Canada: Skylights

20th September 2018

Land of Living Skies – Saskatchewan won its nickname for restless clouds and light. But there is life on that huge canvas. I’ve found nowhere on my global travels that rivals the prairies for sheer abundance and variety of raptors – eagles, yes, both bald and golden, but the prairie has another large hunter that readily turns heads.

Ferruginous hawk GNP 21 Sept 2018

This is a ferruginous hawk, an enormous relative of the British buzzard. For reasons lost to history, the Buteo genus is called ‘hawk’ in North America, which is very confusing to English wildlife watchers. But it is really a buzzard, complete with a 1.5m wingspan and eagle-style feathered legs.

Ferruginous hawks have had mixed fortunes since the prairie was settled and are still listed as a threatened species. Merlins, on the other hand, have increased, and are even found in some cities – but they look best in the prairie.

Raptor2 20 Sept 2018

As undoubtedly does the stunning prairie falcon, a cousin of the peregrine.

Prairie falcon 20 Sept 2018

How many other carnivorous birds have I seen in the Grasslands area over the years? I’ve stopped my fieldwork for a lunchtime picnic and seen golden eagles lazily soar by. Struggled with the identification riddles of Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks. Been watched by snowy owls on icy March mornings. Noted loggerhead shrikes perched on the prairie’s rare bushes.

All these hunters – and coyotes, foxes, black-footed ferrets, rattlesnakes and bobcats – need prey. It is true that rodents do their best to avoid their natural enemies, but nonetheless, they support all the ecological tiers above them. If we want to save raptors, we need to learn to live with Richardson’s ground squirrels and their kin, too.

Richardson's ground squirrel 20 Sept 2018

Meanwhile, pronghorn watch the restless skies.

Pronghorn sky 20 Sept 2018

They are alive. Clouds and sun do not sleep.

Hawk

Australian falcon

Australian hobby, and it sees everything that moves in the Top End.

It’s been estimated that raptors have eyesight up to eight times as powerful as that of a human. So much information gathered with every glance. What would you choose to remember? Not an easy choice, in this fantasy forest of fire and graves.

Termite mounds3

Well, not exactly graves, although they certainly startled the first Western explorers. These bizarre monoliths are the work of compass termites, which align their mighty constructions with the poles. It is thought that they do this to prevent their nests overheating, which might easily happen if one side faced the full wrath of the southern sun. As it is, only the narrow side is cooked.

Termite mounds1

But everything here is strange to a non-Australian eye.

Agile wallaby

Agile wallaby1

Agile wallaby4

Night falls and wakes the dingoes – one lopes across the road in front of our car, but there’s no time for a photo. Australia’s only native canid leaves us with a memory in our minds instead.

Other hunters do tarry. A southern boobook – a small owl – pauses in a tree.

Boobook

It has only been a brief trip to Australia, but the tantalising glimpse of the forest leaves its mark.

Fire, water, termites and heat.

It is good to know that somewhere out there, right now, a hawk is watching them all.

Water Watcher

The forest has Fire, but it also cradles this:

Wangi Falls

Water roars off Litchfield’s sandstone plateaus, but like everything here, it is seasonal. May is still early in the Dry season and the land is ridding itself of the liquid acquired in the Wet.

Or call it Yegge, if you prefer; the Aboriginals traditionally recognise six seasons in Australia’s Top End.

Traditional seasons

The high rivers support saltwater crocodiles – and other, more delicate living things. None are more beautiful than the rainbow bee-eater, which swoops over the pool hunting insects.

Rainbow bee eater

Rainbow bee eater2a

Wherever there is water, there are birds. And they just keep getting stranger.

Masked lapwing

Masked lapwing Darwin Jun 2018

And more entertaining.

Rufous fantail

Oz Fantail

And more impossible in hue.

Forest kingfisher

Forest kingfishers1

Firebird

Fire. These forests are built on it.

Litchfield overview

It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.

Black kites1

Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.

Black kite2

Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.

Red-tailed black cockatoo2

And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.

Short-beaked echinda LNP 30 May 2018

I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.

That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.

Family: Parrot

Draw a squawk that squawks for the sheer love of squawking.

Roll it into bird-shape.

Dip it in a paintbox.

Set it loose in the trees.

Red-breasted parakeet – Singapore

Red-breasted parakeet SG

Red-tailed black cockatoos – Litchfield National Park, Australia

Red-tailed black cockatoo

Sulphur-crested cockatoo – Mary River National Park, Australia

Sulphur-crested cockatoo1

Galah – Kakadu National Park, Australia

Galeh1

Little corellas – Mary River National Park, Australia

Cockatoo Mary River3

A Tale of Two Eagles

Haring ibón.

King of birds.

Philippine eagle1 6 June 2018

I rarely photograph captive animals, but made an exception at this moment.

This majestic Philippine eagle is part of the conservation programme run by the Philippine Eagle Foundation in Davao City, southern Philippines. According to the order of wild things, the Philippine eagle is the undisputed apex predator of the sweltering tropical forests of this complex archipelago. Unfortunately, like top predators everywhere, they have not fared well in human company and their status in the wild is now extremely precarious.

The foundation where this eagle lives is the species’ lifeline. Hopefully, one day it will be easier to see them in the wild again.

___

‘Wild’ still exists elsewhere, of course. My recent travels slipped briefly into northern Australia, a land of fire and termites which I will relate in later posts.

And over those flickering forests soars another of the world’s great raptors – the wedge-tailed eagle. I spotted this one perched on the carcass of a roadkilled-wallaby, and it flew calmly into the tree.

Raptor NT Jun 2018

It is related to the golden eagle of the northern hemisphere, and has been heavily persecuted by Australian farmers in the past, although the Northern Territory protects them.

Two eagles but one sky. It would take a lifetime – many lifetimes – to learn all the living things in the forests of south-east Asia and Australasia. This journey only caught a snapshot, but I will relate its highlights over the next few days.

The Plant Dimension

They stretch from sand to stormclouds with enough lordliness for hornbills to choose them as a throne.

Oriental pied hornbill 28 May 2018

They sprout nuts and fruit alien to the English visitor, but welcomed by a hungry plantain squirrel.

Plantain squirrel SG 28 May 2018

They clothe fences built by people, sheltering reptiles in their sprawl.

Lizard1 SG 28 May 2018

This is Singapore.

People have had creative ideas about what to do with this island for generations, but for all the skyscrapers, golf courses and godowns, there is no doubt that this is first and foremost a humid, beetle-buzzed, rain-lashed benevolent dictatorship run by plants. Every square metre where something can grow, something does. They even scramble over each other, climbing high like children.

Plant scramble 28 May 2018

Epiphytes – plants that live harmlessly on the surface of other plants, usually trees – are as common as daisies here. Amongst them, more lizards lurk.

Lizard2 SG 28 May 2018

It would take several lifetimes to document the bewildering variety of wild living things in south-east Asia. I’m travelling around the region for the next couple of weeks, revisiting some places, venturing into new ones.

There are many more moods of plants to learn.