Red-billed oxpeckers squabble over prime seating on the back of an African buffalo. These birds are famous for travelling on tolerant buffalo and other mammals, feeding on various insects on their hosts or nearby.
When the time comes, these birds build nests in tree cavities, which makes this photo all the more interesting. This group of birds seem to be using a rudimentary nest made out of mud and hair plucked from the back of this buffalo. This is the first time I have seen this and I haven’t been able to find any reports elsewhere, so if anyone has some insights into this behaviour, please share!
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.
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.
There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.
It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.
As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure! To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects. So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.
Whether scratching an itch, trying to remove flies and ticks, showing off during the rut, or just for fun, bison seem to get lots of enjoyment and satisfaction from rolling around in the dirt. This youngster spent several minutes having a great time getting dusted up before racing off to rejoin the herd.
It will be great to see these beasts back in Banff National Park in the near future.