About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Amboseli; classic wild Kenya #2: birds

In my last post I introduced (or perhaps reintroduced) you to one of Kenya's most famous national parks, though not an especially large one. It is best known for its elephants and glorious views (cloud permitting!) of Mount Kilimanjaro just across the border in Tanzania to the south. 

However of course the other wildlife is wonderful too, and we enjoyed many birds that we'd not encountered further south, as well of course of re-encountering old friends. High among the most welcome of these favourites were the superb Grey Crowned Cranes Balearica regulorum. (Not Grey-crowned by the way. The name refers to their grey body and they are named to distinguish them from Black Crowned Cranes B. pavonina, which are found a little further north and then west across the arid Sahel to the Atlantic.) We never tired of them.
They are smaller than other cranes, just over a metre high, but have a wonderful presence.
They also have shorter stout bills than do other cranes and are generalist feeders in dry grasslands
and wetlands, on insects, caterpillars, frogs, small reptiles and crabs.

Unlike northern crane species they are not migratory. Some African populations wander in response to
environmental conditions, but in East Africa they stay in place all year round.

Like other cranes they mate for life, or for at least as long as their breeding attempts are successful!
And as with other cranes, pair bonds are reinforced by elaborate and very beautiful ritualised dances.
The Amboseli wetlands support a good range of bird life, much of which is well-used to visitors and is not much disturbed by our attentions.
Both Greater and Lesser Flamingos are present in huge numbers on the flooded shallow pans.
Storks are another favourite group of mine, and the huge Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensisstands an imposing 1.5 metres high with a wingspan of well over 2.5 metres.
It is a close relation of our own Black-necked Stork, which extends north into Asia.
The yellow eyes make this one a female.
They are primarily fish-eaters (though they'll snap up anything else in reach),
taking substantially-sized prey.
Pied Kingfishers Ceryle rudis are common, as they are right across Africa and southern Asia,
perched by the water or hovering above it.

Long-toed Lapwings Vanellus crassirostris forage in water or wet grass, but primarily
on floating vegetation like jacanas, supported by long toes.
Squacco Herons Ardeola ralloides breed in southern Europe and the Middle East,
and winter in Africa where this streaky plumage replaces their lovely breeding garb
of buffy yellow and golden orange with striking blue bill and face.
In such a rich habitat birds of prey are common too.
Immature Black-chested Snake Eagle Circaetus pectoralis; this is a powerful hunter which
indeed specialises in eating snakes, especially venomous ones!

The widespread little Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus is found across much of Africa
and southern Asia; in Australia it is replaced by the very similar Black-shouldered Kite E. axillaris.It hovers over grasslands, terrorising the local rodents.
Eastern Chanting Goshawk Melierax poliopterus; one of three long-legged, broad-winged members
of the genus. They are named from their 'loud, melodious chanting', according to Cornell's
Birds of the World site. Lizards comprise most of their diet.
The Greater Kestrel Falco rupicoloides is indeed one the largest kestrels,
found in southern and eastern Africa.
And surely the Secretary Bird Sagittarius serpentarius is one of the most extraordinary birds of prey
(or raptors)  in the world. There are four families of raptors. One contains 255 species of eagles, hawks,
Old World vultures etc; another has seven New World vultures; one has two ospreys,
and the fourth comprises just the Secretary Bird. They mince-shuffle across
the plains of much of Africa like someone wearing slippers that are too big, but to their prey - including
such large and potentially dangerous animals as hares and mongooses - they must be formidable indeed.

At 1.3 metres high there are not many birds in Amboseli bigger than the Secretary Bird, but one familiar bird towers over everything else.
Common Ostriches Struthio camelus are the world's largest birds, along with the recently recognised
Somali Ostrich S. molybdophanes.  A male can be a startling 2.75 metres high and weigh over 150kg.
They are widespread in Amboseli, and many other African parks.

Other smaller ground-dwellers (which, unlike the Ostrich, can fly but spend much of their time foraging on the ground) are still largish birds and can occur anywhere in the drier parts of Amboseli. They belong to a range of families.
Spotted Thick-knee Burhinus capensis, a beautifully camouflaged nocturnal bird which 'hides in plain sight'
during the day. Thick-knees are also known as dikkops in Africa (especially South Africa), but European, Indian
and Australian species are called stone-curlews; it may not be strictly accurate, but I find it more euphonious!

Male White-bellied Bustard Eupodotis senegalensis, a small, widespread and very attractive bustard.
Yellow-necked Spurfowl Pternistis leucoscepus. Spurfowls (or francolins) are members of the
big, widespread and old pheasant/quail/grouse/fowl family, but restricted to Africa.
This one is only found in north-east Africa.
I'm a big fan of the wonderful sandgrouse - not real grouse but a family of 16 species in mostly semi-arid open country in Africa and Asia. They are ground-dwellers but also powerful flyers, regularly covering 100 or more kilometres a day to drink. They arrive at water in big flocks as protection again waiting predators. Most famously the adults have hugely absorbent breast feathers with which they transport water to distant chicks on the hot plains.
Black-faced Sandgrouse Pterocles decoratus. Male on the left.
This species is restricted to Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus has a much larger distribution,
living right across Africa in a strip south of the Sahara, and east to India.
The male is facing us.
Finally a selection of smaller 'bush birds' having nothing much in common besides living in Amboseli and giving us much pleasure. I'll start with two species of mousebirds, a family (and in fact an entire Order, the only bird Order found only in Africa) of six species of oddly rodent-like birds as they clamber and scurry through foliage in family groups. I find them most engaging.
Blue-naped Mousebirds Urocolius macrourus really do have very blue napes.
They also are found across the dry Sahel, the arid woodland south of the Sahara
White-headed Mousebirds Colius leucocephalus on the other hand are pretty much restricted
to southern Somalia and adjacent Kenya. Surprisingly little is known about them, though they
doesn't appear to be threatened for now.
The Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala, like most kingfishers, is a woodland insect hunter.
This lovely little bird is found across much of Africa, where it spends much of its time like this -
sitting patiently and waiting for a meal to make a move.
Little Bee-eaters Merops pusillus are probably the smallest of the world's 27 bee-eaters.
This was one of a pair in the late afternoon sun using termite mounds as lookout posts
from which to intercept flying insects; they didn't miss much.
Mourning Collared Doves Streptopelia decipiens are familiar throughout much of Africa - but that's
no reason to ignore them. Its call, a thoughtful phoo-phooo, and muscial rattles, is a very
familiar in bushland and towns.
Red-and-Yellow Barbet Trachyphonus erythrocephalus, another north-east African special.
They eat everything from fruits to seeds to insects to small birds, and scavenge
without shame around human habitation. They nest in burrows in termite mounds.
As I've said before, one day I'll write a post on the four families of barbets (two
from Latin America, one each from Africa and Asia). Remind me...
Fischer's Starling Lamprotornis fischeri is a real study in grey. Not common even in its limited range,
it is found only in eastern Kenya and adjacent southern Somalia, and just sneaks across the border
into Ethiopia and Tanazania. This bird, typically, is foraging on the ground for insects.
In Australia we have just one pipit, and to be honest it's not very striking. The longclaws of Africa
however are very striking indeed, a genus of six species confined to (mostly tropical) Africa.
These Rosy-throated Longclaws Macronyx ameliae were singing enthusiastically and well;
they were a fair way off, so you might want to click on the picture to enlarge it and appreciate them properly.
No problem with seeing this Pangani Longclaw Macronyx aurantiigula however, as it posed on a rock by the track.
It has a similar north-eastern distribution to some other Amboseli birds, found only in south-eastern Kenya,
adjacent Tanzania and smaller parts of Somalia.
As I write this, the prospects of ever getting to travel to other parts of the Southern Hemisphere (or anywhere else of course) seem very remote indeed. We can only wait, stay safe, and hope for the best. Meantime maybe some vicarious travelling to wonderful destinations like Amboseli are better than nothing. I hope you think so.

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Thursday, 13 August 2020

Amboseli; classic wild Kenya #1

Last year, as I have written before, we finally got to East Africa, celebrating a major new stage of our life. I have posted already on two magnificent Tanzanian parks which we were privileged to explore; see here and here for posts on Tarangire and Serengeti. Today I want to take you to (or perhaps back to) Amboseli, our introduction to Kenya and a superb one. As I have done before when introducing major parks I'll break this story into two chapters (well postings anyway), starting with an introduction to the park, and some of its mammals (along with a couple of lizards). Next time we'll meet some of the wonderful bird life. 
Distant elephant in one of the very significant wetlands of Amboseli, with the flanks of Kilimanjaro
far beyond. I love the tide marks on the elephants which have been enjoying the water.
For very good reasons Amboseli is associated with elephants and Mount Kilimanjaro which, though just across the Tanzanian border, 45km from Ol Tukai Lodge where we stayed, dominates the skyline to the south.
Our first view of the mighty mountain; at nearly 6000 metres above sea level it is Africa's highest peak.
It was swathed in cloud for much of our stay, though we have an enduring memory of the glaciers
gleaming in the moonlight as we returned to our cabin from dinner on the first night.
Late on the second day the peak cleared completely, and the lower flanks were still clear,
but we never really saw the entire mountain in daylight.
And a closer view of the glaciers. These glaciers have famously shrunk by at least 90% in the past century,
but unlike melting glaciers in higher latitudes, the loss of Kilimanjaro's glaciers (comprising ice walls
40 metres high on the flat peak) cannot be simply ascribed to rising global temperatures.
As long as you don't mind a bit of solid physics (something I'm not very good at)
this is an interesting read on the topic.
The history of the peoples of Kenya, including Amboseli, is complex, with waves of arrivals, especially from the north-east, displacing those already in place. Initially the area was inhabited by nomadic people related to the modern Khoisan of the arid parts of south-western Africa. They were moved on by herdsman from what is now South Sudan around 1500 years ago. Five hundred years later Bantu speakers from west Africa arrived; their language was the basis of modern Swahili. Around 500 years ago the ancestors of the modern Maasai, from the Nile Valley to the north of Kenya, also came and largely dominated. Needless to say, the story is much more nuanced than that.

The first European in the area where Amboseli is now was an impressive young Scotsman named Joseph Thomson (of Thomson's Gazelle fame), as late as 1883. He is arguably one of the greatest of European African explorers, not least because he apparently accomplished his achievements with no loss of life to either local people or his porters. He spoke glowingly of the wildlife spectacle in the Amboseli area. The British colonial government in the early 20th century declared a massive game reserve to try to stem elephant poaching in particular. In 1948 it was expanded to a 326,000 hectare Natural Reserve, but after independence in 1974 it was declared National Park - but this park only included some 10% of the original reserve. Today Amboseli covers a relatively modest 39,000 hectares, though its sweeping plains seem bigger than that. It was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1991.

We were there just before the start of the rains, so the wetlands we enjoyed were clearly permanent.

All such wetlands were rich in birds, especially flamingos; here are Egyptian Geese,
an African Spoonbill and Black-winged Stilt, all common species but nonetheless always welcome!
Other open areas are seasonal wetlands, and would have been flooded soon after our visit.

Here Vervet Monkeys and Helmeted Guineafowl are foraging in such a situation.
In the background is dense thorny acacia woodland on slightly higher ground; this is
probably a mix of yellow Fever Trees Vachellia xanthophloea and Acacia (Senegalia) mellifera.
Some raised 'islands' support stands of Ol Tukai Palms Phoenix reclinata, from which
our lodge takes its name.
However the bulk of the reserve comprises open plains with various acacia species.
This is Umbrella Thorn Acacia, Acacia (or Vachellia) tortilis,
a characteristic tree of East African savannahs.
We saw only a couple of reptiles - it wasn't especially warm - but they deserve a mention here.
A somewhat ghostly-appearing gecko on the bathroom window at night.
Variable Skink Trachylepis varia.
And as promised, a few Amboseli mammals. We saw twenty species, but I didn't photograph all of these, probably because I'd already photographed many of them in Tanzania. However you can never have too many elephant photos!
This is a small part of a file of 66 magnificent African Bush Elephants with babies moving down
out of the forests on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro and scattering into family groups across the plain.

A big lone bull who came out of the bush and walked alongside us before crossing the track right in front of us.

I mentioned the 'tide line' on the elephants before; this photo and the next were taken from
the verandah of our cabin. There was however an electric fence between us and them!

These two were testing their strength - or at least the smaller one on the right was.
The big one knew he was stronger, and the other one wandered off after a while.
There were hippos in and by every sizeable water body.
This one was accompanied by African Jacanas.
The greatest diversity among larger mammals was provided by several antelope species, including a couple I'd particularly wanted to see.
Grant's Gazelles Nanger (or Gazella) granti are everywhere, as they are in other East African reserves.
This is a handsome male.
We were delighted to spot this female Grant's encouraging her just-born calf to take its first steps.
This Gerenuk Litocranius walleri was high on my wish list! A gloriously lithe and elegant
antelope which, giraffe-like, browses high on bushes and smaller trees. Ungiraffe-like it
even stands up on its hind legs to reach the highest foliage. It's a dry country
animal and we saw it in drier bushland just outside the reserve.
A real treat too, and an unexpected one, was this lovely but very shy Lesser Kudu Tragelaphus imberbis.
I hadn't really expected to see it, and this was the only one, again on the access road to the park.
This is a male, the females being coppery coloured - even more relevantly, they don't have horns!
In addition to the Vervet Monkeys, Yellow Baboons hung around the lodge, though I think must be severely discouraged as they didn't come close. This was the only place we saw them too; elsewhere in Tanzania and Kenya we saw only Olive Baboons.
Yellow Baboons Papio cynocephalus are found across south-central Africa from Angola to
Tanzania and up to Djibouti.
Common Warthogs Phacochoerus africanus are widespread and fairly cautious;
the pretty mauve flowers are Oxalis sp.

Which brings us to the carnivores and again we had a couple of very pleasant surprises.
Black-backed Jackals Lupulella mesomelas were not surprising, being widespread and common,
but nonetheless welcome.
This Serval Leptailurus serval however was definitely a bonus, only about 20 metres away,
hunting rodents, reptiles and small birds in the grass. This medium-sized cat
is not a common sighting, and this was the second of the trip for us.
However the most exciting sighting came almost on sunset on our last day in Amboseli. Our driver and local guide Peter had made a spontaneous decision to try a secluded lakeside road before heading home in the dusk. We were enjoying a Chestnut-banded Plover on the lake shore when he noticed a couple of distant heads down in the grass - we could barely see them with binoculars. Lions! They are scarce in Amboseli; I suspect the small size of the park and the high risk of conflict with neighbouring cattle herders keeps their numbers well down. But when we got closer we realised that it was a greater prize still - Cheetahs! Peter had only seen them once in Amboseli and our tour leader Gareth had never done so. Moreover there were four of them - a mother with two near-adult sons and a daughter.
We watched them for nearly 30 minutes while the sunset turned on a spectacular display, Kilimanjaro glowed and the family sprawled by the road.
The mother periodically chirruped bird-like to the youngsters, presumably reassuringly. Eventually she turned and stalked off into the long grass, the others trailing behind, more or less behaving like adults, though a couple stopped to chase each other and wrestle. All entrancing.

This image of the two youngsters playing in front of mighty Kilimanjaro in fading light is one that will stay with me for a long time. A special moment indeed, in a special park.

Back soon with the rest of this introduction to Amboseli, when we'll look at some of its birds.

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