Dressed for effect

This is breeding season for many birds in the Luangwa valley. In some species, the males have the most astonishing change in plumage at this time of year.  The Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix) is a nondescript brown most of the year, and the poor female remains drab all year long. But look at him now:

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These small birds (14cm long) hop around in the longest new grasses, often near water:

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and weave delicate basket-like nests:

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It amuses me that brilliant scarlet birds often seem to be named after similarly robed clerics or soldiers: Red Bishop, Northern Cardinal, Military Macaw.

“On the banks of the cool Shalimar..”

(This is the first of a series of Zambian posts, all from a glorious rainy season safari to Robin Pope Safaris’ camps Nkwali and Nsefu in the South Luangwa Valley. My guides were Fred, Bertram and Kiki, all hugely knowledgable)

More accurately, the headline should say “On the banks of the cool Luangwa..”, which is hippo heaven right now, when the river is swollen with the rains.  At night they climb onto the banks and graze in the lush grass, and at dawn they return to the river and wallow all day. This one, probably pregnant, was too greedy, and was still out and about in daylight.

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Most of the hippos slide happily down quite steep mudbanks:

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But this one had qualms:

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She walked along, desperate for a way back to the safety of the water, especially with my boat hovering threateningly offshore:

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But it was too big an ask.  Finally, she found a gully where another hippo had preceded her, and wedged herself in:

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For a moment we thought she was stuck, but she squeezed through, and headed for safety:

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with a final tidal wave:

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PS: For those of you who had deprived childhoods and don’t recognize the Flanders and Swann quote in the title, listen to this and all will become clear:

The F words

(After this post I will probably go quiet till March, because I am heading to Zambia today. But when I come back, brace yourselves!)

I am testing my new camera before heading off, so each morning I wander round the Serpentine in Hyde Park.  It is Valentine’s Day as I write this, and clearly Hallmark picked mid-February after watching London’s waterfowl. The males are engaging in two activities that begin with “f”, the first of which is fighting.

Here is a coot, psyching himself up for his joust. Pay attention to the feet, they are his weapons.

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Coots have an amazing technique. They launch themselves out of the water by using one foot as a sort of single waterski:

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and the other foot is then used to karate-kick the adversary in the chest:

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and with luck submerge the poor sod.

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The swans just push each other around and chase their competitors away:

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Then the victor (possibly Zeus in swan’s form?) reaps the spoils (and this is the other word that begins with “f”).

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To calm you down, here is how the greylag geese spend Valentine’s Day: some mutual grooming,  a little cuddle…

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One thing leads to another,

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and the result is a happy gander:

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The upshot of all this is apparent when, outside the café, I almost trip over an Egyptian Goose family (such a cosmopolitan city we live in), recently enlarged by seven new chicks (three of which are still hiding underneath her skirts.)

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After all this excitement, you probably need a rest, so luckily for you there will be two weeks of silence from me..

 

 

Lulu the micropig

You may remember that I went to Shoreditch to draw snakes a couple of months ago?? I had so much fun I went again, this time to a room above a pub not that far from the home of Arsenal football team, to draw a baby micropig called Lulu. Here she is:

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She is much harder to draw than the snakes, because she never stops moving, hence the blurry photos:

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She was very curious, and pretty calm once she got used to being at the centre of a circle of besotted would-be artists.

She was about 8 weeks old, and weighed about 3Kg. She may grow up to be as big as 50lbs, or 23 Kg, so although I rather covet her as my emotional support animal, she will be a little large for those long-distance flights. And think carefully before considering one as a pet…

This was my best attempt:

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I will let her say goodbye in person (and notice that like wild pigs her tail is straight rather than curly):

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”
Pooh:  “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

A.A. Milne

The Kites and the Swans: Present Blessings

The Kites and the Swans, from Aesop’s Fables (6th century BC)

The kites of old time had, equally with the swans, the privilege of song. But having heard the neigh of the horse, they were so enchanted with the sound that they tried to imitate it; and, in trying to neigh, they forgot how to sing.

Moral: The desire for imaginary benefits often involves the loss of present blessings.

Here in England the BBC have been broadcasting Winterwatch from Sherborne, my village.  They have shown us stoats in ermine, badgers collecting nest materials, and hawfinches in the yews by the church. I have failed to photograph (or even see) any of these, but the local National Trust Chief Ranger, Mike Robinson, told me where to find the winter roost of the red kites.

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So down I went at dusk to a small copse next to the water meadow, and sure enough there were dozens of them circling overhead coming in to roost. Here is a somewhat unexciting photo of something that made my heart soar too:

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Back by the weir, the swans do not seem to feel the cold:

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But I suspect their huge black rubber feet need to warm up from time to time, so out they come onto the banks, ready to defend their patch against all comers, or at least against me:

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Then back to the water:

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“The wild duck startles like a sudden thought… “

This photo reminded me of the line from John Clare (1793-1864) that I have used as my title:

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The Sherbrooke used to be home to many over-wintering waterfowl, but in recent years there has been less open water because of silting and aquatic plants. Some clearing this year has given us back more open water this winter:

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so I thought I would show you a couple of photos. One is a year-round resident, the coot, and at this time of year the males start jousting for territory:

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The other is a winter resident, the wigeon. There are only about 400 nesting pairs in the UK, where they nest up in the North of England and Scotland. But in the winter there are about 440,000 birds, most of whom return to breed in Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. This photo shows a male and a female.

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They come in flocks, and feed both in the water and on grass:

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Because there are large numbers of winter birds at only a few sites, their UK conservation status is Amber, so it is terrific to have them in Sherborne.

In past years we have also had tufted ducks, but this year I have only seen the odd pair.

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There is a reason children play with rubber ducks and not rubber geese: ducks just ooze charm.

Good neighbours

Trees do not waste their energy growing branches and twigs whose leaves will not reach the sunlight. In this little grove of trees, the two on the left and right edges have put all their efforts into growing branches on the exterior of the clump, and almost none in the middle. The trees in the middle have simply grown straight up, adding twigs and leaves at the top.  As a result, the entire copse has the same shape as a single tree growing all alone in the middle of a field, and each individual tree gets a decent share of the solar power.

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It somehow reminds me of Indian dancers with many arms:

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[Photo credit: By Will Folsom [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

In writing this, it occurred to me that English has many names for a small group of trees: coppice, copse, spinney, stand, grove. I chose “grove”, “clump”, and “copse”, just for variety.  Unsurprisingly, we also have lots of names for rain: shower, drizzle, downpour, deluge, .. and indeed for coffee.