Thursday, 28 April 2011

Goshawk put to the test, extraordinary slow motion footage - Animals Guide to Britain

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Animal's Guide to Britain - Woodland Animals, Thurs 5th May, 8pm BBC2

Snooker Balls! The 3rd episode of 'Animal's Guide to Britain' - Woodland Animals - has been pushed back a week by Snooker. So here's a sneak preview. It's my favourite clip from the film and a sequence that I know many people have been waiting to see... putting a Goshawk to the test. Hope you enjoy!

 (Photo: Paul Williams, see more images from this shoot on BBC Earth News)

In controlled conditions, with the use of a series of different shaped gaps and tubes, slow motion photography reveals how a Goshawk is able to negotiate the most densely packed undergrowth. To allow her to fit though some of the narrower gaps, she has to withdraw her wings completely. The slow-motion footage reveals that, to stay airborne, she uses her large tail to give her crucial lift.

Watch more clips from Animals Guide on the BBC prog page and dont forget to watch BBC 2, 8pm next Thursday

'incisive commentary, cleverly filmed, welcome new approach to natural history filmmaking' Thanks!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Chris Packham dives into Poo! Animal's Guide to Britain - Grasslands

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BBC 2, 8pm, Thursday 21st April
BBC Programme Page

Tonight is the second episode in my series 'Animal's Guide to Britain'. In this episode Chris explores the world of grassland animals. He begins with one of my favourite moments in the series -  by getting as close as he can to starlings. Here he discovers how they get at their food, insect grubs, before finding a way to get right underneath them for a grub’s eye view as they feed.

“In all of my years of watching wildlife and the great good fortune I’ve had of making wildlife programmes, I’ve never had a view like this”

(Chris Packham under a flock of starlings - photo by Adam White)

Using this unique perspective, Chris reveals why starlings are such superbly adapted grassland animals. It’s an elegant demonstration of their natural abilities… until one or two discover that they can get at the grubs more easily be standing on Chris’s face and pecking at the grubs from beneath the soil! British starlings have had their ups and downs: they were once so common that they famously stopped Big Ben due to numbers perching on the clock hands, but nowadays their food supply is dwindling, thanks to modern pesticides. 

In the grasslands episode Chris reveals new insights into how honeybees - insects vital for our future - manage to collect nectar and pollen. And how horseshoe bats, brown hares and barn owls are all learning to adapt to modern Britain in different ways.

Chris dives into Cow Poo to reveal why the Bat needs the Pat

Animal's Guide to Britain: Grasslands

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Bolshy Bird - digging up worms for my local Robin

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This morning we finally decided that it was time to get stuck into the garden and trim back some of the jungly grass that was slowly encroaching on our house. As soon as the lawnmower started whirring a bolshy robin turned up and began hopping around me. As the lawnmower shaved off the gardens straggly winter coat the robin began digging down to pull up worms.

It was then time to turn the soil over on the flower beds. The robin seemed ecstatic as I pierced the hard crust and turned the heavy soil. Suddenly worms of all shapes and sizes where exposed, served on a bed of fresh moist earth - rich with the scent of spring. He stayed with me all morning, gorging on the slippery feast and occasionally flying off to deliver a mouthful of worms to his nest.

Spring is the best time of year to be in the garden, and first thing in the morning is just magical - so what are you waiting for. The early bird gets the early worm!

- Paul Williams

Robin wondering of he can handle the big worm
Wondering if he can handle the big worm?

Robin on my pitch fork
Robin sits on my pitchfork as he scouts my flower bed for more juicy worms

Robin with worms-2.jpg

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Watching ospreys fish & building artificial nests

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WATCH Animal's Guide to Britain - Freshwater Animals
BBC 2, 8pm, Thurs 14th 2011

'The Osprey… a spectacular bird and a highly specialised fish hunter. Every spring several hundred Ospreys make the 3000 kilometre journey from West Africa to Britain. And most of them come here, to the Scottish highlands.'

It was 6am and dawn was breaking, we carefully climbed into the hide, wearing Balaclavas and green gloves, we had to be silent and unseen. The ospreys would be collecting fish to feed their young chicks. They needed to be as efficient as possible and any missed fishing attempt or distraction could mean a great expense of energy for them. We waited anxiously, peering over the still and reflective water. Then, as soon as it was light enough we recieved a radio call from a spotter, 'the female Osprey from Loch Garten' - gracefully she flew above us and began circling. This was mesmerising enough. Her reflection gently rippling in the silvery water. Suddenly, she began to dive, her wings stretched back, it was breathtaking...

It wasn't long before we had 5 ospreys circling over us. It was as if they were waiting for a chance to perform to camera. In just a couple of hours we witnessed, and filmed, one of natures most awesome spectacles, over and over again. Half a dozen, perfectly executed dives, less than 40 metres in front of us. It really was jaw-dropping to see such a mighty bird pierce the water, before emerging with a juicy fish grasped in its talons. Immediately after catching a fish, they swung it around so the fish was head first, streamlined into the direction the bird was flying. To me, this looked like the osprey was using the fish as a surf board, enjoying the flight back home.

To see wild ospreys hunting the Rothiemurchus Fishery is the best place in Britain - especially when you consider that in 1916 they were extinct in Britain.

‘Unbelievable. Look at this. It’s a flock, a flock of ospreys! In 40 years of birding, I’ve never seen this many ospreys, this close together, anywhere in the world.’ - Chris Packham

An Osprey's History of Britain

In medieval times ospreys could be found from the highlands of Scotland to the English south coast. They were believed to have the mystical ability to hypnotise fish, which turned belly-up in surrender. They were held in awe by humans and featured on the coat of arms of Swansea (granted 1316). Ospreys even enjoyed divine protection, listed in the Old Testament as an animal not to be eaten. They had it good. But then around the fifteen hundreds, ospreys began fishing from human made ponds and the relationship soured. Later, the Victorians became obsessed with collecting rare eggs. The rarer the bird, the higher the demand until in 1916 the last osprey vanished from Britain. But thankfully that wasn’t the end of the story. In 1954 a pioneering pair of ospreys, migrating back from West Africa to Scandinavia, stopped at Loch Garten, and liked it so much they stayed to raise a family. As they struggled to survive, a nation watched in awe...

Fake Poo & Polystyrene Females

It was an honour to visit RSPB Loch Garten. A historic place, watched over by a hide where 'veritable legions of bobble-hatted volunteers have guarded the oldest ospreys nest in Britain.' This is where the first pair nested when ospreys returned to Britain in 1954. We had watched the female fishing earlier in the day and now we were watching her chick - the 4th generation to be born here, and one of around a hundred to have fledged.

Scotland now boasts more than 160 breeding pairs and this is, in part, thanks to the success of the Loch  Garten nest, and to the numerous fish farms such as Rothiemurchus, which provide easy take-away meals. But its also down to a quirk of osprey behaviour - ospreys are creatures of habit. They prefer to nest in well-established neighbourhoods, and return to places where they were born, or to where there's good evidence of successful nests. Scotland is tried and tested, but what about elsewhere in Britain? Will they ever return to their historical breeding sites throughout the country? Well, not to be outdone, some English osprey enthusiasts are trying to encourage them to do just that. They're building artificial ‘show nests’ near rich sources of fish, such as Poole Harbour on the South Coast, and its here that we joined Mark Singleton of RSPB Arne. Loaded with twigs, fake poo, and a polystyrene female Chris scaled a tree to lend Mark a hand and to discover what the discerning osprey needs in a nest.

To an osprey checking out Britain these artificial nests are a nod and a wink that this is good place to breed, and it’s working. Human-built nests are popping up across Britain, and ospreys are spreading south. If humans continue to make these magnificent birds welcome, ospreys will once again see the whole of Britain as a top spot to raise their young.

Chris Packham in an osprey nest

Once extinct in Britain why are Ospreys returning? #AnimalsGuide Q of the Day

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Why are Scottish watervoles Black & English ones Brown? A Watervole's History of Britain

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Why are most Scottish watervoles black while English ones are brown?
From 'The Animal's Guide to Britain' starting this Thursday 8pm, BBC2
The first episode is one that I produced - 'Freshwater Animals'

A Watervole's History of Britain

'Around 10,000 years ago, after the ice sheets retreated, watervoles from Southern Europe made the epic journey across an ancient land-bridge to colonise Britain. And these were watervoles were black. Then, several thousand years later, they were pushed north by a new invader, the brown water vole from the Balkans. Eventually a truce was reached, where the black voles hung on to Scotland and the brown invaders claimed England and Wales. At the start of the 20th century there were over 8 million water voles, thriving in Britain’s waterways. And in 1908, when Wind in the Willows was published Ratty the Watervole became a superstar. But sadly, fame didn’t do the watervoles any good. First there were the two world wars. Humans desperate for food stripped bankside vegetation for crops and allowed cattle to trample watervoles’ homes. But worse was to come. A water vole apocalypse...'

Black Scottish Watervole

Brown English Watervole

'Animal's Guide' Question of the day: Why are Scottish watervoles black & English ones brown?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Do Beavers bite off their own testicles? A Beaver's History of Britain

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I'm proud to announce that some of the clips from my programme of 'Animal's Guide to Britain' are now live on the BBC website. The series starts with 'Freshwater Animals' on Thursday, BBC2 8pm. 

In the Highlands, Chris witnesses a fabulous fishing display by ospreys and, in Poole Harbour, learns how to tempt them to nest much further south. He investigates what white faced darter dragonflies, black water voles and brown trout can tell us about the changing nature of our waterways. And he discovers the grisly truth behind why beavers became extinct here, some 400 years ago.

I hope you enjoy it.
- Paul
    For now, the answer to the question that I know some of you have been anxiously waiting for... Do Beavers bite off their own testicles?...

    A Beaver's History of Britain

    'Thousands of years ago, Beavers may have paved the way for humans to settle Ice Age Britain, providing thick fur coats and energy rich meat. But gradually, human demand for beaver parts escalated. Beaver teeth made excellent tools. And from Roman times they were hunted both for castorium, the ‘anal secretion’ used to mark their territory - and for their testicles. It was believed these had pain killing properties. Medieval humans were convinced that a desperate beaver would even bite off his own testicles, leaving them for the hunter and in return, saving his own life. But the thing that wiped out the beaver was its fur. One of the last ended up as a hat for Henry VIII. In the 1600s, the beaver finally went extinct in Britain. All that was left were a few archaeological remains and place names such as Beverley which means Beaver Stream'
    For more clips see the BBC programme page

    The Return of the British Beaver

    Do beavers bite off their own testicles?

    • For more information about the series see my earlier post
    • Visit the official BBC programme page for more clips from the series.
    • Here's a write-up of my time filming with Chris Packham at the extraordinary moss-covered lake at Chartley Moss in Staffordshire, a place abounding with dragonflies.

    Filming at night - camerawoman, Justine Evans

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    Camerawoman Justine Evans talks about the challenges of filming wildlife at night.

    Night time filming is a relatively unexplored area of wildlife documentary making. As Justine tells us, until recently the night-time filming of animals had to be carried out using lights and loud generators, which disturbs the animals' usual behaviour patterns. Now image intensifying cameras, thermal cameras, and infra red cameras can be used to film without having to put a spotlight on the wildlife.

    Justine talks about the learning curve the Planet Earth team experienced when trying to film lions hunting elephants at night. After several attempts and a considerable amount of patience, the crew managed to film a dramatic sequence for the multi-award winning series.

    - BBC College of Journalism 

    Thursday, 7 April 2011

    Filming in the Rainforest - camerawoman, Justine Evans

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    Specialist camerawoman Justine Evans talks about the challenges of filming in the rainforest

    Working at heights involves intense preparation and meticulous attention to safety concerns, but can produce spectacular results. Justine Evans and the Expedition Borneo team went deep into the heart of the rainforest to find the perfect vantage point from which to film life in the canopy. After scouting for the tallest trees Justine safely climbed to her view point 50-60 metres up in the treetops. She sat for hours on end on a cramped perch and eventually was able to film unique footage of gibbons frolicking in the branches.

    Friday, 1 April 2011

    Getting close to the wild welsh ponies of the Brecon Beacons

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    Slowly and calmly I was able to approach these wild ponies as they grazed on the grasslands and hillsides of the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales.

    Wild welsh ponies of the Brecon Beacons-16.jpg

    A Brief History of the Welsh Pony

    Welsh ponies are descended from populations that have existed since Celtic times, around 4000 years ago.  They are short and sturdy, well suited to a life amongst the rocks and crags of the Welsh mountains. For hundreds of years tamed ponies were an integral part of everyday human life, used to pull Saxon ploughs, shepherd Norman flocks and drove cattle. More recently they were used as pit ponies - their small size making them ideal to send down mines. In the face of mechanisation, populations dwindled and they became geographically isolated as human settlement divided up the landscape. Today truly wild ponies are mostly relegated to corners of the remotest Scottish islands and the highest Welsh mountains. There's estimated to be less than a thousand breeding mares left in Wales.

    Source: Geographical & Brecon Beacons NP Report 

    Wild welsh ponies of the Brecon Beacons-5.jpg

    While I was in the Brecon Beacons the ponies looked a little shabby, this was because they were shedding their thicker winter coat. The whole mountain side was covered with a sprinkling of white horse hair, and I noticed that every now and then the ponies would rub themselves against a rock to help with hair removal.

    Wild welsh ponies of the Brecon Beacons-10.jpg

    Animals Guide to Britain by Chris Packham - Coming soon!

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    The series starts with Freshwater Animals, April 14th 2011, 8pm BBC2
    This is the series that I've spent the past year making. It was a real joy to spend so much time travelling and filming the spectacular wildlife of my own country. I think this series is fresh, insightful, and quirky. Chris Packham makes it his own, sharing his incredible knowledge and passion of the natural world.

    I hope you'll love the Animal 'Horrible Histories' featuring our very own cartoon critters by Creative Nuts

    I would really appreciate your help in spreading the word.
    I hope you enjoy the series.

    Get an insiders view on the invasion of the Grey Squirrels in Programme 3: Woodlands

    'See Britain as we’ve never seen it before – from our animals’ point of view. After all, our ‘human view’ of these islands is a minority one. There are tens of thousands of other species in the UK and each of them has abilities, needs and problems quite different from ours.'

    In The Animal’s Guide to Britain, Chris Packham encounters some of our most loved, awe-inspiring and enigmatic British wild animals and asks:

    What do they like about Britain?
    How does our country appear through their very different senses?
    And in what ways do we humans influence their lives?

    In each episode, Chris will meet a select group of residents of a typical UK natural habitat. He’ll travel across the land to understand where each animal lives, and how their unique adaptations shape that choice of home. And with a bit of cartoon help, he’ll investigate the surprising history of these animals in Britain.

    Programme 1 – Freshwater Animals
    Osprey, dragonflies, water voles, trout, beaver

    Programme 2 – Grassland Animals
    Starling, bumble bees, horseshoe bats, brown hare, barn owl

    Programme 3 – Woodland Animals
    Goshawk, hedgehog, fallow deer, stag beetle, red squirrel

    Programme 4 – Coastal Animals
    Grey seal, gulls, Manx shearwater, shore crab, bottlenose dolphin

    Chris Packham meets the youngest residents of Tiggywinkles animal hospital

    Chris Packham meets the youngest resident of Tiggywinkles animal hospital (Photo: Paul Williams/BBC)

    Freshwater Animals - April 14th 2011, 8pm BBC2

    Britain is blessed with plenty of lakes, rivers, marshes and ponds. Not only are these bodies of freshwater, precious lifelines for every species that lives here, for some, they are also home. This is their view of Britain.

    The Osprey

    Chris travels to Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands, in search of one of the osprey’s favourite hunting spots. This was home in 1954 to Britain’s first nesting pair ospreys, since they were persecuted to extinction, several decades earlier. But Chris discovers that the local ospreys are not interested in fishing from the loch at all – so what’s so good about this corner of Britain? Is it the climate, the pine trees, the pure water?

    At the crack of dawn, at a nearby salmon farm Chris takes cover to witness one of the most amazing spectacles of his career.   

    ‘Unbelievable. Look at this. It’s a flock, a flock of ospreys! In 40 years of birding, I’ve never seen this many ospreys, this close together, anywhere in the world.’

    It’s the thrilling sight of ospreys diving into the water, fully disappearing before re-emerging with a flapping fish in their talons. The reason that ospreys prefer this part of Scotland is that there are plenty of fish farms stocked with fish, and second, ospreys are creatures of habit and prefer to nest in well-established neighbourhoods. But, not to be outdone, some English osprey enthusiasts are trying to attract Britain’s ospreys further south by building ‘show nests’ near rich sources of fish, such as Poole Harbour. Chris scales a tree to help build one and to discover what the discerning osprey needs in a nest.

     Chris Packham helps Mark Singleton build an Osprey nest at RSPB Arne (Photo: Paul Williams/BBC)


    The evidence for this creature in Britain goes back over 300 million years, as testified by a fossil of a giant dragonfly, discovered in Bolsover Colliery, Derbyshire. Today, around two dozen species can be found all over Britain. But despite their ability to predate on almost any other insect on the wing, many of our dragonfly species are very particular about where they live. Chris discovers one of Britain’s fussiest dragonflies, the white-faced darter, which prefers mossy acidic bogs, such as the extraordinary moss-covered lake at Chartley Moss in Staffordshire. Unhappily for the white-faced darter, human demand for garden compost is destroying this dragonfly’s home. But Britain is far from bleak if you’re a dragonfly.

    Many other species are thriving here, especially since the phenomenon of global warming, which is making Britain as a whole, more attractive to these insects.

    Common Hawker Dragonfly-2
     Common Hawker Dragonfly at Chartley Moss, Staffordshire (Photo: Paul Williams/BBC)

    Water Voles

    It’s perhaps the cutest British rodent. In fact, in Chris’s opinion, the only one cuter than ratty, the brown water vole, is his Scottish cousin, the charcoal black water vole. But, cute as they are, The UK has been a terrible place for both to live recently, thanks to the presence of the uncute immigrant American mink. The water vole’s worst nightmare has increased rapidly in numbers, thanks to being released from Britain’s mink farms in the latter part of the 20th century. Water voles are very security conscious animals and build complex networks of tunnels in the riverbank with entrances on land and water for emergency escapes. The mink alone has the ability to chase the water vole through the water and into the narrow passages of its home.

    But British humans have also been thrown into conflict with the mink and are fighting back. There are signs that the mink is being controlled. Could Britain’s waterways once again make a dream homes for ‘Rattys’, both north and south of the border?

     Chris Packham helping to release watervoles back into Devon (Photo: Paul Williams/BBC)

    Scottish Black Watervole-3.jpg

    A black watervole (Photo: Paul Williams/BBC)

    The Trout

    If you’re a trout, your view of Britain will depend on exactly what sort of trout you are. Because trout can – amazingly – develop into one of two very different animals. It’s a great survival strategy and they grow up to have behaviour that depends on the environment that they have hatched into. One type, the wild brown trout need fertile, cool streams, while the other, the sea trout leave the rivers of their birth, swim downstream and become fully grown at sea because the rivers in which they hatched simply can’t support them. The bad news for the wild brown trout is that some of our cool southern chalk streams are warming up, in part due to human demand for water. But there is good news too. The industrial rivers of the Thames, the Taff and the Tyne have been cleaned up and once again are attractive to sea trout.

    The Beaver

    Britain hasn’t had beavers for 400 years. But they are on the verge of being reintroduced and this is what makes their view of Britain especially fascinating. For them, Britain is a land of opportunity: all those trees, waiting to be munched and streams asking to be dammed. Previously, though, things ended rather unhappily for the beaver.

    They were hunted for their warm fur and rich meat; their tough teeth for tools; even their testicles and anal secretions were in high demand as medicine. (Actually the beaver’s anal secretions contain an ingredient not unlike asprin). Henry VIII was part of the problem – he and many other British humans couldn’t get enough of their fur. He used one of Britain’s last beavers to make a nice hat. Finally, this species could take no more and went extinct in the 1600s. Chris visits a trial in Argyll where beavers have been released into the wild for the first time in 400 years. But before these brave new beaver pioneers become permanent residents, there is a problem. Not all humans like them flooding the land and in Scotland tempers have flared.

    For Chris, it’s long been an ambition to meet Britain’s first beaver family to see how well they’re settling in. And when he does, he’s awe struck by the abilities of these incredible creatures. 

    Illustration from medieval beastiary showing Beavers biting off their own testicles in order to save their own lives (Image: British Library Source: Medieval Beastiary)

    Animals Guide to Britain - BBC Wildlife Magazine - pick of the month

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