Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Hunting with no moon

It's getting dark as the lioness begins to move, followed by her sister and a large male that has been with them for the past few days. The male is looking quite full, but the females seem hungry. Fortunately for them the moon has not yet risen, and the clouds are helping to blot out the stars which are slowly but surely appearing in the night sky. She knows it won't be too long before the moon shows itself. She has had years of practice, and has honed her art through countless successes and mistakes.

Slowly she heads off down the road, a light silhouette against the light coloured sandy road. To the eyes of the unpracticed humans watching her, she is virtually indistinguishable from the road, merely a faint movement as the dusk turns to dark.

The only sound that can be heard is that of the soft sand being delicately pressed in by her paws, and the occasional bird fluttering to it's roost. The lionesses fan out. In the still of the evening a herd of impala can be heard as they feed in a clearing. A soft snort here, or a rustle of leaves there as they break them off the lower branches of the bushes.

The male lion, known as Makhulu Mapogo hangs back. He is getting old, and has been part of enough hunts to know the successful ones are the ones led by lionesses. He will be happy to jump in once the moves are in motion, but until then he bides his time. Each lioness has taken a separate side of the small clearing, barely visible in the shades of grey. Each paw is placed purposefully and without hesitation on the ground to give away the least hint of their presence. They slink down low, moving from bush to bush, ears pricked to any sound. There is no line of sight between the two, instead they instinctively know where the other is, and when the trap must be sprung.

Almost as one they begin to run, one lioness herding the impala directly toward the other. The impala barely have a moment to realise the attack is imminent and begin to snort as they panic. Us humans can now hear them clearly, their hooves clashing against one another, their feet urgently hitting the earth, in a race for survival. The lionesses feet are pounding the earth, distinctly different from the impala hooves, the sheer bulk of their bodies moving at full force and shaking the earth.

The moon peeps out of the near darkness as a cloud moves aside. Too late for the herd, as a small, scared bleat sounds out. It is a frightened call, a contact call and it is quickly silenced, stifled by the lioness who has picked up this 8 month old lamb who was either too slow or too weak to escape.

We switch the spotlights on and begin to move. They had been kept off so as not to impact the hunt, and to allow us to appreciate the fear of the prey and to 'see' with our ears. The lioness has the impala by the neck and is running full tilt away from the male who is hot on her heals. He has every intention of taking this meal as his own. Both of their chests are bunched up and powerful, his mouth open in anticipation, hers locked onto the taste of blood. He bowls into her and grabs the feet of the impala, willing her to let go.

The lioness who started the chase comes through the bushes, and realises she has no chance of enjoying the spoils of war this night. The male is growling, attempting to assert his dominance, but the female has the taste of blood. All around the night is again still, apart from the fight building up before us.

We are privileged to watch as he begins to push against her, constantly growling, trying to force her off the kill. Each time the second lioness moves, he turns and snarls at her, pinning the impala with his powerful paws.

 For a good twenty minutes this continues, the growls growing more insistent as the two lions pull against each other.  

It seemed inevitable that the sheer bulk of the male would eventually win the prize.

 When he does, the female is left with only a bloody impala head hanging from her jaws. She carries off her prize, as does he, and they begin to feed. I sit in the car, hands shaking from the adrenalin. 

My heart is beating so loudly I am sure the lions can hear, and I want shake myself to check it is real. I'm not sad, per se, for the impala. I am more awed by the power of the lions, and the brutal beauty of what has happened right before our eyes. The lions growls have penetrated by heart, and I'm sure if I listen closely I can still hear them ringing in my ears. I don't want to forget this feeling ever, it is pure and simple life. Beautiful nature.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Dulini Day 2

Drives 3 and 4

Both yesterday and this morning we did a walk in the reserve. The walks offered are not big 5 walks, but instead they focus on seeing the smaller things such as butterflies and learning to read the bush better. They are only an hour long, and do provide a way to use up some of the energy from the over feeding- as the food provided at these private lodges seems to be never ending.  I will share with you a few of the interesting things we saw and learnt on our two walks.

We saw many species of butterflies, small black ones with a silver triangle on the wing, yellow pansies, tiny yellow and blue butterflies, smaller than a 5c coin, purple ladies (I stand corrected on the names) and many others. We also watched a Garden Orb Web spider feeding on a beetle that he had trapped. The spider surrounds the beetle with a sack, which then digests the beetle until it forms a liquid, which the spider can suck out.

Garden Orb Spider and kill

 We saw Golden Orb Web spider spinning its web, using its dainty and delicate front legs to attach each strand as is comes out of the spinneret. The web is incredibly strong, and feels very similar to Nylon when you rub your hand along it.  Craig even showed us some mating locusts!! In summer the grass grows pretty long, and the insect life just thrives, so we were never in short supply of creepies and crawlies to observe.

Many people who visit the bush regularly are likely to have tried Marula Fruits. Even more will have tried the drink that is made with them. Well, the Marula fruits are delicious, especially at the peak of the season and once you bite through the thicker skin, the soft sweet flesh is waiting beneath. Marula fruits, as all wild fruits, have very large pips. When elephants feed only 40% of what they eat is digested. The pips from the Marula therefore tend to come out whole, and these are a treat for squirrels and not bad for humans either! If you do find a pile of dung with some dry pips, you can flick open the three small lids with a pen knife and remove a small oily nut. It has a very similar taste to a pine nut, although more bland- I enjoyed it.

Last night our drive was pretty slow. We had new guests from Canada on the vehicle, and we were looking for some lion cubs which had presumably been hidden in a drainage line. Our tracker picked up their tracks but despite a thorough search we had to abandon the effort. On every trip there are bound to be some slow drives, and it gives you a chance to appreciate the smaller things. I enjoy sitting with herds in open areas and being quiet and at peace with nature. Listening to them feed, and pretending for a fleeting moment that I too am prey, particularly at dusk when everyone seems nervous before the start of night.

We also found a breeding herd of elephant drinking at one of the dams and spent a while sitting with them as the calves splashed about and mock fought with one another. One cow brought her very tiny baby, perhaps a few days old, down for a drink, and it was interesting to watch her as she prevented it from getting too close to the water, directing and comforting it with her strong trunk as it struggled on its feet. We ran into these elephant later after dark and had to make a big detour to ensure we didn’t disturb the mother and her calf, otherwise we might have had some angry elephant on our hands.

We stopped for drinks-a gin and dry lemon (my drink of choice)- and some chili biltong (avoided by the foreigners) and nuts and sat enjoying the last light of the day.
A male leopad had been found with the remains of his kills earlier, but as the afternoon had been quiet, everyone wanted to view him and we were unable to get into the queue. After drinks we made our way toward the leopard as everyone else had viewed him and he wasn’t going anywhere. It turned out to be one of those very fortunate moments in the bush when everything comes together so nicely.

Most of the afternoon the viewing of this male had been average at best, and when we arrived it appeared it would remain that way. He was panting heavily and kept moving his position to find a comfortable way to lie on his huge, full belly. He began to move away, and we followed unsure whether there was any water near by, or if he was just moving off the kill site. Not far from us he took a turn, appearing to be leaving the road for some thick bush, but in fact he was about to drink from a small donga (hole in the road) which had filled up in the recent rains.  He bent down a couple of meters from us and began to drink his fill under the spotlight. 

This is a scene I have been waiting for forever! A beautiful spotlit leopard and his reflection. He drank for around ten minutes, after which I was nearly cheering our good luck!! It was the Xinzele Male, a male I had never had any luck with in the past but as of yesterday he is certainly my favorite male leopard in the reserve.

This morning we saw a few good Rhino, and a 30 off herd of buffalo. We also viewed some wild dog although they were just lazing on the rocks after killing something earlier.

 It’s just so lovely to be in the bush, to hear the birds, and the insects and to never know what you find around the next corner. Anything can happen in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Dulini Lodge day 1

I am currently staying at one of my favorite lodges for the long weekend, Dulini Lodge, in the Sabi Sands. It is run by the andBeyond Group, and is a beautiful place to stay. For those of you unfamiliar with the Sabi Sands, it is a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. There are no fences between the two, so essentially the same animals can be viewed in Kruger. The specialty of the Sabi Sands is however the leopard viewing. I am not sure if there is any other place where relaxed leopards can be viewed so easily. Dulini Lodge is situated on the Exeter property, one of the many properties making up the Sabi Sands, and it shares traversing rights with lodges such as Leopard Hills, Idube and Inyati.

We drove in from Johannesburg yesterday morning after a 2-hour flight from Cape Town. On arrival we were greeted with a very tasty lunch overlooking the now dry Mabrak River.  At 4 pm it was game drive time, and we set out with much excitement to see what we could see. The first sighting we had incorporated three of the big five- there were a few Buffalo wallowing in the water, and elephant in the background and a female leopard slowly making her way across an open grass area. She is called the Hlaba Nkunzi female- which means stabbed with a spear. Her name is taken from that of a dam in the area, so named because a Rhino had died in a fight with another after being ‘stabbed with a spear’ (horn).  She was rolling in buffalo dung, clearly trying to take the scent on perhaps to help her later in her hunting. This leopard is incredibly relaxed, so much so that she will lie right at the tyre of a vehicle and show no interest in it what so ever.

Hlaba Nkunzi has a cub of around a year and half, who I had viewed when she was much smaller last year. This cub was strolling along some distance from her mother when she had a bit of an encounter with an elephant, which was fortunately distracted by us. She disappeared into the bush, and we relocated her sitting up on a termite mound. She wasn’t too keen on posing for us though, as she seemed a little tense after the elephant encounter. Gradually she calmed down and moved into an open area where we could view her lying in the grass. She was having none of it, and have our vehicle a pretty aggressive charge stopping a couple of meters from the trackers feet.

There are not many animals that make better viewing than a leopard (in my opinion). They are such sleek, elegant hunters, and their coats so golden. They are also very expressive cats, and rarely lie around doing nothing.

We left the leopard sighting to view a pack of 7 wild dog, but the storm clouds were brewing and they were sheltering in some grass, so we didn’t spend too long with them before heading back to the lodge to find some shelter ourselves! The storm was huge, and we spent the best part of dinner jumping out of our seats as lightning cracked around us. What an impressive display of nature’s power it was though, and it continued for a good part of the night.

This morning dawned hot and grey, the clouds from last night lingering above. After some strong coffee we headed out to read the tracks on the road from the previous evening. The rain had ended around 2am, so any tracks on the wet soil were promising. Close to camp our tracker, Eric, spotted a serval just off the side of the road. It was cleaning itself, but soon got up and made its way across the road. It was a good sighting for serval, and the first the ranger had seen this year. Servals are very dainty cats, with long legs like ballerina’s and delicate facial markings. One day, in a dream world, I’ll get THE shot of a serval, but for now, Im happy just to see this small creature.

We found some lion tracks shortly after the serval and followed them a good few kilometers until another ranger called us to say they had located the lion pair in a clearing further on. On route, we bumped into these two rhino roadblocks, who were completely unconcerned by our presence. The lions were unfortunately doing what lions do best- sleeping! So, after 25 minutes or so we left them to enjoy a hot rangers coffee. For anyone who has not tried this, I highly recommend it: Hot Chocolate, Coffee and a dash of Amarula. I would be hard pressed to find a better drink- it has everything! I’m pretty sure that a bush trip would not be complete without a good rangers coffee in the morning, but I’m not going to risk it to find out!

We relocated Hlaba Nkunzi on the road near camp, and followed her for a short while until she lay down in the middle of a thick block of vegetation. We were just settling in to wait for her when Eric, the tracker piped up “ There is a snake coming out of the bonnet” Our ranger Craig replied with “out of WHAT?”
“The Bonnet” said Eric, as he slowly slid to the opposite side of his seat.

Step one- establish it’s NOT a Mamba- otherwise we’d all be bailing off the vehicle, never mind the leopard sitting a few meters away. Craig climbed onto the bonnet to get a better look and saw it was a small vine snake. Vine snakes are extremely venomous, and there is no antidote for the bite, so Eric was told to be still while Craig poked at the thing, which then moved in Eric direction. Eric meanwhile was getting ready to ‘Baleka’ (run) choosing to take his chance with the leopard instead. Eventually Craig managed to get the thing off the car, and we left the sighting so that the snake would not be temped to find some more warmth with us.

All in all we’ve certainly had a couple of successful drives so far! And now that the clouds are clearing, I’m even more excited for what the afternoon will bring!

Monday, 7 March 2011

The boat that rocked

Saturday morning dawned warm and windless, the way you hope it will when you are off on a 2-hour boat trip just to get into the correct area for the birds. The boat we would be based on was called ‘The Obsession’ and there were 8 of us on board, excluding our skipper Dave Christie, and our bird guide Cliff Dorse. The trip is run through a non-profit organization called Cape Town Pelagics. Profits are in aid of the Save the Albatross Fund.

Atlantic Yellow Nosed Albatross

We were graced with a beautiful sunrise, just as we were pulling out of the Hout Bay Harbor. It gave us a very unique view of Table Mountain. At first, the boat seemed very cozy, and as we began to see birds, the excitement mounted. One of the first we saw was a Shy Albatross, which was gliding peacefully on its huge wingspan over the waves. It was my first albatross sighting ever, and the excitement mounted! It was good timing too, as shortly after the albatross we hit the rolling swells. The boat took them at quite a speed, as we had 30 nautical miles to go before we hit the trawling grounds. This however caused a lot of huge bumps as we crested one wave only to be dumped onto the next. Very glad the forecast was for a ‘flat’ day!!

12 or so miles out, the sea temperature changes from around 13 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees! This is a huge change caused by the currents meeting one another resulting in an area of choppier water. Once in warmer water however the waves did calm down considerably, and the ride became quite a bit more comfortable.

On a Pelagic Birding tour, it is best to find a trawler as the birds are attracted to these, and hang around all day as they make their periodic hauls and throw fish heads and other off cuts overboard. Someone had alerted us to the presence of 3 of these trawlers, so we had a good heading.

Trawler 'ringing the dinner bell' - as the 2 metal slabs crash against the boat, the birds begin to gather as this means the net is about to be hauled.

White Chinned Petrel

My aim for the trip was to see a Yellow Nosed Albatross (endangered on IUCN Red List) and a Sub-Antarctic Skua. I was successful on both counts, and more! Unfortunately Dan did spend the best part of the morning sea sick, despite the tablets we had taken. I however felt fine all day, and Dan did eventually rally after a good sea spraying on the move between trawlers.

Juvenile Black Browed Albatross

The bird life is incredibly plentiful off shore; we were surrounded by birds at all three trawlers, and saw over 300 individual Albatross. The Species we checked were Shy Albatross, Indian and Atlantic Yellow Nosed Albatross, and Black browed Albatross. These are all listed on the IUCN red list as endangered or vulnerable. The problem facing many sea birds is that they are caught in nets while fishing. With Albatross, there is an added problem. When boats are line fishing, and they pull the lines up, often a few fish fall off. These can be swallowed whole by many of the Albatross species, and often the hooks are still caught in the fish’s gullet. Overfishing is also a major contributor in the decline of pelagic species, in particular Gannets, which have only 6 breeding colonies remaining in the world.

Adult Black Browed Albatross with Fish

As far as species go, I will update a species list when I receive one from the guide. We did however see the following:
Indian and Atlantic Yellow Nosed, Shy and Black browed Albatross
Sub-Antarctic Skua, Arctic Skua/ Jager
Common and Swift Terns
Manx, Cory, Flesh-footed, Sooty and Great Shearwater
Wilsons Storm Petral, Northern Giant Petral, White Chinned Petral.
Sabines, Kelp and Cape Gulls
Cape Gannet

It was incredible to watch the agility with which the birds maneuver over the waves and each other, seemingly skimming centimeters above the ocean, yet never touching it. The wingspan of the Albatross was also something special to see, stretching on for well over 2 meters.

Shy Albatross

We left the trawlers at around 1 and began the trip back on a far flatter and more comfortable sea! We even saw a Humpback Whale on the way back.

All in all, it was a very successful day, and I feel I learnt a lot and saw far more than I expected! I highly recommend the trip, especially if you have any interest in birds. It is also good to know that money is being pushed back into seabird conservation, so your trip can make a difference. It is expensive though, at around R1600 per person, with a discount for SA Residents. Contact Amanda at Cape Town Pelagics to book (www. capetownpelagics.com). Winter is the best season to go, quantity and species speaking, but do try and go whenever you have the opportunity to.

Photographically speaking, it is rather challenging to photograph birds when the swells are making the birds and the boat move continuously, and I had a very low keeper rate. Practice makes perfect though, and I will definitely be doing another trip with CT Pelagics. A 200-400 focal length would be ideal for most birds.

As an aside, last night I slept very well, the salt from the sea and the ocean breeze on your face all day makes for a tired body. As does hand holding a 300mm lens and trying to keep yourself steady despite the rolling waves, as I found out when I woke up on Sunday. The arm and upper back muscles had rediscovered themselves and were complaining loudly!

Please feel free to comment below if you want any further information.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Mountain Zebra morning.

Our last morning in the Karoo was slightly slower going, however we did get to photograph a small herd of Mountain Zebra, which I haven't seen up close before, so that was special. Again the birds were out in full force, a great way to start any day! There were some birds nesting in the roof of the chalet and around 5 am they would begin to call, coaxing us out of bed.  Here's a few shots from Saturday afternoon and Sunday.

Sadly we had to leave without seeing our lions, but we will certainly be back! There is reason enough to come back in the Black Eagles which nest on the cliff faces. Nests are used year on year, so I will definitely be returning in the not too distant future. Another tip for any one considering a trip there is to have a meal in the restaurant. The Karoo Lamb Rack is incredibly tasty. Its so good in fact that my mouth started watering in anticipation on friday as we left Cape Town... The breakfasts are not great though, so even though they are included, perhaps pack some cereal just in case... A packed breakfast can be ordered for those who like to be out early, but we were actually served cold tomato that had been cooked the night before in ours!

This weekend I will be doing a pelagic birding trip out of Hout Bay harbour weather permitting, so I will hopefully have some interesting sightings to share with you!