The Giara of Gesturi is an incredible place, a place without time, a place where you can think to live in another world, with nature still intact, high voltage pylon a part!! That place hosts the last wild horses in Europe, or at least the Internet said that, and I want to verify if it's true. But, let's crack on!!
The Giara is a large plateau near the Gesturi village, in the middle of Sardinia, in an area called "Medio campidano". The environment of the area is quite green, I mean that there are several woods, made by the typical trees of that area, the cork oak, even though there are other kinds of plants, like Mediterranean scrub and grassland. During the summer the plateau is really hot, and everywhere is dry, trees apart, so for the horses is quite challenging to survive, but they have been living there for ages, so I think they have found a way to live. Instead during the winter and spring, the best period, in my opinion, there's a lot of water. In fact, they born many small lakes, or ponds as you prefer, where the horses stay during the daytime for eating and refresh themselves.
The area is really big, it's about 4400 hectares, so it means about 45 square kilometres, and it's about 550 meters on sea level. The plateau can be visited only by foot or by bike (if you haven't got one, you can rent a bike from a man that lives in the area), so during the hot days, you'll need to carry on enough water for the whole hike, because, as far as I know, there aren't sources of potable water. In theory, there should be a bar but was closed, so it had better not to think of it.
The Giara has formed about 2 million years ago: at the end of the Miocene, due to tectonic movements and the closure of the Mediterranean Sea, the sea retreated and in the following period, the Pliocene, the craters of Zepparedda and Zeppara Manna emerged, still clearly visible, that two eruptions of lava flows, which occurred in the two different phases at a distance of 700 years from each other, covered the existing valley forming a large basaltic plain. This would not explain why the plateau is currently in an elevated position with respect to the surrounding hills: in reality, it was not the plateau that rose but the neighbouring territory that was eroded by atmospheric agents and waterways. The plateau was preserved from erosion as basalt is a very resistant rock. The phenomenon just described is called the inversion of the relief.
The most spectacular environments of the Giara are certainly the Paulis: temporary and shallow marshes where rainwater stagnates. They are found in correspondence with depressions of the lava flow: the rock flaking gave rise to an impermeable clayey layer that retains the water until the summer season. There are about thirty of various sizes with a depth ranging from 30 to. Unique habitats of their kind, covered in spring by aquatic buttercups, the Paulis are home to numerous living species including the Sardinian tree frog and the green toad, as well as two small crustaceans considered real living fossils: the Lepidurus apus and the Triops cancriformis that have kept their genetic background unchanged for 5 million years ; the eggs of these arthropods, laid in summer, hatch with the first spring rains.
The geographical position of the Giara, its conformation of impermeable nature and the mistral winds give life to a unique vegetation of its kind. Its surface is covered for 46% by woods, 32% by Mediterranean scrub, 9% by garrigue, 10% by grasslands and the remaining 3% by paulis.
The characteristic wood is the cork oak while the wood formations of oak or holm oak are less frequent.
The Mediterranean scrub is characterized by shrubs such as cistus (Cistus monspeliensis), in Sardinian muldegu: it was used to cover the pinnetas, but the ancients used its leaves to apply them on painful muscles and joints; the mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), in Sardinian modditzi, from whose berries an oil used to power the lamps was extracted; its resistant and flexible branches were also used for making baskets; the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) whose sweet red berries have strong laxative properties and from whose flowers an appreciated bitter honey is obtained; myrtle (Myrtus communis), in Sardinian fine, from which the well-known liqueur is obtained, is also used in the kitchen to flavor roasts; the wild pear (Pyrus amygdaliformis), in Sardinian pirastu; the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), in Sardinian pruniscedda; helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), known as scova de Santa Maria, is a strongly aromatic plant with emollient properties: legend has it that Mary placed the clothes of Jesus to dry on this plant with sun-yellow flowers, and from this it would be born the intense scent vaguely reminiscent of licorice.
The garrigue is mainly composed of wild mint (Mentha pulegium), used to keep insects away from humans and rubbed on dogs to keep fleas away, from euphorbia (Euphorbia dendroides) and the rarer (Euphorbia cupanii), in Sardinian lua , a plant used in ancient times for poaching, from whose leaves a white latex comes out which, when thrown into rivers, stuns the fish, allowing them to be caught.
The most frequent grasslands are those of asphodel (Asphodelus microcarpus), in Sardinian cadilloni.
Of course, the stars are them, the horses. So far, there are about 500 horses on the plateau, and the number is stable throughout the years. They live with others animals, like cows and sheep. But there are other wild animals, like foxes, buzzards, kestrels, jays, coots, martens, wild cats and some kinds of reptiles.
In past centuries the horses lived in the wild but during the threshing period, they were captured and used in agricultural work. The small size of the pony led the owners to cross them with other breeds to increase their size; this prompted the region of Sardinia in the seventies of the twentieth century to start a selective recovery program to restore its primitive characteristics. The ownership of the herds is now divided between municipalities, the region and finally private individuals who own only a small part of them.
Currently, about 500 achettas live on the plateau and this number remains constant without affecting the balance with the territory and with the farm animals (cattle, goats, sheep and pigs) with which they have lived for some time.
The characteristics of the Giara horse are almond-shaped eyes, long mane, short stature that varies at the withers starting from 120 cm and weight that varies between 150 and 200 kg. In many specimens, there is also a particular tuft that descends along the forehead almost to hide the eyes. The animal has adapted to the environment by developing small and particular hooves, perfect for stony ground. They live in the wild, with an average life expectancy between 15 and 20 years compared to 40 for a normal horse. The coats present are the bay, the morello and the sorrel, respectively in percentages of 65%, 30% and 5%. The bay has a reddish coat, black mane and tail; the black is completely dark; the chestnut has a red coat and a blond mane and tail. In Sardinian, they are called cuaddedus or achettas. They live in herds of 4-6-8 females and 1 stallion. The females give birth in spring, after a gestation that lasts 11 months, and one week after the birth they can be fertilized again. The foals, when they reach the fertile age around 3 years, are chased away from the herd by the stallion; it is therefore not uncommon to see small groups of 4/5 stallions looking for their own harem. Each group occupies an area of about 50/80 hectares.
Their behaviours are typical of wild horses, where the stallions try to have a harem and sometimes battle with the other for the females. Seeing them in nature has no price. The best places to see them are the small ponds, rich in vegetations that they eat and fresh themselves. The ponds are surrounded by a lot of bushes, where hide, even though if you stay quiet, they don't get in trouble. In fact, on some occasion some horse came really near to me, I think about 10 meters or less, so really exciting, mostly if they were stallions!!!.
During the photography session, I've taken a lot of pictures, but these are the most remarkable, in my opinion:
The foal were really cute and nice, and the adult, mostly the stallions, were massive and impressive, quite nervous sometimes, but never dangerous. On some occasions two horses have been interested by my presence, but only for a few minutes, seeing that I wasn't a danger for them. In fact, I stayed all the time in the same place, sat down on a rock watching them without moving, so they started to ignore me.
In the area, there also is a nuraghe, or at least the remains of it. Unfortunately, there are only a circle and a group of stones, but I think it was a big and beautiful nuraghe in past. For sure the stones have been used to make the typical long wall to delimit an area, losing so the beauty of the nuraghe. But all the area included the villages around, are full of ancient stuff, like the most famous nuraghe in Sardinia, I mean "su nuraxi" in Barumini village. That place is a concentrate of history, with a big and wonderful village around the main nuraghe, a superb view of how capable the ancient Sardinian inhabitants were.
If you are also interested in landscape photography, I think the best period is the winter and the spring. During the winter it could snow, making the plateau magic, or during the rainy days, you can photograph some waterfall, like the "sa spendula della Giara", a small waterfall active only with rains. If you want you can ask a guide the Giara Park, that will show the best place in the area.
My staying there has been exciting and rewarding. I've never seen the Giara's horses, and I think everybody should see them once in a life. I hope to get back there really soon, maybe in winter with the snow, if I can.
Thanks to a Juza's user and of his suggestion, I've update this article adding some scientific info about the little owls.
Scintific name: Athene noctua
Common name: little owl
Species: A. noctua
Distribution and habitat
The distribution of this birds is widespread across Europe, Asia and North Africa, but in some countries has been introduced by man; for example in New Zealand and in United Kingdom. The little owl is a sedentary species and can be found almost everywhere using many different range of habitats. The most used habitats are countrysides with open space areas or near small woodlands, but they can live in urban habitats, like city parks or garden, if the enviroment is pretty quiet. But it can be found also in sandy lands and stony semi-deserts, as well as rocky lands and old ruins. More difficult in high mountains, although it's been seen in Tibet.
The little owls can use differents kind of nests, as ground holes, pile of stones, trees, or old countryside ruins. I've never seen them in urban context, but it might be possible, so if you have some news about that, please tell me.
They are carnivorous, and their usual preys are small mammals, like mice, anphibians, like geko, worms and big insects, like grasshoppers. Food in excess sometime is stored in the nest. The indigested food is expelled as a wad, that basically is a mix of bones and feathers. The analysis of the wads permits to understand the preys kind, in fact it's a study method used by biologists.
Behaviour and ecology
It's a territorial animal and it defends, when it can, its nest and hunting area, mostly during the breading season. In that period the male hunts for the female, during the while she stays in the nest, but when the chicks are quite indipendent both parents hunt for them. When they are in danger, they emit particular noises, to warn the mate and/or the chicks, so they can hide themselves.
Photographing little owls can be challenging, mostly if you don't know where to find them. But I'm going to give you some advice in order to take owls' pictures respecting their safety, that's the most important aspect that you always have to remember. I've already written a short articleabout photographing the little owls, but this time I'd like to talk about others aspect of how to approach the wildlife.
What to use to hide by the little owls?
In many years of wildlife photography, I've learnt that the little owls are less worried about your presence than you'd be expected. But that doesn't mean that you don't have to care about it. I'll never quit saying that the most important thing, in wildlife photography, is the animals safe. And also in this case everything you do might be dangerous for them, so you have to take every precaution to minimize any trouble. But let's crack on the subject!!
Photo blinds are essential for photographing the little owls unless you are really lucky to have them at home But it wouldn't be the same thing... Anyway, there are two kinds of photo blind: commercial photo blinds and home-made photo blinds. It all depends on the situation because there might be many problems with using a photo blind. First of all the field where live the little owls. If it is private property it's always good to ask the owner, in order to get permission for building a fixed photo blind, or at least to get on in the field for taking pictures. I'm always honest with the owner and I always tell them the truth and my intention to build a photo blind, explaining that I'll take away everything when I'll finish photographing the owls. As you know that is a long process, and you'll need a long time for achieving your goals, so take in mind to build a sturdy blind, that can resist strong winds and rains, and hide you very well. This is not a write about building a photo blind, but I'll write something about it in the future, so stay tuned.
What's the main reason for building a fixed photo blind? For sure it's more comfortable because you don't need to take every time your portable photo blind, if you have got one. But the most important thing is that the little owls will get used to the presence of the photo blind day by day.
But if you can't build a fixed photo blind so you can only use a portable photo blind.
In the market, there are many models by different brands, but I'd like to advise you to get a Tragopanphoto blind. To be honest, they don't pay me for that, but their products are really good and really specific for wildlife photography and I've got one photo blind model really nice, light and useful, that I've been using for many years. Have a look at their website to check what they offer.
Every time I can't build a fixed photo blind, maybe because I don't know the field's owner or the field is really far from home, and I couldn't make the right maintenance, so I prefer to use my Tragopan. And don't forget to take a little chair, if you don't want to sit on the ground
What's the best moment to watch/photograph the little owls?
Little owls can be seen all over the year, fortunately. So, please try to not concentrate your attention only during the breeding season. I know the chicks are really cute, but there is always the chance that something goes wrong, so you should prefer the other period of the year. In my opinion, the best moment is during the spring when everywhere is green, there are flowers and nature is awaking, and, if you are really lucky, you might see the owls mating.
After that, you have found the place, or the nest, where they live/hunt and you've built the photo blind, if you can, the right time to go there and photograph them is during the night. As you know, little owls hunt during the night so they stay far from the next quite a long during that period, giving you the chance to arrive without being seen by them. Usually, I check the sunrise time sunrise the day before going to the owls, and I arrive at the place at least one hour and a half before the sunrise. That because there is always a moment of weak light before the sun come up, a moment where they might see you. And you always have to avoid it.
What behaviour should you have?
Your behaviours will influence the outcome of the photographic session. So I follow two main rules:
I don't put the photo blind too close to the nest, at a maximum of 5 or 6 meters far
I don't speak loud and I try to not make strong noises
But before that, I check for someday, from far with binoculars, the situation to understand their movement. When I have time I go there quite often, in order to be more sure, but if I can't I go only someday before, or at least the day before. After having checked the situation I prepare everything for the photographic session: all my gear, food, water and warm clothes!!! Yes, staying stop for many hours can be really challenging and you need to be always prepared for every weather condition, mostly with home-made photo blind that, usually, aren't protected from the rains.
Actually, there are other rules that you have to follow, such as not using alive prey to attract them. I find that practice really regrettable, even because the little owls often take their prey in the nest. I got some photos with the owls hunting and never using a pour mouse stuck somewhere, as some photographer do. I don't find it really ethical!!
Another aspect that you should think about is that you have to not advertise it, only for protecting them. Too many "wild" photographer get the owls in trouble, and it's never good. It's the same question to stuck alive animals. Many "wild" photographer will do everything for making the "perfect" photo of the year, but that's not the respect of nature.
So, keep in mind, first of all, it comes the owl's security than the photos.
Which lens to use to photograph the little owls
Considering the distance of the photo blind from the nest, you have many choices about which lens to use in wildlife photography. Staying at 5 or 6 meters far, using a 600mm you can almost fill the frame, having a really good image quality (I mean sharpness and bokeh). But I have to also to consider the owls' size, in fact, they are small so you might have a need to use a teleconverter, at least a 1.4x tc in order to have bigger subjects. Of course, having longer telephoto lenses will advantage you in many ways: you might stay further from the nest, or photograph also other small birds during the waiting. As you know prime lenses have the best in term of image quality and autofocus speed, but their fixed focal length could be sometimes a problem, so I prefer to use a zoom telephoto lens, like the Sony 100-400GM, if I'm quite near to the nest, or the Sony 200-600G if I'm further to the nest. With both lenses, I can also use the 1.4x teleconverter, so I can cover many situations, from portraits to landscapes pictures.
But you can also use a wide-angle lens for photographing the little owls, putting the camera very close to the nest, or the perch where they usually go or stay. In that case, should be a good idea to protect the camera with a camouflage neoprene cover for the humidity or the rain, but also for other birds or the little owls themselves. Of course, your camera will be far from you, so you'll need a remote control, like a wireless trigger or a smartphone if your camera allows that kind of connection, for controlling the camera and shooting as you need. In fact, in those situations, I use the Sony Edge Android app for controlling the Sony A7RII, or a wireless trigger, connected to the camera. In the market, there are many brands that offer lots of different models for any needs and pocket
When leaving the blind
Ok, it's time to go home, but the owls are still in the nest, or in the perch, so what have I to do? Nothing, you have to do!! Yes, the only chance for not scaring the little owls is waiting until they go away. Maybe they'll so in the nest, or they'll fly somewhere, you can't know it, but that is the right moment. Sometimes happens that a predator, like a buzzard or a marsh harrier, fly above frightening them and to stay safe they might go in the nest, as usual. So if you want to go away is the right moment. You would have to leave the blind quickly. If you are using a fixed blind, won't be a problem storing the camera in the backpack, differently with a portable photo blind you'll need to dismount everything, and it will take more time, so being fast is essential. Of course, there is the chance that the little owls go naturally somewhere, and if after some minute they don't get back, so you can leave the spot quietly.
So, remember, the less they see you, the less they will be in trouble.
Ok, I finished with this short guide. Naturally, it isn't exhaustive, there would be others aspect to consider, but to start photographing the little owls I think is enough. Below I put some pictures taken during the years to show you the result of my photo sessions using the techniques wrote before. If you want to ask me something don't hesitate to write at my emailor leave a comment in the section below. I also made a video that you can see from my channelor below this guide.
Here in Sardinia there's a spot where to watch and photograph easily the osprey. As every year, they come from the north Europe to pass here the winter season, and part of the spring as well. The most interesting aspect of that spot is that you can stay in your car for taking pictures. It's really easy and confortable, and you'll be able to going around the spot always using a car, without get the osprey in trouble. Unfortunately you'll scare the other birds in the place, because they aren't get used to see car too close to them. So, be careful during your driving across the road, going as much slow as possible. The other species living in the pond, are several, and there are cormorants, ducks, seagulls, marsh harriers, flamingos, common kestrels, common sandpipers, and many others.
So, if you're really interested in wildlifephotography, that is your spot!!
The ospreys group, is composed by several members. So far they are four, but some years ago they were seven. Probably it depends by many factors, one of them could be that someone goes somewhere else, instead coming here in Sardinia, or someone could die, unfortunately.
Talking with an another photographer, he told me that some osprey is coming from France, due to the tag ring that he has seen, but there is the German osprey, that comes here by many years. Actually I don't really know how much an osprey can live, even though I read somewhere, and I can't verify the source, that it can live about 20 years.
For this photographic session I used my favourite wildlife camera, the Sony A9. In my opinion is the best wildlife camera so far, due to its competitive price now in comparison with the many features, like the realiable AF system, the 20FPS burst and the silent shooting as well. Togheter with the Sony 200-600G they form a perfect union for wildlife photography.
But now it's time to see some pictures. At beginning I took some picture of flaminogs:
In this area the flamingos group isn't too numerous, maybe they are nearly one hundred. Despite the fact, it's quite easy to photograph them, because they are everywhere, I mean that you can find them on the left side of the pond, or on the right side, so it doesn't matter where you are sitting on the car, you'll have always the opportunity to see and photograph them. The photo above is part of a sequence taken with the Sony A9. The incredible thing is the every shot was in focus, despite I was using a monopod and I was inside the car, so not really comfortable for following a birds fliying. Anyway the camera has worked as I expected, ginving me the chance to choose the perfect shot. In some shot is also visible the identifier ring on the leg, sign of the good quality of the whole system.
After I took some pictures of the osprey. In that case I wasn't so lucky, despite there were two specimens of falcon and they were quite far. However, these are the pictures taken in two different place of the pond. The first one was in the middle of the water, quite near the beach, where the usually have a rest, or eat a fish. In the second one, the osprey was farer, near the ground, so the background was a bit messy.
To end with the sand piper:
This little guy was very confident, pretty near to the car, walking and eating something, and I was be able to take some nice picture really clear, like that. The sand piper in that pond is very common and often they form a small groups flying around the area, or in the small beaches of the pond, looking for food.
Despite it wasn't the first time that I went there, I took some new picture, mostly of the flamingos in flight, but it's always rewarding staying in place like that, so I hope to go there again as soon as possible hoping to capture some new picture of the osprey, maybe hunting some fish.
To end, if you are interested to go in that place, you need to be careful about the animals. Despite it's easy to see and photograph them from the car, it's always more safe for them if you stay in car, without get off. And as always, if you need a guide, or more information about anything, don't esitate to contact me.
In my YouTube channel I published the video as well of the journey, so please, subscribe to the channel if you don't have already made and leave me a comment.
Finally Sony has revealed its new camera, and never will be the same story. With this new monster Sony has created a new generation of Alpha camera, doing a step further in the mirrorless camera.
As a wildlife photographer having a complete silent shutter capable of shooting 30fps is very fantastic and woould give me the opportunity to capture every single moment of an action, like a bird taking off or a landing on a perch.
But you need to be careful, because its price it's very "professional", and it won't be for everybody, not me at least and not for now, unfortunately.
If you need a course about Adobe Photoshop and you don't know anyone, you have found the right person. I'm always available to help everybody for improving their graphic skills, and to teach how to use this wonderful software. Write me an email if you're interested.