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

 

 

The Basilisk Lizard

Basilisk Lizard, Costa Rica

Gliding on a pontoon boat down the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica, we were literally focusing on birds when a unique lizard completely surprised us. I had never seen this phenomenon before, and I have never seen it since.

 

The lizard, the common basilisk, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America near rivers and streams.

Tarcoles River, cattle egret

Earlier, we had been hiking and birding the jungle of Carara National Park. The heat was extreme, humidity was high, and the mosquitoes were thick.

 

By late afternoon the earth had cooled down, wildlife were out, and we were quietly and slowly cruising through the mangrove swamp. The slight breeze produced by the boat was heavenly.

Boat-billed Heron

We came across nesting boat-billed herons, and a bountiful array of birds including macaws eating almonds and toucans hidden in the branches.

Crocodile

Birds and crocodiles continued with their endeavors as we peacefully floated by.

 

Suddenly there was a splashing commotion and in a flash this lizard skittered across the surface of the water.

 

How does a lizard run on top of water?

 

I had previously seen this trick of the “Jesus Lizard” on nature programs. They stand upright in the water on their two hind legs, and streak across the water’s surface.

 

A  small reptile with numerous predators, they turn on their racing legs when threatened. It wasn’t a busy river and our pontoon boat had scared him.

Basilisk lizard, Tarcoles River

Basiliscus basiliscus have wide-webbed feet with scaly fringes that expand when they hit the surface of the water. While the front legs remain upright and motionless, the back legs hit the water, creating a pocket of underwater air that supports the lightweight reptile. Simultaneously, their feet are essentially water-pedaling, pushing outward in a way that  balances the lizard.

 

The one we saw was about 12″ long (30 cm) with an additional 8″ (20 cm) of tail. That’s him in the first photo. Doesn’t look like he can fly across water, does he?

 

How far can they run on top of the water?

 

We were in a shallow river with natural sand bars, logs, and downed trees; he ran a distance of about 15 feet (4.5 m).

Basilisk Lizard in Belize

But they can go further. Wikipedia says the smaller basilisk lizards can run atop the water’s surface for about 32-64 feet (10-20m). It also says they can run up to 7 mph (11 km/h). Wikipedia info.

 

Short science video of running basilisk.

 

I love all lizards, but the basilisk is right there in my top five.

 

All photos:  Athena Alexander

Osprey with fish, Tarcoles River

 

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Tarcoles River

Basalisk lizard in Belize

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Sparring Elephants

Male elephant crossing the Chobe River, Botswana

Male elephant crossing the Chobe River, Botswana

We were on a small boat cruising Africa’s Chobe River.  Usually you see the wild elephants on dry land, or at watering holes…not with their 12,000 pound bodies half-submerged in a river.  The guide said they were agitated.

 

It was the dry season, a time when elephants are especially abundant here.  When their usual drinking spots are dried up, herds are known to travel 200 miles to this river.

 

Chobe-Elephants,-onto-NamibThere were three bull elephants having a territorial argument.  A male elephant is known to drink 60 gallons of water a day, and as much as 26 gallons of water at a time.  With that kind of thirsty water intake, you can imagine the territoriality that these massive beasts, the largest land animals on earth, must possess.  The three bulls were in single file crossing the river, and the Lead Bull didn’t like it.  He wanted the other bulls to bug off.  Our boat idled on the outskirts, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Over a period of a half hour the Lead Bull left the shore and got deeper and deeper into the water.  Then Bull #2 and Bull #3 followed.  The Lead Bull turned around and shook his head and raised his trunk, i.e., he told the other two to scram.  Sparring elephants on land confront each other by raising their heads as high as possible; they also swat and spar one another with their tusks or trunks.  Usually the taller one dominates, especially if his tusks are bigger.  We didn’t know what to expect with the bulls so deeply submerged.

 

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

Elephants sparring, Chobe River, Botswana

The Lead Bull turned around several times, to scare them off, but the other two did not relent.  Then he turned and lumbered toward them.  After a few more minutes the Lead Bull didn’t back down and went directly to the closest bull.  They pressed their heads together, twisted their trunks a few times, and splashed about.

 

Eventually Bull #2 and then Bull #3 retreated and the dominant one proceeded.  He jubilantly crossed the river on his own, leaving the other two behind.  This argument had been settled.

 

BotswanaZebra

Chobe River, Zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

Meanwhile the zebra continued to graze on the shoreline, the strong wind blew our boat back a bit, the wading birds fluttered along the river’s edge.  Our guide started up the motor and off we went.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Inca Tern

Inca Tern, Lima, Peru

Inca Tern, Lima, Peru

I saw this seabird while visiting the chilly coastal waters of Lima, Peru.  As I walked along the water’s edge, what floated in the water looked like dull, dark gulls with red bills.  When I put the binoculars up I was dazzled by their markings.

 

They feed mostly on fish, especially anchovies, and go no further than the Humboldt current.  This is a cold water current that flows north on the west coast of South America from southern Chile to northern Peru.  According to Wikipedia it is “the most productive marine ecosystem in the world.”

 

In waters teeming with more life than anywhere else in the world, it makes sense that they stay here and never leave.  So I guess in this scenario that made me the migratory bird.

 

Photo credit:  Bill Page

Red-billed Oxpecker

Sable with Oxpecker in Ear, Botswana

Sable with Oxpecker in Ear, Botswana

The red-billed oxpecker is a common bird throughout Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa.  A member of the same family as the starling and myna, it is a chattering gregarious bird found atop mammals.

 

Oxpeckers are the only creature in the world whose exclusive function is to glean mammals.  They feed on the ticks that inhabit the mammal.  Ticks thrive on moisture and warmth, and with the unrelenting sun beating down on the African beasts, these mammals are the unfortunate hosts to dozens and dozens of ticks.  The oxpecker feeds on the blood that is engorged in the ticks; eats as many as 100 ticks a day. You will find them on many different four-legged ungulates (antelope, giraffe, zebra, etc.), especially those with manes.  There is also a yellow-billed oxpecker in Africa, but it is not as prevalent as the red-billed, featured here.

Sable with Oxpeckers, Botswana

Sable with Oxpeckers, Botswana

 

The short, sharp claws and long, stiff tail of Buphagus erythrorhynchus enable them to cling to the mammal, even while the mammal is walking.   You can see from this Sable photograph how well the bird can cling to various body parts.  In addition, the bird’s bill is laterally flattened and has a sharp cutting edge for handling the ticks.

 

African Buffalo with Oxpecker, Botswana

African Buffalo with Oxpecker, Botswana

Often this relationship between the tick-infested mammal and the oxpecker is mutually beneficial.  The bird eats the ticks off the mammal and rids it of an irritating infestation, the mammal supplies the bird with an endless smorgasbord.  But sometimes an oxpecker will dig beyond the tick and intentionally keep the animal’s wound open to directly extract blood, because ultimately it is the blood on which the bird thrives.

 

Occasionally you might see the mammal swat its tail or shake its head to get rid of an exceptionally annoying oxpecker.  However mostly what you see, as you ride across the endless grassy plains looking for African wildlife, is the mammal grazing and the oxpecker feeding, and both are peaceably living in harmony.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Going Bananas

Banana Tree, Mexico

Banana Tree, Mexico

There have been several birding occasions in the tropics when we came upon cultivated banana groves.  The plants tower five and ten feet above us and the broad leaves provide cooling shade from the searing sun.  Usually the guide is in a hurry to get through the grove and into the forest, to show us a bird.  But I love to stop for a second and look up, and see the green banana bunches hanging above my head.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Wattled Cranes

Wattled Cranes, Botswana

Wattled Cranes, Botswana

We came across these beautiful Wattled Cranes on safari in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana.  With a Conservation Status listing as “Vulnerable,” we were delighted to find a trio wading in a shallow pond.

 

The largest crane in Africa (and second tallest in the world to the Sarus Crane), Bugeranus carunculatus can be found in sub-Saharan Africa.  They are named for the wattles, or fleshy appendages, that hang down from the throat.  A five foot tall bird with a wingspan of eight feet, they have a commanding presence.

 

Wattled cranes prefer to eat aquatic tubers and rhizomes, as well as aquatic insects, snails and amphibians; and are consequently found in marsh-like settings.  90% of foraging is done in shallow waters where they dig vigorously with their long bill.

 

Our safari vehicle was quiet and solo when we came upon these cranes several hundred feet away.  Although we were in this area for a week, we never saw this species again.  We were lucky that they stayed for a few minutes and allowed us to admire them.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Kudos for Kudus

Male Kudu, Botswana, Chobe River

Male Kudu, Botswana, Chobe River

Greater kudu are an antelope that live in eastern and southern Africa.  Although they are often hidden in the brush for safety purposes, if you are lucky you might find them grazing in woody areas at dawn or dusk.  This ungulate (hoofed mammal) is usually seen in small herds of a dozen or less.

 

Tragelaphus strepsiceros eat leaves, grass, roots, tubers, fallen fruit, and flowers; they prefer mixed scrub woodland and acacia on lowlands, hills, and mountains.  Kudus move around almost always at night in search of water and food, they are not particularly territorial.

Male at Sunset, Botswana, Africa

Male at Sunset, Botswana, Africa

 

Lions, hyenas, leopard, and wild dogs prey on kudu.  As the second-tallest antelope, male kudu weigh over 500 pounds.  Kudu predators, therefore, prey upon the smaller of the species:  the female and offspring.  Kudus are high jumpers which affords them some safety, easily clearing obstacles eight feet high.  They raise their chin to tilt their long horns back when leaping.

 

Male Kudu

Male Kudu

Only the males, or bulls, have horns.  The elegant spiral horns have two and a half twists, and if they were to be straightened would average about 47 inches long.  Males interlock horns during combat.   As you can imagine, the horns are a subject of poaching.

 

You may have noticed birds on the back of the female kudu photographed here.  These birds are called oxpeckers, and feed on the ticks and parasites living on the mammal.  They are a fun African bird that I will tell you more about another time.

Female Kudu with Oxpeckers

Female Kudu with Oxpeckers

 

While on safari it is always a special find to come upon a herd of kudu.  Their strong, solid bodies, long legs, thinly striped coats, elegant markings, and spectacular horns embrace you with a sort of magic.  A quiet, cool dawn spent with these magnificent creatures is heavenly.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Kenya Equator

Kenya Equator

Equator at Nanyuki, Kenya, Africa

The Equator has fascinations for visitors.  As the longest straight line on the planet, we all get a thrill out of standing on it.

 

In Nanyuki Kenya there were about a dozen small vendors on a roadside pullover selling their wares, and safari guides chatting while they waited for the shopping tourists.  A few kids on bicycles stared at the tourists taking photos of each other at the rusty old sign.

 

Of course it wouldn’t be the equator without a hinky water and bucket set-up.  It is usually presented by an enterprising young boy with a plastic pitcher of water, a funnel, and bucket.  He walks across the earth’s line and shows you the different water swirl in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere.

 

It is called the Coriolis effect.  Basically the Earth is wider at the Equator and therefore rotates faster there than at either of the poles.  Winds and resulting ocean currents bend or deflect due to this force.  Hurricanes and storms, as well as man-made objects like planes and missiles, deflect in different directions depending on the hemisphere.

 

Because Earth’s rotation is relatively slow, small swirls like four ounces of water are not effected by the Coriolis force.  But nonetheless I offer a tip, a few shillings for the working bilingual boy.  It gives this novelist a chance to be close and observe his beautiful features.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander