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The crested guineafowl, with bright red eyes and the the best feather mohawk I’ve seen, is one funky bird.

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A flock of them visited our campsite in Kruger to take dust baths in the fine, dry soil right next to our tent.

creasted-guineafowl-dustbath-wm

The fine dirt is perfect for getting down between the feathers and to the skin to kill off lice, as well as to remove excess oils and keeps the feathers in good condition to allow for a quick escape from predators.

 

A face only a mother could love!?

warthog-strut-wm

While some will say yes, warthogs more than make up for it with their personalities. This adult female was strutting her stuff on the way to the watering hole. Her appearance caught the eye of two nearby males, who quickly tried to establish which one of them was going to get the chance to talk to her.

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While the smaller and younger male put up a good fight and made a last ditched effort to tusk his opponent, it was the older, mud-covered male that won out.

warthog-fight-2-wmAfter chasing the younger male away, he walked over to the female while clattering his teeth and drooling for her attention. However, on this morning she was more interested in getting a drink than any of his advances. The male got the message and without missing a beat, he wandered off to try his luck with another female.

 

My work involved supervising an anti-parasite drug resistance project carried out by  students taking part in the Global Health Field School in Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). In brief, this meant getting up before sunrise to get to the field sites to sample and treat herds of goats and sheep. We would then return to camp and spend the day analyzing fecal samples for specific parasites. Yes, you read that right! Herds with high parasite levels were re-sampled about 2 weeks later to determine the effectiveness of the deworming treatment, which allowed us to gauge the likelihood of  drug resistance.

Goat Boma Study Large WM

At night the livestock are contained in these bomas to protect them from lions, hyenas and leopards, but from sunrise to sunset they spend their days grazing wherever the best vegetation can be found, all while under the watchful eyes of the Maasai. The pink marking on this young goat indicates that we treated it.

The reward of having our field site in NCA was the abundant wildlife that can be seen and heard from both within and around or camp.This included almost daily sightings of giraffe while we sat around the table eating our meals!

Massai giraffe with Massai shuka WM

Maasai giraffe in the background, with a traditional Maasai shuka (cloth blanket) hung out to dry on an acacia tree.

After a long day of work in the lab, the reward was a game of soccer with the locals or going for walks surrounding our camp. Most days that meant coming across numerous species of birds and a small herd of these Burchell’s zebra in fields of wildflowers!

Zebra yellow flowers cropped WM

Other times it was  impala, vervet monkeys or baboons trying to raid our camp for food (they were never successful), and the occasional elephant! Heard almost nightly were the whooping contact calls of hyenas and while we didn’t see or hear any lions or leopards, they are known to wander through from time to time. For some, this might have been their worst nightmare, but for me it made for one of the best field sites I’ve ever stayed at!

 

It’s been some time since my last post to say the least. Since April I’ve travelled to Tanzania for work and then onto South Africa for a holiday before eventually coming back to Canada.  It had been a few years since I had been to this wonderful part of the world so it was great to get back. For the next little while I will post some images from my experiences there.

There was certainly no mistaking when this buffalo herd was nearby. Stretching for more than a kilometer, this large herd was a sight to be seen, kicking up dust with every step as they slowly made their way to one of the last remaining watering holes not dried up from the prolonged drought. Travelling along with them was their mini-ecosystem of assorted insects and birds.

Buffalo stampede to watering hole WM

Equally as impressive were the sounds. The constant rumble of their hooves pounding the dirt, periodically interrupted by snorting bulls crashing through bushes in their way, bawling calves, hordes of buzzing insects and flocks of squawking ox peckers.

Even when hidden from view and resting in the shade, getting downwind of them told me they had not gone far! Three adult lions were nearby, but they didn’t even bother getting up to investigate. With full stomachs and the hot sun beating down, they had no interest in testing the buffalo that day.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

A male sharp-tailed grouse proudly displays his dominance around a lek in rural Saskatchewan.

Sharp tailed grouse throat display WM

While they aren’t the biggest or flashiest grouse species, their stomping dances are some of the most entertaining to watch.

Grieving Marmot

While scientists struggle to objectively test and quantify animal intelligence, thoughts and feelings, I think most people will agree that intuitively animals are capable of many of the attributes that previously were thought to separate us from the rest of the animal world.

A recent example for me was when I came across a hoary marmot that had been killed on a road. The adult female was still lying on the pavement, so to limit the potential of other animals meeting the same fate, I moved the body a short distance away. As I was about to leave I noticed a young marmot watching me from a nearby rock crevice.

Marmot dead kit approach BW WM

I moved back to not interfere and watched as the young pup approached its deceased mother. The pup tentatively approached the body and after an initial assessment it frantically tried to pull its mother into the burrow.

With the body weighing several times more than the pup, it wasn’t strong enough to get it completely inside the burrow and after several minutes of trying, it gave up. However, instead of leaving, it started licking its mother’s face and intently staring at her.

Licking mother BW WM

Marmot dead kit eye stare BW WM

This was repeated a few more times before the pup stopped and came out of the burrow to sit next to the body. Over the next several minutes it rested on the mother while glancing down at her.

Mourning marmot BW WM

It sniffed her paws and laid on her chest.

Marmot kit in arms of dead marmot BW WM

About an hour after the pup had found its mother it turned away from the body and slowly moved off to another burrow.

Mourning marmot 2 BW WM

As I left the area I starting thinking more about what I had just witnessed.  I realize that my observations are subjective and I can’t say with any scientific certainty that the marmot was grieving the loss of its mother. However, what is scientifically known is that the portion of the brain responsible for intense emotions and grief is present in all mammals, not just in humans. Scientists have reported mourning in other social animals including elephants, great apes, dolphins and domestic dogs to name a few. Furthermore, recent research involving the prairie vole, a small rodent that forms strong, monogamous bonding with a mate demonstrates that they enter a grief like state at the loss of their partner and can even succumb to depression during this period of loss.

Hoary marmots are also highly social rodents.  Pups spend the first two years with their parents and siblings before they go off and form their own families. They are known to recognize individuals, greet and groom each other, engage in play behaviour and spend the winter hibernating as a family. Therefore, intuitively it just makes sense that they would experience some level of mourning at the loss of a close family member. Proving it scientifically will be difficult, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

What do you think?

 

 

Cliffhanger

Don’t try this at home. Suspended upside down, this cliff swallow latches onto its superbly engineered nest before entering the small opening by doing a pull-up with its legs!

Cliff swallow wings WM

Cliff swallows build elaborate, gourd shaped nests with downward facing entrances to shield their young against predators and the elements. Historically they would build these nests on cliffs, but with so many bridges and houses providing perfect 90 degree angles, they are now found in many towns and cities. Each nest typically requires between 900-1400 round trips to bring back enough mud pellets to complete their designs.

Cliff swallow mothstache WM

These colony nesters are considered by some to be pests due to the noise and mess they can produce. However, they more than make up for these slight annoyances by keeping the local insect populations in check. Each swallow can consume between 800-1000 mosquitoes per day, which not only keeps the pesky insects from biting us, but it also limits the transmission of West Nile virus and other mosquito transmitted, blood borne pathogens. Two very good reasons to find ways to co-exist with these birds and other insectivorous species.

I took these photos during the summer. By now these birds will have made it down to their wintering grounds in South America, not unlike many Canadians during this time of year.

2015 was another great polar bear season up in Churchill, Manitoba with Bill Lamberton and Les Stegenga from Classic Canadian Tours! The bears were plentiful, playful and best of all, there were lots of mothers with cubs. Almost all of the bears were in good to great condition, including one massive male that dwarfed the others. Scroll down to see and read just a few of the highlights.

A large male bear comes in close for an amazing, up-close experience. It’s no wonder why they have the title, “Lords of the Arctic.” Their huge roman noses give them a very distinguished look, but more importantly it’s used to detect seals 30km away and through several meters of snow.

Polar Bear Head BW WM

A mother and her 10 month old cub walk along the frozen shore of the Hudson Bay. Cubs are typically born in January and will stay with their mothers for 2-3 years, gaining weight and learning the ropes of surviving in such a harsh environment.   In an average day we typically saw 3-4 mothers with 1-2 cubs each; a sign that the past few years have been good for the bears.

PB mom and cub walking WM

When the ice on the Hudson Bay melts in July, the bears are forced onto shore and will go 3-4 months without a substantial meal. On average a polar bear will lose 2lbs of fat every day it’s on land and not eating. Couple that with the fact they they use 13 times more energy when they are moving and you can understand why they spend the majority of their summer and fall resting.

Chilling in Churchill WM

As winter nears they start strolling the shores for any snacks that wash up with the large tides.Polar Bear Warrior WM

When the tours start in late October and early November, the weather is getting colder and the snow starts flying. The bears know it’s only a few more weeks until they can get back out onto the ice. It’s also cold enough that they don’t overheat as quickly so they spend more time playing and sparring with each other. This particular male is the largest bear we saw this year and probably weighed around 1200lbs!

Pouncing polar bear C WM

With the return of the cold, northerly winds, winter starts to take hold. This mother and cub huddled together to stay warm during one of the early winter storms.

Polar Snuggle WM

Fresh water coming from the neighbouring rivers, coupled with the NW winds and counter-clockwise ocean current means that ice forms quickly here and gets pushed up against the shores around Churchill before other areas of the bay. The bears have learned this and migrate long distances to get to Churchill in time for the early freeze-up, hence why Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. This large male was strolling along the recently formed ice, sniffing for seals.

Polar bear ice hudson bay WM

Only over a very short, 4 week period do we get such a great opportunity to see so many of these magnificent animals. This week, large sheets of ice have formed around Churchill and the bears are heading out to sea. Here’s hoping it’s another good year for them out on the ice.

Is seeing polar bears roaming the tundra on your bucket list? If so and you’re near Calgary, Edmonton or Saskatoon next October or November, check out the polar bear safaris offered through Classic Canadian Tours. Guests consistently rate these trips as excellent and it really is an experience of a lifetime. But don’t just take my word for it…click here to read their reviews.

With that, I’ll leave you with one last photo to cap off the season.

PB sitting BW WM

 

This wild, male burrowing owl which was was not baited, called or otherwise enticed to come perched right next to me, gave me several opportunities to get some unique images. The owl decided I was nothing to worry about and picked up one leg as it gazed in my direction. Soon after, it relaxed its head and neck creating a crease of feathers under its beak, giving the otherwise grumpy looking character the appearance of having a smile.

Burrowing owl art WMOften the deciding factor of whether the public and governments give money for wildlife conservation comes down to looks. Charismatic wildlife like bears, rhinos and big cats get a disproportionate amount of resources while birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish and the bottom of the barrel invertebrates struggle to even be noticed.

Here’s hoping that the burrowing owl, with all of its personality and character can get a federal recovery strategy to go along with its listing under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

Toad Time

Time for amphibians to get some love. This grumpy looking character is a boreal toad (Anaxyrus boreas boreas). They range along the west coast from Alaska down to Mexico.

Western Toad ss wm

A common myth is that they have warts along their backs that are contagious. However, these ‘warts’ aren’t warts at all, but large glands that secrete a bitter fluid that causes numbness and irritation in the mouth of their would be predators. An important point to remember if you touch one and forget to wash your hands!

Like many other amphibians, their numbers have declined significantly throughout their range, in part due to the introduction of chytrid fungus, habitat loss and pollution. I photographed this guy near Meziadin Junction in Northern British Columbia, where their populations are still relatively stable.

Even in the USA, where their numbers have plummeted, it’s not all bad news for these toads. The first evidence of successful, natural breeding of translocated toads occurred in Colorado last year, giving hope that over time and with protected species status, they can be re-established throughout their historical range.

Those were the first two options that came to my mind as I crested a hill in Northern British Columbia and saw this creature far off in the distance.

Black fox portrait all ears WMThankfully, it stuck around long enough for me to get closer and as it moved out into the open it became clear that it was a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) with an unusual coat. I’m not sure if the experts would call this a silver, black or cross fox? There are 8 genes responsible for coat colour in foxes and depending on which genes have dominant or recessive coding, there can be over 80 different colour combinations.

Maybe just a coincidence, but I’ve only ever come across red foxes with unusual coats when I head further north. This one seemed almost as curious about me as I was of it, giving me this questioning look before we both moved along.

Like many, owls are one of my favourite groups of birds to photograph. Early this summer I had an awesome week with 3 different species ranging in size from tiny to tall, endangered to numerous, with all of them having the common theme of putting on a great display of flight for me.

It started off in Grasslands, with the charismatic, endangered burrowing owl that came to hunt insects right next to where I had set up my gear.

Burrowing owl flight forward WMNext stop was Banff and my good owl luck continued with the first animal I came across being an impressive great grey owl. It was conveniently perched right next to a roadside pullout, and didn’t seem bothered at all by the traffic. Despite being so visible, most people didn’t even see it as they drove past! He’s an image as it hunted for a vole in the grass.

GGO flight motion feathers eye WMLater that same day I got a tip about a northern pygmy owl hanging around the area. Sure enough, after a bit of waiting I spotted this tiny little owl. It flew directly into a tree cavity before I could get a picture, so I waited for its exit. I barely had time to prepare. It seemed to almost shoot out of the cavity, and as I held the shutter release button I wasn’t sure if I was quick enough. It wasn’t until I got home and downloaded the images that I found this one.

Northern Pygmy owl flight cropped WMNeedless to say, it was a great week of owl photography and one I won’t soon forget!

Backlit Bear

Backlit griz version 4 WMA grizzly bear steps out of the shadows in the Canadian Rockies.

Photographing wildlife in their natural environment can be very frustrating with many hours sitting and waiting with no results to show for it. Often times there may be beautiful light but the animals are not around and other times it’s the reverse. On the rare occasion when both light and wildlife come together, the hours of patience seem worth it.

This red fox had just returned to the den to deliver a freshly killed rodent to the hungry kits and as the kits ran off with their meal, the adult sat down and stared at me. Up until then it had been mainly overcast, but as it overlooked their territory the sun briefly broke through the clouds and created a spotlight of soft light just long enough for me to get this photo. Gotta love it when everything comes together like that!

Foxy Vixen WM

The 4am wake up call to make it into Grasslands National Park for sunrise was worth it for a view like this!

Prairie sunrise fog trees clouds WM