Posts Tagged ‘Nairobi National Park’

31
Jan 20

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.
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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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3
Jan 20

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)

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