Tag Archives: Leopard Gorge

2015 Retrospective: Intense and Focused

Now that we are well into the year 2016, it is time for a retrospective look at my photographic journey in 2015.

The year can be summarised as intense and focused, as the majority of images I captured during 2015 were in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where we embarked upon an incredible seven-day safari with our friend and safari leader Mario Moreno.

Looking at my statistics, I shot more images in 2015 than I did in the years 2013 and 2014 combined.

Had the Kenya trip not happened, I suspect I would not have shot much.

Photographically, my year started quite late — near the end of April — with a macro/still life image of a new watch I had been given:

Certina 1888

Certina 1888

We had some family in town from overseas, so I took the opportunity to shoot some cityscape images from a location at which I had not shot before.

One afternoon we headed to the Glebe apartment and I waited for the right light to capture some views of the beautiful city skyline.

This was the result:

Dusk Descendence

Dusk Descendence

And a little later, during blue hour:

The View Sucks

The View Sucks

I also took the opportunity to capture this tight view of the Anzac Bridge as twilight fell:

Anzac Bridge

Anzac Bridge

In May, we all had an outing at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour.  I took a camera and a couple of lenses, but I did not shoot a great deal of images.

This image of a kangaroo was one of the more pleasing images I captured on the day:

One of Skippy's Mates

One of Skippy’s Mates

Later in the month, I felt compelled to head out and shoot another cityscape.

In the mid-to-late afternoon, I scouted for some vantage points along the western side of Circular Quay, and finally settled on the observation deck of the International Passenger Terminal, which affords a higher view, and additionally was empty and free from passers by.

I waited for the blue hour, and captured this view of Sydney which I have not seen (or photographed) before.

Circular Quay West

Circular Quay West

It had been a slow, but pleasing enough start to the year.

In June, the photography I had been eagerly anticipating since we booked the trip the previous year, would finally happen.

We headed to Kenya to spend seven days in the Mara North Conservancy and Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we would re-ignite our passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

So far I have published over 100 images from that trip, so I will not publish a great deal of those images in this article; but as the trip brought us a lot of first-time encounters, I will instead present some selected highlights from the trip.

We were based in the luxurious eco-lodge Elephant Pepper Camp, which afforded us total isolation and positioning right in the middle of where the action was.

This is a view of one of Elephant Pepper Camp‘s honeymoon/family tents:

Elephant Pepper Camp's Honeymoon Tent

Elephant Pepper Camp’s Honeymoon Tent

And this is a view of the camp at twilight, depicting the dining tent, lounge and camp fire:

Around the Camp Fire

Around the Camp Fire

Highlights of the trip included one of my finest bird images, which was my first frame of only two I snapped while this pied kingfisher was bobbing up and down in flight:

Suspended

Suspended

Just about every day, we were treated to lions — most prominently, the Cheli Pride.  One of the fantastic things about the Cheli Pride was its abundance of cubs, and on this trip, it was our first time seeing wild cubs, such as this cute little lion:

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

Lion Cub of the Cheli Pride

On one afternoon, we were fortunate enough to spend some time, in pleasing, afternoon light, in very close proximity to a lilac-breasted roller, where I captured this and a number of other images of the national bird of South Africa:

Plumage

Plumage

Naturally, a safari in Africa encompasses more than just wildlife — there are amazing opportunities for stunning, iconic landscape shots, and we certainly took advantage of that, rolling out into the plains in the pre-dawn darkness before other safari-goers were even awake.

This was one of my earlier landscape shots, captured during a moody morning:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

On another morning, we captured the ‘postcard shot’ of a rising sun behind a lone acacia tree:

Sunrise on the Mara

Sunrise on the Mara

This particular tree is known as Mario‘s Tree, as Mario often photographs it.  We certainly did — several times — including one particular morning which greeted us with a colourful sky:

Lone Acacia

Lone Acacia

On only our second day on this trip, we were treated to a number of first-time encounters.  In the morning, we encountered our first Mara leopard, who was also also the first leopard we had seen in a tree; and in the evening we found our first male lion of the trip, again a member of the resident Cheli Pride.

We had gone back to Leopard Gorge to look for the young male cat, when we found a large, dominant male lion in the area instead.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be seen.

Here is the beautiful young male leopard perched high in an elephant pepper tree:

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

We not only encountered one male lion, but two!  His brother also emerged from the distance and joined him for some bonding and lazing before the night‘s hunting commenced.

Here is one of the stunning Cheli Pride males we encountered:

Surveying

Surveying

The day after we met the dominant males, we encountered numerous members of the pride, minus the males, feasting on a zebra kill the next afternoon.  This was another ‘first’ for us, as we had hitherto never seen lions feasting on a kill.  It was quite a sight, as this wider image shows:

Feast

Feast

The next day, we spent a dramatic afternoon with the Cheli Pride again, firstly as we encountered one of the mothers on her own, out in the open, calling for the pride.

Here is an image I captured of the lioness in the warm afternoon light:

Cheli Mother

Cheli Mother

Before long, a mighty rainstorm descended upon us, which made the big cat uncomfortable, as well as presenting challenges for us.  As the rain began to subside, camera shutters sounded like rapid gunfire as we captured action shots of the lioness shaking the water from her head.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

Towards the end of the trip, we spent one day further south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we experienced yet another first.

So far, the one species of African big cat we had never seen in the wild was the cheetah.  On that trip, we finally encountered wild cheetahs.  It was an exciting experience to firstly see them from a distance, and then drive to position ourselves optimally to be ahead of where they were headed.  It became more exciting as the cheetahs got closer, and I had a few opportunities to photograph the family, which consisted of a mother and four sub-adults.

Here is one of the nicer images I captured of these amazing big cats:

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

Portrait of a Young Cheetah

It had been a long wait, but finally we spent some time with wild cheetahs.

Our next morning in the Mara consisted of a portrait shoot with Maasai tribesman called Baba, with whom we travelled to Mario‘s Tree, where we shot some dramatic silhouette portraits of him as the sun rose on one of our final days in the Mara.

Here is one of the more striking images I captured during the session:

Baba the Maasai

Baba the Maasai

Our final evening in the Mara brought something we could have never predicted, and something which is quite rare to see: mating leopards!

At first, we spotted a young female leopard high in a tree during the warm afternoon light, but within a short time, a large, amourous male emerged from the thicket, and the two leopards began (or continued with) their ritual of rapid, exposive mating sessions, which can last for days.

We spent the rest of the drive witnessing this amazing sight, and the following image captures an intense moment as the female expresses her displeasure at the male’s advances:

Growl of the Leopardess

Growl of the Leopardess

The next morning was our final, somewhat subdued game drive in the Mara before we would fly back to Nairobi for a night and another day before departing Kenya.  We were fortunate to encounter a small pod of hippos in a watering hole, where I had the opportunity to capture some relatively close-proximity images, such as this large hippo on the bank, less than 30 metres away:

Hippo on the Bank

Hippo on the Bank

Before too long, this amazging photographic journey came to its conclusion.

After the intensity of our Mara trip, and my generally low photographic output before the trip, it was not surprising that I did not shoot much afterwards.  In fact, I shot only one more image for the remaining six months of the year!

The one image I did capture was a macro image of some red and orange roses to commemmorate our anniversary.

Fifth

Fifth

And so concludes my photographic journey for 2015.  It indeed was an intense and focused year, with Kenya dominating my photographic output, but with a few other images here and there.

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Video: Lions of the Mara

The year 2015 is drawing to a close, and it’s hard to believe that it has been over six months since our epic trip to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.

While I shot many images during that trip, I also captured a very decent amount of video footage; but it has taken me six months to find the motivation to produce a video from the footage I shot.

While I shot footage of various wildlife, I mostly focused on the lions, and this afternoon decided to spend a few hours to produce a video dedicated to the lions of the Mara.

My new video, Lions of the Mara, was recorded in the Mara North Conservancy and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in June of 2015, and features three different lion prides: the Cheli Pride, which is the resident pride in the Mara North Conservancy; the River Pride, which occupies the territory near the Mara River; and the Double Crossing Pride, which resides in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Running for four minutes and 30 seconds, Lions of the Mara provides a highlight of the fantastic lion sightings we had during the trip, including two of the three prides feasting.

I hope people enjoy it.

Maasai Mara: Day 3 of 7

A new day for us in the Mara had arrived.

While it was only the third day, the routine of the early rises, a Maasai escort to the campfire, some quick online activity over a hot drink, and departure into the ever-fading darkness, had become very normal and comfortable.

We met Francis at the 4WD and climbed in, as we had planned to head out for another dawn and sunrise shoot at a tree Mario favours, which affectionately became known as “Mario‘s Tree” throughout the trip.

We headed due west of camp for a short distance and jumped out into the wet plains for some dawn silhouette photography of Mario‘s Tree, with the first frame shot at 6:38am.  It wasn’t the world’s greatest sunrise, but there was some nice colour in the sky, and I captured a distant passing wildebeest in most of my images.

We ventured south-west to Leopard Gorge, where we hoped to see our young male leopard friend, or maybe one of the Cheli brothers again, but alas, the big cats weren’t to be found on this morning.  We spotted a few impala, and on our way back north-east, we spotted a topi, zebra and general plains game.

Less than an hour after the first frame was fired off for the day, we encountered a herd of Cape buffalo out in the open.  The herd was quite a decent size, and there were a few calves.  Typical of these large bovines, they didn’t do anything exciting, preferring to graze, rest and groom, fighting off the ever-present flies.

Francis moved the vehicle to a more appealing spot for photography, where I captured this mother buffalo grazing with her calf:

Mother and Calf

Mother and Calf

Trying to isolate a particular animal, as well as capturing interesting activity such as action or tender moments, can be quite challenging.

We continued shooting, and Francis moved the vehicle again to a better spot, where I captured this frame-filling portrait of one of the large members of the herd:

I Am Not Amused

I Am Not Amused

Typical for these types of animals, the look on this buffalo‘s face is decidedly grumpy and not at all amused at being constantly harassed by flies.

We continued shooting for a short time longer, and I didn’t realise it at the time, but I captured a far more pleasing image of a buffalo, in which, in a split second, I’d also captured an oxpecker launching into flight from the top of the buffalo‘s head!  I didn’t discover I’d captured it until a few days later when reviewing the many images I had shot.

Here’s what I consider to be the finest buffalo image I’ve captured:

Lift Off

Lift Off

I managed, this time, to not only isolate one animal from the crowd (well, mostly), but I captured some interesting action too.

After we had finished photographing the buffalo, Francis and Mario took us in a north-westerly direction, where a surprise awaited us.

The staff of Elephant Pepper Camp had organised a bush breakfast, and all of the guests were being taken by their guides to a nice spot which had been set up, and where a hot breakfast and a chance to mingle with the other guests awaited us.

It was a really nice experience, and with the size of the Mara North Conservancy, most of the time one doesn’t see any other vehicles or have any interaction with other guests, as the vehicles can be spread in terms of time and distance.  Usually when there’s something very exciting, or some ever-appealing big cat activities happening (leopards and male lions in particular), all of the vehicles tend to descend upon a scene quickly.

We sat down to a fantastic breakfast with all of the other guests and exchanged stories, viewed photos, and tried to stop the flies swimming in our coffee and juice, to varying degrees of success.

As breakfast drew to a conclusion, some of the guests spotted fighting plains game way down on the distant plains, so they headed off to see what was going on.

Mario and Francis had other plans: we’d instead head towards the Mara River.

On our way north to the river, we spotted a few jackals and grabbed some shots, and then continued along our way, spotting another topi grazing.

As it turned out, we never quite got to the river itself, as something distracted us.

We stumbled across the River Pride of lions, which inhabits the territory just south of the river, and within a very short distance of the Mara North Airstrip, from which we’d depart the Mara four days later.

Not only had we encountered a different pride of lions, but a lioness was perched in a tree!

A Little Bit Stuck

A Little Bit Stuck

Lions aren’t great climbers, and this lioness seemed to be stuck in the bough, awkwardly repositioning herself every now and then, and seemingly attempting to descend.

Here, she looks rather uncomfortable, but in spite of her challenging predicament, seeing a lioness in a tree is rather uncommon indeed, and was a special, unexpected treat.

The look on her face certainly isn’t one of contentment.

Camera shutters were flapping furiously as this uncommon spectacle unfolded in front of us.  I also captured some frame-filling video footage as the lioness fumbled around trying to decide whether she wanted to be up or down.

Lioness in a Tree

Lioness in a Tree

This is not the Mara’s happiest lioness at this point in time.

By now, one or two other vehicles had arrived, so the other guests were also enjoying the spectacle.

As luck would have it, she was not the only lion nearby, as two young River Pride males had also descended upon the scene to see what was happening.

Thus far, most of our lion sightings had been cubs and lionesses — always a treat — but after seeing the Cheli brothers, we were glad to see some more male lion activity.

One of the young males decided to park himself under the shade of a tree not far from where the female was awkwardly positioned.

Lion Around

Lion Around

This particular male still has some youth under his belt, as his mane is not yet fully developed; but I loved the pose here, as he ever-so-casually leaned on a rock under the shade and gazed in our general direction, as well as keeping an eye on the female in the tree.

Perhaps only 50-70 metres to the south-east of this male was another, younger male who was also resting, enjoying some sunshine as well as some shade.

Here he is, taking it all in:

River Pride Male

River Pride Male

Shortly after resting, this younger male wandered over to a tree to see what the lioness was doing.  She had previously descended from the tree in which we found her, but had then climbed into another tree nearby!

This time the young male was curious, and walked over to her tree.  Her dangling, swishing tail was a source of interest for the young male lion, who looked up at the lioness as she sat perched in the bough.

It was now quite late in the morning, and time to head south, back to camp.  Along the way we spotted a giraffe on the open plains, and even closer to camp, we spotted a Maasai farmer leading a herd of cattle.

We soonafter arrived back at camp, where we rested, worked on images and had a light lunch.

Little did we know, but the afternoon drive would bring us something truly special.

At around 3:45pm we ventured back out into the plains in a south-easterly direction, and soon encountered a pair of elephants drinking in the afternoon light.

Drinking Problem

Drinking Problem

We watched and photographed the elephants drinking and splashing water over themselves to cool down.

The sky was starting to become moody and threatening, with some high storm clouds lingering.  I reached for a wider lens and captured an image of two elephants grazing, with a thick cluster of trees in the background beneath an increasingly brooding sky.

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

Ellies Under a Moody Sky

The sky was develop into a dramatic show later in the afternoon and into the early evening.

Francis soonafter continued heading south, as we were hoping to see something more dramatic.  Along the way, while Francis was cornering, I spotted an intense patch of blue in the grass as I was spotting for lions.

It was a blue-headed tree agama, a small, brightly-coloured reptile.  I snapped a few images, but unfortuntely didn’t land anything good, and the scene itself was scrubby and busy anyway.

A minute later we continued on.  Less than ten minutes later, north-east of where I spotted the agama, we happened across an intensely amazing sight.

We had found the Cheli Pride.  Not only had we found the Cheli Pride lions again (they’re everywhere!), but they were feasting on a zebra they had taken earlier in the day.

This was yet another first: a sighting of lions feasting on a kill.

It was quite a fresh kill, too, as there was no stench from the carcass; but it had been quite substantially devoured, and we figured it had been taken during the morning.

What an intense sighting.  We were glued to the drama as a three cubs gorged themselves on the kill under a bush, while other Cheli Pride lions rested in the thicket or were lurking and sunning themselves very close to the site where either the zebra had fallen, or more likely, where the pride had dragged it to keep it out of the open plains where other predators could have got in on the action.

I used a combination of wide focal lengths and short focal lengths to capture the drama.

Chowing Down

Chowing Down

Here, this cute little cub — one of the younger members of the pride — was very engaged in the business of chowing down, and kept feeding well after the other lions had all moved aside to rest and roll around.

A short time later, most of the pride members strolled a short distance north-east of the kill, and into the open grasses, where they bonded, groomed, rested and played.

Facepalm

Facepalm

Here, one of the well-fed cubs decided it was time to play, and in so doing, he gave one of the females a mighty good smack in the face.

It was enjoyable to watch the lions rolling around, stretching, playing and bonding with each other after a huge meal.

Here, one of the lionesses looks into the distance as other lions played around.

Cheli Pride Lioness

Cheli Pride Lioness

One of the cubs wandered over to a small watering hole in the grass, which we couldn’t see, but which he certainly could.

He lapped up water, and even managed to let some of it drool out of his mouth as he looked back towards us as we furiously snapped away.

Cub Drool

Cub Drool

While we were immersed in the company and actvity of the Cheli Pride, a herd of nearby elephants entered the area, and they were obviously distressed.  There was trumpeting and running as the elephants, who realised they’d stumbled across a pride of lions, ran further away to avoid any confrontation.

The elephants kept moving south, further away from the drama we had witnessed; so, we decided to follow them, as it was a breeding herd, which contained a few calves and some big tuskers.

In the relative safety of the distance the elephants had put between themselves and the Cheli Pride, they grazed more calmly as the sky continued to brood and become more intense.  I captured this image of a big tusker at fairly close proximity as he made his way through the thicket, grazing.

Big Tusker

Big Tusker

Early evening was rapidly approaching, and in the opposite direction, the sky became very menacing.

We headed north, back to the kill site, to see what was going on.  More cubs, and several larger lionesses, were now feasting on the zebra.

Feast

Feast

We stayed for three or four minutes before deciding to leave the lions and head off for a sundowner and some landscape photography under a dramatic sky.

Francis drove us south-west in search of a particular tree, which we reached in about 12 minutes.

We stopped here for a sundowner, and we jumped out of the 4WD and rigged up for some landscape photography under an intense sky, where I captured this image of a distant acacia tree under a dramatic sky:

Brewing Storm

Brewing Storm

It was at this location where we had our sundowner, but we decided to head another few hundred metres away, where we’d capture the trail end of the rich colours of sunset on the Mara.

Drama on the Mara

Drama on the Mara

Here we resumed our sundowner as the evening rapidly descended upon us, while we stood only a few hundred metres from where the Cheli Pride was resting after a huge meal.

It was an intense afternoon/evening, and perhaps this landscape in the northern part of the Maasai Mara captures some of that sense of drama.

So concluded our third day in the Mara.  We headed back to camp where we met the other guests over dinner, and related the amazing sights we had seen that day.

In the morning we were treated to the River Pride, with its clumsy tree-clinging lioness and two young males nearby; and in the afternoon we were treated to the spoils of the Cheli Pride, as the lions feasted on a zebra kill, followed by a sundowner under a very moody sky.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four of our trip to the Maasai Mara, during which more great sightings greeted us, and when the roar of a Cheli Pride lioness would be heard for the first time.

Maasai Mara: Day 2 of 7

Our second day in the Maasai Mara began nice and early, with a 5am rise after a fantastic first night roughing it in a luxurious tent at Elephant Pepper Camp, during which we heard lions roaring in the night, and hyenas becoming excited.  The night was filled with all manner of exotic wildlife noises, and at one point I got up to peek outside to see if I could see anything.

We quickly got ready, as our first morning game drive was awaiting us.  Once we were ready to leave the tent, we flashed and waved a bright torch into the night sky to signal our Maasai security guard to escort us to the camp fire.

Our tent was right on the outer edge of the camp, a good 220 metres from the safety of the lounge, dining room and camp fire.  When it’s dark, all guests must be escorted by armed Maasai, as dangerous wildlife roams throughout the camp.

After a five-minute trek through the bush, we settled around the camp fire for a short time and a hot drink before we made our way to Francis and the 4WD.  We headed out before the other guests, as we had plans for some dawn and sunrise landscape photography.

Our first stop of the morning was quite close to camp, at a magnificent acacia tree on the savannah, where a moody sky greeted us before the sun rose over the distance horizon.  I jumped out of the vehicle, rigged up and shot this image:

The Moody Mara Plains

The Moody Mara Plains

Overnight and earlier in the morning, there had been some rain, which threatened our photographic chances, but paradoxically enhanced them.

What a fantastic sky.  I rarely ever see skies like this at home, and instead have to travel many thousands of kilometres to another continent to photograph a decent sky.  I can tolerate it…

Barely seven minutes after photographing the acacia tree, we encountered the Cheli pride of lions!  I counted at least 10 or 11 lions (of the 23-strong pride), and I shot video as they strolled right past the front of the 4WD.  There were two or three young adult females, and the rest were cubs of varying ages.

I shot a few images of the pride in the soft, low morning light.  Here’s a view of one of the cute cubs:

Cuteness Factor

Cuteness Factor

We spent less than ten minutes with the Cheli Pride, before heading south-west in the Mara North Conservancy, where 20 minutes later, we stopped to view and photograph a solitary African white-backed vulture high on a perch.

We had seen vultures in South Africa, but as they’re typically perched at the top of large trees to afford them a great view of the territory, they can be difficult to photograph.  This time I had 800mm of focal length, and I managed to land a decent image of the vulture, despite the dull light that had set in by this time.

Vulture Vigilance

Vulture Vigilance

We spent five minutes with the vulture before departing in a north-westerly direction, very roughly towards Leopard Gorge, which lies directly west of the spot where we found the vulture.

Ten minutes later we encountered a pair of grey crowned cranes.  These medium-to-large, magnificently plumed birds mate for life, and are rarely separated.  The grey crowned crane is the national bird of Uganda.  I captured a few images before we carried on, this time in a south-westerly direction, heading directly towards Leopard Gorge, where a surprise awaited us.

Along the way, we spotted a buffalo bull, so we stopped briefly to grab a few shots as he grazed not too far from our ultimate destination.

Less than fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Leopard Gorge, a fantastic gorge south-west of the camp.

A young male leopard had been spotted in an elephant pepper tree on the east end of the gorge.  This was our first leopard encounter on this trip, and the excitement was bubbling.

The young male was high up on the tree, which had a thick canopy, thus making photography very challenging.  A combination of low light, longer-than-desirable distance and thick foliage made photography very difficult indeed.

We inched forward here and there, and soon enough, I was in the best position to photograph the young male chui (Swahili for leopard) looking straight at me, with his face unobscured by leaves from the elephant pepper tree.

Here is the image I captured, which would be the subject of some fierce debate between Mario and I.

Leopard of the Day

Leopard of the Day

So, why was this image the subject of fierce debate?

Frankly, I wasn’t happy.  The image was shot from too far away, which wasn’t at all something we could control; it was shot at higher-than-comfortable ISO setting, which made me uncomfortable due to the noise; and lastly, the leopard was semi-hidden amongst thick, busy and unsightly foliage.

In the Timbavati, I had been fortunate enough to capture leopards from much closer positions, and in much more open locations.  This made for frame-filling, clean, blurry background-laden images with little distracting subject matter.  The bar had been raised high on that first trip, and I was hungry for more images like that.

This location, however, was more than suitable for the young cat, but not so great for me!

Mario was adamant that it was a stunning image, worthy of being published on 500px, where I only publish my better images rather than all of my images.  I maintained that “good enough” was not good enough, and vocally expressed my displeasure at the busy appearance of the image.  I didn’t like the foliage and general clutter, but I did like the leopard.

It took me days before I started to relent and grow fond of the image.  By all accounts, I was the only photographer who captured anything remotely like this, and everyone who saw the image was seriously impressed by it.  Two or three other 4WDs were also at the gorge (we weren’t first on the scene), but they were too late and ill-positioned, as the leopard very quickly disappeared into the scrub, and emerged at the top of the gorge.

The gorge is very difficult to navigate, and it takes a good ten minutes to get from the inside to the top.

We watched the faint sights of the leopard for a few minutes before speeding off at 3km/h to get to the other side, where we might see him again.

Indeed, we did see him again, but he was quite obscured by the long grasses in which he sat.  A combination of long grass and ugly, manky rocks behind him made photography unappealing and less than useful.

Annoying foliage and visual obstructions abounded.  Welcome to the world of wildlife photography.

Our young chui rolled around and yawned for a little while before he headed back into the thicket.  That meant we had to descend into the gorge again in an attempt to find him.  We never did, but we knew he was there… somewhere.  After doing our best to find him to no avail, we left the gorge, but not before capturing a few images of a hammerkop on a rock inside the gorge.

Here’s another view of the young chui, ever-so-cutely looking to his left as he sat in the elephant pepper tree:

Leopard in a Tree

Leopard in a Tree

We made the slow exit from Leopard Gorge and headed north-west towards camp.  Along the way, we spotted a zebra, and soon after, an eland.  We had seen eland in South Africa, but as this large antelope was out on the open plains, we stopped for a few photographs, by which time it had started to rain lightly.

Eland at Rest

Eland at Rest

Seven minutes later, as we meandered closer to camp, it was still raining, but a small sliver of intensely bright red colour on the plains attracted our attention.

It was a rosy-breasted longclaw, sitting on a dead branch in the savannah as the rain continued to fall.  We stopped to photograph this beautiful but small bird, and the result was pleasing.  Indeed, I had some very pleasing bird encounters on this trip.

Rosy-Breasted Longclaw in the Rain

Rosy-Breasted Longclaw in the Rain

He was located very close to where we encountered the 10 or 11 Cheli Pride lions earlier in the drive.

We soonafter stopped not far away from the longclaw to watch and photograph a few elephants, but breakfast was beckoning, so we headed back to camp.

What an amazing morning drive, with some amazing big cat sightings, and another ‘first’ of many on this trip: a leopard in a tree.

Mario and I continued to argue over the merits of my leopard images, but I was stubbornly dissatisfied, and we parked the issue while we processed images, checked online happenings and attempted to laze around at camp before our next game drive.

At around 4pm we headed out into the plains again in search of whatever would come next.

Not far south from the camp, we encountered a pair of cubs from the Cheli Pride.  We stopped and photographed them, but the long grasses didn’t make for great photography, so we left them to continue, veering off sharply in a south-westerly direction towards Leopard Gorge, where we thought we’d try our luck and see if our young male leopard was still there.

About three quaters of the way to Leopard Gorge, we encountered grey crowned cranes again.  They may have been the same pair we encountered earlier in the morning, as at this most recent sighting, it was not far north-east of where we had spotted them earlier.

This time the photographic opportunities were much better, and I landed some very crisp, clean shots of these amazing birds, opting for the 800mm focal length to produce frame-filling images with the backgrounds blurred to oblivion.

I firstly opted for a tight profile in landscape orientation.

Grey Crowned Crane

Grey Crowned Crane

Then I rotated the lens and captured the entire crane standing high on a branch.

Crowning Around

Crowning Around

We then continued our journey in search of a mighty big cat.  For some inexplicable reason, we headed north-west, which took us away from Leopard Gorge.  We did encounter a herd of Cape buffalo, which we photographed before getting back on track to reach Leopard Gorge.

We had high hopes of seeing our leopard again, but he was elusive, as leopards tend to be.  We figured out he was somewhere in the trees, but after much recon we could not spot him, or any signs that he was around.

Our inability to find him was soon easily explained when a large male lions from the Cheli Pride made his presence known.  We were looking for a big cat, and found one — it was just not the cat we expected!  What a pleasant surprise.  If the leopard was around, he was hiding and would not be found, as a large male lion in his home range would almost certainly kill him — big cat don’t like other species of big cat, and indeed, often don’t like other members of their own species either.

The Cheli male was sitting magestically in the grass when we first found him.  He rolled around, shaked his head, and soon headed right past us, towards a distant tree, where he had a scratch.

Once we saw the lion rear up against the tree, the machine gun-like fire of camera shutters dominated the sounds of the Mara.

Scratching Post

Scratching Post

Yet another ‘first’ was experienced — in fact, two firsts: our first Mara male lion, and our first sighting of a lion scratching a tree trunk.  He made up for the elusive leopard‘s lack of presence.

But the magic show wasn’t over yet.  Another large Cheli Pride male — his brother — soon emerged from the plains surrounding the gorge.

Here is a shot of the large Cheli male approaching us to join his brother, who had returned from his scratching post:

On Approach

On Approach

Wow.  What a beautiful lion.  And what a great sight it was to see two large Mara males uniting and bonding, as they were soon to do.

The males greeted, re-bonded, groomed, rolled around and lazed before the time would come for these two males to get into the serious business of being male lions in the Mara wilderness.

Even at the top of the food chain, a male lion is never safe, as there is no shortage of younger nomadic males willing to challenge a pride protector in an effort to take over the pride, kill the cubs and then start his own family.  I only hope our boys here are still safe.

Surveying

Surveying

Spending time in the company of two magnificent Mara males from the Cheli Pride was a perfect way to end our first full day in the Mara.  We soon left these big boys to their business and headed off for a sundowner before returning to camp, where there were plenty of stories to tell as we joined Patrick and Sophie and a few other guests at the dining tent for some satisfying northern Italian food.

Stay tuned for day three of our Maasai Mara aventure, in which more big cat action was to be experienced.