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May 05 2011

Are butterflies the UK's most beautiful endangered species? | Dan Flenley

Half of our butterflies are under threat of extinction, and more than 70% are in decline – capture their beauty and share your pictures of them on our Flickr group

A cautious flap; a gentle flutter. Quivering wings and tentative antennae. Striking black and white; brightest blue and red; creamy yellow, iridescent green. A carnival of colours, a parade of personalities, an intriguing selection of shades and textures: our butterflies are with us again.

Once described as "self-propelled flowers", what butterflies do is no less fascinating than the gowns they wear. They feed, fly and fight, they court and pair. They get up to strange things in mud puddles and show all the investment skill of your average Duncan Bannatyne in finding the right place for their eggs. They even metamorphose.

Most of the UK's butterflies spend the majority of the year as caterpillars or chrysalises. They wait till spring or summer to make the transition to a relatively brief adult life. Some, though, overwinter as hibernating adults before emerging in time for flowers and sunshine. (Among these are well-known species such as the peacock, with its Impressionist blue eye-spots.) Yet others – including the painted lady – migrate here to enjoy the British summer.

To indulge in some butterfly photography this May, a good back garden is no mean place to start. Nectar plants such as perennial wallflower and ragged-robin will attract species including peacocks and large ("cabbage") and small whites. The first brood of the tiny, energetic holly blue is easy to find (the clue is in the name) in more southerly parts of the country, if not so easy to photograph. The main arrival of red admirals should be underway by late May.

Venturing a little further afield, wild, open places with rough, "messy" vegetation are excellent for getting to know butterflies such as small copper, common blue and orange tip.

Wetter areas are home to the silken surfaces of green-veined whites, while some heathlands host the dazzling green hairstreak. Go somewhere scrubby and you might also see a brimstone, a simply exquisite imitation of a strongly-veined leaf.

Head to one of the country's special butterfly places and – if the weather plays along – you will have so much more to take in. Combine the spectacular, shining adonis blue (late May) and chocolate-and-marshmallows grizzled skipper, with big landscapes at Fontmell Down or Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Match the artsy underwing of the pearl-bordered fritillary with the breathtaking views from the Morecambe Bay Limestones, just below the Lake District. Norfolk sites such as Hickling Broad will see probably our most photogenic butterfly – the swallowtail – begin to emerge at the end of the month.

Butterfly Conservation maintains a network of nature reserves specially managed for threatened butterflies and moths, and would be delighted to tell you more about sites in your area.

Good butterfly shots are made that much easier by choosing the right day and time. A hot day with full sun is not ideal, as the subjects will be so busy zipping about that they won't have time to stop for pictures. Choose a warm day with spells of both cloud and sunshine. Butterflies have a late-afternoon slow-down which offers a handy viewing alternative to a 5am start.

Use a long lens – it will benefit both you and the butterfly by allowing you to keep your distance. A less intrusive approach means more shots for the photographer and, importantly, less stress for the star of the show. The reduced depth of focus on the long lens will also help zero the focus in on the butterfly. The higher shutter speed you'll need may, though, make getting enough light difficult.

While the colourful upper-sides of our best-loved species may be instantly familiar, the rest of their bodies hold reward, too. The underwings of the vanessids – the red admiral's family – possess a cryptic magnificence.

The blues have peculiarly furry bodies and rather cute faces. Caterpillars and pupae furnish further realms of opportunity, and the curious world of butterfly eggs poses a fine challenge for fans of the seriously macro.

Half of our butterflies are considered threatened, and over 70% are currently declining. This is all the more disconcerting if we consider that butterflies are not only precious parts in the intricately-wrought fabric of our natural environment, but also valuable indicators of how that whole fabric is doing. We ignore them at no small cost.

How to help? One way is by inspiring others with the beauty of butterflies. Make a point of getting out this month and capturing their radiance on camera.

Share your photos of butterflies on our Flickr group throughout May - we'll feature the best on guardian.co.uk, and maybe the print edition of the Guardian too

• Dan Flenley is a media volunteer for Butterfly Conservation's Lancashire branch.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


March 07 2011

Spring is coming – catch the explosion on camera | Tanya Perdikou

Longer days means more chances to capture spring's wildlife – and why not enter the British Wildlife Photography Awards?

Share your signs of spring photographs on our Flickr group

Here at the Wildlife Trusts, we get very excited about the approach of spring. We relish the signs we see every day on nature reserves throughout the UK – the bursting of a blossom bud, the promise of a daffodil shoot yet to explode, the lurching of a toad through damp grass.

Suddenly things speed up, crocuses which have teetered on the brink of glory for so long are blazing out in violets, yellows and pinks. Parks, gardens and pavements carry human traffic once more, overzealous sun-worshippers bare their legs and lambs dance in the fields. There is much about spring to celebrate, and with longer daylight hours and wildlife much more visible, nature photographers can go to town.

Birds will be bustling for mates and territory, so consider trying to snap them as they perch on bare branches, singing to prove their worth. Flocks are on the move too: there's the chance to capture a murmuration of starlings like wisps of smoke, or the vibrant reds and golds of a charm of goldfinches.

Long, yellow catkins will be hanging down in profusion and, at their ripest, give off little clouds of pollen at the slightest disturbance. Capturing this nimbus of fertility is a challenge for any photographer.

Believe it or not, when woodlands roll out the bluebell carpet for spring, and other classic flowers break through the leafy slumber, cloud can be the photographers' best friend. Harsh sunlight can bleach or 'blow-out' white and blue flowers in particular – losing those subtle hues that make them our favourites. An overcast day will keep the saturation you need, but don't forget your shutter speed may be lower in a shady woodland so a tripod or sturdily held camera is a must.

Instead of going for that 'all-in' shot, why not get low among the flowers and look to pick out a few heads among the carpet – an aperture of f5.6 or less will have a great impact. Capture a feeling of tranquillity by framing your picture through the trees. Silver birches in particular can add a great dimension.

Reptiles are some of the most challenging creatures to photograph, but this is the best time to try, as lizards and adders wake from their winter hibernation from February onwards. A little research on the best areas for these scaly subjects should be followed with a site visit. Look for sandy, open paths or warm rocks and walls, where the cold-blooded critters will warm up before a day's hunting. Arrive before the sun gets too warm and they make their escape. Don't forget the adder is our only venomous snake – a longer lens allows you to keep your distance. Be sure to watch your step too.

Again, a day with some cloud cover will allow you to pick out the finer details. Eye contact can make or break your image, so whatever you get in focus, ensure the eyes are pin-sharp. With long bodies and heads, it is important to have plenty of depth-of-field, perhaps around f8 upwards to ensure you capture all those key features. Patience is a virtue, and waiting for that split second when a forked tongue pierces the air will make your trip worthwhile.

As competitions like the British Wildlife Photography Awards demonstrate, our appetite for wildlife images continues to grow. This year, the Wildlife Trusts are sponsoring the category 'Living Landscape: Connectivity'. We want to transform the UK into a living landscape, where wildlife thrives everywhere from urban centres to rivers and moors.

Never underestimate the importance of your images in achieving this. By capturing the captivating, elemental magic of spring, you are helping to kindle a connection with nature in people that can lead to a life-long bond.

• Tanya Perdikou works for the Wildlife Trusts


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


January 21 2011

The week in wildlife – in pictures

Giant new crayfish species, waxwings with punk hairdos and a wren that uses the 'scary movie effect' to get a date are highlights of this week's pick of images from the natural world



December 02 2010

Northern exposures: how to take a perfect winter wildlife photograph

Winter light offers photographers and nature-lovers fantastic opportunities to take memorable shots

Share your photos of nature at dusk and dawn on our Flickr group

Twilight is a time of magic, as night is banished by the first faint glow in the east, or when the western sky gives a golden fanfare that heralds night. Although dawn and dusk in December can be short-lived and monochrome affairs when compared to the splendour of summer and autumn, there are still opportunities for photographers. An obvious advantage is that one can enjoy a normal sleep pattern and still be up and about before the sun rises.

Given a clear sky, the light in winter is good at any time of day. The low aspect of the sun means that the bleaching highlights and deep shadows that can ruin any shot taken either side of midday in high summer simply do not occur. Taking advantage of the "golden hours" may not be as crucial in winter, but the rich colours at the ends of the day are still worth taking advantage of.

Your position in relation to the sun is crucial. With the sun behind you, your subject will be bathed in a warm reddish glow; shooting against the backdrop of an orange sky can make for a truly atmospheric image.

Shutter speed will also be important, there may only be sufficient light to capture correctly exposed images of static subjects. On the other hand silhouettes, especially of instantly recognisable outlines such as trees, deer or a stalking heron can make for a top-class image. A slightly slower shutter speed could also lend a sense of movement to flocks of birds threading their way across the gloaming.

The lower temperatures during this month can lead to mist forming in low-lying areas, especially along rivers or over lakes. Providing it's not a pea-souper this can lead to ethereal effects at dawn, whether it's the spectral shadows cast by a tree or a flock of wildfowl partly shrouded by pastel-tinted vapours. Warm-blooded subjects may also give off a fog of breath as temperatures are close to freezing. Capturing this could transform a fairly ordinary picture of an Exmoor pony or a singing wren into a truly wonderful image.

The last autumnal leaves clinging to a tree or brightly coloured fruits can often be embellished by droplets of dew in the first hour of light. If nights are cold and the air moist enough, then hoar frost can give a delicately beautiful coating to vegetation. The skeletal remains of hogweed or a velvet shank fungus erupting from the base of a tree can be given a magical crystalline crust that elevates your image from the ordinary to the spectacular.

Owls are famous for being nocturnal but at least three species regularly hunt by day. The little owl preys mainly on insects and earthworms and can often be found perched on prominent places, such as telegraph poles and fenceposts as well as mature parkland trees. The short-eared owl is mainly a winter visitor, at least to southern and lowland Britain, and is often active during the morning or evening. Barn owls are a more traditional night owl but if feeding is made difficult by wind, rain or shortage of small mammal prey, these ghostly birds will extend their hunting hours, too. Any of these could be seen flying at midday in December but late-afternoon light will give a more suitably crepuscular feel to proceedings.

At the time of writing, Britain is in the grip of an unusually cold spell. One vitally important piece of advice to bear in mind is that if temperatures continue to stay below freezing by night and day our wildlife will be hard-pushed to survive. Some birds will need to feed almost constantly during daylight hours to make it through the long cold nights. If temperatures are low enough, they can lose a fair proportion of vital body fat each day. Getting that extra foot closer to capture the perfect shot may cause animals to flee, not only wasting valuable calories but also preventing them from refuelling. Water birds will flock to the last areas of deeper water that remain ice-free, so keep your distance so as not to cause disturbance. Remember that a true nature photographer always put the wildlife first.

• Peter Brash is an ecologist at the National Trust


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


November 09 2010

The world's best underwater photos

Gallery: Some of the winners from the Our World Under Water photography contest and the fourth annual Deep International Underwater photo competition



November 05 2010

TERRA 541: Ceiba: Nature and the Maya Creation

Based at archaeological sites across Belize, CEIBA tells the story of wildlife in the Maya creation myth, at the center of which is the Ceiba tree - the bridge between the heavens, earth and the underworld.
TERRA 541: Ceiba: Nature and the Maya Creation

Based at archaeological sites across Belize, CEIBA tells the story of wildlife in the Maya creation myth, at the center of which is the Ceiba tree - the bridge between the heavens, earth and the underworld.

November 01 2010

Startling starlings

It's the time of year when these birds come together to produce one of nature's most impressive sights. Grahame Madge has some tips for capturing it on camera

Share your photos of starlings in flight on our Flickr group

Even as an ardent birdwatcher, I'll confess that a single starling is a rather drab sight. But you can capture stunning images of starlings if you see them in a new light. In summer, the drabness of their dark plumage melts away to reveal an iridescent show of greens and purples. In winter, the birds develop a completely different look as the plumage becomes spangled with white spots.

In my opinion, the best way to see starlings is just before dusk when flocks – known as murmurations – gather in autumn and winter skies for one of our most celebrated wildlife spectacles. Sometimes up to 1 million birds - from a radius of 20 miles - join vast flocks that twist and turn against the fading light, creating a pageant of ephemeral, ever-changing patterns - like smoke on a breeze.

Many of the birds will have travelled to the UK from Scandinavia, or even Russia, to join starlings that have nested in the UK. Starlings gather in huge flocks to spend the night in safety in reedbeds, or on buildings, such as Brighton pier. It's always been a slight mystery to me why these birds put on such a prominent display before roosting for the night. The primary aim of creating a large flock is to confuse predators, such as peregrine falcons or sparrowhawks: so, why do starlings advertise their presence so obviously?

The ecologist in me says they are probably encouraging others into the roost site, creating an ecological advantage for the starling's survival. However, my fun-loving side yearns to believe that starlings put on a Red Arrows show just because they can.

These spectacles happen at specific sites across the UK from October to early spring, allowing anyone with a camera, or even a mobile phone to capture an impression of this aerial ballet. However your image will strip away most of the sensations that you felt at the time; the chattering of a million calling birds; frost nipping at your nose and toes; or perhaps the scent of distant bonfires.

So how do you create an image that best captures the impressions of the event? Firstly, think about the location. Try to position yourself on the eastern side of the action. As the sun sets in the west, standing facing the sunset will allow you to include the sun, or sunlit clouds, as a backdrop for your composition. Even on a cloudy day, the light in this part of the sky will be brighter and will last for longer after sunset.

Think about how you frame your picture; including a distant church spire; a line of trees; or some other feature on the horizon will lend your picture a sense of scale and also a sense of location. You could also include other spectators for added human interest. Consider whether you want to capture a single image or create a sequence of pictures. Locking the camera on a tripod could enable you to take a set of pictures with the same framing. Including the same foreground while capturing the different patterns of the swirling flocks is one way of trying to describe the choreography of these.

Photographers with a little more technical know-how might want to create more impressionistic images. You have a choice where you can use a fast shutter speed to freeze each bird or use a slow one, allowing the movement of each bird to register as a streak across the frame.

However you choose to capture the event, be sure to take a few minutes to soak up the atmosphere of the event before the birds tumble from the sky and settle down for the night.

Where to see starlings

Gretna Green, Scotland

Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, Lancashire

Saltholme RSPB reserve, Middlesbrough

RSPB Snape Warren, Suffolk

Brighton pier, Sussex

Westhay Moor, Ham Wall (RSPB) or Shapwick Heath, in Somerset

RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk

Conwy RSPB reserve in north Wales

Blacktoft Sands, east Yorkshire

• Grahame Madge is a media officer at the RSPB


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


October 08 2010

TERRA 540: Feeding the Problem

Feeding the problem explores the historical and ecological impacts of the century-old artificial feeding program for elk in Western Wyoming. What began in 1912 as a gracious effort to save the Jackson Hole elk herd from harsh winters, shrinking habitat, and dwindling forage, has morphed into the largest wildlife feeding program in the United States. This biological experiment has created a petri dish for wildlife disease and is now one of the most contentious, fiercely debated issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
TERRA 540: Feeding the Problem

Feeding the problem explores the historical and ecological impacts of the century-old artificial feeding program for elk in Western Wyoming. What began in 1912 as a gracious effort to save the Jackson Hole elk herd from harsh winters, shrinking habitat, and dwindling forage, has morphed into the largest wildlife feeding program in the United States. This biological experiment has created a petri dish for wildlife disease and is now one of the most contentious, fiercely debated issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

October 02 2010

Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2010

A fulmer dives, a deer stag bellows, a swarm of monarch butterflies drink, and a carcal takes refuge up a tree - all of these animals feature in this year's Veolia Environnement wildlife photographer of the year



September 01 2010

Protector of the Giants photographic exhibition

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust presents an exhibition of pictures taken by three of the world's most celebrated wildlife photographers – Joachim Schmeisser, Michael Nichols and Robert Carr-Hartley



July 21 2010

Wildlife frozen in time

Scott Linstead uses fast shutter speeds and special flash gear to capture these incredible images of wildlife



June 24 2010

TERRA 536: Wildlife at Work: Beaver, Otter and Native Fish on the Verde River

Beavers are some of the great engineers of the wild kingdom. In Arizona, these toothy critters are hard at work along the Verde River, helping to restore this fragile river system to good health. They are creating dams and lodges that improve the habitat for otters, native fish and other species. People benefit as well because a healthy river system means good drinking water for the growing communities downstream.
TERRA 536: Wildlife at Work: Beaver, Otter and Native Fish on the Verde River

Beavers are some of the great engineers of the wild kingdom. In Arizona, these toothy critters are hard at work along the Verde River, helping to restore this fragile river system to good health. They are creating dams and lodges that improve the habitat for otters, native fish and other species. People benefit as well because a healthy river system means good drinking water for the growing communities downstream.

June 07 2010

Rumbles in the jungle

Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson explains the exotic, mysterious and occasionally terrifying sounds featured in his new 96-speaker installation at Kew Gardens



June 05 2010

Wild Wonders of Europe by Peter Cairns

A spectacular collection of Europe's finest natural history images tells the story of how far-sighted conservation projects have allowed wildlife to flourish over the past two decades

A white-tailed sea eagle soars into the sky, at Flatanger in Norway, with a mackerel clutched in its talons. Sightings of the predator have recently become common in Europe thanks to one of the conservation movement's greatest triumphs. For much of the 20th century, sea eagle numbers plummeted because of persecution by gamekeepers and shepherds who saw the raptor as a threat to their livestock. Accumulation of pesticides in the food chain is also thought to have had an impact.

But Europe's sea eagle population is bouncing back. Reintroduction projects in many countries, including Scotland and Ireland, have seen numbers of Haliaeetus albicilla rise spectacularly. Germany now hosts 530 pairs, for example, Sweden has 600, while Norway possesses a staggering 6,000. Numbers in Scotland and Ireland are also doing well.

Sea eagles form a main focus of Wild Wonders of Europe, a spectacular collection of the continent's finest natural history images. A total of 69 of Europe's best nature photographers spent a year recording creatures for the book. These include animals such as European yellow scorpions, grey wolves, brown bears, Griffon vultures, marsh frogs, alpine marmots, lesser horseshoe bats, sea turtles in the Mediterranean, polar bears in Svalbard, wild bison in Poland and Eleonora's falcons, the very first bird species ever to be protected – thanks to a decree made in 1395 by Queen Eleonora of Arborea in Sardinia.

Today, almost 20% of the European Union's land surface provides protection of some kind for its indigenous species, thanks to a spate of conservation projects that have been launched over the past two decades. Wild Wonders of Europe is, in part, a celebration of the consequences of these far-sighted decisions, though its authors also stress that threats of extinction still hang over many important species on the continent.

Animals that are now categorised as being highly endangered include the Saiga antelope, the Pyrenean brook salamander, the Iberian lynx, the short-snouted seahorse, the dusky grouper and the Arctic fox, whose population in Scandinavia, although protected for the past 75 years, still hovers at the edge of extinction, with only around 200 individuals surviving in the wild today, say scientists.

Nevertheless, the authors – Peter Cairns, Florian Möllers, Staffan Widstrand and Bridget Wijnberg – are adamant that there is cause for some celebration.

"That is not to say that everything is fine," they admit. "We all know it isn't. We certainly need to work hard to put many things right. But the glass is not half empty. It is actually half full. And it is getting fuller."

Wild Wonders of Europe, by Peter Cairns et al, is published by Abrams at £29.99. wild-wonders.com. To buy a copy for £21.99, plus free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


January 25 2010

January 24 2010

All things bright and beautiful: What photographer found in one cubic foot

David Liittschwager's amazing images – featured in next month's National Geographic magazine – capture Earth's ecosystems as never before

Just how much life can you find in an ecosystem of one cubic foot? That is the question photographer David L­iittschwager set out to answer when he took a 12-inch metal frame to a range of different environments on land and in water, in tropical climes and temperate regions and began to chart the living organisms.

The answer? An astonishing amount. In each place he visited, the photographer, best known for his large images of rare animals and plants, was amazed at the diversity and abundance of life that passed through such a small area.

In five distinct and contrasting environments, from a tropical forest to a city-centre park, Liittschwager set down his green-edged metal cube, and started watching. Each creature that passed through the cube was counted and charted with the help of his assistant and a team of biologists. Over a three-week period the team photographed each inhabitant that passed through the cube, down to creatures measuring a mere millimetre.

In total, more than a thousand individual organisms were photographed, and the diversity of each environment can be seen on nationalgeographic.com. "It was like finding little gems," Liittschwager said.

The team started out at Central Park in New York – or more specifically, in the Hallet nature sanctuary, a 3.5-acre deciduous woodland area, populated with trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally. There they found the tufted titmouse and eastern grey squirrel, creatures as big as a raccoon and as small as a leopard slug.


In Moorea, in French Polynesia, they discovered a vast array of species (pictured) thought to only be a very small selection of the reef's full diversity. Among their findings were the inch-long file clam, the whitespotted boxfish, sacoglossan sea slug and the frankly terrifying post-larval octopus.

While in the tropical cloud forest of Monteverde, in Costa Rica, most of the animals in the treetop ecosystem were as small as a fingertip, there were hawk moths, sharpshooter leafhoppers and burio tree seeds.

The fine-leaved vegetation of the fynbos of Table Mountain in South Africa, thought to hold one of the richest concentrations of plant diversity in the world, revealed the purple flower of the alice sundew, and no shortage of cape zebra cockroaches. Finally, in the fresh water of Duck River in Tennessee, one of the most biodiverse waterways in the US, swam golden darters and longlear sunfish as well as the bigeyed chub.


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January 21 2010

In pictures: 2010 British wildlife photography awards - call for entries

The 2010 British wildlife photography awards have opened for entries. To give you some inspiration, here are some of last year's submissions



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