival of the whole colony.

My luck seemed to be going the same way as the the terns might in the very near future – they seemed to be only just above the high tide line, and for the first ten minutes I didn’t manage an usable shot. Where do you set focus on birds that are nesting thirty metres away on a slightly raised but essentially flat beach. I was also uncomfortable crouched as I was in the tidal zone with my rear end almost in the water, looking out from a slit in my rapidly erected and  flooding hide. Should I focus the telephoto lens on the tern front row, the second row, or the third?  A logistical nightmare that wouldn’t be a problem when I later worked the gannets close in with a wide angle lens. Here I had no alternative but to use a long lens which afforded minimal depth of field (that’s what can be held in focus from front to back), when attempting close ups of the sitting terns.

A better shot perhaps. The birds a re still and the wind only slight, so I increase my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and use a slower speed to get the foreground bird into focus, along with the second row.
This shot is better than the earlier picture. The birds were quite still, the wind slight, so I increased my depth of field by stopping the lens aperture down and compensated by using a slower shutter speed; this essentially brought the foreground bird into focus along with the second row.

And I wouldn’t be thinking about any of this, if I hadn’t opened a couple of boxes of 35mm slides out of curiosity, when tidying my office. These were tiny reminders of adventures from the past – images that had been made almost as an afterthought back in 1993.

The sandwich terns were taken on the afternoon of 27th May when a conservation organisation allowed me 40 minutes on tern island. I had been set down from a small boat , leaving just enough time to put my hide up, film the colony, and get off without bothering the birds. They were sitting on eggs, which is a sensitive phase that usually I avoid, because nesting birds on an open beach are vulnerable, and I was anxious not to put them because there were black-headed gulls just waiting for an opportunity to move in on a tasty warm egg.

The gulls were also a problem because they kept messing up my shot by landing in the foreground, placing themselves between me and the terns.  It was tricky, but I managed enough shots for a film sequence, before grabbing a few stills. The sky was overcast, but fortuitously bright; with very little in the way of wind to vibrate the camera or spook the birds, and they remained largely indifferent to my presence. After a very short time I was clambering back into the boat that had returned to collect me. As the vessel moved steadily away, the birds receded into the distance, and very soon became indistinguishable from the pebbles on the beach.

 Getting a good image gets a little easier perhaps when featuring a single bird. Terns really are supreme in the air and when you notice their legs it looks as if landing was and afterthought - at a distance you migth not easily notice whether they are standing up or sitting down.
Getting an image was easier when featuring a single bird. Terns are supreme in the air, but once on the ground you at once notice that their legs are too short for their bodies – as if landing was afterthought, and at a distance you might not easily recognise whether they were sitting down or standing up.

On the gannet outing there was more time to take pictures, and despite there being a film crew present, our party made very little disturbance. We moved with great care, hugging the slim pathways between colony members, the birds largely ignoring us. None were snappy, which was fortunate because much of the time I was working well within pecking distance and given their density it was impossible to stay beyond the beak range of a great many birds wherever you were on the island.

2018-01-21-0016.FIX.©.SMALLI filmed both the gannets and the programme presenter Chris Packham over a morning and an afternoon on 5th July. Working with friends I was given plenty of time to take stills pictures, and during the course of the day shot several hours of video. I suggested that we might hold a cassette back because there was so much material, but our director wouldn’t hear of it. All the tapes will now most likely be in landfill as production and T.V. companies can’t log and shelve everything – the alternatives back then were to either reuse the tapes, or simply dump them.

The only problem with Bass Rock was getting the gear and ourselves on and off the island. The skill of the boatmen who calmly made this possible, can’t be underestimated as there were both currents and a swells to deal with. The real problems start when you want to get off of a rocky island, because you wouldn’t be on it in the first place unless the weather was fair. Once in place there is a tendency to grab the opportunity to stay for as long as possible, but as the day progresses, the weather can turn nasty and decrease your chances of getting off safely. To a lesser extent this happened that day, with the boat rising and dropping several feet as we synchronised handing over the gear and then followed as if we were joining a carnival ride whist it was fully operating  – timing was everything – anything that went into the water now would almost certainly be lost forever. 

2018-01-21-0006.FIX.©.SMALL*During 1993 I was busy working on a variety of projects and usually didn’t have time to look at my stills when they arrived back from processing. The images were in any case usually grabbed at the last moment, as I never worked primarily as a stills photographer. My technique was rather ad hoc, usually I took shots by balancing my stills camera on top of the cine, which was at least set on a tripod and everything was done very quickly. Usually, there was little time to take stills after filming was completed and I didn’t expect to achieve much in the way of usable material, consequently, many of my transparencies were never looked at.

Back in the 1990s, when I wasn’t working, I was playing with my children. Stills photography was essentially a by-product of the job, and to my mind didn’t feature prominently in my life, although I carried a camera as frequently as some people would wear a watch, and would record rather than notice the passage of time. Now, nearly 25 years on, my old transparencies are bringing back happy memories – the idea that you should never look back must always be tempered by whether you can remember doing anything interesting.

Gannet parent with chick.

In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of money in taking stills pictures, unless you really worked hard at it  to the exclusion of everything else. When you did send your originals off to a magazine for publication, they would often dutifully scratch or lose them, usually with great distain, as if it was a publishers duty to be incompetent. Sometimes they would pay a fee for the use of a picture, but usually this barely covered the price of the film stock – it was insulting, and a total waste of time; so I never sent out pictures even when requested to do so, and when ‘the book of the film’ went into production my pictures were, in most cases… never there.

So it was that only a few of my slides made it out of their boxes. I’d hold one up to the light for a squint and check for correct exposure… then put them away again. Were they in focus? How would I ever know without projecting them? It now seems a pity to have waited so long to bring them to light, because even by old film standards the results turned out better than expected.

The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for the Channel 4 series 'Wildshots'.
The gannets were just a small part of a work in progress for Chris Packham’s  Channel 4 series ‘Wild Shots’.

I must admit to have really enjoyed working on this series. It was the first time I’d used video on a project for television – at the time a great deal was being shot on magnetic tape. Previously I’d always worked with 16mm film, and must acknowledge the delight that comes from filming and editing programmes in this medium, but back then video provided some advantages that are still with us today when utilising digital photography.

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One advantage of video tape and modern digital systems is that they capture more information than film is capable of in low light conditions. The first video shots I took on the series were on a dank miserable day in the New Forest  – there was very little light and it rained almost continuously, so it was a surprise to me that these autumnal scenes and close ups displayed such good exposure and colour saturation. If I had been working on film, I doubt that I would have taken the camera out of its bag because the results would have been so poor. 

On tape and with modern digital cameras, colour saturaltion is often very good even in poor light.
With tape and modern digital cameras, colour saturation is often very good even when the light was poor.

I grew up with film, but am now a great advocate of electronic systems. For years I dragged myself through the dark ages of emulsions carried on celluloid until, with the 21t Century, came improvements in digital photography that continue to the present day. With such advances, only a person with their feet set firmly in concrete, would go back and preferentially use film. Nostalgia is exactly what the word says – it has nothing to do with progress.

Having said that, a film negative might in the end last longer in storage than a digital image – only time will tell. Part of the problem lies in the rapidity with which storage methods are changing rather than the image itself. You might record a really great picture, but with technology now moving so fast, there will in future be limited options to view it. 

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2018-01-23-0006.FIX.©.SMALLThere is then a positive side to old methods, not only can film capture historically significant events and retain them, it can also provide old data to compare how things were in the past with how they are now and by extrapolation, how they will be in the future.

When videoing the gannets on Bass Rock back in 1993, I was told there were 18,000 gannets nesting on the island, but suspect that I ,or somebody else misinterpreted that figure by a factor of ten. The correct number is more likely to have been 180,000, because the number today runs at about 150,000 birds and I can’t imagine squeezing 162,000 more into the available space that I experienced on my first and only visit. Whatever the case this location now has the largest colony of nesting gannets in the Northern Hemisphere and that’s impressive.

This kind of colonial behaviour provides a good opportunity to note any changes in bird numbers over time by comparing old pictures with new; and technology is always improving the possibilities. Drones for example, might now fly directly overhead to provide more carefully standardised comparisons, and should be achievable without causing disturbance to the birds and at very little cost. 

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Animals that we wrongly term ‘from the lower orders’, insects for example, have populations that may fluctuate considerably from one year to another; and the same is true for many amphibians – their populations often rebounding very quickly because individuals can produce large numbers of offspring.

However, for animals that reproduce more slowly, the story is different: birds and mammals do not usually show such rapid fluctuations, although it is important to note that there are times when populations might rapidly change in line with predator prey relationships and strategies. It is nevertheless ironic that we have now hit upon photographic techniques that in future might record some animal populations more accurately at a time when so many of them are in rapid decline; this is almost exclusively down to our insatiable desire to utilise more of the Planet’s surface, whilst increasing human populations beyond reason.

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The good news is that despite declining fish stocks the gannets on Bass Rock appear to be holding their own; which runs contrary to much that is happening in the natural world. Perhaps the best way to deal with present events is, at ‘the worst of times’, to react quickly to remedy a bad situation, whilst viewing more positively ‘the best of times’ fully celebrating the ups when they occur.

The success of a single colony of seabirds is certainly cause for celebration, and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed this impressive natural wonder, moving as it is in the right direction against a general tide of bad environmental news to become the world’s largest gannet colony.

 

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My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.

The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after filling with water.
The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after fit was filled with water.

During the summer dragonflies arrive to fly over our garden in numbers – they simply come to feed on insects – taking a break from the hassles that life throws at them when they are hanging around their breeding pond.  I have counted as many as a dozen at any one time doing circuits and bumps, and none could truly be described as resident… But, as soon as our new pond was filled with water, a male instantly took to patrolling and hovering in front of me as I worked; the insistence that this was now his territory was encouraging.

Later that day a couple of females of the same species arrived; and with a metallic rattle of wings seemed held by the glimmering surface as if drawn by a magnet. Soon they began laying eggs, which was impressive for a pond that was only a day and a half old. Clearly, when you get things right nature quickly lets you know.

Every afternoon this male dragonfly shows up to eyeball me. Suddenly there is water and now this is his territory and doesn't want me around, which I find rather encouraging.
On late afternoons this male dragonfly would show up to eyeball me as I worked around the pond. I am not an expert on North American species, but both behaviour and markings suggest this to be a variable darner Aeshna interupta – one of several Mosaic Darners species to be found along the west coast of Canada. On a 400mm lens it is easy to throw the background out and concentrate on the subject, but maintaining focus on an insect in flight isn’t quite so easy, even when it is hovering.
A female lays on recently introduced pond weed.
A female lays on recently introduced pond vegetation (lower centre) before I’ve even finished covering the surrounding liner.

Darners are large dragonflies so named because their abdomens are long and thin; which must have suggested to somebody in the past that they looked like darning needles.

At first the females laid their eggs in the water, with their abdomens partially submerged, but when the pond was about three weeks old and summer was turning to fall they began laying in the grooves of log bark above the waterline. I wondered if they had perhaps lost their senses, but then considered they might be enhancing the chances of their eggs hatching as water temepratures began to drop and warmer conditions prevailed above the waterline during daylight hours.

Within  a few days it came onto rain heavily which is to be expected on Canada’s west coast at this time of year and soon the logs at the ponds edge were partially submerged. Millions of years of evolution has selected for the most exacting behaviours, but maybe I am making a naturalist’s observation here that won’t hold up under more careful scrutiny – there’s a science project here for somebody – I’ve seen successful Phd’s start out on flimsier grounds.

Two females laying clomse by one another in a pond that has barely been in place a month. Not so much of a theme park for them - this is the real thing!
Two well camouflaged females laying close by one another in a pond that has existed for less than a month. I have rarely seen two females laying this closely together in the wild, so this is encouraging. For them, my pond edge arrangement is not a contrived theme park but part of nature.

The arrival of my first ‘true’  bugs.

WIMG_7789***.FIX.©.SMALLithin a couple of weeks I saw two water boatmen fly in: one landed on the water and dived down before quickly returning to the surface; it took off at once but dropped straight back through the silver mirror as if this extraordinary insect couldn’t quite believe its luck. Over the same period half a dozen pond skaters also showed up and were soon busy feeding on insects unlucky enough to have fallen onto the water’s surface. 

Pond skaters show up.
The first pond skaters soon showed up. 
Pond plants seen enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed - Polygonum amphibious quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the pond.
Pond plants seem to be enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed – Polygonum amphibium quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the new pond.

Much of the photography that I do is exacting, but if the situation allows I prefer to work quickly, which is often necessary when photographing wildlife. Sitting around waiting for stuff to happen is a waste of time; so, usually I set my camera up on a tripod and get busy doing other things until something does.

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This water boatman was removed from the pond using a net and then photographed in a small plastic salad box (left outdoors to collect rainwater to benefit indoor plants). The container has developed a film of algae across its base and various bits of vegetable material have fallen in, providing a background that looks very natural.

Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifolita produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.
Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.

I used a more than five year old Canon 60D digital camera, with a favoured 55mm Micro-NIKKOR lens – this purchased secondhand in the mid-1970s when I first started filming wildlife for the B.B.C.. For many years it travelled around the world  with me surviving everything from the fine dust of deserts, to the humidity of tropical forests. It has never been taken to bits to be cleaned and is as good today as when I bought it.

Some of these early lenses are said to be better optically than many made today – I won’t make that claim, but without doubt they are tougher. I used a conversion ring bought for less than $10 to attach the NIKKOR micro lens to my Canon: but don’t attach any non-standard lenses to your camera until you have checked that doing so will not cause damage – in particular to the metering system.

My old 35mm macro Nikor lens with a converter to CANON EOS Camera body - It is best toonly use such inexpensive fixes if you know what you are doing.
My old 55mm macro NIKKOR lens with a converter to Canon EOS Camera body – it is best to use such inexpensive fixes only if you know what you are doing.

If there are no obstructions and the lens fits easily there should be no problems, but it is important not to suddenly flood the camera’s sensor with light as this may cause irrepairable damage.

Old Nikon lenses prior to1959 won’t fit on new Nikon cameras let alone Canon cameras, but  F mount lenses made after 1959 will attach to new 35 mm SLR Nikon bodies. I can therefore fit my old Nikon lenses to my Nikon D5200 or to my SLR Canon cameras although I don’t expect to achieve either automatic metering or focus. I often set apertures and speeds manually, so this isn’t a problem as I’ve been looking through cameras for many years now, and can guess settings fairly accurately without using a metre and still get things in focus by twiddling a focus ring.

I utilized a small four and a quarter inch (11cm) square bathroom tile mirror to reflect sunlight back onto the bug. Lying on the ground, supported on my elbows, I took a deep breath and snapped several pictures, holding the camera in my right hand, because the mirror was in my left. Two elbows and a torso can make a fairly stable tripod for speeds faster than 1/60th second, but you really shouldn’t expect pin sharp images when doing macro or telephoto work without a tripod. Focus was made by simply moving my head and camera backwards and forwards, having already preselected a  point of focus my turning the lens ring. When using a tripod I have a mount (pictured below) that allows the camera to be moved back and forth along two straight bars; this looks very professional, but I rarely attach it for stills photography, preferring instead to push the back leg of my tripod with my foot which achieves a similar result and often more quickly. Sometimes working fast is of the essence and it really doesn’t matter how you get the job done.

A small focusing system on rails that I only use for very small subjects - focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the camera and lens backwards and forwards, consequently there is no need to readjust the focus ring on the lens. Made in Britain is etched on the side - so it must be old!
A small focusing system on rails used only for very small subjects – focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the mounted camera and lens along the bars, consequently there is no need to re-adjust the focus ring on the lens which might cause vibration – especially when working with cine or video. Made in Britain is etched on the side – so it must be quite old!

I spent twenty minutes on the project, taking perhaps a dozen pictures, two of which have been reproduced in this article. The water boatman was soon returned to the pond, presumably  now believing in God, and busy converting other water boatmen to his beliefs as they arrive on a daily basis. But, so far, he is the only one to have seen that special light that shone from above; as for the others – well, they just think they have.

Under the circumstances, the pictures I took were reasonable, demonstrating that it is possible to get good close ups without great expenditure. The main reason I started my career with macro photography was, that in the early days, I couldn’t afford the quality telephoto lenses necessary to take good pictures of animals inclined to keep their distance. Everybody has to start somewhere, but once you get the hang of it, most photography is a piece of cake – just as long as you put the time in to practice – in my case that would be around 40 years. And the other thing… if set to automatic modern cameras do almost everything for you – so, what’s not to like?

The large darner dragonflies

that arrived almost as soon as the pond was filled, were I thought, best photographed using a long lens around 400mm., at the shortest point I could make the thing focus; I set my working distance a little beyond to give some focusing leeway, and was just far enough away to avoid disturbing my subject, providing I moved slowly.

Many manufacturers produce  close up (macro or micro) lenses that are set around 100mm or less, but at these focal lengths it is necessary to get very close to a subject (as was the case with the water boatman). But most flying predatory insects have well developed eyes sensitive to visual disturbance; and dragonflies are near the top of the list.

The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.
The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.

I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom for all the dragonfly pictures but one; and common to many upmarket telephoto zooms, this is a bulky, heavy and expensive item. Using cheaper lenses usually involves compromise, and may involve a loss of definition at the long end of the zoom, which is frequently down to the lenses inability to stabalize a moving object at a distance.

On a fixed 400mm lens, a sight made from an old wire coat hanger can be looped around the lens hood to quickly target a subject, but when using a zoom, I find it just as easy to locate subjects using the 100mm wide end and crash zoom in to the full 400mm. Even the excellent Canon zoom has issues when fully zoomed in – although the updated 100-400mm US II has superior stabilizing capabilities and regarded as a better lens. However, the problem is less noticeable on the older lens when framing small animals that are close, and better still when they are hardly moving, a situation that is improved by always using a tripod.

This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera with an inbuilt lens. Not an expensive camera, but a bit more than just a point and shoot - it has a good macro fascility, and the advantage of Panasonic digital develpment combined with a Leica lens.  For this shot I needed to be very lose - the dragonfly had closed down to rest for the night and by moving slowly I was able to get this shot without causing a disturbance.
This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera which has a built in lens, and although not a new or expensive camera, is a bit more than just a point and shoot. It has the advantage of Panasonic digital development combined with a Leica lens with a macro facility. For this shot I needed to be very close – the dragonfly was resting and ready to overnight and with the use of a monopod, and by moving slowly, I was able to get very close without causing a disturbance.

Under extreme circumstances, expensive gear usually produces better results – for example, the provision of an extra stop to open the lens up when working in low light conditions and still maintain image quality; this a plus for many photographers, but  such additions don’t come cheap. The good news is that there are many less expensive cameras without all the bells and whistles that can still produce good results under optimal conditions. 

Photography essentially boils down to three things: the focal length of a lens, the framing of an image… and finally, making a correct exposure. Assume for arguments sake that the focal length of the lens is fixed and that most of us can frame an image (although this isn’t a given), the only thing left to consider is, how best to achieve the exposure. And that’s a tricky because different shutter speeds and apertures will produce different results: a slow shutter speed will provide motion blur on a moving object for example, and the lenses aperture will affect the crispness of an image as well as how much of the subject is in focus from front to back.
There is a simple relationship between shutter speed and lens aperture for making an exposure – it’s a wedding of compromise: because the amount of light needed for an exposure is an constant, an increase in shutter speed inevitably requires a reduction of lens apeture and visa versa. These blocks of time and aperture are conveniently equal on your camera set up and so changing a setting is simple, although many people prefer to rely entirely on fully automatic settings, but because the various combinations are capable of such different results, it is helpful to understand which works best for the picture you want to achieve.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to get interesting pespectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites - none are new or expensive and I often set them on the macro setting to get wilidlfe close ups.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to shoot a variety of  perspectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites – none are new or expensive and I often set them on the  macro setting when trying to achieve interesting wildlife close ups.
It is also important to recognize that different lenses have different focal lengths and each of these changes the look and perspective of a picture, with none of them exactly duplicating the way we see things with our eyes.  Photography relies to a large extent upon illusion, utilizing the brain’s habit of rejigging what we see to make sense of the outside world, essentially tapping into our innate ability to recognize the familiar.
It was fun for a moment to claim a compromise of  the wedded couple, shutter speed and lens aperture, but there is a third consideration that makes this match into a love triangle – the new variable is a change of emulsion speed (when film is used), or an increase in sensor sensitivity with a digital camera, with the result that pictures may be taken in lower levels of light. There is however, no such thing as a free lunch – faster emulsions produce grainier images; and now that film emulsions have been superceded by camera sensors, the grain has been replaced by another form of degradation termed ‘noise’. Having said that, the technological advances of digital cameras has progressed so rapidly in recent years, that some can now produce very good pictures in extremely low light.
With macro photography, keeping side on to the subject keeps much of the subject on the ame focal plane and optimises the chances of an in focus picture.
With macro photography, staying side on to a long slim subject will maintains most of an animals body at a set distance from the camera and optimize the chances of an in focus picture.

I’ve left the best bit till last –

there’s one thing in particular that is crucial to the way a macro picture will look and that is ‘depth of field’, which is especially important to the wildlife pictures I’ve taken here. When a lens is stopped down to make the aperture smaller, ‘depth of field’ increases. Put simply, ‘depth of field’ is everything that is in focus from front to back either side of the exact point you choose to most critically focus.  A lot of other stuff matters as well, for example – the focal length of the lens, and how close you are to the subject… but these things often cloud the issue and no matter what you hear, the key thing to remember is that you can’t defy physics.

If you take a picture from the same position and from the same distance, the ‘depth of field’, both with a wide angle and then a telephoto lens, remains the same. What happens is, a wide angle lens magnifies the subject less than a telephoto lens, and consequently more of the image appears to be in focus. Because I’ve never read a book on photography or taken a lesson on the subject, it took me seven years to figure this out; and believe me, what you work out for yourself, rather than accept from others without question, leaves less room for doubt. Most of the differences we notice relate to the lenses that we use and the distance we use them at.

This is not a bad picture - the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this gives a better chance of maintaining focus across the whole of the insects body as much of it remains close to the same plane.
This is not a bad picture – the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this provides a better chance of maintaining focus across the insects body as so much of of it remains close to the same plane.

A lot of people like to use low f stop numbers to create a very narrow  ‘depth of field’; because doing so concentrates interest on just one region of the picture. For example a portrait photographer might use an 80mm lens, (often regarded as the best focal length to most naturally render a human head and shoulders), and focus on the eyes whilst opening the lens aperture up to maximum – this creates a very shallow depth of field, drawing attention to the eyes, by throwing quite a lot else out of focus – in particular the background, making for a very stylized kind of picture. Focus is therefore critical when using wide open apertures on all but the widest angle lenses, and getting eyes perfectly in focus might  mean the even the tip of a nose won’t be sharp, especially if your subject is a regular Pinocchio. 

I mention this to highlight that there are many different ways to take photographs and perhaps because a lot of my film career has featured small animals, I have moved in the opposite direction to this portrait photography style, using macro lenses and stopping them down to f16, f22 and f32 to achieve the greater depth of field I can. Sometimes this requires more light than nature can provide and I have in the past used artificial cold light in a studio situation (because many insects aren’t so much troubled by light as by heat), although I prefer when I can to use only natural light and mirrors. Optimally the lens is giving its best results around f8 to f11, but when taking macro pictures I usually consider a greater depth of field to be my priority.
In the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm Nirror macro lenses and I still use them.
During the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm NIKOR macro lenses and still use them today.
So, how are things changed by using a longer lens, a 400mm, which is relevant here because all of the dragonfly pictures taken  in this article – bar one – were taken at this focal length. Put simply, the depth of field seems narrower than it does on a wider lens, but we’ve been through this and it’s just an illusion, but on the 400 mm lens the depth of field does becomes more critical when taking a close up of an egg laying dragonfly at a slight distance. This in contrast to the picture of the resting dragonfly I took on my Lumix camera (on the vine) which has better focus throughout because I was using a wide angle lens setting and and very close to the subject. i.e.  a matter of inches rather than of feet as is the case with the telephoto pictures, this changes the perspective and makes a very different kind of picture.
Likewise the picture of the small water boatman taken on a 55mm macro lens works quite well because the lens is close and I’ve also managed the ‘depth of field’ by keeping the bugs body surface running along the same plane and thus narrowed ‘depth of field’ required to hold focus, but once this has been done focus once again becomes critical and there is no room for error.

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This picture was taken on f16 at 1/125 Sec. I selected midway long the body as my point of critical focus which allows most of the probing abdomen of the egg laying dragonfly to remain in focus, but the front end of the head is just beginning to lose it.

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This picture was also taken at f16 at 1/125 Sec, but this time I have brought my critical focusing point forward – the head is in focus now, but the abdomen is going slightly out. The first picture is the nicer frame, but the second might be regarded as technically better… but of course, it also depends on how the picture is viewed. Blow the top picture up full frame as a page illustration and you might notice the head going soft, but used as a smaller picture it might well be considered the better image.

I am not against ‘happy accidents’, but it makes more sense to try to understand how best to deal with depth of field for your specific needs. Some photographers are less bothered about achieving this wide ranging depth of field and what I might chuck out they will feature – it’s a matter of taste. And if you just want to achieve a really crisp well lit image, then there’s always flash photography. Used correctly you won’t know the difference they tell you… Well, yes you will. I’ve never travelled down the ‘Chocolate Box School of Photography’ route, but many have, and their success rate is higher than mine. Everything in the end is a matter of opinion – it just depends on how you want to present your view of the world, using the artfulness of photography. There are really no right or wrong ways to take a picture – and if you are trying something different and it works… this has to be a plus.

 

 

 

 

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