The Flamboyant Beauty of the Bee Eaters

How can you resist these harlequin beauties? with their turquoise breast, radiant yellow chin and orange wings, and as they dart over head their bubbly, chirpy chorus is enough to make anyone's heart sing. 

When a breeding pair of European Bee Eaters nested on the Isle of Wight in 2014, naturalists and birders from around the UK flocked to the island to catch a glimpse of these exotic looking birds. At the time, they were considered to be a lost and slightly confused pair, but with a changing climate and two more breeding pairs in Cumbria this year, I really hope that these birds become a regular visitor to British shores.

You can image my excitement when driving around the hills just outside Bologna when I stumbled upon a whole colony. Easily over 30 pairs. Needless to say the next few days were spent observing, photographing and filming them. I even managed to get a few shots of the parents feeding the young and capture the fledging of a young.

As you can see, they do feed on butterflies, moths and anything with wings, although when they do dart off into the sky to hunt down a bee, they do so with incredible sharp procession and accuracy. Once they have caught one mid-flight they return to a perch to devour the bee. With ruthless efficiency it bashes the head on a branch causing the release of the toxins from the body. Soon after it will enjoy the bee with the same relish I enjoy a ripe strawberry. 

As with most of our avian friends their numbers are falling, both from insect depletion due to pesticides and short sighted land management practices but also from persecution; To honey farmers, these birds are not welcome.

Yet in spite of this, many of these birds will cross from Europe to Africa twice a year and in each place they land, bring with them the beauty of both their looks and their sound.

 Nick, Oropendola Productions

Oropendola Podcast - Butterflies and Moths with Richard Fox

In this short podcast we discuss all things butterfly and butterfly lover related with Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation. We get an insight into the work of the British charity and the importance of recording your butterfly and moth sightings. We also find out about the beautiful and intriguing biology of one of Britain's most distinctive and playful butterflies, the Comma.

For further reading check out:

Our other post The art of loving Moths

Or go to the Butterfly Conservation website to find their free app

Nick & Greta, Oropendola Productions

The Newt Hunters

A Great Crested Newt in full mating colours (Triturus cristatus)

I had some fun last week assisting a group of people who are paid to look for animals. On this occasion, they were looking for some of our amphibian friends, the Newts.  In England we have three native species: the Smooth, the Palmate and, king of them all, The Great Crested.

The Palmate and Smooth measure a tiny 9 cm with the prehistoric looking Great Crested often 15cm in length.

These amphibians, whilst not uncommon in England, have been declining throughout Europe due to pollution from agricultural run off and destruction of their natural habitat ponds. Although cute, they are not permitted as pets and all three are protected from trade in the UK under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act. The Great Crested newt is a European protected species, which means it is illegal to harm or disturb either them or their habitat. As a matter of fact, even simple handling is illegal without a license!  Furthermore, they are listed as a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan. Accordingly, newt surveys are often required as part of development proposals to assess the presence and impact on newt populations as well as potential mitigation measures.

This is where the Newt Hunters come in! These people come in all shapes and sizes, some even resemble newts themselves, yet go by the name of ecologists. You may spot them parked up in laybys (let’s not jump to conclusions) or traipsing across fields just before dusk. They are normally found in pairs and are easy to spot as they are usually followed by a herd of sheep and are armed with wellies, huge torches, nets, canes and plastic bottles with inverted heads.

So, how do the Newt Hunters know how and where to find the tiny newts? Well, although apparently each species of newt prefers slightly different conditions, in general they tend to like large ponds in spacious areas with plenty of places for them to newt around and hide in. The best ponds are those without many fish as they enjoy feasting on newt eggs and larvae. A healthy level of aquatic vegetation is ideal, providing both cover and egg laying locations.

More specifically to the single species, Palmate newts seem to prefer shallow ponds with more acidic water and so are often found in upland areas. Great crested newts, on the other hand, prefer the nicer and more idyllic ponds, the sort you find on postcards with a pristine undisturbed environment allowing for good invertebrate foraging and hibernation. The Great Crested are definitely the more upper class newts! Their cousins on the other hand, the Common newts, are significantly less fussy and quite happy to share their pond with a shopping trolley and discarded car exhaust. But above all this, the main thing they all require is an exposed area in the ponds to perform their mysterious mating dance.  This is a rare spectacle which is rumoured to involve some exotic and seductive tail wagging as part of an enchanting dance. Only a few of the Newters have ever witnessed such an event and so the line between fact and fiction is easily blurred.

Newting near cockermouth LoRes
Paloma in the bottle trap

Surveying for newts requires the use of three of the following techniques on four different occasions;

• Egg searches: examining submerged vegetation for newt eggs, sometimes in between folded leaves

• Torching: searching a pond by torchlight between dusk and midnight for the little newts

• Netting: a dip-net is used to search the perimeter of the pond for the newts

• Bottle trapping: submerged bottle traps are placed around the pond perimeter at dusk and checked the following morning.

As the newts have just recently returned from hibernating in nearby logs and foliage, they are not yet in full mating colours. So the two newts we found in the bottle traps (both Palmates) had not yet changed into their spring colours but, were both very cute nonetheless.  I snapped a good picture of a female which I named Paloma, who kindly posed for a couple of seconds before heading back off to her business.

Once the survey was complete, the canes and bottles were removed and packed away, leaving the pond as it was found; deceptively quiet as if no humans had ever waded into those waters.

Paloma the female Palmate

Nick, Oropendola Productions

South American Chronicles: How it all started

Rio Napo - Ecuador

I have already written elsewhere an introduction to how we both ended up in the South American continent, with a camera, a bunch of microphones and a mission to record as much footage and sounds produced by insects as possible. However, having moved my writing to this website, before I can delve into intricate descriptions of the impossibly beautiful rainforest habitats, I feel like I should probably give you quick summary of the story. So, if you fancy reading some old and more detailed posts, follow the links at the end of the page. Otherwise, keep reading here…

The story so far.

With the generous support from the University of Manchester, the contribution of our faithful pockets and savings from a few years of work and the assistance of our slightly insane minds, Nick and I decided it would be a good idea to make a short movie about the Unheard Sounds from the Rainforest.  It made perfect sense! Nick had itchy feet and wanted to go far, far away from all the comfort that surrounded him.  I had been getting progressively more interested in wildlife filmmaking at the time.  We put the two things together, joined forces, and decided we'd try and pursue one of our oldest and most untold dreams: to make a film.

South America made sense too, believe it or not.  Given his background in Environmental Management, Nick had always wanted to travel to South American countries. In part to study and participate in various models of conservation whilst pursuing his interests in photography and sound.  I, for my part, was already heading in that direction because of a work trip to Ecuador with the University of Manchester. And so, that was our deal. We met in Ecuador a few months later, just a camera and a few microphones, together in the jungle.

Some things went the way they should have, some didn't quite work out great, but overall we learned a lot of lessons about the brutality and unforgivingness of the Amazon, about wildlife, about the equipment and how to best capture wildlife whilst being under the baking sun, at 95% humidity, surrounded by myriads of insects that want to drink your blood and lay eggs under your skin.

All valuable lessons, indeed.

Three months later, I was flying again to Peru, to meet up with Nick once again, and continue the project where we left it in Ecuador. This time more prepared, more motivated and more sure that we were doing the right thing, in spite of what friends and family kept saying.

We ended up spending another 40 days in the rainforest of Peru, this time with a clearer idea in mind of what we wanted to record. We weren't after the multicoloured Paradise Tanager bird, nor the bizarre Emperor Tamarins… but all those tiny little creatures whose sounds make up the bed of noise you can hear in any incredibly biodiverse environment, such as a tropical rainforest. The crickets, the grasshoppers, the ants, the millipedes, the beetles, the katydids, the flying creatures, the diggings creatures, the singing creatures and the hissing creatures. They exist in such abundance and at the same time it is so easy to ignore them when squirrel monkeys are dancing above your head, Oropendolas are enticing you with their curious calls and even more attractive and colourful creatures are charming you with their looks. But the rainforest is like a symphony of contemporary experimental music: classical harmony gives way to dissonant chords and predictable rhythms leave their space for more elaborate ones.  There is no score, no theory nor director, but somehow all these creatures are able of making incredibly beautiful music.  You can stand still in the middle of the forest and hear a very loud group of frogs, belting their call out like a cry for freedom, when a group of crickets, from a tree somewhere behind you, decides to produce their stridulating call, at seemingly regular intervals. Immediately the frogs go silent, giving way for the crickets. As their metallic streak increases in rhythm and intensity, now sounding almost like techno music, a soloist bird joins in. Its call is loud, but keeps in perfect rhythm with the crickets. You can't help but smile, and that is only the beginning! You soon realise there is a river a few hundred meters away from you, whose deep sound is acting like a drone. If you pay attention and can hear the ants (yes, there are so many of them and they are so big, you can actually hear them!), you can hear a countless number of leaves rustling around you, and of course, you can hear the millions of flies, mosquitos and butterflies flying around your head, constantly trying to feed off your blood and sweat. It's wonderful, it's never tiring, it's awe inducing, and we wanted to capture it all.

Of course, in two and a half months, we barely scratched the surface of what we wanted to do. But  we still managed to come back with some decent field recordings and several hours worth of footage of little creatures from the undergrowth. And, more importantly, we have not lost a single bit of passion for what we do. In fact, this experienced has confirmed to us that this is what we love and want to keep doing.

Stay tuned for more stories from our time as improvised wildlife filmmakers in South America.

Rio Alto Madre de Dios - Peru

In which I first arrived in Cuzco, Peru, where Nick was waiting for me: (here)

In which our not-so-glamorous arrival into the Peruvian rainforest is described: (here)

Greta, Oropendola Productions