An Unexpected Encounter

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The witchety-witchety-witchety came from the cattails bordering the lake. An eight-foot band of emergent vegetation formed a green ribbon that highlighted the open water. A Common Yellowthroat was singing not a dozen feet from my car’s open window. It was 4:45 AM, and I had just left my campsite to bump along this dirt track. The sun wouldn’t rise for another quarter-hour, and it would be much longer before the warm rays hit Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Valley.

The singing yellowthroat was hidden in the thick stems, but its song was loud and clear. The background sounds of blackbirds, ducks, flycatchers, and kingbirds enhanced the solo, and I slowly opened my door so that I could fetch my sound recording equipment from the backseat. I took two tentative steps toward the backdoor when loud splashes erupted from the lake.

The Bull Moose begins to trott up the hill and away from Forde Lake where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bull Moose begins to trot up the hill and away from Forde Lake, where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

There, not a hundred yards away, a bull moose thrashed in a small cove. He galloped along the edge of the cattails, water coming partway up his side, and splashes going above his head. His palmate antlers looked half grown on this mid-June morning. My first thoughts were to chastise myself for not scanning the lake before I opened the door. Then I wondered if I froze, might he calm down and go back to feeding. I reached back into the front to grab my telephoto lens as the beast plowed into the thick cattails, totally disappearing.

These ungulates moved into Washington in only the last century. I knew they were in the Selkirk Mountains but hadn’t realized they were on the east side of the Cascades in Okanogan County.  A few years back, a census by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that over 5,000 moose now live in this state. Their highest density is in the northeast. Although sometimes taken by wolves, the biggest threat to Washington’s moose seems to be the increase in ticks. The warming climate has allowed tick numbers to explode, and a significant infestation on an individual moose can suck enough blood to affect its condition.

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This male exploded out of the cattails and onto the grass-covered plain that rose from the lake. He stopped briefly to look back at me, and then trotted along at a brisk pace, surprisingly graceful for such a gangly looking member of the deer family. Their legs are extremely long, allowing them to wade in deep water for aquatic plants and reach high into bushes and trees when they browse. Once, when I was in Alaska, I watched a moose and her large calf graze. They had to walk on their knees to be able to reach the grass. Aquatic plants and browse are their primary foods.

He moved at a diagonal up the hill. This guy probably stood five feet at the shoulders, maybe more, and weighed at least a thousand pounds. I kept snapping photographs, even though it was still dark, and I could only see a silhouette in the images. Maybe, I’d be able to pull some more detail out of the files. His dewlap hung under his neck, and that sizeable muscular nose gave him the unique look of this species. His antlers were covered in velvet, and I wondered how big they’d grow this summer.

He ran to the edge of some sagebrush, now a quarter-mile away, and paused. His magnificent profile made me hold my breath, hoping he might turn back. But no, he disappeared then over the rise. I stood for the longest time watching where he’d gone before getting back into my car. The Yellowthroat had stopped singing.

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Mother’s Concern

The Mule Deer stood like a stature on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer stood like a statue on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Her black eyes glared down the hill, and her face muscles were taught. She had her two large ears cocked forward, pointing directly at me. Just her neck and head were above the dense prairie vegetation, and a few grass stems waved in front of her eyes. I’d been working along the edge of Mary Anne Creek looking for birds when a strange feeling made me turn and look up the thirty-foot bank. This mule deer stared down at me, looking more like a statue than something alive.

The Okanogan is a hunting area, and even though this was mid-June, I was surprised she hadn’t taken off at first sight of a human. I whispered to my two friends, “Look up on the hill.” The grass was thick, maybe two feet high, and a few lupins and daisies bloomed amongst the stems. At 10:30 AM, I’d would have expected her to be bedded down, resting away the day. 

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Both mule and white-tailed deer live in the Okanogan Highlands. This individual had the large ears and whiter face typical of mule deer. Her ears seemed to flex a little, and she took a short but tentative step forward. It made me freeze even more and begin to scan in front of her. Sure enough, a few dozen feet closer to me was some movement in the grass. Then two small ears started to show and a rump, too. A fawn rose from a napping spot and moved up the hill toward the doe. The little one was cantering, her front showing with each bound forward. I watched to see if a second one appeared.

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Often, does have two fawns, but first-time mothers may only have one. She looked healthy, but nothing gave me a hint of her age. This would be a Rocky Mountain mule deer, one of ten subspecies found across western North America. West of the Cascades, where I live, is the Columbian black-tailed version. Mule deer numbers have decreased in the Okanogan over the last few decades, and the reasons are unclear. Scientists think that the increase in white-tailed deer in eastern Washington has allowed a growth in cougar populations, and these cats apparently take more mule deer than expected based on the abundance of the two deer species. 

As the fawn approached her mother, the doe’s face seemed to relax; her ears turned backward, but yet she maintained her glare at me. Rows of white spots ran up the fawn’s back. It must have been pretty young, and I wished for a better view. The two quietly disappeared over the hill, and all that remained was waving grass stems in the mid-morning sun.

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush

A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.

The Highlands of Western Panama – A Virtual Tour

Birds found at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve, Panama.

Self-quarantine got you down? Tired of birding through your living room window?  This video will take you to Western Panama and into the cloud forests. Be immersed in the sounds of Western Panama’s wild country. I will guide you through layers of gorgeous birdlife, exotic flora, and a quick jaunt through geologic history. Our goal is to understand how the isthmus of Panama has influenced the evolution of some of our common North American birds. 

The long tail of a Resplendent Quetzal blows in the wind at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The mountains of Western Panama are a mixing pot for birds. Neotropical migrants come to winter or pass through on their travels. Altitudinal migrants move in and out with the seasons, and then there are the permanent residents that make up a complex and diverse component. Central America is an active geological area, and over the last ten million years. The formation of the Isthmus has had a profound influence on the bird communities found throughout North and South America, including those in Washington State. Learn more about this fascinating place, its impact on the Western Hemisphere, see some flora and fauna and listen to sounds from the cloud forest.

Alternatively, join me for a live presentation on April 29th at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. I will do a different version of this talk for the Mountaineers. The session is open to the public and free. You can register for it:

https://www.mountaineers.org/locations-lodges/seattle-branch/events/panama2019s-cloud-forest-the-junction-of-bird-communities

A Zoom link will be emailed to you on the afternoon of April 29th.

A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama.

Dawn at the Old Mexican Elm

Drifting fog at Dawn, Mount Totumas, Panama.
The fog drifted past the Old Mexican Elm Tree. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The drifting fog produced a ghostly look in the canopy, and dripping water filled the forest with a tingling sound. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas. Bromeliads, ferns, and mosses draped over branches, and dense bushes covered the understory. I stood mesmerized, my hand stuck in my pockets, eyes unfocused, but ears at their peak. Bird songs were everywhere in this Panamanian jungle.

The forest was waking. This was early April, and the valley was in transition from the dry season to the wet. Rains over the previous few days had sparked the community; spring was here. A Flame-colored Tanager serenaded me from the treetops. His raspy voice sounded like he had a sore throat. Up the hill, a Black-faced Solitaire began his melodious song. The oboe, clarinet & flute-like notes were sweet, delicate, and made me think a woodwind quartet was nearby. He was using both syrinxes to produce that complex tune. Right then, I cupped my hands around my ears so I could hear him more clearly. Perhaps, the solitaire sat a dozen feet up in a tree, bending his head back slightly as he projected that melody. 

Flame-colored Tanager, Mount Totumas, Panama
A male Flame-colored Tanager works through the branches at Mount Totumas, Panama. They sing loudly at dawn and often throughout the day.

I’d left the lodge 45 minutes earlier to hike into the forest, through the dark jungle, walking slowly but deliberately, picking my way, flashlight on dim and partly covered. This little rise, near the Old Mexican Elm, was a perfect place to stand, just listening. Here moderately mature second-growth forest surrounded three-quarters of the compass, and younger trees grew in the other quadrant. The birds should be diverse.

Right then, the wavy notes of a Slate-throated Redstart, high in pitch and rapid, came from just into the forest. I moseyed over to look for this bird. It should have a blackish head and back, and its belly yellowish; it would be a small bird, probably flitting through the understory. Falling water droplets kept twitching leaves, and I could not spot this warbler. 

Resplendent Quetzal, Mount Totumas, Panama
The long tail of a Resplendent Quetzal blows in the wind at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The monotonous notes of a Resplendent Quetzal resonated from farther into the dense vegetation. This altitudinal migrant would have just come back to this side of the mountain. During the dry season, this species spends its time in the lowlands of the Caribbean, returning here to the Pacific slope just before the rainy season. Now they would be pairing and finding a nest cavity. Probably, he was using that call to defend a territory and court a female. The flush of fruit that comes with the rains will be the source of food for their nestlings. They particularly like the relatives of avocados because of their high nutrient content.

Howler Monkey, Mount Totumas, Panama
A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama. Howler Monkeys wake at dawn and usually sing for the first few minutes before they go off to feed on leaves.

A bellowing wail came from my left. A Howler Monkey was complaining that it needed more sleep. Every morning when the alarm went off, my wife used to say, “Just five more minutes.” I’d then have to wake her. The troop went quiet for a little while before they began to sing their morning wake-up call. The locals have a saying, “The monkeys call the rain.” Perhaps, the Pacific would win out on that day, and more rain would fall.

I began to stroll up the trail, my hands back in my pockets. The monkeys continued to bellow, the tanager projected his raspy voice, and the Quetzal tooted. Several birds that I didn’t recognize chimed into the chorus. A chatter possibly made by a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and some high-pitched buzzes rose in front of me, so much to figure out.

Then, finally, almost 18 minutes after the chorus started, a Three-wattled Bellbird let out its first squawk, much louder than it needed to be.

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper. Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama.

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