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Maasai Mara 2019: Day 4 of 7

Our fourth day of this trip to the Maasai Mara was to be largely spent as an all-day trip to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, south of Mara North Conservancy, and north of the Kenya-Tanzania border.

A day or two earlier, Mario had decided that it would be worth visiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve, just as we had done last time, as it provided a change of scenery, a somewhat different environment, and plenty of opportunities which we may not have had if we had stayed in Mara North.

As the morning greeted us, we had no idea that the day would be another day of first-time experiences.

After our usual morning ritual of a hot drink by the camp fire in the darkness before dawn, we headed out, and ventured south-west towards a familiar location: Leopard Gorge.

We had visited Leopard Gorge a few times during our first trip to the Maasai Mara.  Leopard Gorge is a fantastic location, which was made famous as a result the BBC’s highly successful production Big Cat Diary.  Some of the series was shot at Leopard Gorge, particularly during the seasons which featured the female leopard Bella and her cubs, who inhabited this very area.

During our visits to Leopard Gorge in 2015, we encountered two large male lion siblings from the Cheli Pride, as well as a young male leopard perched in an elephant pepper tree.

When we returned during this visit, the residents were somewhat different.

We entered Leopard Gorge from the north-eastern side, and as there were apparently no predators around, we decided to disembark from the 4WD and shoot some landscape images.

The morning was grey and cloudy, which had become the norm for the trip so far.

From down in the centre of the gorge, I shot a few landscape images featuring the large fig tree to the north-east.  I found myself struggling with composition, as the altitude was just not right, the sky was uninteresting and the composition just was not working for me.  There was too much sky, and also a lack of foreground interest.

I usually find composition very easy, but on this occasion I was just not finding anything pleasing, so I decided to climb the embankment on the southern side for a different view.  Playing around with a few compositions, I finally landed something more interesting than what I had seen below, and this time the sky had improved, as moody cloud was drifting in from the west.

Here is the image I captured:

Leopard Gorge

Leopard Gorge

While the four of us were near the position from which I captured this image, Mario decided to publish a live broadcast on Instagram.

Given the fame this location had achieved as a result of Big Cat Diary, and the somewhat disappointing fact that there were no big cats in the immediate area during our visit, we humorously shot our first and only episode of No Cat Diary, featuring a non-existent leopard.

After we had finished shooting landscape images, we headed back down to the 4WD and continued south-west through the gorge, stopping to look at the elephant pepper tree in which I had captured a pleasing image of a young male leopard four years earlier.

We did not spot a leopard in the tree, but soon enough, we saw baboons on the top of the ridge, which was a sure sign that there was not likely to be a leopard nearby.  There were also some hyenas a little further away from the gorge, which was another sign that spotted felines would not be found.

Mario suggested that we shoot some silhouette images of the baboons against the moody sky.

It was a good call, as we landed some good images which were quite different to what we had shot so far.

Of the numerous images I shot, there were two which stood out.  This is the image I chose to process and publish:

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

Baboon at Leopard Gorge

When shooting a subject in silhouette, it is very important for the subject’s shape to be clearly defined, and not touching any other subject matter in the scene; and with wildlife in particular, this can be more challenging, as legs and tails can easily become obscured when they are intersecting with an other part of the animal.

In this image, the shape of the young baboon can clearly be seen.  While there are little patches of grass which make the image less clean than I would like, the image still turned out well.  In the other image I had short-listed, the shape of the baboon was more pleasing, but there was an annoying clump of grass between the two centre legs, which I found distracting and detracting.

Moving further south-west through the gorge, we turned our attention to the cliff face on our right, where we spotted a group of rock hyraxes (also known as dassies).

We had seen these cute mammals at Leopard Gorge during the last trip, but I had never photographed them.

This time I took the opportunity, and captured this image:

Rock Hyraxes

Rock Hyraxes

Apart from the cuteness of these rock hyraxes, what appeals to me about this image is that it is very different to the type of image I typically shoot in the Mara, and it depicts a subject not often featured in images.

After we had captured our images of the rock hyraxes, we continued further towards the south-western end of Leopard Gorge; but we were not done yet.

We spotted a common eland, which is one of Africa‘s largest largest plains game, and the second largest type of antelope in the world.

Continuing the silhouette theme, I captured some images of the eland.

Eland and Friends

Eland and Friends

Here, this male, who sports a damaged antler — probably the result of a dispute with another male eland — stands high on the south-western edge of Leopard Gorge, joined by three oxpeckers.

Again this made for an interesting image, and the damaged antler shows that in Africa, not everything is perfect.  Wild animals do fight, and they do suffer injury and death.

After five or six minutes photographing the eland, and also a hyena which had arrived, we exited Leopard Gorge and headed further south-west towards Figtree Ridge, another location made famous by Big Cat Diary.

Because we were going to spend most of the day in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, we were heading towards Musiara Gate, which is positioned further south-west of Figtree Ridge.

Musiara Gate is one of the entrances to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and is the entrance one would use if entering from the Mara North Conservancy.

After arriving at Musiara Gate at 8:15am, we stopped to check the tyres.  The term “checking the tyres” was a euphemism Mario and Francis had used during our last trip, and again this time, to refer to the need to respond to nature’s call.

While we were refreshing and stretching our legs, the Maasai women who sell beadwork at the gate decided to descend upon us like vultures on a kill.  They sure like to haggle, but after some time, we managed to land the beadwork we wanted for the price we wanted to pay.

A short time later, we headed south, and spotted a pair of topi fighting.

When animals are fighting, it is a story to be told, and always makes for compelling wildlife images.

Topi Tussle

Topi Tussle

Here I captured the two topi engaging in a fight for dominance, locking horns as they battled to be the boss.

After we captured this event, we headed south, where a new ‘first’ was awaiting us.

Not far south of Musiara Airstrip was the famous lion pride which inhabits the Musiara area: the Marsh Pride.

The Marsh Pride, which has inhabited the Musiara marsh for decades, is the resident pride, made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat Diary.  This was the first time we had seen the Marsh Pride with our own eyes.

There were several lionesses and numerous cubs, all resting under the cover of a stream embankment.  Quite a few vehicles had arrived on the scene, with people taking delight in seeing this famous lion pride.

I captured a few images, but photographically it was not a good sighting, as the lions were difficult to see, and there was too much foliage.  It was great to at least see the Marsh Pride for ourselves.

After our time with the Marsh Pride, we departed in an easterly direction, and soon encountered a few hyenas.

We had quite an unusual sighting of a hyena taking cover inside the hollow trunk of a large tree, peeking out to look for danger or opportunities, while another hyena rested outside on the grass.

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

This was fantastic opportunity for a very different kind of image, and shows that hyenas, while fierce predators and enemies of big cats, can exhibit cuteness and vulnerability.

After some time with the hyenas, we headed south-east for breakfast, and then headed south-west, eventually encountering a very typical Mara scene of two topi standing on a mound, facing opposite directions, surveying their surroundings for signs of danger.  In the distance was a Cape buffalo.

Less than ten minutes later, further south-west, it was time for some big cat action.  We encountered a large male lion and a lioness from a familiar pride: the Double Crossing Pride.

We first encountered this pride during our first visit to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in 2015, further east towards Olare Orok Conservancy.

The Double Crossing Pride lions we found this time had apparently been mating, and shortly after our arrival, they made their way to the shade of a large tree for some rest.

Unfortunately the lions did not continue to mate in our presence, and were content simply resting in the shade.  It was late morning, and quite hot, so we may not have seen much action even if we had stayed for longer.

We did land a few portraits, such as this image depicting the male looking towards us:

Busy Boy at Rest

Busy Boy at Rest

Soon enough, we decided to leave the lions to rest, and headed south towards the Talek River.

A very short distance from the western bank of the Olare Orok River, Francis stopped the vehicle, as he had spotted something.  It turned out to be a dung beetle on the road.

We leaned out of the right side of the vehicle, and saw the beetle in action.  It scurried under the vehicle, emerging from underneath the left side of the vehicle, and made its way away.

This was another first-time sighting, and as great as it is to see Africa‘s larger animals, it is also special to see the smaller creatures which may not normally be seen or noticed.

Ironically, just ten metres ahead of where we had seen the dung beetle, a large Cape buffalo was resting in a thicket.

There, we had seen one of Africa‘s smallest animals, and one of its largest, within metres and minutes of each other.  Africa is a land of contrasts!

Francis continued south, and we crossed the Talek River, spotting an eland in the distance.

As we continued on, we found that we were in the midst of the beginnings of the Great Migration!  The plains were already populated by herds of wildebeest which had been early migrants from Tanzania to the south.

Being early June, it was quite unusual to see any signs of the Great Migration in Kenya, as it usually takes place in this area from July; but this year, the herds had already crossed the Sand River in a northerly direction, and had arrived in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

As we made our way further south from the Talek River, we saw plenty of wildebeest, and I captured some brief video footage of two males fighting before one fled.

Further along the way, we spotted a dead wildebeest calf hung over a branch in a balanites tree.  This was so far the only evidence of the presence of a leopard in the area, but of course, we did not see one.  So far, four days into the trip, leopards had not been seen.

Francis changed direction, heading south-west.  Fifteen minutes later, we experienced a special sighting.

For the first time, we encountered the Five Musketeers.

The Five Musketeers (also known as the Fast Five, and by various other names) is a coalition of five male cheetahs which has dominated the Mara plains and caused quite a stir.

Male cheetahs often form coalitions, and can often contain siblings.  To encounter a coalition of five is not very common, and these particular cheetahs have achieved infamy.

When we encountered these legendary cheetahs, it was early afternoon and quite hot, so they were resting under croton bushes and not doing very much, only occasionally standing alert to something in the distance.

Photographically, it was not a great sighting, but that did not stop me from capturing numerous images of the Five Musketeers as they rested.

One of the Five Musketeers

One of the Five Musketeers

Despite their lack of activity during our visit, it was great to see this rare and legendary coalition of cheetahs.

This was our fourth day, and our fourth sighting of cheetahs.  We were doing quite well in the cheetah department, and by now, had seen nine individuals.

After spending 30 minutes with the Five Musketeers, it was time for lunch, so we headed east, and Francis found a tree which we would use for a lunch stop.  Before we stopped, we saw numerous wildebeest congregating around the base of the tree.  As we approached, they ran away, but one of them decided to come back and challenge us!  He was apparently annoyed at being interrupted.

After lunch, we headed north-west and crossed the Talek River closer to Olkiombo Airstrip, further north-east of where we had crossed the river earlier in the day.

We then headed north-east, spotting a hartebeest along the way, before continuing further north in the general direction of camp.

Shortly before 4pm, we spotted a female impala in the distance, with a very young calf beside her.  The calf must have been only a day or two old.

As the afternoon was getting late, Francis continued north, exiting the Maasai Mara National Reserve and re-entering the Mara North Conservancy.

We drove through the lush Offbeat area, and further north, encountered two Cape buffalo bulls.

I am not impartial to photographing Cape buffalo, as the textures of hair and hides can look quite striking in an image.  Plus, we had a clean background and some nice afternoon light.

Here is one of the images I captured:

Big Buffalo Bull

Big Buffalo Bull

After photographing the large bull, we continued further north, and an hour later, stopped at a location not far south from camp, for a sundowner and a landscape photography session.

In the distance was a distinctive, lone acacia tree.  As the sun continued to descend towards the cloud-laden horizon, we shot numerous silhouette images of the acacia tree.

Sundowner

Sundowner

Within a few days of publishing this image on Flickr, it attracted a lot of attention, and as of the time of writing, it has been viewed over 17,000 times.   In over 13 years on Flickr, this image has been my most popular.

After our sundowner and photography session, we headed back to camp for drinks and dinner with the other guests.  By now, more guests had arrived at Elephant Pepper Camp, so we had some new people to meet.

Tuesday, 4th June, 2019 had been another great day in the Mara, with most of it having been spent south in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we had enjoyed more first-time experiences, a variety of wildlife, and captured different images.

We had visited Leopard Gorge for some landscape photography, and had also photographed baboons, rock hyraxes and an eland in the process; we saw and photographed topi fighting; spent time with the Marsh Pride of lions for the first time; captured the cuteness and vulnerability of hyenas; encountered the Double Crossing Pride lions for the second time; saw a dung beetle; experienced our first sighting of the legendary Five Musketeers coalition of cheetahs; witnessed the early stages of the Great Migration of 2019; seen a newborn impala; captured a pleasing image of a Cape buffalo; and finished off the day with a pleasing silhouette images of an acacia tree.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day five.

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Maasai Mara 2019: Day 3 of 7

Monday for many people means that the weekend is over, and that the reality of the daily grind has returned.

Not when you are in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya.  In the Mara, Monday means yet another day of opportunities for amazing wildlife sightings and photography.

Even a ‘bad’ day in the Mara is better than a good day in the office!

As usual, we rose early to prepare for the day ahead.  We still had Elephant Pepper Camp all to ourselves, but on our third day in the Mara, more guests would begin arriving at camp.

After hot drinks around the camp fire, we headed out in the darkness, again with the intention of shooting some landscape images at dawn and sunrise, but it was cloudy and not looking favourable, so we continued in a south-easterly direction.

Within less than an hour, we spotted a lioness from the Cheli Pride, not far from the Olare Orok stream.

Focused

Focused

The lioness seemed focused, but we managed to land a few images and some video footage before we continued southward a few minutes later.

Ten minutes later, we spotted an elephant before continuing further south to the Offbeat area to look for any signs of a leopard.

A short time later, even further south, we had an unusual sighting.  Up on a steeply sloping ridge was a lioness and three cubs, but within close proximity, and perhaps only ten to fifteen metres in front of the cubs, was a Cape buffalo!

The lions were members of the Offbeat Pride which inhabited this area.

Lions and buffaloes are enemies, and buffaloes will try to kill lions — especially cubs.

It was not clear what was happening, but the cubs were watching the buffalo as it was grazing.  Perhaps it did not know that the cubs were so close, but there did not appear to be any tension, and the lioness further back did not seem interested in, or concerned by, the presence of not only one buffalo, but another higher up the ridge and further away.

Soon enough we turned our attention to a large fig tree next to the stream, which meanders down to the Olare Orok River.

In and around the fig tree was a large troop of baboons, which presented some great opportunities for photography.

A large alpha male baboon was sitting on the ground, somewhat out in the open, whilst many of the youngsters played in the fig tree.  I took the opportunity to photograph him amongst the lush green foliage.

All Eyes on Us

All Eyes on Us

In wildlife photography, eye contact with the subject always makes for compelling images, and occasionally, this male baboon looked directly at us despite all the monkey business going on around him.

The Alpha Male

The Alpha Male

During the time we spent with the baboons, we also experienced some nice, warm light, and had an opportunity to photograph one off the youngsters in the fig tree.

Monkey Business

Monkey Business

We had seen baboons in the wild before, but mostly from a distance, and we had not had the opportunity to properly photograph them, until now.

It was rewarding to be able to spend some time in the company of baboons in good light, and capture a few pleasing images of them.

Of course, the presence of baboons in this area meant that it was unlikely for a leopard to be nearby.

Soon enough, the baboons descended from the tree and headed south-east, so we decided to also depart, and headed further south along the waterway, spotting an eland, a jackal, a woodland kingfisher (with its distinct, bright blue plumage), and a pair of juvenile short-tailed eagles, all within a fifteen-minute period.

We then headed sharply north-east of the Offbeat area, and encountered some giraffes feeding on tall acacia trees, so we stopped and captured some images and video footage.

It was time to start thinking about breakfast, so Francis headed back to the Offbeat area where we had seen the juvenile short-tailed eagles, and we pulled up by the waterway for some food and a stretch.

After breakfast, we headed north, back in the general direction of camp, and in an open part of the conservancy, Mario spotted the sxitcintive colours of an agama lizard upon a rock.  We had seen one before, but during this sighting we were too far away for a decent image, so we shortly moved on.

Whilst driving in the open, Francis noticed a disturbance in a small tree nearby.  Upon it were perched some starlings, but there was panic amongst the birds, and Francis suggested that there may have been a snake in the tree.

He positioned the 4WD right next to the tree, and quickly spotted a very small snake (perhaps an inch in diameter), which had killed two birds.  It was very difficult to see anything, but using our long lenses and viewfinders, we could see patches of the snake amongst the very dense foliage, as well as the unfortunate starling that was soon to become the snake’s breakfast.

We continued to watch as the snake began to devour its prey, and shortly noticed that the snake was descending the tree, prey in mouth.

At the base of the foliage, we saw the snake suspended vertically from the tree as it made its way to the ground.  We all scrambled for our cameras, but a second later, the snake and starling had landed on the ground, and the show was over.

This was another ‘first’ of many firsts.  Never before had we seen a snake killing a starling.  It was only because Francis had noticed the disturbance and veered off our course to investigate, that we had experienced this sighting.  It was near-impossible to even see the snake, and an event in nature such as a tree python killing prey in a small tree is something that few people would ever witness.

After this unique sighting, we headed north to return to camp, along the way encountering another female saddle-billed stork.  We spent a few minutes photographing the stork and then continued, stopping to photograph some spotted guineafowl and a zebra drinking from a watering hole very close to camp.

Back at camp, I downloaded and backed up the images and video footage from the morning shoot, and we had lunch, this time with a new guest who had arrived while we were out in the field.

After our afternoon down time (which is never proper down time for me, as I cannot sit back and do nothing when on safari — there is too much excitement and plenty to do), we headed back out, this time venturing to the northern part of the conservancy.

Not far south of the C13 road, we encountered a pair of mating warthogs, which was worth photographing.

Bacon Factory

Bacon Factory

After that brief and amusing spectacle, we continued north, and a short time later, about half way between camp and Mara North Airstrip, we found some young members of the Cheli Pride.

At this location, there was a male and a female.

This is a young female from the Cheli Pride.  Her younger age is revealed by the pink colour of her nose.

Looking into the Distance

Looking into the Distance

The young male lion nearby was becoming bothered by flies, and was trying to swat them as they pestered him.

While it was late afternoon, the two lions were still resting, occasionally sitting up, yawning, rolling around or trying to sleep.

Francis had spotted two other sibling lions from the pride a few hundred metres south of this pair, so we drove over to see and photograph them.

Again there was a young male and a female, and I was fortunate enough to photograph the lioness yawning.

Yawn

Yawn

After spending time with these siblings, Francis took us back to the first pair of siblings we had seen.  The day was soon to give way to the evening, and as the sun descended closer to the top edge of the Oldoinyio Escarpment (also known as the Siria Escarpment) in the west, I captured a glimmer of light in the eyes of this young and handsome male lion.

Handsome

Handsome

Male lions are always impressive, even when they are young.

One day this young male lion may be the king of Mara North, but for now, he is still honing his skills as a male lion.

Future King

Future King

His youthful age is revealed by the size of his mane.  It has not fully developed yet, so while he is not a cub, he is not a fully-fledged adult.  Based on his appearance, he would be around two years of age.

It is surprising how close one can get to lions (as well as other wildlife) in the Mara.

This behind-the-scenes image shows just how close we were to one of the young male lions from the Cheli Pride.

Behind the Scenes: Photographing the Cheli Pride Lions

Behind the Scenes: Photographing the Cheli Pride Lions

After sunset, we noticed three zebras heading straight into the area in which the lions were resting.  We were excited with anticipation, as it was likely that a hunt would soon follow.

The plain was increasingly darkening, and the lions were becoming more active.  When a potential meal arrives on one’s doorstep, one would be silly not to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was becoming harder to see, as darkness was rapidly consuming the scene, but one of the young and inexperienced lions decided to launch into a chase as the zebras moved even closer into their territory.

Fortunately for the zebras, the chase was premature and ultimately unsuccessful, but it was an exciting moment.

It was time to leave the lions to deal with their defeat (and hopefully enjoy some success later) and head back to camp.  Before we returned, I captured a couple of silhouette images of a tree on the plain.

Monday, 3rd June, 2019 had been a mix of activity in the plains, with second and third sightings of the Cheli Pride of lions, a second sighting of the Offbeat Pride of lions, some quality time with baboons, a variety of birds, an unusual sighting of a tree python devouring a starling, a pair of warthogs continuing the species, and an unsuccessful hunt of zebras by inexperienced Cheli Pride youngsters.

Stay tuned for our adventures on day four.