19 November 2013 ~ 0 Comments

6 Top Tips To See More Wildlife

Badger

If you’re like me then you spend a fair amount of time out in the countryside on “nature walks” simply looking for interesting plants and animals in their natural environment. However in discussions with a number of friends recently it seems that many people are somewhat disappointed by the “lack” of wildlife when they actually go out into the wilds looking for it.

Here, then, are my six top tips for getting the most out of your nature walk…

Start Early

Not only are many animals more active in the early hours of the day but furthermore you’re likely to see far more before all the “normal” people come out with their mountain bikes and noisy families.

Yes, you’ll have to get up early, but it’s a comproise worth making. And, for the reptile-fanatic like me, you’re far more likely to get a good view of lizards and snakes before they’ve had a chance to warm up as opposed to later in the day when the ambient temperature is far higher.

Camp

One trick I like to use is to go camping (or caravanning) whenever possible. The Caravan Club is a great place to start your search for sites and if you choose your site properly, you’ll be able to sleep within moments of promising habitats. In this way not only can you save on travel in the early hours of the day but you’ll be able to get started even earlier.

And, for the really serious nature-nut, you’ll also be able to pop out again towards dusk when everyone but the keenest walkers have gone home and you once again virtually have the place to yourself.

Stay Off The Beaten Track

Many animals are rightly scared of people so sticking to well-known routes and paths can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, buy a map (or use the GPS feature on your phone) and be willing to venture down smaller paths or go “off road” where permitted.

By avoiding the crowds you’ll see far more wildlife as well as having the feeling that you’re really stepping into nature in it’s rawest and most natural form.

Know What To Look For

I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to simply “seeing what turns up” but it can greatly increase your chances of success if you do a little research beforehand. For example, try looking at what butterfies should be on the wing, or learn which wild plants are most likely to have caterpillars on right now.

By doing some research into the habitat you’re visiting and the specific season you’re going in, you’ll be able to “get your eye in” on the species you’ll likely find and you’ll be surprised at just how much more success you can have as a result.

Stay Invisible

We’ve mentioned avoiding noisy people. But we can also give ourselves away. For best results, aim to be as “invisible” as possible. That means no strong perfumes, no bright colors, no sudden movements. And watch where you’re stepping; with the right footwear and some awareness it’s amazing just how silently you can walk through nature.

Be Patient

Lastly, the big one. Don’t be in any rush. Don’t aim put aside just an hour or two and go storming out looking for wildlife. Some of my very best wildlife experiences have been a result of extreme patience. Literally dilly-dallying along, often sitting down for a quick break, when a deer or a fox or whatever literally wonders straight past you. Patience is really the biggest key of all.

Creative Commons License hehaden via Compfight

13 March 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Who Bothers Hawaii?

waipio valley

Hawaii archipelago is one of those lands suffering not only from human activity, but from alien species as well. For many centuries there were no predators or invasive species that could threat to conventional livelihood of Hawaiian ecosystem.

Long before European settlers, there were only two mammal species distributed over the islands – hoary bats, apparently brought by winds from America, and monk seals. The population of seals declined significantly in the 19th century, as colonists started to hunt them for skin and eat, and to date conservation of monk seals is one of the primary environmental issues on Hawaii.

All in all, the diversity of Hawaiian fauna was enlarged a lot, as numerous species of domestic animals (sheep, feral pigs, wild boars, deer), ants (big-headed and Argentine ants), plants (the Velvet tree) found a perfect place on Hawaii to be dispersed, therefore, signifying about the end of Eden.

Negative Alien Species

One of the recent zoological researches, enclosed by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, featured bees, imported from North-American continent, as invasive and distrustful species on the archipelago.

It is one of the examples of how alien species might modify lifestyle and habits and thereupon cause severe damages for a new habitat. In particular, this research is referred to revived bees’ abilities to consume any variety of food and to form larger colonies.

In normal conditions, Pennsylvania bees gather in small colonies for one season, while on Hawaii they gather in large colonies (about 600 thousand bees) for long-term periods. In this way, bees obstruct essential development of forest areas and sub-alpine vegetation.

Positive Alien Species

However, there some examples of invasive species that promote natural advancement of Hawaiian ecosystem. To be more précise, the biggest achievements are attained by alien terrestrial birds, which include 58 species.

They play an important role in reproduction of many indigenous plants. For instance, birds distribute seeds of Lehua trees (Eugenia plants), known for its reddish wood and bright red flowers.

Unlike native birds, consuming exclusively nectar or invertebrates, alien birds eat fruit of trees and, therefore, disperse plant seeds over the area. This is a nice example of how invasive species cannot just push out the native, but also take on their functions, often coping with them no worse than their predecessors.

Potential Alien Species

For many centuries Hawaiian archipelago was free from reptiles, especially snake species. Notwithstanding in recent years there were some notices about potential threat of snakes’ distribution to the islands, preconditioned by illegal snakes trade and keeping some as pets.

Having no natural enemies, snakes might embed themselves deeply into the Hawaiian ecosystem, if they happen to be out of human control. In this case, the fate of Guam Island is imminent, where imported brown tree snakes ate all the birds and, therefore, caused severe ecological damage.

On Hawaii snakes can eat bird eggs and small chicks, including representatives of 34 species of Hawaiian forest birds at risk of extinction. If birds disappear, there will be more spiders that create webs over the trees and so darken the wood; insect populations may get bigger.

In this case, the list of consequences might be prolonged, eventually ending up in completely new vision of Hawaiian environment.

Creative Commons License paul (dex) bica via Compfight

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18 October 2012 ~ 0 Comments

From Field to Fork at St. Ermin’s Hotel

beehivesDazzling it is, but London’s St. Ermin’s Hotel doesn’t just pour all its efforts into looking good; its management and staff are keen to push the hotel’s green credentials and make the most of its location in the centre of London.

While the hotel’s interior design and exterior architecture is stunning, not so many guests realise that hidden on the hotel’s roof, far above the city streets, thrive an ever-growing colony of 200,000 Buckfast bees. Hus Vedat, the head chef at St. Ermin’s, is very proud of the fact that the hard working insect army store up enough nectar to provide his restaurant – the Caxton Grill – with enough honey for a variety of their most popular dishes, such as a starter of Bosworth Ash goats cheese, St Ermin’s honey, beetroot and raisin oil and crushed walnuts. Delicious!

And with the hotel’s position near the capital’s three biggest central parks, there is plenty of green space in which the bees can gather nectar and guests can also find tranquillity in the middle of this vast city. Take a walk to Buckingham Palace through Green Park, perhaps feed the ducks in St. James’s, or wander a little further to circle the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Bee populations in Britain and elsewhere in the world are in a dramatic but largely inexplicable decline dubbed ‘colony collapse disorder’, in which bees are dying prematurely and in large numbers.

The continuing loss of meadows and green land, as well as the increased use of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides are likely to be a big part of the problem. Experts have also pinned the blame on the spread of the varroa mite and other viruses.

However, even some of the world’s biggest cities, including London, are capable of supporting bees in their urban environments. St Ermin’s is pleased to be doing its bit to help support this vital part of our ecosystem.

As well as playing an important role in the food chain, bees are even thought to contribute to the reduction of exhaust fumes in cities like London by helping filter tem out of the atmosphere – amazing!

The bee project is just part of the hotel restaurant’s dedication to ‘eating local’. The Caxton Grill’s menu lists organic beef, salad leaves from Secretts Farm – a short distance south-east of the capital – and Label Anglais Chicken from Temple Farm in Essex. Head chef Hus is passionate about the ‘field to fork’ movement and selects every single ingredient for not only its quality but its sustainability.

St. Ermin’s hotel can be found at 2 Caxton Street, London, SW1H 0QW. 020 7222 7888

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08 September 2012 ~ 0 Comments

How British Trees Affect Planning Regulations

ecological surveysGetting planning permission from local authorities  is one of the hardest parts of constructing or modifying UK property.

In many ways planning regulations represent a seemingly never-ending process of red tape and dealing with the authorites. Such is the difficulty of obtaining planning permission that the value of land can as much as double when permission to build on it has actually been secured.

Of course, while obtaining planning permission can be a frustrating process, it does serve a purpose. Most notably planning regulations are in place to ensure that buildings are erected or modified in a way that doesn’t cause undue damage to either the natural environment or the surrounding community. Whether they actually achieve that goal or not is of course up for debate.

Whatever your personal opinions of building regulations, they are a legal necessity so let’s take a close look at exactly what they entail, including the specific information you may have to provide together with the benefits to the environment.

First, to be allowed to proceed with any construction process, we are always required by our local authorities to hand in a valid planning tree survey report, including a Tree Survey and Tree Constraints Plan, an Arboricultural Impact and Method Assessment Statement, and a Tree Protection Plan.

We are also obliged to provide an ecological survey report, and both of which must be conducted in line with the BS 5837: 2012 protocols. What then are tree surveys and BS 5837: 2012 protocols? How important are they?

Tree Surveys, for that matter, are studies carried out by trained professionals (e.g. Arbtech Tree Surveys) to establish the pros and cons of designing, demolishing and putting up new structures with an aim of providing a harmonious relationship between trees and neighboring structures.

These surveys must always be conducted in line with the BS 5837: 2012 protocols. For clarity, BS 5837: 2012 are standards designed to protect trees from being destroyed by either builders, engineers, landscape architects, contractors or planners. They actually guarantee safety to trees. They address several issues such as drainage mechanisms, proximity of buildings to trees, topography and soil erosion, use of mulch and implications of using herbicides with the aim of protecting trees from possible harm.

08 January 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Great Mullein And The Mullein Moth

Great Mullein

Despite spending much of my free time out in the countryside observing nature for as long as I can remember I recently stumbled across a new find in the form of a plant I’d never seen before.

Whilst it isn’t rare it is most exotic-looking and my first thought when I saw it was that this plant had blown in as a seed from a nearby garden. After some research I managed to identify the plant as a mullein. Whilst there are a number of different mulleins in the UK it seems from my research that the plant I found was the largest (and seemingly commonest) of the group – known as Great Mullein.

Great or Common Mullein, latin name Verbascum thapsus, is an impressive plant that can reach over 6 feet in height with rosettes of large leaves each one cloaked in bristly white hairs giving it a Mediterranean look and the appearance of greyish foliage thanks to the combination of the white hairs on the green leaves.

Great Mullein plant

mullein

Just as interestingly while trying to get a number of photos of the plant to help me identify it I stumbled across a number of large, brightly-coloured caterpillars feeding on the plant.

The combination of a minty green background together with the yellow and black spots gives it a most attractive and indeed impressive appearance. It turns out that these are the caterpillars of the mullein moth though I was somewhat disappointed that the adult moth itself is far less impressive in appearance that the larvae.

If you’re out and about in the late spring and early summer keep an eye out for mullein which thanks to it’s size and shape is easy to identify – and watch for caterpillars feeding on it.

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Mullein moth caterpillar

17 October 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Rwanda- A Celebration of Spirit

Rwanda

Louise Stanion from luxury holidays operator Cox & Kings discovers the little known treasures of Rwanda.

There is a long row of tall, African drums lined up in the courtyard of Butare’s National Museum. The cowhide drum skins of brown and cream are held in place by an intricate rope system; behind which are tucked two drum sticks. There is an air of expectancy about the whole set up as a few locals sit on a nearby stone wall, shuffling their feet.

After a while the drums are moved around the back and we are led to a covered stage surrounded by beautiful gardens. Crouched low on handmade stools I was unaware that we were about to witness one of the finest examples of Rwanda’s dynamic dance styles.

The Intore Dancers have been dancing for centuries.

At the time of the monarchy, before the arrival of the Europeans, the Intore Dancers at the royal court were young men who had received a privileged education and choreographic training in order to entertain their masters and to perform at special functions. The name intore means ‘The Chosen Ones’ signifying that only the best of them were selected for this special honour.

Originally their performances consisted mainly of warlike dances, such as ikuma (lance), umeheto (bow) and ingabo (shield), in which they carried authentic weapons. Nowadays, dummy weapons have been substituted and the dances have been given peaceful names. Although rhythm and movement rather than warfare have now become their main feature, the dances are no less impressive.

Today the show was a varied one and started with a group of female singers clapping and swaying to a heavy drumbeat. The young men, with their colourful costumes, expressive faces and long white wigs of flowing horsehair, took centre stage. I switched my camera to its fastest shutter speed and followed them as they dipped their hips low towards the ground and jumped up high into the air as the music reached a crescendo. They seemed to have the flexibility of a child coupled with the strength of a fully-grown warrior. The female dancers, although calmer, were equally striking in the energetic connection that they made with the audience. Totally involved and in their element, the performers were enjoying themselves regardless of our presence. We were just an excuse.

So immediately engaged was I in this tiny country, it was hard to believe that we had been in Rwanda for less than 24 hours.

It was only this morning that we had sat on the roof terrace of the recently refurbished Hotel Des Milles Collines, (made famous for its central role in the sheltering of Tutse refugees during the genocide) listening as Jimmy, our guide, briefed us over breakfast. The view of Kigali, which straddles several hills, was impressive. Everything of interest in Rwanda is within a 5-hour drive of here, Jimmy explained, making this small, land-locked country an excellent place to explore by road.

Kigali itself has all the usual characteristics of a colourful, bustling, noisy African city but it is surprising clean, safe and European in feel. The pavements are spotless and the bus timetables are carefully posted up at each stop.

Soon after leaving Kigali, an artist’s landscape of green terraces began to open up. No space is left uncultivated. Known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, the whole of West and Central Rwanda is broken up by dramatically steep mountains interspersed with stunning blue lakes. Once a landscape of montane rainforest, tea plantations and banana trees now dominate although a huge tract of this ancient forest is preserved in the Nyungwe Forest National Park.

Rwanda is wonderfully rich in colour. Travelling by road provides a fascinating insight into daily village life and gives a clear sense of what Africa’s most densely populated country looks like on the ground. Hardly fifty metres of road passed us by without some form of life, animal or human. Travelling west, the scenery is positively Alpine and reminiscent of the Italian lakes. The road joining Kibuye and Gisenyi, both pretty ports situated on the edge of Lake Kivu, is a highlight. Expensive villas dotted high on the mountainside contrast with the busy, more basic rural life that exists lower down. Crowds gather together on market days creating a splash of moving colour on an otherwise green backdrop. Both ports provide an opportunity to take a break from driving, enjoy some grilled tilapia (a lake fish) and relax on the sandy beaches.

Gisenyi, the most northerly of the two ports, is just an hour by road from the gorilla tracking base of Ruhengeri. Once here, I head to the Virunga Lodge, an eco-friendly establishment close to the Volcanoes National Park. Ten rustic but very comfortable bandas are perched high on a hilltop, giving an outstanding panoramic view of the twin lakes, Ruhondo and Bulera, as well as the 15,000 ft volcanoes that inhabit the park.

The lodge is about 45 minutes from the park headquarters and so an early start is called for on gorilla tracking day. Over the past decade, Rwanda’s mountain gorilla population has increased by more than 10% and today 300 gorillas live in the misty forests. There are now 7 habituated troops which typically consist of a silverback male, his 3 or 4 wives and several young infants. It can take anything between 20 minutes and 4 hours to find the gorillas; depending on what group you are tracking. We came across the Sabyinyo group after about 90 minutes.

Without doubt, looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla is one of Africa’s most memorable wildlife experiences and it was indeed a privilege to spend an hour with these huge creatures. As is usual, the infants were very active, moving quickly from branch to branch. Occasionally they would roll too close to the seated Silverback, who would open his eyes nonchalantly and swat them away briskly, like you would a mosquito. His touch sent them flying through the air and landing with a thud on the ground. The wives sat separately, quietly grooming, whilst the younger males also kept their distance.

There is plenty to do in the area aside from gorilla tracking.

You can climb a volcano, track the golden monkey in the bamboo forests, visit the zoologist Dian Fossey’s grave or go for a gentle stroll around the picturesque villages near the lakes. Virunga Lodge also regularly invites the Intore Dancers to perform and provides a well needed on-site massage after a gorilla track.

The trip was drawing to a close and on returning to Kigali our last stop was the Genocide Memorial. Hardly a family in Rwanda was left untouched by this event, but although there is still great sadness, the country has transformed itself into a vibrant and welcoming nation. The memorial, with its meditation garden, catalogues the details of the genocide using photographs, videos and written accounts including personal testimonies.

Rwanda is a spirited country run by a progressive government under the leadership of the popular Paul Kagame. His ‘2020 Vision’ has already started to move Rwanda out of poverty and into a new era of reconciliation and development. A largely unknown gem, in which the gorillas take centre stage, Rwanda is also a country full of hills, mountains, forests, lakes, markets, drummers, dancers, artisans and craftsman.

Cox & Kings offers tailor-made holidays to Rwanda.

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16 October 2011 ~ 0 Comments

How To Tell The Different Between Slow Worms And Snakes

 how to tell the difference between slow worms and snakes
Creative Commons License photo credit: anabis

Something long and thin wriggles past you in the countryside. The knee-jerk response may be that you’ve just seen a snake but how can you be certain that what you’ve seen isn’t a slow worm instead? Let’s take a closer look at slow worms and the different species of snake present in the UK to give you a better idea of how to correctly identify and distinguish between snakes and slow worms.

There are a number of factors that can help us to tell the difference between slow worms and snakes. Some are “dead certs” – almost guaranteed to ensure you have the correct identification – whilst others are less certain and in these cases it may be necessary to use a number of different factors in order to be reasonably confident about an identification.

This is especially so if you only had a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of your eye rather than a good long look at the reptile in question. Wherever possible – both to make identification easier and to serve as a reminder in the future – try to take a few photographs of the animal in question.

These don’t need to be “award winning” nature photographs – certainly mine aren’t – but when a creature could vanish at any second grabbing a few quick pictures that you can analyze at your leisure later on can not only make your identifications more accurate but also more enjoyable as you sit and ponder them at a later date in the comfort of your own home.

Body Shape

Slow Worm HampshireWhilst the body of most snakes tends to taper gently from the mid section down to a fine point at the end of the tail the slow worm typically appears far chunkier with the “tail” appearing far blunter and ending far more sharply. In addition, be aware that unlike snakes, slow worms can “drop” their tails like many other lizards and so this can lead to an even “stubbier-looking” tail than normal.

Head Shape

The head shape differs between slow worms and snakes but it can be quite a subtle feature so isn’t recommended as the only identification source. In general the species of British snakes tend to have rather flatter-looking heads than the higher, rounder head of the slow worm. Remember that the slow worm is a lizard and not a snake and when you look closely at them it can be quite easy to see that their head is more lizard-like than snake-like.

Colouration

Grass snakes, smooth snakes and adders all typically have quite clearly-defined patterns to help with camouflage. Spots and stripes are common in these species while the slow worm is typically a reasonably uniform brown in colour. Younger specimens may have stripes of colour but these tend to be longitudinal (from head to tail) rather than the more lateral marking of, for example, an adder.

Prey

British snakes feed on a variety of prey including frogs and small mammals but slow worms are rather different in that they prefer small invertebrate prey. Slugs are a perfect example of the type of food they enjoy and so should you see a “slow worm” eating a frog for example, it’s almost certainly actually a snake.

Eyes

Snakes have sealed eyelids through which they see which makes them appear to have no eyelids. As a result they are also incapable of blinking. As lizards however, slow worms do have eye lids and with patience you may even see them blink. Blinking, therefore, is a guaranteed indicator that what you have seen is a slow worm and not a snake.

Size

Of course baby snakes are smaller than adults but overall slow worms are far smaller than most of the British species of snake. Baby slow worms – which are born live rather than in egg form – can be just a few inches long and even the adult rarely exceed more than a foot. Compare this to the size that an adder or a grass snake may achieve and a smaller-sized, serpent-like creature is more likely to be a slow worm than a snake.

Habitat

Thanks to their preferred prey, slow worms are most likely to be seen after rain and/or in the early evening where they will be searching for small invertebrates to eat. In contrast adders and grass snakes are often seen basking in the heat of the day though a slow worm that has been disturbed from it’s hiding place may still be seen at these times of day.

Adders, generally, seem to prefer heathland habitats, grass snakes those with open water in the form of ponds or streams while slow worms can be seen in a variety of habitats though grassland areas is where they are most often observed.

Conclusion

Telling a slow worm from a snake can take a little practise but hopefully you can see there are a number of factors that you can use to help you make a definitive identification.

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21 September 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Madagascar: Life At An Evolutionary Tangent

Brown Mouse Lemur, Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar
Creative Commons License photo credit: Frank.Vassen

Cast adrift in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar has been separated from other landmasses for longer than any other island on earth. For tens of millions of years evolution has played here in virtual isolation, heading off at a different tangent to the rest of the world.

This lengthy geographical separation is key to the otherworldliness of the wildlife you’ll see in Madagascar today. Between 80 and 90 percent of the island’s plants and terrestrial animals exist nowhere else. There are no giraffes or elephants, nor lions or tigers. Indeed Madagascar has no native large mammals or even representatives of the cat or dog families. Numerous other globally widespread animal groups are also conspicuously lacking and their very absence has been a significant factor in allowing so many new species to emerge and thrive on this remarkable island.

A map of Madagascar's Protected Areas

Image via Wikipedia

Primates are a case in point: Madagascar is the exclusive home of around a quarter of all primate species on our planet, yet there are no monkeys or great apes. Aside from humans – who are not thought to have settled the island until a mere 2,000 years ago – all the primate inhabitants belong to a group known as lemurs. And they exist in glorious variety: more than 100 different species and subspecies – big and small, nocturnal and diurnal, social and solitary, adorably cute and downright freaky.

A single common ancestor gave rise to the potpourri of lemurs you’ll spot in Madagascar’s forests today. Sometime between 40 and 60 million years ago, it is thought an ancestral lemur – a single pregnant female or perhaps a couple huddled together – was swept out to sea in a violent storm on the African coast. The creature was washed up on the shores of Madagascar, having survived the ocean crossing against all the odds, probably by clinging to a raft of floating vegetation. It would have crawled up the beach sodden, exhausted and entirely unaware of the pioneering significance of its arrival. It was to prove a fortuitous journey for its kind indeed, because not long afterwards they were wiped out on mainland Africa in the face of growing competition from their newly evolved and more advanced monkey cousins.

Madagascar, on the other hand, would have been a welcoming place for the new arrivals. With few potential predators and an inviting array of different habitats and ecological niches to exploit, the early lemurs rapidly spread out and diversified into numerous different forms in a process biologists call adaptive radiation. Each new species became specialised in making the most of a different environment and finding nourishment from a different range of foods.

As a group the lemurs flourished. Some developed powerful back legs to propel themselves from tree to tree, leaping through the rainforest canopy; others adapted to foraging on the ground. Some evolved highly sensitive sight and hearing enabling them to be active at night, while others sought safety in numbers and began to live in social groups. One species adopted a diet consisting almost exclusively of bamboo shoots, ingesting a dose of cyanide each day that would kill a human. Another opted to live semi-aquatically, in the reed beds of Madagascar’s largest lake.

Arguably the most specialised and certainly the most bizarre, of the lemurs is the aye-aye. It truly is unique, so much so that the first European scientists to receive a specimen from early explorers scratched their heads in bemusement and eventually classified it as a type of squirrel. Only after much debate and several reclassifications was it finally agreed that the aye-aye is in fact a kind of lemur. It is the sole species not only of its genus, but also in its entire family, meaning there is nothing else in existence remotely like it.

Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Image via Wikipedia

Aye-ayes are nocturnal cat-sized creatures with shaggy black coats, spending much of their lives high up in the canopy of both deciduous forests and rainforests. They have continually growing incisor teeth, just like rodents (part of the reason they were first thought to be squirrels), huge satellite-dish ears that can be swivelled to locate the faintest sound with pinpoint accuracy and a long, skeletally thin middle finger. These features collectively constitute a specialised toolkit for the aye-aye’s favourite activity: grub hunting.

Tapping rapidly on the bark of a tree, an aye-aye listens for the echo that indicates a hollow chamber within. So sensitive are its ears, they can detect the movement of grubs beneath the bark. Once such a snack has been located, the sharp teeth are used to gnaw a small hole into which the slim bony finger can be inserted to winkle the grubs out into the aye-aye’s waiting mouth.

In this way, the species has evolved to fill the ecological niche typically occupied throughout the rest of the world by woodpeckers – a group of birds which has never found its way to Madagascar. Little wonder that those early taxonomists had difficulty placing such an enigmatic creature in the system of biological classification.

Madagascar’s numerous protected areas allow plenty of opportunity for you to watch lemurs at work and play, such as the spectacular canyons of Isalo National Park in the central south. Isalo is famed for its dramatic scenery of majestic sandstone outcrops. The area is excellent for hiking and popular with botanists for its numerous succulent plants, several of which are endemic to the local area. It’s also a wonderful place to watch the iconic ring-tailed lemurs, handsome teddy-bearfaced Verreaux’s sifakas and ever-curious red-fronted brown lemurs. Three further species are active in the reserve by night.

Even greater numbers of lemur species can be seen in Madagascar’s lush rainforest reserves in the east and north of the country. Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is the most easily accessible, yet also among the most rewarding. The highlight here is the indri – the largest of all lemurs. These endangered animals live in small family groups and resemble oversized, enchantingly fluffy, black-and-white koalas. Every morning their eerie wailing carries for kilometres across the forest as the groups call to one another. Being woken by this hauntingly beautiful song is a memory that stays with you forever. And seeing the indri is a truly unique Madagascar experience, for no zoo has ever succeeded in keeping this species alive in captivity.

Andasibe-Mantadia is home to no fewer than 11 other types of lemur, as well as countless birds, reptiles and frogs. Among the reptiles found here is the mighty Parson’s chameleon – the largest chameleon in the world, measuring up to 70cm from nose to tail tip (although it might need the help of your guide to spot it camouflaged on a branch).

Just like the lemurs, dozens of chameleon species have evolved and adapted to nearly every habitat in Madagascar: almost half of the world’s species are native to this one island. They are fittingly outlandish characters. We all know that chameleons possess the extraordinary ability to turn different colours – some species more strikingly than others – but, contrary to traditional wisdom, their colour change normally reflects their mood rather than their background. Some, on meeting a potential mate, or when faced with a rival trespassing on their territory, will puff themselves up and explode into an alarming kaleidoscopic display of polychromatic emotional expression.

A chameleon’s eyeballs are arguably as interesting. Armour-plated, with only the small pupil exposed, they swivel like gun turrets: operating independently so one looks forward, as the other watches for dangers from behind. But once a chameleon spots potential prey – a juicy cricket, perhaps – the two roving eyes are coupled for binocular vision. Focusing on the target, together the eyes give the chameleon three-dimensional vision, so distances can be judged. This is critical, for the creature to unleash its deadly weapon accurately: its tongue. The chameleon’s highly elastic tongue can typically be extended by a full body length. It is unleashed with impressive accuracy and at lightning speed: taking just three hundredths of a second to hit its prey – faster than the perception of the human eye and more importantly, faster than most insects’ reactions. The tongue’s tip is slightly sticky with mucus but actually grabs the prey by forming a suction cup. It is then swiftly reeled back, to be crunched up by strong jaws and a set of tiny sharp teeth.

Meanwhile, at little more than two percent the length of a giant Parson’s chameleon, the pygmy stump-tailed chameleon is the world’s smallest and another unique resident of Madagascar. Considerably smaller even than some of the insects with which they share their forest floor habitat, these miniature lizards are among the tiniest of all reptiles: though they can be spotted with the help of a keen-eyed guide at Montagne d’Ambre National Park in the far north of the country. Montagne d’Ambre is the oldest of the national parks, protecting an isolated area of montane rainforest with a well-maintained trail system. You’ll find a wide and wonderful array of chameleons here, as well as a huge variety of geckos and frogs. Birding is good in the park, and you’ll often spot lemurs, as well as ring-tailed mongooses. Among the luxuriant plant life on show, are countless beautiful and delicate orchids: with more than 1,000 species, Madagascar has more varieties of orchid than the whole of mainland Africa.

Now, more than ever, is the time to visit Madagascar. Despite more than 90 percent of its original forest having been lost, Madagascar is still arguably the most important of all our biodiversity hotspots. The sheer array of flora and fauna is staggering – but increasingly under threat. As the country grapples with rising levels of poverty, a rapidly growing population in need of land for crops and charcoal to cook with, illegal  logging of precious hardwoods, slash-and-burn agriculture, oil and mining projects with potentially serious environmental impacts, it is clear that massive conservation challenges lie ahead. But ecotourism provides local employment and generates much-needed revenue to help Madagascar tackle some of these issues. At the same time this reinforces the message that the country’s natural heritage is a valuable asset worth protecting. But whatever your reason for visiting, you’ll waste no time discovering that to experience Madagascar, is to experience nature in all her glory.

Madagascar Facts

Location: Madagascar lies off Africa’s south-east coast and is the fourth largest island in the world. It is in the Indian Ocean and separated from Africa by the 500-mile wide Mozambique Channel.

Population: 19.5 million

Languages: Malagasy is the national language, the other official language is French.

Time: GMT +3

Money: The Malagasy ariary (MGA) . Currently MGA3,247,440 to UK£1.

When To Go: There are only two seasons in Madagascar: wet and dry. The hot, wet season lasts from December to March (including the cyclone season in February and March). The cooler, drier season lasts from April to November.

Where To Stay: Mandrare River Camp, close to Fort Dauphin in the south of the island, is the finest luxury camping experience in Madagascar. Spot lemurs in the gallery forests, learn about the local Antandroy tribe and enjoy the excellent food.

What To Read: Madagascar: A World Out of Time by Frans Lanting. This book is primarily a portfolio of almost one hundred photographs taken in Madagascar by Frans Lanting, who has been described as “the most versatile wilderness photographer working today”. The photographs were commissioned and financed by the National Geographic Society.

What Not To Miss: Seeking out the indri indri in Andasibe National Park, Madagascar’s largest lemur. Whale watching by boat at Manafiafy Beach & Rainforest Lodge in the south-east corner of the island.

Best Meal: Malagasy curry with a fruit dessert prepared with local vanilla.

Insider Tip: Do not try to cover the whole island in a two-week holiday, it is about the size of France and the infrastructure means that flying is necessary. Pick two or three key areas and focus on them.

Cox & Kings offers luxury holidays and tailor-made holidays to Madagascar.

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17 August 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Wild Privet

Wild Privet

Most of us are familiar with the “domestic” privet that makes dense hedges up and down the country but it’s possible that you won’t be familiar with it’s wilder and more interesting cousin the wild privet.

Unlike the clipped hedges of suburbia wild privet is not a very dense or indeed tall-growing plant and may only reach 30cm of so in height as an adult plant. The overall impression is one of a leggy, scruffy bush with leaves very reminiscent of an olive. These “olive-like” leaves make perfect sense because wild privet is closely related to the olive plant and indeed taxonomists have placed them in the same family thanks to their similarity.

Possibly the most interesting – and surprising – thing about wild privet are the flowers which it bears in early summer. These lilac-like bracts are pure, glossy white with an almost waxy appearance and can be several inches in length on larger specimens.

Best of all they have a rich, sweet scent to them that reminded me of honeysuckle. In other words if you find a wild privet in flower on your nature walks it’s well worth taking the time to get down on your knees and give it a good sniff as it’s one of the most pleasantly-scented British flowers I have personally come across.

17 July 2011 ~ 1 Comment

How To Identify Stoats And Weasels

look out for dangers
Creative Commons License photo credit: markus.hoppe

The mustelids are a group of mammals which in the UK include badgers, otters, polecats, stoats and weasels. Of these the greatest problems with identification seem to be how to tell a weasel from a stoat and so I thought a few pointers may come in useful.

Fortunately once you know the differences between these otherwise superficially similar animals it is actually quite easy to tell them apart though of course you have to remember which one is which!

Weasels

Alaska Weasel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cecil Sanders

Weasels are surprisingly small mammals despite their fearsome reputation as talented hunters of small rodents. They typically reach a body length of around 8 inches long and in cross section are rarely larger than a mouse. The general shape is one of a small, long, wavy mammal with a short tail.

Weasels are carnivores like stoats and will eat anything they can catch which often means small rodents like mice and voles. Their small body means they struggle to catch anything larger but it also means they are able to follow their prey into tiny holes where a mammal like a stoat would struggle to fit.

Weasels may be seen in a range of habitats including woodland and wild meadows and I even saw one last year hiding under a bush in a National Trust garden as dozens of visitors unknowingly walked within a couple of feet of it.

Stoats 

Stoats are much larger than weasels and may grow to become the size of a small adult ferret with a body length around 16 inches. The tail is also a very useful tip for identification because unlike the weasels it typically has a black tip on it.

In my experience, while I have seen both mammals on many occasions the stoat, being rather larger and bolder, is far more likely to be seen.

In addition the stoat’s larger size means it is able to take correspondingly larger prey with rabbits being well within it’s reach. This means they may be seen hunting on open grassland sometimes and if you are downwind of them you can watch their amazingly quick and acrobating hunting technique.

In photographs these two mammals appear very similar indeed but remember the old adage of a “sizable stoat and a wee weasel” to remember that the stoat is much larger and keep an eye out for that black tail. Those two elements combined are normally enough to safely identify these mammals even at a glance, such as when one ducks across a footpath in the countryside some distance ahead of you.