Thursday 18th August 2016

A brief butterfly feast in the Dutch desert

Although this summer has been generally bleak for me in terms of butterflies, guiding in mostly rain-sodden Scotland, I did recently make a brief trip to the Netherlands, where I was mostly engaged in admin-related activities, but I did manage to squeeze in two highly enjoyable butterfly excursions.

The first was in search of a rare and highly specialised species, one that I could not always guarantee to see as its flight season was frequently over by the time I would return to the Netherlands from my summer holidays at the start of the autumn semester, the Silver-spotted Skipper, Hesperia comma.

My early experiences with this diminutive butterfly were on the beautiful, and beautifully named, Spread-eagle Hill, near Melbury Abbas, in Dorset.  In the UK, the Silver-spotted Skipper is restricted to south-facing slopes, with short grass and anthills, which catch the sun’s warmth and allow the butterflies to bask and reach the temperature they require in order to start moving…and move they do, darting off when disturbed; they are hard to follow as they zoom away with an almost fly-like flight. The butterfly almost died out in the UK after myxomatosis hit, because there were no rabbits to keep the grass short.  Since then, however, sympathetic management with phased grazing by sheep has allowed them to recover somewhat (although last time I visited Spread-eagle Hill, it looked over-grazed to me).

The only other locality where I have seen Silver-spotted Skippers in the UK was on the North Downs, between Box Hill and Dorking, where they were to be found in some old quarries along the south-facing slopes, which formed sun-traps for this warmth-loving little butterfly.

In the Netherlands, their habitat is quite different.  Here the butterflies seem to like heathland with dry patches of bare ground between the heather clumps, where they bask with their wings held in that characteristic skipper way, the forewings half open and the hindwings splayed wide.

The locality where I managed to connect this time with the Silver-spotted Skipper, or Kommavlinder as it is called in Dutch, is an example of wonderful conservation planning, a former Royal Dutch Airforce base that was abandoned by the military in the 1990s, and was then in grave danger of being converted into housing or an industrial area.  Luckily, it was designated instead as an area dedicated to nature, and one can now enjoy the open patches between the runways, with butterflies and other insects thriving on the heathery swards.

A male Silver-spotted Skipper perching on a bramble

As I had not expected to have a chance to do any butterfly photography during this visit, I did not have my Canon SX530, whose 50X zoom would have been most welcome, and I was forced to resort to my tiny Canon A2200, which has only a 4X optical zoom, meaning that I had to approach the butterflies to almost point blank range in order to obtain reasonable shots of them, and Silver-spotted Skippers are notoriously wary and zoom off at the slightest sudden movement.  However, I did manage to obtain a few reasonable images, showing that one does not need highly sophisticated cameras in order to photograph butterflies successfully.

The silver spots on the underside of the Silver-spotted Skipper are very distinctive

A female Silver-spotted Skipper in the characteristic pose of the orange skippers, with the forewings held apart from the hindwings

The Dutch name, Kommavlinder, refers to the comma-shaped silver mark near the base of the hindwing

The other excursion I managed to fit in was to an extraordinary area of inland sand dunes, a place to which I always made an annual pilgrimage in late August while I was living in the Netherlands, the Kootwijkerzand.  My first visit to this magical place, with its drifting sand (or stuifzand, as it is known in Dutch) was in 1999, and on that occasion I was able to observe one of the very last breeding pairs of Tawny Pipits, which have since died out completely as breeding birds in the Netherlands, disturbed too much by dog-walkers and kite-flyers, who seem to love this place as much as I do.

The Kootwijkerzand is an inland dune system

My reason for visiting this place every year in late summer was to search for an extraordinarily rare butterfly, the Tree Grayling, Hipparchia statilinus. This species now only occurs in the Netherlands on this one area of drifting sand and short, dry grass, its next nearest colonies being in southern France and in eastern Germany. Unlike its close relative the Grayling, Hipparchia semele, which is quite numerous here and can be found in large numbers in the isolated patches of heather, the Tree Grayling is extremely rare. The males emerge before the females, and establish territories near isolated patches of pines that grow on elevated hummocks surrounded by dry expanses of sand.

The sandy areas near the isolated stands of pines are the favourite haunt of the Tree Grayling

In my experience, there cannot be many more than ten individual adults in any given year, the maximum I have ever seen at any one time being three. That the species manages to hold on is astonishing, given all the obstacles it faces. The main threat seems to be that the sandy areas that it requires are becoming overgrown with an alien species of blackish moss (heath star moss, Campylopus introflexus), meaning that there is less open sand.  The most recent research seems to indicate that this moss holds water in the winter, when the young larvae are hibernating, causing them to go moldy and die.  How complex environmental matters can be, when a butterfly is pushed to the brink of extinction by an alien species of moss.

This year I only found one Tree Grayling, a lone male

Would it matter if the Tree Grayling disappeared from the Netherlands? To me, it would.  Not only do I lament the fact that we humans are constantly interfering with nature, causing the complex jigsaw puzzle of life to start losing pieces (the Tawny Pipit has already been lost), but I have a strong feeling that the Dutch Tree Graylings may be a distinct species, or at the very least an endemic subspecies. The transverse band that Tree Graylings elsewhere have across the underside of their hindwings is much less pronounced or even absent here, so they are unique, and for that reason alone, they should be given the maximum of assistance in their struggle to survive.  This time I only found one individual, a lone male.  I can only hope that he will find a female and that next year, if I manage to make my annual pilgrimage to the Kootwijkerzand, the Tree Grayling will still grace this wonderful place.

I was astonished when a female Tree Grayling landed on my binoculars in 2004


Saturday 28th May 2016

A visit to two deceased forefathers in the shadow of the Crimean War Memorial in Istanbul

Up till now, almost all of my posts on this website have concerned members of the Champion and Walker sides of my family, but today I had the moving experience of visiting the graves of two ancestors/relatives from my grandmother’s side. I refer to Julia (Judy) Stewart, wife of F W Champion, the tiger conservationist and photographer. Her mother, Frances Jane Hobart Hampden, wife of Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was niece of an outstanding but largely, and undeservedly, forgotten character, “Augustus Charles Hobart Hampden, who was born in Leicestershire, the third son of the 6th Earl of Buckinghamshire.

In 1835 he entered the Royal Navy and served as a midshipman on the coast of Brazil in the suppression of the slave trade, displaying much gallantry in the operations. In 1855 he took part, as captain of HMS Driver, in the Baltic Expedition, and was actively engaged at Bomarsund and Åbo.

In 1862 he retired from the navy with the rank of post-captain, but his love of adventure led him, during the American Civil War, to take the command of a blockade runner. He had the good fortune to run the blockade eighteen times, conveying war material to Charleston and returning with a cargo of cotton.

In 1867 Hobart entered the Ottoman service, and was immediately nominated to the command of that fleet, with the rank of “Bahriye Livasi” (Rear-Admiral). In this capacity he performed splendid service in helping to suppress the insurrection in Crete, and was rewarded by the Sultan with the title of Pasha (1869). In 1874 Hobart, whose name had, on representations made by Greece, been removed from the British Royal Navy List, was reinstated; his restoration did not, however, last long, for on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war he again entered Ottoman service.

On the conclusion of peace Hobart still remained in the Ottoman service, and in 1881 was appointed Mushir, or marshal, being the first Christian to hold that high office. He died at Milan on 19 June 1886″ (Wikipedia), but his body was returned to Constantinople (Istanbul today), and he now lies in the Haydar Pasha British cemetery. The following link leads to a much more detailed description of this extraordinary man’s colourful, swashbuckling life:

Hobart Pasha

The other grave I hoped to find was that of another enterprising ancestor of my grandmother’s, Lt-Col Patrick Stewart CB, who among many other feats was Director-General of the Indo-European Telegraph, the first cable connection between Great Britain and India, but who died at the age of 32. One of the first messages sent down the newly completed line was that announcing his early death, and he now lies within fifty yards of the splendid Crimean War Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in 1857, which also hosts the commemorative plaque to Florence Nightingale, who saved so many lives and tended so many wounded in her makeshift hospital in the nearby Selimiye Barracks.

Patrick Stewart

With such forefathers to visit, I set off by ferry across the Bosphorus, and passed by the gutted wreckage of the neoclassical Haydarpaşa Station building, a gift to the Sultan from Kaiser Wilhelm II, which was built between 1906 and 1908. Its foundation is 1100 wooden piles, each 21 metres (69 feet) long, driven into the ground by steam hammer.

Haydarpaşa was an important link in the railway chain of the Kaiser’s Berlin-to-Baghdad railway scheme, part of the German Empire’s strategic Drang nach Osten (“Drive to the East”) during the later 19th century. (ref Turkey Travel Planner). The roof and top floor were burned in an accidental fire in 2010, and it is uncertain whether it will ever be restored.

The gutted shell of the former Haydarpaşa station

I then walked from the ferry port, passing by a large closed military installation, eventually finding the rather inconspicuous entrance to the Haydar Pasha British cemetery down a side street, and almost the first grave I came upon was that of Patrick Stewart, and it was indeed close to the splendid Crimean War Memorial.

A more detailed description of Patrick Stewart’s outstandingly exciting and productive life can be found by clicking on the following link:

The grave of Patrick Stewart, my great great great uncle

How poignant that this extraordinarily talented man should have died so young

Patrick Stewart’s grave is close by the splendid memorial to the Crimean War dead

The Crimean War memorial

Hobart Pasha was more difficult to locate, as he lies in a more densely ‘populated’ section of the cemetery, and it took me perhaps half an hour to find his grave, but finally I located it, and paid my respects to the second of my two forebears who lie in that tranquil oasis of peace and greenery, tended as usual beautifully by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Hobart Pasha’s grave was more difficult to locate, surrounded as it is by other similar tombstones

The plaque commemorating the centenary of the extraordinary work of Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp

The Haydar Pasha Cemetery is beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission


Sunday 3rd January 2016

Bharatpur to Gurgaon, the end of the story…and a new beginning

Following our stay in the Birders’ Inn at Bharatpur and the Indian Skimmer day at the Chambal River, the final stage of Rosemary’s and my Great Indian Adventure of 2015 began. We were transported by driver Maharaj Singh to Gurgaon, a booming, chaotic new town to the west of Delhi, with enormous apartment blocks springing up everywhere, intermingled with unmade up roads and dusty vacant lots awaiting development.

Our accommodation, by contrast, was in a quiet gated community, an oasis of relative calm shut off from the maelstrom outside. I always find it strange being in such a place. On the one hand it is pleasant to be cushioned from the madding crowd outside, but if one has no vehicle, the possibilities for escape are very limited indeed. On one occasion I became a little desperate, and decided to walk out of the campus and attempt to cross the dual carriageway and visit a shopping mall on the other side. I got halfway, and then became totally trapped on the central reservation between the two streams of swirling, honking traffic. It seemed to be impossible to go forward, and impossible to return. Finally, I followed the example of two elderly pedestrians and literally launched myself into the traffic, and luckily the thundering trucks and rushing cars drove around me. It was not worth it though; the shopping mall was filled with vacant spaces and boarded up, empty lots.

After a day spent recovering from the rigours of our 3.5-month journey, the next morning saw us being driven to the nearby home of our hosts Shilpi Singh and Manish Sinha for a book reading. Although they had only started publicising this event a few days previously, there was a good turn-out, and it was again a huge privilege for me to have the opportunity to introduce a new audience to the magic of my grandfather F W Champion’s evocative writings, which clearly still have the power to enthrall even a young and urban audience. It was an honour also to reacquaint myself with Bikram Grewal, one of India’s top ornithological writers, in whose beautiful home Shaheen Bagh/Walterre near Dehradun my parents, cousin Be and I had stayed in 2006, and Rosemary and I last year.

It was a pleasure to introduce my grandfather’s writings to a new audience

One of the aspects of my grandfather’s writings that has come more and more to my attention as I do these readings is just how elegantly he always slipped in little appeals to his audience (many of whom were passionate hunters) to let the animals live and to enjoy them as living creatures, rather than as bloody carcasses or grotesquely mounted trophies.

F W Champion’s writing is still as valid today as it was in the 1920s

An example comes in an undated and apparently unpublished article of FWC’s entitled “The Jungles as a Hobby”, which in part deals with the debate that was then raging about the comparative merits of hunting with the rifle or with the camera, the hunters stating that photography was an effeminate and over-safe hobby:

So much for camera-hunting as a sport – a sport which normally is possibly a little less dangerous than the more sporting forms of big-game hunting, but which can nevertheless be made dangerous if the photographer should so desire. But there is the more scientific side of the question. India provides a magnificent field for the study of the life-histories, the domestic habits, the characteristics of the splendid array of wild animals and birds that it contains – and it is astounding how little is known about many of these creatures. The hunter-naturalist has made many valuable observations at one time and another, but his opportunities are greatly limited because, as a rule, he is interested only in dangerous game or in record heads, and further, his object is naturally to bring his quarry to bag at the first suitable moment so that, with his first shot disappears all the beauty, all the interest of the living animal. The horns will no doubt look very fine on the walls of the Mess or the skin on the floor, but no matter how well they may be mounted, they will never give any idea of the splendour and the beauty they portrayed when carried by their rightful owner.

Ironically, I could have sold a considerable number of copies of ‘Tripwire for a Tiger’ at this event, but as it had been planned at such short notice, there was no time to alert my publisher to send a consignment in time; she would also have been hard pushed to get the books into the post, as she is based in Chennai, which was experiencing the massive upheaval that followed the devastating floods that had hit that city just before. But it just shows what a huge untapped market there is for my grandfather’s writing even today, and it gives me inordinate pleasure to enable him, even though he wrote those pieces eighty or ninety years ago and he has long since departed this world, to inspire a young audience to continue the battles for India’s priceless wildlife heritage that he started so passionately.

Reading my grandfather’s evocative stories is a pleasure to do

After the event, I was interviewed by Times of India journalist Sharad Kohli, and a charming article describing the event appeared in the following day’s Sunday Times. The quote I liked most in the article was: ‘Champion, 52 (that’s me!), proved to be an engaging storyteller himself, fleshing out these tales as if the spirit of FW was in the room.’

The event was well covered in the following day’s Sunday Times

Our afternoon was spent in the beautiful garden and home of friends Ashima and Kumar, where we were treated to a buffet lunch looking out at the low range of hills that adjoins their property. It was a delight to find that 87-year-old Ann Wright, whom we had met a few weeks earlier at Kanha National Park, was also present, and her daughter Belinda Wright, one of the most tireless campaigners for India’s tigers today, joined us later.

Our hosts were proud owners of first editions, complete with dust covers, of both of my grandfather’s books, and it was nice to photograph both of these together with Tripwire. I hope to produce a second volume next year (title not yet decided), featuring the remainder of his articles, followed eventually by a coffee-table volume celebrating FWC’s astonishing wildlife photographs, but a publisher still needs to be found for that product.

A unique sight: two first editions of F W Champion’s books, complete with dustcovers, and Tripwire

The following day, my friend Prasanna Gautam took me off on a final birding bash around the area, and we started at a wetland only a short distance away from our accommodation. This area of watery ground, with patches of open water, reeds and water hyacinth, was absolutely full of birdlife, with rafts of duck, flocks of geese, waders and amazing numbers of brightly coloured Purple Swamphens foraging busily. We were treated to a star performance by a confiding Bluethroat, which hopped ever closer to us, followed by a sighting of my final new bird for the trip, an elusive Ruddy-breasted Crake, which popped out of its reedy hideaway for just long enough to allow me to obtain a few record photographic shots. This bird brought my total to 343 species for the trip, a total which could easily have topped 400 if I had had a couple of birding days in the hills during or after the Kumaon Literary Festival back in October.

Purple Swamphens seemed to particularly favour this doomed wetland

The Bluethroat hopped closer and closer

Bluethroats are not always this confiding

The Ruddy-breasted Crake popped out of its reedy hideaway for a few moments

On the flanks of this productive avian paradise huge new tower blocks were rising into the sky, and I learned that the whole area is now living on borrowed time, the land having already been bought up by developers, so it will have disappeared within a short time. I realise that people need places to live, but would it not be possible to incorporate this wonderful green patch of wildlife habitat into the city plan as an urban nature reserve, as I saw years ago at the Oi Bird Park in Tokyo, and more recently at the WWT’s Wetland Centre in London, which are totally surrounded by urban sprawl and yet attract large numbers of wintering birds, and provide much-loved green spaces for the urban masses?

Prasanna Gautam birding in the Gurgaon wetland as huge apartment blocks rise in the background

With these thoughts in mind, we drove a short distance to a much better protected wetland, the Sultanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the state of Haryana’s only national park. As it was a Sunday, there were large numbers of visitors, but we were still able to enjoy what were to be my last views of waterbirds during this Great Indian Adventure.

Sultanpur really is like a tiny Bharatpur

A female Nilgai crossing one of Sultanpur’s jheels

Sultanpur is a sort of poor man’s Bharatpur, with large numbers of ducks, geese, herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants enjoying the marshy lakes, all easily viewable from the network of raised walkways that crisscross the reserve. A large nesting colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving, and we were also alerted to a group of Common Cranes in flight above us by their bugling, croaking cries, as they banked to come in to land on the far side of a jheel (pond).

Sultanpur is a protected jewel close to Delhi

A colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving at Sultanpur

Painted Storks at the nest in Sultanpur

A few Citrine Wagtails were pecking through the grassy lakeside vegetation. These delightful birds are even more brightly coloured than our Grey or Yellow Wagtails, and I drank in their beauty before we headed back to Gurgaon for our final night in India, at the end of what has turned out to be a highly successful tour, which will doubtless lead to many things in the not-too-distant future.

This Citrine Wagtail was one of my last birds of this Great Indian Adventure