August 11: August Wind is Windy

It was another really cold Kalahari night! The day had been ridiculously windy and while I usually shake my fists at the wind (“Grrrrr go away wind…”) it serves an important function. So I let it be. This time.

By the time it gets to August in the Kalahari, it’s very dry indeed. The winds always come at this time of year and they help to spread about all the grass seed that’s been floating around.  And the winds get Tumbleweed on the move, and no sighting beats a genuine Tumbleweed bouncing down the road on a cold morning!

I’m recycling photos here, but this is a Tumbleweed flower from back in the days before they all dried up, broke off at the base, curled up into big balls and started bouncing around the dunes. Beautiful much?

One of my favourite Kalahari relationships is between Bushman Grass and Driedoring bushes. When the winds come, they super-fluffy Bushman Grass is often caught by the super-catchy Three-Thorn bushes. When the rains come, it means the bushman grass grows close by the bushes.  In turn, both these plants help to stabilize the sand and yet more things can grow and more little paws can burrow. Love.

Another recycled photo (red face), but this is a Three Thorn Bush (Driedoring), probably one of the Kalahari’s most important little plants, stabilizing the dunes and providing food and shelter for lots of little things.

It’s also these crazy winds that shaped the dunes over time to the relatively fixed position they’re in today. So wind is excusable in the Kalahari.

The wind may have kept some of the animals tucked up under bushes for the sunset drive, and we saw noticeably less than we’d expect to see. But with endless things to talk about, it was a fantastic drive.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

African Wild Cat
Eland
Sprinhare
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildebeest
Steenbok
Ostrich
Tawny Eagle
Spotted Eagle Owl

By the night drive, the wind had subsided a little and more nocturnal goodies came out to play!

The drive began with a Spotted Hyena right by the vehicle. We’ve been seeing them frequently the last week, which has been very exciting. This particular one was eyeing up a nervous herd of Eland across the road. Their fears were founded as 7% of Spotted Hyena kills in this part of the Kalahari are said to be Eland calves.

I noticed in this particular herd what I love most about eland herds. The size differences! Unlike other Kalahari antelopes who seem to come in fixed sizes of small and large, you often find the full range of sizes in one Eland herd, from XS to XXXL! And when an Eland is XXXL it’s really XXXL. A full grown male can be larger than a Buffalo, weighing in at more than 800kgs. In the past week we’ve been lucky to see a number of these monster eland close to camp.

An absolutely wonderful drive to end my time in this park. Love Kalahari!

A lovely poignant image. Love Kalahari 🙂

Night Drive Sightings:

Spotted Hyena
Small Spotted Genet
African Wild Cat
Eland
Cape Fox
Bat eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Dikkop
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildebeest
Spotted Eagle Owl

August 4: “AAAAAAAAARDWOOOOOOOLF!” *deep breath* “AAAAAAAARDWOOOOOLF!”

I try as often as possible to tell people on my drives that aardwolf’s eat 300,000 termites each night. Because I never see aardwolfs, I have to find other ways to sneak in the little fact I love so dearly…

…“Bat Eared Foxes eat termites, but not as many as an Aarwolf does! An aardwolf eats 300,000 in one night”…

… “See this Brown Hyena? It’s kind of like a big Aardwolf, except it’s not at all and Brown Hyenas don’t eat termites, but Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 in one night!”

…“The African Wild Cat has distinctive stripes on it’s legs. You know what else is stripey? An Aardwolf. And Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 termites in one night!”…

Tonight, I got to tell my guests that “Aardwolfs will eat 300,000 termites in one night!”, except this time, an actual Aardwolf heard me say it. Cool? Very.

The drive hadn’t gone tremendously well to that point. While we’d seen a huge variety of nocturnal goodies (see epic list below), we’d also driven far afield in search of lions who weren’t there and my guests had disagreed with me at a Wild Cat sighting, insisting it was rather a leopard. They’re still convinced.

As I was starting to let my mind wander to the peanut butter cookies in my kitchen, I casually glanced to my right. And there was an aardwolf. Right there. Just meters from the truck, and staring back at me with a face i’ve only ever seen in mammal books.

I won’t go into my exact reaction. It involved a lot of gasping and squeaking. I told my guests that this was my first ever Aarwolf sighting and that they were lucky enough to see one of Africa’s lesser-seen safari stars. And of course I told them about the 300,000 termites. There were smiles all around, but I suspect they were more in response to my reaction, which progressed from gasping and squeaking to hand clapping and jumping up and down in my seat as the reality of the situation sunk in.

Seeing something new is always such a rush. Technically speaking, i’ve had two aardwolf sightings before this one. My most recent was by the side of the road as the truck I was in sped by at 140km/h, leaving me thinking, “goodness me, was that an aardwolf?”. My first sighting was on my field guiding course. I remember feeling like my life was complete, that I could die now that i’d seen an aardwolf. Perhaps a tad dramatic, but the feeling was indescribable. Only when we got back to camp did our photos prove the ‘aardwolf’ was in fact a Bat Eared Fox. But never mind, i’d still had the experience of seeing an aardwolf.

So tonight was extra special. You never even hear about aardwolf sightings in this part of the Kalahari. Everyone knows they’re here, but they’re a little like pangolins and black-footed cats– kind of mythical.

An unforgettable night.

Did I photograph tonight’s aardwolf? Noooo… but I do have a grainy 3 second video of a blurry blob moving up a sand dune. I did photograph this Spotted Hyena half an hour later, another animal I hardly ever get to see in the Kalahari.

Sunset Drive Sightings:

Aardwolf
Spotted Hyena
Eland
Small Spotted Genet
African WIld Cat
Cape Fox
Bat Eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Scrubhare
Steenbok
Springbok
Wildbeest
Gemsbok
Ostrich
Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
Spotted Eagle Owl
Tawny Eagle
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Kori Bustard

The night drive was rather more sedate with less squeaking and hand clapping. The highlight of the drive was a Spotted Hyena just as we came in through the gate. Love that feeling of hopping back into the truck after locking the gate behind me, only to find that a large predator had been watching all along.

Night Drive Sightings:

Spotted Hyena
Eland
African Wild Cat
Bat Eared Fox
Cape Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Springhare
Scrubhare
Steenbok
Gemsbok
Spotted Eagle Owl

August 2: My ‘Welcome Home’ was a tree full of Hornbills….

After two weeks away from the Kalahari i’m home! And the best sighting on tonight’s sunset drive, happened before I pulled out of the parking area. A tree full of Yellow-Billed Hornbills! Joy. Love. Cookies. It felt a little like a Kalahari welcoming party, even if they were just there to scope out all the hottest food joints.

A Whole Tree Full of Hornbills. Love.

Hornbills don’t have a brood-patch. Most birds have got a special fluffy bit of feathers on their chests to help them to incubate their children when they’re still eggs. It’s called a ‘brood-patch’. Hornbills don’t have one. I already said that.

Instead of a brood patch, a mother Hornbill will pluck nearly every feather from her body to make a warm soft duvet for her eggies. But you can’t just sit down in the middle of the street and pull out all your feathers. It would be both freezing and embarrassing. So mom and dad Hornbill first choose a suitable hole in a tree. Then mom goes inside. Then dad rushes away to find mud so he can totally wall her into her little hole. She’s allowed a tiny hole somewhere in the mud-wall where dad can drop off an occasional snack. But it’s only big enough to deliver little things like worms and seeds, nothing awesome like cheeseburgers or quiche, which dad secretly gorges on while he’s away.

Photographic evidence obtained from Tshokwane Picnic Spot: what dads do when their family is locked away in a dark dark tree.

Eventually, the kids are born and kept warm by feather-less mom’s discarded feathers. It takes weeks and weeks for her feathers to grow back. When dad is finally satisfied that his wife and children are presentable enough to leave their tree-hole, he comes and breaks the wall down. It’s amazing Hornbills survive at all, given all the opportunities for serious error in their breeding plan.

Then there was the rest of the sunset drive. We saw a lot of Eland trying to dream their way over the camp fence and 932 Bat Eared Foxes.

Oooh there’s too much Amarula in my hot chocolate tonight…

Sightings:

Kudu
Eland
African Wild Cat
Black Backed Jackal
Bat Eared Fox
Cape Fox
Springhare
Springbok
Steenbok
Wildbeest
Gemsbok
Spotted Eagle Owl
Giant Eagle Owl
Dikkop
Tawny Eagle
Yellow Hornbill
Fiscal Shrike
Kori Bustard
Striped Mouse

July 19: Lions, more Lions and some Awkward Teenaged Bateleurs

I loved the drive home this morning! Because I often only drive these roads after dark, it’s so disorientating to see the same places in daylight.

At one waterhole I stopped because I saw a kudu. It only took a second to notice something was not quite cool. The kudu was flanked by two jackals and all three were staring intently at a bush nearby. Their gaze led me straight to a lion! He was watching the trio closely, but lions are only active for two of twenty four hours, and this hour was one of the twenty two that are spent crashed out and doing absolutely nothing.

The Kudu staring at the Lion…

…The Lion staring at the Kudu

Go on… drink at the waterhole…

A few hours closer to home I came around a corner and found a mating pair of lions in the road. The female shot me a quick warning look and I stopped at a fair distance. This is where the real difference between a closed vehicle and an open vehicle shines through. In an open vehicle, I had to hang back a little. So I sat and enjoyed some quality time with them.

In Afrikaans, female lions are called ‘Wifeys’ (or something like that). I think it’s one of my favourite ever expressions.

Pretending to sleep

Together

…and mating

I’d been so focused on the two in front that I didn’t even see the two girls on the dune right beside me!

The Wifeys on the dune

Eventually (and perhaps to my relief, because I was in a hurry) a few construction vehicles appeared on the horizon. The sight of something so unusual and  so fabulously yellow sent the pair over to join the others on the ridge, and I took my opportunity to drive away.

Love lions

I counted 23 jackals at the next waterhole.

This morning there were baby Bateleur’s everywhere! But it’s not surprising given that it takes about seven years for a baby to finally take on its parents striking colouration and stop being a mud-brown colour with a greenish bill and awkward naked legs.  Adult Bateleur’s are the most beautiful raptors imaginable, but it takes a heck of a long time to get there.

And now that i’ve seen my first Grey Hornbill in the Kalahari, i’m seeing them absolutely everywhere I look.

Sightings:

Lion
Kudu
Steenbok
Grey Hornbill
Lanner Falcon
Red Necked Falcon
Red Hartebeest
Yellow Mongoose
Ground Squirrel
Kori Bustard
Secretary Bird
Bateleur
Jackal
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildbeest

July 18: The Super-Jackals are Making Shoes Now…

Before the night drive, the camp was buzzing with news of four cheetahs who’d just tried to bring down a wildebeest at the hide.  Later when I went down to see if they were still around, the hide was packed, but no cheetahs. I decided to walk along the perimeter fence to see if I could find them elsewhere. And it worked! Their presence given away by a Tawny Eagle rudely staring directly at them. The four cheetahs were perched on a dune crest.  It’s always so fun to have great sightings right in camp!

Tonight there was a night drive and it started with one guest getting a glimpse of one of the  four cheetahs just outside the camp’s gate. The tracks in the road confirmed what she saw. But of ten people on the drive, just one can add ‘cheetah’ to their list.

Tonight we were tracking lions all over the place. Over the course of the night we followed six different sets of tracks- all of which were extra crispy and fresh.  I love the feeling of following fresh tracks!

Have I ever mentioned how smart Jackals are? They’re smart. They’ve even been coined ‘Super-Jackals’ by the farming community because of their ability to avoid traps and problem solve. And I think that the jackals have started walking around wearing little ‘lion shoes’ to throw us all off. Despite all of the tracks, there were no lions anywhere. But lots of jackals.

Sightings:

Cheetah (for one of us)
Brown Hyena
Eland
African Wild Cat
Gemsbok
Springbok
Wildbeest
Springhare
Bat Eared Fox
Black Backed Jackal
Cape Fox
Spotted Eagle Owl
Barn Owl

July 17: Grass-Eating Vampires

 For some reason, everything seemed to be afraid of the dark tonight. Almost all of our sunset drive sightings happened before the sun went down, with the exception of our only Springhare. A Springhare wouldn’t be caught dead in sunlight. They’re like the vampires of the rodent world. Except they eat grass. Not like those vampires who call themselves ‘vegetarians’ because they only eat bears and wolves and not people. And Springhares don’t sparkle in the sun. At least I think they don’t, but then i’ve never seen one in the day, because they don’t come out in the day. Hence the point i’m trying to make. (I may have spent the day watching those ‘Twilight’ films for the first time. I’m not proud of it. They weren’t good and they’ve affected my thought processes.)

It’s so hard these days to find new birds to add to my terribly dorkish Kalahari bird list. But today I got two new birds, and both in the same tree! While i’ve seen plenty of Gymnogenes elsewhere, i’d not seen one here before. My other new bird was the Grey Hornbill.They’ve been taunting me for months with their call, but tonight I finally got to see one. Love.

Not even slightly a Gymnogene…

Note: A few days later and upon closer Inspection, I find my Gymnogene to be rather a Brown Snake Eagle. In my defense, it was far away. So no Gynogenes for me.

Sightings:

Gymnogene (except it was a Brown Snake Eagle)
African Grey Hornbill
Eland
African Wild Cat
Jackal
Bat Eared Fox
Steenbok
Striped Mouse
Springhare
Springbok
Gemsbok
Wildebeest
Spotted Eagle Owl
Tawny Eagle
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Black Harrier
Black Chested Prinia

July 17: In the Aftermath of the Lion Storm

Last night it was quite impossible to sleep through the raging ‘lion storm’. There seemed to be countless lions calling from all directions, and for hours.  It’s what I love about this place. In the aftermath of the storm, still with the occasional distant rumble, people in the campsite would be forgiven for thinking that lions would be a guaranteed sighting this morning. But it turned out they weren’t…

No one saw the lions this morning… except us! That’s what you get for booking a morning drive and getting a good head start.  Even if if was well below freezing when we set out. Listening to the lions before we left, I could hear they were moving south very quickly. I decided to take a risk and not drive down a road where I thought they might be, rather choosing instead to see if I could intercept them on the main road. For once it paid off.

The sound of a nearby lion made us stop.  It took a few minutes before he finally emerged from the long grass. Very happy to see one of my favourite lions again after a few months away!  The gorgeous black maned lion was on a mission and headed right for us, crossing the road just behind us and disappearing into the dunes. A moment later we heard the second lion. When we saw him, he wasn’t in such a rush– until he heard the rest of his pride calling from far away. Immediately he changed course and started running in their direction, this time crossing the road in front of us.  We were lucky bunnies. And they were pretty lions.

The second lion to cross our path this morning. He was very pretty…

I learned that a good Lion sighting can physically warm up cold toes.  And with each good sighting, we all got just a little warmer. Some would say the rising sun had something to do with it… But it was all down to good sightings.Later on we saw both kudu and eland, which are the two rarest antelopes here and always wonderful to see.

At a waterhole, a friendly Cape Glossy Starling named Fred came and sat on our mirror. He wouldn’t leave! Eventually, it wasn’t until we were moving that he flew off.

Friendly Fred

Love friendly Fred

And I couldn’t have predicted that the lions would be dwarfed by some Striped Mice! Not just any Striped Mice, but a pile of 14 Striped Mice, clambering over each other trying to get a spot a few millimeters closer to the sun.  This sighting now ranks as one of my very best Kalahari moments. Love.

Maybe the best sighting i’ve ever had in the Kalahari…

After the mice, I told my guests that sightings-wise, this may have been my best drive yet in the Kalahari. And I meant it. But it gets better!

Nearly home again, I stopped to look at a Pale Chanting Goshawk.  As I began to explain to my guests why we always stop for Goshawks (1), I saw them and I gasped. And then I got really excited. And I squeaked and clapped my hands together in the way I do when something truly exciting happens. Geek.

HONEY BADGERS! Mummy and teenager. Because Badgers are indestructible and unstoppable, we didn’t get to see them for long, but it didn’t matter. Even a quick glimpse of a Honey Badger can keep me going for months.

(1) Why we always stop for Goshawks:  Pale chanting Goshawks will sit low in trees trailing Honey Badgers. You almost always see the Goshawks before you see the badgers. Badgers are good diggers but not always good catchers and the little critters who manage to escape the Honey Badgers are grabbed by Goshawks or Jackals. Essentially if you’re a small mammal, an approaching Honey Badger spells doom. If the badger doesn’t get you, someone else will.

Morning Drive Sightings:

Honey Badger
Lion
Striped Mouse
Kudu
Eland
Steenbok
Black Backed Jackal
Springbok
WIldebeest
Gemsbok
Secretary Bird
Kori Bustard
Bateleur
Cape Glossy Starling
Yellow Canary
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Gabar Goshawk
Lanner Falcon
Ostrich