Author: bushsnob

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/

Ticks growing on trees!

I devoted my scientific life to study ticks in Africa. For this reason, Sterculia africana, the Tick tree or African star-chestnut caught my interest during our recent trip to Zambia.

We had seen this tree at Kariba, Zimbabwe and collected some “ticks” from it. I somehow remember the sight of the tree and driving from lake Kariba to Lusaka I stopped to have a look and managed to collect some of its interesting fruits. Unfortunately, grass burning had taken place and it was difficult to find the nicest seeds (ticks).

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Three fruits of the Tick tree.

A small to medium size tree of dry areas with a smooth silver-white papery bark, it produces bunches of yellowish flowers marked with reddish lines. The fruits are boat shaped of up to 140mm long with tapering ends of a golden velvety appearance. They are loaded with blue-grey seeds that, amazingly, resemble engorged female ticks.

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Two “ticks” collected from the ground and placed inside the dry fruits.

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The fruits and “ticks” with a match for a scale.

The “ticks” are attached among hairs which, I forgot, are extremely thin but able to embed easily in the skin. Once lodged, they are very irritating as I learnt (again) this time. Luckily, I managed to remove them and was able to use my fingers (again) to write this post.

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A close up to show the nasty hairs.

 

 

Spot the Beast 51

While staying at Mana Pools National Park we encountered this beast, easy to spot but interesting nonetheless.

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I am sure that you can see the small tree frog on the top left of the picture. However, this was not all as we had also its relatives taking care of the time…

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One frog o’clock

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Two frog o’clock

Clearly humans and frogs do not share the same time!

There were a few frogs around the lodge and, as in earlier opportunities at Mana, a few inhabit the toilet and, somehow, they are attracted to the mouth hygiene tools! I am sure that my dentist from Salta would be quite surprised…

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Purple rain

Prince explained the meaning of “Purple Rain” as follows: “When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple… purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” [1]

I frankly have no idea if the late Prince ever saw the Harare jacarandas in October but I am sure that they could have inspired him to some lyric description that I am not able to do.

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However, I do not get tired to travel through purple lined avenues and to watch the jacaranda tree in our garden. It is not only the colour and the flower rain that takes place but its perfume and the bees that visit the falling flowers in search of their nectar wealth. So much so that you should not wear flipflops when you wade the stagnant purple rain.

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Looking forward to next year’s purple October…

 

[1] NME.COM. “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Purple Rain”NME.COM. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

 

 

Picnic in the Rift Valley

For months Paul mentioned the idea of going for a picnic to the Rift Valley. He claimed that along the Narok road there were a number of large acacias that would offer the necessary shade while we could not only enjoy watching game but also looking across this vast depression presided by the Longonot and Suswa volcanoes.

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The Great Rift Valley seen from the Kinangop area.

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Mout Longonot.

Eventually we were convinced and one Sunday morning we gathered at Paul’s house to travel to the chosen picnic area. Apart from Paul and us other participants were Timothy and his fiancée Jill and a few other friends that filled Paul’s long-wheel base Land Rover. We were not only humans in it as Timothy (the egg cleaner of my earlier post! [1]) decided to take along his red setter called Bitch despite our advice to the contrary!

So, we took the rather dangerous old Naivasha Rd. down the Kikuyu escarpment and eventually branched off towards Narok. Once at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley we started looking for the appropriate spot.

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An accident along the Kikuyu escarpment near the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. A frequent occurrence then.

After a few km we spotted the “selected” trees and headed for them across the dry savannah where a few Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles stopped browsing to briefly watch us and try -unsuccessfully- to determine our intentions (we were not entirely clear either!) but soon decided to ignore us. As we got closer to the special trees we noted -with some concern- that they had already been booked: flocks of sheep and goats were stationed under all trees we saw!

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The occupied trees…

Aware that coexistence with small ruminants over a picnic would be rather difficult we set off to find the owners of the animals to negotiate with them for one tree. We soon found them nearby as they left one of the trees to meet us. A small committee left the car to meet with them and then, the unexpected struck!

The moment we open the car doors, Bitch took off at full speed! And behind her Timothy also departed trying to stop her shouting “Bitch, stop! Bitch, stop!” to no avail. Bitch had spotted game animals and she would not miss the opportunity to get one!

As we stopped hearing Timothy’s shouting first and then watched his silhouette disappear in the horizon, we decided to focus on our negotiations with a pair of Maasai boys that felt rather intimidated by us!

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After a while the herdboys could not resist their curiosity and the flocks also came in!

Despite our language barrier they soon understood our request and agreed to release one of the trees for us to have our picnic.

Bitch and Timothy quickly forgotten we started to get ourselves comfortable and assembled our temporary “al fresco” banqueting area. As the tree had been used for generations of Maasai livestock it did not only reeked livestock but also its soil was composed by tons of compacted dung! So much for the idea of the shady tree!

Luckily we noted that the shade was starting to cover some of the adjacent grassy area so we placed our table and chairs where we calculated the shade would be as time went by and we were prepared to follow it.

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The picnic area being moved following the shade.

After an exploratory walk in the surrounding area we finally settled down to drinks and some food. The chat was animated and we did wonder about Bitch and Timothy’s whereabouts (for a few seconds!). Luckily, about an hour after lunch we saw a speck on the horizon and a debate started of whether it was Timothy or some other Maasai people. After a while, through the binoculars, we identified Timothy. He eventually arrived, walking slowly and carrying the dog on his arms (not because of love for the dog or because it was injured but because he did not have a leash and he was fed-up with the dog running away every time she spotted a moving animal!)

While we waited for Timothy to recover and while he locked Bitch inside the car, we decided to engage ourselves into some target shooting (some of us still believed then to be “white hunters”!!!). Paul kindly sacrificed an old white enamel plate that we placed on the tree as our target. Then we lined up all chairs so that we would shoot from a similar distance.

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The Bushsnob failing to ht the target watched by female participants already chuckling.

As good gentlemen (?) we started shooting from a short distance to give the ladies an opportunity to hit the plate before we moved farther away and things became more difficult. So, the shooting started. Surprisingly, all the men missed the target and most women except my wife that had rarely handled a gun in her life (but has good eyesight!).

After declaring her winner of the first round -with badly hidden embarrassment- the men took the decision of moving further back in the belief that they would recover from the earlier setback. We all missed again but, when the turn of my wife came, we all heard the “ping” of the lead shot hitting the plate! Beginning to feel uncomfortable with the state of affairs we moved back quite a long distance for the final round.

Do I need to tell you that the only “ping” we heard again came from my wife’s shot? After that the men suddenly lost interest on the shooting and developed a sudden curiosity for birds. The ladies had a good laugh and celebrated among themselves.

So a great picnic day ended leaving us with the memories of Timothy chasing his dog and my wife hitting the bull’s eye every time! The latter event is still remembered today by the participants, almost forty years later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast(s) 50

During our recent visit to Hwange National Park we found these beasts. See if you can see them all…

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Credit: JA de Castro.

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Credit: JA de Castro

This view will clarify any doubts you may have. This trio blocked our road while driving from Hwange Main Camp towards the Nyamandhlovu pan. They eventually moved to the thicket and that is the time we took the first picture.

It is an easy “spot” but one that I hope you enjoy in view of the beauty of the beast!

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The light was good and the picture came out very nice! Credit: JA de Castro.

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Calling its mates. Credit: JA de Castro.

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Lake Magadi

The rotten egg smell of the ostrich egg post [1] brought back memories of lake Magadi and its malodourous beauty.

After a few months in Kenya we got to know a few people interested in nature and we connected with them immediately. Most were working around Nairobi (Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, Muguga and the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases, Kabete). We were all agriculture or livestock specialists that shared an interest in nature.

A sunny Sunday we were invited to a day trip to lake Magadi. We knew nothing about the place so, after some enquiries, we learnt that it would be a picnic at the lake and that bird watching would be high in the agenda. We had not done any bird watching as such in our lives so we lacked binoculars, bird books, etc. but we accepted so we could start learning new ways.

At the time we did not know it but, after this first expedition, we visited the lake frequently. It was an ideal one-day outing from Nairobi in view of the relative short distance from Nairobi(106km), the picturesque nature of the journey and the wildlife that could be seen both en route and at the lake itself.

Lake Magadi, nested at 580m of altitude is close to Lake Natron in Tanzania and it is located in a volcanic rock fracture in the Rift Valley, itself a gigantic fault that runs for about 6,000km from Lebanon in the North to Mozambique in the South.

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The Great Rift Valley. By USGS (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We left Nairobi early following the lake road that skirted the Ngong hills, a true landmark where Karen Blixen’s farm was located (now her homestead is a museum). The moment you had the Ngong hills on your right, the immensity of the Rift Valley opened up in front of you. A rugged succession of hazy mountains gradually took your eyes to the bottom of the valley and, on a clear day, the amazing view of Kilimanjaro with its snow in the equator will frame the postcard vista.

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The spectacular view of the Rift Valley from the Ngong hills.

From there you started a descent that traversed Maasai country while getting increasingly dry and hot. Manyattas peppered the area and encounters with Maasai going or coming from watering points with their cattle were a common occurrence. I recall our friend Paul -later on- saying that the road would made an ideal cycling trip because of its downhill trajectory towards the lake.

A few km before arriving to the lake, Tony, one of our friends, stopped the car for a bit of exploring. Apparently, during an early visit, they had “discovered” some fossilized elephant remains that he wished to show us. Some of us followed him looking for the bones while others spotted some interesting bird and immediately forgot everything else and focused on the feathered creatures. This was my introduction to the rather focused birdwatchers ethnic group!

We did found the elephant bones. I thought they were rather disappointing but kept the opinion to myself! The stop was good to drink lots of water as the temperature was now well above 30oC and we were still quite a distance from the bottom of the valley and it was not yet lunchtime. Although some of our co-travellers had iced cold water (freezing the jerry cans prior to the journey) we drank ours at ambient temperature (no coolbox yet in that trip!). This became our normal water temperature while on safari, as it would give us independence from fridges and ice.

We continued our trip and, suddenly and surprisingly, we viewed a large flat pink expanse below us. We were looking at the lake and, as it was the dry season, it was almost totally covered in white and pink soda.

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Subsequent visits during wetter times showed a much “lake-like” lake, despite the scarcity of its yearly rains, an average of 470 mm per year [2]. During this time, a thin (less than 1m) layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white and pink salt that cracks to produce large polygons.

We came to the entrance gate already hot and smelling the strong sulfur gases that emanated from the lake and that would be a constant whenever we visited it. The gate was in fact the entrance to the Magadi Soda Company where we registered our arrival. Further on we also re-registered our intended route at the Magadi Police station, a mandatory requirement in case you got lost (we have to pass by again on the way out for our names to be stricken off the register so that a search party was not sent for us).

The lake is saline and alcaline and covers around 100 km2 being in reality a pan. The water precipitates vast quantities of trona (soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate) to a depth of up to 40m. From these large deposits the soda ash is extracted and used mainly in glass-making, chemicals, paper, detergents, and textiles. The Magadi Soda Company (now part of the Tata company) was created in 1911 to exploit this wealth.

Luckily for the company, the trona deposits are recharged mainly by saline hot springs that reach temperatures of up to 86 °C and their exploitation -at least during the early days- did not have a significant impact on these deposits. During our times in Kenya the soda ash was being carried by railway to Kilindini harbour in the Indian Ocean from where it would get exported.

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Only once we found a train leaving the Malawi Soda facility.

The plan of our first trip was to do the “trip around the lake” that started crossing the first causeway with open water and then follow the road until we entered some bush cross-country driving to rejoin the road and return to Magadi town again.

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A basic map of Lake Magadi showing in blue the trip around the lake.

It was during this part of the journey that we came up to our firs giraffe carcass, blocking the way. Its cause of death unknown but already as dried as biltong!

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The dry giraffe.

Lake Magadi hosts a great variety of water birds, including flamingoes, yellow-billed storks, different egrets and herons as well as smaller ones, including the interesting avocets. See [3] for some of the birds that can be found there. I do not recall whether we saw the Chesnut-banded Sandplover or Magadi Plover (Charadrius pallidus venustus), restricted to almost only lakes Natron and Magadi but our friends probably did. If not very spectacular, it was a rather unique little bird that we spotted in subsequent visits.

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A pair of Yellow-billed storks fishing in lake Magadi.

Apart from birds the lake and surrounding area is also home to Wildebeests, Somali Ostriches, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, Grant’s gazelles, Gerenuks and of course Giraffes among other species of herbivores and browsers. But these are not the only interesting animals that inhabit the rather inhospitable lake Magadi!

In its hot springs some special fish find their living despite the high temperature and salinity of the water! Alcolapia grahami a species of the Cichlidae family has adapted to live in this rather harsh environment. It is not the only case as another three species inhabit Lake Natron a few km to the south in Tanzania: Alcolapia alcalica; A. latilabris; and A. ndalalani. Of interest is that there is no overlapping among the species present in each lake.

The now vulnerable A. grahami, most commonly seen in the southern shoreline hot spring pools where the water temperature is less than 45°C, have developed the ability of excreting urea instead of the usual ammonia of the teleost fish as they are not able to diffuse ammonium into such an alkaline media. As they feed on cyanobacteria of high N2 content, this is -apparently- important. They also have the greatest metabolic performance ever recorded in a fish, in the basal range of a small mammal of comparable size [4]. They are also an important indicator organism for global warming.

Coming back to our trip, after our stop for Police registration, we moved on and passed by the company’s brown golf course. It was interesting to see golfers moving about on a brown and grassless course where the holes were places with “browns” and a few dust devils thrown in as well! Since its establishment in 1931 this unique 9-hole course where you drive over donkeys and cows. It does not charge fees and it is open year round!

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Maasai boys driving their sheep and goats through one of the lake’s causeways.

It soon became clear that day that lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. The water is undrinkable for humans and animals quench their thirst at selected areas where salt contents are low. We soon run out of water but, luckily, we found a water trough for cattle use on our way back from where we replenish our water and had a badly needed and refreshing wash!

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Stopping for the water trough.

While on the issue of water, years later, while having a picnic under one of the few acacia trees present around the lake, a Maasai elder approached us quietly and asked for some water. Without hesitation, one of our friends gave him a glass that the old man guzzled. Surprising all of us the man spat the water and started to jump while trying to hold his teeth, and shouting what we could understand as “baridi, baridi, baridi sana [5]!”

Without thinking, our friend had given him a glass of water from the frozen water can and the poor man, clearly used to drink water 40 degrees warmer, could not take it! After a few seconds he burst out laughing at the event while water at ambient temperature was supplied to him. This time he enjoyed it and he stayed with us for the rest of the picnic, sharing our food.

After our welcomed encounter with the cattle trough it was time to return to Nairobi. The heat had been intense and we felt really “desiccated” so it was with great relief that we took the road back that now climbed to the coolness of Nairobi where we arrived after night fall.

It was the introduction to one of our favourite weekend outings during the several years we spent in Kenya.

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Magadi landscape 1

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[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/ostrich-eggs/)

[2] https://en.climate-data.org/location/103801/

[3] Resident birds: Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird. Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver. Visitors; Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Little Egret, Grey-headed Gulls, Yellow-billed Stork, Cape Teal, African Spoonbill, Kittlitz’s and Spur-winged Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Pied Avocet.

[4] Wood, C. M. et al. Mammalian metabolic rates in the hottest fish on earth. Sci. Rep. 6, 26990; doi: 10.1038/srep26990 (2016).

[5] “Cold, cold, very cold” (In KiSwahili).