Celebrating Ibis

Humans have been celebrating ibis, a large wading bird, for thousands of years. Here is a brief overview and extensive photo gallery of ibis around the world; beginning with ancient times and ending with my favorite.

There are 29 species of ibis in the world today, on all continents except Antarctica.

Ancient Egyptians associated the ibis with Thoth, the God of wisdom and writing. Many ancient Egyptian art pieces present Thoth with the body of a man and the head of an ibis.

The prevalence of the ibis during ancient Egyptian times and the appeal of animal-inspired deities in general, can also be seen in the thousands of surviving ibis mummies in tombs throughout Egypt.

This wood ibis statue below dates to roughly 2,500 years ago.

All classified in the Threskiornithidae family, ibis have the long, downcurved bill as their most prominent feature.

Ibis Wikipedia

Ibis usually live in wetlands (though there are exceptions) using their long bills to probe into mud for food. They eat crayfish, crabs, small fish, insects and other invertebrates and crustaceans common in mudflats and marshes.

The three most common ibis species in North America are the white, white-faced and glossy.

In Northern California we have the white-faced ibis. Plegadis chihi. Populations declined with DDT and threatened marsh habitat from the 1940s to 1980s but have been resurrected via conservation efforts.

I have been birding the Sacramento Valley since the 1990s and have had the pleasure of watching the ibis populations gradually recover here.

This is a good photo (below, center) to demonstrate the size of the white-faced ibis compared to ducks.

Ibis tend to be gregarious birds and are usually seen in flocks.

This is what a flock looks like without optics.

A sight I always find pleasing is watching ibis in flight–they have a characteristic silhouette with their long bill leading the way.

This flock (below) was animated and at times even comical, as they probed the water for crayfish. The crayfish were putting up a fight and had the birds hopping and flopping.

The eastern half of the country is home to the glossy ibis, almost identical to the white-faced. The white-faced species is believed to have evolved from the glossy.

The white-faced ibis only has a white face during breeding.

You can see from the photo below that the back of this white-faced ibis is a handsome array of purple, green and bronze plumage. The glossy ibis has a similar look during non-breeding plumage.

In Florida and many of the Gulf and southeastern coastal habitats of the U.S., the American white ibis is a common wader. Eudocimus albus. Its long, pink bill and all-white body makes it easy to identify.

This photo, below, was taken on Sanibel Island in Florida, where this week they are experiencing terrifying devastation by the wrath of Hurrican Ian. We hope for the best as the folks in SW Florida and the southeastern coastal states endure this extreme storm.

Ibis juveniles are sometimes tricky to identify. The white ibis, for example, has a juvenile stage in which the bird is not white. It is brown.

This is a juvenile white ibis (below, right) we saw on Jekyll Island in Georgia. It is perched in a tree with a wood stork.

In Australia the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) is widespread across most of the continent.

Ibis no longer exist in Egypt like they did thousands of years ago, but there are 11 extant species in Africa.

I have fond memories of Africa’s Hadada Ibis. Bostrychia hagedash. A primarily brown bird, they roosted overnight in the trees of our campsite in large flocks. Every morning they flew off, all in one marvelous squawking cacophony. It was always too dark to photograph them, but below is a good recording of just two Hadada.

Their onomatopoetic name is derived from the loud and distinctive “haa-haa-haa-de-dah” call they make.

Link to recording of two Hadada Ibis calling, South Africa.

I have left my favorite ibis for last–the scarlet ibis. Eudocimus ruber. This marvelously garish bird is native to South America and parts of the Caribbean. We saw it in Trinidad where it is their national bird. A heavy diet of red crustaceans produces the scarlet coloration.

We made a special trip to the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to see it. We took a boat ride in waning light through swampy channels rife with boa constrictors coiled in mangrove trees above us.

The adventure was much like going out to see the fireworks on July Fourth, exciting and intriguing at the end of the day. But instead of being in the car with friends and family, we were in a boat with a surly captain.

We anchored and waited as the sun fell lower, watching for the scarlet ibis who would be heading to their nighttime roosts.

A few small flocks at a time, they began arriving.

The photo above shows all adults, bright red with black wingtips, except for the brown individual on the far left, that’s a juvenile.

Although we could not get close to the birds due to species protection rules, we did witness the glorious sight of numerous flocks of scarlet ibis descending on island mangrove trees.

Ibis around the world, big birds wading in the mud, yet to humans for thousands of years, we find them exquisite.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Western Fence Lizard and More

In my humble enjoyment of wild creatures across the planet, I am reminded on this hot summer day of one of my favorite creatures on earth: lizards.

They can thermoregulate their body temperature and gather energy from the sun. Let go of their tail if it is clenched in the jaws of a predator and grow another.

Many have not two, but three eyes. Located on the back of the head, the third eye is used for regulating hormone production and detecting predators.

Our local lizard, the western fence lizard, possesses all these features and more. They are commonly found in California and many of the western states; and classified as Sceloporus occidentalis in the order Squamata and suborder Iguania.

With the current high temperatures lately, I have had the pleasure of watching them skitter around me every day.

They are small lizards, could fit into your hand. But good luck trying to get them into your hand because they’re lightning fast.

Males have a blue underside; you can see it here.

This one (below) has a small circle of pale blue on his throat.

This photo below highlights his many scales.

The scales overlap and are made of keratin. They provide protection from the environment as well as preventing water loss.

Lizards eat the mosquitoes that would otherwise bite me. This is a gift, pure and simple. They hop up and snatch the insect so fast that you can’t even see their tongue at work.

I love to sit outside at the end of a summer day watching the lizards. As opposed to the morning when they are sluggish and still storing the sun’s energy, late in the day they are super fast, like on steroids, after soaking up the sun all day long.

In addition to all this, Sceloporus occidentalis have a feature so extra special that it has become the subject of many scientific studies. They have the ability to neutralize the deer tick bacterium that transmits to humans, thereby curtailing the transmission of Lyme’s Disease.

Deer ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. A protein in the blood of western fence lizards kills the bacterium in these ticks when they attach themselves to a lizard and ingest the lizard’s blood.

Numerous studies have determined that Lyme disease effects less people in California than in the eastern U.S., due to our most common lizard’s neutralizing abilities. That’s a gift too.

More western fence lizard info:

Western Fence Lizard Wikipedia and Northwestern Fence Lizard CaliforniaHerpes.com

This is a photo of another of our common lizards, the alligator lizard.

These photos, below, are some of my favorite lizards from other parts of the world, starting with the small ones and working up to very large lizards.

These last two, the marine and land iguanas, are gloriously huge.

If you are squeamish about Squamata, I hope this lizard love fest has warmed you to these magnificent creatures.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Vultures are Cool

We were driving on a California country road this week surrounded by sweetly fragrant ceanothus wildflowers, when we came upon two lethargic turkey vultures standing in the road. Turns out they were doing us a big favor.

Because they were not moving for us, we slowly drove toward them and eventually they lifted slightly and got out of the road. But in the next moment a strong, putrid whiff of dead animal reached us. There was no carcass to be seen on this overgrown roadside, but somewhere nearby there was a dead and rotting animal.

Fortunately the vultures were on the job. They are a gregarious species, so eventually this dead animal will be completely consumed. The birds were lethargic because they were full.

There are 23 extant species of vultures in the world: 16 in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) and 7 in the New World (the Americas).

Here in the U.S. we have three vulture species, all are pictured in this post: turkey vulture, black vulture, and California Condor.

More info: Vulture Wikipedia

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture species in the New World. Cathartes aura is a year-round bird in the warmer U.S. states and South America. We have them year-round in California.

Just about every time I am outside, nearly every day, I see at least one turkey vulture soaring overhead.

This is their classic look in flight, below.

Another common vulture sight is this one, below. It is called a horaltic stance, and serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

This is a turkey vulture nestling, below. The nest was in a small rock cave.

Turkey vultures do not have a vocal organ, so you don’t usually hear anything from them. But that day we found this baby turkey vulture, it elicited a shockingly evil hissing sound that I still hear in my mind when I look at the above photo.

Vultures are important for cleaning up the carrion that naturally exists on our planet. A vulture’s featherless head and hooked bill, seen below, are their carrion-eating tools.

They are also equipped with exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, allowing them to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria.

When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

We spotted this vulture species (below), California Condor aka Gymnogyps californianus, on the California coast near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Ten years ago. We had visited a popular condor release site without success three years earlier, and finally had success in Big Sur, another release site, with this one. We actually saw two at the time, for about five really thrilling minutes.

They have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, measuring approximately10 feet (3.05 m).

There is an interesting story about this individual, #90, I’ll tell you another time.

California Condors are listed on the conservation status as critically endangered, and many vulture species have suffered a rapid decline due to loss of habitat, intentional and unintentional poisoning, and electrocution.

India and other countries have discovered that without vultures to pick animal corpses clean, there have been increased feral dog populations leading to increased dog bites and increased rabies transmission. But the problem is, protection comes too late. Vultures do not reproduce quickly. (In the U.S., vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

While in Africa on numerous safaris, I have had the pleasure of watching many African vultures. It is not the loveliest sight, seeing a vulture dig around in the intestines of a carcass, but it is interesting to see the hierarchy of animals and the bonanza that unfolds when one wild animal has killed another. Equally fascinating is observing how the parade of scavengers completely devours the carcass.

One day we had the rare honor of seeing a pack of wild dogs in Botswana. Before we arrived, they had killed an impala and dined extravagantly. Then they ran off in a frolic of energetic euphoria and the vultures came in.

A closer look reveals their bloody faces.

Here are the white-backed vultures, Gyps africanus, that attended the carcass after the wild dogs were done. You can see the head of the vulture on the left is deeply inside the carcass.

These vultures have a wingspan of 6-7 feet (1.96-2.25m), and are now, unfortunately, critically endangered.

Another time we came upon this baby elephant carcass. Vultures and storks were feeding. You can see the skull on the far right…it has been picked clean.

These banded mongooses were watching the frenzy.

Fantastic creatures with unique features, vultures help keep this earth safe and clean. Next time you smell sweetness in the air, remember it could be more than flowers at work.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Waters in the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is an inland delta in southern Africa, with waters formed by seasonal flooding. When the water is here, wildlife abound.

More info: Okavango Delta Wikipedia.

The Delta is flat and vast, covering 5,800 square miles (15,000 sq. km.); on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

We visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site years back in August, when the Okavango River floods the Delta and wildlife congregate.

Large African antelope called waterbuck are often found around water because they cannot tolerate dehydration.

Little Bee-eaters perch as they wait for bees. If you watch bee-eaters long enough, you have the pleasure of watching one sally out in a flash, grab a bee, whack it against a tree, and come back to the perch to consume it.

Hippopotamuses are semiaquatic mammals; they spend their days in lakes and rivers, staying cool in water or mud. At night they graze on grasses.

This is a rufous-bellied heron we watched wrestling with a carp. He swallowed it whole.

Other bird species we commonly found foraging in the Okavango Delta waters were jacana and the fish eagle.

Jacanas have feet designed to evenly distribute the weight of the bird so they can walk atop lily pads. But in many parts of the Delta their long legs take them through shallower waters.

The African Fish Eagle, a raptor, was fierce and vigilant and commonly found in many watery parts.

Other raptors were the African Barred Owl and Black-shouldered Kite. They, too, found their perches and stealthily waited.

Wattled cranes, the largest cranes in Africa and globally threatened, forage on aquatic tubers and rhizomes of submerged sedges and water lilies. It was thrilling to find this trio, for this crane species is rare to find.

The hamerkop is one of my favorite birds, named for the hammer shape of its head. We didn’t see them too often but when we did, we watched intently.

Blacksmith Plovers in their bold patterning were often seen in the waterways.

We passed this hippo pond at sunset and watched their antics until the day’s light had receded.

There are over 5,000 species of wild mammals and over 10,000 species of birds on this planet. I am glad I could share a few of them from the Okavango Delta with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Black and White Friday

We are often attracted to the colorful wildlife on this planet, but for today, Black Friday, let’s take a look at our charismatic black-and-white animals.

There are all sorts of black-and-white animals, domestic-bred and wild, mammals and insects and everything in between. As always, I will focus exclusively on the wild animals here.

Zebras are probably the most fascinating, for their psychedelic coats.

The human fascination for zebras goes back centuries, and so do the scientific theories for their striped patterns.

In studies of the evolution of wild animals, defense is usually the key consideration. One defense theory for zebras is that in a group of them the striped patterning makes it difficult for a predator to focus on just one individual, a sort of camouflage.

Take one look at a zebra group (below), and you see firsthand how your eyes have a hard time focusing on any one individual.

Aptly, a collective noun for zebras is “dazzle.”

There are many more zebra-stripe theories, read more here: Zebra Wikipedia under Stripes

In contrast, defense for skunks, another black-and-white, is notoriously their smell. That strong obnoxious liquid they spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Most predators rarely attack skunks due to the foul spray…except for one.

Great horned owls are the only predator to routinely attack skunks, due to the skunks’ poor sense of smell. They take down all six skunk species, even the heavier-bodied striped skunk species seen here.

Orca whales, badgers, pandas, and many more wild mammals have black-and-white coloring.

I recently saw a fellow walker with a Dalmatian dog, and that got me thinking about all the domestic-bred pied animals. The list keeps growing.

The black-and-white colobus monkeys, one of my favorite monkey species, are an Old World monkey. Sitting in a jeep one day on Mount Kenya, I heard a lot of rustling in the trees overhead. What a pleasant surprise to see these animated monkeys swinging from tree to tree, their fluffy white tails illuminated by the sun.

Our flightless birds the penguins–a familiar and loveable black-and-white presence on earth.

These Galapagos Penguins, below, are the only penguin species that live north of the equator. They typically live in caves and crevices for protection. Now listed as Endangered, this trio was under mangrove roots along the shoreline.

Of the flying birds, there are many black-and-whites.

Some are more familiar like woodpeckers, gulls, terns, and magpies.

This magpie photo reflects the color blue (on the rump), often not seen in a bird that is primarily black and white. Only if the sun is shining just right does an iridescent color appear. I’ve seen it at different times in magpies, the pied kingfisher, and bufflehead ducks, to name a few.

Here are two lesser-known black-and-white birds in the U.S.

These striking black-and-white birds reside on other continents.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that many mostly-white birds often have black wing tips. It is theorized that the white feathers without pigment are not as strong as feathers with pigment. Dark wings or wing tips are thought to provide extra protection for the feathers most vulnerable to abrasion during flight.

Migrating birds who fly long distances, like the American white pelican and snow geese below, may benefit from their black wing tips.

While it seems that few things in life are ever just black and white, today we found some wonderment in the wildlife that is.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Spooky Nights

No tricks this Halloween, but I do have a treat for you. I’ll take you on some spooky night walks here, and you won’t get hurt because it’s only photographs.

You are perfectly safe, for example, from this hyena.

Going into the wilderness at night is a great way to see the nocturnal creatures. They come out of their holes and caves and hiding places, and start their evening hunt. It can, however, be a bit unsettling for humans.

Darkness adds to the fright factor, of course. When it’s completely dark and you can see nothing but beady eyes in the grass, it can put you on edge. Those bright eyes could be a harmless night bird…

or a pair of leopards hungrily searching for dinner.

When I first saw this creature (below) in Australia, I gasped, thinking it was a very large rat.

It is a bandicoot, in the marsupial family, and not Rodentia at all. They are nocturnal omnivores.

Whether you’re in a rainforest or on the open plains, if it is dark, the night sounds can be bone-chilling. High-pitched screeching, deep howls and roars are hair-raising.

Hyenas, with their maniacal whoops and growls and laughs, are the opposite of a lullaby.

But worse: the feel of a bat’s wings fluttering inches from the face. It’s happened to me twice.

Bats have excellent echolocation skills, and are not hampered by their poor eyesight. Both times I was outdoors in a very dark place and a bat came so close I could feel and hear the whir of its wings. Both times I had a similar reaction: I was momentarily vexed, then thrilled.

The truth is, I love bats. I like all these animals I have mentioned. They’re all a part of this incredible earth, and even when there’s a moment of fright, it passes quickly.

I find it a privilege to be in the presence of an owl; but they, too, can have some tricks up their winged sleeves.

Owls have specialized feathers and are truly silent in their flight. There have been times when I heard an owl hoot on one side of me, and then suddenly I heard the bird on my other side. It soundlessly and invisibly flew right past me.

While owls are relatively quiet, here’s an owl that can have an alarming screech.

While barn owls shriek, there is another bird I’ve heard that not only shrieks, it also squeals like a pig.

The oilbird.

Enter a dark cave in a rainforest where oilbirds live, and this is what you’ll hear: press this link for a live recording.

Post I wrote Oilbirds in Trinidad

Even if it’s not nighttime, a forest is naturally dark due to the heavy tree canopy.

This big vulture gave me a start. I think I heard him shout, “Boo!”

And then there’s the Amazon, the rainforest of all rainforests. Camping there was a sleepless event, a place where daylight could not come fast enough.

I’ve had a rat come tumbling through the thatched roof into our hut, cockroaches as big as a chapstick scampering around my toothbrush, and howling monkeys that sounded like a Category 5 hurricane. All in the dark.

Big ol’ spiders in the Amazon too.

Even the trees in rainforests are threatening. Look at the thorns on this tree trunk!

They evolve with thorns for protection, which makes sense, but it doesn’t help if you are trying to steady yourself in deep mud.

So when the sun finally arrives, it is usually a relief. Because everything looks better in the daytime.

Except, maybe, for this marine iguana. Day or night, it has a look that will freeze you in place.

So there you go, my friends. A lot of spooky nights for you this Halloween, with none of the heart-thumping frights and gasps. Always remember, daylight is just around the corner.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless noted.

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Earth Creatures

With Earth Day coming next week, let’s take a fun look at animals who live not on top of the earth…but inside it.

Mammals, reptiles, insects and many more creatures dig this earth.

Mammals. Many mammals live underground to give birth and raise their young.

Bears come first to mind, as the largest hibernators on our planet. They live roughly half their lives inside their dens.

Badgers, rabbits and foxes occupy dens too.

Many smaller mammals, like this mongoose below, live in burrows. Burrows, like dens, provide protection from predators as well as temperature extremes.

Warthogs, mammals in the pig family, do not have fur and use their burrows to stay warm, give birth and raise their young. They use their ivory tusks to dig for tubers, leaving the burrow-digging to other animals, usually using old aardvark burrows.

In Africa, guides warn you not to stand in front of any holes because it could be a warthog burrow; and those small but ferocious animals come bounding out tusks-first if they sense danger.

You might not guess that river otters use dens. Although they spend a lot of time in the water, they require oxygen to breathe.

Like warthogs and many other mammals, river otters use the burrows of other animals, usually beavers, for giving birth.

While many animals borrow burrows, prairie dogs are the original architects of their underground kingdom.

Found in the grasslands of North America, prairie dogs have short bodies and strong claws perfect for digging. They build extensive underground colonies, called towns, that can span hundreds of acres.

Where I live in Northern California, hibernating chipmunks are starting their springtime surfacing. These adorable little animals are so busy, I love it when they return topside.

This vole had me laughing on a recent day at dusk, as it stealthily scrambled out of his hole, grabbed a morsel from under the bird feeder, then shot back to the burrow. He did this numerous times, one tiny morsel at a time.

Some birds use burrows, too.

Burrowing owls use ground squirrel or prairie dog tunnels for their roosting and nesting.

Kingfishers and bee-eaters also nest underground. Bee-eaters loosen the soil or sand by jabbing with their sharp bills, then use their feet to kick out the loosened debris.

Reptiles. Ectotherms, like lizards and snakes who rely on outside sources for thermoregulation, need the energy of the sun to move. After a winter of hibernating underground, they wake up in spring and come out of the earth.

On warm days lately our western fence lizards and alligator lizards are joining us.

A few years back, we found this California whipsnake, who moves as fast as a whip, foraging on top of the bush because the ground hadn’t warmed up yet that day.

Insects and Others. The world of insects is immense, as you know, but here are a few familiar insects who live inside the earth.

Cicadas come out of their burrows after living underground for years in the larval stage. The underground hibernation can last as long as 17 years for some species.

Beetles often live underground too.

Perhaps the most familiar underground insects to humans are termites and ants.

Termites are colonizing insects, of which there are many kinds. The mound-building termites found in Africa, South America and Australia build above-ground structures that act as ventilation systems for the underground nest. Often the mound outlives the colony.

This is a dormant termite mound in Australia that is over six feet tall. In the background of this harsh and dry habitat you can see smaller mounds across the landscape.

And ants, well they are the most supreme underground beings on this earth. Our planet has tens of thousands of ant species. Highly social insects, they form elaborate organized colonies underground.

Leafcutter ants, my favorite ant species, can be found in tropical parts of the Americas. Next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on Earth.

In this photo, each ant is carrying a morsel of leaf they have bit off. They are headed, all in the same direction, to their subterranean fungal garden. In just a few years, their nests can grow to 98 feet across (30 m) and contain eight million ants.

Lastly, earthworms, crustaceans and many water-associated creatures also live below earth’s surface. These fiddler crabs were entertaining us during low tide, as they skittered in and out of their burrows.

Underground nests, burrows, and dens benefit the earth in many ways, and they have fascinating creatures to watch.

Whether they come bounding out of their burrow in a deadly pursuit, or languidly emerging after 17 years, underground creatures have elaborate subterranean worlds.

Cheers to Earth Day and all of us who live on and in this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Savanna Baboons

It wouldn’t be the African savanna without baboons. This Old World monkey species completes the savanna landscapes with their spirited presence.

There are four baboon sub-species that fall under the “savanna” umbrella: chacma, olive, yellow, and Guinea. All baboons photographed here (pre-Covid) are either olive (Papio anubis) or yellow (Papio cynocephalus).

Baboon Wikipedia

A highly social primate, baboons are always in groups. Sometimes it’s just a family group of four or six individuals, other times it’s a large troop numbering 40 or more.

Savanna baboons have extensive social hierarchies; in fact, a baboon troop is one of the most complex societies in the animal kingdom. Their social relations in the hierarchy are influenced by: gender, inherited standing, male-female alliances, male-male alliances, emigration and immigration.

Coming around a bend in the road, we came across this large troop of olive baboons in northern Tanzania.

Grooming is a vital social activity that forms and strengthens bonds among family members, as well as building courtship bonds.

It also helps keep the ticks and fleas off one another’s bodies.

I like finding grooming baboons like these two below, because they’re always serene. Other times they are a typical monkey–on the move, jumping and climbing, the little ones getting into things. But when they’re grooming, they’re in their own quiet, relaxed world.

Baboons are often in the company of impala and kudu, where the different species can help alert each other to threatening predators. Baboon’s main predators are: leopards, lions, hyenas and crocodiles.

Here the impala are congregated under large sausage trees (Kigelia), and the baboons are scattered on and around the tree. If there is danger lurking, the baboons will be the first to call a warning to the whole group.

Baboons are omnivorous. They eat grasses, seeds, roots and other plant material as well as fruits, insects, rodents and small mammals.

This baboon is eating grass.

In addition to their terrestrial foraging events, they spend a lot of time in treetops where they are safe from most predators. This one below is gobbling the tree’s fruit.

They also sleep in trees.

Several times we were awakened at night by baboons. One large troop slept in the treetops over our tent and were sometimes threatened by the leopards who also occupied the treetops. When a leopard was sighted, the baboons would grunt and growl and call out to the others, waking their mates. Of course the baboons would always retreat, for leopards are the more ferocious of the two.

We also heard baboons every night in Meru National Park in central Kenya. Outside our safari tent was a small canvas basin on risers. It was filled with water for us to wash up. Every night the baboons came in to lap up our basin water. They stood on their hind legs and drank like dogs.

The vocalizations of baboons are many. They use calls for exhibiting aggression, alarming the troop, courting, and raising offspring.

Baboons are strikingly similar to humans.

This photo shows a shadow of us watching the baboon watch us.

Humans and baboons are both classified as Primates in the Mammalia Order. And both primate species are social animals, caring for our family and friends, finding ways to feed and protect ourselves.

Even without the scientific classifications, you just have to look into the eyes of a baboon to know they have a lot going on in their heads…just like us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

African Antelope

There are more antelope in Africa than any other continent. Of the world’s 91 antelope species, most are native to Africa, and all belong to the family Bovidae. Here are a few of my favorites.

Many continents do not have native antelope: Europe, Australasia, Antarctica and the Americas.

What a beautiful, natural sight it is, then, to observe antelope grazing and leaping across Africa’s savannahs.

They vary tremendously in size.

Larger antelope include the kudu and waterbuck.

Antelope horns vary also. Unlike deer antlers, antelope horns grow continuously and are never shed.

The horns are used as weapons, especially when fighting among their own species.

Sometimes both genders of a species have horns, with the male horns often bigger; but there are variations. In kudus, only the males have horns.

Beisa Oryx, below, have incredibly long horns.

We were lucky one day to come across this elegant sable with its pronounced horns and velvet-black coat. The birds on his back are oxpeckers, they’re taking care of his ticks.

Although all antelope in Africa are speedy out of necessity, the medium- and smaller-sized species are especially fast. Open-grassland species are agile and have powerful legs, endurance.

You can see how fine this impala’s lithe body and long legs are–he runs like the wind.

But no matter how fast they are, they are prey to many other fast, wild beasts. The young antelope are especially vulnerable. And cheetahs are the fastest land animal on earth.

Another antelope species, the wildebeest, migrates across the continent. They travel in impressively large herds, giving them protection from predators. Serengeti Migration Wikipedia.

While most antelope prefer grassland habitat, species like this klipspringer, below, prefer rocky habitats.

Wildlife on the African savannah are beautiful, even elegant, but they are also tough. They come in all sizes, with and without horns, and grace the grasslands, rocky cliffs, and waterways of this immense continent.

How lucky we are to share this planet with such a diverse family.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.