Painted Dogs III (the last dog post!)

After their abortive hunt, the dogs ended up widely dispersed. They slowly reassembled at their original starting point, and as each small group met other dogs, they greeted each other. In this photo the two in the foreground are being greeted by four others.

Wild dogs

These social rituals are central to the pack’s cohesion.

Wild dogs

After a while, they decided to set off in a new direction. No-one really knows how these group decisions are reached, but the pack only all follow once one of the alpha pair sets off. It is now thought that sneezes are among the subtle signals they use to coordinate their movements, using a quorum system where movements start once the number of sneezes reaches a certain threshold.

Wild dogs

After five minutes, they saw impala in the distance:

Wild dogs

In fact there was not one but two impala (look carefully at the next photo), and they proved to be the dogs’ Achilles heels, because the pack split, and both attempts failed.

Wild dogs

These two hunts took place within half an hour of each other. They obviously went on trying, because next morning we found them some distance away, fast asleep with full stomachs.

Wild dogs

Two days later, we followed a single wild dog who was trotting in the opposite direction to some fleeing impala, and he was heading towards a group of vultures. Underneath we found a freshly killed and already devoured impala. There was still blood on the grass, and stomach contents on the sand.  The pack eat on the spot as soon as they kill, usually polishing off an impala in about 20 minutes. We were too late to see them eating.

A final yawn, and next time, I promise to move on to another topic!


[PS: There is a terrific conservation organization in Zambia collecting data on the collaborative large carnivores (lions and wild dogs). If you are interested, here is their website ]

Painted Dogs II

As it gets cooler at the end of the day, the dogs start to stir.

Wild dogs

They wander around, greet each other, stretch, and start to pay attention to the surrounding wildlife. They hunt at least once a day, running down their prey at speeds of up to 35 m.p.h. in chases as long as 3 miles. Their main prey is impala, but they will tackle larger animals such as kudu and wildebeest.

Wild dogs

Once they see a prospect, they all point towards it:

Wild dogs

And then they are off:

Wild dogs

At this point they were moving so fast away from me I put down my camera and just watched. They are very successful hunters, 80% of their hunts result in a kill, but the kills are rarely seen because they run so fast and so far they can’t easily be followed. This time around, however, they failed.

Next time: regrouping for a second attempt.

Painted Dogs I

African Wild Dogs are for me almost mythical creatures. Secretly, this whole trip was really focussed on a burning desire to  see them in the wild. To my great delight, I spent a day and two mornings in their company, and I am going to spread them out over more than one posting.

The more poetic name for them is Painted Dogs, reflected in their scientific name, Lycaon pictus, which derives from the Greek for ‘wolf’ and the Latin for ‘painted’. Each one has its own distinctive body pattern:

Wild dogs



Wild dogs

They live and hunt in large packs: the pack in my photos has 20 dogs. They have a close-knit social structure, led by an alpha male and alpha female pair, who are the only ones to breed. They do however have large litters, up to 20 pups, with 10 being the average. The entire adult pack regurgitates food to feed the young (and also any elderly and injured dogs).

When I first saw them they were resting in a damp riverbed to escape the heat of the day. There were heaps of comatose dogs strewn around everywhere, and their coloration is such that it takes some time to work out how many different dogs there are in a single cosy pile:


Wild dogs

Their intimacy is intensely appealing:

Wild dogs

Next time, the hunt…

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:


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


and weave delicate basket-like nests:


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.


Most of the hippos slide happily down quite steep mudbanks:


But this one had qualms:


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


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


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



with a final tidal wave:


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.


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


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


and with luck submerge the poor sod.


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


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


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


One thing leads to another,


and the result is a happy gander:

greylag geese

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.)


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:


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


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:


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


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

A.A. Milne