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Starting off..

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.

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Cruising along…
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She often fed them without touching down at all
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It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick

 

 

Warts and all..

Common Warthogs, Phacochoerus africanus, are not the most glamorous of animals. The warthog character in The Lion King movie is called Pumbaa, which means “foolish” in Swahili. But I have a soft spot for them, and if you read on you will discover that so do some mongoose.

Omnipresent in Africa, when startled they run around with their tails in the air like mini flagpoles. This one had just erupted from its underground burrow, just behind it in the shot.

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When they feed, they often shuffle along on their knees:

They love wallowing in mud to cool off and kill ticks. Look at the watermark on these two young males practicing their fighting skills.

This one has been wallowing, and is now having a good scratch, first one side, then its bottom, then the other side:

The males are mainly solitary, but when the female is in season, she may be followed around by several males. On this occasion her suitor failed to impress:

An adult male is formidable: he can weigh up to 330lbs (though 250lbs is more usual), and his tusks can be up to a foot long. The smaller lower tusks are razor sharp from constant rubbing against the upper tusks. They get their name from the giant growths on the faces of the males:

There are a total of four of these growths: two below the eyes, and two smaller ones further down. Although they look like warts, they are actually lumps of thickened skin.

In Uganda a number of years ago there was a resident warthog at one of the lodges that had bonded with a family of striped mongoose.

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They look as though they are nursing:

but in fact I think that they were eating small insects from her skin, a mutually beneficial relationship, and judging by her blissed-out expression every bit as good as going to the spa.

The Northern Kenyan warthogs on my most recent trip are a particular species, the desert warthog, Phacochoerus aethiopicus, found only here and in Sudan. The tips of the ears curl back , and the “warts” are hook shaped, as you can see on this big male:

PS In Africa safari guides talk of the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard) but there are also the Ugly Five: warthog, hyena, vulture, wildebeest, marabou stork. It seems a little mean!

Orb-weaver extraordinaire

[Taking a break from Africa, a story from my garden in Maine.]

From time to time I am lucky enough to watch a spider mother setting up her nursery. This small spider, the Six-spotted Orb Weaver, Arianella displicata, is related to the Cucumber Spider. She is 4-8mm long, and highly skilled! In this shot she is upside down, but the photo is taken from below, and you can see the six black spots at the end of her abdomen.

She has laid her eggs, and enclosed them in a golden net .

Now the spider is cabling the edge of the grapevine leaf so it curls over to shelter the egg sac;

Look carefully at the lower part of the photo above and you can see that she has also spun an orb web, to catch her dinner. The silk is emerging from her spinnerets, the blackish orifice on the underside of her abdomen:

Three hours later I came back to see what she was up to, and this is what I found:

She had caught a Rose Chafer in her orb web. It is much bigger than she is, but that did not stop her tucking in:

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Luckily for the Rose Chafer population, the survival of the species had been ensured the previous day on a nearby chive flower:

The night after the spider wove her web there was heavy rain, and the next morning she and her egg sac were still there, but the orb web and Rose Chafer had gone, and the cables that were holding the curled leaf had snapped. But she was still guarding her eggs, patting down the egg sac.

She was also showing me her face with its six eyes, four black dots in the center and one to each side. (The number and arrangement of the eyes is another clue to identifying spider species.)

PS The golden crêche created by the spider reminds me of the spun-sugar cage of a croquembouche as created by a master pastry chef. Here is a spectacular example from the website https://www.craftybaking.com/recipe/croquembouche

Only a few humans can do this, but every Arianella mother can.

The hunting jackals

Black-backed Jackals, I had always thought, are scavengers, feeding off the carcasses killed by lions.This one in Namibia is feeding on an oryx carcass (the jackal is immediately behind the carcass, and the oryx horns are in the left foreground).

If you pushed me, I might have guessed that they also hunt tiny things like mice. All true, but it turns out they have bigger fish to fry (wrong metaphor, I admit.)

After a few hours of game watching in the Maasai Mara, we had paused for breakfast on a rise looking out over the huge grassy plain, filled with gazelle, impala, zebra and buffalo (this picture looks in the opposite direction, but I thought you’d like to see what breakfast was like!):

Two jackals were prowling around in the far distance. Suddenly Tinka, my guide, jumped to his feet and said “Oh my goodness, they’ve just killed that baby gazelle”, and hurriedly started to pack up our breakfast and load the truck. We drove at headlong speed across the plain, and sure enough, the jackals had got a newborn gazelle, its fur still wet and curly:

They argued over who got what,

paused,

and then they started a tug-of-war:

Here is a short video:

They eventually tore it in two, and the winner got the head:

She carried it off into the long grass strewn with small white flowers that seemed as though they were scattered in mourning for the tiny life cut short.

Ravel’s music, Pavane pour une infante defunte, though written for an infanta not an infant, still feels right, here played by Ravel himself.

PS The flowers are Cycnium adonense, the White Blotting Paper Flower, with delicate floppy petals.

Rhino uncut

I have seen black rhino, Diceros bicornis, once before, in Namibia, but their horns had been clipped off to protect them from poaching. In Kenya, though, I saw them in their untampered and intimidating state. I saw them in Lewa Downs in Laikipia, and also in Nairobi National Park, both of which have excellent anti-poaching programs, and healthy populations of these enormous animals.

Here is a fully grown male, with a vehicle in the background, for scale:

They can reach 4000 pounds ( 1400Kg). The females are a little smaller, but still substantial:

Even the calf is big enough to think twice about:

They have two horns, the front one is the longer of the two:

Unless your name is Sonya, in which case the back one is the longer one:

The presence of a youngster shows that this unusual arrangement has not stopped some male finding her appealing! It remains to be seen which parent will determine how her baby’s horns develop.

Although they sometimes eat grass, their mouths are designed for browsing, with a pointed hooked upper lip which allows them to delicately strip leaves off bushes:

White rhino, Ceratotherium simum, by contrast, are grazers, and have wide square mouths designed for hoovering up large amounts of grass.

The white rhino are even larger than the blacks, with males weighing up to 55oolbs.

Returning to the Black Rhino, they have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing. Their tube-shaped ears can rotate in all directions:

They remind me of miniature ear-trumpets, and are every bit as effective.

Putting all your eggs in one …

Another Kenyan post.

Some birds work hard gathering nesting materials, some build elaborate nests, and some barely bother. It’s all in the genes.

This swallow has a beakful of mud from a tiny puddle behind it, destined for its nest:

Weaver birds are so-named because they weave basketry concoctions, like this White-Browed Sparrow Weaver:

The finished object reminds me of a certain type of raw-edged straw hat,

For scale, here is a nest that had fallen from the tree:

Inside, there are some guineafowl feathers, for softness.

The male weaves the nest, and the female then comes and inspects his handiwork. If she doesn’t approve, she refuses to move in.

The Black-Capped Social Weaver goes a step further. They build large colonies of up to 60 nests, at the very end of slender twigs, making it harder for predators to reach the eggs. Their nests (jointly woven) start with a ring, and then they are rounded off:

They have an entrance and an exit, but once the eggs are laid the exit is closed.

Not shaggy, but neat and tidy and carefully planned, I think they would win the Grand Designs TV award.

In complete contrast the Crowned Lapwing hides its eggs in plain sight.

Here is a male (left) displaying:

The eggs are laid on the ground, where a shallow depression offers only a sketchy attempt to provide a home for them:

Instead of investing time and energy in highly skilled home construction, the parents hang around nearby, and loudly harass any marauders, such as jackals.

Finally, perhaps most extreme, is the Eurasian Nightjar. The female is sitting on the nest in this photo, and we nearly trod on her.

Here she is in closeup:

She waits until the last possible moment to move, counting on her excellent camouflage, but once she does fly up and the eggs are revealed, they are still not easy to see:

And in closeup:

A range of different strategies, each successful in its own way.

Flying foxes

[I’m not done with Kenya, but now that I’m back in Maine there are some stories that demand to be told.]

A neighbor told me about a red fox family in an open field close to the road, so I jumped in the truck. The first two photos were taken by Heinrich Wurm in early May, when there were six cubs, aged around four to six weeks old, and still nursing:

By the time I got back from Kenya there were only four cubs left, now aged between eight and nine weeks old. The remaining photos are mine.

They come out of the den in the early evening:

The sand is the output of the mother’s den construction, conveniently visible in the otherwise grassy meadow. The cubs don’t seem to stray too far from the den just yet, and if I stay in the truck they are not bothered by my presence. Watch them play:

A week later, on a sunnier evening, they were practicing their hunting skills. They would levitate and then pounce down on top of either a mouse,

or a sibling:

They jumped quite high, hard to convey in a photo.

Then the mother arrived, carrying what appeared to be a dead bird:

A cub appeared and she gave it the bird. Two of the cubs disappeared with their prey (or toy?) into the undergrowth. I can’t imagine this is much food divided between four cubs, but they certainly looked healthy.

To end, a portrait of the mother:

and a cub:

PS: There are many species of fox worldwide, and here in Maine we have both red and gray foxes. I found myself wondering whether these reds are the same species as the British red foxes, and the answer seems to be that nobody really knows. British settlers may have brought some European foxes, Vulpes vulpes, from the old country over to have the right kind of fox to hunt, and they may have interbred with local foxes, Vulpes fulva, but this seems to have been mainly in the Eastern US near settlements, and the native bloodlines still seem to have survived. For more details, read here:

https://www.wildlifeonline.me.uk/questions/answer/are-north-american-and-european-red-foxes-different-species

PPS In England many people loathe foxes, especially in cities, where they have adapted remarkably successfully to urban living, and become a pest. Read (or watch) Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox to get a sense of the British attitude to foxes! Here in Maine anyone who has chickens hates them, but a lot of the rest of us (including me) rather like them.

PPS My title is due to Linda Wurm. Thankyou Linda!

One topi, three cheetah, and a leopard

Fairly near the cheetah mother and cubs that I showed you before, there were three other young three-year old cheetah siblings (one male, two female) that had been thrown out by their mother a month ago, and were learning to manage on their own. My guide somehow found them asleep under a tree one morning (don’t worry, I couldn’t see them either):

Two were asleep

and one was on watch:

The previous evening they had been seen hunting and killing a young topi. Topi adults are good-sized antelope, 90-150Kg, much too big for the cheetah to tackle. Rather charmingly, the males are prone to standing with their forefeet on termite mounds to improve the view:

The males at this time of year are fighting for territory for their harem of females:

But there are also youngsters around, and the cheetah got one, near some woods. Big mistake. Out of the woods came a 70Kg leopard, much bigger than the 40Kg cheetah, and stole the topi.

I saw none of this, but it was the talk of the camp that evening. So next morning we went looking, and there, up in a tree in distinctively leopard style, was the ex-topi.

The leopard was nowhere to be seen, probably sleeping nearby on the ground. So we came back at 4pm, and there he was, sleeping on a branch just below the carcase.

He woke up, and decided dinner was in order:

He was hungry:

So he climbed up and claimed his meal:

Holding it in a deathly embrace:

He ate:

And after feeding for an hour or so, he gracefully descended to the ground to sleep off his full belly:

Startling Starlings

[Birds today, but fear not, there will be more big mammals in the weeks ahead.]

Kenya is full of starlings. And not your common-or-garden European ones either. Here is a selection, ending with the most resplendent!

The two most common ones I saw were the Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Lamprotornis chalybaeus, iridescent blue with a yellow eye:

and the Superb Starling, Lamprotornis superbus, with its orange underside.

Also common is the Wattled Starling, Creatophora cinerea, member of a different genus from the glossy blue Lamprotornis starlings in the rest of this post. It has an entirely different and less flashy color scheme. The male (centre below) has a bright yellow patch behind its eye, and in breeding season it grows big black wattles, only beginning in my photos. The females lack all of this. Here is a trio (girl, boy, girl) hoping for insects stirred up by the zebra crossing:

The one below was part of a mixed group of birds attracted to a termite mound on the morning after a nighttime shower; the termites were emerging on the wing, causing a feeding frenzy, and this male got lucky:

Here is his catch in close-up:

Hildebrandt’s Starling, Lamprotornis hildebrandti, is burnished with orange and yellow below:

and iridescent blue above:

But the most spectacular by far is the Golden-breasted Starling, Lamprotornis regius, aptly named. I asked my guide Steven Sankei at Il Ngwesi in Laikipia if he could find them, and he said he knew a place where they hung out. After ten minutes or so, not just one but a pair appeared, for once both equally resplendent, though the male has a longer tail.

Its back is iridescent purple and its head is azure:

Its breast and underwings are burnished gold, unmistakable in flight:

And the total effect is glorious:

PS The range of the Golden-Breasted Starling is limited to S & E Ethiopia, Somalia, E Kenya and NE Tanzania. It inhabits thinly populated regions, but is not endangered. It is found in Kenya during the rains, which are supposed to happen in April, but as of this week in Il Ngwesi (where I saw the Golden-breasted Starlings) they had still not yet arrived. The drought is taking a terrible toll, on both livestock (the Maasai’s livelihood) and wildlife.

An unlikely antelope

The gerenuk, Litocranius walleri, was new to me. I had never even heard of it. Its name comes from the Somali garanuug, and its Swahili name is swala twiga, meaning ‘gazelle giraffe’. You can see why.

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It is a creature of dry acacia savannahs in the Horn of Africa and northern Kenya (here, Lewa and Il Ngwesi in Laikipia) , and it uses that long neck to browse higher in the trees, just like a small giraffe. It is famous for its unusual habit (for an antelope) of standing on its hind legs to reach the best leaves up to two metres off the ground:

This one went on eating, but kept an eye on us:

I find their slender necks and huge ears very endearing.

Like most antelope, the social unit is a male and his harem, here numbering seven (only six are in the shot and the male is in the centre.)

If a female is coming into season he follows her, sniffing:

If she doesn’t respond, his next ice-breaking move is to kick her, as a way of getting her attention:

Rather surprisingly, this sometimes works, but not this time.

You can see from the photos how dry everything is: the rains are late, and the drought is severe. This graceful animal is classified by the IUCN as “Near Threatened”. Its population declined by 25% between 2001 and 2016, due to hunting and habitat loss from grazing. To think I have only just learnt of its existence, and yet it may be vanishing. How sad.

PS I kept hoping that two of them would position themselves so I could take a “push-me-pull you” shot, but they failed to oblige.

A right bustard

That’s not a typo in my title.

I want to introduce you to a male Kori Bustard in his pomp, but first some background. Here he is on an ordinary day, hanging out in the shade. He is the heaviest flying bird in Africa, up to 19Kg and stands about five feet tall. (Females are much smaller).

He walks through the long grass looking for insects, often followed by birds like this European Roller, waiting for things that fly up as he passes. The bustard is visible to the right of the Roller, behind the acacia bush:

But now in Nairobi National Park it is mating season, and a female is nearby. So he transforms himself. First, the tail goes up:

looking good from behind:

Then the wings are lowered to the ground, and he puffs out his neck:

And in the final result he looks for all the world like a monarch in floor length robes complete with coronet and train, and a neck ruff:

He even makes a deep booming drumroll to announce his presence. How could any girl resist?

PS I’m sure you noticed the raised train line in the background. Nairobi National Park is a wonderful place where I stayed for one night before my flight back, at The Emakoko lodge, (highly recommended) It is 30,000 acres right on the edge of Nairobi next to the airport, and a few years back they ran a new train line straight through it. They did at least raise it up high enough for giraffe to walk underneath, and apparently the animals are used to it now, and find it useful for shade. It was hugely controversial, as you can read here (the article is about a variety of threats to Kenya’s national parks, including this one):

https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-kenyas-push-for-development-is-threatening-its-prized-wild-lands

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