Michael Hutchins on July 27, 2017

One of my favorite mammals in the Serengeti ecosystem is the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis).  This small denizen of the East African savannah is named for its ultra-large ears, which dominate the top of its head. Its adult tawny brown coloration with black legs and tail are perfect camouflage in tall dry grass.

Young bat-eared fox - Tanzania - (c) Michael Hutchins

A young bat-eared fox in the Serengeti grasslands. Photo by Michael Hutchins

 

The bat-eared fox occurs primarily in short grassland habitat; it prefers areas where the grass is kept short by grazing ungulates.  It hunts in these short grass habitats, but will venture into tall grass to hide from larger predators then threatened.

This species has an unusual diet, which consists of some 80-90 percent of harvester termites (Hodotermes mossambicus). When this termite is unavailable, the foxes will feed on other termites as well and have also been seen foraging on ants, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and other small insects.  Being a carnivore, however, it will eat small mammals and reptiles opportunistically.

Young bat-eared fox foraging - Tanzania - (c) Michael Hutchins

A young bat-eared fox foraging. Photo by Michael Hutchins

 

Bat-eared foxes tend to hunt in groups, mostly in pairs or groups of three. Prey is located primarily through hearing, thus the large ears.  Foraging patterns vary with season and termite availability. While foraging is primarily diurnal during the part of the year, at other times, it is nocturnal, continuing throughout the night. Since food resources are clumped (termite mounds), this species is not territorial and does not fight each other over food.  In the Serengeti, the subspecies (O. m. virgatus) is primarily nocturnal (85 percent of the time), but can be sometimes seen during the day.

Bat-eared fox group - Tanzania - (c) Michael Hutchins

A small group of bat-eared foxes huddles together for warmth near their den in the cool early morning. Photo by Michael Hutchins.

 

Bat-eared foxes are highly social, often living in pairs or small groups of up to 15 individuals. Individuals forage, play and rest together as a group and their group vigilance aids in protection against predators. The slightest hint of danger will send the animals scurrying into the tall grass or the safety of a den.  Social grooming (licking and biting of the fur of another) occurs throughout the year and has the dual purpose of keeping inaccessible areas clean and cementing social bonds.

When it comes to reproduction, bat-eared foxes are primarily monogamous, although it has been observed in polygynous groups.  Unlike other foxes, it is the male that assumes most of the parental duties.  Gestation lasts for 60-70 days and litters generally consist of 1-6 kits.  Lactation lasts from 14-15 weeks, but males do the lion’s share of grooming, defending, huddling, watching, and transporting the young between den sites. Indeed, male care and den attendance are correlated with kit survival.

Females spend a majority of their time foraging for food, which is used for milk production on which the kits depend for their early nutrition.  Food brought back to the den by adults is not regurgitated for the kits as it is in other canids. Young bat-eared foxes leave their family groups at around 5-6 months of age and reach full sexual maturity early at about 8-9 months.

Wet bat-eared fox - Tanzania - (c) Michael Hutchins

Looking a bit like Yoda of Star Wars fame, this young bat-eared fox sits on the edge of a road near tall grass soaking wet from dew. Photo by Michael Hutchins.

 

Bat-eared foxes have no immediate conservation  threats and are common in the Serengeti.  Let World Safaris show you the natural wonders of Africa.

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Michael Hutchins on March 20, 2017

On World Safaris’ January, 2017 expedition to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania our clients were treated to some fascinating animal behavior: two young hippos playing a variation of “king of the hill.”

Although highly gregarious, adult hippos can be very aggressive, even to other members of their group.  Often we see open mouth threats and other aggressive behaviors, sometimes culminating in brief, but intense actual combat.  Adults have long canine teeth, which can inflict painful bites and scratches.  The thick hides of adult hippos are often covered with scratches as a result.

Adult hippo threat

Two adult hippos face off in open mouth threats while testing one another. Photo by M. Hutchins.

 

Play behavior among young hippos is seldom seen, but we were able to watch and photograph two young hippos engaging in play for over an hour at the Hippo Pool in Ngorongoro Crater. The interactions began with pushing and shoving and progressed into open mouth threats and exaggerated chasing and running away. Sometimes the two would assume a head to tail position and rest their heads on each others’ backs.  The pushing and shoving appeared to be a form of “king of the hill”, which is a common play behavior in many ungulate (hooved mammal) species.  This generally involves pushing and shoving, with the general goal of the stronger individual getting the weaker individual off the high ground.

Young hippos push 1

Young hippos push 2

In these two photos, the young hippos assume a head to tail position pushing and shoving, often opening their mouths in typical hippo threat behavior until the other yields or loses its position on the high ground. Photos by M. Hutchins.

 

The pushing, shoving, chasing and open mouth threats eventually ended with one of the pair rolling into the water and making a big splash, while the other watched.

Young hippos push 3

Young hippos push 4

These two photos show one of the young hippos rolling into the water, while the other watches. Photos by M. Hutchins.

 

The rolling hippo would eventually emerge from the water with the “victor” waiting to resume the contest, and the sequence would begin all over again.

Young hippos push 5

This shows the roller emerging from the water with its “opponent” ready to resume the mock battle, with mouth open. Photos by M. Hutchins.

 

We humans tend to think of play as non-serious, inconsequential, “fun” behavior.  However, play behavior is very complex, serious business. When they play, young animals are learning how to interact and defend themselves from others, but because the participants are so young, they can engage in these behaviors with little risk of injury or death.  Of course, that does not mean that there are no risks; It just means that the risks are low and it is better to gain these skills when young rather than wait until one is an adult and the risks are great, possibly resulting in serious injury or even death.

This was a wonderful example of the behavior of free-ranging animals that we were able to see, experience and interpret on this trip. World Safaris cannot guarantee that you will see specific  animals or behaviors on our trips. However, we see our job as putting our clients in the best possible positions to have such experiences if and when they occur.  Please let World Safaris show you the natural wonders of East Africa and beyond.

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Michael Hutchins on July 7, 2016

The African buffalo (formerly known as the Cape buffalo) is one of the most formidable animals you will meet on your African safari. These huge herbivores not only look tough, they are tough, often banding together to repel large predators, such as lions.  Syncerus caffer is the only native African bovid, a group which includes wild and domestic cattle.

African buffalo1 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

The grizzled faces of African buffalo are amazing and unique.

 

African buffalo are massive, muscular animals with short legs.  Mature males can weigh over 1,900 pounds and reach up to 60-66 inches in height; females can weigh over 1,200 pounds and are about 10% shorter than males.  Their heads are broad with wide mouths and bare, moist nostrils and drooping, fringed ears.  The size and shape of their thick, massive horns varies depending on sex and age.  Male horns can have a width of around 40 inches, with the length along the curve varying from 48-50 inches; the horns of adult females are some 10-20% smaller.  Adult coat color varies from black to dark brown without markings.  Young calves start out black or dark brown and then change to yellow brown, and then to reddish or chocolate brown after several months.

African buffalo2 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A large herd of African buffalo in open grassland habitat in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

 

African buffalo are highly social and non-territorial, massing and moving in large, mixed herds that inhabit traditional home ranges.  Herd and home range size varies with the productivity of their range, but can consist of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals.   Clans of a dozen or more related cows and their offspring form subgroups within these larger aggregations.  The largest gatherings only occur during the rainy season on large patches of rich pasture.

When resting, members of the same clan (family clusters) will stand or lie in close proximity, often with their backs touching.  Within these clans, separate dominance hierarchies develop among adult males and females, and each clan has its own “pathfinder” that leads the way to water and pasture.  Males are dominant to females.  Adolescent males leave their clans at around three years of age and associate in subgroups, but stay clear of the breeding bulls. Older males that are past their prime may leave mixed breeding herds and assemble in bachelor herds.

African buffalo3 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A subgroup (clan) of female African buffalo accompanied by males.

 

Females are in estrus (breeding condition) for only 2-3 days.  When in breeding condition, a female typically attracts a large number of males.   It is then when dominance comes into play, with the most dominant bull generally gaining preferred access to the female for breeding. Fights are common at this time, and males clash in head-to-head collisions, with the subordinate male typically running away following these tests of strength.

Gestation lasts around 11 months and birth intervals of two years are normal.  Newborn calves are at great risk from predation and can gain their feet within 10 minutes post-partum; however, they remain vulnerable for several weeks until they can keep up with their mothers and the herd. The cow-calf bond is very strong and it is exclusive. Females recognize their infants by smell and will not nurse other calves. Females stop lactating when the calf is around 10 months old.  After the next calf is born, the female may become hostile towards her yearling offspring, but the yearling may continue to follow the mother for another year or more.  A female’s attachment to her clan is also quite strong. Adults will respond to all distress calls and both adult females and bulls will come to the aid of herd members that are attacked by predators, such as lions, which will attempt to take adults, or spotted hyenas, which prey on the young.  Lions risk being mobbed by herd members and can be gored or trampled in the process. Buffalo have been known to live as long as 26 years.

African buffalo4 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A large herd of buffalo moving together in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.

 

African buffalo prefer grassy savannah, water courses, and swampy basins and are found in all but the driest parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They are often active at night, foraging, but can also be seen moving and feeding during the day.  We have had them roam through our tented camp at night in central Serengeti, their chewing and grunting sounds heard just outside the tent walls, even leaning up against the tent at times.

As ruminants (with four chambered stomachs), these herbivores must eat large quantities of vegetation, because the energy content of their cellulose rich diet is relatively low.  These animals are grazers and prefer tall, mature grasses, too course for other ruminants to process.  They use their sharp incisors to cut the grass and then chew it with their massive cheek teeth before swallowing.  They must drink at least once daily, so water is an important habitat requirement.

African buffalo5 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A Red-billed oxpecker can be seen on the right side of this female’s face feeding on parasites on the mammal’s skin, a mutually beneficial relationship.

 

Buffalo associate with many other species for one reason or another. Oxpeckers can often be seen picking parasites off the skin of buffalo and egrets are often observed foraging in close proximity to buffalo as their movements disturb insects, which are a primary food for the birds.

African buffalo6 Tanzania ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

An egret foraging next to a male African buffalo, a common sight in East Africa. Only the bird is likely benefiting from this relationship.

 

African buffalo are just one of the many amazing animals one can see on an African safari. Let World Safaris show you the wonders of the African savannah.

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Michael Hutchins on April 29, 2016

Two types of crocodiles inhabit Australia and nature travelers to the northern, western and eastern parts of the country need to familiarize themselves with both the joys and the dangers of watching and being in proximity to these formidable predators.

Saltwater crocodile - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A large saltwater crocodile basking at the waters edge.

 

Adult saltwater crocodiles or “Salties” (Crocodylus porosus) are the largest of all living reptiles.  An adult male can reach over 20 feet in length and weigh in at over 2,000 pounds. Typical lengths and weights, however, are in 14-17 foot and 800-2000 pound range. Females are much smaller than males and usually do not surpass 10 feet in length.

These formidable, opportunistic, ambush predators should not frighten you away from a trip to Australia, but knowledge is power and, like any large predator, they deserve your respect and caution.  Many areas are dangerous to swim in and even venturing too close to the shoreline or into shallow water is a bad idea in saltwater crocodile country.  That being said, tourists are perfectly safe if they remain cautious.

Crocodile warning sign - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Warning signs are common in crocodile habitat. They should be heeded at all times.

 

Though many areas of high danger are marked with warning signs, many are not and saltwater crocodiles do take an occasional unsuspecting, less knowledgeable tourist who gets too close to the water’s edge or tries to go swimming in crocodile country.   On average, one or two people are killed annually in Australia. Saltwater crocodiles are known to swim long distances at sea and occasionally do show up on the Great Barrier Reef, but only rarely, which is fortunate for the snorkeling and scuba diving industry.  In Australia, saltwater crocodiles have ventured as far south as Fraser Island, even showing up near Brisbane on occasion, especially during the warmer wet season.

Saltwater crocodiles will attempt to tackle prey of large size, including kangaroos, cattle and humans.  Their hunting behavior is similar to that of other crocodilians. They swim slowly towards their prey, and with most of their cryptically-colored body underwater, and can go totally undetected until it is too late. Once close enough to strike, the animals can move remarkably fast to capture, grip and clamp down on prey with their tooth filled jaws.  Saltwater crocodiles have the most powerful bite ever recorded under laboratory conditions, with a bite-strength of 3,690 pounds-force.  Small prey are swallowed whole, but larger prey are dragged into deeper water where they drown.  Often, the predator performs a “death roll”, spinning rapidly to kill the prey or to tear off large chunks of meat for consumption.  Once the crocodile eats its fill, the remaining food is sometimes stored for later consumption.

Swimming crocodile - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Swimming crocodiles are very difficult to see as they maintain a low profile in the water and look like floating logs.

 

Once rare due to over-hunting, saltwater crocodiles are now thriving in parts of Australia, notably the northernmost parts of Northern Territory around Darwin, Western Australia and Queensland.  Kakadu National Park, just east of Darwin is one of the best places to see them, and large individuals more than 16 feet in length are common there.

Saltwater crocodiles spend the tropical wet season in freshwater swamps and rivers, moving downstream to marine estuaries in the dry season.  Coastal and estuarine mangrove forests are ideal places for them to hide and feed.

Mangrove habitat - Queensland, Australia - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Typical mangrove habitat in northern Queensland.

 

Saltwater crocodiles are not as social as other crocodilians. For one, adult males are highly territorial and thus less tolerant of their own kind.  A male will share his territory with a number of breeding females, but any rivals will be driven off as soon as they are detected, especially during the wet season when mating occurs.  In Australia, courtship and mating generally occur in September and October, with egg laying occurring between November and March.  Females build nests out of mud and vegetation. Fermentation of the vegetation creates warmth, which may aid in incubation.  Sex of hatchlings is determined by ambient temperature.

Females typically lay between 40-60 leathery shelled eggs and are highly protective of their nests and young.  They will guard the nest for 80-90 days after egg-laying.  However, loss of eggs is still often high due to flooding and predation.  Large goanna lizards, in particular, like to prey on crocodile nests.  Once they hatch, baby crocodiles are eaten by a wide range of predators, ranging from predatory birds, such as storks to large fish, such as barramundi. Larger crocodiles will also prey on the young.  Losses are heavy, with only around 1% of hatchlings surviving to adulthood. If they do reach adulthood, they can survive for more than 70 years.

Threatening saltwater crocodile - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Saltwater crocodiles are aggressive towards member of their species; this one is threatening another which got too close.

 

Salt water crocodiles have the most valuable skin of any crocodilian. In the 20th century, they were nearly hunted to extinction, but the advent of full legal protection in the wild, combined with the establishment of crocodile farming, saved the species from extinction.  The greatest challenge to conservation has been negative human attitudes because of the danger that they occasionally pose to humans.

The other crocodile inhabiting Australia is the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) or “Freshie.”  Unlike the much larger and aggressive saltwater crocodile, the freshwater crocodile is a docile fish-eater and is not dangerous to humans, although it will bite if cornered or harrassed.  This species has a more slender snout.  A relatively small crocodilian, males can grow up to 9 feet and weigh 200 pounds, but the average range is 7 to just under 10 feet and 150 pounds.

Freshwater crocodile - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

The freshwater crocodile has a more narrow snout and is comparatively docile.

 

Freshwater crocodiles are found in the Australian states of Western Australia, Queensland and Northern Territory. As the name implies they are found primarily in freshwater wetlands, waterholes (billibongs), rivers and creeks. One of the best places to see them is in Katherine Gorge National Park in Northern Territory.  It is generally considered safe to swim in areas inhabited only by freshwater crocodiles, and I have been in the water with them in Katherine Gorge.   They can be found in the same areas as saltwater crocodiles and are saltwater tolerant, but complete poorly with them.

Author holding baby freshwater crocodile, 1985 - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

The author holding a baby freshwater crocodile in a water hole in Northern Territory, 1985.

 

Eggs are laid in holes dug in soft sand or soil during the dry season, usually in August.  Nests are not defended during incubation, but around five days prior to hatching, the young start calling from their eggs.  This both synchronizes hatching in the clutch and stimulates the adults to open the nest.  As the young emerge, the adult picks them up in their mouth and transports them to water.

Freshwater crocodile egg - Australia - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A freshwater crocodile egg. The nest had been raided by a sand goanna in Northern Territory.

 

Seeing these large Australian predators in the wild is akin to seeing lions and leopards in Africa. They should be admired at a distance and in safety, but they are magnificent animals and play an extremely important ecological role in their natural habitats. Let World Safaris show you the natural wonders of Australia.

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Michael Hutchins on April 12, 2016

Agama lizards are among the most common reptiles encountered on the Serengeti plains.  While there are 37 species of the genus Agama ranging across Africa, the three most commonly seen in the Serengeti are the Mwanza flat-headed rock agama (Agama mwanzae), red-headed rock agama (Agama agama) and the blue-headed tree agama (Acanthocercus atricollis).  The first two species are similar in appearance and often mistaken for one another.  With their bright red and blue coloration, the red-headed and Mwanza rock agamas are often referred to as the “Spider man agamas.”

Agamas were originally forest dwellers, but have adapted to a wide range of habitats. On my last trip to the Serengeti, I saw tree agamas on rocks and rock agamas in trees. But they also will live in and around human habitation, searching for insects on the thatched huts of the Maasai people.  The rock agama is also very common around rocky outcrops known as “kopjes.”

Blue-headed tree agama lizard - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris - Serengeti, Tanzania

Blue-headed tree agama lizard

 

Flat-headed Mawana agama lizard - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris - Serengeti, Tanzania

Flat-headed Mwanza agama lizard

 

Agamas are diurnal animals, and being cold-blooded (ectothermic), they are most active during the warmest part of the day.   However, when temperatures exceed around 38 degrees C (100 degrees F), the animals seek shade and wait for it to cool.

Agamas are primarily insectivores, but they will also occasionally eat grass, berries, seeds, and even the eggs of smaller lizards. They are active hunters and their sharp teeth are ideal for the capture, cutting and chewing of prey. They are known to eat spiders, beetles, ants, caterpillars and worms.

Agamas are highly polygynous and one male will mate with many females. Males are larger than females and considerably more colorful.   Males are highly territorial, engaging in ritualistic head-bobbing behavior to defend their space, which is typically shared with up to six adult females.  Most interactions between males involve such threats, leading to displacement and chasing.  If actual fighting breaks out, however, the males lash out at each other with their tails and threaten each other with open jaws, showing their sharp teeth.  Females sometimes also chase and fight one another.

Female agama lizard - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris - Serengeti, Tanzania

A drably colored female agama basking in the midday sun.

 

The breeding season typically occurs after rains from March-May, with eggs being laid in June-September.  During courtship, the male shows off his brilliant coloration and bobs his head vigorously. Females may initiate courtship by presenting themselves to the male. Chasing may ensure until the male catches up with the female and mating occurs. Clutches may consist of up to 12 eggs.  After mating with a dominant, territorial male, female agamas dig their nests in moist, sandy soils in which plants are growing.  There is no parental care and when the young hatch, they are on their own.

Male rock agama - ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris - Serengeti, Tanzania

Male rock agama surveys his territory.

 

The vibrant colors of male agamas have made them popular in the pet trade.  However, the best place to see these remarkable animals is in their natural habitat. Let World Safaris show you and your family the wonders of African wildlife.

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Michael Hutchins on March 7, 2016

On our recent (2016) trip to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, my World Safaris’ tour group had some fantastic opportunities to observe and photograph golden jackal behavior in close quarters. The golden or common jackal (Canis aureus) is a wild member of the dog family (Canidae), now determined through DNA analysis to be closely related to North America’s grey wolf (http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/golden-jackals-of-east-africa-are-actually-golden-wolves-biologists-report ).

Golden jackal Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

East Africa’s golden jackal is actually a wolf.

 

Similar to a small grey wolf or coyote in appearance, the golden jackal has a more slender build, a smaller, pointed muzzle, and a shorter tail. It typically weighs between 15 and 35 pounds. The species inhabits open savannas, deserts, and arid grasslands. Despite its similar name, it is not closely related to the black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) which overlaps its range.

Black-backed jackal Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

The black-backed jackal is not closely related to the golden jackal, but shares its range in East Africa.

 

The golden jackal is an opportunistic hunter, taking prey ranging in size from rodents and hares to baby wildebeest, as well as birds and reptiles. However, it will also eat plants and is omnivorous. Jackals occasionally form small packs to scavenge a carcass, but they typically hunt either alone or in pairs.

The golden jackal is monogamous, but is flexible in its social behavior, living either alone or in family groups of 4-5 individuals. Its vocalizations are similar to those of the domestic dog, including howling.

Golden jackal3 Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Howling golden jackal near the Naiabi Road, southern Serengeti.

 

Although its behavior is very dog-like, we did observe one pair engaging in intensive social grooming behavior, biting at the fur of another. This could be important for both social bonding and for the removal of external parasites, such as ticks.

Golden jackals grooming Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A golden jackal pair engaging in intensive social grooming.

 

Jackals are highly territorial. Pairs defend their territory from other pairs by chasing and threatening intruders and by marking the area with their urine and feces. As in many mammals, olfaction (smell) is an important form of communication. Some young adults may remain with their parents until they can establish their own territories.

Births occur mainly in January-February in East Africa. In the Serengeti, golden jackals court at the end of the dry season and produce pups during the rainy season. The gestation period is approximately 63 days. Young are born in a den within the parents’ territory. Litters consist of between one to nine pups, but two to four is typical. The pups’ eyes open after around 10 days. The pups are weaned at around 8 weeks of age. Older young are fed by regurgitation with partially digested food, taking some solid food at about three months. Both parents provide food and protection for the young until they are old enough to go out on their own. Sexual maturity occurs at around eleven months of age.

Golden jackal young Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

A young golden jackal resting, but alert in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

 

Golden jackals are just one of the many species of fascinating animals one can encounter on safari in East Africa. Let World Safaris’ show you the wonders of African wildlife.

 

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Michael Hutchins on November 30, 2015

The Southern Cassowary (Casuarious casuarius) is a large, flightless bird native to the wet tropical rainforest of northeastern Australia.  Related species, the Dwarf or Bennett’s and the Northern Cassowary are found on New Guinea and adjacent islands.  The Cassowary’s closest relative in Australia is the Emu (Dromaius novaehollaniae), and it is more distantly related to the Ostrich, Rhea and Kiwi, residents of other continents and islands.  These birds are known as ratites, flightless birds without a keel on their sternums.  Male Cassowaries can stand over five feet five inches tall and weigh up to 110 pounds. Females are even taller and can weigh up to 160 pounds. Among living birds, only ostriches are larger.

Australia rainforest ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Cassowaries are not birds to be taken lightly. They have a fearsome reputation of eviscerating humans by kicking them in the abdomen with their three-toed feet, the inner toe of which is fitted with a long, straight nail.  That being said, the reality does not stand up to scrutiny. Habituated birds certainly do pose a danger to humans.  However, out of 150 attacks against humans studied in 2003, 75% came from birds that were fed by humans, and most (71%) involved only chasing.  There has been only one recorded death, and that was in 1926, when two young boys tried to harm an adult Cassowary by striking it with clubs.  Like any large, wild animal, it will defend itself and young and should be treated with respect.

The Cassowary is a striking bird, with a prominent casque or “helmet” on top of its head. The skin on the head is a pale blue, which becomes darker on the neck.  There are two long, red to crimson fleshy wattles that dangle from the neck.  The color of these wattles can change with mood.  The body plumage is black, and the skin on the short, stout legs and feet is greenish grey to brownish grey.  The feathers have been described as “hair-like.”  There is some sexual dimorphism, with the female’s casque being taller than the male’s, the skin on the female’s head and neck brighter in color, and the feet larger.  Juveniles have much lighter colors and duller, smaller wattles than adults, with the plumage becoming darker with increasing age.  Hatchlings have a distinctive color, being light brown, with buffy stripes.

Southern cassowary - Australia ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

Cassowaries are predominately frugiverous and play an important role in seed dispersal in their rainforest environment.  When trees are dropping fruit, such as the cassowary plum, which derives its name from the bird, cassowaries will defend the concentrated food resource for days.  Besides fruits, their opportunistic diet consists of flowers, fungi, insects, frogs, rats, mice, carrion, etc.

The breeding season generally begins in May or June.  Males defend a territory which overlaps with the range of its mate. However, female ranges may overlap the territories of several males. Courtship involves dramatic display behavior, with the males moving their heads from side to side, which accentuates the neck region, and the females making a drumming sound, which attracts the males.  There is also ritualized chasing behavior before mating occurs.  Cassowaries are polyandrous, meaning that one female mates with several males.  Females lay three to eight large green or pale blue-green eggs in a leaf litter nest built by the male. Females do not care for the eggs or chicks, but move from one male’s nest to another’s laying eggs.  The male incubates the eggs for 50-52 days, adding or removing leaf litter to control the temperature during incubation.  He will protect the chicks after hatching for an additional nine months or so.

Cassowary crossing - Australia ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

The Southern Cassowary is now considered endangered.  Only 20% of its former habitat remains due to widespread deforestation.  Motor vehicle collisions are another major source of mortality, and many signs have been placed along roads to warn drivers of the birds’ presence.  Perhaps the best place to see Cassowaries is at Mission Beach on the Queensland coast. The birds can also be seen occasionally in Daintree National Park.  I’ve seen them in both locations, including a male followed by three chicks. Let World Safaris help you get to Australia and experience its magnificent bird life.

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Michael Hutchins on October 5, 2015

Wombats are short-legged, stocky plant-eating marsupials with stubby tails. With their large heads and round ears, the animals have been described as having a bear-like appearance. Adults are around three feet in length and their fur can vary from a sandy color to brown, or from grey to black. Early Australian settlers often called them “badgers” recalling familiar species in Europe, but the two species are not even remotely related.

The common wombat (Vombatus ursinus) is found on mainland Australia and Tasmania. The origin of its name is obscure, but appears to come from the language of Aboriginal peoples. There is one family (Vombatidae) and three species. Besides the common wombat, there are also the Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) and Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons). The former is considered endangered and has a limited distribution centered around the Epping Forest and Richard Underwood Nature Refuge at Yarran Downs, both in Queensland.

Like kangaroos and other marsupials, a single infant is born in an early stage of development and is retained in a pouch. The gestation period for a wombat lasts only 20 -22 days. At birth, the baby wombat, or joey, is extremely small and undeveloped, weighing less than one-tenth of an ounce. The joey is hairless, blind and cannot hear, but possesses a large mouth and tongue, and an incredibly well-developed sense of smell, which allows it to orient itself soon after birth. All on its own and without assistance, a baby wombat will crawl into its mother’s pouch and attach itself to one of the mother’s teats. The teat swells up in the joey’s mouth, which prevents it from falling out of the pouch. The joey will remain in the pouch for 4 to 10 months, averaging about 8 months.

Wombats dig extensive burrow systems with their powerful forelimbs and claws. One distinctive adaptation of wombats is their backwards-facing pouch. When digging, the wombat does not throw soil into its pouch and over its young. Mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, wombats also venture out to forage on cool, overcast days. A sure sign of their presence is their distinctive cubic-shaped feces.

Dingos and Tasmanian devils are the primary predators of wombats. Extinct predators likely included the thylacine or Tasmanian wolf. The wombat’s primary defense is their tough rear hide, and the posterior made of cartilage. This, combined with its short tail, makes it difficult for any predator to bite or injure the animal. When attacked, wombats quickly retreat to a nearby burrow, using their tough rumps to block a pursuing attacker from coming inside.

Wombat - Tasmania, Australia 1 ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris      Wombat - Tasmania, Australia 2  ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris (2)

One of the best places to see wombats is on the island state of Tasmania. I was able to observe and photograph them in Mt. William National Park in northeastern Tasmania. We saw several wombats foraging quietly in open fields in daytime, where they were dining on grasses, edges, herbs and roots (photo). The foraging wombats paid little attention to us and were apparently habituated to people. It is best to admire them from a distance, however, as wombats have been known to inflict severe bites on people with their large incisors when threatened or surprised.

Wombat - Tasmania, Australia 3 ©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris (3)

At dusk, we were able to observe a female wombat and her offspring coming out of a burrow to forage (photo). The youngster was tentative at first and often retreated back into its burrow, but it eventually became bolder, following its mother to an adjacent grassy area.

Wombats are just one of the many wildlife wonders that Australia has to offer. Let World Safaris help you and your family experience the unique wildlife and habitats of this island continent.

 

©Michael Hutchins l World Safaris

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Michael Hutchins on August 27, 2015

To call pigeons “beautiful” seems like an oxymoron. The grey, drab feral pigeons of American and European cities do not prepare us for the beauty of the tremendous variety of wild pigeons found throughout the world. One of my favorites is Australia’s unique Spinifex Pigeon (Geophas plumifera). These lovely birds spend most of their time on the ground searching for seeds, their primary diet. When they do fly, they move fast and generally stay low, flapping their wings briefly and then gliding for short distances before landing again. They are often found in pairs or small groups. Their high-pitched “coo” vocalizations are very pigeon-like.

Spinafex Pigeon1 ©Michael Hutchins l www.WorldSafaris.com - Australia

There are three subspecies, but all share similar general coloration patterns. Their rusty-colored plumage, with black striations on the wings, blends in well with the red soils, rocks and dry grasses characteristic of their arid habitats in central and northern Australia. All subspecies have a bright red facial patch surrounding the eye, accentuated by areas of black and grey. A long, elegant feather crest is present on the top of the head. The sexes are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Spinafex Pigeon2 ©Michael Hutchins l www.WorldSafaris.com - Australia

These birds prefer rocky habitats, covered by low woodlands or open areas with spinifex grasses. They are highly dependent on waterholes, and as the dry season progresses, they tend to concentrate around available water sources. The species breeds after rains in spring or summer. The female lays two white eggs under the shelter of a clump of spinifex grasses. Australia is a haven for bird watchers. Let World Safaris show you the wonder of Australia’s bird life.

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Michael Hutchins on July 29, 2015

Located in Australia’s Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park contains one of the best known and spectacular collections of Aboriginal rock art on the entire continent. I visited in 1985 during the dry season when temperatures sometimes reached 130 degrees F at midday. It was best to be active only in early morning and early evening when conditions became more tolerable.

Kakadu National Park lies at the extreme north end of Australia on the Arnhem Land Plateau, a large rocky escarpment rising above the surrounding plains. It is an area that has been visited regularly by Aboriginal people since they first colonized the continent some 50,000 years ago. The first Europeans did not visit this area until 1845. Part of the park lies within the huge Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve.

In Aboriginal culture, members of a particular clan are spiritually linked to specific territories that contain various natural features and sites where mythic beings performed certain acts during the Dreamtime, or time of creation. Being largely nomadic, other clans visited these areas as well. Traditional owners carried out certain rituals at these sites. Some areas also served as temporary shelters, where the people lived and hunted and gathered to sustain themselves during their time in the area. In some of these shelters, men would go to fashion their spears, discuss their activities, and paint.

The region’s rock art is thought to have been created from about 20,000 years ago up until the present day. Some of the most famous and cherished paintings were created in the 1960s and represent what is known as the “x-ray style.” Older paintings are simpler and represent long-extinct animals or weapons that are no longer used. Pigments were obtained from the earth and included red and yellow ochre, white pipe clay, charcoal and others. After European contact, the color blue was introduced.

The main rock art sites were not opened for visitation until the 1960s when tour operators established themselves in the region. At that time, tracks were created to visit the three main sites that are now open to the public: Nangaluwar, Burrunguy (also known as Nourlangie Rock) and Anbangbang . The photos I took below are from these world-famous sites.

Namargon rock art, Anbangbang, Kakadu National Park, Australia ©Michael Hutchins l www.WorldSafaris.com

This painting is part of a large concentration or people and mythic beings at the Anbangbang Shelter. These paintings were created in 1964 by an artist known as Najombolmi or “Barramundi Charlie.” The figures surrounding the man in the middle are the mythic beings, Namargon, the Lightning Man (right) and his wife, Baringi (lower left).

Barramudi rock art, Anbangbang, Kakadu National Park, Australia ©Michael Hutchins l www.WorldSafaris.com

Part of the famous blue paintings also by Najombolmi, these depict two people painted in x-ray style with a barramudi (right), a popular food-fish still hunted by Aboriginals and Europeans alike.

Fly River Turtle rock art, Anbangbang, Kakadu National Park, Australia ©Michael Hutchins l www.WorldSafaris.com

Rock painting of the Fly River turtle (Carettochelys insculpta), a species which until recently was known only from the island of New Guinea. It has since been found in the rivers of Northern Territory.

Learning about the cultures of other peoples is one of the great benefits of international adventure travel. Australia’s Aboriginal people are one of the most ancient and complex societies on Earth. As occurred with Native Americans, Aboriginals suffered greatly with European colonization and many tribes were completely wiped out through indiscriminate killing and disease. The Australian government recently decided to issue a formal apology for their past treatment of these people. Let World Safaris introduce you to the natural and cultural wonders of the island continent.

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