My last blog post detailed my experience with five endangered black rhino at the Okaukuejo Waterhole in Ethosa National Park, Namibia. But that’s certainly not all I saw during those long quiet hours in the dead of night.
The sun sets over the Okaukuejo Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia
I arrived at the waterhole just as the sun was setting behind the horizon. Night is the best time to see wildlife here, and to facilitate wildlife viewing, this camp has set up a flood light by which to see the nocturnal visitors. Quite a few people gathered at the waterhole to watch the sunset, but soon they were off to dinner and bed. Over the next hour, the crowds thinned out and only the die-hards remained for a long night’s wait.
Zebra come at night to drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Night is a good time for prey animals to visit waterholes as they have a better chance of escaping predators.
One of the more common visitors were the zebra. One night a small herd came at dusk, but it was those few that crept up to the waterhole in the middle of the night that were more fun to watch. The absolute silence was only disrupted by the soft crunching of rocks under their feet, as they lined the edge of the water to drink. The stillness of the water cast a perfect reflection. However there was no chance to relax, as any little sound had the zebra darting their gaze to the darkness, trying to see beyond the wall of black.
A giraffe stands next to a tree at the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Its body is reflected in the still waters, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Zebra gave way to giraffe, which traveling in ones and twos. In order to capture photos of these animals at night, I had my 400mm lens locked down on the tripod, my mirror locked up, and my shutter speed just slow enough to gather the required light. Keep the shutter too slow, and the animal was more likely to move during the exposure. It was a careful balance of predicting animal behavior, and making sure all my camera functions were set correctly.
Giraffe visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, drinking from its still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
One of my favorite sights was the comical way in which giraffe drank water. They had to contort their bodies and spread their front legs in order to bring their heads low enough to the ground to drink.
A springbok visits the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, its form reflected in the still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
I did see an elephant in the early hours of morning. However luck was not on my side, and none of my photos turned out. There was too much movement from this giant beast to capture under low lights.
I would certainly recommend this type of experience to wildlife lovers. It was incredibly intimate to watch these animals interacting under the cover of darkness, with nobody else around. It was a wildlife cathedral I was lucky enough to attend!
Under the cover of darkness, two endangered black rhinos socialize next to the Okaukuejo Waterhole, their bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight and are usually solitary creatures. Only at night can they be seen interacting with one another socially.
The endangered black rhino was long thought to be solitary and territorial, usually alone and resting most of the day in deep brush. On a recent trip to Namibia, I was hoping to see one of these rare creatures in the wild. With a worldwide wild population of only 5000, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to see one. Not only did I get my wish, but what I saw was counter to every description I’ve read about these animals.
I was traveling with a group through Namibia, photographing both wildlife and the incredible landscapes of that country. We spent a couple of nights in Etosha National Park, a stop on every wildlife tourist’s “todo” list. Okaukuejo camp features a natural waterhole that is kept floodlit all night. This allows visitors to view the amazing variety of wildlife that frequents the waterhole only at night. Knowing that the black rhino makes itself scarce during the day, I was hoping for a nocturnal sighting.
An endangered black rhino drinks from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, its body reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.
I waited and waited long into the night, with nothing to show for my weariness. I had a tripod mounted Canon 100-400mm lens with a new 50 megapixel Canon 5DSr attached to the back. At about 3:00 in the morning, just as I was about to pack up my gear, the silent darkness was disturbed by an incredibly loud crunching sound. Suddenly, an impossibly large form emerged from the brush a mere 50 yards from my position. My heart leapt into my throat – it was a black rhino!
A black rhino and her baby visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole, thier bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.
Even more surprising was the baby rhino that followed closely behind. I couldn’t believe my luck in seeing not one but two of these rare creatures. After drinking by the water’s edge, the mother walked into the water to bathe. Soon her timid baby followed, and they ventured into water up to their stomachs, drinking as they went.
A black rhino and her baby visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole. A dip in the cool water washes away the dust. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.
As they emerged from the water, they looked like some kind of strange half-white, half-black creature, as the water and washed away all the dust from the surrounding landscape. After a few more minutes, they wandered back into the brush, content. I was certainly happy to have lucked out on my first night, but was hopeful to see them again the next night, now that I knew they were in the area.
The next night I didn’t have to wait long. Soon after sunset, two rhinos emerged from the brush. These were two full grown adults, and based on the lack of a baby, I figured that neither of these was the mother from the night before. After a quick drink, the two faced each other. Expecting some kind of fierce territorial battle, I was shocked to see them rub their faces against each other (see lead photo). Exchanging soft grunts (or at least as softly as a huge beast like this can grunt), they stood like this for several moments, touching horns and nuzzling each other. This certainly didn’t look like the solitary hermits I had read about before my trip!
A black rhino drinks from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, its body reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight.
As I was watching these two, the mother and baby from the night before came to the edge of the water. Finally, a fifth black rhino joined the party by the waterhole. At this point, I was expecting a confrontation of some sort, having seen protective wild animal mothers with their babies before. Surely one of these large adults would get too close to the baby and then the action would start!
Three endangered black rhinos socialize and drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole, their bodies reflected in the still water. These uncommon rhinos are rarely seen in daylight and are usually solitary creatures. Only at night can they be seen interacting with one another socially.
Not only did none of that happen, but the five rhinos seemed almost sweet with each other. For the next half an hour, these nocturnal socialites drank and mingled, exchanging pleasantries (read: more grunting at each other). The baby was free to wander among the other rhinos. Before they left, I caught a quick video of them all together.
With my only experience consisting of two nights, I have no idea how rare or common it was to see this type of behavior. But rare or not, I was in awe of these amazing creatures and felt blessed to be given an opportunity to photograph them.
Last weekend I took a quick two night backpacking trip with some friends, in hopes of hitting the high country of the Sierra Nevada in peak wildflower season. I set my sights on Gem Lake in Emigrant Wilderness – just about the right elevation for flowers this time of year. Having been there before, I knew that even if the place wasn’t in bloom, we’d have a great time and see some amazing scenery.
I like Emigrant Wilderness because there are no trail quotas and it is very easy to get a wilderness permit with short planning. We set out from the Bay Area early Friday morning, stopping at the Mi Wuk Ranger Station on the way up Highway 108. Even though we were taking our time, we still hit the trail by 10AM, plenty of time to reach our 10 mile destination of Gem Lake.
A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.
The trail meanders between thick forest and open granite-filled vistas. Most of Emigrant Wilderness is easily accessible cross country due to many gently-sloping wide open granite bowls and domes. This time we stuck to the trail, and made easy progress. Every so often we were rewarded with a scenic vista. If you are not already a lover of granite, after a few hikes in this part of the Sierra you soon will be!
Cliffs to the north of Gem Lake reflect in the still water at sunset, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.
The elevation changes were just enough to tire our bodies by the time we reached Gem Lake. This lake certainly lives up to its name. However, it is very popular and can get quite crowded on the weekend. As it was Friday night, we were able to relax lakeside in relative peace. As the sun set, the wind settled and we got some nice reflections on the water.
A winding stream flows into Jewelry Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.
The next day we went further up trail and explored Jewelry Lake and Deer Lake. Deer Lake is much larger and Gem or Jewelry, and it was hot enough to warrant a midday dip in its cool waters. This is a great area to take your time and not hurry along the trail. One more night, and it was time to head back.
A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.
Luckily there were plenty of wildflowers along the trail to keep us entertained. We had perfect weather for our 26 mile journey and everyone enjoyed the change in scenery. With its easy access and lack of quotas, this is the perfect place for an impromptu night or two in the wilderness.
When I was little, I had a picture book about the wildlife of Africa. Due to my fascination with this book, the pages soon became dogeared and worn. My favorite image was that of a large, strange looking bird. Half crane, half eagle, this creature looked like nothing I had even dreamed of. Even the name, “Secretarybird” seemed odd and out of place. Over the years, my obsession with this bird became a distant childhood memory.
When I suddenly saw this creature in the flesh, stalking through the brush just beyond the window of our van, these memories rushed back to me like a flood. Suddenly I was a wide eyed child staring at the worn page of this picture book – but this time the unworldly creation was moving! “Secretarybird!” I called out to the others in the van, surprising myself with unconscious recall.
The secretarybird stands up to 4.5 feet tall and is a mostly land-based bird of prey. Instead of swooping on its prey like most other hunters, it prefers to stomp on small prey (such as mice, hares, mongoose, crabs, lizards, snakes, and tortoises) with its large feet. There are two theories about how its name came about. One is that this bird resembled secretaries of old, who used to tuck their writing quill behind their ear. As this bird’s head feathers look like quills, this is origin seems plausible. The other main theory is that the name is derived from a French corruption of the Arabic saqr-et-tair, or hunter-bird.
A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.
Here is another secreatarybird I saw later in the day. Here you can see it out in the open hunting in the short grass.
It was truly an amazing experience to see this bird in action only a few yards away. I had long forgotten this amazing animal from my past. As a child with a picture book, I never thought I’d actually see one out in wild Africa.
A couple of summers ago I met my brother and dad in Mt. Lassen National Park for a backpacking trip. This park sees one fraction of the backpacking that other national parks get. As a result, you get the feeling of having the back country to yourselves. More importantly for me, this trip would revolve around revisiting the Lassen Cinder Cone that sits in the east part of the park. We had been there many years before on a day hike, but backpacking would give me more time to explore it photographically.
A backpacker is dwarfed by the large Lassen Cinder Cone as he heads up the steep trail to the top, Mt. Lassen National Park.
We spent the night at Snag Lake, and in the morning, approached the Cinder Cone from the south. From there, we reached the steeper of the two trails that wind to the top. In the photo above, you can see my brother as a small speck as we neared the cone from the west.
Two backpackers climb the steep southern trail up the Lassen Cinder Cone. Mt Lassen and the Painted Dunes can be seen to the west.
The trail to the top is built using the loose volcanic scoria that makes up the cone itself. It is only a little more solid than walking up a sand dune, and is not for the faint of heart. This is due not only to the phyisical exhaustion that comes from pushing up such a slope, but also the steepness of the trail itself. At times I felt like I was going to tumble backward down the trail as my backpack made me somewhat off balance.
A large cinder cone sits to the east of Mt. Lassen in Northern California. A trail decends a hundred feet into the mouth of the cinder cone to a large steam vent.
Those who reach the top are rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Lassen to the west, as well as a chance to peer down into the crater of the cone. A trail even descends into the mouth of the crater, where you can stand next to thermal steam escaping from the ground.
The cinder cone was formed long ago by many small eruptions that threw lava into the air, which cooled into the loose, porous volcanic rock. Over time, this piled up into the 700 foot tall cone that we see today. It is thought to have erupted as recently as the 1650s, though the only activity that remains today is the steam rising from the crater.
A backpacker looks at Mt. Lassen from the top of the Lassen Cinder Cone.
The painted dunes are pumice fields formed by oxidation of volcanic ash from earlier eruptions of the Cinder Cone. Its beautiful colors formed because the ash fell on lava that was still hot and forming.
Two backpackers decend the steep southern trail of the Lassen Cinder Cone, Mt Lassen National Park.
After a while at the top, and after we tired of braving the fierce wind, we descended the way we had come up. I tried not to think about the consequences of losing my footing, and took it step by step.
A backpacker heads west away from the Lassen Cinder Cone, Mt Lassen National Park.
Soon we were down and continuing our day’s hike to our destination of Summit Lake. The promise of camp chairs and cold beer quickened our step. It was great to spend time up close with this unusual creation of nature.