Out of the blue

[I’m away for a couple weeks, and I have been sitting on more posts about my recent Kenya trip, so I thought this might be good time to use one.]

In Nairobi National Park we were watching a Pygmy Kingfisher by a wooded stream, and then I glanced over my shoulder and saw a wide-eyed , ermine-ruffed, grizzled, bluish-grey monkey just watching us.

He stayed on top of the same bush, whose leaves he clearly enjoyed, for several minutes:

Behind him there was a rustling in the undergrowth, and eventually another one appeared on a high branch, implausibly long tail in full view

The guide told me I was very lucky, because they are very shy and he rarely sees them. The first one did not know it was supposed to be shy, and went on munching:

I was rather confused when he told me they were blue monkeys, Cercopithecus mitis, because I saw blue monkeys in Western Kenya, near Kakamega, a few years ago, and they looked quite different, with a black cap, less white on their ears, and a big white monobrow, but no white neck ruff:

It turns out there are several sub-species of blue monkey. The ones in Kakamega are Diademmed Monkeys Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni . The ones in Nairobi National Park used to be considered another sub-species, but are now usually given their own species Cercopithecus albogularis. Their common name is Sykes’ Monkey or White-throated Monkey.

So, not blue monkeys after all. They appeared out of the blue, and indeed are now usually considered out of the blue! But they are still beautiful.

Cormorants: wise and watchful fishers

[This post is prompted by an encounter on my beaver pond. Skip ahead, if you wish!]

There are 40 species of cormorants (including shags) in the world. The scientific family name Phalacrocorax comes from φαλακρός (phalakros, “bald”) and κόραξ (korax, “raven”).

The Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo, is widely distributed in Europe and Asia. They come far inland, even to the Cotswolds, and there are lots of them on the Serpentine in Central London!

They have fine strong curved beaks:

That beak is a highly effective fish-catcher, a fact not lost on the Chinese, who traditionally used them in fishing. A cord was tied round the cormorant’s neck just tightly enough to stop it swallowing the fish, and the fisherman would then retrieve it. Nowadays they follow the tourist boats on the Li river in Guilin, where I took this photo in 2007:

In the eastern US we have the Double-Crested Cormorant, Nannopterum auritum.

This one is drying its wings on the coast in Friendship, Maine:

They come inland to a greater extent than most other cormorant species, and last week, for the first time, I had one on my beaver pond. And I photographed it just as it caught a pretty big fish, entangled in weeds:

The fish did not give up easily:

This video shows you just how wriggly it was:

but eventually it succumbed:

And this cormorant got to eat its own catch, though part of me felt bad for my otters, who have one less fish in their pond.

PS After this encounter, Hoss, a neighbor, told me that two days earlier he had seen a big black bird with a long neck run across the road by our barn. This must have been the cormorant, and somehow it found the pond, over a mile away deep in the forest.

PPS In heraldry, the cormorant denotes wisdom and watchfulness. Amongst the long history of cultural references, two of my favorites: Ulysses was rescued by a sea-nymph in the guise of a cormorant. And post-Homer, a cormorant was chosen as the hood ornament of the Packard automobile.

PPPS For hard-core readers only, because the photo is boring! Little Cormorants, Microcarbo niger, are found in India. You can compare their size to the Grey Heron and the Open-Billed Stork with whom they are sharing their tree.

Ovenbird exposed

The ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla, is a shy bird, more often heard than seen. I recorded this one in late May. It has a surprisingly loud song for a small bird.

Yesterday one brazenly watched me from a branch by my trail:

So it seems to be a good time to perform an introduction.

Its odd name comes from its nesting habits. If you’ve ever read Where’s Waldo? with your kids, here is the ovenbird equivalent:

The only way you ever find the nest is by accidentally almost stepping on it, so that she flies up. This was found two springs ago by Leigh McMillan Hayes, of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, who showed it to a few of us.

Closer up, the nest is tucked under the dead leaves, with a domed roof, just like an old fashioned bread oven:

Inside, you can just see her sitting on her eggs.

Having found it once, you can quietly return, and peer inside to see eggs and young. The blurry photo is me trying to be quick and not disturb them:

The adult bird is rather spiffy with a carrot-colored crown, sort of like Prince Harry:

Ovenbirds are warblers, insect eaters, foraging around on the forest floor. (Though they winter in Jamaica, lucky birds). But to breed, they need uninterrupted forest areas. Birds of the World says this: “Of primary importance for breeding is a large area of contiguous, interior forested habitat (Temple 1986, Robbins et al. 1989b, Van Horn 1995). The minimum contiguous habitat area required for this species to breed successfully ranges from 100 to 885 ha (Robbins 1979, Robbins et al. 1989b)”. That is a minimum of about 250 acres, which it has around me, but such habitat is becoming scarcer. On the bright side, its population seems for now to be stable.

It was relaxed enough to have a little scratch.


Robert Frost, that poet of the New England countryside, wrote this in 1916

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

PS I write this on the day the queen has just died. I grew up in England and went to London for the coronation, aged three. I got a blue teddybear and my sister got a pink one. She performed her largely ceremonial role with wisdom and grace for my entire lifetime, and today I feel my foundations shaken, and a deep loss. She too loved the countryside.

“I’m such a clever toad”*

Yesterday I went to load my kayak on my truck, and nestled inside one of the foam wedges that hold the kayak firm was….

a Common Gray Tree Frog, Dryophytes versicolor, (aka Hyla versicolor) about 1.5″ long. It lives in woodlands, near ponds, and is nocturnal, so in the daytime it curls itself up and sleeps, perfectly camouflaged on the proper substrate, like this granite boulder.

It spends much of its time high in the trees, and during the breeding season the male trills beautifully (and loudly) near the small pond by our house. This recording was made on my phone in late June 2020.

Its camouflage extends to the matching irises!

It has stripy legs, and long fingers and toes, here folded neatly together:

and here splayed out gripping tightly to a lump of quartz:

Its best camouflage trick is that it can turn green to match its background. This one is en route to/from green; the whole process usually take about half an hour.

And this next one is all the way there: I promise you it is the same species, and it must have been sitting on a leaf before it landed on the fence:

My friend Pamela Marshall took a photo of one that can’t seem to decide whether to be gray or green:

They have bright yellow on the back of the legs, only glimpsed in a brief flash when they jump, and something I failed to photograph! Here is another Pamela Marshall photo, in which I think the frog fell on its back and is trying to turn itself back over, showing its golden underwear:

*My title is a quote from one of my childhood favorites, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Although my hero is a frog, not a toad, it seemed apposite.

PS You might wonder why I have a lump of quartz lying around. We live in an area of pegmatite formations. Pegmatite contains the same minerals as granite, but in much larger crystals. One of the minerals is quartz, and the others are mica and feldspar. It also contains a variety of semi-precious minerals like tourmaline, garnet, amethyst, aquamarine and beryl. And lithium, possibly in commercially viable amounts, which raises all kinds of concerns about possible mining.

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