Gnus and Oxpeckers

The morning light was now superb: the kind where even a stained trash can looks wonderful. And instead of such mundane subjects I had before me a bunch of wildebeest, intent on feeding. Wildebeest and zebras can feed together because the picky wildebeest takes only the leaves of grass, whereas zebras don’t minding picking up the less nutritious sheath and stem. This pickiness is also the reason why wildebeest have to keep moving with the seasons.

What was that on the back of one of the gnus? I cast about for the name; yes, an Oxpecker. My night of reading was coming in handy. There were two varieties and I had to figure out which. The beasts were far away, and I had no tripod. I would have to zoom out as much as I could with my pre-breakfast shakiness. As I took the photo, The Family had already noted the round yellow patch around the eyes: this was the red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Although it has been noticed pecking at open wounds on large mammals, its diet is almost completely made up of insects. Under controlled conditions it has been seen to be extremely efficient at keeping cattle free of ticks. We would later see the yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). These two species are found in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa down to Zambia. The yellow-billed live largely in West Africa, and the ones we saw are perhaps among the easternmost part of the population.

Advertisements

Shaky sunrise

The sun rose soon after our encounter with the trio of lions. The sky brightened through a series of colours, and the darkness around us could soon be resolved into grass and road. Strangely shaped peaks rose out of the horizon.

Zebras had begun grazing already. Zebras tend to eat all parts of grass, leaves, sheath, and stem, but their stomachs are not designed to digest the sheath and stem completely. A foal stood on the road and looked intently at us. The light was still so low that I had to use a long exposure. I liked the fact that it allowed me to capture the motion of the foal’s head as it tried to assess us. Its legs were planted firmly on the ground, so it had no intention of running, but the movement of its head showed that it was curious about us.

In the semi-light at the edge of the road we spotted a spectacularly spotted bird. The legs were long, was it a courser? No, its knees gave it away. A thick-knee. Its identification gave me a little trouble later. It can be nothing but the Spotted Thick-knee (Burhinus capensis), although its eyes look dark in this photo, and not yellow. I put that down to the bad light we saw it in. It is a common bird, found right across sub-Saharan Africa all the way down to the cape, which inhabits all ecologies except the forests of the Congo region.

It had already turned out to be an interesting morning. And now, as the sky brightened, we spotted a lioness in the distance, near the horizon. We noticed the movement as it rose from where it had been sitting. I nursed a secret hope of seeing a chase or a kill. But no. It sat down again. It remained alert, with head poking out of the grass. It certainly looked like it wanted to eat, but we decided to move on.

Lion night

Sound carries a long way at night, I reassured myself as I lay in bed studying a field guide to East African birds, listening to the roar of lions. I was tired, and we had planned a game drive before sunrise. I fell asleep quickly in spite of unidentified blood curdling squeaks and the deep roars and coughs of lions. The Family had fallen asleep long before the grasslands came alive with their inhuman song. We woke up to an alarm, and got ready to leave. Stephen was ready with the Landrover, but we seemed to be the only people awake. We drove out as someone opened the gates of the lodge. Birds had been waking in the trees near the gate, but the rest of the grassland was silent. Barely five minutes from the lodge something came at us from out of the darkness.

Stephen has spotted it already and come to a halt. A full-grown male lion walked towards us along the track. I was up with my camera. “Can I open the window?” The Family whispered. Stephen said that it was okay. The lion walked past the open window at a distance where The Family could have reached out and touched it. But ahead, another lion was coming our way. And behind it, a third. In complete silence we saw them walk slowly past our purring Landrover. There was no one else around. Only the three of us had seen these three male lions walk past us in the darkness, close enough to touch.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

The crossing

“Hurry up and wait” seems to be the perfect motto for wildebeest gathering up the courage to cross a river while looking, literally, for greener pastures. But once they get going everything happens fast; like the “moments of terror” part of the old aphorism about war. We’d spent a couple of hours of wonderful late evening sunlight, testing our patience against that of gnus. When the light began to fail the river crossing began. At dinner that night the story was that a gnu lost its footing and fell into the river, and the herd followed. Whatever it was, the crossing was panicky. Wildebeest thrashed in the water, upstream from a pod of ill-tempered hippos.

“Couldn’t they have done this twenty minutes ago?” I grumbled as I snapped off a series of shots. As a hippo yawned widely in front of the panicky herd of gnus, I got a photo which, in better light, I would have been proud of. It was all a little too blurry and pixellated to be a great photo, and with the landrover rocking, I was unable to control the camera enough for the long exposure required here.

A panicky herd of gnus is quite a phenomenon. They keep running forever. I think their high-strung temperament must be taking a toll on their life expectancy; in zoos they have been observed to live twice as long as the average in the wild. Nor can all of this difference be attributed to predation. I saw one wildebeest looking around desperately, slowly tracking back towards the river. This uncharacteristic behaviour probably meant that she had lost a calf. It had either been taken by a crocodile or was lost in the stampede.

The rest kept running. Even when they came to the road where our landrover was parked, they wouldn’t halt. They would only change direction and keep running. Panicky, high-strung are too mild to describe what they are. I think they wouldn’t run over a lion and kill it, but they could come close enough to one to be picked off.

As we saw them running off into the sunset, they kicked up masses of insects which, in turn, brought along several insectivorous birds. This would have been a midnight snack for the birds, since they had settled down almost an hour before. What a chain of events, I thought; that’s part of what a grassland ecosystem means.

The incredible excitement of watching Wildebeest gathering to cross a river

Wildlife documentaries are full of savage photos of intrepid wildebeest springing away from the slavering jaws of crafty crocodiles as they cross the Mara river in search of food and freedom. The truth is different. It is hours and hours of boredom, as indecisive gnus hurry up to wait. The photos here cover the last two hours of daylight waiting for a crossing.

As we left our lodge there was a buzz about wildebeest gathering at the river. We made our way there, and got a position near a bend.

There was a crowd of a few hundred wildebeest already, and more were coming in.

After half an hour of standing around, one animal decided to take a closer look at the water. There were hippos and crocodiles.

It came back up.

More waiting.

Some zebras have joined the gang.

Most of the herd has moved back.

Are there more humans than wildebeest here?

Quite a crowd.

Now the zebras investigate the river.

Those at the back begin trying to slink off.

More waiting! I suggested to The Family that we go see some giraffes and come back later. The withering look I get convinced me that getting bored is the safest course of action. That was when I started watching hippos.

River horses

We sat in our land rover in front of the Mara river where a bunch of wildebeest were gathering. They take a long time to make up their minds about whether to cross or not, and after a few hours’ wait you could just see the crowd thin out and disappear. I found looking at them quite boring. The river took a bend just to the left of where we’d parked. There was a bloat of hippos right in front of us, and another bloat almost out of sight around the bend. The nearer group was mostly submerged, but as in uffish thought I stood, one of the monsters raised its head above the river and smiled. “What a charming smile,” I said. “That? You are crazy,” replied The Family. She was quite upset with my suggestion that we go away to look for other animals for a while.

Hippos are territorial in water, and mark out a stretch of a river as their own. I’ve not seen a border skirmish among hippos, even in a documentary. So when a second hippo surfaced and started trying to bite the smiler, I guessed that it must be play. Hippo bloats have a single bull, but are otherwise mixed. I hadn’t seen them often enough to gauge whether these two were adults or juvenile. The fighting or play went on for a while, giving me something to photograph. The pair would spend a lot of time trying to bite and block with their jaws, but one or the other would sometimes submerge and reappear on the other side of its rival and try to bite it on the rump or side.

It is hard to believe that anything could be related to hippos, but when I found that their closest relatives are whales, I thought that it makes sense. Based on DNA studies, it is thought that Cetaceans and the Hippo lineage separated around 55 million years ago. At that time the atmosphere was 5 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than today. It is known from fossils that hippos evolved in Africa. The oceans would have been rather high, and part of the modern range of the Hippopotamus was under water then. But what is even stranger is that hippos are (somewhat more distantly) related to antelopes, and like them have three chambered stomachs. I guess that is why hippos have to leave water to eat. It would be interesting to go on night safaris to see hippos grazing on grass.

Two more residents of Nairobi

Nursing a morning cuppa in MONT’s kitchen I heard much chattering outside the window. I would be a very bad naturalist, because I paid no attention to it. The Family looked out and was instantly excited. I ran for my camera and caught the featured photo. Finally with a field guide at hand I sat down to identify it. Perhaps an oriole? No, it didn’t fit. A field guide with almost 1400 entries is no good unless you have some idea of what you are looking at. I flipped through it looking for all black and yellow birds and finally landed up with the weavers. Could it be one of the five different subspecies of Baglafecht weaver? The males and females have different but equally bright colours, so I had to be careful. It was; a male Ploceus baglafecht reichenowi. That was my first successful field identification in Kenya.

In the meanwhile, another bird had arrived in the same palm tree outside MONT’s kitchen. I snapped off a couple of photos thinking it was a speckled mouse bird. But it wasn’t. The crest was much paler. I jumped to the conclusion that it was the rarer white headed mousebird. The Family was not slow to point out that this must be wrong, because it doesn’t have the long tail that mousebirds always do. Now it required a careful page by page look through the book. I couldn’t identify it. The Family tried a second trawl, and came up empty too. Now we are waiting for a kind reader to help us with an id.

[One possibility that more than one birder suggested is that this is a mousebird which lost its tail to a predator.]

Five antelopes of Amboseli

One thing a visitor from India like me has to constantly remind himself of is that there are no deer in Africa (almost). What you are going to see are antelopes. The difference? One text told me, very unhelpfully, that deer belong to the family Cervidae whereas antelopes belong to the family Bovidae. It took me a little searching to figure that the operative difference is that deer have antlers which fall off every year and are regrown, whereas antelopes have horns which keep growing year after year. Another text defined antelopes for me: all bovines which are not cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo or bison. It is a catch-all term, in other words. No wonder Africa teems with antelopes. They fill every possible ecological niche that herbivores can. They are so successful that they leave space only for just a few other medium-sized herbivores.

We saw the waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) only once in Amboseli national park. The featured photo shows the characteristic light stripe on its rump. As the name implies, it is very dependent on water, and comes back to it after ranging afield for a while. When we saw this one, it was not very close to water, but could get there in a half hour or so of human-speed walking. It browses on succulent leaves, shoots, and fruits. That’s probably what limits its range, not coming head to head with a zebra.

One of the largest of gazelles, the Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti, called Gazella granti in the older literature) were more common. We saw occasional small bunches of Grant’s browsing and grazing and learnt to identify it by two signs. One was the lack of black stripes on its hide, and the other was the patch of white on its rump which starts from a little above its tail. This individual never turned to look at us,so we never got to see whether its muzzle had the distinct white-lined black stripes from eyes to mouth, but an identification was still possible from the body. The elegant shape of the horns can also be used to narrow the possibilities. In the dry season they migrate to areas which are not of interest to wildebeest and zebras, since they can eat plants which are unpalatable to those.

Thomson’s gazelles (Eudorcas thomsonii) were very common in Amboseli. You can tell them from the wide black stripes down the flanks. Even if you just see the rump, you can distinguish them from the Grant’s by the fact that the white patch on its rump starts from below its tail. The Family was quite taken by this elegant gazelle and was surprised when she found that it was the preferred food of cheetahs. We never saw a chase, so never saw the spectacular leaps and turns that the Tommie is capable of. I wonder whether the evolutionary race between the Tommie and the cheetah has spurred each of them to be breed for speed. That would be a version of the Red Queen’s statement in Alice about how one has to run fast to stay in one place.

Our first sightings of the very common impala (Aepyceros melampus) came well inside the park. Although it looks very similar to the Grant’s gazelle, it is instantly distinguishable by the black stripes on its rump, the lack of black and white on its muzzle, and the lyre shaped pair of horns. I thought I mostly saw them in grasslands bordering thickets of forest. This makes sense, since they both browse (usually on softer grasses) and graze on leaves. We saw them in August, which is the middle of the dry season, when they eat more leaves, and so push closer to the forest than otherwise. We saw males briefly engaging horns, otherwise they stuck to eating. There were none of the spectacular leaps which wildlife documentaries are fond of showing. The bunch that you see in the photo above are all males; female impala, unlike female gazelles, have no horns.

The most common antelope in Amboseli has to be the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Large herds can be seen grazing along with zebras in the open plains of the park. How do they feed together without being in competition? It seems that the wildebeest strip the succulent leaves of grass (and are therefore more affected by droughts) and leave the tougher parts of grasses for zebras. Feeding together is advantageous for these two, which are the main prey of lions, because they can depend on each other to give alarms. Gnus have also been seen to respond to alarm calls of baboons. They are extremely high strung, breaking into runs at the slightest sign of an alarm and setting others running. I wonder whether this kind of chronic stress is a major factor in the reduction of its life expectation in the wild to about 20 years, when compared to zoo animals which can live up to 40 years.

I’d expected to see more species of antelopes in Amboseli, but five is not a small number in the season of drought. What was remarkable was how the species have specialized their diets to utilize different parts of the ecosystem. In spite of that, enormous habitat loss in the last 100 years has reduced their numbers so dramatically that advertisements for hunting safaris look pretty shocking.

Coloured zebras

Zebras are fun to watch and I spent a significant amount of time watching this very common animal in Amboseli national park. They always present interesting questions. For example, in the herd of plains zebra (Equus quagga) that you can see in the featured photo, the youngest one has distinctly red stripes. This is just the red dust of Amboseli sticking to its fur. Why does it stick to the black stripes and not the white? No one seems to have asked this question, so here is my answer. It has been found that zebras can raise each stripe of the black fur, but not of the white. When dust bathing, animals like to get the dust in contact with skin, just as me like water to get in contact with our scalp when we have a shower. So a zebra would naturally raise its fur, if it can, while rolling in the dust. As a result, there will be more dust trapped in the black stripes than in the white. The end result is a red and white zebra. Quite a sight!

Foals look enchanting, whether of horses or of zebras. I followed the red and white zebra foal with my camera. Looking closer at its coat, one sees that there is red dust on the white fur too, but it looks like it sits on top of the fur. While reading about the fur of the zebra, I realized that the old question of why a zebra has stripes has not been settled. Could it be that the question is not really sensible? Isn’t it a little like asking what our hands are for? Are they for holding babies or holding guns?