Kruger Park: rainy morning at Lake Panic

I learnt many years ago that there was light in everything in photography and more often than not, stormy and rainy weather created some unique photographic opportunities and rather than packing up and leaving when it started to rain, it was worthwhile to stay and wait for those unique moments. Yes, the low light can make the photography a little more tricky but you can get short periods of unique light. Alternatively, in a very hot climate, the rainy weather can cool things down and bring out all sort of wildlife which would otherwise be seeking shade. Even when it is raining things are happening in the bush, often unexpectedly.

“Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.
~ Author Unknown

I have never seen White-breasted comorants at Lake Panic before this sojourn into Kruger Park and visits to Lake Panic. The fact that we saw White-breasted cormorants suggested that there were many fish in the water, as these cormorants feed mainly on fish. The comorant’s jaw is adapted to handling bottom-dwelling slow-moving fish, but it can also catch faster fish closer to the surface. This particular adult had a glossy dark brown plumage on its back and nape. It had white breast and throat feathers. Its gape and the throat skin under the lower mandible were yellow and its eyes were turquoise.

Immature White-breasted comorants have white throat, breast and belly feathers, much whiter than the immature Reed cormorant. Comorants are unusual among waterbirds as they allow water to soak their feathers. This makes them heavier in water, enabling them to dive deeper. This is why you will see comorants taking time to preen and outstretch their wings to dry their feathers.

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” ~ John Ruskin

We saw unusual behaviour on a particular morning. A White-breasted comorant took off from the trunk of a dead tree in front of the hide to fly directly east along the long axis of Lake Panic. Out of nowhere, a Fish eagle swooped down in an attempt to grab the flying comorant. In full flight the comorant dived head first into the water to successfully evade the Fish eagle’s talons. The same thing happened a while later as another comorant was flying back towards the trunk of the dead tree on the same flight path, and again the comorant evaded capture by diving into the water. The speed of the attack was so quick and it came from behind overhanging trees making it impossible to capture an image.

“Rain, the smell of it is a mixture of the heavens, the wind, and the moist earth.”~Unknown

A few White-faced whistling ducks flew in to visit for a short while. They seemed to enjoy striping off the seeds at the top of the grass stems. You can always hear them arriving, as they circle to ensure the landing zone is safe and their call is a distinct easily recognisable “whistle” as they fly in and see others from their flock.

A hunting Squacco heron showing its acrobatic style. These herons have excellent sight being able to adjust to the refraction, and are deadly accurate spear fishermen.

The Squacco’s cousin, the Green backed heron, is shyer than the Squacco and tends to remain in the shadows of bushes and branches overhanging the water’s edge. Every now and then, one individual is tempted to come out and fish in the open. On this occasion, the dead tree trunk made a perfect platform from which to hunt.

A juvenile Green-backed heron came to perch on a dead tree stump which was about 20 metres in front of the hide. It was raining but this heron did not seem to notice. What did unnerve it was a Malachite kingfisher flying excitedly around it.

A Spotted thick-knee in the grass on the right-hand-side of the island in front of the hide close to where the white-faced whistling ducks were feeding. The Water thick-knee is always found near water, unlike its Spotted cousin which is found in open grassland and savanna areas. It was unusual to see this single thick-knee, as they are usually seen in pairs or in a family group. The Water thick-knee is recognisable by its malar stripe under its eye from its beak and a dark brown stripe above a light fawn stripe in its upper wing coverts. Water thick-knees are slightly smaller than their spotted cousins but are not usually found in the same area. The large eye is a give away that this bird is primarily nocturnal.

A male Pied kingfisher with a tiddler which he had just caught. It was pouring with rain but this kingfisher could still see the very small fish in the water. One can always distinguish the male from the female as the male has a thick black breast band with a gap in the middle of it which is above a continuous thin black band across his breast. The female has just the thick black breast band with a gap in the middle of it on her pure white neck, breast and belly. It looks a bit like a bra!

The Pied kingfisher is the only black and white kingfisher in Africa. It is highly sociable and often heard before it is seen. It is an excellent fish hunter. It has a unique ability to hover to get an accurate fix on its prey before plummeting from heights of around 20 metres head first into the water. Its beak is perfectly formed for clean entry into the water.

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass…
It’s about Learning To Dance In The Rain.”

– Vivian Greene

Similar to other waterbirds, the feathers of a kingfisher are smeared with a special preen oil that keeps them waterproof when diving for fish. To keep their feathers in good condition, this kingfisher uses the secretion from its uropygial gland (preen gland or oil gland), situated near the base of the tail, which secretes a mixture of waxes and other organic compounds which it applies to its feathers.

A Malachite kingfisher with a tiddler. Like the Pied kingfisher, this Malachite was very active while it was raining. Again I was amazed at how acute its eyesight must be to pickup such as small fish below the rain splattered water surface. This Malachite was highly successful catching many small fish. In all cases, it beat the fish on its wooden perch to kill it before swallowing it whole. On occasion, it beat the little fish so hard on the perch that it broke off at the tail.

The Malachite can be confused with the Pygmy kingfisher but the Pygmy kingfisher has an orange supercilium (a stripe which runs from the base of the bird’s beak above its eye, finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head) while the Malachite’s supercilium is cobalt blue. The Malachite is also slightly bigger although still very small at around 13cm in size. The Malachite also has a very ornate black and light cobalt blue checkered crest. The Pygmy kingfisher is a summer visitor which feeds mainly on insects and small reptiles, so is a perch hunter quite different in behaviour to the Malachite

A Black crake walking over a fallen tree trunk on the opposite bank of the lake in front of the hide. At the hide end of the lake, the water channel is constricted to a 20 metre width before opening up into a large pond with an island. The pond is lined with large trees. The Black crake was climbing over a dead tree trunk on the opposite side of the channel. The Black crake has eye catching colours. Its body and wing feathers are jet black and it has salmon pink legs, blood red eyes and a candy yellow beak. Being part of the rail family, it is furtive and easily spooked causing it to dash for cover in thick vegetation when alarmed.

Like a Jacana, this little crake is known to perch on the back of hippos to feed on parasites or insects disturbed by its host. It has large toes enabling it to walk easily across reed beds.

A Tawny flanked prinia perched on a reed right in front of the hide. This is a slender, active unstreaked warbler with a long graduated tail which it characteristically cocks. It’s colouring is mouse-brown above and pale below, with tawny flanks and a distinctive pale eyebrow. This prinia usually frequents long grass and reeds along the edge streams and ponds in summer and become more arboreal in winter.

“Do not, on a rainy day, ask your child what he feels like doing, because I assure you that what he feels like doing, you won’t feel like watching.” ~Fran Lebowitz

It must have been around 9h00 when a herd of elephants came down to Lake Panic to drink, play and swim in the rain. They were at the Skukuza end of Lake Panic, so around half a kilometre away.

The elephants were having such fun. The young bulls were sparring with each other in the beautifully lush verdant vegetation along the edge of the Lake.

At various times, different sets of bulls would start playing which usually involved pushing each other around or chasing each other through the water. They appeared to have great fun splashing around.

Water lily flowers are complex, exotic and beautiful and look like colourful jewels on a lily pad carpet. The large flowers of the Day water lily are supported on long stalks just above the surface of the water. Day water lily flowers vary in colour from white and yellow to blue and pink. They only open in sunshine and close at night. Their petals are pointed and scented.
There are about 60 species of waterlilies, but only one species is in South Africa, namely the Day water lily. Once pollinated by insects and the occasional Jacana, the flowers are dawn back under the water where the seeds ripen and are dispersed by the water currents.

This is the pond section at the top of Lake Panic in front of the hide. The pond surface is mostly covered with water lily pads providing a bountiful foraging surface for African Jacanas. The weavers have formed a colony of nests hanging over the water for protection. The vegetation along the edge of the pond is thick and there are numerous large trees giving raptors many places to perch secretively waiting for a hunting opportunity.

Expect the unexpected in the bush. There was nothing unusual about two serrated-hinged terrapins warming up on a fallen tree trunk in the water. Nothing unusual about an African darter swimming around hunting for fish. Usually you only see the darter’s head which at a glance looks like a serpents head reaching out of the water. Then all of a sudden this particular darter climbed out of the water onto the dead tree trunk and immediately climbed onto of the closest terrapin. Unusual – yes; funny definitely. It was an overcast morning with intermittent rain but these two serrated-hinged terrapins were out on the log trying to dry off and warm up. This is the largest of the hinged terrapins and its hinge is on its plastron (the underside of its shell) rather than the carapace (which is the top side of the shell). Terrapins do not draw their heads in between their legs like a tortoise, instead they draw their legs in and then draw their neck in sideways in front of one of their legs. Terrapins have webbed toes, turtles have flippers and tortoises have foot pads with claws.

The African darter’s actions did not seem to frightened the terrapin which just repositioned itself to get more comfortable. Clearly, the darter was not too heavy for it and every time the terrapin moved the darter was tipped off balance and had to use its open wings to regain its composure.

Yet again we witnessed the time tested truth about nature. Patience and quiet will help you attune to your surroundings. As you tune in so you start to see and hear things you had not noticed before. If people in the hide are quiet and still, mother nature relaxes and allows her children to come out to play. Only then can you start to understand behaviour. Once you have seen certain behaviours repeated, the photographer in you can begin to anticipate the shot, and that is when some of the best images are captured.

“Give thanks for the rain in your life which waters the flowers of your soul.” ~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

The morning spent at the hide turned out to be fascinating and productive. The rain kept most human visitors away so the hide was quiet for extended periods. When people did arrive they would sit for five or ten minutes and not seeing any action they would wander off. It is only when you are listening for calls or gleaning signs from the surrounding bush that something is beginning to happen. You need time and quiet for these revelations.

“We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” ~ Carl Sagan

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

Have fun, Mike

2 thoughts on “Kruger Park: rainy morning at Lake Panic

  1. You have ensured a good start to yet another lockdown morning. Your photographs are a wonderful reminder of what is out there waiting for when we can move freely once more. You impart so much knowledge effortlessly – thank you.

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