Lowry Park Zoo

8 August, 2012

We’ve been to Florida now a few times in recent years and although we love to visit some of the same old favourites we always try to find somewhere new to visit each year.  This year a friend suggested Lowry Park Zoo as she’d heard good things through her friends that had been.  Being a huge animal lover it sounded like a good suggestion to me!

The zoo is in Tampa so just over an hour from where we were staying, but the drive was straight forward and easy.  One nice thing about going was that it felt more chilled out that many of the other parks and attractions in Florida – which although we go in lower season still get thousands of visitors daily.  The car park was free to enter and there was some shade too which meant getting back in the car wasn’t unbearable at the end of the day!

Wave to the peopleOne of my highlights was the Clouded Leopard.  He was such an attractive cat, and he had a cute personality.  We went and saw him first thing in the morning which meant he was up and about and he kept coming over to us to say hello!  The conservation status of these cats is vulnerable, so while not quite as rare as some of the other leopards, their population numbers are declining.

In addition to wandering around the zoo they do offer other things to see and do.  There are a couple of rides for children – a log flume, a carousel, a small rollercoaster and a train.  They also had what was named a safari ride which is a narrated tram tour around the park.  This was the only ride we did while there and in hindsight I wouldn’t have minded missing it!  We waited for around 5-10 minutes as there only seemed to be one tram going around.  The tram did go around parts of the park not directly visible from the paths in the zoo, but you didn’t see anything different so you wouldn’t miss animals by not going on it.  As I volunteer in a zoo, and have visited rather a lot over the years, I didn’t find any of the basic commentary told me anything I didn’t already know.  However, I am sure for children the ride was a fun addition.

Flying tigerThe zoo also put on various talks and shows throughout the day.  The one we went along to was with the tigers.  We’d walked past there earlier in the day but the cats were asleep in the cave at the back and we didn’t really see them so I hoped by going back during a talk they may be more active.  However, they remained sleepy!  It was a good talk though and the keeper told us about the two male brothers living there as well as general facts about the species.  Luckily just before we went home I nipped back to see if they had woken up and was delighted to find them playing together.

There was also a few animal attractions where you could choose to pay a few dollars extra for some unique experiences like hand feeding a giraffe or riding a camel.  I liked the fact that people could make their own day and it kept it interesting for all ages and interests.

Overall it is somewhere I would definitely recommend.  The zoo was really nicely laid out with about five distinct areas, and each was easy to wander around without missing anything.  The animals all looked well cared for and in good accommodation, and signage and things around the park was kept up to date.  So although the zoo clearly doesn’t have the income of the larger places like Busch Gardens it was a really nice place to visit.

More IBM On Demand Community success for Marwell Wildlife

1 August, 2012

I’ve written other posts on here about my volunteering with Marwell and some of the success I have had through the IBM Community programmes, and last year was another great year. 

ODC12In addition to my regular volunteering on weekends, I organised a team of 32 IBMers to go up in November last year to help out with a conservation project for the day.  We picked up spades and headed out to the chalk grassland behind the main car park. Our aim was to plant very young trees – called tree whips – between two existing copses of ancient woodland, creating a woodland corridor across the centre of the grassland, and recreating a historical feature once present in the field shown on maps dating back to 1640.

The work is an important part of Marwell’s woodland restoration programme and has a number of important benefits for the landscape and biodiversity utilising it, such as: providing a connecting corridor for wildlife to move between two fragmented copses; and providing an area of young woodland between a hay field and a restored wildflower meadow.  The works also helps Marwell to meet key conservation objectives, as well as improve the landscape for the local community.

Grant cheque presentationLast year IBM celebrated it’s 100th birthday and in celebration offered us the chance to apply for some extra special Centennial Grants for charities and organisation we volunteered for.  I was successful in securing both a team grant for Marwell and one of these special Centennial Grants, both totally around £8000.  The money is going to help Marwell with a new area of the park in development – an aviary – and in particular in support of the education aims of the exhibit so will benefit many people.

West Midlands Safari Park

28 April, 2012

While we were up in the Midlands back in March we went along to the West Midlands Safari Park.  It was on my list of places to visit as I’d heard about their white lions, although I wondered whether being a Safari Park rather than a zoo would mean there wasn’t the same kind of photographic opportunities.

The entrance price seemed very reasonable, especially as if you buy tickets online you got a free return visit.  The park is laid out with the safari area which you drive through, and then there is an area where you can park and walk around the other attractions.  There is a small theme park / rides area, but they are mainly for the younger guests, and you have to pay extra to go on the rides so we didn’t bother.  There are also some more animals you can wander around, including penguins, hippo, meerkat and what looks like quite a new lemur woods. 

WMSP 2The last time we went to a safari park we’d lost some parts of the car after driving through the monkey enclosure, so my husband wasn’t overly keen in taking his car in to another safari park!  However, there isn’t monkeys to drive through here, and there are routes you can miss certain animals if you don’t wish to drive through them all.

The safari area is really well laid out, with the roads twisting through different enclosures.  I liked the fact that the road in most places is two or three cars wide so there was plenty of room to stop for photographs, or to pull around people when you were ready to move on.  Quite a few of the areas you’re free to open windows and even feed some of the animals – they’ll sell you the food at the entrance to the safari.  We had fun watching some of the giraffe and zebra up really close, and found it funny when a zebra put his head through the window to say hello!

Who dares to disturb my sleepI was really pleased to see that there were a lot of different big cats.  In a couple of the areas (cheetah and white tigers) there was additional fencing between the road and the animals, but you were close enough to the wire, and the animals were far enough away, that it was possible to still get some nice photographs without the wires causing a problem.

Eat up dearSeeing the lions was one of my highlights as there are two massive prides – one of the normal lions and one of the white lions.  They both seemed to have been fed relatively recently so were all enjoying midday snacks!  Due to the fact the road wound its way around the enclosure there was plenty of opportunity to see them up close and take some nice pictures.

The safari area took about an hour and a half to drive around.  It wasn’t too busy when we went which was good as there was lots of time to enjoy it without feeling rushed, or having your view blocked by anyone else.

Overall I think the West Midlands Safari park was well worth a visit.  I still do prefer the leisure of walking around somewhere at my own leisure, and being able to return to areas at different times of the day to see different things, and for that reason do prefer a zoo to a safari park.  From a photography perspective you don’t have so much time to get a photo set up, and you can’t always move yourself to get that perfect angle.  However, you can utilise the window frame and things inside the car to anchor yourself and try to avoid camera shake a little.

More of my photographs from the visit on my Flickr set.

Drayton Manor

22 March, 2012

On Tuesday we wen to Drayton Manor in Staffordshire.  It is part theme park and part zoo, and was fairly close to where we were staying.

Black leopardWe first wandered around the zoo, as the rides don’t open up until later.  It isn’t a huge zoo, but had quite a mix of animals.  I particularly liked seeing the two gorgeous black leopards and the very pretty Geoffroy’s cat with his spotty back and stripey tail.  It wasn’t an ideal place for photography as the bars were quite thick, and I didn’t have my proper camera with me anyway.  We also went along a little later and managed to catch the meet the keeper session and see the penguins being fed.  It was a shame that the keepers didn’t bother to acknowledge anyone was even standing there.

After wandering around the zoo we went on the rides.  They have tried to cater for all ages, and had a variety of rides, from a stand-up rollercoaster for the older kids to a Thomas the Tank Engine train ride for the small ones, and family favourites like a log flume which everyone could enjoy.  The thing I found rather frustrating is that on many of the rides they insisted I took my glasses off.  I’ve worn glasses since I was 4, and on huge great rollercoasters in the US where you hurtle face down towards the ground so I hardly think I’ll get into any trouble on a log flume!

The park currently costs £36 to enter plus £3 for parking which is rather expensive.  Luckily you can offer find deals, and we managed to a get a buy one get one free offer.

Overall it was a pleasant enough day out, but I much preferred Chessington which we went to last year.  The parks are both aimed at a similar audience, but Drayton Manor felt like less care had been spent on keeping it looking fresh, and the staff were no-where near as friendly.

There are some more photographs on my Drayton Manor set on Flickr.

Bosworth Hall Hotel & Spa

21 March, 2012

Having got the week off work we booked a two night break to Bosworth Hall Hotel & Spa.  It was an offer that appeared on the Travelzoo website for £55 and included dinner, wine, breakfast and use of the health club on both nights which seemed like a good offer as the original price was around three times that.
Bosworth Hall Hotel
The hotel is just on the outskirts of Market Bosworth which is a small town in Warwickshire.  A five minute walk takes you into the town centre, and so made for a pleasant evening stroll.  There is also a large park area directly opposite the hotel grounds, so plenty of areas to get some fresh air.

The hotel itself is an old 17th century house.  The bedrooms were varied – naturally they use the glamorous large rooms with four-poster beds in the brochures!  The more normal rooms were still pleasant, although not very large.  We did have a nice view over the back lawn and the room was quietly situated which was good as the walls seemed thin.

Dinner in the restaurant is three courses – salad buffet or soup for starter, carvery with a choice of two meats, or a couple of alternatives, for main course and then a choice of desserts in a buffet style so you could have a little of each.  The restaurant seemed to get quite busy and so you are advised to book a time slot – they catered for outside visiting parties and there was a coach load in for an early dinner both nights.  Included in our deal was a bottle of wine both nights, but as neither of us drink wine I asked if we could swap ours for a bottle of water.  They kindly agreed even though apparently the water was more expensive – I dread to think of the quality of the wine considering all we got back was a single portion bottle of water!  Overall the food was nice, and as it was buffet and carvery style you could help yourself to the portion you wanted, however it lacked a sense of luxury that the hotel surroundings portrayed.

We did use the health suite facilities while we were there, and they were of a reasonable size.  I also had a massage treatment which was nice, but fairly basic.  The term ‘spa’ to me conjurs up images of relaxing and luxurious surroundings, but overall although nice it again lacked a certain something that made it feel special.

Overall, it was a nice two day break and definately worth the £55, but I think had you paid the supposed full price you may have been disappointed.

A few more photographs on my Flickr set.

And now for something completely different!

16 March, 2012

I bought my first SLR camera back in the Summer of 2008, and I’ve tried over those 3.5 years to try new things and really get to grips with using more than just the basic settings.  I’ve come a long way from the early days, never now use Auto mode, and always shoot in RAW.  However, recently I’ve realised that I’ve stalled a bit and I’m taking lots of the same sort of photographs – mainly the animals at Marwell Wildlife because it’s convenient as I volunteer there.  I’m determined to try and learn some more about the functions and features of my camera which I have not yet explored, and try taking photos of something different… although I’ll never give up the big cats!

A while back I joined an online photography group – Talk Photography (TP) – in order to participate in some of their face to face meetings, be inspired and try some new photography.  I’ve been to a few meets in previous years, but not made the time to look again until recently when I discovered the Basingstoke Toggers, who were all people from the group living near here and who seemed to be fairly actively arranging local meets.  Within not long of posting a message I had a couple of friendly welcomes from them and we’d set up a meet down in the Winchester area.

With the exception of a few random, unprepared shots on holidays, and some rather drunken cheesy snaps of friends, I’ve not done any night photography so I was quite excited to be going to try some out.  I armed myself with torch, warm clothes, tripod and my camera and headed to a local Starbucks where I was meeting the others.  After some quick introductions of people who hadn’t met up before, we headed to Bushfield Camp which is an old deserted army ground.  There is little left there but the skeletons of some former buildings, but it made a good location to try some wire wool spinning and light painting.

There are plenty of articles on the Internet that can tell you about wire wool spinning and taking night photography, so I won’t go into details here but I was amazed at what you could do with some wire wool and a whisk!  We were extremely lucky that local pro photographer Andrew Whyte came along on Wednesday and as well as impressing us all with his photography, and sharing many tips, he spent a lot of time helping out and I really appreciate his kindness and assistance.  Check out his amazing star trails here and his blog for hints on how to get started.

My first photo of the evening turned out completely black, despite me thinking I had set everything I had been advised to!  I hadn’t realised that the ‘bulb’ setting of my camera needed me to keep my finger pressed down on the button for the whole time I wanted the photo taking – I had assumed I kind of clicked it to start and clicked it again to finish.  Whoops!  However, after that and some more help from my fellow photographers my next few shots came out reasonably well and I was pleased with my first attempts.

I only came away with a few photos, but had an absolutely amazing evening and learnt a lot.  I really look forward to getting out, meeting others, trying this and other new things again.  I’ve treated myself to a remote trigger too for the camera which should make my next attempt at night photography a little easier!

Light Painting 4

South Bank, London

25 February, 2012

6 PodsWell my resolution to try and use my camera more this year and write more on my blog doesn’t appear to be going too well!  Yesterday I had to go up to London for work, so I decided to catch a slightly earlier train and take a stroll along the South Bank before heading to the meeting.  The IBM offices are right on the South Bank so it is a perfect location, when the sun is shining, to see some of the sights.  I also didn’t feel out of place with my camera as there were lots of other tourists around.

I started out heading towards the London Eye.  I’ve never actually been on the big wheel, but can imagine it has a great view when the weather is clear.  I didn’t have much time today, so I just took some photo’s of it.  It was actually a reasonable day to get some shots as the sky was a mix of sunshine and clouds, so it wasn’t a totally plain background, but also being February the sun wasn’t too high in the sky making it not too bright, so you did get some of the blues of the sky and not a blown out background.

Sea Gull in LondonI then wandered on towards Westminster Bridge to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.  After a few fairly standard shots of the River and sights in the background, I had a bit of fun taking a photo of a sea gull who was standing on the wall, with the Houses of Parliament blurred out in the background.  I did get a few witty comments from passers by!

I then headed East along the River Thames.  There were quite a few photo opportunities along this part of the River – from street entertainers, general scenery, candid shots of the other tourists to a couple of events that were going on including a number of painted egg artwork pieces along the river which formed part of the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt which is currently going on around London.

Sand constructionI wandered along to just past Blackfriars Bridge which is currently where the first station to span the River Thames is under construction.  Just along near there I was rather surprised to find some people creating sand sculptures!  I didn’t expect to find a beach in the centre of London.

I only had about an hour so I didn’t spend much time anywhere, but it was a good location for all sorts of photography and close to Waterloo station which is where the train stops for me.  I’ve been a bit nervous in the past about taking my camera out on the streets as I feel a bit conspicuous, but this was a great location because everyone else was doing the same!

More photographs on my London set on Flickr.

Lakeside, Chilworth and Southampton Golf Course

4 January, 2012

We’ve got this week off work and so decided to get a bit of fresh air and go for a couple of short walks rather than just sitting around the house.  I’ve also promised myself to try and get a bit more use out of my camera, as with the exception of rather a lot of photographs at Marwell I don’t feel I used it much last year.

StefOn Monday we just popped along to Lakeside in Eastleigh as it’s just down the road.  It’s only a small location, with 3 little lakes that you can walk around and a miniature railway for the kids.  The lakes seem very popular with fishermen though and there was a few down there on Monday with all their gear.  I find it funny that they seem to spend all day sitting inside a tent, with sensors on the rods telling them when something moves.  It doesn’t seem like much of a hobby, but I guess it gets them out of the house!

It was a really lovely sunny Wintery day, and not too cold.  I thought the light seemed quite nice for photographs as the sun wasn’t too high in the sky meaning that the colours were warmer.  However, it would seem that not using my camera for much for some time I’ve gotten a bit lazy and forgotten some basic settings which meant that skies were a bit blown out, and the brightness on objects like the ducks in the pond just came out white.

This morning was supposed to have been quite sunny, but turned out a little overcast.  However, we headed down to Chilworth to start Walk 1819 from the Walkingworld website which I use quite a lot.  It’s a walk I’ve done a few times before – not very arduous, but a pleasant local stroll which I thought wouldn’t be too muddy as much is along roads and paths.  It turns out my memory wasn’t great either, and many of the paths were rather muddy – especially after the stormy weather we had yesterday.  There was also a couple of trees that had come down along the Roman road, but luckily nothing that couldn’t be passed.

Into the forestAfter strolling along the Roman road the route takes you around Southampton golf course, where there were a surprising number of people out playing.  And finally heads up back through forest land towards Chilworth.  The forest is made up of areas of pine trees to one side and silver birch to the other.  We saw quite a few people out walking their dogs.  One got rather too friendly considering he was covered in mud and splashing in the puddles!

I did take a couple of photographs on the way, although being a grey day I didn’t spot much that felt worthy of a photograph as it looked a bit dreary,  I am quite pleased with the way this photograph looking into the forest came out though.  I did take a few, but actually bothered to change the settings on my camera a couple of times to get a good light so all in all one step improved from Monday’s attempts!

Chessington Roar ‘n’ Snore

2 January, 2012

I seem to have gotten rather behind with writing up some of my blog posts!  While I probably won’t now write up some of the things I was going to, I did want to write a little about the ‘Roar ‘n’ Snore’ mini break we had back in September last year.  It was just after the schools had gone back and so we decided it might be quiet and fun to go to Chessington World of Adventures

HotelI’d been before, but not for at least 15 years!  So I was interested to go back, especially as they had expanded the place again to make it more of a zoo again as well as just a theme park.  We found their ‘Roar ‘n’ Snore’ offer was a really good value, and included accommodation in their Safari themed hotel on site, full breakfast, and two days entry to the park, zoo and their new sea life centre.  Staying at the hotel was more relaxed and it meant we didn’t have to pay for parking, and could leave things back at the hotel – so we were able to enjoy the rides without lugging bags around or paying for lockers.

Beautiful LeopardWe spent the first morning enjoying the theme park rides – the place was pretty quiet so we didn’t have to queue for anything.  In fact, we were often allowed to stay on the rides for another go which was good.  There is quite a nice mix of rides for the young at heart and also a few more adventurous rides.  I remember a few of them from back when I came as a child – the Vampire Rollercoaster, Runaway Train and the Bubbleworks.  The Bubbleworks could do with a bit of a spruce up after all these years but they all brought back fond memories! 

In the afternoon we headed off to explore the zoo.  I remember there being a zoo when I first visited Chessington as a child, but then as a teenager much of the zoo areas disappeared.  They have done a lot of work recently to extend it though, and their safari themed hotel overlooked the reserve so you could wake up in the morning and see the animals grazing.

Food Hunt 2My absolute favourite area of the zoo was of course the big cats – they have some nice large areas for their tigers, lions and leopards.  Each day at 2pm they have a feeding and enrichment sessions for one of the different cats.  We turned up a little early and discovered from the keeper that the tigers were the lucky ones that day.  We watched as the keepers hid pieces of meat all over their enclosure – up trees, on rocks and even floating on logs in their pool!  Then they cleared out and released the tigers.  The tigers chased all over their enclosure looking for the meat, and managed to climb high into the trees and on top of the roof of the walkway in their enclosure.  It was amazing to watch.  The keepers gave a brief talk to the visitors but then were happy to stay and chat to us for quite some time afterwards.  It was a really lovely experience.

Lion rockThe hotel was nice and for a small extra charge you could book one of the rooms overlooking the reserve.  We spent the early evening making use of their swimming pool and jacuzzi.  Neither was that large, but there was only one or two other people around so we had plenty of room.  In the evening we went to the Zafari Bar and Grill for dinner.  We had a table by the window overlooking the animals so we were able to sit and watch them while the sun went down, and then see as the lion rock got lit up.  The food was nice – we had one of their special chicken skewers cooked over the open flames.  It wasn’t the cheapest of options but it tasted good and there was plenty to eat.

Yellow tangOn the Sunday we went back into the park, and went to the new Sealife centre.  The centre was not huge, but there was plenty of different things to see from the very small to the large sharks.  There was areas where you could interact with some of the fish in the rock pools, and also a tunnel where you could walk through the area with fish and sharks.  As an addition to the whole park it was nice, although if you’d come expecting a full sized Sealife centre you may be a little disappointed.

Overall, it was a lovely mini break away.  For those without children it was a great time to visit as the schools had gone back, so there was no queues for anything and I felt you could spend more time appreciating the animals and getting up close to some without being jostled out of the way.

Twycross Zoo

19 September, 2011

Twycross 10We’ve got the week off work but aren’t going away on holiday.  Instead we have a number of short breaks and day trips planned.  The first of these was this weekend when we went to stay in Birmingham.  I decided it would be nice to go and visit Twycross Zoo as I get in free with my Annual Pass from Marwell Wildlife and it isn’t somewhere I have been before.  I also knew they’d had a pair of baby snow leopard cubs born about the same time as Marwell and I’m a sucker for cute and furry cats!

Twycross Zoo specialise in primates and as such, I’d say that over half of the animals they have there are some type of money, ape, gibbon etc.  I found a lot of these enclosures were not very good for photography – many were inside, and a lot were cluttered with a lot of things for them to climb on.  Obviously the animals come first, so if this is what they like then that is great but I prefer a much natural looking setting for my photographs!

Twycross Snow 25As you enter the zoo there is a big area known as Himalaya which is where you’ll find shops and eating areas, and also a massive viewing area for the snow leopards.  I thought this was a great idea as it means they can run things and use it for events without the need to go into the zoo.  I imagine it got busy when the snow leopard cubs first came out, as you could see them without the need to pay to enter.  We were really lucky and timed a late breakfast just as they had woken up and got to spend an hour watching them play.  Even mum seemed to have a spring in her step and had fun with the cubs.

Twycross 24Apart from the Himalaya area and the primate sections the rest of the zoo was quite varied but none of it felt particularly cohesive – from children’s pets such as guinea pigs, to penguins and sea lions, to elephants.  We spent about 3 hours there, but if you aren’t into primates then this probably isn’t one of the best zoos to visit.


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