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

African Birds and safari 6
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

African Birds and safari 8.png
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.

African Birds and safari 5
The handsome Burchell’s starling, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Class Dismissed: The Take-Home Message

African Birds and safari 7
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
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The Six Most Awesome Rock Minerals (For Various Reasons), PART 2

Cristales_cueva_de_Naica

“Cristales cueva de Naica” by Alexander Van Driessche. This picture shows the Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is home to some of the largest selenite crystals (a variety of gypsum) in the world.

 Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the second instalment of this two-part blog series on the six most awesome rock minerals (for various reasons and in no particular order.) In the first instalment, Part 1, we looked at iron pyrite for its wonderfully geometric crystals and diamond for its many different traits, not least of all its hardness and beauty. Lastly, the limelight was cast on fluorspar for its property of thermoluminescence, which is science speak for “going disco when thrown into a camp fire.”

We have three most awesome minerals yet to examine, but before I get cracking, I need to state that this selection doesn’t even scratch the surface of the sheer diversity of rock minerals, crystals and gems that are forged within the hot and pressurized interior of our planet. There are really so many rock minerals that are awesome:

  • Mica forms incredible flat sheets of translucent monoclinic crystals.
  • Amethyst derives its name from its ancient medicinal use as protection against poisoning and drunkenness (look how that turned out for the ancient Romans).
  • Calcite is special because it double refracts light and its crystals are perfectly-shaped 3D parallelograms.
  • Halite is special because it actually tastes like salt – it’s made from sodium chloride – and, if left undisturbed for many, many years, can form giant columns of glittering crystals, as we saw in that picture of the Chandelier Ballroom in Part 1.
  • Corundum is awesome because it’s the second hardest substance on the planet, but contrary to its ‘tough as nails’ character, is formed in cute little pink hexagonal tubes. Like miniature pool noodles.

Then, there are all those minerals and elements we covet as rare, beautiful and valuable. My choice has been restricted to those that – while commonly found, as many of them are – are still very special and frequently overlooked. The ones I have selected here are but a mere sampling, which has been done subjectively. Why? Because science. Oh and also this is my blog and I’m the boss.

So… with that administration out the way, let’s don our hard hats, grab our picks and get excavating!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 4: Obsidian

Volcanic glass (obsidian) with a conchoidal fracture

Chemical Composition: Silicon, magnesium, iron and oxygen

Why it makes this list: Its formation process is cool

Name Origin: “Obsius” after the Roman who apparently discovered this rock in Ethiopia.

Star Sign: Haha, just kidding!

Obsidian is a jet black stone with a vitreous (glassy) lustre. Just like glass, obsidian tends to shatter into sharp fragments when hit hard, although it is much stronger than the glass your beer bottle is made of. So, smashing a block of obsidian against your head wouldn’t be advisable, unless you’re the kind of person who would actually smash a beer bottle against your head, in which case knock yourself out.

I call that natural selection.

Obsidian’s strength and brittleness have resulted in its use as sharp cutting implements and weapons, such as spear and arrowheads, some of which date back as much as six million years. Ancient Egyptians found obsidian to offer a suitable artistic representation of the iris. As such, they would use it together with a variety of other coloured gemstones to recreate their dead or dying* pharaoh’s countenance on the front of their solid gold sarcophagi.

* Pharaohs spent more time, resources and effort planning their death than they did enjoying life. They believed that one’s mortal life was but mere preparation for the afterlife. Millions of years later – post science and technology – the majority of the world’s population still believes exactly the same thing.

Tutankhamun´s Golden Mask

King Tutankhamen was a tenderly young Egyptian pharaoh (he was 9 or 10 when he became king) who ruled during the 18th dynasty (1332 BC – 1323 BC). This mask was used to cover his mummified remains and contains inlays of, amongst other gemstones, serpentine, lapis lazuli, malachite, garnet and obsidian.

Uses aside, what I find to be most special about obsidian is the way it is formed and it is here that we encounter a very interesting geological pearl of wisdom. The longer magma or molten rock is allowed to cool for, the larger the crystal size of the resultant igneous rock. Makes sense doesn’t it? On the one end of the spectrum, we have granite, which is formed from the ultra slow cooling of magma over many millions of years. The next time you’re bonking your partner on the kitchen counter, take a brief look at the size of the crystals within its polished surface. Big, huh? Well, incidentally, so is the size of the crystals.

Granite texture background

In this picture, we can quite easily discern between the three composite rock minerals that make up granite. The pink crystals are feldspar, the white are quartzite and the black is mica.

At the other end of the spectrum, magma that is shock-cooled, in other words cooled really quickly, doesn’t have any time to form crystals and the resultant rock is an amorphous lump of dark brittle glass. So, essentially, what you have just learned is that coarse granite is composed of exactly the same material as glassy obsidian. Yet they look completely different! It’s like Kim and Khloe Kardashian!

So… how can you shock-cool magma? The usual method employed by Mother Nature is ejecting it at a few hundred kilometres an hour out of an erupting volcano, at which stage it theoretically becomes known as lava. The molten rock cools from approximately 1000°C (1800°F) to a little over ambient air temperature in a matter of minutes. The result is obsidian.

The truth is, obsidian is not strictly speaking a rock mineral, just as granite cannot be considered a rock mineral. Remember our Spice Girl analogy in part 1? Well obsidian is a complex blend of all the rock minerals that make up granite (feldspar, quartz and mica). As such, obsidian is more correctly termed a “mineraloid.” If I was submitting this blog to my geology lecturer for marks, I would be penalized for lumping obsidian in the same category as iron pyrite, which is a true mineral.

Awesome Rock Mineral # 5: Opal

Opal boulder

Chemical Composition: Silicon, oxygen and water.

Why it makes this list: Cos it’s so damn beautiful.

Name Origin: From the Latin word opalus: “to see a change of colour”

If I was a Neanderthal (my mother will argue that I am) and you placed an uncut diamond and a stone of opal in front of me and asked me to choose one based solely upon its aesthetic appeal, I would point at the opal and say: “ug.”

You may snigger at my seemingly ignorant selection, but in addition to its superior aesthetics, high quality opal fetches as much as $20,000 a carat. This, my friends, beats the Chuck Norris of gem stones by a fair margin.

If you have ever closely scrutinized a piece of opal, you will know just how special it is and how very hard it is to explain its unique brand of beauty. Opal is composed of tiny spheres of silica (sand, essentially) which are packed into tight water-bound layers. Water does all sorts of strange things to light. Combine that with the near-translucent silica spheres and the incoming light gets so damn confused that is splits into all seven of its personalities. These bounce back and forth between the layers and eventually exit the stone to be perceived by our eyes. The larger the size of the silica spheres, the more colours we see, while smaller silica spheres tend to refract darker blues and violet.

I could bumble on about opal, but the truth is, this amorphous gem stone is just so pretty, only a picture could do it true justice:

62cts_Brazilian_Crystal_Opal

“62cts Brazilian Crystal Opal” by Daniel Mekis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 Is it a kaleidoscope? Is it a laser light show? Am I on acid? I couldn’t say; are you? It’s opal!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 6: Magnetite

Druse of Magnetite crystals and apatite

Chemical Composition: Iron and oxygen

Why it makes this list: It’s bipolar.

Name Origin: From the name of a Greek shepherd, Magnes, who discovered magnetite on Mount Ida when he noticed his metal-tipped staff sticking stubbornly to the ground under his feet.

We tend to think of magnets as man-made things, when in fact nature is simply bursting at the seams with examples of bi-polar oddities. Magnetite, as its name suggests, is a black metallic rock mineral composed predominantly of iron and it is the most magnetic of all the naturally occurring rock minerals on our planet. Geologists frequently keep a lump of magnetite on their desks as a paper clip dispenser.

Magnetite does, of course, have greater claims to fame: its various properties provide scientists with an insight into fancy-sounding things such as plate tectonics, paleomagnetism and magnetohydrodynamics. I have chosen magnetite for this list because it blows my mind that a seemingly unremarkable rock dug up from the ground can make metal move of its own accord. Of course, it’s not really moving of its own accord, but everyone fantasizes about having telekinetic powers every now and then, even if the object you’re manipulating is a paper clip.

Magneto, eat your heart out!

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

chalcopyrite mineral texture as background

No, this is not the work of a super talented graphic designer. It’s Chalcopyrite up close and personal.

There’s really only one message I want you to take home from today’s sciencey musings. And that is that even the merest glimpse beneath the surface of any scientific discipline reveals a fathomless volume of absolutely fascinating information about the world around us and, in the context of this article, beneath our feet. Every single gem stone scattered on the floor of your local “Scratch Patch” or “Geology World” is special for many reasons that extend beyond their appearances, just like every single human being is. Unless you’re Paris Hilton.

Now, THAT’S hot.

Goodness, Gracious Great Balls of Ice! The Story of Hail

Large hailstone picture

Source: A massive 2.4 inch aggregate hailstone (about 6cm): “Granizo” by nssl0001, National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some things on our planet are so ridiculous, they could very well be the brainchildren of biblical authors. Frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, giant swirling hurricanes, belching volcanoes, sulphur-based life forms and Paris Hilton’s immense wealth (and equally as immense lack of IQ). And then there’s hail. The fact that the updrafts within a thunderstorm can be strong enough to hold grapefruit-sized hail in suspension is nothing but ridiculous and wholly impressive.

Great balls of ice!

How Hail is Made

Hail consists of balls of ice shockingly called “hailstones”. You may even say that hail is frozen rain, but it deserves a slightly more complex explanation than that…

Hail is made within powerful thunderstorms or cold fronts. Cold fronts tend to produce smaller hail that might inconvenience your dog’s plans to go do his business outside, thereby inconveniencing your plans to keep your house hygienic. The large hail responsible for denting cars, destroying crops and severely upsetting your herd of cows is typically associated with large thunderstorm systems that are well-endowed in the vertical and are sustained by powerful updrafts. These traits are especially exhibited by the “Big Daddy” of all small-scale tempests: supercell thunderstorms. These you will find skipping across “Tornado Alley” during the northern hemisphere’s summer months.

Severe thunderstorm across US Great Plains

Supercell thunderstorm with rotating mesocyclone (*swoon!*). The presence of such large frozen water particles within the cloud selectively reflects light towards the lower energy (green) end of the color spectrum, which is why thunderstorms that produce large hail can make the sky appear a ghostly green.

What cold fronts and thunderstorms have in common is that they are both low pressure systems that suck in air and expel it out their rear. Thunderstorms pull in great volumes of warm and moist air, which rise, cool and condense to form towering cloudy behemoths of cumulonimbus clouds. The air, once cooled, loses its momentum and proceeds to sink towards the ground. Together, these two channels of air comprise the updraft and downdraft zones that sustain a thunderstorm: its lungs if you’ll indulge a bit of poetic licence.

Now, as you should know, temperature decreases with height in the atmosphere. That’s why the tops of high mountains are frozen and it’s why you should always, ALWAYS go for a pee before sky diving. At a certain altitude within a thunderstorm, which can soar to as high as the interface between the troposphere and stratosphere at approximately 10km above sea level, the temperature reaches zero degrees Celsius – the temperature at which water freezes. Above this 0°C isotherm (an obnoxious way of saying “line of equal temperature”) all the water droplets in suspension are frozen.

The strong updrafts within a thunderstorm sweep water droplets above the 0°C isotherm where they freeze (consult the pretty diagram below). These pellets of ice then fall back down towards Earth in the downdraft zone, plummeting below the 0°C isotherm and defrosting into big globs of water. This is why thunderstorm rain gets you soaking wet faster than Channing Tatum’s dirty dancing in “Dirty Mike”.

hail-formation-diagram

Image Source: University of South Florida, scholarcommons.usf.edu

However, some of these falling frozen pellets of rain get caught up in the updraft zone again and are swept back up above the 0°C isotherm. Only, they’ve gained a layer of water, which they collected as condensation while chilling out below the 0°C isotherm. This additional layer of moisture freezes, forming a new layer of ice over the original ice pellet.

Large hailstone concentric circles Concentric layers of ice in a hailstone.

 Image Source: “Hagelkorn mit Anlagerungsschichten” by ERZ – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This process can repeat itself several times and each time, the hailstone will grow larger and larger and larger as it collects more and more layers of ice. The next time you’re in the middle of a raging supercell storm, run outside, collect a couple of decent-sized hailstones, run back to the tornado shelter, bolt the trapdoor, watch your dad arm wrestle said trapdoor with an F5 tornado, watch your dad lose, resolve to become a hardcore white vest-wearing, tornado chasing sexpot with a serious death wish. Oh! And remember those hailstones you collected? Cut them open to see those concentric circles of icy awesomeness.

When a hailstone finally gets too heavy for the thunderstorm’s updrafts to hold in suspension depends entirely on the strength of those updrafts. The stronger they are, the heavier the hailstones. This is why larger hailstones are associated with powerful thunderstorms, such as the Midwest super cells that are sustained by incredibly strong updraft zones.

And when hailstones get heavy, it’s time to run for cover.

Hailstorm damage

Sorry Boys… Size Really Does Matter

Farmers are more obsessed with size than that clutch of vacuous floozies and jockstraps in Jersey Shore. Considering their livelihood depends on it (and not their egos), this is easy to understand and empathise with. But, in no other aspect are they more obsessed with size than with hail. The happiness and health of their livestock and crops depend on it.

Some thunderstorms can create hailstones that are big enough to cave your head in. Even if you do have brains. The next time you’re at a party, scoop an ice cube out your rum and coke and toss it at your mate (preferably the one who’s hitting on your girlfriend). Listen to the dulcet sounds of squealing as it clobbers him in the noggin. Now imagine something easily ten times the size of that ice cube falling thousands of metres (or feet) from the heavens. Yup! Ouch.

Record_hailstone_Vivian,_SD

Ermagherd! Ferkerng HUGE herlsterne!

 Source: “Record hailstone Vivian, SD” by NWS Aberdeen, SD. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On 23rd June 2010, the largest hailstone in recorded American meteorological history fell in Vivian, South Dakota (image above). This great ball of ice weighed in at 0.88 kg (1.93 lbs) and was a staggering (if it had hit you in the head) 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter.

That’s two inches longer than your average you-know-what, tee hee!

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Big Hail Thunderstorm

Hailstones are physical evidence of the incredible air circulations going on inside a thunderstorm. Can you imagine how strong air must be to prevent something that weighs almost a kilogram from succumbing to gravity? I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind in the most delicious way. And so we see that thunderstorms are about so much more than just thunder and lightning and the occasional airborne cow.