Saturday, October 31, 2009


Elephants are pachyderms that also include the rhinoceros and hippopotamus; the word pachyderm means “thick skinned”. There are arguments as to who are the closes relatives of the elephants and among them the manatees and the hyraxes are listed. Who are really these animals that have amazed, entertained and decimated because of their ivory. By the way, the word elephant is derived from the Greek word for ivory.

Are they really thick skinned? It does not appear so since they tend to cover the skin with dirt or mud for protection from insects and the heat of the sun. And this leads me to ask what the color of an elephant is? It is easy; it is mainly that of the soil that they are in. As you can see from the various images in this blog, they are gray which I think is their prime color and the yellows, blacks or reds are just those of the soil that they use as make-up.

These animals are the most interesting I have encountered and their interrelationships are governed by a matriarchal society fully focused in the raising and protection of the young. What wonderful childhood it would be if I would have been raised by elephants…constant attention, no day care centers, not having to go to kindergarten, and free to wonder around.

The proboscis is the definite anatomical structure of the elephant. No other animal has such a wonderful tool that works as a nose, hand, snorkel, signaling flag, weapon, water hose, hugging and hand shaking device. It will take too long for me to elaborate in the various tasks that the proboscis is used for I must mention to what I refer by signaling flag.

The elephants can communicate their state of mind by the position of their proboscis; if you get to close they will raise and lower it giving you a warning to keep your distance, at times they want to get close, the proboscis relaxed and dragging the ground, or they just stand there watching you with the proboscis resting in one of their tusk, which reminds me or Rodin’s statue of the Thinker.

Since I mentioned “Thinker”, this implies intelligence as expresses by their care of the young, defense of the herd, social stratification, inter/intra species communication, grief when faced with death, playing, recognition and greeting of siblings, etc. Are they intelligent? I say they are…and probably due to their proboscis as ours are due to our hands.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Color of Zebras

I never get tired of photographing zebras because of the stripped effect in the single animal or the patterns created when in groups. No two zebras are alike, when one look at a group of adult female impalas, they have the same color pattern and telling one from the other is almost impossible.

Why are they stripped? The story is that it camouflage that make them hard to be seen by predators in the tall grasslands. Lions are color blind so the pattern that they will see may blend with such background. I am sure that to other zebras, the stripes are just like the bar codes, to identify who they are.

Zebras are always nervous and react to the smallest movement or noise and in unison run away. If they were humans, all would be in Valium or other type of tranquilizer, the stress of being prey must be immense.

The story goes that zebras and wildebeests (also know as Gnus) migrate together for protection. Allegedly, the former have very keen eyesight and the later excellent hearing, so if one fails to see the predator, the other can hear them. Others stipulate that one has better noses than the other to pick the predators scents. I do not think these stories are fact. Regardless, they both end up as meals for lions, leopards, hyenas and crocodiles. These animals are too big for cheetahs although they can easily take down young ones.

Observing zebra groups is very interesting and it does not take long to realize that there is a leader. He is always looking after the group and moving around making sure that they stay together. The leader have 2 or 3 assistants to keep his harem together and these can be seen in the middle or trailing at the end making sure that none stays behind. When group members stray, the leader starts barking and if not obeyed, he chases the offender back into the group. But when there is a predator a chase, his bravado stops and he runs for his “wild ass.”

Young males spend lots of time measuring each other strengths by having chases and battles where they bite and kick each other. These practices will serve them well when
fighting for dominance over a harem. The kicks are very powerful and are a main defense against predators; if a lion gets kicked in the face and the jaw is broken, his hunting days are over.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Photo Safari: What worked?

African safaris are the most trying environments for photographic equipment. Being in a safari vehicle is rough for the equipment and photographer due to road conditions. Whenever the vehicle is moving, I put my gear on a bean bag on the floor to stabilize it in place, put a plastic bag over the hood to keep dust off the front lens, and then a cloth over to give some protection from the sun and road dust. I carried two camera bodies with two mounted lenses and never change them to avoid dust inside the camera body or lens. No a problem for me opening the card slot in the camera since I used 16 and 32 GB cards which give me a whole day of shooting.
Where I went wrong this year? First, I did not bring enough digital storage for downloading the cards. I download nightly so I can have clean formatted cards for the next day. I carried two 120 GB and one 160 GB digital storage units, the type where one insert the card directly into the unit and the files are transferred automatically. I did run out of storage space 5 days before the safari was over. Fortunately, I had a 500 GB Passport portable hard drive available but no computer. Thanks to the kindness of one of my photo pals, who allowed me to use his notebook, I was able to download my storage units into the 500 GB hard drive. I do not carry a computer to minimize equipment weight and airport inspections. Next time I will take bigger capacity image storage units and maybe a mini computer. I arrived home with 246 GBs of images or 10,734 images; 60-70 % were lost mostly to out focus problems…a Canon tradition.

My second error was not bringing a 500 mm lens. I have carried one in the past but decided to just carry a 100-400 mm IS and 300 mm f2.8 IS with a 1.4X extender to minimize weight. I estimated that a 300 mm with the 1.4X will give me enough reach when used with a full size sensor Canon 5D MKII; this would allow for me to crop without much image quality loss--WRONG. I also used this combination with a 1.6X sensor Canon 50D camera that gave the reach, but the quality of the images I found not to my liking; the colors were harsh and images noisy. The 100-400 mm IS lens is the best compromise since it is easy to handhold and the push-pull zoom is faster than a ring driven zoom. I did also carry a 70-200 f 2.8 which never used and a 24-105 IS used just for a few landscape images.

Oh, and remember to choose your companions carefully.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Birds of Amboseli

Since most birdwatchers go out in the morning in search of their feathered treasures, no better way than to start with a sunrise. For those who has stayed at the Amboseli Serena this is a familiar tree.
The Common Squacco Heron is abundant but shy to photograph and this is the first time I was able to get a decent image. It may be in the open when first approached but usually flies away or hide behind a bush. When breeding it has a solid black bill, this one has a partial black bill which means it is not breeding or an immature one.
This is a fabulous looking bird, the African Spoonbill has a peculiar bill and it is mainly a filter feeder. Spoonbills are found in other parts of the world. The Eurasian Spoon bill may be also seen i n Kenya. Here in the USA with have a Roseate Spoonbill that is commonly seen Florida, other than the colors, it looks the same.
The Grassland Pipit is fairly common and has the habit of perching on a rock singing to attract females. It usually has a favorite rock that he paints white with its dropping. Not difficult to photograph.
Would you believe this a starling, a Superb Starling at that. Here in the USA we have the European Starling introduced in Central Park, NYC back in the 1890's. From there they spread all over the continent. Whoever did that had poor taste or was not familiar of this one...a much better looking bird. As his cousin, is usually found in large groups and is a steal to photograph...just pretend you are throwing food into the air and they will come for the feast.
I found this bird very unusual for being so black with red eyes and a yellow bill, a Black Crake. It moves over the floating vegetation easily and mainly feeds in insects. This bird is not shy and by just seating in one place and waiting, it will not be long before they can fill the frame with a 300 mm lens.
This is another smallish bird that is easy to photograph, it walks at the edge of the water looking for insect, so when I saw one walking my way, I stopped the vehicle and wait for it to come by, so close that a times the lens was not able to focus. And it has a peculiar name, the Kittlitz's Plover.
This is a favorite of photographers, the Little Bee Eater and as the name implies it feeds mainly in bees. The bird is fairly common in East Africa from the savannas to the highlands. Most colorful and seldom seen alone.
A Crowned Lapwing, very common and is really a nasty bird. I will tell you why in a narrative below. It has a very peculiar call easy to identify.
The African Jacana is one of my favorite birds, the combination of blue frontal plate, white and black head colors is unique, its long toes allows for it to walk in the vegetation floating in the water. This peculiar one had a family of 5 chicks. When I firs saw it was seating on the ground, suddenly it stood up and opened the wings and all the little ones dropped to the ground and started feeding. I observed this family for quite a while but suddenly a pair of Crowned Lapwing flew in and attacked the chicks...none survive. Why the did this? It was not because food so I assume it was to eliminate habitat competition.
So let me bore you with another image of this neat bird.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Birds of the Mara

I have taken while in adding more posts for various reasons. I have so many images that I do not what to post, I find it hard to post images to the blog in the order I would like, and it appears that they have changed the way that images are loaded into the blog. Previously I was able to select several and upload them all at one; now it is one at a time. So bear with me.

This female ostrich was doing a feather dance to entice the male into paying a visit. Now you know the origen of those Paris shows with the dance girls with the big feather fans covering the basics. In this case, the ostrich is showing a "giant drum stick". Back in 1993 when I first visited the Mara, we used to have one ostrich egg for breakfast...enough for 20 people. I could not taste a difference from those of the chicken eggs.

This is the African Ring Necked Dove and it a way similar to the one in the United States. These are usually found in pairs. This was very tame and allowed me to photograph it real close. It is about to take-off.

The White-Bellied Bustard is quite common as its relative the Black Bellied Bustard. They are usually found in groups feeding in tall grass mainly in seeds and small insects. They are quite shy and difficult to photograph since they are constantly moving. Another relative, the Kori Bustard is the largest flyng bird in Africa.
The ugliest of birds, the Marabou stork. These birds are mainly carrion feeders and found feeding in death animals in the companionship of vultures. I will tell you a of the best places to photograph birds is are the lodges dump. All kind of birds go there to feed from the leftovers from the kitchens.

Do this confirm my opinion as the ugliness of the bird? This one is having a hair day.

Never seen a Crested eagle before this trip but this one stayed around for a while and from this branch it flew into a tree even closer. If you look behind the head the crest can be seen with one feather sticking up.

And here we have a Bateleur, the most colorful and beautiful eagle in the Mara. I have seen and photographed then in previous safaris, I got an image of one flying with a very large Puff Adler in Tanzania back in 2007. This one was feeding in the carcass of an impala that was killed by a leopard who was watching from a nearby tree. Notice the red legs.

Perhaps the most beautiful bird in Africa, the Lilac-breasted Roller. It is fairy common and easy to approach and photograph, it feeds mainly in insects. I some ways, it reminds me of flycatchers because it flies away to catch and insect and returns to the same perch to feed.

And finally the equivalent of the hummingbirds of the new world. This is a Marico Sunbird and feeds in the honey from the flowers with its long corved bill. There are numerous species of sunbirds and the males are more colorful than the females.