Azure aerobatics

The Abyssinian Roller, Coracias abyssinicus, is 30cm long plus 12cm streamers (elongated outer tail feathers, on both sexes):

In flight, it is even more spectacular:

You can see its tongue as it yawns.

And a little preening:

It swoops down on large insects on the ground. It likes open areas near woods, often tilled fields or village areas, and may have benefited from human habitation.

Rollers get their name from their courtship display, which involves diving towards the ground, rolling as they go. Just like a young pilot showing off. I have never managed to video this.

We also saw the less flamboyant but still handsome Blue-Bellied Roller, Coracias cyanogaster:

A Hawkish Stance

[This post is coming rather soon after the last, for reasons that will be apparent in the final paragraph!]

Two good-sized raptors that frequent the Gambia are the African Harrier, and the Lizard Buzzard. Let me introduce you.

A pair of African Harrier Hawks, Polyboroides typus, posed for us late one afternoon.

They have a wingspan of up to five feet. Unusually for hawks, they mostly hunt their prey by poking around in holes and crevices in trees. They are looking for nestlings, lizards, squirrels and the like. They have long flexibly jointed legs, with an intertarsal joint that is flexible through 190°–205°, meaning it can bend both backwards and forwards, which helps get into cavities.

They have a jaunty crest, and a bare orangey red face.

Those specialized legs are an interesting example of convergent evolution. The Crane Hawk, a unrelated New World species, has a similar hunting technique, and similar legs. I photographed this one in the Pantanal in Brazil in 2013.

The much smaller Lizard Buzzard, Kaupifalco monogrammicus, is a handsome bird with a distinctive single vertical black stripe down the centre of its throat,

like a skinny necktie* :

The Lizard Buzzard has a shortish stubby bill:

and a wingspan of about 2 1/2 feet.

Despite its name, it doesn’t eat only lizards; large insects make up a lot of its diet.

* Thankyou Brad Vernatter, General Director and CEO of Boston Lyric Opera, for this photo on the opening night of their wonderful Bluebeard’s Castle. If you are in Boston, it’s still on this weekend, March 25 and 26. Do go.

The last of their kind?

Although this was primarily a bird trip, we had other notable encounters.

The Western Red Colobus Monkey, Piliocolobus badius, is very, very, shy, and we were lucky to see it, but at a great distance. We circled around to try and get closer and with a better light, but they immediately dived for cover, and that was that.

I’m showing them to you anyway because they are officially classified as Endangered by the ICUN. There are no reliable population estimates, but their population is known to be decreasing. This subspecies, Temminck’s Red Colobus, may be especially endangered. Best estimates are a total of 2500 individuals, one of the largest populations being roughly where we were, in the Abuko Nature Reserve (Starin 2017).

There was a group of maybe four or five. This shot shows four, but I think there was one more.

At the top right was a charming family of three:

As you can see, the father is very aware of us, not surprisingly as we were creeping around loudly in the brush. The mother is more attentive to the baby, and of course seeing a baby is a very positive sign:

My photos don’t show it, but they have glorious long tails like this black-and-white colobus I saw in Uganda in 2014:

My final shot, of the solicitous parent restraining the baby, who is trying to explore its twiggy world:

PS The IUCN says: “.. red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus spp.) are the most threatened group of African monkeys. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020, every form of red colobus monkey is threatened with extinction, and 14 of the 18 taxa (>75%) are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered. ” I feel privileged to have seen them, and saddened by their fragility.

Little Bee-Eater: small but fierce

Little Bee-eaters, Merops pusillus pusillus, are probably my favorite bee-eater. They’re the smallest bee-eater, but as Shakespeare said, “Though she be but little, she is fierce”.

Found all over Africa, and not endangered, they are diminutive jewels, inclined to perch in the open and low down, making them a photographer’s gift. The orange and green coloring is surprisingly good camouflage. They are frequently in pairs, though these two don’t seem to be getting along too well:

While we were there it was very hot, 39C or 100F, so to cool off they were diving into the pool. These dips also help rid them of parasites, and I suspect the chlorine might help too?

The dip was followed by a blowdry:

a rub-down:

a comb-through:

and a final styling:

The plumage is stunning, but so are the details, like the red eye and the sliver of bright blue supercilium.

They catch their prey on the wing, making about 40 sorties an hour, 30% of which are successful. Around 75% of their diet is bees and wasps, and the rest is other flying insects.

In this pair, one announced his imminent departure, and started to hunt:

Offering your prey to your mate is polite:

even if she doesn’t always seem interested:

But he never gave up: and her head is slowly turning towards him:

At this point I think something disturbed them, because I have no more photos!

PS Bees and wasps are tricky eating. Just as a Japanese sushi chef knows how to prepare poisonous fugu fish for safe consumption, the bee-eater knows how to get rid of both sting and venom by bashing and squeezing the bee on a branch first. This behavior has been shown to be innate. It takes about ten tries for a young bee-eater before the technique is mastered.

PPS Photographing birds diving into the pool is a matter of pure luck. The entire dive lasts perhaps one second, and you have no idea where in the pool it is heading for. So you basically photograph the pool surface, and then see what you’ve got afterwards!

Hooded and gowned: the Black Heron

A witch’s coven?? A gathering of gowned academics? An achingly chic Parisian fashion show?

No, just a group of Black Herons, looking for their lunch. The Black Heron, Egretta ardesaica, is a small heron 42-66 cm, weighing around 270-390 g. It is also known as the Black Egret. Here is a photo of it next to a Little Egret, Egretta garzetta.

It is famous for its ingenious and highly unusual hunting strategy. It spreads its wings over its head to create a dark tent over the water’s surface, reducing glare, and lulling the fish into a false sense of security. The neck plumes are used to complete the umbrella. Then it pounces.

The technique is called Canopy Feeding. At the same time, it stirs the water with one foot, presumably to rustle up some prey.

The wings are said to stay up for only 2-3 seconds at a time, but the ones we were watching seemed to stay there much longer. Below, on the right, is one heron with its wings half-way up into the feeding position.

They are elegant birds, with extra-wide flight feathers so that the canopy has no gaps:

Their feet are bright yellow, like the Little Egret’s. (Sorry about the blurry photo, the only one I caught with the feet visible.)

In German, it is called Glockenreiher, Bell Egret, I assume for the shape it makes when hooding. You can see it in action in this video, in a version immortalized by the BBC in a sketch from their comedy show Walk on the Wild Side.

The Black Heron is not endangered. Its range is mainly East Africa, and Madagascar (where populations are in worrying decline), and in West Africa it seems to prefer coastal areas.

PS I wanted to get closer to get better photos, but it meant walking out onto a patch of wetland where 15 minutes earlier I had seen this.

West African crocodile

So I didn’t. One fellow-traveler ventured out, and came back with all his toes and probably much better photos.

Finally, my own distant video of the entire group fishing:

The Violet Turaco: the pigment bird

[I have just returned from The Gambia in West Africa, looking at birds with the photographer and guide Oliver Smart of Naturetrek. I’ll be doing several posts from the trip, perhaps interspersed with anything interesting in Maine now that I am back.]

First, to situate you for the weeks ahead, here is a map showing where the Gambia is in West Africa. The red pin is our lodge, Mandina River Lodge.

The Gambia is a very unusual shaped country, along two sides of The Gambia river, and entirely surrounded by Senegal. The river is 10Km wide where we were, so there are no bridges until the 1.2 mile Senegambia bridge, 120 Km up-river, which opened in 2019.

So, on to the birds. These pictures were taken over several different encounters.

Sitting high in the tree was a plump purplish-black bird the size of a large pigeon with a long tail, a crimson head and a chunky reddish-orange bill:

It was a Violet Turaco, Musophaga violacea. The yellow forehead is a hard casque, and the red eye-ring is bare skin., which you can perhaps see better in the not-very-sharp photo below:

Weighing in at 360gm, and about 50cm long, its scientific name means “banana-eater”. It gorges when it finds a productive fruit tree, hanging upside-down if necessary to reach the ripest fruits, especially figs:

The flight feathers are deep crimson, visible in the next photo as it spreads its wings to keep its balance:

or on a short flight to a new branch:

But when it really takes off:

and spreads its wings fully, just look:

The crimson color is produced by an entirely different pigment from the reds of all other bird families, and called appropriately turacin. Hence my title.

Another oddity: it has ‘semi-zygodactylous’ feet: the fourth (outer) toe can be can be brought around to the back of the foot to nearly touch the first toe, or brought the front near the second and third toes. I failed to photograph this!

The Violet Turaco is not endangered and lives across a swathe of West Africa, but it has been little studied. The main threat seems to be the international trade in exotic birds: it is just too spectacular for its own good. In captivity they live a long time. The current record is 37 years.

I end with Herman Schlegel’s 1860 painting of a Turaco for the Royal Zoological Society – also known as Natura Artis Magistra, the oldest zoo in the Netherlands.

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