Curious Crowned Hornbills

As the winter approaches and the aloes start to flower, a walk through the botanical gardens is bound to deliver a feast for the eyes.

It was a quiet weekday morning in the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens in Nelspruit. I knew that foot traffic along the pathways would be minimal so I set myself up near a clump of flowering aloes. I could hear a chorus of birds chirping away in the nearby trees. It was simply a matter of minutes before the sunbirds would visit this section.

As I’ve learned many times before, patience is the key. Soon enough I heard the chirps of a White-bellied Sunbird heading my way.

I caught some quick glimpses of the larger Amethyst and Scarlet Chested Sunbirds flying around too. One of the females perched on some plants nearby and posed for a brief moment.

Suddenly, an array of nasal whistles broke the silence nearby. I had heard this call before, but I had to look around to confirm which bird it was. To my surprise three Crowned Hornbills flew in and perched in a tree above me. I certainly was not expecting them and had no idea that they even frequented the gardens.

These comical birds seemed as curious with my presence as I was with theirs. They hopped between the branches, looked for a bite to eat and then moved on to another. I was in awe with how close they moved around me. I sat still and enjoyed this special sighting and soon enough they flew off towards the Crocodile River.

Othawa Breakaway lioness meets an elephant

Watching the king of the jungle in its natural habitat certainly stirs up a great deal of emotions. Watching a lion view the real king of the jungle stirs up a different set of emotions entirely.

It has been an age since the Othawa breakaway lioness has been walking circles around her original pride. The big question is why has she not joined up with her pride yet? As a youngster she had fled from the pride together with her male siblings. The arrival of new dominant males in the area meant imminent danger for the inexperienced band of four. After circling the Kruger National Park for a year or two, the lioness returned.

Of the few instances that I get to spend with her, I seem to find her resting upon higher ground. Often she will be resting upon a termite mound. Sometimes I find her lounging on a dam wall warming up in the sun. Being a single lioness, this gives her a great vantage point to look out for other predators and possibly an easy meal. She has been extremely successful in feeding herself and keeping out of harm’s way.

There have been recent reports of the young lioness trying to approach the pride. Has she been hesitating fearing rejection from the Tumbela males? Perhaps she is not sure how the older Othawa females will tolerate her with the six juveniles around? I do hope for her sake that she takes the leap and manages to reunite with her family. This will not only keep her safe, but greatly add to the long term sustainability of the pride.

One of my recent views of this individual was finding her resting on the wall of a small watering hole. She simply lounged about, minding her own business. During the stillness of the afternoon something caught my eye. I was quite surprised that the lioness had not picked it up yet. A large elephant bull entered the scene.

What was most interesting to me was watching how long it would take for her to realise an elephant was approaching from her rear. Finally she caught the scent or heard a noise as all her senses moved towards the elephant’s direction. She sat quietly and did not seem to flinch. She simply sized up the bull and calculated his movements. The elephant also did not seem to notice the lioness nearby. It was obvious that the elephant simply came in for a late afternoon drink.

Watching both animals merely enjoying the waterhole was rewarding. The elephant slowly moved around the waterhole, testing which side it preferred drinking from. The lioness performed a series of yawns and stretches. This movement eventually gave away her position and the elephant finally realised she was there. The elephant gave a sudden head shake and puffed himself up. The Othawa breakaway female casually got up and moved from her position, not threatening the bull in any manner.

The elephant seemed to accept her exit. He quenched his thirst and also decided to leave the scene.

The Talamati pride pays a visit

Dynamics are always changing when it comes to lion prides and their territories. There has been a new pride that braved exploring beyond their comfort zone.

The first evening the pride crossed over the cutline they managed to catch an impala. There have been a few accounts of them entering and exiting the property overnight.

During the first encounter we witnessed a pride of one older female and seven sub-adults, two of which are male. Their manes are only starting to show under their chins. Considering their ages, they all seemed tall in stature and exhibited great muscle tone.

A few days later the Talamati pride moved deeper into the sector. Scattered around a prominent waterhole, a dazzle of zebra moved around the waters edge. Night fell quickly and the lions edged ever closer. During the morning drive we managed to locate the new pride feeding on a zebra.

With their bellies full and a great source of water nearby, it seemed as if they would be hanging around for a while. A day later there were tracks of a male lion leading straight towards the new pride. The male lion tracks belonged to the darker mane Tumbela male lion. He must have caught the scent or audio of the Talamati pride with the zebra carcass. Judging by the tracks he entered the area and chased them all straight back to where they came from.

The last sighting I managed to see of the Talamati’s was about five of them laying on the banks of the Sand River. This was a bold move for the new pride as they were laying on the edge of the Othawa pride’s prime territory.

The pride did not stick around for too long and connected with the remaining members closer to their previous territory. They have moved out for the meantime, but I most certainly would like to spend a little more time with these lions again.

Tumbela male lions and their cubs

A cool, yet cloudy summer morning set the tone for an incredibly playful scene. Not far from camp the roads were littered with the tracks of lions on the move.

Not wasting any time I set out in the direction of the tracks. The flawless footprints led me past a waterhole and towards a silver cluster leaf thicket. I circled around the thicket towards a grassy clearing behind. I had a hunch that the tracks may end up in that area.

As I turned the corner and the tree line came to an end, some enthusiastic faces greeted me.

The Othawa lion pride has managed to make two successful wildebeest kills within the last week. With the first meal the cubs and the females managed to feast exclusively on the carcass. A few days later they managed to join the larger Tumbela male lion on another wildebeest kill.

After a few days of lethargy and bloated bellies, the cubs could simply not resist playing around and working off their new found energy.

Within the group of six there is a majority of female cubs. As I entered the sighting I watched an array of shenanigans unfold in the open grass. It seemed as if the order of the day was to give the little male cub a hard time. The girls teamed up and ran circles around the boy. They would jump on him, wrestle him and use him as their hunting practice target. This lasted a short while before he decided he had had enough of their drama.

Cubs often find their own source of entertainment while the adults get some rest. A few of the youngsters found a log that provided entertainment. Others carried around some sticks and another ran off with a clump of grass.

The larger Tumbela male has come a long way and he is finally starting to fill out and take on the appearance of a large male lion. His muscle tone is increasing rapidly and his mane has taken on an orange hue with a black undertone.

The smaller Tumbela male is still keeping strong and moving along with the pride. His mane is slowly, but surely starting to grow. He has a far lighter colouration than the larger male, but is equally as handsome if not a little more.

The cubs certainly have taken a liking to the larger male. He reveals having a soft spot for the little ones and will tolerate them using him as a bouncing castle or begging for cuddles. They too have learned not to push the boundaries and let the big boy sleep when sleep is needed.

A short walk with butterflies

As the summer peaks over the Lowveld, an intense humidity spikes and conditions turn favourable for viewing butterflies.

I enjoy taking a casual walk through my local botanical garden, the Lowveld National Botanical Garden. Usually my focus is birding and with each visit I hope to tick off something new on my growing list. A recent visit proved extremely quiet on the birding front. With hardly a bird in sight, I had to move on to a slightly greater challenge.

Admittedly I have not spent a great deal of time focusing on butterflies. My first real introduction to the field was when I attended my field guiding course. One of the trainers was a butterfly specialist and his knowledge and enthusiasm awakened an interest in the field.

Some of my earliest memories spent with butterflies are running around on the school play field chasing these flying insects, wondering how they can dodge me with those tiny wings.

As I walked through the gardens I noticed a specific flower dominating a certain section of the flower beds. I was sure that any nectar that the flower contained would attract some butterflies. I found a comfortable spot and waited patiently hoping that a beautiful butterfly would land on the flower in front of me.

If birding taught me any patience, photographing butterflies certainly would teach me tenfold more. Butterflies fluttered by and landed on every flower except on the ones I was positioned at.

I quickly accepted that sitting and waiting was not going to cut it. I got up and maneuvered around the flowers the best I could. There were so many factors I had to take into account while photographing these butterflies. They kept moving in and out of the shade, affecting the light metering. A slight breeze kept moving the flowers which made focusing frustrating. Each butterfly species seemed to have a slightly different way in which they approached and landed on a flower. The amount of time each species spent at each flower varied greatly too.

Even though the technical aspects of photographing these subjects proved a little challenging, viewing them remained a great deal of fun.

I noticed quite a few butterflies intertwined in their mating embrace. What was most fascinating is not how they managed to hold on to each other, but that they also managed to fly together in this fashion.

As the seasons start to change and different plants, flowers and fruits dominate the various landscapes, I look forward capturing the diverse splendor that these butterflies offer freely.

Looking back at a family trip

A Kruger trip will always be a Kruger trip, regardless of what you end up seeing in the park. This must be the most intriguing part of the entire experience.

One of the best ways to experience the Kruger is to explore the park with close friends and family. It is not only the animal sightings that make the memories, but some of the jokes while on the road, choosing which roads to navigate, compulsory snacks like Milkies from camp shops and getting the fire going after the afternoon drive.

I love looking back at previous trip photos. Sometimes I just forget how quickly the time flies by. Some of the memories seem like they happened days ago. These accounts are from my previous family trip in October 2021.

One of the first requests as we entered the park was to see some giraffe for the first time in the wild. Not too far in we were greeted with a mother and baby giraffe. The baby proceeded to suckle from its mother leaving us with one of the cutest scenes possible.

The Kruger will hardly ever disappoint when it comes to elephant sightings. Knowing how to read these animals can line you up for some phenomenal sightings and time spent with them.

If luck is in your favour and you manage to bump into a herd of animals, take some time to enjoy the various characters that may be found within the herd structure. Watch the different behaviours of the indivuals and how each member interacts with one another. Note the ages of the various animals, any unique or outstanding features like big horns, tusks or scars. A buffalo herd is usually a good example as they tend to move fairly slowly. Hopefully you do not get stuck in a bush veld traffic jam when the entire herd decides to cross the road in front of you.

Even though spending time with predators seems very high on many peoples agenda, remember to also enjoy and spend some time with other antelope and animals out in the bush. Some smaller animals like bushbuck may even be seen inside camps or around picnic stop overs.

One species I particularly enjoy viewing is baboons. A troop of baboons can provide enough entertainment for the entire drive. At least one member of the group will have some shenanigans lined up. Just remember to keep any food out of sight.

It is always a pleasure bumping into some rhino. One very special moment was finding a rhino calf with its mom one evening as the light was fading away. The pair was a little skittish so we did not hang around for too long. The little one seemed rather curious with our prescence, but mom kept moving deeper and deeper into the bush.

Hyenas also fascinate me a great deal. One either loves them or hates them. We were quite lucky to find an active den at the edge of a storm pipe. One of the youngsters kept popping its head over the ridge to investigate our vehicle. It eventually gained some confidence and moved closer.

I have waited a very long time to have a male lion walking down the road towards me. We had a very brief visual of this male approaching the Lower Sabi bridge. We had just finished a gravel road loop returning to the tar road. As I neared the intersection something caught my eye and here strolled in one of two large males. They both cut the corner and moved behind the vehicle and disappeared into the thickets.

Most other lion sightings seem to be of lions taking their long awaited naps. Be patient however. Some might get up to move towards another spot or find some shade. Some will give a few stretches or yawn. Have your camera ready.

Sometimes you may find that the animals move really close to the vehicle or maybe your lens is simply too long. If that is the case then take a picture in any case. Try and get creative or try for a portrait style image if space allows.

Birding is another great way to fill in the quieter periods while out on drive. It also provides a great way to learn photography as each bird species prefers different environments and show different behaviours. You can often get quite creative with how you compose these images.

Birds of Kruger

With the vast and varied landscapes that Kruger National Park has to offer, it comes as no surprise that the bird life in the Kruger is equally spectacular.

The majority of the Kruger is classified as a savanna biome. It is therefore dominated by grassy ground cover and woody vegetation as the upper layer. With the numerous river systems that flow through the protected reserve, the biome transforms into an ecological hotspot.

One of my favourite areas to observe birds in the park is around water systems. One specific spot is the Lake Panic viewing hide situated close to Skukuza camp. This spacious hide is positioned over a large lake and while many animals may be viewed quenching their thirst here, it is worthwhile hanging around and watching the various birds move around the water’s edge.

Black Crake

Taking some downtime in the rest camps is important to recharge after rising early for your morning safari. Take a few minutes to walk around the camp and see how many different birds you may encounter. All the camps are well established and boast some enormous, mature trees around the gardens and boundary fences. These tall trees often make excellent nesting structures or provide food for birds. Listen out for a bird chorus, often located around thickets or dense shrubs. These provide a safe haven for the smaller birds.

Generally birding is best done earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when the temperatures are lower and birds feed and drink water. If you miss out on these times, enjoy the various birds that move through some of the larger animal sightings. I have spent a lot of time birding while lions are sleeping, waiting for them to wake up. Watching birds like oxpeckers, cattle egrets or flycatchers interact with or around larger animals is also entertaining.

A few handy tools also make bird watching a whole lot simpler. A trusty pair of binoculars is a lifesaver as birds seldom perch right in front of you. If you start taking birding more serious and wish to start identifying birds, then a bird book and a camera makes a world of difference. Sometimes birds may take off before you are able to identify them so referring back to a record photo may help you find a positive ID. Another way to differentiate between similar looking birds is to listen out for their calls. Using bird apps on your phone allows you to play back the call and search through images of the many plumage differences in some birds.

When starting out, do not feel overwhelmed with the multitude of birds that the Kruger has to offer. If you struggle to identify a specific bird, just identify the general size and shape of the bird. Identify if the beak is long and slender or short and thick. Gauge whether the bird is the size of a typical sparrow or large like a crow or eagle. Did the bird have any unique markings like a spotted chest or a prominent yellow eye? This alone will reduce the search for the correct bird.

With each visit to the national park, one will notice different birds as the seasons change. The fun part is taking note of which birds you have not yet seen. You may even be lucky and see some of the more rare or out of range birds that you could add to your list.

Which bird sightings within the Kruger National Park have been your most memorable and noteworthy ones?

End of year surprise

There is always something to look forward to when out on safari. The bush knows no time and the wild rhythms simply continue.

After a week of on and off rains, the clouds finally broke and the sun shone through. To enjoy a sunny afternoon, a few members of my team enjoyed a little bumble drive to start off the weekend.

The impalas are still giving birth to the last set of youngsters. Each season I have to remind myself to capture the beauty of the little ones and each season I leave it too late. This time round I decided not to miss out on these cute little ones.

As we were making our way up to the Sand River, I was hoping we were heading off to a big surprise! Khokovela has been hanging around a rocky outcrop along the river bank for a few weeks now. It has recently been discovered that this successful female has revealed yet another set of leopard cubs.

Timing and patience, together with a little luck, can produce some phenomenal wildlife sightings. The afternoon sun was still warm, but as the sun slowly sank the temperatures dropped too. We arrived at the set of rocks where she was said to be keeping her cubs.

This was the first time that I had been around these rocks. At first glance I could see that this would make a fantastic den. There were so many cracks and fissures in the granite boulders. These cracks would provide the perfect safe haven for little cubs, should a predator pass through the area.

Khokovela was sitting in an open area close to the rocks. I could not see any cubs initially. I assumed the youngsters must have been sleeping in the den. We waited patiently and quietly. Then someone gasped, “there’s one, there’s one”.

One teeny tiny cub decided to venture from its hideout. It immediately went to join its mom and started to suckle. Once the little cubs belly was full it found amusement in moms flicking tail.

I got a few glimpses as the cub lifted its head behind the thick summer grasses. I was hoping that it would have the confidence to move up to the rock. Khokovela eventually got tired of laying around. She got up and moved up the rock to scan the environment around the den.

We all waited patiently and as luck would have it, the little cub followed suit and joined the mom. It was a little shy at first while it peered at me from the safety of a bush. Mom started to groom her baby and the little cub started to relax even more.

It is still a little unclear as to who the father is. This area is a loose territory boundary for Ravenscourt, Nyelethi and Euphorbia. There was a recent sighting of the Euphorbia male leopard that walked through the rocky outcrop. Best guess would be that he has sired the cubs.

I cannot wait until I get to view these adorable blue eyed cubs once more. As with the baby impalas, their fluffy coats and cute little faces do not last for too long.

My Top 10 images of 2021

It is hard to believe that yet another year has come and gone. There have been so many great adventures out in the bush.

In this post I would like to share my 10 most popular images as liked by my followers on my various social media accounts taken during 2021.

This up and coming male leopard, called Euphorbia, managed to catch an impala during a dark and windy night. Enjoy the full post by clicking on the link.

The summer heat and humidity around the Lowveld allows for a great deal of insects to thrive. This dark-capped bulbul took full advantage of flying insects emerging from the ground in the Lowveld National Botanical Garden.

There are so many things to take in when spending time with elephants. They are very social animals and always seem to be on the move. If you ever have the opportunity to get up close to an elephant, look closer and notice what their wrinkled skin, hairs, eyelashes look like. There seem to be endless little details that one may not notice on first glance.

Undoubtedly one of my most incredible lion sightings for the year was watching an entire pride of lions emerge from the drainage line along the S100 in the Kruger National Park.

There is so much to say about baby hyenas. Their cute, adorable and oh so curious nature allows them to steal the show every time. This youngster popped its head out from one of the storm water drains along a road in the Kruger National Park. Always keep your eye open around these drains as there may be an active hyena den inside.

This image is one that still touches a nerve. It was the last sighting that I had of the gorgeous Othawa male lion before he was taken by rival male lions.

I have not spent too much time with this young male leopard, but the little time that I did provided some great sightings. It seems that he has left my area of the reserve and moved further off to the general Skukuza area in the Kruger National Park.

One of the big cats that I really enjoy spending time with is Cheetah. Although I do not get to see them all too often, I have captured some phenomenal memories with a mother and her two cubs.

It has been a long time since I have seen two sets of lion cubs in one pride. The Othawa lion cubs have stolen many hearts since they were all able to walk around and follow the pride.

During this photo there was an active flock of little bee-eaters that were moving between the dry river bed and my residence in the bush.

Thank You to everyone who has visited my Website, Blog and Shop during the year. I appreciate all the support, all the views, likes and comments on the various posts.

Enjoy spending the end of the year outdoors and hope you all manage to capture some wonderful wildlife memories.

A leopard around Paul Kruger gate

Seeing a steady increase in your Kruger luck gets you even more excited for your next visit.

The route between Phabeni gate, Skukuza and Paul Kruger gate is a trip that is becoming more familiar to me. I am fortunate to use this route when traveling between work and heading back home.

As with any visit to the Kruger National Park, sightings may be a hit or miss. On my most recent entry to the park I enjoyed the welcomed addition of the many impala babies to their herds. Two or three large elephant bulls hid behind bushwillow thickets. It was a hot and humid day as it had just stopped raining that morning and the clouds just opened up.

I always enjoy the scenic drives through the national park. Any sightings of big game that I get I consider a bonus. I headed to Skukuza to grab a quick lunch and enjoy the river views. As the temperatures rose and humidity intensified I decided to make my way out and head back to work.

Passing the Phabeni gate sign en route to Paul Kruger gate, I noticed a few cars idling on the side of the road. I wondered if I might get lucky with some cats. I quickly scanned the surroundings and there it was.

Avoiding the midday heat, a leopard used a mature Marula tree to rest in the shade. These iconic bushveld trees often have sturdy, well established, lateral branches that are perfect for a leopard to lounge on.

These cats can often be quite restless in the tree until they find the position that is most comfortable. The spotted cat lifted its head a few times to watch the cars come and go. Using these tall trees as a vantage point they are able to look out for incoming predators or unsuspecting prey.

Managing to find a leopard in a tree seems like winning the Kruger jackpot. I still have only had a handful of great leopards sightings in the iconic national park. This sighting pushed my luck to over ten quality sightings. Having spent a great amount of time with leopards where I work, I have learned a lot about their behaviour. Watching their movements and being patient, one can start timing certain behaviours and wait for the cues. What would a great leopard sighting be without a couple of yawns.

Often leopards will get moving once they have yawned and completed their stretches. The heat really started to rise and so I decided to get moving too. I thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected sighting on my way back out of the park.

What has your luck been like in the Kruger National Park and what are you still hoping to find?