Thieves…

We have a few macadamia trees at home that have not yielded very much for luck of water. Last year we had very good rains so we were rewarded with a good harvest and we are busy drying them under the sun so that I can then proceed with the rather time-consuming exercise of opening them.

Macadamia’s shells are extremely hard and, after trying various methods, I have resorted to a vise in the workshop that so far is still working until its thread gives in!

Some time ago we have discovered hollowed out nuts in the garden and we could not believe that an animal could be so powerful as to gnaw such thick and hard shells! Eventually we found lots of empty nuts near a large hole and realized that we had a colony of Southern Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) [1].

After a while we stopped seeing them and they disappeared. Apparently they moved off our house one night in a group and entered under the gate of a neighbouring house but I was not a witness to this Pied-piper of Hamelin-like migration!

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The empty shells after the rats ate the tasty inside.

More recently, we noted that the nuts we were drying were being peeled from their green outer cover and taken away whole from the sunning box. We “smelled a rat”!

A search up and down the garden was organized and, eventually, a large hole was discovered at the farther corner of the garden. Suspecting that the giant rats were there I set up a camera trap pointing towards the suspected burrow and this is what I got:

We confirmed our fears as the various videos taken showed one rat at a time either entering or leaving the burrow. As I was curious to see how many there were, I decided to put some food hoping that they would gather to feed. Although I got over 180 ten-second videos, I still failed to get a rat gathering! However, I got a few that prompted me to write this post!

I have selected a few that I find interesting and/or funny. Please note that one is eating a few carrot pieces on the ground while the others are chewing a chunk of (delicious for humans at least) butternut hanging from a bush, the idea being that they would not drag it into their nest!

This giant rats are widely distributed in mainly tropical regions of southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I first saw them in Monze, Zambia while driving on the main road and I had difficulties stopping my Zambian workers from jumping from the moving vehicle to catch them as they consider them a delicacy!

Later, also in Zambia, Bruno, a colleague from Belgium, invited me with a surprise roast that happened to be delicious and it was a giant rat -as tasty as a piglet- with baked potatoes (tasting like potatoes!)! Giant rats were very abundant in that area at the time and I am sure contributed to food security of the village where the project was based.

Giant pouched rats are named after their large cheek pouches and they are only distantly related to the true rats. Recent studies place them in the family Nesomyidae and not in the Muridae as they used to be [2].

They are able to produce up to 10 litters of one to five young per annum and they are nocturnal and omnivorous with special taste for palm nuts and, as we have experienced, also for macadamia nuts. Interestingly, they are hind gut fermenters and coprophagous, producing pellets of semi-digested food that are consumed.

They are not only easily tamed as pets but useful for detecting land mines as they have an excellent sense of smell, particularly sniffing TNT while being too light to detonate the mines! But this is not all. They are also being trained to detect tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. This procedure is faster than the normal diagnostic test and remarkably increases the sample processing. [3]

So a few disappeared nuts ended up producing an interesting story and  I am now positive that we  have a colony of rats (being fed on expensive macadamia nuts) that could potentially be bred to remove mines and improve human lives!

I regret now having eaten one (and liked it!) and I will not do it again!

 

[1] I am not a rat taxonomist so I base my identification more on distribution and abundance than on their morphology. The other possible species in Zimbabwe would be C. gambianus but the whole pouched rat taxonomy is under review. See: Olayemi, A. et. al. (2012). Taxonomy of the African giant pouched rats (Nesomyidae: Cricetomys): molecular and craniometric evidence support an unexpected high species diversity. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 165, 700–719.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_pouched_rat#cite_note-MetH-1. Seen on 6/12/18.

[3] https://www.apopo.org/en. Seen on 6/12/18.

 

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.

Anecdotes with a friend

I will not tire repeating that Alan Young was the principal driving force behind the research on Theileriosis in Africa and I still regret its untimely passing in 1995 that resulted in a crippling blow to our progress in the understanding and controlling the disease in Africa.

Apart from being very intelligent, Alan was a “hands on” researcher that enjoyed fieldwork and a good laugh. During the few years we shared in Kenya there were a number of great working moments and achievements as well as some amusing ones. As this is not a scientific blog, I will share with you some of the latter that I still remember.

Although he was always writing and publishing scientific papers and work was his passion, Alan still managed field trips and he loved to visit Intona. As I described before it was Alan who brought me to the ranch in the Transmara for the first time after my first trip to Mbita Point with Matt [1].

Alan inspecting the cattle at Intona ranch.

I needed his expertise to protect cattle against Theileriosis so I could stop applying acaricides to them for my trial. He was always busy following up immunized animals, a procedure that required many hours behind a microscope checking lymph and blood smears to detect early signs of the disease and take appropriate action.

Luckily, we had a cohort of well-drilled KEVRI and ICIPE technicians that would stay at Intona monitoring the cattle as well as the tick work I was involved. Some of them were the protagonists of some incidents that I believe are worth narrating.

During one of my first trips from Muguga to Intona with Alan and the herdsmen, in particular a very funny one called Ben, we left Muguga at about 09:00hs. Not a very early start but the herdsmen needed to wait for the Government’s cashier to give them their per diem for the days they would be in the bush. This meant that we needed to stop on the way to get their provisions for the entire spell that they would be out.

So, after getting cooking oil, ugali [2] and cabbages, we stopped to fill-up the car at the main Nairobi to Kampala road. Alan dealt with the fuel, I did nothing but walk about while the herdsmen went off to get paraffin for cooking.

After a while we were ready to depart. While Alan waited for the change from the cashier I got in the car and noted a rather overwhelming paraffin smell. Thinking that one of the herdsmen containers was still dirty in the outside I kept quiet thinking that it would soon dry up and the smell would stop.

Alan came in and he immediately detected the strong fumes and asked the herdsmen at the back of the Land Rover to check their paraffin containers. They both replied that all was in order so we moved on with our windows open. However, as the stink continued, Alan decided to stop about a kilometer further to have a look. He was not amused when he found that Ben was clinging to his plastic paraffin can. Alan noted that he was trying to block a leak with his finger! It was necessary to return to the petrol station to get a new container before the journey resumed! Luckily, over the long journey we shared a great laugh with Ben over the issue.

Once my work started at Intona I was there often and regularly to manage the tick trials I was running. Kiza, the resident veterinarian at the ranch, supervised Alan’s work but also looked after the numerous Murumbi’s pet dogs that kept him very busy. The arrangement with the cattle was that Kiza would radio Alan in case of any complication was detected.

So, during one of my stays at Intona, Alan turned up to deal with some abnormal cattle temperature readings. I was at a particular busy time and did not know what was taking place so here I reconstruct the story from the various participants.

The monitoring of cattle immunized against Theileriosis included recording daily body temperatures and taking blood and lymph node smears to check for parasites in both tissues. There was a book where these findings were recorded daily.

At that particular time, John, one of the hard working KEVRI staff, was in charge of monitoring the cattle. Immediately upon arrival Alan asked for the book where the daily cattle temperatures were recorded and started to go through it with Kiza and John himself. The issue was that, for the last four or five days there were some unusual temperature readings, different from the earlier trend. The experienced Alan smelled a rat so he asked John to repeat the temperature checking for that day to compare with those in the book and see if he could detect anything.

After the request, an inordinate amount of time elapsed before John started checking the animals and, eventually, he came to reveal that all the thermometers had broken and that, over the days in question, he had taken “temperature estimates” of the animals based on how they felt to the touch under the tail area!

Later on, when things settled down, over a beer Alan narrated the event to me and he was very amused to the point that he coined the term “John’s finger test” to describe what had happened! Although we never quite knew about the real procedure employed by John, we had a good laugh and both his working mates and us forever teased John about this incident.

This anecdote of a time when we were applying identification ear tags to cattle at Muguga confirms that I was not the only one that had difficulties to understand Alan. We were using new ear tags and noted that we had forgotten the special pen to write on them known as the Magic marker as it would write on plastic and the paint would last long.

So, Alan asked one of the older workers called Ernest to bring it. After about twenty minutes Ernest had not yet returned although the office was quite near. Alan and I were getting anxious and wondering what happened as this was a routine procedure and we needed to get on with more important work.

When I was about to go and check we saw Ernest walking very slowly towards us trying not to spill the water from a plastic washbowl. We looked at each other fearing some “cock-up”; the term we normally used for these eventualities. Alan echoed my thoughts when he asked Ernest “why did you bring this if we asked you for the magic marker?” “Oh”, Ernest replied, “I thought you wanted “maji moto”, KiSwahili for hot water. The delay was now clear and he rushed to get the pen while we both burst out laughing.

After a few years I completed my FAO assignment but remained in Kenya as a scientist with the ICIPE and my collaboration with Alan continued although my work had shifted to cattle resistance to tick infestations. I continued visiting Intona with a new experiment that required the building of a special paddock.

It was very important that the wild animals were kept out and the cattle inside the paddock for the trial to succeed. We were not only dealing with African buffalo that were common at the ranch but also with elephants that at times would literally walk through Intona and we knew that they would not be stopped by a normal fence!

Building the paddock.

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The paddock being used.

So, Alan had the idea of setting up a strong paddock with an electric fence. Alan was traveling frequently to the USA at the time and brought a couple of solar powered electric fence units capable of delivering 11,000 Volts pulses of very low amperage (safe as high Amps are the ones that could kill you) but the high Voltage will “only” hurt you!

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The Solar-powered units for the fencing.

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The solar powered electric fence unit installed in a protective box.

 

The day came to connect the fence so that the trial could start. We needed to confirm that the solar-charged batteries were delivering the correct electricity current according to the manual. For that purpose the equipment came with a very fancy tester that Alan would use. We had left the unit charging from the day before as advised by the makers.

Although it rained most afternoons, because of the influence of Lake Victoria, there was sunshine from sunrise to about 17:00 hs, enough for charging the batteries. So, Alan, the herdsmen and myself, after listening to the pulse clicks at the unit, went to the fence to finally test its power.

Alan applied the terminals to the wire and, before I go on, I must tell you that what took place happened very fast so I may have missed some details as I was looking at the reading in the tester. I believe that first there were some sparks but in any case, the tester disappeared from my field of vision together with Alan that proffered a rude epithet while being thrown back from the fence and falling on his bump!

“Pole sana”[3] said the herdsman and I also muttered a rather useless “oh, sorry!” Alan sat on the ground, rubbing his right hand that was still holding the charred remains of the tester! Our concern about his wellbeing evaporated the moment that Alan burst out laughing and we all relaxed learning that he was still his usual self even after the shock!

Probably the rain that fell the day before had had some impact in the transmission of the electricity pulses that, somehow, got to Alan and not to the tester. From that day on we assumed that the fence was powerful enough and no further checks were ever performed again for lack of volunteers and a tester!

While performing field trips with Alan he kindly lent me his Land Rover as part of our collaboration until some years later ICIPE finally decided to buy a similar one for our work.

Alan’s car was heavily used, as we not only traveled to Intona but also Busia and Laikipia to name the most common ones. Although I never noticed it, years later during a visit while I was already out of Kenya, I managed to meet with some of our former herdsmen who as one of the events they remembered was that we had been carrying Chang’aa, an illegal drink! I was astonished when they explained me how it happened.

Alan’s Series III Land Rover had two jerry cans fitted at the front of the car. As we considered carrying petrol there too dangerous in case of an accident we kept the cans empty and, frankly, we forgot about them.

Chang’aa, also known in various languages as kali, kill-me-quick, Kisumu whisky, maai-matheru, machozi-ya-simba and others, was (and still is) the name given to distilled spirits in Kenya and the manufacture, commerce, consumption or possession of it was, at the time, illegal and punishable with heavy fines and even up to two years in prison! [4].

So it resulted that the guilty herdsmen would buy Chang’aa in the field, place it in the jerry cans and “import it” under the cover of our work to Nairobi where they would, I imagine, sell it for a handsome profit!

So, without our knowledge, our Land Rover (and us!) was used as a “mule” in the rather clever operation! I never had the chance to comment this with Alan as I learnt about it after his passing so I am not sure that he ever found out about it.

Alan and I shared the passion for soccer. While this should not surprise you in my case, as I come from Uruguay but for someone from Northern Ireland, not a great soccer nation, it was remarkable at least in my book. We shared our soccer interest with Walter, the then Director of KEVRI, Muguga, and this was a frequent topic during our many morning tea breaks at the Institute. Walter was the Chairman of one of the main teams in Kenya, AFC Leopards, but also followed football worldwide.

In 1989, living and working in Ethiopia, I attended one of the FAO Expert Consultations on Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Rome where I met Alan and, during the meeting, we learnt that there was a football match the coming Sunday. The meeting was ending on Friday so we agreed that, return flights to Africa permitting, a soccer match of the Serie A League was a must.

Because I could speak some Italian I dealt with the organization of the outing once both checked that our flights would leave on the Sunday night. So, I confirmed that Lazio, one of the two teams from Rome, was playing Fiorentina (from Florence). The game would take place at the Stadio Olimpico, the main arena in Roma built for the 1960 Summer Olympic Games.

I still remember that it was Sunday 21 May 1989 when, before lunchtime we left the Sant’ Anselmo hotel in the Aventino area of Rome and walked to the bus stop as advised by my Roman contacts. The bus was empty as the stop was the start of the line and, seated, we were soon on our way. About half way a crowd of Lazio tifosi (fans) dressed for the occasion and carrying lots of flags and banners filled the bus. They were many and about half of them were left behind when the doors were closed!

We were really packed, almost worse than in a Kenya minibus! Surrounded by people dressed in their team’s pale blue shirts I felt like going to a match where the “celeste” (pale blue) of Uruguay was playing! After a while the tifosi started to jump all together and to move sideways… We look at each other in disbelief and grabbed whatever handle we could, as the danger of the bus toppling sideways was a real one!

Feeling like survivors, we were the last leaving the bus. It was about an hour earlier and it was filling fast. We approached the usual ticket sale points and they were all closed, except for the really expensive ones. We were in trouble, as we had not planned for such expenditure! Far from giving up, we looked for a quiet corner and counted our cash realizing that it would be either soccer or lunch! Luckily we already had the return bus tickets.

Without hesitating we agreed to skip lunch so two starved and penniless people entered the grand stand that afternoon! The attraction for me was that Rubén Sosa, a Uruguayan that had a distinguished career as a fast attacker with a great goal scoring ability and exact passing. He is considered by many as one of the best soccer players Uruguay has produced in the second half of the 20th Century!

The match was even and entertaining until early in the second half Lazio was awarded a penalty that Sosa converted into a goal and Lazio won. The people in the stadium went wild and, when he was replaced at the 89th minute, got a standing ovation (that included us!). We were really happy and the occasion gave me good ammo to tease Alan in the future about my South American origins!

 

[1] https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] KiSwahili for white maize flower, the staple food in Kenya.

[3] “Sorry” or “very sorry” in KiSwahili means

[4] Kenyalaw.org/kl/fileadmin/pdfdownloads/…/Changaa_Prohibition__Cap_70_.doc Consulted on 25/11/2018.

The wild Shoebill stork chase – The videos

As there was some technical issue with the videos that illustrated the earlier post, I attach them here with a short explanation about each one.

 

This video shows how the going was when things were relatively easy. Nevertheless, my admiration goes to Lola that managed to record the moment while she kept walking!

 

While she filmed her steps, that is how the rest of us were doing!

 

Walking on floating vegetation. A view of the situation when the going got tough.

 

Finally observing the nest!

 

Preparations for the Bushsnob to jump a ditch on the way back and his great jump!

The wild Shoebill stork chase

“… I dreamed of seeing a Shoebill. … a unique bird in Africa … It is a trophy bird for birdwatchers, and seeing it had been a dream since my youth. … With a guide who knew the Shoebill and a driver who knew the mud, we set out in an open-topped vehicle to the limit of where the swamp tolerated cars. There we searched out and watched a Shoebill. And what a show bill!  Vernon R.L. Head (2015). The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World. Signal Books Ltd.

The second part of our Zambian safari was the Bangweulu Wetlands where we would attempt to find the mythical Shoebill storks (Balaeniceps rex). So, after deciding to return to Kasanka to see the bats again [1] we moved north.

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The red dots show Nkondo and Nsobe further north. The brown area is the Bangweulu wetlands management area.

We had a hint of what expected us: our navigators showed a journey of 120km to Nsobe to take 7.5 hours! The going will be slow so again so, on 8 October, we left early again. After only a few kilometres of asphalt we took the turning for the Bangweulu Wetlands at Chitambo. This dirt track, surprisingly for me, traversed well-populated areas. However, judging by the enthusiasm with which the children in particular greeted us and by the rather dangerous evasive maneuvers taken by cyclists at our approach, cars with tourists were not common. In fact we only met two of them returning from the wetlands.

While at Kasanka we had learnt that -as we suspected- we were too late to have a real chance of finding Shoebill storks as the water was low and the birds had moved north where there was still water and food. Nests would now be empty as most fledglings had matured and moved off. So, I thought, “finding our trophy bird would be rather impossible” but kept these negative thoughts to myself while trying to find a Plan B such as visiting a new area, watching other water birds and the herds of Black Lechwe that inhabit the wetlands.

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A more detailed map. I added a black dot where we left the car and a star where the nest was expected to be.

While planning this leg of the journey we learnt that camping on Shoebill Island was not possible so we had booked the Nsobe Campsite, a community-managed camp that we considered adequate for our purposes. The drive (see map above) took us past Lake Waka Waka and Nakapalayo until we eventually got to the Nkondo Headquarters and entrance gate. From there we continued in a northwesterly direction through Mwelushi and Muwele until we got to Nsobe.

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The Nsobe campsite was quite basic. However, soon after arriving, the camp attendants brought us water and firewood and indicated to us that there was a flush toilet and shower nearby. The latter was to be shared among the various campers. This would have been a challenge if there would have been other campers but, luckily, we were alone. The latter also enabled us to pick what we thought was the best site and there we gladly assembled our camp under the shade.

The campsite was located in the area where the tree islands ended and the vast flat and endless expanse of dry wetlands, crisscrossed by dykes and channels started.

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Very soon after setting up camp we rushed off to the Chikuni Visitors Centre, a further five kilometres north where we were to meet Brighton, our own Shoebill guide that Frank had contacted earlier. Being on the ground he would know whether we had chances of finding Shoebills.

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Meeting with Brighton and planning our next move.

Luckily the bush mail system had worked and not only he was there, waiting for us, but there was also a photocopy of our booking indicating that we had paid in advance to avoid any possible problems!

We learnt that our information from Kasanka was true: most Shoebills had indeed moved north and it would be difficult to see them. Our hearts sunk. However, he knew of one nest that still had a young stork. Our hearts leaped. But this was in a hunting area that we could not enter! The sinking feeling again!

Clearly, our situation was not good. However, as usual, Brighton would try to arrange a car to pick us up and take us to the area the following day. This required a walk across the river from Shoebill Island to meet the car. He sent cellphone and written messages to Nkondo Headquarters hoping to get the necessary authorization for both the proposed journey and the car we needed. He hoped that we would have an answer that same afternoon and he will contact us.

In the meantime we decided that an exploratory visit to Shoebill Island was in order. We drove through the airstrip on a very dusty road. At the island we found a large lodge overlooking a swampy area that still had water. The lodge was about to re-open and the prices we were given made us lose interest rather rapidly!

We then focused on the swamp and spotted a good flock of Large white pelicans, Knob bill ducks and Woolly neck storks parked on the opposite shore. Beyond them the Black lechwe were there in numbers and they seemed to be quite used to being watched. We saw a few herds grazing about and my mind started thinking about predators. Later I learnt that hyenas and jackals were the main carnivores in the area and we saw a couple of side striped jackals near our camp and the typical white hyena dung at several locations but they remained hidden.

Back at camp we fruitlessly waited for Brighton’s arrival so, before nightfall, we drove back to Chikuni to learn that the trip was off, as Brighton had not had any news from Nkondo. While Lola and Frank arranged to go for a walk with Brighton early the following morning, we decided to stay at camp and, later, drive around exploring the area.

After all activities were completed, at the end of the day it was time for our final and crucial encounter with Brighton to decide the fate of our Shoebill adventure as we were departing the day after. The news he had was somehow promising. The hunters were lifting their camp the following day and there was a chance -albeit slim- for us. It all depended on obtaining the agreement of the Management Area authorities at Nkondo and to get a vehicle to take us to the area.

Forever hopeful, we agreed to shorten our stay at Nsobe and departed very early the morning of the 10 October to reach Nkondo in time to get permission to go to the hunting area, book the car and obtain permission to camp near Nkondo once our Shoebill trip was completed. It was a very tight programme but still feasible, just!

We arrived at Nkondo at about 08:30hs and Brighton’s plan met with an initial “nyet”. However, the female contingent of the team somehow managed to twist the arm of management (all male) and, after a radio call to confirm that the hunters were leaving and no shooting was taking place, we were given the green light.

The ladies also negotiated for a car to take us there and a place to spend the night! I do not know how they managed this as I stayed away from the “talks”.

So, we now had a guide who knew where the Shoebill was and a driver who knew the mud! However, the details of what was in front of us had not been revealed and were still sketchy.

I was not at all aware about the number of hours drive to get to the place where the car would be “abandoned” and our walking would start. I did not know the distance to be walked and when I asked Peter (our driver) how long we needed to drive to get to the start of the walk he told me “three hours” and later on told Lola that it would be “five hours”.

Although I was uneasy, I decided to trust Brighton’s judgment and come to conclusions later.

We left our cars at Nkondo where we would camp for that night after our return and climbed on a rather new open vehicle. As soon as we could (09:00hs) we were on the road and took the turning to the Makanga Hunting Camp (see map above). The drive took us through some villages,  then across woodlands,  areas of dried up wetlands with interesting termite mound formations and finally to the endless dry plains. We did not see anything much during the five hours it took us to get to the end of the car ride.

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After driving for about four hours we left our track to cut across the plains. Brighton wisely decided to enter this point in his GPS as the Black Lechwe skull that indicated the “junction” could be overlooked on the way back. Luckily Frank knew how to manage the GPS as none of the others -including Brighton- knew!

The final few kilometres were driven across the plains and, every now and then we needed to cross the dikes that the fishing communities had built over generations. It was not possible to cross them as they were too high and were adjacent to water-filled channels. Luckily Peter knew a trick or two and looked for a termite mound, included in the dyke, and we used its smoother surface to climb over and across!

Thus, after crossing at least half a dozen dykes (and ditches), the ground became too soft for the car and at about 14:00hs we stopped (see grey circle in the map above) and got ready to walk the rest of the way.

What follows now is an account of our “walk”. The narrative has benefitted from contributions from the three other team members although the final responsibility for what I say is mine. Lola -the only one in a condition to do so at the time- illustrated the walk and, in addition, she managed to exasperate me as you will see!

Before going on, however, I must warn you that SOME OF THE PICTURES AND OR VIDEOS THAT YOU WILL SEE BELOW MAY NOT BE FOR SENSITIVE READERS…

Before I go fully into the march, the Bangweulu wetlands project is working hard to protect the Shoebills from predation [1]. The idea is that when members of the fishing community find a nest they report it to the Management Area and they are given the responsibility of “looking after their nest” for 120 days in exchange for a stipend. In this case, the nest had been found on 23 September.

We then learnt that we were going to meet Emmanuel, the fisherman responsible for that nest and he would come with us. So, we did our final checks on hats, water, cameras, etc., leaving unnecessary items with Peter in the car.

We started well enough, walking over grassy but dry terrain. This lasted for a few hundred metres and then for the next kilometre we traversed a swamp that soon became wet and then our feet were inside water basically for the rest of the walk. As we were not able to walk barefoot like Brighton and the fishermen, our shoes became the key tools for the job.

Fortunately my wife Mabel and I were wearing walking sneakers rather than heavy boots. However, soon my feet started to slip inside the shoes and this did not help my normally poor equilibrium so I announced that I planned to fall repeatedly while trying to remember to tighten the shoestrings as soon as we stopped.

After a while we entered an area where the water increased and the mud became softer and deeper. We were in fact walking over floating vegetation! As the going deteriorated Brighton, trying to keep us cheerful, pointed at a mound in front of us saying that it was the island where we would meet Emmanuel! All I could see was more swamp…  I pushed on.

Eventually, after about five hundred metres, we reached Emmanuel’s island where he lived with his family. “Terra firme at last” I thought while using the short respite to wash my hands, drink water and adjust my shoes. At that time I heard Brighton announced that from there on we would follow a river. We set off again and two more fishermen joined us soon. One of them offered me a rather heavy stick that I accepted gladly as I usually carry one in my walks.

This one resembled a primitive crozier that I found useless and continued to blunder for a few more steps until one of the fishermen told me to place the forked end down to avoid it sinking! Lola later confessed that I reminded her of Moses dividing the mud! I did not feel like that at all.

Watching the fishermen (always in front of me of course) I had plenty of time to realize that the trick was both not to wear shoes and to walk fast stepping on firm mud clumps before starting to sink. Regrettably, imitating their gait was not on as I weighed twice as much (and was already sinking the moment I stepped on the clumps) and I was wearing shoes so I could only admire their ability!

Not all of us had the same degree of difficulty as we had different ages, weights and physical (and mental?) conditions. Apart from Mabel, even Frank (coming from a dyke country) also had problems. Conversely, Lola could follow the fishermen successfully and then became almost as annoying as the biting flies! She would go in the front of the file with the fishermen and then wait for us to catch us in all sorts of miserable conditions. Not happy with that she would loudly claim to be a Jacana and be able to walk over the mud rather than into it like the rest of us!

I will give you some details of my mud (mad?) walking if what I was doing can be called that. The routine was that I took a few good steps and, when all seemed to be going great, one of my feet would find a soft spot and start sinking. Instinctively I attempted to keep the vertical by moving the other foot, while trying to raise the stuck one. Unfortunately, the second foot would also sink triggering a weird sideways dance that often ended with a soft landing on the mud or water!

If I would not had been tired and suffering from severe tachycardia, I would have laughed at my situation as each misstep was accompanied by gallant attempts by the fishermen to grab me and lift me up, an impossible task for people weighing half my weight! Declining their kind offers I gradually managed to remove my buried limbs and stood up to resume my endless stagger.

After a while, we were too worn-out even to talk and all our energies were focused on removing our legs from deep mud and sinking holes, apparently made by water mongooses. On occasions you would step on a harmless looking puddle and you would go down to your groin in watery mud.

 

As we moved on, resting stoppages became more and more frequent. I took these pauses not only to recover my breath but also to give a few minutes to my muscles (and battered feet) to regain their shapes and tone while waiting for my racing heart to regain the usual rhythm of a retiree!

As we progressed towards our feathered objective my thoughts were not cheerful. They focused on the walk back (as we could not afford to book a helicopter to lift us all to safety!), negotiating the liquid mud and dykes in twilight, the five-hour drive back to Nkondo and the setting up the tent in the dark.

Before I could find more negative thoughts, Brighton’s voice brought me back to the bleak reality “the nest is near that clump of reeds” and that seemed like a good excuse to stop! I looked in the direction that he indicated and I thought I could just make up some taller reeds. I continued walking, now almost on auto pilot: four steps, right leg sinking, pulling right leg up, left leg thinking, falling, fell, start removing right leg, then left leg, stand up, re-start and I was moving again through the deep limb-sucking quagmire!

We were not yet there though as -unknown to us- the fishing channels lurked ahead. These were not very wide and, under normal circumstances, they would have demanded a small jump to clear them. However, when you are not able to start your jump from a firm surface but from a floating island, the exercise becomes a new challenge. At that time it became clear why we had three fishermen with us. They needed to fill the channels with chunks of mud so that we could negotiate them. I did not manage too well…

Eventually we reached our almost impossible target. Suddenly we saw two large storks take off and a few minutes later we arrived at an area of floating vegetation where there was a clearing, lots of dry straw and, in the middle of it there was a motionless grey object: a fledgling Shoebill stork laid on its nest! It was still small, except for its rather oversized bill and its only movement was the blinking of its yellow eye. It was quite sweet in an ugly sort of way!

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As we did not wish to disturb the motionless bird and time was going fast, we started our return after a few minutes contemplation and picture taking (to prove that we had seen it!).

The time was 16:00 hours when we turned around and the same muddy way waited for us…

I will not waste your valuable time describing the return walk. I will just say that -as expected- it was worse: we were more tired, visibility deteriorated gradually and the pulling out of stuck limbs was now accompanied by cramps that locked feet in positions that made their removal from the mud difficult. The stick helped as a support when jumping channels and also to bite it when the cramps set in!

About half an hour too early Brighton started to “see” the car near some palm trees ahead of us. As much as I strained my eyes, I saw nothing! All in all we returned in two hours and, by 18:00hs, we were back on the car after saying farewell to the three fishermen that helped us so much. Our smartphones indicated that we had covered 11.4km of which I reckon ten percent we “walked” and the rest we jumbled through various kinds of mud and holes full of water!

The GPS point taken earlier proved to be invaluable (I am sure Brighton knew this but kept quiet to avoid demoralizing us before the walk!) as it enabled us to find our almost invisible track in the dark. Luckily, having experience on driving in open vehicles we had taken the warmest clothing available and, despite our wet shoes and trousers, we did not feel cold during the seemingly endless return journey.

The rest is not important. We got back at 23:30hs, assembled our tents in the HQs grounds, took a quick shower to remove a small fraction of the sticky mud, grabbed whatever food we could find and I promise you that I was sleep even before my head landed on my pillow!

Unfortunately I woke up sweaty and panicky a few hours later. I have had a nightmare! I was walking in the Bangweulu wetlands with a Jacana in pursuit of a young Shoebill stork! “What a ridiculous dream” I thought and, very relieved; I went back to sleep knowing that often dreams are crazy!

 

[1] We learnt that thwarted attempts at stealing chicks had taken place in the past!

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 52

This beast flew into our campsite at Nsobe, Bangweulu wetlands, Zambia so you know you are not looking for a mammal (maybe a bat?)… Anyway, look for it on the second picture as it will be hard to find it in the first one!

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The Nsobe campsite where the beast was detected.

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The beast is there somewhere…

It is not easy! So I reveal it below…

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It was a “super flat” Praying mantis, always a great find.

Secret insect life at Bangweulu

Often, apparently insignificant details reveal interesting facts when sometime is spent following them up. This was -again- the case while camping at the Nsobe campsite at the Bangweulu wetlands during our prelude to attempting to find the Shoebill storks.

As -aware of the differences- the landscape reminded me somehow of that of Intona Ranch in the Transmara of Kenya in the 80’s [1], I decided to look at some of the tree islands surrounding the one we were camping at. The similarities ended as these, although around termite mounds, were composed of different trees.

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The Bushsnob walking about in the Bwngweulu wetlands looking at the tree islands.

In one of the bushes nearby I observed that some leaves were yellow while others were just their normal shape and green. A better look showed that the yellow parts were in fact an enlarged part of the leaf itself. I thought it was probably a viral or fungal infection but, in any case, I collected a few for opening up as I was curious.

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Close-up of the malformation (gall).

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Similar lesions of Thryps infestation. Credit: Mr Thrips (Talk | contribs). [2]

I cut them lengthwise and found some tiny insects inside the galls!

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The capsules opened lengthwise to show their contents.

Luckily I had with me a “super macro’ lens given to me by my son (he likes gadgets!). This lens is applied to the cellphone camera and give you enlarged macro pictures like the ones I showed in from our bat house in Salta, Argentina [3].

Through the camera I could see an adult (black) insect, several white eggs and what looked like larvae or nymphs of the black insect walking about. In addition there was a large white insect that I assumed to be the female lying eggs according to its pulsating movement under the macro lens.

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Adult (black) with nymphs and eggs.

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Eggs and a nymph (reddish abdomen).

As I had no clue of what these could be, on return to Zimbabwe I resorted to the very helpful Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa as they had helped me in the past with insect identification and information. As usual, the reply came the next day and it was very revealing!

The host plant was identified as probably a Water berry tree belonging to the Syzygium (Family: Myrtaceae). It is likely to be Syzygium cordatum but I am not sure. In any case, the “leaf roll” or gall was the plant’s response to a kind of insect known as Thryps (Order: Thysanoptera), of which I have not heard before but later learnt that are important agriculture pests!

Adult Thryps have sucking mouthparts that cause damage by feeding on a plant’s fluids. The leaves respond curling tightly inwards developing the capsule I found. This structure protects the immature Thryps to develop and eventually disperse.

What I thought was an egg-laying female seems, according to the South African colleagues, a Hover fly larvae predating on the Thryps so there was also some drama going on in the dark!

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The suspected female was apparently a Hover fly larvae possibly predating on the Thryps.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] From https://thrips.info/wiki/Thrips_and_galls. Thryps and galls by Laurence Mound, CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences, Canberra.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/

 

Acknowledgement: Elizabeth Globbelaar and Michael Stiller of the Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa provided not only identification of plant and insects but also great information without which this post would not have been written.

Bat-less in Kasanka?

It was a rather long trip to Kasanka National Park in Zambia so, departing from Harare on 3 October, we decided to break it in lake Kariba as we anticipated an easier border crossing there. As expected the frontier was quiet and soon we were settled at our hotel in Siavonga in Zambia from where we admired lake Kariba and, later in the evening, saw the Kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon) fishing boats leave from the Siavonga harbour next door.

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Our hotel at Siavonga. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

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A Kapenta fishing boat slides through the calm waters of lake Karibaat dawn. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

We spent the next day traveling to Lusaka and then getting the car filled not only with fuel but also with all needed food and drinks as the journey to Kasanka would start rather early the following day to beat the morning traffic rush, following friends’ advice. I must say that Lusaka has changed greatly since our stay there in the early 90’s and the traffic today is rather chaotic so it seemed like a good idea.

I am sure that, under normal circumstances, an early departure would have worked. However, on the 5 October 2018 someone decided to transport two large boats to Bangweulu by road, also starting the journey early to beat the traffic! This slowly moving roadblock happened to be in front of us and, added to the on-going road works (it seemed that all the roundabouts of Lusaka were being re-built simultaneously!), created an almost impossible and impassable situation!

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Another view of the boat lorries. Lots of wheels mean heavy weight I guess? Pic by Mabel de Castro.

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The “Times of Zambia” reporting on the problems caused by abnormal trucks such as the ones we encountered.

There were three enormous lorries, frequent on southern African roads, escorted by the respective pick-ups with flashing lights and red flags warning of the hazardous nature (and ridiculous size!) of the cargo being escorted. The one we met first (the last in the convoy) carried two ferryboat cabins side by side while the other two lorries in front of it transported a hull each!

Overtaking was not in the menu as shown by the amount of traffic around us, so we followed this mad procession for about forty-five minutes. Through our walkie-talkies we discussed the situation and possible options until we agreed that we needed to break a few traffic rules if we were to pass them. The opportunity presented itself at one of the road works and we managed to squeeze through some rough terrain and “No Entry’ signs until, the moving boats overtaken, we returned to the now free road.

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Another view of the overtaking manouvre showing the clear road ahead. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

The trip to Kasanka was rather long and uneventful but for our drive next to the interesting “Congo Pedicle” in French la botte du Katanga (Katanga’s boot) that squeezes Zambia into two rather separate areas. The road between Kapiri Mposhi and Serenje touches the southernmost tip of the Pedicle so the Democratic Republic of Congo was in full view. Although we can say that we saw and almost touched the Congo, I am sorry to inform you that it looked just like Zambia…

Of interest, however, is that the Pedicle was the result of colonial negotiations that fought for the control of the mineral wealth of the area. The final word of how long the Pedicle would be was with the King of Italy who drew a north-south line (following a longitude line) where the Luapula River was thought to exit from the Lake Bangweulu swamps! [1] With that rather random action, he left his mark in Africa.

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The map of Zambia showing lake Kariba and Siavonga in the South and Lusaka (large pebble). The kidney shaped seed indicates the Congo Pedicle that divides Zambia into two lobes. The tip of the porcupine quill shows the area where we drove next to the DR Congo. The pear-shaped and red seeds indicate Kasanka NP and the southern part of the Bangweulu swamps, where we were.

We got to Kasanka National Park in the afternoon and camped near the Kasanka River at the Pontoon 2 site. These campsites are very shady and have good ablution facilities. The park is managed jointly by the Zambian Kasanka Trust and the Zambia Department of Parks and Wildlife. The Trust is, in turn, supported by two trusts based in the UK and The Netherlands. Created in 1985 it implements a private-public management model conserving wildlife while supporting the adjacent communities.

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Kasanka cellphone docking station!

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A recent map of the Kasanka National Park showing the Pontoon Campsite and the Fibwe hide.

As the river was next to our tents, every morning we had a good view of Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) and Puku (Kobus vardonii) -both uncommon antelopes- while we also heard hippos in the narrow Kasanka river. All animals were rather shy except for a couple of Bushbuck that daily walked near our camp.

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A female sitatunga at the Pontoon swamp.

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More Puku at the Pontoon area.

An amphibious antelope, the Sitatunga is restricted to wetlands. Although still classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as of “Least concern”, habitat loss threatens its survival. Loss of wetland areas has isolated populations and the burning of large areas of the Bangweulu and Busanga areas placed them under direct threat and reduces their food supply.

The next two days saw us exploring the park where we observed herds of Puku, more Sitatunga and one hippo during a walk. We also continuously heard (more than saw) the three-note call of the Red Chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) calling all the time from the canopy above our camp, while the swamp next to our camp offered good sightings of water birds and fish eagles, their haunting calls adding to the beauty of the place.

Although hyenas, buffalo and elephants are present in Kasanka, camp life was peaceful but for the biting flies that were a bit of an issue, particularly for Frank that reacted strongly to their bites. As repellents did not work well, apart from covering himself with appropriate clothing, when the “attacks” were intense, he performed a variation of what I believe was a national Dutch wooden clog dancing to -mechanically- get rid of them!

The vegetation at Kasanka deserves a special mention. Briefly, there are [a?] many different habitats in a relatively small area [2]. Along the extensive floodplains and “dambos”[3] sprinkled by termite mounds there are patches of primary miombo woodland with trees up to 20m in height although the norm is much less as it has suffered by past agriculture and/or fire. Where the woodland has been damaged there is secondary miombo and it is here that we find the “musuku” or Wild loquat (Uapaca kirkiana), the main food for the migratory African Straw-coloured Fruit-bats (Eidolon helvum).

Some spectacular trees are also found in the remnants of different kind of forests. Among them are the shady Red or African mahogany (Khaya nyasica), African locust bean (Parkia filicoidea), Water berry (Syzygium cordatum) and Quinine tree (Rauvolfia caffra) to name a few. We did enjoy great shade provided by Red mahogany trees at our camp at Pontoon.

Since our first visit in the 90’s Kasanka has become world famous because of its bat migration. The park leaflet claims that ten million bats travel to the park in October-December of each year and Richard Attenborough documented the latter for the BBC in one of his well-known videos [4] and it is truly amazing and well worth watching.

Video credit: BBC.

We climbed the eighteen metres of the Fibwe hide, built on a large African Mahogany tree. From up there we had an uninterrupted view of the Kapabi swamp. Fibwe is best known for offering good sightings of Sitatunga. However, as we had the latter next to our Pontoon campsite, our purpose was different: to check for the arrival of the bats, hoping against hope, as it was too early in October for their arrival!

Although we had great sightings of Schallow’s Turaco and Blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis) [4], no bats were on sight and we were rather crestfallen when we climbed down from Fibwe at sunset on the last day of our stay.

After a couple of minutes drive heading for our camp we saw a large cloud of birds. Amazed by the large numbers we stopped to have a better look through our binoculars. We identified swallows but, together with them, we also saw larger birds. Soon we realized that in fact there were bats! We were one of the first to witness the first arrivals of the 2018 migration! We would not leave Kasanka “bat-less”!

Over dinner we discussed that we could shorten our time at the Bangweulu wetlands and have an extra day at Kasanka on our way back to have a good look at the bats as more were expected to arrive everyday from then on. Agreement was immediately reached and we booked an extra night as well as morning and afternoon guided tours to see the bats.

So, after our Bangweulu wetlands sojourn that I will describe later, we came back to Kasanka on the 11 October to observe the bat migration. While discussing the details of our next morning bat watching, our enthusiasm suffered a setback when Ruston -our guide- casually announced “we would depart for the platform next morning at 04:00hs”! We bravely accepted the challenge agreeing to wake up at 03:30hs and, without further ado, we had an early dinner and were in bed by 21:00hs.

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Our early dinner (by Frank) prior to the early morning adventure. Pic by Lola Castro.

The morning started rather tragically for me as I set the alarm clock at 03:00hs rather than 03:30hs to the disapproval of my wife that, unlike me, is not an early bird. Luckily, by the time we reached the BBC platform (similar to the Fibwe and located nearby) things were back to normal.

We already knew that we were all “vertigo-free” people so we climbed to the platform with confidence although it was still dark. We did this with great anticipation and we settled down to wait for the bats while listening to our guide and enjoying a hot cup of coffee. The latter was badly needed as it is amazing how cold you feel in the tropics before sunrise.

We learnt that the bats normally begin to arrive in Kasanka in late October but that this year we were lucky as they were early. Their numbers would build up everyday until, by the last week of November, up to ten million would be crammed into about one hectare of forest (known locally as “mushitu”).

These bats have a wingspan of over one metre and when they roost they look like swarms of honeybees flying in circles until they settle down in a tightly packed mass of bodies hanging from every branch of every tree and even from other bats! Their weight is such that branches break and tragedy ensues as some of the injured get eaten by all sort of predators: crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes, civet cats and, occasionally, even leopards.

The bats seasonally move hundreds of kilometers, stopping on-route until they reach that relatively small area at Kasanka. Apparently, they congregate here because of the synchronized abundance of fruits, including their favourite: musuku (Wild loquat) but they also feed on the fruits of the Water berry (Syzigium cordatum) and Red milkwood (Mimusops zeyheri).

The millions of bats at Kasanka represent the largest concentration of mammals in Africa with an estimated weight of about three thousand metric tons of fruit bats in one hectare of forest, the greatest concentration of mammalian biomass found on earth.

Everyday the bats leave their roosting area in the evening to find food and they return at dawn to rest in the rather small roosting area. We were about to witness the later while in the afternoon we hoped to see them depart.

While listening to Ruston I could not help feeling sorry for the farmers that dwell near Kasanka and when I made a comment on their difficult situation regarding fruit production, Ruston replied saying that he had never been able to eat a fruit at Kasanka while the bats are there!

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Our early morning vigil, waiting for dawn to come and, with it, the bats. Pic by Lola Castro.

After Ruston’s brief we sat silently waiting for the light to increase. During that time I started to ponder how it was known that the bats amounted to 10 million. I concluded that it must have been through a massive release-recapture operation although I doubted that this could be the answer. I was also starting to calculate how much fruit would that bat crowd eat when I was interrupted by Ruston saying that the bats would start arriving to their roosting area below us any time. I made a mental note to find out these facts later [5].

A few minutes elapsed and then the bats started to appear. Soon they congregated in large numbers over their roosting places resembling a swarm of large bees. Photography was almost impossible so we watched and enjoyed the view. As light increased other animals came to view including White-backed vultures nesting in the trees nearby as well as a Ground hornbill perched very high on a dead tree (the highest hornbill I have seen!).

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The perched high above the tree canopy.

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Bats about to roost.

Then all bats settled and it was Lola, very observant as usual, that spotted them resembling bunches of grapes well below us in the mushitu trees. As the bats stopped being the centre of attention, we noticed that a number of birds of prey were stalking them. These included Martial, Crowned and Southern Banded Snake eagles. Although we did not see the latter going for the bats, we watched the Martial eagle made a pass, catching one and flying away with it.

The eagle attack disturbed the bats that took off again and, for a while, they circled their roosting area until they settled down again only to be disturbed seconds later when a Crowned eagle (the most beautiful of African eagles for me) flew straight at the roosting area and perched nearby. Ruston told us that the eagle had its nest close by and he pointed out the young eagle calls to its parent.

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Bats being disturbed by the Crowned eagle.

The eagle, a resident of the area, was in no hurry and, after a couple of passes that kept the bats unsettled it managed to catch one and perched with it in full view albeit far from us. It fed on its prey for a while until it decided that it was time to bring it to its offspring and flew past us to its nest.

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A long distance shot of the Crowned eagle eating a bat.

Time passed really fast and by mid-morning the sun was burning and we were ready to initiate our descent when a group of Crowned hornbills, a trio of Shallow’s and one Ross’ turaco were spotted and intensively watched. Finally, a Blue monkey [5] appeared on a dead tree and we could admire its beautiful bluish grey coat and its rather long tail. After that final moment, it was time to go.

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The bushsnob and wife back from the BBC hide in the morning, after the arrival of the bats. Pic by Lola Castro.

As planned, we returned for more bat watching in the afternoon as the bats depart in their feeding foray at sunset. We climbed up a new viewing platform recently built near the roosting area and we waited.

Nothing happened for quite a while and then we started hearing a slight noise as if water started running through the forest: the bats were starting to move. The water noise increased and, suddenly, the bats took to the skies. Although not millions, we watched tens of thousands bats flying around us before moving to their feeding grounds.

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Great shot of a bat by Frank Rijnders.

Judging for what we saw during the outings in the morning and afternoon where we saw bats in their thousands, I tried -and failed- to imagine what the sight of ten million bats flying at the same time would be like. I concluded that you must see it to get its real dimension but for that we need to return another time later in the year.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Pedicle

[2] See: http://www.kasanka.com and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasanka_National_Park

[3] Dambos are grassy drainage channels and basins with little to no woody vegetation but very palatable grasses. Most woody species grow on exposed termitaria as dambo’s tend to retain water very well. Dambo’s are of a vital importance to grazing mammal species as well as several woodland mammals that choose to graze on the fringes, especially during the dry season (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasanka_National_Park).

[4] The rare Blue monkeys live in matrilineal societies as the females stay in their natal groups while males disperse once they reach adulthood.

[5] Numbers of bats were in fact estimated by counting their numbers through a formula based on numbers of bats per binocular fields, time, distance, etc. by Sorensen UG, Halberg K. (2001). Mammoth roost of nonbreeding straw-coloured fruit bat Eidolon helvum (Kerr, 1792) in Zambia. African Journal of Ecology 39: 213–215 (Abstract seen on 22 October 2018).

How much fruit the bats eat per night is staggering though variable depending on how much food it is estimated that they can eat. If we assume that they eat their body weight of 300g, we come to 3 000 metric tons (https://www.myguidezambia.com/travel-articles/kasanka-bats).

We will need two hundred heavy trucks to carry such weight!

 

 

 

 

 

Safari to Zambia

Sometime ago our friends Lola and Frank, yes, the same friends we shared our safari to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi last year [1], invited us to join them for a safari in Zambia. Among the items in the agenda were visits to Kasanka National Park and the Bangweulu wetlands. The latter has been in my wife’s bucket list for 30 years, since our time in Zambia. I have somehow resisted this idea but I was now cornered and agreed, although rather reluctantly. I argued against it on the following grounds:

(i) We had visited Kasanka in the 90’s and it failed to impress at the time;

(ii) It was too early for the fruit bat migration (although I accepted that the rare Sitatunga) and,

(iii) It was too late for the Shoebill stork sightings in the somehow dreaded Bangweulu swamps.

My objections quickly dismissed, we were on and I joined in with the needed arrangements and we departed in early October, as planned.

As the experience we underwent was rich and varied, I will present it in three main sections covering Kasanka National Park and our return after the Bangweulu wetlands, the search for the Shoebill stork in Bangweulu and, finally, our findings at Bangweulu. I will also post smaller observations, including the already posted “Ticks from Trees”.

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Map of Zambia showing lake Kariba and Siavonga in the South and Lusaka (large pebble).   The kidney shaped seed indicates the Congo Pedicle that divides Zambia into two lobes. The tipof the porcupine quill shows the area where we drove next to the DR Congo. The pear-shaped and red seeds indicate Kasanka NP and the southern part of the Bangweulu swamps, where we were.

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/01/09/camping-dangerously/