Friday, May 27, 2011

Flamingos, ostriches, and other big birds of East Africa

Big birds capture the imagination, amaze the eye, and sometimes appear to defy physics. Even non-birders tend to be impressed by the big, especially brightly-colored birds. They are featured in literature (think Alice in Wonderland), in art (cranes in Asian art especially), and in urban legend/mythology (storks bringing newborns, owls having wisdom, etc.). Zoos often feature these birds not only because they can be easily seen by visitors but for conservation reasons. Big birds are easily found and hunted in the wild and are often heavily impacted by habitat alteration. Some birds, such as the lappet-faced vulture, the southern ground hornbill, and the ostrich, have suffered heavily declines due to hunting by humans. Other birds, such as the grey-crowned crane, are celebrated (national bird of Uganda) and kept as domestic pets; habitat loss and capture from the wild has subsequently decreased wild populations by up to 50%. Big birds are important contributors to their ecosystems and inspiration to many cultures; hopefully, they will remain visible in the wild in East Africa and on Planet Earth.

Although the greater flamingo is much bigger, the lesser flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, is a  big, goofy, pink bird with a very interesting bill. We counted nearly 3000 individuals at Arusha National Park in Tanzania.

The common ostrich, Struthio camelus,  has a mass ranging from 90 to 130 kg (up to  286 lb) and stands tall at 2 meters.  Ostriches eat mostly plants and require up to 3.5 kg of food a day. They are the largest living birds on Planet Earth, although larger birds of Madagascar and New Zealand went extinct in very recent times due to hunting (in the last few hundred years). The ostrich itself has been extirpated from Southwest Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Northern Africa. Pictured in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

The lappet-faced vulture, Torgos tracheliotis, is tied for the largest vulture in Africa. This species' wingspan can beat 2.8 meters; imagine its wingtips touching the ground and nearly reaching the rim of a basketball goal. While it is mainly a scavenger, this species can hunt live prey like flamingos! It has suffered heavy declines to due accidental (when it eats poisoned carcasses of carnivores) and deliberate poisoning. Pictured in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

Kori bustards, Ardeotis kori, are the heaviest flying birds in Africa; males can weigh up to 19 kg (over 40 lb). Although I have never heard the Kori bustard in the wild, it once captivated me at a younger age with its strange "vooomp"  boast at the Kansas City Zoo and consequently was at the top of my "have-to-see" list . Seeing them in the wild, pictured above in the Serengeti plains, is one of my favorite memories of birding in Africa so far.

The secretarybird, Sagittarius serpentarius, is a unique bird of prey that stalks arthropods, small mammals, and reptiles by looking for movement and then striking or chasing after them. While its wingspan ranges from 1.2 to 1.35 meters, giving it much longer wings than martial eagles and Kori bustards, it is only about half the wingspan of the lappet-faced vulture. Picture in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Depending on age, genetics, and other factors, the martial eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus, competes with African crowned eagles and Verreaux's Eagles for the title of Africa's largest eagle. Although it generally sticks to smaller prey like hares, wild cats, hyraxes, and chicken-sized birds, martial eagles can and do successfully hunt monkeys, baboons, and even small antelope. Picture from Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.

The goliath heron, Ardea goliath, is the largest of all living herons.  Its wingspan on average is 2 meters, and it prefers to eat big fish (fish measuring, on average, 30 centimeters, longer than my forearm). Although the patterns cannot be seen in this picture, note its thick bill. For a while, blacksmith and crowned lapwings roamed next to the bird, underscoring how large this individual was. Seen in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The southern ground hornbill is one of two species of ground hornbill, both found in Africa. Bucorvus leadbeateri is very large, and although it does fly, it spends most of its time walking around snatching arthropods and reptiles from the ground. We have seen only two, both at Lake Manyara. This bird is a female, determined by the presence of blue on the neck under the bill (not visible in the picture).

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl is small compared to the other birds on this post, but it is sub-Saharan Africa's largest owl; only two other owls get close. This species, Bubo lacteus, was seen awake at Tarangire National Park in Tanzania just before sunset. 

This page does a poor job of showing the storks of East Africa. I have seen black storks, white storks, yellow-billed storks, and African open-billed storks, all of which are big birds. Marabou storks, however, can get to be the largest of them all. The marabou stork, Leptoptilos crumeniferus, is also probably the least attractive of the storks, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Picture at Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Grey crowned cranes, Balearica regulorum, can be found in East and Southern Africa. These individuals were seen in Lake Manyara National Park, in Tanzania, but I have seen them several times in Rwanda as well. Despite having wingspans up to 2 meters and standing around a meter high, they only weigh 3 to 4 kilograms (about 7-8 lb). 

Other birds that belong on this page that I have seen but do not have pictures are the great white pelican and the pink-backed pelican. Birds that belong here that I have not yet seen are the saddle-billed stork, Denham's bustard, and the shoebill. Also, I could include a number of herons, perhaps the sacred ibis, the white-backed vulture, and Rueppell's griffon vulture. Another day...

Works Cited

  • Anderson, M. 2008. Lappet-faced vulture” (On-line), ARKive: Images of Life on Earth. Accessed May 26, 2011.
  • Bible, J. and T. Root. 2007. "Ardeotis kori" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Balearica regulorum. Downloaded from on 27/05/2011. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2011) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 27/05/2011.
  • Donegan, K. 2002. "Struthio camelus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • Fanshawe, J. and Stevenson, T. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. 
  • Krause, B. and P. Rasmussen. 2009. "Bucorvus abyssinicus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 27, 2011
  • Overholt, W. 2011. "Polemaetus bellicosus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011 at
  • Ryan, P. and Sinclair, I. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.
  • Shirley, E. 2011. "Ardea goliath" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011 at
  • Sherman, P. and P. Rasmussen. 2007. "Sagittarius serpentarius" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 26, 2011
  • Thairu, M. 2011. "Balearica regulorum" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 27, 2011 at

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The rarest bird I've ever seen

Sometimes you just get lucky. That’s how I saw the long-billed tailorbird. As indistinct as it looks, I remember the exact moment the long-billed tailorbird became visible in a tangle of vines just a few meters above my head. I remember only catching its face briefly, but seeing its body much more clearly. There wasn’t much to see more than a small greyish upper-body, paler underside, and legs. It worked along the vines, disappearing for a few moments and then reappearing briefly. And then it was gone.

Water rushes over rocks in this stream in Amani Nature Reserve,
providing a great soundtrack to a search for birds.

The long-billed tailorbird is only found on two places on planet earth, in and around the Amani rainforest in the East Usambaras and in an area in Northern Mozambique; the two populations are separated by 1000 km. Birdlife International lists this species as critically endangered with only up to 249 mature adult birds in the wild. Birdlife’s justification for this status, in addition to its small population and range, reads that, “Given that much of its habitat is being altered rapidly and is becoming increasingly fragmented, the species is likely to be undergoing a continuing decline, at least in some parts of its global range.” This is one of those birds you probably won’t hear about as it is not spectacular looking, but you may see its name grace a recently-extinct list in years to come.

Forests all over the world are being cut. The drive to the Amani rain forest
goes past several sawmills. Here the clearing goes right up to the
edge of the Amani Nature Reserve. 

Michele and I happened to be lucky enough to witness this bird for a few reasons. We were in its habitat, birding the Amani Nature Reserve in the East Usambara Mountains of coastal Tanzania. Hiking through this forest on trails, sometimes in the rain, did not provide easy views of birds. As with many of the birds we saw at Amani, this bird was our guide’s find entirely, who is the other main reason we saw this bird. Our guide, Martin, actually does research on the very bird, Artisronis moreaui. We were birding on this guy’s home turf.

Look, it's a bird! Our guide, Martin, on the right, was a very sharp birder.
This was not the moment of the tailorbird, but taken shortly before.

We were ascending the peak of a mountain (really low as far as mountains go: the peak was 1050 meters above sea level while Mt Kilimanjaro is 5,985 meters above sea level) and trying not to slip in the mud when all of the sudden, Martin says, “I hear it. He’s here.” Our guide was a pretty chill guy, but here he started to appear excited. At this point it really hadn’t dawned on me that I was about to see the rarest bird I have ever seen. As the bird calls again, I ask, “What are we hearing?” Martin replies, “The long-billed tailorbird.”

To capture a picture of this bird would have required a lot more time,
audio recordings, and a serious camera (not my point-and-shoot).
I am
relying heavily on my three field guides and the picture on Birdlife
International to draw this bird, but I did draw it free hand and tried to make
it my own (not simply copying the posture and impression that others did,
although this is not the posture as I saw it- it was much more horizontal
creeping along the vines). I am just getting into drawing and painting,
mainly because it is helping  focus on the details and topography of birds.
This is just my third piece- the real challenge will be drawing birds
in the field, not based on still images.

The bird is in the tangles on a tree to our right, then directly in front of us, above us and above the path. It was then that we saw it. Again, this is not a spectacular looking bird. As far as personality goes, it really didn’t stand out in my mind as great either. It was there gleaning insects, I suppose, and then it was gone. But what is crazy about this bird, is that out of the 2000+ species in Africa, there is only one other bird in its genus (the Eastern Arc Mountains endemic African tailorbird, which we saw numerous times in the West Usambaras) (Remember, genus is the level of classification above species, Domain-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species). The bird is thought to be more closely related to Asian tailorbirds than anything else in Africa. And again, with an estimated 50-249 mature individual birds in a very restricted range, this bird is very rare. Most people who have seen it get it with playback, which involves first recording the bird and then replaying its sounds to elicit a response and perhaps a clear showing. We did not use playback, which is a good way to miss a bird usually, but because of our particular location at that moment, the bird’s particular location at the moment, and the expertise of our guide, our paths collided.

Jared and Michele at the top of the 1050 meter mountain, post-tailorbird.
In the back is rainforest, with a clearing on the right (tea cultivation).
Photo by Martin, our guide.

We saw some great rare and endemic birds while traveling around Tanzania. There were dozens of other birds I was more excited to see beforehand, but this one surprised me. It was a gift of luck, a flash of feathers, and a glimpse of the great biodiversity filling the pockets of the planet.  And up to this point in my life, it is the rarest bird I have ever seen.

Works Cited

  • BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Artisornis moreaui. Downloaded from on 14/05/2011.
  • Fanshawe, J. and Stevenson, T. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Pearson, D.J., Turner, A.T. and Zimmerman, D.A. Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania. Christopher Helm: London, 1999.
  • Ryan, P. and Sinclair, I. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Happy Mother's Day (and baby animals)!!!

Michele and I recently visited Tanzania to look for birds and other wildlife. Many big mammals of East Africa breed and then give birth to their young to coincide with the rainy seasons (November-May), which provide the most grazing (and hunting!). At this time of year, when grasses are high, trees are covered in leaves, and food abounds, wild babes have stronger chances at survival. Most of these photos also highlight the adults, usually the mothers and female groups, that help raise them to adulthood.

A lioness (Panthera leo) with her two cubs trek along the Tarangire River bed in Tarangire National Park. Cubs can run by the time they are one month old but depend on their mother until about 16 months old.

A baby African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) stays close to its mother in Tarangire National Park. African elephants have a gestation period of nearly two years (about 21 months) before the baby is born. On average, the elephant young breast feeds for about 78 months. Happy Mother's Day indeed!

African buffalo females (Syncerus caffer) from strong bonds with their young. The young females remain with their mothers until they reproduce on their own (five years to sexual maturity). Young males join other male groups after two years. (Arusha National Park)

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) actually breed in the rainy season and have their young in the dry season. However, this young giraffe will stay with its mother for about 14 months. (Arusha National Park)

A young olive baboon (Papio anubis) hitches a ride on an adult's back, possibly the mother's, judging from the size and apparent lack of a facial mane. Males also carry the young although the mothers do most of the rearing. Baboons, can live in large groups with many males, females, and young; these two baboons were photographed in a group with more than 45 individuals in Arusha National Park.
Happy Mother's Day!

Works cited:

  • Harrington, E. and P. Myers. 2004. "Panthera leo" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 07, 2011 
  • Kingdon, Jonathan. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004. 
  • Maisano, S. and A. Fraser. 2006. "Giraffa camelopardalis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 07, 2011 
  • Newell, T. 2000. "Syncerus caffer" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 07, 2011 
  • Norwood, L. 2002. "Loxodonta africana" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 07, 2011 
  • Shefferly, N. 2004. "Papio anubis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 07, 2011