Photo Safari: Rouquette Family | Flatdogs, Zikomo, Lion Camp 8 - 20 Aug 2014

20th August 2014
Here it is in its entirety - and its entirety is really substantial, so I hope you have a beer or a cup of tea handy, as you may be here for some time!

Flatdogs Camp

Our first safari at Flatdogs started off well, with a lovely sighting of this Giant Eagle Owl and its chick on the nest in a Rain Tree near the main gate. They nested there a few years ago but abandoned the nest as it was so close to the road. Let's hope that a few years down the line, they are more settled and manage to rear the chick.



We also had an early, daylight leopard sighting. A young female was resting in the shade of a bush. We didn't get a very clear view for photos but enjoyed her all the same.

I felt unwell soon after this so didn't take any more photos and my guests had to go out with another guide in the morning until I recovered. I was very disappointed, but at the beginning of a 12 day safari, it seemed to make sense to recover fully rather than taking any risks.

The following evening, I was back on top form and we set out again at 1500 to enjoy the best of the light. It's still hot at this time, but the light is nice by 1530 so we can be sure to be on a good sighting by that time - not always possible if you wait for the more traditional departure time of 1600.

We found some Wild Dogs resting in the shade of a termite mound. We were very pleased to see the 4 of them, missing only the alpha female who we know is at the site of the den nearby. We don't go to the den to avoid disturbing the female and pups. We looked at the shade and estimated that the dogs would not be moving until close to sunset, so headed off for other opportunities, planning to return 30 minutes before sunset to watch as they got up and moved about.

In the interim, we spotted a lone baboon with a nasty cut to the face. Male baboons move between troops as they mature, aiming to secure themselves a spot somewhere so that they can start to make ties with females in the group, and thereafter mating opportunities. They live for around 30 years, so sometimes males will have several false starts before finding 'their' new troop, and we suspect that this one overstepped the mark and was soundly beaten by the resident males of one of the troops nearby.



Returning to the site of the Wild Dogs, we found them beginning to move around. The light was very low, and almost unnaturally 'pink' as the sun was almost at the horizon. The dogs greeted each other, and predictably, performed a brief, but interesting passage of interaction right behind the only tree....such is the way with wildlife. Nonetheless, with only around 4000 left on the planet, we were happy with the photos we have and stayed with them until dark.



















The following morning, we left early to try to follow up on the night's predators. Having little luck on that front, we took time to photograph other subjects in nice light. Here a pair of African Hawk Eagles perch on a dead tree.



As we got in a little closer, the male began to shuffle so we got ready for him to take off and caught a sequence. As always, there's only one that looks perfect!



This Western-banded Snake Eagle also stood for us nicely. With 6-12 days in the Luangwa, there is lots of time for great sightings, but it doesn't happen on every drive. And there's no point in pushing it, as you can't force sightings, so we just enjoyed what was on offer, knowing that taking it slowly would reveal the bush's secrets in the end.

And so it did the following night. We saw a herd of elephants moving towards the river, so moved fast to anticipate their crossing point and find a good spot to watch. On the way, we saw an impala with only one ear - not something you see every day!



It was one of the best crossings I've seen here - lots of elephants, nice lighting and a mixture of ages and sizes spread beautifully across the water.







After our break, we heard the tell-tale sound of baboons calling "Leopard" so we moved to an open plain where we found this female. The grass was long, making a 'traditional' shot quite hard, so we experimented with other lighting techniques (as I always try to do with my guests on photo safari) and used the headlights of another vehicle to backlight the cat. I am pleased with the results.





Taking a different route the following morning, we came across a beautiful line of Yellow-billed Storks in the waters of Luangwa Wafwa. We spent a lot of time playing with the reflections and working out the best exposure. This highlights the difference of photo safari from any other type - taking time to create a beautiful image, rather than just 'viewing' the Storks and moving on. (Of course, we also take time to view wildlife as well, even if it doesn't present a photo opportunity.)





On our way back to camp, we spotted the Wild Dogs again, but once more resting in the shade of a tree. So we decided to return in the evening, and see what happened. They had not killed anything in the morning, so would be hunting for sure.

In the afternoon, the dogs were where they had been so we went off and searched for other wildlife, before returning later. (We actually got stuck in a sand river bed, which only added to the drama!).

The dogs were stirring when we got back, and then treated us to the full display of greeting, stretching, poo-ing(!), and posing. We watched as they began to scout for prey and put down our cameras as the pack divided and moved all round our vehicle - fantastic.











But when they started to hunt, we were back in photo-mode and watched as they flattened themselves to the ground and crept towards a group of impala nearby.







But one of the dogs got over excited and broke too early, pursuing the antelope alone, with little hope of catching one. He returned, shame-faced, much as a domestic dog does when it's been off chasing deer!

We lost the dogs in the thickets, heading in the direction of the den, so we stopped for our break. I went behind a bathroom bush and was soon after passed by an impala and a Wild Dog going at full speed into the bush, not more than 10m from me! So we jumped back in the car, leaving the drinks and snacks on the table in the bush, and followed. They didn't make a kill, but we enjoyed the experience of following the hunt. It's only when you are following in a vehicle that you can appreciate how fast Wild Dogs move, and how confusing it is for prey to avoid them when they are approaching from all directions.

Soon after our break, we found a female Three-banded Courser with her chick on the road. I nearly didn't see the chick, which was on its own at the time, and so well camouflaged.



The night finished with a very bloody hyaena which had clearly been feeding on someone's leftovers. He also had some cuts and scrapes of his own, suggesting that there had been a fight over feeding rights.



Our last morning at Flatdogs gave us a wonderful sighting of leopard in the soft light, returning from a waterhole to her territory. She wandered through the grass and then crossed the road in front of us.





Before heading back to camp, we spent a long time watching a young bull elephant feeding in the grassland. We talked about his transition into adulthood and his behaviour over the coming years.



Following brunch, we left for Zikomo Safari Camp on the edge of the Nsefu Sector of the National Park.

Zikomo Safaris

The landscape in the Southern sector of Nsefu is stunning, and we soon found a large herd of elephant feeding on Ebony fruits in a grove. We took photos of the whole herd, but also of small sub-units like this family here.



Moving on into the grassy-scrub along the Kauluzi river, we saw a large group of Eland in the distance. Expecting them to be shy, we took photos from way back but in the end were able to approach them close and spent more than an hour with them.













Just in time for sunset, we made it to Lunga lagoon, where we watched the last minutes of the day.



The night safari was particularly uneventful for around 1 hour, until we spotted a sleeping lioness's ear twitch in the spotlight. Our arrival woke her and she got up and moved out into the road, where she was joined by the rest of the pride, another 4.



We followed them as they played, but always with their backs to us. But the play was short-lived and soon the females were on the hunt, with the youngsters close behind. It was all very fast, but on finding a small group of puku, the pride split and surrounded the antelopes. We switched off the light, and within about 20 seconds, the unmistakable sound of a captured antelope started from very close by. We turned on the light and using the edge of the beam, could make out where one of the lions had pinned down a puku. The rest of the pride piled in and within seconds, they were feeding hungrily.

It is not every day that we witness such an event, and it leaves behind a mixture of emotions. What a thrill to see wild lions on the hunt, pitting their wits against an animal with excellent senses and a strong will to survive. But equally, to watch a life extinguished and the carcass reduced to bones is something quite horrifying. The following images show the whole event in all its gory detail, but keep in mind that you are watching nature just as it also occurs when you are not watching...!



















We returned to camp, leaving the lions to finish their meal, and lick the blood from their fur. For supper....fillet steak....naturally.

The following morning began as we had left off, with excellent sightings from the start. around 80 elephants were moving through the bush towards the water and eventually we were able to pass! We drove around to get on the correct side of the light and watched as they squelched through the mud and into the bush beyond.



As the lagoons dry up, we always find Marabout storks waiting for the chance to catch fish in the receding mud.



Looking for the lions from the previous night, we thought we spotted one, until we realised that it WAS a spotted one! A large male leopard was stalking through the undergrowth, but he wasn't keen to have his photo taken. After a long time, we edged the vehicle forward and took this shot, but soon after he gave a short charge and a loud growl, which we understood clearly!



Within minutes, while driving through the scrub of another lagoon system, we found a little female leopard. She too was shy, as many leopards are in daytime, but we enjoyed a great view through binos and got some 'record' shots.



She did climb a tree but came down immediately we approached.

Brunch in camp and a sleep was very welcome.

In the afternoon, we went to look for the two big male lions who accompany the females that we'd seen the previous night. We found them easily, crashed out in the shade of a tree, waiting for the cooler hours of nighttime. While we waited a Francolin wandered towards the lions, and suddenly realised they were there, giving her 'kup, kup, kup' alarm call and scuttling past!



After a lot of waiting, and discussing why large male lions sleep so much, the younger boy eventually got up, and as I warned my guests, laid a large smelly offering right by our vehicle! We thanked him and asked if he would pose for a photo in return, but he just flopped down and went back to sleep!



Returning at night, we had better luck, finding the large male sitting up and posing with his impressive mane. We had time to spread out the spotlight and light the lion evenly....one of the challenges we normally face on night drives is uneven lighting problems!



Later, the rest of the pride joined the two males and they started to hunt hippos in the distance across a lagoon. We couldn't follow so just watched, and particularly enjoyed when a young lion started to play with a Honey Badger. The badger was really unimpressed and made some terrible noises and ran away, only to be bowled over again by the cat! Eventually, the lion gave up and the badger shuffled off with no harm done.

The rest of the night drive yielded the usual suspects, but with 12 days of safari to write up, I've had to leave out many photos!

The following morning, we returned to look for the lions in the same place and found that they'd moved no more than about 200m! They were lying out in the open, in beautiful light......but sleeping soundly! We waited and waited, and eventually the smaller male sat up and we took some shots. He's sadly not as good looking as his brother!





While we waited for his brother to wake up, we watched a Goliath heron strutting along the river.



Eventually, as the light was getting bright, the large male rose, stretched and wandered into the shade. There were a lot of camera clicks!







All that for a few photos? Yes, well, sometimes that's what happens. And sometimes you wait and wait, and then something extraordinary happens. It's always worth waiting!

On we went, in our relentless pursuit of good light, and found these Green Wood-hoopoes in the branches of a Rain Tree. In nice light, the black feathers reveal their true colours of green, purple and blue. They were searching for insects under the loose bark and in cracks between the branches.







Early in the morning, I'd spotted a new-born giraffe in the tall trees with the rest of the herd. We went to have a look for them, and found them moving from shade to shade. The mother rarely stood with the calf, but its cousin/friend, was more accomodating:



When the calf eventually rejoined the mother, the light was harsh but I took a photo just to show how tiny the calf was...certainly no more than a week old!



In the afternoon, we set off North to get to the Hot Springs in the centre of the park. We started along the river, spotting a Bateleur Eagle in a tree.



And a small herd of giraffes coming to drink from the other side.









We scouted around an area where we know a young female leopard hangs out, but didn't find her. At one point, when we found two hyaenas at the base of a tree, I though I was onto her, but they were just resting and wandered off as we approached, lying down again - bored - nearby.



Crossing Mtanda Plai, there were a huge number of elephants heading to the spring. Knowing that they wouldn't get there before dark, we stopped to take some shots. As we arrived, one elephant raised its trunk in apparent greeting, but was in fact sniffing the air to find out what we were.







The Hot Springs was very quiet at that time, even though we scouted around carefully. So we stopped for a drink and watched the sunset, before returning towards camp. I know a place where a Serval is often seen, so we stopped in that area and had a careful look. We found not a serval, but a leopard, carrying what appeared to be the leg of a baboon. Not knowing exactly how she would respond to us (leopards in more remote areas are often a lot more skittish), we approached very carefully and found that she was remarkably relaxed with us. We breathed a little more easily and started to take photos.





Over the course of the following hour, we followed her, watched as she took a drink, and speculated on why she would risk hyaena attack by carrying a baboon limb across an open plain. The obvious answer is that she was taking it to cubs, but she didn't seem that keen to lead us to them, and eventually settled down behind a clump of grass and waited for us to leave!









We took careful note of her location, and headed back to camp.

The following morning, we set out early hoping to find the same leopard and track her to the cubs. We returned to where we left her, but with the benefit of daylight, I could not see anywhere that she might have been keeping the cubs. There were no good trees or thick bushes within half a kilometer and certainly nothing that we could access with the limited roads in that area. So we had to admit defeat and accept that somewhere she was relaxing with her cubs!

However, we did enjoy Red-billed Queleas in astonishing numbers. Rising from the ground when you drive towards them (they feed on seeds mostly) then land in vast numbers on a nearby bush. Given time, they will explode from the bush and fly in a tight flock to another feeding spot. It's a marvel of the dry season, and something that still amazes me, however many times I see it.







Just after leaving camp in the afternoon, we found a Juvenile African Harrier Hawk resting in a tree away from the heat of the sun.



We found again the two male lions which we'd seen the previous day, one resting on the top of the river bank and the other down at the water's edge, with a female. They were clearly mating, and since the larger male wasn't moving even an ear, we found a way down to the couple below.

At the beginning the female and the male were separate and the sun was hiding behind a thick cloud.





We went down below the female and took some nice photos of her from a more flattering angle.





All of a sudden, the sun dropped from behind the cloud and bathed everything in that pink-gold light that occurs just before sunset. If you haven't seen it before, it looks fake, but anyone who has been on safari will recognise it.







After a while, the female walked past the male inviting him to mate, and they mated on the sand in front of us.





We stayed with them until dark, enjoying the interactions, and listening to the males call. There was no more mating while we were there (I timed it to once every 45 minutes which means that it is still quite early in the mating cycle).

Immediately after leaving our sundowner spot, we came across this leopard who was sitting in the middle of a clearing, scouting for antelope. As we approached, she gave us a perfect example of 'leopard crawl' and disappeared at a run. We followed and for the next 15 minutes, we had several sightings of her as she rushed around - sometimes away from us and sometimes towards us - in very un-leopard-like behaviour. Usually stalk and ambush predators, I couldn't really explain what we were seeing.



The next morning gave us some of the most interesting sightings of the trip. But first a beautiful kudu posed and allowed us to marvel at his horns.



Soon after I saw a juvenile Bateleur eagle in a tree. I drove over to get a better look and heard that it was giving a screaming call, usually reserved for begging food from an adult. Indeed there was an adult bird in the tree below, with something strange in its beak. I told everyone to get their cameras ready as I suspected that the adult would feed the youngster.









Large birds of prey live for a long time, and take many years to mature, so they receive handouts from the parents long after they are able to fly and hunt for themselves.

We hadn't been able to resolve what the adult had fed the chick, but I had suggested fish, because the flesh was pale and translucent. It turned out to be Python meat!

As we drove off, we spotted a half-eaten python at the side of the road....and a large one at that!



I stretched it out and it was over 4.5m long. We aren't sure what killed it but there were a lot of hyaena footprints around the snake, and clearly the Bateleurs had been enjoying the leftovers.











Jean-Claude, one of my guests, had never seen a python, and always wanted to. I guess he is half-way towards his goal.

Waving goodbye to the Nsefu sector, we crossed the river at 10am, met a vehicle from Lion Camp, and drove quickly to the camp in time for brunch.

Lion Camp

Lion Camp is one of my favourite places in the whole of Luangwa. There is so much game, and all in a beautiful setting with endless landscapes.

Here is a view from the lodge as we arrived, taken on my phone!



Our first afternoon out was eventful! We started off with Queleas again, this time in even greater numbers...it's really something to see.







And then we went in search of lions. It didn't take long, knowing their usual haunts, and checking for the ever-present Hooded Vultures which accompany lions everywhere they go.

The Hollywood Pride is large now (2 males, 6 females and 9 cubs (actually 11 cubs but two have not joined the pride yet as they are tiny)) but they do split up into smaller sections during the night, and then re-form in the evening of the following day. We saw 3 females and 5 cubs this time around, and later in the evening, the whole lot, minus the males.



As always with the Hollywoods, there was lots of play and interaction.



And lots of beautiful posing and 'stare-off-into-the-distance' looks.





When the light dropped, they all rose and headed towards the nearest water to drink. We placed ourselves as best we could.













The following morning brought us lions again, who had killed a puku in the night, but they weren't in a good location for photos, so we just watched and enjoyed as all 15 approached us, passed us and moved into the long grass. Vanish.

We took some photos of a Long-tailed Starling and a couple of cheeky Tree Squirrels.





The afternoon gave us some of the best light of the whole 12 days. We found a female giraffe who was coming into oestrus and the males were extremely interested in her. They pursued her and repeatedly sniffed at her back end, performing their Flehmen response, a grimace that helps to pass the scent over the most sensitive organ in the nose, to help detect the pheromones in her urine. Many mammals can be seen to display this behaviour, but giraffes are among the most comic!





Flehmen response here:





After the light had gone, we thought it was time to catch up with the lions, who we hadn't seen since early morning. We headed to where I thought we might find them, and stumbled across them at the side of the road! Three females had come out of the grass early and were perched on top of a bank. The light was low, so I switched to B&W and took a few shots.



We followed them hunting for a while, but I have seen the way that pride are struggling to feed themselves on their 'normal' diet of puku (they are now 15 so a puku is not really enough!) so I prefer to watch them at a kill, or afterwards, rather than pursuing them when they're hunting.

The following morning gave us perhaps the sighting of the trip - of course, it has to be a leopard. Some people think that any photo with a leopard in it is a good photo, which is simply not true. They are stunning subjects, but a poor photo of one is not balanced by the fact that it's a beautiful creature. In this case, we were lucky that a female leopard had chosen an exposed branch on a mostly leafless Winterthorn tree to scout for prey. We drove in carefully and slowly and I chose the best position for her current location on the branch.







Once we'd enjoyed her from there for a while, we discussed our next move and where we might move to so that we could use another angle. There were actually a lot of branches in the way, and a large bush on the ground where we would have liked to park, so we drove right round, knowing that at some point she would come down.

In fact, an impala came along which sped up the coming-down process considerably as she began to stalk down the angled trunk and towards the impala.





The impala moved off and the leopard relaxed visibly, so we estimated her exit route and drove round just in time to snap a couple of shots of her heading to the thickets.





All in all, a great sighting in gorgeous light.

How to follow that!? Well we went in search of nice light, and found hundreds of Love-birds who were very obliging. They are hard to photograph, being very small, so the ground is the best place, but they are often hidden in the uneven ground, so we were happy when the group we were photographing were joined by some others 'parachuting' in from a nearby tree.







The ever-present Queleas were on display once again, and this time I watched in my binoculars as a Peregrine Falcon hunted the 'ball' of queleas. It didn't catch one but the queleas' response was the most interesting part - they bunched together like the sardines in the Aghulas current do when they are being hunted by Gannets and Penguins and they moved out of the way only at the last second. I had not see a Peregrine hunting such small prey before and I made notes and will discuss with some experienced guides and see if this is recorded behaviour.





Late in the morning we found that the Mwamba pride had killed two Waterbuck south of Lion Camp. The lions had fed and were simply sleeping in the shade, but the vultures were clearing up and provided us with plenty of entertainment! The Lappet-faced Vulture is surely the King of vultures.









We planned to return to the lions late in the afternoon, knowing that there was little point in getting there too early, as they would rise from their slumbers only an hour or so before dark. On the way back to the lions, we took it slowly and spent some time sitting on the ground photographing zebras as they fed on the shelf inside a lagoon called Fish Eagle lagoon.





We got back to the place where the lions were resting and found only 4 lions - 2 males and 2 females. The rest had clearly gone for water. As we arrived, one of the females began to call, and the rest of the pride soon appeared over a nearby bank and approached us. However often I see it, the sight of being surrounded by 17 approaching lions is very special and slightly intimidating. With long lenses, there is little hope of taking a photo, so I just watched as the pride approached and then nuzzled with their sisters and cousins.

We moved the vehicle to get a better angle, and started to photograph the greetings between the returning females and the cubs, and then enjoyed the cubs' playful behaviour as the light grew softer and the heat dissipated.







There is only one very small cub in the pride, a female, who is only 3-4 months old and found herself separated from the rest of the group. We watched as she realised her isolation, and then ran to join the rest!













Heading off for sundowners, we saw that one of the males and one female was heading to the water to drink. I saw a silhouette opportunity so we moved quickly and managed to get shots of both. Sadly my shots of the male were out of focus (it's very hard to get focus on a black, backlit object) but the female came out well.



Returning to the Lion Camp area, we saw a leopard run across the road and disappear into the thickets. Unusual behaviour in that area so I suggested that perhaps the lions were still nearby and she was escaping from them. No sooner the words had left my mouth, a lioness appeared over the bank, scouted around and followed the leopard's scent trail, before abandoning the pursuit and returning to the dambo.



The final day was quieter compared to the previous, in part because we decided to walk on the penultimate morning. On the way, we met a hyaena approaching in golden light.









Our walk was great, including a elephant cow which charged to very close while we were crouched behind a safe barrier of scrubby Leadwood trees, and a near-encounter with a lioness which we bumped (unknowingly) off her kill but never managed to spot as she ran into the distance.

On the final evening, we went to the grassy dambo behind Lion Camp where the light is always gorgeous and photographed a Lilac-breasted Roller, creeping closer and closer until it took flight and we could snap the colours on the wings....



....and a White-fronted Bee-eater which glided lazily across in front of us.



As the light fell and we headed to the river, the alarm call of Kudu (which is best described as someone dry-wretching!) led us to the Hollywood Pride, far in the distance under a tree.



Sadly our last morning was spent driving to the airport as the flight leaves early, but we did have time to stop in at the Ebony Grove and watch the Mwamba pride fooling around in the shade of the trees. Our last sighting was a young lion walking away through the trees, and I thought that was a fitting way to end.



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I don't think anyone would say that this safari was short on drama! But any safari in the Luangwa will reveal some stunning secrets. If you would like to join me on safari in 2014 or 2015, please have a look at my safaris page above. I have set-departure trips, but I also have links with many camps in the area so can put together bespoke trips for groups to fit most budgets. I look forward to hearing from you and perhaps showing you around this stunning place.

Comments

Photo comment By Steven Segall: Been enjoying a preview of things to come. You have loads of lovely shots and I'm very much looking forward to joining you in a few weeks time. Regards
Photo comment By Ed Selfe: Thanks Steve - the game is great this year and I look forward to showing you around!

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