Wildlife viewing

Our basic plan in the bush is to get the best possible photos of game with all efforts aimed at tracking predators. The only problem is the obsession with predators resulting in ignoring everything else, which we are constantly guilty of. The bush is a lot more than predators and more you appreciate it the more you enjoy. Having said that on arrival at all parks our first inquiries are on the movement and sightings of predators. Local knowledge and chatting to others is vital at working out what is where. Short of relying on luck and flukes, the best chance of seeing what you want is by tracking your game. To do this you need to have some idea of the layout and the movement of game. Animals are creatures of habit and understanding this gives you the best chance.
 
To catch the Nxai Pan Zebra migration in Botswana, you need to be there at the right time before the animals head in to the salt pans when it's hard to reach them. Knowing when to go (usually in April) is important to catch them at Nxai Pan.

Once you understand where the game is located and information of recent sightings, the next task is to get to these areas and look for tracks and signs confirming recent activity. If this can be confirmed then the best chance would be to focus in this area. Having said that animals are creatures of habit, the reality is they wonder as they please and there are no guarantees of sightings even though there were recent sightings and/or tracks and signs, but it’s still a good starting point.

We came accross this pride of 6 lions with a fresh buffalo kill in Selous one evening and thought we were set for a couple of days shooting at the kill. The next morning the lions were gone and there was no sign of the kill - there are no guarantees in the bush and expected the unexpected!

While in the park always ask questions from others on what they have seen and make mental notes of what is where. At night, listen to the sounds and make mental notes as most predators are active and can be heard in the nights. When driving around, keep an eye on the track and immediate surrounds for animal activity. All this knowledge is important to make informed decisions on tracking game as opposed to wild stabs in the dark hoping something jumps in front of you! Yes that works too but its’ a lot more rewarding if you applied some method and located game.
Paying attention to the track is important to pick up knowlege on animal movement. Here a pride lions had walked on this Kalahari track and we soon caught up with the pride of 15. If we didnt see them, would be a good starting point to search.

Lion

The king of the bush, this male Kalahari lion in Khutse GR in Botswana was a prize sighting.
Without doubt the star attraction and first inquiry anywhere we go are (1) how many prides (2) where are their favorite hangouts (3) when were they last seen and where. It’s important to be aware of local conditions and animal movement patterns. For example the Kalahari lions can wander over a 400 sq kms while Serengeti lions can wander in as small a territory as 200 square kms. Also seasonal changes can make these territories larger or smaller. Concentration of prey animals and seasonal movements of prey animals will dictate if the lions wander or hang around waterholes. In the dry season all prey animals are forced to come to water source and chances are the lions will be hanging around the water source. Our observations are that water sources are best places for lion sightings regardless of seasons, and there is a fair chance a water source has a resident pride and it’s a matter of if they are around the same time as you.
Molose water hole in the Khutse GR in Botswana was a favorite hang out for us and these two brothers, Blondy and Sandy who ruled this part of the Kalahari and the only water source for miles.

The good thing about lions is they are the kings of the bush and act it! This means they will walk on the roads leaving important tracks for us to pick up on. The other give away with lions is that they roar, mainly at night. It’s important to pick up these roars at night so you have some idea of how the lions are moving. If you get out first thing in the morning you give yourself the best chance of catching the tracks and get clues of night time activity and to the location of the lions. We have often followed the direction of lions roars from the night before or early morning tracks and been rewarded with a sighting.
Know your tracks is important and lion spoor is an unmistakable large pug. Knowing the direction of travel and how fresh the track is will be important in finding the lions. If the track is fresh and headed towards you, the lion probably got off the road upon hearing your vehicle. Its worth back tracking to see if it's back on the road or waiting quietly for it to reappear.  

Lions being creatures of the night and visitors not being allowed to drive in the dark (in national parks), makes seeing lions in action a real challenge. Leaving early (as possible) is a key to locating lions while they are still active, before the sun comes up. If you have gathered the bush intelligence on where the lions are and leave early (really early) you increase your chances of seeing lions that are still active. Once the sun comes up and the lions gather under a tree, the best you are going to see is a sleeping lion which really is not much fun.  
Sleeping lions are not much fun!

When you see lions it’s useful to gather further intelligence such as are there mating lions, are there suckling cubs, is there a kill nearby, have they eaten recently , all of which indicates the lions are unlikely to move.  If the sighting is at a random spot its’ worth noting where the nearest water source is, which way are the lions heading, where are the prey animals in relation to the lions, all of which could indicate where the lions are headed next and a possible second and better sighting.
Mating lions will seldom leave the immediate area.

Lions are pretty relaxed around cars and will seldom run off in the bush to get away from vehicles in major national parks. If there are hunting concessions and human activity around they can get skittish.  Having said this, always give them space so they are able to relax and not focus on the vehicle. A relaxed pride of lions will give you the best opportunity to get your shots of lion interaction. If you get too close the cubs especially, are bound to freeze and focus on the vehicle. 
Serengeti lions are very relaxed around vehicles and are known to use the shade of vehicles to rest.

Best lion sightings: Seronera, Serengeti NP, Tanzania.


Leopard
 
A rare sighting of a leopard in the clear in good light.

Easily the most elusive and prized sighting in the bush and almost impossible to track. Even if you are able to get information on recent sightings and hang outs, leopards are hard to find. Leopards being elusive and stealthy, makes these cats really hard to locate and when located, often hard to get clear shots. The best way to find a leopard is to find a kill up in a tree, to which the leopard is almost certain to return but again good luck as this is a rare sighting.
 
Unmistakable evidence of a leopard kill but this leapord never gave us a sighting.

Being a night creature, once again your best chances are first thing in the morning, before sun up. If you miss them at sun up your next best shot is up a tree during the day. If you don’t look hard enough you will miss a leopard in a tree as they can disappear in to a tree with amazing ease. Unlike Lions, Leopards usually are not blatantly obvious to spot and often at a sighting, we wonder how many Leopards we may have driven past without noticing them. We have known an instant where several game drive vehicles failed to notice a leopard in a tree despite being parked right next to it and watching a waterhole. We have also pointed out a leopard in a tree to game drive vehicles who have failed to see it!  


Leopard in a tree is difficult to spot unless you have a keen eye.

Leopards hardly call and in all our travels we have only ever heard a leopard once and yes, it was in the dark. Its’ an unmistakable ‘wood sawing’ sound which is hard to explain but obvious when you hear it.
 
The Serengeti leopards are relaxed around vehicles, this leopard walked between several vehicles before sitting next to ours'.
Best leopard sighting: Seronera, Serengeti, Tanzania.


Elephant
Elephant interactions are great to watch.

The easiest animal to find provided there are elephants around! Usually they wonder far and wide but need to drink daily and thus a water source is a good option to catch elephant sightings. Elephants will drink at the least obvious place but they usually prefer easy landings with a gentle slope to the water, especially a herd with babies. It’s easy to note where the elephants regularly drink as they are destructive and leave plenty of signs of their presence and it’s fair to assume if the elephants are around they will drink daily.
Elephants will drink daily, knowing the drinking spots as this on the Chobe river in Botswana offers great viewing. 

From our experience elephants are least active in the mornings and only start to appear in the late mornings. The height of elephant drinking is during the hottest part of the day and by evening, they are often away from water. So the best times to catch elephants drinking is when the predators are least active during the heat of the day, which is great as it keeps the day busy.
If your in Chobe Botswana, get on the river in the evenings for best elephant views.

Away from the water elephants require a variety of diet and thus will be spotted in all vegetation types. In thick bush, elephants have an amazing way of disappearing just meters from you. Also in thick bush it’s hard to gauge the mood of the elephant or get good shots as the mixture of shadows and the dark shapes makes it hard to get a good exposure.  The best place to observe elephants is in the open savannah.
Mating elephants are rare as this scene on the Serengeti plains.

Elephant watching is largely determined by the mood of elephants in the area you are in. Elephants behave very differently in different places. For example in a protected area with no hunting concessions around, elephants are awfully calm allowing for close up interaction with little or no reaction to vehicles. In areas close to hunting concessions or local villages, elephants appear to be tense around vehicles and are skittish on sight. It’s important to be aware of this as you cannot treat all sightings the same. 
You need to hold your nerve in close elephant encounters.

In general, if you come across a herd crossing the road it’s best to wait for the herd to cross. Never end up between a baby and a mother and this is often said to be the most dangerous elephant encounter and best avoided.
Never get between a mother and baby.
Also be aware of bulls in musth and stay well clear of them as they are temperamental and unpredictable at this time. By far the most nerve-wracking elephant encounter will be to encounter a big lone bull on the road heading in your direction with no apparent plan on the elephants’ part to move off the road. If the bull doesn’t immediately move off the road rest assured you are in for a battle, one you would rather not be in! The basic theory is who is boss in this situation and you're well advised to get off the road giving way to the big bull. This way you don’t confront the bull, which is possibly enough to ease the situation but can also result in a stalemate where both parties are stuck in their respective ‘space’. It’s also important to gauge the mood of the elephant which will at most time force the best course of action. If it’s calm and relaxed, left alone and given the space, the elephant will most likely go about its business without much of a fuss. If it’s irritated and looking aggressive get out of there without waiting to find out what may or may not happen!
Lone bull on the road heading your way is an encounter to test your nerves.
What to do when an elephant charges is another nerve wracking decision that needs to be made and usually, very quickly. The general advice is to decide if it’s a mock charge or the real thing and again from what we gather, if the elephant has its ears out and making a lot of noise, this is best ignored. If the ears are pinned back and the trunk is out of the way – this is the real deal and get away and fast!
You wana hope this big boy keeps going and gets off the track!

Best Elephant sighting: Watercart, Chobe national park, Botswana.


Buffalo
Buffalo drink daily
There is not much of a science to finding buffalo as they wander around but do need to drink every day and will have favorite areas to hang out. Once you know this there is a fair chance of a sighting anytime of the day. Unlike elephants or lions, if you hear of a buffalo sighting, there’s a good probability of catching them at a later time at the same locality.

This old male got himself some bush effects.

Best buffalo sightings: Mikumi national park, Tanzania.  


Rhino
 
It is said Rhino's are forgetfull

Unfortunately due to relentless poaching, Rhino sightings are rare and in a lot of parks, extinct. Rhino are not the most exciting of creatures to observe but their prehistoric appearance makes up for their lack of other behavioral characteristics. Rhino also need to be given their space as can be temperamental and unpredictable but the most likely scenario is the Rhino will run away.
Malemas' pan at Khama Rhino sanctuary is a well kept secret for good Rhino sightings.

Best Rhino sightings: Malemas pan, Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Botswana.


Cheetah
Cheetahs' hunt during the day offering great shooting opportunites of a big cat on kill.

One of the great things about chasing Cheetah is that they are active and hunt during the day and often hang out in open plains in the sun making them easy to spot, provided you are not day dreaming as they blend in well!  What we have also noticed about Cheetahs is that they are surprisingly bold around vehicles and are known to use vehicles for shade and even using vehicles as cover to set up an ambush. Cheetah tracks are easy to identify as they have the cat like pug but with claws which the lion and leopard don’t. One can get mixed up between Hyena and Cheetah tracks but the Hyena’s ‘pug’ besides being compact, often will show the back pug being much smaller.
   
Nxai pan in Botswana offers typical Cheetah country

Best Cheetah sightings: Seronera, Serengeti, Tanzania.


Wild dog  

Wild dogs act like a mans best friend - very relaxed on the road and around vehicles.
Considered the rarest carnivore in Africa, a wild dog sighting is always truly memorable and a rare sighting. A sighting is more than likely to be of several dogs and a dog being a man’s best friend, there is something special about a wild dog besides being awfully rare. They are extremely relaxed around vehicles and will often ignore your presence.  If you come across wild dogs on the run you can almost forget about chasing after them as they move extremely fast through the bush. The best case scenario will be to find them resting or at a den.
Molose in the Kalahari offered us great wild dog sightings

There are very few places where one can track wild dog and the first question should be on the presence of a den where you are almost guaranteed of sightings. If there is no den then you are back to a chance sighting. Given dogs are day time hunters, they rest during the hottest part of the day  and if you can catch them at this time you have a good chance of having some quality time with the dogs.

Catching the pack on the move is a great thrill will dogs.
Best dog sightings: Kutse GR, Kalahari (seasonal), Botswana.  

Caracal and Serval
Getting a clear shot of a Serval is a prize sighting.  

 A sighting of either of these two elusive small cats is likely to be a chance encounter. It’s almost impossible to track them as they disappear into even short grass very quickly. If you see it take a shot immediately as its unlikely you will get another opportunity. I would imagine finding a den for either is the best chance but this sort of information is usually not readily available or known to even locals. The few sightings we have had of these two smaller cats have been chance encounters.
Caracal is the rarer sighting of the smaller cats.

 Best Caracal and Serval sightings: Fluke sightings, East Africa.


Hyena

Brown Hyena is hard to find other than the Kalahari.
If there are Hyenas around listen to them at dusk when they come out of the den’s and start making contact calls. Your best chance once again if you are able to locate an active den which almost guarantees sightings in the mornings and evenings. The locals will know if there is an active den around the area so once again, ask questions at the gate and others in the park. An active Hyena den is a great place to watch the interaction of these animals.

Hyena clans are great to watch and finding a den is your best chance.

Almost all campsites we have been to have a resident Hyena who appears at night and will keep lurking around the campsite at night. Don’t be tempted to feed the Hyena’s as this is only going to compound the problem which will eventually lead to the animal being shot for being a nuisance.   

Hyenas are very bold around cars, this chap went back to sleep in the middle of the road.
Don’t be tempted to follow a Hyena who breaks in to a run or to expect something just because your see Hyena running past, they have strange habits of running around for no apparent reason.

Best sightings: Brown Hyena, Kalahari. Spotted Hyena, Ngorongoro Crater.

Other game
Spectacular Gemsbok is a common Kalahari sighting.

There is not much one can say about other plains game such as zebra, giraffe, impala, buck etc. Most parks will have a healthy population of plains game and will have favorite hangouts and will tend to stick to their favorite hangouts over periods of time. Our usual aim is to get a decent shot of available plains game but we do tend to neglect these animals for the big ticket animals. 
The spectacular Sable, Chobe NP has resident herds but otherwise rare.

There are plains game which one may consider a special sighting such as Sable, Roan or Oryx and it's important to be aware these possible sightings when visiting a park. These animals they also tend to hang around in certain favourite areas which are your best chance of seeing them.

Greater Kudu is a common in Southern Africa but rare in East Africa.

Migrations

The concentration of animals makes migrations always a major attraction.
One of nature’s greatest spectacles is the migration of animals in large numbers, usually in search of greener pastures and water. Thanks to humans, most of the great migrations such as the great Prairie Bison migration are no more. Others like the Zebra and Wildebeest migrations in the Mgadigadi salt pans in Botswana cling on by a thread in fractions of its former numbers, thanks to buffalo fences to protect cattle of the world’s largest diamond producer! 

Thankfully Africa is still home to some of the greatest migrations on earth, with the Serengeti Wildebeest migration in Tanzania and the Kob migration in Sudan. All migrations are however at the mercy of humans and the Serengeti migration is under threat due to a proposed public road through the national park. 
 
Naabi hill entrance to the Serengeti, this road is already too busy.
Don’t live in the belief you can rock up at the Serengeti and view the migration unless you’re in the hands of a professional. You need to know the basics of the migration, available camping facilities and terrain. For example the Serengeti migration stretches from Southern Kenya to Southern Tanzania, an area bigger over 30,000 square KM's, where all the roads are gravel and in the rainy season (when the migration occurs), the roads can be a real challenge. Public camping is only available in limited places so planning and knowledge will play a key part but above everything else luck will determine your success!
The migration was supposed to in the east but the lack of rain meant they were standing on the side of the raod in the central Serengeti - it was plain luck.
Unless you are in the company of a professional, you need knowledge and a lot of luck to catch the migration in its all its glory. The key thing to know about migrations is to know what drives it, usually rain, and the timing of the migration. The next is to get an understanding of the historical migration paths and patterns but be aware, historical routes are no longer necessarily reliable due to change in rain patterns and the impact of humans through farming etc but its valuable information to have. The most critical information is current up to date information on animal movement and rainfall, which is like gold dust unless you work in the industry.
Follow the leader, Wildebeest follow the one in front and usually stick to traditional routes
For example the 2013 Serengeti migration was supposed to run down the Eastern Side of the Serengeti to the annual calving grounds in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Due to the failure of the rains, most of the herds headed back to the Mara River before running through the Central Serengeti to reach the calving grounds. If you had made plans for the Eastern Serengeti you would be bitterly disappointed. Unfortunately getting this information is not the easiest, and even if you have all the information, you need luck on your side to catch the migration in an accessible area. 
Migration info is critical to get to the right spot

Ironically the failure or lower rainfall offers the most spectacular and assured viewing of migrations as animals are forced to stay close to water and gather in huge numbers around limited water sources. In time of abundant water, the animals disperse and spread across a wide area and break in to family groups which, dilutes the spectacle. 
Limited water offers great opportunities for concentration of game at water holes.
Crossing points or bottle necks also offer spectacular sightings and it’s important to identify these points and the movement of animals towards it. Usually they will gather is large numbers before crossing, offering spectacular viewing and photographic opportunities while predators are most likely to hang around these areas.
Mara Crossing - Kugatenda Serengeti 


Serengeti Migration
The greatest mammal migration on earth
There are two public camp sites to catch the migration in the Serengeti. Seronera, in the central Serengeti and Lobo, in the North Eastern Serengeti. Lobo will only be of use just as the rainy season starts (Oct/Nov) in the Serengeti and the herds moved down from Kenya. Lobo is also hilly which means you may not see the full spectacle of the migration in ‘one frame’. One could use Lobo to access the Mara River during the season but it's a long drive Lobo to the Mara River and time at prime locations will be limited before having to head back to camp. 
The migration is at its best in open country.
Seronera is ideally located to explore the Migration when it runs on the Eastern side (Nov/Dec) on its way to the calving grounds and the Western side on its way back (Mar/Apr) to the Mara in Kenya. The calving grounds are located at Ndutu in the NCA but there is no public camping in the Ndutu area. Also to cross from the Serengeti to Ndutu, you need to pay fees and do paper work – yep nothing like messing up a good thing! So it you are based in Seronera your best bet is to target the Eastern or Western flanks and from what we have seen, the Eastern side offers spectacular plains to catch the migration, while the Western side is wooded (not sure haven’t seen much of it).
The flat plains of the Eastern Serengeti offer the best views.
To explore the Ndutu calving grounds you need to either include it as part of when you leave the Serengeti through the NCA heading to Arusha or coming in the same way. Either way exploring Ndutu for self drivers is tricky unless you manage to book yourself in to one of the lodges at Ndutu (warning – they fill up months in advance for the migration).  Also note you can drive off road in Ndutu so get your bearings right as the land is flat and featureless. 

Calving grounds, the mineral rich plains of Ndutu.


The Mara River Crossing


The Mara River crossing in the Serengeti in my opinion is the greatest animal spectacle on earth. There are other river crossings the Wildebeest make during the annual migration, however, the Mara River crossing is the biggest and the most spectacular. The challenge with the Mara River Crossing in the Serengeti (as opposed to the Maasai Mara in Kenya), is its remoteness and inaccessibility to self drive campers and limited lodge accommodation. This in turn means there is a possibility of witnessing the greatest wildlife event on earth on your own!

We caught this whole crossing on our own in the Serengeti!
The prime location to access the Mara River in the Serengeti is Kogatende next to the Lemai wedge.  It’s about half day drive from Lobo if you know where you are going. Don’t mess around in this area alone unless you have a GPS or are confident of bearings as there are few vehicles if you get lost or need assistance and it’s a huge remote area to get lost in quickly. The river here is wide with several choice crossing points with the best crossing point near to the Asilia Olakira camp. The evening crossing’s offer perfect sun when the animals are crossing in to the Serengeti side from Lemai.

Kogatenda crossing point near Asilia Olakira camp is perfect. 
When in the area you have to do some work to end up catching the actual crossing. You need to watch the herds gathering which will happen for hours before the actual crossing. The animals will often gather along the river and then run up and down the river before actually plunging in. If you don’t pay attention, you may not actually catch the crossing despite being in the area. We were told of people who were in the area for 5 days an only caught one crossing on the last day. We were awfully lucky as we caught the first of our 3 crossings in two days within hours of arriving at Kogatenda. Luck it seems is the biggest factor as it is often with wildlife. 

The animals will gather and run up and down the bank before crossing. 
Once the animals have calmed down and appear to have chosen the crossing point it’s critically important to stay quiet and out of sight well away from the river so as to not spook the animals. When the crossing starts, it’s important to let the lead animals reach the opposite bank before starting your vehicle and approaching the river bank. Once the lead animals reach the opposite bank, the whole herd will cross the river and is without doubt the most amazing wildlife spectacle.  

Mara River crossing Serengeti - you need to do some work to catch this. 

Makgadikgadi Migration
Zebra are one of the most photogenic creatures.
Unfortunately there is little left of what was one the second biggest migration in Africa after the Serengeti, the Zebra and Wildebeest of the Makgadikgadi pans system. The story goes that when the buffalo fences were first erected, the wildebeest (dead) stacked up almost to the top of the fence in the desperate attempt to cross. It is also said Botswana lost over 80% of its wildebeest and Zebra population due to the buffalo fences.


The open plains of Nxai pan
Fortunately the authorities were kind enough to leave a gap between fences through which the remaining animals make the run to the pans.  Animals running south are funneled through the Nxai Pan /Mgadigadi Pan national parks, which is the only place to catch this migration. Once they cross into the pans the roads are too messy to follow in the wet.
Limited water is a magnet for Zebra at Nxai Pan.
Usually the rains arrive in late October and the animals will arrive and leave with the rains. We found April was a great time as the water levels recede to a manageable level and the animals were still around. We fled Nxai pan one December in fear of being marooned in black cotton soil after overnight rain and there was another occasion where Nxai pan was inaccessible in December due to rain, so get local knowledge before heading in. The road in to the park is not the problem but all the roads surrounding the pan are black cotton and don’t mess around on it unless you know what you are doing. 
Stick to the few water holes at Nxai Pan.
Both parks have public camp sites and the last time we were there (2010), bookings had to be made in Maun or Gaborone. Nxai pan has a shady camp ground which has up to 10 sites while the Mgadigadi camp ground by the river had about 5 sites. There is also a campsite at Njuca hills, which is closest to the pans and overlooks the surrounding grass plains and has 3 camping sites.
With only one road round the pan, its important to make the most of animals close to the road.

Birding

Superb Starling - a spectacular but relatively common sighting in its habitat.
Chasing birds is often overlooked but when you consider most destinations will offer 250+ birds, it opens up a whole new world to explore and opportunities to sight birds unique to a specific area. Birds also have specialties such as birds of prey, scavengers, shore birds, kingfishers, woodpeckers and most have a fascinating array of colors, shapes and features.

The spectacular Red and Yellow barbet
Birding offers some real challenges in positively identifying certain types of birds due to the lack of identification features or juvenile markings which can often be confusing. There are numerous birds we have seen that are not in the field giude to birds.

Ant eathing chat? - which one?
The ironic part is birds are everywhere, all day (and night) and can offer rewarding bush time. With birding it’s important to recognize birding opportunities and it's often a few shady trees, a waterhole or grove of trees. Also birds tend to forage about so identify a habitat and be patient. If you have chosen a flowering or fruiting tree or waterhole, the birds will eventiually arrive. We value a new bird sighting over a predator sighting.
  

Water holes are a great spot to bird, a resident Saddle bill stork is perfect company.
If you don’t have a pair of binoculars and a bird book don’t even attempt birding as it will be frustrating. If you invest some time and effort, birding can be rewarding and offer a new dimention to bush time. Even if you cannot find your predator or other game, there are always birds to chase.


Being the samllers of the scavengers, the Hooded Vulture hangs back at kills.
Change of the season

Like mammals, birds embark on migrations but these are over mind-blowing distances accross continents, the longest being the Arctic Tern who moves between the two arctic circles. All areas experience some local and migrant bird movements with the change of the seasons. The arrival of the summer season and the annual rains marks the change of the seasons and the arrival of the migrants. The arrival of the migrants is a much anticiapted time of the year for birders, when the European migrant birds arrive in the warmer Southern hemisphere.

White stock are iconic migrants who arrive in Africa from Europe.
Change of the seasons also see the birds shed the winter plumage for colourful summer plumage. Dull and drab little brown jobs turn in to colourful gems in summer.

Zanzibar red bishop is a dull brown job that takes on a jewel like plumage in summer.
  

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