Yorkshire Dales & Peregrines

We who have the good fortune to be able to travel to far flung places with strange sounding names tend to forget that, in a country as compact as the British Isles, there exists a wealth of beauty, a varied landscape and wildlife potential that has no match on our crowded planet.

 

Left- Bluebells along a dry stone wall                                                                                                           Right-The landscape of the Yorkshire Dales looking over to the Traddock Hotel at Austwick

Each year my wife and I make a point of paying a visit to part of the UK we are not so familiar with – although sometimes we are moved to go back to a favourite place. Sometimes we go on our own; sometimes with friends and it’s always a pleasure. Just recently we went, with friends, to the Yorkshire Dales. We’ve been there before, but not to this particular area and stayed for a few days at a small country hotel in Austwick.

Happily the weather Gods smiled although a sharp wind, with an edge honed like cold Sheffield steel, blew in from the north. The air was as clear as glass and from our hotel window we looked out across a field gilded with buttercups to blue-tinged limestone hills in the distance. The hotel looked as if it had once been a large farmhouse and lots of interesting staircases with banister rails polished by decades of care led to welcoming comfortable and elegant rooms.

Swifts, newly arrived from Africa, skirled around the roof; males and females, newly paired, screamed up under the gutters to find nest sites in gaps behind the eaves and loft spaces – sadly lacking in modern dwellings. I have fitted a specially designed swift nest box under the sealed eaves of our 1950’s home and live in hope that one day a pair will bless us with their presence. The box is fitted with a camera just in case!  The swifts, swallows and house martins in the Yorkshire Dales were finding the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle very much to their liking and productive of flying insects to feed their young. In consequence they were everywhere in the skies.

It’s about a four hour drive from our home to this part of Yorkshire, so as soon as we had deposited our bags in the hotel room we set off to stretch our legs and explore in the direction of a famous local stone known as the ‘Erratic’. It’s a very large rock composed of a different material to other local stones. It balances, incongruously, on an outcrop of limestone bedrock. These erratics are rocks left behind after the rapid melting of the immense ice sheets that covered this region during past Ice Ages; the last Ice Age having retreated only some 18,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The ice sheet that covered the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding landscape was estimated to be over a kilometre in depth and weighing billions of tons – and it acted as a natural sculptor’s riffling file smoothing and carving the bedrock. Evidence of this ancient glacier action can be seen in the huge areas of ‘limestone pavement’ scraped clear of any vestige of soil on the surface. As the ice slid inexorably over softer limestone, hard rock embedded in the ice gouged and carved a series of trenches, some deep enough to hide a standing man. Known as ‘Grikes’, the local dialect word for a crack or trench in the pavement, these fissures developed their own ecosystems over the intervening millennia, allowing fragile plants to thrive. Some species would have been unable to survive unprotected at ground level, so the limestone pavement is a botanists’ dream.

YD_Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn

The softened profile of the hills and dales owe their features to these past Ice Ages. One such beauty spot, Malham Tarn, was once the site of an immense cataract of melt water, indeed it still looks as if it’s waiting for enough rain to restart the waterfall, silent for millennia, to tumble and roar down the valley.

Left Redstart and right Peregrine chicks

These days the eroded limestone is home to a nesting pair of peregrine falcons, currently with well grown young perching over a mind-numbing drop to the valley floor. Volunteers and staff from the RSPB have set up a bank of telescopes to enable visitors to look up to the peregrine’s family life. The peregrines are wonderful and the patient, friendly RSPB staff answer questions from the public with enthusiasm.  One of them pointed out a bird I have been trying to photograph for ages, a redstart. In the past either the light has been wrong, or the bird hidden by twigs or leaves, but this time everything was just right.

All photographs copyright of Dennis Furnell

Journey through South Western Africa

SWA_3_Table Mountain

The view of Table Mountain from our hotel in Cape Town

After our wonderful trip to East Africa I finally finished editing and sorting my photographs. It made me want to go to Africa again so I mentioned to my son Robin that I would really like to see the Okavango Delta in Botswana. He said “OK, I’m up for it.” And the scene was set

I mentioned the outline of a possible trip to my South African friend, Carel Verhoef, during one of my irregular emails to him and he was off and running with the idea. He is a safari specialist and has a busy life in Kenya and Tanzania, but at the time was living in Cape Town, so it was to Cape Town we went to begin our journey. Carel also began to expand on my idea.  “What about driving up through South Africa, into Namibia and on up to Etosha National Park. If we want we can drive up to the Caprivi Strip and follow the Okavango River into the marshes. Perhaps we can cut out across the desert. We could stop in bush camp sites along the way.”  It sounded just the sort of plan I like, we’d be bound to experience some fascinating places and see incredible wildlife.

Above left – our two Toyota Land Cruisers  /  Above right ‘Setting Off’

The plan was to hire two specially equipped Toyota Double-cab Land Cruisers. These extremely useful vehicles have an aluminium body fitted with a kitchen area and gas stove. One of the vehicles carried a capacious pullout fridge and the other a freezer.  Solar panels were fitted to the roof to generate an emergency supply for both fridge and freezer with a solid state converter to turn battery power into 200 volt power – just in case we didn’t make it to the camping area. It was also useful for charging electronics in general and cameras batteries in particular. The lift up roof became a sleeping tent and on the lower deck a pull out section concealed another bed. Both trucks carried massive long distance fuel tanks and clean fresh water for drinking and cooking.  Chairs and tables folded into special places and ladders and shovels adorned the side panels.

Robin and I travelled to Africa by British Airways on the incredible A380. I’m a lapsed private pilot and love flying, but the A380 is a cut above anything with wings that I have ever travelled in.  We arrived in Cape Town and spent a really busy day picking up the vehicles and getting them loaded and ready, we were bushed (no pun intended) but enjoyed an excellent fish dinner and got to know our other travelling companions.

Carel had arranged to take his annual holiday and planned the trip accordingly and our little party included Carel’s partner Sally, his two daughters Lara and Mila aged 7 and 4 (a never-ending source of delight.) I’d not met them before, but followed their progress from birth by e-mail and telephone. Robin has two daughters, Yasmin and Isla, now teenagers, so we are used to the ways of girls and within a few days Rob and I were granted the title of honorary uncle. Sally, also a travel expert is, by amazing coincidence, the daughter of a Rhodesian policeman (pre Zimbabwe) and a long term friend of one of our friends in the UK, who was also stationed in Rhodesia

Stuart, our other travelling companion had already been granted honorary uncle status and the nickname “Turkish” after a character in a TV series.  He is a professional photographer, who has risked life and limb in some of Africa’s hottest trouble spots. Hailing originally from Essex, he now lives in Dar Es Salam. He and Carel work together on safari plans and design. Stuart proved to be a brilliant travelling companion with a zany sense of humour and his skill and talent with a camera left me full of admiration. Stuart, Carel and Robin are similar in age so I was relegated to my usual grandpa status.

Having been introduced to our travelling companions and the land cruisers, we began our journey through the busy traffic of Cape Town heading for the silence and solitude of the hot dry country that is the western side of South Africa – and towards the trip of a lifetime

Our first Camp Site and Carel, Saly, Lara & Mila at sunset

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.

 

EA_2_Serengeti

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……

 

 

Bitten off more than he can Chew!

One of the most important birds on the British and European List is great crested grebe; a bird beautifully designed by nature to live and breed, on ponds, lakes and reservoirs.. Brown in colour above and silvery white below with feet set well back on its torpedo-shaped body, it has a long flexible nexk and sharp pointed beak. It is the perfect fishing machine and one that played a vital part in the beginnings of that most famous and influential conservation organisation the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – better known as the RSPB.

I had the good fortune to begin my working life as a naturalist as a member of the film unit of the RSPB; in those days there were only two of us and I was very much the junior partner – the membership was 10,000 and now it is over one million. The Society began in the Edwardian era when a group of influential ladies became concerned about the fashion in hats, or to be more accurate the feather decorations used by milliners. Hats were becoming ever larger and more extreme, the feathers coming from birds such ass egrets and grebes; even tiny humming birds were being killed for their skins and plumes, often during the breeding season when they are at their most showy. Greed and profit was driving some species to the brink of extinction the great crested grebe being one of them and their numbers crashed under the pressure until only a few pairs remained in the UK.

The story of the RSPB’s foundation and its meteoric growth is available on their website http://www.rspb.org.uk and it is well worth a look.

My fascination with this beautiful, elegant and, happily now more common bird began when, as a voluntary warden at a group of balance reservoirs in Tring, Hertfordshire, I watched them building their nests on floating rafts of water plants anchored to reeds. The striped and dotted black on grey chicks are fed on small fish caught by the adults by diving (making hardly more than a ripple on the water) which brings me to the point of my tale. was out and about with a friend a little earlier in the year looking for early spring damselflies and spotted a female grebe sitting on a nest. Great crested grebes are devoted pairs so I looked around for the male – usually patrolling his territory nearby to keep off intruders.

was soon rewarded by the sight of the male diving for fish. Looked at closely, they appear to fold the water around themselves as they slide beneath the surface submerging, as I said, without barely a ripple.. This is where a pair of good binoculars is invaluable; it;s almost impossible to guess where the grebe is going to surface so a wide angle of view is vital. In this instance the grebe surfaced with some commotion not far from where it had dived, it’s long pointed beak wide open with its catch which appeared to be a large tench.  The photos show that the bird definitely had “eye bigger than its belly” and for the next 10 minutes struggled to swallow the over sized beakful. It began by raising the unweilldy tench, presumably the theory being that gravity would help. .Practice however, showed that the fish was too heavy for the grebe to keep its head high enough. With a huge splash the fish firmly gripped in its beak, bird and fish hit the water and went under for a few seconds… impasse.The grebe kept on trying, but I lot sight of it after it dived again at the edge of the reed bed, so I never saw the outcome.

greatcrested grebe with fish
Great Crested Grebe with large tench by Dennis Furnell

We came back to the same spot about an hour later and there was the male – no sign of the fish and it is extremely hard to tell if a crested grebe is sitting lower in the water !!  Looking again at this exquisite bird with its feather “ear tufts” I am so glad the ladies of the RSPB succeeded in helping to change the fashion for hats decorated with bits of dead birds.

Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish  copyright Dennis furnell
Great crested grebe trying to swallow fish copyright Dennis Furnell