Battle of the Titans

Male elephants, just like all the other herbivores out there on the plains, enjoy a little jousting match on occasion. April seems to be the time of year when their juices are flowing.


The one on the right is the biggest elephant in this part of the Maasai Mara, known as Number One. He has magnificent tusks, as you can see below:DSC07439

And I am sure you noted the fifth leg on both elephants.

The remaining photographs are a different pair of younger elephants. They face each other, then rush forwards at some speed (as you can see from the flapping ears!) into what I can only call a head bump,

Male elephants jousting, for fun.Male elephants jousting, for fun.

but carefully judging it so that their tusks do no more than gently poke their adversary.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

They often entwine their trunks in a sort of tug of war:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

But it is clear that all this is not serious, and they part as friends:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Finally, and just for scale, here’s a photo of one of this second pair, who came over to check us out:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

[Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream]

Shrikes are smallish birds, with hooked upper beaks like the miniature birds of prey that they are. This one is a Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike, Lanius cabanisi, in the Maasai Mara.

Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike

They eat insects and grubs, like this Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike, Lanius mackinnoni, in the Kakamega Forest: Mackinnon';s foscal shrike with caterpillar.

But although they are no more than 8 inches long, they also go for much bigger prey (same bird, one day earlier):

Mackinnons Fiscal Shrike with fresh mouse that we watched him catch.

We had been watching it sitting motionless on the very top of a bare tree, when suddenly it swooped, and scooped this unfortunate mouse up from the grass below.

They are notorious for their habit of impaling their prey on thorns or sharp twigs, so as to make it easier to tear off convenient-sized bites, and also to create a food cache. A well-stocked cache can also help to attract females. This bird didn’t do this, he/she appeared to be feeding a nestful of young ones somewhere nearby.

PS: My alternative title for this post was Vlad the Impaler.

Blue Monkeys en famille

The Kakamega Forest in northwest Kenya is the last patch of virgin rainforest in the country. It is not far from Eldoret, where the marathoners train at 9000 feet up, and it is of course wet, and sometimes very cold, so the local monkeys have luxuriant thick coats that my camera struggles to focus on.

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Luckily they are fairly used to humans, and one troupe even comes into the grounds of my lodge, Rondo Retreat. These photos are of Stuhlmann’s Blue Monkey, Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii. 

They live high in the canopy, and 50% of their diet is fruit:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

They live in social groups of one male, and lots of females and young:


They have incredibly long tails, but since they are old world monkeys these are not prehensile:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitisThe young are carried under the mother’s’ bellies:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Like other species of Cercopithecus, they have a system of specialized alarm calls, and at one point while I was watching an African Crowned Eagle flew overhead.

African Crowned Eagle. Seen earlier harrassing blue monkeys.

The lookout gave the “eagle” alarm call, and every monkey came scurrying down at high speed from the canopy to the lowest branches, yelping in fear, where they kept their young very close for safety:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

The baby looks remarkably like the 1990’s fad toy, the Furby, described as a cross between a hamster and an owl. Google images of Furbys and see if you agree.


A footnote: The terrible floods after a dam burst in Kenya this week are near Solai, very close to my grandfather’s farm (though downstream). When we were there two weeks ago, we had 4 inches of rain in about two hours, so the ground is completely sodden.

The bouncing Widowbirds

Not being a birder, I had never heard of widowbirds. One day, as we drove through long grass in the Maasai Mara, all around were smallish black birds with long streaming tail feathers, popping up out of the grass then flying low across the plains:

Yellow-mantled widowbird

It turns out these are Jackson’s Widowbirds, and they do a completely insane mating display.  The long tail feathers are grown only by males, and only for the mating season, as is the blue-grey bill. They create a small running track of their own:


Then they run round in a circle, and bounce up into the air, briefly appearing above the grass for all the world as if they had a trampoline underneath. They can jump up to one meter high, and apparently the females pick a male based on how long his tail is and how frequently he jumps.

Jackson's widowbird

He keeps this up until a female arrives, they mate, and then he starts again, such is the urge to spread his genes as far and wide as possible.


The drab brown female, meanwhile, goes off and makes a nest close to the ground in a tiny bush or big tuft of grass. My guide found this invisible nest, containing a single egg:

Jackson's widowbird. Nest with single egg.

There are other widowbirds, but none of them seems to compare with Jackson’s when it comes to dancing prowess. This is a Red-collared Widowbird, also a male with a long breeding tail, up to 22cm in length. Again, females strongly prefer the males with the longest tails.
Red-collared widowbird

Planet Earth II managed to film the Jackson’s Widowbird dance, so you may be able to find it online.

An animal that begins with Aa..

After my last feel-good photos, these pictures are more nitty-gritty.

The things we typically like to photograph, like lions, are the apex predators of a food chain.  Near the bottom is the lowly termite, one species of which builds these mounds, with multiple chimneys.

Termite mound

The workers are rather fearsome close-up:


But they are no match for one of their main enemies, the aardvark, Orycteropus afer. I have never seen a live aardvark, since they are nocturnal and secretive, but here is a photo of one (from a Creative Commons website):


They excavate anthills and termite mounds with huge strong claws, and lick out the ants with a tongue that can extend up to 30cm ( a foot!). This is a fresh aardvark hole under some tree roots (taken in the Kakamega rain forest a few days earlier):

A fresh aardvark excavation under tree roots, looking for ants.

The aardvark, in turn, is food for the lion, and in the Maasai Mara a few days later we came across this sated lioness under a tree; look closely to the left of the photo, and you will see her dinner:


And on close inspection we saw the heavy muscular tail and huge claws of an aardvark:

DSC07319Nature really is “red in tooth and claw.”

Babar in the rain

When it rains, we shelter in our houses, or least under our umbrellas, and some animals and birds hide under trees, overhangs or whatever they can find.  But it’s hard for a full-sized elephant to hide under anything, so they just get on with it. And in the rainy season it can be not only wet, but also cold: I wore a T-shirt, thick shirt, sweatshirt, down vest, down jacket, and raincoat, all at once.

For an elephant, that thick skin has to suffice:

Very wet elephantsBut at least the rains mean good long grass to eat:

Very wet elephants

And when the sun comes out, even the baby perks up:

Very wet elephants

despite the fact that his ears are still a bit wet:

Very wet elephants

To leaven the extreme cuteness of this posting, I feel I should include at least one scientific fact:

In hot dry Namibia, where rain is rare and much to be desired, elephants have been shown to move towards rainstorms that are still 150 miles away. No-one knows quite how they detect them from such huge distances.

The Lofty Ostrich

The ostrich roams the great Sahara.
Its mouth is wide, its neck is narra.
It has such long and lofty legs,
I’m glad it sits to lay its eggs.   (by Ogden Nash)

In the 1920’s in Kenya ostriches were farmed for their plumes, and my grandfather made a not-very-successful stab at this on his farm, hidden in the trees behind the small red roofed house,


and now derelict,


inhabited only by a family with goats:


But wild ostriches flourish in the Maasai Mara. Their scientific name is Struthio camelus, and they do indeed hold their head and neck rather like a camel does. They are the world’s largest bird, standing up to 9 feet tall, and weighing up to 350 lbs.


When you drive past in the Land Rover, they take evasive action by running along ahead of and beside you at up to 43mph, using their wings as rudders to change direction:


and wiggling their bottoms in a sort of dance as they go:


Their legs are extremely powerful, and a kick can kill a man or indeed a lion. This photo shows both the thigh muscles, and the feathers:


And no, they do not stick their heads in the sand!