Posts Tagged ‘Kenya’

24
Jan 20

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)

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17
Jan 20

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)

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10
Jan 20

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)

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