Endangered in the Mara

We were privileged to see not only one, but three rare and critically endangered black rhinos, the east African sub-species. If that was not enough, the adults were mating –  much to the confusion of the sub-adult.

No one in the world needs a rhino horn, but a rhino” ~ Rachel Carson

According to the Rhino Resource Centre, the African Rhino Specialist Group recommends the distinction of four subspecies which ignores the recently extinct subspecies.

  • The South-central Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis minor) is the most numerous of all Black Rhino subspecies.
  • The South-western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis) is better adapted to dry climates and occurs in the arid savannas. The main difference with the others subspecies is the large and straight horn.
  • The East African Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) prefers highland forest and savanna habitat. It also has a longer, leaner, and curved horn and it’s skin is more grooved.
  • The West African Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) is the rarest and most endangered subspecies, with only 10 surviving in 2003. But on July 8, 2006 the subspecies was declared to be extinct.

The taxonomy of the subspecies of the black rhino remains unresolved and needs further study.

The earth was made for all beings not just human beings!

As we were driving around on our last morning, our guide Akatch pointed out black rhinos in the distance. It was still early, before 7h00. What makes this sighting more unusual is that black rhinos tend to be much more solitary than their white rhino cousins.

With great excitement we drove closer. We found an amorous bull with a receptive female black rhino and her sub-adult youngster. The youngster was complicating the affair. As the female started to walk forward the bull had to try to keep up on his back legs.

A black rhino bulls can weigh up to 1.2 tonnes with the female being around two thirds smaller. This species is noticeably smaller than the White Rhino. It addition it has a very different mouth structure. The black rhino has a pointed prehensile top lip which it uses to strip vegetation off trees and bushes, while the white rhino has a square wide lips which it uses effectively to graze on the grass. The posture of the two species of rhino is also different with the  black rhino usually holding its head high. The black rhino also has rounded more trumpet shaped ears. Both African rhino species have poor eye sight but acute hearing and smelling senses.

During courtship behaviour, males butt females with their horns. Mating can be quite a violent and protracted event.

” Know that the same spark of life that is within you, is within all our animal friends, the desire to live is the same within all of us…” Rai Aren

Usually, the male would follow the female around and place his head on her hind quarters signalling that he wanted to mount her. She would then stop and he would place  his front legs on her back.

This youngster kept approaching its mother for comfort and clearly did not know what was going on….

I was amazed to see this female black rhino cope with this large bull placing a considerable weight on her back. She did not appear to even flinch. This was one tough female!

“There’s no point bleating about the future of pandas, polar bears and tigers when we’re not addressing the one single factor that’s putting more pressure on the ecosystem than any other — namely the ever-increasing size of the world’s population.” ~ Chris Packham

The whole morning was unusual and I found it strange that black rhinos, which are browsers, were in the open grasslands in the early morning. When we got back to camp later for breakfast I asked Andrew van den Broek, an &Beyond’s guide trainer based at Kichwa at that time, who has vast knowledge of the bush and animal and bird behaviour about this encounter. He indicated that the black rhino venture out into the open to browse on the small tree saplings in the grass. They retreat into the cool of the treed areas after 9h00 once the morning temperature gets too hot.

The female kept walking away and her youngster followed, so too did the amorous bull who was still very interested in her.

A mating pair can stay together for two to three days, sometimes even weeks. They mate several times a day and copulation usually lasts for about half an hour. Once fertilised , the female has a gestation period of around 16 months.

The bull caught up with the female repeatedly and placed his head on her flanks. Judging from the large scar on his right side, it looked like he had been gored sometime before.

Black rhino have two horns. The front horn is longer than the back one. According to the Save the Rhino organisation, both grow continuously from the skin at their base throughout their life.  Rhinos from different areas can have horns of different shapes ,and sizes can also vary. The shape of the horn also differs between sexes: with males tending to have thicker horns, and the females often longer and thinner ones.

The bull must have had an extremely strong neck because he would place his head on her backside and lift his front legs off the ground in an attempt to mount her.

Once up, the bull would stand firmly with his front legs on her back. Again the youngster was getting in the way. The female was ready and receptive and waited for the male to get his act together, but I guess the youngster was proving too much of a distraction.

According to the Black Rhino Husbandry website, the normal body temperature of a black rhino ranges from 34.5 oC to 37.5 oC. The pulse is 30 to 40 beats per minute, and respirations are six to twelve breaths per minute (Fowler and Miller, 2003).

The bull was so distracted by the youngster that he moved around to the female’s left side putting half of his weight on the left side of her back. The youngster eventually gave up and just lay next to its mother.

“Living wild species are like a library of books still unread. Our heedless destruction of them is akin to burning that library without ever having read its books.” ~ John Dingell

When I saw this image it really typified that a woman’s work is never done. Here she has a large bull with his front legs on her back trying to mate with her. She has her calf trying to suckle and if that was not enough, she had two red-billed oxpeckers on her face, with one up her nostril.

The female black rhino appeared to be in excellent condition with her horn intact – hopefully for the rest of her life.

“We take habitat away from wild animals and then kill them for invading ‘our’ space.”
~ Patrick Edwards

After a while the female crossed the road in front of us with her calf behind her, leaving the male behind. Black rhino calves stay with their mother for 2-4 years before being rejected, usually when the female is ready to calve again.

Red and yellow-billed ox-peckers are often seen moving all over the rhinos body and face. The rhinos tolerate these oxpeckers because they remove ticks and clean parasites from open wounds and sores. These birds also help the rhino by raising the alarm if there is any danger approaching.

 

The female black rhino and her calf eventually wandered off to the tree line where they disappeared out of sight.

According to the International Rhino Foundation, during the last century, the black rhino has suffered the most drastic decline in total numbers of all rhino species. Between 1970 and 1992, the population of this species decreased by 96%. In 1970, it was estimated that there were approximately 65,000 black rhinos in Africa – but, by 1993, there were only 2,300 surviving in the wild. The black rhino population is recovering and increasing very slowly, but the poaching threat remains great.

“If we human beings learn to see the intricacies that bind one part of a natural system to another and then to us, we will no longer argue about the importance of wilderness protection, or over the question of saving endangered species, or how human communities must base their economic futures – not on short-term exploitation – but on long-term, sustainable development. “ ~ Gaylord Nelson

There are five remaining species of rhinoceros left in existence today. The other six known species have become extinct due to various reasons, but mainly because of hunting and poaching.

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.” ~ Elizabeth Kolbert

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

Have fun,

Mike

Hooves on Mara North

So much attention is given to the predators in the Masai Mara, but there is so much more to see and experience. Often the more we see the less we notice. This seems to be true of the herbivores which wander the grass plains of the Mara. Yes the migration is one of the natural wonders of the world but there is an in between time when there is much magic on the plains for those to care to look.

“The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of enternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.” ~ Albert Einstein

I am always fascinated to see Zebras wading chest deep into water in the Mara. I have seen the same thing in the Serengeti.  Given the terrifying experience they have crossing the Mara and Grumeti rivers, I would have thought they would have been conditioned to be afraid to walk deep into any water.  Not so, they seemed to really enjoy it, apart from which the cleanest water is in the middle as it has not been muddied by many feet.

There were quite a few occasions while we were wandering around Mara North that it was cloudy which cooled things down. It was at these times when the youngsters were at their most energetic. A zebra foal cavorting for the sheer joy of it!

“Sometimes you just have to jump in a mud puddle because it’s there. Never get so old that you forget about having fun.”  ~ Tom Giaquinto

Zebra foals chasing each other around an ant hill. With all the danger around these youngster still were carefree enough to play with the simplest of props.

Fortunately in the Mara North, we did not encounter many tsetse flies. They look like horse flies but have a stinging bite and are not easily killed. I am not sure whether it was from insect bites, but this mare decided it was time for a back scratch and powder. Oh, and she looked to be really enjoying the beauty treatment.

A peaceful scene of a small group of zebras, with a few members drinking and others grazing on the lush green grass next to the water in a drainage line.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”Sun Tzu

A small herd of zebra nonchalantly wander past a large male lion lying in the shade of a shepherd tree. This male had hurt his right leg, so was no threat to the passing zebra parade, and they knew it.

Just down from where we found the two young lion nomads panting in the heat out in the open next to a pool of water, we saw a few zebra. This mare must have produced a foal just days before. It was still very small and very unsure of the big wide world around it. Its mother’s tail seemed to offer some sort of comfort but it really highlighted its vulnerability.

Further on that day, we found a large herd of eland. They were grazing in the open grassland.  We saw three large males among many females. This was one of them. The males start to take on a greyish colour as they get older. This male’s dewlap (that large flap of skin under his neck) acts as a radiator helping to cool him down in open grasslands. The older males also take on a fringe on their forehead.

The next images shows the view looking across the plain towards the Oloololo escarpment with Thompson’s gazelle grazing in the foreground and the herd of eland wandering away behind them.

“Stand your ground, have a tough hide, keep moving on. Cherish wide open spaces. Have a strong spirit, roam wild and free.  Let the chips fall where they may.” ~ IIan Shamir

One day we decided to stay on the Masai Mara reserve side of the Mara river and wandered down to the inselbergs near the Serengeti border. As we travelled closer to the Oloololo escarpment we found a large herd of buffalo grazing in the open grasslands. This was one of the periphery bulls guarding the herd’s flank. Slit eyes saying what on earth  do you want!

The herd was spread out behind him. Needless to say, the whole herd looked up and watched carefully to see whether we were a threat or not.

Close to the Kichwa Tembo camp we found a small group of Coke’s hartebeest. There are not many of them in the Mara so this was an unusual find. There are eight subspecies of hartebeest of which Coke’s is the one found in Kenya and the northern Serengeti.

“Ah, youth! It was a beautiful night…
The moon was out of orbit. The stars were awry.
But everything else was exactly as it should have been.”
~ Roman Payne

Coke’s hartebeest, or kongoni, are selective grazers with browsing making up just less than 4% of their diet. A young Coke’s hartebeest squares off against an adult topi. The competition was short-lived with the youngster backing down.

I think topis are one of the most under-rated and least talked about antelope in the Mara and Serengeti. A topi resembles a hartebeest. It has an elongated head but has a darker  reddish-brown colouration with dark purple patches on their upper legs. Both sexes look similar, though males are larger. A topi’s horns sweep up and back whereas a hartebeest’s sweep out to the side before kinking back. The topi has a distinct hump at the base of the neck. This may be to enable additional tendons to be attached at the shoulder to give greater strength to power its fast front legs. Topis are of capable of reaching speeds of 70 to 80 kilometres per hour.

“We have more to learn from animals than animals have to learn from us.” ~ Anthony Douglas Williams

Topis can often be seen standing on top of an anthill presumably to see what is around it but also to be noticed by any passing females. If a topi is staring intently in one particular direction, it often signals it has seen something of consequence such as a predator.

During the breeding season, a territorial bull can be recognised by his erect posture, with his head held high and high-stepping front leg movement. While on the move, topis have a habit of bobbing their heads but I am not sure why they do that.

The topi has one of the most variable social and mating systems of all the antelopes. Its social system can vary from a small resident herd to huge migratory aggregations. In low density areas, the males tend to have large territories while others congregate in breeding arenas, or leks.

Topi’s seem to prefer open grasslands and savanna areas. Where the density of topi is low a male’s territory can be quite large and can include up to 10 females.

Where a breeding arena has been established there are many ritualistic fights to display dominance. Both males and female fight. The males for dominance and the females to keep other females out of the breeding territory and compete with each other for the dominant males. Not sure how you see your opponent if your head in on the ground….

Competition between rival males consists primarily of posturing and ritualistic sparring with the horns. Like wildebeest, topis fight on their front leg knees. They lunge forward and drop onto their knees and crash their horns together. It is mostly about dominance and pushing to establish the strongest and most dominant in the contact.

In a lek, as many as 100 males may have territories clustered together. The most dominant males occupy the centre of the lek, and the less dominant occupy the periphery.  Males mark their territories with urine and dung. On the plains when the migration is underway, these leks tend to be temporary, otherwise the males risk getting left behind. The males rejoin the migration but re-establish a territorial network when the herd stops again on its migratory route.

Females come into estrous for only one day of the year and seek out favoured males. The female seemed to be the only one relaxed about the situation.

The youngster did not know what was happening to its mother and just stayed close despite all the mating encounters.

There are two main types of gazelle on the Mara and Serengeti plains, the smaller Thomspon’s gazelle and the larger Grant’s gazelle. This was a female Grant’s gazelle reassuring her calf.

The Grant’s gazelle is noticeably larger than the Thompson’s gazelle and the white on the back of the hind legs reaches to above the tail.

The Thompson’s gazelle is much smaller than the Grants and has a dark brown stripe long its flank and the white behind its back legs which does not go above its tail.

There are not as many impala on the plains as you are likely to see in southern Africa but the males have noticeably larger horns. We came across a small breeding herd grazing along a drainage line. The male causally walked through the water filled gully but the females and calves jumped over the gully, obviously fearful of what was in the water.

A female impala taking off to jump across the drainage line gully.

Every lunchtime, when we were on the Mara North side of the Mara river, we retreated into the shade of the “greenheart” forest next to the meandering Mara river.  We often found elephants and giraffe wandering through the forest.

It was a beautiful place with a restful and serene vista. A giraffe’s coat pattern differs for each individual. Each sub-species has a broadly different pattern colour and shape which varies according to region. The pattern of the coat improves camouflage in the different habitats. Giraffes have exceptional eyesight and also are believed to communicate through subsonic vocalizations, though this has  to be scientifically proven. Scientist have discovered that giraffes hum. In a study published in 2015 in the journal BioMed Central, researchers recorded over 940 hours of sounds from giraffes at three zoos over an eight-year period. Beyond the occasional snort or grunt, the researchers recorded humming sounds that the giraffes made only at night.

The Masai giraffe’s spots are more jagged than the other sub-species. The males generally have darker spots than the females and those spots darken with age. The dominant male has the darkest spots of all.

“As you stop and look more carefully, your journey of discovery begins. Intriguing questions arise and your physical and intellectual wanderings begin to unveil their answers. The more you learn the more fascinating your subject becomes…” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

Clans on the Mara plains

The Mara is a stage where intense dramas of life and death are played out. None more so than among predators. On the plains, the predator interactions take on epic proportions. Both lions and hyaenas work in large groups because cooperation is key to their survival when the opposition is an army.

“There is much you do not understand about me! You do not understand by cackles. My whoops carry for miles and bind our clan together. I am tough, fast and have endurance. I know my place in the family and work cooperatively when out on the plains. I am intelligent and enigmatic, so under-estimate me at your peril.” ~Mike Haworth

This post focuses on the hyaena clans in the North Mara, in Kenya’s Maasia Mara reserve. The archetype of hyaenas being hideous, filthy scavengers is firmly dispelled in the Mara. Here hyaenas are not the cowardly gangster scavengers they are made out to be in so many characterisations, but rather they are tactical hunters who do most of their hunting for themselves and lions are more often or not the scavengers.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”~ Benjamin Franklin

Hyaenas are mostly nocturnal and have excellent night vision so do most of their hunting at night. The females with cubs sleep or spend time near their den during the daytime. Otherwise they are scattered across the plains, hiding out as opportunists. We found these three hyaenas at dawn close to their den.

Hyaena scouts lie dispersed throughout the plains. As soon as an opportunity arises the individual hyaena will capitalise on that opportunity for itself. If the quarry is too big then the individual will call for reinforcements. The closest scouts will respond quickly.

The respondents move on at pace for extended periods and can reach speeds of 60 kilometres per hour.

“We slander the hyaena; man is the fiercest and cruelest animal.”~ Henry David Thoreau

The first clan members at a kill eat first. The strict hierarchy only comes into play once the dominant clan members arrive. Until that time, the lower ranking members of the clan fight viciously to assert their rights and claim their share.

  

There are many distractions at the kill. Lower ranking clan members try distraction tactics. If successful they quickly snatch the remains and run.

“A hyaena has a formidable survival kit  – endurance, strength, powerful jaws and a digestive system which can cope with most things. But that is not enough on the plains, where their opponents work in prides and packs and much of its prey is too large for an individual hyaena to take down. Cooperation, discipline and tactics are the hallmarks of a successful hyaena clan.” ~ Mike Haworth

The bloody signs of an active breakfast.

Another morning another experience!!!! This particular morning we had an incredible sighting of a hyaena clan taking down a buffalo calf.

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The take down was not quick. The adult hyaenas attacked the calf’s backside, belly and hind leg flanks. The buffalo calf was tenacious beyond anything humans can understand. 

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“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out. “ ~   Alfred Hitchock

Although hyaenas have incredibly strong jaws they do not have the paw gripping capability of lions. As a consequence they have to wear their prey down and bite chunks out of it so that it loses blood and eventually collapses. It was a difficult scene to watch for the first time, but this drama plays out on the plains almost every day.

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Buffalo breakfast dining – hyaena style. Those bloody faces say it all. These clan members were piling in and gorging themselves, but were also very wary of lions. Rightly so, for everything changed a few minutes later with the arrival of two big young blonde male lions – hungry nomads.

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Another time, another place in the Mara North at a clan den in the Marsh pride’s territory close to the Mara river, the hyaena family affair was playing out. There is usually fierce competition between pups from the same mother.

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This female would not allow other female’s pups to suckle from her. There is a strictly enforced hierarchy in the clan when the matriarch is at the den, otherwise it can become quite a power struggle.

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In short, not only are things not what they seem, they are not even what they are called!”Francisco de Quevedo

This hyaena pup had lost all of its black hair and had started to get its typical spots, but I am not sure whether this was a male or female. Female spotted hyenas have an elongated clitoris that closely resembles the penis of a male. These pseudo-penises are paired with “testicles” which are actually fused labia filled with fatty tissue. Female hyaena urinate, are fertilised and give birth through this pseudo-penis- all is not what it seems!!

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A young cub, less than three months old, was seeking comfort from its mother. With teeth like that and the strongest jaws on the savanna, softness needs to be a delicate process.

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Herbivores know only too well that hyaenas are dangerous and tenacious predators with incredible stamina and the last thing they want is to be caught in those jaws because the chances are they will not let go.

Anyone who has been anywhere close to hyaenas know they stink. I could not help smiling at this image, clan etiquette aside!!

Hyaena females do not suckle other female’s pups no matter how hungry the pups are !! 

“The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.” ~Atisa

Competition is bred in early in the programming process.

Once the hierarchy is established peace descends over the den and the pups can start to suckle again. Hyaena milk is estimated to be 30% fat and protein and eight times richer than that of a human.

Hyaenas have an unmistakable shape and gait in full colour or silhouette.

Hyaenas represent one of the most misunderstood predators in the African savanna and live much more complex, intelligent, cooperative lives than the archetypal cackling, savage scavengers they are made out to be. These are high intelligent, tactical animals which are excellent hunters. We humans are slowly getting to understand and appreciate these enigmatic predators.

“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” ~ Phaedrus

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

Have fun,

Mike

Immersed in the Mara

The Maasai Mara is the most incredible place in which to wander. A camera opens up your vision helping you to look more closely. This is a place of wild open spaces and big skies where your eyes dance in the haze and you can breathe deeply, a feeling which soothes your soul.

“This place will immerse you in its beauty and wonder. A place which remains relatively untouched by humanity. It is the northern most part of a stage where one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world is enacted every year, the wildebeest migration. Every day life and death dramas are being played out between predator and prey. Where cuteness and savagery live side by side.” ~ Mike Haworth

You will be intrigued by the sights, behaviours and scenes. This blog is a gallery of scenes which hopefully gives you a feeling of what you might sense when you wander through this wild place.

The beginning of the day will flood your senses with colour and space.

Ordinary things will sparkle and take on a whole new sense in the backlight.

“Because things grow. Wherever there is air and light and open space, things grow.” ~Helen Oyeyemi

Early morning is a time when the lion prides come down to drink- a family affair!

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Zebras become habituated to crossing crocodile infected rivers on their migratory route but all the terror that it brings is somehow washed away in the open plains where they let their guard down and easily wander into the middle of these pools of water to drink.

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Some pools are vacated for very good reasons. Two young blonde male lions struggling in the heat on the open plains have come down to rest next to a pool of water in a drainage line. Not 100 metres away were three old “dagga boys” resting in the short grass but keeping careful eye on their nemesis.

One morning we decided to travel through the Maasia Mara reserve and wandered down to the Serengeti border. This is a place of Inselbergs and vast open grasslands where the plains are dotted with Balanites. This is one of the scenes looking toward the Oloololo escarpment. A small group of bull elephants were ambling slowly through the vast grassland plains feeding at will.

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In the Mara North, there were a few large herds of buffalo. This was one such herd. It was spread out feeding on the lush grasslands with plenty of water in pools along the drainage lines.

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Down in the Marsh pride’s territory close to the Mara river next to the marsh we found this family herd of elephants casually feeding on the lush vegetation.

A small family group of elephants emerged from the “greenheart” forest next to the Mara river in the area of the Marsh pride.

“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.”
~ Gretel Ehrlich

In the middle of the day we stopped in the “greenheart” forest next to the Mara river. This was the scene from the vehicle where we ate lunch and edited some of our images.

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Early one morning in the Mara North we looked high and low for this pride of lions. It is quite incredible how they can disappear in the open grasslands when they lie down. As you can see there were large banks of cloud passing overhead creating strata of light and shadow across the plains.

20180220-_D819751“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.”~Jane Austen

Eventually it got too hot for this pride of lions and they made their way to the only shade in the area, what looked like a very old Shepherd tree. The Topis in the background kept a close eye on the resting family.

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Another scene where family pride were resting, mid-morning, in the shade of a Balanite.

One afternoon, the wind had picked up and it became overcast. I liked this image of the tails of the group of zebras being blown to one side by the wind. Something had caught their attention, probably a predator.

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This scene was around 8h00 in the morning in the Mara North. There was a lot of game on the plains feeding peacefully but the weather had other plans.

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In the Mara North just the other side of “double crossing” we found this lone male cheetah. He was resting in the shade even though it was early in the morning. We took one look at his belly and decided that he would be resting for the day .

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

A panorama of the Maasia Mara from just below the Oloololo escarpment showing the dotted plains cast in wide open space.

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Dawn and dusk are picturesque times of the day when ordinary scenes become extraordinary, cast in an entirely different light. Two female Thompson’s gazelle have the attention of a male.

This is a glimpse of the light, colour, space and textures you can be immersed in when wandering through the Mara.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead.” ~John Keats

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

Have fun,

Mike

Wings over the Mara

The Mara provides eclectic wildlife photographic opportunities. We did not focus on birds during our last trip in February but they were all around so it was not difficult  to see and photograph a variety of raptor wader and insectivores.

“I marvel at its diversity; I am spellbound by its beauty.  I see its adversity and  admire its uniqueness. I am intrigued by its adaptation and humbled by its intelligence.” ~ Mike Haworth

A male Kori Bustard walking through the grasslands displaying. There were no females anywhere near but the white feathers under his elevated tail were a beacon.

 

A white-fronted bee-eater. We saw very few bee-eaters, the only other species I saw were little bee-eaters.

Short-toed snake-eagle. This was a first for me. I struggled to identify this raptor but the shape of the head and the piercing yellow eye were definite clues that it was a snake-eagle.

African marsh harrier guiding over the grasslands looking for insects and small reptiles and birds. We saw many of these harriers as you can imagine with such vast grasslands to hunt on.

“We are a landscape of all we have seen.” ~   Isamu Noguchi

Ruppell’s Griffon vulture flying into a carcass ahead of a spotted hyaena. The Ruppell’s has distinctive streaked brown and white body feathers. This was a juvenile as the adult has a distinctive orange-yellow tip to the beak with a black cere.

Cape vulture flying in to join the carcass dining party. The Cape Vulture is larger than the Ruppell’s vulture. Their whitish overall look is the distinctive feature. This is also a juvenile as the adults have a yellow eye.

Another Ruppell’s Griffon vulture following the Cape vulture to the Topi calf carcass.

As you can see once you find a carcass you and all the raptors will converge. This is an adult Blonde morph Tawny eagle flying in to investigate the Topi carcass.

“Birds have wings; they’re free; they can fly where they want when they want. They have the kind of mobility many people envy.” ~Roger Tory Peterson

The blonde morph Tawny eagle took off after deciding there was too much competition around the carcass from hyaenas and vultures.

Another male Kori bustard displaying with beautiful clear morning light on him. he did not catch any of the female’s attention that we could see but her certainly caught our attention.

The one morning it was sunny but windy. We had been watch a coalition of young male lions next to a pool of water where there was no shade just open grassland. Further along the drainage line was another pool of water with a solitary grumpy hippo in it but there was a lot of swallow activity. this was one of the Barn swallows which flew in for a rest. They seem to absolutely love the wind it seems to energise them and they become playful.

This Grey crowned crane was very busy plucking seeds off the grass stems.

Glamorous beyond design.

White-browed coucal foraging through a few low bushes hunting for insects.

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Rufous-naped lark declaring his territory from the top of a low bush.

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A male Kori bustard showing off his finery while striding through the grasslands of the Mara. The males were strutting their stuff but we did not see any females nearby.

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Wood sandpiper resting next to the water’s edge.

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“The soul that can speak with its eyes can also kiss with a gaze.” ~   Author Unknown 

Common Greenshank looks much like the Marsh sandpiper but is much larger and has a slightly upturned bill.

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A spur-winged lapwing watching out for aerial predators.

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Grey crowned crane having just had a drink on a hot afternoon in the Mara north.

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“If you desire to see, learn to act.” ~  Heinz von Foerster

A Tawny eagle chasing a Black stork – unsuccessfully!

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A blonde morph Tawny eagle taking off after not getting a  opportunity to pick up scraps with all the hyaenas and vultures around the carcass.

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A Tawny eagle scanning the grasslands.

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Wood sandpiper searching for food on the surface of the water. A palearctic visitor in East Africa between September and May each year.

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This Marsh sandpiper was trawling the same pool of water as the Common Greenshank and Wood sandpiper, all the while watched by a pride of lions.

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“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” ~   William Shakespeare 

Wood sandpiper mating dance with much head wagging and beak rubbing.

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When on the Mara plains the mammals are the first ones to catch your attention because of their size and numbers, but the Mara offers a treasure trove for birdwatchers.

There are many raptors which fly by while watching the lions or elephants. There are numerous drainage gullies with streams and pools of water which attract waders and are a place for other birds to drink. The carcasses attract numerous species of raptors. There are wanders like kites and harriers which cast a passing glance. There are those that stride through the grasslands like ostriches, bustards, ground hornbills and secretary birds. There are also those which catch insects on the wing. Distractions there are many!!

This was just a sample of the birds we saw while photographing other things. I hope your enjoyed the sample.

Life just seems so full of connections. Most of the time we don’t even pay attention to the depth of life. We only see flat surfaces.” ~ Colin Neenan

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

Have fun,

Mike

Martial the pride

It was 7h00 and we had stopped on a rise in Mara North to watch the “double-crossing” lion pride. The pride comprised cubs and lionesses which were lying in the grass out in the open.  The sun was rising, and the light was soft and bright.  The lionesses moved closer to a thicket of bushes adjacent to a pool of water near the top of the rise. 

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

About thirty metres to the north of the lion pride was an adult Martial eagle sitting on the rock watching the lion pride.

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We could not understand why this Martial eagle sat and intently watched the pride for what must have been half an hour. Just as unusual was that the lionesses ensured the cubs stayed close and did not wander too far from the cover of the bushes.

We sat silently watching this strange stand-off. Eventually we asked Akatch, our Mara guide, what was going on and he said the Martial was waiting and watching for an opportunity to snatch one of the smallest lion cubs.

I had never heard of this behaviour before – a Martial eagle snatching a lion cub. Akatch said he had actually seen this happen some years before. A little research corroborated this behaviour and lion cubs do get taken by Martial eagles in the Mara. While not common it has happened a number of times before.

“The strangeness is interpreted from our limited experience. This veil of inexperience falls away as nature reveals relationships which never thought possible. As strangeness turns to knowledge so we learn about the infinite intelligence which binds our natural world together.” ~Mike Haworth

Anyone who has waited for a large bird of prey to do something, knows only too well that they can sit and watch their surroundings intently for hours. Eventually the Martial figured that the lionesses had this situation too closely guarded and it took off. Interestingly, it flew off and circled some distance away probably watching to see if the lion cubs came out from the bushes and started to play.

This is Africa’s largest bird of prey, even bigger than a Crowned eagle. The Martial will hunt mainly on the wing, soaring above the bushveld. They have excellent eye sight and are known to be able to spot prey from up to six kilometres away. This eagle weighs around 6.5 Kg and has a wingspan of about 2.6 metres. 

Martial eagles’ diet consists of  birds such as  guineafowl, geese, francolins, storks and bustards, and have been known to take on a Kori bustard. Martials will also prey on hares, hyraxes, small antelope such as duiker and steenbok,  impala calves, some monkeys, mongooses and, on occasions, the young of serval,  civet and wild cats, jackals and lions. They will also go for snakes and monitor lizards.

Eagles usually kill their prey with an elongated, sharp hind toe-claw, which is referred to as the hallux-claw. It is usually the largest talon in the eagle’s foot with three front  toes and one back one.  This hallux-claw can grow to 51mm, similar to the three largest eagles in the world, Philippines, Stellar’s Sea Eagle, and Harpy Eagle. The inner toe and claw on the front of the foot of the Martial eagle is longer than the other two and is almost the same size as the hallux-claw. This can be seen clearly in the next image as this Martial eagle takes off. The long large middle toes and claw is thought to be an adaptation for hunting in long grass.

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Martial eagles are sexually dimorphic with the female being around 10 percent larger in body size and around 35 percent heavier than the male. The upper parts are dark brown as is its head, neck and chest. The belly is white and legs are white with black or dark brown spots. This eagle has menacing bright yellow eyes.

The Martial eagle can spend extended periods soaring looking for prey. This eagle is estimated to be able to see prey five kilometres away, with acuity 3 to 3.5 times that of a human being. The Martial is also known to sit for hours camouflaged in a bush or tree ready to ambush at any point.

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar” ~ Helen Keller

Once the Martial had flown off, the pride came out of the cover of the bushes to drink at the adjacent pool of water. The adults remained cautious and kept looking up to ensure their cubs were not about to be attacked by an avian predator.

The Martial eagle is diurnal and prefers open savannah, alongside woodlands and thorn bush habitats. I have only ever seen a solitary Martial in the bush but they obviously get together to breed.

“Named after Mars, the Roman god of war, this powerful hunter dominates with little need to fight. It uses spiraling thermals in the African skies to rule its domain from high above the plains, soaring effortlessly for hours on broad wings .”~ Mike Haworth

The Martial flew off and circled the area a few times before finding some bushes to perch in about 100 metres further away. The extra distance brought the lions out from their cover and they went down to the adjacent pool to drink. 

At birth lion cubs weigh only around three pounds and are completely helpless. They are usually born away from the pride for their safety and are united with the rest of the pride around three to four months later. In the Mara and Serengeti only one in five, or even less, make it to adulthood. Martial eagles being only one possible cause of the death rate.

After sating their thirst, the cubs followed the adults to lie in an outcrop of  rocks in the open. The Martial did not attempt an attack but the possibility certainly held our excitement for an extended period. We were reluctant to leave the scene but with nothing happening this meant investing time when the morning light was at its best. While no attack occurred the story caught our imagination and was worth the investment.

The Martial made one last swooping circle before catching a thermal to get high up to soar above the open grasslands of the Mara.

There is never a day in the bush when I do not learn something new. Superficially you would have thought that lions would have it all their own way on the open plains – not so!  Size and numbers play a critical role in “plain survival”.  It is very seldom you will see all lions lying down fast asleep unless there are no cubs in the pride. All the normal behavioural rules are continually being broken in the grass plains .

“If you don’t make the effort to get out you will never get to see nature’s magic which will surely surprise you, and fill you with wonder and humility.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

Eternal dance of life around death on the plains

This post is about a hunt we watched in the Mara. For those who are particularly sensitive, please do not read further. Some of the images of the hunt and take-down are graphic.

We were lodged at &Beyond’s superb tented camp, Kichwa Tembo which is located on its own conservancy immediately north of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara. In was mid-February so sunrise was at 6h55 as this area is almost on the equator. Most of the game was in the Mara North which was the directly north  and the other side of the Mara river to Kichwa Tembo. The only bridge in that area across the Mara river is on the access road north of the National Reserve against the Oloololo escarpment. The road is in a terrible state which meant that every time we travelled on it, which was daily, we got what was politely called an “African massage”.  Each morning we were up at 4h45 to leave camp at 5h30 and travel the 50 minutes on the access road outside the National Reserve to get to the Mara North via the Musiara gate by 6h45.

“If you want people to to think, give them intent, not instruction.” ~ L. David Marquet

At 6h45 it was still dark but the skyline was undergoing a magical transformation from twilight blues to spectacular pinks, oranges and yellows. Dawn in the Mara has a beautiful yellowish hue to it which is unique to the Mara and Serengeti area. We do not see this yellowish hue to our sunrises in southern Africa.

“The universe doesn’t give you what you ask for with your thoughts – it gives you what you demand with your actions.” ~ Steve Maraboli

Once through the gate now it was a race against time to find our lion prides. The lions seemed to be active for about an hour or so after sunrise, thereafter they either became “flat cats” or retreated into the shade of a few glades of trees which followed various drainage lines. Lou Coetzer, our guide and mentor from CNP Safaris, had been photographing this area for the previous two weeks so had a good idea of where the prides were operating. The “double-crossing” pride worked in a localised section in Mara North so we knew the general area in which we might find them. The pride inevitably moved around and did most of its hunting at night so the chances of finding them where we left them the day before are low, especially if they were hungry when we left them the evening before.

“Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way. Say nothing, and listen as Heaven whispers, do you like it? I did it just for you. ~  Max Lucado

The sun was now rising fast bathing the vast open grass plains of the Mara in a warm, soft clear early morning light, perfect for wildlife photography. Now all we had to do was find the lions. Next minute between Lou and our &beyond guide/driver Akatch things started to unfold quickly. Lou pointed out that the Topis had stopped and were staring at something. This usually meant they were staring at a predator. Akatch, who had incredible eyesight said that hyaenas, not lions, were in the process of catching what we thought at first was a wildebeest because of its dark colour. We quickly moved into position with the sun behind us and began to watch the drama unfold. As the entourage got closer we realised the victim was a buffalo calf, not a wildebeest. In my fifty years of going regularly into the bush, I had never seen this kind of drama.

“Intent reveals desire; action reveals commitment.” ~ Steve Maraboli,

We missed the first part of the hunt as this buffalo calf was on its own and the herd was nowhere to be seen, which in itself was unusual. Buffalo are known to protect their own. A pack of spotted hyaenas were chasing this calf biting at its tail, flanks and back legs.

At any point there were five to six hyaenas around the calf taking turns to bite it.

The calf just powered on.

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“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in tenacity.” ~ Louis Pasteur

The hyaenas at no point tried to take on this calf from the front.

A human perspective does not add any value at this point.

A buffalo’s hide is thick and tough so even these hyaenas, with one of the strongest bite forces in the natural world, were struggling to stop and bring down this calf. All the cackling from the hyaenas attracted a few Black-backed jackals who skirted around the periphery of the action, never daring to get into the fray, being such lightweights.

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The drama intensified as more hyaenas joined the biting and tugging frenzy. All of us in the photographic vehicle could hardly breathe and were dead quiet intently looking through our viewfinders.

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The strength and tenacity of this buffalo calf are of what legends are made. Despite being mobbed by hyaenas and having chunks bitten out of its backside, hide legs and flanks, it carried on trying to get away from its attackers, dragging five or six hyaenas along at a time.

In my book, this buffalo calf was brave and strong beyond anything I would have expected. It just would not go down.

The calf pulled these hyaenas in wide circle three times, despite being progressively wounded and losing much blood, judging from the scarlet-pink faces, necks and forelegs of the hyaenas.

Slowly and progressively the hyaenas started to eat into the left side flank of this calf but undeterred the calf would not stop and carried on dragging these blood-frenzied hyaenas along.

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From a human perspective, it was chilling scene and difficult to watch these hyaenas relentlessly overwhelm this tenacious calf. From nature’s perspective, this is a drama which unfolds time and again on these plains and has done so for centuries.

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“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~Charles Darwin

Despite their strength in numbers the hyaenas never dared to try to tackle this calf from the front.

This method of hunting by hyaenas is effectively the only way they can bring down their prey. While they have claws, they cannot grip their prey with their paws so have to bite and grip it with their enormously strong jaws. A lion’s retractable claws are like grappling hooks which enable it to attack  and hold on so bring down their prey quite differently. At the first opportunity lions will go for their prey’s throat to suffocate it before feeding on it. Hyaenas cannot do this so effectively eat their prey alive.

Hyaenas are highly cooperative hunters and they execute a coordinated  relay of attacks to bring down their prey.

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“The most critical time in any battle is not when I’m fatigued, it’s when I no longer care.”
~ Craig D. Lounsbrough

Eventually, the hyaenas managed to overwhelm the calf and it stopped. This was the first time a hyaena moved in front of the calf during the hunt and started to bite its front legs. By this time the calf’s eyes were wide and glaring, probably in deep shock.

The calf finally went down and within seconds the hyaenas were ripping furiously at its side stripping off large chucks of flesh. The hunt went on for about seemed to  be 15 to 20 minutes.

Within three or four minutes of the calf going down, the hyaenas had eaten all of its insides and about twenty percent of its muscle, such is the speed at which they eat.

The hyaenas knew only to well that the prolonged hunt accompanied by all the their cackling and whooping reinforced by the high-pitched barking by the jackals was bound to attract  attention, and it did.

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The hyaenas were well aware of the eternal game played on the plains and never kept their heads down for long.

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The hyaenas would dig in to their hard-won kill for a few mouthfulls before looking up to make sure  lions were not approaching.

All the while, the “double-crossing” pride had been watching the hyaenas taking down the buffalo calf from their vantage point on a rise. It seemed that the lions waited until the hyaenas had done all the work before moving in. Initially, the lionesses came down the hill toward the buffalo calf carcass. The lionesses did not rush in as they were outnumbered by hyaenas. This was very exciting because we were about to see an enactment of another epic tangle between eternal enemies.

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Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large blond maned male lion racing into the pack of hyaenas to steal the kill, with complete disregard for the lionesses or the number of hyaenas, such is the power and aura of a large male lion.

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“I don’t follow dreams, I hunt goals!” ~Unknown

I was so focused on this male rushing in that I did not see the reaction from the lionesses, who I gather from animated discussion afterward were very annoyed by the insolence of these two young males rushing in to steal the kill. These young males were probably part of the pride at one point and were kicked out by the coalition of dominant males. Although effectively nomads they must have stayed in the area close to the pride. They saw the hyaenas taking down the calf and had not seen the dominant males about and  decided this was a perfect opportunity to barge in and steal a meal.

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Emboldened by his size and strength this young male thundered in directly to the calf’s carcass, sending hyaenas scattering.

He was so intent on the carcass he did not go for any of the hyaenas and we know that large male lions make it their business to kill hyaenas.

“There is an eternal dance of life around death on the Mara stage, where cooperation and domination are choreographed to the natural rhythms of the dotted plains.” ~ Mike Haworth

One male lion versus nine hyaenas on the kill,  and they all scattered.

Not one of the twelve or thirteen hyaenas directly around the carcass tried to defend it.  That would have been a death sentence.

The hyaenas scattered to a safe distance but did not move too far away

 

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The hyaenas together with the jackals  wandered around the periphery of the kill zone looking for scraps of meat which might have been dropped during the frenzy.

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You can see from the openness of this area that any action on the plains could be seen from a distance. There was not another buffalo to be seen as far as the eye could see.

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Initially, I did not see the second male but it looked like he worked in concert with the first male securing the carcass and the second male securing the periphery. 

The two nomads settled down to a hearty breakfast of buffalo calf at around 8h00 in the morning. They finished off the calf leaving nothing for the lionesses and their cubs.

For a wild life photographer watching this kind of predator interaction in early morning light is as good as it gets. Lion prides and hyaena clans have overlapping territories. Both are good hunters and both do most of their hunting at night. What makes the Mara predator behaviour different, is that there are few places to hide during the day and the grass in February was relative low, so both sets of predators could see each other. A hyaena clan  posts sentries all over the plains. A single hyaena will lie in a drainage line, a pool of water or large tuft of grass. Each hyaena waits and watches all the goings of the herbivores and other predators in their area. Both lions and hyaenas watch the vultures to see where prey has fallen. They will hunt at any time if the opportunity arises. If a good feeding opportunity arises, such as lions killing a buffalo, then the lone hyaena will whoop for reinforcements. Once enough sentries converge, and if there is no male lion around, then the hyaenas will mob the lionesses trying to force them off the kill.

“Your soul awakens your mind. Your mind makes your choices. Your choices manifest your life. Your life is your lesson. Your lessons create wisdom. Your wisdom enriches your soul.” ~ Karen A. Baquiran

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

Have fun,

Mike