Tag Archives: wildlife

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.

 

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. 

 

 

HAWAII: JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. PART 2 – INVASIVE SPECIES.

On my first visit to Hawaii I saw a bumper sticker that I found amusing, because clearly there are no bad days in Hawaii.

Is there's another meaning to this that I didn't get on my first visited all those years ago.
Maybe there’s another meaning to this that I didn’t get when I first visited in the early 1980s.

Every day on a tropical island seems pretty much the same to an outsider;  barring the occasional storm, pleasant weather and spectacular light are the order of the day, but maybe there are more problems in paradise than most of us realise, although suggesting a luggage sticker has been designed with irony in mind might be stretching it a bit.

There are odd little things you notice. You might for example begin to wonder what’s going on when you go to hire your snorkel gear, because the second thing the sales person might try to do after fitting you up with underwater gear is to fit you up with a time share… it’s difficult to believe that anybody would waste half a day of their holiday looking at an apartment that on any level headed day outside of paradise, they’d want no part of.

But never mind that, the real disappointment is that on all the main islands there are any number of resorts where you can move from a high-rise hotel to a golf course, or a private beach and later return for a meal without ever making contact with reality. Unless you go out of your way, there’s no real need to set foot on anything that truly belongs on the Islands, whether that be a native grass, or if you’re feeling really mean… a native insect!

This is rather lovely in tourist dreamland, but it doesn't touch base with reality and at some point a visitor really should.
This is rather lovely in tourist dreamland, but it doesn’t touch base with reality and at some point a visitor really should.

As I was leaving the Hotel the girl on hotel reception said, ‘Come again when you’ve earned some more money’. At the time this seemed mercenary, but at least refreshingly honest. 

The tourist market is designed to extract money from those who have it as quickly as possible… and that’s fine, even though it often has nothing to do with supporting local economies. The real issue is, that worldwide, holiday resorts have been developed that degrade or destroy the environments around them. The justification is usually progress and providing jobs for local people, but in truth the smaller fish are often poorly paid, whilst the sharks tear into the profits and carry them away to some place offshore.

Without question, the Islands have a lot going for them – there’s sunshine,  a tropical sea, rainbows, hula, mai tai and friendly people… and perhaps a little more Hawaiian guitar on the radio than is absolutely necessary, but the real question is… where is natural Hawaii?

In a single word the answer is extinct, or close to it. Clearly it would be madness to sell a holiday destination by pointing out that Hawaii has been described as the extinction capital of the world; and the Islands are now so full of introduced species that there is confusion for tourists and residents alike as to what really belongs here.

The greenhouse frog Eleutherodactylus planirostris is one of many introduced frogs eating their way through Hawaii's native invertebrate species.
The greenhouse frog Eleutherodactylus planirostris is one of many introduced frogs eating their way through Hawaii’s native invertebrates.

The introduction of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals have proven to be overwhelmingly inappropriate. They have arrived in waves over the years and are partly responsible for the annihilation of many unique and extraordinary native species.

It is thought that were no amphibians or reptiles on Hawaii before the arrival of man. Certainly there were no brown anoles when I first visited – these appeared in the mid-1990s and are now so numerous in some parts of north west Maui it is difficult to walk along pavements without treading on one; they can also be seen crossing roads amongst busy traffic. The problem is, anoles will eat anything lively they can swallow and that’s bad news for small, mobile creature of Hawaiian origin.

Brown Anoles are a recent introduction and have quickly become a serious pest
Brown Anoles are a recent introduction and have quickly become a serious pest

A young man selling fruit in a local market told me that he had recently lost a pregnant Jackson’s chameleon and it was now living in a tree close by his town house; the creature probably wasn’t going to do a lot of harm there because very little native fauna has survived in the local area. On the up side, he had captured and removed the creature from a nature reserve where a large pregnant female was bound to cause problems. A chameleon is an impressive find in its native Africa, but released into the wilds of a tropical Pacific island it is just another pest – despite their visual appeal all introduced reptiles and amphibians are detrimental to Hawaiian ecosystems.

Out of town, beautiful natural areas are still be found, although many have become so degraded that native diversity is far lower than it should be, but without an intimate understanding of local wildlife, most of us wouldn’t notice.

Over the years many lowland areas have been cleared for agriculture, in some cases providing only short term financial benefits to local people. The return is hardly worth the natural wonders that have been lost, with so much replaced by attractive looking weeds and vermin, but weeds and vermin nevertheless.

Red ginger Alpinia purpurata, originally from Malaysia, is the national flower of Samoa. Confused yet? - well, there's more, the flowers of the plant are not red, they are small, white and cunningly concealed by red bracts. Most important of all, this is an invasive species of Hawaiian forests and a beautiful nuisance.
Red ginger Alpinia purpurata, originally from Malaysia, is the national flower of Samoa. Confused yet? – well, there’s more, the flowers of the plant are not red, they are white, quite small and cunningly concealed by red bracts. Most importantly, this species is invasive of Hawaiian forests. At best, it is a beautiful nuisance.

The attack on island resources started from the moment Europeans set foot on Hawaiian soil, although generations earlier Polynesian settlers also brought their fair share of devastation.

From the time of Captain Cook’s first landing on the Islands in January 1778 it was common practice for seafarers to dump goats, pigs and other livestock on remote islands considered suitable for their survival, to provide fresh meat for any future visit. Livestock, along with seeds were commonly given to native people as a gesture of good will at a time when there was no understanding of the problems caused by introduced species. Today we know better, but oddly, non-native introductions continue to plague the islands.

A recent picture of chicken wandering along delightful forest beach on Maui; eating their way through any native invertebrate they can grub up. Domestic birds have also brought alien forms of avian malaria to the islands pushing some Hawaiian birds to extinction.
A recent picture of chicken wandering along a delightful forest beach on Maui; eating their way through any native invertebrate they can grub up. Domestic birds have also brought alien forms of avian malaria,  pushing some Hawaiian birds to extinction.

The scope of discovery during Cook’s three major voyages to the Pacific region was incredible; and included not only the charting of many previously unrecorded areas, but also a huge contribution to scientific knowledge, in particular the classification of a great many plant and animal species. However, the romantic idea that explorers, particularly those following in the wake of Cook, were traveling to distant places simply to observe and then move on without interfering, is a fiction.

As much as we might admire the skills and endurance of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, it is difficult to ignore that between 1768 and 1779, his diligent and obsessive recording of unchartered regions of the Pacific area, would be the starting point for a wave of European plunder. 

Beyond all the record taking, early exploration of the Pacific region was largely a mixture of pillage and punch up and during one such encounter with natives on the Big Island Hawai’i, Cook lost his life. After a successful visit to Kealakekua Bay, he had been forced to return when a mast on his ship broke during a gale and relations with the local natives quickly became strained. Captain Cook met his end on February 14th 1779 during a skirmish on the beach – the incident was perhaps as a direct result of an illness, which caused Cook to exhibit increasingly erratic behaviour, compounding his intransigent dealings with an unfamiliar culture.

In Honolulu locals race canoes that have changed very little since Captain Cook's arrival on the Islands two hundred and one years before this picture was taken.
In Honolulu locals race traditional outrigger canoes that haven’t changed since Captain Cook’s death on Hawai’i two hundred and one years before this picture was taken.

Early European colonisation of Pacific Islands was centred around grabbing anything useful that nature had to offer.

The process usually started with the felling of trees; in the first instance to replace  masts and  refurbish vessels – which were justifiable activities, but it didn’t stop there. Log entries – and I’m talking books not trees – reveal that forests were regarded as resources that could be felled and  taken for profit to the other side of the world with little or no benefit to local people.

There was often such an enthusiasm to clear a location of its trees in order to plant crops, that whole forests were simply burned. Every day, somewhere in the world this is still happening – a waste that seems almost unimaginable – in the process species are disappearing before there has been a chance to record them. A situation that makes the methodical recording during Cook’s travels more than two centuries ago, all the more impressive.

An open fruit of the autograph tree Clusia rosea - very beautiful and extremely invasive,   this is now a serious pest, its sticky seeds spread by birds.
An open fruit of the autograph tree Clusia rosea – very beautiful and extremely invasive, this is now a serious pest, its sticky seeds spread by birds.

On these early voyages of discovery cameras weren’t an optional means of recording landscapes, which instead had to be painted. Plants and animals were collected and preserved but they were also rendered in watercolours by ships naturalists and artists, often with such beauty, they still have resonance today.

Although botanists were recording native plants by making beautiful pictures, they were also looking for plants that might in future become commercial crops – understandably, there was always more going on than the recording of beauty and science.

Stop overs for the collection of specimens were often selected because of a sheltered harbour, such locations were often inhabited, and the ships crew would require that ship repairs were balanced with leisure time, which usually meant fraternising with local women wherever possible. Adding to a native gene pool is one thing, but the pestilence and disease that Europeans unwittingly brought to the region was quite another. The problem extended beyond the devastation of human populations to the destruction of native cultures, in particular by missionaries who believed they had a God given mandate to change behaviours that they didn’t  like or understand. And while the Pacific Islanders were getting their cultures re-calibrated, their natural resources were also being depleted and destroyed over a very short period of time.

On the Hawaiian Islands, there has been considerable forest clearance as well as destruction of coastal wetlands to produce crops of sugar cane, pineapple, macadamia nuts, coffee and tropical fruits. What followed was the heavy use of fertilisers and the subsequent contamination of ground water and the surrounding ocean – for the most part such problems have been downplayed.

Invasive species, are then, only part of the problem… it’s nice to have something else to blame, rather than allowing the burden of guild to fall entirely on ourselves. Some might say that our species has been insensitive, even a little greedy in our dealings with the natural world… but surely, that can’t be us, can it?

The red-crested cardinal is beautiful, but it is not a native bird.
The red-crested cardinal is beautiful, but as a native of South America it does not belong here.

For a while during the 20th Century the pineapple industry flourished – at one time Hawaii supplied 70% of the world’s pineapple juice, but that didn’t last; lower labour costs elsewhere (in the Philippines for example), caused the industry to move away. The creation of jobs when a big agricultural concern  takes up residence is a short term illusion, because in the end most enterprises will gravitate towards the lowest labour costs, although in fairness the wages paid to farm-workers now in Hawaii are now more likely to be above minimum wage.

Today, only about 2% of the pineapples produced worldwide are grown in Hawaii – this reality is something of a surprise. According to an economic research group at the University of Hawaii, agriculture no longer plays a major role in the economy; a report (in 2005) stated that only 1% of Hawaii’s income and 2% of employment were derived from agriculture. 

The real Hawaii - the exceptional beauty of waterfalls and forests.
The real Hawaii – the exceptional beauty of waterfalls and forests.

About one third of the economy now relies upon tourism and with the rapid worldwide expansion of ecotourism, it would make sense to allow some lowland agricultural areas to revert to their former natural state. This might seem rather fanciful, but Hawaii could command an increasing share of the ecotourism market if it were more closely aligned to the uniqueness of its ecosystems.

An Hawaiian Honey Creeper - The Iiwi.
Startling…. This was my first impression of an I’iwi. A honeycreeper that is not yet in danger but certainly in decline. Eight others have become extinct in recent time.

For less impressionistic pictures  – Google: Images for I’iwi bird.

There is however a problem for ecotourism on the Islands.

Many people will travel to specific locations to see unusual birdlife, but sadly, of the 140 species of native birds that existed before the arrival of man, 70 are now extinct and 30 are endangered and increasingly it is difficult to find native birds in Hawaiian forests.

For details of Hawaii’s extinct birds, see: http://www.birdinghawaii.co.uk/extinctbirdarticle2.htm

There were once five species of honeyeater to be found on the Islands although recent research suggests that the birds are not, as was first thought, related to Australasian honey eaters, instead they make up a new songbird family, the Mohoidae, which is more closely related to waxwings. These are exactly the sort of birds that people would travel to see, but unfortunately the last representative of this family native to Hawaii went extinct probably sometime in the early 1980s and that really is a tragedy.

For Hawaiian Honeyeaters see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/picture-of-the-weekhawaiian-honeyeaters-180945790/?no-ist

The way it all began - with larva flows and colonisation by plant life.
The way it all began – with larva flows and colonisation by plant life.

The decrease in Hawaii’s native diversity has worldwide consequences, because although the Islands still appear very beautiful, there are problems in the fine detail – it is rather like having a contract and ignoring the essentials in the small print – as many unique little creatures have gone missing across the Islands. It is necessary to notice this and react, because if we choose not to do so on a chain of small islands under the control of a wealthy country, where else will people be bothered enough to act.

We are morally obliged to tune in and push for a sea change in attitudes, because without it, the world will pretty soon be inhabited by little more than rats, cockroaches, starlings and us. Natural diversity is a measure of the health of our world and it needs to be maintained. 

It may not be possible to bring back natural Hawaii to the way it once was, but everybody should be aware that there is a problem because human induced extinction is unacceptable. There is a certain dignity in showing at least a little disappointment that we are increasingly the cause of species destruction and to demonstrate this, we need to move beyond the trivial. Just because the grass gets watered and is manicured well enough for a picnic, or to play golf… doesn’t mean that everything is fine – it is necessary to work towards a different level of awareness based upon the facts.

Hawaii is so beguiling - sometimes we don't notice when things are going wrong.
Hawaii is so beguiling – sometimes we don’t notice when things are going wrong.

I was fortunate to film many small plants and animals during the early part of my career, recording some for the first time in moving pictures. Today, many of these have moved a little closer to extinction, and some species may have disappeared altogether, which is disconcerting, because although the vital existence of a species shows incremental change over time, many have existed without discernible modification for millions of years and we have no right to end their tenure on Earth so abruptly.

Despite all the declines and losses, taking a photograph of an unusual plant or animals is never a waste of time, because information is the key to making necessary changes in thinking. So, if you see an unusual plant or animal, then why not take a picture, it might lead to the conservation of a natural environment and in some small way help save the Planet… or at least some of the stuff that lives upon it.

 

HAWAII: JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. PART 1 – IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT.

On a recent visit to Hawaii, I hardly saw any native wildlife, a stark reminder that things haven’t improved since I first came to film for the B.B.C. back in the early 1980s.

Aloha!
Aloha!

Thirty five years ago I made my first visit to Hawaii at a time when travelling to distant tropical islands from the U.K. was considered exotic. In those days, you’d emerge from a plane into the shimmering light and once down the gangway steps walk to the terminal building with the heat of the sun bouncing beneath your feet like a playful pet; and just as you were beginning to appreciate that life was all the better for being here, smiling girls in traditional dress would come out to greet you and place flower leis around your neck.

But things have changed… the sun still shines, but on more recent visits I couldn’t fail to notice that the girls were no longer present – the Honolulu Airport terminal is bigger now, reflecting that there are many more travellers coming to Hawaii and if every visitor was still receiving a traditional floral  greeting, the islands would pretty soon be clean out of flowers.

People still smile though, and the pace of life is slower than many of us are used to; pretty soon you feel relaxed because it’s difficult to find these islands anything other than enchanting, but my first couple of visits were not the magical encounters with paradise that I had imagined – mostly I was filming ten hours a day in a laboratory at the University of Hawaii.  I’d been sent by the B.B.C. to film a variety of tiny creatures and two oddities in particular – both spectacularly unusual carnivorous moth caterpillars.

Anything that has a sensory rear end that alerts to an approaching fly and then flips its front end over backwards to grab the unwitting insect in its jaws in a mere fraction of a second is a real attention grabber, but the little critters are just so small and well camouflaged, that if you didn’t know they were there, they’d might just as easily be  another twig on the tree.

Where else but in Hawaii could you find an insect so clearly associated with feeding on leaves that has switched to eating insects? And not just any insects, in this case Hawaiian fruit flies that have evolved to become spectacularly large, but nevertheless will go down twitching as they are eaten alive.

It doesn't seem likely, but there is is... a moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.
It doesn’t seem likely, but there it is… the moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.

 Hawaii is an extended chain of islands which has formed over a mid-Pacific hot spot of volcanic activity,  roughly equidistant between Eurasia and the Americas; and to get to either requires an approximate two and a half thousand mile journey either east or west across the Pacific Ocean. It was this creation of land by fire combined with a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed for the evolution of so many unique and unusual lifeforms.

These Islands might be regarded as a natural laboratory for the study of evolution, and if Charles Darwin had landed here rather than on the Galapagos Islands he would have come to similar conclusions about how species evolve when  separated from their relatives on distant mainlands, and even from those isolated on different islands… but Darwin would have needed to be paying attention (clearly one of his strengths), because many of the animals concerned are small invertebrates, such as spiders, insects, crustaceans and molluscs.

Certainly limited numbers of creatures would have made it to the islands to start the evolutionary ball rolling and no large animals were amongst them – other than those that could  swim here – turtles for example, and they never get further than the beach. Consequently no native reptiles, amphibians or mammals ever made it to the islands until their arrival alongside man, either as stowaways or transported intentionally, with frequently disastrous consequences to the native flora and fauna.

Small arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans will most likely have arrived on floating vegetation, the lucky winners hitting this narrow window of opportunity, whilst the majority missed the jackpot and drifted on across the world’s largest ocean to become lost at sea.

The initial arrivals had the advantage of making landfall on uninhabited islands which provided a variety of empty niches ready to move into – and those that managed to adapt to their new circumstances would have radiated out into different habitats to eventually form species that were unique.

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The Hawaiian Islands were at one time or other no more than volcanic larva flows and it is no surprise that the wolf spider Lycosa has evolved adaptive colouration to live in what might elsewhere be considered unusual surroundings, in particular larva cinders in desert areas.

The habitats available for life in Hawaii were varied, and included not only forest, grass and wetlands, but also larvae flows, deserts, beaches and caves – all of these would become populated by invertebrates; there is even an small creature (the wekiu bug) that lives at altitude, sucking the juices of insects that have been caught up and preserved in snow and ice to be released many years later as frozen dinners along the thaw line of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii.

A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and then tell you it was there.
A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow that I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and just pretended it was there.

One species peculiar to the Islands is the happy-face spider, which derives its name from an apparently smiling face on the upper side of its abdomen; this tiny spider mostly lives and hunts on the underside of leaves and despite its size is visuality impressive.

The morph shown below is the one most commonly seen, but there are a variety of others that have extraordinary clown faces on their rear ends and you might want to Google  ‘ happy face spider images’ to see more impressive examples. The spiders have made it onto four Hawaiian islands but are not yet on Lanai, nor have they managed to get as far west as Kauai.

I had a couple of happy face spiders to film, but since I photographed them many more extraordinary faces have been captured by by photographers. Just Google Happy Face Spider to see some extraordinary morphs.
In 1980 I had only a couple of happy-face spiders to film – the disappointment was their small size, which made filming their behaviour a challenge.

It appears that almost everything that arrived in Hawaii evolved into  something special… but then man arrived and the party was over, which is a sad but familiar story!

The islands by dint of their remoteness have undergone extraordinary speciation in the absence of too many predators or competitors, but once these were brought in from elsewhere, many native species were immediately threatened. Indigenous plants and animals have become well adapted to their circumstances but they have not evolved appropriate defences against the onslaught of the new invaders. And so it was, that species in existence for millions of years, were snuffed out by the newcomers like candles in the wind.

Many of the new arrivals were so closely associated with man and his agriculture that with the additional advantage of a perfect climate they thrived in their own little paradises within paradise – and from there ventured out to invade other places on the Islands.

The first aliens will have come in with the Polynesians between 300 and 500 A.D. Then the Europeans showed up; it is possible that the Spanish arrived a couple of hundred years before Captain Cook made landfall in 1778, but it is Cook that we remember because he claimed the Islands as British territory, which now counts for little more than the hoisting of an interesting union flag colonial combo.

Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky as a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.
Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky – a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.

The islands were named after Cook’s sponsor, the 4th Earl of Sandwich – the very same Earl who found himself disinclined to leave a gambling table and suggested to staff that they bring him food conveniently held between two pieces of bread… the rest of course is history… as is the case for the naming of the Sandwich Islands which later reverted to their more appropriate Polynesian name – or at least a close approximation to it.

Colonisation would be instrumental in the devastation of many indigenous species causing the rapid degradation and destruction of habitats; this combined with alien introductions became the driving force for many island extinctions.

It was decided that I would film snails to illustrate the troubles caused by introduced species and I was pleased to be filming at least some of them out of doors. There are many valid reasons for filming animals in their natural environments, but invertebrates are often the exception, usually their behaviour is not much affected as long as their living conditions are adequately simulated.

Prior to the early 1980s film stocks were limiting and a lot of light was required to capture the activity of any small creature in movies. This was just before cold light using fibre optics became widely available, and I had to devise my own water cooling system bolted to the front of lights which required a constant flow of cold water to substantially reduce temperatures. In the years to come I would replace my cumbersome system with cool fibre optic lights; this was really helpful because invertebrates can’t cope with excessive heat, but rarely are they bothered by extra light, and for the best results good lighting was essential.

Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system - a year later I had the benefit of fibre optic lights.
Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system – not long after, cool fibre optic lighting became available.

There is also a moral question as to whether this is truly wildlife photography, but imagine carting all of this gear into the big outdoors to capture perhaps fifty different creatures in various locations across the islands – setting up on steep slopes for example – because hardly any fertile natural environments have escaped cultivation on the flat – and then there are the cave habitats which are a nightmare to get equipment into. Time and budget constraints required everything to be done in a few weeks (and today these constraints are even tighter). There was then little option other than to bring many of the smaller creatures to one place in order to get the job done.

Taking a still flash photo on location is one thing, but filming the very tiny with plenty of light without any vibration has always been a wind up, and there is the additional problem that when visiting delicate environments trampling has to be avoided, along with the possibility of losing invasive species to the wild. Back then, despite all the disadvantages that the real world presented to macro-photography, I still had to establish some environments on wider lenses and in the process was determined to film at least some of the native snails in the big outdoors.

I was once embarrassed to lose a large tortoise whilst filming in Africa – it made off (across its natural habitat) when I left for a short while to fetch a lens – I had assumed that it wouldn’t get too far, but of course, tortoises run at breakneck speeds when you stop watching them.

I learnt a valuable lesson… but even at my most inattentive, I thought it unlikely that I could misplace a snail, not even a well camouflaged individual, but the truth is, it’s easy to lose sight of almost any snail by simply looking away… and given half a chance they’ll dash off and hide under a leaf when you do. Living in a small world – your perspective on life changes and when you’re not worrying about snails rushing off to hide, you’re worrying about the fact that some move so slowly they won’t register as moving at all in real time. But of course, things could have been worse… ants are always in such a rush, so it was great to discover that there are thought to be no native ants living on the Islands at all.

There are more than 40 species of  endemic tree snails living on the Hawaiian Islands and all are endangered - this one seems hardly to have managed to have held on to a protective shell at all.
There was once around a hundred species of tree snails in Hawaii and now only about a quarter remain – most of which are endangered – and this one seems hardly to have held on to a protective shell at all.

Until recently Hawaii held the most diverse representation of land snails anywhere in the world, but since the arrival of humans it is likely that around 75% have become extinct. Habitat loss will have played a part, but many have been eaten out by introduced predators, in particular predatory snails.

After the African land snail Achatina fulica was introduced – it’s a monster and ends up elsewhere either as a food source or as a pet – it soon became clear that the newcomer was munching its way through the Hawaiian natives, and so another predator was introduced from Florida – the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea)  to control it – and there wouldn’t be much of a story unless the new arrival had set about the native snails even more ferociously than the problem snail it had been brought in to eliminate, which of course it did, reducing native species even further, and pushing some to extinction… This was without doubt a ‘doh!’ of Homer Simpson proportions.

It is clear that when humans get environmental issues wrong, they make a really great job of it, and often eliminate species that have evolved to become spectacularly different from anything else on the Planet. The problem is, that when this happens to invertebrates… hardly anybody notices.

A native Hawain tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced predatory species - Achatina fulica which predates upon unfortunate natives.
A native Hawain tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced species – the rosy wolfsnail Euglandina rosea which predates upon the unfortunate natives.

 It is the larger cuter animals that usually grab our attention, but when it comes to extinction we need to consider the smaller things in life, because if we include them, the losses that are presently occurring on a worldwide scale indicate that we may be entering a mass extinction event. Long term, this makes no difference to the Planet, but species diversity remains the best measure of the prevailing conditions for life on Earth and that is an important consideration for all of us.

Our own well being can be gauged by what is disappearing around us, and it is possible that any who travel might at one time or another hit the jackpot, and take a picture of some small creature that is unknown to science. Seeing the bigger picture means looking out for the small stuff, which is one of the best ways to save the Planet… or more precisely… the life upon it.

Next:  HAWAII: JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. PART 2 –  INVASIVE SPECIES.

Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in 1980.
Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in Hawaii -1980.

With thanks to former BBC Natural history producers Richard Brock and Roger Jones who gave me my first opportunity to film the natural history of Hawaii, Ken Kaneshiro for fruit flies and lab space, Frank Howarth for his cave critters and Steve Montgomery who collected many of the specimens for filming; he has been foremost in discovering many new species on the Hawaiian Islands and continues to do great work bringing the uniqueness of island biodiversity to the rest of us.

For more on Hawaiian extinction see: 

http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/features/story.aspx?id=129

For details on Hawaiian tree snail and other species see:

http://www.arkive.org/partulina-snail/partulina-proxima/

and for a more detailed description of Hawiian snail status from 1990  (please note that numbers have declined since this paper was published):

http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/pubs-online/pdf/op30p27.pdf

Don’t know what’s going on? Take a picture – it might be useful.

Many years ago I went out into the desert and there I met a man who had a vision. I’ll have to stop doing that… building up my story before I’ve started. More prosaically, I was setting up to film a sequence on elf owls for a  movie about, well, what else but owls… and the man I met in the desert was Bill Peachey, one of those experts the B.B.C. seek out  when their freelancers aren’t sure what they are doing – pretending to know is useless and in any case, you can’t know everything. Elf owls nest in holes in saguaro cacti in the Sonora desert and if anybody was going to be able to find them, it was Bill… but sadly, not this time around –  two long nights and we didn’t see a single owl. But all was not lost…… I learnt something else, something quite useful, and I’ll share it with you.

Saguaro before sunset – the classic cartoon cacti – sadly no elf owls. Oil painting from photo taken during the owl outing.

Bill had seen things in the desert – interesting things, mass animal migrations in the moonlight  and creatures noted in the past that hadn’t been seen for many years. Then he’d tell somebody – a hunter perhaps, and they would say… ‘Never!’ A common response from people who hadn’t lived in the area for very long. The problem Bill pointed out was that as we begin to spread out into natural environments, many of the animals that live there move on. To be clear on the changes, Bill told me, it was essential to get a photograph of everything of consequence that you saw, preferably with a signpost in shot, or something that would date the picture exactly. It was my turn to have a vision – I imagined an elk with a copy of today’s paper wedged in his antlers, then a cougar walked in front of a circus billboard with the show dates prominent to one side, but as I took my picture the cat’s body moved and obscured them. It was hopeless – we were living in 1985 – far too early to make any of this work.

Today technology has moved on and most of us now carry something that will take a pretty good picture, whether it be a camera, a small computer or a mobile phone, and nearly all will automatically record the date, the time, and in some cases a  GPS position. In the 21st Century nothing much can happen in public view without  somebody noticing and recording the change, and if we care about the environment, more of us should be making visual notes and start using them as the basis for asking questions about how we all feel about the situation.

I am the most unlikely person to write a blog, but when I see things changing in my local area that I don’t think are in the best interests of my neighbour’s or the local environment, I feel obliged to comment. You of course may not be living in the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada, but it is likely that something very similar will be happening close to your home, because there is a general disconnect between what most of us want, and what our local councils and planning departments would like to slip past us.

Here is the story I have on my mind:

It’s time to rethink high density development, or say goodbye to the natural wonders of the Lower Mainland. by Stephen Bolwell.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska she got into hot water for something she never said, ‘I can see Russia from my house’. Well, I’m living on the coastal side of Lower Mainland B.C. and I really can see another country from mine – it’s America, and that’s exciting, although stretching things a bit, because all I can really see is Mount Baker – it‘s just so big, but despite this, to get a clear look I need to take a short walk to my local nature area, ‘Surrey Lake Park’, because  all expansive views in my area are now built across.

Twenty years ago it was all fields and woodlands, but now you don’t see much that is natural, and recently somebody on Surrey Council told me why, ‘You are living in a high density development area,’ he said, ‘and soon all those scruffy little open spaces around you will be filled with houses’. I felt obliged to enquire whether the locals had been asked if they wanted to live high density – and that turned out to be rhetorical, because what council officials like best are people who don’t ask troublesome questions; the conversation was over – tragically the poor man had been struck suddenly deaf.

Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park - the only clear view in the neighbourhood.
Mt Baker from Surrey Lake Park – the only clear view in the neighbourhood.

I am British by birth and as most Canadians know, Brits have a reputation for whinging; we like to think we’re organizers, but whinging is what we do best. So, when I took my first outing from Surrey to Vancouver on the SkyTrain, it wasn’t long before I started whinging quietly to myself about the ugly sprawl of development flowing past my window and I didn’t feel entirely happy again until my feet hit Stanley Park – I love Hyde Park in London, Central Park in New York, almost any park you care to mention, but Stanley Park is easily the best, and although  Vancouver is near the top of the list of most beautiful cities,  it is the natural beauty of  B.C. that makes this place so special. However, the Lower Mainland is changing; as you drive South out of Vancouver towards the U.S. border, it is impossible to miss the urban sprawl and it isn’t until you get into the U.S.A. that the countryside begins to open out. The lower mainland is filling up – it is impossible to ignore a rapidly expanding urbanisation as it pushes hard into  diminishing pockets of agriculture. At this point I should say that I do see the irony of moving into an area and then moaning about development; with so may outsiders arriving, it is clear that we all need to live somewhere. There is though, an important consideration, the lower mainland has a unique beauty that once buried beneath development cannot so easily be re-instated, and for residents with a long family history, the changes are painful to witness. The creation and conservation of natural parks and reserves is essential because they represent environments that were once extensive across the area. The question is – are these places getting the respect they deserve? And the evidence suggests that probably, they are not.

I’ve spent my working life traveling to interesting places to film wildlife documentaries, but nothing compares with my present location; I live in suburbia, but am only a short walk from my local Canadian fish eagle’s nest,  where I can take some really great pictures… not just a whinging Pom then, but one with a self-inflated sense of his ability.

A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.
A pair of Canadian fish eagles close by the local nest having a chat. Well, more of a screech really.

Later in the year I will be only a short drive from the centre of Canadian fish eagle activity when the salmon are running. I know Americans call these birds ‘bald eagles’ and claim them as their own, but in the fall along local coastal areas and up the Fraser River and its tributaries this place will be bursting with eagles as they arrive in numbers to form the largest congregation of vertebrate predators anywhere in the world. Make no mistake these are Canadian fish eagles, and it might even be claimed that these impressive birds appear most at home in  British Columbia.  So, imagine my surprise, when early in 2014 I went walking through Surrey Lake Park and discovered that an adjoining woodland along the park’s eastern border was being ripped out by heavy machinery, a complete destruction worryingly close to the eagle’s nest. Surprisingly, nobody seemed bothered, apart from a few locals who were, and still are understandably upset because they live so close to the noise and destruction.

This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer, but often developers prefer to clear everything.
This tree line marks the border of the reserve. Trees might have been left here as a buffer zone, but most often developers prefer to clear everything.

In all, a little short of 4.2 hectares of forest including valuable and fully mature trees were cleared from the site, and these are unlikely to show up on the Surrey tree loss figures for 2014. For me the changes were startling, only a few weeks earlier this had been a quiet farm, with woodland, streams, and paddocks of grazing ponies; suddenly the land had been scraped bare and its earth carted away by the truck load. Weeks passed, the area expanded, hardcore arrived to form a base along with the accompanying rumble of cement lorries. The disturbance was extreme and seemingly endless.

There was of course a notification of construction for local residents which some claim not to have received  – in fairness at less than a page this might easily have been overlooked – it stated that preparations for BC Hydro’s new Fleetwood Substation at the south end of 156th street would be completed between January 17 and May 15 2014 with day shifts from 7.00am to 6.00p.m. and afternoon shifts from 7.00p.m. to 6.00a.m. – an odd sense of time, but technically this is still after noon. The development pushed on through August with  trucks coming and going every few minutes through daylight hours, which was a pretty full on disturbance for both the locals and the parkland reserve. The troubling thing is, there never have been any signs posted to indicate what this development was for, potentially one of the biggest Hydro power sub-stations to be built in British Columbia. I thought it odd that BC Hydro should describe itself as a conservation powerhouse, but I soon realised that it wasn’t the sort of conservation that I was thinking of.

With a natural reticence for B.C. Hydro to get promotional on this site many people in the district are still unaware of the development, and those who are, often don’t know of its relationship to the ‘conservation powerhouse’. But now the natural world has been swept away and there is clearly nothing left to conserve, perhaps the company will take a more upfront approach to the site. There was a short article in a local paper that mentioned B.C. Hydro by name, but the story focused mostly on  unhappy neighbors; there was a generous acknowledgement by one, that such developments have to go somewhere, but there were also clear concerns over the disruption and adverse effects upon the environment, particularly the birdlife and several endangered animal species.

A report from ‘AMEC Environment and Infrastructure’ was undertaken during 2013 which stated that ‘due to the time of year it wasn’t possible to conduct a bird nest survey’ which is odd because there were two site visits, one on 29th May when there should have been clear signs of birds nesting. Some locals say that red-tailed hawks nested in trees on the property and I certainly know of a pair that were present during the two previous years. The report also noted three species of conservation concern potentially on site: the red-listed and SARA schedule 1 listed ‘Endangered’ Pacific water shrew; the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Western Toad and the blue-listed and COSEWIC-listed ‘Special Concern’ Northern Red-legged Frog, with tadpoles present in one stream that may have been of the same species.

As a know it all Brit I am knowledgable about amphibians and noticed pictures in the report that showed both woodland and reedy areas along streams that were suitable for species known to exist in the adjoining park; creatures like the Pacific tree frog and long-toed salamander which few will ever see – and so it is sadly a case of out of sight out of mind, but there is a real issue here: if a suitable habitat bordering a small reserve disappears then the chances are that any species that can’t fly in will have a good chance of going the same way – an affliction common to island populations, and the reason why buffer zones and corridors beyond park boundaries are so essential to the diversity of small reserves.

On a recent visits to the park I am troubled by the additional noise, of a radio playing at high volume across a dyke close by the reserve – I am told, for the benefit of blueberry pickers. Passing joggers already have music plugged into their ears and they don’t notice. As for the rest, mostly people walking out to empty their dogs, they don’t notice either. At certain places on the reserve the din is so loud it drowns out bird song completely; birds sing for a reason that has nothing to do with increasing their berry picking speed, and everything to do with maintaining territories. Cognitive dissonance sets in and I begin to ask whether it really matters for 2014, because there are so few birds to be seen in the area, certainly far less than in previous years. Several locals have told me that before the development started, an attempt at netting was employed, but having established that this was illegal, bird wailers were installed that played distress calls to put birds off and deter them from nesting (both activities were against the advice of the environmental consultant). This appears to have worked though, because during this spring and summer there have been fewer birds in the adjoining Surrey Park and the nearby woodland reserve at Fleetwood.

The Hydro development at the lower end of 156 St lies in an agricultural zone, not far from another recent development which is also ongoing. A little over a year ago on this second site there was also a mature woodland, but this has now been replaced by large houses entirely out of keeping with their surroundings and it is difficult to understand why building consent was granted. Until recently this woodland was another essential buffer zone for the park and busy with wildlife; nothing natural remains there now, all has been replaced by housing with sterile new lawns kept green by water sprinklers that are not so good during a dry summer, but apparently there is no sign of a water shortage; although with the race on to fill Surrey with housing, there soon will be. With many more people living close to the nature park, there is likely to be extra pressures, with pollution from cars, noise from mowers and many more dog walkers with easy access to the park’s dog emptying facilities. If you can get away with taking out a woodland and building on this site, then you can get away with it almost anywhere.

Maybe it’s just bad timing, but on 22nd July a local paper ran a feature on Surrey’s latest ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’. Coun. Bruce Hayne said, “It’s time to focus our efforts on building our inventory of natural environment”, and, “It’s not good enough to protect the eagles bedroom, i.e. their nest. You have to protect their kitchen and dining room too!” A sound bite from Deb Jack, president of Surrey Environmental Partners, “What a legacy this is for the history books” is also contrary to the local reality. Surrey City Council claims to have adopted a green initiative that is expected to have an impact on the city’s ecosystems for decades. Well, better late than never I guess, but it is certainly too late to put things right for the biodiversity of Surrey Lake Park. In truth, there never was a need to implement a green initiative to conserve this area, everything was covered by existing planning laws; all that was necessary was to implement them. ‘Biodiversity Conservation Strategy’ …It sounds impressive. I’m guessing there’s an election in the offing.

So, now that two extensive developments have been permitted at the bottom of 156 St, it won’t be long before all the other natural areas along the quiet lower end of the street are filled in. Penny Beck’s family have lived here for 40 years, they are the closest to the Hydro development and the residents most affected by the disturbance. ‘We still have that’ says Penny pointing to a tangled area of scrub and forest across from her house, ‘hummingbird habitat – the council know better than to spray  with roundup while I’m still here’. Penny is a rarity, she has a practical understanding of what wildlife really needs, but the Beck’s family home is up for sale and when Penny goes, the hummingbird nesting site will disappear. Canadians are tidy people and their gardens don’t make great habitats for wildlife, and if all ‘the scruffy little wild spaces’ are built on there will be no more hummingbirds visiting local feeders because nesting sites won’t be available. I wonder how long it will be before the local Canadian fish eagle’s nest lies empty, to eventually fall from the tree, and with no eagles returning to rebuild, it can only be  a matter of time before people forget that there were ever eagles here;  just as they have forgotten that not so long ago a female black bear used to come and feed with her cubs in the local berry patch.

In 2012 two young birds fledged on the local nest. An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches.
In 2012 two youngsters fledged on this local nest.  An eaglet exercises his wings as the sibling watches on.

I can whinge as much as I like, but it isn’t my place to speak for the community. I believe that those with historical connections to the area need to have a say about their area, and then they need to remain vigilant over what might be lost, namely the natural wonders that are the true heritage of the Lower Mainland. To conserve the area something has to change, because presently, the essence that makes this corner of British Columbia so special is being given away – not just without a fight, but without a murmur.

N.B. A precedent has now been set. On 13 August a notice of proposed development was received by a resident at the lower end of 156 St, informing of an application to the Surrey Planning Department for the rezoning of a nearby area of woodland and scrub from “General Agricultural Zone (A-1)” to “Comprehensive Development Zone (CD)” to permit the development of 46 family lots with 16% open space (great news – only small lawns to water then!), and the planning staff won’t be making any written responses to comments. The notice appears insensitive to local feeling, even a little arrogant perhaps, but above all it seems unCanadian. If globalisation goes belly up, we  might all need to grow our own food locally and serious questions need to be asked about the persistent development of agricultural land. In the end of course, the local planning department might just do the sensible thing and say no, but I’m not holding my breath.

A local resident informs me that the native Douglas squirrel has not been seen so readily since the development. For a short sequence on the squirrel view :-