Swans in combat

In the early morning, an image of serenity.

But as I write I’m in Central London, and I want to show you a rather distressing encounter with two swans in Hyde Park. You have been warned. I took a video (included at the end), and then extracted stills from it so I could comment. Here we go.

I saw two swans creating a big hullabaloo, partly screened by the reeds. This usually means either mating or fighting, but the reeds made it impossible to tell.

I walked on, and ten minutes later realized they had caught up with me and were still at it, close to the water’s edge. Once I got a good look, this was clearly not an amorous encounter. One swan was grabbing the other swan’s neck,

and holding its head underwater for prolonged periods:

These immersions went on for perhaps ten minutes. The by-now-exhausted underdog (underswan?) realized he would be safer on shore:

The aggressor wasn’t going to let him off so easily. First he tried to pin him down using his whole body:

Then he grabbed him by the nape of the neck

and tried to pull him back into the water:

The losing swan summoned up a burst of energy and almost struggled free:

But he was quickly overwhelmed again and submerged once more; this time the superior swan added insult to injury by sitting on the inferior one’s neck :

A local swan charity guesses that this was a territorial dispute, and they do sometimes end in the death of one swan, typically by drowning. Whatever it was, no quarter was being given.

Now watch this video, in which the sheer relentlessness and viciousness of the attack is fully apparent, and see how it all ended. It is much longer than my usual videos (3.44 minutes) , but you shouldn’t have to download it to watch it.

The abrupt ending was caused by a passer-by, who had seen enough, and grabbed the dominant swan by the neck and threw him off. He circled around looking affronted, then paddled away. Meanwhile the defeated swan hauled itself out of the water, with a glazed look in its eye, slowly straightened itself out, then settled down by its saviour’s feet. It was still there when I left twenty minutes later.

Below, to cheer you up, a solitary swan by the Thames.

PS Intervening in this way is usually frowned on, though I had some sympathy. As you could probably hear from the soundtrack, passing families were hurrying their small children past, either because they didn’t want them to watch a death, or because they still thought they might be mating!

Of mice and bones

Bones are central to our survival: the skeleton of a vertebrate is what keeps it upright and supports it against gravity. But they are also essential for some animals in a more surprising way: when an animal dies, or a deer sheds its bony antlers, all that calcium and bone marrow is a tempting meal for creatures of a range of sizes, including the tiniest.

A field mouse is a very tiny thing, easily caught by any number of altogether larger creatures. This one was caught by a Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike in Kenya:

and this one was eaten, and its soft tissues digested, by a coyote (or fox) in Maine, leaving the skeleton substantially intact, including even the tail :

(It didn’t digest the fur either, and once time and rain have cleared away the residue, fur and bones are made visible.)

These tiny creatures eat small seeds, like these beech nuts:

and during the long winters in Maine they emerge from their impossibly small holes, risking life and limb, to forage:

An unlikely food source is a shed deer antler. In Maine bucks grow their bony antlers in March or April, and shed them the following winter. I found this one in October, by which time it had been eaten by squirrels, mice, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, porcupines, foxes, bears, and even otters, for the 20% calcium, 10% phosphorus and mineral salts content.

The outside is compacted bone, very hard, but rodents have sharp teeth.

The size of the tooth marks is a clue to who has been eating the antler. In the picture above it was something small, squirrels or mice. If it has cracked right through to the inside, it is something bigger:

The interior is spongy bone, well supplied with blood vessels when the antlers were growing. For whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to get eaten much.

These ones (found on a different occasion, but also in the autumn) looked older, but they hadn’t been quite as thoroughly chewed:

So if you view the world through the eyes of a mouse, it has two reasons to be grateful to bones: for giving it the strength to stand and to run, and for nourishing it at the end of a hard winter.

PS Here is Robbie Burns 1785 poem “To a mouse”, a rare literary paean to this timorous beastie:


And then course there is E.B.White’s masterpiece Stuart Little.

Bugs with dreadlocks

At this time of year you need to be content with miniature marvels.

This white fluffy cottony fringe on the underside of an alder twig is the collective security blanket of a number of Woolly Alder Aphids, Paraprociphilus tessellatus:

Each aphid secretes a coarse wax which twines into filaments up to 2 inches long, often completely concealing the insect underneath. It keeps them from drying out.

On a different twig, they were being more standoffish, so you could see them one by one:

I took some home, to try and get some closeups. The aphid is 1/16″ long, so this is a challenge:

I used my new lightbox to get this portrait, and I also took a video to prove that it is indeed a living creature. It is speeded up, and the poor thing has settled in for the winter and is not keen on being disturbed, so it is barely awake, and has its hair in its eyes, so to speak:

Its name tesselatus comes from the mosaic pattern on its back.

They need two tree species for their life cycle. In spring they feed on silver maple leaves, and then from summer into fall they move to alder twigs. Most overwinter as eggs, but some adults overwinter in colonies like these and give birth to live young females in the spring.

They can fly, and must be quite a sight in flight, but I have never seen this.

PS My title’s comparison to dreadlocks (aka dreads or locs) is plausible. Dreadlocks can be created by a hairdresser, but if human hair is left alone long enough it will eventually entwine itself naturally into dreadlocks. These aphids seem to grow short fluffy strands at first, and out of this fuzz come the long curly ringlets.

I am assuming no hair salon was involved.

Antelope ballet

[As you can see, I’m alternating between Maine, where I am now, and past encounters from farther afield, where there are animals I have not yet shown you. In November things are quiet here, and I’m collecting and building some stories to tell you, but you don’t want a weekly diet of mushrooms.]

From Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness Lodge to Il Ngwesi Lodge is a slow three-hour drive in a Landcruiser on forbiddingly rocky tracks. The upside is a chance to glimpse new animals, like this Klipspringer, one of a pair high on the hillside:

now very worried by our presence:

All its various names speak of its niche in the world. Its scientific name is Oreotragus oreotragus, Greek for “mountain billygoat” (twice!). Its Kiswahili name mbuzi mawe means “goat of the rocks”, like the chamois, and its Afrikaans name means “cliff leaper”, because that is exactly what it does. It walks on the tips of cylindrical blunt two-toed hooves

for all the world like a ballet dancer en pointe.

Each hoof tip is the size of a dime, and exerts a slight suction effect. Rather surprisingly this gives the klipspringer a good grip on its preferred rocky hillsides.

Klipspringers, like their closest relatives the dikdik, are altogether tiny delicate creatures, standing no more than two feet at the shoulder. They form a close pair-bond, staying together till one dies. They are found over large areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, and they are not endangered, partly because their preferred remote mountain habitat is not coveted for livestock, and not accessible for hunting. They are browsers, and get enough water from their food.

Their coat is unusual for antelope, being thick and coarse with brittle hollow guard hairs, which they are able to erect:

They have a white nose and lips, chestnut forehead, and lovely black and white ears. Only the males have horns, 3-6 inches long:*

Not one of the most dramatic animals in Africa, nor the most imposing, but one of the most peaceful and elegant; I’d rather like to see one at breakfast each morning, tiptoeing peacefully around, perhaps to strains of Tchaikovsky wafting out of my window.

* PS Confusingly, other sources say that in East Africa, where I was, both sexes have horns. Maybe I should choose the pronoun “they” ?


[Warning!! This is tongue in cheek, so I hope you have a sense of humor and are over 21.]

Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places.

An image: let your mind float while you first admire that voluptuous curve, and then try to fix it in your real world; no need to feel embarrassed.

I don’t know where your imagination took you, but here is a different and more distant view of the same object:

Two softish curvy fleshy objects pressed up against each other look pretty much the same whether they are human bodies, painted here by Modigliani in this detail from his 1917 Reclining Nude, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

or just two fungal fruiting bodies squashed into a small space:

You might not have thought that we have much in common, but at the end of the day we are both about 80% water.

PS Human adults are about 60% water, babies closer to 80%.

PPS This mushroom is some sort of Tricholoma species, I think, growing on an aged maple in my front yard.

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