Chobe’s giants

This last trip to Chobe was unusual for a number of reasons. There is always a great variety of birds along the river but there were fewer birds than we normally see. This was partly due to the autumn season, where many of the migrants had already left. It could also be because the river was flooding which only suits certain species. Besides its prolific bird life, the Chobe National Park is known for its exceptionally large population of elephants. The estimates  vary between 60,000 and 120,000. During the dry season vast herds are drawn to the river to slake their thirst. By contrast on this trip there were noticeably few elephants, probably because there was enough water inland after the good rains and the elephants did not need to walk the extra distance to the Chobe river for that life saving drink of water. That said, there were still many giants patrolling Chobe’s banks.

“I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water…has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.”

~ Roderick Haig Brown

The river was unusually high because of exceptional rains upstream. The Chobe is a big river even in the dry season. When flooding, the river bursts its banks, spreading over onto the grass floodplain, such that the river looks like a lake. Water deep enough on the floodplain allows access by boat to areas which you would normally not see.

“Travel is more than the seeing the sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living.”

~Miriam Beard

Elephants just love water. It is their life saver, especially in winter and spring, but the buoyancy it gives their massive bodies seems to lighten their mood, inspiring them to play by rolling and diving under the water, and putting those large front legs on each other’s back and generally expressing their sheer joy of being in this wonderful, cool supportive medium.

A depth of field challenge. We have a large elephant, face on, playing in the water. The distance of its trunk to eyes was around three metres. It is easy to be beguiled by the spectacle of these wonderful creatures playing in the water in front of you such that you forget the root technical aspects of photography. 

“Real happiness comes from having an unassailable connection to the deep state of unbounded awareness at our core. This state of being is our own inner joy that expresses the exuberance and wonder of being alive at this moment; it is our own self-luminous essence made conscious of itself.”
~Deepak Chopra

That trunk is for drinking and for splashing.

   

Rejoicing in the fluidity and buoyancy. You can imagine what a wonderful feeling it must be to have the buoyancy in the water when you see these enormous animals playing with abandon.

It is easy to wander after your meal ticket on dry land, but this Cattle Egret just had to ride out the excursion into the water.

Buffaloes have a number of hangers-on. Cattle Egrets like to walk along side the browsing buffalo, when it is on dry land, as it can catch the insects stirred up by the buffalo’s hooves. A literal hanger-on, this Red-billed Oxpecker, was grooming its host for mites and dead skin. Looking at this buffalo’s eyes, it appeared to be in a trance in the warm morning sun while munching on the water-lily stems.

I have often marveled at a buffalo bull’s boss and at times the colouration on the boss looks as if it has gold flake inlays. Don’t be fooled these are serious weapons which they use ruthlessly. After what a buffalo’s horn did to Dereck and Beverley Joubert, I have even more respect for these powerful but unpredictable herbivores.

If the buffalo is considered one of the most dangerous animals in the bush, especially in long grass and when wounded, then the hippo takes the prize in and around water. Given a respectful distance, and reasonably deep water, this female seemed to be content to munch on hippo grass in the middle of the flooded waters. Eyes half closed just munching.

When food is abundant in the flooded waters these female hippos do not have to risk going onto land after sunset to forage. This helps when you have a very small calf to nurse.

This was an unusual sighting. I have never seen a hippo calf resting on its mothers back in the deep water. This youngster’s mother seemed quite at ease and did not sink so she probably was standing on the riverbed.

The hippo grass can be quite long especially when intertwined with water-lily stems. Steadily, this hippo munched and sucked in the grass as if it was extra long spaghetti. It was quite a mouthful and took quite a while to draw it all in.

“Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or everything happen at once.”

~Paulo Coelho

This hippo female decided that we were too close. We were minding our own business and slowly but steadily moving past her, giving the pod a respectful berth. She must have had a calf we did not see but suddenly she charged us. A hippo charge is deceptively fast even in deep water. They are quick on land despite their bulk but also quicker than you expect in water.

You can see from the eyes that this female was not in the mood for play. Our guide made sure we were not in any danger. When a hippo comes for the boat it is usually with the intention of turning it over or biting it. The aluminium railings on the side of the boat are but spaghetti to these massively powerful river horses. The guides know only too well that the bow wave created by the charging hippo is usually four to five metres behind the animal – so don’t be fooled!! In deep water, the hippo runs underwater and bounces off the river bottom with enough force to have its head and neck burst well above the water.

When the young hippos in a pod are playing they can create some quite dramatic displays.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

~Khalil Gibran
You can see from the small teeth that these hippos were youngsters and were just sparring in the late afternoon light. 

Even with these self sharpening canines they are very gentle with each other when playing.

There are giants on land and giants in and under the water.

Another giant found in and along the Chobe is the Nile Crocodile. This was a particularly large crocodile, or “flat dog” as we like to call a crocodile. This character did not fuss about the boat passing close by him as he looked to be almost as long as our boat. You can see the size of the “croc” from its massive head. Its eyes were wide open and it just watched us as we passed by.

Drinking tripod. This giraffe splayed its front legs to be able to be able to reach the water for a drink. Some giraffe splay their legs, others bend their front legs, to get low enough to reach the water for a drink. For good reason, this giraffe was very wary when coming down to drink as it was vulnerable to predators in this splayed position, especially when there was thick bush behind it.

“Advice from a Giraffe
Stand tall.
Reach for new heights.
Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out.
Preserve wild places.
Eat fresh greens.
Be head and shoulders above the rest.
Keep your chin up!”

When a giraffe has finished drinking it usually lifts its head and flicks the water from its mouth forming an impressive “S” curve.

About a kilometre upstream of Elephant valley, we found this small family group of elephants quietly drinking in the late afternoon. This is one of those idyllic scenes, quiet and peaceful.

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

~Hermann Hesse

There is always something to see along the Chobe river, perhaps not always what you expect to see, but more often than not better!!

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

Have fun,

Mike

Chobe’s resident raptors

Chobe is a wonderland for wildlife photographers. The diversity of landscapes, scenes, flora, mammals, reptiles and birds is astounding. We photograph from a specialised boat operated and guided by CNP Safaris. It has a customised camera support system and the boat is flat bottomed, which makes it very stable shooting platform. We are on the boat every day in the morning from 6h30 to 9h30  and 15h30 to 18h30 in the evening. At this time of the year the river is rising, filled by the good rains as far away as the highlands in Angola. April is early autumn in the southern Hemisphere so the insect activity has diminished and many of the avian migrants have already headed back to their northern climes. While the mobility of the mammal population is dependent on the rains, the avian population is highly seasonal and has much to do with the air temperature which has a profound effect on the density of the insect population. By this time of the year, the cuckoos have moved north, bee-eaters such as carmines and blue-eared have also departed for northern parts. Many of the kingfishers are intra-African migrants and have also moved. The stork diversity has thinned out. A number of the eagles have migrated and so have a number of kite species.

“The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!”

~ John Burroughs

Despite a major migration of species north from southern Africa in autumn, there is still an abundance of species which are resident in this part of the world. Thankfully my penchant for raptors is still satisfied even in autumn despite migrants like the Steppe, Lesser Spotted and Wahlberg’s Eagles having moved north. I am not sure where it came from but I think it must have been from my senior school days at Falcon College in Zimbabwe where we had a very active ornithological society, which was focused on raptors and where a number of the schoolboys practiced falconry. It is for this reason I look out for raptors when I go out onto the Chobe river.

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.”

~ Robert Lynd

On our first morning we saw this juvenile Martial Eagle perched on a large (fallen) dead tree. It was looking intently at something on the ground. It could have been a guinea fowl or small mammal. You could see it was a juvenile by its white face and neck. The adult has a dark brown head and neck and piercing yellow eyes.

Even from quite a distance you could see it was a Martial Eagle just by its sheer size. This youngster was moving his head around as if trying to get better perspective on its potential quarry. I am not sure why they do this but it could be to get a better sense of its distance to target.

As it heated up during the morning, we would see more raptors climbing into the developing thermals. This was a big raptor but I am not sure what it was. I think it is a juvenile Marsh Harrier but it was soaring and not flying low over the flooded reeds and grasses. It also looked a bit big for a Marsh Harrier. Looking at the shape of its head it looked like a Harrier or Buzzard. Perhaps it was a juvenile Jackal Buzzard. There was no barring on the tail feathers which eliminates quite a few possibilities.

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” 

~ William Blake

We were sitting in the boat moored in an inlet watching all the wader activity when our guide pointed to a  juvenile Bateleur Eagle, which we did not see at first, until it moved. It was sitting next to the trunk of a fallen dead tree and was well camouflaged. Only when it moved onto a open dead branch could we easily see it. It sat there for ages intently watching all the goings on around the inlet. As any raptor photographer knows, it can sit there for longer than your patience will last.

A juvenile Bateleur has a greenish facial skin and cere where as a sub-adult has a reddish facial skin and cere.

“Every child is a born naturist. Their eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers, and the mystery of life.”

~unknown

A Bateleur’s facial skin is also known to change colour depending on its level of excitement. This could have been a female sub-adult judging from the lighter primary feathers compared to those seen in males. The male’s primaries and secondaries are dark. This is one way to identify the sex of a Bateleur when it is perched.

Another sign that this could have been a sub-adult female was the darkened thin trailing edge on the underside of its primary feathers. I know only too well from past experience that as we start to pull out from our position the raptor we had spent the last half an hour watching will often fly and sure enough I was waiting for it. You need high shutter speeds (above 1/5000sec) to handle the moving boat and flying raptor and get the subject pin-sharp.

“The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.”

~ Nancy Newhall

A Fish Eagle sunning itself. It may have been hunting earlier that morning and could have been drying its wings.

“Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.”

~Edward O. Wilson

The Marabou Stork will certainly not get any beauty accolades. Its bald, pinkish head and pinkish-white neck gives it a somewhat hideous look. We nickname these storks “Dr Death” as they usually sit on top of tree in the setting sun with their heads tucked into their shoulders giving them a macabre silhouette, as if guarding the cemetery. You can see from this character’s gular pouch on its neck that it was not excessively hot. Usually this gular punch hanging from its neck gets swollen when it is very hot as it acts as a thermo-regulator. The sac swells and contracts depending on the amount of cooling or heating the stork’s blood needs. 

We regularly see African Harrier-Hawks low gliding from tree to tree along the Chobe river. They forage in canopies of living trees and in dead trees. They have broad wings for slow deliberate flight among the trees. They also use these broad wings for balance when accessing crevices from difficult angles in trees and rocks.

This African Harrier-Hawk was inspecting all the cavities in this dead tree looking for nests. Those double-jointed legs are able to get into most “nooks and crannies”. You will often see drongos and rollers mobbing an African Harrier -Hawk as it makes its way along the river because they know only to well it could raid their nests.

This majestic adult Fish Eagle was perched on a dead tree stump giving it a perfect view across the river. Fish Eagles are primarily perch hunters and will take off from the perch and glide (albeit at speed) down to snatch the unsuspecting fish from the surface of the water. Fish Eagles are also  to hunt anything from jacanas to mongooses, if their main prey is scarce. 

Fish Eagles are highly territorial and can often be seen riding a thermal high above their territory and arching their heads back, while in flight, giving that iconic Fish Eagle call.

There is sexual dimorphism in Fish Eagles, not in their colouring, but the females are noticeably larger than the males. This is usually only evident when they are perched together in a tree. 

When you are on the river, you will usually see Fish Eagles in all seasons but the other raptors are unpredictable except perhaps the African Harrier-Hawk. On some trips you see a Martial and/or Bateleur and other times nothing. That is part of the mystery. When we set out first thing in the morning and afternoon we are all brimming with expectation. The amazing thing about the river is, from my experience, you never see the same animal or bird in the same place doing the same thing, so each outing is completely different, which helps explain why I keep going back to Chobe each year.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

~Henry Beston

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

Have fun,

Mike

Chobe moods

The Chobe river offers many moods. Colours best reflect the moods of this river.

“The pale stars were sliding into their places. The whispering of the leaves was almost hushed. All about them it was still and shadowy and sweet. It was that wonderful moment when, for lack of a visible horizon, the not yet darkened world seems infinitely greater—a moment when anything can happen, anything be believed in.”
~ Olivia Howard Dunbar

On our first afternoon, there was plenty of cloud, some of it heavy with moisture. It was warm and unusually there was a rainbow over Kasane. The sun was setting in the west but the magic show was taking place in the east where the setting sun had illuminated the heavy clouds over Kasane. In all the times I have been on the Chobe river while the sun was setting, I have never seen the sky in the east so vividly illuminated in apricots, pinks , mauves, purples and blues. The busy skies hung over what was the still water surface reflecting the pink clouds among the water lilies.. 

The river was so high that we were able to drive directly over Sedudu island. This island was sprinkled with water lilies. Normally in summer the river is one two metres below the level of the island so we are usually able to watch Pied Kingfishers nesting in the bank.

The low light and the moving boat provided an ideal opportunity to play with slow shutter speeds. This is a motion blur designed to show off the colours without  specific shape, perhaps typifying the moodiness of the evening light.

“The stillness of the early morning scene enables me to take in and enjoy many things which pass me by during the bustle of the day. First, there are the scents, which seem even more generous with their offerings than they are in the evening.”
~ Rosemary Verey

The next morning we left the lodge at 6h30. It was light but the sun had not yet risen. The area was infused with soft pastel colours in the still cool air. The next image was taken looking back down river towards the “three sisters” before we reached “Pygmy Geese” Bend.

Early in the morning quietly moving upstream is dream like and exquisitely beautiful. I have often described this time as the closest thing I can imagine to heaven on earth. The stillness, serenity and beautiful soft pastel light together with the sound of a fish eagle calling in the distance is very soothing for the soul.

Further upstream with the sun higher in the sky, we made our way through the vast floating beds of water lilies.

A closer look at the water lilies revealed perfection, and wonderful colours.

“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”

~ Leo Babauta

Selecting isolated water lilies can provide wonderful artistic subjects.

The still surface of the river created sublime backgrounds.

” My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe and my camera is my passport.”

~ Steve McCurry

Further upstream we went up to Puku Flats opposite Savanna Lodge. The area was completely flooded.

For those of you who have been on the river, you will see how high the river level has reached. It was literally a few feet below the lodge.

Another image showing how high the river had risen.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

~ Mark Twain

On our way back downstream from Elephant Valley toward Chobe Game Lodge, we found a small family group of kudu which were licking minerals from the soil.

An hour or so later we were travelling in last light towards Sedudu island. The sun was still relatively high in the sky but the cloud cover was thick making it quite dark.

“You can always make money, you can’t always make memories.”

~unknown

On the homeward journey, in the warm evening light there is usually much chatter and laughter coming from the passing boats.

The evening sky was, on this occasion, set on fire by the setting sun.

As the sun sunk below the horizon, the evening sky darkened and the colours shifted from warm rich oranges and reds towards pinks, purples and blues.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
~ Marcus Aurelius

Another early morning on the river at sunrise. Looking back towards Kasane ridge, once we had passed “Pygmy Goose” bend, the sun had just begun to peer above the ridge

“We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.”
~Konrad Adenauer

Dancing lilies 

We were able to take the boat through these vast lily beds which enabled us to see the African Jacana nests and chicks up close.

The intertwined roots of a Jackalberry tree exposed by many years of the river’s water eroding the soil away from the roots’ hold.

On the evening of our second last day. We stopped to take images of the “three sisters”, three Jackalberry trees which have grown on a high sand bank at the east end of Sedudu island. On this particular evening the sky was a riot of clouds and colours.

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

This is a favourite place for many of the boats to stop and take photographs of the setting sun with the “three sisters” as the point of focus.

This image was taken from our “photographic boat” once we had tied up to the jetty at the lodge. We had to be out of the park by 18h30 but this is often the time of the day which offered the most dramatic scenes.

“Africa is waiting – come!
Since you’ve touched the open sky
And learned to love the rustling grass,
The wild fish-eagles cry.
You’ll always hunger for the bush,
For the lion’s rasping roar,
To camp at last beneath the stars
And to be at peace once more.”
~C. Emily-Dibb

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

 

Have fun,

Mike

Chobe’s Jacana season

This is the first post from my trip with CNP to Chobe in mid-April 2017.

“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”

~ John Hemingway

The Chobe river begins its life as the Cuando river which rises in the central plateau of Angola on the slopes of Mount Tembo. It breaks up into channels some of which flow east to form the Linyati which then becomes the Chobe along the northern border of Botswana. The river was the highest I have ever seen it in mid-April. Usually the river level is building to its peak around June each year but the exceptional rains late in the summer season have brought a huge amount of water down the river. The rains usually begin in November in Angola and the Chobe river swells quickly usually reaching its highest level in the Kasane area around June each year. The river bottlenecks around the Kasane area which forces the river to spread over its floodplain. It is this time from December to April each year that many of the waders nest in these flooded waters, especially African Jacanas.

“Africa – You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the Hand of God. You watch the slope lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heart, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.”

~ Jodi Picoult

Each morning we would gather at 6h15 for coffee and a rusk before setting out on the river, cameras in hand. The weather was still in a state of considerable flux, at times it was beautifully sunny and at other times upsurges in cumulonimbus clouds provided a dramatic backdrop and at other times it was raining. This next image was taken on the boat at around 6h45 on our way upstream to explore sections of the river towards Puku flats. The soft pastel colours, fresh morning air and stillness of the river early in the morning made it feel like heaven on earth.

With the river being so high there were vast rafts of water lilies, an ideal playground for jacanas, Squacco Herons and Pygmy geese.

Early in the morning the surface of the river was like a mirror providing wonderful backgrounds. The adult African Jacana has a chestnut belly back and wings. It has a black stripe from its beak to the back of its head. The black stripe extends from the top of its head down the back of its neck. Its face and neck feathers are white with a golden necklace across the bottom of its neck. The adults have a blue facial shield which extends from its bill to the top of its head. Its legs are a golden green-grey colour.

With good backgrounds it was then just a question of looking for isolated rafts of lilies floating away from the main area and waiting for an African Jacana to fly or wander onto the raft.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” 

~ Martin Buber

When  not competing for dominance of a lily patch the adult African Jacanas seemed to fly lazily between lily rafts dragging their long toes in the water, a perfect altitude measure, not a bad idea when your landing gear is that big.

The African Jacana has these long toes which spread its light load over the lily pad affording it time to feed on the lily pad before its slowly sinks.

The African Jacana seems to be undiscerning about its landing strip.

A lone water-lily flower provides a perfect landing spot.

“I am in love with this world . . . I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings”.

~John Burroughs

It is intriguing to see these adult African Jacanas stay just long enough on a lily pad and move off just as it starts to sink.

The Jacanas spends time foraging for snails and insects on the lily pads. They will even eat small fish if they can catch them. There is no sharing of food among adults or even between adults and chicks.

Every now and then they find something more substantial and try to swallow it after beating it to death. This particular frog was too big for the Jacana to swallow.

African Jacanas are polyandrous which means the females have multiple partners laying numerous clutches of eggs which each male then looks after. The nest is usually just a rough gathering of floating vegetation debris upon which a clutch of three to four eggs are laid. The only real protection the eggs have is their camouflage.

The male African Jacana incubates the normal clutch of three to four eggs and looks after the chicks once they are born, around 21 days after the eggs are laid. Once the chicks break their way out of the eggs they are precocial meaning they instinctively know how to feed and take care of themselves. They also instinctively know how to protect themselves. If their father is not close by and they feel threatened they dive under a water-lily pad with just their beak protruding above the surface of the water for air. Alternatively, they lie flat among the floating dead plant matter and remain dead still. Their camouflage is so good that if you did not see them move and crouch down into their stealth position the chances are you would never see them. Certainly overhead predators would never see them.

“Nature is man’s teacher.
She unfolds her treasure to his search,
unseals his eye, illumes his mind,
and purifies his heart;
an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds
of her existence”.

~Alfred Billings Street

If the chick needs to get from one water-lily raft to another a couple of metres away before its is able to fly, it just gets into the water and starts to paddle with those long toes. It is not an efficient swimmer, but gets the job done.

The chicks tend to feed close to their father who continues to look after  them for the first two weeks of their life.

I think that is remarkable that from the time this minute creature breaks its way into the world, it instinctively knows what to do. 

The chicks look quite peculiar with  long toes and small under developed wings.

The Jacana chicks instinctively look for insects and snails on the lily pads and under pieces of floating vegetation.

Despite looking like an exaggerated version of “scissor man” they seem to cope well with those exceptionally long toes.

“If there is any wisdom running through my life now, in my walking on this earth, it came from listening in the Great Silence to the stones, trees, space, the wild animals, to the pulse of all life as my heartbeat”.

~Vijali Hamilton

When the chicks are very small and less than two weeks old, their father only needs to give an alarm call and they will nestle under his wing.  If the threat is serious enough the adult male African Jacana will lift two chicks under each wing and run off across the lily pad away from the danger.

It is a very strange sight but the chicks know not to wriggle. They keep dead still under their father’s wing while being whisked away from danger. I have never seen a chick drop out from under their father’s wing.

What was quite surprising is that a pair of Blacksmith Lapwings on the river bank some 30 metres away would periodically fly across the open patch of water and attack the chicks while they were foraging. The chicks would just duck, lie flat on the floating vegetation and the lapwings would fly back to the river bank.

“Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation”.

~Charles Cook

The lapwings can be dangerous attackers because they have lethal spurs on their wings which can do real damage.

There seemed to be no apparent reason for this as the lapwings did not feed on the lily pads and they did not have a nest or chicks close by.

One morning we were fortunate enough to find a family of Jacana chicks on an isolated raft of lily pads in a shaft of direct sunlight with a back water background. These are ideal lighting conditions for a wildlife photographer. It is just a question of finding the right raft of lily pads and waiting for the Jacanas to move onto them which they do for just a few minutes.

The lapwings usually attacked the chicks when they were on an isolated raft of lily pads and were exposed.

Of the many families of Jacana chicks we saw,most had three to four chicks, indicating that it had been a successful breeding season.

This chick must be have been about three weeks old, but its wings were still under developed so it had to rely on wading and swimming to get around.

With all the flooded water we saw many birds feed on frogs. This frog was small enough for the adult African Jacana to swallow once its had beaten it into submission.

We were privileged to have had wonderful photographic opportunities of African Jacanas at all stages of their development. African Jacanas are always foraging on top of lily pad rafts or in grass along the river bank. To get reasonably clear backgrounds, one needs to identify isolated lily pads and wait patiently for the Jacanas to move onto them. The next step is to look for specific backgrounds, either dark or providing specific coloured backgrounds for the Jacana chicks. Knowing what you are trying to achieve and patience are the two key ingredients.

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

~ Henry Miller

Despite desperately looking for the less common Lesser Jacana, we did not see any so I will just have to go back next year.

“…few can sojourn long within the unspoilt wilderness of a game sanctuary, surrounded on all sides by its confiding animals, without absorbing its atmosphere; the Spirit of the Wild is quick to assert supremacy, and no man of any sensibility can resist her.”

~ James Stevenson-Hamilton

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

Have fun,

Mike

Leopard gallery

I have been privileged to see leopards on many occasions in locations ranging from Kruger Park to the Serengeti and Tsavo. In this post I want to share a few images of these beautiful, lithe, self-sufficient predators with you.

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.”

~Alice Koller

A young female leopard in Mashatu, in south-eastern Botswana. It was late afternoon, she was wandering along the river course and had stopped in her wanderings to be quiet and listen.

The next morning, we found her again but this time away from the river. She found a perfect curve in the bough of a tree and made herself comfortable.

Another occasion in Mashatu. We found this young male leopard dozing in the early part of the evening in a dry river bed.

“True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

~William Penn

A beautiful leopardess with stunning green eyes.  Very confident and relaxing in the early morning after what may have been a busy night. An iconic leopard pose.

A female leopard walking away from the Chobe river, in northern Botswana, having just had a drink. She was walking back to her cub waiting in a thicket close by.

A big male leopard in Mashatu. It was early morning and this male was waiting in the brush on a bank above a pool of water in the mostly dry river bed.

I kept this image dark as it was early in the morning and this male was lying in the deep shadows just after sunrise. This was a perfect ambush position for anything coming down for a drink of water.

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

This young male leopard in Mashatu had caught and killed a female impala. He was moving his catch to a more concealed position to eat in private.

He finally found a spot with greater cover. Sometimes nature reveals unexpected tenderness.

It did not take him long to start feasting. He first pulled the hair off the skin in the area of the carcass he wanted to open up.

A female leopard called “Rockfig Junior” in the Timbavati, adjacent to the Kruger Park in South Africa. She was leading her son to the place where she had stashed her kill about a kilometre away. The dry grass in the background showed that it was winter in the Timbavati.

“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. “

~Marcus Aurelius

Early evening and the sun had set in Mashatu. This young female leopard was spread-eagled on a large bow of a branch from a fig tree overhanging the Majale river.

The green-eyed leopardess  shown earlier in this post. It was two years later and it was around 8h30 in the morning and she was walking along a dry river bed. Our guide told us that she was walking back to a cub further down river. We never got to see the cub. She stopped to take in various scents. There must have been many scent signposts along that part of the river.

Another young female leopard stopped in her wanderings in the late afternoon along the Majale river to climb up a fallen branch of a Mashatu tree. She probably wanted to get a better view of the surrounding area and us.

Having assessed the lie of the land, she continued her walk along the edge of the Majale river in Mashatu.

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

~Steve Jobs

A young male leopard in the short grass alongside a series of small dams in Tsavo West National Park in south-east Kenya. This leopard managed to kill a Dik-Dik behind us and close to a large herd of buffalo without any of us or the buffalo noticing. Another vehicle arrived behind us only to tell us there was a leopard eating its prey less than 25 metres behind us.

In the Masai Mara, on the &Beyond Conservancy below the Kitchwa Tembo camp, we found this leopardess “treed”.

Below was a pride of lionesses and their cubs. They had been wandering along the edge of the tree line down towards the Mara river when they came across this leopardess and her cub on the ground.

The lions immediately attacked. The leopardess bounded for the tree but the cub was too young to follow her and a lioness killed it. After the lions milled around the dead leopard cub, a young male lion took possession of the kill.

This was a heart wrenching scene. This leopardess was completely out numbered and all she could do was snarl at the devastation below her. She watched the whole thing; watched her cub being killed and the juvenile male lion running off with it.

He quickly picked the leopard cub up in his jaws and ran off with it.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”

~John Steinbeck

After waiting quite a while for the lions to move off, she descended the tree to look for her cub.

She was desperately searching for her cub without moving into an exposed position, but her cub was lying dead some distance off in the open behind a tall tuft of grass so she could not see it.

On a more peaceful note, we found this young female leopard in a huge Mashatu tree. She had stacked her kill in this tree and peered out through this fork in the tree.

She was very relaxed and was not fussed in the least about us underneath the tree.

“Freedom: To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
~ Ayn Rand

Late in the afternoon in the Serengeti. This large male leopard was out in the open lounging on the bough of a large fever tree looking down on the world on his own terms.

We were about fifty metres away on the dirt road so he paid no attention to us.

“It doesn’t matter where you are, you are nowhere compared to where you can go.”

~Bob Procter

A leopard peered out from the undergrowth alongside the river in Mashatu.

In the Serengeti, we were driving slowly southwards. This part of the Serengeti is patterned with huge grasslands intersected by groves of acacias. How our guide saw these young leopards way off the road in the grass on our right hand side, I will never know. We had to drive much closer before we could see them. There were two youngsters out on their own.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. “

~Henry David Thoreau

They were playing in the grass running around and chasing each other. It was a carefree early morning playtime scene.

Out of the sun and in the grove of acacias, the colour of the light took on a blue hue in the shade.

It was at the end of January in Eagle’s Rock estate near Witbank in Mpumalanga, South Africa. We were staying with friends Bill and Judy. It had been raining most of the day but there had been a break in the weather late in the afternoon so we decided to go out for a game drive.  As we were driving through an area of natural sandstone sculptured rock there were many flat-topped rocks. I said to Judy wouldn’t it be wonderful if we saw a leopard lying on top of one of these flat topped sandstone rocks. Incredibly, about five minutes later Judy pointed to something lying on a sandstone rock about 100 metres off the road. This big male leopard watched us slowly make our way, by vehicle, towards him. He was completely unperturbed by us.

He watched us but was much more interested in the herd of zebra and wildebeest behind us on the open grassland. He was especially interested in the numerous calves in the herd.

I will never get tired of seeing these beautiful, camouflaged, confident, independent beings.

“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.”

~Jack Kerouac

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

Have fun,

Mike

Sable spotting from the Chobe

There are only three places I have seen Sable Antelope in southern Africa.  Many years ago, I saw a herd of Sable in the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve. There is a herd in Borokalalo Nature Reserve. I have heard there are Sable in Kruger Park but I have never seen them there. I have frequently seen Sable along the Chobe river, which flows along the northern Botswana border with Namibia. I would describe many of our antelope as beautiful but this is one antelope that I think takes the mantle of regal.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”

~Rachel Carson

Just down stream from the Chobe Safari Lodge we came across this Sable nursery. Around six or seven females were looking after a large group of youngsters.  It is interesting that they have a roan colouring before they mature. They already have the white markings on their face with the black malar stripe from their eyes.

This female Sable separated from the nursery group. She was looking for a place to drink and being extra careful as away from the herd there were no extra eyes to watch for crocodiles or “flat dogs” as we like to call them.

As a Sable matures its coat changes colour from its brownish roan colour to a black with a beautiful sheen. The males begin darkening and turn black after about three years. Their facial colouring becomes more distinct.  The Sable’s underparts, cheek, and chin are all white while its back and flanks are dark brown to black. The Sable’s has a black stripe on top of its forehead and nose. The hair around its eye is dark and a dark malar stripe extends down to between its nostril and mouth. The dark colouring around the eyes is presumably to reduce glare as these antelope are diurnal.

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
~Rachel Carson

These semi-adults were very skittish coming down to drink from the Chobe river around mid-morning. One of their favourite drinking spots seemed to be Elephant Valley, which is located  upstream of the Chobe Safari Lodge. This area gives the drinkers a fairer chance against their underwater predators because the approach to the water is flat and the water is shallow.

Adult female Sable have semi-curved horns while adult bulls have full curvature horns. The horns arch backwards and are ringed. Females horns are smaller and vary between 61cm and 102cm. The male’s horns grow to between 81 and 165 cm long.

Elephant Valley is a wide drainage gully leading down to the river’s edge. There is thick vegetation either side of the gully. This is a good ambush area for predators, so at least one member of the drinking group  watches the area behind them.

The slightest disturbance triggers a flight response.

It is interesting to see this female kneeling down to drink. Sable bulls often kneel down when they fight using their head and horns to push each other around. 

“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

A Sable has a robust frame with a strong looking neck. The Sable antelope is sexually dimorphic meaning its colouring and shape looks the same. The adult males are physically bigger and have longer fully curved scimitar-shaped horns.

Sables change color as they mature. The calf is grayish-brown and almost without marks, making it very inconspicuous. As it matures and begins to take its place in a herd, its coat becomes a rich reddish-brown, with the belly, haunches and facial markings in greater contrast. At this time the face is largely white, with a wide black stripe running from the forehead to the muzzle, and black stripes from the eye to the muzzle.

It is unusual to see a lone Sable drinking down at Elephant Valley given it is an ideal ambush ally.

“We are not truly civilized if we concern ourselves only with the relation of man to man. What is important is the relation of man to all life.”
~Rachel Carson

This adult female Sable was on her way to drink from the river but was very wary around the water’s edge.

Sable antelope prefer woodland savanna areas and graze on grass in these areas and their muzzles are suited to browsing on leaves.

Sable are never found very far from water and are especially dependent upon it during the dry season which is why we regularly see Sable along the Chobe river.

Having sated his thirst, this Sable bull was strolling back into the bush alongside the Chobe river.

“Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”
~Rachel Carson

A lone Sable bull drinking from a pool in Chobe National Reserve.

The same lone Sable bull alerted by a noise in the surrounding bush.

The pedestrians were impressed with the passing Sable bull.

Another lone Sable bull came down to the Chobe River to drink. He seemed unfazed by possibility of crocodiles or “flat dogs” in the water.

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

Beautiful reflection of the same Sable bull.

This large powerful Sable bull sated his thirst and strolled back into the treeline away from the openess of the riverbank. Look at the sweep of those horns, he was a mature bull. Big cats have died while fighting Sable antelope. They defend themselves from lions and other predators using their sharp scimitar-shaped horns. The Sable has a powerful and very flexible neck so when a predator attacks a Sable from behind, the Sable will arch its neck back and sweep those horns across its back. Any lion trying to hang onto the Sable’s back will get impaled. It is known that a fight to the death can be mortal for predator and prey, with a lion dead still impaled on a the dead Sable’s horns. These massive horns are very effective defensive weapons against natural predators and are used in dominance fighting.

The Sable Antelope is classified in IUCN Red List as of least concern with the population (wild and farmed) estimated at 75,000 in southern and east Africa. That said the Giant Sable is all but extinct. IUCN record total numbers of the Giant Sable surviving in 2007 at 200-400 and is classified as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red list. The giant Sable Antelope is the national symbol of Angola and revered for its power, beauty and visual sharpness.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home’. It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.”

~Beryl Markham

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

Have fun,

Mike

African Harrier Hawks

The African Harrier Hawk has always intrigued me because it is such an unusual raptor, though I do prefer its previous more exotic name, Gymnogene,which means bare cheeks. It has the legs of a harrier and flies like a hawk. Although not threatened, you will not often see this species but it is a thrill when you do because it is such an impressive raptor. It has distinctive colouring, is relatively large and has some unique behavioural traits.

“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.”
~ Charles Baudelaire

Generally, hawks kill their prey with their claws, unlike the falcons, which catch prey with the claws but kill with a blow of their beak. Hawks are unusual among birds in that the female is generally larger than her mate. In some species, this difference, called sexual dimorphism, can be as great with the female being much larger than the males, as in the accipiters. This is particularly evident in Fish Eagles. Hawks generally mate for life, and are agressively territorial. Harriers are plain-looking, long-legged, and long-tailed birds with a slender build which enables them to cruise low over grasslands and marshes looking for prey. Harriers usually have small beaks, and their face feathers are arranged in facial discs. The African Harrier Hawk has a clear a mix of both harrier and hawk characteristics, hence its name.

This is a medium to large raptor. It can grow to around 63cm in length with a wing span of 160cm and can weigh up to 950 grams. There is little colour dimorphism between male and female but as with hawks, the female is larger.

African Harrier Hawks are recognised by other birds as nest raiders. When seen in the area, other birds become very vocal warning each other of an impending invasion.  

“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”
~ Terry Tempest Williams

The African Harrier-Hawk is omnivorous, eating anything its can find from fruit to small birds and mammals, reptiles and insects. Its ability to climb, using wings as well as feet, and its long double-jointed legs, enable this bird to raid the nests of cavity-nesters such as barbets, oxpeckers, squirrels and woodhoopoes for eggs and fledglings. This raptor is notable for its habit of actively searching for prey in trees, nests, rock faces, and from underneath objects on the ground. It can often be seen clambering about and hanging from tree limbs, running up tree trunks with wings flapping, or hanging from birds nests as it searches for food. Its featherless legs facilitate this behaviour.

‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

~Francis Bacon

The plumage is mainly grey, with neat light black and white barring on the abdomen and thighs, but is sometimes absent in individuals. The African Harrier Hawk has a bare facial patch, which is varies in colour, but is usually seen as bright yellow. This facial patch becomes pink during display, and various shades of orange between yellow and red according to its emotional state. 

This particular character was wandering along the bank of the Chobe river looking for a spot to drink. No doubt these raptors are also very wary of the danger lurking below the surface of the water.

The relatively low aspect ratio of the wing allows this raptor to fly surprisingly slowly and deliberately, for such as large raptor, when hunting. A low aspect ratio wing has relatively low ratio of wing length to wing width. Generally, high aspect ratio wings give more lift and enable sustained, endurance flight, while low aspect ratio wings are best for swift maneuverability.

The male and female African Harrier-hawks are similar in appearance, while juveniles have brown plumage, blackish facial skin, a brown tail with four darker brown bars, and variable amounts of whitish, reddish-brown or dark bars or streaks on the abdomen. Adult plumage is not attained until about the third year.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honour him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.”
~ Hermann Hesse

This particular character was raiding birds nests in a dead tree trunk. What makes it so unusual is its adaptive flexible knee-joints, being double jointed, enables it to put its feet into hard to get at places. It can probes crevices and hollows for lizards and larvae. It will hang upside down on hanging bird nests to rob their eggs and chicks. You will often see this raptor  walking along branches and up tree trunks, with wings widespread to stabilize it. 

The previous image was of a relative young bird just before its adult moult. We came across this bird one afternoon on the Chobe River. It was busy pillaging a bird’s nest and pulling out the oxpecker chicks one by one and eating them. 

““Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”
~
Terry Tempest Williams

These raptors although relatively large, with lethal armaments, do not get things all their own way. The birds which usually nest in the surrounding trees can get quite aggressive and persistent. The next image is of a Fork-tailed Drongo giving this harrier Hawk a “rev”.  At times these small attackers land on the flying host and peck at it.

The African Harrier Hawk is an agile flier, capable of soaring in thermals but also mixing it up in woodland savanna and being able, like a Sparrowhawk, to negotiate its way through trees and branches. It is also an excellent tree climber.

Fork-tailed Drongos, rollers, lapwings all give these raptors a good going over whenever possible and obviously always on the wing.

The next image shows a African Harrier Hawk gliding along the river bank with its primary feather testing the wind like fingers. Its pinkish facial skin is signalling its relative state of excitement. This is also seen in Bateleur Eagles which also have yellowish facial skin that changes from yellow to red depending on its level of excitement. When flying, the underside of the African Harrier-hawk’s wings are grey with a wide black trailing edge. It has a white band across its tail feathers and the trailing edge of those feathers also have a wide black tip.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid”

~Albert Einstein

When you see an African Harrier Hawk patrolling the banks of the Chobe river, it is often getting mobbed by smaller birds. This raptor is a major threat to birds which nest in trees and cavities in trees and rocks. When defending their nest and chicks, size seems to be less important. Small birds like Fork-tailed Drongos will fly up and dive bomb the raptor often hitting it on the back or wing. They will undertake remarkably daring attacks to drive this threat away from their nesting sites. The defensive attacks are usually from the back as the front end is considerably more dangerous.

The defensive antics of these smaller nesters can be dramatic to watch employing fearless manoeuvres in their quest to drive the potential raider out of the area.

If the threat is severe enough both members of the protection squad will join in the harassing process.

Although the African Harrier-hawk is lethally armed, in nature it is seldom a one way street.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can offer with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation, but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

Have fun,

Mike