Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

I mentioned in a long ago blog post (July 31, 2009) that elephants are my favorite animals. The logic offered in that article was exhaustive, but at the heart of it all was my sincere belief that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming … and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability, most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.

Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (a) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (b) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli.  Mom in the near distance.

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli. Mom in the near distance.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot.  Central Maasai Mara.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot. Central Maasai Mara.

An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively … attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Zebra fight at Ndutu.  Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

Zebra fight at Ndutu. Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Drinking in the Mara River.

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Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

There is a lovely species of East African bird that sometimes glides with a swinging, seesaw motion as it makes its final approach for a landing. That odd, fluttering movement has earned it the name “roller.” There are at least four regional sub-species in Kenya and Tanzania that I’m aware of … three of these I’ve photographed, and one I’ve never even seen.

The rufous-crowned, or purple roller, is uncommon and rarely seen on the African plain. It is a gorgeous bird, deep magenta in color with white eyebrows and chestnut colored wings. Its shape is classic roller … with its upright posture, slight forward lean and raised tail, it could easily be mistaken for one of its more common sister sub-species. I’ve laid eyes on the purple roller exactly twice … both instances were in the Maasai Mara and along the same stretch of road. The first sighting was in September of 2008. The bird was perched on a large bush very near my jeep … but it launched just an instant before my 500mm lens locked focus. The second opportunity was almost exactly one year later, and again the bird was perched on a large bush slightly west of the dirt road. It was profiled against a very bright mid-morning sky … and in my excitement, I neglected to adjust my camera’s exposure compensation. I captured several images, all identical, and all, at first glance, horribly underexposed. The bird was far too dark, virtually a silhouette against the powerful Mara sky. But Nikon technology and Adobe Photoshop combined to save me from my own rookie error. The telltale histogram indicated that the camera had indeed captured the requisite information to make an acceptable photo, and by sliding the exposure bar in Photoshop I managed to salvage a lovely picture of the purple roller.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller.  Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller. Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

The Eurasian roller is much more common. I’ve now spotted it in the Serengeti, Amboseli and in the Maasai Mara. It is noticeably brighter than the purple roller, with gray and turquoise tinted wings and a blue-green and yellow underside. Like the purple roller, its tail is abbreviated, with the same general design as the average songbird. Like all rollers, it is an aggressive predator with a predilection for large insects. It is a photographer-friendly bird, often posing on a branch with a fresh grasshopper kill clutched in its beak. Its close cousin, the Abyssinian roller, is similar in color and temperament, but the tail design is distinctly different. The Abyssinian features magnificent, extended tail feathers that would seem to enhance its in-flight “rolling” capabilities. I’m still looking for the Abyssinian.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

It’s unusual that the most beautiful of anything is also the most common, be it rare gem, flower, fish or bird. But a definite exception exists in the case of East Africa’s rollers. The lilac-breasted is common from Kenya to South Africa … and like the Eurasian, it is photographer friendly. The bird is indeed spectacular … and very nearly indescribable. It features every color of the rainbow … it is dazzling when perched on a branch and utterly breathtaking in flight. The lilac’s astounding beauty makes it a profoundly pleasant distraction for the wildlife photographer. It is nearly impossible to drive past a lilac without stopping to capture a few images. On many occasions I’ve foregone opportunities to photograph more popular animals – lions, giraffes, elephants, etc. – because of the near proximity of the lilac-breasted roller. Below are a few, probably too many, randomly selected images of this incomparable bird. Its colors are impressive in photos but majestic in person. The roller alone is well worth the expense of a trip to East Africa.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

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African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

African Wild Dogs resting on the shores of Lake Masek at Ndutu, Tanzania.

The wild dog is one of Africa’s most interesting predators. It is a rare animal, its numbers having been systematically reduced over the past few decades as a result of human pressure. It has long been viewed as something more than a pest, having preyed on livestock and becoming mortal enemies of the Maasai and other tribes in the eastern and southern sections of the continent. Their collective efforts to exterminate it have come far too close to success. Wild dogs are also territorial, and because they are so wide ranging, they require more space than other predators. As humanity expands into protected areas, they are gradually squeezed out of existence. They remain one of Africa’s most endangered species.

The wild dog has also evolved in another way. As its physical numbers have dwindled, its names have proliferated. In recent years it has been referred to as the spotted dog, the painted dog, the hunting dog, the painted wolf and the ornate wolf. These “friendlier” designations were calculated to portray the animal as something less fierce and intimidating than its traditional reputation would imply. The hope was that the name change would alter historic views of the dogs, and possibly serve as the initial step in rehabilitating their fearsome image.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Wild dog at Lake Masek, checking out a wildebeest skull.

Because of the efforts of some dedicated conservation organizations, the African wild dog may be making a comeback. Reports from the Samburu area in central Kenya indicate that sightings are much more frequent, and the numbers seem to be climbing in the Serengeti as well. Still, the visitor to East Africa should have no real expectation of seeing these animals … which is why the opportunity to photograph them at Ndutu in February of this year came as a complete surprise.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

Enjoying Lake Masek.

There were seven dogs in the pack … initially they slept on the mud flat near the water at Lake Masek, rising from time to time to yawn, stretch and drink. Toward sunset they became more active, splashing in the shallows and turning a couple of laps around the land rovers before disappearing into the bush. The guides discussed the matter at some length and finally determined that it had been eight years since the last sighting of wild dogs at Ndutu. Once again I was lucky, but doubt seriously that I’ll ever see these animals again in the wild.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

More sleeping dogs lie on the mud flat in the late afternoon.

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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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