Savanna Blog - July/August 2017

It has been a while since our last blog, so we will combine the news from July and August. The seasons are changing quickly, with winter in full swing and good food and water for the herbivores disappearing just as fast. This has resulted in constant action around the lodge, ranging from the resident waterbuck, impala and warthog, to frequent visits from herds of elephant. It is always a great way to start the afternoon drive, heading out straight into a herd of relaxed elephants. 

 The bulls too, have been seen regularly around the lodge, and those who are lucky enough, may find them swimming in some of the larger dams nearby! 

The dry conditions also attract some interesting bird sightings! Although not a particularly striking bird on its own, the red-billed quelea gathers in large flocks when the conditions are right, and this year we have seen an impressive number of queleas on the open grasslands. It is quite mesmerising to watch the dance of thousands of birds moving as one, as if to music!

It is reported to be the most abundant bird in the world, so we were very fortunate to get a ‘one in a million’ glimpse of an albino quelea in the middle of a massive flock!

On the complete opposite side of the scale, we were amazed to find eight ostriches not far from Savanna late one morning! In general, these birds are seldom seen in these parts, as conditions do not favour them, and the odd sighting of a lone female has always been welcome. So you can imagine our surprise when we stumbled upon one male together with 7 females, casually walking along, feeding on titbits off the ground! 

 

 The large clearings close to Savanna have also been producing great sightings of the vulnerable southern ground hornbills. There are only an estimated 500 – 2,000 birds left in South Africa, so we have been very privileged to enjoy two separate flocks foraging regularly in the open grasslands. They feed on a variety of food, ranging from termites, beetles and their larvae to grasshoppers, snails, frogs and snakes, but have also been recorded feeding on mongooses, squirrels and birds! 

With the cooler temperatures, we have been seeing regular sightings of hippo out of the water. Later in the mornings, the large pod at the causeway in the Sand River will emerge from the deeper pool, to bask in the sun on the soft sand. 

It was interesting to see one sub-adult with major scarring all over its body as it was coming out to bask. There are two possibilities for this. Perhaps it was the territorial bull getting fed up with the overcrowding in the deep pool, a response to the diminishing waterholes. The other one is a lucky escape from the attention of some lions. The scars seem plentiful and not too deep, suggesting lions being opportunistic. No doubt the defence of the mother discouraged anything serious from the lions! These scars will heal without any issues and the young hippo should make a full recovery. 

One grumpy bull has been spending time in a small pan just south of the river. Whether or not he has been forced out of the main river by a more dominant bull is unclear, but he is definitely not too happy with life! After a quick drink at the pan, he returned to the water and made it very clear that he was not in the mood for visitors!

 

More often than not, however, the hippo viewing at dusk is much more serene and relaxing, and a perfect backdrop to the quintessential sundowner!

Over the past few months, as the grip of the dry season took hold, more and more activity was found around these waterholes, which are like the veins of life. Most species need to drink at least once a day, and the elegant giraffe is one of the most fascinating creatures to observe as they quench their thirst. The water level is a long way down for them, and the long legs make it an awkward posture. They also feel very vulnerable in this position, so they do not stay long, and drink quickly.  

 

The predators too need to drink and don’t often pass up the opportunity to do so. The Mhangene pride, consisting of 16 members made a few excursions west, and treated us to some fantastic sightings!

Leopards are often sought-after sightings at the water’s edge, as the reflection makes such an impressive image! Here, Khokovela takes the opportunity to replenish some much-needed fluids. 

Crocodiles spend most of their time in and around water. Their life depends on it.  It is also where they start life and recently we were fortunate to witness two crocodiles mating.

The pack of wild dog have come across onto the western concession recently and has, in response to prey density, also been spending the majority of their time near watercourses.  

On one recent occasion they managed to chase a sub-adult impala into a dam, where they waited patiently for it to come back to the water edge, before managing to get hold of it and drag it out, away from possible crocodiles. Although this seems pretty cruel, wild dog cannot afford to be ‘humane’ in their methods, as they themselves often fall victim to the other predators, and need to feed as quickly as possible. 

 

 Only four of our nine kingfisher species actually eat fish, and it is no surprise that these species spend their entire life along the water. During this period, feeding for them is also slightly easier, as the water levels drop, and the fish have less hiding places to avoid attack from the air. Below is a great photo where a pair was seen both with successful catches in their beaks! 

Ravenscourt has been the cream of leopard viewing these past two months. We are starting to run out of superlatives for this incredible leopard. He continues to impress every time we see him. In early July, our attention was attracted by a herd of impala suddenly sounding the alarm and staring into a thicket. Suddenly Ravenscourt came rushing out dragging an impala across the clearing. It was soon clear that three hyena were hot on his heels, but he fortunately made it to a tree he had in his sights, and managed to drag a fully grown female impala into the safety of a tree. 

He also spent quite a number of days with Boulders and sadly, it seems she lost her cubs pretty early. We only saw them once in June, and having lost the cubs, she got right back to business. If she falls pregnant immediately, we can look forward to new cubs from November on! Just in time for when all the impala drop their lambs.

Ravenscourt still continues to patrol a tremendous amount, trying to maintain his massive territory. This provides us and the guests with plenty opportunities to see him active during the day, and to capture great images of a male leopard in his prime.

 

Tlangisa is seen relatively regularly, but then can disappear for a week or more at a time! She seems to be spending more time in the north west, where the vegetation is thicker and it is harder to find her. Whether this is due to her daughter Khokovela being more active in the east, or perhaps Nyelethi is pushing further north and east, is unclear. But when we do see her, it is always incredible and her sub-adult cub is fantastic value! She has always been a brilliant mother and gives the cub all the attention it needs. This allows the cub the perfect security to explore and gain confidence.

 

As mentioned, Khokovela is becoming a lot more confident, and pushing further afield. Whether this is putting more pressure on Tlangisa, or whether she is moving further west on her own accord, is not clear. Occasionally now she comes further south of the river and it is going to be interesting to see how her territory evolves. This is moving into Xikavi’s territory, so the dynamics are going to interesting to follow. 

Xikavi herself has become scarcer, since Mondzo, her son, has become independent. Xikavi has always been good at hiding, and now that she does not need to move up and down taking her cub to and from kills, she is a lot more illusive. She even managed to avoid detection from a giraffe while lying in the open!  

 

Scotia still has her young cub and is hovering around the boundary of our concession almost permanently. This is almost certainly due to the territories of the males, and she is keeping the cub away from the males in the west. She still remains one of the best looking leopards and is enjoyed every time we do find her on our concession.

 

Although we do not necessarily believe that some leopards are beautiful and others are ugly, the leopard called Homelight (after the local name for a chainsaw referring to the sound of his roar) is arguably the least attractive leopard in the western sector. He is a very illusive leopard, and is very seldom seen, so some of guests were fortunate to get this view of him as he dragged his kill across the road. He is the father of all of Tlangisa’s cubs, and we are very happy that they take after her in looks and disposition!

Dewane is still doing exceptionally well. He seems to prefer staying close to the river, and doesn’t move nearly as much as the others. His territory has shrunk quite a bit over the past few months, but it is hard to say if this is a result of pressure, or if he just prefers to be closer to the river most of the time. His territory is still very much prime leopard habitat, so he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We have already mentioned the Mhangene pride, but the others are also still doing well. What is exciting is that it seems the Ximungwe females are becoming more confident by the day. They do not seem to be sticking to the edge of the reserve as much as they used to, and are moving into the central parts more regularly. They have not met up with the Majingilane males that we know of yet. This will be indicative of their confidence levels if, and when, it happens.

 

Sadly the Ottawa pride has lost the two younger cubs, and is back to four. The two adult females are still accompanied by the sub-adult male and female. They are getting close to adulthood, and it is becoming more and more likely that they will survive a take over from new males. But that does not seem to be happening anytime soon, and the females were already mating with the Majingilane coalition. If a litter comes of this, it is extremely unlikely that they will survive however, as the Majingilane males are almost certain not to last long enough to protect them. 

 We cannot forget the male cheetah that comes around on his regular visits to the Western Sector. As cheetah numbers are so low, and they are globally endangered, listed as species threatened with extinction, sightings of them are always a rare privilege. The past few months have provided some spectacular viewing, with regular kills, often being active, and even when resting, posing perfectly!

 

 

 With summer approaching, and the bush waiting with anticipation of the coming rain, those of us who love birds are also getting really excited with the promise of fantastic bird watching over the next 4 – 6 months. Summer is when most of the birds are displaying, building nests, calling and changing into breeding plumage as they try to make the most of the abundance of food in the breeding season. If you have planned a trip to Savanna, make sure to bring good binoculars to enjoy the magnificent details in the bird world…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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