Monday, 18 May 2015

THE NATURAL WORLD THROUGH MY EYES

This is the first of a series of entries that will lead eventually to a book about our travels around the World searching for species that I've dreamt about since I was a boy. My goal has been not only to see the animal with my own eyes but also to photograph it. This has not always been a triumphant journey but it’s never been boring. Our travels have taken us around the planet and I intend to keep travelling for as long as possible. So many animals and so little time I keep reminding myself.

Seeing an image in a well used book as a ten year old of an exotic species in a far off land sets the juices of imagination stirring and brewing. Personally for me this has never waned. Now at 47 years old I've been fortunate enough for the last decade to follow some of my boyhood fantasies and even to walk in the footprints of my hero Sir David Attenborough.

I hope the reader can get a little of what we've experienced in our travels from reading my words and seeing my photos, there are many more to come.


John Hodges 18th May 2015.


‘Searching The Mountains For Apollo’ August 2013 Andorra




As we drive towards Andorra heading for the French and Spanish border in couldn't have been hotter. The temperature was hovering around 40 degrees and our only relief was that we were driving our van towards the Pyrenees Mountains and the air was moving through the van.

We made a brief stop at a medieval walled town called Villefranche de Conflent and walked around to stretch our legs. The place was very quaint but full of tourists eating ice-cream and perusing the myriad of tacky souvenirs. We spent an hour looking around and following the narrow passageways trying to escape the crowds which we partially were successful in doing. Back at the van we recharged ourselves with some wheatgrass shots (it goes everywhere with us) and then hit the ever climbing road again. I was inpatient to get going as after last year’s blank trying to find the species I was looking for I really felt that the Butterfly Gods were finally on my side.

After a couple of hours driving we started to look for somewhere to camp. We eventually settled next to a shallow but fast mountain river just south of the town of Porta.

We cooled off in the icy river and then ate a feta cheese salad before retreating to the van and sealing ourselves in, cowering from the sudden swarms of mosquitoes. The more I travel the more I'm thankful that in the UK we don't really have a mosquito problem. Sure everyone gets nailed occasionally but not all the time everyday. I won’t use bug spray or deterrents as they are evil chemicals and really bad for you. After all they are made of powerful chemicals that KILL things. Why on Earth does it make sense to cover your skin with them several times a day because your body keeps absorbing them, no thank you! We use a diluted solution of Tea Tree Oil and Aloe Vera and it works just fine.

During the night a storm rolled in and battered our van keeping us awake. This really isn't what I was hoping for. Butterflies really don’t like wind and rain, come to think of it neither do I.

In the morning after a brisk wash in the river and coffee and porridge we head off on the 90 minute journey to Andorra la Vella which is the capital of Andorra.

It rained and rained. As we arrived the traffic was tailing back from the border. The rain was so bad that the traffic a few cars ahead was cloaked by the heavy rain, only visible because of the glow from the brake lights.

As we inched forward slowly a break in the dark, murderous rain clouds illuminated the road in front of us. Out of the gloom I made out the figure of a cow, just stood in the middle of the road, chewing away and just staring blankly at all the weird tourist sat in their strange tin cans. I had a flashback. It was a very weird moment and Pili and I turned to each other and said INDIA. At that moment a rainbow formed and came down on the roadside in front of us. Now I'm not superstitious in any way but the boy inside me couldn't help feeling the universe was sending me a sign…..This was the day I'd meet my Apollo!

We didn't stop in the capital, why would we? After filling the tank with diesel we headed toward a ski resort called Solden.

While researching for our trip back in the comfort of our house I'd spent a day looking for current info of the known territories of the enigmatic Apollo Butterfly Parnassius Apollo. I found a little personal blog by a traveller who wrote about seeing this butterfly in the location we were now approaching. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and best of all, the entire storm was clearing and the sun was starting to shine on the mountains making them glisten, turning the air fresh and pine scented.

I’d spent last summer driving around the Pyrenees both French and Spanish sides looking for this beautiful member of the Papilionidae family but to no avail. This large white butterfly with crimson spots on the hind wings had haunted my imagination for so long that part of me started to feel that maybe I wasn’t meant to encounter it at all. But as anyone that knows me knows, I don't give up that easily.

We parked up near a sports centre and I quickly put my camera bag together and attached my monopod and 400mm lens onto my Nikon, ready for action. We walked down the main road of this typical ski resort, several large hotels and bars and caf├ęs lined both sides of the road. At the end of town the view led the eye right down the valley and onto the next village about 5 miles away. Between us and the next location were open fields and pine covered slopes. We could make out a snow less ski run between the trees, but today whereas in the winter was powdered white snow, there lay fields of wild flowers. I could hardly contain myself; I was already seeing butterflies in the air from where I was standing on the side of the road. 

We made our way along two hundred metres of dirt track that lead up to a dry stone walled field full of flowers. I immediately saw a large white butterfly in the distance. It couldn't be, could it?



The flight pattern was strong and fast, propelled by large, stiff wings. It wasn't a 100% identification, I told Pili, but I was confident that it was my first Apollo. All of a sudden and as if to shatter any doubt I had a large female fly from behind me and make off down the meadow. Pili knew what was coming next as I bounded through the flowers and grass in hot pursuit of my quarry like some demented, camera laden Neanderthal.




After 20 years together Pili is quite used to my obsession with all beasties, large or small. She’s even got use to the fact that I spend a large amount of my driving time scanning the land in front of me for anything that moves. My peripheral vision is very fine tuned after a lifetime of use. I can spot a flutter of a wing or the movement in the distant tree that gives away a bird from ridiculous distances. Any birdwatcher or naturalist will know exactly what I'm talking about. I like to think of it as a bonus that I have trained 20/20 vision from years of hyper alert and sensitive use.

My quarry outpaced me easily, as I knew it would, but part of the fun is in the chase. When I finally ran out of steam and meadow, the white lady glided out of sight over a tree line; I stopped to catch my breath. Pili was laughing at me from the top of the meadow, I must have looked a sight bounding through the flowers in my cargo shorts adorned with cameras and bags. I then noticed that the air was filling up with several other species of butterfly. I saw in the immediate vicinity Ringlets with their chocolate brown wings, Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, Marbled Whites and several species of Browns and Skippers.

Occasionally I’d glimpse the Apollo as it teased me by rising up over the wall turning around and going down the hillside out of sight. I had yet to get anywhere near close enough to hear it’s wing beats, I'm not kidding you can actually hear their stiff wings displace the surrounding air. If I’d have been calmer when earlier the female had rose up over my shoulder, I would have probably heard her but my current state of excitement and pounding chest had dulled my auditory senses.


When we finally reach the top of the hill to our original meadow the rain had stopped and the first signs of activity was starting to appear. First were the chirping and leaping grasshoppers and crickets, reminding me of my past youth growing up in England. Maybe it’s my rose coloured memory but I vividly remember walking through the long grass in any field or even road side and flushing out numerous Hoppers. I fear those days are long gone wiped away by decades of industrial pollution and chemical pesticides. Oh those halcyon summers of my childhood…



Shattering my focus on the beautiful insects around me I heard a call from the skies. It was a Booted Eagle riding the thermals directly above me. I managed to get a few shots off. Looking through my lens, I could see this magnificent raptor was looking directly at me; I would have loved to know what he was thinking.



All of a sudden the temperature dropped and the rain started to fall heavily. Fortunately we were next to the tree line and so we took shelter. This short shower was exactly what I needed. The Apollos would also be sheltering, their body temperature would drop and when the rain clears the butterflies would have to bask in the sun to raise their body temperature before they can take to wing again. This was my advantage as a warm bloodied mammal with a slight and sometimes worrying obsession with Lepidoptera (moths & butterflies). It was my chance to sneak up on a basking Apollo and get my encounter and if lucky some good photos (you can be the judge of that).

We made our way back up the hill to the original meadow as the shower came to an end. The temperature started to rise again and I knew my moment was near. On the way we saw a pair of Rock Bunting gathering large grasshoppers to feed their hungry nestlings. Beautiful and distinctive little birds and always a pleasure to see close up. We also found a couple of quite large skinks also warming up while clinging to the dry stone wall. One had lost its tail which they will quite happily shed if a bird or any other predator tries to grab them for a snack. Evolution is amazing, what an incredible defence and escape strategy. If you grab me and try to eat me I’ll just break off part of my body and run away, brilliant!




I decided to seize my chance and slowly and carefully made my way through the long grass, scanning the ground for my white quarry. Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement at the top of the meadow, an Apollo! Slowly it floated around, still too cold to use its powerful wings to full advantage. It settled on a yellow flower and as stealthily as possible I approached, stopping every ten feet to take some shots before closing in.




Finally I had this enigmatic Butterfly in full frame feeding away happily and not caring at all about this sweaty foreign observer. I reeled off approximately one hundred photos just to make sure I had some good shots in the bag. I knew a good proportion would be shaky as my adrenalin was coursing through my veins. I also took some footage which unfortunately is not great because of my lack of composure and shakes. I then sat in the still wet grass and just watched in awe as this dream-like creature went about its business, feeding on nectar and loading sugars into its powerful muscles located in its thorax so that it again could take to the mountain skies and head for the heavens.





Finally with a few powerful flaps of its shimmering wings we parted ways. I myself floated back through the meadow to where Pili was perched on the dry stone wall. While I had been in another dimension, lost in time and space and experiencing a childhood dream. Pili had also been taking photos of another Apollo, I could see in her face that she was also thrilled with her encounter and photos. It was all I could do to contain myself and hold back a nostalgic tear or two. Thirty seven years had been a long, long time to wait for this day. It had felt like I’d been trying to hold onto a dream; like when you wake from a deep sleep and the more you realise what has happened the quicker it fades.


Today had been one of those perfect days that I'm constantly looking for. Nature gives me these days time and time again. No ticket or entrance fees asked just time, patience and a little good fortune tempered with some research. Life doesn't get any better……or does it?