February in the South Luangwa

21st February 2018

By the time we reach February, the nature of Zambia's rainy season is beginning to change: we see a shift from the gradual build-up and impressive thunderstorms, to a more steady, persistent frontal rainfall. Skies are overcast, often giving cool days with intermittent rain throughout.

Young lion in South Luangwa National Park
The overcast conditions allow for beautiful portraits of mammals against the soft greenery.

Zebra stallions spar in the South Luangwa National Park
Zebras' against the greenery - a view not seen by the 99% of safari visitors who visit the Luangwa in the dry season.

The vibrant, intense (almost unreal) green of the early rains has passed, and the park is covered in mosaic of sage-, moss- and mint-greens. In some areas, rich aquatic grasses thrive in the shallow pans, and in the dry sandy zones, fine crow's-foot grasses form a hazy, translucent carpet.

The legs of a Thornicroft's giraffe in the South Luangwa National Park
Giraffes tend to avoid the wettest areas where they would quickly become stuck in the mud, and prefer to browse from bushes in the drier, sandy areas.

In the flooded grasslands, grass birds - such as bishops, weavers, whydahs and queleas - build nests and breed busily amongst the tall stems. Territorial males, in their breeding finery, display from the tallest shrub in their patch, warning others to keep clear.

A Southern Red Bishop in the South Luangwa National Park
A Southern Red Bishop on a river-bean shrub in the flooded grassland that forms their breeding habitat.

The river level will likely reach its highest in February or March, when peak rainfall coincides with flooded rivers downstream which restrict outflow. When the drainage system is so close to bursting and the soil is totally saturated, the river level can rise at an alarming rate....will it flood or won't it?! Meanwhile, we take advantage of the chance to boat along the flooded waterways.

Boating along the Luangwa River at sunset in the South Luangwa National Park
A stunning sunset from a boat on the river...

Elephants love the chance to take the weight off their feet and play in the flooded river. Bulls are particularly keen on this, often mounting each other and toppling off like calves playing. They have to take care though, as the flow is fast and there are long stretches of river with no suitable exit points; we occasionally see an elephant carcass floating down the river after failing to climb out.

Elephant bulls playing in the Luangwa River in the South Luangwa National Park
Bull elephants celebrate taking the weight off their feet in the shallows of the flooded river.

Birds are at their most active during the rainy months. After the initial drama of courtship and nesting sites, most are settled into the incubation and chick-rearing stages by the time February arrives. Hornbills are making endless deliveries to their wives sealed into tree holes, young cuckoos can be seen pursuing their host parents from branch to branch, and Crowned Crane chicks are making their first forays away from the nest.

A Jacobin Cuckoo adult in the South Luangwa National Park
Jacobin cuckoos tend to parasitise Bulbuls and Drongos in Luangwa; here an adult scouts for a potential brood host, or for the caterpillars that form a large part of their diet.

A Southern Crowned Crane takes her chicks for a walk in good feeding areas in the South Luangwa National Park
An unusually tame Crowned Crane takes her chicks for a walk in the short grassland near their nesting site. Adults beat the ground with their long legs to disturb insects and frogs which are then snapped up by the youngsters.

With some much water around, the roads are a transit route for everyone, not just humans in vehicles! Predators navigate along the roads, often lying nearby in the heat of the day, and elephants form regular road-blocks. Where elephants leave droppings and urine, butterflies follow seeking the nutrients and minerals left behind.

A pair of bull elephants meander down the road in the South Luangwa National Park

An African Monarch butterfly feeds on minerals and nutrients in elephant urine in the South Luangwa National Park
An African Monarch butterfly feeds on minerals in the urine of an elephant.

It is a time of plenty for most animals, and it's easy to see from their behaviour that the feeding pressure of the dry season has lifted. Mammals play with their young, youngsters play together and there is an un-hurried feel to life in the bush. The exceptions to this are predators who find life more difficult since their prey are healthier, fitter and far more dispersed across the National Park.

A young yellow baboon in the South Luangwa National Park
A young baboon plays peekaboo!

February is usually a cool, cloudy and rainy month in the Luangwa, interspersed with hot clear days, and occasional thunderstorms. It's one of the best months for boating along the Luangwa - not possible for most of the year! - and the bush is healthy and vibrant.

A pair of Fish-eagles hunt over a shallow pond in the South Luangwa National Park
A pair of fish-eagles hunt together over a flooded seasonal pan near the core of their territory. Fish-eagles breed in the dry season, so this pair will have raised and fledged between 1 and 3 chicks which will likely be starting to leave the parents, though occasionally still sharing in food handouts!

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