Time… it is such a strange concept and sometimes it really seems to fly, while in different circumstances one feels that it stands still. I cannot believe that we are in the last quarter of the year already. The vaccine rollout in South Africa is picked up speed, and our guides and other staff members have now been vaccinated. Having had decent rains so far, we can only expect the flush of Summer green to soon follow. The dust has settled, there is an apparent spring in each animals’ step as the moist warmth of summer bids goodbye to the cold evenings and dry landscape. Sunrises and sunsets are always something to behold. Stunning landscape, showcasing the diverse and beautiful scenery that makes up Mabula.

We have enjoyed plenty of wonderful sightings again this month; and a mixed-bag of weather to go with it – from hot day time temperatures to cold and wet conditions that brought over 20mm rain! It is time to recap on the past 31 days on safari…

Birding on Mabula while on safari

It’s a very exciting time here at Mabula, summer is here. And that means the migrants are returning to Mabula!

One species I am looking forward to seeing return is the Woodland kingfisher. Kingfishers are always a favourite of guests and guides alike, from the common, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, giant kingfisher, pied kingfisher to malachite kingfishers. A good pair of binoculars makes a world of difference, so be sure to pack a pair when coming to visit us again.

Birds are incredible creatures and there is so much that we can admire about them. The array of different shapes and sizes, colours and patterns, habitats, and niches in which they fit in is unfathomable. Although to the novice, they all appear as just another bird, once you get a better understanding of them how they vary it can be so exciting. Many species, such as the bee-eaters, for example, boast beautiful colours that catch your attention. Others, such as the kingfishers, whose plumage is almost, if not more striking, than the bee-eaters, have adapted to fulfil specific niches.

We have been seeing a pair of Secretary birds moving through the clearings this month. We really hope that these two will stay together and nest in one of the big trees along the edge of the bottom Serengeti plain. The plains provide fantastic feeding grounds for these large carnivorous birds, as they hunt their prey by walking through the clearings looking for rodents, snakes and insects.

Each family has a different shaped bill, all designed with a specific purpose to fulfil. From the short conical seed-eating bills to the long thin probing bills, the robust sharp wood pecking bills to the curved sifting bills, the flattened spoon-shaped bills to the needle-sharp stabbing bills. Just merely taking the time to look at why each bird’s beak is shaped in that particular way will help you determine roughly what type of food it eats and where you might be able to find them.

We all love looking at attractive things and many of these birds most certainly fall into that category. Whether they be a stunning pattern, a solid bright colour, a combination of colours or a combination of colours and patterns, there are so many extraordinarily pretty birds that we find here on the reserve. Especially areas like Tpa dam and Lake Kyle area. Not forgetting areas like Mvubu dam. Sitting on Elephant dam by the deck and watching birds flying in and away from dam you will not regret it.

Lilac-breasted rollers are common on Mabula, but one never tires of the myriad of colours they possess. They are known for their aerial displays where they ‘roll’ on the wing to impress their mates, an action that gives this family of birds their name. It is not just about looking at the birds that are captivating, but rather listening to the symphony of bird calls during the dawn chorus, or the individual melodies of the songbirds during their displays. The bird calls definitely spruce up the ambience when out and about on a safari.

How can we use Birds to our Advantage? Apart from appreciating their unique characteristics, understanding bird behaviour can save your life, or lead you to one of the Big 5. If you see or hear certain birds, you can use them as clues for what lies ahead. For example, the call of Oxpeckers, especially that of the Red-Billed Oxpecker, often indicates the presence of large herbivores such as giraffe or buffalos or even animals like zebras and impalas. Avoiding unintentionally bumping into these species whilst on a guided walk can help you avoid a potentially dangerous situation. I remember one morning on a walk with my guests, we heard oxpecker calling nonstop and while we were all expecting a buffalo, to our surprise it was a herd of wildebeests who were busy feeding. Because wind was on our favour, we could get close to them without them noticing us, these birds warned both of us.

In other situations, for example, when trying to identify or merely admire a bird, I will stop and switch off the vehicle to get a better look. This increases my chances of hearing a lion’s roar, or impalas alarming at a predator without the drone of the diesel engine. This has led me to find predators on countless occasions. Good example are guineafowl when there is a predator around.

Hippo sightings on Mabula dams will keep you entertained for a long time.

Mvubu dam and Ngulubi dam are in the centre and south of the Mabula Game Lodge bringing an endless supply of water to the animals within it. Here at Mabula, we are fortunate enough to have few dams all over the reserve. It is because of these dams, along with the abundance of other smaller dams, that we have a very healthy population of hippos calling Mabula home.

The high density of hippos means that they are a regular feature during safari drives and further prompts the guest to question. “Can hippos swim?” In short, the answer is, “No.” Let us dive a little deeper into this to explain why not. Hippos have highly sensitive skin that dehydrates at a rapid rate if exposed to the sun for long periods of time. Because of this, hippos are water-bound and spend the majority of the day submerged, with maybe just the tops of their heads above the water. Therefore, hippos are mostly viewed while they are in the water and are seen moving around in the water, so it is a valid question.

Hippos have extraordinarily dense bones. Essentially hippos are bottom dwellers, this means they rather walk on the bottom of watering holes and have a unique way of using buoyancy to do so. Parts of the hippo’s skeleton have very dense bones due to the replacement of porous bone with more compact bone. This means that their bones act as a kind of ballast to help them achieve neutral buoyancy underwater. Since they do not have to actively hold themselves down, and the watery environment buoys them up, they can walk, prance, and even “fly” underwater. Over and above this they are able to further regulate their buoyancy by controlling their breath. Creating a negative buoyancy by breathing out allows them to sink quicker.

Once under the surface, essentially holding their breath, they will be able to walk around for roughly five minutes before having to come up for air. Simply walking to a shallower point in the water source when they can remain standing with just their heads sticking out the water. Standing on their back legs and pushing their head up towards the surface. And launching themselves from the bottom up to the surface, filling their lungs before slowly sinking back down. pushing their way to the surface in deeper water taking a breath and slowly return to the bottom, this is in fact not swimming as they can’t propel themselves along the surface while doing this.

Since they can’t swim, but rather walk on the bottom of dams they play a vital role in keeping slow-moving waterways open with their own movements, maintaining channels, minimizing the effects of siltation and vegetation growth allowing water to flow through these paths. Hippos play a major role in maintaining dam courses throughout the reserve, something that has always amazed me.

Lions of Mabula… how lionesses choose their dens

The great news is that lion cubs mentioned in the September newsletter continue to thrive and as would be expected, have dominated our lions viewing this month. It is amazing how quickly they grow and change. In September, they were still very small, unsteady on their feet, and quite pale.

Lions are very selective when choosing their den sites. Both prefer deep riverbeds or rocky outcrops and, from what I have observed here at Mabula, they will have multiple den sites that they move their cubs to as they get older. Reasons for moving include a den site being found by another predator or becoming overrun with parasites. Lions, being social animals, have to worry about the rest of the pride being too rough with young cubs. For this reason, amongst a few others, a lioness will move away from her pride to give birth alone in a secluded area.

After a gestation period of about 110 days, the lioness gives birth to one to four cubs, but sometimes up to six. The newborns weigh not much more than a kilogram each. They’ll be introduced to the pride when they are six to eight weeks old. They start weaning off milk at around 14 weeks and are completely onto meat by the time they’re six months old.

Males have been very successful hunters of late, and on one occasion males managed to take down a large zebra. Zebras tend to be the favourite for males and there was quite a bit of competition for the best part of the carcass. A much-needed drink after the kill is always welcome.

A very full-bellied male digests the zebra kill. The pride has been operating on the centre of the reserve and covering a lot of ground on the Northern parts. Tracking them is always fun as a result, you never know where they’re going to turn up

While lionesses on the other hand were able to bring down wildebeest on the northern side of the reserve. It has been really an entertaining month for our guests.

Lionesses are strong mothers and will do everything in their power to ensure the survival of their cubs and their lineage. The death of some cubs may seem cruel, but it’s essential in nature that only the strongest animals make it to adulthood and pass down their proven genes. Nature works in mysterious ways, but it does work.

Wild dogs on Mabula…. never a dull moment when you see them on safari.

The painted wolves have stayed within the property for the month, as they continue to cover great distances over the reserve. These successful predators have also been seen to take advantage of the abundance of impala and wildebeest. These playful animals also enjoy the abundance of water around and take great pleasure in chasing each other through the puddles or utilising small patches of water to cool down in the heat of the day.

Wild dogs graced us with a couple of beautiful sightings while on safari. Following the pack on a morning or evening hunt has to be one of the most exhilarating experiences while being on safari. The wild dogs will hunt twice a day and are always full of energy, providing some unique photographic opportunities.

Elephants love water on Mabula, you will be entertained y them when they swim.

Recently, upon approaching Ngulubi Dam on central Mabula reserve, we saw that a breeding herd of elephants in the distance was making their way directly towards the water. They were dust bathing on their way to the dam. With great excitement, I explained to my guests that they may well be coming to drink and suggested that it could be worthwhile to sit and wait for them to approach. However, it might take quite some time as they don’t seem to be in a rush.

As water is such an essential part of life, it is a great place to sit and observe. There is a constant flow of life around the waterholes, and inevitably something different happens all the time. As most of you know, elephants do love their time in and around water. They became very playful after a drink and start to push and shove one another in the water.

The emotions of pleasure, pure bliss and ecstasy were palpable as the elephants begin to play around in the water. Elephants don’t just drink water, they use it for evaporative cooling, they play in it, wallow in it, bond in it, and swim across it in cases of rivers to get to greener pastures.

They are strong and natural swimmers (unlike humans, who need to learn to swim). Elephants may have an aquatic ancestry and that the trunk may have developed for snorkelling. They are the only mammals that can remain submerged deep below the water’s surface while snorkelling. Because of their natural ability to float and a trunk which acts as a snorkel, they can swim for hours without stopping. Their massive bodies help them to float with ease and rest when they wish, but elephants can also walk along the bottom of the dam or river when it’s shallow enough, with their trunks out for breathing. To help from their long proboscis, their lungs are uniquely adapted to deal with the pressure changes caused by snorkelling – or when inhaling large volumes of water into the trunk before drinking or spraying it onto the skin

Their trunks are phenomenal for many reasons but while watching them beside the coolness of a dam, drinking from the banks, you can see how they use these strong organs to suck up and hold water (up to around 12 litres), which they pour into their mouths to swallow. With their incredible olfactory skills, the trunks can also identify water sources from a great distance away, scents they can commit to their long-term memory.

General game viewing on Mabula is always the best.

In between all these amazing high-profile sightings, we are blessed with incredible general game viewing in stunning settings. It is in these moments that we realise that life continues, despite the chaos of the world, and that we are part of a much greater system, rather than separate from it.

As the sun dips below the rolling hills of Mabula, taking the last ray of light away from the diverse wilderness, the full moon rises in its intensity as it glides into the night sky.

As the moon gets brighter, the incredible senses of predators become less of an advantage and the prey begin to see better

As the moon gets brighter, the incredible senses of predators become less of an advantage and the prey begin to see better. Animals may visit waterholes but only the larger herbivores are brave enough to go to these dangerous places at night. Other animals that may also benefit from the full moon are the Cheetah and Wild dogs. The sunset usually signals the end of their activities but there have been many recorded hunts made by these predators on full moon nights.

We often don’t follow these diurnal animals at night so that we don’t put pressure on them, so this remains unseen behaviour here. Although, often when we leave them on a full moon night and try find them the following morning, we don’t find them close to where we left them that night, indicating that they may have patrolled their home range or hunted between dusk and dawn. The light of a full moon may help Wild dogs or Cheetahs to hunt at night, but this light will expose Lions and/or Leopards.

The magnificent Fireball Lily, Scadoxus multiflorus, is one of the first flowers we have seen bloom this summer. Storing its nutrients in a bulb under the surface throughout the winter, the first rains have sprung it into action shooting up this beautiful flower. Only able to produce one flowerhead a season, this spherical umbel can contain up to 200 flowers. Although beautiful in appearance this plant can be highly toxic and used to poison arrow tips.

A very heavily pregnant female zebra feeding along whole owner road. Looking closer you can see her back is beginning to arch under the weight of the unborn foal, indicating that this female is nearly about to pop and give birth after a gestation period of 365 days. Zebras are common on Mabula, they are seen on every safari.

Following a family of Southern Ground Hornbills for the afternoon was fairly entertaining as they call and search through the leaf and grass in search of any snacks. These mostly come in the forms of beetles, bugs, grasshoppers. Every now and then they get lucky with something a little bigger such as a snake, tortoise, mongoose, or mouse. We are very privileged to have them and the project on the reserve. They mostly found on the centre and northern parts of the reserve.

It’s no wonder kudus rely so heavily on their hearing to keep them out of danger; inhabiting thicketed areas like this, it’s not uncommon for their field of vision to only extend a couple of metres in any direction, if not less. Kudus are very common on Mabula. They are found on the Northern and western parts of the reserve on the mountain area

An impressive buffalo bull takes a break from feeding to give us an intimidating stare. A herd of about two hundred were spread out in this open area, enjoying the arrival of the lush green grasses on rain meter plains. These dagga bulls like to hang around this area and going to main dam for water and mud wallowing.

Giraffe will rest sitting down with their heads and necks up. They are incredibly vulnerable when not standing thus sleep in this posture. Here two bulls were resting on Kiewiets plain. When they do sleep, giraffe will sit down, mostly with the head and neck up and doze for a few minutes at a time. Every now and then, for a few minutes, they may curl the neck around and place the head on the rump.

This will normally be in a large open clearing or on a crest, where they feel safer and have the time to stand up and run away before anything sneaks up on them. A large portion of rest will be acquired during rumination. This is the period of time when they regurgitate partially digested food (the cud) back into the mouth and re-chew it, swallowing it again to gather maximum nutrients and moisture – just like cows do.

During rumination, animals’ brains are alert but in a much more relaxed state than normal activity, enabling a period of rest and recovery. Giraffes sleep for less than two hours a day in short intervals compared to their main predator – lions – who can sleep for 18-20 hours per day! A rather unfair playing field… On your next safari take time to watch them ruminating.

Impala females take time out their daily feeding to watch as the safari vehicle moves past on Serengeti plain. They are most likely completely oblivious to the fact that changes in their environment are already taking place that will hopefully lead to them birthing a lamb at the end of the year.

It is undoubtably impressive to see a massive male lion or a stealthy leopard, but sometimes these beautiful and more sought-after animals aren’t that easy to find, so we do need to take the time to notice the smaller things and the incredible relationships that are to be found all around us. Impalas are often the most overlooked inhabitants of Mabula, but a closer examination of their lives can be fascinating.

I hope you enjoyed some of the special sightings that we had with our guests. Experiences like these make coming back to Mabula just that much more special. I’m really looking forward to the next month and to see what is in store…

Until next time…

From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Images by: Isaiah, Nuria, Frans, Tshepo, Charne, Apollo, Sam, Elias, and Tiaan.
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