Kruger Park: Orpen and Nkumbe to the Sabie

The title will not mean much to those who have not been to Kruger Park in South Africa. For those that have been there, this will be a familiar and loved route. For those who have not visited the Kruger Park, perhaps this post might entice you to do so.

“Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.” ~ Emma Chase

After a fascinating morning at Leeupan, we decided to drive to Orpen dam for lunch. From Leeupan, we drove past the Tshokwane picnic site, which is always a very popular stopover, and turned right off the main road heading to Satara onto the road heading south toward Lower Sabie. After a few kilometres we turned left on the gravel road to Orpen dam.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

After driving for a couple of minutes along the gravel road, we came across a lone Side-striped jackal. This is a timid rarely seen nocturnal jackal, but for some reason this character was out in the open around midday. It is slightly larger than the, often seen, Black-backed jackal. Its pelage is grey to buff coloured with a darker back, but its sides are marked with a whitish stripe with a dark brown lower margin. This was the first time I have seen a Side-striped jackal in South Africa. They are only found in the northeast of the country, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This Side-striped jackal did not look to be in good condition as his coat had mange. Once the jackal saw us, it crept into this bush out of the sun and mostly out of sight, and waited for us to move on. I never got an opportunity to get a decent full body shot but for me it was rare and exciting sighting.

We usually go to below the Open dam wall along the N’waswitsontso river. There are numerous large trees lining the river which offer welcome shade. It gets really hot around midday in the Kruger Park in summer.

We visited the Kruger Park in mid-January this year and the Kruger had good rains before we arrived nourishing the bush to its verdant best. The river was full and the area was brimming with wildlife. We stopped to have lunch under a large tree and were serenaded by Fork-tailed Drongos and Woodland kingfishers. It was very restful with just the sounds of nature all around us.

We saw lots of elephants down near the river. The vegetation was thick and you have to drive slowly because you can easily come around a corner and find a bull elephant standing in the road browsing on bushes next to the road. This must be a wonderful time for them with plenty of water to drink and cool off in, and lush vegetation to eat.

“The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.” – Chris Humphrey

From one of our favourite spots at Orpen dam we wandered down the main road to Lower Sabie camp. On the way you drive up to one of the high spots in the area called Nkumbe which has a viewpoint where you can stop, get out of your vehicle and look down over a vast vista.

Nkumbe is the highest point in the Lebombo south of the N’waswitsontso and offers views over the vast grassland plains and the Shilolweni woodlands which are spectacular. If you look carefully you will see a few small family herds of elephant browsing along the Mapilini river in front of the lookout point. You will only see these colours after good rains in summer.

After spending an hour or so just gazing over this vast verdant landscape we wandered on down towards the Sabie river and turned off the tarred road at Muntshe onto the gravel road which would take us along the Sabie river. This next image is a typical view along a gravel road where the elephants always have right of way, as with all of the wildlife in the park. The road crossing can take quite a long time if it is a large spread out herd. We gave them plenty of space so as not to agitate the cows with calves.

Further on down the gravel road along the Sabie river there were numerous places to stop under large Natal Mahoganies with ample shade on a hot sunny day. The vegetation along the Sabie river is riverine forest with massive trees including the Sycamore fig, Leadwood, Jackal-berry, Natal Mahogany, Tamboti, Weeping Boer-bean and Apple-leafs. There is plenty of wildlife down along and in the river. This hippo was good enough to provide a perfect sunbathing platform for several terrapins.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”~ Isaac Newton

After driving along the gravel road along the Sabie river for a few hours we turned onto the tarred H12 to drive along the high level bridge across the Sabie river. The Sabie river is about 750 metres wide at the bridge. It is wide because just upstream of this bridge, the Sabie and Sand rivers join. The Sabie river is considered a semi-arid river with highly variable water levels due to strongly seasonal and unpredictable rainfall. Both the Sabie and Sand rivers start outside Kruger Park and have large catchment areas. With moderate rains, the water flow in the Sabie river reaches a few hundred cubic metres per second but the during the massive flood in 2000, the flow swelled to as much as 5,500 cubic metres per second, as big as the Zambezi under normal flow conditions.

“The best picture is around the corner. Like prosperity.” ~ Ansel Adams

In mid-january along the Sabie river there is plenty of water and where there is water there are usually fish and where there are fish there are Fish eagles. Needless to say the Fish eagles are not left in peace. If it is not a Lilac-breasted roller driving bombing the Fish eagle because it is too close to its nest in the dead tree trunk, it is a Fork-tailed drongo making it quite clear that the Fish eagle does not need to linger at this spot.

This happened to be a particularly large and majestic Fish eagle. Being so large, it was probably a female and looking at those talons I suspect there were very few fish that escaped her clutches.

The weather was very variable with plenty of rain and thick cloud cover. As a wildlife photographer often when the weather is at its worst it offers unique lighting conditions or uncommon wildlife behaviour and sometimes both. The message is don’t stay indoors when it is overcast and rainy you will miss many photographic opportunities.

“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.” ~ David Brower

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park – the drive to Leeupan

From the Kruger gate you have access to the southern section of Kruger Park and comfortable drive of around 41 kilometres to Tshokwane picnic site and a further five or six kilometres to Orpen dam. Although these places are not too far from Skukuza, time and distance are too very different dimensions in an African game park. A herd of elephant might block the road for half an hour or a pride of lions decide to lie on the road when it is cool enough. There is a 50km/hour speed limit in the park, and if you want to see anything, that speed is too fast, and you certainly cannot drive safely at that speed on the gravel roads. By driving slowly along the road you can spend more time looking into and around the bush which will greatly improve your chances of seeing the wildlife.

“A game park is a sanctuary for nature. A place where nature in all its colours, shapes and sizes comes first. Be quiet and with a little patience mother nature might reveal her family and you will discover it is a place of great learning. A place of rejuvenation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Travelling slowly along the Skukuza-Tshokwane road, and only about 20 metres into the bush, we saw four adult bull Kudus lying down in the thick long grass with only their neck, head and horns showing. A male Kudu starts to grow its horns between six and 12 months of age. The horns form their first spiral rotation at around two years of age, and do not reach their full two and a half rotations until the male is around six years old. Some of the older bulls occasionally have three full turns in their horns.

We adopt the idea that the faster you drive the less you see. One of my reasons for going to a game reserve is to relax and untether myself from the hurly-burly of urban life. The last thing I want to do in the game reserve is tear around.

“If you have the choice, chose a dirt road. It is quieter and you will feel the road constantly changing beneath you. And yes, the bumps will shake off your urban anxiety. There are no verges. Grass and trees grow right to the edge of it. So anything can step out from the long grass or from behind the bush. Go slowly for you might just be in for a surprise.” ~ Mike Haworth

We decided to go to Leeupan (meaning Lion pan in Afrikaans). This pan is off the main road between Skukuza and Satara camps. Turn off the main road and drive for about a kilometre and you will find a large open area with a pan of water. There are lots of reeds and water grass in the pan and various species of acacia trees, including knob thorns, surrounding it. The pan attracts a variety of wetland birdlife and animals which come to drink.

This pan is seasonal, so it fills up with the summer rains and often dries up in winter. We have always found it to be a productive photographic area. As you drive along the gravel road to get to Leeupan, there are thick woodlands together with numerous dead leadwood trees. The raptors seem to prefer these dead trees as they are high enough for them to scan the area for potential prey. On the way into the pan we came across this adult Tawny eagle.

A vibrant salmon red “Pride of die Kaap” bush adding a splash of colour to the verdant green bush veld.

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”~ John Muir

About five kilometres before you get to Leeupan on the main road from Skukuza to Satara, there are the Kruger Tablets which are plaques dedicated to Paul Kruger, the founder of the Sabie Game Reserve, which later became Kruger National Park. This area is a outcrop of large granite boulders. It is well known to be a favourite place for lions as they can get high enough to enjoy the huge vista of the surrounding plains. Where ever there is a large outcrop of boulders there is a good chance you will find Klipspringers. This adult male and female were on the rocks just past the tablets.

We stopped and watched them for a while. These are beautiful and unique small antelope. They are extremely agile on the rocks, and have unique hooves which allow them to stand on their tips with soft soles to provide grip. This small antelope is territorial. The black patches just below the front of the eye are pre-orbital glands which they rub on twigs to mark their territory. Both the male and female have these pre-orbital glands and both mark the pair’s territory.

A male Tree agama with its characteristic blue head. This agama was busy defending his territory up and down this tree trunk. The blue head gets bluer during the breeding season and the dominant male usually has the brightest blue head. These agamas are diurnal, arboreal and insectivorous and eat crickets, caterpillars, worms, and spiders. This agama’s main predators are snakes and hornbills.

From the side of the main road we saw a male Grey hornbill fly to the side of a large tree. There was a small hole in the bottom of what looked to be a large knot in the tree trunk, where a branch must have fallen off many years ago. I know that the Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Grey hornbills all use cavities in trees to build their nests. They usually find a cavity at least four metres off the ground, and the cavity needs to house a female and her chicks so must be at least 20 cm in depth – enough for the female’s body ( minus wing and tail feathers) plus small chicks. I was intrigued by this nest because I could not see how the female had managed to get into this cavity and seal herself inside.

“Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments.” ~Rose Kennedy

Once the nest has been prepared, the female climbs into the next cavity and then seals herself inside, helped by the male using a mixture of mud and dung. Just a small feed hole is left open. Once walled in the nest, the female lays her eggs and sheds all of her wing and tail feathers. The male will feed his female while she incubates her eggs and feeds her chicks. Once she has regrown her wing and tail feathers, which coincides with the chicks being about half grown, she breaks out of the nest cavity. The male and female then reseal the nest cavity leaving a feeding hole for the chicks who remain in the nest until they are about 45 days old, they the parents break open the hole for their chicks to emerge. The prime purpose of the elaborate nesting procedure is to keep predators out.

Another stem of Yellow flame lilies which would gladden any Zimbabwean’s heart. This perennial herb can reach a height of around three metres, rambling and climbing over neighbouring plants using the tendrils at the end of its leaves. This is a “look but don’t touch” plant as all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids and can be fatal if eaten. Even to touch the plant can result in skin irritation

This male Swainson’s spurfowl was foraging for seeds in old elephant dung in the middle of the gravel road. You can often find baboons and other spurfowl doing the same. The elephant only digests and makes good use of around 40% of its food intake and so leaves many of the ingested seeds unprocessed.

As we were driving slowly around the one side of the pan we disturbed a pair of Blacksmith lapwings. We stopped to allow the female to settle down. It was only when she settled down in a small patch of grass on the edge of the driving area that we saw she had a nest. She bent her knees and settled down to incubate the single egg between her legs. Normally the Blacksmith’s nest is not far from water and this one must have been about ten metres from the pan’s waters edge. The clutch size is usually three to four eggs, so I suspect her clutch had been raided by a baboon or Monitor lizard. The mottled colouring on the egg made it superbly well camouflaged, to us at least.

We found a pair of Saddle-billed storks at the pan. They prefer to forage close to water, along large rivers, freshwater marshes, floodplains and pans just like this one. The Saddle-billed stork feeds in a similar way to a heron. It walks slowly through the shallow water looking for fish, frogs or lizards even small birds or mammals. It either stalks its prey or stabs its bill into the grass or water, catching its prey by contact.

“Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is the change that goes deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard

The female is slightly smaller than the male but they both have white body and neck feathers. Their upper parts, from midway along their back to their tail, are black as are their primary and secondary wing feathers. The female has a bright yellow eye and a red bill with a black band around the middle of the bill.

The male and female have the yellow saddle on top of their upper mandible directly in front of the eyes but the male also has two yellow wattles or “stirrups” below his chin. The male has black eyes. These storks have an impressive courtship display which involves dancing and jumping while bowing to each other with their wings wide open showing off their dramatic black and white colouring. The primaries and secondaries are white and the coverts are black. We watched a courtship display but I could not get a clean enough images to show you. We were very grateful for this rare sighting.

Two of the first wild ducks I came across as a youngster in Zimbabwe were White-faced whistling and a Knob-billed ducks. We found a small group of Knob-billed ducks at Leeupan. The Knob-billed duck is an occasional intra-African migrant. The head and neck of the male and female is white with black speckles and they have an almost continuous black crown and nape. The upper parts are black and belly and sides are white. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are black but the coverts have a beautiful green, bluish-purple and bronze gloss. The adult males have a large flesh black knob on their top mandible. The precise purpose is unknown but it is thought to be ornamental displaying sexual maturity and health. Unhindered by the large knob on his bill, this male was energetically stripping and feeding on the seed inflorescences from the top of grass stems.

The Knob-billed duck feeds on vegetation by grazing or dabbling but will eat small fish and invertebrates when found. We only saw a few “knobbies” at the pan. Wherever I have seen Knob-billed ducks there have only been a few in one place.

A lone Woolly-necked stork foraging along the pan’s water edge. This is one of the smaller storks, along with the Openbill and Abdim, which is between 75 and 85 cm tall. The larger storks are all above 100 cm tall with the Saddle-billed and Marabou storks being the tallest African storks standing around 150cm high. Woolly-necked storks prefer wetland habitats because they feed on fish, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, large insects, larvae and crabs.

The Woolly-necked stork has dark body and wing plumage which has a coppery-purple gloss, but its belly is white. This stork has a white woolly neck and head though its forehead is black. It has a red eye and a grey bill which becomes red towards the tip. The is no sexual dimorphism so you cannot tell the sexes apart. These storks are intra-African migrants and I have seen large flocks along both the Chobe river in northern Botswana and at one of the dams in the Serengeti.

On the way into Leeupan we saw a Tawny eagle and on the way out we saw this spectacular male Bateleur eagle. He had dramatic colouring of black, white and chestnut brown. The top of his bill, facial skin and legs were red though his facial skin does change colour depending on how excited or agitated he is, the redder the more agitated and a more yellow-orange colour signals a calmer state.

The female is bigger than the male Bateleur and the two have quite different wing colouring. The male usually has grey upper wing coverts and black secondary coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. When in flight the male has a thick black tailing edge to the underside of his wing feathers. The female has chestnut brown upper wing coverts, black primary wing feathers but the lower section of her secondary wing feathers are black and the upper part is white or light grey.

We did not get to see this male Bateleur fly but they are called the “acrobat or tight-rope walker” because, in flight, there is a rocking motion of their extended wings. The wing movement looks like the movement of a tightrope walker who is moving his extended arms up and down to balance. Its long wings and short tail are distinctive. They are magnificent flyers and it is always a thrill to see a Bateleur eagle effortlessly gliding at speed through the sky. Acrobatic displays are characteristic. This close cousin of the Snake eagle spends around eight to nine hours day on the wing.

“Serenity flows through the natural world. Listen and you can hear. The beating of your own heart, and the deepening of your breath, are in rhythm and connection with the powerful tranquility of creation that becomes fully alive in you as you return to the roots of your being.”~Bella Bleue

After spending many hours wandering around these wildlife sanctuaries, I am always filled with wonder and a deep sense of peace, diversity and balance.

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger park – the “little herons” at Lake Panic

Lake Panic is a small dam which filled after an earth wall was constructed in 1975 across the small stream which flowed through the golf course past Skukuza rest camp down to the Sabi river. Two dams were formed along this stream. The upper dam was called Lake Panic because not long after it was constructed a huge volume of water from a cloudburst overfilled the dam and threatened to breach the dam wall causing panic among the Skukuza rest camp staff. The earth dam wall held then and still holds back the water today. Further down the same stream another dam was built in the Skukuza golf course which is located just west of the Skukuza rest camp, the main administrative centre of Kruger Park.

Lake Panic was formed by the dam across the stream which was given the name Mafunyana creek. The creek was nicknamed after L B Steyn, a hard, tough Afrikaaner who became park warden in the 1940s. He was given the nickname Mafunyana, meaning he who eats greedily.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Lake Panic is filled naturally by rain water but if it gets too low it can be filled with water pumped up from the Sabi river which flows passed the Skukuza rest camp.

There are eleven bird/game-viewing hides in Kruger National Park but Lake Panic is arguably the best known. The lake itself is host to a plethora of wetland and savanna bird life, and larger reptiles such as Nile crocodiles, terrapins, Nile monitors, and mammals such as hippos, elephants, and a diverse group of woodland antelope, and predators. The bird hide at the upstream end of Lake Panic is one of the most scenic and productive photographic and bird watching spots in Kruger.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?.” Rachel Carson

This post focuses on the “little herons” we saw at Lake Panic. The “little herons” are a group which are smaller than the large herons such as Black-headed, Grey, Purple and Goliath herons, but larger than the bitterns. The large herons vary in height from 90cm to 140cm, as in the case of a Goliath heron. The “little herons” vary in height from 40 to 60 cms while bitterns are around 25 cms in height, with the exception of the Great bittern which is similar in height to the “little herons”.

These herons differ from storks and ibises in having a long, spear-like bill, a pectinate middle toe claw, a generally more slender body with a long neck, and an elaborate variation in display feathers on the head, neck, and back.

The classification of little herons and egrets has no clear clear consensus as evidenced by the interchangable classification between a Black egret and Black heron, the one with the unique canopy hunting technique.

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow..” ~ Rachel Carson

The group of “little herons” include the Green-back, Squacco and Rufous-bellied heron which vary between being diurnal and crepuscular, and the purely crepuscular and nocturnal Black-crowned night herons and White-backed night-herons. Needless to say because of the gate opening and closing times in Kruger (sunrise and sunset) we did not get to see night-herons. We were treated to superb sightings of Green-backed and Squacco herons.

Green-backed herons are shy and do not seem to like being in the open for too long. Fortunately, there is a fallen tree in front of the hide which is a perfect platform from which to hunt which the Green-backed herons actively used. These herons are very well camouflaged and difficult to see in the shade inside bushes overhanging the water’s edge.

The Green-backed herons have a similar hunting style to the Squaccos and are real reed and branch acrobats.

These herons must be able to accurately judge the refraction of light in the water. As the light passed from the air into the water it changes direction which alters the perception of depth. If the heron does not adjust for this it will stab and miss its prey swimming under the water surface. Normally the light bends towards the surface as its passes into water so the prey looks shallower than it really is. Just think of the natural intelligence required to adjust its aim to directly hit the fish swimming under the surface of the water. This Green-backed heron hunting on the edge of fallen tree trunk was in a classic place to see its unique technique of baiting its prey. Sadly, we did not get to see this hunting technique in action.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” ~ Chinese proverb

These “little herons” have large feet with long claws which enable them to hang onto branches and grip the side of a fallen logs. The Green-backed heron tends to be a crepuscular hunter but occasionally hunts during the day – especially early in the morning for Lake Panic photographers.

The adult Green-backed heron has a dark grey-green back and lighter grey neck and breast feathers. Its secondary and covert wing feathers are a striated green colour. It usually has a thin streak of white feathers down the front of its neck. It has a very dark green crown with long crest feathers. Its underparts are a pale grey color. This heron has a long pointed bill with a black upper mandible and and lighter coloured lower mandible which varies in colour from yellow to a light fawn colour. It has yellow eyes and yellow lores. The lores are the space between the nostrils in the bill and the eye of a bird. They are featherless on wading and water birds. Often they change colour in breeding season. Also in the breeding season, the eye becomes orange and the legs change from yellow to a orange-red colour. It makes you realise the degree of hormone changes take place to cause these colour changes?

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” ~Francis Bacon

The Green-backed heron tends to be solitary and is normally seen flying furtively along the edge of the waterway. They are shy waders which fly low across the water and usually along the river from one set of bushes and trees with branches overhanging the water to the next. The Green-backed heron is highly territorial.

The juvenile Green-backed heron is brownish, with a well striated neck, and with white and buff coloured spots on its upper wings. Its throat, neck and chest are streaked with brown and white. Its legs are a greenish yellow. This particular character was alarmed by a Malachite kingfisher which was giving it a few close fly byes.

The other “little heron” we saw at Lake Panic was the Squacco heron. According to Trevor Carnaby, in his “treasure trove” book ‘Beat about the bush: Birds’, both the Green-backed and the Squacco herons have been seen baiting their prey.

“To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both the forest and the tree. We will have to learn to connect.” ~ Peter Drucker

The Squacco is usually found close to water. Its non breeding plumage is a buff-brown back and its neck is streaked with long dark brown and buff coloured feathers and its underparts are white. It has a grey bill will a black tip and its legs are yellow-green. In the breeding season this heron’s plumage takes on attractive long golden brown plumes on the back of its head and golden plumes on its neck and chest. Its bill becomes cobalt blue and its lores turn green. Judging from the Squacco in the next image it was in the process of taking on its breeding plumage.

This bird has a specially adapted bill which helps it hunt for fish, crabs, tadpoles and other aquatic animals in the water. It will also eat insects. Unlike a kingfisher which beats its prey to death on a branch, these herons seem to just swallow their prey whole once it is immobilised.

“These birds are usually quiet. If you want to see them you have to pay attention. Mother nature is watching you. Once she can see you are paying attention she will begin to reveal her wonders to you.” ~ Mike Haworth

These herons frequently hunt from branches overhanging the water. As you can see they are quite acrobatic.

Looking at this Squacco one would never expect their incredible ability to stretch that apparently short neck. The very long neck feathers are a sign there is more to that neck than meets the resting eye.

When food sources are abundant, Squaccos feed in small flocks but the birds are well spaced out. I have seen along the Chobe river where roughly every ten to 15 metres apart there was a Squacco in the reeds. Usually though when at Marievale Bird Sanctuary or Lake Panic, we only see individuals which is probably a sign that food is not abundant. Incredibly these herons can stand stand motionless at the water’s edge, or hidden in the tall vegetation for extended periods. When prey comes within striking distance they jab at their prey with exceptional speed, reach and dexterity.

We do not normally find the Rufous-bellied heron in South Africa other than in the Nyl river flood plain in the Limpopo province. I have seen one in the reeds along the Chobe river. This species of “little herons” is least seen of the three in southern Africa.

“It is only when you sit quietly and patiently, almost in mediation, that you start to see things in front of you that you never noticed before~ nuances. A subliminal layer of activity, interaction and intelligence becomes apparent subtly revealing some of nature’s mysteries.” ~ Mike Haworth

Don’t forget it is Global Birding “Big Day” on Saturday 9th of May. Please help them with their bird count project. eBird Mobile app is a worldwide bird checklist programme used by millions of birders. It compiles sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list and at the same time collects data to help scientists better understand birds and their distribution. Download the app and help them while you are in lockdown.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park- through the gate

In mid-January this year, Helen and I visited the Kruger Park. We had some timeshare points which we had to use or lose before the end of January so we chose Burchell’s Bush Lodge next to the Kruger gate. At that time of the year in the Kruger Park we expected some of the days to be rainy and overcast which could bring welcome relief to the high summer temperatures.

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass…. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~ Vivian Green

The Kruger Park is located on the north eastern east side of South Africa, bordering on Mozambique. Kruger National park is massive, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometres. The park is about 360 kilometres long from north to south. At its widest it is 90 kilometres, west to east. This area was first protected in 1896 and declared a national park in 1926.

Despite the persistent rhino poaching problem, Kruger Park offers a diverse variety of animal and bird life with 15 different ecozones yielding rich biodiversity. January is mid-summer in South Africa, so the lowveld which includes Kruger Park can be very hot but also variable because it is the rainy season.

“Of all the roads you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” ~ John Muir

We tend to steer away from the tarred roads in the park because they carry a much higher density of traffic than the gravel roads. The only problem was that several of them had been closed due to washaways from the heavy rains the week before we arrived.

“Expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.” Denis Waitly

The Kruger gate gave us easy access to the southern section of the park from the western side. One of the first roads we like to drive along from Kruger gate is towards the main Skukuza camp but turn right onto the Phabeni road and a few kilometres along that road we turn left onto the Waterhole road. This is a gravel road which can be quite productive and is also offers a very scenic drive.

On the waterhole road, this female Natal spurfowl was not fazed by us at all. She quietly when on preening herself in the middle of the gravel road. The female Natal spurfowl is smaller than the male and has much less pronounced spurs on the back of her orange-red legs.

“When you are in the bush your senses recover. The rain brings welcome relief. It’s coolness quenches the lowveld heat. The smell of rain on the earth carries its own memorable fragrance. The rain washes the dust from the leaves revealing a palette of green hues. The bush refreshes and you feel it.” ~ Mike Haworth.

We travelled on down to Transport dam, the site of many a dramatic wildlife sighting. We spent about half an hour just watching but it was very quiet so we moved on. It had just rained and as we were driving away from the dam we saw another female Natal spurfowl perched on a fallen tree trunk just watching the world pass by. It also seemed to be the driest place to stand.

Deciding to stay in the area, we continued down toward Pretoriuskop camp and turned right on the road which meets the Phabeni road and passes Shabeni hill. There is a drive around the granite outcrops of Shabeni which is very picturesque. We were fortunate to find several Amur falcons perched in the dead trees at the foot of Shabeni’s massive granite domes. These migratory falcons seemed to be hawking insects flushed by the rain. I have seen very few Amur falcons this summer season, which might be because so many were killed in hail storms last year. This female was suitably wet after the downpour.

On the short drive around Shabeni hill, we found large groves of Pride of de Kaap. The bushes were large and covered in a soft salmon red-orange coloured flowers with two lobed butterfly-shaped leaves. Despite its name it is usually found in the bushveld region, of which Kruger is part. This bush is named after the De Kaap valley near Nelspruit, now called Mombela at the south west toe of Kruger park in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

We found several more Amur falcons a few hundred metres from the other group. I have occasionally seen them in the Kruger in summer but never in great numbers. The female has dark brown streaks on a buff coloured chest and yellow feet. The male has a grey chest and red feet.

“I feel like the earth. astonished at fragrance borne in the air, made pregnant with mystery from a drop of rain.” ~ Rumi

My bird photography was frequently interrupted by the rain and the lower light forced me to push up my ISO or sensor light sensitivity. My subjects such as this pale flycatcher unfortunately looked quite bedraggled after being soaked. This flycatcher was also out and about because of all the insects flushed out by the rain. Flycatchers have prominent bristles protruding from the base of their bill though this one’s were not very prominent.

This foxglove-like perennial is a ceratotheca trilobia. It stood about one and half metres high and I could not resist taking photograph of it trying to capture its delicate softness which was quite incongruent in the wild grassy bush.

The deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature.” ~Albert Schweitzer

This red-billed oxpecker seemed to have lost its host. This species of oxpecker is identified by its red bill, dark brown back and creamy coloured breast feathers. It has two sharp claws facing forward and two facing backward to hang onto its host when it is moving. It also has stiff tail feathers to support while it is ridding it’s host of parasites such as ticks and flies. This bird feeds almost exclusively on what it can forage from the skin of large African mammals. It also feeds on dry skin and blood from open sores on its hosts hide. I am not sure what this character was doing sitting in the middle of the road all on its own.

A beautiful young adult zebra mare with big watery eyes and a perfectly groomed mane.

A Cape vulture perched in a dead tree in the rain. It was cool and still early enough so that thermals had not yet begun to develop. It is fascinating to watch these large scavengers waiting for the temperature to rise and the first thermals to develop before taking off to catch one to lift them for their high altitude, long distance aerial surveillance.

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

Given where I was raised as a child, I have a penchant for flame lilies. It is the national flower of Zimbabwe. This is the yellow variety but the most common variety has the red and yellow petals. Although very beautiful this plant has a toxic bulb. These plants prefer sandy soils and semi shade, and a degree of wind protection because they are so flimsy.

A dark morph adult tawny eagle. It was scouring the area from the high vantage point of a dead tree trunk.

A semi-adult brown snake-eagle. The adult is a pure brown colour and it also has those characteristic piercing yellow eyes.

On our way back to camp we briefly stopped at the Lake Panic bird hide and in a tree right next to the small car park was this pair of African barred owlets. The light was low and these two were trying to nap though their resting place was never going to allow them much peace.

We were concerned about going to Kruger just before the school term started but we were pleasantly surprised not to find too many people in the park. As a photographer the issue is always trying to get into the park at first light just as the park opens. At a main entrance such as Kruger gate if you are unlucky you can spend more than half an hour in a queue waiting to get an entrance permit, even if you have South African Park’s Wildcard.

“The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Of course once in the park and away from the crowds of people, the quiet and the natural beauty of the bush soon settles you. After about an hour of driving we usually find a secluded spot overlooking a river to stop the car and have a cup of coffee and a rusk – idyllic. After our break we moved on, full of expectation not knowing what will be around the corner!

You cannot leave Africa” , Africa said, “It is always with you, there inside your head. Our rivers run in currents in the swirl of your thumbprints; Our drumbeats counting out your pulse; Our coastline, the silhouette of your soul”. ~ Bridge Dore

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

Have fun, Mike

Marievale in December

South Africa is fortunate to have a stunning diversity of birds. We have several well known sanctuaries for our avian friends. One of them is close to where we live in Johannesburg. It is Marievale bird sanctuary near Nigel about a 45 minute drive away. It is Ramsar site which is a wetland site designated to be of international importance. Marievale has an especially diverse array of wetland birds which attracts birders and wildlife photographers alike.

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” ~Sandra Postel

Helen and I go to Marievale several times a year. Each time the weather and the water level in the wetland are different. These changing wetland conditions attract different combinations of waders, ducks and geese, raptors, seed eaters and insectivores. It is never the same.

Being an enthusiastic wildlife photographer I also get much needed photographic practice. Photography like any language needs constant practice.

I am a keen birder, not the “list ticking” kind but I am very interested in bird physiology and flight and why you finds certain birds in particular places at specific times. There is a fascinating natural intelligence at play which I am keen to tap into to better understand behaviour which should help me anticipate what my subject will do next and so get that more interesting images.

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” ~ Wendell Berry

A male Stonechat, a little wet from the grass after it had rained earlier that morning. These little chats are ubiquitous in Marievale and the male can be seen staking out his territory.

A female Stonechat perched on top of purple statis.

A male Long-tailed widowbird in full breeding plumage. This male was displaying with his slow deliberate flight with his luxurious tail feathers between his legs. His short broad wing shape allows him to display in flight the way he does.

Another image of a male Long-tailed widow bird. This character was perched on an old statis stem. He was displaying to passing females. His display when perched consists of puffing out his head and body feathers and opening his wings to show his colourful epaulets.

A Squacco heron wading through the shallow marsh water to warn off a nearby competitor. The main diet consists of relatively small prey, particularly fish, frogs and tadpoles, and insects and insect larvae, depending on the area. It is a solitary feeder and will defend its feeding territory against other Squacco herons using forward displays (when the back, crest and breast feathers held erect and puffed out to make the defender look bigger) and supplanting flights, where the heron suddenly and aggressively flies and lands either on top of its opponent or on the spot it has just vacated.

The Squacco heron is very comfortable in water but also forages in the short grass for insects. It has an amazing ability to stretch its neck which comes in handy when fishing from an overhanging branch or when walking through longish grass.

“Hardly any one is able to see what is before him, just as it is in itself. He comes expecting one thing, he finds another thing, he sees through the veil of his preconception, he criticizes before he has apprehended, he condemns without allowing his instinct the chance of asserting itself.” ~ Arthur Symons

A male Swanson’s spurfowl. It was early and the sun had just risen. This male was noisily declaring his territory. Looking at the spurs on the back of his legs, he was a youngster who had not been in many territorial fights.

A Black shouldered kite perched on a power line which traverses the wetland. This is an ideal perch from which to look for prey scurrying below in the grass. This kite feeds on mainly rodents and larger insects,but not fish. This kite has an incredible ability to hover when aerial hunting. Once locked onto its prey it dives into the grass to capture it. It can often be seen feeding on the wing. If the prey is too big it will find a suitable perch to support it while it feasts.

A Purple swamphen was feeding on something in the reeds. I could not see what it was, but its beak had plenty of yellow residue on it. This image gives a good idea of the large size of its feet. It can remain elevated in the reeds by bunching the reeds together with its feet. The large feet help spread its weight out over a large area enabling it to walk easily over fallen reedbeds along the water’s edge. These swamphens are also good swimmers.

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” ~ Wendell Berry

As we arrived this is the scene we were confronted with – a Black headed heron had caught a large rat in the grass and had just started to swallow it whole and semi-alive. You can see the nictitating membrane covered its eye as it began to swallow its prey as the front legs of the rat were still moving. This heron’s neck is able to kink in an S-shape, due to the modified shape of their 20 cervical vertebrae.

It was incredible to watch this Black headed heron swallow this rat head first and whole. No taste involved and it went straight into its stomach. A special vertebrae in their necks enable it to create an “s” shape, almost like a recoil which allows them to snap their necks deep into water or in the air to catch their prey at lighting fast speeds. Their razor sharp beaks allow them to stab their prey. Herons do not have gizzards which are in most other birds and help break down tougher parts of the food like bones. Instead herons just swallow their prey down their flexible esophagus and into their loose and stretchable stomachs.

Seeing this hunting Black headed heron as we entered Marievale was a good reminder that you need your camera set up and ready before you drive into the sanctuary. You just never know what is around the corner. Also understanding the hunting behaviour of a Black headed heron helps exercise a little patience as you can anticipate this kind of image.

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
~ Wendell Berry

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – space for lions

It is estimated that around a hundred years ago there were as many as 200,000 lions living wild in Africa. In 2012, National Geographic reported that only 32,000 lions remained out of 100,000 roaming Africa in the 1960s. Recent surveys put the number of wild lions at around 20,000. Around a third of African lions are thought to have disappeared in the past 20 years due mainly to hunting, illegal poaching/wildlife trade, human-lion conflict and loss of habitat.

“With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind.”~ Craig Packer

According to the National Geographic, the lion species has disappeared from 94 percent of its historic range across almost the entire African continent but is now limited to less than 660,000 square miles. Lions are extinct in 26 African countries and are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which determines the conservation status of species.

“…few can sojourn long within the unspoilt wilderness of a game sanctuary, surrounded on all sides by its confiding animals, without absorbing its atmosphere; the Spirit of the Wild is quick to assert supremacy, and no man of any sensibility can resist her.” ~James Stevenson-Hamilton

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystems covers 24,000 km² from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya and is home to one of the highest densities of lions in Africa.

Most lionesses reach sexual maturity between three and four years of age. Female lions can go into estrus (a period of fertility) at any time of the year and that period can last four to seven days. The male lion will stay close to the lioness during the mating period where mating usually occurs approximately every 20 minutes for the first few days though the frequency will slow somewhat in the last two days of the mating period.

Male lions, like all cats, have spines on their penis which cause minor trauma to the vagina upon withdrawal. The resulting pain triggers ovulation.  This probably also explains why females bare their teeth at males during mating.  

The odds are already stacked against a female lion bringing a cub to term. The gestation or pregnancy period for a female lion is between 105 – 110 days and the lioness usually produces a litter of between two and four cubs. A female lion has only four teats, so in litters larger than four, a number of the cubs will not survive.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” ~John Muir

Just prior to the birthing of her cubs, the heavily pregnant female will move away from the pride and give birth in a well-hidden den usually in a thick section of reeds in a marsh area, or a dense thicket in the savannah or hidden in a secluded section of a rock outcrop. The mother will keep the cubs hidden for one to two months allowing them to grow strong enough to survive the robustness of the pride. During this isolation period, the lioness will regularly move her cubs from one den site to another to prevent the concentration of scent so as not to attract other predators such as hyaenas.

Newborn cubs weigh between two and four pounds. Their fur is spotted and they are born blind. The new born cubs typically open their eyes when they are between three and 11 days old and can walk after around two weeks and run after four weeks.

Overall, somewhere between 60% and 70% of the cubs will die within their first year, and even fewer—about 1 in 8 —live to adulthood (lions mature around two years old). The cubs that don’t make it either die from starvation, or are killed by other predators or are killed by other male lions looking to take over the pride.

“It seems everything in nature that has beauty, also has a price.
Let the value of our planets wildlife be to nature and nature alone.”

~ Paul Oxton

Once the cubs have been accepted by the pride, all lactating females will suckle the cubs. After six weeks, the mother leads her cubs to an animal that she has killed to give them their first taste of meat.

The cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk after they are six to seven months old. The females tend to stay with the pride as they mature but the males usually leave or are forced out of the pride to fend for themselves by around two to three years of age and spend a few years building their strength and knowledge before they can look for their own pride.

A valuable method of aging lion cubs is given in the Livingwithlions.org. Assuming the lioness and the cub are standing, the two month old cub’s front shoulder is about two inches below the lioness’s belly. The four month old cub’s shoulder reaches around three inches above her belly and the six month old cub shoulder comes to mid-torso or midway up her shoulder. The 12-month old cub’s shoulder is a few inches below the back line of the adult lioness. Most of the lion cubs shown in this post look to be around two to three months old.

Lions are considered apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain with no natural enemies and as such play a pivotal role in sustaining the natural balance. By weeding out the slow, weak, and dying animals, apex predators serve to keep prey numbers in check and are key to the health of an ecosystem. They maintain the balance between prey species and the rest of the system. Without them, everything gets out of balance, leading to cycles of population explosions and crashes, depleted lands, stunted forests, and flooding rivers.

“Perhaps the most poignant image of our time is that of Earth as seen by the space voyagers: a blue sphere, shimmering with life and light, alone and unique in the cosmos. From this perspective, the maps of geopolitics vanish, and the underlying inter-connectedness of all the components of this extraordinary living system – animal, plant, water, land, and atmosphere – becomes strikingly evident.” ~ Richard Benedick

Once we understand the lion’s role in the ecosystem, human interference in the natural balance becomes obvious. In particular, indiscriminate trophy hunting taking out pride males below six years of age destroy the balance especially for the one predator which operates cooperatively in a pride.

“Hunting is an integral part of Africa’s conservation history and its approach to wildlife management. To disentangle hunting from modern African conservation will require a realignment of conservation policy, entrenched since colonial times and embraced and supported by African elites and political interests. But as civilization has the ingenuity to put people and machines into space, split the atom, and routinely send unimaginable amounts of information through the ether, surely we can think of a better way to save the wild animals we love besides killing them.
~ Andrew Loveridge

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – wanderings

We were wandering around the Mara Triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve in November 2019. The Masai Mara is a wonderland. Open spaces to drive in and big blue skies to fly in. In the very early mornings you can hear the burners of the hot air balloons as they rise and fall while wafting on the light cool early morning breezes over the plains of the Mara.

“The winds of grace are blowing all the time, but it is you that must raise your sails.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

A family herd of elephants wandering under huge rain laden morning skies.

A lugga in the wet season, holding water long enough for water lilies to grow.

An eclectic mix of wildlife – life and death living side by side in a green meadow with some respite during the daylight hours.

Craning to look at the golden crown above the ice blue eyes, velvet black forehead and red wattle.

A yellow-billed oxpecker, the Masai Giraffe’s very own dermatologist with all the rights ticks.

Looking through Leopard Gorge under gorgeous clear blue skies. Beyond the gorge flowed the Mara river.

Time for a teenager to rest after a mud bath and a busy morning.

Rest is not an option when there are youngsters around who want to play.

That in-between time when the foreground darkens and the last blazes of sunlight paint the darkening sky with oranges, pinks, purples and blues. A time when the fragrances of the flowers, grasses and trees are released by the latent temperature change just before the sun bows down below the horizon to allow the stars to shine.

Endangered black silhouette.

Two elephant bulls following a breeding herd in the plain below the Oloololo escarpment.

Pregnant zebra mare with herd mates silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, heavy with rain clouds.

A lone elephant bull wandering the great plains.

A little pushing and shoving – young male elephants sparring and testing themselves.

Sometimes even the daring get put in their place.

Success for a loner working the drainage lines along the road. A remarkable lioness doing it alone. She had worked out a strategy to ambush her prey using cover from the embankment along the road. Unusual and very successful.

Stripes with teeth – bolt if you do not want to get bitten.

Stripes for the winner

A new born topi calf looking for its mother.

A male Oribi up on the slopes of the Oloololo escarpment.

One of a pair of lappet-faced vultures who had joined the vulture frenzy after the lions had abandoned the zebra kill. With a beak like that……..!

A full grown male lion in his prime courting his female.

A time of breathless tawny magic and new beginnings!!

Travel with an open mind and an open heart. The abundance will reveal itself if you take the time to look and more importantly to appreciate what you are seeing. Once the African bush has etched its way into your subconsciousness you will always long for those sublime quiet times in the wide open spaces. There you can hear the red-crested korhaan calling and zebras braying through the long grass during the day and the Scops owl’s trill accompanied by hyaena whoops at night. The hippo grunts from the river will help you waft off to sleep under the starlit African sky.

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

Have fun, Mike