Wildlife Photography with Olympus

I find the story of the early Victorian photographers fascinating. They ventured far and wide to capture images of the life and times of those days with huge mahogany and brass cameras mounted on sturdy wooden tripods. The lenses were works of the glass-makers’ art with specially crafted discs of glass allowing the photographer to focus on a fixed point – be it a person or landscape.  These pioneers of photography measured their exposure times in minutes; is it any wonder that some of their subjects look wooden and unsmiling – images captured on glass plates, coated with silver salts in a gelatine base and brought to life with developing agents concocted by using chemicals similar to those we use today to restore the shine on silver cutlery.

If you’re interested, take a trip to the science museum or one of the many photographic museums dedicated to past masters of the art. It won’t be a wasted journey.

These thoughts about Victorian photographers were triggered by an invitation to the British Wildlife Centre in Sussex.  Olympus were hosting a photography day there to showcase their latest Pro camera, the OM-D E-M1-Mark II and Pro lenses.  I use Olympus digital cameras and lenses myself and find their equipment superb – not only for the quality of the glass in the lenses, but also for the cameras, which use a microchip system called ‘micro four thirds.’ It’s a complicated system, suffice to say that the small imaging chip allows the manufacturers using this format, namely Olympus and Panasonic, to produce smaller, lighter cameras without losing the extremely high-quality electronics.

Pictures: Scottish Wildcat, Fox, Otter, Roe Deer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If, like me, you tend to travel in search of subject matter, lighter and smaller professional photographic equipment is very desirable, especially when travelling by air on budget airlines – even the air you breathe seems to carry its own price.  I’m loathe to subject my working kit to the gentle care of airline baggage handlers, but at the end of the day no camera, whatever its size and range of lenses, is of much use if the images captured are not of a professional standard.

Naturally, when I received my invitation to play with Olympus’s latest range I was rather excited. For anyone who hasn’t visited The BWC you are missing a chance to see, at close quarters, most of the creatures with which we share these islands but who, sensibly, keep hidden from view most of the time.

The British Wildlife Collection is always enjoyable and the fact that I had the company of a great friend, Peter Willmott, a photographer of some considerable skill and fellow Olympus enthusiast, made it even more so. Peter and I often explore the wildlife potential in the Uk and France together.

You won’t need me to remind you I’m sure, but the weather early in the year was, to say the least, uninspiring; dull, damp and chilly. The chance to get my hands on the professional products of one of the world’s foremost photographic equipment makers and enjoy a day out at the BWC was enough to cheer anyone up – despite the weather.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1-Mark II looks and feels like the professional it is. The body is metal and typical Olympus; slightly retro in style with a finish that echoes the fact that this company also produce medical equipment. Water and dust resistant, reliable in all temperatures, the controls are easy to hand and clearly marked.  The image on the large multi position touch screen is excellent quality which makes using this camera for video a doddle. The anti-shake facility is remarkable.

I used two lenses at The BWC, the 12-40 f2.8 pro zoom and the 40-150 f2.8 pro zoom, both of similar size and magnification to those I use on my own Olympus OM-D 5; although the joy of the ‘micro four thirds’ configuration allows the indicated magnifications to be doubled.

My style of photography is usually to ignore the multi shot format, unless there is no alternative, and look to frame individual shots; adjusting exposure, shutter speed and lighting as I need. This means that, by being sparing with the number of images I take, I may sometimes miss a shot that I might have captured in ‘machine gun mode’, but I find more satisfaction in the well- focussed and framed shot of the particular bird, mammal or insect in context, rather than simply capturing an image among so many that have to be discarded. Having said this, every photographer has their own style – and that is just how it should be.

Some of the pictures I took during this wonderful opportunity at the British Wildlife Centre accompany this blog….and more will follow as I use this camera…

FACT BOX:

British Wildlife Collection  –  https://www.britishwildlifecentre.co.uk

Olympus  –  https://www.olympus.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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)

Calling all light aircraft enthusiasts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sywell Aerodrome, Northamptonshire — Aero Expo 2016

Regular readers of my blog will probably be expecting me to write about nature and wildlife, and most of the time that is what I do.  However, I have many other interests and general aviation is one of them.  National Service in the Royal Air Force first gave me an interest in flying and later, in the 1970’s, I was able to indulge myself and get my private pilot’s licence.

Not that I’m comparing myself to the following giants of the natural history world, but I’m not the only one who works in the field of conservation to be fascinated in aviation… the Late Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founder of WWF was a world famous glider pilot and his friend and wildlife artist, Keith Shackleton, was a member of the family that built the famous Shackleton aircraft during and after the Second World War.

I’m not a plane spotter in the literal sense, but many who are find as much pleasure in recording details of aircraft of all kinds as I do from the study of birds, butterflies and plants and their habitats.

Every year millions of people go to air shows or visit the superb aircraft museum collection at Duxford Airfield in Bedfordshire. But my personal favourite is the annual Aero Expo, a kind of Motor Show of all that is latest and best in light aviation held at Sywell aerodrome in Northamptonshire.  Here on this historic airfield you will find offerings from the major manufactures and superb examples of aeronautical engineering from a host of countries. There was a time when the British Isles vied with the USA as premier designers and makers of light aircraft, sadly successive governments have lost the desire to encourage creative engineering in favour of financial services.

When I took my pilot’s licence there was a large number of ex wartime airfields dotted across our beautiful country, but a similar lack of interest in general aviation encouraged developers to plough up the runways and cover the land with buildings, residential and commercial. Airfields are considered prime brown field sites by national and local government.

Nevertheless, in spite of all this, general aviation is alive and healthy. The airfield at Sywell was humming with activity – light aircraft coming and going like bees to a hive. Some of them were new models and shiny demonstrators, others were stalwart Piper and Cessna of the latter part of the last century kept smart and airworthy by proud owners and groups who buy a share in an aircraft and pay for their flying by the hour.

Cessna & Beechcraft                                          Pilatus PC12NG

The exhibitors’aircraft park saw a gathering of some of the latest and most highly developed light aircraft, including an iconic six-seater touring Beechcraft Bonanza (a most desirable fast tourer – rather like an Aston Martin of flight.)

As I’ve already said, most of the famous names in British light aircraft manufacturing have vanished, but in the last 15 years a whole new breed of ultra light aircraft, powered by a variety of engines – petrol, diesel and even electric and rotary petrol engines have emerged. Few are made wholly in this country; the majority are the product of a vibrant industry in Eastern Europe, filling present day demand.  They are produced to a high standard of strength, performance and design.

The Americans still hold the long-established market for high standard aircraft, though you have to pay for the quality, innovation and luxury; but there is always a market for quality as shown by the famous Pilatus company in Switzerland. Their 9 seat PC12NG is a mini airliner and rather like a Swiss watch, or Swiss army knife in its perfection.  Propeller driven by a gas turbine engine, it looks good both outside and in with elegant leather seating and thick carpets … and it even has its own loo concealed behind a polished wooden door.  More to the point, if I just had the odd spare million pounds or four, I could fly it on my licence, although perhaps I wouldn’t dare unless I had a professional pilot in the other seat. I’d be afraid I’d bend it – although I was told it’s an easy craft to fly. After all the Swiss have been making aircraft for years in which to rescue people from mountain passes and also to land and take off from jungle clearings so they know a thing or two about it.

Put Aero Expo in your diary for next year.

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……

 

 

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………………

 

 

 

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

Spring Flowers

 

Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns
Bluebell Wood in the Chilterns

Gorse in full bloom
Gorse in full bloom

One of the delights of living in the British Isles, particularly England and Wales is the way in which spring surprises us every year with the astonishing beauty of the flowers.

To my mind the bluebell should be the English national flower and at this time of year it appears like magic to carpet the woodland floor with an azure mist that changes in tone from blue to violet depending on the play of light through the almost leafless canopy. Literally millions of stems topped with a drooping head of delicate flowers giving off a wonderful scent.  Happily these days people who take a trip out to see the bluebell woods (many of them found on the Chilterns and Downs) come to look and to photograph and not, as in the past, to dig up the plants and try to grow them in their gardens – usually unsuccessfully for the British bluebell needs the company of friends if it is to continue to delight the eye and the senses.

To my mind a bluebell wood in full glory with the first orange tip butterflies and brimstone butterflies trying to get at the nectar-filled florets is one of the most wonderful sights in nature…. But it is the bumble bee that is the master, or to be correct (the mistress) for all the bumble bees collecting nectar and pollinating flowers are female.

And it’s not only the bluebell that is delighting us at the moment…  Gorse, a leguminous plant and a member of the world wide pea family, is thriving in golden splendour. Like other members of this family it has a property that allows it to grow in the most unpromisingly infertile soil conditions by adopting a specific type of soil bacteria with a capability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it as soluble nitrogen that the plant can then use as food. In consequence gorse will flower at the most unexpected times of the year, hence one of my favourite old country sayings about wild flowers “There will always be love as long as the Gorse blossoms.” which is encouraging for romantics like me as there are always gorse flowers in bloom somewhere.  Indeed at the moment, on heaths and downland there is a mass of the nectar-rich, snap-dragon-like flowers of golden gorse, to the delight of the early bees.  If you stand downwind from a bank of gorse you can smell the sweetness in the air.