Fat Lions
17th September 2012 - 0 comments
At Christmas-time, people often over-eat and then lie on the sofa and vow never to eat so much again. So too in the natural world: Lions gorge themselves and then lie around in apparent discomfort while their gut system attempts to deal with the onslaught.

Yesterday, we found 3 lionesses lying on the sand at the edge of the river with enormously large stomachs. When one lioness got up to drink, we saw the extent of her gluttony....her belly was dragging on the ground when she crouched to lap at the muddy water.

After a while, she began to walk towards us and then collapsed against a sand bar to continue dozing.

Lions can consume a staggering 35kgs of meat in a sitting, which of course is far more than they need at any one time (this much meat would sustain a lion for 2-3 days when it would need to hunt again). But with scavengers such as hyaenas and vultures, plus the competition for food within the pride, the only safe place to keep your share is in your stomach!

So when you are feeling sorry for yourself after Christmas lunch 2012, spare a thought for lions across Africa who deal with that same feeling twice a week!
15th September 2012 - 0 comments
I find that Buffalo can be a difficult photographic subject. Lone bulls, or groups of two or 3 old kakuli are easier to capture, but they don't tell the story of the massive herds of several hundred which we often see during the dry season.

Capturing the endlessness of a herd of 900 buffalo as they come to drink at a lagoon is a challenge I'm still working on achieving. For now, here's a couple of photos of some individuals from a large herd that I saw yesterday.

This big bull was covered in Oxpeckers which all climbed on top of his back as we approached, ready to fly off if we came too close.

And this old bull stood nicely with a foreground of dry grasses.

Perfect light
08th September 2012 - 1 comment
If you ask any wildlife photographer what what would be his dream photographic opportunity, I reckon most would choose to have a leopard lying on a branch in the morning sunlight. After 3 and a half years here, I was lucky to enjoy exactly that yesterday.

The leopard climbed the tree and looked for a place to lie which was nice and flat. The branch was largely in the shade, but there was a small patch that was in direct golden sunlight and it was here that the leopard chose to lie. 10cms either way would have ruined the effect!

After a while, he turned, cat-stretched on the branch and then came down the trunk in a few short strides. I just had time to warn my guests to set high shutter speeds for his descent and we managed to catch a few of him heading down.

07th September 2012 - 1 comment
The Carmine Bee-eaters have arrived in huge numbers and are beginning to excavate holes in the river banks. Some have more work to do than others as some will take holes occupied previously by white-fronted Bee-eaters which have now finished nesting.

There is a fair amount of squabbling over nesting sites at this time, and sometimes you can catch the action if you are fast enough!!

Night Drives
05th September 2012 - 0 comments
We're lucky to run night drives here - not many parks in Africa will allow vehicles to move around after dark. We use the chance to search for nocturnal creatures which are harder or impossible to see during daylight hours.

Large Spotted Genets are one of the nocturnal hunters which we regularly see. They search for insects and small rodents in their scrubby habitat.

Leopards are visible during the day, but are often more active at night. We watched this female walking down the road towards use before lying down in a bush to lick her paws.

Owls are another nice surprise for many on a night drive - this is a Scops Owl which is barely bigger than a man's fist. They hunt for grasshoppers and small insects from their exposed perch.

And occasionally even a guide gets a surprise - in this case a Bushy-tailed Mongoose which sat still on a log for several minutes while we watched. Usually the only bit of a Bushy-tailed Mongoose that we see is the Bushy-tail!

Killer Leopard....
02nd September 2012 - 3 comments
We know many of the leopards in our surrounding area, and we often refer to them by the name of the area in which they live. One male leopard has no need of such descriptions since he's very distinctive - he's huge (I once briefly mistook him for a lion in the distance on a night drive!) and he missing one of his eyes.

I found him two nights ago right in the centre of his range, scent marking and patrolling. I left him heading south and beginning to hunt. The following morning, I heard from guides in the southern area of the park that he had covered around 10kms from where I'd seen him, and then got into a fight with another male. The fight was so severe (presumably about territory since leopards are fiercely territorial) that the smaller male was killed! The one-eyed male then began to feed on the impala that the other male had killed which led me to think that the dispute had been partly over food too.

Leopards are generally solitary, only coming into contact with one another to mate, or when a mother is rearing cubs. So to see an interaction was unusual, and to see one leopard fighting with another was extremely unusual. I went there the following afternoon and found the large male descending from a tree and pacing across a sandy pan.

Curious Kittlitz
31st August 2012 - 2 comments
Kittlitz Plovers are small waterbirds that feed on insects in the sand and mud at the edge of waterways. I was crossing some sand the other day, and I found this one fiercely defending his area against a larger White-Crowned Plover. Eventually the larger bird moved off and the defender returned to his patch of sand.

Black and White
29th August 2012 - 0 comments
Often photographers use black and white in situations where the light is poor and colours won't be rendered correctly. I've used this technique in the past and found it very effective in low-light conditions. But the best black and white photos should probably be taken in good light and 'composed' in black and white to take account of the greater role played by textures and tones.

I put my camera on B&W mode the other day and photographed the whole morning in monochrome. While it's not an exercise that I would probably repeat (I only got 4 shots that I was happy with!) it was interesting to see that there's a lot more to B&W photography than I thought!

Update on Cubs
24th August 2012 - 0 comments
A while back, I wrote about a female leopard who was bringing up a couple of young cubs nearby. We've been watching them grow up over the last 6 months and have enjoyed watching them playing together and learning the skills they'll need later on. The male cub is growing fast and becoming fairly adventurous - he's twice got himself in trouble with baboons, and his mother has had to rescue him!

Yesterday, I found them playing in the trees, alternately chasing each other and then dropping to the ground to terrorize some nearby antelope. Fascinating that impala respond just as nervously to a couple of cubs 'stalking' them in full daylight, as they would to the mother approaching under cover of darkness - whatever the size of leopard, antelope know to fear that spotty coat!

It was an overcast morning, so it was hard photographing them chasing each other in the trees, but when they dropped to the ground, we could watch them more easily.

Eventually, they took up positions on separate branches to rest.

Cheeky Monkeys
22nd August 2012 - 0 comments
We found these Vervet monkeys playing on a sunny branch early in the morning after a cold night. Their play became more and more active as they warmed up in the golden sunlight.

There's nothing.....
20th August 2012 - 0 comments a Luangwa Sunset.

Ebony Grove
12th August 2012 - 0 comments
Ebony Trees grow in areas which are regularly inundated with water for long periods, in conditions that few other trees can tolerate. In some places there are huge groves of these majestic trees, and even in the middle of the day, with harsh overhead light, they convey a feeling of calm serenity.

Martial Eagle
07th August 2012 - 0 comments
As I was driving my guests through some thick bush a few days ago, the huge shape of a Martial Eagle flew up from beside the road and landed in the tree opposite. We looked at it for a while and I suggested that it might have been on the ground because it had tried to catch something. Its crop was empty so I guessed it hadn't been feeding and had perhaps missed its target. The guests asked what such a huge eagle would eat and I explained that they hunt Guinea fowl and other game birds, and sometimes prey as large as small antelope!

The eagle refused to fly off even though we were quite close, giving me the suspicion that it might actually have made a kill nearby which it was reluctant to give up. I reversed back and after a bit of searching, we found the carcass of a freshly killed bushbuck calf.

Drying lagoons
04th August 2012 - 0 comments
As the lagoons dry up and water becomes more scarce, antelope come to drink in the shallower channels left by the movements of hippos. In this case, I liked the way the channel draws the viewer's eye into the image and towards the group of Puku drinking in the distance.

Leopard vs Baboon...
03rd August 2012 - 3 comments
The relationship between leopards and baboons is a complex game of threat and fear. Baboons certainly feature highly on leopards' menus, and leopards in the Luangwa are well known for being expert primate hunters. But baboons are very strong and highly social, so leopards, which are solitary hunters, must balance the risk of getting injured in the process.

I watched some very interesting interactions between these two species last week after we came across the body of an injured baboon just off the road. The baboon was bleeding badly and had clearly been attacked (rather than having fallen from a tree as I have seen once before). The rest of the troop were all around, calling intermittently to each other and giving the more general wa-hoo alarm call at regular intervals. Some were still up on termite mounds keeping watch and this all led us to think that a predator had been in the area very recently.

We watched for a long time, eventually moving to the shade of some trees nearby. Soon after a leopard cub crossed in front of me, heading in the direction of the baboon, but quickly taking cover in more thicket. This confirmed the situation - the female leopard who lives in that area must have been hunting baboons (or was mobbed while with her cubs?) and had inflicted the injuries on the baboon.

We turned our attention to the baboon which was still alive and struggling in the sun. We suspected that the leopard would return to claim her prize, but there were still a large number of baboons around, some 'guarding' their colleague closely.

After a long time, the leopard appeared, and the baboons began to go wild, barking frantically and trying to warn their injured friend. Amazingly, the victim was still able to get up weakly and began to move towards the rest of the troop, even though he had been lying in the sun for over 2 hours.

But the leopard was fast and she caught up with the baboon and took it by the scruff of the neck. As she turned to carry it back to the bush where she had been hiding (with her cubs) the baboons surrounded her, coming as close as they dared. (I didn't manage to photograph these moments, as I was moving the vehicle out from behind a bush to get a better view.)

At one point, one of the baboons grabbed the leopard by her tail and she dropped the baboon. She spun around, and the baboons backed off, perhaps remembering the damage that the cat had inflicted on their friend.

Eventually, she made it back to the bush and the baboons moved away slowly.

It was certainly interesting to watch the interaction between the two species - neither one dominant or entirely submissive to the other. Events like this are very unusual and to watch it played out in full daylight was a wonderful experience.

There's an amazing video of this event, taken by one of our guests here.
01st August 2012 - 0 comments
Greater Kudu are my favourite antelope, and possibly my favourite animal of all. I found a group of females feeding on the seed heads at the tops of tall grasses and loved the way their red ears picked up the beautiful evening light.

A sadder story...
30th July 2012 - 0 comments
Nature's cruel. We've all heard it many times. But the constant pursuit of improvement through the process of natural selection means that lots of animals don't make it to adulthood, and certainly don't have the chance to breed. What's unusual about this story is that it concerns a very young elephant calf, an animal that we think of as perfectly safe, protected by its extended family.

Recently, one of our guides followed a gyre of circling vultures which he assumed meant that someone had made a kill nearby. He followed the vultures to an open area of mopane stumps and combretum thicket. What he found was far from what he expected!

Lying in the sand was a small elephant calf, surrounded by the rest of the herd. One of the females was covered in blood at her back end, suggesting that she had just given birth to the small calf. The smell of blood had attracted vultures (we regularly see vultures at the site of fresh births as they come to eat the afterbirth) and they were congregating nearby hoping to gain access. The elephants were throwing dust over the calf, and the rest of the herd we standing in a circle around the two of them, fighting off the vultures. The female was prodding the calf regularly with her foot and trunk, presumably trying to rouse it.

I arrived at this point, and we watched as the female used first her trunk and then her foot to test for signs of life. It's not unusual to see small elephant calves lying down under their mother's body for shade, so until this point, we weren't concerned about it. But once the mother had checked for signs of life, and had no response, we had to assume that it had been still-born or died very soon afterwards. We weren't surprised to see the female using her trunk to test for breathing and heartbeat, but the foot was more interesting - recent research from Namibia suggests that elephants can use their feet to sense for vibrations in the soil, and this observation would support that theory.

After a while, the rest of the herd began to move off, standing a few metres away leaving the female to guard her calf. She stood over it, shading it from the midday sun and covering it in sand (to conceal the smell from the vultures and scavengers) for the rest of the day.

I returned later in the day and the elephants had all moved off leaving the calf on its own in the sand. Interestingly, the herd's attempts to drive off the scavengers had been successful as there was not a hyaena or vulture in sight; just the calf, half covered in sand in the evening light.

I had a closer look at the body of the elephant to see if I could work out why it had died. There was no sign of anything unusual, and it looked well formed (if anything, it looked very large for a new-born calf). The eyes were a bit odd but nothing serious enough to bring about an early death I don't think.

I returned again the following morning, and once more, there was no change to the situation. The calf was lying in the same spot, but there was slight damage to its stomach area; the only spoor I could find nearby was that of Civet, which are known to scavenge.

I wondered why it had taken nearly 24 hours for the carcass to be discovered. But then I thought about how carcasses usually decompose and it is the stomach contents fermenting and bloating the body which we notice first. Since this calf was new-born, I suspect it had not even ingested any milk, meaning there would be nothing to ferment inside so the body remained intact.

It's thought that over 10% of elephant calves die in their first year and this rises to 30% if the calf is born to a female which is less than 20 years old, showing the importance of age and experience. We often think of elephant calves as being the 'safest' babies in the animal kingdom, but it seems that they are subject to the same selection pressures as all other creatures.

From above....
28th July 2012 - 0 comments
We don't often get very close to Kingfishers, because they have great eyesight and see us coming! However, when I was crossing the bridge recently, I stopped to have a look over the edge and saw this Pied Kingfisher with a fish in its beak! The perspective from above is a bit unusual but makes for an interesting photo.

Photography safari
26th July 2012 - 0 comments
We recently had a group of photographers visit camp, who spent 3 days sampling the sights of the Luangwa and seeking that 'perfect shot'. We were very lucky with what we saw, and they have some fantastic photos to show for it. The highlight of their safari involved an encounter between 3 leopards and a troop of baboons which is covered in another blog post. I managed to grab some photos as well when I wasn't maneuvering to get them into a good position with their cameras.

Sometimes overlooked, Waterbuck are an interesting member of the bush ecosystem, the male appearing to share the territorial duties with younger males, so long as they remain submissive to him. This is an unusual character trait that we don't see with other antelope here. It benefits the big bull because he has scouts who help him hold his boundaries, and presumably benefits the youngsters because they are better placed to take on his territory when he gets old.

We made an afternoon visit to some local Salt Pans and watched hundreds of Crowned Cranes performing their courtship dance in the distance. Sadly, they flew away before we could even get close, but we spent the time composing landscape shots of the salt pans surrounded by the bright red floodplain acacias.

One evening, we heard baboons barking and they led us to a female leopard with her two cubs. I never managed to get a shot of all three of them together, but I took this one of the male cub. He had fed well during the day and didn't seem too worried about us. He looks very young in this picture, but is actually about 6 months old, and about half the size of his mother.

One of the group had a fondness for Eagles, and the charismatic (and noisy!) Fish Eagle in particular. We found this one feeding on a monitor lizard at the edge of a lagoon.

Probably the most unusual sighting of the trip was this large Serrated-hinged Terrapin. While we aren't able to count the growth rings in this picture, a large terrapin (length of shell - 40cms) such as this would be between 20 and 30 years old; not bad considering he's living in a lagoon full of crocodiles and patrolled by Fish Eagles!

Elegant, stocky Puku male posing for the cameras.

We enjoyed watching this elephant family as they hoovered up Tamarind pods discarded by the baboons in the branches above.

Blue eared Starlings are best photographed in the afternoon light when their stunning feather colours show up beautifully.

While watching a group of elephants, one female came right up to the vehicle to reach a fallen Winterthorn pod. With long lenses attached, we could only photograph abstract body parts!

Bee-eaters are always found in large numbers in the Luangwa, with more species arriving just before and during the rains. The most visible of all are these White-fronted Bee-eaters.

As young baboons grow up, they prefer not to hang underneath, choosing to ride shotgun, propped up on mum's tail.

Most antelope spend a portion of the day ruminating, often during the hottest hours. We found this male in a bachelor group, soaking up the early morning rays, and digesting the night's intake of grass.

Hippos leave the river to feed at night, and also sometimes during the day in the coldest months when they need to sunbathe. We caught this male cautiously entering the water at first light. He took his time, checking the behaviour of other males in the deeper water. As the inland lagoons dry up, hippos are forced to return to the main river; a bull who has been 'king' in his small, drying lagoon, may not be so well received by the river's incumbent males.

Leopard Cubs
21st July 2012 - 0 comments
We are lucky to have a very relaxed female leopard living in the nearby area. She has a huge range, so we're never too sure where she's going to turn up, but when she does, it's regularly with her two cubs! Now almost 6 months old, we've been watching them grow up and feed alongside her.

I found them one morning recently, and both cubs were on the lowest branch of a tall tree, although only the young male was in a good spot for photos. Their mother was resting under a thicket nearby.

Later that day, they hadn't gone far! Between him, his sister and his mother, they had eaten most of an impala carcass and were pretty subdued! Hyaenas were gathering underneath to clear up the bones, but the leopard family seemed fairly relaxed.

A few days later, we came across them again, but this time their mother had killed a baboon. The female cub was feeding in the fork of a tree and the male was relaxing on the termite mound nearby.

After observing his sister feeding on the baboon carcass, the male cub eventually climbed down the side of the termite mount and began daydreaming in the sun.

Both cubs will continue to receive handouts of food for a long while to come, sometimes sharing a kill with their mother. As they grow up, it will be the female cub who first becomes independent, while the male might associate heavily with his mother until he's 3 years old.