Klipspringer Lodge, Selati

Along with a group of fellow amateur wildlife photographers, I visited Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve in September 2021 with CNP Safaris. Selati Game Reserve had, until recently, been a private game reserve which only the land owners could access.

“A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints.” ~ Wilfred Peterson

Selati Game Reserve comprises a group of like-minded conservation oriented land owners who took down the internal fences to allow the free movement of wildlife within the reserve. The reserve now has only an external fence. Selati Game Reserve is located west of Kruger National Park between Gravelotte and Mica in the Limpopo Province.

Source: tembalodges.co.uk

Selati Game Reserve comprises an area of around 30 000 hectares and has the Ga-Selati river flowing from west to east through the reserve.

“You must go on adventures to find out where you truly belong” ~ Sue Fitzmaurice

Recently several landowners in Selati decided to open up their lodges to commercial operation creating the opportunity for us to be able to visit the game reserve. Klipspringer Lodge is beautifully located against a granite outcrop which is home to a family of Klipspringers. The lodge is well appointed with a verdant oasis in the bushveld.

Below the Klipspringer Lodge, the owners have built a photographic hide. CNP teamed up with the lodge owners to provide night lights and camera supports to be able to photograph wildlife day and night from the hide.

Up at 5h30 on our first morning we were keen to see what would come to the waterhole in the early morning. We were fortunate enough to have three Spotted hyaenas visit. The sun had not yet risen and their stay was brief. In fact the sun did not show its face much as the weather was generally overcast during our stay at Klipspringer.

Although there are lions and leopards in Selati Nature Reserve we did not get to hear them or see them during our stay. Presumably there were other water sources which they found more compelling.

I had never seen an adult hyaena get down on its foreleg knees to drink water. All the while they were very alert and stopped drinking to listen at any slight sound.

Several Grey duiker came down to drink at the waterhole night and day. Duiker are generally nocturnal and quite shy. There seemed to be a pair of Grey duikers around the waterhole with several individuals coming in to drink early in the morning and at night. Only the male has horns but the female is larger than the male.

On the odd occasion when the sun showed its face the drinkers were beautifully reflected in the still water. The duiker feeds mainly on leaves, but is one of the few antelope known to eat carrion and insects.

There are 21 species of duiker and the Grey duiker is one of the largest. Duikers in the genus Cephalophus have the same distinctive body type, although the different species vary in size. They have low-slung bodies on slender legs, wedge-shaped heads topped by a crest of long hair, and relatively large eyes. Environment and habitat influence the overall body shape and colouration of animals. As a consequence, duiker living in an open habitat are longer-legged, less hunchbacked, and lighter in color (tawny or grey) than the species that inhabit dense, dark forests.

Moderate sized impala herds frequently came to drink at the waterhole. They were quite skittish and tended to easily scare each other. There are two types of impala, the Common and Black-faced. Only the Common was abundant in the woodlands of Selati.

When viewing an impala from the side you will notice a marked difference in the shading pattern on the back of the animal, which becomes increasing lighter towards the underside. This biological camouflage serves to break up the 3-dimensional form of the animal, aiding in background matching with their environment. Impala are the only antelope species to have metatarsal glands above the hoof of the hind legs. It has thought that the scent released from this gland may act as a chemical cue for other herd members to follow during a chase.

Impala tend to be most active during the day. They congregate in three distinct social groups from territorial males with their harem of females to bachelor herds and female herds. Most of the time we saw herds of females interspersed with juvenile males. There was no snorting or fighting by rutting males which is so evident during the rutting period in April and May.

The kudu found in southern Africa are Greater kudu. Lesser kudu are found in central and the drier regions of north eastern Africa. Greater kudu live in clans which are social groups of about seven to ten individuals. These clans consist of adult females, juveniles, and adult males less than two years old.

A beautiful female kudu at the waterhole – constantly alert. I have never found out why several African antelope have white lips such as the Kudu, Eland, Impala, Water buck, Reedbuck, Roan and Sable antelope. Mother nature always has a reason, I just have not found it yet.

Kudu, like Nyala, are sexually dimorphic meaning the male and female of the same species are different in physical appearance. The Kudu male has horns and the female does not have horns. The Kudu female is generally larger than a Nyala female and greyer in colour. They both have white stripes down their sides but the Nyala’s stripes are more numerous and distinct and the Nyala female does not have a ridge of white hair along her spine and a brown mane along her neck.

A Nyala bull has corkscrew horns with a yellow tip. It has a thick dark brown coat. Both male and female Nyala have white spots on their checks below their eyes. The white chevron marking between the male’s eyes is thought to be for camouflage purposes breaking up the shape of the face in the light and dark areas of a woodland thicket.

The male Nyala’s legs are particularly colourful being dark brown on his thighs, black knees and ochre coloured calves with black fetlocks and hooves. A male Nyala horns are around 70cm in length and have one to two spirals depending on its age.

A male Nyala can be particularly aggressive. Their threatening posture is to arch their back, fluff up their tails and and raise their dorsal manes. I have even seen a male Nyala threaten a Sable bull with this dominance posture.

The Nyala female has a distinctive chestnut pelage with many more white body strips than a Kudu and white spots on its belly and upper thighs.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Any antelope smaller than a Nyala male is a ram and larger is a bull. A similar idea applies to a Nyala female where any antelope smaller is a ewe and any antelope larger is a cow.

Although a giraffe has seven vertebra in its neck, the same as a human, each vertebra is around 25cm long. Even with its exceptionally long neck and a tongue around 46 cm in length, it is too short to reach the ground to drink of water, so the giraffe has to spread its legs and bend down in an awkward position that makes it vulnerable to predators. Giraffe do not need to drink water every day as they get most of their water from the leaves they feed on.

Looks can be deceiving. Looking at the front legs, a giraffe’s elbow (joint between humerus and ulna) is the top joint and what looks to be the elbow is in fact its wrist ( joint between the ulna and metacarpus).

Pelage patterns are important in distinguishing giraffe sub-species. The pelage is medium-to-reddish brown, broken into splotches by buff-colored borders. Blotches of some individuals (particularly males) tend to darken with age. Every giraffe has a unique pelage pattern much like a human fingerprint and does not change with age.

“The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.” ~ Anonymous

Until recently, it was widely recognised that there was only one species of giraffe, and nine subspecies. New genetic research, conducted by Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) and partners, has shown that there are in fact four distinct species of giraffe, and five subspecies. All four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout. Source: giraffeconservation.org

The South African giraffe has star-shaped patches in various shades of brown, surrounded by a light tan colour. Their lower legs are randomly speckled with uneven spots.

Giraffe are always very cautious when approaching a waterhole. They can stand and watch wait and listen for many minutes before they are satisfied it is safe to approach the water. Male giraffe tend to be taller than females and a female’s ossicones are normally smaller than a males and tuffed with hair. This group looked to be females.

An adult bull Kudu has two complete spirals with a striking ridge on each horn. Dominance ranking between males is based on age; males emphasise their size by hunching their backs and raising their manes, but posturing usually sorts out the dominance ranking. They will only start sparring if they are equal size.

You can tell a Kudu’s age by the direction of the tips of the horns: If the tips point back and out, for instance, the male is about 3 three years old. The number of twists in its spiral horns signal its age with a fully mature male having two and a half to three full twists. The horns do not begin to grow until the bull reaches 6–12 months, twisting once at around two-years-of-age and not reaching the full two-and-a-half twists until the age of six.

Kudus have excellent vision and hearing. They communicate mostly through sight and sound. They follow each others’ scent trails. Body signals, such as flashing the white undersides of their tails, are used to indicate the movements and presence of predators. Kudus have a loud bark to warn others of danger and this can be heard for quite a distance through the thick fauna of the bushveld.

The Eland were very wary during the day and preferred to visit the waterhole at night. This appeared to be a young male judging from the stout spiral horns and emerging hair on his forehead and growing dewlap. Unfortunately he did not stay long and never came in to drink at the waterhole during the day.

It is only the young warthogs that have hair on their bodies which they lose as they get older. There mane grows down their neck and along their spine. Females can produce up to eight piglets. These piglets are favourite snacks for lions and leopards. Piglets are weaned around four months and mature around 20 months.

A male warthog with a few followers. This character has five Red-billed oxpeckers enjoying the ride. This male had particularly long tusks making him a formidable prey for any lion or leopard. The not so attractive warts on his face have an important protection role when he is fighting. Common warthogs have two upper and four to six lower incisors.

The hide turned out to be a superb place from which to observe and photograph wildlife during the day and at night. The mirrorless cameras, on silent mode, are ideal and providing photographers are not talking or rustling bags or papers, the wildlife takes no notice of them in the hide.

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

A big advantage of the hide is repeat business. If you are getting to grips with a new camera as I was with my Olympus OMD-E M1X, and missed the shot or needed to refine settings, there would always be another opportunity in the next few days. The hide is a wonderful place to put your new ideas or settings into practice.

“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” ~ Eric Roth

There was a plethora of wildlife during the day and at night with a huge diversity of mammals and birds. The lighting conditions varied enormously during the day due to the cloudy weather with intermittent patches of sunshine. The night lights created constant light at a constant colour.

“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” ~ John Muir

My next blog is about the numerous sable antelope which are a feature of Selati Game Reserve.

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu – young wanderer

It was our last game drive in Mashatu in south east Botswana in August 2021. At that time of the year, the mornings were chilly but the days warmed up beautifully. Every morning we met for coffee and a rusk at 6h00. It was still dark and the idea was to leave camp at first light around 6h30 to be in the reserve at sunrise. It took at least forty five minutes to make our way down to the Majale river where we knew the wildlife sightings would improve. In winter wildlife is forced to congregate around the remaining pools of water in the Majale river. The leopards tend to centre their activities in this area because of the abundance of game and wonderful enormous trees to hide and lie in during the heat of the day.

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” ~Heraclitus.

We were ambling along, wondering what we would see next when we were privileged to come upon a young male leopard. At around 22 months, the sub-adult leopard should be independent of his mother. Each young male is forced out of his natal territory, away from his mother and out of the sanctuary of his father’s territory. Beyond his familiar boundaries he is forced to fend for himself. His new reality is harsh, now alone he has to survive and thrive despite many arch enemies, such as lions and hyaenas and territorial male leopards.

It is estimated that a young male, independent of its mother can venture up to 24km from his home territory in search of new areas, scouting new hunting areas while trying to avoid other predators. Leopard cubs normally leave their mother when they are between 12 and 18 months’ old. The males leave earlier, while female cubs may stay near their natal range for longer. Leopards reach sexual maturity around 24 to 28 months but rarely breed before three to four years of age. After about four and a half years, these now mature male leopards, which have survived battles, injury, hunger, conflict, and tangles with lions and hyaenas, start to challenge for their own territory. With fortitude they will progressively dominate that area and take over female leopards and their territories.

“Imagine for only a moment what this world would be like if change did not occur. You may say life was simpler, yes in some cases that is right. But just as children grow, we grow with change. Imagine trying to stop a child from growing up, it is impossible to do. Accepting change as a way of life allows you to continue to develop and move forward.”~ Catherine Pulsifer

This young male looked to be around two to two-and-a-half years’ old. Alone, he was wandering along the river course. He stopped regularly to rest and lie on fallen tree trunks. There, he would just listen and observe what was going on around him.

The colours of winter, with its browns, oranges and yellows, enabled this male leopard to blend beautifully into his surroundings.

He walked into a croton grove which provided dappled light and great camouflage. In the grove he found a sign post and spent some time reading the scents left on the tree trunk. Satisfied that all was well he sharpened his claws on the tree trunk leaving his own scent. Leopards have interdigital glands on their paws and leave their scent by reaching up to scratch trees with their claws at just above eye level.

“Sensory perception is the silken web that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.” ~ David Abram

Tree-clawing or scratching have been interpreted as conveying a variety of signals, from territorial marking to simple sharpening of claws. Scratching leaves traces of interdigital glands which act as chemical signals and the visual claw marks give an indication of the size and strength of the leopard.

This male was very active. It was not enough to read the “sign post” as had to climb the tree. Perhaps there was the faint scent of an old kill in the tree which caught his attention.

Once up the tree he had a good lookout. Leopards are supremely adapted to the arboreal habitat. Finding a comfortable horizontal branch he stopped sat down and just watched all the goings on around him.

After spending some time observing from his high lookout he decided to come back to terra firma. He then decided to walk parallel to the Majale river bank around 20 metres in from the bank. He had plenty of cover and many big trees to escape into if he unexpectedly bumped into lions or hyaenas.

It is fascinating to watch a leopard wander along the top of a river bank. It is clear he is walking through a world of sensory impulses. Smells and sounds guide him along his path.

On his way down to the Majale river he crossed several small sand tributaries which when flowing fed into the Majale. The beauty of the sandy background is that it presented the leopard in an uncluttered background. The shape of his face suggests this will be a large male leopard when he is fully grown.

“We live in a world which in some respects is mysterious, things can be experienced which remain inexplicable, not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world, only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.”~ Carl Jung.

In an interesting article from the Pondoro website at Pondoro.co.za. , the reasons for scent marking might be anyone of the following:

  • territorial advertising to inform other leopards of their presence.
  • a female might mark more regularly than normal to advertise her going into oestrus.

The function would be to either avoid (it acts a warning to stay away from the territory) or to find each other more easily (mating).

Scent marking can be done in a variety of ways:

  • the spraying of urine upwards and horizontally onto trees and bushes.
  • marking with interdigital glands by clawing the bark of trees just above eye level, but still easily visible.
  • marking by raking the ground with their hind claws leaving their scent with interdigital glands.
  • reaching up to prominent branches situated just above eye level and rubbing against it with scent glands on their cheeks and heads. Cats have sebaceous glands that coat their hair and skin with an oily secretion. Grooming the fur by their roughly barbed tongue stimulate these glands that are attached to the roots to release secretions. These secretions waterproof the fur, and by rubbing against something, a chemical signature would also be left behind.

These scent markings can persist for weeks. Leopards are also creatures of habit and will mark the same trees and bushes while patrolling well worn trails. A leopard scent marking with glands on the head and cheeks would be done as high as possible to try and amplify their height or size.

Leopards of both sexes patrol their ranges and scent-mark trees, bushes and rocks with urine mixed with anal gland secretions. Scraping, urine-spraying and tree-clawing are most commonly used by leopards

Eventually he walked down into one of the larger tributaries feeding into the Majale river. The landscape view shows the wonderful camouflage that his rossetted coat offers him.

After walking for quite a while he decided to lie down and rest. His resting place gave him a good view along the tributary.

He lay on the edge of the tributary for quite a while. Although his head and eyes were stationary his ears were constantly moving backwards, forwards and sideways accessing the direction and nature of the sounds around him.

In his wanderings he did not cross paths with any potential prey. Eventually as the winter morning started to heat up he climbed into a Mashatu tree where it looked as though he was going to rest for the day.

Once a leopard has settled down to sleep on an elevated tree bough it looks supremely comfortable. No lions or hyaenas can get at it. It will be a peaceful rest provided a troop of baboons do not see him.

It was a privilege to spend an hour or so following this wandering leopard. The leopards in Mashatu are, for the most part, habituated to game vehicles and take little notice of them. The game vehicles are allowed to drive off-road which allows guests to follow a leopard in its wanderings. This provides exceptional photographic opportunities.

“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” ~ Bertrand Russell.

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu’s winter avian residents

This post shows a small selection for birds you can see in winter in Mashatu. These are all resident as the migrants have flown north to warmer climes.

“There is something exciting about waiting quietly for winged visitors. You know they are coming but you never know who will be next. Most visitors arrive quietly and some arrive like winged wild jewels.” ~ Mike Haworth

A pair of Jameson’s firefinches. The adult male has entirely scarlet plumage apart from brownish wings. The female has a scarlet tinge but is “browner”. Their beaks are steel blue. The beak shape indicates that they are seed-eaters.

A female Jameson’s firefinch taking a bath around midday at Rock Camp. This image was taken from the patio which offers a good view of the bird bath. Usually, at the lodge, once we have had brunch, friends go back to their room for a siesta. The human activity around the patio at the main lodge quietens and the bird activity picks up. As with all things birding a good dose of patience is required – but the rewards are great.

For the first time in a decade I saw a pair of Black-faced waxbills come down to drink at Rock Camp’s bird bath. When photographing birds around the bird bath near the main lodge patio one has to pay attention all the time. Many of the birds do not make a sound and fly in quickly and quietly to have a drink. The birds fly onto a branch close to the bird bath. They will have a good look around to check and see if the area around the bird bath is safe to drink.

A bevy of blue waxbills. These are frequent visitors to the camp’s bird bath. Waxbills, Bulbuls and Sparrows return every hour or so to drink at the bird bath.

A juvenile Black-headed oriole. This one of the more colourful species frequenting the camp’s bird bath. These orioles are usually heard well before they are seen, but when they come close the bird bath they are quick and quiet.

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” ~Aaron Siskind

An adult Black-headed oriole. This oriole has vivid colours with a bright yellow body and a black head with a red eye and pinkish red beak. Once you have heard this oriole in the vicinity of the camp it is a case of watching out for flashes of vivid yellow in the surrounding trees. The shape of the oriole’s beak indicates that it is an insect and fruit eater.

A single Double-banded sandgrouse chick hiding in the sand and short dead grass. The size of this chick was about the length of my thumb. The camouflage was superb. The parents quickly moved away from the chick to divert attention from it. The chick instinctively knows to lie still in the dead grass to maximise the effectiveness of its camouflage.

The male Double-banded sandgrouse moved away from his chick as soon as he saw us to divert our attention away from the chick. The female did the same thing.

An adult Black stork. This is a widespread but uncommon stork species. It has mainly black plumage with a white belly. The black plumage has an iridescent green and mauve tinge. It has vivid red legs and a red beak and eye ring. The Black stork prefers more wooded areas than the White stork which favours open grasslands.

An adult female Cape weaver. The female has a less complete yellow plumage with white underparts. Its head and back are yellow like the male’s colouring. The eye is a pale colour unlike the red eye of the Southern masked weaver. The beak is a dark brown upper mandible and light pinkish mandible. The beak is longer and more pointed than the masked weavers.

An adult female Red-billed firefinch. Females have uniformly brown upperparts and buff underparts. There is a small red patch in front of both eyes, and the beak is pink. The adult male has entirely scarlet plumage apart apart from his wings which are a light brown. Firefinches are frequent visitors drink at the bird bath during the day. They normally come to drink in small groups.

“Photography helps people to see.” ~ Berenice Abbott

An adult Natal spurfowl. We only see Crested and Natal spurfowl come into the camp to drink. For some unknown reason we never see Swainson’s spurfowl in camp. The Natal spurfowl has a mottled brown back plumage. The underpart plumage has a brown and white marbled scaled appearance. This spurfowl has distinctive yellow nostrils with a bright orange-red bill and legs. Each spurfowl has a different loud and raucous call.

An adult Kori bustard walking away – as they always do. A Kori will tend to stride away from you as fast as it can but being a heavy bird will fly if pushed. It is the heaviest flying bird in in Africa and can weigh as much as 19 kilograms.

A Tawny eagle on the lookout from the top of a tall tree for any potential prey. This is one of the few resident eagles in Mashatu. Others include Martial, Verreaux, African Hawk-eagle, and Snake eagles. I have not seen Bateleur eagles flying over Mashatu.

The beautifully coloured Lilac-breasted roller. There are many in Mashatu and they can usually be seen on prominent lookouts watching carefully for insect and small reptile prey. I have also infrequently seen Purple rollers and once seen a Broad-billed roller.

A White-fronted bee-eater, one of the only two species of bee-eater resident in this part of the world. The other is the Little bee-eater. During winter the Carmine and European bee-eaters fly north in search of greater insect activity in warmer climes.

“Snaps are images of what you were looking at. Photographs are images of what you anticipated, experienced and wanted to reveal.” ~ Mike Haworth

A juvenile Verreaux eagle-owl very interested in its surroundings There is a family of Verreaux eagle-owls resident in the grove of Apple leaf trees next to the rock outcrop near Rock Camp close to the Pont Drift border area. We saw these eagle-owls first thing each morning on our way out of camp into the reserve.

A Crimson-breasted shrike. Its distinctive scarlet red underparts and black upperparts are diagnostic. The wings are black with a white streak in its primary feathers. It prefers the dry thorn veld areas. There is no sexual dimorphism. I was told by our guide that a yellow morph has been seen in the reserve but I have only ever seen one at White river near Kruger Park.

“You just have to live and life will give you pictures.” ~ Henri Cartier Bresson

An adult Sabota lark with its distinctive white streak above the eye and strongly streaked on the breast.

An adult female White-browed Sparrow-weaver with her distinctive white eyebrow and light spots and her breast and a light horn coloured beak. The male has a black beak.

We watched this melanistic Gabar goshawk hunting Queleas in a thick thorn bush. It was a real game of “cat and mouse”. We never saw it catch a Quelea. The traditional plumage of a Gabar goshawk consists a light grey head, neck and back feathers. The tail has white and dark brown barring and the belly and covert underparts and legs to its knee have white feathers with grey streaks. The legs from the knee to the feet are an orange pink as is the cere and top of the beak. The Gabar goshawk seems to prefer to hunt queleas, sparrow and weavers.

Just a few of the hundred of thousands of Red-billed queleas which had flown up to the Shepherds bush for safety after having been foraging on the ground for seeds.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” ~Elliott Erwitt

An adult Burchell’s Coucal judging from the fine barring on the lower belly feathers. You can see it was quite cool that morning as it was all puffed up trying to keep warm. Smaller birds do not like this coucal as it is a voracious hunter and will feed on their eggs and young if it can find them. This is one member of the coucal family that remains resident in Mashatu all year round.

A male Saddle-billed stork was fishing in the waterhole in front of our camp, Rock Camp. He managed to catch frogs and this small terrapin which he eventually subdued and swallowed whole. There is sexual dimorphism in this species. Both male and females have the bright yellow saddle on the upper part of the upper mandible. The male has a yellow throat wattle and black eye. The female has a yellow eye ring but no yellow throat wattle.

These were just a few of the wide variety of avian species you can see in Mashatu Nature Reserve in winter. There is a marked seasonality in the variety of birds you will see in Mashatu with the numbers swelling significantly once the migrants return in the warmer summer months. Enthusiastic birders regularly see 120 to 145 birds species in the few days they are in Mashatu.

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” ~ Steve McCurry

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu’s winter scenes

Mashatu Nature Reserve is located in the Tuli Bloc in south east Botswana in southern Africa. This reserve hosts several different ecosystems. It has huge seasonal variation being very dry during winter which makes it dusty at times and it looks like a moonscape. In mid-summer, the rains make it look like the garden of Eden. With the rains everything turns green and the devil thorn flowers carpet the landscape in yellow.

“Jobs fill your pocket but adventures fill your soul.” ~ Jamie Lyn

Last winter was unusual. There had been good rains right up till April. This helped build up the water resources in the vlei, which is a marshy area with shallow ponds of water. There have been winters in Mashatu when the vlei area was bone dry offering no greenery and no nourishment for the wildlife.

There are many predators in Mashatu ranging from lion and leopard to hyaena and jackals to insect eaters like Aardwolf and Bat-eared foxes. I am told there are Honey badgers but I have never seen one. There are many Black-backed jackal. When they are not following a larger predator hoping for an easy meal, they are opportunistic omnivores. They cooperatively hunt small antelopes and also eat reptiles, insects, ground-dwelling birds, fruits, berries, and even grass. The large male warthog partially obscured in the background was not potential prey as he was strong, fast and had large tusks which could inflict serious damage on a lion or leopard.

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

The Majale is the main river coursing its way through the Mashatu Nature Reserve. Although the surface water in the river dries up during winter, the water table is high. Pools of stagnant water remain usually at bends in the river which tend to be the deepest sections. Over the decades the river has steadily gouged its way through the soft soil creating deep banks.

The Majale river, although dry in winter, has many Apple leaf, Leadwood and Mashatu trees which send their roots deep into the ground to access water even in the driest of winters. These trees remain green and provide home to many species of birds, baboons and many leopards.

Just when you think that there is nothing moving along the dry river banks you may be in for a surprise. On one occasion while driving along the river bed came we rounded a bend in the Majale river only to find this beautiful young female leopard sitting on the top of the river bank looking out along the river. She was relaxed and just taking in all the signs and signals, attentive alert and ready for anything.

Close to our camp, Rock Camp, is a large rock outcrop which attracts Klipspringer, Dassies and leopards, and the occasional pairs of African hawk-eagles and Verreaux eagles looking for easy Dassie prey.

In winter, when the vlei is still green, it attracts an abundance of wildlife. The elephants seem particularly partial to the vlei where there is ample food for them. Sunset during winter can produce some vivid colours as the setting sun turns into a reddish ball as it sinks through the dust laden atmosphere. As the sun sets and the landscape darkens a peace descends. It is an in-between time and it brings a stillness to the bush.

“Fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell not stuff to know.” ~ Anonymous

In winter the elephants don’t usually drink the stagnant water but will dig into the sand with their tusks or feet to make a same shallow well to access water. The water table along the river is close to the surface of the river bed and by digging a hole the water filters through the sand into the hole. The filtered water seems to be much more palatable to the elephants.

Winter is a time for dust devils and also huge flocks of Red-billed queleas. They flock like a swarm of locusts and make quite a noise when they are on the move. They are seedeaters so fly down from the trees on mass to feed on the seeds in the dusty soil and when disturbed, on mass, fly off to the nearest trees.

While many animals and birds congregate during winter for protection at the waterholes others remain shy and solitary. This male Steenbok presented himself for a few seconds then disappeared back into the underground possibly to rejoin his female.

Along the Majale river you will find massive Mashatu trees, also called Nyala Berry trees. The deep shade provided by the Mashatu tree provides a wonderful resting and hiding place for leopards. They do not always get their own way because the baboons also like the Mashatu trees and a troop of baboons with several large males can be a serious threat to a leopard. This particular leopardess had come down from the tree to lure the approaching troop of baboons away from her cub which was still up in the Mashatu tree.

Mashatu is home to many elephants. They travel to the higher ground at night and return down to the river surrounds during the day. Thankfully over the years the elephants have learned that they have nothing to fear from humans in the reserve and are relaxed around the game vehicles.

The waterhole in front of Rock Camp is close to the Limpopo river and is a magnet for thirsty wildlife in winter. The elephant herd drink first, then cool themselves by throwing water sucked up in their trunk then blowing it over their head, sides and back.

The behaviour of the big things is interesting but so too are the little things. Winter mornings bring back the warmth after a cold night. These banded mongooses huddled together in the cold morning air trying to warm up in the sun.

New males have deposed the resident male lion in the last six months and the resident lionesses seem to have accepted them with the large handsome erstwhile male pushed out into the adjacent Charter reserve.

The Majale river is a place where elephant families congregate. There is never any fighting – each family respects the space of the next family. Oh, if only we humans could learn a few lessons in tolerance and respect for others from these elephants.

There are many Eland in the reserve but they are skittish, as most Eland are. There females usually bolt away first with the large darker males following them.

During winter, the vlei attracts not only family herds of elephants but many herbivores. This is the last area in the reserve which is still green.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste it, to experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

The vlei has many moods which change according to the time of day and the direction of the sunlight. In the distance is a series of sandstone ridges which stretch from Mapungubwe in South Africa to Mmagwa next to the Motloutse river in Mashatu.

One evening we were having sundowners on a small spit which protruded into the vlei. After happily chatting and enjoying the sundowners for about three quarters of an hour we got back into the game vehicle. Having spent a wonderful cocktail hour watching the sun setting were finished feeling relaxed and at peace with the world. One hundred metres away from where we had been having sundowners were a coalition of the three young male lions lying in the grass just watching us. When in the bush you must always remain alert and aware of your surroundings. You need to show infinite respect for that in between time when the large predators come into their own having exceptional night vision and having rested the whole day.

We return to Mashatu often, Covid restrictions allowing. It is the same place but the experience is never the same. The seasonal changes, the mood changes, and the wildlife dynamics change. Some wildlife moves in from Zimbabwe and while others move back into Zimbabwe. Migrants have moved north during the southern African winter. The different complexion of the bush is fascinating.

Mashatu allows a unique off-road experience in the bush. There are several quite different ecosystems which attract their own system of wildlife. You will never see the same thing in the same place twice.

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

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

Have fun, Mike

Mashatu’s leopardesses

It was such a good feeling to be back in the bush again in Mashatu. All your senses are enlivened. The bush is a busy place with wildlife active wherever you look. Those familiar smells return. You can smell the dust and the wild sage.

“I learned that the richness of life is found in adventure … It develops self-reliance and independence. Life then teems with excitement. There is stagnation only in security.” ~ William O. Douglas

This post illustrates two encounters with leopardesses. We found the first female asleep on the ground in a gully. If we had not driven right up to her we would never have seen her lying there.

On the ground she was vulnerable but it was in the late afternoon so she had possibly come down from her arboreal resting place. Leopards often look as though they are asleep but they are aware of what is going on around them. The twitch of the ear and occasional flick of her tail suggested that she was just resting. Then all of a sudden a sound or a smell, neither of which we were aware of, roused her.

It took a few minutes to work out that it was neither food nor another predator after which she got up and started to wander through the brush on the edge of a large patch of wild sage. Leopards have long tails which are used in a variety of ways to express their mood, to communicate or for balance.

Leopards epitomise independence, strength, cunning and self reliance. Their camouflage adds to their mystery, moving in the shadows and in the darkest hours.” ~ Mike Haworth

Now fully awake she was in full sensory mode walking through the bush without making a sound. There were also no squirrels, spur fowl or guineafowl to alert the world to her presence.

This leopardess stopped at what must have been an important anthill. She spent quite some time smelling all the messages left by previous passers by.

“The best things in life must come by effort from within, not by gifts from the outside.” – Fred Corson

We have learnt from leopards to sit quietly and just try and sense what is around us. She stood for many minutes just looking and listening. Those ears constantly moving and tracking sounds around her. As soon as something caught her attention her tail would start to flick.

The prominent white tip to the leopard’s tail is thought to exist so her cubs can follow her in thick bush and grass which can be above the cubs’ heads. The position and movement of a leopard’s tail tells a lot about its mood and intention. A lowered tail with the tip moving from side to side can signal attention and interest. A raised tail is like a white flag usually signals that she has given up on the hunt. The swift whip of a leopardess’ tail away from a cub, signals irritation. Of course when climbing trees, the tail is an important feature for balance.

If the ground is wet or she is on the hunt, a leopardess will often seek a spot off the ground which provides a better view, such as a fallen tree or anthill.

“Learn to depend upon yourself by doing things in accordance with your own thinking.” – Grenville Kleiser

In the afternoon, once a leopard has come down from a tree it might have slept in for most of the day, it will gather itself before moving off in search of prey. Just before moving off, a leopard will usually yawn a few times then stretch and scratch its claws on the tree.

The scratching of the claws on the tree trunk sharpens the claws, scrapes parasites off her paw pads which helps reduce infection and is thought to stretch the ligaments in the paws to ensure full flexibility. Leopards, like most cats, also have an interdigital gland, which they use to scent mark when they scratch trees.

On a separate occasion, around mid-morning, we found a leopardess and her adolescent cub up a large Mashatu tree on the bank of the Majale river. They seemed to be feeding on the remains of a carcass which we could not see. This female was instantly on high alert when she heard a troop of baboons approaching.

From her arboreal lookout she could locate the exact position of the baboons and the direction they were moving.

“Pick you battles. You do not have to show up to every argument you’re invited to.”~ Mandy Haley

The cub stopped feeding and also found a position from which to observe the potential approaching threat.

As soon the the leopardess assessed that the baboons were indeed coming toward them, she began to descend the massive Mashatu tree.

She assessed the baboons to be a clear threat. She left the cub up the tree. As she descended, she stopped to have a good look at the troop of baboons.

“Be selective in your battles, don’t make every problem a war.”~ anonymous

The last section of the tree was steep so she descended it front first. The baboons would easily be able to climb this massive Mashatu tree and having found the cub would mob it and the large male baboon would try to kill it.

Her posture says it all. She was well aware of the threat.

Leopards are independent self reliant and cunning ambush predators. They are also outnumbered by a troop of baboons which can kill a leopard. There are usually many large male baboons in a large troop and they are the greatest danger.

The tail twitching and low snarl showed her irritation towards the baboons. She would never have attacked the troop on the ground but she had a plan.

As the baboons got closer the leopardess moved off along the top of the Majale river bank and positioned herself in a thicket where the baboons would not be able to get to her. This was also a diversionary tactic to lead the baboons away from her cub in the Mashatu tree.

“You cannot change how people treat you or what they say about you. All you can do is change how you react to it.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

As cunning, stealthy, self reliant and strong as leopards are, they do not have it all their own way. They are masters of camouflage and ambush but there are many eyes and ears in the bush. If it is not baboons harassing them during the day, it is squirrels letting the whole world know where the leopard is positioned. Spurfowl and guineafowl also make a racket when they spot a leopard. In areas where there are numerous impala, duiker and steenbok they are the preferred prey and baboons make up only a very low percentage of kills. After nightfall leopards come into their own and have a significant advantage in the hunt. Leopards occasionally hunt baboons at night. During leopard attacks baboons seek refuge in the tallest available trees and outer most branches which are difficult to access.

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

Have, fun,

Mike

Mashatu- a return after lockdown

In August 2021, we were able to return to Mashatu for the first time since the lockdown in mid-March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was soul refreshing to get back into the African bush. Many things had changed and many stayed the same.

“Winter in southern Africa is dry. The mornings are icy and the days warm. The smell of the bush brings back the familiarity where associations stray. Drying waterholes force wildlife to congregate and queleas to swarm.” ~ Mike Haworth

August is the last month of winter in southern Africa. It is the driest time of the year and the Tuli Block in south eastern Botswana is especially dry. It is a place of varied ecosystems and great seasonal variations. During winter, Mashatu can resemble a moonscape in places because it is so dry. By contrast in mid-summer, the rains transform this very dry place into what looks like the garden of Eden which is verdant green and the open plains are carpeted with yellow Devil Thorn flowers and there is a sense of abundance.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you have changed” ~ Nelson Mandela

The one aspect that had changed was that the resident lone male lion was kicked out of his territory by three young nomad males. The next image shows one of the new males lying down after having fed well on an eland kill. The male kept an eye on the surroundings while his newly bonded lionesses fed.

One aspect of Mashatu you can always be sure of is it’s eclectic wildlife. Back in camp at the bird bath a juvenile Black-headed oriole came in for a short drink.

Blue waxbills were enjoying a bath a midday in the camp’s bird bath.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.”~ Henry David Thoreau

There is a waterhole about seventy metres from the camp’s main lodge which during winter attracts wildlife varying from elephants to kudu and herons. This was one member of a bachelor herd of three young kudu bulls which came down for a drink that day.

Back at the camp’s birdbath a pair of Black-cheeked waxbills came in for a drink. This was the first time I had seen this species of waxbill in camp in over ten years. They drank quickly and were gone, not to be seen again for the rest of our stay.

The adult Black-headed oriole also came in for a drink. This species frequents the camp and its fluted call can often be heard. Its bright yellow plumage stands out like a jewel against the browns and oranges of the dry winter bush.

“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie

A male steenbok in the afternoon sun. We did not see his female who might have been in the dense thickets behind him.

Our guide and driver, Justice, has the most incredible eyesight. He found one of the two chicks of a Double-banded sandgrouse on the ground hidden in some dry grass. He picked up on the parent’s decoy tactics and started to look carefully for the chicks.

” Mother nature is the most inspired, devious and wily artist.” ~ Mike Haworth

The chicks lie dead still in the grass and are beautifully camouflaged. This little chick was probably the size of my thumb so we were fortunate to see it. The parent sandgrouse quickly move away from the chicks who don’t move in the dry grass. The parents try to lure any potential threat away from their chicks.

“The world is not to be put in order. The world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” ~ Henry Miller

We usually leave camp around 6h30 in winter because the sun rises later. On our way out we pass a large rock outcrop and adjacent to the outcrop is a grove of large apple leaf trees. There is a family of Verreaux eagle owls that are resident in this area.

Mashatu is known for its excellent leopard sightings, and this trip was no exception. We were driving in the dry Majale riverbed when we came upon this young leopardess just sitting on the top of the river bank watching the passing parade.

The background was very messy so it was difficult to get a really good shot of the young leopardess but after a while she lay down on the dusty ground at the top of the river bank to enjoy the warmth of the sun in the early winter morning.

“On an icy African winter morn all wildlife seeks a safe spot to absorb the warmth of the sun radiating through the clear blue sky.” ~ Mike Haworth

One member of the new reigning male lion coalition lying in the shade having already had his fill of eland, he was listening to the lionesses feeding behind him and also keeping guard.

One feature of Mashatu in winter is the massing of queleas. They seem to swarm on the ground moving like locusts. They are seed eaters and move in massive flocks of hundreds of thousands.

It was wonderful to be able to get back into the bush again. The trip was not without its challenges. The closest border post, Ponte Drift, was closed so we had to travel via Martin’s Drift from Johannesburg to Botswana which added an extra three and a half hours to our drive, but it was worth it. The wildlife was oblivious of our human travails and seemed to have thrived in our absence.

“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 interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Collared Pratincoles

The Collared Pratincole, also known as the Common Pratincole or Red-winged Pratincole, is a wader in the pratincole family, Glareolidae. As with other pratincoles, it is native to the “Old World”. The “Old World” generally refers to Africa, Asia, and Europe. It has a Latin name Gareloa Pratincola where the term “glarea” means gravel as these birds are frequently found foraging or roosting in open gravel-like fields or floodplains.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” ~Mark Twain.

There are four types of pratincole species, the Oriental, Collared or Red-winged, Black-winged Pratincole and Rock Pratincole. The Collared and Rock species are found along the Chobe river. The Collared can be often seen on the banks of Sedudu Island in the Chobe river just up river from Kasane. The Rock Pratincole is found mainly on rocks in fast-flowing rivers. These pratincoles are usually found on the rocks around the Seboba rapids in the Chobe river down river from Kasane. The Rock Pratincole is different to other pratincoles by virtue of its small size, dark colouration, and stripes under the wings. It has a similarly shaped beak to the other pratincoles but has distinct red legs. We did not see any in June as the water level was very high and all the rocks down at the rapids were covered by water.

We typically found flocks of Collared Pratincoles roosting on the sand banks of Sedudu Island along the north channel of the Chobe river as it flowed past the island. It appeared that breeding and incubating had started.

Collared Pratincoles prefer sandbanks, mudflats, and grassy flood plains, especially if adjacent to stretches of water such as lakes, pans or large rivers. In the next image, Collared Pratincoles can be seen roosting on a narrow sand bank which was on the route taken by buffaloes and elephants moving along the northern section of Sedudu Island. Every time buffalo or elephants passed by, they took flight until the threat had passed and then returned to the same place to roost.

Breeding season is from June-December, peaking from October-December. The Collared Pratincole typically lays one to two eggs which are incubated for around 18 days. The chicks leave the nest after three days and fledge after about 25 days. Like the courser, young pratincoles are precocious, hatching with their eyes open and being able to walk one day after birth. The young birds are well camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings.

These waders have short black legs and a very long-winged “horizontal” profile. Its head is shaped like that of a courser and it has long slender wings like a courser but its legs are very short quite unlike a courser.

The Collared Pratincole is unusual, having migratory populations in both the southern and northern hemispheres. Northern birds breed in open steppes, savannas, and dry mudflats in southern Europe and southwestern Asia, and in winter in Africa. Birds that breed in southern Africa, migrate to northern Africa to spend their non-breeding season. These southern pratincoles breed in southern Africa from June-February, although along the Zambezi River they are known to breed from April-November.

The Collared Pratincole has narrow white trailing edges to wings and dark rusty underwings which distinguishes this species from similar pratincoles. It is easily distinguished by its forked tail and swallow like high aspect ratio wings. High aspect ratio wings have a narrow wingtip area, which creates less vortex induced downwash, which means a lot less induced drag. Accordingly, pratincoles are highly efficient and fast fliers.

They feed mainly in flight, catching prey aerially in a manner similar to swallows sweeping back and forth. The Collared Pratincole does most of its foraging in the evening or on moonlight nights. It will also catch invertebrates on the ground such as grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders and molluscs.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~ Henry David Thoreau.

The Collared Pratincole has a distinctive fawn collared throat and a black collar. Its back and upper area of it wing feathers are brown in colour and its belly is white. All pratincole species have a small sharp beak which is slightly decurved. The beak is red with a black tip. This pratincole has a wide gape typical of an aerial insect hunter, much like a swallow or nightjar.

“Our imagination flies – we are its shadow on the earth.” ~Vladimir Nabokov.

At times in the early morning or evening you might be privileged to watch a pratincole murmuration. This is a amazing spectacle. A murmuration is a large flock of birds that twist, turn, swoop and swirl across the sky in spectacular shape-shifting clouds. The flock moves in unison in what appears to be an aerial dance that reveals flashes of white as they turn to reveal the white of their bellies in the evening light. At first glance it looks as if the murmuration develops just for the sheer delight of flying but there is a less romantic more practical reason for these mass flights. Scientists believe that murmurations offer safety in numbers. The flock normally takes flight when a raptor approaches attracted by the sheer number of birds. Murmurations usually form over the birds’ communal roosting site.

Pratincoles occur in groups and nest in large, loosely structured colonies. Coursers are less social than this and do not nest in colonies. The nests of coursers and pratincoles are simple scrapes made in the open.

“Reason can answer questions, but imagination has to ask them.” ~ Ralph W. Gerard.

I thought I would dedicate a post to these fascinating birds. Once you have seen a pratincole murmuration is will capture your imagination. A closer look reveals a beautiful, delicate and intriguing insectivore which has features of several different birds all in one body. It is a beautiful easy flier just like swallow.

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

This is the last post from our photographic trip with CNP Safaris in June last year to the Chobe river. A big thank you goes to Elana Erasmus our CNP Safari guide and long standing photo-buddy. Elana, you found us some fascinating scenes, positioned the photographic boat really well in order to take full advantage of the sightings, and your knowledge of the Chobe river was a major advantage for your photographic guests. You kept us safe but allowed us to get to dramatic, almost inaccessible scenes in shallow water with tangles of water lilies.

“Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.” ~ Unknown

Mid-winter in the southern Hemisphere is an unusual time because the flood waters are at their peak which alters the character of the river. The river bank changes dramatically forcing much of the wildlife to adapt to the higher water levels. Most of the migratory birds have gone to warmer climes but not all. I have found the Chobe river to have been one of the most productive wildlife destinations in southern Africa. I will be back!

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” ~Carl Sagan.

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s winter wonderland

This post shows a gallery of images which portray the remarkable diversity of life along the Chobe river during June which is mid-winter in southern Africa. The abundance of life, sunshine, colour, and activity is astounding.

“We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.” ~ Robert Macfarlane

A pride of lions on the bank of the Chobe river just upstream of Pygmy goose bend at around 6h30 in the morning.

Last light on the river as we are mooring the photographic boat – another productive photographic day!

A typical scene of a herd of elephants which have chosen to enjoy a salad of water grass and water lily stems rather than walk miles inland looking for food to eat.

A sunset with the iconic three Jackalberry trees standing monumental and silhouetted on a spit of land on Sedudu island.

A breeding herd of elephants drinking together with the little ones in the middle for protection.

The soft pastel colour of dawn travelling quietly on the photographic boat into Jacana alley hoping to see Jacana chicks, crakes, herons, coucals, weavers and bee-eaters.

A sun warmed mudbank in the Chobe river on a winter morning where crocodiles and hippos share nature’s warm peacefully.

Elephant valley around mid morning. This is a gathering point for wildlife to drink and eat the mineral rich white chalk on the river bank.

A breeding herd of elephants drinking and enjoying the mineral rich chalk down at Elephant valley.

The end of another fascinating and inspiring day’s wanderings along the Chobe river.

“There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” ~ Jo Walton

A group of female kudu on the river bank just down river from Chobe Game Lodge. The kudu were eating the mineral rich soil on the river bank.

The three Jackalberry trees standing at the northern most part of Sedudu island at sunset. These trees are home to Fish Eagles and Lilac Breasted Rollers alike.

The abundance of life is everywhere. A bull elephant ahead of the other two bulls disturbed a flock of White-faced Whistling Ducks and Comb Ducks while the Grey Heron looked on impassively.

Travelling back to our mooring at Chobe Safari Lodge. The winter sunsets can produce a dramatic light show due to the dust in the atmosphere.

Expect the unexpected. A pair of mating Water Monitor Lizards on the river bank close to the water’s edge.

Painted skies provide the last light just as we are returning before last light.

A flock of Blue Waxbills next to the water’s edge just down river from Puku flats. These beautiful pastel Blue Waxbills were drinking in relays from this bush.

A pair of intrepid fishermen standing and polling from their makoro fully aware of the massive crocodiles which live in the Chobe’s waters.

“Water is the most perfect traveler because when it travels it becomes the path itself!” — Unknown

A family herd of kudu drinking from the river at elephant’s valley. They are very nervous drinking directly from the river because of the risk of a crocodile attack.

A flock of Collared Pratincoles disturbed by some passing buffalo on the bank of the south channel of Sedudu island.

A splash of hippos were disturbed and rushed for the water where they feel safest.

A Trumpeter Hornbill flying from a fruit tree next to the water’s edge at Chobe safari lodge. An image taken during our breakfast.

A lone Curlew Sandpiper foraging for edibles along the edge of Sedudu island.

A small herd of buffalo making their way west from sandbank to sandbank along the northern channel past Sedudu island.

A scene just upriver from the rapids in the Chobe river. Shortly thereafter the Chobe meets the mighty Zambesi river before the swollen body of water pours over the Victoria falls.

After photographing birds in the trees at the rapids we were traveling back to the lodge at sunset while flocks of waders were returning to their roosting trees in the rapids.

A serene scene with two pairs of Pygmy Geese quietly feeding at the edge of Jacana alley.

When I am travelling on the Chobe river I am constantly amazed at the abundance of wildlife it attracts. Not one morning or afternoon boat trip is the same. Nature is in a constant state of flux. What you see in one place in the morning you may never see it again the same place.

Mother nature perpetually throws up new interactions which generate new understandings and new appreciations which leave me with an overwhelming sense of the wonder, complexity and natural intelligence inherent in this river system.

“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”~ Richard Attenborough

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s winter birdlife

This post shows a selection of the images of birds seen along the Chobe river in June 2021, mid-winter in southern Africa. Almost all the images were taken while on a CNP Safari from CNP’s specialised photographic boat. The perspective from the boat is ideal and the wildlife allows you to get much closer on the water than on land. Winter is obviously a time when all the migrants have flown north for warmer climes where there is more food, especially insects.

“I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.” ~ Lynn Thomson

As a change in format for this post I have decided to show more images with a brief description of the birds. For anyone interested in birds and bird photograph, the Chobe offers wonderful photographic opportunities and should be on the to-do list for all serious bird photographers

A female Comb duck in flight. The angle of the sun dictates whether we see the beautiful iridescence on the wings of not. In this image their was just a hint of the iridescence on the wings.

A pair of White-crowned lapwings noisily declaring their territory.

A Yellow-billed stork returning to its roosting area down near the rapids in the Chobe river below Mowana Lodge late in the afternoon.

A female Blacksmith lapwing sitting on her eggs in the morning on the banks along the Chobe river.

A few White-faced whistling ducks coming to land with a hippo in the background.

A Wire-tailed swallow with its shiny dark blue upperparts, black eye band, chestnut brown crown, white throat and no collar. This species is named for the very long filamentous outermost tail feathers, which trail behind like two wires.

A Water thick-knee bathing in the shallow water at the edge of the river.

An adult Fish eagle in flight scanning the water below for potential prey close to the river’s surface.

A Spurwing goose running to take off and in the process leaving a trail of water splashes.

A Spurwing goose in flight with the spur evident at the elbow joint.

Elegant and radiant in the early morning sun. This African darter was drying its wings while perched on a dead tree stump in the southern channel around the Sedudu island.

From the northern channel around Sedudu island looking east. A flock of White-faced whistling ducks take to flight disturbed by our lingering presence.

The annual floods start in March and peak around June in the winter months. This is a time when a myriad of newly spawned bait fish make their way back into the river, only to be ambushed by shoals of hungry Tiger fish and Catfish waiting for them. That is just what the Fish eagle’s are waiting for.

Two pairs of the diminutive Pygmy geese feeding in a secluded part of Jacana alley just off the northern channel of the Chobe river around Sedudu island.

The Pygmy geese seem to be around all year round. They are skittish with the female taking off before the male. We call them “pocket rockets” for a reason.

A Red-billed spurfowl had come down to drink at Elephant Valley with its dark brown plumage and distinctive red bill and yellow eye ring.

On the river bank near Puku flats we found a flock of Blue waxbills with members of the flock flying down in relays to drink at the river’s edge.

An Openbill stork finding plenty of snails to feed on in the shallow waters near Puku flats.

This Openbill stork skillfully cracked open the snail shell and swallowed the succulent, rich inner parts.

Winter time seems to be a time when we see more Comb or Knob-billed ducks along the Chobe river. The female does not grow a comb but does have the iridescent colours on its secondary wing feathers adding that little bit of pazazz.

It is cool in the winter mornings along the Chobe, so this Fish eagle was taking the opportunity to warm up and dry its wings in the morning sun high up on top of a tree overlooking the river.

An African skimmer hunting in the late afternoon rippled waters of the Chobe river. Perfectly adapted for scooping up small fish which have come to the surface to catch insects. The black feathers on crown, around the eye and neck are thought to reduce the glared from the water.

The African skimmer has a half wing beat as it flies just above the surface of the river with is lower mandible in the water ready to scoop up a small fish. There must be a reason for the bright red beak but I have still to find out what it is.

The high power to weight ratio and the precision flight make the hunting of the African skimmer spellbinding. They mostly rely on their sense of touch through their bills. If the prey is too big or the object too solid the skimmer’s head recoils downward underneath its body to release the beak from the object. Skimming usually takes pace in the early morning or late afternoon when the water is calm.

Not on the boat this time, but we sitting having breakfast at the Chobe Safari Lodge when we heard the unmistakable cries of the Trumpeter hornbill. A small family flock were feeding on the fruit of a tree in front of the lodge at the river’s edge.

The Trumpeter hornbill makes a loud wailing , nasal call which sounds like a baby crying. The large casque is a sign that it prefers dense woodland areas. They tend to flock outside breeding season.

This coucal was issuing, as Douglas Livingstone puts it “the rainbird’s liquid note” from the sand bank of Sedudu island around mid-morning. The call sounds like “sound of water bubbling from some cool spring hidden deep in the bush. This looks like a Senegal coucal as it lacks the fine barring on the rump but could be a Coppery-tailed coucal as I could not see the full extent of its tail. Both are common residents in this area. This was a solo act we did not hear the duet in this episode.

Reed cormorants are agile, highly successful fisherman in the fish rich waters of the Chobe river.

An active and successful Reed cormorant with a tasty morsel.

We found a small family herd of giraffe down near Chobe Game Lodge. They were eating soil rich in minerals in a what is called geophagia. In this case the soil looked to be rich in a form of chalk. While the giraffe were occupied it was a perfect time for the Red-billed oxpeckers to get to work grooming, cleaning and feeding from their host.

The Fish eagles were active. Some watched from a perch on a tree high above the river while others stood on the river bank. As the water gets colder the fish tend to swim deeper in the river. This dictates that the Fish eagles must become more opportunistic which mean mongoose, Jacana and White-faced whistling duck come onto the menu.

A male Stonechat was on the look out from a tassling reed.

A Collared pratincole disturbed by a herd of buffalo walking along the sand bank it was roosting on Sedudu island.

A Collared practincole seeking protection from the cool wind one morning on the north side of Sedudu island.

This was a first in Chobe for me, I had not seen a Curlew sandpiper along the Chobe before. It is a migrant but does winter in Africa and breeds in the tundra of Arctic Siberia.

I assume it was a Curlew sandpiper from the decurved shape of its beak, the cryptic colouration of its back and its white breast.

A lone Kittlitz plover on Sedudu island not far from the Curlew sandpiper.

I could not see the tail and rump but I assume this was a Senegal coucal as it looked slightly smaller than its coppery-tailed cousin. It also prefers a dense waterside habitat. Coucals are members of the cuckoo family.

Sunning spots are at a premium in winter. A Reed comorant objected to this grey-heading gull stealing the prime position.

That unique grey face, red eye ring, red beak and red legs are a give away, making this grey-headed gull easily identified.

There seems to be a pair of Fish eagles every couple of hundred metres upstream the Chobe river from the rapids below the Mowana Game Lodge up river to Serondela. We did not go much further past Serondela due to the distance from our base at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

An adult African spoonbill flying back to its roosting site in the trees in the Chobe river rapids just above Kazangula.

A turf disagreement between two African spoonbills late in the afternoon as all the larger wading birds were returning to their roosting trees for the night.

A young male Comb or Knob-billed duck in flight.

A female Comb duck coming in to land to join the rest of the flock which was feeding on a shallow sand bank in the main channel of the Chobe river.

This female Comb duck had to had to make last minute adjustments to its landing due to the crowded land area.

A White-faced whistling duck coming in to land on the same shallow sandbank in the Chobe river as the Comb ducks.

Bird photography on the Chobe river is a highly productive. This was mid-winter so all the migrants had left for warmer climes. The permanent water and rich fishing makes this an ideal residence for waders, storks, ducks, geese and raptors.

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” ~ Ansel Adams

The few images I have shown in this post is just a selection of the birds we saw along the Chobe river. I had already put out a post on egrets and herons and another on kingfishers. We had such good sightings of pratincoles that I will do a separate post of collared pratincoles.

“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.” ~ Unknown

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s river horses

Along the Chobe river between the rapids below Kasane up river to Serondela is home to numerous pods of hippos. The river is flowing all year round which is ideal for them. The high water period is around May-June each year when the flood waters come down from Angola. Hippos do not swim but rather walk, prance, and even “fly” underwater. They can float or sink by controlling their breathing and body position. Parts of the hippo’s skeleton have very dense bones. This bone structure acts as a form of ballast to enable them achieve neutral buoyancy underwater. They are able to further regulate their buoyancy by controlling their breath. Breathing out creates negative buoyancy.

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

Hippopotamuses get their common name from the ancient Greeks and which literally translates into English as river horse.

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

Female hippos are highly protective of their calves even against much bigger male hippos. We found many hippos out of the water but this was because we were on the Chobe in June which is mid-winter in the southern Africa. During the day when the sun is blazing, hippos spend most of their time in the water to keep cool and prevent them from sunburn. They do like to lie in mud baths next to the river which offers some protection from the sun. Hippos also produce a red fluid which is a deep red mucus-like secretion which helps to control their body temperature and acts as a potent sunscreen and antibiotic.

This looked to be a young male trying to mount a large female hippo with red-billed oxpeckers in attendance. Hippos tend to fight a lot and many have scratches and cuts on their thick hides which the oxpeckers clean up. This young male did not look like he was making the slightest impression on the dozing female. It was winter in southern Africa so the hippos spend more time than usual sunning themselves on dry land to warm up.

Hippos usually mate in the water. The female hippos are often forcibly submerged in the water by the male hippo for most of the mating process. She needs to come to the surface at times to breathe. In some cases, although very rarely, the hippos may choose to mate on land.

 A hippo can run at 30 kilometres per hour and will charge anything that gets in its way, especially if you are between it and its place of safety, which is the water. We had one incident along the Chobe river several years ago when we got between the water a dozing bull hippo. He was dosing about 40 metres from the water’s edge in the grass. We stopped next to the bank to photograph some waders. We were between the hippo and the water but checked to ensure the bull hippo was relaxed and dozing. It was not until Lou Coetzer, our CNP Safari guide, shouted to the boat driver to get out of the way as quick as possible when we turned to see the bull hippo in full charge toward the boat. We made it but a matter of metres. In our shaken state, we were reminded never to be complacent. When hippos run for the water it does provide photographers with opportunities to capture spectacular splash shots as they charge into the water.

“Hippos always have the right of way, except when an elephant crosses its path.” ~Mike Haworth

There were other times when we were slowly boating through the thick matt of water lilies and water grass when out of nowhere a hippo burst out of the water. The guide and boatman kept a very wary eye on the movement of hippos as we are travelling along the river. You would be surprised how quickly a hippo can move through the water. Furthermore, do not be fooled by deep water they can run and bounce of the river bed surprising fast and continue the chase for longer than you might expect.

The biggest threat to a male hippo is another male hippo. This young male was not being allowed back into the water by the dominant bull who was not about to shy away from a confrontation. Most hippo fights take place in the water. Hippos live in pods or groups ranging from – on average – 30 individuals to bloats numbering up to 200 in the Luangwa river. Pods comprise females, their young and a single dominant bull. This bull will aggressively protect his females and territory against other male hippos. He won and maintains his dominant position through continue combat and confrontation.

The open jawed “yawning” display is usually a threatening posture. When an unwanted male enters the dominant bull hippo’s territory, the two size each other up. They will probably stand nose to nose and bellow their discontent. In an attempt to threaten each other they open their jaws as wide as possible, which can be as much as 150 degrees wide, to display their size and power as well as their sharp teeth. If that does not work it can end up in a pitch jaw battle. The hippos teeth tend to sharpen naturally through constant use throughout their life, and can grow to be up to three feet long, strong enough to cut deep into the opposition’s thick hide or the hull of an aluminium boat.

A typical family scene along the Chobe river in winter. The larger females and males are lying in the mud in the sun. The youngsters and younger females, probably mothers, got up when we passed by. The females were probably just protective of their youngsters. The hippos do not seem to be fussed about the crocodiles or all the birdlife around them. In this case there were hundreds of Egyptian geese which made a racket but this did not disturb the slumbering mud bathers.

“Only let the moving waters calm down, and the sun and moon will be reflected on the surface of your being.” ~Deepak Chopra

After the mating period, the female hippo has a long gestation period of around eight months and the birth usually takes place in the wettest season of the year. When it is almost time to give birth, the female hippo isolates herself from the pod until she has given birth to her calf (female hippos usually give birth to one calf but occasionally produce twins). The baby hippo is born underwater with its hind legs appearing first.

Hippos and elephant don’t usually tangle. This bull elephant had crossed the southern channel around Sedudu island to feed on the island. Hippos are highly territorial but although huge they are way smaller than a bull elephant. Elephants are not usually aggressive animals unless there are young to protect or water or grazing that they need to protect. Interestingly, this bull hippo did not give much ground to the confronting bull despite its major size and weight disadvantage. Thankfully the confrontation was over quickly with no damage done.

Nothing looks more relaxed and content than a hippo submerged in its salad. This hippo was neck deep in the river amongst water lilies and water grass. The late afternoon light was soft and warm and this hippo seemed to enjoy being adorned with water lily pads.

Hippos spend most of their time deep in water to cool and graze on the water grass in the river. They require about 45 kilograms of food a day to maintain that massive weight. Hippos are herbivores but their diet depends on what is available. Hippos generally do most of the grazing at night on land but along the Chobe the overgrazing by elephants has dictated that hippos have adapted to take advantage of the water lilies and water grass. Hippos are ruminants but have only three chambers to their stomach, not four as in other ruminants. Hippos do not chew the cud, a ball like mass of partly digested plant matter. The hippo also has a small and large intestine. The small intestine is where all the fats, proteins and fat are digested (or emulsified) by enzymes and absorbed. The large intestine has the function of absorbing the water that goes through it and excretes whatever bodily material is left over as defecation.

Like elephants, hippos are the gardeners of Africa’s river systems. Hippos keep channels open through the reeds and papyrus which improves the flow of the river. Hippos defecate a lot but this provides vital for food for the fish. In turn the fish feed the Catfish and Tigerfish and many waterbirds. The Catfish and Tigerfish in turn feed the Fish eagles and crocodiles. There is a trophic cascade.

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

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

Have fun, Mike