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.

 

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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

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 12, 2018

Sepilok

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

Plovers

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.

 

 

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