The seasons have turned again and we are now into the autumn (fall) period. The mornings have been crisp and, although there were still clouds in the sky and even a few drops of rain this last month, it has been noticeable that change is in the air. We have started to wear fleeces and jackets in the early mornings again. The grass is still long, but is slowly being flattened in places by the movement of animals, and we are noticing a change in the colour from green to a more golden hue. Many of the veld flowers are now coming into seed. The barn swallows are starting to gather now and soon the migrants will be leaving us again for their long journey northward. They have been fattening themselves up in preparation for this incredible trip. It is hard to imagine that the Palearctic migrants (such as the European bee-eaters, European rollers, barn swallows, spotted flycatchers and red-backed shrikes amongst others) will soon be heading right across the continent of Africa. They will have to cross the jungles at the equator and then traverse the harsh Sahara Desert in order to reach their breeding grounds in Europe. As the temperatures are starting to drop now we are expecting that we will also have fewer sightings of reptiles and invertebrates in the coming weeks. Since the grass started growing, as a result of the better rains that we had this last summer, there has been an increase in sightings of grazing animals in the concession. There are quite a few zebras and wildebeest around and all the animals are looking much fatter and happier now. The thick grass layer these past few months has provided great breeding opportunities for many of the game-birds and the francolins, buttonquails and harlequin quails have done really well, with lots chicks seen running behind the adults in the roads in front of us.
Some of the birding highlights this month have been large numbers of red-billed queleas nesting in the concession, sightings of Eurasian hobbies, peregrine falcons, lanner falcons, Amur falcons, a sighting of lesser kestrels, a sighting of a single booted eagle flying over the concession and numerous lesser-spotted eagles. There have also been a few sightings of corn-crakes, lots of European rollers feasting upon the armoured ground crickets and even a sighting of a common white-throat.
Our wildlife review for the month is as follows:
Buffalos: We have been very fortunate with buffalo sightings. The long, lush grass has attracted a few large herds of buffalos to the area. In the north of the concession we have had a few sightings of herds exceeding 150 individuals. This has attracted the attention of the lions, and the Northern Pride have come into the concession, following them and chasing them around. The buffalo herd then ran west towards the area around Gudzani Dam, where they came across the Shish Pride, who also gave them a bit of a go. It is a hard life for the buffalos. Wherever the herds go lions are sure to find them.
Elephants: As expected we had a slow start at the beginning of the month with regards to the elephant viewing. The Marula trees were in fruit, and since we do not have many of these trees in the concession, many of the breeding herds (herds of females and their young) moved off to other areas within the park. However, it was not long, before we started seeing the herds return and by the end of the first week they were once again attracted by the tasty grass and the water that has filled many of the rivers and Gudzani Dam. On the 22nd of the month there was a huge accumulation of elephants seen around the Sticky Thorn thickets. All in all, over one hundred individuals were seen grazing and browsing in the area. It was spectacular! The elephants seem to really enjoy that area. For the rest of the month we have seen numerous breeding herds of elephants.
Spotted hyenas: It appears that the spotted hyenas that were denning in the Nyokeng Valley have moved. This is possibly because the stream in the valley started flowing after the rains fell. We have therefore had fewer sightings of these mysterious and interesting animals than we have had in the past months. We have still seen hyenas along the H6 road, particularly first thing in the morning, just after the sun has come up and last thing in the evening, just before we return to camp. It appears that the guides may have found a new hyena den near the Xinkelengane drainage in the north of the concession. This may be the clan from the Nongo Den that have moved southwards. We will monitor this site next month to see if it actually is active or not.
Lions: We have had some great sightings of lions this month. The Shish Pride have certainly been the stars. This month we were seeing twenty members walking together (including the white sub-adult male). It appears that we have lost a few lions from this pride. This has probably been as a result from fighting with other prides (particularly the Northern and Southern Prides). The two really skinny looking individuals that were seen last month, after the big fight with the Southern Pride, seem to be missing and we think that they did not survive their injuries and the separation from the rest of the pride. Early in the month we found the twenty members of the Shish Pride feeding on a waterbuck that they had killed near the far north of the concession. This is a very dangerous area for the pride to be as the Northern Pride and the Northern Males have been moving further and further south, and we have been seeing them near the Mbatsane Firebreak (and have also seen their tracks on top of the tracks of the large herd of buffalos that have been moving around the northern regions of the concession). Towards the middle of the month the Northern Pride were seen in the region of Big View Hill and were mobile south in the long grass. There were five females and seven cubs in the group. At around about the same time six members of the Shish Pride (including the white individual) were seen feeding on a baby giraffe in the central area of the concession. A few days later the entire Shish Pride and the Shish Males (twenty-four individuals in total) were seen chasing buffalos in the area of Kori Clearing. Towards the end of the month a few of the sub-adults from the Shish Pride seemed to have split away from the rest of the pride. These six individuals were seen walking in the clearings near Xinkelengane Fly-camp. They headed north and the next day three of these cats were seen lying in the open area at Golf-course Clearing. It was an amazing sighting as there were many other animals, including zebras, wildebeest and impalas in the same clearing all staring at the lions lying out in the open.
The four adult Shish Males have also been seen quite a few times this month. Usually it has just been three of them moving together (the Grumpy Male is often absent) and they have been seen throughout the concession, presumably patrolling their territory and making sure that other males do not intrude into their area. On one occasion one of the Shish Males was seen with the Northern Females.
We have had very few sightings of the Mountain Pride this last month. They seem to be moving in the hills to the east of Ntoma, where the terrain makes it very difficult to track them down and drive in the area. On the few occasions that we have seen this pride the Grumpy Shish Male has been with them. It has been a sad few months for this pride as it seems that they have lost all their cubs except for one.
During the first two weeks of the month we did not see the Xhirombe Pride at all. Then, on 12 March we found two male lions right outside camp. It was the Xhirombe male and an unknown, bigger male (possibly one of the males from the Southern Pride). The larger male was quite shy of the vehicles, but he was intent on following the Xhirombe Male, who is very used to the cars. The next day we saw these two males again. It looked as though there was a slight bit of aggression between the two, but nothing serious. The next day they were seen again and by then they seemed to have settled a bit more. Towards the end of the month we found the Xhirombe Pride on James Road, fairly close to camp. This time the Xhirombe Male was with the two Xhirombe Females, but without the unknown male.
To confuse matters even more, two other unknown males have also been seen in the vicinity of the camp at the end of the month. We are not sure whether these are the two Rogue Males that we saw near the camp, feeding on a giraffe, a few months back. These two males are extremely shy of the vehicles and run away as soon as they see the cars.
Cheetahs: The long grass in the area has made it very difficult to spot cheetahs. We have only had five sightings of them this month. Most of these sightings have been on the H6 Road. At the beginning of the month the female with the five cubs was seen. Unfortunately, they were not seen again after this. Towards the end of the month JP was driving along Nyeleti Road when he saw a female cheetah moving through the long grass. She initially seemed fairly shy so JP kept a bit of a distance from her. He then noticed the grass moving behind her. The cheetah then moved through a small opening in the grass and JP saw that there were two tiny cubs following behind her. The cubs seemed as if they were only a few weeks old. As the cubs were invisible in the grass as they followed behind the female it was decided that it would be better to leave them alone.
Leopards: For the first two weeks of the month we only had a few leopard sightings. The long grass obviously made it very difficult to spot or track them down. During the second half of the month, however, we started to see these beautiful cats again and during the latter half of the month we had quite a few great sightings of them. A particular female has been seen quite often in the last two weeks with two cubs. She has been moving around the area of Milkberry Ridge, Ntsibitsane and Green Apple Hill. These leopards have provided some amazing viewing. Towards the end of the month we were only seeing one cub. We hope that the other cub is still around and was just hiding.
Towards the middle of the month Jani was driving in the far north of the concession when she found a leopard cub lying up in a tree. Later on in the month a female leopard was again seen in the same area with two cubs. Walter was lucky enough, one evening, to see a large male leopard in the northern part of the area. This leopard was stalking some impalas, but it unfortunately was not successful.
Right at the end of the month Charles, one of our trackers, found the Mhlangulene Female leopard with a cub feeding on an impala close to the Mozambique border. This leopard is a very relaxed female and it is great to see her and her cub again.