High-hanging fruit bats

Birds are not the only warm-bodied flying objects. A sizable colony of Gambian Epauletted Fruit Bats, Epomophorus gambianus, lived in our lodge’s dining room roof. Before you shudder, here is our dining room: three 40-foot tall open thatched pavilions each large enough to take a dining table for 12:

The bats snoozed all day upside down in the rafters:

Most were at the very top, just visible above the windows, but a few roosted a little lower-down, so I could get closeups:

They are fruit (and nectar) bats, so they had no interest in tangling in our hair in a hunt for insects, let alone sucking our blood. They really look very much like small dogs:

Of course, they have wings instead of front legs, with little hands they use to cling on to the rafters.

Both sexes have white patches in front of their ears, and the males have tufted scent glands on their shoulders, not visible in my photos, which give them their “epaulette” name. The males have a wingspan of up to 20 inches. The females are a little smaller.

Unlike most bats, they do not use echo-location to find their food, but instead they depend on sight and smell. They have a complex social hierarchy (see below for more details) and can live as long as 28 years in captivity.

At dusk we would see them flying out to forage, and at our pre-dawn tea-and-biscuit rendezvous they would be returning for a good day’s sleep.

This short video gives you a closer look:

They’re found through a swathe of West and Central Africa, and are not endangered, though habitat loss and pesticides are a potential threat.

Wikipedia has a good description of their social organization, if you are curious for more:

The social behavior within fruit-bat camps does not stop at individual family groups. The whole colony is organized, with separate peripheral groups of immatures and non-breeding adults. The epauletted fruit bats travel in small groups of six to twenty bats. When the fruit bats are in flight, they remain together in long processions. The leaders often change, yet they retain the same direction of flight. (Mickleburgh)

They frequently sniff at each other’s scent glands to establish personal recognition. Which represents high levels of social organization. When one is shot down, they show great concern and gather round swooping low to inspect it; a sign of affinity rather than totally independent behaviour. They roost during the day in mango trees and bamboo reeds or other trees. The Gambian epauletted fruit bats hang upside down alone or in groups up to twenty. The species’ droppings support whole ecosystems of unique organisms, including bacteria useful in detoxifying wastes, and producing gasohol. This species feeds on nectar and fruits of many West African trees, presumably acting as pollinator and/or seed disperser. Some flowering trees depend on the bats for pollination. (Fenton)

The pack moves during sunset in large flocks from resting areas to feeding areas. To avoid predators, the bats will carry fruit away from the tree before eating. Over several nights bats may carry more than a ton of seeds from a single wild fig tree, dramatically increasing the number of seedlings that will survive in new locations. The fruit bats spend over half their lives roosting in various places. (Wilson)

On the outskirts of the camp, non-territorial males act as guards. They are alert to the slightest disturbance. They perform a visual inspection and either give a loud alarm signal, or remain still, keeping an eye open.[8]

Purple haze: herons again

I am used to living in places with a single common heron (Great Grey in England, Great Blue in Maine), plus maybe an egret or two. But The Gambia has many. Today’s focus is the Purple Heron, a graceful smallish heron that lurks in the mangrove roots and is often glimpsed when an evening sunbeam catches its paler head and neck:

The Purple heron, Ardea purpurea, is up to 90cm (3ft) tall. It lives year-round in sub-Saharan Arica (especially west Africa) , India and SE Asia, and some breed in Southern Europe.

When this one took off, I wasn’t quite ready, but the soft out-of-focus image looked so like a ghostly apparition of a ballerina that I embellished it:

In flight, it proceeded to lighten its load:

Then it soared off above the trees, with the sun behind it casting a shadow of its legs onto the underside of its wings:

It slowly straightened its legs

and settled into flight:

Azure aerobatics

The Abyssinian Roller, Coracias abyssinicus, is 30cm long plus 12cm streamers (elongated outer tail feathers, on both sexes):

In flight, it is even more spectacular:

You can see its tongue as it yawns.

And a little preening:

It swoops down on large insects on the ground. It likes open areas near woods, often tilled fields or village areas, and may have benefited from human habitation.

Rollers get their name from their courtship display, which involves diving towards the ground, rolling as they go. Just like a young pilot showing off. I have never managed to video this.

We also saw the less flamboyant but still handsome Blue-Bellied Roller, Coracias cyanogaster:

A Hawkish Stance

[This post is coming rather soon after the last, for reasons that will be apparent in the final paragraph!]

Two good-sized raptors that frequent the Gambia are the African Harrier, and the Lizard Buzzard. Let me introduce you.

A pair of African Harrier Hawks, Polyboroides typus, posed for us late one afternoon.

They have a wingspan of up to five feet. Unusually for hawks, they mostly hunt their prey by poking around in holes and crevices in trees. They are looking for nestlings, lizards, squirrels and the like. They have long flexibly jointed legs, with an intertarsal joint that is flexible through 190°–205°, meaning it can bend both backwards and forwards, which helps get into cavities.

They have a jaunty crest, and a bare orangey red face.

Those specialized legs are an interesting example of convergent evolution. The Crane Hawk, a unrelated New World species, has a similar hunting technique, and similar legs. I photographed this one in the Pantanal in Brazil in 2013.

The much smaller Lizard Buzzard, Kaupifalco monogrammicus, is a handsome bird with a distinctive single vertical black stripe down the centre of its throat,

like a skinny necktie* :

The Lizard Buzzard has a shortish stubby bill:

and a wingspan of about 2 1/2 feet.

Despite its name, it doesn’t eat only lizards; large insects make up a lot of its diet.

* Thankyou Brad Vernatter, General Director and CEO of Boston Lyric Opera, for this photo on the opening night of their wonderful Bluebeard’s Castle. If you are in Boston, it’s still on this weekend, March 25 and 26. Do go.

The last of their kind?

Although this was primarily a bird trip, we had other notable encounters.

The Western Red Colobus Monkey, Piliocolobus badius, is very, very, shy, and we were lucky to see it, but at a great distance. We circled around to try and get closer and with a better light, but they immediately dived for cover, and that was that.

I’m showing them to you anyway because they are officially classified as Endangered by the ICUN. There are no reliable population estimates, but their population is known to be decreasing. This subspecies, Temminck’s Red Colobus, may be especially endangered. Best estimates are a total of 2500 individuals, one of the largest populations being roughly where we were, in the Abuko Nature Reserve (Starin 2017).

There was a group of maybe four or five. This shot shows four, but I think there was one more.

At the top right was a charming family of three:

As you can see, the father is very aware of us, not surprisingly as we were creeping around loudly in the brush. The mother is more attentive to the baby, and of course seeing a baby is a very positive sign:

My photos don’t show it, but they have glorious long tails like this black-and-white colobus I saw in Uganda in 2014:

My final shot, of the solicitous parent restraining the baby, who is trying to explore its twiggy world:

PS The IUCN says: “.. red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus spp.) are the most threatened group of African monkeys. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020, every form of red colobus monkey is threatened with extinction, and 14 of the 18 taxa (>75%) are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered. ” I feel privileged to have seen them, and saddened by their fragility.

Little Bee-Eater: small but fierce

Little Bee-eaters, Merops pusillus pusillus, are probably my favorite bee-eater. They’re the smallest bee-eater, but as Shakespeare said, “Though she be but little, she is fierce”.

Found all over Africa, and not endangered, they are diminutive jewels, inclined to perch in the open and low down, making them a photographer’s gift. The orange and green coloring is surprisingly good camouflage. They are frequently in pairs, though these two don’t seem to be getting along too well:

While we were there it was very hot, 39C or 100F, so to cool off they were diving into the pool. These dips also help rid them of parasites, and I suspect the chlorine might help too?

The dip was followed by a blowdry:

a rub-down:

a comb-through:

and a final styling:

The plumage is stunning, but so are the details, like the red eye and the sliver of bright blue supercilium.

They catch their prey on the wing, making about 40 sorties an hour, 30% of which are successful. Around 75% of their diet is bees and wasps, and the rest is other flying insects.

In this pair, one announced his imminent departure, and started to hunt:

Offering your prey to your mate is polite:

even if she doesn’t always seem interested:

But he never gave up: and her head is slowly turning towards him:

At this point I think something disturbed them, because I have no more photos!

PS Bees and wasps are tricky eating. Just as a Japanese sushi chef knows how to prepare poisonous fugu fish for safe consumption, the bee-eater knows how to get rid of both sting and venom by bashing and squeezing the bee on a branch first. This behavior has been shown to be innate. It takes about ten tries for a young bee-eater before the technique is mastered.

PPS Photographing birds diving into the pool is a matter of pure luck. The entire dive lasts perhaps one second, and you have no idea where in the pool it is heading for. So you basically photograph the pool surface, and then see what you’ve got afterwards!

Hooded and gowned: the Black Heron

A witch’s coven?? A gathering of gowned academics? An achingly chic Parisian fashion show?

No, just a group of Black Herons, looking for their lunch. The Black Heron, Egretta ardesaica, is a small heron 42-66 cm, weighing around 270-390 g. It is also known as the Black Egret. Here is a photo of it next to a Little Egret, Egretta garzetta.

It is famous for its ingenious and highly unusual hunting strategy. It spreads its wings over its head to create a dark tent over the water’s surface, reducing glare, and lulling the fish into a false sense of security. The neck plumes are used to complete the umbrella. Then it pounces.

The technique is called Canopy Feeding. At the same time, it stirs the water with one foot, presumably to rustle up some prey.

The wings are said to stay up for only 2-3 seconds at a time, but the ones we were watching seemed to stay there much longer. Below, on the right, is one heron with its wings half-way up into the feeding position.

They are elegant birds, with extra-wide flight feathers so that the canopy has no gaps:

Their feet are bright yellow, like the Little Egret’s. (Sorry about the blurry photo, the only one I caught with the feet visible.)

In German, it is called Glockenreiher, Bell Egret, I assume for the shape it makes when hooding. You can see it in action in this video, in a version immortalized by the BBC in a sketch from their comedy show Walk on the Wild Side.

The Black Heron is not endangered. Its range is mainly East Africa, and Madagascar (where populations are in worrying decline), and in West Africa it seems to prefer coastal areas.

PS I wanted to get closer to get better photos, but it meant walking out onto a patch of wetland where 15 minutes earlier I had seen this.

West African crocodile

So I didn’t. One fellow-traveler ventured out, and came back with all his toes and probably much better photos.

Finally, my own distant video of the entire group fishing:

The Violet Turaco: the pigment bird

[I have just returned from The Gambia in West Africa, looking at birds with the photographer and guide Oliver Smart of Naturetrek. I’ll be doing several posts from the trip, perhaps interspersed with anything interesting in Maine now that I am back.]

First, to situate you for the weeks ahead, here is a map showing where the Gambia is in West Africa. The red pin is our lodge, Mandina River Lodge.

The Gambia is a very unusual shaped country, along two sides of The Gambia river, and entirely surrounded by Senegal. The river is 10Km wide where we were, so there are no bridges until the 1.2 mile Senegambia bridge, 120 Km up-river, which opened in 2019.

So, on to the birds. These pictures were taken over several different encounters.

Sitting high in the tree was a plump purplish-black bird the size of a large pigeon with a long tail, a crimson head and a chunky reddish-orange bill:

It was a Violet Turaco, Musophaga violacea. The yellow forehead is a hard casque, and the red eye-ring is bare skin., which you can perhaps see better in the not-very-sharp photo below:

Weighing in at 360gm, and about 50cm long, its scientific name means “banana-eater”. It gorges when it finds a productive fruit tree, hanging upside-down if necessary to reach the ripest fruits, especially figs:

The flight feathers are deep crimson, visible in the next photo as it spreads its wings to keep its balance:

or on a short flight to a new branch:

But when it really takes off:

and spreads its wings fully, just look:

The crimson color is produced by an entirely different pigment from the reds of all other bird families, and called appropriately turacin. Hence my title.

Another oddity: it has ‘semi-zygodactylous’ feet: the fourth (outer) toe can be can be brought around to the back of the foot to nearly touch the first toe, or brought the front near the second and third toes. I failed to photograph this!

The Violet Turaco is not endangered and lives across a swathe of West Africa, but it has been little studied. The main threat seems to be the international trade in exotic birds: it is just too spectacular for its own good. In captivity they live a long time. The current record is 37 years.

I end with Herman Schlegel’s 1860 painting of a Turaco for the Royal Zoological Society – also known as Natura Artis Magistra, the oldest zoo in the Netherlands.

An imperial gift

The Grey Heron has a range that ranges from England to Japan.

They are imperial birds. This lacquered Japanese cosmetic box was given to Queen Elizabeth II by the Emperor of Japan for her coronation in 1953. It was made around 1900 by Shirayama Shōsai. It was the first post-war diplomatic gift, indicating a new era of friendship, and is on display right now in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, this one was grooming itself in the gardens next to Kensington Palace the other day, crest on display, oblivious to us passing peasants:

It was joined by two indolent swans, the property of the King:

Like the one on the lacquered box, it spent much time on one leg:

Serious grooming began:

But it was watching me, maybe checking for signs of insurrection:

PS: I’m off to The Gambia tomorrow, and hope to have some good things to show you on my return in about 10 days.

The giraffe with five ossicones

Preface: I’m now in London, but with nothing special to report, and definitely no giraffes, so I thought I’d dig out a couple of postings I composed but never sent out. Here’s one, from my Kenya orphanage trip in April 2018.

The 48,000 acre Soysambu Conservancy was set up by Lord Delamere, whose predecessors figured prominently (to put it mildly) in Kenyan high society back in the Out of Africa era. It contains a very healthy population of Rothschild’s Giraffe, about 10% of the world’s total of around 1600 (IUCN 2016 estimate).

The Rothschild’s Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi, is the only species where the male is born with five ossicones: two large ones on top of the head, used for fighting and often rubbed bald, plus two smaller ones behind the ears, and one in the middle of the forehead.  This not very good photo shows all five:

Male Rothschild's Giraffe: you can see the 5 ossicones

The ossicones are made of ossified cartilage, not bone. At birth, they are not attached to the skull, and lie flat, so the poor mother can give birth without problems. Later in life they fuse to the skull.

Recently, lions have moved in to Soysambu from neighboring Lake Nakuru National Park, and we were driven around by Rowena White, known to her friends as ‘the lion lady’,  who helps to monitor the lions for Lord Delamere. We didn’t see lions, but we had a lovely day. Here are some highlights.

What look like twin young giraffes, part of a  group of about 20, quite unbothered by the buffalo.

The conservancy has 10% of the world population of Rothschild's giraffe

A baby buffalo with mother next to him, and the magnificently horned father behind her:


A jackal resting in the long grass, with an impressive pair of ears.

Black-backed jackal

And a tortoise,  ambling along through the wildflowers:

Leopard tortoise


A Lilac-breasted Roller, Coracias caudatus:


And then we had lunch, taking care to stay on the verandah because Rowena regularly sees leopards prowling around the terrace!


I did an earlier post from Soysambu Conservancy’s Lake Elementeita, about flamingos. Here’s the link in case you missed it: https://eyesonthewild.blog/2018/06/28/in-the-pink/

If you’d like to know more about their conservation work, read here:

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