Category Archives: Southern Africa

Find The Lions!

Male lion found on night safari in Uganda (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Memories from my trip on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari, 19 Jan-2 Feb 2024.

3 March 2024

“Listen! Do you hear them? Lions are roaring very close to us, just beyond the buildings.”

Lion’s roar (sound from Pixabay)

We were about to eat dessert on our first night at Khulu Bush Camp when our guide, Sam Mushandu, alerted us to a sound in the night. We all fell silent to listen.

That afternoon our Road Scholar Birding Safari had been on our first game drive near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. We’d seen many birds but no lions … yet.

Game drive at Khulu Bush camp near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

We had stopped to drink sundowners and watch the sun set in the wide valley of the Dete Vlei.

Sam describes our first sundowners, sunset at Dete Vlei near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

After sunset, we returned to camp for dinner in the open air dining room.

Main building at Khulu Bush Camp, dining room at left end (photo from Khulu Bush camp, Amalinda Collection at wetu.com)

The sun had set two hours ago. It was quite dark. And there were lions outside. Roaring.

“Who wants to find the lions?” said Sam.

Caution flags went off in my brain but others raised their hands so I tamped down my doubts with the thought, “When will you ever get this opportunity again? Never. So go!”

We piled into the safari vehicle and zoomed down the dirt track. Sam was on the radio with James, a Khulu guide who had gone out ahead of us to find the lions. Suddenly an elephant loomed in the dark, blocking the road. We slowed and it stepped into the bush.

Night safari with an elephant blocking the road, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

Then another elephant, then three, then four.

Night safari, three elephants, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

Surprised by crazy humans pelting through the dark the elephants appeared to be telling each other, “Hey! that truck is coming down the track. You’re in my way! Move into the bush!” It struck me as funny and I couldn’t stop laughing.

Night safari, four or more elephants, Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

The elephants melted into the bush, then James radioed that he had found the lions, one male and two females. We turned around and headed toward them.

By the time we arrived the male had moved off but we found both females squinting in the bright search light. My photo shows how far away the first one was.

Night safari, female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Fellow traveler Frank Koch got better pictures than I did. Here are both females.

Night safari, female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)
Night safari, 2nd female lion near Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Frank Koch)

What an unforgettable experience!

Grateful thanks to our guide Sam Mushandu, to James (guide at Khulu Bush Camp) who knows the habits of lions, Khulu Bush Camp itself for a wonderful stay, and Road Scholar for arranging the tour. And thank you to Frank Koch for his photos of our night safari.

p.s. In case you’re wondering what a lion looks like when it roars, here’s a video from Brookfield Zoo. Keep in mind that both males and females roar so all three may have been speaking that night in the bush, 24 January 2024.

video embedded from Brookfield Zoo Chicago on YouTube

(photos from Wikimedia Commons (night lion closeup at top), Kate St. John, Frank Koch, and Khulu Bush Camp via wetu.com)

Elephants Close to Us

Elephants drink at the Chobe River, Botswana, 28 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 February 2024

When I signed up for Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari (19 Jan-2 Feb 2024) I knew I would see hundreds of Life Birds but did not realize there would be an added bonus. Our tour was in the KAZA region, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, where wildlife roams freely. KAZA is home to the largest population of African elephants in the world.

KAZA Projects ArcGIS map from World Wildlife Fund, Germany — screenshot annotated with our locations

We saw elephants every day in the areas marked on the KAZA map above. Here is what I learned.

African bush elephants, also called African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) are an endangered species having gone from a high of more than 2 million in 1800 to a low of 1,000 in the early 1900s. Now they number about 45,000 but are threatened by human encroachment, poaching, big game hunting (which prizes large tusks thus removing the best genes) and climate change.

Elephants live near fresh water because they must drink and bath so much. Climate change brings drought. Drought kills elephants. This summer there is a drought in southern Africa because of El Niño.

African elephants eat trees, leaves and even the cambium layer of bark. To chew this material they have four molars which they replace throughout their lives until they lose their last molar at age 40-60. Without molars they starve, a common cause of death. (This also happens to white-tailed deer who starve when their teeth wear out.) Tusks are modified teeth and both males and females have them.

We learned about elephant behavior by observing them.

Khulu Bush Camp, Zimbabwe:

Elephants lived close to us at Khulu Bush Camp. At night they roamed between our tent buildings; I could hear them munching. At midday they came out of the forest to the watering holes near camp to drink and coat themselves with mud against the 97°F afternoon heat.

The camp provides a pool of water and minerals attractive to elephants near the dining area which is elevated and protected by a small boma. We could safely view the elephants as they came quite close.

The elephants were close at hand at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

The females and young elephants move to the watering hole in a matriarchal herd.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

At first only one elephant drank from the pool.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

Then the crowd came close.

Elephants at Khulu Bush Camp, 24 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two days later a bachelor group showed up while an older male was drinking at the pool. The older male challenged them with a stern look. The younger males backed off.

Male elephant standoff at Khulu Bush Camp, 26 Jan 2024(video by Kate St. John)

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe:

On safari at Hwange National Park we saw a male elephant hanging out with a lone female. She disappeared into the forest while he appeared to be annoyed that we showed up. Perhaps he was guarding her as his own.

Chobe National Park, Botswana:

From a pontoon boat on the Chobe River we saw wildlife walking the shore at Chobe National Park. In late afternoon a small herd of elephants came to the river to drink and douse themselves with water. As this mother left the river we saw her baby nursing.

All these photos were taken with my cellphone! What a privilege to see African elephants so close.

p.s. Despite the threats to elephants there is one activity that helps them. Wildlife tourism is the #3 industry in the region & it prompts governments and people to protect wildlife.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

Dr. David Livingstone monument at Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe, 22 Jan 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari, 19 Jan – 2 Feb 2024

18 February 2024

This statue of Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone stands in Zimbabwe at the western end of Victoria Falls. After African independence, European monuments were removed and European towns renamed but Livingstone’s statue still stands, the falls still bear the name he gave them(2), and the nearest town across the river is Livingstone, Zambia.

Twenty years ago, two attempts were made to remove Livingstone’s statue but “resistance to the removals from the local community has ensured that Livingstone’s statue remains where it was first erected, gazing sternly out towards Devil’s Cataract.(1)

Our Zimbabwean guide pointed to a word carved on the monument that is key to Livingstone’s legacy in Africa.

Liberator.

Dr. David Livingstone, 1864 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In America we think of Livingstone as a great explorer but in Africa it is his never-ending fight to end the slave trade that holds him in African hearts. Livingstone went to Africa as a Christian missionary doctor and fell in love with exploring, ultimately mapping three long journeys in southern and eastern Africa covering 40,000 miles(2).

Journeys of Dr. David Livingstone, final journey in red (map from Wikimedia Commons)

During his second expedition to the Zambezi River (1858-1864) he witnessed the horrors of the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade and vowed to end it. Men, women and children were captured in the interior and marched to trading posts on the Indian Ocean coast, one of which was Zanzibar a British colony ruled by Arabs.

East African slave trade (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone reasoned that if he became famous for finding the source of the Nile he could influence the British government to end the slave trade so he returned to Africa in 1866 to accomplish both goals.

Five years later, in the absence of news, Livingstone was presumed dead or lost. Instead he was still exploring, very weak and sick with malaria and without quinine to treat it because someone stole his medical kit. Meanwhile he wrote letters to Britain describing the slave trade but the slavers were the only ones available to carry his letters to the coast. Knowing that Livingstone was against slavery, they delivered only one of his 44 letters.

Livingstone’s disappearance was such a great mystery that the New York Herald sent journalist Henry Morton Stanley to Africa where he caught up with Livingstone at Ujiji in October 1871 and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Henry Morton Stanley greets Dr. David Livingstone at Ujiji (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Livingstone did not want to leave Africa so Stanley took Livingstone’s dispatches to Britain where they exposed the appalling massacres and cruelty of the slave trade.

British reaction was swift but Livingstone did not live to see it. “One month after his death, Great Britain signed a treaty with Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, halting the slave trade in that realm. The infamous slave market of Zanzibar was closed forever.(2)

More than any of his contemporaries, Livingstone succeeded in seeing Africa through African eyes.

Princeton University Library: David Livingstone, 1813-1873

p.s. In the U.S. most of us don’t realize that the West African slave trade that our country participated in was not the only source of slaves. Britain outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 but it continued elsewhere. For instance, Mauritania in West Africa did not impose penalties on its local slave trade until 2007. Today slavery persists in some parts of Africa. Read about Slavery in Contemporary Africa here.

(credits are in the captions) Footnotes on sources.

  1. Information on Dr. David Livingstone’s Statue, Siyabona Africa website.
  2. Summary of Livingstone’s life, Princeton University Library.
    • “Victoria Falls was the only site in Africa that Livingstone named with English words.”

Favorite Birds in Southern Africa

13 February 2024

Road Scholar’s Southern Africa Birding Safari was wonderful on so many levels.

Before the trip began, I expected to see many Life Birds. The southern region from the Zambezi River to the Cape has more breeding species than the US and Canada combined. Add to that the winter migrants from Europe and Asia and there were so many birds to see every day. In 13 days of birding I saw or heard 233 species, 207 of which were Life Birds. See the details in my eBird Trip Report here.

My favorite birds were hard to whittle down, chosen for a variety of reasons. Some because I had a pent up desire to see them. Some for their beauty. Some for their behavior. 14 are in the slideshow (thanks to Wikimedia photos) and described below.

No. 1! The secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is declining and endangered so it was a real treat to see one. These elegant raptors walk slowly scanning the ground for food while their long scaly legs protect them from the venomous snakes they eat for a living. [If the video below spins without playing, click on the YouTube logo at bottom right to watch it on YouTube.]

(video from WildlifeVideoChannel on YouTube)

No. 2: I’ve been wanting to see a Kori bustard ever since I wrote about them in 2009.

No. 3 & 4: Flamingos! We saw greater (Phoenicopterus roseus) and lesser (Phoeniconaias minor) flamingos at Marievale. Greater flamingos have pink beaks, lessers have dark beaks.

No. 5: The black heron (Egretta ardesiaca) looks like a snowy egret in charcoal black. He throws shade to catch his prey.

video embedded from Earth Touch on YouTube

No. 6: I wanted to see an Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) after I learned about their amazing migration last October.

No. 7: I’ve always liked the French name of the bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), an endangered serpent eagle that “tumbles” in aerial acrobatics. In flight bateleurs are easy to identify because their toes stick out beyond their short tails.

No 8: We found a dark chanting goshawk (Melierax metabates) holding a lizard above us that he had caught for lunch. Here’s how he chants.

No. 9: Southern carmine bee eater (Merops nubicoides): Beautiful and acrobatic.

No. 10: Crimson-breasted shrike (Laniarius atrococcineus): Gorgeous in red. (eBird calls it a gonolek. Such confusion!)

No. 11: African paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis): Colorful and extravagant.

No. 12: The wire-tailed swallows (Hirundo smithii) were an unexpected joy. As we boated up and down the Chobe River the swallows flew around the boat. Sometimes they flew with us, just under the tarp roof, or landed on the edge.

No. 13: Red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) were easily found on mammals, especially impalas. We saw quite a few perched upside down on a giraffe, plus a pair nesting at Hwange National Park.

No. 14: Male pin-tailed whydahs (Vidua macroura) are boring brown in the non-breeding season but during southern Africa’s summer they are snazzy with long thin tail feathers. At Marievale a male called just outside the bird hide window, then displayed in front of us when a female showed up. Such a show off!

Video embedded from Leovim Agustim on YouTube

I’ll be telling you more about our trip in the weeks ahead: birds, animals, landscape, people, culture, history, and weather.

Though we did not see a leopard we saw the “leopard of birds.” Stay tuned.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The Smoke That Thunders

11 February 2024

Last month I wrote about Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya, before I’d ever seen it. Our Road Scholar Birding Tour visited the area twice: the Zimbabwe side on 22 January, the Zambian side eight days later. While there I learned that the falls really are “the smoke that thunders.”

This marked-up aerial view shows the viewpoints where my photos and videos were taken.

Victoria Falls from the air, border of Zambia & Zimbabwe (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Devil’s Cataract, on the far left side of the falls, is where the crack begins that will some day become the new fall line.

Devil’s Cataract, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 22 Jan 2024 (video by Kate St. John)

The Danger Point at the far end of the Zimbabwe side is closer to the falling water. It was very misty, almost otherworldly. We wore raincoats.

Misty sunlight near Danger Point at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Jan 2024

As we left on 22 January we stopped at the overlook for the old Victoria Falls Bridge that spans the outflow of the Zambezi River. People pay to bungee jump 364 feet from the bridge into the canyon. I did not want to watch.

View of Victoria Falls pedestrian bridge, site of bungy jumping (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We went there to find Schalow’s turaco (Tauraco schalowi), a fruit-eating African bird that frequents riparian habitats … and we were in luck! One flew by and landed near us. These eBird photos show its beautiful colors.

On 30 January we returned to Victoria Falls on the Zambia side where the water was even closer and more dramatic. Those who want to walk to Livingstone Island or the Devil’s Pool during low water start their journey on this side, walking 1 km (more than 2/3 mile).

No way! Look how fast the water rushes toward the cliff …

This is the edge where the water falls off the cliff in Zambia (video by Kate St. John)

… and falls down the other side.

Water falling off the edge on the Zambian side (video by Kate St. John)

We crossed the Knife’s Edge Bridge …

Knife’s Edge Bridge at Victoria Falls, Zambia (photo by Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons)

… to complete our tour of The Smoke That Thunders.

(credits are in the captions)

Mopane Worms

Mopane worm caterpillars on mopane leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 February 2024

In southern Africa, caterpillars of the emperor moth Gonimbrasia belina (or Imbrasia belina) are commonly called mopane worms because they feast on the leaves of mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane). Their final instar is shown above, adult below.

Adult form of mopane worm: the emperor moth (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

During my trip in southern Africa I did not notice the trees but their oddly shaped leaves caught my attention.

Clump of mopane trees (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I had no idea of their significance as a place to find food.

Mopane leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mopane worms are prized as human food. When they reach full size women and children avidly pick them from the mopane leaves, squish out their guts and take them home to boil and sun dry. When fully prepared the mopane worms look like this:

Mopane worms to eat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I had the opportunity to sample mopane worms at Dusty Road Township Experience, an award-winning restaurant in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we ate traditional food.

What did mopane worms taste like to my naive palate? Earthy. Crispy. Very earthy.

Perhaps the flavor was so earthy because I ate the head first. In Zimbabwe this makes no difference but in Botswana they take the heads off before they eat them because the heads change the taste. I wish I’d known so I could have tried it both ways.

Learn more about mopane worms and how to cook them in this video by Emmy @emmymade. She tastes them both ways and describes their flavor at 3.5 minutes into the video.

video embedded from emmymade on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)

Not a Cat

6 February 2024

During our stay at Chobe Savanna Lodge, Nambia we ate dinner after sunset on an outdoor deck with a beautiful view of the Chobe River and Botswana’s Chobe National Park, pictured below from Chobe Savanna Lodge’s website.

Chobe Savanna Lodge dining deck with view of Chobe River and Chobe National Park, Botswana (photo embedded from Chobe Savanna Lodge website)

On our second evening we had a visitor that looked like a cat though not a cat at all.

The rusty-spotted or large-spotted genet (Genetta maculata) is a member of the Viverridae family that includes civet cats, none of which are felines.

Genets are excellent climbers so this one must have clambered up the deck poles in the dark to wait at the edge of the dining area for a handout. He has an omnivorous diet that includes rodents, doves, skinks, spiders, eggs, fruits, berries and seeds so our buffet certainly had something to tempt him.

Fortunately for everyone our genet was shy and ran to hide if anyone approached. He always crouched low.

If he’d stood up to his full height we would have realized he was not a cat. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Rusty-spotted genet at Kruger NP (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photo credits are in the captions)

Crow in a White Vest

Pied crow crowing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 February 2024

Any day with a crow in it is full of promise.

Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys, by Candace Savage

Crows are a favorite theme of mine so I was pleased that we encountered Africa’s most common crow at nearly every birding site on our trip in southern Africa. We saw only one Corvus species, the pied crow (Corvus albus). He wears a white vest.

Pied crows are intermediate in size between crows and ravens and are closely enough related to Africa’s dwarf raven, the Somali crow, that they can hybridize. However their behavior is closer to that of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

Pied crows on left, American crows on right (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Wikipedia says the same of both of them.

The pied crow‘s behavior is more typical of the Eurasian carrion crow.

American crows are the New World counterpart to the carrion crow and the hooded crow of Eurasia. They all occupy the same ecological niche.

Both are smart and inquisitive.

The pied crow’s voice is intermediate between crow and raven.

Typically we saw only one or two crows at a time except at dawn when they left their roost. Then my highest count was eight.

Pied crow in flight, composite of same crow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The main difference between pied and American crows appears to be that pied crows don’t migrate and are less gregarious. As far as I know they never aggregate into huge flocks.

Africans would be surprised, and perhaps horrified, to see Pittsburgh’s flock of 20,000 American crows in winter.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

A Nighthawk With Streamers

2 February 2024: Day 15, Flying home — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari

Today I’m still in transit, flying home from southern Africa on a trip begun yesterday morning that will take more than 33.5 hours from airplane wheels up in Zambia to wheels down in Pittsburgh.

Even before my trip, I knew I would not see this bird’s extraordinary courtship display as he breeds from September through December, while I did not visit Africa until late January.

The pennant-winged nightjar (Caprimulgus vexillarius) resembles my Spark Bird, the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), but he is far more spectacular. For courtship purposes the male grows two very long feathers, one from each wing, which flow out like streamers when he flies.

This species takes its name from the extraordinarily long, and largely white, second to outermost primaries in breeding males, which are shown to great advantage in courtship display, being vibrated over a responsive female. 

Birds of the World: Pennant-winged nightjar

The long feathers appear to be his tail when he roosts. When he flies you can see they are not.

His flight is so awesome that an observer in this video gasps at the sight.

video embedded from Nature Travel Birding on YouTube
video embedded from Luigi Scarpellini on YouTube

In courtship the male makes a very high pitched insect-like sound. You might hear it in the nighttime video below.

video embedded from Geert558 on YouTube

Is this bird’s display worth another trip to Africa to find it? What do you think?

(all photos and videos are embedded; credits are are in the captions)

Sunbirds are the Hummingbirds of Africa

Scarlet-chested sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 January 2024: Day 13, Livingstone, Zambia — Road Scholar Southern Africa Birding Safari. Click here to see (generally) where I am today.

Africa has no hummingbirds (Trochilidae) but they have a family of nectar-feeding birds with many of the same characteristics: Sunbirds (Nectariniidae). Though the two families are unrelated they’re an example of convergent evolution, equipped with the same tools and habits.

The similarities between hummingbirds and sunbirds are striking. Both have:

  • Brilliantly colored males, often iridescent
  • Sexually dimorphic females
  • Long curved bills for collecting nectar
  • Short wings and fast, direct flight
  • Feed primarily on nectar
  • Feed insects and spiders to their young
  • Are important flower pollinators
  • Prefer red or orange flowers that are long and tubular,
  • Can enter torpor when it’s cold.

Their differences are also interesting:

Hummingbirds vs. Sunbirds

HummingbirdsSunbirds
New World onlyOld World: Africa, Asia, Australasia
Range in size from 1.59 g to 20 gramsRange in size from 5 g to 45 grams
Hover and have tiny feetPerch with normal feet
Don't hang out with familyUsually found in pairs; sometimes in family or larger groups
Some make long migrationsSedentary or short-distance migrations
Hummingbird beaks can't pierce flowers. That's the job of flowerpiercers.Sunbirds pierce flowers if the nectar is too hard to reach.

On our tour we encountered three species of sunbirds: scarlet-chested sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis), amethyst sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina) and white-bellied sunbird (Cinnyris talatala).

The scarlet-chested is very iridescent and, amazingly, is considered a pest in cocoa plantations because it spreads parasitic mistletoes according to Wikipedia.

Video embedded from JRothe on YouTube

The amethyst sunbird has fewer iridescent spots …

Amethyst sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… but an interesting voice.

video embedded from Lynette Rudman on YouTube

The white-bellied sunbird was a bonus. I did not expect to see him.

White-bellied sunbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Beautiful as sunbirds are, I’m glad we have hummingbirds instead.