Serengeti’s bone crushers

This is another post from my trip to the Serengeti in September.  The abundance of prey and predators is a perfect environment for Spotted Hyaenas, which are also known as ‘laughing hyaenas’. The hideous ‘laugh’ is really a signal of submission. Hyaena can also be spelt hyena, but I prefer the former because these are such unusual animals. They are also nicknamed the “bone crushers” of the bush. Spotted Hyaenas have a bite force of around 1100 pounds per square inch (psi) compared to lion at around 700 psi. By comparison the strongest bite force is exerted by a Nile Crocodile at 5000psi. This would partly explain why the wildlife is so scared of the water in the Serengeti and Masai Mara. The reason hyaenas have such a strong bite force is partly due to the structure of their skull onto which powerful jaw muscles are attached together with high bone density in their jaws and thicker than normal enamel on their teeth. The upper and lower teeth interlock creating a powerful locking and shearing force.

“Living things are involved in an open dialogue with the universe, a free exchange of information and influence that unites all life into one vast organism that is itself part of an even larger dynamic structure. There is no escaping the conclusion that the basic similarity in structure and function are ties that bind all life together and that man, for all his special features, is an integral part of this whole.”
~ Lyall Watson

Hyaenas are social predators living in clans which are regulated by a strictly enforced hierarchy. In the hyaena world, the queen is the clan leader, females dominate and males are at the bottom of the hierarchy, a social system unique in the predator world. The hyaena’s closest relative is the civet.

“I would rather than a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.”

~Gerry Spence

Hyaenas love water. They will  happily lie in it to keep cool on long hot summer days. They even hide parts of a carcass in the water out of sight of lions, jackals and vultures.

Down  in the Nyasiriro plain alongside the road which runs from the ranger’s post to the Grumeti river was a large pool of rain water trapped by the road embankment. This young hyaena was determined to cross the pool of water, but was not sure about our vehicle.

It was not too deep so the hyaena did not need to swim and having recent rains the likelihood of  a crocodile in the pool was minimal.

This hyaena tried on a number of occasions to cross the pool of water. It could have just walked another 100 metres around the edge of the pool.

“Yugen – a profound awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.’

Once in the middle of the pool of water this hyaena lost its nerve and turned and raced back to the water’s edge. I liked the reflection in the water.

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One aspect of hyaena life that it is very evident in the Serengeti is that members of the clan disperse, and hide and sleep during the day in large tufts of grass and in shallow depressions. This wide distribution of clan members allows them to have eyes and ears over a large area. If lions make a kill, one hyaena has no chance of also feeding on the carcass but the lone hyaena will start to whoop which is a call to clan members for reinforcements. If enough clan members arrive they can taunt the lions enough to drive them off. If a male lion is present at the carcass, the hyaenas know their limitations and it is game off.

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

~Pema Chodron

Spotted hyaenas will scavenge when the opportunity arises but they are skilled and tenacious hunters in their own right. Hyaenas are now also recognised as the region’s most numerous and ecologically important predators, killing more game than lions. The two hyaenas in the image below walked through a herd of Topi. These antelope were wary of the hyaenas and watched them the whole time while they were close, but Topis are very quick and a hyaena would have little chance of catching one in a chase even though a Spotted Hyaena is capable of running at 60 kilometres per hour..

The hyaenas were smelling the ground and grass searching for scent clues of new-born calves or injured animals. To sleep, Topis usually lie on their sternum with their front legs tucked under their body and hyaenas have been known to attack them on the ground while they are sleeping. Those extremely strong hyaena jaws enable them to hang on even if the Topi manages to get up onto its feet with the hyaena attached.

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This was one of the female hyaenas which wandered through the Topi herd looking for an opportunity. She looked to be one of the senior members of the clan, perhaps even the matriarch, just looking at her age, condition and girth.

At the top of a ridge in the Nyasiriro plain was a natural water hole, it could even have been a spring. We called it the “hyaena spar” as we counted eleven hyaenas in and around the “spar” at one point.

“Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.”

~Irene M Pepperberg

The hyaenas lay in the water to keep cool in the middle of the day. This next character was lying in a small inlet on the side of the water hole. It only raised its head to see what the noise was all about and as soon as it saw our vehicle, it flopped down into the inlet again.

As you can see they are not shy about water and don’t seem to mind about getting too muddy. 

This young hyaena was playing with an antelope skin. It was wet and supple and must have been striped from a recent kill. Hyaenas have been known to line their den with skins when they have pups.

“Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with one wild and precious life.”

~ Mary Oliver

This female hyaena and her sub-adult pup were lying flat in the short grass very close to where we found a family group of Bat-eared Foxes.

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This female hyaena had a face marked by years of clan tussles. Hyaena’s ears seem to come off worst.

Hyaena have highly specialised morphology. It has a disproportionately large heart for its size, double the size of a lion’s heart giving it extraordinary powers of endurance. It has an ingenious skull shape with a massive zygomatic arch (or cheek bone) enabling massive jaw muscles to be attached to it.  Hyaena’s eyes are more forward positioned in the skull enabling them with superior binocular vision. The female gives birth through her pseudo-penis.

“The more you look, the more your see.”

~Robert M Pirsig

Hyaenas are ecologically important predators. Together with vultures they are the main members in the savanna waste disposal team. They can reduce an adult wildebeest to little more than a skull and a few vertebra in a bloody patch on the ground in minutes. These are some of the most intelligent mammals in the savanna and they lead complex social lives, networking and competing, cooperating to solve problems, recognising rank relationships of others, reconciling after fights and forming coalitions, according to hyaena zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram, a research fellow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. When tested hyaenas even outperform chimpanzees on tasks requiring cooperation.

“Intelligence is the capacity to perceive the essential, the what is; to awaken the capacity in oneself and in others, is intelligence”

~Jiddu Krishnamurti

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Serengeti birdlife in spring

It was mid-September in the western Corridor of the Serengeti.  A bit early for most of the migrants, but there were a few early arrivals. The resident avian population in the Serengeti at this time of the year is diverse and would gladden any bird lover’s heart. There was also a wide variety of habitats in which to photograph our avian friends. This post is a gallery of the birds we could photograph rather than the ones we saw. This post excludes raptors and Ground Hornbills, both of which are dealt with in separate previous posts.

“In Africa, I feel grounded in an indescribable way because by choice I had no connection to the outside world or technology. It forced me to be in the moment because I don’t know what the next minute will bring.”

~Karen Banks

Grey-backed Fiscal with its black patch across the eye and along the side of the neck down to its shoulder.

The Grey-backed Fiscal has a grey crown, nape and mantle.

Yellow-billed Stork feeding in a pool of water below where a pride of lions were resting in the late afternoon.

Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the back of a Masai Giraffe.

“In the Serengeti the sense of abundance will envelope you. There is life everywhere you look. Each element is in a different state of ebb and flow, but all interwoven. In this abundance, diversity not numbers, takes on an altogether more important place in your awareness.”

~Mike Haworth

Male Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, head raised and alert. He must have heard something that concerned him.

Small flocks of these sandgrouse were foraging for seed in the short grass.

  

Male White-bellied Bustard displaying for the benefit of his female.

Female White-bellied Bustard.

Grey-breasted Spurfowl, this species is localised to this part of Tanzania.

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry.”
~Richard P. Feynman

White-browed Coucal.

This Little Bee-eater had caught a bee and was busy wiping off the bee’s sting against the branch.

“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.”

~ Hans Hofmann

A pair of Little Bee-eaters hawking insects from this flimsy stem.

 

A lone Hottentot Teal on a pool of water dammed up against a road embankment.

I found it unusual that this Hottentot Teal was swimming alone in this pool of water. We normally see them in pairs. There were no other ducks around this pool of water.

“You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion or challenge the ideology of a violet.”

~Hal Borland

A male Ostrich, flushed with testosterone coursing through his veins.

A Malachite Kingfisher hunting in the pool of water below where we were watching a pride of lions.

A Capped Wheatear feeding on ants on this mound. This individual looked like a sub adult given its speckled breast band which will become black when an adult. The white supercilium and black bar on its tail feathers are diagnostic.

This character was very busy feeding on the resident ants around the anthill.

“Petite, nimble and uniquely coloured, you are available to only the eye that seeks you. You are like little jewels scattered through the grasslands. Self sufficient but woven into the tapestry of the wild life on the plains.”

~Mike Haworth

A Temmnick’s Courser out in the grass plains. This is one of three coursers found in this area, the other two are the Two-banded and Violet-tipped Coursers.

Wattled Lapwing with its brown body colouring and stripped throat markings.

The red frontal shield above its beak is diagnostic as both the white-crowned and Wattled lapwings have yellow facial wattles.

Spur-winged Lapwing with its distinctive black crown and nape and throat and white ear-coverts. It has a  brown mantle and that distinctive red eye. 

A Spur-winged Lapwing incubating her eggs alongside a large pool of water.

A pair of Sacred Ibis

One of a pair of Usambiro Barbets feeding on ants in an anthill.

Silverbird, a male in full breeding plumage, perched in front of a Rufous-tailed Weaver’s nest.

“Oh little winged traveller from far away places. Rest here for the summer. You are welcome and free here. There is enough for all and we are graced by your presence. Only you will know when it is time to return to that far way place, leaving us with only memories.”

~Mike Haworth

A Caspian Plover stretching near where we found a family of Bat-eared Foxes.

A Caspian Plover, a migrant from far-way places. This plover breeds in western and central Asia and migrates southward to eastern and southern Africa to escape the northern winter.

A Fork-tailed Drongo, one of nature’s great mimics.

A Hammerkop preparing to hunt from a rock in the Grumeti river. The river was teeming with crocodiles, so I am not sure who was going to turn out to be the hunter. 

In front of the Grumeti Tented Camp on a branch overhanging the river. This Green-backed Heron was perch hunting right in front of us.

A Superb Starling close to our family of Cheetahs below Masira hill.

“Colour! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”

~ Paul Gauguin

These Superb Starlings feed on insects in the short grass on the Serengeti plains.

A Black-headed Heron, one of a group which was hunting frogs along the side of a large pool of water alongside the road.

Pale Flycatcher

  

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

~Max Planck

A Kori Bustard minding its own business with a few buffalo bulls as onlookers.

A Kori Bustard foraging in the open plain.

 

“Who designed you? What wonderful imagination therein. Blue eyes with white and black surrounds. A velvet-black forehead and a golden crown which shimmers in the sunlight as you walk. And splashes of scarlet in the most improbable places. Oh and when you dance together, it is magical.”

~Mike Haworth

Grey-crowned Crane. 

We found scattered pairs of Grey-crowned Cranes on the Nyasiriro plain.

A Ruff from Russia. This was the second wader we found which was an early migrant.

“I had an inheritance from my father,

It was the moon and the sun,

And though I roam all over the world,

The spending of it is never done.”

~Ernest Hemingway

An African Spoonbill swishing its bill back and forth searching for food under the water.

A Black-winged Stilt leading a pair of foraging African Spoonbills.

A Black-winged Stilt plucking insects off the surface of the water.

A Woolly-necked Stork sunning itself next to the pool of water along the road.

A female Bennet’s Woodpecker working on the entrance to her nest in a thorn tree above the lounge at the tented camp.

A male Cocqui Francolin.

A female Cocqui Francolin foraging in the plain near the lion pride.

A male Rufous-naped Lark displaying to females

A Rufous-naped Lark performing his display routine from an anthill to impress any passing females. 

A lone Glossy Ibis foraging in the mud in the pool of water alongside the road.

The colour of the Glossy Ibis came alive with the right angle to the sun.

A Lilac-breasted Roller. You can also find the Broad-billed Roller, the Rufous-crowned which looks very much like the southern African Purple Roller and the migrating European Roller.

The beautiful blues, greens and mauves of the Liliac-breasted roller.

 

East Africa has a wonderful variety of birds. We got to see a minute portion of this diversity. By virtue of its location, it has residents, migrants and vagrants. There is a much bigger variety of  barbets, go-away birds, francolins, weavers, parrots, sunbirds, starlings and even pratincoles in East Africa than in southern Africa. I already feel the need for more visits to marvel and photograph the wonderful colours of East Africa’s feathered residents and visitors. 

“You didn’t come into this world you came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.

You are not a stranger here.”

~Alan Watts

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let its be.

Have fun,

Mike

Batty about Serengeti’s foxes

At the Grumeti Tented Camp in the Serengeti, we usually gathered at the open air lounge before first light for a cup of coffee and a rusk or muffin. This was a traditional meeting to work out where to  go for the morning and discuss what we hoped to see.  There were very few vehicles in this part of the Serengeti in mid-September which meant there were few eyes searching for the wildlife we were hoping to see. Much of the wildlife moves at night so there is no guarantee that what you saw at last light the evening before you will see at first light the next morning. Nevertheless, it was a fun exercise to find out what each one of us wanted to see.  The intriguing part of this exercise was that if you were absolutely precise about what you wanted to see, it was uncanny how often that is what revealed itself, not always but often enough to keep the mystery alive. I had seen one Bat-eared Fox in the Masai Mara a few years ago, so asked whether there were Bat-eared Foxes in the Serengeti. Our guide, Yona assured us that they were around, but were not common so we would be lucky to see one or a family of them.

“For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.”

~Janine M. Benyus

Guess what we saw that morning, our first Bat-eared Fox family.

“Man is not himself only…He is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources…He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys.”

~Mary Austin

It was only when we ventured south toward the Nyasirira plains that we found a family of Bat-eared Foxes. On this particular morning  it was cold and the wind was blowing hard. The two adults were above ground lying in the open just in front of their den. There are two distinct populations of Bat-eared Foxes in Africa, one that lives from Ethiopia to Tanzania and the other in southern Africa. The Bat-eared Fox is so named because of its distinctive bat-wing shaped ears. Its latin name is Octoyon megalotis where the second word in the name comes from ‘mega’ meaning large and ‘otus’ meaning ears.

After a little research, I was surprised to find that there are five species of fox in Africa, the Fennec Fox found in the Sahara, the Cape Fox found in South Africa, Ruppell’s Fox found in north Africa, and the seldom seen Pale Fox, also known as the African Sand Fox or Pallid Fox found just south of the Sahara. The focus of this post is the Bat-eared Fox.(Source:https://synapsida.blogspot.co.za/2015/08/the-dog-family-foxes-of-africa.html)

As you can imagine with large ears like this, the Bat-eared Fox has a hard time when the wind is blowing hard. The sound of the wind must be like a roaring its ears, so it flattens them.

We found the den on a rise out in the open plain with hyaena, antelope and buffaloes all around. These are not big canids. The male is around 55cm in length and has ears about 13 cms long. 

 

Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.

~ Aldous Hux

Bat-eared Foxes are mainly insect eaters so do not compete with the larger carnivores, but that does not stop the large predators killing them if they get half a chance.  The other termite eaters are aardwolves, antbears and pangolins. Surviving on an all-insect diet required several adaptations which are found in the Bat-eared Fox. Firstly, their large ears provide acute hearing which enables them to hear insects such as dung beetles and termites under ground and in the thick grass. Bat-eared Foxes also have specialised extra teeth for shearing when chewing on insects, and their lower jawbone is designed to open and close rapidly.

Apart from pure survival, the fox adults were especially wary because they had two cubs. Bat-eared Foxes are socially monogamous and the male is actively involved in looking after the cubs once they are weaned off their mother’s milk.

The cubs clearly knew the rules and disappeared underground on cue from the adults, but as youngsters they were overwhelmingly curious and wanted to see what this thing was that was looking at them. The thing being our photographic vehicle.

“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment which is gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”

~ Karl Lagerfeld

Cubs are born after a gestation period of about two months and are weaned in a year. The cubs are born in underground dens, usually during spring or early summer. A Bat-eared Fox family has several den holes in its territory, each with many entrances, tunnels, and chambers. The foxes’ claws are made for digging, and they can create their own burrow or enlarge an empty one made by another animal. 

 

Outside the den, the fox adults are ever vigilant.  The short grasslands in the Serengeti seem to suit them and the position of the den on top of a rise in the middle of the plain gave them a good visual of a large area around them.

Termites make up around 80 percent of their diet and there are many termite mounds on the plains of the Serengeti, so I am a little surprised we did not see more Bat-eared Foxes.

  

You can imagine that those large ears are like radar antenna and will pick up the slightest sound anywhere near. They locate their prey through their acute hearing. Bat-eared Foxes hunt in groups of two or three with hearing being their main sensory function.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

~Leo Rosten

Just looking at their faces, their muzzle is small. The teeth of the Bat-eared Fox are much smaller and structured in shearing surface formation, different to other canid species. This is an adaptation to its insectivorous diet. Hunting for food is mainly diurnal, during sunrise and sunset. In the more northern areas of its range (around Serengeti), they are nocturnal 85 percent of the time. However, around South Africa, they are nocturnal only in the summer and diurnal during the winter.

 

It was interesting to see the fox adults quickly picked up on a Black-backed Jackal wandering in the direction of their den.  Immediately the male Bat-eared Fox stood up and stared directly at the Jackal.

Visual displays are an active form of communication. Only when the jackal continued to walk closer did the male Bat-eared Fox arch his back in a threat posture, with the female behind him lying on the ground with her ears flattened. 

When this threatening display did not work, the pair of fox adults ran toward the jackal in unison. The jackal decided this was not going to end well so detoured around the foxes den.

This Bat-eared Fox family had their den about a kilometre from water. They seldom drink water as they obtain most of their moisture from their food.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
~Jane Goodall

Threats to these small canids are disease and floods (when caught in their dens) while the more immediate threats come from larger carnivores such as lions, leopards, hyaenas, cheetahs and African wild dogs.

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

“We must not only protect the country side and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

~ Lyndon B. Johnson

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Southern Ground Hornbills in the Serengeti

After spending some time on the eastern side of the Grumeti river in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti, we decided to venture on the western side between the Grumeti river and the Kirawari range of hills. We crossed the swollen Grumeti river across the bridge near the Grumeti Tented camp.  Other than a few hippo in the enlarged pool all our guide had to go on was the shape of the water flow across the low level bridge. When the river gets too high for a road vehicle to cross then visitors must use the suspension walk bridge to cross the Grumeti river and they are collected on the other side. Mother nature rules!!

“We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us.”

~Anthony Douglas Williams

This post is about Southern Ground Hornbills, as we had seen a number of  pairs of these birds on both sides of the Grumeti river.  This was an encouraging sign as these hornbills are classified as vulnerable in the  IUCN Red List species.

“Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning the library without ever having read its books.”

~John Dingel

Within the hornbill family there is a unique sub-family, Bucorvinae, consisting of only two species; the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) and the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill or Northern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus). Both of these species are found in sub-Saharan Africa, with the Northern Ground Hornbill living on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert from Ethiopia to Senegal, and the Southern Ground Hornbill occurring from north as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Namibia and South Africa. The northern species can survive in arid habitat, while their southern cousin prefers grasslands, woodland and savanna.

The focus of this post is on Southern Ground Hornbills. Although Southern Ground-Hornbills are found in open grasslands and savanna throughout sub-Saharan Africa, they are considered vulnerable to extinction due to loss of habitat and predation, and because they are slow breeders. More often than not you will usually see these large hornbills striding through the grass, so it is quite something to see them in flight.

Despite their size, ground hornbills are strong fliers although they do not fly long distances and they fly low to the ground so are often not seen. They have low aspect ratio wings, meaning the length of their wing relative to the depth is relatively low. This enables them to fly at relatively slow speeds. When in flight their white primary wing feathers are very noticeable. Southern Ground Hornbills sometimes perform aerial impressive pursuits when defending their territory. 

 The Southern Ground Hornbill has a bright red face and bare red inflatable throat patches. Their eyes are pale grey green and they have an impressive set of eye lashes. Its beak is black and decurved, and comprises two powerful mandibles. The upper mandible is downward curving and has casque above. This casque is more developed in males than females and probably plays some role in displays or male selection. Their legs and feet are strong, scaled and black and they walk in tiptoe. Their feet have thick underside pads and their toes have serious claws which almost look like talons. The female has violet blue throat patches, and sometimes this colour can cover most of the lower parts of their face.

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
~ Rachel Carson

Southern Ground Hornbills are the slowest breeders of any bird in the world. They lay one to three eggs, but usually only one chick survives. The parents rely on a small group of family members to raise and feed their chick, which takes up to two years to become an independent adult. These hornbills are unable to breed until they are about 7 years old. It is estimated that a group only raises one chick to adulthood every nine years, but fortunately they are known to live for up to 60 years. The next image shows a juvenile with its orange-yellow facial skin colour.

Small animals need to lie low when a party of ground hornbills is out foraging. These omnivores snap up anything from insects and lizards to small birds, rodents, tortoises and snakes, even rabbits and monkeys. They are excellent hunters, walking on the ground and using their huge beaks to catch a wide range of prey. When other prey is scarce they also eat seeds and fruit. In the next image, this male Southern Ground Hornbill with a baby tortoise gripped between its mandibles.

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”

~Albert Einstein

The male Southern Ground-Hornbill has a magnificent red wattle (throat pouch) in contrast to the dark blue wattle of the northern species. 

Traditional African cultures saw ground hornbills as harbingers of rain. Killing them was a taboo and many Africans regard these hornbills as sacred. Sadly, views are changing and these birds have become increasingly threatened. A major threat to the species is loss of nesting habitat due to clearance for small-scale use, agriculture, and because of fires.

“Know that the same spark of life that is within you, is within all of our animal friends, the desire to live is the same within all of us….”

~Rai Aren

This large ground hornbill can be seen striding through the savanna and will actively avoid man.  

These hornbills are monogamous, pairing for the 30 – 40 years of their lives unless their mate dies. They live in groups of as many as nine birds but with only an alpha pair that breeds. Southern ground hornbills are diurnal. They will rest during the night in a tree then rise at dawn. They nest in large cavities in trees or on cliff faces. When they rise they produce territorial calls and then fly down to the ground to begin foraging. They are territorial and the group will defend their territory extending for of around 100 hectares. 

“…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.”
~ Rachel Carson

This is largest of the hornbill species. They can grow to a height of 130cm, with the males attaining a weight of up to 6 kgs and the females being around 2 kgs lighter. Other than the wattle, the bird appears black in colour. It has white primary feathers which are only visible in flight.  

The Southern Ground Hornbill is carnivorous. It strides through the bush with purpose, foraging on the ground, digging with its bill for food. They are also co-operative hunters  where large prey are pursued and dismembered by several group members.

When you are out in the bush, from around 4h30 in the morning you will begin to hear Ground Hornbills calling.

http://www.xeno-canto.org/explore?query=southern+ground+hornbill

It is a reassuring sound early in the morning. The pre-dawn chorus between pairs comprises a deep booming call (hoo hoo hoo-hoo) that can be heard as far as three miles away and is sometimes mistaken for a distant lion. They amplify their calls by inflating the big, red, balloon-like wattle below their bill.  This member of the family has a very large keratin casque on top of its beak which is believed to vibrate and amplify its call. 

The northerners call supposedly sounds like a grunting leopard. 

These ground hornbills are very much at risk mainly due to a shrinking natural habitat and persecution. With a population that is now estimated at around 1500 in South Africa, the species is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

“For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
~ Rachel Carson

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Serengeti primates

This is the third post from my recent visit to the Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti is known for its vast plains, huge herds and predators. It is not normally associated with its primate residents.

“Travel makes you modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

~Gustave Flaubert

Residents in the Serengeti, certainly along the Grumeti river course, include Colobus monkeys, Vervet monkeys and Olive baboons. Along the Grumeti river the forests were verdant and luxurious. This is where you are likely to find Colobus monkeys. What makes the Colobus different to other forest dwelling primates is the colour of their coats but more importantly they do not have thumbs.

Despite their black and white coats, these striking monkeys can be difficult to see in the forest canopy as they try to remain out of sight. They are agile tree dwellers which can on occasions be seen leaping great distances between trees. Colobus monkeys live in territorial groups of about nine individuals, comprising a single male with a number of females and their offspring. Newborn Colobuses are completely white with black rings around their eyes. 

Colobus monkeys are herbivorous, eating leaves, fruit, bark and flowers. They frequent forests, varying from riverine forests to wooded grasslands. Along the Grumeti river are dense verdant riverine forests. Outside the Serengeti, the biggest threat to the Colobus is habitat loss, where human encroachment and logging are destroying forests. These primate face hunting for bush meat and for their striking coats.

“When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
~Dian Fossey

Olive baboons also live along the Grumeti river but forage on the ground. They also venture onto the plains looking for food. Olive baboons are so named because of the colour of their coats. In every troop there seems to be one, if not two bosses, large males which are the troop’s guardians and disciplinarians. The males are larger than the females and have a mane of longer hair on the side of their faces and along their necks.

Olive baboons are found throughout equatorial Africa and in a number of different habitats. The Olive baboons we came across were savanna-dwelling, foraging in the wide plains of the grasslands and sleeping in open woodlands close to water. The next image shows the troop making its way back to the river where its members climbed up into the trees to rest for the night. I never counted them, but this troop of Olive baboons must have been at least 100 strong.

It was quite a walk to and from their foraging areas. In the late afternoon, the troop stopped for a rest next around this balanite on its way back to the “sleeping trees” next to the river. We watched the antics of many of the baboons which used the opportunity to get rest while the youngsters played in and around the tree.

“For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can ever describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.”
~Jane Goodall

I could not get over how casually this mother allowed her youngster to pull her nipple while suckling.

Any mother who has breast fed would probably be cringing at the sight of this youngster excessively pulling at its mother’s nipple.

“One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.”

~Henry Miller

In a troop but forlorn and alone. This one branch of the Balanite became quite a focal point for all sorts of activities.

“Lovers in the air”- as you know balance is everything!!!

After the lovers had disappeared back into the troop, the branch became a plaything for the youngsters, with a little dominance going on!!

Another branch on the other side of the tree was this youngster’s gym bar.

It is amusing to see how human-like these baboons were and despite their antics, they very rarely fall out of the tree. Injury means death!

“I think that intelligence is such a narrow branch of the tree of life – this branch of primates we call humans. No other animal, by our definition, can be considered intelligent. So intelligence can’t be all that important for survival, because there are so many animals that don’t have what we call intelligence, and they’re surviving just fine.”
~Neil deGrasse Tyson

The “baboon’s bedroom”. Come twilight it was time to get off the ground and into a place out of most predators’ way. That assumes a leopard will not come visiting in the quietest and darkest time of night.

The wind was blowing quite hard but this youngster was well protected by its mother.

A strident male Olive baboon who exuded confidence and was not about to take nonsense from anyone or anything! Females stay with their groups their entire lives, but males are in eternal competition with each other and if their ranking is downgraded they may emigrate to another troop.

This youngster showed his masculinity but not the necessary confidence, and seemed unnerved by the wind. Adult males are very competitive but this Olive baboon troop appeared to be remarkably peaceful, more so than I have seen with Chacma baboons.

The troops of Olive baboon which we saw were diurnal and followed a routine of venturing out onto the plains during the day to forage and returning to large trees to sleep out of harm’s way at night. Olive baboons seem to be generally smaller than our southern African Chacma baboons but have much thicker hair.

“I am entitled to say, if I like, that awareness exists in all the individual creatures on the planet-worms, sea urchins, gnats, whales, subhuman primates, super-primate humans, the lot. I can say this because we do not know what we are talking about: consciousness is so much a total mystery for our own species that we cannot begin to guess about its existence in others.”
~Lewis Thomas

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Serengeti Cheetah and giraffe interaction

Still in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti and after a relatively unsuccessful previous day waiting for our “flat cats” to raise themselves and start moving and playing, we were up and on our way by 6h30 the next morning full of expectation that a fresh start would reveal something quite unexpected.

“Dance as if you got lost in the mystery and beauty of life.”
― Debasish Mridha

Our guide, Yona, told us that a cheetah female and her two cubs had been seen near Masira hill late the previous evening. We found the female and her two year old cubs lying in the open plain below Masira hill. It was cool early in the morning so they were in the open and had not yet sought shade. When cheetahs lie down their thin frame makes them difficult to see. Normally the only time you will see them from a distance is when either their head pops up to have a look around or you see a flick of the tail.

This morning the cheetahs were on the lookout for something to hunt but there was no prey anywhere near. A family group of warthogs could be seen in the trees below Masira hill which were about three hundred metres away but they drew only a brief glance from the cheetahs.

One of the key advantages of getting up early is that you get the low angle light which is warm in colour. This is the best time to get natural illumination in the cheetah’s eyes.

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
~Frank Herbert

An important advantage of being in this part of the Serengeti in September was that the grass had been well and truly eaten down and it was relatively easy to see and photograph the cheetahs without grass in front of their faces.

The female and one of her cubs were lying next to each other. The youngster seemed to be much closer to its mother while the other one lay some distance off, and did not seem to seek the physical closeness of its mother.

The mutual preening is a bonding process and also provides a quick clean after the meal the day before.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
~Albert Einstein

Up on the Masira hill we had seen giraffe browsing on the tops of the trees. As time passed, we noticed that all the giraffe were walking down the hill towards the cheetahs. At first, we thought it was just coincidence, but it soon became apparent that they were gathering because of the cheetahs.

Eventually about fifteen giraffe came down from the Masira hill and started to gather in front of the cheetahs.

The mother cheetah had already moved to large area of shade under a bigger tree to the right of us. The cubs stayed put under small bushes in front of the giraffe gathering.

The standoff became intriguing. I had never before seen giraffe gather to intimidate cheetahs. In a previous post from Mashatu, I described how guineafowl had mobbed three young cheetahs driving them out of the area. The giraffe seemed to be doing a similar thing. Until now I had never realised that cheetah had such a tough time. I knew that lion, hyaena and leopard regularly stole their kills but I never realised how many savanna species actively drove off cheetahs.

The more the giraffe congregated the more intimidating they became not only because of their numbers but also their size. I am sure every cheetah knows only too well the power and danger of a giraffe kick. Eventually the young cheetahs were sufficiently intimidated and got up and walked, as confidently as they could, back to their mother.

The young cheetah did not run but walked nonchalantly trying to show they were not impressed by the show of force.

“People no longer try to decipher the mystery of life but choose instead to be a part of it.”
~Paulo Coelho

I never heard a sound from the giraffe but they certainly communicated to produce the gathering. It makes me think that giraffe communicate through infra sound, a low frequency sound which we cannot hear. I know the collective noun for giraffe is a tower of giraffe but after seeing this display I think a gathering is more apt.

Once the giraffe had made their point they dispersed and moved back to Masira hill to browse on the treetops and bushes.

We waited for quite a while that morning for the cheetah to start hunting but our patience never paid off.

“Let us remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption. They are splendid beings in their own right, who have evolved alongside us as co-inheritors of all the beauty and abundance of life on this planet.”

~ Marc Bekoff

We returned later that afternoon and the cheetahs had moved only a short distance to get more shade. Patience in the afternoon was rewarded by the changing light. In the late afternoon, the sun lowers and the angle of the light continuously improves. This is the time when the cheetah’s eyes are best illuminated and you get to see the liquid amber colour of their eyes.

An iconic pose by an adult cheetah standing on an ant hill to get a better view of potential prey and threats in the distance.

Seeing is much more than having the subject move right in front of you. It is a sense, a revelation that comes from quietly looking for the subtle changes in the light or the animal’s behaviour. Just because nothing has happened for the past 30 minutes is no guide as to what will happen over the next half an hour. A francolin could wander by and startle the cheetahs; the apparently sleeping cheetah could suddenly pick up a scent on the wind which has changed direction, which catches its attention.

The late afternoon light casts a warm glow on the scene.

“How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.”

~ Frances Hodgson Burnett

One of the fascinating aspects about being out in the bush is that you never know what you are likely to find and invariably new interactions between species are revealed. The ability to move or even rest unseen in the bush is not easy as there are so many eyes watching each predator and those eyes are very happy to alert every living thing around to the whereabouts of that predator. Cheetah choose to hunt mainly in the day while other key predators such as lions and hyaenas are sleeping, so there is less competition. They also need to see what they are doing when travelling at 120 kilometres per hour while in full chase of prey. The down side of daylight hunting is that cheetahs are visible to baboons, vervet monkeys, birds, squirrels and giraffe during the day so seldom get peace and solitude.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

~Martin Buber

Hunting in the Serengeti is not as easy as would be assumed. One of the key risks is that hyaena spread out all over the plains and the scouts lie unseen in tufts of grass. As soon as anything unusual happens or a cheetah makes a kill, invariably (out of apparently nowhere) a hyaena appears on the scene. Only when the hyaena is outnumbered will it start “whooping” for reinforcements.

We left the cheetah family late that afternoon as the sun was setting and that was the last time we saw them. The plains are large and the predators move around looking for prey and to minimise competition from other predators. As we were one of two other vehicles out at that time there were few eyes to keep track of our wandering cheetahs. Once they lie flat, even the keenest eyes will not see then even in the short grass.

When you spend time quietly in the bush you become aware that there is a lot going on. You also realise that your human senses have become blunted compared to the wildlife you are watching. The subtle changes in the wind can herald all sorts of new reactions. We humans, especially the “townies”, with our dulled senses are blissfully unaware of these subtle changes. I think wildlife operates at a much more subtle sensual level than most human beings. What is clear that the guides who spend much of their time in the bush do tune into these subtleties.

“We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” 

~Henry Beston

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Serengeti lion gallery

I was privileged to be able to visit the Western Corridor of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania in mid-September 2017 with CNP Safaris. We were based at the Grumeti Tented Camp.

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,

To gain all the while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote,

To travel is to live.”

~Han Christian Anderson

The Grumeti River courses its way along the 80 kilometres of Western Corridor of the Serengeti to Lake Victoria. Although a narrow wedge-shaped corridor, it is a diverse and fascinating area, which features dense groves of acacia trees interspersed with thick woodlands, and vast open plains with ranges of hills as their back drop. A dominant feature of the Western Corridor is the mysterious and treacherous Grumeti River. This river is not wide but is home to some of the largest Nile crocodiles the migrating wildlife will ever encounter. 

Besides wildebeest, the Western Corridor is also home to large numbers of resident wildlife, including Olive baboons, Colobus and Vervet  Monkeys, giraffe, buffalo, impala, topi, eland, Thomson’s gazelle, waterbuck and smaller antelope such as Dik-Diks and duikers. These resident animals support large concentrations of predators such as lion,  hyaena, and lesser seen cheetah and leopards. The Wildebeest Migration passes through the Western Corridor from late May to mid-July after the rains in April.

“One cannot resist the lure of Africa.”

~ Rudyard Kipling

By mid-September, the Wildebeest Migration had passed and I was intrigued to see how the predators coped with less prey. In the eight days we were traveling around the western corridor of the Serengeti with the Grumeti Tented Camp as our base, we were able to see 32 different lions. Apart from a wonderful camp, the best part was that there were very few vehicles in the national park at that time, but the down side was that keeping track of the predators was much more difficult.

We saw many cubs in the various prides we came across. On our first afternoon, we found our first pride, next to the river below the Grumeti Tented Camp. This pride comprised a large maned male, two lionesses and four cubs. 

There were three cubs which must have been about four months old and one much smaller one which seemed to struggle more than all the rest. This smallest cub can be seen suckling on a lower nipple underneath the closest upright cub.

This large male was with the lionesses and the father of the cubs.

The male moved away from his family so that he was not pestered by his cubs.

He was ever alert in the late afternoon. That evening we heard him roaring throughout the night. We did not see him again after that.

We were hoping to capture some interesting images of the cubs playing but they were quite subdued.

The cubs mostly comforted each other.

Beautiful but very vulnerable.

The warmth of the late afternoon sun appeared to be very somniferous.

The next day the male had moved off to probably patrol his territory while the lionesses moved the cubs from next to the river to a the Masira hill about two kilometres to the west.

One lioness walked in to reinforce her bond with the other lioness but was rebuffed as she was trying to rest. 

The cub in the front right was significantly smaller, and looked much worse for wear, than the other cubs. Those dark rings around its eyes outlined its story.

That little cub was plucky and did not hold back despite its poor state and small size.

As it turned out, the smallest most undernourished looking cub had its right back foot bitten off. The wound appeared to be clean but this youngster was battling. Among the many things I admire about wildlife is that it never seems to feel sorry for itself. This little cub with a missing back right leg must have had to walk the two kilometres from the river to Masira hill. Not only had it made the journey but was playing with its bigger cousins.

I am not  sure that this small cub would make it, but I gave it “100 -out -of -ten” for its determination to prevail. When it came to getting milk from its mother this little one had to fight for a nipple but always seemed to get there eventually. I really hope it survived but if it did its future would always be tenuous. It was wonderful to see how the cubs relied on each other for comfort and warmth.

The cubs sought attention and comfort from their mother whether she offered it or not.

We saw this lone cub in the bush along the side the road leading to Nyasiriro plains. We had briefly seen two lionesses just before this point. They looked to have been hunting and must have left the cub to seek refuge in a thicket nearby.

That afternoon, on the Kwanga plain near the Grumeti camp, below the Masira hill, we found four year-old cubs with their mother out in the open.  These cubs looked to be about nine months old.

We spent hours waiting for them to start playing but they never did. The best we got was one of the cubs trying to catch the tsetse flies which were biting him.

The cubs lay apart but never too far from each other. Their mother, on the other hand, lay some distance off, presumably to get some peace.

We spent the afternoon waiting for this family to wake up and get active. To no avail, they remained “flat cats” even as the clouds began rolling in threatening rain. (Double click on the panorama to get a full screen image).

As it started to cool in the late afternoon, the mother of the four sub-adult cubs woke up and, after stretching, came around from behind thicket and stood scanning the plain for prey. There was nothing close by. The next day we found that this lioness must had killed an ostrich in the night which filled their bellies.

Another two lionesses on their own down at Nyasiriro plain looking for prey. The lionesses were using the dips and drainage lines to approach their prey. They had their sights on prey which was some distance away from the road so we left them in peace to do what they do best.

On the way back to camp from the Nyasiriro plains we came across a family group of lionesses and cubs. Nothing unusual about the image except that I loved the perspective with the trees and hill in the background.

“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it?”

~ Brian Jackman

I am not sure why they were moving mid-morning, as lions are usually lying flat by this time of the day under the shade of a well leafed tree.

That afternoon down next to the road from the ranger’s camp in Nyasiriro plains we found this lone lioness. She was very muddy but being overcast she was resting in the open in the cool, lush grass next to a large pool of water dammed by the road embankment.

The reason she was muddy is that she must have ambushed a warthog as it came down to drink. The warthog was not muddy so we presumed she had bolted through water and muddy verge to attack the warthog. It’s partly consumed carcass lay underneath a nearby group of bushes.

Early the following morning while on our way to Nyasiriro plains, we found this lone large male lying in the open about fifty metres off the road.

Initially he was intrigued by us.

Then looked at us much more attentively. I am sure the large camera lenses must have looked like large eyes to him.

He did not like the large eyes looking at him from our photographic vehicle and decided to move into the bush behind him away from our glare.

He clearly had fed well the previous night.

Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.”

~William Burchell

Including more of the background gives a sense of this large male lion’s environment.

This was a different male down next to the road from the ranger’s camp in Nyasiriro plains. This male was mating with a lioness but we did not manage to get any images of her.

The same male some distance off the road. This couple did not move too far while mating though we only had fleeting glimpses of the female.

Moving in and out of the shade in the morning light increased the photographic challenge.

On our second last day, we crossed the Grumeti and travelled on the southern side of the river. There was plenty of wildlife and close to the hot-air balloon camp we found two lionesses with their pride of cubs. It had rained each of the previous two nights so there was plenty of water on the plains.

The lionesses had killed a zebra, so the family was well fed. Once it had cooled down somewhat the lionesses and cubs went to one of the small pools of rainwater to drink.

The grazers like wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle move with the migrating herd. Not all of the grazers migrate but the vast majority do. The predators are territorial so stay behind. The competition for food intensifies for both the lion, hyaena and cheetahs. Mid-September was a good time to see and photograph the predators as the grass had been grazed very short by the migrating grazers. Unfortunately our predator subjects were not very active but it was still wonderful to be immersed in these vast beautiful, unspoilt areas which still teemed with wildlife.

“To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world. No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.”

~ George Schaller

Explore,seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike