Thursday, 22 September 2016

Serengeti NP Day 5: Chasing after cheetahs

Cheetah cubs in a row
While we’d had nice sighting of lions and fantastic sightings of leopard, our cheetah sightings had been limited to a few long range sightings, and we’d hardly taken a photo of one.  So it was back to chasing cheetahs again.  Along with the information about the cheetah family at Mawe Meupe, we also had a lead on a family between Maasai and Boma Kopjes, so the plan was to head out to that area.

Cuddling up to mom

But first we wanted to check on the lions, especially the lions we’d seen with the cubs on the first day that had been walking on the road.  Again we left at 6am, which meant the first 20 minutes or so were quite dark, but it meant we’d be at Hippo Pools nice and early. 

Lion cub with older sibling
And that paid off, we were the first car around Hippo Pools and soon spotted a couple of lionesses and their cubs.  There were about four young cubs in all as well as an older juvenile sibling.  The cubs were quite playful and we got some shots of them enjoying the early morning, as well as being spooked when a hot air balloon flew over them a bit too close for comfort.

It didn’t last too long though and soon the lionesses were leading their young cubs towards the river away from the road. We were really happy though as we’d managed to get a great sighting of one of the Seronera prides all on our own – not an easy feat in the middle of the Serengeti.

The cubs were nice and playful first thing in the morning
We headed up the river and were soon stopped by a car coming in the opposite direction.  He immediately told us that there was a lioness up the road on the right, and one with cubs on the left.  Then he asked us if we’d come right with the car.  Dru had recognised him as the research guy that had told us about the various mechanic options and assured him we’d got the car fixed, before we headed off to find the lions he’d told us about.

These were the lions that had been with the kill our first morning and we soon found the leader of the pride, a collared female.  (In the Serengeti, they collar the main female of the pride, as the males come and go) She was roaring, which was most unusual for us to see and hear in the Serengeti – normally we found that the Serengeti lions only roar at night.

Keeping an eye on us
We knew there was another lioness with cubs thanks to our intel from the research guy, so left her and went in search of the cubs.  It was then that we saw the Japanese photographer arriving to take up his same spot that he’d been in the previous 4 days. 

A quick question to his driver about whether they’d seen another lioness with cubs, they hadn’t seen anything the morning, so we told them that there was a roaring lioness around the corner which they duly headed towards.  We also asked them what they were shooting, and the reply was lions.  That really confused us since we’d seen them on the first day and they didn’t seem to be interested in the lions with a kill.

Black-faced sandgrouse having a drink
While the other cars were with the roaring lioness, we continued to look for the mother and cubs, and soon after were rewarded with a quick sighting of another lioness and a young lion.  Determined to wait her out, we decided to have our morning coffee with her even though she’d disappeared into the bush again.

Vervet monkeys walking in a row
By now the other lioness had finished calling and headed to the mother lion.  She sat near to the bush where the other one was in, but didn’t go any closer – instead calling softly like she wanted them to come out.  It didn’t seem to be working and soon most of the other cars got bored and moved off to find other things.  We had learnt our lesson well (see day 4 and our decision regarding leopards) and decided to see how this played out. 

Soon enough it was only us and the photographer, who had now gone off-road and we finally realised he was there to shoot the cubs.  They’d obviously been there the first day when we’d been wondering what he’d been shooting when we were photographing the lions eating.

Need something else to shoot while waiting for lions!
Our patience paid off and finally after about 20 minutes the lioness and her cubs seemed to be prepared to come out.  By now, new cars had replaced the old ones, but there were only about 4 extra cars, which was surprising since this was prime area to be looking for lions first thing in the morning. 

Finally we had our first view of the young cubs, 2 of them, along with an older sibling.  The mother led them out parallel to the road, but didn’t come closer.  We discussed our options of where to position the car, and decided to take a chance that they may want to come drink at the puddle of water near the road.  This was a big chance, since they weren’t anywhere close yet.  We drove the short distance to position ourselves, which meant we couldn’t see the lions at all, while the rest of the cars watched them.

We were still backing our decision, but the doubts started creeping in – had we made a mistake?  Just when we were about to hedge our bets and move forward a bit, out popped the lions from behind the tree line and headed straight for us!

It’s always awesome when it works out like you planned, especially with the tour guides there looking on, but we managed to be perfectly positioned when the mother lion came to drink directly in front of our car staring head on.  It was even cuter when the 2 young cubs tried to imitate mom, attempting to drink from the puddle as well.  

Trying to imitate mom
But what was the icing on the cake was when one of the cubs became too boisterous for mom, and she picked him up with her mouth right in front of us – something we’ve only seen once before many years ago in Chobe, Botswana.  This was a pretty special moment for us, and we were able to capture it in nice morning light as well.

Picking up the cub is a special sighting
The mother walked off with the cub, who was now slack in her jaws, but as soon as she put him down, he immediately got his life back and ran back to his sibling to try and drink from the puddle again.  We spent another half an hour or so with them, before mom had decided that this was enough time in the open and slowly led them back to the bush for the day.
Time to go
Happy with our encounter, we decided to leave them as we were still planning on chasing cheetahs, so we headed to Maasai Kopjes looking for the spotted cats. but had a bit of a detour when we found a large herd of buffalo close to the road.  We spent some time with them, but the light wasn't great by this time, and it's always hard to capture the big herds properly.

After leaving the buffalo, we continued towards Maasai Kopjes and soon enough we went to investigate a clump of cars we'd spotted, and came across a couple of lions.  We had just been saying 2 minutes previously that we hadn’t seen mating lions on this trip, and sure enough – they were mating lions ;)

The buffalo herd - hard to capture
Well, it looked more like the end of the 3 days that they spend mating.  The female was initiating, but as soon as the male seemed to be interested she lay on her back and stopped the potential mating.  We figured that they were at the end of the mating period and showing less interest in each other, and having spied another clump of cars in the distance, decided to go check that out and then come back to the lions if it wasn’t anything exciting.

He raised his head for a moment before going back to sleep
Seeing the cars crowded around a tree, it could potentially be a leopard in a tree, but we figured that since there weren’t that many cars, it was probably lion.  And it was – a nice big male and 2 females fast asleep in the shade of the sausage tree.

Sleeping lions are not that fascinating to watch, and although we were hoping that they’d get up, except for opening his eyes for a while, the male didn’t look like he was going anywhere.  In the meantime, Dru had been keeping an eye on where the cars were going and since a lot of them seemed to be going in the same direction that we had planned we decided to follow them.

Elephants taking advantage of the shade of a tree
Pretty soon, we could see that this was no longer aimless game driving that the vehicles were doing but a definitely plan.  We’d somehow managed to get ourselves into the middle of a convoy of about 6 cars, so we decided to go with the flow and see where they were heading.  When you don’t have a radio, you need to improvise ;)

Cheetah mom scanning the horizon
And what a payoff – a cheetah mom and 4 cubs under a tree!  This is what we’d been searching for.  And it seemed that they wanted to be up and about, because soon enough the cheetah mom led the kids from the tree and appeared to go into hunting mode.  Soon the cubs dropped back and mom spotted a few Thompson’s gazelles pretty close to the road. 

Learning to hunt by watching mom
Everyone in all the cars was silent as we watched the scene ahead of us – mom crouched in the tall grass, cheetah cubs about 20 meters back, all intently watching the gazelles while they grazed unknowingly slowly heading towards the cheetah waiting.

Just when it appeared that this was set up for the perfect hunt (with us in the best position to capture it) it went nowhere.  Still not realising that they were in danger, the gazelles slowly started heading away from the cheetah and she did nothing about it.  Soon they were out of range and she gave up and her cubs joined her while they crossed the road into the area that had recently had a fire go through, so there was no grass that the young cubs could hide.  Which meant that we had good sightings of the cheetah cubs as they followed after mom.

The cheetah mom and cubs were quite comfortable with the cars around, in fact they were so comfortable that the next thing we knew they were right alongside our car and then under it! They went under on the one side and then emerged on the other side before heading to investigate some of the other cars, essentially using them for shade while they played underneath them.

Very comfortable around cars
Mom was totally relaxed lying behind one of the vehicles in the classic cheetah pose, until she got bored, and gathered her cubs, leading them off to go lie in the shade of an acacia tree. 

We decided to have our lunch of leftover sausage and smash in case she decided to hunt again.  After half an hour, they still didn’t seem inclined to move, and since we weren’t completely sure exactly where we were in relation to the camp, we decided to have a quick drive until we had our bearings before we returned to the cheetahs.   We knew that this was a risk, as cheetahs are diurnal cats, but we needed to know how long it would take us to get back into camp by sunset.

A leaping steenbok
We headed off and after about 20 minutes, we recognised the landmarks giving us an idea where we were.  A tour guide also confirmed that it wasn’t too far to camp, so after finding our first new bird for the trip (a Taita shrike), we headed back to the cheetahs.

They will still seated under the tree, so we were relieved to find that nothing had happened while we were away.  We were happy to sit with the cheetahs until it was time to go back to camp, as she was still awake and seemed to be hungry to feed her cubs.

She spotted something we couldn't see
About half an hour later, she got up and seemed to see something on the horizon.  We couldn’t see anything even with the binoculars, but she immediately went into hunting mode and seemed to have a plan, including telling the cubs to stay back. 

With the cubs hanging back, she crossed the road back into the tall grass and headed away from us.  Finally we spotted what she had seen – 4 male Thompson gazelles walking in the plains.  It seemed too far away for her to even attempt but she kept moving towards them in a slow deliberate stride.

Kids keeping a lookout for mom
Trying to anticipate the planned hunt we moved forward, keeping parallel with the gazelles even though they were quite a distance from us.  Suddenly, the cheetah sprang into action.  With amazing speed she sprinted closing the gap to the gazelles before they had even realised that something was chasing them.  She managed to get to the gazelle at the back of 4 just as they started running and soon enough she had clipped him and jumped on top of him. 

Hard to see - but she took the gazelle down
He put up a valiant fight and at one stage seemed to throw her into the air, but she was determined and hung on.  This was so far away for us to see, but suddenly it went quiet – she’d taken him down!  A live hunt, albeit far away – but amazing to see the turn of speed that a cheetah can produce and a successful kill at the end of it.

Meanwhile, the cubs were still waiting on the other side of the road.  They were all positioned to cover the different directions but couldn’t see mom.  We soon realised that we were the cause of that – our car was directly in their line of sight to mom, who was standing over the kill catching her breath.

Running  to mom
As soon as we realised this, we moved the car back so that they would be able to see her. A moment later they spotted her, and took off in a bounding run towards her – extremely cute to see, and we were in the prime position to get some photographs of them running.

Finally they caught up to mom and we assume they immediately started feeding.  It was too far away in tall grass for us to catch any shots, so we decided to leave them to eat, and slowly heading back to camp very satisfied with our sighting.

Yellow-throated sandgrouse
Since it was still quite early we decided to go via Maasai Kopjes to see if we could catch the lions under the tree and the mating lions.  But they’d all disappeared, even the male who looked like he wouldn’t move the whole day.  We eventually caught up with a male and 2 females who looked suspiciously like the ones under the tree, but we couldn’t be sure since it was quite a walk if it was.

We got to Hippo Pools and slowly wound our way up the river, spotting only a couple of young lions on a log far away.  Without much to hold our interest, we were again in camp earlier than expected, but considering what a good day it was, we were happy to chill out with the sunset and rehash the excitement of the cheetah hunt.

Our final night in the Serengeti
Our final evening in the Serengeti affords us the opportunity to recap on all our sightings, and for us this was as good as it got in terms of cats – exactly why we keep coming back year after year.

The evening was capped off with a herd of zebra near our campsite, seemingly excited about something in the dark although we couldn’t figure out what it was, and we fell asleep to them braying and calling in the night.

<< Day 4: A day of spots

Day 6: A final Serengeti gift >>

No comments:

Post a Comment