Monday, 5 November 2018

FANCY DAN THE SPARROW HAWK MAN

it's disconcerting to be ignored by a hawk that is just eight feet from me - only this once did he pay me any attention
Many special events have happened in our wooded wildlife friendly garden but few come close to this summer when a pair of sparrow hawks decided to nest in the heart of our patch in sunny Dorset.

they are long gone now but the nest was up in the birch tree on the left
a Scottish nest photographed from a forty foot scaffold hide carefully assembled over three weeks to minimise disturbance
I have filmed them in several wilder places around the country and if one character epitomises them it is shyness, so to have a pair that decided we were harmless and allowed us to carry on gardening while they sat watching was remarkable. I write a lot about the privilege of living close to wildlife but this was as good as it gets.

our tame male at his fast food retaurant

Over the years we've seen sparrow hawks fairly regularly around the garden but the first time I noticed something ‘different’ was on the 16th January. A male was perched above the bird feeders in our magnolia in what I guessed he considered a fast food restaurant.

I took a happy snap or two from the office window, then crept downstairs to get closer to the target. Pics through double-glazing are never going to be that clever so I carefully opened the door and he didn’t even look at me, even when I stepped outside. He stayed for twenty minutes, looking around and preening, seemingly without a care in the world.

the female was almost as confiding as our male

He was back on the 31st, perching above the feeders close to the side of the cottage, I say ‘he’ but when I came to download the pics the eye colour was yellow instead of orange, so this was a female and tame too.

no wonder we named him 'Fancy Dan' - he was always preening his colourful feathers
He was back by the feeders on the 4th March and I decided to be bold, stepped outside and ever so slowly stalked to within a few metres. It was exciting being so close but he didn’t even bat an eyelid and stayed there for an hour.

the female was calling her mate as we dug the garden below

On the 24th the female was in a tall birch above us, calling to what had become her mate in the wood. 


Next day he was back by the feeders but I had to creep right around our wild flower meadow to get a clear shot and then ever so slowly stalked to within eight feet. It was a moment of magic. There is so much beauty in nature, usually at a distance but for once I could admire his colourful plumage intimately. Isn't he a little cracker!




I love this pic, the only sharp bit being his claw. I need a faster camera! 
It was disconcerting that he almost completely ignored me for half an hour, only glaring at me forcefully once and flying close to my head when he left to join his mate. He was good at providing food for her too.
our female eating a blackbird on the giant oak outside my office window

I left them undisturbed when they were mating for fear of putting them off

In early April I missed photographing them mating but the next few weeks I saw them do so several times and spent hours in the wood watching them collect sticks for the nest and building up the structure in a birch tree that we could see from our bed. The whole episode was quite remarkable.




they built the nest in a tall birch in the middle of our woodland walk

it was exciting seeing her breaking off twigs for the nest - the male helped a bit too.

she placed the twigs carefully on the base of the nest
building took more than three weeks as the leaf cover for the nest increased
They had decided our garden was home and nothing was going to convince them otherwise but we decided to be cautious so that they could lay eggs undisturbed and started to avoid walking under the nest. However, they seemed completely bomb proof and would happily sit around in the branches while we sat watching close by.
he was so cool he slept even when we sat a few feet away - quite remarkable

her tail just visible as she formed the cup for her eggs
By the end of April they had completed the nest and were paying a lot of attention to the cup, fiddling with little twigs and wriggling down to make it comfortable. By early May the female was laying and with a telescope I could watch her tail rising and falling as she forced the egg out.

Over the next three weeks the male brought food to her regularly and it was amusing to see them both chasing away any intruders to the area. They all got energetically pursued, wood pigeons, crows, magpies, jackdaws, jays, even grey squirrels. I imagined they quite enjoyed putting the fear of god up their visitors asses!

he would sit happily on the tree tops soaking up the sunrise while she incubated their eggs - it's a man's world

By early June we watched the female feeding small young and by now we had nicknamed the male ‘Fancy Dan’. He would regularly go and bath in the stream close to the nest, then spend hours preening in the sunshine. Who’s a pretty boy!

Fancy Dan at his morning shower. His mate would bathe in the afternoon while he did his duty on the nest   © Mike Read
A great friend of ours Mike Read came round to take a few pics. He’s a professional photographer with proper gear, [I just had a Panasonic ‘bridge’ camera with small zoom], so we were really grateful that Mike could take delightful pictures that did Fancy Dan justice.
he loved having a thorough soak in the shallow pools, spending many minutes at his ablutions   © Mike Read

his bathng became a daily routine so no wonder we called him Fancy Dan   © Mike Read
a different female eating a kill close to our nest - quite a surprise    © Jane Adams 
On another day we had a great friend round, Jane Adams, who hoped to see the chick being fed and Mum duly obliged. However, we were looking at Sue’s veg plot when a sparrow hawk zoomed across and landed with its’ prey in the nearby weeping willow. I assumed it was Fancy Dan with another kill but it was another female, only fifty metres from the nest where our female was feeding the chicks, surely a most unusual happening.

Fancy Dan would pluck some of the feathers off his prey before presenting it to his mate    © Mike Read
the food pass usually took place close to the nest   © Mike Read
our precious cuddly bundle would soon turn into a fast flying killing machine that are not always popular with bird lovers
Fancy Dan seemed to be providing plenty of food for the chicks but by early July there was only one survivor in the nest. Perhaps the tropical heat of our wonderful summer had taken its’ toll? However, the chick successfully fledged and within a few days the show was over, the birds dispersing into the surrounding woods. We were sad to see them go but were now free to walk under the nest again.  We had made a self-imposed curfew to avoid disturbing them too much.

We still see Fancy Dan occasionally as he sits quietly on one of his favorite perches or zooms past in pursuit of some intended victim and we’re hoping that they return next year to try to raise a family in our presence once again. It was a remarkable privilege for which we will always be grateful.

If you would like to see more of Mike Read's splendid pictures then please visit : www.mikeread.co.uk

Sunday, 28 October 2018

WILDLIFE FILM-MAKING - an introduction


two of the stars in our leopard film for the BBC - "A Darknesss in the Grass" - 1985-6
CHAPTER 1

For most of my life I’ve enjoyed the privilege of travelling to some of the remotest corners of the world to film wildlife.

a polar bear hunting the pack ice at midnight for our BBC series of three films "Kingdom of the Ice Bear" - 1983-85


Wildlife has been a passion of mine since childhood and after leaving film college in 1965 I started a career making films with the BBC Film Unit. I left in 1973 and since then have been lucky enough to spend nearly fifty years out in the wilds with some wonderful animals and people.

the Andes Mountains in Patagonia can be a violent place, the wind lifting water off the surface of lakes

happiness is being high up in remote places

However, if you look up Hugh Miles on the internet you’d think, judging by the pictures that all I ever do is go fishing … if only … but it’s simply one of many hobbies I enjoy, gardening our two wooded acres being the most time consuming, especially as a stream flows though our patch and we’ve created five ponds.

'home sweet home' ... and always a joy to return to my family after weeks in the bush
So if this blog is going to be representative of my life it might be a good idea to start telling a few more stories about the animals I’ve been lucky enough to live with. But before I do, I’ll add a few words about my blog.

Since I started writing it has so far conjured up over 206,000 views from all over the world and I find it unbelievable that it has attracted so much interest. I know this number is only small beer compared with many blogs but 200,000 seems like a lot of readers. I’ve written five books but maybe this beats them for readership.

Unexpectedly, only 50% of readers come from the UK, for the USA contributes 25,000+ and most surprisingly, Russian viewers sometimes outnumber those in the UK. Other unusual countries include China, Brazil and South Korea though what they see in it I can’t imagine.

However, if my ramblings about wildlife, gardening and fishing are enjoyed by so many, I’m delighted because I simply love telling stories ... and some of them are true! For better or worse it’s in my blood and friends and family keep on insisting I should share my adventures. So if you keep on reading, I’ll keep on writing.

barnacle geese nesting in the remote north east of Greenland, filmed for the BBC's 'Ice Bear' in 1984
My job as a cameraman/producer required me to ‘live on the edge’ and I’ve always admired that famous ‘gardener’ who restored the glories of Heligan, Tim Smit because he believes that “if you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space".

Ladakh in the Himalayas - filming for ITV's "Searching for the Snow Leopard" and usually only seeing footprints - 2001-04
camera 'traps' enabled us to identify individual cats. This was our territorial male called Mikmar at 15,000 feet
I’ve been trying to live on the edge since the 1970’s, so writing ‘tales from the bush’ seems like a natural extension to my past life creating stories for television. Writing a blog combines words and pictures, is a lot quicker, cheaper and easier than making films and in spite of the limitations, it seems like a reasonable alternative … but where to start?

glacier ice is always wonderful, whatever the continent ... and it sure is exciting when large lumps break off
It could be the Arctic or Antarctic, Svalbard or South America, Alaska or the Himalayas, New Guinea, even the UK … but I’d hate you to think I’m attempting to win ‘bragging rights’. I’m no publicist and quite shy but I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and consider every film I made a privilege because being able to live with charismatic animals and many marvellous folk is indeed a treat.

the Himalayas become ever more inspiring the higher you climb - filming for the BBC/David A's "Planet Earth" - 1982

the Impayan Pheasant is Nepal's national bird, also called appropriately 'the bird of many colours'
I have more than my fair share of special memories and even if I’d prefer to use my remaining time on this planet living in the present and future, recalling past adventures is enjoyable too.


the star when filming our BBC leopard film called "A Darkness in the Grass" - 1985-6
I thought I might start with a few stories about filming leopards in East Africa but on reading through my journals I’m finding that we had so many exciting moments it’s creating too many words. So by way of an introduction, I'll start with a few pictures from some of my more 'significant' films and carry on writing about leopards another day. 

As any photographer will have already noticed, I'm not a 'proper' stills photographer because if something good is happening I need to have the film camera in my hands to capture the action. Compromising the quality of the movie isn't an option so I've never taken many stills. Those I do are strictly happy snaps but don't get me wrong, I love taking pics but don't have the fancy cameras with auto focus etc. In fact, most of the pics are taken before the digital age on slide film using cameras that should be in a museum.

Anyway, the first major wildlife film I made was when I was head of the RSPB Film Unit. I'd 'done' blue tits and other cute birds more than enough so for one of the most exciting birds in the world I needed to look no further than the osprey. 

mum with two cubs almost ready to fly - one of several intimate moments filmed from the top of towering scaffolds
Such is the birds charisma that if I could nail some spectacular fishing dives and intimate scenes at the nest I stood a chance of being noticed by the BBC Natural History Unit and after two challenging but ultimately successful years my reputation rose like the ospreys splash and on completion, I joined the ranks of the self-unemployed. I hoped I didn't prove to be unemployable.

As a postscript, the film eventually sold to over forty countries so it turned out to be a nice little earner for the RSPB. As a staunch supporter since childhood, I was well pleased.
strike action! ospreys are such exciting birds and filming them for my RSPB movie was memorable - 1977-78

a suitably friendly greeting on the first of many visits to Africa
What followed was remarkable, for within days of finishing filming ospreys in Scotland I was on the plane to East Africa to film lions hunting in the wonderful Ngorongoro Crater. It was for one of the BBC's most famous series ever, "Life on Earth" and was their final shoot, for they had failed to capture the sequence twice already. No pressure then.

dinner time for the pride but for the wildebeest within a few hours, it's dust to dust
In spite of eight years at the BBC Film Unit in London filming all manner of progs like Beethoven and Dr.Who, along with five for the RSPB, I was still a comparative novice in the wildlife filming business so it took a deal of courage on the part of producer John Sparks to trust me with such an important shoot. My contract was for a month but within two weeks I was back home, a mixed blessing as I'd just spent over £20,000 on camera equipment and only received two weeks pay instead of four. However, my reputation was enhanced, for we'd filmed the lions making a double kill on the first day, another kill to match it on the second, then captured the rare sequence of two male cheetahs catching and killing a wildebeast. It was a remarkable run of good fortune and it's been downhill ever since!
a big fat mum with her little fat cubs - and filming for the BBC's legendary series "Life on Earth" was complete - 1978

 
As a result of the outstanding success of 'Life on Earth', these were exciting times, for in the early 80's we were entering the era of what became known as 'Blue Chip' movies ... the best that money could buy, with bigger budgets and huge audiences. I'm told by a friend that was at last weeks Wildscreen Festival that the pressure on budgets is such that they have now been renamed 'Blue Cheap'!

eight feet of towering bird above me -1978-79
I was hoping the Beeb would eventually trust me to shoot a complete film and surprisingly, within three days of finishing 'Life on Earth' I was back in East Africa to make a film about Ostriches for David A's BBC series "Wildlife on One". As a general rule, ostriches only attract 'walk on parts' in movies so anything interesting I filmed would likely be a 'first'. They would be a considerable challenge and I was acutely aware that if I didn't get any film I wouldn't get to eat. At least they couldn't fly away like ospreys but they could certainly walk and for the first four days they did just that ... away from me.

 
In the end I found a way of getting them to trust me and the result was a fascinating film that won me the Panda Award for best photography at the first ever 'Wildscreen', the world's leading wildlife film festival held every other year in Bristol. There was an amusing twist to this result because the prize was either the processing and printing of enough film for a half hour movie - very valuable - or an inflatable dinghy - more exciting. My son Peter was gutted when I returned home without the boat!
our male standing guard over his eggs and hatching chicks
You can just see my camera at the bottom of the nest but lying there with a wide angle lens carried a risk, for ostriches have a reputation for disembowling intruders, even lions. At first he would thump the ground forcefully and flap his wings in anger but I held my nerve and luckily he eventually trusted me enough to allow me to film intimate scenes without getting a good kicking.


our lady with her creche of chicks
My wildlife career was developing nicely but it takes a deal of courage on the part of producers to trust me to deliver the goods.  Several commissions came my way which I'll skip for now because for a few years otters became the focus of my life. 

at home on the wild and windy shores of Shetland
In the early eighties the Shetland Isles were one of the few places that otters could be reliably seen and it's difficult to believe that they were pretty much 'extinct' in most English counties. This 'rare' animal had never properly been filmed because they were regularly persecuted ... until the seventies hunters in Shetland received a bounty, so I had a big challenge ahead ... nothing like being thrown in at the deep end to film 'impossible' animals.

what a privilege it was to film these beautiful animals in Shetland's wind and rain ... though the sun did shine too - 1980-85
I only had one sighting in the first ten days but eventually won some success by habituating a particular female that after several weeks trusted me enough to be close to her and her cubs. 

seriously cute or maybe not? - three plus months of 'playful' but eventual killers
She would even swim up to me, so it was a magical experience and over about four years I made three films about her, the first of which was an Attenborough BBC "Widlife on One". As otters had hardly ever been seen on TV it was an extremely popular programme and garnered an impressive audience of 17.3 million.
they were always fond of lumpsuckers, a big meal and easy to catch


I took loads of pics of her and the cubs because I decided to write a book about living with these wonderful animals in the farthest corner of the British Isles. 

Now they are everywhere in the country and it's ironic that instead of the long journey to the Shetland Isles I can now film them in our garden in Dorset, eating our fish! Their recovery is one of conservations' greatest success stories, though I doubt many ducks and fish think it's cause for celebration.

These early successes with my filming meant that the world was opening up for me and next up I was lucky enough to be picked to film another extremely popular three part series for the Beeb,"Flight of the Condor". It was the pan pipes that done it!
the Andes Mountians in southern Chile - one of the most stunning locations to film in the world - 1980-82


Torres del Paine National Park is home to many condors and was our filming base for a few weeks  © Laurie Campbell
The three films told the story of an exciting journey from the very tip of South America at Cape Horn following the Andes Mountains all the way through Peru into the Amazon Basin in far off Equador.


One of the most exciting moments when filming in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was the brief sighting of a puma. This lit a fire so inspiring that I made a vow to return one day to try to make a film about these elusive cats.  

my star cat 'Penny' the puma that I lived with on and off for more than two years -1993-5 ... © Laurie Campbell
However, I didn't make it back until 1993 and I've still only reached 1980 in this introduction, so that and many other films I made in the next decade will have to wait until another day because it's very autumnal and I need to be in our lovely garden right now. I'll pen another introduction to more stories in due course, so in the meantime, if you're interested, watch this space.