Kew Gardens in early March

Continuing with the theme of snowy scenes,  Kew Gardens takes on the look of a winter wonderland.    Impressive to find the birds continuing on in their daily routine while adopting strategies to minimize the cold – standing on one leg, fluffing up feathers and tucking their bills under scapular feathers.  The light had a quality of translucence casting an opalescent spell over the landscape.  It’s the kind of ethereal beauty which disappears all too quickly.


When travel plans unfold: The Beast from the East

There’s that delicious anticipation between planning a journey – reserving flights, sorting the itinerary – to the moment you’re off, heading to the first destination.   It may all be mapped out but then happenstance unfolds….

Soon after landing in London in late February, the “Beast from the East” appeared. Ominous meteorological phrases described the impending storm  – “a sudden stratospheric warming over the Arctic”,  ” a weakening Polar vortex”  and conditions descended into chaos as The Beast arrived bringing in freezing Siberian air blanketing the country in layers of snow.  The temperature plummeted and in some places went as low as -12*C.


It was all rather surreal, as if the dynamic pulse of London just stopped and was rendered into a stillness under the blanket of snow.  The transformation over the next days was radical – shape-shifting statues turned ghoulish, trees gathered softness in re-imagined Christmas scenes, icicles hung in delicate form, people were stranded, train and bus schedules were interrupted.  Deeper into the country the conditions were dire.

Taking a chance on 28 February when the weather was chilly but clear, i took a walk in Richmond Park, hoping to locate the deer near Potten Pools.  I found the ponds iced over and the ducks and swans skidding in clumsy manoeuvres.


With nary a deer in sight, the yellowing jowls of the grey sky took on the look of wolves advancing when the snow arrived.  Visibility wasn’t too good.  Thank goodness for cell phones and Google maps as i had lost my bearings and was beginning to panic about the wind-chill factor.  Good fortune was restored as i stumbled upon the deer herd near the gate through which i wanted to exit. Though the conditions were not ideal for photography, i manage to get a couple of shots and then beat a very hasty retreat to the warmth of a nearby cafe.

More information on the Beast from the East here.






Mr Bell and Pluto: chasing pigeons at King’s Cross Station

Density of population hits one in the commuting hubs of London and King’s Cross Station is one of the country’s busiest (an estimated 50 million passengers pass through in a year).  In this crazy hurly-burly of people dashing this way and that, few are aware of the activity taking place in the aerial space where the roof is held up by an elegant diagrid shell structure with a glow of softly backlit colours.

Photo licensed under Wikimedia Commons  CC BY-SA 3.0 

The station went through an ambitious upgrade, taking five years to complete, and reopening in 2012.  This once unloved historic rail terminus has been transformed into a dynamic transport hub.  The mezzanine floor has coffee shops and fast food cafes adding an attractive appeal for the feral pigeon cappuccino set and it is here that they vie for supremacy.  With cushy ledges for roosting and the lure of cafe foraging, the birds take the gap.

But wait! Meet Pluto, the Harris Hawk and his handler, Max Bell who are tasked with keeping the station clear of these opportunists.  Pluto, like a silent stalker glides on the wing keeping supremacy of airspace.   Max explains that the tactic is to scare off the pigeons and not to hunt or kill them.  As Pluto flies to a distant ledge Max keeps tabs on his whereabouts and on cue the hawk returns to be hand fed.  Outside the station a different status occurs and Pluto attracts immediate attention from the ever vigilant bullish seagulls.  At once they swoop down in mob formation, but he easily evades their tactics and flies back to Max.  There is a caginess about the bird, alert – all muscle.  Max describes his role in rearing and training raptors explaining the reward system in controlling the birds.  He has five – three Harris and two Sparrow hawks.  The latter are more suitable for scaring magpies and blackbirds.  Generally he flies them for two hourly stretches and that’s sufficient to keep an area clear a couple of times a week.

My interest in urban human/ wildlife conflict solutions stems from a time going back ten years to when there was an influx of baboons foraging in residential areas on the Cape Peninsula and I volunteered to help in my neighbourhood spreading conservation awareness and trying to instill in the residents the need to be mindful of all the attractants which enticed the baboons into the urban space.   And still there would be residents who would carelessly leave refuse bins unsecured and even those who continued to feed them.

Meanwhile the pigeons round King’s Cross have taken to greener pastures where people are permitted to feed them, St James Park or Regent’s Park for instance and there this act of giving to wildlife takes on a great delight in those who participate.


A quick look around the neighbourhood

It’s been a while since i last posted and since returning home after some months of travel, it is heartening to be back in the rainy season.  And rain we have, buckets of it.  The dams are filling nicely and it looks promising that the harsh drought conditions are behind us.

My travel adventures begin to dim as i hook up again into the language of the familiar, but i’d love to share some of the experiences once i’ve got the photos sorted.  There are so many aspects when travel unfolds, from the hubbub of major cities to the quiet of the backroads.  Nature delivered some drama too, a bruising from the ‘Beast from the East’ to the unfurling of an exuberant Northern Hemisphere spring.  I had a lucky encounter with a Falconer and a Red kestrel working King’s Cross Railway station; stumbled across the Richmond deer herd in a snow storm, met “Cheddar Man” at the Natural history museum; rambled over hill and dale where meadow flowers bloomed in profusion.  All the while discovering new habitats and learning to read the landscape – from bluebell glades, acidic uplands, limestone pavements, salt marshes and water, water, water!  But most intriguing was seeing how nature finds it’s footing within eco-niches in densely populated urban areas.  Who’d have thought that a visit to Tate Modern would also bring a viewing of peregrine falcons nesting high up in the very same building or of foxes roaming boldly through some of the inner London suburbs?

Settling back again into a Cape routine, the dawn chorus comes rustling in with a guttural cacophony of Egyptian geese, hadedah ibis and raucous gulls.  I watch in delight as furry creatures scurry across the lawn (green and verdant now) – a mongoose scampers by with two pintsized, energetic juveniles, the baboons make quick unannounced visits, and so too, the nocturnal porcupine family with it’s gorgeous, prickly little baby.  Further along the road, the penguin nursery is in full swing attending to the raising of young.   This wild bevy of beauties makes my heart soar – here is a natural world right on the doorstep.  The wagtails and sunbirds are searching for nesting places and down below on the rocks the dassies sun themselves after the rain showers.  A single otter comes often, mud-bathing in the wet black soil.  My next door neighbours describe exciting sightings of two caracals, an adult and a youngster, and the opportunity to observe these secretive wild lynx at close quarters.

All in all it’s good to be back!