Feb 02

Waterfowl Count January 2016

 Knob billed duck

Knob billed duck
Image J Brebner

We have just had a phenomenal birding trip up to Hwange for a week, mainly to conduct the African Waterfowl Census which is carried out each January and July. During our time in the park, we managed to record 222 bird species! It is a wonderful time to study the migrant birds in the park, particularly the various raptors. We saw countless European rollers but the other rollers were out in numbers too as were the bee eaters, with plenty of juvenile carmine bee eaters flitting about. Although most of the places we traveled have had some rain showers and in a few areas the bush is thick and lush looking, it is obvious that rain generally has been sparse and patchy. January is usually a glorious time in the park, especially if there has been abundant rainfall and the natural water pans are full. They host a myriad of waterbirds and sometimes the puddles in the road may even have a paddling duck or two. Not so this year, sadly. All the people we spoke to who are involved in some way in the park commented on the poor rains so far this year.

 

Jen, Cheetah in the grass

Peeping Cheetah
Image J Brebner

We started off with two nights at Sinamatella and once we’d settled into our lodge, we took off for a drive to begin our waterfowl counting. Initially we didn’t see much and water along the vlei was pretty sparse. But close to the Mandavu turn off, we stopped to admire a male knob billed duck that had waddled out of the grass at the side of the road when, looking down, we spotted two cheetah heads peering out of the long grass! Unfortunately, these lovely creatures didn’t stick around to be admired when we tried to get a better view. We stopped off briefly at the Mandavu picnic site below the wall and watched an osprey quartering the dam. It dropped at speed with a rather ungainly splash down into the water, then emerged with a fairly large fish in its talons.

Jen Ellie and baby

Newborn Baby
Image J Brebner

We spent the whole of the next day in the Robins Camp area starting off at a fairly dry Salt Pan. On our way there, we came across a spotted hyena peering round a bush at the side of the road. It gave us a baleful glare, then scampered across to road and slunk off into the bush. While there were plenty of waterbirds to count at Salt Pan, numbers were low compared to previous years and because of the small body of water, it was easy to count the far side through the spotting scopes without having to move around and disturb the birds.   There were plenty of small waders that kept us busy but very few pratincoles this year –  we only saw about five or six – and only two avocets. We moved on to Deteema Dam and spent a few happy hours in the Mike Edwards hide. There were plenty of Egyptian geese on the dam – almost outnumbering the blacksmith lapwings! Here again, the dam was quite low for the time of the year so it became difficult at times to identify the various waterfowl dabbling around in the long grass and water weed sticking up out of the muddy flats. On our way back to Sinamatella, we stopped off at the Mandavu camp site. While there we spotted an unusual large tern-like looking bird harassing flocks of white winged and whiskered terns and eventually managed to identify it as a Caspian tern which caused great excitement. Although it landed a long way off, we did manage to get a passable photo of it to prove its existence!   During our entire time in the park, there were always brown or black blobs flying high or low, and many trees festooned with kites, lesser spotted eagles, tawnys, steppe eagles and buzzards. We are sure there were some unusuals amongst them but some of those raptors are difficult to identify. Vultures, too, were very visible and we saw plenty including some very handsome white headed ones. There were several occasions during the trip when swarms of flying ants emerged in their thousands from the ground. A spectacular aerial display ensued with birds of all sizes and shapes, swooping and swirling to catch the insects on the wing.  Others, particularly the abdim and woolly necked storks, the hornbills, starlings and hooded vultures, darted around the veld and along the roads picking up their share of the feast.

 

Jen Flame Lily

Gorgeous Flame Lillies
Image J Brebner

On our way through the park to Main Camp, we monitored all the pans we came across and we were once again saddened by the lack of water. Shumba is looking great and holding good water thanks to the two solar units there, but Dwarf Goose pan was just a muddy puddle. Besides three blacksmith lapwings, three spurwinged geese and a lone jacana, there wasn’t anything else to be seen there. Water along the sides of the road was very sparse and several of the natural pans were dry. Arriving at Nyamandhlovu, we caught a huge herd of buffalo just walking off after a drink, and watched an enormous, gnarled old daggaboy having a rather ungainly roll in a muddy depression. There was plenty of other game around – zebra, kudu, impala, two roan and four waterbuck, two of which were young rams engaged in a tussle. The veld around Nyamandhlovu was incredibly dry and there is hardly any grass to speak of although the trees were fully leafed providing a bit of green colour.   The following morning we counted waterfowl along the White Hills road and were again seriously disheartened by the lack of water. The pans we  covered were the Ngwenyas, Tshebe Tshebe, Kaoshe, Garakamwe, Mabuya Mabema, Bembi, White Hills and Guvalala. We stopped off at the Bembi picnic site for a late breakfast and were astounded at the unbelievable number of amethyst sunbirds feasting amongst the pretty purple teak flowers. Guvalala held reasonable water and there was quite a big puddle in the natural pan to the left of the platform, with lots of grass hiding plenty of small waders, mostly ruffs. While there we watched a beautiful African Marsh harrier quartering the pan, putting the woolly necked and abdim storks to flight and upsetting the blacksmith lapwings which took to wing objecting loudly, while the little grebes and some of the red billed teals ducked under the water. Later, sitting quietly at Nyamandhlovu pan having a sundowner before returning to camp, we were privileged to see two beautiful lionesses emerge from the bush followed by two large male lions – Seduli and Mopani. There was a notice up in the Main Camp office warning visitors about Mopani who is aggressive and has a penchant for chasing vehicles! Once the cats had settled down by some logs, we set off to get a better view as they were lying very close to the road. Unfortunately, we lost sight of Mopani as he moved off into deeper bush, so we were understandably a little nervous! The other three stunning creatures were not in the least bit perturbed by us and in fact, Seduli was courting one of the females and we observed them mating several times.

 

Young pride at Ngweshla

Young pride at Ngweshla
Image J Brebner

The following day we counted birds at Dom, Nyamandhlovu, Dopi and Caterpillar as well as Livingi. It was decided to leave out Jambile and the Mangas as reports of the condition of the road were not good and with the lack of rain, we didn’t think there would be much water in them although we did hear later that Manga Three, being monitored by African Bush Camps, is holding good water. We ventured down to the Kennedys and Ngweshla, stopping off at Kennedy One picnic site to cook up a late breakfast. Yet again, there has obviously been patchy rain, with Ngweshla particularly dry for the time of the year, although the two solar units there are doing a good job and the pan next to the camp was delightful. Round and about there were some depressions filled with water and one particularly pretty one hosted a gang of Egyptian geese, three spurwings, four knob billed ducks, a few red-billed teal, a noisy bunch of blacksmith lapwings and two wood sandpipers. We saw plenty of abdim storks along with a few woolly necks, and four kori bustards stalked around the vlei.

 

Our bird counting partners returned to Bulawayo, but we were fortunate enough to be heading down to Somalisa for a night. Having unexpectedly won a night for two, we decided to take up our prize. The story of our stay there is for another day, but suffice to say we had a marvelous time, were treated like royalty and reveled in the sumptuous luxury of the new camp. The staff were extremely welcoming, the food was excellent and plentiful, and our guide, Mike, did us proud. Thank you African Bush Camps.

All in all, it was another fabulous trip but we need to keep in mind that the park is in for a very hard season. To keep game water supplies going will be a mission, but food shortages will more than likely take a toll on many animals this year.

 

Jen Hottentot Teal at Dopi

Hottentot teal pair
Image J Brebner

John and Jenny Brebner

Jan 09

News from Hwange – January 2016

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Image Nicki Dell

Rain in Hwange so far has been patchy and very scant, and the situation gives us cause for grave concern. Elephants started coming back from the south of the park and Botswana about two weeks ago indicating little relief for them there. So far there are numbers of elephants in the Wilderness Concession as well as at Ngweshla, Broken Rifle, the Kennedys and Somalisa. In the Main Camp area, Luvingi has numbers of elehant drinking in the evenings.

 

Most of the pans are holding some water, although levels are nowhere near what they should be for the time of year, and we may need to start pumping all pans very early.

 

Grass cover is not good, but we have to be positive and hope that Hwange may still get some widespread rain. It would be very welcome as it has been unbelievably hot with temperatures reaching 40+ Centigrade most days.

 

FOH has recently drilled a second borehole at Sinanga, and we are starting on a second hole at Makwa too. The plan is to install new solar units at Mbiza, Sinanga, Makwa, Manga 1 and Shapi. We extend grateful thanks to those who have donated funds for our ongoing solar projects.

 

We are braced for an extremely tough year ahead. Please hold Hwange and the animals in your thoughts in the coming weeks and months.

Dec 10

Cecil’s Pint-Sized Gladiators

When we visited Hwange in mid-November, Cecil’s pride had not been seen for some weeks. We were very keen to find them, so we decided to drive to an area they’d been previously sighted, hoping – but not really expecting – to catch a glimpse of them.

Well, we hit the royal jackpot. The pride came strolling through the bush to the pan, cool as you please, in front of our incredulous eyes. We watched spellbound these wild, free creatures – young, beautiful and thriving.

We were aware of another lion or lions in the vicinity. Every so often we could hear a very low moan not far off. We accounted for all 6 cubs, and 2 lionesses, and thought that the third lioness of the pride may be nearby.

Some buffalo cautiously approached the pan, and within minutes, the lions were on the hunt. We were treated to the awesome experience of watching the pride successfully taking down a buffalo cow, but still no third lioness appeared.

A lone wildebeest came in to drink while the two pride females grappled with the buffalo. The cubs immediately pricked up their ears, and took a few tentative steps towards it. But the prospect of an imminent buffalo dinner proved way more attractive than wildebeest on the hoof, and they soon lost interest.

A short while later, we were again aware of the cubs, alert, fixing their attention on a spot behind us. We turned and were astonished to discover 4 more lions approaching – two mature females and 2 cubs a little bigger than Cecil’s sprogs. Initially there was no overt aggression from Cecil’s pride as the four walked closer and flopped down waiting patiently to see if they could cash in on a meal. But the two new youngsters could not hold back, and tentatively tried to worm their way in to the kill. Cecil’s pint-sized gladiators wasted no time in teaching the impostors a sharp lesson in lion etiquette, and the intruders scampered, whimpering, back to their mum.

One of the new lionesses was wearing a collar, and there was evidence of an old injury to her right ear, so Brent, of Hwange Lion Research easily recognized her from photographs. She was a female from the Ngamo pride, the members of which are totally unrelated to Cecil’s pride. Unfortunately we could not wait to see how the drama played out, as darkness fell and we had to get back to camp. But we’ll watch with interest for further news of the lions of this precious pride and the unfolding dynamics surrounding them.

Nov 27

Rain in Hwange

 

Hwange Mid-November 2015

 

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Mopane Trees in new leaf
Image Nicki Dell

We arrived to sweltering, sticky heat, and a hot, stifling wind. Clouds built up throughout the day with the magnificent promise of rain in sunsets streaked with glorious colour. But morning revealed clear, blue, cruelly cloudless skies. Huge numbers of elephants arrived in waves to suck up precious water in the pans, many of which contained pools of dark, undrinkable, liquid mud. There was fierce competition round the pipe yielding fresh, cool water from deep underground. Animals stood round listlessly, heads drooping, lacking the energy to move off and forage.

 

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Image Nicki Dell

The water holes in the Main Camp area seemed to be holding up – just – thanks to efforts from Gary, Patrick and the Parks game water staff to keep all pumps possible working flat out and some pans still contained small pools of drinkable water. The variety and number of animals sighted was amazing – elephants by the thousand; graceful herds of impala; plump, belligerant zebra; pink-eared kudu; stately sable, roan and waterbuck; warthogs with litters of mini piglets; inquisitive giraffe; lions of all sexes and sizes; long-limbed cheetah; spotted hyaena; a herd of buffalo 2000 strong at Mandavu – and the list goes on. We were surprised that the water holes with solar units performed relatively well in a season that’s been particularly harsh and dry, and it’s clear that installation of more solar units is the way forward in the coming months ahead. Elephants destroyed the pipes of the windmill at Shapi, a catastrophe for small animals in that region, and one angel from HLR stopped there and poured some water into a bowl for some very thirsty vervet monkeys desperate for a drink. Shumba Pan was uplifting; the 2 solar units there are clearly coping well. But Masuma, which FOH does not manage, was worst of all. The pump was down due to broken pipes, the pan contained nothing but murky, thick sludge and the trough was empty. We watched with heavy hearts as a troop of baboons desperately licked at the damp concrete, and several kudu turned this way and that perplexedly, unable to understand why there was no water. A small herd of elephant screamed their anguish, and we, who are hardened to the toughness of this place, could take no more and drove away.

 

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Image Dave Dell

That evening at Sinamatella we watched the clouds build into a dark mass, stark and beautiful with shafts of sunlight piercing through to the ground. Lightning flashed in the distance, and we woke in the small hours to the sound of thrumming, drumming, pelting rain. Again the following night at Mandavu Dam, we lay in our beds and listened to the fierce gusts of wind  tearing at our tents followed by a torrential, lashing downpour. The heavy rain was widespread from Sinamatella to Detema Dam and Robins, and on down to Masuma and Shumba. There was not an elephant to be seen – they simply took off overnight and vanished.

 

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Tiny, new, red Mopane shoots
Image Nicki Dell

Tiny red shoots burst forth on the Mopane bringing promise of recovery and new life. In the Main Camp area, some elephant herds remain; painfully thin, they are too weak to start on the long journey west and south, and need to build up strength before heading off to pastures green. A devastating and widespread fire from Mbiza and Broken Rifle though to Kennedy 2 had destroyed much needed vegetation, but shoots of green grass have already pushed through the blackened earth, and clumps of tender leaves and shoots are magically unfurling on bare branches.

 

There have been casualties. Sad dried up piles of skin and bones are scattered round many of the pans. Predators, sleekly fat and thriving have feasted on free bounty, and vultures too have done their job of cleaning up the carnage. But the vast majority of animals have hung on and made it through the drought.

 

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A tortoise feasting on new leaves
Image Nicki Dell

Although we are still pumping water into the pans, we are cautiously optimistic that the worst is over for this year. The water in Guvalala is still very low, and Dom and Nyamandhlovu need a good downpour. But there are puddles all over Ngweshla, good water in the pans at Kennedy 1 and 2, Makwa has pools of standing water all around and more rain is forecast in the coming weeks ahead. And before leaving the park, we spied a tiny, perfect, newborn impala fawn – a wonderful symbol of hope and re-birth.

 

To Gary and his men, we salute you. Your passion and commitment are boundless.

 

To all our many wonderful supporters, without you we would surely have a different tale to tell today. Our heartfelt thanks and gratitude go out to you all.

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Image Dave Dell

Nov 25

Cecil’s Pride in Hwange National Park on November 20th 2015 – Video

We recently spent a wonderful afternoon with Cecil’s pride. All six cubs are alive and well, learning fast, and being provided for by their mums. Here is a short video clip taken on November 20th, 2015 in Hwange National Park.

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