Mashatu’s leopardesses

It was such a good feeling to be back in the bush again in Mashatu. All your senses are enlivened. The bush is a busy place with wildlife active wherever you look. Those familiar smells return. You can smell the dust and the wild sage.

“I learned that the richness of life is found in adventure … It develops self-reliance and independence. Life then teems with excitement. There is stagnation only in security.” ~ William O. Douglas

This post illustrates two encounters with leopardesses. We found the first female asleep on the ground in a gully. If we had not driven right up to her we would never have seen her lying there.

On the ground she was vulnerable but it was in the late afternoon so she had possibly come down from her arboreal resting place. Leopards often look as though they are asleep but they are aware of what is going on around them. The twitch of the ear and occasional flick of her tail suggested that she was just resting. Then all of a sudden a sound or a smell, neither of which we were aware of, roused her.

It took a few minutes to work out that it was neither food nor another predator after which she got up and started to wander through the brush on the edge of a large patch of wild sage. Leopards have long tails which are used in a variety of ways to express their mood, to communicate or for balance.

Leopards epitomise independence, strength, cunning and self reliance. Their camouflage adds to their mystery, moving in the shadows and in the darkest hours.” ~ Mike Haworth

Now fully awake she was in full sensory mode walking through the bush without making a sound. There were also no squirrels, spur fowl or guineafowl to alert the world to her presence.

This leopardess stopped at what must have been an important anthill. She spent quite some time smelling all the messages left by previous passers by.

“The best things in life must come by effort from within, not by gifts from the outside.” – Fred Corson

We have learnt from leopards to sit quietly and just try and sense what is around us. She stood for many minutes just looking and listening. Those ears constantly moving and tracking sounds around her. As soon as something caught her attention her tail would start to flick.

The prominent white tip to the leopard’s tail is thought to exist so her cubs can follow her in thick bush and grass which can be above the cubs’ heads. The position and movement of a leopard’s tail tells a lot about its mood and intention. A lowered tail with the tip moving from side to side can signal attention and interest. A raised tail is like a white flag usually signals that she has given up on the hunt. The swift whip of a leopardess’ tail away from a cub, signals irritation. Of course when climbing trees, the tail is an important feature for balance.

If the ground is wet or she is on the hunt, a leopardess will often seek a spot off the ground which provides a better view, such as a fallen tree or anthill.

“Learn to depend upon yourself by doing things in accordance with your own thinking.” – Grenville Kleiser

In the afternoon, once a leopard has come down from a tree it might have slept in for most of the day, it will gather itself before moving off in search of prey. Just before moving off, a leopard will usually yawn a few times then stretch and scratch its claws on the tree.

The scratching of the claws on the tree trunk sharpens the claws, scrapes parasites off her paw pads which helps reduce infection and is thought to stretch the ligaments in the paws to ensure full flexibility. Leopards, like most cats, also have an interdigital gland, which they use to scent mark when they scratch trees.

On a separate occasion, around mid-morning, we found a leopardess and her adolescent cub up a large Mashatu tree on the bank of the Majale river. They seemed to be feeding on the remains of a carcass which we could not see. This female was instantly on high alert when she heard a troop of baboons approaching.

From her arboreal lookout she could locate the exact position of the baboons and the direction they were moving.

“Pick you battles. You do not have to show up to every argument you’re invited to.”~ Mandy Haley

The cub stopped feeding and also found a position from which to observe the potential approaching threat.

As soon the the leopardess assessed that the baboons were indeed coming toward them, she began to descend the massive Mashatu tree.

She assessed the baboons to be a clear threat. She left the cub up the tree. As she descended, she stopped to have a good look at the troop of baboons.

“Be selective in your battles, don’t make every problem a war.”~ anonymous

The last section of the tree was steep so she descended it front first. The baboons would easily be able to climb this massive Mashatu tree and having found the cub would mob it and the large male baboon would try to kill it.

Her posture says it all. She was well aware of the threat.

Leopards are independent self reliant and cunning ambush predators. They are also outnumbered by a troop of baboons which can kill a leopard. There are usually many large male baboons in a large troop and they are the greatest danger.

The tail twitching and low snarl showed her irritation towards the baboons. She would never have attacked the troop on the ground but she had a plan.

As the baboons got closer the leopardess moved off along the top of the Majale river bank and positioned herself in a thicket where the baboons would not be able to get to her. This was also a diversionary tactic to lead the baboons away from her cub in the Mashatu tree.

“You cannot change how people treat you or what they say about you. All you can do is change how you react to it.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

As cunning, stealthy, self reliant and strong as leopards are, they do not have it all their own way. They are masters of camouflage and ambush but there are many eyes and ears in the bush. If it is not baboons harassing them during the day, it is squirrels letting the whole world know where the leopard is positioned. Spurfowl and guineafowl also make a racket when they spot a leopard. In areas where there are numerous impala, duiker and steenbok they are the preferred prey and baboons make up only a very low percentage of kills. After nightfall leopards come into their own and have a significant advantage in the hunt. Leopards occasionally hunt baboons at night. During leopard attacks baboons seek refuge in the tallest available trees and outer most branches which are difficult to access.

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

Have, fun,

Mike

Mashatu- a return after lockdown

In August 2021, we were able to return to Mashatu for the first time since the lockdown in mid-March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was soul refreshing to get back into the African bush. Many things had changed and many stayed the same.

“Winter in southern Africa is dry. The mornings are icy and the days warm. The smell of the bush brings back the familiarity where associations stray. Drying waterholes force wildlife to congregate and queleas to swarm.” ~ Mike Haworth

August is the last month of winter in southern Africa. It is the driest time of the year and the Tuli Block in south eastern Botswana is especially dry. It is a place of varied ecosystems and great seasonal variations. During winter, Mashatu can resemble a moonscape in places because it is so dry. By contrast in mid-summer, the rains transform this very dry place into what looks like the garden of Eden which is verdant green and the open plains are carpeted with yellow Devil Thorn flowers and there is a sense of abundance.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you have changed” ~ Nelson Mandela

The one aspect that had changed was that the resident lone male lion was kicked out of his territory by three young nomad males. The next image shows one of the new males lying down after having fed well on an eland kill. The male kept an eye on the surroundings while his newly bonded lionesses fed.

One aspect of Mashatu you can always be sure of is it’s eclectic wildlife. Back in camp at the bird bath a juvenile Black-headed oriole came in for a short drink.

Blue waxbills were enjoying a bath a midday in the camp’s bird bath.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.”~ Henry David Thoreau

There is a waterhole about seventy metres from the camp’s main lodge which during winter attracts wildlife varying from elephants to kudu and herons. This was one member of a bachelor herd of three young kudu bulls which came down for a drink that day.

Back at the camp’s birdbath a pair of Black-cheeked waxbills came in for a drink. This was the first time I had seen this species of waxbill in camp in over ten years. They drank quickly and were gone, not to be seen again for the rest of our stay.

The adult Black-headed oriole also came in for a drink. This species frequents the camp and its fluted call can often be heard. Its bright yellow plumage stands out like a jewel against the browns and oranges of the dry winter bush.

“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie

A male steenbok in the afternoon sun. We did not see his female who might have been in the dense thickets behind him.

Our guide and driver, Justice, has the most incredible eyesight. He found one of the two chicks of a Double-banded sandgrouse on the ground hidden in some dry grass. He picked up on the parent’s decoy tactics and started to look carefully for the chicks.

” Mother nature is the most inspired, devious and wily artist.” ~ Mike Haworth

The chicks lie dead still in the grass and are beautifully camouflaged. This little chick was probably the size of my thumb so we were fortunate to see it. The parent sandgrouse quickly move away from the chicks who don’t move in the dry grass. The parents try to lure any potential threat away from their chicks.

“The world is not to be put in order. The world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” ~ Henry Miller

We usually leave camp around 6h30 in winter because the sun rises later. On our way out we pass a large rock outcrop and adjacent to the outcrop is a grove of large apple leaf trees. There is a family of Verreaux eagle owls that are resident in this area.

Mashatu is known for its excellent leopard sightings, and this trip was no exception. We were driving in the dry Majale riverbed when we came upon this young leopardess just sitting on the top of the river bank watching the passing parade.

The background was very messy so it was difficult to get a really good shot of the young leopardess but after a while she lay down on the dusty ground at the top of the river bank to enjoy the warmth of the sun in the early winter morning.

“On an icy African winter morn all wildlife seeks a safe spot to absorb the warmth of the sun radiating through the clear blue sky.” ~ Mike Haworth

One member of the new reigning male lion coalition lying in the shade having already had his fill of eland, he was listening to the lionesses feeding behind him and also keeping guard.

One feature of Mashatu in winter is the massing of queleas. They seem to swarm on the ground moving like locusts. They are seed eaters and move in massive flocks of hundreds of thousands.

It was wonderful to be able to get back into the bush again. The trip was not without its challenges. The closest border post, Ponte Drift, was closed so we had to travel via Martin’s Drift from Johannesburg to Botswana which added an extra three and a half hours to our drive, but it was worth it. The wildlife was oblivious of our human travails and seemed to have thrived in our absence.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ~ John Burroughs

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Collared Pratincoles

The Collared Pratincole, also known as the Common Pratincole or Red-winged Pratincole, is a wader in the pratincole family, Glareolidae. As with other pratincoles, it is native to the “Old World”. The “Old World” generally refers to Africa, Asia, and Europe. It has a Latin name Gareloa Pratincola where the term “glarea” means gravel as these birds are frequently found foraging or roosting in open gravel-like fields or floodplains.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” ~Mark Twain.

There are four types of pratincole species, the Oriental, Collared or Red-winged, Black-winged Pratincole and Rock Pratincole. The Collared and Rock species are found along the Chobe river. The Collared can be often seen on the banks of Sedudu Island in the Chobe river just up river from Kasane. The Rock Pratincole is found mainly on rocks in fast-flowing rivers. These pratincoles are usually found on the rocks around the Seboba rapids in the Chobe river down river from Kasane. The Rock Pratincole is different to other pratincoles by virtue of its small size, dark colouration, and stripes under the wings. It has a similarly shaped beak to the other pratincoles but has distinct red legs. We did not see any in June as the water level was very high and all the rocks down at the rapids were covered by water.

We typically found flocks of Collared Pratincoles roosting on the sand banks of Sedudu Island along the north channel of the Chobe river as it flowed past the island. It appeared that breeding and incubating had started.

Collared Pratincoles prefer sandbanks, mudflats, and grassy flood plains, especially if adjacent to stretches of water such as lakes, pans or large rivers. In the next image, Collared Pratincoles can be seen roosting on a narrow sand bank which was on the route taken by buffaloes and elephants moving along the northern section of Sedudu Island. Every time buffalo or elephants passed by, they took flight until the threat had passed and then returned to the same place to roost.

Breeding season is from June-December, peaking from October-December. The Collared Pratincole typically lays one to two eggs which are incubated for around 18 days. The chicks leave the nest after three days and fledge after about 25 days. Like the courser, young pratincoles are precocious, hatching with their eyes open and being able to walk one day after birth. The young birds are well camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings.

These waders have short black legs and a very long-winged “horizontal” profile. Its head is shaped like that of a courser and it has long slender wings like a courser but its legs are very short quite unlike a courser.

The Collared Pratincole is unusual, having migratory populations in both the southern and northern hemispheres. Northern birds breed in open steppes, savannas, and dry mudflats in southern Europe and southwestern Asia, and in winter in Africa. Birds that breed in southern Africa, migrate to northern Africa to spend their non-breeding season. These southern pratincoles breed in southern Africa from June-February, although along the Zambezi River they are known to breed from April-November.

The Collared Pratincole has narrow white trailing edges to wings and dark rusty underwings which distinguishes this species from similar pratincoles. It is easily distinguished by its forked tail and swallow like high aspect ratio wings. High aspect ratio wings have a narrow wingtip area, which creates less vortex induced downwash, which means a lot less induced drag. Accordingly, pratincoles are highly efficient and fast fliers.

They feed mainly in flight, catching prey aerially in a manner similar to swallows sweeping back and forth. The Collared Pratincole does most of its foraging in the evening or on moonlight nights. It will also catch invertebrates on the ground such as grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders and molluscs.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~ Henry David Thoreau.

The Collared Pratincole has a distinctive fawn collared throat and a black collar. Its back and upper area of it wing feathers are brown in colour and its belly is white. All pratincole species have a small sharp beak which is slightly decurved. The beak is red with a black tip. This pratincole has a wide gape typical of an aerial insect hunter, much like a swallow or nightjar.

“Our imagination flies – we are its shadow on the earth.” ~Vladimir Nabokov.

At times in the early morning or evening you might be privileged to watch a pratincole murmuration. This is a amazing spectacle. A murmuration is a large flock of birds that twist, turn, swoop and swirl across the sky in spectacular shape-shifting clouds. The flock moves in unison in what appears to be an aerial dance that reveals flashes of white as they turn to reveal the white of their bellies in the evening light. At first glance it looks as if the murmuration develops just for the sheer delight of flying but there is a less romantic more practical reason for these mass flights. Scientists believe that murmurations offer safety in numbers. The flock normally takes flight when a raptor approaches attracted by the sheer number of birds. Murmurations usually form over the birds’ communal roosting site.

Pratincoles occur in groups and nest in large, loosely structured colonies. Coursers are less social than this and do not nest in colonies. The nests of coursers and pratincoles are simple scrapes made in the open.

“Reason can answer questions, but imagination has to ask them.” ~ Ralph W. Gerard.

I thought I would dedicate a post to these fascinating birds. Once you have seen a pratincole murmuration is will capture your imagination. A closer look reveals a beautiful, delicate and intriguing insectivore which has features of several different birds all in one body. It is a beautiful easy flier just like swallow.

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

This is the last post from our photographic trip with CNP Safaris in June last year to the Chobe river. A big thank you goes to Elana Erasmus our CNP Safari guide and long standing photo-buddy. Elana, you found us some fascinating scenes, positioned the photographic boat really well in order to take full advantage of the sightings, and your knowledge of the Chobe river was a major advantage for your photographic guests. You kept us safe but allowed us to get to dramatic, almost inaccessible scenes in shallow water with tangles of water lilies.

“Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.” ~ Unknown

Mid-winter in the southern Hemisphere is an unusual time because the flood waters are at their peak which alters the character of the river. The river bank changes dramatically forcing much of the wildlife to adapt to the higher water levels. Most of the migratory birds have gone to warmer climes but not all. I have found the Chobe river to have been one of the most productive wildlife destinations in southern Africa. I will be back!

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.” ~Carl Sagan.

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s winter wonderland

This post shows a gallery of images which portray the remarkable diversity of life along the Chobe river during June which is mid-winter in southern Africa. The abundance of life, sunshine, colour, and activity is astounding.

“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

A pride of lions on the bank of the Chobe river just upstream of Pygmy goose bend at around 6h30 in the morning.

Last light on the river as we are mooring the photographic boat – another productive photographic day!

A typical scene of a herd of elephants which have chosen to enjoy a salad of water grass and water lily stems rather than walk miles inland looking for food to eat.

A sunset with the iconic three Jackalberry trees standing monumental and silhouetted on a spit of land on Sedudu island.

A breeding herd of elephants drinking together with the little ones in the middle for protection.

The soft pastel colour of dawn travelling quietly on the photographic boat into Jacana alley hoping to see Jacana chicks, crakes, herons, coucals, weavers and bee-eaters.

A sun warmed mudbank in the Chobe river on a winter morning where crocodiles and hippos share nature’s warm peacefully.

Elephant valley around mid morning. This is a gathering point for wildlife to drink and eat the mineral rich white chalk on the river bank.

A breeding herd of elephants drinking and enjoying the mineral rich chalk down at Elephant valley.

The end of another fascinating and inspiring day’s wanderings along the Chobe river.

“There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” ~ Jo Walton

A group of female kudu on the river bank just down river from Chobe Game Lodge. The kudu were eating the mineral rich soil on the river bank.

The three Jackalberry trees standing at the northern most part of Sedudu island at sunset. These trees are home to Fish Eagles and Lilac Breasted Rollers alike.

The abundance of life is everywhere. A bull elephant ahead of the other two bulls disturbed a flock of White-faced Whistling Ducks and Comb Ducks while the Grey Heron looked on impassively.

Travelling back to our mooring at Chobe Safari Lodge. The winter sunsets can produce a dramatic light show due to the dust in the atmosphere.

Expect the unexpected. A pair of mating Water Monitor Lizards on the river bank close to the water’s edge.

Painted skies provide the last light just as we are returning before last light.

A flock of Blue Waxbills next to the water’s edge just down river from Puku flats. These beautiful pastel Blue Waxbills were drinking in relays from this bush.

A pair of intrepid fishermen standing and polling from their makoro fully aware of the massive crocodiles which live in the Chobe’s waters.

“Water is the most perfect traveler because when it travels it becomes the path itself!” — Unknown

A family herd of kudu drinking from the river at elephant’s valley. They are very nervous drinking directly from the river because of the risk of a crocodile attack.

A flock of Collared Pratincoles disturbed by some passing buffalo on the bank of the south channel of Sedudu island.

A splash of hippos were disturbed and rushed for the water where they feel safest.

A Trumpeter Hornbill flying from a fruit tree next to the water’s edge at Chobe safari lodge. An image taken during our breakfast.

A lone Curlew Sandpiper foraging for edibles along the edge of Sedudu island.

A small herd of buffalo making their way west from sandbank to sandbank along the northern channel past Sedudu island.

A scene just upriver from the rapids in the Chobe river. Shortly thereafter the Chobe meets the mighty Zambesi river before the swollen body of water pours over the Victoria falls.

After photographing birds in the trees at the rapids we were traveling back to the lodge at sunset while flocks of waders were returning to their roosting trees in the rapids.

A serene scene with two pairs of Pygmy Geese quietly feeding at the edge of Jacana alley.

When I am travelling on the Chobe river I am constantly amazed at the abundance of wildlife it attracts. Not one morning or afternoon boat trip is the same. Nature is in a constant state of flux. What you see in one place in the morning you may never see it again the same place.

Mother nature perpetually throws up new interactions which generate new understandings and new appreciations which leave me with an overwhelming sense of the wonder, complexity and natural intelligence inherent in this river system.

“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”~ Richard Attenborough

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s winter birdlife

This post shows a selection of the images of birds seen along the Chobe river in June 2021, mid-winter in southern Africa. Almost all the images were taken while on a CNP Safari from CNP’s specialised photographic boat. The perspective from the boat is ideal and the wildlife allows you to get much closer on the water than on land. Winter is obviously a time when all the migrants have flown north for warmer climes where there is more food, especially insects.

“I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.” ~ Lynn Thomson

As a change in format for this post I have decided to show more images with a brief description of the birds. For anyone interested in birds and bird photograph, the Chobe offers wonderful photographic opportunities and should be on the to-do list for all serious bird photographers

A female Comb duck in flight. The angle of the sun dictates whether we see the beautiful iridescence on the wings of not. In this image their was just a hint of the iridescence on the wings.

A pair of White-crowned lapwings noisily declaring their territory.

A Yellow-billed stork returning to its roosting area down near the rapids in the Chobe river below Mowana Lodge late in the afternoon.

A female Blacksmith lapwing sitting on her eggs in the morning on the banks along the Chobe river.

A few White-faced whistling ducks coming to land with a hippo in the background.

A Wire-tailed swallow with its shiny dark blue upperparts, black eye band, chestnut brown crown, white throat and no collar. This species is named for the very long filamentous outermost tail feathers, which trail behind like two wires.

A Water thick-knee bathing in the shallow water at the edge of the river.

An adult Fish eagle in flight scanning the water below for potential prey close to the river’s surface.

A Spurwing goose running to take off and in the process leaving a trail of water splashes.

A Spurwing goose in flight with the spur evident at the elbow joint.

Elegant and radiant in the early morning sun. This African darter was drying its wings while perched on a dead tree stump in the southern channel around the Sedudu island.

From the northern channel around Sedudu island looking east. A flock of White-faced whistling ducks take to flight disturbed by our lingering presence.

The annual floods start in March and peak around June in the winter months. This is a time when a myriad of newly spawned bait fish make their way back into the river, only to be ambushed by shoals of hungry Tiger fish and Catfish waiting for them. That is just what the Fish eagle’s are waiting for.

Two pairs of the diminutive Pygmy geese feeding in a secluded part of Jacana alley just off the northern channel of the Chobe river around Sedudu island.

The Pygmy geese seem to be around all year round. They are skittish with the female taking off before the male. We call them “pocket rockets” for a reason.

A Red-billed spurfowl had come down to drink at Elephant Valley with its dark brown plumage and distinctive red bill and yellow eye ring.

On the river bank near Puku flats we found a flock of Blue waxbills with members of the flock flying down in relays to drink at the river’s edge.

An Openbill stork finding plenty of snails to feed on in the shallow waters near Puku flats.

This Openbill stork skillfully cracked open the snail shell and swallowed the succulent, rich inner parts.

Winter time seems to be a time when we see more Comb or Knob-billed ducks along the Chobe river. The female does not grow a comb but does have the iridescent colours on its secondary wing feathers adding that little bit of pazazz.

It is cool in the winter mornings along the Chobe, so this Fish eagle was taking the opportunity to warm up and dry its wings in the morning sun high up on top of a tree overlooking the river.

An African skimmer hunting in the late afternoon rippled waters of the Chobe river. Perfectly adapted for scooping up small fish which have come to the surface to catch insects. The black feathers on crown, around the eye and neck are thought to reduce the glared from the water.

The African skimmer has a half wing beat as it flies just above the surface of the river with is lower mandible in the water ready to scoop up a small fish. There must be a reason for the bright red beak but I have still to find out what it is.

The high power to weight ratio and the precision flight make the hunting of the African skimmer spellbinding. They mostly rely on their sense of touch through their bills. If the prey is too big or the object too solid the skimmer’s head recoils downward underneath its body to release the beak from the object. Skimming usually takes pace in the early morning or late afternoon when the water is calm.

Not on the boat this time, but we sitting having breakfast at the Chobe Safari Lodge when we heard the unmistakable cries of the Trumpeter hornbill. A small family flock were feeding on the fruit of a tree in front of the lodge at the river’s edge.

The Trumpeter hornbill makes a loud wailing , nasal call which sounds like a baby crying. The large casque is a sign that it prefers dense woodland areas. They tend to flock outside breeding season.

This coucal was issuing, as Douglas Livingstone puts it “the rainbird’s liquid note” from the sand bank of Sedudu island around mid-morning. The call sounds like “sound of water bubbling from some cool spring hidden deep in the bush. This looks like a Senegal coucal as it lacks the fine barring on the rump but could be a Coppery-tailed coucal as I could not see the full extent of its tail. Both are common residents in this area. This was a solo act we did not hear the duet in this episode.

Reed cormorants are agile, highly successful fisherman in the fish rich waters of the Chobe river.

An active and successful Reed cormorant with a tasty morsel.

We found a small family herd of giraffe down near Chobe Game Lodge. They were eating soil rich in minerals in a what is called geophagia. In this case the soil looked to be rich in a form of chalk. While the giraffe were occupied it was a perfect time for the Red-billed oxpeckers to get to work grooming, cleaning and feeding from their host.

The Fish eagles were active. Some watched from a perch on a tree high above the river while others stood on the river bank. As the water gets colder the fish tend to swim deeper in the river. This dictates that the Fish eagles must become more opportunistic which mean mongoose, Jacana and White-faced whistling duck come onto the menu.

A male Stonechat was on the look out from a tassling reed.

A Collared pratincole disturbed by a herd of buffalo walking along the sand bank it was roosting on Sedudu island.

A Collared practincole seeking protection from the cool wind one morning on the north side of Sedudu island.

This was a first in Chobe for me, I had not seen a Curlew sandpiper along the Chobe before. It is a migrant but does winter in Africa and breeds in the tundra of Arctic Siberia.

I assume it was a Curlew sandpiper from the decurved shape of its beak, the cryptic colouration of its back and its white breast.

A lone Kittlitz plover on Sedudu island not far from the Curlew sandpiper.

I could not see the tail and rump but I assume this was a Senegal coucal as it looked slightly smaller than its coppery-tailed cousin. It also prefers a dense waterside habitat. Coucals are members of the cuckoo family.

Sunning spots are at a premium in winter. A Reed comorant objected to this grey-heading gull stealing the prime position.

That unique grey face, red eye ring, red beak and red legs are a give away, making this grey-headed gull easily identified.

There seems to be a pair of Fish eagles every couple of hundred metres upstream the Chobe river from the rapids below the Mowana Game Lodge up river to Serondela. We did not go much further past Serondela due to the distance from our base at the Chobe Safari Lodge.

An adult African spoonbill flying back to its roosting site in the trees in the Chobe river rapids just above Kazangula.

A turf disagreement between two African spoonbills late in the afternoon as all the larger wading birds were returning to their roosting trees for the night.

A young male Comb or Knob-billed duck in flight.

A female Comb duck coming in to land to join the rest of the flock which was feeding on a shallow sand bank in the main channel of the Chobe river.

This female Comb duck had to had to make last minute adjustments to its landing due to the crowded land area.

A White-faced whistling duck coming in to land on the same shallow sandbank in the Chobe river as the Comb ducks.

Bird photography on the Chobe river is a highly productive. This was mid-winter so all the migrants had left for warmer climes. The permanent water and rich fishing makes this an ideal residence for waders, storks, ducks, geese and raptors.

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” ~ Ansel Adams

The few images I have shown in this post is just a selection of the birds we saw along the Chobe river. I had already put out a post on egrets and herons and another on kingfishers. We had such good sightings of pratincoles that I will do a separate post of collared pratincoles.

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

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s river horses

Along the Chobe river between the rapids below Kasane up river to Serondela is home to numerous pods of hippos. The river is flowing all year round which is ideal for them. The high water period is around May-June each year when the flood waters come down from Angola. Hippos do not swim but rather walk, prance, and even “fly” underwater. They can float or sink by controlling their breathing and body position. Parts of the hippo’s skeleton have very dense bones. This bone structure acts as a form of ballast to enable them achieve neutral buoyancy underwater. They are able to further regulate their buoyancy by controlling their breath. Breathing out creates negative buoyancy.

“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance.” ~ The Lion King

Hippopotamuses get their common name from the ancient Greeks and which literally translates into English as river horse.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Female hippos are highly protective of their calves even against much bigger male hippos. We found many hippos out of the water but this was because we were on the Chobe in June which is mid-winter in the southern Africa. During the day when the sun is blazing, hippos spend most of their time in the water to keep cool and prevent them from sunburn. They do like to lie in mud baths next to the river which offers some protection from the sun. Hippos also produce a red fluid which is a deep red mucus-like secretion which helps to control their body temperature and acts as a potent sunscreen and antibiotic.

This looked to be a young male trying to mount a large female hippo with red-billed oxpeckers in attendance. Hippos tend to fight a lot and many have scratches and cuts on their thick hides which the oxpeckers clean up. This young male did not look like he was making the slightest impression on the dozing female. It was winter in southern Africa so the hippos spend more time than usual sunning themselves on dry land to warm up.

Hippos usually mate in the water. The female hippos are often forcibly submerged in the water by the male hippo for most of the mating process. She needs to come to the surface at times to breathe. In some cases, although very rarely, the hippos may choose to mate on land.

 A hippo can run at 30 kilometres per hour and will charge anything that gets in its way, especially if you are between it and its place of safety, which is the water. We had one incident along the Chobe river several years ago when we got between the water a dozing bull hippo. He was dosing about 40 metres from the water’s edge in the grass. We stopped next to the bank to photograph some waders. We were between the hippo and the water but checked to ensure the bull hippo was relaxed and dozing. It was not until Lou Coetzer, our CNP Safari guide, shouted to the boat driver to get out of the way as quick as possible when we turned to see the bull hippo in full charge toward the boat. We made it but a matter of metres. In our shaken state, we were reminded never to be complacent. When hippos run for the water it does provide photographers with opportunities to capture spectacular splash shots as they charge into the water.

“Hippos always have the right of way, except when an elephant crosses its path.” ~Mike Haworth

There were other times when we were slowly boating through the thick matt of water lilies and water grass when out of nowhere a hippo burst out of the water. The guide and boatman kept a very wary eye on the movement of hippos as we are travelling along the river. You would be surprised how quickly a hippo can move through the water. Furthermore, do not be fooled by deep water they can run and bounce of the river bed surprising fast and continue the chase for longer than you might expect.

The biggest threat to a male hippo is another male hippo. This young male was not being allowed back into the water by the dominant bull who was not about to shy away from a confrontation. Most hippo fights take place in the water. Hippos live in pods or groups ranging from – on average – 30 individuals to bloats numbering up to 200 in the Luangwa river. Pods comprise females, their young and a single dominant bull. This bull will aggressively protect his females and territory against other male hippos. He won and maintains his dominant position through continue combat and confrontation.

The open jawed “yawning” display is usually a threatening posture. When an unwanted male enters the dominant bull hippo’s territory, the two size each other up. They will probably stand nose to nose and bellow their discontent. In an attempt to threaten each other they open their jaws as wide as possible, which can be as much as 150 degrees wide, to display their size and power as well as their sharp teeth. If that does not work it can end up in a pitch jaw battle. The hippos teeth tend to sharpen naturally through constant use throughout their life, and can grow to be up to three feet long, strong enough to cut deep into the opposition’s thick hide or the hull of an aluminium boat.

A typical family scene along the Chobe river in winter. The larger females and males are lying in the mud in the sun. The youngsters and younger females, probably mothers, got up when we passed by. The females were probably just protective of their youngsters. The hippos do not seem to be fussed about the crocodiles or all the birdlife around them. In this case there were hundreds of Egyptian geese which made a racket but this did not disturb the slumbering mud bathers.

“Only let the moving waters calm down, and the sun and moon will be reflected on the surface of your being.” ~Deepak Chopra

After the mating period, the female hippo has a long gestation period of around eight months and the birth usually takes place in the wettest season of the year. When it is almost time to give birth, the female hippo isolates herself from the pod until she has given birth to her calf (female hippos usually give birth to one calf but occasionally produce twins). The baby hippo is born underwater with its hind legs appearing first.

Hippos and elephant don’t usually tangle. This bull elephant had crossed the southern channel around Sedudu island to feed on the island. Hippos are highly territorial but although huge they are way smaller than a bull elephant. Elephants are not usually aggressive animals unless there are young to protect or water or grazing that they need to protect. Interestingly, this bull hippo did not give much ground to the confronting bull despite its major size and weight disadvantage. Thankfully the confrontation was over quickly with no damage done.

Nothing looks more relaxed and content than a hippo submerged in its salad. This hippo was neck deep in the river amongst water lilies and water grass. The late afternoon light was soft and warm and this hippo seemed to enjoy being adorned with water lily pads.

Hippos spend most of their time deep in water to cool and graze on the water grass in the river. They require about 45 kilograms of food a day to maintain that massive weight. Hippos are herbivores but their diet depends on what is available. Hippos generally do most of the grazing at night on land but along the Chobe the overgrazing by elephants has dictated that hippos have adapted to take advantage of the water lilies and water grass. Hippos are ruminants but have only three chambers to their stomach, not four as in other ruminants. Hippos do not chew the cud, a ball like mass of partly digested plant matter. The hippo also has a small and large intestine. The small intestine is where all the fats, proteins and fat are digested (or emulsified) by enzymes and absorbed. The large intestine has the function of absorbing the water that goes through it and excretes whatever bodily material is left over as defecation.

Like elephants, hippos are the gardeners of Africa’s river systems. Hippos keep channels open through the reeds and papyrus which improves the flow of the river. Hippos defecate a lot but this provides vital for food for the fish. In turn the fish feed the Catfish and Tigerfish and many waterbirds. The Catfish and Tigerfish in turn feed the Fish eagles and crocodiles. There is a trophic cascade.

“Few can sojourn long within the unspoilt wilderness of a game sanctuary, surrounded on all sides by its confiding animals, without absorbing its atmosphere; the Spirit of the Wild is quick to assert supremacy, and no man of any sensibility can resist her.” ~James Stevenson-Hamilton

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Chacma characters

“What is it that awakens in my soul when I catch the scent of rain, when I see the sun and moon rise and set on all the colours of the earth, when I approach the heart of wilderness? For indeed something does move and enliven me in my spirit, something that defines my very being in the world, I realise my humanity in proportion as I perceive my reflection in the landscape that enfolds me. It has always been so.” ~ N. Scott

Along the Chobe river upstream of Kasane to Serondela there are several troops of baboons. Two primates are found along the Chobe river, the Chacma baboon and the Vervet monkey. Baboons are Old World monkeys. There are five extant species of baboon – olive, yellow, Chacma, Guinea and Sacred or Hamadryas – and all are found in Africa and there is a population of Hamadryas baboons found in Saudi Arabia.

The word “chacma” is derived from the Hottentot (Khoikhoi) name for baboon, namely chocchamma or chow kamma.

Chacma baboons are found throughout southern Africa and along the Chobe river. They are the largest and most terrestrial monkeys found in southern Africa. These baboons are highly social and can live in troops as large as 100 individuals. The troops I have seen along the Chobe river probably number up to 40 to 50 individuals. The next images is of a mother with her two youngsters sitting down on the sandy beach at Pygmy Geese bend on the Chobe river. It was early morning and the sun had just risen. The whole troop had come down from the trees where they sleep at night to avoid most nocturnal predators- except leopard. Grooming is an important social activity that strengthens relationships among a troop. Male to female grooming is used during courtships and nursing. Females partner with certain males for protection, especially for their infants.

On our second morning out on the photographic boat we heard a great commotion. A whole baboon troop was in a large Natal Mahogany near the river’s edge upstream from Pygmy Geese bend. This large tree was probably their sleeping quarters the previous night. Chacma baboons are diurnal meaning they only move around and feed during the day. There was a great deal of barking from many of the baboons. The reason for their alarm calls was that there was a pride of lions near the river’s edge not far from the Natal Mahogany in which they were seeking refuge.

Chacma baboons do not have prehensile tails but they do help with balance and can be great play things for young baboons. Chacmas have wonderful balance, a skill won with age and practice.

Chacma baboons have incredible balance and immense strength. They appear to have great strength in their feet, hands, arms and legs. Although they are not heavily built, except the large adult males, they must have exceptionally strong tendons.

Baboons are dimorphic meaning the males and females are quite different in size. The males are significantly larger and heavier than the females and can weigh between 30 and 40 kilograms, almost double that of most females. The males have long (around 5 cm), razor sharp canine teeth and a dark mane on their neck and shoulders. A large male baboon will give a leopardess a hard time and in a fight those large canines can inflict real damage.

Current research into baboon behaviour has some important things to tell us about how we got so far in the smarts business. After closely observing baboons in the Okavango Delta for many years, behavioural scientists Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discovered that they (the baboons) spent much of their time gossiping and eavesdropping on others of their troop. While they had only 14 types of vocalising or “words”, their responses to these words and the movement of the troop indicated that they held in their minds many more concepts for which they had no words. Studies on baboons and other apes, including chimps, show that they all have considerable ability to form ideas and discern and remember sounds, but no ability to represent them. A language of mind has structure and requires that the thinker has a sense of self and of their separation from others and the world. Baboons have this, which makes them such fun to watch, but they live in the present tense. They lack the insight to imagine a different world. Or to change it. (Source: Daily Maverick)

Chacma’s have fascinating social structure and able to communicate via facial expressions, gestures and vocalisations. A baboon troop can and will operate cooperatively against a predator during the day especially a leopard. They develop friendships and misbehaving is swiftly and noisily dealt with.

A fundamental part of their development is their play in and on fallen trees and in bushes. This must be were they develop those strong tendons and learn to balance.

“It is not about achieving your dreams but living your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.” ~ Randy Pausch

Gestation period of around 180 days and the females are very protective of the new borns.

Young Chacma’s are very playful. Often they can be very rough with each other but I guess this is part of what toughens them up.

Females carry their very young offspring under their belly. This can be tricky for the youngster especially when the mother is wading through water or drinking. The youngster tends to get dunked frequently.

The belly carrying technique is useful as the mother has her hands free and the youngster can breast feed when ever it likes.

Chacma baboons make wonderful photographic wildlife subjects because they are very active and have so many expressions and poses which we humans can identify with and more often than not find very funny.

“It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.” ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer

“There was an ape in the days that were earlier,
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more gave a thumb to his wrist—
Then he was a man and a Positivist.” ~ Mortimer Collins

Around mid-morning we found a troop that had come down to drink from the Chobe river. The baboons seem to enjoy the Elephant Valley’s little beachfront, where they can slate their thirst and rummage through the elephant dung for undigested berries, seeds and other edibles. Elephants digest their food with less than 50% efficiency. Elephants are non-ruminant herbivores so do not chew the cud, ruminate or belch like ruminant animals.

Baboons can often be found foraging or drinking with antelope such as impala and kudu. Both species benefit from more eyes, especially as drinking from the Chobe river delivers threats from predators on land and in the water. The Chobe river is infested with crocodiles some of which are many years old and massive and wily hunters.

This was one of the older adult females who had come down to drink at the river’s edge. You can see that they watch the water very carefully for any sign of an incoming crocodile. The baboons prefer to drink from small pools of water near the river’s edge because of the reduced threat of a crocodile attacks but if there are no pools they have to drink from the river.

An example of a very young baby getting wet while its mother was taking a drink from the river.

Once the youngsters are strong enough they can ride on their mother’s back. They seem to really enjoy the ride and climb on and off with gay abandon.

There is still so much in the world worth fighting for. So much that is beautiful. So many wonderful people working to reverse the harm, to help alleviate the suffering. There are so many people dedicated to making this a better world. All conspiring to inspire us and give us hope that it is not too late to turn things around, if we all do our part.” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall

A partial backlit shot of a female Chacma picking up edibles from the water. This is an extremely dangerous place to be feeding, especially as she was already in the shallow water. An opportunity for a crocodile. We never saw a croc attacking a baboon while it was drinking, but it does happen.

Baboons will eat many things varying from the new shoots on trees and bushes to flowers, fruit, seeds and berries to water lily shoots. They will all eat birds eggs and even spiders and scorpions when they can find them. They often stuff there cheeks full of food to eat later when they feel safer.

This young Chacma was gorging itself on water lily shoots but obviously keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles.

Chacma baboons exhibit many vocal signals, which can be combined with visual signals. They use a well known double bark called “bokkum” as an alarm or aggressive signal; it’s given by only high-ranking males when there is aggression either between troops or within their troop. It is also used for a predator signal or for when a male communicates his presence or arousal. Lower-ranking males use a shrill single bark. This is expressed when there is a sudden disturbance or when one part of the troop rejoins another. Grunts are used for contentment, desire, or mild aggression. (Source: New England Primate Conservancy).

As photographer we can spend hours watching a troop of Chacmas moving along the river’s edge, there is always something happening whether it is youngsters playing, a teenager getting disciplined or the dominant male asserting his authority over the troop.

“The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself…” ~ Chief Seattle

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s elephants

The Chobe river is a wildlife haven because it provides permanent water in the dry northern part of Botswana. It is a place to quench a deep thirst, a playground and a salad bowl for the massive population of elephants in the Chobe National Park. This is the third largest conservation area in Botswana. Estimates of the size of the dynamic elephant population vary around 120 000.

“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. If you don’t (as a filmmaker) live to make the moment inside the frame perfect, the content will get to you and mess you up.” ~ Dereck Joubert

The 2018 Northern Botswana survey jointly undertaken by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks together with Elephants Without Borders was the largest aerial survey undertaken since 2014. The survey revealed important changes in the wildlife populations and an increase in poaching. The survey showed an elephant population of 126 100 which was essentially unchanged from the 2014 survey, but the Chobe National Park elephant population had decreased 12.6% to 15 400 elephants over the four years (Source: Elephants without Borders)

What happens when a bull elephant meets a hippo bull on dry land. They face off for a minute or so then the elephant challenges and the hippo being outsized, backs away. Despite the massive size difference the hippo was reluctant to give in and did not back away more than a few metres. There was just posturing with no physical confrontation. No one was hurt and pride remained intact. This minor challenge took place on the banks of the Sedudu island along the northern channel of the Chobe river.

The elephant herds wander down to the river’s edge in the afternoons. By mid-afternoon and we found several elephant breeding herds drinking, each in a reasonably tight group. The larger females were very protective of the youngsters. I suspect they drink in a tight group to prevent crocodiles from trying to attack the smaller calves.

“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

Generally, the time of drinking is quiet and passive. That is unless there are one to two young bulls, around 10 years old, who disturb the peace with their strength testing tactics.

From the perspective of the boat we are able to get below eye level with many of the elephants foraging or walking on the river bank. We can also get close without upsetting the animals and can be dead quiet as we drift past.

An adult female elephant quietly foraging on tuffs of grass close to the edge of the Chobe river.

“There is a serene and settled majesty to woodland scenery that enters into the soul and delights and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.” ~ Washington Irving

Elephant valley is well known along the Chobe river. It is around a kilometre upstream from Chobe Game Lodge. The elephants congregate down in this small shallow valley to drink and to eat the chalk and minerals provided by the white soils along the left hand side of the valley’s river bank. This long legged teenager was clearly thirsty and finding the river bank clear rushed down to the water for a drink.

Breeding herds come down to drink and this involves the whole family regardless of size. The very young calves have not yet managed to gain control of their flimsy trunks and drink by putting their face in the water and drinking with their mouths. The slightly older calves try to drink the water using their trunks but with plenty of spillage.

A breeding herd coming down to drink at the Chobe river. They probably had to walk 10 to 20 kilometres from their feeding grounds to the river. Over the last few decades the large elephant population frequenting the Chobe river has reduced the vegetation along the river forcing the elephants to travel longer distances between their feeding areas and the river.

“They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with us in this net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travails of this earth.” ~ Henry Beston

Elephants need between 70 and 100 litres of water a day but can drink up to 150 litres per day. A large bull can consume over 200 litres in less than five minutes. An adult elephant can hold around 11 litres of water in its trunk.

The relatively steep white bank behind the elephants appears to be a form of chalk which the elephants and many other mammals seek to complement their vegetarian diet.

The elephants moving and drinking at the water’s edge disturb insects, a dynamic which is noticed by the this White Crowned lapwing.

It is fascinating to watch the orderly way in which the breeding herds come down to the river’s edge to drink. One herd will wait patiently in the background until the herd drinking, has had its fill. Once sated the herd will move away to make room for the next herd to drink. Humans could learn a thing or two from these gentle giants about patience and consideration.

As soon as the adults give the rest of the herd the go ahead to move down to the water’s edge the calves barrel down the hill with typical youthful enthusiasm.

At times the excitement is too much for some youngsters and the odd calf will lie down to rest and sleep while the rest of the herd drinks.

Judging from the colour and wetness of this elephant calf it managed to get itself fully submerged. The adults are always close at hand as there are many crocodiles in the Chobe river which are quite capable to attacking a small calf.

The older elephants wade deep into the river to get to some of the grasses and reeds growing in the water. The elephants use their trunks to pull out the grasses and then swing the swathe of grass back and forth to remove the mud and soil from the root system. The elephants can spend hours feeding in the river, even in mid-winter.

The Chobe is a wonderful place to see large herds of elephants. When the water level is high the adult elephants, especially the bulls, cross the channels to get either to the Namibian side of the river or to one of the islands which are relatively under grazed.

Elephants are particularly intriguing. We are progressively learning about the depth of their sentience. It is clear they show emotions, get stressed and have remarkable memories, all attributes highly valued by humans. This means that there are endless opportunities to photograph elephant dynamics and behaviours and glean a deeper insight into their lives. As we learn more our empathy and respect for them grows. Poaching of elephants for their ivory remains a cancer of the human condition. Thankfully there are many dedicated organisations researching and working tirelessly against the scourge of poaching.

“There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent, if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the Earth among ourselves and also with other sentient beings, all of whom have an equal role and stake in the state of this planet and its players.” ~ Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

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

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Kingfishers

This post is about kingfishers along the Chobe river. I was on a CNP Safari photo river safari in early winter so the kingfishers I saw were resident. The inter-African migrants like the Woodlands and Grey-headed had already left. There are ten species of kingfisher in southern Africa.

“It may have been that the Quill Spirit had painted the bird with colours stolen from rock and leaf, and sky and fern, and enriched them by its fervour…” ~ Henry Williamson

Most kingfishers are brightly coloured and have unusual adaptations for display and feeding. Not all kingfishers are fishermen some are insect eaters.

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” ~ Napoleon Hill

The largest of the kingfishers we saw along the river was the Giant kingfisher. The Giant kingfisher is sexually dimorphic, meaning the male and female have different plumage. Males and females differing in their underpart patterning. The male has a brown chest and throat while the female has a brown belly. The Giant kingfisher hunts from a perch overhanging the water. Kingfishers that fish have an amazing ability to see through the glare on the water’s surface and be able to judge the fish’s depth, adjusting for the refraction of the water.

You will notice that most fishing kingfishers have black or dark colouring around their eyes. This is to reduce glare. Kingfishers are diurnal so hunt in broad daylight, invariably when there is plenty of glare.

It seems that all kingfishers dive into the water to cool down on very hot days. Once a kingfisher has dived into the water it will preen itself, dry out and put all their feathers back into place. This female Giant kingfisher was doing just that.

The female Pied kingfisher has a black marking on her chest which looks like a gorget which is separated in the middle of the throat while the male also has a black gorget plus a black band across its neck below its gorget. It gets its name from it black and white plumage and mottled black and white wing patterning. The Pied kingfisher is mid-sized with the Giant at the large end of the size spectrum and the Pygmy at the small end.

“The good photo settles in your eye. The better photo settles in your mind but the best photo settles in your heart!” ~ Mehmet Murat ildan

A male Pied kingfisher was hovering above potential prey in the Chobe river. Some birds, such as kestrels, remain motionless by “wind hovering” above a point on the ground as they fly into the wind at a speed equal to that of the wind. Other birds hover momentarily while foraging. The harrier is able to “wind hover” for a short period. Black shouldered kites can hover for an extended period by also facing into the wind. Sunbirds can also hover if they are not able to find a decent perch from which to drink the flower’s nectar. Most birds which are able to hover have a high aspect (length to width) ratio to their wings. The Pied kingfisher is a particularly good hoverer. Amazingly, it is able to keep its head dead still to maintain focus on its prey under water which is necessary to accurately assess the depth of the prey.

It is very seldom you will see the eye of a hovering kingfisher as they usually have their back to the sun again to reduce glare and improve visibility.

A female Pied kingfisher with her black gorget. Pied kingfishers are the only gregarious species. We often see several Pieds perched on the sand river bank. This specie is a co-operative breeder where helpers assist in caring for the chicks. In most cases, they remain close to their nest holes which they excavate in the river bank.

A female Pied kingfisher in flight just breaking out of a hover. The black beak is long approximately one third of the length of the bird.

The Malachite kingfisher is usually found perched on a reed next the bank of the Chobe river. It is like a glistering little gem in the reeds. It’s striking red beak and feet catch you attention as does its deep royal blue back and neck plumage. This is also a fisherman. It is lightning quick when flying and hunting.

The Malachite has cobalt blue head, back of the neck and back plumage with a headdress of striped black and aquamarine crown feathers.

A Brown-hooded kingfisher has brown stripes on its head. It has a dark ring around its eyes to reduce glare. The back is black the the primary wing feathers and tail feathers are a vivid cobalt blue. The underparts are a buff coloured breast, with brown streaks on the sides. The difference between a Brown-hooded and Striped kingfisher is evident in the dark eye stripe behind the eye and dark upper mandible and red lower mandible in the Striped. The Brown-hooded has colouring on the head which varies from consistent brown to a buff with brown streaks but it does not have the dark stripe behind its eye and its beak is red, with a dark tip.

“Advice from the River. Go with the flow, immerse yourself in nature, slowdown and meander, go around the obstacles. Be thoughtful of those downstream. Stay current. The beauty is in the journey.” ~ IIan Shamir

The Brown-hooded kingfisher does not eat fish but feeds mostly on insects such as grasshoppers and small reptiles such as lizards. It is a perch hunter and once prey is caught it is brought back to a branch and thrashed against the branch to kill it.

The Brown-hooded kingfisher is also an insect eater and does not feed on fish. It is often seen along the Chobe river because of the increased insect activity along the river bank. It has a characteristic brown head and red beak with a black tip.

A pair of half-collared kingfishers live and hunting in the branches overhanging the river next to the Chobe safari lodge . They are very skittish and normally only seen in the shadowy undergrowth. It is a special sighting as they are uncommon. This kingfisher is a fisherman and hunts from a perch of a branch overhanging the water. At a distance, the Half-collared kingfisher could be mistaken for a Malachite but the Half-collared’s cobalt blue head and back beak are diagnostic. It has a cobalt blue collar with a wide parting across the middle of its throat. This kingfisher does not have the vivid cobalt blue colouring seen on the wing feathers of the Malachite.

I have previously seen a Grey-headed kingfisher along the Chobe, but not this time and I cannot recall ever seeing a Pygmy kingfisher. The Pygmy like the woodland is an inter-African migrant so we did not see them in June.

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” ~ Steve McCurry

Seeing these kingfishers along the river in mid-winter is like finding living jewels. The smaller the more intense the colouring, and the more fleeting.

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

Wishing you an inspired and insightful 2022.

Have fun, Mike

Chobe’s Jacana alley

Jacana alley is a small inlet just off the end of the north channel before it meets the southern channel. The two channels join a few hundred metres up river from the Chobe Safari Lodge before flowing for around four kilometres onto the rapids and down to joins the mighty Zambesi river at Kazungula.

Jacana alley is so-called because of its year round Jacana activity, the height of which is in the summer months. Our trip was in early winter, June in southern Africa. It was chilly first thing in the morning especially with a breeze. The next video shows a serene soft coloured morning gliding into the alley with the boat motor turned off – bliss!!

“Gliding into dawn with not a word spoken nor a ripple from the bow. The morning light bathed the alley in soft pastels pinks and blues. Not a time for reflection but for anticipation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Even though June was not the main Jacana breeding season, which is around March, we still saw plenty of Jacana activity. There were a few males looking after their offspring. Jacana’s are precocial, meaning they can fend for themselves from the time they hatch and are polyandrous meaning the male looks after the eggs and chicks. The new image is of a fledged sub-adult as it still had is juvenile plumage.

The chicks are easily identified by their small size and outsized legs and feet. The juveniles lack the black colouring on the crown and back of neck. They also still have to develop their distinctive blue beak and frontal shield.

African Jacana’s have long legs and exceptionally long toes. This feature enables them to spread their weight on a lily pad giving them just enough time to feed on the insects on the water lily flower and water lily’s floating leaves before it starts to sink.

Jacana chicks start feeding themselves from the time they hatch. We were fortunate to see a few males with their chicks on each occasion we ventured into Jacana alley. They dash across the lily pads picking midges off the lily pad surface and will happily take a bigger insect if they can find one.

The chicks are adept swimmers and will happily swim from one raft of lily pads to another until they are able to fly across the gap. When a chick senses a predator close by it will either run for cover of the reeds if they are close, alternatively, the chick will quickly dive underneath the lily pad to avoid detection.

Jacana fathers nurture and protect their young. If their father senses danger he will call out to the youngsters who quickly tuck under their father’s wings for protection. If need be the father will lift up the chicks under his wing and run across the lily pads to get away from danger. It was cold early in the morning in June so we often found one or more chicks tucked under their father’s wing for warmth.

The next image is of a juvenile Lesser moorhen. Its brown colouring and yellow beak are characteristic of the juvenile. The adult will have black plumage and a mostly yellow bill with a red stripe which reaches from the top of its frontal shield to the tip of its beak.

The Lesser moorhen is smaller than the Common moorhen. This is normally a shy species but these youngsters happily walked across the lily pads in front of us feeding on insects. The Lesser moorhen is not often seen mainly because it is so shy.

A female Southern brown-throated weaver. This was not breeding season so we did not see the male in his yellow plumage with a dark brown throat. We often see these weavers in the reeds in Jacana alley.

This female Brown-throated weaver was feeding on all the midges on the surface of the water while using the water lily flower as a support.

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

An African darter sunning and drying itself on a frosty June morning. This darter is also colloquially called the “snakebird” because when it is swimming all you can see its its head and long snake-like neck above the water. The male is a glossy black with white belly streaking while the female is browner. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are a glossy brownish black and their tertial wing feathers are extra long and horizontally striped. Unlike many other waterbirds, the feathers of the African darter do contain oil but are not completely waterproof. This reduces its buoyancy and enhances its diving capabilities. The downside is that the darter has to dry its wings to warm up and be able to fly. While drying the darter preens its feathers which enables the darter to coat its feathers with an oily substance from the uropygial gland, or preen gland.

The shy and skittish Black crake. Normally as soon as a Black crake sees you it rushes back into the reeds out of sight. For some thankful and inexplicable reason a pair of Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads in Jacana alley and as long as we did not try to get too close they happily fed on insects on the lily pads for about 20 minutes.

“Nature has been for me, for as long as I remember, a source of solace, inspiration, adventure, and delight, a home, a teacher, and a companion.” ~ Lorraine Anderson

The Black crake has striking coloration. It is all black with a vivid yellow beak, red eyes and reddish-pink legs. The colour of the legs become a bright red during the breeding season. The relationship between eye colour and function, however, is still largely unknown by ornithologists.

You are likely to only find a Black crake next to freshwater or in wetlands. More often than not you can hear them duetting in the reeds, but they seldom present themselves. Although these Black crakes ventured onto the lily pads they did not have the long legs and long toes of a jacana so they had to keep moving quickly.

Little bee-eater is the smallest of the southern African bee-eaters. It was also the only bee-eater we saw in June. These Little bee-eaters look like green jewels in the winter colours. Like all bee-eaters it has a black stripe across it eye, but the Little bee-eater also has a turquoise stripe above each eye adding a touch more glamour to its already gorgeous colouring. The black malar stripe across the eye may serve the same purpose as the malar black stripe below each of the Cheetah’s eyes. It reduces the sun’s glare from obstructing their view.

The Little-bee-eater feeds on insects which it catches in flight. It tends to hunt from a perch. It sits on a reed stem waiting for an insect to fly by which it then hawks. This small bee-eater is endemic along the Chobe river but will move depending on insect activity.

“Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen — that stillness becomes a radiance.” ~ Morgan Freeman

We found quite few Squacco herons hunting in Jacana alley in the reeds along the side of the inlet. They usually stand on the fallen reeds and grass along the water’s edge and hunt from there. They are able to massively extend their necks so have a decent reach when hunting from the edge.

“Each day has a story to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories.” ~ Eduardo Galeano

Two pairs of Pygmy geese near the entrance to Jacana alley. These are beautiful miniature geese. We saw many pairs all along the river in June. They are very skittish and will not let you get close. The female which was following the male in both of these pairs but is usually the first to flush. Pygmy geese have have short bills, rounded heads and short legs with a rufous-colored chest, white abdomen and face, glossy-green upper plumage, The male has light-green sides of the neck with a black border. The female is duller colouring and does not have the green markings with a black border on the side of their neck. The female’s beak is a dull brownish-yellow while the male’s beak is bright yellow with a black tip.

Wonderful warm colours in the early winter morning with a Purple heron perfectly blending into the colour of the reeds and grass. This heron was hunting from the fallen grass and reeds along the edge of Jacana alley.

There are many inlets along the Chobe river. Jacana alley just happened to be a particularly productive section and is frequented by many African jacana and their chicks, crakes, weavers, several heron species and the occasional marsh harrier which scours the reed beds from its aerial advantage.

“The more you look the more you see. The more you see the more you yearn to understand and the more questions take flight from the river like birds flushed.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike