A first at Lowveld National Botanical Garden

Enjoying the beauty that nature has to offer is not only found in the most prestigious of private game reserves. Have you ever walked through your local nature reserve or botanical garden and seen what smaller marvels you may find?

I am lucky to call the Lowveld National Botanical Garden my local neighbourhood gem. I recently took another late afternoon walk through and despite the summer humidity, I managed to find some treasures yet again.

The stroll through the botanical garden started off with a familiar sound, one that I have been chasing after for a while now. A high pitched “Hello Georgie” is the call that immediately gets me scanning the dense tree canopies. I have heard this distinctive call of the African Emerald Cuckoo on three occasions now. I have however not managed to locate the bird just yet. I am starting to wonder whether it is another bird trying to tease me by mimicking the call.

The gardens currently ring with the calls of various cuckoos. One that caught my eye is the Diederik Cuckoo. It seemed that the cuckoo was causing havoc in the gardens by staying true to its nature. When I spotted the cuckoo it was being chased around by a disgruntled African Paradise Flycatcher. Most likely the cuckoo tried to attack the nest of the flycatcher pair.

One bird that regularly makes an appearance around the gardens is the Kurrichane Thrush. Some of the individuals can be rather shy and keep their distance, but now and then you may come across an obliging individual.

One of the best ways to locate birds while walking around a natural area is to listen out for a ‘bird party’. There are often different species of birds that will congregate in a certain area and move together for a while. This is most likely due to a concentration of food/insects amongst a set of trees. By approaching slowly and quietly you may be able to get fairly close to the party.

As I neared the lively chorus, a bounty of colour caught my eye. There were three male Violet-backed Starlings that were jostling for position to woo a female.

The iridescent purple colour of the males is so striking that one cannot miss them. The colour will vary from dark to rosy depending on how the light falls on the feathers. The females take on a completely different colour pallete.

One thing that makes this South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) garden quite unique is that it has two flowing waterfalls on either side of the garden. To make it even more special, both waterfalls originate from separate rivers namely the Crocodile River and Nels River.

The prominent waterfall in the garden has carved a deep gorge with flat cliff faces on the opposite bank. Season after season one may find a handful of active Southern Bald Ibis nests on the cliff ledges. The species is currently listed as Vulnerable so being able to see them from time to time is a treat.

After completing the wider circular route through the gardens I made my way back out. I passed through the forest section leading to the gate and something caught my eye. I caught a glimpse of a dove ducking for cover into a seemingly impenetrable thicket. There are three dove species that have eluded me and I imagined that this dove may be one of them. I tried my best to find a gap through the foliage and eventually I spotted what I was looking for. The dove slowly turned its head around to look at me and revealed a solid white face and breast from deep within the shadows. I confirmed that it was a Tambourine Dove which I was able to add to my lifer list as a first. As soon as it realised I locked eyes with it, the dove bolted out the other side and disappeared.

The Tumbela and Othawa lions on the move

It is hard to describe the sheer power of a lions roar. There is something spellbinding about how this sound carries through the air, especially when your day has only just begun.

The two Tumbela male lions and the three Othawa lionesses broke the silence of the morning just as the sun was about to rise. Although the clock had just struck five in the morning, I could hear that they were not far away.

I headed out in the direction of the calls. Within a few hundred meters I got visual of the lionesses moving in single file. They had their cubs moving swiftly along, trailing just behind their mothers. At the back of the line the two Tumbela males strolled in.

I managed to get ahead of the pride while they moved through a dense, tree lined block. A large grassy clearing lay ahead of them and I waited for them to pass through. I waited and watched eagerly as a single male wildebeest stood boldly in the middle of the clearing. There must have been just a slight air movement in the direction of the wildebeest. He gave a stout snort just before the lions emerged from the tree line.

The wildebeest took cover and any potential for a hunt was over before it even began. The lions entered the clearing and split into two groups.

The cubs decided it was play time and they ran up ahead across the clearing. One of the mothers followed along to keep an eye on the mischievous youngsters.

The two Tumbela’s decided that they had enough walking around for one morning. They took a break and held back just a fair distance from the remaining two Othawa’s.

The cubs kept running in the direction of the wildebeest. It was entertaining to watch their inexperienced pursuit. The adults watched their antics with great consternation.

Eventually the larger Tumbela male got up and walked confidently across the clearing in the direction of the cubs. It seemed as if he was intent to tell them to quit their shenanigans.

Once he had regrouped with the female and youngsters, the remainder of the pride slowly arose, stretched and yawned and moved along to join up once again. Soon afterwards they all settled down for the morning.

Meet Thlangisa and her cubs

As you move along the northern section of the infamous, tree lined Sand River and a small section to the south there of, it is worth keeping your eye out for “The Playful One”.

One of the most relaxed female leopards that I have ever encountered resides in this picturesque area. Her name is Thlangisa and she was named after her immensely playful nature as a youngster.

This gorgeous female leopard was born in April 2009. Besides her age and the unique territory that she has crafted for herself, she is easily recognisable with her distinctive 3:4 spot pattern.

To date Thlangisa has produced six litters. Half of these litters have been raised successfully. The sister duo, Basile and Khokovela, is Thlangisa’s first and most well known litter. She has also raised Sasekile (eventually killed by Nyelethi) and Thlangelani (moved out of the area).

Thlangisa is at it again and is currently raising a brother and sister duo. These two little cubs are adorable and they are both stealing the show. They too have inherited their mother’s playful nature and I have not had a dull moment with them yet.

I recently enjoyed a sighting with these three leopards just after they feasted on an impala. When I arrived on the scene all I could see was full bellies and tired eyes. I sat patiently and eventually the two little ones could not resist playing around. First order of business was to take care of mom. They groomed ticks off hard to reach places and once the duty was complete, a game of tag ensued.

The cute cubs are at the age where they constantly engage in playful combat. This is one of the ways in which they learn to defend themselves. Stealthily stalking their sibling is a vital way to hone in on their hunting skills.

Mom decided that watching her offspring’s spirited antics was far too tiring so she proceeded to ascend the tree where she had stored the remains of the impala carcass.

The little ones eventually settled down and decided to climb up the tree for safety and proceeded to enjoy a much needed late morning nap.

Running with Wild Dogs

“I would love to see some wild dogs, they are my favourite” was a request that came from my dad on a recent family trip to the Kruger National Park.

Being fortunate enough to see the African Wild Dog (aka Painted Wolf) in the world famous park is truly something to be cherished. I have only had a handful of encounters with this canine species.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust has been studying and conserving African Wild Dogs since the 1990’s. With many of their partner projects, they have managed to raise the number of wild dogs in South Africa to around 550.

On one of our last evening drives in the park we decided to hug the H4-1 river road that links Skukuza rest camp to Lower Sabie rest camp. After driving a considerable distance and calculating the setting sun, I flagged down another vehicle and asked if there was any chance that they have seen wild dogs.

“Yes, we saw them earlier this afternoon close to one of the bridges around Skukuza”. This was the best news that we heard along the trip. Before I could ask which bridge it was, they were off. I decided to cross the big H12 bridge that leads to the Tshokwane road. I was hoping I might pick them up on the northern side of the river leading back to Skukuza.

Excitement was in the air and everyone had their fingers crossed. As we headed up the H12 we followed the deep bend in the road. As the we approached end of the bend I noticed some stationery cars. Then I saw the sign I was hoping for. A couple of fluffy white tails dashed across the road in supersonic speed. I knew what that meant. I could not contain my excitement and yelled out, “DOGS!”

We approached a really large pack and to my surprise we even got treated with some youngsters. The little ones were playing with a large piece of bark alongside the road. They seemed to have a great deal of energy during this time of the evening.

With the setting sun, there was a good chance that the pack might start moving and try their luck at a hunt. I decided to get ahead of the pack as some of the adults started walking up the road. I waited for a safe gap to move ahead of them and waited for them to join me further up the road.

We counted approximately 26 wild dogs as they weaved in and out through the grass and moved along the tar road. We simply could not believe our luck. The emotions in the car ranged from silence to excited giggles to high fives. This was certainly the highlight of the evening.

For some reason most of the vehicles were hanging back and enjoying the sighting with the puppies. I decided to try another walk by and headed a little further up the road again. I took my final position and enjoyed the show that the wild dog pack was providing us. Slowly but surely the entire pack including the pups made their way past our car.

It was a matter of time before the other vehicles would follow and approach in my direction. We got our last visuals and allowed all the cars to pass by us. Before I could look back and count all the smiles in the back seat, we noticed something else causally strolling along the road.

A single hyena trailed the wild dog pack. It was lagging a fair distance behind, perhaps hoping to rush in should the pack successfully complete a hunt. As much as I enjoy and love hyenas, this individual looked quite menacing with its damaged, blind eye.

We waited for the hyena to pass by us and then we eventually moved on for the evening. We noticed the rest of the hyena clan a little further on still trying to make their way towards the single hyena.

This encounter with the wild dog pack will be one that will for ever be etched into my memory and has so far been my most successful encounter with this species in the Kruger National Park.

Have you had any luck with Wild Dogs in the park before and what has been your favourite moment?

A leopard around Skukuza

The final morning drive of a Kruger trip is always one that I enjoy. Slow and steady is the pace until I reach the exit gate.

My family and I left Skukuza rest camp and headed southward to Malelane gate. It could not have been more than 10-15 minutes when we saw a few vehicles stationed around a gorgeous Marula tree.

It was still cloudy and a light rain persisted. Over the previous days we managed to get partial visuals of two leopards tucked in tall grass and leafy thickets. We all hoped that our final goodbye would be another leopard in open sight.

As we got closer to the Marula tree, we all gasped in disbelief. There we had it, a gorgeous female leopard draped over the branch with no vegetation obstructing our view. We really could not have asked for it to be any better.

We all watched as the feline repositioned herself in the tree. The rain slowly dissipated. She performed a few yoga like stretches. Grooming and maintaining her luscious coat seemed to be her priority for the morning.

It seemed as if she could time her routine perfectly. As she finished up the rain returned. She once again got up and proceeded to make her way down the tree.

She slunk down into the grassy thicket below the tree and moved deeper into the bushveld. What a send off that was.

Lions on the S100

If there is one road in the Kruger National Park that is synonymous with lion viewing, it would have to be the S100 close to Satara rest camp.

The S100 is one of the gravel roads to the south of the camp and runs East-West hugging a winding river bed. On the other side of the road the vegetation is mostly open grassland and allows for easy game viewing.

I recently visited the area with my family and we could not have asked for a more spectacular wildlife encounter. We set out on a short afternoon drive, hoping for a bushveld sunset before slipping back into camp. We decided to venture down the S100 hoping to get lucky with some cats. We had some spectacular elephant sightings amongst some other general game species. The clock was ticking and we had to turn around to make it back before gate closure.

By the time we had made a U-turn, the temperature already started to drop a little. The sun sat lower on the horizon and a gentle hue started to develop. We bypassed the elephant herd from before. Then, not long afterwards, my dad proclaimed “a lion!”

We saw a lioness emerge from the river bed and she made her way through the thickets out into an open clearing. She stood for a moment, scanned the environment and then settled down close to where we were stationed. This alone would have been an amazing experience. Then, another lion emerged.

As soon as the second lion made its way I knew the whole pride would follow. My instincts were right and one by one they all strolled in. At this point the sun was setting and the light took on a whole new dimension. Dust and fire smoke on the horizon created the most spectacular filter through which the sun would change colour.

Each pride member followed the other and they all decided to lay down a few meters away from the vehicle. I could hear a few nervous chuckles from the back seats.

I was hoping and expecting a large male to join the pride and before I could blink again, the king of the jungle made his appearance. There was just a slight movement in the air and this just caught the edges of his mane.

It was like a scene from a documentary and we could not have asked for a more spectacular lion encounter from the Kruger! As the sun turned deep red we knew it was time and we had to return to camp.

Have you had any success with lions along the S100?

Little Bee-eaters Everywhere

It seems quite odd that once you take notice of something, one tends to see it everywhere. This is currently the case for me. Over the past few weeks I have most certainly noticed a splash of green and yellow around every corner.

With the dry winter bushveld reaching its peak, it is quite hard not to notice these vibrant colours around. These lively colours belong to a bird called a Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus). They are known to be the world’s smallest bee-eaters. They only reach a size of around 16cm and weigh in at a mere 15 grams.

There are two things that always catch my eye when these Little Bee-eaters are around. I love the shape of their wings while they are in flight. They have really sharp angled triangular wings that resemble fighter jets as they cut through the air. The second thing I look out for is their tendency to return to a specific perch. This of course makes photographing these little birds easier.

What makes watching them returning to their perches so fascinating is their feeding habits. Little Bee-eaters hunt flying insects taken on the wing, mostly being bees and wasps. They often hunt from a low perch, swooping into an open area to catch insects, gliding back to perch once more.  The caught insect is often beaten before swallowed. If the insect has a stinger, the stinger is scraped on the perch. Once the stinger is dislodged and the venom is discharged, the insect is flipped into the air and swallowed head first.

Have you ever noticed these cute Little Bee-eaters while out on a bush adventure?

How to identify a leopard by its spots

Being in an area that boasts a leopard density of roughly 12 leopards per 100 square kilometres, you are bound to bump into a few individuals on a constant basis. One of the questions I get asked often is, “how do you know which leopard this is?”

There is a fairly straightforward way that is used to identify and scientifically record individual leopards. This is by noting their spot patterns. Spot patterns refer to the structure of the spots that occur on the upper row of their spotted whisker lines. These spots do not change for the duration of the leopard’s life. The spots on the face typically differ from the rosettes across the rest of their body.

A leopard will be classified by the two sets of numbers. As per the images above, this leopard has 2 spots on the right side and 2 spots on the left side. This leopard is recorded as a 2:2 female leopard. The gender of the leopard is also noted.

One of my favourite ever spot patterns comes from a little leopard cub. It had a 1:1 spot pattern which I have not seen many of. Other patterns may be 2:3, 4:2, 3:3, and so on.

Besides the spot patterns, there are many other ways that one could use to identify specific leopards. Leopards are considered highly territorial animals. They move within a certain self-proclaimed boundary. This territory does shift and morph as time moves on. Over time, a leopard may even find itself in a completely different area as conditions surrounding its original territory changes.

There are many physical features that can be used to identify individual leopards. Some obvious traits would be scars. These scars mostly develop through fighting between one another. You may notice chunks missing from their ears, scarring on their noses or scars along their bodies.

Some leopards have easily recognizable body features which most likely will not change as they grow older. One might find a leopard with a kink in its tail; a leopard may have lost/damaged an eye in a fight, lost a limb etc. Even a small characteristic like a missing toe will be easily recognizable in that specific leopard’s footprint. If a leopard yawns, it may be missing one of its canine teeth.

A quick way to tell that a leopard is close by is to listen to and identify its call. Leopards rasp and the sound is very distinctive. It may sound like a rough toothed saw sawing through a thick piece of wood. Each leopard has a unique call. Spend enough time with certain leopards and you may even start to recognize their calls. I recall one leopard named Homelite, who had a very unique call. It was a fast paced call and sounded slightly different to the other leopards in the area. This leopard was a rather scary character and due to his call his name was linked to a brand of chainsaws, called Homelite.

Sometimes you may simply recognize a leopard by the way that it looks. In the same way that you may instantly be able to differentiate your friend’s dogs when you visit, you will recognize certain leopards. Whenever I see the resident male Ravenscourt, I straight away look for fat, tennis ball like cheeks.

There are also other methods that certain research institutions have developed to identify leopards. There is a big cat research institution in the area called Panthera who contribute greatly to the research of big cats and leopards in particular. They are currently running a camera trap project to monitor the movement and behaviours of leopards in the vicinity. I look forward to the discoveries and findings that this project may deliver and hope to share them with you all soon.

Are there any ways in which you have managed to identify specific leopards or any other wildlife creatures along your journeys?

A leopard wanders through dry winter grass

A few things stand out for me during a bushveld winter. These would be crisp mornings, pleasant sunny middays, dry grass and a unique silence that only the bushveld can provide.

All these wintery characteristics were expertly utilised by one animal a few mornings ago. After a misty morning I found Boulder’s female leopard crossing a dusty road. She moved swiftly along a game path that twisted through some large, leafless trees.

With the temperature still being quite low, around 10 degrees Celsius, Boulder’s moved decisively through relatively open bushveld without wasting excess energy. I always enjoy finding this female leopard. She seems to have two moods, either grumpy or extremely tolerant. Finding her in a good mood allows for phenomenal sightings. If she is having an off day, she will simply slink down into the grass and disappear.

The winter grass takes on multiple shades of yellow, orange and brown. Watching a leopard move stealthily, undetected through this dry material is simply mind blowing. Their camouflage is astounding.

The Boulder’s female leopard was born around mid-August 2012. She was sired by the Dewane male and Metsi female. She started off as a nervous cub, but started to ease up as she grew older. Through years of experience she has mastered the art of moving undetected through the silence of the winter bushveld.

Boulder’s has a very serious demeanor. This expression usually intensifies when she focusses on something ahead of her. Despite her stern look, she has beautifully thick and dark rosettes aiding in her superior camouflage. She is also very easy to identify as she has a kink about halfway up her tail.

I managed to spend a good part of the morning with this strikingly beautiful leopard. As the sun rose higher and the temperature started to climb, Boulder’s made her way through an impenetrable drainage line. I watched her follow an overgrown game path and eventually disappear in the direction of a nearby waterhole.

What is the one thing that stands out most to you during the winter period?

Othawa lion cubs show off

Waking up to the sound of a lion’s roar, echoed by a few other roars, is one of the best ways to get your day started.

A few nights back the three Tumbela male lions and the Othawa lion pride came to visit the lodge. The stillness of the night was constantly interrupted with the territorial vocalization of the resident lion pride and male coalition.

When day break finally arrived I was greeted with a thick wall of mist. I could hardly see anything in front of me as I brought the game vehicle around to the lodge.  As my guests and I patiently waited for the sun to rise, waking up with some dark roasted coffee, we listened to the enthusiastic calls resonating through the impenetrable mist.

As we listened to this iconic African sound, it was obvious that the lions were lying at the base of Leopard Hills camp, perhaps even at the watering hole below. As soon as it was light enough we went out to investigate.

Our listening skills served us well and as we neared the watering hole, through the dense mist, we started to see the shapes of lions not far off. As we arrived we were treated to a phenomenal sight. The Tumbela boys and the Othawa females had brought their cubs along.

These little lion cubs were full of energy and playtime had just begun. As if their cuteness was not enough, these tiny felines decided to put on a show. The adults all gave one final roar for the morning and the cubs decided that they would join in. The little squeaks and growls that came from their mouths was something to behold.

As the mist started to dissipate and visibility improved, so did the curiosity of the lion cubs. They finally started running around, tackling each other and jumping all over their moms.

At this point I could only see four of the youngsters. This was a little concerning at first as there should have been six cubs. Two of the Othawa females have three cubs each. The two litters are a few weeks apart and the size difference between the two litters is quite evident. I was pretty sure that the missing two would not be far off and that they probably just lagged behind and fell asleep in a thicket along the way.

Once the cubs managed to spend a little bit of their energy, one of the lionesses decided to get up and go look for the other two cubs. The rest of the pride rose and decided to join her. The youngsters decided to test out their sprinting skills and suddenly darted across the clearing to see who could reach the lioness first.

Watching a lion pride interact with each other and strengthen their social bonds is such a heart-warming experience. The cubs will try their very best at playfully hunting the other pride members. The adults allow their antics, but also very quickly let them know who is still boss.

They started moving towards a deep river system and I decided to let them head off in search of the missing two. I got news later on that all six cubs were reunited with the adults and that all is well.