Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 19, 2018

The Monarch

It still seems strange, when I find myself reflecting on our recent travels abroad, to consider that this time six months ago it was, well… summer; for July in the UK read January in New Zealand.  The thoughts of the butterflies that have recently been gracing these pages have taken themselves back to that mid-winter summer (!) and wings of its own.

The wings in question belong to the Monarch, that butterfly of the Americas made justly famous for an incredible migration that carries it from as for north as Canada to wintering grounds in Central America.  There are traditional hibernating sites in Mexico where areas coniferous forest are burnished with the deceptively autumnal tint of millions of dormant, orange and black wings hung in great clusters from the branches.  It is a power of flight that with the aid of favourable wind has taken them across oceans.  They have, for example, colonised the Canary Islands and might also have done the same in the UK had their larval foodplant ever been in ready supply.  And they have, of course, also found their way to New Zealand, even if there appears to be some disagreement as to whether they found their own way by means of ‘island hopping’ or through more direct human assistance.

Monarch - Hamilton Gardens 8 (scaled)

One of several Monarch (Danaus plexippus) we saw at Hamilton Gardens.

Either way, they are firmly established in New Zealand.  Our delight at encountering them for the first time on the east coast of the South Island at Kaikoura I think drew the odd bemused glance from the locals; the Monarch for many New Zealanders is a common garden butterfly and a presumably familiar sight and on that they might garden for with the provision of foodplants and nectar sources as we might by planting Buddleia in the UK.  We were thrilled to see them.  They are a large and impressive butterfly, with boldly marked, orange-brown wings, edged with a black margin set with white jewels.  The colours of the underwing are more muted and the black veins more thickly traced, but arguably with more beautiful effect than the upper.  They are wings that facilitate flight which is both powerful and graceful in equal measure, moving with speed and great purpose one moment, swooping in easy, parabolic glides the next.

In Britain the sight of a Monarch making our shores is a great rarity and would be a special thing to witness.  We saw them again on our travels and sometimes in fair number.  Would it ever be possible to tire of them?

Monarch - Kaikoura (scaled)

Our first encounter at Kaikoura.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 15, 2018

Denizens of the Dark Wood

The UK summer so far has been a fairly extraordinary one.  We’ve had good summers in the past, of course, but 2018 has been as consistently hot and stubbornly dry as any I can remember for a long time.  It brings butterflies to these pages once again.  Two in particular spring to mind indirectly (for one of them at least) because of these uncommonly hot and dry conditions.

The Speckled Wood and Purple Hairsteak are both very much woodland species, occurring in woodland where even the open clearings that might bring other butterflies into the woods are missing.  Of the Speckled Wood, I have long attributed to them a sense of companionship to my walks.  A Speckled Wood appears and a sense of things working properly comes to mind.  They need their share of warmth and sunshine, just as any butterfly does, but for them the shard of light pouring in through even the smallest gap in the tree-canopy might suffice, so long as ample grasses are present on which their larvae can feed.

Speckled Wood (underwing) (small)

Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

Speckled Wood - face on (close-up)

Speckled Wood – up close and personal

The Purple Hairstreak is a thing very much of the tree-canopy, so much so that their presence in a wood can very easily go undetected if not for purposeful searching among the tree-tops.  Their eggs are laid in the tops of oak trees and the adults even feed there, preferring the honeydew (the sweet leavings of aphids) that coats the leaves to any nectar to be found at ground level.  This is a habit they share with the Speckled Wood.

While the Speckled Wood is an insect frequently observable on the ground, as they defend their territories from would-be challengers, so often resulting in those flickering spirals at butterflies in combat, spinning madly up into the crowns, it seems also that the Hairsteaks have been particularly evident over recent weeks.  This is something that is very likely a result of the prevailing weather.  I have occasionally in the past seen them feeding on thistles and the Speckled Wood may also be found nectaring on flowers.  It is when things are particularly dry and the honeydew unobtainable as a result that they may be forced to seek other resources, to benefit and added delight of any human onlookers below.

Both butterflies are common to a much of our woodland, even if we don’t necessarily realise it.  Long may this continue.

Purple Hairstreak

Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) – male. The extent of purple iridescence depends on the light.

Purple Hairstreak-underside

Purple Hairstreak – underside. The silvery grey of the underwing and their rapid flight around the tops of oaks have caused some to liken them to ‘spinning coins’ – one of those turns of phrase that you wished you thought of yourself.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 1, 2018

Abel Tasman National Park

It’s been quite a while since I posted about our Big Trip overseas last winter, so here’s a quick return from the sights of a UK summer ongoing to the sights of a New Zealand summer passed.

You may remember that the last NZ post took in the glories of Tongariro National Park on our way southwards, ultimately to the Cook Strait crossing and our arrival on the South Island.  Having done so, our first port of call was the town of Nelson.  It was from here that we intended to pay a visit to Abel Tasman National Park.  Having only a single full day to spend in the area, we endeavoured to make the most of things.  With a water-taxi along the length of the park’s eastern shore, a drop-off at Apple Tree Bay and a hike along to Anchorage Bay for collection (a most convenient little itinerary for those with little time), we left well happy with our experience……

Abel Tasman NP 3 (scaled)

The forested coastline of Abel Tasman National Park.

Fur Seal - Abel Tasman (scaled)

The coast is scattered with small islands, one of which gave us the first of many views of Southern Fur Seal.

Abel Tasman NP 7 (scaled)

A view from within.

Weka (scaled)

The Weka appears to be one of New Zealand’s indigenous, flightless birds to have faired the onslaught of European colonisation better than others. This is not to say that they haven’t experienced their own significant declines and,  despite their familiarity, are absent from large parts of the country. Renowned thieves and opportunist scroungers, this own seemed quite indignant at our occupying the track in front of it and refused to be put off of its course.

Abel Tasman NP 10 (scaled)

From the many bays indenting the shoreline views of the wooded hills offered much to make the imagination wander……



Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 27, 2018

Butterfly times

Painted Lady 8 (resize)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

There was a time, not too long ago, when butterflies were everywhere.  I suppose it’s not always exactly the case that we don’t see them in the places we used to (although for some UK species this far too true), rather that even though we still see them we used to see more.  Forgive me a moment’s wistful nostalgia, but I am given to recall a large Buddleia (aka Butterfly Bush)  in my parent’s back garden.  Going back to the 1980s I can remember summers when I could count the assembled Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock, Large White and Comma, Painted Lady and Red Admiral in their combined dozens sating themselves on the massed blooms.  At peak times there must have been 50 or 60 butterflies, perhaps more, crowded onto the bush.  Even if the intervening years have served to exaggerate the memory, it would not be by much.

Sadly nowadays a like bush would attract but a fraction of that number.  The reasons for this decline?  The familar faces of habitat destruction and intensive agriculture show themselves once again.  Who knows what effects the widespread use of the same neonicitinoid pesticides attributed to the infamous plight of the Honey Bee may be having on our butterflies too?

Spots of light amid the gloom are there to be found however.  Butterfly Conservation have reported the success of “landscape-scale conservation projects” in halting some of these declines.  A glimmer of my own I found on the North Downs a few days ago.  A visit to an old favourite – Kemsing Down.  The sunny slopes were quite teeming with butterflies.  There were Dark Green Fritillary flying purposefully among the sward and Common Blue attracted by the swathes of Bird’s-foot Trefoil, their larval foodplant.  Small Heath seemed to flutter up in places with every other footstep, with Meadow Brown present by the dozen.  And the Marbled White – what a show!  It almost sometimes seemed as if there were as many of them as everything else put together.

Kemsing is a wonderful area for butterflies; I have seen 30 species here over the years, Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Chalkhill Blue included.  Are such sites as this the repositories from which we many replenish the repairs to our broken countryside?


Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 17, 2018

Love is…… a cowpat

What better place to go a courting than on a nice, sun-dried cowpat?  If you happen to be a dragonfly this might be exactly what you will find yourself thinking.  This pair of Black-tailed Skimmer were positively singling out this particular fecal disc as the ideal to spot to soak up some extra warmth on a cloudy day the other weekend.  Like many species of the Libellulidae (that family of dragonflies also containing the Chasers and Darters) they are creatures of habit, returning frequently to favoured perches, much to the benefit of those attempting to photograph them.

Black-tailed Skimmer pair on cowpat (scaled)

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum): male (left) and female.

The Dragonfly season is well and truly upon us.  Territorial rights disputed and settled; bonds made and cemented; the wheel turning through its terrestrial realm before submergence again amid the monster-populated, weedy shadows.  The last couple of weeks have seen something of a concerted emergence of Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum), numerous as they seem to be at least around my local, Essex wetlands.  No doubt this is also the case across their UK range, covering the larger part of the southern half of England, as well as scattered areas of Wales.

Black-tailed Skimmer (female) 2 (scaled)

Black-tailed Skimmer – female.

Further afield they are a widespread insect, being found across much of Europe and well into Asia.  Such an expansive range is perhaps reflected in the apparently far-reaching influence of the Orthetrum genus as a whole, also having representatives in Africa, Australia and Japan.  Fittingly perhaps, the very first dragonfly encountered on our recent trip to Borneo was one Orthetrum pruinosum, the Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk.

Orthetrum pruinosum.JPG 2 (scaled)

Orthetrum pruinosum photographed on the hills around Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 31, 2018

Closer to home

Mention the southern reaches of Essex along the north bank of the Thames Estuary and most folks will not be inclined to picture wide open spaces, filled with woods, flowery grassland, bird-busy scrub and teeming marshlands.  It is perhaps, on glancing at the map, the urban spread of Southend and Benfleet, Canvey and Basildon that dominate the scene.  True enough, they are sizeable towns with plenty of people, but those grasslands, marshes and other wildlife rich habitats cut a swathe amid the concrete.

Together the Hadleigh and Benfleet Downs, Bowers and West Canvey Marshes and those of Vange and Fobbing beyond comprise a huge area of open country.  One may walk for miles – easily seven or eight, much further if you wish – and barely put a foot on the road.  This is just what occupied me for a day last Saturday.  It was a barmy, beautiful day, yet I could almost have counted the people I met on one hand.

I sometimes decry the increasingly crowded nature of the place I have grown up and still live and the apparent indifference that some people seem to have for the world beyond their bubble.  But such opportunities as offered by the wild places on my doorstep is one I can never take for granted.  My minor indignations would be a paradise to others in some parts of the world and indeed also my own country.  One must keep ones complaints in perspective.

While some reading this won’t recognise the place names mentioned above, I am quite sure they represent for many a familiar state of affairs.  Another could list places I don’t recognise, but what they would mean for them is something I know and cherish.  Somewhere which I hope, which I’m sure, are cherished by others.

Some images from my walk.

Wall Brown 3(scaled)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Hadleigh Marsh (scaled) (3)

A weed-filled dyke on Hadleigh Marsh – spot the Grey Heron and Mallard.

Broad-bodied Chaser - head on (scaled)

An alternative view of the Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa), one of the year’s earlier dragonflies.

Yellow Rattle - mass (scaled)

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) en masse.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 24, 2018

Mount Doom!!!

Taranaki Trail (scaled)

A view of the woods and Tussock-land of Tongariro National Park, taken from above Taranaki Falls

The Big Trip was now orientated well and truly southwards as we continued our way, eventually to southern reaches of the South Island.  The North Island however, would continue to impress us for a little while yet.

Tongariro National Park, set fairly centrally on the North Island of New Zealand, is I suppose something of a taster for the mountainous wonders that await the traveller further on.  It is an area of upland and mountain that can appear almost incongruous.  All of a sudden, it seems, do the snowy ridges and peaks appear on the horizon.  A taster maybe, but a superb expanse of wild country this is in its own right.

Tongariro Mountains 7 (scaled)

Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom.

Most of our time walking in the Park was spent on the Tama Lakes trail, a 14 kilometre hike across lonely tussock-land and beneath lofty, snow-topped mountains, not least the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, better known to ‘Lord of the Rings’ fans as Mount Doom.  The eponymous lakes are located in old volcanic explosion craters

This is haunt of skylark, introduced by British colonists to provide a taste of home and plentiful here.  What better sound than the drift of lark-song to ease the mind of its home-sickness?  As we walked the larks seemed only to share the tussocks with New Zealand Pipits (or Richard’s Pipit, as might be more familiar to British and European birdwatchers).  A mewing call and the dash of falcon wings, low between the slopes of a stream valley, told us that the small birds up here need to be wary.  This pair were the only New Zealand Falcon we would see on the whole NZ tour.

Richard's Pipit (scaled)

New Zealand or Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi).

Sigaus sp. TBI 4 (scaled)

Sigaus grasshoppers were commonplace among the tussocks

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 8, 2018

Paradise reborn

Tiritiri view beach 5 (scaled)

Tiritiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is quite a place.  It is a small island of some 220 hectares in area, located in the Hauraki Gulf a few kilometres offshore of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, not far from Auckland.  By the early 1980s the island had been relieved of almost all its indigenous habitat and turned over to farming.  However, through the inspirational efforts of some forward thinking naturalists the island has been transformed.  A mere 6% of the native bush survived, but an epic ten-year tree planting programme from 1984-94 has turned the island into a paradise reborn.  To the initiated with no knowledge of its recent history, Tiritiri looks and feels like the habitat of centuries, much less a few decades.

Another key to the island’s wonder is its pest free status.  There are no land mammals native to New Zealand, save for two species of bat (a third has become extinct).  Everything else – the rabbits and rats, the stoats, possums and others – is the result of human introduction.  In so many cases these introductions have had catastrophic consequences for the native birdlife, having evolved without any mammalian predators and quite ill-equipped to deal with their impromptu presence.  The result has been the decimation of many populations of species unique to the islands and sadly the out-and-out extinction of some.  Islands like Tiritiri Matangi, defendable against destructive aliens, have offered a lifeline for some of these birds which otherwise might have been lost.  Many such birds have been successfully introduced (or in some cases reintroduced) onto Tiritiri, making it a fabulous location to see these birds living in the wild.  It is also a very beautiful place into the bargain.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to photograph to delightful Little Brown Kiwi that we saw during our overnight stay on the island, but here a few others that I did manage to snap…

Takahe - Tiritiri 2 (scaled)

The Takahe was actually considered extinct until the discovery in the 1940s of tiny population surviving in mountains of the South Island’s Fiordland.

Kokako (scaled)

The total population of Kokako stands at around just 2000 birds.

Saddleback (scaled)

Several hundred Saddleback thrive on Tiritiri.

Red-crowned Parakeet 4 (scaled)

Rare on mainland New Zealand, the Red-crowned Parakeet is thriving on island sanctuaries like Tiritiri.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 30, 2018

And so to New Zealand

Waitangi Treaty Grounds (scaled)

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Back on the trail of ‘The Big Trip’ and from the tropical climes of Borneo to the rather less balmy, but nevertheless very pleasant ones of New Zealand and an antipodean summer.

Landing in Auckland our way over the coming weeks would be mostly south, but not before a drive in the opposite direction into Northland.  From our base in Kawakawa we could not only check out one the most extravagantly decorated public lavatories that this blogger has ever been in, but also the Bay of Islands and one of, if not the most significant sites of New Zealand culture and history.

The Waitaingi Treaty Grounds is the place where many say that modern New Zealand was born.  The treaty was signed in 1860 by the British Crown and the Maori people, mutually desired and intended to establish British governorship over the islands (and therefore protection against the French forces) and to afford the Maori rights as British subjects while recognising their historic rights over the land.  It wasn’t exactly plain sailing thereafter, but is nonetheless recognised as a hugely significant moment in the nation’s history.

Cultural Performance 4 (scaled)

The Cultural Performance at Waitangi

The site of this momentous occasion is also rather handily placed besides the very attractive and popular Bay of Islands.  This bay, complete with its 144 islands, is indeed most appropriately named. It is a splendid place for kayaking and exploring some of the islands and yet despite its popularity as a tourist destination the Bay is also home to some interesting wildlife.  Birds the endemic New Zealand Dotterel which nest along some of the beaches along with the decidely handsomely black Variable Oystercatcher (‘variable’ because some birds may be pied).

Tore Tore Island (Bay of Islands) 5 (scaled)

Tore Tore Island – one of the many in the Bay of Islands.

New Zealand Dotterel (scaled)

New Zealand Dotterel – one of the country’s many unique birds.

Variable Oystercatcher 4 (scaled)

Variable Oystercatcher – another endemic species.

And as for those toilets mentioned at the beginning, if you happen to find yourself in Kawakawa be sure to check out the public convenience whose interiors were designed by none other than the renowned Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  The official website describes him as “a visionary and responsible creator, mobilizes the power of his art in order to spread his message for a life in harmony with nature and the individual creativity.”  I’m not at present exactly sure how this fits in with the extraordinary loos in Kawakawa, but you’re not likely see any others quite like them.

Hundertwasser toilet (scaled)

The Hundertwasser designed toilet interior at Kawakawa.



Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 22, 2018

A little bit of spring

With so much of the small life brimming to the surface with warming days of spring, a few words on the humble pond-skater…

Gerris odontogaster (scalaed)

Pond-skater (Gerris odontogaster)


Stilted scavengers of the surface film;

Only ever knowing abruptness,

Or stock stillness

And nothing in between.

Jerk-jerk-jerk – and halfway

From one bank to the next.

A movement from above

And jerk-jerk-jerk all the same.

Everything is sudden to them,

Or perfect calm, just drifting

With an android patience

And the faintly sinister air

Of an opportunist

Of misfortune.


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