Purplish Pink parasite

June in England is wildflower time. Even very ordinary flowers are exquisite in closeup, like this clover:

DSC00295And this vetch:


There is one particular field in Sherborne where every year I find this rather interesting orchid-like flower, the Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor. These were about 20cm tall, and the flowers are about 15mm long.


Common Broomrape

It is not an orchid, and it has no chlorophyll, so it can’t photosynthesize. Instead, it is a parasite on other plants, including both clover and vetch. The fine roots of the broomrape penetrate the larger roots of the host, reaching the vascular tissue. They usually severely hurt the host plant, and can be a major problem for farmers. In the USA, it is federally listed as a noxious weed, and banned.

The whole broomrape plant is covered in globular hairs,

Common Broomrape

The hairs are thought to serve the purpose of discouraging ants and other non-flying (and thus non-pollinating) insects from stealing the nectar. In these two photos you can see insects that have become entangled in the hairs: here’s one


and this one:


The burgundy stigma has two bulbous ends, and curves downwards, so an entering insect (usually a bee)  can’t avoid brushing its back up against it, and transferring pollen.

Common Broomrape

Once pollinated, they produce huge numbers of tiny seeds, which are disseminated by the wind, and washed down into the soil when it rains. If they make contact with the root of a potential host plant they germinate, insert their tiny root into the host, and the whole cycle restarts.

PS: The name ‘broomrape’ comes from the broom plant, a common host for broomrape, and the Latin word ‘rapum’, which means root or tuber.  

The early bird catches the bee…

I have a few more delights to show you from my February trip to Zambia.

The Carmine Bee-eaters, for which the Luangwa Valley is famous, had not yet arrived for the season, but there are 27 different species of bee-eater, 20 of which live in Africa, and several others were there already. They more than made up for it.

This is a Little Bee-eater, Merops pusillus:

Little bee eater

It is the smallest African bee-eater, under 20g in weight. This was perched only about a meter off the ground, their preferred hunting perch. It is definitely not threatened: their population is estimated at up to 80 million! When they catch a bee, they bash it on the ground to remove the sting before eating it.

And this is a White-fronted Bee-eater, Merops bullockoides,  (actually two of them), high in a tree by the river:

White-fronted bee eater

They are larger than the Little Bee-eater, about 35gm, and more social. They nest in riverbank colonies composed of several clans. Each clan has a single breeding pair, and several other adults (mainly last year’s brood) who are ‘helpers’ in incubating and feeding the young. This cooperative breeding behavior is also found in wild dogs and in wolves. Seems like an excellent model for family life, and one that human society now all too rarely follows.

Fleeting fame, and a spider

[A week or so ago I did a post about the grass snake and the moorhen chicks. It turns out the BBC Springwatch team had been thinking of doing a piece on snakes, so they decided they now had an excuse, a Sherborne connection. To my great delight they used my Barred Grass Snake shot, repeated below, to introduce the piece. You are now reading the work of someone with BBC wildlife credentials!]


This weekend I tried to interest the TV crew in a series of new photos showing a spider carefully wrapping up a mayfly sub-imago all ready for grocery delivery, then hauling it towards its hideaway, where it settled in to drink it. So far, I am afraid they have politely said it is a great piece of animal behavior, but shown no signs of giving me screen time again!

I found the predator and prey hanging from a thread in mid air along a fence near the brook. The spider had already bundled up one wing. If you look very carefully you can just see the strands of silk emerging from the spinnerets.

DSC00139Now it set about bundling up the other wing.

It also had to take care of the tail.

DSC00196Once the bundle was complete, it ran a cable horizontally from a nearby fencepost, and then hauled it over.



Finally, time for dinner, twelve minutes from when I took the first photograph.


And in the morning, what was left was just a husk, still being guarded by the spider from its lair:


A living breathing phoenix

[We are sort of moved in to our new flat, but I am not yet organized enough to write a new post.  This was was written a few weeks ago  after I got back from Kenya, and has been waiting in the wings, so to speak.]

I always thought the phoenix was a mythological bird, but I have just met one.

The Secretarybird is a most unusual bird of prey. It is a terrestrial raptor, and it is in a family all on its own, the Sagittaridae (my star sign). Widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, it is a large bird up to 1.3m (4 feet) high, enabling  it to hunt in the long grass:


Although mainly terrestrial, it roosts and nests on the top of acacia trees, and flies up when disturbed: you can just glimpse the very long stiff central tail feathers (and I learnt a new word in researching this: they are called retrices.)


And here is an image of a phoenix from a book by Joachim Camerarius (1534-1598), surely inspired by a Secretarybird!


The Secretarybird’s scientific name, Sagittarius serpentarius, alludes to one of its favorite foods, snakes, which it kills by stomping them with its powerful long lower limbs.


This is a great video of that stomping kick in action:


Its beak makes short work of snakes, mice, lizards young birds, and of course insects.


The name Secretarybird may have come from the long dark feathers on the back of the head, which apparently reminded 18th century scholars of the quill pens that (male) secretaries put behind their ears. I prefer to think of this magnificent bird as being a Secretary of State, a holder of high office, rather than a lowly office worker. It is the national emblem of Sudan:



The Cheetah: Offspring of the wind

This is my last post from our Halsey Street house: today we move to a much smaller flat, close to a wonderful overgrown Victorian cemetery, where I have hopes of finding some wildlife in due course. For now, though, I am not yet done with Kenya!

The Maasai Mara has a relatively high density of cheetahs, but there are still only 1.28 cheetahs per 100 sq.km.* The grasslands stretch for miles, and the grass is very high in April, so they are hard to see.


After a day and half of searching, we stopped on a rise for a better view, and to use the binoculars. Then, in the far distance Lemeria saw one, helpfully reclining on top of a rock, with a full belly, having a good groom:



That wide-bridged nose, above,  contains extra-large nasal passages for their bursts of speed. They can only sustain a sprint for 30 seconds before having to rest to catch their breath, but they reach up to 70 mph.

They have an impressive-looking set of teeth, below, but in fact their teeth are not nearly as large and powerful as a lion’s, and they can only kill their prey by biting the neck to suffocate the animal. You can see the carnassial teeth, which are modified molars or premolars which are adapted to allow for the shearing (rather than tearing) of flesh to permit the more efficient consumption of meat.


After a while, the cheetah got up:


And wandered slowly towards some distant trees in search of a shady spot for a nap. He strolled past a herd of elephants, then off into the golden grass.



* The density estimate is based on recent work by Femke Broekhuis, of Oxford University’s Mara Cheetah project.

Postscript: I couldn’t  resist including this extract, from which my title is stolen:

“The poets and eloquent ones have excelled in their descriptions of cheetahs, both in poetry and prose. For example, this hunting epistle by Abu Ishaq al-Sabı:

“We had with us cheetahs darting like lightning, faster than arrows loosed at a deserter, more intelligent than lions, more cunning than foxes, stealthier than scorpions, lank-hipped and empty-bellied, dappled of frame. Red-cornered slits for eyes, open mouths, broad brows and wide necks, baring teeth like spear heads. The cheetah spies the gazelle at great distance, knows its sounds, tracks its droppings and resting places, scents its musk.”

“Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Siraj described it thus:

Snarling mouth and paw possess
Cutting swords and slender spears
Night and day both claim a share of it
Cloaked in its pebble-printed garment
And the sun, ever since they nicknamed it the gazelle
Has risen over this watcher with dread.

“Ibn al-Muʿtazz said:

It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground

It clings to the neck of its prey

Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear

From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.

Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.

Scavenger hunt

Whether Cotswolds or Kenya, the Great Cycle of Life goes on.

Although we may recoil, scavengers are a really important part of our ecosystem. Without them, carcasses would lie and rot, and, quite apart from the unpleasantness, nutrients would  take much longer to return to the system for re-use.

Hyenas are frequently the first to arrive after a lion kill. This is the Spotted Hyena, with a short snout like a pitbull’s.

Spotted Hyena

They are in fact predators as well as scavengers, frequently hunting wildebeest, zebra, and Thompson’s Gazelles, like this one.

Thompson's Gazelle

Lemeria told me that hyenas are the main scourge of the local Maasai cattle. If they get inside the protective boma at night they kill indiscriminately, far more than they can possibly eat, whereas lions apparently kill efficiently, just what they need for dinner.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws and teeth. They can crunch through large bones, and can also digest the bones, so their scat is largely a white powder. This plastic bottle has been chewed by a hyena, who use them like kids chew gum. They always chew the end that people have drunk out of, because of the human scent. (This was the only piece of litter I saw in the entire Mara Conservancy, and I did wonder if my guide had planted it!)


Vultures are the iconic scavengers, coming along after the lions and hyenas have done, if anything is still left. But even they have family lives.  This mother White-backed Vulture is sitting on her eggs, and giving us a beady eye.

White-backed Vulture on nest

After everything nutritious seems finished, some remnants still remain. These buffalo horns have now become home for a species of moth that bores holes in the horns, and lays its eggs in them. The larvae feed on the keratin of which the horns are made, and the muddy tubes are their larval cases, made out of their own cemented excreta.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

From these cases emerge the adult Horn Moths, Ceratophaga vastella, members of the clothes moth family.

A sort of fly builds these mud tubes for its larvae on dead horns

It is hardly surprising that their close relatives make short work of a soft cashmere sweater.

PS: In a reversal of the roles we are familiar with, lions are also known to scavenge the hyenas’ kills, and since they are much larger than the hyena they can drive them off the kill. Hyenas only prevail if they outnumber the lions at least 4 to 1.

PPS: I did look for a poem about the Horn Moth, but oddly without success!


The Great Cycle of Life in the Cotswolds

Just for a moment, back to England, where the BBC are currently setting up to broadcast Springwatch from our village next week. After a long cold spring, we have had a glorious spell of sunshine, and the first mayfly sub-imagos are hatching:

DSC09562Here is a close-up from last year:

Mayfly, sub-imago, also called a dun.

The mayflies, who have a short life but hopefully a happy one, risk being eaten by the omnivorous moorhens:


but the moorhens must be forgiven because they have chicks to feed:



Lurking nearby, this three-foot long Barred Grass Snake swam across the stream and slithered into the reeds where the moorhen nest lies concealed:


Here it is in closeup, and a baby moorhen would be an excellent dinner:


I was told by a neighbor that there were four chicks, but I only saw three. One may have been hiding, or one may have already fallen prey to the snake.

The snake is non-venomous, and usually lives in and around water. It is a protected species in the UK. Interestingly, in August 2017 it was recognized, on the basis of DNA analysis,  to be distinct from the Common Grass Snake Natrix natrix. It is now agreed to be the Barred Grass Snake, Natrix helvetica. It lacks the yellow collar of the Common Grass Snake, and any instances of the collared varieties in the UK are now thought to be from imports. Still, it seems to me to have a collar: what do you think??