Bush stories and anecdotes

The heart of the blog, where I present observations, accounts, funny stories, etc.

Safari to Zambia

Sometime ago our friends Lola and Frank, yes, the same friends we shared our safari to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi last year [1], invited us to join them for a safari in Zambia. Among the items in the agenda were visits to Kasanka National Park and the Bangweulu wetlands. The latter has been in my wife’s bucket list for 30 years, since our time in Zambia. I have somehow resisted this idea but I was now cornered and agreed, although rather reluctantly. I argued against it on the following grounds:

(i) We had visited Kasanka in the 90’s and it failed to impress at the time;

(ii) It was too early for the fruit bat migration (although I accepted that the rare Sitatunga) and,

(iii) It was too late for the Shoebill stork sightings in the somehow dreaded Bangweulu swamps.

My objections quickly dismissed, we were on and I joined in with the needed arrangements and we departed in early October, as planned.

As the experience we underwent was rich and varied, I will present it in three main sections covering Kasanka National Park and our return after the Bangweulu wetlands, the search for the Shoebill stork in Bangweulu and, finally, our findings at Bangweulu. I will also post smaller observations, including the already posted “Ticks from Trees”.

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Map of Zambia showing lake Kariba and Siavonga in the South and Lusaka (large pebble).   The kidney shaped seed indicates the Congo Pedicle that divides Zambia into two lobes. The tipof the porcupine quill shows the area where we drove next to the DR Congo. The pear-shaped and red seeds indicate Kasanka NP and the southern part of the Bangweulu swamps, where we were.

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/01/09/camping-dangerously/

Ticks growing on trees!

I devoted my scientific life to study ticks in Africa. For this reason, Sterculia africana, the Tick tree or African star-chestnut caught my interest during our recent trip to Zambia.

We had seen this tree at Kariba, Zimbabwe and collected some “ticks” from it. I somehow remember the sight of the tree and driving from lake Kariba to Lusaka I stopped to have a look and managed to collect some of its interesting fruits. Unfortunately, grass burning had taken place and it was difficult to find the nicest seeds (ticks).

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Three fruits of the Tick tree.

A small to medium size tree of dry areas with a smooth silver-white papery bark, it produces bunches of yellowish flowers marked with reddish lines. The fruits are boat shaped of up to 140mm long with tapering ends of a golden velvety appearance. They are loaded with blue-grey seeds that, amazingly, resemble engorged female ticks.

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Two “ticks” collected from the ground and placed inside the dry fruits.

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The fruits and “ticks” with a match for a scale.

The “ticks” are attached among hairs which, I forgot, are extremely thin but able to embed easily in the skin. Once lodged, they are very irritating as I learnt (again) this time. Luckily, I managed to remove them and was able to use my fingers (again) to write this post.

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A close up to show the nasty hairs.

 

 

Spot the Beast 51

While staying at Mana Pools National Park we encountered this beast, easy to spot but interesting nonetheless.

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I am sure that you can see the small tree frog on the top left of the picture. However, this was not all as we had also its relatives taking care of the time…

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One frog o’clock

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Two frog o’clock

Clearly humans and frogs do not share the same time!

There were a few frogs around the lodge and, as in earlier opportunities at Mana, a few inhabit the toilet and, somehow, they are attracted to the mouth hygiene tools! I am sure that my dentist from Salta would be quite surprised…

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Picnic in the Rift Valley

For months Paul mentioned the idea of going for a picnic to the Rift Valley. He claimed that along the Narok road there were a number of large acacias that would offer the necessary shade while we could not only enjoy watching game but also looking across this vast depression presided by the Longonot and Suswa volcanoes.

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The Great Rift Valley seen from the Kinangop area.

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Mout Longonot.

Eventually we were convinced and one Sunday morning we gathered at Paul’s house to travel to the chosen picnic area. Apart from Paul and us other participants were Timothy and his fiancée Jill and a few other friends that filled Paul’s long-wheel base Land Rover. We were not only humans in it as Timothy (the egg cleaner of my earlier post! [1]) decided to take along his red setter called Bitch despite our advice to the contrary!

So, we took the rather dangerous old Naivasha Rd. down the Kikuyu escarpment and eventually branched off towards Narok. Once at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley we started looking for the appropriate spot.

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An accident along the Kikuyu escarpment near the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. A frequent occurrence then.

After a few km we spotted the “selected” trees and headed for them across the dry savannah where a few Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles stopped browsing to briefly watch us and try -unsuccessfully- to determine our intentions (we were not entirely clear either!) but soon decided to ignore us. As we got closer to the special trees we noted -with some concern- that they had already been booked: flocks of sheep and goats were stationed under all trees we saw!

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The occupied trees…

Aware that coexistence with small ruminants over a picnic would be rather difficult we set off to find the owners of the animals to negotiate with them for one tree. We soon found them nearby as they left one of the trees to meet us. A small committee left the car to meet with them and then, the unexpected struck!

The moment we open the car doors, Bitch took off at full speed! And behind her Timothy also departed trying to stop her shouting “Bitch, stop! Bitch, stop!” to no avail. Bitch had spotted game animals and she would not miss the opportunity to get one!

As we stopped hearing Timothy’s shouting first and then watched his silhouette disappear in the horizon, we decided to focus on our negotiations with a pair of Maasai boys that felt rather intimidated by us!

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After a while the herdboys could not resist their curiosity and the flocks also came in!

Despite our language barrier they soon understood our request and agreed to release one of the trees for us to have our picnic.

Bitch and Timothy quickly forgotten we started to get ourselves comfortable and assembled our temporary “al fresco” banqueting area. As the tree had been used for generations of Maasai livestock it did not only reeked livestock but also its soil was composed by tons of compacted dung! So much for the idea of the shady tree!

Luckily we noted that the shade was starting to cover some of the adjacent grassy area so we placed our table and chairs where we calculated the shade would be as time went by and we were prepared to follow it.

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The picnic area being moved following the shade.

After an exploratory walk in the surrounding area we finally settled down to drinks and some food. The chat was animated and we did wonder about Bitch and Timothy’s whereabouts (for a few seconds!). Luckily, about an hour after lunch we saw a speck on the horizon and a debate started of whether it was Timothy or some other Maasai people. After a while, through the binoculars, we identified Timothy. He eventually arrived, walking slowly and carrying the dog on his arms (not because of love for the dog or because it was injured but because he did not have a leash and he was fed-up with the dog running away every time she spotted a moving animal!)

While we waited for Timothy to recover and while he locked Bitch inside the car, we decided to engage ourselves into some target shooting (some of us still believed then to be “white hunters”!!!). Paul kindly sacrificed an old white enamel plate that we placed on the tree as our target. Then we lined up all chairs so that we would shoot from a similar distance.

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The Bushsnob failing to ht the target watched by female participants already chuckling.

As good gentlemen (?) we started shooting from a short distance to give the ladies an opportunity to hit the plate before we moved farther away and things became more difficult. So, the shooting started. Surprisingly, all the men missed the target and most women except my wife that had rarely handled a gun in her life (but has good eyesight!).

After declaring her winner of the first round -with badly hidden embarrassment- the men took the decision of moving further back in the belief that they would recover from the earlier setback. We all missed again but, when the turn of my wife came, we all heard the “ping” of the lead shot hitting the plate! Beginning to feel uncomfortable with the state of affairs we moved back quite a long distance for the final round.

Do I need to tell you that the only “ping” we heard again came from my wife’s shot? After that the men suddenly lost interest on the shooting and developed a sudden curiosity for birds. The ladies had a good laugh and celebrated among themselves.

So a great picnic day ended leaving us with the memories of Timothy chasing his dog and my wife hitting the bull’s eye every time! The latter event is still remembered today by the participants, almost forty years later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast(s) 50

During our recent visit to Hwange National Park we found these beasts. See if you can see them all…

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Credit: JA de Castro.

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Credit: JA de Castro

This view will clarify any doubts you may have. This trio blocked our road while driving from Hwange Main Camp towards the Nyamandhlovu pan. They eventually moved to the thicket and that is the time we took the first picture.

It is an easy “spot” but one that I hope you enjoy in view of the beauty of the beast!

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The light was good and the picture came out very nice! Credit: JA de Castro.

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Calling its mates. Credit: JA de Castro.

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Lake Magadi

The rotten egg smell of the ostrich egg post [1] brought back memories of lake Magadi and its malodourous beauty.

After a few months in Kenya we got to know a few people interested in nature and we connected with them immediately. Most were working around Nairobi (Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, Muguga and the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases, Kabete). We were all agriculture or livestock specialists that shared an interest in nature.

A sunny Sunday we were invited to a day trip to lake Magadi. We knew nothing about the place so, after some enquiries, we learnt that it would be a picnic at the lake and that bird watching would be high in the agenda. We had not done any bird watching as such in our lives so we lacked binoculars, bird books, etc. but we accepted so we could start learning new ways.

At the time we did not know it but, after this first expedition, we visited the lake frequently. It was an ideal one-day outing from Nairobi in view of the relative short distance from Nairobi(106km), the picturesque nature of the journey and the wildlife that could be seen both en route and at the lake itself.

Lake Magadi, nested at 580m of altitude is close to Lake Natron in Tanzania and it is located in a volcanic rock fracture in the Rift Valley, itself a gigantic fault that runs for about 6,000km from Lebanon in the North to Mozambique in the South.

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The Great Rift Valley. By USGS (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We left Nairobi early following the lake road that skirted the Ngong hills, a true landmark where Karen Blixen’s farm was located (now her homestead is a museum). The moment you had the Ngong hills on your right, the immensity of the Rift Valley opened up in front of you. A rugged succession of hazy mountains gradually took your eyes to the bottom of the valley and, on a clear day, the amazing view of Kilimanjaro with its snow in the equator will frame the postcard vista.

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The spectacular view of the Rift Valley from the Ngong hills.

From there you started a descent that traversed Maasai country while getting increasingly dry and hot. Manyattas peppered the area and encounters with Maasai going or coming from watering points with their cattle were a common occurrence. I recall our friend Paul -later on- saying that the road would made an ideal cycling trip because of its downhill trajectory towards the lake.

A few km before arriving to the lake, Tony, one of our friends, stopped the car for a bit of exploring. Apparently, during an early visit, they had “discovered” some fossilized elephant remains that he wished to show us. Some of us followed him looking for the bones while others spotted some interesting bird and immediately forgot everything else and focused on the feathered creatures. This was my introduction to the rather focused birdwatchers ethnic group!

We did found the elephant bones. I thought they were rather disappointing but kept the opinion to myself! The stop was good to drink lots of water as the temperature was now well above 30oC and we were still quite a distance from the bottom of the valley and it was not yet lunchtime. Although some of our co-travellers had iced cold water (freezing the jerry cans prior to the journey) we drank ours at ambient temperature (no coolbox yet in that trip!). This became our normal water temperature while on safari, as it would give us independence from fridges and ice.

We continued our trip and, suddenly and surprisingly, we viewed a large flat pink expanse below us. We were looking at the lake and, as it was the dry season, it was almost totally covered in white and pink soda.

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Subsequent visits during wetter times showed a much “lake-like” lake, despite the scarcity of its yearly rains, an average of 470 mm per year [2]. During this time, a thin (less than 1m) layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white and pink salt that cracks to produce large polygons.

We came to the entrance gate already hot and smelling the strong sulfur gases that emanated from the lake and that would be a constant whenever we visited it. The gate was in fact the entrance to the Magadi Soda Company where we registered our arrival. Further on we also re-registered our intended route at the Magadi Police station, a mandatory requirement in case you got lost (we have to pass by again on the way out for our names to be stricken off the register so that a search party was not sent for us).

The lake is saline and alcaline and covers around 100 km2 being in reality a pan. The water precipitates vast quantities of trona (soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate) to a depth of up to 40m. From these large deposits the soda ash is extracted and used mainly in glass-making, chemicals, paper, detergents, and textiles. The Magadi Soda Company (now part of the Tata company) was created in 1911 to exploit this wealth.

Luckily for the company, the trona deposits are recharged mainly by saline hot springs that reach temperatures of up to 86 °C and their exploitation -at least during the early days- did not have a significant impact on these deposits. During our times in Kenya the soda ash was being carried by railway to Kilindini harbour in the Indian Ocean from where it would get exported.

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Only once we found a train leaving the Malawi Soda facility.

The plan of our first trip was to do the “trip around the lake” that started crossing the first causeway with open water and then follow the road until we entered some bush cross-country driving to rejoin the road and return to Magadi town again.

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A basic map of Lake Magadi showing in blue the trip around the lake.

It was during this part of the journey that we came up to our firs giraffe carcass, blocking the way. Its cause of death unknown but already as dried as biltong!

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The dry giraffe.

Lake Magadi hosts a great variety of water birds, including flamingoes, yellow-billed storks, different egrets and herons as well as smaller ones, including the interesting avocets. See [3] for some of the birds that can be found there. I do not recall whether we saw the Chesnut-banded Sandplover or Magadi Plover (Charadrius pallidus venustus), restricted to almost only lakes Natron and Magadi but our friends probably did. If not very spectacular, it was a rather unique little bird that we spotted in subsequent visits.

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A pair of Yellow-billed storks fishing in lake Magadi.

Apart from birds the lake and surrounding area is also home to Wildebeests, Somali Ostriches, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, Grant’s gazelles, Gerenuks and of course Giraffes among other species of herbivores and browsers. But these are not the only interesting animals that inhabit the rather inhospitable lake Magadi!

In its hot springs some special fish find their living despite the high temperature and salinity of the water! Alcolapia grahami a species of the Cichlidae family has adapted to live in this rather harsh environment. It is not the only case as another three species inhabit Lake Natron a few km to the south in Tanzania: Alcolapia alcalica; A. latilabris; and A. ndalalani. Of interest is that there is no overlapping among the species present in each lake.

The now vulnerable A. grahami, most commonly seen in the southern shoreline hot spring pools where the water temperature is less than 45°C, have developed the ability of excreting urea instead of the usual ammonia of the teleost fish as they are not able to diffuse ammonium into such an alkaline media. As they feed on cyanobacteria of high N2 content, this is -apparently- important. They also have the greatest metabolic performance ever recorded in a fish, in the basal range of a small mammal of comparable size [4]. They are also an important indicator organism for global warming.

Coming back to our trip, after our stop for Police registration, we moved on and passed by the company’s brown golf course. It was interesting to see golfers moving about on a brown and grassless course where the holes were places with “browns” and a few dust devils thrown in as well! Since its establishment in 1931 this unique 9-hole course where you drive over donkeys and cows. It does not charge fees and it is open year round!

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Maasai boys driving their sheep and goats through one of the lake’s causeways.

It soon became clear that day that lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. The water is undrinkable for humans and animals quench their thirst at selected areas where salt contents are low. We soon run out of water but, luckily, we found a water trough for cattle use on our way back from where we replenish our water and had a badly needed and refreshing wash!

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Stopping for the water trough.

While on the issue of water, years later, while having a picnic under one of the few acacia trees present around the lake, a Maasai elder approached us quietly and asked for some water. Without hesitation, one of our friends gave him a glass that the old man guzzled. Surprising all of us the man spat the water and started to jump while trying to hold his teeth, and shouting what we could understand as “baridi, baridi, baridi sana [5]!”

Without thinking, our friend had given him a glass of water from the frozen water can and the poor man, clearly used to drink water 40 degrees warmer, could not take it! After a few seconds he burst out laughing at the event while water at ambient temperature was supplied to him. This time he enjoyed it and he stayed with us for the rest of the picnic, sharing our food.

After our welcomed encounter with the cattle trough it was time to return to Nairobi. The heat had been intense and we felt really “desiccated” so it was with great relief that we took the road back that now climbed to the coolness of Nairobi where we arrived after night fall.

It was the introduction to one of our favourite weekend outings during the several years we spent in Kenya.

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Magadi landscape 1

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[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/ostrich-eggs/)

[2] https://en.climate-data.org/location/103801/

[3] Resident birds: Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird. Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver. Visitors; Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Little Egret, Grey-headed Gulls, Yellow-billed Stork, Cape Teal, African Spoonbill, Kittlitz’s and Spur-winged Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Pied Avocet.

[4] Wood, C. M. et al. Mammalian metabolic rates in the hottest fish on earth. Sci. Rep. 6, 26990; doi: 10.1038/srep26990 (2016).

[5] “Cold, cold, very cold” (In KiSwahili).

 

 

Spot the beast 49

This is a tough one. We spotted this beast during our recent safari to Hwange National Park.

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I know, it was a difficult one… We did not see much more of these three young lions during the several hours we waited for them to move! They were two young males and a female, probably siblings laying under the shade of a fallen thorn tree.

So that you do not think that we are amazing spotting game, we found them following the instructions of other fellow travellers who saw them walking towards the tree!

Below is another picture of one of the young males watching us for a few seconds, all they did to “amuse” us!

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Ostrich eggs

The Athi plains, adjacent to the Nairobi National Park (NNP), was another area we visited on weekends. The place was sprinkled with Maasai manyattas and the sound of cowbells accompanied the movement of their herds while grazing. It was open grassland where giraffes, wildebeests and Thomson’s gazelles would be usually found. Occasionally we would spot small flocks of ostriches intermingling with the herbivores.

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A Maasai manyatta.

Being rather obvious, ostriches could not hide very long from taxonomists and as early as 1758 Linnaeus had already labelled them as Struthio camelus. More than one hundred years later, more detailed observations followed and it was realized that Kenya hosted two different ostriches: the Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus) with a pink neck and its cousin, the Somali ostrich with a grey-blue neck. As the latter dwells in North-eastern Kenya, in the Athi plains we saw the Maasai sub-species.

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A male Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus).

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Somali ostrich (S. molybdophanes) photographed in the Samburu Reserve.

By luck one day while driving cross-country with our friend Paul enjoying the views and looking for a picnic spot our route was interrupted by a deep ravine. We needed to follow it for a while to find a crossing point when, lo and behold, at the bottom of it we spotted a female ostrich sitting on a nest and surrounded by eggs.

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The female sitting on her eggs. The “rejected” eggs are seen surrounding her.

ostrich female 1 cropped.. copy

Judging by the couple dozen eggs or so that were not covered, we assumed that she had plenty more under her. As those outside would inevitably rot after the incubation was completed a maximum of forty days later, we decided that, once the adults and chicks moved off, we would collect some of the left over eggs that would be dead by then for emptying as we judged that there were enough to be shared with the Egyptian vultures and other possible predators.

Before I go on with the story, it has been reported [1] that, in general, wild ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests. Up to seven hens lay up to thirteen eggs each in the same shallow nest in the ground. Apparently, the “major” hen guards and later incubates the nest, helped by the male. As the female can only cover about twenty eggs the surplus eggs are moved out about 1one to two metres from the nest where they perish. But this is not all, the senior hen apparently recognizes her own eggs and keeps them!

Not having GPS technology at our disposal, we fixed the place as per the trees available and decided to have a look a couple of weeks later.

Somehow we forgot about the incubating hen but Paul did not and he visited the nest after a week and confirmed that the female and the eggs were still there. The following weekend, my wife and I decided to attempt finding the nest again. Surprisingly (we are not very good at bush driving!) we found what we thought was the right ravine but there was no trace of the female.

As usual, doubting that this was the right place we drove further along the donga until eventually we found the nest. Lots of broken shells were proof of a good hatching that we estimated in more than fifteen young! At the periphery of the nest, only a few eggs remained still intact and, as planned, we collected them (six in total) and took them home, hoping that they would not break “en route”!

A couple of days later Paul came to visit and told us that he had bad news: although he had found the nest, all the eggs had gone! So, he believed that someone had been there before us. After a good laugh, we showed him the eggs. Pleased, he recovered his normal good humour and mentioned that he will organize a garden “Ostrich egg blowing event”. He will invite a few common friends.

Somehow, prior to the event Paul managed to get a portable dentist drill that- he believed- would had been perfect for the job. So, when the day came, we went to his house carrying the eggs.

Paul and I (the veterinarians) were excited about the egg emptying exercise. Other friends (including all the ladies) were indifferent and focused on getting comfortable in the veranda to enjoy their sundowners and socialize! Only Timothy, our artist friend, decided to join us and immediately took possession of “his egg”. As Paul and I were used to strong odours, we did not think much of the exercise. I am not sure why Timothy was so keen on it and it remains a question up to today!

I am sure that you are all familiar with hydrogen sulphide (H2S) the gas responsible for the smell of the very few rotten eggs you find these days of “modern” farming and expiry dates. I had cleaned many bird eggs in my youth (including rhea ones) so I was fully aware of the risks! The technique I used consisted in drilling holes at both ends and -when the eggs are still liquid- blow through one hole to force the egg contents to come out through the other one. Not so easy with a large ostrich egg!

We set up the drill and lined our eggs very professionally on a table, at the other end of the veranda, as far away from the other guests as possible and Paul, claiming to be an expert on the dentist drill, started boring the first one with Timothy in attendance, holding his egg. The drill worked faster than anticipated and the egg eruption caught us (and the other guests albeit far) totally off guard!

The three of us failed to move away from the effects of the explosion as fast as the other guests that, luckily unharmed but proffering very bad words, swiftly trooped into the house and locked all openings to the veranda! We, the unsung heroes stayed put, covered by stinking egg gunk to complete the operation that involved repeating the process on four more eggs and then blow through them to empty them! Timothy had gone paler than his usual self and instants later started to retch while still holding to his egg with both hands.

“I think we will be better off on the grass” I said. Paul agreed and found an extension cable to plug the drill. We decided to use a garden hose to flush rather than blow the eggs contents so we went in search of the garden hose. As we walked in the garden we heard a noise and soon enough we met the retching Timothy seated on the grass while chipping at his egg with an awl. “Timothy”, Paul said, “do you want to prove something?” Amazingly, Timothy did not or could not reply but continued struggling.

We were about to finish washing our eggs clean when we heard a thud and heard loud swearing followed by more retching. Timothy had unplugged his egg! We helped him cleaning it. We had completed our job!

While carrying the eggs back to the house we got under proper illumination and we could only laugh at our condition while having a summary wash. The smell was so strong that we clearly did not understand it in its full intensity until we tried to enter the house. We found it locked and its occupants would only talk to us through locked doors or windows accompanied by rather rude sign language. Lengthy negotiations ensued. We protested that it was too cold to wash outside but our pleading was totally ignored so we had to agree and suffer the cold water. Finally under pressure we agreed to their demands that we would have a thorough wash with the hose outside and only then we would be allowed to enter the house straight to the bathroom while the guests moved to the kitchen for the duration of our showers!

We heard the door unlocking and someone said “You can come in now but straight to the shower, please” . We obeyed and, half naked, we went in under the scrutiny (and laughter) of the others. There was a small incident when Timothy was asked to leave his egg outside and he refused at first but, eventually he relented. We were then given towels and some of Paul’s clean clothes to wear for the evening.

Although we showered intensely and made use of Paul’s favourite perfumes, the smell was tough to remove so, although we were given the all clear  to dine, the three of us were eventually seated on a table away from the clean guests in a kind of “smell quarantine”.

The operation resulted in three eggs for us (for having collected them), two for Paul and one for Timothy (for his brave behaviour and also because we could not have taken the egg away from him!). The eggs still exist and are sitting on some special stands we eventually got made in Zambia for them. They look nice and do not smell at all now.

[1] Bertram, B.C. R. (1979). Ostriches recognise their own eggs and discard others. Nature 279, 233–234.

Spot the beast 48

Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.

m mara leop 3

I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.

The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.

m mara leop 2

m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.