Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Bizarre twist of fate!

We had a fairly quiet day 'cat wise' on Sunday, but nevertheless its still lovely to be driving around and taking in the surroundings, and there is always plenty of other game to enjoy. Sometimes just siting by the river and relaxing is just the tonic!  The quest to find 'our' Mgoro females continued with no luck, but we did come across one of the '4km males' (those that are now associated with the Mgoro girls) under a tree in a deep sleep and we heard some females had been sighted earlier in the day. The male barely moved an inch in the hour or so we were with him, and with a nice full stomach and shade who would in those circumstances! Shortly after we came across two females, one around 7+ years and another no more than 4 years. They were not ones we 'recognised' instantly, the older female was big and bulky and she looked like a real powerhouse of a lioness.

We decided that on Monday we would move over to the North side of the Mara River, after all no trip to the Mara is ever complete without finding a certain male lion, we all know that we are talking about Notch!

However, first we spent Monday morning on another 'Mgoro mission' and game viewing on the south side of the river by 9am we decided we should 'mobilise' for our trip over the river. As we are headed along the main road near Serena Airstrip to get water and fuel before starting the 2 hour journey we were suddenly stopped literally dead in our tracks by the loud roar right by the vehicle, when we say right by the vehicle we make no exaggeration and it was exactly at the moment was passed.  Instantly we knew it was a female lioness, but where on earth was she, close that was for sure. Then suddenly just 3 feet from the road we saw the top of a lioness head pop up from the long long grass. We were totally aghast as to how hidden she was, whilst she was so close to the road the grass was so high making her invisible.

We could only see ears so could not ID the lion, was it Killer Bogey (KB) or one of the other members of the Mgoro pride?  After just a few seconds she flopped down and then again disappeared into the grass. It was amazing as to how close she was but you could not see her, not even a tiny faction of skin or tail. Guides stopped to ask what we were looking at and as we explained but they to could not see her at all. Driving off from where the lioness was Andy and I were convinced they did not believe us when we said there was a lion there! We sat patiently for some time waiting to see if we could get a better look. Then again she moved but that was revealed was a belly, this was not helping! Moments later we suddenly saw more movement, there was 2 lionesses! Quite something to see how one such a large creature can just disappear, let alone two, but as the grass was around 3foot+ in this area so it was hardly surprising. Time pressed on and we knew we had to get water, on the way back we would pop by again in case they had moved.

Returning back they had not moved as hoped, the occasional flick of a tail was all we got to know they were still there. That was until the bush plane from Nairobi came over! Startled by the noise of the low flying plane suddenly the two lionesses were rudely awoken from their slumber and leaped out of the grass and onto the road. At this point in unison Andy and I both excitedly proclaimed "its Killer Bogey'!. Yep, that's right we had found her and one of the other members of the Mgoro pride. Had it not been for the load roar and the plane overhead we would have been none the wiser. Ok, yes its coincidence but even still quite amusing!. Sadly we have no photos of her as she then retreated back to the grass fast, but we had seen her so that was good to see she was doing well. Hopefully when we go back over we will see them again.

The bizarre twist of fate continued on the next leg of our journey.... 'finding Notch'. Just an hour into the journey to the North side we came across 2 female elephants and their older calves. Always being cautious of elephants and especially mothers and calves we stopped around 125feet away, they knew we were there so we decided to sit quietly sat with the engine off and watched as their posture was relaxed.

They started to very slowly move along away from the road and we decided a little after to slowly move forward to pass. We had not even moved 5 feet at snail pace that without any warning one the larger of the two females suddenly bolted full speed at us, this was no mock charge and we were given no warning at all so the moral of the story is don't always think you will get a warning! Andy had no option but to slam into reverse as we watched this elephant run toward us, at this point we could see she was secreting fluid out of her temporal glands on the side of her head. She was not happy about something as this is often a sign of stress (caused by many things) and us turning up was obviously for some reason been'the straw that broke the camels back'!  To say the adrenalin was pumping is a pretty accurate description! She closed the gap slightly as she did not relent toward us, but as we had already some distance away she never got too close, this was lucky we had not decided to get too close and retain a healthy respect and distance. We were lucky in that we were on a nice bit of even and dry track so made it easy to reverse.  After running for around 150 metres she finally stopped. Without panic we then had the opportunity to turn the vehicle around and face the direction of travel in as calm manner as possible and take a different route. However, she decided that even though by now we were a considerable distance away and still moving away from her she was going to start running again after us! We drove slowly knowing at this point we had no need to panic, she continued to run for again another 150 metres. What had upset her was a mystery and the first time we had experienced this. We have come across elephants before who are a little 'stroppy or sensitive' but knowing the signs we have always avoided any issues, but this girl gave us no warning!

So, after this little episode we continued to re-route on another track, it would still get us to where we needed to be eventually, just a slightly different way. The mystery of what had upset the elephant then became a little clearer when we soon came across a large bull elephant nearby, stomping around the plains, testosterone filled. Perhaps this guy had been upsetting the herd and was why she was easily agitated, one possible theory!.? Or perhaps she had just awoken the wrong side of the 'bed' or decided she did not like green Land Rovers!

So here comes the second 'twist of fate'......continuing the journey we then saw up ahead a lone acacia which clearly had some feline inhabitants underneath. It was indeed lions, two, a male and a female. As we approached closer it took only moments until we both proclaimed "its Notch". Yes, indeed this was the old Mzee himself and in an area we had actually not expected to find him.  He was some distance away but enough to see his familiar face, he looked well fed (having heard that he and his boys had been feeding on Hippo just days before). I hate to say this but now he looked old now and not quite as good as he had done in February when we last saw him. You could see this in his face and his skin condition was changing and certainly showing his age.

As reported recently we also saw for ourselves that Notch has lost a lower canine. Even still  there was still plenty of strength there so we are not writing Notch off yet by any means, he has been like a Duracell battery so far so long live Mzee Notch! Soon he will be feeding on a glut of wildebeest, that will keep him going for sure. The female he was with also looked a little battered with a large older injury to half of her face and was having some issues with her eye as it streamed and barely opened. They really looked a right pair of bruisers! So we have to say thank you to the elephant for having charged us, without this we would have taken a different track and totally missed where the big guy was. Sadly he sat up for only moments and not long enough to get any great images but there was fine with us as it was good to see the old guy again. We decided that after lunch we would return as he was not going to be moving anywhere that was for sure and we knew that his 'bodyguard' (Grimace/Bob) and the other boys could be near by.

Headed back a few hours later he was in the same spot, having moved about 12 inches! They were still flat out and looked almost comotose! Leaving him we headed off to look for the others, just a couple of KM away we came across another familar face, it was Grimace (Bob).  He lay on the open plain with another female and as we cast our eyes around we could see they were not too far from the remains of the hippo that had been their substiance for the last few days but now teemed with three different species of vulture all fighting over the best morsels of meat left over. Grimace was also not 'playing ball' for the cameras but we managed to get a couple of shots but nothing that would make it to the website I doubt!. Enough to see that he has now also lost an upper canine, probably embedded in a hippo somewhere!

So now it was off to try and find the three other boys. We spoke to a guide who mentioned he thought they had been seen a couple of kilometres away so off we went. We soon approached the area and saw three cars under a tree, this meant two things, lions or given the area a cheetah. The flick of a tawny tail with a black tuft gave it away as we moved closer, and then two tails and then three. So we knew we had lions and we knew it was likely the boys. The grass was again long (and in this instance frustratingly long!) so we saw the odd head pop up quickly and then flop back down. It was enough to see that it was the Notch sons (Including the tell tell dark maned 'Notch II') It was incredible to see (albeit briefly as they re-adjusted their position) that they really did look like Notch in his younger days but now even bigger than dad for sure. This had been a great day so far, but in terms of photography was not great given the long grass but we had set a mission to find Notch and his boys and we had succeeded so no complaints there, sometimes that is just the way it happens on a trip. Given the light was rather dull anyway it was hardly an issue and we are happy just to see these handsome and rather 'famous' lions and to see how they have grown up in the years we have followed them.

As our day came to an end our last twist of fate ends with Cheetahs. Saying goodnight to the boys it was time to head back to camp (having still not moved!)We had made plans for a particular site but for a few reasons we had to make some last minute changes late that day as to where we would stay which was fine. In Africa we 'make a plan' day by day so this was not an issue at all. As we headed to the different site the sun had almost gone and a dark light prevailed. We made out vehicles in the distance, the way we were headed. As we came nearer and in front of the cars we suddently saw two cheetahs running, then three, then four, then five, then six and then SEVEN!!!! It was 'Shingo' and her six cubs, and it seemed almost unreal to see so many Cheetahs together, let alone for a mother to have raised all her cubs to such an age. (I am not sure of their exact age but they looked around 12-15 months old). It was our first time to see these cats in the flesh. They all looked in great condition and well fed, this really was some sight. We backed off as they were obviously chasing something which the cars masked for a few moments, until we saw they had taken down a 'Tommie' fawn. The cheetahs then instantly huddled around the kill and it was dispatched quickly, each one of the cheetahs getting their own piece of dinner.  The cameras were away! (given the fact we were about the exit the park and it was getting dark) but out in enough time to boost up the 'ISO' and try and get at least something to remind us of the fact we had just seen 7 cheetahs. Well done mum, you are a clever girl!

And so that ends our day that was brimming with either many coincidences or a bizarre twist of fate. We had caught up with old and new feline friends so we were pretty happy that night as you can imagine. Welcome to the Masai Mara and all is wonderous glory (except for the bad light and rain!!)

Grimace (A.K.A Bob)


Sunday, 26 June 2011

Storms of Africa

There are many things about Africa, other than the amazing wildlife that we are always in awe of no matter how many times we visit. The skies always seems 'bigger', the stars brighter (no light pollution!) and the storms more dramatic and impressive to those experienced in the UK.

Due to the relative 'proximity' of Lake Victoria in Tanzania and the high Siria Escarpement on the Western edge of the Mara there is always plenty of interesting weather and cloud formations to experience here in Kenya's Masai Mara. This trip being no exception!. So far nature has treated us to some quite spectacular night shows from our campsite and on our afternoon drives so far. Its true that rain and camping really do not mix and it can be particularly unpleasant!. However, the 'inconvenience of rain' is far outweighed by all the other reasons of why we love to camp (when its dry!)  and there is nothing more impressive than an African storm. On both our first and second evening here we have seen some quite 'brutal' weather, the first night was incredible. I can only describe it as saying that you could literally see the build up of pressure in the clouds that were super changed up with energy. Lightning was coming from all directions, vertical, horizontal and hitting the ground on multiple occasions with a load crack not too far from our campsite. The thunder was almost deafening and together with hail meant it was impossible to hear or see anything. Watching the animals behaviour change and as the impending weather approached late in the afternoon was quite something. The wind spiralled in different directions as the gazelles pronked, and the Topi and Eland ran around in what can only be described as a state of confusion/excitement In the same area some cute Hyena cubs played around their den in a frisky manner. 

The next morning after the first storm we found what looked like a perfectly healthy impala, dead, with no signs of predation lying on top of a mound. In the same area that bore the brunt of the fierce lightning. Could he have been a victim of a lightening strike? like many other animals fall victim to in Africa? As we write this again on Day 3, we can see more ominous storm clouds moving in again, another wet afternoon approaches! One thing is for sure is that if the rains and thunder continue this will certainly get the wildebeest moving from Tanzania (depending of course what the weather is doing there).

On to the game update......the grass is long here in the Mara, as you would expect at this time of year and it feels like the 'lull before the storm' before soon the pounding hooves of the Zebra and Wildebeest etc will arrive for the Mara leg of the 'Great Migration'. There is very little plains game around on the side of the Mara we are on at present, aside from a handful of resident Zebra herds, There are reasonable numbers of Topi, Grants and Thomson Gazelle, Impala that are occupying some areas of the plains, but in large there is a vast expanse of empty plains with Red Oat grass that is up to 6 feet tall! 

The first 24 hours in the Mara were busy with some nice cat sightings, not ones where we were able to get any good images but still its not always 'about the shot'. Within minutes of entering the Mara we came across 3 males lions, around 4-5 years old and not too far as the crow flies from the Musiara Marsh area. Along with two other females they were mating. We think its quite possible that these handsome guys were the same males that have recently left the Marsh pride. Just fifteen minutes later and some 50-75 metres from the track we saw the remains of what looked like an impala dangling eerily from the branch of a tree. This meant only one thing.....Leopard!. We scanned wardering if he or she was nearby. It was in an area that was closed to any off road driving and in this instance there was not a track nearby so we looked hard through the binoculars. There was definitely no leopard in that tree, as we scanned we were alerted to another tree, even further away, another 100 metres or so behind the first. There it was, what we could just about make out to be a male Leopard, simply awesome to see!. Reaching for the cameras we stopped and decided it was a little pointless given the distance so we sat and gazed as he made himself comfy with a huge rotund and full stomach! I have attached an image below taken with a 'point and shoot' camera, can you spot him!? Normally we would have waited for him to come down, as inevitably he would as the afternoon cooled, but having just driven 6 hours from Nairobi, the distance away and the unlikely event that he would come onto the plains rather than back toward the Mara river we decided it was probably not the best course of action to wait. 

Only another 20 minutes later and not too far from the Migration crossing points opposite Paradise Plains we then came across another male lion, this looked to be 'Male 1' (we really must give this guy an identity!) from our Feb trip. 

Our Leopard luck continued into the evening with another Leopard sighting, just perched high up on a rock at the base of the tree line on a large hill south of the Mara river. This guy was HUGE and looked quite a mature Leopard, again it was way too far to get any decent images for the website but we took a couple of shots. Its always hard to see Leopards in the Mara Triangle but 2 in one day, amazing!!! 

Having followed the Mgoro pride of 5 females for some time now we are always keen to relocate them when we return. When we left them in February they had two remaining cubs (from the nine that they had in Sept 2010) and the females were mating with the new males. We had heard that shortly after we left in February one more cub was killed by the new males so we knew by now we were probably back to looking for just the females now. So far in the three days we have been here we have neither seen or heard them in their normal area, hunting high and low no sign at all, including no evidence of any pug marks, old kills or other tell tale signs. We still have some areas to cover but so far no sign, there are around for sure somewhere we are sure.  This is not unusual either as they would often go 'missing' for  a few days at a time and their territory is a big area with many places to hide and the grass long right now.  Their biggest issue is that within their usual territory there is literally no game so its quite likely they have become a little more transient and have had to expand their area in search of food. This would also explain why at night we are hearing very few lions, far less than 'normal'. A lion/group of lions that is forced to cross into the area of another lion pride does certainly not want to advertise its presence and when the prey is sparse we have seen that lions in the Triangle seem to affirm their territory far less than in times such as the Migration period when they are fiercely protecting their abundant food source by the Mara river against any lions that may 'follow' the migration..."My Land"! Also given some of the Mgoro lions  were mating on our last trip (110 day day gestation period) its also very possible they some of them are either denning cubs or shortly due to give birth, another reason why we or no-one else has seem them for a little while now. Its still only day 3 so we may be lucky and find them.

No sign so far either of the Serena/Paradise pride, they often cross the river so it is likely they are either in an area that is not accessible by track or as they often do may have crossed the River to the North side of the Mara river. So aside from the males and females that we encountered on entering the gate to the Mara Triangle it is quite sparse on the lion front at present in this particular area. One thing is for sure is that being back in Kenya is making for a happy Mr and Mrs Skinner indeed.

Can you spot the Leopard!

Storm Clouds forming