Caracaras: carnal carnivores

The Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway, is the Beau Brummell of birds, a dandy with a certain air, sometimes called the Mexican Eagle. And yet he is a falcon, not an eagle, and merely a lowly scavenger.


Caracaras are mainly a Central and South American species, and in the United States, they are only found in small areas of Arizona and one tiny area in Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee, where I was lucky enough to find myself.

It is spring and they know it:


They are monogamous, staying together as a pair for many years. The mechanics of bird mating are not obvious: here is a good explanation for those of a prurient turn of mind!

I saw two different pairs, both feeding on small mammals. This pair were “sharing” a dead baby raccoon:


I am afraid that is not spaghetti that you see below.


And after dismembering it they took bits off to safer perches to eat:


They like open country, and this countryside (Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area) was amongst vast flat industrial-scale sugar-cane farms; they seemed to like hanging out in the sheds and barns nearby.

On the wing, they are acrobatic and elegant, with a wingspan of up to four feet:


The namecaracara” is supposedly from the Guarani Indian traro-traro, after the rattling vocalization that they produce when upset:

My excellent guide Bob Branham knows these parts like the back of his hand, and showed me many good things, especially raptors, some more of which I will show you in the next few weeks! And if you want to see his photos, way better than mine, here they are:

PS I am off to Baja California in the hope of seeing both blue and grey whales. I will report back in two weeks, and I will go silent till then..




Lions: Feast or famine

[I am still organizing my Florida photos, and anyway one can have too many bird posts, so I am returning to Tanzania for perhaps the last time.]

We saw this pride of three lions, a mother, sister and and near-adult son, on several separate occasions in the Ruaha.


They appeared to be struggling. We watched them stalking game, but never getting close enough to launch an attack. They were thin, ribs showing:


The family dynamics were interesting. When the mother approached her sister,  the sister snarled,


But when the mother then approached her son they showed clear affection, gently rubbing noses.


They looked skinny, but sometimes they killed, and late one afternoon we found them, bellies swollen, lying in the setting sun:


We didn’t see the actual kill, so this photo is of a different lion, in the Serengeti,  where the rain had begun, and it is quite clear what it had just killed:


Survival of the fittest.

P.S. Lions feed every three or four days, and need 5-7kg of meat a day. But they can go without food for more than a week and then they gorge, eating up to 50kg of meat at a sitting – almost a quarter of their weight.

The pelican and the seagull

To escape the New England winter, we went to visit friends in Florida for a week. In Sarasota, lounging on the beach, I watched the brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, soaring on those astonishing wings (their wingspan is over seven feet, much the same as a bald eagle):


This one is skimming the waves, looking for fish:


and surfing


The adults have yellow heads:


I was watching the pelicans, but the seagulls were watching them too. The moment this juvenile pelican raised its beak out of the water, pouch full of fish, the seagull flew in and stood on its back.


I’m not sure if they had been aiming for the same fish, and the pelican got there first, or whether the gull was trying to steal its catch. Whichever, it failed, and flew off.


And the victorious pelican swallowed a sizable fish, whose shadow is visible through the pouch.


That ridge across the pelican’s gular pouch is the remnant of the hyoid bone. Interesting trivia factoids: (1) The pouch can hold 3 1/2 gallons of sea water. (2) The pelican has no tongue.



The Curious Incident of the Coyotes in the Night-time *

[This post is unavoidably scatological:  if that’s not your thing, skip over the fifth photo and cut to the video…..]

Coyotes, Canis latrans, are nocturnal or crepuscular (one of my favorite words, meaning active at dawn and dusk) so I very rarely see them. Instead, I look for evidence.  It is easier in the winter; there are foot prints:

Coyote tracks

The prints make trails: these ones had a total of 10 trails converging on (or perhaps diverging from) a single cross-roads. I have no idea why; it wasn’t scent-marked, they didn’t seem to stop, but none of them missed that spot. It might have been one coyote going backwards and forwards on five different occasions, or 5 different coyotes each on their own mission. Use your imagination.

coyote crossroads. 10 sets of tracks. 1 coyote on 5 return trips?? etc

I’m pretty sure that at least two were around. This female had marked the trail with her urine, and you can also see that she was in season:

female coyote urine

Underneath the apple tree, it looked as though two had come together. One spot of urine was female, visible at the bottom of this picture, and another lacked blood, so I think it was a male. The two marks were on the edges of a patch of snow that was trampled down by many, many coyote imprints, as if they had been there for some time, and I like to imagine it was a tryst.

coyotes mating??

A couple of weeks later, under the same apple tree, they had been feeding extensively. There was scat everywhere, and if you can bring yourself to inspect it closely (not everyone’s cup of tea), you will see a sliver of bone, lots of hair, and chunks of undigested rotten apple from the tree above.

Coyote scat, with bone, hair and rotten apples

We think of coyotes as predators and carnivores, but actually they are omnivores, as this scat makes abundantly clear.

So although I still hadn’t seen the coyotes, they were certainly there. I put up a game camera for a couple of days to see what I got, and meanwhile I heard them yipping at 3am, from just that area. In the morning, I checked the camera videos. (Ignore the date and time on the camera, I forgot to re-set it!).

The social unit for coyotes is an adult pair, and these look like nice fat healthy ones! Eastern Coyotes are bigger than Western ones, and they can weigh up to 40lbs. If they have mated, she will give birth in about two months, and I will keep my eyes open and report back..

Incidentally, the coyote population in Maine is booming, They only moved into the state in the 1930’s, and  there are now thought to be about 12,000 of them.

*With apologies to Mark Haddon, from whose wonderful book I have stolen my title.


Thirsty? Follow that elephant

In the Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, there is virtually no surface water in early October. The rivers are still there, but they are flowing underground, so they are called sand rivers.

elephants, baboons, gazelles

Elephants find places where the water is near the surface, and create mud wallows:


and they drill deep artesian wells down into the sand to reach the clean water:


This is enough to drink, or have a shower:


But for other animals it is harder. Some get all the water they need from their food, but some, including lions, need to drink. So they wait till the elephants have moved on, and use their holes:

elephant and lion encounter

The few rivers that used to have year-round water, especially the Great Ruaha River itself, are now regularly dry for several months each year, largely because of over-use by upstream rice farms, which were originally financed by the African Development Bank. The consequences have been dire, with a substantial decrease in populations of the larger animals such as elephant, buffalo and lion.

This remote Ruaha-Ruangwa ecosystem has long been famous for its large elephant populations but the combined pressures of water shortages and direct human aggression have resulted in a horrifying decline. In 2009, the population was 30,000 before plummeting to only 8,272  in 2014, a 76 percent decline over five years. The largest single cause of this is poaching. (Figures from Great Elephant Census 2014).

However, there are reasons for hope.  The 2019 survey showed a big rebound, and the population is now thought to be stable at around 20,000 (although the survey area may be sightly different which makes it hard to compare the numbers directly.).

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