kgalagadi

Death at the water

Perhaps the most salient feature of the Kgalagadi are the humongous number of birds visiting the different water points throughout the area. At the various camps in the Mabuasehube area the situation repeated itself. Flocks of birds would come to drink constantly to the various water points.

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The scramble for water! Picture by Frank Rijnders.

The bird parade included from the largest of the vultures, the Lappet-faced (Nubian) to the small violet-eared waxbills, true living jewels .

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Lappet-faced vultures at a water hole.

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Violet-eared waxbills. Picture by Frank Rijnders.

Apart from photography, this situation offered a great opportunity for the various predators to get an easy meal. We saw several potential bird predators at the water holes, from snakes to jackals but the most interesting were the birds of prey.

These came in all sizes: various eagles (Tawny, Bateleur), Pale chanting and Gabar Goshawks, Red-necked Falcons and Greater Kestrels to name what we saw during this trip.

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A magnificent Bateleur eagle and picture by Frank Rijnders.

The methodology of the feathered hunters was similar at the various places. The raptors would perch nearby and every so often swoop down on their potential prey. It seemed a rather easy procedure in view of the numbers. That was also the impression I had when last year I watched the Tawny eagles dove-catching that I described in https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/easy-pickings/. My belief was further strengthened by a lightening speed attack by a Red-necked falcon that caught one of the sparrow weavers from under our noses and took us completely by surprise!

At Monamodi we had time[1] to observe a Gabar Goshawk (slightly larger than a dove) attempting to catch its lunch. We noted the raptor after observing that every few minutes the drinking doves would get startled and the flock would literally “explode” in different directions only to return a couple of minutes later.

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The scared doves take off.

After a few of these scares, we noted that a Gabar goshawk was perched next to the water and that the scares coincided with its lunges at the drinking birds!

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We were somehow doubtful that the goshawk would be after the doves as they seemed too large for it However, it seemed that way until we realized that there were a few smaller birds drinking together with the doves. We observed several failed attacks and I even managed to register the “goshawk among the pigeons”! However, a painstakingly checking all pictures and video, I failed to register the bird actually catching anything. The pictures below show the goshawk during one of its swoops that, after going through the mass of flying birds, end up by it landing back at the starting point.

So, either catching lunch for the Gabar goshawk is is not as easy as it seemed or I was not good registering what was happening! The latter is probably nearer to the truth as I am sure the bird would not be there otherwise as I am sure that, unlike for me, time is important for it!

 

[1] In Africa it is said that  “When God made mankind, He gave the white people the watch, but he gave the black people the time!” Luckily, I have both now!

A chase

It was driving from the Kalahari Tented Camp on the Auob River bed that we found a cheetah and her four cubs resting under the shade of a tree a long way off, at the edge of the dunes. An impossible find except for a detail: my wife was with me this time and she spotted them! As we had not had a good sighting of cheetah for quite a while, we stayed with them waiting for some action.

We watched them as they moved from the dunes to the actual dry riverbed, the mother always watchful while the cubs were engaged in a never-ending game of chasing and grabbing each other, already graceful and enjoyable to watch.

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After a while, they got under a large tree and they decided to have a rest. Well the mother rested while the youngsters continued with their shenanigans. It was getting rather hot.

When we were considering a return to the coolness of our bungalow we saw, at about one hundred metres downriver a herd of about fifty springbok. They were slowly walking towards one of the waterholes located perhaps two hundred metres up river. We realized that they would need to walk in front of the cheetah so we abandoned our parting idea.

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By the time we looked back to the cats, the mother had already spotted the gazelle and she was already alert while the cubs were flat on the ground. Obviously, their playing had been suspended by mom’s orders!

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As the springbok got closer we saw the female cheetah crouch and her muscles tense so we knew that an attack was being prepared. The cubs were still invisible! “When is she going to go for them?” I thought while I readied the camera but, most importantly, my eyes to watch what was about to take place.

The springbok were still about fifty metres from the cheetah but, at that point, she started running towards the herd scattering gazelles in all directions. Although she did a beautiful sprint through open ground in front of us, she failed. After a while she walked back towards her waiting cubs that broke their cover to greet her, even when she was “empty-jawed”. I thought that the cheetah charged way too early but, who am I to judge a cheetah charge?

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After the dust settled, we saw that the cheetah had split the herd. The lucky ones could continue their disturbed journey towards the water. The unlucky that stayed on the other side stopped for a while and then, reluctantly turned around and slowly retraced their steps. They will need to wait until the cheetah moved off to resume their quest.

The five cheetahs returned to the shade and they were still there when we finally left them after a few fine hours of fine wildlife watching. The following morning, while driving to our next camp, we saw them again, not far off, their black and slender silhouettes against the early morning sky.

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The wait

Entering the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) we were given instructions on how to manage the place. Technically, we should drive at a maximum speed of 50 kph and deflate our tyres to 1.5 BAR to better navigate the severe corrugations. We were also advised to wait for the animals at the waterholes rather than drive long distances over this very dry park.

In fact, despite my initial doubt, was useful because of the way the park is. On the South African side, the KTP has two basic roads: one follows the Auob[1] dry river and the other one the Nossob[2] dry river in a North to South fashion.[3] The rivers and the roads that accompany them meet at Twee Rivieren where the main camp of the park is located.

The dry riverbeds were not the expected sand rivers we see elsewhere but rather wide grassy valleys beyond which is the -inaccessible- Kalahari. Water for the animals is provided by waterholes that were sunk by the (Union of) South Africa to provide their troops with water in case South Africa wanted to use the area to invade South West Africa (Namibia). The waterholes are at roughly ten km intervals and most animals congregate around them.

Wherever you stay, you tend to drive a lot over the same stretches of roads to go and come back to camp every day so the recommendation of “sitting and waiting” at waterholes made sense. In some you have a constant parade of herbivores such as gemsbok, wildebeest and springbok as well as large number of birds such as various pigeons, sand grouse, sociable weavers and quelea. Jackals were the main predators we saw.

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At other waterholes we waited long spells for something to happen to no avail. After a while of looking at an empty place I got bored and I could not help thinking that surely the animals were at the next hole! After waiting a bit longer, this line of thought became a conviction and my unrest grew to such a point that my wife needed to coerce me to stay using her strongest argument: “I am not cooking tonight”.

After our stay in Nossob camp, on our way to Twee Rivieren, we stopped at yet another empty waterhole. As we had seen nothing in the previous two we had visited, we were looking carefully at the surrounding area as well as to the actual water hole. I was the first to see it and, surprised, said “look, a hyena coming”.

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My “hyena”…

My wife looked and, as usual but rather excitedly, she corrected me “it is a leopard” almost at the same time that I realized my error.

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dscn0009-copydscn0004-copydscn9998-copyA leopard it was! A large male, that walked passed us and, arriving at the water it crouched to drink to placate its thirst. After a few minutes it walked off, marking a few key spots as it went slowly up the bushy riverbank. We followed it and saw it on and off as it walked up the dunes until we did not see it anymore.

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The leopard withdrawal followed closely by gemsbok.

At that precise time a car arrived to join us. When they asked what we were watching and we told them that a male leopard had just moved off from the water three minutes ago, they were stunned and I did not blame them and I did not dare to show them our pictures either!

The leopard fleeting visit not only helped us to consider the KTP a great place but also further justified the waiting strategy at the waterholes. It also stressed the fact that a few minutes can make a huge difference and there is no amount of planning and organizing that can replace your good luck!

 

[1] Meaning bitter water.

[2] Meaning dark clay.

[3] The Auob last flowed in 1974 and the Nossob in 1964.