Seen and read

Curious and humorous observations.

Secret insect life at Bangweulu

Often, apparently insignificant details reveal interesting facts when sometime is spent following them up. This was -again- the case while camping at the Nsobe campsite at the Bangweulu wetlands during our prelude to attempting to find the Shoebill storks.

As -aware of the differences- the landscape reminded me somehow of that of Intona Ranch in the Transmara of Kenya in the 80’s [1], I decided to look at some of the tree islands surrounding the one we were camping at. The similarities ended as these, although around termite mounds, were composed of different trees.

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The Bushsnob walking about in the Bwngweulu wetlands looking at the tree islands.

In one of the bushes nearby I observed that some leaves were yellow while others were just their normal shape and green. A better look showed that the yellow parts were in fact an enlarged part of the leaf itself. I thought it was probably a viral or fungal infection but, in any case, I collected a few for opening up as I was curious.

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Close-up of the malformation (gall).

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Similar lesions of Thryps infestation. Credit: Mr Thrips (Talk | contribs). [2]

I cut them lengthwise and found some tiny insects inside the galls!

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The capsules opened lengthwise to show their contents.

Luckily I had with me a “super macro’ lens given to me by my son (he likes gadgets!). This lens is applied to the cellphone camera and give you enlarged macro pictures like the ones I showed in from our bat house in Salta, Argentina [3].

Through the camera I could see an adult (black) insect, several white eggs and what looked like larvae or nymphs of the black insect walking about. In addition there was a large white insect that I assumed to be the female lying eggs according to its pulsating movement under the macro lens.

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Adult (black) with nymphs and eggs.

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Eggs and a nymph (reddish abdomen).

As I had no clue of what these could be, on return to Zimbabwe I resorted to the very helpful Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa as they had helped me in the past with insect identification and information. As usual, the reply came the next day and it was very revealing!

The host plant was identified as probably a Water berry tree belonging to the Syzygium (Family: Myrtaceae). It is likely to be Syzygium cordatum but I am not sure. In any case, the “leaf roll” or gall was the plant’s response to a kind of insect known as Thryps (Order: Thysanoptera), of which I have not heard before but later learnt that are important agriculture pests!

Adult Thryps have sucking mouthparts that cause damage by feeding on a plant’s fluids. The leaves respond curling tightly inwards developing the capsule I found. This structure protects the immature Thryps to develop and eventually disperse.

What I thought was an egg-laying female seems, according to the South African colleagues, a Hover fly larvae predating on the Thryps so there was also some drama going on in the dark!

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The suspected female was apparently a Hover fly larvae possibly predating on the Thryps.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] From https://thrips.info/wiki/Thrips_and_galls. Thryps and galls by Laurence Mound, CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences, Canberra.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/

 

Acknowledgement: Elizabeth Globbelaar and Michael Stiller of the Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa provided not only identification of plant and insects but also great information without which this post would not have been written.

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.

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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.

Roman elephant

Walking through the various quarters of Rome in summer is a pleasure. Despite its apparent (and real) chaos, Rome has so many facets that every walk reveals new sights. Even old -and apparently commonplace- sights become interesting once we learn more about them.

Although I had walked through the Piazza della Minerva in the past, it had been to get to other of Rome’s main attractions such as the Piazza Navona or the Pantheon. I had noticed the obelisk in the centre but my attention somehow was directed to a plaque informing the public that the Argentinian General José de San Martín stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve in 1846, four years before his death in 1850.

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The plaque on San Martín placed on the front of the hotel.

During this visit, my daughter mentioned that, apart from the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) -close to her flat- she also enjoyed seeing the small elephant. So one afternoon we walked there and we got to the Piazza delle Minerva again. Not being one of the popular attractions, this small and rather overlooked piazza does not have the crowds and endless tourists’ queues to stick their hands in the Bocca della Veritá or to enter San Peter’s in the Vatican.

So, with time, we had a look at the obelisk. At the time we noted its rather the rather elongated trunk and agreed that it was a rather peculiar sculpture. Further investigation on its origins and development followed and its creation and symbolism is worth describing.

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The rather long trunk of the marble elephant.

The monument consists of two parts, an Egyptian obelisk -unearthed during some excavations carried out before the 17th Century- and the elephant that carries it. The latter is believed to have been the work of Ercole Ferrata, a disciple of the well-known sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini [1].

At the time of the unearthing of the Egyptian obelisk, Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) wanted to build a monument to display it. Father Domenico Paglia proposed the idea of the Obelisk resting over six small hills, as well as a dog in each corner, the dog being a symbol of the Dominican priests, the Order he belonged to. The hills recalled the six hills depicted on the Chigi family crest. By depicting the latter he hoped to convince the Pope. However, to Paglia’s surprise, Alexander rejected his design.

The Pope then asked Bernini for an alternative design. Bernini’s first reaction was to place four seated figures holding the obelisk at each corner of a pedestal. As this was not to Alexander’s liking, he presented another option showing the Obelisk resting on a rock and a later proposal depicted Hercules with his knees semi-bent as he hoists the obelisk upward and recalls Atlantis holding up the world.

Eventually Bernini got the agreement of the Pope with a design of an elephant carrying the Obelisk on its back, inspired by a popular novel of the time called “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“Poliphilo’s The Strife of Love in a Dream” )[2] authored by Francesco Colonna in 1499.

In Bernini’s original drawings, the obelisk’s weight would have fully rested on the legs of the animal. However father Paglia -envious of Bernini receiving the commission and being an architect himself- convinced the Pope that “according to traditional cannons, no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady nor long lasting” so he strongly recommended that the obelisk should be placed upon a stone block. Bernini was opposed to this modification, especially as he had already proven that he could accomplish such a design in his “Four Rivers Fountain” in Piazza Navona.

Despite Bernini’s opinion, the Pope finally followed Paglia’s advice and decided that a marble cube should be inserted under the elephant. He also had the Latin phrase “These symbols of the science of Egypt, which you see engraved on the obelisk borne by the elephant, the most powerful of all animals, show that a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge” inscribed on the base.

Although Bernini tried to hide the heavy look of the block placed between the elephant’s legs by adding a saddle to the elephant’s back, this was not enough and the elephant acquired a rather heavy appearance that -I am sure to Bernini’s annoyance- originated its nick name of Minerva’s Piggy [3]!

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Despite the addition of the saddle the marble block supporting the obelisk is rather obvious.

The complete work was unveiled in February 1667 and it turned out to be the last commission of Pope Alexander VII as he died a few months later.

There is still a final twist to the story.

Bernini was able to take his revenge upon Paglia and the Pope by shifting the elephant’s tail slightly to the left and in that way pointing its rear end rather obscenely toward the Dominican Monastery sited in the square!

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The elephant’s rear end.

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The elephant with its rear end pointing towards the Dominican Monastery.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini

[2] https://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/hieroglyphs/hypnerotomachia-poliphili

[3] Today the sculpture is popularly known as Minerva’s chick as the Roman dialect word for piggy (“procino”) has been replaced by chick (“pulcino”).

 

Killer banana

The incident I will narrate took place during our last year’s trip to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. As the observation was being published, I delayed its writing until this took place on 8 July 2018 [1]. For easy access I have also inserted the published document (Hornbill predation) as a PDF file under Pages in this blog.

Let me start by saying that if you find the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills likeable, you may need to review your stand after you read this piece.

While at Camp No. 2 at Monamodi Pan in October 2017 we were startled by the dryness of the place. Birds from the surrounding area will immediately come to drink in any water that we had around the camp. Common visitors were Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus) but Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus), Violet-eared Waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) and Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius) were present in large numbers.

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There was a constant stream of birds drinking at the waterholes.

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Birds looking for food and water around our camp.

In addition, a few Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) were residents at the camp and were regularly seen on the ground.

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Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills scavenging around the camp.

At mid-morning during the second day of our stay some of the small birds suddenly flew off where they were foraging in a response usually observed when there detect danger such as an attack by a predator.

They all flew away but one! A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill had caught one of the adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and it was in the process of killing it by violently shaking it and thrashing it against the ground. We were startled as we did not expect this to happen.

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

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The sparrow died fast and the hornbill started removing its feathers and then it took its victim up a nearby tree where it continued defeathering it by vigorously hitting and rubbing the sparrow against the tree. Interestingly, there was no panic reaction or mobbing of the predator by the small birds that returned to the water only after a few minutes.

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

After about 30 minutes the hornbill decided that the victim was naked enough for it to be swallowed!

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

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Although it was known that the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill’s diet included “a wide range of invertebrates and small vertebrates” such as nestlings of Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) the list does not mention predation on adult birds [2].

It is possible that the observed behaviour was incidental. However it seems realistic to expect that the hornbill was prepared to take advantage of the chaos created when large numbers of birds gather at waterholes or are distracted when foraging together to catch their prey unaware.

So, like with the observed carnivory in hippos [3] the present observation may not be nice but, again, it goes to show how nature works.

 

[1] https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/500

[2] Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

[3] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/

 

My thanks go to Biodiversity Observations for publishing this observation.

Unicorns revisited

An addition to the (my) debate on unicorns by no less than Gary Larson, with agreement of the Far Side Appreciation Society of Midvale.

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Hamerkop

Although the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is the sole member of the genus, it is now believed that it has genetic similarities that are closer to the pelicans and shoebill stork than other water birds.

We find these true Cinderella of the swamps extremely interesting despite being rather common and overshadowed by the most colourful species. Perhaps their better known feature is their huge nests that take them 2 to 4 months to complete and that are often used by other birds as well.

I have mentioned that these birds frequently visit our former pool (now a water reservoir) in Harare and spending long hours stalking the African clawed frogs [1]. I was intrigued by how the frogs were caught as I always heard a splash but, by the time I looked, the frog had already been caught.

A couple of years ago, while camping at Shumba in Hwange National Park [2] I had the chance of seeing a hamerkop hovering over the dam there but it was evening and I could not watch it long enough to find out whether it was fishing or on some other kind of display so the mystery continued.

Luckily, during our visit to the Kruger National Park early in October we were stationed at a water pond waiting for large game to come to drink and, during the time, we were entertained by a couple of hamerkop that were feeding and we could watch them at leisure and resolve the issue.

Each bird repeated a routine that involved landing on shore and, after a time that went from a few seconds to a couple of minutes of walking about, take off and fly very slowly over the water with dangling feet and slow wing beats that would keep it just above it. During the hovering its feet sometimes touched the water and it occasionally would drag them on the water surface.

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While we were there the bird was performing this routine constantly and our comment was that it must be effective for the bird to spend all this flying energy on this, apparently, futile activity. The answer to our questions came after about an hour when the bird suddenly landed in the water with feet and beak and emerged victorious with a frog!

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It then took off from the water and proceeded to eat it. Unluckily, after its success the bird landed on the opposite shore of the dam so I could not even guess at the identity of the frog and only managed poor pictures.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/garden-and-gadgets/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/watched-at-shumba/

Baobab Teenager

Last week, driving around Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park, we spotted this baobab that reminded me of a youngster when growing so fast that the clothes that fit today do not tomorrow! It seems that the young and growing baobab needs another pullover to cover its belly!

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In fact, elephants had damaged the base of the tree and the absence of bark contrasts with the intact part of the trunk that shows a healthy coppery colour further up.

Elephants badly damage baobabs, particularly when food and water are scarce as they get the latter from the soft trunk. Lots of baobabs are damaged in this way and the problem is particularly noticeable in Gonarezhou.

The examples below are from Tsavo West National Park, Kenya in the eighties and Mana Pools National Park a couple of years back.

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Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.

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Another damaged baobab, this time at Mana Pools National Park.

Growing up

In November 2014 I shared with you the finding of a “River Plate zebra” youngster.[1]

Although I walked almost daily -when in Carmelo, Uruguay- through that area, I did not see it again so I had almost forgotten it. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when this week, almost two years later, I saw a similar animal, now almost an adult and still “approachable”.

At first sight I was convinced that it was the same horse. However, comparing today’s pictures with those above (from 2014) I had some doubts as the coloration had somehow changed. Although I would be surprised that another animal such as this could exist in my town, I consulted some “experts” with who I share beach afternoons and I was assured that changes in colour do take place when the animal grows.

I did not dare to get close and ask her if she was the same I saw in 2014. I was fearing “horse bite” and -much more importantly- possible rude comments from some readers, particularly those from “down under”. So, I only managed to take new pictures of her from a prudent distance and speculate on its real identity.

Growing up has somehow changed her but it is still an eye-catching animal!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/almost-a-zebra/

Mutant moth – Advance

Eight months ago I published a post where I showed a picture of a moth that had the wings of different colour and I speculated that it was a kind of “alien” creature[1].

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Then I mentioned that I would follow-up the issue with the “experts” but I am afraid I did not!

However, luckily, searching for information on Southern African moths and butterflies I stumbled upon a site that deals with the kind of anomaly I came across, though in a more colourful butterfly[2]. This gave me the first indication that I was probably dealing with gyandromorphism.

In entomology, a gynandromorph is an insect that contains both male and female features that in butterflies -moths in our case- can be seen physically (in their wings) because of their sexual dimorphism.[3]

This is as far as I has been able to go for the moment but the search continues.

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/mutant-moth/

[2] http://insectdesignsnews.blogspot.com/2010/11/charaxes-cynthia-gyandromorph.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gynandromorphism