Tag Archives: Oxpecker

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.

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 was not 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 were not 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 did not 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 did not realise it at the time, but I captured a far more pleasing image of a buffalo, in which, in a split second, I had also captured an oxpecker launching into flight from the top of the buffalo‘s head!  I did not discover I had captured it until a few days later when reviewing the many images I had shot.

Here is what I consider to be the finest buffalo image I have 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 does not 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 is 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 would 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 would 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 are not 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 is not 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 did not 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 are 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 could not 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 had 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 would capture the tail 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.