Friday, 8 July 2011

Canada: The next trip ahead!

Normally in August/September Andy and I embark on our usual trip to see the `wildebeest migration in Kenya. This year things have changed! As much as it 'pains' us to say it this year the 'wildies' will have to carry on without the Skinners! Thats right, this September we are off to Canada! 

Masai Mara, I promise we WILL be back soon, just not for a little while. Let the crowds ease first. We have another migration in mind for now........

So, we have talked of going to photograph bears for about 4 years now and every year we could not help but go to the Mara "Oh just one more migration"!  This year it just seemed the right time, enough talk lets just get on with it. Now its booked we cant wait! (Although admittedly now the house refurbs will be a little more delayed now, oh well, it will have to wait! )

The trip will involve 3 locations around British Columbia in Western Canada, to hopefully view Grizzly and Black Bears feeding along the rivers as well as seeing Canada's other endemic wildlife, including Orca and Humpback Whales and Bald Eagles.

In short our self drive itinerary looks like this: Start from Vancouver, by car/ferry to Vancouver Island, visiting Tofino, Port McNeil, and Campbell River over the course of 8 days. Focusing on Bears, Whales and Eagles. Travelling back on to the mainland we head on the long drive to Bella Coola for another 5 days, where we hope to see bears fishing in the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir National Park during the annual salmon migration before heading back to Vancouver and home. 

You see a migration had to come into our trips somewhere. A September without migration, nope, I don't think so!

Unlike the Skinners normal accommodation style 'ala' roof tent we are staying in small local B&Bs, and self catering wilderness cabins. We may even take the night remote camera, bears around the cabin, now that would be something! 

See the 'black dots' on the maps below for our planned destinations for Sept 2011

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The excitement always continues after dark!

One thing about camping is you are immersed in the bush 24/7, this means sharing your space with its regular inhabitants and accepting that you often get curious visitors into camp, its all part of the fun for sure! To capture what's going on while we sleep (and in the case of this Bull Elephant while we were trying to cook up dinner!!) we always put up one or two remote cameras and get really excited every morning about what may have passed by. Attached below is the best of our June 2011 trip, creatures both large and small!

"lesser Spotted Sarah'

Spotted Hyena

 Scrub Hare

The last few days of our African Adventure....

It was now time for us to head back over the the South side of the Mara, to the Mara Triangle. We were still keen to get a view on what was happening with the Mgoro females as after all we had only so far found 2 of the 4 females (originally 5 but we fear that the 5th possibly perished defending the cubs when the new 4km males appeared a few months back)  
Before we left we spent a little more time with Shingo and cubs. During which one of the cubs decided to rather cheekily and intentionally approach our vehicle, stretching up on the bonnet and then moving around the back of the vehicle to chew on our back tyre! As more cars arrived we decided to leave the cheetahs. After all they had hunting school to continue and the less vehicles the better. We had another brief amble along the Olare Orok River and again came across Nkayioni. Once again we were alone as many of the game viewing vehicles had headed to Shingo and Co. We soon found him again, enjoying the morning sun in the long grass. He remained relaxed and sleepy for around 15-20 minutes, occasionally glancing around and shifting his position. By now the sun was increasing in intensity and it was not long until he retreated back into the vegetation and this signaled our time to head over the Talek and Mara river and back to the Mara Triangle.
Once back in the Triangle we again caught up with some of the 4km males and much to our delight we found KB (Killer Bogey) with her daughter, Junior Bogey (ok, so no bonus marks there for original names!). So now we had accounted for 3 of the Mugoro females now. We still wanted to hopefully leave having found the 4th. 
On the last afternoon Andy was left to his own devices as I went out on evening ‘obs’ with our friends. the Hyena researchers. Three adorable cute Hyena cubs popped their heads out of one of the study dens and I was lucky to see them suckle, revealing vital information to Dave and his student researchers that confirmed this particular mother had 2 cubs and not just one. As darkness fell it was quite a sight to see so much activity around the den. Whilst we concentrate a lot of our efforts on the lions. understanding the pride structures/compiling ID charts etc it was really interesting to view so much behavior, quite a contrast to spending time with lions! I have to admit that ‘Hyenas rock’ and I will happily debate this subject with anyone who disagrees!
It was the last morning and our last opportunity to find the 4th Mugoro female. As we started to ‘wrap up’ and think about heading back to Nairobi we were distracted by some movement coming from the long grass near the ‘4km sign’ toward Serena. One lioness pops out, then 2, then 3 and then 4. How is that for last minute luck! We confirmed it was KB, Junior Bogey and the other two remaining Mugoro lionesses. They ambled along the road for a few hundred metres before taking a right turn and into a low lying area below the airstrip which they seem to love. This put the final piece of the puzzle back together and we had now taken the ‘register’ for our females. Happy days! Now we could travel back to Nairobi having caught up with many familiar faces from the Mara and having spent a great time with our good friends across the Mara (of the two legged variety!)

Curious Shingo Cub

Tasty Tyre

Killer Bogey (KB) and her daughter 'Junior Bogey. Must have been a good night!

Spots before our eyes!

The evening before we were due to leave back to the North side of the Mara we were keen to try and find Shingo and her 6 cubs again.  Fortunately it did not take too long to find them but unfortunately they were still in an area that was really not the best place for them to be. They were just a few kilometres from Talek town and hemmed in between some of the Olkiombo lions and the area where cattle have been coming into the reserve to graze at night. They had moved a little further into the reserve which was good but we still hoped soon they would move away from where they were as it was really not ideal cheetah territory. Overnight many more Zebras had appeared (Loita Herds) so the plains above Fig Tree Lodge was now dotted with many more plains game and probably one reason that the some of the Olkiombo lions had suddenly reappeared and crossed back from the North side of the river.
It was again cloudy and relatively cool so they were fairly active and ‘played’ around a lugga,  inaccessible to cars, (with Cheetahs we cant help feeling this is usually a good thing as not all drivers/guides have ‘ethics’ when it comes to approaching animals!) While watching them we saw them trying to catch a scrub hare, but with no luck, all the same it was good hunting practice for the cubs. 

It was not long until all of a sudden we saw the cubs dart across the plains on a mission that was a little more serious, with Shingo in tow at the end of the long line of cheetah.  She was clearly trying to get them to take more control and learn vital hunting skills that will be crucial for their survival. By now there were a few more vehicles present and everyone was agasp as they moved with lightening speed after a tiny Impala fawn that had suddenly appeared with its mother from over the brow of the hill. 
They carried on, slowing a little, then up and over the hill, weaving across the uneven ground that was heavily populated with Croton thickets. Zebras darted away as the Cheetahs were on a mission. We all soon lost sight of the cheetahs so we moved to then find them still chasing on the other side of the hill, having by now moved a serious distance. They must have now chased for at least 1.5km from where they had started. Incredible for an animal that can run fast but not for prolonged distances. Although not running at full speed due to the terrain and distance you could see the cheetahs and indeed the fawn were starting to tire as they weaved around the bushes still, neither the cubs or fawn relenting.
Then they all stopped abruptly as they successfully cornered the fawn, it now found itself in the middle of 7 Cheetahs. The cubs clearly lacked the experience or confidence to finish what they had started. As the fawn stood in the group of cheetahs some of the cubs ‘playfully’ nibbled at the the Fawns neck as it stood there. They had their quarry, now what to do? Shingo still refused to intervene. It was a surreal moment and had the light not been fading fast and the cloud increasing it would have been one of those awesome photographic moments! Although we still managed to take a few shots. Given the fawn was so far away from its mother we now hoped that the Cheetahs would now dispatch the fawn quickly, after all it would now not survive, even if it got away from the young spotty gang. It would also be good to see the cheetahs get much needed nourishment after so much energy had been expounded. 
The fawn took advantage of the Cheetahs in-decsion and inexperience and darted off again, until again it was cornered near another bush. However, the chase and occaisonal bleats of the fawn had alerted two Spotted Hyenas who without hesitation moved in to the scene to see what was ‘up for grabs’. At this point the Cheetahs, including Shingo then rushed away, suddenly the fawn was no longer the priority as the Hyena approached. The fawn, by this point was hiding in a tiny thicket. No one so far had managed to catch the fawn. 
For a few moments the cubs, with bristled fur and defensive posture stood facing the Hyena. Shingo carefully but confidently moved them away, but still only 20 metres or so from the Fawn, they had unfinished business. With that the Hyena seemingly went out of sight of the Cheetah and the vehicles.
When it seemed that the Hyena had relentented Shingo and cubs gingerly went back toward the bush they had left the fawn .By now everyone just wanted it to end, the Cheetahs needed food, the fawn was not going to survive, so best for all that it ended sooner rather than later. Within moments of them approaching the bush the Hyena suddenly appeared again. Except this time in a flash it grabbed the fawn and ran off away from the Cheetah, darting past our vehicle in the process. So the suffering ended for the fawn but the cheetahs faced an night without food. Clearly there is more work to be done for the Cheetahs to home their hunting skills.
By this point is was not far from getting dark so the Cheetahs moved away from the area with some purpose, they could hear the bells of the cattle arriving so they needed to find somewhere safe to ‘bed’ for the night. Another failed hunt for the Cheetah, but in the process another valuable hunting lesson.
We left the Cheetah and went to see the Hyena that had captured the fawn, within what seemed seconds the Fawn was ‘gone’. It was fascinating to watch how quickly it had devoured the fawn. It was indeed a real shame that having worked so hard Shingo and Co were left hungry again. However, the fawn had not 'perished in vain' and had at least given the Hyena a good feed, even if he did not have to work too hard on this occasion. It’s often seen that the Hyena are the ‘bad guys’  (We blame the ‘Lion King’!) but it really is unfair title to bestow on them, even if during this sighting it seemed so unfortunate that the Cheetah lost their meal to a Hyena. 

So sadly tonight was not the night for a successful hunt for Shingo and Co, but it was a truly amazing sighting and one that neither of us will forget! Fingers crossed that tomorrow brings a better day for them all  and that they get some decent nourishment and manage to move to a more suitable area. 

Nkayioni, we meet again

The morning after spending the afternoon with Notch (28th June) we decided to dedicate some time to ‘Operation Leopard’ and to hopefully catch up with some more familiar ‘faces’. We decided that we would take the opportunity and look for Olive and her most recent cub and/or perhaps even Paja or Nkayioni, both around 2 years old and Olives previous set of offspring. Whilst we did not want to just concentrate our Leopard ‘efforts’ on this trip to just finding Olive et al (after all there of course MANY other Leopards in the Mara and not just the known ‘personalities’!) we decided that as most of them had been seen recently it was a good place to start and we wanted to catch up with her and her offspring at some point during our time on the North side of the river. 
We make it sound as if finding Leopards is easy, it's most definitely not!, you often have to ‘do the time’ before you have any success. We knew that if we concentrated our efforts in prime/typical Leopard habitat, ‘thought’ like a Leopard and stuck to the area that they were all last seen we would increase our chances! It’s true also that sometimes you can also just ‘get lucky’, but we were happy to ‘put in the time’ and hope for success, if not we had tried our best. Even if we did not find Leopard there is always something of interest to see in the Mara even if its not the spotty kind, you never know what you may come across in paradise!
We had seen and heard recent reports from both Paul Kirui and Jackson that Nkayioni was often seen still ‘loitering’ around Olive. He is clearly not quite ready to fully break the bond with mum even though Olive now has more pressing concerns raising her one surviving cub [who we think must now be circa 6 months old and the only surviving cub from her original litter of two]. Indeed his relationship with Olive seems rather reminiscent of how Chui was filmed/documented as a true ‘mummy’s boy’ and stayed with Big Cat Diary ‘Star’ Bella for sometime before finally venturing out into his own new territory, possibly over in the Mara Triangle.
Paja on the other hand has embraced independence a little more and from what we understand is now in an area still close by to Olive, and we believe (although we could be wrong) has not been seen with Olive for some time. Although a little while yet she will hopefully, in the not to distant future be starting a family of her own. 
So, back to “Operation Leopard’. We had been given information that Olive and Co (that had included Nkayioni) had last been seen a day or so ago around the Olare Orok river and more specifically an area known as ‘Smelly Crossing’. For those who don’t know this area it is so called as when the river is low and lacks any decent flow or recent rainfall it kicks up quite a stink that is a real attack on the nasal senses and with a strong aroma of Ammonia/festering Hippo dung is certainly not a pleasant one!. We had heard that Paja on the other hand had been seen much further upstream and quite some time ago so traveling upstream from this area seemed a good place to start. It was around 7am that we got to the Smelly crossing area. We moved in an upstream direction and as slowly and as close as the tracks would allow us to the dense riverine foliage. Whilst also casting an eye over back over the plains in case one of the Leopards were returning from a hunting ‘sortie’. Giraffes, Impala, Jackal and Warthog but no Leopard. The forest was quiet apart from the sound of many bird species, the animals grazed and browsed peacefully and there was not an alarm call to be heard. That was until we turned a bend, around 1.5-2km from ‘Smelly Crossing’.
There sat a Leopard, as we drew in closer we could see it was a young boy, around 2 years of age and one that we soon recognised after a few moments. Mission accomplished we had found Nkayioni. We stopped at a distance that would hopefully not spook him or alter his behavior. It’s true that this handsome young chap is now somewhat habituated to vehicles compared to leopard found in other areas. Even still treating him with the respect he deserved we virtually moved in slow motion within the vehicle as we endeavored to mobilise the cameras as quietly (but as fast) as possible before he could retreat back into the thick vegetation. 
However, he was undisturbed by our presence, just us and Nkayioni!  Did it get any better than this? As he cast his eye across the plains, with the sun rising behind the hazy cloud he was now showing signs he wanted to hunt. It was not long until his gaze soon became locked onto two warthogs. The grass was so long you could only see just their ears. He wanted breakfast and Warthog was now on the menu. He soon rose from his placid state and limbered up with a long stretch before he moved slowly with stealth and patience toward his quarry on the plains. As he did he calmly walked within just a few feet from our vehicle, barely even giving us a passing glimpse. He was focused with absolute precision on the Warthogs.  Moments like this don’t always come along very often, sharing time with him, without other cars and seeing a Leopard so relaxed are just pure bliss. This is the time to put the camera down and enjoy being so close to such a beautiful and magnificent animal as he as sauntered calmly past the front of our car.  He soon disappeared into the long grass and until just a few feet away the Warthog had remained totally unaware that they were next on the menu.
However, today was their lucky day, just in time they caught sight of Nkayioni and bolted down a nearby hole. You could almost read the frustration on face. Nkayioni looked around, looking somewhat ‘bemused’, but other than the warthog the plains were bare. So a few moments later he retreated back toward us and to where we had first found him, the grass being so long that at times all you could see was his tailing flicking in frustration! 
So, Warthog was not on the breakfast menu today for after Nkayioni. Stopping for one last glance around the plains he then continued into the thick wooded area, stopping for a quick wash under a shady bush where we could just about make out his beautiful coat which seemed to merge seamlessly with the environment.  We knew that we were now going to lose him and soon enough we did. 
He had paraded in front of us, he had given us a good show, all without other vehicles. This was now Nkayioni’s time and time for us to leave him be. Maybe he was off to find a shady tree for the day. All of that excitement meant we were hungry by now to and off to find a nice spot to cook some breakfast ‘ALA’ Skinner style’ (Sausages and egg sandwich by the river!) 

Smelly Crossing

Monday, 4 July 2011

Another afternoon with Notch

On the afternoon of the 27th we had heard that Notch had been sighted again, this time across the other side of the Talek from where we had left him the day before and quite a few kilometres away. We had very little information to go by so to a certain extent it was going to be like looking for the proverbial ‘needle in a hay stack!’. That’s all part of the fun so off we trundled. As we looked under what felt like every croton bush and ever Gardenia bush we saw grey ‘Cumulus Nimbus clouds again forming, another storm was on its way. So the grey clouds were again bad news for photography, the evening sun was not going to show its face (and the clouds were not even dark enough to give that dramatic ‘mood’ but instead a bit of a dull look!) Our only concern was that it may rain too much for us to cross back over the river and toward our camp for the night. Luckily this was not the case as the heaviest rain just missed us and came later in the evening.
A good hour or so had passed as we then came over the brow of a hill and saw two vehicles parked by a bush, given the area it had to be a lion! Ambling up to see what was of interest we saw the tell tale dark mane of none other than Notch again. Although this time he was a lot closer than the previous sighting we have blogged about a few days ago. 
At this point we cared little about the cloud, after all it was our ‘good friend’ Mzee Notch. Any chance to see him on this trip was gratefully received and was one of the reasons we had travelled to the North side. It gave us the chance to get a much better look at him this time. It became even more apparent that he was really showing his age, he looked ‘tired’, not surprising to be fair considering he had travelled some distance since the previous afternoon. 

On the positive, although he was now looking like more like an ‘old lion’ he moved with ease and not as stiff as we have seen him look on previous trips. He was confidently surveying the area with the majesty you expect from Notch and as far as he (and we) were concerned he was still king of the Mara and by no means ready to give up the thrown. Just 30 feet or so away we then saw a lioness with cubs, although we could barely see them in the long grass. Given the area and their age we suspected and deduced that they must have been the same cubs that we had seen him with on our last trip in February. There was no sign of Grimace or the other boys, they had quite possibly gone on a foray even further away and we had a feeling (which the next day proved to be right) that 'Grimmy' was still over the south side of the Talek with another female.
Soon after the cars left so we now had him again to ourselves. We sat with him for the entire afternoon, just enjoying his company from a little distance away. Deep down we knew that this may be the last time we would see him on this trip as we were leaving back to the South side of the Mara in a couple of days to spend more time looking for Cheetah and other game. After all the Mara is about more than just Mzee Notch.
However, given we are not back to the Mara for at least 3-5  months ‘reality bites’ that it could possibly be our last time seeing him for good. Truth is it looks like he has more than a few months left ahead of him but there is never the guarantee that we will always find him every time we come to the Mara. We both like to think that the 'inevitable' is long time away yet. Yes, he looks old and has deteriorated in the last few months but he is by no means on his ‘last legs’ at all, just looking old quite fast now. After all, look at Claude from the Marsh pride, who despite looking like he was falling apart in late 2010 is still going on and on! Even so, despite our optimism when it was time to leave for camp we said our ‘goodbyes’ just in case. I have to admit this time it was a more teary goodbye than normal Andy stood by with the tissues for me! [Sarah]. Really we should not be sad, he has already reached a grand old age for a wild male lion and has gone on to rule many prides. Tears soon turned to laughter as we could only laugh at what Notch must think (“Get a grip” came to mind!) His strong genes will still live on in the Mara for some time yet.
So we, (mostly Sarah!) admit that we have broken the ‘golden rule’ of getting ‘attached’ to a wild animal (something we always try and avoid!) but make no apologies for having a true love for wildlife, both big and small. Sometimes its hard not to get attached when you have followed their trials and tribulations for so long and he is after all the biggest four legged celebrity in the Mara! Lets hope we see you on the next trip big man.