Monday, July 31, 2006

The Song in My Head

Monday, July 31, 2006

Just a Ride
by Jem
from the album Finally Woken
This happy little pop tune is so catchy, not only was I forced to buy it from ITunes, I also added it to the set list for the upcoming August 5 show by the Swinging Orangutangs.

Where would this world be without happy little pop tunes? Here are the lyrics. And here is Jem's website. Turns out she's Welsh. I'm glad she's not singing in Welsh.

I initially thought about using an image of a long dusty road, stretching off into the distance--a subject I love to photograph. But then I remembered this image of a cattle egret "enjoying the ride" on the back of a swimming hippo, and it somehow seemed right.

I photographed these two unlikely friends at Nsumo Pan in Mkuze Game Reserve. Nsumo was perhaps my single favorite spot on my South Africa trip. Watch for a post or two on Nsumo/Mkuze coming soon to BOTB.

In the meantime, I wish you a happy pop tune for your head.

Trying to Post

The Blogger Gods are not smiling today. Blogger will not take any images from me, no matter which browser I use, what size images I upload, how I name the images, or whether it's boxers, briefs, or commando.


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fruit-eating Nyala

Saturday, July 29, 2006
This large buck nyala was on the grounds at Bonamanzi our last afternoon there. He was so intent on eating a large, hard, green fruit that we were able to approach so close, we could not digiscope him.
He would raise his head and let the fruit roll back into this throat, then he would chew on it with his back teeth. The sounds he made while doing this were somewhat akin to sounds I heard in my freshman year dorm, after my fellow scholars had had too much to drink. Transcribing this sound for a field guide to the sounds of foraging African mammals (or chundering American collegians) it would be roughly thus: Arrglrglrggrgahrrrraaatchhhhh!

After about five minutes the buck had broken open the hard fruit and gobbled it down in a few quick bites.
One of the Bonamanzi staff passed by the buck, within a few feet. The buck just kept on chewing.

One thing I love about nyalas is that they look like they are wearing tan socks.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Day 2: Hluhluwe Afternoon

Friday, July 28, 2006
The Hluhluwe landscape is quintessentially African.

Bumping and rocking down the washboard road from Bonamanzi I was reminded that a certain part of my anatomy was still sore from the long plane ride across the Atlantic. At least now I was on the ground with birds and other creatures to see. The short drive to Hluhluwe was relatively painless, at least once we reached the paved main road.

In 2002, I toured Hluhluwe with a group lead by a guide from the park, in addition to my friend Peter Lawson of Lawson's Birdwatching Tours. We were in an open-air Range Rover with stair-stepped bench seats under a canopy.

Because Hluhluwe has lots of free-ranging dangerous animals, visitors are not permitted to leave their vehicles except in certain gated areas around the lodges and campgrounds. The 2002 trip was not particularly birdy. It was summer and the vegetation was thick enough to hide lots of what we were trying to see. It was hot as the hinges on the hatch to Hades and dusty, too, but we scored great looks at lots of African mega-wildlife. The highlight of that trip was the two hours we spent watching two herds of African elephants bathing, drinking, and cavorting in the Hluhluwe River. These were the first wild elephants I'd ever seen and, you know what? Them suckers is BIG! In spite of not being able to get out of the vehicle, I managed to get some acceptable digiscoped images of elephants.
My best shot of the bathing elephants (with baby!) from my 2002 visit to Hluhluwe.

I was hopeful that on this trip in 2006, we'd again have luck with the elephants. After getting a pass that allowed our vehicle inside the gate at the park's entrance, we headed into Hluhluwe in search of anything interesting. Just a mile or so inside the gate we found a small herd of impala, much spookier than at Bonamanzi. Why? Perhaps because these animals are hunted by leopards and by humans? Probably so.

Inside our rented combi bus. We could not get out of the vehicle in Hluhluwe. A leopard might eat us.

A herd of Burchell's zebras were grazing near the road a mile further along. All I could do was snap a few macro shots of zebra fur. Digiscoping from inside a 15-person van requires the physical skills of an international Twister champion as well as the patience of Job. Neither tripod nor human legs can be extended as easily as when you are outside on the ground, so you prop one leg here, another there, balance the scope on someone's shoulder and ask them to quit breathing for a few minutes. It's not simple, but we all still managed to get a few clear digiscoped shots. I did learn some German curse words.

Three giraffes were nibbling the treetops in a wooded copse. They just stood there watching us try to take their pictures. If we stayed within the confines of the bus, the giraffes paid us no attention. But if someone held their hands and camera out the window, the giant beasts began moving slowly away. Again, with my scope, I shot macro frames of giraffe fur.
Our first giraffes of the trip.

Giraffe fur macro, complete with dandruff. This animal needs to use "Neck & Shoulders" anti-dandruff shampoo.

Giraffe eye with a small wound (upper lid) and a tick (lower lid). No mascara was used to enhance this shot.

In Africa, the big game hunter culture has come up with the concept of The Big Five. Five African animals that are hard to stalk and kill. The Big Five are Cape buffalo (often called Africa's most dangerous animal), rhinoceros (black rhino is extremely endangered--2,700 individuals, white rhino much more common in South Africa, the country credited with saving the white rhino: total population about 11,000), African elephant, leopard, and lion. Hluhluwe is one of a handful of places in South Africa where all the Big Five occur.

A side note here: Hunters from all over the world pay thousands of dollars, in some cases hundreds of thousands, to shoot big game. In fact our flights to Africa were full of guys, already decked out in hunting togs, talking loudly about the safaris they were going on. Personally I don't understand how one could possibly shoot, say, an elephant, but people do. [In fairness, I am sure most hunters would be baffled at how birders could enjoy looking at a cisticola--they are drab, tiny, and it would take 50 of them to make a good sandwich].
White rhino with calf.

Oxpeckers (this one just right of center) keep small wounds open on rhinos and drink the blood.

Red-billed oxpecker on a white rhino's back. Taken from an idling bus through my scope.

Similar to most of the rest of the world, the balance of nature in South Africa, especially in huge gated parks like Hluhluwe, needs both monitoring and manipulation from humans to maintain some equilibrium. Hunting revenues pay for a lot of the maintenance and infrastructure of the South African game reserves, so it is a necessary part of the wildlife/ecology equation.
Little bee-eater, spotted just before we saw a big cat.

We saw a small herd of Cape buffalo, then several black rhinos, including one with a small rhino calf. Then, while watching a pair of bee-eaters flycatching along a stream bank, we noticed a small warthog snorting and acting excited. Just then, Christian, shouted "Leopard!" And we all caught sight of the big cat's spots as it moved parallel to the road through the thorn scrub. It wasn't a world-class look, but it was my first ever big cat in the wild! High fives were quietly shared all around. We waited for another 20 minutes and believe we heard the leopard call, but it never showed itself again. How lucky!

It was nearing lunch time, so we headed up into the nearby mountains to the Hill Top Camp Lodge for the late-afternoon meal. I'm not sure if South Africans typically eat lunch at 2 or 3 pm, or if that was just South African birding trip lunch time, but most days we ate lunch at about 3. The light from the lodge's hilltop patio was gorgeous and we stood there, impressed with the vista--just rolling hills, thorn scrub, acacia trees, and miles and miles of uninhabited land. Distant herds of impala, kudu, wildebeest, rhinos, and Cape buffalo could be seen through the shimmering afternoon heat haze. A kettle of white-backed vultures slipped overhead and centered itself over a draw to our east.
These Dutch girls were thrilled to watch the zebras through my scope at Hill Top Camp.

I was scanning with my scope, watching some rather active zebras, on the hillside below us. One large zebra was running toward a copse of trees, then back to its herd. The herd was stamping nervously. Something was bothering them.
Nervous zebras photographed from the Hill Top Camp.

"Lion!" coming down the path to the left of the trees. Oh my God! It was a beautiful lioness, walking slowly down a well-worm wildlife path. This had to have been what got the zebras so worked up. Zebra is high on the lion's list of "Nice Things to Eat." And the lion is high on the zebra's list of "Creatures to Avoid at All Costs." I watched the lioness as she slunk, quite majestically, down the hillside, disappearing into a brushy creekbed. This was a dream come true--a LION!

This is the lioness image cropped and enlarged. Not bad a bad image considering that I was shaking with excitement.

A funny thought occurred to me: as we were entering Hluhluwe, I asked our guides "Are there any lions here?" And the answer, probably to avoid getting any hopes up, was "No lions here." I chuckled at the good fortune we'd had.

As everyone sat down to lunch, I went inside the lodge to try to send an e-mail back home. I spent 15 minutes on the slowest Internet connection I've ever used, at least since 1990, sending word back to the States that I was fine and having a good time, also mentioning the lion and leopard sightings. Little did I know the messages never made it through. Perhaps they will be delivered sometime soon--guess that connection was slower than I thought.
Posing after lunch at Hill Top Camp.

While eating lunch, the realization came over us that we had seen four of the Big Five in just a few afternoon hours at Hluhluwe. All that was left was elephant. It was 4 pm. We had an hour-and-a-half of daylight left to try to find some elephants. The quest was on! Still chewing our sandwiches, we mounted up and headed back out into the park, looking for a huge gray mammal with a tiny tail and a long trunk.

It took the entire rest of the day to find the elephants. We asked every vehicle we encountered and finally got the proper info: They are down by the river. Sure enough. At the very cusp of dusk, we found three small herd of elephants.
Elephants at dusk at Hluhluwe. The Big Five slam was complete.

It was too dark for any reasonable photography, but we had our Big Five in just under five hours. This is, we were told, an almost-unheard-of accomplishment in such a time. We took only pictures, left only tire tracks. Every animal we saw is still there for you and others to enjoy.

Our Big Five buzz lasted all the way back to Bonamanzi. I barely noticed the bumpy road. After dumping our gear and cleaning up a bit, we gathered in the bar and drank toast after toast to our Big Five day.

The bottle of Windhoek Namibian lager I held in my hand was pleasingly cold. It was one of the most memorable beers I will ever drink. Cheers!
The sun sets on another wondrous day in South Africa.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Calm Blue Ocean

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pads of lilies float
upon the still blue water.
I remember peace.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Crocodile Smile

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Check out the green tongue. Imagine the morning breath!

I tried like heck to get this image (above) to upload into the previous post this morning. Blogger was having none of it. So here it is by itself and slightly out of context. The crocs at Bonamanzi were close and very photogenic. They were also huge--scarily so. Even the water dikkops kept their distance when the crocs were awake and moving.

Day 2: Bonamanzi Morning

The full moon in South Africa looked upside down to me. It was, because I was on the other end of the planet.

I awoke before light and stepped out into the cool wintry air. Smoke from the camp's fires lightly scented the gentle morning breeze, and the bush around the camp was coming to life for another day. The sky still held a bright full moon which was pretending that it was the sun. It wasn;t long before the real sun, angry at this imposter, burst above the eastern horizon and began stomping its way across the sky.

Stepping out of my cabin, a round building with a thatched roof, known as a rondoval, a traditional African building style, my attention was drawn to the nearby waterhole, just 50 yards to the north. The sunlight was just beginning to reach the treetops, so the golden hour for digiscoping was drawing nigh.
Rondoval #3, my cozy home at Bonamanzi.

African jacanas and a pied wagtail were working the edges of the water. On the far shore a malachite kingfisher was perched, but too far away to digiscope well. I shot him anyway. (But I did not shoot the deputy.) Movement in the edge of the bush on the far side of the waterhole caught my eye. It was a buck impala, eating leaves off a small tree. He seemed interested in coming to the water for a drink, but hesitated to do so.

Buck impala at the Bonamanzi water hole.

The rest of our group was beginning to gather in the growing light. I walked around the edge of the lake, being sure to stay at least a large croc-length away from the water, when I detected motion on the far, sunlit end of the waterhole. It was a large warthog, complete with tusks. He wasted no time in coming down to the water for a drink. I focused the scope and snapped his menacing image.
The hogger of warts comes to slake his thirst.

A good friend of mine, who in the years since I met him in the mid-1980s, has become a world-class bird photographer, once told me the most important thing to do when you are taking pictures is simply to wait. This advice came to me, watching the warthog, and it paid dividends. I was being summoned to our group, but something made me stay put just a while longer. Out of the brush came one, then another, nyala, an endemic South African antelope species. Then a large buck nyala came to join them and I got the picture that was worth waiting for.

Perhaps my favorite African digiscoped image: warthog and nyala.

Our group congealed and began a morning bird walk around the grounds of the camp, and out into the surrounding bush.
From Left: Christian, Gerald, Walter (behind), Kevin waiting for the next bird.

It was still cool, but the sun was beginning to assert itself. I was thankful to be here on this beautiful morning with nothing to do but look at birds, animals, and landscapes I've rarely, if ever, seen. I took a series of deep breaths, firmly centering myself in the here and now. Then I was ready to rock.
Brown-hooded kingfisher.

Our group of seven digiscopers and two in the video crew lined up on a dike, intent on shooting a cooperative brown-hooded kingfisher. The amount of fumbling, beeping, and light cursing soon sent the videoheads on their way. Swarovski had arranged to have the crew along to document the event for a short piece to air on European TV. Jstvan and Tommy are veteran nature documentary filmmakers, having done work for Discovery, BBC, and PBS, among others. They were great company the entire trip and always seemed to have the right gear at the right time (including medicine for a nasty rash I suffered from later in the trip).

One of our group, Walter Schulz, publisher of a new German bird magazine, Vogel, found his digital camera did not work with the set-up Swarovski had provided him. I heard him say this out loud, disappointment in his voice, so I gave him my spare camera, a Canon PowerShot A520. He used it successfully for the rest of the trip and returned it safe and sound when we were leaving South Africa. I thought about the many times I'd been helped out of a desperate situation on a trip, and was glad I could help Walter.

Most of the morning we chased small, flitting birds, getting good birding looks (orange-breasted bush shrike, yellow-breasted apalis, Rudd's apalis, and a flyover juvenile gymnogene--a weird hawk species) but not good digiscoping looks. That was fine with me. The key to digiscoping is to find the cooperative birds--ones that will sit still for you.

This was a lucky grab shot of a golden-rumped tinker barbet. He never sat still.

At the end of our first hour afield we hit the digiscoping jackpot. A yellow-billed stork flew into view and teed up in front of us on a dead tree. The sun was at our backs, the air was clear and cool (heat haze kills many a good shot), our gear was all working, and we shot and shot. If someone had appeared with a cup of hot coffee and a danish at that point, I might have fainted from sheer joy. The stork took off and flew toward us, landing in better light and posing. We moved closer, the stork showed itself from all angles.

Yellow-billed stork, early in a series of shots.
Yeah, baby! Yeah! Make sweet LOVE to the camera!

When I got this shot I had to surpress a squeal of delight. OK. Our work here is done.

We spent the rest of the morning strolling around within a half-mile from camp, taking pix, noting new species, watching for crocs near the water holes. I got a few more decent pictures.

Black-eyed bulbul. Totally ubiquitous in South Africa.

Spectacled weaver, one of the really lovely weavers. Too bad about the shadow.

Then it was time for breakfast back in camp, and a bus trip to a nearby, and world famous, destination Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, Africa's oldest game reserve. Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-wee) was one of my favorite stops on my 2002 trip--full of birds, and the only place I have ever seen wild African elephants. I was really revved to get back there.

But before we could leave, we had to find Petros, our driver. This took the better part of two hours, a delay we used to take more bird and animal pix around the Bonamanzi grounds. I got good images of water dikkop, black-eyed bulbul, a fruit-eating buck nyala, and several giant crocodiles, which were sunning on an island, behind a protective fence.
Water dikkop sitting down on his haunches.

Three-banded plover racing away from the paparazzi.

Kevin McGowan and I were talking digiscoping technique while we walked the grounds and he mentioned that changing the exposure on his camera had helped him avoid overexposing things in the bright sunlight of midday. This intrigued me. On my 2002 South Africa trip I had taken a few hundred digiscoped images and many of them were washed out, or overexposed. In fact some were more overexposed than a pregnant Britney Spears, which is saying something. The digiscoping lobe of Kevin's brain is large and well-developed, so between the two of us, we figured out how to stop things down by -2/3 (or two clicks) on my Canon Powershot, using the P or Program channel on the settings wheel. I tried it out on a foraging cattle egret in the noon sun--a perfect candidate for overexposure. No blow-out. For the rest of the trip, I toggled between AUTO and P depending on the lighting conditions. It made a HUGE difference. Thanks again, Kevin!

Finally, we heard Christian yelling for us to get on the bus. Our wait was over. Little did we know, the delay was setting us up for an unforgettable afternoon of wildlife watching. Had we not been delayed, I am sure our timing, and thus, our experience, would have been very different.

I'll take you along to Hluhluwe in my next post.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Catching My Breath

Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Here I am tempting the fates at dawn at the water hole at Bonamanzi Game Park.
Notice my eyes are closed. I'm praying.

Uploading images from Day 2 of my South Africa trip for my BOTB post about Bonamanzi Game Park, I realized there were WAY too many. And each one has a little story... So I'm going to have to regroup and divvy things up into bite-sized pieces. I will endeavor to do that tonight. Apologies for the delay.

Looking back through the images and my notes, I am astounded at how much we crammed into each day (and how much we SAW over there!)

Back soon.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Day 1, Part 2: Dlinza to Bonamanzi

Monday, July 24, 2006
This white-eared barbet was the trip's first really cooperative bird in good light.

After hitting the road from Eshowe, we headed to a nearby suburban neighborhood where palm-nut vultures were reported to be nesting. This smallish black-and-white vulture is a localized rarity in KwaZulu-Natal, so our guides thought it was worth seeking. I had been fortunate enough to see two PNVs in 2002 on my trip with Peter Lawson. We did not find the vultures, but the along the road through the neighborhood, we got into our first really good digiscoping of the trip.

Everyone had their camera and optical gear out and working. And it was a frenzy of see a bird, ID it with binocs, grab the scope, try to find the bird in the scope, focus as finely as possible, get out the camera, turn it on, put it on the eyepiece of the scope, zoom to get rid of the vignetting, check the LCD screen to see if the bird was there, press the shutter halfway for the camera's auto-focus, make sure the bird was within the focus area, snap an image.

Needless to say, things can go awry while all this is happening. The bird might fly, you might not be able to find the bird in the scope in time, the camera batteries could be dead, the scope might get jostled off target, the camera could focus on a stick or leaf instead of on the bird, your camera settings might be wrong, and once again, the bird may move, fly, or simply stay in a spot where only Superman's laservision could get a sufficiently sharp focus.

I love the challenge of digiscoping. When it works, it's a huge rush. You feel as though you've managed to make a lovely, sharp, professional-looking image with some very basic tools--not the normal high-end gear associated with such images.

I'm planning a entire post about my digiscoping gear in the near future. And I'll likely follow that one up with a post on some of the lessons I learned on this digiscoping trip in South Africa.

The late-afternoon sun was at our backs and the birds before us, feeding, sunning, and preening in several large trees. Yellow-eyed canaries and scarlet-chested sunbirds moved too fast for most of us to digiscope, so we concentrated on the barbets, an African hoopoe (I got no good shots), and some black-eyed bulbuls. A Cape wagtail let me capture a few blurry images as he sauntered from sun to shade then back again, never stopping his constant motion.

My best blurry Cape wagtail.

I consider myself lucky to have gotten this blurry silhouette shot of a scarlet-chested sunbird.

After just a hour along this birdy road, we saddled up for more driving. Our next stop was along a river, farther northeast up the coast (though we only glimpsed the Indian Ocean briefly). We disembarked and climbed through a barbed-wire fence to walk along the river, scanning the shady edges of the water for the elusive African finfoot. The finfoot is one of nature's weirder birds--half cormorant, half grebe, the finfoot has lobed (not webbed) feet and prefers to skulk along the wooded banks of rivers. We looked and looked--both Kevin and I really wanted to see the finfoot--to no avail. We did manage to add a few more species to the day and trip list, including wire-tailed swallow, thick-billed weaver, and pied kingfisher.

Seeking the elusive finfoot.

This backlit image of a thick-billed weaver is not great, but at least it shows the species' thick bill.

Seeing the thick-billed weaver reminded me of my friend back in Ohio (and a regular BOTB reader) named Bill Weaver. He is anything but thick, however. Howdy Wilderness Bill!

Then there was the girl I knew growing up in Pella, Iowa, whose name was--I kid you not--Ann Hinga. But I am getting too far afield....

After the finfootless stop along the river (watch for crocs, fellas!) we headed toward the town of Matubatuba. Our sole destination? A strip mall that featured a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We needed a quick lunch, and hunger being already with us, we did not argue.

Now I have not been in a KFC for several years, and this was not your mama's KFC. The pictures of the meals looked the same, but they had names like Streetwise Chow and Streetwise Maincourse. Interesting to see how American fast-food culture had morphed to be more appealing to South Africans.

There was a backlit panel promotion KFC's connection with the new Superman movie. The panel was mounted backwards but it did not seem to hurt the promotion's effectiveness. The place was hopping.
The strip mall in Matubatuba. Hands full? Carry the 20lb bag of rice home on your head!

Would the Colonel know what Streetwise Chow is?

!oreh ym si namrepuS

The traditional (and mighty comfy-looking) method for carrying an infant in Zululand.

We ate our lunches as we lurched down the road in our combi, seeing a few birds here and there, but mostly trying to make time to get to Bonamanzi Game Park, listed in our itinerary as one of South Africa's best birding locations. I was pleased because we would be staying in Bonamanzi for three nights which meant a more relaxing pace and that would be better for digiscoping.

We stopped at a campground near a wetland lake (called a pan in SA, specifically Thaluzihleka Pan) where we picked up a few additional species including African jacana and Cape cormorant, but darkness was winning out over the day. I realized that I had yet to call home to let Julie and the family know I'd made it safely. Plus it was Phoebe's tenth birthday today, and at 5 pm local time in SA, it would be 11 am in Ohio--perfect for a call. Christian offered his international cellphone--it had no minutes left. The payphone at the main building did not take credit cards. Christian asked everyone to hand over their Rand coins so we could try to make the call. My fellow travelers obliged and moments later I got to hear, from half a world away, Phoebe scream "DADDY!!!" when I greeted her with "Happy Birthday from Africa, Phoebe!"

It was the undisputed highlight of my day. And after talking with Jules, Phoebe, and Liam, I felt great. I told my tripmates the first round was on me when we got to Bonamanzi (and it was--two bottles of excellent South African Merlot). We drank a toast to the birthday girl.

Toasting Phoebe on her 10th birthday. Photo by our waiter,

In winter in South Africa, it gets light at about 6:30 am and the light is excellent for digiscoping (and even "normal" photography) until about noon. Then it is harsh and bright for an hour or so, and then the buttery light of late afternoon settles in and remains good until just before dark (at 5:30 pm). As we got closer to Bonamanzi, it became clear that we would not get there during daylight, so most of our group drifted off to Snoozland. The road into Bonamanzi was so bouncy and washboard-like, that we all instinctively grabbed our optics and held them on our laps to avoid any damage from vibration. We would traverse this stretch of road at least six more times in the next few days.

Christian shone his spotlight into the dark woods as we drove, spotlighting impala, a red duiker (a tiny deerlike creature), and then we came to a sudden stop--a nightjar was in the road. Everyone piled out in a hurry, but there was no need. The bird, eventually ID'd as a fiery-necked nightjar, sat politely for 15 minutes while we took our images. It was tough finding out which settings worked best for artificially lit nighttime birds. But I got a few keepers.

Fiery-necked nightjar.

At the entrance to the lodge grounds, Bonamanzi's manager/hostess Grace greeted us warmly. They had held dinner late for us, so we were to meet back at the bar and diningroom in 15 minutes. Bar? Food? Oh yes, please. But shower first...

As we walked to our rondovals (circular Zulu traditional buildings with thatched roofing), impala slowly walked out of our way.

We ended the day toasting our new birds with bottles of Windhoek Lager from Namibia, standing around a raging bonfire, our bellies full of good food, our heads swirling with the images from the day just past.

These are impala, not aliens.

BT3 warming by the bonfire. It felt good in the chilly night air. Photo by Kevin McGowan.