Hip-Hippo-Hooray

Hippo, Zambia

Hippo, Zambia

Although they can be swift on land, the gargantuan body of Hippopotamus amphibius is designed for water.  The short legs don’t get in the way when they are wallowing in the mud and shallow water.  They can also sink their barrel-shaped bodies and walk along the river floor.

 

Hippos mate and give birth in the water.  Even their ears, eyes and nostrils are high on their head for easy submersion.  They sleep in the water and come up for air without ever waking.  For this semi-aquatic mammal with thin, hairless skin, the water prevents overheating and dehydration under the hot African sun.

 

There are some species of hippo that have become extinct, but there are still populations of hippos in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Tanzania and Zambia.  Their conservation status is delicate, listed as Vulnerable Threatened.

 

Hippo

Eating the fruit of a sausage tree

In the early 20th century hippos were considered close in ancestry to the pig.  They roll around in mud and grunt like a pig, and there is a physical resemblance as well.  But further studies of their DNA and fossil records classified them in the whale family.  I have spent many glorious hours observing hippos on land and in water, and the water is where they luxuriate.

 

You wouldn’t think hippopotamus are fast when you see their short, stubby legs carrying over 3,000 pounds of body mass; yet they can outrun humans at 19 mph.  Hippos are not only fast, but they are aggressive, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous.   I have watched more than one wildlife guide shudder as they relay the story of a distant cousin, friend, or relative who was killed by a hippoThe hippo is responsible for more human deaths than any other mammal in Africa. 

 

In their territory, pods of hippos are commonly seen during the day where they rest together at a mud hole, lake or in rivers.  Watching one roll over like a beached whale to moisten its back is one of the most beautiful slow dances I have ever seen.  The first time I observed this action I thought there was a fight brewing, so much splashing and abrupt activity.  But it was never a fight, it was simply one colossal hippo turning over resulting in muddy water ripples and sloshes.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Inca Tern

Inca Tern, Lima, Peru

Inca Tern, Lima, Peru

I saw this seabird while visiting the chilly coastal waters of Lima, Peru.  As I walked along the water’s edge, what floated in the water looked like dull, dark gulls with red bills.  When I put the binoculars up I was dazzled by their markings.

 

They feed mostly on fish, especially anchovies, and go no further than the Humboldt current.  This is a cold water current that flows north on the west coast of South America from southern Chile to northern Peru.  According to Wikipedia it is “the most productive marine ecosystem in the world.”

 

In waters teeming with more life than anywhere else in the world, it makes sense that they stay here and never leave.  So I guess in this scenario that made me the migratory bird.

 

Photo credit:  Bill Page

Red-billed Oxpecker

Sable with Oxpecker in Ear, Botswana

Sable with Oxpecker in Ear, Botswana

The red-billed oxpecker is a common bird throughout Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa.  A member of the same family as the starling and myna, it is a chattering gregarious bird found atop mammals.  For one of last week’s posts I presented the Greater Kudu, an African mammal, including photos with the oxpecker on its back.  I promised to tell you more about the oxpeckers….

 

Oxpeckers are the only creature in the world whose exclusive function is to glean mammals.  They feed on the ticks that inhabit the mammal.  Ticks thrive on moisture and warmth, and with the unrelenting sun beating down on the African beasts, these mammals are the unfortunate hosts to dozens and dozens of ticks.  The oxpecker feeds on the blood that is engorged in the ticks; eats as many as 100 ticks a day. You will find them on many different four-legged ungulates (antelope, giraffe, zebra, etc.), especially those with manes.  There is also a yellow-billed oxpecker in Africa, but it is not as prevalent as the red-billed, featured here.

Sable with Oxpeckers, Botswana

Sable with Oxpeckers, Botswana

 

The short, sharp claws and long, stiff tail of Buphagus erythrorhynchus enable them to cling to the mammal, even while the mammal is walking.   You can see from this Sable photograph how well the bird can cling to various body parts.  In addition, the bird’s bill is laterally flattened and has a sharp cutting edge for handling the ticks.

 

African Buffalo with Oxpecker, Botswana

African Buffalo with Oxpecker, Botswana

Often this relationship between the tick-infested mammal and the oxpecker is mutually beneficial.  The bird eats the ticks off the mammal and rids it of an irritating infestation, the mammal supplies the bird with an endless smorgasbord.  But sometimes an oxpecker will dig beyond the tick and intentionally keep the animal’s wound open to directly extract blood, because ultimately it is the blood on which the bird thrives.

 

Occasionally you might see the mammal swat its tail or shake its head to get rid of an exceptionally annoying oxpecker.  However mostly what you see, as you ride across the endless grassy plains looking for African wildlife, is the mammal grazing and the oxpecker feeding, and both are peaceably living in harmony.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Going Bananas

Banana Tree, Mexico

Banana Tree, Mexico

There have been several birding occasions in the tropics when we came upon cultivated banana groves.  The plants tower five and ten feet above us and the broad leaves provide cooling shade from the searing sun.  Usually the guide is in a hurry to get through the grove and into the forest, to show us a bird.  But I love to stop for a second and look up, and see the green banana bunches hanging above my head.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Wattled Cranes

Wattled Cranes, Botswana

Wattled Cranes, Botswana

We came across these beautiful Wattled Cranes on safari in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana.  With a Conservation Status listing as “Vulnerable,” we were delighted to find a trio wading in a shallow pond.

 

The largest crane in Africa (and second tallest in the world to the Sarus Crane), Bugeranus carunculatus can be found in sub-Saharan Africa.  They are named for the wattles, or fleshy appendages, that hang down from the throat.  A five foot tall bird with a wingspan of eight feet, they have a commanding presence.

 

Wattled cranes prefer to eat aquatic tubers and rhizomes, as well as aquatic insects, snails and amphibians; and are consequently found in marsh-like settings.  90% of foraging is done in shallow waters where they dig vigorously with their long bill.

 

Our safari vehicle was quiet and solo when we came upon these cranes several hundred feet away.  Although we were in this area for a week, we never saw this species again.  We were lucky that they stayed for a few minutes and allowed us to admire them.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander