A gnother gnu*

Mention the Maasai Mara to people, and they always ask if you saw the Great Migration, in which huge herds of wildebeest and other animals move from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara and back, running the crocodile gauntlet across the Mara River en route. The Mara River was in flood when I was there, much to the delight of the hippos:

Mara river in flood, with hippos

I was there at the wrong time of year for the migration. However, the Maasai Mara has a resident population of lazy non-migrating wildebeest, so all was not lost. The species in Kenya is the Blue Wildebeest, also called the Gnu.Wildebeest and zebra

They are rather handsome, with their beards, and long dark manes and tails: indeed the first part of the scientific name Connochaetes taurinus means beard-mane in Greek, and the second half means bull.


Some of them had young:


The young are born tawny brown, and at around two months they begin to change to adult coloration, so this one is under two months old.

Both male and female wildebeest have horns, a relatively rare trait in bovids (cattle and antelope). Female horns are advantageous if the animal is not able to hide itself easily, and thus needs horns for defense.  This is the case if the animal is large, or lives in very open landscape, like the Maasai Mara. Wildebeest tick both boxes: males can weigh up to 640lbs, and the Mara plains are very very flat and grassy, with nowhere at all to hide!


Of the 82 species with female horns, 80 can be explained by this theory.

* My title comes from “I’m a Gnu” by Flanders and Swann. If you don’t know it, listen here:

“It is better to be a lion for a day..*

A pride of lion with tiny cubs is quite irresistible. We found this one after failing to find a cheetah, not a bad consolation prize. There were five adult females and ten cubs. (It was dusk, which is why my photos are not great. )

Pride of five females and 10 cubs

One mother seemed to be nursing four cubs, three of whom are visible below. (The photo appears to show a lioness with a extremely long and flexible body, but actually there are two lionesses in this photo, not one!)DSC07499Once everyone was fed and rested, playtime. The adults tolerate a fair amount from the cubs, but there are limits:DSC07487

Some pretend stalking:DSC07536



while the adults started to think about the upcoming night’s hunt:


First priority, nightcare. They led the cubs off into the trees where they were to hide for the duration of the hunt.

Cubs being sent to hide in the bushes before the mothers go to hunt

Obediently, off they went.


Then the mothers went hunting, and we followed. My guide was an old enough Maasai warrior that he told me he had himself killed a lion as a rite of passage at the age of fifteen. (This tradition was made illegal about 25 years ago). He seemed to think like a lion, and was amazingly good at predicting where they would go next, so at times we went ahead of them, in pitch darkness, and lo and behold they would materialize alongside a few seconds later. They had several abortive semi-serious chases, then took off, out of our field of view, but the noises we heard made it abundantly clear they had been successful, and we found three of them on their kill, a warthog:

The one on the right held down the neck for about five minutes, till she was sure the warthog had given up the fight, but meanwhile the others were feeding already, even though their meal was clearly still alive.


By the time all three were feasting, the hyenas had gathered in the shadows, and at one point they got too close to the lions, who the chased them off.


We watched for about 45 minutes, and then two of them left, and returned a while later with the older cubs, who promptly dug in. (I’ve just upgraded my site to allow me to post videos: do let me know if it doesn’t work.)


Lemeria then found his way back to camp in the dead blackness, and it was 9.30pm by the time we pulled into camp. I hadn’t even noticed I was hungry too.


* My updated version of the title quote in full is   “It is better to be a lion for a day than to be a warthog for the whole of your life.”

Appendix: My visit was spent at a camp called Saruni Wild on the Mara North Conservancy, not in the Maasai Mara National Park itself. The conservancies are less visited, and they are trying a new model of conservation that gives leases to private lodge operators, who offer direct benefits to the local communities, and accommodate their traditional semi-nomadic pastoral way of life. So far they seem to be having some success, with lion populations very healthy, and certainly they are a much less crowded way to visit the area and see the wildlife: I never had more than one other vehicle there during my stay, and most of the time it was just us. Read more here about this conservation model: 



Battle of the Titans

Male elephants, just like all the other herbivores out there on the plains, enjoy a little jousting match on occasion. April seems to be the time of year when their juices are flowing.


The one on the right is the biggest elephant in this part of the Maasai Mara, known as Number One. He has magnificent tusks, as you can see below:DSC07439

And I am sure you noted the fifth leg on both elephants.

The remaining photographs are a different pair of younger elephants. They face each other, then rush forwards at some speed (as you can see from the flapping ears!) into what I can only call a head bump,

Male elephants jousting, for fun.Male elephants jousting, for fun.

but carefully judging it so that their tusks do no more than gently poke their adversary.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

They often entwine their trunks in a sort of tug of war:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

But it is clear that all this is not serious, and they part as friends:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

Finally, and just for scale, here’s a photo of one of this second pair, who came over to check us out:

Male elephants jousting, for fun.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

[Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream]

Shrikes are smallish birds, with hooked upper beaks like the miniature birds of prey that they are. This one is a Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike, Lanius cabanisi, in the Maasai Mara.

Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike

They eat insects and grubs, like this Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike, Lanius mackinnoni, in the Kakamega Forest: Mackinnon';s foscal shrike with caterpillar.

But although they are no more than 8 inches long, they also go for much bigger prey (same bird, one day earlier):

Mackinnons Fiscal Shrike with fresh mouse that we watched him catch.

We had been watching it sitting motionless on the very top of a bare tree, when suddenly it swooped, and scooped this unfortunate mouse up from the grass below.

They are notorious for their habit of impaling their prey on thorns or sharp twigs, so as to make it easier to tear off convenient-sized bites, and also to create a food cache. A well-stocked cache can also help to attract females. This bird didn’t do this, he/she appeared to be feeding a nestful of young ones somewhere nearby.

PS: My alternative title for this post was Vlad the Impaler.

Blue Monkeys en famille

The Kakamega Forest in northwest Kenya is the last patch of virgin rainforest in the country. It is not far from Eldoret, where the marathoners train at 9000 feet up, and it is of course wet, and sometimes very cold, so the local monkeys have luxuriant thick coats that my camera struggles to focus on.

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Luckily they are fairly used to humans, and one troupe even comes into the grounds of my lodge, Rondo Retreat. These photos are of Stuhlmann’s Blue Monkey, Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii. 

They live high in the canopy, and 50% of their diet is fruit:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

They live in social groups of one male, and lots of females and young:


They have incredibly long tails, but since they are old world monkeys these are not prehensile:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitisThe young are carried under the mother’s’ bellies:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

Like other species of Cercopithecus, they have a system of specialized alarm calls, and at one point while I was watching an African Crowned Eagle flew overhead.

African Crowned Eagle. Seen earlier harrassing blue monkeys.

The lookout gave the “eagle” alarm call, and every monkey came scurrying down at high speed from the canopy to the lowest branches, yelping in fear, where they kept their young very close for safety:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

The baby looks remarkably like the 1990’s fad toy, the Furby, described as a cross between a hamster and an owl. Google images of Furbys and see if you agree.


A footnote: The terrible floods after a dam burst in Kenya this week are near Solai, very close to my grandfather’s farm (though downstream). When we were there two weeks ago, we had 4 inches of rain in about two hours, so the ground is completely sodden.

The bouncing Widowbirds

Not being a birder, I had never heard of widowbirds. One day, as we drove through long grass in the Maasai Mara, all around were smallish black birds with long streaming tail feathers, popping up out of the grass then flying low across the plains:

Yellow-mantled widowbird

It turns out these are Jackson’s Widowbirds, and they do a completely insane mating display.  The long tail feathers are grown only by males, and only for the mating season, as is the blue-grey bill. They create a small running track of their own:


Then they run round in a circle, and bounce up into the air, briefly appearing above the grass for all the world as if they had a trampoline underneath. They can jump up to one meter high, and apparently the females pick a male based on how long his tail is and how frequently he jumps.

Jackson's widowbird

He keeps this up until a female arrives, they mate, and then he starts again, such is the urge to spread his genes as far and wide as possible.


The drab brown female, meanwhile, goes off and makes a nest close to the ground in a tiny bush or big tuft of grass. My guide found this invisible nest, containing a single egg:

Jackson's widowbird. Nest with single egg.

There are other widowbirds, but none of them seems to compare with Jackson’s when it comes to dancing prowess. This is a Red-collared Widowbird, also a male with a long breeding tail, up to 22cm in length. Again, females strongly prefer the males with the longest tails.
Red-collared widowbird

Planet Earth II managed to film the Jackson’s Widowbird dance, so you may be able to find it online.

An animal that begins with Aa..

After my last feel-good photos, these pictures are more nitty-gritty.

The things we typically like to photograph, like lions, are the apex predators of a food chain.  Near the bottom is the lowly termite, one species of which builds these mounds, with multiple chimneys.

Termite mound

The workers are rather fearsome close-up:


But they are no match for one of their main enemies, the aardvark, Orycteropus afer. I have never seen a live aardvark, since they are nocturnal and secretive, but here is a photo of one (from a Creative Commons website):


They excavate anthills and termite mounds with huge strong claws, and lick out the ants with a tongue that can extend up to 30cm ( a foot!). This is a fresh aardvark hole under some tree roots (taken in the Kakamega rain forest a few days earlier):

A fresh aardvark excavation under tree roots, looking for ants.

The aardvark, in turn, is food for the lion, and in the Maasai Mara a few days later we came across this sated lioness under a tree; look closely to the left of the photo, and you will see her dinner:


And on close inspection we saw the heavy muscular tail and huge claws of an aardvark:

DSC07319Nature really is “red in tooth and claw.”