Letaba

An unlikely find at Kruger National Park

Owl tree no circle

A tree like any other?

I have already praised my wife’s eyesight in the post “Green eyes in the wild” and showed you the two pictures of the hiding lioness at Tsavo East National Park in Kenya.

This example of my wife’s superb eyesight took place at the Kruger National Park during our recent trip (see Kruger National Park Report).

One early morning, while staying at Letaba Rest Camp, we were driving along the Letaba river looking for leopards and -as is normally the case- not finding any. Suddenly, my wife said “Stop, go back, go back!” so I did while she prepared herself to have a closer look with her binoculars. “What do you see there?” she asked me, thinking that I have her eyes! “Nothing” I replied, then added “where?”. “Use your binoculars”. “Do you see that large tree?” “Of course I see it” was my reply.

Owl tree with circle 1

After a while I could see the general area!

I must add that my binoculars are more powerful than hers, and I looked and saw a tiny red dot on one of the branches. “I see a kind of flower, is that it?” I ask. “It is not a flower, look at it again” she replied and I did.

It looked like a bit of meat as it had a pink centre and some brownish hairs. I moved the car a bit to get a different angle and then I could see the whole picture: the pink meat had been either a hare or a squirrel (maybe a rat). “Oh yes, I see it now!” I exclaimed “Do you think a leopard left it there?”

branch with red spot

After further car maneuver the red spot became visible!

“No” she said, “There is a bird there as well,  move the car back” I did and then I really saw the whole picture! Perching on top of the animal remains -hidden from me until I moved the car- there was a bird with pink eyelids that could only be a Giant Eagle owl (Bubo lacteus) perched on a branch and holding its kill!

owl and prey cropped

More car maneuvers and finally I could see the owl!

The owl is described as being up to 66 cm tall and I still had difficulties spotting it. I did take rather poor pictures that I present to you but believe me, I could drive past one hundred times and never see it!

There is a great advantage in having a wife with such keen eyesight while looking for game on safari. However, there is a drawback. As my children and I know very well, it is difficult to hide from those eyes!

Kruger National Park Report

Nothing much to report on the journey from Louis Trichardt to the Kruger National Park (Kruger). On arrival at Punda Maria gate, a helicopter flying overhead brought home the reality of Kruger these days when special measures to curb rhino poaching are being taken. Despite this, a few hundreds have been killed this year. Let’s hope that the Park will get on top of the situation. Kruger is the last rhino (both black and white) stronghold left in the world.

Roads are good and we were in Sirheni Bushveld Camp with time to spare. The camp is small with no electricity but this time we knew about it beforehand! After spending a quiet night and enjoying the peace of the place, it was time to continue our trip. We left for Shimuwini Bushveld Camp where we had a great time on a previous trip with friends. There was more water this time so the animals were less concentrated in the riverine area. However, the hippos were still there and the birdlife good as usual.

In the morning we planned to do a drive along the Letaba river near the camp and to continue to a point where the river crosses the road, as it is an open expanse which apart from being beautiful, allows one to see far and spot interesting things. On the way there we could see a number of cars parked on both sides of the road in the distance indicating an interesting find.

When confronted with these situations in the Kruger, the bushsnob has a “car rule” to predict the situation and take appropriate action. It is as follows:

 

       CAR NUMBER            REASON

ACTION

1 (often parked sideways or in the middle of the road) birdwatcher Check bird being watched
1 (well parked, usually a small saloon or city SUV) first time visitors watching any animal they come across Drive past with eyes closed or looking the other way
2-5 (any type) buffalo, giraffe, zebra, etc. Check as it may be interesting and cars tend to depart after a few minutes
5-10 (any type) elephant, rhino Same as above
<10 (any type) lion kill, leopard Avoid the area by taking any available and legal measure and return at lunchtime or late afternoon
Sizeable queue or large number leopard kill, Parks or Police check point Check with binoculars, if Police present, continue, otherwise as above and return at lunchtime or late afternoon

In this particular instance there were more than 10 vehicles and lion kill “or above” was diagnosed. We joined the queue and, from where we were, we could see a buffalo carcass and at least one lion resting under the bushes. We were keen to see the kill as we knew that to bring a buffalo down normally takes the combined efforts of several lions. We waited patiently for the cars ahead of us to move -maintaining “strict bush etiquette”- but, as there was no movement we decided to move on to the rest of the park which was consequently less crowded!

Our idea was rewarded when we came to a Letaba tributary where buffalo were going down to the riverbed. On arrival there may have been one hundred animals but they were still coming down. After about 20 minutes there were what I estimate to have been over one thousand and the number kept increasing for a few minutes. It was one of the largest herds we have seen.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

A large herd of buffalo while moving on the river bed.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Part of the herd while drinking.

Although rather bovine in their behaviour, buffalo transmit a sense of wildness and power that, to me, no other herbivore does. Although I have not yet seen them confronting lions, I have seen them in close proximity while helping a friend to dart them for his research and they were dangerous!

This buffalo was having a comfortable "siesta" while the oxpeckers did their job!

This buffalo was having a comfortable “siesta” while the oxpeckers did their job!

Seeing buffalo always brings back the story of a colleague working on tsetse flies in Kenya. One day he was checking his tsetse traps in the Nguruman escarpment and a lone male suddenly charged him from nowhere, forcing him up a tree to save himself. He was lucky on two accounts: there was a “climbable” tree nearby and the buffalo did not wait for him to fall down in order to trample him to death. It was a hairy moment and what was most interesting was that he said that the rush of adrenalin allowed him to climb and stay up in the tree without problem despite not being the fittest guy in Kenya. What was really tough was getting back down, as the tree was very thorny!

Later in the morning we hoped to see the kill again on our way back to camp but, unbelievably, there were still a lot of cars so we just had a look while driving by and not much had changed. We decided not to bother and try again in the evening as the proximity of our camp would enable us to stay just a bit longer than the others… By the time we were ready to return to the kill the famous tire had totally deflated… Not being part of the Ferrari F1 team, it took us a few laps to change the wheel and we were late! We still left as we estimated we had about 15 min of watching time!

We got to the kill and there were still cars! “Do not worry, none of the cars belong to our camp so they must leave by 17:00 hs to get back in time for the gate closing time of 17:30 hs”. We waited and waited and no one was moving by 17.20 hrs! The usual “these people know something we do not” was pronounced by one of us and we decided to re-check the gate closing times again and it clearly said “July: 17.30 hs” and then we realized that it was 1 August and closing time was now 18:00 hs. By the time we realized this, cars had started to depart and we did get our 20 minutes or so of “only the lions and us” where some observation took place and pictures were taken!

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

The young lion feeding on the buffalo.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

A closer view of the lion feeding.

What did we see? The carcass was half eaten and one youngish male was inside it tearing pieces off. Another male was resting under the shade, together with 3 lionesses and 2 cubs. One of the lionesses looked uncomfortable and decided to go for a walk towards the river, surely to drink and soon a second one followed her. A few vultures were waiting patiently up in a nearby tree. And then it was also time for us to abandon the spot to get to our camp in good time.

One of the lionesses with a full belly on her way to the river.

At dusk, one of the lionesses -with a full belly- decided to go to the nearby river for a drink.

The following morning, en route to Letaba, the only carcass visitors were vultures and no lions were seen. Yes, you guessed right ours was the only car so we parked it sideways blocking the road and watched the birds!

Only the vultures remained the following morning.

Only the vultures remained the following morning.