Chobe’s Kingfishers

This post is about kingfishers along the Chobe river. I was on a CNP Safari photo river safari in early winter so the kingfishers I saw were resident. The inter-African migrants like the Woodlands and Grey-headed had already left. There are ten species of kingfisher in southern Africa.

“It may have been that the Quill Spirit had painted the bird with colours stolen from rock and leaf, and sky and fern, and enriched them by its fervour…” ~ Henry Williamson

Most kingfishers are brightly coloured and have unusual adaptations for display and feeding. Not all kingfishers are fishermen some are insect eaters.

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” ~ Napoleon Hill

The largest of the kingfishers we saw along the river was the Giant kingfisher. The Giant kingfisher is sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and female have different plumage. Males and females differing in their underpart patterning. The male has a brown chest and throat while the female has a brown belly. The Giant kingfisher hunts from a perch overhanging the water. Kingfishers that fish have an amazing ability to see through the glare on the water’s surface and be able to judge the fish’s depth, adjusting for the refraction of the water.

You will notice that most fishing kingfishers have black or dark colouring around their eyes. This is to reduce glare. Kingfishers are diurnal so hunt in broad daylight, invariably when there is plenty of glare.

It seems that all kingfishers dive into the water to cool down on very hot days. Once a kingfisher has dived into the water it will preen itself, dry out and put all their feathers back into place. This female Giant kingfisher was doing just that.

The female Pied kingfisher has a black marking on her chest which looks like a gorget which is separated in the middle of the throat while the male also has a black gorget plus a black band across its neck below its gorget. It gets its name from it black and white plumage and mottled black and white wing patterning. The Pied kingfisher is mid-sized with the Giant at the large end of the size spectrum and the Pygmy at the small end.

“The good photo settles in your eye. The better photo settles in your mind but the best photo settles in your heart!” ~ Mehmet Murat ildan

A male Pied kingfisher was hovering above potential prey in the Chobe river. Some birds, such as kestrels, remain motionless by “wind hovering” above a point on the ground as they fly into the wind at a speed equal to that of the wind. Other birds hover momentarily while foraging. The harrier is able to “wind hover” for a short period. Black shouldered kites can hover for an extended period by also facing into the wind. Sunbirds can also hover if they are not able to find a decent perch from which to drink the flower’s nectar. Most birds which are able to hover have a high aspect (length to width) ratio to their wings. The Pied kingfisher is a particularly good hoverer. Amazingly, it is able to keep its head dead still to maintain focus on its prey under water which is necessary to accurately assess the depth of the prey.

It is very seldom you will see the eye of a hovering kingfisher as they usually have their back to the sun again to reduce glare and improve visibility.

A female Pied kingfisher with her black gorget. Pied kingfishers are the only gregarious species. We often see several Pieds perched on the sand river bank. This specie is a co-operative breeder where helpers assist in caring for the chicks. In most cases, they remain close to their nest holes which they excavate in the river bank.

A female Pied kingfisher in flight just breaking out of a hover. The black beak is long approximately one third of the length of the bird.

The Malachite kingfisher is usually found perched on a reed next the bank of the Chobe river. It is like a glistering little gem in the reeds. It’s striking red beak and feet catch you attention as does its deep royal blue back and neck plumage. This is also a fisherman. It is lightning quick when flying and hunting.

The Malachite has cobalt blue head, back of the neck and back plumage with a headdress of striped black and aquamarine crown feathers.

A Brown-hooded kingfisher has brown stripes on its head. It has a dark ring around its eyes to reduce glare. The back is black the the primary wing feathers and tail feathers are a vivid cobalt blue. The underparts are a buff coloured breast, with brown streaks on the sides. The difference between a Brown-hooded and Striped kingfisher is evident in the dark eye stripe behind the eye and dark upper mandible and red lower mandible in the Striped. The Brown-hooded has colouring on the head which varies from consistent brown to a buff with brown streaks but it does not have the dark stripe behind its eye and its beak is red, with a dark tip.

“Advice from the River. Go with the flow, immerse yourself in nature, slowdown and meander, go around the obstacles. Be thoughtful of those downstream. Stay current. The beauty is in the journey.” ~ IIan Shamir

The Brown-hooded kingfisher does not eat fish but feeds mostly on insects such as grasshoppers and small reptiles such as lizards. It is a perch hunter and once prey is caught it is brought back to a branch and thrashed against the branch to kill it.

The Brown-hooded kingfisher is also an insect eater and does not feed on fish. It is often seen along the Chobe river because of the increased insect activity along the river bank. It has a characteristic brown head and red beak with a black tip.

A pair of half-collared kingfishers live and hunting in the branches overhanging the river next to the Chobe safari lodge . They are very skittish and normally only seen in the shadowy undergrowth. It is a special sighting as they are uncommon. This kingfisher is a fisherman and hunts from a perch of a branch overhanging the water. At a distance, the Half-collared kingfisher could be mistaken for a Malachite but the Half-collared’s cobalt blue head and back beak are diagnostic. It has a cobalt blue collar with a wide parting across the middle of its throat. This kingfisher does not have the vivid cobalt blue colouring seen on the wing feathers of the Malachite.

I have previously seen a Grey-headed kingfisher along the Chobe, but not this time and I cannot recall ever seeing a Pygmy kingfisher. The Pygmy like the woodland is an inter-African migrant so we did not see them in June.

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

Seeing these kingfishers along the river in mid-winter is like finding living jewels. The smaller the more intense the colouring, and the more fleeting.

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

Wishing you an inspired and insightful 2022.

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Jacana alley

Jacana alley is a small inlet just off the end of the north channel before it meets the southern channel. The two channels join a few hundred metres up river from the Chobe Safari Lodge before flowing for around four kilometres onto the rapids and down to joins the mighty Zambesi river at Kazungula.

Jacana alley is so-called because of its year round Jacana activity, the height of which is in the summer months. Our trip was in early winter, June in southern Africa. It was chilly first thing in the morning especially with a breeze. The next video shows a serene soft coloured morning gliding into the alley with the boat motor turned off – bliss!!

“Gliding into dawn with not a word spoken nor a ripple from the bow. The morning light bathed the alley in soft pastels pinks and blues. Not a time for reflection but for anticipation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Even though June was not the main Jacana breeding season, which is around March, we still saw plenty of Jacana activity. There were a few males looking after their offspring. Jacana’s are precocial, meaning they can fend for themselves from the time they hatch and are polyandrous meaning the male looks after the eggs and chicks. The new image is of a fledged sub-adult as it still had is juvenile plumage.

The chicks are easily identified by their small size and outsized legs and feet. The juveniles lack the black colouring on the crown and back of neck. They also still have to develop their distinctive blue beak and frontal shield.

African Jacana’s have long legs and exceptionally long toes. This feature enables them to spread their weight on a lily pad giving them just enough time to feed on the insects on the water lily flower and water lily’s floating leaves before it starts to sink.

Jacana chicks start feeding themselves from the time they hatch. We were fortunate to see a few males with their chicks on each occasion we ventured into Jacana alley. They dash across the lily pads picking midges off the lily pad surface and will happily take a bigger insect if they can find one.

The chicks are adept swimmers and will happily swim from one raft of lily pads to another until they are able to fly across the gap. When a chick senses a predator close by it will either run for cover of the reeds if they are close, alternatively, the chick will quickly dive underneath the lily pad to avoid detection.

Jacana fathers nurture and protect their young. If their father senses danger he will call out to the youngsters who quickly tuck under their father’s wings for protection. If need be the father will lift up the chicks under his wing and run across the lily pads to get away from danger. It was cold early in the morning in June so we often found one or more chicks tucked under their father’s wing for warmth.

The next image is of a juvenile Lesser moorhen. Its brown colouring and yellow beak are characteristic of the juvenile. The adult will have black plumage and a mostly yellow bill with a red stripe which reaches from the top of its frontal shield to the tip of its beak.

The Lesser moorhen is smaller than the Common moorhen. This is normally a shy species but these youngsters happily walked across the lily pads in front of us feeding on insects. The Lesser moorhen is not often seen mainly because it is so shy.

A female Southern brown-throated weaver. This was not breeding season so we did not see the male in his yellow plumage with a dark brown throat. We often see these weavers in the reeds in Jacana alley.

This female Brown-throated weaver was feeding on all the midges on the surface of the water while using the water lily flower as a support.

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

An African darter sunning and drying itself on a frosty June morning. This darter is also colloquially called the “snakebird” because when it is swimming all you can see its its head and long snake-like neck above the water. The male is a glossy black with white belly streaking while the female is browner. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are a glossy brownish black and their tertial wing feathers are extra long and horizontally striped. Unlike many other waterbirds, the feathers of the African darter do contain oil but are not completely waterproof. This reduces its buoyancy and enhances its diving capabilities. The downside is that the darter has to dry its wings to warm up and be able to fly. While drying the darter preens its feathers which enables the darter to coat its feathers with an oily substance from the uropygial gland, or preen gland.

The shy and skittish Black crake. Normally as soon as a Black crake sees you it rushes back into the reeds out of sight. For some thankful and inexplicable reason a pair of Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads in Jacana alley and as long as we did not try to get too close they happily fed on insects on the lily pads for about 20 minutes.

“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight, a home, a teacher, and a companion.” ~ Lorraine Anderson

The Black crake has striking coloration. It is all black with a vivid yellow beak, red eyes and reddish-pink legs. The colour of the legs become a bright red during the breeding season. The relationship between eye colour and function, however, is still largely unknown by ornithologists.

You are likely to only find a Black crake next to freshwater or in wetlands. More often than not you can hear them duetting in the reeds, but they seldom present themselves. Although these Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads they did not have the long legs and long toes of a jacana so they had to keep moving quickly.

Little bee-eater is the smallest of the southern African bee-eaters. It was also the only bee-eater we saw in June. These Little bee-eaters look like green jewels in the winter colours. Like all bee-eaters it has a black stripe across it eye, but the Little bee-eater also has a turquoise stripe above each eye adding a touch more glamour to its already gorgeous colouring. The black malar stripe across the eye may serve the same purpose as the malar black stripe below each of the Cheetah’s eyes. It reduces the sun’s glare from obstructing their view.

The Little-bee-eater feeds on insects which it catches in flight. It tends to hunt from a perch. It sits on a reed stem waiting for an insect to fly by which it then hawks. This small bee-eater is endemic along the Chobe river but will move depending on insect activity.

“Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen — that stillness becomes a radiance.” ~ Morgan Freeman

We found quite few Squacco herons hunting in Jacana alley in the reeds along the side of the inlet. They usually stand on the fallen reeds and grass along the water’s edge and hunt from there. They are able to massively extend their necks so have a decent reach when hunting from the edge.

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

Two pairs of Pygmy geese near the entrance to Jacana alley. These are beautiful miniature geese. We saw many pairs all along the river in June. They are very skittish and will not let you get close. The female which was following the male in both of these pairs but is usually the first to flush. Pygmy geese have have short bills, rounded heads and short legs with a rufous-colored chest, white abdomen and face, glossy-green upper plumage, The male has light-green sides of the neck with a black border. The female is duller colouring and does not have the green markings with a black border on the side of their neck. The female’s beak is a dull brownish-yellow while the male’s beak is bright yellow with a black tip.

Wonderful warm colours in the early winter morning with a Purple heron perfectly blending into the colour of the reeds and grass. This heron was hunting from the fallen grass and reeds along the edge of Jacana alley.

There are many inlets along the Chobe river. Jacana alley just happened to be a particularly productive section and is frequented by many African jacana and their chicks, crakes, weavers, several heron species and the occasional marsh harrier which scours the reed beds from its aerial advantage.

“The more you look the more you see. The more you see the more you yearn to understand and the more questions take flight from the river like birds flushed.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Herons and Egrets

The Chobe river flows east along the Botswana border past the town of Kasane until it meets the Zambesi river just above the Victoria Falls. The Chobe is a perennial river though its water level varies many metres with the flood waters flowing through around May and June each year. The flood waters come from the rains in Angola many months before.

“Stars do not struggle to shine, rivers do not struggle to flow, and you will never struggle to excel in life because of the power of your passion.” ~ Donald Driver

In the winter month of June in southern Africa, we did not get to see all the herons and egrets that one could see along the Chobe. We did not see the night-herons, the Black-crowned night-heron nor the White-backed night-heron. I was rather hoping that they might come out in the late afternoon in winter but it was not to be! I was also hoping that the rising high flood waters might attract them. I have never seen a White-backed night-heron along the Chobe but have seen many Black-crowned night-herons getting ready to start fishing in the late afternoon in the summer months.

“At the start of the day, I clear my expectations and open my awareness. I need all my senses to see. It is about hearing that alarm call before seeing the predator. It is about watching the bird’s behaviour before it is about to hunt. It is about feeling something will happen which will need stillness and patience.” ~ Mike Haworth

The Goliath heron is an uncommon visitor. Goliath because it is the largest heron by far. This is a large heron standing around 140cm. Its back and wing feathers are a slaty grey and its belly, neck and head are a rufous ochre or chestnut colour.

The Goliath heron is an excellent fisherman. I have seen a Goliath heron beat a large barbel into submission and swallow it. The Goliath does not have a David in the egret world but it does have major competition from Fish eagles which try frequently to steal its prey. The Goliath has a major defensive weapon, it has a long sharp beak and a neck with surprising reach. The Goliath heron is not a fussy eater, it will prey on everything from barbel to bream, and from frogs to rats, snakes and even prawns.

“Don’t just look. There is a reason for everything in nature. Delve deeper into the why. It will reveal unseen intelligence and design. These insights will provide endless fascination and realisation that everything is more dynamic and interconnected than can be seen at a glance.” ~ Mike Haworth

The Goliath heron is a solitary hunter wading in the shallow waters along the edge of the Chobe river. It seems to enjoy this aquatic environment but is not a fast mover, until it is time to strike its prey. The Goliath heron is a good flier moving with slow heavy wing beats. Interestingly, this heron flies with its legs slightly lowered and not horizontal like other smaller herons. This could be due to its size but it flies with its neck retracted so it could be for longitudinal balance. This heron, similar to most herons, has long, wide wings which are markedly bowed in flight. The low aspect ratio (square of the wingspan/wing area) of the wings is ideal for gliding and manoeuverability.

Grey heron hunting in the shallows along the Chobe river. The black streak from its eye back across its head is an identifying characteristic. By contrast, the Black-headed heron, which is a similar size, has a black head. These herons are waders and prefer an aquatic environment yielding a diet of small fish, frogs, insect and beetles. Unlike the Goliath, the Grey heron is gregarious and breeds in colonies called heronries. Herons have feet which are designed for standing on soft muddy wet soil while their beak is designed for spearing their prey.

“Patience is the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order to the one you have in your mind.” ~ David G. Allen

Other visual differences between the Grey and Black-headed heron are firstly the Grey’s yellow beak while the Black-headed has a dark grey beak. Another differences is the colour of the legs. The Grey has yellowish-brown legs while the Black-headed has dark grey legs. The Grey heron is altogether a lighter colour grey with a predominately white neck with black streak in the front of the neck. The bBack-headed heron tends to hunt in the wet lands adjacent to the water rather than in the water itself like a Grey heron.

Herons can swallow surprisingly large fish. Herons do not have the ability to tear their prey apart and eat it in smaller prices so they need to be able to swallow it whole. First they keep the fish out of water long enough for it to suffocate then they drop it in the water to lubricate it while actively repositioning the fish so that it is head first in the beak.

Birds do not have teeth and therefore do not chew so have to swallow their prey whole. It is vital that the prey is lubricated with water and that it is positioned head first, especially with fish so that they will slide down the throat without the fish’s dorsal fin spines catching in the heron’s throat. The fish scales also need to be laid pointing backwards on its body. I have often wondered how a heron does not choke when swallowing a large fish. Birds, unlike humans, do not typically choke in the same way as humans. Birds do not have an epiglottis which covers its trachea. The bird’s tongue shape and grooved mouth aid the movement of food past the tracheal opening.

All fish eating birds have a specialised two chamber digestive system. The first chamber secretes the acid which helps break down the bones and scales and the second chamber, the gizzard, grinds up the food into smaller bits.

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

Herons do not seem to be harassed by crocodiles. There is a lower drag on the wing when the bird is flying within a wing length of the water, it is called the “ground effect”. This means it is easier for a bird to fly closer to the water. Usually the inland water surface is relatively flat so flight is easy and does not require the same manoeurveability that a seabird needs on the surface of the sea.

Great heron in flight along the Chobe river regaled in its non breeding plumage. From a distance the egret species could be mistaken so you need to rely on the key colour differences in the beak and legs for identification. The Great heron has a yellow bill in non breeding season and a black bill, often with a greenish lores, in breeding season. The Great heron’s legs are black throughout and it feet are black.

During breeding season the lores of the Great heron turn green and it develops plumes on its back. It legs are always black.

A pair of Little egrets fighting in the shallows. These Little egrets are usually solitary. When breeding, the bird acquires distinctive head, chest and back plumes and red lores. The Little egret has all white plumages, black legs with yellow feet.

Normally these Little egrets fight over food but for some reason this appeared to be a turf fight. They did not seem to have breeding plumage but the yellow feet are clear on the attacker and the egret in the water did have the two long white feathers on the rear of its crown.

“Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.” ~ Emma Smith

I was surprised how savage and prolonged the fight lasted. Although in the shallows, the airborne egret tried hard to “dunk” its opposition.

Little egret in flight on its way to the next feeding spot along the Chobe river. The adult in breeding plumage has greyish-blue face and reddish lores. It also develops two white long and fine feathers on the rear crown, extending from the nape to mid-neck. It also has “aigrettes”, long feathers on the upper breast and recurved scapular feathers. In winter , the Little Egret’s plumage remains white but its lores are grey and its feet turn a pale yellow or greenish-yellow colour. It also loses the long nape feathers, and the “aigrettes” on its body.

Purple heron standing in the reeds along Jacana alley just off the north channel of the Chobe river. We don’t usually see many Purple herons but on this occasion we saw them surprisingly frequently in the reeds around this part. Perhaps there is a seasonality factor but it was wonderful surprise.

The Purple heron appears to have a more slender build than a Grey or Back-headed heron but its the colour of its plumage is distinctive. It is not purple but from a distance is back and wing feathers are grey mixed with chestnut brown which gives its slightly purplish appearance. It has a black crown that extends down the back of its neck. The sides of the head and the neck are buffish chestnut, with dark streaks and lines down either side of the whole the neck. The front of the neck is a buff colour with dark brown streaks.

The Purple heron has the most snake-like neck of all the herons. It was perfectly blended into the wintery brown and yellow coloured reeds along the river.

A sub-adult purple heron in flight which has not get grown its distinctive adult plumage.

The Purple heron is surprisingly well camouflaged in the winter reeds. This Purple heron, like all large herons, has the prominent characteristic of its very long neck, crooked in the middle to resemble an S shape, which helps to support the heavy bill and head. The neck has a modified sixth cervical vertebra which allows them to draw their neck into an “S” shape and then shoot their head and bill forward with lightning speed when striking at prey. This adaptation also allows these birds to fold their neck while flying, which helps longitudinal balance and improves the aerodynamics of their flight.

Squacco heron in flight in the late afternoon light. This is one of the most attractively coloured of the small herons. As the next image shows the Squacco heron displays all white wings when in flight. We only saw solitary Squaccos along the river in June but there have been times when I have seen hundreds of Squaccos spaced about 30 metres apart in the low grass on a flooded island.

The small herons tend to stand the same way with their heads pulled down onto their shoulders. The Squacco heron has two distinct breeding plumages. In the non-breeding phase, the plumage is brown with streaks on the head and throat and the bill and legs are greenish to yellow in colour.

In the Squacco’s breeding phase, the feathers become longer. The plumage is whiter with the back a cinnamon colour. The bill also turns blue. The previous and next image shows a Squacco in breeding plumage. I found it interesting to see how Squaccos were in different stages of the breeding plumage development along the same river at the same time. This Squacco was successfully hunting on a floating raft of reeds in the middle of the Chobe river.

Slaty egrets are uncommon so this was a wonderful sighting. The Slaty egret can be mistaken for a Black egret in bright light but the Slaty has some distinctive features which are quite different to the Black egret and its fishing style is very different to the Black egret’s umbrella-wing hunting technique. This Slaty egret was alone foraging along the edge of the Chobe river. Slaty egrets breed in temporary wetlands which the seasonal rains have filled to their highest level which is probably why we saw this individual in June.

A Slaty egret could be mistaken for a Back egret in certain light but a closer look reveals its characteristic salmon pink coloured throat and grey legs. The Black egret is all black including its throat. Both egrets have yellow feet.

In the grass next to the river adjacent to the Chobe Safari lodge we found these two Yellow-billed egrets fighting over a fish. The airborne egret held a fish in its beak as it was coming in to land when the second egret saw an opportunity to steal the fish. Needless to say with some deft manoeuvering, the airborne egret managed to keep its meal.

A Yellow-billed egret is identified by its yellow bill but it legs are two tone. The leg colouring from the elbow up to the body is a pinkish yellow. Below the elbow, the legs are black as are the feet. The greenish lores were an indication of the egret’s breeding colouration.

So often we see the Green-backed heron sitting on a branch overhanging the water in deep shade. This heron favours fresh water that has dense vegetation overhanging the water. Most Green-backs are very skittish but every now and then you will find one character that is not so skittish and will pose for a few seconds. Beside the beautiful greenish grey wing feathers, this egret has a bright yellow loral stripe in front of a yellow eye.

The Green-backed heron has a greenish black back with distinctive grey underparts. The long bill is bicoloured, it is black on the upper mandible and yellow on the bottom mandible. Green-backed heron are normally found solitary, foraging in the dense vegetation at the water’s edge. It is often seen in a hunched posture. This heron, like a Squacco, it quite acrobatic. It can hang from a branch and stretch its neck much further than you might expect when striking at its prey. The Green-backed heron is very territorial when it comes to feeding areas.

Chobe is known for it prolific bird life in winter and summer. Many of the waders are resident as are the storks, kingfishers and ducks. Even though we went on the Chobe in winter there was abundant birdlife despite the absence of the of the migratory birds.

“I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars.” ~Edward Abbey

I have been on the Chobe river many times and not once has it ever been the same. The level of the water and temperature has prevailing effect on the activity of the bird life. That said, you will find different birds in numbers at different times of the year. Just to keep the waders on their guard the Fish eagles are always on the lookout especially if they are struggling to find fish near the surface of the river.

“I experience the river differently every time I am on it. The water level changes, the flow fluctuates and the water temperature changes with depth. The light changes and the colour changes depending on the time of the day and the weather. All of these influences dictate changes in the wildlife activity along the river bank. Being aware of these dynamics creates endless fascination.”~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s water loving buffaloes

Cape buffaloes can exist in herds of thousands. Equally, they can coexist in a small mixed breeding herd consisting of few females and their offspring, young males, and older, dominant males in their prime. The old buffalo bulls tend to lag behind the herd when they are on the move.

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

The bulls are also found in bachelor herds, and after a certain age (around 12), most males move away from the safety of the breeding herds and live out their lives in small groups or on their own. These old bulls are often bad-tempered possibly because they are often harassed by lions and elephants. In southern Africa, the summers are hot, so to cope with the heat, the buffaloes love to wallow in the water and in mud pools.

“Men argue. Nature acts.” ~ Voltaire

The massive grumpy old bulls are affectionately known as “dagga boys”. The word “dagga” originating from the Zulu word “dagga” meaning mud. These bulls spend hours wallowing in the mud and can often be seen driving their horns and boss through the mud. In this process, mud builds up on their bosses which seems to add to their stature. These natural mud packs not only help control ectoparasites such as ticks, but they may prevent unwanted skin and tissue infections caused from skirmishes with predators or gashes incurred during power struggles. Mud wallowing also assists with thermo-regulation.

Cape buffaloes are never too far from water. They are good swimmers and I have often seen a herd crossing the wide and deep channel in the Chobe river to get to richer grazing grounds. They swim surprisingly fast and tend to cross the channels in large groups to minimise predation by crocodiles.

“When a buffalo looks at you. Its stares straight at you, its focus intense. With head raised, it lifts up its nose searching for your scent. Only once it flicks its head and turns away can you start to breathe again. Do not take you eyes off that buffalo until you have enough flight distance” ~ Mike Haworth

The male Cape buffalo is an impressive creature, reaching a shoulder heights of 1.8 metres and weighing 850 kilograms. A record-sized Cape buffalo bull weighed 1 000kg.

A Cape Buffalo is most aggressive when it has been wounded, or, if one of the calves from the herd is under attack. Also known as Black Death, the Cape buffalo is said to have killed more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa. An angry or wounded buffalo will double back, circle and stalk its aggressor, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. When in herds Cape Buffalo also engage in mobbing behaviour when fighting off predators.

“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

It takes the bulls about five years to fully develop their horns. The structure of the horns of the Cape buffalo give an indication of age and gender. The females and young males do not have the hard shielding that protects the base of the skull found in large adult males.

A Cape buffalo’s boss typically spans 130 cm. A characteristic feature of the horns of adult male Cape buffalo is that the base grows very close together to form a shield referred to as a “boss”. From the base, the horns diverge downwards, then smoothly curve upwards and outwards and in some cases inwards and or backwards. In large bulls, the distance between the ends of the horns can reach upwards of one metre (the record being 164 cm).

Shaka was the ruler of the Zulu nation from 1816 until his assassination in 1828. This Zulu king was responsible for developing the famous Zulu battle tactics known as the “Horns of the Buffalo” (izimpondo ze-inyathi). This tactic was originally used by the Zulus for hunting, but Shaka adapted it for battle with devastating effects. The horn formation comprised three elements: the “horns”, or flanking right and left wing elements, to encircle and pin the enemy.

“A Cape buffalo’s horns tell many tales. It signals who is the boss and its etching show the fury of fights. The boss is smoothed with many contacts. Frequent digging in the mud smooths the horns to shiny ebony. But the horns do not reveal how many have been impaled on these weapons.” ~ Mike Haworth

The horns form fully when the animal reaches the age of 5 or 6 years old, but the bosses do not become “hard” until it reaches the age of 8 to 9 years old.

Buffaloes are carriers of foot and mouth disease and they also suffer from bovine tuberculosis. Therefore they are not allowed beyond certain areas as they might infect other animals, more particularly cattle. In Africa, the movement of live cloven-hoofed animals is inevitable but requires strict veterinary intervention. This is the case in Botswana. Possibly the best known fence is the ‘Buffalo Fence’ that separates Maun from the Okavango Delta. It literally stretches across the breadth of the country. There was a huge outcry when the fence was erected but it has since been acknowledged by many that the fence may have saved the Okavango Delta.

Many Cape buffaloes can be seen along the Chobe river where there is water all year round. They can be seen crossing the river’s channels “en mass” and a few “old dagga” boys can also be seen standing chest deep in the water eating the floating water lily rhizomes and roots, which looks salad-like.

Buffaloes need a good fresh water supply as they love to cool down and also drink water daily. Bulls especially like to lie in water and mud hollows where they can roll in the mud and take mud baths to rid themselves of flies, horseflies and ticks.

Cape buffaloes have a thick hide, covered with brown-black hair. Three species of birds tend to move with the buffaloes: oxpeckers, cattle egrets and wattled starlings, and occasionally carmine bee-eaters. The red-billed oxpecker is the most common of the two oxpeckers species. It is a starling sized-bird. The adults are brown and have totally red beaks and distinctive yellow rings around their bright red eyes. The adult has a wide bill, stiff tail, and sharp claws. Their claws help them hold onto their moving host and the stiff tail provides support while feeding. These oxpeckers feed on ticks, flies, and maggots from their host’s hide. The red billed oxpecker is slimmer than its yellow-billed cousin and has a flatter beak which it uses in a scissor-like motion to its cleaning work. These oxpeckers, as the name suggests, pecks at any sores or scabs on the host cleaning up the wound but in the process often causes it to bleed. When alarmed, these birds hiss, alerting their hosts to possible danger.

Learning about the interrelationships between species helps me understand the connectedness of the different species in the scene. It also helps me better anticipate behaviour, a crucial element in wildlife photography. All species have a role, no matter how big or small.

When I am watching a Cape buffalo bull standing chest high in the waters of the Chobe river, I am always amazed at their nonchalance about crocodiles. They blissfully munch on the diet of salads provided by the water lilies. I have only seen the large “dagga boys” standing chest deep in the river. The buffalo cows and calves are too vulnerable so only drink from the river’s edge.

Breeding herds of Cape buffalo travel together on land and in water. Just upstream from Kasane, the Chobe river splits into a south and north channel around Sedudu island. The next image shows a small section of a much larger breeding herd of buffaloes walking west upriver along the edge of northern channel of Sedudu island. In June each year, the level of the Chobe river is high as it is carrying the flood waters from Angola. The high water level results in partial flooding of Sedudu island. At this time of the year, the buffaloes have to cross several shallow inlets as they walk along the bank of the northern channel.

Every now and then, the herd is spooked by something and they charge through the shallow water creating an impressive display. It is easy to see why a crocodile does not want to get tangled amongst those hooves while trying to hunt.

The whole herd charges through the shallow water, calves included among the adults. It is easy to see how a calf could get trampled in this situation.

A female will have her first calf at about five years of age, and these calves are born during the rainy season. The bond between mothers and calves remains strong or up to three years, before the next calf is born.

When the herd gets spooked it tends to charge through the shallow water. The larger adults plough through the water easily. Small calves are slowed in the water and often lose contact with their mothers. This calf was left behind in a water rush and was wading through the water on its own. This is a vulnerable time for the calf and it would be easy prey for a decent sized “croc”.

It is only when you watch a buffalo feeding on the leaves and stems of the water lilies for half an hour or more, do you do you begin understand the dynamics and the subtle relationships which are not evident at first glance.

“Learning to see is vital in photography. It is beyond just looking at your subject. It is taking the time to understand the dynamics of the context. It takes patience to pick up patterns in behaviour. It requires respect to give the subject its natural space.” ~ Mike Haworth

This massive Cape buffalo bull was unperturbed by a petite sub-adult African Jacana feeding on the insects disturbed by the buffalo while he was munching on the lily leaves in front of him.

It was clear the buffalo could see his small avain friend right in front of his nose but never tried to push it away.

Commensalism is a positive relationship between two species. In this relationship one of the species gains a direct benefit from associating with the second species, and although the second species does not benefit from this relationship and it is not harmed in anyway. So is the relationship between the buffalo bull and a African Jacana.

“Symbiotic relationship in nature teaches us cooperation and shows that we are all connected” ~ Sanchita Pandey

Mutualism is another form of symbiosis whereby both species benefit from the interaction with each other. One of the most well-known examples in the bush is the relationship between an oxpecker with various species such as giraffe, rhino and buffalo. 

In parasitic relationships, one species benefits while the other one is negatively affected. Klaas’s Cuckoos have been known to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.

When the herd gets agitated and starts to stampede, it is easy to see how a calf is separated from its mother. In the water stampede, if the calf fell in the water it is easy to see how it could get trampled by the adults.

Cape buffalo communicate through a complex series of grunts, gargles and mumbles. Gargling sounds are often heard in communication between adult females and calves. Unlike wildebeest, many different females live in the same herd and they help each other out with motherly duties, and not just between a specific mother and her own calf. Long gargling sounds are used to warn calves of impending danger. They are also a means of locating a calf and guiding it back to its mother and herd.

A young buffalo calf is well protected by its herd. Whilst on its own it looks very vulnerable but is tougher than it looks. I have seen a Cape buffalo calf attacked by about nine hyaenas early in the morning in the Masai Mara. For some strange reason, the herd had left this particular calf behind which left it highly exposed in the Mara. Hyaenas so picked up on this lone calf and attacked it by biting and hanging on as the calf ran around in a circle dragging several attached hyaena with it for about half an hour before collapsing. I was astounded at the calf’s strength and tenacity. Despite having lost much blood and having part of its intestine exposed during the repeated hyaena attacks, it carried on running around trying to get away from the hyaenas. Being grossly out numbered by hyaenas and without back up from its herd the calf was never going to survive.

While the “old dagga boys” are wonderful photographic subjects, you under estimate the power, speed and strength of these old boys at your peril. On walking safari, unsuspecting hikers can have a buffalo barrelling out of a reed bed next to them as they walk along the river’s edge, not for a second expecting almost a tonne of fury lying unseen in the reeds.

” Learn to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Buffaloes are worthy opponents to lions. A skilled lioness can take a buffalo cow by the head but it will take two large male lions a hour to bring down a strong old “dagga boy”.

It is easy to glide past these browsing bull buffaloes standing shoulder deep in the river without giving them a second glance. Next time, ponder on the context of what you are looking at!

“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” ~ Brian Herbert

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

Have fun, Mike

Lions along the Chobe

A long awaited return to the Chobe river, one of my favourite places in southern Africa. The Chobe river demarcates the border between Botswana and Namibia. It is part of the Cuando-Linyanti-Chobe river system in the region of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. The Cuando river flows from Angola down along the Namibia border with Botswana and turns sharply east, still forming the border with Botswana where it becomes the Linyanti river. This river flows through a seasonal lake, Lake Liambesi, and becomes the Chobe. The Chobe river flows along the Namibian -Botswana border into the Zambezi  just above the Kazungula Ferry.

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” ~John O’Donohue

The trip was hosted by Elana Erasmus, a superb guide with CNP Safaris. Elana is extremely knowledgeable and is an excellent photographer. One of the unique features of CNP Safaris is that it uses specialised photographic boats from which to shoot wildlife along the banks of the Chobe river. The boat provides a unique perspective, as you are invariably shooting almost at eye level and the wildlife allows the boat much closer than it would a road vehicle.

“The river has great wisdom and whispers its secrets to the hearts of men.” ~ Mark Twain

We visited the Chobe river in mid-June which is just past the time when the river is at its highest. The high water enables the boat to get much closer to the river bank in certain sections of the river.

On our first morning, after a cup of coffee and a rusk at around 6h30, we set off up river. There is a south and north channel past the Sedudu island. We usually take the south channel with the Chobe National park on our left and Sedudu island on our right. It must have been around 7h00 as we had just passed Pygmy Goose bend when we started to hear baboons barking and they sounded agitated. This is a place where we often find baboons beginning a lazy morning sunning themselves along the river bank.

“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.” ~ Laura Gilpin

But, not this morning. The reason was that a lioness was wandering through the bushes along the bank of the river. Baboons have excellent eyesight, so soon discovered her.

The lioness was walking back to meet up with the rest of her pride who were relaxing in the early morning sun high up the river bank among the crotons.

The large troop of baboons had climbed into a large Natal Mahogany tree and proceeded to shout at the lions from their safe arboreal lookout. When the lions got close to the tree the baboons had chosen, they started throwing branches down onto them and urinated on them. Neither reaction seemed to worry the lions much.

As we were watching the antics of the sub adult lions, the pride suddenly took note of a large male lion making his way along the river bank towards them. He had his eyes fixed on them probably to make sure there was no threat.

The male stopped briefly to see what we were up to and quickly assessed we were no threat and soon moved on toward the pride.

With the sunlight fully in the lion’s eyes while he was staring east directly into the sun showed it was still early in the morning.

As the male lion walked up to the pride it was clear that this was his pride and there was no animosity. Most of the youngsters steered clear of the adult male but one lioness seemed very impressed with him. It is not behaviour I have seen before. The female approached him from his right side then walked up behind him. She tried to catch his hind legs with her paws to slow him down. She positioned her head under his under his tail and actively sniffed his gentials without him so much as even turning around to stop her. I have seen male lions doing this to females but never the other way around. I was expecting him to spin around and give her a swipe with his paw but he never did. This was a snapshot from a video I took of this interaction.

A few minutes after the interaction with the lioness, the male went to the other lionesses and greeted them. The pride then walked down to the river and some lions drank from the river and while others started to play. The male lion did participate in the pride’s playfulness nor did he engage with the buffaloes.

Needless to say the baboons did not move from their high lookout. They continued to bark at the lions while they were drinking and playing along the river bank.

The lions were playful and youngsters played with the lionesses. This young female was running alongside a lioness and trying to give her a paw swipe.

“Seek wisdom, not knowledge. Knowledge is of the past, wisdom is of the future” ~ Native American proverb

The youngster connected and hit the lioness on top of her head. Needless to say the female recovered very quickly and soon had the youngster on the ground – another lesson learnt.

The male lion did not partake in the frivolities. He walked back up the river bank in the direction he had come from.

The lions stopped their play once they saw the buffalo bulls walking toward them. The demeanour of the pride changed instantly. The lions were all of sudden more focussed.

These old buffalo bulls, “dagga boys”, were not going to take any challenges from a bunch of young lions. One buffalo bull sent the adults scattering while two youngsters watched from a gap in the bushes. Needless to say once he turned his attention on the two sub adult lions they quickly scattered into the undergrowth. The next four images were snapshots taken from a video of the interaction.

The three dagga boys eventually turned and ran up river along the bank. As soon as the buffaloes started to run away the lions gave chase. As is so often the case, human beings interfered with the natural course of events.

“It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it.” ~ Edward Abbey

The buffalo bulls ran past the vehicle but the lions pulled up adjacent to it, unsure of what it was doing there. An exciting build up to a buffalo-lion interaction was cut short by a tourist vehicle positioned off road and in the way!

We do not often see lions at the water’s edge let alone a buffalo chase. It was exciting to watch the goings on from a respectful distance. This is a key reason why I prefer the boat to a road vehicle.

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

It is always a privilege to spend time photographing wildlife. The Chobe river attracts abundant wildlife and the birdlife along the river is superb even in the autumn and winter months when most of the migrants have headed north.

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

Have fun, Mike

Cheetah wild

The Samara private game reserve is doing remarkable conservation work saving several species and protecting the fragile Karoo environment within its fenceline. One of the many success stories have been the thriving cheetah families in Samara. Chilli, the daughter of Sibella, has recently reared eight cubs to adolescence. Five cubs were her own and three she has “allo-mothered” which were her daughter Inara’s cubs. The circumstances around this unusual “allo-mothering” situation was covered in a previous post.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is natures gift to humanity.” ~ Paul Oxton

This “allo-mothering” situation offers researchers a wonderful opportunity to better understand cheetah’s sociality which may offer new opportunities for rearing orphaned cheetah cubs and add another “string to the bow” of cheetah conservation.

“Conservation efforts today are planting seeds for a future with more balance between growth and diversity. It is buying us time to learn about the wisdom and intricacies which mother nature has to offer. Quietness, acceptance and focus are necessary for us to see beyond just looking. “~ Mike Haworth shows that cub mortality is higher where proximity to large predators is greater in protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves than in non-protected areas. In such areas, the cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. Samara is unusual in that its success with cheetah cubs has been considerably higher as lions were only introduced in 2019 but spend most of their time on the Cambdeboo plateau and so far have not ventured much down onto the plains at the foot of the escarpment.

This adolescent was smelling a scent signpost. Cheetahs have semi-retractable claws which they extend to increase traction when running at speed. Cheetahs sharpen their claws on a tree or fallen log like other cats.

Play among cheetah adolescents is vital. It hones their skills in stalking, chasing, boxing, wrestling, tripping, pouncing – all the tactics they need for hunting as an adult. Cheetahs do not have fully retractable claws like lions and leopards so need to be able to catch and force its prey to the ground by tripping it or forcing to lose its balance at speed and quickly get a grip of the neck to suffociate it.

While cheetahs are not good climbers, as they do not have the large curved claws and the build of a leopard, they do climb trees to get a better lookout to search for prey. They also scent mark on trees. This signpost is normally worth a detailed inspection to understand who has been there previously, their gender and their condition.

“It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” ~ Wendell Berry

Early morning sun in this youngster’s face. According to, cheetahs with their high-set eyes are able to gaze over a wide area, with a 210-degree field of view whereas people can see objects within only 140 degrees. In addition to the position of their eyes, adaptations in the distribution of cells in their retina help them scan the horizon with better acuity. Unlike those nocturnal hunters, cheetahs see better during the day than at night. This is because cheetahs have more cone photoreceptor cells and fewer rod photoreceptor cells in their retina compared with other cats. Black tear markings under the eyes are thought to protect against the sun’s glare and to help focus better on prey.

“I scan the horizon, searching near and far. Looking across the familiar for a sign. I know the bounty is out there. Patience be my virtue, and acuity and speed my ally.” ~ Mike Haworth

Two cheetahs backlit in the morning sun. Reducing the focal length enabled me to show more of the environment in which the cheetahs were hunting. The cheetahs operated at the foot of the escarpment and on the plains at the start of the Great Karoo.

This sub-adult was making its way through the thornveld. I have shown this image to illustrate the cheetahs’ ability to make their way through thick thorn brush. There must be many long acacia thorns on the ground which they seem to be able to negotiate with little trouble.

Each morning we got up to be out with cheetahs before sunrise. We often found them in an elevated section which gave them a good vista from which to scan for potential prey.

“Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.” ~Charles Lindbergh

Looking out from an elevated position. Cheetahs have very good eyesight. Early in the morning they invariably would position themselves looking west so they did not have too look directly into the low aspect early morning sun. The height of the sun can usually be seen by the shadow cast in the cheetah’s eyes.

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!” ~ Stewart Udall

When we say we walked with cheetahs, in reality we mostly followed them. We had been following the cheetah family for a few hours one morning when they moved down toward one of the dry river beds. In a flash, Chilli was dashing through the thornveld. We heard kudu barking and realised she was off after one. When we eventually got down to the riverbed she had killed an adult female kudu. Interestingly, she managed to catch and kill it in the riverbed which was littered with rocks.

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. We can never have enough of nature. “~ Henry David Thoreau

The agility and sure footedness of Chilli was exceptional and being able to take down such big prey in the riverbed highlighted just what a skilled hunter this cheetah mother has become.

The sub-adults practiced their killing technique on this already dead female kudu. The family fed on the kudu for around an hour almost finishing it before Chilli dragged the diminished carcass into the shade. The cheetah family were able to feed in peace but were always looking around alert for any sign of danger.

“We are complicated creatures, and ultimately, the balance comes from this understanding. Be water. Flowing, flexible and soft. Subtly powerful and open. Wild and serene. Able to accept all changes, yet still led by the pull of steady tides. It is enough.” ~ Victoria Erickson

It was becoming clear that the adolescents were becoming sexually active and would soon need to be separated. Mounting each other could be an act of dominance or could be the growing sexual development of these young males. It was clear that it was the males who were trying to mount each other.

One of the reasons why we visited Samara in May was that we expected the sub-adults to be split up because of their growing sexual maturity and it was a unique opportunity to see a family of eight sub-adults cheetahs with their mother.

At around 18 months of age, the mother and her adolescents will separate. Often the male and female siblings need more time to refine their hunting skills so to stay together after the separation from their mother. Once the female begins estrous cycling the dominant male in the area will drive off the female’s brothers. In Samara’s case, the brothers will be sent off to other reserves which are trying to build up their cheetah populations.

Samara’s objective is to regenerate South Africa’s semi-arid Great Karoo region through rewilding and responsible tourism. This private reserve is a member of “The Long Run”, which is an organisation of nature-based tourism businesses committed to driving sustainability. The Long Run organisation conserves over 23-million acres of biodiversity and is in the process improving the lives of 750,000 people living in those areas. The organisation seeks to support, connect and inspire nature-based businesses to excel in following the highest standards of sustainability encompassing Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce (4Cs). Samara strives to achieve a balance of these ‘4Cs’. Judging from its cheetah conservation efforts it is doing a sterling job.

“It seems everything in nature that has beauty, also has a price.
Let the value of our planet’s wildlife be to nature and nature alone.”~ Paul Oxton

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara – cheetah eight

I was among a small group of photographers who spent four days in Samara in May this year with CNP Safaris following and photographing a unique cheetah family.

“The secrets of nature are quietly revealed. Not the way we humans do it with noise and drama. Nature’s uniqueness, extraordinary skills and endurance are revealed quietly to those who take the time to look and appreciate. The truth lies in plain sight for those who care to look.” ~ Mike Haworth

Samara is a private game reserve, 67 000 hectares in area, located about 25 kilometres east, towards the coast, from Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. The reserve’s lodges are positioned at the foot of the Camdeboo escarpment. The game reserve straddles the the Camdeboo plateau, its escarpment and the beginning of the Great Karoo.

In 2003, three rehabilitated cheetahs were introduced into Samara. These were the first cheetahs in the area for around 132 years. There were two males named Mozart and Beethoven and a female, Sibella. The female came from a Cheetah Rehabilitation Center where she recovered after having been badly mauled by a man and his dogs. Once in Samara, Sibella raised 19 cubs to adulthood but sadly died in September 2015 after being wounded while hunting a duiker.

Today, Samara is well-known for its cheetah conservation efforts and Sibella is one of the most famous cheetahs in southern African conservation history. She contributed to just over 14% of the current South Africa’s cheetah meta-population. Her genes are present in 17 cheetah meta-populations around the country.  

Chilli, a daughter from Sibella’s last litter, was raising eight cubs on her own. The cubs are not all her own as three of them were from her daughter Inara. These two female cheetahs, Chilli and Inara were recorded meeting in 2020 when Chilli was eight years old and Inara three years old. Each was accompanied by her own litter of young cubs, born one month apart. After a short period of unease, both mothers settled and the cubs played together. When they eventually moved off in opposite directions, two of Chilli’s cubs, aged three months old, went off with Inara and her four youngsters aged four months old, instead of their own mother. Over the course of a few days, the Samara team witnessed these two cubs suckling from and being groomed by Inara. The mothers met up again a short while later, and once more swapped cubs and suckled cubs other than their own. The mothers continued to interchange their litters for some time until one day Chilli moved into new territory, taking all the cubs with her.

These two female cheetahs, both with cubs, exhibited what is known as “allo-mothering,” which is when young are cared for by individuals other than their biological mother. While this phenomenon has been witnessed in elephant herds, lion prides and several bird species, until now it had not been witnessed among cheetah. Female cheetahs are usually solitary except when rearing their own cubs.

Inara, left alone, eventually mated again and gave birth to two cubs which she has subsequently raised by herself.

“I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire.
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.” ~ Saint Patrick

The terrain at the foot of the Camdeboo escarpment is rugged, and very stony in places with lots of acacia thorn trees. I am amazed that these cheetahs can operate so well in difficult conditions under foot. Chilli on her own is a formidable hunter. She needs to be to feed such a large family. As the cubs have grown they have increasing joined in the hunt. This cheetah family now hunts everything from adult female kudu to young eland, springbok and sometimes young warthog.

“Land really is the best art”. ~Andy Warhol

There is a healthy population of kudu and eland in the reserve and for now the lions, which were reintroduced into Samara in early 2019, seem to prefer the Camdeboo plateau. One lionesses has ventured down onto the plains at the foot of the Cambedoo escarpment with dramatic effects on the aardvark population. No doubt the lions will affect the cheetah family dynamics in the months and years ahead.

“One of the things I love about my wanderings in the bush is that every time I think I am beginning to sense the interconnections, I am reminded that the the depth and complexity of nature’s interactions are far wider than my imagination and I am left in a state of wonder.” ~ Mike Haworth

Chilli is hunting every day for her tribe. A young kudu is just enough. Feeding time seems to be a tense affair which makes these cheetah sub-adults skittish. They often give each other a fright when reacting to an unknown sound from the surrounding bush.

It is exceptional to see a female cheetah successfully bringing up a family of eight cubs. Samara gives visitors the opportunity to get off the vehicle and walk with the cheetahs. It is an amazing experience to be able to sit quietly in the bush watching the cheetahs playing and cleaning the blood off each others faces after a meal. The rangers insist on visitors keeping a respectful distance from the cheetahs but sometimes the youngsters walk straight past you a metre to two away. We say we walk with cheetahs but mostly we follow!

“True inspiration comes from within. It is an intuitive recognition. It is a voice deep inside. Learn to listen to it. You have the wisdom within. It comes from incarnations of learning”~ Mike Haworth

One the reasons for going to Samara for a second time in just over a a year was that the sub-adults were due to be relocated to different reserves around South Africa to expand their metapopulations. This visit gave us an opportunity to see and experience this unique natural wonder of eight sub-adult cheetahs and their mother for which we were all extremely grateful.

“Wilderness of not a place. It is a way of life. Conservation of nature is the conservation of a sacred attitude to our world.” ~Alan McSmith

In the mornings and evenings the light can change dramatically with shafts of light illuminating corridors of thorn veld while putting the mountains in to deep shadow. The changing colour and intensity of the light in this part of the world adds so much interest to our photography.

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

Have fun, Mike

Samara – prelude

Lou Coetzer of CNP Safaris invited us to see and photograph an unusual wildlife experience in Samara in May this year. Samara is private game reserve about 25 kilometres south east of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It is 67 0000 hectares in area and was formed by the acquisition of surrounding farms, with the initial farm being Monkey Valley. The owners of Samara wanted to acquire enough land to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that could carry wildlife in the fragile Great Karoo environment.

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth! “~ Stewart Udall

This was the second time I have been to Samara. The first visit revealed rhino, cheetah, aardvark, giraffe, black wildebeest, ground squirrels and blue cranes set in vast magnificent landscapes. So I had an idea of what to expect from a wildlife and landscape perspective. This visit was primarily to see a cheetah mother called Chilli and her eight adolescents. Being adolescents, they were close to being forced to strike out on their own. Samara’s raison d’être is conservation so most of the adolescent cheetahs were destined for new homes in other reserves which wanted cheetahs. This meant there was limited time to experience a cheetah mother operating in the wild with her eight adolescents.

Eight cheetah adolescents is highly unusual. Cheetah mothers produce between one and six cubs after a gestation period of around 93 days. It is unusual to find more than four cubs. According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, there are three stages in the life cycle of the cheetah: cub (birth to 18 months), adolescence (18 to 24 months) and adult life (24 months to on average 12 years).

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Samara is vast and the landscape is rugged. To be able to find Chilli and her family, the rangers used telemetry. Chilli had a VHF telemetry collar. This system is directional and the intensity of the beeps give some idea of distance. Down on the plains of the Great Karoo there are areas of thick bush as you can see from the next image. This Shepherd tree in the foreground overlooked one of the main areas in which the cheetahs were operating

On our first day of this trip we found many herbivores, the largest of which were the South African Giraffe, a subspecies of the Southern Giraffe. At present, the South African Giraffe population is estimated at 29,650 individuals, showing a marked increase over the past three decades. An assessment of the South African Giraffe for the IUCN Red List is ongoing, but with the large increase it will most likely result in a listing of Least Concern.

We found a family herd of nine adult giraffe. Unlike eland they do not run away as soon as they see you. In fact they can be quite curious and will stand to look intently at you. It is only when you get to within that “fight or flight” distance do they walk or run off.

“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” ~ James Allen

On our first afternoon, there were clouds to the west which cast deep shadows on the relief of the Camdeboo escarpment emphasising the ruggedness and creating different moods.

Judging from the amount of hair on top of their ossicones, most of the herd seemed to be females. The males had worn most of the hair off their ossicones while sparring and fighting each other. The males also have a distinct penal bump at the lower part of their belly.

Lions were first introduced into Samara in early 2019. They were the first free-roaming lions in the area for 180 years. One of the ways to find a predator is to look in the direction that a giraffe is steadfastly staring. The lion do not have a pride large enough to take down giraffe in Samara and the lions have remained mostly on the Camdeboo plateau where there is plenty of food, most notably black wildebeest.

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.” ~ Wendell Berry

At dusk on our first afternoon we found Chilli and her family. With a family of eight adolescents and herself, she needed to hunt every day. Chilli hunted everything from springbok to young eland and kudu.

The introduction of lion into Samara will inevitably change the cheetah dynamics. For now the lions seem to prefer the plains on the plateau and the cheetah the lower plains at the foot of the Camdeboo escarpment. Once the lions increasingly occupy the lower plain they will inevitably start killing the cheetah cubs so the chances of ever seeing another eight member adolescent cheetah family will be very low in future years.

“Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people, it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for Man.” ~ Thomas Lovejoy

Twenty-four years ago Sarah Thompson and her husband bought the first farm which would form the nucleus of Samara. Since that time this Samara team under Sarah Thompson’s guidance has built up a substantial private game reserve where its essence is rooted in conservation and returning this game reserve to its natural ecological state. Samara has produced many conservation firsts in this area. One was the reintroduction of cheetah to this area in 2003 after having been missing for 125 years.

“Life in the natural world is more wonderous than we could ever imagine. There is strength, fortitude and intelligence beyond our imagination. Once we quieten down and observe we begin to see connections which were not evident to a passer by. With respectful, quiet observation we could learn much.” ~ Mike Haworth

Chilli’s story is an intriguing one which I will begin to describe in my next post.

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

Have fun, Mike

Nakuru’s forest dwellers

The Nakuru area lies within the inner graben of the central Kenya rift valley. Lake Nakuru’s graben lies between LionHill Volcano and the Mau Escarpment, the west wall of the Rift Valley, the base of which lies within the south-west corner of the area. Lake Nakuru is a shallow pan which never fills to a depth of more than a few feet but the level does fluctuate. Nakuru is characterised by its graben, the shallow alkaline lake which attracts many flamingoes and a huge fever tree forest.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir

The Rhino Sanctuary in Lake Nakuru National Park was the first Rhino sanctuary in Kenya and is currently home to the largest number of black rhinos in the country. Currently the rhino sanctuary in Lake Nakuru National Park boasts 150 rhinos with 80% being white rhinos and 20% being black rhinos. The rhino sanctuary was established in 1984 when the first two rhinos were introduced to the lake Nakuru National Park. This national park was chosen as the first Rhino sanctuary as it was already a bird sanctuary and it had the needed land for the rhinos. The lake area provides the water the rhinos need every day and the vegetation in the park is also suitable for both the white and black rhinos.

The Fever trees in this forest are huge. The fever tree is the only tree species on earth whose bark performs the photosynthesis process instead of its leaves. Fever trees grow incredibly fast – they can reach a height of over 25m and grow in height approximately 1.5m annually. The Rift Valley forms the eastern distribution limit of the Defassa Waterbuck, which occur in grassland and open forest and scrub.

A DeFassa waterbuck female and her calf foraging in thick grass in the forest understory. The species is a grazer and always found where there is water nearby. It is classified by IUCN as Near Threatened, with a total population of about 95 000.

According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the latest taxonomy study reveals that there are four distinct species; the Masai, Northern, Reticulated and Southern Giraffe. The Rothschild’s Giraffe is one subspecies of the Northern Giraffe. All four giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout Africa.

The Rothschild’s Giraffe is the tallest of the four distinct species and five subspecies. It has a distinct colouring and coat patterning. Each giraffe has a different pattern just like humans have distinct fingerprints. This species of giraffe is paler, and has orange-brown patches which are less jagged in shape. This giraffe has no markings on its lower legs and under belly, which are predominately creamy white. The Rothschild’s Giraffe stands in stark contrast to the dark greens and yellows of the fever tree forest. The next image gives a sense of how tall the trees are in the fever tree forest south of Lake Nakuru. Today, fewer than 3 000 Rothschild’s giraffes are left in Africa, with about 800 in Kenya.

“I feel a great regard for trees; they represent age and beauty and the miracles of life and growth.” – Louise Dickinson Rich

The Rothschild’s Giraffe is the only giraffe species to be born with five ossicones. Two of these are the larger and more obvious ones at the top of the head, which are common to all giraffes. The third ossicone can often be seen in the center of the giraffe’s forehead, and the other two are behind each ear. This species of giraffe is also taller than many other populations, measuring up to 5.88 metres or 19.3 feet tall. Males are larger than females and feed on different parts of the trees. Rothschild’s Giraffe feed on leaves, flowers, seedpods, and fruits in areas where the savanna floor is salty or full of minerals.

There are small open patches in the forest which provide room for grazers such as this male impala.

“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” ~Hilaire Belloc

Fever tree forests vary in density throughout the southern section of the park with some areas which are less dense allowing the sunlight to reach the ground. Fever trees are indigenous to southern and eastern Africa. Their preferred habitat is warm and humid conditions with access to plenty of water.

I absolutely love the feeling of driving slowly through the forest. It is cool and quiet but for bird calls. It is dense, and there is a bluish hue among the trees in the early morning and these areas are just bursting with life.

“Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don’t see what goes on underground – as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don’t see the roots. We just see and enjoy the beauty. In much the same way, what goes on inside of us is like the roots of a tree.” – Joyce Meyer

The Eastern Black and White Colobus monkey is the most arboreal of all African monkeys. The only other place I have seen them has been along the Grumeti river in the western corridor of the Serengeti. They have beautiful black fur which contrasts with the long white mantle, whiskers, bushy tail, and beard around their black face. These monkeys are territorial and live in groups of as many as fifteen individuals.

“The wandering photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He, however, stops to watch it.” ~ Edouard Boubat

The name “Colobus” is derived from the Greek word for “mutilated,” because unlike other monkeys, Colobus monkeys do not have thumbs. There are two types of Colobus monkeys, the Angolan and the Eastern Black and White species. These Colobus monkeys are herbivores, eating leaves, fruit, flowers lichen and bark and have a ruminant-like digestive system.

Our sighting of this elusive very shy leopardess was down purely to good guiding from Mike Laubscher. We were driving on the road along the LionHill side of the lake. Mike heard Vervet monkeys’ alarm calling and they were persistent suggesting that the threat was still close to them. We found another side road closer to the Vervet monkeys and that gave us an opportunity to see which way the Vervets were looking. Mike scoured the fever trees with his binoculars in the direction the Vervets were looking and after about a quarter of an hour he spotted this leopardess lying on the large yellow bough of a huge fever tree. The leopardess was lying in deep shade so was very difficult to see her initially.

Leopards are notoriously secretive in this forest environment and given the colour of their coats against the fever tree branches it can be extremely difficult to see one. Once we had a fix on her she continued lying on the bough for another few minutes before deciding to descend the tree to get out of view from all concerned.

We found a pair of Bushbuck foraging in the thick verdant understory. They were very shy and as soon as they saw us on the road, which cut through the forest, they bolted for deeper cover. The Bushbuck’s diet consists mainly of leaves, herbs, twigs and flowers of different plant types and as a browser it seldom consumes grass. The Bushbuck is the only non-territorial and solitary African antelope.

Fever tree haves a very shallow root system so you will see many fallen tree trunks in the forest. This is an alluring feature for photographers because there is always the possibility of a raptor or a leopard or lion on the fallen tree trunk.

“If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” ~ Alan Watts

We got out of the vehicle and had a cup of coffee near this large fallen Fever tree trunk. It was absolutely beautiful. The understory is not easy to walk through and there are plenty of stinging nettles, which we soon discovered.

I was fortunate enough to spend ten days travelling around the Amboseli and Lake Nakuru National Parks with Mike Laubscher, a guide from Wild Eye. A big thank you to Mike for a fun and productive trip showing us around two fascinating and very different national parks in Kenya. A big thank you also to guide Jimmy who drove us around Amboseli and who has the most incredible eyesight and ability to predict the animal’s movement which enabled us to get into good photographic positions. Also to Sammy for driving us up to Lake Nakuru from Nairobi and back which was quite an exercise in its own right and for showing us around Lake Nakuru National Park and giving us some memorable sightings of rare mammals and birds. The guides from Wild Eye made a wonderful team without which we not have seen and experienced nearly as much as we did – thank you!

“I know not how I may seem to others, but to myself I am but a small child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge, every now and then finding a small bright pebble to content myself with” ~ Plato

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

Have fun, Mike

Nakuru- lions and buffalo

Lake Nakuru National Park is full of surprises for a first time visitor.

“Wandering the rift takes you through ancient times, travelling into unfamilar places which open your sense to timelessness and wonder.” ~ Mike Haworth

We saw lion and a leopard in Lake Nakuru National Park. We never saw hyaena or even heard them. The forest environment seems to be ideal for servals, civets and genets, but being nocturnal and having to be back in camp by 18h00 we never got to see any of these species.

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

There is an abundance of grazers varying from buffalo, Rothchild’s giraffe to Debussa waterbuck, eland and zebra. There are also the smaller antelope such as bushbuck and impala but we never saw any duiker. The next image is of two old buffalo bulls, we call them “dagga boys” because they are often covered in mud and their bosses are caked with mud after a good wallow in a mud pool. These two old boys were lying down under the shade of a tree in the late morning.

We found a lioness with her three cubs near a buffalo kill on our first morning on the southbound section of the ring road south of the lake. The next day we found two male lions in the south west section of the park. They were traversing an open grassland to find shade under a small tree, much like the buffaloes.

“Wherever you go becomes part of you somehow.” ~ Anita Desai

When one lion is walking up to another one, either it is moving in to greet the other lion or there will be a fight. On this occasion, the first male lion lying in the shade of a small tree was greeted with head rubbing by the approaching male. Many of the cats were collared in the park- a sign of the times. There is much research underway and it certainly makes it easier to find them in this well forested park.

After the initial greeting the second male lay down in the shade next to his coalition partner. The male on the left of the image looked to be older than the male on the right judging from the darkness of his mane. Interestingly, both males were not “flat cats” but remained alert and sitting up while we were watching them in mid-morning. Something must have had their attention which we had not seen, heard or smelt.

The first male to lie down in the shade looked to be around five years old judging from the length and colour of his mane and the condition of his teeth. He had flies all over him which did not seem to bother him much – and they were probably the stinging type!

You can see from the condition of his ears that he must have been in some tangles but his teeth were in good condition.

” Life is etched in that face. A male lion’s journey is etched with scars and torn ears. His eyes remain steady, his heart strong. He has earned his place”~ Mike Haworth

We travelled along the same road the next day only to find this scene. A male and female lion together, probably in their mating phase, then, buffalo emerged from the gloom of the forest and began chasing them into the grassland. The lions seemed to prefer to operate along the edge of the forest during the day, probably because of the abundance of shade.

This buffalo bull was not going to tolerate the mating pair anywhere near his herd and continued to push them away from the herd which was just inside the edge of the forest.

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

There are many buffalo in Lake Nakuru National Park. They seem to enjoy the forest and the wet conditions around the lake.

The next image is of two adult but young buffalo bulls mock fighting. They were just pushing each other around with their bosses, nothing serious. When their bosses connected it made quite a cracking sound.

“The main difference between play and playfulness is that play is an activity while playfulness is an attitude.” ~ Miguel Sicart

On our last day in the park, it was early morning and we were travelling along the southern ring road when we came upon this lioness walking along the road. As she wandered along the road she would sometimes stop and listen and at other times detour to the embankment next to the road to investigate a sound or a smell. After about five minutes of following her she heard buffalo on the Lion Hill ridge. Immediately she crossed the road and started to work her way up the ridge to get into a better position to assess the meal potential. As time passed the herd moved down the ridge and in doing so began to split up. This calf was separated from its mother, an opportunity which was not missed by the lioness. For some inexplicable reason she did not immediately attack the calf despite getting within approximately 20 metres of it.

The calf stopped, seeming to sense that the lioness was close by. We held our breath thinking we were about to witness an ambush. A few seconds passed the the calf moved on down the ridge and to our surprise the lioness just sat and watched the calf walk away.

The lioness did not attack the buffalo calf. We did not expect her to abandon the hunt but we did not also see what she saw and could not possible judge whether the odds were in her favour. The calf lived to see another day and we were left with a little magic.

Nakuru was not a place I expected to see such interactions with buffalo and lion. I am reminded every time I go into the bush to leave my perceived ideas back in camp. Our limited ideas about the dynamics in the bush only serve to remind us of how much we still have to learn and understand.

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong

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

Have fun, Mike