Cramped Conditions

I wasn’t prepared for the drive to the Mara. The last time I drove was in 1984 – ever since then, I’ve flown. The air route goes over some dramatic rift valley scenery, then a bit of semi desert before arriving at the relatively green oasis of the Western Mara.

The land route is completely different, and has to take a Northward direction before heading south to the plains. In 1984, I remember seeing giraffes and gazelles less than an hour out of Nairobi. This time, at the same place all we found was one roadkill zebra being eaten by dogs. Another hour down the way, the transformation was even more complete. What was scrub and dry empty plains 25 years ago is now endless fields of wheat. What was a significant wildebeest and zebra migration route is now the breadbasket of Kenya – if not much of East Africa.

As we drove South to Aitong, it was clear that the number of people and cattle living here had increased enormously. As we got close to the Mara reserve, we could see that a huge number of cows, sheep and goats had cropped the grass to the limit. But as is often the case here, we could also see huge numbers of wildebeest surrounding the cattle, drawn to the fresh green growth – which is in part due to the intensive domestic stock grazing (much of which has been brought here from other areas – because of drought, this is the only grass in Kenya). Whether or not we find more predators in the areas where there are most wild animals (often where there are cows and Masai) or where there is less disturbance from people remains to be seen. Watch this space.


Snake Encounter

While the crew are getting to the filming location I thought I'd put up the video made earlier this year in Botswana when a puff adder was discovered in the kit tent (really poisonous and BAD NEWS to get bitten by this chap)


Return to the Mara

Wildlife film making doesn’t need to be about travel to foreign parts. But it usually is.

We could happily film subjects close to home, reveal extraordinary new behaviour of the strange creatures in our back gardens. But we rarely get the opportunity to do that. Broadcasters and funders tell us that 'the viewers’ are more interested in lions and whales and polar bears and don’t really give a stuff about the 'mundane’ life forms closer to home. Bugs, the broadcasters say, are 'a hard sell’.

Which is why wildlife film making is almost by definition about travelling to far off remote places. And spending quality time there. The more remote and exotic the better, for stints of 3 weeks, 3 months or more. Wherever we go, we almost always meet and work with scientists and local people, usually accept their hospitality, sometimes live in their houses, always make new friends.

For me, many of the details of the past locations hard to retrieve easily. But a few places stand out. Kenya’s Masai Mara being one, where I can recall some spectacular high and low images; two bouts of malaria and one of amoebic dysentery, various random food poisoning events and frantically digging trenches in torrential rain to stop the equipment tent being washed away remind me to respect the Mara, but don’t in any way inhibit me from wanting to return.

And we're on our way back there now...


There’s Never Enough Time.

After just 7 days in Portal our trip was over. We did pretty well, with a variety of amazing behaviours of ants in spectacular surroundings.

Frank behaved itself pretty well on location - delivering fantastic smooth moves at ant-eye level with only a few minor hiccups. New cameras using the Panasonic AVC Intra system gave us unprecedented picture quality and ease of recording in the field. With the help of Howard Bourne looking after equipment, Gavin Thurston was able to apply his 25 years experience in close-up filming to produce some incredible images. As ever in Wildlife film making, we had to curtail our ambition and make it fit the small time slot the budget allowed us. We were just getting going when our slot on the calender expired.

As we drove around the Chiricahuas on our way to interstate 10, the sun lit up the clouds in a range of pinks and oranges, silhouetting the nearby peaks in a way that could not have changed much for a million years or so. As the sun rose, very recent changes to the landscape became very visible, roads, a house here, a house there, the odd barn, and of course the interstate at San Simon. On the horizon other mountains rose out of the plains (mostly included in the Coronado National Forest, along with the Chiricahuas), and between them vast dry flat lands with ranches, mines and factories - all full of ants - passed by as we made our way to the airport.

20 cases on the conveyor belt at Tucson and home.


Antagonistic Antics

We needed to find out more about our ant antagonism so I talked to our ant expert Alex Wild, as well as some other antologists (myrmecologists) who happened to be visiting the Southwest Research Station (funded by the American Museum of Natural History) during what must be the biggest annual gathering of myrmecologists anywhere in the world (about 50 attendees).

As it turns out, very little is known about the relationship between the long legged ants (Aphaenogaster cockerelli) and the orange harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex maricopa). We’ll just have to look very closely at the images when we get back home to see if we can work out why they fight every day, but don’t actually seem to hurt each other (which both are quite capable of doing).

On the other hand, we did discover that the spectacular Chiricahua mountains have been undergoing the same sort of territorial ebb and flow as the as the ant territories. Two hundred years ago, this area was technically a part of Mexico (in the eyes of the Mexican government), but in practice was part of the Apache lands which straddled the borders between Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. The Apaches were doing pretty well in keeping their lands to themselves and keeping settlers away. So much so that the Mexicans were only too happy to sell the Chiricahuas and surrounding area to the emerging United States for $10 million (about $236 million in modern money) for the building of a railroad. This ultimately led to the Apache wars where leaders Cochise and Geronimo held off settlers and the US army for a decade in a desperate attempt to keep their territory and culture intact.

They failed, and their people were removed. What little is left of the Apache nation is restricted to the San Carlos reservation to the North of the Chiricahuas. There are many differing accounts of events of the Apache wars, but Geronimo’s autobiography Geronimo - His Own Story* would be a fascinating place to start.

We have no idea how the change of land use affected the ants, the arrival of thousands of cattle would have certainly changed the habitat dramatically from the ants point of view with both beneficial and harmful consequences, possibly bringing the long legged ants and the orange harvester ants together for the first time.

Today, the US now fears incursions by Mexicans, and is making the border to the South secure against further immigration. The US Border patrol driving their green and white trucks are always much in evidence on the gravel roads as we try to get to our ants before sunrise (about 5.30am). On the back of each truck is a cage - in case they catch a Mexican trying to settle in a new land.

*also available as an audiobook


Back To The Desert

About 5 hours South and East of the sweltering heat of Phoenix is a tiny little place called Portal, on the edge of the stunning Chiricahua mountains. Portal has become famous for its ants - not that there is anything particularly special about the ants here - just that there is a research station where some significant ant science was (and is being) conducted, especially experiments which have helped is begin to decipher the complexities of ant chemical communication. Apparently, there are harvester ant nests near here full of little glass beads that were covered in ant pheromones which Deborah Gordon used to work out how the ants knew when they had collected enough food, or when they needed to collect more seeds. This is a significant advance of ant understanding. The casual observer could well conclude that ants have incredible intelligence. And yet it seems they can exhibit complex behaviour with just a simple set of instructions, and a variety of chemical cues.

This morning, these simple instructions led a colony of one species of harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex maricopa - very powerful sting) to attack the nest of the so called long legged ant (no sting). The long legged ants generally like to forage at night, while the maricopas like the heat of the day. They both like similar food, seeds and insects, and technically they share the territory. But when the maricopas get up, they find their patch swarming with long legged ants skirmishes soon break out, leading to a full scale assault from the maricopas who by 8am have driven the long legged ants back into their holes and are swarming around the entrance. Oddly, there don’t seem to be many injuries in these fights, just the occasional antenna or tarsus. But this is exactly the kind of situation where Frankencam excels: Fairly flat, loads of light, bare dirt with no plants in the way.

Incredible images.


It’s Not Cheating

After the splendour of the Sonoran desert, we find ourselves working in a lab in the Arizona State University, looking into little glass and plaster models of the interior of ant nests - with living colonies of ants inside. We have been filming some of the amazing social behaviour of the extraordinary Sri Lankan jumping ant. Some would say this is cheating. Perhaps it is. But the truth is that: we don’t have the budget to go to Sri Lanka. Even if we did, we would struggle to find a nest of this species and dig a huge hole next to it. Any behaviour we filmed wouldn’t be 'natural’ because the ants would all be freaking out about the huge hole in their nest. They would run up the lens, sting the operator, and would definitely refuse to act in a calm and relaxed manner. Our film would be worthless.

Thankfully, Dr Juergen Liebig of the ASU has already gone through that particular hell, and not only managed to bring some colonies back to the US, but has also managed to get them to breed in the lab 'like rabbits'. Juergen’s studies of the interesting social behaviour of these ants are what led us to the lab, and are what we are trying to depict on film - in the most natural way possible, with intimacy and the least disturbance of the wild ants.


Getting Expert Help

Arriving for night filming; Photo by Alex Wild

With the help of Dr Alex Wild, an Illinois-based biologist and ant expert, we have been able to track down most of the ants, behaviour and locations we needed to film in Arizona.

Alex introduced us to the empty splendour of Sycamore Canyon where we found an amazing density of harvester ants, we watched the ants patrolling their borders, while we in turn were being closely watched by the US border patrol - Sycamore canyon is just 5km from the Mexican border.

Being super-talented, Alex is also a professional photographer and has posted photographs of the filming in Tuscon, he returned to Illinois a couple of days ago and has written about his experience here.

Thanks for all your help Alex


We Are Yesterday's News

Although we've been filming out in the National Parks, many of our best moments are coming from parking lots (car parks) and sidewalks (pavements). The desert ants seem quite comfortable just inches from freeways and busy roads. Maybe they depend on insects hit by cars? From an ants perspective, a bit of roadside under neon lights is pretty much the same as a bit of desert under saguaro cactus. They might be city ants, but in the nest their behaviour is no different.

Today we hit the Green Valley headlines
The parking lots here seemed to have some particularly good ant nests and the local newspaper came to see us as we carefully drove our endoscope into an ant nest, to reveal the inner workings of an ant society.


Small Stuff Big Kit

Hotter Than Hot

Here we have Martin (centre) and Howard (right) getting some crane shots of the desert, featuring saguaro cactus, using the Varicam.

(Today's post comes from Gavin Igor Thurston)

Filming is progressing well. The first leg of the trip here in and around Tuscon has given us some nice imagery and behaviour. We were incredibly fortunate to capture the alates emerging and flying from their nest. This only happens once a year usually after rain.

We were there and filmed the 20-minute event with two cameras.

The biggest challenge has been the heat, with temperatures in the non-existent shade reaching 45 degrees celcius. I can tell you that is damn hot, especially in full sun. The equipment gets so hot it burns your hands when packing up and carrying it back to the car. Amazingly the cameras have been holding up wel, whereas we are going lobster coloured.

Tomorrow - off to Phoenix.