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.

 

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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)

               Pond-Skater

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.

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 9, 2018

The Greater World of Little Things

I have two more presentations coming up on my latest book

The Greater World of Little Things

Wednesday 11th April – Wickford Wildlife Society

Thursday 19th April – Essex Wildlife Trust, Colchester

Click here for more details

Front cover WLT

 

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 3, 2018

The Virgin Forest

Danum river (scaled)

Danum Valley

The rainforests of Borneo are, as I have discovered, wonderful and exciting places.  This is something, I think, that holds true as much for the traveller with a more general thirst for experiences of the world as it does for the more serious naturalist.  It is impossible not to be impressed, at times even overwhelmed by the sense of abundance that often might never be seen, but only felt.  Perhaps this is even more the case on a visit to the primary forests in their pristine state.  Perhaps though, this is a thing of psychology, the connotations implied by our subconscious thoughts when in presence of forest millions of years old.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter – experience is all.

We were offered a glimpse of such old-growth forest during a stay at the Danum Valley Research Centre at the end of our time in Sabah.  We were asked by our guide at Kinabatangan, ahead of our visit, what we hoped to see during our time exploring the guided trails from the centre.  I think he expected us to list a few choice target species, as is often the wont of visitors to Borneo’s special places.  We told him that we just wanted to experience the virgin forest for what it is, regardless of what we might see there.  Maybe he was mildly surprised at our more easy-going expectations of the trip, something he seemed to find agreeable.   The experience we were hoping for we certainly received and not, I should say, without some wonderful encounters with its inhabitants.

Bornean Gibbon 2 (scaled)

The Bornean Gibbon is endemic to Borneo. Their whooping calls echoed far through the forest around the Danum Valley research Centre.

Gonocephalus bornensis - Borneo Angle-headed Lizard

Borneo Angle-headed Lizard (Gonocephalus bornensis) – another of the islands many endemic species.

Huntsman plus Forest Ant (scaled)

A huntsman spider makes a meal out of a huge Giant Forest Ant (Camponotus gigas).

Lepidiota stigma 2 (scaled)

The lights around the research centre attracted their fair share of bedazzled forest invertebrates, like this impressive beetle – Lepidiota stigma…..

Lyssa menoetius (scaled)

… and no small number of moths, including the stunning Lyssa menoetius.

Whiskered Tree Swift 2 (scaled)

This Whiskered Tree Swift held sentry on the suspension bridge leading from the centre into primary forest.

Polypedates macrotis - Dark-eared Tree Frog (scaled)

There were frogs aplenty, like this Dark-eared Tree Frog (Polypedates macrotis).

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 25, 2018

The Kinabatangan

Kinabatangan River 8 (scaled)

From the many and various delights of Sepilok it was to the not inconsiderable waters of the Kinabatangan River that we headed next.  This Malaysia’s second longest river, winding 560 kilometres from source to the Sulu Sea.  Our last river experience was with the shimmering clear river that flowed fresh from the uplands and past the Lupa Masa jungle camp.  The Kinabatangan couldn’t be a lot different.  It is wide river with a steady flow.  And it is water that does not accommodate an inquiring eye into its murky depths.  Water too, which is rather less appealing for the bather, not least for the plentiful of Saltwater Crocodiles lurking within it.

The lower Kinabatangan is renowned for its concentrated abundance of wildlife and a place where elusive animals are more easily seen than some of their other Bornean haunts.  Herein though we find a double-edge sword.  One the key reasons for its popularity among wildlife watchers is that as the devastation of the vast oil palm plantations continues, the jungle creatures are increasing squeezed into this corridor sanctuary.

Proboscis monkey - Kinabatangan 5 (scaled)

Proboscis Monkey seemed plentiful by the river.

The wildlife here is fantastic.  We stayed for three nights with our guide and his family.  We were happy to know that our money spent was going directly into the community that takes its living from the river and cherishes what it has.  From his boat we would see much of what this amazing place offers the wide-eyed nature tourist.  Orang-utan and Silver Leaf Monkey were more occasional, but troops of Proboscis Monkey were a regular source of entertainment.  So too the Long-tailed Macaque that would almost ignore our boat while we watched them at the river edge feeding on the succulent growths of floating aquatic plants.

Long-tailed Macaque - Kinabatangan 6 (scaled)

Long-tailed Macaque seem exceptionally keen on the juicy stems of aquatic plants.

And the birds!  Views form close quarters of the large, heavy-billed Stork-billed Kingfisher was rather spectacular, while the Blue-throated Bee-eater were beautiful, the rhinoceros Hornbill stunning and the close encounter with a pair of Buffy Fish Owl quite unexpected.

Had we not seen anything of the Pygmy Elephant that live beside the river we would not have been complaining.  But even this our guide provide us with the unforgettable sight of an old bull, in clear view where the jungle meets the palms.

An amazing place!

Stork-billed Kingfisher 3 (scaled)

The Stork-billed is a large and impressive member of the Kingfisher tribe.

Pygmy Elephant 6. (scaled)

The Pygmy Elephant is a subspecies of the Asian endemic to Borneo. An unforgetable sight.

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’

for

Essex Wildlife Trust, Southend and Rochford Group

at

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

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