Tag Archives: amphibians

The Natural Garden – Building a Pond for Wildlife Photography.

I presently tend a mid-sized suburban garden just south of Vancouver; close to the coast and the U.S border, with the climate about as temperate as Canada has to offer. Rarely is the weather extreme and it rains fairly regularly. All things considered, not a bad place to tend a garden, but ours has one glaring oversight… it doesn’t have a water feature..

It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer in the  pond that I built in my parents garden.
It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer, in the first pond that I built in my parents garden, when I was a teenager.

I’m fond of garden ponds and over the years have built several – mostly using  concrete, which usually provides a sense of permanence; but the pond I am presently working on has been dug in soft sandy soil, where it is more practical to use a pond liner.

This will be the biggest pond I’ve installed so far, with a surface area of  a little under 600 square feet, an area that is expansive in relation to the whole garden – a situation that provides one major advantage… it takes up space, reducing the amount of land that would otherwise need tending in a more traditional labour intensive way; and in addition, a larger pond that has both shallow and deeper water, where pond plants are plentiful, will stabilise as a viable eco-system more quickly than a smaller volume of water.

Using nature as a reference:

P1290151.©.SMALLIt’s good to have a natural pond in mind during construction, but there are no plans to build a miniature version of the wild. The intention is to steal ideas from nature, which, with the benefit of time, has worked things out pretty well.

There are many good reasons for creating garden ponds; they will certainly increase the bio-diversity of urban spaces and improve things by as much as a third. 

The presence of water can be calming and my wife sees the value in that, but my interests are related more directly to wildlife photography, and a naturalistic pond will allow me to take pictures of plants and animals living in and around fresh water without having to travel more than a few metres from the house.

Build it and they will come –

They’ being wild animals… mostly small creatures such as amphibians and insects – in particular the ones that rely upon water as an integral part of their lifestyle needs. When flora an fauna are biologically committed to what you have on offer, it is difficult for a project to fail.

During the 1970s and 80 regularl photgraphed toads visiting my parents pond, but for many years common toad numbers in Britain have been in steep decline;and  I find it rather depressing
During the 1970s and 80s I regularly photographed and filmed European common toads spawning in my parent’s garden pond during early spring, but sadly, their numbers have gone into steep decline in recent years.

The difference between the pond that I am creating and many others is that I am committed to a natural look, and will use the skills I’ve learnt over the years to dress the area appropriately, so that it might double as a film set. 

 In summer it will be necessary to cut back weed growth, and during fall scoop leaves from the surface, but there won’t be the continual round of weeding, planting and mowing common to most land based garden areas.

Previously we lived in New Zealand and I never built a pond, just a bucket on the deck - even with minimal water it is sometimes surprising what shows up.
During our time in New Zealand I didn’t have time to built a pond. We just had a bucket on the deck – even with such a minimal amount of water it is surprising what shows up.

I haven’t been slow to move the pond along during the autumn months, but will admit to digging the pond over a longer period of time, due to a troublesome back, and also because I have quite a lot else to do. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the process has involved a lot of hard work, because the soil here is light and sandy, although there has been quite a lot of it to move.

Had I started the project in our front garden, with its heavy underlying base of slipper clay and shallow top soil, I doubt I would have made much progress without a mechanical digger. The area I did chose could not have been more different, at the back end of the garden the soil is fortuitously sandy and runs to a considerable depth. On the down side, heavy machinery would have been difficult to operate here without crumbling or compressing the soil, especially with my lack of experience with a digger. But as most of us can work efficiently with a spade if we have the time, I didn’t see a problem and did my best to view this arduous process as very good exercise.

The selected site in the back garden dropped about a foot over its length and I used soil from the back end of the excavation to build banks up the front. This was essential because a pond on a slope is technically a river and the water will always end up somewhere else. A spirit level was therefore an essential tool, but I did little more than run a taught string from front to back and  make regular checks to gauge where the future water level would be.

P1280709.FIX.©.SMALLBefore starting I had to get a permit to fell two trees – the remains of a long gone badly managed hedge, they were now a danger to my neighbours property, and situated on the southern border of our property, they cut out the light. To make a success of the project, both would have to go.

Overall, a garden pond doesn’t need to be very deep, but a better balance can be maintained if in some places it gets down to around a couple of feet in depth. This is best achieved near the centre and not at the edge. A gentle gradation from around the sides is far more natural, and important for a variety of reasons.

Water plants require different depths depending on their preferences – some will do best with just their roots in water – water buttercup for example; others such as water lilies and bogbean need to be totally submerged, and will push their leaves and flower stems up to the surface during the warmer months of the year.

IMG_6884.FRAME.©.SMALL2The Yellow waterlily Nuphar polysepalum is a native water plant (although it may originate from the eastern side of North America). In contrast, many colourful water-lilies are introductions.

It is very important to exercise common sense in any garden where pets and children are spending time: if smaller children in particular are playing close by, a pond should always be covered with some form of supporting mesh.

When the dig is complete I am keen to move the process along as quickly as possible and sort out the surrounding garden. This will involve everything from new fencing covered with climbing plants (which will improve and soften reflections in the water), to organising the border areas as sympathetically as possible, with the back half of the garden given over to native flowering plants that will help draw in local wildlife.

P1280894.FIX.©.SMALLHere the digging out is almost completed. The stump of one of the felled trees has been left to rot out naturally, and a bird nesting hole with an interior nest site has been created at the top. There are also slits for bats and a vine has been planted at the base to eventually cover the old trunk to make it more aesthetically pleasing. With the trees gone there is now enough light to maintain a healthy pond. 

Another good reason for proving shallow slopes into the water is to create a place where insect and amphibian larvae can develop without high levels of predation; hungry fish in particular are a problem and won’t be introduced into our pond. This will also prevent the nitrification of water from fish poo, and reduce algal blooms. I appreciate that the temptation to introduce fish will be too great for some, but if the intention is to boost pond bio-diversity, goldfish, koi and any other large predators should be avoided.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost other creature smaller than themselves.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost any other creature smaller than themselves.

In direct sunlight shallow areas will  warm  more quickly than deeper areas. It is a broad generalisation tin natureo claim that chemical reaction times will double for every 10 degree rise in temperature; as with biological systems there are limitations as to how warm an organism can get before it become physiologically stressed, but there is no doubt, that over a small range, amphibian and insect larvae will develop more quickly when conditions are warmer, providing there is adequate food and oxygen. The quicker that a larva develops, the better are its chances of survival, and the very first to hatch and begin growing may end up feeding on late starters, and certainly this is the case for the young of many amphibians. The strategy has been developed by many species living in small ponds that will dry out during the summer months. Garden ponds are not usually allowed to do this, and that’s another good reason for not introducing large predators into a garden pond – they flourish until they have eaten everything else!

P1280898.FRAME.©.SMALLEven though the pond base is sandy, and I’m using a quality 1 mm thick pond liner, every inch of the base and sides has to be sifted of stones. I start from the centre and work out and admittedly, this is a time consuming drag, but essential if the rubber base is to be protected. Done properly, it will improve the chances of the liner surviving for 25 years or more.

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There was clearly a burn and bury here – probably when the house was built  – to clear rubbish, and all had to be carefully removed  as rusty nails and twisted shards of glass will puncture any pond liner.

MVI_6761 STILL.FRAME.©When I started working on the inside of the house, I saved the old carpets to line the pond. I don’t like anything synthetic going onto soil, but a degraded carpet layer can be cleared if the pond is ever decommissioned and certainly it is more useful here than in landfill.

IMG_6775.FIX.©.SMALLThe liner in place, the pond was filled  with water, allowing it’s weight to contour the rubber liner – aided by some judicious tugging to flatten out creases. Many people will empty a new pond after a few days and refill it, but that’s a terrible waste of water and quite unnecessary if you can live without fish. There is nothing much else to do once the liner is organised and I start getting plants in well before the pond was filled.

I had already installed a very small pond in our garden when we moved in, using a small piece of liner bought in the mid 1980s. It was a remnant from a larger pond installation, and has travelled around the  word with me for a good many years to become part of many temporary sets during the filming of small animals. In its latest incarnation I’ve managed to grow on various small aquatic plants that can now be moved across into the newly completed pond.

It is a good idea to visit a local pond after a storm and remove small pieces of vegetation that have broken from the various water plants that live there, but it is necessary to get to them before the ducks do. It is unwise to bring plants in from a distance as what suits your area best will be growing locally, and it is very important not to introduce pest species. Almost anything you need can be bought from an aquarium shop, but who knows where it has come from? If a friendly neighbour is having a pond clear out, it is wise to make use of it. Where I live in Canada, garden ponds are less common than they perhaps should be; and where they do exist are often too ornamental and busy with goldfish to be very helpful to native wildlife.

P1290196.FIX.©.SMALLThere is a small hump at the edge of the pond that prevents garden run off; once over this the depression behind is filled with a layer of sandy base soil, this is then covered with layers of smooth stones. Finally, small plants are added to grow amongst them. This wet area at the front of the pond is essentially a pebble beach. But along the back and sides I have used mosses and ferns that are commonly found in the damp rainy conditions of our area, many of these have been grown on by placing fallen branches in shady areas of the garden. Each of us might use what is natural to our own area.

I try to make my mini-landscapes appear as realistic as possible. Over the years I have build a lot of sets that have been used to photograph small animals and I approach the pond decor with the same attention to detail, but with the understanding that in this case things need to be more permanent.

P1290200.FIX.©.SMALLI begin to make use of the cut trunks from the felled trees by cutting cookies to walk on – none are placed on the liner itself, and all have a protective pad of thick rubber beneath them.

P1290194.FIX.©.SMALLThe job is certainly painstaking, because every stone that goes into the pond or comes into contact with the liner has to be hand selected.

Using sand and stones in this dipped peripheral area will reduce nitrogen run off into the water and help prevent algal blooms.

To make things look natural, larger stones need to be clumped together as if a stream or river had perhaps arranged them hundreds or even thousands of years ago – rather than somebody like me having done so yesterday.

P1290296.FIX.©.SMALLAt this point I am about half way to creating the illusion of a pond just a few days after the digging process has been completed. I will move the fallen branch temporarily and hack away at the ends to provide a more natural look. Obviously, sharp tools must never be used anywhere near the rubber liner. 

Some might consider my efforts to be on the verge of theatre with a distinctly theme park feel ,which is true only up to a point, after the liner is installed everything above it is quite natural and many plants will creep across hard surfaces, especially where there is water, and as roots grow and interweave they will eventually hold the basic structure together.

Up and just over the hump that separates the land from the water I have used moist play pit sand to form a base, because it doesn’t contain much in the way of nutrients (especially if it has been washed thoroughly), which might otherwise flush into the pond. The liner forms the base of a gully that lips up along the backside to retain water and conditions moist, acting as a suitable substrate for more primitive plants – such as mosses and ferns, that might be grown there.

I haven't seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I've seen then from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants with their familiar post-apocalyptic style.
I haven’t seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I’ve seen them from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants in their familiar post-apocalyptic style.

The stones are layered deep enough for the liner to be well covered, but they won’t stay in place if a raccoon or some other creature visits and decides to shift them around, but that’s true of any part of a garden that has been visited by any beast that arrives with the malicious intent of a masked marauder, as raccoons so often do. They are not always welcome, but I tolerate them.

Other than the wild animals drawn to the pond, I will be the only one walking along the cookies to micro manage the environment, so I won’t have to worry about guests falling in. This is presently be an illusion of the natural world, but the longer things are left to themselves, the more natural they will become; and increasingly provide a habitat for a great many animals, that although small, will play their part in this developing ecosystem.

It was no trouble to stash moss covered logs for a couple of years when the garden was shaded by the now felled trees. Repositioned close by the pond these mossy supports remain healthy because the pond overflows directly into the gully keeping things moist along the edge of the pond in the places where I didn’t cut back the liner. Most pond building advice suggests that you should trim the overlap, but I prefer to make use of it wherever possible. This peripheral area will remain mostly wet, but will require a little watering during the dryer months of the year – although this will be more of a spray than a thorough dousing.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.

Once the fences are covered in climbers, the background reflections in the pond will create a very natural feel and the sky reflected in the surface adds another dimension to this new environment.

The pond was finished before fall began to make its presence felt, and this is a good growing time. I begin moving plants from my small nursery pond as soon as I can, and achieve quite a lot in only a few days. The partially established water-plants quickly increase their root and leaf systems under the new conditions. If plants grow well without too much help, it is a sign that you’re getting things right. 


Winter came early on November 3rd with an overnight snow flurry, bringing an abrupt end to the many insects that had survived though what has, up until now, been a mild fall.

The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.
The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.

I notice most people who give advice on pond construction are particular about giving lists of plant and animal species, but these details will depend very much on where you live. My pond is arranged around the local flora and fauna, and you might do the same.

If that is the case, you should be aiming to attract what is common close to where you live – if for example, a plant is local there will be other organisms that thrive in association with it. All you are essentially doing is creating a web of natural interactions and it isn’t necessary to know every detail to make this work. If you chose to be observant, expertise and those tricky Latin names will come with time – but this isn’t essential, especially if you don’t find it easy to remember cumbersome nomenclature – a system mostly used to convey precise details to others.  It is however worth checking out your local invasive weed species in order to avoid introducing them.

Any animals that can fly will arrive of their own accord, but don’t introduce amphibian spawn or larvae unless you are sure of which species it belongs to. In my area the last thing I want to do is introduce alien bullfrogs which will eat most of the smaller native species; there is also a very real problem with amphibians of spreading disease, so it is essential to understand exactly what you are doing before you attempt a relocation. 

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The was the pond only a week or so after the liner was installed. A Wooden divider prevents the more fertile soil from the garden washing into the pond, but it cannot be seen from the opposite viewing side… I know –  it sounds like a theme park without the carriages, but really it’s just gardening! 

The best bit of the whole process for me, was when dragonflies of both sexes showed up and the females began laying eggs on water plants within the first two days of the pond being filled. When such things happen it is impressive and reminds us that nature can be extraordinarily persistent.


If you want to keep things like this, remember you still have to do a bit of micro weeding, but that should be fairly minimal – and if it goes a bit wilder – nature won’t mind.

Get it right and any of us might make a difference to the natural world. If you  decide to build a pond of your own, don’t forget to record what you have achieve by taking pictures – you might influence others to follow your example. And remember, when something new and interesting shows up, it will be you that made it possible.

Please do not dig up or remove any plants from protected areas. Flora and fauna will usually establish naturally in your garden once you have provided a suitable habitat.

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


As Dismissed As a Newt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Britain has only three native species of newt

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

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








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

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

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

Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Not So Strange Case of the Disappearing Trees.

Many successful conservation efforts are best dealt with locally – it’s easier when things happen closer to home. Commendable though it is to try and save rhinos on the other side of the planet, practical conservation works best when it’s just around the corner.

A stream running through Fleetwood natural woodland. It is Just beautiful.
A stream runs through Fleetwood Park’s woodland, which is conveniently close to where I live.

I have concerns over a woodland habitat that forms a major part of Fleetwood Park, in Surrey B.C. , an exceptional wildlife environment, and like many others in urban areas, really needs locals to remain vigilant.

The stream in spring.
The stream in spring.

I recently wrote about tree felling in the park, because it was impossible to miss the large number of trees that had been cut along a path running through the woods. Prior to the felling, a local said that she’d stopped counting the red markers on standing trunks at 65 trees, but she’d seen plenty more, and was concerned. And for most of us, that’s about as far as it gets.

I guessed the trees were for the chop because they were considered potentially dangerous, but it was clear that more than half of those that eventually came down posed no immediate threat – they were just trees along a pleasant walk with a bit of rot that attracted feeding woodpeckers, and had been useful to a great many plants and animals.

The stream in Autumn.
The stream in Autumn.

I e-mailed the local Parks division to outline my concerns over the felling in the hope that it might be moderated, and to their credit, I received a prompt response. 105 trees had been designated for removal and nothing was going to change that. Reluctantly I have accepted, that in a litigious world, local authorities have to protect themselves, even if sometimes they are overzealous. I also learned that around 250 young trees would be planted – more than double the replacement number, but I’ll return to that later.

There were other details concerning policy  – most of which sounded good on paper: – a ‘Sustainability Charter’, a ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’, a ‘Preservation Policy’, a ‘Dedicated Urban Forest Parks Policy’ and a ‘Natural Area Management Plan’ and finally a ‘Common Sense Just Leave Things Alone Working Group.’ Sorry… I just made that last one up.

All in all, there was a lot to take in, but in the end there is no denying that essential corridors between the few remaining natural habitats in the area are rapidly disappearing, and trees continue to be felled across the region for land development. You can’t help but think that despite all the words, policies are mostly concerned with appearance, and very little to do with practical conservation.

I take pictures in the wood almost every day and it makes me wonder - how could you possibly improve on this?
I take pictures in the wood almost every day and it makes me wonder – how could you possibly improve on this?

My response was to suggest that what the woodland really needed wasn’t so much tree felling and re-planting, but a couple of other less intrusive smaller scale activities.

I asked for the summer mow along the paths to be staggered – and we aren’t talking a grass mow here. Plants that grow several feet high suddenly disappear: one day there are butterflies feeding on flowers, perhaps a Pacific tree frog sitting on a leaf, shrews scurrying below in the ground cover, and a whole lot of other activities in full swing – then quite suddenly everything is levelled.

The cutting is necessary, but staggering it would reduce the impact on wildlife – taking out one half of the plant growth and then coming back in a few weeks’ time to take out the rest would help to prevent the whole habitat from vanishing in one fell swoop. Presently, a single cut leaves many small animal corpses along pathways and nowhere for insects to feed. There is unfortunately no budget available to make a change, but I wonder if ‘keep it nice and tidy’  might also be on the agenda.

It is always a thrill to see a Pacific tree frog on a leaf by the path, but the summer verge cut poses a survival problem for them, as it does for many other creatures.
It is always a thrill to see a Pacific tree frog on a leaf by the path, but the summer verge cut poses a survival problem for them, as it does for many other creatures.

This is a great place for amphibians – the woodland remains fairly wet on all but the hottest days of summer and it is a credit to park authorities that they leave fallen trees to rot on the ground – a major contribution to conservation that doesn’t happen everywhere, as many will tidy up even through natural woodlands.

What amphibians need most in this otherwise perfect habitat is a few scrapes in the ground close by streams to provide still water for egg laying. This water must last long enough to allow larvae to develop, but not so long as to allow colonisation by predators such as beetles and dragonfly larvae.  A good sized tyre rut is ideal, but with the increase in hot, dry summers, these temporary pools need a little maintenance during winter to keep them open and viable so that they last long enough for young amphibians to emerge during summer.

Such pools would be helpful to several amphibian species including the long-toed salamander, which might also lay eggs in slow running streams, but here there is a chance that larvae will be washed down stream and the young salamanders emerge outside of the conservation area. Unfortunately no larvae can wash into the park because stream water arrives via underground springs that are now covered by amphibian unfriendly urban developments.

As expected, there is no budget available for the maintenance of pools either, but I’m hopeful that in future something voluntary might be organised if the park authorities agree to it.

Long-toed salamanders tend to emerge at night and are seldom seen during the day. I know... What's the point if you never see them... Well, it's all about diversity which is a sure sign of a healthy environment.
Long-toed salamanders tend to emerge at night and are seldom seen during the day. I know… What’s the point if you never see them… Well, it’s all about diversity which is a sure sign of a healthy environment.

One of the main concerns for animals that can’t fly, is isolation on natural islands that are rapidly becoming surrounded by seas of development – this is a particular problem for amphibians and reptiles.

It makes sense in this woodland to undertake small projects rather take on expensive planting schemes. The environment is healthy – there is good species diversity, along with plant regeneration and the habitat functions well without too much interference.

 Most urban forests are secondary replacements for primary forests that were felled in the not too distant past; once clear of trees the land was initially utilised for agriculture, but much has now been replaced by development. The secondary forests that remain are still quite young, shaped by human influence, opinions vary as to how best to maintain them.

One option is to plant new woodlands in places where they have disappeared altogether. And established woodlands that are developing naturally, might benefit from the re-introduction of lost species, but otherwise might best be left alone.

A dynamic woodland progresses at it’s own pace, increasing in complexity over time. Parks departments understandably want to replace trees that they have felled, and may also wish to speed up forest development, even in woodlands that are progressing naturally – we have become so used to planting trees commercially it is difficult to escape the notion that it is quite necessary to interfere.

The borders of the woodland path three years ago during late spring - a perfect wildlife habitat and very beautiful.
The borders of the woodland path three years ago during late spring – a perfect wildlife habitat and very beautiful.

The decision to plant 250 potentially very big trees here – mostly conifers with many close to the path, might be consider a disproportionate activity in relation to the rest of the woodland.

The authorities might also be considering slow growing conifers, such as cedars, as requiring less maintenance in years to come, but it is worth remembering that seeds will still be arriving on the wind, others will be carried in by woodland birds and mammals; and many of the trees that will form the next stage of woodland development are already present and will grow and multiply in due course – a process that  may take tens, even hundreds of years, but in the end might achieve a healthier forest.

Three years ago and early in the spring: the two trunks leaning away were beginning to rot, these would eventually have fallen away from the path at some stage - they formed part of a habitat that acted as a food source for a great many forest dwellers. Wood peckers worked for grubs right next to the path (see their beak hammer holes in the trunk - top right).
Three years ago and early in the spring: the two trunks leaning away were beginning to rot, these would eventually have fallen away from the path at some stage – they formed part of a habitat that acted as a food source for a great many forest dwellers. Woodpeckers worked for grubs right next to the path (see their beak hammer holes in the trunk – top right).

My response to the park authority was that very little could be done until their conservation policy entered the 21st Century, which retrospectively seems a little unfair – they just want something other than a natural progression –  but I’m not quite sure what; and I don’t think there is any fear that they are overthinking the situation. At such times I sometimes lose patience… say something unfortunate… somebody gets upset, and then nothing changes. And that’s always going to be a problem when you tell it the way you see it.

I know… if it doesn’t work, then why do it!!!?  and I was thinking exactly that when there was an unexpected response from the parks manager – he was very reasonable and happy to meet me on site; I should have expected this, because Canadians are endlessly tolerant and polite, but that doesn’t mean their views will be any less entrenched than anywhere else that you might question authority.

Our meeting duly happened and I was given a couple of generous hours to make several points and then listen to why park policies were in general disagreement with my views. I wasn’t getting anywhere… but I kind of expected that, even before I started.

A hairy woodpecker feeding last year on one of the trees that have recently been felled along the pathway.
A hairy woodpecker feeding last year on one of the trees that have recently been felled along the pathway.

Between my last contact with park authorities and the meeting, all the young trees had been planted. Rather too many along the woodland path in my opinion – almost all of them evergreens that will in places (during somebody else’s lifetime), create screens that for many years will blank out agreeable views until the trees have grown; whereas presently there are many wonderful sight lines through moss covered branches. Conifers provide cover for birds and are all part of the natural progression, but I wonder if it was appropriate to plant quite so many here?

Conifers might eventually establish everywhere on this site and return the forest to the way it was before man interfered, but it is also possible that in future, woodlands such as this will be managed to provide different stages of the ecosystem to maintain a greater diversity of wildlife. This habitat is already interesting but it has the potential to become a rare treasure as urban development continues to swamp the landscape.

Potentially mighty trees planted just three feet apart seems odd to me.
Potentially mighty trees planted just three feet apart seems odd to me.

My recent disappointment at seeing so many trees felled was now overtaken by puzzlement over the planting regime. Why were groups of half a dozen potentially big trees sited almost on top of one another?

‘They will form a grove’ said the manager’.

‘I don’t think so, not when they are planted so close together’. I replied.

‘Only about 40% will survive’ – was the manager’s response.

But I didn’t think that was likely either, and said so. The trees’ survival rate would be higher because the wood isn’t prone to heavy grazing by deer,  and as urban development continues deer will become even less frequent visitors.

When tree seedlings grow in an open space they may grow in their thousands, with the result that tightly packed spindly trees will establish for a hundred years or more before a few finally out compete their neighbours, but the trees in this wood are not growing like that, they are well spaced and visually pleasing – there is no precedent here to encourage the planting of five or six saplings close together, but even if this were natural, wouldn’t it make sense to plant them farther apart if you had the option?

These three conifers are planted within a few feet of one another - should they survive, at some stage their trunks must fuse. But if a grove is intended, they need to be planted a few paces rather than a few feet apart. Just over the felled trunk are the two potentially mighty trees shown in the previous picture - the planting here is very tight.
These three conifers are planted within a few feet of one another – should they survive, at some stage their trunks must fuse. But if a grove is intended, they need to be planted a few paces rather than a few feet apart. Just over the felled trunk are the two potentially mighty trees shown in the previous picture – the planting here is very tight.

Trees planted so close, ultimately compete for resources; many of the conifers in question are slow growers anyway and they will inevitably take even longer to mature when planted in close proximity; and there is always the possibility that in a tight group of five or six, the trees closest to the path may head towards the light and grow out over the walkway, creating a potential hazard that I had assumed park policy would be keen to avoid… but I was wrong.

‘And they won’t be cut’, said the manager, ‘unless they show signs of rot. We accept that healthy trees will sometimes drop branches’.

Douglas fir he told me, do this without any sign of rot. I had seen an example of this only the day before on the main bridge over the gully stream and this demonstrates that a fir branch dropping from above poses a far greater threat to people than a trunk toppling across a path, which is more likely to be observed and avoided.

A healthy Douglas fir bough that has splintered and fallen onto a frequently used gully bridge. Had anybody been walking across they might easily have been hit.
A healthy Douglas fir bough that has splintered and fallen onto a frequently used gully bridge. Had anybody been walking across they might easily have been hit.

In addition there was the tree that blew over and fell across the path a few weeks ago…  a few days after the tree felling had been completed! The contradictory behaviour of trees in relation to park policy and the potential for litigation was beginning to defeat me.

The woodland two years ago during spring... just so delightfully subtle!
The woodland two years ago during spring… just so delightfully subtle!

The truth regarding the new trees was that they were probably planted in haste, which isn’t the best way to plan a forest for the future.  A moments consideration is essential when siting a tree that might  grow for a thousand years or more – and is certainly an activity that shouldn’t be rushed. The manger freely admitted that the ground between established trees might have been difficult to dig, with established roots making precision planting difficult. Perhaps we were getting nearer to the truth now. And maybe one of the best reason for not planting a tree is when a bigger tree is telling you not to.

Recently, I noticed a couple of trees in the wood that were hardly planted at all – they were leaning over with their roots partially exposed above the soil; unless there is some artistic or practical reason for such an odd angle (e.g. hedge laying), it is likely that the process was hurried.

A small tree planted at 30 degrees off of the vertical; in consequence its roots are exposed.
A small tree planted at 30 degrees off of the vertical; in consequence its roots are exposed.

Tree planting is a discipline that has many variables and few guarantees, it is an unselfish act that should benefit future generations, but inevitably success can only be judged retrospectively.

My wife noticed this one a few days ago - a forgotten big leaf maple. Perhaps it is a bit mean to point this out more than a week and a half after the planting - but if you don't put them in the ground... they won't grow.
My wife noticed this one a few days ago – a forgotten big leaf maple. Perhaps it is a bit mean to point this out more than a week and a half after the planting – but if you don’t put them in the ground… they won’t grow.

Maybe people will come to this wood in future and take further pictures as the trees grow, and provide useful comparisons of change; but I still think that getting things right from the start, by siting potentially large trees with care, is the key – especially when adding them to an already existing woodland. In the end none of this is rocket science… It’s far more important than that.

N.B. I went into the woods on a Sunday morning not long after the planting, only to discover holes where some of the trees had been planted, most of these appeared to have been removed in a hurry and my first thought was that they must have been stolen. In the words of Homer Simpson, ‘I didn’t do it!’ I hurried home and left a message for the park authorities and then notified the police.

On the Monday I received an e-mail from parks. The manager had checked the plant spacing with his arborist and confirmed that the some of the planting was too close; subsequently the contractors were sent in to remedy the situation. They will also have to return again to fill in the holes that will otherwise act as pitfall traps for small animals. On the up side, the Surrey Parks Division response has been rapid in rectifying a mistake.

The Spotted Towhee is resident year round, but has been less frequently seen over the last twelve month, possibly due to disturbance caused by local urban development.
The Spotted Towhee is resident year round, but has been less frequently seen over the last twelve month, possibly due to disturbance caused by local urban development.

I expect local authorities where ever I have lived hold parties when I move on. But if I can make a small difference by simply observing and then using a camera, then many others can do the same. So, if something is not quite right where you are, then why not – ‘take a picture’ and help ‘save the planet’ – even if only in a small way.

With thanks to Professor Bernd Heinrich for observations made on his woodland in Maine, although there is no intention to imply that his views are reflected in this article.

To see hairy woodpeckers working a tree for grubs in Fleetwood Park, please watch:

And pileated woodpecker:

Wandering the Borders of Believability.

An interesting photograph will sometimes push beyond the bounds of reason to the point where we should become skeptical, but deciding when we have moved beyond good sense and into the realms of gullibility is not always easy to assess; and this dividing line is important, because everyday we make decisions based upon images that throw into question exactly what we are prepared to believe.

When we pay for a service that relies solely on the written word, complexity is part of the deal. Buying into financial services or legal representation forces us to seek help, because these are disciplines that have evolved complex terminologies that usually benefit those doing the representing, ahead than those footing the bill. However, when a sale is direct – say from a supermarket shelf, simplicity is the key, and the fewer the words the better. Even more potent, is the use of visual imagery, which can grab our attention in a very physical way, or at least, that’s the way it feels. There is no doubt, that an appropriate picture can have enormous impact, even when presented through smoke and mirrors with the sole intention to deceive.

The pony
This picture has not been photoshopped or tampered with – there was definitely no smoke, but certainly a mirror involved. From ‘The New Forest Landscapes’. 2003 (book).

During waking hours we are forced to make hundreds of instant decisions about the ideas we will buy into and the ideas we won’t; much of this input comes directly from advertising, a medium full of contradictions where complexity and subtlety are often combined with a simplistic presentation that lures us in and then hooks our brains at a primeval level that can sometimes elicit a response more effectively than brain surgery.

A person extracted from a hundred years in the past and dumped into our modern world would at once suffer visual sensory overload, especially if they were forced to deal with the full compliment of technical gadgetry that has become part of our everyday lives, and yet most of us remain surprisingly unphased by this ever increasing complexity. At no time in history have we been more savvy or aware, and yet we are frequently confronted by images that raise serious questions about what we are prepared to believe.

In my mid-twenties I started making a film in the hope that it would help me get a job in television. Looking for an unusual subject I decided to work on my childhood preoccupation – reptiles and amphibians.

 Reptiles aren't everybodies idea of agreeable, but how is that possible? This female adder is perfection. How is t possible not to befor me most are very beautiful - in is case a female adder is a perfect example. How is it possible to be anything other than enchanted?
Reptiles aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but it is difficult to ignore their adaptive elegance, here represented by the sinusoidal beauty of a female adder. How is it possible to be anything other than enchanted?

Whilst filming my chosen subject I was visited by a B.B.C. Natural History Unit producer with a background in outside broadcast -mostly covering golf. He told me that there would never be a successful film made about creatures such as frogs or snakes because nobody would want to watch it….. This was clearly a  downer and I had a mind to ask, ‘Could there be anything less interesting than watching golf?’ but before I could drive home the point, David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ showed up and nothing would be the same in natural history film making again.

The producer of the amphibians programme, Richard Brock sought me out because he thought I might usefully film sequences for the amphibians programme, and he brought with him a far more positive attitude than his colleague. He was engaging as told me about ‘Frogs Law’, the gist of which is, amphibians are expressionless creatures that give little indication of when they are likely to do something, and only become animated when least expected. In consequence filming them can be very expensive. Sadly, I had already discovered this.

Frogs will often jump into your side of reality when they are being filmed.
Frogs will often jump from their reality into ours when  they are being filmed. I think this frog is Malaysian, but frogs from several continents regularly ended up on this macro lens. Picture used as a chapter heading for the book, ‘The Making of  “The Living Planet”‘ 1984.

In the grand scheme of things my contribution to ‘Life on Earth’ would be small and initially revolve around the filming of British species,  but I  nevertheless put a great many hours into the project, mostly waiting for my cold blooded subjects to do something interesting. The film went on to become a favourite within the ‘Life on Earth” series and provided me with future opportunities to continue filming creatures that weren’t cuddly, hadn’t been filmed widely before and were of particular interest to me.

There were bad experiences of course, and I’ll never get back that week I spent trying to catch a female frog emitting her spawn… unfortunately I missed it, but there was a lot that I didn’t; it’s just unfortunate that I remember failure more clearly than I do success.

A by-product of half a lifetime of recording unusual animal activities is that I’ve spent more time watching, waiting and filming  European common toads than I care to mention; and it would not be unreasonable to claim that for the most part, I know what these toads will do and even more useful, when they are likely to do it; and so much of their behaviour totters right at the edge of credulity. This then is my area of expertise and the one I have chosen to question visual believability. I could just as easily have chosen social insects – so be thankful I’m not going on about ants – I’Il stick with toads because they are bigger, slower and easier to photograph … But are they really slower, taking into account relative size? A question that has troubled me from an early age. I must have been an odd child, but fortunately, failed to recognise this at the time. Each of us has an area of expertise that provides us with our best possible chance to decide what is or is not true.

A hedge fund manager, might for example, be able to show us how to make money from something that doesn’t exist whilst staying out of prison – an activity right on the limits of understanding, even for the most perceptive amongst us. Of course, it can be done, but I can’t imagine how, and so it make sense for me to stick with the interesting but unlikely habits of Mr Toad. Why did the toad cross the road?

On the Road Again - it's always about getting to the other side isn't it?
On the Road Again – it’s always about getting to the other side. This picture was taken during the filming of one programme in a children’s anthropomorphic television series for the B.B.C..       I wrote the original story for ”A Day in the Life –  A Toads Tale’ in 1978, and filmed the project assisted by Chris Packham. The toads name was Buffy but no vampires were slain.

In early spring the urge to return to a pond (usually the pond of origin) is strong, and crossing a road is not something a toad is obliged to think much about. It just happens. When something moves across the retina of an amphibian’s eye neurons fire – a fast moving fly for example will stimulate a frog to flip out his tongue with great rapidity, whereas something moving more slowly may not elicit a response. Getting close to a frog or toad in the wild without disturbing it works on the same principle – you try to avoid firing neurons in the amphibian’s brain by moving slowly.

Frogs and toads react to stimuli without going through the trials and tribulations of thinking, although they have the ability to remember some things well, which rather gives the impression they are thoughtful creatures.

They orientate sometimes better than we can, and will usually move off in the same direction whenever they are replaced in an original starting position. You might believe that Mr Toad is decision making, but this is your illusion not Mr Toad’s – he’s not so much a thinker as a doer. You on the other hand have confused what you are prepared to believe with what you think you know. This is the story of our lives – thinking we know, and then believing what we think we know clearly isn’t the same as really knowing… but most of us just don’t know that. There is a lot going on in a toads head that we understand, but  still a lot more that we don’t, and the ability to orientate is high on the ‘not yet quite understood’ list for both reptiles and amphibians.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had been prepared to lay on a road in the middle of the night and film common toads crossing… but of course, I never did. All of the central road shots were filmed on a set, and anytime toads were close to cars on a real road, the vehicles were driven by friends who knew exactly where the toads were, and when a toad got squashed it was always one made from plasticine. Sometimes it’s really difficult to know what to believe.

A pair of Common Toads at the point of spawning.
A pair of Common Toads at the point of spawning.

Amplexus is the action of a male frog or toad grasping a female, but with toads the whole thing can get out of hand when large numbers of males begin grasping a single female.

Amplexus describes the actio of a male frog or toad grasping a female during spawning, but with toads this can get out of hand.
Of course, this whole event might just have been photoshopped – it just depends on what you are prepared to believe, or what you think you know.  This was photographed during the filming of ‘Life on Earth’. but featured in a book for Gerald Durrell’s ‘Ourselves and Other Animals’ series which I filmed sequences for during 1986 -87 .

When common toads begin clinging on in numbers it is possible that a female will drown. At a time when these animals were far more common than they are today, I would wander around local ponds at night with a torch, and on finding a ball of toads would remove the smaller males that weren’t really in the game, and this would give the females a better chance of surviving (I know – interfering with nature!). Occasionally, I’d find a really large female that had drowned because she had been so laden with potential partners she was unable to surface for air – the ball rolls and  males clustered around the female get to breath – It seems hardly fair, especially as the females, despite their age, are usually in good health – the selective advantage of the process is difficult to fathom.

Is it possible that toads become entombed in trees, only to be discovered when the tree is cut down. This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds; once a toad finds a good hidey hole, he or she may sit in such a place for months feeding on passing prey, and eventually grow too big to squeeze back out. A toad might live for years like this, grabbing invertebrates that wander in, or catching those that pass close enough with a flick of the tongue. When the tree is cut the toad is startled into action by the activity; or perhaps when a tree is cut a nearby toad jumps and gives the impression that he or she has been liberated from a tight squeeze? It all depends on what you are prepared to believe based on the available evidence, or maybe by just using your own imagination.

And what’s the likelihood that a toad has a fitted air ride like some fancy hotrod. The answer of course is ‘close to zero’, that is until a grass snake comes by – and then a toad will do something that it never does at any other time.

The toad
At the approach of a grass snake, the toad blows up and rises high on straightened limbs in order to to appear larger than usual. Photograph taken by Chris Balcombe during the filming of a sequence for ‘Life On Earth’.

You have more chance of being eaten by a python if you are lying down than when you are standing up. So on meeting a python more than twice my length, I always stand up. That makes good sense to me, but you can believe what you like.

How did toadstools get their name? Surely it must be because toads hop up onto them. The obvious consideration is that a toadstool would be too weak to support a toad, but that’s not the case. The real question is, could a toad really manage to hop up there in the first place?  Surely, it is more likely that those monkeys, given infinite time, will type the complete works of Shakespeare long before a toad  manages this extraordinary leap – although for us, it just requires a leap of faith.

What if I was expecting a visit from a naturalist who had to come through a wood, and I placed several toads upon toadstools along his route – if he saw them sitting comfortably, would he consider the activity demonstrably proven? I once managed to get 7 toads onto toadstools before the first one started to get off – and a comfy toad might stay in place for several minutes.

About as likely as....... Well, you decide.
About as likely as……. Well, you decide.

O.K. That’s covered a few of the visual possibilities for toads – their response to movement and our response to what we see them doing. I guess we could start the whole story over again asking  similar questions about auditory responses. How about  ringing a bell to call Mr Toad out  from his hole for a reward of food? Does that cross the borders of what is believable? If it is of any help… it doesn’t work with snakes (and that’s not because they’re stupid).  Perhaps it would though… if we were prepared to jump up and down a bit.

What we find at the borders of believability, is always up to us.

I'm here
Me and a toadstool painting – sometime in the late 1990s – when I wore a younger man’s clothes – who am I kidding, I wore that shirt yesterday.

Please remember that it is inadvisable to handle amphibians without good reason – their absorbent skins make them susceptible to disease – and in some cases it is now illegal to touch them.

Links below to two excellent and successful photographers who have assisted me in the past: