Startling Starlings

[Birds today, but fear not, there will be more big mammals in the weeks ahead.]

Kenya is full of starlings. And not your common-or-garden European ones either. Here is a selection, ending with the most resplendent!

The two most common ones I saw were the Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Lamprotornis chalybaeus, iridescent blue with a yellow eye:

and the Superb Starling, Lamprotornis superbus, with its orange underside.

Also common is the Wattled Starling, Creatophora cinerea, member of a different genus from the glossy blue Lamprotornis starlings in the rest of this post. It has an entirely different and less flashy color scheme. The male (centre below) has a bright yellow patch behind its eye, and in breeding season it grows big black wattles, only beginning in my photos. The females lack all of this. Here is a trio (girl, boy, girl) hoping for insects stirred up by the zebra crossing:

The one below was part of a mixed group of birds attracted to a termite mound on the morning after a nighttime shower; the termites were emerging on the wing, causing a feeding frenzy, and this male got lucky:

Here is his catch in close-up:

Hildebrandt’s Starling, Lamprotornis hildebrandti, is burnished with orange and yellow below:

and iridescent blue above:

But the most spectacular by far is the Golden-breasted Starling, Lamprotornis regius, aptly named. I asked my guides Steven Sankei and Joel Gilisho at Il Ngwesi in Laikipia if they could find them, and Steven said he knew a place where they hung out. After ten minutes or so, not just one but a pair appeared, for once both equally resplendent, though the male has a longer tail.

Its back is iridescent purple and its head is azure:

Its breast and underwings are burnished gold, unmistakable in flight:

And the total effect is glorious:

PS The range of the Golden-Breasted Starling is limited to S & E Ethiopia, Somalia, E Kenya and NE Tanzania. It inhabits thinly populated regions, but is not endangered. It is found in Kenya during the rains, which are supposed to happen in April, but as of this week in Il Ngwesi (where I saw the Golden-breasted Starlings) they had still not yet arrived. The drought is taking a terrible toll, on both livestock (the Maasai’s livelihood) and wildlife.

An unlikely antelope

The gerenuk, Litocranius walleri, was new to me. I had never even heard of it. Its name comes from the Somali garanuug, and its Swahili name is swala twiga, meaning ‘gazelle giraffe’. You can see why.


It is a creature of dry acacia savannahs in the Horn of Africa and northern Kenya (here, Lewa and Il Ngwesi in Laikipia) , and it uses that long neck to browse higher in the trees, just like a small giraffe. It is famous for its unusual habit (for an antelope) of standing on its hind legs to reach the best leaves up to two metres off the ground:

This one went on eating, but kept an eye on us:

I find their slender necks and huge ears very endearing.

Like most antelope, the social unit is a male and his harem, here numbering seven (only six are in the shot and the male is in the centre.)

If a female is coming into season he follows her, sniffing:

If she doesn’t respond, his next ice-breaking move is to kick her, as a way of getting her attention:

Rather surprisingly, this sometimes works, but not this time.

You can see from the photos how dry everything is: the rains are late, and the drought is severe. This graceful animal is classified by the IUCN as “Near Threatened”. Its population declined by 25% between 2001 and 2016, due to hunting and habitat loss from grazing. To think I have only just learnt of its existence, and yet it may be vanishing. How sad.

PS I kept hoping that two of them would position themselves so I could take a “push-me-pull you” shot, but they failed to oblige.

A right bustard

That’s not a typo in my title.

I want to introduce you to a male Kori Bustard in his pomp, but first some background. Here he is on an ordinary day, hanging out in the shade. He is the heaviest flying bird in Africa, up to 19Kg and stands about five feet tall. (Females are much smaller).

He walks through the long grass looking for insects, often followed by birds like this European Roller, waiting for things that fly up as he passes. The bustard is visible to the right of the Roller, behind the acacia bush:

But now in Nairobi National Park it is mating season, and a female is nearby. So he transforms himself. First, the tail goes up:

looking good from behind:

Then the wings are lowered to the ground, and he puffs out his neck:

And in the final result he looks for all the world like a monarch in floor length robes complete with coronet and train, and a neck ruff:

He even makes a deep booming drumroll to announce his presence. How could any girl resist?

PS I’m sure you noticed the raised train line in the background. Nairobi National Park is a wonderful place where I stayed for one night before my flight back, at The Emakoko lodge, (highly recommended) It is 30,000 acres right on the edge of Nairobi next to the airport, and a few years back they ran a new train line straight through it. They did at least raise it up high enough for giraffe to walk underneath, and apparently the animals are used to it now, and find it useful for shade. It was hugely controversial, as you can read here (the article is about a variety of threats to Kenya’s national parks, including this one):

A morning in the life of a cheetah mother: Part III

Once the impala was well and truly dead,

the proud cheetah focussed on getting it under cover so vultures, jackals, and leopards couldn’t find it. Dragging was hard work, as you can see:

Then she called the cubs, rather a quiet sound, but they responded:

quickly but calmly:

They didn’t approach the kill, but headed for the mother who was cooling off under a bush (at the back on the right):

Then she led them to the kill,

and dragged it deep into the bush:

where they tucked in:

One cub seemed intent on dragging it further, mimicking its mother. The cubs ate some, and played with the carcass, but the mother (right below) put her head down and just ate:

I am full of admiration for the skill, effort, and care this mother takes to raise her cubs, alone.

A morning in the life of a cheetah mother, Part II

She saw impala on the other side of the valley, and crept through the long grass on her belly, invisible, for as long as she could. Then, when the grass had been grazed short and there was no cover, she kept a termite mound in between her and the impala. In the photo below, the left-hand circle is the cheetah, the termite mound is in the center, and the impala are to the right.

Once she reached the termite mound, she settled down behind it and waited for the impala to come to her, which they foolishly did, oblivious to her presence..

Tinka thought they were still too far away, but the cheetah disagreed. When the impala reached her side of a clump of bushes, she burst out, heading for the one on the right in the picture below, but it saw her, and the one on the left didn’t, so she changed direction and headed for that one. (In case you can’t see her, she is just behind the bushes.)

This was smart: this impala was pregnant, and a fraction slower than the other one. The cheetah is astonishingly fast:

She can reach speeds of nearly 6o mph in a sprint like this, and she accelerates faster than a Lamborghini, and four times faster than Usain Bolt.

The impala sought refuge in a gully: big mistake. This blurry photo shows the moment the cheetah caught her, grabbing her by the throat. The impala is on the left, the cheetah on the right.

From when she began her final assault it took 11 seconds to the kill.

My guide pointed out that you can see from this shot that the impala’s nipples are enlarged, confirming her pregnancy.

Something they don’t often show on TV is how long it can take for the animals to die. This one took a good five minutes. The cheetah holds it by the throat and asphyxiates it, but every now and again she drops it, thinking it is all over, and the poor thing moves or gasps, so she grabs it again.

This video makes that painfully clear. Not everyone will want to watch. If you listen carefully the poor impala can be heard.

You can also see that the cheetah’s flanks heaving from the exhaustion of the chase, and my guide says that is one reason it took so long for her to finally kill the impala. And she will have to do it all over again two days later.

This is glimpse of the realities of how the sacrifice of one mother and her unborn fawn feeds another mother and her three cubs. My next post will show you the feast.

PS More on the cheetah’s speed and acceleration here:

If you point your camera at a cheetah, mother or cub, it is often not there any more. They flash past at dazzling speed, and turn on a dime. This piece is also interesting:

PPS As many of you know, this is not my first safari, and every one has been wonderful . But in case you think you see this every time, it is my first clear look a successful hunt from start to finish in 13 safaris. (Lions and leopards hunt at night.)

A morning in the life of a cheetah mother: Part 1

[I am back from a trip to Kenya that recharged my batteries which had been yearning for the wild. After deleting the obvious duds, I have only 2500 photos to go through, and many many stories to tell you. I had settled into a routine of blogging weekly, but now I will just send them once I have something ready to show you. If the tale I want to tell is long, like this one, it will be in two or more installments.]

In the Maasai Mara, I stayed for the second time at Saruni Wild, a Maasai run camp in Lemek Conservancy with only 3 tents. My extraordinary guide was William Tinka.

One morning we were looking for cheetah, and as usual Tinka saw them long before I could discern them even with binoculars. We got close, and you may be able to see that one has climbed the tree, not something I associate with cheetah:

It was a five-month old cub, one of three.

It came down:

and joined its mother and the others:

They played for about 20 minutes

until the mother began to move, though they kept playing as they followed.

When they run, you can see how their back feet land in front of the front feet, the iconic picture of a cheetah at speed.

Two of the cubs came to investigate the vehicle

One tried to climb in

But then the mother appeared like greased lightning and chased it off, sending a clear message that this was too close.

While they continued to play,

the mother checked out the landscape for game,

then started a purposeful slink through the long grass:

The cubs followed

still playing

but then, with no clear signal, they stopped dead, sat completely still (our kids never did that),

and their mother set out alone on the day’s grocery shopping.

You will have to wait to see what happened next.

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