One of the easiest things to figure out about herds of elephants is that they tend to move in a straight line, except when geographical features come in their way. You can see this very clearly in the featured photo. Nothing in their ecosystem seems to deter them. The best wildlife guides in Kenya have honed their judgements about how close to the path of a herd of elephants you can park without disturbing it. When you get a little too close, elephants become protective of their young, and may stop moving. A little closer still, and unpredictable things can happen. Anthony was a wonderful judge and several times brought us to a hair’s breadth of the “personal space” of a herd on the move.
This is the reason I fixed my sight on this lone tusker on a near collision with a wildebeest. Two different herds of elephants were on the move, in opposite directions, throwing up a lot of dust. The elephants figure out a course which avoids the others long before there is any chance of them coming too close to each other. The wildebeest that you see in the photo above was placidly chewing the cud in the middle of the movement of many elephants. I saw zebras constantly shifting their positions, often minutely, turning to keep an eye on the nearest beasts. I could see that the bull was going to pass too close to it for comfort. A zebra or a human would have backed off long before. I began to wonder whether the spatial reasoning of wildebeest is so much finer than a human’s that it had figured out that the elephant would miss it by a whisker and a swish of the tail.
No, this wildebeest was no Pythagoras. In the usual style of wildebeest, it had just forgotten to look around. It was only when the thump of the elephant’s feet could not be ignored that it scrambled to its feet and began to bolt. But the elephant had seen it already, and adjusted its motion minutely to pass by without a confrontation. This caused a different knot of wildebeest to scatter suddenly. Wildebeest are the jokers among antelope, but elephants seem to know this.
Anthony brought our car to a halt. This was my favourite way to view Amboseli National Park: standing up in a parked car, with my head poking up out of the roof line, but still shaded by the raised canopy. On my left was a scene out of a thousand movies and TV shows. I’m often lazy about images. So the sight of a perfectly flat and dusty plain stretching to the horizon, a few zebras standing in the shade of an Acacia tree, brought out the competitive copy cat in me. “Quintessential Africa,” I thought. The Family looked totally bored, and started looking around.
On our right was jumbled bush. On top of it was a shrike. Anthony was pretty good at birds, but not accurate down to the species. He agreed with me and added “Butcher bird.” Many species of shrikes create a larder of insects they catch by impaling the carcass on thorns, so this phrase is sometimes used to denote all shrikes. Mother of Niece Tatu was a budding birder, so I thought it was nice that Anthony gave this explanation. Later, when I got a copy of the field guide to the birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, I found that the photo catches a lifer, the Lesser Grey Shrike (Lamius minor), in full breeding plumage. The field guide shows this as being spread across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Strangely, the IUCN red list excludes this part of Africa from its recorded range. A cross check on the HBW site shows reports of sightings from across Europe, East Africa, and down to southern Africa. That makes me fairly confident about this identification.
Our first view of Lake Amboseli was enchanting. The lake is very shallow but extensive. We drove past rapidly, since our guide wanted to show us large mammals. But even in that quick pass I managed to take several photos. I didn’t want to stop longer because we still hadn’t got ourselves a field guide for the birds of Kenya, and we would not be able to identify what we saw. In retrospect that was a mistake, because we could have taken photos for later identification.
Looking at them later I discovered more than 15 species of birds. Here you see three plains zebras (Equus quagga) and a considerable number of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor, respectively). If you look carefully at the photo you’ll see a black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and a Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus). The last species is found only in Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope northwards to Angola in the west and Kenya in the east. Although it is common, this was a lifer. We’d seen the other three in India.