Tag Archives: conservation

In Search of the Unexpected Trogon.

Far away and long ago I was filming wildlife close by the small community of Portal in southern Arizona, travelling daily across the border to New Mexico; what I remember most vividly is having to get up an hour earlier each day to be in good time crossing into a later time zone… Getting up early has always been painful to me, especially if I’m missing breakfast!

I remember this minor inconvenience better than almost anything about Portal; certainly it wasn’t over developed – but maybe now, things have changed… I hope not, because out of the way places are at their best when they stay gently un-noticed.

My first visit was thirty years ago – I still have a T-shirt that sums it up – across the front in big black letters is written ‘Where the Hell is Portal?’ designed no doubt, by a resident with a self deprecating sense of humour, something that is sadly missing in many small communities. If Portal were in Australia it would be the sort of place where people worry about visitors laughing at them and then they’d build something hideous to make this a certainty – perhaps the world’s biggest sheep in corrugated iron – but not Portal… this is a place altogether more self assured.

To be honest, I liked Portal so much, I was soon buying a second T-shirt, and on this one there was a picture of an odd looking bird with the words TROGON COUNTRY – a surprise to me because I thought trogons were essentially tropical birds. Portal is now a popular bird watching area, but as it wasn’t busy when I was there I didn’t find anybody to advise me where to look, and set off in a fruitless search… Not only did I not see a trogon… I didn’t see another living soul.

I still have the Trogon T-shirt.
I still have the trogon T-shirt. I bought half a dozen Arizona shirts around that time and note the combined age of three and a half them is exactly the same age as Arizona and it takes only five combined to reach the age of Canada, which suggests either I’m getting old, or much of North America is still very young!

I soon discovered that the elegant trogon can be seen in this essentially arid region during spring and summer; back then I hadn’t managed many visits further south where trogons are more easily discovered.

The order Trogoniformes has only one family that contains both trogons and quetzals. To me they seem odd looking birds, with elongated bodies and poorly developed legs and feet, their toes arranged two front and two back like a parrot. They show up across the tropics in Africa, Asia and the New World, nesting in holes dug in trees and sometimes termite mounds, living in wooded areas which are often quite degraded; they feed mostly on insects, a variety of small animals and fruit.

It was perhaps my failure to see trogons in Arizona that made me determined to seek them out and my chances improved dramatically when some fifteen years later I went with my family on holiday to Tobago.

We took up residence at the top of a beach; spending most of our time in the water, but when my children were young, holidays always involved a family day out, although my children generally viewed such outings as a road trips to hell, but complaining was futile, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of photographing local plants and animals, or deprive the children of seeing something interesting. We always left a place knowing more than when we arrived, even if in the process some of us left it feeling, well… a little more grumpy.

Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, although not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.
Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, but not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.

In 1963, Flora was one of the worst hurricanes ever to pass through the Caribbean – or anywhere else for that matter, it took out around three quarters of Tobago’s natural forest, and substantially damaged the remainder. The forest should have grown back naturally, but much of the available space was rapidly colonised by an introduced bamboo. Tobago has its own native bamboo species but none big enough to take over a forest. One day this forest will grow back and crowd out the invader; but at the time this rapidly growing alien, gave native birds a better chance of surviving the ecological disaster – at least in the short term. I don’t know how things will work out, but in 1999 there were tracts of alien bamboos growing across the Island that didn’t naturally belong there. 

A native blue-crowned motmot sitting on non-native bamboo.
This native blue-crowned motmot was sitting amongst non-native bamboo.

Occasionally when working for the B.B.C. a local guide would be employed to help, but when on holiday such expenses were personal to me, and that took a bit of getting used to. There can be no doubt however, that when time is limited, shelling out for somebody who knows the local area optimises your chances of seeing something interesting. In Tobago we were lucky enough to find Peter Cox who took us to a particular tract of forest when we asked him to find trogons and blue morpho butterflies.

Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a bit younger.
Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a little younger.

Good guides like Peter not only know where to take people, they can also avoid making repeated visits to habitats that are under pressure. Their influence is more consequential than anything I might achieve by contributing to  T.V. programmes that often preach to the converted in places far from the country where filming took place. Advice given to locals by somebody like Peter who understands the environment can have far reaching  consequences, fostering positive changes, particularly when any conservation efforts are tailored to local needs. 

We walked with Peter through the forest on a track that ran some distance along a river bank; and over the course of a few hours saw both trogons, blue morph butterflies, and many other species besides. Peter provided useful information about the local habitat and was especially good with the children which made the day a great success. Nobody fell over, got  bitten, stung or drowned, all of which are plus points when you take small children into a rainforest.

The Tobago Tourist Board will be happy to hear me say that Tobago provides a great starter tropical forest for travellers because it has very few noxious species – no venomous coral snakes, South American bushmasters or fer-de-lance vipers, all of which occur on the neighbouring island of Trinidad. The only downside to this single short visit was that I didn’t get any good shots of trogons.

The downside was, I didn't get any really good pictures - to do that in a single outing with two young children in tow was rather hopeful.
Photographing, trogons in the dense cover of the forest proved difficult, and  the bird’s habit of sitting in shadow, or contrasty dappled light was challenging. 

It would have been easy to blame the poor results on having two small children in tow, but their behaviour was never in question – they would stand still, or move carefully and quietly on request more reliably than many adults – it goes without saying that small children incapable of following instruction should never be taken into a tropical rainforest.

This was about as good as it got - altogether pretty hopeless.
This was about as good as it got – a very unimpressive photo, but at least we all managed to see a collared Trogon.

I didn’t go specifically searching for trogons again for around another fifteen years when during November 2015 my wife, daughter and I travelled from Vancouver to the Sea of Cortez, a place that I’d always wanted to visit. Seeing a trogon was in the back of my mind when on 12th November 2015 we arrived in Puerto Vallarta; the water was a pleasant 85F degrees  in stark contrast to the cold North Pacific so recently left behind.

Years earlier I had spend hours talking to B.B.C Natural History producer Barry Paine who was planning to film in The Sea of Cortez. The conversation had been very one sided as Barry had been researching his project for years, looking into naturalist William Beebe’s trip along the northwest coast of Mexico. He was also familiar with the voyage of discovery made over a six week period in 1940 by John Steinbeck and Marine biologist Ed Ricketts as they collected and recorded specimens from the tidal zone. This story particularly interested me because the resultant book became a work of non-fiction, with Ricketts name removed from later editions after his accidental death in 1948; what followed was a reworking by Steinbeck, although it was Ricketts who provided most of the research material.

The book was important because it reflected the changes that were starting to happen in the area, hinting at the ecological problems that we face today. It was one of the earliest written works to touch upon environmental concerns by actually going to a place and looking, rather than simply making armchair suppositions about how bad things potentially are. Some 15 years after our discussions Barry finally did get to make his film and I was by then working somewhere else and never managed my all expenses paid trip to the area.

The Sea of Cortez as I had imagined it.
A recent picture of a coastal region of The Sea of Cortez. It was just as I had imagined it to be.

Steinbeck knew even as he was writing, that things were taking a turn for the worse; air travel was about to change everything bringing in waves of tourism. He didn’t however foresee the arrival of cruise ships, depositing millions of people into what had until recently been a comparatively remote area. The influx improved local economies just at the time when fish supplies had become depleted; and as one major industry took over from another, pressure began to build on a whole set of other resources centring around land use and fresh water availability. The changes were rapid in the extreme, with the charm and natural beauty of many areas almost entirely lost in just a few years, although it might be reasonably claimed that bringing tourism to an area is better than leaving local people to live in poverty.

Tourists enjoy themselves and bring money to the local economy and vcertainly they are not causing direct physical damage to the local environment because few move far beyond their holiday triangle, the hotel, the beach and the bar.
Tourists come to Mexico to enjoy themselves, and in doing so, bring money to local economies. Most will not cause direct physical damage to their surroundings because few will move beyond the holiday triangle of their hotel, the beach and the bar.

There is of course no going back now. Most high rise condos are within easy reach of a well watered golf course, which in arid regions isn’t sustainable as visitors increasingly consume water and generate waste. Local needs have already made a huge difference to natural habitats; farmers have always struggled to grow food in this arid region. Many places idealized in our dreams as clean and beautiful are now anything but, as agriculture followed by the development of tourism has taken a toll. Trash – in particular plastics – are steadily making their way into what until recently, were pristine ecosystems.

The reality of the Sea of Cortez. Not every fishing village has turned into a holiday resort, but many have and others are going the same way - this Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California
The reality of the Sea of Cortez is that not every fishing village has been turned into a holiday resort, but the many that have are now changed beyond all recognition – this is Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California.

On our visit, to be certain of finding viable natural habitats we enlisted the help of Geraldo. It wasn’t long before he was driving us through the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, heading inland towards the hills, passing through numerous villages and the agricultural land that surrounds them until eventually we arrived in an area of woodland, mixed vegetation and pasture to begin our search for butterflies and birds.

As Geraldo drove he outlined his background. As a child he’d looked after his mother’s aviary, providing food and water for the birds he’d steadily developed an interest in them. Then somebody took him to see birds in the wild and he was at once impressed by their beauty, especially when he first saw an elegant trogon; these experiences encouraged him to try and conserve them.

On a track he stopped to speak with a local riding out to tend his stock; when we drive on he explains how important it is to develop the trust of the people who live gere. He has often spoked to farmers about vultures, telling them the birds kill snakes, although he admits to exaggerating on occasions saying, ‘especially the poisonous ones’. Once they understand this link farmers are less inclined to kill the birds to protect livestock. Vultures are scavengers that play an important role in cleaning up the environment, but because they have predatory hooked bills, suffer serious persecution worldwide. 

You have to go some way out of town now to see old Mexico, but many don't get much further than a local bar.
Visitors need to travel a little to experience old Mexico, but most do not move far beyond their resort, irrationally fearful of dangers that are rare outside of major cities.

A local says he saw jaguar paw prints recently, there are also pumas here, but strangely most people show very little ill will towards them, perhaps because they are not as commonly seen as they are deep in the interior. This live and let live attitude hasn’t always been a usual response to big cats – the son of a restaurant owner recently told us that when he was a boy his father was out every night hunting jaguar and puma. The current state of affairs is that there are occasional signs of big cats moving through, but in general they are scarce and rarely seen.

Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.
Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.

Without question Geraldo speaks passionately about Mexican wildlife, he clearly sees environmental problems increasing and the need for conservation, and contributes positively by giving talks to encourage the locals to take an interest in their wildlife. He undoubtedly has influence and is one of a steadily increasing number of unsung heroes of local conservation.

We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.
We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.

Many years ago Geraldo decided that he would like to conserve mountain habitat, and as he wondered how he might achieve this, the Government stepped in to conserve several areas of concern, but the lowlands through which we are travelling have no such protection, other than the conservation of some larger established trees.

The loss of lowland habitats to agriculture and development is a worldwide problem – the attitude that wildlife should live on the land that we can’t fully utilizie isn’t helpful because many species are specific to lower altitudes and not all can get simply move on to live in the mountains, while we, quite literally, take the lions share and strip out the lowlands. As our populations have increased, the conservation of lowland areas has become a nightmare, with frequent conflicts between landowners, large herbivores and their predators. With national parks too small for the long term viability of many species, the future does not look encouraging. We are not living in harmony with the natural world and the influence of people like Geraldo has far reaching consequences.

We manage to see a variety of butterflies and birds during our day out, many of them restricted to the dry forests of western Mexico, but, so far, we haven’t  come across one bird in particular, the Citreoline trogon which can only be seen down this side of Mexico. Then it happens, we are driving out of the forest and my wife Jen spots one in a tree… I can’t quite believe our luck and get out of the vehicle to walk a little closer, and am soon taking pictures.

The Ciroeline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasty light made photographing the bird difficult.
The Citreoline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasting light made photographing the bird difficult and I was a little too far away for a good picture.

The citreoline trogon has black and white bars on the outer tail feathers, a yellow belly an yellow eyes – a distinguishing feature if, as is the case here, you get to see the bird only from behind. 

A little later the bird is singing and the head, although in shadow, is more clearly defined. The bird has its back to us and it is said the bird prefers to present its back to an observer because of its belly is bright yellow... but I'm not sure that it isn't just a matter of chance.
A little later the bird was singing and the head, although in shadow, more clearly defined. It is said this bird prefers to present its back to an observer because its belly is bright yellow… but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a matter of chance.

There is a need for us to move on because we have limited time before making a connection, that if missed, will leave us stranded in this part of Mexico for sometime. As we drive on, I see a bird in a tree and Geraldo slows, before inching forward to get a better view and soon we are bogged down in sand just off the main track. We try to dig the vehicle out, my daughter and I bounce up and down on the rear bumper to get traction while Geraldo drives, but all we manage to do is to get the vehicle more deeply bogged in.

A bus which was quite a surprie to see squeezes by as I continue to work clearing sand from around the rear wheel whilst the rest of Mexico discusses what to do after I have failed to improve the situation.
To suddenly see a bus is a surprise –  it squeezes by as I continue to clear sand from around the rear wheel while the rest of Mexico gathers to discuss what to do after I fail to improve the situation.

The local that Geraldo spoke with earlier suddenly comes riding out of the forest and stops to help. He has, as one might expect, a rope, and fairly soon attaches this to a passing 4 wheel drive – the owner of which has stopped to offer assistance and soon we are dragged out. At no time during the proceedings did my wife mention time – over the years, similar incidents in far away places have resulted in her developing an increasingly philosophical approach to life… and this can only be good.

Not quite done with this trogon, in June 2016 Jen and I return to the Bay of Banderas region to stay for a time in Mismaloya, a little out from the main tourist area, so that I might more easily walk into the local forest to photograph wildlife.

We return to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season
We have returned to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season.

It is an eventful week and on our last full day in the region we spend the afternoon photographing flowers and birds in Vallarta Botanic Gardens which is rather wonderful. On arriving back at the Hotel, I leave my wife by the pool to go in search of a pair of basilisk lizards I’d seen a few days earlier close by the local river. It was early evening, the light was going, and I managed only a glimpse of a single lizard, otherwise, there was little to photograph in the fading light and I packed my camera away – which is always a cue for something interesting to happen, and this evening would be no exception.

As I wandered up from the river to rejoin the road I noticed a bird with a bright yellow belly, it was sat in a tree on the other side and this encouraged me to get the camera out to use as a scope. I usually carry it with a long 400 mm. lens attached and take a look through the viewfinder to get the best view I’ve ever had of a trogon in the wild; better still, this was a citreolene trogon, the species we’d seen with Geraldo last year only from the back, but this one was facing me. This isn’t a rare bird in the region, but I’d been looking all week and this was my first sighting – it was great to see it.

This was our final day and my last chance to get a shot of a trogon; although the Iight was hopeless I decided to grab a picture before attempting to set up the tripod which was presently sleeping with its legs tucked up inside itself at my feet. I didn’t even have time to put my bag down, quickly grabbing a hand held shot using the camera on its last settings. I could tell from the click, that the exposure time was long and would most likely provide a blurred image. So, I made a quick adjustment and went for a second shot which I hoped might work, then just before I took a third the bird turned its head away with indifference. This was my cue to put everything down on the dusty track, and wake up the tripod for a steady shot, but in the process I glanced up to  discover the bird had gone; I didn’t hear it fly and had no idea where it might now be. It had appeared and disappeared like the Cheshire cat in  ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but unfortunately unlike the story, bits of it would not be slowly reappearing in front of me. If the tripod had been ready I’d have got the shot without any trouble – I’d wasted my best wild trogon photo opportunity since I’d started looking in the mid 1980s. It would all be down to a single picture taken hand held in poor light on a long lens – a combination that usually results in an underexposed blurred disaster. 

Here then is the unexpected trogon. It is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful - the field of focus is shallow because the light is steadily going.
Here then is the unexpected trogon. This is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful – the field of focus is shallow because the light has almost gone.

On all of the occasions I have tried to photograph trogons in the past, they have been is strong dappled light creating extremes of contrast that are difficult  to deal with; and sitting amongst foliage none have provided as clear a view as this one. More important than the quality of my picture is the rate of development in this area of agriculture and tourism. The real question is, if I come back in ten years time, will there be enough dry forest habitat left to find and photograph this bird at all?

I was beginning to think that if I wanted a good trogon picture maybe I should just go to the zoo.  

A white-tailed or is it a black-headed trogon taken at Seattle Zoo. I don't have the experience to know without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took 30 seconds to get, and that's a lot quicker than my trying npw and again over 30.
A white-tailed (or is it a black-headed trogon?) taken at Seattle Zoo. I don’t have the experience to identify the bird without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took only 30 seconds to achieve – that’s a lot quicker than my wild attempts over the last 30 years.

I wrote up this story a year ago, but held it back because I’ve never really managed a good shot of a trogon in the wild and that bothers me, but just a few days ago I was visiting the Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Preserve in Belize, which is perhaps most famous for its jaguars, and things suddenly changed. This was my last day in the park and it hadn’t been a very good one for pictures. I had returned to park headquarters and was about to leave, when a passing member of staff said that he’d just seen a trogon in a nearby tree. I was about 25 feet from where it was sitting, and was able to move quite close to a bird totally indifferent to my presence. I took a few shots, and then the staff member said, “And its partner is over there”, pointing at a bird in another tree. “but I don’t know which is the male and which is the female”. His concern was appreciated, but given how long I’d waited for this moment!….  All I had to do was move a few feet and in no time at all I had fairly reasonable shots of both birds. Trogons it seems are a bit like buses – you wait ages – in my case 30 years (give or take a few days from when I first started looking)  and then two come along together.

A male black-headed trogon from the front.
A male black-headed trogon from the front.
And from the back.
And from the back.
This I think is a female - a slightly less colourful bird, but nevertheless still wonderful to see.
This is the female – a slightly less colourful, but nonetheless wonderful bird.

Job done. Thank goodness for that… now I can make a start on toucans! 

With  thanks to Peter Cox Nature Tours Tobago and Geraldo Hernandez Vazquez. www.naturevallarta.com also thanks to John Gordon.

 

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Stream Sides and Woodlands.

The banks of New Forest streams have changed significantly over the years.

Long before I started photographing the New Forest in the 1970s streamsides were steadily being opened up by livestock as they grazed and trampled these fragile areas into blandness, and it is a problem that continues to the present day. 

If managing the open Forest continues to prioritise traditional practices, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea to refer to photographs taken earlier in the 20th Century to gain a better understanding of the changes that have occurred. 

Many New Forest streams are very beautiful, but their banks are often barren and grazed completely free of undergrowth - in the past this certainly wasn't the case.
There was a time within living memory when bramble and other dense growth ran along many waterways which prevented livestock from getting in – consequently stream side banks regenerated without interference and there was less soil erosion, providing better water quality.

Many stream banks were grazed out long before I began taking pictures in the early 1970s, but nevertheless, I have still managed to record many changes over the years, often without the realisation that I was doing so. When I started out, the New Forest was already heavily grazed and I had not expected things to get worse, but generally they have, with very little in the way of critical comment.

The picture below was taken in the Spring of 2016 at the the edge of a heathland that I know very well, this about 100 metres from the pond that I discussed in my previous article, although it is not necessary to have read it to comprehend the changes discussed here. Over grazing has certainly degraded the surrounding heathland, but things get far worse on approaching the tree line.

In the 1970s this was a much different habitat; a stream runs just beyond the trees to the right. There was once a broad band of bramble and clumps of undergrowth running along this side of the trees which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring - the present habitat is no longer suitable for 'any' snake species and now so degraded the environment is rapidly becoming a lawn.
In the 1970s this was a much different habitat than today, with heathland to the left and extensive patches of undergrowth running along the tree line and the stream side just beyond the trees to the right. 

 The broad band of vegetation that ran along this side of the trees was made up largely of grassy clumps of bog myrtle and patches of bramble, which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring. The present habitat is extremely degraded and most of the heather has now disappeared.  All of the low cover that bordered the stream side has been eaten out and is rapidly becoming a lawn that is not well suited to any species of snake.

This location has extensively changed even since the beginning of the new Millennium.

I took this picture on the other side of the stream in January of 2000 because it is unusual to see hoar frost lasting in the Forest when the sun has hit the branches of the trees, but it also srevees a record of the heathland at its most dormant and demonstrates that back then there was plenty of ground cover much of which is now been lost.
I took this picture on the opposite side of the stream in January of 2000 initially to show hoar frost on tree branches on a very cold morning. What the frost also shows, at a time of year when most plants are dormant, is how much good ground cover there was back then. Today, much of this has been grazed out, although it is not as badly affected as the opposite bank where I once regularly filmed adders.

At one time the surrounding heathland provided a variety of habitat types suitable for all three British species of snake. Within an area of about 500 hundred square metres there was mature heathland that ran into heather of various ages, before arriving at a pond and a stream side both of which had banks covered in undergrowth. This is important because there are but a handful of places in Britain now where you can find all three British snake species in close proximity and most of these locations are in the New Forest.

The grass snake, this one photographed here in the mid-1980s has also suffered habitat loss.
A grass snake photographed on the stream bank in the mid-1980s; another species that has suffered habitat loss.

On severaI occasions I was fortunate to film the adder dance in undergrowth along the stream at a time when it was less heavily grazed and I was present when an adult male climbed up through a gorse bush to investigate a dartford warbler’s nest. During spring it was commonplace to see a dozen adders over a one hundred metre stretch here. On returning to the streamside during the spring of 2016 I searched for three mornings in ideal weather conditions but didn’t find a single snake.

This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.
This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.

Trust me, I’ve put in the hours.  

You know how it is if you want to place a bet – say, on who will win the next general election… Past experience tells us that is unwise to rely on pundits or exit polls to make a winning decision. The best option is usually to look at the odds a bookie will give you – because if they keep getting it wrong they’re out of business and clearly there is no shortage of bookies. I won’t claim to be an expert on every plant and animal on the Forest, but when it comes to snakes I am a bit of an adder bookie; if you want to know where they are, then I’m the person to ask – I once spent months of the year finding and filming these beautiful reptiles and how many people can honestly say they’ve paid their mortgage by watching snakes. I won’t go as far as to claim there are no snakes left at my favourite filming location, but even a glance reveals no suitable ground cover for snakes in a place where they were once common, which makes the odds on finding one pretty slim. 

I am using the adder as an indicator that represents a general decline in the numbers and diversity of many other species; everything from rodents through to invertebrates have become more scarce here during my years of observation and once again I am speaking about animals that were once common. The tendency is to dwell on the disappearance of the more showy – butterflies and moths for example, for which the species in decline list is long; but I will chose one species only, and it is a plant rather than an animal. I have noticed that there are now far fewer sundews than there once were at this location. I filmed them many times during the 1980s and 90s, when they were common in boggy areas. This is a species that does well on wet heathlands when grazing is optimal and the decline suggests that grazing levels have become too extreme. 

Damselfly caught on sundew - a carnivorous plant - on boggy heathland sometime in the mid-1980s.
A damselfly caught on sundew – a carnivorous plant of boggy heathland. Photographed at the location described above sometime in the mid-1980s.

Only a short walk away there is another site that also provided an ideal adder habitat.

Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather - this was once an important adder habitats.  A car park has now gone in and the place is busy with dog walkers who are probably pleased not to see an adder, but nevertheless the habitat is totally sterile.
Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather providing a wonderful environment for adders. More recently a car park was put in; the area is now busy with dog walkers and most will be pleased there are no longer any snakes to be found. Whatever your view, it can’t be denied that the habitat has become totally sterile – this picture Spring 2016.

During the 1970s and 80s I regularly filmed adders on this bank, but none can be found here now. The bank, once protected by inclosure, has more recently returned to open Forest and in consequence is heavily grazed. I accept that Forest plantations are not inclosed indefinitely, but those that are fenced will grow deep heather along their borders because of the reduction of grazing pressure. This location is about half a mile from the degraded streamside I have already mentioned, and it is difficult to understand how so much habitat appropriate for snakes, along with many other plants and animals, has been allowed to degrade over such an expansive area. The situation is depressing and it would perhaps be kindest to suggest that this is no more than a case of careless management, because it is difficult to believe that the real priority has been to open up yet more Forest for grazing to the detriment of almost everything else.

Here is the bank as it was during the 1970s

Courting adders in spring, a female, with four males in attendance in the mid-1970s. (The females head is not visible). This picture was taken to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. On a spring day in 2016 -  the heather has gone, entirely replaced by short grass and bare sandy soil.
I frequently filmed adder courtship here during spring through the 1970s and 80s. In this case a female has four males in attendance, although the females head is not visible here. This image was taken just to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. The heather is now clearly gone, replaced entirely by short grass and bare sandy soil and this suffers extensive erosion.

Without the labels in the above picture, you might not notice the snakes at all – their markings disguise them almost perfectly amongst the heather which was once the most dominant plant. Part of the problem is that older heather is especially brittle and when the inclosure fences came down the whole area was trampled by livestock. Herds of cattle will lie down in different places each night and this destroys the heather base and damages the habitat. 

A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour - they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to the female. Lying together increases their body temperatures. A week or so later the males performed the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.
A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour; they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to their potential mate, making little jerky head movements whilst scenting with their tongues as they move slowly over her body.  Lying together will increase their body temperatures in early spring, allowing the snakes to become more active. A week or so later I remember the males performing the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.

And it’s not just the snakes that have disappeared:

the band of heather that once ran along the tree line was, during the 1970s, teeming with invertebrates. I know this because I sweep netted the area regularly to identify the spiders and insects that were present. Heather cover is akin to a miniature forest; different animals live at different levels and many will rise to the top on warm sunny days where their presence will provide food for a variety of other creatures.

A bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.
A ‘true’ bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.

With the destruction of its heather the site has now become barren. Gorse will eventually regenerate, but if the pressure of livestock is not reduced the heather will not be able to. This is a common pattern repeating itself across the open Forest…. There’s something not quite right here – the environment is rapidly becoming sterile and there should be cause for concern.

It isn’t just the act of munching that is a problem, it is also the peripheral activities undertaken to support it. Back in the 1960s as a teenager I witnessed wetlands being drained to increase the availability of grazing and that proved to be a disaster for many wetland species. Some bog areas have more recently been re-instated, so it isn’t all bad news, but burning and scrub clearance to promote a browser friendly habitat continues, which inevitably has an impact. When things all begins to look the same, wildlife diversity always suffers.

Most New Forest woodlands that are not within a fence line are also overgrazed.

The open woodlands, just like the open heathlands are also disappointing – many now display very little ground cover due to heavy grazing and this has had a knock on effect, reducing plant and animal numbers along with species diversity; in particular it has affected the many small animals that rely upon low spreading plants for food and shelter.

New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of  beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey, which has been grazed out by livestock and deer.
The New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey because it has been grazed out by livestock and deer.

The New Forest suffers greatly in terms of the fine details. Almost nothing vegetative survives here unless it remains out of the reach of grazers: much that can be eaten will be eaten – by ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and deer – the munching is relentless.

It is not uncommon to find old beeches barked - in this case by ponies.
Sadly great old beech trees are now more frequently barked – in this case by ponies. This behaviour has become worryingly more prevalent in recent years as ponies run low on other food.

When you have seen old beech trees growing from childhood and they are suddenly damaged in this manner it is difficult not to become despondent. Some of the older pollarded trees on the Forest have been standing for more than three hundred years; it is likely that some trees were planted, but many others will have self-seeded.

Due to a hard grazing  regime, the survival of trees that seed and grow naturally is now almost zero. Dense undergrowth such as bramble which was commonplace in the past allowed native tree seedlings some protection from hungry mouths, but today there is very little undergrowth available to act as nurseries and very few young trees survive the onslaught.

In areas where there are alien conifers, for example along the  Ornamental Drive and in the Boldrewood area unpalatable conifer seedlings are growing well in a beech and oak woodland, but there is not much in the way of regenerating native trees.
In areas where there are mature alien conifers, for example: along the Ornamental Drive and at Boldrewood, conifer seedlings unpalatable to livestock are unfortunately growing very well. This is supposed to be a beech and oak woodland, but there are hardly any regenerating native deciduous trees.
A few non-native conifers soon self seed as is the case in this New Forest woodland.
Even when there are only a few mature non-native conifers, they soon self seed, as is the case in this deciduous New Forest woodland.

I also found time during my Spring visit of 2016 to go to a friend’s privately owned property situated next to the open Forest; it comprises fields, pasture and what interests me most, a fenced off woodland.

I well remember going out on the open Forest during the 1990s to film the fallow deer rutt and on early mornings it was common to find inclosure gates wedged open by pieces of wood to allow livestock in… Not content with destroying the fabric of the Forest, some locals felt that natural undergrowth protected by inclosure was simply a waste of grazing potential.

In the private woodland things couldn’t be more different. The soil type is the same as on the adjacent New Forest, but free from ponies and cattle the understory looks healthier; and any stock animals that do find their way in are soon put back out. 

An off the Forest bluebell wood that hasn't been eaten out or trampled by livestock.
My friend’s private woodland is beautiful. During the spring bluebells were coming into bloom; they are here because the understorey hasn’t been trampled, or eaten out by stock despite the presence of deer. This photo was taken during Spring 2016 one day after the previous three pictures were made on the open Forest.

 There were also quite a lot of other plants in bloom, this to the advantage of a variety of attendant invertebrates, in particular insects feeding on the variety of wild flowers.

Wood spurge growing nicely, and celendines in the foreground along with wood anemones behind starting to come into flower. This kind of ground cover is non-existent on the open areas of the New Forest.
Wood spurge was growing well, along with celendines (in the foreground) and wood anemones (behind), these just coming into flower – the kind of ground cover that  is non-existent on open areas of the New Forest.

It’s spring, so there are also primroses amongst the wood anemones.

Fantastic. In the private forest where there are deer but no livestock the ground cover is good.
In the private woodland despite the presence of deer the ground cover is impressive.

And just in case you aren’t convinced, the next day I was back in the New Forest and the contrast was quite shocking.

Back on the Forest a day after my visit to a neighbouring private wood. I got a chance to photograph a roe deer and he didn't see me, but there' not a lot else to get excited about.
 I got a chance to photograph a roe deer that didn’t see me, but there wasn’t much else to get excited about.

Many other treasures will become evident in the private forest as summer approaches, whilst back on the open Forest there will be little in the way of food plant such as bramble flowers that adult butterflies and other insects need to feed on, and very few plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on which their emergent caterpillars require as a food source. All of the action will be happening in the private wood; and any butterflies seen flying across the New Forest will, most likely, be passing through in search of somewhere more useful, and a good deal more interesting than the convenient dog empying fascility that the Forest has become.

In Victorian times there were descriptions of butterflies rising on New Forest rides in such numbers that it was difficult to see down them. Such radical change over the last 150 years is not unprescendeted elsewhere, and such changes are not entirely due to grazing regimes, but the extremes of change over periods a little too long to notice in a human lifetime is nevertheless disturbing.

A silver-washed fritillary photographed regularly during the summers of the 1970s 80s will be less often seen in the Forest of this new Millennium  because there is little in the way of food plants for them, which is sad.
I photgraphed silver-washed fritillaries regularly during the summers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but they are less often seen in the New Forest of the new Millennium because there is so little in the way of food plant for them to feed upon and that is depressing.

So what’s gone wrong?……..

The answer is complicated – the New Forest came under the auspices of the Forestry Commission in 1924, and commercial forestry did not always sit well with the needs of conservation; sadly, too many native deciduous trees were felled to make way for alien conifer plantations.

In consequence there was a decline in species across the Forest under the new tenure, but there were other factors to consider: rapid urban development was beginning along the New Forest borders; pesticides and herbicides were coming into general use and people began visiting the area in greater numbers. This was a period of considerable change and it would unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of one organisation.

Cattle in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest in the late 1980s.
Cattle under holly in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest – autumn 1999, but it could easily be far earlier because changes in the Forest before the New Millennium were often very subtle and it is interesting to consider that the hunting grounds of Norman kings may well have looked similar to this (without such beefy cattle).

In 1969 the Forest became a National Nature Reserve and the Forestry Commission  began working in unison with the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England), a relationship that was strained at times but in retrospect, relatively successful.

In 1971 conservation measures were undertaked in a more organised  manner as the Forest was declared ‘A Site of Special Scientific Interest’. Nevertheless, how intensely the New Forest should be grazed has for many years been a thorny issue . The subject will always be controversial, because those with grazing rights believe the well being of the Forest relies almost entirely upon them – they are it seems doing us all a favour and views to the contrary are not often well received.

Commoners come together at Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture taken some time in the 1990s.
Commoners come together yearly opposite Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture was taken during the 1990s. Over the centuries the people of the New Forest have had many ups and downs – they are consequently a stoic people; but their interests should not be put above the general well being of the environment that they make their living from.

The British have a long history, and so it is understandable that sometimes they look backwards to earlier times to find solutions for current problems, when perhaps it might be wiser to be looking to the future; and the New Forest is no stranger to this approach.

For as long as I can remember management policy has never been entirely driven by science based evidence directly linked to the New Forest’s flora and fauna, because it has always been difficult to separate the uniqueness of this place from historical tradition – but the world is changing. Ancient Forests have all but disappeared now and it is essential to consider every aspect of their conservation before deciding how best to manage them.

The effects of grazing must be more carefully considered and take precedence over Commoner’s rights, because the Forest isn’t best served by maintaining age old traditions to the exclusion of everything else, and recent additional grazing subsidies will certainly have clouded the issue. Sadly, what is best for the environment is not necessarily decided by logical argument. Politically, it is easier to favour a traditional way of life over nature itself. When you live in a democracy nature doesn’t get to vote.  

An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I'd be in favour.
An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course both dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I’d be in favour.

The intention has always been that tradition and nature should work together, but any argument that puts outmoded ‘rights’ before the realities of the current situation makes no sense and the present lack of an appropriate response is tiresome.

Looking at the British countryside from the air, demonstrates that much of what remains outside of standard agricultural use is grazed by livestock – in particular sheep – thus prohibiting any possibility of a return to wilderness. Indeed, the British National Park mentality sees cropping by domestic herboivores as essential to maintaining ‘a traditional look’. It is as if we are too frightened to allow wilderness to return to Britain. Policy makers seem set against allowing the natural world to make a comeback, which is unfortunate because a little bit of ‘wild’ is good for us and even better for the environment.

A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s. I an animal very fond of these animals, but the many that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called 'Daphne' competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties rather than has happened so often in the past - on a Frenchman's dinner table.
A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s, an animal that I am fond of, but presently many of those that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called ‘Daphne’ competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties, rather than as has happened so often in the past – on a Frenchman’s dinner table.

In the New Forest it certainly isn’t too late to make a change for the better by reducing livestock. In the short term, private landowners will carry the burden of maintaining wildlife diversity on adjoining properties until ‘common sense’ prevails over ‘common rights’, although making changes remains an uphill battle.

Most environmentalists recognise the benefits of grazing as a conservation tool, but it has to operate at an appropriate level. Clearly this isn’t happening in the New Forest. Britain’s most recently designated National Park is increasingly, looking like a badly worn snooker table and it makes sense to be honest about the direness of the situation. At the very least the problem needs to be recognised and those in control politely asked to start making intelligent choices that are long overdue. 

Elephants: Out of Africa and Out of Luck.

As a teenager I played cricket – 

that was in the 1960s. For generations during an English summer it was impossible to avoid the game, especially at school where it was considered character building to have a hard ball hit or thrown at you with sometimes lethal force.

New Zealand v England Test Match. 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out the centre the players are constantly testing the limits of what others find acceptable.
New Zealand v England Test Match 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out in the centre, players are constantly testing the limits.

Way back then, on a sunny sports enforced schoolday afternoon, I was fielding in one of those ‘dangerous’ too close to the  batsman positions that intelligent people avoid, and perhaps realising this, my sports master shouted, ‘Wake up Bolwell… pay attention!’ which was  a surprise… because I thought that I was.

Then something interesting happened – which sounds odd, because  I’m talking about cricket… Anyway, the very next delivery, the ball came hurtling down the pitch at a ferocious speed, took an outside edge off the bat and came flying in my direction at considerable speed. My natural reaction was to get out of the way, but the ‘pay attention’ comment had irritated me, and I suddenly found myself diving low to my left and somehow, managed to make the catch.  I got up from the ground with minimal fuss, and casually returned the ball to the bowler – surprisingly, I had no pain or broken fingers.

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As the batsman made his way back to the pavilion, this extraordinary dismissal received a spontaneous round of applause from all who witnessed it, and a mildly obscene expletive from my sports master who could hardly believe his eyes. The odd thing was, none of this had anything to do with me – my finest sporting moment was a reflex action – simply a case of being in the right place at the right time… which usually, I am not. Disturbingly though, when it comes to rare mass extinction events, I, along with the rest of my generation, appear to be right in the middle of one, although recently it was decided that this new period kicked off around 1950, close to the time when I was born; I’d like to think it had nothing to do with me and would prefer to push it back a little further – to the industrial revolution perhaps, or maybe even earlier, to the time when humans first began eliminating big mammals, decimating forests and pushing carbon into the atmosphere, because that’s when it really started, but go that far back, and the period already has a name. So, it has been decided we are kicking off the Anthropocene around about now –  the point at which we are destroying the Planet’s natural systems quicker than they can bounce back from our careless behaviour, and this is a far bigger game than most of us are ready to play… we can dive in any direction we like, but so far, we’ve made very little ‘difference’ to all the ‘differences’ we are making.

P1210521.FIX.©.SMALLMy initial contribution was to promote awareness by filming wildlife documentaries, but did that make any difference?… None whatsoever – other than to fool people into thinking that there are plenty of animals left and nothing to worry about. Heck, there’s still plenty of optimism out there – the sort that rats have when they are swimming for their lives in a water filled barrel, rather than face a certain future of drowning.

 Fast forward ten years from my catch of a lifetime and I’m with a film crew driving across one of the remotest parts of the Serengeti and one of our group is about to have a light hearted go at my behaviour, providing me with an opportunity to top my greatest sporting moment by being a little too smart for my own good. 

The other members of the party in Northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellet and Hugh Maynard.
The rest of the party in northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellew and Hugh Maynard.

For a week or more the four of us had been driving across this huge plain looking for wildlife to film; but this was no conventional safari along well worn tracks; we were miles from anywhere crossing a huge open expanse of dry grass, mostly just hoping to ‘not break down’. The land ran flat in every direction until it reached the sky at which point the Earth’s curvature was discernible; and when the vehicle was stationary and the engine stopped ticking, I was certain I could hear my heart beating.

P1210490.SMALLBut we’re not standing still, instead we are moving as fast as the old Land Rover will go. I’m on the back seat, reading a book, and the cameraman who is sitting up front, looks over his shoulder and says. “If you’re going to see anything, you’ll need to pay attention”. And just as with the cricket match… I thought that I was, because in this environment it is easy to read a book and regularly scan an outside world where so little is going on. Then, after my verbal shake down,  everybody went quiet, and I said very casually, ‘There’s a dead elephant on my side of the vehicle’.

Now they’ve got their binoculars going out the window and they can’t see anything… finally they decide I must be joking and we drive on. A minute or two later without looking up I say, ‘The dead elephant’s about half a mile directly to the left now’… and still they don’t see it and I’m beginning to wonder, ‘Is there really is a dead elephant out there?’ but I continue to read my very bad book whilst giving directions. Then somebody says, ‘It’s just a mound of earth’.

“It’s a dead elephant”. I persist. “if it was just dirt, it’s too spread out for a termite mound… and I don’t see any dumper trucks.” I’m really pushing my luck now, because everybody is irritated by my attitude… and the detour – so I really need a dead elephant out there somewhere because nobody likes a smart Alec.

Eventually we arrive at this spread of huge bones – they’ve been stripped clean by scavengers, but otherwise are only a little more spread out from the time when the elephant died. Robin Pellew our science advisor is an expert on giraffes, but has spent enough time on the Serengeti to know that here lie the remains of a male elephant of about 40 years of age, with no clear indication as to cause of death.

This elephant skeleton discovery occurred on the afternoon of 12th November 1979 and was not due to any personal skill on my part – I was born with good eyesight and that’s not something you can practice. Today though, imagine how remote you would have to be to stumble across a dead elephant that had been laying around undisturbed long enough for it’s bones to be stripped clean… Well, maybe not so long when you consider the size and number of scavengers on the Serengeti, but it was extraordinary to find an elephant’s skull still intact with both tusks in place, propping up the front end like some well balanced sculpture.

Apart from a few scavengers the elephant skeleton remained, more or less, in the same position as when the animal died.
Apart from scavengers moving bones, the skeleton remained more or less in the same position as when the elephant died.

I’d like to say we took some pictures and drove respectfully away, but we didn’t do that. We took some pictures and then set about smashing the front of the skull with a tyre lever to remove the tusks, which we then tied to the roof of our vehicle so that they might be delivered to Serengeti Park Headquarters, rather than left for others to find and sell into the ivory trade. The tusks were over five and a half feet long, and it’s not until you’ve tried to separate tusks from an elephant’s head that you realise just how much lies embedded in the skull – about a third – and by the time I’d finished my share of skull bashing to get them free, I didn’t feel quite as smart as I had done before we started out on the task.

Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future of the African elephants.
Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future for the African elephant.

By the end of 1979, at the time when we brought back the ivory, the African elephant’s heyday was already over; we’d been looking to film elephants during a period of heavy poaching and it is important to realise that all of us are somewhere on a timeline, and more often than not, few of us get to see the beginning or the end of a great many processes. Elephants were heavily poached from the beginning of the 1970s, and by the end of the 1980s things were much worse. Often there simply wasn’t the man power to deal with the increasing problem, and invariably the conservers were outgunned. Well organized Somalian poachers with automatic weapons began dropping down into Tanzanian parks and when they met opposition, it was poorly paid wardens attempting to protect both the elephants and themselves with old Lee Enfield rifles left over from the First and Second World Wars.

African elephants are the largest land mammals still living today, but the savannahs they inhabit are extensive, and so protecting every herd let alone every individual has proven impossible, especially taking into account the corruption that has plagued so many parts of Africa over the years, enabling the illegal killing of animals to continue despite the best efforts of conservationists.

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The message did seem to be getting through for a while and the situation for African elephants improved during the 1990s when their numbers began to rise, but this is now recognised as a blip on what has otherwise been a rapidly descending curve.

The most comprehensive aerial survey of elephants ever undertaken has recently been completed; this essential project was largely bankrolled by the philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul G Allen, and the results have provided some sobering figures that show a serious decline in the number of elephants on African savannahs. The losses are mostly down to poaching, which has become increasingly problematic in East, West and Central Africa.

A summary of elephant status over the years: http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/background-on-conservation/

Elephant populations on the savannahs of Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Elephant populations across Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Presently, there are estimated to be a little over 350,000 elephants wandering across the savannahs. But before Europeans arrived on the continent there were probably more than 25 million, and you can’t help but think how destructive our species is, when elephant populations have been so thoroughly decimated in just a few hundred years.

The Survey:  https://peerj.com/articles/2354/

When I was a small child in the 1950s it is thought that around 250 elephants were killed in Africa every day, notably at a time when African nations were gaining independence. But that’s not to imply that Africans are responsible all of the killing; for a century or more hunters have arrived from outside of the continent and paid huge sums of money for the pleasure of shooting one of nature’s greatest wonders.

P1210528.FIX.©.SMALLAs the human population of Africa increases, more land will be taken from the natural world – in particular for agricultural use. Increasingly this is a matter of life and death for elephants, because their presence is not easily tolerated close to people. By any terms elephants are destructive, and unless they have space to do their own thing, they will increasingly make regular contact with humans and come off second best. This is not a new story, elephants have always been a nuisance to people, especially when they destroy crops, and the frustration of farmers is understandable.

Unfortunately, domestic stock animals are an additional problem for conservationists, they are driven into many natural areas to graze and this presents a threat to wildlife either through direct competition, or by spreading diseases across huge areas of what was once recognised as elephant country; and even national parks seem incapable of keeping essential conservation areas free from the intrusion.

 In the developed world we destroyed most of the large mammals that competed with us centuries ago and it is a pattern that continues to repeat itself elsewhere. The process started when man became a successful co-operative hunter, took readily to  barbequeing and then agriculture. From a slow unsteady start the human population began to grow exponentially and this continues to the present day. Our population expansion is beyond natural control which has proven devastating to many other species.

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Never before has human population growth been so consequential, with many countries on the continent having a doubling time of between 35 to 50 years. Which means that if poaching stopped tomorrow, we might be asking where in any case would there be enough space, even in a place the size of Africa, to fit in the next generation of hungry elephants alongside a competing, and more likely to succeed, rapidly increasing population of Homo sapiens.

But even ignoring all of that, the biggest problem that African elephants currently face is their habit of wandering around with thousands of dollars of comparatively easy money growing out of the sides of their mouths. For millions of years, having a couple of really useful big teeth was advantageous and made elephants the biological equivalent of bulldozers with a forklift truck attachment at their front ends, but of course these front ends were never meant to be detached. Over a few tens of years really useful tusks have suddenly become a serious liability, and with a long lived slow reproducing species evolution doesn’t have any short term answers. There are no other serious predators to adult elephants, their continued survival is quite simply down to us.

A young elephant with tusks too small to attract the poachers interest - but it is only a matter of time.
Although poaching may be indiscriminate, this young elephant’s tusks shouldn’t attract too much attention – but it is only a matter of time.

It would not of course be such a problem if ivory was less desirable and so much in demand in certain key places in the world – mostly Asia. Not so long ago the Japanese found ivory invaluable for making seals  as personal signatures. In Europe ivory carvings were imported from the Far East, which is the home of traditional ivory carving. This material has also been a popular inlay and widely used to embellish instruments, most  famously piano keys – in Britain piano players were once said to be ‘tickling the ivories’. Today however the market is centred in China, and Vietnam where skilled craftsmen still carve ivory to supply both the home and world markets, and it remains available on the black market even in countries where the sale of ivory is now illegal.

Even carved elephants - these coming out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s carry ivory tusks, although in many cases bone is substituted for tusks.
Even carved elephants – these came out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s, carried ivory tusks, although in many cases carved animal bone was substituted.

Culturally it has been easier to persuade the Western world that they don’t need ivory than is the case in the East where the problems elephants face has been slow to be recognized. There are few places in Europe where people remain unaware that poaching ivory is bad news for elephants – and really… how long does it take to come to that conclusion? A partial ban on ivory has existed in the U.S.A. since June 1989, but it was not until June 2016 that an almost total ban came into law – better late than never I suppose.

Once upon a time ivory was a status symbol in Europe and North America, but attitudes are changing, and increasingly the general ownership of ivory is considered to be in bad taste. It has over the years simply been a matter of education to persuade people that the best place for ivory is at the front end of an elephant on either side of its trunk.

The old and the new generation - hopefully going somewhere.
The old and the new generation – hopefully going somewhere.

 In China the carving of African elephant ivory and rhino horn along with its use in Chinese medicine are still ‘culturally significant’; and it takes time to eliminate anything that comes under that heading. The horrors that have been committed in the name  of God and the ‘culturally significant’, are, sadly, too numerous to mention.

Chinese authorities have recently been campaigning against the use of ivory. Even Jackie Chan has spoken out on the subject of ivory poaching and he’s probably made a difference. I was never sure why I liked Jackie Chan, but now there is a very good reason. 

Back in 2014 WildAid surveyed China’s three largest cities to gauge changes in attitude towards poaching and the ivory trade, making comparisons with a previous 2012 survey. In 2014 just over 70% of participants thought that elephant poaching was a problem; well up on the ‘a little over’ 45% figure from 2012. An increase of over 50% for the enlightened view, which at least offers encouragement that attitudes can change.

For more details of the survey: http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/resources/Print_Ivory%20Report_Final_v3.pdf

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An online survey also found that 95% of respondents supported an ivory ban, but the key word here is ‘respondents’ – I wonder if those who responded were more likely to do so because of their positive view. I also wonder about the sample size, 1500 people – 500 hundred from each city, doesn’t seem a very big sample considering the millions of people living in these centres of high population.  Whatever the surveys are telling us to sweeten the pill, there is still a significant amount of ivory being traded, and elephant numbers continue to plummet. Time is running out. Personally I don’t get too excited about surveys, preferring instead to put emphasis on results. The answer might be to just stop trading with any country where people continue to deal in endangered animal parts as a matter of course, even if in the mistaken belief that such items have medicinal value, when scientific evidence demonstrates that they do not.

Presently, there are many people trading in endangered animals and body parts with impunity, and the rarer an animal becomes the higher the price gets, which only adds to its appeal. Education is one thing, but taking on ‘the money’ is never considered a realistic option and all too often ends up in the ‘too hard basket'; but now it really is far too late in the day to dither, because  if nothing changes in the near future, we will all soon be saying ‘goodnight Jumbo’.

The obvious answer is a two pronged attack, education across all social groups whilst also taking out those who trade at the top end of the market where the profit margins are the highest  – but of course those involved in taking the largest profits don’t like that idea at all, and won’t be going without considerable resistance.

African elephants are kept species, when they pass an acacia seed in their droppings or push over a tree to get at the leaves, they are instrumental in creating the environment they and a great many other animals live in.
African elephants are a key species, whether passing out acacia seeds in their droppings or pushing over a tree to get at the leaves – they are instrumental in shaping an environment for both themselves and many other animals.

At the end of the day the obvious problem remains – until African elephants are worth more to people living in Africa alive than they are dead, the decline will continue, because the corruption that maintains the present situation is going to be a juggernaut to stop.

2016-09-03-0015.FIX2.SMALLWithout doubt – the answer lies in persuading people that paying good money for ivory is stupid, and if that idea could be wedged into peoples brains then the ivory trade would be finished. The solution, if there is one, isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Or should that be ‘a stroll across the Serengeti’… I’ve  tried that, and it’s not so easy. I’ve also done my fair share of filming and photography – it has made very little difference.

We know how wonderful elephants are – but nothing that we are presently doing is  saving them. Perhaps if I was still living in England I’d say that the continued persecution of elephants ‘just isn’t cricket’ – but a sense of fair play isn’t going to get us anywhere in the face of almost insurmountable greed and mind blowing ignorance, and as always… more than a fair share of plain stupidity.

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

I was out in the garden yesterday

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

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

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

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

My most recent hummingbird encounter is one of many; thinking back to earlier wildlife filming trips when I first started coming out to the Americas,  there was hardly a visit when I didn’t see one. Living as I now do in the Vancouver area doesn’t provide a huge hummingbird species count, but I’m just happy to be seeing them right through the year. If I had to make a list of my favourite things, only Africa would get a higher rating, and yes, I do get how odd it is to make a comparison between a large continent and a small bird.

Hummingbirds are a New World species that most likely originated in South America; these ever resourceful birds can now be found as far north as central Alaska, and as far south as the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

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

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

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

The next year, I’m guessing it was the same pair of adults that showed up again and things went much the same way as they had done the previous year. The fall came and the rufous hummingbirds I had seen feeding in the park moved on, but I left the feeder out for stragglers… and then something interesting happened, the Anna’s hummingbird just kept coming and continued to do so right through the winter and this surprised me.

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

This never got old -

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

A more recent picture of a female Anna's hummingbird on our garden feeder on 4th. February 2017 when around 14  inches of snow had fallen.
A recent picture of a female Anna’s hummingbird on our garden feeder on the 4th. February 2017 when around 14 inches of snow had fallen.

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

A wet cold winters day and two hummers shelter under the eave of the roof.
On our balcony the Anna’s hummingbirds that hung out with us through winter would perch under the eaves on and old seed block container to sit out a downpour.

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

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

Living on the Edge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbirds are exceptional in many ways:

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

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

A Bit Flash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going South

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

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

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

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

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

Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

As Dismissed As a Newt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Britain has only three native species of newt

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Nerdy information on Identification which some may choose to skip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Into the Woods – Wildlife Photography as a Surrealist Nightmare.

In Search of the Varied Thrush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it? I didn’t know that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m at Regina’, says the girl.’

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

‘And what are you doing now.’

‘Running, I’m soccer training.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Long New Zealand and Thanks For All the Sheep. Part 2.

Any European botanist arriving in New Zealand for the first time might just as well be landing on a different planet – so extraordinarily is the plant life on these South Pacific islands.

Looking from our mountain to another - this is Kakepuku.
Looking from our mountain to another one – this is Kakepuku.
It took four or five years to see any positive results when trying to establish our native New Zealand garden. The one thing that grew easily was flax, and this was encouraging, because I’d seen nectar feeding birds visiting flax flowers elsewhere – so, it wasn’t difficult to join up the dots… soon I was dividing and planting out as many locally grown flax as I could get my hands on. 
Alice dividing a native flax for planting in early 2010 several months before we leave for good.
My daughter Alice dividing an old grubbed out flax which might provide 20 starter plants or more.
One day I looked out of my office window and noticed the beautiful dusky red flowers of rewarewa blooming in the bush behind the house; and not long after an excitable tui began visiting several times a day to feed upon the nectar, but as soon as the flowers went over, so did the bird, quite literally – it flew over and away without hesitation. This was disappointing, but suddenly it dawned on me that we should be providing a whole range of appropriate flowering plants to attract birds in through spring and summer.

Tui feeding on Rewarewa in trees behind the house. 

As nectar appeared to be the key, I started playing detective, following tuis to see what they were feeding on. In spring one of the first visits they made was to the beautiful sulphur coloured flowers of kowhai, and there the guilty bird’s faces were soon covered in pollen.  Almost everybody in New Zealand must have seen this, but it was a revelation to me. On the day of my discovery, I set about searching for kowhia seedlings, which were easily found growing close by adult trees and were soon potted up and placed in a shade behind the house to establish.
Kowhai flowers are perfectly shaped for pollination by the curved beaks of tui and bellbird and once our first flowering kowhai were over, the birds moved quickly on to fresh rewarewa flowers in the trees behind the house. They sought out the colourful blooms just as our first visiting tui had done a few years earlier. I was excited by this minor progress –  the nectar timeline availability had been doubled with the planting of a single species.
These are kowhai flowers and the tui love them and will travel some distance to find them - that is, if native pigeon haven't already stripped out the buds, which eventually  happens, but not until we have left our New Zealand home when the trees become big enough for it to be worthwhile for the pigeon to bother.
Tui love kowhai flowers and will travel some distance to find them – that is, if native pigeon haven’t already stripped out the buds, which eventually happened to ours, but the trees have to be big enough for the pigeons to bother. So now there are native pigeons taking their share, the answer is to plant more kowhai.
Next in line was the mountain flax, which flowers after rewarewa, and filled a gap until the familiar New Zealand flax started to provide a nectar bonanza in early summer – this progression carried us through the period when tui and bellbird rear their young, and if we could get them to stay and nest we were home and dry – tui feed their young primarily on insects and spiders and there is now no shortage of these. Things were looking up. My flax planting habit now bordered on an obsession, with hundreds of plants going in over just a few days – a hopeful invitation to a future nectar feeding frenzy.

 

Flax goes in wherever there is space - here below the garden banks where it is interspersed with clumps of toi toi grass.
I begin planting flax wherever there is space – here on gully banks below the garden where they are interspersed with clumps of native toi toi grass.
As summer progressed, the nectar feeders (insects as well as the birds), moved onto pohutukawa that had been planted around the garden. Tui more naturally feed upon closely related rata flowers in the bush, but possum stripped them out before our arrival, although now the possum are under control the ratas are growing back.
Pohutukawa are susceptible to the frosts we get each winter until they are around a metre high; so these trees don’t grow here naturally and are more usually found in coastal regions where the climate is milder. I would cover our young plants every evening through winter until they were old enough to survive.
Pohutukawa flowers brought our nectar feeding season to a close and the birds would then leave in search of other now plentiful foods in late summer. Despite this tui and bellbird became permanent residents for five months or so through spring and summer, and in addition, they started to nest in our bush… Bingo!
ABCD
December 2007. Pohutukawa or ‘New Zealand Christmas tree’ flowers on an establishing tree.
 Increased nectar availability is a major step forward, but ground cover is also important and I begin to measure success in terms of whether I can see cows in the next door pasture; the flax is beginning to screen them out now, and this is the plant of choice to form corridors along the fence line for birds to move along.
During 2007 we began to see more native birds. As I had hoped, our garden was developing a symbiotic relationship with the bush, and I wondered if this process might be applied more generally to some other conservation areas – providing the gardens can be prevented from moving into adjoining ecosystems.
Looking back at the house from the neighbour's pasture in 2009 it is apparent that I am getting there - the this have arrived as have bell birds - they are hanging around and now nesting in the bush.
2009: Looking back at the house from the neighbour’s pasture it is apparent that we are getting there – tui have arrived in numbers, bellbirds are also showing up, and both are now nesting in the bush.
 Mixing wild areas with gardens is usually frowned upon, but if gardens are planted entirely to natives they will provide a concentrated food source for many birds and insects, and do no harm to recovering environments that are still very much out of balance.
And there was a lot else to establish on this land besides flax. Manuka had died out altogether due to a disease that hit the local area sometime before we arrived. 
Eventually the manuka were re-established by collecting seedlings from locations where they grew densely, these were potted up to joined the kowhai seedlings behind the house and in a year or two, all were planted out. I learned the hard way that manuka are brittle plants and will snap in a high wind if there is no other growth to shelter them.
wwwwww
When in flower, manuka trees are covered with masses of beautiful tiny white blooms which attract thousands of native insects – these in turn are eaten by a variety of native birds that get a boost from yet another valuable food source. In addition manuka honey is medicinal and highly valued – we set up a bee hive… but never stole the honey.
 By 2010 eight acres of land was supporting a considerable number of birds, even bellbirds were moving along the edge of the paddock through corridors of flax, spreading the birds out and reducing competition.  
The bush occupies half the plot with the rest divided between paddock and garden. It would have been great to get rid of the paddock altogether, but in reality this would have reduced our properties resale value. Conservation is often constrained by practicality and it is better to work within such limitations than make life miserable.
In many parts of New Zealand, the old growth forests have largely gone and there is less natural food available in the young densely growing secondary forests that have replaced them. In consequence nature reserves often provide feeding stations to supplement the diet of native birds, but these may also be an invitation to disease, whereas a natural garden has the advantage of providing a super source of food with far less chance of transmitting parasites and pathogens.
 2010.
2010. From the living room window we can now see no cows at all in the neighbouring paddock. Fanbloofytastic. I've never felt so at home. It seems a pity to leave.
2010. From the living room window plant growth prevents a clear view of cows in the neighbouring paddock. Fantastic! I feel much better now that I can no longer see livestock munching grass… but I can still hear them on a calm day.

As the garden fills out, the number of bellbird and tui increase in number through spring and summer.

ANCEDE
Tuis are not uncommon birds – they have declined in some areas but are now making a comeback. A sure sign that conditions suit them is the successful rearing of young – here two recently fledged birds chortle to one another on flowering flax stalks.
The young tuis are everywhere now – they are hanging out at the local nectar bars behaving boisterously and are making a lot of noise. In late summer, things will become quieter as the birds move off to feed elsewhere.
Young Tuis playing at being territorial.
Tuis and bellbirds return in the autumn to feed upon insects, spiders and sap flowing from trees in the bush; they will pick off food mostly at the forest edge where it is warmer, and we see them regularly.
As autumn arrives bellbirds feed behind the house.
 Soon after we arrived, fifty lacebark trees were planted down the drive, they are old enough now to flower and supply food for large numbers of insects. In turn, some insects become food for the birds.
ABCDE
Lacebark flowers are attractive to native butterflies, but I like to pretend that Monarch butterflies should be here, rather than just in North America where they are truely native.
 Establishing the strangling plant Muehlenbeckia australis behind the house has increased the number of New Zealand copper butterflies that live here; there were very few when we arrived. The adults are now common through January as the females go about laying their eggs on tiny Muehlenbeckia leaves.

 

ABCDE
Adult New Zealand copper butterflies favour a native broom behind my studio where they feed and perform territorial behaviour. Hopefully planting more broom plants about the place will increase copper numbers even further.

 

I have tried to seal the bush line with native shrubs and trees and this is already reducing wind damage. In future this growth will increasingly protect the margins of this little block of bush.
ABCDE
Viewed from my office window at the back of the house, the garden flows effortlessly into the bush and provides protection from wind damage – this can only sensibly be done with non-intrusive natives plants.
So that’s the way it ends for us, we are moving on, although I refuse to say ‘to pastures new’. We can’t claim to have saved any species facing extinction, but when rare birds re-establish in the adjoining mountain reserve they will certainly travel down the spur of bush that ends close behind the house.
Currently there is a higher density of native birds here than further up the mountain due entirely to a super abundance of food provided by a diverse and concentrated garden planting regime. In the past at the onset of winter it is likely that birds would have migrated down from the mountain to the lush forests and bogs on the plains below, but almost all of this has now been drained and given over to  pasture. Tui will venture further afield for food, but this is as far as most native birds will get.
Some of the birds we have attracted in were previously uncommon. Tomtits showed up in 2009 which was a first for us. The next on the list might be robins, recently re-introduced to the national reserve (further up the mountain) by a dedicated group of conservationists.
Rowdy kaka parrots have been seen on the lower slopes of the mountain and I am confident that they will show up here once the trees mature and begin bearing quantities of fruit.
As the bush matures other rare birds (once common here) will also return  – no doubt to the delight of future residents living in this carefully sited home.
It is already possible to see natural New Zealand treasures from the house. A few weeks before we moved out, I counted (within a few minutes), seven species of native bird moving around the garden while I was sat on the deck – a truly rewarding experience.
As the trees mature some will provide a fruit bonanza for kaka and the parrots might then return.
As trees mature some will provide a fruit bonanza for kaka parrots which might one day return.
With a reduction in pests and an increase in food there has clearly been a positive response by visiting and part resident native birds. Our neighbours have also noticed an increase in activity. 
Bellbirds are now regularly seen where once there were none and although they are less inclined to leave the bush line than are tui, they do now cross an open paddock to feed in our neighbour’s garden, which is a small thing, but an indication of positive change.
We have left this tiny piece of New Zealand more diverse than we found it; something that almost anybody might do with just a small block of land, if they think clearly about what they want to achieve, don’t keep a cat, control pests, and put a little work in.
This kind of project might be achieved almost anywhere in the world, although not necessarily involving nectar feeders, the priority might for example be to establish a greater abundance of seeds and fruits. Certainly planting for the provision of fruit as the bush matures is an important consideration for us. Tui and native pigeon are key birds for seed distribution in the New Zealand bush and it is clear that they are driving regeneration here.
Returning diversity is essential when attempting to conserve ecosystems that have been degraded, and getting the birds and insects back is a necessary but small part of a far bigger picture.

Flowers are the key to feeding a great many animals in the New Zealand garden.

 

Our family’s carbon foot print has been covered by planting hundreds of trees and shrubs around this property, while the bush has been left to do its own thing, and now that there is no livestock grazing, the under storey is coming back. Parts of the bush are now impenetrable and there is extensive lush regeneration.
Half the land, which includes all of the bush area and quite a bit that was previously sheep pasture is now protected in perpetuity by a QE2 Covenant, and in theory, nobody will be able to fell trees or graze stock in the protected area again.

Each of our actions should  be driven by what is realistically achievable, but we must also be hopeful for the future.

The house with establishing garden and protected bush behind.
The house with establishing garden and protected bush behind.
Results have not been achieved on this site by using a purists approach, and to a degree there has been a push to move things along. In many conservation areas, the rate of recovery needs to pick up, because for some plants an animals it is a race against time. Whatever the choices we make, it is essential to retain species diversity as our population numbers increase, and natural areas disappear.
I can only hope that future residents enjoy whatever achievements they manage in this extraordinary and interesting place, and that they will find time in years to come to ‘take a picture’, and make comparisons that might lead to further improvement, and in some small way help ‘save the planet’.

 2002. Bird species seen in the bush on our arrival: fantail (Maori:- piwakawaka or tiwakawaka) ; grey warbler (Maori:- riroriro) and morepork owl (Maori:- ruru). Species occasionally seen or passing through: silvereye (Maori :- tauhou), tui and the bellbird (with two Maori names :- korimako and makamako).

2002. Bird species occasionally seen: Welcome Swallow (Maori :- warou) – these increased in number by nesting on the eaves of the house – two or three pairs would regularly rear two to three broods a year 20042010.

 2002 and 2010. Birds species common and nesting: Kingfisher (Maori:- kotare)  and Pukeko (the latter a grassland species which is not truly native).

2010: Bird species very common through eight to ten months of the year either in the garden or the bush and also nesting: fantail, grey warbler, silver eye, tui, bellbird and New Zealand pigeon (Kereru).

No change: more pork owl – occasionally seen and often heard.

Occasional: shining cuckoo (Maori:- pipiwharauroa), tomtit (Maori:- miromiro) and New Zealand Falcon (Maori:- karearea).

With thanks to my family and neighbours – especially Alice for helping with the planting in the final stages of our stay.

For the second half of  ‘A New Zealand Odyssey’ numbers Six to Eleven in approximately 5 minute sequences, please see below. For Numbers One to Five please view ‘So Long New Zealand and Thanks for All the Sheep’. PART 1.