Mashatu – the mating game

This was November in Mashatu. Many changes had taken place in the lions’ world in Mashatu. The handsome unscarred male lion who had been dominant for several years was deposed and pushed out into the adjacent property called Charter. Two younger males in the early phase of their prime had taken over the Mashatu territory. The manes of these males were still relatively blonde. The older the male generally the darker his mane. Dark-maned male lions are known to have a higher level of testosterone, which means they are stronger and more aggressive fighters. An aggressive male is better able to defend his pride.

“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats. They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.” ~ Dereck Joubert

On our second morning we found the two males with three lionesses. The blonder male was lying on his own away from the other male and two lionesses.

It was late afternoon and there were many stinging flies biting the male lying on his own. To prevent being stung the male was swishing his tail back and forth and was also trying to bite at the flies.

The third lioness who had been lying away from the other lions walked up to the male lying on his own. She lingered for a few months taking in his scent.

“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” ~Phaedrus

She then brushed past and nuzzled him catching his attention. She then without a pause walked past him with without a backward glance and strode over to the other male lying with the other two lionesses.

It was clear from the first interaction that the male lying with the two lionesses was the dominant member of the male coalition. The third lioness walked straight up to the dominant male and started rubbing herself against him ensuring that he caught her scent. She was ready to mate.

The female usually invites the male to have intercourse by assuming a position known as lordosis. The dominant male quickly got the message and began mating with her right next to the other two lionesses who seemed unfazed. The mating did not raise a reaction from either of the other two lionesses.

Lions have no particular breeding season, and often synchronise breeding, especially after a pride takeover, which enables them to raise the cubs communally. A lioness mates up to 100 times per day with an average interval of 17 minutes, each mating lasting for around 21 seconds. Male cats have spines on their penis to cause slight trauma to the vagina upon withdrawal.  The resulting pain triggers ovulation.  It probably also explains why females bare their teeth at males during mating. (Source: ALERT: African Lion & Environmental Research Trust). We came away from this sighting with the firm impression that the mating male lion was the dominant member of the coalition so all the females gravitated towards him and were effectively his.

Two days later, in a much more open windswept part of the reserve near the vlei (local name for a marsh) we found all five lions. This time the male previously seen on his own had a female with him.

“True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.” ~ Edward Wood

He was very protective of her and every time she got up to walk back to the other lionesses he followed her. As soon as she got close to the other male he would shield her from him. There was no antagonism between the two males.

The less dominate male started to mate with the female right next to the dominate male and two lionesses. The dominant male just looked on with complete acceptance despite the fact that he had mated with her two days before.

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

The slightly overcast afternoon was very peaceful and the mating took place every twenty minutes or so.

At one point the two mating lions got close to the dominant male and he backed away to lie in-between the lionesses. This behaviour looked amusing and stirred the ire of one lioness who was sat on.

The mating pair eventually moved further away from the other three lions. The wind was blowing but it was warm. At one point the mating male lay a metre or two from his lioness. He looked relaxed but pensive.

“See life as if it is perfectly framed. Look for the good light, best composition, framing, because it will make you view life in a different, more perfect way. It makes life better if you can see perfection in an image you make, even if the image is of a slaughtered elephant, or people caught in rubble after an earthquake. ” ~ Dereck Joubert

At no point did the mating male lion close his eyes but just watched the whole scene with a quiet acceptance.

Lions live in prides that consist of one primary male lion, several females and one or two lesser males. The primary male mates with his lionesses. Females might also mate with more than one partner. Several females are likely to be in heat at the same time. The pride leader, usually is the first to mate with each female in heat. He might tire of them during their cycle which gives the lesser male get an opportunity to mate.

“Without conservation, nature fails. Without nature, our souls wither, ecosystems fail, culture disappears, and it takes with it our integrity, our self worth, our common drive to strive for better. The eternal battle within each of us is mirrored in the way we interact with nature. If we lose this battle we don’t just lose animals, or litter a few highways. We lose our souls.” ~ Dereck Joubert

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: cheetah’s thriving

In south eastern Botswana, Mashatu is a dry place for most of the year. It is home to numerous predators. The active and growing cheetah population in Mashatu competes with lions, leopards and hyaenas.

“The rules of survival never change, whether you’re in a desert or in an arena.” – Bear Grylls

Cheetahs are best known for their unique physiology which enables them to run down their prey at extremely high speeds. A less obvious adaptation, but nonetheless essential for survival, is their adaptability to local conditions, where larger more dominant predators compete with them for prey and will kill them if given a chance.

According to National Geographic, there are various theories concerning cheetah evolution. A popular one postulates that cheetahs descended from the same ancestor as the American puma. About 10 000 to 12 000 years ago, around the end of the last ice age, an extinction event took place that wiped out many large mammal species around the world, including the wild cheetahs of North America and Europe. The extinction of these early cheetah species left only the Asian and African populations of cheetahs.

At the turn of the 19th century, more than 100 000 cheetahs were estimated to have been living in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Today there are estimated to be only 7 100 cheetahs left in the wild, so they are listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. A recent study revealed significant population declines, so scientists are calling for cheetahs to be uplisted to “Endangered.” In North Africa and Asia, they are considered “Critically Endangered.”

Cheetahs today are heading toward extinction, a trend they have faced twice before. Genetic analysis of wild cheetahs shows they may have survived two historical bottlenecks, events that sharply reduce the size of a population.

“Evolution is the floating bridge on turbulent waters.” ~ Sukant Ratnakar

The first bottleneck event that cheetahs may have undergone occurred around 100 00 years ago when they expanded their range into Asia, Europe, and Africa. This range expansion is believed to have occurred rapidly, dispersing the cheetahs over a very large area, which reduced their ability to exchange genes.

The second likely bottleneck event occurred about 10 000 to 12 000 years ago, around the end of the last ice age. In this bottleneck the cheetahs of North America and Europe went extinct, leaving extant only the species’ Asian and African populations. As large mammals died out across the world, the number of surviving cheetahs dwindled, causing inbreeding. Even though the number of cheetahs grew to as many as 100,000 during the 19th century, their genetic variability remained low due to the second extreme bottleneck event which took place thousands of years before.

“Every being has its own important and unique place in the cosmic dance.” ~ Laurence Overmire

Cheetahs now face extinction pressure from climate change, hunting by humans, and habitat destruction. Cheetahs’ own genes also pose a challenge to their continued survival. Cheetahs have a low rate of reproductive success. The result is the few remaining individuals end up inbreeding, or mating with relatives. Inbreeding reduces the size of the gene pool, which can lead to problems such as decreased genetic variability and the persistence of potentially harmful mutations. These factors make it harder for the remaining population to adapt to changes in their environment. In a very small population, any mutations that occur are much more likely to be passed on to offspring and propagate through successive generations.

Adult life for a cheetah in the wild is difficult. Female cheetahs in the wild have an average age span of 10 – 12 years. The average lifespan of an adult male in the wild skews lower (8 years), due in part to territorial conflicts with competing groups of males. Adult mortality is one of the most significant limiting factors for the growth and survival of the wild cheetah population. (Source: Cheetah Conservation fund.)

“Sooner or later, every last echo fades. Even the loudest thunder in the deepest valley.” ~ Brian K. Vaughan

With its long legs and very slender body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The scientific genus name Acinonyx is a reference to the species’ semi-retractile claws. The cheetah’s unique morphology and physiology allow it phenomenal acceleration and to attain the extreme speeds for which it’s famous.

Distinctive black tear stripes run from the eyes to the mouth. The stripes are thought to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare. It is believed that they also have the same function as a rifle scope, helping cheetahs focus on their prey at a long distance range by minimising the glare of the sun.

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have a huge variety of needs and dangers.” ~ H.G. Wells

Cheetah scent marking involves spraying urine and defecating on landmarks. It is often done by males competing for the best hunting grounds. Scent is one of the main communication channels among cheetahs. These sleek cats spend a considerable amount of their time smelling and depositing their own scent on previously marked places. This is most often on elevated points such as termite mounds or fallen trees. Such spots serve as ideal observational outlooks and act almost correspondingly to a status update of who is or has been in the area – a regular station for receiving and leaving olfactory information. (https://www.wildlifeact.com/blog/cheetah-scent-marking/)

The study of scat can provide valuable information. It identifies the species, diet composition, provides genetic information such as sex, age and the individual, it provides the hormone levels and parasite load in the individual signalling its overall health and vigour.

Cheetah tails end with a bushy tuft encircled by three or four dark rings. These markings provide them with excellent camouflage while hunting and make them more difficult for other predators to detect. The tail is also thought to be a signaling device, helping young cubs follow their mothers in tall grass. The tip of the tail varies in colour from white to black among individuals.

Cheetah have a hunting success rate of just under 60%. Most of the hunting takes place in the early morning or dusk when it is cooler. If an opportunity to hunt in the heat of the day presents itself the cheetah will take it mainly because there is much less competition from nocturnal predators such as lion, leopards and hyaenas at that time of the day. In Mashatu, the Shepherd Tree provides valuable shade in the heat of the day while the cheetahs rest and look out for prey.

Our second sighting of the cheetah coalition was the next day late in the afternoon. The cheetahs were on the move and looking for prey. On the south side of the Majale river it is dry and rocky in many places.

The two cheetahs were making their way toward the Majale river. Looking at the stones on the ground in this area it is hard to believe that these speedsters can run at top speed over this type of ground.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal. At top speed, their stride is seven meters long. The cheetah’s unique body structure: flexible spine, semi-retractable claws, long legs and tail allow it to achieve a top speed of 110 kilometres per hour. The cheetah’s body is narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs. Its specialised muscles allow for a greater swing to the limbs increasing acceleration. Increasing stride frequency is key to reaching faster speeds. This is mainly achieved through rapidly swinging the limb to decrease swing time. Cheetah muscle has been shown to contain a high proportion of fast-twitch fibres, which would be highly beneficial for rapidly swinging the limb and reducing swing time. (Functional Anatomy of the cheetah forelimb -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3077521/)

“Cheetahs succeed not because they are the fastest animal on land but because of their incredible acceleration and unmatched turning speeds.” ~ Alan Wilson

Cheetahs have a thin frame with a narrow waist and deep chest. They have large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake. Cheetahs have a large lungs and hearts connected to a circulatory system with strong arteries and adrenals that work in tandem to circulate oxygen through their blood very efficiently. The cheetah’s heart rate is between 120 and 170 beats a minute at rest and between 200 and 250 beats per minute when running.

Cheetahs’ foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws, which are considered semi-retractable, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.

“Change can be reversed, but evolution only moves forward and once it moves forward, it can never be reversed.” ~ Sukant Ratnakar

This cheetah was very wary and reacted to every sound. It was late in the afternoon, a time when the nocturnal predators begin to stir. The river is also a place where lions and leopards frequent because the river attracts prey which come to the river in search of water.

The cheetahs eventually made their way down to the bank of the Majale river where lions and leopards are regularly seen. The cheetahs were on high alert knowing that crossing the dry river bed was a dangerous venture.

To watch these cheetah hunting from a distance was a privilege. At dawn and dusk they were very wary and were constantly looking around to ensure that there were no potential threats approaching. The cheetah’s colouring is especially effective at these diurnal times making their camouflage even more effective.

Cheetah are able to wander all over the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NOTUGRE) but tend to frequent the area around the Majale, Matabole and Pitsani rivers especially in the drier periods because of the proximity of water. We have been fortunate enough to see cheetahs almost very time we have visited Mashatu but the free range movement does not guarantee cheetah sightings.

“Life is neither static nor unchanging. With no individuality, there can be no change, no adaptation and, in an inherently changing world, any species unable to adapt is also doomed.” ~ Jean M. Auel

A cheetah sighting is always a thrill because something can happen at any time. Cheetahs are the most active cats during the day so the potential to see a hunt develop is relatively high if you find these cats. If there are cheetah cubs they are very playful offering wonderful photographic opportunities.

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: a birder’s delight

This the second post from my trip to Mashatu Nature Reserve in November last year. Mashatu Nature Reserve is the largest privately owned nature reserve in southern Africa and is located in the Tuli Block between the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in south eastern Botswana.

“It is in the wild places, where the edge of the earth meets the corners of the sky, the human spirit is fed.” “~ Art Wolfe

This is a dry place between May and November each year which is winter and spring. Then the summer rains arrive in late November until around March. The rains turn this dry place into the garden of Eden.

“I can kind of go into the wild places and immediately feel rested and rejuvenated.” ~Jorja Fox

The summer months bring all the avian migrants which swells the number of bird species to around 360. This post shows just a small selection of the variety of birds which can be seen. The avian sightings are excellent when on a game vehicle and there are many birds around the camps. I visit Rock Camp which is a syndicated non-commercial bush camp located close to the Ponte Drift border post on the Limpopo river.

White fronted bee-eater in the crotons next to the Majale river. This is the main river coursing through Mashatu Nature Reserve.

Crested barbet at the bird bath at Rock Camp, which we affectionately call the “marmalade bird”.

Blue waxbills fly in every half an hour of so for a quick drink at the bird bath. These little seed-eaters usually arrive in small flocks.

Male Red-billed firefinch is happy to share the bird bath with Blue waxbills, Jameson’s firefinches and Grey-headed sparrows and even ants.

A male Red-billed fire finch progressively moulting into his summer breeding plumage.

The ever striking Crimson breasted shrike. This species of shrike prefers the drier thorn bush areas, in thickets and riparian scrub which can be found along the banks of the Majale river.

“It is impossible not to be enthralled by the kaleidoscope of colours that birds offer.”~ Mike Haworth

The Southern White-crowned shrike characterised by its distinctive white crown and forehead, and black mask which extends above and below the eye to the side of its neck.

Southern White crowned Shrike. You can usually find them in small family groups.

Kurrichane thrushes are daily visitors to Rock Camp’s bird bath. These thrushes prefer dry savanna and miombo woodland areas which are found along the Limpopo river. They are often seen running on the ground and flicking through the fallen leaves near the bird bath looking for insects.

The Kurrichane thrush has a distinctive orange beak and orange eye-ring. On either side of its throat, it has black stripes extending from its beak down to its chest.

A non descript female White-breasted sunbird. Her belly is a lighter whitish-beige which is different to most other female sunbird species.

Male White breasted sunbird. The iridescence is more vivid in the shade. Both the male and female sunbirds drink at the bird bath by sucking up water with their long beak. Given their high energy needs in a hot climate they do need to supplement their nectar intake with water.

The ubiquitous Kori bustard is always walking away from you. This is one of Mashatu’s “big seven”. It is the largest flying bird in southern Africa. It is a ground-dwelling bird and an opportunistic omnivore. The Kori bustard is cryptically coloured, being mostly grey and brown, finely patterned with black and white colouring on its neck. Both male and female Kori bustards are similarly coloured but the male can be more than twice as heavy as the female.

Female Red-crested korhaan is cryptically coloured and stands motionless in the shade making it difficult to see.

“In a nature reserve, the more you look for birds the more you will see. Listening will help your seeing.” ~ Mike Haworth

The Lesser Striped swallow has a distinctive burnt-orange skullcap extending onto the cheeks like a helmet, and boldly streaked underparts. It is a partial migrant meaning it flies higher up into Africa in the winter months.

Greater honeyguide is the most distinctive members of its family. It has frosted white edgings to the shoulder feathers. The male has a pink bill, black-dark brown throat, and large white “ear muffs’; the female has a dark bill and pale throat.

An African spoonbill foraging for fish in the water next to the dam wall at the vlei in Mashatu Nature Reserve.

Also at the vlei (marsh) was a large flock of Great white pelicans. The flock must have been attracted by the “fish trap” created by the last pool of water next to the vlei’s dam wall.

A squadron of Great white pelicans flying into the remaining water at the vlei’s dam wall.

“One reason that birds matter – ought to matter – is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding. They’re the most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before we arrived.” ~ Jonathan Franzen

A Wahlberg’s eagle is a seasonal intra-African migrant. This a small Brown eagle. Its short crest at the back of the head gives its a distinct “squared-off” look. Being smaller than the larger Brown eagles such as a Tawny or Steppe eagle, this eagles hunts mainly birds but will feed on reptiles if it can find them.

This Wahlberg’s eagle did not like being watched. This species can have many different morph colourations like the Tawny eagle.

A juvenile Verreaux’s eagle-owl in the grove of Apple-leaf trees next to the rock outcrop near Rock Camp. We regularly see a pair of adult Verreaux eagle-owls in this area but it is extra special to see the new generation.

A closer view of a young Verreaux’s eagle-owl still wide awake air mid-morning. This is the largest African owl and has distinctive bright pink eyelids.

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At the other end of the owl size scale is the Pearl-spotted owlet. It is around a quarter the size of the Verreaux eagle-owl. This is one of the few owls which is active during the day and night. It has an iconic call which is a loud series of shrill, short whistles that accelerate in tempo and rise in volume to a crescendo of long, loud whistles that descend in pitch and volume “peu peu peu-peu-peu peeuu peeeuu”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V-hHieK27A

The pseudo eyes in the back of the head of a Pearl-spotted owlet. The eyes are yellow but at the back of the head there are two striking false black ‘eyes’ with a white outline.

An adult Black headed oriole is a daily visitor to the Rock Camp bird bath. It can usually be heard before it is seen. It has a beautiful clear liquid melodious whistle “bo bo weeu” interspersed with low drawn out screeching sounds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kK_-9rCXSE

An adult Black-headed oriole with is vivid yellow body and black head with a bright red eye and pink beak.

An adult Green Wood hoopoe has a metallic dark green, with a purple back. It has a bright red bill and feet. Its tail is dark metallic blue with distinctive white chevrons. Its wings have white markings which are highly visible when it flies.

Green wood hoopoes move in family groups of around six members. They cackle like babblers and rock back and forth in regular group displays.

I have waited a long time to get a reasonable image of an African Paradise flycatcher. This flycatcher flits around in the upper branches of thickly leafed trees are usually difficult to photograph. A pair of African Paradise flycatchers are resident at Rock Camp during the summer months. Both the male and female have a blue-grey head and neck and chest and white belly. Their wings are a vivid ochre colour and they have a royal blue eye ring and beak. The female has a short tail and the male two luxurious long ribbon-like ochre coloured tail feathers.

An adult female African Paradise flycatcher.

An adult male Paradise flycatcher has similar colouring to the female but its crest is larger and it has the long ribbon-like ochre coloured tail feathers.

An adult male African Paradise flycatcher showing off his two long ribbon-like ochre tail feathers. This flycatcher is very vocal, often giving a repeated “dzee-zwee” call and a sweet melodic “willie-willie-willie-wee-wooo” song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeqAtMnVPO4

These trips to Mashatu are not exclusively for birding so we see many more species of birds than we photograph. We also do not specifically look for birds but these images are of birds we happen to see on our game drives. The birds seen at the camp’s bird baths come from a more dedicated view. Rocks which had in the past been used to mill maize and have been ground down to a saucer shape make ideal natural bird baths. I sit on the patio in plain sight of the birds and photograph in the period after brunch and before the afternoon tea when all our guests have gone for a midday snooze or quiet time to read. When the patio area is quiet it is quite amazing how many different species of birds fly into the bird bath for a drink or a bath to cool down.

The birds always fly into the branches near the bird bath to have a look around and ensure it is safe to approach for a drink or bath.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” ~Wendell Berry

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu: a place of leopards

In November last year, friends together with my wife Helen and I spent a week at Rock Camp, which is a syndicated camp in Mashatu Nature Reserve in south eastern Botswana. It is not a commercial camp and has retained its bush camp ethos over the years, which we love.

There are wonderful places to see leopards in southern Africa but to my knowledge there are only two places where you are almost guaranteed to see leopards when you visit. The one is the Sabi Sands Reserve and the other is Mashatu Nature Reserve in south east Botswana.

I have included three interesting sightings and interactions which we were privileged to see.

“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance” ~The Lion King

The first was this young adult female Leopard. We caught sight of her in a croton glade lying quietly on a fallen tree trunk. She was just listening to all the sounds around her.

At one point she looked left out into the open area next to the glade and she caught sight of a Steenbok.

Immediately she got up and started to walk into the open area away from the Majale river. She was careful to use the earth mounds and vegetation to hide her approach.

The leopardess walked around the side of a fallen tree and there, in the top right hand upper third of the image, next to a Stink Shepherd’s bush, lay the Steenbok in the shade. The Steenbok saw the leopardess and moved further along the river bank.

Very quickly the Steenbok caught sight of the leopardess, thanks in part to an alarm call from a Natal spurfowl. I was fascinated to watch the predator and prey interact. The Steenbok just watched her knowing it had enough flight distance between the two of them. The leopardess acted as if it was her intention all along to go and sit in the shade of Stink Shepherd tree and nonchalantly gazed at the exposed Steenbok.

The Steenbok actually walked closer to have a good look at the leopardess. We assumed the Steenbok was trying to get a better look to see whether the leopardess was injured or not. The leopardess never looked directly at the Steenbok while the latter was directly looking at her. The sighting ended with the Steenbok circling the area and then running off unscathed.

“Whatever you do, do with deep alertness, then even small things become sacred.” ~ Rajneesh

The next morning we found a young male leopard looking very relaxed in one of the forks in a large Mashatu tree. He had a good lookout. It was shady and cool but only offered him a view away from the Majale river.

“If you are intelligent, if you are alert, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.” ~ Osho

He was completely unfazed by our game vehicle which was parked about 30 metres away.

This male leopard was watching a herd of impala in the distance which were slowly making their way toward him.

“I am not my thoughts, feelings, circumstances or changing events in my life. I am the awareness, the alertness, the changelessness which remains present behind it.” ~ Marcus Thomas

The one thing this male leopard did not take into account was that he could not see anything approaching the Mashatu tree from the river side. Consequently he did not see a troop of baboons approaching the Mashatu tree. The troop was quiet until it got to within about 20 metres from the Mashatu tree and then the baboons must have smelt the leopard because they started to bark in a particular way. The large male baboons quickly ran in from the rear of the troop. The barking baboons gave this young male leopard a fright. His whole demeanor changed. He was staring out of the tree but not seeing only focusing on what he could hear. He was assessing the threat.

“He heard them barking but was instinctively still so he could listen to assess where they where, how many there were and what their intentions were. Listening means so much more than hearing.” ~ Mike Haworth

The baboons, far from being afraid of the leopard, must have sensed the predator was a youngster. They quickly climbed up the tree far enough away not to be caught by the leopard. The large male baboons were followed up the tree by brazen youngsters. The safety in numbers added to the troop’s bravery.

There was no way the leopard could escape from the Mashatu tree because it was surrounded by baboons. A large male baboon stayed on the ground and kept a close eye on the leopard’s movements.

The young male leopard climbed higher into the Mashatu tree onto a wide bough which could give him purchase if he was attacked. Needless to say the baboons shouted and barked at him and even threw branches at him but his deep throated growl even unnerved us in the game vehicle watching the whole scene. Eventually having given the leopard enough of a hard time they realised he had an advantage and they wandered off. The leopard did not come down from the Mashatu tree but moved to an unphotographable position, so we left him in peace.

On our second last afternoon game drive we came across a female leopard lying in the shade on the bank of the Majale river.

She was minding her own business just lying quietly listening.

“Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance.” ~ Amit Ray

A small family herd of elephants walking on the riverbed passed below the leopardess. The elephants wandered about 50 metres further down to a bend in the river where they had previously dug into the sand for water. In November, the Majale river was dry but the water table remained high so the elephants dug down in the sand to get the filtered water.

Having slated their thirst they even used some of the water to cool themselves. The elephants returned in the direction they had come but took a path up the bank where the leopard was lying. I was surprised that the female elephant did not see the leopard until she was about ten metres away. The elephant got a fright, trumpeted and kicked sand at the leopardess who quickly got out of the way.

There are numerous leopards along the Majale river which courses through the centre of the Mashatu Nature Reserve. The banks of Majale river are lined with Mashatu trees (Nyala Berries) , Apple-Leafs and Leadwoods. There are also many croton groves all of which provide the leopard population with plenty of cover, shade and areas in which to to hunt.

“Our senses are the doorway to the present moment and the more we expand our awareness in every moment, the less we’re lost in our thoughts, and the more we’re fully living and getting the most out of our lives.” ~ Todd Perelmuter

The sightings of leopard are usually very good because of most of them have been habituated to the game vehicles. The adult male leopards tend to avoid the game vehicles and are not nearly as relaxed around the vehicles as the females. This possibly has to do with young male leopards being forced away from the Majale river by the older more dominant males. The young males consequently do not get the degree of habituation as the females.

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – a scenic wonderland

This is the last post from my trip with Wild Eye to the Masai Mara in October last year.

The Mara river and all the goings on around that river is the centre of attraction but by no means the only attraction. This post shows the diversity of scenery which you can see while travelling around the Mara Triangle.

“Jobs fill your pockets, but adventures fill your soul.” ~ Jaime Lyn

The Mara river can cast quite a moody spell depending on the weather. In October, it was the start of the short rains so the skies darkened on occasion which created quite an intense feeling of expectation when peering up the river.

On other occasions when the sun was out it created a relaxed carefree feeling and without animals on either bank all was calm.

We were parked on the west side of the Mara river. On the east side the wildebeest would mass and eventually the animals at the back would push the animals on the river bank closer to the river. In the next image, the wildebeest were congregating among the croton bushes waiting for the right signal to cross.

“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.” ~ George Eliot

While waiting for the crossing to build we would pull back from the river and watch from a rise about a kilometre away where we could watch the movement of the wildebeest and try to predict where they were likely to cross.

From the west bank of the Mara river looking east to Out Look Hill you could see thousands and thousands of wildebeest making their way over the hill and down towards the Mara river.

Crossing the Mara river is a daunting challenge because of the very steep banks along sections of the river. The river itself is flowing at around five kilometres per hour and each bank attracts predators. To add to the crossing’s challenge the river is home to many large Nile crocodiles.

The compulsion to follow the rains and move towards fresh grazing grounds seems to be overwhelming. Eventually the first intrepid river “crossers” venture down the steep bank and plunge into the fast flowing water.

“Live your life by a compass, not a clock.” ~ Stephen Covey

From the horizon, if wildebeest see a crossing taking place and they race to join the crossing. There is relative safety numbers so it is worth joining the mass crossing.

The Peninsula crossing is close to the Wild Eye camp so we were able to get there just after six in the morning. Of the four large crossings we saw, two were around sunrise at around 6h20.

Pensive but compulsive. The wildebeest were watching the surface of the water for any signs of crocodiles.

One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.” ~ William Feather

The multiple crossing routes at Miti Moja were further up river from the Peninsula crossing point. Here the bank was much steeper and deep paths had been cut into the earthen bank by thousands of previous wildebeest descending the bank towards the river’s edge.

Once in the water the wildebeest swim for their lives. The crocodiles tend to stay on the periphery of the crossing so as not to be trampled.

The Mara river takes a left hand bend just before the Purungat bridge. It is very rocky in this section and does not have the steep banks seen at Miti Moja. In the past many wildebeest tried to cross a few hundred metres up the river but drowned and would be caught up on the rocks. As you can imagine the smell of all the decaying carcasses must have been horrendous. Wild Eye was allowed to set up a camp a few hundred metres up river to prevent the wildebeest crossing at that point. The position of the camp stopped the wildebeest crossing in that section and solved the carcass build up so it no longer smells. The next image is of the view from the Purungat bridge looking up river from the bridge. The Wild Eye camp is a few hundred metres up river from the bend in the image below.

The view is also from the Purungat bridge but taken looking down the Mara river from the Purungat bridge towards the Serengeti in Tanzania.

A lone Masai giraffe looking east over the Mara river while the rain clouds were building in the background. Some of the advantages of visiting the Masai Mara in October are that it is low season and the rains were building so the skies became very colourful and moody.

Looking out over the plains on an almost clear warm October morning – bliss.

“The most beautiful gift of nature is that it gives one pleasure to look around and try to comprehend what we see.” ~Albert Einstein

By contrast, the afternoons tended to be characterised by huge cloud build ups which at sunset would create a vivid scene saturated with colour.

We were able to get across to the east side of the Mara river via the Purungat bridge. We ventured onto the east side to find a pair of black rhinos, an adolescent and it its mother. The background shows the vastness of just a part of the Masai Mara.

Just after sunrise we found a large male lion close to the Main road about four kilometres up from the Purungat bridge. The light was soft and behind him were the vast plains stretching down into the Serengeti.

A small herd of Plains zebra were drinking at an old borrow pit created during the road making and which had since become a waterhole.

Looking west toward the Oloololo escarpment down in the southern section of the Mara Triangle. A inselberg is partly visible on the right hand side of the image. Two young nomad male lions were making their way through the grass to an inselberg behind us. The inselberg would provide them with a hiding place and a high look out point.

Down in the south of the Mara Triangle close to the Tanzanian border. The plains were dotted with Balanites and numerous grazing wildebeest. In the background was the Oloololo escarpment with storm clouds building in the late morning. We were on our way down to find a female leopard seen in a lugga (a seasonal water course). We never got a good sighting of the leopardess but the trip to find her was worthwhile.

“Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.” ~ Bob Bitchin

About five hundred metres up the Main road from the water hole where zebra were drinking, we found three male lions. The two older males were lying in the road and the younger male was lying next to a rock which he seemed to be hugging. When you are king of the plains you can lie anywhere!

A lugga with water flowing along it collecting into small ponds. These features provide ample water for the wildlife. The luggas also provide effective ambush areas for predators.

A red flame lily growing out of the rocks near where we stopped for coffee while we were waiting for a wildebeest herd building prior to crossing. It is my Zimbabwean heritage that makes me so fond of this beautiful but poisonous lily. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids including colchicine and can be fatal if eaten. In Zimbabwe the flame lilies usually have orange/red petals where the bottom of the petal is yellow not red.

Looking through Leopard Gorge toward Out Look Hill in the distance. On the left hand side is Sierra Lima, one of the higher hills in the area. This is a verdant valley with a lugga coursing between the hills. This area was so-called because it was the territory of a large male leopard at that time. Unfortunately we never saw him.

A blue haze across the foothills in front of the Oloololo escarpment.

The sunsets in the Masai Mara can be spectacular. When a storm is not brewing in October, the late afternoon colours are soft and the temperature balmy.

“Wilderness is a necessity… there must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.” ~John Muir

Driving out of camp just after 6h00 we found a male Masai giraffe sitting down in a large open area. It was a very peaceful scene. Sitting in the centre of a large section of grassland the giraffe would have been able to see any potential threats.

An iconic African sunset with the sun illuminating the underside of the clouds and a single Balanites Aegyptiaca or “Desert Date” in the foreground. This is an in-between time in the bush. The diurnal wildlife is making its way home and the nocturnal wildlife is stirring and beginning its nightly activities.

The eternal battle between predator and prey played out every day in the Masai Mara.

This large dominant male lion had been sleeping on the main road with his coalition partner. After some delay he got up to follow his coalition partner down the road toward a waterhole where many zebra were drinking.

Off the main road at the “picnic trees”, our photographic group stopped to stretch our legs and have a leisurely breakfast. This picnic site looked down onto the Kenyan/Tanzania border in the southern side of the the Mara Triangle.

On our last morning, down near Peninsula crossing point we found three large male lions. One of the males must have separated from the group during the night and returned in the morning. One of his coalition partners greeted him warmly.

“All good things are wild and free.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A game vehicle silhouetted near a Balanite just before the sun set over the horizon.

I was fortunate enough to spend six wonderful days with Wild Eye travelling around the Mara Triangle during the day and sleeping in their bush camp near the Purungat bridge at night. The bush camp is set among the croton bushes on the banks of the Mara river. The bird life in the camp is prolific. There were constant sounds of hippos’ honks and grunts. The grunting sounds like the air-brake of a large Oshkosh truck going downhill. The grunts will keep you awake the first night but by the second night it is a familiar and reassuring sound.

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

The Mara Triangle, like the Serengeti, offers a wonderfully rich diversity of wildlife. This makes a photographic safari highly productive. I will continue to make my pilgrimage back the Masai Mara for as long as I can. It is one of the most special wildlife sanctuaries I have ever been privileged enough to experience.

“Adventures don’t come calling like unexpected cousins calling from out of town. You have to go looking for them.” ~ Unknown

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

Have fun, Mike

Mara wings

This is the second last post from my Masai Mara trip in Kenya in October 2021 with photgraphic safari company, Wild Eye. It was a productive photographic trip with some wonderful sightings of wildebeest crossings, many predators, incredible scenery and a diverse variety of birds.

“Photographing birds will improve your knowledge of them. You see them in finer detail and be better able to discern differences. Understanding their behaviour will provide greater photographic variety.” ~ Mike Haworth

This post shows just a small selection of the birds I saw and photographed during my trip. This was not specifically a birding safari but there is a huge diversity of birds in the Mara Triangle. Of course, we saw our fair selection of raptors due to all the predation in the Mara area.

“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. … In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportsmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.”
~ John Lubbock

We saw many Tawny eagles and all the morphs from dark to blonde and all the variations in between. The Tawny’s were often at the remains of a carcass before the vultures.

A light coloured young Black-headed heron was fishing successfully at one of the small ponds next to the gravel road. The heron was fishing amongst all the wildebeest and zebra milling around the waterhole.

Early in the morning, a pair of Lappet-faced vultures were warming up in the early more sun and waiting for the thermals to start developing after 9h00 so they could get airborne without too much effort.

“In the bush there is a reason for everything. If the vultures are on the ground and they are not feeding, it is too early for them to catch thermals” ~ Mike Haworth

This looked to be a wet and cold Zitting cisticola. It had been raining the night before and this small character was perched on top of a thorny branch trying to dry out and warm up.

Lappet-faced vultures are large when perched but when flying they are huge. This vulture was flying in to join its mate on top of a Balanite. The pair looked to be building a nest.

“I am totally absorbed when trying to photograph birds flying. Capturing images of large birds is easier and small birds much harder. To capture the skill and amazing changes to their wing and tail shapes is a thrill.” ~ Mike Haworth

While we were looking for a female leopard along a drainage line close to the border with the Serengeti, we were entertained by this Yellow-throated Longclaw very busily string through the grass looking for insects.

We found a pair of Black crakes at a lush waterhole which was festooned with many waterlilies. The crakes shared the waterhole with a large hippo and a lone Spurwing Goose.

Early one morning just as the sun was rising and the grass was still very wet from the night before, we saw a pair of White-bellied bustards. This pair were busy preening each other on the opposite side of the game vehicle to where a large male lion was roaring to his coalition partner across the valley.

“Get out there early. The birds are already active. Look around you might be surprised at what you see behind you.”~ Mike Haworth

We saw many Sooty chats around the Mara Triangle. They were usually perched on a prominent rock for anthill declaring their territory. They prefer lightly wooded grasslands.

An adult Black-shouldered kite perched on top of a high lookout point. Those ruby red eyes were gazing across the grasslands for potential prey.

A backlit portrait of a male ostrich. His red face was an indication that he was ready to mate. We did not get to see him go through his elaborate mating dance which can be quite a performance.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” ~ Confucious

A wet and cold Spur-winged lapwing. These lapwings are usually found next to water. The spur on its wing was evident and particularly sharp.

A portrait of a Grey Crowned crane preening itself. The texture of its grey feathers and that golden crown were eye catching. We saw many Grey Crowned cranes in the Mara Triangle foraging in the grass near water for insects and grass seeds.

A Common sandpiper with its distinctive white eye stripe and white underparts which form a wedge at the shoulder. These small sandpipers are usually seen along the banks of a waterhole or small dam. They forage for crustaceans, insects, worms along the water’s edge.

We saw several Grey kestrels. This one was perched on a prominent lookout branch. It was scanning for its next meal. It will eat everything from insects like grasshoppers to small reptiles like chameleons, lizards, and snakes to frogs and rodents. This kestrel is capable of hovering like a Black-shouldered kite.

“The eye sees all but the mind shows us what we want to see.” ~ William Shakespeare

A Hooded vulture seen on the periphery of a kill zone where all the Lappet-faced, Rüppell’s Griffon and White-backed vultures were squabbling over the remains of a carcass. The size of the beak indicates that it feeds on scraps dropped by the larger vultures. Hooded vultures have excellent eyesight and are often the first vultures up in the sky partly because of their smaller size.

A Red-necked spurfowl was foraging around our game vehicle while we were waiting for a wildebeest crossing. It looked to be a young male judging from the good condition of the spurs on the back of his legs. His spurs had not been worked down in numerous fights over females.

A Rüppell’s Griffon vulture in flight. This is a large vulture bigger than a White-backed vulture but smaller than a Lappet-faced vulture. It is an aggressive feeder at a carcass. The endangered Rüppell’s Griffon vulture of central Africa is the highest flying bird in the world and has been confirmed at least once at an altitude of 37,000 feet. The adaptation that allows this species to fly so high is an alteration of one of its proteins in its haemoglobin which allows the bird to fly efficiently despite lower pressure and available oxygen.

“When you look at a bird what do you see? Looking will give its “giss” (general impression of shape and size), and colour but watching its behaviour will yield its unique adaptions, socialisation and position in the natural hierarchy. Then you will begin to see and understand the bird so much better. Just looking is not the same as seeing.” ~ Mike Haworth

Judging from the colouration of this Martial eagle it was a juvenile. Adult Martial eagles have a dark brown back, head, and chest. The underparts are white with black spots and the females typically have heavier markings than males. This juvenile must have recently had a good meal judging from the size of its crop.

On another occasion while waiting on the western bank of the Mara river for a wildebeest crossing we saw two Tawny eagles flying in and landing in a tree near us.

Ever the opportunist, this Tawny eagle was waiting in a tree above the west bank of the Mara river for any casualties after the crossing took place. Tawny eagles are predators, but also opportunistic scavengers so they will feed on anything from insects to smaller birds, hares and small reptiles, or fresh carrion.

This was a small selection of the birds you can see in the Mara Triangle and we did not go out to specifically photograph birds. I am sure a dedicated bird photography safari in the Mara Triangle would be highly productive. We saw many birds which we could not photograph from Augur Buzzards to coucals and coursers to varieties of Go-away birds and Plantation-eaters, ducks, teal and geese, widow birds and whydahs.

“To survive and even thrive in a changing world, nature offers another great lesson: the survivors are those who at the least adapt to change, or even better learn to benefit from change and grow intellectually and personally. That means careful listening and constant learning.” ~Frances Arnold

In the forests at the foot of the Oloololo Escarpment you are likely to find many varieties of barbets and hornbills, woodpeckers, robin-chats and turacos. East Africa boasts a wonderful selection of savannah birds with a wider selection of barbets, bee-eaters, sunbirds, lovebirds and parrots, weavers and starlings than is found in southern Africa.

“If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” ~ Robert Baden-Powell

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – river crossed but journey’s end

Warning if you do not like seeing an injured animal or seeing it being killed in nature please do not read this post.

This post shows an injured wildebeest resisting a sustained attack from a lone hyaena.

We had watched a major crossing of wildebeest across the Mara river earlier in the morning. Once the herd had crossed we drove away from the river onto Bottom River road. There were throngs of wildebeest and zebras moving west away from the river.

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” ~ Maya Angelou

Hyaenas operate in clans. Each clan member spreads out over the clan’s territory and waits for scavenging or hunting opportunities to arise. During the day each hyaena tends to hide by either lying in a gully or in a large tuft of red oat grass. It is only when an individual needs help will it call for back up. We saw a few hyaena wandering parallel to the moving wildebeest herd but did not think much of it.

That was until we saw a lone adult hyaena scouting close to a lone wildebeest which had been lying in the grass about 50 metres off the road. As soon as the hyaena approached the wildebeest it got up and began to defend itself. Initially the hyaena circled the wildebeest assessing why it was not walking with the rest of the herd.

“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” ~ Roger Crawford

The hyaena quickly grasped the opportunity. The wildebeest must have had a broken hind leg during or after the river crossing. It had managed to walk around three quarters of a kilometre from the river before lying down to rest.

The hyaena knows only too well that an attack head on with the wildebeest would cause it injury.

The attacking hyaena was not a large female such as a matriarch. Nevertheless, it quickly worked out that the wildebeest could not spin quickly and managed to get around to its back and began biting at its spine just below its shoulder.

“Pick your battles, big enough to matter and small enough to win.” ~Jonathan Kozal

Time and again the hyaena would attempt to pull the wildebeest over by pulling its mane.

“Patience and tenacity are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.” ~ Thomas Huxley

When the wildebeest was squarely lying on the ground the hyaena would repeatedly bite at the skin and muscle covering its spine.

While difficult to watch we got an insight into how tough both animals were. The hyaena was tenacious and repeatedly bit at its prey’s spine area. The wildebeest despite a broken back leg continued to get up and swirl around trying to hook the hyaena with its horn.

Initially, the hyaena was just biting at the wildebeest’s hide. It must have been tough because the hyaena struggled to get through the hide into the underlying muscle and bone. It repeated attacked from the back continuously biting in the same place.

Hyaena have an extremely strong bite force. Once this hyaena latched onto the wildebeest the latter found it almost impossible to dislodge it by turning and goring it in the side with its horns.

“When the going gets tough, put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. Don’t give up.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

I learnt that morning how relentless a hyaena can be if it senses weakness in its victim.

After what must have been three quarters of an hour the wildebeest started to slow down probably due to exhaustion and loss of blood.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. All that matters is you get up one more time than you were knocked down.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

Despite its severe injuries, the wildebeest continued to get up and face its attacker.

All the activity soon caught the attention of a nearby hyaena scout who joined in the attack.

Once down the hyaenas took advantage of the fallen wildebeest by repeatedly biting it.

“Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. Life is too short to spend it on warring. Fight only the most, most, most important ones, let the rest go.” ~ C. JoyBell C.

The hyaenas then started feeding on the wildebeest while it was still alive.

On the surface it seems that hyaena are particularly cruel by eating their prey alive. But a hyaena does not have claws like a lion to hold onto its prey while it throttles it. All hyaena have are their numbers and their exceptionally strong jaws. The hyaena also so not have the luxury of time as there are many lions in the Masai Mara who will quickly steal the prize – if they can.

It is harrowing to watch a hyaena systematically wear down a wildebeest to the point of exhaustion by continuously biting at tearing at its hide. There is no question that hyaena are skilled hunters, especially when working in a clan. Under normal circumstances a lone hyaena would not pull down a fit strong adult wildebeest but in this case when the weakness was discovered the opportunity was taken.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”~ Calvin Coolidge

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – Miti Moja

We were privileged to see four major crossings in our six days in the Masai Mara in October 2021. All the crossings were along the Bottom River road section of the Mara river between Peninsula and Miti Moja. The Bottom River road gives a good view from the west side of the river looking east towards Look Out Hill. From here you can see the wildebeest moving over Look Out Hill and on down towards the river and get a good idea of how big the crossing could be.

“Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery.” ~ Lois Crisler.

This particular morning the crossing started at around 6h30. The herd massed on a large flat section on the east bank of the Mara river. The wildebeest lingered on top of the bank for sometime and eventually the first animals began to descend the deep ruts in the steep bank. These ruts were created by hundreds of animals in previous crossings.

Invariably the rut turns out to be a one way route because of the steepness. Once an animal starts down the rut it is committed to cross the river because of all the animals following down the rut behind it.

Wildebeests’ legs are strong but thin and their hooves are not shaped for effective swimming so it is little wonder there is a momentary pause before the leap.

The wildebeest dive off the edge of the bank into the fast flowing muddy water.

“Life is a journey which never lets you know when and where it will end.” ~ Biju Karakkonam

Some of the ruts although deep are very steep and once an animal has entered one of these ruts it is effectively a one way head long controlled fall.

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot

At times in their panic the animals dive in on top of each other but seem to survive.

Different routes down the bank create different entry points and some are significantly less steep and dramatic than others.

For some inexplicable reason, some of the wildebeest descend the bank and enter the water only to decide that it is not the best place to swim across the river. They then try to move along the bank at the water’s edge looking for a more suitable launching place.

Incredibly the calves dive in after the adults. A calf is usually following its mother and it is probably its first time crossing the Mara river. The calf is on its own once in the river. There is nothing its mother can do to help it.

“You may not find a path, but you will find a way.” ~ Tom Wolfe

Once in the fast flowing river the wildebeest swim across in a wide arc, frantically swimming with their heads facing upstream.

You can see the fear and panic in their eyes.

Seeing other wildebeest climbing out of the other side the river must encourage those on the eastern bank to move forward. There is still an equally steep climb back up the western bank and if that is not enough there are, at times, lions and leopards waiting to ambush them in the bushes. The hyaenas hang around a few hundred metres from the river to pick off those animals that cannot run away because they were injured during the crossing.

“We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Considering the drama and difficulty for the animals crossing the Mara river, their odds of surviving the crossing are good. Around 6 200 wildebeest die in crossing each year, which in the context of over one million crossing, are reasonable odds.

“Wildlife is something which man cannot construct. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.” ~Joy Adamson.

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – frenzy at Peninsula

The Peninsula crossing point is about two kilometres up the Mara river from the Wild Eye camp. The camp is sited close enough to Peninsula to get there early, just after 6h00. That said, the crossing can happen at any time. We saw four large crossings in the section of the river below Look Out Hill. Two of them were just after sunrise.

” The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.” ~ Nancy NewHall

The main crossing points below Look Out Hill are Peninsula, Figtree and Miti Moja. There may be others but there were no crossings happening higher up towards Hippo Pools at the time we were there. Our group of photographers were fortunate enough to see a male lion crossing the Mara river close to Figtree.

“There are more peaceful animals on earth than peaceful people.” Anthony Douglas Williams

Peninsula crossing is so called because of the peninsula on the east bank that forces the Mara river into a 300 degree bend around it. This is the southern most regular crossing point in the Mara Triangle. The wildebeest do try to cross further down at Figtree but the banks are especially steep with many rocks on the western bank. The Wild Eye camp is located further down the Mara river at particular bend in the river to prevent wildebeest crossing at that point. Before the introduction of the camp, there were numerous wildebeest deaths at this point with their carcasses piling up on the rocks down river near Purungat bridge resulting in a dreadful stench in that area. The camp has stopped the crossing, the wildebeest deaths and there is now no stench near the bridge.

I mentioned in my last post that the build up to the crossing can take hours. Part of the reason is the wildebeest are very skittish and any sound or smell will deter them. Ill discipline from the safari guides driving their vehicles on the eastern side of the Mara river is also a major reason for crossings being abandoned. The guides driving the game vehicles are more disciplined and more strictly monitored by the rangers on the western bank in the Mara Triangle. The game vehicles on the western side are obliged to remain on the main road while the build up is taking place. Even with this rule in place, as soon as the first animal enters the water there is a mad race among all the game vehicles to get the best position on the west bank to witness the spectacle of the wildebeest crossing towards the west bank.

At Peninsula the wildebeest pour down the eastern bank which is not steep and the entry point into the water is shallow. The huge number of hooves coming down the bank stir up thick dust adding to the confusion and mood. A wildebeest’s nostrils are equipped with flaps that help filter the dust stirred up by thousands of surging animals.

“We watch with wonder spellbound by the enormity, intensity and primal sense of one of nature’s greatest compulsions.” ~ Mike Haworth

Once the crossing starts there seems to be a compulsion to follow those in front. Entering the water with so much dust limits the wildebeests’ visibility of the water in front of them so often they do not see the crocs waiting for them.

“Fossil evidence suggest that wildebeest have been roaming the plains of east Africa for more than a million years”

There are occasions when the crossing seemed to be in full swing then suddenly animals half way up the bank turned around and headed back up the bank. It could have been a strange sound or a few animals that got spooked by something and the animals around them turned in unison.

Depending on how the game vehicles on the eastern bank have positioned themselves the wildebeest will pause on top of the bank, gather themselves and descend again. If a predator or too many game vehicles are in the way the wildebeest at the top of the bank will abandon their crossing and move a couple of hundred metres away from the river.

“Long-distance migrations are among the most spectacular and heroic of natural events, and the majority are in Africa” ~ Penny van Oosterzee contributor to the New Scientist

In the crossing, the wildebeest crowd each other. Crocs tend to stay on the periphery of the crossing as they are likely to get trampled venturing to the middle of the surging herd.

A massive croc lurking on the edge of the crossing caught a wildebeest calf by the hind leg. Once caught a calf is unlikely to be able to get free of a large croc’s hold. Even if it did it would probably have a broken leg which would soon be discovered by hyaenas and finished off.

The crocs are large enough to firmly hold the hind quarters of an adult wildebeest. Others crocs quickly move it to join in the attack. There are many rocks on the western bank which make it very slippery for a wildebeest to get purchase and be able to pull itself out of the water.

A large crossing can take longer than 30 minutes. In this situation the crocs will catch and drown one wildebeest, let it float down the river and go for another. The drowned animal will float a few hundred metres down the river before getting caught up on rocks or branches jutting out of the river bank, which serve as a larder of sorts

Not all wildebeest stay in the main column crossing the river. Some try to get upstream of the column. This tactic makes the crossing more dangerous as there is not the safety in numbers and it also means that there may be added difficulty getting out of the river the other side.

With a panicked scramble the wildebeest manage to climb out on slippery rocks. This is a very vulnerable time for those animals waiting at the back of the queue in the water.

Thankfully all the crossings we saw went well and there were no mass drownings and very few wildebeest were taken by crocs. The river claims on average 6 200 wildebeest each year. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed how wildebeest drownings had a positive impact the ecology of the Mara river. Co-author Emma Rosi, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute, noted that “the mass drownings create a huge biomass subsidy which delivers terrestrial nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon to the river’s food web. Fish and scavengers feast on soft tissues, then wildebeest bones slowly release nutrients into the system – feeding algae and influencing the food web on decadal scales”. Research showed that crocs consumed about 2% of total carcasses while fish consumed between 34% and 50% of the total. This is another example of nothing going to waste in the natural world.

“The Great Migration is the largest overland migration in the world.”~ Africa Geographic

The crossings are breathtaking because of the enormity of the surge of animals swimming for their lives across the Mara river. You can see the terror in their eyes as they open them so wide that you can see the whites of their eyes. You can’t help but be impressed by the wildebeest diving into the fast flowing muddy river with such spindly legs which don’t look proportioned for swimming.

“Wildlife migration requires large, connected landscapes and access to seasonally available resources, but human development—such as roads, livestock fences, farms, suburban settlements and energy infrastructure—has fragmented migration corridors in many terrestrial ecosystems around the world.” ~ John Cramer, Dartmouth College

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – build up to a crossing

One of the most iconic features of the Masai Mara are the wildebeest crossings which occur each year from August to October. Hundreds of thousands of animals cross the Mara river following the rains in search of better grazing areas. While these crossings are enthralling in their build up and intensity, the Masai Mara is so much more than the crossings.

“Humankind’s greatest priority is to reintegrate with the natural world.” ~   Jonathon Porritt

The wildebeest have to cross the Mara river, and sometimes the Talak and Sand rivers, in the Masai Mara and Grumeti and Mbalageti rivers in the Serengeti on their migration route.

Around two million animals move during the migration which include more than one million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelle. These animals migrate in search of rich grasslands so follow the rain in an epic, and hazardous, circular journey of some 800 to 1 000 kilometres. This journey takes them through Tanzania’s vast Serengeti plains down to Ndutu where they calve around February and then migrate back up the west side of the Serengeti, through the western corridor and up into the Masai Mara in Kenya.

Looking across the Mara river from the west side you can see Look Out Hill. The thousands and thousands of black dots scattered below Look Out Hill signalled that a major crossing was building. The wildebeest start moving forward from behind Look Out Hill and pour over the hill and down to the banks of the Mara river. It is not clear what the signal is but perhaps, like a murmuration of starlings, they are just watching each other for the signal to move.

Crossings happen when the time is right and that is not human time. Patience is required to be able to witness a crossing. Our host, photographic safari company, Wild Eye, has a bush camp sited on the banks of the Mara river about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge. This camp offers the advantage of being in the Mara Triangle reserve and being able to drive down to the main crossing areas at just after 6H00 in the morning. If a crossing started at around 6h00, as it did on two occasions, we were the first there.

“Our relationship with nature is more one of being than having.  We are nature: we do not have nature.” ~ Steven Harper

There are times when we had to wait while the build-up took place. We often backed off from the river and drove up to a vantage point under a Balanite where we could get out of the vehicle and have a cup of coffee and watch the build up in comfort.

Crossings can occur at any time, even at night sometimes, but mostly during daylight hours. You can imagine it is terrifying enough to have to plunge into a fast flowing muddy river knowing there are predators on either bank and in the water just waiting for you without doing that in the dark.

The animals mass on the bank and eventually cross on mass in one thunderous drive relying on the relative safety in numbers. Almost every animal crosses the Mara river at some point. Elephant and giraffe cross in small herds but these animals are usually too big for the Nile crocodiles to take on. I had an earlier post on a male lion crossing the Mara which was memorable. I have not heard of buffalo crossing the Mara river but I presume they do as they are good swimmers and are not afraid of the water. I have seen large herds of buffalo crossing the crocodile infected Chobe river in northern Botswana.

“The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, a holistic and balanced view of the world. All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”~ Rebecca Adamson

Wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle cross together to improve their odds of not getting caught by a land predator or a crocodile. Wildebeest are known for their migrant nomad tendencies. This strategy allows them to range over larger areas for the best quality grasses.

Large herds make a noise and the vibration of all the hooves on the ground near the river bank alerts the crocodiles to an imminent crossing. The wildebeest is also called a gnu. The gnu gets its name from its call which sounds like ge-nu.”

Crocodiles have an exceptional sense of hearing. The flaps of skin around the crocodile’s ear protect the eardrums underwater. When underwater, the crocodile depends on water vibrations. These must come from the many hooves and verbalisations.

The next image shows a few Nile crocodiles which had congregated at the Peninsula crossing point. They were basking in the morning sun waiting for the crossing. They probably felt the vibrations of the thousands of hooves massing on the bank above them.

The Nile crocodiles in the Mara river are enormous. An adult Nile crocodile varies in length between 3.5 and 5 metres and weighs between 225 kg and 750 kg. Giant Nile crocs exceeding 6.1 m in length and weighing up to 1 089 kg have been recorded.

The wildebeest’s diet dictates that it is always traveling. It needs to drink twice a day so is constantly searching for water. A wildebeest has a wide mouth which enables it to eat a lot of grass very quickly. There is a natural symbiosis between wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle. This is because zebras will eat away the top layer of grass so that the wildebeest can get to cropped shorter grasses. A Thompson’s gazelle, with its small mouth, eats the remaining portion of the short grass left by the wildebeest. They also benefit from wildebeest and zebra trampling down the tall grass, making it easier for them to feed on short grass.

“‎Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.” ~ Dalai Lama

In April each year the wildebeest follow the rain and move to the west and northwards through the centre of the Serengeti reaching the Masai Mara in southern Kenya around July. Then as the rains shift southward the herds follow them from August to October.

A wildebeest uses its superior sense of sound and smell to stay wary of predators, while the zebra uses its excellent eyesight to scan for threats. Combined they create an effective “alarm” system, which together with the massive size of their accumulated herds reduces the chance of any single individual being targeted by a predator.

Their relationship offers more than safety. Zebras are known to have good memories and can often retrace their route from the previous year’s migrations. In turn, wildebeest are adept at finding water sources which helps both species during the drier seasons.

Either side of a river crossing is a dangerous place for wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle to gather. Lions, leopards and hyaenas wait for an opportunity to ambush them. We were fortunate to see a female leopard walking along the lower section of the river bank before a crossing. She must have been looking for an effective ambush position.

This female leopard moved up on top of the bank and wandered through the Croton bushes looking for an ideal ambush position. All preparation before the drama and mayhem of the rush.

I was amazed to see one of the crocs lying in plain sight at the water’s edge at Peninsula Crossing. It must have been a youngster. The experienced crocs know there is no hurry.

The herd build up can take hours. So many times there had been a build up with the animals at the front of the herd close to the river bank being pushed toward the river. It takes one or two inconsiderate game vehicles on the east bank to drive in amongst the Croton bushes to scare the herd away from the river bank. This happened with regularity.

“The infinite vibratory levels, the dimensions of interconnectedness are without end. There is nothing independent. All beings and things are residents in your awareness.” ~ Alex Grey

The herd build up often took us well into the afternoon when the clouds also started to build. In the afternoon the cumulous clouds would develop into darkened rain filled cumulonimbus cloud formations which added to the atmosphere and tension. The clouds added drama and the light changed the mood with the darker skies making everything more foreboding. The wildebeest seem to be finely tuned to the mood and atmosphere.

As the animals started to walk towards the riverbank there was a change in the mood. All the animals grazing up on the side of the hill were watching what all their contemporaries were doing. As one group started moving towards the river so all the animals grazing on the hill started to move in sync. The animals at the back push the ones in front. The animals at the front of the herd are very skittish.

The wildebeest have every reason to be skittish. Leopards and lions lurk the the bushes trying to ambush them. This female leopard was waiting probably for a wildebeest or zebra calf.

It takes very little for the wildebeest to abandon the crossing. It can be the raucous cackle from an Egyptian goose raising the alarm, or safari vehicles on the eastern bank which intrude into their passage. Strangely there is a lack of discipline and consideration from the safari vehicle operators on the eastern side of the Mara river for the animals which are providing the spectacle.

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” ~  Elwyn Brooks White

With out any alarm triggers, the first intrepid wildebeest charge toward the water. There is no hierarchy. Sometimes a calf will lead the crossing. Every animal is on its own and must fend for itself. Once the crossing starts it quickly becomes a frenzy.

The dark rain clouds and thunder in the distant south in the Serengeti beckon the wildebeest herds. Having lived in Africa all my life and loving the bush this is an exceptional place to visit and experience.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.” ~  Crowfoot

Anyone who has read my posts will know that I am intrigued by the interconnectedness of all of life. This place provides a vivid sense of this interconnectedness. The ecosystem of animals, reptiles, insects, birds, trees and grasses are all connected to each other as well as the weather. There is a natural intelligence in life on the plains which we are progressively discovering and increasingly appreciating.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seattle

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

Have fun, Mike