I recently left the West Coast of Canada to visit my father in the U.K. and was surprised at how beautiful ‘the old country’ still is, despite over the last ten years, having Europe’s most rapidly growing population, essentially because more people are arriving than are leaving.
I left in 2002 and if I thought the roads were busy then, it is nothing to the way they are now – driving anywhere during rush hour is inadvisable, because more often than not, it takes ages to move only a short distance – but the biggest surprise is what is growing either side of the traffic which you have plenty of time to observe when you are barely moving. It is springtime and on the verges a great many flowers are opening and turning the roadside into a place of beauty, or at least that was the way it was for most of the journey as I drove on backroads across West Sussex and East Hampshire to the edge of the New Forest.
When you fly north-east out from Vancouver, the landscape below is very different –
as you rise into the clouds what you see is a winter wilderness of snow-clad mountains even though it is near the end of April.
Nine hours later, at the other end of the journey, flying into London Gatwick Airport what comes into view is an irregular man-made field system, certainly this isn’t wilderness but in its own way is still very agreeable.
There is no mistaking that the landscape below is far from wilderness which Britain doesn’t do on a grand scale. Although a couple of hundred years ago the Lakeland poets and a flurry of writers and painters set the tone with their representations of the great British outdoors, but this was an interpretation rather different from reality. Admittedly the Romanticists didn’t restrict themselves to rural roadside verges, preferring instead the ruggedness of largely uninhabited upland areas, but essentially their analysis was flawed – what they mostly saw were man made environments conveniently labelled as natural, and this mythology has carried through even to the present day.
For generations, most of Britain has been heavily managed, and if somebody can get their sheep up onto the higher slopes during summer then they will do so, with the result that a great deal of Britain’s countryside is grazed far beyond anything that is natural – something that the majority of us conveniently fail to notice. The British interpretation of ‘wild’ is a construct, a romantic interpretation of the way we think nature should be after we’ve utilised it for our own ends, and that’s a far more positive approach than admitting that perhaps we’ve rather messed things up.
It is certainly not unreasonable to assert that there is more ‘wild’ in Britain’s hedgerows and roadside verges during spring than can be found in many upland areas. That seems a very odd thing to say, because roadside verges are hardly natural, but the plants that flower along them during spring are growing exactly the way they would have done in the ancient past, at a time before many environments were taken over by the formalities of agriculture.
The evolutionary imperative of spring flowers to show early in the year and reproduce before they are cast into shadow by leaf cover was a predominant feature across most of England before the first forests were cleared for timber and agriculture. Many of the plants that flower during spring, have evolved for millions of years alongside, or more correctly, ‘under’ deciduous trees. The fact that their best hope is now roadside management is neither here nor there. Later in the year the verges will be cut, and this will prohibit engulfment by a scrubland that would otherwise eventually progress towards forest.
It isn’t practical to have our roadsides totally engulfed by overhanging scrub and trees, and so it is by management that a suitable habitat is preserved for low cover spring plants to thrive and spread. For obvious reasons grazing by deer is less intense along roadsides than it is in the forest, and rabbits at low density will often feed preferentially on the grass between clumps of flowers, which is all to the good.
Cutting later in the year rather than grazing is an accepted method of management and the result, during spring, along Britain’s winding country roads is a spectacular floral display that most of us appreciate.
In urban B.C. many roadside verges are not managed sympathetically for nature; but drive a little way out of town and you might see a black bear that has come specifically to roadside verges to gorge on spring dandelions – a non-native weed and high energy snack that is favoured by bears recently emerged from hibernation.
From the 1930s farming in Europe began to developed on an industrial scale and the control of pests, such as weeds, insect and rodents was beginning to be achieved by the use of chemicals, many of them toxic to the native flora and fauna. The loss of nature as a result of this intensive agricultural process has in recent times resulted in subsidies to encourage farmers to protect verges and hedgerows; in some cases broad areas of land are left uncultivated along the sides of fields to minimise the passage of sprayed herbicides and insecticides that might otherwise carry across these fallow conservation areas.
This expanse of uncultivated land provides not only a wildlife habitat, but also an interconnected corridor for many plant and animal species to move along. There are farmers keen to provide such environmentally friendly areas, but for many, a restriction of land use carries an economic penalty, and in consequence European farmers are paid large subsidies to farm in a progressive and environmentally sensitive manner, although the exact cost of doing this isn’t so easy to ascertain, but the total is self-evidently substantial.
A recent report from ISARA Lyon however concludes that the uptake of agroecological practices has so far been low, and there has been no clear EU strategy for agroecological practices and sustainable agriculture, while the political will to move things forward remains marginal, and although the Common Agricultural Policy for 2014 – 2020 includes further elements, in addition to existing measures, which are orientated towards some agroecological practices, a broad strategy to deal with the situation is still missing.
This all sounds rather disappointing, and from a personal viewpoint it would be difficult not to have noticed a decrease in both populations and the diversity of Britain’s flora and fauna over recent years – butterflies are a good example because we tend to notice them above other insects, and consequently they have become indictors as to the health of natural environments. Their decline during my lifetime has been substantial and this can be linked to more intensive methods of agriculture, which have become increasingly reliant upon man made chemicals, in particular the use of indiscriminate pesticides.
I have only witnessed changes since the 1950s and I wouldn’t want to imply that as a child I was capable of passing value judgements on my early recollections of the countryside; but people who have lived out of town since the 1930s tell me that they have seen changes on a completely different scale, over a period that co-incides almost exactly with the advent of farming as an intensive activity, and the increasing reliance on artificial fertilisers and synthetic pesticides to improve productivity.
97% of all wildflower-rich grassland has been lost in the U.K. since the Second World War. Worldwide one fifth of all vascular plants are threatened with extinction – these figures are disturbing, but at least there have been small improvements in recent years: in some areas hedgerows have been replanted, and roadside verges are in many cases better managed than they have been for many years, and such improvements should be appreciated as minor steps forward.
However, many people still advocate poisoning to prohibit natural growth along Britain’s roadsides; increasingly this has become an outmoded way of thinking, with most of the changes that have so far occurred brought about by a combination of education, forward thinking councils, and European subsidies. As individuals we need to get our heads around our interpretation of what is untidy and what is natural, and until we do this, environmental problems will be a perpetual feature of our World.
If Britain decides to leave the European community it will be of interest to see how much difference a reduction, or even an elimination of subsidies makes to the countryside, and that includes roadside verges. Certainly it is worth having a camera ready to record the changes that might occur in the years ahead, and to note whether the political will to do the right thing gathers strength or weakens.
In the end it may come down to what Governments decide they can afford to do – and often that turns out to be the bare minimum they think they can get away with. So, go ahead… take a picture and save the planet. The will to make changes is in the end down to us, and that’s not always easy unless we bear witness to exactly what is going on.
A Scottish wildlife organisation recently took a picture that might help save the planet – well, the Highlands of Scotland at least. It was on one of those automatic cameras used to monitor animals – and triggered on 17th March 2016 by a Procyon lotor – that’s a raccoon for those of us who don’t have the Latin – standing on it’s hind feet it looked as if it was feeding on some form of bait attached to a post: www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-35942952 The image is technically limited and in contrasty black and white, but there is no doubting this is a raccoon. Baiting certainly works when it comes to attracting raccoons to cameras, but this shouldn’t be possible in the U.K. where they are not supposed to be, and catching one on camera is a real surprise when what you’re really expecting to see is a badger.
Failing a deliberate release, this Highland raccoon must have escaped from captivity, but that’s not exactly an environmental disaster, providing it’s not a pregnant female, or has the opportunity to meet up with a raccoon of the opposite sex… And what are the chances of that? Well, surprisingly good it seems, because a week earlier, on the 11th March, a raccoon was recorded on video just thirty miles away. The same raccoon perhaps? Well possibly, but that’s a bit of a hike for a raccoon in just a week; although when food is in short supply a healthy animal might range that distance, especially if it is a recent roaming escapee that has not yet found a favourable place to set up home. If it turns out there are two raccoons however, this could be the start of a much bigger problem.
I saw my first raccoon as a child – it was perched upon Davey Crockett’s head in a mid 1950s movie that made the most famous backwoodsman of all time a huge box office success in Britain – there was also a popular song that kept ‘The King of the Wild Frontier’ popular for a time – although I’m not sure how long – when you’re small things seem to go on forever. It lasted until the Lone Ranger and Tonto showed up on our T.V. screens to replace him. And surprisingly the Lone Ranger would continue with Crockett’s raccoon theme. More than half a century separated the two characters (and quite bit of fiction); the raccoon hat had been replaced by a white stetson, with the raccoon identity slipping down onto the rangers face in the form of a raccoon mask – this along with an outfit rather too tight for general ‘lone ranging’ comfort, made the character somewhat laughable even to a child. It seemed that back in the old days whether, ‘way down South’ or out there in ‘the wild west’ you were never far from a raccoon, or at least a reference to one, and today this remains pretty much the case right across North America and there is a suggestion that in some states there are more raccoons around today than there were during the 19th Century when fur trapping was hugely consequential.
Raccoons are generalists: if they can find food, they will usually adapt to their surroundings and live almost anywhere. In their native land they avoid only the extreme cold of the frozen north and have managed to become one of the most successful mammals ever to have lived on the continent. In urban situations they have become equally successful, and often considered pests because of their habit of competing with humans.
I must admit, I don’t feel too much competition from the large individual that walks the fence-line around our garden. My family and I live in the Vancouver area of British Columbia where raccoons are commonplace – and not only is this individual a real beauty, it is also one of the largest racoons I have ever seen. Certainly in the northwest racoons can grow to about as big as this species will get. Further south where winters are warmer and summers hotter – in Florida and Mexico for example – a large body mass isn’t so important for retaining body heat and individuals are usually smaller.
Raccoons are mostly active during the night and our local animals will occasionally dig up the garden for grubs, but I don’t mind that. My habit of leaving the garage door open will have to stop though. I accidentally shut a domestic cat into my garage one night when living in the U.K. – the cat wasn’t bothered, and apart from a slight smell of cat the garage was fine, the same thing happened with an owl when living in New Zealand – again no problem – although the cat smell was replaced by a pile of poo under the roost were the bird had chosen to spend the night. All well and good, but if I accidentally shut a raccoon into my garage overnight in Canada, I might just as well opened up the place up to a marauding bear.
I loved the suggestion from a spokesman for the attempted capture of the photogenic Scottish raccoon, that, if it could be achieved without personal risk, it would be great if somebody simply contained the creature in a shed or outbuilding. Now, containing a raccoon is a novel idea – but the last shed I walked through that might adequately ‘contain’ a raccoon was on the island of Alcatraz – maybe Scottish sheds are a cut above the sheds I got used to when living in the South of England as a child; back then you had to turf the wildlife out before you could put the garden tools away; and the door was always left open during the summer months because robins were busy rearing young in an old teapot on a shelf at the back.
A spokesman also said that their organisation had set a humane trap to catch the Highland raccoon… but there had been no sign of it yet, and that’s not a huge surprise. All too frequently raccoons are caught and held by unpleasant limb holding traps, but getting a raccoon secure in an humane alternative isn’t quite so easy: if you don’t capture your raccoon first time around you may not get a second chance – raccoons clearly didn’t spread across a whole continent because they were stupid.
Over the years I’ve photographed, filmed and videod raccoons in many different situations, both captive and wild and there was rarely a moment when they weren’t attempting the impossible.
When filming cheetahs, you can spend days sitting around waiting for them to move, and you’re thinking ‘Just do something interesting… Something I can film… Anything other than just gazing into the far distance!’. Then after a couple of days they will get up and go for a mobile lunch and you can hardly keep up, even in a Land Rover. Raccoons on the other hand are the exact opposite, when they are awake, they never stop moving – sure they rest up, but if a raccoon isn’t hidden away having a kip, it will usually be ambling along doing something interesting, and providing you aren’t hassling the creature, you can usually keep pace on foot.
A raccoon is an inquisitive creature – brighter than a rat, a cat, or a dog, they have a never say die attitude that provides an easy fit for those who think they’re a little bit like us… and in some ways, perhaps they are. It doesn’t make sense zoologically, but it’s fun to think of the raccoon species as evolving along a different route to create a creature that ostensibly does things the way we do, but without the advantage of starting from a primate.
Their little paws are superficially hand-like and with great sensitivity can manipulate objects – in particular food, and their alert little brains will get them into just about everything, which helps them survive in all manner of circumstances. It all sounds familiar – especially the little brains!… We can anthropomorphise them to our hearts content and that’s certainly the reason they make such good cartoon characters… we relate to them, and their little bandit masks in particular trigger our imaginations. They appear to us as devilish little bandits behaving without restraint, which is exactly the mindset of any raccoon worth its salt – as anybody who has ever tried to keep one will tell you.
If you’re thinking that keeping a raccoon should be on your bucket list… forget it! It takes a very forgiving nature to become a raccoon’s best buddy. There are however people – like Dorcas MacClintock, who have managed to do so successfully, and on numerous occasions. In the mid-1980s Dorcas became my mentor in all things raccoon related; somehow she managed to bridge the gap between art and science; as both an award winning sculptor, and a respected mammalogist she had moved beyond the simplistic recording and analysis of racoons as living organisms to see the bigger picture. Dorcas also has a sense of humour which is not only helpful, but an absolute necessity when dealing with raccoons. David Niven once said of his friend Errol Flynn, that you always knew where you were with Flynn because he would always let you down – and that’s more or less the way it is with raccoons – you can’t just turn your back and expect them to sit quietly – they’re going to get into mischief.
Dorcas taught me how best to understand what a raccoon will do next, which is essential when trying to film them. I learnt how to second guess their behaviour and anything Dorcas had forgotten to tell me, she had already written down in a book which she gave me. I learnt for example that you don’t try to stop raccoons from doing just about anything they want, instead you divert their attention with something more interesting and usually, that something is food.
The truth is, I usually leave the captive raccoon diverting to somebody else because it’s a full time job and I just do my best to record the action. Working with a wild raccoon is pretty much the same – you grab what you can, because if a raccoon is doing anything, it’s most definitely worth running the camera.
With a racoon in the wild there is no doubting that the setting is natural, but with a captive animal, which parts of the process touch base with reality? Well, whatever a raccoon does is his or her own reality… because they will never do anything that they don’t want to, or anything that doesn’t come naturally. So, if the intention is to demonstrate some aspect of behaviour, I don’t think filming a captive raccoon is a major deceit, but if you are supposedly telling the life story of a wild animal and filming most of it on a set, essentially what you have is a soap opera, which is fine, but of no particular interest to me.
The thing about filming natural activity is that unless you plan to make a twelve hour nature film, there has to be some editing, and I’m more worried about that than many other aspects of the process. One very good reason for editing your own material is that there is a better chance of telling the truth, simply because you were there. The alternative and often preferential route is to put a story together from bits and pieces filmed over a period of time, and some professional film makers might say that it will be a dull story if it isn’t done in this way. Which might be the case, but I think it far more interesting and informative to watch things the way they really happened. There is however compromise to any edit – it might be necessary for example to drop a close up in to move the action along, and so keeping the flow authentic is a constant challenge.
The viewer is always in the hands of the movie-maker, who has the option to tell it as it is, or alternatively, make a story up, and to a point there is always a degree of manipulation. Secondly, nature isn’t simply about getting bloody in tooth and and claw – animals attacking has become fashionable on both television and the internet, but watching animals going about their daily lives demonstrates that there is a lot more going on. Just as with us, everyday activities may not be quite as exciting as a battle, but raccoons tend to do things with more gusto than most and their behaviour is often comic, a combination that will always provide cinematographic value.
This YouTube of a raccoon dabbling is captivating, but clearly not of a captive animal – without edits the action retains a feeling of authenticity. You might not want to watch the same behaviour for an hour, but a short clip like this is absorbing, and you learn something about the habits of a wild animal: raccoon dabbling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0lI3ub3DI8
Whether in captivity or in the wild raccoons appear delighted to have something to do – it is simply in their nature. Out in the wild, much of what they attempt seems destructive to us, but really they are just making a living much the same as we do when going about our business, except that we trash quite a bit more of the environment than they do in the process. I understand why many people view them as a nuisance, nevertheless it is ironic that as we start to move into their world they have a habit of pushing back, and at some level, you have to admire that.
In all honesty, if you take a picture of a raccoon in its native country you probably won’t contribute very much to saving the planet, but if you live outside of North America and get a shot of one in the wild, it might prove very important to conservation. Certainly if this species takes off in Britain – a place where raccoons really don’t belong – they would undoubtedly compete with native species that are already under pressure and their presence create environmental havoc. If a raccoon really did think and behave exactly the way that we do, he’d probably be saying ‘ Nice one… Bring it On!’ But in truth, Rocky is just doing what all raccoons naturally do… and he doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other.
There was a man on the Radio today talking about great crested newts, and that got me listening carefully, because for many years I had an eventful relationship with these fascinating creatures; which might sound odd, but not entirely ridiculous considering that this was the first animal I filmed for prime time television, and the fact that I was suddenly earning a living from what most regarded as a pointless childhood interest at least impressed my father.
My parents were tolerant of my preoccupation with all things amphibian, even allowing me to keep a tank of salamanders in their bedroom – suitable because it was north facing and cool during the summer months; but at the time there was no indication the little creatures that arrived as a gift, would be around for more than 25 years and produce quite so many offspring.
Although I wasn’t obsessive about keeping amphibians, their behaviour fascinated me. My introduction came through a neighbour when I was about eight years old; she worked in a plant nursery and noticed a pond where large numbers of newts were engaged in courtship. She offered to bring some home for me to observe, and I didn’t need to be asked twice, quickly organising an old fish tank to house them, and a regular supply of earthworms to keep them fed.
I couldn’t believe my luck when they arrived – newts are nothing much to look at on land, but as soon as they enter water, their transformation is extraordinary – and I was surprised how much there was to learnt by simply watching them: I noticed for example, that an amorous male would delay coming up for air when he was busy flickering his tail at a potential mate, but if she remained indifferent, he would eventually have to break away and rocket to the surface for a gulp of air, then quickly return before another male could engage her.
At their best amphibians are quite beautiful and they have uncomplicated lifestyles that can be easily analysed – which makes for an entrancing combination. Not so much for my grandfather though who said he wouldn’t visit again until I ditched ‘the dreadful creatures’. Needless to say I didn’t see him again until early summer when the newts had finished their reproductive phase and left the water; they were then transferred to an overgrown part of the garden from where they would eventually find their way to our fish pond each spring to reproduce; and, if the pond still exists, their descendants will still be doing that.
In North America newts are referred to as salamanders, but in Europe the name is restricted to the really colourful ones that dress as court jesters – usually in black and yellow – essentially a warning that say’s ‘Don’t eat me, or l’ll make you vomit’. This colour combination is a worldwide warning displayed by many small animals likely to make a potential lunch for hungry predators: spiders, bees, wasps, beetles and others all make use of this contrasting colour combo, and although many predators don’t see in colour in the same way that we do, it is a defence mechanism that seems to work.
Imagine you’re a peasant living in central Europe long before the internet, television, or even the radio – infact so long ago candles are the latest thing. It’s a cold winter’s night and you throw a log on the fire, and pretty soon, in the flickering light of the rekindled embers, a strange creature walks out onto the hearth. It’s no more than a salamander rudely awoken from a peaceful winter’s slumber, but you don’t know that because science hasn’t been invented yet, or at least it hasn’t where you live – halfway up a mountain somewhere at the back end of Austria. You’re naturally terrified because you still organise your life around the time-honoured habit of superstition, and on seeing the creature, you know you’ve been stricken by a curse. Months later a very old man dies in the village, or perhaps a crop fails… it doesn’t matter… bad things happen because this is the Middle Ages, and everything can be traced back to that fateful encounter with the devil’s fire creature. If only you could have looked it up on the internet, but no… just like my grandfather, you were living in the past and totally ignorant of just how interesting a salamander can be. Today, this rubbery little animal seems far less terrifying, but is still sometimes referred to as a fire salamander.
Britain has only three native species of newt
and none are court jesters. It isn’t so much that newts lack colour, but rather that a great many restrict bright colouration to their bellies. Once again black and yellow or black and orange are colours that might be flashed as a warning and as an opulent display might also be helpful during courtship, but colour can also be a bit of a giveaway, which has led to many species retaining muted upper-sides, to reduce predatory attacks from above.
Sadly, most people dismiss newts as rather boring, probably because they are only noticed when they come to breeding ponds during the spring. Water is necessary during reproduction, but outside of that many will remain land based, hiding away during the day under logs, in crevices, or in the soil, venturing out only on damp nights to feed.
The second species I came into contact with in my childhood was the palmate newt, so named because courting males develop a sooty black webbing between the toes of their hind-feet. Palmates are the smallest of the three British species and I first noticed them in water filled tyre ruts when out picnicking with my parents in the New Forest, where heathland soils provide an acidic environment that the palmates seem well adapted to.
Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:
during spring, smooth newt males develop a complete crest along the back and tail; palmate males do not, they have a small crest along the tail; but nothing along the back, instead there are two small ridges that run along the upper sides of the body producing a rather boxy shape in cross-section, this in contrast to the rounded curves of smooth newt males and the females of all the other British species. Palmate males have a strong black bar marking running through the eye and a little black pointer that develops at the tip of of the tail. Smooth newts may also have an eye bar, but this is often less pronounced.
The black hind feet and the tail pointer in palmate males makes identification easy, but the females are less easily differentiated from smooth newt females; I remember trying to explain the key differences to an expert just before he was about to give a broadcast on the subject, but for the most part it is a question of experience. The female palmate, just like the male, has a pinkish tinge down the centre of the tail bordered above and below by a darker, often jagged line – but this feature can be very subtle. Outside of the breeding season newts become solitary and maintaining these visual signals is no longer necessary and they become muted or disappear altogether.
The largest of the three British species is the great crested newt,
which has become one of Britain’s most controversial animals; the reason for this relates almost entirely to politics and money, but more about that later. Identifying a great crested from a smooth or palmate is easy – because a mature great crested newt is about twice the size of the other two and reaches about 16 cm in length. The upper body is dark and warty with spots that are darker still – these continue to the orange underside where they make a striking combination. There are sometimes white speckles on the face and along the lower sides of the body, and the male has a white bar that runs along the centre of the tail during courtship and the body crest is clearly serrated – all features that make identification a doddle.
In the mid-1970s the Sunday Times published an article I submitted on the status of great crested newts in Britain. It ended with an informal survey, asking readers to give details of any great crested ponds they knew of in their area.
The response went well beyond expectation – it seemed that great crested newts were more widely distributed than had been previously thought – it really was great crested news! That was until I travelled to look into some of the ponds that readers had mentioned, only to discover that in many cases smooth newts were being misidentified as great crested newts, which seemed impossible to me, if only because of the clear size difference, the warts and the obvious crest serrations that smooth newt males clearly don’t have. Disappointingly, far too many observations were unreliable and I began to think that some people would have had trouble differentiating a big newt from a baby crocodile, and there were a few who would have been pushed to make a reliable I.D. against a hippopotamus. Even today the great crested newt’s status in Britain is in question, which is an unusual situation for a species that many consider to be in need of protection.
Back in the 1970s making a film wasn’t something that many people could afford to do. Between 1974 and 1977 I managed to put together a couple of movies which proved both time consuming and expensive. Today, working on video would have made the process far easier – even a phone can turn out some pretty impressive results, but back then, getting hold of a 16mm film camera (for broadcast quality), and buying filmstock, was a money pit .Half my monthly income was going towards buying just ten minutes of film running time, and it would take several years to shoot a movie devoted entirely to British reptiles and amphibians… How stupid was that? Working on a subject with such limited appeal seemed foolish… but then I got lucky.
The B.B.C. Natural History Unit became involved in a series that David Attenborough had been wanting to make for some time – a television presenter during the 1950s and early 60s, he’d moved into management but now wished to return to the subject that interested him most. The result would emerge in 1979 as ‘Life on Earth’. and it was my good fortune that the series included a film dedicated entirely to amphibians. The producer of the programme, Richard Brock, was brave enough to allow me to film the British amphibians that were to be included, and in the grand scheme of things my contribution would be small, but my sequences would nevertheless involve months of work.
I had been in the right place at the right time and fortunately, the amphibians programme was selected to represent the series for publicity purposes. These cold-blooded animals had turned out to be rather more interesting than most people had thought possibe and the programme won a number of awards, but by that time I was too busy filming other projects to look back, although I fully appreciated that for me, amphibians had been an unlikely but useful start.
When I first met Richard Brock he told me all about ‘Frogs Law’ a term that had come to signify one of the biggest problems to be faced when filming amphibians – they are essentially unpredictable and usually move only after the camera has stopped runnning; there is not a glimmer in an amphibian eye that will tell you they are going to do something before they do. Animals further up the food chain usually give themselves away somewhere around the eyes, but a frog or salamander will give you nothing, and it isn’t as if they have the flat dead eyes of a shark – quite the opposite – amphibians display some of the most beautiful eyes in the animal world. The truth of the matter is, that if you spend hundreds of hours watching any animal, you eventually learn to pick up on something and run the camera appropriately. Good to know then that all those hours of watching during childhood, weren’t entirely wasted.
Sometimes a male newt displays to a female and she isn’t responsive to his love dance. Perhaps the male doesn’t suit her, or maybe she just isn’t ready, in which case she will usually break away, but often she will just hang around; there is something almost imperceptible about her body language that tells you there is no chance of getting the shot today… maybe tomorrow… and this understanding saves both time and money. Certainly you can’t afford to miss the action, but on the other hand, you can’t watch newts 24 hours a day, because down that road lies only madness.
If you fail to recognise when the female becomes receptive you won’t catch the moment when the male releases his little packet of sperm, after which he will back away still displaying as the female moves forward to pick up the packet on her cloaca. The male knows exactly when to make his release, and if you can’t pre-judge his behaviour and run the camera appropriately, you’re pretty soon looking for another job. And there’s another problem – amphibians respond to chemical signals – pheremones that have been released into the water, but you have only newt body language and the clock to go on – usually when one thing happens, something else will follow. Newts are little reproductive computing machines that with careful observation, are not beyond our understanding.
I filmed my first T.V. newt on 12th February 1977 before filling in the details on a dope sheet wondering if ‘dope’ specifically applied to me – fortunately, it did not. I labelled the roll, ‘Test. Great Crested Newt. Daylight.’ and sent it off to the lab for processing – my wildlife filming career had started.
So, back to the man on the radio – he’s outlining the fact that great crested newts are less common in some parts of Europe than they are in the U.K. and consequently may not require as much protection as they presently receive from European law. For some time great cresteds have been protected under British law, but since the late 1980s they’ve also received an extra layer of care from Brussels due to a policy known as ‘The Habitats Directive’. Under this ruling, 18% of natural habitats in European countries are now under protection. The question is – if Britain opts out of the European Community, will great crested newts suffer because the European Directive no longer applies to them?
I don’t know enough about environmental policy to be certain either way, but clearly the man on the radio was being reasonable. His company built a reservoir, in an area where several ponds had existed that at one time had probably been visited by great crested newts. Under ‘The European Directive’ these ponds had to be monitored, and if great crested newts were found present, these would have to be relocated. The whole process took a couple of years to complete and in the end only 10 great crested newts were found – the conclusion was that the cost of conserving each newt was six thousand five hundred pounds, but the company representative wasn’t making a fuss about that; instead he focused his attention on the newt habitat that had been created and on the whole his attitude was commendable.
There are however issues concerning the relocation of species that are troubling.
Newts aren’t like higher mammals, which might sound obvious, but what is relevant in this case is how their populations are maintained. If only 10 newts are found in a habitat, and say only four of them are females, between them these individuals might lay around 1,200 eggs during a single spring. Certainly predation will take a toll, but amphibian populations often bounce back very quickly – it’s a numbers game; and not withstanding the problems that a reduction in the gene pool may cause, amphibians have a better chance of surviving a decline to very low numbers than do animals with much lower reproduction rates, and so protecting 10 newts as opposed to 10 bears or 10 tigers, may result in a much more successful outcome. The truth is, the success of a species that has suffered massive decline depends to a large extent on what that species is.
In Britain I was fortunate enough to have great crested newts in my garden and know how difficult they are to find. Clearly the best time to move them successfully is when they have returned to the pond during the spring, although this species may remain in the water for extended periods throughout the year. There will however always be immature individuals not yet ready to visit the pond and these are always difficult to locate. Away from water newts are masters of hiding – on occasions I’ve found great cresteds a foot down under soil and one perfectly healthy individual was discovered living five feet down a drain. Even when captive in a tank of moss and soil newts are difficult to find and care must be taken to avoid physical damage when searching them out. In an expansive natural habitat locating every individual is impossible to achieve and the loss of a great many immatures will adversely affect the population in years to come. I know from experience that relocation works, but it should perhaps be regarded as a last resort rather than accepted as a matter of course. As a conservation tool, it is simply better than doing nothing at all.
The presence of a wild animal should on occasions be enough to keep an environment intact and perhaps we shouldn’t move into every location available to us, just because we feel the need to expand – there is a strange arrogance in thinking that the whole planet is there for us to colonies and trash as we please. Great crested newts are just one small part of a complex natural ecosystem and the idea that we should move them or their environment any time that suits us is flawed. Creating habitats for plant and animal populations to expand into can work very well, but moving the complxity of the natural world around like some giant game of musical chairs lacks forethought – ultimately the only species left with a seat might be us and our attendant parasites, thus limiting the sort of games we might be left to play in future.
It may be that great crested newts are not endangered to the point of extinction in Britain, but there can be no arguing that along with their ponds and surrounding habitat this species has been in steady decline for decades.
The common response, ‘It is happening everywhere. What can you do?’ won’t solve the problem, and neither will our expansion into every natural space that is available. It isn’t in our longterm best interest, let alone the many other species we are pushing out as we do so. In many cases we are simply following the money, and then building arguments to justify our actions – ultimately another generation will have to face the consequences, because we did not tread lightly and leave things as we found them.
It is of course ridiculous to think that we can save every newt or salamander from disturbance, but at the very least it makes sense to move beyond the point where we regard protecting other species as a benevolent eccentricity. So, if you uncover something as seemingly insignificant as a newt, or other small creature that you’ve never seen before, then record the time and the place, and always take a photograph to dispel doubt in others. Be proactive – take a picture and maybe in some small way you might help save the planet, even if only by increasing awareness in others.
All the underwater photographs above were taken in tanks using natural light. Please be aware that permits may we required to keep some amphibians in captivity and this should not be attempted without a full understaning of lifestyles requirements.
Dedicated to eight year old Nolan Gagnon who recently donated his birthday money to ‘The Burns Bog Conservation Foundation’. This 3,000 hectare bog is recognised as the largest raised peat bog remaining on the west coast of North America and one of the last major undeveloped natural habitats in lower mainland B.C.. The bog’s survival is down to the persistence and hard work of local people and needless to say, is busy with salamanders and other amphibians which are the key indicators to the health of life on planet Earth.
‘How’s Southampton Pier’ I asked my father on the phone today. ‘Mostly boarded up.’ he said, ‘and I miss it… I used to enjoy going down there and playing in the penny arcade.’ I presume he meant when he was a child, because I couldn’t imagine him doing that today. Maybe it’s genetic; my son would have done exactly the same – he’s into arcade games, although now they are electronic and rather more sophisticated.
This interest must have skipped a generation because when I was a child I hated them. Like fairgrounds these were grubby places and I didn’t want to touch the machines let alone play on them. I hated everything about a decrepit British seaside town and at top of the list was the scruffy Victorian pier.
In the 1950s a pier visit was a common Sunday afternoon outing and for me it was a bit of a downer – there would be couples promenading along the decking – men in gabardine macs with women at their sides clutching their coats to their throats as the wind tried to blow them into the sea whilst rain threatened from the leaden sky above. Older people too frail to face the conditions sat on seats protected by glazed windbreaks on every side but the front, and dozed or peered out to sea as they waited for a change in the weather so they could get home for their tea.
Once you were at the end of the pier there was the reward of watching a group of fishermen quietly standing with their thick rods lent against the rail. And on the way back those terrible arcades would be rattling away as pennies entered slots, or mechanically flicked ballbearings whizzed around a curved metal track before they ran out of energy and dropped towards a central row of reward slots where they would bounce for a while before dropping again to the gloom of the no win hole. It was so depressing. Most visitors would have paid to get onto the pier and now some machine was eating their money… The long walk back would be wet, windy and miserable. and this was supposed to be fun!
But let’s be fair this was the 1950s – a time when many adults were still traumatised by a war that had ended years earlier; buttoned up with no idea of how to enjoy themselves they came to the pier to break the monotony of everyday life only to discover that their leisure time was no less monotonous than the rest of their existence. The main thing was to keep smiling… to just get out there and make the best of things – above all else you were supposed to stay cheerful in the face of insurmountable dullness. I didn’t know it then, but I was just waiting for the 1960s to arrive, and that didn’t happen in Britain until 1963.
I enjoy looking through old black and white photogaph albums, and usually it isn’t long before you come aross a picture of a pier. Back then they even put piers on postcards – an unintentional warning that at the seaside this was about as interesting as things were going to get?
So, what’s the up side? Well, perhaps we should consider the seaside pier as the most ingenious method that our species has contrived to invade the tidal zone. Maybe you have to think beyond all the fun and just consider these giants as magnificent achievements of heavy engineering – like somebody taking the Eiffel Tower and laying it on its side – then pushing it out to sea – would it make the structure any less extraordinary? O.K. it was a nice try, but I’m not convinced either.
It all started in 1814 when the first pleasure pier opened at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, but promenading wouldn’t reach its heyday for another fifty years when in the mid to late Victorian era piers become fashionable places to walk rather than just somewhere to park a boat in deeper water. Leisure time had just been invented and initially pier activities were a peculiarly British thing. There is nowhere in Britain that is far from the coast; it was as if Victorian engineers felt obliged to do something interesting along the island’s coastline, allowing promenaders to defy reality, caught as they were in this magical world between the land and the sea – try it on a foggy day and you’ll know what I mean. But this notion would wane during the 20th Century as the thrill of walking along a pier became progressively degraded by familiarity, to the point where in the end it became just another trip down the uneven boards to candyfloss-land.
My childhood caught the seedy end of this mundane amusement at around the same time as many of the grand old Victorian structures started falling into the sea. About fifty-five cast iron piers are all that remain standing now and many of these are in poor repair, a far cry from the time when there were more than a hundred such structures dotted around Britain’s coastline, and no seaside town worth its salt was complete without one.
During my childhood I would go with my parents to see summer shows in theatres at the ends of piers, which for a small boy was a pleasantly unsophisticated entertainment. We often visited Bournemouth Pier which was close to home, and this one at least, is still going strong.
Vaudeville though is dead, as are many of the piers that kept it alive. A few have been restored and weathered the storm of social change, but many others have simply rusted away and fallen into the sea. Film director Ken Russell symbolically brought a well publised finale to ‘the end of the pier’ era when Southsea’s South Parade Pier caught fire during the making the rock opera film ‘Tommy’. The blaze could be seen for miles down the coast, and for me this seemed a fitting end to these old fashioned monsters that belonged to a bygone era.
But this was by no means the first time that South Parade Pier has been in flames – it has happened on several occasions – most notably in 1904 when it was completely destroyed and was then rebuilt. Fire is a hazard that has plagued many old piers over the years, and a cynic might suggest that this is another good reason to avoid them.
Graham Green features Brighton Pier in his novel ‘Brighton Rock’: the book is set in the run down seediness of 1930s Brighton, and is very much in line with the way I viewed them during my early childhood in the 1950s. There were once two piers on the front, only one of which remains. Iron, salt water and oxygen are not a good mix unless rust is regarded as a great success and this may be the case for those with an appreciation of patina, but there is a certain point beyond which this appeal is lost to structural engineers, and with this in mind it is little wonder that so may Victorian Piers have been lost to the sea.
Brighton is about 70 miles east of Southampton
and in 1980 it took about two hours to get there when one Sunday afternoon I drove a girlfriend out along the coastal road to see something that back then passed for an interesting day out. It was the Athina-B, a 3,500 ton merchant ship that had been driven onto the shore by gale force winds. Left high and dry on Brighton’s shingle beach, it narrowly missed taking out the Palace Pier as waves just carried it past during a storm.
When a boat like this ends up on a beach it is impossible to disregard the dangers that can so easily come to the tidal zone. If a vessel this size breaks up and releases oil it would be a disaster, but nothing in comparison to the devastation that might occur if an oil taker did something similar. Considering the number of oil tankers carrying crude oil around the world on the high seas at any one time, it is remarkable how few spills there have been.
If you’ve ever walked down an old pier during a storm then you’ll have gained a better understanding of the power of the sea, even at low tide this remains the most ferocious strip of the natural world that most of us are ever likely to walk across. Without a pier we simply couldn’t exist in such a place, and that’s great for nature… because with or without a pier, it mostly can.
I recently visited Santa Monica Pier with my wife and daughter, which might seem a world away from Britain’s Victorian piers – in reality as the crow flies it is about one fifth of the world away – and there are surprising similarities. Age for a start; Santa Monica’s is more than a hundred years old and it certainly looks its age, but I prefer it to any of the British piers that I am more familiar with, and this probably has a lot to do with the L.A. climate. People always moan about the weather in the U.K., but really it isn’t so bad until you try walking down a long pier in really bad weather. The other thing is atmosphere and Sanata Monica Pier has that in spades – it is a far cry from anything I remember from the British piers of my youth, and it just seems a far more comfortable place to be amused.
The pier was once just a long narrow Municipal pier that was built in 1909 for the sole purpose of getting sewage out beyond the breakers – there were no amenities to go and see back then, which under the circumstance seems hardly surprising.
The adjoining pleasure pier is the reason most people take a walk down the old wooden boards today and on a Saturday evening things are very busy – there are cafes and other attractions, and the most popular of all is Pacific Park.
It is perhaps surprising to find the pier still standing because over the years it has had to weather more than just the Pacific breakers: threatened during the 1930s by lack of use during the depression it almost went the way of many other failing concerns but managed to survive. Demolition seemed likely on a number of occasions and a couple of major storms during the 1980s, took a terrible toll, but local enthusiasm and funding have enabled essential renovations to keep the old structure going. To an outsider it is unimaginable that Santa Monica could exist without its famous pier.
Nearby, Hollywood has added to the mystique by featuring this old and well loved structure in an ‘awful lot of movies’… or should that be ‘a lot of awful movies’. On balance, the first description is the fairest. In the real world this pier has a laid back west coast charm that you won’t find anywhere else, although when we visited on the evening of the 7th November 2016 a UFO appeared in the sky not long after sunset and almost everybody looked up to see it. Later, we discovered that an unarmed nuclear missile had been tested along the L.A. costline, fired from a navy submarine. What a shame… the story was so much more interesting when there was a chance that E.T. was making a return visit to Hollywood.
It is practical piers that work best for me –
like this one just a stone’s throw from my fathers home in Hythe. The piers main function is to get pedestrians out to deeper water so that they can take a ferry across Southampton Water to the City.
The nearest pier to where I live now is in the city of White Rock on B.C.’s Lower Mainland. The word ‘city’ is stretching it a bit though because this is a pleasant seaside town and one that is easy to find – just head south down the B.C. coastline, and when you find yourself at the U. S border – you’ve gone too far. White Rock is as far south as you can go in Canada if all you want to do is promenade along a traditional old pier – and this one is a good one. The shore doesn’t run out over a classic sandy beach, although there is certainly enough here to build a sandcastle. The tidal region is a bit weedy and that’s fine, but you need to cross a railway line to get onto both the beach and the pier.
The advantage of this pier is that it is a great base from which to observe wildlife:
effectively you can walk across the tidal zone and look down from above as the shoreline changes across its full range.
I have watched salmon pass under White Rock pier as they make for one of the many inlets along the coastline to swim up river and spawn; and I recently tried to get a close-up of a seal – it watched me for a while, then dived and moved parallel to the pier before passing under the structure some 20 metres from where I was standing, so I missed the shot. But sometimes you get lucky and find yourself closer to animals than you might expect; and you are standing on a more stable platform than a boat can provide. A pier is then an ideal place for taking pictures, although you sometimes have to wait for walkers to pass to minimize the bounce of the boardwalk, especially if you are making a long exposure.
When I first arrived in B.C. six years ago I would regularly photograph the many purple ochre stars that lived in the tidal zone – you are not supposed to call them starfish any more, presumably so as not to confuse the sort of person who might think a sea horse could win a race.
When I visited the pier in late 2013 the stars had all gone. I asked several locals if they knew why, but surprisingly few had even noticed their disappearance. Many animal populations fluctuate in cycles that run over several years; usually this is part of a war game played out between predators and their prey, and these strategies can sometimes take millions of years to refine. But the sudden disappearance of the stars seemed rather more ominous and might instead be related to increasing water temperatures, pollution, or a combination of other factors induced by human activity. The truth is nobody really knows, and that’s a real worry.
The disappearance has occured over a wide area, but the sea is a vast interconnected environment and hopefully recolonization will happen at sometime in the near future because population crashes of this kind have happened before – there are however still no purple ochre stars to be seen at the time of posting this article in March 2016.
This disappearance of the purple ochre stars is a good example of how taking a picture can provide precise information about a species before a sudden and unexpected decline. Not many people bother to photograph everything around them on the off chance one image might be useful, but there are enough people taking pictures now, that between us we are unwittingly capturing important changes in the natural world, and if the ‘when’ and ‘where’ are verifiably recorded these pictures could in future provide useful scientific information. Sometimes it is as if we are photographing a crime scene without really knowing that we are doing so – just like photographing the purple ochre stars when I had no idea that they were about to quite literally start falling apart.
Wouldn’t it be great if we threw away our selfie sticks and instead become more engaged with photographing our rapidly changing world. Not everything is about us, and perhaps we should take fewer pictures of our favourite subject and more of what nature has to offer. In future such visual records might in some small way help save the planet, even if most of the time, all we end up with, is an interesting picture of some little creature living at the end of the pier.
It is the first afternoon of 2016 and I’m standing in the tidal zone of a very beautiful place – Boundary Bay, which sits on the border between Canada and the United States on the north western coastline of North America. The bay extends into both countries – geology doesn’t care about our version of the World – or it didn’t the other evening when a magnitude 4.2 earth tremour spilled piles of books and pictures across my home office floor.
There is something very special about the tidal zone, it is one of only a few natural environments that our species has trouble residing in; and where we think this absolutely necessary we will dump huge amounts of concrete onto the foreshore and re-inforce any structure against the power of the sea. In simple terms, it is difficult to live in tidal areas on the cheap. Often we will build at the top of the beach, or on the cliffs above, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. These are environments that are ever-changing and more often than not, best left to nature.
We commonly pollute such places, often in the hope that the sea will just wash it all away – which it usually does… but then the mess just shows up somewhere else, unless it is chemical waste (run off from agricultural areas for example), in which case we may not even see it. For as long as I can remember, natural places seem almost incomplete without a lump of polystyrene, a collection of plastic bags and maybe an old fridge – or that’s what you’d think if you suddenly arrived here from Mars.
When I lived in Southern England we knew exactly where to dump our rubbish because local councils made a lawn and planted daffodils as a sign of loveliness, while anything that looked the least bit natural appeared to be giving a clear signal that dumping was O.K., or at least that’s the way many places in Britain were beginning to look when I left in 2002. Hopefully things are changing.
When in Malaysia in the early 1980s I decided to spend a night on a desert island with only the bare essentials – in those days a girlfriend, a box of matches, a bottle of water, and a camera (top of the list was always chocolate, but in the tropics this just melts). The boatman considered it essential to take us to one tidal zone in particular to see houses on stilts; and I’d like to think this the exception that proves the rule – ‘you really can’t build in such places on the cheap’, but I’ve seen low tech accomodation like this elsewhere, and when a big storm arrives, this becomes a very temporary form of housing; between the tides really isn’t the best place for us to undertake longterm living.
Back to the present and I’m enjoying beautiful British Columbia as I stand on Crescent Beach. My wife is taking a walk along the coastal path, which gives me less than an hour to grab a few pictures of birds feeding on a rising tide before she returns. The problem is, this is a sunny New Year’s Day and the whole place is remininiscent of a bubbling ants nest of activity – there are people just about everywhere, but despite this I’m seeing lots of birds and that’s a surprise.
The birds here seem to have a certain indifference to people, possibly because of the pay off – there’s plenty of food – and I don’t mean chips and leftover sandwiches – a great deal of naturally available food is on offer and I think there are good reasons for this.
It is common in Southern B.C. to see warnings about collecting shellfish from coastal areas, although some people continue to do so illegally, Lower Mainland beaches haven’t been over harvested, not because anybody is worried about the birds getting enough to eat, but because there has been a ban on harvesting shellfish in the region for more than 40 years. Local waters are contaminated with bacteria from human and animal sewage, and there is also an assortment of toxins from motor oil, pesticides and fertilisers. This is a real concern – if you fancy a dose of salmonella or hepatitis, eating shellfish from this area should go right to the top of your ‘to do’ list. Essentially we don’t eat what the sea has on offer here for one very good reason… it might kill us. The birds however can’t read the warning signs and feast on shellfish and other small creatures that are readily available in the tidal zone because we leave them alone.
And it isn’t just the Lower Mainland, there are many areas along the B.C. coastline with restrictions on shellfish harvesting.
This was the first of many warning signs dotted along the coast that I noticed after moving to the region nearly six years ago, it was on a beach close to Victoria (the capital of British Colombia) which is located on Vancouver Island. This warning was a real surprise – I naively thought that this place couldn’t be anything other than pristine… An important city where government sits that doesn’t have sewage treatment seemed very unlikely to me, especially because the province trades on its natural beauty – I mean it’s written on our number plates.
The City’s dumping of raw sewage and the run off from pesticides into the sea without appropriate treatment isn’t something that most locals go on about, but one of them did… and to me. Well, obviously this fool was mistaken. I mean who in their right mind would allow that to happen in one of the most impressive natural environments on Earth? After all, this isn’t a ‘developing’ or what we used to call a ‘third world’ country – this is Canada, and that really couldn’t happen here?
During the warm summer of 2015 there were also warning notices posted around the Bay about ‘swimmers itch’. This condition is due to the presence of parasitic schistosomes concentrated in the water which is a nuisance to bathers. In the tropics there is another more dangerous form ‘schistosomiasis’ or ‘bilharzia’which is a serious threat to people, but the tiny parasites that occurs here are little more than a nuisance. When the weather is hot their numbers increase and they burrow into the skin of seabirds (their natural host). When they burrow into the skin of humans (the wrong host), they die but will sometimes cause irritation – an itching of the skin. People are therefore disinclined to go into the water during the summer months and in winter, when the water is clear, it is just too cold to bother. The presence of this parasite is another factor in reducing human disturbance to shore birds and they have quickly taken advantage of the situation.
A combination of food availability and less disturbance provides a more user-friendly if not cleaner environment for marine birds in this otherwise developing area. The tidal zone has become at least one natural environment where wildlife and humans live in close proximity without disastrous consequences, and that at least is encouraging.
When I was younger my earliest attempts at filming waders was from a toilet tent staked out above the water line in the tidal zone. I’d rig it before the birds arrived and then get in and wait for the water to rise. This would provide about 20 minutes of ‘waders feeding closely’ time on the incoming tide without the birds being aware of my presence; then as I got flooded out – there would be a slight disturbance as I moved my gear out and saved the tent from the waves, but my retreat was only a brief inconvenience and the birds would soon return to feed.
I later graduated to a hide or blind as it is sometimes called, but I always thought the waterproofing of the toilet tent gave it the edge, even though if it returned to its original use, I’d cut holes in inconvenient places. I once spent several days filming from a floating hide in Cornwall, a one off metal construction that had been made and positioned way down into the tidal zone, but once in place there was no possibility of getting out until the tide had run a full cycle and you’d have to sit it out, no matter the weather, until the water receded.
My preferred choice is not to use a hide at all but rather to repeatedly return to an area, wearing similar clothes and a hat which usually singles me out from other people. I wear nothing camouflaged as I am not overtly hiding and hang out at a distance until the local birds begin to ignore me; usually I allow them to approach me rather than the other way around. This is a good technique for many animals, but there are always some that it is impossible to get close to without a hide. Some species of birds (on the nest) will desert their eggs or offspring with very little provocation and it is wise to be careful when videoing or photographing any creature and adhere to any legal requirements. Professional photographers on a tight schedule will often hide away in a tent because the stand and wait technique in full view can require a lot of time and patience, although in busy public places where the passage of people is constant the opposite may also be the case.
Photographing waders in particular, by standing out in the open can be very tricky because they live in open environments – just standing next to a bush can make a difference, but there is no chance of that out on a beach and most birds will avoid coming too close if you are an unfamiliar form, or if they have previously been shot at – long lenses and guns have a certain similarity, although most birds can tell the difference. Certainly none of the birds are twitchy today, nothing is bothering them – there is plenty of food to be had and they are just getting on with it.
The most interesting thing is that I can see what they are eating – a variety of small invertebrates, the one on the left has a little crab in its beak; a camera often allows you to catch what you might otherwise miss during a rapid capture, manipulate and swallow. Presently, there are many hundreds of dunlin feeding here in discreet flocks, sometimes as few as a dozen but in many cases in far greater numbers. Across the whole bay area there will be many thousands of dunlin overwintering or passing through.
These birds are really well camouflaged once they are amongst the rocks, with heads down their curved backs and disruptive colouration give the impression (from a distance), that they are just part of the shoreline.
The biggest problem I usually have when working with waders is dog walkers – the ones who permanently have their dogs off of the lead. They know their dog won’t harm the birds, but forget that every five minutes there will be another enthusiastic dog charging into the water. Taking flight is one of the most efficient burners of energy that a bird can undertake and that’s really bad news on a cold day – essentially waders are feeding through small windows of opportunity usually on a rising tide, taking advantage of prey emerging from places of hiding as water flows around them. The birds need to use their time efficiently and being chased by dogs isn’t very helpful.
If we more easily recognised the feeding regimes that waders are programmed to use and acted accordingly, these birds might be even more tolerant of our presence. We are no longer completely wrapped up in the primitive mindset of can we eat it and how should we cook it? Many of us just like watching birds. Prior to the mid-20th Century, natural science was primarily concerned with the collection and identification of specimens – certainly a necessary phase in our understanding, and then ecology, conservation and animal behaviour were in their infancy. There is no doubt that we have come a long way in a very short space of time. Sadly, the main threat to wildlife today lies in our increasing numbers, this causes problems that range from pollution to habitat destruction with human disturbance the predominant feature along coastlines.
Today however is an exceptional day – most people have their dogs under control and none of the children are actively chasing the birds, which is mostly how it is in Canada where people are defined by their considerate and tolerant natures. Ignorance is always the enemy and it takes only a small percentage of people not thinking straight to cause unnecessary disturbance to wildlife.
What a beautifully still and sunny afternoon the first day of January 2016 provided for photographing the waders on this agreeable stretch of coastline and a good deal easier than my woodland woes of yesterday (see previous post – Into the Woods). Every outing into the natural world is different and that’s what keeps it interesting. The more you learn, the more you discover there is to learn; and once in a while you discover things that make it difficult to remain upbeat and optimistic.
In the act of taking a picture you become witness to future change, and if at some stage southern British Columbia cleans up its act and people once again harvest the tidal zone and re-set the ecological balance, it would be ironic if this ended up as just another way of competing with the birds.
With thanks to John Gordon and Chris Packham for advice on bird identification, although if mistakes have been made they are entirely my own, and neither John nor Chris can they be held responsible for the views expressed above.
The varied thrush is not a rare bird where I live on the Lower Mainland. B.C.. Usually it overwinters in lowland forest and scrubland, but with ever increasing urbanisation many of its natural habitats are disappearing. Worldwide, woodland birds are under pressure as our numbers continue to rise and many natural areas are given over to agriculture, industry and housing.
Once, when a student, I went for a jog in Central London. Setting out from my hall of residence in South Kensington at 5.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon I ran diagonally across Hyde Park to Marble Arch and back. It took a while, and on returning I lay on my bed for several hours wondering if I might be dying… I was 21 and my condition wasn’t down to over exertion, it was carbon monoxide poising, along with an unhealthy cocktail of other exhaust pollutants which then included lead. In those days, running in a town or city was a death wish… and probably, it still is.
I remember a time when only sporty people in training went for a jog. Ask my father when he last voluntarily ran and he’d look at you as if you were crazy. Working a sedentary office job for most of his life he didn’t even do walking for exercise, unless there was a ’99’ at the end of it – that, if I remember correctly is a cone of soft ice-cream with a chocolate flake shoved into it.
My father is now 93, has always been active, but has never ‘run for fun’, andremains in reasonable health for his age. Without the hook of an exercise induced endorphin rush, he’s managed to hang onto his own hips and knees, which is more than can be said for a great many of old joggers.
And that’s what I’m seeing today – lots of joggers of all ages, shapes and sizes as I walk through the urban reserve in search of varied thrushes, for no better reason than they are beautiful. I’d prefer to do this in wilderness, but that’s a good hour away. I live in suburbia now, and visiting a local reserve is altogether more practical. Nevertheless, this will be my worst day photographing wildlife for a very long time – it appears a group of people have met up in the car park to organize a major surrealist experience for me… but I don’t know that yet.
I watch a woman jog by; she’s wearing the sort of clothes that others sport if they want to look smart when out shopping, except few will wheeze like she does even walking through a mall let alone running. Well, I say running… if I left the camera I could walk three times faster, and possibly backwards. Like the frog that halves it’s distance with every jump across the path, logic suggests that given infinite time, this woman will never make it back to the car park.
I’m not complaining you understand, this is after all a public place – so what can you expect…More importantly, what might you hope for – fewer dogs perhaps. I think back to my childhood, to a time when dogs jumped over garden gates to exercise themselves, usually inappropriately, as without supervision they invariably get into mischief. It is of course much better now that they are on leashes and accompanied by responsible owners. But when did this mass dog walking thing start? I’ve never seen so many. It’s two in the afternoon and suddenly finals day at Crufts.
Usually I wouldn’t mind, but after a long search I’ve found a small group of varied thrushes coming down from the trees to feed; they are on the opposite side of the path working around the base of a stump and sometimes feeding on top of it. I’m trying to get a few shots, but with the constant procession of people and pets, my chances have been fleeting.
There is for a moment a lull and it looks as if I might get something, then suddenly a coyote dashes though in the back of frame. Perhaps it’s the big one I saw this morning crossing a wetland on the boardwalk, the one that eyed me with complete indifference. But this ‘Wile E.’ is the wrong colour, and I soon recognize it as a big brown dog crashing through the undergrowth with considerable force. There is a flurry of activity as two squirrels dash past, and the back ends of three thrushes rapidly diminish in size as they missile away. Seconds later, the dog flashes past me as well, and he’s having the time of his life. Then his owner comes into view around a curve in the path.
‘Is that your dog? I ask, sounding indignant, which I do really well.
‘Yea it is, and he just loves those squirrels!’
I’m guessing he means in the same way that I love a prawn curry. As quickly as the dog and his man arrived they disappear and after a few minutes things settle down again – just like one of those few happy scenes in ‘Bambi’, the animals return to the space in front of where I am sitting.
Just as I’m thinking that all is not lost… I realise I am mistaken… Another dog, this time a grey one, comes dashing around the corner and it looks like a pointer – the sort of dog that has most of its brain connected to its nose with not a lot left over for everything else; he’s moving at speed and co-ordination appears to be a problem; there’s never a time when this creature doesn’t look as if he is going to crash into something. Miraculously, the dog stays on its feet as he passes me, and fortunately there are no small children around to take out. Then, as quickly as his arrival, the creature has gone and the madness over… But no… he’s back and passing me again, this time in the opposite direction, and at breakneck speed only just re-takes the corner.
Thank goodness, it’s finally over… But hang on, it’s not… Like a bad case of deja vu, this doggy nightmare has returned to do it all over again, but now with a seven foot chunk of tree in his mouth. The strength of this animal’s neck is incredible – the branch is held at one end, with the rest barely touching the ground – and he’s still coming – which is troublesome.
The path is about five feet wide and if Muttley stays on course, both the tripod and camera will be toast. I can either grab the tripod or my camera bag… I opt for the tripod because most my money is on top of that. At the very last moment, as I prepare to jump into the undergrowth, the dog veers across to my left and into the woodland, sything everything in his path. It has been freezing cold for days, and up until now, the ferns have managed to withstand the onslaught of permanent frost, but they are no match for this new threat. Fern fronds and frost flakes flash and fall in the sharp light of a sun now dropping ever lower into the trees.
Not long after, as things quieten down again, a young woman rounds the bend.
‘Is that your dog?’… my words of indignation are now well practiced.
‘Yes, he’s mine’, she says with pride.
‘He should be on a lead. This is a conservation area.’
Is it? I didn’t know that.’
Shortly after, as she passes by, the young woman becomes embroiled in conversation with an older lady who is walking a dog in the opposite direction – the pointer is long gone, and the older lady offers friendly advice.
‘It is as well to have your dog on a leash’ here. she suggests, ‘The wardens were around yesterday and they take a dim view of dogs away from their owners.’
‘Missed it by a day’, I’m thinking. The irritation hasn’t subsided yet, and feel obliged to say,
‘I don’t mind your dog off of the lead so much as it being totally out of control’.
There’s no response to this, which at the very least, saves a lot of time.
Earlier in the day I heard somebody ask a dog walker to put his dog on a lead because there were young children about. The request was accompanied by a please and the dog owner immediately complied. Not the sort of response I would get when living in Britain, where asking a dog owner to leash their dog was frequently greeted with a hostility more in keeping with an assault on their mother.
But this is Canada and most Canadians are relentlessly reasonable – in fact, they can wear you down with their reasonableness – but you can’t help but like them, although often, when out in the nature some will speak very loudly and you hear them coming a mile away, but I’m guessing that’s to scare the bears away, because it scares away just about everything else. When the voicesters eventually pass, invariably they apologise, presumably for being alive and too close to you, even though they have every right to be. I always feel bad about this, because nobody should be expected to have to deal with such nice people.
I really am running out of light now – as the sun drops things get increasingly cooler. I’ve been out all day, and can no longer touch the camera without shaking it. There’s still a little time though, so I take the obvious course and attach a flexible cable release.
The thing is, the joggers, the dog walkers and me… we will all get to go home for our evening meal. But right now, the birds are on the brink of roosting and if they haven’t fuelled up adequately during the day, some will not see tomorrow’s sunrise. When you live in a centrally heated condo and have totally lost contact with the outside world, understanding the most obvious things about nature is a big ask. We simply lose awareness. It all looks so beautiful; the birds are all in fantastic condition, and that’s because, those that aren’t… are already dead.
I begin to feel as if this is my last chance with the thrushes. It seems odd that I should feel this so repeatedly. A nun goes by and she smiles as she says hello, and I’m thinking – now I’m in a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, but this is no man dressed up as a woman, she’s authentically normal and quietly reading something. I really want to know what it is, and strain my neck to see. I’m guessing it is a religious text, but hoping that it might be ‘Catcher in the Rye’. an altogether more appropriate read for this particular afternoon. Sadly, I will never know.
Then the reason I am here shows up. Or rather the husband of the reason I am here shows up; soon to be followed by the reason I am here. Just as I’m getting a good shot of the thrushes, a voice behind me says. It’s a tui isn’t it? because whatever I am doing appears totally inconsequential to the voice owner.
‘No!’ I say, but nothing follows, because I’m thinking that a tui is a bird that isn’t even on this continent. Much later I realise that he must be saying ‘Towee’, but not before my wife has worked this out and explained it to me.
Then his wife and I say in unison: ‘It’s a thrush’.
Which is quite something, because as yet I still haven’t seen her.
A tall man of some age moves past me and what is most striking about him is that attached to his front is a harness and pulling at the harness is a dog. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world I am now living in I begin to wonder if this is the way that old people get around now. I’ve seen plenty of people dragged along by their dogs, but this is the most novel method of increasing mobility for the aged I’ve come across and wonder if it will catch on. I hope so, because presently the old gentleman is standing right in front of the camera.
Then his wife passes by and moves ahead of him, scattering peanuts and seed to either side of the track as she goes, which immediately reminds me of ‘The Sower’ – a picture by Jean Everett Millais. An artist who was born in the same place as I was – Southampton, England. Although at the time of writing I’m around 124 years younger than he is, which doesn’t seem unusual on a day when anything seems possible.
Once the couple have gone, the birds return and begin to feed more unpredictably in all of the places the woman has cast her nuts and seeds. I have been picking off shots through the afternoon as birds and squirrels come and go, essentially because they are finishing up the remains of her previous food drop, but now she has provided too many options for me to cover.
Feeding wild animals can be a problem. Knock up the grey squirrel population and they’ll be eating young birds in the nest come spring. It’s difficult to know what best to do. For much of the year feeding is unnecessary anyway, but without doubt, this activity gets more birds through the winter, especially in this very cold weather with all the human disturbance they have to endure, and with so little natural habitat left in the surrounding area. Present regulations no longer provide a completely sustainable environments for wildlife in suburban areas and how we conserve what remains is open to question. With well meaning people out feeding local ferrel cats, it is apparent that bird conservation is not top of the list for everybody. Some just have other priorities.
There are now birds and squirrels all around me picking off the food that has been scattered – a last chance to feed before nightfall. With only a few minutes before the light goes altogether I set to my task with renewed enthusiasm – I just want to get a little more, but a group arrives and stands right in front of me as if they haven’t noticed my existence, even though I’m crouched almost at their feet. They have chosen to have a meeting, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but it’s a dog poo moment for me. Clearly this isn’t my afternoon.
‘Sorry,’ a girl has already said as she passed me on the path, at just about the same time as a lady from the approaching group of five recognised her. What are the chances of that eh? My lucky day!
‘Hey there! I know you. You’re Wendy… I nearly didn’t recognize you. You’ve really grown. Where are you now?’
I think I know the answer to this one, because it is written in big letters across her chest, but all I can see from my position is the end of a word and that spells GINA, which sets alarm bells ringing.
‘I’m at Regina’, says the girl.’
A university! Thank goodness for that, because people put the oddest things on t-shirts these days.
‘And what are you doing now.’
‘Running, I’m soccer training.’
I’ve lost interest in the birds by now and am thinking, ‘Wake up girl! … she doesn’t mean ‘RIGHT’ this minute’. ‘University education isn’t what it used to be’, thinks one of the older people – the old one that was me.
The conversation continues for two or three minutes, mostly at cross purposes and I’m still getting colder – which I didn’t think possible. I’ve lost the feeling in several of my fingers. Then everybody moves on and the birds return once again, but just as they do, a couple of lads come around the bend. One is swishing a stick at the fern fronds ahead of him (as if they haven’t had enough trouble today). The other boy is not so erratic in his movements, and seems calmed by something on a wooden support by the path – he’s completely transfixed by it, and kneels down to undertake the improbable task of unscrewing the object using only the palm of his left hand. What has happened is clear. I have been bombed by a group of special needs teenagers.
Am I allowed to say that this is really inconvenient? Even if really it isn’t. The circumstances just provide the impetus for me to say what my brain needs to hear. ‘I’m out of here’. It’s beyond cold now, the boys have done me a favour. It is almost dark as I pack up my gear. The lad with the stick has apparently dropped it and as I leave, is looking at something in the sky that doesn’t appear to be there. A bit like my whole afternoon to be honest.
As I wander off, the other boy is joined by a helper who is clearly trying to think of the best way to tell his care that trying to unscrew whatever it is, is futile, but words fail him; instead he stands waiting for the boy to discover the inevitable for himself. There is something rather soothing about this – the carer smiles philosophically as I walk by – there is a lot to be said for waiting for things to take their natural course, but I for one, never seem to have the time. ‘Happy New Year’, I say as we pass.
I’ve spent the best part of a day and a half, frozen to the bone, looking for thrushes, followed by an afternoon photographing them, and my success has been fleeting, but I’ve enjoyed being out there – any time with nature makes you feel more alive, even when you’re cold.
On this interesting afternoon all the ingredients were available for a perfect shot – the light was for a time quite beautiful and the birds were present. But in the end, fate conspired against me, although that’s an egocentric viewpoint that probably has no basis in reality.
In retrospect, this, the last day of 2015 has been the most surreal and interesting afternoon of the year for me, but when 2016 arrives… please… not another one quite like this.
N.B. Species diversity is the best measure of the health of our Planet and inevitably, that has consequences for us all. Human populations continue to expand in almost all inhabitable lowland areas of the world and nature reserves have an essential role to play in supporting wildlife, but increasingly, as our numbers increase, reserves are under pressure and it may be necessary to reconsider how much land we put aside to make the word ‘conserve’, meaningful. Presently, we do little more than congratulate ourselves for having reserves at all – in many cases these are multi-purpose and are sold to the public as amenity areas. In truth there are few politicians who have grasped the reality that sometimes you can’t conserve wildlife successfully in areas where people have other priorities – it only works if everybody understands what is required and behaves accordingly – a situation that politicians either can’t comprehend or simply don’t chose to. It would of course be different if birds had the vote – and in my parallel alternative surrealist world… they would.
The truth is, we can do more or less whatever we like, providing we don’t reduce species diversity. In the end, whether a single species of bird continues to overwinter at a local reserve, wherever that might be, has far-reaching effects, because what happens radiates out in a three dimensional ball of environmental consequences. If wildlife is decreasing (and we know, broadly speaking, that it is) we must either provide more reserves, or limit our own longterm expansion. If we fail even common birds like the varied thrush, the results could be far reaching and make my surrealist nightmare of a day look like… Well… Just another walk in the park.
As a child I was fascinated by a sea turtle’s shell that stood in the fireplace of my grandparents house during the summer months of the year to hide a coal-dusted grate. I was small back then, and it seemed so big.
Then, when I went to school I learned more: sea turtles were often eaten by people in tropical coastal regions, and their subsistence lifestyles could be improved by selling turtle shells to travellers as tangible reminders of visits to exotic places.
My grandfather had been at sea for much of his life, which explained how one turtle carapace found its way to the then seafaring town of Southampton, England. No doubt many other shells made similar journeys, until a realisation dawned that sea turtles were suffering overexploitation and the importation of turtle products was made illegal.
By the time I was a teenager all sea turtles were in decline and the old shell in the grate was now something of an eye opener: if creatures that swam in the remoteness of the oceans faced possible extinction, then many other plants and animals more accessible to humans must surely suffer the same fate.
This turned out to be true, but sea turtles are especially vulnerable due to an evolutionary past that ties them to the land – if only for brief periods. This land based connection goes back a couple of hundred million years – then, around 120 million years ago they experienced a rapid evolutionary change that led to a lifestyle that confined them almost entirely to the sea.
Some sea turtle species occasionally haul out onto rocks to rest or sun bathe, but mostly they live beneath the waves. All however must come regularly to the surface to breathe, and females have a tie to the land that has never been broken – mature individuals must emerge onto sandy beaches to lay their eggs; this can occur several times during the nesting season, although once egg laying is completed a female might not return for two or three years.
Usually females arrive at night, and their egg laying habits are often predictable, which makes adult females and their eggs vulnerable to over-harvesting by humans. This land based contact has become a disaster for sea turtles, an unfortunate situation for creatures that have successfully negotiated the world’s oceans without much change in structure or lifestyle for millions of years.
In recent times sea turtles have been disappearing at an alarming rate. All of the seven species that inhabit the world’s oceans are declining in numbers, although in some places legal protection and concerted conservation efforts have slowed the process. Nevertheless, it is difficult to protect animals that range so widely, and care under one jurisdiction may not be as diligent or forthcoming as it is under another.
Seldom has so much research gone into a group of animals with so little return, although a great deal has been discovered in recent years. It is now known that temperatures within the nest decide the sex of emerging babies, and it is apparent that during infancy mortality is high – not only are hatchlings vulnerable travelling down the beach to get into the water but they also suffer heavy predation during the early years of life.
There is still much to learn about where young sea turtles go once they are at sea and how they navigate to wherever they need to be. Later in life, mature females will return to lay eggs on beaches, where many years earlier, they also started out. The problems of surviving to maturity seem insurmountable; predation and hits by boats take their toll, many are drowned when caught in fishing nets and all are vulnerable to pollution. It can take half a lifetime for a sea turtle to reach maturity and for those that make it, a life spanning more than a hundred years is a possibility.
I didn’t attempt to view sea turtles until I was in my 30s and it happened quite by accident… Sadly, this wasn’t a great success. I had gone to Costa Rica to film bats, taking with me a young freeloader who had attached himself to the B.B.C. by claiming special knowledge of the area I was visiting and with the promise of help in return for a ticket to paradise.
In this manner I got stuck with a guy who was clearly out to make a name for himself by journeying to remote places simply to write about them. There was, he said, only one place where we could be guaranteed to see one particular species of bat, which straight away sounded suspicious, coming from somebody who was either too busy catching up on his sleep or not feeling well enough to do anything at all. With limited time available to locate bats I allowed myself to be drawn into his scheme and rented a light aircraft and a pilot to fly us halfway across Costa Rica to a remote location on the Pacific Coast.
It wasn’t long before we were dropping down and bumping along a remote airfield which had been cut into the forest, but during the flight it became clear that my helper had another agenda. He had begun talking excitedly about the beach at the end of the landing strip famous for its ‘arribada’ – a Spanish word that means arrival – in this case the arrival of female Eastern Pacific olive ridleys sea turtles, that were expected just prior to the full moon to lay their eggs’. Ridleys are not large turtles and were once far more common than they are today, but like their close relative the Kemp’s sea turtle, they have a habit of synchronising their visits as a single spectacular event.
A couple of scientists were working the area, otherwise there was nobody else about. Accommodation was limited and the turtles hadn’t so far shown up. I soon got busy searching the local forest for roosting bats and managed to find and film a couple of species without disturbing them, but the bats weren’t unusual and it was down to good fortune rather than any special knowledge provided by my helper who preferred to sleep through the day rather than search out bats.
Another night passed without any sign of the turtles and I told my colleague that we would have to fly out the next day because there was filming to be done and time was limited, but he refused to leave, claiming he felt too rough to help move my gear back to the runway. Unfortunately, I had no alternative but to leave him to freeload off of the scientists because as far as I could tell, he had no visible means of support and certainly no way of paying for a flight out, for all I know he might still be there, buried in a shallow grave close by the turtle eggs… but more likely, he has done very well for himself as chances often do.
Sea turtles continued to eluded me for another thirty years until one day a green sea turtle popped its head out of the ocean while I was standing on a beach and I finally got my chance to photograph one in its natural habitat.
In 2010, with my wife and daughter, I encountered green turtles in the surf in Hawaii – quite shockingly they were the size of coffee tables as they washed back and forth in the tidal zone feeding on algae; and they were potentially dangerous if they crashed into you, especially if you were caught standing on the sand rather than floating alongside them in the water.
Quite recently we had left New Zealand where my neighbour had imparted some useful information; he told me that if a sheep runs in your direction you should bend your legs and point them away from the impact, this keeps your knee caps intact because essentially they bend willingly only in one direction. This also worked well with turtles – although dealing with them surging back and forth in the surf wasn’t an everyday event for me, in the absence of sheep the advice was useful.
More recently, I was sitting on a Maui beach, whilst my wife and daughter snorkelled in the ocean. When they go into the sea they swim as mermaids might. I on the other hand have no affinity with water and float the way that concrete usually doesn’t. This is always a surprise, because despite having no natural buoyancy, I feel confident in the sea until things begin to go wrong and then it’s a different story. Earlier in the week whilst snorkelling over a coral reef, my mask had filled with water and whilst trying to clear it… I gulped in water. One near drowning experience a week should be enough for anybody and I decided to sit this one out.
Add to the mix a couple of recent local shark attacks and it wasn’t that difficult to stay out of the water. Understandably, fewer people had been swimming offshore of late. Tourist boards don’t usually advertise shark attacks on their lists of interesting local events, but the snorkel shop had mentioned this tiny detail… and when they advise staying out of the water – you take notice.
In reality, the chances of your surfboard getting bitten in half by a shark, or worse still your leg, are small compared with drowning without a shark in sight, or a motoring accident on the way back from the beach; even getting struck by lightning is easier to achieve than becoming a shark’s lunch, if you hang out in the right place.
All the same my anxiety level shoots up when I think about swimming in low visibility tropical waters as was the case on this day, but it wasn’t the thought of sharks that bothered me, it was the reduced chances of taking a decent photo in the murkiness – otherwise I’d have been out there.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a large walrus of a man sitting close by staring out to sea. Then a teenage boy came running up the beach and called out, ‘There’s a turtle out there you just gotta see. I’ve never seen one that big before.’ But the old man was in no rush, he knew that green sea turtles were grazing algae off rocks in the shallows below us, as occasionally a shell would appear above the water as a turtle was caught by an incoming wave, and now and again a head would pop up for a gulp of air. You might blink and miss it, but turtle watching isn’t like bird watching once in the water: observing turtles grazing is a slow relaxing experience, although in rough surf there is always a chance of a bashing. As I dwelt on this thought the man sauntered down the beach, waded out to his waist and then flopped gently into the water. He wore no flippers and seemed comfortable in the ocean. Around 20 minutes later he was back. ‘She’s a big one alright’, he said, as he flopped down onto his beach towel and I knew then that I had to go and see for myself.
Entering the sea I felt comfortable snorkelling in shallow water and once beyond the point where the waves were breaking, I was still getting dragged back and forth on the swell.
As I got further out it was still possible to stand on rocks with my head above water, but it was better not to, as I would certainly have been bowled over by the waves; it sounds counterintuitive but once amongst rocks it is safer to stay under water to negotiate them. I kept going, with no clear idea now of how far I was from the beach.
The whole process became hypnotic and I felt relaxed… which was good, but in my case, best not to get lulled into a false sense of security. Then about fifteen feet ahead something big was moving in the water and I was thinking – this is about the right depth to meet up with a shark along the beach line, but thinking ‘shark!’ wasn’t going to be helpful, so I pushed on until the silhouette of a large turtle began to take shape.
What was most surprising was how far the turtle moved back and forth with the wave action, and I watched as this enormous creature swung around the axis of its head in an attempt to keep feeding in the same place; for a moment the weed fanned across the rocks before it was closely cropped by a munch of the turtles ‘beak’ pushing up a puff of detritus that clouded the water. The turtle then moved methodically on to the next growth – some of it already cropped by other turtles.
I remained parallel to the turtle for the most part allowing myself to be pulled on the swell whilst remaining at a constant distance, and avoided moving seaward side so that I was not pushed onto the turtle. This is important because touching a turtle in Hawaii is not only illegal but also detrimental to its health. Many green turtles around the Islands suffer from skin lesions which may be caused by pathogens transferred directly from human to a turtle skin. The presence of suntan lotion may also be a factor and so it is best not to apply it when snorkelling.
I was so absorbed in the great creature that I didn’t notice until fairly late, something looming to my left. Suddenly there was another turtle… the one I had been watching had moved closer to another, and soon they were almost touching.
For the most part turtles ignore one another, but for a moment the larger individual used its bulk to push the smaller one from where it had been feeding (see video below). Perhaps this was no more than a coming together of shells – I was too busy avoiding contact with the pair to be certain – for a while I was the filling in a turtle sandwich and the three of us washed backwards and forwards across the reef until I could get clear.
There was a sudden flash of yellow as I was joined by my daughter; we held our positions on either side of the turtle just long enough for this photo.
Animals that have eyes on the sides of their heads, as turtles do, are usually herbivores that require a wider range of visibility than we do, essentially to avoid predators and it is likely they process visual information slightly differently from us. Our frontally positioned eyes prioritise depth perception which is usually a feature of predatory animals. Hanging around on either side of a turtle gives it two visual images to process which for a turtle might indicate double the trouble. Because reptiles are expressionless and have limited use of body language it is often difficult to assess when they are being disturbed until they move away. For this reason, if another snorkeler shows up, I usually move away as the new arrival will sometimes get excited by the encounter and move about too much when the appropriate mode is to just be another turtle. Alice and I keep our joint encounter brief and soon return to the beach.
Green sea turtles are not especially bothered about being observed in areas where they are free from persecution, but any observation should be short in duration and not too close. Being at one with nature can be a selfish activity, and it is important to know when to move on.
Turtles have clear markings and scale shapes that aid in their identification even when individuals are observed years apart. A picture will requires other essential data if it is to be useful – when and where the picture was taken with a brief description of the conditions. If reliable pictures could be co-ordinated in the future they might provide a better understanding of turtle movements, their lifestyles and even population numbers.
Turtles are declining so rapidly, almost any information that can be gleaned might one day prove useful, but only if it can be achieved without disturbance. On the plus side it is encouraging to think that taking a picture might hold more than simply aesthetic value and might in some small way be a future aid to conservation.
A short video on Pacific green turtles grazing algae in a tidal zone.
N.B. Do not swim close to rocks in rough surf, snorkel with a partner and use buoyancy aids when necessary – even good swimmers drown. Please do not touch or follow turtles, never visit in numbers and always maintain a respectful distance in order to allow them to get on with their lives without distraction.
On 6th February 1982 I made my first trip to Haleakala – The Sacred House of the Sun – a dormant volcano on the beautiful island of Maui.
This might sound like a grand adventure, but anybody can do it – all that is necessary is a reliable vehicle and a head for heights, because the journey from sea level to ‘almost’ the top, can be achieved by road within a couple of hours; this may well be the fastest land ascent to 10,000 feet anywhere in the world. Only two things will catch a traveller out, the first is the sudden ear popping change in altitude, and the second – what they will find when they get there.
Once up on the lip of the crater, it is difficult to believe that you are still on a tropical island, because the landscape rapidly changes to something quite other worldly. Back in the reality of this planet Haleakala has seen perhaps ten eruptions over the last one thousand years, most recently in the late 1700s and it will certainly go off again at some time in the not too distant future.
This extraordinary environment can be interpreted in two ways – either through mythology, or by engaging science.
To the local Hawaiian people this is a sacred place created by Pele, the goddess of volcanoes who was followed here by her vengeful sister Namaka – a sea goddess. The less spiritual amongst us might question what business a sea goddess has roaming around at the top of a volcano, a place totally out of keeping with her natural habitat. If trouble was likely… which of course it was, then I’d have put my money on Pele – but never bet on what the gods will do, because they move in strange ways beyond the understanding of mere mortals. The outcome was a running battle across the crater floor with Pele finally torn apart by her sibling on the far side to the north east.
The story ends disappointingly for supporters of the volcano goddess, whilst a scientific explanation runs an equally dramatic course now hidden in the depths of time.
Haleakala, like so many places in Hawaii, is unique. Looking across the plug of the crater you might think that you are on another planet rather than standing near the top of the largest dormant volcano on Earth. The crater is 3,000 feet deep, two and a half miles wide, 7 miles long and takes in an area totalling about 19 square miles. Just like the other volcanos in the Hawaiian chain, this one started on the Ocean floor and over the last two million years has risen to around 10,000 feet and perhaps a little higher when erosion is taken into consideration.
Mark Twain described the views from up here as sublime.
Once above the clouds looking out across the crater floor, it is easy to understand how the mystical legends of Haleakala developed and not at all difficult to accept that a new wave of believers also consider this place intensely spiritual. This is great news because places with spiritual significance are more likely to get protection than those without it. It seems odd that in these more enlightened times conservation can be influenced by faith based belief systems rather than relying entirely upon the facts – but we shouldn’t knock it when worthwhile environments are getting conserved. Mystery excites our imagination, it is how our brains are wired – we are all suckers for a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Science on the other hand has the disadvantage of being open ended.
So there was all this interesting stuff to consider on my first day up on the volcano and what was I thinking… that this is Hawaii and I haven’t got a sweater – I’d totally ignored what 10,000 feet above sea level can do to air temperature. I had come to film for the B.B.C. and my producer Roger Jones had made no mention of needing one, probably because he wasn’t my mother and considered that somebody doing my job should at least have a brain… but mine wasn’t working that day; as we climbed I began to see ice and snow by the side of the road and slowly it dawned on me that when I got out of the vehicle I was going to be very cold.
Once you start to climb more steeply, the ascent is rapid; at some point your ears pop, the sky goes grey for a while as you go through the clouds, and on a good day, on the other side it will be sunny with sharp light and deep contrast in the shadows. Up here the air is clean and at night there is no supplementary lighting – perfect conditions for an observatory and it is therefore no surprise to find one.
So what’s the point of going up Haleakala for a wildlife film-maker.
There is presently no discernible life on Mars and this place certainly feels the way we might imagine another planet to be, but with the bonus of at least some oxygen to breathe. Look out across the crater and before you is a rolling bed of cinders for as far as the eye can see.
This place not only has one of the oddest landscapes in the world, it also has one of the oddest plants to be found in Hawaii. The silversword (Ahinaha) manages to survive, by living life in the slow lane and although it can’t move about like a triffid, it can grow to triffid like proportions – a fully grown plant with flowering raceme seems just too big to be living under such inhospitable conditions.
A silversword slowly increases in size growing upwards for well over twenty years and then having put all its energy into a lifetime of super slow development it goes out with with a bang, achieving one mighty glorious mass flowering – then it dies.
So, this is what I came to film all those years ago – one of the world’s rarest plants in flower, in one of the world’s most inhospitable places; and by the end of my first visit I was shivering so much I had to lock the camera off and run it without touching, so that my shot wouldn’t have the jitters. A wonderful opportunity, but all I could think about was getting down from the crater before I became the first person to die of hypothermia on a tropical island.
I’ve been back to the crater several times since, when thankfully it was warm and sunny and I didn’t need my ‘just in case’ sweater although I now never forget it. But here’s the bit that I like best – the one thing that no self respecting photographer will tell anybody… you can film or photograph silverswords from the car park; there aren’t huge numbers of plants, but plenty enough for pictures that will cover various stages of development, and if you can’t get it all done within 50 feet of the car, then you’re really not up to much. The most difficult part is getting low enough to avoid having bits of car or the road in shot … and missing out the tourists is tricky because well over a million visitors make their way up here every year.
I guess when you get to my age and people see you lying motionless on the floor waiting for the background to clear they think that maybe you’ve had a heart attack. The last time I was up Haleakala was a few months ago along with my wife and daughter; and a group of young men began talking about my situation. “Please let me help you up sir”. said one, “Even if you don’t want to be helped up…” Then another “I don’t know if you’re happy just lying there motionless, but please, let us help you up. We really must insist…” This was amusing, but they were far enough away for me to ignore them without seeming impolite – I affected my grumpy persona to avoid conversation and the wasting of time – you never know how long the light will hold. I’ve missed a good many shots with this insular approach… the light has gone, you get back to the parking area and don’t mind a chat. Somebody says, “Did you see that fabulous owl?” And you’re thinking, ‘Owl… what owl?’
The most enjoyable thing for me was the realisation that I have probably seen some of the flowering silverswords when they were just starting out in life and now I was coming back to see them at their end as they burst into flower.
The problem is, that at the time of my first visit I didn’t know that a record of the plants might be useful. Although it had occurred to me when I was younger, that many species were already in trouble, I hadn’t naturally thought ‘take a picture, save the Planet’, and so I didn’t go for a wider reference picture of the car park. This was an oversight as I later had no clear recollection of where plants were, their sizes, or how many. Back then the last thing on my mind was photographing the car park, and consequently I have no evidence to support my feeling that there are now fewer plants growing in this area than there once were.
However, there may be other reasons for thinking there are now fewer plants growing.
2014 was a great year for the silverswords, they managed a mass synchronous flowering. In other years when there were only a few plants in flower it was perhaps easier to notice the smaller individuals coming on, but when large and impressive plants are doing their thing they really grab your attention.
Whatever the case, the silversword is better off now than it has been for some time. Not so long ago goats grazed here, eating anything vegetative they could find including these wonderful plants, but now there is proper control, the silverswords are making a comeback.
Trails exist away from the parking lot where other silverswords may be seen. Beyond the range of the average tourist it is possible to walk and see plants in a more natural setting, although it is important to stay on the trail.
The spiritual nature of Haleakala might also account for the longterm survival of silverswords because until modern times. In the past few people would have come here to simply wander.
Many tribal societies display belief systems that appear to the modern world little more than superstition, but there is often more to appreciate than most of us realise. In the modern world we continually walk in places where perhaps we shouldn’t, destroying the essence of a place by directly damaging fragile ecosystems.
Scientific research is essential to any conservation agenda, but there is another side to the story. Our continual erosive presence in wild places has become a problem: we believe that we have the right to roam wherever we like, often in numbers, with a total disregard to the wishes of local people. But it may be that what most of us regarded as primitive cultures, have belief systems that are more in line with the needs of the environment than our own, especially when they advocate limited access to places that have spiritual significance.
As outsiders we should always tread with care, especially when local people do so for reasons they can’t explain beyond extraordinary tales of the imagination. This way of thinking certainly makes good ecological sense high up on HaleakaIa, as silverswords may be damaged or die if the volcanic cinders around their roots are trampled. In a broad sense the environment here doesn’t look delicate, but in the finer details it is.
Similar myths and legends apply to other beautiful locations around the world. Many of us will visit them to fulfil personal challenges or inner needs. Often we are just tourists looking for fun. For whatever reason, our assumed levels of sophistication have masked our ability to notice the problems we are causing.
One of the great heroes of Polynesian mythology is Maui – his exploits are optimistic and culturally significant on the Island that bares his name.
A story passed down through the generations tells of an evening when the sun set too quickly – this annoyed Maui because the day had passed before all of the chores could be done, and so he hatched a plan. Aided by his brothers Maui would catch the sun in a net when it came up in the morning and refuse to let it go until an agreement had been reached for the sun to move more slowly across the sky. To everybody’s surprise Maui succeeded in his ambitious plan.
And so on a clear day up at the top of Haleakala, it is possible if you stand in the right place, to watch the sun come up and go down without obstruction from foreground hills, mountains or volcanos and in consequence the day becomes longer. But there is more… up here you see a more distant horizon – the sun rises earlier in the east and sets later in the west. Effectively, the higher you go, the longer the day. Polynesian mythology is closely tied to the natural world and local people may have appreciated this, and it makes perfect sense when Polynesian legend claims this place as ‘The Sacred House of the Sun’.
Remember that if you take a picture that might one day help save the planet… tread carefully… even if you don’t know exactly why you should.
For further details of the Tarweed family see:http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0903b.htm
For park details on the silversword:
Also, ‘Silver Swords in Bloom’:
With thanks to Dr. Roger Jones for introducing me to Haleakala.
On my first visit to Hawaii I saw a bumper sticker that I found amusing, because clearly there are no bad days in Hawaii.
Every day on a tropical island seems pretty much the same to an outsider; barring the occasional storm, pleasant weather and spectacular light are the order of the day, but maybe there are more problems in paradise than most of us realise, although suggesting a luggage sticker has been designed with irony in mind might be stretching it a bit.
There are odd little things you notice. You might for example begin to wonder what’s going on when you go to hire your snorkel gear, because the second thing the sales person might try to do after fitting you up with underwater gear is to fit you up with a time share… it’s difficult to believe that anybody would waste half a day of their holiday looking at an apartment that on any level headed day outside of paradise, they’d want no part of.
But never mind that, the real disappointment is that on all the main islands there are any number of resorts where you can move from a high-rise hotel to a golf course, or a private beach and later return for a meal without ever making contact with reality. Unless you go out of your way, there’s no real need to set foot on anything that truly belongs on the Islands, whether that be a native grass, or if you’re feeling really mean… a native insect!
As I was leaving the Hotel the girl on hotel reception said, ‘Come again when you’ve earned some more money’. At the time this seemed mercenary, but at least refreshingly honest.
The tourist market is designed to extract money from those who have it as quickly as possible… and that’s fine, even though it often has nothing to do with supporting local economies. The real issue is, that worldwide, holiday resorts have been developed that degrade or destroy the environments around them. The justification is usually progress and providing jobs for local people, but in truth the smaller fish are often poorly paid, whilst the sharks tear into the profits and carry them away to some place offshore.
Without question, the Islands have a lot going for them – there’s sunshine, a tropical sea, rainbows, hula, mai tai and friendly people… and perhaps a little more Hawaiian guitar on the radio than is absolutely necessary, but the real question is… where is natural Hawaii?
In a single word the answer is extinct, or close to it. Clearly it would be madness to sell a holiday destination by pointing out that Hawaii has been described as the extinction capital of the world; and the Islands are now so full of introduced species that there is confusion for tourists and residents alike as to what really belongs here.
The introduction of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals have proven to be overwhelmingly inappropriate. They have arrived in waves over the years and are partly responsible for the annihilation of many unique and extraordinary native species.
It is thought that were no amphibians or reptiles on Hawaii before the arrival of man. Certainly there were no brown anoles when I first visited – these appeared in the mid-1990s and are now so numerous in some parts of north west Maui it is difficult to walk along pavements without treading on one; they can also be seen crossing roads amongst busy traffic. The problem is, anoles will eat anything lively they can swallow and that’s bad news for small, mobile creature of Hawaiian origin.
A young man selling fruit in a local market told me that he had recently lost a pregnant Jackson’s chameleon and it was now living in a tree close by his town house; the creature probably wasn’t going to do a lot of harm there because very little native fauna has survived in the local area. On the up side, he had captured and removed the creature from a nature reserve where a large pregnant female was bound to cause problems. A chameleon is an impressive find in its native Africa, but released into the wilds of a tropical Pacific island it is just another pest – despite their visual appeal all introduced reptiles and amphibians are detrimental to Hawaiian ecosystems.
Out of town, beautiful natural areas are still be found, although many have become so degraded that native diversity is far lower than it should be, but without an intimate understanding of local wildlife, most of us wouldn’t notice.
Over the years many lowland areas have been cleared for agriculture, in some cases providing only short term financial benefits to local people. The return is hardly worth the natural wonders that have been lost, with so much replaced by attractive looking weeds and vermin, but weeds and vermin nevertheless.
The attack on island resources started from the moment Europeans set foot on Hawaiian soil, although generations earlier Polynesian settlers also brought their fair share of devastation.
From the time of Captain Cook’s first landing on the Islands in January 1778 it was common practice for seafarers to dump goats, pigs and other livestock on remote islands considered suitable for their survival, to provide fresh meat for any future visit. Livestock, along with seeds were commonly given to native people as a gesture of good will at a time when there was no understanding of the problems caused by introduced species. Today we know better, but oddly, non-native introductions continue to plague the islands.
The scope of discovery during Cook’s three major voyages to the Pacific region was incredible; and included not only the charting of many previously unrecorded areas, but also a huge contribution to scientific knowledge, in particular the classification of a great many plant and animal species. However, the romantic idea that explorers, particularly those following in the wake of Cook, were traveling to distant places simply to observe and then move on without interfering, is a fiction.
As much as we might admire the skills and endurance of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, it is difficult to ignore that between 1768 and 1779, his diligent and obsessive recording of unchartered regions of the Pacific area, would be the starting point for a wave of European plunder.
Beyond all the record taking, early exploration of the Pacific region was largely a mixture of pillage and punch up and during one such encounter with natives on the Big Island Hawai’i, Cook lost his life. After a successful visit to Kealakekua Bay, he had been forced to return when a mast on his ship broke during a gale and relations with the local natives quickly became strained. Captain Cook met his end on February 14th 1779 during a skirmish on the beach – the incident was perhaps as a direct result of an illness, which caused Cook to exhibit increasingly erratic behaviour, compounding his intransigent dealings with an unfamiliar culture.
Early European colonisation of Pacific Islands was centred around grabbing anything useful that nature had to offer.
The process usually started with the felling of trees; in the first instance to replace masts and refurbish vessels – which were justifiable activities, but it didn’t stop there. Log entries – and I’m talking books not trees – reveal that forests were regarded as resources that could be felled and taken for profit to the other side of the world with little or no benefit to local people.
There was often such an enthusiasm to clear a location of its trees in order to plant crops, that whole forests were simply burned. Every day, somewhere in the world this is still happening – a waste that seems almost unimaginable – in the process species are disappearing before there has been a chance to record them. A situation that makes the methodical recording during Cook’s travels more than two centuries ago, all the more impressive.
On these early voyages of discovery cameras weren’t an optional means of recording landscapes, which instead had to be painted. Plants and animals were collected and preserved but they were also rendered in watercolours by ships naturalists and artists, often with such beauty, they still have resonance today.
Although botanists were recording native plants by making beautiful pictures, they were also looking for plants that might in future become commercial crops – understandably, there was always more going on than the recording of beauty and science.
Stop overs for the collection of specimens were often selected because of a sheltered harbour, such locations were often inhabited, and the ships crew would require that ship repairs were balanced with leisure time, which usually meant fraternising with local women wherever possible. Adding to a native gene pool is one thing, but the pestilence and disease that Europeans unwittingly brought to the region was quite another. The problem extended beyond the devastation of human populations to the destruction of native cultures, in particular by missionaries who believed they had a God given mandate to change behaviours that they didn’t like or understand. And while the Pacific Islanders were getting their cultures re-calibrated, their natural resources were also being depleted and destroyed over a very short period of time.
On the Hawaiian Islands, there has been considerable forest clearance as well as destruction of coastal wetlands to produce crops of sugar cane, pineapple, macadamia nuts, coffee and tropical fruits. What followed was the heavy use of fertilisers and the subsequent contamination of ground water and the surrounding ocean – for the most part such problems have been downplayed.
Invasive species, are then, only part of the problem… it’s nice to have something else to blame, rather than allowing the burden of guild to fall entirely on ourselves. Some might say that our species has been insensitive, even a little greedy in our dealings with the natural world… but surely, that can’t be us, can it?
For a while during the 20th Century the pineapple industry flourished – at one time Hawaii supplied 70% of the world’s pineapple juice, but that didn’t last; lower labour costs elsewhere (in the Philippines for example), caused the industry to move away. The creation of jobs when a big agricultural concern takes up residence is a short term illusion, because in the end most enterprises will gravitate towards the lowest labour costs, although in fairness the wages paid to farm-workers now in Hawaii are now more likely to be above minimum wage.
About one third of the economy now relies upon tourism and with the rapid worldwide expansion of ecotourism, it would make sense to allow some lowland agricultural areas to revert to their former natural state. This might seem rather fanciful, but Hawaii could command an increasing share of the ecotourism market if it were more closely aligned to the uniqueness of its ecosystems.
For less impressionistic pictures – Google: Images for I’iwi bird.
There is however a problem for ecotourism on the Islands.
Many people will travel to specific locations to see unusual birdlife, but sadly, of the 140 species of native birds that existed before the arrival of man, 70 are now extinct and 30 are endangered and increasingly it is difficult to find native birds in Hawaiian forests.
For details of Hawaii’s extinct birds, see: http://www.birdinghawaii.co.uk/extinctbirdarticle2.htm
There were once five species of honeyeater to be found on the Islands although recent research suggests that the birds are not, as was first thought, related to Australasian honey eaters, instead they make up a new songbird family, the Mohoidae, which is more closely related to waxwings. These are exactly the sort of birds that people would travel to see, but unfortunately the last representative of this family native to Hawaii went extinct probably sometime in the early 1980s and that really is a tragedy.
For Hawaiian Honeyeaters see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/picture-of-the-weekhawaiian-honeyeaters-180945790/?no-ist
The decrease in Hawaii’s native diversity has worldwide consequences, because although the Islands still appear very beautiful, there are problems in the fine detail – it is rather like having a contract and ignoring the essentials in the small print – as many unique little creatures have gone missing across the Islands. It is necessary to notice this and react, because if we choose not to do so on a chain of small islands under the control of a wealthy country, where else will people be bothered enough to act.
We are morally obliged to tune in and push for a sea change in attitudes, because without it, the world will pretty soon be inhabited by little more than rats, cockroaches, starlings and us. Natural diversity is a measure of the health of our world and it needs to be maintained.
It may not be possible to bring back natural Hawaii to the way it once was, but everybody should be aware that there is a problem because human induced extinction is unacceptable. There is a certain dignity in showing at least a little disappointment that we are increasingly the cause of species destruction and to demonstrate this, we need to move beyond the trivial. Just because the grass gets watered and is manicured well enough for a picnic, or to play golf… doesn’t mean that everything is fine – it is necessary to work towards a different level of awareness based upon the facts.
I was fortunate to film many small plants and animals during the early part of my career, recording some for the first time in moving pictures. Today, many of these have moved a little closer to extinction, and some species may have disappeared altogether, which is disconcerting, because although the vital existence of a species shows incremental change over time, many have existed without discernible modification for millions of years and we have no right to end their tenure on Earth so abruptly.
Despite all the declines and losses, taking a photograph of an unusual plant or animals is never a waste of time, because information is the key to making necessary changes in thinking. So, if you see an unusual plant or animal, then why not take a picture, it might lead to the conservation of a natural environment and in some small way help save the Planet… or at least some of the stuff that lives upon it.
On a recent visit to Hawaii, I hardly saw any native wildlife, a stark reminder that things haven’t improved since I first came to film for the B.B.C. back in the early 1980s.
Thirty five years ago I made my first visit to Hawaii at a time when travelling to distant tropical islands from the U.K. was considered exotic. In those days, you’d emerge from a plane into the shimmering light and once down the gangway steps walk to the terminal building with the heat of the sun bouncing beneath your feet like a playful pet; and just as you were beginning to appreciate that life was all the better for being here, smiling girls in traditional dress would come out to greet you and place flower leis around your neck.
But things have changed… the sun still shines, but on more recent visits I couldn’t fail to notice that the girls were no longer present – the Honolulu Airport terminal is bigger now, reflecting that there are many more travellers coming to Hawaii and if every visitor was still receiving a traditional floral greeting, the islands would pretty soon be clean out of flowers.
People still smile though, and the pace of life is slower than many of us are used to; pretty soon you feel relaxed because it’s difficult to find these islands anything other than enchanting, but my first couple of visits were not the magical encounters with paradise that I had imagined – mostly I was filming ten hours a day in a laboratory at the University of Hawaii. I’d been sent by the B.B.C. to film a variety of tiny creatures and two oddities in particular – both spectacularly unusual carnivorous moth caterpillars.
Anything that has a sensory rear end that alerts to an approaching fly and then flips its front end over backwards to grab the unwitting insect in its jaws in a mere fraction of a second is a real attention grabber, but the little critters are just so small and well camouflaged, that if you didn’t know they were there, they’d might just as easily be another twig on the tree.
Where else but in Hawaii could you find an insect so clearly associated with feeding on leaves that has switched to eating insects? And not just any insects, in this case Hawaiian fruit flies that have evolved to become spectacularly large, but nevertheless will go down twitching as they are eaten alive.
Hawaii is an extended chain of islands which has formed over a mid-Pacific hot spot of volcanic activity, roughly equidistant between Eurasia and the Americas; and to get to either requires an approximate two and a half thousand mile journey either east or west across the Pacific Ocean. It was this creation of land by fire combined with a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed for the evolution of so many unique and unusual lifeforms.
These Islands might be regarded as a natural laboratory for the study of evolution, and if Charles Darwin had landed here rather than on the Galapagos Islands he would have come to similar conclusions about how species evolve when separated from their relatives on distant mainlands, and even from those isolated on different islands… but Darwin would have needed to be paying attention (clearly one of his strengths), because many of the animals concerned are small invertebrates, such as spiders, insects, crustaceans and molluscs.
Certainly limited numbers of creatures would have made it to the islands to start the evolutionary ball rolling and no large animals were amongst them – other than those that could swim here – turtles for example, and they never get further than the beach. Consequently no native reptiles, amphibians or mammals ever made it to the islands until their arrival alongside man, either as stowaways or transported intentionally, with frequently disastrous consequences to the native flora and fauna.
Small arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans will most likely have arrived on floating vegetation, the lucky winners hitting this narrow window of opportunity, whilst the majority missed the jackpot and drifted on across the world’s largest ocean to become lost at sea.
The initial arrivals had the advantage of making landfall on uninhabited islands which provided a variety of empty niches ready to move into – and those that managed to adapt to their new circumstances would have radiated out into different habitats to eventually form species that were unique.
The habitats available for life in Hawaii were varied, and included not only forest, grass and wetlands, but also larvae flows, deserts, beaches and caves – all of these would become populated by invertebrates; there is even an small creature (the wekiu bug) that lives at altitude, sucking the juices of insects that have been caught up and preserved in snow and ice to be released many years later as frozen dinners along the thaw line of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii.
One species peculiar to the Islands is the happy-face spider, which derives its name from an apparently smiling face on the upper side of its abdomen; this tiny spider mostly lives and hunts on the underside of leaves and despite its size is visuality impressive.
The morph shown below is the one most commonly seen, but there are a variety of others that have extraordinary clown faces on their rear ends and you might want to Google ‘ happy face spider images’ to see more impressive examples. The spiders have made it onto four Hawaiian islands but are not yet on Lanai, nor have they managed to get as far west as Kauai.
It appears that almost everything that arrived in Hawaii evolved into something special… but then man arrived and the party was over, which is a sad but familiar story!
The islands by dint of their remoteness have undergone extraordinary speciation in the absence of too many predators or competitors, but once these were brought in from elsewhere, many native species were immediately threatened. Indigenous plants and animals have become well adapted to their circumstances but they have not evolved appropriate defences against the onslaught of the new invaders. And so it was, that species in existence for millions of years, were snuffed out by the newcomers like candles in the wind.
Many of the new arrivals were so closely associated with man and his agriculture that with the additional advantage of a perfect climate they thrived in their own little paradises within paradise – and from there ventured out to invade other places on the Islands.
The first aliens will have come in with the Polynesians between 300 and 500 A.D. Then the Europeans showed up; it is possible that the Spanish arrived a couple of hundred years before Captain Cook made landfall in 1778, but it is Cook that we remember because he claimed the Islands as British territory, which now counts for little more than the hoisting of an interesting union flag colonial combo.
The islands were named after Cook’s sponsor, the 4th Earl of Sandwich – the very same Earl who found himself disinclined to leave a gambling table and suggested to staff that they bring him food conveniently held between two pieces of bread… the rest of course is history… as is the case for the naming of the Sandwich Islands which later reverted to their more appropriate Polynesian name – or at least a close approximation to it.
Colonisation would be instrumental in the devastation of many indigenous species causing the rapid degradation and destruction of habitats; this combined with alien introductions became the driving force for many island extinctions.
It was decided that I would film snails to illustrate the troubles caused by introduced species and I was pleased to be filming at least some of them out of doors. There are many valid reasons for filming animals in their natural environments, but invertebrates are often the exception, usually their behaviour is not much affected as long as their living conditions are adequately simulated.
Prior to the early 1980s film stocks were limiting and a lot of light was required to capture the activity of any small creature in movies. This was just before cold light using fibre optics became widely available, and I had to devise my own water cooling system bolted to the front of lights which required a constant flow of cold water to substantially reduce temperatures. In the years to come I would replace my cumbersome system with cool fibre optic lights; this was really helpful because invertebrates can’t cope with excessive heat, but rarely are they bothered by extra light, and for the best results good lighting was essential.
There is also a moral question as to whether this is truly wildlife photography, but imagine carting all of this gear into the big outdoors to capture perhaps fifty different creatures in various locations across the islands – setting up on steep slopes for example – because hardly any fertile natural environments have escaped cultivation on the flat – and then there are the cave habitats which are a nightmare to get equipment into. Time and budget constraints required everything to be done in a few weeks (and today these constraints are even tighter). There was then little option other than to bring many of the smaller creatures to one place in order to get the job done.
Taking a still flash photo on location is one thing, but filming the very tiny with plenty of light without any vibration has always been a wind up, and there is the additional problem that when visiting delicate environments trampling has to be avoided, along with the possibility of losing invasive species to the wild. Back then, despite all the disadvantages that the real world presented to macro-photography, I still had to establish some environments on wider lenses and in the process was determined to film at least some of the native snails in the big outdoors.
I was once embarrassed to lose a large tortoise whilst filming in Africa – it made off (across its natural habitat) when I left for a short while to fetch a lens – I had assumed that it wouldn’t get too far, but of course, tortoises run at breakneck speeds when you stop watching them.
I learnt a valuable lesson… but even at my most inattentive, I thought it unlikely that I could misplace a snail, not even a well camouflaged individual, but the truth is, it’s easy to lose sight of almost any snail by simply looking away… and given half a chance they’ll dash off and hide under a leaf when you do. Living in a small world – your perspective on life changes and when you’re not worrying about snails rushing off to hide, you’re worrying about the fact that some move so slowly they won’t register as moving at all in real time. But of course, things could have been worse… ants are always in such a rush, so it was great to discover that there are thought to be no native ants living on the Islands at all.
Until recently Hawaii held the most diverse representation of land snails anywhere in the world, but since the arrival of humans it is likely that around 75% have become extinct. Habitat loss will have played a part, but many have been eaten out by introduced predators, in particular predatory snails.
After the African land snail Achatina fulica was introduced – it’s a monster and ends up elsewhere either as a food source or as a pet – it soon became clear that the newcomer was munching its way through the Hawaiian natives, and so another predator was introduced from Florida – the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea) to control it – and there wouldn’t be much of a story unless the new arrival had set about the native snails even more ferociously than the problem snail it had been brought in to eliminate, which of course it did, reducing native species even further, and pushing some to extinction… This was without doubt a ‘doh!’ of Homer Simpson proportions.
It is clear that when humans get environmental issues wrong, they make a really great job of it, and often eliminate species that have evolved to become spectacularly different from anything else on the Planet. The problem is, that when this happens to invertebrates… hardly anybody notices.
It is the larger cuter animals that usually grab our attention, but when it comes to extinction we need to consider the smaller things in life, because if we include them, the losses that are presently occurring on a worldwide scale indicate that we may be entering a mass extinction event. Long term, this makes no difference to the Planet, but species diversity remains the best measure of the prevailing conditions for life on Earth and that is an important consideration for all of us.
Our own well being can be gauged by what is disappearing around us, and it is possible that any who travel might at one time or another hit the jackpot, and take a picture of some small creature that is unknown to science. Seeing the bigger picture means looking out for the small stuff, which is one of the best ways to save the Planet… or more precisely… the life upon it.
Next: HAWAII: JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. PART 2 – INVASIVE SPECIES.
With thanks to former BBC Natural history producers Richard Brock and Roger Jones who gave me my first opportunity to film the natural history of Hawaii, Ken Kaneshiro for fruit flies and lab space, Frank Howarth for his cave critters and Steve Montgomery who collected many of the specimens for filming; he has been foremost in discovering many new species on the Hawaiian Islands and continues to do great work bringing the uniqueness of island biodiversity to the rest of us.