Archive for March, 2020

27
Mar 20

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)

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20
Mar 20

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)

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13
Mar 20

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

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6
Mar 20

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

 

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