Antelope ballet

[As you can see, I’m alternating between Maine, where I am now, and past encounters from farther afield, where there are animals I have not yet shown you. In November things are quiet here, and I’m collecting and building some stories to tell you, but you don’t want a weekly diet of mushrooms.]

From Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness Lodge to Il Ngwesi Lodge is a slow three-hour drive in a Landcruiser on forbiddingly rocky tracks. The upside is a chance to glimpse new animals, like this Klipspringer, one of a pair high on the hillside:

now very worried by our presence:

All its various names speak of its niche in the world. Its scientific name is Oreotragus oreotragus, Greek for “mountain billygoat” (twice!). Its Kiswahili name mbuzi mawe means “goat of the rocks”, like the chamois, and its Afrikaans name means “cliff leaper”, because that is exactly what it does. It walks on the tips of cylindrical blunt two-toed hooves

for all the world like a ballet dancer en pointe.

Each hoof tip is the size of a dime, and exerts a slight suction effect. Rather surprisingly this gives the klipspringer a good grip on its preferred rocky hillsides.

Klipspringers, like their closest relatives the dikdik, are altogether tiny delicate creatures, standing no more than two feet at the shoulder. They form a close pair-bond, staying together till one dies. They are found over large areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, and they are not endangered, partly because their preferred remote mountain habitat is not coveted for livestock, and not accessible for hunting. They are browsers, and get enough water from their food.

Their coat is unusual for antelope, being thick and coarse with brittle hollow guard hairs, which they are able to erect:

They have a white nose and lips, chestnut forehead, and lovely black and white ears. Only the males have horns, 3-6 inches long:*

Not one of the most dramatic animals in Africa, nor the most imposing, but one of the most peaceful and elegant; I’d rather like to see one at breakfast each morning, tiptoeing peacefully around, perhaps to strains of Tchaikovsky wafting out of my window.

* PS Confusingly, other sources say that in East Africa, where I was, both sexes have horns. Maybe I should choose the pronoun “they” ?


[Warning!! This is tongue in cheek, so I hope you have a sense of humor and are over 21.]

Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places.

An image: let your mind float while you first admire that voluptuous curve, and then try to fix it in your real world; no need to feel embarrassed.

I don’t know where your imagination took you, but here is a different and more distant view of the same object:

Two softish curvy fleshy objects pressed up against each other look pretty much the same whether they are human bodies, painted here by Modigliani in this detail from his 1917 Reclining Nude, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

or just two fungal fruiting bodies squashed into a small space:

You might not have thought that we have much in common, but at the end of the day we are both about 80% water.

PS Human adults are about 60% water, babies closer to 80%.

PPS This mushroom is some sort of Tricholoma species, I think, growing on an aged maple in my front yard.

Martial law

[Right now it is hunting season in Maine, and I am not in the woods as much, so today I take you back to Kenya.]

The Martial Eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus, is a majestic bird with a wingspan of up to 2.2m (over 7ft), making it one of the two largest eagles in Africa. It is easy enough to see in Laikipia in Kenya, and yet it is classified as Endangered because it has undergone a rapid decline in the last 30 years, mainly due to habitat loss. They like sparse woodlands and savannah, and avoid settled areas. Each pair has a range of 100-300 so even South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park only contains about 100 pairs.

Let us admire this magnificent bird, and hope that there continue to be places for it to live in our ever more-crowded world.

This is a juvenile, always an encouraging sign:

The adults form monogamous pairs, which stay together for life:

In Kenya they breed at any time, but especially April to November. There may be the start of a nest (or the vestiges of an old one) to the right of this next photo, which was taken in April:

Their diet includes monitor lizards, large birds, and smallish mammals (weighing up to 5Kg, including small antelopes!) Indeed, in South Africa it is called a  lammervanger (or “lamb catcher”). This one is plucking the fur from a freshly caught scrub hare:

After feeding, the crop is prominently enlarged. This is a different bird, on a different day, but it has clearly fed well on something:

One day I watched a martial eagle fighting a black-chested snake eagle, a somewhat smaller bird. Here are three photos, the first showing both birds (martial eagle on right), then the martial eagle, then the snake eagle.

I don’t think either was trying to kill and eat the other; they both typically swoop onto prey on the ground. More likely, a territorial dispute.

PS I like this poem by Zimbabwean poet Terry Dawson about the Martial Eagle, which is known for its avoidance of populated areas:

A Poem for an Eagle

by Terry Dawson

Wildest of all the wild things 
Is the king of the hunting birds. 
Wild-one that to the wilderness clings 
Where the olden ways are preferred. 

When mankind comes and with him brings 
His dogs and flocks and herds, 
A disquiet comes upon this king 
As though misstep’s occurred… 
And at such coming spread his wings 
For wilds undisturbed. 

Back in Zambia, and down to earth

There are still sundry delights that I haven’t shown you from my Zambian trip many months ago. Looking downwards is sometimes as rewarding as looking up.

The Vlei Ink Flower was everywhere :

Vlei Ink Flower

The copious heaps of elephant dung (composed of poorly digested plant materials) provide minerals for butterflies:


and nutrients for fungi:


The dung is also food for baboons,  vervet monkeys, and civets. Civets are mainly nocturnal, and I have only seen one once, in Zambia in 2005. It didn’t hang about:

Still looking down, there is the occasional reptile, like this Variable (or perhaps Side-striped) Skink:

Ground-feeding birds abound, like this Southern Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri (hard to  miss, it is four feet long):

and this Rednecked Francolin:

Red necked Francolin

Even ground-dwellers sometimes get tired of looking up at the world, and find a vantage point instead:

Red-necked Frrancolin

Some mammals are not spectacular. This modest Smith’s Bush Squirrel, Paraxerus cepapi, is quite small, at 14″ long (half of that is tail) and 7oz (1/2 to 1/3 the weight of an adult grey squirrel).

It is also called the Yellow-footed Squirrel, though its feet aren’t especially yellow in my photo!

It is eating the fruit of the Pawnbroker Tree (or Pepper-seed), Excoecaria bussei, and there is a second fruit on the ground in front of it.

And at night there is, if you are lucky, an elephant shrew:

Elephant shrew

PS The tiny 1.5oz Elephant Shrew, so-called because of its long nose, is actually quite closely related to its namesake! Their closest relatives are things like tenrecs and aardvarks, but after that it is hyraxes, dugongs, manatees, and elephants!!!. Who knew? The Elephant Shrew is marketed as one of the so-called Little Five: Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver, Ant Lion, Leopard Tortoise, and Rhino Beetle! I have seen all their Big Five counterparts, but not yet a Rhino Beetle.

PPS Here’s a better civet picture, from Wikipedia, taken in captivity by the look of it. If I ever see one properly, I’ll tell you all about it!

Out of the blue

[I’m away for a couple weeks, and I have been sitting on more posts about my recent Kenya trip, so I thought this might be good time to use one.]

In Nairobi National Park we were watching a Pygmy Kingfisher by a wooded stream, and then I glanced over my shoulder and saw a wide-eyed , ermine-ruffed, grizzled, bluish-grey monkey just watching us.

He stayed on top of the same bush, whose leaves he clearly enjoyed, for several minutes:

Behind him there was a rustling in the undergrowth, and eventually another one appeared on a high branch, implausibly long tail in full view

The guide told me I was very lucky, because they are very shy and he rarely sees them. The first one did not know it was supposed to be shy, and went on munching:

I was rather confused when he told me they were blue monkeys, Cercopithecus mitis, because I saw blue monkeys in Western Kenya, near Kakamega, a few years ago, and they looked quite different, with a black cap, less white on their ears, and a big white monobrow, but no white neck ruff:

It turns out there are several sub-species of blue monkey. The ones in Kakamega are Diademmed Monkeys Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni . The ones in Nairobi National Park used to be considered another sub-species, but are now usually given their own species Cercopithecus albogularis. Their common name is Sykes’ Monkey or White-throated Monkey.

So, not blue monkeys after all. They appeared out of the blue, and indeed are now usually considered out of the blue! But they are still beautiful.

Cormorants: wise and watchful fishers

[This post is prompted by an encounter on my beaver pond. Skip ahead, if you wish!]

There are 40 species of cormorants (including shags) in the world. The scientific family name Phalacrocorax comes from φαλακρός (phalakros, “bald”) and κόραξ (korax, “raven”).

The Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo, is widely distributed in Europe and Asia. They come far inland, even to the Cotswolds, and there are lots of them on the Serpentine in Central London!

They have fine strong curved beaks:

That beak is a highly effective fish-catcher, a fact not lost on the Chinese, who traditionally used them in fishing. A cord was tied round the cormorant’s neck just tightly enough to stop it swallowing the fish, and the fisherman would then retrieve it. Nowadays they follow the tourist boats on the Li river in Guilin, where I took this photo in 2007:

In the eastern US we have the Double-Crested Cormorant, Nannopterum auritum.

This one is drying its wings on the coast in Friendship, Maine:

They come inland to a greater extent than most other cormorant species, and last week, for the first time, I had one on my beaver pond. And I photographed it just as it caught a pretty big fish, entangled in weeds:

The fish did not give up easily:

This video shows you just how wriggly it was:

but eventually it succumbed:

And this cormorant got to eat its own catch, though part of me felt bad for my otters, who have one less fish in their pond.

PS After this encounter, Hoss, a neighbor, told me that two days earlier he had seen a big black bird with a long neck run across the road by our barn. This must have been the cormorant, and somehow it found the pond, over a mile away deep in the forest.

PPS In heraldry, the cormorant denotes wisdom and watchfulness. Amongst the long history of cultural references, two of my favorites: Ulysses was rescued by a sea-nymph in the guise of a cormorant. And post-Homer, a cormorant was chosen as the hood ornament of the Packard automobile.

PPPS For hard-core readers only, because the photo is boring! Little Cormorants, Microcarbo niger, are found in India. You can compare their size to the Grey Heron and the Open-Billed Stork with whom they are sharing their tree.

Ovenbird exposed

The ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla, is a shy bird, more often heard than seen. I recorded this one in late May. It has a surprisingly loud song for a small bird.

Yesterday one brazenly watched me from a branch by my trail:

So it seems to be a good time to perform an introduction.

Its odd name comes from its nesting habits. If you’ve ever read Where’s Waldo? with your kids, here is the ovenbird equivalent:

The only way you ever find the nest is by accidentally almost stepping on it, so that she flies up. This was found two springs ago by Leigh McMillan Hayes, of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, who showed it to a few of us.

Closer up, the nest is tucked under the dead leaves, with a domed roof, just like an old fashioned bread oven:

Inside, you can just see her sitting on her eggs.

Having found it once, you can quietly return, and peer inside to see eggs and young. The blurry photo is me trying to be quick and not disturb them:

The adult bird is rather spiffy with a carrot-colored crown, sort of like Prince Harry:

Ovenbirds are warblers, insect eaters, foraging around on the forest floor. (Though they winter in Jamaica, lucky birds). But to breed, they need uninterrupted forest areas. Birds of the World says this: “Of primary importance for breeding is a large area of contiguous, interior forested habitat (Temple 1986, Robbins et al. 1989b, Van Horn 1995). The minimum contiguous habitat area required for this species to breed successfully ranges from 100 to 885 ha (Robbins 1979, Robbins et al. 1989b)”. That is a minimum of about 250 acres, which it has around me, but such habitat is becoming scarcer. On the bright side, its population seems for now to be stable.

It was relaxed enough to have a little scratch.


Robert Frost, that poet of the New England countryside, wrote this in 1916

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

PS I write this on the day the queen has just died. I grew up in England and went to London for the coronation, aged three. I got a blue teddybear and my sister got a pink one. She performed her largely ceremonial role with wisdom and grace for my entire lifetime, and today I feel my foundations shaken, and a deep loss. She too loved the countryside.

“I’m such a clever toad”*

Yesterday I went to load my kayak on my truck, and nestled inside one of the foam wedges that hold the kayak firm was….

a Common Gray Tree Frog, Dryophytes versicolor, (aka Hyla versicolor) about 1.5″ long. It lives in woodlands, near ponds, and is nocturnal, so in the daytime it curls itself up and sleeps, perfectly camouflaged on the proper substrate, like this granite boulder.

It spends much of its time high in the trees, and during the breeding season the male trills beautifully (and loudly) near the small pond by our house. This recording was made on my phone in late June 2020.

Its camouflage extends to the matching irises!

It has stripy legs, and long fingers and toes, here folded neatly together:

and here splayed out gripping tightly to a lump of quartz:

Its best camouflage trick is that it can turn green to match its background. This one is en route to/from green; the whole process usually take about half an hour.

And this next one is all the way there: I promise you it is the same species, and it must have been sitting on a leaf before it landed on the fence:

My friend Pamela Marshall took a photo of one that can’t seem to decide whether to be gray or green:

They have bright yellow on the back of the legs, only glimpsed in a brief flash when they jump, and something I failed to photograph! Here is another Pamela Marshall photo, in which I think the frog fell on its back and is trying to turn itself back over, showing its golden underwear:

*My title is a quote from one of my childhood favorites, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Although my hero is a frog, not a toad, it seemed apposite.

PS You might wonder why I have a lump of quartz lying around. We live in an area of pegmatite formations. Pegmatite contains the same minerals as granite, but in much larger crystals. One of the minerals is quartz, and the others are mica and feldspar. It also contains a variety of semi-precious minerals like tourmaline, garnet, amethyst, aquamarine and beryl. And lithium, possibly in commercially viable amounts, which raises all kinds of concerns about possible mining.

Sartorial perfection

It’s hard to imagine a more elegant get-up than an adult loon in breeding plumage:

But they don’t start out like that. The two young chicks below are just brown and fluffy, with quite modest beaks. The very first down is very dark, almost black.

The second down, which is lighter brown, comes in around week three. After a few weeks, you start to notice their white breasts:

and then serious grooming begins. There is a gland under the tail that produces an oil that they rub through their plumage with their heads to keep it waterproof:

They use their bill to organize their feathers into overlapping layers:

From around week 7, their juvenile plumage is beginning to push out the down:

They are still very much babies, with a conveyor belt of fish deliveries (two in this shot, and they brought the chick eight fish in thirty minutes):

and a close bond with their parents.

But gradually the down decreases, and by about week 9 the down has all gone, leaving a grey-brown juvenile plumage which will be their garb for the next two or more years :

And the wings are growing apace. Remember the baby, on August 4th?

Now a mere three weeks later look at these shoulder muscles:

this wingspan:

and these flight feathers:

It will be able to fly on its own in another two or three weeks, but not far.

And then, one day, like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, they will be all grown up.

Their wings will be streamlined and powerful:

Even from the back they are chic:

And as you get closer, just admire. Whether they’re seeking out fish:

approaching head on:


or at water level:

or just as a hint, a trace on the water:

PS The loons are so relaxed they swim under my kayak, but I am usually so mesmerised I don’t even reach for my camera. Here is my only vaguely successful attempt:

The legs are spread wide, and the bands show you the ankles. You can just see the eye too.

PPS Even as adults, their winter non-breeding plumage will remain somewhat subdued:

Sushi fit for a loon

[I showed you the loons being rescued last winter, but now it is the halcyon days.]

I have been taking my kayak to a nearby pond that is big enough for loons to inhabit. A pair are raising a single chick, and their solicitude is a joy to watch. They bring tiny fish:

and sometimes drop their offering just out of the chick’s grasp so it has to search for it, in training for finding its own one day.

New to me was a different menu item, crayfish:

The first time I saw this, the chick looked somewhat unnerved by this wriggly spiky bit of sushi (rather like the deep-fried head of an ama-ebi, one of my favorites)

But a few days later there was no hesitation at all

though the legs took a bit of managing:

Here is a video of a crayfish delivery, a week later, with a botched hand-off and a quick recovery.

The crayfish live in the shallows, and when the adults were hunting them they splashed around making a lot of kerfuffle, and sending tiny fish leaping in the air for safety.

As the chick gets bigger, so do the fish.

This was a serious mouthful, but down it went.

After about 45 minutes of feeding the chicks, one adult caught a much bigger fish, far too large for the chick to manage. The hornpout (aka bullhead or catfish) was still very much alive,

so the loon kept diving (perhaps to bash it on the bottom?)

and shaking it until eventually it was dead enough to eat. A face-on loon in hunting mode is quite intimidating: those red eyes are the stuff of nightmares.

It turned it around and down it went in one large gulp (watch to the end; halfway through the video the loon dives for a while, and then comes up again):

The baby was already diving for quite long periods, and occasionally seemed to come up with something edible, though I couldn’t see what. It was also flapping its almost non-existent wings!

One day it will have stunning black-and-white breeding plumage like its parents.

Next time, more on how the transition from brown fluff to tuxedo-like elegance happens.

PS Around here there is an annual loon count, and also research projects that band the loons whenever possible. One of the adults was wearing brightly colored ankle jewellery, and it tells me this one is the female. Last year she was on the same pond with the same mate. This is not always the case: loons do not mate for life.

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