Safari

Accounts on trips done, safari preparations, sand driving, mud driving, tips and travel-related issues.

Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

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The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

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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!

Leopards

When on safari, finding a leopard is the cherry on the cake. These scarce predators are hard to find as they are very secretive and cunning animals. The fact that protected areas are shrinking does not help their conservation status either. Luckily, as you will see, the Kruger National Park (KNP) still remains an excellent place to spot these elusive and beautiful cats.

This year our “out of Zimbabwe” travel included South Africa and Botswana where we visited the KNP at the beginning and at the end of our trip and the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park in between. Quite a journey (about seven thousand km!) but well worth it.

The first visit to the KNP included the northern section as this is the closest to Zimbabwe. We visited three camps: Sirheni Bushveld camp, Shingwedzi Rest camp and Bateleur Bushveld camp.

While we did find other interesting things in Sirheni and Shingwedzi (that I will tell you about soon), it was while arriving at Bateleur that things became really exciting. Near the “Red Rocks”, the main attraction near Bateleur, we found a dead impala under a tree. Fellow travellers informed us that a leopard had killed it and that it was a female with a cub. Scared by the vehicles they had left the kill and hid somewhere.

We decided to wait quietly and were rewarded. After about an hour we saw a movement up the tree just above the kill and, soon enough, we could see a leopard moving in the thick foliage. A few minutes later it climbed down. It was the youngster that, hungry, started to feed on the impala. The area was very bushy and photography was difficult but it was a good sight.

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After a while the cub walked in front of us and briefly joined its mother. We had a glimpse of the female that immediately hid again in the long grass while the cub returned to the impala. We waited a bit more but as we still had to check-in at our camp we decided to leave making a note of the site to return later.

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So, quite encouraged by our find we re-joined the road towards Bateleur camp. We had not travelled more than a couple of kilometres when we heard the alarm snorting of impala and found that a large number were looking in the same direction while calling in alarm! This situation can indicate the presence of a predator. I need to clarify that in the Southern Africa’s more bushy landscapes you need to take all possible signs into account to find game.

We stopped and waited and when we saw that the monkeys, guinea fowls and francolins -among others- joined the chorus, our belief that a predator was near firmed up. After a short while we spotted another leopard! It was waking in parallel to us in a direction that would take it to the river, on the other side of the road. The leopard ignored us and it never hesitated once on the direction it was traveling. We watched it walk, still followed by its mobbing retinue but completely unmoved, until it went down the river!

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Finding three leopards in a couple of hours left us rather stunned and we thought that Bateleur was “the place” to spot leopards. Well, as usual we were wrong! During the four days we spent there the leopards carefully avoided us! However, there was more to come on our return to the KNP later on.

On the second visit to the KNP about two weeks later, we entered through the Paul Kruger’s gate and headed for the Olifants Rest camp. About one kilometre from the gate a bunch of cars marked the whereabouts of a sleeping leopard! As our journey was still long, we left it and continued towards Olifants where we arrived late in the afternoon.

Olifants Rest camp is probably the most spectacular of the KNP camps as it is built on a cliff that overlooks the Olifants river, located quite a way below, offering a breathtaking view of the river and its environment. We were fortunate to have booked one of the “river view” bungalows so we could just sit in our verandah and take in the scenery opening up below us!

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The morning after our arrival, after a “breakfast with a view” we drove towards Olifants satellite camp Balule [1] and then followed the Timbavati river, an area well known because of its white lions. The latter are not albinos but a leucistic form, similar to the starling reported in this blog [2].

We knew that to find white lions was very unlikely as most of them are now in captivity or game reserves nearby but we had driven through this area earlier on another journey and found it very attractive. It did not disappoint us. Fortunately, the river had water and we found lots of water birds, including a family of saddle-bill storks fishing at a stagnant pool.

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Further on, on another stretch of the river we spotted a pair of ibis and, while trying to confirm that they were the rarer purple rather than the more common glossy, I spanned the area a couple of metres to their left and I could not believe my eyes: a large leopard was lying down next to the birds! I was very excited, as I had never experienced such an accidental find! I believe that the leopard was walking to the river to drink at the time we appeared and its reaction was to crouch not to be seen!

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We waited and watched. After a couple of minutes, it stood up and walked to a small water pool where it drank for a couple of minutes and then, as it is often the case with leopards, it disappeared in the thicket.

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We drove back really excited by the find and, before reaching our camp, we had a fleeting sighting of yet another leopard well inside the thick bush!

After a fruitless early drive looking for the leopard spotted near camp we decided to relax at our bungalow to take in the beauty of the Olifants river as we could lots of animals coming to drink and to graze there. That morning, apart from the usual hundreds of impala and dozens of waterbuck we could also see lots of greater kudu and a few bushbuck. However, our attention was focused on a couple of elephant families enjoying drinking and bathing.

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While busy watching I heard my wife saying, “the elephants are scared” and then I could hear their loud alarm calls. Immediately I heard her saying “there is a hyena walking behind the elephants towards the water” and immediately, “oh gosh, there is a leopard drinking also!” As I wanted to see it, she explained me where it was so I started looking and, after a while, I spotted it. After a while the leopard moved “it stood up” I said. “No” replied my wife, “it is still drinking”. We started to argue but then we realized that we were in fact looking at two different leopards on the river bed!

The afternoon of our last day we spent it back at the Timbavati river. It was during this time and before arriving to a pan called Ratel that, lo and behold, a leopard was looking at us from a donga and, of course, it immediately took off before we could do anything, as usual and we could not see it again!

So that was our experience in the KNP where we spotted nine leopards in a couple of weeks, a marvelous experience that we know it will not be repeated and certainly it will not be forgotten!.

 

[1] Interestingly, this was one of the few camps where people of all races were allowed during the Apartheid times!

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/odd-bird/

 

Hamerkop

Although the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is the sole member of the genus, it is now believed that it has genetic similarities that are closer to the pelicans and shoebill stork than other water birds.

We find these true Cinderella of the swamps extremely interesting despite being rather common and overshadowed by the most colourful species. Perhaps their better known feature is their huge nests that take them 2 to 4 months to complete and that are often used by other birds as well.

I have mentioned that these birds frequently visit our former pool (now a water reservoir) in Harare and spending long hours stalking the African clawed frogs [1]. I was intrigued by how the frogs were caught as I always heard a splash but, by the time I looked, the frog had already been caught.

A couple of years ago, while camping at Shumba in Hwange National Park [2] I had the chance of seeing a hamerkop hovering over the dam there but it was evening and I could not watch it long enough to find out whether it was fishing or on some other kind of display so the mystery continued.

Luckily, during our visit to the Kruger National Park early in October we were stationed at a water pond waiting for large game to come to drink and, during the time, we were entertained by a couple of hamerkop that were feeding and we could watch them at leisure and resolve the issue.

Each bird repeated a routine that involved landing on shore and, after a time that went from a few seconds to a couple of minutes of walking about, take off and fly very slowly over the water with dangling feet and slow wing beats that would keep it just above it. During the hovering its feet sometimes touched the water and it occasionally would drag them on the water surface.

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While we were there the bird was performing this routine constantly and our comment was that it must be effective for the bird to spend all this flying energy on this, apparently, futile activity. The answer to our questions came after about an hour when the bird suddenly landed in the water with feet and beak and emerged victorious with a frog!

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It then took off from the water and proceeded to eat it. Unluckily, after its success the bird landed on the opposite shore of the dam so I could not even guess at the identity of the frog and only managed poor pictures.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/garden-and-gadgets/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/watched-at-shumba/

Spoiled siesta!

A loud “crack” woke me up from my after lunch nap, or at least I think that that was the reason for the interruption of my daily ritual (well, I must confess that sometimes I wake up myself up with my own snoring but that is another matter…).

In any case, when I regained my faculties after a while (a slower process as you grow up), I did not hearing it again but I became aware of some loud splashing noises nearby. My son helped me to focus and informed me that -apparently- a croc had caught something and that our campers next door had seen the action.

I had already made contact with our neighbours -coming from Zambia- as soon as they arrived earlier to warn them about the viciousness of the baboons at the campsite that forced us to get a guard as described earlier. In fact, despite my cautioning, they still suffered the consequences while they were away on their first game drive, although they had taken the normal precautions that are usually enough!

So, I went to see them to find out what they had seen. Luckily they had not only witnessed the event but also taken pictures of it! They had detected the commotion in the water and heard the noise. A crocodile had caught a rather large terrapin and, after kit was trying to devour it.

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The crocodile eating the terrapin. Picture by Eloise Wells.

The event was a surprise to me as we usually see both terrapins and crocodiles sharing their water territories ignoring each other! Perhaps the terrapin was already dead when the saurian found it? We will never know.

The victim was rather large but eventually the croc had managed to break its carapace -the crack- and it was busy trying to swallow by the time I watched. Although I could not help feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim, it was an interesting event, worth mentioning.

The crocodile was busy for a few hours until it moved off and we lost it for a while. It reappeared later a few metres downriver with its mouth closed so we believe that it had already consumed its prey.

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The crocodile after the event. Picture by Julio A de Castro.

Believing that only to write about this would not have been enough, I asked our neighbours to let me have some of the photographs of the event for this post and they kindly did so. Thanks to their generous contribution I am able to share them with you as the story that, without pictures, would not have been the same.

 

Wild elephants…

As we were in the Zambezi valley, after Mana Pools we decided to spend some time in an area of the river that we knew through our earlier boating experiences when we were in Zambia in the early 90s (blog posts still pending, oh dear!). A number of fishing camps are located near Chirundu town, one of the border crossings to Zambia.

We had fished in the Zambezi before and had some great fun with tiger fish (Hydrocynus spp.) so we wished to try our luck again. We know that there are large Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) lurking somewhere[1] that we had, so far, failed to catch (and release, of course).

The road to Jecha Camp was easy to find just before Chirundu and we managed to slip through the very long lorry queues that are a feature at borders, not only in Africa but also in Latin America.

On arrival to this true green oasis after the Mana Pools dryness, we were warmly greeted by the owners of the camp and shown to our comfortable bungalows. In the meantime we were warned that elephants were frequentl visitors. It was stressed that the latter were wild elephants, unlike the ones in Mana Pools (?). We remembered our Nebbiolo wine incident but politely kept quiet. The elephants are part of a small population of about forty individuals that live in the area and that also visit Chirundu town where they -as expected- come into conflict with the local residents.

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There were elephants all the time!

IMG_2967 copy“If an elephant approaches the swimming pool while you are there, move to the opposite side and wait” said the Manager and then added: “they are allowed to drink from the pool but not to bathe”. I immediately imagined the consequences of such an event and remembered the famous elephant in the pool scene of the movie “The Party” with the late Peter Sellers!

After arrival we spent the sunset at the hide overlooking a small stream where we spotted bushbuck and s few rats up the tree where the hide was built on. After dark we went back to camp (by car as advised) and we were greeted with the “elephants in camp” warning. We were advised to move carefully around the facilities in the dark. As we had no plans for “night walking” we were not too concerned but, indeed, the elephants were walking about feeding on the pods from the apple-ring acacia from the lawn. One of them -I thought smartly- was picking pods only from under one of the camp lights!

That night after going to bed, we heard a commotion at the back of our chalet and realized that two elephants were apparently busy unpacking our car! When we went to inspect the situation, we saw that, despite the watchman’s efforts to shoo them off, they were intent to get the contents of our roof rack! Only then we realized that we had -carelessly- forgotten our Mana Pools rubbish bag on the rack and that was the reason of their intense interest! Aware that there was nothing to be done -apart from re-collecting the rubbish the following day- we returned to bed, leaving a worried watchman that we failed to persuade to leave the animals alone!

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One of the troublemakers near the car, after the rubbish incident.

Luckily, the following morning the car was still there, intact, but we spent quite sometime collecting all the bits and pieces that they had scattered around the area!

Elephants were not on camp sometimes but rather all the time! In several occasions we were forced to move away from our sitting areas to keep a prudent distance from the pod-collecting giants that would get too close for comfort.

Although we tried our hand at fishing, only our son caught a medium-sized tiger fish after a lot of boating efforts over the two days we spent in the river. However, fishing was only the excuse to travel the Zambezi! We had a great time remembering our old days when we navigated these waters in our inflatable rubber dinghy and we really enjoyed seeing the large pods of hippo and the occasional elephants drinking and feeding at the river shore.

 

[1] From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vundu: The vundu is the largest true freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length and 55 kg (121 lb) in weight.

 

Check in…

Some “local customers’ heading for the Reception area at Mana Pools National Park.

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Needless to say that we queued correctly while guessing what their business was!

Luckily, they seemed satisfied when they left a while after!

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Only then we proceeded to check in!

This is the beauty of Mana Pools National Park: the unexpected is commonplace.

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

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DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

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We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

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Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

Spot the beast 29

While watching elephants at the Nyamugwe pan in Gonarezhou National Park, a small movement caught my eye up this dead tree. This is what I saw from the distance. Can you see the beast?

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A curious squirrel keeping an eye on our movements. Squirrels -to us- look somehow out of place in Africa but they are a frequent sight in Southern Africa.

 

Night surprise!

At night, returning to our bungalow at Swimuwini after a hot shower I took a detour to investigate what looked like a small pond. From a distance I shone my torch in the general area and I froze in my tracks. There was a crocodile there!

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Without moving I maintained the light on the reptile’s head -all I could see- and I not only saw it moving but also its eyes shone under the torch’s light! “This is amazing” I thought while watching the beast. I dropped my towel and other shower implements and slowly approached the pond in the dark until I estimated to be close enough to have a good view. Then I switched on my torch again.

To my relief it was a false alarm but a clever ruse nevertheless! Someone had somehow placed a tree trunk semi-submerged in the pond with the intention of making it look like a croc. Whoever he/she was succeeded with me! The movement and shiny eyes were not fiction as the head was a resting place for a bunch of toads [1] that were using the wooden croc as their resting place!

 

I returned to the bungalow and the following morning I came back to the pond for a better look.

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During the day the trunk was more obvious but less so when the toads were on it adding some greenish colour and movement to it!

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Luckily it was a wooden croc but it was nice as it offered a good opprtunity to see the toad’s interaction and to take some nice pictures of the batracian colony.

 

[1] From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frog). “The use of the common names “frog” and “toad” has no taxonomic justification. From a classification perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered “true toads”. The use of the term “frog” in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic and have smooth, moist skins; the term “toad” generally refers to species that are terrestrial with dry, warty skins”.