An early summer afternoon

Sometimes there is nothing dramatic to see on an English country walk, but even the tiny things give pleasure.


Sometimes creatures are not down by the brook where you would expect them to be, but up in the trees:


Or hiding in the long grass:


Or up in the eaves of the courtyard in the middle of an old country house:

Swallow sirring on nest in the cloisters in Sherborne

Or abseiling down from nowhere onto my wineglass as I sit in the middle of the lawn:


I think this is a Cucumber Spider, Araneus cucurbitina, and it is barely 5mm long. But it should have eight eyes, and I only see six.


PS: The swallows arrived late this spring, and on April 22nd I photographed this one still lounging around in Kenya, having not yet started its migration back north to Europe:


PPS: Since I posted this, I have come across a wonderful explanation of how this spider must have ended up on my wineglass: here is a short video and explanation:


A quartet of kingfishers

In Zambia, four different kingfishers accompanied us down the Luangwa River. (Photographing from a small moving boat, when the bird is tiny, and perches only briefly, is a challenge, so some of these shots are not up to much,)

The tiniest was the Malachite Kingfisher, Corythornis cristatus, at about 13cm long:

Malachite Kingfisher

The middle-sized ones were the Brownhooded Kingfisher, Halcyon albiventris, at 22cm, on the left below, and the Pied Kingfisher, Ceryle audis, at about 25cm, on the right:

Brownhooded Kingfisher and Pied kingfisher

(The guide was quite excited by this shot, he said it is very rare to get two different ones in the same shot! Sheer luck.).

And the biggest was the Giant Kingfisher, Megaceryle maximus, at about 45cm long. (I just love the scientific name, making it abundantly clear first in Greek and then in Latin that this is a BIG kingfisher!). This one is a male:

Giant Kingfisher

It was a mystery to me how they hunted in this river. The water is completely opaque with brown mud, but the guides told me that the birds see tiny disturbances of the surface, and go for that. It obviously works, there are lots of them.

Presumably the size range of the different species means they favor slightly different prey fish, and thus can all share the same waters successfully.

PS: For comparative purposes, the UK’s only kingfisher, Albedo atthis, is about 16cm long, intermediate between the Malachite and the Pied. The Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle halcyon, of the Northeast USA is 28-25cm long, intermediate between the Pied and the Giant.

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* 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.