Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Thoughts 2015

I am taking a break from the steady stream of safari posts (partly due to the fact that my internet is so slow that uploading photos is close to impossible) to post a traditional Thanksgiving note.

The pumpkin pie is in the oven, ready for tomorrow's potluck community event. I'm looking forward to it - a casual get together with everybody's different traditions mingled together. My office has been a fun hubbub of recipe sharing this week and laughter as we tried to make grocery shopping lists that just might work at the grocery store. The only real fail was miniature marshmallows, but the sweet potato casserole will have pink and white giant marshmallows which really aren't that different, right?

I admit I got a little sappy at work today thinking about everything for which I have to be thankful this year, and my team may have had to endure a few extra sappy emails and thank yous. But they're awesome and they deserve it. 

This has been a good year for my family, with the addition of a third lovely sister-in-law this past August. I haven't written about their wedding, but it was perfect and reflected my brother and his bride so incredibly well. I was so grateful to so many family and friends for making the trip to NH, because it meant I got to see everybody during my time in the United States. There was a lot of work in the days leading up to the wedding, but that meant time to bond with my sister-in-law's family and friends, and it made the big day that much more special for everybody. 

Today is my younger nephew's birthday, and I am just so impressed by the great people he and his sister are growing up to be. They're fun, witty, curious, and always up for an adventure. And my older nephew has grown up into a great young man, and he continues to pursue his dreams and advance at work. I just had a chance to talk to the younger guy after his birthday lunch at the movies, which helps bridge the distance a little bit. And his mother does a great job posting photos and sharing stories about the kids so the aunts and uncles who don't live nearby can feel more involved. 

I love my job and my colleagues, in Beirut and in all my previous posts. I am so thankful for their support, friendship, and dedication to public service, especially those who aren't U.S. citizens. Even the hard days are doable thanks to all of them. Here we've had a rough few months, as you can imagine from reading the news, and one of the best resiliency tools we have is the great camaraderie and collective sense of humor and fun that we share. 

I'm thankful for the ease of travel my career affords me (I could have phrased that differently but liked the almost-pun). Since joining the Foreign Service I've spent Thanksgiving in the United States, Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, and now Lebanon. I realize looking at this now that I was never in KSA over Thanksgiving, but I did spend a Christmas there. I love that even when I can't be with my family on this holiday I always have good friends to spend it with. 

There are many more reasons to be thankful, but this is what's on my mind tonight. May you all have delicious, fun, peaceful Thanksgivings surrounded by wonderful people. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

South Luangwa - Day Two PM

I have to say that having an entire safari lodge to myself is both a treat and a bit unnerving. All these staff are here just for me; it seems like a lot of trouble. But this is the low season, and I got an amazing deal because of it. So I'm going with it.

I forgot to mention that this morning's drive found me contending with a familiar nemesis - tsetse flies. These creatures care not about thick clothing or insect repellent or any such thing - they bite me mercilessly, early and often. I think I came out okay, though - I felt them bit numerous times, but I only have three raised bites on my foot and leg. Hydrocortisone and zyrtec are helping keep them from becoming welts.

Anyway, we started out for a drive just before four, and Elias asked me what I would like to see. So I told him the two things I've never seen which I still really want to see are a kill and a honey badger. But I told him I knew that luck had much to do with seeing both and that I would have a great time no matter what. But I tell you what, he did his darndest to try to get me to see both tonight! And while we came up short (by inches, with the kill), there's still five more glorious nights to try.

We headed first to the river bank to see the wild dogs. Apparently they had killed another impala that morning while drinking water, so they were very full and content to lounge in mud and water and rejuvenate. The pups played, the adults splashed around with their tails, and everybody was in high spirits. 

After that we moved on, encountering a small herd of elephants with a tiny baby at a water hole. The baby, under a year old because it still easily fit under its mom, had to kneel and stretch its little trunk to reach the water. Then it would straighten back up and finally curl its trunk into its mouth to drink. Such a sweet thing to watch. 

We found some baobabs with significant elephant damage and saw a bachelor herd of waterbuck and several female kudus, the latter hiding behind bushes. The impala, puku, and warthogs were out in full force. And I don't think I've mentioned yet, but the guinea fowl are everywhere! In East Africa they weren't a rare sighting, but they weren't everywhere either. Here they're absolutely everywhere. And since they're one of my favorite birds, I love this! But, sadly, they never hold still for photos. 

After driving a bit farther we found several cars at the tree where we'd earlier seen One Eyed Leopard, and, sure enough, there he was. He had just climbed down from his perch and was walking towards either food or water, but without much urgency. A few times he lay down in the brush by our cars, content to let us photograph him and murmur at his beauty. Finally he tired of the attention and settled into some brush farther away. We headed onwards, in search of a leopard that had been sighted a few km away. I didn't know we were getting close, but I looked down on the river bank and saw the leopard walking. And while it was out in the open and not hidden at all, I was proud for spotting it first and correctly saying it was a leopard (it was a bit far out). This somewhat makes up for years of seeing leopards where there weren't any and getting excited only to realize it was a tree branch or stump.

This leopard, a female we hadn't yet met, was intent on getting a drink, and she continued on to the water. We found a bank a bit away and stopped for sundowners, keeping close watch on her position in case she decided to give chase. There was another vehicle stopped a little closer to her, so I decided they'd be better prey. 

Just as we were starting to pack up, a flock of guinea fowl started sounding their alarm, and we watched, laughing, as these guinea fowl literally chased the leopard away from the river and back up the bank to trees and brush. They didn't give up until she was well and truly gone, refusing to yield ground the few times she stopped and lay down. Little bullies!

The sun had set by now, so we were off. We had several very good glimpses of a male pennant-winged nightjar, a peculiar-looking nocturnal bird with elaborate feather streamers coming off both wings. Very interesting to watch it fly - it looked like multiple birds hanging together. 

We drove by a herd of elephants munching leaves and branches in thick brush, giving them a wide berth in case they felt threatened. The DLTs were all congregating now, and we headed towards them in hopes of seeing something hunting. Four hyenas emerged from their culvert sleep spot and started loping towards the fields as well. When we arrived at an open area we saw a couple vehicles spotlighting a lone hyena munching an impala carcass, possibly stolen from the dogs earlier in the day based on what little remained. Several vehicles were looking at the tree where we'd earlier seen One Eyed Leopard, so we headed there. Sure enough, there was a leopard in the grass, but it wasn't One Eye. It was Limping Mother Leopard, the cat from the previous night. And now we could easily see her limp, which doesn't seem to impede her terribly, since she's in great shape and has mothered at least one successful litter of cubs.

Watching a leopard hunt takes patience, Elias cautioned, but he was game if I was. And I was. So we watched (or listened, since we turned off the lights) as she stalked three puku. Two other vehicles watched as well but gave up after a few minutes. We persevered. The male puku had by now run off, so it was just LML and the two females. She looked to be giving up, since they knew she was there and were already nervous, but then she started charging ahead again. The puku shifted positions, and so did we. And that's when LML decided to use us again. We were parked facing the puku, and she lay in the shadow off the right side, just a few feet from where I sat. I'd like to say I could feel her pent-up energy as she readied herself to pounce, but I was just too giddy. And then she struck. We had the lights off, so we were going by sound. But we could hear the puku go in two different directions and turned on the light just in time to see her slow down in defeat, having missed by mere inches. She stalked away towards a group of impala, and we followed her, and while she made a few half-hearted attempts to go for them, she was too far and too much in the open.

I learned a lot from watching/listening to this. I was fascinated by the pukus and impalas who didn't run or retreat until the final pounce. I was amazed at how quiet the big cat was, even when running. I found that my eyes adjusted to find her in the dark but not the impalas/puku as well. She appeared as a lighter blob against the night. And she once again showed her love for safari vehicles as a hunting tool. Which may be the edge she needs to help her with a limp in order to be a successful hunter.

By now it was time to head back, though we scoped out a few areas where honey badgers are known to reside on our way. None were there tonight. But we'll keep trying. We arrived back to the lodge to a hearty welcome from the staff, and I checked email quickly before heading to the lawn to dine under the stars by candlelight. I finished reading Daphne Sheldrick's memoir about conservation efforts and raising orphaned animals, especially elephants, in Kenya, which was a fitting end to the day. And now I'm cosy in my chalet ready to doze off and start again early tomorrow. 

The dogs hanging out near the river

Sweet little pup

Wild dogs lounging in the mud

See all the dogs?

Pups, only a few months old

Elephants on parade

Male waterbuck and impala

One Eyed Leopard again!


Such amazing coloring

The next several photos are of the adorable elephant baby trying to drink

I love this one, with him kneeling and stretching

Tree, eaten by elephants

Leopard on the river bank

Sundowner spot

Retreating from the guinea fowl

Hyena and impala

Hyenas eat most of the bones too; there's not much left when they're done

Limping Mother Leopard on the prowl

We spent quite a bit of time with her, but she was not a lucky hunter while we were there. So close, though.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

South Luangwa - Day Two AM

Morning came fast today. I woke up to my alarm at 5:30 but panicked and thought I must have overslept because it was so light out. But then the wake up knock on my door came, and I realized it just gets light early here! I dressed and headed to the main lodge for a light breakfast (carefully avoiding the female baboon on the walkway), and then we loaded into the vehicles and were off.

Our first sighting was just beyond the lodge - three elephants walking toward the river. They were in a hurry and didn't want to pose, so we pressed on. For an hour we drove mostly in silence, passing plenty of puku and impala and warthogs but not much else. Every now and then our guide would stop the vehicle to listen to the sounds of the bush or check fresh tracks. We were following a leopard track and the guide heard baboons calling a warning, but he said it didn't sound like their leopard warning. He was right. We pulled around a bend and started seeing movement - wild dogs!

This was a large pack of 20 individuals (down two from the last census), including an alpha male with a radio collar, several females, and six young pups. We drove near to four dogs lazing in the shade but soon realized that the action was with the rest of the pack - they were feeding! We watched as the pack devoured a recently-killed impala; the scrum was fairly collegial, but every now and then there was a snap and a whelp as someone was smacked for being too greedy. The little pups ran around excitedly, occasionally grabbing a bite to eat but otherwise playing and having a grand old time. A couple more vehicles came upon us, but it was a relaxed viewing, and the dogs weren't bothered in the least.

Finally most of the pack headed off to get some water by the river, while a few stragglers picked the carcass clean, moving it from one spot to another. We left them there and headed off in search of leopards. Another fairly quiet hour passed, with more antelope, a glimpse of yesterday's dead elephant covered in vultures (reminiscent of the dead hippo in Selous), some giraffes and elephants at a distance, and lots of birds. 

Then our guide noticed that the puku were nervous, and the guinea fowl were calling out a warning. We drove toward the guinea fowl and were looking around when one of the other guests looked up and locked eyes with a leopard! This was a large, older male our guide told us, who goes by the name One Eyed Leopard. It's a fitting name as his right eye is clearly useless, possibly from a long ago fight. He is well known to the guides and sired a number of the other leopards in the area. Apparently his teeth are wearing down, and he isn't as agile a hunter anymore, so he relies a lot on scavenging.

Right now, though, he was lounging in his tree looking deceptively docile. At first he posed for us, seemingly as interested in looking at us as we him, but then he shifted and hid his face mostly behind a tree limb. We watched him for a while, enjoying the uninterrupted view of his gorgeous spots and powerful limbs and twitching tail. The two leopards I've seen thus far have been the best sightings I've ever had; of the seven leopards I'd previously seen one had been running away in Etosha, one was in a far away tree in Sri Lanka, one was in a distant tree in Murchison Falls, two were trying their best not to be seen or stay in one spot in Masai Mara, and two in Serengeti were up and down trees that weren't too close to the roadway. But these were amazing. Last night's hunter was actually under our car, and today we were directly underneath this guy's perch. South Luangwa lives up to the hype.

After that it was time to head back to the lodge so my fellow travelers could get to the airport in time for their onward flight to another park in Zambia. We had no more surprise sightings along the way, and once I arrived back at the lodge I made arrangements for a late lunch and headed to my room to nap. And what a glorious nap it was. I woke up moments before my alarm, refreshed and ready for more. I enjoyed a delicious, leisurely lunch on the veranda, and now as I finish writing this post it's time for afternoon tea (though I'm still full from lunch!) and then another afternoon/night game drive. This is my idea of paradise. 

Elephant munching on leaves

Red-billed hornbills

Wild dog! Alpha male with collar.

Eagerly eating an impala

The pups had taken a few pieces for themselves, away from the main feast


Alpha male, bloody from first pickings.

Hungry pups join in too!

Gnawing on a limb

Yummy breakfast

Just imagine being parked under a tree, looking up, and seeing this!

Meet One Eyed Leopard.

Leopard tongue

Love that tail

Maybe I prefer not to be seen

You can't see me!

Find the leopard!

Guinea fowl

Ground Hornbill all puffed up

Southern Carmine's bee eaters