Feb 072018
 
White-backed and lappet-faced vultures

“Unless you include some decent photos of us in this post, I’m out of here,” said the vulture who wasn’t at Mahango or Etosha.

An Animal-Sign Mytery

Animal signs are one of my things, whether I’m at home or traveling. I wrote a book about them. Of course I’m looking for animal signs here in Africa; Mike is, too.

In some cases, spotting an animal sign can be more fun than spotting an animal because signs present a puzzle or mystery. An animal sign presents a story we have to figure out; an animal presents a story we can watch unfold. As much as I enjoy watching a wildlife story happen, I think it can be more fun to puzzle one out from clues.

The Clue that Starts it All

While driving on the dry, sandy, wooded side of the Mahango Park, we happened upon this clue:

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

A clue!

See the clue?

It’s a tree full of vultures, white-backed vultures, I believe.

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

The clue, closer

Know what mystery this presents?

The Theory

It wasn’t time to roost for the evening, so they weren’t hunkering down for the night. Vultures are scavengers, and I believed there was something dead nearby. My first thought—and hope, I guess—was that a predator made a kill nearby, and maybe that predator was still around. Spotting a predator is somewhat rare, which makes it special. (Dear herbivores, I love seeing you, too.)

We looked and looked, moving the car forward and back, watching all around for movement.

We saw nothing. The vultures weren’t budging, so they weren’t yet being permitted near the thing. Something had to be present to prevent them from feasting.

We waited. We watched. We slowly rolled along the road.

Another Clue

And then Mike caught it: movement.

This guy . . . or gal:

Yellow-billed kite, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Yellow-billed kite

It dove behind some brush, then returned here.

Does anyone else think it’s crazy that a single kite can fend off a passel of vultures? Come on, vultures, you can take him! Get together. Organize!

We focused in on the brush and could just make out a large, smooth, black-ish lump. We didn’t bother taking a picture because you wouldn’t be able to see anything. My brain leaped to “hippo,” but the terrain was all wrong for a hippo, and we were too far from the river. That couldn’t be right.

Oh, to be able to get out of the truck for a closer look! We were not supposed to; it’s against Park rules. We are, mostly, rule followers, but it was also really brushy, and there could be cats, lions or leopards, in the brush. Or a grumpy herbivore. Black rhino? Or a terrified antelope with pointy horns and sharp hooves. Ya never know!

The Final Clue and Conclusion

We continued farther along the sand road until we looked back on the lumpy, brushy area. Here, on the other side of the tallest brush, we had a slightly better view, just enough to see part of the horns and conclude it was a cape buffalo, still largely intact, and thus probably not the victim of a predator. We also picked up the reeking stench. Gah! It was vulture time, for sure. Clean-up on aisle 6!

We returned the following day, and the lump was flattened. The scavengers worked fast! We also saw live buffalo in the area.

Cape buffalo, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Female and male buffalo specimens

And thus concluded our mystery. We solved it, starting with the vulture clue. It took some doing: patience, searching, thinking, guessing.

More Vulture-sign Stories

It wasn’t the first time vultures led us to a story. Thanks to vultures in Etosha National Park, we discovered four jackals eating a dead springbok one day, and hyenas and jackals eating a zebra the next.

Vulture sign in Etosha National Park, Namibia

A bunch of vultures is a sign

That’s just a few of the many vultures on the scene. They were far away. The dead animal and diners were visible only with the help of binoculars, patience, and some experience, but the stories were there, and we enjoyed figuring them out.

Without the vultures getting our attention, we never would have stopped, zoomed in, and seen what was happening. We would have driven right by, as some people did, even while we sat there.

Hyenas and jackal eating zebra kill, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Left to right: jackal, hyena, dead zebra, hyena. Look closely!

Now, if I told you I made this oil painting of one of the dining jackals and two hovering vultures, you’d be at least a little impressed, right? Heck, I would be!

Jackal and vultures, Etosha National Park, Namibia

An oil painting or a really bad photo?

But the truth is, it’s a really bad photo, zooming in with the digital zoom. I only wish I’d painted this.

How about some better shots of our heroes, the vultures?

Lappet-faced vulture

Lappet-faced vulture, good ol’ F222

White-backed vulture

White-backed vulture

Though our Mahango vulture-sign story didn’t have the exciting and dramatic conclusion we hoped for, it was fun and satisfying. The more mundane endings such as this enhance the exciting ones.

And there have been exciting ones. Stay tuned!

Have you ever solved an animal-sign mystery? Tell me about it!