Summer in southern Africa is a time of warm evenings, hot days, rain and moody skies with thunder cloud build up in the afternoons. The rains normally begin in December and continue until April. The warmer wetter weather attracts summer avian palearctic migrants from as far as Russia. It is a time of bounty for the wildlife, especially the herbivores.
“Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.” ~ Rudyard Kipling
The next image was taken looking north east into the glare of the early morning sun from the Mashatu side of the Limpopo river. The river was flowing full but not in flood. The Limpopo meets the Shashe river at Shalimpo which is about 15 kilometres down river from where the next image was taken. When these two rivers are in flood there is a huge volume of water flowing along the South African-Zimbabwe boundary and on into Mozambique sometimes with devastating effects.
Looking west up the Limpopo river without the glare of the early morning sun. At this point, the Limpopo river is banked by South Africa on the south and Botswana and Mashatu on the north side. Although the earthen banks of the Limpopo are steep in places this river does, when in flood, burst its banks. Back in 2013, the Limpopo river burst its banks pouring a massive volume of water onto its flood plain in Mashatu. The flood waters reached well beyond the vlei about a kilometre from the normal course of the river.
Some mornings we were unsure of whether to go out for a game drive as the rain clouds were threatening. Of course this is just the time a wildlife photographer wants to go out as it offers unusual colours and moods and the wildlife behaves differently. The next image shows the cloud build up in the west which created a wonderful moody and threatening atmosphere.
“Jobs fill your pocket but adventures fill your soul.” ~ Jamie Lyn Beatty
On the south side of Mashatu lies a vlei (marsh) which becomes a wetland in summer. The low earth embankment serves as a dam wall which holds back big pools of water. These seasonal pools of rain water attract many species of waterfowl and waders. This dam wall is about a kilometre from the Limpopo river.
A view looking west across the vlei towards the red sandstone ridge which stretches for many kilometres from Mapungubwe in South Africa to Mmamagwa and Soloman’s wall at the far west boundary of Mashatu.
Down at Figtree crossing on the Majale river is a rocky section. It forms a bend in the river which holds deep pools of water in summer. This is a favourite part of the river for leopards. Late in the afternoon, the west bank is cast in shade affording wildlife some respite from the afternoon sun.
“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?” ~ Fred Rogers
Early one morning down at the vlei’s dam wall. We were parked on the wall looking at a pair of Fish eagles in a large dead tree when a flock of White-faced Whistling ducks flew in front of the dead tree to land on the dam wall. The large trees in the background are Mashatu trees, Leadwoods, Figtrees and Apple leafs which were growing close to the Limpopo river.
As the sun sets over the horizon we usually stop for sundowners. While the colours of the sky in the sunset are wonderful often by looking behind us the colours and scene can be just as beautiful and often more moody. The following image is of the moon rising partly obscured by clouds.
“Travel doesn’t become adventure until you leave yourself behind” ~ Marty Rubin
The impala rutting season is usually around April-May each year. The rutting is where males fight each other for the right to mate with the females. Successful mating usually results in a spate of new impala births around November-December to coincide with the rains and new grazing.
This is a view looking south across the vlei toward the large trees lining the Limpopo river. The edge of vlei close to the large trees is a favourite place for elephant families to forage. Beyond the trees on the South African side of the Limpopo is the sandstone ridge which runs through Mapungubwe National Park and Mashatu.
Leopards use these horizontal boughs of the large trees along the rivers to lie and sleep on. They usually spread their legs either side of the bough and look supremely comfortable. These boughs are high off the ground away from most diurnal threats except baboons.
The sandstone ridge runs from Mapungubwe in South Africa across the Limpopo river into Mashatu and on to Mmawagwa and Soloman’s wall on the far west side of Mashatu. In the sandstone ridge there are large dolerite intrusions which form massive rock outcrops.
Mapungubwe lies on the opposite side of the Limpopo river to Mashatu in a basin, called the Limpopo Mobile Belt, between two cratons (a large section of stable crust). About 250 million years ago the crust began to shift along the belt and molten rock from the mantle was pushed up through cracks in the sandstone. The molten rock formed dolerite dykes. Once the sandstone eroded away, the harder dolerite left behind created regular shaped ridges. These features can be seen in Mapungubwe National Park and Mmamagwa Hill on top of which can be found the so-called “Rhodes Baobab”. Solomon’s wall is an example of a vertical dolerite dyke which formed a dam wall across the Motloutse river. Over an extended period the dyke weathered to the point where the river breached the dyke. The two sides of the breached dyke either side of the Motloutse river are now called Solomon’s wall. (Source: South Africa.co.za/mapungubwe-geology.html).
” The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust
Mashatu is a place of great diversity. There are several different ecosystems. The area is steeped in history and the geology records a place of much change over the millenia. Wildlife lovers, photographers, botanists, ecologists, historians and geologists alike will find this a fascinating place worth exploring. Although Mashatu is Botswana soil, the dynamics of the area are strongly influenced by both South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Mashatu Nature Reserve offers the photographer and wildlife lover endless fascination.
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” ~ David Attenborough
The Limpopo river was flowing full. The first image was taken from the Mashatu side of the river looking west. The earth embankment shows how high the river level gets on occasions. There is a significant flood plain on the Mashatu side of the Limpopo river, the flatness of which allows the river, when it has burst its banks, to reach above the far side of the vlei which must be around a kilometre from the normal river course.
A pair of White-fronted bee-eaters which were hawking insects from a dead branch. The White-fronted and Little bee-eaters are resident in Mashatu. The Carmine and European bee-eaters are summer migrants.
We had great fun photographing the White-fronted bee-eaters flying from this perch, to catch insects, and then returning to the same perch. They did not always return to the same perch but they did often enough to encourage us to stay and try to photograph them.
Unlike the White-fronted bee-eater the Carmine bee-eater is an intra-African migrant. We saw many Carmines in the reserve in summer enjoying the feast of insects brought out by the rains and warm weather.
Each day we visited a Bat-eared fox den which we had found some distance above the vlei. The parents had three pups. When the wind blows they tend to flatten their ears to reduce the roaring sound of the wind. The sandy den entrance was surrounded by wild flowers creating a beautiful and peaceful scene.
“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.” ~David Attenborough
A Lesser Spotted eagle, one which did not fly away when we go fairly close. The stove-pipe leggings and size are diagnostic features of this predominately insect eating eagle.
Mashatu has several ecosystems. In summer the pans fill with rain water which attracts birds and animals alike. These spots can be very productive for wildlife photography.
“Your life requires your mindful presence in order to live it. Be here now.” ―~ Akiroq Brost
A summer migrant from Europe. There were many White storks in Mashatu in summer, all enjoying the bounty of insects in the grass and open plains.
I think there are two or three pairs of Saddle-billed storks resident in Mashatu. They can usually be found in the vlei or foraging in the river beds. This female Saddle-billed stork is identified by her yellow eye ring and she no yellow wattle under her beak. The male has a black eye and a yellow wattle under his beak.
The water filled pans attract waders of all sorts. This was a young member of a family of Kittlitz plovers foraging on the edge of the pan.
In the same pan as the Kittlitz plover family, this lone juvenile Marsh sandpiper was enjoying foraging in the shallow waters which offered rich pickings.
It was mid-morning and we were driving in the sand bed of a tributary which led down to the Majale river. In an open clearing in a croton grove we came across a leopardess relaxing with apparently not a care in the world.
There was also another vehicle at this sighting but she was completely relaxed and took no notice of either vehicle while we watched her for about 20 minutes.
“Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment.” — Deepak Chopra
Leopards look completely relaxed but they could react to a threat or hunting opportunity in an instant. Don’t ever be fooled!
She was a beautiful leopardess, majestic in her prime. Confident in her knowledge and capabilities.
The dam wall at the east end of the vlei in Mashatu. In summer it holds back water making large pools which attract waterfowl, pelicans and storks. I have never seen the water higher than what is shown in the image below other than when the flood broke the dam wall many years ago.
A breeding herd of elephants making their way out of the Croton grove feeding on the lush grasses in an open clearing. They must have been down at the Majale river to drink and bathe.
A lone lioness lying in the shade in the Majale river bed. This is the coolest place to be as the moist sand also helps her keep cool. It was still fairly early in the morning so she was relatively alert.
“Always hold fast to the present. Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I have been to Mashatu many times over the past 12 years and never grow tired of climbing on the game vehicle full of expectation of what I will see in the next few hours. The wildlife sightings and photographic opportunities are many and varied.
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” ~ Alice Morse Earle
There is also a benefit from getting to know a place intimately. The wildlife is dynamic and the weather is ever changing so I am always seeing different sightings in different places with the weather creating different moods and colours.
“Wherever you are be all there.” ~ Jim Elliot
In my next post from this trip to Mashatu I will show the different moods which Mashatu offers.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Mashatu Nature Reserve is a private game reserve in the Tuli Bloc and is located in the south east corner of Botswana. It is a place of great contrasts and offers an unusual and remarkable diversity of ecosystems and wildlife.
Our family is fortunate to be part of a closed syndicate whose camp is located along the Limpopo river in Mashatu. The camp is positioned next to a large outcrop of rocks which gives the camp its name.
“We live in deeds, not years: in thoughts, not breaths; In feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.” ~ Philip James Bailey
Everyday, weather allowing, we go out on two guided game drives, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In this post I decided to show the eclectic mix of sightings we were privileged to see on just one morning game drive. Each game drive provides wonderful photographic opportunities and the chance to be immersed in the bush with all its colours, sounds and smells. No game drive is ever the same. You see different wildlife in different places doing different things each time.
In summer, we gather on the veranda of the camp’s main lodge for a cup of coffee and a rusk at around 5h30. We are on the game vehicle and off out of the camp by 6h00. It is light by then and affords us approximately four hours on the game drive.
“The world is a great book, of which they that never stir from home read only a page.” ~ St. Augustine
This particular morning we had been travelling for about 15 minutes and were near the landing strip when we came across a clan of Spotted hyaenas. The clan has a den in the rocks near the camp so we hear them most nights with occasional visits by them while we are telling stories around the camp fire after supper.
The adults in the clan were still out hunting at first light.
The adult hyaenas picked up on a smell of the remains of a kill the night before perhaps from a leopard or lion. The older members of the clan have a well worn muzzle which gives them an even more unnerving look.
Very close to where we saw the hyaenas, who eventually found a few remaining bones from the carcass, a herd of blue wildebeest were watching the hyaena with interest as they had young among them. A group of the young bulls started advancing towards the hyaenas but were careful not to get too close.
We travelled further north above the vlei (marsh) where we found a family of Bat-eared foxes enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun.
The Bat-eared foxes were skittish so we did not try to get too close to them. This is where the long focal length lenses help.
“We are all too much inclined, I think, to walk through life with our eyes shut. There are things all round us and right at our very feet that we have never seen, because we have never really looked.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell
One of the Bat-eared foxes was watching a Steppe buzzard intently.
This Steppe buzzard which was the focus of the Bat-eared fox’s attention looked to have found a grasshopper or field mouse which it was feeding on.
Another Steppe buzzard had just taken off with its tail and wing feathers spread wide for maximum lift at low speed. Steppe buzzards are summer migrants like the Lesser Spotted and Wahlberg’s eagles.
On this particular trip we saw an unusual number of Lesser Spotted eagles. Although eagles, they feed mainly on insects such as flying ants and grasshoppers. We saw many of them down near the vlei. They are also skittish and do no like you to get too close. The stove-pipe like leggings are a diagnostic feature of this species.
In recent trips to Mashatu we have regularly seen Lanner falcons. They are usually solitary. Lanner falcons are fast and agile flyers and usually hunt by horizontal pursuit; they take mainly bird prey in flight.
“None but the ignorant can be bored by life. To the lovers of learning, life is pure adventure shared with adventurers.” ~ Pearl S. Buck
By around 9h00 it was already getting hot. The weather was variable with quite a bit of cloud around. Nevertheless, this leopard must have had a busy night because it was already asleep on a horizontal bough in deep shade high above harm’s way.
Near the Majale river we found many Village indigo birds. The Village indigo bird is identified by it back plumage and red beak. This is a small bird the size of a waxbill.
On the ridge between the vlei and the Majale river came upon a herd of Burchell’s zebra. One mare was lying down asleep while her two family members watched over her. This type of behaviour is more often seen among foals. You can identify the Burchell’s zebra by the brown shadow stripe in between the black stripes on its coat.
This was lucky shot of a Kurrichane buttonquail. This character happened to stop in the road to see what we were doing. Normally they flush at the last moment and you just see their backs as they fly 10 to 20 metres into the grass on the side of the road and are lost from view.
“We live in a mystery. Our lives have flowed from exploding stars, from tides of time and gravity beyond our ken.” ~ John Daniel
We got back to camp around 10h00. By now the sun was high and light was getting harsher. As we were driving past the rock outcrop outside camp we saw a family of Klipspringers. The adult male was on lookout. We saw several species of herbivores on top of the rock outcrop including zebra and wildebeest.
A female Klipspringer with her young appeared in the shadows. It is always intriguing to see these unique herbivores standing on what appears to be tip toes. Klipspringers are extremely agile on rocks with their unique hooves.
The sub adult Klipspringer settled down in the shade with its attention firmly focused on the Rock hyraxes running around on the rocks in front of him.
Back in camp around mid morning, we had breakfast together while chatting about all the sights and experiences we had during the game drive. The camp overlooks a waterhole so the game viewing continues all day with great views from the veranda of the camp’s main lodge.
After brunch everyone relaxes and we get together around 15h30 for the afternoon game drive. We were lucky enough to do this for six days.
“Be brave enough to live creatively. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can only get there by hard work, by risking and by not quite knowing what you are doing. What you will discover will be wonderful: Yourself.” ~ Alan Alda
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Mashatu is known, among many other things, for its wonderful leopard sightings. Most of the sightings take place along the Majale river or in the drainage lines feeding into the Majale. The Majale is the main river coursing through Mashatu Nature Reserve and it is seasonal. In the summer, December to March, the rains create numerous pools of water in this meandering river. Even in the rainy season it seldom flows bank to bank. The rains also fill up the pans so the wildlife spreads out and does not need to come to the Majale to drink.
“Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.” ~ Emma Smith
Along the Majale is a selection of large Mashatu trees (Nyala berry), Leadwoods and Apple-leafs which provide ample shade and places for leopards to lie in the heat of the day, and there are also many Croton groves in which leopards can hunt.
“The river has great wisdom and whispers its secrets to the hearts of men.” ~Mark Twain
Late one afternoon our guide, Justice, was driving the southern bank of the Majale. We had been following the meandering course of the river driving under all the large Mashatu trees looking for leopards. We also drove through the Croton groves where leopards can sometimes be found lying on the ground in the shade of the Croton bushes. Eventually travelling west we arrived at Figtree crossing. There lying among the rocks in the afternoon shade next to one of the remaining pools of water we found a solitary young male leopard.
This leopard, after spending some time just looking and listening, got up and went down to the water’s edge for a drink.
There were no baboons around so he got to drink in peace. Nevertheless he was alert and looking around while he was drinking.
After sating his thirst he got up and started walking east along the dry riverbed.
The late afternoon light cast a warm hue of golden light over the northern bank which was reflected in the remaining pool of water.
This young male leopard eventually climbed up the northern bank. He looked ready to hunt rather than just patrolling his territory. Regularly he would stop and just look and listen.
“In stillness lives wisdom. In quiet you’ll find peace. In solitude you’ll remember yourself.”~ Robin Sharma
The vegetation away from the northern bank of the Majale was verdant and gave him plenty of cover. As he wandered along the edge of a Croton grove he stopped in mid stride to listen to something that caught his attention.
After wandering for about 20 minutes he eventually climbed the trunk of a fallen acacia tree. This tree was probably pushed over by elephants but the fallen trunk gave him an elevated view of the surrounding area.
It was dusk and the light was fading fast. There was plenty of cloud so the late afternoon light would break through the cloud for fleeting moments. The leopard found a comfortable spot to lie down and just look and listen. In the distance he could hear baboons barking which made his ears turn back slightly. The baboons were far way, so there was no encroaching threat to him.
It is a real privilege to sit quietly and just watch a leopard sensing its environment.
This young male appeared relaxed and from a distance his coat blended in with the fallen tree remarkably well. In the fading light, if we had not seen him climb into the fallen tree trunk we might have not seen him at all.
” Learning to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance.”~ Morgan Freeman
Young male leopards are usually chased away from the rich hunting ground along the Majale river by the mature males. The older males are considerably more secretive and less used to the game vehicles.
We spent an entrancing hour with this young male leopard. We did not need to get too close because I was using a long camera lens so while he was aware of us he ignored us.
“Can you be alone without being lonely? Can you spend time by yourself without craving noise or company of other people? Have you discovered the glory of quiet time spent alone, time spent listening to your soul? Solitude brings with it gifts that come from nowhere else.” ~ Steve Goodier
We usually see leopards in the early morning or at dusk. Often at dusk, a leopard will come down from his arboreal shady resting place and lie on the ground gathering himself for the night’s hunting. Last light is often a good time to see leopards come down to the pools of remaining water in the otherwise dry Majale riverbed. The baboons are usually making their way to the trees where the troop will sleep so the leopards are less likely to bump into a troop of baboons at last light. The early mornings can be quite a different interaction where the leopards have to be more careful.
This is my third post on birds seen and photographed in Mashatu Nature Reserve in January. Mashatu is a private nature reserve in the Tuli Bloc in south eastern Botswana, in southern Africa.
In this post I show 27 different species of bird seen and photographed in Mashatu. There are many birds seen but not photographed. I am not a birder with a list. I prefer to see the bird, enjoy and photograph it. No bird will ever be a tick on a bird list. In my world the number does not count but seeing understanding and identifying its unique character and behaviour is much more important to me.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ~ John Burroughs
My photography has gone a long way towards improving my knowledge of birds because I get to see them up close and have a lingering image to be able to search for the identifying characteristics. Often I get a chance to sit quietly on the game vehicle and just observe the behaviour of the bird which adds to my general bird knowledge.
The next image is of an adult female Saddle-billed stork which had been fishing in one of the small remaining pools of water in the Majale river. The female is identified by her yellow eye and lack of yellow wattle under her chin. Both the male and female have the characteristic bi-coloured red beak with a black band across the bill just below the yellow wattle above the upper mandible. The Saddle-billed stork also has the pink knees which, look sore. This is a tall strikingly coloured black and white stork.
A Spotted flycatcher sitting on a twig just above the sand bank along the Majale river. Spotted flycatchers hunt from conspicuous perches, making sallies after passing flying insects, and often returning to the same perch. Their upright posture is characteristic. This is an undistinguished looking bird with long wings and tail. The adults have grey-brown upperparts and whitish underparts, with a streaked crown and breast, giving rise to the bird’s common name. The legs are short and black, and the bill is black and has the broad but pointed shape typical of aerial insectivores.
A Marsh Sandpiper foraging along the bank of a shallow pan which had formed in the recent rains. This is a medium-sized wading bird, with a long thin straight beak which is yellowish around the nares and darkens to a black tip. It has yellowish legs. It is most similar to the Green sandpiper but differs by lighter colouring, white underwings, and larger white spots on back. Like the Wood the Marsh sandpiper has a diffuse border between speckled chest and white belly. Its tail is not banded like the Green sandpiper, The Wood and Marsh sandpipers’ plumage leaves an overall much paler impression than Green Sandpiper, particularly in flight.
“The lesson which life constantly repeats is to ‘look under your feet.’ You are always nearer to the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars. Every place is the center of the world.” ~ John Burroughs
An immature Steppe buzzard. It was perch hunting from a dry tree close to the Apple-tree grove down near the vlei in Mashatu. This a migratory raptor and one of the most common species of raptor in southern Africa during the summer months. The Steppe buzzard shows great variation in colour which vary from rufous to grey in its plumage. Common to all morphs of the Steppe buzzard is a pale zone across the breast which separates the streaked underpart on the breast with a more brown banded belly and rump. The juvenile does not have the belly banding. Like all buzzards it has yellow legs which are bare to half way its tarsals and a yellow cere and small aquiline black beak.
The Red-backed shrike is a summer visitor. The male has distinctive colouring, with blue-gray head, black eye mask, rusty-brown back; female has warm brown upperparts, fine dark scalloping on breast and flanks. It has a typical shrike like beak with a sharp tip to it. It is found in open areas with scattered bushes and trees. This carnivorous shrike hunts from perches on top of bushes and favours areas with thorny plants on which prey (small birds, large insects, rodents) can be impaled in “larders.”
A lone White-backed vulture patiently waiting for the air to warm up in the morning and thermals to develop. It uses these thermals to climb to great heights without major effort. It is always remarkable that you may not see a raptor in the sky and when a carcass is discovered by one how all the others, watching each other, soon get a lock on the position of the carcass on the ground and descending rapidly from great heights in numbers.
A Kori bustard foraging in the long grass for edibles. This bustard is omnivorous and will eat anything it can find ranging from small birds, to insects and rodents. These large birds are shy and will walk away as soon as they see you. The males put on majestic mating displays by standing upright, lifting his black crest feathers, fluffing out his neck feathers, pushing down its wings and lifting his tail.
We found a small flock of Abdim storks on the open grassland south of the Majale river which was unusual. This bird breeds north of the equator, but spends the rest of the year in eastern and southern parts of Africa. This is a medium-sized stork with glossy, black body except for its white belly. The Abdim’s Stork underparts are pure white, except its throat, chin, and upper breast, which have the same colour as its upperparts. Its underwings have black flight feathers and white coverts. It face is bare skinned and blue in colour with red lores. The legs are grey and the feet and ankles are pink in colour. The Abdim’s diet consists mainly of insects including swarming locust, grasshoppers, and crickets but can extend to small mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, crabs, scorpions, and molluscs. This gregarious African migrant often appears in huge nomadic flocks numbering in the thousands, normally in response to heavy rains or large fires, after which they forage on the escaping insects.
The White stork is another summer migrant from Europe. It is a large stork standing around one metre in height substantially bigger the the Abdim stork which stands just over 70 cm. The White stork has white plumage with black flight feathers and wing coverts. It has a long pointed vivid red beak which it uses for probing in the grass and stabbing its prey. This stork’s legs are red but often appear whitish. White storks direct their faeces and urine onto their own legs, making them appear white. This acts as a cooling mechanism. When it evaporates creating a similar cooling effect when we sweat. The White stork is a carnivorous and its diet varies from insects to earthworms, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Less commonly, they also eat bird eggs and young birds, fish, molluscs, crustaceans and scorpions.
An adult southern Carmine bee-eater perched on a small branch of a Shepherd’s tree ready to hawk flying insects. The adult bee-eaters are mostly aerial foragers. Their diet consists of various invertebrates (e.g. dragonflies, termites and locusts), There are two species of Carmine bee-eater, the southern and northern both of which are found in Africa. Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are summer migrants to woodland savanna. They have a wide distribution range within Africa. The Carmine is the largest of the southern African bee-eaters. It has dark brownish carmine colouring on its back and wings and a lighter carmine colour on its breast and belly. Its neck has pink plumage and under tail coverts are a power blue. It has a dark aquamarine coloured crown, and a black eye band extending from its lores to its ear coverts which is thought to reduce glare in the bright summer daylight.
An adult male Village indigo bird. This is a small 11 cm dark steel blue finch-like seedeater identified by its red beak and legs. The other three species of Indigo birds have white beaks. The Village Indigobird mimics the song of another species, especially the Red-Billed Firefinch. The Indigobird is another brood parasite and specialises in deceiving the Red-billed Firefinch. This mimcry is “diagnostic” because, although the other Indigobirds are also brood parasites, each of them mimics the species it uses as a host. As a brood parasite the female Village Indigobird lays her eggs in the nests of Red-billed firefinches. Unlike the common cuckoo, it does not destroy the host’s egg. Typically, 2-4 eggs are added to those already present. The eggs of both the host and the firefinch are white, although the indigobird’s are slightly larger.
The next image is of a male Indigobird coming into its breeding plumage. This Indigobird visited the bird bath in front of Rock Camp’s main lodge.
A Sabota lark talking to the whole world from on top of a dead tree stump. A medium-sized, streaky lark with a strong white eyebrow that gives it a capped appearance. It has a bold face pattern which is emphasised by a white crescent under the eye and strong moustachial streaks. The heavily streaked breast contrasts with a plain whitish belly and throat. In spring and summer, the male sits up on a prominent perch singing a rich, melodious, variable song that often includes imitations of other birds. The Sabota Lark lacks the rufous wing panel present in Fawn-coloured, Flappet, and Rufous-naped Larks. The Sabota Lark feeds on seeds and insects, the latter of which include ants, spiders, grasshoppers, termites and beetles.
An adult Barn swallow perched precariously at the end of a twig while being buffeted in the wind. This swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. The adult Barn swallow has a chestnut rufous throat and forehead, a blue-black breast band, glossy steel-blue upperparts and a deeply forked tail. It has a white belly and flank which clearly shows on the tail when spread. This swallow typically feeds about 7 to 8 m above shallow water or the ground and is a highly agile flier which flies in an erratic pattern. It is often seen following animals, humans or farm machinery to catch disturbed insects.
A trio of White-fronted bee-eaters nestling close to each other in the cool early morning. This species of bee-eater is resident in Mashatu. The White-fronted bee-eater has a black eye band like most bee-eaters and a white and red band on its throat. Its neck and belly are a brownish buff colour and its upper and lower tail coverts are a powder blue. Its upper parts and wings are an emerald green. These birds hawk bees, as well as other small flying insects such as wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and flies. These aerial insectivores use their tweezer-shaped bills and wide open gapes to catch the flyting insects and displaying incredible manoeuvrability on the wing to do so. They have one of the most complex of all avian societies, featuring families, clans, and pirates!
A male Square-tailed nightjar resting on the ground early in the morning on a bank next to the Limpopo river. These nightjars are usually found in shady gravel areas where their camouflage helps them blend in to their surroundings. Key identifying features are the white markings on the outer tail feathers and folded wings, , in the case of the male, and its tawny-buff collar. It has a prominent black crown markings without clear cut grey surround. The adult of this species has vermiculated grey wings, richly marked with white and salmon teardrop-shaped spots on it median and greater wing coverts which are interspersed with black markings. A line of white spots on the lesser wing coverts form a white bar. This species prefers more open woodland than the fiery-necked nightjar and have a steady trilling call.
We watched these two African hoopoes for about 40 minutes. We saw them first foraging on the ground in the sand in one track of the road. They then flew up into a nearby high dead tree. One partner seemed to be searching for food under the bark while the other was very interested in a hole in the knot of the tree which could have been a nest.
A Brown-hooded kingfisher on top of a dead branch looking up at the storks circling high above. This is a medium-sized woodland-dwelling kingfisher. Its tail and flight feathers are blue, and its back and shoulders are dark brown. It has grey-brown streaked head, a a red beak and red feet. It has all the qualities of a kingfisher, but does not feed on fish. It is an insectivore eating insects, small lizards, centipedes, spiders, scorpions and even chameleons. Brown Hooded Kingfishers usually catch their prey on the ground and kill it by beating it against a tree and in the process break the exoskeleton to facilitate digestion. After a few meals, this kingfisher will often cough up a small pellet removing part of the exoskeleton it cannot digest.
A fledged but young Martial eagle perched on top of a Shepherd tree. This a large eagle, close in size to that of a Black eagle. The juvenile has mostly white underparts and brown upper parts. The adult by contrast has a brown head neck and chest and the belly and legs are white with brown spots. The Martial, like the African Crowned Eagle and African Hawk-eagle, has piercing yellow eyes. It has a grey beak with a black tip and a yellow cere. Birds form an important part of this eagle’s diet, and include guineafowl, francolins and bustards. It will also prey on small mammals and reptiles as large as a full grown monitor lizards. Martial Eagles spend around 85% of their time perched and take to the wing later in the morning once the thermals have begun to develop. This eagle is predominantly opportunistic perch and ambush hunter.
A male Diederick cuckoo sitting call in a Purple-pod Terminalia. These birds can been hard to see as they are small and blend well with the trees and bushes they occupy, especially when looking at them from behind. The Diederick cuckoo has a distinctive red eye, emerald green head, nape and back and white underparts which become strongly barred from the breast to the belly. It has a central white stripe over its crown and several white markings on its secondary feathers and upper coverts. All cuckoos are summer residents and are parasitic breeders. The Diederick cuckoo parasites weaver, bishops and sparrow nests. The female lays either one or two eggs in the host nest and will remove the host egg before laying her own.
“Nature we have always with us, an in exhaustible store-house of that which moves the heart, appeals to the mind and fires the imagination — health to the body, a stimulus to the intellect, and joy to the soul.” ~ John Burroughs
An adult Tawny eagle perched on top of a Shepherd tree which it was using as a lookout. Tawny’s have a huge variety of plumage morphs but this one was a rich rufous colour all over. A Tawny is a mid-sized eagle with a long neck, well-feathered legs, well-proportioned frame and large bill which lacks a deep gape. The gape only extends in line with the middle of the eye. It has strong yellow feet. Like many large raptors, the Tawny eagle spends the majority of its day perched but take wing a few times a day once the thermal have developed. They scavenge and pirate when they can, and hunt when they cannot. The Tawny’s diet varies from what they can scavenge at a kill to birds and small mammals to termites.
A Burchell’s coucal perched on a dead branch. Identified by the fine barring on its upper and low tail coverts.
A yellow-rumped widow also known s a yellow bishop was displaying to passing females from the top of a thorn bush. This widow bird was seen on the west side of the vlei in Mashatu. This male was in full breeding plumage which is black with yellow upper coverts and a yellow rump. The female is brown and heavily streaked below, without yellow highlights.
This was one of three alarmed Three-banded coursers on the gravel road encountered when we were returning to camp around 19h00. This is one of the only two nocturnal coursers in southern Africa, the other being the Bronze-winged courser. This courser is not often seen possibly because it is nocturnal and it has cryptic markings on its upper parts make it difficult to see in daylight. It has a prominent dark brown crown with a broad white stripe extending from its buff coloured supercilium. These white stripes meet on the back of the neck forming a “v”. It has large brown eyes with a thin yellow eye-ring. It has a short yellow beak with a black tip. It has three bands on its throat and breast. The upper band is dark brown and extends from the ear coverts to to the upper chest to form a “v” shape. Below that band is a white band. Below the white band is a broad buff band with dark brown streaks. The third band is a rust coloured extending across its white lower chest and belly. This courser prefers semi-arid areas. During the day these coursers roost on the ground in the shade of a bush. They are insectivorous.
A Swainson’s spurfowl sitting on a dead log early in the morning. The distinguishing characteristics are red skin on its throat and face, and black/brown legs. Swainson’s spurfowl appear brown at a distance but a closer look shows vermiculated upper parts and light brown underparts with dark brown streaks. Its legs and feet are dark grey to black. These birds are found in savanna areas in the northern and eastern area of southern Africa.
This male Swainson’s spurfowl was declaring his presence to the world. This character’s spurs had been worn down signalling an old bird which had been in numerous scuffles over mates. Spurfowl are omnivorous in their habits and feed on bulbs, seeds, berries, shoots insects and molluscs. Swainson’s perch low down in trees at night and don’t drink much during the day but will typically drink before they go to roost.
A Lesser Grey-backed shrike. This is another summer migrant from Europe. It has a distinctive black forecrown and mask which extends to its ear coverts. It has a grey nape, back and upper rump coverts. It has a white underparts from its throat to its rump coverts. and contrast between pinky breast and white throat distinctive. This shrike prefers thornveld areas and is insectivorous. This species of shrike migrates back to Europe in the early part of April each year and by mid-April they have all gone north to breed and feed.
A male long-tailed Paradise whydah looking out for females. In his breeding plumage the male has a black head crown and throat. His chest is a rust brown-orange and his belly and back of his neck are a rich creamy light yellow colour. Its back wings and tail feathers are all a glossy black. This whydah is polygynous and will mate with as many as 10 females. The female is a host-specific brood parasite and lays her eggs in the nest of the Green-winged pytilia. Unlike other brood parasites, paradise whydahs do not remove the host’s eggs when laying its own and the parasite chick does not kill its host “sibling”.
A European roller is yet another summer visitor. This roller was preening itself while sitting on an elevated dead branch. Two other types of roller are seen in Mashatu, the Lilac-breasted and the Purple roller. Like all rollers the European roller is known for its aerial acrobatics during courtship or territorial flights. This roller is light azure powder blue colour on its head and underparts and the underside of its tail feathers. It has a light brown back and rump but reveals electric blue wings in flight. This roller perches on a prominent lookout and hawks prey. Its diet includes large insects, small reptiles, rodents, and small frogs.
The small sample of bird images I have shown in the last three posts offer an idea of the prolific bird life to be found in Mashatu, especially when all the migrants have arrived for the southern African summer months from November to March.
“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter…to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring— these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”
~ John Burroughs
Game vehicles are allowed to go off road in Mashatu which contributes greatly to the photographic opportunities. There is also a varied occurrence of smaller birds around the camps which adds to the interest when in camp.
Mashatu Nature Reserve in January. It was a time of good rains which transformed the colour palette of the area from brown and gold to verdant greens and yellows. The migrants, inter-African and Eurasian had arrived. It was hot and blazing with colour. The Majale, the main river coursing through Mashatu, had plenty of large pools of water. It never flows perennially but can flow strongly after good rains.
“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?” ~ David Attenborough
This post shows a further small selection of birds which were seen and photographed in Mashatu.
A Lesser Spotted eagle perched in a dead tree looking and waiting for insects to appear. This is a medium-sized, compact eagle which migrates from Eastern Europe to feed in southern Africa during summer. When perched, the adults are characteristically two toned with their dark flight feathers contrasting their paler brown body feathers and upper wing coverts. Usually, a white patch occurs on the upper wings, and adults have a clearly marked white “V” on the rump, usually only seen when flying. The head and beak are small for an eagle possibly because it is mainly an insect eater.
A pair of Red-billed hornbills. There are five species of Red-billed, but we find the southern species in southern Africa. This group of birds are conspicuous visually and sound-wise. It has mainly whitish underparts and head. Its back and head are dark grey and the upper parts of its wings are a dark grey with vivid white splotches. It has a long black tail and a long curved red bill which lacks a casque, which is usually only present in hornbills living in forests or heavily wooded areas. This species of hornbill has a characteristic long decurved red bill with pink skin around its yellow eyes. In the image above the male was about to present his female with a gift of bark as part of his courting process.
A Fork-tailed drongo perched on the branch of a Shepherd tree. This species typically perches on a branch and hawks insects. This bird has a large head with a hooked black bill (similar to a shrike), and a red eye. A key diagnostic feature is its deeply forked tail. This bird is a highly agile flier similar to bee-eater. The drongo is talkative and an accomplished mimic. The Fork-tailed drongo is a kleptoparasite specialist, using its mimic abilities to get effect. Birds of prey are often mobbed by the agile Fork-tailed drongo, who see the raptor as a threat.
“Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we will soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson
A female Bearded woodpecker. The female has a black crown on her head not a red one seen on the male. Both male and female have the characteristic black throat which looks like a beard and a black eye band which extends from the beak to the ear coverts. A woodpecker’s tongue wraps around its skull, acting as a cushion for the brain when it taps on the hard surface of a branch. The pecking and tapping on branches have several functions, one to claim territory, two to attract mates and three to reach insects and grubs the bark of the tree.
A Kurrichane Buttonquail on the track in front of the game vehicle. This is a small 15 cm high quail. Usually it flushes late when approached or surprised and flies about 20 metres before landing in the thick grass cover again. Its cryptic upper parts make it very difficult to see in the grass. The head and back are mainly russet brown. The eye is cream and clearly is visible, and its beak is blue grey and its legs pinkish. It feeds on insects and seeds on the ground.
A Burchell’s coucal with a large caterpillar for breakfast. This is one of four species of coucal found in southern Africa. The coucal is a member of the cuckoo family. It has the characteristic ochre brown back and wing feathers. Its head and nape are black, its eye is ruby red and its throat and underparts a creamy white. A key differentiating feature is the finely barred upper tail coverts. It has a beautiful liquid call which sounds remarkably like water being poured from a narrow-necked bottle followed by a series of “tu tu tu tu”. This species is often called the “rainbird” because it is often seen before the onset of rain. Its attractive appearance and gentle liquid song disguises its voracious predatory nature. It is feared by smaller birds as it frequently raids the nests of other birds to prey on any young nestlings and eggs. It will also prey on frogs, lizards, rodents and insects.
A Natal spurfowl declaring its territory from a prominent lookout early one morning. This species of spurfowl has distinctive yellow nostrils and a bright orange-red bill and legs. The spurs on this spurfowl were well worn signaling it was an older bird which must have been in many fights.
There are six francolin species and six spurfowl species in Southern Africa. The distinction between these groups is apparent in their plumage, escape flight behaviour and vocalisations. The francolin is smaller and has yellow legs. It typically crouches and sits tight before flushing when disturbed, whereas spurfowls tend to run for cover. Francolins also have a more musical call whereas spurfowl have a more raucous harsh call. A spurfowl is larger and has orange, red or black legs. The spurfowl roosts in trees at night like a guineafowl whereas francolin trend to stay on the ground. The Crested francolin is the exception to the rule among francolins.
A male Namaqua dove. It has a very long black tapered tail, and the size and shape have led to comparison with the budgerigar. The plumage is mostly a grey-brown apart from a white belly. Its primary feathers are chestnut and very visible in flight. The adult male has a yellow and red beak and a black face, throat and breast. The adult female lacks the black and has a red-based grey beak. There is no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorise them by size where a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon.
A Grey heron standing alert on the branch of a dead tree. The Grey heron has a black streak on its head whereas the Black-Headed heron has a solid black head and the former’s feathers are predominantly grey. The Grey heron has a yellow beak and brown legs, whereas the Black-Headed heron has a dark grey beak and grey legs. The Grey heron has light grey feathers, whereas the Black-Headed heron has dark grey feathers. Herons are waders, and have long legs and can measure up to a metre in height. Their preferred diet is aquatic creatures, caught while foraging in shallow water or from the bank. The beak is large and pointed to assist its predatory behaviour. Its diet comprises fish, frogs, insects, beetles and small birds.
A Terrestrial Brownbul having a bath in the bird bath in front of Rock Camp which is one of several camps located along the Limpopo river. It is inconspicuous and camouflaged, occupying the shadowy undergrowth of thickly vegetated habitats, It mainly eats arthropods (spiders, beetles, mantises, moths and butterflies etc.), probing and overturning leaf litter in search of prey.
A White-browed Robin-chat, also known as the Heuglin’s robin. This character also came to the bird bath to cool off in the heat of January. It has a black head and face with a white brow. Its neck and underparts are a bright orange. One of the charming features of the bird is its beautiful call where a pair’s duet can often be heard just after dawn and at dusk.
“The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back when removed to a distance. It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense – the home sense – which operates unerringly.” ~ John Burroughs
A Wood sandpiper foraging in the pans filled by the recent rains. This sandpiper is a summer visitor from Eurasia. It eats a variety of insects, small fish and frogs, foraging by slowly walking on the ground or in shallow water, probing, pecking and sweeping its bill from side to side in search of prey. This sandpiper has dark brown upper parts with white spots and a broad distinctive white eyebrow which starts above its lore and extends above and behind the eye. Its neck and breast feathers are a light buff-brown colour which transitions gradually into white belly and rump feathers. Its beak is dark grey but transitions into a green-yellow around the lores and gape. It has long yellow legs. By contrast, a Green sandpiper tends to be stockier than the Wood sandpiper, and is less elegant and shorter-legged. The Green sandpiper’s legs are a greenish-grey colour.
An adult Hammerkop preening itself on the jutting branch a dead tree above the Majale river around mid-morning. This is a squat, brown bird the size of a small ibis with a bushy-crested “hammer-head”. It is commonly found near wetlands and rivers. Hammerkops eat frogs, fish, invertebrates, and crustaceans found in shallow water. The Hammerkop is also known as the “Lightning bird” in certain African tribe’s folklore. It takes the form of a bird which is the size of a person, with the power to summon thunder and lightning with its wings and talons. The bird is of imaginary nature and may take several forms. According to folklore, the Lightning Bird is impervious to gunshots or stabbing, it cannot be poisoned or drowned, but according to folklore can be destroyed by fire.
A Lanner falcon hunting from its perch on a dead Shepherd bush. It is the largest falcon in southern Africa and is differentiated from the Peregrine falcon by its larger size and and whitish-buff coloured underparts with brown spots. This was a juvenile as seen by its light buff coloured crown. The adult usually has a russet coloured crown. The yellow eye-ring and black teardrop-like moustache extending from the eye down its cheek are characteristic features of most falcons and Hobbys.
I have a special interest in Lanner falcons. I have not seen them often and they have a special place in my birding heart from memories of senior school friends, especially Adrian Lombard, flying their Lanners at our bush boarding school, Falcon College, located south of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.
Mashatu boasts more than 350 species of birds on the reserve. During the winter months the variety diminishes as the migrants return north to feed and breed. In winter in Mashatu, the resident birds gather around the small pools of water that remain from the wet season. During the summer months huge flocks of birds arrive from the north to feed. The unique variety of ecosystems in Mashatu ensure a wide variety of bird species can be seen from wader and waterbirds at the vlei to coursers and sandgrouse in the drier areas.
“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.” ~ Robert Wilson Lynd
I have one more post on birds from my Mashatu trip in January after which I will shift onto mammals and the varied scenery.
This is the first post after a long break due to an overseas trip and having caught Covid on the flight back from overseas. I intend to resume my regular wildlife posts. I have a significant backlog to catch up from 2022.
Mashatu is a private game reserve in the south eastern section of Botswana called the Tuli Block. The landscape and fauna is diverse and so too is the wildlife.
“Climb on to the game vehicle after your cup of coffee and a rusk and get ready to be bewitched for the next few hours.” ~ Mike Haworth
The next three posts offer a small glimpse into the wide variety of birds that can be seen on a few game drives in Mashatu. This post shows a few examples of different birds in flight.
“Tame birds sing of freedom. Wild birds fly.” ~ John Lennon
January in Mashatu is a time when the migrants are around. Some of the more notable migrants are Lesser Spotted eagle, White storks, Carmine and European bee-eaters, European rollers, and Woodland kingfishers to name just a few.
The next image is of a Steppe buzzard having just taken off from its perch. This buzzard feeds on insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. I have not seen it every summer in Mashatu. We saw several members of this species during this trip so there must have been many insects around.
The White-fronted bee-eater is a resident in Mashatu and is seen mainly along the banks of the Majale river, the main river flowing through Mashatu into the Limpopo river. In the hot mornings and afternoons when there are plenty of flying insects in the air, these bee-eaters are very busy hawking the insects.
This female Saddle-billed stork had just taken off after feeding in a pool in the Majale river. The female Saddle-billed stork has a yellow eye-ring and no yellow wattle under her beak. This stork had been hunting for frogs and fish in the shallow pools of water in the Majale river.
There were numerous White storks in the open grassland in Mashatu. They were feeding on insects in the grass. These storks urinate on their legs making them appear white. This provides a cooling mechanism similar to sweating, a phenomenon known as urohidrosis.
Summer brings the Yellow-billed kites. They are wonderful, agile fliers and are recognisable in flight by their brown plumage and forked tail. The Yellow-billed kite and Black kite ranges overlap and look very similar. The simplest way to tell them apart is by looking at the beak. The Yellow-billed kite has a totally yellow beak and the Black kite has a yellow beak with a black tip.
The banks of the Majale river provide a wonderful hunting ground for the skulking Burchell’s coucal. This bird flushed as we drove towards it. The Burchell’s coucal is identified by its finely barred upper tail coverts. It’s beautiful plumage disguises its predatory nature.
I have only seen a Lanner falcon on rare occasions in Mashatu. On this particular trip I had good sightings of a Lanner on two occasions. I was interested to see how it had fanned out its wing and tail feathers on take off to get maximum lift at low speed.
On a different occasion we found a lone Lanner falcon on a patch of bare earth. I could not see what it was eating but it looked more like an insect than a bird. Those black tear drops below the eyes are so characteristic of these falcons.
In Mashatu, the Kori bustards are skittish. It would be very unusual to have one walking towards you. They are normally walking or flying away. The Kori bustard is the heaviest flying bird native to Africa. These birds have to run to take off but are good fliers though only for a short distance to get away from a perceived threat. Kori’s thrive in the grasslands of Mashatu and are omnivorous, tending to be more carnivorous than most other bustards.
Mashatu is a wonderful place to see and photograph birds or all sizes and colours. We spent a week at the syndicated camp called Rock camp and its guide Justice is particularly knowledgable about birds. If the guests on the game vehicle enjoy their birds, Mashatu offers a stunning variety which will keep you and your guests enthralled for hours.
“Life is a photo album. Loaded with some black and white memories, some colorful dreams, some abstract expressionism and some out of focus images.” ~ Biju Karakkonam
In the next post I will show a variety of wild birds which are perching or feeding.
In this post I want to show other carnivores beyond the popular lions, leopards and cheetahs. Mashatu is home to hyaenas, jackals, and Bat-eared foxes which we see during the day and civets, genets and, occasionally, Aardwolf seen mainly at night.
“Looking outside the spotlight of popularity you can find a wonderland of treasures” ~ Mike Haworth
Not all carnivores are exclusively meat eating. The Bat-eared foxes, civets, genets and Aardwolf are mainly nocturnal and insect eaters, though civets and genets are omnivorous. In this post, I show a few images of hyaenas, Black-backed jackals and Bat-eared foxes.
“Mashatu is dry in winter and spring but there is life in abundance. Looking beyond the popular and obvious reveals another world of fascination and wonder.” ~ Mike Haworth
Spotted hyaenas thrive in Mashatu. There is plenty of food and many leopards, several lions and a small population of cheetahs to steal food from.
Although hyaenas keep their young in dens the clan of adults generally spread out during the day to form a system of sentries. The females with young will return to the den to feed and tend their young. This sentry system ensures the clan can cover a greater surveillance area for them to kill or steal prey. Spotted hyaenas have acute senses of smell and hearing.
Although Spotted hyaenas are well known for scavenging and stealing food they are are excellent hunters in their own right. The majority of all the prey they consume comes from their own hunting efforts. Given the opportunity to scavenge or steal prey from another carnivore they will take it – but so will lions and leopards.
Hyaenas live and operate in female dominated clans led by the matriarch. The dominant female exercises her authority ruthlessly. Armed with great strength, speed and endurance a Spotted hyaena is quite capable of running at speeds of 40 to 50 kilometres per hour, fast enough to catch and take down an adult wildebeest. Hyaenas are also able to pursue their prey until the latter’s exhaustion. The longest recorded pursuit was know to have occurred over 24 kilometres.
“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
During the day the Spotted hyaena will lie in a drainage ditch or under a tree or bush for shade watching and waiting for any opportunity to feed. They have extraordinary senses of hearing and smell.
The Spotted hyaena loves water. While it is thirst quenching, it is also a place to lie in the heat of the day to keep cool. Spotted hyaena are also known to hide food in water to keep it out of sight and hide the smell.
Hyaenas have exceptionally powerful carnassial teeth behind the premolars which they use for sawing flesh and premolars for crushing bones. Hyaenas are different in their feeding to other animals as they clearly go for the joints and bones first. Hyaenas have a particularly strong and quick acting digestive system enabling them to eat and digest the entire prey: meat, skin, bones and horn. Spotted Hyenas have an incredible bite force of 1100 psi (pounds per square inch). To put this into perspective, humans have a bite force of around 162 psi, a lion 650 psi, a hippo around 1 800 psi and a five metre long Nile crocodile around 3 500 psi.
There are three species of jackal in Africa, the Black-backed, Side-striped and Golden. The Black-backed jackal is most often seen in southern Africa. I have only seen Black-backed jackal in Mashatu.
“To learn to see- to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Where ever you see lion, hyaenas and cheetah you will often find Black-backed jackals hoping to benefit from morsels left by the other carnivores. These jackals are cunning and daring especially around lions at a kill. Although scavengers, they are also hunters in their own right, but they are omnivorous so are highly adaptable. This jackal species is mainly nocturnal but often seen during the day, normally lying in the shade of a bush.
During our November safari in Mashatu, on the drive out of camp on the other side of the rock outcrop next to the camp, we found a female jackal had created a den in a PVC pipe which acted as a culvert under the gravel road. Interestingly, this den was frequently watched by a few Spotted hyaenas.
Black-backed jackal mating usually occurs between June and August and with a gestation period of two months produces one to six pups between August and October each year. We estimated the three jackal pups we saw were around one month to two months old.
As with most youngsters these jackal pups were very curious but never ventured too far from their den if their mother was not close by.
Pups are suckled initially and thereafter fed on regurgitated food for up to three months. Thereafter young are able to forage with the adults.
Black-backed jackals are monogamous, so pair for life. The young initially use their parents territory to gain experience and assist in raising subsequent litters. Later in life they range more widely until they find their own mates and territories. Black-backed jackals have a well-developed communication system and are frequently heard at dawn and dusk.
The third frequently seen carnivore in Mashatu is the Bat-eared fox. There are two species of fox found in southern Africa, the Bat-eared fox and the Cape fox, with only the former found in Mashatu. This fox gets its name because it has abnormally large ears for a fox. It has a racoon-like black facial mask.
“The diversity of life is there for all to see but is not immediately apparent. Some wildlife you see during the day, some at night and some only in the diurnal hours. Timing is important and so too are senses and interpretation. Some you hear before you see. Some you only see because you heard from others. You need to waken all your senses to appreciate the diversity.” ~ Mike Haworth
The Bat-eared fox is predominately nocturnal but is often seen at diurnal times. It does most of its foraging during the night where around 80% of its diet is thought to comprise termites and dung beetles. It will also eat birds eggs, rodents, lizards and even chicks if it can find them.
The most distinctive feature of the Bat-eared fox is obviously its bat-like ears which can be 12.5cm in length. These enlarged ears give this fox species acute hearing and with numerous blood vessel act as a heat radiator. These foxes locate their prey mainly by hearing. Characteristically while foraging, this fox species will stop, cock its head pointing its ears towards the ground to accurately locate insects and termites below the ground. Once located they dig their prey out with long claws on their forepaws.
“The web of life both cradles us and calls us to weave it further.” ~Joanna Macy
As you can imagine, these long ears become problematic when the wind is blowing which is why they flatten them to reduce the roaring sound of the wind.
The hyaenas and jackals are always around in the dry and rainy periods and all survived the major floods in 2013. By contrast the Bat-eared foxes usually found near Nel’s vlei, which is an extension of the Limpopo river flood plain, were decimated by the flood. We assume most of the foxes drowned in their burrows and others escaped to higher ground. We did not see the Bat-eared foxes for several years after the flood but slowly and surely they returned and we saw them in 2018.
While it is always interesting to see the larger predators, often the smaller carnivores are more interesting and more active. The nocturnal carnivores are more skittish and more difficult to photograph by spotlight.
“Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centred. It views humans as above or outside nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or ‘use’, value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It does see the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognises the intrinsic value of all human beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.” ~Fritjof Capra
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
This was November in Mashatu. Many changes had taken place in the lions’ world in Mashatu. The handsome unscarred male lion who had been dominant for several years was deposed and pushed out into the adjacent property called Charter. Two younger males in the early phase of their prime had taken over the Mashatu territory. The manes of these males were still relatively blonde. The older the male generally the darker his mane. Dark-maned male lions are known to have a higher level of testosterone, which means they are stronger and more aggressive fighters. An aggressive male is better able to defend his pride.
“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats. They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.” ~ Dereck Joubert
On our second morning we found the two males with three lionesses. The blonder male was lying on his own away from the other male and two lionesses.
It was late afternoon and there were many stinging flies biting the male lying on his own. To prevent being stung the male was swishing his tail back and forth and was also trying to bite at the flies.
The third lioness who had been lying away from the other lions walked up to the male lying on his own. She lingered for a few months taking in his scent.
“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” ~Phaedrus
She then brushed past and nuzzled him catching his attention. She then without a pause walked past him with without a backward glance and strode over to the other male lying with the other two lionesses.
It was clear from the first interaction that the male lying with the two lionesses was the dominant member of the male coalition. The third lioness walked straight up to the dominant male and started rubbing herself against him ensuring that he caught her scent. She was ready to mate.
The female usually invites the male to have intercourse by assuming a position known as lordosis. The dominant male quickly got the message and began mating with her right next to the other two lionesses who seemed unfazed. The mating did not raise a reaction from either of the other two lionesses.
Lions have no particular breeding season, and often synchronise breeding, especially after a pride takeover, which enables them to raise the cubs communally. A lioness mates up to 100 times per day with an average interval of 17 minutes, each mating lasting for around 21 seconds. Male cats have spines on their penis to cause slight trauma to the vagina upon withdrawal. The resulting pain triggers ovulation. It probably also explains why females bare their teeth at males during mating. (Source: ALERT: African Lion & Environmental Research Trust). We came away from this sighting with the firm impression that the mating male lion was the dominant member of the coalition so all the females gravitated towards him and were effectively his.
Two days later, in a much more open windswept part of the reserve near the vlei (local name for a marsh) we found all five lions. This time the male previously seen on his own had a female with him.
“True merit, like a river, the deeper it is, the less noise it makes.” ~ Edward Wood
He was very protective of her and every time she got up to walk back to the other lionesses he followed her. As soon as she got close to the other male he would shield her from him. There was no antagonism between the two males.
The less dominate male started to mate with the female right next to the dominate male and two lionesses. The dominant male just looked on with complete acceptance despite the fact that he had mated with her two days before.
“The greatest fear in the world is of the opinions of others. And the moment you are unafraid of the crowd you are no longer a sheep, you become a lion. A great roar arises in your heart, the roar of freedom.” ~ Osho
The slightly overcast afternoon was very peaceful and the mating took place every twenty minutes or so.
At one point the two mating lions got close to the dominant male and he backed away to lie in-between the lionesses. This behaviour looked amusing and stirred the ire of one lioness who was sat on.
The mating pair eventually moved further away from the other three lions. The wind was blowing but it was warm. At one point the mating male lay a metre or two from his lioness. He looked relaxed but pensive.
“See life as if it is perfectly framed. Look for the good light, best composition, framing, because it will make you view life in a different, more perfect way. It makes life better if you can see perfection in an image you make, even if the image is of a slaughtered elephant, or people caught in rubble after an earthquake. ” ~ Dereck Joubert
At no point did the mating male lion close his eyes but just watched the whole scene with a quiet acceptance.
Lions live in prides that consist of one primary male lion, several females and one or two lesser males. The primary male mates with his lionesses. Females might also mate with more than one partner. Several females are likely to be in heat at the same time. The pride leader, usually is the first to mate with each female in heat. He might tire of them during their cycle which gives the lesser male get an opportunity to mate.
“Without conservation, nature fails. Without nature, our souls wither, ecosystems fail, culture disappears, and it takes with it our integrity, our self worth, our common drive to strive for better. The eternal battle within each of us is mirrored in the way we interact with nature. If we lose this battle we don’t just lose animals, or litter a few highways. We lose our souls.” ~ Dereck Joubert
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
In south eastern Botswana, Mashatu is a dry place for most of the year. It is home to numerous predators. The active and growing cheetah population in Mashatu competes with lions, leopards and hyaenas.
“The rules of survival never change, whether you’re in a desert or in an arena.” – Bear Grylls
Cheetahs are best known for their unique physiology which enables them to run down their prey at extremely high speeds. A less obvious adaptation, but nonetheless essential for survival, is their adaptability to local conditions, where larger more dominant predators compete with them for prey and will kill them if given a chance.
According to National Geographic, there are various theories concerning cheetah evolution. A popular one postulates that cheetahs descended from the same ancestor as the American puma. About 10 000 to 12 000 years ago, around the end of the last ice age, an extinction event took place that wiped out many large mammal species around the world, including the wild cheetahs of North America and Europe. The extinction of these early cheetah species left only the Asian and African populations of cheetahs.
At the turn of the 19th century, more than 100 000 cheetahs were estimated to have been living in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Today there are estimated to be only 7 100 cheetahs left in the wild, so they are listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. A recent study revealed significant population declines, so scientists are calling for cheetahs to be uplisted to “Endangered.” In North Africa and Asia, they are considered “Critically Endangered.”
Cheetahs today are heading toward extinction, a trend they have faced twice before. Genetic analysis of wild cheetahs shows they may have survived two historical bottlenecks, events that sharply reduce the size of a population.
“Evolution is the floating bridge on turbulent waters.” ~ Sukant Ratnakar
The first bottleneck event that cheetahs may have undergone occurred around 100 00 years ago when they expanded their range into Asia, Europe, and Africa. This range expansion is believed to have occurred rapidly, dispersing the cheetahs over a very large area, which reduced their ability to exchange genes.
The second likely bottleneck event occurred about 10 000 to 12 000 years ago, around the end of the last ice age. In this bottleneck the cheetahs of North America and Europe went extinct, leaving extant only the species’ Asian and African populations. As large mammals died out across the world, the number of surviving cheetahs dwindled, causing inbreeding. Even though the number of cheetahs grew to as many as 100,000 during the 19th century, their genetic variability remained low due to the second extreme bottleneck event which took place thousands of years before.
“Every being has its own important and unique place in the cosmic dance.” ~ Laurence Overmire
Cheetahs now face extinction pressure from climate change, hunting by humans, and habitat destruction. Cheetahs’ own genes also pose a challenge to their continued survival. Cheetahs have a low rate of reproductive success. The result is the few remaining individuals end up inbreeding, or mating with relatives. Inbreeding reduces the size of the gene pool, which can lead to problems such as decreased genetic variability and the persistence of potentially harmful mutations. These factors make it harder for the remaining population to adapt to changes in their environment. In a very small population, any mutations that occur are much more likely to be passed on to offspring and propagate through successive generations.
Adult life for a cheetah in the wild is difficult. Female cheetahs in the wild have an average age span of 10 – 12 years. The average lifespan of an adult male in the wild skews lower (8 years), due in part to territorial conflicts with competing groups of males. Adult mortality is one of the most significant limiting factors for the growth and survival of the wild cheetah population. (Source: Cheetah Conservation fund.)
“Sooner or later, every last echo fades. Even the loudest thunder in the deepest valley.” ~ Brian K. Vaughan
With its long legs and very slender body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The scientific genus name Acinonyx is a reference to the species’ semi-retractile claws. The cheetah’s unique morphology and physiology allow it phenomenal acceleration and to attain the extreme speeds for which it’s famous.
Distinctive black tear stripes run from the eyes to the mouth. The stripes are thought to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare. It is believed that they also have the same function as a rifle scope, helping cheetahs focus on their prey at a long distance range by minimising the glare of the sun.
“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have a huge variety of needs and dangers.” ~ H.G. Wells
Cheetah scent marking involves spraying urine and defecating on landmarks. It is often done by males competing for the best hunting grounds. Scent is one of the main communication channels among cheetahs. These sleek cats spend a considerable amount of their time smelling and depositing their own scent on previously marked places. This is most often on elevated points such as termite mounds or fallen trees. Such spots serve as ideal observational outlooks and act almost correspondingly to a status update of who is or has been in the area – a regular station for receiving and leaving olfactory information. (https://www.wildlifeact.com/blog/cheetah-scent-marking/)
The study of scat can provide valuable information. It identifies the species, diet composition, provides genetic information such as sex, age and the individual, it provides the hormone levels and parasite load in the individual signalling its overall health and vigour.
Cheetah tails end with a bushy tuft encircled by three or four dark rings. These markings provide them with excellent camouflage while hunting and make them more difficult for other predators to detect. The tail is also thought to be a signaling device, helping young cubs follow their mothers in tall grass. The tip of the tail varies in colour from white to black among individuals.
Cheetah have a hunting success rate of just under 60%. Most of the hunting takes place in the early morning or dusk when it is cooler. If an opportunity to hunt in the heat of the day presents itself the cheetah will take it mainly because there is much less competition from nocturnal predators such as lion, leopards and hyaenas at that time of the day. In Mashatu, the Shepherd Tree provides valuable shade in the heat of the day while the cheetahs rest and look out for prey.
Our second sighting of the cheetah coalition was the next day late in the afternoon. The cheetahs were on the move and looking for prey. On the south side of the Majale river it is dry and rocky in many places.
The two cheetahs were making their way toward the Majale river. Looking at the stones on the ground in this area it is hard to believe that these speedsters can run at top speed over this type of ground.
The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal. At top speed, their stride is seven meters long. The cheetah’s unique body structure: flexible spine, semi-retractable claws, long legs and tail allow it to achieve a top speed of 110 kilometres per hour. The cheetah’s body is narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs. Its specialised muscles allow for a greater swing to the limbs increasing acceleration. Increasing stride frequency is key to reaching faster speeds. This is mainly achieved through rapidly swinging the limb to decrease swing time. Cheetah muscle has been shown to contain a high proportion of fast-twitch fibres, which would be highly beneficial for rapidly swinging the limb and reducing swing time. (Functional Anatomy of the cheetah forelimb -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3077521/)
“Cheetahs succeed not because they are the fastest animal on land but because of their incredible acceleration and unmatched turning speeds.” ~ Alan Wilson
Cheetahs have a thin frame with a narrow waist and deep chest. They have large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake. Cheetahs have a large lungs and hearts connected to a circulatory system with strong arteries and adrenals that work in tandem to circulate oxygen through their blood very efficiently. The cheetah’s heart rate is between 120 and 170 beats a minute at rest and between 200 and 250 beats per minute when running.
Cheetahs’ foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws, which are considered semi-retractable, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.
“Change can be reversed, but evolution only moves forward and once it moves forward, it can never be reversed.” ~ Sukant Ratnakar
This cheetah was very wary and reacted to every sound. It was late in the afternoon, a time when the nocturnal predators begin to stir. The river is also a place where lions and leopards frequent because the river attracts prey which come to the river in search of water.
The cheetahs eventually made their way down to the bank of the Majale river where lions and leopards are regularly seen. The cheetahs were on high alert knowing that crossing the dry river bed was a dangerous venture.
To watch these cheetah hunting from a distance was a privilege. At dawn and dusk they were very wary and were constantly looking around to ensure that there were no potential threats approaching. The cheetah’s colouring is especially effective at these diurnal times making their camouflage even more effective.
Cheetah are able to wander all over the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NOTUGRE) but tend to frequent the area around the Majale, Matabole and Pitsani rivers especially in the drier periods because of the proximity of water. We have been fortunate enough to see cheetahs almost very time we have visited Mashatu but the free range movement does not guarantee cheetah sightings.
“Life is neither static nor unchanging. With no individuality, there can be no change, no adaptation and, in an inherently changing world, any species unable to adapt is also doomed.” ~ Jean M. Auel
A cheetah sighting is always a thrill because something can happen at any time. Cheetahs are the most active cats during the day so the potential to see a hunt develop is relatively high if you find these cats. If there are cheetah cubs they are very playful offering wonderful photographic opportunities.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.