HWANGE NATIONAL PARK ANNUAL GAME COUNT – 2015 Part 1

by John and Jenny Brebner
(5th October 2015)

HWANGE NATIONAL PARK ANNUAL GAME COUNT – 2015

Part 1

It has been, once again, a great privilege to be part of a team taking part in the annual 24 hour wildlife population census in Hwange National Park. We were also invited to join our party for the week before the count which was a bonus and thoroughly enjoyed by all. It’s just a pity that it all went by so fast!

It’s the dry time of the year, with a hot, dry wind blowing up billows of dust every now and again. Middays were breathlessly hot and still and trying to spot animals in the distance through the shimmering heat haze was not easy. Most of the trees were still winter leafless, stretching up grey and drab brown into a washed out blue sky but the eriolobas! Wow, they were like green beacons, some with incredible spreading branches, all in full leaf brightening up the dry bush – ancient, gnarled, beautiful. During the hot, middle of the day hours, small groups of elephant could be seen sheltering under some of them, enjoying a bit of respite from the searing heat; ears slowly flapping, some of the youngsters lying down and one or two of the older pachyderms resting weary foreheads against the massive trunks, taking a quick midday nap. The Lonchocarpus nelsii were all starting to bloom, taking on a mantle of pale lilac as were some of their sister trees, the Lonchacarpus capassa and in several places the shrubby, rather untidy common gardenia (Gardenia spatulifolia – we think!), were already in full flower, new white blooms turning to yellow as the flowers age. We saw several giraffe with heads buried amongst the bushes, obviously enjoying feasting on the blooms.

As we set up camp at Ngweshla for our second night, a curious posse of arrow marked babblers chattered their way through camp and it wasn’t long before a friendly crimson breasted shrike was making our acquaintance, hopping around inspecting the trailer hitch and wheels to see if it could glean any tit bits. A yellow billed hornbill was also getting in on the action and the two bird baths had a constant stream of visitors coming and going, the most breathtaking of which were the violet-backed starlings and the scarlet chested sunbird male. We had a thoroughly enjoyable and action packed morning there before moving back to Kennedy One for the next part of our adventure. We had discovered an adult Verreaux eagle owl on a nest and eventually managed to confirm that she was vigilantly guarding a chick as we saw its head bob up and down. We had noticed another nest way in the distance with a dark “blob” sticking up and soon discovered that the blob was actually a nearly fledged tawny eagle chick, almost as big as the parent birds but still very white and fluffy underneath. Spotting a black backed jackal trotting along, we noticed it was following the progress of an adult tawny which we saw feeding on what looked like steenbok fawn. We followed it as it flew from tree to tree, carrying its grisly cargo, tiny legs and head sadly dangling down before it eventually flew up into the nest, allowing the fledgling to snatch up the prey and feed on it. Kori bustards seemed to be all over the place, eight being seen and one of the cock birds spent the whole time arrogantly and constantly strutting his stuff, neck fully inflated, black crest up and tail feathers splayed. A pair of ostriches, the male was a particularly handsome jet black with his bright pink shins and feet, kept a wary eye on thirteen chicks, the chicks’ new growing feathers looking very hedgehog like, as they wandered along, pecking away. At one stage mother ostrich stretched up her neck, looked around in alarm, fluffed out her wings and puffing up to double her size, took off at speed towards three bat-eared foxes which had appeared out of nowhere. We weren’t sure if they were particularly after a baby ostrich breakfast, it being quarter to nine in the morning, but mother ostrich was having none of it and saw them off in no uncertain terms. Daddy ostrich actually took very little notice! Not only was there a constant flutter of birds looking for water, animals were continually streaming into the pan for a drink. Strings of wildebeest, impala and zebras in small groups, four stately kudu gents and a delightful small herd of roan plodded down. Two sable bulls disturbed the peaceful scene, galloping down to the pan, bucking and snorting and we were treated to some amazing animal behaviour as the one bull refused to allow the other to leave the water. They were having a serious confrontation as both bulls stood glaring each other, huffing and puffing before charging each other in a spectacular clash of horns and heads accompanied by some very vocal screaming. After a while, the bull out of the water sauntered off away from the pan until we could hardly see him while the other one in the water kept an eye on him, gingerly edging its way closer to the edge of the water. Satisfied that his opponent was far enough away, he started walking off in another direction. A small group of ellies had just come to the pan and were peacefully enjoying a morning drink when the sable came galloping in once again – the bully obviously having spied his adversary walking off and it seemed that he hadn’t given his permission for the poor picked on fellow to leave the water. In they roared again, quite upsetting the herd of elephant so there was much bellowing and screeching, clouds of dust billowing up from elephant and sable alike and adversary was back in the pan with bully giving him the eye from the bank again! Quite astounding and some of those magical moments we were fortunate enough to observe.

And so on to Kennedy One for four nights with the rest of our team. We all had a very brief, pretty obscured view of Jericho who had been seen hanging around close to K1 but he was doing what lions do best and sleeping the day away in deep shade. He was heard roaring during the first night and huge pug marks seen close to the camp gate the next morning undoubtedly belonged to him! The second night was also punctuated by lion calling and more spoor seen but none of us got to see any of the felines. Coming back in the late evening a herd of elephant were walking rapidly away from the pan when a leopard was fleetingly spotted dashing across to the road. Sadly we were unable to follow its progress in the dusky light as it disappeared into the scrub. Drives along the loop roads were also enjoyed and we eventually managed to find the elusive racquet tailed rollers near the end of the one of the loops. One afternoon we headed on down to Mbiza to have a look at the water situation there where the solar panel is keeping a reasonable amount of water in the pan. While there a fairly large herd of buffalo came down with several elephant and the pan was surrounded by a huge troop of baboons digging through the elephant dung, some dexterously climbing up and down the ilala palms, youngsters cartwheeling and playing on the various anthills while a grumpy young dog baboon stood atop an anthill barking his head off. We enjoyed a spectacular sun set before returning to camp. Another day everyone headed off in different directions but all eventually managed to see a cheetah at Makwa. Going through to Main Camp for a meeting, two of our party had prime viewing of the lad drinking from the pan very close to their vehicle and as we went through to resupply with ice, we had a lovely view of him lying on an anthill before he slouched off on a hunt. Unfortunately, shortly after we left on our ice mission, we missed seeing the animal take down a young kudu and the next time we saw him, he was almost in the middle of the Makwa pan on a bed of weed, trying to feast on his ill-fated catch. Having seen him previously he was now extremely muddy and tatty looking, not at all like the sleek, glorious cat we’d seen earlier! Another morning we all took a hot, dry, dusty trip through to have a late breakfast at Jambile. That part of the park obviously didn’t enjoy a very good rainy season and it was extremely dry. After enjoying a good cook up at Jambile where we chatted with fellow counters we’d met the previous year, we went to have a look at the state of Manga One. Water there was not good and the pan was crowded with elephant, some of whom were getting a little touchy and grumpy, stress levels from lack of water starting to take its toll. Coming back through to Caterpillar, we had the most fantastic view of firstly a Bateleur eagle dipping its feet in the pan and drinking and a little while later the most gorgeous white headed vulture female dropped down to drink, showing off marvellously for the paparazzi.

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