The Zambezi

Middle Zambezi River, Africa

Every river on this planet has a personality. Come along on a short journey as I share the beauties of the Zambezi in East Africa with you.

 

It’s a bold river that starts in Zambia and winds through six countries before emptying into the Indian Ocean on the east coast.

 

Zambezi.svg

Map of Zambezi. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The fourth longest river in Africa, the Zambezi is 1,600 miles (2,574 km) long.

 

More info:  Zambezi River Wikipedia.

 

Due to its proximity to the Rift Valley, the geological formation of centuries of uplifts and fault movements have carved the Zambezi through hundreds of miles of mountains and gorges.

Victoria Falls, Africa

Divided into three sections, the Upper, Middle and Lower Zambezi provide much-needed water to this sun-parched inland landscape and its human and wildlife residents.

 

The Middle Zambezi includes Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Also known as “The Smoke that Thunders,” for the constant spray and roar that the falls produce, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest waterfall. It has a width of 5,604 feet (1,708 m).

 

Where these African women and girls stand in the above photo, it is so loud that they don’t even bother trying to talk. Fresh river droplets are dancing in the air all around them.

 

Upstream from Victoria Falls, the Zambezi flows over a flat plateau of basalt extending hundreds of kilometers in all directions. (See aerial photo at end.)

 

Then, at the falls, the water suddenly plummets 260 feet (80 m) into a deep chasm.

Victoria Falls, Africa

The water volume in Victoria Falls varies depending on the season.  We were there in July, but I’ve been told the waters rage much more in the rainy season, February-May.

 

The Zambezi’s volume also varies by season, with regular flooding and ebbing, other waterfalls, and two hydroelectric dams. It also has many sizeable tributaries.

 

Some sections are pounding with water, attracting white-water rafting enthusiasts for the high volume of water and steep gradients.

 

Other sections of the river are calmer.

 

These next three photos are from a Zambezi tributary, the Luangwa River. Elephants and hippos, wading birds and many other animals gather at the water.

 

African elephant, Luangwa Valley, Zambia. Tributary of the Zambezi.

Hippos at Luangwa River, Zambia, Africa.

 

Locals are often seen on the water in dug-out canoes. Those humps in the water are not rocks…they’re hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia. Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

At the border of Botswana and Zambia, the Zambezi is 1,300 feet (400 m) wide and the current is strong. Relations between the two countries have been strained for years, locked in dispute over the construction of a bridge.

 

So instead of a bridge, a pontoon ferry system transports locals, tourists, trucks, and cars across the river. Two boats operate, like this one below, all day long.

 

Kazungula Ferry Boat, Africa

Even though it only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to get across, we spent several hours waiting in the line. Semi-truck drivers wait in line for days, sometimes weeks.

 

I read that recent bridge construction has finally begun.

 

Kazungula Ferry crossing at the Zambezi River, Africa. Ferry boat is left center.

Locals waiting to cross the Zambezi at Kazungula Crossing, Africa

 

Raging in rapids in some places, and too shallow to navigate in others, the Zambezi is a dynamic river. I’m glad you could join me for a short tour.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Zambezi sunset at Livingstone, Africa

The Zambezi and its river basin. Map by Eric Gaba. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Basalt plateau, Victoria Falls, V. F. Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Listening to Doves

Squatter Pigeon, Australia

Emerald Spotted Wood Dove, Zambia, Africa

Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australia

If you have ever listened to a dove, you know the sweet, gentle voice of peace. Seems like right now is a good time to relax into the peace of doves.

 

The bird that is classically associated with peace for centuries, doves and pigeons form  the family Columbidae. There are over 300 worldwide species. They live  everywhere except in extreme temperatures.

 

The terms “dove” and “pigeon” are often used interchangeably. Usually doves are smaller, and pigeons larger, but there are many scientific distinctions.

 

More information Columbidae

 

In North America, one of our most common doves is the mourning dove. It has several soft cooing vocalizations that add a mellow, repetitive coo-woo-woo to the air.

 

Mourning Dove, California

Mourning Dove Vocalization

They also have a soft, whistling wingbeat sound.

Mourning Dove Wingbeat Sound

So many times friends or co-workers have excitedly told me they heard an owl, only to find after we investigated further, that they were hearing a mourning dove. It is a muted sound, steady, with a slow, repeating call, and much like an owl.

 

Where I live in Northern California, we have a forest dove, the band-tailed pigeon. They do not have noticeable vocalizations, but the sanguine sight of their 25+ flocks synchronistically cruising over our valley is equally as calming.

Band-tailed Pigeon pair, California

Perched flock of band-tailed pigeons, California

 

The pigeons we see in cities, the domestic pigeon, are called rock doves. Sit on a bench in a city plaza and you can hear their cooing, like purring; the sun highlights their iridescent features.

Rock Dove visiting the San Francisco Hyatt

 

My favorite fruit dove, the Wompoo Fruit Dove, can be found hundreds of feet up in the Australian rainforest canopy eating figs and other fruit. I fell in love with its soothing wom-pooooo call.

 

Impossible to photograph, so high up, I give you an audio glimpse instead.

Woompoo Fruit Dove Vocalization

 

Another Australian rainforest dove.

Emerald Dove, Australia

 

Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, the tender dove calls seamlessly blend into the fragrant air and tropical breezes.

Spotted Dove, Maui

Spotted Dove Vocalization

Zebra Dove Vocalization

We need more docile dove sounds in this world, and fortunately, they’re everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

White Rock Dove pair, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Oahu

 

Giraffes Galore

Masai Giraffes, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

We are often introduced to giraffes as if there is only one kind. Technically, there is only one species, Giraffa camelopardalis, but there are nine different subspecies. Let’s take a look at a few.

 

Masai Giraffes, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Male Giraffe, Zambia

 

The tallest terrestrial animal in the world, giraffes live only in Africa. Depending on where in Africa you are, their coat patterns differ. See maps and diagram at end.

 

This subspecies, in the two photos below, is known as the reticulated giraffe (G. c. reticulata). They get my vote for the most elegant-looking subspecies. It is named for its net-like, or reticulated, coat pattern with reddish-brown patches separated by white lines.

 

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

 

Reticulated Giraffes at Acacia tree, Kenya

 

I am always thrilled on safari just to see a giraffe. It was long after my first giraffe sighting that I started to notice they were different from one another, depending on where we were.

 

Compared to the reticulated giraffes we saw in Kenya, above, look how different this pattern is on the South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa), below. The spots are more jagged. This individual has several oxpecker birds on its back, eating the ticks.

 

South African Giraffe with oxpeckers, Botswana

 

Taxonomist hypotheses and genetic studies abound on which giraffe subspecies lives where, it has to do with mitochondrial DNA.

 

Thornicroft giraffes (G. c. thornicrofti), in the next three photos, have spots that are more notched. They are a race found in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

 

Three Thornicroft Giraffes, Zambia. Oxpeckers mid-flight.

 

Thornicroft Giraffe, Zambia

 

We were thrilled to come upon this mother and her two nursing calves, especially since there are less than 600 individuals left of this subspecies on the planet.

 

Thornicroft giraffes, mother nusing two calves, Zambia

 

When you come upon a giraffe they have always, 100% of the time, seen you before you see them. With their height comes perspective, an advantage in the African veldt where giraffes have many predators.

 

Here are two photos below of the South African Giraffe subspecies, G. c. giraffa. This first photo gives you a good idea of the giraffe’s height. They stand 14-18 feet (4-5.5 m) tall.

South African Giraffe and Zebra, Zambia

 

South African Giraffe, Botswana

 

Wikipedia Giraffe.

 

In addition to the subspecies coat variations, each individual has a unique pattern. Calves inherit some spot pattern traits from their mothers. There are many theories on the evolutionary purpose of the spots, including camouflage and thermoregulation.

 

Coloring is also variable.

 

We saw this pair of Masai Giraffes, G. c. tippelskirchi, in the Serengeti in Tanzania. They have jagged star-like blotches that extend all the way down to the hooves. The male, on the left, is darker due to age.

Masai Giraffes, male on left, female on right, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Often one sees giraffes browsing, and it is usually on an acacia tree. They have a tough tongue that can master the acacia’s long, sharp thorns.

 

This tower of giraffes, however, are clustered under a mighty baobab tree, with no possibility of reaching the canopy.

Giraffes and Baobab Tree, Tarangire NP, Tanzania

 

There are so many remarkable aspects to the giraffe, their unique coats are only the beginning. And their perspective, hmmm, what a gift.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Acacia Tree, Botswana

 

Giraffe Subspecies map by Creative Commons Attribution. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Giraffa camelopardalis distribution2.png

Giraffe Distribution Map by Bobisbob. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Unusual Birds for Unusual Times

Male Frigatebird in breeding, Seymour Island, Galapagos

During this homebound time, here are some of my favorite unusual-looking birds from around the world.

 

There are so many lovely creatures in this world, each one unique in its own way. But some are especially different-looking; for today I narrowed it down to 12 birds.

 

Bird #1. Male Frigatebird in breeding (above). We worked and saved for two years to see this sight. This exquisite seabird comes to land only to breed, we were determined to observe his remarkable display; journeyed to a remote island in the Galapagos.

 

The male’s pouch inflates and deflates. He spends a lot of energy to inflate his red gular (throat) pouch to attract females. Once it is inflated, he pounds on the balloon-like body part with his wings; makes booming sounds and vocalizations.

 

After the male has found his damsel, the pouch deflates and the business of preparing for the new chick begins.

 

Bird #2. Nothern Potoo. A nocturnal bird, they perch on the end of sticks, flying out to catch insects and returning to their perch.  Nyctibius jamaicensis blends into the perch, rendering it nearly impossible to spot.

 

Our guide took us in a small motorboat to a Mexican marsh.

Northern Potoo, Mexico

 

There are over 300 different hummingbird species in the world. Many of us have seen hummingbirds or photos of them, yet I found the two following hummingbirds particularly unique-looking.

 

Bird #3. Tufted Coquette. With that punk orange hairstyle, polka-dotted wings and iridescence, its not like any hummingbird I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot. We spotted him deep in a Trinidad rainforest.

Tufted coquette, male, Trinidad

 

Bird #4. Another memorable hummingbird is the snowcap. Microchera albocoronata is in a genus all its own. They are tiny birds, the male is reddish purple with a bright white cap. Even beneath the dark canopy of the Costa Rican rainforest, that snowy white cap could be spotted fairly easily.

Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Bird #5. The Resplendent Quetzal. The male has long tail streamers, and the female has the same exquisite colors as the male, sans tail streamers. They eat avocadoes, so a guide took us to a wild avocado grove in the Chiriquí Highlands of Costa Rica.

 

Avocadoes that are not bred for human consumption are small, apricot-sized. These gorgeous birds were elegantly shimmering and fluttering from one tree to the next. They were not-so-elegantly eating: swallowing the avocado whole, then spitting out the pit. I vote this the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.

Resplendent Quetzal, male, Costa Rica

 

Bird #6. Cock-of-the-Rock. One of the strangest birds I have ever seen. We waited in the morning dark, in an Andes lek where males gather to perform courtship dances for the female. This bright orange male struts, bobs and hops while vocalizing a cacophony of staccato sounds. That morning there were five or six males vying for one female; she flew off solo after the show.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru. Photo: B. Page

 

Before we leave the western hemisphere, I want to show you a lovable strange bird who inhabits the deserts in southwestern and south-central United States. We saw it in southern California.

 

Bird #7. The Roadrunner. Clocked at 20 miles an hour (32 km/h), this bird is speedy. This creature was the star and namesake of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the Road Runner Show. There’s a reason Wile E. Coyote never caught the roadrunner….

Roadrunner, California. Photo: Athena Alexander

Sporting a long tail and perky crest, Geococcyx californianus hunts lizards and snakes. You see them sprinting more than flying, though they can fly.

 

The other side of the world is also loaded with unusual-looking birds. Here are a few we found in Africa and Australia.

 

Bird #8. The hamerkop is a wading bird, found in Africa, and is most closely related to pelicans. The color is unremarkable brown, but the shape of the head is highly conspicuous, appearing to look like a hammer. Its name means “hammerhead” in Afrikaans.

Hamerkop, Zambia, Africa

 

Bird #9. The secretary bird is a long-legged raptor. The lower half of the legs are featherless, the crest has quill-like feathers.  Sagittarius serpentarius stomps prey with its muscular legs, and uses the large, hooked eagle-like bill to strike.

Secretary Bird, Africa. Photo Athena Alexander

 

Bird #10. Far less ferocious are the African hornbills. There are several species of hornbills, this one is the red-billed. Their conspicuous bill gives them a distinguished, albeit odd, appearance.

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

 

Bird #11. Vulturine Guineafowl in Africa. In a land of vast savannahs, guineafowl are large, gregarious birds who eat insects and seeds in the grasses. You often see large flocks of them pecking the ground, like chickens. The Vulturine species, Acryllium vulturinum, has elegant markings.

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Bird #12. By far the oddest bird of all, the Southern Cassowary has a large casque atop its head, large bristly black body, long legs and neck, bright colors, and two dangling red wattles at the throat. We were birding deep in the rainforest in Queensland with a guide when we unknowingly came close to a cassowary’s nest. We had accidentally agitated the male.

Southern Cassowary, Australia

As big as humans, a cassowary has a large spike on its foot and can land a fatal blow to anyone in his way. We didn’t have long to chat with him.

 

Of course there are many more unusual birds in this world, as well as insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

 

As we all go through this unusual mammalian pandemic, try to remember that the world is full of odd animals.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Two Runners-Up:

Crested Guans, Costa Rica

 

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Australia

 

Jet (L) and Athena on Galapagos. Trees with breeding frigatebird colony in background.

 

 

Leaping Wildlife

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

Let’s celebrate this weekend’s Leap Day by joining some of the Earth’s most talented leapers.

 

Wildlife leapers come in all shapes and sizes.

 

One of my favorite leapers is the impala. Prime prey for many of Africa’s large mammals, impala’s defense includes leaps. Look at those long, thin legs…what magic they can do.

 

Impala, Botswana

 

They have a leap so unique, it has it’s own word: stotting.

 

While running, they fly through the air, land on their forelegs, then kick up their hind legs, and land on all four again. It’s all so fast you don’t know what happened until it’s over. There are many theories for the purpose of this tactic, mainly defense (see link above). There’s a stotting photo at the end.

 

The Klipspringer is another leaping African antelope, lives on rocky cliffs. Their name comes from Afrikaans:  klip (“rock”) springer (“leaper”).

 

This klipspringer was about a mile above us on a rocky hillside, gracefully darting across a precipitous granite wall.

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

 

More leapers live across the world in Australia where hopping kangaroos are a classic sight. They hop with the aid of large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs; the tail is also an aid.

 

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

This wallaby was only as tall as my knee, and her hop was not very big. I think the joey in her pouch might’ve had something to do with that.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Australia

 

This kangaroo, on the other hand, was nearly as tall as me.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Australia

 

Once when I was on an Australian back road, a mob of large kangaroos came clomping by at great speed. There were about a half dozen of them, and what a cacophony with their long hind feet and tails slapping the ground.

 

They tried to change course when they saw our jeep, but they were moving at such high speed that even when they stopped hopping, their large, heavy bodies kept sliding.

 

And then there’s monkeys. They sail through the air, land on a tree limb, grab onto vines, and skillfully make their way through a forest. They use their tails, too.

 

If you have ever spent a night in a monkey’s world, you are familiar with the sounds of this mischievous mammal pouncing on the rooftop above you.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

We had the fortune of watching these colobus monkeys effortlessly swinging through the trees.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

 

Frogs jump. This crazy one landed on glass, affording a good view of their powerful jumping legs and suction-cup toe pads.

 

Spring Peeper, Frog, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Many frogs can jump more than 20 times their body length.

 

We found this frog sleeping in the ladies’ room blinds, in Mareeba Australia. It was a hot day in the Fahrenheit hundreds and this opportunist found a cool spot…no jumping that day.

 

Frog in the ladies room, Australian Green Tree Frog, Ranoidea caerulea

 

These two colorful frogs are tiny–about the size of your thumb. With their petite size, they are far more difficult to spot than you would think, considering their loud colors.

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

This tiny poison dart frog chose a soggy grass patch to hide in. For every step I took to see it, a cloud of mosquitoes poofed up. About 20 mosquito bites later, it landed on this more posable wood piece.

 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

 

Rabbits hop. We happened to startle this one while hiking in Nevada. We were in rattlesnake territory, so I was relieved it was only a rabbit that hopped out of the undergrowth.

Rabbit, Nevada.

 

Last summer I accidentally startled a large rattlesnake, and that’s when I did the hopping.

 

And where would we be without leaping lizards in our world?

 

Lizards have a long list of predators, so they have to be quick. Whether they are small…

 

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

or large…

Green Iguana, Belize. Photo: Athena Alexander

…they can vanish in an instant.

 

My favorite lizard, the basilisk, can be seen here demonstrating the muscular legs that lend them their leaping skills. They not only leap on land, they leap on water, too.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Not to be outdone by mammals, amphibians, or reptiles, some of our long-legged insects have incredible leaping abilities. Spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, to name a few.

 

Katydid, California

 

I live on a dry, chaparral mountain and hot summer days are great for watching grasshoppers. They leap so high I can’t even see where they go. It’s only when they land that I see them again. Their long legs catapult them into the air and their wings extend the leap into flight.

 

I’ve read that if humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would be able to easily leap the length of a football field.

 

Even though Leap Day only occurs once every four years, we have the pleasure of these leaping creatures every day on Earth. Makes me want to leap with joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander except for last photo.

Stotting black-face impala. Photo by Yathin sk, Namibia. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcoming 2020

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl, Botswana, Africa

As we step forward into a fresh new year, and decade, here are some wise words from a few of my wild friends.

 

Greet each day with a smile.

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l. Park, Australia

 

Enjoy the search for life’s nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

Wear your true colors …

Yellow Tangs, Big Island, Hawaii

but on crabby days, lay low.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Galapagos Islands

 

Eat good foods …

House Finch, Gold Dusk Gecko Eating Papaya, Hawaii

and drink plenty of water.

Young African Elephant Drinking Water, Botswana, Africa

 

Share the resources.

Bighorn Sheep and Moose at pond, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado

 

Wildlife, who have to physically work for every bite, like to remind us humans of the importance of movement. They tell us to …

Exercise …

Sable, Botswana, Africa

and stretch.

Leopard, Tanzania, Africa

 

I’ve watched plenty of wildlife simply having fun, especially ravens.

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Wildlife remind us to:

Hang out with our mates …

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

and cherish our loved ones.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

Try to get along with everyone …

Hippo with heron, Zambia, Luangwa Valley, Africa

but when it’s not possible, take leave.

Humpback Whale, Kenai, Alaska

And because we are granted many days in each new year, there are bound to be some bad days too. The wisdom there is:

When life gives you dung, be a dung beetle.

Dung Beetle, Serengeti, Kenya, Africa

 

It’s good to be industrious …

Leafcutter Ant with leaf spear, Belize

but don’t forget to take time to perch …

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

and relax.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Never stop singing …

Dickcissel, Texas

and just keep hopping.

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

Wishing you the best in 2020, my friends. Thanks for sharing the sparks of 2019 with me.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Blue-colored Friends

Ulysses Butterflies on Lantana, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

If any of my friends in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling a little blue about the waning of summer, here is a panoply of blue wildlife to uplift your spirits.

 

Blue-gray Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Though there are many birds with blue, there are also insects and reptiles, and even a monkey.

 

Bluet Damselfly, Nevada. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Butterfly, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Western fence lizards have a bright blue belly.

Western Fence Lizard, California. Photo: A. Alexander

 

This skink we see in California has a dazzling tail.

 

Skink, California

 

The blue monkey. Not as blue as some of its fellow blue-named creatures, but a beauty nonetheless.

Blue Monkey, Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa

 

Birds this blue sometimes blend into the greenery; but I have spotted them from far across an opposite ridge…gasping from behind my binoculars, such stunning beauty.

 

Blue Dacnis, Peru. Photo by B. Page

 

We found these blue-headed parrots at a river bank in the Amazon. They were busy extracting minerals from the clay soil.

 

Blue-headed Parrots, Peru. Photo: A. Alexander

 

The color blue is a bit complicated when it comes to nature. Peacock feathers, for example, are actually pigmented brown, but their microscopic structure, through light reflection, expresses blues and greens.

 

Indian Peacock, Texas. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Birdnote.org explains it well:

“Unlike many other bird colors, blue is not a pigment but a color produced by the structure of the feathers. Tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather scatter blue light and absorb the other wavelengths. The even finer structure of the feather gathers the bouncing blue wavelengths together and directs them outward.”

 

I think the blue feathers on this Glossy Starling take scattering and bouncing blue wavelengths to a new high.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Africa

 

I’ve noticed some birds sporting blue always seem to be bright, like these two tanager species…

 

Blue-necked Tanager, Peru

 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

… whereas other blue-pigmented birds can sometimes look gray or black, depending on the light.

Little Blue Heron, Belize

 

Mountain Bluebird, Wyoming

 

Great Blue Heron, Ding Darling, Florida

 

These blue-footed boobies are performing a mating dance. The blue pigmentation in their feet comes from carotenoids in their fresh fish diet. The bluer the feet, the more healthy the bird.

 

Blue-footed Boobies, Galapagos Islands. Photo: A. Alexander

 

A few more of my blue favorites.

Belted Kingfisher, California

 

Green Honeycreeper, male, Trinidad (called a Green Honeycreeper, but more like turquoise)

 

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

 

Turquoise Jay, Ecuador. Photo: A. Alexander

 

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia. Photo: A. Alexander

 

How wonderful to have all these blues in the world–so much pigmentation or light or wavelengths or whatever…to celebrate.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

 

Western Bluebird, California

 

Bird Life in Africa

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Like every continent on this planet, Africa’s weather and terrain are what define the bird populations. But Africa’s bird populations soar to the top of the continent list with the huge size of land area, big game and extensive wildlife, vast wilderness and undeveloped expanses.

 

Here are some of my favorites.

 

Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana

 

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Botswana

 

Many bird species occupy the waterways of Africa.

 

The hamerkop is a medium-sized wading bird related to pelicans. They eat fish and amphibians, sometimes rodents and insects.

Hamerkop, Zambia

 

We watched this ambitious rufous-bellied heron struggle for over a quarter hour with a wiggly catfish. Seems impossible, given the size of the catfish, but eventually the heron swallowed it whole.

Rufous-belied Heron eating a catfish, Botswana

 

On sandy patches near the Chobe River, we came upon a flock of African Skimmers skimming the water for fish. Like all skimmer species, their lower mandible (bill) is longer than the upper mandible, enabling the bird to scoop up fish while flying.

African Skimmer, Botswana

 

Elsewhere in Botswana, the Okavango Delta is a swampy inland basin that is home to many species of water birds. Wading birds, with their typically long legs, could be seen everywhere.

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta. Photo by A. Alexander.

African Jacana

 

Flamingos are probably the most well-known long-legged wader. We found many colonies on lakes in Kenya and Tanzania. On different occasions, we watched a jackal and a hyena stalking and circling the flamingos…a good reason for this bird to stay in large, safe groups.

Flamingos, Tanzania

 

Kingfishers, a world-wide bird species always seen waterside, are in many parts of Africa. There are 18 species in Africa, here are two.

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

 

Another extensive aspect of Africa are the grasslands. The word “Serengeti” translates from the Maasai for “endless prairies.” Life here revolves around the grass.

 

Watching an ostrich run across the African grasslands is a supreme honor. They are the world’s largest bird and are prey to many hungry beasts, so their speed is paramount to survival. They run up to 45 miles (70 km) per hour.

Ostrich, male, Kenya. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

Other interesting grassland birds include the secretary bird and guineafowl.

Secretary Bird, Zambia

 

Vulturine Guineafowl, Kenya, Africa

 

Weaver birds build elaborate nests from the surrounding grass.

Weaver nest, Zambia

More about Weaver Nests in a previously written post.

 

In addition to water birds and grass birds, cohabitation between mammals and birds is fascinating. It is, after all, a land of extremes in terms of wildlife.

 

This goose and crocodile seem to have adopted the “live and let live” doctrine…at least for the moment.

Crocodile and Egyptian Goose, Zambia

 

Oxpecker birds, endemic to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, can often be found on the bodies of ungulates. They eat the ticks that annoyingly nestle into the mammals’ hide. Some sources say it is symbiotic, others say the birds are parasitic.

Oxpeckers on Sable Antelope, Botswana

 

This buffalo and oxpecker strike me as an unlikely pair.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker on the far left, Botswana. Photo by A. Alexander.

 

These cheeky cattle egrets were hitching a ride on hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

Ngorongoro Crater, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Another constantly occurring phenomenon on the eat-or-be-eaten plains of Africa is the hierarchy of species that gather around a freshly killed animal. While lions, cheetahs, or hyenas are often thought of as the fierce predators, the birds inevitably line up for their share of the carcass too.

 

And with large prey come large predatory birds.

 

One day along the Chobe River we had the rare opportunity of observing a pack of wild dogs hunting. They killed an impala and celebrated around it for at least half an hour. After the dogs were satiated and had left, these vultures moved in. You can see how big they are next to the antelope.

Vultures with prey, Botswana

 

This group of birds came in after the wild cats had left, settled into what remained of a baby elephant.

Vultures and Storks on carcass, Botswana

 

In Africa, birds are not the harmless little fluttery creatures we see in the rest of the world…but then it takes a special creature to live in the wilds of Africa. Thanks for joining the birds and me on this incredible continent.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia. Photo Athena Alexander.

 

Lizard Land — Part 2 of 2

Green Iguana, Belize, native

 

Last week in Part 1 of this series we looked at lizards’ antipredator adaptations, camouflage, and size. Today we look at their skin, and various ways they move, sense, and communicate.

 

For starters, they are gloriously prehistoric. When you watch a lizard, especially the way it moves, it’s almost as if you are watching a dinosaur. The evolution of reptiles dates back 310-320 million years; more info here. 

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Blue-tongued Lizard pair, entwined, Sydney, Australia

 

Spiny-tailed Lizard, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Skin. Lizard skin is covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, providing protection from the environment. Scales also help prevent water loss, especially important in hot, dry deserts.

 

This photo shows the textured scales.

Western Fence Lizard, California

 

Tough and leathery, lizard skin is shed as the animal grows; they usually eat it for the minerals.

 

Locomotion.  Lizards live on the ground, in trees, rocks, underground, and even water. Therefore, they move in many different ways.

 

Although there are some legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal. Their gait has alternating movement of the right and left limbs, requiring the body to bend–shown in this photo of the Nile monitor.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana, Africa

 

One of my favorite lizards for their movement is the common basilisk. When alarmed, basilisks rear up on their two hind legs and skitter across the water, earning them the name Jesus Christ Lizard. I’ve seen them run bipedally on the ground as well.

 

This photo demonstrates the basilisk’s muscular hind legs, necessary for bipedal locomotion.

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Many species of lizards can effortlessly leap two and three times their body length. Lizards with short legs, like the skink, undulate like a snake.

 

Skink, California

 

Some lizards are extremely fast, while others, especially larger ones, are more languid. In addition, how much sun they have stored in their body is directly relational to speed.

 

The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaurus similis) is known as the fastest lizard, clocked at 21 mph (34 kph).

 

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Geckos get the prize for hanging upside down. Their adhesive toe pads allow them to adhere to most surfaces.

 

The Asian House Gecko has the broadest distribution of any lizard in the world.

 

Asian House Gecko on the ceiling, Kakadu NP, Australia

 

Senses. With over 6,000 species of lizards, there are many variations of how lizards sense their environment–here are a few notable ways.

 

Eyes. Many lizard species, especially iguanas, have a parietal eye, a third eye, on the back of their head. It is photoreceptive and regulates circadian rhythm and hormone production for thermoregulation. Although it does not form images, it is sensitive to light and movement, helpful for detecting predators. The eye is difficult for us to see.

 

A chameleon can steer each eye in opposite directions. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they lick their eyes to keep them clean and moist. Geckos, like monitors, have acute vision.

 

Ears. Instead of external ears, lizards have ear holes or openings. The eardrums, or tympanic membranes, are just below the surface of the skin. These two close-ups clearly show the “ears.”

 

Dragon Lizard, Australia. Ear hole is reddish-brown circle below and left of eye.

 

 

This frill-necked lizard’s ear opening is just right of center photo, in an almost straight line below the eye. Australia.

 

Nose. All lizards, like snakes, have a specialized olfactory system for detecting pheromones or chemical signals. They have a vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum. When you see a lizard sticking out its forked tongue, as in the photo below, what you are witnessing is the transferring of scent information from the tip of its forked tongue to the VNO.

 

Golden Tegu Lizard with forked tongue out, Trinidad

 

Mouth. Most lizards are predatory and hunt small invertebrates and/or insects. We have lizards to thank for keeping the insect population in check.

 

This western fence lizard had a fruitful day in my backyard. As winged nuptial ants were streaming from a rock fissure, he gorged for at least an hour.

 

Western Fence Lizard, California, eating nuptial ants. Notice all the dead winged ants he hasn’t yet had the chance to consume.

 

Here in California we are lucky to have the western fence lizard, because ticks that feed on this lizard do not spread Lyme disease. This lizard’s blood kills off the Lyme bacteria.

 

The marine iguana, found only in the Galapagos Islands, forages on algae, kelp and other marine plants. They will dive up to 98 feet (30 m), and can stay submerged for an hour.

 

While underwater, marine iguanas ingest salt. The salt is filtered from the blood and then nasally excreted. We saw many of them squirt salt out their nostrils.

 

This photo shows the marine iguana’s lovable face encrusted with algae (green) and dried salt (white) on it.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

As squamates, lizards have movable upper jaws, and some lizards, like the green iguana, have very sharp teeth capable of shredding leaves and even human skin. All lizards have teeth, dentition varies.

 

Communication. Lizards make sounds for courtship, territorial defense, and distress signals. Geckos are the most loquacious lizards, with chirps and squeaks that can be surprisingly loud. Sometimes you’ll hear a lizard hiss, a warning.

 

Other forms of communication include:  various body postures like push-ups and head-bobs, as well as the expansion of the dewlap. Tail-flicking is common in territorial disputes.

 

We found this dapper anole with a bright orange dewlap in a Texas swamp.

 

Green anole, Texas

 

This green iguana below, near a river in Costa Rica where it is native, was nearly five feet long (1.5 m) including the tail. An arboreal lizard, they hunt and bask in the trees and can easily break a fall with their hind legs.

 

This photo shows his crescent-shaped, uninflated dewlap under the neck. Dewlaps are muscle-controlled, and help regulate body temperature; also used in courtship and territorial displays.

 

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

 

Leaping Lizards Batman! They are the coolest animal on this planet!

Thanks for joining me in Lizard Land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

 

Great Basin Fence Lizard, Great Basin NP, Nevada

 

Lizard Land — Part 1 of 2

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

Lizards are one of the most diverse and remarkable creatures on this planet; there are 6,000 species living on all the continents except Antarctica. Here are some of my favorites in this two-part series.

 

Although most lizards may seem vulnerable as fairly small, soft-sided creatures, they are hearty and flourishing survivors.

 

It is their antipredator adaptations that have rewarded lizards with success on the planet. Features such as camouflage, self-amputation, venom, and reflex bleeding aid these reptiles in numerous ways.

 

Camouflage. In the Hawaiian tropics, this gecko surprisingly blends into the lush tropical flowers and greenery. We were lucky to find this one on our rental car where it stood out.

 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

 

Here you see the Lobed Chameleon in Serengeti grass…barely noticeable in its camouflaged state. Imagine how many ferocious wild African species could eat this palm-sized chameleon…yet in Tanzania alone there are 100 species of chameleons.

Lobed Chameleon, Serengeti, Africa (in exact center of photo)

 

The chameleon, like many lizard species, changes color to hide from predators. They also have the ability to extend their long, sticky tongue to snap up insects without having to leave their hiding spot.

 

This frisky pair of spiny-tailed iguanas would have escaped our notice if they hadn’t been rustling in their chasing.

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana pair, Belize

 

We found a frill-necked lizard on every tree in this northern Australia eucalyptus forest. Invisible to us at first, the guide pointed them out.

Frill-necked Lizard, Atherton Tablelands, Australia

In addition to camouflaging, the frill-necked lizards have a unique scare tactic. Named for the ruff of skin around their neck, frill-necked lizards can expand their neck skin like the instant opening of an umbrella. They have bones in the frill that form rods extending their ruff, quickly transforming them to be bigger and more fierce.

 

This is a good BBC YouTube video of what the frill-necked lizard looks like when defending. 

 

Self-amputation. Another example of anti-predator adaptation is autotomy or self-amputation. Skinks and small lizards are known for their ability to escape from a predator by this method.

 

If a predator grabs onto their tail, they sacrifice it by ejecting it, and escape, leaving the predator with only a still-squiggling tail. Miraculously, they grow the tail back. It has been found that lizard DNA is responsible for regeneration, involving 326 genes.

 

You can see this lizard with its battle scars: a segmented tail, indicative of regrowth.

Green Anole, Costa Rica; segmented tail indicating regeneration

 

Venom. While most lizards are not harmful, there are a few who produce venom, like the Gila monster, Komodo dragon, and some monitors. Lizard venom has led to ongoing scientific research for medicinal drugs to help with blood clotting, weight loss, and diabetes.

 

Reflex Bleeding. Horned lizards have an antipredator adaptation called reflex bleeding. At least eight species of this lizard can squirt and aim a stream of blood from the corner of their eyes, shooting it a distance of up to five feet (1.5 m). The blood confuses the predator, and is also foul-tasting to dogs and cats.

 

Another extraordinary lizard characteristic is thermoregulation. As cold-blooded animals, they rely on the sun for supplying energy to move and function. For this reason, lizards can often be seen basking in the sun.

 

Marine Iguana colony, Galapagos Islands

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

 

Lastly, lizards vary incredibly in size and shape. This land iguana is one of the largest lizards in the world, weighing up to 25 pounds (11 kg) and measuring 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 m).

Land Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

In contrast, this full adult gecko, aptly named the dwarf gecko, is half as big as a paperclip.

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

 

And finally, as an aficionado of wild lizards, I ask that if you ever seek to purchase a lizard for a pet, please be responsible in purchasing only lizards that are bred in captivity and legally bought and sold. Help keep our wild lizards wild.

 

Solar-generated animals that can change colors, regrow their tail, magically blend into their surroundings, and shoot blood. How incredible is that?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

See you next Friday for Part 2 of Lizard Land. Thanks for joining me!

Western Fence Lizard, California