Hatching Fun

 Posted by  Africa, Travel
Dec 192014
 
Tiny frog eating a termite . . . on my pantleg.

I recommend that you proceed through this post in the order that it’s presented. That is, watch the video cold, without any background info or written explanation. Then read the text that follows. By doing it this way, I think your experience will be similar to mine, and you’ll have the opportunity to discover or figure out what’s happening on your own, which I find more interesting and memorable than merely being told. Let me know if you agree, okay?

So go ahead and watch this. It’s just under 2 minutes long.

Part One: Hatching Fun

Any idea what you just witnessed? Of course you have some idea: You just watched it happen.

One night last week, I looked out the window and saw insect mayhem under the carport lights. It’s not like that every night, so I knew it was special. I also knew it was some sort of insect hatch because I’ve seen them before.

When I went out for a closer look, I discovered dozens of frogs and toads hopping about, gorging on the insect feast. Both yard irrigation and recent rain bring in frogs and toads. Between insects chirping and frogs croaking, there is a loud party happening in the garden each and every night. It makes me aware of how silent Alaska is.

Did you notice the four different segments of the video? This is what’s happening in each:

One

Gazillions of flying ants (a kind of termite) have hatched after a good rain and are swarming in the light of the carport.

Two

Eventually, the ants land on the ground, and their wings fall off. You can see both winged and wingless ants scurrying about, as well as shed wings lying on the ground.

Frogs and toads, in front of the car and behind, hop about slurping up delicious, fresh ants, sometimes with wings, sometimes without.

Three

On the ground outside the carport, more frogs gather to join the feast. There was a pair mating, but that didn’t stop the bottom frog from getting her share of yummy ants.

Stacked  frogs looking at a bunch of termites

That bottom frog was still hopping around, gobbling up tasty ants.

Four

As I recorded the scene, flying ants bumped into me, landed on me, and got their wings stuck in my hair. Frogs, likewise, hopped on my toes, and one tiny one climbed up my leg, ant in its mouth. I edited out all the parts in the video where I startled or had to get a bug out of my hair. You’re welcome.

One frog on my pantleg and two between my feet.

Can you see all three frogs? They were all over, including all over me!

As I was being bombarded by insects and frogs, I rather frantically kept an eye out for snakes. Snakes eat frogs, and I had just moments before read in our field guide the twelve—twelve!—pages of snakes found here in southern Africa. Gah!

Perhaps it should be noted that we have not yet seen a snake and would be happy to not see one at all in the next three+ months. I am always watching for them.

Snakes aside, the hatch was a way-cool event to witness. If you want to watch again knowing what you know now, go for it.

Part Two: A Special Visitor

As videos go, this one is awful. As events go, this one is darn cool. I’ve kept it super short—just 15 seconds—so it’s not too painful, I don’t think.

The night after the Big Hatch, there was a smaller hatch. Much smaller. This time, a long, slinking, mammal came to feast. Mike first spotted it up on a rafter, so we knew it was a climber. It looked and moved like a weasel, but it was much bigger and had a long, lovely ringed tail. The tail was as long as the body. Given our location, I figured it was a mongoose of some kind. Our field guide told us it was a genet. I think it was a large-spotted genet as opposed to a small-spotted genet, because I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a light tip on the tail, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it.

It was around for maybe ten minutes, so I had a good, long look. The fur was beautiful, and the animal was adorable, graceful, and agile like a cat. And, speaking of cats, it was Little Miss, the huntress, who came out to see what all the fuss was. “Oh, I can take care of that,” she said. And she did, despite my attempt to stop her, both for her safety and that of the genet.

“Why on Earth would you want to look at one of those ugly, smelly things when you can pet beautiful, soft, friendly me as I purr on your lap? Silly people!” she said.

We have no good pictures of the genet, so if you want to see one, do a search or try this. Actually, try that link anyway; it’s fun!

Is that pretty or what?

Dec 132014
 

Day trip #2 took place earlier this week. This time, we headed northeast toward the south gate of Moremi Game Reserve, about 100 km (60 miles) away. Again, we didn’t plan to go into the reserve, just drive to it. The reserve isn’t fenced, and the animals don’t read maps, so they are clueless about the boundaries and cross them willy-nilly. We might see them anywhere, and we are especially fond of happening upon wildlife in unexpected—or less-expected—places.

We were also investigating the gravel and sand roads, anticipating more of those in the coming months. It’s been dry, so there were no puddles, and the sand was hard packed. No problem.

We left at first light, about 5:30 a.m., and were soon on the pastoral outskirts of town.

Lots of cows on the road

The highway out of Maun.

Again, the first wild animal we spotted was a roadside elephant not too far out of town. This one had a broken tusk. I like to think that will keep it safe from ivory poachers: Who wants a broken tusk, right? It still has one unbroken one, though.

Elephant by the side of the road

Just another roadside elephant . . . with a broken tusk.

We saw three elephants in all, but this was the only one not in a rush.

We also saw a couple of elephanty areas, that is, areas with lots of broken trees.

Broken trees in the road.

The elephant effect.

Broken tree

Elephant damage, I’m guessing.

I’ve heard of elephants causing this kind of damage, but this is the first I’ve seen it. I can see how people might get upset about it.

I wonder if the elephants break trees on purpose or if it’s an accident. Do they go on rampages knocking trees over, or might one just be eating when . . . “Oops! I didn’t see that tree there. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.”? Maybe a bit of both?

We saw a couple of bright and beautiful new birds, but I’m going to save them for their own post. Birds don’t get the appreciation they deserve when giant and/or adorable mammals are around. Plus, I’ve got too many photos even without the birds.

So we’re cruising along at about 20 km per hour when something catches my eye on a slightly cleared pathway into the woods. I jump in my seat, flap my hands as I search for the camera in my lap, and whisper-shout, “Stop! BackupBackupBackup. Stop!”

Spotting wildlife by the road

Stop! I see something!

Mike searched the area, wondering what I’d seen, while I rushed to capture some quick, awful pictures. Finally, he sees it: a giraffe, the coolest African animal, in my estimation.

“Two giraffes,” he says.

“Two? I’m looking at a little, dark one.”

“Yeah. And there’s one in front of it.”

Young giraffe

What caught my eye: the young, dark giraffe.

Um . . . yeah. I missed that one, though I was getting it in the photos. (Not this photo, the awful ones Mike deleted.) I’m telling you, it’s ridiculously easy to lose a giant giraffe amongst the trees and brush!

Cow and calf giraffe

Cow and calf giraffe

Another reason to love giraffes: They don’t run away.

Next in the wildlife parade were some steenbok.

Two steenbok, one standing, one lying down

Two steenbok

We saw several individuals and pairs, but unlike giraffes, as soon as they feel they’ve been spotted, they sprint away.

Then came something new. In the distance, I spotted what looked a bit like water with deer-like creatures in and around it.

It wasn’t water—just gray sand?—and they weren’t deer—yeah, I figured they were some sort of antelope. But what kind? We studied them through the binoculars and referenced our wildlife book. After some time, puzzling, and patience, we made out curved horns and dark stripes on the rear end and tail. We felt confident about our conclusion: Impala.

Had we waited just a bit longer, we might have come to that conclusion much faster and with much less effort.

Several impalas hanging out in the shade

Impalas in the shade.

Impala, it seems, are like caribou in Denali: abundant. We saw many groups of them throughout the day, very close to the road, easy to see without binoculars. Who knew? Well, probably lots of people, just not us.

Adult male and young impala

Adult male and young impala.

Only the males have horns.

Male impalas sparring

Male impalas sparring

And, of course, you know what they do with them.

One-horned impala

Eerp. Cropped horns . . . they’re going to be in style again someday. Ah, the crazy things we do in our youth.

Whoopsie.

A bunch of young impalas

Impala nursery

We got tripped up by the straight horns of not-quite-adult male impala, but those stripes on the back end of the animal are diagnostic. That’s a youngish male that seems to be tending the nursery.

A bit farther along, a particular impala caught my attention. “Stop!”

It was bigger than the others, and on closer inspection, it had white stripes across the back. It wasn’t an impala: It was a kudu!

Female kudu

Our first kudu!

Check out the connect-the-dots eyes and the milk mustache! What we’re missing are long curly horns on a mature male. There were three others—one with horns—but no mature males.

Then there were more giraffes, five in all for the day.

Giraffe in lightly wooded area

Now, that giraffe is easy to spot.

Giraffe close up

Portrait of a giraffe

It doesn’t look like it in this picture, but this giraffe is pale; it looks as though it’s spent too much time in the sun and has faded.

Giraffe

A little harder to spot this one, perhaps.

I caught a glimpse of a running warthog at one point, but it had no intention of stopping, and the car couldn’t go where it was going. Later on, we saw two more in no hurry to go anywhere so long as there was food to be had.

Two warthogs

Warthogs: Pumba and Pumbette, or so I concluded.

Check out those tusks and warts, and that long hair, and the eating on the knees. Crazy, eh?

Warthog

Warthog

Seriously, that’s a funny looking animal, no?

It took about eight hours to drive those 60 miles and back, a bit (or a lot) longer than we anticipated. Time flew, of course. Will all our drives be like this? I haven’t even told you about the birds, or that I drove on the way back, or about the zillion other things we noted and contemplated. We’ll get to those next time. Maybe.

Pet Sitting

 Posted by  Personal
Dec 112014
 

For the first two months of our Africa visit, we’re house- and pet-sitting: We have two dogs and four cats in our care.

Squeeky is an older female cat and a fussy eater. She eats small portions throughout the day and prefers to lick the gravy off the food, leaving the rest behind. She likes to have human company while she eats, and if I am slow to get her food, she’ll tap my leg with her paw to remind me she’s waiting. I confess I’m sometimes slow on purpose. She appreciates Mike’s cat lap and is content to sit beside me on the couch.

Squeeky the cat

Squeeky

Bundle is an older male cat. He spends most of his time outside in a cool earth bed. He comes in to eat and enjoys a good pet before and/or after eating.

Bundle the cat

Bundle

Little Miss is a younger female cat. She’s a huntress, and from the size of her and the mouse pieces I’ve seen, I think she eats what she catches. She’s allowed to hunt rodents, but if we see her catch a bird, she’s to be tossed into the pool. Bird hunting is not allowed. For sleeping, she prefers our bed, Mike’s lap, or snuggled beside me on a chair.

Little Miss the cat

Little Miss

Bandit is a younger male cat. He will occasionally harass Little Miss and might be seen as a bully, but he’s also a bit of a ‘fraidy cat: He startles easily. I caught him attacking a robin-chat (he didn’t kill it, and I don’t think it had lasting injuries), but he let it go and bolted away before I was even off the verandah. Yes, Bandit, the no-bird rule still applies.

Bandit the cat

Bandit

Pip is a nine-year-old female pointer. She’s smart, sleek, alert, and focused. She patrols the yard and lets us know if anything is amiss. She talks to us and enjoys a snuggle but also has an agenda of her own. She would love to run and run and run, but we can’t let her. She loves walks and seems to enjoy a family lap around the yard in the evening. Everyone but Squeeky has joined us for this.

Pip staring down a floating chlorine container in the pool.

Pip keeping an eye on the chlorine container.

Gib is a nine-year-old male lab. He’s a devoted companion, always cheerful, always willing, always hungry—but unlike some labs I’ve known, he’s got wonderful self control when it comes to food: He doesn’t eat the cat food unless and until he’s invited to do so. He’s a water dog and loves a swim after a walk and whenever it’s terribly hot, which it often is.

Gib swimming in the pool.

Gib swimming a lap.

It’s a toss-up which is better: a cooling swim or being rubbed dry afterward.

Gib lying on a towel being dried.

Gib during the drying process.

And then there’s Bundle (the dog, not to be confused with Bundle the cat), an aged, female rottweiler who lives next door. Her bones and joints are stiff, and she doesn’t hear well. She’s like a close cousin to the animal siblings here. Though the houses are separated by a fence, two gates remain open and the animals can and do wander between the yards. She comes over most mornings for a bone or bit of breakfast, and she generally hangs out during some part of the day. She doesn’t, however, come into the kitchen—well, not her back half, anyway.

Bundle the dog

Bundle, the dog

She was the slowest to warm up to us, but she’s a good pal now and enjoys a good scratch just above her tail. One of these days, I’m going to see if she’ll let me brush her back end.

Bundle lying in a funny position

Bundle the chicken?

It’s tough getting old.

I’ve taken care of a lot of animals, and by and large most are happy and content. These animals live a good life here, so I’m not surprised they’re well behaved and happy. But there’s also something special here: The relationships between the animals. There’s a cohesion that seems remarkable, and it seems to revolve around Gib as much as it does us, the human caregivers.

“Gib” is short for “Gibraltar,” and a better name would be hard to choose for this dog. He’s the rock in this animal family. I have seen every other animal—cat, dog, neighbor—love on Gib. The cats rub up against him, lick him, lie next to him. He and Pip play on walks. Bundle the Dog rubs her head on him. And Gib wags through it all.

Pip sitting on Gib in the car.

Pip sitting on Gib.

When driving home from a walk the other day, Gib wanted to be sprawled out, and Pip wanted to see out the front window. So Gib spread out, and Pip sat on top of him. Both seemed just fine with arrangement; they rode the whole way home like that.

All the animals enjoy human company, too, and it’s not unusual for them to gather wherever we are.

Dec 062014
 

We took our first drive out of Maun yesterday. We headed toward Nxai Pan National Park (say “nigh pan,” like the cooking pan) on the A3, a paved road.

In or out of town, this is a common sight:

Cows on the road out of Maun

Cows browsing by the road.

Cows, donkeys, and goats roam freely, munching grass by the side of the road or wherever it can be found. Earlier in the day as we returned from a walk, we cut off a big bull lumbering past our gate, crossing a few feet in front of him. I wondered if he’d mind, maybe get snotty. He didn’t.

About fifty miles out of town, as I searched out my window, Mike slammed on the brakes.

“What? What? What is it?” In that instant, I wasn’t sure if the sudden stop was a good or bad thing.

“That.” Mike pointed to the opposite side of the road, where I hadn’t been searching.

A gigantic gray animal stood frozen, looking at us. She was used to cars buzzing past, and the sudden stop probably startled her or at least made her take notice.

Elephant browsing beside the road

An elephant browsing beside the road.

It’s not unlike driving along the highway in Alaska and stopping to look at a moose, except, of course, this was an elephant. A huge, wild, beautiful elephant with lovely white tusks, crazy wrinkly skin, and giant ears flapping in the heat.

Elephant eating

Elephant eating by the road.

She kept her eye on us—she was female as far as we could tell, but there’s a lot of baggy skin dangling beneath an elephant—but ultimately decided we were okay and returned to eating. I watched the agile tip of her trunk through the binoculars as she selected a branch from a shrub and ripped it off. Though there are green things around, she appeared to be eating brown stalks, or maybe the brown stalks just came with the selected branches. Once, she ripped a small shrub right out of the ground, roots and all.

Elephant clos-up

A sweet elephant face.

Our first wild elephant! Neither of us was expecting that.

A little farther down the road, we came upon this:

Steenbok

Steenbok, we think.

We can’t distinguish antelope yet, but we think this is a steenbok. Like the livestock, it browsed inches off the road. It backed off when we slowed and stopped, but it stuck around long enough for a picture.

We arrived at Nxai Pan and turned around, which was our plan.

On the way back, not far from the park, Mike again slowed down and pointed out his window. A giraffe!

I confess that this is what I had been secretly hoping to see. I felt a little guilty while watching the elephant because I had been hoping to see a giraffe. I wanted to make sure the elephant and the universe knew I was thrilled with that sighting.

However, giraffes fascinate me, and if I were to prioritize the animals I hope to see, giraffes would probably top the list. Do you know they sleep for just 15 minutes a day? So I’ve read, anyway; I can’t say I’ve investigated that in depth. If it’s true, how is it possible? And why isn’t someone studying the biology of that so that we might somehow use it—you know, make giraffe anti-sleeping pills?

Back of giraffe's head in the brush!

The best picture we got of our first giraffe sighting.

The giraffe was strolling along, so it wasn’t a long view. And since it was on Mike’s side, we were slower with the camera—he’s gotta get off the road and in park before he can pick up the camera. It watched us a bit from the brush, and we could just make out the goofy “horns” on its head amongst the tangle of branches.

Now, I ask you, where was that giraffe when we first drove by, and I was actively searching that side of the road? Why didn’t I see it on the first pass?

I know the answer; I’ve witnessed it over and over: One step behind a bush, one moment with a head down, and an animal can become invisible. In fact, as we watched the elephant, she wandered behind a tree and virtually disappeared. We knew she was there and could see her tail swing as we watched, but had we driven by at that moment, we would not have seen her. It is ridiculously easy to lose an elephant or a giraffe.

An elephant, a steenbok, and a giraffe: What a drive! This was no game drive on safari. This was a little outing on the highway out of town! But wait . . . there’s more.

Zebras on the paved road

Zebras crossing the road.

Again, I was searching out in the bush on my side of the road when Mike spotted (striped) zebras right beside the road. No point in both of us watching the road, right? He’s driving; he’s got it covered.

Zebra

Zebra close-up.

After seeing the giraffe, I began wishing for a zebra. It was as if I was calling them in—though I don’t for a moment believe that. Ohmygosh, zebras are pretty! The lines of their stripes are so clean and sharp.

That was an impressive first outing. We didn’t expect that. In fact, Mike said early in the drive, “You know, we might not see anything.”

“I know,” I said. Heck, I’ve driven the whole of Denali National Park and not seen any wildlife besides ground squirrels and gray jays. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping, wishing, and searching intently.

Dec 062014
 

Ha! We got it! (And by “we” I mean “Mike.”)

This is another of my favorite birds, no doubt because of the color. I’m drawn to all things colorful. Note the red and black bill.

Woodland kingfisher resting on the ground.

Woodland kingfisher.

I have no idea why it’s on the ground here, but it’s not hurt.

Woodland kingfisher in a tree.

Woodland kingfisher in a tree.

The male and female look the same. Isn’t it pretty?

Dec 042014
 
African Paradise Flycatcher

Oy. Where to start.

As a writer, I plunge into a beginning knowing full well that I can’t really write it until after the end. The first beginning is a temporary beginning, and who cares about that? That’s easy.

I think I need to take that approach for my Africa Journal beginning, or I may never get started.

We left Maryland on Wednesday, November 26th. After 15+ hours in the plane, we arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 27, and Maun, Botswana, on November 28. This is Day 6 in Maun. Compared to Alaska, day is night and night is day, literally and figuratively. Maun is 11 hours ahead of Alaska.

The initial plunge into a foreign place and culture is overwhelming. Every little sight and detail registers as different and noteworthy. Trying to record and share that is impossible. Heck, I can’t wrap my own head around it. Hence the difficulty in getting started with a journal.

So I’m just going to start, believing I can come back and re-do the beginning in the end. This is a blog, so that’s not really true, but I won’t tell if you won’t.

Dumela

So . . . dumela (say “doo-MAY-la”). That’s Setswana for “hello.” English and Setswana are the languages of Botswana. We are so lucky everyone speaks English, even if it seems heavily accented to us. I was expecting more of a British English, but my ear insists the English here sounds more Australian, German, and Jamaican. Go figure. Still, it’s English, and speaking a common language, even imperfectly, is a huge comfort and help.

Africa Wildlife

Naturally, one of the big attractions of Africa is the wildlife. It’s what put Africa on my mental map as a kid. I don’t know about you, but when I think of African wildlife, I think of elephants, giraffes, lions, hippos, all sorts of antelope, leopards, cheetahs, gorillas, etc. Those animals aren’t in Maun proper, but we’ve been entertained with wildlife nonetheless: birds.

Beautiful, colorful birds. There are some drab brown ones, too, but we ignore them.

Red-billed spurfowl

Red-billed spurfowl sitting on a fence.

Here’s the list so far (of course I’m keeping a list):

  • Red-billed spurfowl
  • Crested barbet
  • Blue waxbill
  • Red-billed fire finch
  • African openbill
  • Dark-capped bulbul
  • African golden weaver
  • Swamp boubou
  • Barn owl
  • African pygmy goose (Which looks like a duck, if you ask me. Which begs the question: What’s the difference between geese and ducks? Hmm, Scott Thomas?)
  • Meve's starling

    Meve’s starling. Look at that blue/purple color!

  • African jacana
  • Gray heron
  • African green pigeon
  • Southern red-billed hornbill
  • African paradise flycatcher
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Golden-tailed woodpecker
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Cape turtledove
  • Laughing dove
  • White-browed robin-chat
  • Cape glossy starling
  • Meve’s starling
  • African hoopoe
  • Squacco heron
  • Namaqua dove
  • Blacksmith lapwing
  • Purple heron
  • Arrow-marked babbler
  • Hartlaub’s babbler
  • Black-faced babbler
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Red-eyed dove
  • White-backed duck
  • Woodland kingfisher
Blue waxbill

Blue waxbill

My favorites, so far, have been the Woodland kingfisher (bright turquoise), the African hoopoe (orange, stripey, way-cool crest), and the paradise flycatcher (you’ll see). We don’t (yet) have pictures of the first two, but we see the paradise flycatchers regularly and have some pics of them.

Male African Paradise Flycatcher

Male African Paradise Flycatcher

The male has an orange back, a ridiculously long orange tail, and a turquoise bill.

Female African Paradise Flycatcher

Female African Paradise Flycatcher

The drab female is a beautiful orange on her back and tail.

Paradise flycatcher exiting a swimming pool.

Paradise flycatcher after a dip in the pool.

Every day, the flycatchers visit the pool for a quick dip. They dive into and out of the water lickety-split, shake off on a branch, take another dip, shake, and maybe, if it’s one of those days, they’ll have a third dunk.

Other birds bathe in a water feature under shady trees near the feeders. So far, the flycatchers are the only ones to use the pool. I figure it’s because his tail won’t fit in the smaller bird bath. They also couldn’t fly in and out so quickly and easily. I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen more animals in the pool.

And that’s that. The Africa Journal is started. Nope, I’m not re-writing the beginning.