This post describes our second day in the Serengeti. As usual we were up a ready to leave the lodge at 6h00. It was such a pleasure to have a photo-buddy who was so enthusiastic. Elana was already waiting at reception with our ranger, Joseph, and the tour leader, Donovan, by the time I arrived at 5h55. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth
and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.”
— Rachel Carson
We left the lodge before sunrise and got onto the main road just as mother nature was painting the eastern morning sky. We stopped to try capture the beauty of the saturated blues, reds, oranges and yellows which were ablaze in the sky. Nowhere else, but the Mara and Serengeti, have I seen these tones of yellows in a sunrise.
The air was crisp, the bush dark but the sky was coming alive. Trying to capture the beauty of those sunrises was human folly but we tried anyway, inspired but humbled. As the sun started to rise it progressively washed the saturated colours out of the sky so we moved on to see the Wildebeest migration first hand. This was never going to be the big drama of the Mara river crossings but rather to get a measure of the size of the mega-herd and hoping to see the Wildebeest drama when they came down to the Grumeti river to drink.
“The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.”
– Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo’s Smile
As the morning light brightened we came across this White-bellied Korhaan crossing the road. This was a first for me.
Early in the morning there is the eternal balancing between shutter speed and ISO. This was the only image where the Korhaan’s feet were sharp because my shutter speed was too low but I did not want the image to be too grainy. This White-bellied Korhaan crossed the road to join its mate and within a few seconds the two just melted into the grass. This is an aspect about being in the bush which always amazes me, someone coming by two minutes later would not have seen this pair of Korhaans.
Just after sunrise but before it had got hot enough for the raptors to start searching for rising warm air and thermals, we started to see quite a few different species of these avian predators. I am not sure of the identification of the Kestrel in the next image. I think it is a Common Kestrel based on its colouring, yellow legs, greyish head and rufous coloured body and wings. It has a yellow eye-ring and cere and black tip to its beak.
Prime time to see raptors perched in trees along side the road is usually before it gets hot enough for them to catch thermals, normally before 9h00. Apart from Kestrels, we saw this juvenile Tawny Eagle drenched in the early morning light. It was very alert and obviously hungry as it was scanning the surrounding area constantly.
Not far along the road from the Tawny, we came across a Black-chested Snake-eagle which I could not get a decent shot of and a couple of hundred metres further down the road we found this Long Crested Eagle. The tonal contrast with the dark brown feathers and light, almost white sky background means you have to spot meter on the bird itself and forget about the sky colour.
By May, the Wildebeest herd had moved north from the southern grasslands into the western corridor. Here the vegetation was very different to the grasslands in the south.
The grasses were longer because the Zebra and Wildebeest had not yet fully mowed them down and the tree density had increased substantially. What was fascinating about the Wildebeest migration was the intertwined relationships between all the animals and birds involved. There are three main herbivores in the perpetual migration, Zebra, Wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle.
The Serengeti migration is the greatest migration of large animals in the world and it takes place each year.
The migratory ‘mega-herd’ consists of around 1.5 million Wildebeest, 200,000 Plains Zebra and 350,000 Thompson’s gazelle. They follow a clockwise circular migration path, the timing of which is typically determined by the annual rainfall patterns.
There are five sub-species of Wildebeest but only two are found in Tanzania. The two types of Wildebeest in the mega-herd are the blue and the Western White-bearded Wildebeest, the latter is only found in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.
Source:Joe Le Monnier ( www.mapartist.com)
Generally, though not always, the migration makes it way down through the southern part of Serengeti National park between December to April . During this time they assemble in vast grazing herds and the Wildebeest give birth to as many as 400,000 calves in February and early March. Once they have over grazed that area they start to move north up into the western corridor by May- June and on up into the Masai Mara between July and September. They then travel down the eastern corridor from October to November. The timing is not precise because it is primarily determined by the rainfall. The herds are effectively ‘storm chasers’.
As the dry season begins the Zebra are the first to leave the Serengeti Plain. On route they eat the coarse top stems of the tall, dry, brown grass and expose the more nutritious leaves and younger stems. The Wildebeest have much wider muzzles than Zebra and effectively mow down the remaining grass to stubble and bare earth. Once cleared, green shoots germinate triggered by the removal of the taller vegetation and assisted by fertilisation from significant amounts of wildebeest waste. Within a few weeks the area looks like a verdant lawn which attracts the Thompson’s Gazelle. These antelope have small muzzles and are able to eat the high quality, new grass shoots. In the so-called ‘gazing succession’, the Zebra alter the vegetation in a way that is favourable for the Wildebeest and the Wildebeest further alter the grass base which suits the Thompson’s Gazelle.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”
— John Muir
One of the tough aspects about shooting the mega-herd is how to convey a sense of its size. A general image without a focal point will lose the impact. This is why we waited for these two Wildebeest bachelors to start tangling to bring some focus to the general scene of Wildebeest grazing in this lush grassland next to the riverine forest. It is very tricky trying to get a reasonable panorama of the mega-herd because it is constantly moving. Generally, panoramas work on landscapes because they don’t move, though you have to be aware of the cloud movement.
This grazing succession facilitates not only the size but the migration of the herds. Botanists have shown that the migration-linked grazing cycle actually boosts the grassland production. The grazers reduce competition by specialising on different sections of the grass, a process which is intelligently symbiotic.
“The means by which migratory animals navigate from place to place are as diverse as the journeys themselves. Some species follow an invisible road map created by the earth’s magnetic field, which they perceive through tiny magnets in their bodies. Others rely on landmarks such as mountain ranges and coastlines, the alignment of the stars in the night sky, or olfactory cues to determine where they’re going. Some even have a principle guidance mechanism and one of more backup systems – redundancy analogous to the backup systems on commercial jets.”
– David S. Wilcove, No Way Home
As the mega-herd migrates it inevitably has to cross rivers. The Grumeti and Mara rivers are probably the two best known rivers in the Serengeti-Masai Mara region and the major river in the western corridor is the Grumeti river. As can be seen from the next image the bush has changed significantly from the Serengeti Plains to riverine forests and savanna woodlands. The Grumeti is bordered by a riverine forest which opens up in patches, enabling the Wildebeest to come down to drink. While we were there, they were all around but did not come down to drink.
The Grumeti river is not that big at this point but its benign beauty hides a dinosaur-style terror in its waters.
Some of the largest Nile Crocodiles in Serengeti are found in the Grumeti river.
There are so many Wildebeest around that there is a constant drone of their ‘gnu-ing”. The Nile crocodiles or ‘flat dogs’ as we like to call them do not need to be clandestine. The recent rains made the rivers very muddy which helped the crocodiles get up close below the surface of the water to within striking distance of the wary, but thirsty Wildebeest. The next image is of a small group of wildebeest gathering to build up their courage to go down and drink.
It must be really disconcerting when you can see your nemesis basking in the sun just waiting for you. The Wildebeest often cross the river, not as part of the migration, just to move to a new grazing area.
The Grey Heron standing alongside this large crocodile somehow took the edge off the scene.
We did not get to see a crossing and we waited for a while next to the Grumeti for Wildebeest to come down and drink. Our patience was not rewarded – we will just have to go back!!!!
We traveled for about 60 kilometres through Wildebeest on our way to within 20kms of Lake Victoria before having to turn around to get back to the lodge before sunset. On our way back we came across a carcass about 30 metres off into the grass. There was a gathering of White-backed and Griffon Vultures and Marabou Storks all looking for a piece of the action. White-backed Vultures often broke away from the carcass to give each other a go as did the Griffons!! Pecking and scratching seems to be the order of the day. No one looked to get seriously hurt. The next image is a pair of Griffon’s stepping away from the dinner table to have it out with each other. When not scrapping on the ground the Griffon Vulture is known to be the highest flying vulture and has been recorded at an altitude of 37,000 feet.
Physically, all vultures appear built for scavenging. They have strong, hooked beaks that can tear a carcass open but unlike other birds of prey, their feet are not suited to catching live animals. The main exception appears to be the Hooded Vulture – as the smallest and most prone to being bullied off a carcass, it has diversified its diet to include termites and small reptiles such as lizards. Size really does count in the bush. When the Lappet-faced Vultures flew in everyone made room for them. When usually drop out of the sky in a lazy spiral and are often the last vultures to arrive at a kill. However, they quickly assert their dominance using their size to bully other vultures off the carcass. They tend to eat the skin, tendons and ligaments, which other vultures find hard to process, therefore do not go hungry for arriving late. They have a massive powerful beak with an attitude to match. These vultures rand up to a metre tall and have a three metre wingspan.
“Nature teaches more than she preaches. There are no sermons in stones.
It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral.”
— John Burroughs
Incredibly there is a natural order among this bush waste disposal team and, like the mega-herd grazers, have a complementary way of feeding.
Each day we would leave the lodge in the dark and usually got back in the dark. As a result we never took images of the lodge. This day we got back in the light so I quickly roamed around to get a few images of the Serengeti Serena lodge. The rooms were styled on a Masai type dwelling.
I really liked that the lodge was not too glitzy, I thought the style was in keeping with the location. The staff at the lodge were very friendly and helpful which always adds to the ambience of the place.
At the top of the hill behind the main dining and bar area was the swimming pool and look-out area which provided a wonderful south-looking view over the Serengeti Plains.
It was incredible to think that we had traveled for 60kms through Wildebeest. This massive amount of ‘fast food’ is a draw for so many other animals and birds. The diversity and complexity of the flora and fauna dictates that you need to spend more than a couple of days exploring this area. What ever you do make sure that your stay in the Serengeti is not too short, otherwise you will not get a good enough sense of the wonder and rhythm of this place.
“I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.
“I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.
“I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.
“I accept human mortality.
“We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.
“I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.”
– Paul Z. Myers, on Pharyngula
Seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be!
My buddy Howie . I for one am really appreciating the effort you expend in not only showing us magnificent photographs but also reducing your adventure down to a well written and engaging story. Well done again on this continuing life adventure. I am thankful that I know that my creator lives and has created this nature for us to enjoy . Keep clicking and writing.
Just love the Lappet faced vulture – a favourite of mine even though it is not really a beautiful bird.