Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year!

It's been a busy but exciting last two months for me. In November, I moved to Bristol to start my career in wildlife film-making as an apprentice at the BBC Natural History Unit. As such I haven't had as much time to get out in the wild recently, but to finish the year I thought I'd take a look back at my top 5 wildlife highlights of 2014:

5. Badgers:

Earlier in the year I had a scare when my local Badger Sett was flooded, hit hard by the UK's 'wettest winter on record'. The Badger's were fine though, and went on to have three cubs in the Spring.

4. Exploring My Local Patch

Becoming a local reporter this year has given me a great excuse to get visiting my amazing local nature reserves. Sydlings Copse (pictured above) is one of my favourites, home to Butterflies,Badgers, Foxes, Deer, Reptiles and a fantastic display of Bluebells in April.

3. Going Cuckoo for Cuckoos

One local Cuckoo provided the soundtrack to my Spring when it arrived in the field behind my house earlier this year. One day I managed to follow it's call back to the source, and caught a brief glimpse of this incredible bird.

2. Sumatran Orangutans

In July my friends and I went travelling for a month in South East Asia. Of course, I couldn't visit that part of the world without seeing one the most enigmatic apes on the planet, so I stopped off in Sumatra to search for Orangutans. Whilst the experience wasn't quite how I envisioned it, it was incredible nonetheless.

1. New Discoveries

My biggest highlight of the year has by far been discovering species on my local patch that I'd never seen before. As well as Waxwings and Short-Eared Owls, I found a Common Lizard in a log pile a few months ago- the first reptile I've ever seen in the UK!

2014 has been an amazing year. Here's hoping for an even more wild 2015!

Happy New Year!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Wood Ants

I've become obsessed with wood ants recently, after finding nest after nest in my local forest. They're fascinating, and so easy to watch (so long as you don't mind getting bitten!). A 'keystone species', colonies can number up to 400,000 individuals and several queens, with workers responsible for tending to the young, foraging for food and maintaining the nests. To capture the busy worker ants in action, I set up a time-lapse camera outside a local nest. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Oxfordshire Goes Wild!

Recently I visited Oxfordshire Goes Wild, an event aimed at getting kids into nature which is now making its rounds in local communities, this year in Bicester. Run by Wild Oxfordshire- which coordinates a partnership of many organisations from across the county- the event saw 22 contributors come together at a local primary school to show children how amazing the wildlife around them really is.

And with such a diverse range of groups in attendance, there was plenty for kids to see and do. The Oxfordshire Reptile and Amphibian Group brought Newts, Lizards, Slow-worms and Grass snakes for children to get up close and personal with. For many this was the first time they had ever seen a British reptile before (it would've been my first time too, had I not spotted a Common Lizard a few weeks ago), and excited gasps offered much deserved appreciation to these often overlooked animals. But the lack of one iconic species echoed its worrying decline in the area-Adders are confirmed at just one site in the whole of Oxfordshire, and the Reptile and Amphibian Group are appealing for sightings through their website.
The kids got the chance to hold live frogs (Photo courtesy of Cynth Napper)
There were plenty of other live animals on show too. David Endacott from the Oxfordshire Bat Group showed off his 26 years of research into the world's only flying mammals with the help of a young Soprano Pipistrelle, who kindly demonstrated her echolocation to the kids. Meanwhile a dozen Brown-lipped Banded Snails were used to show natural selection in action. The yellow and black shelled snails are perfectly camouflaged against long grass, where they can't be seen and picked off by hungry Song Thrushes, but put against brown leaves and they become painfully obvious. 

Aside from seeing the animals, there were loads of other activities for the kids to get stuck in to. Pond dipping and bug hunting were particular favourites among the kids, but what stood out for me was dissecting owl pellets. Unlike faeces, pellets are composed of all the parts of its prey which an owl can't digest, such as fur and bones. Studying the remains allows us to build an incredibly accurate picture of an individual's habits and lifestyle. For example, my owl turned out to be a proficient hunter- he'd caught four rodents in one night, all of them wood mice. 
Making 'bee hotels' was another great activity (Photo courtesy of Cynth Napper)
All in all Oxfordshire Goes Wild was a fantastic success. It was great to see kids interacting with nature in a hands on, meaningful way. It's only through events like these, where children are actively engaged in the natural world, that we can inspire future generations of naturalists. If you live in Oxfordshire and would like to get involved in local conservation, please visit Wild Oxfordshire's website for details. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014


Having returned from my travels, I've relished getting to know my local patch again over the last month. The vast range of species and habitats I'm fortunate enough to have around me are just as diverse and interesting as anything I encountered in Asia, and as the last month has proven, there's always more to see at home.

Inspired by the British Dragonfly Society's stand at the Rutland Birdfair in August, my friend and I decided to do a survey of a pond in a nearby forest. On the face of it the pond doesn't look anything special, and I really wasn't sure if we'd find much. But when you look closer, you see that the pond is actually a hotspot for wildlife.
This woodland pond proved to be a hotspot for wildlife
After a few minutes of sitting quietly by the pond side, a number of bird species began to appear. Coal Tits sat singing in the trees on the little island in the pond, and a Jay flew past with an acorn in its mouth. I even caught my very first glimpse of a tree creeper climbing up the trunk of a browning silver birch. There were plenty of signs that other animals visit the pond often too. Deer, Badger and Fox tracks lay in the soft mud around the pond, and a nearby tree bore scratch marks from the antlers of a Fallow Buck which had been frayed on it in preparation for the rut.
Bucks 'fray' the velvet off their newly formed antlers in the autumn, leaving characteristic scratch marks on trees
But it's once you delve under the water that things get really interesting. The pond is full of aquatic life, and with every sweep of the net we would bring up all sorts of pond-dwelling species. Water Boatman were caught by the dozen, and tapping gently on the surface of the water with a blade of grass revealed to us the 'Jaws-like' ferocity with which they attack their prey. Dragonfly and Alderfly larvae also frequently cropped up in our catch, and we were even lucky enough to salvage the empty case of a Dragonfly Nymph, which perhaps once belonged to one of the Southern Hawkers buzzing around us. 
We think this empty Dragonfly nymph case once belonged to a Southern Hawker
Elsewhere in the forest lies a pile of old logs, which we decided would be a good place to look for woodland insects. To my surprise and delight however, we found a species that I had never seen in the UK before: A Common Lizard. In total three sat basking in the sun on the logs, too cold yet to even seize the flies crawling over their scaly bodies. This provided the perfect opportunity to get a close up look at them, and once they had warmed up they skulked back into the log pile. 
My first ever UK reptile sighting- A Common Lizard
Meanwhile the Badgers seem to be doing well. They've been making the most of the damper weather in the past few weeks, coming out earlier in the evening to search for worms in the soft soil. I've been hearing a Barn Owl screeching in the fields behind my house every night too, so this month I hope to complete my mission from February and finally film a Barn Owl hunting. 
The Badgers have been out looking for worms during the day
This month also sees the start of the Fallow Deer rut, another spectacle I hope to film over the course of the season. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

World Orangutan Day

Today is World Orangutan Day! I've become completely obsessed with these astonishing apes since my recent visit to Sumatra, and today highlights the pressing need to conserve them before its too late. Found in just two locations on the planet (Borneo and Sumatra), Orangutans face a number of threats-most notably habitat loss and hunting-and often end up on 'The World's Most 25 Endangered Primates List' as a result. If you'd like to help out Orangutans, type 'Orangutan Conservation' into your browser and take a look at the fantastic organisations from across the globe which need you to carry on their vital work. 

To celebrate World Orangutan Day, I've edited together some footage of my trek through Gunung Leuser National Park, featuring one very special baby at the end: 

Travelling around South-East Asia was an amazing experience, but its great to be back home. Now I can't wait to get back outside and reacquainted with the extraordinary wildlife that lives on my very own doorstep!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Man of the Forest

Last week I arrived in the Indonesian village of Bukit Lawang, located on the outskirts of the famous Gunung Leuser National Park, to go in search of Pongo abelii- the Sumatran Orangutan. The experience was one that I shall never forget, but also one that I didn't expect...

With a name that literally translates as 'Forest Man' in bahasa, it was clear to us from the moment we arrived in the picturesque village just how revered Orangutans are by the local people. And with good reason. Ecotourism brings thousands of pounds into the small community every year, providing locals with a number of jobs ranging from shop keepers and restaurateurs to trekking guides and 'jungle taxi' drivers (people who transport tourists up and down the rainforest rivers in traditional rubber rafts). One local hotel manager even admitted to me, as we were sitting surrounded by Orangutan paintings in his candlelit lobby, that if the tourists ever stopped coming to Bukit Lawang they would be forced to exploit the Rainforest for money. This was a hard truth to hear, but a fair one.

Having arrived in total darkness the night before, on our first morning in Lawang I was greeted by one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Our balcony overlooked a beautiful section of jungle, and a river which ran straight past our hotel and meandered into the National Park. On the other side of the riverbank a South-east Asian Monitor Lizard sat basking in the sun, which I watched for a good half an hour until it had warmed itself up enough to slither back into the rainforest. Shortly after a troop of Long-tailed Macaques marched past-all together  more wild looking than their urban counterparts- whilst a dozen Pacific swallows darted over the river, scooping up insects for their breakfast.

This was the first of two days we had in Bukit Lawang, our budget too overstretched to fit in anymore. We'd already used up a lot of money on our flights to Sumatra and our accomodation, and to pay for a two day trek would break us completely. With this in mind we decided to save some money and spend our first day at the old Orangutan rehab centre's feeding platform, assured by our guidebook that a sighting was garunteed.

How wrong we were. Once upon a time the rehab centre in Gunung Leuser rescued injured and captive Orangutans from across Northern Sumatra. Once rehabilitated they would be 'soft released' back into the wild (much in the way an injured Chaffinch might be back home) by letting them go free but still putting out food for them everyday so that they could come back for extra support if needed. Eventually, however, the funding dried up and animals stopped being taken there, and now no Orangutans have been spotted at the platform in over two months. "They're wild now", a local guide told me, "they don't need to come back anymore".

That was good to hear, but now the pressure was really on. We had one day left to see Orangutans and our hotel manager was quick to point out that there was no garuntee of finding them on our trek either. I went to sleep that night with snippets from Attenborough documentaries playing over in my mind. I'd have given anything to find them. If only we had a few more days!

The next morning we set off, with two guides and a honeymooning German couple as our companions. "We have about six hours to find them", one guide announced, "then it will be time to head back". Two hours in and all we had seen were Long-tailed Macaques. Usually I could watch them for hours, but we had a mission and were running out of time fast. The constant smoking breaks weren't helping my nerves either- our guides didn't like using insect spray which can be poisonous to the animals, so stopped to ward off mosquitoes with cigarette smoke regularly instead.

As we got deeper into the jungle we started seeing more. A group of Thomas' Leaf Monkeys, endemic to northern Sumatra, sat grooming themselves in nearby trees. A White-handed Gibbon swung over our heads as we ate a lunch of jungle fruits. We tiptoed through the undergrowth to get  to quiet viewpoints of the river, from which we spotted Hornbills soaring between the trees and Pea Fowl displaying down below us. The guides' enthusiasm for everything around us- the trees, the monkeys, the termite nests- was infectious. Then a phone rang.

Now we were being rushed through the forest, no longer walking at the quiet, careful pace we had gotten used to. I asked the guide what was happening; "My friend says that there are Orangutans up ahead, but we must hurry". Soon I could here excited voices resonating through the valley, and as we reached the top of the hill a crowd of some 40 tourists were staring up into the trees.

There it was above us. A solitary, ginger haze sitting high up in the canopy, obscured by leaves. Luckily my camera had a good zoom. This was a female, and she sat and ate for a while before swinging to another tree, the crowd following her every move. Finally we had found the (wo)man of the forest.

Yet this wasn't how I had expected it to be. Perhaps I'd watched too many Attenborough documentaries, but surrounded by a noisy crowd of onlookers was a far cry from the quiet, personal experience I had hoped for. Children squealed excitedly. Others, trying to tempt the beautiful ape down with bananas, screamed as they were jumped on by hungry macaques. It may as well have been a zoo!

Suddenly a shout rang out, and everybody rushed down the hill to where a mother and her baby had come down for some food. Within seconds of taking the banana she was mobbed by a rabble of camera snapping tourists, some of whom were well within the forbidden touching distance. I stood back, and filmed her for a while with my zoom. "Was she released by the rehab centre?" I asked our guide, puzzled at how tame she seemed to be.
"It's hard to tell", he said, "the Orangutans are so used to seeing people that they don't hide from us".

For a moment I was enraged. Was this the price of ecotourism? Was this baby destined to grow up surrounded by the flashing of cameras, the screaming of children and contaminated bananas from mossie spray covered tourists? At home I'm used to creeping up, noiselessly, on animals from downwind, and doing every thing that I can to ensure I don't disturb whatever it is I'm trying to film. This went against every bone in my body, but surely I was just as much to blame?

But then I looked around properly. The tourists were smiling, the guides were happy, and the Orangutans were completely unphased. When she got bored the mother and her baby simply climbed back into the canopy and moved away. And the crowd- whose money is protecting not just the Orangutans in the National Park but also the Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos that live there as well- left too. Sure it could be run better. Crowds should be smaller, noise should be kept to a minimum and the rules on not feeding or approaching the animals should be strictly enforced. But just as our hotel manager had told us: as long as the tourists keep coming, these animals will be protected for many more years to come.

Monday, 21 July 2014

South-East Asian Adventure

Selamat pagi from South-East Asia!

Last week my friends and I flew out to Malaysia, and I've already been amazed by the sheer abundance and variety of the wildlife we've seen so far.

On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, we first visited the Batu Caves. These are an ancient system of caves in which Hindu temples were built in 1891. The rocky crags provide perfect nest sites for hundreds of Pigeons and Oriental Turtle Doves, whilst the thousands of litter dropping tourists that visit the temples each year provide the local Long-Tailed Macaques with a constant food source.

However, it wasn't the monkeys or the birds we were here to see-it was the bats! Run by tourism Malaysia, the 'Dark Caves' system in Batu was formerly fully open to the public, which caused significant damage to the delicate cave ecosystem.Since the 70s however, conservation group 'Dark Caves Malaysia' has taken over the running of the caves, and now keep them mostly closed off, allowing only a few guided tours in each  week to educate people on the plight of the caves.

We signed up to one of these tours, and were not dissapointed by what we saw. The first thing that hits you is the sound of the fruit bats. As their name suggests, fruit bats feed on tropical fruits and so have not needed to develop echolocation in order to find and catch their food. Instead they emit audible chirps which resonate through the caves like bird call through an aviary. There are insectiverous bats here too, and as you look up you can just about see them flitting past gaps in the cave's roof. Be sure to keep your mouth closed though- one unlucky onlooker on our tour had a fresh pile of guano (bat poo) land on his tongue as he gazed up in awe at the bats flying overhead!

In the absence of sunlight to sustain plant life, it's the guano which fuels this ecosystem. Cockroaches and many other species of insect feed on the nutritious droppings which the bats produce,and devour any carcasses which fall to the ground. This provides prey for other animals living in the cave, such as long-legged centipedes, several types of rodent and an extremely rare type of trapdoor spider. The rodents in turn provide food for various types of snake, including Pit Vipers and Cave Racers. We were lucky enough to see just a handful of these creatures, but they still provided us with a powerful insight into life inside a cave.

Today we're off to Sumatra, in search of the mysterious man of the forest. Stay tuned....