Mixing it up

Our rush back to breakfast was very rudely interrupted by this zebra who mooned us. I consulted The Family and Stephen, and we agreed that this kind of disrespect should not be ignored. We stopped and took photos for the record. Yes, Zebra, we have warned you.

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The rest of the large mixed group of wildebeest and zebra paid us no attention. I’d found that they do not mind feeding together because the finicky wildebeest strips leaves off the grass, and a zebra is happy to eat the sheath and the stem. Also, the more of them there are, the longer each can spend in eating, since just a few pairs of eyes are enough to keep watch for potential danger. You’ll notice in the photos that while most heads are down munching, there is always one head up and looking.

Shaky sunrise

The sun rose soon after our encounter with the trio of lions. The sky brightened through a series of colours, and the darkness around us could soon be resolved into grass and road. Strangely shaped peaks rose out of the horizon.

Zebras had begun grazing already. Zebras tend to eat all parts of grass, leaves, sheath, and stem, but their stomachs are not designed to digest the sheath and stem completely. A foal stood on the road and looked intently at us. The light was still so low that I had to use a long exposure. I liked the fact that it allowed me to capture the motion of the foal’s head as it tried to assess us. Its legs were planted firmly on the ground, so it had no intention of running, but the movement of its head showed that it was curious about us.

In the semi-light at the edge of the road we spotted a spectacularly spotted bird. The legs were long, was it a courser? No, its knees gave it away. A thick-knee. Its identification gave me a little trouble later. It can be nothing but the Spotted Thick-knee (Burhinus capensis), although its eyes look dark in this photo, and not yellow. I put that down to the bad light we saw it in. It is a common bird, found right across sub-Saharan Africa all the way down to the cape, which inhabits all ecologies except the forests of the Congo region.

It had already turned out to be an interesting morning. And now, as the sky brightened, we spotted a lioness in the distance, near the horizon. We noticed the movement as it rose from where it had been sitting. I nursed a secret hope of seeing a chase or a kill. But no. It sat down again. It remained alert, with head poking out of the grass. It certainly looked like it wanted to eat, but we decided to move on.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

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Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

The crossing

“Hurry up and wait” seems to be the perfect motto for wildebeest gathering up the courage to cross a river while looking, literally, for greener pastures. But once they get going everything happens fast; like the “moments of terror” part of the old aphorism about war. We’d spent a couple of hours of wonderful late evening sunlight, testing our patience against that of gnus. When the light began to fail the river crossing began. At dinner that night the story was that a gnu lost its footing and fell into the river, and the herd followed. Whatever it was, the crossing was panicky. Wildebeest thrashed in the water, upstream from a pod of ill-tempered hippos.

“Couldn’t they have done this twenty minutes ago?” I grumbled as I snapped off a series of shots. As a hippo yawned widely in front of the panicky herd of gnus, I got a photo which, in better light, I would have been proud of. It was all a little too blurry and pixellated to be a great photo, and with the landrover rocking, I was unable to control the camera enough for the long exposure required here.

A panicky herd of gnus is quite a phenomenon. They keep running forever. I think their high-strung temperament must be taking a toll on their life expectancy; in zoos they have been observed to live twice as long as the average in the wild. Nor can all of this difference be attributed to predation. I saw one wildebeest looking around desperately, slowly tracking back towards the river. This uncharacteristic behaviour probably meant that she had lost a calf. It had either been taken by a crocodile or was lost in the stampede.

The rest kept running. Even when they came to the road where our landrover was parked, they wouldn’t halt. They would only change direction and keep running. Panicky, high-strung are too mild to describe what they are. I think they wouldn’t run over a lion and kill it, but they could come close enough to one to be picked off.

As we saw them running off into the sunset, they kicked up masses of insects which, in turn, brought along several insectivorous birds. This would have been a midnight snack for the birds, since they had settled down almost an hour before. What a chain of events, I thought; that’s part of what a grassland ecosystem means.

The incredible excitement of watching Wildebeest gathering to cross a river

Wildlife documentaries are full of savage photos of intrepid wildebeest springing away from the slavering jaws of crafty crocodiles as they cross the Mara river in search of food and freedom. The truth is different. It is hours and hours of boredom, as indecisive gnus hurry up to wait. The photos here cover the last two hours of daylight waiting for a crossing.

As we left our lodge there was a buzz about wildebeest gathering at the river. We made our way there, and got a position near a bend.

There was a crowd of a few hundred wildebeest already, and more were coming in.

After half an hour of standing around, one animal decided to take a closer look at the water. There were hippos and crocodiles.

It came back up.

More waiting.

Some zebras have joined the gang.

Most of the herd has moved back.

Are there more humans than wildebeest here?

Quite a crowd.

Now the zebras investigate the river.

Those at the back begin trying to slink off.

More waiting! I suggested to The Family that we go see some giraffes and come back later. The withering look I get convinced me that getting bored is the safest course of action. That was when I started watching hippos.

Coloured zebras

Zebras are fun to watch and I spent a significant amount of time watching this very common animal in Amboseli national park. They always present interesting questions. For example, in the herd of plains zebra (Equus quagga) that you can see in the featured photo, the youngest one has distinctly red stripes. This is just the red dust of Amboseli sticking to its fur. Why does it stick to the black stripes and not the white? No one seems to have asked this question, so here is my answer. It has been found that zebras can raise each stripe of the black fur, but not of the white. When dust bathing, animals like to get the dust in contact with skin, just as me like water to get in contact with our scalp when we have a shower. So a zebra would naturally raise its fur, if it can, while rolling in the dust. As a result, there will be more dust trapped in the black stripes than in the white. The end result is a red and white zebra. Quite a sight!

Foals look enchanting, whether of horses or of zebras. I followed the red and white zebra foal with my camera. Looking closer at its coat, one sees that there is red dust on the white fur too, but it looks like it sits on top of the fur. While reading about the fur of the zebra, I realized that the old question of why a zebra has stripes has not been settled. Could it be that the question is not really sensible? Isn’t it a little like asking what our hands are for? Are they for holding babies or holding guns?

Thar she blows

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.

A lazy Monday on dusty plains

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.

First view of Lake Amboseli

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.