Botswana

Killer banana

The incident I will narrate took place during our last year’s trip to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. As the observation was being published, I delayed its writing until this took place on 8 July 2018 [1]. For easy access I have also inserted the published document (Hornbill predation) as a PDF file under Pages in this blog.

Let me start by saying that if you find the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills likeable, you may need to review your stand after you read this piece.

While at Camp No. 2 at Monamodi Pan in October 2017 we were startled by the dryness of the place. Birds from the surrounding area will immediately come to drink in any water that we had around the camp. Common visitors were Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus) but Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus), Violet-eared Waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) and Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius) were present in large numbers.

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There was a constant stream of birds drinking at the waterholes.

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Birds looking for food and water around our camp.

In addition, a few Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) were residents at the camp and were regularly seen on the ground.

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Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills scavenging around the camp.

At mid-morning during the second day of our stay some of the small birds suddenly flew off where they were foraging in a response usually observed when there detect danger such as an attack by a predator.

They all flew away but one! A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill had caught one of the adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and it was in the process of killing it by violently shaking it and thrashing it against the ground. We were startled as we did not expect this to happen.

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

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The sparrow died fast and the hornbill started removing its feathers and then it took its victim up a nearby tree where it continued defeathering it by vigorously hitting and rubbing the sparrow against the tree. Interestingly, there was no panic reaction or mobbing of the predator by the small birds that returned to the water only after a few minutes.

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

After about 30 minutes the hornbill decided that the victim was naked enough for it to be swallowed!

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Picture by Frank Rijnders.

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Although it was known that the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill’s diet included “a wide range of invertebrates and small vertebrates” such as nestlings of Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) the list does not mention predation on adult birds [2].

It is possible that the observed behaviour was incidental. However it seems realistic to expect that the hornbill was prepared to take advantage of the chaos created when large numbers of birds gather at waterholes or are distracted when foraging together to catch their prey unaware.

So, like with the observed carnivory in hippos [3] the present observation may not be nice but, again, it goes to show how nature works.

 

[1] https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/500

[2] Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

[3] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/

 

My thanks go to Biodiversity Observations for publishing this observation.

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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.

Easy pickings

Last September, after a few early morning drives at the Kalahari Transfrontier Park, we took it easy for a couple of days, visiting the waterholes late in the mornings and afternoons. The day before our departure from our last camp, Twee Rivieren, I suggested to go for an early drive but my wife preferred to continue relaxing so I went on my own. It was a bad idea as, somehow, the whole camp shared this thought and the only road out of the camp was a dust cloud, despite the 50kph speed limit.

Aware that the morning had not started as I dreamt, I drove slowly until I found a waterhole to stay and wait for the travelers to quiet down as it usually happens. I stopped after about 20km at the Rooiputs waterhole. I was alone there and, as expected, soon the traffic died down and I could enjoy some dustless tranquility.

Apart from a few gemsbok staying a couple of hundred metres from the water and a lone jackal that was clearly mice-hunting in the dunes at the back, the waterhole had been completely taken over by birds. I spotted a good number of Namaqua sandgrouse on the ground and decided to take a few pictures of them.

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The trees around the water were laden with small birds, mainly red-billed queleas, sociable weavers and red headed finches among others.

There were also a great number of laughing doves and ring-necked doves. The latter were in such numbers that it was like a curtain of moving birds that often obscured the water source as they flew in and out.

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Hundreds of doves were “queuing” on the nearby trees to get to the water. Most of the time the available water was literally covered with birds and every now and then an explosion of birds flying in all directions followed a perceived threat. Often these were false alarms and the scared birds returned to drink immediately.

It was following one of these bird explosions that I saw a tawny eagle in the midst of the doves. When I spotted the eagle it had already caught a dove and it soon landed to eat it. “This is incredibly easy”, I thought and decided to stay there and wait for more action. When it finished eating it flew away but I was sure that it would come for more. It did.

Unexpectedly, the eagle did not return at great speed, just flew above the doves, lost altitude and then it entered the “dove cloud” and, almost effortlessly, grabbed another dove with its talons and landed to pluck it and eat it!

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It all happened too fast for me and I only managed to take pictures of the raptor feeding about twenty metres from me. After eating, the eagle flew away again and landed on top of a nearby tree followed by a large retinue of small birds busy mobbing it.

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I continued watching the birds’ drinking dynamics when, after about ten minutes, the eagle (or another one?) repeated the operation and, again, caught another dove! After its third dove, the eagle flew to the same tree and then I saw a second eagle. Further inspection revealed that the clever eagles were nesting about fifty metres away, taking advantage of the easy pickings that the waterhole offered them!

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As they only need to fly a few hundred metres a day to get a full crop and feed their fledglings, I started wondering -like with the Scottish pigeons of my earlier post-about eagle obesity!

Luckily, my fears were dispelled as the next time one came for another pigeon it looked really mean and I did not detect any accumulation of fat round its waist!

 

Waltzing in the wild

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At the last minute after leaving Moremi Game Reserve, we decided to spend the night at Magkadigadi Pan National Park. We managed to get a last minute booking at Khumaga camp as we knew that animals -mainly zebra and wildebeest- were migrating through that area at the time. Additionally, we had been there in 1999 and we were curious to see it again as we had good memories of the place, particularly the games drives along the dry Boteti river where we often saw lions as well as a huge crocodile that used to live in a water pool that somehow survived the prevailing drought.

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A view of the Boteti river in 1999.

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A similar view to the above, but in 2014!

We noticed that things would be different when, after going through Khumaga town and just before arriving at the Boteti River, our GPS stewardess announced, “in 300 metres board the ferry”. “This machine is confused again” I said and there was general agreement in the car so we ignored her and continued driving. And then we saw a mighty river with very clean water and, surprise, surprise, a ferry parked at the end of the road, waiting for us! So we apologized to the GPS’ lady and approached the ferry.

While driving towards the water’s edge we remembered hearing, sometime ago, that the water was flowing again in the Boteti (later literature check up mentioned 2012 as the year that this happened). The view was totally different and new to us, suddenly making the idea of coming to Makgadikgadi National Park much more interesting! I am sure it was a great positive change for the wild animals (clearly also for the domestic stock as well!!!) that suffered water shortage for many years and their recovery must be on the way

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Waiting to board the ferry at the “new” Boteti river.

After successfully getting the car on the ferry, under the expert guidance of the ferryman, we crossed the river in 15 minutes and arrived at the gate of the park, located on the other side of the river. We passed through the gate, drove a few km and, after seeing a large herd of zebra clearly returning from their afternoon drink in the river, we arrived at the campsite. The place was the same but now it was on the bank of a normal river, with water flowing and surrounded by green vegetation, a sharp contrast with our memories! It was a bitterly cold evening so we lit a good fire and were in bed early without seeing much!

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Our campsite in 1999.

The following morning, the coldest I remember while on safari, we decided to go for a game drive before departing for Francistown and Harare. This time the drive took us along the now green river banks rather than through its dry bottom and we could not help but express our admiration for nature for having recovered so fast from what earlier resembled a bone-dry place.

The road afforded us the chance to drive closer to the water in some areas and observe its prolific birdlife. We did not see many mammals, as they were probably grazing on the plains. The exception was a beautiful Greater Kudu bull with great horns.

Greater Kudu bull near the Boteti river.

The Greater Kudu bull.

It was during one of these river loops that we saw the marabou storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus). There were a few hundred adult birds. The first impression was of a group of elegant men in suits with coat-tails at a gentlemen’s club, getting ready for a ball and waiting for the ladies! However, the ladies were already there, dressed like men!

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The “waltzers” from far…

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They were well dressed… (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

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The orchestra Director. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

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Showing off before finding a dancing partner? (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

We saw a lot of interaction as birds were clearly courting and getting ready to nest. Apart from some birds trying their hand at various acrobatics and showing their superb flying and gliding skills, the more frequent activities were less spectacular. They consisted of offerings of grass to each other, accompanied by short jumps and beak clattering. The latter was a rather noisy activity, considering the size of their beaks!

After a long while observing their antics, a boat full of tourists approached and disturbed the birds, which flew away and landed again at a distance. However, the “magic” had been broken for us and we, unanimously, decided that it was time to get back to Zimbabwe while the bird spectacle was still fresh in our memories.

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A video snapshot of the birds moving off. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

 

De-bugging

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Moremi Game Reserve has been on our list of “places to visit before dying” for several years. Although in 1999 we visited Botswana, we had limited time and focused on Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and then flew into the Okavango delta where we stayed at a camp known as Oddballs.

Fifteen years later in May 2014, and taking advantage of our son’s holidays, we re-visited Botswana with the main objective of seeing Moremi Game Reserve. We made an additional effort to adjust our accommodation to the itinerary of the President of Botswana, as his visit to the area coincided with ours and, for some reason (perhaps justified?) he had priority over us!

Our itinerary was:

Nxai Pan National Park, South Camp (29 – 31 May).

Moremi Game Reserve, South Gate Camp (31 May – 3 June) and Third Bridge Tented Camp (3 – 5 June). The earlier post “Tree Cheetahs” is part of this visit.

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Khumaga Camp (5-6 June).

As the trip was long, we included two nights at Nxai Pan. We remembered the place because of the very large baobabs known as Baines’ baobabs, found on an island in the saltpan with not much else!

Regrettably, during our trip we lost one of the camera’s memory cards so many pictures are lost to humanity!

An innovation during this trip was that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Botswana (the Department) has tendered the management of its camps to different private companies. While this may be good for the maintenance of the camps and other reasons important to the Department, booking and paying becomes cumbersome. In our case, we had to pay three different companies to secure our bookings! (here I will insert link to Department’s page with info on bookings)

Coming from Zimbabwe, the entrance to Nxai Pan is 65 km from Gweta. We registered at this first gate where we learnt that the President had been there in the morning and that he had left already, leaving a good impression among the staff there! After negotiating another 37 km, most of which over deep sandy tracks, you arrive at the final entrance gate. A note referring to this road on the Department’s web page puts things into perspective, so I should have been prepared:

“The sandiness of this track should not be underestimated and only 4×4 vehicles should attempt the journey, engaging 4-wheel drive before negotiating the deep sand – carrying a spade is also wise!”

Wisely we did carry a still uninitiated spade and arrived at South Camp without problems. The place was well shaded and all facilities were excellent.

When it was time to use the ablution blocks, we encountered a surprise. They were protected by a field of hundreds of cement blocks aligned at a 10 cm distance from each other. Each block ended in a 5 cm sharp iron spike. We had seen similar but simpler arrangements of concentric stones to deter elephants from damaging trees. However, this was an advanced version, almost resembling anti-personnel barriers seen in WWII pictures! As the use of showers and toilets was essential, crossing them was imperative! (pic of baobab with stones?)

Careful exploration of the barrier revealed a slightly wider gap, large enough to plant our feet toe-to-heel and make slow progress, taking care not to lose our balance. This was challenging enough during the day. At night it became a potentially mortal field where all senses needed to be focused on the task to avoid falling to what it looked like sure maiming!

We arrived at the campsite quite late and after putting our tents up (and surviving the visit to the ablution blocks) we went to the nearby water hole for a quick look. This is perhaps the focal attraction of Nxai . It is near the campsite, in the heart of a large grassy plain and dotted with umbrella thorn trees. Here, several animal species can be seen, drawn by the availability of water.

Nxai Pan’s is at its best during the rain season when a multitude of animals congregate there (including large numbers of springbok) and various species reside there permanently. Although it was the dry season, we were lucky enough to see a pride of lions made up of two adult lionesses with five cubs, together with two adult males. They were well fed and being their usual lazy selves, totally ignoring possible prey such as giraffe, zebra and greater kudu that came (in numbers) to drink.

Unknown to us, a surprise was waiting for us back at the camp. As earlier we were focused on the “spike-crossing”, we had not noticed that the camp was crawling with small stinkbugs. Although they were rather nice looking with a combination of brown and orange, crushing them released their strong and rather pungent odour. To our great consternation, there were hundreds of the smelly things!

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A green relative of the campsite invaders. Their pictures were lost with the camera card.

To make matters worse, like most insects, being attracted to light is in their genome! Protecting your glass of wine, cooking pots and dinner plates from their dive-bombing became a high priority, as there was not much else to be done about their presence! Despite our efforts, some drowned or got burnt to death in our pots. Fortunately no unexpected crunchy bits were found in our food!

Unlike dinner, achieving a stinkbug-free sleep was infinitely more complicated! The first alarm was sounded by our son when he discovered that they were getting inside the tents, despite the tight zippers: “my tent is full of bugs!” he said with a touch of exaggeration and adding a few epithets that I omit for the sake of the under-aged readers.

I was very pleased in my sleeping bag -having successfully negotiated the ablution spikes at night, so I decided to weather out the bug storm. I did so by adopting the ostrich trick of burying my head deeper in the bag, trusting that my poor sense of smell would not betray me. My companions did not join me in the use of this tactic, being of different genetic make up (my wife) and having inherited a lot of that (my son).

Although I believed it to be a fruitless procedure and told them so, they proceeded to methodically review all their belongings to remove the invaders from their clothing and shoes. This required a prolonged de-bugging session that was painstakingly achieved. They then proceeded to extract all the bugs from the tent. As this was all done with the aid of light and torches, it was a near never-ending exercise as new bugs kept getting in while others were being extracted.

Eventually an equilibrium that favoured the humans was achieved, the lights were turned off and calm was restored while I tried to keep first my chuckle and then my rude remarks to myself. The calm did not last too long as I heard my son say: “Shit, I just crushed another bug!” and opening the zipper to take it out. We spent a “perfumed” night, some of us resigned and others fighting the bugs to the bitter end!

Despite the rather “bugged night”, the following morning we left early for Baines’ baobabs. They were painted in 1862 by Thomas Baines, a famous painter and explorer of the last century during his journeys through southern Africa. Today, the same scene that entranced Baines is still there, unchanged as these trees take hundreds of years to grow! Perched on the edge of the large Kudiakam pan, dry for most of the year, they preside majestically over the salty flat span surrounding them. However, if the rains are good, the place becomes an island in a large sheet of water where water lilies appear, along with abundant waterfowl life. Needless to say that the place looked the same as in 1999…

Baines' baobabs in 1999.

Baines’ baobabs in 1999.

You get to the baobabs after driving a couple of hours over sand dunes on a rather rough and undulated road that eventually delivers you to the open area of the pan where you immediately spot the clump of trees in the distance. Luckily some pictures taken with the cell phone survived and I include them in this post.

The trees are rather dark and coppery, standing quite close to each other. One of the colossi has fallen but it is still growing on its side! I must confess that I did not count them and, judging by Baines’ own account of his discovery, he was not very precise either after seeing them for the first time when he wrote:

“… five full sized trees and two or three young ones were standing, so that when in leaf their foliage must form one magnificent shade. One gigantic trunk had fallen and lay prostrate, but still losing none of its vitality, sent forth branches and leaves like the rest.”

After watching a Secretary bird in search of snakes, a rather rare sight in this latitude, the trio of “stinkbug-wise” campers returned to the camp later in the evening. After an excellent shower to rid ourselves of the dust collected during our drive, and a hearty pasta dinner to settle us down, we soon were in our tents without bothering too much about our smelly foes.

The bugs were a real nuisance while we disassembled our camp, as the beasts contrived to find their way into all the folds of our tents, empty bags, chairs and any item that offered a crevice to be filled. It took a lot of work to remove them and, despite our efforts, we carried a few fragrant reminders of Nxai Pan with us to our next destination: South Gate at Moremi Game Reserve.

 

Note: Header picture by Julio A. de Castro.