Kruger Park – the drive to Leeupan

From the Kruger gate you have access to the southern section of Kruger Park and comfortable drive of around 41 kilometres to Tshokwane picnic site and a further five or six kilometres to Orpen dam. Although these places are not too far from Skukuza, time and distance are too very different dimensions in an African game park. A herd of elephant might block the road for half an hour or a pride of lions decide to lie on the road when it is cool enough. There is a 50km/hour speed limit in the park, and if you want to see anything, that speed is too fast, and you certainly cannot drive safely at that speed on the gravel roads. By driving slowly along the road you can spend more time looking into and around the bush which will greatly improve your chances of seeing the wildlife.

“A game park is a sanctuary for nature. A place where nature in all its colours, shapes and sizes comes first. Be quiet and with a little patience mother nature might reveal her family and you will discover it is a place of great learning. A place of rejuvenation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Travelling slowly along the Skukuza-Tshokwane road, and only about 20 metres into the bush, we saw four adult bull Kudus lying down in the thick long grass with only their neck, head and horns showing. A male Kudu starts to grow its horns between six and 12 months of age. The horns form their first spiral rotation at around two years of age, and do not reach their full two and a half rotations until the male is around six years old. Some of the older bulls occasionally have three full turns in their horns.

We adopt the idea that the faster you drive the less you see. One of my reasons for going to a game reserve is to relax and untether myself from the hurly-burly of urban life. The last thing I want to do in the game reserve is tear around.

“If you have the choice, chose a dirt road. It is quieter and you will feel the road constantly changing beneath you. And yes, the bumps will shake off your urban anxiety. There are no verges. Grass and trees grow right to the edge of it. So anything can step out from the long grass or from behind the bush. Go slowly for you might just be in for a surprise.” ~ Mike Haworth

We decided to go to Leeupan (meaning Lion pan in Afrikaans). This pan is off the main road between Skukuza and Satara camps. Turn off the main road and drive for about a kilometre and you will find a large open area with a pan of water. There are lots of reeds and water grass in the pan and various species of acacia trees, including knob thorns, surrounding it. The pan attracts a variety of wetland birdlife and animals which come to drink.

This pan is seasonal, so it fills up with the summer rains and often dries up in winter. We have always found it to be a productive photographic area. As you drive along the gravel road to get to Leeupan, there are thick woodlands together with numerous dead leadwood trees. The raptors seem to prefer these dead trees as they are high enough for them to scan the area for potential prey. On the way into the pan we came across this adult Tawny eagle.

A vibrant salmon red “Pride of die Kaap” bush adding a splash of colour to the verdant green bush veld.

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”~ John Muir

About five kilometres before you get to Leeupan on the main road from Skukuza to Satara, there are the Kruger Tablets which are plaques dedicated to Paul Kruger, the founder of the Sabie Game Reserve, which later became Kruger National Park. This area is a outcrop of large granite boulders. It is well known to be a favourite place for lions as they can get high enough to enjoy the huge vista of the surrounding plains. Where ever there is a large outcrop of boulders there is a good chance you will find Klipspringers. This adult male and female were on the rocks just past the tablets.

We stopped and watched them for a while. These are beautiful and unique small antelope. They are extremely agile on the rocks, and have unique hooves which allow them to stand on their tips with soft soles to provide grip. This small antelope is territorial. The black patches just below the front of the eye are pre-orbital glands which they rub on twigs to mark their territory. Both the male and female have these pre-orbital glands and both mark the pair’s territory.

A male Tree agama with its characteristic blue head. This agama was busy defending his territory up and down this tree trunk. The blue head gets bluer during the breeding season and the dominant male usually has the brightest blue head. These agamas are diurnal, arboreal and insectivorous and eat crickets, caterpillars, worms, and spiders. This agama’s main predators are snakes and hornbills.

From the side of the main road we saw a male Grey hornbill fly to the side of a large tree. There was a small hole in the bottom of what looked to be a large knot in the tree trunk, where a branch must have fallen off many years ago. I know that the Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Grey hornbills all use cavities in trees to build their nests. They usually find a cavity at least four metres off the ground, and the cavity needs to house a female and her chicks so must be at least 20 cm in depth – enough for the female’s body ( minus wing and tail feathers) plus small chicks. I was intrigued by this nest because I could not see how the female had managed to get into this cavity and seal herself inside.

“Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments.” ~Rose Kennedy

Once the nest has been prepared, the female climbs into the next cavity and then seals herself inside, helped by the male using a mixture of mud and dung. Just a small feed hole is left open. Once walled in the nest, the female lays her eggs and sheds all of her wing and tail feathers. The male will feed his female while she incubates her eggs and feeds her chicks. Once she has regrown her wing and tail feathers, which coincides with the chicks being about half grown, she breaks out of the nest cavity. The male and female then reseal the nest cavity leaving a feeding hole for the chicks who remain in the nest until they are about 45 days old, they the parents break open the hole for their chicks to emerge. The prime purpose of the elaborate nesting procedure is to keep predators out.

Another stem of Yellow flame lilies which would gladden any Zimbabwean’s heart. This perennial herb can reach a height of around three metres, rambling and climbing over neighbouring plants using the tendrils at the end of its leaves. This is a “look but don’t touch” plant as all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids and can be fatal if eaten. Even to touch the plant can result in skin irritation

This male Swainson’s spurfowl was foraging for seeds in old elephant dung in the middle of the gravel road. You can often find baboons and other spurfowl doing the same. The elephant only digests and makes good use of around 40% of its food intake and so leaves many of the ingested seeds unprocessed.

As we were driving slowly around the one side of the pan we disturbed a pair of Blacksmith lapwings. We stopped to allow the female to settle down. It was only when she settled down in a small patch of grass on the edge of the driving area that we saw she had a nest. She bent her knees and settled down to incubate the single egg between her legs. Normally the Blacksmith’s nest is not far from water and this one must have been about ten metres from the pan’s waters edge. The clutch size is usually three to four eggs, so I suspect her clutch had been raided by a baboon or Monitor lizard. The mottled colouring on the egg made it superbly well camouflaged, to us at least.

We found a pair of Saddle-billed storks at the pan. They prefer to forage close to water, along large rivers, freshwater marshes, floodplains and pans just like this one. The Saddle-billed stork feeds in a similar way to a heron. It walks slowly through the shallow water looking for fish, frogs or lizards even small birds or mammals. It either stalks its prey or stabs its bill into the grass or water, catching its prey by contact.

“Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is the change that goes deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard

The female is slightly smaller than the male but they both have white body and neck feathers. Their upper parts, from midway along their back to their tail, are black as are their primary and secondary wing feathers. The female has a bright yellow eye and a red bill with a black band around the middle of the bill.

The male and female have the yellow saddle on top of their upper mandible directly in front of the eyes but the male also has two yellow wattles or “stirrups” below his chin. The male has black eyes. These storks have an impressive courtship display which involves dancing and jumping while bowing to each other with their wings wide open showing off their dramatic black and white colouring. The primaries and secondaries are white and the coverts are black. We watched a courtship display but I could not get a clean enough images to show you. We were very grateful for this rare sighting.

Two of the first wild ducks I came across as a youngster in Zimbabwe were White-faced whistling and a Knob-billed ducks. We found a small group of Knob-billed ducks at Leeupan. The Knob-billed duck is an occasional intra-African migrant. The head and neck of the male and female is white with black speckles and they have an almost continuous black crown and nape. The upper parts are black and belly and sides are white. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are black but the coverts have a beautiful green, bluish-purple and bronze gloss. The adult males have a large flesh black knob on their top mandible. The precise purpose is unknown but it is thought to be ornamental displaying sexual maturity and health. Unhindered by the large knob on his bill, this male was energetically stripping and feeding on the seed inflorescences from the top of grass stems.

The Knob-billed duck feeds on vegetation by grazing or dabbling but will eat small fish and invertebrates when found. We only saw a few “knobbies” at the pan. Wherever I have seen Knob-billed ducks there have only been a few in one place.

A lone Woolly-necked stork foraging along the pan’s water edge. This is one of the smaller storks, along with the Openbill and Abdim, which is between 75 and 85 cm tall. The larger storks are all above 100 cm tall with the Saddle-billed and Marabou storks being the tallest African storks standing around 150cm high. Woolly-necked storks prefer wetland habitats because they feed on fish, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, large insects, larvae and crabs.

The Woolly-necked stork has dark body and wing plumage which has a coppery-purple gloss, but its belly is white. This stork has a white woolly neck and head though its forehead is black. It has a red eye and a grey bill which becomes red towards the tip. The is no sexual dimorphism so you cannot tell the sexes apart. These storks are intra-African migrants and I have seen large flocks along both the Chobe river in northern Botswana and at one of the dams in the Serengeti.

On the way into Leeupan we saw a Tawny eagle and on the way out we saw this spectacular male Bateleur eagle. He had dramatic colouring of black, white and chestnut brown. The top of his bill, facial skin and legs were red though his facial skin does change colour depending on how excited or agitated he is, the redder the more agitated and a more yellow-orange colour signals a calmer state.

The female is bigger than the male Bateleur and the two have quite different wing colouring. The male usually has grey upper wing coverts and black secondary coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. When in flight the male has a thick black tailing edge to the underside of his wing feathers. The female has chestnut brown upper wing coverts, black primary wing feathers but the lower section of her secondary wing feathers are black and the upper part is white or light grey.

We did not get to see this male Bateleur fly but they are called the “acrobat or tight-rope walker” because, in flight, there is a rocking motion of their extended wings. The wing movement looks like the movement of a tightrope walker who is moving his extended arms up and down to balance. Its long wings and short tail are distinctive. They are magnificent flyers and it is always a thrill to see a Bateleur eagle effortlessly gliding at speed through the sky. Acrobatic displays are characteristic. This close cousin of the Snake eagle spends around eight to nine hours day on the wing.

“Serenity flows through the natural world. Listen and you can hear. The beating of your own heart, and the deepening of your breath, are in rhythm and connection with the powerful tranquility of creation that becomes fully alive in you as you return to the roots of your being.”~Bella Bleue

After spending many hours wandering around these wildlife sanctuaries, I am always filled with wonder and a deep sense of peace, diversity and balance.

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger park – the “little herons” at Lake Panic

Lake Panic is a small dam which filled after an earth wall was constructed in 1975 across the small stream which flowed through the golf course past Skukuza rest camp down to the Sabi river. Two dams were formed along this stream. The upper dam was called Lake Panic because not long after it was constructed a huge volume of water from a cloudburst overfilled the dam and threatened to breach the dam wall causing panic among the Skukuza rest camp staff. The earth dam wall held then and still holds back the water today. Further down the same stream another dam was built in the Skukuza golf course which is located just west of the Skukuza rest camp, the main administrative centre of Kruger Park.

Lake Panic was formed by the dam across the stream which was given the name Mafunyana creek. The creek was nicknamed after L B Steyn, a hard, tough Afrikaaner who became park warden in the 1940s. He was given the nickname Mafunyana, meaning he who eats greedily.

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

Lake Panic is filled naturally by rain water but if it gets too low it can be filled with water pumped up from the Sabi river which flows passed the Skukuza rest camp.

There are eleven bird/game-viewing hides in Kruger National Park but Lake Panic is arguably the best known. The lake itself is host to a plethora of wetland and savanna bird life, and larger reptiles such as Nile crocodiles, terrapins, Nile monitors, and mammals such as hippos, elephants, and a diverse group of woodland antelope, and predators. The bird hide at the upstream end of Lake Panic is one of the most scenic and productive photographic and bird watching spots in Kruger.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew i would never see it again?.” Rachel Carson

This post focuses on the “little herons” we saw at Lake Panic. The “little herons” are a group which are smaller than the large herons such as Black-headed, Grey, Purple and Goliath herons, but larger than the bitterns. The large herons vary in height from 90cm to 140cm, as in the case of a Goliath heron. The “little herons” vary in height from 40 to 60 cms while bitterns are around 25 cms in height, with the exception of the Great bittern which is similar in height to the “little herons”.

These herons differ from storks and ibises in having a long, spear-like bill, a pectinate middle toe claw, a generally more slender body with a long neck, and an elaborate variation in display feathers on the head, neck, and back.

The classification of little herons and egrets has no clear clear consensus as evidenced by the interchangable classification between a Black egret and Black heron, the one with the unique canopy hunting technique.

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow..” ~ Rachel Carson

The group of “little herons” include the Green-back, Squacco and Rufous-bellied heron which vary between being diurnal and crepuscular, and the purely crepuscular and nocturnal Black-crowned night herons and White-backed night-herons. Needless to say because of the gate opening and closing times in Kruger (sunrise and sunset) we did not get to see night-herons. We were treated to superb sightings of Green-backed and Squacco herons.

Green-backed herons are shy and do not seem to like being in the open for too long. Fortunately, there is a fallen tree in front of the hide which is a perfect platform from which to hunt which the Green-backed herons actively used. These herons are very well camouflaged and difficult to see in the shade inside bushes overhanging the water’s edge.

The Green-backed herons have a similar hunting style to the Squaccos and are real reed and branch acrobats.

These herons must be able to accurately judge the refraction of light in the water. As the light passed from the air into the water it changes direction which alters the perception of depth. If the heron does not adjust for this it will stab and miss its prey swimming under the water surface. Normally the light bends towards the surface as its passes into water so the prey looks shallower than it really is. Just think of the natural intelligence required to adjust its aim to directly hit the fish swimming under the surface of the water. This Green-backed heron hunting on the edge of fallen tree trunk was in a classic place to see its unique technique of baiting its prey. Sadly, we did not get to see this hunting technique in action.

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

These “little herons” have large feet with long claws which enable them to hang onto branches and grip the side of a fallen logs. The Green-backed heron tends to be a crepuscular hunter but occasionally hunts during the day – especially early in the morning for Lake Panic photographers.

The adult Green-backed heron has a dark grey-green back and lighter grey neck and breast feathers. Its secondary and covert wing feathers are a striated green colour. It usually has a thin streak of white feathers down the front of its neck. It has a very dark green crown with long crest feathers. Its underparts are a pale grey color. This heron has a long pointed bill with a black upper mandible and and lighter coloured lower mandible which varies in colour from yellow to a light fawn colour. It has yellow eyes and yellow lores. The lores are the space between the nostrils in the bill and the eye of a bird. They are featherless on wading and water birds. Often they change colour in breeding season. Also in the breeding season, the eye becomes orange and the legs change from yellow to a orange-red colour. It makes you realise the degree of hormone changes take place to cause these colour changes?

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” ~Francis Bacon

The Green-backed heron tends to be solitary and is normally seen flying furtively along the edge of the waterway. They are shy waders which fly low across the water and usually along the river from one set of bushes and trees with branches overhanging the water to the next. The Green-backed heron is highly territorial.

The juvenile Green-backed heron is brownish, with a well striated neck, and with white and buff coloured spots on its upper wings. Its throat, neck and chest are streaked with brown and white. Its legs are a greenish yellow. This particular character was alarmed by a Malachite kingfisher which was giving it a few close fly byes.

The other “little heron” we saw at Lake Panic was the Squacco heron. According to Trevor Carnaby, in his “treasure trove” book ‘Beat about the bush: Birds’, both the Green-backed and the Squacco herons have been seen baiting their prey.

“To make knowledge productive, we will have to learn to see both the forest and the tree. We will have to learn to connect.” ~ Peter Drucker

The Squacco is usually found close to water. Its non breeding plumage is a buff-brown back and its neck is streaked with long dark brown and buff coloured feathers and its underparts are white. It has a grey bill will a black tip and its legs are yellow-green. In the breeding season this heron’s plumage takes on attractive long golden brown plumes on the back of its head and golden plumes on its neck and chest. Its bill becomes cobalt blue and its lores turn green. Judging from the Squacco in the next image it was in the process of taking on its breeding plumage.

This bird has a specially adapted bill which helps it hunt for fish, crabs, tadpoles and other aquatic animals in the water. It will also eat insects. Unlike a kingfisher which beats its prey to death on a branch, these herons seem to just swallow their prey whole once it is immobilised.

“These birds are usually quiet. If you want to see them you have to pay attention. Mother nature is watching you. Once she can see you are paying attention she will begin to reveal her wonders to you.” ~ Mike Haworth

These herons frequently hunt from branches overhanging the water. As you can see they are quite acrobatic.

Looking at this Squacco one would never expect their incredible ability to stretch that apparently short neck. The very long neck feathers are a sign there is more to that neck than meets the resting eye.

When food sources are abundant, Squaccos feed in small flocks but the birds are well spaced out. I have seen along the Chobe river where roughly every ten to 15 metres apart there was a Squacco in the reeds. Usually though when at Marievale Bird Sanctuary or Lake Panic, we only see individuals which is probably a sign that food is not abundant. Incredibly these herons can stand stand motionless at the water’s edge, or hidden in the tall vegetation for extended periods. When prey comes within striking distance they jab at their prey with exceptional speed, reach and dexterity.

We do not normally find the Rufous-bellied heron in South Africa other than in the Nyl river flood plain in the Limpopo province. I have seen one in the reeds along the Chobe river. This species of “little herons” is least seen of the three in southern Africa.

“It is only when you sit quietly and patiently, almost in mediation, that you start to see things in front of you that you never noticed before~ nuances. A subliminal layer of activity, interaction and intelligence becomes apparent subtly revealing some of nature’s mysteries.” ~ Mike Haworth

Don’t forget it is Global Birding “Big Day” on Saturday 9th of May. Please help them with their bird count project. eBird Mobile app is a worldwide bird checklist programme used by millions of birders. It compiles sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list and at the same time collects data to help scientists better understand birds and their distribution. Download the app and help them while you are in lockdown.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~Aldo Leopold

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

Have fun, Mike

Kruger Park- through the gate

In mid-January this year, Helen and I visited the Kruger Park. We had some timeshare points which we had to use or lose before the end of January so we chose Burchell’s Bush Lodge next to the Kruger gate. At that time of the year in the Kruger Park we expected some of the days to be rainy and overcast which could bring welcome relief to the high summer temperatures.

“Life’s not about waiting for the storm to pass…. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~ Vivian Green

The Kruger Park is located on the north eastern east side of South Africa, bordering on Mozambique. Kruger National park is massive, covering an area of 19,485 square kilometres. The park is about 360 kilometres long from north to south. At its widest it is 90 kilometres, west to east. This area was first protected in 1896 and declared a national park in 1926.

Despite the persistent rhino poaching problem, Kruger Park offers a diverse variety of animal and bird life with 15 different ecozones yielding rich biodiversity. January is mid-summer in South Africa, so the lowveld which includes Kruger Park can be very hot but also variable because it is the rainy season.

“Of all the roads you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” ~ John Muir

We tend to steer away from the tarred roads in the park because they carry a much higher density of traffic than the gravel roads. The only problem was that several of them had been closed due to washaways from the heavy rains the week before we arrived.

“Expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.” Denis Waitly

The Kruger gate gave us easy access to the southern section of the park from the western side. One of the first roads we like to drive along from Kruger gate is towards the main Skukuza camp but turn right onto the Phabeni road and a few kilometres along that road we turn left onto the Waterhole road. This is a gravel road which can be quite productive and is also offers a very scenic drive.

On the waterhole road, this female Natal spurfowl was not fazed by us at all. She quietly when on preening herself in the middle of the gravel road. The female Natal spurfowl is smaller than the male and has much less pronounced spurs on the back of her orange-red legs.

“When you are in the bush your senses recover. The rain brings welcome relief. It’s coolness quenches the lowveld heat. The smell of rain on the earth carries its own memorable fragrance. The rain washes the dust from the leaves revealing a palette of green hues. The bush refreshes and you feel it.” ~ Mike Haworth.

We travelled on down to Transport dam, the site of many a dramatic wildlife sighting. We spent about half an hour just watching but it was very quiet so we moved on. It had just rained and as we were driving away from the dam we saw another female Natal spurfowl perched on a fallen tree trunk just watching the world pass by. It also seemed to be the driest place to stand.

Deciding to stay in the area, we continued down toward Pretoriuskop camp and turned right on the road which meets the Phabeni road and passes Shabeni hill. There is a drive around the granite outcrops of Shabeni which is very picturesque. We were fortunate to find several Amur falcons perched in the dead trees at the foot of Shabeni’s massive granite domes. These migratory falcons seemed to be hawking insects flushed by the rain. I have seen very few Amur falcons this summer season, which might be because so many were killed in hail storms last year. This female was suitably wet after the downpour.

On the short drive around Shabeni hill, we found large groves of Pride of de Kaap. The bushes were large and covered in a soft salmon red-orange coloured flowers with two lobed butterfly-shaped leaves. Despite its name it is usually found in the bushveld region, of which Kruger is part. This bush is named after the De Kaap valley near Nelspruit, now called Mombela at the south west toe of Kruger park in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

We found several more Amur falcons a few hundred metres from the other group. I have occasionally seen them in the Kruger in summer but never in great numbers. The female has dark brown streaks on a buff coloured chest and yellow feet. The male has a grey chest and red feet.

“I feel like the earth. astonished at fragrance borne in the air, made pregnant with mystery from a drop of rain.” ~ Rumi

My bird photography was frequently interrupted by the rain and the lower light forced me to push up my ISO or sensor light sensitivity. My subjects such as this pale flycatcher unfortunately looked quite bedraggled after being soaked. This flycatcher was also out and about because of all the insects flushed out by the rain. Flycatchers have prominent bristles protruding from the base of their bill though this one’s were not very prominent.

This foxglove-like perennial is a ceratotheca trilobia. It stood about one and half metres high and I could not resist taking photograph of it trying to capture its delicate softness which was quite incongruent in the wild grassy bush.

The deeper we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature.” ~Albert Schweitzer

This red-billed oxpecker seemed to have lost its host. This species of oxpecker is identified by its red bill, dark brown back and creamy coloured breast feathers. It has two sharp claws facing forward and two facing backward to hang onto its host when it is moving. It also has stiff tail feathers to support while it is ridding it’s host of parasites such as ticks and flies. This bird feeds almost exclusively on what it can forage from the skin of large African mammals. It also feeds on dry skin and blood from open sores on its hosts hide. I am not sure what this character was doing sitting in the middle of the road all on its own.

A beautiful young adult zebra mare with big watery eyes and a perfectly groomed mane.

A Cape vulture perched in a dead tree in the rain. It was cool and still early enough so that thermals had not yet begun to develop. It is fascinating to watch these large scavengers waiting for the temperature to rise and the first thermals to develop before taking off to catch one to lift them for their high altitude, long distance aerial surveillance.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Given where I was raised as a child, I have a penchant for flame lilies. It is the national flower of Zimbabwe. This is the yellow variety but the most common variety has the red and yellow petals. Although very beautiful this plant has a toxic bulb. These plants prefer sandy soils and semi shade, and a degree of wind protection because they are so flimsy.

A dark morph adult tawny eagle. It was scouring the area from the high vantage point of a dead tree trunk.

A semi-adult brown snake-eagle. The adult is a pure brown colour and it also has those characteristic piercing yellow eyes.

On our way back to camp we briefly stopped at the Lake Panic bird hide and in a tree right next to the small car park was this pair of African barred owlets. The light was low and these two were trying to nap though their resting place was never going to allow them much peace.

We were concerned about going to Kruger just before the school term started but we were pleasantly surprised not to find too many people in the park. As a photographer the issue is always trying to get into the park at first light just as the park opens. At a main entrance such as Kruger gate if you are unlucky you can spend more than half an hour in a queue waiting to get an entrance permit, even if you have South African Park’s Wildcard.

“The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change.” ~ William Arthur Ward

Of course once in the park and away from the crowds of people, the quiet and the natural beauty of the bush soon settles you. After about an hour of driving we usually find a secluded spot overlooking a river to stop the car and have a cup of coffee and a rusk – idyllic. After our break we moved on, full of expectation not knowing what will be around the corner!

You cannot leave Africa” , Africa said, “It is always with you, there inside your head. Our rivers run in currents in the swirl of your thumbprints; Our drumbeats counting out your pulse; Our coastline, the silhouette of your soul”. ~ Bridge Dore

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

Have fun, Mike

Marievale in December

South Africa is fortunate to have a stunning diversity of birds. We have several well known sanctuaries for our avian friends. One of them is close to where we live in Johannesburg. It is Marievale bird sanctuary near Nigel about a 45 minute drive away. It is Ramsar site which is a wetland site designated to be of international importance. Marievale has an especially diverse array of wetland birds which attracts birders and wildlife photographers alike.

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” ~Sandra Postel

Helen and I go to Marievale several times a year. Each time the weather and the water level in the wetland are different. These changing wetland conditions attract different combinations of waders, ducks and geese, raptors, seed eaters and insectivores. It is never the same.

Being an enthusiastic wildlife photographer I also get much needed photographic practice. Photography like any language needs constant practice.

I am a keen birder, not the “list ticking” kind but I am very interested in bird physiology and flight and why you finds certain birds in particular places at specific times. There is a fascinating natural intelligence at play which I am keen to tap into to better understand behaviour which should help me anticipate what my subject will do next and so get that more interesting images.

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

A male Stonechat, a little wet from the grass after it had rained earlier that morning. These little chats are ubiquitous in Marievale and the male can be seen staking out his territory.

A female Stonechat perched on top of purple statis.

A male Long-tailed widowbird in full breeding plumage. This male was displaying with his slow deliberate flight with his luxurious tail feathers between his legs. His short broad wing shape allows him to display in flight the way he does.

Another image of a male Long-tailed widow bird. This character was perched on an old statis stem. He was displaying to passing females. His display when perched consists of puffing out his head and body feathers and opening his wings to show his colourful epaulets.

A Squacco heron wading through the shallow marsh water to warn off a nearby competitor. The main diet consists of relatively small prey, particularly fish, frogs and tadpoles, and insects and insect larvae, depending on the area. It is a solitary feeder and will defend its feeding territory against other Squacco herons using forward displays (when the back, crest and breast feathers held erect and puffed out to make the defender look bigger) and supplanting flights, where the heron suddenly and aggressively flies and lands either on top of its opponent or on the spot it has just vacated.

The Squacco heron is very comfortable in water but also forages in the short grass for insects. It has an amazing ability to stretch its neck which comes in handy when fishing from an overhanging branch or when walking through longish grass.

“Hardly any one is able to see what is before him, just as it is in itself. He comes expecting one thing, he finds another thing, he sees through the veil of his preconception, he criticizes before he has apprehended, he condemns without allowing his instinct the chance of asserting itself.” ~ Arthur Symons

A male Swanson’s spurfowl. It was early and the sun had just risen. This male was noisily declaring his territory. Looking at the spurs on the back of his legs, he was a youngster who had not been in many territorial fights.

A Black shouldered kite perched on a power line which traverses the wetland. This is an ideal perch from which to look for prey scurrying below in the grass. This kite feeds on mainly rodents and larger insects,but not fish. This kite has an incredible ability to hover when aerial hunting. Once locked onto its prey it dives into the grass to capture it. It can often be seen feeding on the wing. If the prey is too big it will find a suitable perch to support it while it feasts.

A Purple swamphen was feeding on something in the reeds. I could not see what it was, but its beak had plenty of yellow residue on it. This image gives a good idea of the large size of its feet. It can remain elevated in the reeds by bunching the reeds together with its feet. The large feet help spread its weight out over a large area enabling it to walk easily over fallen reedbeds along the water’s edge. These swamphens are also good swimmers.

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

As we arrived this is the scene we were confronted with – a Black headed heron had caught a large rat in the grass and had just started to swallow it whole and semi-alive. You can see the nictitating membrane covered its eye as it began to swallow its prey as the front legs of the rat were still moving. This heron’s neck is able to kink in an S-shape, due to the modified shape of their 20 cervical vertebrae.

It was incredible to watch this Black headed heron swallow this rat head first and whole. No taste involved and it went straight into its stomach. A special vertebrae in their necks enable it to create an “s” shape, almost like a recoil which allows them to snap their necks deep into water or in the air to catch their prey at lighting fast speeds. Their razor sharp beaks allow them to stab their prey. Herons do not have gizzards which are in most other birds and help break down tougher parts of the food like bones. Instead herons just swallow their prey down their flexible esophagus and into their loose and stretchable stomachs.

Seeing this hunting Black headed heron as we entered Marievale was a good reminder that you need your camera set up and ready before you drive into the sanctuary. You just never know what is around the corner. Also understanding the hunting behaviour of a Black headed heron helps exercise a little patience as you can anticipate this kind of image.

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
~ Wendell Berry

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – space for lions

It is estimated that around a hundred years ago there were as many as 200,000 lions living wild in Africa. In 2012, National Geographic reported that only 32,000 lions remained out of 100,000 roaming Africa in the 1960s. Recent surveys put the number of wild lions at around 20,000. Around a third of African lions are thought to have disappeared in the past 20 years due mainly to hunting, illegal poaching/wildlife trade, human-lion conflict and loss of habitat.

“With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind.”~ Craig Packer

According to the National Geographic, the lion species has disappeared from 94 percent of its historic range across almost the entire African continent but is now limited to less than 660,000 square miles. Lions are extinct in 26 African countries and are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which determines the conservation status of species.

“…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

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystems covers 24,000 km² from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya and is home to one of the highest densities of lions in Africa.

Most lionesses reach sexual maturity between three and four years of age. Female lions can go into estrus (a period of fertility) at any time of the year and that period can last four to seven days. The male lion will stay close to the lioness during the mating period where mating usually occurs approximately every 20 minutes for the first few days though the frequency will slow somewhat in the last two days of the mating period.

Male lions, like all cats, have spines on their penis which cause minor trauma to the vagina upon withdrawal. The resulting pain triggers ovulation.  This probably also explains why females bare their teeth at males during mating.  

The odds are already stacked against a female lion bringing a cub to term. The gestation or pregnancy period for a female lion is between 105 – 110 days and the lioness usually produces a litter of between two and four cubs. A female lion has only four teats, so in litters larger than four, a number of the cubs will not survive.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” ~John Muir

Just prior to the birthing of her cubs, the heavily pregnant female will move away from the pride and give birth in a well-hidden den usually in a thick section of reeds in a marsh area, or a dense thicket in the savannah or hidden in a secluded section of a rock outcrop. The mother will keep the cubs hidden for one to two months allowing them to grow strong enough to survive the robustness of the pride. During this isolation period, the lioness will regularly move her cubs from one den site to another to prevent the concentration of scent so as not to attract other predators such as hyaenas.

Newborn cubs weigh between two and four pounds. Their fur is spotted and they are born blind. The new born cubs typically open their eyes when they are between three and 11 days old and can walk after around two weeks and run after four weeks.

Overall, somewhere between 60% and 70% of the cubs will die within their first year, and even fewer—about 1 in 8 —live to adulthood (lions mature around two years old). The cubs that don’t make it either die from starvation, or are killed by other predators or are killed by other male lions looking to take over the pride.

“It seems everything in nature that has beauty, also has a price.
Let the value of our planets wildlife be to nature and nature alone.”

~ Paul Oxton

Once the cubs have been accepted by the pride, all lactating females will suckle the cubs. After six weeks, the mother leads her cubs to an animal that she has killed to give them their first taste of meat.

The cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk after they are six to seven months old. The females tend to stay with the pride as they mature but the males usually leave or are forced out of the pride to fend for themselves by around two to three years of age and spend a few years building their strength and knowledge before they can look for their own pride.

A valuable method of aging lion cubs is given in the Livingwithlions.org. Assuming the lioness and the cub are standing, the two month old cub’s front shoulder is about two inches below the lioness’s belly. The four month old cub’s shoulder reaches around three inches above her belly and the six month old cub shoulder comes to mid-torso or midway up her shoulder. The 12-month old cub’s shoulder is a few inches below the back line of the adult lioness. Most of the lion cubs shown in this post look to be around two to three months old.

Lions are considered apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain with no natural enemies and as such play a pivotal role in sustaining the natural balance. By weeding out the slow, weak, and dying animals, apex predators serve to keep prey numbers in check and are key to the health of an ecosystem. They maintain the balance between prey species and the rest of the system. Without them, everything gets out of balance, leading to cycles of population explosions and crashes, depleted lands, stunted forests, and flooding rivers.

“Perhaps the most poignant image of our time is that of Earth as seen by the space voyagers: a blue sphere, shimmering with life and light, alone and unique in the cosmos. From this perspective, the maps of geopolitics vanish, and the underlying inter-connectedness of all the components of this extraordinary living system – animal, plant, water, land, and atmosphere – becomes strikingly evident.” ~ Richard Benedick

Once we understand the lion’s role in the ecosystem, human interference in the natural balance becomes obvious. In particular, indiscriminate trophy hunting taking out pride males below six years of age destroy the balance especially for the one predator which operates cooperatively in a pride.

“Hunting is an integral part of Africa’s conservation history and its approach to wildlife management. To disentangle hunting from modern African conservation will require a realignment of conservation policy, entrenched since colonial times and embraced and supported by African elites and political interests. But as civilization has the ingenuity to put people and machines into space, split the atom, and routinely send unimaginable amounts of information through the ether, surely we can think of a better way to save the wild animals we love besides killing them.
~ Andrew Loveridge

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – wanderings

We were wandering around the Mara Triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve in November 2019. The Masai Mara is a wonderland. Open spaces to drive in and big blue skies to fly in. In the very early mornings you can hear the burners of the hot air balloons as they rise and fall while wafting on the light cool early morning breezes over the plains of the Mara.

“The winds of grace are blowing all the time, but it is you that must raise your sails.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

A family herd of elephants wandering under huge rain laden morning skies.

A lugga in the wet season, holding water long enough for water lilies to grow.

An eclectic mix of wildlife – life and death living side by side in a green meadow with some respite during the daylight hours.

Craning to look at the golden crown above the ice blue eyes, velvet black forehead and red wattle.

A yellow-billed oxpecker, the Masai Giraffe’s very own dermatologist with all the rights ticks.

Looking through Leopard Gorge under gorgeous clear blue skies. Beyond the gorge flowed the Mara river.

Time for a teenager to rest after a mud bath and a busy morning.

Rest is not an option when there are youngsters around who want to play.

That in-between time when the foreground darkens and the last blazes of sunlight paint the darkening sky with oranges, pinks, purples and blues. A time when the fragrances of the flowers, grasses and trees are released by the latent temperature change just before the sun bows down below the horizon to allow the stars to shine.

Endangered black silhouette.

Two elephant bulls following a breeding herd in the plain below the Oloololo escarpment.

Pregnant zebra mare with herd mates silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, heavy with rain clouds.

A lone elephant bull wandering the great plains.

A little pushing and shoving – young male elephants sparring and testing themselves.

Sometimes even the daring get put in their place.

Success for a loner working the drainage lines along the road. A remarkable lioness doing it alone. She had worked out a strategy to ambush her prey using cover from the embankment along the road. Unusual and very successful.

Stripes with teeth – bolt if you do not want to get bitten.

Stripes for the winner

A new born topi calf looking for its mother.

A male Oribi up on the slopes of the Oloololo escarpment.

One of a pair of lappet-faced vultures who had joined the vulture frenzy after the lions had abandoned the zebra kill. With a beak like that……..!

A full grown male lion in his prime courting his female.

A time of breathless tawny magic and new beginnings!!

Travel with an open mind and an open heart. The abundance will reveal itself if you take the time to look and more importantly to appreciate what you are seeing. Once the African bush has etched its way into your subconsciousness you will always long for those sublime quiet times in the wide open spaces. There you can hear the red-crested korhaan calling and zebras braying through the long grass during the day and the Scops owl’s trill accompanied by hyaena whoops at night. The hippo grunts from the river will help you waft off to sleep under the starlit African sky.

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – spotting cheetahs

Large sections of our African wildlife are disappearing at an alarming rate. We humans, as a species, are taking their space with little care or concern. Given our consciousness or perhaps the lack of it, most of humanity sees itself as the superior being in the community of nature. Humans are inventive and restless but few have understanding about their responsibility or the sustainability of their actions when it comes to the natural world. That is not to diminish the incredible work of a minute proportion of the human race are doing to try to preserve and sustain what we have left in the natural world.

“Have the will of a tiger, the speed of a cheetah and the heart of a lion.” ~ Kevin McCarty

When you enter the Masai Mara your senses are filled with the wonder of the natural world. The vastness of the place, the huge open blue skies, the abundance of wildlife combine to make it all feel so natural and right.

In these posts, I am trying to show the diversity and stunning beauty of the Masai Mara. This is one of nature’s great stages upon which African wildlife puts on a daily show the likes of which will be beyond your imagination, even for the most seasoned rangers, and will fill its audience with wonder.

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

The global cheetah population continues to decline with only about 7 000 individuals left in Africa, half the population of 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their abundance of their prey, the illegal trade in wildlife and growing conflict with humans for space.

Some of the actors on this stage will leave you spellbound, One actor in particular which will capture your imagination is the cheetah. It is the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Even more impressive is that it can accelerate from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in three seconds, making its acceleration faster than that of a Ferrari Enzo, a McLaren F1 and a Lamborghini Gallardo.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne W. Dyer

On our travels around the Mara Triangle in November, we were fortunate enough to find cheetah on two different occasions considering the vastness of the Mara Triangle, which is only a small part of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

“It is only when you immerse yourself in the vastness of the Mara do you realise how much you value space to wander, space to gaze, space to breathe deeply, and appreciate the new perspectives which the space unlocks.” ~ Mike Haworth

Our first sighting was of a coalition of two rugged looking adult male cheetahs. These two were obviously seasoned hunters. We found them down in the southern section of the Mara triangle where you find the inselbergs. These two males were resting in the shade at the foot of an inselberg. Judging from the size of their bellies they must have fed earlier that morning.

Cheetahs need space and the Mara gives them that. Research shows that Kenya’s Masai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it is a landscape under increasing human pressure, mainly from tourists. The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists who enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting.

“Nature’s stage changes daily. The plot is mercurial, the actors are unscripted and the backdrops, washed with blues, greens and yellows, are splashed with wind and rain, and illumined with the sun.” ~ Mike Haworth

Thankfully, we were the only vehicle travelling around the south of the Mara Triangle one morning when we found these two male cheetahs which were walking up the hill towards a ridge crowned by a few bushes. The bushes would provide them with shade and the ridge had sufficient elevation to give them a perfect view of the plains below when looking for potential prey.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” ~ Martin Buber

This male looked strong and healthy as he was walking towards us on his way up to the ridge behind us. The two males were walking up from the plains below where they must have made a kill. They clearly fed well but probably had to abandon their meal due to hyaenas.

A cheetah’s nemesis, the ubiquitous hyaena lurking in the background. The Mara has a large, healthy and active population of spotted hyaenas. There are many clans. These clans are usually centred around a den and the clan members scatter to far reaches of the clan’s territory to hide during the day in gullies, ponds of water or large tussocks of red oat grass. This surveillance system ensures little happens in their territory without the hyaena clan knowing about it. Even though the hyaenas operate mainly at night they are aware of cheetahs hunting in their territory and only too ready to steal the cheetah’s hard won prize at any time of the day.

Cheetahs are well known for their speed, but there is more to these creatures than their pace. They have several unique features. Much like a human fingerprint, the arrangement of a cheetah’s spots and the ring pattern of its tail are unique.

Cheetahs have distinctive spots which are quite different to the leopards rosettes. The spotted fur of the cheetah helps it to blend into its surroundings. The spotted pelage is thought to create camouflage by offsetting shadows in the gray-hued grasses. This camouflage enables them to stalk and hunt their prey more effectively.

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

Cheetahs have a small head in proportion to their bodies which help their streamlining when running at high speed. Their eyes are set high on the skull. Cheetahs have small rounded heads, a small muzzle and short whiskers compared to a leopard. The cheetah has a long neck and a deep chest which enables it to accelerate its breathing from a normal rate of 60 breaths per minute to 150 breaths per minute when in full chase. Its feet are also specially adapted with claws that are non-retractable and special pads on their feet which provide extra traction when running. The cheetah’s legs are long, slim and muscular. All of these features combine to enable this predator to run at exceptional speeds. Cheetahs are unable to run at full speed for much more than about 300 metres because of a danger of overheating.

Other than mating, male and female cheetahs do not interact. Cheetahs are territorial and intruders who breach these scent borders are attacked. Cheetahs do not roar like lions or cough like leopards, but when agitated hiss and growl or whine.

These two male eventually walked up onto a ridge where there were a few bushes to rest for the morning. This ridge gave them an ideal vantage point over the plains below. We left them in peace for the rest of the morning only to return later that afternoon in the hope that we would see them hunt. We stayed with them until dusk but they must have feed well first thing that morning as their tummies still looked full.

It was getting dark by the time we left the two cheetah males who were blissfully resting in the cool of the evening. It was a quiet and serene time but with heavy skies

This is typical of the landscape down along the Mara Triangle’s border with the Serengeti. Huge open plains dotted with balanites. The first place you look for a cheetah is in the shade under a balanite or, if the grass is reasonably long, perhaps on top of an anthill which offers an elevated view of the plain.

The second cheetah sighting was of a lone male cheetah on Topi plain west of the Eluai ridge. The Mara Triangle has rolling hills but there are also large plains which are relatively flat. Given the long grass, cheetahs need to find a vantage point from which to look for potential prey and scan for possible threats. A decent size anthill can provide just such a vantage point.

The next image shows the lone adult male scanning the surround plain for prey. Set in the background was the Oloololo escarpment which provided blues and greens and gave a sense of the vastness of the place.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
~ C.S. Lewis

As you can see the red oat grass can get quite long so the cheetah gets an endless shimmer of golden grass strands until it can find a lookout point. The advantage of the long grass is that it also hides the cheetah very well.

Cheetahs are equipped with several special features which provide them will excellent vision. Binocular vision is a very important asset since Cheetahs rely on sight to hunt as opposed to scent. The retinal fovea of the eye is an elongated shape, giving a sharp wide-angle view. This aspect of the eye is also adapted for speed. The dark “tear marks” on the Cheetah’s face reduce glare from the bright sun. The black hairs in the tear lines absorb light from the sun and are thought to enable cheetahs to run straight towards the sun and still be able to see. (source: Bigcatrescue.org). Cheetahs can see up to 5 kilometres in detail.

Although cheetahs will hunt throughout the day, they mostly hunt during the early evening and early morning when it is cooler. The temperature in the Mara is relatively stable between 25 and 30 degrees centigrade during the day and 12-13 degrees centigrade in the evenings. When its rains it can be quite a bit cooler. The temperatures are even throughout the year because the Mara is so close to the equator.

The cheetah’s long tail is multi purpose. It is a perfect fly swat for all the biting flies such as horseflies and tsetses. It is a counter balance enabling the cheetah to make surprisingly tight turns at speed when chasing down prey. The shape of its tail from the base to about a foot from the tip is elongated and acts like a rudder at high speed.

Cheetahs are racing towards extinction. It is clear to save cheetahs we need to save the wild open spaces. According to National Geographic, the cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range—the big cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran.

“Nature is a working machine constantly evolving. We can only start to understand the moving parts through patience and observation” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara: along the Mara river

Our photographic trip to the Masai Mara was based at Wild Eye’s Mara river bush camp called Enkishui. This camp is located on the banks of the Mara river about two kilometres up river from the Purungat bridge. The Mara river played an intimate role in our wanderings and sightings during the six days we spent in the Mara triangle in early November last year.

“Only by understanding how the world around us works, can we understand our bodies and live well in and with nature and among others.”
~ Julia H Sun

The Mara river originates in the swamps and forests on the Mau Escarpment in the Nakuru district of Kenya. The Mau Escarpment is a steep natural rampart along the western rim of the Great Rift Valley in western Kenya. The escarpment is around 3 000m above sea level and receives rainfall of around 1 400mm each year. The streams that exit the forest and descend over 1 000 m down the southern slope of the escarpment form the Nyangores and Amala Rivers in the upper basin. These two tributaries merge to form the Mara river.

As the Mara continues through the protected areas of Masai Mara National Reserve it is joined by the Engare Ngobit and then the Talek tributaries. The enlarged Mara river snakes its way through the Masai Mara National Reserve and exits under the Purungat bridge. Once in the Serengeti in Tanzania it is joined by the Sand river after which it flows west down to lake Victoria at Mara Bay which is around 1 800m below its source.

“The universe and all creation are there for you to connect your spirit to, and you are special part of the whole. If you can sense the wonder of the vast infinite and eternal universe, your spirit will be lifted to great heights and you will tap the source of your life energy.”
~ Timothy Simpson

In the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks, the Mara River sustains one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world—the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and various antelope which arrive in the Mara Basin during the dry season in search of water and to forage. It also sustains the region’s incredible biodiversity, from forest ecosystems to the multitudes of migrating herbivores between Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve and back again.

This sign at Purungat bridge only refers to the Kenyan section of the Mara river basin.

The Mara river is 395 km long and has a drainage area of 13 750 square kilomteres (sq kms) of which 8 967 sq kms (65 %) is located in Kenya and 35 % in Tanzania. The Masai Mara National Reserve contributes around 17% of the drainage area of Mara River Basin in Kenya. The Mara River basin is bounded by the Soit Ololo, or Oloololo, Escarpment on the west, and the Loita and Sannia plains in the east.

You just never know what you will see along the Mara river no matter what the time of day. This was the iconic male lion, Scar, exuding his dominance at dusk.

Flowing from the high mountains of the Mau escarpment in Kenya to the Mara bay of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Mara River is one of the most ecologically significant rivers in the region. The plains receive only half of the rain received in the Mau escarpment .

The Mara River currently has no major dams acting to significantly modify its flow regime. Peak river flows average 300 cubic metres per second, though this can vary from 90 to 400 cubic metres per second. To put this flow rate into perspective, the Zambesi river flows at an average of around 3 500 cubic metres per second and the mighty Congo river flows at a average rate of about 41 000 cubic metres per second. So this is a relatively small river by African standards but it plays a vital role in the wilds of the Masai Mara and northern Serengeti.

Looking from the Purungat bridge down river into the Serengeti. A flock of white-backed vultures had been cleaning and sunning themselves on the rocks. This is often an area where the wildebeest carcasses stack up when there had been a tragic crossing.

A view of hippo pools where, of course, you will see pods of hippos. This is also a major crossing point in the the migration season.

There are plenty of pods of hippo along the Mara river because it flows all year round. Just up river from Figtree crossing, we saw this female hippo with her calf. Judging from all the bite marks on her right flank she must have got into a fight while protecting her calf. Needless to say the yellow-billed oxpeckers were doing their cleaning work on her wounds.

One of a triad of three year old nomad male lions resting on the Mara triangle side of the Mara river. This nomad was watching the antics of two pairs of Egyptian geese down on the sand island in the Mara river. The deep shallows show its was still early in the morning with the rising sun in the east.

Looking up river from where the nomads were resting. It shows how much the Mara river meanders through this relatively flat section of the Masai Mara National Reserve and also shows how deeply the river has cut into the thick soils. The steepness of banks in certain sections of the river ensure much drama when the wildebeest decide to cross the river at this point.

“No price is too great to pay for inner peace. Peace is the harmonious control of life. It is vibrant with life-energy. It is a power that easily transcends all our worldly knowledge. Yet it is not separate from our earthly existence. If we open the right avenues within, this peace can be felt here and now.”
~ Sri Chinmoy.

A single male lion looking at the three nomads from the other side of the Mara river. We were hoping that he would cross and was perhaps part of the coalition but after watching the triad for about 15 minutes he wandered off back up the hill away from the Mara river.

The Wild Eye camp is located on the banks of the Mara river. The proximity ensures you are serenaded by hippos during the night and you can occasionally hear leopards coughing and lions roaring. Being a bush camp you really feel like you are immersed in the wildness of the place.

We left the camp just as the sun was rising and this was the view through the croton bushes looking south onto the Mara river.

Just after we had left our camp road and turned onto the main reserve road to the Purungat bridge, we saw this young female leopard in the early morning light making her way along the edge of the croton grove next to the Mara river.

There are many fantastic dramatic photographs of wildebeest and zebras crossing the Mara river. They all fear one predator in particular, the one they cannot see under the water when they cross the muddy Mara river – the Nile crocodile. On average, a Nile crocodile can live for up to 70 years even in the wild. Their age dictates their size and the larger older crocodiles have seen many crossings and must have vast knowledge and experience when it comes to hunting in the Mara’s muddy waters.

On average, the adult Nile crocodile can grow to between 2,8 and 5 metres in length with the the Kenyan Nile crocodile in the Mara River averaging of about 3.65 meters. The adult crocs can weigh between 70 to 700 kg, averaging about 200 kg in the Mara River. These crocs can survive for long periods between meals – though when they do eat, they can eat up to half their body weight at a time!! !

The Nile crocodile is a sexually dimorphic animal, meaning the males are physically different to the females. The males grow to between 25%-35% larger than the females, but a female is bulkier than male with the same length. This species does not reach an adult size but keeps growing as long as it lives. Adult males can be between 2-5 meters long; larger males can weigh close to 700 kilograms. Due to their growth and long lifespan, the upper limit of their age and size is still unknown. There have been records of large wild crocs, measuring more than 6 metres in length and 900 kg in weight.

Maui Maui is a well frequented migration crossing point and it is easy to see why this is the case. It has relative flat entry and exit points. What does make it tricky for the animals is that it is full of rocks and there are rapids to catch those that cannot swim fast enough through the flat water. The crocs are usually waiting for the exhausted swimmers at the bottom of the rapids.

Later in the afternoon we went back to where we had last seen the nomads but as is usual in the bush, nothing stays the same. We drove down to Peninsula point, which was another major migration crossing point but all was quiet except our guide, Jimmy, saw a leopard moving along the bank in the gloom. How he picked up the visual of the leopard in the first place I will never know.

That in-between time in the bush is when the fragrances are released by the latent temperature change and when the bush seems to holds its breath for a few magical moments.

“There is a universal, intelligent, life force that exists within everyone and everything. It resides within each one of us as a deep wisdom, an inner knowing. We can access this wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom through our intuition, an inner sense that tells us what feels right and true for us at any given moment.” ~ Shakti Gawain.

We were surprised to see wildebeest and zebra still massing on the west side of river in early November. In the foreground, the Mara river is bordered by bushes which disguise the steep banks at the Figtree crossing point. The animals further back against the hill were grazing but watching the zebra and wildebeest massing next to the river. Interestingly, as soon as the numbers massing on the banks of the Mara river got to a certain point it triggered all the animals on the plains to make their way down to the crossing point.

We never did get to see a crossing although, at times like this, it looked like the crossing was about to happen. The odd animal did cross though.

The Mara river is a fascinating focal point in an otherwise diverse Masai Mara National Reserve. It sustains life and takes it away. It acts as a choke point in the massive migration which results in a huge build up of animals waiting to cross its lethal murky waters.

The major rivers in Africa on which I have been privileged to spend time, such as the Limpopo, Mara, Orange, Chobe, Zambezi and Congo have left an indelible mark on my psyche because of their indomitable presence.

“A river is water is its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” ~Roderick Haig-Brown

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

Have fun, Mike.

Masai Mara – scavenging raptors

We spent six days wandering the Mara triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve in early November. One of the aspects I was interested in was seeing how the predators were coping after the main migration had passed through the area about two months earlier.

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its is worth watching.” ~ Gerard Way

The bulk of the migration passes through this area between August and October but there is a stream of wildebeest and zebra which are still journeying through the south eastern end of the Mara triangle in November. This means there is still plenty of food for the predators who are bound by their territorial imperative.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

Where there are predators there are bound to be kills and where there are kills you are likely to find raptors. Not all raptors are primarily hunters, but many will scavenge when the opportunity presents itself and some are obligatory scavengers.

Many raptors like the Martial, Crowned and Fish eagles are primarily hunters as are Hawk eagles, Snake-eagles, Harrier-hawks, Goshawks and falcons. Others are opportunitist like harriers, buzzards and kestrels which will hunt or scavenge based on the available opportunities.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” ~ Albert Einstein

One hunter and opportunist is the Secretary bird. It has the head of a raptor but the physique of a crane. This raptor is primarily a terrestrial being which can often be seen striding, in pairs, through the open grasslands looking for prey. The Secretary bird will fly if pushed, but prefers to walk through the grasslands.

This raptor has a open skinned face which is a red-orange and its intensity depends on how excited it is, much like a Bateleur or Harrier-hawk. The Secretary bird hunts and catches prey on the ground, often stomping on its victim to kill it. Secretary birds can also be seen stomping on grass tussocks to flush out food. When caught and sufficiently stomped on, the prey is usually swallowed whole and often alive. The Secretary bird feeds on anything from snakes and other reptiles to young gamebirds, and from amphibians to tortoises and rats, and any other small mammals they can catch.

Most raptors are purely hunters but some eagles, such as Steppe and Tawny eagles and Bateleurs, although primarily hunters, also scavenge. While travelling down a valley alongside the Myvumba Nane hill to find a pride of lion we saw this young Bateleur sitting in the shade of a sausage tree along a lugga.

Young Bateleurs are brown in colour with white dappling. They have greenish, blue-grey facial skin. It can take a young Bateleur 7 to 8 years to transform from its brownish colouring into striking adulthood colours of black, white and chestnut brown.

The adult Bateleur has a red face and feet. Bateleur eagles can change the colour of their faces and feet depending on their mood. The blood vessels are very close to the surface and they can control blood flow to these vessels. A mature Bateleur’s face can be an orange-yellow when it is relaxed and turn into a bright red-orange colour when it is excited or agitated. The Bateleur’s red feet are also unique because they have shorter toes and thicker scales on the tops of their feet compared to other birds of prey. These adaptations help protect them from the bites of venomous snakes, their favorite food in the wild.

Unusual for raptors, mature Bateleur males and females are physically very different from each other — something known as “sexual dimorphism”. Both sexes are mainly black with a rusty chestnut back and ashy grey wing coverts, but females also have grey secondaries with a trailing black edge. This makes it very easy to differentiate males from females, whether they are perched or in flight. I do not know if it is possible to differentiate the sex of an immature Bateleur.

While some eagles both hunt and scavenge, vultures are obligate scavengers. Vultures are classified into two groups: old world vultures, found in Africa, Asia and Europe, and new world vultures, found in the Americas. These two groups are not genetically related but have developed similar biological traits, such as their method of scavenging.

“I am still learning.” ~ Michaelangelo

Most raptors hunt for their prey and prefer hunting alone, but vultures are rough, cooperative scavengers. One of the key reasons they do not hunt is that they have relatively weak legs and feet and are not able to carry away their prey.

Vultures scavenge, but to scavenge they need to find a carcass. They do this by flying to great heights in the sky and scan large areas of the ground below for signs of a kill or carrion. Vultures are skilled soarers and gliders but are too heavy to be overall good flyers so they rely on thermals to lift them to the heights needed for long distance travel and high altitude surveillance. With the rising warm air pockets they are able to soar over distances up to 150kms.

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” ~ Dolly Parton

Africa is home to 11 “old world” vulture species, the largest of which is the Lappet-faced. This an impressive raptor due to its huge size and aggressive behaviour.

Old World vultures do not have a good sense of smell so they rely mainly on incredible eyesight to locate food. A soaring vulture is estimated to be able to spot a one metre animal carcass from up to six kilomteres away, suggesting that their vision is eight times better than that of a human.

The lappet-faced vulture can have a wing span up to 2.9 metres. This old world vulture has perfect adaptations for a scavenging life. Its powerful hooked bill cuts easily into a carcass’ skin and tendons, and its bare head and neck reduce lengthy feather-cleaning after it has pushed its head deep into a messy carcass.

The Lappet-faced vulture prefers open savannah areas with scattered trees, so you will not find them in forested areas. The next image shows a Lappet-faced vulture grabbing a Ruppell’s griffon vulture which has a small piece of bone and sinew in its beak.

Even if other vultures have arrived at a carcass first, most are not able to cut into the hide of a carcass if it has not be opened up by other predators. A Lappet-faced vulture is powerful enough to tear open a carcass with its massive beak and because of this is often the first at an untouched carcass. The aggression of a Lappet-faced vulture is directed toward other vultures and even Black-backed jackals. It is big enough to take on all of them.

A Hooded vulture flying in to join the feeding fenzy on the left overs of a zebra killed by lions the previous night. The Hooded vulture is the smallest of the African vultures. It is usually seen on the fringes of a vulture-covered carcass. It is too small to mix it up with the White-backed and Ruppell’s Griffon vulture, so it eats scraps dropped by the other vultures and Black-backed jackals.

Ruppell’s Griffon vulture is also a very large raptor standing up to one metre high and having a 2.5 metre wingspan. Males and females have similar colouration — brown or black feathers with a white edge. The underbelly is white flecked with brown. It has a white fluffy collar and its neck and head are essentially bare. Its eyes are usually amber to yellow in colour. This vulture has a large powerful beak with a pinkish tinge to it.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

The Ruppell’s Griffon vulture is thought to be the highest flying vulture and has been known to reach heights of 36,000 feet. It clearly must have some temperature and oxygen adaptations to be able to stay at these exceptional heights.

Scavenging birds play a vital role in our ecosystems. They clean up carcasses before they have time to rot. Without scavengers, rotting carcasses would become hubs for harmful pathogens. Vultures specialise in eating carrion and are highly efficient at cleaning up a carcass. The African White-backed vulture is the most common African vulture species in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The next image shows a White-backed vulture with full flaps down in final approach to a crowded kill site.

A kill site attracts a macabre group of scavengers from opportunist eagles to an assortment of vultures, storks, jackals and hyaenas. This carcass even attracts a Marabou stork. This is a massive bird towering over vultures and eagles. The Marabou eats mainly carrion, scraps, and faeces but will opportunistically eat almost any animal matter it can swallow, including nestlings, fish, frogs, eggs, lizards and even crocodile eggs if it can find them. The next images shows a Ruppell’s Griffon vulture tugging at a bone that a Marabou stork had picked up.

Scientists believe that the White-backed Vulture, like most other vultures, often rely on other vultures and scavengers such as jackals and hyenas, to locate food. The White-backed vulture will look out for concentrations of other vultures or watch the movements of terrestrial scavenging animals. Once a carcass is located, the vultures descend to the ground and will wait in trees or on the ground nearby for long periods of time if the carcass is occupied by large predators. Once the large predators, like lions and hyaenas move off, the vultures descend on the remains to feed. There appears to be a pecking order in the vulture mayhem around a carcass dictated by size, strength and aggression.

Researchers have found that these scavengers are laden with flesh-degrading Fusobacteria and poisonous Clostridia. As bacteria decompose a dead body, they excrete toxic chemicals that make the carcass a dangerous meal for most animals. Interestingly, vultures often wait for decay to set in, giving them easy access to dead animals once the tough skins have partly decomposed. Vultures have developed an extremely tough digestive system, which destroys the majority of the dangerous bacteria they ingest. They also have a tolerance toward some of the deadly bacteria that would kill other animals and these bacteria seem to flourish in the vulture lower intestine.

Different vulture species have different-shaped beaks, which means that each feeds on a particular part of a carcass (like innards, muscle tissue or hide). This adaptation reduces competition for food. While the Lappet-faced, Ruppell’s Grffon and White-backed vultures are usually in the thick of it, the smaller hooded vultures, which do not have the same physique and powerful beak, tend to hang around the fringe of the vulturine feeding frenzy waiting for scraps to be dropped amid all the squabbling.

When Lappet-faced vultures arrive and they normal come in pairs, they do not wait to be asked to the dinner table. They have a imposing approach.

Unlike many raptors, vultures are relatively social and often feed, fly or roost in large flocks. A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when these raptors are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.

“Knowing is not enough we must apply. Willing is not enough we must do.” ~ Bruce Lee

Seven of Africa’s vulture species are on the edge of extinction. With the demise of vultures comes a problem on an economic and social scale as yet uncalculated, and certainly unrealised. Vultures provide a vital ecological service benefiting humankind. They are nature’s scavengers – clearing up carcasses and waste that would otherwise rot and spread disease. Source: Birdlife International.

The more we value things the less we value ourselves.” ~ Bruce Lee

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

Have fun, Mike

Masai Mara – nomads

There comes a time in a young male lion’s life when he get kicked out of the pride. He becomes a nomad. This happens to virtually all young male lions. These nomads are part of the group of 25% of lion cubs which survive their first two years of life. According to documentary wildlife filmaker and conservationist, Dereck Joubert, only about one in eight male lions make it to adulthood.

“A quest of any kind is an heroic journey. It is a rite of passage that carries you to an inner place of silence and majesty and encourages you to live life more courageously and genuinely.” ~ Denise Linn

At about two to three years of age, young lions are no longer tolerated by their pride. Their mothers are ready for their next litter of cubs and their fathers begin to see them as a threat to the stability of the pride. If there is a pride take-over, juvenile males are likely to be forced out of the pride at an even younger age just to stay alive. This sometimes also applies to females, particlarly if the pride is getting too large. Nature has its very own methods of keeping the gene pool diversified and healthy.

“The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason.” ~ Charles Darwin

There are very few instances where fathers form coalitions with their sons to dominate a territory. A notable exception was Notch and his five son coalition controlling the Marsh pride up in the northern part of the Mara triangle in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Usually, after being evicted from the pride, young male lions either roam alone and land up scavenging until they learn to hunt, or, disparate young males come together to form coalitions. Sometimes they are brothers and cousins, other times they are young males who decide to cooperate because it is easier to hunt and defend themselves as a team than on their own. The eviction process is harsh and initially the young males do not seem to understand why they have been banned from their family group. It is an ancient, if unceremonious, rite of passage.

Nomads are very wary. They know they are trespassing. Perhaps it is their father’s turf or another unknown male’s territory. Either way, if they are found, there will be big trouble and life lessons will be taught swiftly and violently.

Frequently, as the nomad walks through another male’s territory he will stop and just look and listen, scanning his surroundings for any sign that the owner of this piece of hunting ground is awake and onto him.

Male lions mark their territory. The odour must be distinctive. These two young nomads were deciphering the chemical messages by drawing the odours through the Jacobson organ in the roof of their mouth which give them the “grimaced” look. These chemical messages appear to give the recipient a clear sense of the size, strength and age of the messager’s owner.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~ Charles Darwin

These nomads might be physically big and strong but they have still to build that inter strength which comes from self belief. Consequently, they are frequently reassuring each other by head rubbing.

Even as nomads, at times the cub in them is revealed. Some brief respite from the realisation that life is rushing in.

“Self respect, self love and self worth, all start with self. Stop looking outside yourself for your value.” ~ Rob Liano

There are moments in the bush when we as human’s can identify with what that young male lion is going through. No words are necessary.

“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” ~ Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

Each lion has a different character. Some are brawlers, some are lovers, some are confident and others not so much. It is apparent that confidence in a male lion is acquired. In his nomad years he learns the value of cooperation, he also learns independence by learning how to hunt and defend himself. It is these strengths, knowledge and skills learnt through testing himself against the world that he matures into a self assured full maned male lion, capable of sustaining his own pride.

This was another coalition of three nomads, around three years old. They were up river from the previous three younger nomads that we found a few days earlier. These three nomads were older, bigger, stronger and had more confidence. They were in Scar and Ziggy’s territory along this stretch of the Mara river. They knew they were trespassing but did not seem to fussed about it.

The dominant male in the coalition of three seemed the most confident and relaxed. The other two were less so, and lay in the croton bushes partially hidden on the edge of steep bank down to the Mara river.

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” ~ Suzy Kassem

This confident young male lay on the banks of the Mara river surveying the land as if he owned it. Perhaps starting to get a sense of what it feels like to rule a territory.

“Confidence is when you believe in yourself and your abilities, arrogance is when you think you are better than others and act accordingly.” ~ Stewart Stafford

Nomadic males entering a pride male’s territory inevitably affects cub survival and mating access. Success rates of nomadic males gaining tenure with a pride increases with age and coalition size.

Nomadic males can even regulate populations through their dispersal patterns, territorial structure, and reproductive strategies. Usually, lions live in permanent female groupings (prides) that maintain exclusive territories and are temporarily defended by male coalitions. Males compete with each other for prides and nomadic coalitions in an attempt to oust the resident male or males.

Nomadic takeovers are the primary drivers of natal dispersal, resulting in large variation in dispersal age, with higher mortality among young lions, and infanticide by nomads tends to mediate population growth. Source: Lion population dynamics: do nomadic males matter? Natalia Borrego

For maturing males to survive their nomad years, they have to be fit, strong, and must have learnt the ways of the wild. All of these skills together with the confidence that comes with survival lessons well learnt will be needed to take over and maintain their own pride.

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” ~ Rumi

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

Have fun, Mike