Serengeti in January

I was fortunate enough to go to the Serengeti with Lou Coetzer of CNP Safaris in January of the this year. The reason for going in January was that the &Beyond guide at the Grumeti tented Camp, Wasiri had indicated that this was a time when the “short” rains had stopped but the grass was low. Wasiri has been a guide in this area for the past 20 years and so knows its rhythms intimately. The predators would be active because their main prey, Wildebeest, was scarce as the migration was moving down the eastern side of the Serengeti towards Ndutu in the south to where the grass was most abundant, and where they could to calve. With low grass and active predators, this seemed like an ideal time to be wandering around the western corridor of the Serengeti for wildlife, especially predator photography.

“Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” ~ Jennifer Lee

We heard there was a coalition of eight males, fathers and sons, which ruled this section of the western corridor at the time we were there. The idea of a mega coalition created images utter domination.

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” ~Martin Buber

On our first afternoon we wandered along the main gravel access road towards the Nyasirori ranger post in the east. Close to the road we came across a pride of lions with these two lions mating away from the main pride. It was late afternoon and there were patches of sunlight streaming onto the grass plains.

The gestation or pregnancy period for a female lion is about 105 – 110 days and a litter of two to four cubs is usual. Some distance from, but part of the same pride as the mating pair, we found several lionesses with a few cubs frolicking around them. The females with cubs stayed close to the rest of the pride. While the lionesses were trying to get some rest the cubs were boisterously playing around them.

These youngsters got very absorbed in their play and every now and then would suddenly stop, realising that this strange thing, our vehicle, was nearby.

The cubs seemed to be evenly matched but one initiated the play more than the other. Their coats were moist from the light rain earlier than afternoon.

If your sibling or cousin will not play with you then perhaps Mom’s tail will!

“Every person can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure.” ~ Irving Wallace

This lone buffalo bull was very grumpy and for good reason, as there were a few lions around. He did not run away but rather chased the lions away.

The buffalo bull chased this male lion into a small cluster of balanites. This was a first, I have never seen a male lion chased up in a tree before.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal, make it count” ~ Rose Tremain

In the open grasslands of the Serengeti you are likely to find many birds ranging from large birds such as Secretary birds and cranes to smaller ones such as lapwings, larks, starlings and coursers foraging in the grass. This was a Temmnick’s Courser on a game path. This courser prefers the short grass areas where there are ample termites and insects. We often found these coursers in the open grasslands when we looking for lions.

A Double-banded courser foraging for insects in the grass. They feed mostly on ants, termites and beetles. This courser is identified by its pale colouring with distinctive double dark brown bands on its chest.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” ~ Charles Swindoll

A Crowned crane coming in to land near its mate. They tend to mate for life, and are very territorial defending their nesting area with loud honking calls. They like to forage in open grasslands adjacent to wetlands where they eat grass seeds, insects and other invertebrates. They are also unique in that they can perch in the trees, unlike other cranes, because of their long hind toes.

Grey crowned cranes are elegant and unmistakable in the wetland areas along river courses in the Serengeti. They inflate their red throat pouch to produce honking sounds that are unique. Their voice has considerable harmonic development and can be heard for miles – these cranes use many different calls to communicate.

These cranes are known for their intricate dance that they do during the breeding season. As the displays pick up they perform ballet leaps of great beauty and dexterity. The entire ritual involves dancing, bowing, jumping and head shaking.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

This was the first day in the western corridor of the Serengeti and although the weather was quite overcast, it was a promising start to our week of wildlife photography.

The lioness usually initiates the mating. Although the male lions look to be biting their mates neck this is not the painful part. Male lions have a barbed penis which appears to be painful for the female when the male dismounts. In lions, copulation is often accompanied by snarling, biting, growling, and threats, and sometimes the female turns and swats the male during dismount. The male penis has about 100 one millimetre barbs on his penis. They are made of keratin. As the male withdraws the barbs scrap the walls of the female’s vagina. The barbs have two functions, they help scratch out sperm on the vaginal wall from previous matings and help induce ovulation.

The mating can take place up to 100 times a day and each mating lasts only seconds. The previous male was about to take a short break from his mating marathon. The female usually rolls over after mating which is thought to encourage the sperm to reach deep inside the uterus. This mating marathon can last as long as four or five days.

Little did we know after the first day that we were going to see 70 different lions over the next six days. One of the aspects about going out of the high tourist season is that you get to see and understand the rhythm of the Serengeti without the migration and without tourists. More often than not we were the only vehicle out and about in our area of the western corridor.

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” ~ Randy Komisar

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

Have fun, Mike

Cape Point Nature Reserve

The second day of a brief adjourn in Cape Town for a few days in December 2018. We chose to drive down to Cape Point Nature Reserve via Simonstown and what a beautiful day it turned out to be.

“Jobs fill your pocket but adventures fill your soul.”~ Janie Lyn Beatty

A drive from Simonstown along the main road past Boulders and Murdock Valley onto Smitswinkel and then to Cape Point Nature Reserve. A small inlet just past Boulders on our way to Cape Point.

A moody sky as background with a calm False Bay sea lapping the sandstone boulders. The floating kelp was rhythmically moving with the waves which were lapping the boulders at the water’s edge.

Looking south just beyond Partridge point into Smitswinkel Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve.

“Blessed are the curious for they shall have adventures.” ~ Lovelle Drachman

A view as you travel down in Cape Point Nature Reserve to the Cape of Good Hope with a view towards Antarctica.

The Cape Peninsula offers a compact floral kingdom comprising Proteas, bushes and grasses which cover the sandstone formations of the peninsula,. Fynos is considered one of the world’s six floral kingdoms.

“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

A view looking west from Olifantsbos beach across the stony section at low tide with debris of kelp scattered across the rocks and beach. There were many terns, oystercatchers, plovers and ibis foraging in the kelp debris scattered on the beach.

A swift tern identified by its yellow beak, back cap and white underparts.

Sandwich terns gather in large flocks along the Cape Point coastline diving into the shallow coastal waters for small fish. This is a slender tern which has grey upperparts, white underparts, a yellow-tipped black bill and a shaggy black crest when breeding which becomes a white crown outside the breeding season.

A group of African black oystercatchers identified by the black plumage and red-orange beaks and red eye rings and pinkish legs.

Males and females have the same plumage. The female is bigger than the male and the former has a longer more pointed beak.

“Collect moments not things.”– unknown

These oystercatchers feed on mussel, worms and other crustaceans which they forage in the low tide in the inter-tidal zones.

These birds are monogamous slow breeders; breeding exclusively along the coast of southern Africa. They remind me a lot of skimmers. According to SANBI, the global population of the African Black Oystercatcher has increased by about 33% since 1980 (5 000) to early 2000 (6 670). Due to the small population size of less than 10 000 individuals, the IUCN and South Africa regard the African Black Oystercatcher as ‘Near Threatened’.

A swift tern flying back to its group resting on the rocks in Olifantsbos bay.

On our way back from Olifantsbos beach I was surprised to see this family of ostriches foraging between the road and the coast line. This was a successful family judging from the age and number of chicks which had survived. There is a low predator density in this reserve so their chances were good.

A very young Bontebok calf with its mother not too far away.

An adult Bontebok. Both sexes have horns and similar colouring with a distinctive white blaze on their face. They are dark brown with a white belly, rump and hocks. They are plains antelope preferring the short grass areas.

The common sunshine conebush with flame red young shoots (probably full of tannin). The is plant thrives in a variety of soils and is able to survive fires by regrowing from underground rootstock.

“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” ~ Chief Seattle

Looking directly east across False Bay to Pringle Point and the Hottentots Holland on its left hand side.

A view from Two Ocean’s restaurant looking up the Cape Point coast line towards Simonstown.

A view looking north from Buffels beach in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. This area offers tidal pools to swim in and extensive views across False bay towards the Hottentots Holland mountain range behind Somerset West.

A sugarbush which usually occurs in large thickets. There are around 112 species of protea in South Africa and this family is estimated to date back around 300 million years and so are among the oldest families of flowering plants in the world.

The quartz sandstone boulders offer wonderful landscape photographic opportunities with abundant clusters of Cape Snow (Syncarpha vestita).

“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to” ~ Alain de Botton

A fynbos landscape punctuated by quartz sandstone boulders with a dead pin cushion protea lying over one of the foreground boulders possibly blown over and broken by the high south eastern winds which can howl through this area.

Quartz sandstone boulders with a yellow pin cushion protea to add character and colour.

“Live your life by a compass not a clock.” ~ Stephen Covey

Late afternoon facing west with the bright afternoon light toned down with the quartz sandstone boulders in the left hand side foreground.

Clusters of Cape Snow on the slope of a quartz sandstone ridge with a rich diversity of fynbos in the foreground which includes Elegia Filacea. My knowledge of fynbos flora is sketchy so any corrections would be welcome.

The geology of the peninsula formation comprises hard, light grey course pebbly quartz sandstone. A Cape zebra stallion standing in the foreground in the fading light of the late afternoon.

The Cape Peninsula which has an area of about 470 square kilometres has a floral kingdom consisting of 2,285 flowering plant species. A field of orange Elegia Filacea with cluster of Cape Snow.

The Cape has many photographic dimensions. One of the intriguing revelations about this trip has been that the more you look the more you see and the more you realise that you have still to learn. It is like opening the first few pages of a thick book.

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” ~ Randy Komisar

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

Have fun, Mike

Eclectic Cape Town in early December

Helen and I went down to Cape Town in early December to participate in the Nature’s Best Photography (NBP) Africa award ceremony. The quality of the award winning images were excellent and we got to meet some fascinating people at the ceremony. Nature’s Best Photography Africa has an annual exhibition of award winning photographs which are displayed by the Iziko SA Museum. NBP Africa is associated with NBP Global whose annual exhibition has been hosted annually at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for over 20 years.

We stayed at a beautiful hotel, the Cellars Hohenot in Constantia in Cape Town. The Constantia Valley is known as ‘Cape Town’s Vineyard’. The hotel, built in the Cape Dutch style, is surrounded by beautiful gardens and has wonderful views of the east side of Table mountain.

This was the view from our bedroom window onto the hotel’s swimming pool.

The hotel swimming pool area was peaceful and idyllic for not only the guests but the Egyptian geese which had taken up residence in the gardens.

The two remaining Egyptian geese goslings seemed to really enjoy the pool when the patrons were not around.

Some of the hotel rooms were located in an annex detached from the main hotel and were also built in the old Cape Dutch style.

We decided to make a long weekend of our trip to Cape Town after the Nature’s Best Photography Africa awards ceremony. Helen wanted to visit the top of Table Mountain using the cable way but there was load shedding by South Africa’s monopolistic electrical utility. With no electrical power there were no traffic lights so the traffic was chaotic in Cape Town centre making in the cable way inaccessible.

I have been travelling regularly to Cape Town since 1980 and had never been to the World of Birds in Hout Bay. To get away from the traffic, and because Helen and I are both interested in birds, we decided to visit the World of Birds instead of the cable way.

A male Indian or blue peafowl in full gorgeous iridescent blue and green plumage. There are two other peafowl species, the green and Congo peafowl. We only saw the Indian species.

Although the venue was somewhat run down, apparently due to financial difficulties according to the Cape Times, it is still well worth a visit because of the fantastic variety of birds and small mammals it houses.

“The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.” ~ Aldo Leopold

The next image is of a silver pheasant. There are some 51 pheasants species in the world being native to Asia with one exception, the Congo peafowl from Zaire. Most pheasant species live in the forest understory.

Pheasants are characterised by strong sexual dimorphism, with males being highly ornate with bright colours and adornments such as wattles and long tails. Males are usually larger than females and have longer tails.

Swinhoe’s pheasant from Taiwan

A male Golden pheasant, or sometimes called the Chinese pheasant, resplendent in the most glorious plumage. This pheasant is native to forests in the mountainous areas of western China.

The first time I ever saw a Golden Pheasant was in the aviary of my long standing friend Adrian Lombard in Harare Zimbabwe, back in the 1960s.

“Humans seem to have an innate drive to master other creatures.” ~ Paul Greenberg

A pair of rosy-cheeked lovebirds fast asleep. In the wild this species of lovebird is usually found in south western Africa. Plumage is identical in males and females. Lovebirds are known for their sleep position in which they sit side-by-side and turn their faces in towards each other. 

A head shot of a striking Demoiselle Crane, a species which is usually found from the Black Sea to Mongolia and North Eastern China.

Another view from the back of this young Demoiselle crane.

A black crowned crane is only found wild in small populations in eastern Africa, centered in Senegal and Gambia. There is a large population throughout Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, with separate populations in Chad and Cameroon. I never tire of seeing the grey crowned cranes with its exquisite plumage and radiant golden crown, but the black crowned crane has an even more striking plumage.

We came across three secretary birds with the female on a nest
nursing a youngster while the male strode around the cage. It is wonderful to see these raptors in the wild in areas such as Mashatu , Serengeti and Masai Mara. They are highly effective predators eating anything from small birds to snakes and rodents.

An albino male peafowl giving a full display.

A head shot of the marabou stork. These are carrion eaters which hang around a kill to pick up scraps as they cannot tear flesh from a carcass. These storks are also effective fishermen when pools begin to dry up leaving catfish writhing in the mud. Fish eagles are also know to steal prey from marabous.

South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane also known as the Stanley crane and the Paradise crane. This crane stands a little over a metre high and is pale blue-gray in colour with a white crown, a pink bill, and long, dark gray wingtip feathers which trail to the ground. Of the 15 species of crane, the Blue Crane has the most restricted distribution and is only found in South Africa and Namibia.

A juvenile greater flamingo kneeling on the ground. I am not sure what it was doing as its eyes were open.

An adult greater flamingo is the largest of all the flamingo species.
In the wild most of the plumage is pinkish white, and the wing coverts are red and the primary and secondary flight feathers are black. The bill is pink with a restricted black tip, and the legs are entirely pink. The degree of pink in the adults depends on organisms in their feeding grounds.

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

The black casqued hornbill is found in the forest of west Africa from Angola to the DRC and Liberia. The adult on the right and juvenile on the left with the ginger coloured crown. The juvenile’s casque has still to fully develop.

A silvery cheeked hornbill which lives in evergreen forest in most of Africa. These hornbills prefer the forest habitat because of the abundance of available fruit. The large casque on top of its upper bill acts a a echo chamber to amplify its call in the thick forest vegetation.

Red-billed toucan. There are about 40 different species of toucans. Toucans are found in South and Central America in the canopy layer of the rainforest. They vary in size from about 18 cm inches to a little over 60 cm. They are characterised by their short and thick necks and large, colourful, yet lightweight bills. They feed mainly on fruit and berries in the forest.

A pair of spotted dikkops or thickknee. They are predominantly crepuscular and nocturnal, hence the large eyes. The spotted species can be differentiated from the water thickknee because the latter has lighter colouring and dark horizontal stripes on its shoulder coverts and edges of its primary wing feathers.

Masked lapwing is native to Australia which, like most lapwings, prefer wet, open environments.

Black crowned night-heron, another crepuscular hunter which lives around the world except in cold climates and Australia. The long white plumes at the back of its head are used in courtship displays.

A gorgeous scarlet ibis is native to tropical south America and the Caribbean islands. Its taxonomy classifies it as a unique species but that is in dispute as some scientists want it reclassified as a sub species of the American white ibis.

The southern bald ibis is identified by its glossy black feathers which have a slight blue green sheen. Its head is bald with a red crown.The skin on the neck and head is wrinkled. The bill and legs are a pinkish red. This ibis is found throughout South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland but is uncommon.

Straw-necked ibis is native to Australia, New Guniea and parts of Indonesia. It gets its name from the straw-like feathers on its neck. This feature is not particularly evident in this image.Found around shallow freshwater wetlands and are highly nomadic.

“The cream of enjoyment in this life is always impromptu. The chance walk; the unexpected visit; the unpremeditated journey; the unsought conversation or acquaintance.”~ Fanny fern

The giant wood-rail is found in eastern Paraguay, Uruguay and south Brazil. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Giant Wood-rail lives along marshes and rivers, and can often be seen completely out in the open, walking slowly in the mud. This rail is classified as “least concern” in the IUCN listings.

The black oyster catcher is found along the coast of South Africa and Namibia. The adults have black plumage, red eyes surrounded by a orange-red eye-ring and their beaks vary in colour from orange to red. The female is usually bigger than the male. Their diet consists of mussels, worms and other small crustaceans

“Humans seem to have an innate drive to master other creatures.”~Peter Greenberg

The budgerigar is a long tailed seed eating parrot. All budgerigars originally came from Australia. All the different coloured budgerigars are from the same species. Wild budgerigars have a light green body colour, their mantles (back and wing coverts show a black mantle with yellow stripes

Distinguishing the age of a parakeet is determined by the lines on the forehead. Young parakeets have their foreheads covered with lines, while adults have them smooth. Young parakeets have a completely black eye, while older budgerigars have a white ring with a black dot. Contrary to what we saw in the cages, budgerigars are nomadic and move in flocks.

Golden breasted starling. I first saw this bird in Tsavo West in south Eastern Kenya. In the bush this bird stands out like a jewel.

This juvenile spotted eagle-owl distinctive because it is smaller than a Cape eagle-owl and its eyes are yellow whereas the Cape eagle-owl’s eyes are orange. It also has fine barring on its belly.

There were three juvenile spotted eagle-owls in this cage. All were wide awake in the middle of the day.

An adult African spotted eagle-owl asleep in the low light in its cage. There was a lot of noise from different bird calls so it was probably just resting.

Verreaux eagle has all black plumage with a distinctive white “V” on its back which can be seen easily when it flies. This eagle prefers hilly and mountainous regions where its favourite prey, the rock hyrax, is abundant.

Like all eagles the female is the larger of the pair. It is difficult to see this large magnificent raptor in a cage when its natural state is soaring along ridges catching the updraft along hills and mountains. These raptors usually land up in sanctuaries because they were injured and cannot return to the wild.

“Clearly animals know more than we think and think more than we know.”~Irene Pepperberg

The Cape Gannet breeds in large colonies on islands off the coast of Namibia and South Africa. This bird can be found long distances offshore as far as 160kms from the coast when foraging for food.

Mandarin ducks are native to China and Japan. These small ducks have extravagantly ornate plumage. Like Pygmy geese they frequently perch in trees, while the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs.

The next three images are of a Nicobar pigeon. There are around 300 species of pigeon and dove in the world. They are among the most colourful and beautiful of all birds.

The Nicobar pigeon ranges from India through Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Palau. The spectacular iridescent plumage, elongated gray neck feathers and pure white tail of the Nicobar pigeon are distinctive.

The Nicobar’s beauty has also become its threat, because this bird is a popular target for illegal poaching. It like so many avian species the Nicobar pigeon faces habitat destruction due to the expanding human population.

Some of the other spectacularly coloured and ornate pigeons are the Victoria crowned pigeon, the green pigeon and orange-breasted green pigeon, the Spinfex pigeon and the rose-crowned fruit dove. There are also the bleeding heart pigeons, the Luzon and Mindanaco to name just a few.

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

Our walk around the World of Birds was a vivid reminder of the diversity and breath-taking colours of the plumage of birds.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful. An endless prospect of magic and wonder.”~Ansel Adams

My next post will show images of an interesting day spent in the Cape Point Nature Reserve.

“Through the naturalist’s eyes, a sparrow can be as interesting as a bird of paradise, the behaviour of a mouse as interesting as that of a tiger and a humble lizard as fascinating as a crocodile.”~ Gerald Durrell

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

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha’s Mwagusi safari camp

This is the last post from my trip to Ruaha National Park with Andrew Beck of Wild Eye in November 2018. We were based at the Mwagusi safari camp. This was a special wild place which infused you with a deep sense of wild Africa.

“The cool morn disguised the midday heat. The lively chorus at dawn celebrated the night’s survival. The darkness faded and so too did the haunting calls in the night. The African bush filled your senses and your imagination.” ~Mike Haworth

This first image is a view from my banda at 5h30 in the morning around 10 minutes before sunrise. Coffee had just been delivered and I could sit quietly and watch a new Africa day light up across the dry Mwagusi river bed. The sounds were indescribable with birds singing, spurfowl calling and the hyaenas whooping as they made their way back to their dens. In the distance lion were often heard roaring in the cool air as their roars carried further in the dense cool air.

” There are a few in this world who have the good sense to carve out small sanctuaries in the African bush for ordinary people to visit and be privileged to have the African bush reveal itself with all its wonder.” ~ Mike Haworth

A view of the inside of the banda I stayed in while in the Mwagusi safari Camp. It was spacious and very comfortable. It had a large veranda with big cushions covering a concrete seat and in case that was too hard there was a hammock swinging slightly in the light breeze.

A view from the bathroom through the bedroom out onto the river. As you can see the partitions were made of reeds. The floors were polished red concrete. The main bedroom was a tent which could be closed up at night. Each banda had en-suite facilities with flushing toilet and an ample supply of hot water for the shower and sink.

A view from the veranda of my banda at midday looking across the dry Mwagusi river to the main dining area.

Each banda had a large covered veranda, with a cushioned seating area and inviting hammock designed to catch any breeze in the midday heat. This was a perfect place to sit first thing in the morning watching the sun rise and to relax in the afternoon heat.

A view of the approach to my banda showing the peaked roof of Makuti thatch constructed from palm leaves.

“It is only by going to new places can your experience of life be deepened. Only then to you understand the value in the diversity and being able to sense the similarities and connections of life.”~ Mike Haworth

A view down onto the dry Mwagusi river bed from just in front of the dining area.

On our third morning we were barely five minites out of camp having just crossed the dry Mwagusi river when we found a pack of wild dogs. There was a concentration of predators around the Mwagusi safari camp when we were there.

Looking from the main dining area to the left set of bandas positioned along the bank of the Mwagusi river.

There was much bird activity around the bird baths in the heat of the early afternoon. A whole family of red-necked spurfowl gathered for a drink.

A view from the river bank towards the main dining area. The standard of food was exceptional. The manner in which it was served was first class. Each evening we were treated to a dinner in the river bed in a different location with lanterns lighting the sandy river bed creating just the sort of romanticism which makes you fall in love with the wild African bush.

” In an African sunset you will be immersed in colour and beauty which seems dreamlike. Your senses will be flooded with the heat, fragrances, colours and sounds of that inbetween time.”~ Mike Haworth

A view of the dry Mwagusi river just next to the camp at last light.

Our ‘wheels’ for the trip with Yona as driver and Justin as our guide. Both were very hospitable and Justin had exceptional knowledge of the wildlife, trees and birds. Both were a pleasure to travel with around Ruaha.

Ruaha has its own unique way of displaying its road signs. Each road has a different animal sign mounted on top of a colourful base.

There were a number of bird baths in front of the main dining area and another next to the reading room. We spent time editing our images in the reading room but there were many distractions such as this palm-collared thrush which was frequent visitor to the bird bath in the middle of the day.

“I hope you have an experience that alters the course of your life because, after Africa, nothing has ever been the same” ~ Suzanne Evans

A view along the Mwagusi river immediately behind the camp at last light.

Wild Ruaha was an intense experience. It overloaded your senses. Everything was brand new. November was hot. The bush offered new sights, smells and fragrances, and it was teeming with wildlife and yes, the insects bite.

“You were born to dance to the beat of your own heart,
To roam without cages, with the innocence of a child and the free spirit of untamed horses.
I hope you laugh without stopping, live with abandon, and love like all there is. Stay wild, my wild, wild child.” ~ unknown

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

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha: lion and elephant

This is the second last post from my first trip to Ruaha National park in the centre of Tanzania. According to the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which is part of the Wildlife Conservation Research unit at Oxford University, Ruaha is home to an estimated 10% of the world’s remaining wild lions.

“Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions.” ~Antoinette Brown Blackwell

According to Panthera, a hundred years ago, there were more than 200,000 lions in Africa. Currently, the total count of lions in Africa is approximated to be 20,000 lions in only 26 African countries. However, according to the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) Red List, the total number of lions in the wild is approximated to be between 20,000 to 39,000.

Manes are unique to lions, no other cat species has a mane. Three features are thought to shape most views about a male lion’s mane. Firstly, the mane is dimorphic as only the males have manes. Secondly, the mane normally starts growing from puberty and really starts to show around when three years old. Thirdly, the shape and colour of male lion manes are highly variable. Some of the male lions we saw had ‘mohawk’ type manes. The length of the mane is thought to be influenced by climatic habitats. In extremely hot areas, male lions are seen to have shorter manes, though this is not a general rule. It is though clearly evident in Tsavo in Kenya. The infamous Tsavo man-eaters had almost no manes even when fully mature.

A male lion’s mane is a signal to other males and females of his strength and vigour. The mane is also thought to signal sex-selective traits and protect the male’s neck when fighting. An interesting article in American Scientist by Peyton M.West, indicates that the mane is a signal of quality to mates and rivals but one which comes with consequences.

This male lion is displaying the ‘flehmen grimace’. This is when an animal draws air in through its open mouth and curls back its upper lip to pull air over his Jacobson’s organ. This is a special olfactory organ in the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth with a patch of sensory cells that detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles and is able to scent an odour or pheromone. Chemicals and hormones contained in the urine elicit the flehmen response. Males and females display the flehmen response.

To complicate the discussion on lions’ manes, several female lions in Botswana have been recorded with full manes. Geoffrey D. Gilfillan at the University of Sussex in Falmer, UK, and colleagues reported that five lionesses sporting a mane were identified in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango delta. In lions, testosterone directly affects the development of manes. A likely explanation for a female lion growing a mane is an increased level of testosterone as these lionesses mature, says Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer at the global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera.

“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”~Linda Hogan

In the middle of our trip we found four lionesses down next to the Great Ruaha river. They looked very lean and hungry and although their nipples showed they had been suckling their young. They must have left them in a safe thicket to venture out to hunt.

Lionesses affirm their bonds with neck and head rubbing and licking each other. These lionesses were in a gully adjacent to the river out of sight of impala wandering on the wide sand bank above. The impala never came close enough for the lioness to spring an attack. It was impressive to see the lionesses continue to boost each other during the lean times.

A lone male lying alongside the road. He was probably not more than a kilometre away from the ‘mohawk’ male. Although he was resting, he was alert. It could have been that he was part of a coalition with the ‘mohawk’ and was just giving him some space while he was with his female. A lion’s tail gives a sense how he is feeling. By flicking its tail, a lion can warn others to stay away because he is uncomfortable with their proximity.

After four days, the four lionesses eventually took down a zebra next to little Serengeti. It was relief to see them finally get a meal. To add a silver lining to the story, the cubs were with the females. It was clear the lionesses were very hungry and were making short work of the zebra carcass. There were a number of Hooded vultures close by but none dared to wander close to the kill.

The intent in this lioness’s eyes sends a primal shiver down your spine. It is also remarkable to see how quickly hungry lionesses in poor condition bounce back after one or two good meals.

Most male lion’s faces have scars and they etch a story of the trials he has been through to get to this point. Males are much larger and heavier than their females. The heaviest male lion recorded was spotted in Kenya and was 272 kilograms. Much smaller in comparison, the heaviest female, found in South Africa, was 152 kilograms. Lions have good sense of hearing. They turn their ears in different directions to assess the direction of the incoming sounds and are able to hear from many hundreds of metres away.

“There is nothing more energizing than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

The park consists of four main ecological zones, each with its own animal and plant life. The Ruaha and its tributaries are banked by green woodland, namely fig, acacia, tamarind, baobab and doum palm.

One evening as the sun was setting in the west painting the sky as a warm apricot backdrop and clouds pregnant with rain turned a powder blue colour, we watched a breeding herd of elephants come towards the Mwagusi river. It was hot and dead quiet, but for the odd spurfowl and the Long tailed starlings calling.

“Communication is not the preserve of humans; it is the one thing that is truly universal.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

For a while they looked to be coming down for a drink. The herd closed ranks probably because of a perceived threat from perhaps a lingering scent in the area.

For some inexplicable reason, the matriarch led the herd into a horseshoe formation. It might have been that she suddenly got wind of a smell of predators. The herd was dead quiet and milled around for a while before heading off upstream along the Mwagusi dry sand river bed. It was a perfect end to a superb day in Ruaha.

According to the International Elephant Organisation, the Rungwa-Ruaha ecosystem contains the largest elephant population in East Africa, despite ongoing threats that have reduced its numbers by 77% since 2009. Consistently throughout Africa, human elephant conflict is on the rise, as humans increasingly convert existing elephant habitat into cropland and the elephants find themselves competing for resources with people. Parks like Ruaha provide a much needed sanctuary for elephants.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” ~ Jacques Yves Cousteau

Elephants are now seen as sentient beings meaning they are able to feel and be aware of feelings. They are known to have spacial awareness, excellent memories, are able to recognise individual humans. Elephants are known to exhibit concern for deceased individuals and offer assistance to other elephant or other animals in distress. Perhaps the best example of this are the herds of elephant which arrived at Lawrence Anthony’s house at Thula Thula to pay their respects after he had died.

“But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

There are two elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to Lawrence’s son, Dylan, both herds arrived at the Anthony family compound two days after Anthony’s death. They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey. The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They all hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush. Nobody could understand how they knew that Lawrence had died. Perhaps there is sentience and inter-connectedness which we are still trying to fathom.

“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione

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

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha vistas

Ruaha is not an African National Park which many people know about. Its remoteness is both its saviour and its struggle. It takes about two and half hours in a Cessna Caravan to fly from Dar es Salaam to the Msembe air strip in the Ruaha National Park. This means several parks such as Selous, Serengeti and Lake Manyara and the Ngorogoro crater are closer and attract more visitors and more income.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.”~William Burchell

The landscape changes as you draw closer to the Ruaha airstrip and you fly over the Great Ruaha river. The baobab landscape becomes more evident and there is greater hilly relief as you get closer to the airstrip.

For me, Ruaha’s remoteness and wildness was a magical mix. There were not many other vehicles in the park. This meant that wildlife sightings were privileged as you were invariably alone and could be quiet and just watch.

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

On our first afternoon, we found a pair of leopard cubs not far from our Mwagusi Camp. One cub was smaller and very scared. It was in a cluster of small granite boulders. It could have been that it had been terrorised by baboons earlier that afternoon or some other predator ready to take advantage of its size.

The Mwagusi camp has eight spacious bandas. These are tented en-suite rooms under a peaked roof of Makuti thatch constructed from palm leaves. Each banda had a superb view across the dry Mwagusi river.

This scene typifies the view of the river bed. The banks are lined by Doum palms, large Sausage trees and thick Combretum flora. The river was dry. It is a seasonal river which must flow strongly when flooding judging by the large tree trunks which had lodged against upright trees and large granite boulders in the river bed. The sand river bed and its banks are punctuated by large granite boulder outcrops.

We were in Ruaha in mid November just before the rains. It was hot during the day around 35 degrees centigrade but later in the afternoons there was spectacular cloud build up. The cumulus filled afternoon sky added drama to the wild Ruaha landscapes. This was the view from my banda’s veranda which was equipped with a comfortable hammock to catch any passing breeze.

“These groves of baobabs emit an aura of permanence and stateliness. A place where great sentinels gather to share the wisdom of the ages, where wildlife gathers to listen in reverence.”~ Mike Haworth

One of the special characteristics of Ruaha, for me, was the groves of baobabs. I am used to seeing occasional large lone baobabs in dry areas in southern Africa, not so in Ruaha.

As mentioned earlier the clouds build up in the afternoon heat and as the sun was setting, the sky and clouds were illuminated with wonderful warm colours emphasising the pregnant clouds. This was a view looking across the Mwagusi river at sunset only a few hundred metres from our camp close to where two lionesses an a male were lounging on the cooling sand river bed

Along the Mwagusi river in mid morning, we found a pride of lions lying in the shade created by the trees and granite boulders. You can imagine the comfort, on a hot morning, when lying on the cool wet sand in the shade.

A couple of hundred metres further down the Mwagusi river a few giraffe came down to drink. They were very weary as they probably smelt the lions. Although it had not rained for a long while in this area, the sand river bed surface was dry but for a wet patch meandering down the river. In fact, the water table in the river bed must have been very close to the surface because there were many shallow holes dug in the sand for water by the elephants.

“Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure”
~ Henry David Thoreau

Another grove of young baobabs. For me these groves represented a treasure trove where you might find leopards, brown parrots, rollers, bee hives and baboons.

A lone sentinel silhouetted against a dark apricot sky just after sunset.

” A dry sand river bed looks barren. Do not be fooled there is much to discover. Sandgrouse and spurfowls are foraging for seeds. Predator hide in the undergrowth along the banks waiting for unsuspecting prey. Unseen just below the surface lies the water- the elephants know. Once opened the waterholes are a magnet for thirsty wildlife”~ Mike Haworth

This is a characteristic Ruaha scene with the Mwagusi sand river bed in the foreground, doum palms, sausage, tamarind and fig trees along the river with granite kopjies in the distance.

One male ostrich with three females wandering along the sand road close to the Great Ruaha river late in the afternoon. In November, the clouds were progressively building for rain. This was part of the attraction of this time of the year. The sky backgrounds are complex, dramatic and colourful.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

The rays of light beaming through the thick rain clouds gave the area a cathedral like feeling. My senses were swimming with all the colour. It was warm and flora was fragrant. In the distance, we could hear spurfowl calling and zebras braying.

“Wildness is not found but revealed.” ~― Paul Gruchow

Last light in the evening with rain falling from heavy rain filled clouds behind the hill in the distance with an apricot sky in the background.

A small herd of buffalo gathering around a tree for shade. It was hot, with scattered clouds. The adjacent river bed was dry and the area had many tsetse flies which seem to constantly bite the buffaloes as you can see from twitching skin, swishing tails and swinging necks.

We found numerous herds of elephant mainly along the Mwagusi sand river. The elephants must be able to smell the water. The old members of the herd dig in the sand with their feet to make a hole into which the filtered water pools.

“To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe.” ~ Beryl Markham

This was a breeding herd with members of many different ages. All the females attracted three bulls which gave each other a wide berth. The characteristic doum palms were ever present as was the thick croton and combretum brush lining the river banks.

“Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.”
― Rabindranath Tagore

Down close to the Great Ruaha river in the ‘Little Serengeti” plain we found a loan and very skittish Roan antelope. It was very hot so there was a lot of heat haze which prevented us getting pin sharp images of this rare antelope. This is a large well built antelope and is the second largest antelope species. This antelope is named for its roan ( reddish brown) colouring. It looks somewhat like a sable antelope but is bigger and the colouring is quite different.

Sundowner time next to the Mwagusi river. Just imagine drinking a bitterly cold “Serengeti’ lager beer while looking out over this sand river with darkening trees on its banks silhouetted by a mauve and apricot coloured sky.

“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Another view of the Mwagusi sand river bed in the fading evening light, silhouetted by the characteristic douw palms

Looking down the a small section of surface water in the Great Ruaha river. This patch of the river bed was teeming with animals and birds. Just further down river to the right of the image the Mwagusi river joined the Great Ruaha river. This must be an impressive sight when these two river are flowing strongly.

At midday the light can be very harsh, as defined by a hard edge between the light and dark areas and is usually not a good time for wildlife photography but we took advantage of the opportunity to try high key and black and white style photography. This bull Debussa waterbuck bull was inquisitive and stood just long enough for use to get a couple of images.

Looking up the Mwagusi river early on a cloudy cool morning. It is interesting that you see less game and bird activity when it is cool and especially if it is windy.

Bat-eared foxes were seldom seen, we found a pair down close to our picnic site along the Mwagusi river. This diminutive foxes were very alert and weary.

Many areas away from the immediate river environs it was very dry, ideal for this candelabra Euphoria. We just liked the shape and uniformity of its spiky leaves. This is a tall succulent tree. Its spa is like a milky latex which is extremely poisonous. It likes dry, rocky areas.

This lioness was one of the pride we saw a few days before lying in the shade on the sand next to a granite boulder outcrop. She was out on her own looking around a broad part of the Mwagusi river. She made not attempt to hide herself so was not in hunting mode.

This was the view from one of our favourite picnic spots where we had breakfast on two mornings. Ruaha rivers are tree lined with many doum palms and sausage trees along both banks.

We drove down to the main camp to pick up a guide for our night drive. Close to the ranger’s camp we came across three kudu bulls. Two had already crossed the gravel road. This character unfazed by us just stopped and looked at us for a few seconds and then followed the others across the road into fading light.

A view of the early morning sky as we were drove out of camp for our morning game drive on our last day. This sky vista lasted about five minutes and it looked like the sky was on fire. It look surreal and you almost have to pinch yourself to remind you that your are wide wake. At this time the morning was fresh and bush fragrant.

From the mighty Ruaha River, the rolling hills, rocky escarpments and the vast uninhabited open plains dotted with the iconic silhouettes of African Baobab trees, Ruaha will fill your senses and meet your highest expectations.

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”
~ Beryl Markham

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

Have fun, Mike

Ruaha- wild dog morning

This particular morning we were up and at the safari vehicle with our camera kit at 6h00. It was sunrise around 6h45 but we wanted to get going in the early morning light before sunrise. At this time it was cool and fresh, and a time when the latent heat change which releases perfumes from the tree’s flowers and grasses. It is a time when you feeling refreshed alive and excited to start the day’s adventures. there is always great expectations about what we could see.

“We have a genetic kinship with all of life on earth, an atomic kinship to all matter in the cosmos. So when I look at the universe, I feel large, because I remind myself that not only are we living in this universe, the universe is living within us.”~Neil DeGrasse Tyson

We had scarcely left the camp and were just across the Mwagusi river when Justin, our guide, who was a wonderful character with good humour, in depth knowledge of the bush and excellent eyesight, saw a flash of colour in the long grass on the left side of the road. Soon the flash of colour revealed itself, we had come across a pack of wild dogs which had just killed an impala. The sun had still not risen so the light was low. With a pack of dogs we also needed depth of field so it was a challenging scene on which to work photographically.

It is indescribably exciting to come across such a rare find in the bush. The Endangered Wildlife Trust estimates that between 3 000 and 5 000 individual wild dogs are left in Africa and these dogs are extinct in 23 African countries. Wild dogs are Africa’s most endangered mammal species.

Wild dogs are members of the dog family. Some think Hyaena are a species of dog but hyaenas are not members of the dog or cat families but have their own family, Hyaenidae. Male and female wild dogs are similar sizes. The wild dog has romantically been called the painted wolf because of its blotchy white, black, ochre and tan colouring. Its blotching pattern is unique for every animal making identification easier than for carnivores such as lions.

“Our quest, our earth walk, is to look within, to know who we are, to see that we are connected to all things, that there is no separation, only in the mid.”~Lakota

Wild dogs, like hyaenas, do not have retractable claws so cannot lock onto their prey with their claws and suffocate their prey like the big cats such as lions and leopards. They can only hang onto it with their mouths, so tend to attack on mass and start eating their prey when it is still alive.

Wild dogs eat their prey very quickly to reduce the losses from lion, leopard and hyaenas. The pack usually makes excited chirping sounds around a kill but on this occasion they were noticeably quiet. This was probably because they knew there were lions and hyaenas in the area and it was still early so these predators were possibly still on the move.

Wild dogs are cooperative hunters and feeders but there is an alpha pair which dominates the pack. Wild dogs are endurance hunters and are able as a pack to run down small prey ranging from baboons to impala and have been known to even take down adult wildebeest and zebras, though this is not common. The pack literally runs down its prey to exhaustion.

” We are all visitors to this time, to this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, learn, grow, love and then we return home.”~ Aboriginal proverb

While the rest of the pack is feeding there is always one member keeping guard so the pack is not surprised by a lion, leopard or hyaena.

This alpha male had already eaten judging from the blood on his throat and front legs, and while on guard picked up the scent or sight of something which caught his interest. It turned out to be a hyaena.

The hyaena came barreling into the kill scene to steal what was left of the impala carcass. The light was too low to get decent images of the intense scuffle which lasted a few seconds. The dogs tried vainly to nip the haunches of the hyaena but know only to well they do not want to get bitten by a hyaena. The hyaena prevailed and ran off with the remains of the carcass.

The wild dogs did not pursue the hyaena as they has mostly finished the part of the carcass they could eat easily. The hyaena was last seen crossing the sand river bed with the remains, probably to go and quietly munch on the bones in a secluded spot.

After the hyaena incident, the dogs relaxed on the sand bank and started to play among themselves. Wild dogs are highly social animals staying close together, playing often and will aggressively defend each other from external threats.

“Animals should not require our permission to live on earth. Animals were given the right to be here long before we arrived.”~Anthony Douglas Williams

After a brief play, the alpha male led the pack away from the kill scene probably because the noise and smell would eventually attract other unwelcome visitors. It was still early and the sun had not yet risen. The whole hunt scene lasted around 15 minutes.

Wild dogs are nomadic but tend to remain in one area when the alpha female has pups. As you see with jackals, wild dogs seem to naturally run rather than walk.

The alpha male led pack down onto the dry river bed and began moving downstream.

The dogs were always vigilant. At this time of the day, sunrise, there are still nocturnal predators on the move. Given their size these dogs are no match one-on-one with lion, leopard or hyaenas.

“Not a single creature on earth has more or less right to be here.”~ Anthony Douglas Williams

As the pack was wandering along the Mwagusi river bed, a troop of yellow baboons on the far bank further down river caught their interest. Out in the open sand bed they were easily spotted by the baboons which were foraging on the bank with the option of a quick get away to the trees nearby.

It is not everyday you get to see a alpha male wild dog on a granite boulder in a sand river bed.

“If all the beats were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected.”~Chief Seattle SuwAmish Tribe

It was not clear whether this pack was out hunting and whether there was a den with pups close by. Wild dogs are known to den for around three months a year while pups are being nurtured to the point when they can join the pack on a hunt. The alpha female gives birth to anything up to 16 pups at a time.

The pack remained in the sand river bed for about 15 minutes before retracing their steps and heading up a gravel road and off in the bush not to be seen again on our trip.

It is always special to see species which have become endangered.The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species. The African wild dogs is assessed to be endangered on the IUCN red list.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”~ Rachel Carson

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

Have fun, Mike