An imperial gift

The Grey Heron has a range that ranges from England to Japan.

They are imperial birds. This lacquered Japanese cosmetic box was given to Queen Elizabeth II by the Emperor of Japan for her coronation in 1953. It was made around 1900 by Shirayama Shōsai. It was the first post-war diplomatic gift, indicating a new era of friendship, and is on display right now in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, this one was grooming itself in the gardens next to Kensington Palace the other day, crest on display, oblivious to us passing peasants:

It was joined by two indolent swans, the property of the King:

Like the one on the lacquered box, it spent much time on one leg:

Serious grooming began:

But it was watching me, maybe checking for signs of insurrection:

PS: I’m off to The Gambia tomorrow, and hope to have some good things to show you on my return in about 10 days.

The giraffe with five ossicones

Preface: I’m now in London, but with nothing special to report, and definitely no giraffes, so I thought I’d dig out a couple of postings I composed but never sent out. Here’s one, from my Kenya orphanage trip in April 2018.

The 48,000 acre Soysambu Conservancy was set up by Lord Delamere, whose predecessors figured prominently (to put it mildly) in Kenyan high society back in the Out of Africa era. It contains a very healthy population of Rothschild’s Giraffe, about 10% of the world’s total of around 1600 (IUCN 2016 estimate).

The Rothschild’s Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, is the only species where the male is born with five ossicones: two large ones on top of the head, used for fighting and often rubbed bald, plus two smaller ones behind the ears, and one in the middle of the forehead.  This not very good photo shows all five:

Male Rothschild's Giraffe: you can see the 5 ossicones

The ossicones are made of ossified cartilage, not bone. At birth, they are not attached to the skull, and lie flat, so the poor mother can give birth without problems. Later in life they fuse to the skull.

Recently, lions have moved in to Soysambu from neighboring Lake Nakuru National Park, and we were driven around by Rowena White, known to her friends as ‘the lion lady’,  who helps to monitor the lions for Lord Delamere. We didn’t see lions, but we had a lovely day. Here are some highlights.

What look like twin young giraffes, part of a  group of about 20, quite unbothered by the buffalo.

The conservancy has 10% of the world population of Rothschild's giraffe

A baby buffalo with mother next to him, and the magnificently horned father behind her:


A jackal resting in the long grass, with an impressive pair of ears.

Black-backed jackal

And a tortoise,  ambling along through the wildflowers:

Leopard tortoise


A Lilac-breasted Roller, Coracias caudatus:


And then we had lunch, taking care to stay on the verandah because Rowena regularly sees leopards prowling around the terrace!


I did an earlier post from Soysambu Conservancy’s Lake Elementeita, about flamingos. Here’s the link in case you missed it:

If you’d like to know more about their conservation work, read here:

Till death us do part?

Pond skaters, aka Water Striders, Aquarius sp., are so familiar to anyone who frequents streams and ponds that we rarely stop to look closely. And if we do, it’s not so easy, because they rarely stay still for long. Next time, though, especially in the spring, pause and observe. Here is what I saw some years ago on a Maine May day.

What first caught my attention was a strider with far too many legs:

On closer inspection it was clear there were two striders, one atop the other, mating. They skated around on the surface as one, and I realized there were other tightly bonded pairs in the same quiet backwater:

There didn’t seem to be any real action , and I didn’t see any pairs either coming together, or separating:

They use the surface tension to stay afloat, so the tip of each leg creates a sort of dent in the surface, and disturbs the leaf reflections in a magical pattern. The next picture not only has two courting couples, but one of the right-hand pair seems to be holding something.

When I got home, I started reading. Mating water striders stay conjoined for the entire reproductive season (!), which can be all the warm months. The male has no intention of letting another one displace his sperm, so he stakes out his female and there he stays. But after a while they get hungry, so they don’t hesitate to catch a passing insect and have dinner, as you can see above .

In France the same year I got a clearer photo of this romantic dîner-a-deux:

Trust the French to combine a little dalliance with an amuse-bouche.

PS Wikipedia has this fascinating description of how the two lovers hook up. (Water Striders are members of the Gerridae family.)

“Sex discrimination in some Gerridae species is determined through communication of ripple frequency produced on the water surface. Males predominantly produce these ripples in the water. There are three main frequencies found in ripple communication: 25 Hz as a repel signal, 10 Hz as a threat signal, and 3 Hz as a courtship signal. An approaching gerrid will first give out a repel signal to let the other water strider know they are in its area. If the other gerrid does not return the repel signal, then the bug knows it is a female and will switch to the courtship signal. A receptive female will lower her abdomen and allow the male to mount her and mate. A non-receptive female will raise her abdomen and emit a repel signal.”

Given the duration of the liaison, it’s a big decision. And maybe their system works better than Tinder, or indeed Bumble.

PPS Water striders are carnivorous. They often feast on insects that have fallen into the water and drowned. These ones are eating a dead dragonfly:

PPPS Their whole bodies are covered in miniscule hydrofuge hairs, which repel water, so they don’t get waterlogged and sink.

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