One of my favourite examples of Reconciliation Ecology is the artificial flamingo breeding island in Kamfers Dam, Kimberley, South Africa. Kimberley (famous for its diamonds) is in the Northern Cape, a rather arid province, and Kamfers Dam is one of the largest waterbodies around. There’s something special about Kamfers Dam, because for years it has attracted tens of thousands of both Greater and Lesser Flamingo to its shores. However, neither species has managed to breed there.
One fine evening not very long ago, after way too many Castles at the braai (or so I surmise) my friend Mark Anderson (a great Kimberley bird man) and some of his pals in the mining industry got it in to their silly heads that perhaps building an artificial breeding island in the dam might encourage our pinkish friends to ditch their distracting all night funky flamingo parties and get down to the sensible and worthwhile task of raising families.
The island really was a ridiculous idea, as the science of flamingo breeding island construction is somewhere with underwater cigar smoking in the ranks of human knowledge, and Lesser Flamingo in particular are known to be extremely picky about where they choose to breed; there were in fact only three known Lesser breeding sites in all of Africa when Mark and his buddies started thinking about their rocks-in-the-dam (or should we say ‘rocks-their-heads’) plan. These were Sua Pan in Botswana, Etosha Pan in Namibia, and Lake Natron. (Sua and Natron are both under threat from proposed industrial developments, making the Lesser Flamingo’s future prospects somewhat pink in a blue kind of way.)
Anyhow, the guys at Ekapa Mining had a few (zillion) brass pennies to rub together (people in the diamond industry — can’t take ‘em anywhere — all those jangling pockets…) and they came out with their monster trucks and dumped a cute S-shaped pile of rocks in the dam, more-or-less according to Mark’s thumbsucky specifications. Various other people pitched in with other bits ‘n bobs like mud and old flamingo nests (s’true) and, well, blow me down soldier, before we knew it there were THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of flamingos on the island! And they were laying eggs! And sitting on them! And they hatched! And, crap, there were so many damned flamingos being born that Mark couldn’t even count the bloody things! He had to go up in an aeroplane and take high-res photos and get computers to tally up the pink and grey fluffy blobs in the pictures! The birds were packed so many so tight I could see the island as a giant pale pink S from 35 000ft when I last flew from Joburg to Cape Town!
The madcap island was/is a raging success. Wowee!
Except now the local authorities are on the edge of screwing it all up. The island is about to be dumped in a pile of crap — literally. The area’s guv’mint types seem to have forgotten that part of their job is to maintain Kimberley’s sewage plants. Slumped in a pile of reeking municipal laziness, the kind that would get you fired and perhaps even dumped in a long-drop in some other countries, they’ve allowed the local shit-stirring-and-cleaning-upping machinery to go down the toilet, and now Kamfers Dam is threatened by a tidal wave of the brown stuff. This is, splatteringly obviously, bad news for the flamingos and the 60-odd other species of birds that use the Dam and (ta da!) all the people that have to drink the Dam’s water.
This is where you come in: Do your web-browser a favour and tootle-loo off to
and add your name to the wake call to Kimberley’s municipal water people to get their act together before it’s too late (don’t forget to wipe when you’re done).
Mark and the Save the Flamingos crowd have a rescue plan all worked out, with engineers and envirramentalists and fighter jets and dancing girls all ready to go to rescue our long-necked pinko-weirdo feathered friends (OK I made up the fighter jets and dancing girls) BUT THEY NEED YOUR HELP, wherever you are in the world! Cash would be nice, too!
Send this link to your contacts! See you on the flamingo website! A luta flamingua, etcetera!
had an extraordinary experience at the Model Boat Pond (just south of the Met Mus of Art) in Central Park, NYC.
22:30, pitch dark, two Black Skimmer going back and forth through the reflections of the city lights… they passed withing 5 metres of me! Got some video footage with small camera in nightshot mode.
One of my most amazing N American wildlife experiences so far!
Frame grab from video footage – added to blog page Fri 20 Jun. These tern-like birds feed by flying very low over the water, their lower mandible dropped down to scythe through it. When they touch a small fish or tadpole or whatever, the bill snaps shut. It’s supposed to be one of the fastest reflexes ever measured in any vertebrate.
it’s late and I’m bushed so this’ll be quick n dirty.
I’ve been following a Red-tailed Hawk nest down on the lower east side of Manhattan. it’s on an airconditioner over a busy road. Bad nest position. The nest has had 3 chicks, raised well, and they’re approaching the time of fledging. Over the last few days 2 of the nestlings have flown. Both ahve ended up on the ground in somewhat dodgy situations, and have been taken in to the care of a rehab guy for a short while until all their flight feathers ahve properly grown out. Houston 3, as I call him, the thrird yongster on the nest, had until today wisely decided to stay put there.
Anyhow, I went down to film him, and set up the tripod, quite early this afternoon. I zoomed in and locked off the shot on the nest, and started rolling, just when I noticed a funny buzzing on channel 2 of the sound. While I was trying to sort that out, lo and behold, Houston 3 flapped a bit, took an oncoming gust, and flew for the first time! Since the tripod was locked off I have no follow shot – tho I’m well chuffed I got waht I did – and in fact could not see where he went. We scoured the ‘hood for a blocks in all directions, and then I diecided to go off uptown to get the camera looked at. No sooner had I missioned across to 38th st, taken the camera ou tot show the techinician what was ‘wrong’ and have it behave perfectly, than my phone rang. houston 3 had been found, goofing off in a tree across the road from his nest. I hurried back (carrying all this gear across Manhattan is making me fit) and started shooting him flopping from branch to branch. After a littel while mama Red-tail piched up with a nice juicy rat, and started flying back and forth around the nest area, tempting houston 3 to fly, to come get dinner. i guess this is the natural way of getting a new fledgling flying fit.
As I was filming rat-pack mama on the nest, I heard a huge commotion. Houston 3 had flown back across the 4 lanes of traffic of Houston St, aiming for his nest building – but had failed to read a good perch. He was flopping around, trying desperately to cling to a vertical wall. As I got my camera on to him trying to perch on a vertical, he suddenly gave up, turned, and came down at a steep angle on to the tarmac of the west-running lane of Houston. He crash-landed somewhat badly (having done precious little landing in his life, and never before on the ground), belly flopped forward and skidded across the tarmac. Crap!
Blimpie, one of the neighbourhood’s hawk fans, imediately ran out into the traffic, waving his arms and blowing the whistle that he carries everywhere – an unforgettable sight. All I could think was get the poor dumb bird out of the road! Francois, a Swiss-French photographer who has been photographing the birds, was already taking his shirt off to throw over the by now very confused Houston 3 (I’d been telling him yesterday what do do if this happened) and other people were already bearing down on him from all sides (the hawks are somwhat of a local circus with $0 entry tickets). My camera was on a tripod, and I could not move fast with it, so I abandoned the viewfinder and sprinted across to get the hawk – as a result, missing the dramatic money shot (urgh – producer, please don’t be angry w me!). i was conscious of at least two more people with hands on the bird as I lifted it up, one tugging on the wing. As I scooped it up and crossed the road, to where some trees were that I had a vague idea of putting it up in, a crowd began to form. Somewhere before or after this a car crashed into another car because someone was trying to see the hawk. there were jokes about me being the “Discovery Channel in the ‘Hood” (I guess making videos and simultaneously grabbing hold of unhappy wildlife is, indeed, what the game’s all about nowadays ;)
i asked the people to stand back so i could give the bird a littel peace and see if I could get it into a decent tree, when suddenly a plainclothes cop car pulled across in front of me, the guy grabbing his badge from under his shirt – all very NY cop show. “where the heck are you going w that bird’ etc. I told the cop I knew how to handle raptors and the best thing for the bird might be just to release it in a nearby tree. (Cop thought I was trying to steal it – whcih happens a lot to urban raptors in NYC)
“Is that a badge in your hand or are you just unhappy to see me?” ;)
That was not to be. Within another minute things had become completely insane. there were something like 40 or 50 people around, yelling at me, some to release the bird, most wanting me to turn around so they could take pictures of it (I felt like a goddamn movie star on Oscar night – it’s not fun). somebody was climbing a tree and telling me to toss the bird up to them, like it was a football???, kids were screaming senseless stuff – it was all too hectic. There was no way I was going to get the by now incredibly stressed bird into any kind of useful tree without it being hounded into harm by the public. Officer Keenan (the name of the rather sizeable cop in the pic below) seems to have somewhat lost his temper at that point too. He got out of his car an informed me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t care who I was or what I did, he was taking the bird. (“You can’t expect to walk around in Manhattan with a hawk and not have a crowd form around you!” was one of his more astute observations.) I told him that if he could find me a box, and make sure the bird got to Bobby Horvath (the only rehabber I know in NYC, who happens to have this bird’s siblings under care), I would give him the bird. You don’t really have any bargaining power with an NY police officer who’s had it, but I guess he understood that he did not want to be clawed by a hawk and htat maybe putting it in a box instead of the trunk of his car was at the end of the day the most practical solution. He went off, and came back with a dirty cat-carrier, better than nothing I guess, I put Houston 3 in it and asked Officer Keenan if he could drape somehting over the cage so the bird could be less stressed. He told me that was the last thing on his priority list (which I guess it is, if your job is to bust drug dealers in the projects) and walked off with Houston 3 bouncing around unhappily in his new confinement.
Bobby Horvath (whom I had called in the middle of the madness) was on his way, and when he arrived we tracked the bird down to an animal pound facility somewhere uptown (Houston 3 had a small blood spot on his bill but otherwise seemed healthy). So – i got home at almost 11, exhausted the bird is safe in the hands of an experienced rehabber, and hopefully will be released with his sibs shortly, in a nearby area where their parents can carry on raising them. I trust that next year the Houston St hawks will find a safer place to raise a brood…
Now I just need to figure out how to tell this drama for my little documentary, seeing as half the shots are missing. you can’t film and hang on to birds and try to hold back the insatiably curious public all at once, but when that insect gene gets inserted into the human genome, you know, the one that’ll give you six arms and legs, I’ll be first in line for the treatment!
Note to producer: I’m not even going to consider a re-enactment!
PS there are doubtless pics on some of the urban hawk blogs from NYC now – google Yolton’s blog and pale male blog…
one of the problems of being interested in a lot of things is that the time to take them is, of course, far shorter than the time it takes to record and process them and that in turn is even shorter than the time it takes to shape those records of them into some sort of communicable form. The curse of being any kind of researcher/communicator person is that you’re researching you’re not communicating, and vice versa. So lots of funnish stuff gets stuck in harddrives and notebooks and basements and boxes and never gets out. Also, sometimes, you’ve been off the bicycle a bit long, like me with photography, and what you’re producing isn’t really up there where it could be, so you don’t want to let it out.
But editing and figuring out what to let go of often take way longer than it should, so perhaps it’s better just not to prioritise too carefully, not worry too much about the images and words measuring up, just take a random look into the pile of rough stuff and pull something, wriggling or flaccid, from the depths. This is, after all, a recreational blog, an extended e-postcard, not a professional undertaking.
The idea for the 10th of May was to go try see some shorebirds in Homer, but the tide was out and we failed pretty much completely in that endeavour (I only got a coupla lifers, none shorebirds, and some close shots of Bald Eagle, published on this blog a few days ago).
This sign along the road does not refer to cameras. Photos of signs are one big step below photos of lone trees.
Ninilchik, Alaska, is a really small town on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s really small even by Alaskan standards. I spent a short interlude there while driving from Soldotna to Homer with Jim Dahl. Ninilchik revolves around fishing and religion I guess, because there is a small harbour and also a small church. The locals seem not to be too crazy about tourism, which is a relief as every other small place in AK seems to have gone that way with the slowdown in the oil and logging industries in the past fifteen years or so.
Often, people in small towns in amazing natural settings seem to see no need to build anything beautiful. It’s as if the wilderness has completely overwhelmed them to the point at which they no longer see it, they spend all their time trying to downplay the Great Featurelessness that quietly envelopes them, obsessing about their own small island of dislocated infrastructure, and have absolutely no idea that a passerby might think that what they’ve screwed up the seamless atmosphere of somewhere remarkable. But maybe the whole Dereliqued aesthetic has something going for it, especially if you dump a lost boat in the scene.
The Russians owned Alaska until not very long ago. In 1867 the US bought it from the Russian Empire for 2 cents an acre, just over 7 million dollars for the lot. Ninilchik still has a tiny Russian Orthodox church on a hillside overlooking the town. You go up a track, past someone’s neat dog graveyard with signs telling outsiders that the church is not here it’s to the left.
and you’re right in a human graveyard with a white picket fence and Orthodox crosses at strange angles (the ground freezing and thawing tends to move them off the vertical). I’m not sure whose buried here, some have Russian names, some not, some no names at all. But there was a friendly native woman out tending to some graves, placing plastic flowers on a couple. The grass just half stood, uncombed and uncut, around most of the crosses. At one corner a black synthetic POW-MIA flag waved which did not seem incongruous, despite being anachronistic relative to the rest of the scene, because they shamelessly appear all over this country to remind us of what, the misdeeds of past administrations? The fact that people get lost without trace in war? Some sort of statement of identity more like but one that I’ve yet to approach.
Ninilchik has something like a harbour – a small rivermouth with a crude seawall reinforced with bits of discarded railway machinery, objects that should probably be in a transport museum. The harbour infrastructure is neglected, but good enough for a couple of small fishing boats. You can only get in and out at high tide. On the beach are peculiar boulder-sized lumps of something like lignite, and a motley multi-species mob of shorebirds and gulls. And me (Jim Dahl’s photo).
Here are a pair of fast-swimming, gunshy Common Merganser in the harbour (male on left, female on right). I find it odd that anyone would seriously want to eat these guys. Piscivorous mammals and birds generally taste awful. I have a particular liking for the mergansers, strange fish-eating ducks with vicious looking bills, quite unlike other members of the family Anatidae. I’m still looking for Hooded Merganser, but have seen all the others around here and in Europe.
And here, two male Harlequin Duck, equally jumpy, hanging out together, acting like a pair with no females in sight. One of my ‘globally’ favourite ducks, with the wonderful scientific name of Histrionicus histrionicus.
Gotta sleep. Checking out urban hawks in NYC tomorrow.
I’m in Queens, New York City. It’s 22:42 at night and it’s still 89 Fahrenheit (almost 32 Celsius) out and pretty much in, given that Carrie and Alex’s flat has no aircon. It was at least 38 Celsius on the lower E side of Manhattan today – and I was trying to film. It’s a wonder that the camera didn’t warp in half, and I didn’t get arrested for disturbing the peace as I was wont to do w some of the shopkeepers who are price gouging like crazy. Bottles of cold Gatorade are suddenly $3 in some places when they are normally around $1.
The reason I’m here is to shoot a mid-length TV doccie on nature nuts in NYC for SA television. I’ve been a bit slack about my blog posts because I’ve been hectically busy w setting things up and trying to get some tape down.
One of my main subjects is yojimbot (not his real name) who is a keen follower of various birds of prey around the City. I went out w him for the first time 2 days ago (Saturday). We started at the Red-tailed Hawk nest on the Cathedral of St John the Divine, went to see some American Kestrel (parents and some recently fledged young) somewhere on the west side, and ended up at Broadway Bridge on the northern tip of Manhattan.
Broadway Bridge, a double-decker steel bridge (train above, roadway below) is home to a family of Peregrine Falcon. Three nestlings have fledged within the last week. As is normal with newly-flying youngsters, they’re pretty clumsy. They’re not good at balancing or flying. I was filming yojimbot watching as a youngster flew down to just above the train line. As I was shooting, a train came by and then, somehow, a fledgling Perrie was flopping down through the train deck and landing in the middle of four lanes of traffic. Ack!
yojimbot immediately ran across the way, almost getting himself totalled by a giant Escalade, which is when I realised that I wasn’t sure how experienced he was w handling raptors. Many people are very careful not to get bitten by birds of prey; they don’t know that by comparison to getting ‘beaked’, getting ‘footed’ is far, far more painful. Inexperienced people thus often get hurt rather badly by the talons of the bird they’re trying to pick up. Visions of yojimbot and the bird both getting squished in short order were flying through my mind, especially if Private Peregrine decided to put his hallux claw into yojimbot’s hand to make him scream and behave wildly irrationally (which I have seen happen before).
Traffic was too heavy for me to get into the middle of the two lanes either way, which is where cars and trucks were whizzing by within a yard of the yojimbot:bird complex. Any thoughts of filming anything vanished from my admittedly low-RAM mind, and I took the camera down from my eye. I now have half a minute of footage of the road and tyres passing across it, with a soundtrack of rumbling noises and me yelling ‘grab the feet!’ like a stuck record, instead of the tight shot of the heroic mid-bridge rescue.
As soon as a gap appeared in the cars I took off to the middle, where yojimbot had just managed to get hold of the bird by its legs sort-of under his bag (never seen a technique like that. Must try it sometime). I managed some close shots of him taking the bird off the bridge, and then took the flapping creature out of his hands. We then put the bird on a bridge railing away from fences and not over the water so it could fly off somewhere safe (we hoped it could fly well enough to do that — it’s nearly always far better to leave a fledgling bird near its parents than try to look after it at home or in a rehab centre). I got some great close-up video of the bird on the railing, and then the tape ran out. As I was changing tapes the bird, of course, flew off. So no great shot of Private Peregrine flying to freedom and no close-up of the rescue itself. Urgh.
yojimbot says the bird really should be Nemo, because we had to go find him, but Private Peregrine worked better for the post title. We went back to look for the him/her this evening, but could not with 100% certainty see more than two fledglings at a time – so one of them, perhaps ‘our’ bird, might not have made it.
You can see some of yojimbot’s pics of Saturday’s adventure at his blog. I have no stills because I was only shooting video. Go to
I really enjoy urban nature blogs like these. Old-fashioned amateur naturalist studies reviving via the Internet.
Yours in Deep, Dark Sweatiness
Serious photographers never, ever shoot sunsets. Sunsets are for idiotic tourists with no imagination. When I used to live in a small flat in Higgovale (Cape Town) I had a wonderful side-on view of Lions Head and Signal Hill. The tourists buses (mini mobile Ant Farms) used to go along to the end of Signal Hill in the evening and disgorge their crop-fulls of Shermans to check out the twinkenlights fluttering into blinkenness in the City Bowl, with the harbour and Table Bay all spread out behind. You could just picture the ‘ach suusses’ and ‘geils’ as Herr and Frau Kleinekamera crabwalked frantically around each other to get the better view of the spectacle of Kapstadt drawing on her nocturnal gown, generously elbowing away their fellow package travellers and quietly stepping on their sandal buckles while doing so (eina!). All this was imagined from my point of view, of course, as all I could see from my balcony were ephemeral falling tiaras of tiny flashbulb-pops forming and vanishing around the jowls of the buses. The average tourist has no idea that the film or imaging chips in their matchbox cameras cannot make any sort of useful image in very low light. Their poor matchbox cameras, faced with dark scenes, attempt to cope by auto-flashing at full output, but of course their micro flashes cannot throw an image-forming beam hundreds of metres down. All that results from the point-n-pop excercise is wasted film, wasted batteries, and fun eye candy for those looking up to the Hill.
So, sunsets are awful. Sunsets with silhouettes are worse, because it’s so damn easy to make a 3-D object look interesting by reducing it to 2-D in the camera and then throwing away all colour information by turning it black. It’s one of those things that’s guaranteed to get oohs and aahs from your most boring relatives when you inflict a slideshow evening on them after your latest budget trip overseas. Serious photographers thus avoid silhouettes, and particularly silhouettes at sunset.
The lone-tree-in-the-landscape motif is also among the worst of dreadful cliches. Shoot even one and you mark yourself for life as one of those nerds who learned their photography from large glossy hardbacked books, the primary-coloured ‘how to’ tomes that well-meaning parents find on remainder sales and inflict on teenage offspring in the vague hope that they’ll stay off drugs. Shoot a lonely tree and you enter the club of losers with no natural sense of what an image should be, no eye, the B-team of unsophisticated shutter-schmucks.
Here’s a picture from Caddo Lake, northeast Texas, late on 16 May 2008.
we all know about the Bald Eagle, the ultimate symbol of freedom and US pride. South African readers of this blog will know the African Fish-Eagle, a close relative of the Bald, and likewise associated with grace, beauty, and fearsome strength. It’s ringing cry is the ‘call of the African wilderness’.
Alaska is the stronghold of the Bald Eagle. It’s pristine waters support by far the largest population of these fantastic raptors in the USA.
What the bird marketers don’t tell you is that both Bald Eagle and African Fish-Eagle are incredibly lazy. These guys would sit on their perches all day if they didn’t have to make a living, and if they don’t have to go to all the bother of catching and killing something, they won’t. They’ll eat dead stuff.
I found the bird above on a beach at Homer, Alaska, on a day trip down there with Jim Dahl (a Rotary club fella from Ketchikan). I could get within 10m of it and get this image with a pretty short lens because it likes people. It hangs out on the mucky beach with the fishermen all day, feeding on fishguts they toss away. Its long killer claws actually get in the way of walking, giving it a comical careful amble like a clown with oversized shoes on.
All around many fishing towns in Alaska, the Bald Eagle is nothing more than a clumsy, big crow. They sit about on docks and festoon lampposts, waiting for their entrail lunch. Many don’t even bother to clean themselves. Although African Fish-Eagle are equally lazy, I’ve never seen one get this dirty. Sies man! (Check out its blurry buddies in the background.)
I guess all logos have their dark sides. Elephant dump huge piles of poo in the road. Lion fornicate all day. Springbok, well, Springbok are just a bit stupid, though I’d rather eat Springbok bredie than Bald Eagle pie.
slowly ploughing backwards thru photos from my trip.
Soldotna, Alaska, I think 9 May 08. Round the back of the hotel where I was staying is the Kenai River, a fishing mecca with so many fishing lodges/spots/hangouts along its length its a miracle anything with gills lives in there anymore.
Taking an evening break, I walk along the banks to look for birds. I find a nearby Mew Gull, a commonish small gull and decide to take a record shot of it. As I’m snapping away, it calls up to its mate…
…which comes down to say hi…
…and then gets bored and goes off to fiddle about with its bill in the dirty unmelted snow our protagonists are standing on (I have no idea why).
A bit later both birds fly off a few metres, one landing on an even dirtier bit of snow…
…where it settles down…
…and then (here’s the interesting bit), yawns.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, this particular yawn reminded me that I’ve seen lizards and even fish yawning, and just about every mammal you could care to think of. Clearly the common ancestor of us and many other vertebrates around today was a yawner. (Birds branched off the vertebrate evolutionary tree in the Jurassic – like somewhere between 200 and 145 million years ago.)
What’s the point of yawning? Do amoebas yawn? Why is this funny habit so many hundreds of millions of years old? I mean, crap, humans and birds evolved out of lizards or coelocanths or whatever into hectic endothermic creatures with wings, big brains, lord knows what else, but we haven’t managed to evolve out of YAWNING?
Do you think yawning could be evidence of Intelligent Design?
I’m going to stop now, because if I carry on I’ll find myself with a stellar academic career on my hands, and that may be disastrous. But I look forward to your ideas!
sorry – another ‘boring’ post. Have just typed up the birds I’ve seen on this trip so far (California, Alaska, Texas, Michigan) so that I can orient myself. Listing species for me is a remembering tool (I’m not particularly into ‘big years’ or anything like that). Challenging yourself to find particular birds can sharpen your field skills and connect you better to the environment, I feel, so I do try to write down what I see and have certain ‘target birds’ in mind when I visit a particular area.
Birding on this trip has been largely opportunistic and recreational although I have spent perhaps 5 days doing dedicated birding in certain places. As a result I have seen some great birds (including the two rarest warblers in the USA, Kirtland’s and Golden-cheeked, both Endangered) but have some obvious common species missing from the list. Names are according to Sibley and roughly in his order (I have tried to group birds by genus). Birds in italics were only seen in the hand (in California). All others were identified by me as free-flying birds, or identified by local companion birders and seen well enough by me to confirm field marks. At least two species (Veery and E Wood-Peewee) were heard but not seen, and are excluded from this list. There are 258 species listed here, and combined with the birds seen on previous trips to the US I now have over 300 species for my US list.
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great (White) Egret
Little Blue Heron
Mute Swan (introduced)
Gtr. White-frnt. Goose
Feral Pigeon (intro.)
Common Ground Dove
Great Crested Flycatcher
N. Rough-w. Swallow
European Starling (intro.)
Blk.-Thrt. Gray Warbler
House Sparrow (intro.)