Toads, a town council and trouble

The Giant Chilean Toad, sometimes referred to as the Gay’s Frog  is endemic to Chile.  It’s an amiable monster of an animal, with adult females measuring over 50cm.  Like all amphibians the world over the population of this animal  has been declining at an alarming rate.


In the past this huge toad has been captured for eating as a local delicacy and many others exported as part of the international animal trade.


Nowadays the problem is even greater, one of habitat loss.  The toads’ range in central Chile overlaps with the richest land, land now brimming over with orange and lemon groves, plantations of peaches and nectarines and hillsides of vines for the finest Chilean wines, all these grown for the insatiatiable demand from UK and North American supermarkets.


One day the ‘Frog Squad’ had an urgent request to visit the town of Villa Alemana northwest of Santiago, where a population of these giant frogs were endangered and we were asked to join them.


We all met somewhat surreptitiously in a café to hear the story from a group of locals including a journalist, and teacher, who told us about some huge frogs that inhabited a stream that flowed through the town.


The animals  made a lot of noise, some people liked them, some not and others still thought the stream in which they lived was dirty and untidy, the locals were all in dispute about the situation, so the council decided to dredge the stream and ‘clean it up’.



Encuentro en un restaurante

Encuentro en un restaurant

Environmentally sympathetic individuals had spoken to officials, who seemed oblivious to the presence or welfare of the animals.


However local children liked the frogs, they thought the frogs were beautiful, remembering  that a far-away princess had even married one !


To the embarrassment of the local council the children ‘adopted ‘ a bridge over the stream and covered it with  images of nature and the frogs.



Frog squad 3


Mural pintado por ninos

Mural pintado por ninos


This is a common story the world over and one that we ourselves had experienced in our home town of Loughborough in England twenty years ago. In Loughborough  they wanted to dredge and channelize the Woodbrook stream, home to nesting kingfishers and bank voles.


In Loughborough then, as now in Villa Alemana, what was needed was a little pressure from the public, some publicity in the local press and some expert advice on how to solve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction.


The Frog Squad were to give the expert advice, but first they had to establish the presence and identification of the animals in danger.  So that night we went ‘frogging’.


The stream was in a deep cutting through the town.

El arroyo en Villa Alemana

El arroyo en Villa Alemana


We sploshed  and waded through the water, sometimes thick with vegetation.  There were lots of small native fish, this was clearly a rich habitat for the gentle giant as it requires extensive aquatic vegetation in which to breed.


Gradually as darkness descended we started to see the protruding eyes of these friendly ‘giants’.  They were secretive and hugged the overhangs of the banks. With wet feet and wetter arms we eventually caught one of the gentle giants and confirmed its identity,  a rare Chilean Giant Toad (Calyptocephalella gayi)

This giant has the most enormous protruding eyes and powerful legs.



Mira esos ojos !

Mira esos ojos !


We found a small  population of these wonderful creatures that evening and the Frog squad agreed to back the locals, so with that added scientific proof, hopefully the frogs will have their habitat safeguarded.


Their findings agreed with a report in a local newspaper.  The Frog Squad strikes again !



El peloton de ranas  al socorro

El peloton de ranas al socorro

In a country where environmental matters are secondary and the concept of  protecting ‘urban wildlife ‘ is almost unheard of,  it is a pleasure to witness local people actively concerned about their own wildlife.

Another Condor released

A Condor was found near Tafi del Valle, with a damaged wing and half starved.  Kind people rescued it and it was looked after by skilled professionals working at Buenos Aires Zoo, for Bioandina, PCCA, as well as volunteers. Now was the time for its release and we were not going to miss it, so back to Tafi we travelled.

The day we arrived we found the mountain where the release was to take place.  A long, treacherous and steep track led upwards, past half-built houses and up further still, skirting narrow ridges and onto a vast undulating  isolated mountain top.  This was a place revered by the local  Diaguita community.

We arrived at dawn, a cool morning and though we were over 3000 m up the air was still , the grasses motionless. Rocks leading up to a nearby cairn hid a variety of bulbous, ground hugging cacti, a pair of Andean lapwings eyed us up from a nearby ridge.  This was an inspirational landscape, peaceful yet full of tension, surly the right place from which to release the most magnificent of birds.


Isolated mountain


The next day we returned for the ceremony and release.  As we approached the site, cars, motorcycles even small coaches and minibuses scattered the route.  As we came over the last ridge we gasped at the gathering on the distant mountain top. Several  hundred people had found their way to the. Joining them we circled around the pile of rocks donating the top of the mountain, flags  were unfurled, seats for elderly brought out, clearly this was a great celebration for the locals.


1 Condor crowd on the hill,_

Beautifully woven cloths and blankets were brought out upon which sacred and cherished items were laid, feathers, small statues, flower petals, food, wine and colourful stones.


2 Sacred items


The ceremony was long and detailed, conducted by the head  of the Diaguitas.  Pachamama was invoked to help support the Condor in its new lease of life. Praises were given for the goodness of the earth, the need for rain for the crops and kindness of the wind for the Condor to soar in the sky.


3 Hands up to the sky


Eventually the great bird was brought forward.


4 Carrying the Condor_


Immediately before release, incense was lit, small choice foods laid out and incantations spoken.  The crowds parted to allow the great bird room to manoeuvre and not feel threatened.


5 Prayers before release

The cage doors were opened and out stepped the giant, one of the most magnificent of birds.  It stood proud, reminiscent of its Jurassic ancestors.  Onlookers were in awe, would the bird fly ? could the bird fly ?


 The biggest flying bird_

A minute passed, it seemed like an hour, then  with stretched wings casting a shadow over those beneath, the bird slowly walked to the edge –


7 condor flying_

and flew !



8 man with andean flag


The ‘super’ bird gradually caught the wind and gained height, moving first one way and then another.  Around us silence changed to cheers, clapping,  hugs and even tears.  Many just stood still, watching as the bird became smaller and smaller a dot in the heavens, their own thoughts with the great bird.


9 hugs_

Success led to celebration, back in the village a great meal was set out, huge cauldrons of locro, a type of meaty broth was dished out to all, children rode about on horses or played football.  Dignitaries on a stage thanked all concerned for making the event possible then musicians took over, singers, drummers and  dancers.

All this for a bird, but not just any old bird this was for a CONDOR, the greatest of all birds.


celebration meal



Condor liberation in Patagonia

Condors are the iconic bird of South America, worshipped as sacred since the times of the Incas.  Ignorant as to the important role they play in the natural balance of the wild, Condors have been hunted mercilessly for several hundred years, almost to the point of extinction. Argentina has a Condor re-introduction programme spearheaded from Buenos Aires Zoo and since 2001 Condors have been released and monitored in northern Patagonia.  We were fortunate to be invited to this year’s release.

Two Andean Condors first flight



What makes the Argentinian Condor release programme so unique is that like the massive bird itself , the programme has two wings, one scientific and the other cultural.

Sacred Condor feathers together with cultural artifacts.


This year four Condors were released. One bird had been raised from an egg at Buenos Aires Zoo, fed by surrogate puppets that look like an adult bird. The other three were injured individuals from various parts of the country and cared for by the Zoo.

Prior to release the birds are kept in a huge enclosure high up on the top of a deserted meseta , where they are fed and monitored for several months. They never are allowed to see humans.


The Condor release cage.


The day of the release is hugely anticipated, several hundred people turn up. Schoolchildren from all over Rio Negro arrive, it is a very important day in the local community.  After much ceremony the birds are released and to everyone’s relief they all managed to fly, even the one raised from an egg, this bird was called ‘Rayman’ which in the Mapuche language means ‘Flower bird’.  It was wonderful to see the biggest bird in the world take its first tentative flight over the endless Patagonian landscape.


Schoolchildren attending the 2014 Condor liberation.


Once released the work really starts for a small group of dedicated researchers who monitor the birds with radio trackers every day for the next four months.  Such young birds need help, they occasionally tumble down cliffs or get stuck in thorny vegetation.


Scientists with wing tags.  Together with a radio trasmitter the

Charnwood Forest butterflies

The English summer never really happened this year and I was reminded of this on a wildlife walk this week through the lovely Leicestershire countryside.  Autumn is my favourite season, the crispness of the air, yellows and golds of leaves, blackberries in the hedgerow, but little compares to the beauty of our autumn butterflies the Comma and Red Admiral.  Comma butterfly

Look on the underwing, bottom left for the little white comma , which gives this butterfly its name.

Red Admiral butterfly

I am very fortunate to live in the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, Charnwood Forest is itself part of the National Forest.  In the National Forest there are countless nature reserves and areas accessible for people to walk. In May of this year  I was near the centre of the National Forest at Moira.  I was photographing a female Orange Tip butterfly, the split second I took the photograph a male flew into shot – how lucky can you get !

A male Orange Tip butterfly flies in to an awaiting female.

With such a great start to the butterfly year I was expectant for more.  Not so, the weather has been awful. Butterflies need sunshine and warmth, this is the ‘elixir of life’ for butterflies, only this enables them to fly and fly they must, to find a mate.  The only butterfly that has done well this year to my knowledge is the Meadow Brown and on a local nature reserve, the Lea Meadows in Ulverscroft valley, Meadow Browns have been abundent.

Meadow Brown butterfly

The Lea Meadows nature Reserve, owned by the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust  is a meadowland site. But its special in that it has not been ploughed since medieval times and neither have any agrochemicals been applied.  In consequence the 30 acres of meadows are full of wild plants, many species of which used to be common but are not these days. The conservation of such sites are vital to butterfly populations.

Lea Meadows nature reserve, Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire


During the year I lecture and talk to many groups and societies and without exception people love to hear about butterflies. Seeing a butterfly can have the same effect on people as hearing a bird sing.  It can remind us that the simply things in life are often the best.



Cork Oak forests – a unique environment.

Cork Oak Forest from Paula Webster on Vimeo.


Cork Oak forest

Cork forest landscape

The regions of  Southern Spain and Portugal where  Cork Oak forests dominate the landscape are rich in both culture and wildlife and the Websters Wildshots team of are making a film about it.

Growing and harvesting cork is an ancient agricultural system and the surviving forest habitat contains an unsurpassed wildlife, much of which has since disappeared .  Recent decades have seen world prices for cork plummet as plastics and metal screw tops are now the material of choice for many brands of wine.  Not that they are better materials, a quality cork stopper reigns supreme for the task of stopping bottles and is still used exclusively by French champagne producers.

Making corks for wine bottles

The art and craft of making corks

In order to combat this demise the  regional government has established a cork research centre, called a subberoteca, whose aim is to help and advise the cork growers as to the best way to manage their cork forests and when is the optimum time to harvest their cork.

This image shows cork samples hanging up. Each line of samples represents the reference collection of one grower and is used to determine the quality of their crop.



A National Park has been established to conserve the fragile cork forest ecosystem as well as the cultural traditions which underpin area. The national park is called the Alcornocales, the Spanish name for the Cork Oak.

Alcornocarles National Park sign

Alcornocarles National parkThe Websters Wildshots expedition vehicle was able to penetrate some of the vast Cork Oak forests. The national park is a great step forward towards the conservation of the habitat Overlooking the Alcornocarles National park, southern Spain

The Alcornocales has many rare breeding birds such as the Bee Eater
European Bee eater

European Bee Eater


and insects such as this amazing Rhinocerous beetle.

Rhinocerous Beetle

The Rhinocerous Beetle is a rare insect and only found in Europes ancient forests.


Cork Oaks are managed organically, the rural communities which depend upon the continual use of corks, especially for bottling are rich in tradition and culture.  The wildlife that depends upon Cork Oak forests is among the finest anywhere in Europe.

Corkd from the Cork Oak forests

In a Spanish restaurant expect the best wines to come from bottles that have corks.


we can all help by only buying wine that is stopped with a real cork. This campaign has had a recent boost by an article in the Daily Mail.




Environmental Leadership

The Leadership in Environmental Action Forum is a special opportunity for high school students who are interested in environmental leadership.  The forum held by Ottawa’s Natural History Museum allows students to interact and network with students from other high schools and hear from a variety of speakers.

I was asked to speak at this event about my expeditions with Row to the Pole. I discussed some of the scientific evidence for climate change, the decline of Arctic sea ice and the importance of science communication.


Check some of the Row to the Pole videos produced by Websters Wildshots to learn more about the ice boat, what Arctic sea is like and why the Arctic is changing.