Mashatu: wandering through Eden

This is my fourth post from our last trip to Mashatu. This is a private game reserve located in the south eastern corner of Botswana at the confluence of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. This part of the world undergoes a phenomenal transformation in the wet season, which is from November until April.

“Nature has hidden lessons for mankind underneath its silent saga. The trees teach us to give without discrimination, the seasons proclaim that time keeps changing for the better and the vastness of the sky bears the amount of love we should hold in our hearts for everyone we come across throughout the day.” ~ Sanchita Pandey

We were fortunate to be able to visit one month before the coronavirus lockdown which closed Mashatu game reserve and the country’s borders. By pure chance our timing was perfect. Heavy rains had just stopped and we were visiting before the magical transform was about take place from its dry barren brown into a ‘garden of Eden’ draped in green with carpets of yellow flowers.

“True, the sun and the wind inspire. But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?  ” ~ Cynthia Barnett  

On our second day, at first light we left camp to go and explore The sun had not yet risen as we drove around the rock outcrop behind our camp. We often hear a leopard coughing from this outcrop before dawn. There is also a hyaena den close to this outcrop, on the opposite side to the camp. This particular morning we saw a kudu bull standing on top of the outcrop. I was quite surprised as any ‘get away’ would be very difficult. There must have been some very tasty bushes on top of this outcrop to attract this browser.

Sure enough not long after we saw the kudu bull we found this female hyaena on her way back to her den after a night of actively searching for food. Judging from her swollen teats, I presume she was suckling her cubs. Her face was still covered in blood so she must have been feeding earlier on a kill somewhere nearby.

As the sun climbed high in the azure Botswana sky we made our way down to the Majale river. There were still large pools of water in the river but it was no longer flowing bank to bank as it had been days earlier. Knowing how dry this part of the world can be in winter, the water in the river is a beautiful sight.

“Petrichor is that pleasant earth scent that accompanies a storm’s first raindrops. Of course rain itself does not smell. This smell actually comes from the moistening of the ground. Petrichor is a combination of fragrant chemical compounds, some of which are organic oils but mostly of which are from actinobacteria.”~Tim Logan

A male Steenbok lying in the semi-shade. This small antelope has large ears which were turned outward suggesting there were other sounds behind it. The ears rotate horizontally on the side of his head to locate the direction of the sound. This little antelope is a browser and survive the dry winter periods with minimal water as he gets his moisture from the vegetation that he eats. These little antelope are territorial and mark their turf on the ground with their defecation and scent mark bushes from the glands below their eyes.

Warm dawn light washes over the mist laden vlei in the south of the game reserve. It was quiet, still and colourful creating the sense that dawn held her breath for just a moment.

A scout came out of his underground labyrinth to see if it was safe for the rest of the family to come out. This male banded mongoose was on guard. Having seen us he decided the family should stay under ground until we left.

“If I have ever seen magic, has been in Africa.”~ John Hemingway

A young male kudu sitting down in the shade around mid-morning just up from the Majale river. His youth was evident in the partial first twist in his horns. He needed to be alert as he was vulnerable among the bushes near the river.

A family of warthogs. The male at the back watching out for his family with the female and her three semi-grown piglets watching us. The piglets had just been suckling when the parents suddenly realised we were watching them. This was a typical warthog family but they can extend to seven piglets. The presence of lion, leopard, hyaena and cheetahs in Mashatu are likely to trim any large warthog family.

When life throws you a rainy day, play in puddles.”~ Pooh Bear

As we were making our way back to camp for brunch, we found this leopard tortoise enjoying a drink from a puddle of rainwater in the middle of the gravel access road. We stopped and watched his character drink his fill and wander back in the bush undisturbed.

This lioness had her cubs nearby but she saw the big lenses staring at her and reciprocated. This has happened many times with a large prime lens. The lioness must have just seen a large eye and was watching it extremely carefully for any sign of a threat. The size of her irises was small responding to the bright sunlight beyond the shade. Her stare was mesmorising and threatening at the same time. Once she had assessed there was no threat she relaxed and gave a soft grunting sound to call her cubs after which she got up and moved with her cubs for a little more peace and quiet, probably away from the stares.

Two young giraffe sticking together away from the parents. The tufts of hair on their ossicones signify their youth. The one on the right is a few months younger than the one on the left. Difficult to tell what sex they are as their leg positions hide the possible penal bump on the belly, if they were boys.

A bat-eared fox in a threatening posture with its fur fluffed out on its back and tail, and its back arched to make it look bigger. These diminutive foxes feed mainly on insects such as termites, scorpions and spiders preferring beetle larvae. They detect the underground larva with their large highly sensitive ears. Once located they use their paws to dig out their meal.

Steenboks are very vulnerable to most species of predators, from caracals, servals, jackals and leopards. Normally a Steenbok will remain dead still and use concealment as the main form of defense but as the last resort will dash away from the threat. This male Steenbok used the last resort option.

Late afternoon – busy day. This large young male baboon was just ‘chilling’ while the rest of the troop where foraging and “chemering” to each other. His reclined posture looked remarkably human-like.

The stillness of the morning was reflected in the mirrored surface of this large pool of water in the Majale river. A time of abundance.

A group of three female eland standing in front of a wide bent in the Majale river on a partly cloudy morning.

The dominant male in the group of eland. His darkening grey pelage indicates his age. Aging adults tend to lose their hair resulting in the overall colour becoming bluish-grey due to the skin reflecting through the coat. A longer tuft of dark blackish-brown hair covers the forehead of adults and is associated with a gland that secretes a strong, scented substance. The colour of this tuft in adult bulls changes to copper red-brown and becomes bushy with age, giving the appearance of a hairy proboscis known as the rostrum according to Deon Furtsenburg of GeoWild Consult. The clicks of his knee tendons were clearly audible as he walked. These clicks are signals to other males of the his size and fighting ability. They sound like castanets and can be heard a hundred metres away.

Ever stealthy, this young female leopard was lying in the cool dappled shade. It took the “eagle-eyes” of our guide Justice to see her lying under the thick green bush.

“Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” ~ Wayne Dyer

This Temmnick’s courser found a patch of soft soil in which to have a dust bath.

This wildebeest bull was vigorously defending this territory when we found him. He was chasing other males away from the females in his territory. He also must have dug his horns into the mud to make himself look bigger. I have seen eland and kudu doing this. It was fascinating to see how hyped up this character was.

Two lion cubs distracted in the midst of their play. Something caught their attention.

As we were driving back to camp after sunset we came across this Mozambique spitting cobra moving down from the rock outcrop toward the road. This cobra is around one metre long when fully grown and is most active at night. This snake’s back is varies in colour from slate to olive or tawny black in colour with some of the scales havimg black-edges. Its underside varies from salmon pink to purple yellowish, and it has black bars across the neck. The ventrals are speckled or edged with brown or black. Ventral scales are the enlarged and transversely elongated scales that extend down the underside of the body from the neck. This cobra is considered one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa. It can spit its venom over three metres and usually at its victim’s eyes. It’s bite causes severe local tissue destruction much like that of a puff adder. Needless to say we just watched this character from a distance.

Sunset over the Majale river. I often find I have to pinch myself when I look at the colour saturated sky. It seems so other worldly. With every evening being so different, I could never grow tired of looking at such beauty.

Wandering around the “garden of Eden” is a humbling experience. The transformation took place without any human intervention. The change was miraculous and reminded me that I have much still to learn from the bush and the community of beings which live in the wild.

“A balmy evening bathed in saturated sunset colours, standing high on the bank above the quietly flowing Majale river. A bitterly cold drink in one hand and spiced cashews in the other. The warmth of friends animated chatter. The sky perfectly reflected off the water’s surface. The musical “queeto-queeto” of the last sandgrouse taking off and making their way home at last light. The male Scops owls starting his “bruuup” calling to his mate on this calm balmy evening. A hint that later that evening the Pearl-spotted owl would start his fluted whistling “tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu”. The perfect end to another intriguing day in Africa with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and peace.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: Tawny paws

Summer is not the easiest time for predators in Southern Africa. Having good rains means that there is plenty of water all around and the animals which usually need to come down to the rivers to drink in the dry season, now disperse.

“Stop for a moment. Hold your breath and listen. The breeze carries a distant roar. Instinctively you know it is his place. The roar sends shivers down your spine – a reflex from some deep primal memory. The roar is far way but his message is clear to family and foe.” ~ Mike Haworth

Occasionally, as we are driving along a dry river bed densely lined with trees, we come across a predator either walking in the shade or lying on the cool sand.

The Mashatu logo on the door of a game vehicle. Mashatu is a land of large beings – trees, birds, reptiles and mammals – Mashatu trees, Martial eagles and Kori bustards, African pythons and elephants.

When the game vehicles go out first thing in the morning, the guides usually radio each other to communicate what they have seen either that morning or the evening before. It must have been around 7h30 when our guide, Justice, found the dominant male lion in Mashatu. Often when one group of visitors moves on after having seen the animal, the animal moves on, and the next vehicle needs to a little time searching and tracking to find where it had moved to.

The length of the shadows indicates it was still relatively early in the morning when we found this male lion. The shadow was to the right of the broken bush indicating that it was morning light and he was still lying in the open signalling that, although warm, it was not too hot for him. He was not with his pride so must have been resting while out patrolling his territory. He has had a relatively easy time without too much competition. He banished some of his sons a few years ago and they moved north and west. There has been surprisingly little competition and he has a handsome unscarred face to prove it. The status quo is always fluid so the time for a take over is coming.

The next day we found two females with cubs. Judging from their size they must have been around three to four months old and still sucking. The females, when they are in the mood, are remarkably gentle and attentive.

When your mother bares her teeth like this, even in a yawn, best you know your place. Judging from the condition of her canines she was a relatively young mother. We found her and her cubs around 17h00 in the evening and she was yawning as she was waking up and getting ready to get going. An adult lion’s clock is opposite to ours. They usually sleep during the day when it is hottest and do all their moving and hunting at night when it is cool and they can exploit their competitive advantage to its fullest, their night vision.

Cubs of the same sex often begin life long friendships when they are in the pride. The male cubs friendship group often grows into a coalition after they leave the pride, The females usually stay in the pride and bond for life.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”~ Plato

The cubs, of course, do not follow the adults’ pattern and can be very playful during daylight hours. They use each other as sparring partners where they build their coordination and learn to practice some of the moves that they have learnt from watching their mother.

Usually the lionesses are very patient with their cubs and even the other lionesses’ cubs. They can bite and pounce on their mother with little reaction. It is only when they have made their mother’s nipples raw with their sucking and biting do the mothers react firmly. The mother will often get up and walk away from the cubs to get a break.

“Two things define you. Your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything.” ~ Unknown

When you spend a little time watching the cubs, it becomes very apparent that they have different personalities. Some are thugs, some are shy and retiring and others are more pensive and like to watch all the action from a distance.

Hide and seek, tripping, tackling sand stalking are all part of the games that cubs play at this age to build strength and coordination and begin to hone some of their hunting skills. Every lion has different skills and this is typically they time the differences start to show.

Lionesses usually have two to three cubs in a litter. She has only four nipples, so any more than four cubs is problematic. The cubs are introduced to meat around three months of age and are unusually weaned after about 10 months of age. Lactating females are prepared to feed any of the cubs in the pride and only chase them away when their nipples are getting too sore.

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”~ Heraclitus

Cubs grow quickly in their first year. They are able to walk under their mother’s stomach until about two months old and reach just below their mother’s shoulder height by one year old. When looking at these cute little characters, it is hard to accept that around half of them die in their first year and about 80% of youngsters do not make it to adulthood. In Mashatu, the survival rate is higher as there is not the same level of threat from wandering nomad male lions but there are plenty of hyaenas and leopards. It is also not beyond a Martial eagle or a baboon to steal a very small cub.

On our third afternoon in Mashatu, we were out on an afternoon game drive. Justice, our guide, found the two lionesses and their cubs in an open area between two croton groves. It was late afternoon and the light was a rich golden colour. The lion families were lying in the grass in the shade but eventually some of the cubs started wandering toward a small pool of rainwater which was close by. Cubs are always playful even when they are just walking together.

One lioness moved out of the shade of the large trees surrounding this open sand patch and walked down to the pond to drink. What was so impressive about our guide, Justice, was that as soon as the cubs started to move toward the pond he moved the vehicle. With excellent anticipation he moved the vehicle in the opposite direction to everyone else and got us into position with a clear view of the pond such that the direction of the sun illuminated the pond perfectly. We then just sat and waited. Eventually, after about ten minutes, the first lioness walked down to the pond for a drink with the rich golden light bathing her from the front.

There is just no substitute for accurate anticipation of animal behaviour and good light. The anticipation of animal behaviour comes from spending time watching them and slowly learning their ways .

Once the lionesses were drinking at the pond, the cubs inevitably followed. The one lioness on the right hand side objected to one of the cubs biting her haunches. It was a sublime few minutes when all the lions gathered alongside the water’s edge to drink in the rich saturated late afternoon light. These times last a few minutes then they are gone, but the memory lasts long after the light has faded.

We are fortunate to always see lions when we visit Mashatu and usually see cubs of various ages. I never take for granted the privilege of seeing these “tawny paws” given the drastic dwindling of their numbers in Africa. I also value that we see these magnificent predators in the wild, not in some form of human containment.

“Lions were once found on three continents but have since disappeared from 94 percent of their historic range. Now fewer than 25,000 wild lions are estimated to remain in Africa.” ~National Geographic

I am fortunate enough to visit Mashatu twice a year and it seems to me that the lion population is relatively stable. There is plenty of game which also sustains a large population of hyaenas in the game reserve. The dominant male lion has had a long run with his pride, with little competition. The time must be coming that younger males will eventually wander into his territory looking to take over. New males will most probably come from the Zimbabwean side on the east of Mashatu, as the north and west have villages and the south borders on South Africa which is mostly fenced.

“There will be three cats, kin of your kin, with the power of the stars in their paws. They will find a fourth, and the battle between light and dark will be won. A new leader will rise from the shadows of his death, and the clan will survive beyond the memories of his memories. This is how it has always been and always will be.”
~ Erin Hunter

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: an avian wonderland

Mashatu is a private game reserve located in south eastern Botswana which undergoes the most amazing seasonal transformations. This post is about the avians we saw when we visited Mashatu in mid-summer in February which is also the rainy season in the southern Africa.

“Travel in Africa is not always easy. Sometimes the journey is difficult but it is also punctuated with experiences which are so evocative that they linger with you forever.” ~ Mike Haworth

At that time of the year you get to see not only the resident avians but also the international visitors. Migrants include the cuckoos, Lesser spotted eagles, sandpipers, both European and Carmine bee-eaters and kingfishers such as the Woodland.

“The way to make your dream to come true is to wake up”. ~Paul Valery

At the summer solstice, the sun rises around 5h15 and rises one minute later everyday until the winter solstice, so by mid-February the sun was rising around 6H15. On our first morning game drive we drove to the opposite side of the vlei (marsh) which was blanketed in a light mist, which was cool air trapped in the vlei for a short period.

Guineafowl and Spurfowl declare their territory early in the morning. This character was standing on a dead tree trunk talking to the world. There were a few Helmeted guineafowl on the ground around him but he seemed to be gathering the troops.

If you make too much noise you cannot hear. So every now and then this guineafowl would stop calling and listen intently.

The mist evaporated as the morning began to warm up. It was certainly not cold when we started our drive. When we first drove into Mashatu, it was wet but still looked barren. A day or so later with rain and a little sunshine this was the result. Acres carpeted with these yellow devil thorn flowers. The devil thorns are the seeds which germinate into the plants which produce this beautiful yellow bush carpet. The devil thorns are very soft at this point and most of the herbivores love to eat the soft shoots and flowers. Once the devil thorns dry out it is easy to understand why they were so named. This is not a place you want to walk barefoot in the dry season.

“Outer beauty is a gift. Inner beauty is an accomplishment.”~ Randi G. Fine,

The Lilac-breasted roller is the most widespread of the African rollers. There are 12 species in total, of which eight occur in Africa. This gorgeous multi-vibrant coloured insectivore is endemic to southern Africa. The birds prefer live in open woodland and savannah country with well spaced trees. The conspicuous colour and behaviour of this roller has captivated people since ancient times. In Zimbabwe, the lilac-breasted roller is often known as Mzilikazi’s roller – its feathers having once been used to adorn the head-gear of the 19th century Matabele king, a Zulu who founded the Matabele kingdom in what is now Zimbabwe. Mzilikatzi was originally a lieutenant of the Zulu king, Shaka and who revolted against the Zulu king and was forced to retreat North.

“The best and most beautiful things in life cannot be seen, not touched, but are felt in the heart.” ~ Helen Keller

Lilac breasted rollers are frequently seen perched on a stump or on top of a bush. They are perch hunters swooping down to catch insects, frogs and lizards on the ground. These rollers are highly territorial. They breed between August and February so we were looking out for their breeding displays but it was little late in their breeding season. It is always a thrill to see these rollers swoop from great heights in a high speed dive, rocking and rolling from side to side – their hallmark breeding display.

Mashatu has numerous Kori bustards. This is the heaviest flying bird in Africa. It can be up to 120 cm tall and has a wingspan reaching 275cm. It does not match a Martial eagle for power or the wingspan of a Wandering albatross (4metres) but it’s impressive nevertheless. It is an omnivore, eating both plant-like berries and animals like lizards and snakes. These birds are fundamentally walkers. Ground dwellers which would rather walk away from you than fly away. In breeding season the males inflate their neck and trail its wings and dances impressively in front of the female.

Soloman’s Wall is in the north west part of Mashatu game reserve. It is a vertical igneous dyke which formed a natural dam wall across the Motloutse river. The dyke decomposed over the millennia and was eventually breached by the river. For much of the year it is just a dry sand river bed but when the rains come it can flow from bank to bank. In mid-February there was still enough water in the river to make it impassable for all but the most intrepid off-road adventurer. Its vista was impressive sprinkled with cattle egrets flying across the water in front of the buttress.

Down on the banks of the river we found this Wood sandpiper very busy foraging for morsels in the sand. This little wader migrates down to southern Africa to escape the northern hemisphere winters. It can be confused with a Green sandpiper but has a darker brown face with white flecks and a white supercilium and short dark beak. The plumage on top of its head, back and rump is dark brown with white spangling. Its neck has dark brown spots and its belly and top of its legs are white. It has yellowish green legs. The Green sandpiper has shorter greyish legs and a more distinct brown to white transition between its breast and belly. It always a wonder when looking at these small waders how they manage to migrate such vast distances each year.

We were on our way back to camp after a successful morning’s game drive when, in a tall dead tree which had grown out of the large rock outcrop near camp, we saw a pair of African Hawk-eagles. We sat in the vehicle watching them for about ten minutes. This looked like a serious hunting party. Perched in a lofty lookout, both were very alert with the sun behind them. They have piercing yellow eyes.

“Memories of old Africa are punctuated with dust, sleeping bags around campfires and stories around told by the flickering flames. Hyaenas whooping and nightjars trilling all night long. Early morning walks where all the fragrances make your senses swim. Big blue skies and emptiness.”~ Mike Haworth

When I was around 10 years old in Zimbabwe, long standing family friends, the Condys had a menagerie of wildlife at their home across the valley in Harare. Dr. John Condy was the chief wildlife vet for the Zimbabwean Department of Veterinary Services. In the Condy’s garden down near the stables, John had series of chicken wire cages to hold various birds some of which were raptors. In one of the cages he had an African hawk-eagle called Nimbus. On one particular occasion, John Condy asked his son Mike and myself to go and feed Nimbus. So we dutifully went and got some mince and entered the cage. To my astonishment and horror this hawk-eagle went for us. Throwing the mince in all directions we hastily escaped from the cage. That was my first taste of how aggressive this raptor could be.

Eventually the female, the larger of the pair, took off from the dead tree right in front of us. This Hawk eagle is not as big as a Tawny or Fish eagle but it makes up for it with aggression. An African hawk-eagle pair is a cooperative hunting team where the one partner flushes the prey and the other ambushes the fleeing victim.

An African hawk-eagle has a distinctive shape, size and colouring. Being around 1.5kgs it does not have the bulk of an eagle. A Tawny eagle weighs around 2.3kgs and Steppe eagle at 2.7kgs. This hawk-eagle’s plumage is blackish on its upper parts and its breast and belly are white and heavily streaked with black. The female is larger than the male and was the first to take off and she flew between us and the rocks.

On another sortie out into the game reserve, we saw this White-backed vulture which was waiting in the early morning summer sun for the thermals to start developing. It would use the thermals to give it the cue to catch the thermal elevator to reach great heights it needed to start its aerial surveillance for the next meal.

Another early morning just after dawn looking across the Mashatu vlei. The promise of a colourful day ahead.

“There is a silence in the imminence of animals and also in the echo of their noise, but the dread silence is the one that rises from a wilderness from which all the wild animals have gone.” ~ Peter Matthiessen

A Red-billed hornbill with breakfast. There are four species of hornbill in Mashatu, the Red, Yellow and Grey billed hornbill and the Southern ground hornbill. We saw many Red and Yellow billed hornbills on this trip and heard the piping call of the Grey hornbill.

On our last morning in Mashatu, we were privileged to find a pair of Martial eagles. I have a penchant for raptors created from my schoolboy days at Falcon College in Zimbabwe. The first time I saw a Martial eagle was on a Sunday morning when a few of us from the ornithological society went out with photographer and now raptor expert, Peter Steyn, to check raptor nests. The Martial eagle nest we went to see was located at the top of a tall tree high on the side of a hill with a spectacular view looking down into a valley. I was a good tree climber so I was summoned to climbed the tree to see what was in the nest. It was a very tall tree with few climbing branches, I eventually manage to crest the nest and as I did I saw the fledged juvenile Martial eagle launch itself off the nest, open its massive wings, and soar down into the valley below. It was an experience I will never forget as, for me, it represented the ultimate physical freedom.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
~ Ansel Adams

This male Martial eagle was in a tree some distance from his nest. He took off and in doing so broke off a large branch. These are powerful raptors. They are the largest raptors in southern Africa. Martial eagles can weight up to 3.7kg, much larger than Steppe eagles.

It was exciting to see a Martial eagle pair. They were building a nest as they tend to breed in the wet season. The female does the incubation but the male does not feed her, though he does help with feeding the chick. You can see the female is much bigger than the male.

Martial eagles are strategic hunters. They are excellent flyers and hunters. The last time I saw a Martial eagle hunt was at Chudob waterhole in Etosha. There was a large flock of guineafowl drinking at the waterhole around mid-morning. We saw a Martial eagle sitting in a large tree about one hundred metres to the right far away from the waterhole. This Martial eagle took off and flew away in the opposite direction to the waterhole. Far way from the waterhole it gained sufficient height. It must have been a couple of hundred metres away and suddenly it tucked its wings in went into a stoop. This Martial leveled out about 20 metres above the ground flying at such a speed that its sounded like a low flying Boeing coming past, such was the roar of the air over its wings. The guineafowl heard or saw the Martial eagle and the flock scattered. The Martial hit one guineafowl which was taking off and hit it so hard that its was dead before it hit the ground. Before the Martial had time to collect its prize, a Black-backed jackal which had been watching the hunt from the ground stole the fallen guineafowl. It is difficult to explain how thrilling it was to experience a hunt like this, it is beyond imagination, utterly thrilling.

The wonderful thing about these sightings in the bush is that they are unexpected and often trigger floods of memories of previous incidents in the bush. Intriguingly what you see often rhymes but is never the same. The behaviour rhymes but the context and scene is always different. Understanding behaviour is a critical part of anticipating wildlife interaction and anticipating what is likely to unfold in a scene is a critical success factor to achieve these exceptional wildlife images.

“Anticipation is a craft. It is about seeing ahead. Being prepared, getting into the right position ahead of time. It is about understanding and interpreting behaviour and knowing what to expect.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: summer spots

Mashatu is a private game reserve in south-eastern Botswana. We visited this diverse and prolific reserve in mid-February this year and were fortunate to do so one month before the lockdown.

“A river doesn’t just carry water, it carries life.” ~Amit Kalantri

Mid-February is in the midst of the rainy season in southern Africa. The wildness of the place was emphasised by the strongly flowing Limpopo river which prevented us from crossing into Botswana via Pont Drift, the closest border post to Mashatu. We had to detour via the Platjan border post which is about 110 kilomteres to the south west of Pont Drift along the Limpopo river. This was the only way to cross the mighty Limpopo into Botswana by road from this part of South Africa. The dirt road from Platjan was very rough with numerous wash-aways and deep rain scoured ruts.

“Rivers are roads that move and carry us whither we wish to go.” ~Blaise Pascal

On our way to toward Mashatu we were surprised how barren and still relatively brown the area looked, indicating that the rains had come late and had not had enough time to bring the bush to life and transform into its summer colours. Only after a day or two in the game reserve did we see the transformation begin. The brown barren looking open spaces metamorphosed into a green Eden carpeted in yellow devil thorn flowers.

Summer is a time of frequent thunderstorms, wet gravel roads, and avian migrants. It is also a time of luxurious, verdant greens and vast carpets of yellow flowers. The rains allow the herbivores to scatter and not be obligated to make the daily hazardous walk down to the river for water.

One predator we always want to see when we go to Mashatu is a leopard. Mashatu is known for its exceptional leopard sightings which occur most frequently along the Majale river. This is the largest of the three main rivers flowing through the Mashatu game reserve. The other two are the Matabole and Pitsani.

There is a high density of leopards along the Majale river due to the abundance of prey and massive trees along its banks which provide them with protection. Leopard sightings are excellent and frequent in winter but can be more challenging in summer. When the rains come in summer, the vegetation grows much thicker along the river making the leopards more difficult to see and the prey is more scattered so the predators have to work harder to feed themselves.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”~ Patti Smith

We often see leopards up trees, especially in Mashatu where there are enormous Mashatu (Nyala berry) trees, Jackalberries and Figtrees along the main rivers. For some reason, unknown to me, on this particular trip we only saw leopards on the ground and they were active in the late afternoon and early mornings.

On our second afternoon, we were driving in the southern area close to the Majale river through the Mustard bushes when we came across this female leopard. She was on the move and clearly following something.

“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ~ Roman Payne

Leopards are by nature secretive and rely on stealth and camouflage so are seldom seen in the open. This female was using the Mustard bushes as cover and moving between them to get closer and closer to a single Steenbok she had spotted. This area was about 30 metres from the Majale river.

As she was stalking between the Mustard bushes she would stop and listen. Judging from the turn of her head, a sound to her left must have caught her attention and made her stop in mid stride.

“Sometimes when you lose your way, you find yourself.” ~ Mandy Hale,

This is a view of one of the small tributaries which feeds into the main Majale river. Although it was in the midst of the rainy season these tributaries only flow when there is excessive rain. Several of these tributaries flow through Croton forests. The atmosphere in these forests is cool providing relief from the summer heat and wonderful cover for predators.

The female leopard closed the gap between to around 20 metres before the Steenbok looked up and dashed away. These dainty little antelope have especially acute hearing, a sense which saved its life that afternoon. Only when you get into the bush do you realise that these animals have senses which are so much more finely tuned than ours.

After missing the Steenbok, our female leopard melted back into the undergrowth. In the shade, a leopard will disappear from sight and just sit and wait until the next hunting opportunity arises.

Two mornings later we were driving in the same area along the Majale river when we saw another young female leopard as we came around a cluster of large Mustard bushes. There lying in the open was this young female leopard. Quite relaxed and unfazed by us.

We sat and watched her for quite a while but it started to get quite warm so she moved into the shade of some nearby bushes. This gave her cover and allowed her to watch all the comings and goings around her from relative concealment.

“It is only upon reflection that we learn to see.”~ Mike Haworth

It is fascinating to watch a leopard for a reasonable period of time. It is as if her eyes were not fixed on anything in particular but her ears were constantly adjusting to locate the direction of the different sounds.

Leopards, although masters of stealth, are vulnerable on the ground due to the lions in the area, and Mashatu is also home to numerous hyaenas. This young female leopard must have felt relaxed enough to begin preening herself. You will seldom see a dirty leopard.

“Freedom cannot be bestowed — it must be achieved.”~Elbert Hubbard

She was a beautiful leopardess – relaxed, alert and deadly.

The leopard’s spotted pelage transforms into rosettes from the neck down and then turns back into spots on her stomach and lower parts of her legs. Her tail is also spotted.

A large Mashatu tree between a Apple-leaf on the left and a Leadwood tree on the right. These large trees provide refuge and shade for many animals from leopards to baboons, squirrels and numerous birds. This Mashatu tree was anchored onto the bank of the Majale river. This also give leopards a good vantage point form which to scout for prey.

On our last morning, we were driving along the Majale river at about 7h30 and suddenly Justice, our guide, stopped the game vehicle. Without saying anything he pointed to a spot on the far river bank about a hundred metres from us. We could not see anything. After carefully explaining where to look we finally saw this mature female leopard lying in the shade on the cool sand of the river bank. She had a good view of an extensive section of the river in front of her. Justice drove us to a point on the opposite bank which gave us a much better view and this is what we saw.

This female leopard lay on the river bank for about half an hour just watching and listening to everything around her. Eventually she got up and strolled back in the thick underground behind her. Without our guide Justice, we would never have noticed her lying in the shade on the far bank.

It is very seldom you will see more than one leopard at a time. They are solitary cats. The only time you will see two leopards together are when they are fighting or mating. Alternatively you many be lucky enough to see a mother with her cubs – that would be a real treat.

“A photograph is like a wormhole into a memory or vision. The colour creates the mood and contrast creates the attention.” ~ Mike Haworth

This trip turned into a treat as we realised would be lucky to see a leopard given the thickness of the bush in summer. I have been to Mashatu in summer and not seen one leopard during our stay. The one aspect about the bush you can expect is to see the unexpected.

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park: magic at Panic

A cryptic title perhaps but this post describes one of the most fascinating experiences I have had in the bush for a while and one that is deeply etched in my consciousness. It was a wonderful example of the complexity and inter-connectedness in nature. What we saw and experienced powerfully confirmed and reinforced my ideas about the bush.

Lake Panic is a well-known and favourite bird hide located a few kilometres west of Skukuza, the headquarters of Kruger National Park in South Africa. We visited the hide on a few mornings during our week’s stay at Burchell’s Lodge just outside the Kruger gate. This particular morning it was raining and the light was low. I was well armed with all my photographic kit and a head full of expectation. While the rainy overcast weather was not going to provide instant gratification, I knew that a degree of patience and quiet observance would yield something unusual and unexpected – and it did.

“Rain hangs about the place, like a friendly ghost. If it’s not coming down in delicate droplets, then it’s in buckets; and if neither, it tends to lurk suspiciously in the atmosphere.” ~    Barbara Acton-Bond

There was prolific birdlife all around with White faced whistling ducks flying in, White-breasted cormorants trying to dry off, African darters fishing, wide-eyed Spotted thick-knees, African jacanas lily trotting, Pied and Malachite kingfishers fishing, Fish eagles waiting for opportunities, goshawks and sparrowhawks hunting and an assortment of small herons foraging along the water’s edge. To add a little extra variety, terrapins and elephants also came to visit.

Amongst all the wildlife’s comings and goings there were moments of apparent inactivity. The pond at the hide end of Lake Panic is surrounded by large trees, some of which were acacias with large branches hanging over the water. There were two weaver colonies around the pond. The first was to the left of the pond shown in the next image. The further the nest hangs out over the water, the greater the protection from snakes and baboons.

“Nothing shouts “spring” louder than a frenzied colony of weaverbirds building new nests and their emergence of dazzling breeding plumages… ” ~South Africa.co.za

The second larger colony was positioned directly across the pond in a well armoured, large acacia tree.

Weavers are gregarious and build their nests in colonies usually above the water. Newman’s Birds describes the weaver’s call as a prolonged swizzling sound with a sharp “zit zit” sound. Imagine hundreds of these weavers all calling simultaneously in a colony. The whole side of the tree seemed to be alive and making that swizzling sound.

There are 14 weaver species in southern Africa, of which 12 are found in South Africa and all but three have predominately yellow plumage.

I noticed two types of weavers at Lake Panic, the Village weaver and the Lesser masked weaver. I did not get an image of a Southern masked weaver and at the time mistook the Village for a Southern masked weaver. All three species prefer to live in large colonies and build similar sized nests in trees with branches which hang over water.

Many birds build unusual nests but the weaver bird is the only one that has the ability to weave and tie knots. The weaver tears strips of fresh grass or shreds reed streamers off their stem and selects a suitable thin branch which extends out over the water to start tying its knots to anchor the nest to the branch. The first knots are structurally critical as they secure the nest chamber to the branch. The males do the structural building of the nest. The next image is of a male Village weaver in the early stage of his construction, assembling the structural hanging frame.

The male will build the basic structure of the nest by weaving threads of grass and reed to form a sturdy shell fully enclosed but for a circular entrance under the front of the nest. The nest is accessed from beneath to make access more difficult for anything but a weaver bird. Different species of weavers have there own style and shape of nest, each with its own different shaped entrance, some even have a long tunnel entrance into the nest shell.

Weavers are known for their roofed nests which are complex hanging woven chambers which male weaver birds construct during mating season to attract prospective mates.

Once the male has completed the basic structure of the nest he will go out of his way to attract a passing female with lots of calls. He also displays by hanging underneath the nest and twists and turns while flapping his wings. His bright yellow plumage must catch the female’s eye and then his display under the nest shows how well it has been constructed.

Impressed with the position, structural integrity of the woven nest shell and the male’s virile display, the female will then inspect the nest. If it passes her inspection she will begin to line the nest in preparation for mating and egg laying. The females are extremely choosy and males often have to tear apart their hard built nest and start again until he meets a female’s demanding standards. The nest building and attracting females continued irrespective of the rain.

“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”   G. K. Chesterton

The rain was intermittent and all of the “birders”, apart from Helen and I left the hide because of the rain and because there was nothing obvious going on. Both species of weaver continued flying from their nests to the reeds directly in front of the hide to gather nest building material. The male weaver would carefully strip off a long thread of reed or strand of grass and fly back to his nest and busily weave it into his nest structure.

All the weavers in the colony were very talkative as they were nest building and trying to attract partners. The chatter was noisy. Then all of a sudden, in unison, the entire colony went silent. Not one weaver flew to or from his nest. The entire pond area became dead quiet. It was so noticeable we were quite taken aback for a while and then realised there must be a raptor or predator around. We scanned the banks of the pond and could see nothing. Then, at the top of a dead tree overlooking the large acacia at the opposite side of the pond, was a Little Sparrowhawk.

These Little Sparrowhawks like riverine forests and woodlands and they also like weavers. The Little Sparrowhawk likes to perch concealed in a nearby tree then ambushes the unsuspecting weaver by swooping down on it before it has time to escape. We never saw this Little Sparrowhawk catch a weaver but it tried quite a few times before giving up and flying off. Each time the raptor flew into the colony the chattering stopped immediately and the weavers froze. The colony operated as one living organism and each member cooperated for the safety of the whole.

“Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotion Africa creates? You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you see it all from above.” ~ Francesca Marciano

Colonial nest building is a defence against predators There are more eyes to look for danger so there is safety in numbers. That does not seem to stop predation from small raptors and harrierhawks, or brood parasitism from cuckoos, honeyguides, Indigobirds, whydahs and cuckoo-finches. The Diederick’s cuckoo and Greater honeyguide are generalist parasitic breeders. We heard many Diedericks cuckoos in the surrounding trees, possibly for good reason, as the weaver breeding season is from October to March and we were there right in the middle of the breeding season.

“… fortune is not in time or place or things; but, good or bad, in the man’s own self for him alone to find and prove.” ~ Percy FitzPatrick

The more I watched the weavers flying back and forth gathering nesting material more I noticed differences in them. I had never noticed the mixed colony before with Village and Lesser masked weavers all co-mingled in the same large colony. The Village, Southern masked and Lesser masked weavers all have yellow plumage on the throat, breast and under tail coverts. Below the nape, the back feathers are speckled yellow and black, and the wing feathers are dark brown to black with yellow borders.

The main physical differences lie in their size and the position of the black face mask and eye colour. The Village weaver has a black face mask and a yellow crown which extends down to its beak, and it has red eyes and pinkish legs. The Southern masked weaver looks very similar but is smaller. It also has a black mask but its mask extends over its forehead just above the beak. It also has red eyes and pinkish legs. The Lesser masked weaver is the smallest of the three masked weavers. Its black face mask extends over the top of its forehead and it has yellow eyes and dark grey legs.

Time and again all the chattering in the colony would suddenly stop. There would be no sounds from any of the weavers. Every weaver was dead still. Even the weavers stripping strands off the reeds directly in front of the hide went dead quiet and still. We now knew that the sudden quiet signalled danger for the colony. This time it turned out to be a Gabar goshawk. It must have flown in (out of sight) from behind the trees and then settled down semi concealed in the branches near the weaver nests to wait for a hunting opportunity. The Gabar goshawk is identified by its grey plumage, red cere and red legs. It has light horizontal barring on its breast and belly and a white rump. It has horizontal thick black and grey bars on its tail feathers.

This Gabar had a few sorties among the weavers without success and eventually flew off. These small raptors do a good job of terrorising the weavers. It was fascinating to watch how this colony worked cooperatively to ensure its safety.

Research done by Nicholas E. Collias of the University of California has shown that social signals of a species are social signals and guides to its social life. Vocal signals are composed of basic elements that vary in duration, frequency, loudness, and tonality of notes. Sound spectrograms were made of 21 of the 26 vocal signals in the extensive vocal repertoire of the African Village Weaver. Short-distance contact calls are given in favorable situations and are generally characterized by low amplitude and great brevity of notes. Alarm cries are longer, louder, and often strident calls with much energy at high frequencies, whereas threat notes, also relatively long and harsh, emphasize lower frequencies. Each male displays his newest nest in a colony with an individually distinctive call to unmated females. The most harmonic calls of the species include a loud call by a male when an unmated female first enters his nest, and also very soft, brief notes given by parent birds to attract a fledgling. Males use somewhat different songs to defend territory, for courtship, and for advertisement.

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”~
John Burroughs

I will never again look at a humble weaver colony the same way, I will always stop and take some time to take in the dynamics of the colony and its surroundings.

“Art helps us see with new eyes what we knew was there but never really recognized. I photograph not to record or document—but rather, to capture and hold, just for a moment, the essence of what exists beyond the scene.” ~ Robert Hall

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park: rainy morning at Lake Panic

I learnt many years ago that there was light in everything in photography and more often than not, stormy and rainy weather created some unique photographic opportunities and rather than packing up and leaving when it started to rain, it was worthwhile to stay and wait for those unique moments. Yes, the low light can make the photography a little more tricky but you can get short periods of unique light. Alternatively, in a very hot climate, the rainy weather can cool things down and bring out all sort of wildlife which would otherwise be seeking shade. Even when it is raining things are happening in the bush, often unexpectedly.

“Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.
~ Author Unknown

I have never seen White-breasted comorants at Lake Panic before this sojourn into Kruger Park and visits to Lake Panic. The fact that we saw White-breasted cormorants suggested that there were many fish in the water, as these cormorants feed mainly on fish. The comorant’s jaw is adapted to handling bottom-dwelling slow-moving fish, but it can also catch faster fish closer to the surface. This particular adult had a glossy dark brown plumage on its back and nape. It had white breast and throat feathers. Its gape and the throat skin under the lower mandible were yellow and its eyes were turquoise.

Immature White-breasted comorants have white throat, breast and belly feathers, much whiter than the immature Reed cormorant. Comorants are unusual among waterbirds as they allow water to soak their feathers. This makes them heavier in water, enabling them to dive deeper. This is why you will see comorants taking time to preen and outstretch their wings to dry their feathers.

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin

We saw unusual behaviour on a particular morning. A White-breasted comorant took off from the trunk of a dead tree in front of the hide to fly directly east along the long axis of Lake Panic. Out of nowhere, a Fish eagle swooped down in an attempt to grab the flying comorant. In full flight the comorant dived head first into the water to successfully evade the Fish eagle’s talons. The same thing happened a while later as another comorant was flying back towards the trunk of the dead tree on the same flight path, and again the comorant evaded capture by diving into the water. The speed of the attack was so quick and it came from behind overhanging trees making it impossible to capture an image.

“Rain, the smell of it is a mixture of the heavens, the wind, and the moist earth.”~Unknown

A few White-faced whistling ducks flew in to visit for a short while. They seemed to enjoy striping off the seeds at the top of the grass stems. You can always hear them arriving, as they circle to ensure the landing zone is safe and their call is a distinct easily recognisable “whistle” as they fly in and see others from their flock.

A hunting Squacco heron showing its acrobatic style. These herons have excellent sight being able to adjust to the refraction, and are deadly accurate spear fishermen.

The Squacco’s cousin, the Green backed heron, is shyer than the Squacco and tends to remain in the shadows of bushes and branches overhanging the water’s edge. Every now and then, one individual is tempted to come out and fish in the open. On this occasion, the dead tree trunk made a perfect platform from which to hunt.

A juvenile Green-backed heron came to perch on a dead tree stump which was about 20 metres in front of the hide. It was raining but this heron did not seem to notice. What did unnerve it was a Malachite kingfisher flying excitedly around it.

A Spotted thick-knee in the grass on the right-hand-side of the island in front of the hide close to where the white-faced whistling ducks were feeding. The Water thick-knee is always found near water, unlike its Spotted cousin which is found in open grassland and savanna areas. It was unusual to see this single thick-knee, as they are usually seen in pairs or in a family group. The Water thick-knee is recognisable by its malar stripe under its eye from its beak and a dark brown stripe above a light fawn stripe in its upper wing coverts. Water thick-knees are slightly smaller than their spotted cousins but are not usually found in the same area. The large eye is a give away that this bird is primarily nocturnal.

A male Pied kingfisher with a tiddler which he had just caught. It was pouring with rain but this kingfisher could still see the very small fish in the water. One can always distinguish the male from the female as the male has a thick black breast band with a gap in the middle of it which is above a continuous thin black band across his breast. The female has just the thick black breast band with a gap in the middle of it on her pure white neck, breast and belly. It looks a bit like a bra!

The Pied kingfisher is the only black and white kingfisher in Africa. It is highly sociable and often heard before it is seen. It is an excellent fish hunter. It has a unique ability to hover to get an accurate fix on its prey before plummeting from heights of around 20 metres head first into the water. Its beak is perfectly formed for clean entry into the water.

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass…
It’s about Learning To Dance In The Rain.”

– Vivian Greene

Similar to other waterbirds, the feathers of a kingfisher are smeared with a special preen oil that keeps them waterproof when diving for fish. To keep their feathers in good condition, this kingfisher uses the secretion from its uropygial gland (preen gland or oil gland), situated near the base of the tail, which secretes a mixture of waxes and other organic compounds which it applies to its feathers.

A Malachite kingfisher with a tiddler. Like the Pied kingfisher, this Malachite was very active while it was raining. Again I was amazed at how acute its eyesight must be to pickup such as small fish below the rain splattered water surface. This Malachite was highly successful catching many small fish. In all cases, it beat the fish on its wooden perch to kill it before swallowing it whole. On occasion, it beat the little fish so hard on the perch that it broke off at the tail.

The Malachite can be confused with the Pygmy kingfisher but the Pygmy kingfisher has an orange supercilium (a stripe which runs from the base of the bird’s beak above its eye, finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head) while the Malachite’s supercilium is cobalt blue. The Malachite is also slightly bigger although still very small at around 13cm in size. The Malachite also has a very ornate black and light cobalt blue checkered crest. The Pygmy kingfisher is a summer visitor which feeds mainly on insects and small reptiles, so is a perch hunter quite different in behaviour to the Malachite

A Black crake walking over a fallen tree trunk on the opposite bank of the lake in front of the hide. At the hide end of the lake, the water channel is constricted to a 20 metre width before opening up into a large pond with an island. The pond is lined with large trees. The Black crake was climbing over a dead tree trunk on the opposite side of the channel. The Black crake has eye catching colours. Its body and wing feathers are jet black and it has salmon pink legs, blood red eyes and a candy yellow beak. Being part of the rail family, it is furtive and easily spooked causing it to dash for cover in thick vegetation when alarmed.

Like a Jacana, this little crake is known to perch on the back of hippos to feed on parasites or insects disturbed by its host. It has large toes enabling it to walk easily across reed beds.

A Tawny flanked prinia perched on a reed right in front of the hide. This is a slender, active unstreaked warbler with a long graduated tail which it characteristically cocks. It’s colouring is mouse-brown above and pale below, with tawny flanks and a distinctive pale eyebrow. This prinia usually frequents long grass and reeds along the edge streams and ponds in summer and become more arboreal in winter.

“Do not, on a rainy day, ask your child what he feels like doing, because I assure you that what he feels like doing, you won’t feel like watching.” ~Fran Lebowitz

It must have been around 9h00 when a herd of elephants came down to Lake Panic to drink, play and swim in the rain. They were at the Skukuza end of Lake Panic, so around half a kilometre away.

The elephants were having such fun. The young bulls were sparring with each other in the beautifully lush verdant vegetation along the edge of the Lake.

At various times, different sets of bulls would start playing which usually involved pushing each other around or chasing each other through the water. They appeared to have great fun splashing around.

Water lily flowers are complex, exotic and beautiful and look like colourful jewels on a lily pad carpet. The large flowers of the Day water lily are supported on long stalks just above the surface of the water. Day water lily flowers vary in colour from white and yellow to blue and pink. They only open in sunshine and close at night. Their petals are pointed and scented.
There are about 60 species of waterlilies, but only one species is in South Africa, namely the Day water lily. Once pollinated by insects and the occasional Jacana, the flowers are dawn back under the water where the seeds ripen and are dispersed by the water currents.

This is the pond section at the top of Lake Panic in front of the hide. The pond surface is mostly covered with water lily pads providing a bountiful foraging surface for African Jacanas. The weavers have formed a colony of nests hanging over the water for protection. The vegetation along the edge of the pond is thick and there are numerous large trees giving raptors many places to perch secretively waiting for a hunting opportunity.

Expect the unexpected in the bush. There was nothing unusual about two serrated-hinged terrapins warming up on a fallen tree trunk in the water. Nothing unusual about an African darter swimming around hunting for fish. Usually you only see the darter’s head which at a glance looks like a serpents head reaching out of the water. Then all of a sudden this particular darter climbed out of the water onto the dead tree trunk and immediately climbed onto of the closest terrapin. Unusual – yes; funny definitely. It was an overcast morning with intermittent rain but these two serrated-hinged terrapins were out on the log trying to dry off and warm up. This is the largest of the hinged terrapins and its hinge is on its plastron (the underside of its shell) rather than the carapace (which is the top side of the shell). Terrapins do not draw their heads in between their legs like a tortoise, instead they draw their legs in and then draw their neck in sideways in front of one of their legs. Terrapins have webbed toes, turtles have flippers and tortoises have foot pads with claws.

The African darter’s actions did not seem to frightened the terrapin which just repositioned itself to get more comfortable. Clearly, the darter was not too heavy for it and every time the terrapin moved the darter was tipped off balance and had to use its open wings to regain its composure.

Yet again we witnessed the time tested truth about nature. Patience and quiet will help you attune to your surroundings. As you tune in so you start to see and hear things you had not noticed before. If people in the hide are quiet and still, mother nature relaxes and allows her children to come out to play. Only then can you start to understand behaviour. Once you have seen certain behaviours repeated, the photographer in you can begin to anticipate the shot, and that is when some of the best images are captured.

“Give thanks for the rain in your life which waters the flowers of your soul.” ~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

The morning spent at the hide turned out to be fascinating and productive. The rain kept most human visitors away so the hide was quiet for extended periods. When people did arrive they would sit for five or ten minutes and not seeing any action they would wander off. It is only when you are listening for calls or gleaning signs from the surrounding bush that something is beginning to happen. You need time and quiet for these revelations.

“We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” ~ Carl Sagan

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park: Orpen and Nkumbe to the Sabie

The title will not mean much to those who have not been to Kruger Park in South Africa. For those that have been there, this will be a familiar and loved route. For those who have not visited the Kruger Park, perhaps this post might entice you to do so.

“Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.” ~ Emma Chase

After a fascinating morning at Leeupan, we decided to drive to Orpen dam for lunch. From Leeupan, we drove past the Tshokwane picnic site, which is always a very popular stopover, and turned right off the main road heading to Satara onto the road heading south toward Lower Sabie. After a few kilometres we turned left on the gravel road to Orpen dam.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

After driving for a couple of minutes along the gravel road, we came across a lone Side-striped jackal. This is a timid rarely seen nocturnal jackal, but for some reason this character was out in the open around midday. It is slightly larger than the, often seen, Black-backed jackal. Its pelage is grey to buff coloured with a darker back, but its sides are marked with a whitish stripe with a dark brown lower margin. This was the first time I have seen a Side-striped jackal in South Africa. They are only found in the northeast of the country, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This Side-striped jackal did not look to be in good condition as his coat had mange. Once the jackal saw us, it crept into this bush out of the sun and mostly out of sight, and waited for us to move on. I never got an opportunity to get a decent full body shot but for me it was rare and exciting sighting.

We usually go to below the Open dam wall along the N’waswitsontso river. There are numerous large trees lining the river which offer welcome shade. It gets really hot around midday in the Kruger Park in summer.

We visited the Kruger Park in mid-January this year and the Kruger had good rains before we arrived nourishing the bush to its verdant best. The river was full and the area was brimming with wildlife. We stopped to have lunch under a large tree and were serenaded by Fork-tailed Drongos and Woodland kingfishers. It was very restful with just the sounds of nature all around us.

We saw lots of elephants down near the river. The vegetation was thick and you have to drive slowly because you can easily come around a corner and find a bull elephant standing in the road browsing on bushes next to the road. This must be a wonderful time for them with plenty of water to drink and cool off in, and lush vegetation to eat.

“The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.” – Chris Humphrey

From one of our favourite spots at Orpen dam we wandered down the main road to Lower Sabie camp. On the way you drive up to one of the high spots in the area called Nkumbe which has a viewpoint where you can stop, get out of your vehicle and look down over a vast vista.

Nkumbe is the highest point in the Lebombo south of the N’waswitsontso and offers views over the vast grassland plains and the Shilolweni woodlands which are spectacular. If you look carefully you will see a few small family herds of elephant browsing along the Mapilini river in front of the lookout point. You will only see these colours after good rains in summer.

After spending an hour or so just gazing over this vast verdant landscape we wandered on down towards the Sabie river and turned off the tarred road at Muntshe onto the gravel road which would take us along the Sabie river. This next image is a typical view along a gravel road where the elephants always have right of way, as with all of the wildlife in the park. The road crossing can take quite a long time if it is a large spread out herd. We gave them plenty of space so as not to agitate the cows with calves.

Further on down the gravel road along the Sabie river there were numerous places to stop under large Natal Mahoganies with ample shade on a hot sunny day. The vegetation along the Sabie river is riverine forest with massive trees including the Sycamore fig, Leadwood, Jackal-berry, Natal Mahogany, Tamboti, Weeping Boer-bean and Apple-leafs. There is plenty of wildlife down along and in the river. This hippo was good enough to provide a perfect sunbathing platform for several terrapins.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”~ Isaac Newton

After driving along the gravel road along the Sabie river for a few hours we turned onto the tarred H12 to drive along the high level bridge across the Sabie river. The Sabie river is about 750 metres wide at the bridge. It is wide because just upstream of this bridge, the Sabie and Sand rivers join. The Sabie river is considered a semi-arid river with highly variable water levels due to strongly seasonal and unpredictable rainfall. Both the Sabie and Sand rivers start outside Kruger Park and have large catchment areas. With moderate rains, the water flow in the Sabie river reaches a few hundred cubic metres per second but the during the massive flood in 2000, the flow swelled to as much as 5,500 cubic metres per second, as big as the Zambezi under normal flow conditions.

“The best picture is around the corner. Like prosperity.” ~ Ansel Adams

In mid-january along the Sabie river there is plenty of water and where there is water there are usually fish and where there are fish there are Fish eagles. Needless to say the Fish eagles are not left in peace. If it is not a Lilac-breasted roller driving bombing the Fish eagle because it is too close to its nest in the dead tree trunk, it is a Fork-tailed drongo making it quite clear that the Fish eagle does not need to linger at this spot.

This happened to be a particularly large and majestic Fish eagle. Being so large, it was probably a female and looking at those talons I suspect there were very few fish that escaped her clutches.

The weather was very variable with plenty of rain and thick cloud cover. As a wildlife photographer often when the weather is at its worst it offers unique lighting conditions or uncommon wildlife behaviour and sometimes both. The message is don’t stay indoors when it is overcast and rainy you will miss many photographic opportunities.

“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.” ~ David Brower

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park – the drive to Leeupan

From the Kruger gate you have access to the southern section of Kruger Park and comfortable drive of around 41 kilometres to Tshokwane picnic site and a further five or six kilometres to Orpen dam. Although these places are not too far from Skukuza, time and distance are too very different dimensions in an African game park. A herd of elephant might block the road for half an hour or a pride of lions decide to lie on the road when it is cool enough. There is a 50km/hour speed limit in the park, and if you want to see anything, that speed is too fast, and you certainly cannot drive safely at that speed on the gravel roads. By driving slowly along the road you can spend more time looking into and around the bush which will greatly improve your chances of seeing the wildlife.

“A game park is a sanctuary for nature. A place where nature in all its colours, shapes and sizes comes first. Be quiet and with a little patience mother nature might reveal her family and you will discover it is a place of great learning. A place of rejuvenation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Travelling slowly along the Skukuza-Tshokwane road, and only about 20 metres into the bush, we saw four adult bull Kudus lying down in the thick long grass with only their neck, head and horns showing. A male Kudu starts to grow its horns between six and 12 months of age. The horns form their first spiral rotation at around two years of age, and do not reach their full two and a half rotations until the male is around six years old. Some of the older bulls occasionally have three full turns in their horns.

We adopt the idea that the faster you drive the less you see. One of my reasons for going to a game reserve is to relax and untether myself from the hurly-burly of urban life. The last thing I want to do in the game reserve is tear around.

“If you have the choice, chose a dirt road. It is quieter and you will feel the road constantly changing beneath you. And yes, the bumps will shake off your urban anxiety. There are no verges. Grass and trees grow right to the edge of it. So anything can step out from the long grass or from behind the bush. Go slowly for you might just be in for a surprise.” ~ Mike Haworth

We decided to go to Leeupan (meaning Lion pan in Afrikaans). This pan is off the main road between Skukuza and Satara camps. Turn off the main road and drive for about a kilometre and you will find a large open area with a pan of water. There are lots of reeds and water grass in the pan and various species of acacia trees, including knob thorns, surrounding it. The pan attracts a variety of wetland birdlife and animals which come to drink.

This pan is seasonal, so it fills up with the summer rains and often dries up in winter. We have always found it to be a productive photographic area. As you drive along the gravel road to get to Leeupan, there are thick woodlands together with numerous dead leadwood trees. The raptors seem to prefer these dead trees as they are high enough for them to scan the area for potential prey. On the way into the pan we came across this adult Tawny eagle.

A vibrant salmon red “Pride of die Kaap” bush adding a splash of colour to the verdant green bush veld.

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”~ John Muir

About five kilometres before you get to Leeupan on the main road from Skukuza to Satara, there are the Kruger Tablets which are plaques dedicated to Paul Kruger, the founder of the Sabie Game Reserve, which later became Kruger National Park. This area is a outcrop of large granite boulders. It is well known to be a favourite place for lions as they can get high enough to enjoy the huge vista of the surrounding plains. Where ever there is a large outcrop of boulders there is a good chance you will find Klipspringers. This adult male and female were on the rocks just past the tablets.

We stopped and watched them for a while. These are beautiful and unique small antelope. They are extremely agile on the rocks, and have unique hooves which allow them to stand on their tips with soft soles to provide grip. This small antelope is territorial. The black patches just below the front of the eye are pre-orbital glands which they rub on twigs to mark their territory. Both the male and female have these pre-orbital glands and both mark the pair’s territory.

A male Tree agama with its characteristic blue head. This agama was busy defending his territory up and down this tree trunk. The blue head gets bluer during the breeding season and the dominant male usually has the brightest blue head. These agamas are diurnal, arboreal and insectivorous and eat crickets, caterpillars, worms, and spiders. This agama’s main predators are snakes and hornbills.

From the side of the main road we saw a male Grey hornbill fly to the side of a large tree. There was a small hole in the bottom of what looked to be a large knot in the tree trunk, where a branch must have fallen off many years ago. I know that the Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Grey hornbills all use cavities in trees to build their nests. They usually find a cavity at least four metres off the ground, and the cavity needs to house a female and her chicks so must be at least 20 cm in depth – enough for the female’s body ( minus wing and tail feathers) plus small chicks. I was intrigued by this nest because I could not see how the female had managed to get into this cavity and seal herself inside.

“Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments.” ~Rose Kennedy

Once the nest has been prepared, the female climbs into the next cavity and then seals herself inside, helped by the male using a mixture of mud and dung. Just a small feed hole is left open. Once walled in the nest, the female lays her eggs and sheds all of her wing and tail feathers. The male will feed his female while she incubates her eggs and feeds her chicks. Once she has regrown her wing and tail feathers, which coincides with the chicks being about half grown, she breaks out of the nest cavity. The male and female then reseal the nest cavity leaving a feeding hole for the chicks who remain in the nest until they are about 45 days old, they the parents break open the hole for their chicks to emerge. The prime purpose of the elaborate nesting procedure is to keep predators out.

Another stem of Yellow flame lilies which would gladden any Zimbabwean’s heart. This perennial herb can reach a height of around three metres, rambling and climbing over neighbouring plants using the tendrils at the end of its leaves. This is a “look but don’t touch” plant as all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids and can be fatal if eaten. Even to touch the plant can result in skin irritation

This male Swainson’s spurfowl was foraging for seeds in old elephant dung in the middle of the gravel road. You can often find baboons and other spurfowl doing the same. The elephant only digests and makes good use of around 40% of its food intake and so leaves many of the ingested seeds unprocessed.

As we were driving slowly around the one side of the pan we disturbed a pair of Blacksmith lapwings. We stopped to allow the female to settle down. It was only when she settled down in a small patch of grass on the edge of the driving area that we saw she had a nest. She bent her knees and settled down to incubate the single egg between her legs. Normally the Blacksmith’s nest is not far from water and this one must have been about ten metres from the pan’s waters edge. The clutch size is usually three to four eggs, so I suspect her clutch had been raided by a baboon or Monitor lizard. The mottled colouring on the egg made it superbly well camouflaged, to us at least.

We found a pair of Saddle-billed storks at the pan. They prefer to forage close to water, along large rivers, freshwater marshes, floodplains and pans just like this one. The Saddle-billed stork feeds in a similar way to a heron. It walks slowly through the shallow water looking for fish, frogs or lizards even small birds or mammals. It either stalks its prey or stabs its bill into the grass or water, catching its prey by contact.

“Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is the change that goes deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard

The female is slightly smaller than the male but they both have white body and neck feathers. Their upper parts, from midway along their back to their tail, are black as are their primary and secondary wing feathers. The female has a bright yellow eye and a red bill with a black band around the middle of the bill.

The male and female have the yellow saddle on top of their upper mandible directly in front of the eyes but the male also has two yellow wattles or “stirrups” below his chin. The male has black eyes. These storks have an impressive courtship display which involves dancing and jumping while bowing to each other with their wings wide open showing off their dramatic black and white colouring. The primaries and secondaries are white and the coverts are black. We watched a courtship display but I could not get a clean enough images to show you. We were very grateful for this rare sighting.

Two of the first wild ducks I came across as a youngster in Zimbabwe were White-faced whistling and a Knob-billed ducks. We found a small group of Knob-billed ducks at Leeupan. The Knob-billed duck is an occasional intra-African migrant. The head and neck of the male and female is white with black speckles and they have an almost continuous black crown and nape. The upper parts are black and belly and sides are white. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are black but the coverts have a beautiful green, bluish-purple and bronze gloss. The adult males have a large flesh black knob on their top mandible. The precise purpose is unknown but it is thought to be ornamental displaying sexual maturity and health. Unhindered by the large knob on his bill, this male was energetically stripping and feeding on the seed inflorescences from the top of grass stems.

The Knob-billed duck feeds on vegetation by grazing or dabbling but will eat small fish and invertebrates when found. We only saw a few “knobbies” at the pan. Wherever I have seen Knob-billed ducks there have only been a few in one place.

A lone Woolly-necked stork foraging along the pan’s water edge. This is one of the smaller storks, along with the Openbill and Abdim, which is between 75 and 85 cm tall. The larger storks are all above 100 cm tall with the Saddle-billed and Marabou storks being the tallest African storks standing around 150cm high. Woolly-necked storks prefer wetland habitats because they feed on fish, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, large insects, larvae and crabs.

The Woolly-necked stork has dark body and wing plumage which has a coppery-purple gloss, but its belly is white. This stork has a white woolly neck and head though its forehead is black. It has a red eye and a grey bill which becomes red towards the tip. The is no sexual dimorphism so you cannot tell the sexes apart. These storks are intra-African migrants and I have seen large flocks along both the Chobe river in northern Botswana and at one of the dams in the Serengeti.

On the way into Leeupan we saw a Tawny eagle and on the way out we saw this spectacular male Bateleur eagle. He had dramatic colouring of black, white and chestnut brown. The top of his bill, facial skin and legs were red though his facial skin does change colour depending on how excited or agitated he is, the redder the more agitated and a more yellow-orange colour signals a calmer state.

The female is bigger than the male Bateleur and the two have quite different wing colouring. The male usually has grey upper wing coverts and black secondary coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. When in flight the male has a thick black tailing edge to the underside of his wing feathers. The female has chestnut brown upper wing coverts, black primary wing feathers but the lower section of her secondary wing feathers are black and the upper part is white or light grey.

We did not get to see this male Bateleur fly but they are called the “acrobat or tight-rope walker” because, in flight, there is a rocking motion of their extended wings. The wing movement looks like the movement of a tightrope walker who is moving his extended arms up and down to balance. Its long wings and short tail are distinctive. They are magnificent flyers and it is always a thrill to see a Bateleur eagle effortlessly gliding at speed through the sky. Acrobatic displays are characteristic. This close cousin of the Snake eagle spends around eight to nine hours day on the wing.

“Serenity flows through the natural world. Listen and you can hear. The beating of your own heart, and the deepening of your breath, are in rhythm and connection with the powerful tranquility of creation that becomes fully alive in you as you return to the roots of your being.”~Bella Bleue

After spending many hours wandering around these wildlife sanctuaries, I am always filled with wonder and a deep sense of peace, diversity and balance.

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger park – the “little herons” at Lake Panic

Lake Panic is a small dam which filled after an earth wall was constructed in 1975 across the small stream which flowed through the golf course past Skukuza rest camp down to the Sabi river. Two dams were formed along this stream. The upper dam was called Lake Panic because not long after it was constructed a huge volume of water from a cloudburst overfilled the dam and threatened to breach the dam wall causing panic among the Skukuza rest camp staff. The earth dam wall held then and still holds back the water today. Further down the same stream another dam was built in the Skukuza golf course which is located just west of the Skukuza rest camp, the main administrative centre of Kruger Park.

Lake Panic was formed by the dam across the stream which was given the name Mafunyana creek. The creek was nicknamed after L B Steyn, a hard, tough Afrikaaner who became park warden in the 1940s. He was given the nickname Mafunyana, meaning he who eats greedily.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Lake Panic is filled naturally by rain water but if it gets too low it can be filled with water pumped up from the Sabi river which flows passed the Skukuza rest camp.

There are eleven bird/game-viewing hides in Kruger National Park but Lake Panic is arguably the best known. The lake itself is host to a plethora of wetland and savanna bird life, and larger reptiles such as Nile crocodiles, terrapins, Nile monitors, and mammals such as hippos, elephants, and a diverse group of woodland antelope, and predators. The bird hide at the upstream end of Lake Panic is one of the most scenic and productive photographic and bird watching spots in Kruger.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?.” Rachel Carson

This post focuses on the “little herons” we saw at Lake Panic. The “little herons” are a group which are smaller than the large herons such as Black-headed, Grey, Purple and Goliath herons, but larger than the bitterns. The large herons vary in height from 90cm to 140cm, as in the case of a Goliath heron. The “little herons” vary in height from 40 to 60 cms while bitterns are around 25 cms in height, with the exception of the Great bittern which is similar in height to the “little herons”.

These herons differ from storks and ibises in having a long, spear-like bill, a pectinate middle toe claw, a generally more slender body with a long neck, and an elaborate variation in display feathers on the head, neck, and back.

The classification of little herons and egrets has no clear clear consensus as evidenced by the interchangable classification between a Black egret and Black heron, the one with the unique canopy hunting technique.

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow..” ~ Rachel Carson

The group of “little herons” include the Green-back, Squacco and Rufous-bellied heron which vary between being diurnal and crepuscular, and the purely crepuscular and nocturnal Black-crowned night herons and White-backed night-herons. Needless to say because of the gate opening and closing times in Kruger (sunrise and sunset) we did not get to see night-herons. We were treated to superb sightings of Green-backed and Squacco herons.

Green-backed herons are shy and do not seem to like being in the open for too long. Fortunately, there is a fallen tree in front of the hide which is a perfect platform from which to hunt which the Green-backed herons actively used. These herons are very well camouflaged and difficult to see in the shade inside bushes overhanging the water’s edge.

The Green-backed herons have a similar hunting style to the Squaccos and are real reed and branch acrobats.

These herons must be able to accurately judge the refraction of light in the water. As the light passed from the air into the water it changes direction which alters the perception of depth. If the heron does not adjust for this it will stab and miss its prey swimming under the water surface. Normally the light bends towards the surface as its passes into water so the prey looks shallower than it really is. Just think of the natural intelligence required to adjust its aim to directly hit the fish swimming under the surface of the water. This Green-backed heron hunting on the edge of fallen tree trunk was in a classic place to see its unique technique of baiting its prey. Sadly, we did not get to see this hunting technique in action.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” ~ Chinese proverb

These “little herons” have large feet with long claws which enable them to hang onto branches and grip the side of a fallen logs. The Green-backed heron tends to be a crepuscular hunter but occasionally hunts during the day – especially early in the morning for Lake Panic photographers.

The adult Green-backed heron has a dark grey-green back and lighter grey neck and breast feathers. Its secondary and covert wing feathers are a striated green colour. It usually has a thin streak of white feathers down the front of its neck. It has a very dark green crown with long crest feathers. Its underparts are a pale grey color. This heron has a long pointed bill with a black upper mandible and and lighter coloured lower mandible which varies in colour from yellow to a light fawn colour. It has yellow eyes and yellow lores. The lores are the space between the nostrils in the bill and the eye of a bird. They are featherless on wading and water birds. Often they change colour in breeding season. Also in the breeding season, the eye becomes orange and the legs change from yellow to a orange-red colour. It makes you realise the degree of hormone changes take place to cause these colour changes?

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” ~Francis Bacon

The Green-backed heron tends to be solitary and is normally seen flying furtively along the edge of the waterway. They are shy waders which fly low across the water and usually along the river from one set of bushes and trees with branches overhanging the water to the next. The Green-backed heron is highly territorial.

The juvenile Green-backed heron is brownish, with a well striated neck, and with white and buff coloured spots on its upper wings. Its throat, neck and chest are streaked with brown and white. Its legs are a greenish yellow. This particular character was alarmed by a Malachite kingfisher which was giving it a few close fly byes.

The other “little heron” we saw at Lake Panic was the Squacco heron. According to Trevor Carnaby, in his “treasure trove” book ‘Beat about the bush: Birds’, both the Green-backed and the Squacco herons have been seen baiting their prey.

“To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both the forest and the tree. We will have to learn to connect.” ~ Peter Drucker

The Squacco is usually found close to water. Its non breeding plumage is a buff-brown back and its neck is streaked with long dark brown and buff coloured feathers and its underparts are white. It has a grey bill will a black tip and its legs are yellow-green. In the breeding season this heron’s plumage takes on attractive long golden brown plumes on the back of its head and golden plumes on its neck and chest. Its bill becomes cobalt blue and its lores turn green. Judging from the Squacco in the next image it was in the process of taking on its breeding plumage.

This bird has a specially adapted bill which helps it hunt for fish, crabs, tadpoles and other aquatic animals in the water. It will also eat insects. Unlike a kingfisher which beats its prey to death on a branch, these herons seem to just swallow their prey whole once it is immobilised.

“These birds are usually quiet. If you want to see them you have to pay attention. Mother nature is watching you. Once she can see you are paying attention she will begin to reveal her wonders to you.” ~ Mike Haworth

These herons frequently hunt from branches overhanging the water. As you can see they are quite acrobatic.

Looking at this Squacco one would never expect their incredible ability to stretch that apparently short neck. The very long neck feathers are a sign there is more to that neck than meets the resting eye.

When food sources are abundant, Squaccos feed in small flocks but the birds are well spaced out. I have seen along the Chobe river where roughly every ten to 15 metres apart there was a Squacco in the reeds. Usually though when at Marievale Bird Sanctuary or Lake Panic, we only see individuals which is probably a sign that food is not abundant. Incredibly these herons can stand stand motionless at the water’s edge, or hidden in the tall vegetation for extended periods. When prey comes within striking distance they jab at their prey with exceptional speed, reach and dexterity.

We do not normally find the Rufous-bellied heron in South Africa other than in the Nyl river flood plain in the Limpopo province. I have seen one in the reeds along the Chobe river. This species of “little herons” is least seen of the three in southern Africa.

“It is only when you sit quietly and patiently, almost in mediation, that you start to see things in front of you that you never noticed before~ nuances. A subliminal layer of activity, interaction and intelligence becomes apparent subtly revealing some of nature’s mysteries.” ~ Mike Haworth

Don’t forget it is Global Birding “Big Day” on Saturday 9th of May. Please help them with their bird count project. eBird Mobile app is a worldwide bird checklist programme used by millions of birders. It compiles sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list and at the same time collects data to help scientists better understand birds and their distribution. Download the app and help them while you are in lockdown.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park- through the gate

In mid-January this year, Helen and I visited the Kruger Park. We had some timeshare points which we had to use or lose before the end of January so we chose Burchell’s Bush Lodge next to the Kruger gate. At that time of the year in the Kruger Park we expected some of the days to be rainy and overcast which could bring welcome relief to the high summer temperatures.

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass…. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~ Vivian Green

The Kruger Park is located on the north eastern east side of South Africa, bordering on Mozambique. Kruger National park is massive, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometres. The park is about 360 kilometres long from north to south. At its widest it is 90 kilometres, west to east. This area was first protected in 1896 and declared a national park in 1926.

Despite the persistent rhino poaching problem, Kruger Park offers a diverse variety of animal and bird life with 15 different ecozones yielding rich biodiversity. January is mid-summer in South Africa, so the lowveld which includes Kruger Park can be very hot but also variable because it is the rainy season.

“Of all the roads you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” ~ John Muir

We tend to steer away from the tarred roads in the park because they carry a much higher density of traffic than the gravel roads. The only problem was that several of them had been closed due to washaways from the heavy rains the week before we arrived.

“Expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.” Denis Waitly

The Kruger gate gave us easy access to the southern section of the park from the western side. One of the first roads we like to drive along from Kruger gate is towards the main Skukuza camp but turn right onto the Phabeni road and a few kilometres along that road we turn left onto the Waterhole road. This is a gravel road which can be quite productive and is also offers a very scenic drive.

On the waterhole road, this female Natal spurfowl was not fazed by us at all. She quietly when on preening herself in the middle of the gravel road. The female Natal spurfowl is smaller than the male and has much less pronounced spurs on the back of her orange-red legs.

“When you are in the bush your senses recover. The rain brings welcome relief. It’s coolness quenches the lowveld heat. The smell of rain on the earth carries its own memorable fragrance. The rain washes the dust from the leaves revealing a palette of green hues. The bush refreshes and you feel it.” ~ Mike Haworth.

We travelled on down to Transport dam, the site of many a dramatic wildlife sighting. We spent about half an hour just watching but it was very quiet so we moved on. It had just rained and as we were driving away from the dam we saw another female Natal spurfowl perched on a fallen tree trunk just watching the world pass by. It also seemed to be the driest place to stand.

Deciding to stay in the area, we continued down toward Pretoriuskop camp and turned right on the road which meets the Phabeni road and passes Shabeni hill. There is a drive around the granite outcrops of Shabeni which is very picturesque. We were fortunate to find several Amur falcons perched in the dead trees at the foot of Shabeni’s massive granite domes. These migratory falcons seemed to be hawking insects flushed by the rain. I have seen very few Amur falcons this summer season, which might be because so many were killed in hail storms last year. This female was suitably wet after the downpour.

On the short drive around Shabeni hill, we found large groves of Pride of de Kaap. The bushes were large and covered in a soft salmon red-orange coloured flowers with two lobed butterfly-shaped leaves. Despite its name it is usually found in the bushveld region, of which Kruger is part. This bush is named after the De Kaap valley near Nelspruit, now called Mombela at the south west toe of Kruger park in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

We found several more Amur falcons a few hundred metres from the other group. I have occasionally seen them in the Kruger in summer but never in great numbers. The female has dark brown streaks on a buff coloured chest and yellow feet. The male has a grey chest and red feet.

“I feel like the earth. astonished at fragrance borne in the air, made pregnant with mystery from a drop of rain.” ~ Rumi

My bird photography was frequently interrupted by the rain and the lower light forced me to push up my ISO or sensor light sensitivity. My subjects such as this pale flycatcher unfortunately looked quite bedraggled after being soaked. This flycatcher was also out and about because of all the insects flushed out by the rain. Flycatchers have prominent bristles protruding from the base of their bill though this one’s were not very prominent.

This foxglove-like perennial is a ceratotheca trilobia. It stood about one and half metres high and I could not resist taking photograph of it trying to capture its delicate softness which was quite incongruent in the wild grassy bush.

The deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature.” ~Albert Schweitzer

This red-billed oxpecker seemed to have lost its host. This species of oxpecker is identified by its red bill, dark brown back and creamy coloured breast feathers. It has two sharp claws facing forward and two facing backward to hang onto its host when it is moving. It also has stiff tail feathers to support while it is ridding it’s host of parasites such as ticks and flies. This bird feeds almost exclusively on what it can forage from the skin of large African mammals. It also feeds on dry skin and blood from open sores on its hosts hide. I am not sure what this character was doing sitting in the middle of the road all on its own.

A beautiful young adult zebra mare with big watery eyes and a perfectly groomed mane.

A Cape vulture perched in a dead tree in the rain. It was cool and still early enough so that thermals had not yet begun to develop. It is fascinating to watch these large scavengers waiting for the temperature to rise and the first thermals to develop before taking off to catch one to lift them for their high altitude, long distance aerial surveillance.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Given where I was raised as a child, I have a penchant for flame lilies. It is the national flower of Zimbabwe. This is the yellow variety but the most common variety has the red and yellow petals. Although very beautiful this plant has a toxic bulb. These plants prefer sandy soils and semi shade, and a degree of wind protection because they are so flimsy.

A dark morph adult tawny eagle. It was scouring the area from the high vantage point of a dead tree trunk.

A semi-adult brown snake-eagle. The adult is a pure brown colour and it also has those characteristic piercing yellow eyes.

On our way back to camp we briefly stopped at the Lake Panic bird hide and in a tree right next to the small car park was this pair of African barred owlets. The light was low and these two were trying to nap though their resting place was never going to allow them much peace.

We were concerned about going to Kruger just before the school term started but we were pleasantly surprised not to find too many people in the park. As a photographer the issue is always trying to get into the park at first light just as the park opens. At a main entrance such as Kruger gate if you are unlucky you can spend more than half an hour in a queue waiting to get an entrance permit, even if you have South African Park’s Wildcard.

“The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Of course once in the park and away from the crowds of people, the quiet and the natural beauty of the bush soon settles you. After about an hour of driving we usually find a secluded spot overlooking a river to stop the car and have a cup of coffee and a rusk – idyllic. After our break we moved on, full of expectation not knowing what will be around the corner!

You cannot leave Africa” , Africa said, “It is always with you, there inside your head. Our rivers run in currents in the swirl of your thumbprints; Our drumbeats counting out your pulse; Our coastline, the silhouette of your soul”. ~ Bridge Dore

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

Have fun, Mike