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?

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?