That dreadful Hartebeest

After a break from antelope, back to Ethiopia and a couple more, larger than the last batch …..

This elegant beast is a female Lesser Kudu, Tragelaphus imberbis. She will hide in thick brush most of the day and feed mainly at night. Males can be 41″ at the shoulder and weigh 108Kg, with spectacular spiral horns.

Lesser Kudu

For comparison, these are male Greater Kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, in Zambia last spring. These males are much larger, 63″ at the shoulder and at 270Kg weighing more than twice as much as their Lesser brethren.

Kudu. "The Grey Ghosts".

There are only around 700 mature Swayne’s Hartebeest, Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei, left in the world, and one of the remaining populations is in Senkele sanctuary, not far from Lake Awassa. The sanctuary is reached via a dirt road through a tiny village, and the village kids climbed precariously on the back of the bus for a fun but dangerous ride. Our worried guide tied thorny acacia branches to the back, which successfully dislodged them.

The rangers had burnt the dry grass to encourage new growth, and the herd had headed straight there for the tiny invisible green shoots.

Swayne's Hartebeest, endemic to Ethiopia

This mother spent maybe ten minutes cleaning her baby’s bottom. A mother’s love knows no bounds, but I prefer baby wipes.

PS Hartebeest were given their name because they look rather deer-like, ‘hart’ being an archaic word for deer, and the obsolete Afrikaans hertebeest means ‘deer-beast’. Males can weigh up to 200Kg, much larger than the Lesser Kudu.

PPS My title comes, yet again, from the Flanders and Swann song about the Gnu, since poems about hartebeest are hard to come by…

“G-nor am I in the least
Like that dreadful hartebeest”

PPPS You will be relieved to know that after today there is only one last antelope post still to come!

Strutting Tom

It is definitely spring. Outside my study window, in the mist,  a tom (male) turkey is displaying to his lady hen, who continues to preen, unimpressed by his splendor.


Seen advancing from the front he is quite a sight, like a galleon under full sail. He has an enormous blue snood hanging down over his beak, a darker blue face, …. and bright red wattles. He puffs himself up, and drags his wings,  strutting his stuff, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the turkey world.


Meanwhile, she grazes on,  oblivious.

In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter in support of the Turkey as national bird: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

…For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”


A Spate and a Spadix

Let’s take an Easter break from antelopes. I am in Maine for a few days. The thaw is happening, and the streams are in spate. This is a usually dry woodland area below my red barn; the de-barked tree is beaver work.


My bridge may not be there in the morning:


The Beaked Hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, is flowering, with its golden male catkins and tiny red female flowers:


The Maine State bird, the Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus, is here, a member of the tit family.


A female downy woodpecker was busy:

Female Downy Woodpecker

And I saw my first ever Brown Creeper, Certhia americana, a relative of the UK’s Treecreeper. They are not rare, but they are very shy, and well-camouflaged. It moved much like a nuthatch, but working its way up the tree, instead of head down like a nuthatch. Notice the lovely curved beak.

Brown Creeper

Finally, I mentioned skunk cabbage a week or two ago, but now in Massachusetts it is in flower.  Symplocarpus foetidus is a member of the Arum family.  It comes up so early in spring that the heat of its cellular respiration melts the snow or ice around it,

Skunk Cabbage

It has a strong odor, especially if bruised, like decaying meat, and this draws insects to pollinate the tiny flowers on the knobby spadix. Later, a roll of large green leaves unfurls.


Buck up

Moving up the antelope size ranks, here are a couple of handsome bucks, both females despite their names.

I rather warm to the charming Bushbuck, Tragelaphus scripts meneleki. Males are up to 30″ at the shoulder, and up to 80Kg in weight. They are largely nocturnal, frequenting the forest edges and browsing on bushes, leaves and twigs. They are shy and hard to see; this one was emerging from safe cover in late afternoon to feed. The thick coat keeps them cosy up here at 4000 meters (13,000 feet) in the Bale mountains.

Menelik's Bushbuck, endemic to Ethiopia

Good looking though she is, like most bushbucks she is largely solitary.  Females are bright chestnut, males are almost black. The white markings are very variable geographically, as shown in this illustration from the excellent The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals, by Johnathan Kingdon.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 9.41.32 AM

Just nearby, this Bohor Reedbuck, Redunca redunca, posed in a clearing.

Common Reedbuck

Males can be 35″ at the shoulder and weigh 65Kg.






Medaqqwa and Oribi

[Such a pleasure to discover an animal you have never even heard of before. For me, the mellifluously named Oribi is just such a new discovery.]

Today’s Ethiopian antelopes are not gazelles, and only the males have horns. Some are so tiny they can easily be mistaken for a hare: a small female Harar Dikdik may only weigh 2.5 Kg, and the Ethiopian Highland Hare can weigh 3.5 Kg! Their scientific name is Madoqua saltiana hararensis, supposedly named after the Amharic name for small antelope, medaqqwa. *

Harar Dikdik, sub species of Salt's Dik-dik

Not surprisingly, given their miniature stature (a maximum of 15″ shoulder height), they are extremely skittish, and this is my best photograph!

Moving up a notch, there are two species whose weight tops out around 22 – 25 Kg: the Oribi and the Bush Duiker. This charming family of Oribi, Ourebia ourebi, allowed us to get fairly close, but they can run at 50Km an hour if startled. The males are about 26″ at the shoulder, about the size and build of a Dalmatian.


They are strictly grass eaters, and their social lives sound interesting, since they are described as sometimes polygynous, sometimes polyandrous, and sometimes polygynandrous depending on food resources and population density. Yet these three, who were not part of a larger herd,  look monogamous to me!

The similarly-sized Bush Duiker, Sylvicapra grimmia, is the ungulate that lives at the highest altitudes, and it is monogamous. Their Latin name means “wood goat”, perhaps because they eat all sorts of things, including not only grass but also insects, frogs, and even carrion.  They can get nearly all their water from their food, and may not drink at all in the rainy season.

Bush Duicker

They are not endangered, possibly because no-one could call them picky eaters.

* I can’t confirm this origin for the Latin name Madoqua. My attempts to translate “small antelope” or “dikdik” into Amharic online turn up different words, like yenishu, የንሹ

P.S. For my UK readers, the 2.5 – 6 Kg dikdik is far smaller than the muntjacs that plague us in the UK, and which can weigh up to 18Kg..

Gazelle grace notes

Ethiopia abounds in animals that Americans and Brits might loosely call “deer”, but are more properly various species of antelope. We saw a range from the tiny Harar Dik-dik (2.4 – 4Kg), to the huge Mountain Nyala (whose males weigh up to 300Kg). I think today I’ll show you some gazelles, middle-sized antelopes that are a by-word for grace..

All gazelles are antelopes but not all antelopes are gazelles. Gazelles are distinguished by the fact that both sexes have horns, not just males, and the horns are unbranched. We saw Soemerring’s Gazelle, and two sub-species of Grant’s Gazelle. These Soemerring’s Gazelle females below have elegant horns. The males weigh up to 99lbs. Only found in the Horn of Africa and now extinct in Sudan, they are classified as Vulnerable.

Soemmering's Gazelle

This male Bright’s Gazelle, a sub-species of Grant’s Gazelle, is much more impressive. He may weigh up to 180 lbs, and his horns can be 32″ long. This chap had several females behind him in the brush.

Bright's Gazelle

This extraordinary posture, which he held for a long time, is ritualized behavior. The territorial male stretches and squats in an exaggerated manner while urinating and dropping dung. This apparently warns other males to stay away and reduces the number of confrontations. 

The horns have a bony core, covered in keratin, and never fall off (unlike antlers). They are elegantly twisted, and placed in such a way that two fighting males cannot crack each other’s skulls, so their fights are displays rather than mortal combats.

Bright's Gazelle

The eyes in the sides of the head give them a wide field of view to detect predators. Pennisi (2019), an article in Science this year entitled “Grazing animals shown to inhabit a ‘landscape of fear'” writes :

“Imagine you are a grazing animal, an antelope or an elk. The lush vegetation of a streambank or an open plain tempt you, but predators lurk there. You avoid this “landscape of fear,” keeping to the safety of the forest and leaving the plants there to flourish. It’s a plausible but still controversial scenario for how predators can shape an ecosystem. Now, ecologists have taken advantage of the impact of war on Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park to give the idea new support. After a surge in poaching during Mozambique’s civil war from 1977 to 1992 extirpated leopards and wild dogs from the park, a secretive antelope that used to stick to the forest started to forage out in the open. Ecologists now show that the untrammeled consumption has altered the park’s vegetation—and that the sound or smell of the predators was enough to reverse the effect, by driving the antelopes back toward the forest.”




(I’ll return to Ethiopian posts soon, but today I wanted to be in the moment.)

A Maine spring comes grudgingly to start with…. here is the back of my house on March 28, four days ago. For scale, to the right of the large tree is our picnic table partly covered by an avalanche of snow.


In the woods, the streams are thawing and filling fast. Icicles delicately dangle tiny tutus, remnants of their contacts with the melted surface ice:

The woods are still quiet, but not empty: a pileated woodpecker has created an impressive trio of holes and a correspondingly gigantic pile of woodchips:


Tracks have grown bigger as the snow melts. This is probably a fox or a coyote, two paws registering on top of one another, but I dreamt of bears, and by tomorrow I will probably think “Sasquatch”.


Three hours drive to the south, in Massachusetts, the skunk cabbage is pushing up through the snow:


A deep imperial red-purple at first:


The deer are quick to appear:


There’s not much green to eat yet, so they can’t be choosy:


And so the woods awaken again…..

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