Travels to the Camargue with Olympus

Last year my wife, who shares the same birthday as me, arranged a surprise visit to the Camargue, an immense salt marsh that forms the Delta of the River Rhone on the southern coast of France.  Having circumnavigated the hurdles and minor irritations of Ryanair (Mr O’Leary’s winged money collecting system), we landed at Nimes and took a taxi to Arles. This delightful walled town is full of Roman interest. The ampitheatre was built in the 9th century AD and seated 21,000 spectators and there’s an imposing bathhouse to keep them clean and healthy after their questionable “entertainment”.

My wife Ann and I are Francophiles, having written about France for a quarter of a century. We love the laid-back French way of life. My French is dreadful and being deaf, I find accents almost impossible to understand, but a smile and a polite request in halting French and I usually manage very well.  The supposedly offhand manner of the French towards the English is not our experience.  We booked into La Muette, a lovely hotel within a building nearly 1,000 years old in the centre of the town. Typical French cafés abound, some with memories of Vincent Van Gogh, others serving delicious north African food.

However, we were there to see the wildlife and I also wanted to field test the remarkable Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 Mirrorless flagship pro camera and the 40 x150 f2.8 Pro Zoom lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro Zoom. As you can probably tell I am an Olympus fan, so I supplemented this combination with my own Olympus 6mm macro lens for close-up and insect work. It was interesting to see how the new equipment performed when measured against my existing Olympus camera, the smaller OM-D E-M5. First impressions were excellent; the sort of high-end quality that is standard with Olympus… and, despite being professional standard, the weight is reasonable and it all fits into a handy-sized camera bag,

As a working naturalist, travels to far flung places has taught me that the ultimate quality with the minimum weight is what to aim for in camera equipment and this combination from Olympus with the HLD9 battery grip gave me the weight I like and the power to not have to worry about enough electricity in the kit when that special shot comes along late in the day.

Olympus lenses are renowned for the quality of their optics. They have managed to put high-end elements into a relatively compact, but physically strong, dust and splash proof design without sacrificing superb focus, accurate stable zoom and edge-to-edge clarity. It’s one of the main reasons I am a fan… However, let’s get on with seeing the wildlife, including the flamingos, horses and fighting bulls for which the Camargue is justly renowned.

An incredibly helpful Frenchman in the tourist office in Arles booked us onto a Land rover Safari which was to take us across the marshes and through the national parc. We had planned to hire a car to explore the Camargue, but I was pleased that Ann convinced me that it might be best to have a look first with an expert guide then, perhaps find alternative transport; such as the local bus. We presented ourselves at the pickup point and met up with a cheerful English-speaking guide/driver.

The Camargue.is a huge area of marshes and wetlands with cattle ranches and rice paddies. It was formed when the sea rose after the last Ice Age, creating a delta where the River Grande Rhone drains into the Mediterranean.  The whole region has a long history of importance to humans and to wildlife. The river Rhone forms a migration flyway for birds passing to and fro the Mediterranean.  Long before the Roman legions conquered Gaul and set up an administrative capital in Arles, Celtic tribal groups fished for oysters and mussels in the fertile waters and trapped fish and some of the immense flocks of wildfowl…. I enjoy an oyster or dozen myself, but I mustn’t forget I was here for the wildlife.

As I’ve said the “Carmargue” is huge, encompassing miles of green-velvet, rice filled paddy fields, farms where the region’s fighting bulls are reared as well as sheep and the famous white Camarguais horses that are allowed to roam in free-running herds; periodically rounded up for local fiestas.  The whole area is intersected by minor roads that are not signed and all look exactly alike – and apart from a few distant dark-coloured birds away over the rice fields that I recognised as Ibis, not a white horse nor fighting bull to be seen … yet.   Birds in general were thin on the ground and when I mentioned this there was a smiling reply from our guide “we are not there yet.”  True enough, it was just about to get far more interesting.

We turned off the main road towards a small grass-roofed hut, a shade bigger than my garden shed. It had been a farm workers over-night shelter; a relic of the days when agriculture was pre-mechanisation (indeed, pre almost every creature comfort.)  20ft or so from the hut was a pole with the powerline crosspiece on which perched the largest nest I’ve seen in years. On top of this truck-load of twigs sat a pair of very affectionate white storks displaying. I was surprised to see the nest so close to the road, but storks are used to being around humans and their dwellings. My picture shows the remarkable optical quality of the 40-150 Pro lens … a good beginning. Later, when I looked at the shots I’d taken, I noticed that the storks were tenants and owners of an avian block of flats with house sparrows flitting to and fro beneath their large majestic landlord’s nursery.

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The vast scale of the Camargue is difficult to come to terms with at first because the land is as flat as a billiard table and scale is confusing; but as we drove further into the park along smaller and smaller roads and, eventually, tracks, the birds began to appear.  A small flight of avocets and a black-winged stilt looking for all the world like an elegant waiter in dinner jacket.  Quite often flocks of dark birds appear in line of sight, but just too far off, especially with heat haze, to be clearly visible through binoculars, but it wasn’t long before we were close enough to get a really good view of what turned out to be glossy ibis probing in the newly flooded paddy fields for worms

 

These tiny tracks often lead to groups of ponds where waders, particularly avocets and stilts probe the flooded fields. The horizon can be filled with immense tracts of saltmarsh where flamingos, herons and egrets occupy the shallow channels. I’ve seen flamingos in many differing habitats around the world, but still can’t get my mind around the fact that these bizarre-looing creatures are members of the same family as geese and swans.   They are, of course, beautiful and ungainly at the same time, yet perfectly adapted to take advantage of a food source in the shape of algae and the minute invertebrates that are among the smallest most abundant creatures on earth.  Flamingos not only thrive on their peculiar diet but, as a bonus, absorb red pigment from their food which, in turn, colours their feathers in varying shades of pink and vivid red.  Is it any wonder that we are overawed by nature? As we were leaving this lovely area we drove past a small muddy pool where three of the iconic white horses had decided to wallow and splash about like large children in a puddle.  Needless to say, we had to stop to take some pictures.

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Beautiful Indicators

Butterfly_Peacock

Peacock (photo by Dennis Furnell)

It has been a weird summer with quite a lot of rain and cool temperatures early on. Nature has had to use all its survival strategies to ensure the continuance of species.

Of all creatures on this planet (if you take viruses and bacteria out of the equation) on land, at least, Insects are the most adaptable; yet they are not invulnerable to the changes humankind is making to the land – in particular day-flying, scaly-winged insects,

Butterflies have earned themselves the unenviable role as an indicator species. In the mid 1970’s a member of the family known as ‘blue butterflies’, the large blue, became extinct in this country because of aggressive land management, habitat destruction and a misguided attempt at conservation by people paid by the government to manage the habitat on which the last remnant of the large blue depended. On continental Europe, particularly France, the large blue thrived, though it too is in decline partly due to the subsidy-rich agriculture promoted by the EU. Until the turn of the millennia there was still a great deal of the rough farmland on which this insect’s larval food plant, wild thyme, grew in profusion and on which a particular species of meadow ant also thrived; this meadow ant being a vital link in the development of the large blue caterpillar.

The post office produced a postage stamp depicting British butterflies, including the large blue, painted by a close friend and fellow naturalist, the renowned wildlife artist, the late Gordon Beningfield. Almost single-handed Gordon promoted the value of butterflies as indicators of the health of the countryside and campaigned to found the organization “Butterfly Conservation”, a charity he supported until his untimely death from cancer in 1998 aged 61yers. I had the good fortune to be a close friend, near neighbour and fellow conservationist for more than thirty years and my family and I still have a long-standing friendship with his family.

I have been fascinated by butterflies and moths since childhood and always look forward to the first butterflies of summer, the holly blue and the brimstone, and in high summer I love the sight of Buddleia with its blue or white nectar-rich florets a magnet for butterflies such as painted ladies that have migrated across the Channel on southerly winds from as far afield as North Africa.

Red Admiral (large picture), Comma (top right(, Painted Lady (bottom right)                               photos by Dennis Furnell

Other butterflies that migrate from Europe include the beautiful red admiral and the clouded yellow, the latter not a regular visitor to buddleia, though I have seen them in Dorset taking advantage of the nectar-rich flowers. Other members of the same family as the red admiral are the peacock and the small tortoiseshell. Both lay their eggs on the leaves of nettles as will the comma butterfly – so called because it has a white mark just like a printed comma on its under wing.

Our British population continues to decline because of aggressive agriculture, sadly the “guardians of the countryside” as famers like to be known still plough up wild flower meadows and spray potent agrochemicals that kill the food plants of the butterflies as well as the insects themselves. If you wish to see butterflies in any profusion, other than whites, one has to make a journey to a nature reserve.

Perhaps sanity will begin to drive conservation now that soon we will be moving away from the pervasive influence of EU supported agriculture; although I am not sure of the outcome as government are saying that the British taxpayer will be picking up the tab. However, I am hopeful that there will be no repeat of the demise of insects as there was with the large blue and our children’s children will have the delight of gardens full of summer butterflies and a countryside rich in wild flowers.

Butterfly_Clouded Yellow

Clouded Yellow (photo by Dennis Furnell)

Journey to East Africa … continued

Left – Leopard – Top right – Oldevai Gorge, bottom right – crocodile 

The Serengeti is perhaps the last place on earth, excluding Antarctica, where nature reigns supreme. Formed during a period of intense seismic upheaval, which occurred at much the same time as the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater was formed, about 3 million years ago, the area was dominated by several volcanoes.

Volcanoes differ one from the other by the intensity of their eruptions, dictated by the consistency and amounts of gas and water vapour in their magma, or lava. There are several types of volcanic eruptions and those that occurred in East Africa were “Plinian” eruptions caused when a gas in the magma, the liquid rock that wells up from the earth’s white hot mantle, is suddenly released and thrown out in minute droplets with incredible force – similar to the effect you get when a bottle of fizzy water is shaken and then opened.  One of the other most common types is the “Hawaiian” eruption when lava flows like white hot treacle forming dense beds of solid rock as they cool.

The event that created the Serengeti was caused by a series of intense Plinian type eruptions hurling dust and ash high into the stratosphere. This vast burden of volcanic ash settled over the plateau below and briefly smothered animal and plant life; but volcanic ash is full of fertility and in the period between eruptions, something in the region of tens of thousands of years, plants and animals recolonized the plateau.

Several millions of years ago a party of Hominids, the primate line of mammals and one of our most distant biped ancestors, walked across a stretch of damp volcanic ash, which hardened in the fierce tropical sun leaving behind a perfect imprint of their footprints – as well as the footprints of a number of the animals that shared this developing landscape.  The ancestors of modern humans are hard to identify, but the footprints found at Laetoli indicate they had come a long way from their tree dwelling primate forebears.

 

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Zebra on the move

The soils of the Serengeti are fertile but thin, in some places less than a metre over the bedrock, but perfect conditions for that master plant coloniser “grass”. Dense grass encourages large populations of grass-eaters, but as the rainfall pattern on the flatlands is somewhat inconsistent the herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle soon strip the thin soil bare and have to migrate following the rains and the new growth of grass. The herds digest those parts of the grasses they need and leave behind a liberal supply of droppings; manna from heaven for dung beetles, unwitting experts in the recycling of the herbivores’ leftovers.

One of the fascinating facts about grasses is their ability to resist grazing pressure in the long-term. The foliage above ground can be cleared by grazing and even by fire, but the roots and the growing points beneath the surface of the soil are protected, ready to grow as soon as the rains return; creating a perfect circular migratory cycle for the vast herds of grass eaters and predators such as leopards, lions and hyenas that depend upon the herds for their existence.

Elephants and hippos, giraffe and Thompson’s gazelle all depend upon the annual rain cycle too; and the gathering together of these creatures in astonishing numbers on the Serengeti and along the Mara River makes for the most wonderful wildlife experience. The Crocodiles that lie in wait may have not have had a meal for six months, but now, as the first wildebeest and zebra splash into the turbid flow the crocodiles close their jaw and propel themselves into the river. In spite of their huge size (many exceed 5 metres in length) they are masters of ambush with a lineage that goes back to dinosaur times surviving the great the great extinction 65 million years ago.  Lying on the sunny sandbanks, mouths agape waiting for the next meal, you could be mistaken for thinking they are dinosaurs.

My next trip is to South Western Africa……

 

 

Great White Egret

A great deal of speculation has been going on for some time in the scientific and lay media as to the timing and impact of a 2% increase in global temperatures, and this year seems to bear out the possibility that, whether by natural or human intervention, there is a blip in the weather patterns around the British isles and continental Europe.

Human beings, with their relatively short life span, find it hard to imagine that only 18,000 years ago the British Isles were part of an extended European land mass, brought about when the most recent Ice Age locked up a vast amount of water and the world’s oceans were considerably lower than they are today. A polar ice cap several kilometers thick extended as far south as the Midlands The mechanism for this phenomenon is thought to be a change in the earth’s rotation and as a consequence a reduction of the heat output from our sun. During this time there were incredible changes in the natural world with animals and birds in the northern hemisphere adapting to the intense cold periods, some of which lasted for several million years.  The last Ice Age was not one event, but several events interspersed with warm, almost tropical periods. Technically we are currently in one of these warmer periods with another Ice Age in the distant future …  if the pattern holds true.

It was during one of these climatic upheavals that our own species evolved and ever since we have been changing the planet to suit our own needs, especially over the last two or three hundred years.

Great White Egret

The event that brought about this train of thought was a bit of birdwatching at Summer Lees Nature Reserve on  the Nene Valley in Northamptonshire. I had arranged to meet up with a close friend to see what the unusually wet weather had brought in to the flooded gravel workings.  We had just settled down in one of the many hides when a large white bird flew across an area of open water and dropped down behind a reed bed. I only got a glimpse, but was pretty sure that it was a great white egret, confirmed a few minutes later when a little egret flew past.  Both of these birds were rarities in the latter part of the 20th century, but as climate change began to kick in the little egret in particular began to colonize the southern part of England from its stronghold in France.

The little egret is pure white with black legs finished incongruously with yellow feet that look rather like a pair of rubber washing up gloves.   The great white egret, about the same size as our common grey heron, also has black legs, but black feet and in the breeding season the top of the leg takes on a yellowish/red colour.

Like the little egret, the great white egret is a European bird of lakes and marshes.  They have popped up uncommonly from time to time in southern Britain and East Anglia as spring and summer passing visitors to the delight of the twitching fraternity, but during the past 5 years their appearances have become more frequent and they have begun to turn up in late autumn at certain nature reserves and lake sides showing every sign that they are not just visitors, but might fancy staying on; particularly if an egret of the opposite sex should happen to pass by.

I have watched these beautiful birds in various parts of Europe, but only occasionally in Britain.

The bird at summer Lees obligingly decided to walk sedately out of the reeds affording me with a brilliant view and allowing for no doubt as to the species.  Later in the day it was joined by another great white egret, possibly a female as it was a little larger… and the whole point about changes in our bird fauna  due to alterations in the British climate took on quite a different perspective.  Hopefully, like their smaller cousins, they will begin to colonize here. It would be a bonus and one of the unrealized benefits of changes in our weather that might make us more aware of the value of nature

East African Adventure

 

                                           Robin & Dennis                                             Bull Elephant

One of the joys of my work is the opportunity for travel. My wife is not particularly keen on rough and ready camping, she prefers a little comfort, and I can’t argue with that so when I travel to Africa I usually go with my our Robin.

When I was a small child, living in a tiny hamlet in north Devon, my favourite reading was a pre World War 11 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I scoured from end to end looking for things about wildlife. Of all the places that caught my attention the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater came top of the list. The pictures showed men in safari suits proudly holding a massive rifle beside the dead carcass of some unfortunate creature. It put me off big game hunting, but instilled instead a fervent desire to visit these magical places that seemed only slightly less distant than the far side of the moon.

Life can play amusing tricks and having visited Africa as part of my work as a wildlife broadcaster and writer I developed an abiding affection for the continent, including the beautiful but troubled country of Sierra Leone; but, despite travelling to various African countries I had never been to East Africa until five years ago. A trip to the World Travel market in London to make a programme for local radio about foreign wild life travel, took me to the section on African travel where I met Carel Verhoef, a brilliant naturalist a South African who organises and conducts safaris. It was the beginning of a fascinating long distance friendship, which resulted in us arranging a trip using simple ridge tents, camp beds, a Land Rover and a plan that took us from camp to camp across the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater finishing up at a place called Lobo Kope a massive outcrop of rock a billion years old.

Lioness & Cub                                 Ngorongoro Crater

Carel and Robin, about the same age, have a highly developed sense of humour and get on well and both of them look on me as if I’m in my dotage – and they may well be right. We timed our trip to catch part of the mass migration of wildebeest and zebra across the Mara River with the crocodiles, true prehistoric monsters, waiting their opportunity to make short work of the weak and immature… But funnily enough, it was the elephants I liked best. I had never seen truly wild plains elephants before, only glimpsing forest elephants in Sierra Leone.  Like most people my view of elephants had been restricted to the zoo. I live not far from the RZS collect at Whipsnade, perhaps one of the  best collections of its kind, but captive elephants have little opportunity to exhibit the majesty of their wild brethren and after two immense four ton bull elephants walked silently through our camp site as if we did not exist, my perception of them changed completely.

Carel negotiated the typically African roads that led to the place I had so wanted to see since childhood – the world heritage site of the Ngorongoro Crater, a collapsed volcano three million years old, twenty six kilometers long and twenty one kilometers wide. We stopped at a viewpoint high above the crater and I tried to focus my binocular on the floor of the crater below, but my eyes swam with emotion and I couldn’t answer Robin when he said “Well; what do you think of than then Dad?”  It was more awesome than I had ever imagined

Naturally we saw lions and luckily lionesses with cubs; we saw leopards, hosts of gazelles and other herbivores and a bird thought to be the largest and heaviest flying bird, the Kori Bustard, an imperious creature that seemed to be aware of its unique place in avian creation. There are so many aspects of nature in east Africa that it was essential to make another visit and this we did just recently – travelling 6,700 kilometres from South Africa into Namibia and on to Botswana and the Okavango Delta; but more of this next time………………

 

 

 

Two Tree Island

Wren-courtesy of Peter Willmott

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Picture courtesy of Peter Willmott

This week I travelled with friend and fellow natural history photographer, Peter Willmott, to the wilds of the Thames Estuary and the Essex Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve Two Tree Island.  The two majestic elm trees for which the reserve was named were lost to the joint effects of Dutch elm disease and harsh gales and these days the area is covered with a variety of bushes few of which could be described as trees.  The main attraction is the vast expanse of ever changing estuary with its food-rich mud full of shellfish and marine worms, crabs and a rare and precious estuary plant called zostera or sea grass – food for the huge flocks of Brent geese that winter here building up their strength for the long journey north to the Arctic Tundra where they will breed and raise a new generation of their kind.  As the tide ebbs and flows under the gravitational influence of moon and sun thousands of hectares of glistening chocolate-coloured mud opens up to wildlife like a well-stocked supermarket.

In winter the island is home to a variety of wildlife and the mud echoes with the fluting calls of curlew and chirruping tiny waders that run about like clockwork toys picking up tiny scraps of food. Redshank and oyster catchers set up frantic alarm calls seemingly for no other reason than they like to hear the sound of their own voices.  However, Two Tree Island is not just for winter or for wetland birds; the bushes and clumps of blackberry brambles hold myriad songbirds, some of them spring migrants and others that are local residents.

Peter and I were watching the birds from the hide overlooking the lagoon and the antics of pairing avocets sweeping their elegant sail-maker’s needle-like beaks through the water’s surface in unison.  Looking out of a bird hide with modern optics highlights distant events while other, equally important things are going on just in front of you – under your nose. Such a one occurred when a wren, full of the joys of spring and keen on defending its territory, appeared from the bushes in front of the hide, little more than a meter and a half away. Peter had his camera at the ready, but by the time I had focussed mine, the wren, fed up with waiting for me, flew off. Peter’s picture, however, is a classic.

In a week or so the Brent geese will be up and away to their northern breeding grounds, but for the moment, they are still flying in large flocks as the tide turns, filling the air with their barking, chuckling contact calls.

 

 

My First Full Blog

Walking with swans
Walking with swans

 

This is my first full blog, hopefully the first of many and as you can see from my picture I am one of the “grey” generation.  I live in the UK; I’m a writer, photographer, painter and sometime broadcaster specialising in wildlife and the countryside.  I’ve written a number of books and thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines, illustrated with my own photographs and artwork…. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by our fantastic and beautiful world; by the myriad creatures, plants and landscapes with which we share the planet.

As a working naturalist I’ve had the good fortune to pass on my interest in the natural world to readers, listeners and viewers… And through this blog, I hope to be able to continue to share some of the things I come across, be they exotic or every-day wildlife happenings.

In the UK spring is making itself felt. Native birds like robins, blackbirds hedge-sparrows and titmice are setting up nesting territories and singing.  We are an incredibly fortunate species, we hear birdsong as beautiful natural music and the many different landscapes that we delight is where the majority of wildlife lives. The beautiful dawn chorus is actually a message to birds of the same species either to keep out because this particular territory is taken, or an invitation to a female that the singer will make a good provider and has a territory with food and shelter for the family they can raise together.  Spring birdsong in Britain is nearly always sung by male birds, mostly the females simply issue contact calls.

Nature holds is breath as the vanguard of spring migrants sweep up from the continents of Africa and Asia. The first sand martins and swallows have arrived on the east coast.  These small, seemingly delicate birds have travelled thousands of miles and will search out the sandy cliffs that  provide easy tunnelling for their nests.  The RSPB reserve at Minsmere is often a good place to see them.   Unfortunately for many bird migrants their mind-blowing journey will end on one of the islands in the Mediterranean prey to trappers and shooters who kill them for sport and for the table as they are considered to be culinary delicacies.

As I write the sun is making patterns on the hillside outside my window and spring is in the air – what better time to begin a blog on nature.