Scribe on the Sands

Red deer3 Donana Dec 19

12 – 16th December 2019, Andalucía, Spain 

Doñana: art project of the mighty Guadalquivir River, a restless equation of marsh, forest and dune. Hardly an hour south of Seville’s bright streets lies a wilderness with sand that speaks, and slips under your boots, adding you to the register of living things that walked under umbrella pines.

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Rabbits, red deer and wild boar. Mongoose, Iberian fox and badger – they all came here before me, loping past rosemary shrubs, fur patted by a wind that teases winter even while cicadas pepper the nights. Something else is here, something wilder and rarer, and its insignia is etched in the sand.

Iberian lynx track Donana Dec 19

Iberian lynx. They are indivisible from rabbits – I contemplated their relationship in Andújar last year. This lynx is the rarest cat on Earth, a spotted, ear-tufted, sideburned ghost, and Doñana is its other major stronghold. Four times I see their sign on these sandy hikes, but the lynx hide themselves, as is their wont.

Rabbits keep watch, as is theirs. Their population is frail, stitched together by conservationists to keep lynx alive.

Rabbit Donana Dec 19

It is an ongoing campaign, but there is still hope; there are still lynx in Doñana. Somewhere, beyond the cork oaks and the horses wandering free.

Donana horses Dec 19

Doñana‘s other master predator takes to the marshes. For sheer grandeur, the Spanish imperial eagle tops the tree – and a kestrel hovers over it, as reckless as a crow.

Imperial eagle and kestrel2 Donana Dec 19

Imperial eagle and kestrel Donana Dec 19

There are little owls here, too, perched on the ancient stump of a eucalyptus.

Little owl Donana Dec 19

And red deer, still watching.

Red deer Donana4 Dec 19

Still leaving hoofprints on those sandy trails that tell so many stories.

Clouds build over the little whitewashed town of El Rocío.

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Clouds to wipe clean the sandy canvas, turn a fresh page if you will – but the rain is yet to fall.

Out and About

It’s a long while since I caught up with WordPress. In fairness, a unusual number of things have happened lately:

  • My book  Hidden World of the Fox was released in mid-October! 🙂 Lots of excitement and press interviews, and a great opportunity to discuss foxes with a wide audience. You can listen to one of my radio interviews here.

It’s selling well with lots of good feedback, which has been lovely.

Fox in snow

  •  I went outside the known universe in early November. That is, I went to Iceland, the raw, otherworldly, superheated slab of geology that sits atop the North Atlantic Ridge. I should probably write up the experience in normal fashion, but here are a couple of photos for starters.

Iceland3 Nov 19

Aurora3 Iceland Nov 19

  •  Iceland, while dramatic for the mind, is brutal to cameras. My 200-500mm Tamron zoom lens, my long-suffering workhorse of the last 13 years, died in quite spectacular fashion literally seconds before I saw a minke whale. So while I saw plenty of cetaceans, I have no photos. I did manage to take this starling singing on a Christmas wreath…with my iPhone!

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  • Back in the UK, suspecting that iPhones might be insufficient for my future mammal photography, I set about acquiring a new camera lens. I settled on the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary 5 – 6.3, and while it weighs more than the Tamron, I am pleased with it so far. The extra reach makes all the difference when the foxes are on the far side of the meadows.

Fox1 BL 30 Nov 19

And although it’s not as fast as a Canon lens, it’s doing fine with nocturnal garden foxes too. I did consider a Canon prime, but having the flexibility of zoom is nearly essential with wild mammals because they are so mobile.

Big fox 29 Nov 19

Here’s in hope it won’t be another couple of months until my next post!

Canada: Turns in the Path

September 2018

It just goes on, forever.

trees2 rmnp sept 18

Crossed by wary wild things.

white tailed deer1 rmnp sept 18

And some smaller but bolder. This bundle of frenetic energy is a mink, a small, water-loving member of the weasel family.

mink rmnp sept 18

It is so intent on its quest that it almost ignores me.

Spruce grouse keep watch on their own stretch of highway.

ruffed grouse rmnp sept 18

If there are any bats in the batbox, they are certainly asleep.

Bat box RMNP Sept 18.jpg

And the road – it just continues, rolling out of the park gate and into the rural provinces beyond.

gate rmnp sept 18

You can never really know a path like this. As soon as you reach one end, the beginning has reinvented itself with the seasons and you have to start all over again.

Constant travelling. Constant learning. Life on the Canadian roads.

Canada: Scaling down

September 2018

There are days that you remember for the smallest possible reasons. I honestly thought it was a beetle, scootling across a forest road, but, no. It’s a mammal. The smallest mammal that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

american pygmy shrew2 rmnp sept 18

It’s about the size of a £2 coin. Definitely a shrew, possibly an American pygmy shrew Sorex hoyi, the second smallest mammal on Earth. There are hummingbirds that would dwarf this bundle of whiskers and fur. Uncaring of the two-legged giants and their cameras, it predates invertebrates amongst pebbles that must seem like monoliths.

american pygmy shrew3 rmnp sept 18

It’s easy to see a forest in only the big pieces – clouds, trees, lakes. But this wonderland at the autumn-winter boundary continues to enchant with surprises.

I used to watch belted kingfishers when I lived on Vancouver Island. This one cuts a fine figure against Manitoba trees sprinkled with white.

belted kingfisher rmnp sept 18

And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.

rmnp road sept 18

rmnp road2 sept 18

Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.

bear2 rmnp sept 18

Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.

Canada: Christmas in September

September 2018

We’ve stumbled into a place of magic. Autumn and winter built a palace, and look at their art!

RMNP snow4

It’s quiet now, with skies lightening after last night’s snow. Spruce grouse wander the roads.

Spruce grouse Sept 18

…roads: pathways past miraculous beauty.

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And – this!

Bears3 Sept 18

A bear! Three bears in fact; mama and two cubs of the year. They must be wondering who has repainted their forest, but seeing these wonderful creatures contrast the white is spellbinding.

Bears2 Sept 18

Black bears are a special species to me after all the time I spent with them out west. I’ve travelled so far driven by the hope of seeing one again, and here there are three! Christmas come early, I think.

A good moment. A special moment. The type of moment that makes you realise how precious our wild neighbours are.

Canada: Directions to Winter

September 2018

The land is ready. It has dressed in mist.

Roadtrip1 Sept 18

The GPS says we have 700 kilometres to go. I’ve never tried this route before – Val Marie to the wild forests of Manitoba – and yes, the road is long and lonely, but I am not sure we will be the only travellers today. Weather is also on the move: clearing, misting, restless, drifting…

Misty church

It douses living things with dewdrops and runs away down a rolling road, laughing. We shall meet again, I fear.

Endless road

This is Canada, with quiet prairie towns and towering churches.

Canadian church

This is Canada, with prairie potholes adorned with living things.

Prairie pothole Sept 18

This is September, which is supposed to be autumn. Not a chance!

Road lost

Prairie snow. It paints road and field with the same brush, and a fox stands in the grass, wondering.

I’m uncertain too. Contrary to popular belief, prairie is not flat. Approaching a riverside town invariably means descending into a steep-sided valley. And getting out…you get the idea.

It is not as if there is another road. We have to simply continue, down, down, down. So here we are, stranded in the valley of Fort Qu’Appelle between two snow-laced slopes. I wonder how the Hudson Bay Company’s merchants coped with similar weather when this little town was a 19th century trading post. Perhaps they were sensible enough not to try.

Hudson Bay Company Sept 18

There has been much human drama here over millennia. Not much today, however; the snowstorm knocked out the electricity. We debate abandoning our journey in a chilly hotel but cars begin inching up the slope. Onward we go, and winter around dances autumn with glee.

Autumn and winter

It is dark yet bright as we approach the Manitoba hamlet of Onanole. Weather catches its breath. All await the fiery morn.

Sunrise1 23 Sept 2018

Canada: Skylights

20th September 2018

Land of Living Skies – Saskatchewan won its nickname for restless clouds and light. But there is life on that huge canvas. I’ve found nowhere on my global travels that rivals the prairies for sheer abundance and variety of raptors – eagles, yes, both bald and golden, but the prairie has another large hunter that readily turns heads.

Ferruginous hawk GNP 21 Sept 2018

This is a ferruginous hawk, an enormous relative of the British buzzard. For reasons lost to history, the Buteo genus is called ‘hawk’ in North America, which is very confusing to English wildlife watchers. But it is really a buzzard, complete with a 1.5m wingspan and eagle-style feathered legs.

Ferruginous hawks have had mixed fortunes since the prairie was settled and are still listed as a threatened species. Merlins, on the other hand, have increased, and are even found in some cities – but they look best in the prairie.

Raptor2 20 Sept 2018

As undoubtedly does the stunning prairie falcon, a cousin of the peregrine.

Prairie falcon 20 Sept 2018

How many other carnivorous birds have I seen in the Grasslands area over the years? I’ve stopped my fieldwork for a lunchtime picnic and seen golden eagles lazily soar by. Struggled with the identification riddles of Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks. Been watched by snowy owls on icy March mornings. Noted loggerhead shrikes perched on the prairie’s rare bushes.

All these hunters – and coyotes, foxes, black-footed ferrets, rattlesnakes and bobcats – need prey. It is true that rodents do their best to avoid their natural enemies, but nonetheless, they support all the ecological tiers above them. If we want to save raptors, we need to learn to live with Richardson’s ground squirrels and their kin, too.

Richardson's ground squirrel 20 Sept 2018

Meanwhile, pronghorn watch the restless skies.

Pronghorn sky 20 Sept 2018

They are alive. Clouds and sun do not sleep.

Hawk

Australian falcon

Australian hobby, and it sees everything that moves in the Top End.

It’s been estimated that raptors have eyesight up to eight times as powerful as that of a human. So much information gathered with every glance. What would you choose to remember? Not an easy choice, in this fantasy forest of fire and graves.

Termite mounds3

Well, not exactly graves, although they certainly startled the first Western explorers. These bizarre monoliths are the work of compass termites, which align their mighty constructions with the poles. It is thought that they do this to prevent their nests overheating, which might easily happen if one side faced the full wrath of the southern sun. As it is, only the narrow side is cooked.

Termite mounds1

But everything here is strange to a non-Australian eye.

Agile wallaby

Agile wallaby1

Agile wallaby4

Night falls and wakes the dingoes – one lopes across the road in front of our car, but there’s no time for a photo. Australia’s only native canid leaves us with a memory in our minds instead.

Other hunters do tarry. A southern boobook – a small owl – pauses in a tree.

Boobook

It has only been a brief trip to Australia, but the tantalising glimpse of the forest leaves its mark.

Fire, water, termites and heat.

It is good to know that somewhere out there, right now, a hawk is watching them all.

Water Watcher

The forest has Fire, but it also cradles this:

Wangi Falls

Water roars off Litchfield’s sandstone plateaus, but like everything here, it is seasonal. May is still early in the Dry season and the land is ridding itself of the liquid acquired in the Wet.

Or call it Yegge, if you prefer; the Aboriginals traditionally recognise six seasons in Australia’s Top End.

Traditional seasons

The high rivers support saltwater crocodiles – and other, more delicate living things. None are more beautiful than the rainbow bee-eater, which swoops over the pool hunting insects.

Rainbow bee eater

Rainbow bee eater2a

Wherever there is water, there are birds. And they just keep getting stranger.

Masked lapwing

Masked lapwing Darwin Jun 2018

And more entertaining.

Rufous fantail

Oz Fantail

And more impossible in hue.

Forest kingfisher

Forest kingfishers1

Firebird

Fire. These forests are built on it.

Litchfield overview

It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.

Black kites1

Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.

Black kite2

Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.

Red-tailed black cockatoo2

And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.

Short-beaked echinda LNP 30 May 2018

I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.

That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.