Safari Moments: the Lemon Breasted Dung Beetle

Here’s a safari classic from a far-too-recent game drive.

Me: “Ooooh look! There’s a dung beetle crossing the road!”

*pull up alongside dung beetle, hop out and pick him up, after all, he’s not busy doing any important dung beetly stuff*

Me: “Dung beetle!”

*hold dung beetle up proudly, a la Mufasa presenting the future king – guests take photos*

Me: “Isn’t this dung beetle just brilliant?”

Guest: “What is this?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle. They spend their lives rolling poo around.”

Guest: “And what do you call it?”

Me: “It’s a dung beetle.”

*guests keep taking photos, I keep praising the dung beetle’s resilience and usefulness*

Guest: “What animal is this?”

Me: “A DUNG BEE TUL.”

Guest: “Ah, so it’s a small bird.Like a canary?”

Me: “Yes.”

Me: *puts dung beetle down on the nearest pile of poo. Drives away.*

you wonder why we need signs like this?

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E is for ‘Enthusiasm.’ Or rather, ‘Enthusiasm!!’

  

  
The sightings we had on tonight’s safari were some of the best I’ve had in a long time. They were downright kudutastic! It began with the giant bull elephant standing next to the road dismantling a sickle bush as only an elephant can. He was followed by the HAPPIEST RHINO I’VE EVER SEEN, rolling about in a fresh mud wallow (it was raining – a lot). Just twenty minutes into the drive, I never expected it could get even better. But wait! Further down the road, a flash of red streaked through the rain from the tamboti thicket on our right. Narina Trogon! It posed next to the road, making for the best sighting of this elusive bird that I’ve ever had. Not done yet, we also had a herd of damp elephants crossing the road just a few feet away and soon after, two stunning male lions who broke my weeks long ‘lion drought.’ End it all with a pale Walhberg’s Eagle scaring the socks off a group of Senegal lapwings. Pretty amazing, huh?

But here’s the kicker. It’s not great sightings that make a great game drive. What makes a great game drive is the magic happening inside the car. The vibe. How everyone reacts to the natural miracles happening all around them . The enthusiasm. Enthusiasm!

Let’s go back to the start. That first elephant. He was huge. We were practically in his shadow. You can imagine how excited I was.

“Guys!” I whispered as loudly as I dared, “Isn’t he fantastic! This is the elephant that likes to come up to the lodge and cause a little chaos every now and then. You can see how happy he is just by looking at his swishy tail and…”

That’s when I noticed that no one was listening. At all. Everyone was talking amongst themselves and not about the elephant. Indeed, no one was even looking at the elephant! Rather they were looking down at cameras, phones or out the other side of the car. And I was thankful for them, because what they were doing was better than the one guest who was simply giving me a death stare. Awkward.

I tried to continue. “…and just watch the way he’s using his trunk to…”

I looked up again. No change. No vibe. No nothing. I spoke louder.

… He’s using his trunk to strip the bark from…”

*Phone* *Camera* *Conversation about airconditioning units* *Vacant death stare*

“He strips the bark to get down to the sunglasses popcorn typewriter. Shall we move on?” And we did.

The rhino down the road wasn’t much different.

“Oh my goodness you guys! That’s the happiest rhino I’ve ever seen! He’s been waiting for the mud bath for months! It’s just so dry here and…”

And I couldn’t hear myself speak. Because everyone else was speaking louder. And again, no one was looking at the rhino. Death stare? You betcha.

“… and, and well, now he’s having a mudbath. Ginger pancake. Shall we move on?

My absolute glee at the Narina Trogon was met with silence. My original death starer was joined by five new ones. I still couldn’t help myself and had launched into a speech about the trogon’s beauty and rarity, but trailed off mid-way. “Um…shall we moved on?”

But it didn’t get me down. I was on fire. The elephants, the trogon, the rain. I was loving every minute of this safari, and I was determined to spread that love around. Fix the vibe. Each new interpretation was delivered with increasing enthusiasm. But even the lions couldn’t muster any enthusiasm in these guests. With the exception of one, who’d never seen a lion before, the rest simply acted disinterested. I don’t know if they even glanced in the lion’s direction in the ten minutes we were parked. More death stares. Ouch.

It wasn’t all silence though. While we were watching a kudu, one of my guests announced that it wasn’t a kudu. It was.

A guide’s job isn’t always easy and tonight proved that. Enthusiasm on safari is borne of a number of factors and not all of them come together nicely when we need them do. Expectations certainly play a big part (I told you to leave them behind!). And as much as I like to think that guests always feed off our passion and excitement, it’s just not how it works all the time.

But it’s how I’ll work all the time.

When my guests are a little difficult, the best I can do is be me. And me is enthusiastic. Naturally. Yep, I get excited about senegal lapwings and the weird noises they make; go a little crazy for that cloud that looks like a tube of toothpaste; look that kudu right in the eye and have a private giggle about how big its ears are; marvel at the elephant next to me.

Why all the enthusiasm? Because. Because I’m all too aware that there will be a time when that elephant ten feet away is the last one I’ll ever see. And I don’t know when that’ll be. If that isn’t enough on its own, then just consider that every single moment of a safari no matter what’s happening, is finite, unique, brilliant, special and certainly never to be repeated. The wild is an endlessly amazing place and that’s something to be enthusiastic about!

  
Tonight’s safari sightings:

Elephant

White Rhino

Giraffe

Wildegnu

Lion

Narina Trogon

Nyala

Buffalo

Kudu

Grey Duiker

Impala

Senegal Lapwing

Wattled Lapwing

Walhberg’s Eagle (the pale, pretty morph)

 

Another New Painting…


So after painting something with far too much meaning in it, I decided to paint something with no meaning whatsoever and I quite like the results. I think i’ll be painting with this style a lot more from now on. It’s bright and happy and there’s not too much to read into. Perhaps that’s a good thing right now…

White Fronted Bee Eaters

This Could Really Be A Good Good Life…

Happy Happy Happy.

So today was a non-windy day! This never happens and the best way to celebrate it was to go and sit on a cliff, because you can’t do this when it’s windy, because you will be blown into the Irish Sea and get very hurt and wet.

So I went for a good long walk across many fields of sheep in search of the perfect cliff to sit on. I was hoping to see some sheep wearing knitted jumpers or discarded hiking shoes but didn’t see any.

But I did find the most perfect cliff. I kicked off my lovely aubergine Hunter wellies and sat there for the whole afternoon, singing, thinking, listening to seals, smiling, laughing, birdwatching, sending love across the sea and into the world and taking goofy self portraits.


I never let myself listen to music at times like these, but today I had my iPod with me and snuck in a quick listen of ‘Good Life’ by OneRepublic. It was perfect in the moment. Watching Gannets fly by.

“When you’re happy like a fool, let it take you over. When everything is out, you gotta take it in.”

I went back to the parking lot to watch the sun set. The seagulls hadn’t eaten the bag of Marks and Spencer beetroot crisps that I’d left open on my front seat, which was something else to be thankful for, given it was one of those days when you can’t help but leave all of the windows and sunroof open.

How fortunate I am to have days like this! It won’t last forever. Live in each moment. Love.


The Greater Honeyguide: Exploiting its Way to a Sweet, Sweet Life

The Greater Honeyguide (indicator indicator) is a bird that stands out among Southern Africa’s bird population. It doesn’t stand out because it’s particularly pretty. In fact, some might say it borders on LBJ status. Only the male Greater Honeyguide is saved from this fate and then only by its bright pink bill. This overtly feminine bill is one of the many things in their lives that cause them much embarrassment. But they have ways of compensating.

The Honeyguide gets its name from its ability to lead specially selected animals to beehives. The Greater Honeyguide is really the only species which has been known to lead humans to beehives. The Scaly-throated Honeyguide has been credited with this behaviour, but only because it spends a great deal of time quietly observing their cousins and trying to be like them. They’ll often cheat altogether and just follow a Greater Honeyguide. This is why the Greater Honeyguide is called the Greater Honeyguide… It is greater than other Honeyguides.

So how do they lead their chosen followers to beehives? They do it by dancing… badly.

They’ll see you coming along a path, and they’ll find a spot where you’re sure to see them (they’ll call to you too) and then they’ll do a little dance. They bob up and down and flick their wings and tail here and there. It’s pretty geeky actually. The bird will also make quite the racket to accompany their dance. The Honeyguide secretly loathes this act and is terribly embarrassed by it, but has found that this is the most polite way to attract someone’s attention. It is surely more advantageous that landing atop a passer-by’s head and tapping on their nose while screeching into their ear. Once the dance is over and the attention is won, the Honeyguide promptly switches to a graceful flight in the direction of the hive. This is an attempt to redeem their crushed ego, but the damage has been done. The follower usually laughs at the bird all the way to the hive. But if the laughter stops and the Honeyguide suspects that their follower has lost interest, they resort back to their silly dance.

The Honeyguide will also perform the same dance if they happen across a Honey Badger. However, Honey Badgers can’t see or hear particularly well, and thus they don’t have the same appreciation of musical theatre and comedic performance as humanity does. The truth is, Honeyguides often go completely unnoticed by the Badger. Even if the bird did manage to capture the Honey Badger’s attention, would it really expect the badger to concentrate on the task at hand and walk in a straight line to the hive without investigating everything along the way? All Honey Badgers suffer from terrible Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The Honey Guide would soon lose patience with the Badger and find himself physically and emotionally drained from all the embarrassing dancing he would have to do to maintain a Honey Badger’s limited attention.

So suppose the Honeyguide has successfully led you (and maybe even a Honey Badger) to a beehive. Why has he led you here? Is he being altruistic? Does he want to sit on your shoulder and sing to you, like a scene from a Disney cartoon, while you enjoy your sweet honey? The answer is ‘no’.

You’ve been led to a beehive because he longs to feverishly indulge himself in a practice called ‘cerophagy’. Simply put, the Greater Honeyguide is one of the only animals on Earth who can digest beeswax and he wants some now. He also wants the larvae and eggs inside the hive and he can’t break it open himself. Consider yourself used. How utterly noble of him.

Unlike you, Greater Honeyguides have exceptionally thick skin to protect them from bee stings and from insults directed at their dancing skills. But don’t be fooled. You’re expected to open the nest for them. And don’t think you can just walk away either. It’s believed that if you’re led to hive and you fail to open it for the Honeyguide, then next time he’ll lead you straight to a snake or a lion. Far from being superstition, this is fact. Honeyguides don’t take kindly when their efforts have been wasted. Retaliation is a possibility.

So you are forced to open the hive with your pocket-knife, suffering many stings in the process, so that the Honeyguide can feast on what he loves. Granted, he only likes the ‘yucky bits’, so you’re left with the honey all to yourself.

It is being said that Honeyguides are losing their guiding abilities, and with it their dance culture. This is largely due to the fact that humans don’t really need to go looking for honey in the bush anymore. We can buy it at Pick and Pay. So like so many other cultures in Africa, the Honeyguide culture is being eroded. The kids just don’t want to learn anymore. Why bother? Few Honeyguide children have taken up the honeyguiding tradition of their ancestors, preferring instead quick and easy ‘ready-meals’ like insects.

I own a book that encourages me to seek out the assistance of Honeyguides if I happen to be lost in the bush, because finding honey is a real ‘win’ in survival situations. But what if you’re in a survival situation and can only find one of these punk kid, fast-food eating Honeyguides who don’t know what honeyguiding is? They’ll think you’re chasing them through the bush while teasing them about their girly pink bills. The poor teenagers are awkward enough as it is, without being pursued through a thicket by a large, pocketknife wielding primate in Khakis yelling, ‘Take me to your honey! Take me to your honey!’

In ecology, the Honeyguide/ human relationship is termed ‘mutualism’. Mutual? Do you think the Honeyguide is thinking about you when he leads you to honey? No! He will find no moral objection in leading you for several hundred metres, down aardvark holes, across crocodile infested rivers to a beehive (whose owners will sting you, by the way) which lies in a tree occupied by an exceptionally angry leopard. Face it, you’re just his pawn. The Honeyguide’s motto is ‘me, me, me!’

Another case in point is their nesting behaviour, or lack of it. Honeyguides belong to a gang of birds called the ‘brood parasites’. To be initiated into this gang, a Honeyguide must shun the idea of nest building. Why waste time building nests and raising children when that time could be spent dancing badly and leading humans to leopards. Strangely, as an aspiring field guide, this reasoning is perfectly in line with my own…

So the Greater Honeyguide lays her eggs in someone else’s nest. But this can’t be just any old nest. She has a fondness for Little Bee-eaters and African Hoopoes. She’ll also target woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers, other bee-eaters, woodhoopoes and many others. The Greater Honeyguide chooses these particular species because these all happen to be the darlings of South Africa’s birdwatching scene. Is there a little jealousy there? Spite perhaps? Possibly.

Brood parasitism can be reasonably friendly. Whydahs are also brood parasites, but their chicks blissfully co-exist with their waxbill siblings. The whole family lives happily ever after. They picnic together, they bathe in the river, they sing to each other. The same cannot be said for the Greater Honeyguide.

The Greater Honeyguide is born to exploit everything. It’s usually born before its siblings, and has time to become aware of the strange little hook on the end of its bill. When you’re born altrical, every hour of life counts, so by the time its baby brothers and sisters are born, the Honeyguide is advanced enough to use this weapon to kill them all. They lose this bill hook after about two weeks. But if they kept it into adulthood, maybe they’d be more adept at opening beehives themselves? They would certainly save themselves a lot of trouble and embarrassment in the future. Just a thought.

The poor host mother is so thrilled with her new baby that she doesn’t notice that the others have mysteriously vanished. She lovingly feeds it and tells all her friends that her baby is the ‘most beautiful baby in the world’. Her friends don’t have the nerve to say it, but they know something isn’t quite right. Mummy Hoopoe, blinded by love, takes longer to catch on. But soon enough, she’s consulting the same friends, but this time she speaks in hushed tones, But little Henry Hoopoe is nearly three weeks old, surely he should have his crest by now?”

But Henry Hoopoe will not be abandoned by his mother, even when he’s a fully fledged Greater Honeyguide. Honeyguides will remember their parents and when the time comes to lay their own eggs, they’ll seek out someone just like ‘mom’.

Honeyguides are kudutastic. They’re a great reminder of how creative our natural world can be. They’re so successful because of their ability to exploit and manipulate the world around them. At what point did one pioneering Honeyguide see a human and think, ‘Hey, that big monkey thing has a stone tool in its hand… I bet they can help me with my little wax problem… I shall go and dance for them and see what happens…’. Honeyguides have used their intellect and their dancing skills to work their way up to a sweet, sweet life, and they deserve it. Love.

*Image is stolen from the Nashville Zoo website, until I finish painting my own Honeyguide picture…

Why the Hamerkop is Better than You


There are a select few birds in Africa that are just better than the other ones. The hamerkop (scopus umbretta) belongs to this elite little society because as a species, they possess a true self-awareness of their awesomeness. They know that they’re better than other birds. I will explain.

Birds who are comparable in size to the Hamerkop, build themselves cosy little nests. Bless their socks. Most birds build nests (unless of course you’re a brood parasite and you have better things to do with your time). Hamerkops look at the brood parasites and these other birds with their cramped, pathetic, folk-artsy type ‘nests’, and promptly turn up their noses. They may also roll their eyes.

The Hamerkop chooses his tree fork carefully. It must be large enough to accommodate the 100kg structure he plans on building in it. In addition to these requirements, he can’t do without his fresh sushi and caviar de grenouille, so he prefers waterfront properties. And his back garden must be much larger than yours.

Roughy 10,000 of the finest sticks and grasses are found, judged on their quality and added to the fork in their chosen tree and soon a colossal dome is constructed, with a diameter of about 1.5 meters. It’s the largest and most elaborate double-occupancy nest in all of nature.

But that isn’t enough for the Hamerkop. Unsatisfied with their dull and terribly ‘common’ home, the Hamerkop couple set about decorating it. Like Australia’s Bower Birds, they have developed an affection for man made objects, such as discarded handkerchiefs and the little wrappers that Beacon chocolate Easter eggs come in. These are added to the outside of the nest to assert the couple’s worldliness.

The inside of the nest consists of a grand entrance tunnel, leading to a large chamber with cathedral ceilings. Hamerkops have a unique habit of standing on each others heads, and their living space must accommodate this. The walls and floor are exquisitely carpeted with only the finest mud, ensuring the entire mansion is waterproof.

Warning: The following paragraphs refer to other birds using the Hamerkop’s nest for various birdy purposes. But don’t think you could get away with it like they can. You cannot. People who interfere with a Hamerkop nest WILL pay for it. When you are inevitably struck by lightning at some point in your life, all your buddies are going to know what you did to the Hamerkops. San fact #264.

Some birds are so desperate to be associated with their local Hamerkops, that you sometimes find other nests attached to the outside of a Hamerkop nest. These hangers on are attempting to social-climb and the Hamerkop will see right through it, although they do tolerate it.

But bigger birds (*cough* *OWLS* *cough*), sometimes look at their own modest nests and get jealous. They’ll sometimes attempt a takeover before the poor Hamerkops have even finished building their house, which is foolish, because if it’s not finished, it won’t yet be decorated with chocolate wrappers, and no owl possesses the knowledge to add these all-important finishing touches.

Despite having a bill somewhat reminiscent of their distant Shoebill cousins from the North (and you would NOT mess with that) and a head that can bash nails into metal, the Hamerkop doesn’t really bother to fight back.

Hamerkops seem reasonably easy going. Like an eccentric and laid back billionaire who’s conducting a routine check-up on his uninhabited Knightsbridge property and finds it has been overrun by squatters, a Hamerkop put-out by owls may protest surprisingly little at the re-appropriation. “Chin up. You silly owl squatters. Tut-tut. When you leave, I shall simply return. In the meantime, I shall build a new house- one that puts yours to shame”.

And they do. They don’t seem to mind starting over, because the Hamerkop may build between three and five of these palatial homes each year. With no regard for economy, they build whether they’re breeding or not. They seem to build because they love. One bird book that I own, refers to Hamerkops as ‘DIY enthusiasts’. This is why they have named themselves the ‘Hamerkop’. The name stems from their deep-seated love of DIY and tools. This is contrary to the myth that their name comes from the shape of their head. The Afrikaans word for ‘hammer’ is ‘hamer’ and the word for ‘head’ is ‘kop’, but this is purely coincidental. Personally, I think they’d do well being called, ‘chateaukops’.

So there appears to be little evolutionary explanation for their nesting behaviour. It’s suggested that these waterfront mansions serve as ‘territory beacons’, but I suggest they rather act as ‘fabulosity’ beacons, not only advertising their status, but actually allowing them to perpetuate their well-heeled lifestyle.

For example, if the Hamerkops have managed to keep their fabulous home free from owls, they use it to breed. Being wealthy, and possessing the living space, they can afford to have more children than your average wader. Their kids are exceptionally low maintenance, owing to the fact that insulation in the nest acts as a built-in nanny. So Mr and Mrs Hamerkop are free to spend their leisure time loafing about at places like Sun City, where they impress their friends and exhibit their superiority by being impeccably well-groomed, owing to a built in comb on their middle toe. They have their social traditions too. While on holiday, they’ll often gather in cliques of about ten, and run around each other in circles while loudly insulting each other. “SQUAAAAAAK! My house is bigger than yours!” SQUAAAAAAK! And my children are warmer than yours!” “SQUAAAAK! My house is decorated with Lindt wrappers and yours is decorated with inferior Beacon wrappers! SQUAAAAAK!”. Win.

You can’t deny it. The Hamerkop is better than you. That is all.

Hamerkop photo taken by me in Pilanesburg, Jan 2010. Hamerkop cartoon is stolen from a fabulous website called ‘Birdorable, which may be the best website i’ve ever seen.

What is Reality?

Caught this on BBC the other week and i’ve watched it about 19 times since then.

So much goodness!
I totally love the theory that everything we know is just a hologram being projected from some two dimensional surface at the edge of the universe. Wouldn’t it be great if that proved true?
And why did no one ever tell me about the double-slit experiment? So these teeny electrons KNOW when they’re being watched? They know! The implications of this are insane- insanely awesome.
So do things come into existence as we look at them? Is our universe what it is just because we’re looking further and further into it? Are we actually making it ourselves?
I’ve had a basic understanding of Schrodinger’s cat before now, and i’ve always enjoyed thinking about that ‘if a tree falls and no one hears it…’, thing. Imagine if those things are true? They really could be! Score.
Things like these make me wish I had spent more time actually paying attention to Philosophy when I studied it for two years at St. Andrews. And now I feel bad about calling it ‘philoscopopy’ for those two years, because I couldn’t spell or say ‘philosophy’. Surprisingly, I was a star student and averaged about 80% across my various philoscopopy courses…
… For kicks, I’ve just looked up the word ‘philoscopopy’, to see if it actually means anything, and it turns out it doesn’t.
But how kudutastic is this? ‘Phylloscopus’ is a word. Not only is it a word, but it’s the scientific name for the warbler family. So technically, ‘phylloscopopy’ should refer to the study of warblers. If ‘ornithology’ didn’t already cover it…