Be still my bleeding heart…*

No-one is surprised to find birds (like robins) with brightly colored breasts, but mammals that are similarly caparisoned are rarer. The gelada monkey, Theropithecus gelada, is a glorious exception. Named after the Amharic word for the species, both sexes have astonishing red skin patches on their chests: the first photo is a female, and the second is a male:



In males, the redder the chest patch the more dominant and successful the male (Bergman et al 2009). Bright bottoms are more common than bright tops in the primate world; one theory has it that colorful bottoms would be wasted on geladas because they are “bottom-feeders”… my term for their feeding behavior, as the next post will explain.

Geladas are found only in the highlands of Ethiopia, where they sleep and socialize on rocky cliffs. In the photo below the small dark brown blobs in the centre where the plateau tips over into cliff are geladas:


They seem to enjoy flirting with danger: here is a closeup of two of them:


And this male, with his shaggy cloak:


And this curious baby:


In my second installment, I’ll have some action shots… watch for the next post.

* Apologies for the excruciating  title! And also for the photo quality: my camera broke halfway through the last day, the gelada day, and so these are taken with a small point-and-shoot backup.

*The gelada shares its bleeding heart nickname with this flower, Dicentra spectabilis:



Ostrich legs

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

I ended last time with a story of how the oryx got its horns and its black-and-white markings …. and as the story goes, they won them off the ostrich in a bet….

Here is a male Somali Ostrich, and you can see how an antelope might covet that coat:

Somali Ostrich

The drab female is presumably what you get when the oryx has run off with the ostrich’s finery.

Somali Ostrich, female

The ostrich never did have horns,  although they might distract attention from his balding pate:

Somali Ostrich

These ostriches are Somali Ostriches, Struthio molybdophanes, found only in the Horn of Africa. They browse on bushes, whereas the common ostrich prefers to graze on grass. They also differ from the common ostrich in having blueish (instead of pinkish) skin on their neck and thighs: this one would win a knobbly knees contest* hands down.


* English seaside towns in the 1950’s loved such contests, for those of you too young to remember, or on the other side of the Atlantic.


And anyway Dennis Smith rightly points out that the ostrich’s knobby joints are the analogs of human ankles, not knees, as this picture shows:



Oryx frolics

Mirage-like, the oryx materialized out of the desiccated landscape of Awash National Park.

Beisa Oryx

For my money, the oryx is the smartest turned-out antelope on the planet. I saw my first ones in Namibia in 2016, where they are the species Oryx gazella, also called gemsbok, and are to be found standing under every tree:


But here in Ethiopia they are a different species, Oryx Beisa, and they are endangered:


You can see the difference: the tail is only black at the end, no black patch on the rump, and less black on the belly and legs too. (The rest of these photos are all of this Ethiopian species.)

Both sexes have those amazing horns, for which they have been hunted almost to extinction:


The mother goes off alone to give birth, and the young can run immediately. Their black markings do not appear for several weeks, when they rejoin the main herd.  These are still very young, but they already have tiny horns.

Beisa Oryx

Oryx beisa is now extinct in much of its former range, and the remaining 12,000 or so are found only in Ethiopia, and parts of Kenya and Tanzania. Like all oryxes, they are adapted to an arid environment and can go days without drinking. In addition to the thorny scrub plants, they seek out thick-leaved plants, wild melons, roots and tubers. They feed in early morning or late afternoon, when the dew forms and the plants can increase their water content by up to 40% compared to midday.

I came across a lovely folk tale about how the oryx got its horns, and its elegant black-and-white markings:

Next time I’ll show you what happened to the loser in this tale..


Horn(bill) quartet

Time for birds, I think.

Ethiopia has nine species of Hornbill, of which I saw and photographed five. They are the most unlikely birds, with bills that seem disproportionate to their bodies. These bills are in fact well adapted to their omnivorous diet which includes fruit, insects and even small animals. I’ll start with the smallest bill: a female Northern Red-billed Hornbill, Tockus erythrorhynchus. 

Northern Red-billed Hornbill, female

Her mate has a larger bill, and looks correspondingly self-satisfied::

Northern Red-billed Hornbill, male

They were perched in the same tree, and are probably a monogamous pair. When it comes time to nest, the female retreats to a hole in a tree, and walls herself in. The male then feeds her and the young chicks through a small hole until they are big enough to safely emerge. Very 1950’s.

The Hemprich’s Hornbill, Lophoceros hemprichii, has a strong sturdy bill:

Hemprich's Hornbill

Whereas the Eastern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, Tockus flavirostris, has a curvier bill in a cheerful yellow, always held pointing jauntily upwards:*


Most dramatic of all is the large Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Bycanistes braves, photographed in the parking lot of an urban hotel:

Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

It is a mystery why on earth anyone would name this bird after its discreetly silvered cheeks rather than after the blindingly enormous casque on top of its bill. The casque acts to amplify sounds and is also likely that in males the bigger the casque the higher the status (it can take years to grow to full size). Its weight may also help in digging, and in attacking bark to get at insects.  

The monster of the hornbill group is the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus abyssinicus, which I’ll save for another time.

*In Southern Africa, this habitual posture led people to think of the Yellow-Billed Hornbill as a symbol of optimism, as this legend illustrates:


“Richly habited in a mantle..”*

Near Lake Langano, early in the morning, the Abyssinian Black-and-White Colobus monkeys were feeding in the trees. Their proper name is Mantled Guereza, Colobus Guereza, and they are the popinjays of the monkey world:


Their total length goes up to 170cm, or which 100cm is tail! The mantle is the long white fringed fur across their shoulders, like the fringes on John Wayne’s leather jacket.


They are not endangered, perhaps because oddly they prefer secondary forest to primary forest. The new growth may provide more leaves and twigs than the old growth trees. They have a digestive system more usually found in ruminants, so they can digest very fibrous material. This one is eating a twig:


*My title is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. And Abyssinia is the old name for Ethiopia.


The rarest wolf

My first of several posts from my Ethiopian trip has to be the Ethiopian Wolf, Canis simensis, the most endangered carnivore in Africa, with only four or five hundred left in the wild.  More than half live in the Bale Mountains, southwest of Addis Ababa, our destination, up at 4300 meters (14,000 feet).

Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 10.19.22 AM

Our wonderful guide Abiy found us seven, none very close, but I managed a few photos. Here is the star:


He or she was hunting the small mammals that live in the Afroalpine vegetation :


Getting close,:


But not catching anything, so he headed off up the hill, out of sight:


Males are up to 40″ long and 24″ high, weighing up to 43 lbs, about coyote size. They have a notably long thin skull.


This one was solitary, but we also saw a group of three, and a typical pack is a family group of around six.


These wolves may be rarest canids in the world. Under Ethiopian law killing a wolf incurs a two-year jail term. The main threats to their survival are interbreeding with the local dog population, and rabies. Vaccination is being used to reduce this threat. There is an excellent Wikipedia entry here:


Biting bark

[I’m off to Ethiopia tomorrow, so expect no posts for a couple of weeks, and then a change of subject matter on my return!]

A surprising number of animals find a use for tree bark.

In my last post two grey squirrels were getting together in the treetops, but my sharp-eyed husband noticed that they had already prepared for the consequences of their dalliance: higher in the same tree was their drey:


The base is made of leaves, but look at the top: a mound of shredded bark.

And indeed if you now take a second look at their marital embrace, you can see that earlier one of them had been hard at work harvesting bark:

grey squirrel

Foresters hate grey squirrels as much for the damage they do to trees as for any effects on our native red squirrel population.

Beavers of course operate on an altogether larger scale.


This quite sizable tree was felled behind my house in Maine a few years back, and within a few days they had systematically stripped off huge areas of delicious bark.  What they like is the living cambium underneath the bark itself. It is the innermost phloem layer that carries nutrients from the photosynthesizing leaves to the rest of the tree, so it contains delicious sugars and minerals.


Sometimes it may also help them get a grip when they are maneuvering a log into position for a dam or lodge:


and often they just gnaw the bark off a standing tree, sometimes killing it.

Hemlock bark, beaver

Porcupines love tree bark.


My friend Leigh posted impressive evidence of porcupine work in her blog recently:  scroll down about half way for the porcupine aftermath photos:

Poking About Among the Trees

Many other animals, including deer, rabbits, voles and mice eat bark too. Apparently so can humans:

Bark also has its own mysterious beauty:

Bark World, by Olivia Bayard (from The New Statesman, July 2016)

Rough, tough to touch,
grooved ridged scaled –
textures and fissures
teeming with the fuss and
stress of being –
dark crevices
crammed with mini-beasts
– woodlice, beetles, borers –
and wispy spiders, that scurry
across burled highways –
lichen moss growing warmth, cover
over tiny birds tight in dark holes,
feather to feather, beak to beak
– a claw here, an eye there –
flutter shuffle, first squawks
and squeaks –
and the deep inside,
where sap rises rich and quick,
grains, circles, lines,
the yearly marks of tell-time –
old time,
now time, pest, blight, disease time,
warming time, losing time,
a stopped clock at felled time.