Mashatu bird bath

This the second post from my recent trip to Mashatu Game Reserve in south-east Botswana. The game drives through Mashatu provide exceptional wildlife sightings and opportunities to photograph wildlife. The game drives usually take place first thing in the morning from 5h30 to 9h30  and 16h00 to 19h30 in the evening in the summer. After each morning game drive we have a hearty brunch when everyone discusses the morning’s sightings. After brunch  it is usually very hot so everyone either goes for a swim or a snooze. There is nothing better than a lunchtime sleep after a morning of fresh air and excitement.

“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird.” ~David Attenborough

A few bird baths formed from natural rocks have been placed around the camps and these baths are regularly filled with water. This attracts many birds and small mammals into the camp, especially when the area is very dry and still waiting for its first good summer rains.

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”  ~ Robert Lynd 

Once everyone had retired to relax, the areas around the bird baths were quiet and undisturbed.  This is the time when the potential for bird bath photography starts and you need to be part of the quiet. I set up my camera with a 840mm focal length lens on a tripod and began my vigil knowing a key ingredient for success would be patience.

Many of the birds call as they approach the area of the bird baths. The white-helmeted shrikes chatter, the arrow-marked babblers babble and sparrows and waxbills twitter. Most of the birds normally fly into a nearby shrub or tree just to see whether it is safe to come down to the bird bath.

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” ~William Wordsworth

A family group of white helmetshrikes were frequent visitors to the bird bath in the six days we were in the camp. These birds are cooperative breeders with an alpha pair which bonds for life.

The Arrow-marked babblers also came in groups, they were very noisy and seemed to love to bathe in, as much as drink from the bird baths. This babbler’s name is derived from the downward pointing arrow marks on its throat, breast and belly plumage.

A female Kurricane thrush, like her partner arrived very quietly. This means that you have to be attentive at all times as some of the birds arrive unannounced. These thrushes prefer the woodland vegetation and avoid forest and grasslands.

The Grey-headed sparrows always flew into the nearby branches with much twittering to check if it was safe to come down to drink. This sparrow has a diagnostic grey head and is larger than a waxbill and smaller than a weaver.

Blue waxbills, like the Grey-headed sparrows, were wary drinkers never just flew straight down to the bird bath. This waxbill has a beautiful powder blue face, breast, rump and flanks.

“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 is his life, large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song.” ~John Burroughs
A male Southern Masked weaver in full breeding plumage. He was quite an aggressive character. This weaver could be confused with a Village weaver but the Southern Masked weaver has a red eye and the Village weaver a yellow eye. The latter is a slightly larger weaver. The Village weaver’s back is much more darkly speckled  and its back face mask extends further down its throat than the Southern masked weaver.

A White Helmet shrike looking for the rest of its flock. This Helmet shrike has a white crest which it raises when alarmed.

A female Southern Red-headed weaver.

A male Southern Red-headed weaver in full breeding plumage.

A Crested Barbet, colloquially called the marmalade bird because of its red and yellow colouring and its crest which is raised when excited or alarmed.

A male Kurricane thrush wandering around in the brush next to the bird bath.

A Jameson’s Firefinch came down to drink in groups and individually. It can be identified by its pinkish-red colouring and blackish bill. It is a similar size to the Blue waxbill.

“I don’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful.”~ Pete Hamill
A grey-headed shrike came down to drink at the bird baths in the shade of a large Mashatu tree next to the patio of the camp. Its haunting piping whistled call could be heard throughout the day. This bird is unmistakable because of its colouring and cannot be confused with an other shrike. This is a large shrike quite capable of killing a Bloomslang, a venomous green tree snake which can grow up to two metres in length.

A male Kurricane thrush can be identified by its speckled throat and broad malar stripes and bright orange bill and orange sides to its breast.

A female Paradise flycatcher flew around the bird bath without ever coming down to drink, when I was watching. These flycatchers seem to dance around in the trees and do not perch on a branch for any length of time making them tricky to photograph.

A male Red-billed Buffalo weaver having a drink. This is also an aggressive bird which does not tolerate smaller birds drinking next to it. These weavers breed in colonies and usually make their untidy nests on the west side of a thorn or Shepherd tree.

A Crested barbet sitting in a nearby sapling checking to see if the bird bath areas was safe. This barbet has a distinctive black collar dotted with white spots.

A male Southern red-headed weaver enjoying its drink of water in the hot part of the early afternoon. The dappled light around the bird bath was constantly changing dictating the use of a flash and single point exposure metering.

“Nature’s colour combinations are beyond our imagination. The subtlety, the contrast, the blending and the tonal balance only become apparent when we look closer. Have you ever noticed that birds colours seldom look dirty and yet birds seldom see themselves other than perhaps in their reflection in the water.”~ Mike Haworth

A common but beautifully adorned Laughing dove walking on the sand next to the bird bath. A flash helped to softly illuminate this subtly coloured dove.

A male Southern red-billed weaver taking off after drinking his fill and showing its contrasting red head and white belly.

A White helmeted shrike with its striking yellow wattled eye ring.

A Tropical boubou in the shade of the large Mashatu tree next to the camp patio. The male and female of this species are identical in colouring. This boubou is more often heard than seen. It has a wide repertoire and one of its calls could be mistaken for the Grey-headed shrike’s call. This bird has a voicebox called a syrinx not a larynx which enables it to sing in two voices at the same time.

A male Red-billed weaver enjoying its morning drink of water. The female has the same red-bill but a brown plumage. 

A male Jameson’s firefinch on the left of its female flanked on the right hand side by a Red-billed firefinch. The male on the right had side has a blue top mandible and red lower mandible and does not have the same all over pink breast. 

A Fork-tailed Drongo came down for a drink, they are usually alone. These birds are amazing mimics so you can be deceived by its call.

“Man can now fly in the air like a bird, swim under the ocean like a fish, he can burrow into the ground like a mole. Now if only he could walk the earth like a man, this would be paradise.”~ Tommy Douglas
This Natal spurfowl came very quietly to drink next to the large Mashatu tree in the shade. The Natal spurfowl has a red bill with a yellow base, its eye is black and it has heavy dark barring on its breast feathers. The distribution area in which it is found does not overlap between the Natal spurfowl and Red-billed spurfowl. The Red-billed spurfowl is usually not found in the centre of Southern Africa and it has a yellow eye ring and pure red bill.

A thirsty lone male Red-billed firefinch differentiated from the Jameson’s firefinch by its different coloured mandibles with the lower mandible being pinkish red.

A ubiquitous Grey-headed sparrow.

A Blue waxbill. You have to be quick to get a shot of this small seedeater as it comes in for a quick “in and out” drink.

“Each day has a story to – deserves to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories.”~ Eduardo Galeano

A female Paradise flycatcher- a brief furtive visitor.

A juvenile Southern masked weaver developing his adult yellow breeding plumage.

A Brown-hooded kingfisher having just had a bath.

A male Puff-backed shrike with its black and white plumage and bright red-eye. When excited the male puffs up its back feathers hence the name. The female has a white forehead and eyebrow.

The beautiful but shyly obliging female Paradise flycatcher. I got shots of the male with his long tail but in the close up images, I cut off his long tail feathers.

There is a meditation in being quiet and alone for an extended period just sitting, watching and listening to all the bird life around. Although not quiet there is something very soothing about all the bird activity around you. I saw many more birds than I photographed and could not get a decent shot of Hammerkops, various woodpeckers, Grey louries and more. Even though 11h30 to 15h30 was a snoozy time of the day, there were times during that period when the paradise flycatcher or grey-headed shrike came to visit which was thrilling.

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

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu rosettes

Last week I visited Mashatu Game Reserve for six days. Mashatu is a privately owned 29,000 hectare game reserve in a conservation wilderness area in south east Botswana known as the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. This game reserve has a uniquely diverse landscape with its wide open plains patterned with Shepard trees, stunted Mopanis and Mustard bushes, Croton groves, riverine forests with towering Mashatu trees, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs, rocky hills, marshland and majestic sandstone ridges. It has three main rivers flowing through it – the Majale, the Matabole and the Pitsani all of which flow into the Limpopo river. This reserve is located where the Rudyard Kipling’s “Great Green Greasy” Limpopo river meets the Shashe river. This is the confluence of three countries Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

“Late spring in southern Africa comes with mixed blessings.The predators have bounty but the land is parched and the herbivores survive on scant offerings.  In the dryness and dust of the parched earth lies millions of seeds pregnant with the next season’s abundance, just waiting for the first rains. The rain brings life. The rivers start to flow and the parched earth transforms into green grass and flowers and the landscape is renewed. Mashatu reveals the miracle of the seasons”. ~ Mike Haworth

In late October in this part of the world it is very hot – 30 degrees centigrade in the shade and over 40 in the sun and very dry as the parched landscape waits for the first rains of the summer season. The rivers are dry. The river courses are lined with Mashatu trees, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs and there are Croton groves on each side of sections of the Majale river. It is in these treed courses and groves that we find Africa’s secretive independent predator, the leopard. Mashatu is well known for its exceptional leopard sightings. 

“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy” ~ Ernest Hemingway

On our first morning out game viewing, our guide called Justice, who had particularly sharp eyes, saw this female leopard crouched on a sand bank under some Croton bushes close to the Majale river. She was perfectly camouflaged in the dappled light, so much so that a small group of impala were walking past her, about twenty metres away, and they had not seen her.

The impala moved off after seeing the vehicle but I do not think they saw their nemesis at all, such is the effectiveness of the leopard’s camouflage in the dappled light.

Once this leopard flattened herself  on the sandbank among the leaf litter she was incredibly well camouflaged.

After watching this beautiful female leopard for about half an a hour and having scared off her prey she decided to rest where she was.

“I hope you have an experience that alters the course of your life because, after Africa, nothing has ever been the same”~ Suzanne Evans

There are numerous leopards along the Majale, Matabole and Limpopo rivers. This young leopard peered at us through a gap in his arboreal hideout.

“Humankind must begin to learn that the life of an animal is in no way less precious than our own.” ~ Paul Oxton

On our way back to camp one morning at around 9h30, we passed an extensive rock outcrop which is home to many Rock Hyraxes and rarely seen Black Eagles and leopards. To our surprise we had a young male leopard watching us making our way back to camp for brunch. It was only his white under belly that revealed his presence. As soon as we stopped he quickly slunk away into the rocks out of sight.

The next morning up at 4h30 and after a requisite cup of hot coffee and rusk we were on our way by 5h30 as the sun was rising. If you want to see the cats, the best time is in the early morning. Unless you are lucky, the leopards are up in the trees and lions have become “flat cats” two hours after sunrise. This was a young female lying on the ground at around 6h30. There were two large Mashatu trees in a Croton grove. A young male leopard had an impala kill stashed up one of the Mashatu trees and was guarding it. This young female was nearby but very wary of the young male who was from the same father but a different mother.

When a leopard lounges on the large branches of a tree it usually provides cameo photographic opportunities.

This was the young male up in the Mashatu tree carefully watching his kill and ensuring the young female did not steal a few mouthfuls.

Young and relaxed but not prepared to share his kill. What was so unusual about this sighting was that there were two adult leopards in and around the same tree. It seemed that they had both recently been separated from their mothers.

The young female was taking in the scent from what looked like a midden of antelope droppings.

A playful young female leopard stalking and pouncing on a piece of wood close by.

Catching the scent and sight of prey, the play was forgotten and she went into full alert mode. She walked off in the direction of some impala she had seen and that was the last we saw of her that day.

We went back to see the two young leopards a few times. The last time we visited these two Mashatu trees we only found the young male up the tree. The guide said that the young female had come back to the two Mashatu trees but had been chased away by a troop of baboons which had passed through the area.

“I have great respect for leopards. They are powerful, independent, and skilled hunters. Being solitary they have no backup. They choose their fights carefully. You only see them when they want you to and it is then you see their striking beauty”~ Mike Haworth 

On our last morning after watching two different families of cheetahs, we found this young male at the base of large Mashatu tree overlooking a patch of wild sage. It was a perfect place as it was cool and gave this leopard a good view of the passing parade in front of him and he had his back covered by the massive tree.

The young male leopard climbed up onto a large fallen branch of the Mashatu tree for a better view. As usual we found all the adult leopards alone as they are solitary by nature only coming together to mate or fight.

Ever alert, independent and ready to take advantage of an opportunity.

The young male leopard at the base of a large Mashatu tree.

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This character was very relaxed and not fussed about us at all. He was much more interested in dosing and watching all the animal movement behind us.

Well rooted!!

“Nature only reveals her complexity and wisdom to those who take the time and care to seek and learn her patterns and rhythms”~Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

Marievale selection

In this post I have shown a selection of birds which you are likely to see at Marievale Bird Sanctuary in springtime. Marievale, located near Nigel in the Gauteng province in South Africa, comprises the wetlands of the Blesbokspruit Ramsar site plus over 1 000 hectares of open grasslands, reed beds and open water. This is a perfect place for birders and avian photographers alike.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ H. D. Thoreau

An adult Grey-headed gull in flight. It has a characteristic grey head with a red bill, red-eye ring and red legs and feet.

This is a freshwater gull which is found around in land lakes and dams and seldom along the coast.

The grey head colouring is this gull’s breeding plumage. In winter it loses the grey colouring on its head.

A skein of Spur Winged geese flying over the wetland.

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.“ ~ Vincent Van Gogh

A wide variety of ducks can be found at Marievale. The next image is a pair of Fluvous Whistling ducks with their distinctive bluish gray legs and bill. They have cinnamon brown feathers and dark brown wings with a silvery-white stripe on the edges. Males and females look alike, though the males are slightly larger.

The Spoonbill has a unique shaped bill ideal for catching fish, insects, larvae and crustaceans. Its bill is highly tactile, feeding with lateral movements (sweeping) and for pecking, but not for probing into sediments. Its long legs are ideal for wading through shallow water searching for food.

Once the Spoonbill has caught a morsel in the spoon part of is bill, it flicks the food into the air and catches it in its mouth.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

A Three-banded plover. Both lapwings and plovers are classified in the Charadriidae family. The essential difference is that plovers are the smaller cousins and lapwings the larger ones.

The Three-banded plover has two black breast bands separated by a white band which gives this species its name. It has a distinctive red eye-ring. This is a tiny plover  growing to 18cm in length.

You will see many Whiskered terns trawling back and forth along the open waterways in the wetland search for  edibles at the water’s surface. These terns are highly nibble with long wings, and are able to turn and stall in an instant to plunge onto the surface of the water to catch a fish.

A Red-billed teal sunning itself in the warmth of the early morning spring sun. Like the Fluvous whistling duck this is a dabbling duck, meaning these ducks feed mainly on the surface of the water with their neck stretched out while quickly “chewing” or “nibbling” at the water with little bites. They also sweep their head from side to side at the same time to cover more surface area. Dabbling ducks also feed by tipping headfirst into the water to forage on aquatic vegetation and insects in the shallow water. Often all you will see is their tails sticking up into the air. 

A pair of Red-billed teal in flight over the wetland in Marievale.

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.“ ~ E. O. Wilson

A Levaillant’s cisticola preening itself in the early morning after foraging in the dew laden grass for insects. This cisticola has a distinctive red cap and grey back with heavy black streaking.

A White-breasted cormorant is so-called because of its white breast. This species is often found in inland waterways together with its smaller cousin the Reed cormorant and darters. 

Perhaps my favourite teal is the Hottentot teal because of its colouring. I think all the teals are exquisitely coloured ducks. Teals are petite ducks and are characterised by short necks and short tails.

The Hottentot teal is a small dabbling duck. It has a dark brown crown, a fawn face and neck and mottled brown back with green sheen on its secondary feathers. This teal has a characteristic blue bill. Females have lighter brown crowns, they have less contrasting facial markings.

“We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy

We don’t always see Avocets at Marievale. We get Pied Avocets in South Africa. This is a really unusual bird. It has long legs, webbed feet and a long thin upward curved bill. The Pied Avocet has a black crown, nape and neck, a white throat and breast.

Avocets feed by sweeping their long thin bill from side to side in the water to catch food.

This was a first for me. I have never seen a Little-ringed plover before. This Little plover is easily recognisable by its black and white head pattern with a brown crown.

This little character was foraging along the water’s edge for insects and aquatic invertebrates. It looked to be even smaller than the Small three-banded plover.

A male Stone chat, a ubiquitous species in this area.

This female Blacksmith lapwing was disturbed off her nest. This lapwing species has a unique, noisy, metallic-sounding ‘klink klink klink’ or ‘tink tink tink’ call which it repeats loudly and continuously, especially when disturbed. The clinking notes sound like a hammer on an anvil, hence its name.

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

After careful searching we saw the four cryptically coloured eggs of a Blacksmith lapwing. This was a loosely formed nest formed next to the water’s edge. This was a precarious position which would be flooded if more rains came along and raised the level of the water in the wetland.

This ruff was an early arrival of this long distance migrant. It is a migratory sandpiper journeying to this part of the world for summer from Europe and Russia.

 This little stint’s beak is perfect for probing  the soft mud for insects and invertebrates.

A male Long-tailed widowbird  which was starting to take on its breeding plumage. Once fully plumed, it is black all over except for a red shoulder with a white strip.

This male Long-tailed widow bird has attained most of his breeding plumage but his tail feathers have still further to grow.  These long black tail feathers are used in slow flight displays when females are around. 

A family of Egyptian geese, with mother and five goslings.

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

A pair of Cape shovellers, with the male behind and the female in front. The Cape shoveller is endemic to South Africa.  This is also a dabbling duck. Many of the dabbling ducks use their flat bills to strain food items from the water, but the big spatulate bill of the Cape Shoveller is adapted to take this habit to the extreme. Flocks of shovellers often swim along with their big bills barely submerged in front of them, straining food from the muddy soup of shallow waters.

The Cape shoveller has a dark, large spatula-shaped bill. Its eyes are yellow and its legs and webbed feet are bright orange-yellow.

“Nothing in nature lives for itself. Rivers don’t drink their own water. Trees don’t eat their own fruit. The sun doesn’t shine for itself. A flower’s fragrance is not for itself.”~Unknown

A head shot of a sacred ibis. The Sacred ibis, was often mummified as a symbol of the god, Thoth, in ancient African and Egyptian traditions. Thoth was said to have the head of an ibis, and was responsible for writing, mathematics and measurement as well as the God of the moon and magic.

The Sacred ibis is a wading bird often found along the edge of rivers and lakes foraging in the reeds and vegetation. It uses its long beak to prone the reeds and mud for fish, insects, frogs worms and crustaceans. 

A Glossy ibis has a long, decurved bill, and in good light its plumage is metallic bronze with a striking mauve and green tinge. The non-breeding plumage is similar but much duller appearing darker brown in colour, with dense white streaks on the head and neck.

A Glossy ibis preening itself with the morning light illuminating the green sheen on its wings

Over 240 bird species have been seen at Marievale. It is best known for its birding but you might be lucky to see Water or Yellow mongooses, Cape Clawless Otters or even Reedbuck. This a wonderful example of humanity just giving mother nature a chance to establish herself,  and she delivers a bounty for all to enjoy.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.“ ~ John Burroughs

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

Have fun,

Mike

Marievale’s herons

Marievale bird sanctuary is located outside the town of Nigel about 65 kilometres south of Johannesburg in South Africa. This is my “go to” bird photography practice ground. It is mid-spring in this part of the world, and the first migrants have just started to arrive. The European Bee-eaters have just arrived with that familiar liquid  “prreee or prruup” call as they hunt insects in the early evening, flying about 30 metres above the ground. We have not yet heard a cuckoo calling and neither have we seen the Amur falcons on the overhead power lines.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”

–Charlotte Brontë

The weather is warm and the avian residents were out in force. We are still waiting for our first good rains of the season but there was water in the Marievale wetland. It was not too deep so we found avocets and many of the waders were in their element. Also enjoying the shallow water were a variety of herons. Last Sunday at Marievale, we had some good sightings of several of our local heron species.

It is always special to see a Black-crowned night heron. This is a nocturnal hunter so I was surprised to see it out hunting in the bright sunlight at around 7h00.

A yellow-billed egret in breeding colours. The breeding colours become apparent at this time of the year. The top of the legs turn a yellowish colour and at times the skin around the eye turns a green colour.  In the breeding season many of the egrets develop plumes on their necks and backs. The Yellow-billed egret is distinguished from its larger great White egret cousin as its gape finishes below its eye and not behind it as with the Great White egret and it is smaller.

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.” ~John James Audubon

We found many Squacco herons, all hunting individually. They are beautifully adorned with buff and cream coloured feathers. The wings are white and their legs and beak are yellow.

Squaccos have an ability to elongate their necks when perch hunting above the water. They are also capable gymnasts, precariously hanging on to reeds to give them a superior hunting position. They are also capable of hunting from branches over the water.

Squacco herons are crepuscular hunters normally feeding in the twilight times, generally in the shallow water among the vegetation at the edge of a pond or river.

Squaccos are versatile feeders eating anything from flies to snails and when the opportunity presents itself a small fish, and there is no sharing.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children”.~ John James Audubon

We have two types of night heron in south Africa, the Black-crowned and the White-backed. Both are nocturnal hunters so are not regularly seen. Usually we see them at last light.

These Night herons have a distinctive black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. They have pale grey wings and white under parts. They have two or three long white plumes which extend from the back of the head, and which stand out during greeting and courtship displays. As with many herons, the male is larger.

This Black-crowned night heron happened to get too close to a Red-knobbed coot. During breeding season these coots are territorial and aggressive, chasing away birds ranging from ducks to herons.

“As long as I live, I hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.”~ John Muir

A heron which we normally see hunting in the grass along the road through the wetland is the Black-headed heron but for some reason, perhaps it was too dry, we did not see one. We did see many Grey herons.

They have a white head and neck with a broad black stripe that extends from the eye to the black crest. Its body and wings are grey. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are black. These herons can stand motionless for longer than you can sit and wait for them to strike.

Heron have a varied  diet and will eating anything from fish to insects and even small birds. This particular Grey heron caught a large Catfish which it was determined to swallow. We never saw the end result as it flew into the reeds to eat in peace.

“The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.”~Marlee Matlin

This was the first time I have seen a Goliath heron at Marievale. This is a large heron standing up to 1. 5 metres tall. Its distinguishing features are firstly its size and secondly its colour. From far, you might mistake it for a Purple heron, but as soon as you get closer you see its size and its striking and unique colouring.

The Goliath heron’s head and its bushy crest, face, back and sides of the neck are chestnut. This character had especially dark colouring. The back and upper wings are slate-grey, with a chestnut shoulder patch at the bend of the wings. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are grey.

The Goliath heron has a distinct deep “kowoork” sounding bark which can be heard from far off. This species of heron sticks to the watery environment. It also hunts alone and is aggressively territorial. Goliath herons often have to cope with Fish eagles trying to steal their catch. Although there is a pair of Fish eagles at Marievale, this character got to hunt in peace.  

We did not see the Black-headed heron or the Green-backed heron but it was a fruitful photographic morning.

“Get up before sunrise and get out to a river or lake. You will see nature’s bounty. You will be greeted by the cool freshness of the air, birds singing, and soft colours and long shadows. The morn sheds its cloak of darkness and heralds a new day full of hope and charm.”~ Mike Haworth

There are 64 species of heron around the world. They are carnivorous feeders and have managed to thrive and are not considered threatened or endangered – a celebration of life for sure. Herons, by evolutionary adaptation, have long beaks.  Although herons resemble  storks and cranes, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched for longitudinal balance. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down. Herons wade and stork usually do not.

“Exploration is curiosity put into action.” ~Don Walsh

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

Have fun,

Mike

Black Eagles and sandstone cliffs along the upper Olifants

The Olifant’s river water catchment area is divided into three sections, the upper, middle and lower reaches. The Olifant’s River has its origin between Breyten and Bethal, in the Mpumalanga Province. This river flows past the Eagle Rock estate between the Witbank and Loskop dams. The Wilge river joins the Olifants just before the Loskop dam in the middle section. Beyond that the Olifants is joined by the Elands river near Marble Hall and flows down to the lower section where the Steelpoort river joins it and further downstream the Blyde river joins and further still in the Klaserie area the Ga-Selati river joins the flow. The Olifants flows through Kruger Park and is joined by the Shingwedzi river. The combined flow joins the Limpopo river in Mozambique on its way to the sea.

“Always remember to fall asleep with a dream and wake up with a purpose.”~ Unknown

This was the second morning while staying with friends Bill and Judy at their lodge in Eagle Rock estate.  As a photographer, it is obligatory to get up before sunrise, otherwise you will miss the start of the day when the light is soft and the morn offers a warm palette of colours. At that time it was cool and the breeze was light. The birds were singing and there was a real sense of a new beginning. This image was taken at sunrise as I was walking along a sandstone ridge to the Black eagles nest viewpoint.

“Purpose fuels passion.”

There was no one around and it was peaceful despite all the wildlife stirrings. Just above the rock in the foreground on the left third of the image on a ledge in the cliff was the black eagle’s nest.

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong
Viewing the nest was best in the morning because of the direction of the light. By late morning and afternoon the nest was in deep shadow. Photographing from this sandstone rock shelf was not without its risks. Two steps to the right was a straight three hundred metre fall. This is one little fact worth keeping in mind when the photography gets exciting.

The black eagle chick was alone and looked to be around six weeks old. Possibly within a month or so it would be fledged.

Like most eagles, two eggs are laid during a three day interval. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 45 days. The hatching usually takes place two to three days apart. Sometimes one egg is infertile but Black eagles are “obligate cainists”, meaning the older sibling usually kills the younger one by either starvation or direct attacks. Fledging happens between 90 to 99 days after hatching. The speckled pigeons have little to fear from the black eagles but the resident Lanner falcons are a different matter.

The parent black eagles never visited the nest in the two days that I was watching. The closest the adults got to the nest was to land on a sandstone outcrop about four hundred metres away for about 15 minutes.

“Collect moments not things!!

The male, the smaller of the two, landed first and was followed by the female about five minutes later. She was noticeably larger.

“We pair for life but fly alone. We have roles but hunt as a pair.”~ Mike Haworth

Verreaux’s eagles, also called black eagles, prefer hilly and mountainous terrain with cliffs, rocks ledges and caves. Their nests are usually built on ledges which baboons, genets and Monitor lizards cannot access.

The Verreaux’s Eagle is a large bird of prey that is highly specialised. Its life history and distribution revolves around its main prey of Rock hyraxes and preferred habitat of hilly and mountainous terrain. It is wide spread throughout Africa and occurs as far north as Eritrea and as far south as South Africa. (source SANBI.org). The Verreaux or black eagle is unmistakable. It is a large black eagle with black feathers down to its talons. In flight it has a distinctive white ‘V’ is evident on its back between its shoulders.

Later in the morning the wind started to blow quite hard and the eagle chick squatted down low at the back of the nest for some protection.

The adult black eagle was impressive in flight. It is a large raptor with a wing span of around two metres.

“Stand on the cliff top and look out. You will see a multitude of living things and millennia in the making. Colour will flood your senses while a breeze cools your face. Soft flora scents waft and an eagle calls from above. You are floating in a wonderful sensory world.”~Mike Haworth

Verreaux’s eagles are usually found in pairs and they form life-long partnerships. Like golden eagles they hunt collaboratively, with the lead bird trying to flush the prey into the open for the other bird to ambush.

The flora in these sandstone ridges and cliffs is unique to the terrain. The mystery lies in the detail.

A Rock Hyrax warming itself on a rock in the early morning light just what the black eagles look for.

“Deep ravines, unfathomable time. The Olifants flow is joined by many, its power benign. It seeks the sea, its patience sublime.”~ Mike Haworth

The Olifant’s river has over millennia carved a deep wide channel through the fractured sandstone. Even though there was only a light flow of water in the river it could be heard from the top of the cliff.

A pair of black eagles watching us from afar. It was about 8h00 and the wind started to pick up so they did not stay for long.

The world is full of wonderful fascinating things so go out and explore.

“We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” ~Gandalf from Lord of the Rings

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

Have fun,

Mike

Eagle Rock

Last weekend friends, Bill and Judy invited Helen and I to join them at the Eagle Rock wildlife estate where they have a private lodge. Eagle Rock is located about 15 kilometres west of Witbank in Mpumalanga province in the highveld of South Africa. The eastern boundary of the estate is  the Olifants river which is fed by the Witbank dam and flows down to the Loskop dam. The flow of this river is determined by the release of water from the Witbank dam. During the peak rainy season it can be in flood but in late September, spring in this part of the world, it was dry so the water level in the river was low. 

“Springtime on the highveld is a time of expectancy. Certain trees and bushes start to blossom. The skies are blue and cloudless and there is no sign of rain. The sunrises and sunsets are dusty infused with warm mauves, peaches and pinks. The days are warm and the evenings cool. The migrant birds are on their way. It is a magical time of the year, pregnant with new beginnings.” ~ Mike Haworth

Bill and Judy are long standing friends so the first afternoon was spent catching up and just enjoying the quiet and beautiful scene from their lodge. Being a passionate nature photographer, regardless of the merriment the night before, I got up early the next morning, before sunrise, in search for a few  images which captured the mood of the sunrise in this unique landscape. This first image was taken just as the sun was rising. It had just climbed above the horizon but the light was very hazy so the sun was just a ball of yellow and orange in the purple, apricot and pink sky. There are many coal-fired power stations in this part of South Africa. They create the haze, mother nature creates the beauty.

The haze was thick, the sun had climbed quite high in the morning sky and it was still quite dark and moody.

“The early morning sun illuminated the sandstone cliffs, painting them with a palette of ochre, peach, pink, buff, beige and brown. New green shoots punctuated the textured sandstone cliff face with splashes of vibrant green. Rock martins played in the gentle updraft along the cliffs while Egyptian geese cavorted along the river in the valley floor.” ~ Mike Haworth

As the sun rose in the hazy sky, the filtered light began to illuminate the sandstone cliffs towering over the river.

This was a standpoint which we used to look at the Black Eagle’s nest. The nest was located on the cliff edge away from prying attentions of baboons, genets and rock monitors.

 

Back for breakfast, the outlook from the lodge patio looking onto the sandstone cliffs.

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

A short walk from the lodge and we were overlooking the Olifants river. It was low  but spring has brought out the vibrant greens in some of the trees.

After breakfast we wandered around the estate. We found a lone red hartebeest grazing in  one of the verdant valleys. It was strange that it was alone but there are no predators on the estate save a clandestine leopard or two.

Early in the morning the rock hyraxes come out onto the rocks to warm up.  They stay in the rocky outcrops for cover. Despite this many fall prey to the Black Eagles which live in the area.

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

The morning dew was still on the grass. A pair of Natal francolin were foraging in the middle section of a road track. It was blissfully peaceful. I watched them quietly going about their business for about half an hour before they moved off into the surrounding vegetation.

Along the same valley were many ferns, briars and flora which was waiting for the rains to burst into life. This grass bird was singing its heart out unperturbed by me.

An ubiquitous male Stonechat calling to his mate.

The Eagle Rock estate is sited on weathered sandstone. Staring at the weather structures along the cliff face images start to form – the head of a roman soldier with helmet on. 

 

In next week’s post, I will show you some of the images of the black eagles which live and hunt along these sandstone cliffs on Eagle Rock estate.

“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

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

Have fun,

Mike

Pilansberg with Mick

I was fortunate enough to spend a day with my life-long friend, Mick Condy. He now owns and runs a Safari company called Mike Condy Tours and Safaris. Mick invited me to spend a day with him in the Pilansberg Game Reserve next to Sun City in the North West province of South Africa. We had an early start and were up and out on the road at 5h00 to get to the Bakubung gate at the Pilansberg Game Reserve by 7h00, just as the sun was rising.

“The friendship began at nursery school. Grew in primary school, found space and dimension at senior school. Endured separation during the war and later at varsity. Reconnected later in life. By then many decades had past and the life investment was yielding evergreen respect, recognition and liking. Now fifty years down the road of life it is great fun, mixed with deep appreciation and respect. You don’t have to be the same but there is golden thread of memories, experiences and camaraderie which create a unique bond.” ~ Mike Haworth

Being life long friends there was much to talk about for the two hour drive to the park. We have shared a love of the bush all our lives and it is only as we have got older that we could be afford the time and money to spend more time in the bush. One of the wonderful aspects about growing older with life long friends it that time spent together is used to share insights we have found out about life. It is both interesting and inspiring.

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”~ William Shakespeare

Prior to its proclamation as a reserve in 1979, the Pilanesberg National Park Complex was degraded of indigenous game populations due to intense settlement by commercial farmers. At considerable expense, the land  was developed during the first 15 years after 1979. This development was the largest and most expensive game stocking and land rehabilitation project ever undertaken in any African game reserve at that time. The objective being to restock the park with wildlife and facilitate the regrowth after the degradation from human settlement. More than 6,000 head of game were introduced during the Operation Genesis game trans-location programme, which  received worldwide acclaim.

This area is unique from a geological perspective. Its structure, termed the “Pilanesberg National Park Alkaline Ring Complex” was formed by volcanic eruptions some 1 200 million years ago. This extinct volcano is old even in the context of a geological time scale and is the best example of an alkaline ring complex. There are only two other alkaline volcanoes in the world, in Russia and in Greenland. Neither are as clearly defined as Pilansberg National Park.

Near the centre of the park in Mankwe dam. It is surrounded by rocky outcrops, open grasslands, wooded valleys and thickets which provide a varied natural environment for the wildlife. This is typical of the ‘Bushveld’ which occurs in the transition zone between the dry Kalahari and wetter Lowveld vegetation. There is much to do in and around this park but we preferred to get away from the maddening crowd and see nature in her element. 

“No matter how few possessions you own or how little money you have, loving wildlife and nature will make you rich beyond measure.”
~ Paul Oxton

Still early in the morning around 8h00 we found two young males which had left the pride and were on their own, nomads. They were very playful with each other.

Two young nomads who see to have formed a coalition.  Their manes had still to fully develop. They were playful, cavorting around in the waterways at the head of the Mankwe dam.

Mick and I went down to the Mankwe dam hide to see what was going on. It was busy, people wise, so not much happening from a nature point of view. Nevertheless we were graced by our avian friends. It was an overcast day and quite chilly early in the morning so this lesser-striped swallow had puffed itself out to keep warm.

The air was still and cool so this probably kept these lesser-striped swallows on their perch as the insect activity must have been quite subdued.

This lesser egret was busy hunting in the shallows around the Mankwe dam hide. It seemed to be successful in its hunting efforts catching several little fish.

In the car park, there were a few Crested francolins pecking in the sand looking for seed. This character came running towards us habitually expecting food.

“The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.”
~ Aldo Leopold

A little later we wandered our way up toward Makorwane dam, west of Mankwe. On the way we were told there was a leopard sighting next to the road a few hundred metres ahead.

This was handsome male leopard which seemed unfazed by the vehicles and remained focused on the bush around him.

After spending a while watching the male leopard, he wandered off into the bush so we carried on up the road. A little further on from our leopard sighting we found a pair of Black-capped wheatears. They were foraging in some burnt grass for insects.

“Colours are the smiles of nature.” ~ Leigh Hunt

Winter can be a magical time for fora in the bush. Winter can bring out some spectacular colours in the bushes and trees.

We found a small family of wathogs browsing in a burnt area of bush. They use their snouts to dig into the the earth and uncover succulent roots and tubers.

We travelled east to Ratihogo hide which has provided many extraordinary sightings in the past, but it was very quiet this time but for a brown-headed kingfisher hunting for insects from its perch in the trees overhanging the dam.

From the Ratihogo hide we wandered along the Korwe drive down to twin dams which, being winter, had dried up,  We were rewarded by a sighting of two large bull white rhinos basking in the warm winter sun.

There is a wide variety of habitat to see in the Pilansberg reserve and in winter the bush offers a vivid palette of colours.

We found numerous small herds of blue wildebeest. They had huddled together due to the wind. The wildlife adapts to the wind because it disrupts two key senses, smell and hearing. It was good to see many youngsters in the herds.

A small family herd of zebra grazing at the foot of a range of hills along Mankwe way.

“Nature’s beauty is a gift that cultivates appreciation and gratitude.” ~ Louie Schwartzberg

In the afternoon we returned to Makorwane dam and on the way we found a large breeding herd of elephant next to the road. Two teenage bull elephants came onto the road to “play fight” and push each other around trying to assert their dominance. the two were evenly matched so there was no winner.

On our way back to the Kubu road, after having seen the leopard, we found this unlikely pair warming themselves on a road next to the bridge. A Water monitor lizard and a terrapin. Not long after this image was taken, others saw the leopard had wandered down to the bridge and found and killed the Water monitor lizard. Leopards are not fussy predators.

There were no sighting highlights as it was special to see all the wildlife, big and small, animal and bird. The leopard was surprisingly relaxed which gave us a unique opportunity to spend some time watching this normally secretive feline.

Unfortunately last weekend, the Pilansberg National Park was ravaged by fire. Park authorities said it began in the north of the park‚ and burnt through the park on Sunday, fanned by the wind blowing south. The park has a number of hides favoured by many to watch the bird and animal life come down to the dams to drink. The largest hide overlooking Mankwe dam was destroyed by the fire.

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” ~ Albert Camus

Mick thanks again for a wonderful day in the park together, it was special and much appreciated http://www.mikecondytoursandsafaris.com/

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

Have fun,

Mike