Masai Mara – spotting cheetahs

Large sections of our African wildlife are disappearing at an alarming rate. We humans, as a species, are taking their space with little care or concern. Given our consciousness or perhaps the lack of it, most of humanity sees itself as the superior being in the community of nature. Humans are inventive and restless but few have understanding about their responsibility or the sustainability of their actions when it comes to the natural world. That is not to diminish the incredible work of a minute proportion of the human race are doing to try to preserve and sustain what we have left in the natural world.

“Have the will of a tiger, the speed of a cheetah and the heart of a lion.” ~ Kevin McCarty

When you enter the Masai Mara your senses are filled with the wonder of the natural world. The vastness of the place, the huge open blue skies, the abundance of wildlife combine to make it all feel so natural and right.

In these posts, I am trying to show the diversity and stunning beauty of the Masai Mara. This is one of nature’s great stages upon which African wildlife puts on a daily show the likes of which will be beyond your imagination, even for the most seasoned rangers, and will fill its audience with wonder.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ~ W.B. Yeats

The global cheetah population continues to decline with only about 7 000 individuals left in Africa, half the population of 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their abundance of their prey, the illegal trade in wildlife and growing conflict with humans for space.

Some of the actors on this stage will leave you spellbound, One actor in particular which will capture your imagination is the cheetah. It is the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Even more impressive is that it can accelerate from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in three seconds, making its acceleration faster than that of a Ferrari Enzo, a McLaren F1 and a Lamborghini Gallardo.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne W. Dyer

On our travels around the Mara Triangle in November, we were fortunate enough to find cheetah on two different occasions considering the vastness of the Mara Triangle, which is only a small part of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

“It is only when you immerse yourself in the vastness of the Mara do you realise how much you value space to wander, space to gaze, space to breathe deeply, and appreciate the new perspectives which the space unlocks.” ~ Mike Haworth

Our first sighting was of a coalition of two rugged looking adult male cheetahs. These two were obviously seasoned hunters. We found them down in the southern section of the Mara triangle where you find the inselbergs. These two males were resting in the shade at the foot of an inselberg. Judging from the size of their bellies they must have fed earlier that morning.

Cheetahs need space and the Mara gives them that. Research shows that Kenya’s Masai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it is a landscape under increasing human pressure, mainly from tourists. The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists who enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting.

“Nature’s stage changes daily. The plot is mercurial, the actors are unscripted and the backdrops, washed with blues, greens and yellows, are splashed with wind and rain, and illumined with the sun.” ~ Mike Haworth

Thankfully, we were the only vehicle travelling around the south of the Mara Triangle one morning when we found these two male cheetahs which were walking up the hill towards a ridge crowned by a few bushes. The bushes would provide them with shade and the ridge had sufficient elevation to give them a perfect view of the plains below when looking for potential prey.

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

This male looked strong and healthy as he was walking towards us on his way up to the ridge behind us. The two males were walking up from the plains below where they must have made a kill. They clearly fed well but probably had to abandon their meal due to hyaenas.

A cheetah’s nemesis, the ubiquitous hyaena lurking in the background. The Mara has a large, healthy and active population of spotted hyaenas. There are many clans. These clans are usually centred around a den and the clan members scatter to far reaches of the clan’s territory to hide during the day in gullies, ponds of water or large tussocks of red oat grass. This surveillance system ensures little happens in their territory without the hyaena clan knowing about it. Even though the hyaenas operate mainly at night they are aware of cheetahs hunting in their territory and only too ready to steal the cheetah’s hard won prize at any time of the day.

Cheetahs are well known for their speed, but there is more to these creatures than their pace. They have several unique features. Much like a human fingerprint, the arrangement of a cheetah’s spots and the ring pattern of its tail are unique.

Cheetahs have distinctive spots which are quite different to the leopards rosettes. The spotted fur of the cheetah helps it to blend into its surroundings. The spotted pelage is thought to create camouflage by offsetting shadows in the gray-hued grasses. This camouflage enables them to stalk and hunt their prey more effectively.

“It is not what you look at that matters it is what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Cheetahs have a small head in proportion to their bodies which help their streamlining when running at high speed. Their eyes are set high on the skull. Cheetahs have small rounded heads, a small muzzle and short whiskers compared to a leopard. The cheetah has a long neck and a deep chest which enables it to accelerate its breathing from a normal rate of 60 breaths per minute to 150 breaths per minute when in full chase. Its feet are also specially adapted with claws that are non-retractable and special pads on their feet which provide extra traction when running. The cheetah’s legs are long, slim and muscular. All of these features combine to enable this predator to run at exceptional speeds. Cheetahs are unable to run at full speed for much more than about 300 metres because of a danger of overheating.

Other than mating, male and female cheetahs do not interact. Cheetahs are territorial and intruders who breach these scent borders are attacked. Cheetahs do not roar like lions or cough like leopards, but when agitated hiss and growl or whine.

These two male eventually walked up onto a ridge where there were a few bushes to rest for the morning. This ridge gave them an ideal vantage point over the plains below. We left them in peace for the rest of the morning only to return later that afternoon in the hope that we would see them hunt. We stayed with them until dusk but they must have feed well first thing that morning as their tummies still looked full.

It was getting dark by the time we left the two cheetah males who were blissfully resting in the cool of the evening. It was a quiet and serene time but with heavy skies

This is typical of the landscape down along the Mara Triangle’s border with the Serengeti. Huge open plains dotted with balanites. The first place you look for a cheetah is in the shade under a balanite or, if the grass is reasonably long, perhaps on top of an anthill which offers an elevated view of the plain.

The second cheetah sighting was of a lone male cheetah on Topi plain west of the Eluai ridge. The Mara Triangle has rolling hills but there are also large plains which are relatively flat. Given the long grass, cheetahs need to find a vantage point from which to look for potential prey and scan for possible threats. A decent size anthill can provide just such a vantage point.

The next image shows the lone adult male scanning the surround plain for prey. Set in the background was the Oloololo escarpment which provided blues and greens and gave a sense of the vastness of the place.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
~ C.S. Lewis

As you can see the red oat grass can get quite long so the cheetah gets an endless shimmer of golden grass strands until it can find a lookout point. The advantage of the long grass is that it also hides the cheetah very well.

Cheetahs are equipped with several special features which provide them will excellent vision. Binocular vision is a very important asset since Cheetahs rely on sight to hunt as opposed to scent. The retinal fovea of the eye is an elongated shape, giving a sharp wide-angle view. This aspect of the eye is also adapted for speed. The dark “tear marks” on the Cheetah’s face reduce glare from the bright sun. The black hairs in the tear lines absorb light from the sun and are thought to enable cheetahs to run straight towards the sun and still be able to see. (source: Bigcatrescue.org). Cheetahs can see up to 5 kilometres in detail.

Although cheetahs will hunt throughout the day, they mostly hunt during the early evening and early morning when it is cooler. The temperature in the Mara is relatively stable between 25 and 30 degrees centigrade during the day and 12-13 degrees centigrade in the evenings. When its rains it can be quite a bit cooler. The temperatures are even throughout the year because the Mara is so close to the equator.

The cheetah’s long tail is multi purpose. It is a perfect fly swat for all the biting flies such as horseflies and tsetses. It is a counter balance enabling the cheetah to make surprisingly tight turns at speed when chasing down prey. The shape of its tail from the base to about a foot from the tip is elongated and acts like a rudder at high speed.

Cheetahs are racing towards extinction. It is clear to save cheetahs we need to save the wild open spaces. According to National Geographic, the cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range—the big cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran.

“Nature is a working machine constantly evolving. We can only start to understand the moving parts through patience and observation” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara: along the Mara river

Our photographic trip to the Masai Mara was based at Wild Eye’s Mara river bush camp called Enkishui. This camp is located on the banks of the Mara river about two kilometres up river from the Purungat bridge. The Mara river played an intimate role in our wanderings and sightings during the six days we spent in the Mara triangle in early November last year.

“Only by understanding how the world around us works, can we understand our bodies and live well in and with nature and among others.”
~ Julia H Sun

The Mara river originates in the swamps and forests on the Mau Escarpment in the Nakuru district of Kenya. The Mau Escarpment is a steep natural rampart along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley in western Kenya. The escarpment is around 3 000m above sea level and receives rainfall of around 1 400mm each year. The streams that exit the forest and descend over 1 000 m down the southern slope of the escarpment form the Nyangores and Amala Rivers in the upper basin. These two tributaries merge to form the Mara river.

As the Mara continues through the protected areas of Masai Mara National Reserve it is joined by the Engare Ngobit and then the Talek tributaries. The enlarged Mara river snakes its way through the Masai Mara National Reserve and exits under the Purungat bridge. Once in the Serengeti in Tanzania it is joined by the Sand river after which it flows west down to lake Victoria at Mara Bay which is around 1 800m below its source.

“The universe and all creation are there for you to connect your spirit to, and you are special part of the whole. If you can sense the wonder of the vast infinite and eternal universe, your spirit will be lifted to great heights and you will tap the source of your life energy.”
~ Timothy Simpson

In the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks, the Mara River sustains one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world—the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and various antelope which arrive in the Mara Basin during the dry season in search of water and to forage. It also sustains the region’s incredible biodiversity, from forest ecosystems to the multitudes of migrating herbivores between Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve and back again.

This sign at Purungat bridge only refers to the Kenyan section of the Mara river basin.

The Mara river is 395 km long and has a drainage area of 13 750 square kilomteres (sq kms) of which 8 967 sq kms (65 %) is located in Kenya and 35 % in Tanzania. The Masai Mara National Reserve contributes around 17% of the drainage area of Mara River Basin in Kenya. The Mara River basin is bounded by the Soit Ololo, or Oloololo, Escarpment on the west, and the Loita and Sannia plains in the east.

You just never know what you will see along the Mara river no matter what the time of day. This was the iconic male lion, Scar, exuding his dominance at dusk.

Flowing from the high mountains of the Mau escarpment in Kenya to the Mara bay of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Mara River is one of the most ecologically significant rivers in the region. The plains receive only half of the rain received in the Mau escarpment .

The Mara River currently has no major dams acting to significantly modify its flow regime. Peak river flows average 300 cubic metres per second, though this can vary from 90 to 400 cubic metres per second. To put this flow rate into perspective, the Zambesi river flows at an average of around 3 500 cubic metres per second and the mighty Congo river flows at a average rate of about 41 000 cubic metres per second. So this is a relatively small river by African standards but it plays a vital role in the wilds of the Masai Mara and northern Serengeti.

Looking from the Purungat bridge down river into the Serengeti. A flock of white-backed vultures had been cleaning and sunning themselves on the rocks. This is often an area where the wildebeest carcasses stack up when there had been a tragic crossing.

A view of hippo pools where, of course, you will see pods of hippos. This is also a major crossing point in the the migration season.

There are plenty of pods of hippo along the Mara river because it flows all year round. Just up river from Figtree crossing, we saw this female hippo with her calf. Judging from all the bite marks on her right flank she must have got into a fight while protecting her calf. Needless to say the yellow-billed oxpeckers were doing their cleaning work on her wounds.

One of a triad of three year old nomad male lions resting on the Mara triangle side of the Mara river. This nomad was watching the antics of two pairs of Egyptian geese down on the sand island in the Mara river. The deep shallows show its was still early in the morning with the rising sun in the east.

Looking up river from where the nomads were resting. It shows how much the Mara river meanders through this relatively flat section of the Masai Mara National Reserve and also shows how deeply the river has cut into the thick soils. The steepness of banks in certain sections of the river ensure much drama when the wildebeest decide to cross the river at this point.

“No price is too great to pay for inner peace. Peace is the harmonious control of life. It is vibrant with life-energy. It is a power that easily transcends all our worldly knowledge. Yet it is not separate from our earthly existence. If we open the right avenues within, this peace can be felt here and now.”
~ Sri Chinmoy.

A single male lion looking at the three nomads from the other side of the Mara river. We were hoping that he would cross and was perhaps part of the coalition but after watching the triad for about 15 minutes he wandered off back up the hill away from the Mara river.

The Wild Eye camp is located on the banks of the Mara river. The proximity ensures you are serenaded by hippos during the night and you can occasionally hear leopards coughing and lions roaring. Being a bush camp you really feel like you are immersed in the wildness of the place.

We left the camp just as the sun was rising and this was the view through the croton bushes looking south onto the Mara river.

Just after we had left our camp road and turned onto the main reserve road to the Purungat bridge, we saw this young female leopard in the early morning light making her way along the edge of the croton grove next to the Mara river.

There are many fantastic dramatic photographs of wildebeest and zebras crossing the Mara river. They all fear one predator in particular, the one they cannot see under the water when they cross the muddy Mara river – the Nile crocodile. On average, a Nile crocodile can live for up to 70 years even in the wild. Their age dictates their size and the larger older crocodiles have seen many crossings and must have vast knowledge and experience when it comes to hunting in the Mara’s muddy waters.

On average, the adult Nile crocodile can grow to between 2,8 and 5 metres in length with the the Kenyan Nile crocodile in the Mara River averaging of about 3.65 meters. The adult crocs can weigh between 70 to 700 kg, averaging about 200 kg in the Mara River. These crocs can survive for long periods between meals – though when they do eat, they can eat up to half their body weight at a time!! !

The Nile crocodile is a sexually dimorphic animal, meaning the males are physically different to the females. The males grow to between 25%-35% larger than the females, but a female is bulkier than male with the same length. This species does not reach an adult size but keeps growing as long as it lives. Adult males can be between 2-5 meters long; larger males can weigh close to 700 kilograms. Due to their growth and long lifespan, the upper limit of their age and size is still unknown. There have been records of large wild crocs, measuring more than 6 metres in length and 900 kg in weight.

Maui Maui is a well frequented migration crossing point and it is easy to see why this is the case. It has relative flat entry and exit points. What does make it tricky for the animals is that it is full of rocks and there are rapids to catch those that cannot swim fast enough through the flat water. The crocs are usually waiting for the exhausted swimmers at the bottom of the rapids.

Later in the afternoon we went back to where we had last seen the nomads but as is usual in the bush, nothing stays the same. We drove down to Peninsula point, which was another major migration crossing point but all was quiet except our guide, Jimmy, saw a leopard moving along the bank in the gloom. How he picked up the visual of the leopard in the first place I will never know.

That in-between time in the bush is when the fragrances are released by the latent temperature change and when the bush seems to holds its breath for a few magical moments.

“There is a universal, intelligent, life force that exists within everyone and everything. It resides within each one of us as a deep wisdom, an inner knowing. We can access this wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom through our intuition, an inner sense that tells us what feels right and true for us at any given moment.” ~ Shakti Gawain.

We were surprised to see wildebeest and zebra still massing on the west side of river in early November. In the foreground, the Mara river is bordered by bushes which disguise the steep banks at the Figtree crossing point. The animals further back against the hill were grazing but watching the zebra and wildebeest massing next to the river. Interestingly, as soon as the numbers massing on the banks of the Mara river got to a certain point it triggered all the animals on the plains to make their way down to the crossing point.

We never did get to see a crossing although, at times like this, it looked like the crossing was about to happen. The odd animal did cross though.

The Mara river is a fascinating focal point in an otherwise diverse Masai Mara National Reserve. It sustains life and takes it away. It acts as a choke point in the massive migration which results in a huge build up of animals waiting to cross its lethal murky waters.

The major rivers in Africa on which I have been privileged to spend time, such as the Limpopo, Mara, Orange, Chobe, Zambezi and Congo have left an indelible mark on my psyche because of their indomitable presence.

“A river is water is its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown

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

Have fun, Mike.

Masai Mara – scavenging raptors

We spent six days wandering the Mara triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve in early November. One of the aspects I was interested in was seeing how the predators were coping after the main migration had passed through the area about two months earlier.

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its is worth watching.” ~ Gerard Way

The bulk of the migration passes through this area between August and October but there is a stream of wildebeest and zebra which are still journeying through the south eastern end of the Mara triangle in November. This means there is still plenty of food for the predators who are bound by their territorial imperative.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

Where there are predators there are bound to be kills and where there are kills you are likely to find raptors. Not all raptors are primarily hunters, but many will scavenge when the opportunity presents itself and some are obligatory scavengers.

Many raptors like the Martial, Crowned and Fish eagles are primarily hunters as are Hawk eagles, Snake-eagles, Harrier-hawks, Goshawks and falcons. Others are opportunitist like harriers, buzzards and kestrels which will hunt or scavenge based on the available opportunities.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” ~ Albert Einstein

One hunter and opportunist is the Secretary bird. It has the head of a raptor but the physique of a crane. This raptor is primarily a terrestrial being which can often be seen striding, in pairs, through the open grasslands looking for prey. The Secretary bird will fly if pushed, but prefers to walk through the grasslands.

This raptor has a open skinned face which is a red-orange and its intensity depends on how excited it is, much like a Bateleur or Harrier-hawk. The Secretary bird hunts and catches prey on the ground, often stomping on its victim to kill it. Secretary birds can also be seen stomping on grass tussocks to flush out food. When caught and sufficiently stomped on, the prey is usually swallowed whole and often alive. The Secretary bird feeds on anything from snakes and other reptiles to young gamebirds, and from amphibians to tortoises and rats, and any other small mammals they can catch.

Most raptors are purely hunters but some eagles, such as Steppe and Tawny eagles and Bateleurs, although primarily hunters, also scavenge. While travelling down a valley alongside the Myvumba Nane hill to find a pride of lion we saw this young Bateleur sitting in the shade of a sausage tree along a lugga.

Young Bateleurs are brown in colour with white dappling. They have greenish, blue-grey facial skin. It can take a young Bateleur 7 to 8 years to transform from its brownish colouring into striking adulthood colours of black, white and chestnut brown.

The adult Bateleur has a red face and feet. Bateleur eagles can change the colour of their faces and feet depending on their mood. The blood vessels are very close to the surface and they can control blood flow to these vessels. A mature Bateleur’s face can be an orange-yellow when it is relaxed and turn into a bright red-orange colour when it is excited or agitated. The Bateleur’s red feet are also unique because they have shorter toes and thicker scales on the tops of their feet compared to other birds of prey. These adaptations help protect them from the bites of venomous snakes, their favorite food in the wild.

Unusual for raptors, mature Bateleur males and females are physically very different from each other — something known as “sexual dimorphism”. Both sexes are mainly black with a rusty chestnut back and ashy grey wing coverts, but females also have grey secondaries with a trailing black edge. This makes it very easy to differentiate males from females, whether they are perched or in flight. I do not know if it is possible to differentiate the sex of an immature Bateleur.

While some eagles both hunt and scavenge, vultures are obligate scavengers. Vultures are classified into two groups: old world vultures, found in Africa, Asia and Europe, and new world vultures, found in the Americas. These two groups are not genetically related but have developed similar biological traits, such as their method of scavenging.

“I am still learning.” ~ Michaelangelo

Most raptors hunt for their prey and prefer hunting alone, but vultures are rough, cooperative scavengers. One of the key reasons they do not hunt is that they have relatively weak legs and feet and are not able to carry away their prey.

Vultures scavenge, but to scavenge they need to find a carcass. They do this by flying to great heights in the sky and scan large areas of the ground below for signs of a kill or carrion. Vultures are skilled soarers and gliders but are too heavy to be overall good flyers so they rely on thermals to lift them to the heights needed for long distance travel and high altitude surveillance. With the rising warm air pockets they are able to soar over distances up to 150kms.

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” ~ Dolly Parton

Africa is home to 11 “old world” vulture species, the largest of which is the Lappet-faced. This an impressive raptor due to its huge size and aggressive behaviour.

Old World vultures do not have a good sense of smell so they rely mainly on incredible eyesight to locate food. A soaring vulture is estimated to be able to spot a one metre animal carcass from up to six kilomteres away, suggesting that their vision is eight times better than that of a human.

The lappet-faced vulture can have a wing span up to 2.9 metres. This old world vulture has perfect adaptations for a scavenging life. Its powerful hooked bill cuts easily into a carcass’ skin and tendons, and its bare head and neck reduce lengthy feather-cleaning after it has pushed its head deep into a messy carcass.

The Lappet-faced vulture prefers open savannah areas with scattered trees, so you will not find them in forested areas. The next image shows a Lappet-faced vulture grabbing a Ruppell’s griffon vulture which has a small piece of bone and sinew in its beak.

Even if other vultures have arrived at a carcass first, most are not able to cut into the hide of a carcass if it has not be opened up by other predators. A Lappet-faced vulture is powerful enough to tear open a carcass with its massive beak and because of this is often the first at an untouched carcass. The aggression of a Lappet-faced vulture is directed toward other vultures and even Black-backed jackals. It is big enough to take on all of them.

A Hooded vulture flying in to join the feeding fenzy on the left overs of a zebra killed by lions the previous night. The Hooded vulture is the smallest of the African vultures. It is usually seen on the fringes of a vulture-covered carcass. It is too small to mix it up with the White-backed and Ruppell’s Griffon vulture, so it eats scraps dropped by the other vultures and Black-backed jackals.

Ruppell’s Griffon vulture is also a very large raptor standing up to one metre high and having a 2.5 metre wingspan. Males and females have similar colouration — brown or black feathers with a white edge. The underbelly is white flecked with brown. It has a white fluffy collar and its neck and head are essentially bare. Its eyes are usually amber to yellow in colour. This vulture has a large powerful beak with a pinkish tinge to it.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

The Ruppell’s Griffon vulture is thought to be the highest flying vulture and has been known to reach heights of 36,000 feet. It clearly must have some temperature and oxygen adaptations to be able to stay at these exceptional heights.

Scavenging birds play a vital role in our ecosystems. They clean up carcasses before they have time to rot. Without scavengers, rotting carcasses would become hubs for harmful pathogens. Vultures specialise in eating carrion and are highly efficient at cleaning up a carcass. The African White-backed vulture is the most common African vulture species in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The next image shows a White-backed vulture with full flaps down in final approach to a crowded kill site.

A kill site attracts a macabre group of scavengers from opportunist eagles to an assortment of vultures, storks, jackals and hyaenas. This carcass even attracts a Marabou stork. This is a massive bird towering over vultures and eagles. The Marabou eats mainly carrion, scraps, and faeces but will opportunistically eat almost any animal matter it can swallow, including nestlings, fish, frogs, eggs, lizards and even crocodile eggs if it can find them. The next images shows a Ruppell’s Griffon vulture tugging at a bone that a Marabou stork had picked up.

Scientists believe that the White-backed Vulture, like most other vultures, often rely on other vultures and scavengers such as jackals and hyenas, to locate food. The White-backed vulture will look out for concentrations of other vultures or watch the movements of terrestrial scavenging animals. Once a carcass is located, the vultures descend to the ground and will wait in trees or on the ground nearby for long periods of time if the carcass is occupied by large predators. Once the large predators, like lions and hyaenas move off, the vultures descend on the remains to feed. There appears to be a pecking order in the vulture mayhem around a carcass dictated by size, strength and aggression.

Researchers have found that these scavengers are laden with flesh-degrading Fusobacteria and poisonous Clostridia. As bacteria decompose a dead body, they excrete toxic chemicals that make the carcass a dangerous meal for most animals. Interestingly, vultures often wait for decay to set in, giving them easy access to dead animals once the tough skins have partly decomposed. Vultures have developed an extremely tough digestive system, which destroys the majority of the dangerous bacteria they ingest. They also have a tolerance toward some of the deadly bacteria that would kill other animals and these bacteria seem to flourish in the vulture lower intestine.

Different vulture species have different-shaped beaks, which means that each feeds on a particular part of a carcass (like innards, muscle tissue or hide). This adaptation reduces competition for food. While the Lappet-faced, Ruppell’s Grffon and White-backed vultures are usually in the thick of it, the smaller hooded vultures, which do not have the same physique and powerful beak, tend to hang around the fringe of the vulturine feeding frenzy waiting for scraps to be dropped amid all the squabbling.

When Lappet-faced vultures arrive and they normal come in pairs, they do not wait to be asked to the dinner table. They have a imposing approach.

Unlike many raptors, vultures are relatively social and often feed, fly or roost in large flocks. A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when these raptors are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.

“Knowing is not enough we must apply. Willing is not enough we must do.” ~ Bruce Lee

Seven of Africa’s vulture species are on the edge of extinction. With the demise of vultures comes a problem on an economic and social scale as yet uncalculated, and certainly unrealised. Vultures provide a vital ecological service benefiting humankind. They are nature’s scavengers – clearing up carcasses and waste that would otherwise rot and spread disease. Source: Birdlife International.

The more we value things the less we value ourselves.” ~ Bruce Lee

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – nomads

There comes a time in a young male lion’s life when he get kicked out of the pride. He becomes a nomad. This happens to virtually all young male lions. These nomads are part of the group of 25% of lion cubs which survive their first two years of life. According to documentary wildlife filmaker and conservationist, Dereck Joubert, only about one in eight male lions make it to adulthood.

“A quest of any kind is an heroic journey. It is a rite of passage that carries you to an inner place of silence and majesty and encourages you to live life more courageously and genuinely.” ~ Denise Linn

At about two to three years of age, young lions are no longer tolerated by their pride. Their mothers are ready for their next litter of cubs and their fathers begin to see them as a threat to the stability of the pride. If there is a pride take-over, juvenile males are likely to be forced out of the pride at an even younger age just to stay alive. This sometimes also applies to females, particlarly if the pride is getting too large. Nature has its very own methods of keeping the gene pool diversified and healthy.

“The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason.” ~ Charles Darwin

There are very few instances where fathers form coalitions with their sons to dominate a territory. A notable exception was Notch and his five son coalition controlling the Marsh pride up in the northern part of the Mara triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Usually, after being evicted from the pride, young male lions either roam alone and land up scavenging until they learn to hunt, or, disparate young males come together to form coalitions. Sometimes they are brothers and cousins, other times they are young males who decide to cooperate because it is easier to hunt and defend themselves as a team than on their own. The eviction process is harsh and initially the young males do not seem to understand why they have been banned from their family group. It is an ancient, if unceremonious, rite of passage.

Nomads are very wary. They know they are trespassing. Perhaps it is their father’s turf or another unknown male’s territory. Either way, if they are found, there will be big trouble and life lessons will be taught swiftly and violently.

Frequently, as the nomad walks through another male’s territory he will stop and just look and listen, scanning his surroundings for any sign that the owner of this piece of hunting ground is awake and onto him.

Male lions mark their territory. The odour must be distinctive. These two young nomads were deciphering the chemical messages by drawing the odours through the Jacobson organ in the roof of their mouth which give them the “grimaced” look. These chemical messages appear to give the recipient a clear sense of the size, strength and age of the messager’s owner.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~ Charles Darwin

These nomads might be physically big and strong but they have still to build that inter strength which comes from self belief. Consequently, they are frequently reassuring each other by head rubbing.

Even as nomads, at times the cub in them is revealed. Some brief respite from the realisation that life is rushing in.

“Self respect, self love and self worth, all start with self. Stop looking outside yourself for your value.” ~ Rob Liano

There are moments in the bush when we as human’s can identify with what that young male lion is going through. No words are necessary.

“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” ~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

Each lion has a different character. Some are brawlers, some are lovers, some are confident and others not so much. It is apparent that confidence in a male lion is acquired. In his nomad years he learns the value of cooperation, he also learns independence by learning how to hunt and defend himself. It is these strengths, knowledge and skills learnt through testing himself against the world that he matures into a self assured full maned male lion, capable of sustaining his own pride.

This was another coalition of three nomads, around three years old. They were up river from the previous three younger nomads that we found a few days earlier. These three nomads were older, bigger, stronger and had more confidence. They were in Scar and Ziggy’s territory along this stretch of the Mara river. They knew they were trespassing but did not seem to fussed about it.

The dominant male in the coalition of three seemed the most confident and relaxed. The other two were less so, and lay in the croton bushes partially hidden on the edge of steep bank down to the Mara river.

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” ~ Suzy Kassem

This confident young male lay on the banks of the Mara river surveying the land as if he owned it. Perhaps starting to get a sense of what it feels like to rule a territory.

“Confidence is when you believe in yourself and your abilities, arrogance is when you think you are better than others and act accordingly.” ~ Stewart Stafford

Nomadic males entering a pride male’s territory inevitably affects cub survival and mating access. Success rates of nomadic males gaining tenure with a pride increases with age and coalition size.

Nomadic males can even regulate populations through their dispersal patterns, territorial structure, and reproductive strategies. Usually, lions live in permanent female groupings (prides) that maintain exclusive territories and are temporarily defended by male coalitions. Males compete with each other for prides and nomadic coalitions in an attempt to oust the resident male or males.

Nomadic takeovers are the primary drivers of natal dispersal, resulting in large variation in dispersal age, with higher mortality among young lions, and infanticide by nomads tends to mediate population growth. Source: Lion population dynamics: do nomadic males matter? Natalia Borrego

For maturing males to survive their nomad years, they have to be fit, strong, and must have learnt the ways of the wild. All of these skills together with the confidence that comes with survival lessons well learnt will be needed to take over and maintain their own pride.

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” ~ Rumi

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara lions – Scar, Bob Marley and family

I visited the Masai Mara in early November last year. I have never been to the Mara at that time of the year. Most of the wildbeest migration had passed and the rains had begun so that time had the potential to deliver low productivity, difficult photography. The one thing that I was sure of was I would witness the circle of life.

“Your soul awakens your mind. Your mind makes your choices. Your choices manifest your life. Your life is your lesson. Your lessons create wisdom. Your wisdom enriches your soul.”
~ Karen A. Baquiran

I was particularly interested to see the Mara with dark thunderstorm skies as backgrounds against verdent green plains and hills of the Oloololo escarpment. I was also intrigued to see how the predators, especially the lion prides, were doing after the main migration had passed through two months before. I was very pleasantly surprised on both counts.

“Returning to the same place can bring new insights, new awareness and greater depth of understanding and appreciation. When wandering with nature everything is always changing providing new opportunities to learn.” ~ Mike Haworth

I joined several other enthusiastic photographers from all around the world at Wild Eye’s Mara bush camp located on the Mara Triangle bank of the Mara river. The bush camp is located in the croton grove about a kilometre up the river from the Purungat bridge and district gate, right in the south east corner of the Mara triangle.

Source: MasaiMaraTravel.com

To see active lions you need to be out and about in the Mara by 6h00 as the lions are ususally looking for some shade and a place to rest and sleep for the day between 7h00 and 8h00. Given that most of the zebra and wildebeest had already moved on down into the Serengeti on their journey through Tanzania towards Ndutu in the south where the wildebeest calve on mass around February each year.

The good rains, before we arrived, had transformed the Mara into a blaze of verdant green. Most of the wildebeest and zebra had moved on, though surprisingly there were still several large herds around. The lion prides had scattered, moving away from the river to follow the grazers. The rain had filled up many of the seasonal drainage gullies, called luggas, and created numerous small ponds which meant the grazers had plenty of places to drink in this vast space.

This first image is of one of Scar’s coalition partners, “Bob Marley”. He was also a massive male lion in his prime but had an easily identifiable growth on his top lip just below his nose. I have never seen this on a lion before and never got to find out what caused it.

Even though we were out on the Mara at 6h00, the time we allowed out of camp, by the time we found Bob Marley and his two lioness on a zebra kill it was mostly eaten. The lionesses must have killed the zebra during the previous night. Bob Marley’s stomach shows he got his lion’s share.

A couple of cubs were clearly impressed with their father but he remained aloof despite advances by the cub to solicit some fatherly affection.

Bob Marley wandered down to the lugga at the bottom of the hill to where there was shade and water leaving the lionesses and cubs to sort themselves out.

One of the two lionesses lay next to the zebra kill while her growing son was still getting stuck in.

This young male looked like he took more than his fair share of the zebra, judging from the size of his belly.

Full belly or not, this young male full of blood and mud was having great fun chasing off vultures.

One lioness was the last to reluctantly leave the zebra carcass even though there was little left. The next phase of diners were waiting all around. Two pairs of Black backed jackal and a variety of vultures including White backed, Lappet-faced, Griffon, and Hooded.

Once the jackals and vultures finally managed to get access to the zebra kill, it was a free-for-all brawl. In the midst of the squabbling vultures was a pair of Black backed jackals. These jackals did not seem too concerned about the larger vultures such as Lappet-faced and Griffon vultures. Success favours the bold.

“The devil whispers ‘You can not withstand the storm’. The warrior replies ‘I am the storm'”.

Late in the afternoon, we moved down to the Mara river to find more lion activity. It was almost dark when we had found Scar, and Ziggy close to where we had left them sleeping in the shade next to the river in the morning, so we knew the rough area they were likely to be in. I used a flash because of the low light. Even with full power and a MagMod Magbeam flash extender I could not effectively light up Scar because of his distance from us.

“The greatest fear in the world is the opinion of others, and the moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep you become a lion. A great roar arises in your heart, the roar of freedom.” ~ Osho

When we arrived, we found Scar aggressively marshalling two of the young males in his pride. He exerted his dominance in no uncertain terms. After he had sorted out his sons, he wandered down to the edge of the Mara river and began to roar. Even the hippos kept their distance.

It was clear the lionesses and cubs were scared of him. Once Scar began to teach his sons who was boss the lionesses and cubs quickly moved out of the way.

Scar has a marked limp on his rear right leg. Apparently his leg tendons were damaged in a tangle with a buffalo. The damage has not stopped him and he has held onto his dominant rank in the pride.

We left Scar lying on the bare sand bank next to the Mara river because it was getting too dark to photograph and we had to be back in camp by 19h00.

Current estimates for lion populations suggest there are as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild, with less than 2,000 left in Kenya. Their numbers have dropped by nearly half in the last two decades.

“To hear a male lion roar as the light fades at dusk will send shivers down your spine. A prime memory is awakened welling deep from our genetic past. That gut-wrenching roar will resonate like thunder in your chest leaving you feeling breathless. Through the power and intonation the message is clear and the shiver reminds you that the darkness favours this warrior.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Seasonal changes

I really enjoy going to new places to photograph wildlife but there is something revealing about going back to the same place over and over. Helen and I do this when we go to Marievale bird sanctuary. This is a wetland with a wonderful diversity of birdlife about 45 minutes drive south of Johannesburg in South Africa.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful — an endless prospect of magic and wonder.” ~Ansel Adams

What makes it so interesting is that there are marked seasonal changes in the bird sightings, breeding colours and behaviours. The changing water levels in the wetland dictate that you can see quite different selections of birds at different times of the year, according to the water levels.

On this occasion we visting Marievale in mid-October, which is early spring in South Africa. The maturing male long-tailed widow birds were just starting to grow their long tail feathers but many of them were still plumed in their brown winter colours.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell

The more mature male long-tailed widow birds had already grown their long luxurious black tail feathers and there body plumage had mostly moulted from the winter browns to their breeding black.

The male long-tailed widow birds wasted no time impressing the females and chasing off rivals from their patch of grassland.

This long-tailed widowbird had all but shed its winter colours and was declaring his territory from a old dead stem of statis.

When displaying the long-tailed widowbird has a slow exaggerated flight. It is designed to show the female widowbirds his male prowness, his long tail feathers and flashy epaulets.

The water levels in the reed and marsh areas were still low in early spring which allowed the smaller waders to get to work on the muddy banks along the shallow waters. This little stint was busy foraging for small invertebrates in the mud. It is a very small wader which breeds in Arctic Europe and Asia, so is a long-distance migrant, flying south to Africa and south Asia in non-breeding times. 

The numbers of this species depend on the population of lemmings. In poor lemming years, predatory species such as skuas and snowy owls take Arctic-breeding waders instead.

“Nature has its own rhythms and laws and it is always very patient with everything that it accomplishes. Growth requires time, patience and peace, and nature knows this best. As we admire the works of nature, we can learn how to enter the same natural flow.” ~Spirit Button

The water was still shallow enough in the deeper sections for this glossy ibis to forage. These long decurved billed waders prefer wetlands, marshes, muddy lake-shores and flooded grasslands.

This glossy ibis had moulted into its summer breeding colour which, in good light, are gorgeous. The glossy ibis is a tactile forager, probing the riverbed with its long, decurved bill. Its long bill is adapted to the removal of long prey (e.g. worms) from mudflats. The decurved bill is inserted into crab burrows in marshes and mudflats and into gaps under rocks next to the water’s edge. Curved bills penetrate further than straight ones into both types of cavity. Curved bills are also capable of greater rotation at maximum penetration. These ibises will eat insects, snails, crabs, frogs, and small fish.

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” ~ Claude Monet

The flora at the water’s edge was starting to come out in bloom offering a greater variety of insects upon which to feed. Although we only saw individuals, glossy ibises nest in colonies, often nesting together in mixed heronries with other species.

Summer visitors such as the ruff had also arrived all the way from Russia. This migratory bird did not have its breeding colours which it takes on back in Russia. Ruffs from Siberia tend to migrate down to southern Africa and India. The maximum distances known to be traversed in a single flight is 4000kms.

“Intuitions are like migratory birds, they come without a map without a reason.” ~ Amit Ray

The ruff is a long-necked, pot-bellied bird. This species shows marked sexual dimorphism; the male is much larger than the female (the reeve), and has breeding plumage which includes brightly coloured head tufts, bare orange facial skin, extensive black on the breast, and the large collar of ornamental feathers that inspired this bird’s English name. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts.

A Levailliant’s cisticola. These are small insectivorous birds closely related to warblers. The genus contains about 50 species, of which only two are not found in Africa. These are non-migratory birds and they prefer open grasslands, preferably along side wetlands.

A hottentot teal foraging. This is a dabbling duck which means it upends itself to feed underwater on the riverbed. The colourful teal speculums are difficult to see when the bird’s wings are folded, but these irridescent speculums can be very obvious in flight. The speculum is a patch, often distinctly coloured, on the secondary wing feathers, or remiges, of some birds, often seen on ducks

A pair of yellow billed ducks. There is no sexual dimorphism in these ducks. They are dabbling ducks and have a typical colourful iridescent green speculum on their secondary wing feathers which are only visible in flight. The male’s call is described as a teal-like whistle while the female’s call is more of a mallard-like quack.

“Many people look but few see. Looking might render the physical appearance but seeing will tie in linkages and expose complexities hidden to the glance.”~ Mike Haworth

A common moorhen foraging amongst the red algae. This is known as the waterhen, or swamp chicken, and as the common gallinule is a bird species in the rail family (Rallidae). The frontal sheild above the upper mandible is thought to play several roles including protection when forgaing, mate identification, sexual selection, and territorial defense.

The water level was shallow enough for Avocets to wade and forage in.

Once the water level deepens the Avocets disappear to other more suitable shallower feeding waters. Apart from its pied markings and blue legs, this wader’s is especially unique because of its upwardly curved bill. It feeds on mostly insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, fish and amphibians. Avocets sweep their curved beak from side to side underwater as they slowly walk through shallow water. This stirs up aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fish and seeds which they feed on.

“Stop in your haste. That glance is not enough. Give it a little time and you will begin to see previously unnoticed patterns and behaviours. New context and connections will become apparent. Now you are learning to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A very busy Sacred ibis foraging for frogs, crabs and other crustaceans

We watched this Sacred ibis grab a large crab but the image was spoilt by a pair of grey-headed gulls lurking beside it in case it dropped its meal,

“Don’t just look at the bird. Look at its surroundings, look at its behaviours, look at its colours, look at the shape of its body, bill, feet and eyes. Each element will offer an insight. You will marvel at the complexity and you will begin to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A nursery of Greater flamingo juveniles. The wind was blowing from right to left and all the youngsters were resting on one leg with their head resting on their backs. A closer look reveals that they were all awake and watching what was going on behind them. Flamingos stand on one leg because it’s physiologically easier for them to do so. The way their legs work means they can rest all of their weight on one side without having to use their muscles to maintain balance. Flamingo joints have a “locked” resting position that secures them in place — as long as they’re standing on one leg. https://curiosity.com/topics/the-real-reason-flamingos-stand-on-one-leg-curiosity/

Adult Greater flamingos feeding in the shallow spring waters at Marievale. Greater flamingos tend to feed in deeper water than the smaller lesser flamingos.

The Greater flamingo has a distinctive pinkish/white colur with red wing coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. The greater flamingo is a filter feeder. It uses its long legs to stir up the substrate after which it sweeps its bill from side to side to filter out its food. These flamingos usually feed with their head fully immersed in the water. They can remain, head under water, for up to 20 seconds. Flamingos pump their tongues up and down, 5 – 6 times per second, pushing the water out of their beak to generate the filtration process.

The flamingo’s pink colouration comes from its diet of shrimp and other pink crustaceans.

“Learning to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting-things-come-to-it; learnings to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Fredrich Nietzsche

What makes birds so fascinating is their incredible diversity, colour and behaviours. They are much more active than mammals. I can only marvel at the incredible variety of shapes, beaks and colours.

To make birds even more intriguing they are living dinosaurs. Birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods. Over the 66 million years since the extintion of dinosaurs, birds have evolved in many ways, enabling them to survive in diverse habitats. Today there are at least 11,000 bird species.

A humble bird photography practice session can turn into a profound natural history lesson.

“Life is the blossoming of flowers in the spring, the ripening of fruit in the fall, the rhythm of the earth and of nature. Life is the cry of cicadas signalling the end of summer, migratory birds winging south in a transparent autumn sky, fish frolicking in a stream. Life is the joy beautiful music installs in us, the thrilling sight of a mountain peak reddened by the rising sun, the myriad combinations and permutations of visible and invisible phenomena.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara – restoration and rewilding

One of the most impressive aspects about Samara is that the owners and managers are restoring this game reserve back to its original state. The founders of the Samara Game Reserve, Sarah and Mark Thompson, established the reserve in 1997. Their objective is to restore the reserve back to its natural state, in terms of fauna and flora diversity, which last existed 200 years ago.

Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs, —
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress its music.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Samara appears to be a model of cooperation with conservation and scientific bodies to achieve the biodiversity and preservation of the four vegetation biomes in this part of the Great Karoo.

“The earth is what we all have in common.” ~ Wendell Berry

I have not put the images in this post in any sort of order to illustrate the eclectic experience in this wonderful game reserve. The first image was taken on our game drive at dusk looking toward the illuminated sky after the sun had set in the west.

Above the Karoo escarpment on the edge of the plateau looking down onto the flat Klein Karoo and the plains of Camdeboo.

Black rhinos were reintroduced in 2013 and are heavily protected. Several black rhinos were relocated to Samara under a custodianship agreement with SANParks. This initiative expands the range of the species and playing a crucial role in the growth of the metapopulation. They seem to thrive on the difficult to get to slopes of the escarpment.

The first cheetahs were reintroduced to Samara in 2004 after an absence of 125 years. The two cheetahs in the next image are Sibella’s second generation offspring. Sibella was one of the first three cheetahs introducted into the reserve. The cheetah cubs were cleaning the blood off each other after feeding on a kill.

The old farm houses have been restored and converted into luxurious lodges. The next image shows the view looking west over the swimming pool at last light.

The cheetah cubs training lesson. One of the unique features of Samara is that you are able to walk with a wild cheetah family. Perhaps “walk “is the wrong word because even when they are walking it is difficult to keep up with them on the Karoo terrain.

The inside of the manor lodge. It has been graciously restored and modernised.

Samara offers several possible unusal sightings. For me, one of the several highlights was walking with aardvarks. This is a seasonal opportunity and mainly possible in winter when the aardvark comes out to forage for ants in the late afternoon, when it is still warm.

After a busy day walking with cheetahs or rhinos or aardvarks, it is sublime to clean up and sit down in front of the fire and chat about the days activities over drinks.

Samara’s wildlife is diverse and varies dramatically in size, nature and speed.

The manor lodge provides scrumptious meals in a five star wildlife lodge setting. This makes wildlife photography very comfortable with plenty of room to relax and edit your images when you are not out walking with the wildlife.

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

Samara’s elephant reintroduction in 2017 brought back these pachyderms onto the plains of Camdeboo after an absence of 150 years. Both black and white rhinos have been reintroduced.

The view at dusk looking down on the plains of the Klein Karoo off towards Port Elizabeth on the coast around 246 kilometres away.

Occasionally dinners were set outside. The setting was gorgeous, but nippy as it was winter.

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.”
~John Ruskin

A herd of black wildebeest on the escarpment plateau at dusk.

A view of the manor house from across the pool at night with the moon rising in a clear winter sky.

A Gemsbok making its way down from the higher section of the plateau. You can also see mountain zebra, eland, blesbok and black wildebeest up on the plateau.

Samara reintroduced lions into the reserve in 2019. This brings these predators back to this part of the Karoo after an absence of 180 years. This will of course alter the dynamics in the game reserve especially among the predators and the cheetahs in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
~Margaret Mead

Samara is now a big five game reserve. The “big five” being elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions and leopards. While the “big five” has been a good marketing slogan it does not do justice to the fascinating biodiversity in this area.

A big thank you to Lou Coetzer and CNP Safaris for introducing us to this wonderful game reserve. It was a highly productive photographic trip. We spent five fascinating days in the reserve in late winter last year. There is no doubt that the seasonality of the Karoo offers very different experiences in the different seasons.

“The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.”
~Ernest Hemingway

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

Have fun, Mike