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.

Ravenscourt and Khokovela – a tale of mating leopards

There is a sound so unique, a sound that slices through the silence of the bushveld, a sound that repeats like clockwork. A sound that, unless you witness the scene unfold, will leave you perplexed yet intrigued.

This sound is so distinctive, that when the varied rumbling growls cut the tension in the air, a pair of mating leopards is sure to be found close by.

I recently managed to spend some time with Ravenscourt and Khokovela, witnessing their full courtship display. After spending a good part of an afternoon tracking these two down on foot, my tracker and I narrowed in on the tracks, hoping to catch the audio of the mating procedure as it would have echoed through a nearby drainage system.

Just before sunset, as the bush fell silent, one of the other guides managed to locate the pair just up ahead of me. We entered the sighting with the two felines still enjoying a break.

Watching a pair of mating leopards is such a memorable occasion. The event usually lasts around four to five days. The mating pair will often copulate multiple times per day for short bursts at a time. This can be an extremely tiring process, so most of the intense action is witnessed during day two, three and sometimes still on day four.

Usually the female will initiate the courtship. She will approach the male with full intent to mate. The female will swoosh in front of the male often using her long, extended tail to entice the male and then expose her genitals to him. She will proceed to lay ahead of him, waiting for his next move. Sometimes she will complete this sequence a few times.

If at this point the male leopard does not get the memo, the female may show signs of irritation and aggression towards him.

When the male finally makes a move, it will not take long to complete the deed. One may expect quite an acrobatic display when the mating comes to completion. Due to the obscure genital structure of the male, the entire process can become quite painful for the female. As the male extracts himself from the female, he can expect retaliation from the female. This is usually met with sharp claws swinging swiftly in his direction. The male will often jump backwards in a kung-fu like maneuver. This can seem quite comical if you do not know what to expect.

The felines will usually go rest not too far from each other once the mating has ensued. This process is bound to happen again within a matter of minutes.

All the noises and sounds are bound to attract other predators. Seeing a hyena or perhaps even another leopard rock up on the scene is not uncommon. It is always exciting to see how the scenario develops and what happens along the way.

What was most interesting was seeing how far Khokovela had moved out of her territory. She most likely started to follow Ravenscourt from the edge of her territory and he simply would not stop walking. These two leopards have not had good fortune in raising a litter together. Both their territories overlap another dominant male leopard, Nyelethi. Nyelethi has unfortunately sniffed out all their cubs in the past.

Hopefully Ravenscourt manages to sire another litter with Khokovela and keep some cubs alive. Gestation is usually around one hundred days for leopards.

Keep an eye out and subscribe to Wild Adventures Blog for the latest updates, as we could be seeing new cubs in early spring.

Meet Euphorbia male Leopard

Whenever I cross over the renowned Sand River, I keep my eyes open for signs of one animal in particular. Fresh footprints along the northern sand banks or the distinctive territorial rasps across the Marula tree crests let me know that I am not far off from my search.

I have not had many opportunities to spend time with a male leopard called Euphorbia. He was born towards the end of 2015 and slowly, but surely started taking over the northern territory. Although we are not certain who his father is, some claim it to be Nyelethi. His mother, Hukumuri, looked after him for his first two years until he headed off to greener pastures.

The handful of sightings I have shared with this male have been fleeting glimpses on the ground. I recently had the fortune of spending time with Euphorbia feeding high up in a tree. He casually fed on an impala that fell victim to this stealthy predator during a dark and windy night.

Euphorbia managed to consume about half of his prize by the time I arrived. A young hyena kept circling the base of the tree, waiting patiently for any scrap pieces to fall down. A sighting like this can often be very distracting. There is so much going on that it can be hard deciding which predator to focus on. The interactions from both parties are so interesting to watch.

As if the hyena was not enough to keep an eye on, I heard the unique squawk of a Martial Eagle nearby. Before I even had to figure out which direction the eagle was coming from, I caught a glimpse of its enormous wings. The Martial Eagle is one of the largest eagles we have in South Africa, sporting a dark brown chest, Dalmatian like spotted belly and piercing yellow eyes. It circled the tree twice, but decided to rather move on for the morning.

One thing that always impresses me is witnessing the sheer power that these leopards hold. Euphorbia lifted the entire carcass and in one swift movement flipped it around. Every so often he would lose a small chunk of meat, only to the delight of the patiently waiting hyena below.

It has been a real treat watching this young male take over the northern section of the Sand River. He has had a good couple of run-ins with the dominant male in the area, Ravenscourt. With the absence of an old male leopard called Homelite, Ravenscourt started claiming sections of the north until Euphorbia started standing his ground. Although these two powerhouses are not locking jaws and swinging claws just yet, they most certainly are trying to intimidate one another with intense vocalization from opposite sides of the river.

Breakaway in the Kruger

The Kruger National Park certainly has its own unique charm. Visiting once or visiting multiple times will leave you with memories to cherish for a lifetime.

I recently took a two day breakaway into the world renowned game reserve. I entered the park through Malelane gate. I took a casual drive up to Pretoriuskop Rest Camp to settle in for my stay. One of my goals was to focus on early morning and late afternoon drives as well as to spend enough time exploring the rest camps during the midday. There are often a lot of smaller creatures to be enjoyed from within the camp grounds.

It was great seeing how the bush in Kruger responded to the summer rains. It was the first season after the 2015/2016 droughts where the rainfall reached normal levels. I saw waterholes filled with water where I have not noticed waterholes before. Most of my drives were met with elephant herds feeding close to the road, switching between long, soft grass and leaves from the trees.

I decided to try a few new routes around the general Pretoriuskop area. I was amazed to see how many large zebra herds were moving around. I spent a considerable amount of time sitting and waiting at Shitlhave Dam as well as Transport Dam. I saw a considerable amount of general game moving around the water’s edge.

I managed to get a fair amount of good birding done between searching for larger game. One of the early mornings, while enjoying some tea and rusks before sunrise, I was treated with a Malachite Kingfisher hunting for tiny fish in between the reed beds along the dam’s shoreline. Later in the afternoons I also managed to catch some good glimpses of some larger birds. A Verraux’s Eagle Owl and a juvenile Brown Snake Eagle sat motionless in the leafy canopies of some larger trees.

During this trip I spent some good time walking through the little trails and open spaces that the camp had to offer. I managed to find a great deal of relaxed creatures along the walkways. Watching their behaviour and seeing how they interact with you is quite fascinating. I found a squirrel that used a hollowed out, fallen tree trunk as its playground. At first it was relatively shy, but after a short while it started to relax and come to see what I was coming to look at.

There were a multitude of flowers and blooming plants scattered around the rest camp. One cannot imagine how many different butterfly species one might discover fluttering about a single plant.

One bird that truly brings back some childhood memories is the African Hoopoe. We used to have one that frequented our garden at home. Then one day it just disappeared. Most of the bungalows at Pretoriuskop Rest Camp are built in a large circular shape. There is a communal lawn in between all the bungalows. I found four or five African Hoopoes casually moving along this open lawn, looking for insects hiding in the grass. One of them was extremely relaxed and allowed me to move in really close by. It was so much fun laying on the grass and viewing these birds at such a close distance.

On my way back out of the park I managed to catch a phenomenal sighting only a short distance away from the gate. Hoisted up one of the larger Marula trees lay an impala. On the impala fed a gorgeous leopard. It was a little distance out into the bush, but using a set of binoculars or a camera with a longer lens would do the trick.

The sighting did not last long, but I managed to watch the leopard feed a little. Once it had fed enough, the leopard moved off the carcass and proceeded to groom itself. Satisfied with its hygiene standards and two good stretches later the leopard made its way down the mighty Marula tree. Watching how swiftly a leopard moves up or down a tree is always a treat.

The leopard most likely went to go search for some water close by. There was enough meat left on the carcass to come back to. Once the leopard descended from the tree it disappeared into the thick grass. What a way to end a very relaxing trip to the Kruger National Park.

A mother cheetah with her two cubs

What a spectacular moment being able to watch the circle of life play out in full swing. Never did I imagine that I would witness a mother cheetah raise her two cubs to adulthood and in turn raise their own cubs.

One early morning game drive I headed up to the northern section of my reserve. Someone had gone ahead of me and I was totally dumbfounded when they called in a mother cheetah with two cubs. I almost thought that I did not hear correctly. Cheetah is not a sighting that I get to enjoy all too often. Luckily I was just around the corner from the sighting and I managed to join in on this special occasion. When I arrived, another surprise was in store. The mother cheetah had managed to take down an impala. Word has it that this mother made her way down from the Thornybush game reserve. She allegedly lost three of her five cubs to predators along her journey. She was left with one male and one female cub. This back story made it even more special as sat and watched two healthy cheetah cubs tucking into their morning meal with great enthusiasm.

Over the next two years I got quick glimpses of the brother and sister duo. During some sightings they were still operating together and after a while they had split up and moved into their solitary lifestyles. 

As lockdown 2020 started, big news broke out. The female cheetah (sister) had just given birth to her own set of cubs. For those who know, cheetah cubs are the cutest things alive (check this post to see the cuteness). I wondered whether I would actually have the privilege to see these cubs. 

There was one moment during lockdown where I had to pick up one of the safari vehicles from the reserve gate. As I was making my way back to the lodge, I passed two safari vehicles parked on either side of the road. I did not want to disturb any sighting that they may be enjoying. I bypassed them and had a quick glance to see if I could spot what they were viewing. Nothing, so I carried on. As I got back to the lodge I got a message saying that I drove past the cheetah with her two cubs. Imagine my frustration in that moment!

Pass on another year and I finally got my moment to view the circle of life come into play. The female cheetah had managed to raise her litter through the first year. The two cubs, now juveniles, no longer sported their white, honey-badger like coats, but they still carry some of the fluff on the scruff of their necks.

The three streamlined felines moved gracefully through some large grassland clearings. They took their time to scout the lay of the land on top of some termite mounds. After following them for some distance, they settled on one of the mounds. 

In the distance a herd of impala stood under the shade of a large Marula tree. Some of them were grazing, some were just scanning the savannah, keeping an eye out for predators. The mother cheetah made the first move. She assumed her stalking position, keeping her head low and in line with her shoulders. She moved with calculated steps, the sun shining sharply behind her. Her two youngsters sat patiently on the termite mound and watched how mom would execute her plan. 

One of the youngsters could not contain his excitement and decided to follow in mom’s footsteps. It is always incredible to watch how fully focused these animals are when they lock eyes with their prey. Unfortunately something must have gone wrong. The impala must have picked up the scent of the approaching cheetah and they gave off their typical alarming snorts. The impala moved off and mom took their spot in the shade of the Marula tree.

Mom signaled for the two juveniles to come and join her in the shade and call it a morning for hunting. I sat with these majestic cats for a little while longer and enjoyed thinking back to my first moment seeing the mom as a cub and how she is successfully raising her own litter now.

A visit from the Othawa male lion and Mhangene pride

Favourites will always be favourites. This is especially true when you have watched wildlife survive the elements and battle against the odds since a young age.

I have been fortunate to witness the Othawa male grow up since he was a young, subadult, male lion.

I remember how quickly he developed his mane, from sporting just a few scraggly hairs to developing a full head of hair. One of his greatest challenges was trying to avoid the two Matimba males lions when they entered the area. Being too young to fight and defend himself at that age, his only option was to leave the Othawa pride and start his adult life afresh. One of my last sightings of him leaving was hearing him roar for the first time. It was as if he was saying he is on his way, but he will be back.

There was a period of a number of months where I had no sightings of the Othawa male. He moved deep into neighbouring properties where I could not traverse. All I heard was that after some time he managed to work his charm and join the Mhangene pride as the pride male.

I have had a few encounters with the Mhangene pride before the male joined. They also went through a rough patch where they lost or abandoned a great deal of their youngsters. One thing that I remember since my first encounter with the pride is how large the lionesses are. These ladies were hunting buffalo on their own and I knew that only good things could come from this pride.

After a while it was confirmed that the Othawa male had secured his future and joined up with the formidable Mhangene pride. This combo was destined to be. After tucking into multiple buffalo kills, courtesy of the ladies, the male beefed up and took on his mighty adult stature. When I eventually caught glimpse of this golden boy again, I could not believe his transformation. He looked like a real lion. One straight out of the story books.

Continuing with his successful takeover of the pride, he has subsequently sired a litter of cubs. One of the cubs is doing really well and growing up quickly.  I am not entirely sure what happened to the siblings.

It has been an interesting and exciting journey for the Othawa male thus far. I hope to get to spend more time with him as he enters the prime phase of his life and share his journey with all of you.

A leopard named Ravenscourt

Some of the first images that may come to mind when one thinks of leopards are elusive, shy, and secretive characters. As much as this may be their very nature, there are some areas where leopards have become accustomed to game viewing vehicles spending time around them.

One of the first mature and relaxed male leopards that I have come across is a male called Ravenscourt. He was born in February 2012 and was sired by Kashane (father) and Ravenscourt female (mother). The first time I got to spend time with this gorgeous boy he was sitting casually at a water hole. Ravenscourt was entering his prime at around six years old. I clearly recall noticing how round his cheeks were, as if he had two tennis balls stuck in there.

His behaviour was completely contrary to the general characteristics of a leopard. He sat confidently, completely unperturbed with our presence. He tolerated us and would hardly even look my way.

Ravenscourt was quickly securing the status of dominant male in the area when we first met. He had three major contenders to deal with namely Dayone, Nyelethi and Torchwood. He managed to overcome these challengers and set clearly defined boundaries for himself. Although he is missing his top left canine tooth, his tall and buff physique puts him at the top of the bushveld fight club.

The territory that Ravenscourt has acquired over the last couple of years has expanded a great deal. He pushes from the Sand River all the way down to the southern boundary of the reserve. This covers an area of approximately 75km2. With this amount of ground to cover, Ravenscourt constantly needs to be on the move. This can make tracking this male leopard a frustrating process. I have witnessed the speed at which he walks and keeping up with him on foot can be exhausting. Loosing track of him for only a brief moment can result in starting the search almost from scratch. One thing I always hope for is a territorial rasp. This is a sure way to get a direction indicator and to get a sense of how far away he is of you.

Being the dominant male leopard certainly has its advantages. Ravenscourt’s territory overlaps various female leopard territories namely Basile, Thlangisa, Khokovela, Kelly Dam and Boulders. As he moves through different sections of his territory, he is bound to bump into some of these females. I have been extremely fortunate to spend time witnessing these leopards perform their mating rituals. As mating can take up to five days, sometimes the females have to keep up with him as he insists on patrolling his vast territory. He has however only sired two successful leopards, Hlambela male and Tisela female.

One of the highlights that I have witnessed with this male was an unexpected yet successful hunt. I found Ravenscourt moving on and off a dusty road while patrolling and marking his territory. He eventually veered off into the bush and I managed to follow him through. All of a sudden he just darted into a thicket. I switched off my vehicle and heard a scuffle happening inside the bushes. A second later Ravenscourt emerged carrying a duiker in his mouth. I could not believe my luck! Witnessing a sighting like this does not happen often. He made sure the coast was clear and then sat down close to where I was stationed and fed on his meal.

With his experience gained over the last few years, he has become a highly successful hunter. I have spent a considerable time with him feeding on impala and warthogs dragged up a tree. Being the size that he is, he will often feed on the ground. I have seen him confidently stand his ground to a hyena until the scavenger moved off.

From time to time I get to face Ravenscourt head on, whether that is in a vehicle or on foot. He has a certain look which he gives that makes you realise how insignificant you are. Yet there is still something so magical about locking eyes with these magnificent animals.

All in all spending time with this male is an absolute pleasure. He will usually provide you with ample time to take in his beauty and watch how he goes about his daily business. He is also a very photogenic leopard and capturing some memorable images of him seems like a piece of cake.