Black (as Night) Friday

Spotted Hyena, Zambia

This is the day in America when shoppers are enticed into stores for big sales. But for those of us who find greater value in fresh air and nature scenes, I thought it would be fun on this Friday to take you into the black night of Africa.

 

Except for the light of the moon, the nights are pitch black.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana aka Verreaux’s Owl

 

Safari Night Drive. One night in Zambia we were slowly driving along in the dark when our guide stopped and told us to get ready. We couldn’t hear or see anything, but he told us which way to face. Cameras went up.

 

Then he turned on the spotlight and right in front of us was a pool with about a dozen hippos quietly grazing on the water plants.

 

Hippo Pool, Zambia

 

Most of the time, guides keep the spotlight turned off to avoid disturbing the animals; they slowly drive the jeep with just parking lights.

 

With the spotlight off, all you can see are the animals’ eye-shine piercing through the deep dark. It is eerie to look out over a grass field and see dozens of those colored eyes looking at you. You don’t know if it’s a snarling hyena or an antelope.

 

You never ever step out of the vehicle.

 

Leopard, Zambia

 

The metallic-like colored dots are at various heights. Low to the ground are the hares, mongooses, rodents, and night birds. Several inches higher up are the small wild cats like civet or genet.

 

Genet, Tanzania

 

Gabon Nightjar, Zambia

 

Even on the blackest, darkest night, a good guide can identify the animal just by the eye shine. Eyes can be close together, far apart, and different colors according to species. Animal identification also depends on where the eyes are:  in tall grass, on tree limbs, in water, running, or not running.

 

We came across this leopard pair in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. We saw them a couple of times, and at one point the male had caught a bird that hung limply from his jaws. They walked off to enjoy their midnight snack, and we never saw them again.

 

Leopards, Zambia

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

The elephant was one of my favorite experiences in all of life. The photo is not the greatest, but the memory is. That night we were awakened by a stormy rustling.

 

It turned out to be a mother and her calf just outside our flimsy door. What sounded like a rain storm was the mother elephant tearing apart a tree, eating the leaves.

 

We remained silently watching, not making a sound.

 

Elephant, Zambia, the structure with windows on the left is our cottage

The story: The Night the Elephants Came to Visit

 

Here’s to enjoying the wild mysteries of the night.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

African Civit

 

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The Power of the Lion

Dear friends, I am humbled and grateful for your kindness and support from all over the world. Although I am unable to respond to each individual at this time, please know I am reading your comments, a blanket of comfort.

 

We are still displaced from our home, and will be at least a half year or more, so the tasks are tremendous, and mounting with each new day.

 

In order to keep my courage up, I have been thinking a lot about the bold, raw power of the ferocious lion. This is a post I published two years ago: Lions in the Serengeti.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

Owls All Around

Barred Owl, Texas

Everything about owls is remarkable. Large eyes with binocular vision, facial disks around the eyes that funnel sound more acutely, ears that are asymmetric for better sound coverage, feathers structured for silent flight, a neck that can rotate, and powerful talons for skull-crushing.

 

There are over 200 species of owls in the world, living on all continents except Antarctica.

 

They are classified into two different families, Strigidae and Tytonidae,  with about 19 owl species in North America, 42 in Africa, and 13 in Europe. South America, 55; India, 30; Australia, 11. Sources differ in numbers. (Range map below.)

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

 

 

Great Horned Owlet, California

 

Pearl-spotted Owlet, Zambia, Africa

 

Wikipedia overview on Owls.

 

With hundreds of owl species there are many exceptions, but for the most part, they are nocturnal birds. Carnivorous, preying on rodents, small mammals, and insects, many species can be seen hunting at dawn or dusk.

 

Although all owls have a similar shape, they vary widely in size. I have seen the world’s lightest owl, no bigger than the size of my hand, appropriately called the Elf Owl (in Arizona). They weigh 1.4 ounces (40 g). I’ve also seen the largest owl in Africa, the Giant Eagle Owl, pictured second above. It was 26 inches tall (66 cm).

 

Great Horned Owl, California

 

Barn Owl. Photo: Peter Trimming, British Wildlife Centre. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The most common owl worldwide is the barn owl, in a family of its own, Tytonidae.

 

You can’t hear a thing when an owl flies. Each leading feather is serrated, making the wingbeat silent. The rest of the flight feathers have soft, velvety edges absorbing any other sound during movement. This allows the owl to surprise and capture prey.

 

I’ve been out in the dark looking for owls when one has flown past me and I didn’t even know it.

 

Great Horned Owls, Alaska

 

Although owls are elusive and often camouflaged, it is possible to see them in the wild. I’ve provided two links, below, for locating the owls in your area.

 

I have spent many hours “owling” at night with guides, but have also found many species while hiking without a guide. They’re usually in the woods, you have to look up in the trees and be quiet. Cities with large parks have owls too.

 

A good way to become familiar with the owl species in your area is to visit your local raptor or bird rescue centers, they often rehabilitate injured owls. They may have information, too, where wild owls have been spotted.

 

I once lived near a small natural history museum–Randall Museum–in San Francisco, visited their permanently-injured owls frequently.

 

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

Rufous Owl, Australia

 

Our guide’s gear for owling, in Australia.

 

The subject of much folklore, owls have mystified humans for centuries. They are mesmerizing to watch, magical to hear, and possessing skills like no other bird.

 

When you do see an owl, you don’t forget it.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander, all owls in the wild (except Wikipedia barn owl)

The Owl Pages — owls worldwide. Enter your country in the Search bar.

owling.com — North and Central American owls

 

Mottled Owl, Belize, perched under a palm frond

 

Black and White Owl, Costa Rica

 

Range map of Owls of the World. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Weaver Nests

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

As the safari guide cruises across the African savannah, with wild cheetahs stalking gazelles and thousands of wildebeest amassing in huge herds, no one is looking for a finch-like bird. But after a few days one starts to wonder: what are all those grassy clumps in the trees?

 

Those are weaver nests.

 

Weavers are a large family of colorful songbirds similar to finches, and they are one of the most architecturally-talented birds on the planet.

 

There are 64 species in the Ploceidae family, found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not migrate, living year-round in warm climates.

 

To learn more about the bird, visit Wikipedia Weaver Bird. You will see there are more than just 64 species from the Ploceidae family; additional weaver birds in other taxonomic families total 117 species.

 

Zambia Village surrounded by grass

 

Weaver nest, Zambia

 

The nest is built with grass found in the immediate vicinity. The males build the nests; females choose their mate based on the nest’s location, design, and comfort.

 

Typically bird nests are either open cups or hidden inside tree cavities. But not the weavers’.  It is cylindrically shaped; with a narrow entrance hole usually facing downward to deter predators. In the African savannah, where predators abound and trees do not, the weavers have cleverly designed an enclosed grass clump hanging from a tree.

 

Named for their weaving abilities, the male uses only his feet and bill to weave the elaborate construction. First he tears grass blades and other materials into long strips, then he loops the initial strands onto the tree limb.

 

Next he intricately weaves the grass to form the hollow body; last, he creates the tubular entrance.

 

The weaver birds reside in many different countries, each with different habitats, so the building materials vary. Notice in the photos above, the dry grass around the Zambian village is reflected in the weaver nest built nearby.

 

Moreover, each weaver nest design is species-specific. I have included diagrams from my field guide (Birds of Kenya, by Zimmerman, Turner, Pearson, 1999) to demonstrate how consistent this is.

Weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Second weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Number 1 in the first diagram, for example, belongs to the African Golden Weaver. Numbers 10a and 10b in the same diagram, each with dual parts, is home to the Spectacled Weaver. The tree in the second diagram, labeled 10a, shows multiple Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver nests.

 

The Sociable Weaver has the most elaborate nest of all.  They are colonial nesters and build massive nests that can weigh up to a ton. One nest can have over a hundred pairs of nesting sociable weavers, and additionally host other non-weaver species concurrently. This nest is the largest built by any bird on earth.

Sociable Weaver nests, Namibia. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

Regardless of how many birds are occupying the nest, sometimes a pair only, there is a lot of color and chatter and acrobatics.

Vieillot’s Black Weaver male weaving, Ghana. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

When we watch television documentaries about the African savannah, it looks like there’s an adrenaline-raising chase going on all the time. In reality, there are certainly moments like that, but often lions are sleeping during the day after a night of hunting; or there’s no action in sight. There are definitely lulls.

 

This is a good time to seek out the weavers. Because they never seem to stop and rest, they are busy with their home-building tasks always. And it’s no wonder–there’s a lot of weaving to be done.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

For more Weaver info and photos: 10,000 Birds.

Sociable Weaver nest from below. Photo: Rui Ornelas, courtesy Wikipedia

Sociable weaver nest on electricity pole, South Africa. Photo: Mike Peel, courtesy Wikipedia

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 2 of 2

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

When you joined me in Botswana Africa’s Okavango Delta last week, I presented birds that frequent the water.  See Part 1 here. Today we’ll complete the series with birds that tend to occupy the grassland and woodland habitats of the Delta.

 

The lilac-breasted roller is a favorite for many people, because of their astounding beauty. So-named for their aerial acrobatic rolling, they are about the size of a crow.

 

They hunt for insects and lizards, and perch in open spots, then flutter out like a ballerina in the air, and spin and roll with dazzling beauty.

 

Another very colorful and acrobatic bird, bee-eaters can be found on numerous continents; in Africa there are 20 species, with seven in Botswana.

 

Little Bee-eaters, Botswana

 

As you might have deducted from their name, the bee-eaters hunt bees; and are often seen on a limb whacking a freshly-caught bee–they are eradicating the bee’s stinger before consumption.

 

And then there’s the comical oxpeckers.

 

Sable with Oxpeckers

Usually found on the body of a large mammal, they eat the pesky ticks, and sometimes ear wax and dandruff. Not a charming diet, but a bird that is a fun to observe. Just looking at this photo starts you wondering where they venture….

 

Post by Jet Eliot about oxpeckers.

 

Another resplendent beauty, the Greater Blue-eared Glossy starlings shimmer in the blazing African sun.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Long-tailed Shrike

Other birds pictured here are the long-tailed shrike, a thrill to watch flying as his tail waves through the air like an unfurled flag; and the coppery-tailed coucal with their copper tail and scarlet eye.

Coppery-tailed Coucal

 

Common in Okavango Delta, hornbills are known for their massive casque bills. There are seven hornbill species in Botswana alone. A previous post on the hornbills.

 

Yellow-billed Hornbill

 

Then there’s the very cool hammerkop, whose name translates to hammerhead, in describing the bird’s unusual hammer head-shape.

Hammerkop, Africa

 

One bird has so many unusual features, you don’t know what to think of it: the secretary bird.

 

Secretary Bird

This elusive bird of prey has the body of a raptor and the legs of a crane, with funky quill-like feathers on the head. They use their half-pantaloon/half-bare legs to stomp prey. Funny-looking but ferocious, they also use their large, hooked bill to strike prey.

 

The secretary bird is one of my favorites, read more at Loving the Secretary Bird by Jet Eliot.

 

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

The largest owl in Africa, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a towering force in the woods, eating mammals, birds and insects.

 

But even this bird, also known as the Giant Eagle Owl, has a soft side: when you find them sleeping, you see their pretty pink eyelids.

 

Because it’s an African safari and birds are only part of the adventure, I’ve also included a few other creatures we observed in the Okavango Delta.

 

Thank you for joining me on this two-part series, celebrating the wide variety of birds in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

 

Zebra, Okavango Delta

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Kudu with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on back

 

 

 

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 1 of 2

Saddle-billed Stork, Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta, in the southern African country of Botswana, is a most astounding place. A desert in the dry season, and an extensive wetland the other months, it is home to thousands and thousands of birds, mammals, and myriad wildlife.

 

This is the first of a two-part series highlighting birds we saw at this Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

African Jacana

Due to seasonal flooding, the Okavango Delta swells and shrinks dramatically in the course of a year.   In January and February, rainfall from Angola drains down the Okavango River and floods this flat plain for 4-6 months–an attractive opportunity for parched wildlife.

 

Wattled Cranes, Botswana, Africa

As part of the Kalahari Desert, the Delta’s water eventually recedes from the sandy terrain; and high temperatures cause the water to transpire and evaporate.

 

African Skimmer, Botswana

This annual cyclical pattern creates a permanent or temporary home for hundreds of thousands of African creatures.  Wikipedia Okavango Delta overview here.

 

A 7,000-square-mile area, there are over 500 different bird species here. For comparison, in all of Canada (3.8 million square miles) there are 400 bird species.   Bird list here.

 

African Fish Eagle, Botswana

Aquatic birds and raptors populate the waterways, swampy areas attract crakes and swamphen, while open waters attract waders. The variety of habitat, from reedy swamps to forests and grassland, is what makes this an attractive panoply for birds.

 

Egyptian Goose

Some birds are rare or threatened, like the Wattled Crane and African Skimmer; others, like the African Fish Eagle, are commonly seen.

 

Yellow-billed Storks, Okavango Delta

 

Hippopotamus, Okavango Delta

More than 200 species of mammals graze, drink, and live primarily nomadically, following the water or the growth it produces–buffalo, hippo, numerous antelope, zebra, wildebeest, to name a few.

 

Elephant herds number several hundred. And of course, predators (lion, hyena, cheetah and more) follow the herds.

 

Wild Dog, Botswana

The Okavango Delta is also home to the endangered Cape Wild Dog. We had the blissful pleasure of finding a pack of wild dogs at nearby Chobe River, read about it here.

 

Today I showed you some of the water birds in the Okavango Delta, including a few cameo appearances by non-birds. Next time we’ll take a look at more terrestrial-oriented birds. Stay tuned!

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

Yellow-billed Stork, Okavango Delta

 

 

 

 

 

Location of  Botswana  (dark blue)– in Africa  (light blue & white)– in the African Union  (light blue)  –  [Legend]

Botswana in dark blue. Courtesy Wikipedia.