For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England. I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.
I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.
The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.
For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.
[This post is coming rather soon after the last, for reasons that will be apparent in the final paragraph!]
Two good-sized raptors that frequent the Gambia are the African Harrier, and the Lizard Buzzard. Let me introduce you.
A pair of African Harrier Hawks, Polyboroides typus, posed for us late one afternoon.
They have a wingspan of up to five feet. Unusually for hawks, they mostly hunt their prey by poking around in holes and crevices in trees. They are looking for nestlings, lizards, squirrels and the like. They have long flexibly jointed legs, with an intertarsal joint that is flexible through 190°–205°, meaning it can bend both backwards and forwards, which helps get into cavities.
They have a jaunty crest, and a bare orangey red face.
Those specialized legs are an interesting example of convergent evolution. The Crane Hawk, a unrelated New World species, has a similar hunting technique, and similar legs. I photographed this one in the Pantanal in Brazil in 2013.
The much smaller Lizard Buzzard, Kaupifalco monogrammicus, is a handsome bird with a distinctive single vertical black stripe down the centre of its throat,
like a skinny necktie* :
The Lizard Buzzard has a shortish stubby bill:
and a wingspan of about 2 1/2 feet.
Despite its name, it doesn’t eat only lizards; large insects make up a lot of its diet.
* Thankyou Brad Vernatter, General Director and CEO of Boston Lyric Opera, for this photo on the opening night of their wonderful Bluebeard’s Castle. If you are in Boston, it’s still on this weekend, March 25 and 26. Do go.
Although this was primarily a bird trip, we had other notable encounters.
The Western Red Colobus Monkey, Piliocolobus badius, is very, very, shy, and we were lucky to see it, but at a great distance. We circled around to try and get closer and with a better light, but they immediately dived for cover, and that was that.
I’m showing them to you anyway because they are officially classified as Endangered by the ICUN. There are no reliable population estimates, but their population is known to be decreasing. This subspecies, Temminck’s Red Colobus, may be especially endangered. Best estimates are a total of 2500 individuals, one of the largest populations being roughly where we were, in the Abuko Nature Reserve (Starin 2017).
There was a group of maybe four or five. This shot shows four, but I think there was one more.
At the top right was a charming family of three:
As you can see, the father is very aware of us, not surprisingly as we were creeping around loudly in the brush. The mother is more attentive to the baby, and of course seeing a baby is a very positive sign:
My photos don’t show it, but they have glorious long tails like this black-and-white colobus I saw in Uganda in 2014:
My final shot, of the solicitous parent restraining the baby, who is trying to explore its twiggy world:
PS The IUCN says: “.. red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus spp.) are the most threatened group of African monkeys. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020, every form of red colobus monkey is threatened with extinction, and 14 of the 18 taxa (>75%) are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered. ” I feel privileged to have seen them, and saddened by their fragility.
Little Bee-eaters, Merops pusilluspusillus, are probably my favorite bee-eater. They’re the smallest bee-eater, but as Shakespeare said, “Though she be but little, she is fierce”.
Found all over Africa, and not endangered, they are diminutive jewels, inclined to perch in the open and low down, making them a photographer’s gift. The orange and green coloring is surprisingly good camouflage. They are frequently in pairs, though these two don’t seem to be getting along too well:
While we were there it was very hot, 39C or 100F, so to cool off they were diving into the pool. These dips also help rid them of parasites, and I suspect the chlorine might help too?
The dip was followed by a blowdry:
and a final styling:
The plumage is stunning, but so are the details, like the red eye and the sliver of bright blue supercilium.
They catch their prey on the wing, making about 40 sorties an hour, 30% of which are successful. Around 75% of their diet is bees and wasps, and the rest is other flying insects.
In this pair, one announced his imminent departure, and started to hunt:
Offering your prey to your mate is polite:
even if she doesn’t always seem interested:
But he never gave up: and her head is slowly turning towards him:
At this point I think something disturbed them, because I have no more photos!
PS Bees and wasps are tricky eating. Just as a Japanese sushi chef knows how to prepare poisonous fugu fish for safe consumption, the bee-eater knows how to get rid of both sting and venom by bashing and squeezing the bee on a branch first. This behavior has been shown to be innate. It takes about ten tries for a young bee-eater before the technique is mastered.
PPS Photographing birds diving into the pool is a matter of pure luck. The entire dive lasts perhaps one second, and you have no idea where in the pool it is heading for. So you basically photograph the pool surface, and then see what you’ve got afterwards!
A witch’s coven?? A gathering of gowned academics? An achingly chic Parisian fashion show?
No, just a group of Black Herons, looking for their lunch. The Black Heron, Egretta ardesaica, is a small heron 42-66 cm, weighing around 270-390 g. It is also known as the Black Egret. Here is a photo of it next to a Little Egret, Egretta garzetta.
It is famous for its ingenious and highly unusual hunting strategy. It spreads its wings over its head to create a dark tent over the water’s surface, reducing glare, and lulling the fish into a false sense of security. The neck plumes are used to complete the umbrella. Then it pounces.
The technique is called Canopy Feeding. At the same time, it stirs the water with one foot, presumably to rustle up some prey.
The wings are said to stay up for only 2-3 seconds at a time, but the ones we were watching seemed to stay there much longer. Below, on the right, is one heron with its wings half-way up into the feeding position.
They are elegant birds, with extra-wide flight feathers so that the canopy has no gaps:
Their feet are bright yellow, like the Little Egret’s. (Sorry about the blurry photo, the only one I caught with the feet visible.)
In German, it is called Glockenreiher, Bell Egret, I assume for the shape it makes when hooding. You can see it in action in this video, in a version immortalized by the BBC in a sketch from their comedy show Walk on the Wild Side.
The Black Heron is not endangered. Its range is mainly East Africa, and Madagascar (where populations are in worrying decline), and in West Africa it seems to prefer coastal areas.
PS I wanted to get closer to get better photos, but it meant walking out onto a patch of wetland where 15 minutes earlier I had seen this.
So I didn’t. One fellow-traveler ventured out, and came back with all his toes and probably much better photos.
Finally, my own distant video of the entire group fishing:
[I have just returned from The Gambia in West Africa, looking at birds with the photographer and guide Oliver Smart of Naturetrek. I’ll be doing several posts from the trip, perhaps interspersed with anything interesting in Maine now that I am back.]
First, to situate you for the weeks ahead, here is a map showing where the Gambia is in West Africa. The red pin is our lodge, Mandina River Lodge.
The Gambia is a very unusual shaped country, along two sides of The Gambia river, and entirely surrounded by Senegal. The river is 10Km wide where we were, so there are no bridges until the 1.2 mile Senegambia bridge, 120 Km up-river, which opened in 2019.
So, on to the birds. These pictures were taken over several different encounters.
Sitting high in the tree was a plump purplish-black bird the size of a large pigeon with a long tail, a crimson head and a chunky reddish-orange bill:
It was a Violet Turaco, Musophaga violacea. The yellow forehead is a hard casque, and the red eye-ring is bare skin., which you can perhaps see better in the not-very-sharp photo below:
Weighing in at 360gm, and about 50cm long, its scientific name means “banana-eater”. It gorges when it finds a productive fruit tree, hanging upside-down if necessary to reach the ripest fruits, especially figs:
The flight feathers are deep crimson, visible in the next photo as it spreads its wings to keep its balance:
or on a short flight to a new branch:
But when it really takes off:
and spreads its wings fully, just look:
The crimson color is produced by an entirely different pigment from the reds of all other bird families, and called appropriately turacin. Hence my title.
Another oddity: it has ‘semi-zygodactylous’ feet: the fourth (outer) toe can be can be brought around to the back of the foot to nearly touch the first toe, or brought the front near the second and third toes. I failed to photograph this!
The Violet Turaco is not endangered and lives across a swathe of West Africa, but it has been little studied. The main threat seems to be the international trade in exotic birds: it is just too spectacular for its own good. In captivity they live a long time. The current record is 37 years.
I end with Herman Schlegel’s 1860 painting of a Turaco for the Royal Zoological Society – also known as Natura Artis Magistra, the oldest zoo in the Netherlands.
The Grey Heron has a range that ranges from England to Japan.
They are imperial birds. This lacquered Japanese cosmetic box was given to Queen Elizabeth II by the Emperor of Japan for her coronation in 1953. It was made around 1900 by Shirayama Shōsai. It was the first post-war diplomatic gift, indicating a new era of friendship, and is on display right now in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
Meanwhile, this one was grooming itself in the gardens next to Kensington Palace the other day, crest on display, oblivious to us passing peasants:
It was joined by two indolent swans, the property of the King:
Like the one on the lacquered box, it spent much time on one leg:
Serious grooming began:
But it was watching me, maybe checking for signs of insurrection:
PS: I’m off to The Gambia tomorrow, and hope to have some good things to show you on my return in about 10 days.
Preface: I’m now in London, but with nothing special to report, and definitely no giraffes, so I thought I’d dig out a couple of postings I composed but never sent out. Here’s one, from my Kenya orphanage trip in April 2018.
The 48,000 acre Soysambu Conservancy was set up by Lord Delamere, whose predecessors figured prominently (to put it mildly) in Kenyan high society back in the Out of Africa era. It contains a very healthy population of Rothschild’s Giraffe, about 10% of the world’s total of around 1600 (IUCN 2016 estimate).
The Rothschild’s Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, is the only species where the male is born with five ossicones: two large ones on top of the head, used for fighting and often rubbed bald, plus two smaller ones behind the ears, and one in the middle of the forehead. This not very good photo shows all five:
The ossicones are made of ossified cartilage, not bone. At birth, they are not attached to the skull, and lie flat, so the poor mother can give birth without problems. Later in life they fuse to the skull.
Recently, lions have moved in to Soysambu from neighboring Lake Nakuru National Park, and we were driven around by Rowena White, known to her friends as ‘the lion lady’, who helps to monitor the lions for Lord Delamere. We didn’t see lions, but we had a lovely day. Here are some highlights.
What look like twin young giraffes, part of a group of about 20, quite unbothered by the buffalo.
A baby buffalo with mother next to him, and the magnificently horned father behind her:
A jackal resting in the long grass, with an impressive pair of ears.
And a tortoise, ambling along through the wildflowers:
A Lilac-breasted Roller, Coracias caudatus:
And then we had lunch, taking care to stay on the verandah because Rowena regularly sees leopards prowling around the terrace!
Pond skaters, aka Water Striders, Aquarius sp., are so familiar to anyone who frequents streams and ponds that we rarely stop to look closely. And if we do, it’s not so easy, because they rarely stay still for long. Next time, though, especially in the spring, pause and observe. Here is what I saw some years ago on a Maine May day.
What first caught my attention was a strider with far too many legs:
On closer inspection it was clear there were two striders, one atop the other, mating. They skated around on the surface as one, and I realized there were other tightly bonded pairs in the same quiet backwater:
There didn’t seem to be any real action , and I didn’t see any pairs either coming together, or separating:
They use the surface tension to stay afloat, so the tip of each leg creates a sort of dent in the surface, and disturbs the leaf reflections in a magical pattern. The next picture not only has two courting couples, but one of the right-hand pair seems to be holding something.
When I got home, I started reading. Mating water striders stay conjoined for the entire reproductive season (!), which can be all the warm months. The male has no intention of letting another one displace his sperm, so he stakes out his female and there he stays. But after a while they get hungry, so they don’t hesitate to catch a passing insect and have dinner, as you can see above .
In France the same year I got a clearer photo of this romantic dîner-a-deux:
Trust the French to combine a little dalliance with an amuse-bouche.
PS Wikipedia has this fascinating description of how the two lovers hook up. (Water Striders are members of the Gerridae family.)
“Sex discrimination in some Gerridae species is determined through communication of ripple frequency produced on the water surface.Males predominantly produce these ripples in the water. There are three main frequencies found in ripple communication: 25 Hz as a repel signal, 10 Hz as a threat signal, and 3 Hz as a courtship signal. An approaching gerrid will first give out a repel signal to let the other water strider know they are in its area. If the other gerrid does not return the repel signal, then the bug knows it is a female and will switch to the courtship signal. A receptive female will lower her abdomen and allow the male to mount her and mate. A non-receptive female will raise her abdomen and emit a repel signal.”
Given the duration of the liaison, it’s a big decision. And maybe their system works better than Tinder, or indeed Bumble.
PPS Water striders are carnivorous. They often feast on insects that have fallen into the water and drowned. These ones are eating a dead dragonfly:
PPPS Their whole bodies are covered in miniscule hydrofuge hairs, which repel water, so they don’t get waterlogged and sink.
In England grouse was something I ate occasionally, if I was lucky, but never saw. Here I see them occasionally, but never eat them. You can’t have everything.
We have Ruffed Grouse and Spruce Grouse around here. The Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus, live in my woods, and are common. The Spruce Grouse, Canachites canadensis, live higher up the mountains, and are rarer. They are both secretive (mostly), and you hear them flying up from the ground when you disturb them, but rarely get a good look. They seem to be more visible in the fall, coming out of the woods and crossing the roads. I’ll start with the Ruffed Grouse. This is a female:
She clambered over a stone wall, and off into the woods:
The male lingered. You can see that he has a neck ruff, not extended here:
I have only seen Spruce Grouse once. We are at the southern edge of their range, and so they are more likely seen at higher elevations. It was in the fall, not breeding season, but for some reason a deluded male was dancing for his inamorata. I was hiking with only a tiny camera, and he was energetic, so they are a little blurry, but the red eyebrows are quite impressive! Here he is before he really gets going. Notice the log. This is his stage.
The favored log is in an open space under spruce (!):
Once his tail is up and those eyebrows are raised, he is quite a sight, He turns sideways so she can admire the eyebrows:
and when he comes straight towards you he is not easy to ignore:
He swirls around:
and as he dances he drags his wings, just visible here:
Ready for his close-up, eyebrows raised. Best brows since Mr. Spock.*
“Upon locating a female during the breeding season, a territorial male exhibits a series of characteristic behaviors: erects much of the plumage (particularly the breast and tail feathers), droops wings slightly, erects the superciliary combs, bobs the head vertically, and often pecks the substrate (ground or branch) while presenting the side of the head, thereby showing off the combs. The Tail-swish (Figure 13), Tail-flick (Figure 13), and Head-jerk displays (Table 6) are the primary male courtship displays. The tail-swish involves moving slowly forward with head and tail erect and undertail coverts spread widely (17), and walking with an alternate spreading of lateral rectrices that is synchronized with the movements of the legs. This gives an exaggerated swaying motion that is accompanied by a swishing sound, produced by the movement of the rectrices. The tail-flick is the climax of the Tail-swish Display and follows a short rush. The male stops suddenly near the female with wings drooped and snaps the rectrices laterally where they are held briefly before being closed (60). The Head-jerk Display occurs when the male squats near the female and stamps his feet rapidly. The wings are spread slightly away from the flanks, rectrices are repeatedly fanned, and the head is turned rapidly from side to side in a jerky manner. Males may remain in this position, often motionless, for short periods of time.”