Lake District Trip

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Just come back from a couple of days up in the Lake District where I spent my time visiting the South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton, a place I’m fond of from visiting several times when I was younger, and Trotters World of Animals, near Keswick, where I first visited in 2009. The reason for the visits was for the purpose of wanting to get some more animal photographs, but from a different place, hence the trip upto South Lakes and then seeing I was staying up there I took the opportunity to drive up to Trotters too. From the number of photos I’ve come back with (and having a sneaky peek at some of the raw versions) I’m looking forward to seeing some of the finished products.

Visiting zoological collections during term time for schools (most of the time) ensures relatively quiet visits, and this was the case for both of my visits. The first stop at South Lakes was down to the lions as it was nearly time for the lion feeding, and this time was the highlight of my day. At that point the male and two female African lions were sharing their outdoor enclosure with female Amur tiger Nina (only the outdoor enclosure, meaning when Nina was outside, the lions were kept in and vice versa). And so I spent some time watching the lions getting quite tetchy and at times aggressive with each other as the keeper was calling Nina into the house, a sure sign for the lions that it was dinner time. Watching and hearing the lions growling and snarling at each other, when they were literally only 2 metres away from you is an invigorating experience which really does illustrate their raw power. At times I even got a little nervous as I caught the eye of the male lion as he was pacing from side to side, an incredible experience.

Once Nina had been successfuly called in the food was set out at the top of the telegraph poles, a trademark feeding routine of South Lakes, and then the lions were let out and climbed up the pole to get the meat, which allowed me to get about 200 photos of them eating. The rest of the day I spent walking around the zoo getting as many photos of the different species I could get. Some of them were easier than others as some of the animals were out, some were not and some were not out in their outdoor enclosure but were in their indoor house that visitors could go into.

The 2 jaguars were out all the time, as were the hamadryas baboons, but their neighbours the giraffes and white rhino weren’t out in the main paddock, but I saw them in their indoor enclosures. As the afternoon progressed the siamang gibbons and the lar gibbons made an appearance outside whilst one place where you could always see the animals were in the walkthrough area where the ring-tailed and black and white ruffed lemurs were, along with the emus, donkeys, and wallabies.

I’d enjoyed spending a few hours walking through the zoo, seeing the animals from ground-level and then high up on the walkways although the zoo hadn’t changed much in the past 2 years. One thing I was disappointed with was I didn’t get to see the snow leopard, and that’s not because it didn’t choose to come out, more that it couldn’t come out because it seemed to be sharing the outdoor enclosure with the 2 jaguars. It’s great the zoo has them but it seems they need a few more outdoor enclosures to keep up with the number of animals they have. Although, this may be happening in the future as it looked like the expansion plans for the zoo are now in full-swing, something that I’m really looking forward to in the future, and will definately back to see how the work is progressing.

The second day of my trip I went up to Trotters, just outside of Keswick. Although it was only 45 miles away from where I was staying it took me an hour and a half to get there, through very winding roads, driving through Bowness, Ambleside, Rydal, and Grasmere, but the scenery was spectacular, from the banks of Lake Windermere up to Ambleside and then the mountains of the high peaks of the national park.

Trotters is a relatively small zoological collection with meerkats, yellow mongoose, lar gibbons, lemurs, servals, emus, zebra, and quite a large collection of birds of prey, like the bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon and the common buzzard. This was the highlight of the day for me, as when the birds of prey are not taking part in the birds of prey show they are on show on their perches which allowed me to get some really clear shots (photographs that is) of them close up.

Even though it’s relatively small, Trotters does have a couple of unique species that I’ve never seen in other zoos, such as the Eurasian lynx and the Asian palm civet. Overall it was another enjoyable day, but even though I took less photos than at South Lakes I’m still looking forward to the outcome of a number of them, particularly the bald eagle.

Once I’d travelled back to Grange I headed into Cartmel to take some photos of the priory and then onto the promenade which overlooks Morecambe Bay to get some photos of there too.  It was a great couple of days, which has hopefully, allowed me to expand my ever expanding photography portfolio. So, with that I’d better get on and sort through them all and see what I end up with…!


Photography Road Trip To Wales

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With a long journey ahead, the road trip began (not so bright, being very rainy) but early at 8:30am on the Monday morning. The journey was relatively straight forward by leaving Manchester via the M56, past Chester and then on the A roads all the way down to New Quay.  Halfway down a stop was called for at a roadside cafe, but then it continued to be full steam ahead.  Well, as much as full steam ahead can be when the rain is bounding down, and the roads are unknown.

With the journey successfully completed, we were tourists of New Quay at 3:30pm that afternoon.  New Quay is basically a fishing town, (well, I wouldn’t really say town, more a settlement of less than 100 buildings) on the Cardigan Bay coast and consists of one main road through the, erm town.  The buildings on the waterfront are mainly aimed at the tourist market, being gift shops, pubs, and quite a few bed and breakfasts.  New Quay has a tourist market based heavily on the residential pod of bottle-nosed dolphins that are found in the area, and so because of this there are a few information kiosks selling tickets for boat trips out to see the dolphins, along with other wildlife found in the bay, including seals and a wide range of seabirds.  In addition to these, there is also a building which is used to inform people of the species that have been sighted off the harbour, along with the numbers, the time and any other relevant information.

The entire journey, from Manchester to New Quay, had been of continuing rain, alternating between heavy drizzle to actually quite heavy and persistent rain, and then back to the other.  On arrival in New Quay the weather (rather spookily) improved and within 10 minutes the rain ceased.  After looking around the bed and breakfast, we walked into New Quay centre, by the water.  Once we had walked into the centre, down a relatively steep hill, we had a look around the shops and then had a walk over to the harbour wall, but then, true to form, it started raining yet again, so we headed back to the B and B.

There is only so much you can do when you’re staying in a new place, and basically in someone else’s house, so apart from the book and music I took down, the only other thing to do was to watch television, but it doesn’t really become a very successful holiday if you end up doing exactly what you would be doing at home, but just in a new environment.  With that in mind, we headed back into New Quay centre in the early evening to get something to eat.  Where else would you go for something to eat in a fishing town, except to a fish and chip shop, of course!

Once we had decided on quite an extensive menu, we went and sat in a sheltered area, overlooking Cardigan Bay.  Quite a crowd was starting to gather and suddenly someone who was looking out to sea, from next to their car, shouted that there was a dolphin out in the bay.  Everyone’s eyes turned into the direction that he was pointing but I couldn’t see it.  (It is actually quite difficult to spot a dolphin in the water because small white waves form far out to sea, and when you see them you wonder if it actually was a dolphin.  Funnily enough, when the dolphins do surface, unless they slap the water with their tail flukes, or breach, they don’t tend to create any white topped waves.  You can definately distinguish when there is a dolphin and when there isn’t by whether there is a grey body with a triangular shaped fin on top.  If there is, then you have yourself a dolphin!)

Whilst we were eating the crowd dispersed, as the dolphin (imaginary or not) must have disappeared.  Once we had finished our fish and chips, we went along to the harbour wall, and again spent time looking out over the water, and trying to distinguish whether the waves we saw were actually waves, or the animal that I had driven for over 5 hours to see.  Finally, we had a success, as a dorsal fin broke the surface of the water as it came up to take a breath.

A bottle-nosed dolphin, comes up for air, about 20 metres away from the harbour wall

This was a great end end to a pretty good day, as we spent time watching the dolphin surfacing, and then disappearing back underneath the vast blanket of water, until it appeared again, either in pretty much the same area as it had previously been, or in a completely different area.  The sun was dropping and the weather was turning colder as we decided to call it a night and leave the dolphin in its own world.

So much for holidays meaning lies in!  Breakfast was at 8:30am the next morning and then the plan was to go to a butterfly farm in the morning, and a boat trip out into the harbour in the afternoon, but with the weather being typically British we decided to take advantage of a break in the rain, which had fallen all night, and as we were in the harbour at the time, we decided to book a boat trip for that morning.

Another factor that decided we were to take the morning boat trip was the fact that when we were down in the harbour, looking for the times before we had actually decided on which to embark on, we saw another dolphin in the harbour.  So, the thought was if there was one in the harbour then hopefully it would remain in the vicinity and we would be able to get a closer look.  But, unfortunately, the trip out of the harbour and the following half hour trip down the coastline didn’t materialise with any dolphins.  During the trip we didn’t manage to see any mammals, but we did see loads of nesting birds on the cliffs, like razorbills and loads of gulls.

On the way back into the harbour there was the call from the skipper that there were a couple of dorsal fins about 200 metres away, but they were too far out to get any decent photographs so for once I didn’t view the scene through the lens of a camera, I actually just watched them as the boat made its way back into the harbour. 

By the time we docked back on the harbour, it was only just after 12 o’clock so we headed straight out to the butterfly farm we had always intended to pay a visit to.  Although, even though the countryside really is beautiful in the depths of Wales, I didn’t find it a very relaxing drive.  I suppose that’s what happens when you decide to rely on the sat-nav, instead of the trusty old road maps.  It took about an hour, an hour of hell with negotiating through some of the thinnest, and steepest country lanes I have ever been on.  That proved to be just a little stressful!

Luckily, we didn’t come across any other vehicles coming in the opposite direction throughout the journey to Felinwynt Rainforest Centre, and made it safely, if not a little stressed!  As we entered into the butterfly house, I have to admit, I did find it disappointing.  It was basically a glorified greenhouse with a few butterflies (blue morphos, glass wings and giant wood nymphs) flying around, with a rope of leaf-cutter ants, and a pond of koi carp.  If I lived close to the centre it would be a place I would go to, possibly a couple of times a year, just to use it to get some photos of exotic butterflies, but I didn’t find it worthwhile trying to find our way through the winding country lanes and the amount of time it took to reach the destination, when within 20 minutes, I was ready to leave again.  Oh well, at least it was another attraction that I had been to.

A Giant Wood Nymph butterfly, from the Felinwynt Rainforest Cente.

 The return journey back to New Quay was much simpler because we decided to stick to the main A roads, which actually made the journey so much more quicker too.  Once we got back to the B and B, we stayed there for a while and then went back into New Quay centre itself for a pub tea for our last evening in New Quay.  As a tradition that we had created everytime we went down to New Quay town itself, after our tea we once again went to the harbour, and again was rewarded with another sighting of a dolphin.  We spent our last night in New Quay watching the dolphin as the darkness descended once again, and the temperature became cooler.  A great end to a good couple of days in New Quay.

Wednesday morning dawned, and yet again it was the weather that determined how our day would turn out.  We had planned on going out on another dolphin watching trip before we left New Quay, but the rain continued to fall relentlessly, so instead we packed up and then headed up to our next destination – Aberystwyth. 

The journey only took about 40 minutes and so we came into Aberystwyth with no problems.  Although, it was too early to check into our next B and B, so we parked up in Aberystwyth and walked around the town centre.  It was really just like any other town centre with all the usual chain store shops, but then we came across some castle ruins, which then backed onto the seafront.  This put an interesting aspect onto what Aberystwyth had to offer, but the rain was still falling quite heavily so we made our way back to the car and headed to the next B and B we were to stay in.  Although again, we decided to use the sat-nav and then that annoying voice declared that we had reached our destination, when in fact we were in the middle of another country lane, with no buildings in sight. Flamin’ hell! 

We followed the road until it finally led to another A road and finally located the right turning for the B and B.  Unfortunately, the B and B we had chosen to stay at was in the middle of nowhere really, with nothing in walking distance, and just a small room with a TV in.  With the stress of not being able to find the B and B easily, and then the revelation that there was nothing to do, without having to drive anywhere, I had had enough and at that point felt I just wanted to go home.

A couple of hours later, with the rain still falling (although not as heavily) we decided to make the most out of the situation and went out to try to find a nature reserve we had planned on visiting where they feed the wild red kites everyday.  Another glitch with the sat-nav (I really should have learned not to listen to it quite so much by this point) but half an hour later we managed to find Nant yr Arian nature reserve.

The lake where the red kite feeding takes place. A beautiful place with the surrounding hillside full of coniferous trees.

The section of Nant yr Arian nature reserve that we had come to see, was based around a large lake, that is beautiful to walk around, and an educational centre where we listened to a talk by a member of the RSPB, who spoke about the wild red kites, their lifestyles, and their status throughout history.  Once the talk had ended we, along with quite a few other visitors, walked halfway around the lake to where a group of visitors were already waiting for the kites to appear.

We were told that on a great day about 100 kites could be seen during the feeding.  On a good day, this number would be more like 30 to 40.  It was estimated that this day we could possibly have up to about 30.  I was thrilled.  I only wanted to see one, but to get the opportunity to see up to 30 would be amazing.  I was not disappointed.  As the crowd grew, there was the faint crying in the air of a bird.  I looked up to see about 10 circling red kites, appearing and disappearing through the mist that had appeared.  It was quite eerie, but gave the whole occassion a lot of atmosphere.  Then the food was laid out across the lake, and the number of red kites in the air swelled to about 30 to 35 (it was really difficult to get a definite number because there were so many and they were all changing directions in the air).  Once the food was laid out, we spent the next half an hour watching these magnificent birds swooping down to pick the meat in their talons and then rise up into the air.  A great sight!

Red kite soaring above the lake at Nant yr Arian nature reserve, as it waits for the food to be placed out by the RSPB wardens

Once the spectacular airshow had ended, it was time for us to then head back to the B and B.  On the way back we decided to explore the surrounding landscape where our B and B was, so parked the car and headed for a small path that led through some trees.  We soon had to admit defeat though because the ground beneath our feet was really soggy and muddy. 

When early evening came we drove to the next village to get some tea at a pub we had driven past on our back from the nature reserve that afternoon.  Once we had eaten, it was still quite early and the prospect of just going back to the B and B with nothing to do wasn’t really appealing, so, on a whim we drove back to Aberystwyth town centre and headed to the road that was on the seafront, because as we had walked through that afternoon, had noticed there was car parking all along the front.  We found our way to the seafront and saw that there was loads of parking so we parked up and walked along the seafront. 

At this point the sun was beginning to set. There were loads of people just sat down, either on the small beach itself or on the benches that were dotted all along the walkway, and they were all just chilling out and watching the sun set.  It really was relaxing and enjoyable.  This made me feel more chilled out and relaxed because I finally felt we were getting to know our way around.  Once we had reached the pier, we saw that there was a viewpoint at the far end, filled with benches, where people could order food and sit to watch the sun set over Cardigan Bay, in an uninterrupted view all the way out to sea.  At this point I was quietly cursing myself because I had not brought my camera and it was a really clear night, with just a few clouds, but that only added to the beautiful scene that was playing out in front of us.  We spent the rest of the evening on the pier, along with about ten other people, who were also taking the opportunity to watch the sun set on a beautiful evening.  As the sun set, we decided to come back to the pier the following night to again watch the sun set, but this time I would remember my camera.

Thursday morning dawned and it was the first morning without rain.  We had breakfast and headed out to Borth Animalarium.  This was a place that I was really looking forward to visiting.  It calls itself a zoo, and technically it is, because of the public paying to come and see the animals, but I thought it more of a rescue sanctuary.  Partly due to some of the ways things were done, and the conditions that some of  the animals were kept, not being disrespectful, the Animalarium was doing the best it could, but there was definately a lack of money.

The Animalarium housed a wide collection of species that were previously kept as pets, but then became unwanted – why anyone would ever want a caiman or an African leopard as a pet I really don’t know!  Or, some of the species were there because they had nowhere to go when other zoos closed down.  The species it housed included primates like black and white ruffed lemurs, capuchin monkeys, patas monkeys and vervet monkeys.  Birds including kookaburras, budgies, parrots, canaries and hornbills were also there as well as species of cats including an African leopard, yes I repeat, an African leopard, an ocelot, and two types of lynx.  The collection wasn’t just limited to birds and mammals, it also included a wide range of reptiles, including a ten foot long python, caimans, turtles and bearded dragons.

One aspect I was surprised at, and to some extent uncomfortable with, was the fact that the zoo encouraged you to hand feed the animals.  It was restricted to the food that they provided for a charge of £1, which included lettuce, carrots, grapes and nuts in shells, but you could feed many of the animals, including the prarie dogs, all of the primates and even the meerkats, which I was surprised at because at other collections I have taken photos of their meerkats and seen the sharpness of their teeth and their claws, and have seen what they can do with them weapons when it comes to a dead mouse dangling from a bungee cord! 

The encouragement of hand feeding the animals at Borth Animalarium allows the animals to get really close to the mesh as they wait for the visitors to pass food to them. In fact, the capuchins seemed to shake the mesh of the enclosure in frustration when the handouts ended.

I understand that the extra money that comes from the feed pots helps to raise extra funds for the zoo though, the whole process had created a sort of begging culture from the animals, especially with the capuchins and the prarie dogs.  If you stood in front of the mesh of their enclosure the animals would come straight over to you and stare at you, and you just knew they were after the food you were holding in your hand.  As I was doing this, all I could think of was the potential for the passage of disease either to or from the animals.  There were a few hand sanitizing stations, but it certainly wasn’t advertised to remember to use them.

We spent about 4 and a half hours there, which allowed me to get 400 photos, so it was really enjoyable.  On the way back to the B and B we stopped off at the beach that we had passed on the way and had a relaxing walk on the sand. 

Early that evening we set off down to Aberystwyth seafront again to spend the evening watching the sun set, like we did the night before.  But, this time I did remember my camera and was rewarded with some sun set photos that I’m really pleased with.

The setting sun over Cardigan Bay gave me the opportunity to get some photos I’m really pleased with

As the sun set on that Thursday night over Cardigan Bay, it did so on the last night of our holiday.  Overall, it had a been a good week, with us visiting a number of places, both new experiences with the red kite feeding and the dolphin watching, with visits to some places that I’m very used to, them being zoos, although never having visiting those specific ones, like Borth Animalarium.  Some of the journeys were really stressful, mostly with the countryside roads being so narrow and nerve-wracking, and the weather made things a bit miserable at times.  But, overall I’m glad I went and was able to use many of the photos I took to expand my portfolio of photos I have taken.  Now…where’s that map for the next road trip?!

Pro-Zoo or Anti-Zoo?

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OK, I have to admit that 12 years ago I thought zoos shouldn’t be allowed to be.  Or at least that’s what I wrote in my mock GCSE English exam.  Looking back I was naive at what I wrote – all zoos should be banned and no more animals in captivity, and so that would mean they would all live freely in their natural habitat.

Fast forward to the present day and I have done a complete u-turn in my thoughts on the matter.  Although spending 4 years at university on a course that explains the workings of a zoo, from the layout of the enclosures, to the different nutritional needs of each species, to the legislation that governs zoological collections, it does sway my thoughts on the matter with a pro-zoo attitude.  Partly this could be due to the fact that the majority of the things I learnt whilst at university were directed in a pro-zoo direction, with very little anti-zoo material.

But, even before I wrote my first word as an undergraduate student, my thoughts on the matter had changed from when I sat that mock exam paper.  I had spent the couple of years prior to university going to, and enjoying, the day trips to a small number of zoos.  And it was actually the fact that my degree course had zoo biology attached to it that I chose to do that particular course.

Now, post-degree, I enjoy going to as many zoos as I can to photograph as many different species as I can. After failed attempts to obtain a job in the zoo-keeping profession, I now hope photography, particularly nature photography, will be my future career.

I find by going to zoos it enables me to learn about a wider range of species, as well as information about them, than I would learn by reading written text about them.  This information comes from the information boards in front of the enclosures, listening to the keepers talks that usually accompany feeding times and also the opportunity to speak to rangers in other zoological collections that stand by or in exhibits where the species are free ranging.  It was also the trips to the zoos that encouraged me to work towards an animal-based degree, simply because I enjoyed the visits so much.

Where else can you take a trip around the world (metaphorically) and see a number of different species from different continents all in one day? From the jaguars of South America to the lions from the African savannah and Asia, to giant pandas from China to brown bears from North America.

In my opinion it’s all well and good watching nature documentaries on the TV but they cannot do justice to an animal in real life. To come face to face with a gorilla, with only a reinforced glass barrier between the two of you, or one centimetre away from a Amur tiger, is an experience that cannot be replicated through a television screen.

Some people argue that zoos should not exist because an animals life is not natural and they don’t have enough space. True, in my opinion it is impossible to replicate a wild animals life in a captive environment. But, if an animal has never lived in the wild (as many species are now bred only in captivity to keep the wild population unaffected) do they actually know what they are missing? If a lion has never seen the plains of Africa and only the enclosure it lives in, is it aware they are actually an individual that would usually have a large territory?

On the subject of animal welfare in zoos and the conditions that animals are kept in, this is regulated by the Zoo Animal Licensing Act and other organisations that I personally feel do an adequate job in the standards of animal welfare in captivity in the UK.

BUT, even though I have just admitted that I visit zoos regularly and therefore support the work they do, I do question the role that zoos have in their long term vision for helping to bring numerous species of animals back from the brink of extinction by releasing future generations into the wild.

In my opinion, the majority of captive animals (especially the generations that are existing in zoological collections today) will never actually be released into the wild during their lifetime. Any individuals that would be suitable for release into the wild I think would be at least two generations down from the animals in captivity today (basically their grandchildren).  I think this because it is my feeling no-one could ever transport a species from a zoological collection tomorrow and simply open the gate to let them roam free in an alien environment and simply expect them to survive, although I feel it would be easier with herbivores than carnivores because I feel they would need to learn how to kill their prey and they would not learn the technique straight away.  They may in time but only after numerous failed attempts, and these failed attempts may mean starvation if left to their own devices.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that zoological collections do play a vital role in keeping species alive and increasing the genetic variation of a species with captive breeding, which in the future may play an important role if numbers in the wild do reach a crisis point but how then do we instill this new genetic variation into a wild species? Is it right to possibly use the DNA from captive individuals and introduce it into a wild individual to increase the gene pool?

Personally I think the solution should be steering an answer towards in-situ conservation. That is, finding solutions in the home ranges of the animals. This could be educating people about the threats that face the specific species, for example logging and palm oil plantations in the home ranges of orangutans or poaching of rhinos. Or it can also include breeding programmes for species as they live a wild life.  If the problems within a species home range cannot be solved and basically resulting in no place available to release any captive individuals then what’s the point of breeding them in the first place if they have no where to go?

A Good Week!

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Well all in all it’s been a good week.  Over the past week I have visited 3 zoos, Chester, Blackpool and Monkey Forest. 

When I visited Chester it was still the cold snap that had been happening for the last couple of weeks, as well as it being dreary and light rain throughout the day.  This actually turned out to be a good thing because I usually mainly focus on taking photos of the large and fluffy mammals, like the big cats, primates and (less fluffy but still large mammal) rhinos.  Due to the weather being pretty miserable I spent most of my time in the indoor enclosures, like the jaguar house, reptile house and Realm of the Red Ape and so this resulted in a variety of the reptiles and snakes being photographed.

Salvador's Monitor. Found in Realm of the Red Ape at Chester Zoo.

My visit to Blackpool was more successful with the weather. It was dry but absolutely freezing! About half of the animals were out but the ones that were out (I have to admit) were my favourites, for example, the tiger and the lions.  Even though the howler monkeys never ventured into their outdoor enclosure, I managed to get some photos that I was really pleased with when they sat at the glass panel in their indoor enclosure.  Another lot of photos that I was really pleased to capture were with the red panda as I have never managed to get any decent photos of these before, so was really pleased.

When the howler monkeys choose to sit by the glass at Blackpool Zoo it can be a photographers dream!

It has been my second visit to Monkey Forest, the first being at the end of last season.  I decided to go as I had the day off work and really wanted to go to somewhere relatively new.  Again it was cold but dry. I like Monkey Forest because it is a different experience than walking around a zoo.  There are two main groups of barbary macaques that roam freely within the grounds.  There was a large mixture of age ranges of macaques, some being the young that were born at the end of last season and so were just a matter of months old to young which were a couple of years old.  There were young males and females right up to the oldest resident who was about 25 years old.  A place where I spend less time than compared with zoos but still as many photos taken!

The free ranging barbary macaques at Monkey Forest can choose themselves where they want to go
All of my photos can be found on my Facebook page at Caroline Williams Photography.  Please take a look and let me know what you think!