This is the blog posted on the Wild Wonders of Europe website about my trip to photograph common chameleon for the project. © Niall Benvie 2009.
While most species are migrating north in spring, I flew south to Andalucia in late April, driven by the need to photograph rather than breed. In planning an itinerary for this spring, I thought of southern Spain as a famous, top-class restaurant where you know the menu is fabulous, although never quite what will be on it. And it was with a hearty appetite that I turned up at the door of my hosts, Jesus Morales and Maria Solano, in the coastal city of Huelva.
Jesus and Maria are of that engaging breed of people whose effortless hospitality (extended in my case to a near stranger) not only helps to make a trip productive but enjoyable too. Ahead of my visit, Jesus (Hey-zous) had arranged with friends at the Marismas del Odiel nature reserve to provide assistance in locating my “favourite dish” for this trip – the (dubiously named) common chameleon. I suspect that relatively few northern Europeans know that we share the continent with this exotic reptile and still fewer visitors to the Mediterranean are likely to see them, even if looking hard.
23rd April. Accompanied by reserve ranger, Enrique, Jesus and I spent several hours this morning and afternoon scouring Retama monosperma bushes – the favoured habitat in this area – for the reptiles. Conditions were favourable: the temperature was in the high 20’s, the wind quite light and there was a larder full of insects for a hungry chameleon. Less than two months ago, when the Retama was in flower, Enrique had seen many baby chameleons in the first area we checked, just beside a busy highway. I could almost smell chameleon wafting from the kitchen.
But I was to stay hungry. We looked thoroughly over three areas with plentiful Retama, but not a scale was to be seen. It was a bit like arriving, ravenous, at the restaurant, only to be told that it was the chef’s day off.
24th April. Another sunny day in Spain. The received wisdom suggested that there was no point in looking for chameleons until the oven was hot so we drove to a pine wood near Cartaya just after breakfast. When we had visited yesterday (to photograph one of the three remaining charcoal makers in Andalucia at work), I had seen not only my first woodchat shrikes, bee-eaters and azure winged magpies, but had also noticed some wild gladiolus. This morning, we found a more impressive stand of them just where a spring made the ground a little damper. This was just the sort of place where the field studio comes into its own – a tangle of bushes that would have made it impossible to find a clear background for a conventional picture.
Stopping to admire the bee-eaters on our way back (one can’t simply “watch” a bee-eater), two hoopoes landed near our car. On the ground, the bird’s short legs give it an eager, columbine gait not quite befitting the sophistication and extravagance of its plumage. One proceeded to dust bathe, its crest erect like an Aztec head-dress put on in a hurry.
By now the day was baking and once again we scoured the Retama bushes where we had looked the previous day. But chameleon remained off the menu. With cooler, windier weather forecast for the following two days, I got the distinct feeling I was going to go home hungry.
25th April. It was not another sunny day in Spain. And when we saw how the Retama bushes were blowing about, I pictured a frustrated chameleon trying to shoot its tongue out at cricket as predator and prey swayed to and fro. That didn’t make me feel any more hopeful. Furthermore it was cool enough now to wear a fleece – a sure biological indicator of inactivity amongst poikilothermic creatures (and those without access to fleeces). Jesus and I once again scrutinised the bushes at the first site beside the main road as we waited for Maria to join us for lunch. We greeted her with long faces. Since she was wearing sun glasses, it wasn’t possible to see if she cast her eyes upwards at the inability of men to find things, but within two minutes, she had called us across to the chameleon she found about 2 metres up in a Retama bush, 1.5 metres from the pavement – and 5 metres from our car. I suspect that the reptile, far from being distressed about being moved a short distance on to the field studio, felt some of the relief a sailor feels having descended safely from the crow’s nest in a storm. Dark lines and spots soon paled, suggesting if not a happy chameleon (how can you guess at the mood of any animal whose eyes look in opposite directions?), certainly a resigned one that was just going to get on with it until put back in its bush. The pictures made and animal at home again, I sat stunned by my luck – as if not only had the temperamental chef turned up but I had been served the very last portion of my favourite dish. A small portion it might have been – no matter how many photos you take, there will always be one or two better than all the rest – but it was a delicious moment nevertheless.
And so to a late lunch. I love the creativity of people who can bring their work into the ordering of a meal. Jesus suggested that we should eat our way through the marine water column starting with pelagic anchovies, followed by demersal hake and finishing with benthic plaice. This was lunch and a lesson in marine biology all at once. Still savouring our success with the chameleon, I confessed that would really love a scolopendra as “dessert”. Most visitors to Heulva want to see the Monasterio de Santa Maria de la Rabida where Columbus sought support for his search for a western route to India, or the life-size replicas of his ships, Santa Maria, La Niña and La Pinta – not Europe’s largest, venomous centipede. Frankly, I wasn’t too keen on meeting one either but it was on my wanted list so I suppressed an instinctive wariness of creatures with more than four legs (and the scolopendra has a lot more) and prepared the gear for the evening.
We decided that the best prospect of finding one was in the over-grown garden of a property that Jesus and Maria own just outside Huelva. I’m sorry to say that I caused many ants to wonder if the end of the world had come as I gingerly eased up flat stones, flooding their communities with light for a moment before lowering the stone back into its impression. And when I edged one up to see an instantly recognisable brown and black body, I quickly lowered it again. I wasn’t going to let this fellow get away and needed to get the collecting tub into position- and to compose myself. I tried to remember if there were any clauses in my travel insurance pertaining to venomous centipedes: they do tend to be quite comprehensive these days. I needn’t have worried: with a little direction from the soft paint brush I use to handling invertebrates the scolopendra was on set in no time. Considering this is an animal that, when not terrorising curious, stone-turning children, spends most of its time in dark places, the white set was probably a bit of an adventure. Employing some scolopendra psychology, Jesus simply covered its head to calm it, and as soon as the cover was moved, I had a few seconds to photograph before the animal realised that its adventure was not over yet. When it was, we parted with little more affection for each other than at the start.
26th April. Today was Columbus / Colon day and Jesus and I went where people normally go when they come to Huelva.
For our last evening, we decided to drive to the western fringes of the famous Coto Doñana National Park, centred on the delta of the Guadalquivir. Although we were just outside the park, we were within the same ecosystem and the sense of abundant life was palpable. But most curious and beautiful of all was a strange, unintentional duet between a hoope and a collared dove, two different languages sung in harmony, one resonating with the other.