Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: I – Sun, Sea, Sand and Birds

During August 2008 we spent 14 days at the 5-star all inclusive resort of Insotel at Punta Prima, on the very southern tip of the island of Menorca. The easternmost of the Balearics, Menorca has a very rich archeological record and was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1993 by UNESCO in recognition of its unique and fragile natural habitats. The island is popular with birders who visit to see both the native and migratory species and just opening the doors to our apartment and looking out across the dunes to the sea was an ornithologists dream. In fact on the bus ride from the airport to the hotel I managed to see a large buzzard-like raptor circling low over the fields between Mao and St Luis – it may have been a Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata), but making a positive identification from a moving coach squinting into the evening sun would be asking too much. With its six swimming pools, and carefully cut lawns and gardens Insotel attracted local wildlife like a magnet. Birds fed on the insects that thrived in the grounds and if you sat still long enough one of the thousands of bright green Wall Lizards (Pondarcis lilfordi) that swarmed over the complex would run under your chair or eye-ball you from its lair. Species common to Britain such as the house sparrow, house martin, collared dove and blackbird rubbed shoulders with the not so common such as the Spotted Flycatcher and Stonechat. Indeed Spotted Flycatchers (Muscicapa striata) were more abundant than the house sparrows, the adults doing low-level aerobatics, hovering like mini kestrals over the watered lawns and returning with a bill full of insects to answer the shrill piping begging calls of fledglings hidden in olive trees and hotel hedges. Stonechat’s (Saxicola torquatus) were less common but seen often enough so that by the end of the holiday I no longer stopped and gawped open-mouthed at their gorgeous plumage of dark head, pink breast and distinctive white wing bars.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: II - Up Before The Birds

Lying awake one night having eaten and drank enough to sicken a pig I decided that an early morning walk was needed to freshen up a digestive system that was in danger of working by gravity alone. So at 6.15am I slipped out of the apartment and walked across the hissing lawns towards the large expanse of scrubland to the east of the hotel and the access road to the Cami de Cavalls, an ancient coastal bridal-path running around the entire island that was used by the British during the Napoleonic wars to look for French warships and pirates. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon and the sea and sky were a dull iron-grey in the pre-dawn light. Moving through the watered hotel grounds to the browner scrub beyond I startled several rabbits that were grazing on the lawns, their white tails bounding as they disappeared into the long grass. It was here that it became clear just how much of an oasis the hotel was and how much water it consumed on this arid island – the demarcation between verdant green lawn and brown dry scrub was sudden and clear. At first glance the substrate along the trail did not present a promising tracking medium. 24 hours earlier a very intense but short-lived electric storm had dramatically doused the southern end of the island with extremely heavy rain but with temperatures on cloudy days reaching 28C and on sunny days as much as 36C the stony ground was now baked hard again. The Cami de Cavalls itself consisted of exposed limestone pavement with gravel and sand between the bare rocks and varied in width from one to five meters. A low scrub of typical Mediterranean flora such as Thorny Broom (Calicotome infesta), Mediterranean Buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus) and brambles grew along the edges of the path, with larger wind-sculptured Aleppo Pines (Pinus halepensis) and bushy wild olive trees (Olea europaea ) rising above at intervals. Weaving it’s way through the bushes and trees was Commom Smilax (Smilax aspera), a climbing plant with distinctive heart-shaped leaves and viscous, thorny prickles. No sooner had I taken to the trail then the light of my torch illuminated a large interesting scat some meters into the bush. It was obvious that the scat was old by its dessicated texture but even in the light of the torch I could see that it consisted of hard clay-like matter at one end and rougher grass and vegetable fibers at the other; the whole was bound together with hairs, both black and brown. The scat bagged I began to walk slowly along the path, shining my torch in front of me. At places along its length the Cami de Cavalls runs within a few meters of the sea and the booming of the waves against the cliffs and flat wave-cut platforms was constantly in my ears. Turning a bend on the trail I came upon a moth trap hung on a pine by the local authority. Large quantities of rabbit droppings had been deposited in middens between the raised rocky pavements and from a clearing along a stretch of cliff I watched the silhouette of a solitary goose flicker low over the waves as it flew northwards towards the headland at S’Algar.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: III - Like a wren with tourettes!

By now the sun was just beginning to breach the horizon of the wine dark sea and I made out a gnarled and twisted pine rising some distance up the trail. Thinking that this would be a good place to look for raptor pellets I made my way to it and slowly crouched down to scan the floor. As I was looking amongst the dry needles the stillness was suddenly shattered by the noisy and very strident calls of a bird in the bush to my right. It sounded like a wren with Tourettes Syndrome had just woken up with a hang-over. I sat as still as a statue while this tirade of avian abuse rose from the shrubbery so close that it sounded as if the bird was on my shoulder. Turning my head to peer into the bush I tried to pin-point the bird when suddenly it darted out, flew round the pine tree under which I was crouching and on to another bush 10 meters away. In the dawn light all I saw was a flash of wings but stalking slowly towards the bush in which it settled I made out a small passerine bird with a grey body and a black head ticking noisily from the top of the bush.
Conditioned as I am to British wildlife my first thought was “Ah, a Blackcap!” but on returning home and consulting the web it seems more probable that this noisy one-bird dawn chorus was not the work of the Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) but the Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala), a common Mediterranean warbler that has been adopted as the logo of the Sociedad Ornothologica de Menorca. I watched the warbler for several minutes as it made a circuit of its territory, boasting and signaling loudly from bushes and rocks before I carried on up the trail.
By now the light had turned from cold grey to warm yellow and moving into a sheltered section of the path between enclosed scrub I found a small black pellet deposited singly on the sandy bank above the path. It was approximately 7.00am and the sun had not yet risen high enough to shine directly on the path. The pellet was still moist and glistened with a jet black colour. It was small, approximately 1cm long, and teardrop shape. I bagged it up and pocketed it for later inspection.
The Cami de Cavalls began to rise and in the distance I saw the Martello tower in the distance. A colony of rock doves roosting on the south facing sea cliffs lifted and flew inland and here and there the anvil stones of thrushes rose like graveystones amongst the pads of grey lichen that bubbled over the rocks. Not the springy stuff found in northern forests this lichen had grown tough, sharp and wiry and like the empty and broken snail shells it was bleached white in the strong southern sun
As I got to the massive tower at Moro d'Alcalfar overlooking the harbour at Cala d'Alcalfar a Blackbird was singing to the sun atop the cliffs and every Sardinian Warbler within a mile seemed to be awake and competing with it’s neighbour in a noisy display of clicks, ticks and tremolos. The thing about coastal paths is that unless one wants to undertake a lengthy detour inland you have to return by the same way you arrived so I turned and headed back along the trail to Punta Prima.
It was now 7.30am and the Cami de Cavalls was busier, the occasional jogger sweated over the hard ground and a fat middle aged local man walked in front of me holding a bottle of water. Anxious to have the place as much to myself as possible I stopped and watched the sea; already small pleasure boats were sailing out, the chug of their engines drifting up from the sea and over the cliff tops. I stood a while and watched the massive white cruise ships sailing far to the south of the island. With the path quieter I began again. The sun was rising steeply and it was now warm. The local rodent population seemed to be much more audible as well, walking back along the trail bushes to my left and right began to rustle with a distinctive scuttling sound that was markedly different to the softer slithering the lizards made. Stopping at a rustle that was closer than most I peered into the bush and saw a small golden coloured rodent, looking more like a school gerbil than anything else, and for a second we stared at each other - beady eyes shining and whiskers twitching before it was off in a rustle of leaves and undergrowth.
Picking my way off the path to take a photograph of the coastline I found a very interesting fresh scat on a small rock in the lea of a large bush. The scat was still moist and glossy black, a trail of dark liquid had dried on the rock showing where it had slid down and settled on the ground. This scat was too messy and sloppy to bag so I opted for a few quick photographs and a cursory inspection with a pointy stick. Breaking up it’s gooey body revealed it to be composed mainly of insect elytra and some small pieces of snail shell. Looking around the bush for tracks proved futile, whatever had left the dropping had left no tracks I could see in the hard gravelly substrate but on the other side of the bush a similar but smaller scat had been deposited, again on a rock. Too messy to collect I satisfied myself with a few photographs.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: IV The Thekla Lark

At 7.40am the sun was beginning to warm the ground and lines of black ants streamed out of their holes making foraging runs into the bush. In the middle of the path some 20 meters away I saw a lark running quickly between the lines of ants, snapping them up as it went. The lark seemed unconcerned about my presence, although the erectile crest on it’s head did perk up, so I slowly inched forward, hands behind my back and face averted trying to keep the bird in my peripheral vision without startling it by staring it out. I was able to take several pictures of the lark feeding on the ants before a red-faced jogger, kitted out in a full Brazil football strip, lumbered up the trail and scared it away. However I noticed that the lark didn’t fly far and when our jogging friend had moved on I began to slowly work my way towards the place where it had settled. Moving through the thick scrub I became acutely aware that my outfit of shorts and flip-flops was not intended to hack through undergrowth that seemed to be the biological model for razor wire but when I finally got the bird back in view I was rewarded with a lengthy display as it sat on a rock and groomed itself after a breakfast of ants. I crouched in the prickly scrub, watching as it preened first the left wing then the right before settling down to comb carefully through the breast feathers. I managed to take more photographs, although with my wife’s £49.99 digital camera at maximum zoom the pictures are unlikely to win any awards. Using the information included on the website of the Socidedad Ornothologica de Menorca and some detective work I have identified the bird as most probably a Thekla Lark (Galerida theklae), a bird slightly smaller than the Skylark that breeds in dry open country in Iberia and North Africa. It was certainly a very rewarding encounter with a bird seldom seen in Britain. It was now almost time to lay the towels out on the beds by the pool so I made my way back to hotel. The House Martins were skimming the lawns and the gardeners were clipping the honeysuckle as the first lizards of the day soaked up the heat. In a walk of less than two hours along a path used daily by dozens of people I had managed to spot birds I had never seen before and find animal sign that would need a lot of detective work to unravel. The substrate may have been dry, hard and an unrewarding medium for finding tracks but its light sandy colour made finding scat and sign much easier than the leaf covered woodland floors of Britain. In hindsight maybe a pair of binoculars and field guides to the birds, mammals and flora of southern Europe would have come in handy, and perhaps my better camera and a tape measure but you make do with what you have to hand and I had packed for a family holiday not a natural history tour of the Balearics. I’ll know better next year. With the rest of the family still sleeping I crept back into the apartment and stowed my scat behind the complimentary bath robes, to be examined later at my leisure.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: Scat # 1

Scat # 1 was found slightly off the main trail in a dry gravelly area beside a large thorny bush some 2.5 meters high. There appeared to be small rabbit-sized runs through the undergrowth leading away from the find site but no tracks were visible in the hard, dry substrate. The length of Scat # 1 is approximately 20cm. It is thicker at one end, tapering to a thin narrow point at the other. On examination the scat is made up of two distinct parts; a thicker segment consisting mainly of vegetable matter, including blades of grass and a piece of dried, hard wood approximately 1cm square whilst the thinner segment is greyer in colour and appears to consist of hardened clay-like material. The whole scat is slightly twisted and contains hairs along it’s full length, both black and tawny brown. The two distinct parts are joined by hairs into one single unit. Although desiccated and bleached in colour by long exposure to the sun the scat retained a musty odour that was more pronounced when broken up. Identifying the scat presented some problems, the most obvious being my very poor local knowledge. Prior to holidaying on the island I had no idea which mammals were present on Menorca, either endemic or introduced. With the help of field-guides and the online European Mammal Assessment resource this can be overcome and possible species either ruled in or out. That the scat contained both vegetable and animal remains would point to an omnivorous animal although it should be noted that animals primarily thought to be carnivores can consume plant material throughout the year and that the diet of a species and the subsequent morphology of scat can alter markedly depending on habitat and prey. With this in mind it is possible to begin to make educated deductions regarding the origin of Scat # 1. Scats joined together in “chains” linked together by hairs are characteristic of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) however the European Mammal Assessment centre shows that the Red Fox is absent from Menorca. Badgers (Meles meles) have an omnivorous diet that could produce such a scat and being a mustelid may also produce scat of a similar shape and size to Scat # 1 however Badger are known to prefer to deposit waste in regular well-used latrine sites rather than singularly and as with the red fox the badger is not recorded on Menorca. I would also argue that we can also rule out that the scat was deposited by a domestic dog – unless Menorcan dogs are in the habit of eating wood and grass and producing scats that are unlike any seen in Britain. The twisted texture and narrowing, tapering shape of Scat # 1 point to a mustelid and Schreiber et al describe an interesting introduction of Genets and Pine Martens to the island of Menorca, (Weasels, Civets & Mongooses – an action plan for the conservation of Mustelids and Vivverids; A Schreiber, R Wirth, M Riffel & H Van Rompaey. IUCN/SSC Mustelid and Vivverid Specialist Group).
Ibiza and Menorca each have a distinctive population of the small-spotted genet (G. genetta). It is sometimes thought that the species’s occurrence there (as well as to the European mainland) is due to introduction by man. If so, these introductions have presumably originated from geographically separate populations and the genet has changed in morphological characteristics in its new European habitats. There is also an undescribed form of beech marten (Martes foina) on Ibiza and a subspecies of pine marten (Martes martes minoricensis) on Menorca, both of which are distinctive from mainland animals (Delibes in litt. 1987). The Menorca small-spotted genet is believed to be still common. However, the Menorca marten and the Ibiza small-spotted genet are classified as “Rare” by ICONA (1986). The Ibiza beech marten might have become extinct recently. Surveys are needed to assess the status of these animals and to draw up management recommendations.
Could Scat # 1 be from the introduced Menorca Pine Marten (Martes martes minoricensis)? Schrieber et al tell us that pine marten are “rare” on the island. The area in which the scat was recovered was on the edge of a large and protected area of scrubby coastal forest. Although in boreal and temperate environments pine marten are known to favour mature woodland with dense cover on Menorca they show no habitat preference (Clevenger, 1993 & 1994).
Eurasian pine martens are considered habitat specialists, associated primarily with mature stands of mesic mixed forest habitats, and avoid areas without overhead cover. The species is found throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the continent but on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, introduced pine martens thrive in a competitor and predator free environment. I test the prediction that because of evolved prey-capture and predator avoidance strategies Menorcan martens should select habitats most similar to temperate and northern parts of their range. Scat index routes were used to quantify pine marten habitat selection. Marten did not demonstrate any habitat type preferences although observed use of pine forests and coastal shrublands was slighly greater than expected. Marten were indifferent to overhead cover whereas mesic sites and areas of tall high shrub density were favored. Small mammal trap indices and preferred prey suggested that martens commonly used non-forested areas. My results demonstrated that on Menorca pine martens were habitat generalists. In the absence of predators open non-forested habitats were equally important to pine marten as were forested ones
Mostly active during the night and at dusk pine marten may have several nesting sites within the home range, using abandoned bird nests and rock crevices as hideaways. Home range size estimates vary widely between studies although it is clear that male ranges are larger than female ranges and that they overlap those of one or more females. Some sources give an average of 23 sq km for males and 6.5 sq km for females (Nowak 1999), others estimate only 2.2 sq km for males and 1.5 sq km for females (Zalewski et al 1995). On the island of Menorca ranges were measured as 0.5 sq km for females and 6.9 sq km for males (Clevenger 1993). Although the pine marten is an opportunistic omnivore it favors animal food, relying on small mammals for most of the year with the composition and proportion of foods often changing according to season and local conditions, such as when fruits and berries become abundant in autumn. Scottish and Menorcan martens may fill 30% of their diet with these vegetarian resources whilst in other regions, such as Poland, fruits may never be eaten (Zalewski et al 1995, Clevenger 1993, Gurnell et al 1994). Aside from the effects of seasonally available fruits and unpredictable rodent booms, diet is otherwise reasonably constant. Favored foods include small mammals such as voles and squirrels, birds, insects, carrion, frogs, reptiles and snails. Diets of pine martens that forage along a loch in Scotland have been recorded to include crabs, echinoderms, and barnacles (Gurnell et al 1994). The overwhelming information available on pine marten scat is from northern Europe and there is very little available in general literature regarding the composition or morphology in a Mediterranean, and specifically Menorcan, environment. A positive identification of Scat # 1 is impossible but in light of the evidence – the find site close to rabbit runs, the presence of mammal hairs – possibly rabbit - in the scat, the twisted and chain-like morphology of the scat I am inclined to the view that Scat # 1 is possibly that of the Martes martes minoricensis.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: Scat # 2

Scat # 2 was found in an elevated position on a dry sandy bank immediately beside the trail, in an area enclosed on both sides by dense scrub, the time was approximately 7.00am. When found the scat had been deposited singly and was still fresh, with a glistening wet sheen to it. It is approximately 1cm in length and has a solid teardrop shape, with one end wider and thicker and the other tapering and narrow. Scat # 2 is black in colour. No tracks could be found in the immediate area of deposition and there were no obvious runs through the undergrowth. No similar droppings were found in the immediate area. Scat # 2 was photographed approximately 36 hours after collection by which time it had dried considerably. When Scat # 2 was broken up it was found to consist of insect elytra and small fragments of snail shell, many of which still retained their original colour. There was no noticeable smell to Scat # 2 either it its fresh or desiccated state. The size and teardrop shape of Scat # 2 are characteristic of the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus). As an opportunistic and highly adaptable species that has made ready use of its association with humans the Brown Rat has now colonised all but the most isolated and inhospitable parts of the world, it’s presence on Menorca perhaps linked to the islands importance as a strategic navel base for the western Mediterranean. Those who are interested are referred to my article on the identification of a Brown Rat skull posted on this blog in February 2009.

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: Scat # 3 & Scat # 4

Scat # 3 was found beside a small stone beneath a large bush at approximately 7.45am. It was relatively fresh and retained a gooey and viscous texture and a shiny black colour. Scat # 3 appears to have been deposited on top of the stone and although the smear-trail of faecal liquid showing where it had slid down the stone to the position it was found had evaporated it had left a dark stain on the stone which is clearly visible in the photograph. Scat # 3 was approximately cm wide and appears to have settled into an amorphous mass however the linear/tubular shape that the original scat had upon excretion can be seen in the photograph. It had a musty odour, although not as strong as in Scat # 1. When broken up Scat # 3 was found to contain insect elytra although proportionally less than Scat # 2, which contained a very high proportion of elytra. There were no tracks in the immediate area of the stone that could assist with species identification although several meters away beneath the same bush a similar, although smaller scat had been deposited, again on a rock. This is referred to as Scat # 4. A striking feature of Scats # 3 & 4 are the deposition sites atop stones and rocks. This, coupled with the viscous semi-liquid nature of the scat points to a bird, although which bird is quite another matter?

Tracking the Cami de Cavalls: Goat track or natural phenomena?

Finally, in stalking through the dense, spiney undergrowth to get closer to the Thekla Lark I happened across what appeared to be a small print of a cloven hoof. The print, although vague and open to question, was impressed into a patch of bare dry earth between two patches of scrub and appears to show the impression of hoof cleats. There was only one track, although given the difficult condition of the substrate this is not unusual, and if indeed the shape depicted in the photograph is a track and not a simulacra of a track created by natural phenomena the most obvious suggestion would be that it was made by a feral goat.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Summer Solstice

In celebration of the Summer Solstice and the long white evenings with their blazing yellow meadows I post Stefan Georg’s hymn to the solar titan Hyperion. Hail. Hyperion
Ich kam zur heimat: solch gewog von blüten
Empfing mich nie .. ein pochen war im feld
In meinem hain von schlafenden gewalten,
Ich sah euch fluss und berg und gau im bann
Und brüder euch als künftige sonnen-erben:
In eurem scheuen auge ruht ein traum
Einst wird in euch zu blut der sehnsucht sinnen ...
Mein leidend leben neigt dem schlummer zu
Doch gütig lohnt der Himmlischen verheissung
Dem frommen ... der im Reich nie wandeln darf:
Ich werde heldengrad, ich werde scholle
Der heilige sprossen zur vollendung nahn:
Mit diesen kommt das zweite alter, liebe
Gebar die Welt, liebe gebiert sie neu.
Ich sprach den spruch, der zirkel ist gezogen ..
Eh mich das dunkel überholt entrückt
Mich hohe schau: bald geht mit leichten sohlen
Durch teure flur greifbar im glanz der Gott.
I journeyed home: such flood of blossoms never
Had welcomed me ... a throbbing in the field
And in the grove there was of sleeping powers.
I saw the river, slope and shire enthralled,
And you, my brothers, sun-heirs of the future:
Your eyes, still chase, are harboring a dream,
Once yearning thoughts in you, to blood shall alter ...
My sorrow-stricken life to slumber leans,
But graciously does heaven's promise guerdon
The fervent ... who may never pace the Realm.
I shall be earth, shall be the grave of heroes,
That sacred sons approach to be fulfilled.
With them the second age comes, love engendered
The world, again shall love engender it.
I spoke the spell, the circle has been woven ...
Before the darkness fall, I shall be snatched
Aloft and know: through cherished fields shall wander
On weightless soles, aglow and real, the God.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Jeffrey Catherine Jones: Painter at the gates of dawn

In collecting paperback editions of Robert E Howard one is exposed to some pretty piss-poor artists, if indeed one can grace them with that title. For every master such as Frazetta or Kelly there are dozens of lesser skilled bunglers who’s work is both an embarrassing eyesore and a challenge to the patience of even the most committed collector. But amongst the dross and shoddy, gaudy rubbish I discovered a jewel so lustrous that it shone brighter than the sun at midnight.
On the cover of the Zebra Books anthology of Howard’s stories stood a warrior, head thrown back in triumph and shield uplifted in salute. Everything about the illustration spoke of an artist that understood form, character, art and life. In place of the technicolour beefcake barbarians of the Frazetta copyists stood a figure that embodied power rather than violence, litheness rather than massiveness and was possessed of the same dark, brooding intelligence that ran through Howard’s heroes. Here was an artist whose work did not just provide a cover for a cheap book but complimented the stories inside and raised that book from the ordinary to the fantastic.
Jeffrey Jones was born in Atlanta on 10th January 1944, studying geology at Georgia Tech before moving to New York to pursue a career as an artist and illustrator. When Jones arrived in town in the winter of 1967 the iconic covers Frazetta had painted for Ace Books were all the rage and publishers were searching for new people who could deliver something similar – having previously sold black and white strips to horror comics such as Eerie and Creepy Jones was well placed to supply a ready market and found a rich source of work for several years to come.
Between 1968 and 1976 Jones painted over 150 covers for genres of fiction as diverse as fantasy, romance, detective stories and spicy fiction. Jones’ work of the late 60s and 70s is full of strong flowing lines that are at the same time loose and direct. Her paintings show the same reverence for the human form as the illustrations of William Blake and share with Roerich the efficiency of a muted and restrained palette, used to masterful effect in evoking atmosphere and emotion. Indeed many of Jones paintings from her book cover days show a stylistic heritage with the early, folkloric paintings of Nikolas Roerich - such as “Guests from Overseas”, “They haul them along” and “The Sword of Valour”.
At her best Jones’ work transcends the narrow bounds of book illustration or fantasy art and is able stand side by side with the masters of any age. In the painting “Dragon Slayer” we find a languid femme fatale as beautiful and vulnerable as any Pre-Raphaelite heroine - although infinitely more erotic - reclining on a couch with the head of a serpentine dragon in her lap. Silhouetted against the gauzy backlight a figure approaches with sword in hand. The image is charged with sexual tension, full with an ageless and eternal symbolism and could have been exhibited alongside Khnopff or Delville in any salon of the fin de siecle.
In “Avatar” a dramatically posed male figure stands erect and hieratic beneath the horns of a crescent moon, his face raised in the ecstasy of rapture as a billowing cloud of interlaced female figures rises to the night sky. We do not know if we are witnessing a dream, an invocation or a moment of revelation. The image combines the eternal archetypes of the masculine and feminine, transfigured through the lens of an unearthly sabbat. There is both motion and stillness, peace and the frisson of fear in the painting, which swirls in front of the viewer like smoke rising from a secret fane.
I love the way that Jones captures a moment of emotional energy and freezes it beneath a painterly gaze. Whether it be embracing lovers or a charging chariot Jones’ work is charged with passion and depicts an eternal, crystalline moment. There are many competent draughtsmen, many painters who have mastered colour and tone but few who can compose a painting so that it looks like a moment of frozen wonder.
The best artists can make our souls sing with the beauty and glamour of their vision. Looking at the work of these few we are swept away to far off places where the dreaming world collides with reality, where the fields we know – to use a phrase employed by Lord Dunsany – are subtly changed by secret magicks and mundane things are revealed in their true, halcyon forms. Jeffrey Catherine Jones is one of these few - her eye pierces to the heart of the mystery and her hand reveals the innermost lights of masques, rituals and revels that we would never have otherwise seen. We feel that we truly are witness to a drama played out by gods and men. She is, as Frank Frazetta proclaimed, the greatest living artist.
Jones now works both in sculpture and landscape painting. A selection of her recent work was displayed on her own website which unfortunately appears to be no longer online
www.ulster.net/~jonesart/ A selection of Jones illustration for the pulp paperbacks of the 1960s and 70s is archived at www.vintagepbks.com/jonescovers.html A detailed article outlining Jones career and her major publications is available at www.bpib.com/illustrat/jonesjf.htm An interview with Jones conducted in 2004 is available at www.sequentialtart.com/archive/july04/jcjones.shtml

Friday, 5 June 2009

Lutra lutra

Not so long ago otters were thought of as mythical creatures, similar to basilisks and unicorns, so rare were they in the waters of lowland Britain. In the second half of the twentieth century the population collapsed under the pressure of pollution, persecution and habitat loss and by the end of the 1970’s it is estimated that otters were absent from 94% of their former range. However, things are changing. Tougher legislation on agro-chemicals and pesticides has lead to cleaner water and laws also now protect both the animal and its habitats with the result that otters are re-colonising Britains waterways for the first time in decades. Indeed otters have recently been sighted in central London - meaning that we may have to accept the phenomena of urban otters raiding our garden ponds just as we have come to accept the urban fox raiding our dustbins. I’ve never seen a wild otter up close – just a quiet splash and a small bobbing head as they dip out of sight. Neither have I found either track or sign of otters, although my brother-in-law tells me that he has seen them in the middle course of the Wear and the lower stretch of the Browney whilst fishing, so I began to think of places where I could track and possibly watch otters and the place that came to mind was Hamsterley Forest. Hamsterley is a 2000 hectare working forest in the south west corner of Durham, lying between the catchments of the rivers Tees and Wear. Large stands of mature spruce predominate but a mixed woodland of beech, oak, sycamore and rowan spreads along the valley bottoms. Hamsterley is only a 20 minutes drive from my house but it’s somewhere I rarely visit and arriving one Sunday morning I realised why! The forest receives 150,000 visitors each year and it looked like most of them had decided to go on the same day as me. The car-park looked like Tesco on Christmas Eve. As I got out the car a bunch of kids kicked a football against the side of the café and a boy on an electric scooter buzzed along the road. It really wasn’t what I wanted from a day in the woods but I resolved to get as far away from the crowds as quickly as possible and a few minutes later I was heading for my first search site. In researching the trip I had scoured the OS map and Google Earth finding over twenty miles of riverbank within the forest that could possibly support otters, from the broad lower reaches of the Bedburn beck to the smaller tributary becks further west. It was plain that I was only going to be able to search a small section of river bank in any one day so I decided to concentrate my efforts on the largest watercourse first. The Bedburn beck is actually a small river, fast and rocky. I had planned to track up its southern bank as that side was more heavily wooded and, I assumed, a more likely location for holts than the more frequented and open north bank. As I cut off the path into the undergrowth along the river side a pair of grey wagtails flew back and forth along a small shingle shoal, their yellow and grey plumage shining in the sun. The previous 24 hours had seen many heavy downpours of rain and the Bedburn was running brown and peaty, lapping in white waves over the thickly mossed rocks. I was hopeful that the recent rains would increase the chances of find good tracks and the substrate immediately along the river bank showed the most promise. Here and there small micro-beaches of sandy gravel had formed in the lee of large rocks and root boles and it was on these areas that I concentrated – looking for a slide mark to show where the otters entered the river, for feeding signs that showed which species they were preying on or for a territorial spraint to show others who this part of the river belonged to. The river side was slippery and steep, I often had to traverse and scramble along overhanging rocks and cliffs, using branches and roots for handholds as I moved along to the next likely patch of ground. On one of these spider-like scrambles along the rivers edge a wren darted out from the steeply overhung bank and lighted on a rock in front of me, squeaking and hopping. If it was trying to decoy me away from its nest it needn’t have bothered – try though I might I could not see hide nor hair of it in the shadowy depths of the roots hanging over my head. On an area of gently sloping river bank with easy access to the waterside I had my first breakthrough – a small dark coil of fresh otter spraint deposited neatly in the middle of a flat rock. So carefully chosen was the deposition site and so flat and round the stone that it looked like the scat had been set in the middle of a dinner plate. The spraint was approximately 3cm in length, dark in colour and still quite fresh. When broken up the spraint showed an olive green colour and had a mild, flowery smell. There were several small fish bones in the spraint but overall the consistency was slimy and soft. This was an encouraging find, with so many miles of riverbank to check and no information as to which areas might yield the best results it was good to know that I was at least in the right area. Otters are strongly territorial animals and the ranges of competing dog otters do not overlap, although females may have their range wholly within that of a male. The size of otter ranges varies depending on the amount of food available in the area – on a small narrow river like the Bedburn the range could be several miles long. I continued up the river, climbing over fallen trees and mossy rocks as a Dipper ducked and dived under the water upstream from me. At points the river cliffs were so sheer and mossy that traversing them was not an option and I was forced to climb out up the steep sides of the river bank and rejoin the bank further upstream. I was loathed to leave the river and potentially miss a sign but I consoled myself that it was unlikely that an otter would leave any sign in such steep and inaccessible places. Further up stream I came to a place that looked like a very likely spot. A narrow slide down the muddy bank was clearly visible and a tree root had been rubbed bare and shiny where the slide crossed the edge of the bank. Getting down on my hands and knees, trying to get as low a view of the ground as possible I could see disturbances and the transfer of specks of sand and gravel amongst the mud. Here and there the tiny pin-points of claw marks were visible and in another spot several meters ahead a narrow incision in the sand showed where a claw had sliced into the river bank. It had rained very heavily during the night and this incision was fresh and distinct, indicating that it had been made earlier that morning. The tracks were heading up a steep muddy bank away from the river into the woods and on this muddy bank I found a very clear and almost complete otter track showing 4 of the 5 claws, with both the digital pads and metacarpal pad showing in good detail. This track was almost 10cm long and seems to have been a right fore foot. At the top of the muddy bank the tracks disappeared into the woodland floor of leaf-litter and pine needles. There were a few small specks of sand to mark where the animal had passed but nothing I could use to follow the trail. It crossed my mind that somewhere in the woods close by the animal may have its holt. I scouted around in a wide semi-circle from the bank - under roots, rocks and piles of brush but found nothing. Back on the river the Dipper was still flying from rock to rock, keeping a constant distance from me, its quick darting flight a mockery as I lumbered and laboured from rock to rock. After three hours I had gone about a mile – at this rate it would take me another 60 hours to do a first check of all the becks in the forest. It was clear that locating the otter hot-spots was not going to be a quick or easy project but I was pleased that my first trip had come up with results. I cut away from the river, back up into the woods to see what could be seen but quickly decided that Hamsterley Forest on a Sunday in May was not for me. The paths were crowded with bickering families in matching tracksuits, grannies in sun-hats and ramblers with nice clean boots. I must have looked a site as I emerged from the bushes, my trousers wet and dirty from wading up the river and kneeling in the mud, a slight aroma of otter scat hanging about me, because I got some very strange looks from the other pedestrians – as if a man dressed in green and brown clambering up a river cliff was in anyway unusual. On the way back to the car rugged extreme-sports types blasted by on mountain bikes, their sunglasses and helmets making them look like overgrown insects. Half a dozen youths on scrambler bikes roared along the trails and as the broad-tailed silhouette of a buzzard circled slowly in the distance decided that the next time I visit Hamsterley it wouldn’t be on a weekend.