Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 15, 2018

The Greater World of Little Things

I’ll be giving a presentation of my latest book

‘The Greater World of Little Things’


Essex Wildlife Trust, Southend and Rochford Group


Belfairs Woodland Centre

Eastwood Road North, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. SS9 4LR.

Free entry

Click here for more event info

Click here for more book info

Front cover WLT

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 12, 2018


Orang-utan baby 5 (scaled)

Back to Borneo and Sepilok.  The place is perhaps most well-known for the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. Established in 1964 it rescues baby Orang-utans, whether orphaned by logging, habitat destruction (often for the vast oil palm plantations), hunting or being kept illegally as pets. The Centre trains the young apes up in the nursery, as their mothers would in the wild, to prepare for life in the forest.

Orang-utan 13 (scaled)

Rehabilitated Orang-utan are released into the 4294 hectare forest reserve. Feeding takes place twice a day at the Centre, too which the residents can come and go as they please. Some will always return, others are not seen again, taking fully to life in the wild. Occasionally the regular supply of food attracts fully wild animals, like this huge male who, we were told, never went through the system (they can be identified by numbers tattooed onto their arms).

Sun Bear climbing (scaled)

Opposite the Orang-tuan centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. This rescues Sun Bears that can be kept in abysmal conditions, often for the deplorable harvesting of their bile, apparently highly valued as a supposed Chinese medicine.

Parthenos sylvia - Clipper 2 (scaled)

There is, of course, a great deal else to be seen here, like the beautiful Clipper butterfly (Parthenos sylvia) for starters.

Neurothemis ramburii (scaled)

The stunning dragonfly, Neurothemis ramburii is common.

Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax) (scaled)

A night walk at the Orang-utan Centre reveals more of the great diversity of forest life, perhaps more so than in the daytime, thanks to the keen eyes of the guides. This Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax) is one of many species of frog at large in the darkness.

Western Tarsier (scaled)

A nocturnal visit to the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre revealed more oddities of the forest, not least this Western Tarsier. These curious-looking little primates (about 12-15cm long) are insectivores, with huge eyes adapted for hunting in the dark. It was a privilege indeed to be able to lay our own eyes on one.

Whip Scorpion - Hypoctonus sp. (prob) 2 (scaled)

Smaller life abounds, including these superb Whip-scorpions (Hypoctonus sp.). Their long front legs can be used with such deftness that they can feel in the dark for their prey without the victim even knowing it is being touched.

Hornbill Tower view (scaled)

A visit in the daylight and a climb up the many steps of the Hornbill Tower reveals the beauty of the rain-forest from a lofty perspective……

Darter 7 (scaled)

…… and fine views of some the forest bird-life, like the positively reptilian Darter, as sleek and as streamlined as an aquatic predator of fish should be.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 2, 2018

Poles Apart

Crouch Estuary Hullbridge - snow (scaled)

A true Arctic blast over the Crouch Estuary in Essex

Strange to be one moment editing photos of a Southern Hemisphere summer so recently experienced in New Zealand, or indeed writing posts on the balmy tropical climes of Borneo, then the next turning thoughts to a genuine taste of an Arctic winter, currently being experienced by the UK at present.  But there it is.  From images of gleaming Kiwi coasts and teeming equatorial forest, to musings of a land clenched with cold.  One small way in which travel enriches our experience of things beyond the initial geographical context of being in different places.

And true enough, the Arctic has extended its influence, temporarily beyond that of the warming Gulf Stream. It is a long while since I have seen salt-water freeze, but that is what I found along the salt-marsh fringes of the River Crouch a couple of days ago.  While some may be reading this in such wintry realms as the northern US states, Canada or Scandinavia and wondering quite what the fuss is all about, our taste of deep, deep winter has been asking questions, human inhabitants aside. of the UK residents.

Another journey into work on another sub-zero morning was all required to yield a couple of locally unusual wildlife sightings.  Firstly, a Brown Hare in nearby farmland, betrayed mid-field by the snowy expanse.  They occur more widely just across the river beyond its northern shore, but this was the first I had seen hereabouts for 20 years.  Then further on the journey to school a Buzzard circling over rough grassland on the edge of a retail estate; again, not especially unusual in the wider sense, but an unexpected occurrence on this occasion.  Two signs perhaps of creatures having to work all the harder for the difficulty of finding food.

The biggest surprise of all was to come.  It was a Woodcock.  Once more, nor entirely unexpected.  The UK receives increased numbers of these resident, woodland-dwelling wading birds, with winter migrants visiting from Europe and boosting the population from around 100,000 birds to well over a million.  Most of them however, don’t descend on a suburban garden next to a supermarket car park.  Yet I found myself watching one  foraging around the flower-pots and washing-line pole in my parents small back garden.  I have seen many a woodcock before, usually inadvertently flushed explosively from the woodland floor and its beautifully cryptic concealment, or occasionally on their twilight ‘roding’ courtship flights around some woodland clearing.  But this was the first time I had actually watched one about its business, probing through the snow and into the soil with that long sensitive bill, feeling out the abundant earthworms hidden therein.  The first time also that I have had the opportunity to admire at leisure the beautiful barred and russet-brown plumage that affords them such superb camouflage among the leaf-litter of their more orthodox woodland homes.  Fortunately my brother was on hand to capture some shots through the living room window……

Chris' Woodcock (scaled)

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola). Chris Gardner 2018.              Vira Natura Tours

Chris Woodcock (scaled)

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) with prey. Chris Gardner 2018. Vira Natura Tours


Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 23, 2018

In the thick of it

Lupa Masa camp 2 (scaled)

Lupa Masa, translated from Malay into English, means ‘Forget Time’.  It is also the name of the jungle camp near Poring where we spent four days after leaving the slopes of Mount Kinabalu.  And for our stay there ‘forget time’ we certainly did; time and a lot more besides.

Poring is not the largest of places to begin with, a village that presumably does well due to the well-known hot springs of the same name.  An hour’s hike from there into the jungle and we were certainly starting to feel ‘off the beaten track’.  A thousand metres or so closer to sea-level than our location at Kinabalu was given us rather more of a taste of the Bornean heat and humidity.  Here we would be given a memorable jungle experience.

The camp consists of an unassuming collection of huts and camping platforms located in verdant secondary forest on the very, tantalising fringes of virgin jungle literally right alongside.  Facilities are… well, basic – squat toilets and a river for washing in.  Basic yes, but it must be said that we were looked after very well indeed by our guides, who served up freshly prepared and cooked food for every meal.

Bornean Horned Frog 2 (scaled)

The superbly camouflaged Bornean Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta).

The walking tracks available are limited close to the immediate surrounds of the camp, but we wanted for nothing more.  Trails led up the slope to the boundary of the virgin forest, along which we could walk but not enter.  They led down to the clear, rushing water of the river and up to the waterfall.  We needed nothing more, as it was the feeling of immersion that stimulated the sense and satisfied the thirst for discovery.

And at any rate, much there was there to be discovered. Giant millipedes 20cm long and tree climbing agamid lizards. The languid grace of huge Nymph butterflies floating through the understorey and little Tailorbirds flitting around the camp. A bundle of leaves moves across the forest floor and becomes a frog; the Bornean Horned Frog – a stunning demonstration of beautiful camouflage perfected through the ages.

Our short time here proved one of biggest highlights during our time overseas on our Big Trip. If you should ever find yourself passing……

Bronchocela cristatella - Green Crested Lizard (scaled)

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) – an agile climber.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 11, 2018


Crouch Estuary, Hullbridge

The stark beauty of the winter estuarine landscape (River Crouch, Essex)

From the warm comfort of home, sorting through images of hot and humid Borneo, to the wintry chill of an English marshland offers an unsurprisingly sharp contrast.  But in need of a blast, today this is exactly what I did.  The tropical forest has wonders, almost, it seems, at every turn, such is the density of life within them.  It is a starker beauty that resides over an Essex estuary in February, but a true beauty nevertheless.

A keen wind rendered the relative mildness of 6 or 7 degrees celsius almost academic, gusting in across the expanse of salt-marsh and grey river water with cheek-stinging efficiency.  A blast was what I wanted and a blast was what I would get.  Such trifles of the weather though, had little evident effect on the quantity of birdlife strewn across the mud exposed by the receding tide, although perhaps even they were given to more of a huddle than usual.  But still the Dunlin scurried and delved, the Teal shuffled along the water’s edge and the Lapwing wheeled over the grazing marsh beyond the opposite bank.

Even with presence of some 90 or so Avocet lined up along the wind-ruffled ebb, the Golden Plover were arguably the most worthy of particular note.  Maybe 400 gathered closely over a small of area of mud, confiding on the ground as they would a flock in the air.  They of course lacked the more striking, black-fronted summer plumage, such as might be seen in the UK on their upland breeding grounds; upwards of 50,000 pairs might breed in Britain, with numbers of individuals quadrupling with winter migrants from the further north.  Yet even now, garbed in their winter drabs, they retain much about them to still warrant the name.

Golden Plover flock 2 (scaled)

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria). Ross Gardner 2018.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | February 4, 2018

Mount Kinabalu Park

View from Kinabalu Park (scaled)

The wooded hills around Kinabalu Park.

What better place for us get our walking boots back on (literally and metaphorically) as we acclimatised to our new surroundings?  Kinabalu Park was one the first national parks to be established in Malaysia back in 1964.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and not without considerably good reason.  The giant peak of the eponymous mountain encompasses four climatic with all the vegetative variety (including around 4,500 species of plant!) that goes with it, comprising an area that many would describe as unique.  Indeed, of the 61 species of birds endemic to Borneo Kinabalu Park is noted in the excellent ‘Phillips’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’ as being the best location to find 20 of them.

We did not climb the mountain, but explored the wonderfully rich forested slopes around the Park HQ at around 1500 metres. Endemic birds we did see – the Treepie of a previous post, Bornean Whistler, two species of laughing thrush and Bornean Forktail among others.  There was, as will come as no great surprise, plenty more forest creatures to be discovered.

One of these was an oddity indeed, a beetle by the name of Platerdrilus paradoxa, one of the so-called trilobite beetles.  The male insect is small (less than a centimetre long) and typically beetle-like in appearance.  The female however, is to say the least, quite different.  She is huge by comparison, perhaps by 8 times the length of the male.  But more peculiarly, she maintains her larval form throughout her life.  The resulting creatures is impressively striking.

Platerodrilus paradoxa (scaled)

A female Platerodrilus paradoxa – one of the trilobite beetles.

These forest are mysterious places, where so much more seems to be heard than seen.  This a truism, I suppose, of any indigenously wooded area, but something especially evident here.  On several occasions we would see nothing and hear little for lengthy periods as we walked forest trails, to suddenly find ourselves amidst the flurry of small birds moving through the understorey; a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch perhaps, on the move with fantails and minivets, much the same as the common European species does with the mixed tit-flocks in a British winter wood.  A flurry which after a few minutes might disappear as abruptly as it arrived.  Where the trees meet the open sunshine, such bursts of activity included the smaller wings of the butterflies, partrolling the forest edges.  Many species would flit frustratingly in and out of view, offering a brief and tantalising taste of the natural treasures that hopefully awaited us during a time in Borneo as we made our way eastwards through Sabah.  Some, it has to be said, were more obliging than others……

Kaniska canace - Blue Admiral (scaled)

……. this splendid Blue Admiral (Kaniska canace) was anything but camera-shy.



Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 28, 2018

To the mountain

Kinabalu Mountain lodge view (scaled)

An agreeable view from Kinabalu Mountain Lodge

Borneo bound and the Malaysian state of Sabah on the north of the third largest island in the world.

After a 32 hour door to door journey, first to Kuala Lumpur, then (including a 7 hour wait for the connecting flight) on to Kota Kinabalu, we reckoned that lower reaches of the mighty  (4,101 metres above sea level) Mount Kinabalu would be a good place to spend a few days while dealing with the jet-lag and acclimatising to the humid heat of Borneo.  Staying at the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge at around 1500 metres meant that the temperature was a good few degrees cooler than in the sweltering lowlands and also ensured a none too shabby view of the forested slopes.  It also offered a splendid, initial opportunity to experience some of Borneo’s famed biodiversity.  Without even leaving the lodge we could watch huge  birdwing butterflies and a variety of bird life, such as the strikingly plumaged Temminck’s Sunbird, the endemic Bornean Treepie and the abiding Ashy Drongo.

Bornean Treepie (scaled)

The Bornean Treepie (Dendrocitta cinerascens), an endemic bird of the montane forests of Borneo.

And the moths, oh the moths!  A single outside light was all that was need to create a superb moth wall.  Geeky bliss indeed!  And what fraction of the total was the mere 70 or so species observed? What beauties to.  From the cryptically coloured noctuid and lean-winged geometers instantly recognisable as relatives of their European counterparts, to the huge, leaf-shaped Eupterote and others still unidentified.  Chuck in a few mantid and stick-insects and a gecko or two and there was scarcely any need to leave the place.  But leave it we of course did.  The Kinabalu National Park was, after all, a few minutes down the road……

Moth Wall at Kinabalu Mountain Lodge (scaled)

Moths glorious moths……

Eupterote asclepiades in hand (scaled)

…… including the impressive Eupterote asclepiades.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | January 16, 2018

Back again

Back to the blog!  Having enjoyed a couple of months sabbatical from keyboard commitments while travelling in Borneo and New Zealand, I’ll be posting regularly again with a mixture of UK and overseas posts.

We sure did see some stuff!  From heaving tropical forest brimming with life to stunning snow-topped apline scenery, wild and windswept coast and the broad swept of equatorial river.  From whip scorpions to sperm whales, mountain parrots to proboscis monkeys, tree swifts to takahe.

Amazing stuff and an experience of a lifetime!  But even having returned from a southern hemisphere summer to the chill of an English winter, a heartening thought occurred to me.  While walking among that wonderful bleakness of an Essex marshland I reaffirmed the importance of such familiar homely places among the ranks if the wild splendours I have recently had the great fortune to witness.  I’m not suggesting a like-for-like comparison between them, such are their differences in both their biodiversity and physical expanse, but the modest realms of my bolt-holes and local haunts occupy as significant a place in my own mental landscape of the world as anywhere else.

Kinabalu Park forest 2 (scaled)

Ashy Drongo 5 (scaled)


Redshank (3) (scaled)

The forested, cloud-topped slopes of Mount Kinabalu (top) with their Ashy Drongo and Redshank (bottom) haunted Essex marsh – each with their own kind of beauty.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 24, 2017

A Brief Anglia Odyssey

The final leg of The Big Trip road trip took us to the fair county of Norfolk with a bit of Suffolk on the way……

Little Stint 2 (scaled)

Some time spent by the Suffolk coast at the beginning of October included a look in on the RSPB’s famous Minsmere nature reserve. Somewhere always presenting the possibility of the more unusual, this occasion allowed a half decent shot of a Little Stint (Calidris minuta). The second part of the scientific name is indeed apt; these tiny waders are about the size of a sparrow. They mostly occur in the UK on their spring and autumn passage, to and from breeding grounds in the High Arctic tundra.

Clouded Yellow - Minsmere (scaled)

There were also migrants of a different kind. This stunning Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) was amazingly obliging for the camera. Visitors to Britain fly up from Southern Europe and North Africa and can potential turn up anywhere across the country. They will breed freely here, but almost always fail to survive our winter.

Pink-footed Geese (over Horsey) (scaled)

On to Norfolk and a wildlife spectacle I was particularly looking forward to was the huge gatherings of Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) that amass around the Norfolk coast for the winter. Tens of thousands of birds, usually totalling well over 100,000 for the county, gather from Arctic breeding grounds. We only had to get as far as the Norfolk Broads at Horsey for our first encounter.

Chinese Water Deer 2 (scaled)

Even without its rare butterflies and dragonflies on the wing, the autumn Broads and their bordering habiats are still full of wildlife and wonderful places to explore. One of six species of deer living wild in the UK, this Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis) was one of a pair seen at Upton Marshes. The English population of these small (about 1m long) oriental deer is derived from early 20th century escapees from zoos and collections.

Salthouse Marshes (scaled)

The extensive marshlands of the north coast of Norfolk, such as here at Salthouse Marsh have a satisfyingly wild feel about them. The great flocks of geese that gather along their length always seem to bring their part of the Arctic wilderness with them, but they teem with all sorts of wintering birdlife…..

Ruff (scaled)

A host of other waterfowl and wading birds enliven the marshes, like this Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), taken at Titchwell Marsh. Sadly, outside the breeding season the males lack the elaborate ‘ruff’ of head and neck feathers that gives these birds their name.

Holme Beach 4 (scaled)

The Norfolk coast is justly known for its wide open, sandy beaches. No visit here, for us, is quite complete without a trip to Holme Beach and its bordering dunes……

Dune Tiger Beetle (scaled)

The sun shone for us and while we sat in the lea of a low dune, watching the scattered shorebirds, a surprise companion appeared on the sand beside us. It was a superb Dune Tiger Beetle (Cicindela maritima), a scarce and locally distributed UK insect. A close look at the powerful jaws reveals these as predatory beetles. Rapid progress across the grains makes them most effecient hunters of the other, smaller insects that also inhabit the dunes and sandy beaches that these beetles call home.

And so, as the road trip ends Borneo and New Zealand beckon…….

Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 15, 2017

The Peak and Beyond

The Big Trip returns to England after a fine time indeed in Wales.  First stop the Peak District……

Chee Dale (scaled)

The Peak National Park – spanning the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire – is an area of contrast. To the north is a hard landscape, of gritstone moorland, where the Pennines rise and extend into the rugged spine of Northern England. To the south is a softer country, where rivers have cut into green hills, carving valleys and gorges into the yielding limestone rock beneath, such us here at the very lovely Chee Dale, through which the River Wye runs…..

Dipper (scaled)

…… and birds like the Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) glean their living. These are birds of swift-flowing rivers. They take their name from the habit of bobbing or ‘dipping’ on boulders and their sustenance from the small invertebrates in and around the water, even swimming fully submerged in pursuit of their prey. No upland river is complete without its Dipper.

Trough of Bowland - Langden 4 (scaled)

Moving further North and to the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. This is the Trough of Bowland, with the Langden Brook winding its way beneath dark, heather-clad hills, a wonderfully remote and little-mentioned corner of upland Britain.

Malham Cove (scaled)

A short way north again and the larger expanse of the Yorkshire Dales National Park awaits, a splendid swathe of moorland and limestone hills, the latter scarcely more impressively exhibited than at the much-visited Malham Cove.

Malham Cove - limestone pavement (scaled)

This part of the county is famous for its areas of limestone pavement, curious looking rock-from of horizontal slabs of fissured stone. Its formation is the result of glaciers during the last Ice Age scouring away the upper surface of the land to expose the rock underneath. Once exposed this rock is then vulnerable to the weathering caused by naturally acidic rain. This is what creates the fissures (known as grykes) along weak points in the soluble limestone bed.

Harebell (and pavement) 2 (scaled)

These grykes provide niches for a range of often scarce plants. The Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) may not be rarity, but was still no less of a delight to discover growing among the rock.

Grey Heron in river 2 (scaled)

Back south once again through the Peaks and again also to the wonderful River Wye and more close-encounters with its wildlife. This Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) was the very image of stalking concentration, staring among the ripples of the ever-restless surface.


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