Leopards Redux

[I hope you enjoyed your break from my blog posts, and the first 2020 posts’s 7000 mile detour back to Maine. I am not quite done with leopards, though. No self-discipline, really.]

This leopard in the Serengeti had two teenage cubs, and they were returning from hunting early one morning. She rubbed herself against an overhanging tree to scent-mark her territory, sniff another leopard’s scent, or maybe just scratch an itch:


Then she moved towards a large rock formation, where she had stashed the kill:


This shot gives a better sense of the rocky outcrops the leopards  favor; they are the perfect place from which to mount an ambush of an unwary passing prey animal:


And here is the mother again, posing like a 1930’s Hollywood starlet, except that this coat is truly hers :


A different leopard, but I couldn’t resist the Eartha Kitt vibe:


The IUCN classifies the leopard as Vulnerable, and the fur trade is one major threat to their survival. Apart from international buyers, local people use the skins as ceremonial garb, so a project is trying to encourage the use of synthetic furs instead, and seems to be having a surprising amount of success:


Still,  I yearn for the days when there was a balance between wildlife survival and local traditions, undistorted by the outside demand for skins.


A not-so-happy New Year: a hawk strikes

[This has to be done today, I feel, even though I am in the midst of an African series of posts. Normal service will resume soon. And Happy New Year! ]

On New Year’s Eve in Maine we were in the midst of a two day snowstorm that brought us 12 glorious inches of pristine snow for 2020. As soon as it ended, I went for a final snowshoe of 2019. There are old apple trees behind my barn,


with last fall’s fruit still hanging on the higher branches, and on the ground underneath.


These are a magnet to a variety of animals, like this deer who had walked by some time earlier, while the snow was still falling fast*:


Back to the tree: beneath the boughs I found the debris of a life and death struggle.  From a distance, here is what I saw.


It was a recent incident;  the snow had only tapered off in the past hour, and these crisp marks had been made after it stopped. The story begins with the round disturbance at the top right, then the drag marks, leading to the denouement at the bottom left.

This is a close-up of the top right: look at the circular wing marks.


A hawk* has dropped down from the tree onto some small victim, and in fact you can see where the bird disturbed the snow on the branch of the tree above, as she perched in wait:


Having grabbed her victim, there is a short tussle as she gets a good grip and drags it leftwards.

The mouse or vole would have been under the snow, and she would have located it by ear.  A single tiny smear of blood part-way along the drag marks was the only evidence of violence.


Then here is a close-up of the final left-most disturbance: she lifts the rodent up,  and takes off, mouse-tail dragging across the snow, and her wingtips just grazing the snow in the top left-hand corner.


One tiny mammal that never made it to 2020.

* I’m pretty sure the earlier pair of tracks are just deer tracks coming and going, at different speeds. The following morning 20 feet away I found fresh tracks with the gait pattern like the ones on the left in the earlier picture, with the same roughly 5 foot stride, and a clear deer imprint in the bottom of each:


**I can’t be sure what type of hawk this was. The hunting method is typical of a Broad-winged Hawk, but they don’t over-winter round here. Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks have both been seen in the general area this December, so it could have been one of these, but Cooper’s Hawks prefer small birds as prey. There’s a small chance that it was an owl, not a hawk.  Barred Owls overwinter in Maine, and occasionally hunt in the daytime.  If anyone can be more definitive, let me know.


“The leopard lurketh..”*

[Regular readers will I hope forgive me for another leopard post, and indeed it will not be the last. But I’m taking a break now for the holidays, and will be back in January.]

Leopards are solitary denizens of the secret places. Rock piles, thick brushy woodland, overhanging limbs high in an acacia. Quite unlike lions, who will casually lounge around in groups in the open grasslands.

So leopards are harder to see, unless the Ruaha evening light provides a convenient silhouette.


This young female watched us suspiciously from high in the tree, trying to decide if it was safe to stay or safer to come down and leave the area:


That elegant tail is not just decorative.  It acts as a counterweight when climbing, and when dragging its kill up into the tree.

After a while the leopard returned to her high perch, draped languidly over a branch:


but without taking her eyes off us:


Their concealing habitats are places to hide their prey, which they drag into bushes and up trees where the much larger lions and hyenas are unlikely to find it (or them).

Leopard eat a huge range of animals, including tricky things like porcupines, and under certain circumstances they will even kill and eat other leopards. This rather grisly video was filmed in the Serengeti this year:


*My title is from Jeremiah 5,6 the Darby Bible version published in 1890. 

Goliath Heron: Champion of the World

Such a name to live up to!  The Goliath Heron Ardea goliath, is the largest living heron. It stands 5 feet high, nearly as tall as me. Its wingspan can reach 7ft 6in (my arm-span is only 5ft 4in, about the same as my height).

Goliath Heron

They stalk the shallows or the weedy banks, moving with a stately, ponderous gait. They are largely solitary, and because of their size they have few predators.

This one struck at a tempting mouthful, but missed, and then in embarrassment at such a public failure, he did a sort of shimmy, stuck out his elbows and and fluffed up his gorgeous feathers:

Goliath Heron

And tried again, to no avail.

Their huge size means they can catch and, eventually, eat very large fish. Watch this video, but be warned it takes a LONG time to swallow its humongous catfish :

They have a variety of calls, described rather wonderfully by www.oiseaux-birds.com as “similar to raucous barks of an old dog. Its calls include croaks, squawks, growls and gurgles. They are mostly silent outside breeding season.” I could only find one recording, made when the bird was flying overhead in South Africa:

Happily, they are not endangered, and are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The Spiderman Lizard

Agamas, or dragon lizards, are a family of lizard species widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. Some have spectacular coloring. The Mwanza Flat-Headed Rock Lizard, Agama mwanzae, has acquired the nickname of the Spider-Man Lizard: one look at this male, and you will see why:

Mwanza Flat-headed rock agama.or Spiderman agama. Male.

For purposes of comparison his namesake can be seen here:


Agamas are insectivorous, and the male is usually the flamboyant one. Here is a male of a different but related species, the Red-headed Rock Agama, Agama agama, who seems to have mistaken this tree for a tall thin rock:

Red-headed rock agama

And this is a male blue-headed Southern Rock Agama (Agama atra) , which I saw in Uganda a few years ago. This is their breeding coloration.

Agama lizard

In all of these species, the females are rather dull!

The closest relatives of agamas are chameleons, famous for their ability to change color.

The Great Migration 2

[This Thanksgiving, count your blessings: at least you are not a wildebeest.]

When the herd gets close to the bank, their momentum stalls. They mill around, grazing and pondering, waiting for an alpha female, or the wisdom of crowds, to take matters in hand and lead the way. This can take hours or even days, and sometimes they think better of it and retrace their steps for a day or so.


Eventually, the bravest sets off down the steep bank:


and begins to cross:


Speed is of the essence, so they launch themselves into the water with panache:


Until there is a milling, splashing traffic jam heading to the farther shore:


But the sense of urgency has a cause:


Some find this out the hard way. These three sequential photos show a female being slowly dragged down , while her calf watched from the safety of the destination bank:



Difficult to watch though this is, orphaned calves are usually adopted by the herd, so the calf will probably survive.

The heart-wrenching drama of a wildebeest mother lost to a crocodile is the tip of the iceberg: for every one of these, about fifty simply drown. At the peak of the migration the herds can be so large that they cannot get up the far bank before the next wave pushes in behind them, and mass drownings of 100 or more wildebeest happen several times a year. Click on this interesting article, which explains that even this tragedy has a silver lining: the carcasses both feed scavengers and enrich the waters:


P.S. In September and October, there is good grazing on both sides of the Mara River, and the wildebeest may criss-cross in both directions multiple times. Hard to believe it is worth it.

The Great Migration 1

The Great Migration is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. 1.5 million wildebeest, 500,000 Thompson’s  and Grant’s gazelles and 250,000 zebra follow the seasonal rains and fresh grass in a huge circle through Tanzania and Kenya. This map shows where they are month-by-month (though there is huge variation in timing  from year to year); we went to the Northern Serengeti in September and October, for reasons that will become clear!


In an earlier post I showed you a herd composed largely of zebra, but the real spectacle are the Blue Wildebeest, Connochaetes taurinus, the largest antelope. At this time of year the herds are composed of adults, with the males weighing as much as 640lbs, with horns up to 33″ long:


This sub-species is also called the White-bearded Wildebeest, C. t. albojubatus, for obvious reasons: the one below is young, its horns have not yet grown their swooping curves, but its hipster-ish white beard is already present.


But the herds also include teenagers, some still nursing. They won’t be weaned for 6-9 months.


They pause to graze, searching for phosphorus-rich grasses:


Then they move on, threads of them crossing the landscape like ants:*


But sometimes their onward surge is blocked by a natural barrier, most famously the Mara River, a deceptively benign looking stretch of water:


Next time, we shall see the challenge that it poses …

* The balloon in the photo looks tempting, but they are controversial because they often violate park regulations by flying too low, so that the noise of their hot air burners disturbs the animals. We passed.