Warning if you do not like seeing an injured animal or seeing it being killed in nature please do not read this post.
This post shows an injured wildebeest resisting a sustained attack from a lone hyaena.
We had watched a major crossing of wildebeest across the Mara river earlier in the morning. Once the herd had crossed we drove away from the river onto Bottom River road. There were throngs of wildebeest and zebras moving west away from the river.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” ~ Maya Angelou
Hyaenas operate in clans. Each clan member spreads out over the clan’s territory and waits for scavenging or hunting opportunities to arise. During the day each hyaena tends to hide by either lying in a gully or in a large tuft of red oat grass. It is only when an individual needs help will it call for back up. We saw a few hyaena wandering parallel to the moving wildebeest herd but did not think much of it.
That was until we saw a lone adult hyaena scouting close to a lone wildebeest which had been lying in the grass about 50 metres off the road. As soon as the hyaena approached the wildebeest it got up and began to defend itself. Initially the hyaena circled the wildebeest assessing why it was not walking with the rest of the herd.
“Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” ~ Roger Crawford
The hyaena quickly grasped the opportunity. The wildebeest must have had a broken hind leg during or after the river crossing. It had managed to walk around three quarters of a kilometre from the river before lying down to rest.
The hyaena knows only too well that an attack head on with the wildebeest would cause it injury.
The attacking hyaena was not a large female such as a matriarch. Nevertheless, it quickly worked out that the wildebeest could not spin quickly and managed to get around to its back and began biting at its spine just below its shoulder.
“Pick your battles, big enough to matter and small enough to win.” ~Jonathan Kozal
Time and again the hyaena would attempt to pull the wildebeest over by pulling its mane.
“Patience and tenacity are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.” ~ Thomas Huxley
When the wildebeest was squarely lying on the ground the hyaena would repeatedly bite at the skin and muscle covering its spine.
While difficult to watch we got an insight into how tough both animals were. The hyaena was tenacious and repeatedly bit at its prey’s spine area. The wildebeest despite a broken back leg continued to get up and swirl around trying to hook the hyaena with its horn.
Initially, the hyaena was just biting at the wildebeest’s hide. It must have been tough because the hyaena struggled to get through the hide into the underlying muscle and bone. It repeated attacked from the back continuously biting in the same place.
Hyaena have an extremely strong bite force. Once this hyaena latched onto the wildebeest the latter found it almost impossible to dislodge it by turning and goring it in the side with its horns.
“When the going gets tough, put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. Don’t give up.” ~ Roy T. Bennett
I learnt that morning how relentless a hyaena can be if it senses weakness in its victim.
After what must have been three quarters of an hour the wildebeest started to slow down probably due to exhaustion and loss of blood.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. All that matters is you get up one more time than you were knocked down.” ~ Roy T. Bennett
Despite its severe injuries, the wildebeest continued to get up and face its attacker.
All the activity soon caught the attention of a nearby hyaena scout who joined in the attack.
Once down the hyaenas took advantage of the fallen wildebeest by repeatedly biting it.
“Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. Life is too short to spend it on warring. Fight only the most, most, most important ones, let the rest go.” ~ C. JoyBell C.
The hyaenas then started feeding on the wildebeest while it was still alive.
On the surface it seems that hyaena are particularly cruel by eating their prey alive. But a hyaena does not have claws like a lion to hold onto its prey while it throttles it. All hyaena have are their numbers and their exceptionally strong jaws. The hyaena also so not have the luxury of time as there are many lions in the Masai Mara who will quickly steal the prize – if they can.
It is harrowing to watch a hyaena systematically wear down a wildebeest to the point of exhaustion by continuously biting at tearing at its hide. There is no question that hyaena are skilled hunters, especially when working in a clan. Under normal circumstances a lone hyaena would not pull down a fit strong adult wildebeest but in this case when the weakness was discovered the opportunity was taken.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”~ Calvin Coolidge
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
We were privileged to see four major crossings in our six days in the Masai Mara in October 2021. All the crossings were along the Bottom River road section of the Mara river between Peninsula and Miti Moja. The Bottom River road gives a good view from the west side of the river looking east towards Look Out Hill. From here you can see the wildebeest moving over Look Out Hill and on down towards the river and get a good idea of how big the crossing could be.
“Wilderness without wildlife is just scenery.” ~ Lois Crisler.
This particular morning the crossing started at around 6h30. The herd massed on a large flat section on the east bank of the Mara river. The wildebeest lingered on top of the bank for sometime and eventually the first animals began to descend the deep ruts in the steep bank. These ruts were created by hundreds of animals in previous crossings.
Invariably the rut turns out to be a one way route because of the steepness. Once an animal starts down the rut it is committed to cross the river because of all the animals following down the rut behind it.
Wildebeests’ legs are strong but thin and their hooves are not shaped for effective swimming so it is little wonder there is a momentary pause before the leap.
The wildebeest dive off the edge of the bank into the fast flowing muddy water.
“Life is a journey which never lets you know when and where it will end.” ~ Biju Karakkonam
Some of the ruts although deep are very steep and once an animal has entered one of these ruts it is effectively a one way head long controlled fall.
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot
At times in their panic the animals dive in on top of each other but seem to survive.
Different routes down the bank create different entry points and some are significantly less steep and dramatic than others.
For some inexplicable reason, some of the wildebeest descend the bank and enter the water only to decide that it is not the best place to swim across the river. They then try to move along the bank at the water’s edge looking for a more suitable launching place.
Incredibly the calves dive in after the adults. A calf is usually following its mother and it is probably its first time crossing the Mara river. The calf is on its own once in the river. There is nothing its mother can do to help it.
“You may not find a path, but you will find a way.” ~ Tom Wolfe
Once in the fast flowing river the wildebeest swim across in a wide arc, frantically swimming with their heads facing upstream.
You can see the fear and panic in their eyes.
Seeing other wildebeest climbing out of the other side the river must encourage those on the eastern bank to move forward. There is still an equally steep climb back up the western bank and if that is not enough there are, at times, lions and leopards waiting to ambush them in the bushes. The hyaenas hang around a few hundred metres from the river to pick off those animals that cannot run away because they were injured during the crossing.
“We must not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” ~ T. S. Eliot
Considering the drama and difficulty for the animals crossing the Mara river, their odds of surviving the crossing are good. Around 6 200 wildebeest die in crossing each year, which in the context of over one million crossing, are reasonable odds.
“Wildlife is something which man cannot construct. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.” ~Joy Adamson.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
The Peninsula crossing point is about two kilometres up the Mara river from the Wild Eye camp. The camp is sited close enough to Peninsula to get there early, just after 6h00. That said, the crossing can happen at any time. We saw four large crossings in the section of the river below Look Out Hill. Two of them were just after sunrise.
” The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask.” ~ Nancy NewHall
The main crossing points below Look Out Hill are Peninsula, Figtree and Miti Moja. There may be others but there were no crossings happening higher up towards Hippo Pools at the time we were there. Our group of photographers were fortunate enough to see a male lion crossing the Mara river close to Figtree.
“There are more peaceful animals on earth than peaceful people.” Anthony Douglas Williams
Peninsula crossing is so called because of the peninsula on the east bank that forces the Mara river into a 300 degree bend around it. This is the southern most regular crossing point in the Mara Triangle. The wildebeest do try to cross further down at Figtree but the banks are especially steep with many rocks on the western bank. The Wild Eye camp is located further down the Mara river at particular bend in the river to prevent wildebeest crossing at that point. Before the introduction of the camp, there were numerous wildebeest deaths at this point with their carcasses piling up on the rocks down river near Purungat bridge resulting in a dreadful stench in that area. The camp has stopped the crossing, the wildebeest deaths and there is now no stench near the bridge.
I mentioned in my last post that the build up to the crossing can take hours. Part of the reason is the wildebeest are very skittish and any sound or smell will deter them. Ill discipline from the safari guides driving their vehicles on the eastern side of the Mara river is also a major reason for crossings being abandoned. The guides driving the game vehicles are more disciplined and more strictly monitored by the rangers on the western bank in the Mara Triangle. The game vehicles on the western side are obliged to remain on the main road while the build up is taking place. Even with this rule in place, as soon as the first animal enters the water there is a mad race among all the game vehicles to get the best position on the west bank to witness the spectacle of the wildebeest crossing towards the west bank.
At Peninsula the wildebeest pour down the eastern bank which is not steep and the entry point into the water is shallow. The huge number of hooves coming down the bank stir up thick dust adding to the confusion and mood. A wildebeest’s nostrils are equipped with flaps that help filter the dust stirred up by thousands of surging animals.
“We watch with wonder spellbound by the enormity, intensity and primal sense of one of nature’s greatest compulsions.” ~ Mike Haworth
Once the crossing starts there seems to be a compulsion to follow those in front. Entering the water with so much dust limits the wildebeests’ visibility of the water in front of them so often they do not see the crocs waiting for them.
“Fossil evidence suggest that wildebeest have been roaming the plains of east Africa for more than a million years”
There are occasions when the crossing seemed to be in full swing then suddenly animals half way up the bank turned around and headed back up the bank. It could have been a strange sound or a few animals that got spooked by something and the animals around them turned in unison.
Depending on how the game vehicles on the eastern bank have positioned themselves the wildebeest will pause on top of the bank, gather themselves and descend again. If a predator or too many game vehicles are in the way the wildebeest at the top of the bank will abandon their crossing and move a couple of hundred metres away from the river.
“Long-distance migrations are among the most spectacular and heroic of natural events, and the majority are in Africa” ~ Penny van Oosterzee contributor to the New Scientist
In the crossing, the wildebeest crowd each other. Crocs tend to stay on the periphery of the crossing as they are likely to get trampled venturing to the middle of the surging herd.
A massive croc lurking on the edge of the crossing caught a wildebeest calf by the hind leg. Once caught a calf is unlikely to be able to get free of a large croc’s hold. Even if it did it would probably have a broken leg which would soon be discovered by hyaenas and finished off.
The crocs are large enough to firmly hold the hind quarters of an adult wildebeest. Others crocs quickly move it to join in the attack. There are many rocks on the western bank which make it very slippery for a wildebeest to get purchase and be able to pull itself out of the water.
A large crossing can take longer than 30 minutes. In this situation the crocs will catch and drown one wildebeest, let it float down the river and go for another. The drowned animal will float a few hundred metres down the river before getting caught up on rocks or branches jutting out of the river bank, which serve as a larder of sorts
Not all wildebeest stay in the main column crossing the river. Some try to get upstream of the column. This tactic makes the crossing more dangerous as there is not the safety in numbers and it also means that there may be added difficulty getting out of the river the other side.
With a panicked scramble the wildebeest manage to climb out on slippery rocks. This is a very vulnerable time for those animals waiting at the back of the queue in the water.
Thankfully all the crossings we saw went well and there were no mass drownings and very few wildebeest were taken by crocs. The river claims on average 6 200 wildebeest each year. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed how wildebeest drownings had a positive impact the ecology of the Mara river. Co-author Emma Rosi, an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute, noted that “the mass drownings create a huge biomass subsidy which delivers terrestrial nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon to the river’s food web. Fish and scavengers feast on soft tissues, then wildebeest bones slowly release nutrients into the system – feeding algae and influencing the food web on decadal scales”. Research showed that crocs consumed about 2% of total carcasses while fish consumed between 34% and 50% of the total. This is another example of nothing going to waste in the natural world.
“The Great Migration is the largest overland migration in the world.”~ Africa Geographic
The crossings are breathtaking because of the enormity of the surge of animals swimming for their lives across the Mara river. You can see the terror in their eyes as they open them so wide that you can see the whites of their eyes. You can’t help but be impressed by the wildebeest diving into the fast flowing muddy river with such spindly legs which don’t look proportioned for swimming.
“Wildlife migration requires large, connected landscapes and access to seasonally available resources, but human development—such as roads, livestock fences, farms, suburban settlements and energy infrastructure—has fragmented migration corridors in many terrestrial ecosystems around the world.” ~ John Cramer, Dartmouth College
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
One of the most iconic features of the Masai Mara are the wildebeest crossings which occur each year from August to October. Hundreds of thousands of animals cross the Mara river following the rains in search of better grazing areas. While these crossings are enthralling in their build up and intensity, the Masai Mara is so much more than the crossings.
“Humankind’s greatest priority is to reintegrate with the natural world.” ~ Jonathon Porritt
The wildebeest have to cross the Mara river, and sometimes the Talak and Sand rivers, in the Masai Mara and Grumeti and Mbalageti rivers in the Serengeti on their migration route.
Around two million animals move during the migration which include more than one million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelle. These animals migrate in search of rich grasslands so follow the rain in an epic, and hazardous, circular journey of some 800 to 1 000 kilometres. This journey takes them through Tanzania’s vast Serengeti plains down to Ndutu where they calve around February and then migrate back up the west side of the Serengeti, through the western corridor and up into the Masai Mara in Kenya.
Looking across the Mara river from the west side you can see Look Out Hill. The thousands and thousands of black dots scattered below Look Out Hill signalled that a major crossing was building. The wildebeest start moving forward from behind Look Out Hill and pour over the hill and down to the banks of the Mara river. It is not clear what the signal is but perhaps, like a murmuration of starlings, they are just watching each other for the signal to move.
Crossings happen when the time is right and that is not human time. Patience is required to be able to witness a crossing. Our host, photographic safari company, Wild Eye, has a bush camp sited on the banks of the Mara river about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge. This camp offers the advantage of being in the Mara Triangle reserve and being able to drive down to the main crossing areas at just after 6H00 in the morning. If a crossing started at around 6h00, as it did on two occasions, we were the first there.
“Our relationship with nature is more one of being than having. We are nature: we do not have nature.” ~ Steven Harper
There are times when we had to wait while the build-up took place. We often backed off from the river and drove up to a vantage point under a Balanite where we could get out of the vehicle and have a cup of coffee and watch the build up in comfort.
Crossings can occur at any time, even at night sometimes, but mostly during daylight hours. You can imagine it is terrifying enough to have to plunge into a fast flowing muddy river knowing there are predators on either bank and in the water just waiting for you without doing that in the dark.
The animals mass on the bank and eventually cross on mass in one thunderous drive relying on the relative safety in numbers. Almost every animal crosses the Mara river at some point. Elephant and giraffe cross in small herds but these animals are usually too big for the Nile crocodiles to take on. I had an earlier post on a male lion crossing the Mara which was memorable. I have not heard of buffalo crossing the Mara river but I presume they do as they are good swimmers and are not afraid of the water. I have seen large herds of buffalo crossing the crocodile infected Chobe river in northern Botswana.
“The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the interconnectedness 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
Wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle cross together to improve their odds of not getting caught by a land predator or a crocodile. Wildebeest are known for their migrant nomad tendencies. This strategy allows them to range over larger areas for the best quality grasses.
Large herds make a noise and the vibration of all the hooves on the ground near the river bank alerts the crocodiles to an imminent crossing. The wildebeest is also called a gnu. The gnu gets its name from its call which sounds like “ge-nu.”
Crocodiles have an exceptional sense of hearing. The flaps of skin around the crocodile’s ear protect the eardrums underwater. When underwater, the crocodile depends on water vibrations. These must come from the many hooves and verbalisations.
The next image shows a few Nile crocodiles which had congregated at the Peninsula crossing point. They were basking in the morning sun waiting for the crossing. They probably felt the vibrations of the thousands of hooves massing on the bank above them.
The Nile crocodiles in the Mara river are enormous. An adult Nile crocodile varies in length between 3.5 and 5 metres and weighs between 225 kg and 750 kg. Giant Nile crocs exceeding 6.1 m in length and weighing up to 1 089 kg have been recorded.
The wildebeest’s diet dictates that it is always traveling. It needs to drink twice a day so is constantly searching for water. A wildebeest has a wide mouth which enables it to eat a lot of grass very quickly. There is a natural symbiosis between wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle. This is because zebras will eat away the top layer of grass so that the wildebeest can get to cropped shorter grasses. A Thompson’s gazelle, with its small mouth, eats the remaining portion of the short grass left by the wildebeest. They also benefit from wildebeest and zebra trampling down the tall grass, making it easier for them to feed on short grass.
“Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.” ~ Dalai Lama
In April each year the wildebeest follow the rain and move to the west and northwards through the centre of the Serengeti reaching the Masai Mara in southern Kenya around July. Then as the rains shift southward the herds follow them from August to October.
A wildebeest uses its superior sense of sound and smell to stay wary of predators, while the zebra uses its excellent eyesight to scan for threats. Combined they create an effective “alarm” system, which together with the massive size of their accumulated herds reduces the chance of any single individual being targeted by a predator.
Their relationship offers more than safety. Zebras are known to have good memories and can often retrace their route from the previous year’s migrations. In turn, wildebeest are adept at finding water sources which helps both species during the drier seasons.
Either side of a river crossing is a dangerous place for wildebeest, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle to gather. Lions, leopards and hyaenas wait for an opportunity to ambush them. We were fortunate to see a female leopard walking along the lower section of the river bank before a crossing. She must have been looking for an effective ambush position.
This female leopard moved up on top of the bank and wandered through the Croton bushes looking for an ideal ambush position. All preparation before the drama and mayhem of the rush.
I was amazed to see one of the crocs lying in plain sight at the water’s edge at Peninsula Crossing. It must have been a youngster. The experienced crocs know there is no hurry.
The herd build up can take hours. So many times there had been a build up with the animals at the front of the herd close to the river bank being pushed toward the river. It takes one or two inconsiderate game vehicles on the east bank to drive in amongst the Croton bushes to scare the herd away from the river bank. This happened with regularity.
“The infinite vibratory levels, the dimensions of interconnectedness are without end. There is nothing independent. All beings and things are residents in your awareness.” ~ Alex Grey
The herd build up often took us well into the afternoon when the clouds also started to build. In the afternoon the cumulous clouds would develop into darkened rain filled cumulonimbus cloud formations which added to the atmosphere and tension. The clouds added drama and the light changed the mood with the darker skies making everything more foreboding. The wildebeest seem to be finely tuned to the mood and atmosphere.
As the animals started to walk towards the riverbank there was a change in the mood. All the animals grazing up on the side of the hill were watching what all their contemporaries were doing. As one group started moving towards the river so all the animals grazing on the hill started to move in sync. The animals at the back push the ones in front. The animals at the front of the herd are very skittish.
The wildebeest have every reason to be skittish. Leopards and lions lurk the the bushes trying to ambush them. This female leopard was waiting probably for a wildebeest or zebra calf.
It takes very little for the wildebeest to abandon the crossing. It can be the raucous cackle from an Egyptian goose raising the alarm, or safari vehicles on the eastern bank which intrude into their passage. Strangely there is a lack of discipline and consideration from the safari vehicle operators on the eastern side of the Mara river for the animals which are providing the spectacle.
“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” ~ Elwyn Brooks White
With out any alarm triggers, the first intrepid wildebeest charge toward the water. There is no hierarchy. Sometimes a calf will lead the crossing. Every animal is on its own and must fend for itself. Once the crossing starts it quickly becomes a frenzy.
The dark rain clouds and thunder in the distant south in the Serengeti beckon the wildebeest herds. Having lived in Africa all my life and loving the bush this is an exceptional place to visit and experience.
“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.” ~ Crowfoot
Anyone who has read my posts will know that I am intrigued by the interconnectedness of all of life. This place provides a vivid sense of this interconnectedness. The ecosystem of animals, reptiles, insects, birds, trees and grasses are all connected to each other as well as the weather. There is a natural intelligence in life on the plains which we are progressively discovering and increasingly appreciating.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” ~ Chief Seattle
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
We saw so many different scenes and wildlife experiences on our second day in the Mara Triangle that I had split this post into two parts.
“If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavour.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
This was a solitary male lion lying close to the road early in the morning. He was looking into the valley below and would periodically roar. Only after watching where he was looking did we see another male lion, probably his coalition partner, on the other side of the valley. The distance must have been two or three kilometres, suggesting his eyesight and hearing was exceptional.
Across the valley you can see a ridge in the middle distance. His coalition partner was lying on some rocks on that ridge. The roaring back and forth must have confirmed that it was his partner so he got up and started walking down the valley toward his brother-in-arms.
Male ostriches undergo a colour change at breeding season, when their skin turns bright red. This skin colour change signals to the hens that he is ready to mate. The male attracts as many hens as possible by dancing, fluffing his feathers, flapping his wings and swinging his head around while getting down on his knees. I did not see any ostrich hens nearby so he had to do a lot of running to do before he could start dancing.
A young hyaena had tucked itself into the drainage line along the road where it was moist, cool and out of sight for all but the passing vehicles. This character was part of the hyaena clan’s network of scouts on the lookout for opportunities to hunt or steal.
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
A buffalo bull watching us closely. He had an impressive boss which he must have been digging into the black cotton clay. The horns are thick, solid bone and are fully formed by the time the buffalo reaches five or six years old. The bosses will only become hard at around eight or nine years of age
There are many buffalo in the Mara Triangle with some herds being hundred or more strong. The next image shows three old “dagga boys” which were following the herd at their own pace. They need to stay together because of the numerous predators in the area.
While we were on the Mara Triangle side of the Mara river, our driver Jimmy, got a message saying that two Black rhino had been spotted on the ridge on the east side of the Mara Triangle in the central plains close to the New Ashnil road. After a thirty minute drive, we crossed the Purungat bridge under which the Mara river flows on its way into the Serengeti. The next image is of the view looking up river from the bridge.
“Water is the driving force of all nature.” ~Leonardo da Vinci
This was the view of the Mara river looking down river into Tanzania.
After a further short drive the other side of the Purungat bridge we found the two Black rhinos on the ridge, a female and her sub-adult calf.
A female Black rhino and her sub-adult calf. Black rhinos are browsers but these two managed to find small shrubs to feed on. A Black rhino calf, when young, usually follows it mother, but this young rhino looked to be around three years old so would soon be on its own.
“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be expected by search or trail.” ~ Heraclitus
This adult female was on alert. She presented an imposing presence. The warmth of the late morning created a haze so we could not achieve pin sharp images but it was wonderful to see the two them nevertheless.
The ever present Tawny eagle searching for left overs.
Later that afternoon the clouds started to build, the atmosphere darkened and became very moody. These two giraffe created an ideal silhouette on the ridge with the cloud build up in the background.
“I am the daughter of Earth and Water, And the nursling of the Sky; I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; I change, but I cannot die. For after the rain when with never a stain The pavilion of Heaven is bare, And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams Build up the blue dome of air, I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, And out of the caverns of rain, Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, I arise and unbuild it again.” ~ P. B. Shelley
Back on the west side of the Mara river we found a large male leopard lying in a Fig tree next to a small drainage line which was filled with water. There was a female leopard in the area and the guides thought this was the male that had killed her leopard cubs the week before and continued to hang around. This male was quite content to just lie in the Fig tree being partly obscured by branches so he never gave us a chance to see him fully.
The variety of wildlife, the vast scenery and the mood created by the changing weather created endless fascination.
“Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and live like it’s heaven on earth.” ~ Unknown
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let is be.
This was one of the more unusual sightings in the Masai Mara during my trip with Wild Eye in October last year. October is usually the tail end of the major herbivore migration. Despite the timing I was fortunate enough to see several dramatic Mara river crossings.
“Being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Being brave is having that fear but finding a way through it.”~ Bear Grylls
The crossing described in this post was the most unusual of them all. It was around 6h00 and we were out early as we had seen the wildebeest massing on the east side of the Mara river the evening before. It is unusual for wildebeest or zebra to cross the river at night. The crossing looks terrifying enough in the daylight without trying it at night.
“Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~ Maya Angelou.
The terror is instilled by the fast moving current and the huge Nile crocodiles which lie in wait for their prey to cross. This particular morning the wildebeest and zebra had been progressively moving down Lookout hill toward the Mara river. The river was flowing fast and was a rich muddy colour.
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” ~Winston Churchill
By this time, Scar, the iconic leader of his four member coalition with Morani, Sikio and Hunter, had died. We caught sight of a large male on the other side of the river at around 6h00. The sun was still behind Lookout hill. I am not sure which of the “musketeers” he was, possibly Silko. He was walking along the east bank of the Mara river when he caught sight of two lionesses lying in the wet grass about 100 metres away from the river on the west side of the Mara river.
He immediately decided to cross the river to meet up with them. He walked along the bank until he found a gully to climb down to the edge of the river. That would have been the only way to get down to the edge of the Mara river because the banks were so steep and deep.
The bank on the east side of the Mara river, in fact on both sides, is steep and must be around 20 to 30 metres deep.
Having successfully descended the steep side of the Mara river, he walked a short distance at the foot of the steep bank until he found a suitable crossing point.
“The river has great wisdom and whispers its secrets to the hearts of men.” ~Mark Twain
The snarling face showed he was quite well aware of the danger that lurked in that fast flowing muddy water. Despite the danger, with little hesitation, he stepped into the water.
The wake in the water created by him entering water showed how fast the water was flowing.
He was clearly a powerful swimmer but the fast flowing current forced him to swim diagonally down from his point of entry.
“Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.“ ~John Muir
It is hard to imagine the amount of adrenaline that must be have been coursing through his veins as he swam across the river knowing only too well the danger that lurked below the surface of the water. He had the advantage of being solitary and silent.
He eventually found purchase on the river bed on the east side of the river. Even that meant he was not out of danger. In that depth of water a large croc could easily have attacked him.
As he walked out of the river on the west side he looked around constantly assessing whether there were crocs advancing towards him.
“A river is water is its loveliest form, rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown
Having climbed up to the top of the western bank he stopped to assess whether there were any other males around.
You can see from his wide eyes that he was wary.
“Have the courage to take your own thoughts seriously, for they will shape you.” ~Albert Einstein
He eventually walked up to the two females who seemed to know him but did not seem over joyed to see him.
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” ~ Helen Keller
His flehmen grimace signalled that he was assessing the condition of the females and whether either was in oestrus.
The flehmen grimace is where the lion opens his mouth to draw in the air over the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of his mouth. Jacobson’s organ, also called vomeronasal organ, is an organ of chemoreception that is part of the olfactory system of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. It is a patch of sensory cells within the main nasal chamber that detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles. The Jacobson’s organ enable’s him to perceive certain scents and pheromones. The vomeronasal (VNO) organ is named for its closeness to the vomer and nasal bones, and is particularly well developed in animals such as cats and horses. The vomer is one of the unpaired facial bones of the skull. VNO is found at the base of the nasal cavity.
This male continued to perform his flehmen grimace for a few minutes with little interest from the females.
“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” ~ Patrick Süskind
Having decided the swim was all for nothing, he eventually lay down a few metres from the females and tried to get rid of the flies on his face.
It was unique sighting to see a male lion crossing the Mara river on his own.
“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.” ~ Albert Einstein
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
I was fortunate enough to spend a magical six days in the Masai Mara in western Kenya in mid-October 2021. This trip which was planned for October 2020 but Covid restrictions forced its postponement. I spent six days in the Masai Mara with Wild Eye and stayed at their bush camp along the Mara river which is located about a kilometre up river from the Purungat bridge.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of the living.” ~ Miriam Beard
Our group of about ten photographers were hosted by guides Andrew Danckwerts, Mike Appalsamy and Wild Eye CEO Jono Buffy. Much fun, good photography and earnest discussions around the camp fire next to the Mara river were had by all.
“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” ~ Edith Wharton
I really like that time of the year because of the reduced crowds. Also, the weather was building up for the short rains from October to December. This meant the sky was filled with cumulus and cumulonimbus cloud formations making dramatic backgrounds.
“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.” ~ John Hemmingway
Mid-October was the low season because of the rains in the Mara but there was still plenty of migrating herbivores and of course the ever present lions, hyaenas, leopards and cheetahs. Both the Masai Mara and the Serengeti are wonderful areas for lions.
The lions shown in this post were seen in the first two days in the Mara Triangle. In future posts I will show many more lion images and we were privileged to even see a large male lion cross the Mara river – a crossing of a very different sort.
This young male had killed a wildebeest next to the main road a few kilometres up from the ranger’s station at Purungat bridge. He was resting when we arrived. He had probably been feeding in the early part of the pre-dawn morning. His face was covered in flies as was the carcass.
After a short while he got up and went back to feed on the carcass. He was feeding alone on the wildebeest carcass which he probably had pulled down the night before as there were no other lions around. Often lions use the storm water gully on the side of the road to ambush their prey. This tactic seemed effective as we saw a few kills next to the road.
We found this male lion around 8h30 and stayed with him for about an hour with no other vehicles around. He was watching the vultures which had already caught early thermals in the warm, slightly overcast morning.
After a full meal of wildebeest he got up and stretched and walked a short distance away from the carcass to lie down. There were no trees under which to find shade, so he just lay in the grass in the open.
When a lion relaxes it does it properly and sometimes can be seen lying on its back with legs open – probably spreading the load on such a full belly.
The following day we were travelling north west along the main road a few kilometres from the Serena airstrip when we came across a coalition of three male lions, two of which were lying in the road. The two largest and oldest males were lying in the road. This coalition looked battle hardened. The male lying down in the next image looked to be the oldest and coalition leader. He was a huge battle-worn warrior.
The high number of lions in the Mara Triangle dictate that there are frequent territorial clashes and numerous nomads looking for a home of their own. The younger of the two males lying in the road got up and proceeded to walk down the road towards us. He looked to be around five or six years old – a fully mature male lion.
“The lion is an emblem of a dream of absolute power – and, as a wild animal, he belongs to a world outside the realm of society and culture.” ~ Charles H Hinnat
The oldest male in the coalition continued to lie own the road for a while. He was huge with enormously powerful looking shoulders and a dark mane.
When he looked up you could see his aged face which was surprisingly unscarred. He was covered with irritating and ubiquitous flies. His canines were still in reasonably good condition so we guessed he must have been around seven years old.
“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” ~ Karen Blixen
He had a full belly and looked to be in good condition. His front paws were huge.
The younger of the two males which had been lying in the road continued to walk towards us as he was on his way to a pool of rainwater which had collected next to the section road behind us. There were many zebra drinking from this pool which no doubt was an added attraction although he was he was going to drink, not hunt.
The third male in the coalition of three had found a rock to cuddle. He was out for the count and I just had to take a picture of him spread out next to the rock with one paw against it.
We travelled around the Mara Triangle and having the camp positioned close to the Purungat bridge in south of the Greater Masai Mara we were able to traverse both the Mara Triangle and the Masai Mara National Reserve, the two largest of the eight conservancies which make up the Greater Masai Mara.
Lions are obviously a huge attraction in the Mara but after the main migration had passed in August and September there were still a surprising large number of wildebeest and zebra both sides of the Mara river and especially on the north side which still had to cross on their way down into the Serengeti and Ndutu to calve in following February. With all the game around we had numerous wonderful sightings of lions which I will share in the next few posts.
“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?” ~ Brian Jackman
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Sitting in a photographic hide is a magical experience. The wildlife comes closer than you would ever have imagined possible. One minute you can be photographing Red-headed weavers and a few minutes later a massive bull elephant emerges like a phantom from the dusty Mopani surroundings and walks up to the water hole. We watched elephants drinking at the photographic hide at Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve.
“There is nothing more energising than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter.” ~ Lawrence Anthony
There are three species of elephant in the world:
African savannah – Loxodonta africana African forest – Loxodonta cyclotis Asian – Elephas maximus
I saw the African forest elephant when I was in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. This species is much smaller than its savannah cousin and it has small downward pointing tusks, both adaptations to the dense tropical rainforest environment. In the non-forest areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the African savannah elephant is found.
“Every wild thing is in tune with its surroundings, awake to its fate and in absolute harmony with the planet. Their attention is focused totally outwards. Humans, on the other hand, tend to focus introspectively on their own lives too often, brooding and magnifying problems that the animal kingdom would not waste a millisecond of energy upon. To most people, the magnificent order of the natural world where life and death actually mean something has become unrecognizable.” ~ Lawrence Anthony
As described in a previous post, the the Klipspringer Lodge waterhole is around 20 metres in diameter and about 15 metres from the hide at its closest point. This means there is just enough room for a large bull elephant to walk between the waterhole and the hide. Directly in front of the hide, about two metres away is a small natural trough of water. On two different occasions a bull elephant walked up to this trough to drink. When these behemoths walk to within three metres of you while you are sitting quietly in the hide, it is enough to take your breath away.
A mature bull elephant is massive. He can reach four metres at his shoulder and weight up to seven tonnes.
This huge bull stood at the water’s edge and started to drink while the water was still undisturbed. Successive swirls with his trunk stirred up the mud to a point where he stopped drinking and started to suck up large quantities of muddy water and sprayed it over his body.
It was mid-September so the days were warm around midday and in the early afternoon. He seemed to really enjoy cooling off and getting a mud bath at the same time. You can see the direction of the afternoon sun was directly behind the bull which cast his face in deep shallow.
In most instances, the size of these massive bulls puts off other visitors who want to come and drink at the waterhole. Not so for three intrepid kudu bulls, though they were on the opposite side of the waterhole to the bull elephant. He seemed to be happy to share the waterhole.
“I have no doubt at all that elephants are at least as intelligent as an adolescent human being. They’re incredibly smart. They have knowledge and wisdom about their own culture and societies that are far more advanced than we think.” ~ Dereck Joubert
On a few occasions a group of large elephant bulls arrived at the waterhole. It was thrilling to watch these dark giants emerge from the Mopani’s orange green and yellow backdrop. They walked in without a sound. Usually no other animals or birds dared come to the waterhole as these bulls were approaching.
The water remained somewhat undisturbed while just one bull was drinking. It was a different matter when a small bachelor herd of bulls arrived. Elephants require between 70 and 100 litres of water daily. An adult male elephant can drink up to 210 litres of water in less than five minutes.
An elephant’s trunk can hold between nine and 10 litres of water. Elephants do not drink with their trunks, but use them as “tools” to drink with. They fill their trunks with water then use it as a hose to pour the water into their mouths.
Adult male elephants live a predominantly nomadic and solitary life. When a male elephant reaches puberty, around 12 to 15 years of age, he will progressively become more independent of his family until he breaks away completely. He then either roams alone or joins a loosely-knit group of male elephants, known as a bachelor herd. The bulls in these bachelor herds can be a mix of ages. Amongst bachelor groups, young males keep the peace amongst themselves by ritualised tussling which establishes strength and dominance among themselves without the need to fight and possibly injure each other. There is usually a dominant bull in the group. Elephant bulls tend to follow the breeding herds testing the the females to establish whether they are in estrus. Family life in the elephant world is centred on females and their calves. The large bulls can be cause great disturbance in and unsettle the breeding herd.
On another day, a group of four bulls came to the waterhole to drink. There was a bluish haze to the atmosphere which seemed to darken the bulls with their backs to the sinking sun.
The trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it which is more than a human has in their whole body. The human body has a total of 639 muscles. An elephant’s trunk is both strong and agile. It has two prehensile fingers at the tip of its trunk which are used to grab hold of objects and smaller items. It can perform multiple tasks from pushing over heavy trees to picking up and throwing objects, to rubbing an itchy eye or ear. The elephant fills its trunk with water and then pours it into its mouth to drink and also as a snorkel when swimming under water. Elephants also use their trunk for feeding and for friendly greetings and even wrestling matches with other elephants.
Due to the massive size of the elephant it has evolved several anatomical characteristics to adapt to this mass. One adaptation is the pneumatisation which is the development of a honeycomb of air cavities inside the skull bones. Pneumatisation makes the skull lighter, while still providing the necessary strength and attachment surface to accommodate the muscles. Another adaptation is that unlike most other mammals, the legs of an elephant are almost vertical under the body. These pillar-like structures have limited flexibility at the joints and are therefore suited to supporting the large mass.
“Giant beasts have ruled Africa from coast to coast for over 50 million years as they migrate to water for their families. They are masters of their universe, architects of their world. Playful young play securely in one of the most caring families in nature. They have haunting rituals and great wisdom, care and compassion. Their story is far more than statistics and ivory.” ~ Dereck Joubert from the Soul of the Elephant
The deeper you look into nature the more complexity, integration and intelligence you will find. This creates wonder, mystery and humility.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
The title of this post is not strictly accurate as we did not see Roan antelope in the Selati Game reserve. Rather we went across the main road to a game breeding farm where we saw the selective breeding of buffalo, Sable and Roan antelope. The area around Selati Game Reserve is well known for its game breeding activities.
“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on Earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the Earth.”~David Attenborough
Roan antelope are now considered a locally rare species. In South Africa there are only about 70 in the Kruger National Park, and a total of several hundred in other conservation areas in Mpumalanga and the Northern Province and the northern Cape.
“Because it is most endangered, the Roan has become the poster species for the rare antelope’s plight. Although one of the most wide-ranging antelope species in sub-Saharan Africa, occurring from sea level to 2400 metres, its strict requirements mean that the Roan is nowhere common. ~ Mitch Reardon
We went down to a waterhole on the breeding farm on the other side of the R40 from Selati Game Reserve to see the Roan antelope and were fortunate to see four young Roan.
Roan is one of biggest antelope after the Eland, Bongo and Greater Kudu. Its barrel-chested, horse-like build gives it a powerful appearance. Their pelage is a reddish-brown colour which gives them their name. Roan are sometimes mistaken for a female Sable because of its similar shaped face and reddish colour. A closer look show different colouring and the black and white pattern is quite different.
The Roan antelope shares the Hippotragus genus with the Sable and as its greek name suggests the shape of a horse with a goat-like face. They have short, erect manes, very light beards and prominent white nostrils. The head is dark brown or black, with white around the mouth and nose, large white patches in front of the eyes and pale patches behind them. The ears are long and narrow, with dark brown hair at the tips. The horns are ringed and backward facing. They can reach one metre long in males, and slightly shorter in females. The Roan’s horns never attain the full scimitar shaped curve horn of the mature male Sable. Unlike the Sable, the Roan has long tasseled ears.
From data back in 2014, there are an observed 333 individuals existing on nine formally protected areas within the natural distribution range in northern and eastern South Africa. Adding privately protected subpopulations, there are an estimated 1 750 individuals across South Africa of which an estimated 5% of individuals on wildlife ranches were estimated to be wild and free-roaming. The proportion of mature Roan is estimated to be between 60% and 70%.
For a similar reasons to the Sable and Tsessebe, the Roan antelope population in the Kruger National Park crashed by 90% during the period 1986 to 1993. Over the past three generations (1990–2015), based on available data for nine formally protected areas, there has been a net population reduction of around 23%, which indicates an ongoing decline, though not as severe as the historical reduction.
The Roan antelope has been eliminated from large parts of its former range through Africa because of poaching and loss of habitat due to the expansion of human settlements. Habitat loss and degradation within the historic ranges are the greatest ongoing threat to Roan antelope. Their natural habitat has become fragmented caused by agricultural expansion. The game fences associated with human settlements have also contributed to their habitat reduction as have their removal from the wild into small breeding camp systems on private ranches.
“To appreciate better how a succession of changes within the rare antelope’s ecosystems coalesced to become a conservation catastrophe, it is critical to recognise that every ecosystem has it’s own special characteristics.” ~ Mitch Reardon
‘The narrow muzzle of the Roan and Sable have evolved to pluck specific clusters of leaves from grass swards. Roans feed on a variety of different grass species in different parts of their range at different times of the year. Low density antelopes such as Roan and Sable have distinct habitat preferences, their patchy distribution ranges generally occur in landscapes least favoured by the more common grazers. Source: Shaping Kruger by Mitch Reardon
Habitat suitability is declining in South Africa due to bush encroachment and overgrazing. The latter reduces grass species composition and encourages bush encroachment in certain areas of the bushveld. The game fences limit the Roans’ ability to move away from unsuitable grazing areas. Fragmentation through fencing also reduces the ability to move away from areas that become unsuitable. Climate change will most likely increase bush encroachment and dry up the ephemeral wetlands needed by this species in southern African savannahs.
“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down” ~ Charlie Chaplin
Roan antelope prefer to graze on grass but will browse if grazing forage is poor and will resort to supplementing on shrubs, herbs, and Acacia tree pods. The preferred feeding height is 15-150 cm and green shoots are often grazed down to a height of 2 cm. Roan antelope feed on grasses and other foliage in the morning and evening hours and retreat to more densely wooded areas during the middle of the day. They must drink regularly and inhabit areas where water is easily accessible.
In his book “Shaping Kruger” Mitch Reardon provided some valuable insights into the lives, habit and behaviour of a variety of animals in the Kruger National Park with chapter four dedicated to “The riddle of the disappearing Roan antelope”. In an effort to boost their numbers, the park’s conservation experts had instigated the Water for Game project in the mid-’70s, where 35 man-made waterholes were constructed, along with six dams. It was a disaster as far as the Roan were concerned. The water enticed large numbers of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo into the area and predators followed in their wake. Roan require long grass in which to hide their young, and with the grass cropped short, they were now easy pickings for lions, leopards, hyenas and even opportunistic jackals. It was the first of a run of ecological disasters to beset the park’s Roan population.
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” ~ Socrates
These two young male Roan antelope showed that this species like the Sable, Tsessebe and wildebeest get onto the knees to fight. Roan antelope males commonly fight for dominance. When fighting, Roan bulls will drop to their knees and neck wrestle and jostle by locking horns and pushing each other. The fights are more about wrestling and are seldom fatal though Roan bulls are known to be highly aggressive.
I was very excited to see Roan antelope. I have never seen one in all the years I have been to Kruger National Park. The last time I saw a Roan antelope was in the Serengeti plain in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The lone Roan bull we saw in Ruaha was huge and very skittish. I was very surprised to see how small the Roan were in this breeding camp. They were clearly young and were smaller than the Sable bulls in the same camp.
“Remember to 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. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” ~ Stephen Hawking
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
At Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve there is a photographic hide. It is positioned about 100 metres down the hill from the lodge. The hide looks onto a man-made waterhole. The hide is positioned about 15 metres from the near side of the waterhole and the waterhole is roughly circular with a 20 metre diameter. This means you need a short focal length lens for large mammals and a very long focal length lens for the small birds on the far side of the waterhole.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ~ Walt Disney
Birds, like mammals, are very sensitive to sounds in the bush around the waterhole and from the hide itself. Each month the hide is in place the wildlife is becoming progressively more habituated to it, which helps the photographers.
“You will enrich your life immeasurably if you approach it with a sense of wonder and discovery, and always challenge yourself to try new things.” ~ Nate Berkus.
There is an open section around the waterhole which is about 15 metres in width at its narrowest point which provides adequate thick cover for francolin and spurfowl to run into when alarmed and for the smaller birds to fly into the surrounding trees.
We visited the hide in mid-September which is early spring in southern Africa. This means that none of the migrant birds have arrived yet. That said there was still a remarkable diversity of birdlife in Selati.
Throughout the day Crested francolin visited the waterhole with the males chasing the females around the water’s edge. Its small size and rhythmical call makes it a francolin. This francolin has a distinctive thick white eyebrow and it lifts its tail up like a Bantam chicken when it runs.
At around 18h00 each day many Double-banded sandgrouse arrived in pairs and small groups to drink at the waterhole. The males fluff out their breast feathers to absorb water which they carry back to their chicks. The water is collected by repeatedly “rocking” and shaking his belly feathers in the water. This process can take as long as fifteen minutes which makes the males vulnerable to predation. The sandgrouse chicks use their bills like tiny squeegees, “milking” their father’s belly feathers for the water they need. You can hear these sandgrouse flying in as they make a instantly recognisable call.
Crested barbets came down to drink a few times each day. They can be quite aggressive chasing other birds away from the edge of the water. Like sandgrouse we could often heard barbets before we saw them. Most birds flew into a nearby tree overlooking the waterhole to look around and make sure there are no threats before flying down to the water’s edge.
A Black-collared barbet at the water’s edge taking deep long drinks of water.
We were excited to see a Dark Chanting goshawk. It few into the trees away from the waterhole and spent some time looking around possibly for potential prey before eventually flying down to the water’s edge to drink.
Like many raptors, this Dark Chanting goshawk scooped up water with its beak. Birds generally do not have the ability to suck liquid into their throats so they fill their beak with water then tilt their head back to enable gravity to pull the liquid down their digestive tract.
Early on the second morning just after the hyaenas had stopped to drink, this dark morph Tawny eagle came down to drink. It was overcast and the light was low making the photography tricky. This Tawny did not stay long and left just as quietly as it arrived.
The arrival of birds at the waterhole was usually quiet unless it was a sandgrouse, barbet or drongo. This meant that you needed to be alert and watching the waterhole all the time. The birds arrive and departed much faster than the animals.
We only saw Red-billed oxpeckers around the water hole. Many oxpeckers arrived on the backs of impala, Sable, Kudu and Nyala. This species of oxpecker has olive-brown plumage with a vivid red eye and beak. Around the eye is a bright yellow eye ring.
A lone Red-billed oxpecker grooming itself after having been foraging through a young Sable antelope’s pelage. The Red-billed oxpecker feeds on ticks and parasites on the antelope’s hide. This species of oxpecker has a narrow bill which it uses to comb through the antelope’s hair to pry out parasites. These birds will also clean up open wounds and lesions.
After much practice we eventually managed to get reasonable images of the Emerald-spotted wood-dove taking off from the water’s edge after having slated its thirst. The five emerald spots are clearly visible among the tertiary wing feathers.
It is vital to watch these Emerald-spotted wood-doves to establish their pattern of behaviour around the waterhole when they are drinking. Without this pattern you will not consistently be able to capture these birds taking off from the waterhole. The ten primary wing feathers propel the bird through the air and the secondary wing feathers give it lift.
A Three-banded plover feeding on insects at the water’s edge. With its small sharp beak it plucks insects from the mud and the water surface. Its three distinct breast bands are clearly visible, two black and one white.
A Golden-Breasted bunting. We saw many pairs of these buntings at the waterhole. The male is instantly recognisable by its bright yellow breast. All southern African buntings have the characteristic black and white striped face.
A Groundscrapper thrush standing tall on long legs. It has a heavily streaked white breast and throat. Its face is strongly marked and its back feathers are brownish-grey. These thrushes are usually seen in pairs.
A Kurrichane thrush flying in for a drink. We usually saw individuals not pairs. This thrush has quite different colouring to its Groundscrapper cousin. It has a white belly, buff-orange flanks and underwing feathers. It has a light brown throat with a black moustache and a bright orange beak and eye-ring. This thrush loves picking through leaf litter for insects.
“Many birds have eye-rings, which are either brightly coloured feathers or bare skin around their eyes. These eye-rings are thought to convey different signals between birds. These signals may be associated with sexual maturity, age and health. They also provide birders with a vital aspect of identification.” ~ Mike Haworth
We saw this Pearl-spotted owlet fly in and land next to the waterhole. It was only the movement that caught our eye otherwise we would never have seen it as it blended into the ground perfectly.
After having spent some time on the ground, this Pearl-spotted owlet flew into a nearby tree overlooking the the waterhole. This one of the few owls that is often seen during the day. It has white speckles on its back and tail; white spots on the crown and head and brown streaks on its breast which are diagnostic. This owlet has an iconic and instantly recognisable call with an accelerating series of upslurred, piping “fwooo” notes, followed by a set of downward “puuueeeww” whistles ( Source: eBird).
It is always a thrill to see Green pigeons. They are beautifully coloured with light green body and head feathers with darker olive green back feathers. It has muted burgundy shoulder feathers. It has a pale coloured eye, red cere and pink feet with bright yellow leg feathers. This pigeon is often heard but not easily seen when it is high up in the trees because of its green colouring. Pigeons and doves are among the few birds that can suck water while their head is down so don’t need to lift their head to swallow.
The Green pigeons flew to the edge of the waterhole quickly and silently, drank quickly and flew off just as quickly and silently.
A flock of Red-headed weavers flew down to the far side of the waterhole to drink and bath. The male weaver has a red plumage on his head and throat during breeding season. The females have yellow plumage on their heads and throats. Both sexes have a yellowish-pink coloured beak.
Apart from their colourful bathing antics they looked to be really having fun. The breeding season is October to March which is when the males develop their characteristic red heads, which they use to impress females – and as a sign of maturity. Once the male has completed his nest a female will inspect the nest and, if she accepts it, she will line the nest with leaves as a sign of approval. After the eggs are laid the parents remain on high alert as the Diederik Cuckoo is a well-known brood parasite of the Red-Headed weaver.
The waterhole was frequented by a pair of Brown-hooded kingfishers. It has a brown head and blackish and turquoise wings. The wing coverts are mostly brownish-black, and the secondary flight feathers are turquoise. The rump is azure-blue. This kingfisher is an insect eater and unlike the Woodland is not migratory.
Often during the warmth of the day, this kingfisher would dive off its perch and dunk itself in the water to cool off.
“When you look at something what do you see, what do you hear and what do you feel and what were you looking for? ” ~ Mike Haworth
Another bird which is usually heard before it is seen is the Black-headed oriole. Often you will see flashes of bright yellow flitting between the trees before it eventually comes down to drink. This bird is immediately identifiable with its black head, red eyes and pink beak and most noticeably its bright yellow body plumage.
This bird prefers the acacia and broad-leafed woodland habitat and feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. It has a beautiful musical liquid call that sounds like “wholeucoo”.
Photographing birds from the hide at Selati was a treat. The birds tended to avoid the waterhole when the animals are drinking. I can only assume that it would even better with more diversity during the summer months once the migrants had arrived. For all but the raptors, you need a long focal length lens of a minimum of 600 mm and preferably 800 to 1000mm to photograph birds at the waterhole.
“Our eyes are wondrous things, but they have limits. Seeing is a much more intellectual process than looking. Perception and perspective can limit what we are looking at. That is the purpose of camouflage. Stop making a noise, pay attention and tune in. Use your ears and sense of smell to see. Pay attention to things and make the connections. When you do this the world around you will become infinitely more fascinating than you coulkd have imagined.” ~ Mike Haworth
It was fascinating to see how colourful the birds were in the the passing parade. The wonderful array of colours begs the question of whether birds see colour. The variety of colours suggest they do. A Yale/Cambridge study showed that birds not only do see many more colours than humans, but they see many more colours than they have in their plumage. Birds have additional colour cones in their retina that are sensitive to ultraviolet range so they see colours that are invisible to humans.
“Perception is your understanding and/or interpretation of people, situations and the world around you – it’s your mental impression. By contrast, perspective is the angle you are looking from – it’s your point of view.” ~ Sara Ballinger
There are times when there is so much bird activity around the waterhole that it was difficult deciding where to focus. With birds you have to pay attention all the time as they do not announce their arrival. Recognising bird calls helps in anticipating which birds are likely to come in to drink. They fly into the trees overlooking the waterhole to ensure the area is clear before flying down to the water’s edge to drink.
“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
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.