Wings over Serengeti

We go to the Serengeti seeking experiences of predators but in reality you will see much more. The vast plains of the Serengeti demarcated with rivers and belts of trees provide a fertile hunting ground for another much less threatening group of predators, birds in all their forms from raptors to seed-eaters whose colour vary from cryptic to exotic.

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.” ~ Robert Lynd

The Serengeti is a wonderful place for birders and bird photographers alike to wander around. In this post I show you just a smattering of the enormous variety of avian species you can see in the Serengeti.

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence. One has to sit still like a mystic and wait. One soon learns that fussing, instead of achieving things, merely prevents things from happening.”~ Robert Staughton Lynd

In the open grasslands while searching for lions you are likely to see insect eaters such as coursers. We found this double-banded courser close to a pride of “flat cats” around mid-morning. This character was very busy search for insects in the grass.

A male White-bellied korhaaan. It was early in the morning and there was a lot of dew on the grass which is why this male looked so wet.

This White bellied korhaan’s mate was some distance away which is why he was calling to her. He was also searching for nibbles while he was making his way towards her.

“It is much better to learn the elements of geology, of botany, or ornithology and astronomy by word of mouth from a companion than dully from a book.”~— Ralph Waldo Emerson

A pair of adult Egyptian geese standing on the edge of the Nyasirori dam with their five remaining goslings. Usually a female Egyptian goose will lay a clutch size of 10 to 12 eggs but the predation of the young is high that only a few of the youngsters make it to adulthood.

Another Egyptian goose family following Mum in choppy water in the Nyasirori dam. They remained in the centre of the dam as several hyaenas were wading in the dam, drinking and generally staying out of the way of three brutish young male lions.

This was a adult Egyptian goose coming into land at the Musira dam where other family members had assembled.

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.”~John James Audubon

Travelling around the Serengeti you will come across all sorts of unexpected sighting some are dramatic lions sightings and some are equally dramatic avian sightings. We watched these two Grey-backed fiscal shrikes feeding their family. The youngster perched on a branch of a tree while the parents flew repeatedly into the grass to collect insects which they flew back to feed their ravenous youngsters.

“Photography is the story I fail to put into words.” ~ Destin Sparks

This was a typical scene when the parent arrived back with a morsel and the two youngsters displayed to get the food from the parent.

Being January it was still cuckoo time and we were fortunate enough to see a Great spotted cuckoo. This looked to be a adult with its grey face and crest. The juvenile has a black face and crest but similar body colouring.

The Great spotted cuckoo is the largest of the crested cuckoos.

An ubiquitous lilac-breasted roller see down near the Grumeti river.

“Only photograph what you love.” ~ Tim Walker

It was wet and early in the morning as you can see from this damp Twany eagle drying out and waiting for some heat to develop thermals so it could get airborne.

For some unknown reason the Kori Bustards in the Serengeti allow you to get much closer than I have found in the Southern African environment. They stride around the grasslands with that watchful eye.

A quad of White-faced whistling ducks standing glaring at the Crowned cranes from the edge of the Musira dam.

A male Silverbird in full breeding plumage. This is from the flycatcher family and found from Sudan to Tanzania.

This Usambiro barbet had come down to a termite mound to feed on the termites emerging from their underground metropolis. This barbet is not to be confused with d’Arnaud’s barbet which looks very similar but has a black forehead and throat.

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” ~ Robert Frank

This pair of Usambiro barbets were confidently dueting from a dead tree branch. They have such as characteristic sound in the Serengeti bush.

A female White-bellied korhaan making her way across the gravel road in front of us.

Having crossed the road this female white bellied korhaan gave us a display flapping her wings and jumping off the ground much like you see sandgrouse doing.

An adult Black-shouldered kite stretching its wing. They usually do this just before they fly off. That ruby red eye is characteristic of this species of kite. He was intently watching a small anthill which was housing a family of Dwarf mongooses.

“The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”~ William Thackeray

A pair of White- faced whistling ducks paddling across the Musira dam.

A Black headed heron scratching itself after having just walked through the long grass. These are effective predators which stalk through the long grass away from (but nearby) dams and rivers. They feed on everything from frogs to small birds, rats, terrapins and even small hares.

A black-headed heron looking down on the world from a safe place. The black-headed heron usually feeds away from the banks of rivers and dams and are seldom seen feeding near the grey heron.

A Southern Ground hornbill female offering food to her youngster, These are also formidable predators which stride through the grasslands foraging from everything from scorpions to lizards and snakes and even the occasional small tortoise.

This juvenile Southern ground hornbill has still to attain its distinctive red facial skin colouring of the adult.

Another formidable grassland predator is the Secretary bird. This is also a “strider” through the long grass. It will stomp and stomp on any potential prey and will feed on anything from snakes to baby birds.

This character had stopped to drink from a puddle of rain water on the side of the gravel road.

“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

While we were parked alongside the Musira dam we watched numerous male Vitelline masked weavers building their nests from strands of grass which they intricately wove together to form a shell.

What made this weaver nest building exercise so amazing was they were doing it in among super sized thorns which were like sabres to them. They deftly flew in among these thorns never seeming to impale themselves on them. I was really impressed with their accurate flying skills in what looked to be a potential deadly zone.

I was surprised to see so few Southern red bishops in the western corridor of the Serengeti. This male was in full breeding colours dashing around a bush in the open grasslands trying to attract the odd passing female.

“Photography is the art of frozen time… the ability to store emotion and feelings within a frame.” ~ Unknown

A family of White-headed buffalo weavers displaying and being very vocal. We could not decipher what the displaying was about but they would regularly stand higher on the branch and flap their wings and call. Once they opened their wings you could see their distinctive orange rump and shoulder feathers.

The orange rump of the White-headed buffalo weaver was very distinctive. They also make rough untidy nests like their cousins the Red-billed buffalo weaver.

A Northern white-crowned shrike having just taken off from its perch. It is not often a bird will take off and fly towards you. East Africa has an incredible variety of shrikes.

Birding in East Africa is very special even for spoilt birders like us in southern Africa. In this part of the world there are a greater variety of of forest and savanna avians such as shrikes, starlings, sunbirds, barbets, hornbills, turacos and even go-away birds where as southern Africa has a wider variety of coastal birds.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” ~ Ansel Adams

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

Have fun, Mike

Where ever there are lions there are Hyaenas

Hyaenas are tough, intelligent and co-operative predators which makes them very capable hunters and effective thieves. In our trip with CNP Safaris in January this year we saw an estimated 70 different lions in a week. lions and hyaenas co-exist in a dynamic balance between numbers and brute strength.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ~ Albert Einstein

Hyaenas on their own seem to be mostly scavengers but given the enormous bite strength other smaller predators from leopards downwards know not to take them on!

“Each of us is a unique strand in the intricate web of life and here to make a contribution.” ~ Deepak Chopra

Not taking them on, but showing a threat display can be useful if only for a short while. This Griffon vulture spreads its wings to make itself look bigger to the passing Hyaena mother and her youngster.

This clan member had been part of a group which had taken on the three young male lions which were part of a coalition of eight males. The lions appeared to have got the best of the carcass but Hyaenas are adept at picking up the remains.

There is always aggressive competition for food in an Hyaena clan. Hyaenas cannot use their claws and paws when hunting the way lions do. The only thing Hyaenas can do is to bite and hang onto their prey. Hyaenas have exceptionally strong jaws and neck muscles enabling them to lock on with thier jaws. They also uses their jaws on each other with a devastating and permanent effect.

“The gossamer web of life, spun on the loom of sunlight from the breath of an infant Earth, is nature’s crowning achievement on this plant.”~ Preston Cloud

This particular Hyaena had retreated into the Nyasirori dam. I am not sure whether the retreat was from the lions or just to have a drink. The family of Egyptian geese watched the Hyaena’s antics from a safe distance in the middle of the dam.

A little further on from the Nyasirori dam near the ‘Hyaena spa’ we found Hyaenas around a kill. The Hyaenas must have made the kill as there were no other predators anywhere around. The victim was a Topi, a cousin of the Hartebeest.

Topis do try to sleep in the middle of the day. They sleep in a crouched position in the grass in an open plain with their head down as if resting it on the ground. Hyaenas regularly wander through a Topi herd looking for a prey opportunity either in the form of a sleeping Topi or an injured one. A Hyaena must have seen the sleeping Topi and grabbed it. The Topi would have woken and tried to bolt but the Hyaena would have locked on. Other Hyaena scouts in the area must of seen the tangling Topi and Hyaena and run in to bite the Topi. In all likelihood the joining Hyaena would have been biting and tearing pieces off the alive Topi. Eventually is collapsed from trauma and loss of blood. Once down, the Hyaenas would be calling and others would come storming in to the kill.

Contrary to common belief, lions steal more kills from hyaenas than the other way around. Hyaenas are able to tear a carcass apart with their strong jaws. Everything goes, Hyaenas are able to eat the skin, bones and hooves.

A large dog, such as a Mastiff or Rottweiler, has an average bite strength of 325 pounds per square inch. An African Lion has a bite strength of 650 pounds per square inch. A Bengal Tiger has a bite strength of 1,050 pounds per square inch. The Spotted Hyaena has a bite strength of 1,100 pounds per square inch. The only animals with a stronger bite force are Grizzly bears, Polar bears, Gorillas, Bull sharks, Jaguars, Hippos, and crocodiles (almost 5 x that of an Hyaena).

Given that Hyaenas do not have claws (grappling hooks) like lions. They are seldom able to grab their prey by the throat and choke it. More often, they grab it anywhere they can and hang on and eventually wear it down. If other members of the clan get involved they add to the biting and blood loss until the prey collapses and then the clan members eat the prey alive. As the next images shows they will take anything including a Topi’s head.

Lions and Hyaenas are arch enemies, a psychology engrained from when they were very young and on each other’s prey list. If a lioness will not give up a kill when mobbed by many Hyaenas they will try to kill her. Conversely, if a male lion sees Hyaenas harassing and trying to steal a kill from his lionesses he will attacked the Hyaenas and often kill at least one of them. The lion very seldom eats a Hyaena he has killed.

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth.”~ Chief Seattle

Unfortunately Hyaenas have to also fear humans, even well inside the Serengeti National Park. Poachers set their snares along game paths obvious tunnels through the flora. They only check on the snares after a delayed period. The snares are indiscriminate killers and maimers.

“Because we do not think about future generations, they will never forget us.”~ Henrik Tikkanen

We found a mixed flock of vultures feeding on a dead Hyaena. On closer inspection it had a snare around its neck so must have starved and throttled itself to death as it tried to free itself from the wire noose.

If you thought Hyaenas were not fussy eaters then vultures are even less fussy eaters. There were White-backed, Griffon and Hooded vultures around the carcass.

Two White-backed vultures trying to bite each other near the hyaena kill.

There was much squabbling among the vultures on the kill. The vultures went for the soft parts of the body first and especially the damaged area around the neck of the ensnared Hyaena.

Griffons were the largest vultures on the carcass with White-backed vultures being slightly smaller. Much smaller than both the others are Hooded vultures. They tend to hand around the feeding frenzy picking up bits and pieces dropped by the others. The Hooded vultures do not have the bulk and strength to compete on the carcass.

“Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centred. It views humans as above or outside nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or ‘use’, value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It does see the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all human beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.” ~ Fritjof Capra

A typical tussle between two Hyaenas where one member tries to intimidate the other to get them to drop the food in their mouths.

At night, a Hyaena’s whooping and their cackles will send shivers down your spine – a primal reaction. Hyaenas and vultures are crucial complementary members of nature’s clean up crew. They often need each other. Hyaenas, also known as bone crushers, will will open up a carcass which vultures can then take advantage. On the other side, Hyaenas watch the sky for vultures and often locate a kill by following them and watching where they descend. Between the two species they will clean an area of a kill and rid it of discarded bones and debris. Vultures and Hyaenas provide a vital healthcare role in the ecosystem by keeping it clean and reducing the incidence of disease. When Hyaenas are not around, vultures do an effective job of “cleaning the bones” of a kill but they cannot eat the bones. Although quite macabre, Hyaenas and vultures are nature’s effective “clean up” gang who keep the ecosystem dynamic and healthy.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seattle

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

Have fun, Mike

Serengeti lions dawn to dusk

This post shows some images taken during our second day in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti. We were based at the wonderful &Beyond Grumeti Tented Camp and were part of the CNP Safari’s photographic group led by Lou Coetzer and Wasiri, our &Beyond guide.

We were in the Serengeti because we expected the “short rains” to be over but were in for a surprise. The Western Corridor is a spur of the Serengeti which stretches out to the left beyond Seronera past the Musabi plains towards lake Victoria.

“If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.” ~ Eleonora Duse

This is a unique part of the Serengeti because there is a high concentration of game in this area all year round. Lake Victoria has a unique influence on the weather and rainfall in this corridor. This means it is wetter and there is grass all year round so there are plains game in this area all year round. Plains game such as wildebeest, zebra, eland, Topi and Grants and Thompson’s gazelle. There is obviously not the concentration that you would see during the migration but more than enough to create wonderful photographic opportunities.

“In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light.” ~ Hans Hofmann

The next image was taken before the sun was up. This pride of lionesses and adolescents were making their way along the side of the main road which runs down towards the Nyasirori ranger post.

On our way east, we drove down to Nysasirori dam. There we found three of the five young males which were part of a coalition of eight males. These young males were big strapping brutes and they had attitude.

We found them on the dam wall. They had just finished feeding on a kill judging from the blood stains on there faces and necks.

They were also in the process of tangling with a large clan of hyaenas which wanted to knuckle in on the remains of the kill. No one got injured in the tangle from what we could see but the males were whipped up with testosterone.

It was very clear that the young males were ready to carry on the fight. You can see from the sheer bulk of these youngsters that they were big brutes which would be come fearsome males in adulthood.

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera” ~ Yousuf Karsh

After the lion-hyaena interaction broke up we moved away and drove back towards the Kitunge hills and the plains in front of them. There we found a mating pair of lions and several lionesses which were part of the pride. One lioness had two cubs. We sat and watched them for about an hour but they became flat cats and as the light deteriorated it became more overcast so we left the pride in peace and returned to camp for a late breakfast.

That afternoon it was still overcast when we returned to the plains below the Kitunge hills and found this lioness calling to her missing cub. She was calling with that low frequency “ooomph”. She was looking toward the section of trees a couple of hundred metres away. Something must have happened since we had seen them in the morning which could have separated her from one of her cubs. It could have been buffalo bulls which had been in that area. One aspect about wildlife that becomes quickly apparent is that if the animal incurs and injury that animal must heal itself. There are no doctors. Wild animals’ ability to cope with their injuries and heal quickly is something that the medical world has not paid enough attention to.

“A photographer must possess and retain the receptive faculties of a child who watches the world for the first time.” ~ Bill Brandt

This lionesses decided to start walking toward the tree line from the middle of the plain. She had her one remaining cub with her. The remaining cub was trying to get her attention and play with her but she was focussed on finding her other cub.

She walked to within one hundred metres of the treeline and could not see or smell or hear her cub so she turned around and walked all the way back to the rest of the pride which was lying in the middle the open plain.

“Of what use are lens and light to those who lack in mind and sight?” ~Anonymous

We watched this lioness desperately looking for her missing cub for quite awhile. There was thick cloud cover and storm clouds started to form. Amongst the banks of storm clouds, breaks in the formations allowed shafts of sunlight to shine through onto the plains.

We continued to sit with this lioness as the storm clouds built and the sky turned an ominous dark blue with a heavy bank of cloud developing over the range of hills in the distance.

This is a time in the bush when the light dances and the atmosphere starts to prickle with excitement.

We drove closer to the lion pride once the lioness joined the pride with her remaining cub. The lions seemed completely unperturbed by the brewing storm. It was as if they had already accepted they were going to get drenched.

“Nature is so powerful, so strong. Capturing its essence is not easy – your work becomes a dance with light and the weather. It takes you to a place within yourself.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

One of the unexpected developments was that the remaining sun shone through the building banks of storm clouds creating a beautiful rainbow beyond the treeline. In among the far trees was a herd of Topis.

It is impossible to describe the colour of the light and the feeling of being bathed in it. The lions became illuminated in the grass. As a photographer you can usually only dream of seeing this type of light.

As the storm brewed and the rain clouds gathered the scene darkened and the light became even more dramatic – and a second rainbow formed. This was one of the most magical light shows I have ever seen mother nature put on.

We started the day with overcast blue light and finished the day with the most incredible golden light show. This was again a reminder that you can never predict what mother nature has in store for you. What ever you do, you have to be out there to be able to see and experience this type of magic.

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” ~ Saint Augustine

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

Have fun, Mike

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: 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. http://www.uvm.edu/~dstratto/bcor102/LionsMane.pdf

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