Hippos of Zambia

Zambia

Every sighting of a hippo is an absolute thrill. They have that huge 1.5 ton body on short, stubby legs, topped by a bulbous face with little eyes and tiny ears. Zambia, located in the central lower third of Africa, is home to the world’s largest population of wild hippos.

 

Found only in Africa, hippopotamus live in rivers, lakes, and swamps throughout the sub-Saharan countries. There are three major rivers in Zambia, and many sources of fresh water.

Zambia hippos at river, Luangwa Valley

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

Hippopotamus, Botswana

Hippo hanging out with two bird species: the heron, and the oxpeckers on his back. Zambia, Luangwa Valley

Hippo, Luangwa Valley, Zambia

Poached for their meat and ivory teeth, hippo populations are steadily declining, and their conservation status is now listed as Vulnerable. See maps below.

 

Unlike many African mammals with fur hides, hippos have no fur and very little hair. They therefore spend much time under water or in mud, to protect their skin from drying out under the harsh African sun. They also secrete acidic compounds that act as a sunscreen, but they are not enough to prevent their skin from cracking.

Hippo luxuriating in mud

Hippopotamus amphibious. The name itself indicates amphibious qualities of living on land and in water. The Greek translation: river horse.

Hippo Pool at night, Zambia

Zambia

With nostrils, eyes, and ears situated high on the skull, they can continue breathing while staying under water. They can also close their nostrils under water and remain submerged for many minutes. I like to listen when they come up from under water; they take a breath of air, just like us humans, and whales.

 

Their closest living relative, in fact, is the whale, cetaceans. 

 

Hippos can walk on the river bottom; and they sleep, mate, and give birth in the water, too.

Hippo family

 

Wikipedia Hippopotamus

 

Being the third largest land mammal on earth (after the elephant and rhinoceros), they look like they’re not very fast animals. But they can run swiftly for short distances, clocked at 19 mph (30 km/h)…and are aggressive animals.

Scraped from fights, and sporting an oxpecker (bird) on its back

A typical day for a hippopotamus is to remain in the water during the hottest hours, then come out when it is cooler, to feed. During the day you’ll find them in and around water, grunting a lot, wallowing, and sleeping. Every once in awhile one will do a 360 degree barrel roll, to moisten any exposed skin.

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, hippos and cattle egrets

 

Then at day’s end when temperatures have cooled, they come onto land to graze.

Zambia

 

Hip-hippo-hooray for yet another incredible creature on earth.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Conservation organization for hippos: African Wildlife Foundation

 

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Range map African hippopotamus. Red=Historic range, Green=2008 populations. Courtesy Wikipedia

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Zambia, Luangwa Valley

 

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Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.

 

They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.

 

More snow goose info here.

 

When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).

 

A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.

 

Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.

 

As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.

 

I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.

 

I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.

 

What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.

 

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

 

Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 

 

They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America

 

Birds of Belize

Agami Heron in Mangrove Roots

Mealy Parrot

Belize is a small Central American country with mountains, jungles, 450 cays and islands, and the Caribbean reef. This variety of geographical features creates numerous natural habitats, making it a bonanza for birders. See topography map at the end.

 

Located on the Mesoamerican biological corridor, the land bridge between South and North America, Belize boasts 600 bird species. To lend perspective: Belize is roughly the size of Wales or New Jersey, and has nearly as many bird species as all of Canada.

Boat-billed Heron, Belize

More about Belize. 

Aerial view of Belizean coast

At this time of year, many North American travelers head south to escape the winter temperatures. All of the photos here are from February a few years ago. Let’s start on the coast and travel inland.

 

The Caribbean coast on the eastern side offers white sand beaches and turquoise waters. It is the second-longest reef in the world. Here you can enjoy birds, beaches, boat rides, snorkeling, or diving, and let the sun melt your bones. There are shorebirds, ducks, seabirds, waders, and more.

Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans, Ambergris Caye

 

Almost half of Belize is comprised of protected land and marine areas. Traveling westward, we encountered many wild preserves and especially enjoyed Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. 

 

Jabiru

Roseate Spoonbill, Belize

Snail Kite, Belize

We came upon the national bird, the Keel-billed Toucan, and hundreds of species of songbirds and other woodland and jungle birds.

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Advancing into the mountains we found many raptor species, using the ridge thermals.

White Hawk, Belize

Laughing Falcon, Belize

 

The orange-breasted falcon, below, is listed as “near-threatened” on the conservation status list. We spent many hours waiting on Mountain Pine Ridge, hoping to see this rare bird..and were rewarded. Read the post here. 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

And no matter what part of this lush country you visit, there are always hummingbirds quietly tapping into the tropical flora.

Long-billed Hermit

Azure-crowned Hummingbird, adult in the back feeding nestling

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Add in the terrestrial iguanas, lizards, monkeys and other land mammals; and the reef teeming with sea life, and you have found yourself in paradise.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander–all photos taken in the wild in Belize.

Belize Topography. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Glorious Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle, Sacramento NWR

A pair of bald eagles were spending the day at the refuge last week, perfect timing for our visit. A mother and her immature. America’s national bird hasn’t always been visiting the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, nor has the population always been successfully reproducing.

 

Before venturing onto the refuge, I had asked the ranger about the bald eagles recently observed, as I had not seen any notes on the “Sightings” clipboard. She was happy to tell about the bald eagles.

 

“The mother perches on the outskirts, while the immature circles over the water.”

 

Soon after we started the tour, I spotted the mature adult, the mother. Just seeing her perched in this distant tree lifted my heart. The bird was nearing extinction in the 1950s with less than 500 pairs in the lower 48 states; today the population is close to 10,000. Bald eagle statistics. 

Raptor Tree

A flock of swifts were upset by her presence. I’m sure the merlin, with whom the eagle shared the treetop, was no great comfort either.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR

 

It’s an auto tour, the one I wrote about earlier this month. So getting closer to the tree was not possible. But it was the perfect time for tea; I parked and we pulled out the thermos. We waited for her to take off, hoping to catch the impressive six-foot wingspan (1.82 m).

 

About 15 minutes had passed and tea-time was over, and still she had not moved. So we moved on.

 

An hour later we spotted the immature bald eagle circling high over the water, just like the ranger had predicted.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature bald eagles have different coloring than the mature adults–they do not have the white head or white tail, not until their fourth or fifth year. But size-wise, the immature is as large as the adult.

 

All at once we heard the rumble of thousands of snow geese taking off. They were upset by the bald eagle. This sound fills me with awe. It reminds me of an avalanche or a calving glacier. Snow geese are big birds, they weigh about five pounds each (2.26 kg). Imagine three hundred of these heavy birds all lifting at once.

 

The immature bald eagle circled repeatedly, and stirred up the huge flocks of white geese sufficiently. The geese were squawking and honking and taking off, filling the sky, while the cool raptor continued circling, threatening. The eagle didn’t seem intent on hunting, I think he or she was just practicing fierceness.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR; they were all on the ground the minute before

The bald eagle’s diet includes fish and waterfowl, also small mammals, small birds, and even carrion. Wikipedia overview.

 

Throughout the day we saw ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and even a ‘possum sleeping in a tree hole. All of these would be tasty meals for the bald eagles.

 

But I was happy to just watch the mammals living through another beautiful day.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Ground Squirrel

 

Jackrabbit

Opossum in tree hole

 

Oystercatchers

Black oystercatcher pair, Morro Bay, CA

Oystercatchers are birds we see all over the world. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. (See map below.)

 

Here on the western shores of North America,  we have the Black Oystercatcher. They can be found foraging on seaside rocks and cliffs from Alaska to Baja California.

Black oystercatcher in flight, Morro Bay, CA

Black oystercatcher pair, Bodega Bay, CA

 

The other North American oystercatcher, the American Oystercatcher, can be found on the east, Gulf, and southern west coasts of the U.S., as well as some western coasts of Central and South America. The one photographed below we found on the Galapagos Islands, where they also reside.

American Oystercatcher, Galapagos Islands

The UK hosts the Eurasian Oystercatcher, Australia has the Pied Oystercatcher.

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Eurasian Oystercatcher pair, Norway; photo: B. Torrissen, Courtesy Wikipedia

Pied Oystercatchers, Tasmania, Australia. Photo: JJ Harrison, Courtesy Wikipedia

 

There are 11 extant species of Haematopus in the world, visit this Wikipedia link to find the oystercatcher on your continent.

 

With black or black-and-white feathering, and a long, red or orange bill, they are almost always found near ocean habitat. They are all the same general shape and size, about 15-20 inches tall (39-50 cm).

 

This photo, below, has a nesting pair atop the biggest rock, they are little black smudges in the center of the photo. It demonstrates the preferred habitat. The next photo zooms in to this pair and their chicks.

Pacific Ocean rock with nesting oystercatchers in center

Nesting oystercatchers feeding chicks

Although they are named for catching oysters, oystercatchers also eat other mollusks like clams and mussels, limpets; as well as gastropods like snails and slugs. They use their strong, blade-like bill to pry open the mollusk shell, and sometimes for digging in the sand.

 

Oystercatchers are noisy birds, with a call that is scream-like. Click here to hear. The birds often blend into the rocks and you don’t know they are around…until you hear them scream.

 

Thanks for joining me on this oystercatcher trip around the world. I guess we could say the world is your oystercatcher.

 

Flock of sleeping black oystercatchers

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

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Oystercatcher Range Map. Courtesy HBW Alive, Handbook of the Birds of the World

Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.

 

I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.

 

By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit

 

The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.

 

Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.

 

It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR

 

The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.

 

Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

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

 

For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.

 

So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling

 

There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.

 

Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.

 

Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.

 

Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature

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Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia