The Nature Blog http://www.thenatureblog.com The UK nature and wildlife blog. Sun, 12 Nov 2017 11:42:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.8 A Visit to Plage de Plaisance Nature Reserve, Charente Maritime http://www.thenatureblog.com/visit-plage-de-plaisance-nature-reserve-charente-maritime/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/visit-plage-de-plaisance-nature-reserve-charente-maritime/#respond Sun, 12 Nov 2017 11:42:24 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=770 As the name suggests, Plage de Plaisance is best known for its beach, which seems to draw in tourists and locals alike. Walk just a few minutes away from the beach, however, and you’ll find yourself entering another world – a haven of wildlife the likes of which I have seen nowhere else. Despite visiting ... Read more

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As the name suggests, Plage de Plaisance is best known for its beach, which seems to draw in tourists and locals alike. Walk just a few minutes away from the beach, however, and you’ll find yourself entering another world – a haven of wildlife the likes of which I have seen nowhere else.

Despite visiting three times in as many months – and all of those visits being in “high season” between June and August – each time we had the reserve almost to ourselves. The handful of visitors that arrived each day did so simply to bake in the sunshine, while the sand dunes just behind the beach remained untouched.

In truth, at times it felt like we were the only people for miles. This made things all the more perfect, as we didn’t have to contend with the usual dog walkers, cyclists and screaming children; instead the wildlife remained undisturbed, leading to some fantastic close-up experiences.

If you’re heading to France and are a lover of wildlife, you could do a lot worse than journeying to this virtually unknown wildlife spot. Here are just a few of the things we found in a few hours at the Plage de Plaisance nature reserve in Charente Maritime, France…

Green Tree Frogs

On arrival, after several hours on the road, we visited the stand-alone public toilets. Built out of concrete, positioned in the free carpark, and far from attractive I hadn’t even got my wildlife watching kit out of the car. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when on opening the door I found three chunky green treefrogs sat on the wall!

Not only was I surprised to find amphibians within a stones throw of the beach, where surely the salty air must play havoc with their skin, but I certainly didn’t expect to find them in a public toilet. Yet here they were – fat and healthy and beautiful.

Treefrogs in France

Praying Mantis

I’m a sucker for a praying mantis – always have been. I’ve even kept them as pets in the past. As someone who is equally interested in invertebrates as I am more “showy” species I try to keep my eyes open when walking through grassland. All too often something moves as you get close.

At one point it looked like a tiny piece of straw blew across the footpath infront of me – but the motion wasn’t quite right. I bent down to investigate further and found this beautiful little European Mantis (Mantis religiosa). It was a hot and sunny day, so he was running at full speed, and I had some difficulties controlling him for a few photos before be was released back into the countryside.

Baby European praying mantis

While this certainly wasn’t the last European mantis we saw during our time in France, it certainly was the first. Perhaps more interestingly, it was the only straw-coloured specimens we found the entire time. It was also the only one we saw here in amongst the yellowing, dry grass of the sand dunes. Perhaps he had specifically chosen this colouration to help his camouflage? I’m sure that other people paying less attention would have passed straight by without even noticing this fantastic little predator just inches from their feet.

Green Lizards

In Southern France we found that there were Wall Lizards everywhere. In every village, on almost every stone wall, you’d see at least one or two. Beautiful and fascinating, but not exactly unusual.

The European Green Lizard, however, is an altogether more impressive species. Rarer. Shyer. Rarely heading into towns or villages; this species likes to dwell far away from people. As soon as they see a person they’ll either freeze or – if you’re too close – run off so fast you’ll wonder what just moved in the distance.

But Plage de Plaisance was alive with green lizards – dozens of them. Creep along slowly, like a ninja, keeping low to minimize your shadow, and with a little luck and patience you too may stumble across one of these lizards. And when you do, all that effort will be worthwhile. Green lizards are surprisingly large for mainland Europe, being well over a foot in length. They’re also the most amazing iridescent green colour. Be careful though; the slightest sniff, or cough, or fidget and they’ll disappear into the undergrowth like magic.

Coypu

Once upon a time many European countries bred coypu for their fur. As one might expect, a few either escaped or were released. This was certainly the case in the UK, where coypu thrived for several decades before being wiped out in the sixties.

In France, however, the coypu still runs free; a little bit of South America in Europe. The nature reserve here at Plage de Plaisance is criss-crossed with brackish dykes and streams – presumably cut out as a flood defence in days gone by. Absent-mindedly strolling alongside one in the heat of the day I saw something out of the corner of my eye. For a moment my brain stalled; it simply couldn’t work out what it was seeing. Then finally the right connection was made – coypu!

Within moments the cat-sized rodent disappeared beneath the surface of the water. So we sat down and waited in silence. By now the full force of the Mediterranean sun was bearing down on us, every minute another opportunity for sun burn.

But wait we did – and eventually our patience was rewarded. Some five minutes or so later the coypu popped up right where he’d disappeared, before swimming over the hole in the bank we hadn’t noticed, and disappearing into his subterranean lair. What an experience!

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Where Do You Find Stag Beetles? http://www.thenatureblog.com/find-stag-beetles/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/find-stag-beetles/#respond Sun, 12 Nov 2017 11:35:59 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=766 I was lucky enough to spend Midsummer’s Night this year in the depths of rural France. Tucked away between La Rochelle in the north, and Cognac in the south, our little villa sat in a small village surrounded by farmers fields and ancient woodland. Unsurprisingly, there was wildlife aplenty. However it was that one hot ... Read more

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I was lucky enough to spend Midsummer’s Night this year in the depths of rural France. Tucked away between La Rochelle in the north, and Cognac in the south, our little villa sat in a small village surrounded by farmers fields and ancient woodland. Unsurprisingly, there was wildlife aplenty. However it was that one hot night in June that I will remember for years to come…

The Great Stag Beetle Invasion

With so many old tumble-down buildings and old trees our garden was awash with bats each evening. The spectacle was so good that I had taken to sitting outside at dusk, getting in half an hour or so of bat watching before it got too dark to see them.

On this one particular evening, however, my attention was diverted by what sounded like a helicopter overhead. This was followed by a “bang” as something big flew into the window. Grabbing my torch, I quickly realized it was a beautiful adult male stag beetle that must have flown across the garden in an ungainly manner, before crash landing.

A male stag beetle in France.

After taking some photos of him, he soon took off again in the sweaty still night air that was still topping 25’C and went on his way. Within minutes, however, the garden was almost taken over with stag beetles. At one point I counted 15 beetles flying overhead in the near-darkness in just 10 minutes.

All around me, in the bushes and on the stone walls surrounding the garden, were the sounds of land-based stag beetles on the hunt for some female activity. In all, I must have seen some 30+ stag beetles in a matter of an hour or so; a mass “hatching” of adults on one of the hottest days of the year so far.

Female stag beetle, with smaller mouth parts

Stag Beetles in the UK

Stag beetles are one of our most impressive British insects. Whilst both sexes are large and stocky insects, it is the males that are particularly notable thanks to their enormous “antlers”. These are in fact modified mouthparts, used by the amorous males to fight off adversaries and win themselves the ultimate prize – a female!

Stag beetles have a fascinating lifestyle. The adult females lay eggs in the soil, which soon hatch into maggot-like grubs. These grubs then feed on rotting wood in or on the soil, slowly changing their skin time and again until reaching maturity. This process from egg to adult may take up to six years in some cases. The adults themselves, when they finally pupate, have just one thing on their minds; reproduction. Scientists believe that adult stag beetles don’t even have mouths, and so don’t eat as adult beetles; they just rely on the energy stored in their bodies.

As a result, adult stag beetles may only survive for a matter of weeks – months at best – before starvation or cold winter weather finishes them off. Hopefully, before that happens the females will have managed to mate and lay eggs, to begin the cycle once again.

This lifestyle goes some way to explaining why stag beetles seem to be getting quite rare in the UK. As our population grows there are fewer and fewer places where large volumes of rotting wood can be found. All too often our woodlands are either “actively managed” or are being turned into building sites. It’s the same with our gardens; wild patches are getting ever rarer as more of us devote space to lawns, patios and decking. As a result, it seems that stag beetles are slowly being pushed out.

Worse, stag beetles generally enjoy warmer weather; which helps to explain our French influx of stag beetles at the end of a three day heat wave that saw the thermometer topping 35’C. These temperatures speed up the metabolism, and encourage activity.

In Britain, however, average temperatures tend to be much lower. Summers are regularly cool and damp, which isn’t ideal for stag beetles. When combined with habitat loss it’s hardly surprising that stag beetles seem to be on the decline in the UK.

Where to See Stag Beetles

Stag beetle on the prowl for a mateWhilst I saw more stag beetles in one night in the Charente-Maritime than I have seen in my whole life in Britain, there are some areas where you’re more likely to see them.

Woodland Areas

First and foremost, as stag beetles spend the vast majority of their lives underground eating rotting vegetation it should hardly be a surprise that woodlands tend to be the most reliable places to see them. Whilst you’re unlikely to find the grubs, which can burrow half a metre deep beneath the soil surface, the pupated adults may well be found exploring deciduous woodland areas.

But it’s not just the woods themselves. Nearby areas can also be rich sources of adult stag beetles. I have personally found quite a few in National Trust gardens over the years, where the males may fly out of nearby woods to find a mate.

A few people are even lucky enough to find adult stag beetles in their own gardens, though in many cases these gardens either offer – or are located close to – some old woodland.

Warmer Weather

Stag beetles are “fair weather insects”. The adult tend to mature in early summer, giving them the hottest months of the year to reproduce. If you’re keen to see stag beetles yourself then you could do a lot worse than investing some time in July or August hunting them out; at other times of the year your odds of success will be far less.

Night Time

Whilst stag beetles may be found at any time of the day, they tend to be most active at night. If you want to see stag beetles with your own eyes, try heading out on a balmy summer evening as the sun is going down. Take your torch with you and keep your eyes peeled.

Despite their size, stag beetles can be surprisingly difficult to see thanks to their dark brown colouration. I have found that it is easier to find stag beetles by listening out for them. Pay attention to the beating of wings overhead or a slow, heavy rustle in the leaves beneath bushes. Investigate the source of the noise and you might just be lucky enough to stumble across your first stag beetle.

Southern Regions

As stag beetles prefer higher temperatures it shouldn’t be a surprise that they tend to be more common in southern England than further north. The cut off line seems to be around the Midlands; those in Yorkshire or even further north may really struggle to see wild specimens.

Can Stag Beetles Hurt You?

So you’ve found a stag beetle; what should you do next? Without a doubt these are pretty dangerous-looking beetles; will they actually do you any harm if you pick them up?

As it turns out, male stag beetles are capable of giving quite a powerful nip if annoyed. It’s generally not enough to draw blood, but it might take you by surprise. Take care when picking up a stag beetle, therefore, to avoid getting your finger nipped.

There are two safe ways to pick up a stag beetle. The first is of course to simply scoop it up gently with a plastic tub, where you can get a closer look at it. The second is to gently grasp the beetle from it’s rear end. In doing so, the stag beetle will be unable to turn around and give you a nip.

It is important to say here that stag beetles only give a nip if they feel threatened. They certainly aren’t aggressive and don’t go out of their way to try and attack anyone. If you leave them well alone then you should be absolutely fine; no need to attack them with a rolled-up newspaper.

Quite the opposite in fact; now stag beetles are becoming rarer we should do everything we can to protect them, and to support their population. Possibly the best thing you can do is to create a “wild” area in your garden, where you build a woodpile. Leave the logs to rot naturally, and allow wild plants to grow up around them. In doing so, you’ll be creating the perfect habitat for the next generation of stag beetles.

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The Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) http://www.thenatureblog.com/scarce-swallowtail-iphiclides-podalirius/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/scarce-swallowtail-iphiclides-podalirius/#respond Sun, 12 Nov 2017 11:30:38 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=768 The Scarce Swallowtail is an oddly-named species of butterfly because, well, it’s not very scarce. Or at least, not when you consider Europe as a whole. It seems that the Scarce Swallowtail got its name from the fact that it is so rarely seen in the UK, whilst in other parts of Europe it is ... Read more

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The Scarce Swallowtail is an oddly-named species of butterfly because, well, it’s not very scarce. Or at least, not when you consider Europe as a whole. It seems that the Scarce Swallowtail got its name from the fact that it is so rarely seen in the UK, whilst in other parts of Europe it is positively common.

Just consider France, where I spent last summer. Here the Scarce Swallowtail is decidedly abundant, and on sunny days it was not unusual to find at least one specimen and sometimes many more flitting across the garden. They can be even more common in the countryside, where half a dozen specimens may be seen feeding on a single clump of wild flowers.

Appearance

The Scarce Swallowtail does at first glance resemble the better-known Swallowtail. They are both quite large butterflies with yellowish wings. They also both enjoy the unusual projections from the hind wings that give them their “swallow tail”. Look just a little bit closer, however, the differences become quite noticeable.

The Scarce Swallowtail butterfly

For one thing, the Scarce Swallowtail is much paler in colour – a gentler and more subtle shade of yellow than the bright primrose yellow of more traditional Swallowtails. The wing shape is also quite different, with the Scarce Swallowtail having more “delta-shaped” wings – a shape that is quite unique among other common European butterflies. These features – the size, colour and wing shape – make these commonly-seen butterflies very easy to identify – even from some distance away.

A scarce swallowtail relaxes on my handScarce swallowtails are most frequently seen on warm summer days where they seem to “glide” as much as flutter. They are often to be found feeding on nectar, though in colder or wetter weather they tend to hide away in bushes and hedges to stay safe. It is here that they can become victim to predators, who pick them off while they are at a disadvantage.

Indeed, the photos of the Scarce Swallowtail resting on my hand were not taken with the butterfly’s permission. It didn’t flutter down to land on me, or agree to be gently picked up off a flower. Instead, I happened to see it struggling to fly through heavy rain, pursued at lightning speed by two house sparrows. It seems they were trying to take chunks out of the poor thing as it struggled to escape. Eventually it crash-landed on the lawn and I dashed out to save it.

Only on a cold, wet day after a long tussle did the Scarce Swallowtail let me pick it up gently, placing it well out of the rain to recover. Some hours later the rain stopped and the sun came out. I then noticed that “my”swallowtail had gone. I do hope he flew off to enjoy life, rather than becoming someone’s dinner.

Lifecycle

The Scarce Swallowtail undergoes a standard butterfly-style lifecycle. Eggs are laid, typically on blackthorn, though other plants have sometimes been used in the past. Here the eggs hatch, and begin feeding at speed. Within a couple of months they then turn into a chrysalsis, before emerging as adult butterflies. It is believed that the species may have two or even three broods per year before the cold winter weather sweeps in.

It may be that one reason for this butterfly’s scarceness in the UK is the lack of blackthorn. As mechanisation has been introduced, and farmer’s fields have increased in size, so hedgerows have been destroyed – the most common place to find wild blackthorn. Alternatively, or additionally, it may be that the average summer temperatures in Britain are simply too low for this species, which only occasionally manages to make it’s way across the Channel.

Whatever the case may be, as the climate continues to warm we might just find this stunning butterfly cropping up rather more often. And what a joy that will be for us nature lovers!

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Where to Find Slow Worms http://www.thenatureblog.com/find-slow-worms/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/find-slow-worms/#respond Sun, 12 Nov 2017 11:26:11 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=772 Slow worms are legless lizards that are often misidentified as snakes. Luckily, once you have seen a few slow worms they’re quite easy to identify… Unlike the snake species found in the UK – grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes – adult slow worms tend to be almost uniformly brown in colour. They’re also quite ... Read more

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Slow worms are legless lizards that are often misidentified as snakes. Luckily, once you have seen a few slow worms they’re quite easy to identify…

Unlike the snake species found in the UK – grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes – adult slow worms tend to be almost uniformly brown in colour. They’re also quite small and relatively slow-moving in comparison to snakes. Lastly, if you’re able to get close enough you’ll also notice that they blink – something which sets them apart from snakes with their fused eyelids.

When it comes to finding slow worms I have found that there are a number of elements that will help you track them down. First, though, I should mention that they don’t seem to be uniformly distributed across the UK. In Norfolk, where I grew up, I rarely ever saw a slow worm no matter how hard I searched.

In contrast, I have seen many slow worms in southern Britain, with Hampshire and West Sussex being particular hotspots in my searches. Sadly, there’s not a lot you can do about where you live, but there are ways to increase the odds of seeing slow worms no matter where you are…

Heathland

Whilst slow worms can be found in plenty of different habitats, my most successful searches have taken place on healthland. It seems that the lack of tree cover helps the earth to warm up nicely, while there are plenty of invertebrates for them to eat.

Grassland

While I find fewer slow worms in grassland, this can still be a habitat worth searching. In my experience areas with rough or unmown grass tend to be more appealing for slow worms, when compared to areas with close-cropped grass such as downland.

Organic Vegetable Gardens

Interestingly, as a gardener I have found more than my fair share of slow worms slithering through the grass on my allotment. This seems odd as my allotment is surrounded by major roads, but perhaps the allotments offer a certain refuge for wildlife. They most certainly draw in invertebrates, which feed on all the juicy crops, so searching through fallow allotments or the overgrown edges of gardens may also be successful. I have even found one in my greenhouse, presumably keeping warm in cooler weather.

Seasons

Like all reptiles in Britain, winters can be tough for slow worms. Many will slow down their metabolism and hide away until the weather improves. Hunting for slow worms in winter is therefore not likely to end in success. Far better is to go searching for slow worms when the weather improves; the hotter it is, the more active local slow worms are likely to be.

Look Under Objects

Whilst slow worms actively hunt their invertebrate prey, it is quite unusual to find them “out in the open”. More often they’ll either be found resting under logs of corrugated iron, or slithering through long grass where they can’t be seen by passing birds who may try to eat them.

There are two options here then. Firstly, you could walk through long grass, keeping your eyes peeled. All the same, though, you might miss these tiny and very active little lizards. An even easier way to find slow worms is to simply look under logs. Just be sure to roll the log away gently, and to replace it afterwards whether a slow worm is present right now or not. In this way you won’t have destroyed a habitat – and one that might come in handy for a slow worm in the future.

Weather

Slow worms can be active in most weather conditions – when the temperature is warm enough. Unlike most British snakes and lizards – who only like dry, sunny weather – slow worms may also hunt in wet weather. This is the perfect opportunity for them, as rain draws out the slugs that make up a large part of the slow worm’s diet. If you’re on the prowl for slow worms, therefore, don’t be deterred by less-than-perfect weather. Sometimes donning your waterproof coat and wellington boots can be a perfect opportunity for slow worm hunting.

Check the Roads

While it is never nice to find a squashed animal in the road, these can act as signs of the local wildlife. In one area of Berkshire in which I lived, I noticed that numerous slow worms were getting run over. A nearby search located a suitable patch of open-access heathland, and sure enough there were dozens of slow worms in residence. Sometimes taking a walk or a cycle ride around your local area, and paying attention to what you find in the road, can be a handy tip for locating slow worm populations.

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6 Top Tips To See More Wildlife http://www.thenatureblog.com/6-top-tips-to-see-more-wildlife/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/6-top-tips-to-see-more-wildlife/#respond Tue, 19 Nov 2013 10:48:04 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=523 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 ... Read more

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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.

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Who Bothers Hawaii? http://www.thenatureblog.com/who-bothers-hawaii/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/who-bothers-hawaii/#respond Wed, 13 Mar 2013 10:28:22 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=511 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 ... Read more

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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.

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Great Mullein And The Mullein Moth http://www.thenatureblog.com/great-mullein-and-the-mullein-moth/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/great-mullein-and-the-mullein-moth/#comments Sun, 08 Jan 2012 22:34:35 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=439 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 ... Read more

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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.

Mullein moth caterpillar

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Rwanda- A Celebration of Spirit http://www.thenatureblog.com/rwanda-a-celebration-of-spirit/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/rwanda-a-celebration-of-spirit/#respond Mon, 17 Oct 2011 10:49:52 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=465 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 ... Read more

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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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How To Tell The Different Between Slow Worms And Snakes http://www.thenatureblog.com/how-to-tell-the-different-between-slow-worms-and-snakes/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/how-to-tell-the-different-between-slow-worms-and-snakes/#respond Sun, 16 Oct 2011 15:58:04 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=417 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 ... Read more

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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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Madagascar: Life At An Evolutionary Tangent http://www.thenatureblog.com/madagascar-life-at-an-evolutionary-tangent/ http://www.thenatureblog.com/madagascar-life-at-an-evolutionary-tangent/#respond Wed, 21 Sep 2011 09:10:59 +0000 http://www.thenatureblog.com/?p=447 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 ... Read more

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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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