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.