Brothers: The Horse Meadow Foxes

I live on a boundary-line unknown to human diplomats: the frontier of two wildly different fox families runs straight through my back garden.

To the north live the Across the Road group. They are maverick, street-smart survivors who have had to navigate not only a dangerous main road but also serious habitat loss.

The Horse Meadows Group come from the south. Bold, curious and enduring, they are headed up by this chap, a one-eyed fox known locally as Nelson. I have always called him ‘One-Eye’.

Fox One-Eye sunshine 5 Nov 2017

Like all foxes, he has a terrible weakness for sunshine. Even a bit of brightness in November sends him sunbathing.

Fox One-Eye sleeping 5 Nov 2017

The Horse Meadow vixens include ‘Pretty Face’, another well-known fox who has given me some of my favourite photography moments – and cubs some of their favourite games. She is the perfect auntie.

Fox HMG cubs16 26 May 2017

Fox HMG cubs11 26 May 2017

Unlike One-Eye, she rarely visits the garden, although she did surprise me last week.

Fox Pretty Face 12 Nov 2017

One-Eye’s family have carved out a lofty niche for themselves. Their territory includes dozens of gardens, parts of three roads and, of course, the horse paddocks that give this group their name.

Foxes6 with magpie 180715

I often find them relaxing near the horses on sunny days, but I’ve also met them during the snow. And then they show the world how to play!

foxes snow7 210215

foxes snow12 210215

The Horse Meadows Group have a pretty easy life. Yes, intruding foxes are always a hazard, but they defend their territory with gusto – I’ve witnessed some jaw-dropping confrontations. They thrive upon years of knowledge of their land: safe footpaths and good hunting grounds, dry corners for shelter. A fox who has settled down, so to speak, is often very wise.

But there are other ways to make a living.

This is Spectacles. I’m certain he’s One-Eye’s brother. They materialised in my parish together about three years ago, distinctive from the outset in their dark russet hues across their flanks.

Fox Spectacles 160827

For a while, they were inseparable. If you saw one, you saw the other.

That friendship never seemed likely to last. There is normally only one breeding male per group, and fights can be fierce. One-Eye took the Horse Meadows territory, Spectacles strayed. He is a transient – a homeless wanderer. Many young male foxes fall into the vagabond life, travelling fast as they hunt through the landscape to find a mate and territory of their own.

Spectacles is one of the few whose progress I have been able to monitor, and he has surprised me. We imagine dispersal as a straight line, but Spectacles has indulged in something entirely different. He leaves, then re-appears in the garden, lingering by the pond like a handsome black-footed ghost – and vanishes again, typically for months at a time.

Where does he go? The next village? The next hill? Or even across the human boundary into Kent?

Fox Intruder 170122

Without putting a GPS collar on him, it’s hard to be sure. He did loiter in the Across the Road group’s territory for a while last year, but that, too, did not last. The current breeding vixen of that group is extremely hostile to intruders, and you can hear the sound effects from one of her quarrels with Spectacles here.

So, he’s currently on the road again, travelling.

Does he know what he is looking for, or is he simply the prisoner of an instinct that compels him to roam?

I wish it was possible to ask him.

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Life at Mouse-Height

Every field is a jungle when you stand two inches tall.

Short tailed field vole 23 Oct 2017

Short-tailed field voles are more common than people in the UK, but far harder to spot because they spend their lives within dense grass. They are placid, peaceable, incomparably scruffy little creatures. They are also a crucial component of the UK’s ecosystems and support foxes, owls and many other wild carnivores.

When the vole is hiding, its grass-tunnels remain.

Small mammal run 111013

It’s often a question of looking for fieldsign when you’re trying to study rodents. I’ve been using ink tunnels in various projects over the last year – tubes designed to capture tiny footprints.

Ink tunnel tracks

These footprints belong to a mouse, probably a yellow-necked mouse. They’re a larger species than the familiar wood mouse and can be distinguished by a yellow band on their throat.

They are also obsessively fond of birdfood!

YN mouse 150406

But sometimes – just sometimes – the ink tunnels strike gold.

Tracks from Tunnel5 220916

Three upside-down triangles equals a hazel dormouse!

Dormouse photo2

I’ve recorded dormice in three sites within my parish and consider us extremely fortunate to still have them. There’s no doubt that their UK population is in real trouble, mostly due to habitat loss. They are one of our most tree-dependent mammals, as well as the sleepiest; they can easily spend six months snoozing.

This is a dormouse nest. Unlike the chaotic nest of a yellow-necked mouse, dormice will weave honeysuckle bark into a very tight ball with a cozy chamber at the centre.

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They hibernate at ground level, however. The temperatures have dropped steeply in the last few days and I expect most of my local dormice are now dozing. I hope they have a peaceful winter.

Semenggoh: Royalty of the Forest

March 2017

The trees are hardly big enough to hold them.

Orang utan5 26 Mar 2017

Orangutans, people-of-the-forest.

Borneo hosts one of the world’s orang species; the other is restricted to Sumatra. These incomparably impressive and sobering creatures travel through the canopy on an armspan of up to seven feet. They are in fact the largest tree-dwelling animal.

Semenggoh is a sanctuary for orangs which have come to harm through the erosion of Borneo’s wilderness by humanity. Some have been rescued from the pet trade, and others from the palm oil plantations that are blighting so much of south-east Asia.

They are not tame. They live wild in 700 hectares of their native forest, and if they do not wish to be seen, you will not find them. Food is provided on large platforms, but whether they come to collect it depends upon their success in foraging for fruit and vines in the trees.

A warden asks the crowd to remain quiet and respectful. He emphasises that this is the orangutans’ forest, a refreshing sentiment after what I’ve witnessed in certain other places over the years.

We don’t have to wait long.

Orang utan1 26 Mar 2017

The orangutans have started families of their own, raising young that are, for all intents and purposes, wild. The bond between mother and baby is beyond and above anything else in the mammal world – she may suckle her infant for seven years, and they are utterly inseparable.

Orang utan4 26 Mar 2017

It’s hard to look at this tiny bundle of orange fur and accept that three decades later it may look like this:

Orang utan6 26 Mar 2017

King of all wild things – at least in Borneo. This huge male orang is 35 years old and the undisputed ruler of Semenggoh. He does not visit the feeding platforms that often so we were very privileged to glimpse him. The other male orangs seemed less pleased; they kept a respectful distance.

It is unforgettable to see them in their native forest.

Orang utan3 26 Mar 2017

Long may Borneo retain enough wilderness to support them – and the bay cats and clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys that also roam the hills that sweat mist and grow durian trees.

As for me, I’ve got a flight to catch to Singapore. This was the briefest of safaris in Borneo yet it has fired my imagination…and I need to return.

Sarawak: Journey to Semenggoh

March 2017

Sunrise is as sudden as night. We have time for one final hike before the boat takes us away from Bako.

Path to the beach Bako Mar 2017

The bearded pigs watch us leave.

Bearded pig on beach1

Bearded pig1

Fishing huts and mangrove forests flash by as the boat speeds towards its jetty.

Fishermen huts Bako Mar 2017

Away from the river, the road runs southwards to Semenggoh, the first reserve I’ve ever visited where the authorities have apparently found it necessary to specifically ban gambling…perhaps there is a story behind that, but it’s unknown to me.

Do not gamble

Semenggoh has orang-utans. They are orphans or rescues, restored to a semi-wild existence by the patience and respect of Semenggoh’s wardens. They roam freely through the forests here, but often return to feeding platforms, especially in seasons when fewer wild trees are fruiting.

Needless to say, everyone gathered under a small shelter listening to one of Semenggoh’s wardens give a safety briefing is hoping to glimpse an orang-utan. But they come at times of their own choosing, and there many smaller treasures here to observe too.

Longhorn spiders dazzle in the bushes.

Longhorn spider Mar 2017

And this – hopefully the novelty value can excuse the photo quality, for the little grey-brown animal on the left is a treeshrew, the first one I’ve ever glimpsed. They have a higher brain-to-body ratio than any other mammal. It is accompanied by a cream-coloured giant squirrel.

Tree shrew and giant squirrel

It may not have much cream in its fur, but ‘giant’ does fit; it is about 80cm long, including its tail.

Giant squirrel 26 Mar 2017

They might be considered a supporting cast by some, but the shaking of the trees suggests that the stars are not far behind.

Sarawak: Jungle Nights

March 2017

Twilight does not exist in the tropics. In Scotland or Canada, the sun falls gently out of the sky and the land shines in golden half-light for an hour or more. But on the equator, there is no such patience. One moment there is light:

Mangroves Bako Mar 2017

And then it collapses.

We’re headed out into the jungle by torchlight. It is the only way to glimpse Bako’s most mysterious creatures. You tread softly, on boardwalks overshadowed by darkening trees, and illuminated by beings of magical beauty.

Bornean keeled pit viper1 Bako Mar 2017

Keeled pit vipers hunt birds and rodents high in the trees.

Bornean keeled pit viper2 Bako Mar 2017

Other predators try their luck on the ground. There are fewer spiders here than I remember from the dry tropical forests of Mexico, but they still make for an impressive sight.

Large spider Bako Mar 2017

Some spiders surprise you with their girth. Others, with their colours – this is a long-jawed orb weaver.

Blue and red spider Bako Mar 2017

Not everything is fully awake. Swiftlets rest on the rock face.

Swallows Borneo

A stick insect of implausible proportions watch us pass.

Stick insect

High above, a whistle sounds – the branches shake, and a palm civet leaps from tree to tree with the agility of a lemur, far too fast to photograph.

The night continues, and the snakes continue their hunt.

Viper2

Sarawak: Hiking in Bako

March 2017

Humanity is a puppet danced by a tyrant called Weather. We have moments when we delude ourselves that we are free – we sit under roofs, delight in air conditioning, and warm ourselves with fires – but we all secretly know that respite from Weather’s commands is temporary. Walking in the tropics brings this home: temperature and humidity are with you at every step.

Northern Bako awaits!

Bako map

Plants are living things. We underestimate them because they are less mobile than animals, but they have a presence, a purpose, and sometimes even a menace. Bako is a rainforest and the trees are its soul, its master, and they are not abashed to remind paths of their supremacy.

Path of roots Bako Mar 2017

Within the tangle of leaves and roots, many animals thrive. Borneo giant ants are an impressive sight.

Bornean giant ant Bako Mar 2017

The top of the ridge is pock-mocked with erosion from rain. Limestone always remembers any bruises from water.

Top of the rock Bako Mar 2017

Far more than the jungle below, this is a harsh place for a plant to make a living. And if they cannot take nutrition from the ground, there is always another, more proactive way to make a living.

Pitcher plants are carnivores. They lure insects with nectar but they are a one-way trap. Hairs on their flanks prevent the prey from climbing back down, and if the animal falls inside, it is consumed by the plant’s enzymes. Most of their prey are invertebrates, but they occasionally catch frogs and have even been known to ‘eat’ rats.

Pitcher plant Bako Mar 2017

Dozens of pitcher plant species exploit the animals of Borneo. Some rest like pitfall traps on the ground, and others dangle from trees.

Pitcher plant2

And they raise an interesting point. We think of clouded leopards and crocodiles as Borneo’s top predators, but perhaps that is just the human whimsy of wanting nature neatly organised into tables. Ecological food chains are much better described as ‘food webs’. Pitcher plants are kings of their own part of the forest, feasting on species that will never catch the leopard’s eye.

High above the sea in this thin forest, the sun burns hot, and then hotter. We hear stories of tourists who died here; never, ever, underestimate the power of dehydration.

Our path continues down rickety stairs.

Staircase

The South China Sea lies ahead.

Bako scenery Mar 2017

A little boat drives us around the headland back to our starting place. Bearded pigs watch the sun falling into the sea.

Pig on the beach Bako Mar 2017

Bako at sundown Mar 2017

Sarawak: Out of the Sea

March 2017

We’ve found the end of the road, or rather the beginning of the real world. Bako National Park can only be reached by boat and is consequently spared one environmental headache familiar to most North American and European reserves.

So you see it first from the water, mountains hazy under the remorseless brilliance of the sun. Monitor lizards and kingfishers guard shorelines where a tangle of trees totter uneasily between cliff and sand. Then, land soars out of the sea itself – fantastic sandstone stacks, crumbling bones of a mountainous peninsula jutting northwards from the world’s third largest island into the South China Sea.

Sea stack2 Bako Mar 2017

Some people see faces in them; others, perhaps, are more astonished by the raw power of sea chewing stone.

Sea stack Bako Mar 2017

Thirty metres from the beach, the boat grinds to a halt. We wade through the warm water and tread on Bako sand. The tropical sun burns our clothes dry in minutes.

Bako coastline

It is so hot, and bright, all wrapped up in the equatorial humidity blanket.

Wildlife strolls into view almost immediately. Bornean bearded pigs are distant relations of the wild boar.

Bornean bearded pig1 Bako Mar 2017

They are not aggressive, but encouraging wildlife to approach tourists with food seldom ends well, and it appears what happens in Yellowstone also happens in Bako – despite the best efforts of local staff.

Feeding the pigs

Away from the day-trippers at the park headquarters, the forest resumes a natural air: quieter, yet more intense.

Bako coastline2

Within that forest dwell one of the world’s rarest and strangest creatures. Proboscis monkeys have a more relaxed nature than much of the primate family, which may just as well considering their hefty bulk. They are called ‘Dutch monkeys’ in Indonesia because they allegedly resembled early Dutch colonists.

Proboscis monkey1 Bako Mar 2017

They are endangered, and only found in Borneo. They thrive in Bako’s tangled forests, eating leaves and unripe fruit. They generally live in family groups although some males rove together in bands.

Proboscis monkey4 Bako Mar 2017

Theirs is this forest, which is best explored on foot. Park Headquarters includes a small restaurant where we restock our water supplies and park unnecessary equipment. Time to hit the trail…