Olemut – The Giraffe

The Giraffe stood tall, gazing into the distance. She projected a sense of grace, elegance beyond what I expected. Her 16 feet was impressive. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Giraffe stood tall, gazing across the savanna. She projected a sense of grace, elegance beyond what I expected, and her 16 feet was impressive. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The word “Olemut” came as a whisper from the front, like that uncontrolled response one has to the unexpected, so I whipped around instantly, for Robinson, our guide, had been spotting things all morning, and no doubt something lurked in the bush. He had brought us through the gates into Nairobi National Park four hours ago, and now my brain overflowed with new sightings, sounds, and smells of Africa. I held tight to the frame of the Landcruiser while I scanned the savanna as we inched along the dirt track.

There, a hundred yards away, was something that rose above the green bushes. With another shrub behind us, its head became visible, a giraffe. I’d seen giraffes in zoos, many a time. We used to take our preschool daughter to the Miami zoo for a Sunday stroll. She liked the animals and really liked the numerous playsets spread around the park. I’d get to spend an hour in the aviary, watching birds from distant continents. 

The Maasai giraffe chewed on leaves that it had just nibbled from the bush. The Maasai people call these mammals, Olemut. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Maasai people call these mammals, Olemut and this one chewed on leaves that it had just nibbled from the bush. Populations are still healthy in Kenya but roads and fences are limiting their ability to move through the savannas. (Thomas Bancroft)

This giraffe, though, had no caretaker, no one bringing it food twice a day, checking that it had water, my first wild one. My hands gripped the open roof, and I held my breath. Would it run or let us get closer? A Maasai Giraffe, one of four kinds found across Africa. These roam the savannas in southern Kenya and Tanzania.

The Reticulated Giraffe lives in Northern Kenya, and I might have a chance to see it when we visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy in a week. The Southern Giraffe is the most populace of the four and the Northern the least, with only 5,600 individuals still alive. Giraffes are threatened because of habitat loss and the fragmentation of their home ranges. To survive the weather patterns of East Africa, they must migrate to find food and water. Their ability to move has become more complicated with increased human populations, road networks, and fences.

The car bumped around a corner and stopped. There, she stood, magnificent, at least 16 feet tall, all grace and elegance. Perhaps, I could walk between her legs with hardly a duck. She towered over us and paid us no heed. Extremely long black hairs hung from her four-foot tail, and the pattern of brown and white created an intricate jigsaw puzzle across her body.

“A Red-billed Oxpecker is on her back,” I blurted. It sat just behind the giraffe’s mane, its red-eye, yellow eye-ring, and red-bill, made it look clown-like. I’d read about these birds but never seen one. The mutualistic relationship between mammal and bird is a classic example of co-evolution. Here it was, just there in front of my eyes. Oxpeckers carefully groom the fir of their host, picking ticks, mites, and parasites from the hide. Mammals will even let them work around their eyes and mouths. I hadn’t expected this bonus, a partnership to envy. 

The pattern of dark and light on a giraffe is as unique as a human finger print. It allows giraffies to be individually identified. (Thomas Bancroft)

The pattern of dark and light on a giraffe is as unique as a human fingerprint and allows giraffes to be individually identified by researchers in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

As the giraffe turned around, I focused my binoculars on her coat. The patterns are unique to each individual, and I thought a black and white photograph might emphasize the intricacies of her design. She began to mosey toward some acacia. This species tongue is massive and resistant to thorns, and they can wrap it around twigs pulling the leaves out from among the spikes. Her long neck leaned over, carrying that enormous head with ease, and she began to nibble. As she moved, wrinkles started to form in her skin. Her neck must be half her height, and yet it has the same number of vertebrae as mine, seven.

Perhaps, right then, her 18-inch purple tongue was successfully grabbing some leaves, and I wished that we could be closer, so maybe I could have seen that feat. Some people say that giraffes galumph, but this animal appeared agile and beautiful. These mammals are capable of covering long distances on those legs, galloping endlessly to reach their destination. Here was something I had only dreamed that I might see, and she was exquisite.  Stunning might be the best word. 

Robinson let us linger, just watching her grace.

A girraffe has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as any other mammal. The seven vertebrae are longer than for most mammals and provide almost half the overall height of a giraffel. (Thomas Bancroft)

A giraffe has the same number of vertebrae in its neck as any other mammals, but the seven vertebrae are longer than for most mammals and provide almost half the overall height of a giraffe. This giraffe allowed us to watch it for a long time as we toured through Nairobi National Park in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Undertaker Bird

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Three park rangers stood at the Y in the road, and our Landcruiser coasted to a stop. Our guide, Robinson, began talking with them in Swahili. The words were musical, crisp, and delightful to hear. I understood nothing. He handed them some papers, and I worried that something might be wrong. The one ranger stepped backward as she scrutinized the documents. Meanwhile, Robinson continued chatting with the other two, everyone’s hands waving in the noontime light. Robinson hesitated, turning to look over his shoulder and asked, “Do you want to see Marabou Storks?”

“Yes,” I blurted out without thinking. These are big birds, standing close to five feet tall and uglier than anything one could imagine. They are a bird of the savanna in East Africa, often visiting carcasses of large mammals where they feed with the vultures. I’d seen them in zoos but never up close in the wild.

Our guide went back to chatting with the rangers, and when they handed his documents back, we turned south to head deeper into Nairobi National Park. It was just a road check to make sure we paid our entrance fees. I stood in the back, my head out the roof, looking for any signs of these large birds. I’d spent a decade working on wading birds in the Everglades and had an affinity to these long-legged, long-necked creatures.

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Twenty minutes later, we bumped around a corner to look onto a large pond. Two Egyptian Geese waddled along the bank, and a Spur-winged Lapwing flew out with a squawk. To the right, though, below the dam, were the storks, at least 50 of them. Many were wading in the swift-flowing water while others stood ankle-deep or in the grass along the edge. The ones feeding moved their bills laterally in the water, holding the tip open a few inches. They were searching for food, hoping that something would touch that bill, and they could gulp it down. Robinson drifted to a stop where I could gaze right down on these magnificent creatures, adults and flying young.

African lore says that this species was created from scraps of other birds, making something more Frankenstein looking than pleasant. Their habit of eating carrion resulted in them being known as the “Undertaker Bird,” and they are often part of the death folklore.

An adult male stork stood with his head hunched down on his shoulders. I smiled; he looked like a gentleman, all dressed up in his most elegant attire. A gray suit coat covered his shoulders, and it had white trim along its front and tails. The coat overlay a white shirt and a puffy pink tie hung from his neck. Long gray trousers ran down his pencil-thick legs. His balding head had the pink cast of too much time in the sun, and his long yellowish snout finished off that resemblance. This gentleman, in all his ugliness, gazed up at me as if I was some peon. I liked him, a grand specimen. 

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Several looked like they must be young of the year. Although as tall as the others, their bills were noticeable shorter, and they had white down all over their heads and necks. White also edged all the covert feathers on their wings, giving them a distinguished look. These individuals showed no indication of the pink wattle. During courtship, adult males can puff up that structure. A tube connects the wattle’s pouch to their left nostril, and when full, the pouch resonates the guttural croaks he makes, noises that strengthen his bond with a female. My wife never liked it when I sang.

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A stork started to walk right toward me. His bill was several inches in the water, and he moved it so fast to the side that a wave formed in front and a whirlpool behind. In the water, they are tactile feeders, not using their eyes. When the bill touches a fish or invertebrate, it snaps shut, and hopefully, they have caught a morsel. Several large fish were swimming among all the feet, and that innate behavior is probably why these storks didn’t go after them directly. It may be that those fish were what drew this crowd here, and many birds had already eaten their fill. It might also be that those fish were here for something smaller, and the storks were after that too. After five minutes of watching the feeding, I hadn’t seen a stork catch a thing.

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks were feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks was feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A squabble grabbed my attention. Down the creek, three storks had their wings out, bills raised and pointed at each other. Maybe one walked too close to another. These are social birds, though, nesting in large colonies, and often found together at feeding sites. Right then, individuals stood lazily all around, probably digesting a good meal. It reminded me of dinner parties, where everyone lingers at the table after a superb meal, conversations lively, friendships strong. Some storks started to preen their feathers, using that long bill to work the vanes and make sure the barbules were aligned correctly. Those mighty wings were flexed in the process.

Their wingspan is over 9 feet, and their flying would rival — surpass actually — any glider pilot. A slight updraft is all they need to rise effortlessly into the heavens, not having to beat those wings. I followed Wood Storks and Great Egrets leaving a nesting colony in the Everglades to see where they went to feed. Our pilot would circle 700 feet above the colony and when a bird caught a thermal, I’d yell to the him to start climbing as fast as he could. He’d crank up the engine on our Cessna, but the birds sometimes past us on a good thermal. We’d lose them. 

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Some people mistake these storks for vultures when seen high overhead because of how effortlessly they soar. Their silhouette — the long legs and big heads – helps separate them from the vultures.

My stomach growled right then. It was almost noon, and Robinson had picked us up at 5:30 AM. It would take an hour or more to drive out of here, mainly because something else would likely grab our attention. I’d hoped these birds might fly, and I could see the power of those massive wings, and then maybe one would grab a thermal, vanishing as a speck into the blue.

“Thanks, Robinson, this was great,” I said, “I hadn’t expected so many at such close range.” He nodded and started the motor. We turned to retrace our path. 

I watched the muster for as long as it remained in sight, but no bird made any effort to fly. The Undertaker was content.

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Making a Connection

A bullet shot across the road in Nairobi National Park, hesitated, and then dropped onto a flower. A Scarlet-chested Sunbird had appeared. (Thomas Bancroft)

Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A dark bullet-like object shot across the road, it hesitated, and then dropped into the wildflowers. On the other side of some acacias, Yellow-necked Francolins were giving their “ko-waarrk” calls; loud, raucous, chicken-like. The songs of longclaws drifted from some grasslands in the distance, and a light wind rustled the acacia leaves. The clouds had filtered the sunlight, and I felt magic in this landscape, mesmerized by the beauty, sounds, and sweet smells. This was the Africa of Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen, and I was stunned to be in this land. A place where lions dozed, impalas browsed, and hartebeests ambled by. 

The bullet transformed into a bird of only 6 inches and a gorgeous one at that. It hung from a vertical stem, rigid; one eye fixed on me. A large vermilion chest seemed to puff out. A metallic emerald-green forehead added additional color to an otherwise black object. The bill, though, was longer than its head and down curved in an even arch. Dropping its gaze, it hopped up the stem and began to probe the flower buds. A male Scarlet-chested Sunbird was less than two-dozen feet away, my first.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi Natonal Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

My binoculars were fixed on it. This sunbird fed much like a hummingbird in the Western Hemisphere or a honeyeater in Australia. The long bill explored between buds and darted around the inflorescence. Probably, nectar and insects were his goals. Sunbirds are distantly related to Australian honeyeaters, and other than being in the class Aves, not particularly related to hummingbirds. Their similar shapes and behaviors are a result of convergent evolution brought on by selection to feed on similar food sources, flower nectar.

One of my goals for this trip was to see examples of this convergence, many were topics of graduate school discussions, and they still needed my pondering. The sunbird flew to another stem, landing right below a cluster of red-tubed flowers. These birds are bigger than most of the hummingbirds I’d seen and don’t hover as often. Their shape, though, is remarkably similar as are color patterns.

If the flower tube is too long, sunbirds will pierce it near the base, sucking out the nectar. If so, then the plant doesn’t get the benefit of pollination assistance. Many plants have coevolved with sunbirds, hummingbirds, and honeyeaters, so they provide nectar to these birds, and the birds unknowingly carry pollen between flowers, helping provide cross-fertilization — another ecological process to brood.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

This bird didn’t seem to be focused on nectar right now but rather probing between the flowers, probably trying for insects or spiders. His behavior made me think about the female, and I started to scan the surrounding vegetation for her. She’d be a dark brown color. This species often travels in pairs, and she was nowhere to be seen. Might she have a nest right then, in December, here in Nairobi National Park? Maybe, he was gathering protein to feed her or her newly hatched young. The nest might have been nearby, in a bush or back across the road from where he came, and I turned to look in that direction.

Scrub habitat with lots of grass extended for a long way. With the good “short rains” in the previous few months, blossoms were opening. In their memoirs of living in Kenya, Karen Blixen and Kuki Gallmann talked about their gardens, and the flowers they grew. Might they had looked for these birds and named them. Giving them a name makes them real, shows a level of respect. I turned back, wanting to see this bird that I’d only just identified, but it had flown. The image, though, remained in my brain.

An incredible warmth filled my body right then. In Africa, I’d just seen the first member of the family. I’d seen a different sunbird species in Australia a few years ago, but there was something about seeing one in Africa, more the center of this family’s distribution and abundance. I’d read about sunbirds for years, studied their pictures, attempted to learn the dozen or so species that might be on this trip. Seeing this first one, created a unique sensation that I hadn’t expected, a connection that will last.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

 

More Photographs from Nairobi National  Park, Kenya

Vanishing into the Dark

The female Bushbuck peaked through the bushes, her face parially covered by leaves. Her ears were pricked forward to see if there was danger in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

The female Bushbuck peaked through the bushes, her face partially covered by leaves. Her ears were pricked forward to see if there was danger in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A hint of tan appeared between some leaves, and I trained my binoculars on the spot. There, peaking through, was the small head of an antelope. A dark black line ran up her face, running from her shiny nose to between two extra-large black eyes. The rest of her head was a light tan. Her two large ears pointed forward, directly at me, and her eyes seemed transfixed. This female Bushbuck was mostly hidden by the thick green vegetation. A little pink on her lips showed in the middle of her delicate white muzzle.  She was gorgeous and reminded me of a ballerina in suspended animation. I froze, hoping she might relax. 

Bushbucks are solitary, living in the thick brush where they selectively browse on leaves and twigs. She might well have a fawn tucked back in a secret spot. She will keep it hidden there for months before she allows it to accompany her on her daily rounds. In these cases, the mother regularly visits the fawn, allowing it to nurse and eating the fawn’s feces, so no scent is left. Leopards are probably her primary nemesis.  

The Bushbuck worked along the edge of a woodland in Nairobi National Park. She nibbled on leaves and grasses as she walked. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Bushbuck worked along the edge of the woodland in Nairobi National Park. She nibbled on leaves and grasses as she walked. These antelopes are solitary. (Thomas Bancroft)

After a few minutes, she seemed to ease, putting her head down to nibble on a leaf. Turning slowly, the antelope began to mosey to our left, gently revealing more of her exquisite body. Two white lines dotted her light brown cheek and a dark brown band wrapped around the base of her neck. A dozen or so white spots graced her tan flanks. With each movement of those legs, I sensed the power as well as the finesse they possessed. She, no doubt, could move like a ballerina, turning instantly on one hoof, dancing around shrubs, flying over obstacles, and vanishing into the dark of the woodlands.

Her right ear had a small tear; the left was perfect. Before preparing for this trip, I hadn’t known about this species. It is not one of the typical African antelopes, the impalas and gazelles, that movies show. The ones chased by the swift cheetah or that run with the herds of wildebeests and zebras. This one is retiring, wary, and hides back in wooded areas where it is often difficult to see. When she appeared, we’d just entered the woodland at the northern end of Nairobi National Park. I felt fortunate right then; I’d hoped we might find one but hadn’t had high expectations. 

The Bushbuck raised her head from feeding to look at where I stood in Nairobi National Park. Her long tongue came out to lick her lips. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Bushbuck raised her head from feeding to look at where I stood in Nairobi National Park. Her long tongue came out to lick her lips. This antelope held her body with grace. (Thomas Bancroft)

She turned her head toward me. Her long tongue wrapped out of her mouth and to the top of her nose. The heads of grass seeds swinging across her sides looked like delicate lace on a woman’s chest. I wondered what she’d look like if she ran and remembered watching white-tailed deer, their graceful leaps were astonishing as they dashed away from me on our farm in Pennsylvania. They’d hold their whitetail up as a flag for others to follow as they seemed to glide over hurdles. Their movements fluid, almost effortless.

The Bushbuck sauntered back into the darkness, fading away. Might she be going to check on her fawn? I stared for several more minutes, wondering if this had been real. 

Bushbucks are solitary and like woodland areas in Nairobi National Park and elsewhere in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Bushbucks are a solitary antelope. They like woodland areas in Nairobi National Park and elsewhere in Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

More photographs from Nairobi National Park are available here

 

A tea-kettle Song

The elegant stance of a Carolina Wren makes it look like it owns the world and knows it. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The elegant stance of a Carolina Wren makes it look like it owns the world and knows it. This bird is frequently encountered on Christmas Bird Counts in the Eastern United States. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A loud booming song came rattling up the ravine. It sounded like “tea-kettle-tea-kettle-tea-kettle” then a pause and more “tea-kettle-tea-kettles.” I jumped from foot to foot, trying to stay warm as I scanned the deciduous hardwood forest. The temperature hung around freezing, and I hadn’t brought enough layers to Pennsylvania for doing this Christmas Bird Count. 

The melody jumped to the other side of the gully, but nothing seemed to have moved under the massive red oaks and hickories. The bird should be hopping through the leafless bushes, maybe clinging to the bark on one of those trees, or zipping along a branch, all places that it should be easily visible. I shuffled to my left twenty paces, trying to get the blood moving, and started a systematic search. I knew what the bird was, a Carolina Wren, but for some unknown reason, I desperately wanted to see it. They don’t live in Seattle where I do now.

The Carolina Wren moves up the log, probing amont the wood for possible morsels on this cold winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Carolina Wren moves up the log, probing among the wood for possible morsels on this cold winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

These guys are small and chunky with a reddish-brown back and cap. Their white eyebrow and dark eyeline give them a distinguished look, and that long barred tail radiates energy. They always seem to be at high speeds, tackling life with gusto. Maybe it was envy that made me want to find it.

This was one of the first birds I’d learned as a small child. My sisters still have the farm where I grew up, and our place was just a quarter-mile up the hill from this location. For several years, a pair tried to nest in a little shed. A small cardboard box sat on a high shelf just above the lawnmower. They built their little grass cup in there and laid their creamy-white eggs with rusty brown spots. I’d try to sneak in and pull out the lawnmower without disturbing them. I don’t know if they ever were successful there. Once, late in the summer, I used a step ladder to look into the box and found four cold eggs still nicely clumped in the perfectly woven nest. That shed is gone now.

These little birds remind me of the Bewick’s Wrens that live in my Seattle yard. Bewick’s occasionally visit my suet in winter, and when it is warm, one will sing from the tops of bushes in my front yard. These two species are in separate genera but closely related. When we had heavy snows on the farm, Carolina Wrens occasionally came to our feeders, but their primary food was insects and spiders even in winter. 

The relative abundance of Carolina Wrens calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology

The general warming of the Eastern United States over the last fifty years has allowed Carolina Wrens to move north and increase in numbers. Severe winters, especially ones with snow that lasts for several weeks, knockback populations substantially. Christmas Bird Count data for Pennsylvania shows a significant crash after a particularly harsh winter in the mid-1990s. This wren has bounced back, though.

Christmas Bird Count data for Pennsylvania shows that populations of Carolina Wrens were depressed following a hard winter in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps, it’s that ability to recover after a catastrophe that was making me want to find this bird. A decade ago, I moved to Seattle following my wife’s death and a job loss. It took a while to find the right conditions, to find friends, to ….. 

A Carolina Wren sings its te-kettle tea-kettle song to let everyone know it is here. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Carolina Wren sings its tea-kettle tea-kettle song to let everyone know it is here in Pennsylvania and that he owns this place. Their songs are loud and easily heard from a long distance. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

che-wortel, che-wortel, che-wortel” interrupted my thoughts. It came from farther down the valley and closer to the trail. The wren had moved, and I hurried along. There it sat, bouncing up and down on those two thin legs, looking left and right, no indication of being cold.

A pair lived in this ravine throughout those years following the population crash. Another couple lived through those times in the black walnut grove around my boyhood home. They tried to nest a few times on the back porch of that house where my sisters still live. These birds persevered through those hard times.

The wren flitted up through a bush and looked right at me. It seemed to say, “What are you thinking about? Get on with it!” It then darted left and dashed down over the hill. I stared for a while and then turned to continue my count. That ball of energy had somehow warmed me up.

The Carolina Wren leans to its left and stares right at me as if its asking me a question. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Carolina Wren leans to its left and stares right at me as if it’s asking me a question. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Red-collared Widowbird

The Red-collared Widowbird landed on an exposed branch after doing his fluttering display over the adjacent grasslands in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Red-collared Widowbird landed on an exposed branch after doing his fluttering display over the adjacent grasslands in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A long black tube-like bird came fluttering across the grasses. It seemed to be flying barely, flopping through the air, like a balance beam gymnast having trouble. “Can we stop?” I shouted to our driver. The slender shape was not quite vertical to the ground. I was standing in the back of a Landcruiser with my head out the roof, and there was no way I could hold binoculars still enough to train them on this creature.

It appeared all black, skinny, and extremely long, but I could get no details in the gray light. Body size seemed like our North American Red-winged Blackbird, but the tail was three, maybe four times the length of a blackbird’s tail. Males of African widowbirds are supposed to have extremely long tails that they use to attract females. So long, that its length can inhibit their ability to fly or so it seems.

“Is this a widowbird?” I called to Robinson, our guide and driver in Nairobi National Park.

“Yes, Red-collared, a male,” he had his binoculars up and was watching it come closer and closer.

I held my breath, hoping it might land nearby. Evolutionary, widowbirds are fascinating. The eight recognized species are all polygynous. Males vigorously defend a territory from all others, and they do a flight display to entice a female into their space. This individual was performing right now.

The longer his tail, the more likely a male Red-collared Widowbird will mate with several females. A more intense red collar will indicate that he is dominate over other males. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The longer his tail, the more likely a male Red-collared Widowbird will mate with several females. A more intense red collar will indicate that he is dominant over other males. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Widowbirds occur in the savannas of Africa and like areas were the grasses and short brush intertwine. Similar habitat to the Impala and Hartebeest that I’d seen earlier that day.

If a female shows interest, a male Red-collared Widowbird will use a partially built nest as a prop when he courts her. If she likes the nest structure and his performance, she might stay, accept the nest, and mate with him. But he doesn’t help the female finish the nest, incubate the eggs, or feed the young. So, by pairing with the male, the female gets the use of his territory and his sperm, nothing else. 

Presumably, she can evaluate the territory when moving through it, and in some respects, this will reflect the quality of the male, too. Good males will usually hold the best patches. She needs a safe place for her nest, one that will tend to protect it from predators, and an excellent area to find food for her young. But how else can she judge the “genetic” quality of the male?

The two central tail feathers on this male Red-collared Widowbird were still growing. Perhaps, these shorter feathers would make him less desirable to females. They use tail length as a que of his status. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The two central tail feathers on this male Red-collared Widowbird were still growing. Perhaps, these shorter feathers would make him less desirable to females. They use tail length as an indicator of his quality. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Experiments done by ornithologists showed that she focuses on the length of his tail. Males with longer tails tend to mate with more females than those with shorter ones. This drives selection on males for even longer ones, and they now have a tail during the breeding season that it is so long that it appears to hinder their ability to fly. Presumably, being able to survive with such an extravagant tail indicates their superiority. But what do males key on when they compete among themselves?

The male widowbird flew onto a bare branch not far from our vehicle, and his long tail blew back and forth in the wind. A bright crimson collar surrounded a black face and bill. Even in the subdued light, it radiated an intensity of red that surprised me. Of any birds, these males have the highest levels of carotenoids in those feathers. The concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin help give that intense red color.

Converting nutrients into this red pigment is a costly process, requiring extra energy and a specialized metabolic pathway. But it is this red collar that tells other males an individual’s status. Scientists have manipulated the size and intensity of these collars and found that males with smaller or less bright ones had a harder time securing a territory or holding one. The researchers concluded that the “redness” of the collar and, to a lesser extent, its size indicated the dominance status of a male.

I jerked my hand down; it had been rubbing my beard for the last few minutes. I’d just turned 68 the previous week and had been wearing hair on my face for only five months. This widowbird was making me wonder why I kept it.  Last summer, I had let it grow on a week-long camping trip and discovered that some hair follicles on my cheeks and chin had stopped making melanin. The beard was a mixture of gray and brown, different from the solid brown on my head. 

After the camping trip, I let it continue to thicken because I wanted to see the mosaic of grays and browns when the beard was fuller. I had three weeks before a trip back east to see my sisters and planned to have it cut by then. The weekend before my flight, I went hiking with my nephew, and he talked me out of shaving it. To my surprise, my sisters liked it. They said something like, “It gives you a distinguished look.”  Later a friend said she thought it gave me a “professorial bearing.”

The male widowbird shifted his stance in the bush, and his red collar seemed to shimmer in the mid-day light. Perhaps, he was a dominant male, possessing a high-quality collar that intimidated other males, and his long black tail might be irresistible to females. He then flicked that tail and flew out over the grassland, waving it back and forth as he fluttered a few feet above the vegetation.

“You ready,” Robinson asked as the car started to drift forward.

“Yes,” came out as I rubbed my facial hair, wondering its significance for a single man at my age.

The intensity of red in the collar of this widowbird is an indicator of his dominance among male Red-collared Widowbirds. Males with bright red collars tend to hold the best territories. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

The intensity of red in the collar of this widowbird is an indicator of his dominance among male Red-collared Widowbirds. Males with bright red collars tend to hold the best territories. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe – A Not So Mundane Bird

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and It was mid January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and it was mid-January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A movement caught my eye on the chilly January day. The glimpse had come from under the leafless branches of some willows and cottonwoods where a small pond was tucked in a thicket. I froze but could see nothing until I slowly crouched down. There, floating on the water, was a football-sized mass of feathers, tan along the waterline and darker above. It had two black eyes that glared at me from a smallish head, probably wondering if I was friend or foe.  A tiny Pied-billed Grebe drifted less than 20 feet from me.

Typically, they slink away, so I decided to settle here and see what it would do. These grebes are permanent residents in the Puget Trough, but over much of the United States, they are migratory. People seldom see them flying because they travel at night and rarely fly to escape a disturbance. Usually, Pied-bills dive and swim away, often undetected. People on birding outings will often comment, “Oh, it’s just a grebe,” wanting I presume to see something more colorful, bigger, less mundane.

The distribution of Pied-billed Grebes in the Western Hemisphere as calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology.

Their distribution is fascinating with breeding populations in both North and South America. Although a few are in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Central America, generally, a big geographic gap exists between those groups on each continent. 

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

For North America, the animation of weekly abundance data from eBird showed that in January, Pied-bills were concentrated in Florida and along the Southeast coastal plains and across into Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lots were also in the central valley of California and then a few here in Puget Sound. Some were scattered elsewhere, especially Central Mexico and near the Gulf of California. By March, birds had moved into the Great Plains and by late April had extended into the Canadian prairies, Central Washington, and British Columbia. Their numbers in the Southeast had plummeted by April, but those in central California remained pretty constant. In the fall, they started to head back toward the Gulf Coast.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/pibgre/abundance-map-weekly?forceLogin=true

In South America, the migration was in the opposite direction. In late January, lots were in Northeastern Brazil and then scattered to northern Argentina. As the year progressed, they migrated south to breed from Southern Brazil into Central Argentina. A few were also in Chile, Equator, and Columbia. Of all the grebe species in the Western Hemisphere, Pied-bills have the most extensive distribution. 

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The one in Magnuson Park, a protected area in Seattle, slowly turned a complete circle while keeping one eye on me. Its back and sides had water droplets beaded on the feathers. Those feathers seemed slicked down but waterproof. The bill still had the black ring mid-way out and the bluish-white base. Usually, they lose that band, and the bill becomes more yellowish-brown in the non-breeding season. Perhaps, its breeding hormones were still flowing here in January.

The bird radiated a sense of pride, confidence. In Celtic mythology, the grebe guards the spirit world and helps humans find beauty where they otherwise might not. The contours of its body, the S-shape of its neck, the tautness of its muscles all projected splendor. 

Suddenly, the grebe just sank out of sight, hardly making a ripple. No dive, it just dropped as if it was a rock gently placed on the surface. The bird must have compressed its body feathers, squeezing out the trapped air, and tightened its chest muscles to make its air sacks smaller, decreasing its buoyancy.  

I shook my head as I got back to my feet. Birds are so marvelous.

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.

http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews184.pdf#page=8

Two Bachelors on the African Plains

An impala looks intently into the African Plains.

There, in the long green grass, stood two male impalas. Their curved horns rose several feet above their heads. With dark chestnut brown on their backs and a brownish white across their bellies, they blended into the savanna colors. Last night’s rain had slicked their fir down, but they showed no indication of being chilled. One raised its head, turning from nibbling on grass to stare right at me. I stood in the back of our vehicle with both hands gripping my binoculars, and my eyes studying every detail of these athletes. Here was the quintessential animal of the African plains, the one that everyone shows gracefully running while doing spectacular leaps. 

The Impala stared right at me, eyes intense, ears pointed forward.
The impala raised its head and stared right at me. He pricked forward both his ears and looked intently, finally deciding I was not a threat and went back to feeding.

His eyes seemed intense, the facial expression was inquisitive, and he’d pricked his two ears forward. The left one had two large tears partway out, well healed. Perhaps, a thorn snagged the ear as the antelope bounded through the scrub. His muzzle, though, really drew me. Its softness and roundness gave it a delicate mien. The lines of the nostrils came down to a split upper lip and then joined with the curved mouth. White fir-covered this area, contrasting with the chestnut of the body as if he had put on frosty lipstick that morning. 

Those glossy black horns, though, rose elegantly into the air. They came up from the head, going away from each other, then curving back and up more. Their length impressive, and black rings curled around each, giving them a carved look. The generic name for this species, Aepyceros, means “high-horned” and comes from ancient Greek. I switched to photographing him and began to wonder how someone could shoot such a beauty and mount his head on a wooden plate. But was that what I was doing with a camera, capturing my trophy? Possibly, I would print and attach a portrait of this guy on my wall. My shooting didn’t seem to affect him in the least.

An impala chews on grass.
The impala chewed the grass slowly, gradually pulling the long stems into its mouth. He twitched his ears back and forth, always attentive to what was around him. Africa is full of predators that like to eat this antelope.

He turned back to munching on grass, and the other one began to urinate right in front of us. These were two bachelor males, hanging out together. A male expends a lot of energy to maintain a harem of a couple of dozen females. He usually doesn’t have the experience or strength until he is three or four years old. Then he might successfully push out a harem owner and become the dominant one. He may only be able to keep that position for a short time before he, too, is supplanted. Maybe these were young males that hadn’t made that attempt. They looked fit, in prime condition. Perhaps they regularly practice fighting among themselves, preparing for their opportunity.

Two impalas graze on the African plains in Nairobi National Park.
Two impalas graze on the African plains in Nairobi National Park.

For about a decade, I’ve been a bachelor, too. After my wife died, I dated a few women, and at one point I’d thought I’d found someone to spend the rest of my days with. But the stress I was under then, caused by closing an organization down and laying off all the staff, put a rift into that hope. Impala males are under constant pressure when they are defending a group of females. They must run back and forth, keeping an eye on all their does and looking for rival males who might want to usurp their position or snitch a female away. It wears them out, burns up their energy reserves, exhausts them. But it gives them a chance for sex and therefore leaving progeny. Companionship doesn’t seem to be part of it.

These two males looked like buddies, spending their days together, helping each other detect predators, finding the right morsels to chew, and sharing their experiences and thoughts. For me, that seems to be what is essential now, as I’m about to complete my seventh decade on this planet. Someone to discuss these sightings, to hear what the other saw that I failed to notice, and to find joy in the other’s thoughts, reactions, would be nice. Life develops more dimensions when it can be seen through another set of eyes. 

The back of the impalas head.
The rain had slicked down the impala’s fir, giving it texture. He’d pricked his ears forward to see what might be approaching on the African Plains.

These two impalas started to mosey into the bush, picking at grass pieces, nipping on twigs. Maybe, they were headed to a secluded spot where they could bed down and chew their cuds, processing a second time that quick meal of the morning. Now, that is a good life!

The impala twists its head to look behind it.
On December 5th, I saw my first impala. This male was grazing on the edge of a thicket in Nairobi National Park. They are more elegant and graceful than I’d imagined.

Yellow-throated Longclaw: A bird of the East African plains.

Macronyx croceus live in subsaharan Africa and occur in grasslands and dry savannas.
The plumage on this Yellow-throated Longclaw is remarkably similar to the colors and patterns on an Eastern Meadowlark even though they are not closely related. The Longclaw lives in Africa while the Meadowlark lives in North America.

 A bird flitted out of the long grass and landed at eye level in a dark-green bush. It glared right at me as I leaned out of the Landcruiser’s roof opening. Here was the meadowlark “look-a-like” that I’d ogled at repeatedly in the East African bird book. This individual had a black-V across its yellow throat, chest, and belly, just like the Eastern Meadowlarks that we had on our Pennsylvania farm. Its back was also striped tan-brown, perfect for blending into dry grass. But this African bird, a Yellow-throated Longclaw, was no relation to the North American bird of my youth.

Yellow-throated Longclaw looks to its left, showing the yellow throat and black V on its chest.
The brown iris is emphasized by the markings around the eye. The dark flecking on the plumage gives this African bird a distinguished look and helps it blend into its grassland home.

It was only 8:30 AM on my first day in Kenya, and I yelled to our driver and guide, “Fantastic, what a great bird!” I first saw a photograph of this species decades ago when I was in graduate school. We were looking for examples of convergent evolution while also studying birds of the world. Longclaws are in the avian family Motacillidae, which includes the wagtails and pipits, too. Motacillids are primarily an Eastern Hemisphere group. Two pipit species do occur in North America, and two wagtails sneak across the Bering Straits into Western Alaska. The Old World, however, has lots, including eight longclaw species. The Eastern Meadowlark, though, is part of the Western Hemisphere family Icteridae, the blackbirds and orioles. 

Longclaws and meadowlarks live in similar habitats; grasslands and wet savannas. They nest low among the grasses and forage for insects, spiders, and invertebrates. Natural selection has encouraged the development of their plumage pattern. Their brown-striped backs help them disappear in the waving stems. The yellow front with the black-V probably also blends well and may also be important for courtship. The sexes though are similarly patterned. Males of both species have beautiful songs that carry across the landscape, declaring their ownership of a small section.

The longclaw gets its name from the length of their toenails. The entire front digits on this bird seemed longer than what I remembered for a meadowlark. The hind claw is even lengthier still, and I wished this individual would turn around. Instead, it just twisted its head back and forth, making sure it kept one eye on me. 

The yellow-throated Longclaw is a bird of subsaharan Africa and occurs in grasslands and dry savanna habitats.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw shifted its head to the side as if it was ignoring me. This species is found in Subsaharan Africa. It likes grasslands and dry savannas.

Perhaps, I have a stronger subconscious connection to meadowlarks than I’d admitted, and that drew me to want to find a longclaw on this trip. When I was growing up in the 60s, meadowlarks nested in the hayfields and pastures of our farm. Some were around all year, but a definite influx came in the spring. I never discovered a nest of one even though I walked through the long grass looking. I regularly found Red-winged Blackbird nests but not those of this secretive bird. Male meadowlarks would often sing from the tops of trees along the field’s edge, allowing me to watch them as I slowly circled the area on a tractor. We’d wait to begin the haying until after the blackbirds and meadowlarks had fledged their young. 

My sisters still have the farm, and the surrounding farms still have hayfields and pastures. But the meadowlarks are pretty much gone. In my lifetime, their numbers in North America have declined by 89%. It happened slowly, and often people didn’t notice. Scientists think it is related to changing agricultural practices, the loss of family farms, and increased pesticide use. I find it frightening.

Macronyx croceus live south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They frequent grasslands and dry savannas.
The black V on the yellow front of this Longclaw really stands out. The yellow eyebrow and small ring of white below the eye gives it an elegant look.

It is part of a larger problem. North America has lost one in four birds since 1970 and that amounts to almost 3 billion individuals. Conservationists and scientists are focused on solutions. Protecting habitat and reducing window strikes, cat kills, and pesticide use all will help. We also need to counter this administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and others. Each time I visit my sisters, I walk their farm and the neighbors to see what birds I might find. The occasional meadowlark is a special joy.

According to Birdlife International, populations of Yellow-throated Longclaws seem stable. It occurs in many countries south of the Sahara. This place, Nairobi National Park, protects habitat for this species as well as many others. 

The longclaw seemed a little slimmer than a meadowlark, maybe like a ballerina rather than a gymnast. The yellow eyebrow made its face stand out. The thin black line of feathers from its gape extended down to its black-throat patch and the light flicking of black lines on its crown and across the yellow gave it a distinguished look. It suggested to me an eminent diplomate coming to make her case in front of an international body. I shivered, maybe, it was telling me to increase my efforts to protect birds, don’t give up. The longclaw then turned, dropped down into the grasses, and disappeared.

The bird glared right at me, both eyes focused intensely. Was it telling me that I needed to increase my efforts to protect habitat.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw glared right at me as if it was trying to tell me to get busy and protect habitat.

My First African Antelope

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The antelope appeared in the savanna just out from the dirt track. It was walking slowly to our right and didn’t seem to pay any attention to us staring at it. The Coke’s Hartebeest was tall, three-feet at its shoulders and walked in a confident manner. (Thomas Bancroft)

The sun was up but not showing through the clouds. The savanna in Nairobi National Park had taken on a soft green look, almost pastel in texture. It was 6:50 AM as we cruised slowly along a dirt track. Robinson, our guide, had raised the roof of his Landcruiser so we could stand and look in all directions. My hands gripped the sides while my binoculars and camera swung from my neck. With each bump, the car rocked to one side or the other, banging us back and forth. Then suddenly, something caught my eye, just a little way out in the grass stood an antelope. 

“Stop! Please! What’s that?” I yelled.

His breaking caused me to fall forward, but my grip held. “Hartebeest,” Robinson said.

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The Swahili name for this antelope is Kongoni. (Thomas Bancroft)

My binoculars came to my eyes, and my body pressed hard against the car’s side. This was my first sighting of an antelope in Africa. I’d expected it to be a gazelle or impala, but this was perfect. The Coke’s Hartebeest stood three-feet tall at the shoulders, bigger than either of those. The antelope held its head even higher. Two blackish horns rose between the ears, twisting out and forward before going backward. They weren’t long, less than a foot, but looked solid, thick at the base. The horns grew from a boney extension rising between the ears.

Their name is thought to have originated from an Afrikaans word that meant “deer beast.” Robinson added, “The Swahili name is Kongoni and generally just refers to this variety.” That name had popped up many times in Elspeth Huxley’s book on her childhood in Kenya. Taxonomists have described eight subspecies, and this one, Alcelaphus buselaphus cokiioccurs in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The shape of the horns varies between those taxa. This species had been prized for their meat by European settlers.

In recent decades, Coke’s Hartebeest numbers have fallen dramatically, and now about 40,000 survive in Kenya and Tanzania, mostly in protected areas. They are diurnal and feed on grasses and herbaceous vegetation. Usually, they occur in small herds, so I was surprised to see this one by itself.

 (Thomas Bancroft)

Their horns grow out of a boney knob on the top of their heads. Their muzzle is long and thin and their eyes protrude out from their heads. They have excellent eyesight and generally, one in a herd is always on the lookout for predators. (Thomas Bancroft)

The antelope started to walk toward us. Its face was long, coming down to a narrow muzzle. The coat a cinnamon brown, with light upper legs and dark lower ones, almost like it wore knee socks. The hartebeest strolled on long, thin legs that would be excellent for running. I looked back in the direction we’d come; not twenty minutes ago, we’d seen two very thin male lions in the middle of the road. They hunt these antelope, but this one was alert. Its ears went back and forth, attuned to any sound. Its eyes were big and prominent on the sides of its head. Every direction would be visible simultaneously. These mammals are probably very good at avoiding predation, and those horns would be a formidable weapon.

After halving the distance toward us, it turned and started to trout through the grass, disappearing in a second, and I wondered if it had spotted some of its comrades.  

 (Thomas Bancroft)

The Kongoni started to trot through the grass. It appeared intent on finding something. I wondered if it wanted to link back up with its group. (Thomas Bancroft)