Kruger Park – mixed success

Winter in the lowveld in Kruger Park is not cold. It gets cool in the evening and early morning but not icy. By midday the temperature will rise to around 30 degrees centigrade. So winter is a good time to visit the lowveld if you are one of those people who melt in the heat.

“The raw materials of photography are light and time and memory.”

~  Keith Carter

We tried the Phabeni gate in south west Kruger Park again, being eternal optimists, but we got another lengthy queue and some “agro” from a park official handing out the entrance forms. We eventually got close to Skukuza by mid-morning. So we decided to stop in at Lake Panic which is about ten minute drive from Skukuza. We tried the hide the previous day but it was full. We always visit the hide at Lake Panic with great expectation. This time it turned out to be exceptionally quiet. We saw a few hippos wallowing in the section of the dam that stretched out to the east. There was a family of Water Dikkops roosting by the water’s edge. The Water Dikkops do not have spots and have  greyish-fawn colouring on their secondary wing feathers with a black and white stripe on their greater wing coverts. The Water Dikkops also have a quite a different call to the Spotted Dikkops and tend to be found close to water. These are also nocturnal birds so were quite sleepy by mid-morning.

“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.”

~Aaron Rose

I can not resist photographing water lilies. Their symmetry and shape fascinates me and is an example of the nature’s perfection. There were no jacanas to trot on them and flatten some of that symmetry. In the mornings the area around the hide is covered in shadows. The Lake Panic is essentially an afternoon hide.

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”

~ Dorothea Lange

We have seldom seen crocodiles around the hide but this time there were two crocs and they were intently watching the dikkops and a grey heron which were resting close to the water’s edge.

There are a number of tantalizingly good perches on the south side of the hide. Perfect for kingfishers, weavers and even goshawks but alas these perches remained statues for potential use.

A family of White-faced whistling ducks came to visit and bath next to the hide. The two youngsters caught a mid-morning nap in the warming sun after bathing while their parents kept watch.

Lake Panic was frustratingly quiet but nature has her own rhythms. We travelled past Skukuza on our way to Leeupan which is approximately half way between Skukuza and Satara, traveling north. In the past, we have had some productive mornings at Leeupan. It is a morning pan, as the sun is behind you as one predominately faces west when  looking across the pan. As photographers we start to categorize the various dams and pans into morning and afternoon locations according to the direction of the sun. From Skukuza you have to cross the Sabie river on the way to Leeupan. We took the H1-2 which crosses the Sabie river just downstream of Skukuza. It was a wonderful sight to see plenty of water still flowing in the Sabie, especially after the severe drought six months before.

During the morning we had noticed numerous flocks of queleas flying around. Sometimes small flocks combine to form one large flock and the sweeping movements of the flock  become a murmuration.

It is quite a spectacle to see hundreds of thousands of these little queleas all stopping to drink at the same time and then flying off together in what looks to be one big organism.

We were not very successful at Leeupan as it had mostly dried up with only odd shallow pool of water remaining. There was one lone elephant bull quietly drinking from a pool on the far side of the pan.  Despite the lack of wildlife action, it was very pleasant just sitting listening to the peace and quiet. It is a million times better than the drone of the traffic, barking dogs and house alarms in town.

“Paint your picture by means of the lights. Lights define texture and color – shadows define form.”

 ~Howard Pyle

From Leeupan, we decided to travel back to Skukuza and then on to Transport dam via Waterhole road which was on our way back to the Phabeni gate. On the Waterhole road there is a concrete causeway across the wide N’waswitshaka river. There we saw this two year old kudu bull, one of two, which were browsing on the vegetation along the side of the river.

Just further along  Waterhole road is a water reservoir supplying water to a drinking trough which is always a magnet for game. We found about seven giraffe hanging around the reservoir. I am assuming they can can drink directly from the full reservoir which is why they were there.  Close to the reservoir is a small pond. I took this photograph of a flotilla of terrapins sunbathing on what looked to be a boulder in the middle of this pond.

“Minds need the unusual, because the unusual has the power to shake the mind!”
Mehmet Murat ildan

The boulder turned out to have a snout and ears. This lone hippo was providing much needed support for the community.

The hippo did not seem to mind the congregation on its back.

This White-crowned Shrike just sat there begging for its photograph to be taken….and I obliged.

“There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”       

~Edith Wharton

Further along the Waterhole road toward Transport dam there are two granite kopjies, one either side of the road. On the west side, we found this male Klipspinger warming itself on a boulder.

As you can see from the colouring, these Klipspringers blend in well with their surroundings.

Only male Klipspringers have horns and they have very coarse hair which acts as good insulation on cold nights up on the kopjies. Klipspringers’ dense, coarse coats consist of hollow hairs which rustle when shaken or touched. This coat of unique hair is tough enough to cushion their bodies from any abrasion from sharp rocks.

Eventually something or some noise disturbed him and he jumped up and dashed off on the higher boulders.

“As we work to create light for others, we naturally light our own way.”      

~Mary Anne Radmacher

This is a typical view as you are driving south along the Waterhole road.

We went on down to Transport dam but it was also very quiet so drove back along Waterhole road and down to the Phabeni gate. Around nine kilometers from Phabeni gate is the Nyamundwa dam where we found a pair of fish eagles perched next to their nest. It looked as if they were in the process of re-establishing their nest as they usually breed in the winter.

Another view of the hills in the distance as you are driving down towards the Phabeni gate in the mid-afternoon.

“Travel light, live light, spread light and be the light.”

~Yogi Bhajan

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

Have fun,

Mike

Kruger Park – south west corner

We spent four days in the Kruger National Park in mid-June. I was very interested to see how the Kruger Park (or the Park or Kruger as it is known by South Africans) had recovered from the recent devastating drought after good summer rains.  The restorative power of nature has to be seen to be believed.

“Nature is bent on new beginning and death has not a chance of winning…”
~ Rosy Cole

After a much delayed entrance to the Park  via the Phabeni gate we entered the Reserve. I have not been into the Kruger Park for three or four years and I was struck by two aspects. The queues, on two separate mornings, to get into the park first thing took not less than 45 minutes to get through a single manned gate despite two gates being available  and many park officials milling around. The second aspect was the quantum of traffic in the Park. In the last few years, the traffic in the Park has doubled, if not trebled. It was not school holidays or any public holiday. For wildlife photography this is not ideal.  Kruger has always been a relatively difficult place for wildlife photography because the backgrounds are generally “busy” but with the extra traffic it is now difficult to sit quietly waiting for a situation to develop because in no time there are cars all around wondering what you are looking at. After our long wait at the gate we had missed some of the golden light and the sun had begun to climb in the sky. Thankfully at this time of the year the temperatures are moderate. It is a cool 12 degrees centigrade first thing at sunrise but by midday the temperature had climbed to 30 degrees centigrade. In summer it is much warmer.

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

~John Muir

The Kruger National Park is approximately 2 million hectares  in area, which makes it a similar size to Israel and about a third of the size of Ireland. The Park is roughly 360 kilometers long (north to south) and averages 65 kilometers in width, and 90 kilometers at its widest point. Being so big you have to plan  your day trip as the Park opens at 6h00 and closes at 17h30. With a maximum allowed vehicle speed of 50 kms per hour (mainly for the safety of the animals and birds) it is easy to misjudge your exit time, especially if you get caught up in a traffic jam around some lions or a herd of elephants hold you up.. 

Kruger Park is on the right hand side of South Africa so as a day visitor you drive into the sun in the morning and again into the sun when you are leaving (the Park) in the afternoon. On our first day, we decided to enter at the Phabeni gate travel down to Pretoriuskop camp in the south west part of the Park, and drive along Napi road toward the centre of the south end of the Park. We stopped at Shitlhave dam and Transport dam. We then took the Waterhole road to get back to Skukuza, the main camp in the centre of the south part of the Park. From there we travelled up to Leeupan which, traveling north, is about half way along the H1-2 to Satara camp. Leeupan was the limit of our day trip so from there we retraced our journey to Skukuza and went out through the Phabeni gate. That trip took us 11 hours of driving and stopping at the dams to watch and photograph the game.

In the past, Pretoriuskop camp has yielded some wonderful bird photography, but not this time. Between Pretoriuskop and Skukuza camps you will pass the Shitlhave and Transport dams, which usually attract a variety of wildlife. We stopped at Shitlhave dam and found a herd of waterbuck browsing along the water’s edge.  

Part of the herd of waterbuck were grazing along the side of the dam.With the wind blowing lightly they were very wary as their senses (smell and hearing) get distorted in the wind.

The females kept a wary eye on this crocodile warming itself in the winter sun. The croc would was never likely to catch a waterbuck on land especially when they could see it.

The innocence of youth.

This young waterbuck was very inquisitive.

The dominant waterbuck bull might have ruled all the perimeter of the dam and intimidated the kudu and impala but had a tough time getting rid of an itch on his back.

This young waterbuck female’s face was quizzical and angelic.

As the morning progressed more and more wildlife came to the dam for a drink. A small family herd of kudu wandered down for a drink but they were very skittish.

This young kudu bull must have been about a year old judging from his small horns. It usually takes about four years for a bull to grow the full two and a half twists to his horns.

It was still the tail end of the impala rutting season so this male was snorting at the prospect of other males coming down to drink at the dam.

“In a cool solitude of trees
Where leaves and birds a music spin,
Mind that was weary is at ease,
New rhythms in the soul begin.”
William Kean Seymour

There is usually no causeway across a small sand river bed. Despite this I like to stop in the river bed to have a look up and down the river. Sometimes you find elephants or kudu browsing on the bushes along the river bank or, if you are lucky, a few lions lying in the shade on the cool sand. Either way I am always expecting to see something interesting.

You will find the Impala lily in the drier parts of the bush. In winter, it’s striking colours are a stark contrast to the fading greens, fawns and yellows.

Across wide sand rivers there is usually a concrete causeway. This next image was taken from the middle of such a causeway. There were still pools of water at the edge of the river. Surprisingly it looked like it was going to rain, but it never did.

Hornbills are ubiquitous in Kruger. This is an African Grey Hornbill. It has a very different call to the red and yellow-billed hornbills. Its call  is described as thin, piping and plaintive. 

You can tell this was a male Grey Hornbill as his bill was dark with a creamy section on his upper mandible and a prominent casque. The female has a smaller casque and her top mandible is mostly creamy white  and the lower mandible has a red tip to it.

We wandered through Skukuza hoping to find sunbirds on the aloes. Most of the aloes were gone and we did not find any sunbirds but we saw this Crowned Hornbill. It has a casque along most of its upper mandible and its bill and casque are red.

Although described as fairly common, I have rarely seen Crowned Hornbills in the park. You are more likely to hear its melancholic call coming from the thick woodland vegetation.

Up at Leeupan, the water had mostly evaporated. We saw some elephants and a pair of Saddle-billed Storks resting next to the pan. This male Saddle-billed Stork was resting, kneeling down with his legs bend in front of him. The impala ram was escorting a few red-billed oxpeckers.

The peace and quiet did not last long for this male Saddle-billed Stork. The matriarch moved him out of the way of her family and did not try to walk around him.

There were a lot of insects, especially grasshoppers. This made easy pickings for the birds and baboons alike. This male  baboon was just finishing off a succulent grasshopper.

An evocative image of the road down the hill towards the Phabeni gate in the late winter afternoon.

Kruger Park is an iconic game reserve with a rich history. For game viewers, it is a wonderful way to see the African bush and a variety of wildlife. For wildlife photographers it is all together more challenging. Being a day visitor makes it even more difficult to get good photographs. It makes a lot of sense to stay inside the park at one of the camps or lodges. The day visitor entrance process to the park is tedious but necessary given the high level of poaching in the park, not the least of which is rhinos.

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only to what we know about nature.”

~St Augustine

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

Chobe rainy days and Sundays

Our recent trip to Chobe was a five day stay. April is in-between season, still warm with rain, but the evenings were starting to cool down. The clouds provided some wonderful drama to our landscapes and sunsets during the first few days. By Saturday, our second last day, it  had become very overcast and dark, curtailing  our photography on the boat. There was also a lot of wind which the animals do not like. The wind disrupts their senses making them much more cautious and birds seek shelter from the gusting wind and rain. By afternoon it was raining so we did not go out on the boat and it was still raining on the Sunday morning.

“The sound of the rain needs no translation.”

~Alan Watts

Usually when the weather is like this we retire to a convenient place to edit our images and chat amongst each other, which is great fun. The rain was intermittent, stopping allowing the light to brighten at times. It was amazing to see the amount of wildlife living in and around the lodge which came out to play as soon as the rain stopped. There was little active bird life, but the animals were busy. A large family of banded mongooses lived in burrows under some of the lodge’s rooms. They came out to play and forage once the rain stopped. A warthog family also came out to forage on the lush lawn in front of the rooms, and Vervet monkeys were always around the lodge trying to steal food from the dining area and from visitors’ rooms, if unsuspecting visitors left their doors open. The baboons also trooped across the lawns, ever the opportuntists, and we were graced by a beautiful, dainty bushbuck doe which surprisingly emerged from behind a wooden fence.

“He spread out his hood more than ever, and Rikki-tikki saw the spectacle-mark on the back of it that looks exactly like the eye part of a hook-and-eye fastening. He was afraid for the minute, but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time, and though Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before, his mother had fed him on dead ones, and he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too and, at the bottom of his cold heart, he was afraid.”
― Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

One thing I have learnt from wildlife photography is that the weather and lighting might change but new unforeseen photographic opportunities present themselves for those who are willing to wait and watch. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in the bush and seen Banded Mongooses but never been able to photograph them up close. Despite the “grotty” weather this opportunity opened up. In wildlife photography when there is such changeable weather, “it is never over until it is over” and expect the unexpected.

The banded mongoose has bands of fawn hair on its back. This was the alpha male in the pack – there is usually only one. A pack of banded mongooses can swell to 40 individuals.

Rudyard Kipling never described what type of mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi was  – but he was a valiant young Indian Mongoose. Mongooses eat everything from beetles and grubs to snakes. They seem to be fearless when tackling a venomous snake.

“The motto of all the mongoose family is, “Run and find out,” and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose.”
~ Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Banded Mongooses live in permanent and cohesive large packs. They are very sociable and talkative creatures.

They live in woodland savanna areas where they can find beetles, insects and smaller reptiles.  The lodge seems to provide them with a wide variety of these edibles.

Like many bands of animals they form nurseries where a few adults look after the nursery of youngsters while the other adults go off to forage. Usually the births are synchronized and all pack members help to look after the young.

Breeding is normally restricted to the rainy season, and during her life time a female averages three litters every two years.

Banded Mongooses are a tasty snack for predators  such as cheetah, jackal, leopards and young lions.

The young were very small and still “tottery” on their little legs. They always stayed very close to their attendant adult.

“It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose.”
~ Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Banded Mongooses work together in groups to fend off predators, mainly to make the group look like one large mobile creature. The key objective being to protect their young and elderly. Sounds like humans could learn an thing or two from our little band of friends.

“Without rain nothing grows, learn to embrace the storms of your life.”

As cute as many of these animals look they are wild. The warthog’s tusks are there for a reason and are known to rip open the belly of a lion, they are not for show. This boar had particularly small tusks, I am not sure why as he looked fully grown.

A warthog sow with her brood, kneeling and grateful for the easy, protected, abundant food.

These youngsters had major whiskers. In fact, this warthog family were the hairiest I have ever seen. 

“Hakuna Matata it means no worries for the rest of your days”

~The Lion King

“Its the circle of life, and it moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love. Till we find out place on this path unwinding.”

~The Lion King

From behind the wooden fence emerged this beautiful young bushbuck doe. Bushbuck are normally elusive and they are browsers so it was quite a surprise to see this delicate bushbuck emerge.

“Wherever you go no matter what the weather, bring your own sunshine.”

~Anthony J D’Angelo

She seemed quite habituated to all the people milling around. Bushbuck are active around 24 hours a day, but tend to be nocturnal near human habitations.

Vervet Monkeys are certainly habituated to people, in fact they thrive on human’s casualness, the more distractions, the better.  Nevertheless, there is always a scout up in the tree watching for predators or lodge guards with catapults. Vervet’s main predators are Martial Eagles, pythons and leopards. They have different alarm calls for each. I am not sure what the alarm call is for a guard with a catapult.

There were many Vervet’s running back and forth. Invariably they found something to munch on, in some cases stolen from the buffet at the dining area.

This very small youngster caught my eye, as curiosity overtook naiveté. 

“You never judge a day by its weather.”

~Zig Ziglar

I could not get over how human-like many of its expressions were, especially those hands!!!

The body of this little imp must have been the size of my hand, but it was fully self sufficient

I hope these few images show that if you keep your eyes open and your camera ready there are always opportunities regardless of the weather. The wildlife was prolific around the lodge as is usually the case because there is plenty of food. We were at the Chobe Safari lodge for a photographic boat safari but mother nature often has other plans. The trick is to go with the flow and keep your eyes open and camera ready for opportunities and they will come, whether you expect them of not. 

A special thanks to Johan Brits who was our CNP guide – it was a wonderful trip. Thanks also to Kwana for driving the boat and getting us into and out of the most amazing places.

“Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

~Elliot Erwitt

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

A gallery of Chobe’s feathers

In this post I have chosen to let the images talk for themselves rather than tell stories. This post is a gallery and hope fully the images are enough. This gallery shows you the wonderful variety of birdlife you can see along the Chobe river. As I have mentioned in earlier posts on this trip, we did not see big flocks of birds but we saw a wide variety of Chobe’s avian  residents. This is a small selection of what you can see in April along the Chobe river. At any time of the year this is a paradise for birders and wildlife photographers alike. In this post I have shown birds not already presented in previous posts from this trip, so it excludes raptors and Jacanas.

“The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds – how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holiday-lives, and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!”

~John Burroughs

A pair of  Pygmy Geese, male on the left and female on the right. The female usually flies first, so be ready!

A male Pygmy Goose, he is quite vocal when agitated.

“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.”

~Henri Bartier-Bresson

A male Pygmy Goose takes off like a “pocket rocket”.

A Squacco Heron in hunting mode.

“Taking pictures is like savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”

~Marc Riboud

A Squacco Heron standing dead still waiting for prey to come within striking distance.

A Darter, also called the snake bird, because of its long supple neck.

“A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.”

~ Ansel Adams

This snake bird was drying its wings in the warm, late afternoon sun.

All over preening flexibility, with style.

A Great Egret hunting.

“It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.”

~Aesop

Small success for the Great Egret.

A Black-headed Heron shaking it up.

A Black Egret with frogs legs for breakfast.

Frog tossing for smooth swallowing.

“At first glance a photograph can inform us. At second glance it can reach us.”

~ Minor White

Black Egret emerging from its hunting “umbrella”. 

A pair of Red-billed Oxpeckers on the back of a buffalo bull.

A pair of Pied Kingfishers.

“Reaching a ‘creative’ state of mind thru positive action is considered preferable to waiting for ‘inspiration’.”

~ Minor White

A Pied Kingfisher hovering in hunt.

A Pied Kingfisher rearranging its catch.

A Pied Kingfisher subduing its breakfast.

A Woodland Kingfisher caught a Mantis while it was praying.

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

~ Minor White

Billed for a Praying Mantis dance on a woodland stage.

A sleepy nocturnal Water Dikkop in mid-morning.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

~John Muir

Those big eyes are all the better for seeing you at night.

 

You will never find the Water Dikkops far from the water’s edge.

A Sacred Ibis beach combing.

Egyptian Goose bathing.

Making quite a splash.

Like water off a goose’s back!

A Blacksmith Lapwing on a sortie to attack Jacana chicks on the adjacent water lily pads.

A Cattle Egret enjoying the late afternoon sun.

“We talk of communing with Nature, but ’tis with ourselves we commune… Nature furnishes the conditions – the solitude – and the soul furnishes the entertainment.”

~John Burroughs

Great Egret, well fed and watching the world go by.

A Cattle Egret taking in Chobe’s view across the water from an overhanging branch.

“The sun shines not on us but in us.”
~ John Muir

Lilac-breasted Roller bewildered by so many dragonflies congregating above.

A pair of White-fronted Bee-eaters about to start excavating their nest in a limestone bank.

A Green-backed Heron, dead still, trying to camouflage itself in the late afternoon light.

A Hammerkop foraging along the river’s edge.

Nesting time for this Hammerkop.

This Hammerkop was gathering bark for its “super nest”.

A sleek Squacco Heron flying towards us.

“If you want to fly you have to give up everything that weighs you down”.

Perfect glide lines.

A juvenile Allen’s Gallenule.

A characteristic tail flick from this young Allen’s Gallenule.

A Burchell’s Coucal skulking in the long grass next to the river’s edge.

Skulking success for this Burchell’s Coucal.

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

~Aldo Leopold

Two cold Little Bee-eaters huddling together in the early morning light.

Avian gem sparkling in the early morning light.

Hungry White-throated Swallow chick begging for food. 

A tricky landing in the gusting early morning winds for this White-throated Swallow.

I hope this gallery of bird images gave you a small idea of the bird variety which you are likely to see along the Chobe, even after the migrants have left.

“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”
~ John Muir

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

Have fun,

Mike

Chobe hooves

As a wildlife photographer one of the most important things I can do is to immerse myself in the environment I want to photograph. This immersion gives me a sense of its uniqueness, its inter-connections and the story it has to offer. Photography is about the creative management of light but also about conscious selection of  subject and composition to illumenate the story. Given enough time, when immersed in a scene it will reveal its story.

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.”
~Ansel Adams

One the stories revealed in the next three images of an impala ram is of Geophagy. This is the consumption of soil-like substrates such as clay and chalk. Geophagy is commonly observed  in the bushveld, with many wildlife species. Researchers have found it is more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought and have observed geophagia in more than 200 species of animals, from parrots to bats, many types of antelope, baboons to elephants, and gorillas to chimpanzees.

This impala ram was eating the soil from the white bank on one side of elephant valley. This is a wide gully formed by storm water and years of wildlife coming down to drink from the river. The whiteness of the soil suggests it is limestone-based. We often see impala, baboon, kudu and elephants eating the soil from this steep white bank at Elephant Valley. This is a favourite game viewing site by boat and is about two kilometres north of Chobe Game Lodge, between Kasane and Serondela. We also regularly see Sable Antelope down in Elephant Valley but they are skittish and I have never seen them eating the white soil.

A common explanation for why animals eat dirt is that the soil contains minerals, such as calcium, sodium and iron, which support energy production and other vital biological processes. An animal’s need for these minerals changes with the seasons, with age and with overall health which may explain why geophagia is especially common when an animal’s diet does not provide enough minerals or when the challenges of the environment demand extra energy.

“A provocative composition must lead you to look beyond, illuminating unanswered questions.”

~Mike Haworth

Also the idea that, in most cases, eating dirt is probably a way to get rid of toxins could explain why people and animals so often prefer clay-like soils to other kinds of earth. Negatively charged clay molecules easily bind to positively charged toxins in the stomach and gut—preventing those toxins from entering the bloodstream by ferrying them through the intestines and out of the body. Detoxification might also explain why some indigenous peoples prepare meals of potatoes and acorns with clay—these foods are bitter because they contain small amounts of toxins. ( Source: Would You Like a Side of Dirt with That? by Philip T. B. Starks, Brittany L. Slabach in Scientific American 1 June 2012)

The next three images are of kudu. This is one of Africa’s most gracious and handsome antelopes. The males carry magnificent spiraled horns, big ears with bluish- grey coats with light vertical white stripes. The bulls also have large manes running along their throat to their chest. It is part of the Tragelaphinae family, which defines spiral horned antelope. There are two types of kudu in Africa, the Greater and Lesser Kudu.  Adult males of the Greater Kudu are generally 35% taller and double the body weight of a Lesser Kudu (Lesser Kudu are not found in southern Africa). Bulls keep growing with age reaching a maximum body size at around 12 years of age. 

“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”

~ Edward Weston

This lone mature kudu bull was wandering downstream along the bank of the Chobe river. It was late afternoon and it was surprising that he used such a narrow walkway between the river and the adjacent thick bush, which provided good ambush cover for large predators. He had a magnificent set of horns making 2 1/2 graceful twists. The spiral horn of kudu males have been known to grow as long as 72 inches. Unlike the sable, the kudu seldom uses its horns in defense against predators. Dominance is usually quickly and peacefully determined by a size and posture, where using a lateral display where one male stands sideways in front of the other and makes himself look as large as possible. These large horns are also not a problem in thick wooded bush because the kudu just lifts up his chin up and lays the horns against his back, moving easily through dense bush.

“If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.”

~ Jay Maisel

The angle of light was not ideal given the sun was directly behind this kudu bull, so this image was not taken for its photographic quality but rather to show you that antelope would rather drink from a small pool next to the river than directly from the river. Presumably this is because of the threat of attack from crocodiles. I have often seen sable do the same thing down at Elephant Valley.

Kudu bulls reach adult maturity at around 4 years of age.  A young kudu bull’s horns will have their first twist by around 2 years of age. The females usually do not have horns and are much smaller than the males. Kudu are browsers so feed mainly on the leaves of trees and bushes.  This small family group of two females were just downstream of elephant valley and were also eating the white soil from the same limestone ridge, although it was a much more dangerous place to feed as there was no easy escape route.

We were also fortunate enough to also see Puku. This is a medium-sized antelope, which resembles the lechwe, but the puku lacks the lechwe’s brown foreleg markings, and is smaller than a lechwe. The Puku is found mainly in wet grasslands in southern Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zambia. A limited number can be seen in northern Botswana in the Chobe area.

Puku breed year round but are more sexually active after the first heavy rains of the wet season. This is a gregarious antelope and territorial males are polygynous and herd females into their territories. The social system is centralised on adult males maintaining and defending territories which accord them breading opportunities amongst wondering female herds. Territorial males maintain their territories throughout the year. ( source: Animal Diversity Web)

Puku males make a set of unique shrill whistles to communicate, either to warn other males to stay away or to protect their territory. Solitary males emit 3 to 4 whistles to warn other males to keep away. This whistle is also used as a way to advertise to females. Territorial and bachelor males can be identified by glandular secretions on the neck. Territorial males excrete more hormones from their neck than bachelor males. Territorial males use their glandular secretions to spread their scent over their territory. Neck patches only appear between the months of May and November.

“Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.”
~Ansel Adams

Puku are crepuscular, so are active in the early morning and late afternoon. They seem to prefer open grass area near a river or swamp but not wide wet flood plains like the lechwe. 

Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees.”
~Paul Strand

The beginning of winter signals the start of the impala rut. During the rut, the impala rams’ testosterone levels start skyrocketing and they begin to fight for territory and dominance over female herds. The dominant males will fight off any competition, forcing the losers into bachelor herds. The noise of the rutting males can be heard for long distances as the winners proclaim their territories with snorts and growls. The victorious males then take charge of their herds of females and attempt to mate with as many as possible. They never mate with the same female more than once.

“Photography gives us the ability to freeze light, time, uniqueness, mood, emotion and wonder with a frame.”

~Mike Haworth

We were on the river in late April which was the build up to the full moon at the end of April. Impala begin rutting with the moon waxing around its First Quarter stage in late April. This is a time when you will hear the males “roaring” and see many fights with territorial males chasing rivals out of their territories.

“I think life is too short not to be doing something which you really believe in.”
~Steve McCurry

The natural intelligence in nature determines that impala tend to rut mainly by moonlight, making them less vulnerable to predation. Consequently, the most intense part of the rut phase is when the moon is full. The intensity diminishes as the moon wanes into its Third Quarter phase, when the night stalkers again have the advantage. 

The three week rut takes place at this time of the year so that the ewes synchronise their lambing shortly after the onset of the summer rains, approximately six to seven months later. Synchronised birthing determines that enough lambs survive, despite heavy predation, for the population to be sustained.

What always surprises me when on the Chobe river is that there is always something happening even when all looks quiet. The change in temperature, length of day and river levels have a profound influence on the “who, what and where” of the wildlife activity. A superficial look might give the impression that little is happening. A closer, quieter, more attentive look reveals nature’s more fascinating rhythms. You need to see for yourself how the landscape changes when this river comes down in flood, Rivers become lakes and grasslands become swamps. It is also the time of the year when it is still warm and the boat trip back to the lodge after an afternoon’s shooting usually provides dazzling, dramatic sunsets.

“The great photographers of life – like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans and Robert Frank – all must have had some special quality: a personality of nurturing and non-judgment that frees the subjects to reveal their most intimate reality. It really is what makes a great photographer, every bit as much as understanding composition and lighting.”

~Caleb Deschanel

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

Chobe’s giants

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

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

~ Roderick Haig Brown

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

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

~Miriam Beard

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

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

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

That trunk is for drinking and for splashing.

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Paulo Coelho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Hermann Hesse

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

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

Have fun,

Mike

Chobe’s resident raptors

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

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

~ John Burroughs

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

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

~ Robert Lynd

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

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

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

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

~ William Blake

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

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

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

~unknown

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

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

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

~ Nancy Newhall

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

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

~Edward O. Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Henry Beston

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

Have fun,

Mike