Odzala’s Western Lowland Gorillas

Our first trek to see the Western Lowland Gorillas started at six in the morning after a cup of coffee and a rusk at the main dining area. Daniella discussed what we were going to do and what was expected once we got close to the gorillas.

“Gorillas are brave and loyal. They help each other. They rival elephants as parents and whales for gentleness. They play and have humor and they harm nothing. They are what we should be. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.” ~ Pat Derby

There were strict rules, and rightly so, about how to behave when you were close to the gorillas. No sudden movements, no talking, and you had to wear face masks. Gorillas are susceptible to all the human diseases such as tuberculous and ebola so face masks are a necessary preventative measure.

“Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” ~ Henry Beston

The walk to the gorillas took just over an hour. It was uphill along a maze of paths through the marantaceae thickets. Our Tracker took us to the area the troop had last been seen the night before. Gorillas are diurnal so they go to sleep at night. They make a nest of leaves and branches in which to sleep. This means that the trackers know where they slept during the night and were not likely to have moved too far by the time we got to the area just after 7h00. The paths we followed were through the forest and marantaceae thickets in the under-story and proved to be somewhat of an obstacle course due to the fallen trees. Gabon was our guide and he was incredibly well tuned into the sounds of the forest and knew where and in which direction the gorillas were moving.

“Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans have been living for hundreds of thousands of years in their forest,living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say that they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment.” ~Jane Goodall

After about a hour of walking, Gabon signalled us to stop. He listened intently and indicated that the troop was likely to cross the path some distance ahead. We put on our face masks and waited for the troop of gorillas to cross the path. Gabon accurately estimated where the troop would cross the path which was about 20 metres ahead of us.

As a photographer, wearing eye glasses, I was quite unprepared for the constant misting up of my glasses. By now we were drenched in perspiration, and the face masks forced our hot breath up, misting up our eye glasses to the point where I could not see at all, so had to put my camera between my legs and clean my glasses, repeatedly. This turned out to be a real problem and was very frustrating because I could not see what I was doing. It was exciting to see the gorillas…. when I could see them!

Guests are allowed to spend around one hour in the morning with the troop. As you can see from the images the light was low so the photography was challenging, but it was what we had been expecting.

“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione

Members of the troop being naturally inquisitive, and not threatened, stopped in the path once they saw us. The youngsters played, while the older members sat and rested, being careful to watch where the others were going.

This was the first time I had ever seen a wild gorilla. I was mesmerised by their eyes. To me their eyes revealed great sentience. There seemed to be a distinct recognition of who we were and, due to a degree of habituation, they were relatively relaxed with our group.

Our group consisted of Gabon our Ngaga tracker, Daniella our Odzala guide, and Ann, Andrew and myself. One of the magical aspects about this sighting is that we are alone with troop.

“Gorillas are still wild creatures. That’s made very clear when you observe them in nature. They charge and perform other displays that are terrifying by design. But they don’t attack unless they feel threatened.” ~ Andy Serkis

Humans share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas and around 99% with chimpanzees and bonobos. This makes me question why people kill gorillas for bush meat.

Apart from fleeting glimpses of the gorillas, another challenging aspect was the high contrast in overall low light. The leaves of the marantaceae have a sheen which reflects the available light expanding the dynamic range.

Our first hour with the gorillas ended all too quickly, especially as I spent most of my time with my camera between my legs cleaning my glasses! I was going to have to make another plan for the trek the following morning.

On our walk back to camp, Daniella showed us the incredibly varied and complex world of insects, fungi and unique flora along the path. Daniella was impressively knowledgeable and opened up a new world for me.

Daniella’s story about the Ghost butterfly caught my imagination. We found a male and female Ghost butterfly flying together. They are called Ghost butterfly because their wings are translucent so appear white in light and are see- through in deep shadow. When the female stopped to rest on a leaf the male would fly back and forth above her spraying pheromones over her to “hypnotise” her into allowing her to mate with him. Not only was he persistent but I was fascinated to see the male butterfly flying forwards and backwards over the female. I had never (before) seen a butterfly fly backwards.

Along the path through the forest we found several Ground Pineapples (Thonningia sanguine). They occur on the ground among the tree roots system and looked like little gems in the dark understory.

A climbing species of marantaceae in a fold of the tree which is covered in moss. The marantaceae is part of the Prayer Plant family of the Ginger order which comprises 31 genera and 550 species.

A Robber fly perched on a marantaceae leaf. This fly hunts flying insects.

After a wonderful lunch and some editing of the morning’s images we went for a walk around mid-afternoon. Every activity around Ngaga camp is done by walking. The paths through the forest are open and bordered by marantaceae thickets in the understory. Streams of sun light do find their way through the thick forest canopy but for the most part the light is low close to the forest floor.

Daniella explained the difference between ants and termites and showed us termite tunnels and termite nests on the trunks of many trees. Andrew was intrigued and put his Sony mirrorless camera to good use. The termites build their cities on the tree’s outer bark and do not kill the tree. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is at least as many fascinating smaller things close to or on the forest floor as there are large better known mammals and trees.

The termites are remarkable architects. They build their cities with perfect drainage employing overlapping protruding ledges to facilitate water runoff. The high level of moisture sustains moss on these ledges.

Termites, unlike ants, do not tolerate sunlight, so build earth tunnels up the tree trunk to provide highways to their elevated cities.

We found a patch of the forest, close to Ngaga camp, where the canopy opened up and allowed more sunlight through to the understory.

Instead of fighting the low light, Andrew encouraged us to play with our shutter speed and camera movement. This is an example of a low shutter speed with a partial radial twist of camera.

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

In the same location, with a slower shutterspeed and a quick vertical lift of the camera gave quite different look. The idea was to play and try to get different effects out of the same scene.

With a slow shutter speed and rotating the camera quickly creates an unique tunnel effect giving that enchanted forest feel.

Again in the same spot with a slow shutter speed and this time quickly zooming out gives the sense of high speed movement through the forest.

After playing for a while, time was moving on and what light remained was beginning to fade signalling it was time to begin heading back to camp. We walked down a steep path to a ample stream below Ngaga camp. To our surprise there, in the middle of the clear flowing stream, was a magical setting with Clem, the other Ngaga guide, in animated consversation with his family happily, enjoying sun-downers while sitting in the middle of the stream.

After a drink spiced with animated conversation, is was getting dark. We made our way bare foot back to camp which was only a few hundred metres up the hill next to us. The camp staff had put out paraffin lanterns for us to see along the path. It cooled somewhat in the evenings but was still warm.

Once we had freshened up we all met at the camp’s main lounge and dining area. There we were privileged to meet Dr Madga Bermejo. Madga explained the scope of the research efforts she and her team were undertaking. Magda also gave us some insights into the behaviour and social interaction of the three gorilla groups they were studying. Magda talked to us for about an hour. Not only was it fascinating but only then did I get a sense of how much sustained detailed effort her research team put in to better understand the gorilla troop dynamics and sociology.

“Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.” ~ Tom Robbins

The research was being undertaken to shed light on the social dynamics of the western lowland gorilla. Three breeding groups were being studied, one control group not exposed to people and the other two which were exposed to visitors. Magda’s team were exploring inter-group interactions of three breeding groups which were habituated to the presence of observers and were monitored daily in Ngaga Forest. This was one area where a dense population of gorillas still thrived and had not been affected by Ebola outbreaks in the last decade. The social structure and dynamics between groups is thought to also play a major role in spreading infectious diseases such as the highly infectious Ebola virus.

So ended a fascinating first day in the Odzala-Kokoua rainforest. A good nights’ sleep with the sounds of the forest all around would see us refreshed for another day of exploration and adventure.

“Seeing a gorilla for the first time in the wild was shock. I was like being in an evolutionary time warp. I was struck by the sentience in their eyes and their self sustaining way of life. My first encounter left me with more questions than answers.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Odzala introduction

In mid-February 2019, three of us, a long standing family friend, Ann Nichols, Wild Eye director and guide, Andrew Beck and myself went to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. None of us had undertaken a trip like this before although all of us are seasoned travellers throughout Africa.

We left Johannesburg on Sunday morning 17 February around midday and flew to Nairobi in Kenya. After a several hour stopover we caught a flight to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo arriving around 22h00. It was hot and humid as you would expect. On arrival at Maya Maya international airport in Brazzaville, it was clear that the immigration officials do not see many tourists. The immigration officials only spoke French so it was wonderful to have Ann (who is fluent in French) with us to help facilitate and smooth the way.

The next morning (we were only scheduled to fly out of Brazzaville to the Odzala-Kohoua National Park later that morning) the three of us decided to take a walk on the esplanade along a section of the Congo river. At this point Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are separated by the two kilometre wide Congo river.

The Republic of the Congo is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo on its east side, Gabon and Cameroon on its west side and the Central African Republic on its north side. The next image is a view from the Brazzaville esplanade across the Congo river to Kinshasa.

“The earth is what we all have in common.”~ Wendell Berry

Walking along the esplanade we found it to be clean and we never felt unsafe, even with our cameras in hand. On the left hand side of the image was the mighty Congo river.

There is minimal unemployment in the Republic of the Congo and everyone seems to make a living one way or another. This was an example of a street vendor who had used some of the spare ground along the esplanade to create a nursery.

All of us were pleasantly surprised by what we saw during our short sojourn in Brazzaville. We left Brazzaville around midday aboard a Russian Let L410 Turbolet. There are about 40 of these aircraft flying throughout Africa. It was a no frills but comfortable aircraft which took about three hours to fly the 800 or so kilometres north to the Cuvette-Quest province where the Odzala-Kokoua National Park is located bordering on Gabon. We landed at the Mboko airstrip and were met by wonderful Odzala staff and our guide, Daniella Kueck. All three of us have undertaken many photographic trips throughout Africa, but little did we know it that this one would turn out to be absolutely unique.

The Odzala-Kokoua National Park, or Odzala for short, was officially proclaimed in 1935, making it one of the oldest national parks in Africa. The 13,546km2 of land, now protected by African Parks, is part of the TRIDOM Transfrontier Park which extends from the Congo into Gabon and the Central African Republic. Within this are some of the last tracts of contiguous rainforest ecosystems in the world. The rainforest in the Congo Basin is often referred to as one of the world’s lungs.

Daniella drove us through the rainforest for about an hour to get to the Ngaga camp. Around the Mbojko airstrip there are open tracts of savanna. There are open grasslands with bushes and small trees which is quite different to the thick vegetation of the rainforest. This is due to the poor quality of the soil which can only carry savanna vegetation. It was not long before we were truly immersed in the rainforest.

“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – the lungs of the world – and we are on the verge of switching it off.”~Prince Charles

All the roads are sandy tracks and they weave through the forest as if they have a life of their own. As we made our way to the Ngaga camp, the forest was still but for the sounds of many birds which we could not see.

“What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly understood. We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound understanding and appreciation for trees and forests and the vital role they play, for they are among our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding.” ~ Jim Robbins

We finally arrived at the Ngaga camp. One aspect which impressed me immediately was that the drop off point was simple and unassuming with minimal invasion of the vegetation. After a short walk to the main camp area we were assigned one of the six available rooms. The next image shows the view from the balcony in front of my room. I looked out over a open area of marantaceae which after about 100 metres transformed into thick rainforest.

The rooms at the Ngaga camp were very comfortable with all the necessary amenities. Surprisingly, the ablutions were walled in sheet copper. I was astounded at the luxury of the camp given its remote location.

It was a short walk along sand paths to the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp. It was positioned high up on a wooden deck to provide an impressive view onto the rainforest. It was very comfortable as there were no walls in front and on the sides to allow any passing breeze through. There was a decked boma area which was a perfect spot to tell stories about the days sightings with a “bitterly” cold drink in hand.

The Ngaga camp has a unique atmosphere. Even the walk way to the toilet off the dining area was impressive. Anyone who has been to bush camps will know that there is a rope, or in this case reed chain, which is pulled across the walk way to signal that the toilet is occupied.

The inside of the Ngaga camp main dining and lounge area it was spacious and had a wonderful feel about it. The one side wall and roof were made of unbroken thatched raffia palm leaves, a method used by the local Ombo tribe. It looks like a work of art.

A view from the walkway next to the dining area looking down and out over the marantaceae and rainforest. It was verdant and alive with sounds of birds and monkeys.

“Silencing of the rainforests is a double deforestation, not only of the trees but a deforestation of the minds music, medicine and knowledge.”~ Jay Griffiths

In front of the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp is the boma with a fire pit made of worn brass with intricately carved wooden chairs positioned around it. Needless to say it was so hot in February that we did not need the fire but did need the chairs and ice cold drinks.

A view from the lounge area looking down onto the boma area and beyond were stairs which led down to the rooms.

Thankfully we did not come across many mosquitoes and it was very pleasant sitting out on the deck and chatting. There were surprisingly few bugs in the rooms and main lounge and dining room area considering we were in the middle of a dense rainforest.

Our first day in Odzala and Ngaga camp gave a sense that we were in for a real adventure with meany new things to see and learn about over the next week. The Ngaga camp is the point from which the guests trek to find and observe the western lowland gorillas. Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. There are an estimated 22,000 of this species of gorilla in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Ngaga also has a research station were Dr Magda Bermejo and her team are based. Dr Bermejo has been studying this gorilla species since 1991.

“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” ~ E. O. Wilson

The next day we were going to walk into the rainforest with a tracker and guide to see these critically endangered gorillas up close.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.”~ John Muir

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

Have fun, Mike

Serengeti lions

This is my last post from a wonderful trip to the western corridor of the Serengeti with CNP Safaris. A big thank you Lou Coetzer for showing us the way and when possible getting us into the right position. Your invaluable advice is always treasured.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain

Rather the putting too many words to the images, I thought for a change the images can talk for themselves but I like the quotes so there is a sprinkling of quotes among the images.

The colour and light intensity was variable due to the overcast and sometimes stormy conditions on many of the days. There was also a green hue reflected off the grass which gave some of the images a slightly green tinge. Rather than trying to adjust each image to look the same in terms of the quality of light I decided to leave each as it was.

“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”~Trent Parke

“Out in the wilderness you adapt to the light, not the other way around. Do not fight it, rather use it. Look for new ways to take a photograph perhaps to show different, more subtle and more interesting nuances.”~ Mike Haworth

“You have to find what sparks a light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But. above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” ~ George Eastman

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber

“Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.”~ Anthony J. D’Angelo

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Ô, Sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on Earth.” ~ Roman Payne

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy

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

Have fun, Mike

Serengeti crowns

The Serengeti has many crowns. It is crowned as one of the most spectacular places on earth to see wildlife. It is also a place where you will see wildly beautiful creatures with golden crowns. These crowns of golden feathers adorn each Grey crowned crane’s head. While many birds have crests only two species have a crown of splayed golden feathers.

“Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival.” ~ Peter Matthiessen

Cranes make up the family, Gruidae. They are large, long-legged and long-necked birds in the group Gruiformes. There are fifteen species of crane in four genera, but only three, that I know of , are classified as crowned cranes, the Grey and Black crowned cranes found in Africa and the Red-crowned crane in found in Japan.

I have had a special affection for the Grey crowned crane since my childhood. Multi-generational family friends, the Condy’s used to live down the valley from us in Harare, Zimbabwe. John Condy was the chief wildlife vet for the Zimbabwean Department of Veterinary Services at that time and his job regularly took him into the Zimbabwean wilds. On his wildlife ventures John would come across animals and birds which needed rescuing. Occasionally, John would bring an orphaned or injured animal or bird to be cared for at the family home in Harare. The Condys had a menagerie which ranged from a black rhino calf to an African rock python, and from African hawk-eagles to Grey crowned cranes. As a child I have vivid memories of two Grey crowned cranes striding around the Condy’s garden giving their characteristic “howuun” call.

“I wish to live a life that causes my soul to dance inside my body.”~ Dele Olanubi

I was entranced by the exquisite beauty of that pair of Grey crowned cranes, called Henry and Peebles, strutting around the Condy’s garden in Harare, Zimbabwe back in the the 1960s. To this day I remain intrigued by the beauty and elegance of the Grey crowned crane. To me, mother nature has put together such a provocative, eclectic mixture of colours and textures in one bird.

Its bland ornithological description, Grey crowned crane, grossly understates this crane’s beauty. It has many (not fifty) shades of grey, to which is added facial rouge, a velvet black forehead, sea blue eyes and a golden crown.

The general impression of size and shape (GISS) of a Grey crowned crane is similar to the Black Crowned Crane. The Grey crowned crane has grey neck feathers while the Black crowned crane has charcoal grey black coloured neck feathers. The Grey crowned crane has the red skin patches on the side of its head and on its throat whereas the Black crown crane’s red skin patches are much smaller. The Grey crowned crane has pure white cheek patches where the Black crowned crane’s cheek patches are mostly pink with a white patch at the top of the cheek.

There is much about cranes which make them intriguing subjects. They are some of the tallest and most stately of all flying birds. They have striking plumage, and they dance. They also have a unique and one of the most evocative calls among birds with only Ground hornbills coming close.

“When we hear the crane’s call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” ~ Aldo Leopold

One distinguishing characteristic between cranes and herons or egrets is that cranes fly with the neck extended straight ahead, while herons and egrets fly with the head held back towards the body. This is for longitudinal balance. The Grey crowned crane has powerful flight with strong and steady wing beats , and is adept at using thermals. Being a large bird it has to run before taking to flight.

All cranes participate in spectacular dance routines involving head-bobbing, wing-fluttering, leaps and deep bows, running with wings flapping even for short, low flights.

Among adults, these elaborate dances serve as courtship rituals to attract mates. For young birds, dancing helps develop physical and social skills. Spontaneous dancing can occur anytime. In a flock of cranes, if one bird starts dancing, often all the others join in.

“Magic birds were dancing in the mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and sky.” ~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Another characteristic that sets cranes apart from herons and egrets is that many crane species have bright-red thick skin with an irregular surface covering parts of their head and neck.

Most species of crane have some areas of bare skin on the face but there are two exceptions, the Blue Crane and Demoiselle Crane. It is thought that this skin is used in communication with other cranes, and can be expanded by contracting and relaxing muscles, and change the intensity of colour. Feathers on the head can also be moved and erected.

Cranes are diurnal birds. Their sociability varies by season. During the breeding season, they are territorial and usually remain within their territory. Out of the breeding season, they tend to be gregarious, forming large flocks to roost, socialise, and, in some species to feed.

The great difficulty, from a photographic point of view, is that cranes usually will not let you get close to them.

Like many terrestrial avians, such as bustards and secretary birds, cranes tend to walk away from you when you are trying to photograph them. It is only on an unique occasion when they are down at a waterhole that you may get special photographic access.

The wings of the Grey crowned crane are long and broad, ideal for long flights and catching thermals. The feathers at the wing tips of most birds that soar over land separate both horizontally and vertically in flight to form slotted tips. Research has shown that the slotted primary feathers at the wing tips of soaring birds reduce induced drag. The separated tip feathers act as winglets and increase the span factor of the wings. ( Source: Journal of Experimental Biology: Article on Gliding Birds by V.A. Tucker).

“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” ~ Sadako Sasaki

One of the things which has always intrigued me about the Grey crowned crane is that it is particularly photogenic, in an artistic way. It is a riot of colours shapes and textures.

The artistic palette with a muted background – perfect!

” You lure us in from afar with your worldly trumpeting call. Once our eyes fall upon you, the spell is cast. We are mesmerised by your beauty and exquisite golden crown. Then, to seal our attention, the bewitching starts with your glorious dance.”~ Mike Haworth

In the Serengeti you will often see Grey crowned cranes foraging in the grasslands. Occasionally we can even get clear backgrounds when they are down at a waterhole. Grey crowned cranes are usually found in open habitats but seem to prefer grasslands near water.

The Black and Grey crowned cranes are the only species of cranes able to perch in trees because of their long hind toe which enables them to grasp the branches. These cranes are often seen roosting in trees.

The Grey crowned crane’s bill is relatively short and grey, and the legs are black. They have long legs for wading through the grasses. Their feet are large, yet slender, adapted for balance rather than defence, or grasping.

The Grey crowned crane is the smallest in the crane family. It stands just over one metre tall whereas the Sarus Crane is the largest standing 1.8 metres tall. The Grey crowned crane has a two metre wing span. These wings have white covets, black primary wing feathers and chestnut secondaries with golden tertial plumes, all of which create an elegant appearance.

Crowned cranes stomp their feet as they walk across the grasslands. This flushes out insects and other potential prey which the cranes quickly catches and eats. These cranes are omnivores, eating plants, stripping seeds off grass stems. They will also feed on grain, insects, frogs, worms, snakes, small fish and the eggs of aquatic animals.

All cranes are noted for their loud calls that can be heard over a kilometre away. The crowned Crane has a booming call which it creates by inflating its red gular sac. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that makes a loop within the sternum. This tracheal shape, similar to some brass musical instruments such as the trombone, makes it possible for cranes to produce a loud bugling call. Cranes share this tracheal characteristic only with swans.

The crowned cranes have shorter coiled trachea which produce the trumpeting. Their characteristic honking sound is quite different to the trumpeting of other crane species. The unique “unison call” of a mated pair of crowned cranes announces their presence in occupied territories and warns other birds away. The Grey Crowned Crane utters a trumpeting flight call “may hem” and low-pitched honks “howuum howuum” during the breeding season and the displays.

The male is the principal defender of the pair, calling a loud warning to other cranes in his territory. The male is also slightly larger than the female and both sexes have similar colouring.

A Grey crowned crane only reaches sexual maturity after about three years. The full adult eye color and face and neck coloration are not reached until 20–24 months old. The juvenile is grey overall with brown crown and nape. The body is grey to brown. The eyes are brown. The cheeks are feathered.

This was a pair of Grey crowned cranes displaying to each other at the Musira dam with two pairs of White-faced whistling ducks swimming away from the dance area. We managed to get surprisingly close to these cranes by sitting quietly for an extended period. They relaxed and started to walk along the edge of the dam and even displayed right in front of us.

According to Birdlife, the global population of grey crowned cranes is estimated to be between 17,700 and 22,300 individuals. In 2012 it was uplisted from vulnerable to endangered by the IUCN due to habitat loss and poaching for the captive trade market.

Black Crowned Cranes are found in eastern Africa, centered in Senegal and Gambia. There is a large population throughout Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, with separate populations in Chad and Cameroon. Most populations are found within the Sahel region of northern Africa. Grey crowned cranes are found from Kenya down to southern Africa. The Grey crowned crane is found in East and southern Africa, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya right down to South Africa

“Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people, it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for Man.” ~ Thomas Lovejoy

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

Have fun, Mike

Serengeti’s big boys

The river in front of the Grumeti Tented camp is in fact an oxbow lake which was, a long time ago, cut off from the Grumeti river. In the rainy season, it fills with water which attracts the hippos.

“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”
― Robert Macfarlane

So many posts about the Serengeti focus on the predators. The Serengeti is an incredible ecosystem supporting a huge variety of animal and plant life. The rivers in the Serengeti teem with life and they attract an enormous amount of wildlife from the plains.

There are several pods of hippos up and down the ox-bow lake. Being late January, the short rains were supposed to have stopped. We still got quite a bit of rain especially at night which filled the ox-bow lake making it ideal for the hippo families.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One morning, we watched two young hippos sparring. Although it looked quite savage, they were just play fighting. These “river horses” are enormously strong and, helped by the buoyancy of the water, can lift each other right out of the water.

Hippos have massive mouths relative to their eyes, nose and ears. Hippos can open their mouths to a wide 150 degrees or 4 feet wide which show their large tusk-like canines and razor-sharp incisors, capable of creating serious damage to a small boat or three metre crocodile. A hippo is a herbivore so its wide mouth is primarily for threat displays.

Although hippos spend most of the day in water they cannot swim or float so in deep water they bounce off the river bed. In shallow water, they move around by walking or running on the river bed.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A hippo’s skin is usually greyish-brown on top and pinkish on the underside. It is hairless, apart from a few bristles around its mouth and tail-end. The hippo has no sweat glands in the skin but it compensates with special glands that produce a red fluid. This fluid protects their skin from the sun and from infections. Hippos rely on cool water and mud to prevent over-heating and dehydration.

Although these two adolescents were playing, we were very happy to be high up on the bank in a vehicle. Hippos are notoriously territorial and aggressive and can move much quicker than you would think given their bulk.

We had driven alongside a treeline and had stopped to watch a pair of mating lions when this large pachyderm happened to walk by. He stopped in his tracks as he saw us. He was walking in the direction of the lions as he must have smelt them.

This middle aged bull looked to be slow and cumbersome, but do not be fooled. He expressed his irritation at us hanging around by shaking his head and his ears made a loud slapping sound on the side of his body and dust flew everywhere. We decided he was right and left him in peace to go and talk to the lions.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” ~ Wendell Berry

Later that day as we travelled towards Musira hill we came across this herd of elephants making their way towards the river. It was interesting that they were walking in a close herd formation. This was probably because they could smell lions all around.

This herd wandered through the clusters of trees and bushes moving either side of a cluster. We assumed they were just clearing the area to make sure their were no lions around which they did not know about.

Every time the herd came through into a clearing in the bushes they stopped, with the matriarch at the centre. They paused, watched, listened and smelt. Once satisfied they knew what was going on, they moved on.

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” ~ Rachel Carson

The following day we decided to drive around Kirawira plains. These plains are between the Grumeti river and the Singita conservation area. This is a vast open area where large herds of herbivore congregate.

We found three large herds of buffalo on this particular day. It was difficult to tell how large each herd was, but we estimated them to be between 250 and 300 animals. What is fascinating is that these animals are in this area all year long. This is because the weather in the western corridor is unique in the Serengeti given the strong influence from Lake Victoria. The western corridor is altogether wetter all year round compared to the rest of the Serengeti which ensures plenty of game all year round. This means there are plenty of predators because of the abundance of food.

A small group of buffalo cows watched us intently. They were away from the main herd so were especially wary.

“We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.”
~ Robert Macfarlane

As the morning brightened up, and on our way back to camp for breakfast, we came across this herd of giraffe. They were in the middle of a large plain with no obvious opportunity for them to feed.

During their slow walk across the plain they stopped to drink at pools of rainwater in the plain and probably just to look around and assess what was in the area. Giraffe seem to prefer to move in family herds but do not touch each other much. There is the ritual necking, and mothers nuzzle their young but the only other time they touch is when males slug it out using their heads as battering rams to establish dominance.

Humans cannot hear most of the communication between giraffe because they communicate infrasonically, with moans and grunts too low for humans to hear. Mother giraffe sometimes use whistles to warn or call their young. Giraffe also communicate with their bodies and eyes. In the wild, a group of giraffe will congregate and stare at predators to warn others to stay away. It is also clear that being so tall giraffe can pick up messages from a long way away just from posture.

Of the four largest mammals in the Serengeti, the hippos were the noisiest. At the camp which is sited adjacent to an ox box lake which long ago detached from the Grumeti river, the hippos were grunting all day and all night. The first night or two all the hippo grunts keep you awake but after a while they become a natural and reassuring sound. At night, the hippo grunts are intermingled with Scops owls “prrupping”, baboons screeching, leopards coughing, hyaenas whooping and lions roaring. This symphony in the dark gives you a wonderful sense of wildness.

“The earth is such a voluminous, sparse, wild place that has its own rhythm that human beings try to control and strategise our way around, but the truth is, if you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you.” ~ Rachael Taylor

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

Have fun, Mike

Wings over Serengeti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only photograph what you love.” ~ Tim Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, Mike

Where ever there are lions there are Hyaenas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun, Mike