Sunday, April 03, 2005


Gerald Durrell ( 1925 - 1995 ) - conservationist, naturalist, animal explorer, and author, is best remembered for the founding of the Jersey Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and for his numerous humorous chronicles of his animal collecting and conservation exploits. "How To Shoot An Amateur Naturalist" is a series of short sketches about the making of the TV series "The Amateur Naturalist" - the groundbreaking program describing the joys and techniques of a backyard naturalist on popular TV.
Buy the book : Amazon
Excerpts from the book, with appropriate images, appear below. The images are not affiliated to the book. The excerpts are presented serially. Enjoy !

The roman arena at Nimes

...In its ( Nimes' ) centre lay the great Roman arena, like some medieval crown, rescued after a millennium in the sea, carunculated and blurred by the corals. It glittered in the fierce glare of the sun and, in every nook and cranny of this crown, pigeons gasped and gaped in the shade. Dogs panted from tree to tree, fronds of white saliva trailing from their tongues. Cicadas relentlessly fretted on the great patched bodies of the plane trees that lined the boulevards.

'Now we go down the cliff,' said Jonathan.'Where?' I asked.'Here,' he said, pointing to the cliff-edge that, as far as I could see, dropped sheer, six hundred feet to the sea below.

Puffins at Hermaness

... Jonathan joined us, thoughtfully bringing with him a bottle of pale-yellow Glenmorangie, the nectar of the Gods.'Now,' said Jonathan, after he had sipped approvingly, 'tomorrow we go up to the white rocks - that's the headland of Hermaness and a great gannet colony. So we'll climb down the cliff - ''Just a minute,' I interrupted. 'What cliff? Nobody said anything about a cliff to me.''It's just a cliff,' said Jonathan airily. 'All the different species of bird breed on it - guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and so on. It's one of the biggest breeding colonies of seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere.''What about this cliff?' I asked, not to be distracted.'Well, we've got to get down it,' said Jonathan, 'or we can't film the birds.''How high is it?' 'Not really high,' he replied evasively.

Meandering down among the tussocks of grass and thrift was a faint line that looked as though once, in the dim and distant past, a flock of inebriated goats had staggered down the cliff-face to indulge in God knows what alcoholic orgy.
'Call that a path?' I enquired. 'If I were a chamois, I might agree with you, but no man born of a woman could go down that.'

...We moved on, the flocks of sheep like clotted cream on the green baize of the turf, the sun brilliant above us. We had come muffed up against the reputedly inclement weather of the Shetland Islands and now found ourselves sweating and discarding coats and pullovers. Presently, the land started to drop away to precipitous cliffs and beyond was the Atlantic, blue as gentian flowers.

Gannet City

To say that Gannet City was busy would be an understatement. New York in the rush-hour would appear immobile in comparison. There were gannets incubating, feeding chicks, flirting, mating, preening and launching themselves into the air in effortless flight on their six-foot wings. With their creamy- white bodies, wing-tips black as jet and their orange-coloured nape and head they were impressive and immensely handsome.

Wild Horses of the Camargue

For some strange reason, all over the world man seems to think that wetlands are inimical to him. As soon as he comes across a wonderful swamp or marsh teeming with wildlife he becomes unhappy until he has covered it with pesticides, shot out all the edible animals, drained it, ploughed it, planted a series of useless crops on it and, finally, through his unbiological activities, created a sterile piece of eroded earth which was once a rich, balanced tapestry of life.

The bull and the Razateur

Before my indignant reader throws down this book and takes up a vitriol-dipped pen to write to me about the cruelty of bullfighting, may I hastily point out that there are two forms of bullfighting, and in this one the bull in never killed. Indeed, he stands an excellent chance of inflicting crippling, sometimes mortal, damage on his foes, the razateurs, and, as I witnessed myself, actually enjoys the fight, once he is habituated to it.

... The bull, before entering the arena, has certain little coloured tassels attached to his horns with rubber bands. These are called cockades. The object of the fight ( not so much a fight as a contest of speed and skill ) is for the razateurs, or bullfighters if you will, to remove these cockades from the bull's horns within a given length of time.

Ducks and Flamingoes at the Camargue

Huge rafts of green-headed mallard, the rusty-headed widgeon or neat, green-eyed teal, shelducks in their carnival colours of greenish-black and rich chestnut, rusty-headed pochard all these speckling the water or purring through the air as they wheeled in flight from one area of marsh to another. In the shallows, storks fished. Occasionally a pair would face each other, throw back their heads and rattle their red beaks like the crackle of Lilliputian musketry. Snow-white spoonbills with their strange spatula beaks, like deformed ping-pong bats, moved solemnly along, sifting the plankton-rich mud through their beaks. Flamingoes like huge pink rose petals moved among the shallows keeping up a constant garrulous ugly honking out of keeping with their elegance and beauty. Then there were the squacco herons, pale as caramel, blue and black beaks and their legs pink with the excitement of the breeding season. Soberly dressed bitterns, standing in reed-beds, doleful as bank managers contemplating their overdrafts, and rather piratical-looking night herons, with black backs and black caps and debonair, drooping white crests and red all-seeing eyes. Next to them the purple herons seemed sinuous and snake-like, with their long chestnut necks and harsh cries, a sort of feathered Uriah Heep. Then in complete contrast were the other waders: sandpipers, pattering along the mud like schoolgirls in their first high heels; redshanks and greenshanks; the black-winged stilts with legs like all those lovely girls you see in America, whose shapely legs seem to start immediately under the chin. Then the paragon of all wading birds, the avocet, moving elegantly on stormcloud-blue legs in a black and white suit, obviously designed by the most expensive Paris fashion-house, aristocratic tip-tilted noses being occasionally dipped into the water and moved from side to side like delicate, beautiful metronomes.

The Abrivado of Camargue

The next morning, with his mouth full of croissant, Jonathan said jubilantly and indistinctly: ' I've fixed up the bulls.'
'Good,' I said absentmindedly. 'What bulls?'
'Well, you know you said you couldn't show the Camargue without showing bulls, so, I've fixed up some bulls.'
'But they're not fighting at this time of the year,' I pointed out.
'I don't mean fighting,' said Jonathan. 'I mean we're going to round them up.'
'This use of the royal We,' I said cautiously, 'does this include Lee and me?'
'Of course you,' said Jonathan, with the air of one promising a treat to a child. 'You'll go off into the swamps, round up this great herd of bulls and drive them past the camera.'
'What do you mean, "drive them past the camera"?' I asked. 'These are bulls, not dairy cattle.'
'You'll be all right, you'll be on horseback,' said Jonathan.
'Oh, what fun,' said Lee eagerly.

The San Blas Islands

We had a mildly bumpy flight over the centre of Panama and soon we reached the Caribbean coastline and were flying over blue, translucent seas with reefs showing like strange sea-serpents embedded in blue amber. Scattered all around were the hundreds and hundreds of San Blas islands, each so small and perfect with its wedding-ring of reef around white beaches and shaggy wigs of palm that they looked like manufactured South Sea islands in a toyshop window.

The San Blas aquarian lodging

The hotel was charming. Shaped like a capital L, it was two stories high, with a palm-thatched roof, and the entire building was made from bamboos lashed intricately together with a sort of raffia. A double veranda ran the full length of the L, and from it on the ground floor and the first floor doorways led into what we presumed were bedrooms. The whole thing was perched over a deep cement pool in which a myriad of coloured fish swam, accompanied by two portly turtles. Next to the hotel was another lopsided bamboo-and-palm-leaf structure with a battered sign saying 'Bar'. interspersed with all these were tall palm trees curved like bows, rubbing their dark-green leaves together, whispering to the breeze. A riot of hibiscus and other tropical bushes were in full flower. The whole thing in the most brilliant sunshine had an air of unreality. It looked exactly like a Hollywood film-set for a great South Sea epic. One expected ( and looked for in vain ) a sour-faced Somerset Maugham in immaculate white ducks descending the rickety bamboo stairs. But the closest you got to it were the two turtles whose expressions of disdain were remarkably similar.

The Coral Reef at San Blas

I can never get over the wonder of the moment when you enter the water and find your face beneath the diamond-bright surface of a tropical sea. The mask is like a magic door, whose openings smoothes out the ruffles and pleats of the water, and you slide effortlessly through a fairyland of unimaginable beauty. At first we drifted over the golden sand, patterned with its bright, ever-moving chain mail created by the brilliant sun, and saw the stingrays like strange, mottled frying-pans glide out of our way.

The canopy of Barro Colorado, Panama

The canopy was thick, interwoven as ancient knitting, a smouldering mass of greens, reds and browns, with here and there a feathery pale-green tree rising above the rest, its silver-white branches starred with scarlet and emerald epiphytes and tangled bunches of purple-pink orchids
The lovely, rich fragrant smell of the forest enveloped us, the delicate scent of a million flowers, a thousand thousand mushrooms and fruit, the perfume from a quadrillion gently rotting leaves in the simmering, ever-changing, ever-dying, ever-growing cauldron of the forest.

The Stairs at Barro Colorado Institute 40 years ago

We unloaded our gear, and then faced the fact that what lay before us was an almost one-in-one climb to the summit up a flight of cement steps, which reminded me unpleasantly of some of the steeper, more backbreaking Aztec monuments that Lee and I had crawled up a few years previously in Mexico.

The Stairs at Barro Colorado now

Well,' I said grimly, 'I'll walk up this once, just to say I've done it, but after that it's the Orient Express for me.'I have rarely regretted a decision more.

Leaf Cutter Ants at Barro Colorado

In places, the forest floor appeared to be alive, a moving carpet of green. This hallucination was brought about by the streams of leaf-cutting ants hurrying back to their nests with their booty, a triangular piece of thumbnail-sized green leaf, slung over their shoulders. From the tree of their choice ( which they were busily dissecting ) to the nest may be several hundred yards, and so these columns of green wend their way over the dark forest floor, over logs and under bushes in a steady stream that on close inspection looks like a Lilliputian regatta, all the boats having green sails.
We moved on into the forest, stepping carefully over the columns of leaf-cutters. So numerous were they that you wondered why the whole forest was not defoliated. This leaf-gathering is really a form of gardening, for the ants carry the leaves to their vast underground homes ( sometimes a quarter of an acre in extent ) and here they rot the leaves down into a mulch on which they grow the fungi which is their food.

Although we had miles of film of the leaf-cutting ants going about the business of defoliating the forest, carrying their leaves back to their nest, cleaning out the nest and creating huge garbage-heaps, we had to part company with them when they vanished underground. This irked Alastair.
'I want ... you know ... I think ... well, gardens,' he said with his head on one side, revolving slowly, looking a beaming, benevolent corpse on a gibbet. 'Mushroom-beds, you know ... underground?'
' The only way you'll get them, honey, is by digging the guys out,' said Paula practically.
He and Roger seized spades and started to dig. Having had some experience of leaf-cutting ants, I took Lee and Paula by the arm and led them away from the scene of operations.

... approximately half the million inhabitants of this nest decided that the activities of Roger and Alastair were inimical to their well-being, so they poured forth to remonstrate. One minute Alastair and Roger looked like two earnest gardeners turning over their asparagus-beds in preparation for a new crop and the next minute they were executing leaps and twists and pas de deux that would have been the envy of the Moscow Ballet. This was accompanied by wild, tremulous screams of agony, interspersed in equal parts with blasphemy and procreative oaths.
The chief problem was that Alastair was wearing shorts and an ancient pair of baseball boots, and this did not give his legs any protection, so the ants swarmed up him as though he were a tree, attempting to tear him to pieces. Roger, if anything, was in worse case, for he was wearing elegant, fairly tight-fitting trousers, up which the ants flowed with speed and precision. Those on the outside bit right through the thin cloth and into his flesh. Those on the inside concentrated on getting as high as possible before beginning their assault, so that Roger was being bitten in the most intimate and tender parts of his anatomy.
'Did you see that?' panted Alastair, his spectacles misted over with emotion. ' The buggers were trying to defoliate me.'
'What about me?' said Roger. 'Me they go for the private parts. Me they try to make eunuch.'

Moose at Riding Mountain NP, Canada

We had not driven far down the road when we spotted a moose with monstrous chocolate-coloured horns, standing among the trees at the side of the road. Moose are such curious-looking creatures with their ungainly bodies and legs and their bulbous wine-bibbers' noses They always look to me as though they have been made up of discarded bits from several creatures. This animal gazed at us lugubriously for a few minutes, twisting his ears; and then, blowing out two great clouds of steam from his balloon-like nose, he moved off heavily through the trees.

Banff, Canada

Mountain range after mountain range, like a giant stormy sea sculpted in rock. Pine forests like green fur crawling up their flanks and snow glinting on their peaks, with here and there, as though a candle had melted wax down a cliff-face, a baby glacier clinging immobile. The park was wonderful, for each time you rounded a corner a spectacular and lovely vista of mountains regaled your eye and you thought that that must be the most beautiful view if the park, only to be proved wrong when you rounded the next corner and were presented with something more stupendous.

Rocky Mountain Goats at Banff

On this green surface were some white specks, which I at first thought were patches of snow, and then I saw one move and realized it was a small group of an animal I had long wanted to meet - the Rocky Mountain goat. Don't be misled by the name. The Rocky Mountain goat is the king of goats, with his soft white coat, softer even than cashmere, and his black hoofs, horns, muzzles and eyes, he is a dandy of a beast.

Columbian Ground Squirrel at Banff

Presently, however, we came to a small clearing and there, squatting at the mouth of its burrow was the musician responsible for the ringing, flute-like cry - a fat ground squirrel, wearing a tasteful suit of rust-red and grey fur. He sat as upright as a guardsman at the entrance to his home and his ribcage pumped in and out as he gave his musical warning cry. His big, liquid eyes stared at us with that intense, slightly inane expression that most squirrels wear, and his little paws trembled with his vocal efforts.
These were the Columbian ground squirrels ...

More Banff

The air like wine, brilliant sunshine stamping blue shadows on the mountains and the avalanche cicatrices. ...

... The vividness of the colours, the sparkling clarity of the little streams, and the quietness and peacefulness of the place were wonderful. It was one of those places you find in the world which are so magical that you wish you could live there.

New Forest, Hampshire and the Bramble Hill Hotel

... Jonathan had discovered the Bramble Hill Hotel, lying in the middle of the forest itself. Whether the kindly but unfortunate owner, Captain Prowse, thought himself lucky to have us as guests is a moot point. We must have been a great trial to him ...
... The Captain's eagle eye swept the room and came to rest on the bed. An expression of disbelief crossed his face.
'Why? Where's the bedspread?' he enquired. A rhetorical question, but one that Jonathan thought he should respond to.
'Bedspread?' he croaked.
'Yes,' said Captain Prowse tersely, 'there was a bedspread on the bed. I put it there myself. Someone, for some strange reason, had put it in the cupboard. I wonder where it has gone?'
'It's in the cupboard,' said Jonathan in a low voice.
'In the cupboard?' said the Captain. 'Again?'
'Yes,' said Jonathan.
'How do you know?' asked the Captain.
'I put it there,' said Jonathan, with the demeanour of one confessing to infanticide.
'You put it there?' asked the Captain.
'Yes,' said Jonathan miserably.
'Did you put it there the first time?' As a military man, he quite rightly liked to be apprised of all the facts.
'Yes,' said Jonathan.
'Why?' asked the Captain with ominous calm. There was a long silence while we all looked at Jonathan, who managed to achieve a rich blush that any self-respecting heliotrope would have been proud to wear.
'Because I thought they wouldn't like it,' he said, thus passing the buck to my poor innocent wife and myself. However, the Captain, with experience of slovenly recruits absent without leave and with a fund of plausible stories up their sleeves, was not to be distracted by this prevarication.
'Surely,' he said icily, 'if Mr. and Mrs. Durrell were in any way dissatisfied with the counterpane or bedspread, it was for them to inform me and not your place to secrete it in the cupboard. However, I have no doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Durrell will make up their own minds as to the suitability of the bedspread and communicate their displeasure or otherwise to me, without the intervention of a third party.'

' We collect the leaves in bags and take them back to the hotel' ... 'Dry them.' ... 'and then we get a ladder and climb a tree and throw them down,' said Jonathan. 'In that way I can get pictures of falling autumn leaves.'

'I want your help with these,' said Jonathan simply. The Captain examined the bags with care.
'With these?' he enquired at length. 'You want my help?'
'Yes,' said Jonathan.
'What are they?' enquired the Captain.
'Leaves,' said Jonathan.
'Leaves? What sort of leaves?' asked the Captain. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
'Autumn leaves,' said Jonathan triumphantly. 'We got them in the forest.'
Captain Prowse looked shattered. Nothing in his previous career had prepared him for a guest suddenly producing four plastic bags full of autumn leaves and demanding his help.
'I see,' he said, moistening his lips. 'And what do you intend to do with them?'
'Dry them,' said Jonathan, puzzled that the Captain could not have worked out this logical progression for himself.
'Dry them?' asked the Captain. 'Dry them?'
'Yes, they're wet,' Jonathan explained.
'But why should you want to dry them?' asked the Captain, fascinated in spite of himself.
'Because they wont fall if they are wet,' said Jonathan, impatient at the Captain's obtuseness.
'But they have already fallen,' the Captain pointed out.
'I know,' said Jonathan exasperated. 'That is how they got wet, and that is why we have to dry them..'

Fly Agaricus at New Forest

Now, with the dampness in the air and the rich, moist layer of dead leaves, this was the time of the fungi and they were everywhere in profusion. Their fantastic shapes were like a Martian world. They seemed endless in form and colour. Mushrooms as pink as sugar icing, mushrooms grey and silky as a seal, mushrooms curved upwards, showing their gills like the leaves of a book, others like umbrellas disembowelled by the wind, some like dainty summer parasols, some like Chinese hats, others crowded together like tables in front of a French cafe or bubbling like waterfalls from the bark of trees. There were some like complex pieces of coral or slivers of orange peel; the sulphur-tufts, yellow as canaries, the grisettes a rich foxy red; parasol mushrooms, pale caramel-coloured with scales on top like tiles on a roof, or the pholiota, pale brown with scales like fur.
Then there were the fascinating names they were called. the scientists who collect and classify fungi have obviously a strong poetic streak in them and have given them names like the Shaggy Ink Cap, or Lawyer's Wig, the Weeping Widow, the Penny Bun, Slippery Jack and Deyrads Saddle. Then lurking among the trees you will find the Varnished Death Cap and the ivory-white Destroying Angel, its uneven top looking like a tombstone angel's wings. The there were the huge, flat, plate-like beefsteak fungi, clamped so tightly to the tree trunks it was possible to sit on them as one would sit on a shooting-stick without breaking them off. There were the puffballs, round and soft, which, at the touch of a finger, would give off a puff of minute spores, a silent, mist-like explosion that would send future generations drifting across the forest floor like trails of smoke.

Badgers at New Forest

'You will be sitting outside a sett on the other side of the valley,' Jonathan explained, 'and then, just as it becomes dusk, the badgers will come out.'
'Have you told the badgers this?' I asked.
'They will come out,' Jonathan said confidently. 'They will come out for the sandwich.'
'Sandwich? What sandwich?' asked Lee.
'A peanut-butter sandwich,' said Jonathan.
'What are you talking about?' asked Lee.
'Badgers,' said Jonathan, with an air of authority, 'badgers find peanut-butter sandwiches irresistible. they will travel miles to obtain one. Drag a peanut-butter sandwich through the forest and you will have every badger for miles around following you.'
'Where did you obtain this esoteric piece of information?' I enquired.
'It sounds distinctly peculiar to me,' I said. 'I have never heard of attracting badgers with peanut butter.'
Dutifully I did my piece to camera and then threw the sandwich at the entrance to the sett. As on cue, both badgers approached it, they both sniffed the sandwich and then backed hurriedly away from it, sneezing violently and displaying every symptom of acute displeasure.

Bluebell Railway, Sussex

Railway enthusiasts have, in different parts of the British Isles, rescued ancient steam engines, lovingly restored them, and are allowed to run them on special sections of rail. You discover that the driver, the guard, the conductor, and other personnel are in real life schoolmasters, professors, shopkeepers, chemists or merely retired train buffs who give their services free so that this generation can experience the feeling of real train travel, can smell that magic, acrid perfume of coal, soot and steam, can thrill to the owl-like hoot of the engine itself, can be sent into a trance by the rattle, clank and hiss of the train and then settle to that rhythmic clackety-clack like the heartbeat of the train itself. Eagerly, we wended our way down to the charmingly named Bluebell Railway.

... So we arrived at the railway station and there was the train, gleaming and glittering, wearing a rakish scarf of steam over one shoulder, and behind it the elegant carriages, quite rightly designated as First, Second and Third Class. The heavy doors slammed with a satisfying clunk and had great leather straps with which to lower the windows, the more easily to get sparks in your eyes or soot on your nose - all experiences that enhance any railway journey that is a railway journey. ... It halted miles away from anywhere at a small wooden platform bearing a large white sign saying 'Freshfield Halt. Please signal if you wish the train to stop.' We got out on to this rickety platform and then extricated from the guard's van the next form of transport we were going to use on our journey - a large sparkling tandem bicycle.

The Black Knight

However, at Freshfield Halt, when the Black Knight, in a cloud of steam, had chuffed away uttering farewell whistles of a piercing clarity, the scents and sounds of the May countryside were wafted to us in the spring sunshine. Everywhere there were larks embroidering the blue sky with their song. Cuckoos called loudly and persistently in the fields and the scent of a hundred spring flowers filled the air. We manouevred Daisy, as we had christened our tandem, down the wooden ramp on to the cinder track and then down a narrow slippery path which led finally to a narrow lane with high banks covered with a glittering army of kingcups yellow as saffron, and the bank topped with hedges of hawthorn, their blossom like cumulus clouds. So, mounting Daisy and with the sun hot on our backs and the birdsong ringing in our ears, we set off in search of ancient England.

A British Hedgerow

Most hedgerows count their birthdays in centuries but naturalists have evolved a fairly simple method of working out the approximate age of a hedgerow. You measure out and mark thirty paces along it and then retrace your steps and count the number of woody plants growing along its length. Each one of these is the equivalent of a century. This may sound improbable, but it is based on some sound detective work by naturalists. ... We found over ten different kinds, which meant that, when this hedgerow had been laid down, the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey had still to be built.

Penultimate Post


A link to sites which should further enhance the reading of "How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist" :

A beautiful photo exhibition on the Camargue
Historical pictures of the Barro Colorado Tropical Research Institute
Banff Park Radio
The New Forest Website
The Bluebell Railway Homepage