Sartorial perfection

It’s hard to imagine a more elegant get-up than an adult loon in breeding plumage:

But they don’t start out like that. The two young chicks below are just brown and fluffy, with quite modest beaks. The very first down is very dark, almost black.

The second down, which is lighter brown, comes in around week three. After a few weeks, you start to notice their white breasts:

and then serious grooming begins. There is a gland under the tail that produces an oil that they rub through their plumage with their heads to keep it waterproof:

They use their bill to organize their feathers into overlapping layers:

From around week 7, their juvenile plumage is beginning to push out the down:

They are still very much babies, with a conveyor belt of fish deliveries (two in this shot, and they brought the chick eight fish in thirty minutes):

and a close bond with their parents.

But gradually the down decreases, and by about week 9 the down has all gone, leaving a grey-brown juvenile plumage which will be their garb for the next two or more years :

And the wings are growing apace. Remember the baby, on August 4th?

Now a mere three weeks later look at these shoulder muscles:

this wingspan:

and these flight feathers:

It will be able to fly on its own in another two or three weeks, but not far.

And then, one day, like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, they will be all grown up.

Their wings will be streamlined and powerful:

Even from the back they are chic:

And as you get closer, just admire. Whether they’re seeking out fish:

approaching head on:


or at water level:

or just as a hint, a trace on the water:

PS The loons are so relaxed they swim under my kayak, but I am usually so mesmerised I don’t even reach for my camera. Here is my only vaguely successful attempt:

The legs are spread wide, and the bands show you the ankles. You can just see the eye too.

PPS Even as adults, their winter non-breeding plumage will remain somewhat subdued:

Sushi fit for a loon

[I showed you the loons being rescued last winter, but now it is the halcyon days.]

I have been taking my kayak to a nearby pond that is big enough for loons to inhabit. A pair are raising a single chick, and their solicitude is a joy to watch. They bring tiny fish:

and sometimes drop their offering just out of the chick’s grasp so it has to search for it, in training for finding its own one day.

New to me was a different menu item, crayfish:

The first time I saw this, the chick looked somewhat unnerved by this wriggly spiky bit of sushi (rather like the deep-fried head of an ama-ebi, one of my favorites)

But a few days later there was no hesitation at all

though the legs took a bit of managing:

Here is a video of a crayfish delivery, a week later, with a botched hand-off and a quick recovery.

The crayfish live in the shallows, and when the adults were hunting them they splashed around making a lot of kerfuffle, and sending tiny fish leaping in the air for safety.

As the chick gets bigger, so do the fish.

This was a serious mouthful, but down it went.

After about 45 minutes of feeding the chicks, one adult caught a much bigger fish, far too large for the chick to manage. The hornpout (aka bullhead or catfish) was still very much alive,

so the loon kept diving (perhaps to bash it on the bottom?)

and shaking it until eventually it was dead enough to eat. A face-on loon in hunting mode is quite intimidating: those red eyes are the stuff of nightmares.

It turned it around and down it went in one large gulp (watch to the end; halfway through the video the loon dives for a while, and then comes up again):

The baby was already diving for quite long periods, and occasionally seemed to come up with something edible, though I couldn’t see what. It was also flapping its almost non-existent wings!

One day it will have stunning black-and-white breeding plumage like its parents.

Next time, more on how the transition from brown fluff to tuxedo-like elegance happens.

PS Around here there is an annual loon count, and also research projects that band the loons whenever possible. One of the adults was wearing brightly colored ankle jewellery, and it tells me this one is the female. Last year she was on the same pond with the same mate. This is not always the case: loons do not mate for life.

Chameleon Crab spiders

Crab spiders are tiny, but indomitable. Life starts for them inside a folded up leaf nest, first created by and then guarded by their mother:

This particular crab spider is the Goldenrod Crab Spider, Misumenia vatia. She is a maximum of 10mm long, and the males are half that size. The babies will hatch in about 3 weeks, after undergoing the first of two molts inside their leaf shelter.

She stands out against the leaf, but once she is on a flower, not so much.

An ambush hunter, this camouflage stands her in good stead when she hides beneath a petal, front legs astride like the claws of her namesake:

Her name actually comes from her ability, unusual among spiders, to walk sideways:

Crab spiders are known for their ability to change color to disguise their presence. This one is whitish.

Although for us it is still easy to see on the pink rose, apparently arthropod vision will see this simply as a dark shape on a dark background. It worked for this one, which caught a hoverfly :

A purplish-blue platycodon flower is too great a challenge, but even un- camouflaged it caught a small fly.

And the one below found a leaf completely covered in newly hatched alder beetle larvae, so camouflage was superfluous, and it gorged itself.

.Their base color is white,

and changing to yellow requires that they secrete yellow pigment, which can take 10-25 days. Changing back to yellow is faster, about 6 days. All this is triggered by them seeing the color of the flowers they want to hunt on. If they are blind, they don’t change color.

They really should be called Chameleon Spiders.

A night in the life of three lion cubs (and their mother). Part II: A snack before bedtime

The previous evening, we left the cubs playing and the mother stretching and waking up:

Early the next morning we found them in the bushes not far away, with some other adults nearby, and a watchful jackal.

During the night they had killed, and pretty much finished eating, but the cubs had been given the bones to gnaw on and play with:

and we watched for 45 minutes or so.

They were deep in the bushes, so the light was poor. This one had the jawbone:

And this one has the foot:

They start to eat meat at two to three months, so they’ve had a month or so to get used to the idea, though they will still be nursing for about another three months

As the sun came up, the matriarch led them off to a more secluded bush to sleep it all off through the heat of the day. But being cubs they were still playing as she tried to get them to bed.

It all looks idyllic, but within two years there is a good chance that only one will still be alive. Cubs die from predators when they are left alone while their mother hunts, or from ailments, like this eye problem we found on a cub in Il Ngwesi (the last report was that the cub is doing OK).

But male cubs are especially vulnerable because they leave their mother and the pride at around three, and then have to contend with rival males until they are strong enough to take over a pride of their own.

I wish these cubs well, especially the lone male one.

PS offers more detail about these early years: “Newborn cubs are helpless and blind and have a thick coat with dark spots that usually disappear with maturity. Cubs are able to follow their mothers at about three months of age and are weaned by six or seven months. They begin participating in kills by 11 months but probably cannot survive on their own until they are two years old. Although lionesses will nurse cubs other than their own, they are surprisingly inattentive mothers and often leave their cubs alone for up to 24 hours. There is a corresponding high mortality rate (e.g., 86 percent in the Serengeti), but survival rates improve after the age of two. In the wild, sexual maturity is reached at three or four years of age. Some female cubs remain within the pride when they attain sexual maturity, but others are forced out and join other prides or wander as nomads. Male cubs are expelled from the pride at about three years of age and become nomads until they are old enough to try to take over another pride (after age five). Many adult males remain nomads for life. Mating opportunities for nomad males are rare, and competition between male lions to defend a pride’s territory and mate with the pride females is fierce. Cooperating partnerships of two to four males are more successful at maintaining tenurewith a pride than individuals, and larger coalitions father more surviving offspring per male. Small coalitions typically comprise related males, whereas larger groups often include unrelated individuals. If a new cohort of males is able to take over a pride, they will seek to kill young cubs sired by their predecessors. This has the effect of shortening the time before the cubs’ mothers are ready to mate again. Females attempt to prevent this infanticide by hiding or directly defending their cubs; lionesses are generally more successful at protecting older cubs, as they would be leaving the pride sooner. In the wild lions seldom live more than 8 to 10 years, chiefly because of attacks by humans or other lions or the effects of kicks and gorings from intended prey animals. In captivity they may live 25 years or more.”

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