Wonderful Warthogs

Warthog, Botswana

Warthog, Botswana

A member of the swine family, the Warthog can only be found in sub-Saharan Africa.  Named for the male’s face bumps, the “warts” are really just thickened skin and gristle that absorb blows and protect the eyes.

 

They are unfortunately hunted by humans for their ivory tusks; but their conservation status is not threatened and is of “least concern.”  Warthogs have a good reproduction rate (2-5 piglets per season) and gestation is relatively short (5-6 months), two factors that help with stabilizing the species population.

Warthog

Warthog

 

The pig-like body of Phacochoerus africanus weighs approximately 150-200 pounds (68-90 kg).  With an omnivorous diet they eat anything from bark and fungi to insects, eggs, and carrion.  The only pig species that has adapted to savannah grazing, in the wet season they eat short perennial grasses; and survive the dry season by eating bulbs, rhizomes, and roots.

 

Warthog,-BotswanaThe warthog’s major defense is its ability to sprint.  With ferocious African predators like lions, crocodiles, hyenas, and wild dogs, they have to be very fast.  They also have burrows that they readily escape into, and their tusks are formidable fighting tools as well.  While on a Serengeti walking safari, we came across some holes close to the ground; the guide warned us not to stand in front of one.  The warthogs back into their burrow and are known to come out charging, tusk first.

 

I have never seen a tougher pig, for they walk with confidence and when they run, it is like lightning.   They grunt, growl, and squeal expressing greetings and threats, zip across the savannah with their upright tails, and travel gregariously in groups known as sounders.  Warthogs-running,-Zambia

 

I have known not one person, including myself, who can ever get enough of the warthogs.  They vanish in an instant, and we’re always looking for the next one.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Warthogs, Zambia

Warthogs, Zambia

 

Violetears and Hummingbirds

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica

Green Violetear, Costa Rica

Although most of us are familiar with at least one hummingbird, the Violetear doesn’t usually ring a bell.  Named for their violet ear patches, this hummingbird can be found in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

 

Strictly a New World bird, hummingbirds only exist in “The Americas”:  North, Central, and South America.  With 338 known species, that makes this a very large and concentrated family of birds.  It makes sense that they could not all have the word “hummingbird” in their name.  After birding long enough in Central and South America, a birder becomes familiar with the other names like:  Brilliant, Sabrewing, Sapphire, Coquette, Emerald.  Here’s a full list of the world’s hummingbirds.  When you glance over this long list of names, they all imply beauty.

 

The violetears are medium-sized hummingbirds at approximately 4 inches (10 cm) long, and have the greatest flying speed ever recorded for a hummingbird at 90 mph (140 km/h).  Although you have to be quick to get your lenses on any hummingbird, the glittery little gems are always a joy to behold.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Silent Flight

Great Horned Owl, California

Great Horned Owl, California

More than once I have stood in a forest opening tentatively listening to the “who-who-whoooo” of a Great Horned Owl.  Then it would disappear in utter silence.  This is one of the many marvels of an owl.

 

This huge raptor, over 20 inches (50 cm) long and the second heaviest bird in North America, is built to fly soundlessly.  Even with an expansive wingspan of 3 to 5 feet (91-153 cm) there is no whoosh.

 

The specialized feathers of an owl’s wing are designed with numerous features to prevent it from detection.  A series of comb-like hooks on the wing feathers break the flowing air currents into micro-turbulences, then a flexible fringe breaks up the air more.  Under that are velvety down feathers that further absorb sound.  In addition, the broad wing surface allows for less flapping.

 

It is always thrilling to hear an owl hooting in the woods, and that silent flight is truly remarkable.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Jays Around the World

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador

You can only find the elegant Turquoise Jay in three countries in South America.  They prefer humid montane forests for their omnivorous diet, and live in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru.  Jays, however, are a successful and prevalent species and can be found all over the world.  There is probably at least one jay with which you are already familiar.

 

Jays are members of the Corvidae family, which also include crows, magpies, ravens, rooks, nutcrackers, jackdaws, and others.  They are everywhere except on the tip of South America and polar ice caps.  Considered the most intelligent bird on earth, Corvids are also one of the most intelligent of all animals due to their self-awareness and tool-making skills.  There are over 120 species of Corvids and these are classified with many sub-species.

 

Magpie Jay, Mexico

Magpie Jay, Mexico

If you have jays regularly around your home, you might have noticed they will bury and later retrieve food.  This incredible skill requires highly accurate spatial knowledge, and equally as astonishing:  they have a recall memory of up to nine months.  Once I watched a jay in my yard exhibiting peculiar behavior, he was looking around for something in particular.  One comical moment later he triumphantly pulled a shelled peanut out of a juniper bush!

 

Scrub Jay, California

Western Scrub-Jay, California

Although we are familiar with blue-colored jays in the New World, jays are many different colors.  The original jay after which all other jays are named is the Eurasian Jay, and it is mostly brown.  Wikipedia lists over 46 species of jays in the world, representing many colors.

 

I am lucky to host two kinds of jays in my California yard, the Western Scrub-Jay and the Steller’s Jay.  When I visit the midwestern or eastern states I am equally as dazzled by the striking Blue Jay.  Flashy, vocal, and vivacious, the jays are a wonderful bird to have widespread on earth:  smart, successful, and beautiful too.

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

Pinyon Jays, Nevada

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Gang-gang Cockatoo

Gang-gang Cockatoos, New South Wales, Australia

Gang-gang Cockatoos, New South Wales, Australia

We stopped for lunch in a small town while hiking in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  Afterwards, while we were admiring bird post cards, an elderly woman approached us and said she thought we might be interested in a bird she knew about.  The woman was small and frail, but direct and focused, and sporting a delightful Australian accent.

 

She explained we had to go down several back dirt roads until we came to this corner and that bend.  They were involved instructions, potentially dubious, but I took notes nonetheless.  Eventually we would come to an old abandoned tram car station that was just a little market now.

 

Go under the old tracks, she instructed, and you’ll find a feeder.  Wait there, and I guarantee you’ll find one.   She named the bird, but we were unfamiliar with it.  Gang-gang Cockatoo.  Funny name, we mused.

 

Back in the car Athena and I looked the bird up in the guide book.  Their entire world-wide range is a tiny ribbon of land right where we were located.  An endemic to south-eastern Australia, this 13 inch (34 cm) bird travels in flocks and pairs.  Pairs are monogamous, and the male has a scarlet head.  Although they are considered widespread in this region, their population is vulnerable because their habitat is disappearing, due to the clearing of land and mature trees (used for nesting).  This was definitely worth a try, even if it turned out to be a bust.

 

The trek took an hour!  But true to her word, there was this odd little market in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dusty scrub brush, amidst acres of mountains and wilderness.  And underneath the rusty disintegrated tracks was the bird feeder.  There was no one else under there.  Within five minutes an awesome pair of gang-gang cockatoos landed.  I love days like this.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Cheetah: Fastest Land Animal on Earth

Cheetah, Tanzania, Africa

Cheetah, Tanzania, Africa

They can go from 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 3 seconds.  When  Acinonyx jubatus is in pursuit it is one of the most agile dances I have ever seen; effortlessly switching directions, sprinting, swift in pursuit.

 

But I cannot remember a time when I watched the cheetah race across the plains that I was wholly exuberant.  I knew the prey (usually an impala or gazelle) was soon to perish.  And yet it was all undeniably thrilling.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Celebrate Earth Day With…

Goliath Heron, Botswana

Goliath Heron, Botswana

…the biggest heron on earth.  At 4-5 feet tall and sporting a wingspan of over 7 feet, it is aptly named:  Goliath Heron.

 

Primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa, this wading bird is usually found alone in lakes, swamps, and wetlands.  There are small populations of Ardea goliath in parts of Asia too.

 

Their diet consists mostly of fish, typically 2-3 big fish a day; but they will also eat frogs, lizards, snakes, and other small reptiles and fish.  Due to their large size they are sometimes slower than many birds, rendering them vulnerable to kleptoparasitism (stolen food).  Predators however (like hyenas and jackals), cannot easily prey on them because they have height perspective and can take flight unharmed.

 

Goliath Heron, Botswana

Goliath Heron, Botswana

Many of us bird and wildlife lovers enjoy observing and photographing herons all over the world.  Their deliberate hunting is a joy to behold, their peaceful ways and sleek beauty, pleasing and attractive.  Fortunately most of us consider every day Earth Day.  Cheers….

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander