Categories
Nature

bird of the year 2006: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

All those rainforest plants were nice, and I enjoyed taking wildflower photos while I was in Spain. But, not least because it’s nice to pick a winner that I can actually identify, I’m going for the Galapagos Prickly Pear, Opuntia echios. On islands where there are giant tortoises and land iguanas, they’ve evolved woody trunks and have fierce spines; on other islands they don’t have the trunks and they have soft bendy spines. And I enjoyed taking macro pictures of them, like this bit of trunk:

Best Insect

There were some great butterflies in the jungle – notably spectacular blue morphos – and a particularly striking leaf-mimicking moth, but my winner is the Painted Locust.

Best Invertebrate (other)

The shortlist would include the tarantula I saw in the rainforest – a first for me – the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and Galapagos Slipper Lobster (curious-looking and tasty), but the undoubted star in this category was the Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Best Fish

Piranha deserves a mention, even if I didn’t see one actually in the water, and it was very gratifying to see sharks swimming long with just their fins sticking out of the water, like what they do in the movies. But I had two special fish in the Galapagos this year. For the first, we were anchored off an island at night. Lots of fish had been attracted to the boat’s lights, and they in turn had attracted sea-lions and turtles, so we were watching them splashing around in the phosphorescence. Every so often there would be a splash where one of the sea-lions was swimming and a trail of phosphorescence would shoot off, zig-zagging over the water. It took me a few occasions to realise that they were flying fish. Which was cool.

The other came when I was trying to track down something splashing in the distance — I thought it was probably a dolphin, but I kept missing it or not seeing it well enough to identify. When I finally got binoculars on it, I was stunned to realise it was a manta ray leaping clear of the water. Later on in the trip we saw them a bit closer, and it was an absolute thrill. They don’t look like the most aerodynamic beasties, and it’s extraordinary seeing them launch themselves and twist in midair before crashing back into the water. Manta ray and flying fish are both species I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, but the manta wins the award for best fish of 2006.

Best Amphibian

A teeny-weeny poison arrow frog in the rainforest.

Best Reptile

It’s all Galapagos in this category: the shortlist is Green Turtle, Land Iguana, Marine Iguana and Giant Tortoise. It’s always nice to see turtles, and especially to swim with them, but I’ve seen them before. The three Galapagos specialities are all among the most desirable reptile species in the world. The tortoises are fun, and even bigger than you expect; the land iguana is a striking-looking beast. But it’s the marine iguanas which really stand out.

The fact that they’re lizards which swim out to sea to feed would almost be enough to win them the category, but they’re one of the continual pleasures of visiting the islands; you have to be careful not to step on them, they’re so indifferent to your presence. And you see them in great scaly drifts draped all over the lava, occasionally sneezing out the excess salt or aggressively nodding their heads at each other but mainly spending their time basking in the sun like hungover English tourists. They have a rugged, rock-hewn saurian quality that makes them seem like survivors from a distant epoch, which is misleading since in fact the islands, by evolutionary standards, are relatively young.

Best Mammal

I saw squirrels and monkeys in the jungle, and in another year those might be in contention for Best Mammal. And then there was the dozens and dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and False Killer Whales that turned up unexpectedly one morning and which swam around the dinghy for us to see, or the dolphins that rode the bow-wave of the ship, jumping and twisting. But there can be no doubt that the Galapagos Sea Lion is the winner this year. It’s such a treat to be able to just wander past these animals and have them pay you no attention but just get on with playing, suckling their pups (cubs?) or most often just lying around.

The babies are fantastically cute, and the males are imposing, but the general impression is big furry bolsters — until you’re snorkelling along and suddenly a sea lion swims past underneath and looks up at you, and you realise that they’re sleek, graceful, muscular, and quite large. I found having a sea lion stick it’s nose up to my snorkel mask exciting but just a little bit intimidating. I think that’s a good thing; it’s good to be reminded from time to time that animals are not toys or pets or little furry people, but something quite alien. We tend to see animals in a human context, as food, pests, entertainment, ‘endangered species’; it’s good to feel like the outsider in their environment.

Best Ecosystem

Andalusia in spring was gorgeous. The marsh itself, with nightingales and Cetti’s warblers singing in every bush, and the sun on the water; the dry scrubby stuff with Dartford Warblers and Red-legged Partridge, and possibly best of all, sandy pine woodlands, with the amazing contrast between the glare of the noon sun and the deep shade, and the noise of bees and crickets in the heat.

And the lava fields of the Galapagos are like nowhere else on earth. It’s not a gentle landscape — uneven, sunbaked rock with the occasional cactus or thornbush hanging on as best it can — but the ripples and flows of the lava are endlessly fascinating. It’s geology made ridiculously simple; you can just look at it and see how it formed. And it brings home the endless capacity of life to find a way to live in unpromising places; the cacti colonising the bare rock before soil has a chance to form, the mangroves on the beach, and sea lions, seabirds, iguanas, sea stars, crabs and fish on the little fringe where the land meets the sea. And it’s not just interesting; it has a real beauty to it. It’s dramatic and odd and textured.

But my ecosystem of the year was none of those; it was the Ecuadorian cloudforest. I mean, it’s a rainforest with spectacular mountain views: how can you go wrong? The birds are actually sometimes at eye-level, unlike the lowland forest, and the temperatures are very moderate, even chilly sometimes. The humidity is such that plants just grow everywhere; you get the feeling that if you nodded off up on the mountain, you’d wake up covered in moss. There are trees up there which are so covered in epiphytes, bromeliads, moss, ferns and creepers that you can only roughly tell where the trunk and branches are. And every so often the cloud closes in, and instead of spectacular vistas, the world shrinks right down so it’s just you and the mist and a lot of weird calls from invisible birds.

I don’t have a photo which does justice to the vegetation (my camera batteries died), but here are some mountains:

Categories
Me Nature

Rainforest

Having said that I recommend the Galapagos, I have to say that equatorial lowland rainforest may not be for everyone. With the temperature in the 30s and 80% humidity, it’s hard work just walking around. Particularly, once you do get hot, it takes for ever to cool down again because your basic thermal regulation system – sweat – just doesn’t help. The rainforest is also quite superficially boring to walk through: endless dark green foliage everywhere, rather gloomy light, and very little sign of animal life except for birdcalls and the noise of cicadas. There’s a lot of mud underfoot. When it rains, it really rains. And I am smothered in mosquito bites.

But once you get used to it, there are things to see: the most obvious being the butterflies of all colours and sizes, topped out by the morphos – huge flashing sky-blue things that flop lazily through the air. I saw a tarantula, and helicopter damselflies, and mating stick-insects. There are loads of ant, termite and wasp nests in the trees, leafcutter and army ants at your feet. If you’re sharp-eyed (or have a sharp-eyed guide), there are frogs, toads and lizards around the place. I was really pleased to see a little tiny poison arrow frog. And there was one lizard which was so well camouflaged that, even knowing where it was and being able to see its head, legs and tail, my brain still insisted it was a dead leaf. I think I saw only two mammal species, a squirrel and a monkey, but they were cool. For that matter, the foliage itself is interesting: each tree is only like a starting point in establishing the plantlife, with bromeliads, epiphytes and lianas all over the place among other green creeping things I didn’t recognise.

And of course there are lots of birds. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy birding. Most of them are neck-breakingly high in the trees and the dense foliage doesn’t make it any easier. The ones that don’t live in the canopy are generally very secretive and usually have to be located by their calls. Fortunately there was an exceptionally good local bird guide called Jose whose English was limited but included phrases like ‘Rufescent Tiger Heron’, ‘Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner’ and ‘in the palm leaves’. With the help of a lot of taped bird calls and a laser pointer, he managed to show those of us in the birding group about 60 species a day.

There was also a canopy tower – a 40 metre high tower to scan the canopy from. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned my fear of heights before, but you’ll appreciate that I found the tower a bit challenging. The first time I tried I only got about halfway up before having to go back down. I did manage to get all the way up the next time, by staring at the back of the person in front and trying not to think, and while I can’t say I was ever completely relaxed up there, it really is a great way of birding the rainforest; in three hours we saw four species of toucan, loads of tanagers, a trogon, parrots, several raptors etc, all at eye-level for once. And a load of sweat-drinking bees, which are irritating but harmless.

Next stop the cloudforest, which will have just as much wildlife but will hopefully be a bit more comfortable for those of us who could afford to lose a few pounds.

Categories
Nature

Heron

I just watched a heron catch and eat a frog from the garden pond. The presence of the heron isn’t unusual, but they’re generally both shy and uncannily good at spotting people, even through glass and at some distance. It took it some time to eat the frog — presumably mainly because frogs are quite an awkward shape, especially if you only have a beak to control them with — and several times the heron dipped it into the pond. I’m tempted to say ‘washed it in the pond’ but perhaps that’s not what’s going on. After all, the frog just came out of the same bit of water, so it doesn’t obviously need washing. Perhaps they just wash all their prey habitually? Or perhaps wet frogs are easier to swallow? I don’t know.

Categories
Nature

Top ten animals – #10, Wallace’s Flying Frog

Getting this list down to ten was really really hard. I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to earn extra fanboy points by going for the really obscure stuff – so no oilbird, no pangolin – but I think I’ve got a pretty pleasing mix. My final ten includes three birds, three mammals, one reptile, one fish, one invertebrate and one amphibian – the Wallace’s Flying Frog, Rhacophorus nigropalmatus.

There are various species of flying frog, apparently, but this one’s the biggest. You can see the enormously long toes and webby bits on the photo above, which is from Access Excellence. The best ‘flying’ shot I’ve found is this, from National Geographic:

They don’t really fly, of course, they just glide from tree to tree. But that’s still pretty fab. I was very tempted by all the gliders – flying squirrels, snakes, lizards and fish – but I had to pick just the one, so this is it. The fact you have to go to Borneo to see them, and you still almost certainly won’t, adds to the glamour. And they’re even named after Alfred Russel Wallace.

That’s what I call a top frog.

Categories
Nature

the difference between reptiles and amphibians

[EDIT: People keep finding this site by Googling ‘the difference between reptiles and amphibians’ This is the basic answer:

Amphibians are frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians.

Reptiles are snakes, tortoises, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, alligators and a few other oddities. Dinosaurs were reptiles.

Reptiles are more fully adapted to life on land than amphibians. The biggest difference is that amphibians typically need to return to the water to breed, because their eggs need to be kept wet. Reptile eggs have a tough outer shell that prevents them from drying up.

Amphibians [with a few minor exceptions] have a larval stage (i.e. tadpoles/polliwogs) when they breathe underwater through gills; when they become adult, they develop lungs and need to come to the air to breathe. Reptiles have lungs from the moment they leave the egg.

As a further adaptation to life on land, reptiles have scales. Amphibians have smooth skins, and many species need a fairly damp environment so they don’t lose too much water through their skin, although some are adapted to much dryer conditions.

Mammals and birds are evolved from reptiles. Reptiles are evolved from amphibians. correction: amphibians and reptiles evolved separately from an early tetrapod ancestor. Amphibians are evolved from fish.

I hope that helps, Google-people. END OF EDIT]

The first in an occasional series of things which are ‘Something Every Educated Person Should Know’.

When I was at university, as someone interested in science but doing a degree in English, I was frequently annoyed by the wilful ignorance of both academics and students on scientific topics. And I mean wilful – they took a coy, self-deprecating pride in not knowing about ‘those kind of things’. I just think there’s no excuse for taking pride in your ignorance about anything, whether it’s the Britney Spears back-catalogue, Slovakian dialling codes or the second law of thermodynamics.

Anyway, that’s when I started fantasising about writing a book called What Every Educated Person Should Know, which would just lay down the minimum that anyone ought to know who thinks of themselves as educated. Most of the things I thought of then were scientific; I can’t believe it doesn’t bother people that their understanding of how the universe works is often three hundred years out of date. But it would also cover literature, art, geography, politics and general knowledge of all kinds (I don’t claim to know everything, btw – a musician’s list of SEEPSKs would certainly catch me out – this is just a venue for my irritability).

So, SEEPSK #1. One of the presenters on Today this morning had to correct himself after a flood of emails about his reference to a salamander as a reptile. I think it was Edward Stourton, educated at Ampleforth and Trinity College Cambridge, and the man doesn’t know a reptile from an amphibian. Aargh!