Saturday, 29 December 2012

An Unexpected Journey... or Three (2012 Review)

Fortunate would be an understatement for the privileges I have experienced throughout 2012. A first trip to the continent from which human life is said to have stemmed, Africa, provided me with a wealth of experiences both cultural and of the natural world. Furthermore trips to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania and the Isle of Mull in Scotland aided in making 2012 a year of international exploration. The cliché “life changing experiences” lived up to their potential and the ensuing differences appeared not in feelings but instead in knowledge. Here is an assortment of some of my favourite pictures and a brief description pertaining to how each was obtained.

1) 2012 started with a chance to test out a hard earned 100-400mm lens and the simple task of making a short film about my old haunts, “home” in Layman’s terms. The video involved capturing as much wildlife as possible to show the myriad and beauty of wildlife residing in the River Stour in Suffolk. I had acquainted myself with a kingfisher and it had become almost a project. Although getting close proved difficult it did not seem to mind human company at a distance. As I walked down a river path a glistening blue caught my eye sitting on an old bridge, this was the first time I spotted it on this perch and the last with camera at hand. Edging forwards, crouching through foliage, without snapping twigs was nigh on impossible. After getting some decent footage I grabbed a quick snapshot to remember him by.


 2) The desolate looking grasslands for the Chinese water deer picture in February, during a weekend of twitching in Norfolk, were in fact far from desolate. A short way from the path at Titchwell nature reserve this furry little Ewok-esque deer with vampire-like fangs emerged from a bush. Certain people consider them a nuisance but many of these people have taken a shine to the Muntjac deer, which is equally as invasive a species.

 3) Amongst the piles of rubbish littered around a Gambian track to the beach skulked a surprisingly large amount of bird life. Much like gulls flocking around a tip, several different species from Hooded Vultures to Fire Finches happily rummaged through the waste, avoiding the odd wistful plastic bag in the searing breeze. Too intent on sunbathing, the Cattle Egrets and Hooded Vultures in particular opted for playing statues in the presence of potential danger. This boded well for myself as I crouched down to their level and adjusted angle accordingly trying to find the optimum shot. After a little shuffling I got a couple of shots away and went on to work on my Little Bee-Eater project…

4) … en route through Bijilo Forest, to continue the aforementioned project,
I encountered the more illusive of the two monkey species in the forest, the Red Colobus Monkey. Being an endangered species it seemed illogical not to take advantage of a rare eye-level shot of this fantastic mammal. Ordinarily I take very little notice of mammals, they are cute, perhaps too cute sometimes and this means they already get enough adoration from the general public without needing my love. This particular Red Colobus Monkey perched on a knee-level branch in the shade nibbling on a rolled up leaf, apparently with the ability to multitask, looking after the baby clutched fiercely to it’s mothers chest.

  5) During a break from the Little Bee Eater project in which we visited Tendaba camp, the opportunity arose to take a boat ride through the nature-rich mangroves and upset stomach or not, there was no way this experience was going to go to waste. After drifting to the opposite bank from the camp floating in-between low flying pelicans we slipped effortlessly through the mangroves. As well as lecturing a lecturer on why I chose the setting I do for my camera I kept an eye out for movement around trees. Throwing my camera into position without lobbing it into the rusty brown waters was challenging but it was worth it as every now and again a shot came off. This African Darter in particular was my favourite as its take off coincided with my camera lobbing creating a near sharp flight picture.

 6) Definitely breaking into my top 3 of the year, the Little Bee-Eater picture (which made a fantastic double page spread for my assignment) was as fun to capture as it makes me proud to display. Without camouflage a lot of hiding in bushes was necessary, the only difficulty with this is the perches of the Little Bee-eater were high above bush level so they could easily spot a bee on a fly past. Great for the Bee-Eater but not me who couldn’t just settling for pointing the camera straight up through thick foliage for a sharp foot shot. After a couple of attempts rising slowly from sparse shrubbery using my eyes to see where the Little Bee-Eater was proved unsuccessful a change of tact was needed. Covering my eyes with the camera as I rose, using just the viewfinder to try and find the petite bird, I slowly emerged from the bush trying desperately to keep an element of balance. I managed to capture the most evening sun-drenched picture I have attained to date. The light was beautiful and I owe it to that.

7) Using the same technique as before I moved around the bush with the intention of a silhouette effect. This turned out to be the better of two similar pictures. This is a personal favourite that makes my top 3 however feedback on it has not been as positive. Apparently it is a common occurrence for photographers to put too much stock into once picture and it takes another’s eye to truly rate it.

8) The final Gambian picture I consider the best I have ever taken, simply because it depicts a life and death situation. A group of us were skipping barefoot across jagged rocks on Bijol Island, the home of large colonies of both Caspian and Royal terns. These Caspian terns in particular seemed intent to defend their nests that cocooned their precious young. Everyone else seemed to be taking pictures of the adult birds and I spotted one of their young, obviously dislodged from its nest struggling through a mini sandstorm. As I pressed the shutter release and fired off some high speed continuous shots, an adult Caspian gull swooped down and tried to attack it; the mother of the young swooped down immediately after this swiftly protect it. To this day the series of 3 or 4 shots amazes me.

  9) Romania was filled with mixed emotions and confusion, it is for these reasons and a few others it was not blogged about. The following picture was taken on a day out with Gal Laszlo, the Transylvanian Wildlife Project’s brilliant tracker. He took us to the site of a possible Ural Owl hunting ground. We arrived just before lunch and had to waste the warm summers day away. Bouts of sleeping on the hillside in the Carpathian mountain range and chatting entertained us for a short while. This could not be sustained forever so I decided to take a walk and very soon came across a Swallowtail Butterfly. After rushing back for a change of lens I returned and persevered to get a habitat shot, trying many different commando crawl approaches in the process.

10) Driving along the mud track roads that emanate from the village of Ojdula, keen eyed and ready for anything will be a memory never forgotten. The Land Rover conquered every challenge it faced in the form of potholes and impossibly steep embankments. Driving along these roads we would spot: Red Foxes, Hoopoes, Red Deer, Cuckoos and on this particular occasion a Red Backed Shrike. Although they seemed to be fairly common in this area the Red Backed Shrike is an interesting bird nonetheless. I spotted the Shrike about 10m ahead sitting on a post and called it, luckily it was on my side of the car so leaning out of the Land Rover was done with ease. It sat there and looked at me, away again in timid fashion for a few seconds, back at my and then flew off. It may have spotted the five of us in the car gawping at it.

11) Getting back to England following these magnificent journeys was actually a relief. I never really believed I would miss British wildlife as much as I did but in all honestly we are very lucky to have as amazing array of wildlife as we do. This picture may reappear in the upcoming blog post about Otters. It was only by chance I found it swimming nonchalantly by early on a June summer morning. It kept a beady eye on its surroundings and possibly me as I lay semi covered in the long grass. It came closer after I thought it had spotted me so whether or not it had is another question. This was my first encounter with an otter and will not be my last if the next few weeks go to plan. One of the most exciting experiences I have ever had with wildlife. There is just something about Otters after the hardships they have been through.

12) Despite the warmth of the weather and welcome in Gambia and the raw excitement of walking with Bears in Romania the Isle of Mull was my favourite place I visited in 2012. I owe Cain Scrimgeour a lot, not simply for allowing me to come along to the Isle of Mull but for helping me develop my interest and knowledge of wildlife throughout the year. After his previous visits he had manage to pull together the perfect wildlife trip. One of the activities planned was a boat trip to watch the White Tailed Sea eagles, a magnificent bird which did not fail to leave us completely awestruck. These particular birds are fed which in part takes away from the photograph but nevertheless each photograph will eternally remind me of an experience never forgotten. They were huge. Fortunately since their reintroduction, the eagles around Mull are thriving and the future is looking bright for them indeed. Not sure how much else I can say on the matter but if you ever get a chance to see them, go.

13) Although on the Mull holiday the next two snaps were taken on Lunga Island. I would like to say that the puffin Colony on Lunga Island is unlike any I have encountered before but this is the first I have been up close and personal with. As well as their characteristic colours they have fantastic little personalities and their community is unique to say the least. As we lay there near the cliff edge the puffins would fly in with mouthfuls of fish before diving perilously off the cliff and returning to the sea for more. There was no need for a long lens; they would climb over people’s belongings if they were left unattended. They were completely unperturbed to the point where I had to change down from my 100-400mm lens to the 18-85mm lens because they were just too close.

14) This would have been a picture of the incredible encounter with a Minke Whale on a trip with Sea Life Surveys from Mull. Alas, after the great laptop failure of September it was lost in an information black hole. Sea Life Surveys offer a fantastic trip… a must do if you are going to the Isle of Mull.

As mentioned in the beginning: despite this incredible year feelings remain the same, I still feel a sadness mixed with annoyance when seeing adverts for starving children spammed on television. Knowledge obtained enables me to look past a simple donation and realize that a combination of time and tourism are imperative to growth of the world. On the other hand there is the ethical dilemma of why do we need to do this. The villagers in Ojdula in Romania and the Gambians in remote areas were some of the happiest people I have met because they do not have to deal with the stress and burdens of the western world. I do not mean to sound ungrateful for the life I have been born into, nevertheless in many ways I envy them.

Ultimately I look forward to moving into 2013. It may not have the adventure and excitement of travelling to exotic places that 2012 lavished me with; however it will be a year of using what I have learnt and building upon it to try and capture more wildlife experiences, which to me this is even more exciting.

Happy new year everyone!!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Sterling Weekend of Starlings and Such

Upheaval from southern roots is a bewildering thing. Acclimatisation to new cultures and surroundings can certainly take its time as The Gambia proved before. Just 250 miles of quintessentially British scenery separate my home county of Suffolk and Cumbria nevertheless the differences are numerous. It has only taken a couple of years, nevertheless Cumbria finally feels like home; but not Cumbria as the outside world knows it.

Post-Lake-District-hype has developed into a love of the less tourist-ridden areas. Away from the plethora of people eager to stand amongst the gods, high above the clouds, there is more; the world containing places such as Dalston, Drumburgh, Silloth among other quirky little places to visit. When Mum came to visit, a year’s worth of experience of Carlisle and surrounding areas proved handy as the mantle of tour guide was draped firmly around me. The relief of having explored a little avoided a “blind leading the blind” situation.

After a lengthy journey from Wiltshire herself, Mum was about ready to stretch her legs. A late afternoon stroll to Dalston proved the perfect remedy to restless legs. Keeping an eye out for waxwings (which have somehow eluded me this year) I lead her on a wildlife tour of the river. Just two weeks previous to this the bushes along this route had provided one of those breathtaking nature moments. This particular moment involved the flyby of a Barn Owl being mobbed by 3 crows, around 5 meters away at head height. Hoping for another encounter in a similar vein of fortune, we marched forward in circumstances not overly different from that of my previous encounter.

Spotting birds in twilight shrouded trees proved tricky. It took at least 3 minutes to spot a Linnet chirping and when it was finally unveiled, embarrassingly enough for me, it was Mum who’s eagle eye had caught a glimpse of it. Redemption followed swiftly as I spotted a kingfisher and the resident dippers of the River Caldew. Despite scouring the tree lines and low grasslands there was no sign of a Barn Owl; it seemed that my foolish promise to find one was exactly that. Foolish.

I had hoped to find the Otters along the Caldew as I had been trying in vain to locate them for a few weeks. This was not to be the lucky trip as we arrived in Dalston both Otter-less and Barn Owl-less. A quick turnaround was in order as light was fading and someone, being rather sensible, is not a fan of being out in the dark. Halfway home, between looking at flittering clouds of seagulls drifting effortlessly on thermals and trying to seem like a semi knowledgeable tour de force, embarrassment struck again. Mum spotted a Barn Owl silent, with ominous purpose; it was gliding head-on around 20 meters in front. Abruptly the autumnal temperatures flooded through my veins and with the tingle of excitement we halted, frozen in our tracks. The Owl stayed true for a few meters more before darting off towards bountiful grasslands across the river. Whatever happened now, day 1 had been a success.

The stunning route of the Stumpy documentary, winding around the hidden nooks and crannies of the Cumbrian Solway coast was the plan readied for undertaking on day 2. One by one, place-by-place the locations were introduced: Sandsfield and Burgh-by-Sands before a brief intermission at Drumburgh. A chase after what I thought may be a small flock of waxwings proved detrimental for my new shoes as they absorbed half the mud on the Solway, leaving me a little soggy-footed. The likes of Port Carlisle and Bowness-on-Solway filled a void in the imagination my Mum had had to conjure of my journeys. Keeping an eye out for the Great White Egret that seems to have made RSPB Campfield its home we trundled by the entrance to the reserve. A rendezvous with the gangly scarcity and its snow-white plumage was about half a mile ahead. It sprung into its cumbersome early flight from a pool to the west of the Campfield entrance.

Intentions from here had been to investigate a Red Breasted goose near Cardurnock, however it was not to be our day. The goose had chosen to feed amongst Barnacle geese far from the nearest viewing point. During the few minutes we spent at this location there was a bittersweet mix of ups and downs, offered in dribs and drabs. Firstly the let down of the Red Breasted goose followed instantaneously by a few negative attitudes by some of the twitchers towards a younger stranger among their ranks. Although normally this would not bother me, I had encountered this kind of attitude towards someone my age (and infinitely more knowledgeable than me) in Norfolk. I lifted my binoculars tentatively towards my face and scanned. Waves of murmurs spread across the twitchers to my right; they had spotted it too. A ringtail harrier was swooping from left to right across the marsh with a smaller indistinguishable bird nearby. People with the stronger scopes reliably informed me that it was in fact a Merlin. Everything had completely turned on its head. Unbelievable! Although a stunning bird the Red Breasted Goose will never quite match up to the prowess of the Hen Harrier, magnificent.
The journey continued with Abbeytown, Skinburness and then on to Silloth for fish and chips. It was the perfect way to celebrate a near perfect sweep of many of Cumbria’s greatest wildlife locations. With fortune being on the whole favouring the planned trips it was time to take a risk on something spontaneous. A last minute gamble on a decision to cross the border to Scotland and hope for a Starling murmuration was set in motion. Devoid of any life, the skies of Gretna were a bitter disappointment so we settled for a warm beverage and further catch up before returning to the car. As spontaneous as the decision we had made to go to Gretna, the skies blackened with small flocks of starlings. From the east, the southeast, the northeast and a few from the west like some sort of supernatural magnetism they assembled. The fluidity of the cloud twisting and swirling hypnotizing any observer as is intended. Whichever predator causes the commotion is the intended target for confusion after all. The murmuration is a magical experience; an experience that just a few decades ago was commonplace across much of Britain. With Starling murmurations now a commodity this spectacle is fast becoming one of greatest yet rarest wildlife experiences in the natural world. There was no better way to end what was a fantastic weekend of sharing what I had previously learnt and explored with Mum.

As the cloud, an almost viscous grease-like smear across a dusty canvas of cloud, filed systematically into their roost the guilty party flew over our heads. It was the kestrel that had caused all of the trouble. We were genuinely breathless.

Since these trips I have managed to locate the Otters on the Caldew and hope to undertake a little Otter work for my dissertation. Fingers crossed they will be the subject of my next post.

Hope you enjoy(ed) the video!

Monday, 8 October 2012


It’s funny how finding a reduced pasty from Asda can set the tone for a day. A simple bargain that plays a subconscious bearing on an otherwise undisturbed day, easily breezed through. Value for money and serenity remained a prominent theme throughout yesterday as the final year of University truly began. Up until now settling in had been at the forefront of thought and a lack of a trusty steed (following the destruction of my bicycle in April*) had prevented any form of escape from the intense reacclimatisation to city living. However, equipped with a new bike, new lens and a mind in need of refreshing, the day to escape had come.
The new bike (supposed to be a bargain from Halfords) lived up to its price tag and was uncomfortable at the very least. Although none of this mattered because the Cumbrian sun beating down on pale skin overrode any notions of negativity. Departure from the city was slow and cumbersome, not unlike the bike. Encountering the Great Cumbrian Run did not help matters as trying to manoeuver what essentially feels like a bicycle made for kids proved more difficult than anticipated. The majority of the runners were running past me as I tried desperately not to impede them in any way. Navigating the crowds of enthusiastic onlookers also proved to be a challenge.

Once upon the open road, rather stereotypically with the wind in my hair and the golden sun illuminating the troublesome fields of corn still in need of harvest, a wave of familiarity struck me. Reconnecting with Sandsfield, then Burgh-by-Sands, Dykesfield and finally Drumburgh. It was good to be back.

A week or so previous to this delightful Sunday afternoon there had been an American Golden Plover at Drumburgh. The task of finding the needle in a needleless haystack proved to be as fruitless as could be expected. After scouring the Eden river channel (at the correct tide level as had been advised by Cain Scrimgeour) there was no sign of it. Hundreds of Lapwings, Black Headed Gulls and Common Sandpipers with the odd Redshank, Lesser Black Backed Gull and Cormorants dotted around along with a solitary Grey Heron.

 As far as wildlife photography was going it was slim pickings as the unreachable salt marsh habitat proved more enticing than a seat next to a man with a gun shaped object. I guess when you see it through their eyes… 

There was no better time to test the other bargain. The Canon 50mm f1.8 lens was certainly a bargain and will prove useful for future film projects. An opportunity to play with its low depth of field always turns out to be a fun distraction.

Eventually, as the tide began to flood the Solway estuary, splashing could be heard. It took a while to register but something was trying to get at a trio of Redshank perched precariously close to a miniature muddy slope. A quick switch of lens back to the 400mm meant spelled the end of the DoF fun. Never got to see this creatures true identity, only ever saw the rippled following each failed attempt at a snap at the birds, but it was probably a seal.


The daunting realistation that this trip was coming increasingly close to having an incredible total of 0 close up wildlife pictures left me frantically looking for a subject. Fortunately a couple of Collared Doves posed nicely. Not the most exotic of birds but they have a certain charm and are definitely a step up from Pigeons.

True to form the bike ride proved entertaining on the journey home as the handlebar came loose. 10 miles worth of wobbly bicycle riding on the bike that only 3 days before had been put together for a £20 service change (not much of a bargain after all). Thanks for trying to kill me Halfords! Never a dull day out in Cumbria. At least the lens and pasty went down a treat.

Footnote: An Allen key has since been purchased and extra time was found to practice on “wildlife” with the 50mm lens.

[The following is a story relating to the "April*" section of the last story that explains the bike situation... it's just a better story than this one and fits in nicely with the theme]

* April featured the climax of filming for the Stumpy documentary. A last ditch attempt to get documentary affairs in order. With just 2 weeks of filming and editing left I had managed to get an interview with the manager of RSPB Campfield Marsh.

People may be aware that bike troubles had already been an issue if they have read previous blog post however this time repairs had been made and a bicycle pump purchased...

At 10am, following a rigorous tyre inflation and repair session, I left knowing full well that I had left plenty of time to cycle the 15 miles to Campfield Marsh. Almost instantly the front tyre deflated so I hopped off, brandishing the pump and reinflated the tyre ensuring the cap was reattatched approriately. Just outside Carlisle the tyre repeated its little trick. Determined to make it on time, regardless of numbers of pit stops necessary, I ploughed on. Miraculously the tyres remained well behaved for around the next 6 miles before having their final hissy fit (literally... its downfall was easily audible). Despite multiple patches and copious volumes of glue being slathered over the inner tube the tyre had given up. Stranded in Burgh-by-Sands, 7 miles from home. It was only 11am just had to think hard.

A pricey bus journey and abandonment of the bike (albeit temporary abandonment) was the only option. The bus terminated at Bowness-on-Solway and lugging my camera equipment, including a 6kg tripod, the final miles became somewhat of a trek: a trek at a canter.

Thankfully I made the interview with 5 minutes to spare; Norman Holton was a true gentleman and perfect interviewee. The next mission was to get home. With no money and just a return ticket to Burgh-by-Sands getting home would happen eventually. How long it took became irrelevant. I had the interview and that was all I needed; or so I thought as the heavens opened. Within minutes of stepping out of the entrance to Campfield Marsh I was drenched.

A hop, skip and a jog to Bowness ensued, rendering me breathless and resembling a drowned rat that had just been washed in with the tide. Sodden I stepped into the King’s Arms PH (the final pub on the Hadrian’s Wall path). The locals informed me I had just missed a bus and the next was in around 50 minutes. Unexpectedly the landlord and locals were very accommodating and the pity drink and good company was much appreciated.

At around 6pm the bus came and whisked me away to Burgh-by-Sands and back to the wreck that was the bike. The bike maintained it’s stubborn ass
façade and dug it’s heels in; refusing to be repaired, choosing instead to be pushed the 7 miles home. This journey proved to be the last for this bike as on the 7 mile journey the rear tyre also gave in. Still not quite sure how but the inner tube was slashed and hanging out between the lip of the tyre and the rim of the frame:
The final straw that broke the ass’s back.

Thanks for reading! (especially if you made it this far).

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Troublesome Time Lapse

Due to an extraordinary volume of work this summer blog post writing has taken a back seat. Needing to fund a final year project has become an obsession and the opportunities to take good photographs have been minimal to say the least.

Tonight has been an opportunity to upload a time lapse (bottom of the post) made especially for a university documentary. The documentary did not go completely to plan and unless there is a particular request people will be spared from the cheesy documentary about a 1-legged Mediterranean gull. 

Several weeks of considering locations for the time lapse and musings on how on earth I would get to said locations all culminated in one night’s hard work, one random impulse and the seizure of an opportunity. Weather preceding this particular night had lived up to the Cumbrian reputation of cloudy with a high possibility of drizzle. After what had felt like weeks of ominous looking cloud cover, the glorious sight of stars piercing through the grim atmosphere greeted me as I prepared for bed. This was it. What felt like the last chance to get the shot I needed. It was already 11.30pm so I hastily set an alarm for 2am and drifted off to sleep with the master plan of cycling to Drumburgh on the Solway coast when I awoke.

Next thing I knew the alarm was bellowing at me, adamant I was going to get up. Luckily it was fairly easy, possibly because it felt like I hadn’t been asleep in the first place. Pulling together all sorts of clothing for warmth I scrambled downstairs to get the bike. As on form as ever, it had gotten a puncture overnight. Not entirely sure how but it seemed determined about the fact I wouldn’t be getting that time lapse. There was no way on earth this setback was going to stop a man on a time lapse mission. Armed with tent, camera gear and tripod my brain concocted one of those early morning, not enough sleep based ideas that will never really work. I set off on foot believing I could make it the 10 miles to Drumburgh. A mile down the road the reality dawned upon me as I stood frozen to the spot, this was impossible. I hailed a cab driver, who seemed relieved at the fact I wasn’t some inebriated teen vomiting over the back seat of his fine car. After explaining my situation (and a brief discussion about football) he said, fairly unsurprisingly, that I might not be able to get to my destination for the £20 I had in my wallet. In response I just said “get me as far as you can then, cheers. I’ll just have to hike the rest”.

The meter on the cab kept ticking: £13, £14..... £18, £19, £20.... £22...
“Wait what?” I thought and had to point it out to him out of guilt. Kindly he had offered to drive me the extra mile for free. Thank you again to that gentleman! Not that he will read this blog but I am still extremely grateful.

After parting ways I donned the head torch and set about setting up the subject of the time lapse; my tent, which is easier said than done in the pitch black of Drumburgh point. It took several minutes of fumbling and spearing myself with the poles to get it set up. With the torch inside the inner tent for a better effect the time had come to start the time lapse.

It was nearly 4am already; time was running out to get enough pictures to capture the transition from star lapse to sunrise... I had forgotten my time lapse remote.

“Right!” I huffed impatiently to the mass emptiness that was the Solway estuary. The camera had to be operated manually. Ultimately the downfall of the whole time lapse was this particular setback. The tripod was cheap, nasty and generally unsteady in the lightest of breezes. How it endured the winds that battered the Solway and stayed upright will always remain a mystery.

At around 5am the sunlight spilled over the rim of the eastern horizon. The transition had begun and so had the temperatures. What had been a mildly chilly evening became a frosty morning. The lens of the camera, despite my best efforts to keep it defogged, had developed a crusty layer of salt combined with small frost particles. Just before 6am it all came to a halt. Two hours of manually operating this camera had taken its toll, the time had come to pack away the tent and camera. Gloves were no match for the chilly morning and it felt like at any moment my fingers would become brittle, drop off and feed the masses that were about to provide one of the greatest spectacles I have ever seen. No word of a lie.

Minutes after packing away, with the sun just coming up over the eastern horizon, hundreds upon thousands of sea birds filed in from from the west. They were flowing inland along with the tide that had started rushing into the estuary. Being amidst this cacophony left my jaw locked open. The sheer volume of the tide rushing in and the thousands of birds is the single greatest natural experience I have ever had in the United Kingdom.

After standing and watching this spectacular natural occurrence, it was time for a 10 mile walk home.  Other than a Mother’s day phone call I am not aware of anything else happening, could have been the severe lack of sleep and freezing conditions. Spurred on by the thought of watery porridge (anything will do after missing breakfast), the journey only took three hours.

Later, all 180 or so pictures had to be realigned in final cut as a result of tripod wobble. This was another 4 hours for what turned out to be 10 seconds worth of my 12 minute documentary... ah well. Totally worth it!

The video below is best viewed in 1080p.

Hope everyone has had a good summer!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Gambia: Post 3 – The Final Project

Refreshed from the plummet in temperature upon our return to the coast it was time to begin planning our final projects.  At a chilly 27 degrees Celsius care had to be taken and additional layers were worn over breakfast in attempt to focus as much thinking as possible towards a possible project. Whilst some of the more organised students had already planned out and had a project set in stone; others, including myself, were still floundering over the infinite possibilities that The Gambia had to offer. The proverbial thinking cap suited well and ideas mulled over continually all throughout breakfast. It was only after a hot dog sausage and half a plate of beans that my mind finally settled upon a little character that I likened to my beloved kingfishers from home. Little blasts of colour, iridescent in the rich African sunlight and with similar characteristics to the kingfisher; the Little Bee Eater seemed like an obvious choice of subject.

During the few days prior to the Tendaba trip I had stumbled across the Little Bee Eaters after wandering away from the main group. The majority of people strolled in the relative shade of Bijilo forest on this particular day. On the verge of burning to a cinder and low on water I took the decision to leave the forest and walk along the adjacent beach where there was more of that photographer’s best friend, Light! A poorly modelled idea at the best of times; nevertheless lingering amongst the shrubs in the scrubland between Bijilo forest and the beach was a pair of Little Bee Eaters. Perched precariously side by side on a long blade of grass emerging from a crumbling sand bank they had a certain character about them. Being a sucker for brightly coloured things they really struck a chord; a chord which thankfully reverberated into my memory during this train of thought. 

After “extensive” research (in reality about half an hour’s worth) I had gathered enough information to ensure this was a feasible project. The Little Bee Eaters frequented the same perches and sand banks day after day so locating them would be no problem at all. Just the small task of relocating the ones I had encountered in my bedraggled state before the Tendaba trip.

Another upside to the Little Bee Eater project was the fact it was not far to traipse in the event of another temperature increase. Easy access to the project meant that I was able to return on more than one occasion. The first day of traipsing I was accompanied by Paul Mitchell and a couple of others who were also looking project inspiration. Litter is a real problem in the more developed areas of The Gambia and the short sandy path to the beach was no exception. Yet, where the litter laid recklessly strewn over the dusty path, a high diversity of bird life seemed to have accumulated. Fire finches, Hooded Vultures and Cattle Egrets all sifted through the mess in hope of an easy meal. 

Trudging further into the forest an animal conservation student, Hannah (@Colour_TheWorld on twitter) spotted civet tracks. Civets are animals not known to live in Bijilo forest so excitement escalated rapidly amongst the small group. After some enquiring about camera traps, Paul Mitchell had his project. Evidence to back up the existence of Civets within the forest would be excellent news for the forest and surrounding area... This project was continued on Paul’s blog

Getting back to matters in hand! The Little Bee Eaters made an appearance about half way down the forest, in line with a little hut on the beach which really aided in relocating them. However before work could truly begin there was the small matter of a visit to a fish market. The usual bustling sounds and colourful sights of the Gambia were on this occasion accompanied by the stench of fish. Tottering through the market at an amble, disregarding the odd waft of foul smelling fish rot, the overall stench was a pleasant one. Smoke houses contained row upon row of delicious smelling species of fish, the likes of which go beyond my wildlife knowledge. Swordfish, Wrays and Sharks were amongst the fish being processed by the ladies and gentlemen working at this particular fish market brandishing their chopping and gutting tools. A swift tour by one of the youngsters really gave an insight into the inner workings of a Gambian fish market. Despite a pleasant atmosphere however, there is always a fear that their methods of fishing, despite best efforts to control them, are non-sustainable. This fear was compounded the next day on a trip to Bijol Island where a couple of fishing vessels were spotted fishing in a prohibited fishing zone.

Just a short boat ride away from the mainland, Bijol Island is a low lying sand bank situated in the shallows a mile or two offshore. Camera equipment was fortunately stashed safely away as we ploughed through waves as they pummelled our starboard side. Every wave erupted into a spray of mist ensuring that by the time we grounded on Bijol Island we were well and truly drenched. 

Bijol Island contained two delicately balanced colonies of tern: The first species being the world’s largest tern; The Caspian Tern and the second being the elegant Royal Tern.  Their colonies lay side by side, clearly inhibited in colony size by the level of the tide. Tightly packed together, each colony even fought amongst themselves for space and each tern to maintain its genetic line. This was evident as in many cases terns were forced to chase other terns away from attacking their young. It was clear that life on Bijol Island is no fairytale; nevertheless it was an awesome spectacle. The sight of hundreds of terns gliding into flight as a breeze gently blew beneath their wings. Floating like puppets on strings they hovered creating a wave of terns; a menacing wall to contend with for any potential predator. At times we were considered predators and on multiple occasions the terns swooped at great velocity towards our group. It is usually the tallest person that gets attacked so half the group took to crouching while they walked, resembling something more like a performance of CATS on Broadway than a collection of students. Despite close shaves no one got hit, although the gust of wind from a wing beat ruffled a few hairs at times. 

The final few days were spent perched along with the Little Bee Eater on the sand banks. It was a delight to sit and watch the Little Bee Eaters as they undertook their day to day business. Although wary of my presence at first, they warmed to it and allowed me fairly close to each of their regular perches. Attempts at remotely controlled camera shots of them inevitably failed as by sods law they stopped using the regular post I had set my equipment near for the day. It was down to handheld shots obtained by crouching in the sharp undergrowth that left me with me with legs resembling a kittens scratching post. The range of behaviour exhibited by the Little Bee eaters was incredible. The male regularly fed the female and a third member of the family chipped in with the work load every so often. 

As well as perching the Little Bee Eaters exhibited: displaying, gathering food by doing small circuits from their perch, the need to scratch an itch and most interestingly; regurgitation. This was not the only interesting behaviour spotted during the time on the bank. Hooded Vultures and Black Kites proved entertaining with their constant interactions, more bird species fraternising amongst rubbish but this time on the beach.

The Little Bee Eaters really helped complete the trip to Gambia. Exploring their world first hand gave a real insight to the species as a whole and it is clear to see why this particularly stunning little species is so successful. Protecting the sand banks that conceal their nest holes along the front of Bijilo forest is key to their survival. Although the species is currently successful, the ever increasing tourism generated in the Gambia will bring more people to the beaches, potentially interrupting mating. However, this is just a theory and something that could potentially be dealt with easily in the event of any disturbance.

It was a distinct pleasure to visit The Gambia. After scratching the money grabbing surface the underneath contains such welcoming people, beautiful creatures and cultural and environmental experiences that titillate every sense. All in all the Gambia is an amazing country and I highly recommend a visit if you are after an enormous diversity of wildlife or simply being immersed in genuine African Culture. Besides, the things listed in the blog are only a drop in the ocean of possible experiences... there are plenty more where these came from.