August has been an exceptional month for birding, given that this should be the quieter time for this activity we can only be happy and pleasantly surprised with all that we saw. This doesn’t mean there was nothing else going on, the dry period has made it so much easier to see animals as they are drawn to available water, a resource that diminishes as each day passes. This winter has been kinder than previous ones and the water levels are still high for this time of year but are no-where near the levels experienced in the wet seasons. It is also the time of fires, some of these are controlled burns that are put in by the National Park, they are monitored and planned. Others are fires that sweep in from outside the park, driven by high winds they quickly run through areas that are dry.
As the water levels drop the fish living in the rivers and water pans become exposed and vulnerable, the water is shallow and the pools are small. Pelicans, Yellow-billed Storks, Marabou Storks, Herons, Egrets and many others take full advantage of the low water and work in a concerted drive, herding the fish into one side of the pool and then diving in. It is an absolute feeding frenzy, the noise of the birds calling, water swirling, feathers rubbing against feathers, birds jostling and fish jumping as they frantically try to evade being eaten.
Pelicans and Yellow-billed Stork getting ready to drive fish in a small drainage line.
There is not much the fish can do, the numbers against them are too large and the limited amount of water means the bulk of them will get caught and eaten, some remain but as the water subsides even more they get exposed again, to face the same gauntlet.
Pelican and White Faced-whistling Duck in the early morning.
Moving away from the diminishing pools to the larger bodies of water we can see that the levels here have dropped too. Where the Pelicans are standing in the picture above is where we were watching hippo a short while ago, the hippo have moved to deeper waters now.
Capped Wheatear Osprey with Tiger-fish
Of course, it wouldn’t be the same without these animals and there have been numerous sightings of them in all areas of the National Park over the past month.
Flavia and her cubs were often seen with Tonghina and Cleo and sometimes they were joined by the two dominant males in their territory, at others it was just the lionesses and their off-spring but there was also a short period when two males from outside their territory came in, a young male and a much older one.
The interaction between lion is always interesting and is an important part of their social structure, it reinforces family bonds, establishes hierarchies and allows the developing young to hone their skills.
Tonghina, Senator and a cub on the floodplains.
Flavia and two of her cubs at play
The areas along the Urema and Pungwe Rivers are still lush and green and this is drawing the elephants in their never-ending search for nutritious food, it is also an area that is conveniently close to clean water, which elephant prefer far more than dirty water. With the dense growth in the riverine areas it can sometimes be difficult to see them, and often the first sense of their presence is either by smelling fresh elephant dung or, startlingly, a loud trumpet that assaults your ears as one of them is surprised and loudly voices its indignation!
A small family unit after just returning from splashing in the Urema River
There are not often large bulls with the herds, they tend to prefer being on their own or travelling with other bulls, sometimes they will spend a lot of time in the same area as they methodically feed on trees or other plants that have attracted their attention. There are also often small pools of water nearby, or they are close to one of the rivers so the need to travel any distance is mitigated.
This all changes if a bull is in musth and he picks up the scent of an elephant cow in estrus, then there is a determination in his movement, a swagger in his walk and a self confidence that can, and often does, make bulls who are bigger than him, but not in musth, stay out of his way. There are few things in the wild that are more daunting than an excited bull elephant making his way to where there is a receptive cow!
One of the large bulls that has been collared in a water pan filled with soft green grass.
All of the animals in the Gorongosa National Park have an important role to play and it would be remiss not to mention them. Without them we would have a vastly different eco-system, indeed it may be a very unpleasant one if there were not small animals and birds to control many of the stinging or biting insects, or the parasites that would infest all the plants and destroy vast tracts of land, which in itself would then destroy many of the animals that occur here and in other protected areas in the world.
Insects do play a very important role in all this as well, without many of them there would not be anything to eat, decomposition would be slowed down and other less desirable organisms would profligate, all with dire consequences. Each and everything has their bit to do, from the large pachyderms down to the smallest microbe.
Nile Monitor Lizard, often look ungainly out of the water, as they move with an exaggerated walk but can achieve a surprising turn of speed and are very graceful in the water. They are carnivorous and will readily eat small mammals, birds, eggs, reptiles and fish.
Samango Monkey, there is a troop of these resident at Muzimu Tented Camp Site. Interestingly they eat mainly fruit and leaves and live in small units, mainly composed of a dominant male and his harem of females, with a social core formed by related females.
Often seen as a destructive force, which indeed it can be, it is also an important tool in managing wildlife areas. Without them there would be an overabundance of moribund material, too many of them and the refuges that are sought after by small animals are destroyed. Irrespective of what type of fire it is there is always a sense of beauty in them, especially when seen at night time as the flames and orange glows are reflected off smoke and trees.
After the fires there is a regrowth, all it takes is a very small amount of rain and the burnt, blackened earth is transformed into fields of emerald green. Trees get new leaves and a sense of freshness and rejuvenation fills can be felt and seen everywhere.
Muzimu Tented Camp
Gorongosa National Park