Last Flowers in the Woods?

It’s the turning point for the ground flora in my local patch, Beggarspath Wood – though it is about a month late given this year’s strange weather. The bluebells that provide such a marvellous purple dazzle across the woodland floor, returned without fail this year lasting well into June. Now however that prolonged ecstasy has come to an end, the sweet-scented blooms becoming a slimy, flattened layer of humus. It’s very much the beast to their earlier beauty. But their seeds have been sown for next year, and the humus itself is rich in nutrients that will ultimately benefit all the organisms within this ecosystem’s community.

Before the bluebells of 2013 disappeared however I was out to fetch my annual quota of shots, this year trying some originality by lying on the woodland floor, creating a ‘bug’s eye view’ of looking up into the bluebell. You can measure the success of this below (along with some more traditional compositions.)

There were others among the bluebells – plenty of red campion (pictured at the top of this article), speedwells, stitchworts and ground ivy, pushing through the few gaps left unfilled by their more obvious neighbours. Most have still lasted through, but if Spring was the time of the bluebell then Summer belongs to the bracken. Such plant monocultures plague across the woodland floor, restricting the diversity of other flower species and their dependent species.

For these single-species forest floors are not what you’d naturally expect to find – the reasoning is highly likely due to the extinction of wild boar from our countryside, the only animal capable of eating bracken and who’s rooting activities both prevent one species becoming dominant and enriching the turnover of nutrients in the soil. Subsequently, a rainbow palette of woodland wildflowers, tall and iridescent in their health would decorate our forests. If boar were to return nationwide (which, if their current spread continues unabated, could be the case in 20-30 years) we may not have the bluebell carpet, but perhaps the alternative would be even more beautiful.

Food for thought when you go out to enjoy the bluebells next Spring.

Photo Round-Up: October 2012

October, the first month in which it starts feeling properly autumnal, kicked off from the first with my two-week work experience at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, near Falmouth.

Checking the flippers of Yulelogs, one of the bull Grey Seals

Target Training Chaff, a South African Fur Seal

Feeding the Resident Grey Seals

In the end, two weeks wasn’t enough. It was a fantastic experience getting to know the huge characters of the Sanctuary’s residents; from the grumpy yet compliant grey seal Yulelogs, the ‘class show-off’ sea lion Andre, to the highly emotional group of Humboldt penguins! The sanctuary is most famous for it’s work in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing seal pups, and being the season in which they start to come in I was able to take part in some of this week, feeding and taking the temperatures of the very cute (yet very noisy!) newly rescued pups.

And for my days-off? More seals! I visited the wild colony not far from St Ive’s twice whilst I was down there, which could be viewed from the clifftop above (hence the distance in the photo). Being the grey seal breeding season the beach had plenty going on, including white-coated pups wailing to their mothers, and the beachmaster bull scaring off the most daring males simply by glancing at them!

Common Lizard – Seen while walking cliffs by Zennor, Cornwall.

Whilst I was down there I also took the chance to visit Paignton Zoo, a brilliant place run by the conservation charity, Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Silverback Gorilla ‘Pertinax’

Red-necked Ostrich

Black Rhino

White-rumped Shama

Speckled Pigeon

A quick trip to London to visit my brother also gave the perfect excuse for another zoo trip, which was of course the Zoological Society of London’s historic collection in Regent’s Park.

Philippine Crocodile

Komodo Dragon

Every Autumn for us always hails an outing to Brownsea Island. Slap-bang in the centre of Poole Harbour, it is home to an incredibly biodiverse mosaic of habitats managed by the National Trust & Dorset Wildlife Trust. A huge estuarine lagoon fills with over-wintering waders at this time of year, with particularly large flocks of Avocets and Bar-tailed Godwits. Reedbeds and heathland are surrounded by mixed coniferous and deciduous woodland, which provide an isolated refuge for red squirrels, safe from the conquest of the grey.

Avocets flocking into the Lagoon

Autumnal Fungi blooming on Brownsea

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

Sika Deer Stag


Creature of the Week #1: Barred Mudskipper

Appropriately for the first ever creature of the week, I’ve chosen an animal reminiscent of the piscine organisms that in a stroke of luck decided to crawl out of water onto land. These intrepid pioneers gave rise to all vertebrate life on Earth that calls Terra Firma home, from frogs to elephants, and the mudskippers with us today provide a fascinating insight into such evolution. This particular mudskipper was one of a huge colony gathered in a muddy hollow in the mangroves of Nosy Be, Madagascar. To see these animals darting through water like sticklebacks one minute then flipping wildly on the (almost) solid ground the next has to be up there as one of my most bizarre, and fantastic, experiences of nature.

Reflections on Bluebells

Take a walk in the woods literally a garden gate away from my own home, and from mid-April onwards, you’ll find that Spring-spectacular that fills both the hardened naturalist and the everyday person-on-the-street with joy by the combined sight & sweet scent of the scene. It is of course the Bluebell Explosion that many deciduous woodlands across the UK experience for a month or so.

At the time of writing, the bluebells are on their way out, gradually giving way as Summer approaches and the more unruly brackens and nettles begin to sprout from the woodland floor. But of course that’s just another chapter in the great ecological cycle of the woods, the death of the flowers providing a nutrient-rich bounty of humus to improve the fertility of the soil and food for it’s detritivorous residents. The seeds for next Spring have already been sown, and by next year that wonderful scent you get on a fine April day will be wafting through the trees once more.

Continue reading

Kenya After-Image: Part 3 (final)

And finally, after an unwanted delay, I’ve got round to completing the last entry of my reflection of Kenya last Summer. Picking up after we left the Mara, we were sadly coming to our final destinations on the trip; however, these were among the ones that left the greatest impression on me since flying out of Nairobi two weeks after we originally flew in.

In the photo above is the Nairobi Giraffe Centre, allowing closer views than one might usually have with these magical animals on a game drive. Much closer at that, with estatic visitors, both tourists and locals, able to hand-feed the giraffes. Or even kiss them, if by kissing you mean popping a pellet between your lips and waiting for a giraffe to lap it up with a slobbering, yet rather raspy, tounge! But the Centre is far more than just a glorified petting zoo, and likewise it’s residents are not your ‘average’ giraffe (if you can have such a thing). It is home to a group of Rothschilds Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardilis rothschildi), one of the rarest of the nine giraffe subspecies. The Centre was originally set up as a captive breeding facility in 1979 in a last ditch effort to save the Rothschild, by then limited to 120 individuals on a single Kenyan ranch. Calves born at the centre have over time being released into five Kenyan reserves, and Rothschilds now number about 500 in Kenya.

Today, the Centre’s main focus is education, but particularly that of local children rather than the Western tourists, which mostly come just to have a photo taken of them ‘kissing’ a giraffe. They have to pay a reasonable fee, but the Centre is free to the local community and school groups, and rightly so. Many of these kids will come from poverty-stricken backgrounds in the slums, where of course there is no contact with the incredible biodiversity their country is famous for. Being able to see a giraffe up-close, let alone feed one, is an education tool far more inspirational than any diagram in a classroom, and by opening the doors to wildlife and conservation this way is just one small step in generating lifelong respect for nature: And hopefully, the conservationists of Kenya’s future. Because believe me, Kenya is one country that needs it more than many others, and is an issue I’ll be going into shortly.

Me with a Hungry Customer!

Continue reading

Croaking into Spring

Though it seems to come earlier each year (and a bit cliche to say it!), the raucous of hormonal begun in earnest last week. It’s that time again when dozens of males make their move on the seemingly less-than-obliging females, often caught between up to two or three boys trying to spread their genes simultaneously and appearing comically bloated due to the overburden of eggs they carry. But it’s a tough job; males can stay latched on to their ‘brides’ for a good few days. Although my attempts to photograph frogs in the past have rarely succeeded given their skittish nature, a combination of a macro lens, stillness and great patience finally allowed me these few shots of this breeding pair

This highlight of the frog’s calender has I’m sure been the same for many naturalists too. As a young kid, the moment these secretive, weird and incredibly awesome creatures emerged from their slumber in dramatic armies that invaded my back garden pond never failed to amaze me, but the best bit was I knew it was just the beginning of months of afternoons in the garden following their lives. First the inpatient frustration waiting for the spawn to hatch; then, when that miracle occurred just under a month later, watching the tadpoles grow from wriggly black specks to the beginnings of that magical metamorphosis; which in turn, resulted in days seeking and picking up delicate froglets hopping over the lawn.

I bet you 99% naturalists with ponds in their gardens did this when young (and probably still do!), leading me to believe that if you want a kid to grow up loving nature in a society that needs it more than ever, digging a pond and encouraging them to discover the life-cycle of frogs for themselves is one of the most reliable ways of doing it.

Kenya After-Image: Part 2

Of all the reserves in Kenya, the Masai Mara is undoubtedly the best known, and the vast numbers of both wildlife and tourists present during my visit lived up to its reputation. Despite moments relating to the latter where it sometimes felt I had momentarily returned to the Western world (the details of which I’ll go into in my third and final entry of the after-image), staring at a vista of golden savannah that appears to disappear over the edge of the horizon with no trace of civilization, or witnessing the swarms of migrating wildebeest of wildlife documentary fame drift pass lazing lionesses, were enough to make you feel as if you had crossed the veil to an otherworld.

The diversity of the bird species seen throughout our trip, as you can imagine, was fantastic. From flamingo flocks in their hundreds on Nakuru, to delicate Sunbirds feeding from flowers just by our dining table in the Swara Plains camp, the rich variety of avian life we saw was brilliant; but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be these guys:

Secretary Birds, this pair on the Mara strolling placidly through the savannah grass only a few yards away from us. Unique to the raptors (so much so it’s the only genus of its family, Sagitarridae), these incredible birds have given up hunting from above for a literal down-to-earth approach, stalking the grasses on stilt-like legs while keeping a sharp eye out for prey. This can include hares, tortoises and even venomous snakes, which it can dispatch with a well-aimed kick.

Also up there on my top Kenyan birds would have to be this handsome specimen, a Kori Bustard. While our own native bustards are making a steady recovery from reintroductions on Salisbury Plain, on the African Plains these guys are far more numerous, strutting and foraging through the grass much like the secretary birds. As it is potentially the heaviest bird capable of flight, it probably sticks to the ground for good reason!

Continue reading

Kenya After-Image: Part 1

The first two weeks of August 2011 were undoubtedly two of the best of my life. A trip to Kenya may be a fairly average holiday for world-hopping tourists, and a part of that was indeed seen through the luxurious yet ‘processed’ lodgings of a typical Westerner on their summer break. Most of the trip however showed me and a group of 15 other students from my college the real deal when it comes to Kenya, seeing the different aspects to preserving wildlife in a country where pressures on the natural world tighten every year and living with a remote rural community miles from the tourist track to experience a completely different way of living without nearly every aspect of a Western life we so obliviously take for granted. Two weeks later, and the UK I returned just felt like it had something missing in a weird feeling I can’t quite describe, but I’m sure those who have had a similar experience will be able to relate to in some way. I had just been to another world, and it’s influence was there with me forever.

This post, as you can see by the title, is divided into three halves. The first two being photo-logs of the amazing wildlife the country is famous for, with the third a more in-depth look at the people, issues and conservation within the country.  Now you’ve had that disclaimer, we can begin…

The picture you can see above is of Lake Naivasha at sunset, the bank of which was the location of our first lodge. A short stroll from there to watch hippos emerging as the evening proved fruitless in regard to these mega-herbivores, but the bird life around us more than made up for it. Among grey herons and coots that provided familiar tastes of home, ibises, hammerkop and martins were abundant that evening. Perhaps the most spectacular for me were the Pied Kingfishers. These guys are big compared to ol’ Halcyon of the UK waterways, about the size of a blackbird, and dramatic feeders too, rising to a height of nearly 20 feet it seemed before plunging after it’s fish prey.

Continue reading

550D Testing in London

Last week was a historic one as my first proper SLR camera arrived, a rather sexy Canon EOS 550D. As I haven’t got the kind of large lenses I require for proper wildlife photography yet (but not for long!), my first outing with it was more of a test drive to get my head around the settings of the new camera, similar in some ways but with obvious differences to my trusty ‘bridge’ camera I’ve been using previously, the Panasonic DMC-FZ38.

As you can guess by this post’s title, the outing was my regular half-term excursion to stay with my brother in London. It was the third time I’d been to the city in four weeks (first to see Dr Faustus at the Globe, second to go to the inspirational new WildlifeXpo), so I’m already quite accustomed to the atmosphere. Whilst I’m obviously far happier in a rural environment where wildlife is more obvious, London is surprisingly rich in interest for wildlife geeks like me (just read Mike McCarthy’s excellent ‘Nature Studies: City of Falcons’ for a taste of why this is the case), and my test drive with the canon was at two of my favourite nature spots in the city: The Zoo at Regent’s Park and Richmond Park, which of course was in full swing with the deer’s annual rut. Continue reading