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.
She saw impala on the other side of the valley, and crept through the long grass on her belly, invisible, for as long as she could. Then, when the grass had been grazed short and there was no cover, she kept a termite mound in between her and the impala. In the photo below, the left-hand circle is the cheetah, the termite mound is in the center, and the impala are to the right.
Once she reached the termite mound, she settled down behind it and waited for the impala to come to her, which they foolishly did, oblivious to her presence..
Tinka thought they were still too far away, but the cheetah disagreed. When the impala reached her side of a clump of bushes, she burst out, heading for the one on the right in the picture below, but it saw her, and the one on the left didn’t, so she changed direction and headed for that one. (In case you can’t see her, she is just behind the bushes.)
This was smart: this impala was pregnant, and a fraction slower than the other one. The cheetah is astonishingly fast:
She can reach speeds of nearly 6o mph in a sprint like this, and she accelerates faster than a Lamborghini, and four times faster than Usain Bolt.
The impala sought refuge in a gully: big mistake. This blurry photo shows the moment the cheetah caught her, grabbing her by the throat. The impala is on the left, the cheetah on the right.
From when she began her final assault it took 11 seconds to the kill.
My guide pointed out that you can see from this shot that the impala’s nipples are enlarged, confirming her pregnancy.
Something they don’t often show on TV is how long it can take for the animals to die. This one took a good five minutes. The cheetah holds it by the throat and asphyxiates it, but every now and again she drops it, thinking it is all over, and the poor thing moves or gasps, so she grabs it again.
This video makes that painfully clear. Not everyone will want to watch. If you listen carefully the poor impala can be heard.
You can also see that the cheetah’s flanks heaving from the exhaustion of the chase, and my guide says that is one reason it took so long for her to finally kill the impala. And she will have to do it all over again two days later.
This is glimpse of the realities of how the sacrifice of one mother and her unborn fawn feeds another mother and her three cubs. My next post will show you the feast.
PS More on the cheetah’s speed and acceleration here:
If you point your camera at a cheetah, mother or cub, it is often not there any more. They flash past at dazzling speed, and turn on a dime. This piece is also interesting:
PPS As many of you know, this is not my first safari, and every one has been wonderful . But in case you think you see this every time, it is my first clear look a successful hunt from start to finish in 13 safaris. (Lions and leopards hunt at night.)
[I am back from a trip to Kenya that recharged my batteries which had been yearning for the wild. After deleting the obvious duds, I have only 2500 photos to go through, and many many stories to tell you. I had settled into a routine of blogging weekly, but now I will just send them once I have something ready to show you. If the tale I want to tell is long, like this one, it will be in two or more installments.]
In the Maasai Mara, I stayed for the second time at Saruni Wild, a Maasai run camp in Lemek Conservancy with only 3 tents. My extraordinary guide was William Tinka.
One morning we were looking for cheetah, and as usual Tinka saw them long before I could discern them even with binoculars. We got close, and you may be able to see that one has climbed the tree, not something I associate with cheetah:
It was a five-month old cub, one of three.
It came down:
and joined its mother and the others:
They played for about 20 minutes
until the mother began to move, though they kept playing as they followed.
When they run, you can see how their back feet land in front of the front feet, the iconic picture of a cheetah at speed.
Two of the cubs came to investigate the vehicle
One tried to climb in
But then the mother appeared like greased lightning and chased it off, sending a clear message that this was too close.
While they continued to play,
the mother checked out the landscape for game,
then started a purposeful slink through the long grass:
The cubs followed
but then, with no clear signal, they stopped dead, sat completely still (our kids never did that),
and their mother set out alone on the day’s grocery shopping.
[Well, the best laid plans…. etc etc… I am not going to get to England for another week, for Covid-related reasons. (Everyone is fine.) So I dug out this blog that I composed this time last year and never sent.]
In the woods a tiny rivulet flowed across the trail, creating miniature ponds amongst the leafmold. In one of these there was a huge swarm of tiny dark grey insects, so small they looked at first glance like poppy seeds.
I had no idea what they were, but they moved, so they were alive.
In closeup, they look like this:
They are Springtails, also called Snowfleas, Podura aquatica. They do not live in the water, but on the water, held up by the surface tension. Why Springtail?? Under their tail there is a hinged structure, and if they are disturbed they shoot many times their own height up into the air. Mind you, since they are only 1.5mm long this is not actually all that high!
They are very primitive insects that never evolved wings, and they don’t go through different metamorphic stages. They are thought to be vegetarians.
More elegantly, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Sphyrapicus varius, were drumming to each other in the treetops. Like the red-bellied Woodpecker I showed you last year, they have flashes of brilliant scarlet plumage. Here is the male, with yellow(ish) belly in evidence:
Here is another male, this time feeding:
They are called sapsuckers because they really do eat sap. They have a highly systematic drilling technique, which produces rows of small holes, like this:
This passage from Wikipedia describes how they operate:
“Before feeding consistently on a tree, this sapsucker lays down exploratory bands near a live branch. These bands are laid down in horizontal rows. When it finds a tree that is photosynthesizing, then it lays down more holes to feed, about 0.5 centimetres (0.20 in) above the primary bands. These form columns. Each hole is started as an oval elongated horizontally, drilled through the bark and phloem layers to the outside of the xylem. They are then drilled further, with the sapsucker enlarging it vertically, making it yield more sap, but only for a few days. The top holes in each column thus provides phloem sap, and this sapsucker also utilizes the bast (fibrous tissue, MY) from the edges of the holes drilled. In the winter, when the holes are drilled on conifers, bast is likely the most important food.”
Watch and hear him drill in this video, and then two more photos to finish with. The first is a juvenile, and the second is a close-up of the male in the video.
Hopefully there will be no more delays to my travel plans, and I will go quiet on you for a few weeks. No news is good news.
[There is no single story to this blog, just a desire to show you what early spring is like round here, before I leave town for a while. This is my last week in Maine till late May; I’m off to England, Kenya and Sicily. I may blog once or twice en route, or I may hoard stuff and let it trickle out bit by bit on my return. It will depend in what I see, whether I have wifi, and any spare time. Wherever you are, delight in the signs of new life.]
There is still some snow in the woods, and some ice on the pond, but with every passing day it shrinks. So the waterbirds are returning. The Canada Geese, of course.
There were twelve today, and here in their home habitat they are handsome creatures, though she does not seem to find him enticing:
The Hooded Mergansers, swimming amongst tiny suspended icy chandeliers:
and today they are joined by the first Great Blue Heron of the year:
It puffed out its chest to display its pectoral plumes:
Spread its wings:
and took off:
Around the pond the redwinged blackbirds chorus, and a a tiny Brown Creeper works its way up a dead tree probing for bugs:
and singing beautifully:
I heard (but didn’t see) a beaver slap its tail, but I did see a pair of Wood Duck,
and an otter, swimming fast and elegantly across the pond in a series of shallow dives like a porpoise:
On land, the American Robins are all over the place:
The Eastern Bluebirds are back:
and the American Goldfinch is growing its bright yellow breeding plumage, supplanting its drab brown winter costume:
And the very earliest of woodland wildflowers, Trailing Arbutus, is in bud:
Ben the house, the first chipmunk today, and on the trail, fresh bear scat. They are leaving hibernation… and so am I.
PS Birds of the world describes the heron’s breeding plumage as follows (both sexes):
“At height of mating season (Feb-Apr) when basic feathers fully developed, ornamental black, lanceolated, occipital plumes extend from side of crown up to 210 mm in length, grayish lanceolated scapular plumes extend over back up to 280 mm in length, and grayish to whitish, filamentous to lanceolated pectoral plumes extend below breast up to 300 mm in length (Pyle and Howell 2004). “
Last fall I showed you a juvenile heron on this pond whose plumes had not yet grown. Could this be the same bird? His bill was then dusky blue, a juvenile trait. Now this adult has a yellow one.
Today I’ll show you two rather similar red and brown birds that you might call “Town Finch and Country Finch”, after Aesop. The town finch, which I see in Boston, is the House Finch , Haemorhous mexicanus. Here is a male:
The country finch, which I see in Maine, is the Purple Finch, Haemorhous purpureus, which is red, not purple. Again, a male:
and in exquisite closeup:
The two females are (of course) much drabber. The town (House) female first:
then a somewhat bedraggled country (Purple) female :
The Purple Finch is native to New England, and likes cooler, higher elevation wooded habitats, with evergreen cones being a major part of its diet.
The House Finch is native to the Western US. In 1939 a few birds were released from a New York City pet store, where it was being marketed as the Hollywood Finch. And then it spread out from there, yet another example of Hollywood’s influence!
In the summer I see lots of Purple Finches around my feeder, but they are rare in the winter, so this February sighting is a bonus:
I was fascinated to learn that they migrate south only every two years, when the northern conifer cone crops are low. They are quite aggressive when food is scarce, as it is in February:
and they raise that little crest:
The House Finches have a quite different habitat. They are almost exclusively found in settled areas, and often nest in high-rise buildings. Mine hang out on the eighth floor of my downtown Boston high-rise condo building; I am watching for a nest in the coming months.
That’s about 90 feet up, and there are sometimes 3 or 4 at once.
97% of their diet is seeds, buds, flowers, leaves, and fruits.
So watch out for nature even where you wouldn’t expect it. Birds are surprisingly versatile.
PS Sadly, there was a decline of 50% in the breeding population of Purple Finches in the northeastern U.S. between 1961 and 1994 . The explanation is somewhat unclear, but is usually blamed on the Hollywood immigrants. But the House Finch likes quite different habitat, and a study (Yunick 2018) in an upstate New York area where there are no House Finches still found a 50% Purple Finch decline from 1971-2015. This was a period when the temperature during breeding season rose by 2F. The Purple Finch likes cool climates, so Yunick suggests that the decline could be attributed to climate change, not to the intruders. In my part of Maine, though, we do have a few House Finches, so they may indeed pose a threat to the poor Purples.
PPS There are occasional suggestions that the two species may sometimes hybridize, which I assume gives rise to a Purple House Finch?
[This is my last prepared warbler post. Good timing, because in a few weeks they will be coming through on their way North, and I might get lucky and see some of the ones I’ve never seen.]
I’m moving on from yellow, or indeed buff or brown, to a darker hue. That said, my first candidate today is rather yellow, but its name qualifies it for this post. The Blackburnian Warbler, Setophaga fusca, is called after Anna Blackburne, an 18th century English naturalist, whose brother Ashton had moved to America and sent her bird specimens. (Not enough birds are named after woman scientists; good for her.) We are at the southern edge of its breeding range, and this looks like a singing female, which is unlikely but not impossible; there is growing evidence that some female warblers do indeed sing, and I hope Anna Blackburne’s namesake is one of them.
Here it is posing politely for its headshot.
The throat of the male is almost orange, something my photos fail to show.
Finally, I turn to warblers with no trace of yellow! The Black-and-White warbler, Mniotilta varia, is a dapper little bird.
It behaves like a nuthatch, hanging upside down as it feeds on creeping insects:
All these warblers frequent the deep woods, and that makes catching a photo tricky. The following photos are pretty awful, but for those of you who like lists (me too) I’m including them anyway.
This is a male Black-throated Green Warbler, Setophaga virens, which, I’ve just realized, really belongs back in the “something yellow” category. Oh well.
And finally, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, Setophaga caerulescens.The female looks so different that for a long time they were thought to be entirely different species.
I only saw this because of modern technology. I heard a call, and saw movement, but the bird was elusive. So I used my Merlin app to record the song and to ID it, and it told me it was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. I’d never seen one, so I waited patiently for ages and ages, and finally got a glimpse, and a bad photo.
I fear I have crossed the line depicted by The New Yorker:
I fear I may be boring you. If so, stop reading. It’s just that some moments light up your day in such a way that you cannot stop yourself wanting to show them to anyone you encounter, and this was one of those. I was filming a solitary otter on the ice, and then …
This is the land where my otters live, shared with the beavers who built the huge lodge behind them:
As the video starts, she is alone… but not for long… (try to watch it fullscreen, and don’t miss the somersault):
I think it was the mother and last year’s young again, two of them are rough-housing while one is resignedly letting them roll around on top of her. Here they are in closeup, the mother in the centre:
Two days earlier, another magical encounter. I was showing a friend’s grandkids the otter pond, and carefully refraining from promising otters, when one popped up 20 feet from us, and stayed there.
This has NEVER happened to me before, the kids of course had no idea that it was the sighting of the year!
Finally, two days before that, here is the biggest fish I have ever seen one catch. My piscine expert thinks it is a large-mouth bass.
It took seven minutes to eat the whole thing.
I will really try not to post about otters again next time. Sorry.
It reminds me of a menu from Noma, the three-Michelin-star Copenhagen foraged restaurant (actual menu at end of this post!):
Eastern Chipmunks, Tamias striatus, have a varied diet. They eat lots of sunflower seeds, and are easy to train if bribed with a trail of seeds:
Given half a chance they make off with their cheeks full and cache them back at base camp:
They devour many other foods inadvertently provided by humans, like cherry tomatoes
They also like the flowers and seeds from cultivated flowers like Love-in-a-Mist:
including infuriatingly the flower buds:
Here is an action video:
If you watch carefully once I zoom in, you can see that they actually eat only the base of the flower, where the nutritious ovary is, and discard the actual flower*. This is what is left:
But they are more than capable of feeding themselves from wild sources, like acorns:
Hickory nuts (very hard to get int0, but apparently worth the effort)
Here is a brief video of one gnawing on a hickory nut:
And finally beetles (something I showed you before):
These are just the snacks I have watched them tuck away on camera. There are undoubtedly more.
*After the flower is fertilized, the ovary becomes the fruit, and contains the seeds. This is the nutritious part of the plant.
PS An Ohio study showed that beetles, caterpillars and and fungi are the mainstays of their summer diet. In the spring and fall, the balance shifts to a larger proportion of acorns and hickory nuts (easy to cache).
John A. Wrazen and Gerald E. Svendsen (1978) Feeding Ecology of a Population of Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) in Southeast Ohio. The American Midland Naturalist , Vol. 100, No. 1 pp. 190-201
Right now, they are still ‘hibernating’. Chipmunks are not true hibernators. but they enter a torpid state with decreased body temperature and heartbeat. They wake every few days to feed on stored food. They will wake up fully in a few weeks as the weather warmsand the snowpack melts.
[This post focusses on their diet and their digestion, and may not be for everyone! You may want to skip two of the later photos, but the second and final video should raise a smile, trust me.]
My otters like the sunshine, and they are late risers, waiting till the temperature rises to its peak in the afternoon to put in an appearance. I look for them daily, and two days ago we had an unseasonably warm day, 57F, and there they were at 2.30pm for the first time in several weeks.
Otters are carnivores, and they eat fish, crustaceans, and from time to time small reptiles, mammals or birds. This one caught a good sized fish, probably a sucker, which is the preferred prey because they are slow moving and take less energy to catch.
The two below have one each
They eat the entire fish, crunching it up with powerful jaws. It clearly takes some work:
as does the swallowing.
The video below shows one munching away while a second one comes and goes empty-mouthed. Once the meal was complete, the first one went off hunting again for its second course.
What goes in must come out, but they have a very effective digestion, so what is left is a black and tarry residue. (Skip the next 2 photos if you prefer, but don’t miss the final video.)
If you find old scat that has been rained on for a wile, the tar dissolves to reveal fish scales, and tiny fragments of crustacean carapaces.
Sometimes the scat includes insect parts, such as dragonflies, but they may have first been eaten by the fish, which were in turn eaten by the otter. The food pyramid in action.
I had my camera set on video and focussed on both otters, when one left the icehole and set off across the ice for no clear reason. It took me some time to work out why it was doing a jig in the middle of the pond.
If you can’t work it out on a first viewing, watch it again, on full screen if possible! And enjoy that little slide.
They need about 2-3lb of fish per day, and hunt for up to 50% of their day. During the thirty minutes that I watched them I saw these two catch five fish between them, so they seem to be doing OK, and have survived the winter so far. Then the temperature plummeted and the winds whipped up and I retreated, underdressed.
PS The research on their digestive system seems to have been done largely on captive animals with a very different diet. They are known to have a high metabolic rate and a fast digestive system. They do not stick around in highly polluted rivers, but as water quality improves they have been returning.
PPS Sadly, trapping of these stunning animals is still permitted in Maine. The season runs from Oct 31-Dec 31. Population figures are hard to find: in 1988 they were estimated at 18,000, and the annual “harvest” runs around 600 p.a.