Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scavengers (Africa Series) Warning: Dead Animals

Nothing goes to waste in the natural world. Everything is a resource for something else.

Lappet-faced Vultures
In Africa, when an animal dies there is another one waiting to clean-up the remains. 
African White-backed Vulture

Vultures come in first. With their keen eyesight they are most likely to spot a carcass from the air.  The African White-backed Vulture is the most common vulture here…identifiable by its white ruffled neckband of feathers. While circling overhead they watch each other. When a vulture descends, they all funnel down to join the feast. 

The scavenger's very existence depends on death. Since death is a given, there will always be a place for scavengers in the natural world.  In the hierarchy of life, scavengers hold little allure for us, but life without scavengers is unimaginable.  Not pleasant. 

Unlike Turkey Vultures in America, the Old World Vultures have a poor sense of smell.  Dead and rotting flesh is just another tasty item on the menu.

Marabou Stork

The Marabou Stork is another bird that thrives only after something else has died. It’s a very large bird. 

Although he may be handsome from the neck down, he’s not your everyday pretty-bird. 

This Marabou Stork is cleaning up flamingo remains from an unknown demise. The Marabou Stork lacks the hooked bill of vultures, so twisting flesh off the carcass is his solution for dining on the dead.

Black-backed Jackal

Birds are not the only scavengers in Africa.  The Black-backed Jackal is quick to respond when the smell of meat is in the air. The Black-backed Jackal will prowl the perimeter of a predator's kill, but isn’t welcome to join the feast. He’s likely to find something when the owners leave though.  

There was little meat left for the jackal to scavenge off an old Cape Buffalo carcass, but there is still something for the hyenas to eat. 

With powerful jaw muscles, Hyenas are able to crunch bones to reach the marrow inside.

The Hyena is the top scavenger in Africa. Working together, a cackle of Hyenas can drive a lion or leopard off its kill, to win the whole bloody prize. 


Besides stealing from others, Hyenas are formidable predators themselves, so a Hyena might be present for all the steps in the animal recycling process.

I’m told this hippo in the water died of natural causes.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

Given sufficient time, the hot African sun and enough vultures on the job, even the remains of a big hippopotamus will disappear.  That will tally one more animal recycled on the plains of Africa, among the millions and millions and millions recycled before him.


Wildlife of East Africa,
   Withers & Hosking
Wild Nature Institute:
Birds of the World:


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cheetah (Africa Series)

Finding something to eat in Kenya's Maasai Mara takes endurance and good eyesight. It could take a while to find something to eat for Mother Cheetah and her son.

Catching up with his mother, Young Cheetah is just learning how to find food on the hoof. 

Mother Cheetah has her eyes fixed on a zebra and her calf.  The hunt is about to begin.

Up to now, Mother Cheetah has brought home the meals. Now it’s time for Young Chettah to learn where his food comes from.

Although, the lesson for today was 
Watch and Learn, bounding alongside mom was a lot more fun.

(Click on any picture to enlarge.)

An adult zebra is too large for her to bring down alone and her cub is no help yet, however the baby zebra is just the right size. 

Mother zebra gets wind of this plan fairly quickly though, and pushes her baby ahead to safety.  A few high kicks in the cheetah’s direction broke off the chase quickly.

The lesson was over for today.

Young Cheetah returns unsure of what just happened.

This looked to be a half-hearted attempt at hunting.  The mother cheetah never got up to full speed and the hunt was over in less than a minute. 

It looked to me, the causal observer, to be a lesson for her son about where zebra meat comes from.  

Although a different cheetah was active this night, cheetahs rarely use darkness to hunt.  

Instead they hunt in the daytime, relying on their spots for stealth and their explosive bursts of speed to run down their prey. 

The cheetah is the fastest land animal…70-75 miles per speed, 0-62mph in 3 seconds.    

Females are promiscuous and loners. They tend to avoid other females to raise 3-5 cubs alone, often from several males. 

Being the smallest of the Big Cats, her success rate in raising cubs is fairly low.  Lions and hyenas will kill cubs they find when their territories overlap. Some surveys estimate a 90% failure rate raising cubs to adulthood. Mother Cheetah's lone cub still possesses the fluffy back-of-the-neck mantel of a cub.

A gazelle or impala is a more typical cheetah prey animal and one could still be on mom's menu for today. 
With a burst of speed and a quick leg-trip she could dispatch it with a bite to the throat.

With luck, Young Cheetah will be watching how it is done.





Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Hummingbirds are fascinating and frustrating at the same time.  Everything they do is quick. Finding a resting hummingbird to photograph is difficult. Darting and dodging they seem uncatchable, but they don’t all get away. 

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

Surprisingly, hummingbirds have more enemies than you might think.  Hawks and falcons have been documented killing hummingbirds. 

It is doubtful a 0.15-ounce hummingbird would do much to satisfy the hunger of a hawk or Peregrine Falcon, but it happens. 

Jays and Crows will nest rob, too, if the opportunity presents.

Strangely, bees and wasps pose a hazard to hummingbirds.
The same bee venom that causes so much discomfort in us is toxic to a tiny hummingbird.

I’ve observed a hummingbird holding off a wasp as they both tried to sip nectar from a feeder.  When another wasp arrived a standoff developed, when more wasps arrived the hummingbird left.

Hummingbirds can get trapped in spider webs, too.  Hummingbirds use spider silk to secure their nest to branches.  A spider’s silk has a tensile strength comparable to steel on a weight basis.  Procuring that web material presents some risk to the hummingbird and she may not always get away with her life. This is a female Anna's Hummingbird.

The common garden variety praying mantis has been documented as a capable predator on hummingbirds, also. (see link below).

But, the number one predator to hummingbirds is the house cat.  Left to roam outside, a house cat’s natural instinct is to hunt and all too often the cat wins. People love cats, so we can’t blame the cat for these fatalities. 

The hummingbirds that remain continue to entertain us with their brilliance and beauty.  This male Anna’s Hummingbird is presently claiming our back yard feeder in Arizona. It is a constant vigil for him...watching and intercepting intruders. 

He’s on the branch…he’s off the branch…he’s a blur. 

Between protecting his territory and impressing a female (it’s courting time in Arizona), he only has time for a quick sip of sugar water and it's back to showing-off again.


The Sibley Guide to Birds,
   David Allen Sibley
Birds of Southern Arizona,
   Richard Cachor Taylor

Hummingbird and Mantis:


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Leopard (Africa Series)

This is a repost of the introduction to bring you up to date on why this is NOT about birds.

(Africa Series)
I recently traveled to Africa, with the intent of finding new birds to photograph. I found over fifty 'new' bird species, but not just birds.

I went with my good friends Barbara and Don Gilmore.  Barb is a tour organizer and owns Many Hats Travel. She led eighteen women and four men through Sweetwater Tented Camp, Lake Nakuru National Park and the Maasai Mara in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The experience was enlightening, eye opening and exhausting all at the same time. There was little downtime, chiefly self-inflicted because you don’t want to miss anything.  Missing a game drive could mean not seeing an animal others saw.  As our African host, Atonio Marangabassa stated, "If you want a vacation, go to Hawaii…you’re here to see animals!"

But Feather Tailed Stories is not a travel blog…it’s about birds and I will keep it as such.  Nevertheless, there were many interesting animals stories in Africa and to NOT tell them would be unfortunate. My focus here is still on birds, but for this series I will include four-legged animals, too. I hope you agree with this major deviation, but I will start with birds. 

November 26, 2013_________________________________________________________


It was like one of those picture puzzles,
‘Can You Find the Cat in this Picture?’
Supposedly hidden somewhere in the picture is a calico cat in a junkyard and you are being challenged to find it.

You may never find that cat...this cat is real!

I was in Kenya recently. I was photographing an oxpecker with a hippo under it when our driver, Lucas, called out, "There is something over there in the bush."  He couldn’t say what it was, but he noticed an eland standing tall and staring intently into a small brush-island.  Lucas figured there must be a sizeable predator in there somewhere because only a big cat could alarm a big eland. 

We pulled in our cameras, sat down in our seats and agreed, a big cat would be more exciting than an oxpecker.  Lucas peeled off the dirt road making a new path across rocks and boulders to find what the eland found. 

With our binoculars and long lenses we panned the brush searching for what the eland had sensed.  This game drive included Don and Barb Gilmore, along with the brother and sister pair of Glenn Falkowski and Pam Flanders, and me.

Don saw something first, maybe just a leg or paw, but eventually he put the picture puzzle together and saw a faint outline of a Leopard…a female Leopard.

Perfectly camouflaged in dappled twilight, she had no reason to reveal herself to us.  When Lucas moved the truck to give us a better angle, she would retreat to even deeper shade. 

The sun was too far-gone for pictures. I would need flash for pictures now.  The flash would give an unnatural glow to her eyes, but was technically necessary.

The waiting game had started.  We whispered encouragements among ourselves for her to come out, as if she’d understand or even care to please us.  We waited impatiently, but we were on a Leopard’s timetable now and there was nothing we could do to speed it up. 

Graciously, she emerged one-step outside the bush, sat down and looked our way. We were surprised at our good fortune and amazed at her generosity. She had nothing to gain by revealing herself, nor posing for dozens of pictures either.

Leopards are loners.

Typically a female leopard will hold a range of about six square miles, while a male’s range is from twelve to thirty square miles. They come together only for mating and then lead separate lives.

Leopards are admired for their strength and stealth.  Largely nocturnal and well camouflaged besides, stealth is built into the Leopard naturally. Powerful short legs enable the Leopard to creep through short grass and haul a heavy carcass vertically up a tree to safety. 

The ability to secure a kill from theft is a huge advantage for the solitary Leopard.  Packs of African Dogs or Spotted Hyenas or a pride of Lions will steal a Leopard’s kill…good reasons for the Leopard to eat in the trees.

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

After allowing us three minutes  in the open, something prompted her to move on.  Slowly she made an semicircle around the truck…gave us a few more minutes and disappeared into the darkness.


Wildlife of East Africa,
   Withers & Hosking


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Secretary Bird (Africa Series)

The Secretary Bird is a nomad at heart.  Boldly wandering the grasslands, he is the terrestrial raptor to be reckoned with in Africa.   He can fly, but prefers to walk. 

Odd-looking even in the bizarre world of birds, the Secretary Bird arouses immediate curiosity.    Eagle-like in body shape, but with pinkish crane-like legs and a red face, the Secretary Bird is one of a kind. 

Close to four feet tall, he can spot prey before it sees him…run it down…stomp it to death…grab it in his hooked bill and keep on walking.

With everyplace and no place to call home, the Secretary Bird is certain to cross paths where he is not welcome. A pair of Crowned Plover took to the air to intercept this Secretary Bird as he passed through plover-land. 

Grossly out-matched, a Crowned Plover buzzes the Secretary Bird to display his displeasure, but inflicts no pain. Dismissing the attack to his head, the Secretary Bird marched straight ahead…never broke stride.

The Crowned Plovers must have had a reason to be so bold and it probably was eggs or nestlings.  The encounter with the Secretary Bird only lasted a minute, but if he had been more determined and happened upon the Crowned Plover’s nest, he would have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Secretary Birds eat a wide variety of ground dwelling animals including mice, invertebrates, lizards, snakes and other birds.  Insects are often flushed from cover by stomping on mats of vegetation.   Even venomous snakes are fair game.  Although not immune to the poison, Secretary Birds are agile enough to stomp the snake into unconsciousness before swallowing it.

(Click any picture to enlarge)  

There are several possible explanations for the Secretary bird's unusual name. A French corruption of the Arabic saqr-et-tair meaning “hunter-bird" is one thought.

Another explanation is more widely known.  European male secretaries of the 1700-1800’s wore tall grey tailcoats with knee-length pants and often kept a goose-quill pen resting over an ear. The bird’s knee-length feathered pants and head feathers compared to the human secretaries of the time and may have fixed the name in people’s minds.


Wildlife of East Africa, Withers & Hosking
San Diego Zoo Animals

Sunday, December 15, 2013

African Fish Eagle (Africa Series)

Deep powerful wing beats 
keep the African Fish Eagle aloft.

Easily recognized as an eagle by its distinctive white head, the African Fish Eagle is a survivor. While other birds struggle to keep healthy populations the African Fish Eagle is holding steady. 

A common sight along larger lakes and streams, fish eagles command your attention just by they're presence. Often perched at the very top of trees, failing to see one would be unlikely...profoundly unfortunate. 

Departing a treetop perch, wings stretched high, it is still hard to tell if this is a male or a female.  The female has a wingspan of eight feet; the smaller male six feet, otherwise they look alike. A light breeze supports a gentle glide towards the water.

Found only near water, the African Fish Eagle’s diet consists mainly of fish, but they are not choosy in what they eat.  Swooping down in a straight-line attack he grasps his prey in long sharp talons and rises up again...disappearing with a lizard. 

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

Closely resembling and related to North America’s Bald Eagle, the African Fish Eagle displays a white head, a bare yellow face and a nearly black bill.   The white feathers on his head extend further down the breast and back than America’s eagle and he typically perches more erect.  

The American Bald Eagle has a yellow bill with a fully feathered white head, never mind the bald reference.

(See: Bald Eagle link below)

Holding onto a slippery fish can be difficult, so long sharp talons and rough soled feet evolved to the task. Fish swimming just below the surface are yanked airborne instantly.  If a fish proves to be too heavy to lift or maintain in flight, the African Fish Eagle will swim his catch to shore using his wings as paddles. 

Preferring to eat his catch in private, he carries a still squirming catfish aloft. 

Proudly upright and alert, the African Fish Eagle looks the part of a survivor.  One hopes he stays that way.


Wildlife of East Africa,
     Withers & Hosking

Link to Bald Eagle:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Grey Crowned-crane (Africa Series)

If you’re inclined to rank the beautiful birds of Africa, Crowned-cranes should rank near the top. In a land full of beautiful birds, picking favorites is a difficult choice.  But consider this, please.  Besides being sleek and curvy, finely feathered and spritely crowned, the Crowned-crane has another notable attribute…it can dance!  

We were nearing a small waterhole in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, when our driver, Lucas, stopped the truck and pointed towards two Crowned-cranes 100 yards ahead.  They were gorgeous!   

Being accustom to trucks nearby, they didn’t startle or fly away to our great relief. To the contrary, they started to dance. 

First the male…I’m not positive about who is who, as they look alike…started to display and circle the female. She responded by ruffling her feathers and lowering her head. 

He slowly circled her, posing six-foot wings in her direction.

She participated briefly in the dance, but seemed more interested in his performance instead.

He bowed to her and offered a tidbit of dubious value.

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

Their elegant performance lasted only thirty-seconds, ending with a slow, gentle lowering of wings and  
de-ruffling of feathers.

Now isn't the breeding season, but these courtship dances are performed throughout the year as a means of strengthening the pair bond.  

A pair will share in nest building duties and a month long incubation period before the chicks hatch. 

Immediately after hatching, the chicks are capable of following the parents to safety. The bird on the left appears to be an adolescent from last season’s brood. It is slightly smaller and its feathers are in the process of turning from brown to grey.

Grey Crowned-cranes, to use their full name, are omnivores with a seemingly healthy appetite.  They eat grain and seeds, insects, frogs, worms, snakes, fish, aquatic eggs and plant material.  

That makes a wide variety of food sources, yet their numbers are declining.  Loss of habitat is blamed for their decline. They are now listed as endangered by the IUCN*

Grey Crowned-crane and a close relative the Black Crowned-crane are the only cranes that can roost in trees due to a grasping, long rear toe. 

We found this one on a nighttime game drive roosting at the top of a tree in the rain.

Commonly found in pairs or small groups, the Grey Crowned-crane is the national bird of Uganda and is proudly displayed on their country's flag.  

With population declines of 50-79% in the last 45 years, it’s sad to see this beautiful bird’s status now listed as endangered.


International Crane Foundation
Wildlife of East Africa, Withers & Hoskins
*IUCN: International Union for the Conservation of Nature