A very busy month, and the long grass that is typical of February is not halting the sightings, though we may have to peer a little further through the green.
The pack of 18 wild dogs were seen several times, and we were lucky enough to witness them hunt an impala, from the beginning of the hunt to the very quick end. Another day, we saw them catch a baby kudu, and two days later they were hunting impala again, this time, unsuccessfully.
Witnessing great animal sightings sometimes combines knowledge and skill from the guide and tracking team, with a little bit of luck. Sundowners are a traditional time for taking a break from the safari, stretching your legs, and enjoying the wonderful scenery and sunset. Other than some general game or a few hippos lounging in a nearby pool, they are not normally intended to include great game viewing. However, sometimes, knowledge of animal movement patterns, and a lot of help from Lady Luck, and a sundowner becomes a game-stopper. Knowing wild dogs had been sighted in an area not too far away, the guide suggested they stop for a sundowner, in a picturesque open area, hoping that they would pass by. As everything was set up, guests enjoying their snacks and drinks as the sun dipped in the sky, the dogs arrived, playing with each other sometimes only 10m from the onlookers, and then drinking at the pan. As is normally the case with wild dogs, they were completely unconcerned by the humans, and continued enjoying what they were doing, whilst several people stood, drinks in hand, looking on with mouths hanging open. Wild dogs seem to be the only animal that consider standing humans to be just part of the background. Why this is, no one is quite sure, but on the rare occasions that they do happen upon us, it is a magical experience.
Lions were seen almost every day. We had great sightings, including the Shindi females with the two young cubs, aged about 3 months old, and providing great photo opportunities by playing with each other on a fallen log. We also had a lovely sighting of the four Marsh boys, who we watched for an hour or so, before they moved off into the shade of a nearby tree. Two young males spent one morning watching a group of zebra and wildebeest close to Wild Dog pan, in the hope that an individual made a bad move. Eventually, a female wildebeest panicked, and broke away from the herd – one male lion went after the female, whilst the second lion attacked a calf left behind.
It was interesting times on the 18th of February, when two lionesses and two sub-adult males were located between Little Kwara staff quarters and Kwara, feeding on a young male kudu. On that same evening, the lionesses, young males and two little cubs wanted to cross the channel to the marsh. Three crocodiles were waiting at the edge of the water, and this was sufficient to put the lions off the crossing, and they spent the night relaxing on Kwara island.
One morning, mid month, we came upon a cheetah who was contact calling to either a mate, or the brother that he is normally seen with. There was lots of general game in the area that we found the cheetah, but he did not attempt to hunt.
Plenty of kills amongst the smaller cats too, with an african wildcat being seen with a small rodent in it’s mouth, and on the same drive, a serval stalking frogs around one of the water holes.
Although it’s not so common to see buffalo at this time of the year, a solitary male buffalo was found in the Splash area. Another bit of fauna not so common to a wet area are ostriches. However, a male and a female ostrich pair have decided to bring up their rather extensive family in the Kwara concession. With a total of 15 youngsters, they make it somewhat easy to spot. Now several months old, they are about half the height of their parents, and seeing them move through the open areas is reminiscent of tour leaders guiding a bunch of gawky school kids on a days outing. 15 is an exceptionally large number of offspring to make it to this age, so full credit goes to the parenting – and defensive skills – of the adults.
With the long grass around, and plenty of water to go with it, it’s sometimes hard to find a nice comfy and dry place to rest up for the night. If you have a nice camp, where the grass tends to be shorter, or a deck to sit under, this is a much better option. And so, during most nights, the herds of impala are setting up shop in the safety of the camps. Occasionally, their comfort and sleep (and that of the people that happen to be in the camp) is disturbed by the wanderings of the lions, who also prefer to stay dry and not have to walk through such long grass. Usually, there is enough time for everyone to move out of the way, as the lions use the still of the night to roar and claim their territory, but occasionally an unannounced ‘walk through’ causes mayhem as impalas scatter between rooms to get out of the way.
Early Feb and the lion cubs are about 5 or 6 weeks old. They still only go about a metre or so from their hiding place, as their legs are still wobbly and they spend a lot of time falling over each other, or just falling over their large milk-filled stomachs which do appear to get in the way a lot! A conveniently placed tree provides a good place to exercise their front legs, and they try to put their claws in the trunk and pull themselves off. They show signs of perhaps growing up vegetarian, by trying to chew on the trunk as well, as their teeth grow. They don’t really have the curiousness as yet that will soon be upon them, content with their own small play area. Another couple of weeks, and curiousity will kick in, making life for mother lion a little more tiring as everything becomes a plaything.
In mid Feb, the lioness moved the den, in order to safeguard her offspring from intruder males. She was located about 2km away from her original den, and was seen hunting zebra. By now, we were also able to make a clearer identification on the sexes of the cubs – one female and two males.
Leopards are normally hard to come by in the green season, with longer grass, it’s tricky to see them unless they are in a tree, or on the road. So it was a great afternoon drive when not one but two leopards were found in close proximity to each other. As luck would have it, each time a leopard has been found recently, some of the guests were out on the boat. The guides with the leopards always radio to see if the boating guests would like to return to see it, but the boat itself is such a wonderful activity, that the two times this occurred, the guests opted to stay and miss the sighting. However, returning to the camp, the boating guests managed to spot a third leopard of the evening, resting in a tree not far from room number 9! This was actually done due to a little bit of magic that one guest had brought with him: a thermal imaging camera. From 500m out, in the night, a large colourful blob could be seen on the camera screen, the guide quickly identified that this was in a tree, and by the size, would have to be a leopard. So the boat was full steam ahead, until the spotlight could pick up the leopard so that it could be seen by all! As the guest said, he doubts this is the way forward with safaris, as his equipment is highly specialised, and that the guides seem to know where everything is anyway! Still, I suspect we might be seeing some interesting entries this year in our Photo Competition – there are not many cameras that are able to photograph the chicks inside a weavers nest without getting anywhere near it!
Later in the month, leopards were still around, and we managed to see seven individuals in one week. This included two sub adults feeding on an impala carcass, and a shy adult male feeding on a zebra foal.
Storm clouds had been building up day after day, but it had been rain free for some time. Other camps were getting heavy falls, but Lagoon had received nothing other than a light shower. Then, one late afternoon, about 6pm, the rain started, and began to blow sideways… As the camp tried its best to batten down the hatches, (most camps are designed for vertical rain, and architects rarely consider horizontal rain for some reason), several thoughts were spared for the three vehicles that were out on game drive in the middle of this. They were surprisingly silent… no calls advising that they were three minutes out, and heading back to camp. An hour later, as night fell with a thump and the rain continued to pour down, three vehicles came streaming into the camp, with lots of hysterical laughter from all on board. It’s rare to see such happy and excited guests that are 100% soaked through, but they’d witnessed some great game with wild dogs hunting and killing an impala, and then a speed chase home as the rain came pelting down. A few warming sherries and hot showers, and dinner was a slightly drier affair.
Later in the month the pack of 20 dogs from the north of the concession came upon the Lagoon pack of 8 dogs, and suddenly there was a fight. In the process, all dogs scattered, and although the pack of 20 was not seen again, the Lagoon pack of 8 and the five dogs from the West were seen again several times.
The overcast conditions seemed to encourage the rarer antelope to get out and about, as game drives were regularly seeing sable, roan and eland, singly, and in small herds. Leopards also took advantage of the shady times, and some good tracking provided good sightings.
The three cheetah brothers made an appearance this month on the 13th Feb, along old Lebala Road. They were marking their territory and attempting to hunt – sadly not successfully. They remained in the area for the following week – good to see them after such a long absence.
Other interesting sightings this month included regular sightings of bat eared foxes (mostly of two families – one of four and one of three), hyenas finishing off a kudu carcass that lions had abandoned the day prior, and a porcupine wandering through the camp.
A wildebeest carcass was discovered, still intact, near Normans Pan. The only predator at the sight was a single hyena, who was acting restlessly. It was assumed the predator that killed the wildebeest was pushed off the carcass by this big female, but no evidence was found relating to the hunter.
Yet another hyena proved that they are able to hunt for themselves, and with great success. She determinedly pushed the limits of a mother elephant until she was able to separate the baby elephant (aged about 3-4 weeks) from the mother, and managed to kill it. The strength, and courage of the hyena to take on such an animal on its own, is mind-boggling.
Although the grass is twice as high as the magnificent wild dogs, sightings remained frequent. We did not see so many kills, but the interaction of the dogs was wonderful to witness. Both the pack of 8 (5 adult females and 3 adult males) and the pack of 5 (four males, one female) were seen with individuals mating – the promise of new life in a few months time. Last year, with the large Lagoon pack splitting, and the Southern pack losing it’s Alpha male and female, none of the packs had any offspring. This should be an interesting year for the new combination of dogs!
A relaxed female leopard was seen several times this month, once resting on a dead tree after we stopped for sundowners. She then began to hunt for prey along the marshes. Later in the month, leopards were making regular sightings, and one male was found feeding on an ostrich. One can only imagine the hunt and chase that must have occurred to bring down this unwieldy bird!
Huge numbers of elephants are now in the area – some herds which combine to form larger groupings are in their hundreds, moving through with their young, feasting on the wide variety of vegetation and plentiful water. The numbers will only increase as we move towards the drier winter section.
Speaking of water, at this stage, the plentiful rain fall has created pans and channels where none existed before. Going out on game drive one morning, the road passed a small pan which holds a variety of small wildlife such a frogs and water birds. The next day, heading along the same road, the pan had eased over the road itself, and the pan had enlarged so much, that the game drive vehicle had to drive along the road through nearly a metre of water, with 7 disgruntled hippos and a crocodile floating alongside! Some of the water is collecting in areas our most experienced trackers and guides who have been in the area for over a decade, have never seen. Other areas remain obstinately dry, so there is always a good variety of routes to choose from.
We drove off from the camp to see what the day would bring – hoping to see a predator somewhere amongst the large number of preys species that are in the area at the moment. As we were driving on the western edge of the pan, we saw one cheetah that was hunting. We drove closer to see what it was stalking. The cheetah trotted slowly towards a group of three impalas when something spooked the antelope and they bolted away, raising clouds of dust. When the dust settled, we saw that there were now two cats in front of impala. The cheetahs wheeled around, running into the path of the impala. One of the cheetah picked his target and at full speed launched himself at the running animal, and with his right claws hooked into the shoulder. He struck its rump whit his other paw to try to bring it down, but the impala was not about to give up. The other cheetah now attacked it from behind, using both front paws on the impala’s rump in an effort to overpower it’s prey. Wrested to the ground, the finally managed to kill the impala by throttling it for about ten to fifteen minutes.
Tails, however, were literally turned on another morning drive, when we came upon a chase happening across the Middle Road Loop – a large male lion was chasing a cheetah! With little hope of actually catching the cheetah, the lion was probably just hoping to chase him out of the immediate area, as he is viewed as a competitor for the same prey species.
The peak of the zebra migration in February, and they are surely exceeding the 10,000 mark. Far outnumbering the usually more prolific springbok, the zebras are at almost every corner you turn, moving too and fro from the open plains to the shelter of the trees, and the many watering holes that are collecting the rain water. Soon, it will be time for them to move on, with still several hundred choosing to ‘winter-over’ in Nxai Pan, the vast majority moving closer to the Delta, or down into the Makgadigadi region.
If you have ever felt the need to get near enough to a some raptors to tell the difference between a Steppe buzzard and a yellow billed kite, this is the time of year! The yellow-billed kites, in their hundreds, far out number the buzzards, and both species are sharing the feast of insects and frogs with the Abdims storks. The kites again and again swoop close to the termite mounds to snatch a meal on the wing as the termites fly out of their homes on a once a year flight to try and find mates. The kites target a termite, make a few quick adjustments of ‘flaps and rudders’, seize the prey in its talons and the passes it to its beak. At these times, you hear only the occasional chirp of a cicada, and the constant swishing of wing beats through the air. Now and then there is a louder swish as two kites go for the same termite and their wings touch – but never a collision.
We also had a surprise visit at the end of the month, with three wild dogs being seen along Middle Road, chasing springbok. We were able to watch them for some time, but they did not make a kill, and eventually moved away.
After the odd beginning to January of several days of rain, the rain in the Kalahari has returned to its more normal behaviour of large thunderclouds building up in the afternoon, and the hint of rain falling somewhere. The cloudbursts are extremely localised, so its very hit and miss as to whether any falls nearby, but they make for spectacular visual effects.
The odd rainfall continues to keep some of the pans with enough water to sustain animals in a variety of the areas, without them needing to come to the camp waterhole to drink. This has not cut down on the predator sightings, however, and our regular lion sightings still abound – with the Tau Pan pride members forming the core of the viewing. The pride ‘youngsters’ – the equivalent of rowdy teenagers – have been witnessed on attempted hunts several times, but have still not developed all the skill and strategy that comes with age. They are having some successes – they always look well-fed and healthy after all! – and were found one morning in early Feb feeding on an oryx.
Several leopard sightings were recorded this month, with a relaxed male that is known to frequent the area being found close to Tau Pan drinking water, and then resting on the road, providing excellent viewing to all in the car. A couple of days later the same leopard was found resting under a bush. Two Kori bustards were walking towards the leopard, and as he went to attack them, they took off as fast as they could, battling against their weight. The heaviest flying bird in Africa, they did well to escape the agile leopard!
With the lions around Tau Pan, the cheetahs that frequent the area have to keep a watchful eye out for them, to ensure that they keep a safe distance. One cheetah cub had to learn fast that its not just lions that he needs to look out for, when he and his mother were walking from the Pan through to the woodlands. The cub began chasing oryx that were standing watching them, perhaps for a bit of practice, probably for a bit of fun. The tables were quickly turned, when the oryx decided they had had enough of this cheeky upstart, and began chasing the cub. The cub was forced up a tree for safety, whilst the mother looked on!
Even with the rain fall, and the additional pans with water, Tau Pan water hole itself appears to be a popular choice for drinking, with one morning a lion, a cheetah and a leopard being seen in its close vicinity – naturally, not all a the same time!