My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009.   This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

My first ever photo of a Purple (or Rufous-Crowned) Roller captured in the Eastern Maasai Mara in September 2009. This bird is a cousin of the more common Lilac-Breasted Roller.

The grass in the eastern Maasai Mara is usually tall, healthy and golden in the month of September, with the slightest traces of green near the roots. But the drought this year has been severe, and the effects of it are much more pronounced in this part of Kenya than any place we’ve visited to date. The rolling grasslands, usually so rich and vibrant, look more like a midwestern American wheat field just after the combine cuts through … yellow stubble emerging from loose gray dust, stretching for miles over the rolling hills. Because of the unseasonable dry spell, this is poor grazing land for the ungulates, and it’s no surprise that there are relatively few wildebeest and zebra here. But there is no shortage of predators, and the lions appear to be present in their usual strong numbers.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

Very young lion cubs nursing in the Maasai Mara.

On our first afternoon game drive we find fifteen … including a mating couple and two lionesses with cubs so young that their walk is mostly a stagger. David positions us so that we’re able to capture close up shots of the little guys enthusiastically nursing. We are also fortunate to get a glimpse of a leopard within the first few hours of arriving in the Mara. Perched in a tree near a dry streambed, she peers through the branches long enough to allow us a few reasonably good shots. The leopard is by far the most elusive of the great cats, and seeing this one may be a good omen for us.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Leopard surveying the horizon for a potential meal.

Late on our second day in the eastern Mara we are favored with a sublimely ridiculous sight … one that I’ve never seen before and sort of hope I never see again … a pair of mating hyenas. Mating lions are a common sight on the African plain, and they usually execute the procedure with the same speed and aggressiveness they employ when they hunt. The hyena approach is much more deliberate. The male is slightly smaller than the female, and, like a cook stretching for a bowl on the top shelf, he very nearly has to tiptoe to reach the target. The immobile female gazes disinterestedly at the ground throughout the process while the unenthusiastic male stares goofily into space. This is one of the most inelegant copulations you’ll ever see. I’ve embedded a photograph here, but it is severely cropped in order to maintain our PG rating.

Sweet love on the African plains.  Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating.  Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

Sweet love on the African plains. Strategically cropped to maintain the site's PG rating. Converted to black and white to enhance the artistic power of the shot.

The hyena event is not the only rarity we witness during this visit to the eastern Mara. On two separate occasions we see one of Africa’s most reticent predators, the serval cat. The first serval is in the hunting mode, creeping stealthily around a stand of tall grass in pursuit of a francolin. Through the bush we see the bird launch, the cat leap in hot pursuit and the feathers fly. Most of the action is obscured through the scrub, so photographs of the attack really are impossible. The second cat is very cooperative. Hunting, he eases warily through the grass and edges close enough to allow us some acceptable portraits. This is indeed a gift … the serval close-ups are tight and clear … much more so than we could have reasonably hoped for. As the old chief in the movie Little Big Man once said … “sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” This time it did.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Serval Cat on the hunt ... and looking remarkably like a common housecat.

Perhaps the most impressive thing I witness on this segment of the trip is my friend Kevin’s commitment to quality photography. We are fortunate to find a leopard in deep brush on a stream bank on a bright morning. Muteti positions the vehicle as best he can, but the least obstructed view is still from the driver’s window. Kevin works his way between the narrow bars that separate the passenger section from the driver and very nearly lands in Muteti’s lap. He positions the camera across David’s chest and takes his best shot at the leopard resting in the shade. I’ve yet to see the image, but suspect that it is wonderful indeed. Hats off to him for his skill and perseverance.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

Zebras populating a hillside in the eastern Mara.

The first real signs of a break in the drought coincide with our presence in the eastern Mara. The clouds build in the late afternoon and on two separate occasions we’re caught in heavy rains at about sunset. Along with the showers come the grazers … the hillsides begin to fill with zebra and wildebeest although not in last year’s numbers. Muteti and the other guides tell us that the central Maasai Mara is host to the most of the migratory animals this year. That’s our next stop.

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Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m often asked which African animal is my favorite. As I explained, it’s actually a tough question because there are so many worthy candidates. I’ve never been asked which animal I like the least, but that would certainly be an easy one to answer.
All animals that manage to survive and thrive in such a demanding environment deserve our respect. But I’ve found the spotted hyena to be the most difficult of all creatures to love. They are physically unappealing, with short rear legs and a sloping back that makes every movement a suspicious looking skulk. Their eyes are warm in color but cold in aspect, with a curious dead quality that reminds one of a shark’s eyes. They hunt on occasion, but prefer to steal their food if the opportunity is presented. The cheetah, because it is light and fragile, stands no chance against the hyena. If the cheetah brings down a gazelle within the sight or hearing of a hyena, then it has labored for nothing. The hyena will ignore the cheetah and move in directly to take the prey. They also steal from lions, but this requires a concentrated team effort by the entire pack. The hyenas swarm around the pride until the lions, annoyed and frustrated beyond their ability to endure, slink away and leave the kill to the pests.
Watching a hyena take a live animal is not a sight for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Lions, leopards and cheetahs kill quickly by clamping onto the throat of the victim. Once in the grasp, the prey animal is dispatched in mere minutes (cape buffalo is the exception owing to its size and strength). The hyena is not so merciful. They disable their prey, take it to the ground and begin to eat immediately. The “kill” is often still alive even after it is half devoured.
The cliché is true … the African plain is indeed “unforgiving.” When I see an injured gazelle or wildebeest — and there are many during the migration time — I make a silent wish that the hyena will be the last predator to cross its path. Better to die of dehydration in the sun than to become a meal for my least favorite animal.

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