Introducing “Wednesday Wildlife”

I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?

Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?

Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.

The Cheetah

Wednesday Wildlife post 1

On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.

An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:

“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”

Read full article here.

In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.

The Owl

Wednesday Wildlife post 2

This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.

Sunset chardonnay

There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.

Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.

Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.

The Baboons

Wednesday Wildlife post 3

If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.

These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.

Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.

The Mousebirds

Wednesday Wildlife post 4

These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.

Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).

Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:

“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”

Read full article here.

Wednesday Wildlife with me

That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.

Happy hump day!

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Bird Watching: Making Your Safari Way More Awesome

Juvenile Bataleur Eagle
Picture: An immateur Bataleur Eagle taken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Thea Beckman (2015)

It can be said without a doubt that bringing a bird with you on your safari makes it way more awesome. Especially if said bird looks tight in a bikini. You can share in the joy of spotting that elusive leopard, watching cheetah chase ill-fated gazelle across the savannah and being stranded in a herd of elephant; desperately hoping that amorous-looking bull doesn’t take a fancy to your Jeep. But I’m not talking about THAT kind of bird. Birds, the feathered variety, are awesome. And the next time you drive home from Magaliesberg feeling short-changed because you didn’t see any lions AGAIN, perhaps you’d better start thinking about becoming a twitcher.

Bird-watching: A Definition

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Green-spotted dove, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

I’ve harboured a deep interest in birds since I can remember. Some people are addicted to nicotine, amphetamines or Robert Pattinson. I love bird watching. I really do. And I’m pretty sure that, psychologically, it has something to do with a love of collecting meaningful things. Every time my family would go for a weekend, week’s or month’s vacation somewhere in southern Africa, I would make and keep a list of the different species of birds we identified during the course of that holiday.

Bird watching and safari
This trusty field book has travelled with me all over southern Africa and bears the dirty smudges, rugged braai (barbecue) smears and cheap brandy stains to prove it.

 You experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when you saw a lion on your African adventure. I experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Violet-eared Waxbill at the Karoo National Park. Partly because, against the drab semi-arid landscape, it is one of the most beautifully coloured creatures you could ever imagine; something straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And partly because this particular species of waxbill didn’t appear on the Karoo National Park’s bird list, meaning that we were the first to report seeing it there. Essentially, we made history.

I See Your Lion and Raise You a Bataleur Eagle

Bataleur Eagle
Mature bataleur eagle, Kruger National Park in South Africa. Picture by Thea Beckman.

I experienced another shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Drakensberg Prinia in Pilgrim’s Rest; a Pallid Harrier at the Blyde River Canyon; a Collared Sunbird at the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens; a Striped Cuckoo at the Pilansberg Nature Reserve outside Rustenberg and again when I saw a flock of Southern Bald Ibises in the Drakensberg. None of these are particularly striking birds – except perhaps the Bald Ibis, whose head resembles an unmentionable male body part. But they were all new! I had never seen them before! It’s like discovering the Mufasa marble in your Engen Garage lucky packet back in the day when the Lion King and marbles were all the rage.

For the record, the Lion King was, is and always will be awesome.

Identifying a brand new bird and ticking it off in your book may sound completely nerdy, inane and lame. But it actually makes you feel amazing; like you’ve accomplished something. It’s a tiny intellectual victory and one of those ingredients that makes life rich and exciting.

I saw a brand new species of bird!

You saw a lion.

I saw a Crowned Eagle!

You saw another lion.

I saw a Giant Eagle Owl!

You saw (oh wow!) another lion.

I saw a Carmine Bee-eater.

You saw (surprise) a lion!

Lion yawning 2

For every one species of awesome animal you see on safari. I see 10, maybe 20 different species of birds. This is no war, my friends. No competition. The point I’m trying to make here is that if you can culture and develop an appreciation and then a love of identifying birds, you can get so much more out of any holiday, any getaway and any safari experience. You’ll also totally impress your chick who, through your appreciation of soft feathered creatures, will see your softer and more vulnerable side.

And then you’ll get to show her your softer and more vulnerable body parts.

 Kgalagadi Case Study, August to September 2009

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African Ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) enjoy an eclectic diet of roots, seeds, insects, pods, fruits, grains, bird eggs, small vertebrates and pink marshmallows.

Many years ago, I went on a 10-day vacation to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles the three borders of Namibia, Botswana and the Northern Cape. The bird list I had kept for that holiday totalled 106 different species. The animal list I made totalled 12. Actually, it was more like 11. Animal #12, which we thought was a leopard prowling around the camp at night, turned out to be nothing more than my mother’s snoring. Or so we suspected after three consecutive nights of rhythmic zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg-ing, which is actually quite similar to a leopard’s cough-like grunting.

We saw ONE lion that entire holiday. And it was a female so pregnant with zebra meat that she had hitched a leg up onto the bole of the acacia tree she was food coma-ing under in order to make more space for her distended gut. She didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the rocks we were throwing at her to get her to move.

I am, of course, just kidding.

On that same trip, we spotted a beautiful Giant Eagle Owl in her nest in broad daylight; identified the tiny Pygmy Falcon killing machine; heard the haunting yelps of Pearl-Spotted Owls at night and kept the campsite company of the flamboyantly coloured Burchell’s starling.

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The handsome Burchell’s starling, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Class Dismissed: The Take-Home Message

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Wahlberg’s Eagle? Malachite Kingfisher? Violet-eared Waxbill? Now that’s a handsome bird list…

I have always kept bird lists for the various holidays our family has been on. I also keep a list of animals on the occasions we go to wildlife reserves. Every single time, my list of different bird species, which has often stretched into the hundreds, dwarfs the list of different animal species. Nothing can be more exciting than actually spotting a leopard in a tree, seeing cheetah in action or watching a hippo emerge from the water (or doing that funny tail-thing when they poop.) But to go on safari and never notice the activity constantly going on around you, in the bushes, in the trees, on the ground, in the sky… well you are cheating yourself out of 90% of the fees you paid at the park entrance.

Open your eyes friends.

And whatever you do. Never, ever sit under a hornbill perched in a tree. They have impeccable aim.

African Birds and safari
Zazu, I mean, Yellow-billed hornbill, Kruger National Park in South Africa

Owls Being Totes Adorbs

This is a science blog and as such, I try not to make a habit of posting obnoxiously cute animal videos… however, when it comes to owls, all the rules go out the window. I’m an avid bird-watcher and I absolutely adore cats. So, when you have a bird that looks like a cat, I can’t help but implode into a hot squishy mess. Given that this will be EXACTLY what will be happening to your brain tonight over your New Years Eve’s celebrations, I thought it only fitting to make an exception.

Enjoy! Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Video Source: Uploaded by mihaifrancu on YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RBNpALibqo

Lyre Bird Pulls Off Amazing Impersonations!

If you’re a fan of impersonations like I am, then you’ve GOT to check this out! The Lyre bird copies other bird calls and sounds in an effort to impress potential mates and the mimicry is absolutely spot-on!

Video Source:Amazing! Bird sounds from the lyre bird – David Attenborough – BBC wildlife” Uploaded by BBCWorldwide to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjE0Kdfos4Y

A Snoring Hummingbird (For Real Real)

Hummingbirds look like bumblebees dressed in drag and routinely pull off amazing feats of flight and manoeuvrability. And while we already know these tiny bejewelled aviators are ridiculously cute, THIS video is something else entirely! It will soften your soul to mush and generate a cacophony of “aaaawws” from all the ladies AND dudes in the office.

It’s a snoring hummingbird.

You’re welcome.

Video Source: BBC, posted on the YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uEfmQt34Nc

All Things Bright and Beautiful – Evolution Made Them All!

lilac-breasted-roller

The principles behind evolution have always stood in stark contrast to those postulated by the bible. I have never read the bible and on the few occasions that I have tried, I have fallen promptly asleep. Since I am only aware of the basics – don’t kill people, don’t steal shit, don’t be gay (oops), don’t have sex outside of marriage (oops again) etc. – I won’t spend a moment longer comparing the two schools of thought. Except to say that only the theory of evolution is a school of thought because clearly you’re a beer short of a six pack if you think it’s okay to stone people to death for eating shellfish. Instead, this blog is about evolution: the concept abhorred and spurned by religious zealots the world over.

I’ve always wanted to use “zealot” in a sentence. Winning!

What is Evolution?

Evolution diagram

Evolution comes from the Latin meaning for “opening” or “unrolling”… to unfold. In this way I suppose one might say (with a little creative license) that evolution is a story of change. In the context of life on Earth, evolution refers to the adaptation, change and diversification of the many millions of organisms that call our blue planet home, or any other planet in the universe for that matter. In fact, evolution is the REASON there are millions of organisms on our blue planet. This comes down to a concept called speciation; but first, let’s confuse you with an analogy about tuna.

It’s About Legacy, Not Heresy!

It is the goal of every single species, whether pachyderm or phytoplankton, to be successful and the hallmark of success in the animal and plant kingdom is propagating your genes. I.e. knocking up your girlfriend.

If you’re bad at it, there are tens if not hundreds more like you willing and eager to step in and you’ll simply exit this realm without a legacy. This is a terrible prospect for animal and plant species that have to fight tooth and nail or stem and stamen just to exist. Competition is fierce and no matter what habitat on Earth you call home, chances are there are at least 20 creatures that want to turn you into breakfast, lunch or dinner.

If you manage to not get eaten, then you’ve still got to worry about feeding yourself and surviving the elements. So, the next time you think you’ve had a rough day because you locked yourself out of your apartment, try to empathise with a minnow… one of the most preyed upon fish in the ocean.

The biological answer to incessant threat is to procreate like mad so that if you meet your maker sooner rather than later, which is almost always the case in the inherently hostile natural environment, it won’t really matter. To you as an individual, yes, but not to the species as a whole. As long as a species is reproducing and enough of those offspring are reproducing, that species can be viewed as successful.

Now, let’s provide a very simplistic and probably inaccurate analogy about tuna…

You’re a tuna fish and in order to survive, you need to swim fast to catch smaller fish. The larger your fins, the faster you’ll be able to swim (yes, a horribly simplified thesis, I know). The faster you swim, the more food you’ll be able to eat and therefore, the more time you can spend getting sexy with the ladies… i.e. propagating your genes. If you were born with smaller fins, you just wouldn’t be as successful at catching food and in sustaining yourself and getting laid.

What this means is that, in this particular example, the tuna with larger fins (Tuna A) is more successful and will probably produce more offspring than Tuna B: the dude with smaller fins. Please ignore the obvious reference to size being important. I know plenty of girls who would disagree. With Tuna A’s well-endowed fins being inherited by his progeny and with his progeny more likely to survive, the less endowed Tuna B would eventually become phased out of existence!

Tuna sushi with caviar held by chopsticks

Over the course of many, many generations, a gradual change occurs within the species that serves to phase out the less beneficial or successful biological traits – in this case, small fins – while encouraging the success of individuals within the species that exhibit the more beneficial biological traits (large fins). It’s a slow process that can take tens of thousands if not millions of years, but what we see is the species changing and improving – evolving – so that it becomes as successful as it can possibly be in its given environment.

I am almost certain that you have heard of the name given to this entire concept. The man behind its conception was Charles Darwin and he called it natural selection.

lamarck_giraffe Image Source: Miami University, College of Arts and Sciences

Jean-Babtiste Lamarck, one of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries and mentors was just as enthusiastic about the idea of evolution and, as we can see here, demonstrates a similar – and much better – example of it than the tuna analogy. The most successful (and well-fed) giraffes were those whose necks were ever so slightly longer and so could reach the more succulent uppermost leaves on trees. Over time and via a process of natural selection, they evolved with longer and longer necks and now they are the most vertically endowed creatures on the planet.

This is the horribly simplified version of Lamarck’s theory, which postulated that a giraffe would stretch its neck to reach the higher, more nutritious leaves on a tree and would then pass on its stretched neck to its offspring. This is just not true. If you get a tattoo of an anchor on your butt, your children will not be born with tattoos on their butts. In reality, the explanation Lamarck provided was quackery to say the least, although he was on the right track. Sort of.

Evolution and Speciation

We can now see that evolution is about change via adaptation to an environment, but sometimes this change happens to such an extent that a whole new species is born. “Speciation” is the mechanism by which this happens and we shall take a closer look at this in a moment. But first, what exactly is a species?

Female ostrich next to the fence of the farm

If you put an ostrich in a cage with a finch, they will not make little fostriches, or ostrinches. Even if you put two very similar-looking, yet separate species of finches in a cage, they will not likely find each other sexy enough to bonk and make babies. This is really the defining principle behind the word “species”…

“A group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding”

Thank you online dictionary.

This is how you can tell one species apart from another. They will not bonk and even if they were so inclined, they would not be able to reproduce. Obviously, it’s easy to see that an ostrich is a totally different kind of bird to a finch, but if you’ve consulted a bird book recently (I’m guessing you haven’t), you’ll see that groupings of birds like finches, sparrows and sandpipers are made up of a staggering diversity of species that look remarkably like each other. In spite of this, they will not interbreed. If they do, it’s the exception and not the rule. A House Finch is not biologically programmed to shack up with a Cassin’s Finch, even though – to the uneducated eye – they look virtually the same.

Carpodacus_mexicanus_-Madison,_Wisconsin,_USA-8

Photo credit: “House Finch” by John Benson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cassin's_Finch_(male)

Photo credit: “Cassin’s Finch (male)” by http://www.naturespicsonline.com. Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Wikimedia Commons

Why do different species of, for example, dogs breed then? Because they’re not different species. With the help of a stepladder perhaps, a Chihuahua could mate with a Great Dane and she will conceive and give birth to puppies with extraordinary identity issues. But a human being could not reproduce with a sheep. Thank goodness for that or there would be some pretty weird creatures running around America’s notoriously redneck south.

So how does one species become two or a different species all together? Evolution, that’s how! But, to be more precise, differential evolution. To rephrase in English: one species is split into two or more groups – through any of a number of mechanisms – and they evolve differently and to such an extent that they no longer want to bonk each other.

For the sake of simplicity (and the fact that your boss is beginning to notice that you haven’t actually typed anything in a while), we shall focus on only the most common of these mechanisms. It bears the unfortunate name of “allopatric speciation” which makes it sound far more complicated than it really is. Here’s how it works…

Flutterbies

beautiful_butterfly

A species of, for example, butterfly becomes enormously successful in a topographically voluptuous environment complete with soaring mountains and plunging necklines. These butterflies, as a result, spread out to inhabit both the cooler upper mountainous regions and the warmer deep river valleys between them. The ones that hang out in the mountains rarely, if ever make the journey south to visit their relatives and the same applies to the valley dwellers.

Over time and successive generations, the single species splits into two distinct groups. The mountain flutterbies become adjusted to life in the clouds and develop a unique set of traits that enable them to be successful in high altitudes… such as tiny crampons, oxygen cylinders and thermal booties. The flutterbies that hang out in the river valleys also evolve and develop their unique set of traits, including sweatbands, beer-making and fire dancing.

Eventually, these two groups become so different to one another that they no longer recognise each other as potential partners and they will cease to reproduce. What began as a single species becomes two thanks to geographical separation, differential evolution and eventual genetic drift.

Allopatric speciation helps us to understand why very similar species of prehistoric animals have been found in completely different parts of the globe. Owing to the shifting tectonic plates, populations were separated from each other (just like in the movie The Land Before Time) and evolved in order to be successful in their particular environmental context.

philosoraptor-meme

Evidence of Evolution in Humans: Wisdom Teeth

A fantastic example of evolution and how we humans have changed as a species is the wisdom tooth. Many moons ago, when we were still living in caves and clubbing women over the heads in order to impress them, our diets were composed of a great variety of foods, such as grains, fruits, leaves, grasses, nuts and other tough and fibrous things. In order to manage these foods, our jaws were larger and more robust. Our wisdom teeth would emerge sometime in our early adulthood and they were very useful in helping us to chew.

Then we discovered fire or rather harnessed its power. And instead of foraging and hunting for food, we began growing it and farming it ourselves. Our diets shifted to one of softer, more processed foods and there became less and less of a need to have such big, strong jaws, although Ronn Moss from that inane soapie the Bold and the Beautiful clearly missed the memo at some stage. With smaller and more gracile jaws, there became less space for wisdom teeth, which is precisely why their emergence in our early 20’s causes so much trouble for us, including over-crowding, impacted wisdom teeth and revolting oral abscesses.

What’s the use of wisdom teeth if all they do is cause us trouble? The good news is that this once useful biological trait is being phased out via evolution! More and more people are being born with only two wisdom teeth or with none at all! If this applies to you, you can congratulate yourself on being more evolutionarily advanced than your contemporaries. The bottom line here is that wisdom teeth are a biological remnant of a time when we needed stronger and more robust jaws. The fact that our diets have changed, as well as our jawbones, has rendered them largely redundant and unfortunately a bit of a pain in the neck *snort*.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Redwood forests California

Natural selection, speciation, evolution, genetic drift… these may all sound like intimidating concepts, but in reality they are totally logical and – with the help of some ridiculous analogies – easily understood. By understanding these mechanisms for diversification and change, we are offered a very special insight into the history of life on our planet and just how it is we came to share it with an extremely beautiful and varied biosphere.

While a number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the diversification of life on Earth, the theories published by scientists, perhaps the most well known of which is Charles Darwin, make the most sense. Or at least to those in possession of an enquiring mind and critical thinking skills.