The Cheetah: Offspring of the wind

This is my last post from our Halsey Street house: today we move to a much smaller flat, close to a wonderful overgrown Victorian cemetery, where I have hopes of finding some wildlife in due course. For now, though, I am not yet done with Kenya!

The Maasai Mara has a relatively high density of cheetahs, but there are still only 1.28 cheetahs per 100* The grasslands stretch for miles, and the grass is very high in April, so they are hard to see.


After a day and half of searching, we stopped on a rise for a better view, and to use the binoculars. Then, in the far distance Lemeria saw one, helpfully reclining on top of a rock, with a full belly, having a good groom:



That wide-bridged nose, above,  contains extra-large nasal passages for their bursts of speed. They can only sustain a sprint for 30 seconds before having to rest to catch their breath, but they reach up to 70 mph.

They have an impressive-looking set of teeth, below, but in fact their teeth are not nearly as large and powerful as a lion’s, and they can only kill their prey by biting the neck to suffocate the animal. You can see the carnassial teeth, which are modified molars or premolars which are adapted to allow for the shearing (rather than tearing) of flesh to permit the more efficient consumption of meat.


After a while, the cheetah got up:


And wandered slowly towards some distant trees in search of a shady spot for a nap. He strolled past a herd of elephants, then off into the golden grass.



* The density estimate is based on recent work by Femke Broekhuis, of Oxford University’s Mara Cheetah project.

Postscript: I couldn’t  resist including this extract, from which my title is stolen:

“The poets and eloquent ones have excelled in their descriptions of cheetahs, both in poetry and prose. For example, this hunting epistle by Abu Ishaq al-Sabı:

“We had with us cheetahs darting like lightning, faster than arrows loosed at a deserter, more intelligent than lions, more cunning than foxes, stealthier than scorpions, lank-hipped and empty-bellied, dappled of frame. Red-cornered slits for eyes, open mouths, broad brows and wide necks, baring teeth like spear heads. The cheetah spies the gazelle at great distance, knows its sounds, tracks its droppings and resting places, scents its musk.”

“Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Siraj described it thus:

Snarling mouth and paw possess
Cutting swords and slender spears
Night and day both claim a share of it
Cloaked in its pebble-printed garment
And the sun, ever since they nicknamed it the gazelle
Has risen over this watcher with dread.

“Ibn al-Muʿtazz said:

It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground

It clings to the neck of its prey

Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear

From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.

Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.

Scavenger hunt

Whether Cotswolds or Kenya, the Great Cycle of Life goes on.

Although we may recoil, scavengers are a really important part of our ecosystem. Without them, carcasses would lie and rot, and, quite apart from the unpleasantness, nutrients would  take much longer to return to the system for re-use.

Hyenas are frequently the first to arrive after a lion kill. This is the Spotted Hyena, with a short snout like a pitbull’s.

Spotted Hyena

They are in fact predators as well as scavengers, frequently hunting wildebeest, zebra, and Thompson’s Gazelles, like this one.

Thompson's Gazelle

Lemeria told me that hyenas are the main scourge of the local Maasai cattle. If they get inside the protective boma at night they kill indiscriminately, far more than they can possibly eat, whereas lions apparently kill efficiently, just what they need for dinner.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws and teeth. They can crunch through large bones, and can also digest the bones, so their scat is largely a white powder. This plastic bottle has been chewed by a hyena, who use them like kids chew gum. They always chew the end that people have drunk out of, because of the human scent. (This was the only piece of litter I saw in the entire Mara Conservancy, and I did wonder if my guide had planted it!)


Vultures are the iconic scavengers, coming along after the lions and hyenas have done, if anything is still left. But even they have family lives.  This mother White-backed Vulture is sitting on her eggs, and giving us a beady eye.

White-backed Vulture on nest

After everything nutritious seems finished, some remnants still remain. These buffalo horns have now become home for a species of moth that bores holes in the horns, and lays its eggs in them. The larvae feed on the keratin of which the horns are made, and the muddy tubes are their larval cases, made out of their own cemented excreta.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

From these cases emerge the adult Horn Moths, Ceratophaga vastella, members of the clothes moth family.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

It is hardly surprising that their close relatives make short work of a soft cashmere sweater.

PS: In a reversal of the roles we are familiar with, lions are also known to scavenge the hyenas’ kills, and since they are much larger than the hyena they can drive them off the kill. Hyenas only prevail if they outnumber the lions at least 4 to 1.

PPS: I did look for a poem about the Horn Moth, but oddly without success!


The Great Cycle of Life in the Cotswolds

Just for a moment, back to England, where the BBC are currently setting up to broadcast Springwatch from our village next week. After a long cold spring, we have had a glorious spell of sunshine, and the first mayfly sub-imagos are hatching:

DSC09562Here is a close-up from last year:

Mayfly, sub-imago, also called a dun.

The mayflies, who have a short life but hopefully a happy one, risk being eaten by the omnivorous moorhens:


but the moorhens must be forgiven because they have chicks to feed:



Lurking nearby, this three-foot long Barred Grass Snake swam across the stream and slithered into the reeds where the moorhen nest lies concealed:


Here it is in closeup, and a baby moorhen would be an excellent dinner:


I was told by a neighbor that there were four chicks, but I only saw three. One may have been hiding, or one may have already fallen prey to the snake.

The snake is non-venomous, and usually lives in and around water. It is a protected species in the UK. Interestingly, in August 2017 it was recognized, on the basis of DNA analysis,  to be distinct from the Common Grass Snake Natrix natrix. It is now agreed to be the Barred Grass Snake, Natrix helvetica. It lacks the yellow collar of the Common Grass Snake, and any instances of the collared varieties in the UK are now thought to be from imports. Still, it seems to me to have a collar: what do you think??




A gnother gnu*

Mention the Maasai Mara to people, and they always ask if you saw the Great Migration, in which huge herds of wildebeest and other animals move from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara and back, running the crocodile gauntlet across the Mara River en route. The Mara River was in flood when I was there, much to the delight of the hippos:

Mara river in flood, with hippos

I was there at the wrong time of year for the migration. However, the Maasai Mara has a resident population of lazy non-migrating wildebeest, so all was not lost. The species in Kenya is the Blue Wildebeest, also called the Gnu.Wildebeest and zebra

They are rather handsome, with their beards, and long dark manes and tails: indeed the first part of the scientific name Connochaetes taurinus means beard-mane in Greek, and the second half means bull.


Some of them had young:


The young are born tawny brown, and at around two months they begin to change to adult coloration, so this one is under two months old.

Both male and female wildebeest have horns, a relatively rare trait in bovids (cattle and antelope). Female horns are advantageous if the animal is not able to hide itself easily, and thus needs horns for defense.  This is the case if the animal is large, or lives in very open landscape, like the Maasai Mara. Wildebeest tick both boxes: males can weigh up to 640lbs, and the Mara plains are very very flat and grassy, with nowhere at all to hide!


Of the 82 species with female horns, 80 can be explained by this theory.

* My title comes from “I’m a Gnu” by Flanders and Swann. If you don’t know it, listen here:

“It is better to be a lion for a day..*

A pride of lion with tiny cubs is quite irresistible. We found this one after failing to find a cheetah, not a bad consolation prize. There were five adult females and ten cubs. (It was dusk, which is why my photos are not great. )

Pride of five females and 10 cubs

One mother seemed to be nursing four cubs, three of whom are visible below. (The photo appears to show a lioness with a extremely long and flexible body, but actually there are two lionesses in this photo, not one!)DSC07499Once everyone was fed and rested, playtime. The adults tolerate a fair amount from the cubs, but there are limits:DSC07487

Some pretend stalking:DSC07536



while the adults started to think about the upcoming night’s hunt:


First priority, nightcare. They led the cubs off into the trees where they were to hide for the duration of the hunt.

Cubs being sent to hide in the bushes before the mothers go to hunt

Obediently, off they went.


Then the mothers went hunting, and we followed. My guide was an old enough Maasai warrior that he told me he had himself killed a lion as a rite of passage at the age of fifteen. (This tradition was made illegal about 25 years ago). He seemed to think like a lion, and was amazingly good at predicting where they would go next, so at times we went ahead of them, in pitch darkness, and lo and behold they would materialize alongside a few seconds later. They had several abortive semi-serious chases, then took off, out of our field of view, but the noises we heard made it abundantly clear they had been successful, and we found three of them on their kill, a warthog:

The one on the right held down the neck for about five minutes, till she was sure the warthog had given up the fight, but meanwhile the others were feeding already, even though their meal was clearly still alive.


By the time all three were feasting, the hyenas had gathered in the shadows, and at one point they got too close to the lions, who the chased them off.


We watched for about 45 minutes, and then two of them left, and returned a while later with the older cubs, who promptly dug in. (I’ve just upgraded my site to allow me to post videos: do let me know if it doesn’t work.)


Lemeria then found his way back to camp in the dead blackness, and it was 9.30pm by the time we pulled into camp. I hadn’t even noticed I was hungry too.


* My updated version of the title quote in full is   “It is better to be a lion for a day than to be a warthog for the whole of your life.”

Appendix: My visit was spent at a camp called Saruni Wild on the Mara North Conservancy, not in the Maasai Mara National Park itself. The conservancies are less visited, and they are trying a new model of conservation that gives leases to private lodge operators, who offer direct benefits to the local communities, and accommodate their traditional semi-nomadic pastoral way of life. So far they seem to be having some success, with lion populations very healthy, and certainly they are a much less crowded way to visit the area and see the wildlife: I never had more than one other vehicle there during my stay, and most of the time it was just us. Read more here about this conservation model:


Battle of the Titans

Male elephants, just like all the other herbivores out there on the plains, enjoy a little jousting match on occasion. April seems to be the time of year when their juices are flowing.


The one on the right is the biggest elephant in this part of the Maasai Mara, known as Number One. He has magnificent tusks, as you can see below:DSC07439

And I am sure you noted the fifth leg on both elephants.

The remaining photographs are a different pair of younger elephants. They face each other, then rush forwards at some speed (as you can see from the flapping ears!) into what I can only call a head bump,

Male elephants jousting, for fun.Male elephants jousting, for fun.

but carefully judging it so that their tusks do no more than gently poke their adversary.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

They often entwine their trunks in a sort of tug of war:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

But it is clear that all this is not serious, and they part as friends:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Finally, and just for scale, here’s a photo of one of this second pair, who came over to check us out:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

[Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream]

Shrikes are smallish birds, with hooked upper beaks like the miniature birds of prey that they are. This one is a Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike, Lanius cabanisi, in the Maasai Mara.

Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike

They eat insects and grubs, like this Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike, Lanius mackinnoni, in the Kakamega Forest: Mackinnon';s foscal shrike with caterpillar.

But although they are no more than 8 inches long, they also go for much bigger prey (same bird, one day earlier):

Mackinnons Fiscal Shrike with fresh mouse that we watched him catch.

We had been watching it sitting motionless on the very top of a bare tree, when suddenly it swooped, and scooped this unfortunate mouse up from the grass below.

They are notorious for their habit of impaling their prey on thorns or sharp twigs, so as to make it easier to tear off convenient-sized bites, and also to create a food cache. A well-stocked cache can also help to attract females. This bird didn’t do this, he/she appeared to be feeding a nestful of young ones somewhere nearby.

PS: My alternative title for this post was Vlad the Impaler.

Blue Monkeys en famille

The Kakamega Forest in northwest Kenya is the last patch of virgin rainforest in the country. It is not far from Eldoret, where the marathoners train at 9000 feet up, and it is of course wet, and sometimes very cold, so the local monkeys have luxuriant thick coats that my camera struggles to focus on.

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Luckily they are fairly used to humans, and one troupe even comes into the grounds of my lodge, Rondo Retreat. These photos are of Stuhlmann’s Blue Monkey, Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii. 

They live high in the canopy, and 50% of their diet is fruit:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

They live in social groups of one male, and lots of females and young:


They have incredibly long tails, but since they are old world monkeys these are not prehensile:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitisThe young are carried under the mother’s’ bellies:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Like other species of Cercopithecus, they have a system of specialized alarm calls, and at one point while I was watching an African Crowned Eagle flew overhead.

African Crowned Eagle. Seen earlier harrassing blue monkeys.

The lookout gave the “eagle” alarm call, and every monkey came scurrying down at high speed from the canopy to the lowest branches, yelping in fear, where they kept their young very close for safety:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

The baby looks remarkably like the 1990’s fad toy, the Furby, described as a cross between a hamster and an owl. Google images of Furbys and see if you agree.


A footnote: The terrible floods after a dam burst in Kenya this week are near Solai, very close to my grandfather’s farm (though downstream). When we were there two weeks ago, we had 4 inches of rain in about two hours, so the ground is completely sodden.

The bouncing Widowbirds

Not being a birder, I had never heard of widowbirds. One day, as we drove through long grass in the Maasai Mara, all around were smallish black birds with long streaming tail feathers, popping up out of the grass then flying low across the plains:

Yellow-mantled widowbird

It turns out these are Jackson’s Widowbirds, and they do a completely insane mating display.  The long tail feathers are grown only by males, and only for the mating season, as is the blue-grey bill. They create a small running track of their own:


Then they run round in a circle, and bounce up into the air, briefly appearing above the grass for all the world as if they had a trampoline underneath. They can jump up to one meter high, and apparently the females pick a male based on how long his tail is and how frequently he jumps.

Jackson's widowbird

He keeps this up until a female arrives, they mate, and then he starts again, such is the urge to spread his genes as far and wide as possible.


The drab brown female, meanwhile, goes off and makes a nest close to the ground in a tiny bush or big tuft of grass. My guide found this invisible nest, containing a single egg:

Jackson's widowbird. Nest with single egg.

There are other widowbirds, but none of them seems to compare with Jackson’s when it comes to dancing prowess. This is a Red-collared Widowbird, also a male with a long breeding tail, up to 22cm in length. Again, females strongly prefer the males with the longest tails.
Red-collared widowbird

Planet Earth II managed to film the Jackson’s Widowbird dance, so you may be able to find it online.

An animal that begins with Aa..

After my last feel-good photos, these pictures are more nitty-gritty.

The things we typically like to photograph, like lions, are the apex predators of a food chain.  Near the bottom is the lowly termite, one species of which builds these mounds, with multiple chimneys.

Termite mound

The workers are rather fearsome close-up:


But they are no match for one of their main enemies, the aardvark, Orycteropus afer. I have never seen a live aardvark, since they are nocturnal and secretive, but here is a photo of one (from a Creative Commons website):


They excavate anthills and termite mounds with huge strong claws, and lick out the ants with a tongue that can extend up to 30cm ( a foot!). This is a fresh aardvark hole under some tree roots (taken in the Kakamega rain forest a few days earlier):

A fresh aardvark excavation under tree roots, looking for ants.

The aardvark, in turn, is food for the lion, and in the Maasai Mara a few days later we came across this sated lioness under a tree; look closely to the left of the photo, and you will see her dinner:


And on close inspection we saw the heavy muscular tail and huge claws of an aardvark:

DSC07319Nature really is “red in tooth and claw.”

%d bloggers like this: