African Leopard

An african leopard hides in the shade as it closely watches a herd of springbok, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

While in Etosha National Park in Namibia, I was lucky to photograph an Africa leopard. Our guide (the incomparable Kiran Khanzode) had found out from some locals that there had been a leopard kill in a particular area two days before. Since leopards typically hunt every two days (depending on the size of the game), we went to that area to see if we could see a leopard stalking prey for another kill.

An african leopard hides in the shade as it closely watches a herd of springbok, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

We pulled up our vehicle and scanned the area, but saw nothing but a small herd of springbok. Then a very small movement caught my eye and there in the shadow of a small tree was a leopard curled up around a fallen log. The leopard was busy scanning the herd of springbok, and in particular watching one break away from the rest and wander closer – oblivious to the danger lurking under the tree.

A lone springbok grazes on grass in a clearing, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

A waited with baited breath, hoping to see the leopard spring into action. All the while I was using my 800mm lens and Canon 5DSr camera to squeeze every bit of detail from the scene. Fortunately for the springbok, the leopard decided against a full frontal strike, and decided to wait for a better opportunity. The herd moved away, and the leopard decided to catch a midday nap.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

An Early Ooty Morning

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

There was a chill in the air as I walked down the four flights of stairs to the garden below. Then I remembered that I was close to 8,000 feet of elevation, which also explained my slight shortness of breath. I was in the hill station of Ooty, a mountain top town surrounded by tea plantations. My friend Frans Xavier generously offered to play host to his home state of Tamil Nadu, India for a few days, and this was our first stop on the way from Coimbatore to Mudumalai National Park. We had flown into Coimbatore the day before where we met Frans’ good college friend Frank. This was truly the best way for me to see such a beautiful part of India, with two locals showing me the way!

A female house sparrow eats a grub from the ground in the early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

But of course day one saw me up at dawn, anxious to see which birds I could photograph before we hit the road later that morning. At first I spied one of my regular usual suspects, the house sparrow. Here is a female in the grass, just pulling a fat grub from the earth. I suppose this was the epitome of the “early bird!”

Unfortunately, what was once a common species throughout India, the house sparrow is rapidly disappearing, due most likely to urbanization. It is the typical story we see over and over in this planet’s wild places – loss of habitat.

A red-whickered bulbul perches on a berry busy in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I slowly wound my way through the garden, which was terraced – carved into the side of a steep hill. My journey was very quiet until I got to the very bottom, at which point the manicured garden met the thick, wild forest. It was alive with bird song, monkey calls, and other unidentified animal sounds that could only be attributed to the beasts of my imagination. At this point, I struck gold (at least from a bird photographer’s perspective). I was eye level with the tops of several bushes, thick with red-whiskered bulbuls.

Two red-whiskered bulbuls perch on a berry bush in pre-dawn light, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

I had photographed this bird on two occasions in a trip to India last year, but this was by far the most I had seen at once. From my position, it was difficult to move as I was perched on the side of a very steep hill. Any time I tried to move closer to the birds, I ended up underneath them, as I dropped in elevation. So I was pretty much stuck at a fixed distance from the bushes, which fortunately was close enough.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

In addition to the bulbul clan, I found a couple of male pied bush chats (a new species for me), flitting up and down the hill. These guys proved to be more skittish than the bulbuls, most likely because they weren’t busy gorging themselves with berries.

A pied bush chat perches on a branch in early morning, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India.

After about half an hour, the birds were clearing out and the world around me was stirring. I was happy with my haul – an excellent start to wonderful trip.

Okaukuejo Waterhole: Wildlife Diversity

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.
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.
A giraffe stands next to 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.

In addition to the larger mammals, I saw a couple of antelope species. The ever present springbok made an appearance.

A species endemic to Namibia, several black-faced impala visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

As did the endemic black-faced impala.

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!

Two Nights At Okaukuejo Waterhole

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.