Friday, 31 December 2010

The Hyena with eyes bigger than its stomach!

Both Andy and I are slowly getting better and it appears as if the symptoms we have suffered could have been attributed to Swine Flu, although we cannot be sure. Neither of us have been ill for the entire year and then BAM! it had to be when we went away didn’t it! 
For the last two nights we have been able to get back to bush camping which has been a tonic in itself. The plains at night have been fairly quiet, except for the giggle and whoops from the Hyenas and the occasional roar from what remains of the Serena Pride (Disney Lions)
Yesterday we took a trundle further south toward the Tanzanian border and soon came across a pair of  ‘Honeymooning Lions. Not even the scorching midday sun stopped ‘proceedings’ and you could practically set your watch by the regular 30 minute mating frequency. Neither Andy or I recognised this male, he looked to be only around 6 years old and the female a little younger at around 5.
We sat with them for a little under 4 hours and then felt it was appropriate to give them some privacy as the evening cooled. Not too far from the lions we ambled along a lugga to the look out for any additional lions. We soon came across 2 other cars, of which the occupants were contorting their bodies at angles that were pretty impressive. We enquired as to why they were practically doing yoga in the vehicle and soon found out the reason why......a Leopard, somewhere in the bush! 
Those of you familar with this blog will know that Leopards in the Mara Triangle are extremely shy, much more so than across the Narok area of the river. So any Leopard in the Triangle is worth staking out. However, sadly these vehicles decided patience was not an option and raced around the lugga to try and get a look. Andy and I stayed put, and although we could not see the leopard we felt that moving the vehicle every two minutes was not going to be conducive to encouraging the Leopard to be calm, so we pulled right back and watched the circus as the other vehicles sped about. If the Leopard was not happy he had space our side to make an exit and thats what we hoped for. The Leopard then darted up the tree and gave us a nice view just for a few moments. The incessant chatter from the other vehicle did not abate, the Leopard was non to impressed and sure as ‘eggs are eggs’ the Leopard decided it wanted some peace and rather conveniently jumped down the tree our side and as expected out over the lugga on our side. We barely got a chance to shoot any images but its always so awesome to see a Leopard.  We decided not to follow it, he was a big male, very shy and clearly did not want to be bothered so we left him be. 
Just as we thought seeing a Leopard was impressive this morning gave us something that was just plain crazy! Leaving as we do at first light we travelled slowly along by Mgoro lugga when Andy all of a sudden spots a Hippo running to the water. This is nothing unusual in itself and at first light its common to see them getting back to their comfort ground of the water. However, there was something about this Hippo running that was rather more frantic than normal and then we saw was being chased by a Hyena! The Hippo was none to impressed as the cheeky Hyena was hot on its heels. Then they both stopped on the road and what ensued was probably one of the strangest things we have probably seen so far. The Hyena seemed to have desires that were not entirely innocent as it began circling the Hippo and a stand off took place. This went on for many minutes and fortunately I managed to video some of the scene (attached). A few minutes later another 3 Hyenas turned up and made attempts to again surround the Hippo, could they really be trying to hunt a Hippo?... the way in which they were encircling the creature seemed very much as if they were trying to wear it down and although not captured on the video at one point one of the Hyenas tried to latch on to the Hippos tail. The Hippo soon managed to escape, but just as he belted to the water suddenly Andy shouts ‘Leopard’....The Hippo jumping back into the water had obviously spooked a female Leopard and she darted in a flash along the river bank and back into the Croton thicket as quick as she had appeared. Sadly no photos or video of this but this morning is now imprinted on our brains as one of the best (and in a strange way most comical) sightings of this trip!! 
Back to now....The good news is we have FINALLY found our 4 Mgoro pride females together with some of the 13 month old cubs. The bad news is that only 4 cubs now remain (of the original 9) and have now moments ago just had confirmation through a reliable contact that not just one cub was killed a few weeks back but sadly 5 in total. We are really saddened to hear this news (although deep down I think we were both expecting to hear this given we have tried so hard to find them). At least some are still surviving, but we are deeply concerned for the one remaining young male cub left. ‘Killer Bogey’ and ‘Little Bogey’ are in the group we are sitting with now and what’s really interesting is one of the distinct marks below their noses (and why they have their names!) is also evident on one of the cubs, this confirms our original thoughts that the marks on the females are a hereditary trait. This little one has now been rather unimaginatively named ‘Baby Bogey’ and will later be recognised in life by the fact that the birth mark is on the opposite side of the nose to the other ‘bogeys’. Andy and I just hope that the 4 strong male coalition does not return and that Notch & sons do! 
It pains us to say we have only a very short of time left in the bush so its going to be time soon to say goodbye again to the Mara. We decided against going on a ‘lion hunt’ for Notch the other side of the river, one day we are going to have to break ties with our favourite lion and this is a way in which to make that a little easier, even though deep down we are both terribly sad not to have seen him. 
Thats it for today and we hope you enjoy the video of the gutsy Hyena, sorry for the poor quality but internet speeds in the bush are a tad limited!

Happy New Year to all

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Solitude in the bush....

So finally I (Sarah) have started to improve from feeling pretty terrible in the last few days and have managed to get out most of the time and enjoy some nice game viewing. Sadly, whatever virus I managed to acquire has now passed to Andy (and embarrassingly so onto a few of our friends in the Mara - I am REALLY sorry guys!) Fortunately its not stopped us game viewing too much and we have both battled through.

We have still yet to find the Mgoro cubs, which is all very odd and suggests they may still be split or just choosing to be hidden and Mzee Notch & Co are still yet to revisit the pride. Bogie and the girls are certainly capable of looking after themselves but a bit of territory affirmation from the boys would not go a miss!! 

We found 'Killer Bogie' alone yesterday morning and looking somewhat shattered and with a few superficial wounds on her back, but no sign of the other females or indeed the cubs.  We later heard that a dead Hyena was found nearby and given 'KB's' exhausted state later wandered if she was possibly involved in an interaction between the two species which resulted in not such a positive outcome for the Hyena.

Later that afternoon we again found the two cheetahs, laid out resting in the long grass. As other vehicles at the sighting left the female soon turned to hunting mode and roamed through the grass looking for an opportune scrub hare or hopefully something larger on the horizon that may give them a hearty meal. However, in the time in which we with them before the sun disappeared behind thick clouds and night fell they had no luck and so they looked to bed down for the night.

On returning to the lodge (where we had extended the stay due to Andy becoming sick) the rain pelted down with ferocity and the thunder felt like it was shaking the ground beneath. Andy soon tumbled down a metaphoric hill and turned into a walking, talking 'Lemsip advert. At this point it clearly become apparent that he was not going to be making a 5.30am start for the next day and the best place for him to be was the comfort of the huge bed. We agreed that it was pointless for me to also be holed up in the lodge for the morning so permission granted for Mrs Skinner to take the landy keys and the cameras and set off on my own in the morning, happy days!

Waking early the next morning I was looking forward to the drive, whilst its lovely to both go out together its also really nice to have some quality 1:1 bush time so off I went at 6am. I decided again to look for the Cheetah pair and started where I had left the night before. There were no other cars on the tracks around, something thats always a special treat! Only 20-30 minutes after leaving the lodge I was rewarded with making the right decision and found the cheetahs in tall grass not too far from the previous 12 hours. The male still followed the female with intent, stopping to sniff where she had sat and then flehmen. She led the way, it was obvious again that she wanted to hunt and would turn and glance at the male as if to say "Are you still here?". She moved from termite mound to termite mound and then they both peacefully and totally relaxed walked closely past the Land Rover. I could see they were headed to higher ground so I decided I would wait until they were well away from the vehicle to start the engine and move far ahead of where I felt they would go. Just as I could see they were 100metres or so away and behind me I went to reposition. Before I could even have the chance to move (or grab the camera!) suddenly an Oribi darted out of the thicket, suprising the cheetah as much as I. With lightening fast reactions an impressive chase ensued and almost out of sight. Into the long grass they ran and then it was clear, they had been successful. I watched out of the hatch as the Oribi was dispatched and decided that despite my current poor position for photography to just sit and watch. Any movement  from me in starting the engine, even at this distance could spook the cheetah. This was one of the moments when putting the animals first is absolutely critical. I sat feeling content, happy knowing that: 1) I was still alone and no-one else had managed to find me or the Cheetahs and 2) they had acquired a good meal. 

However, point number 2 was short lived. Just minutes after they had successfully suffocated the animal a male Hyena appears on the horizon, it must have actually seen the chase given that the Oribi had let out no cries at all at the point of its capture. The Cheetahs knew they would be unsuccessful in any effort to ward the hyena off. As it loped toward the kill they reluctantly moved away a few metres to where they sat and watched the Hyena enjoy their spoils. Its always hard to see such a fragile animal work so hard in an effort to provide food for itself but its natures way, and I can never illicit any bad feelings toward the Hyena even though yes it was a shame to see them lose their kill.

With a few minutes to continue gaining their composure and breathe back after the chase they moved further away and it was soon clear the female wanted to move to another area to rest and then inevitably try to hunt again. At this point I felt it right to leave them to it. Whilst the light was golden and the morning still crisp it was the Cheetahs that needed their space and thats exactly what I wanted to give them. Off I trundled, feeling happy that I had such a special time alone with these guys. 

Before returning to recite my  morning exploits to Andy I took another drive around to again look for the Mgoro cubs but sadly no news to report here.......

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Festive season in the Mara

After wandering if we would ever actually make it to Kenya due to the problematic weather conditions in the UK I am now happy to say we are back ‘reporting’ from a lovely hot and sunny Kenya. Its fairly dry here with some afternoon rains, certainly a vast difference to the sub zero temperatures that we have just left!
Whilst we have experienced the Mara many times at different times of the year it still never  ceases to amaze us how desolate the Mara can look after migration season. Whilst we saw a few resident wildebeest herds whilst driving all that remains of the ‘wildie’ herds in the Mara Triangle is a handful of yearlings who have formed a small group on their own as their mothers likely perished in the frantic and chaotic crossings that we blogged about on our last trip in September. 
Unfortunately within 12 hours of arriving in the Mara I (Sarah) was struck down by an onset of a fever and cold/flue like symptoms which soon made camping not such a pleasant experience so after two nights camping in the bush we were forced to break a ‘Skinner tradition’ and check into a lodge and unbelievably for the first time ever whilst in Africa we got up after 7am one morning! Although temporarily in lodge accommodation it certainly does not limit our exposure to the wildlife (which camping gives us 24/7) as when we returned back to our room earlier we had a beautiful female bushbuck standing just a few feet from our room and them only 30 minutes later a Leopard rasped close by.  A night or two in the lodge to shift the bugs (that I probably acquired on the flight over!) and then it will be back to camping for us. 
So in the first 36 hours we bumbled around to get a feel for where the game and predators were hanging out.  Of course one of our priorities was to check on the Mgoro pride, especially since there have been significant issues due to reports of intruding males coming in to try and kill the cubs a few weeks back. On the first afternoon we found some of them, but it was not quite the happy family scene we had left in September. We found 7 of them in a fairly inaccessible part of the Mara Triangle. 4 lionesses and 3 cubs were walking with purpose, but very edgy and the lionesses sporting some minor wounds on their flanks and spinal area. Given the cubs are now around 13 months we were not overly concerned that some of them may be on their own and indeed as the game is sparse and thus the food source more limited prides will often temporarily split to ensure food is shared by less individuals. What was clear that the recent events had left the pride volatile and edgy and in some ways ‘displaced’ within in their own territory. Sadly we did hear that just over a week ago on December 18th one of the 9 cubs (a male) was killed by one of the intruding males and its likely the lionesses had sustained their injuries in trying to ward of the males. We are hoping that the remaining cubs we have not yet seen are safe and just keeping a low profile. It may even have been the case that the missing cubs were hidden from view or this was where the 7 we found were heading to. 
We found the Mgoro girls earlier again today (Including or favorite girl ‘Killer Bogie’ - a huge relief and contrary to reports we had heard earlier that she too had been killed). This time the girls were minus any cubs at all, again its possible they were close by. 
Notch and sons are still over on the Narok side of the Mara and we believe have been absent in the Mara Triangle for some time. We are really hoping they get back to the Mgoro pride soon (one of their many prides!) to reaffirm this part of their territory again and thus warding off any further attempts by the other intruding males. Whilst its natural for pride take overs to happen we are so desperate to see the Mgoro pride raise cubs to an age which will ensure their survival and allow the current males to sire at least one generation before the next males come in (something we have not yet seen for them in three years of following this pride) Every day that goes by with the absence of pride males leaves the Mgoro pride extremely vulnerable and in danger of another attempt by the intruding males to try and take over the pride. 
On a happier note we have found the Oloololo pride doing very well. The resident male looks healthy and well recovered from his ‘close call’ with the Notch sons back in September. Two of the females have some very cute cubs, three of them very young at around 3-4 weeks old and 4 others who are a little older at around 6-8 weeks old. The younger ones still being denned.
It’s been quite an improvement on the cheetah front since our visit in September with many more around. The mother with 3 cubs (2 males - one of which has a broken tail and 1 female) are still doing well and of an age now that it may not be too long now until they seek independence. We had a lovely sighting with them as they tried to hunt but sadly failed. Later we heard they had taken an Impala, a relief as they had somewhat concave stomachs and in serious need of nourishment.
Whilst taking a drive toward to Tanzanian border we also came across an old male cheetah with a full stomach and resting happily with a great vantage point over the plains. Shortly after we spent some time with some cool fluffy Hyena pups, ‘sacked out’ at the den with the mother and watched as they interacted with some returning members of the clan.
As I write this post we are also rather excited to report that we are sitting right now with what looks to be a mating pair of adult Cheetahs. We have not yet witnessed the ‘act’ itself yet and its unlikely that we would be that lucky,  but so far they are exhibiting every behaviour associated with mating cheetahs, including all the vocal communication and even trying to  hunt together, this is a first for Andy and I. 
So as I sum up for the last few days it proves to you can come back to the same place time and time again (nearly 20 times now!) but always, and yes I mean ALWAYS see something you have never seen before. In fact I would  go so far as to say that every day you see something new. In fact today has provided two examples of this, whilst game driving early this morning we happened to see a Hamerkop dive from the sky and grab a large frog from a puddle formed from last nights rains and then fly of with legs dangling from its beak. There is always something in the Mara and indeed Africa as a whole, be it large or small that makes us go “wow.....never seen that before!” and I dare say when we are old and grey I hope we will still be saying the same thing!