‘Twisting-horned billy-goat deer’

Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) are dramatically handsome antelopes. Their scientific name means “twisting-horned billy-goat deer”, my title for this posting. Bulls weigh 190–315 kg (420–694 lb), and stand up to 160 cm (63 in) tall at the shoulder.

These two males (only the males have horns)  were part of a bachelor group of three.

Kudu. "The Grey Ghosts".

They were sparring to establish dominance before the upcoming mating season.

Kudu jousting

Occasionally their horns get locked together, in which case both may die. Luckily these two disentangled themselves just fine.

Meanwhile the third male was showing his strength by digging with his horns, as evidenced by the dirt and grass stuck on the ends and on his forehead:

Kudu. He has been diggin as a display of strength, note the grass on his horns.


The horns are not like antlers, they are not shed and regrown each season. They have a maximum of two and a half twists, and this last male is just about there, suggesting he is at least six years old. When the ends of the horns show white, they have stopped growing.

Kudu are called the Grey Ghosts, because they disappear so silently into their woodland habitat.


Parrot landings

[I am in London for three days, before going to Kenya to visit an orphanage run by a friend. I still have plenty of Zambia photos left to share, so I thought I would send one post a day until I leave on Wednesday.  Then I’ll be out of email contact for two weeks, I suspect, and will resume on my return.]

I only saw two types of parrot-like birds in the South Luangwa..

The first was an entire flock of the wonderfully named Lilian’s Lovebirds (Agapornis lilianae), Africa’s smallest parrot at about 5 inches long.Lillian's lovebirds

Lillian's lovebirds

They are Near Threatened, and are endemic to this small area of mopane woodlands. There are thought to be only about 20,000 of these lovely birds left in the wild. I have often wondered who Lilian was, but I have failed to track her (or him?) down. They are monogamous, with the male and female pair forming a tight bond, but in breeding season (when I was there) they collect in larger flocks.

And here is an elegant Cape Parrot, with its enormous bill.

Cape parrot, northern race.

The pair of Cape parrots landed in a tree that was occupied by buffalo weavers, who took quite a dim view of the parrots’ arrival. But after awhile some sort of accommodation was arrived at, and everyone settled down.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

It is mud season in Maine, but also in the South Luangwa valley.

Competing with the kudu on the horn front, the African or Cape Buffalo (Syncerus kaffer) has a formidable pair. The bases of the two horns have fused, forming a continuous bony shield called a boss.


This fellow was one of a pair of old bulls, wandering forlornly around having just come from a comforting roll in the mud. The older animals especially like the mud, because their coat is thinning, with bald spots, and the mud protects against parasites, and the strong sun. A new treatment for male-pattern baldness, perhaps?

You can see the teeth of the one below, showing clearly how the sharp incisors cut the grass, the tongue bundles it up, and the rear molars grind their food down; see how worn they are by this age. Because of this, when they are older they seek out areas with tender young grass that is easier on their teeth.

Buffalo. Note his teeth.

They have poor eyesight, but they are extremely dangerous if you catch their attention, and they charge. They can measure up to 1.7m  (5.6 ft) at the shoulder, and weigh up to 1000Kg (2200lbs), so it is a good idea to get out of the way fast.


Aerial deliveries

The Yellowbilled Stork (Mycteria ibis), which stands about a meter tall, lives along waterways, and in grasslands:

Hippo and yellow-billed stork

They like water between 10-40 cm deep; any deeper, and they can’t hunt effectively.  In the breeding season, the normally white plumage transforms into a sugared-almond pink tutu:

Yellow-billed Stork in breeding plumage

They gather in huge colonies in the treetops to nest.

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

(NB: All the remaining photos were taken from this same spot with my zoom, so some are not great.)

The males ran a non-stop delivery service of nesting materials: they are years ahead of Amazon’s drone fleet:

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

When I was there, they were mainly nest-building and beak-clacking in their noisy courting rituals,

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

but some seemed to have already found their mates:

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

and this female was settling in, while her spouse stood sentinel:

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

The German common name of this species is ‘Nimmersatt’, meaning ‘never full’, due to the eating habits of the nestling: it increases from 60 grams to 500 grams in weight within the first ten days of life. Imagine if a human baby increased 100-fold in ten days from 6lbs to 500lbs.. (There may be a Hollywood movie idea in there somewhere?)

The chicks must be both greedy and brave to eat food regurgitated from this fearsome naked red head and lethal bill

Yellow-billed stork breeding colony

Let sleeping lions lie .. and zebras beware

Two postings ago I showed you a zebra reacting to an elephant. But the beasts to be truly scared of in the bush are of course these:

Garlic, Ginger's friend.

This is Garlic (above), and his best buddy, Ginger (below), and like most male lions sleeping is their main activity:

Ginger, a male lion who lacks pigment in his mane.

Ginger is nine years old, and he is famous because he lacks the normal black pigment in his mane, tail tip, and pads, a condition called erythrism. It is distinct from albinism, since his coat is not white and his eyes are not red. *

Sleeping lions are harmless enough, but when they wake up, zebras beware.


This zebra was at the back of a fleeing herd, and the cause of the herd’s alarm is clear: lions. By some miracle, this zebra had got away, but unsurprisingly she was moving stiffly and struggling to keep up with the others. Reassuringly, the guides said she only had flesh wounds and would probably recover.


*More on Ginger’s history here: http://safaritalk.net/topic/15727-ginger-the-golden-lion-of-south-luangwa/

A frog he would a-wooing go..

One morning after a night of heavy rain we found this mass of foam hanging over the muddy track.

Frog foam nest. When tadpoles hatch they drop into a puddle below.

About the size of a large grapefruit, it turned out to be the nest of the terrestrial African Foam Nest Tree Frog, Chiromantis xerampelina. Its construction is the culmination of a Bacchanalian orgy.

The female secrets a mucus from her cloaca, together with water from her bladder, and then she and an entourage of males whip this into a foam by churning it with their hind legs. Into this she lays her legs, and the males fertilize them, adding sperm to the mix. There can be up to 12 males, and the whole thing takes a long time, so the female takes breaks in the middle to rest and hydrate.

They build these astonishing nests above muddy puddles, and when the tadpoles hatch they drop into the puddle, where they stay until they grow into frogs. If the puddle dries out too soon, “Tough luck” as one of my guides said.

If you are still reading, you might also be interested to know how these tiny tree frogs survive the intense sun and heat of the long hot dry season. They have unusual skin that resists water loss, but their ventral skin lacks this property, so they curl up, with all the vulnerable parts tucked underneath them, and secrete a special mucus to seal any remaining gaps. There they stay, motionless, drop their breathing rate, and aestivate.

PS: According to Byrne and Whiting (2008) “Offspring of .. polyandrous encounters are more likely to survive than the eggs fertilised by a single male.” So much for monogamy

Zebras a-dazzle*

The young male zebras are horsing around, practicing for serious fighting when needed. They reminded me of teenage boys wrestling. They would have a go at each other with hooves and teeth, in bursts of furious energy:

Young male zebra playing

and they would display apparent aggression:


Then they would suddenly stop, take a break, and indulge in affectionate nibbling at each other’s necks:

Young male zebra playing

But no matter how much they honed their fighting skills, an elephant is a different sort of adversary. This zebra and his friend came round a bush, and came face to face with a very young elephant:

Zebra meeting Elephant

A brief pause, and then he sensibly realized that discretion is the better part of valor:


*Dazzle is one of several collective nouns for a group of zebras.  The others are zeal, crossing, cohort or the rather pedestrian herd.