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.”

A night in the life of three lion cubs (and their mother). Part 1 : Waking up in the Mara

Back to Africa for a couple of weeks of blogs. My camp Saruni Wild was in the Lemek Conservancy, one of several Maasai conservancies that adjoin the Maasai Mara National Park. These lions are part of the eponymous Lemek Pride

The rhythm of a lion’s “day” is out of sync with ours. They wake up in the late afternoon, hunt and eat at night, and go back to sleep once the sun rises. These first photos were taken one evening starting around 4.30pm. In Part 2: Bedtime on on a full stomach the photos were taken the next morning from about 6am.

The cubs are 3 or 4 months old, and still nursing at least occasionally:

The mother-cub bond is still extremely close:

Their mother will only have brought them out into the open fairly recently, so our vehicle is unfamiliar and a heady mix of fascinating:

and scary, though there is always one braver the the others:

Our proximity doesn’t stop them chasing each other,

and venturing away from their mother to explore:

A rocky field offers great terrain for ambush :

and wrestling:

The rules of the game also do not preclude pouncing on your mother:

or grabbing her by the neck:

It is all play, but it is also good practice for hunting, as is hiding in the long grass (look at the top left of the photo below)

A stick is the next best thing to a bone, and thus worth fighting over:

During most of this, if you look closely their claws are sheathed, but every now and again they appear, a glimpse of their budding weaponry. And the teeth are growing fast too.

As dusk fell, we left them to it and returned to camp for a G&T.

Housing House Wrens

Last fall I bought a lovely gourd from a local farm, to decorate my doorstep. By mistake, I left it out all winter, and come spring it was hard and dry. So I googled “How to make a bird house”, landed on , and this was the result (my son drilled the big 1 1/4″ inch hole, I did the rest!). I hung it from some bushes near my vegetable garden, where I could see it, and waited.

As you can see, to my delight a pair of House Wrens, Troglodytes aedon, moved in, and this is their story. As you enjoy these photos, remember that the nest-hole is only 1 1/4 inch in diameter !

It was quickly clear there were young inside, and both adults came every few minutes with food.

They brought a huge range of delicacies. A bright orange grub or pupa:

a grasshopper:

which fought an unsuccessful rearguard action:


a rather large spider:

(They brought two of these in quick succession!).

Also moths:

some of which were the awful Spongy Moth, of which see my footnote!

bright green caterpillars

and other things I can’t identify:

On one occasion she excelled herself by bringing in two bugs in a single delivery, albeit rather small ones:

After handing over the food, the parent usually went back into the nest for a diaper (nappy!) change. Baby birds’ excretions come packaged in a convenient membrane called a fecal sac (oh, how I wish human babies had the same tradition) and the adult just picks it up and carries it off:

They had a sort of musical routine. They flew in to the clump of bushes, and made a call. Then they moved to a closer branch and called again. Sometimes it took more than one of these rest-stops, but eventually they moved to the branch the nest was hanging from, and called again. and then they launched themselves, landed very briefly on the tiny perch I had thoughtfully provided for them, and then leant in and proffered the morsel.

The “perch-to-mouth” time frame was usually only a second, unless the prey fought back.

For most of the time I was watching the nest, the actual young were invisible, deep inside their appropriately womb-like gourd. But one day they peeked out:

There were in fact three, glimpsed but not photographed. They got braver:

and braver:

and braver

Until one morning I photographed this one gripping the edge of the nest, poised to conquer the world:

I left for two hours, and when I came back, they were gone, launched, fledged. Well done those parents.

PS House Wrens are really tiny, and very successful. Adults weigh about 10 to 12 g (0.35 to 0.42 oz). are 11 to 13 cm (4.3 to 5.1 in) long, with a 15 cm (5.9 in) wingspan.  They are found the full length of the Americas, from Canada to southernmost South America, and are the most widely distributed native bird in the Americas

PPS One of their catches was a Spongy Moth, Lymantria dispar, and I cheered. Formerly known as Gypsy Moth, they came from Europe, and they erupt in locust-like infestations that last several years. Right now they are stripping our trees down to skeletons. Much as I love nature, they are stretching the limits of my tolerance. If you can bear to read about them, here you are

Beavers in June: just hanging, and mudding

In June beavers have a banquet of soft green leafy things and succulent roots to eat. They tend to eat less in the way of woody stuff (twigs and cambium), and they move around their territory, browsing. If the dam needs repairs, they take care of it.

My beavers have been behaving somewhat differently. In early morning and late afternoon they have been sitting on a tiny island just behind their lodge, munching on what looks like twigs and logs. As a result, I have been privileged to watch them out of the water, a rarity (remember, they are largely nocturnal, and only leave the water when they have to).

I have seen two together, mutually grooming,

and clearly very affectionate

and while I was watching these two there was a distant tail slap, so there must be a third one around.

They were coming and going. This one was swimming around my kayak yesterday afternoon:

Not very scared, but curious:

When they were back at the lodge, they would either swim up with a mouthful of mud and gunk, or do a short dive and then surface with the mud supplies:

then climb up the lodge and plaster it on top:

Sometimes they just seemed to take a rest:

then back to more mudding:

Then off to find more.

I am wondering if there might be young in the lodge. They are born in May and June, venturing out after only two weeks or so. Typically they would be cared for by both parents, and also last year’s young, which would explain the trio, and their tendency to stay close to the lodge and keep it in good repair.

So I waited till now, mid-July, in the hope of seeing young ones, but no such luck. The adults are around, slapping their tails, but either the young are a figment of my wishful thinking, or they are only allowed out at night. Time to send out this post.

“..vast parrots as red as new carrots..”*

Growing up in England, birds were not my thing. There is a reason that I first got interested in birds in Africa. A lot of them are brightly colored, and in the dry season the trees drop their leaves and the birds are visible.

This is a male African Orange-bellied Parrot, Poicephalus rufiventris:

The orange continues under his wings:

Even his eyes are orange and the underside of his tail is bright green:

The female lacks the orange belly, but she still has the green belly feathers.

Another orange and green bird is the tiny Fischer’s Lovebird:

Orange, but no green this time, is the Red-and-Yellow Barbet (not a parrot, but just as brightly colored):

There are two in this shot:

Even the misleadingly named Brown (or Meyer’s) Parrot is dazzling when seen from below. These two in Tanzania are feasting on baobab flowers.

It is all much more exciting than the world of Little Brown Jobs, or LBJ’s, as birders rudely call the dowdier birds of temperate climes.

*PS My title is a quote from Edward Lear, of limerick fame, who was also an accomplished artist whose parrot paintings rivaled Audubon’s. He drew them from life at London Zoo, and wrote a letter to a friend including this poem, which I recommend reading aloud for the full rhythmic effect:

“Now I go to my dinner,
For all day I’ve been a-
way at the West End,
Painting the best end 
Of some vast Parrots
As red as new carrots,—
(They are at the museum,—
When you come you shall see ‘em,—)
I do the head and neck first;
—And ever since breakfast,
I’ve had one bun merely!
So—yours quite sincerely.”

As far as I can tell, he didn’t paint any of the specific parrots in this blog, but here is one of his scarlet macaw, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard.,

Warts and all..

Common Warthogs, Phacochoerus africanus, are not the most glamorous of animals. The warthog character in The Lion King movie is called Pumbaa, which means “foolish” in Swahili. But I have a soft spot for them, and if you read on you will discover that so do some mongoose.

Omnipresent in Africa, when startled they run around with their tails in the air like mini flagpoles. This one had just erupted from its underground burrow, just behind it in the shot.


When they feed, they often shuffle along on their knees:

They love wallowing in mud to cool off and kill ticks. Look at the watermark on these two young males practicing their fighting skills.

This one has been wallowing, and is now having a good scratch, first one side, then its bottom, then the other side:

The males are mainly solitary, but when the female is in season, she may be followed around by several males. On this occasion her suitor failed to impress:

An adult male is formidable: he can weigh up to 330lbs (though 250lbs is more usual), and his tusks can be up to a foot long. The smaller lower tusks are razor sharp from constant rubbing against the upper tusks. They get their name from the giant growths on the faces of the males:

There are a total of four of these growths: two below the eyes, and two smaller ones further down. Although they look like warts, they are actually lumps of thickened skin.

In Uganda a number of years ago there was a resident warthog at one of the lodges that had bonded with a family of striped mongoose.


They look as though they are nursing:

but in fact I think that they were eating small insects from her skin, a mutually beneficial relationship, and judging by her blissed-out expression every bit as good as going to the spa.

The Northern Kenyan warthogs on my most recent trip are a particular species, the desert warthog, Phacochoerus aethiopicus, found only here and in Sudan. The tips of the ears curl back , and the “warts” are hook shaped, as you can see on this big male:

PS In Africa safari guides talk of the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard) but there are also the Ugly Five: warthog, hyena, vulture, wildebeest, marabou stork. It seems a little mean!

Orb-weaver extraordinaire

[Taking a break from Africa, a story from my garden in Maine.]

From time to time I am lucky enough to watch a spider mother setting up her nursery. This small spider, the Six-spotted Orb Weaver, Arianella displicata, is related to the Cucumber Spider. She is 4-8mm long, and highly skilled! In this shot she is upside down, but the photo is taken from below, and you can see the six black spots at the end of her abdomen.

She has laid her eggs, and enclosed them in a golden net .

Now the spider is cabling the edge of the grapevine leaf so it curls over to shelter the egg sac;

Look carefully at the lower part of the photo above and you can see that she has also spun an orb web, to catch her dinner. The silk is emerging from her spinnerets, the blackish orifice on the underside of her abdomen:

Three hours later I came back to see what she was up to, and this is what I found:

She had caught a Rose Chafer in her orb web. It is much bigger than she is, but that did not stop her tucking in:


Luckily for the Rose Chafer population, the survival of the species had been ensured the previous day on a nearby chive flower:

The night after the spider wove her web there was heavy rain, and the next morning she and her egg sac were still there, but the orb web and Rose Chafer had gone, and the cables that were holding the curled leaf had snapped. But she was still guarding her eggs, patting down the egg sac.

She was also showing me her face with its six eyes, four black dots in the center and one to each side. (The number and arrangement of the eyes is another clue to identifying spider species.)

PS The golden crêche created by the spider reminds me of the spun-sugar cage of a croquembouche as created by a master pastry chef. Here is a spectacular example from the website

Only a few humans can do this, but every Arianella mother can.

The hunting jackals

Black-backed Jackals, I had always thought, are scavengers, feeding off the carcasses killed by lions.This one in Namibia is feeding on an oryx carcass (the jackal is immediately behind the carcass, and the oryx horns are in the left foreground).

If you pushed me, I might have guessed that they also hunt tiny things like mice. All true, but it turns out they have bigger fish to fry (wrong metaphor, I admit.)

After a few hours of game watching in the Maasai Mara, we had paused for breakfast on a rise looking out over the huge grassy plain, filled with gazelle, impala, zebra and buffalo (this picture looks in the opposite direction, but I thought you’d like to see what breakfast was like!):

Two jackals were prowling around in the far distance. Suddenly Tinka, my guide, jumped to his feet and said “Oh my goodness, they’ve just killed that baby gazelle”, and hurriedly started to pack up our breakfast and load the truck. We drove at headlong speed across the plain, and sure enough, the jackals had got a newborn gazelle, its fur still wet and curly:

They argued over who got what,


and then they started a tug-of-war:

Here is a short video:

They eventually tore it in two, and the winner got the head:

She carried it off into the long grass strewn with small white flowers that seemed as though they were scattered in mourning for the tiny life cut short.

Ravel’s music, Pavane pour une infante defunte, though written for an infanta not an infant, still feels right, here played by Ravel himself.

PS The flowers are Cycnium adonense, the White Blotting Paper Flower, with delicate floppy petals.

Rhino uncut

I have seen black rhino, Diceros bicornis, once before, in Namibia, but their horns had been clipped off to protect them from poaching. In Kenya, though, I saw them in their untampered and intimidating state. I saw them in Lewa Downs in Laikipia, and also in Nairobi National Park, both of which have excellent anti-poaching programs, and healthy populations of these enormous animals.

Here is a fully grown male, with a vehicle in the background, for scale:

They can reach 4000 pounds ( 1400Kg). The females are a little smaller, but still substantial:

Even the calf is big enough to think twice about:

They have two horns, the front one is the longer of the two:

Unless your name is Sonya, in which case the back one is the longer one:

The presence of a youngster shows that this unusual arrangement has not stopped some male finding her appealing! It remains to be seen which parent will determine how her baby’s horns develop.

Although they sometimes eat grass, their mouths are designed for browsing, with a pointed hooked upper lip which allows them to delicately strip leaves off bushes:

White rhino, Ceratotherium simum, by contrast, are grazers, and have wide square mouths designed for hoovering up large amounts of grass.

The white rhino are even larger than the blacks, with males weighing up to 55oolbs.

Returning to the Black Rhino, they have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing. Their tube-shaped ears can rotate in all directions:

They remind me of miniature ear-trumpets, and are every bit as effective.

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