Mashatu grazers and browsers

This is a fourth post from our recent trip to Mashatu Nature Reserve in south-eastern Botswana in mid-August 2017. In winter in Mashatu the grass dries and thins out. This forces grazers to become browsers but nature is bountiful. As one source of food disappears another more localised source appears.

” The earth is large enough for all to share, but mankind’s heart is not large enough to care.”

~Anthony Douglas Williams

An adult Kudu bull with the requisite two and a half twists in his horns. Kudus are browsers so seem to cope quite well in winter when the vegetation thins out.

This was a small group of Kudu bulls, the younger ones were a little more jittery and did not have the confidence of the older bulls. Not surprising as there are many predators in Mashatu.

Down at one of the few remaining pools of water in the Majale river. These pools are a magnet for thirsty animals and birds during winter. In summer there is more available water so the animals and birds spread out. Three young impala boys and two girls.

“What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of a whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pool at night?”

~Chief Seattle

You will not often see an impala jump into the water. They know there are things which lurk below the surface and those things usually want to eat them.

“It is only when you come across animal behaviour that you have never seen or heard before that you realise that you are the one that still has much to learn. Beneath the visual surface lies a much more complex and fascinating web of knowledge which is slowly revealed to us if we take the time to look and think.”

~Mike Haworth

One of the more unusual sightings on this trip was this  young bull giraffe carefully smelling the bones of a fallen giraffe. He was smelling the metacarpal or metatarsal, third phalange and  hoof of one leg. I have seen a herd of elephants show great respect for the bones of one of their own, which makes us sense that elephants as sentient beings.

I have not heard of giraffe displaying the same care and reverence for a fallen comrade.  This giraffe spent some time smelling and even licking the bones. This was something out of the ordinary, as he was clearly assessing what had happened and for the first time I became aware of the sentience of this animal. One more element of the mystery of nature was unveiled and more respect given.

On of the smallest antelope in Mashatu, the Steenbok can usually be found in pairs. This was a male as distinguished by his horns. Those big ears help him to pick up the slightest sound around him, a skill he needs in Mashatu.

The female Steenbok has no horns but is a beautiful, small, dainty antelope which eats grass, berries and browses on the leaves of select bushes.

We found this lone male Klipspringer smelling  what must have been an olfactory signpost. His was making his way along the edge of the dry Majale river bed. There is a family group that lives in this area but I did not see the female or any of the offspring. Not surprising as they are well camouflaged, especially among the rocks and in the shade.

I have been going to Mashatu for the last six years and this was only the second time I have seen a wild pig and the first time out in the open.  It was early in the morning and we had just crossed the Majale river and had driven over to see what all the baboon commotion was about around a large Mashatu tree. The baboons must have slept in the tree the night before. There were a few youngsters being disciplined and making an almighty racket as a consequence. Below all the commotion was this wild pig. It is very unusual to see one out in the open like this in Mashatu.

This wild pig was nibbling at the Mashatu tree berries which the baboons had dislodged and had fallen to the ground. The wild pig was feasting on the berries and ignored us for a few minutes, then in usual form decided to melt away into the background.

“A wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

~Epictetus

There are surprises in the bush like the wild pig sighting and there are times when  a familiar animal in an unusual setting makes wonderful photography. This kudu bull was walking on the sand in a familiar section of the Majale river, which was now dry. We had seen bull elephants swimming in this section a few months before. The backlighting and dust just added that little something extra to the image.

In the low afternoon sun, the Kudu bull’s neck mane was highlighted as were his horns. The contrast of light and dark added a little shine to this image for me.

The Kudu bull then walked up onto the back of the dry river bed and I loved the scene with the bull looking off into the distance with highlighted leaves casting a real bush atmostphere.

” Seeing goes beyond looking, it is recognising the state of another being, grasping a deeper understanding of the context.”

~ Mike Haworth

This eland bull seemed to be very lack lustre and we assumed it was not well. Normally eland will run away, as they are very skittish. This bull ambled away and did not look to be all there.

These are huge antelope. He was on his own and something was not right. We did not see him again in the following days but thankfully did not see his carcass either.

“Life does calm down a little in winter, well just a little. Winter in southern Africa is a riot of browns, yellow, oranges and beiges, and complemented  with polarised blue skies. Stop for a minute and don’t look at things but sense the  colours, shapes and textures. It will bring a smile to your face!”

~Mike Haworth

Winter is a time of browns, oranges and beiges in Mashatu. Every now and then you might see black and white stripes or is that white and black stripes.

There are many small family groups of  Zebra in Mashatu so do not expect to see the big herds you will see in the Zebra migration in northern Botswana.

As photographers we wait for zebras bolting in the dust. Ideally not away away from us.

We are quick to seek the predators in our wildlife mix. You will be surprised to see great diversity, surprising adaption, strength, speed and beauty in the grazers and browsers in Africa.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. there is no end to the adventures we can have if we only seek them with our eyes open.”

~Jawaharial Nehru

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu winter avian gallery

This is the third post from our recent trip to Mashatu in mid-August. It was winter, but surprisingly the weather was mild. We were expecting warm mid-days and cold evenings, not so, even the evenings were relatively warm.

“You can’t get mad at weather because weather’s not about you. Apply that lesson to most other aspects of life.”
~ Doug Coupland

Winter is a time when all the migrants fly north for warmer climes with the promise of more food, especially insect life. Despite the winter exodus, we are fortunate enough to have a wonderful variety of resident feathers.

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”
~Emily Dickinson

In front of our camp was a small waterhole which proved to be an ideal winter watering spot for our avian friends. It was in shade for most of the day but between 13h30 and 15h00 the angle of the sun’s rays was just right to light up the pond. The images in this post are a selection of birds which we saw at the small waterhole and on our game drives. It is easy to see which were which.

Male Golden Breasted Bunting.

The adult male has a striking head pattern with a white crown, black lateral crown stripes, white supercilium and black-bordered white ear coverts. The supercilium is a plumage feature,  a stripe which runs from the base of the bird’s beak above its eye, finishing towards the rear of the bird’s head – like an eyebrow.

“Let me be as a feather. Strong with purpose.

Yet light at heart, able to bend.

And tho I might become frayed,

Able to pull myself together again.”

~Anita Sams

A male Namaqua Sandgrouse. The male has an orangish buff head, throat and chest delineated by a conspicuous narrow band of white and dark brown. The male and female  carry water  back to their chicks in their breast feathers .

A female Namaqua Sandgrouse is more cryptically coloured than the male. These sandgrouse live in dry sandy environments and are known to travel great distances for water.

Adult Red-billed Oxpecker waiting for a host. It seemed to have abandoned the impala for a drink but by the time it had finished the impala had moved off.

“May your spirit soar through the vast cathedral of your being,

May your mind whirl youthful cartwheels of creativity,

May your heart sing sweet lullabies of timelessness.”

~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

A  Tawny Eagle soaring between thermals.

Tawny Eagle in flight. Tawnys, Martial Eagles and African Hawk Eagles are residents in Mashatu. I have never seen a Bateleur Eagle soaring over Mashatu.

Black Stork maneuvering to avoid the Hammerkop stealing its catch. Nature always surprises. There was a small pool of water remaining in the Matabole river close to the weir. Remarkably, this Black stork caught about seven decent size fish in this pool. This stork did not try to kill the fish but just maneuvered them so they could be swallowed head first.

This Black Stork was not going to allow anyone to steal its catch.

The Black Stork was considerably more successful as a fisherman than the pair of Hammerkops. Its fishing technique was very much like a Yellow-billed Stork, swishing its beak back and forth as it walked and snapping shut as it felt its prey touch its beak. 

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
~Rachel Carson

A young male Natal Spurfowl is similarly coloured to the female. 

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The male spurfowl has much bigger spurs on the back of its legs. You can tell how old the male is by the degree to which his spurs have been worn down through fighting.

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A male Natal Spurfowl has exquisite patterning on its breast and belly feathers.

A Burchell’s Coucal skulking in between thickets trying to keep up with the foraging elephants. This Coucal was feeding on the insects disturbed by the browsing elephants.

A Blue Waxbill.

Waxbills are an exceptionally colourful family of seed-eaters. These Blue Waxbills were no exception with their powder blue coloured breast and belly feathers.

A Southern Grey-headed Sparrow with its characteristic grey head and white bar on its shoulder

The sexes of the Grey-headed Sparrow are alike. The horn coloured beak is the non-breeding colour.

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

A adult male Green Winged Pytillia.

The Green winged Pytillia was previously called a Melba Finch of obvious reasons.

A female Green-winged Pytillia without the red forehead and throat and yellow breast of the male.

An adult Arrow-marked Babbler.

One of a small flock of adult Arrow-marked Babblers which noisily visited the small waterhole in front of the camp.

A male Red-headed Weaver taking on his breeding colours.

A female Red-headed Weaver with her reddish beak.

A silhouette of guineafowl walking down the river bank to the remaining pools of water.

Crimson-breasted Shrike.

This stunning coloured shrike is usually found in the acacia thorn veld.

“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

Black-headed Oriole being buzzed by bees.

You will usually hear this bird before you see it.

Once in the sunlight, the vibrant yellow of the Black headed Oriole becomes a focal point.

A male Red-crested Korhaan judging from the white patch on the side of the breast.

The red crest is only displayed in courting.

A male Cinnamon -breasted Bunting

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A female Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. The male and female look similar but the female has the thinner and less defined black facial stripes. 

A male Cinnamon-breasted Bunting fluffed up in the wind. This was a male, identified by his thick black facial stripes.

A Go-away Bird or Grey Lourie

A Grey Lourie is not called a Turaco because its feet cannot reach its mouth, like a Turaco.

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry,
and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry
are equal in value no matter what their colour.
~Maya Angelou

A lone Southern Black Tit having a quiet drink.

A male Greater Honeyguide.

This bird is brood parasite laying its eggs in a the nest of woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodhoopoes and starlings.

Part of a flock of six White Helmeted Shrikes.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
~Rachel Carson

White-fronted Bee-eaters starting to nest.

Colony living – not always easy to get along with your neighbours!.

A pied Babbler in the early morning light.

A Black Stork in the sunlight.

The Black Stork is a migrant but a few members of the flock obviously never got the departure call but seemed to be doing just fine.

“Today is your day to dance lightly with life,

sing wild songs of adventure,

soar your spirit,

unfurl your joy.”

~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

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

Have fun,

Mike

Cheetahs of Mashatu

This is my second post from our trip to Mashatu in mid-August, where the cheetah seem to be thriving. There are now two cheetah females each with three cubs and a coalition of three adult males. This is no mean achievement in an environment where there is  powerful competition from lions, hyaenas  and leopards.

“I wasn’t born to follow and I’m not sure if I was born to lead, but what I’m certain is that I was born to fight my way through life and win.”

Mashatu has numerous hills which the cheetahs use to look down on the plains for opportunities and threats. These speedsters operate mainly in the day when larger predators such as lions and hyaenas are resting.

From the lookout under a Shepherd’s tree, three sub-adult cubs followed their mother towards a croton grove where the cheetah mum must have seen potential prey. The cubs followed from a distance and one cub paused, while following its mother, just to see what we were doing.

“The wise learn many things from their enemies.”

This cheetah family emerged from a croton grove and were smelling scats on the way out. The smells must have given them important information as this individual lingered sometime decoding the aromatic data.

These lightweight predators are furtive in their movement when they are uncertain. They are always looking around them to check that no threat will catch them unawares.

The female and her cubs were very wary as they backed away from the croton grove. Something triggered their caution. We could not see what it was. Perhaps the cheetah mother caught sight of a leopard or lion and backed out.

Cheetahs continually look behind themselves to make sure nothing is sneaking up behind them. They have the speed out outrun any threat if they just get enough warning of imminent danger.

In or out of the sun, a cheetah’s speed starts with aerodynamics. Its slender body, small head, flattened rib cage and long, thin legs minimise air resistance. Its lightweight frame (typically only weighs about 125 pounds or 57 kg), gives it a high power to weight ratio.

This young Cheetah was relaxing in the shade. The colour of the light cast on these cheetahs depended on the direction of the sun when in shade.

A mother and one of her sub-adult cubs lying in the shade facing different directions for security reasons. The youngster was not bored just tired. 

A cheetah mother with two of her three youngsters. The third was further ahead, out of the frame. It is no mean feat to raise three young cheetahs in this tough predator-filled environment. By 18 months of age, the mother leaves the cubs. Then, they usually a form  sibling group, staying together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group and the young males remain together for life.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

~  John Muir

The next image shows behaviour I have never seen before and would have never believed if I had not seen it for myself. A flock of guineafowl followed these cheetah making an almighty racket. They actually pursued them, making it clear to every living being around that there were predators in front of them.

The guineafowl must have followed this cheetah family for nearly half a kilometre before abandoning their mobbing. I have never seen guineafowl do this before. The more I get to see guineafowl the more complex I find their behaviour. It is clear that predators do not get it all their own way. Tree squirrels, Vervet monkeys, baboons, starlings and guineafowl are always ready to sound their alarm calls signalling the whereabouts of a predator.

These young cheetahs seemed to be spooked by many of the sounds around them. Presumably knowledge built on past experience. They became even more wary once the wind started to gust. The swirling air disturbed their senses making it difficult for them to  locate the direction of sounds and scents.

When cheetahs rest there is always one on guard keeping 360 degree surveillance. When there is an unusual sound the others quickly sit up and take notice. 

“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

~Dwight D. Eisenhower

Photographs are normally taken of cheetahs side on but you do not get a sense of how lean and thin they actually are from a side view. It is incredible to think that this wild creature can accelerate to speed of 60 miles per hour in three seconds. Equally impressive is that they can twist and swerve at these speeds to catch their prey. The power to rapidly accelerate—not just speed alone—is the key to the cheetah’s hunting success, according to Alan Wilson, a professor of locomotive biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. “Capturing prey seems to come down to maneuvering,” he said. “It’s all the zigzagging, ducking and diving. The way cheetahs pivot and turn while sprinting was amazing. A cheetah can bank at a 50-degree angle in a high-speed turn, while a motorcycle can do maybe 45 degrees” (Source: ). The cheetah’s long tail acts like a rudder during the high speed chase and works as a counterbalance enabling it to zig zag, making quick turns at amazing speeds.

The black tear marks  from the eye to the mouth reduce reflection in bright sunlight and improve vision. This is necessary as these lightweight speedsters hunt in daylight hours when they have less competition from lions, leopards and hyaenas. Supposedly cheetahs’ night vision is no better than a humans but they do hunt at night when necessary.

“At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough.”
~ Toni Morrison

A pensive youngster. A privilege to look at them but we have no idea of their context and what they have been through to survive to this point.

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
~ Aristotle

This is typically how you will first see a cheetah in Mashatu. A family looking out from under the shade of a Shepherd’s tree. Solitary females are particularly vulnerable, with young to feed and defend. Males, on the other hand, are more sociable and often form coalitions of between two and five animals that stay together for life. The coalition gives them the power to defend typical territories of up to 160 square kilometres. Solitary females roam further.

It is not difficult to understand why these amazing, highly specialised  predators thrive in Mashatu. There are big open spaces, plenty of small enough prey and enough room for them to use their competitive advantage, their incredible speed when hunting. In a chase, the number of breathing movements accelerates from 16 per minute to 156. But the cheetah cannot  run more than about 800 metres or it may overheat. The cheetah cannot expel the accumulated heat rapidly enough and easily overheats.

Cheetahs are specialized hunters and do not have the braun to compete with other larger feline carnivores but they have worked out a way to thrive. Like other large carnivores, cheetahs face habitat loss driven by conversion of wilderness areas into managed land dedicated to agriculture or livestock and people who kill them as they see them as a threat to their livestock, even though cheetahs rarely kill domesticated animals.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.”

~  David Suzuki

Today there are just 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, according to the new study reported in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their numbers have fallen from an estimated 14,000 cheetahs in 1975, when researchers made the last comprehensive count of the animals across the African continent. The cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range. These cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran. 

Based on these results, the study authors are calling for the cheetah’s status to be changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List. (Source: NationalGeographic.com).

“I am in competition with no one. I run my own race. I have no desire to play the game of being better than anyone, in my way, in any shape or form. I just aim to be better than before. That is me , I’m free.”

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

Have fun,

Mike

Leopards in Mashatu

Mashatu is known for its leopard sightings, especially in winter. Mashatu is a game reserve located in the south-east corner of Botswana tucked  between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Our recent trip to Mashatu was no exception, in fact it was better than usual. In winter, it gets very dry which forces the wildlife to concentrate around the remaining pools of water in the rivers.  The elephants are also key to making water available for other wildlife. The elephants must be able to smell the water under the sand. The water table seems to be about two to three feet below the surface of the river bed in certain places. The elephants sense this and dig down into the sand with their feet. The ground water seeps through the sand and pools in the hole. This is the cleanest freshest water available for the wildlife in late winter.

“The human family has invaluable friends and irreplaceable allies in the plant and animal worlds. We cannot continue to tug at the web of life without tearing a hole in the very fabric of our earthly existence-and eventually falling through that hole ourselves.”
~Van Jones

Mashatu’s leopards tend to live close to and along the rivers. This is where their prey concentrates in winter. Along the large rivers such as the Majale, Matabole and Nwenze there are many large trees, such as Mashatu trees, Boer-beans, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs. These large trees provide them with a safe place to rest, a place to escape from lions and hyaenas and a place to stash their kills.

“Every thread you discover in the local web of life leads beyond your place to life elsewhere.”

~Scott Sanders

Along the Majale river just downstream from Candor camp we found this  female leopard. Something that caught her interest. We could not see anything so we followed her from a distance.

She quickly and quietly made her way through the dappled light along the treeline next to the river. The spots and rosettes which form her coat pattern provided wonderful camouflage. When looking at this leopard I wondered why its tail curled up at the end. The position and movement of the leopard’s tail gives some clues as to its level of excitement.

“The trick to not being discovered until it is too late is to become part of the expected surroundings. Stealth is more the art of blending in with the background than sneaking through dark shadows.”
~ Raymond E. Feist

It was only a hundred or so metres further on that we saw what had caught this young female leopard’s attention. Through the trees was a small herd of impala grazing at the outer edge of the croton grove. We never got to see the final outcome.

Further along the Majale river our guide, Graphite, stopped adjacent to a large Weeping Boer-bean tree which was growing at an angle out of the river bank.  Its roots had been partially exposed by previous years’ floods.  Somehow, Graphite saw this leopard lying in the shadows among the roots of this large overhanging tree. This male leopard was so well camouflaged that we would never have seen him if his position had not been pointed out to us.

The reason the large male was lying quietly at the base of the tree became apparent. He had caught a warthog piglet and stashed it on a large bough of the tree above him. Sometime later we returned to find him devouring his meal. He lay on top of the piglet to hold it down while he tore pieces off it. He used his paws to prevent it from moving sideways while his large canines and powerful jaws enabled him to tear off chunks of meat. He devoured most of the piglet including many of the bones as they must have been soft.

The guides are in radio communication with each other and pass on information on location of the cats, hyaenas and elephants. The next day we found the site where a leopard cub had been seen. It had retreated into an old partially hollowed out fallen tree. Two lioness were sleeping right next to the entrance of the log’s opening. The cub knew to stay inside the log as they would have killed it if they could.  The cubs mother was nowhere to be seen. The following day we returned to the dead log and there was no sign of the lionesses or the cub. Only later did we find the cub with its mother way up in a large Mashatu tree, well out of reach of lions and hyaenas. This was the remaining cub from a litter of two. No one knows what happened to the other cub but it was thought to have been killed by a male leopard, which was not its father.

The cub’s mother was resting in the lower part of the Mashatu tree having found a comfortable bough to lie on with a support for her head. The previous two days must have been “hair-raising” for this young mother having to cope with a strange male leopard and lions who wanted to kill her and her remaining cub.

As only a lady can!!

The remaining cub was very high up in the Mashatu tree above its mother. It was staying well out of sight.

Cool, comfortable and safe.

After a harrowing previous day and probably night, this leopard cub was fast asleep high up in the branch of the Mashatu tree.

Later that afternoon, we found a large male leopard walking along the side of the dry river bed. He was a big strapping male. It is difficult to accurately tell how old a leopard is but the state of its coat and its teeth give tell-tale signs. This was a young male who looked to be in his prime.

Leopards usually move around at night but if you are lucky you may see one in the early morning and late afternoon. They sleep up a tree out of sight during the day and are most active at night when they have the greatest advantage over their prey.

This was no ordinary male leopard. He was a big strong young male, and he oozed confidence.

“The sense of smell, like a faithful counsellor, foretells its character.”

~ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

He appeared to be on a mission, walking with  purpose along the side of the river. The shadow he presented showed it was mid-morning, quite late for him to be out and about.

Eventually he got to his destination. Again his camouflage was superb. Without having seen him walk to this spot we would have never seen him.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
~ William Butler Yeats

He was following the scent of a kill. A female leopard had killed a Steenbok the day before and stashed it in an acacia in the bank above the area he was smelling.

This male smelt all around the area where the female must have killed the Steenbok. There was nothing there that we could see or smell. It is hard to imagine what picture he was getting from the previous day’s encounter.

It took him around five minutes to find the remains of the Steenbok up in the acacia tree which he promptly stole.

“Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your word and actions.”

~Eckhart Tolle

Later that afternoon, we found the same large male leopard further down stream along the Majale river. He had walked towards one of the few remaining pools of water in the river. It is very seldom that wildlife will walk straight down to a river and start drinking. Usually it will stand some distance off and have a good look around to see what danger lurks. This male leopard lay on the river bank in the late afternoon just watching all the goings on.

Eventually he moved down to a bank just above the remaining pool of water. He still did not drink immediately but just lay down on the sand bank and watched the surrounds for a while longer. Needless to say by this time there were only guineafowl, sandgrouse and doves which were at the water’s edge with no antelope or warthogs anywhere to be seen..

He moved down to drink when the sun had almost set, leaving the river bank and pool in deep shade.

“Dusk is that inbetween time, when the bush releases its fragrances, when colours soften and for a short while everything seems to holds its breath.”

~Mike Haworth

I was interested to see that this leopard did not ever drink with its eyes down. He was vigilant, watching everything around the pool while drinking. That stare gave me a feeling I don’t think I will ever forget.

Leopards do not drink water like dogs but rather they curl the tip of their tongue backwards and pull a column of water into their mouths. The water shoots into the mouth and the leopard closes its mouth synchronously to stop the water falling out of its mouth. All cats lap the water very quickly.

“That stare captivates and unsettles you. That stare directs an overwhelming sense of its power and presence. That stare sends a primal shiver down your spine.”

~Mike Haworth

By the time I took this image it was quite dark. The ISO capabilities of the latest cameras are exceptional.

This big male leopard moved around to drink from a steeper part of the bank where the pool of the water must have been deeper and probably cleaner.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

~Aldous Huxley

A powerful muscular male leopard.

I cannot easily describe what a thrill it is to see a large male leopard in a scene like this. The colours were soft and subtle and it was if everything around the pool stopped. He had such presence and commanded that “dusky stage”.

After sating his thirst this large male moved off into the night to  exercise his deadly skills. This sentient being  etched a deep, lingering impression in my psyche.

The next day we went back to see how the female leopard was doing with her cub. She had killed a Steenbok the day before and stashed it in a open knot of the Mashatu tree she was in. Surprisingly she did not stash her prey high up in the tree but within easy reach for hyaenas. We found her feeding on her Steenbok. Again this leopard lay on her prey while eating it to hold it down. Once she had finished she started to clean herself.

You never see a dirty or blood stained leopard!

“Seeing is so much more than looking and focus. It is the recognition of  shape and colour. It is the fleeting manner of movement. It is the disruption of pattern.”

~Mike Haworth

How Graphite saw this leopard I will never know. Wildlife guides have trained eyes and know what to look for but still Graphite’s eyesight was exceptional. Surprisingly, this leopard was some distance away from the river lying on the side of a stony outcrop in the shade of a small acacia tree. We were looking straight into the sun so that made all the more impressive that Graphite could spot this leopard.

Even with a telephoto zoom the leopard is still incredibly well camouflaged.

On the last afternoon of our sojourn, we found the now familiar large male leopard walking along a drainage line far away from the Majale river.

He had caught a Scrub Hare and was walking to a quiet place where the vehicles could not follow to eat his snack in peace.

The leopard sightings on this trip were exceptional. Mashatu is known for its leopard sighting in winter; it is much more difficult in summer. It was a real privilege to see and more importantly to sense these wonderful, fiercely independent and camouflaged predators. Each time I see these magnificent independent cats in the wild, I come away more impressed by their beauty and resourcefulness.

“The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all living things, a holistic and balanced view of the world. All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
~Rebecca Adamson

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

Have fun,

Mike

Grandeur in the barrier of spears

Giant’s Castle Reserve is in the middle of the crescent-shaped Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. This range forms the eastern boundary of Lesotho. We spent a wonderful four days there in mid-winter in July.

“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.

~Jeffrey Rasley

The majestic and dramatic backdrop that these mountains provide is spellbinding, whether viewed from the valleys or the higher reaches of the “upper berg”.

The “Dragon Mountain” range is the castle for giants, soaring ones.

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.”

~William Blake

The steepness of the slopes of the ridge in the “middle berg”. Can you imagine what fun it would be if they were snow-covered.

The panorama in front of the vulture’s hide. (Double click on the panorama images to see a larger view)

Scarlet splashes of the Glossy Mountain Bottlebrush.

The mountains become very moody depending on the light and clouds.

These mountainous ridges have abundant wildlife.

After being in the vulture’s hide for two days, the following day we got up before sunrise and went to the ridge behind the hide to photograph the mountain peaks as the first rays of the morning sun struck them. The horizontal rays of light and the colour of the light early in the morning provided an exquisite picture.

As the sun began to rise the colours and the mood began to change.

As the sun was rising a large bank of cloud rolled in again altering the mood and colours.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

~John Muir

As the bank of cloud moved past so the sunlight started to illuminate the middle ground bringing out the pinks and apricots, with a hint of yellow.

First thing in the morning, the Bearded Vultures were already on the wing – ever watching.

Thick but broken cloud rolled through and created some dramatic light. If you do not get up before sunrise in the middle of winter and get out there you will never experience this majesty.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

~Edward Abbey

Once the sun was up, we decided to go back to the lodge for breakfast. This was the scene as we started to make our way down from the vulture’s hide ridge.

No photographer can resist playing with the layers of blues and shadows created by the mountains in the distance.

“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

~Sir Edmund Hillary

That afternoon we decided to walk, south from Giant’s Castle lodge, upstream along the Bushman’s river to watch the sun setting.

Ever watching eyes of the giants.

“This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.”

~Bridget Asher

The valley in front of Giant’s Castle lodge has wonderful depth, emphasised by the shadows cast by the setting sun.

Scarlet charm

The sandstone cliffs behind Giant’s Castle lodge. You can hear the Speckled Pigeons calling and the baboons barking from the cliffs.

Along the path looking back toward Giant’s Castle lodge in the late afternoon.

“Each stone, each bend cries welcome to him. He identifies with the mountains and the streams, he sees something of his own soul in the plants and the animals and the birds of the field.”
~ Paulo Coelho

On our last morning, we got up before sunrise to photograph the unfolding morning panorama.

The colours before sunrise were soft pinks and mauves. The wind was blowing quite hard and it was very cold, but you feel alive when you are submersed in such beauty.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!”

~John Muir

The first rays of sun hit the “upper berg”,  painting wonderful colours on its massive cliffs.

“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”

~Ansel Adams

Another panorama looking up the Bushman’s River valley- changing colours,  changing moods.

On our way back to the lodge to pack up and make our way home, we saw this lone Eland grazing on the side of the ridge.

We expected it to be cold and possibly see snow on the higher reaches as it was mid-winter. We could not have been more wrong. It was warm during the day and ablaze with colour. The Vulture’s Hide at Giant’s Castle was very productive. Being immersed in such grandeur and colour was soul soothing!

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
~ John Muir

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

Small guests at the Giant’s Castle table

The vulture’s hide at Giant’s Castle is a raptor hide first and foremost. The setting on the edge of  a middleberg ridge is spectacular. Placing the bones for the raptors, mainly for the Bearded Vultures, supplements their natural food sources which is diminishing due to loss of habitat and is the main purpose of the feeding. The fat and marrow on the bones attracts a variety of smaller avian opportunists. The larger ones are White-necked Ravens and Red-winged Starlings.

“I learn from everything I look at, good, bad or indifferent. I follow my eye reflexively; if it is drawn toward something, I pay attention and try to find out why. You train your eye, build up a mental image bank, and constantly try to pinpoint why some things are convincing and others aren’t.”
~  Roberta Smith 

All the avian activity seems to attract a number of other species from chats to bishops, and pigeons to sunbirds and shrikes. Obviously they don’t feed on the fat or marrow but there are a grasses which disperse seeds and a number of indigenous trees along the edge of the cliff which attract nectar feeders.

“We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.”  

~Konrad Adenauer 

I have preconceived ideas about ravens and crows after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Birds’ one Saturday night as a 13-year-old in my first year of boarding school at Falcon College in Zimbabwe in 1966. The movie really scared us as kids. It was about many types of birds, but mainly crows or ravens which menacingly gathered at the local school. As soon as the adults attempted to get their children away from the school the birds attacked them, savagely. The plot progressed from bad to worse where the birds began attacking homes and started killing people. As a movie it made an indelible impression on my young mind with clear recollection 50 years later. After the movie was finished, we had to get back to our dormitories in the pitch dark. Needless to say we ran back as fast as we could as if our lives depended on it. In the movie all sorts of birds attacked the people in the village but the crows and ravens really stuck in my mind.

It is evident that ravens and crows are highly intelligent birds. They work in packs and are playground bullies intimidating birds smaller than themselves but deferring to larger raptors. These White-necked Ravens will hustle even Black-backed Jackals which are much larger, but only if they have numbers on their side.

On the second day the wind started to blow quite hard. The smaller birds sought cover, but the ravens reveled playfully in the turbulence. Their flying skills have to be seen to be believed – they are master “wing men”. A Lanner Falcon arrived at one point and started dive bombing these ravens. It was an amazing sight. The Lanner was smaller than the ravens, but was considerably faster. It harassed a few ravens repeatedly, nearly hitting them on several occasions. You can only marvel at both species’ flying skills. 

“Seeing is a gift that comes with practice.”

~Stephenie Mills  

The seed-eaters were more sedate and easily scared by any shadow moving quickly across the ground near them.  With falcons and buzzards around, the seed-eaters needed to be very wary. A few Speckled Pigeons flew onto the vulture’s dining table to forage for grass seeds. They are not well camouflaged on the grass but their colouring is perfect when they are on the rocks.

Seed-eaters abounded. There were groups of canaries and a few yellow bishop males (with their girls) also flew in to feed on the grass seed. They were very skittish being at the bottom of the food-chain. The next image is of a Yellow Bishop male in non-breeding plumage.

“There’s a saying among prospectors: Go out looking for one thing, and that’s all you’ll ever find.”

~Robert Flaherty  

A single Cape Longclaw came to visit. Its characteristic orange-coloured throat makes it easily identifiable. Its long claw is also evident. 

There was also a resident pair of Buff-streaked Chats in front of the hide. They were versatile feeders eating insects and pecking at the fat and marrow on the bones. These chats will also feed on nectar when available. The male is the bold black and white coloured bird with a buff chest and breast.

The female Buff-streaked Chat is just as confident but is an altogether simpler looking bird. The streaks on her buff breast and chest are clearly evident. These chats seem to prefer rocky areas, ridges and rocky outcrops. The Drakensberg is the only place I have ever seen these chats.

“These beautiful days…do not exist as mere pictures – maps hung upon the walls of memory to brighten at times when touched by association or will…They saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always.”

~John Muir  

This male Cape Rock Thrush added to the eclectic variety of smaller birds in front of the hide. He seemed to enjoy the fat on the bones but also eats insects and small berries from the surrounding flora. This thrush’s blue-grey coloured head is its distinctive feature. The female has the same rufous chest and belly but its head is a buff colour, not the blue of the male.

The Cape Rock-thrush prefers a mountainous rocky habitat, so the hide area was perfect for it. It is an insect eater but took advantage of the insect proxy provided.

Besides ravens there were many Red-winged Starlings there to greet us first thing in the morning. They loved the fat on the bones. Interestingly, by midday they all disappeared only to return later in the afternoon. The female Red-winged Starling has a grey head and has the same distinctive brown-red primary feathers as the male.

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

~Oscar Wilde

A mid-morning view looking south from the vulture’s hide.

A male Red-winged Starling perched in a Glossy Mountain Bottlebrush tree. The Red-wings were feeding on the buds and nectar from the scarlet-red flowers from this tree. He was tucked in as the wind was blowing and it was a little chilly.

A female Red-winged Starling in the same Glossy Mountain Bottlebrush tree. The red flowers really stood out in the yellows and browns of winter.

“Humanity has passed through a long history of one-sidedness and of a social condition that has always contained the potential of destruction, despite its creative achievements in technology.  The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom.”
~  Murray Bookchin

We heard and saw male and female White-bellied Sunbirds but could not photograph them. We did not see any Malachite Sunbirds on this trip. We were fortunate to see the endemic Bokmakierie. This is a bushshrike which has a typical shrike beak with that sharp down curving hooked tip,  signifying its predatory nature.  The name, Bokmakierie, comes from its melodious call notes, often uttered in duet, from the top of a bush or tree.

The Bokmakierie has brilliant yellow underparts with a broad black collar separating the throat from the breast. This bushshrike has a grey head and thin yellow eyebrow. The back and wings are olive-green. 

The Bokmakierie is endemic to South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is a shy bird and is normally seen in pairs. We only saw this individual. I look at the colours of this bird and am spellbound by the stunning combinations. I doubt any fashion designer would come up with the palette and hue of the colours seen on this bushshrike.

“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

~Claude Monet  

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

 

Scavengers in the Giant’s Castle

The title is literal and metaphoric with a slice of licence. In my first post from Giant’s Castle last week, I featured the Bearded Vulture, an endangered mountainous region’s unique bone-eater. The national park supplements the food for these endangered Bearded Vultures which birders and photographers put out in front of the vulture hide. Inevitably, by putting out the bones, this food source attracts an assortment of other scavengers. Many of the bones have been sawed in half exposing the bone marrow which opens up the variety of avian opportunists one is likely to see. The fat on and marrow in the bones attracts a wide variety of wildlife.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

~Charles Darwin

In this post I will show you some images I took of the Jackal Buzzards, the Cape Vultures and a Black-backed Jackal which came to partake in the feast in front of the vulture hide. I reiterate that under normal circumstances, feeding or baiting the wildlife for photography purposes is not allowed. The feeding of the Bearded Vultures at the Giants Castle hide is a special situation encouraged by the national park. 

The hide is located on a ridge  about 1500 metres above the Bushman’s river valley floor. The ridge provides perfect updrafts for the raptors to approach the hide. In winter, we get into the hide around 6h30, around half an hour before sunrise. As the first horizontal rays of sunlight blazed onto the hide’s foreground many birds were ready and waiting, mostly Red-winged Starlings and White-necked Ravens. One of the first visiting raptors to the hide’s breakfast table was a Jackal Buzzard.

The Jackal Buzzard is endemic to South Africa and the southern parts of Namibia. The English name of this bird comes from the loud yelping calls, similar to those of the Black-backed Jackal. The Jackal Buzzards are perch hunters but if necessary will take to soaring to look for food . The Jackal Buzzards near the vulture’s hide have become habituated to finding food at the hide and seem to visit every day, and often more than once a day.

“Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation. “

~Mahatma Gandhi

The Giant’s Castle vulture hide’s breakfast table with a spectacular backdrop.

The bones put out to feed the Bearded Vultures also attract the Cape Vultures. This is one of the southern Africa’s largest vultures with a total length of just over one metre and a wingspan of around 2.5 metres. This large vulture has a creamy-buff colour, with contrasting dark flight- and tail-feathers. The head and neck are almost bare skin as seen with the Lappet-faced and White-backed Vulture implying that they get their heads right into the carcass when feeding.  The eye socket has a bluish tinge and the eye is  yellowish and the beak is black.

Since 2015, the Cape Vulture has been classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. The global population estimate has been revised to 4,700 pairs or 9,400 mature individuals according to IUCN but the population is declining overall but interestingly is reported to be increasing in select areas.

Apart from a slight size difference (female larger) there is little difference between the sexes making it difficult to differentiate between male and female. As with other vultures these raptors are superb fliers.

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

~H.G.Wells

Black-backed Jackals regularly visit to hijack the bones in front of the hide. They have found this to be a convenient source of food.

Usually one Jackal arrives and does not seem to fuss when the White-necked Ravens are around. By contrast, the Jackals have been known to get into a tangle with the Cape Vulture over ownership of the bones.

On each of the two days in the hide we saw the Black-backed Jackal. It arrived early in the morning just after sunrise. The jackal’s coat appeared much thicker than that of a Jackal found in the lowveld where the temperature is much warmer. It can be very cold in the Berg even in summer. The coldest I have ever been in my life was in mid-November (summer time in the Drakensberg) in the Berg above Injasuti. When we were out hiking a massive thunderstorm rolled in so quickly that we were caught on the side of the mountain for the night in the rain. I have huge respect for the variable weather in the Berg.  Hikers and photographers should always be prepared.

The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.”

~Kakuzo Okakaura

On both days at the hide, the Jackal took a few bones. Presumably it stashed them in the long grass out of sight from the hide and then took them, one by one, back to its den. This jackal knows only too well it has competition from the vultures. It must have seen some vultures high in the sky above it.

The Jackal Buzzard frequents mainly hilly and mountainous habitats. It is one of few raptor species to be found on altitudes above 3000 metres. The nesting season is from July to September, which probably improves the chances of seeing them in late winter to early spring in Southern Africa. 

The adult Jackal Buzzard has a black head, neck, throat and upper-parts. On the upper-wing, the flight feathers are black, narrowly barred pale grey, and show broad, black tips. It has a rufous chest and rufous coloured tail feathers.

“All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”

~Bruce Lee

On the underparts, the breast is usually rufous with white upper edge contrasting against the black throat, and black markings on the lower edge. Lower breast, belly and under-wing coverts are black with narrow ‘greyish’ white bars. Flanks, thighs and vents are white or rufous. The bill is black with yellow cere. The eyes are dark red-brown. The legs and feet are yellow.

One of the key features of hide photography is that you have to keep watching all the time, ready to capture images  of these raptors as they appear in a split second from below the edge of the cliff. You can wait for hours to get a glimpse of them and in two or three seconds they have flown in and landed. 

The female has similar plumage to the male but she is larger and heavier.

“A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.

~Chinese Proverb

The Jackal is dead quiet. It slinks in at the edge of the ridge, quickly assesses friend and foe and whether there is any potential food and is gone within a minute of so. If you are distracted while making coffee you will miss the photographic opportunity.

A Cape Vulture flew in on the second day. It did not go for the bones but just sat on the cliff edge. 

These raptors are always looking around, probably wary of competition or threats. This Cape Vulture sat at the very edge of the cliff so could easily escape by launching itself off the cliff.

This lone Cape Vulture looked to be just sunning itself on a Sunday morning. The White-necked Ravens know only too well that this raptor has a long flexible neck and can easily give them a savage peck if they venture too close. Once it was rested and had warmed up, it took one hop and it was again riding the updrafts along the ridge.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

~Stephen Hawkins

We had a number of visits from the Jackal Buzzards. On this occasion this bird tried to pick up a large joint, but not without some objection from the raven.

Having decided the bone was too heavy, it flew off over the edge of the cliff not to be seen again that day. The Jackal Buzzard normally feeds on insects, small reptiles, mammals, birds and carrion.

Fortunately, this beautiful raptor is listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List.

“More and more  we try to effect an adaption to life by means of external gadgets, and attempt to solve or problems by conscious thinking rather than unconscious ‘ know-how’. This is much less to our advantage than we like to suppose.”

~Alan Watts

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

Have fun,

Mike