Monthly Archives: December 2014
Everyone loves flamingos, those bundles of pink plumes on stilts. People on our safaris always want to find and photograph them. Here in Tanzania, at Arusha National Park near Mt. Meru, there are soda lakes where flamingos cluster. Flamingos are beautiful, yes, and are also highly evolved to exploit their unique habitats – lakes full of algae and small crustaceans. They feed with beaks upside down, straining this food from greenish looking water. The chlorophyll of the algae contains carotenoids, pink or orange compounds which are deposited in flamingos’ plumage. Lesser flamingos, who feed directly on algae, are pinker than greater flamingos who eat brine shrimps. The quality of their shallow watery ‘pastures’ constantly changes, so they flap from lake to lake in the rift valley seeking the best food. We used to live on a flyway between Lake Eyasi and Lake Manyara, and often at night we’d see and hear their honking V’s passing over. These strange birds do amazing group parades, chorusing while marching, and they build crusty crater-like mud nests in the middle of desolate caustic lakes.
Here I want to share a fact about these fascinating birds. Researchers in 20 nations spent four years on a project to sequence the entire genomes of 48 species of birds. One of the results is that flamingos are closer relatives to pigeons and grebes than to look-alikes such as egrets and storks. Another surprise was that the chicken seems to be way back there in the genome line, closer to the original bird stock than anything except ostriches. Studies on bird evolution continue to evolve!
The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos is a wonderful film produced in 2008 by Disney. If you missed the TV presentation maybe your library has it. This link tells you more about the film.
This is a fun extension to Safarizona territory – prompted by our November visit to Kaua’i Island in Hawaii. Chickens weren’t on my to-see list but as we drove out of the airport, there they were, freely roaming the roadsides. During the next week, we met handsome, colourful, confident chickens everywhere – from beach to mountaintops, from suburbs to national parks. Why so many? Who owns them? Who eats them? Their story led us into the much bigger picture of island colonization.
The Hawaiian archipelago was born of fire. As the great Pacific tectonic plate drifted northwest over a ‘hot spot’ or convection plume in Earth’s molten magma, successive volcanoes erupted out of the sea and formed a long chain of islands. The oldest ones, up to 60 million years old, have eroded away and mostly disappeared under the sea. The youngest island, Hawai’i, is currently over the hot spot and still has active volcanoes. Further northwest, Kaua’i is 5 million years old.
The cooling volcanoes were colonized by wandering birds and insects, by seeds borne on wind or ocean currents or in birds’ bellies, and by small animals clinging to rafts of floating vegetation. Lush vegetation grew up, but who would eat it? On islands worldwide, this has played out in different ways. In Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises became the herbivores. Mauritius had giant pigeons, the dodo. Madagascar had lemurs, and New Zealand had 11 giant flightless birds called ‘moa‘, a Polynesian word for any fowl.
The largest herbivores to reach the Hawaiian islands were ducks, 3.6 million years ago. Lacking predators, they evolved into several flightless forms, some as big as domestic geese. Later, ancestors of today’s nene goose joined them. They became abundant, eating ferns and grass and tree seedlings. At Makauwahi archaeological site, which preserves 10,000 years of remains, we learned that in 300-800 CE, the first Polynesians encountered 7 species of these “moa-nalo” (lost fowls). Unafraid of man, they were soon exterminated. The people brought pigs, which also ate moa-nalo, and chickens, which quickly filled their vacant ecological niche. Moa-nalo were forgotten until archaeologists discovered their bones in the 1980’s.
Enter the chicken! The Asian red jungle fowl, domesticated 8-10,000 years ago, is hardy, tough and eats anything. It is only vulnerable when it nests, on the ground. In all the other Hawaiian islands, sugar farmers introduced mongooses to control the (introduced) rats. But rats are nocturnal, so the diurnal mongooses attacked birds instead, especially ground-nesters; only Kaua’i’s chickens are safe from that threat.
Today the “wild” Kaua’i chickens in parks and reserves are protected. You can harvest chickens that enter your property, but they may be tough. Islanders say: “To cook the moa, boil it in water, with spices and a rock. When the rock is soft, the moa is ready!”
“Hermano, hermano!” shouted the crouching man, twenty yards up the canyon, aiming his handgun at us. Oddly, we felt no panic but wondered why he would point a weapon at a “brother”. We held still. A second man had his hand at his hip but soon relaxed and smiled at us. The gunman looked embarrassed and walked off behind the trees, to make some very important radio call. Trying to take it all in, we just sat on our log under the shady oak in a remote canyon near the Mexican border.
Officer Friendly came closer and apologized for mistaking us for illegal immigrants. We actually had to laugh; two more unlikely illegals would be hard to find. Officer Quickdraw joined in the apologies, revealing that they were border patrolmen new to the area. They went their way without even noticing the Covert Assassin.
The what? That was the inconspicuous trail camera attached to the oak tree behind us – its brand name probably designed to lure hunters to buy it. We were downloading its photos of deer, javelina, mountain lions, foxes and a turkey.
Have you ever walked in the woods and wondered what happens when no-one is there? What shy creatures prowl at night? A trail camera can tell you. It’s a weatherproof digital camera with a motion sensor. Anything moving in front of the camera gets photographed, day or night. In places where people don’t go, we can use a camera with a flash. On trails often used by people, our cameras use an infra-red lamp which shows only a faint red glow – certain kinds of nocturnal hiker might smash the camera if they realized it was there!
We monitor several cameras for Sky Island Alliance, an organization that studies and protects the wildlife of the ‘sky island’ mountain ranges scattered across the Southwest. To avoid becoming genetically isolated, animals must travel from one ‘island’ to another, across a ‘sea’ of farmland, desert and suburbia. Which routes do they use? SIA’s Wildlife Linkages volunteer program investigates this through direct tracking (subject of a future blog) and through the use of trail cameras.
Every month or two, we visit our cameras. Will they still be there? Will there be something rare like a jaguar or ocelot? Those spotted cats are the Holy Grail of animal trackers in Arizona, but so far we’ve not found any. However, our sightings of commoner animals add to knowledge about their daily and seasonal activity patterns.
Checking the cameras is always a thrill, even without confused gunmen.
Here are some of the animals we’ve ‘captured’ on our cameras:
I’m looking at two huge dormant volcanoes that grew out of the stretched and splitting rift valley floor. This is the view from above the house where I’m staying with friends just outside Arusha – known as the safari capital of Tanzania. Mt. Meru rises steeply above the city and Mt Kilmanjaro dominates the land 50 miles to the east.
These two mighty mountains impress me with their majesty and moods. We get to see them frequently because the international airport was built halfway between them in order to avoid their massive effect on wind and weather. We got to know these two while writing guidebooks about them for Tanzania National Parks years ago. In addition to their uplifting views and challenging climbs they shared secrets too, their shy wildlife like bushbucks and plume-tailed colobus monkeys, their forests, canyons, ponds, streams and falls of butterflies as well as water.
I’m especially fond of Mt. Meru, a blown out cone (similar to Mt. St. Helens) almost 15,000 ft high and very steep. You can just make out the torn side at the right of the mountain in the picture. Mt. Kilimanjaro is more bulky and going bald in the warming climate, its ice cap melting. Kili is Africa’s highest and the world’s highest free-standing mountain at 19,340 feet above sea level. Kili is actually composed of three cones – broad-shouldered Shira, the eroded peak of Mawenzi and indented top of Kibo with its crater and ice-fields.
I’m not a lover of hikes in high cold places. However, the plant and animal life on these rift valley mountains is abundant and extremely attractive. Here are some pictures to give you glimpses of life on the mountains.