In Praise of the Pentax Papilio

Back in 2008 I was in search of a lightweight pair of binoculars to use on hill-walking and backpacking trips when carrying my big beautiful Swarovski 10x42s felt like too much of a neck-aching burden.  I tried out a number of models and having grumbled about their limitations, particularly their inability to focus on objects closer than about 3m, was eventually pointed in the direction of the Pentax Papilio (thank you Owain, blessed be thy name).  As their name suggests, these are aimed primarily at butterfly-watchers rather than birders, and they can focus down to about 50cm.  This makes them absolutely unique – effectively you have a combination of a conventional pair of binoculars and a low-powered binocular microscope that you can use to examine insects, flowers etc in detail without having to catch or pick them or crouch down in discomfort.  Moreover this in-depth observation can be done without disturbing small creatures.  It isn’t surprising really that the presence of a massive and potentially hostile object looming over it should have an inhibiting effect on the behaviour of your typical invertebrate.  However what did come as a revelation was the remarkably short distance one has to move back to release these inhibitions.  At 0.5 – 1.0m distance most invertebrates seem to have the self-confidence to ignore you as a potential threat.  I guess time is pressing, life is short and it isn’t worth wasting valuable minutes through stopping what you are doing when the world is full of massive objects most of which are indifferent to your existence and pose you no direct threat particularly if they keep still and, even if they move closer, can probably be evaded.  So, instead of freezing and trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves, these little creatures carry on with their normal activities – exploring, feeding, grooming, stalking, signalling, courting, egg-laying, fighting – and do so with energy, flexibility and character.  An undisturbed insect or spider has an expressiveness in the way it waggles its antennae, cocks its head, drums its feet etc that is hard to reconcile with the robotic, knight-in-armour rigidity it has when trying not to be noticed.  This is the magical world that the Pentax Papilio opens up.

The secret of its magic is that as you focus in on objects close to you the objective lenses move away from the eyepieces and move closer together, thus maintaining the stereo view.  The smoothness of this movement is ensured by housing the objective lenses within the body of the binoculars, protected from the outside world behind a single fixed oval sheet of plain glass.  If ever you have a spare moment, it is very satisfying to turn the Papilios around, play with the focus wheel and watch the slickness of this operation!

Apart from this, they also function as perfectly decent lightweight travel binoculars, and they are great for surveying aquatic mammals too as you can scrutinise pawprints and droppings without having to slither down risky riverbanks or contort yourself into undercut tree root plates and bankside cavities.

Papilios are available in two magnification – 6.5x and 8.5x. Normally I would think 6.5x was not powerful enough but given that the diameter of the objective lenses is only 21mm (small even by pocket binocular standards) I opted for these rather than the 8.5s because of concerns that the higher magnification would not give a bright enough image.

Earlier this year, one of my nearest and dearest expressed an interest in having a pair of Papilios for herself, so I went back to the Internet to check out current prices.  At £66 my Papilios had been an absolute snip in 2008, but prices have doubled since then.  However Pentax were also claiming advances in the construction sufficient to justify badging them as Papilio IIs.  The main difference seemed to be that all the lenses were now multi-coated.  I am no optics nerd, but I gather that the practical implication of this is that the image should be brighter and clearer.  Given the slickness of Amazon’s return procedures these days, I ordered both the 6.5s and the 8.5s so I could try them against each other.  The 8.5s were noticeably more powerful and gave a more detailed image at distance and, in very good light, at close range also.  However I felt that at close range in anything other than very good light, the 6.5s had the edge as the greater brightness of their image more than offset the lower magnification.  There was less difference in the width of the field of view than I would have expected, but it did seem as if the depth of field of the 8.5s was slightly less than that of the 6.5s so it was a little trickier to keep them in sharpest focus.  Ultimately then, while I felt I would be happy with either model, I plumped for the 6.5s again because so much of my use is likely to be in less than ideal light – the gloom of cloudy Britain or of dawn, dusk and overhangs.  If I was living in sunnier climes I would probably go for the 8.5s.

The Papilio IIs were noticeably brighter and seemed sharper than the original Papilios, so I hoped my nearest and dearest would be happy with my well-loved used pair while I relished the new ones (she was!)

Two pairs of bins!

(PS Amazon’s returns procedure wasn’t that slick after all – initially they refunded me for the slightly cheaper 6.5s I had kept, not the 8.5s I had sent back!  Also, at the time of this re-posting, there are some available on-line for just under £100 – grab ’em quick!).

Zombies and Uninvited Guests: Who Would be a Wood Ant?

Naturalists are lucky people.  Our worlds are full of wonders and we can find magic under our noses wherever we are.

In September I paid my old friends Gus and Tess a visit.  They live in Speyside amongst the magnificence of the old Caledonian pine forests.  Gus is a zoologist by training, and Tess a botanist, but both are naturalists of wide interests and experience.  The evening I arrived Gus had just returned from an outing with an ant expert to search for a creature called the Shining Guest Ant, and as both Tess and I were keen to benefit from his new knowledge we went out to look for it the next day.

The nests of Wood Ants (Formica sp) are a conspicuous feature of the pine forests, mounds of fallen pine needles forever patrolled by their makers.  They are also an attractive source of food and security for other organisms that can cope with the massed throngs of formic-acid-squirting and pincer-jawed inhabitants, and amongst these other organisms are the Shining Guest Ants (Formicoxenus nitidulus).

It was a cool grey day, not very promising, but with Gus’s newly acquired knowledge we soon found an appropriately located nest and crouched down to scrutinise the ants moving about on its surface.  However the first ant that drew my attention was an unnaturally static one.  Courtesy of my extremely close-focussing Pentax Papilio binoculars (there is more about these in a post I will bring across from LinkedIn) I could see that it was frozen in an odd position, with its jaws clamped firmly to a dead grass stem protruding from the nest.  Gus diagnosed its problem as a fungal infection – there is a genus of parasitic fungi, Cordyceps, that specialises in feeding on the innards of ants.  In order to spread from ant to ant it has evolved the fiendish technique of infecting the ant’s brain so that is impelled to climb up a twig or grass stem, bite down hard then die, firmly fixed in place.

Zombie Wood Ant – photo by Gus Jones

Shortly thereafter the fruiting body of the fungus bursts forth from the head of the ant to scatter its spores on the ground below where its sisters are scuttling about and so get infected in their turn.  Give me athlete’s foot any day!

Further diligent searching revealed several Shining Guest Ants.  They were not easy to pick out at first, but once spotted were readily distinguished.  They are much smaller than the wood ants and quite differently proportioned – longer-bodied and shorter-legged – as well as having distinctively glossy amber-coloured bodies.  They showed up best when wandering across the golden birch leaves that had fallen on the nest.

Wood Ant and Guest – photo by Gus Jones

Unlike some other members of their genus which are duller in colour and rely on going undetected by mimicking the scent of their hosts, Shining Guest Ants have been found to secrete a substance that is sufficiently repulsive to make the wood ants drop them after grabbing them – something that happened quite frequently.  I wonder too, if the Shining Guest Ant’s extreme glossiness has a part to play in this, perhaps reflecting a cuticle strengthened to resist repeated grabbing in their hosts’ powerful jaws, or varnished to make them difficult or possibly unpleasant to grasp (think fingernails squeaking down blackboards!)

Shining Guest Ant – photo by Gus Jones

An on-line search for more information on the nature of the Shining Guest Ants’ relationship with the Wood Ants was inconclusive and left me with the impression that we do not really know if they solicit food from their hosts, raid their larders, scavenge their leftovers, eat their offspring or a combination of all of these.  About the only thing that that seemed certain was that the ones we were seeing on the surface of the wood ant nests were not foraging workers but males on the lookout for virgin queens.  Still so many mysteries under our noses that we have yet to unravel!

At least part of the attraction of these little creatures lies in their English name.  I find such triple-barreled names with unexpected descriptors very appealing, and the Shining Guest Ant now joins the pantheon along with such delights as the Trembling Sea Mat, the River Jelly Lichen and the Kinabalu Friendly Warbler.

So, we had a good day.  There is, however, a downside to being a naturalist.  As the eloquent and visionary American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in 1948 ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds’.  The loneliness is not so great these days of increased environmental awareness, but there are an awful lot of environmental issues to be aware of, and the attention spans of press and public are generally too short to achieve sustained solutions.  For many years Gus, an expert on Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), that rare giant woodland grouse, has been battling inappropriate developments in the mountains and forests of the Cairngorms.  As time has gone by he has cast his net wider in the quest for other organisms that will help him make the case that ancient Caledonian pine forests are not the right places to build holiday homes and retirement bungalows.  I fear he places too much faith in the power of Shining Guest Ants and other rare or little-known invertebrates, but it is good to know that he is out there, fighting the battles.  Tess’s mother is 102 and Gus’s mother was also a centenarian, so with that outstanding genetic heritage I look forward to them continuing to hold housing developers and the Cairngorms National Park Authority to account for many years to come!


Martin, S. et al (2007)  Chemical deterrence enables a socially parasitic ant to invade multiple hosts.  Proc. R. Soc. B, 274: 2717-2721.

Meet Leif the Lucky

In my post Sheepwrecked, Sheepracked or Sheepwrought? I suggested that to help justify the maintenance of sheep grazing in the British uplands we needed to develop new breeds of sheep that cost less to manage.  Wool is worth very little these days, and one avenue that might be worth exploring, I suggested, was to cross the modern Easycare breed that does not need shearing (because it sheds its fleece by itself every year) with the Herdwick, the iconic Lake District sheep, and the Soay, probably the toughest sheep breeds we have in Britain.

The Herdwick is believed to be a descendant of sheep brought in by the Vikings from Scandinavia over a thousand years ago.  It is a distinctive sheep of great charm with a friendly white sock-puppet face, dark button eyes, shrekkish ears sticking out sideways from its head, sturdy and very hairy ‘bellbottom’ legs, and a fleece that changes colour as the animal ages.

Herdwick Ewe with Black Lambs
Herdwick Ewe with Silvered Lamb

The lambs are black, often with a bit of silver (rather like miniature Hebridean sheep) and usually with a white spot on the back of each ear, and they keep this dark colour into their second year.

Second-Year Herdwick

By this time their heads and legs have turned white and the contrast with the inky darkness of the fleece brings Uncle Fester from the Addams Family to mind.  As they age their coats get greyer, then the grey gets more silvery until finally the oldest ones are pretty much white.  Lovely in colour the fleece may be, but sadly coarse.  Wool suitable for hard-wearing carpets but not really for clothes.  Indeed I wonder if some of the frenzied aggression of the notorious Viking berserker warriors was due to wearing itchy Herdwick woollen clothing next to their skin as well as to the consumption of fly agaric toadstools.

The Soay, which I went to see this summer on its home turf of St Kilda, is a much older breed, tough but small, and probably pretty close in appearance and characteristics to the first sheep brought to Britain by Neolithic settlers six thousand years ago.  I will write more about them in another post.

Soay Rams, St Kilda
Soay Ewe, St Kilda

I ran the idea of an Easycare / Herdwick / Soay crossbreeding programme past John Vipond, a consultant (now retired) with the Scottish Agriculture College and widely respected as an authority on sheep farming.  John, I knew, had been actively promoting ways of reducing sheep management costs.  He was keen on the idea of crossing Herdwicks and Easycares, and had suggested it himself at various field meetings with graziers and farmers, but so far no-one had taken him up on it.  He felt that adding Soay to the mix would simply complicate matters.

Fools, they say, rush in where angels fear to tread, and as is so often the way serendipity lends a hand – or even, as in this case, gives you a hearty shove.  I have become a regular visitor to Ennerdale in the Lake District, scene of a very interesting rewilding project (about which I will post another day), and through this have made the acquaintance of Richard Maxwell, whose black Galloway cattle are being deployed to limit tree regeneration in parts of the plantation forestry that have been felled or thinned.  Richard also happens to have a large flock of Herdwicks.

Richard in Ennerdale

Back in Northumberland, my desire for a better understanding of the interplay between livestock grazing and vegetation has led me to become a volunteer with Flexigraze, a CIC (Community Interest Company) set up to provide conservation grazing services in North-East England (  Flexigraze makes use of an eclectic mix of sheep breeds that can thrive on the roughest of grazings including Manx Loaghtans, Hebrideans, Shetlands, Soays and Swaledales, plus ponies and Highland cattle for the really thick stuff.  Flexigraze is managed by Stephen Comber, who for his main commercial enterprise, I was delighted to discover, has a flock of Easycares.

Stephen and his Easycares

Both Richard and Stephen are thoughtful men, generous with their knowledge and deeply concerned about the future of livestock farming post-Brexit.  Richard gave me a stark insight into the economic penalty of having to shear his Herdwicks: he has about 500 sheep and this year he received 33p for each fleece i.e. £165 in total.  Shearing, however, cost £1.20 per sheep i.e. £600 in total.  Moreover the greatest expense was gathering the flocks in from the hills for the shearing: this took 2 men and their dogs 5 days at £100 per man-day i.e. £1000.  So the total cost was £1600 i.e. a net loss of £1435.

Richard and the Chosen Tip

Anyway, I sounded out both of them on their willingness to get involved with a cross-breeding experiment, and was very pleased when they came on board.  So last week found me with a borrowed horse-van picking up a fine, sturdy but somewhat grumpy one-eyed Herdwick ram from Richard’s farm.

Grumpy, I think, because Richard had already put his ‘tips’ (the Cumbrian dialect variant on tup or ram) in with his ewes and my guy seemed to be aware that he was missing out: he gave Richard a hearty farewell butt and stamped his foot at me when I tried to make friends.

Four hours later we were safely in Northumberland and he had mellowed enough to accept pieces of apple from me.

Meet Leif the Lucky

I am calling him Leif the Lucky (Lucky Leif for short) – this was the nickname of Leif Ericsson the first Norseman to reach North America, and seemed an appropriate name for a Viking sheep boldly going where none of his ilk have gone before and, I hope, founding a new breed.  Also his missing eye gives him a slightly piratical look.

Herdwick rams have a reputation for exceptional agility and randiness, so Stephen, who had not yet put his tups with his ewes, was anxious to get Leif and the four chosen Easycare brides away from his main holding in case he tried some extra-curricular matings.  This suited Leif who was enthusiastically investigating his unexpected harem even while in a sheep trailer with headroom only.

Lucky Leif and his ladies are now ensconced in a rank grassy paddock between the sand dunes and the reedbeds of the East Chevington Nature Reserve on the Northumberland coast.  They seem to have settled in and I think they are happy.

In the Reeds
Leif and his ladies
Lucky Leif

So now we sit back and wait.  The best scientific evidence is that the fleece-shedding switch gene is dominant so the lambs should inherit this from their mothers.  However other genes and other factors are in play when it comes to the pattern, timing and completeness of the shedding.  The health and diet of the sheep may play a role as well as its genetic heritage.  For it to be a success, the experiment has to produce sheep that can live out on the mountains all year round as well as being self-shedding, and we are unlikely to be able to gauge the results properly until late 2019 or 2020.  In the meantime though, I am looking forward to seeing if Leif’s lambs will have those white spots on the backs of their ears…..