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Bolivia – Madidi National Park

One of the main reasons that I wanted to see Madidi National Park was a National Geographic article from 2000, by Joel Sartore (which I have difficulties finding on the net right now – I could only locate Joel’s account  about this trip). This article and the images on Bolivia’s Madidi National Park drew increased international attention to the area, and it assisted in derailing plans for a hydro-electric dam. And it was Rosa Maria Ruiz who helped Sartore and his team as their guide during his weeks in the jungle. Rosa Maria founded the organization Eco-Bolivia, which was instrumental in establishing Madidi National Park in the 1990s, but the organization ceased to operate in 2002 (this article provides more info about what happened to her lodges in the park, and how she continues her work through Madidi Travel, which operates Serere Sanctuary, where I volunteered.)

The park has also found fame in the early 90s thanks to the book “Lost in the Jungle” by Yossi Ghinsberg, which details his and his companions’ ill-fated expedition into uncharted rainforest where he became lost and struggled to survive for 3 weeks. His story was made into a movie in 2017 (Jungle) starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Anyway, I was curious to see the park not just for these reasons, but because it is said to be one of the biggest protected rainforests (the area covers around 18,958 square kilometers in the upper Amazon-river basin) with an almost unparalleled bio-diversity.

I booked my stay in the park in Rurre, after going into the office of the Chalalan Eco-lodge. There are some other smaller lodges in the park, but not as deep as Chalalan.

We left around 8 a.m. and the journey upriver took almost 6 hours due to very low levels of water. Our boatmen had to jump out of the boat several times to push it through some very shallow areas. During the boatride on the Tuichi river we only saw one capybara – who we managed to scare so much with our cameras that he/she jumped into the river and disappeared. (Fun fact: Capybaras can hold their breath underwater for up to 5 minutes.)But the whole experience wasn’t so funny and just made me realize once more that for me, wildlife encounters are only acceptable if the wild animal is also okay with that encounter. If our presence is not forced upon them – to the point where the only possible escape route is jumping into the river.

The forest along the river looked downgraded, secondary – clearly there has been some logging going on here. I kept waiting for a better patch to appear but in vain.

After we arrived and got out of the boat, we had a half-hour hike up to the lodge.

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The cabins are situated on the shore of Lake Chalalan. The first afternoon we had sunny weather but storm clouds were approaching…

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and the rest of the days I could only see the lake through the curtain of heavy rain.

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Lake Chalalan in the rain

Since the first afternoon was sunny, my guide, Roberto, suggested me to go for a short swim in the lake. I was a bit worried about black caymans, but when I voiced my concerns he assured me that there was no caymans in this lake, I should not worry at all. Even though I was doubtful, the heat was too suffocating and I cautiously took a short dip in the lake. The water was refreshing and I already seen myself coming back from long hikes and jumping into the lake the next days.

Imagine my surprise then when during dinner, another guide offered a night-boat-trip on the lake for the other tourists, to “look for caymans”. WTF??

After we gathered our torches and went down to the small wooden platform, this is what waited us there:

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A nice-sized cayman launching comfortably in one of the boats. He seemed to be very possessive about his “bed” and only reluctantly left his resting place.

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And no, the next day I did not jump into the lake.

The next 2 days we explored the area using the hiking trails around the lodge

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Because of the heavy rain it was difficult to take pictures -and also, to see any wildlife. We bumped into a few groups of monkeys (capuchin and squirrel monkeys) and I saw some yellow-blue macaws but not much else. Either the animals are spread over a huge area and that’s why it is more difficult to spot them, or, as a recent National Geographic article cautions, the park’s wildlife (especially jaguars) is under threat from poachers.

P.S. I had an impromtu “surgery” here, in Chalalan. I described my symptoms (I had a swollen bite on my ankle and at night I had sharp pain, like somebody was digging in my flesh with a serrated knife) to my guide, Roberto, and he agreed with my diagnosis – I have a botfly larvae. I asked him if he could remove it and he said yes. First, he lit up a cigarette then blew the smoke on his palm and then covered the opening hole with this collected tobacco. He advised me not to wash it off for about 20 minutes – in that time the larvae starts to suffocate and it will be easier to remove it. After 20 minutes he removed the tobacco-cover from the hole and squeezed the little bump. A whiteish small creature came out – I couldn’t believe how small and fragile it looked, considering the pain it caused me. Botflies are quite common in the area and the best protection is to cover yourself up – long pants, long sleeves, boots, etc. I usually do this, but I might have got bitten when I went to the shower in my slippers. Anyway, it is not a pleasant experience (you feel like the host, in an Alien movie), but not life-threatening either. I extracted my second larvae at home, with the help of some Duct-tape.

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Bolivia – Serere Reserve

When I applied for a volunteer position at Serere Reserve, little did I know that my tasks would involve walking around in the forest  with an orphaned red howler monkey baby on my shoulder. But I guess that’s the beauty of volunteering – you might get an unexpected gift like this that changes your whole experience.

I first contacted Madidi Travel (the owner of the private Serere Reserve) because I read about the environmental work and efforts of its founder, Rosamaria Ruiz and found it truly inspiring.

The reserve itself is three hours (on a boat) from Rurrenabaque, along the Beni river. It is four thousand hectare and there are five lakes in the reserve (two of them are in a protected area where no visitors are allowed). The Casa Grande is built on the shore of San Fernando Lake, which  hosts quite a few caymans.

A quiet boat ride early in the morning can expose the visitors to a number of birds also, among them the hoatzins (Serere) from whom the reserve got its name from.

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I had more than a month to discover the different trails and almost invisible small paths in the surrounding forest.

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Monkeys are so abundant, that it is difficult NOT to bump into them a couple of times a day.

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a curious squirrel monkey

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three curious squirrel monkeys

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spider monkey

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capuchin monkey

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red howler monkey

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But of course you will see many other animals in the forest:

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red and green macaw on a tree

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coati

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green anole

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tapir

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Cairns – Australia

I expected Cairns to be a small town that I pass through on my way to Magnetic Island, a place, where I have to “kill” an afternoon and an evening, before I can get on the bus the next morning. To my surprise it was much more than that – a place for “wild encounters”, even.

Walking along the promenade at the coast already provided quite a few chances to photograph birds.

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Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles)

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But for me the “real stars” of the city were undoubtedly the spectacled flying foxes. For me it was unbeliavable almost that I can find them in the middle of the city. A nice-sized colony can be found close to the library, on some big fig trees. The “nursery tree” is fenced off.

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During the daylight hours most of them sleep, but wake up for short periods of time to stretch, chatter excitedly with the others, then cover their eyes again and go back to sleep -till dusk, when the whole colony comes to life and one by one take to the night sky.

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As I wanted to see what is the city’s approach to them, I searched for  some more info. Here is a short article that I have found (source: http://cafnec.org.au/what-we-do/wildlife-issues/bats/)

Everything you need to know about the Cairns Spectacled Flying Fox (fruit bat)

Spectacled Flying-foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) are large fruit bats, famous for the straw-coloured fur which surrounds their eyes like spectacles. They are nocturnal mammals which feed on nectar and fruit during the night and roost in trees during the day and are very social animals that live in colonies and roost in trees together; these trees are referred to as camps. Spectacled flying-foxes are a significant species to the region. They are found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia. In Australia, the spectacled flying-fox habitat is limited along a narrow coastal belt of the Wet Tropics and Cape York areas in Far North Queensland.

Why are they important?

Many people are unaware of just how important flying-foxes are to a variety of tree species. Their diet consists of fruit and nectar and therefore we rely on this species to spread seeds and pollinate trees. The trees require this method of seed and pollen distribution to maintain the health of the ecosystem and rainforest biodiversity.

How are they doing?

  • CSIRO estimates that the population has declined up to 60% over the last decade
  • Decline is caused by various human and environmental impacts
    • Environmental threats include: cyclones, tick paralysis, competition, temperature related stresses and diseases such as cleft palate syndrome.
    • Human threats are: habitat loss, inappropriate netting practices, man-made obstacles (barbed wire fences and electrical lines) and human harassment

A recent spectacled flying-fox monitoring report was published by the National Environmental Research Program which illustrates that the population has decreased 4-6% annually over the past decade. Other reports indicate a trend that flying-foxes are now moving into urbanised areasii.

Declines can result from environmental threats such as: cyclones, tick paralysis, competition and temperature related stresses. Diseases have also affected the species, with numbers of Cleft palate syndrome cases. Many flying-foxes are rescued by wildlife carers and bat hospitals when found injured, abandoned or struggling in the environment. However, there are also a number of human activities which are threatening the species, such as: habitat loss, inappropriate netting practices, man-made obstacles (electricity lines and barbed wire fences) and human harassmentv. Human harassment is one of heated and controversial issues regarding flying-foxes.

As flying-foxes are nocturnal and very social animals, they roost in trees during the day in colonies. When a colony frequently roost in the same particular trees, these trees are referred to as camps. In the Cairns CBD, there are 2 Nationally Important Camps; one is located at the Cairns Central Swamp, and the other on Abbott and Aplin Street.

Spectacled flying-fox Conservation Status

  • Spectacled flying-foxes are listed as Vulnerable under National Environmental Law (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) in 2002, but still not listed under Queensland Environmental Law (Nature Conservation Act 1992).

Prior to the listing of the spectacled flying-foxes as Vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) in 2002, the species had experienced a steep decline in the population. The World Heritage status of the Wet Tropics area was the key to the prioritisation of the spectacled flying-fox becoming protected at the national level, as the worth of the species was proven to encompass the values of the site. Without the recognition of the threatened status by the EPBC Act, species do not receive any conservation priorities, however, once they are listed the Government is then obliged to improve protective legislation and develop recovery plans[viii]. Currently in place is the National Recovery Plan for the Spectacled Flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus) which was produced in 2010 by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. The objectives of the recovery plan are to ensure the long-term protection of the species through a reduction of threats to their survival and to improve the scientific understanding of spectacled flying-foxes to guide recovery[ix], vi.

Regardless of the international and national obligations to the protection of the spectacled flying-fox, the state of Queensland is yet to list the species as threatened under the relevant Nature Conser

What are the local challenges in Cairns

Due to changes in political direction in 2013, numerous laws were amended, which loosened the reins on flying-fox roost tree management in Queensland. In May 2014 the Cairns Regional Council began a tree trimming event on the roost trees surrounding the City Library. This was an attempt to move the colony presented as a reaction to complaints regarding their noise and faecal pollution. While doing this, witnesses say the council breached a roost management Code of Practice when they trimmed trees in which flying-foxes were still present. Public outcry and protests have led to the council facing court proceedings. Since then, the Novotel Oasis Resort applied to completely remove 11 flying-fox roost trees from their property. The submissions were approved this year and the tree removal began on the 1st of May. This month (May 2015), the Novotel has removed a number of trees from its premises leaving hundreds of returned flying-foxes cramped in remaining roost trees.

Although there is a national recovery plan and the species is listed as vulnerable, the tree removal was still approved by the local council, state, and national government, even though the flying-fox camps are clearly recognized as nationally important. Local governments must look into including flying-foxes into city plans. Solutions which provide positive outcomes for both flying-foxes and local residents should be heavily implemented. This can showcase Cairns even more, as an environmentally outstanding city if they create a nature refuge for the species. This can be beneficial as an educational and tourism attraction.

Due to the world heritage status of the Wet Tropics, the flying-foxes have been recognised as a nationally significant species. Following the Booth v Bosworth [2001] case, which was against the electrocution of masses of flying-foxes which flew in and out of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area to feed, the species was declared Vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2002 (EPBC Act)v. The spectacled flying-foxes are protected under Commonwealth legislative powers, however they are not recognised or protected under Queensland environmental legislation; the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (NCA)ix. Section 88C of the NCA only refers to the management of flying-fox roosting sites and identifies the need for local Government to obtain permits when considering the management of the sitesix, [xi].

With consideration of the recent 6% decline in the spectacled flying-fox population per annum since 2004 and that the species was declared vulnerable in 2002, even with the introduced legislation and relevant policy tools, declines in the species are still occurringiv. Flying-fox populations have increasingly been moving into urban environments, and coupled with their decline, the need to appropriately and adequately protect the species becomes all the more imperativeii, iv. The proximity of the flying-fox roosting camps to humans has been causing conflicts of interest between residents, business owners, tourists and conservationists. Throughout Far North Queensland, Nationally Important Camps have been declared in order to protect flying-fox roosting trees by the Australian Governmentvii. The Cairns CBD colony is one of the declared Nationally Important Camps for the roosting flying-fox colonies which has been under stress from conflicting stakeholder activities.

What will the removal of their roost trees do?

  • Flying-foxes cannot be directed towards a particular environment and therefore their dispersal is unpredictable
  • Currently the CBD colony has been concentrated in the city, but now they may either spread across the city and into the suburbs

Recent tree trimming and felling activites  have scattered the flying-fox colonies even more within the Cairns CBD, potentially causing new issues for local businesses. The CBD colony which has been present for the past 30 years is now being threatened by human intervention. Due to the geographical location of the city, being adjacent to the coast, unless they decide to migrate far enough, the main direction in which the bats can disperse is out towards the suburbs and into our backyards.

A number of trees were removed on the 1st and 20th May 2015, for the development of the new aquarium and the Cairns Novotel Oasis Resort. Although the spectacled flying-foxes are a nationally vulnerable species, the developers were still able to gain approval to remove the roost trees surrounding the resort, including a number of Heritage listed Moreton Bay Figs[xii]. This was possible due to amendments to legislation, in this case the Nature Conservation (Wildlife Management) Regulations 2006.

Relocation is not a predictable practice. Only 20% of the possible relocation areas researched have been deemed suitable. Their dispersal is completely uncontrollable, and the chances of the bats choosing a suitable roosting area is very slim. It is hoped that the flying-foxes choose to move south, however there is worry that if dispersal is towards the north, it can affect airport traffick, which would be the most detrimental result to the relocation attempt (as stated in the Relocation Plan by RPS Australia).

Sharing our city with flying-foxes

  • Flying-foxes are in decline and moving into the cities
  • We can’t change their behaviour, so we must learn to live together
  • Rather than trying to rid our city of flying-foxes, we should consider making compromises and include them in city plans and protect their roost trees
  • We need to look after them because they look after us!

Flying-foxes are in decline nationally mostly due to habitat destruction and climatic changes. These two causes are the main reasons why flying-foxes are becoming more urban. Cities are now providing year round food resources with the trees we have planted and cities also provide an increasing need for protection.

As a flying mammal there is no way we can exclude them. We cannot change their behaviour, so we must learn to live together.

  • Tolerance
  • Education about bats and their important ecological services
  • Better management of day roosts
  • Support for wildlife tourism

Rather than trying to rid the city of flying-foxes, we should consider making compromises. Create safe havens where they can roost in safety and include them in future city plans. We need to conserve and protect our large trees that flying-foxes use for food and for roost trees. These areas then need effective management to alleviate bat/ human conflict.

Bat Safety

Although flying-foxes do carry bacteria and viruses, risk of infection is low as long as educational information is made available to the public to prevent any incidents from occurring, such as the use of signs and adequate roosting space.

Source:

http://cafnec.org.au/what-we-do/wildlife-issues/bats/

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Australia – Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island – or Maggy, as locals lovingly call it -is a 52 square km mountainous island, 8 km off the coast of Townsville. 54% of the island is actually a National Park.

I took a bus from Cairns which left at 7 a.m.  The scenery became monotonous after a while – miles and miles of sugarcane fields. The bus driver hoped to cheer us up with two Robin Williams movies…We arrived at 1 p.m. at the Townsville Ferry and I only had to wait an hour for the next ferry and in 20 minutes I was on the island. There is an excellent bus system that connects all the little towns and bays on the island, and it took me another 15 minutes to arrive to Horseshoe Bay where my accommodation was.

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Horseshoe bay at sunset

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There is an extensive wetland system behind Horseshoe bay, separated from the sea by sand dunes.

In the dry season most of the riverbeds are empty but there  is still abundant birdlife around here.

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Eastern Great Egret (Ardea Modest)

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Rainbow bee eater (Merops ornatus)

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Riders along Horseshoe Bay

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Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus)

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At a nearby sports field you can watch wild rock wallabies – they mostly come out after 4 p.m.

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I bumped into one lounging under a bush in the wetland area

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Laughing kookaburras are also quite common

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Sulfur crested cockatoos can be found all over the island

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Bushstone curlews (Burhinus grallarius) in Florence Bay

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Sunrise in Alma Bay

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For sunsets the best choice is Horseshoe Bay.

You can feed rock wallabies in Geoffrey Bay:

 

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It is easy to spot a koala on the Forts Trail. Just spot a group of people staring up at a tree, uttering words like : Ooooh! How cute!

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Arthur bay from above

The walking trail to Arcadia is lined with grass trees (Xanthorrhoea johnstonii)

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A pair of galahs (Eolophus roseicapi) feeding on the ground.

 

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Australia – Cape Tribulation

From Cow Bay it was a 40-minute bus drive to go up to Cape Tribulation. I stayed at the Beach House, which, as the name suggests, is actually right on the beach.  And this is where the rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

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The shore is lined with mangrove at certain places:

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The tides are quite spectacular – the sea goes back a few hundred meters, leaving behind small pools, where reef sharks circle for available prey.

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It’s worth walking around on the exposed sea bed.

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img_1384-1Sometimes it looks like the sea deposits some real treasures on the shore. img_1657

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You will meet a wild variety of birds along the way…

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The sandy beaches are full of bubbler crabs, which create intricate patterns in the sand.

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It is possible to walk from the Beach House miles south – to Myall Beach and Noah Beach.

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And during the walk one might even encounter some spectacular natives:

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Scenes from the walk:

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Taking the dirt road towards north it is possible to walk to Emmagen Beach.

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And if one ever gets tired of the beach (seriously?), there is always Mount Sorrow to climb. The trailhead is only a half an hour walk from the Beach House (5 minute  by car).

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You will pass through different kind of forests on the way up.  The trail starts in a lowland rainforest, full of trees with large buttress roots and a canopy woven with large woody vines. As you climb higher on the ridge, feather-leafed palms become more common.

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The 680 meter peak can provide spectacular views of the Reef.

And, after you descend and take a boat out there the next day, you can snorkel at Mackay Reef.

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No worries – Australia, part 1

North Queensland, Daintree and Cape Tribulation 1.

Queensland was on my travel-list for a while – mostly because there is a small patch of rainforest in the northern cornern of Queensland – Daintree National Park – which meets the Great Coral Reef. Daintree is part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site and is said to be housing the oldest rainforest on the planet. Since during the summer months this area can experience extremely immense rainfall, winter seemed to be a better option for a visit.

After landing in Cairns on July 6th, and taking a bus up north, I spent the first three weeks at Crocodilus Village, close to Cow Bay. The small huts were overshadowed by some big trees and it felt like being deep inside the forest (even though there was a paved road and a cattle ranch on the other side of it). The beach is around 3 kms away – an easy, 45 minutes walk.

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A short trip to Mossman Gorge, which is located at the southern part of the Daintree Forest, provided some opportunities for crocodile-free swimming. The water is quite cold but after all the warning signs – like this

14203304_10210188898663200_2663781809556116749_naround all the beaches it is quite comforting to know that in this fast flowing creek there are no crocodiles. Many tourists take advantage of a cool dip on a warm winter day.

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The forest around the Discovery Center has a short wooden walkway and also a muddy trail, around three kms long. It is worth getting off the “wooden track” and get deeper into it.

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Just staying close to the Village accommodation can provide some excitement – like bumping into a cassowary:

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A  spectacular sunset from behind the Crocodylus Village:

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However, it is a disheartening discovery that the forest is quite inaccessible. There are no marked trails, except around the discovery center – one wooden pathway and a short muddy trail into the hills.

During my night walks I only met a few animals – one of them was this green frog:

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But to be more exact, there is one species that you can find – unfortunately – almost everywhere at night – the cane toad.

Cane toads are a perfect example of feral (or invasive) species –  alongside the feral pigs  – and of the unintended harmful consequences when humans try to manipulate nature.

A short side-note from National Geographic about cane toads:

“The much maligned venomous cane toads earned their bad reputation shortly after being released into the Australian ecology in 1935 with the hope that they would control the destructive cane beetle population. They turned out to be failures at controlling beetles, but remarkably successful at reproducing and spreading themselves.

About 3,000 cane toads were released in the sugarcane plantations of north Queensland in 1935. They now number well into the millions, and their still expanding range covers thousands of square miles in northeastern Australia. They are considered pests, and government eradication efforts include asking residents to help collect and dispose of them.

Cane toads are large, stocky amphibians with dry, warty skin, and are native to the southern United States, Central America, and tropical South America. Their numbers are manageable in their natural range, but they have thrived in Australia because there are few natural predators, they breed easily, and they have abundant food, including pet food, which they steal from feeding bowls left outside of homes.

Their effects on Australia’s ecology include the depletion of native species that die eating cane toads; the poisoning of pets and humans; depletion of native fauna preyed on by cane toads; and reduced prey populations for native insectivores, such as skinks.

Cane toad venom is a mix of toxins that primarily affects the functioning of the heart. It is present throughout their bodies and is secreted as a milky liquid from the parotoid glands located over the toad’s shoulders. Envenomation is painful, but rarely deadly to humans, although some people have died from eating cane toads and even their eggs.” (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/amphibians/cane-toad/)

 

As locals in the Daintree area has pointed it out, cane toads and feral pigs had “emptied out” the forests.

Feral pigs are the descendants of the pigs brought in from Europe at the end of 17th century for livestock. The pigs soon escaped and established wild populations all over Australia and now their number is estimated to be around 24 million. They are among Queensland’s most widespread and destructive pest animals.

 

They degrade waterholes and wetlands, contribute to soil erosion, prey on smaller animals and carry diseases.  There are different methods in use to eradicate them (poisons, traps, hunting), but since they are so well adapted to the climate of Queensland, even reducing their numbers is a difficult task.

 

 

 

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Small things

Walking in the same forest every day does provide some small excitements:

A baby dear (probably not more than a few days old), frozen, alone – the mom hopefully lurking nearby and keeping an watchful eye on her youngster; a black woodpecker floating majestically through the forest; a hedgehog curling up immediately upon close inspection, or the mass emergence of stag beetles (Lucanus Cervus).

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According to Wikipedia: “The natural reaction of the beetle to an approaching large object is to remain motionless making them a good photographic subject.” Very true.

 

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And sometimes nothing is really “happening”, it is just raining gently and the soft sound of dripping brings back memories of cloudforests at dawn. And that is already something.

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