Stalking open-mouthed

The African Open-billed Stork (Anastomus lamelligerus) is a large handsome bird (up to 94cm tall) with glossy purplish-black plumage and a wicked-looking bill.

Open-billed stork

Its name comes from the fact that even when the tip of the bill is closed, the sides still gape open:

Open-billed stork, highly specialized for eating snails

I spent about 30 minutes photographing this one hunting in the weed-covered lagoon while I was lounging by the camp’s (weedless) plunge pool (it’s a tough life). The stork evidently wasn’t going after fast-moving prey like fish or frogs, because it rooted around vigorously in the same underwater spot for some time. When it finally had what it wanted, it raised its head and swallowed in one swift motion, never showing what it had caught. Finally, I got two lucky shots just before the food went down, because of technical malfunctions where the victims got stuck on the stork’s bill!  Turns out what it liked best were tiny fresh-water snails, just visible in the photo above. The next shot is a close-up of the second successful foray:

Open-billed stork, highly specialized for eating snails

The unusual bill is highly specialized for gripping the snail while extracting the meat. This description explains the rooting around that I saw.

“ holds the snail against the ground, using its razor sharp bottom mandible to sever the muscle that connects the snail to its shell, vigorously shaking its head until the snail body is extracted and promptly swallowing; the whole process can take under 15 seconds.”


Painted Dogs III (the last dog post!)

After their abortive hunt, the dogs ended up widely dispersed. They slowly reassembled at their original starting point, and as each small group met other dogs, they greeted each other. In this photo the two in the foreground are being greeted by four others.

Wild dogs

These social rituals are central to the pack’s cohesion.

Wild dogs

After a while, they decided to set off in a new direction. No-one really knows how these group decisions are reached, but the pack only all follow once one of the alpha pair sets off. It is now thought that sneezes are among the subtle signals they use to coordinate their movements, using a quorum system where movements start once the number of sneezes reaches a certain threshold.

Wild dogs

After five minutes, they saw impala in the distance:

Wild dogs

In fact there was not one but two impala (look carefully at the next photo), and they proved to be the dogs’ Achilles heels, because the pack split, and both attempts failed.

Wild dogs

These two hunts took place within half an hour of each other. They obviously went on trying, because next morning we found them some distance away, fast asleep with full stomachs.

Wild dogs

Two days later, we followed a single wild dog who was trotting in the opposite direction to some fleeing impala, and he was heading towards a group of vultures. Underneath we found a freshly killed and already devoured impala. There was still blood on the grass, and stomach contents on the sand.  The pack eat on the spot as soon as they kill, usually polishing off an impala in about 20 minutes. We were too late to see them eating.

A final yawn, and next time, I promise to move on to another topic!


[PS: There is a terrific conservation organization in Zambia collecting data on the collaborative large carnivores (lions and wild dogs). If you are interested, here is their website ]

Painted Dogs II

As it gets cooler at the end of the day, the dogs start to stir.

Wild dogs

They wander around, greet each other, stretch, and start to pay attention to the surrounding wildlife. They hunt at least once a day, running down their prey at speeds of up to 35 m.p.h. in chases as long as 3 miles. Their main prey is impala, but they will tackle larger animals such as kudu and wildebeest.

Wild dogs

Once they see a prospect, they all point towards it:

Wild dogs

And then they are off:

Wild dogs

At this point they were moving so fast away from me I put down my camera and just watched. They are very successful hunters, 80% of their hunts result in a kill, but the kills are rarely seen because they run so fast and so far they can’t easily be followed. This time around, however, they failed.

Next time: regrouping for a second attempt.

Painted Dogs I

African Wild Dogs are for me almost mythical creatures. Secretly, this whole trip was really focussed on a burning desire to  see them in the wild. To my great delight, I spent a day and two mornings in their company, and I am going to spread them out over more than one posting.

The more poetic name for them is Painted Dogs, reflected in their scientific name, Lycaon pictus, which derives from the Greek for ‘wolf’ and the Latin for ‘painted’. Each one has its own distinctive body pattern:

Wild dogs



Wild dogs

They live and hunt in large packs: the pack in my photos has 20 dogs. They have a close-knit social structure, led by an alpha male and alpha female pair, who are the only ones to breed. They do however have large litters, up to 20 pups, with 10 being the average. The entire adult pack regurgitates food to feed the young (and also any elderly and injured dogs).

When I first saw them they were resting in a damp riverbed to escape the heat of the day. There were heaps of comatose dogs strewn around everywhere, and their coloration is such that it takes some time to work out how many different dogs there are in a single cosy pile:


Wild dogs

Their intimacy is intensely appealing:

Wild dogs

Next time, the hunt…

Dressed for effect

This is breeding season for many birds in the Luangwa valley. In some species, the males have the most astonishing change in plumage at this time of year.  The Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix) is a nondescript brown most of the year, and the poor female remains drab all year long. But look at him now:


These small birds (14cm long) hop around in the longest new grasses, often near water:


and weave delicate basket-like nests:


It amuses me that brilliant scarlet birds often seem to be named after similarly robed clerics or soldiers: Red Bishop, Northern Cardinal, Military Macaw.

“On the banks of the cool Shalimar..”

(This is the first of a series of Zambian posts, all from a glorious rainy season safari to Robin Pope Safaris’ camps Nkwali and Nsefu in the South Luangwa Valley. My guides were Fred, Bertram and Kiki, all hugely knowledgable)

More accurately, the headline should say “On the banks of the cool Luangwa..”, which is hippo heaven right now, when the river is swollen with the rains.  At night they climb onto the banks and graze in the lush grass, and at dawn they return to the river and wallow all day. This one, probably pregnant, was too greedy, and was still out and about in daylight.


Most of the hippos slide happily down quite steep mudbanks:


But this one had qualms:


She walked along, desperate for a way back to the safety of the water, especially with my boat hovering threateningly offshore:


But it was too big an ask.  Finally, she found a gully where another hippo had preceded her, and wedged herself in:


For a moment we thought she was stuck, but she squeezed through, and headed for safety:



with a final tidal wave:


PS: For those of you who had deprived childhoods and don’t recognize the Flanders and Swann quote in the title, listen to this and all will become clear: