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)

Yellow-billed Stork in Nairobi National Park

The long bill of a Yellow-billed Stork allows the bird to feed in water more than a foot deep. The bill is highly sensitive and when it touches a prey item, it snaps shut. (Thomas Bancroft)

The long bill of a Yellow-billed Stork allows the bird to feed in water more than a foot deep. The bill is highly sensitive and when it touches a prey item, it snaps shut. (Thomas Bancroft)

Only the base of the yellow bill showed above the water. The bird’s beak was pointing straight down, and it moved back and forth, latterly. A Yellow-billed Stork, my first ever sighting, was feeding in a small pond in Nairobi National Park. My brain wanted to study every detail of this bird, watch its behavior, see what I might recognize. But two male African lions were lying on the road between me and it. They, too, demanded my undivided attention.

An adult Yellow-billed Stork. (Thomas Bancroft)

An adult Yellow-billed Stork. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Yellow-billed Stork is one of four members of the genus Mycteria. The Milky Stork lives in Southeast Asia and the Painted Stork on the Indian subcontinent and east into Southeast Asia. The fourth, the American Wood Stork, lives in the southeastern United States and Latin America. I spent more than a decade working to understand their needs in Florida, the threats to their survival, and the things Americans should do to recover populations of this species. At the time, the Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the Wood Stork as Endangered in the United States.

The Yellow-billed looked remarkably similar in overall shape, size, and configuration to the Wood Stork. The bill length, more than a foot, was identical to a Wood Stork and was stout in diameter.  As the beak went back into the water, the tip opened about two inches. The bird began moving it again, seeing if it would touch a prey item. Highly sensitive sensors detect the brush of a fish or shrimp, and the bill then snaps shut, hopefully, capturing prey. Both stork species feed in virtually the same manner, and they wander in response to rains. Decreasing water levels help to concentrate prey and make fishing ideal.

The Yellow-billed Stork feeds by opening its bill and placing it into the water. It then moves the bill laterally., snapping shut when it touches a prospective prey item. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Yellow-billed Stork feeds by opening its bill and placing it into the water. It then moves the bill laterally., snapping shut when it touches a prospective prey item. (Thomas Bancroft)

Historically, through the 1960s, the majority of Wood Storks in the United States nested in South Florida. But as people drained Florida’s wetlands and altered the natural pattern of water flow, their numbers plummeted. By the mid-1980s, they had begun to nest farther north but still relied on the Everglades and Big Cypress as important feeding areas. While working for the National Audubon Society, I helped do a complete survey of all known breeding colonies in Florida, coastal Georgia, and Southeastern South Carolina. We used a small plane to circle them, counting the active nests and to search for new ones. Our work in the Everglades resulted in me being asked to serve on a technical panel that helped design a restoration strategy for water quality in the Everglades. The Florida legislature passed a law to implement that plan.

An adult Yellow-billed Stork spreads its wings as it walks onto the shoreline of a small pond in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

An adult Yellow-billed Stork spreads its wings as it walks onto the shoreline of a small pond in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

Like all adult Yellow-billed storks, the head on this bird had no feathers from the base of the bill to just behind the eyes. The skin there was a fire-engine red and contrasted with the body feathers that were pure white. The flight feathers and rectrices were black. Yellow-billed populations have been decreasing in Africa, but Birdlife International still considers their numbers okay. This bird methodically worked across the shallows, moving that bill rhythmically back and forth, occasionally pulling it out of the water. I never saw it catch anything.

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork preens its feathers while roosting with Sacred Ibis and Egyptian Geese (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork preens its feathers while roosting with Sacred Ibis and Egyptian Geese (Thomas Bancroft)

On the far shore, among Sacred Ibis, Cattle Egrets, and Egyptian Geese, sat a juvenile stork, preening its feathers. The bill was yellow and the face red, but the body feathers were a light brown. I smiled, seeing this young bird; last year’s breeding season had been successful. A second juvenile moved into the water and began to feed. His grayish legs were two feet long, and his toes spread wide to give it support on the mud. It started to probe in the shallows. 

Successive Republican administrations at the state and federal levels have delayed Everglades’ restoration. Public support, though, remains steady and slow progress is being made. Fortunately, Wood stork breeding populations have stabilized around 6,000 pairs, resulting in the Fish and Wildlife Service downgrading them from Endangered to Threatened

Hopefully, in the years to come, we will see populations of the American Wood Stock fully recover, and ones of the Yellow-billed Stork be maintained or improved.

The two male lions slowly rose to their feet and began to head up the road. Their gate was slow but deliberate — two old brothers out for a stroll. 

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork begins to probe in the shallows for possible food itens. (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork begins to probe in the shallows for possible food itens. (Thomas Bancroft)

Purple Grenadier

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A purplish-blue blob zipped across in front of us and landed on a twig. I yelled for our driver to stop. The road had been rough and the going slow in Nairobi National Park, but there was also so much to see. My binoculars found the small bird. It had stretched out, extending its head and neck as far as possible to strip small seeds from a stem. Some whitish seeds were already stuck to the bright red conical bill. The color was astonishing, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Leaning forward, this granadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

Leaning forward, this grenadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

A thin blue stripe ran from the base of the bill over the top of the eye, not quite meeting a slightly wider blue one that came from the lower mandible. A thin red ring of feathers circled the eye. In the subdued light at 7 AM, the pupil was wide open, but still, I could see a red iris that matched the feather ring. Its head, nape, and throat were cinnamon and graded into a belly of cinnamon and blue feathers. His back and flight feathers were brownish and covered dark blue tail coverts and the base of the black rectrices.

At only five inches long, this male Purple Grenadier was striking!

He looked much in body shape and size to a small sparrow or finch from North America, yet, I knew that this bird was not closely related to any of the ones in the United States. This grenadier was an Estrildid. A songbird family found in Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. They are often called waxbills because of the shine on their mandibles. I’d seen several species in this family when I traveled to Australia, but it still thrilled me to see this one. I’d gawked at its colors in the field guides as I prepared to come to Kenya. Now, one sat in front of me.

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

The resemblance to our small sparrows is an example of convergent evolution. Different, unrelated groups take on similar size and shape to exploit a similar resource. In this case, tiny seeds. Estrildids are thought to have evolved in India about 20 million years ago and then spread, radiating into additional species in Africa and Australia. Our New World sparrows are an entirely separate group that originated in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, our finches are part of a northern Palearctic group that had expanded into North America and evolved into additional species. Birds are so fascinating to contemplate.

The grenadier shifted around, showing its other side and then flitted into the grass, disappearing. I stared for a moment at the twig where it had sat before thanking our driver, and we continued our search of these African plains.

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

Two Cats in the Road

The tight portrait on this male lion shows the dignity of his age and the grace of his manner. (Thomas Bancroft)

The tight portrait on this male lion shows the dignity of his age and the grace of his manner. (Thomas Bancroft)

Jolted by each bump in the road, my hands gripped the sides of the Landcruiser. I stood with my head sticking out the roof opening as I tried to take in everything; sights, sounds, smells. It was 6:25 AM in Nairobi National Park, and the light was just coming up. Robinson, our driver, had been cruising slowly along when suddenly he slowed, coming to a stop on this narrow road. There, just 50 feet in front of us lay two cats. They were right in the middle of the road and showing no indication of moving. These were no ordinary cats either but two male African lions. Huge felines, maybe 350 pounds each.

The orange iris of this male African lion blends nicely with the fur on his face. (Thomas Bancroft)

The orange iris of this male African lion blends nicely with the fur on his face. (Thomas Bancroft)

Their eyes were alert and their ears pointed forward, listening, but they totally ignored us.  Robinson, to my surprise, inched the vehicle along, dropping off the side of the road and pulling up beside them. My eyes were not two-dozen feet from theirs. I stared but they never once looked my way. The brownish-gray fir on their face contrasted with the reddish color at the front of their mane. The long mane hairs gradually became a brown-black along the neck. Subconsciously, I ran my hand through my beard. Their mane was a symbol of their manhood, their status as full-grown masters of the environment. Their size and posture made me feel insignificant.

The right front paw of an African Lion. (Thomas Bancroft)

The right front paw of an African Lion. (Thomas Bancroft)

These were two old males, maybe brothers. They looked thin, emaciated almost. Robinson had told us that hartebeest, impalas, and zebra had only recently moved into this part of the park. The “short rains” of the last month had stimulated fresh grass growth. Perhaps, now they could feed better and put back on weight. Maybe, these two still had a pride or possibly they had been displaced by younger males. Male African lions form a cooperative, usually of brothers, and work together to take over and dominate a pride.

One of them started to groom his paws. The long pink tongue came out slowly and ran over the fir. Those paws were huge, much bigger than my hands. The claws had been pulled back into their sheaths. I leaned against the sides extending as far as possible in their direction, trying to understand my feelings. These guys, like me, were approaching the last phase of their lives. We shared that, the aches and pains that come with an active life. I wondered where their next meal might come from, but also not wanting to see a kill. 

They rose to their feet and began to mosey up the road in the direction from which we had come. Their gate slow but deliberate. One had a gray coat, the other brown. They walked side by side like friends, brothers.

Two male lions walk together at Nairobi National Park. These most likely are brothers and have been together all their lives. (Thomas Bancroft)

Two male lions walk together at Nairobi National Park. These most likely are brothers and have been together all their lives. (Thomas Bancroft)

Visitors from Mexico

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

“What are those seagulls?” came from behind me, “They’re a lot darker than our ones back east.” Half a dozen birds stood on the gray rocks. Their bills were tucked under back feathers, and their eyes shut.

“Heerman’s,” I said, “visitors up from Mexico. They come up for the summer and fall.”

“Wow, so they are not Herring Gulls,” one of the three women said. It was the common gull near their New England home. They watched for another few seconds and then wandered on toward the Edmonds Pier. I probably should have pointed to the Glaucous-winged Gull that was on a different rock, but these Heerman’s had captured my imagination.

What possessed them to come north. These looked like adults. Their heads were heavily mottled, bill red with a black tip, typical winter plumage. Their dark gray backs and lighter gray undersides blended in with the rocks that had been used to make this seawall. I hadn’t noticed them when I first walked up the ramp. 

They were mostly sleeping. Occasionally, one would pull its bill out from under back feathers, look around a little and then tuck it back in, closing its eyes. They looked comfortable, content, with not a care in the world, while I wore a heavy sweatshirt, wind jacket, gloves, and was definitely cold on this November day.

In the breeding season, their head would be pure white, and a bright red ring would surround their dark eye. Maybe I’ll see breeding condition birds when I go to Baja in March. Over 90% of the world’s population breeds on one island, Isla Raza, in the Gulf of California. In much fewer numbers, a few nest on other islands in the Gulf or along the Baja Peninsula. So far, they have never successfully nested in the United States. But they sure like to move north following breeding. They come up the Pacific coast as far as British Columbia and even loop down into Puget Sound, staying into the fall before heading back south. Early November seemed late for them, and these individuals might soon have a yearning for more southern weather. 

During the breeding season, most are offshore feeders, chasing schools of herring, joining cormorants, pelicans, and boobies. They are excellent kleptoparasites, even grabbing a fish out of a pelican’s mouths. They must find something to eat here in Puget Sound, but I’ve only ever seen them roosting or cruising along the shoreline. Perhaps, they find schooling fish offshore here, too.

Three of them woke and took off, heading out over the water. The other ones looked around for a minute before they too left. 

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)