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.

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



Goldeneyes: in art and in life

This post started at the National Gallery in London, of all places. I went to a splendid Winslow Homer retrospective, mainly landscapes, and suddenly there was this rather odd but striking painting of two Goldeneye ducks, one already shot and falling into the waves, and one escaping in alarm.

I prefer mine alive. These charming ducks live in Maine most of the year, though some head further north to breed. The ones in the paintings are male, with a white cheek patch and that golden eye. Here is my photo of a live version:

They find open bits of water when there is still ice on the ponds. These pictures were taken on a river in January. The females are brownish, as usual:

The female in front is a Barrow’s Goldeneye and the male and other female are Common Goldeneyes. They have bright orange feet, as you can see in the foreground below:

They have a strange courtship ritual. Look at the two photos below. In the top photo, the male stretches his neck up and out, (second from left), and then arches it right back (top left). In the second photo there is a better angled shot of him curling his neck backwards. I wish I had taken a video, but these stills give you the idea:

Here is a video I found online:

When they spread their wings, a large white patch appears:

You can tell it is a Barrow’s Goldeneye by counting the six white wing feathers. Common Goldeneyes have seven or eight.

PS Ian Fleming, author of the 007 books, named his house in Jamaica Goldeneye. Now it is a luxury resort. Here is its history:

Swans in combat

In the early morning, an image of serenity.

But as I write I’m in Central London, and I want to show you a rather distressing encounter with two swans in Hyde Park. You have been warned. I took a video (included at the end), and then extracted stills from it so I could comment. Here we go.

I saw two swans creating a big hullabaloo, partly screened by the reeds. This usually means either mating or fighting, but the reeds made it impossible to tell.

I walked on, and ten minutes later realized they had caught up with me and were still at it, close to the water’s edge. Once I got a good look, this was clearly not an amorous encounter. One swan was grabbing the other swan’s neck,

and holding its head underwater for prolonged periods:

These immersions went on for perhaps ten minutes. The by-now-exhausted underdog (underswan?) realized he would be safer on shore:

The aggressor wasn’t going to let him off so easily. First he tried to pin him down using his whole body:

Then he grabbed him by the nape of the neck

and tried to pull him back into the water:

The losing swan summoned up a burst of energy and almost struggled free:

But he was quickly overwhelmed again and submerged once more; this time the superior swan added insult to injury by sitting on the inferior one’s neck :

A local swan charity guesses that this was a territorial dispute, and they do sometimes end in the death of one swan, typically by drowning. Whatever it was, no quarter was being given.

Now watch this video, in which the sheer relentlessness and viciousness of the attack is fully apparent, and see how it all ended. It is much longer than my usual videos (3.44 minutes) , but you shouldn’t have to download it to watch it.

The abrupt ending was caused by a passer-by, who had seen enough, and grabbed the dominant swan by the neck and threw him off. He circled around looking affronted, then paddled away. Meanwhile the defeated swan hauled itself out of the water, with a glazed look in its eye, slowly straightened itself out, then settled down by its saviour’s feet. It was still there when I left twenty minutes later.

Below, to cheer you up, a solitary swan by the Thames.

PS Intervening in this way is usually frowned on, though I had some sympathy. As you could probably hear from the soundtrack, passing families were hurrying their small children past, either because they didn’t want them to watch a death, or because they still thought they might be mating!

Of mice and bones

Bones are central to our survival: the skeleton of a vertebrate is what keeps it upright and supports it against gravity. But they are also essential for some animals in a more surprising way: when an animal dies, or a deer sheds its bony antlers, all that calcium and bone marrow is a tempting meal for creatures of a range of sizes, including the tiniest.

A field mouse is a very tiny thing, easily caught by any number of altogether larger creatures. This one was caught by a Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike in Kenya:

and this one was eaten, and its soft tissues digested, by a coyote (or fox) in Maine, leaving the skeleton substantially intact, including even the tail :

(It didn’t digest the fur either, and once time and rain have cleared away the residue, fur and bones are made visible.)

These tiny creatures eat small seeds, like these beech nuts:

and during the long winters in Maine they emerge from their impossibly small holes, risking life and limb, to forage:

An unlikely food source is a shed deer antler. In Maine bucks grow their bony antlers in March or April, and shed them the following winter. I found this one in October, by which time it had been eaten by squirrels, mice, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, porcupines, foxes, bears, and even otters, for the 20% calcium, 10% phosphorus and mineral salts content.

The outside is compacted bone, very hard, but rodents have sharp teeth.

The size of the tooth marks is a clue to who has been eating the antler. In the picture above it was something small, squirrels or mice. If it has cracked right through to the inside, it is something bigger:

The interior is spongy bone, well supplied with blood vessels when the antlers were growing. For whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to get eaten much.

These ones (found on a different occasion, but also in the autumn) looked older, but they hadn’t been quite as thoroughly chewed:

So if you view the world through the eyes of a mouse, it has two reasons to be grateful to bones: for giving it the strength to stand and to run, and for nourishing it at the end of a hard winter.

PS Here is Robbie Burns 1785 poem “To a mouse”, a rare literary paean to this timorous beastie:


And then course there is E.B.White’s masterpiece Stuart Little.

Bugs with dreadlocks

At this time of year you need to be content with miniature marvels.

This white fluffy cottony fringe on the underside of an alder twig is the collective security blanket of a number of Woolly Alder Aphids, Paraprociphilus tessellatus:

Each aphid secretes a coarse wax which twines into filaments up to 2 inches long, often completely concealing the insect underneath. It keeps them from drying out.

On a different twig, they were being more standoffish, so you could see them one by one:

I took some home, to try and get some closeups. The aphid is 1/16″ long, so this is a challenge:

I used my new lightbox to get this portrait, and I also took a video to prove that it is indeed a living creature. It is speeded up, and the poor thing has settled in for the winter and is not keen on being disturbed, so it is barely awake, and has its hair in its eyes, so to speak:

Its name tesselatus comes from the mosaic pattern on its back.

They need two tree species for their life cycle. In spring they feed on silver maple leaves, and then from summer into fall they move to alder twigs. Most overwinter as eggs, but some adults overwinter in colonies like these and give birth to live young females in the spring.

They can fly, and must be quite a sight in flight, but I have never seen this.

PS My title’s comparison to dreadlocks (aka dreads or locs) is plausible. Dreadlocks can be created by a hairdresser, but if human hair is left alone long enough it will eventually entwine itself naturally into dreadlocks. These aphids seem to grow short fluffy strands at first, and out of this fuzz come the long curly ringlets.

I am assuming no hair salon was involved.

Antelope ballet

[As you can see, I’m alternating between Maine, where I am now, and past encounters from farther afield, where there are animals I have not yet shown you. In November things are quiet here, and I’m collecting and building some stories to tell you, but you don’t want a weekly diet of mushrooms.]

From Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness Lodge to Il Ngwesi Lodge is a slow three-hour drive in a Landcruiser on forbiddingly rocky tracks. The upside is a chance to glimpse new animals, like this Klipspringer, one of a pair high on the hillside:

now very worried by our presence:

All its various names speak of its niche in the world. Its scientific name is Oreotragus oreotragus, Greek for “mountain billygoat” (twice!). Its Kiswahili name mbuzi mawe means “goat of the rocks”, like the chamois, and its Afrikaans name means “cliff leaper”, because that is exactly what it does. It walks on the tips of cylindrical blunt two-toed hooves

for all the world like a ballet dancer en pointe.

Each hoof tip is the size of a dime, and exerts a slight suction effect. Rather surprisingly this gives the klipspringer a good grip on its preferred rocky hillsides.

Klipspringers, like their closest relatives the dikdik, are altogether tiny delicate creatures, standing no more than two feet at the shoulder. They form a close pair-bond, staying together till one dies. They are found over large areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, and they are not endangered, partly because their preferred remote mountain habitat is not coveted for livestock, and not accessible for hunting. They are browsers, and get enough water from their food.

Their coat is unusual for antelope, being thick and coarse with brittle hollow guard hairs, which they are able to erect:

They have a white nose and lips, chestnut forehead, and lovely black and white ears. Only the males have horns, 3-6 inches long:*

Not one of the most dramatic animals in Africa, nor the most imposing, but one of the most peaceful and elegant; I’d rather like to see one at breakfast each morning, tiptoeing peacefully around, perhaps to strains of Tchaikovsky wafting out of my window.

* PS Confusingly, other sources say that in East Africa, where I was, both sexes have horns. Maybe I should choose the pronoun “they” ?


[Warning!! This is tongue in cheek, so I hope you have a sense of humor and are over 21.]

Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places.

An image: let your mind float while you first admire that voluptuous curve, and then try to fix it in your real world; no need to feel embarrassed.

I don’t know where your imagination took you, but here is a different and more distant view of the same object:

Two softish curvy fleshy objects pressed up against each other look pretty much the same whether they are human bodies, painted here by Modigliani in this detail from his 1917 Reclining Nude, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

or just two fungal fruiting bodies squashed into a small space:

You might not have thought that we have much in common, but at the end of the day we are both about 80% water.

PS Human adults are about 60% water, babies closer to 80%.

PPS This mushroom is some sort of Tricholoma species, I think, growing on an aged maple in my front yard.

Martial law

[Right now it is hunting season in Maine, and I am not in the woods as much, so today I take you back to Kenya.]

The Martial Eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus, is a majestic bird with a wingspan of up to 2.2m (over 7ft), making it one of the two largest eagles in Africa. It is easy enough to see in Laikipia in Kenya, and yet it is classified as Endangered because it has undergone a rapid decline in the last 30 years, mainly due to habitat loss. They like sparse woodlands and savannah, and avoid settled areas. Each pair has a range of 100-300 sq.km. so even South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park only contains about 100 pairs.

Let us admire this magnificent bird, and hope that there continue to be places for it to live in our ever more-crowded world.

This is a juvenile, always an encouraging sign:

The adults form monogamous pairs, which stay together for life:

In Kenya they breed at any time, but especially April to November. There may be the start of a nest (or the vestiges of an old one) to the right of this next photo, which was taken in April:

Their diet includes monitor lizards, large birds, and smallish mammals (weighing up to 5Kg, including small antelopes!) Indeed, in South Africa it is called a  lammervanger (or “lamb catcher”). This one is plucking the fur from a freshly caught scrub hare:

After feeding, the crop is prominently enlarged. This is a different bird, on a different day, but it has clearly fed well on something:

One day I watched a martial eagle fighting a black-chested snake eagle, a somewhat smaller bird. Here are three photos, the first showing both birds (martial eagle on right), then the martial eagle, then the snake eagle.

I don’t think either was trying to kill and eat the other; they both typically swoop onto prey on the ground. More likely, a territorial dispute.

PS I like this poem by Zimbabwean poet Terry Dawson about the Martial Eagle, which is known for its avoidance of populated areas:

A Poem for an Eagle

by Terry Dawson

Wildest of all the wild things 
Is the king of the hunting birds. 
Wild-one that to the wilderness clings 
Where the olden ways are preferred. 

When mankind comes and with him brings 
His dogs and flocks and herds, 
A disquiet comes upon this king 
As though misstep’s occurred… 
And at such coming spread his wings 
For wilds undisturbed. 

Back in Zambia, and down to earth

There are still sundry delights that I haven’t shown you from my Zambian trip many months ago. Looking downwards is sometimes as rewarding as looking up.

The Vlei Ink Flower was everywhere :

Vlei Ink Flower

The copious heaps of elephant dung (composed of poorly digested plant materials) provide minerals for butterflies:


and nutrients for fungi:


The dung is also food for baboons,  vervet monkeys, and civets. Civets are mainly nocturnal, and I have only seen one once, in Zambia in 2005. It didn’t hang about:

Still looking down, there is the occasional reptile, like this Variable (or perhaps Side-striped) Skink:

Ground-feeding birds abound, like this Southern Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri (hard to  miss, it is four feet long):

and this Rednecked Francolin:

Red necked Francolin

Even ground-dwellers sometimes get tired of looking up at the world, and find a vantage point instead:

Red-necked Frrancolin

Some mammals are not spectacular. This modest Smith’s Bush Squirrel, Paraxerus cepapi, is quite small, at 14″ long (half of that is tail) and 7oz (1/2 to 1/3 the weight of an adult grey squirrel).

It is also called the Yellow-footed Squirrel, though its feet aren’t especially yellow in my photo!

It is eating the fruit of the Pawnbroker Tree (or Pepper-seed), Excoecaria bussei, and there is a second fruit on the ground in front of it.

And at night there is, if you are lucky, an elephant shrew:

Elephant shrew

PS The tiny 1.5oz Elephant Shrew, so-called because of its long nose, is actually quite closely related to its namesake! Their closest relatives are things like tenrecs and aardvarks, but after that it is hyraxes, dugongs, manatees, and elephants!!!. Who knew? The Elephant Shrew is marketed as one of the so-called Little Five: Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver, Ant Lion, Leopard Tortoise, and Rhino Beetle! I have seen all their Big Five counterparts, but not yet a Rhino Beetle.

PPS Here’s a better civet picture, from Wikipedia, taken in captivity by the look of it. If I ever see one properly, I’ll tell you all about it!

Out of the blue

[I’m away for a couple weeks, and I have been sitting on more posts about my recent Kenya trip, so I thought this might be good time to use one.]

In Nairobi National Park we were watching a Pygmy Kingfisher by a wooded stream, and then I glanced over my shoulder and saw a wide-eyed , ermine-ruffed, grizzled, bluish-grey monkey just watching us.

He stayed on top of the same bush, whose leaves he clearly enjoyed, for several minutes:

Behind him there was a rustling in the undergrowth, and eventually another one appeared on a high branch, implausibly long tail in full view

The guide told me I was very lucky, because they are very shy and he rarely sees them. The first one did not know it was supposed to be shy, and went on munching:

I was rather confused when he told me they were blue monkeys, Cercopithecus mitis, because I saw blue monkeys in Western Kenya, near Kakamega, a few years ago, and they looked quite different, with a black cap, less white on their ears, and a big white monobrow, but no white neck ruff:

It turns out there are several sub-species of blue monkey. The ones in Kakamega are Diademmed Monkeys Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni . The ones in Nairobi National Park used to be considered another sub-species, but are now usually given their own species Cercopithecus albogularis. Their common name is Sykes’ Monkey or White-throated Monkey.

So, not blue monkeys after all. They appeared out of the blue, and indeed are now usually considered out of the blue! But they are still beautiful.

Cormorants: wise and watchful fishers

[This post is prompted by an encounter on my beaver pond. Skip ahead, if you wish!]

There are 40 species of cormorants (including shags) in the world. The scientific family name Phalacrocorax comes from φαλακρός (phalakros, “bald”) and κόραξ (korax, “raven”).

The Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo, is widely distributed in Europe and Asia. They come far inland, even to the Cotswolds, and there are lots of them on the Serpentine in Central London!

They have fine strong curved beaks:

That beak is a highly effective fish-catcher, a fact not lost on the Chinese, who traditionally used them in fishing. A cord was tied round the cormorant’s neck just tightly enough to stop it swallowing the fish, and the fisherman would then retrieve it. Nowadays they follow the tourist boats on the Li river in Guilin, where I took this photo in 2007:

In the eastern US we have the Double-Crested Cormorant, Nannopterum auritum.

This one is drying its wings on the coast in Friendship, Maine:

They come inland to a greater extent than most other cormorant species, and last week, for the first time, I had one on my beaver pond. And I photographed it just as it caught a pretty big fish, entangled in weeds:

The fish did not give up easily:

This video shows you just how wriggly it was:

but eventually it succumbed:

And this cormorant got to eat its own catch, though part of me felt bad for my otters, who have one less fish in their pond.

PS After this encounter, Hoss, a neighbor, told me that two days earlier he had seen a big black bird with a long neck run across the road by our barn. This must have been the cormorant, and somehow it found the pond, over a mile away deep in the forest.

PPS In heraldry, the cormorant denotes wisdom and watchfulness. Amongst the long history of cultural references, two of my favorites: Ulysses was rescued by a sea-nymph in the guise of a cormorant. And post-Homer, a cormorant was chosen as the hood ornament of the Packard automobile.

PPPS For hard-core readers only, because the photo is boring! Little Cormorants, Microcarbo niger, are found in India. You can compare their size to the Grey Heron and the Open-Billed Stork with whom they are sharing their tree.

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