Friday, 5 September 2014

Southern Africa 2 - having a hyena for dinner

This follows on from the previous post about the big cats of the Okavango.

The felines dominate the hunting on the delta, but they are by no means the only predators. The canines also make their presence felt. Surprisingly,compared to the cats they are harder to spot although you see their prints around in the sand. The guides and spotters were brilliant at seeing the tracks as we drove around, and the ground being mainly sandy was superb for enabling it.
There were 3 main types of canids we spotted. The smallest was the jackal.
 This is a side-striped jackal we saw at Shinde. There were 3 individuals in total, and just as the felines looked like domestic moggies, this boy does a good impression of something very proud of itself at Cruft's.

They are quite small though, only the size of a collie dog, so exist by either scavenging, as on the tsessebe in the bottom photo, or by killing much smaller prey.
There were two other larger canids around though. The first was the animal we most wanted to see, the african hunting dog, also called the wild or painted dog. They reached media stardom a couple of years ago with a documentary following a hunt which was shot from the air, showing the pack running their down in a collective hunt. We have liked them for years though but never seen them in the wild. They are now endangered and absent in many parts of Africa following persecution from cattle farmers as well as the inevitable habitat loss.
Our first camp was Nxabega. We arrived about 3pm, straight off 3 planes from Heathrow to Jo'burg to Maun the camp on successively smaller planes. We were given 30 minutes to sort ourselves and then it was off on the first game drive. The guide Kux asked us what we wanted to see. "wild dogs, please" we replied. He immediately set off for where he thought some dens were. The first two were just big holes in the sand but at the third we spotted a single female on the track.
You can see why they are called painted dogs. Their markings are beautiful, each one unique with shades of gold, black, brown, yellow and ears you would die for!!! We were only an hour into our holiday proper and we had already seen our number one target. Then it got better. First a second then a third adult appeared, all just lazing around the jeep.

 One of the females then started a low whiny call as she wandered over to the den, and the 9 cubs bounded out. There followed 5 minutes of chaos as the adults and the cubs greeted each other like long lost relatives.

 Eventually the adults got bored and decided to go off hunting. As they wandered off the cubs tagged along, which I don't think really helped their chance of finding anything.

 Finally, the adults parked the cubs in some long grass and loped off with a marvelous, economic, long-legged stride and disappeared off hunting which was where we left them.

The last of the dogs we saw was the brown hyena. A lot of people don’t like hyenas, seeing them as sneaky, opportunistic and somehow evil. We love them. They have great character and like most scavengers are always on the lookout for trouble.
Our first meeting was on the airstrip at Shinde. Generally the airstrips are great places for wildlife viewing. The airstrip is nothing more than an area of dirt where the Cessna’s land, but with it being open you can see much better. Anyway, on one early morning drive we spotted a pack of around 6 or 7 hyenas mooching about the end of the runway. As we drove up they became curious and started to approach us. I’d forgotten quite how large they are. 

 The biggest was much larger than the largest domestic dog and you could see how powerful it was. The bite from a hyena is the most powerful in the animal kingdom and can crush large bones. Interestingly as they got closer they were the only animals which the guides showed respect for by asking us to keep quiet and stop photographing. With both lions and leopards we just kept on doing what we wanted! This is particularly relevant for our second encounter! Anyway, we watched these for 20 minutes or so before they loped off into the brush presumably going back to their den to sleep off the nights meal.

Our second encounter was with the same pack but the following evening. About 20 minutes from the camp was a quite a large lagoon which we had visited a number of times. It was really good for birds, with lots of waders and lapwings present, collared pratincoles hunting over the surface, darters, storks and eagles feeding on the fish and a family of hippos normally cooling off in the deeper water.

African Fish Eagle - a common bird in the delta with a characteristic cry

Common Jacana - this is always around the pools and rivers behaving like our moorhens. They are sometimes called Jesus birds for their ability to walk on water, which in fact is walking on lily-pads!"

This rather poor photo is a lesser jacana, the much smaller relative of the bird above. Aubrey spotted it adn was very excited as it is not only quite rare but is also very difficult to spot. We gripped-off a group of birders in another truck who arrived 5 minutes later but by then it has disappeared back  into the reeds.

Pied are the most frequently seen of the kingfishers

This is a long-toed lapwing. There are many different sorts around in the delta, but this was the only time we saw this particularly attractive version

By contrast this is a wattled lapwing. These are more frequently seen, but do not necessarily associate closely.with water. Like their commoner cousins the blackmith and crowned lapwings they stalk around the grassy fields.

This little chap is a Kittlitz's plover. It is a tiny bird, but quite feisty. In a not great move this one is defending its nest of eggs, which it has laid right next to where the jeeps drive. Fortunately all the drivers seemed to know it was there and took avoiding action. 

Stalking around in the longer grass are these strange but striking birds - saddlebill storks. They are totally unmistakable with their multi-coloured bill and black and white wings which show well in flight. 

In July i spent three hours at Minsmere twitching a collared pratincole. Here there were probably 30 or 40 of them hawking for insects over the surface of the lake. Apparently they also breed later on in the year. 
This was our last night in Shinde and for our sundowner we asked specifically to come to the lagoon as we wanted to see the hippos out of the water. During the day you only see them submerged with their eyes as they keep cool, but as dusk falls they become more active and start to show themselves. We got to the lake about 6 as the sun was going down. The birds were all showing well and the hippos were starting to grunt and snort. Our guide Aubrey, who was a really top-notch birder, got the table set out for our sundowner and to our surprise got out a bottle of champagne! As it was our last night we were being treated. What could be better, a glass of cold fizz, some lovely nibbles to snack on and the lake hippos getting themselves sorted out for the night. 

Then Aubrey called out “we’ve got hyenas coming our way”. He wasn’t joking. As I turned round the large male from before was about 20 meters away, and we were all out of the truck with champagne in hand!! The reactions were interesting. Judith broke the world-record for getting into a truck, I turned my camera round and started photographing the approaching menace (with my flash gun going as well) and Aubrey walked round to the front end of the truck to protect our snacks! The hyenas, and the whole pack was now with us, weren’t interested in us, they had smelt the chicken we were having and were sniffing round that. I thought hyenas were dangerous but Aubrey dealt with them like you would a Labrador after your sandwiches – he literally shoo-ed them away. They looked a bit disappointed but just shuffled off after a better opportunity. In retrospect this was one of the highlights of our holiday and certainly not one we would have predicted!!