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.

The Gift of Cranes

Throughout time and across the globe, cranes have symbolized longevity, wisdom, immortality, happiness and good fortune. Here is a gift of cranes as we welcome the new year.

There are 15 species of cranes in the world, all in one family, Gruidae. They fall under three genera; each genera–Antigone, Balearica, Grus–is represented here today (pre-pandemic).

Antigone. The sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis, is one of North America’s two crane species.

While not all cranes are migratory, the sandhill cranes are.

In Northern California we welcome their migrations on the Pacific Flyway every winter.

Cranes are gregarious birds and form large flocks. They have specialized trachea and a big vocabulary, a very vocal bird.

Many cultures associate happiness with the crane, and it is easy to see why when you have witnessed their animated flocks and mating dances.

When they reach breeding age, cranes pair off from the flock. They perform conspicuous dances to attract a mate. Waist-high birds swinging their long legs and flapping their broad wings.

Sometimes just two birds are off on the sidelines jumping and trumpeting, other times one pair starts a chain reaction and several pairs begin to flutter and hop.

They do make you want to kick up your heels and celebrate the joy of life.

This male, below, impressed his mate by repeatedly picking up clumps of dirt and tossing them into the air.

Cranes are monogamous. More info: Cranes Wikipedia.

Although cranes are large birds, they are not always easy to spot because they blend into their environment and have their heads down, foraging.

This is what a field of cranes usually looks like. This field has several hundred cranes in it.

The Sarus crane, photographed below in Australia, is the tallest flying bird in the world, nearly 6 feet (2 m) tall. Antigone antigone. A nonmigratory crane, the Sarus can be found in India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Cranes are opportunistic feeders and change their diet according to season, location and food availability. They eat both animal and plant matter. We spotted these Sarus cranes on a sweltering day.

Grus. Eight species of cranes are in the Grus genera, including the whooping and wattled cranes shown below.

Some cultures equate cranes to immortality. Whooping cranes, the second of North America’s two crane species, nearly went extinct and were then brought back. That may not be the true definition of immortality, but whooping cranes have done an impressive come-back.

There were once over 10,000 whooping cranes on this continent prior to European settlement. Over-hunting and habitat loss reduced Grus americana to 21 birds in 1941.

Amazingly, today they still join us on this planet. After over half a century of captive breeding and conservation programs, humans have revived the whooping crane population to approximately 800. This bird remains protected on the endangered species list.

A few years ago we visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin. It is the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes can be seen. The Foundation is paramount to world crane conservation.

This first photo is a whooping crane in captivity at the Foundation.

This second photo is a wild pair of whooping cranes we spotted while birding at the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. They were tiny even in our binoculars, so Athena photographed them through our spotting scope.

Africa hosts six crane species. We were near the Okavango Delta in Botswana when we came upon a flock of these wattled cranes, Grus carunculata, beside a pond. Many crane species are often found near water.

All crane bodies include a short tail that is covered with drooping feathers called a bustle. I found the wattled cranes so elegant with their long bustles, smoky colors, and bright red wattles.

Balearica. The third genera of crane includes this grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), found in eastern and southern Africa.

This is one of the most beautiful and exotic cranes I have ever seen…it didn’t seem right for them to be slopping around in the mud. While they foraged, their spiky golden crown feathers vibrated stiffly.

A variety of gregarious, exotic, elegant and dancing cranes to begin your new year. Happy New Year, dear readers, and thank you for another year of good times.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Markets Around the World

In the spirit of the holidays during a stay-at-home pandemic, please join me for a magic carpet ride around the world visiting a few lively outdoor markets.

We’ll start in North America and Mexico, cruise over Europe, look in on Australia, and end our magical adventure in South America. (Pre-pandemic photos.)

Outdoor markets are a good opportunity to observe the locals and their livelihoods; and purchase tasty treats and souvenirs directly from the source.

First up: Santa Fe, New Mexico. The local artisan market is located at the Palace of the Governors, an adobe structure built in 1610. Exquisite turquoise and silver jewelry are the specialty sold here.

I bought a pair of earrings from this jewelry artist in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her busy hands quietly worked the fine details of her craft as she tended her table.

Urban markets, in their bustling atmosphere, showcase locally grown specialties and cater to big crowds.

Here are two popular California Bay Area markets.

Local produce is in abundance, usually harvested that morning or the night before and bursting with freshness.

Each market locale has its home-grown specialties.

Salmon, cherries and apples highlight the Seattle markets. Pike Place Market opened in 1907 and remains a popular and fun tourist attraction.

This Ballard neighborhood market (below) was a joy. We pitted five pounds of cherries with our friend after we left here, made jam.

Watermelon in Mexico…

… and grapes in wine country.

The celebration of outdoor markets at Christmastime requires mentioning the Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria. Classic holiday markets featuring sparkling light displays, outdoor stalls, traditional foods and beverages. Although I have not been to these markets, several friends have brought them alive for me.

Before we cross the Equator, I have to check on the magic carpet’s fuel level. It’s a good time to take a few minutes to click into the famous markets in Vienna…the first of which was held in 1298.

My friend and fellow blogger Mike Powell has dazzling photos from his visit last year: Vienna Christmas Market and Vienna Christmas Lights.

The magic carpet is in good shape, so we’ll glide on over to Australia to The Rocks Market in Sydney. I have spent many hours here buying souvenirs, but one of the most memorable items was quickly eaten up: a giant garlicky meatball.

I like all the markets–busy with people in their life’s work, live music and savory aromas.

But it is the remote village markets that are my favorite. Foreign lifestyles, rural and non-commercial, sometimes a foreign language barrier, yet still universally human and earthly.

We came across this busy African market in Arusha, Tanzania.

In Kenya we arrived by motorboat to this village island market in Lake Baringo, Kenya.

Across the globe in the shadow of Peru’s towering Andes Mountains, various crops like potatoes, corn and grains are terrace-farmed and sold.

All the big, lumpy bags in this village’s market are filled with potatoes.

While in the Amazon valley, we spotted these just-picked bananas being brought down the Madre de Dios River to be driven to market.

Traditional textiles of Peru date back over 10,000 years and remain an attraction for quality craftsmanship and fine alpaca wools. We found many markets selling woven tapestries and clothing throughout the Cuzco region.

I bought this purple sweater from this weaver.

I hope this magic carpet ride revived a few of your memories of markets or farmers or good times. I extend my warmest wishes for sweet moments in your holidays.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Creatures of the Night

When the sun goes down and the night turns black this Halloween, there are plenty of wildlife creatures to send shivers up the spine.

Owls, our most famous nocturnal creature, have serrated feathers for silent flight. They can glide right past you invisibly and soundlessly…all you know is a faint breeze on your face.

The shadows of the rainforest can make the small creatures large…

and the large creatures gigantic.

And where would our scary nights be without bats? In Australia the bats are so big their scientific name is megabats. Here are two species of megabats.

In the Trinidad rainforest we discovered a steady stream of these Long-tongued Bats shooting out of the lodge basement every night at cocktail hour, like clockwork.

A walk through the Australian rainforest brings out animals most of us have never heard of like brushtail possums and sugar-gliders.

Even creatures who are not nocturnal, like this lizard, lurk in the night…they have to sleep somewhere.

One night while Athena was photographing sugar gliders, cicadas came in, attracted to the lodge’s yard light.

I was admiring their bright green color and thinking how much bigger their cicadas were here in Australia, than ours at home. Bigger than my thumb.

I thought they were very cool…until one landed in my hair.

I screamed. Panicked and beat my hands through my hair like a crazy person.

And Africa has a very animated night life when it comes to wildlife. Moths as big as birds; and of course all the nocturnal mammals that are out hunting–lions, leopards, hyenas, to name a few.

The African savanna at night is like no other place on earth. Bumping along in a jeep past the black expanse, at first you see nothing. But then you start to see eerie eyes shining back at you. Pairs of eyes. Everywhere.

The eye shine has to do with a reflective layer behind the retina that helps the animal see better in the dark.

We were cruising along when we heard a lot of sloshing. The guide whispered for us to get our cameras ready.

Here’s what the light revealed.

The most terrifying night sound I have ever heard was in the Amazon rainforest: the howler monkeys. I’ve mentioned it before, but will include a sound clip again.

Howler monkeys are territorial so when one starts howling, announcing its supreme existence, they all start up. It has a stereo effect that permeates the forest in the most haunting way, sounds like a combination of tornado winds and deep-voiced gorillas.

Imagine hearing this in the dark as you’re walking to the bathroom.

Howler Monkey Vocalization

Wild monkeys, hyenas, leopards, owls, bats…a great way to get your Halloween sufficiently spooky. And while these animals may get your heart jumping, erratically even, they’re really not interested in hurting you…well, some aren’t.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Common Warthog

Common Warthog, Botswana

Warthog pair, Zambia

Warthogs are tough little animals…they have to be in the African savannah. The sun is unrelenting, food can be scarce, and the much-bigger megafauna live a brutal existence.

 

When I saw my first wild warthog, on a trip some years back, I was struck by its most unusual looks.

 

That short and stout body with a really big head. The curved tusks protruding from a flat face. Face bumps and whatever else all hidden by whiskers and bristles.

 

The bumps or warts, for which the animal gets its name, are tough, thickened skin that protect the warthog.

 

Every warthog has four tusks, to defend against their many predators including leopards, lions, crocodiles, hyenas, and humans.

 

Leopard, Botswana

 

Lion, Botswana

 

When you spend enough days out in the field, you see warthogs quite often. I found them curious and enjoyable to watch.

 

Warthog, Botswana. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

They have a compact, swift way of moving, often with the tufted tail extended straight up in the air.

 

Warthog, Zambia. Photo: Athena Alexandra.

 

Sometimes they were barely visible in the tall grass.

Warthog, Botswana

 

While grazing, they are frequently seen kneeling; have callused knee pads for this purpose.

Kneeling Warthog, far left, Botswana

 

Often they were in groups, called sounders. They have an elaborate social system with family groups of females and their young. Males typically separate from the families, but stay in the home range.

 

During the day we saw them in the grass foraging, socializing, and raising their young. At night they bed down in abandoned aardvark burrows.

 

The burrow is also where they nurse their piglets. The piglets are tiny, weighing a pound or two (450-900g).

 

Because the warthog has neither hide nor fur for protection or insulation, they stay warm by huddling together or staying in their burrows.

 

When it is hot, warthogs roll around in mud holes and coat their bodies with a protective layer of mud.

Warthogs in mud, Botswana

 

Muddy Warthogs, Botswana

 

They have a large and varied diet, eating grasses in the wet season, and digging for tubers, rhizomes, and roots during the dry season. But they will eat anything from bark and fungi to insects, eggs, and carrion. Survivors.

 

Although warthogs can sprint up to 30 mph (48 km/h), they are slower with less endurance than most savannah animals. So the burrows are essential for survival.

 

Adults back into the burrow tail first, so they can come charging out, tusks first,  if threatened.

 

One day we were on a walking safari.  Our guide, always armed with a rifle, warned us never to stand in front of a burrow because an aggressive warthog could come charging out any time.

Botswana safari, Jet behind Guide Brett

 

We were passing by a burrow, quickly, as instructed, but just then there was a tremendous screeching and uproar and I thought for sure we were about to be attacked by a warthog.

 

It was only a ground bird we had startled.

 

Often over-shadowed on the savannah by more elegant mammals, warthogs may not be showy specimen, but they are crafty survivors.

 

They can outsmart their predators, defend their young, stay fed in any season, and live among some of the most ferocious creatures on this planet. That’s an impressive animal.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Warthog, Botswana. Photo: Athena Alexander.

 

Distribution P. africanus.svg

Range Map, Common Warthog. Green=distribution; Brown=possible range or accidental records. Courtesy Wikipedia.