Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dogged Behavior

We continue to have excellent luck with a pack of wild dogs hanging out near Kiba. Wild dogs sightings are among the most exciting in the east African bush. It's not just because they are the rarest of all the large carnivores; it's also because they exhibit so much behavior that even when they're resting, there is almost always something to watch.

Dogs live in very tight-knit packs and the interaction of pack members is critical to their survival. The packs are led by an alpha male and an alpha female, who monopolizes breeding rights within the pack. Dogs scent mark prodigiously with their urine, especially the alpha pair who often mark together as a form of bonding. Sometimes they even get a bit acrobatic about it, such as this alpha male who marked while doing a handstand.

Dogs also have oversized ears that can move independently of each other, enabling them to pick up the slightest sounds. In this sequence of pictures, you can see the radial mobility of the ears.

As I mentioned in my last post, dogs are the best hunters. They are coursers, which means that they give chase until the prey is too worn out to continue. But they still will do their best to close the gap before they begin the chase. As demonstrated in this picture, dogs stalk prey shoulder to shoulder with their heads low, which helps them to avoid being spotted by antelope by hiding the most recognizable part of their silhouette.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Not called Hunting Dogs for nothing

I recently returned to Kiba Point from a long vacation and it is wonderful to be back. It's been a very exciting few days. The most recent group of guests were treated to some fantastic elephant and lion sightings as well as two leopard cubs in a baobab tree. But to top it off, they got to see wild dogs for two straight days right very close to camp! We've been getting a bit of rain and the days have been overcast, which means that the weather has been perfect for these diurnal carnivores to hunt. We tracked the dogs from the garden up to the miombo woodland around the kiba airstrip where they caught a young impala.
Since a baby impala is worth hardly more than a snack, the dogs were quickly ready to set off again. Unfortunately, I had to head back to camp but the guests stuck around to see the dogs bolt the length of the airstrip in pursuit of some unlucky impala. Wild dogs run too fast and too far to follow them on a chase, but since dogs are the most effecient hunters of all the large carnivores, it would have taken more than a little luck for all of the impala to escape. Given how well fed the dogs looked the next day, their hunting skills certainly weren't lacking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Dung Wars

We had a lot of rain in the Selous last week which brought out lots of insects including Dung Beetles. With so many of these insects plundering dung piles, the competition was fierce for the choicest morsels.

Dung beetles are very important to the ecosystem, not least because they operate as the bush's sanitation system. To learn more about these insects, check out this fantastic post from Safari Ecology. What caught my attention while watching them was how ferociously they fought to defend their dungballs. Capable of pushing relative boulders ten times their own size, the beetles' strength was never in doubt. Their tactics, however, were fascinating to witness. As a reference, this particular species of beetle is about 2cm long.

This dung beetle is showing excellent rolling technique. They always roll the dung balls with their hind legs while standing on their front legs.

In the cases of competition over the dung, however, what unfolded was a bit more dramatic.

In this sequence, the beetle on the ball uses his American football-style blocking skills to keep the other beetle from ascending the dungball.

The beetle on the ball had spent considerable time moulding giraffe pellets and he wasn't about to let this challenger steal the fruits of his labor.

The challenger sprinted all the way around the ball but the defender never let him get to close.

Eventually, the challenger realized he was just going to have to do it the hard way and he sauntered off to the dung pile to start moulding his own dungball.

In the next sequence, two beetles of the same sex have already climbed onto the top of the dungball. Playing a game of king-of-the-hill, it was only a question of who would be the last beetle standing.

After a brief scrap on the top of the ball, one of the contenders was sent sprawling.

The victor decided to press his advantage and chase the other one off.

In this last sequence, what started as a similarly mild hilltop scuffle quickly took on much higher stakes.

The victor sent his opponent somersaulting 10 body lengths into the air. When he landed, the loser came straight back and got tossed again. This picture depicts the third launching. Who knows, maybe I have it all wrong and they're just performing the beetle equivalent of cliff jumping.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Legend

Yesterday, Nomad Tanzania honored the life of Brian Darnley Nicholson, a true legend of East Africa. Nicholson, renowned warden of the Selous Game Reserve unitl 1973, expanded the reserve and is largely responsible for its current state. Nicholson's daughter, Sandy, travelled to Kiba Point this week with her two sons to scatter his ashes in the reserve he loved.

Brian Nicholson: 20/06/1930 -- 17/03/2010
 An uncontested member of the Great White Hunter club, Nicholson began his career as a game officer at the age of 19. He was famed for long walking safaris deep into the Selous, often following its river systems miles into the wilderness. In fact, in 1979, it was Nicholson who instilled the passion for walking safaris in a young Richard Bonham, one of the founders of Sand Rivers Selous and Nomad Tanzania. That expedition was immortalized by Peter Matthiessen in his book, Sand Rivers, which gave Richard's lodge its name. It is in the spirit of that expedition that Nomad continues to do multiday walking safaris.

Richard Bonham with Sandy and her family at Nicholson's final resting place
It was a bitter-sweet moment for Sandy, who fondly recalled accompanying her father on many of his long safaris. It was with real pleasure that she was able to introduce her sons to the Selous. Richard Bonham, who accompanied the family, took some time to show the boys what it was like in their grandfather's time.

We may no longer catch 50Kg fish in Stiegler's Gorge the way Nicholson used to, but Adrian still managed to pull out a nice size tiger fish.

Richard also taught the boys how to use a rifle, something Nicholson was a master at as he hunted down problem animals to protect villages near the reserve.

I'm not sure they're ready to face down a tusker like their grandfather used to, but it's a start.

Nicholson will be sorely missed and we at Nomad Tanzania are honored to continue experiencing the Selous that he built.  

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tug of War

In the left corner, measuring 8ft long and weighing in at 500 pounds we have Trevor the Crocodile.

In the right corner, measuring 4 1/2 ft long and weighing in at 150 pounds we have Spotty the Leopard.

In the middle, measuring  3 ft long and weighing in at 130 pounds we have Swala "dead weight" the Impala

Ready. Set. PULL!

It was an epic battle that pitted the power house of an ancient dynasty against a smaller, quicker, more agile opponent. Neither could make much headway with the croc keeping his feet well planted while the leopard struggled valiantly to make any sort of progress.

Soon, Lenny the leopard decided to try some different tactics. First came indifference as he pretended to care more about the spectators than the main event.

Next he tried to intimidate his opponent into giving up.

Finally, he decided that if you can't win, sometimes you just have to change the game.

The leopard realized that he had the tasty end of the impala, so he just sat back and started eating.

Eventually, the croc decided there was no reason to watch the leopard eat when he could be basking in the sun downstream.

Flushed with victory, the leopard stood tall over his prize.

Eventually he picked the impala up, dragged it under a palm tree, and noisily devoured his meal.

A couple weeks ago, Mark over at Chada Katavi wrote a blog about how peaceful the leopards are in Katavi national park. I guess they're just made a bit rougher and tougher here in the Selous.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Narina Trogon

We have been very lucky the last two weeks at KP. A Narina Trogon has taken up residence around the mess and swimming pool, and we are seeing it almost every day. These stunning birds are shy, and have a tendency to sit quiet and still in the undercanopy, rendering them very difficult to see. Hopefully it will stick around for a long time to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back to the Selous

I am just back from a wonderful three weeks of vacation...hence the hiatus from this blog. Living in the Selous, sometimes it's easy to become focues on your immediate surroundings and forget just how many incredible places there are on this continent. Some time off gave me a chance to visit a couple of these places.

First I stopped off in northern Tanzania for a quick safari. Not too far from Lamai Serengeti, I tracked these cheetah for three days hoping to see a kill. But while they spent plenty of time hunting, I never got so much as a chase out of the brothers.
Without any cheetahs here in the Selous, it was a pleasure for me to spend so much time with these felids.
After that I was off to Ethiopia. The highlight of my time there was a visit to the Simien Mountains, famed for the gelada baboons and incredible topography.
It certainly did not disappoint!
The shaggy, 'bleeding heart' baboons graze on the mountain tops but sleep on the sheer cliffs.
Now I'm happily back amidst the familiar screams of the fish eagles!

Friday, August 19, 2011

They're back

 As any of the KP staff could tell you, I was getting impatient. By the start of August last year, elephants were frequently meandering along the river bank through camp. This year, however, perhaps because the rains lasted longer into June than usual, the ellies have been slow in returning to the riverine habitat around Kiba. To put it simply, I missed them.

But a week ago, they came back. One evening they showed up right on our doorstep as we were about to sit down to dinner. An hour later, our food was cold when we finally made it to the table. We all gathered around the pool as a dozen elephants, and two very young calves, ably picked up small wild dates off the ground.

It was nice to see a couple of young calves with the herd. One (not pictured), was still small enough to fit under her mother's belly, meaning she's less than 6 months old.

Even Michael, one of our waiters, was happy to see them come back. For him, elephants can be a challenge as he sometimes has to dodge them when bringing food from the kitchen to the table.

Of course 5-ton visitors do have some drawbacks. Guests have been late for their flights because the ellies blockaded their rooms. We are now subject to sudden wake-up calls in the middle of the night as elephants smash their way through the bush. And while elephants are only too happy to use our well swept paths to move through camp, they never hesitate to fell trees and branches that block our way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Impala Split

Camp managers love oddball animals, and I am no different. Horns are strong, but they can be broken or deformed with great effect at creating ugly ducklings. I found this impala near some of our local lakes here in the Selous.

Like other impala, this ram has gracefully curved horns. Atypically, however, his are all askew.

It's impossible to know why his left horn juts forward at such a weird angle, but it will almost certainly hamper him in fights with other rams for dominance of mating herds. And without winning dominance, it will be nearly impossible for him to secure maiting opportunities, so it is unlikely that his genes will be passed on.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Rufiji Haul

There's more than one pace to life in the Selous. You may cruise up river, the wind in your hair, or you might sit quietly, drink in hand, in the shade of our hide overlooking the garden. Or you might grab a fishing rod and a beer for an afternoon on a sandbank trying to hook a prized tigerfish or a tasty catfish.

Even a pensive afternoon fishing includes some great wildlife sightings, as shown by this photo of Godlisten and some guests rousing a raft of hippos from their watery retreat.

On this particular trip, Jake won the day with an impressive 5-Kg golden catfish, complete with a little squeaker inside. Michael, one of the waiters at KP, held up the prize fish before frying it up for pre-dinner snacks.

So what can you expect to catch when you fish the Rufiji? Well that certainly depends, but if you're lucky, you might just be able to match Jake's giant catfish or--if you're really lucky--the remarkable haul of one recent group of guests:

11 catfish
8 squeakers
5 tigerfish
1 terrapin

And that excludes the croc that fought the hook for almost 10 minutes before finally (and fortunately?) snapping the line!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Also featured at flycamp...

Make sure to check out the Sand Rivers blog for Mark's excellent post on the rare African Skimmer. These birds earned their name because of their habit of flying just inches over the water with their lower mandible (a fancy name for the bottom half of a beak) dipping into the water, ready to reflexively snatch up any snacks they come across in the shallows. There are few places better than the Selous for seeing these birds and few places better than our flycamp sites for watching them skimming.

I caught this one on camera last week when I was flycamping with my guests. For the whole hour that we enjoyed the sunset over the lake, this skimmer made passes along the lake shore just in front of our camp fire. A few times we even saw it lift small fish out of the water right in front of our noses! So kudos to Mark for his pictures of the skimmer chicks, but there's no picture quite like a skimmer actually skimming.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fly camp

Fly camping is the best thing we do. And yet, as special as fly camping is, it's rare that I get to head out with my guests to enjoy it. In fact, previous to this week, I'd been flycamping as many times at other Nomad camps as I had here in the Selous.

But the wait was worth it. With great company, a beautiful sunset, spectacular birdlife on Lake Tagalala, and lions roaring at one end of the lake while hyenas whooped at the other, I couldn't help feeling jealous of all the guests who enjoy fly camp without me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Front row seats at the Kiba airshow

I went out to the Kiba airstrip yesterday to receive some vegetable supplies, and was surprised to find a rather formiadable welcome party for the plane. 

I suppose that to those of us who have travelled across continents in airplanes, a small, single-engine craft nimbly landing on the dirt slope we call the kiba airstrip may not be too exciting. These lions, however, seem quite impressed by the performance.

In the end, however, the lions' natural laziness overwhelmed the excitement of the plane landing and taking off, and guests debarking with a week's worth of vegetables for the camp. The pair never stirred from their shady haven. The new guests were quite chuffed to find their first Selous lions 30 seconds into their visit.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Drop your Malarone and grab your...socks?

Last year, I wrote a blog about anti-mosquito laser defense systems. It seemed like a bizarre and overly-sophisticated malaria prevention strategy, but it showed promising results.

This year, researchers are taking a different approach. According to an article in The Washington Post, public health researchers are trying to tap into the hidden potential of your smelly socks as a means of capturing mosquitoes. A comparative field test is currently underway in Ifakara, a town just outside the Selous Game Reserve, to determine whether natural human foot odor, collected in used socks, creates a more potent attraction for mosquitoes than synthetic chemical odors. The final step in the process is to contaminate those socks with a fungus that kills mosquitoes before the malaria-causing Plasmodium falciparum is ready to infect a new human host.

So forget laser defense and expensive prophylactics. It turns out your socks are more than the laundry attendant's worse nightmare, they're the mosquitoes' worse nightmare too.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

All along the river

Yesterday evening, I headed out to the sand river, my favorite drive in the vicinity of Kiba Point. Last year, the sand river was exactly what it's name implied, a vast, sparkling dry river bed of white sand that hinted at a wetter era long past. But in truth, that era was only as long ago as the last rainy season, and as we enter July, encroaching tendrils of water still snake up the sand river. Following the heavy rains in April and May, the riverbed has gone to seed, with a blanket of grasses and shrubs washing across the once blinding sand.

Now, even driving over the long-used tracks feels like trail-blazing, and the giraffes that frequent the sand river every evening seem exaggerated as they tower above low shrubbery. And while this particular drive didn't reveal the sand river's classic image-its pride of 15 lions grouped around a buffalo carcass-it certainly did not dissapoint with a wealth of birdlife and some large herds of very large mammals.

This breeding herd of buffalo initally fled when they heard the approching vehicle, the accompanying flock of cattle egrets forced to abandon their perches and take to the air with chaotic flare.

Eventually, though, the herd turned and trained their characteristic stony glare on me.

Here a white-browed coucal takes flight over the scrub.

On my way back, I encountered a vain lilac-breasted roller posing on a bush.

To complete the drive, as I neared the Rufiji at the beginning of the sand river, I caught a giraffe set against an acacia bush and Kipalala hill, the sun setting just over his shoulder.

Some people might wonder how I can do the same drive week after week, and year after year.  It's simple. Every time is different, every animal sighting is rewarding, and never more so than on the expanse of the sand river.