Address: 71 Russell Bank Road, Sutton Coldfield B74 4RQ
Telephone: (0121) 353 5044
The latest version of this list is online at http://www.scnhs.org.uk/TalksList.html.
I am no longer willing to drive longer distances in the evening, especially in the winter. Please check the expected travel time to your location from B74 4RQ (e.g. with Google Maps). It's difficult to be too definite, but generally 45 minutes driving time is the maximum for an evening talk, less if the route is complicated.
I ask for:
- travel expenses of 35p per mile from Four Oaks, Sutton Coldfield
- plus a donation to the Sutton Coldfield Natural History Society (or for the two talks on the Galįpagos, to the Galapagos Conservation Trust) based on the size of the group; around £10 plus £1 per person attending is suggested as a guide, minimum £20.
For example, to travel 20 miles each way to give a talk to a group of 25 people, £14 expenses + £35 donation.
I love to see and photograph wild plants in their natural habitats, so naturally many of my talks reflect this theme. All those listed below are illustrated by slides or digital images and normally last about 50-60 minutes (plus time for questions), although the timing can be adjusted somewhat on request. Many of the talks can be oriented differently for different audiences. In the list below, I've tried to indicate the main interest of each talk using the coding:
|G||General (i.e. no special knowledge of natural history).|
|N||Natural History (e.g. natural history society members, but not necessarily botanical experts); note since my interest is overwhelmingly in plants, these talks are also generally suitable for gardening and horticultural groups.|
|H||Horticultural (e.g. members of gardening societies); these talks can be specifically oriented towards gardening.|
Most of my talks are now digital. I can bring all the equipment required (except a projector stand, which I've always been able to improvise using tables). However, it is useful if the venue has a screen.
I'm often asked for some information about me in relation to advertising or introducting my talks, hence the paragraph below.
Although I studied zoology at university, I spent most of my life as a university lecturer in education and computing science. I organized student and staff exchanges at Aston University through the European Union's Erasmus scheme, which enabled me to travel to many European countries in addition to holiday visits. I also travelled in the Far East on academic business, both before and after retirement from Birmingham University. I have always been an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, with a particular focus on flowers, especially orchids; more recently, I've become interested in spiders. I'm currently Secretary of the Sutton Coldfield Natural History Society, through which I serve on the Sutton Park Advisory Committee. I was an officer of the Birmingham Natural History Society and of the Birmingham Group of the Alpine Garden Society (both now dissolved). All of these activities – and more – have kept me busy in retirement!
Sutton Park and its Habitats (G,N)
In 1997, Sutton Park was made a National Nature Reserve (having previously been a Site of Special Scientific Interest). As a nature reserve, the Park is unique in Europe in the way in which it is surrounded by urban areas. This often leads to conflict in its management. My talk surveys four major habitats: open areas, woodlands, water and wetlands. Some of the characteristic plants, fungi and butterflies of each habitat are shown, with a stress on conservation issues. (Many of the slides used in this talk were taken by the late Harold Fowkes, who spent a lifetime studying the wildlife of the Park.)
The Animals of Sutton Park (G,N)
In this talk I first survey the history of recording animals in Sutton Park. Until the 1990s, animals were much less well recorded than fungi and plants, although some serious recording goes back to 1896. I go on to show a selection of the species found in the Park, ranging from snails and spiders to reptiles and mammals. Over 3,600 species of animals of all kinds had been recorded in Sutton Park as of 2021. The overwhelming majority are invertebrates: spiders, beetles, flies, and butterflies and moths have been particularly well recorded. Some of the vertebrates – fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – will also be shown.
Bulbs in the Garden and the Wild (G,N,H)
Rather than "bulbs", I should really say "underground storage organs" – but this doesn't make a very snappy title! The talk can be given either a gardening or a natural history focus. I begin with a quick survey of the technical differences among bulbs, corms and tubers, including why plants have underground storage organs. For most of the talk, I show some of the main groups of 'bulbous' plants, both in their wild habitats and in the garden. From the snowdrops of early spring to the cyclamen of late winter, bulbs enrich our gardens and provide excitement for the wildflower lover.
Introduction to Flowering Plants (N,H)
Flowering plants are vitally important in the natural world, as well as to humans. Most landscapes are dominated by flowering plants, and they make up most of our food or the food of the animals we eat. This talk introduces flowering plants as a group, distinguishing them from other kinds of plants, and looking at how they have evolved and are classified. The diversity of flowering plants is illustrated by a range of photographs.
(There is some overlap between this talk and the one below, which is slightly more scientific.)
Flowers in their Families (N,H)
Botanists group flowering plants into a large number of different 'families', some with many members, some with only a few. Being able to determine, even roughly, the family to which a flower belongs can tell you a lot about it, and help in further identification. In this talk I look at some of the main families into which flowers are grouped. There are two versions of this talk: one uses wild flowers as illustrations, the other garden plants (ornamental and edible).
Why do they keep changing the names of everything? (N)
This is an exciting time for anyone interested in the 'tree of life' – the way in which all living and extinct species are connected together by evolution. As the genomes of more and more organisms are sequenced and as more and more powerful computer programs are developed to analyse them, our knowledge of the tree of life grows. However, this makes it an irritating time for anyone interested in the stability of scientific names, because it seems that many of our long established systems of classification are wrong. I will try to give an overview of this field in as non-technical a manner as I can.
Although I will try not to be too technical, this talk is only suitable for an audience prepared for some scientific content.
British Orchids (N,G)
Great Britain has a limited number of native orchids, some quite common and some rare. Although hardy orchids don't have the flamboyancy of their tropical cousins, nevertheless many are very attractive, especially if seen close-up. The majority of the 50-odd British species are illustrated in this talk. Some are very rare (such as the Lady's-slipper), some are more common, but also small and insignificant (such as the Fen Orchid), and others are large and showy, such as the marsh-orchids.
Orchids of the European Mediterranean (N,G)
The countries around the Mediterranean have many more orchid species than those further north (although still very few compared to the tropics), so I can only try to show you a representative sample of the different groups, photographed from Andalucia in Spain through to Cyprus. The talk begins with a brief introduction to what makes orchids special before moving on to the orchids themselves. The variety of Mediterranean orchids is impressive: the tiny flowers of the Autumn Lady's-tresses; the sinister purple spikes of the Limodore; the bizarre flowers of the Adriatic Lizard-orchid; the striking Italian Man Orchid; and the strange sex-life of the bee-orchids.
The English name for plants in the genus Ophrys is 'bee-orchids'. A few species occur in the British Isles, but many more are found around the Mediterranean. To me, bee-orchids are the most fascinating of all plants – as I hope to convince you in this talk. Their sex lives are little short of scandalous; their flowers, although small, are full of character, especially when photographed in extreme close-up; their identification and naming is a nightmare. What more could an enthusiast ask for in a plant? (Note: the audience will need some tolerance for botanical terms and Latin names.)
Spring in the European Mountains (N,G)
Tom Macintosh, who died some years ago, was a friend of mine who shared my enthusiasm for wildflowers and alpine gardening. After he retired, he made a number of journeys through Europe with his caravan, studying and photographing the scenery and wildlife as he went. By selecting from the thousands of slides he left me, I have put together a journey which follows the spring in the European mountains, from its beginnings in Greece, through what was then Yugoslavia, then along the Alps to France. Alpine flowers and scenery are special features of this talk.
Flowers of the Mediterranean (G,N)
The lands bordering the northern shores of the Mediterranean host a unique and spectacular collection of wildflowers, particularly in spring. In this talk I show some of the plants which are widespread and which you might see when on holiday. (Note: there is obviously some overlap between this talk and the more geographically localized ones listed below.)
Wild Flowers of Tenerife: from desert to cloud forest (N,G)
The Spanish island of Tenerife is perhaps the most dramatic of the Canary islands. Its still active volcano, Mount Teide, is higher than any peak in the Pyrenees. In the south, conditions are desert-like with euphorbias growing like cacti. In parts of the north, constant clouds produce moist forests draped with Spanish Moss. In size and colour, few of Tenerife's wild flowers match those cultivated in its parks and gardens, but they are full of interest – if often unfamiliar to those more used to the flowers of Europe.
Wild Flowers of Gran Canaria (N,G)
The scenery of Gran Canaria is less dramatic than that of Tenerife, but still full of interest, from the desert-like south to the greener slopes of the centre and north. Some of the wild flowers are found in the other islands of the Canaries, but some are unique to Gran Canaria, which also hosts the Botanical Gardens of the Canary Islands.
Flowers of the Western Algarve (N,G)
The Algarve – the southern-most part of Portugal – is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the more placid Mediterranean Sea. As a result, its flowers form an interesting mixture of species: some common throughout southern Europe, others unique to the Algarve. The windswept heath around Cape St Vincent is particularly exciting to the wildflower lover, with sombre fritillaries and bold wild antirrhinums peeking up amongst dwarf shrubs. The peaceful inland hills away from the tourist areas are also interesting, not least for the way in which cork is harvested from the Cork Oak.
Andalucia in Spring (N,G)
The coastal strip of the Costa del Sol is ribbon of tourist development, packed with apartment blocks and hotels. Yet only a few miles inland, holiday-makers disappear, leaving splendid scenery full of flowers in early Spring. The eroded limestone rocks of El Torqual contrast with the rounded hills around Ronda. Plants range from orchards of avocados to the miniature beauty of bee-orchids.
Flowers of Majorca (N,G)
The Spanish island of Majorca is often packed with holiday-makers from northern Europe. Yet off the beaten track, and in the mountains which run down the eastern side, many wildflowers can be found. Orchids abound in the spring.
Flowers of Ibiza (N,G)
Ibiza in summer is crowded with holiday-makers of all ages, but especially the young enjoying its massive discos – one being the largest in Europe. In early spring, a very different island can be enjoyed. Ibiza is greener than most Mediterranean islands, having a high proportion of pine woodland. The range of flowers may be less than on the mainland or larger islands, but from the sea coast to inland woodland, much of interest can be found.
Summer Flowers in the Swiss Alps (N,G)
The Bernese Oberland in Switzerland – particularly the area between Interlaken and the Eiger – is well-known both for winter skiing and summer tourism. Cog railways and cable cars, plus well-marked footpaths, make this an easy area to explore. The flowers of the higher alpine meadows (around 2000 metres) last well into August, and offer both a riot of colour and glimses of minature plants familiar to alpine gardening enthusiasts.
Summer Flowers of North-West Slovenia (N,G)
Slovenia is the most northerly of the countries created from former Yugoslavia, bordering Austria to the north and Italy to the West. The north-west (the district of Primorska) is dominated by the Soca river – possibly the most beautiful river in Europe. From the river valley to the snow-clad Julian mountains, the summer flowers are abundant and the scenery stunning.
Flowers of Greece (N,G)
The islands and the area around Athens and Thessaloniki are the areas of Greece most familiar to holiday-makers, but the other parts of Greece offer a wide-ranging flora. The hills of the Pelion run with streams, even in summer. The foothills of Mount Parnassus and Mount Olympus have orchids in abundance, with alpines flourishing higher up. The talk offers a whistle-stop tour of this botanically exciting country, concentrating on regions less commonly visited.
Flowers of the Aegean (N,G)
This is a slightly different 'take' on the previous talk (Flowers of Greece), with obvious overlaps. It explores the flowers of Greece clockwise around the Aegean from Lesbos southwards to Crete and then northwards to the Pelion.
Flowers of the Athens area (N,G)
Before retiring, I often travelled to Athens on business. Anyone who knows this busy, noisy and polluted metropolis may wonder if any wildlife survives. In fact, a wide variety of wildflowers can be found within at most a day's travel of the city centre. In countries like Greece, the main problem facing plants is not the cold of winter but the heat and drought of summer. By visiting the same place at different times of the year, it is possible to see how plants cope. Sites shown will range from monasteries within Athens to the ancient ruins of Delphi and Mycenae.
Flowers of Sámos (N,G)
The Greek island of Sámos is less well-known to British holiday-makers than many other islands in the Aegean. I have been fortunate to visit it a number of times as it plays host to part of the University of the Aegean. The birthplace of Pythagoras, Sámos is greener in summer than many of the Mediterranean islands. Away from tourist spots by the sea, its wild but peaceful interior is full of flowers, especially in spring.
Flowers of Rhodes (N,G)
The island of Rhodes (Ródos to its Greek inhabitants) lies in the south-east of the Aegean sea, just off the coast of Turkey. Rhodes has changed rulers many times in its troubled history. Although now firmly Greek and hence European, botanically Rhodes forms part of Asia Minor. Some fascinating flowers are found there, including a rare bee-orchid. As with most places in Greece, historical and botanical sites are often one and the same.
Flowers of Eastern Crete (N,G)
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. Both its size and its southerly position mean that the flowers found there are somewhat different from those found in other parts of Greece. In this talk, I will show some of the countryside and its plants accessible by car from the tourist resort of Ágios Nikólaos. Parts of Crete are changing rapidly; the windmills and threshing machines of the Lasíthi plateau may soon vanish – if they haven't already.
Flowers and Landscapes of Western Cyprus (N,G)
Cyprus is botanically one of the richest areas in the Mediterranean, combining an island location with proximity to the Anatolian mainland. Orchids in particular abound in the spring. From Paphos, we will explore the coastline and then climb the Troodos Mountains, past the ski club, to the summit with its alpine flora including Crocus cyprius. Easter festivities and a miscellany of flowers conclude the visit to this fascinating island with its tragic recent history.
Flowers and Landscapes of the Canadian Rockies (N,G)
The Canadian Rockies are a popular tourist destination, both in summer and for winter skiing. Although some of the flowers found there occur in other mountainous northern regions (including Europe), the scale of the Rockies is very different from the European Alps. The talk ranges from the cowboys of the Calgary Stampede to the wilderness of Northern Alberta, with visits to glaciers in between.
Malaysia and its Wildlife (G)
I first visited Malaysia in the 1980s, to teach at a higher education centre on the island of Penang. In the last few years I have regularly visited the country again, this time as an external examiner for degree programmes. The varied cultures of the people, the countryside and the wildlife are all of great interest, from the quiet tea plantations in the hills to the bustle of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The rapid spread of oil palm plantations raises some serious conservation issues.
Introduction to Spiders (N)
Spiders are, to me, a fascinating group of animals. Their use of silk is considered to be a major reason for their success. Their webs can be masterpieces of engineering, and the sheer number of webs visible in an autumn mist can be overwhelming. However, many groups of spiders, such as wolf spiders, crab spiders and jumping spiders, have abandoned webs altogether. This talk introduces spiders, covering their classification and anatomy, and showing some of the species common around where I live in Sutton Coldfield. The talk is aimed at natural history groups (and is not suitable for arachnophobes!).
Five Days in the Galįpagos Islands (G, N)
The Galįpagos, now part of Ecuador, are a volcanic group of islands in the Pacific straddling the Equator. Like many isolated islands, they support some unique species, including marine iguanas, land birds and cacti. Charles Darwin visited in 1835, and his observations later provided part of the inspiration for the development of his theory of natural selection. Most parts of the islands are strictly protected, with visitor numbers and access limited. I was fortunate to be able to spend five exciting days cruising around some of the islands, observing and photographing the wildlife.
(Donation to the Galapagos Conservation Trust.)
Darwin and the Galįpagos (N)
"Galįpagos – the islands that inspired Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution", or so said David Attenborough in the BBC's Galapagos, Islands of Change. In this talk, I explore the connection between Charles Darwin and the Galįpagos, which I visited in 2015. The geology of the islands provide a natural laboratory in which to explore how species change over time. Iguanas and cacti offer good examples of species change in action. Where Darwin visited before he reached the Galįpagos turns out to be of great importance, as it enabled him to reach important conclusions. Was Attenborough right? I end with my view.
This talk is a good follow-up to "Five Days in the Galįpagos Islands", but can be understood by itself.
(Donation to the Galapagos Conservation Trust.)