Lake Nakuru – up the eastern rift

The second leg of our Kenyan photographic safari with Wild Eye in April this year was to Lake Nakuru National Park which is 156 kilometres north of Nairobi. The trip takes between three or four hours depending on the traffic.

The Great Rift Valley is an immense geological feature in East Africa, formed over the past 35 million years. This giant split in the landscape was the result of two tectonic plates separating. Africa’s Great Rift Valley is one of the world’s most distinctive geo-morphological features, cutting through the continent from the Red Sea to southern Mozambique along two parallel fault lines. The rifts vary in width from 30-100 km, and are between several hundred to several thousand metres deep at some points. The rift has two sections in East Africa, a western rift through Uganda and an eastern rift through Kenya.

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

The next image is taken from the main road looking west onto Lake Naivasha across the eastern limb of the Rift Valley. Lake Naivasha is a fresh water lake so is used for fishing and agriculture.

Kenya’s eastern Rift Valley has a string of eight lakes, from Lake Baringo in northern Kenya to Lake Magadi in southern Kenya. Some lakes are recognised as Wetlands of International Importance, and all are Important Bird Areas, with several being within UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites. The Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley includes three alkaline lakes which are overlooked by dramatic escarpments, volcanic features and associated geothermal features such as geysers, fumeroles and hot springs. Major differences in the lakes occur in their dissolved salts, varying from freshwater to hypersaline. The Eastern Rift Valley, south of its largest freshwater, Lake Turkana, features a string of smaller and shallower alkaline lakes. The three lakes are Nakuru, Bogoria and Elementeita. These alkaline lakes provide unique feeding habitats for East Africa’s famous Lesser Flamingos.

The alkaline lake waters support the prolific growth of green algae (Spirulina platensis), the main food of the itinerant Rift Valley population of Lesser Flamingos. The alkaline Rift Valley lakes are among the world’s most productive ecosystems and, although these harsh environments are relatively species-poor, they feed extraordinary numbers of birds. The most famous is Lake Nakuru, known worldwide for its huge flamingo populations and an enormous variety of other birds, which come to feed there. This lake is characterised by substantial water level fluctuations, along with highly variable ion concentrations.

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

We spent five days exploring the wildlife in the Lake Nakuru National Park. Lake Nakuru is part of the Naivasha–Elmentaita–Nakuru basin, a region where the Eastern Rift reaches its highest elevation. The lake lies in a graben between the Lion Hill Volcano and the Mau Escarpment, the west wall of the Rift Valley.

The beautiful Lake Nakuru National Park is surrounded by wooded and bushy grassland. Nakuru means “Dust” or “Dusty Place” in the Maasai language. Lake Nakuru National Park was created in 1961 around Lake Nakuru, next to the town of Nakuru.

The Rift Valley is subject to ongoing plate tectonics and crustal movement which affects the lakes. The lake levels, have been rising recently due to above-average rainfall. With rainfall in the Rift Valley Basin being on a rising trend, hydrologists expect higher lake levels in the future.

The effects on lake ecologies are a concern as flooding increases lake turbidity and dilutes the saline waters of alkaline lakes. The water cycles of Rift Valley lakes are changing as water is taken out for use and because the catchments and land surrounding the lakes are being degraded. Forests are being converted into agricultural land, there is increasing urbanisation and people are encroaching onto riparian and wetland zones. These catchment changes reduce rainfall recharging of underground aquifers, and cause more sediment-such as soil-to run off into rivers. This sediment reaches and accumulates in lakes and reservoirs. This can clog natural underground freshwater outlets, in which can cause lake salinity and levels to rise. The deposited sediments also build the lake beds and lift lake water levels.

In May 2020, Lake Naivasha reached its highest level since 1932. Lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, and Baringo have also risen to their highest levels in decades, inundating roads and building infrastructure.

“But before the understanding comes the wonder. Comes the delight. And that is the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected. The only real skill involved in this perfect birdwatching moment was the willingness to look. It was not skill that gave me the sight; it was habit. I have developed the habit of looking: when I see a bird I always look, wherever I am.” ~ Simon Barnes

The Lesser Flamingos constantly commute between the soda lakes in East Africa in search of food. Their preferred food, the cyanobacterium Arthrospira fusiformis, usually establishes dense populations in saline-alkaline habitats. The abundance of algae in the lake attracts vast numbers of flamingos to gather and feed around the shore. The number of flamingos on the lake varies as water and food conditions change. A very good vantage point from where to view this phenomenon is from the so-called Baboon Cliff.

In 2010, the park already had several Eastern Black rhinoceros, being the largest concentrations in the country, as well as a number of Southern White rhinos. Both the Kenyan subspecies of waterbuck are commonly found in the area too, as are warthogs, baboons and other large mammals.

The area was gazetted as Lake Nakuru National Park in 1968. During 1977 some Rothschild Giraffes were translocated from western Kenya to the park and was followed in 1984 with the establishment of the park as a first government managed rhino sanctuary. Two years later, in 1986, the chain link fence around the park was replaced by an electric fence and in the following year the whole park was declared a rhino sanctuary.

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can”. ~ John Muir

The lake is world-famous as the location of one of the greatest bird spectacles on earth – millions of fuchsia pink flamingos feed on the abundant algae which thrives in the warm waters on the shores of Lake Nakuru. Despite the lukewarm and alkaline waters, a small fish, Tilapia Grahami has also flourished in the lake after being introduced in the early 1960s.

“The wonder of this region is that after rain storms some lakes turn fuchsia pink, and at times in other lakes, the flamingoes paint the shores fuchsia pink.” ~ Mike Haworth

The lake is very saline so is surrounded by a grassland of highly adaptable alkaline grasses. These grasses do not seem to worry the rhino or buffalo populations.

Wherever there are buffalo there are usually lions. We found a female near a buffalo kill with her three cubs who were happily playing in the wet grass among the fever trees next to a marsh.

“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls….” ~ John Muir

Lake Nakuru National Park stretches over 188 square kilometres. Lake Nakuru itself is protected under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands. The park was enlarged partly in an effort to provide a sanctuary for the rhino, including the critically endangered Black rhino. An area of 188 km (116 miles) around the lake is fenced off as a sanctuary for the protection of giraffes as well as both Black and White rhino.

“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” ~ John Muir

The fact that the town of Nakuru is right on the border north and eastern to the park is disconcerting but once in the park you lose all sense that there is a town on its borders. The fact that the wildlife is thrives in this park and there is a growing human population on the park’s border is testament to the park’s conservation and security efforts.

We visited the park during the ‘long rains’ in Kenya so we never got a sense that it was a dry dusty place. There were thunderstorms each afternoon and the flat area around the lake made it quite marshy and wetland oriented. One of the key features of this park is its vast fever tree forests, the character of which I will show in the next few posts.

Lake Nakuru was quite different to Amboseli. There is a significant difference in elevation, and the wildlife is mostly different as are the birds and the vegetation.

There is an incredible variety of wild places to visit in Africa. Kenya offers a wildlife photographer an unlimited palette of colours, shapes and moods with which to play.

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” ~ John Muir

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Amazing Amboseli

I dedicate this post to my lifelong friend Mike Condy who sadly passed away a few days ago from complications with Covid. He loved and cherished his time in the bush. I will carry many vivid memories of him as I continue to wander through the African bush and will, with gusto, share his bush stories around the camp fire. Onto your next adventure! Travel well shamwari!!

This is the last post from my Amboseli trip with photographic safari specialists, Wild-Eye. From here we moved to Lake Nakuru further up the rift valley in Kenya. Amboseli has wonderful photographic backdrops in the form of Mount Kilimanjaro and the verdant green marshes and vast open grasslands which are home to a large variety of mammal and birdlife.

“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

This post shows a gallery of images which give a sense of the vastness and variety of wildlife in the national park. It hopefully also shows the dramatic skies which are created in the “long-rains” period from late March to early June each year.

“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

Excellent well drained gravel roads through the marsh areas.

The shallow marsh waters attract vast numbers of Greater and Lesser flamingoes.

Moody afternoon skies heavily laden with rain in the background with a breeding herd of elephants foraging on the grasslands in the foreground, accompanied by many cattle egrets enjoying all the insects disturbed by the elephants.

Despite the “long rains” phase, we were fortunate to get periods of cloudless vistas onto Mount Kili.

“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.”~ Rachel Carson

Waders like Pied avocets were abundant at the marsh water edges.

Dedicated and patient mothers looking after their ravenous cubs.

Crowned in gold, beautiful grey crowned cranes descending from dark rain-laden skies to forage in the grasslands.

Titans walk these plains. One of the many larger tuskers which can be seen moving from breeding herd to breeding herd. This giant was in full musth.

“Giant beasts have ruled Africa for coast to coast for over 50 million years as they migrate to water for their families They are masters of the universe, architects of their world. Joyful young play securely as they are one of the most caring families in nature. They have haunting rituals, great wisdom, care and compassion. Their story is about far more than statistics and ivory.”~ Dereck Joubert-Soul of the Elephant

Wonderful moody, evocative light in the early atmospheric morning just before a thunderstorm.

A Thompson’s gazelle fawn haloed in the late afternoon fading light.

A Greater flamingo strolling through golden waters in the last light of the day.

“The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say.” ~Gregory Maguire

This Yellow-throated spurfowl joined the dawn chorus.

A male Painted snipe, one of the more exotic waders gracing the marsh waters’ edge.

“Nature is the dream and I am her wanderer.” ~ Angie Weiland-Crosby

A family of Dwarf mongooses had taken up residence in this anthill, warming themselves in the early morning. Both alert and inquisitive.

A massive vista looking west past Observation Hill toward a relatively cloud free Mount Kili.

Once the lion pride had moved on to a new hunting ground, a coalition of two male cheetahs began scouting the area for their next meal.

Obliging clouds and elephants create an iconic scene with Mount Kili in the background.

“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

A flock of Glossy ibis flying toward their feeding ground alongside one of the marshes. The soft substrate suited their beak shape perfectly.

A juvenile Martial eagle scouring the grasslands from a dead Tortillis tree. Judging from his already large frame he will grow into a very large raptor

A sense of scale.

Rain-darkened late sunset skies paint mauves and golds on marsh waters.

“Light and shadow are opposite sides of the same coin. We can illuminate our paths or darken our way. It is a matter of choice.” ~Maya Angelou

Africa’s largest mountain demands your attention.

A playful pair of carefree male elephant calves chasing and pushing each around under the watchful eye of their large mothers.

A massive big tusker following a breeding herd, there was a very large female too.

A lone hyaena scout resting in a puddle on the side of the gravel road.

Another big tusker making his way towards a breeding herd.

“Seven tonne giants in full sail. Their movements are a meditation. Their eyes shine with a deep intelligence.” ~ Dereck Joubert ~ from the Soul of the Elephant

A view across a shallow marsh lake toward Mount Kili.

“May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Colourful afternoon skies over the grasslands with clouds building for the late afternoon downpour.

One of nature’s ballerinas dancing on golden waters.

“Wandering through nature opens up possibilities that free your imagination and ignite your senses.” ~ Mike Haworth

Dark heavily rain-laden skies create visual drama in what was a sublime, balmy and calm view across one of the many marsh lakes.

After a productive, colourful and fascinating five days in Amboseli we transferred to Lake Nakuru for the next leg of our Kenyan adventure.

“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make, makes you.” ~John C. Maxwell

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Lions in Amboseli’s marshes

Amboseli is place of diversity and contrast. If you are a landscape photographer there is a vast palette for you to work with. If you are a birder you will “betwitched”. If you enjoy wildlife, the elephants will command your attention. And, at the crepuscular time of the day you have a good chance of seeing cats – from lions to cheetah and servals.

“We go out to find our subjects before the sun rises because we want to catch them in the gorgeous light, and that’s really only allowed for a very short moment, and then, of course, it’s a hot stinking day for the rest of it. Then the time with the most exquisite sunlight is at sunset.” ~ Beverly Joubert

We stayed at Serena Lodge in Amboseli with our hosts, Wild Eye Destinations and Photography. The lodge has an electric fence around its perimeter. As we gathered at 6h00 for a cup of coffee and a rusk on our third morning, we heard the lions roaring close to the lodge and by the sound of it close to the lodge’s perimeter fence. Just as dawn was breaking we found two lion families.

Two lionesses had chosen to keep their cubs inside the electric fence surrounding the camp. How clever was that. They must have known that the electric fence offered protection. They had also worked out that the electric fence had been broken and was not live so the cubs could move in and out of the fence without getting electrocuted.

As these lionesses had worked out that the electric fence had been turned off, the male lions never walked through the electric fence. Another example of the intelligence of wildlife, something we humans are still coming to terms with and fathom.

“Two very large lionesses walked much closer to me than I expected. They rippled with power and predatory presence. Massive shoulders moved under tawny skin ready to grab hold of a passing zebra or buffalo. One lioness looked at me and stopped, her eyes burning with alertness. ~ Dereck Joubert

It was obvious that these females were tired. The cubs were really demanding. The lionesses showed their irritation at the cubs continuing to try to suckle. The continual fighting for a nipple and those razor sharp small teeth must have hurt. The lionesses never snapped. They just rolled over or got up and moved to another position.

Lionesses have a demanding and vital role in the pride. They have to hunt. Capitulate to the males at the kill and have to support and suckle their cubs and their sister’s cubs. They do snarl at the cubs to signal their displeasure at the continued pressure from the cubs to suckle. It is difficult not to empathise how sore it must be to have cubs with sharp albeit small teeth tugging on their raw nipples. For all the ferocity bound up in a lioness it is a wonder they are so gentle and accommodating with their cubs. The cubs when not trying to suckle were very playful.

The two males in the pride had quite different manes. The one less dominant one had a large brownish mane and the other more dominant male had a Mohican style mane like those seen in Tsavo.

The males have little to do with the cubs. At best they seem to tolerate them. The males generally remained some distance from the females and all the cubs.

“A world without the distant roar of lions at dawn as the mists start to lift is too terrible to contemplate.” ~ Dereck Joubert

The grass thickets and palm thickets provide good cover for the lions. Just outside the lodge’s electric fence was an open area with low grass which provide an ideal place for the cubs to play. Despite all their demands, the cubs were very affectionate towards the lionesses.

The cubs seemed to be particularly demanding. I am not sure why. Difficult to tell. We only saw them first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. It did rain heavily in the early afternoon and occasionally at night. They seemed to be constantly hungry. Yet there was plenty of game around so I am sure the lionesses hunted regularly.

The weather is variable in the long rains. Some days we had good light and others we had diffused overcast light. Other times it was raining. No matter the weather, the males seemed to keep their distance from the family. At one point one of the males showed a little aggression towards one of the cubs and a lioness reacted very aggressively towards the male – enough said!

Statistics on the disappearance of iconic wildlife – “we are losing one rhino every 8.5 hours, five elephants every hour, and five lions a day to poaching, conflict, hunting, and human encroachment.” ~ Dereck Joubert

The males watched the family through the light rain with moderate interest from about 100 metres away. The males remained with the pride for two days before moving off to patrol their territory and we never saw them again.

The wonderful aspect about sightseeing on safari is that you are constantly surprised about what you see. And if you watch quietly for a while the complex interactions will become apparent and the structure of the family will slowly be revealed to you.

“The deep roar of a lion at dawn stirs a primal shiver in us. The dense cool dawn air is a perfect carrier. No matter how far away, your instincts are awakened and an the wildlife holds its breath.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Amboseli – birding paradise – -part3

This is the third post on birds seen in my recent trip to Amboseli with WildEye. We did not specifically go out to photograph birds but there is a wide variety and the swamp areas in Amboseli are ideal for wetland loving avians.

“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.” ~ Unknown

A yellow throated spurfowl declaring his presence early in the morning on a rock next to the side of the road. He was so intent on his calling that he ignored us completely. Francolin and spurfowl were previously all called francolin. Although the birds all look similar scientists have discovered that they are not even that closely related. As a generalisation, a francolin is smaller and has yellow legs. It also flushes when disturbed and has a musical call. By comparison, a spurfowl is larger and has orange, red or black legs. It sits tight or runs when disturbed (rather than flushing) and roosts in trees at night. It also has a harsh call.

A pair of White-backed pelican flying in to join the rest of the flock. They look bulky and heavy but are graceful fliers. Wings of pelicans flap efficiently when flying close to the surface of water. As it nears the water surface, the water partially blocks the trailing vortices of air off the wings and decreases the amount of downwash generated by the wing. This reduction in downwash results in more lift and less drag when flying.

A small flock of white-backed pelicans flew in to patrol a small open waterway in the swamp in front of us. They paddle in formation indicating they were hunting but the hunt never became serious.

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

In typical male weaver fashion, this Taveta Golden weaver was performing under his nest to attract females. In the time we watched he was not successful with the female weaver, but he certainty caught our attention. I think this is a Taveta golden weaver because of the range-chestnut colouration on his upper chest and top of his crown.

“Observation is the greatest source of wisdom”.~ Unknown

It must have been a wet night because this an immature martial eagle has his wings slightly open to dry them. This was already a big raptor but his partially open wings make him look every larger.

Water thick knee eating on his knees. The Water thick knee does not have the spotted colouration across its back and wings which is seen in the Spotted thick knee but has a grey panel on its wing feathers with a dark brown streak above and below it. This Water thick knee is usually also found close to water.

A White Browed coucal is also drying itself in the early morning sun. This character found a prominent position from which to call to its partner. This coucal has the characteristic red eye of the coucal but also has a noticeable white eye brow. Its white and brown streaking extending from its head down to its dark brown back is also a diagnostic feature.

A closer look at the head of a Greater flamingo. The unusually shaped beak is characteristic of this species. The Greater flamingo is much larger than its lesser cousin. It is also much whiter than the very pinker Lesser flamingo. The Greater flamingo has a pinkish bill with a black tip and it has bright pink legs. When it comes to the colour of their eyes, the Greater flamingo’s eyes are yellow, whilst the Lesser flamingo has red eyes.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Flamingoes feed with their heads down and their beaks fully immersed in the water filter feeding. A flamingo’s beautiful colour comes from the algae, diatoms, and small crustaceans that they eat, which are rich in the carotene pigment. You can see from the wetness of the head and top part of the neck that this flamingo has been feeding with its head completely under the water. Flamingoes obviously hold their breath while feeding under water.

Red billed teal. We saw many of them at the edge of the swamp. This duck is not migratory, but will fly great distances to find suitable waters. We also found Hottentot teal in the swamps. They are smaller than the Red-billed species and have a blue bill. A teal is a dabbling duck, meaning it feeds on the lake bed by upending itself with its tail in the air. I am always impressed by how immaculately teal present themselves.

A male Painted snipe fully exposed in the sunshine. His colouring is exquisite but his larger female is even more beautiful. The sides of the female’s head, neck and throat are a rich chestnut brown, and she has a distinct black band across her breast; the male is paler and greyer.

“How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health! The discipline of the schools or of business can never impart such serenity to the mind.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A Marabou stork presents a strong contrast to the Painted snipe. The head and neck of these birds is mainly bald so that their feathers don’t get covered in blood when they are foraging and eating. Marabou storks have big, rounded air-sacs, one hanging from their throat and one on their upper back which help them to cool down.

A Kori bustard with unusual dark malar facial markings. This Kori bustard appeared to be looking at me from one eye. As surprising as it may be, birds can look straight ahead and to the side at the same time.  They have both monocular and binocular vision. This gives the bird an advantage of a large field of vision which helps detect predators.

A first for me, an Eastern Chanting goshawk. The name goshawk comes from the old English for “goose-hawk”. A piece of dead tree trunk was the only prominent perch in the area. Although at low vantage point this goshawk was on the look out for prey. You can see dark and eastern chanting goshawks in Kenya. The Chanting goshawk is so called because of its piping calls during breeding season. The Eastern Chanting goshawk has a yellow cere and yellow beak with a black tip, and orange legs. This large, long-winged, strongly patterned raptor is usually found in open country and forages on the ground, chiefly for lizards, but will also take small mammals, birds and large insects.

Hunting in the swamp below Observation Hill this Goliath heron had been standing dead still in the shallow swamp waters until it ruffled its feathers. Male and female Goliath herons have similar colouring but are dimorphic only regarding size with the male being larger. Birds ruffle their feathers when they are cold to trap more air in their feathers to give more insulation. They also ruffle their feathers after preening to realign the feathers.

This Yellow-throated spurfowl was declaring to the world that it had survived the night and that this was still its patch.

“I love nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I hope the last three posts have given a smattering of the avian potential in Amboseli. This is truly a wonderful scenic park in which to see birds. The variety is vast and so are the quantities of birds especially the wetland species.

” The world is full of magical things waiting for our wits to grow sharper”. ~ Eden Phillports

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Amboseli – birding paradise – part2

The variety and quantity of birdlife in Amboseli is astounding. The swamps provide an ideal environment for wetland loving birds and the grasslands give the seed eaters ample room. The tortilla acacias provide excellent vantage points for raptors which are perch hunters. The abundance of wildlife in Amboseli is complemented by it varied ecosystems. April is one month in the “long rains” three month season, a time when Amboseli is painted with verdant green.

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

There were many Squacco herons hunting from the banks of the lakes and in the swamps. They have an ability to sit dead still for extended periods and then execute lightning strikes at unsuspecting fish and frogs.

The lakes and swamp waters in Amboseli are not deep so provide an ideal environment for flamingoes, both Greater and Lesser types. There were large flocks which were scattered across the vast wetlands in the long rains. In the drier phases, the flamingoes tend to concentrate in the remaining few open patches of water and move in tightly packed formations and can often be seen performing there captivating dances where they all move together with head up in the air and as they shuffle forward moving their heads from left to right in unison.

“Many look but few see. Many travel but few experience. Many learn but few understand. Many seek things but few value experiences. Many talk and give opinions but few sit quietly and listen and observe.”~ Mike Haworth

Another visitor to the open waters in Amboseli is the White-backed Pelican. We saw small flocks of around 10 pelicans. Despite their cumbersome looking size they are superb fliers and tend to fly low over the water taking advantage of the air cushion between their wings and the water. I am always intrigued by their ski landings which they execute with precision. With toes up, their large webbed feet make ideal landing skis.

When ever flamingoes fly by there is the sound of camera shutters. Thankfully they do not fly fast, so are readily photographable. Flamingoes fly with their legs, neck and head extended. The extended head provides balance along their longitudinal axis. Flamingoes lift their head up to see where they are going which looks uncomfortable but necessary because of the aerodynamics of their large bills.

“Art is an ocean and I am a dream sailor.”
~ Biju Karakkonam,

A pair of Black winged stilts standing on a small island in the shallow open water of one of the lakes. They are such delicate looking waders but can be very aggressive with each other over territory. I marvel at the strength of the joints in their long dainty legs.

A male Painted snipe exposed in the open next to an embankment road which traverses a large open water swamp area. This is a short legged long billed wader which gives its characteristic snipe like appearance. The female painted snipe is larger and more beautiful than the male. These snipe can usually be found in reedy swamps and marshes and are crepuscular meaning they operate mainly at dusk and dawn. These snipe feed on invertebrates and seeds which they find at the water’s edge.

The male Painted snipe though smaller and less colourful than the female is cryptically coloured which makes it difficult to see from above by predators . An unusual combination in the avian world. Many in raptor species female are larger than the males but few are noticeably more beautifully coloured than their male counterparts. I marvel at their unusual colour combinations.

Have you ever thought to question the intelligence of a Fish eagle. This character was perched on fallen log next to a causeway which was flowing strongly. His mate was circling and calling from above. He answered her frequently. Instead of perch hunting from a tree overlooking a dam or river this fish eagle was waiting for fish to be swept down through the causeway.

A pair of Great white pelicans about to take off in search of other fishing waters. While pelicans can and do fly high they tend to fly close to the water using a phenomenon known as the ‘ground effect’. When flying close to the water, an air cushion is created between the surface and the bird’s wing, which reduces drag and allows the bird to travel further at a faster speed.

Ever since I watched a flock of pelicans fly out of a storm over Lake Manyara in Tanzania, I have been intrigued by these birds. They do not look like they should be good fliers but they are superb and actively use the “ground effect” over large bodies of water. These pelicans tend to operate in small flocks and are capable pack hunters. They will paddle in formation in the water corralling the fish and once there are enough fish in one place a feeding frenzy ensues.

The Grey crowned crane does not use the ground effect but prefers to fly higher above the ground. It is interesting that both cranes and flamingoes fly with their heads and necks extended whereas herons fly with their necks pulled back towards their bodies. The position of the head and extension of neck has much to do with longitudinal balance while they are flying.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” ~ Langston Hughes

It was an unexpected gift to find Collared Pratincoles on the grasslands of Amboseli. There were small flocks scattered across the grasslands not the large flocks I have previously seen on the banks of the Chobe river. Pratincoles like coursers feed mainly on insects. The Collared pratincole has a wide gap to catch insects in flight much like a nightjar. In flight, a single Collared pratincole looks like a large swallow but they usually fly in large flocks and often create wonderful dramatic murmurations in the sky.

Kenya is rich with starling species, 31 in total. This is a Superb starling and it name says it all.

One afternoon we travelled to the eastern part of the park which has open grasslands and there we found many small flocks of sandgrouse. We found many Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse feeding on seeds on the ground.

A male Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse sitting low amongst the tufts of grass trying to remain unseen. His cryptic back feathers make him difficult to see from above.

A male and female Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse. As soon as we got close to them they would lower themselves in amongst the grass in an attempt to hide. Once we got within their “fight or flight” safety zone which in most cases seems to be around 20 to 30 metres they would fly away. Sandgrouse are very fast fliers.

The Kori bustards in Amboseli looked similar to those found in southern Africa but seemed to be much less afraid of the approaching vehicle than their counterparts down south. This character opened its wings just to stretch. They forage by walking through the grasslands eating anything from insects to rodents, and reptiles to berries.

Dusk in Amboseli can be a magical and colourful time of the day. Looking west towards the sunset across one of Amboseli’s many shallow lakes, flamingoes flew in for their last feed before darkness. Their unique shape made some wonderful silhouettes in the golden sunset washed waters.

It is at times like this we do not take many photos but prefer to sit quietly in balmy warm temperatures, bathed in colour and just soak in the splendour of the scene in front of us. The colours and sounds orchestrate an experience showing us how wonderful this world can be.

At sunset under the African sky you will bewitched by the colours and enormity of the scene in front of you.!!

“Every sunset gives me a hope to live.
It reminds me,
You have captured more with your heart.
It reminds me
you are not alone,
surrounded by a beautiful world,
always there for you.”
~ Biju Karakkonam

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

Amboseli – a birding paradise-part1

One of the least talked about beauties of Amboseli is its birdlife. This park has swamps, vast wetlands, open grasslands, and tortilla acacia forests. Out of the total land area of the park, 30% is covered by the dominant woodlands. The swamps cover around 10% of the park. The ecosystem spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border in the wesetern part. It is crowned by the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro which is the world’s highest free standing mountain on its south west side.

“In today’s world, we consume resources at a pace beyond their making which is out of balance with the natural rhythms of the earth. We use resources wantonly beyond our need for our greed. We do not respect all life and seem to believe that our consciousness is the superior form of intelligence. Climate change is teaching humanity humility. We will have to work consciously for generations to right the balance. It will only come through the active understanding of the natural balance” ~ Mike Haworth

White-bellied bustards are often heard before they are seen. This bustard has a characteristic tawny back and white belly. The male has a blue-grey neck, dark facial markings and a pinkish beak. Most of the African bustards have cryptic colouring on their back for camouflage purposes. A pair of these bustards make a far-carrying, goose-like nasal croaking duet with the male calling “ahnghaa-nghaa” and the female replying “eh-e-e-er”, according to Bird of East Africa by Gale and Arlott. Bustards are classified in the same order as cranes. While they are much smaller than cranes they also have long legs and long necks are mainly terrestrial and never perch in trees. They are good fliers when their need arises.

Amboseli has several habitants. The open plain flora, the Acacia woodlands, the rocky thorn bush, the swamps that are dominated by the papyrus and Cyperus. The semi and permanent water catchment areas like swamps have their own distinctive plant species. 

“It is the diversity of life in front of us which makes our eyes dance, our minds race, and our heart sing.” ~ Mike Haworth

Sometimes it is worth slowing down and taking a closer look. Do your self a favour and just watch a cattle egret operating for a while. They are characters and opportunists. Some of them are happy to perch on an elephant’s back and go along for the ride, offering the rider a great perspective and view of the insect life the elephant disturbs as it is feeding.

The late afternoon is warm, still and the grasslands and swamps are bathed in colour. The sky is busy. It is deep blue, with its activity punctuated by lightning bolts and distant downpours. There is a deep sense of order and peace. The greater flamingoes are head down filter feeding. The filter of the Greater Flamingo traps crustaceans, mollusks, and insects an inch or so long. By contrast, the Lesser Flamingo’s dense filter is finer sifting out single-celled plants less than two hundredths of an inch in diameter. 

We come to Amboseli to see Mount Kilimanjaro, to see great tuskers and vast green spaces with big skies. Less appreciated but just as marvelous is the incredible birdlife in Amboseli. The colour and variety of birdlife in this park is is spellbinding.

Most lakes in Amboseli located on the western part of the park are seasonal and fill up during the rainy seasons from March to May and October to December. Large numbers of Flamingos are seen during these wet periods.

Mother and daughter – pink, tall, slender, and excellent flyers. An adult Greater Flamingo has soft pink to whitish-pink plumage in general, though there are moments when it becomes very white in color. Its underwings are coral red, while its flight feathers are coloured black. All flamingoes have the same shaped head but the greater flamingo has a light pink down-curved beak with a black tip. The juvenile Greater Flamingo appears grayish to white when it is born and does not develop its true pink colour until it is several years of age. Its bill also takes a while to develop its full color – it is yellow when the chick is first born.

This bird feeds on mud and will filter out any edible organisms in it. The bill is equipped with a filter system with hair-like structures that allows them to filter food from the water and mud they pick up. Various animals and organisms include shrimps, small fish, crabs, blue-green algae, mollusks, plankton, seeds, and insects. Sometimes, it consumes marsh grasses and decaying leaves. When forging in the algae laden shallow waters these pristine looking filter feeders can look decidedly dirty. They must rinse their heads and necks in clear water because you seldom see really dirty flamingoes.

Yellow-throated spurfowl. One of the things that has intrigued me about birding in Kenya is the variety of birds like spurfowl, barbets, starlings to name just a few. Like all spurfowls the male Yellow-necked spurfowl has large spurs on the back of its legs which it uses for fighting. The degree to which the spur has been worn down is an indicator of age. The next image shows a female Yellow-necked spurfowl because she has no spurs.

A female Ruff. This wader migrates annually from Russia to summer in Africa. The wetlands around the swamps in Amboseli are ideal foraging grounds for these birds. These waders feed on insects on the water surface and their beak is built for probing the mud for invertebrates. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts. Thankfully, the Ruff is classified as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List because of the large numbers that breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic.

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

A secretive African Snipe is not well researched because of its habitat, it prefers wetlands and swamps which are relatively inaccessible and it is crepuscular meaning it is mainly active in the twilight times of the day. It was a lucky sighting to see this individual hiding in the reeds next to the open water of a swamp. These snipe are cryptically coloured which makes them difficult to see in the reeds. During the breeding season male snipes perform dramatic flight displays which consist of steep dives that create an eerie, winnowing sound, which can last as long as 10 seconds. As the display proceeds, the volume of the sound increases steadily. Drumming displays are best seen and heard early in the morning or in the hour before sunset.

A breeding pair of Grey crowned cranes with two chicks. Generally, this crane breeds in the summer season when rain is plentiful to ensure an abundance of food. Like all cranes, the Grey crowned crane is an omnivore eating grass seeds, small seed bearing plants and insects. Grey crowned cranes are plentiful in Amboseli and their familiar “ooh up” can be heard all over the park. I love their spectacular mating displays which involve dancing and jumping with open wings, and the dancing is punctuated with respectful bowing to each other between the dance sequences.

We saw generous numbers of Pied avocets in the open water sections of the several swamps. The next pair of avocet were in a courting display where the female looked to be trying, unsuccessfully to get away from the male. This species of avocet is known to have impressive nuptial displays involving acts of dance, flight and song, If the male is successful, the egg incubation period would be around 22 to 24 days and the eggs would be laid in a nest built of grass and reeds on the ground. The nest is built cooperatively by both male and female.

“Ride the energy of your own spirit.” ~ Gabriella Bach

It was a bright overcast day and we were shooting into the brightness so I converted the images into black and white to suit the colouration of the avocets, though they do have light bluish legs. Surprisingly, these birds are known to live for over 20 years.

I am always intrigued by the shape of their beak. At first glance it does not look effective. Yet they successfully feed mainly on small crustaceans, insect larvae and small fish which they find visually and by by touch. This wader uses its beak like a scythe to forage for food as it wades through shallow water it sweeps its head from side to side much like a spoonbill in search for food in shallow water.

This post is the first of three showing a selection of the birds you are likely to see in Amboseli and we were not especially trying to photograph birds so a dedicated trip to photograph mainly birds in Amboseli would be highly productive.

“Photography is a love affair with life” ~ unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Amboseli elephants

Amboseli National Park is positioned against the backdrop of ice-capped Mount Kilimanjaro offering one of the most iconic images of Africa. This park is just 392 square km located in Kajiado County, in south east Kenya. The park is part of the greater Greater Amboseli ecosystem which includes the Amboseli, Tsavo and Kilimanjaro ecosystems stretching from Mount Kilimanjaro down to the Chyulu Hills in Tsavo.

“To wander over the wildness of Africa is a privilege sought. To sense its spirit is inspirational. To watch its ways brings insight, understanding and acceptance.” – Mike Haworth

Mount Kilimanjaro towers over the park and has a direct influence on its weather and water resources. For photographers the majestic blue mountain back drop with a white snow cap is iconic. The eastern section of the park encompasses part of a large dry lake basin which is usually dry except during the long rains, when in some years it fills with shallow, alkaline water attracting a pink flush of flamingoes. 

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Amboseli has an ample supply of underground water which is filtered through thousands of metres of volcanic rock from Kilimanjaro’s ice cap into two clear water springs in the heart of the park.

The salt marshes in the eastern section of the park, with their intense verdant green, stand out in contrast in the arid and dusty plain of the eastern part of the Park. The Enkongo Narok, Ol Tukai, and Olokeya marshes are the three largest.

The beauty of Amboseli lies in the these iconic scenes of elephants in the foreground and Kili in the background. Scenes that can be viewed from many locations because of the size of Kili and the size of Amboseli.

The elephant population in Amboseli National Park is estimated at around 1600 and this population is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is considered to be primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai people.

The Amboseli Elephant Research Project is the longest-running study of wild elephants ever undertaken (five decades), and is led by Dr Cynthia Moss and her team. While large scale poaching of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s reduced elephant numbers by a third across the continent, Amboseli mostly escaped the devastation thanks to the dedicated work of research and anti-poaching teams and support from the local Maasai communities.

“Elephants form deep bonds with each other, which last for decades. Elephant survival is strongly affected by access to the social and ecological knowledge which older elephants hold; where to go, what to eat, how to avoid danger.” according to Dr. Cynthia Moss.

We saw many family herds of elephants most of which had youngsters. A sign of a healthy elephant ecology, and the youngster looked carefree which was a good sign.

“We live in an astounding world full of life, movement, patterns and colour. You have a choice embrace it or ignore it!” ~ Mike Haworth

Amboseli and Tsavo’s elephant populations are some of the last genetic repositories of Africa’s great tuskers. The likelihood of seeing some of these great tuskers is good. The tourist guides recommend that from April to June, during the long rains, is not the best time to visit the park. That was not my experience in April 2021. The rains are carried by thunderstorms. The rains can be torrential but are usually over reasonably quickly – the African way!! As the thunderstorms are building, photographers are treated to some of the most wonderfully dramatic deep blue, water laden, cumulonimbus cloud formations which provide a perfect backdrop to the shafts of light and rainbows over the swamps where the elephants are feeding and wallowing.

To see a great tusker is an indescribable experience. Firstly, there are estimated to be only 20 left (thanks mostly to poaching for Asian demand) and secondly they are huge. A “great tusker” is a massive bull elephant with tusks that reach close to the ground. Up until around the age of 20, both male and female African elephants grow at a similar pace. At around 20 the females stop growing, while males continue to grow until around the age of 40, which explains why male great tuskers can be about 80cm taller and two times heavier than fully grown females. An average East African big tusker bull stands at about 3.2m in height at the shoulder and weighs around 6 tonnes. Their tusks can weigh over 50 kg each. The biggest elephant bull ever shot in Africa, which happened in Angola, was around 4 metres tall and weighed about 11 tonnes. Elephant tusks are actually enlarged incisor teeth which first appear when elephants are around two years old and they continue growing throughout their lives. The next images show an elephant bull in musth with his temporal gland streaming and his urine streaming which often colours his hind legs.

Not all leaders of herds are males. In an elephant herd the matriarch is leader. She is usually the oldest and largest female elephant in the herd. Adult male elephants are solitary in nature but may associate with other bulls in small, unstable groups. Males will leave the family unit between 12 and 15 years of age. The adult bulls wander from herd to herd looking for receptive females. While they mix up the gene pool in the process they disturb the family herd dynamics. Some the of herd matriarchs are also particularly large and highly protective so it is not a one way exercise for the bull.

Elephants possess huge emotional intelligence and, across Africa, there are examples of communities and elephant populations living side by side in relationships based on mutual respect. Elephant conservation isn’t purely about monitoring and protecting elephants from poachers, it is about developing new and respectful relationships between humans and elephants.

“Memories and intelligence are portable, something elephants seem to understand very well. Family members are remembered with reverence and gentleness. Survival knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next with generosity of spirit. The oldest are often the wisest and most knowledgeable because they have the greatest sense of context.” ~ Mike Haworth

Elephants are among the most intelligent, socially intricate and emotionally complex non-human species according to legend and research. This intelligence is demonstrated in their remarkable memory, empathy and ability to work as a team. They live a long time and accumulate and retain social and ecological knowledge. They remember the scents and voices of other individuals and migratory routes, special places and retain learned skills for decades.

Explore, seek to understand marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Mount Kilimanjaro – the island in the sky -a view from Amboseli

Apart from the vastness and diverse ecosystems in Amboseli this is one aspect that cannot be ignored, the giant looking down from just across the border in Tanzania, the snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro. It is quite incongruent to be sitting in a game vehicle in the warm equatorial sun in the swamps and grasslands of Amboseli National Park in south east Kenya looking up at the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – the sight is breath-taking!

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” ~Dr. Seuss

No one knows the origin of the name Kilimanjaro. It may mean “mountain of caravans” (kilima – mountain; jaro caravans), a landmark for caravans seen everywhere from afar.

“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

This mountain is massive and is positioned in south east Tanzania about 205 miles from the equator, along the Tanzanian/Kenyan border.

Africa’s eastern side is scarred by the Great Rift, a fracture zone running from north to south. Along the fault lines lie volcanoes of all sizes, but in Tanzania the biggest dwarfs them all – Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili). It is one of the ‘Seven Summits‘ which comprise the highest mountains on each of the seven continents of the Earth: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid. Kilimanjaro is not only Africa’s tallest peak, but also the world’s tallest free standing mountain. The summit, named Uhuru Point, is 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level.

Kili is a dormant volanco, in fact one of three volancoes. Kili is classified as a dormant stratovolcano which is composed of three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, the highest at 5895metres (19 340 ft), Mawenzi at 5,149 metres (16,893 ft); and Shira, the lowest at 4,005 metres (13,140 ft). Mawenzi and Shira are extinct, while Kibo is considered to be dormant and could erupt again. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and the word Uhuru is Swahili for “Freedom”. This mountain was so named in 1961 when Tanganyika gained its independence from Britain. Tanganyika later joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

Seeing “Kili” clearly at any time of the day from Amboseli is a chance affair. The weather around Kilimanjaro is influenced by the height of the mountain, which allows the concentrates to influence the equatorial trade winds and the high altitude. Kilimanjaro has daily upslope and nightly downslope winds, a regimen stronger on the southern than the northern side of the mountain. The flatter southern flanks are more extended and affect the atmosphere more strongly. The northern slopes receive much less rainfall than the southern ones.

Kilimanjaro is 40 miles wide, covering an area 50 times the size of Manhattan. Being so big, Kilimanjaro creates its own weather system. The south-east trade winds carry moisture from the Indian ocean and eventually hit “Kili” forcing them upwards. As the air rises it cools and condenses, forming clouds and precipitation. So mid-March through to the end of May is the wet season on Mount Kilimanjaro and its surrounds. 

The rain from Kilimanjaro together with the melting snow waters are vital to the mountain’s varied plant life and the mountain’s immediate surrounds.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” ~John Muir

There are two dominant influences on the climate in Kenya: the onshore monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, and its altitude. The winds determine the onset of Kenya’s two rainy seasons, with the hot anti-trade winds or northeast monsoon or kaskazi blowing dry air in from the Persian Gulf from November to March/April and the warm, moist kusi monsoon blowing in from the southeast from April/May to October.

Mount Kilimanjaro was estimated to have developed about 3 million years ago during the formation of the Great Rift Valley. During that period many volcanoes erupted in the Kilimanjaro region. Three distinct volcanoes formed Shira, Mwanzi and Kibo. Shira was the first to become extinct, eventually collapsing and was later covered by debris from the other two volcanoes. Shira was thought to have been 16 000 ft high before its collapsed. Mawenzi followed and a massive explosion broke its eastern rim creating a spectacular gorge. Kibo continued to grow after Mawenzi’s collapse and later the magma pulled back from the central vent and was covered by a cone of ash around the rim. Today, Kibo is considered dormant but not extinct like the other two. “Kili’s” last major eruption was dated at 360 000 years ago with the most recent activity around 200 000 years ago.

The changing size of Kili’s snow cap has been the source of much speculation around the effects of climate change. Some call it “the poster child of global climate change”. Kili’s icecap has shrunk 82% since 1912 and some scientists estimate the glaciers may be completely gone in 50 years. There is much debate about the cause of the reduced snowcap but its is thought to be due to deforestation rather than global warming.

At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya, the melting snow off the mountain’s permanent snowcap feeds south into a large wetland called Kimana in Amboseli National Park. Kimana wetland area is approximately 10 square kilometres with other small wetlands along the rivers and the whole area acts as a vital water stop for wildlife migrating between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

The landscape of Amboseli is made up of swamps, grasslands and acacia bushveld and even fever tree forests, but the heart of the park is certainly the swamps which draw in herds of elephant and buffalo, giraffe and zebra, to the water and lush grass in the dry season.

The park is dependent on the water fed by Kili and is critical to the high productivity of the swamps sustaining a vast array of wildlife and contributing to the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Amboseli like the Tsavo West National Park supports large concentrations of wildlife despite the relatively arid terraines thanks to the nearby volcanic structures. Wildlife is sustained throughout prolonged dry seasons by underground water fed through porous rocks of the volcanic uplands. Swamps on the Amboseli Plains rely on groundwater from the Kilimanjaro massif. Tsavo West is fed by the Mzima Springs with water derived from the Chyulu Hills.

Life is abundant in the grasslands and swamps below Mount Kilimanjaro. The view of this “island in the sky” is breath-taking. I had seen it briefly, somewhat shrouded in clouds, the last time I was in Amboseli in 2018, but this trip we were fortunate to get several opportunities to see this mountain in all its majesty in bright sunshine. Once you wander around the Amboseli National Park you realise how important the melt waters from “Kili’s” snow cap and its weather influences are to the abundance and diversity of wildlife in this wonderful park.

“Dark clouds become heaven’s flowers when kissed by light.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

There are many wonderful game parks with a range of hills in the background, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe with its high escarpment in the background springs to mind but nothing on the scale of “Kili”.

“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

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Amboseli – the long rains

I had the privilege of visiting Amboseli National Park in south-east Kenya in mid-April this year. This trip was postponed by a year due to the pandemic travel restrictions. Thankfully with the requisite tests and paperwork and guidance from photographic safari operator, Wild Eye, I was able to return to this amazing national park. I first travelled to Amboseli with Wild Eye in 2018 with Andrew Beck and was so impressed, that I wanted to return. The team at Wild Eye were amazing to get all the paperwork sorted out and made the trip as stress free as possible – and a big thank you to Judy van Zyl for that. Our guide was Mike Laubscher who was knowledgeable and fun and a big thank you to him for looking after us and pushing us to try new things photographically.

“Wildness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” ~ Edward Abbey

There are two dominant influences on the climate in Kenya: the onshore monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, and the altitude. The winds determine the onset of Kenya’s two rainy seasons, with the hot northeast monsoon or kaskazi blowing dry air in from the Persian Gulf from November to March/April and the warm, moist kusi monsoon blowing in from the southeast from April/May to October. Despite Covid, April is not considered the high season because of the long rains. Well that might be so for general tourists but not for wildlife photographers. The heavy skies associated with the long rains bring vernal green grasslands and deep dark blue skies as dramatic backgrounds – perfect!!

“Not all who wander are lost.” – JRR Tolkien

Amboseli National Park, was formerly known as the Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve. It is a national park in Kajiado South Constituency in Kajiado County, in south east Kenya. The park is 39,206 hectares (392 km2) in size at the core of an ecosystem that spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border. It is located just inside the Kenyan side of the Kenya/Tanzania border at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The park protects two of the five main swamps in what is a flat open area with several distinct ecosystems. The National Park embodies five main wildlife habitats (open plains, acacia woodland, rocky thorn bush country, swamps and marshland) and covers part of an ancient lake basin, which is dry for most of the year.

There had been a lot of rain before we arrived. The swamps had filled and there were large pans of shallow water which attracted Greater and Lesser Flamingoes by the thousands. With so much water around the flamingoes were spread out and not confined to a few large pans. In the mornings the surface of the pans were dead still reflecting the cloud laden skies.

Adjacent to the swamps were huge tracts of open grasslands which attracted the elephants. Where there were elephants, the Cattle egrets followed. Invariably there were family groups with a few females and several calves foraging on the low bush and grasses. The skies at this time of the year are filled with cumulus clouds providing a dramatic background especially in the afternoons when the cumulonimbus clouds formed creating deep dark blue backgrounds with towers of heavy rain clouds.

With so many elephants on the open grasslands so too were there many Cattle egrets. The elephants disturb the insects in the grass as they are foraging, and the egrets stay close by to take advantage of the insects which have been disturbed.

The grey of the elephants in the verdant green grasslands with deep dark blue skies were beautifully punctuated with splashes of white.

Where there are rain clouds so too were rainbows which added the extra colour and spectacle to a wonderfully peaceful scene.

Mount Kilimanjaro in the background just peeking through the clouds. It is the highest mountain in Africa standing at 5,895 metres above sea level and is snow capped all year round. It is quite incongruent to be sitting sweltering in a game vehicle while looking up to “Kili’s” snow capped peak.

The cloud formations in the “long rains” made a dramatic and colourful background for our wildlife landscapes in Amboseli. This is a place of big open spaces and even bigger dramatic skies which makes the pachyderms look minute in the context.

With all the drama in the skies, the scene in the foreground was tranquil with Greater flamingoes filter feeding before sunset.

I have been wanting to go back to Amboseli since my first trip with Andrew Beck of Wild Eye in 2017. The last trip was in June when it was dry. This trip cast an entirely different complexion on the park.

There is an openness in the park which is to be found in the Kenyan game parks. The long rains created a verdant landscape with dramatic cloud filled skies. There is an abundance of wildlife in Amboseli which of course is more dispersed in the rains because of the abundance of water, but it is full of life.

“The sky above me the earth beneath me and the fire within me.” – Unknown

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Pugmarks, rosettes and stealth

Our trip with WildEye to Sabi Sabi provided ample opportunity to photograph predators. Sabi Sands is known for its density of predators. That said lions are usually flat cats, hyaena are scattered waiting for the call to arms and leopards do not want to be seen.

“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is nature’s gift to humanity.”
~ Paul Oxton

A few of my own perceptions about leopards were dispelled on our trip. The first was that leopards spend most of their time in trees. They don’t! They spend a lot more time on terra firma than I imagined. Obviously they hunt mostly on the ground and there are the iconic images of them using their powerful forelegs to haul an impala, steenbok, duiker or warthog up into the fork of a tree to be able to feed away from the stealing intentions of hyaenas or lions.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”~Patti Smith

Leopards walk great distances maintaining their territories. They are either marking the boundaries after a major rain storm or they are hunting or following a potential mate.

Leopards are perfectly camouflaged for their independent, stealthy way of life. When they are walking through the bush they stop often to either smell or listen. There are many giveaway signs in the bush.

One of the aspects of the trip I really enjoyed was the way the guide managed to regularly find leopards by a process of deduction, piecing all the signs in the bush together. Leopards are difficult to see. Without intelligent tracking if you see a leopard it is just happenchance. Often our guide would stop the vehicle and turn the engine off and just listen. Impala have an alarm snort, and many birds have alarm calls. The Crested francolin has a distinctive alarm call so too do starlings. Vervet monkeys, baboons and squirrels all have alarm calls. By listening to the calls in the bush you can piece together what the nature’s media is telling you. On several occasions our guide picked up where a predator was walking by listening to the bird and animal calls. It is an integral part of tracking.

Our guides also knew the territories of the various male and female leopards. In addition they could see in the sand road whether the leopard was male or female and which way it was moving and how old the track was. The reserve is demarcated into blocks by virtue of its sand road network. If the tracks entered a block and exited the block then direction of the leopard’s movement was clear. It the tracks did not exit the block then the conclusion was that the leopard was in the block. Then it became a process of deduction.

The intriguing aspect of this huge male leopard, called “white dam” after the place he was first seen as a cub, is that he was well aware of us and at times would try to hide and blend into the grass and other times just ignored us. He exuded confidence.

“ Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong.

On our third afternoon, the weather was overcast and cold. Our tracker and guide managed to pickup on the tracks of a female leopard they called “Nstumi” which is tsonga word for angel. She was a beautiful female leopard.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” ~Stephen Hawking

We followed her that afternoon for about two hours. It is only when you spend some time watching these incredible predators walking through the bush do you realise how alert and alive they are to every sight, sound and smell around them. Some signs were intriguing and others a warning.

Ntsumi walked for extended periods through the bush then would find an elevated rocky area or anthill and stop and survey all around her. She stopped to listen and sense what was around her. We humans could learn a thing or too from this angel.

Ntsumi was inquisitive. Exploring everything in her path. It is seldom that animals walk in a straight line, it does not seem to be the way of nature.

Ntsumi could see us on the vehicle. The large 600mm lenses intrigued her. Perhaps it looked like a very large eye.

It was overcast so no sunset and was getting dark while we were watching her lounging on top of the anthill. All of a sudden she got up and walked down off the anthill. At the time it was not apparent why the sudden change. It was only about fifteen minutes later we realised a group of four lions, two males and two females had moved into the area. I don’t know whether she has seen them, heard them or smelt them but we were oblivious until we saw them. The lions could clearly smell her and investigated the anthill she had been lying on and where she had walked. We never saw Ntsumi again that evening.

One of the astounding aspects about “white dam” was the size of his territory and how he moved around it. We found him on our last game drive down in the southern most part of his territory. We found this huge male leopard lying on top of a large anthill in the early morning sun. He lay on top of the anthill for about half an hour just taking in all the sights and sounds and the sun for the first time in five days. He exuded confidence.

After a while he was on the move again. This leopard walked in gullies and in riverbeds. He was out of sight for all but those who were looking for and following him.

It was clear he knew his territory intimately.

One of the things photography is teaching me is to go beyond looking. I am learning there are many deeper levels beyond looking. The first is learning to see. Seeing is a much more intellectual process which requires looking beyond the immediacy of the subject and watching to see patterns which give insight into understanding its behaviour. Seeing is also about context and it often gives clue about upcoming behaviour. This is about understanding what you are looking at and how to anticipate. Then comes the wonder when you realise the incredible innate intelligence these animals have and their awareness and understanding about their environment. Beyond wonder comes gratitude. You realise what a privilege it is to be able to spend time to get a partial insight into the incredible lives of these animals and marvel at their intelligence and adaptation.

“We carry within us, the wonders we seek around us.” ~ Sir Thomas Browne

Photograph is teaching me to see and in so doing opening up a world of wonder which in a time of contemplation creates huge waves of gratitude.

“I believe that curiosity, wonder, and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.” ~ Kay Redfield Jamison

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike