Sunday, 1 July 2012

Cute! Why this wild baby lynx needs a caterpillar #SecretsOfOurLivingPlanet 7pm BBC2

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BBC 2, 7pm, Sunday 1st July 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' The Magical Forest

Working with cameraman David Wright and Jen Vashon of Maine department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, I had the challenge and the privilege of filming wild lynx for 'Secrets of Our Living Planet'. I then headed to the forests of Quebec to work with forestry experts Jaques Regniere and Louis Morneau to film the life history of the spruce budworm. My thanks to everyone who made this film possible.

The Budworm awakens

In the great north woods of North America an elusive predator has made a big comeback - The lynx. It owes its success to an extraordinary connection.

It's Spring and up in the canopy, a tiny spruce budworm caterpillar is emerging from her winter hiding place and she’s racing to fatten up, all the growing spruce and fir needles are the perfect meal. At this time of year they are soft and succulent. 

When she’s finished on one branch, by releasing a strand of silk she can move to the next. So effective is she in moving from branch to branch to find more food, she will be able to increase her weight by two and  a half thousand percent. These big budworm caterpillars have insatiable appetites.

A spruce budworm hangs from its silky thread as it climbs to find fresh needles (Paul Williams)

It’s a risky business being fat and juicy, and she’s in danger of being spied by hungry birds – fresh from migration, but she can go incognito. Using silk she weaves needles together to make a tent. Safe inside, she can eat away until it’s time to pupate. 

Alone a single budworm isn’t much of a problem to a tree but scientists have discovered that over decades, the spruce budworm population can boom. When the adult moths emerge they seek the juiciest and healthiest needles on which to lay her eggs.

Using its front legs the budworm gathers a ball of silk as it climbs to its next meal (Paul Williams)

Fir trees infested with spruce budworm (Paul Williams)

Spreading like wild fire

From the air the budworm damage in Quebec is clear, red coloured fir trees indicate where the needles have been attacked by the budworm. Patches of deciduous trees stand out, vibrant green and untouched because the caterpillars find them unpalatable. The more mixed a forest is the less impact the budworm can have but in some parts of North America managed forests spread for thousands of miles composed of just one or two species of tree. A forest of tightly packed spruce and fir is an endless buffet for the budworm and it's less able to resist the onslaught. Here the army of caterpillars can fatten up quickly easily moving from tree to tree - like a human cold being spread through an office. Their population can spiral out of control. Year after year, Like a plague they strip the forest - leaving dead trees in their wake.

Not a disaster for everything

These outbreaks aren’t a disaster for everything. Fully nourished on budworm, birds like warblers lay more eggs and increase in numbers. The dead trees start to rot passing their nutrients back into the soilThe canopy opens up and more light reaches the forest floor. The clearings allow young softwood trees to grow - rich food for moose and deer. Their nibbling keeps the vegetation short, and the beaver’s taste for poplar – helps to keep the clearing open for longer.

So the budworm opens the canopy and the beaver and moose help to garden it. All this benefits one animal in particular. This new growth is ideal food and cover for the snowshoe hare and in these prime conditions their population can multiply one hundred times in just a few years, from one in every 2 acres to 42 per acre. A veritable feast for the lynx who also boom in numbers.

A huge outbreak of budworm in the 1980s caused the defoliation of thousands of square kilometres of fir trees in the north east united states and Canada, and this had a significant and lasting impact which has resulted in a historical high of Lynx currently living in Maine - estimated to be over 1000. 

Here's a clip of a baby lynx that we filmed in the Spring

I travelled to Maine during the winter to join Jen Vashon of Maine department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to track Lynx as part of their ongoing research project. We managed to find a fine male lynx and you'll see him in tonights episode of 'Secrets of Our Living Planet. Enjoy!

Tracks of the snowshoe hare - you can see where it's stopped hopping to have a pee! (Paul Williams)

Lynx tracks heading into prime habitat in Northern Maine (Paul Williams)

Cameraman David Wright films Lynx tracks (Paul Williams)

Photo: Paul Cyr


  1. Nice one Paul I watched the programme and remembered some of the scenes from your Twitters, Chris Packhams face when the Flying Squirel landed on his jacket,All his christmases came at once!

  2. This has been a fantastic series and I'm sure there are more connections to talk about so I'm desperately hoping the BBC commission another one.