31 December 2011

tadpole frying pan

For some or other reason the tadpoles of the Raucus Toad like to congregate on the leaves of the lily pads in my garden pond. Maybe the water is warmer and they can save energy by not having to swim and can just bask in the water. In any case this is disaster for the tadoples because as the sun comes up the water dries out and the tadpoles dry of dehydration and lack of oxygen.

We all know that photographers should not interfere in the processes of nature and this means taking a back seat (and taking pictures) and recording what happens. I feel I must apologise because I sneezed and saved some 30 tadpoles.

I am looking forward to the photographic opportunities that 2012 will bring!

21 December 2011

Merry Christmas

Wishing our contributors and readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Roll on 2012

6 December 2011

Dog Trek

I had one of those photo grab moments while travelling along a road in South Africa. People walk along the dusty roads but I could see that this young boy in bare feet was doing something special. He was walking from his home to the local Animal Welfare carrying his dog on his shoulder. It was a hot day and the road was long. Always heart-warming to see people prepared to suffer hardship and heat on behalf of an animal.

26 November 2011

The Salmon have come..... and gone

Four weeks ago, the fish were just starting the annual spawning run into the Goldstream River, near Victoria, in British Columbia. There had been concerns about a fuel spill into the river during the summer; some small absorbing booms were stretched across the surface for several months. The 2010 run was also much smaller than expected, so what could one anticipate for this year.

During the last month, several thousand fish have made their way upstream. They have joined into mating pairs, dug out their small trench in the gravel, and have laid their eggs and fertilized with milt... but then comes the ultimate price! The skin of the fish begins to discolour, the flesh becomes inedible, to humans that is, and the fish slowly die.

Some are washed downstream to be eaten by the waiting bald eagles, but many wash up on the river bank to be eaten by seagulls. At night and early morning, mink and bear arrive at the river to feed but the human presence during daylight hours tend to keep these animals hidden in the underbrush
This small river is just one of many on the coast and fortunately it is in a dedicated wilderness park. Its proximity to a city attracts thousands of visitors during the fall season but with park rangers working on river bank protection and other environmental issues, the wilderness nature of the river has been successfully maintained.

15 November 2011

Rhino poaching in South Africa

The poaching of both White and Black Rhinocerous (Ceratotherium simum and Diceros bicornis) which are critically endangered in South Africa is rampant and to draw the attention of the South African government to the plight of the rhino the various groups trying to protect the rhino have taken the unusual step of defacing bank notes. The defacing of bank notes in any way is illegal but the eco-activists are using red pens to mark the horns of the rhino on the ten rand note. It is hoped that citizens will also become aware of what is happening and that the government will also take the matter more seriously. A total of 361 Rhinos have already been killed this year!

7 November 2011


My first realization that adults also suffer severe emotional stress and trauma came when I was about 7 years old. The incident is still vivid in my mind. A man came out of a bottle store in Stellenbosch and dropped his bottle of wine onto the dusty sidewalk and all that was left were a few shards of glass and a vinegary smell in the air. He sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

Last time I went into a bottle store (what a euphemism!) I bought a random bottle of wine and just took it home. When we opened it we discovered the bottle was made of plastic. Reading the label revealed that the plastic was re-cycled and supposedly of great benefit to the environment. To be honest I don’t know if this is good or bad and I don’t know how to prove whether it is more environmentally friendly than glass.

I decided to photograph the bottle for my green photo agency. Drinking the wine and driving a knife through the bottle was ok (although I realise I must hide the knives when I drink) but creating a good image with the wine in me was not that easy. I decided to empty a fresh bottle and use it the next day to do the photography. The bottle stayed in the kitchen for a couple of weeks with a knife stuck into it. How do you show a bottle is made of plastic? I never got past the knife in bottle idea.

I was not inspired when it came to the picture either and stuck with the clichéd sundowner idea. As I was unsure of what I was trying to illustrate the picture is rather stark too.

Wine fanciers need not worry as the wine was quite palatable. I really don’t know of the aging potential of the red as the bottles never really survive for any length of time around me. Maybe if you are clumsy, going hiking or get violent when you drink the plastic bottle is lighter and will cause less damage.

When I go to the beach I find hundreds of plastic bottles along the high tide mark. If I look on the rocks or beach I will find shards of glass and a few unbroken bottles. Maybe I would rather step onto a plastic wine bottle than some glass. Some glass bottles and some plastics are re-cycled. Perhaps I should just admit that I don’t know whether plastic bottles are good or perhaps better than glass. Maybe we should just improve our re-cycling and ensure that both the plastic and glass bottles end up in the correct re-cycling bin.

1 November 2011

Beach Clean up Spitsbergen

These tourists in Spitsbergen are cleaning up the beaches after having walked around the area. A helicopter comes along on a regular basis to pick up the nets, plastic etc.  Wouldn't it be great if this happened globally in the cruising industry? 

30 October 2011

Salmon run on the Canadian West Coast

It's the fall season here on the Canadian West Coast; time to look forward to the salmon run in the local Goldstream River. The forest here is predominantly coniferous, Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar, but there are a few stands of Maple trees among the overall carpet of green. The leaves of the Maples are falling, adding colour to the banks of the river.
This may evoke visions of peace, calm, and beauty but there are other additions to the river never seen before... These are the small white oil and solvent booms stretched across the surface of the water; the result of a fuel tanker accident on the road immediately alongside the river some months ago. The initial spill was a disaster, pouring thousands of litres of fuel into the water, but hope is alive the salmon run will not be affected.
The main spawning run will peak in a few weeks but the initial arrivals are few and far between. When I visited the river a week ago I saw only a few salmon making their way upstream. Speaking to a conservation officer confirmed the fact; only fifty fish had been counted so far, and this follows a very disappointing fish count from 2010 when only twenty-five percent of the expected spawning run actually arrived at the river.
Meanwhile, we shall remain hopeful. The bald eagles and the seagulls are gathering in the estuary waiting for the decaying carcases of the salmon to be washed downstream after spawning. Many of the dead fish become washed up on the gravel bars and are pecked clean to the skeleton by crows and other scavengers. A big salmon run is good for the whole wildlife community..... More details in a month's time.

5 October 2011

Tasmanian Devils - the cull's not working

Many readers of this blog may have enjoyed the BBC's Miracle Babies presented by Martin Hughes-Games. He was filmed visiting captive breeding programmes of some of the world's most endangered species. One was a visit to Tasmanian to find out more about the Tasmanian Devil. Numbers of this marsupial have declined for the usual reasons - habitat loss, hunting and predation by the introduced red fox. In 1996 a new threat emerged - devil facial tumour disease, a highly contagious cancer that causes growths around the mouth that interfere with feeding. In 2004 a trial cull was started. Martin visited the trial site where devils are trapped and examined for presence of tumours, and any found with the disease are culled. The theory was that the removal of the diseased individuals would reduce the risk to the others. It was tough for Martin as they found an infected female with young in her pouch. The disease was so advanced that they could not keep her alive long enough for  her babies to grow large enough to be fostered, so she was put down.

New research reported in the Journal of Applied Ecology  has found that that the cull is not stopping the spread of the disease. Although animals were being trapped, a computer model designed to assess the cull found that approximately  one-fifth of the population  would never be trapped so there was a potential reservoir of diseased animals remaining in the population. The cull has now been stopped and research is looking for other ways of saving the devils. This includes the establishment of captive breeding groups and the introduction of healthy individuals into new areas. However, the best hope for the wild devils is a vaccine.

4 October 2011


The little village of Schoenmakerskop where I live lies along the Indian Ocean and the shores were blessed with a large population of Abalone (Haliotis midae). The Abalone can be dived fairly easily and taste good when prepared properly. When prepared badly they have all the characteristics of a car tyre - hard, rubbery and difficult to chew.

Unfortunately the mysterious East decided that the poor Abalone had miraculous aphrodisiacal properties and the Abalone poachers moved in. I no longer dive for Abalone because the population has been reduced by poachers to the extent that they are rapidly becoming endangered. The poaching has become big business and the poachers are polite but get very aggressive if you threaten their activities and the threats go from swearing to threats to your dogs, family, house and person.

Yesterday when I returned home the village was full of police and a police helicopter was parked at the end of the road. I walked a short distance along a coastal trail and came across a sad scene. The body of a young alleged poacher was lying on the rocks and in the vicinity were vehicles belonging to the police, coastal rescue services, nature conservation and a van from the mortuary services. It appears that 6 poachers entered the water at sunrise, three decided the sea was too rough and returned to shore. The others carried out their dive but one drowned. The sea whipped up by a strong wind was unsuitable for diving.

While I was waiting for the helicopter to lift the body the wife of the alleged poacher arrived. I was proud of the police who prevented her from clambering over the rocks and a police woman comforted the poor woman along the shore. This was a painful moment.

The rewards for poaching and the poachers are high if things go well but the price is even higher for the poacher when things go wrong.

16 September 2011

Polar Bear Safety Lecture

When I took this picture in Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Salbard Archipelago I was standing on a carpet of fine gravel with the cold wind trying to pick out the wrinkles in my face. At the same time I was desperately trying to listen to one of the expedition team telling us what to do if we encounter a Polar Bear. I couldn’t help thinking there was one behind every rock and at the same time they must have been hungry because nothing, absolutely nothing is growing here.
The rather unconventional health and safety lecture is a rite of passage for all visitors who come to Spitsbergen and you are constantly reminded wherever you travel here that we humans are merely guests in this the kingdom of the world’s largest land carnivore.
I’m pleased to say that in many ways the bears’ lives are put before ours as there are series of strategies from shouting to large “flash/bang” flares designed to frighten the bear off, the high powered rifles carried by the guides would  only be used as a last resort.
It's a fact of life that as 'soft'  Polar expedition cruising increases the wildlife will come under more pressure but this seems to be kept to an absolute minimum as all cruise operators have to sign up to Antarctic and Arctic codes of practice. Visits here are a wondereful thing as it brings home to people the need to protect these stunning areas.
The good thing about Polar cruising is that the season is so short and numbers limited as to how many people can be where, also the winter gives the land a chance to carry on with its natural rhythms.

8 September 2011


Coming home I saw the wheels of this wood cutter’s home made cart. They are held together by wire and seem to have originated from some Victorian contraption. Some poor people turn to crime or wait for hand outs while others like this guy make an effort to earn money.

The wood he cuts is either cut up to make fires to cook food or warm people and some of the straight bits would be used to build and reinforce shacks. I suppose if the cart was being pulled by an animal someone would have complained to the animal rights people. Human rights and human dignity are sometimes just overlooked. South Africa is a sometimes shocking mix of first and third world (and probably second and fourth world too).

1 September 2011

Electric Cars

Five years or so ago, I thought that my next car would be an electric. But now that a wave of them are about to come on to the market, I’m not so sure. Last week, I went down to our local motor association where a new 100% electric vehicle – the Mitsubishi i-MiEV pictured above – was on display.

From the outside, the i-MiEV – which is expected to retail for about $33,000 in Alberta, Canada – doesn’t look terribly big. But without a bulky engine taking up space and the wheels right out to the corners, the interior feels as big as some of the small to mid-sized conventional cars on the market.

The car is powered by a 330-volt lithium ion battery located under its floor. It can be charged either from a quick charge station or from a household outlet. It will take about six hours to charge from a 220-volt outlet, or 22.5 hours from a 110-volt outlet.

With a top speed of 130 km/h, it certainly goes as fast as I would want to go. The problem is it only goes for 135 kilometers on a single charge. When I expressed my dismay to the product demonstrator, he was quick to say that, for the time being, it was really only practical as an additional car to tootle around town to do the shopping. And I thought we were trying to cut down on the number of vehicles on the road! Also, if the extra electricity needed to power electric cars isn’t generated from renewable energy, then CO2 emissions will go up, not down.

Oh well, I love my VW anyway.

2 August 2011


Every year I go to the Association of Surfing Professional’s Billabong Pro held at Supertubes in Jeffrey’s Bay in the Eastern Cape and every year I worry about the hand painted “Beware if the Snakes” sign on the path over the dunes that leads to the famous surfing spot.

So why do I worry? Well I suppose it is because I wish there were more beware of the snake signs around as the last thing I want to have ruining my day is stepping on a snake. Quite frankly a sign wont stop you from stepping on a snake but might mean the difference between being alert and doing a sudden sideways jump on a path to avoid the an encounter. If you are very alert for snakes you often do that sideways sidestep dance to avoid snakelike seeming branches. But it is not that which really worries me.

Snakes don’t usually occur on coastal dunes unless the vegetation is really thick and I have not seen a snake on those dunes. It is very sandy and there is little cover, yes there might be a lost harmless snake and amongst the poisonous ones you might get a Boomslang or Puff Adder. The Boomslang is back-fanged and to be bitten you have to handle the snake and probably have to go as far as sticking your finger in its mouth. Well that is what I have always believed; a photographer did manage to get bitten by one when he stood on it. The Puff Adder is beautiful but ugly and lazy and presents the greatest chance of being bitten. They are too lazy to move when they hear you coming but do hiss (more of a puff really) as a warning giving you a chance to do the lifesaving sideways snake waltz. But like I said I have not seen snakes there. In fact there probably no dangerous snakes there.

The dunes behind the great surfing wave are very sensitive to human disturbance and covered with pioneer dune vegetation. One person going over the dune in a clumsy manner can probably undo months of hard work from someone trying to stabilise the loose sand. The dunes are slowly becoming vegetated and look better every year.

I am pretty sure the “Beware of Snakes” sign is just to keep people off the dunes but you can never be sure. Perhaps the dunes are crawling with snakes and the sign was put up to save people from the snakes and one should certainly not go there. In any case all is fair in love and dune stabilization.

14 July 2011

China's Green Economy

As the world prepares for next year’s Rio + 20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, it seems that China and the other fast-emerging economies of the developing world have overtaken Europe in terms of investment in renewable energy.

According to a new report commissioned by the UN Environment Programme, investment in large-scale renewable projects such as solar and wind farms totaled $72 billion in the developing world, outstripping industrialized economies by $2 billion in 2010. China accounted for 70 percent, investing $50 billion in clean energy projects, mostly in the form of wind technology.

China’s production of wind turbines, some in collaboration with European partners like the one pictured above at a small fishing port on the Jiangsu coast, are mainly for the domestic market. By the end of 2010, China had only sold 13 turbines abroad. But that strategy is changing. China Longyuan, China’s largest wind power developer, has just acquired the rights to develop a 100 megawatt project in Ontario, Canada. Earlier this month, Sinovel, China’s largest domestic wind turbine manufacturer, concluded a deal to build a 1000 megawatt wind farm in Ireland.

Although China’s target is to produce 15 percent of its energy requirements from renewables by 2020, it is likely that an increasing share of its investment in this sector will be for the export market.

23 June 2011


In Africa the seasons can flow one into the next and sometimes the rain just does not fall. For about 4 years we have not had decent rain when suddenly, after a few heavy downpours, the dams rose from being about 30% full to some overflowing and the dams in Nelson Mandela Metropole in South Africa are in the region of 80% of capacity. Of course the water restrictions are still on – the wheels of municipal bureaucracy turn even slower than the drought cycle.

Luckily the floods were minor with no loss of life and just a lot of suffering, cold and inconvenience for the poor. Living in shacks means that your roof does leak and with the wind driving the rain into the sides of the shack the walls also leak. Large rocks are used to hold down sheets of zinc that are the preferred roofing material. After the rain everything has to be brought out into the open to dry and is a feature of life in the poorer parts of the world. In the picture above you see blankets, clothes and mats drying on the fence. On the roof rows of shoes dry in the sun. To me this is such a typical African picture – we love the colours of the clothes and blanket but do tend to forget the suffering that goes coupled with it. Above the house you see a satellite television dish, something very African too. Being poor or living in a shack does not mean you have to forego luxuries or dreams. Even better, behind the houses, you see the approaching rows of new houses that are slowly replacing the shacks. Sure the process is slow and everyone complains from those who have received the houses to those who are still waiting. The change is slow but still good.

16 June 2011

IUCN publishes the latest Red List

The IUCN has just published the latest version of its Red List of Threatened Species. Its depressing reading with just a few snippets of good news. There are a  staggering 19,265 species are currently threatened with extinction. Since the update in 2010, more than 900 new species have been added to the category of threatened, that's either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. So things are getting worse for biodiversity  around the world.

The IUCN have a few highlights of which one of the Arabian oryx. This magnificent animal was almost hunted to extinction  and it became extinct in the wild in 1972. Since then conservationists have worked hard with captive breeding programmes and animals have been reintroduced to the wild.  This has been successful and now there are more more than 1000 wild oryx. So successful, in fact, that the species has been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable and is the first species to have improved by three categories from extinct in the wild.

“To have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species,” says Ms Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Director General of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. “It is a classic example of how data from the IUCN Red List can feed into on-the-ground conservation action to deliver tangible and successful results.”

However the rest of the report is not so encouraging. The 2011 Red List shows more than 40 per cent of amphibians being at risk of extinction. There are 19 new species on the list of which 8 are classes as critically endangered, and they include the colourful harlequin toad from Peru.   The IUCN has assessed the lobsters, all 248 species and concluded that 35% are data deficient.

Birds have not done well either.  Since 2010  another 13 species have been moved intot he threatened categories, bringing the total number of threatened bird species to 1253 - that's 13% of all bird species. The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) has been uplisted to Critically Endangered as a result of hunting, disturbance, habitat loss and fragmentation.  hEstimates suggest there are fewer than 250 individuals left in the wild. Also upgraded to critically endangered is Bahama Oriole (Icterus northropi) of which there could be as few as 180 individuals.

25 May 2011

Graveyards and poverty

A long time ago I wrote an article that was never published on the wonders of the old graveyards in South Africa and how they are decaying and being neglected. I like them because of the solitude, the stillness, the history and the nature. Only a week ago I discovered a colony of suricates living in the middle of a big city in a graveyard. The trees are old and you get an interesting combination of indigenous and exotic trees. Some of the roses that have grown unpruned for decades are beautiful, while the daisies are magnificent. The birdlife is always good as they don’t get disturbed much.

I also discovered that another creature inhabits old cemeteries, man. Poverty is rife in South Africa and food and shelter are a constant worry for the homeless. St George’s Park Cemetery is one of the oldest in Port Elizabeth and is situated near the city centre. It is fenced off and the gates are locked at night and is, I suppose, the perfect refuge if you don’t have a roof over your head.

Nonetheless I was surprised to find a neatly stashed pile of plastic, a cushion, blanket and cardboard beneath a gravestone. The plastic is easily strung over a few gravestones and you have an instant tent while the cardboard does provide a bit of insulation on the ground and makes a rudimentary mattress. The daisies are magnificent.

Life is hard for the poor.

8 May 2011

The National Park of Grande Briere, Brittany

Southern Brittany covers the department of Loire-Atlantique and contains some superb gems for birdwatchers.  The first of these The National Park of Grande Briere a huge reed bed of nearly 100,000 acres. The Park has a road running around is  it so you can call in at different places or stand at the side of the road. We got Purple Heron, Black Kite, Bearded Reedling and Cormarent within thirty seconds of pulling into a picnic area on the eastern side of the marsh.
With over 3000 thatched houses in the marsh the local thatcher is kept very  busy and the reeds are harvested in an ecological way as they have been for thousands of years. There are tracks that can lead you into marsh but the best way to see this place is either the excellent hides on the eastern side or to take a traditional punt boat and silently glide in and out of the reeds. This will allow you to savour Marsh Harriers, White Stork, Whiskered Tern, Fan-tailed Warbler, Night  Heron and Kingfishers going about their daily business undisturbed by the noise of an engine. 
The best place to do this is Brecca on the western shore of the marsh where there is also an observation tower giving you extensive views of the reeds. Do look out for nd Bluethroat about a mile south of here on the road to St Nazaire. In short there are many roads leading down to the shore of the marsh so it pays to spend at least a whole day here from dawn until dusk.

3 May 2011

Floral Gigantism

...found (well, Dai Morris, the reserve warden, pointed me in the right direction again) a rather unusual case of floral gigantism in a Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) in Bishops Wood nature reserve, Gower, UK. I hate those shots with a tape measure in them to indicate the size of an object - so I didn't. For those who really 'need' to know: instead of the usual 25mm or so, the flower of this one measured more than 60 mm across. But I think the context of the other, normal-sized anemones shows very nicely the dimensions of this giant - it would put some decent sized daffodils to shame.
What a feast for the pollinators!

2 May 2011

Bush Fire

Bush fires are fairly commonplace in summer and when we are experiencing droughts in South Africa but the one last week which threatened the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre near Port Elizabeth was particularly nasty.

It was fanned by a strong south easterly gale and basically could not be stopped. The fire brigade placed their vehicles along a tarred access road and used is as a natural fire break. They could not prevent the fire from leaping the road but were able to divert it away from the seabird rehabilitation centre.

The centre was evacuated and it was done quickly and efficiently. I was amused to hear the list of items that were evacuated being recounted to a journalist – 14 African Penguins, 2 Cape Gannets and 2 boxes of fish. It was sweet of them to think of the penguin’s lunch. The fire brigade stayed overnight and after a few flare-ups the fire was finally out. Lots of things go wrong when there are fires – one firewoman was evacuated to hospital with smoke inhalation and several others had to have their eyes treated for smoke irritation. Luckily the approaching fire was fairly narrow and most of the small game could avoid the flames. One of my personal horrors are Puff Adders and several were driven out of the bush by the flames. They are a serious hazard for firemen and the on-lookers.

SAMREC was saved and over the next few days the volunteers cleaned and washed the buildings and exhibits and I overheard some great but rather useless wisdom – it is easier to clean a smoky stuffed penguin than a live penguin.

The pictures I took were ok enough but one was unusual and caught my interest. A rainbow formed in the spray of water thrown near the firemen who were hosing the approaching wall of flames. Maybe the rainbow was a promise of a fire free future ahead.

1 May 2011

missed photo - strong encounter

now, there was an opportunity - and i missed it, or did i?

yesterday evening, coming home and into the living room, i found myself in the company of a queen hornet (vespa crabro) trying to get out of the closed window! never seen one before. what an extraordinary sight - very close to two inches long and vibrating with life, intensity and purpose.

as all external doors and windows were closed, i imagine the following: this week gone we have just started replacing the roof of the old chalet i live in, a lot of banging, hammering, ripping out old stuff has been going on in the attic and i wonder whether she was disturbed from up there, having overwintered or perhaps even already considering building a new nest in the roof. i stared at her in awe with a fast beating heart (running through numerous 'urban myths' concerning hornets) for some considerable time and then was so intent on moving her safely out of the house, carrying her a good way away from my home down into the woods, that it wasn't until i finally saw her flying off into the dusk that i realized "oh no, didn't take a single picture....". unbelievable, isn't it. so much for the always prepared photographer. but you know what - and i have felt this numerous times before: sometimes the absence of a camera is a good thing. it often seems that when there is a camera between me and the 'object' that this somehow diminishes the impact of the immediate experience. there is too much concern about getting a good 'record', the camera becomes a subtle barrier between me and 'it', emphasizing our separateness. when the camera is not there, i often find that my connection to what i have stumbled across is much more raw and emotional and leaves a far deeper impression, reverberating in my mind for a long time. it doesn't become a picture, but a real encounter and a powerful and lasting memory to treasure. part of me is really glad that i missed this 'picture', but oh boy, am i glad to have met this queen hornet.

will i leave the camera in the bag next time? well, we'll see, i'd certainly recommend it once in a while.

16 March 2011


Tree xenophobia is common in South Africa and people cut down trees for no real reason like blaming the tree for making leaves that fall in the swimming pool or the roots making the lawn lumpy (Africa is not for sissies).

It is actually heart warming to see an effort being made to save an alien (it does not occur here naturally) Norfolk Island Pine in the village of Schoenmakerskop where I live. I call it a great architectural innovation but I suppose it is just a gap in the wall to allow the tree to continue standing where it has been for some sixty years. Does this happen elsewhere in the world? It is the first time I have seen this. The tree, being mature, won't expand that much more and the gap in the wall between the wall and the tree is so small that even a Dachund on a weighless programme would not get through.

Incidentally another Norfolk Pine got struck by lightening and I was expecting to get some great images but there was only some damage to the bark and a meter long shallow gauge on the trunk. I expected more and in the back of my head I seem to remember that the sap in the tree is heated by the bolt, expands and can cause the tree to shatter. I suppose I can blame the drought.

8 March 2011

True Confessions of a Naturalist/Photographer

I am supposed to earn my living from photography and writing but sometimes the naturalist in me takes over. Driving in a small municipal nature reserve along a fence I saw a small antelope and managed to switch off the engine and coast to a silent stop, grab a camera and fall silently out of the car. The small antelope continued feeding along the fence and eventually passed me.

Watching I realised it was a Blue Duiker, the smallest antelope found in Southern Africa. You seldom see them and in some 35 years of photography the only ones I have seen were dead alongside the road or dead in a snare. My camera sounded like a machine gun in the quiet of the morning and the antelope quickly realised it was not alone. It nervously approached the road and hesitatingly stepped over to the other side. Still using a slow almost ponderous walk it went to a track leading into thick bush and in a blink skipped down the path and disappeared.

Wonder how long it will take before I see another. Interesting how large the hooves seem, an expert (thanks Ayesha)(will tell the world to visit the Kragga Kamma Game Park!) told me that it was the result of the soft sandy habitat it lives in. If the surfaces it walks on are not abrasive the hooves will grow. They are not rare but are seldom seen because of their secretive habits and dense habitat of dense coastal dunes. They are most active early in the morning and late at night.

Sadly they make good eating and are easily snared. Crossing roads is also not their forte and I chose this picture because it shows how secretive they are and how hard they try to avoid being seen. This antelope walked back to the shadow across the road and crossed in the shadow. Good camouflage but not good road sense.

I do like the white edged tail which makes identification easy. It is almost like a little flag that identifies it. Next time I will remember that I am a professional photographer and will take more than just a few pictures. I might never see another one.

14 February 2011

Painted Reed Frogs

I probably spend a bit too much time around my little fish pond. I ignore the Raucus Toads (too noisy) and keep an eye on the Painted Reed Frogs.

At night it is all sex and music. The adults sit on the lily pads and surrounding vegetation and make their not unpleasant “short, high pitched, explosive whipp-whipp whistles, repeated once every second.”* They do this in a massed choir and it certainly works well for them and there are many happy couples clasping each other in the water and tadpoles in the pond. So many in fact that we have a new visitor, a Fishing Spider, that is providing a bit of tadpole population control.

It is not what happens at night that has caught my attention, it is how the frogs disperse during the day that I find fascinating. The total population of Reed Frogs is about 20. During the day there are at most 4 around the pond and the rest go and hide in the garden. I find their choice of hiding places interesting.

It makes good sense for a young frog to spend the day in the rain gauge. A frog would want to know if there was rain as it would enhance the night’s activities if there was more water – although the only time they go into the water is to escape predators or mate. Completely inexplicable is one frog (I call him Herbert the Invisible) who sits in full sunlight in the middle of a brick wall in full view of all predators (who range from birds to snakes). He (or she) persisted in doing this and eventually there were 3 “invisible” wall sitting frogs. One brave frog sat in an aloe for about 3 weeks, every day on the same sharp and thorny leaf. His bright colours made him stand out against the dark leaf. Again it did not really make sense.

Stranger still are the Painted Reed Frogs who like the pink or orange buoys. We live near the sea and cannot leave a buoy lying on the beach and the garden is full of them. They ignore most colours and if you really need a frog looking in the pink buoy is almost guaranteed to be successful. They don’t like yellow or red and tend to ignore all the other buoys.

My favourites though are the frogs who spend the day waiting for the night’s action on the pond as I don’t have to spend too much time looking for them. There is always one boring one who will spend the day sitting on a lily pad but then there are the ones who sit on the lily flowers. Some spend the day on the flower stalk, probably convinced that they are invisible. The really fascinating ones sit inside the flowers or on the petals. During the peak sunlight hours the flowers are completely open and as the light starts fading the flowers close and the frog travels on the petal till he or she is completely enclosed by the flower.

I am no scientist and cannot really explain their choice of daytime resting spots. I do know that they do not like being disturbed and if you do so the frog will choose another spot to spend the next day. Maybe I should spend more time doing some real work…..

du Preez, L and Carruthers, V. A Complete Guide to the Frogs of Southern Africa. Random House; 2009.

Beware Red Roses

Well its Valentine's Day and the florists are awash with red roses. They may look beautiful but they are contributing greatly to habitat damage in countries such as Kenya where vast flower plantations raise the flowers for the western markets.

In Kenya, flowers are the third largest export and the industry employs thousands of people.  Many of these flower plantations are located around the beautiful Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley. The lake is an important wetland area rich in wildlife, but as flower production grows, so does the demand for water and this vitally important wetland is under threat.  The warning regarding the risk to the wetlands comes from ecologist  Dr David Harper at the University of Leicester who has spent 30 years researching these wetlands.

Many supermarkets sell these flowers with a fair trade label, which may mean that the workers get paid fair pay and treatment, but does not mean that the production of the flowers is environmentally friendly.

 Then these flowers are then shipped halfway across the world by air, so have a pretty hefty carbon tag too.

When you buy that bouquet of flowers check the label. Many come through Amsterdam, so a label saying the flowers are from Holland can mean they come from somewhere like Kenya. Far better is to go for something produced locally, or better still avoid buying the flowers altogether and donate the money to charity.

Photos Red roses by Peter Landon, Flower plantation and Lake Naivasha by Chinch Gryniewicz

13 February 2011

Global Food Crisis Looming

Is another global food crisis around the corner? The UN’s food and agriculture organization, FAO, has been warning that global food prices continue to rise and are a cause for concern. FAO’s cereal price index is now at its highest level since July 2008, but still 11% below the peak in April that year.

The world’s poor live mainly on cereals and rising prices have a direct effect on their livelihood.

Extreme weather has been responsible for shortfalls among many of the world’s major cereal producers: drought in Russia and Argentina, a heat wave and heavy rains in the U.S. and widespread flooding in Australia and Canada. And now China, the world’s largest wheat producer, is bracing itself for the worst drought in 200 years, at least in the province of Shandong.

Canada is the world’s third largest wheat exporter, after the U.S. and France, according to the International Grains Council. But production in 2010 was down 14% and extreme weather is by no means the only cause for the decline. A report just released by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute concludes that Canada is in need of a significant overhaul of its agricultural policy in order to compete in global markets and help feed the world.

But it’s not just wheat production that’s the problem. The increasing demand on corn or maize (see photo) and soybeans for livestock feed and bio-fuels only adds to the pressure when grain is short for human consumption.

While the world has been warned that a major food crisis could develop this year, the good news is that global cereal stocks are higher than they were in 2007-08. But in a world struggling to recover from economic recession, the haves will be less able to share with the have-nots without running their deficits higher.

7 February 2011

Penguins and Commercial Krill Fishing

These Chinstrap Penguins on Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands have stained the ground pink with their guano as their principal food is krill, a small shrimp. When humans first discovered the Antarctic they pillaged it and drove the whales and the seals to the very edge of extinction. Now with the arrival of commercial krill fishing are we about to see history repeating itself?

5 February 2011

Antarctic Damage inevitable?

Adélie penguins on Paulet Island bathe in the summer sun. With the recent grounding of the cruise ship Polar Star in the Weddell Sea you have to ask is the possibility of environmetal damage from one of these ships getting closer?
Toursim in the Antarctic is on the up and fortunately the IAATO does a superb job in making sure that vists are carried out in a resopnsible manner.

2 February 2011


Thanks to the wonder of the internet I know what they call a person who throws litter out of a car window in the UK. They are called “tossers” and I am continually amazed that people still carry on tossing beer bottles and burning cigarette ends out of cars in South Africa too. Apart from the fundamental stupidity of the action accompanied by the litter and broken glass we also have the risk of bush fires. The prolonged drought (while the rest of the country is experiencing floods) is not helping either.

Over the weekend I was reminded of another type of person we have here. I do not know what they are called in the rest of the world so I have decided to label them “jerks.” I wanted to photograph a cute “penguins crossing the road” sign outside a penguin rehabilitation centre called the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre in Port Elizabeth. Someone had fired a metal dart similar to a hypodermic syringe needle into the sign using a blow pipe.

Apart from being just a stupid thing to do I am sure that someone like that would think nothing of shooting a dart into a random passing bird or person. The bird would eventually die and the person could lose an eye.

But we have people in South Africa that are even more stupid than this! There are road signs warning of animals crossing the roads all over South Africa. Kudu are especially dangerous at night as the car lights blind them and they try to leap over the car. They tend to hit the car at windscreen height and there are several deaths resulting from this every year.

Amazingly we have gun owners who shoot at these signs and try to hit the drawing of the animal. Obviously these are low intellect people who shouldn’t own firearms and to top it off they are lousy shots as they seldom hit the animal. When they miss the sign they could hit an innocent passer by and I presume that any animal they see is fair game. Maybe something as stupid as this is done when one is drunk?

I really do not like people as stupid as this and I do not know what to say about them except perhaps to use stronger words than tossers and jerks.

28 January 2011

Why I hate gardening.......

I had a bad night last night. It all started perfectly fine when my left eye started burning a bit. I grumbled a bit and poured a glass of wine. It was not my turn to cook and I was preparing to enjoy the evening and take it very easy. No cricket to watch, just a bit of soccer, and little to distract me. Perfect!

And then my left eye started behaving badly. It started streaming tears and got a little painful. Luckily I have an expired first aid kit which has some eye drops and I dripped some drops and went back to my couch. This was when my eye became more irritating than Manchester United and their supporters. It hurt when open and also hurt when closed and was time for drastic measures like a deep hot bath and aspirin. This did not work either.

One of the things I should never do when in pain is look in a medical reference book or google the complaint. By then my eye was streaming tears to the extent that I thought of drinking water to prevent dehydration. Google did not help as I was not prepared to let someone urinate in my eye (apparently good for Spitting Cobras) and irrigating the eye with water did nothing. The only thing I had done that afternoon was a little gardening and cut down a Euphorbia mauritanica. The flower books don’t say much apart from “succulent shrub, up to 1m. Flowers mustard coloured in terminal clusters. Dry hillsides.”* It did not mention the toxic nature of the white sticky sap but it was something I had been warned about. I must have had a little sap on my hand and wiped my brow. Sweat must have carried the sap to my eye.

I also remembered an old first aid tip from long ago and bathed my eye in milk and the relief was almost instantaneous.*

Avoid gardening and rather do something healthy running a marathon or bungee jumping.

Vanderplank, Helen J. Wildflowers of the Port Elizabeth Area Gamtoos to Swarkops Rivers. Bluecliff Publishing; 1999.
* I have a friend who is a nurse and I trust her more than any doctor - she mailed me and said this was good advice.