After yesterday's introduction, here follows the second instalment in our big interview with Chris Packham, supporting Allinson's Conservation Grade program and associated free bird feeder promotion. The third and final instalment is also now available.
In fact you may well have seen Chris on TV this evening presenting the Animal's Guide to Britain on BBC2. I thought it was rather good, especially the beavers and jumping up and down on the rippling layer of 'land' atop a buried lake.
Topics this time round include being something other than a bird-spotter and Chris' nature photography. Stay tuned for more, including Chris' favourite nature related joke in the next instalment!
The questions, part 2
UKNB: Onto less controversial topics now. As I write my blog I find myself writing lots about birds. They're everywhere, easy to spot - you can hardly avoid them! But not much about mammals, because we don't see so many of them in our gardens and about the place. So how does someone become a mammal spotter?
Chris: Yes, I think you've got a point there. Ooh I just shouted and all my birds flew away! Here am I standing looking out of the window whilst speaking to you and noticing my house sparrows are still here, which pleases me - three males have just come back. You're right, our access to birds and the diversity of them leads to an early interest at the expense of many other groups of fauna. We're not particularly endowed with mammals. Many of the species we have are inaccessible - they're either cetaceans out at sea so we can't meet them or bats flying around at night and we're not allowed to meet them because they're protected (and quite rightly). Or they're small mammals in the grass and frankly we can't see them and rarely pick them up.
So mammal-wise we are given over to the things that are very tolerant of us, foxes, grey squirrels, or the things that are large enough for us to see in the environment - deer, badgers occasionally etc. For most people they're just less accessible so we don't develop such a deep interest in them, which is a tragedy because there's some fantastic mammals out there. I studied common shrews as a teenager and it was fascinating to keep these animals in captivity and understand the nuances of their foraging behaviour. Where I lived there were lots of roe deer and they'd come into my garden and I'd watch them all the time and I'd feel in contact with their cycle. But it's not as easy as it is with birds.
Beyond mammals though, and looking at other groups, it's nice to see that moths and dragonflies have really crept up the charts in the last fifteen to twenty years and a lot more people are now very well versed with their habits, distribution and so on. Butterflies as well were always studied because they were collected, but now Butterfly Conservation is one of the very best NGOs we have and their survey work is superb and their network of volunteers has contributed greatly to our understanding of distribution changes in those species.
So other things are on the agenda but mammal spotting is something where people have to make a special effort. In many instances I think perhaps you're right but I would urge people to do it, because creatures such as bats for instance, have been so little known, and not studied as much as birds. There's so much more to learn and so much more to catch up on because new science is giving us new information. So those sorts of routes can be so much more rewarding than some of the bird species where familiarity has long ago bred contempt really. I've certainly found that whenever I've had an opportunity to get close to them, normally through work and not necessarily physically close - perhaps to think about them and read up on them.
UKNB: Amongst your many activities, I understand you're a keen nature photographer. What's your standard kit that you take out into the field when you go out photographing?
Chris: Well, I don't always actually go 'out' photographing. I'm looking out of my kitchen window into a garden which is so full of bizarre clutter that nobody would want me as a neighbour (luckily I don't have any at the moment). It's full of reflecting boards and backgrounds and clamps and bits of wood, with bits of other wood nailed to it and hanging from it, and even a big pile of broken glass.
I do like to rise to the challenge. This winter I've been photographing blue tits and great spotted woodpeckers and pied wagtails and things in the garden. The challenge being taking a new look at the familiar and trying to represent them in a way that makes people look twice and think (hopefully) "Wow, that's a nice photo" and "Wow it's a blue tit, not some exotic bird from South America or Africa or something". So that's one of my challenges.
When I do go out I use a Nikon D3x and D3s - good cameras! One which is good in low light and one which produces huge great files. I use a 500mm telephoto and a 200mm telephoto. I have some zoom lenses but I try not to use them, I try to stick with the primes even though they're heavy to carry about. That's it really. I use a tripod with the lenses and I also use a monopod quite frequently depending on the situation but I also take a lot of pictures lying down.
In fact in the last few weeks I've given up on the birds because I'm a bit birded out over the winter. So I've been photographing spring flowers and I've had a week photographing everyday a species called Lady smock (or Cuckoo flower - it has several names in the UK). It's a little early spring flower, food plant of the orange tip butterfly. A lot of people will think "that's nice" and pass it by and never look at it, but I spent a week looking at it, then I spent a week photographing it every morning and evening just to build up a collection of a few images that hopefully say to people "Lady smock - worth a second look actually" because covered in backlit frost it can look quite nice.