American Coot (Mud Hen): Las Vegas Wetlands

Adding birds to our photography adds so many new subjects to what we can photograph when we travel to a new area. Along with the common gallinule, we got some pictures of the American coot (Fulica americana).

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They make their home in marshes and wetlands. These water birds are not ducks and do not have webbed feet. They have extremely odd looking feet and their toes fold back enabling them to walk on land. Their feet look out of proportion to the rest of their body. However, they are commonly observed with ducks.

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The American coot is common although this was our first encounter with this bird. The male and female are similar in appearance, unlike ducks where the male generally has brilliant plumage.

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To find food it can walk on land, consume aquatic vegetation while swimming, and is also capable of diving. Consequently, it has a varied diet which includes snails and fish. Nests are made from marsh vegetation and the female will produce about 8-10 eggs. Incubation is shared by both parents and the eggs hatch about 21 days later.

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Nurse Sharks: A Common Caribbean Shark

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When most people think of sharks, they think of species like the great white shark, tiger shark, and bull shark. These are known as requiem sharks and have that classic shark appearance. However, there a numerous species of shark that look very different from requiem sharks including the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). These are very common sharks in the Caribbean and often encountered by new divers.

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The head is broad with tiny eyes and has two barbels (whisker-like appendages) that are used in the search of food. Their teeth are small and designed for crushing as part of their diet includes eating shrimp, crab, and lobster. They are nocturnal and during the day they are often seen laying under ledges but are also seen in the open on the sand.

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They are a fairly large shark and can reach over 3 meters or about 10 feet although most are much smaller. They can tip the scales between 90 to 115 kg (200-250 pounds). The gestation period for nurse sharks is about 6 months and generally, they have between 20-30 pups.

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Although many divers see them as harmless, their mouth can produce a tremendous suction and could easily suck in fingers or a hand which they generally will not let go of. Therefore, like all sharks, they must never be touched and need to be respected.

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Elephants (2018): Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

We arrived at this dry riverbed at just the right time to see this small herd of elephants. The rains were late and had not arrived in the Serengeti yet. After a few minutes, it became apparent why they were here. In the photo below you will notice a small hole in the sand about the width of their foot. Inside there is water.

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We assume that the elephants have dug this hole themselves into the dry riverbed. The Serengeti can be a tough place to live in and animals must be innovative to survive. The adults will pass these skills onto the young calves.

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Elephants have a wonderful group dynamic. They work collectively for the survival of the herd. As large as they are they are amazing coordinated and use their feet and trunks to perform tasks that you would think they would be incapable of. However, if you are a young calf, drinking all that water can be exhausting and sometimes you just need to get off your feet.

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Fortunately, we were able to spend about 20 minutes with this herd before they had all drank from the water hole and began moving on. This group of seven consisted of 2 calves, juveniles (male and female) and adults. We never get tired of seeing and photographing elephants.

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Great Hammerheads (#1): Bahamas

Although we love to photograph all sharks, our favorite is the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran). Generally, it is a cautious shark and will keep its distance from scuba divers. There are 9 species of hammerhead sharks worldwide but the great hammerhead is the largest. An average adult reaches lengths of about 3.6 to 4.3 meters (12-14 feet) but can reach 6 meters (20 feet) and exceed 550kg (1,200 pounds).

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Great hammerheads are newer sharks on the evolutionary scale and have developed some unusual characteristics. The unique feature of this shark is obviously the head. The “hammer” which is called a cephalofoil is full of electrical sensors. These pores called ampullae of Lorenzini aid in hunting as these sensors pick up electrical signals given off by all living creatures including humans.

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As you view these photographs notice how different the shark can look depending on the angle of the photograph. On a larger shark, the cephalofoil is about a meter (3 feet) in length and the eyes are at the ends which gives it a large range of vision.

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The diet of this shark is diverse. They will feed on a variety of fishes including tarpons, porcupine fish and even other sharks. As well, lobster, squid, and octopus form part of their diet.  However, their favorite food is rays. Stingrays bury themselves in the sand and the great hammerhead uses its cephalofoil with its electrical sensors to detect their location.

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Spiny Softshell Turtle Las Vegas, Nevada USA

We were looking for the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera), a native species, in the rivers around Las Vegas. Got some tips from a few local people on where we might find them and after 3 days of searching, we found this unusual turtle. Not sure we would find them as the temperatures had been near freezing which is often when turtles brumate (a type of hibernation for reptiles).

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The turtle has an unusual tube-like protruding nose which makes it different from any other turtle we have photographed. It has a thin body and the shell (carapace) is somewhat flexible. Near the head, on the edge of the shell, there are some small spines and hence the name spiny softshell turtle.

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We discovered them on some rocks on the far side of a fast-moving river. They were larger than we anticipated. The shell averages 40 cm (15 inches) but can be much larger, especially in females. Apparently, they can live for about 50 years.

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At about 10 years of age, these turtles will begin to mate. This occurs mid to late spring as the temperatures warm. On average, the female deposits about 20 eggs on the sunny banks of the river generally in a sandy area or a gravel bed.

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Like many turtles, they consume a wide variety of food. Insects and various types of vegetation make up a large portion of their diet as well as fish. They will often bury themselves in the river bottom and wait for a fish to pass by and then ambush their prey.

Olive Baboons at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

There is so much expression in the eyes of a primate and you have to wonder what is going through his mind. This male Olive baboon was beginning to tire and was looking to get some sleep. With us nearby he was unwilling to close his eyes. We assume as soon as we left he closed those expressive eyes and got some deserved sleep.

0W4A0201Of course, if you have recently been born into this wonderful world then you have little use for sleep and would rather explore this new and curious planet. Everything is new, exciting and interesting so why sleep? This young Olive baboon was fascinating to observe and proved to be very photogenic and interested in us.0W4A0209-10W4A02140W4A0204-1 Mom, however, is never far away. She is allowing her baby to explore and learn about this new environment but within limits. Should this calm situation change then she will immediately intervene to protect her baby.

0W4A0219-3Of course, the male baboon is really in charge of the entire encounter. Here he is grooming the female and picking off insects and parasites. Just below his eye is a wound probably received from a fight with another male baboon. It is a tough job being a male baboon and protecting your status as the dominant male.

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A Whale of a Tale: Humpbacks at Silver Banks, Dominican Republic (2019)

Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic is about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Puerto Plata and is only accessible on a liveaboard. It is one of two places in the world where you can legally get in the water with humpback whales and only about 630 snorkelers are allowed to go each season (January – April). However, in water encounters are restricted to a few situations only that include sleeping whales, singing males or a “Valentine” when the male is courting the female and the two are gently dancing around each other.

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The majority of the expedition had no in water encounters as the whales were constantly on the move so it turned into a glorified whale watching trip. However, the above water interactions were numerous and close and included breaches and pectoral slaps. For those who have not experienced humpbacks then these encounters were second to none. Unable to get in the water we resorted to hanging our cameras over the boat and blindly shooting towards the whales hoping to capture them under water. Fortunately, we were able to get some reasonable shots.

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A female that has given birth to a calf will generally have males competing for her attention and mating rights. There is an escort, a male that currently has battled off his competitors and swims next to the female and calf. Then there is the challenger, another male that is attempting to replace the escort. Battles between males occur and the winner temporarily becomes the escort until another males challenges. The mother and calf, as well as the escort and challenger, can be seen in this photo.

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Unfortunately, it was not until the last day that we came across a mother and a calf that had no accompanying males. The mother can sleep for 25 minutes but the calf needs to come up for air every few minutes. This mother was stationary at about 40 feet and the calf would swim from beside her or under her to the surface, breath and return to her. This was our only good underwater encounter of the week.

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Upon reflection, these are wild animals and interactions with them are on their terms. Sometimes they give us only a brief moment to share their world and at other times we get lucky and have numerous and spectacular encounters.

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