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Bush-crow diaries: The African night

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Finding colour-marked bush-crows and then racking up hours of observations is gruelling work under a full day of the African sun, particularly now that the ‘rainy’ season has subsided. The grasslands are drying quickly and the movements of natural life are evident in response to this seasonal change. The number of Burchells Zebra Equus quagga burchelli at one of the sites I work at seems to increase almost daily as well the noticeable movements of other nomadic birds. The bush-crows also appear to be vacating some sites as they disperse post-breeding. They continue to perplex and fascinate me, mixed with periods of head-scratching over their sheer unpredictability. In an intensive fieldwork environment such as this, it is of course important to find an easy way to recharge.

After dark

I have always maintained that night-time in the tropics is often more exciting than during the day. There is a cryptic unpredictability about the tropical night and its natural life that only gives up its treats in small doses, subtle glimpses into an entirely different realm. Thus far, making time for the odd night-time foray has definitely been worthwhile, and a good way to wind down after a long day under the sun.

Spotlighting (generally looking for mammals via eyeshine with powerful torches) is the best way to look for things and the excitement of locking onto two beads of light from the blackness never grows old. Mammals are of course not the only things to become active as reptiles, amphibians, masses of insect life and nocturnal birds all come out of the shadows as the daylight fades. The beauty of the natural history of the night is that every experience is just that little bit more intimate.

Here are a few of the highlights so far.

Senegal Bushbaby (or Senegal Galago) <em>Galago senegalensis</em> - The bright-red eyeshine of these nocturnal primates makes them relatively easy to find and a joy to watch as they work their way skilfully through the canopy and bound over open ground between Acacias.

Senegal Bushbaby (or Senegal Galago) Galago senegalensis - The bright-red eyeshine of these nocturnal primates makes them relatively easy to find and a joy to watch as they work their way skilfully through the canopy and bound over open ground between Acacias.

Northern White-faced Owl <em>Ptilopsis leucotis</em> - This beautiful owl was made pseudo-famous after being featured on Japanese television (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqt0OziQhx8) showing its bizarre defence postures!

Northern White-faced Owl Ptilopsis leucotis - This beautiful owl was made pseudo-famous after being featured on Japanese television (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqt0OziQhx8) showing its bizarre defence postures!

Probably Graceful Chameleon <em>Chamaeleo gracilis</em>

Probably Graceful Chameleon Chamaeleo gracilis

Common Genet (or Small-spotted Genet) <em>Genetta genetta</em> – Although looking superficially like a cat, they are taxonomically very different but are well known for becoming very tame in some circumstances.

Common Genet (or Small-spotted Genet) Genetta genetta – Although looking superficially like a cat, they are taxonomically very different but are well known for becoming very tame in some circumstances.

Moby Dik-Dik

One of the guides of the local Yabello wildlife sanctuary has told me on numerous occasions about the ‘White’ Dik-dik that inhabit the juniper clad hills above the town of Yabello, our base here for fieldwork. Guenthers Dik-dik Madoqua guentheri are a very common resident all around our study area and such mystery creatures are usually down to hearsay. I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued, however, after being told about a skin from an animal that was killed many years ago. On seeing the skin, and seeing that it really was white, my curiosity spiked, prompting an evening trip into the hills in search of the seemingly elusive and mysterious ‘Yabello white Dik-dik’. Loading onto the back of a motorbike, we trundled our way along the dusty road that carves its way over the hills to the West of the town. The first few hours proved fruitless despite lots of tracks and signs of the obviously ubiquitous Dik-dik. As the light fell however, small numbers began to show along the roadsides, but despite multiple encounters with everyday ‘Guenthers’ the mystery of the white Dik-dik seemed still exactly that..

This all changed when I located another group of 3 of these little antelopes beside the road, where, even in the rapidly fading light, one stood out bright white, the proverbial holy grail in my search!

Why there appears to be a number of white, probably leucistic individuals in this population apparently only residing in the higher altitude juniper forest in the hills above Yabello is confusing, but more perplexing is apparently (although this is only by word of mouth) the same phenomenon occurring in similar hills to the South and East. The provenance of these claims and further information on the observed animals (which I am told are down to numerous individuals) perhaps warrants study in its own right, but for now will have to remain as another conundrum for the future.

Regardless, another mini discovery in this ever more confusing area, and the first photographs and formal documentation of the ‘Yabello white Dik-dik’.

No bush-crows in the night of course, but it is healthy to get away from the study subject for a little while and discover the more cryptic delights of this enchanting place.

There is always a common theme however, continual discovery.

Images: All images copyright the author

Previously in this series:

Bush-crow diaries: The mystery of the Abyssinian Pie
Bush-crow diaries: Up close and personal with the qaqa
Bush-crow diaries: Settling in with the Borana

Samuel Jones About the Author: Samuel Jones is an early-career ornithologist and conservation scientist. An avid naturalist and field ornithologist since childhood, he has been involved in a wide variety of work worldwide, particularly in expedition environments throughout the new and old world tropics. He is currently completing postgraduate study at Imperial College London. Follow on Twitter @samuel_ei_jones.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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