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: Eventide

September 2018

Out there, where land and sky are greeting. Where wind whips the grass into waves, and light dresses hills in gold.

It is wolf country. Can you hear them call?

For ninety years they’ve been gone, but the deer, I think, are still listening. The grasslands never forget their own.

White tailed deer GNP Sept 18

Things that belong to it: implausible ridges cloaked in sagebush.

GNP sundown2 Sept 18

Ghosts of villages that crumbled under Time.

Old barn Sask Sept 18

Trees that grow grackles like autumn leaves.

Grackles in the tree Sept 18

Shallow lakes the locals call ‘potholes’: scars of past glaciation, now tended by muskrats.

Muskrat Sept 18

And roads that redefine infinity.

Farm gate Sept 18

I’m on one of them. It’s been an eventful 48 hours in Saskatchewan, but now it’s time to turn north.

Canada: Song Dog

September 2018

I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone,
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own!
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly [photographers];
I love to sit and bay the moon and keep fat souls from sleep.
Not for me the other dogs, running by my side,
Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide.
O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best,
Wide wind and wild stars and the hunger of the quest.

– Lone Dog, Irene McLeod

Coyote, spirit of the prairies. What it is to hear them sing!

Coyote 22 Sept 2018

We live in a strange era where the grey wolf is saluted for its ecological importance, and its coyote cousin is often criticised for having the gall not to become endangered. Not a fair judgement. Science has shown that coyotes, too, are keystone predators who have widespread and fascinating influences on the rest of the natural web.

Coyote1 GNP Sept 18

As for wildlife watching value – well, who could ask for more? Coyotes greeting on wild prairie, ruffled by the wind, shadowed by a passing golden eagle.

Coyotes greeting

Golden eagle sask Sept 18

North America has rewritten the book on wolf genetics, and there will probably be more surprises in the future. Current understanding is that the coyote, red wolf and eastern wolf are all close relatives and ancient North American natives. The grey or timber wolf is a relatively recent arrival from eastern Russia. It would have entered North America through the lost land bridge of Beringia, arriving in what is now Alaska.

It is strange that the coyote did not return the favour and migrate into the old world. We have an ecological equivalent – the golden jackal – but no coyote.

But it’s no hardship to travel to this beautiful land to hear them sing.

Coyote2 GNP Sept 18

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.

Canada: Frenchman

This little river is the prairie to me. Winding ribbon of grey-green water – it is quiet now. Read the land and learn a different story: the mud is churned because bison thundered through.

Frenchman1

Like everything in the prairies, the Frenchman pretends to be subtle when it is not. This small vein is the remnant of a monstrous torrent, one of many prairie rivers fed and bloated by the dying Laurentide icesheet – the icecap that covered most of Canada. Today, the ice has gone and the river has shrunk, little channel in a giant valley carved by its riotous past.

But it remains a wild, surprising place, sweetened by the wind and half-burying its secrets. Never underestimate the drama of the Frenchman River. I spent eight extraordinary weeks here in 2012, running its first ever trail camera project. And to be sure, this is the land of powerful things.

Trail camera photo

Bison crossing river

Bison have a history too. While I was completing my fieldwork, the river uncovered the bones of what was probably a Bison antiquusa 10,000 year old predecessor of the modern plains bison. And of course, as everyone knows, the plains bison itself nearly vanished in our era, but Grasslands National Park has brought them back.

And now I’m back too, watching them breathe under that sprawling, fitful sky.

Bison 21 Sept 2018

I’m looking for old friends, remembering old turns in the road.

Coyote

Coyote GNP Sept 18

Plains garter

Garter snake GNP 21 Sept 2018

And listening to prairie dogs yip.

Prairie dog1

Grasslands National Park is the only place in Canada where these hyper-social ground squirrels still survive. They are a symbol of prairie holding itself together, of an ecosystem relatively intact. Everything here knows the dogs: some species hunt them, some live in their burrows, some simply benefit from their cropped-grass grazing regime.

I’ve been absent six years. It’s not much in the lifespan of a place like this.

The Plant Dimension

They stretch from sand to stormclouds with enough lordliness for hornbills to choose them as a throne.

Oriental pied hornbill 28 May 2018

They sprout nuts and fruit alien to the English visitor, but welcomed by a hungry plantain squirrel.

Plantain squirrel SG 28 May 2018

They clothe fences built by people, sheltering reptiles in their sprawl.

Lizard1 SG 28 May 2018

This is Singapore.

People have had creative ideas about what to do with this island for generations, but for all the skyscrapers, golf courses and godowns, there is no doubt that this is first and foremost a humid, beetle-buzzed, rain-lashed benevolent dictatorship run by plants. Every square metre where something can grow, something does. They even scramble over each other, climbing high like children.

Plant scramble 28 May 2018

Epiphytes – plants that live harmlessly on the surface of other plants, usually trees – are as common as daisies here. Amongst them, more lizards lurk.

Lizard2 SG 28 May 2018

It would take several lifetimes to document the bewildering variety of wild living things in south-east Asia. I’m travelling around the region for the next couple of weeks, revisiting some places, venturing into new ones.

There are many more moods of plants to learn.

 

Spain: Land of the Lynx

Master of rabbits, slave of rabbits. Live by rabbits, die by rabbits.

The very word ‘Spain’ derives from the Phoenician I-Shpaniameaning quite literally the Land of Rabbits. Here and only here is the European rabbit native, in the dry southwest of our continent, along with a bit of Morocco and Algeria. They have become so familiar on golf courses and road verges in Britain that few of us stop to question what a rabbit’s real land looks like.

Storm rolling in

Or realise that it might be collapsing towards extinction there.

Introduced diseases such as myxomatosis and RHD have decimated the rabbits of Iberia; habitat destruction and intensive hunting have also hurt them. And if the rabbit falls, it takes an entire ecosystem with it. The mighty imperial eagle and the outsize Iberian wildcat are amongst the carnivores dependent on rabbit.

So, above all, is the pardel lynx.

It’s overcast today. We spent the morning in the cobbled streets of Marmolejo, a little town with whitewashed walls and orange trees. The road into the mountains winds away north, flanked with wintry meadows and hillsides speckled with stone pine. Vultures cruise lazily overhead; here and there a hoopoe flies.

That is all forgotten when green eyes shine in the grass.

Iberian lynx10a 5 Feb 2018

A pardel lynx!

I came to Andújar with the vague idea of huddling on a freezing hillside for hours – days – until I glimpsed one half a mile away with a spotting scope. And this cat poses like a lion!

Iberian lynx1 5 Feb 2018

I’ve crossed paths with 13 of the 40 or so species of wild cat. All are unique and precious; but this, the rarest of all, puts on the performance of a lifetime. For five hours we share his company. He sleeps, yawns, pads about and sleeps some more.

Iberian lynx8a 5 Feb 2018

Iberian lynx3a 5 Feb 2018

He is lucky; the Sierra Morena support the largest surviving population of pardel lynx. We have seen a few rabbits here, but fewer than I’d hoped.

And there’s question of where his cubs will live – crossing highways is dangerous. Andalucía asks anyone who finds a wounded lynx to report it to the mainstream emergency services; it has also undertaken an energetic programme of ‘watch out for lynx’ signs. I have been encouraged by the very positive local attitude towards the lynx. Reintroduction efforts have recently boosted their numbers elsewhere.

Iberian lynx4a 5 Feb 2018

There are four species of lynx. The smallest is the bobcat, and the biggest by far is the northern or Eurasian lynx, the spotted ghost of the ancient European wildwood. I’ve tracked that species, occasionally, in the timeless primeval woods of Poland. But the pardel lynx has no such wilderness. The fact that its numbers are creeping upwards is testament to its willingness to live in the human shadow, along with the human desire to save it.

And its rabbits. There simply is no lynx without them.

Iberian lynx11 5 Feb 2018

Long may they both thrive in these mountains.

Spain: Sierra de Andújar

In medieval times, they said that the Milky Way is the dust stirred up by travelling pilgrims. Those pilgrims were walking, walking, walking, all the way to Spain, sometimes, and today they still come, albeit called by the new saints called Sand and Sunshine. But the stars shine clear above.

Hunter and his dog

It’s cold. I’m 2,000 feet up a mountain, and the grass is hardening with frost. Around me are the rough ideas of farmland: sprawling grassland tumbling down a hill thinly spiked with stone pine, hens asleep in their coop, sheep behind their uneven fence, uncountable kittens watching with bright eyes. The casa that I meant to call Home for a week holds onto its whiteness against the gathering night.

Casa

It wasn’t easy to get here. The unsuspecting hire car that we collected in Seville smelt hot as we coaxed it up brutal switchbacks on a narrow dirt track, ever higher, ever steeper, a barrier-free drop into the abyss awaiting on every bend. Now it is parked on the cold grass under a lemon tree and thousands of stars.

What is Spain?

I’ve never been to the Costa del Sol. While tacky resorts spring up around the coast like mushrooms, the vast, shockingly mountainous interior of this bewildering country retains a veneer of old-time rural wild. Turn off the zippy motorways, and within minutes you are bumping across a dirt track in an olive grove. Or facing a bovine roadblock.

Roadblock

Or looking into forests where you can hope that some of Europe’s most exotic wildlife still survives.

Pardal lynx sign

Recuerda el lince. Remember the lynx – the pardel or Iberian lynx, the most endangered wild cat on Earth, and Europe’s only endemic felid. The population today is estimated to be around 400, which is still very low but an improvement on the near extinction of previous decades.

I’m come to the Sierra de Andújar region to learn more about this beautiful and enigmatic cat.

But the first lesson is always the land itself. Imagine a giant yellow carpet studded with olive trees scrunched against a mountainous riddle of slate and granite – that is Andalucía. And the boulders! They are everywhere; it is as though someone has torn open a mountain, shaken out its bones, and tossed the skin away.

Boulders Sierra de Andujar

Above this skeleton, there are trees. Stone pine is so bobbly, you’d think a child had drawn it, but it climbs all over the Sierra Morena, green-topped with bark like cracked marble.

Stone pine forest

Stone pine bark

Of course, there are some barriers that no trees can handle. Sierra Mágina consumes the south-eastern horizon.

Sierra Nevada

I’m not headed to the peaks today. The lynx are below the snows, although even here it is frigid enough. Wrapped up warm, we set out to find them.

Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

Snapshot_18

Red fox

Snapshot_11

Wild boar

Snapshot_15

Roe deer

Snapshot_14

Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Apold – Never Eat an Amanita

June – August 2016

Fortunately, nobody does. We’re welcomed into the woods above the final Transylvanian village by the most notorious species in European biodiversity: a death cap Amanita phalloides. Eat this, and you will need a liver transplant…at best.

Death cap2

Gathering medicinal plants is a common activity in Transylvania; I’ve met many elderly women doing just this while I’m out on my mammal surveys. But as with most things in life, you do need to know what you’re doing. Apart from highly poisonous fungi, these hills also host deadly nightshade.

Deadly nightshade

Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.

Bolete

So, Apold. I don’t remember much about arriving here. I had a headache for a full week in Daia and arrived in the final village desiring nothing except sleep. The novelty of the campground wakes me a bit – it is actually inside the parameter of a fortified church. The students are based in the towers, but I’m sticking to my trusted tent.

The village is modern enough to contain car noise and German tourists. There is an ‘end of season’ air to the work this week and my main ambition is not to lose any more cameras. Trailcam 4 gets special treatment of course – we leave it on a track next to some huge bear tracks.

The transects are laced with electric fencing, but I find mammal sign before even leaving town: badger fur caught on wire.

Badger fur

Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!

Bear scat4

The geography is for the adventurous spirit; the Great Thicket of Apold remains in our mind for many days. We achieve the gold standard of Apold by climbing right through it, but it’s so hot, and transect after transect is starting to blur into one.

Apold thicket

But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.

Slow worm

Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.