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.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 4, 2017

To the Hills

An exchange of the very fine coast of the Gower Peninsula for the equally superlative scenery of Pembrokeshire was a swap we were very happy to make……

Great Glasshouse 2 (scaled)

We were, though, only too pleased to divert to the excellent Botanic Garden of Wales on the way. It has many things that make it a worthwhile destination, among them the impressive Great Glasshouse……


…… but coming face to face in broad daylight with a wild Otter was, to say the very least, completely unexpected. I grabbed this shot whilst visitors walked behind me along the main path having just emerged from the gate house. Otters are known to frequent the lakes of the Garden, but to encounter one under these circumstances was….. well, a bit bonkers.

Cliifs near Manorbier (scaled)

On to Pembrokeshire and its own wonders. These curiously angular-textured cliffs stood over the waves a short walk from our camp for a few days at Manorbier.

Chough 5 (scaled)

The coastal cliffs of Pembrokeshire are stronghold for the Chough, the scarcest of the UK’s seven species of crow.

Rural scene - Stackpole (scaled)

The Stackpole estate is renowned for including some South Pembrokeshire’s most dramatic coastline. The varied landscapes that extend inland from the cliffs make for decidedly picturesque countryside.

Nant Egnant valley (scaled)

Heading north and the hills beckoned. Walking from the village of Ffair Rhos there is to be found wonderfully rugged and satisfyingly remote country. This is the ‘other’ Wales, outside of the National Parks and somewhat outside of the tourism-consciousness. It is a place of long walks and Red Kites.

Cwm Idwal (scaled)

Northward still and the lure of stunning mountain country of Snowdonia was always going to be to strong. We took a steep trail up from Lynn Ogwen from where this shot of the distant Cwm Idwal was taken.

Ffynnon Lloer 2 (scaled)

At the top of the trail the lonely tranquillity of Ffynnon Lloer was our reward.

Horseshoe Pass 4 (scaled)

We made to leave Wales with a certain reluctance and were well pleased not to have done so without experiencing the scenic splendour of Horseshoe Pass, near Lllangollen, as we went.

Toad on the doorstep 2 (scaled)

And seeing as there has been something of a low creature count with this set of Big Trip images, here’s a sizeable and rather excellent Toad (Bufo bufo) that surprised me outside the ablution block at our campsite in Felin Uchaf.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 24, 2017

Into Wales

August was to be the month for Wales, but not before giving our regards to the fair county of Somerset and seeing some interesting sites in a Bristol back garden……


The Kilve coast was a ‘must return’ for us as we passed through Somerset. It doesn’t boast the tallest of cliffs, the prettiest of beaches or the richest wildlife, but there is something about it that just hits the spot for me. The cliffs are wonderfully revealing of their Jurassic geology and lean the weight of deep time as inspirationally as any part of the Jurassic Coast.

Bombus jonellus 3

And while in Somerset it would not do to neglect to visit the lovely of Exmoor National Park. The trail from Selworthy village takes in some fine woodland and colourful heather and gorse-tinged heathland. It also provided my first encounter with the uncommon Heath Bumblebee (Bombus jonellus).

Hedgehog 3 (scaled)

With family on the edge of the city, a stop in Bristol was also a must. It also allowed us to enjoy privileged and close encounters with some rather wonderful Hedgehogs. My sister can sometimes see as many as four at a time in her garden and which are most appreciative of the dried mealworms she puts out for them.

Wye Valley view 2 (scaled)

Into South Wales our first port of call was the Wye Valley. Either side of the eponymous river are to be found slope woodland rich in wildlife, including many uncommon species like the hugely declined Lesser Spotted Woodpecker we saw tagging along with a mixed tit flock……

Peacock 4 (scaled)

Into South Wales and our first port of call was the Wye Valley. Either side of the eponymous river are to be found slope woodland rich in wildlife, including many uncommon species like the hugely declined Lesser Spotted Woodpecker we saw tagging along with a mixed tit flock. Sometimes though, it is the thankfully common things that can quite simply take the breath away. What a beauty the Peacock butterfly is.


Then on to the Gower Peninsula, just south of Swansea…

Bishopston Valley - cave entrance 2

A place of surprise caves hiding underground rivers…..

Pwlldu Bay - approach 2 (scaled)

Verdant wooded valleys, like this one at Bishopston……

Rhossil Bay and Down (scaled)

and its fair share of spectacular coastline, such as here at Rhossili Bay.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin - mother and calf (scaled)

It was from the cliffs at Rhossili where we saw a privileged sight indeed. We were able to spend an hour watching this Bottle-nosed Dolphin and her calf.

Wales is indeed a place of many wonders.




Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 21, 2017

Westward Bound

After the delights of Dorset The Big Trip continued on the wonderful West Country (I may have got a little carried away with the alliteration there) of Devon and Cornwall……

Dart Valley nr Dartmeet (scaled)

A prominent presence in Devon is, of course, the splendid expanse of Dartmoor National Park. Amid the rolling moorlands and granite strewn hills are the gleaming gems of thickly wooded river valleys. The Dart Valley is particular stunning and somewhere that I am yet to do justice with a camera, although this hopefully gives some idea.

Trendlebere Down 3 (scaled)

We have visited the moors many times before and it was good to get to some areas new to us, such as (the soon to be rained on) Trendlebere Down.

Woodland Grasshopper 3 (scaled)

the Downs are a National Nature Reserve for good reason, given the rich variety of scarce wildlife, such as the Woodland Grasshopper (Omocestus rufipes).

Helford estuary from Tremayne Woods (scaled)

We were soon on towards Cornwall and our first stop near the Helford River. A walk through Tremayne Woods offered up all the usual sights and sounds a rich woodland habitats – the twitter of bird calls, the head-turning swoop of Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies. The sudden smell of the seawater before laying eyes on it is a most pleasantly counterintuitive combination. The scenic qualities of the two facets are pretty good as well.

Ogo-dour Cove 2 (scaled)

Cornwall is, of course, justly renowned for its coastline, not least here at Predannack on the Lizard peninsula…

Cornish Heath 3 (scaled)

The clifftops harbour a superb array of wildflowers, including the very localised Cornish Heath…

Rose Chafer 2 (scaled)

… and while the number and variety of butterflies offered a more noticeable clue to the wealth of small life, there were others creeping beneath them, like the decidedly splendid and not insubstantial Rose Chafer (Cetonia aurata).

Bodmin Moor - The Hurlers Stones plus Engine House 2 (scaled)

But Cornwall is not all about its coast. The granite hills of Bodmin Moor offer a very different flavour of the Cornish countryside, where the ancient histories of the Neolithic inhabitants and their stone circles stand alongside the more recent endeavours of the once thriving local tin industry.

Hartland Point cliffs 4 (scaled)

We headed east again but with time for another stop-off in Devon providing the opportunity to visit the superbly rugged coastline at Hartland Point.

Bank Vole (scaled)

It was here we met this slightly elderly and rather belligerent Bank Vole. It’s not all Gannets and Grey Seals around our coasts you know.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | September 18, 2017

A Surprise in the Garden

I recently wrote an article for the Botanic Garden of Wales website.  If you fancy a look, click the image…

Otter 2 (scaled and very cropped)

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