Category Archives: trees & plants

Homecoming…

What a feeling it was, having arrived home after dark on Saturday (to the nighttime sounds of elephants, lion and buffalo all around) and then to wake up Sunday morning to that wonderful river view! And how the river has changed since we have been away, leaving in the wake of its ebb and flow, a completely new pattern of sandbanks and islands. Below the house now, we have a long sand spit, which – if it gets the chance before the next flood – will sprout grass and, hopefully, attract a myriad of game.

View upstream May 21 2008

Looking upstream from the house, you can see how new sandbanks have appeared while others have disappeared…

View downstream May 21 2008

The corresponding view downstream from the house, also showing how the character of the river has changed since we’ve been away. You can compare different riverscapes, moulded by the water over the days and weeks here.

Already since we’ve been back, we’ve had our familiar Waterbuck (five of them in the herd now) and Impala coming down to drink. One of the small rams has lost a horn, so now is a smaller version of the dominant ram in the area who is also, strangely enough, one-horned. Despite this deficiency, he has managed to stay in charge of his harem for a remarkably long time. (We’ve seen both the small bachelor herd and the main herd of impala below the house since getting back.)

One-horned young impala ram

Young impala ram who has lost one horn since we’ve been away

Sunday and Monday were grey and overcast and there was hardly a crocodile in sight (we only saw one tiny one, forlornly lying out on one of the sandbanks, as if willing the sun to come out), but today was hot and sunny all day, and the crocodiles appeared in their dozens. The herons seem to have disappeared though – both the Grey Heron and the Goliath (although I have seen the diminutive Green-backed Heron). The Yellow-billed Stork who had taken up almost permanent residence below the house also has not shown itself until today, when it landed a little way down from the house. (I presume it is the same stork as it seems to prefer keeping itself to itself, away from the main flock which we can see congregated on the river’s edge at Hippo Bend.)

Yellow-billed stork

“Our” Yellow-billed Stork back again

But many of the old regulars were here to greet us on Sunday morning: the Spur-winged Plovers, noisy and boisterous as ever, and trying to intimidate the resident troop of Vervet Monkeys (babies in tow); the orange Butterflies busy by the river’s edge; the cacophonic Hadada Ibises, and the Egyptian Geese, in flocks of up to ten birds, all squabbling with one another and trying to challenge the resident pairs which have staked out territories along the river; the Baboon troop that likes to spend the last hour of the day relaxing on the sandbank; the Hammerkops who were busy mating; the Pied Kingfishers, hovering so expertly above the now low and calm river, elegantly poised for the lethal dive onto an unsuspecting fish many feet below; even the Spot-flanked Barbet was in the bushes by the house.

Vervet monkey being harassed by plovers

Orange butterflies by the river’s edge

Hadada Ibis foraging on the beach

Baboon in doum palm tree, late evening

Hammerkops mating

Pied Kingfisher, poised for the killer dive

Spot-flanked Barbet

Egyptian Geese pair feeding at river’s edge in golden evening light

Pair of Egyptian Geese feeding at the river’s edge in the golden evening light

And some birds had even moved into the house during our absence (alongside the Agama Lizards and Rainbow Skinks who have remained in residence all along): the Sparrows are nesting on our balcony (all the to-ing and fro-ing of the parents to feed the chicks attracting the attention of a curious yet harmless Bulbul) and the Swifts are building a nest inside a disused light socket on our roof. And our regular visitors to the birdbath are back too, including the Glossy Starlings who seem to have some big chicks with them again. (The adults have white eyes and more radiant plumage, while the youngsters have dark eyes).

Male Agama Lizard on our bird table, with Bulbul washing in the background

Non-breeding male Rainbow Skink eating ants attracted by the bird food

Sparrow bringing food to chicks

A Sparrow with a mouthful of food for its chicks

A Bulbul investigates

A Bulbul comes to see what all the fuss is about

Swifts nesting

A pair of Little Swifts are nesting in a disused light socket on the roof (don’t worry, there are no live wires in there!)

Adult Glossy Starling

A stern stare from an adult Glossy Starling!

There has not been much rain since we left, and so the landscape is fairly dry. Nonetheless, the sanseviera plants around the house and in our flowerbeds have flourished, sending up countless new spikes from their underground root systems.

Sanseviera fruiting

Ian (my husband) and the guys who work with us were busy with the eternal chores associated with living in the bush, including pumping water from the river, so that laundry and showers and all the normal business of the day can continue…

Tawny Eagle drinking

In the heat of the day, a Tawny Eagle comes down to take a drink

Our unexpected homecoming surprise was a gift from Bernard, one of the Wakamba guys who works for us and is obviously a talented craftsman. In our absence, he had made us a tree ingeniously fashioned out of old wire with tiny miniature beehives hanging from it – just, he said, so we never forget the honey thief

Bernard’s gift, a beehive tree

Ian admires our gift from Bernard, a Beehive Tree, cleverly fashioned from old wire. (Some conservation organizations are making similar items from old wire snares, as a way of generating income for communities living in or bordering wildlife areas, and thereby also providing a financial incentive for people to remove snares from their land.)

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM KULAFUMBI SINCE WE’VE BEEN BACK:
Animals
Birds
Butterflies
Plants & Flowers
Kulafumbi Landscapes
People Pics


PS. It was Full Moon on Tuesday – the 20th.




Playing Catch-Up

Apologies for my long absence. I have been overseas on a work trip, and despite my best intentions, I had no time to blog! Anyway, I am finally back home at Kulafumbi, overlooking “our” familiar yet oh-so-changed river, and back at my desk too, ready to resume blogging on a regular basis.

Crocodiles & Hammerkops

Two big crocs basking in the sun

But first, before I tell you of our homecoming and our riverine friends, I’m going to make a brief attempt to update you on events during late March and early April, just before I went away and during which time I neglected this blog in deference to my workload elsewhere (which is not diminishing, incidentally, but which will have to leave some space for this blog from now on, as I do not intend to neglect it again…)

The end of March saw the river raging in a spectacular flood, the highest of the year so far. You can follow the whole episode in pictures here.

Yellow-billed stork watching river in flood

A Yellow-billed Stork watches the flood waters rising

Who would have thought it? We even added a new mammal to our list of animals seen at Kulafumbi, for a Gerenuk suddenly turned up here on 31st March. In fifteen years, we’ve never seen one of them here. It was a female, and she looked panicked, as if she had been running from a predator. She hesitated by the Mtito River, contemplating the leap across, before dashing away again. I managed to get a quick shot of her. You can see the long neck and legs, which make this antelope so distinctive. In fact, in Kiswahili, they are known as the swala twiga (proncounced swara twiga), literally the antelope-giraffe. They are also famous for standing up on their hind legs to browse taller shrubs and bushes.

Gerenuk

A female Gerenuk, the first of its kind to visit us

Another infrequent visitor appeared in early April, this time in the form of a flower, which seems only to bloom once every few years. No ordinary blossom this one, but a huge black flower with luxuriant petals curling delicately around an extraordinary skyward-seeking spike. How exquisite, you might think, until you bend down to breathe in this giant beauty’s aroma, and are met with the stench of rotting meat. You recoil in disgust but the cloying smell stays with you, haunting your nostrils for the entire walk home. Is this a carnivorous plant then? Sending out its rancid smell to attract hapless insects into that tempting curling cavern, like a siren? Why else would nature have designed it thus? (We have other foul-smelling plants here in the Tsavo region, such as the hydnora abyssinica, for example, which emits a stench of rotting meat to attract insects which then pollinate the plant.)

Black flower One

Black flower Two

Black flower Three

April saw a multitude of flowers, as the rains continued to fall. Despite our beehive disaster, some of our bees did survive (and now have new homes after a swift reparation job to our hives), for we saw them buzzing around on the delicate blue commelina flowers, which were blossoming in profusion. Unlike the sporadic flowering of the bauhinia during the last rains, this time the bauhinia all flowered together, like snow across the landscape for a couple of short days before shedding their petals like confetti. Strangely, there was not even one “Seagrass Cabbage” leaf in sight – how different to the ‘Short Rains’ when the ground was carpeted with these broad-leafed plants. (The ‘Short Rains’ normally fall in November/December, but last year were late and then persisted into January and early February. The ‘Long Rains’ normally fall during April, May and June. This year, instead of a long dry spell, one rainy season almost followed directly on from the last, with just a few weeks’ gap in between.)

CATCH UP ON MORE PHOTOS FROM APRIL 2008:
Animals
Birds
Insects and other Creepy-Crawlies
Flowers and Plants
Trees
Athi River in Flood – 29th March 2008

Goliath Heron cooling down

Goliath Heron shaking off

Goliath Heron taking off

I thought you might like to see this sequence of photographs as it’s quite fun: it was so hot during March and April that this Goliath Heron took to spending long periods of time just sitting down in the cooling water. When it finally emerged again, it hardly resembled the elegant bird we are so used to seeing!

Of Hippos & Thieves…

I’ll start with the bad news. Over the full moon, which fell on the Easter weekend, our beehives were raided. Eleven hives were destroyed and the honey stolen to sell to local brewers who use it to make alcohol – changaa as it is known here. Even worse than our indignation at being robbed, is the fact that honey thieves never leave any honey for the bees that worked so hard to make it. Without that vital honey-filled comb, they won’t be able to reproduce. After the raid, we saw a swarm of bees huddled together in a big mob, clinging to an acacia tree branch, robbed of their home. I felt so sorry for them…in fact, I am furious!

Beehive raided

Two of our beehives, burnt out and destroyed (above and below)

Honey thieves

Wasted honeycomb

Wasted honeycomb which could have sustained a new generation of bees

The better news is that, with the river full again, the hippos are happy. One turned up opposite the house, scouting out the reed beds where we often see hippos spending the heat of the day. The following day, a mother hippo appeared in the same place with a small baby…I can’t believe this is the same mother and baby hippo that were living here before – the baby looks smaller, so I think this is a new one. Hippos are one of the only mammals (apart from whales) that give birth underwater. Imagine being a baby hippo and having to swim to the surface before being able to take your very first breath! It’s so lovely having the hippos right here by the house.

Hippo opposite house

Hippo scouting out the reed beds opposite our house

Hippo scouting out reed beds

Mother and baby hippo

Mother and baby hippo

Yesterday, the river was rising and falling every few hours, changing the landscape completely as huge grey storm clouds gathered overhead, preparing for our nightly downpour. (Today is another story again, but that will have to wait for my next post…)

There must have been rain to the west of us because the Mtito River started flowing, having been dry for over a month. From the house, we watched as it broke its way into the much larger Athi, crocodiles, herons, egrets and hammerkops congregating at its mouth.

Mtito flowing

The smaller, seasonal Mtito River starts flowing into the Athi (on the right hand side of the above picture)

Crocodile Heron

A Crocodile and a Grey Heron wait for prey at the mouth of the Mtito River

Heron egret

Oh so elegant: a Grey Heron stands next to a Great White Egret near the Mtito River mouth

Unbelievably, the Bauhinia (bauhinia taitensis) are flowering again already, only six weeks or so since they were last out in bloom…In fact, the dry season has been relatively short as the last rainy season ended so late. Unlike last time, when the Bauhinia started flowering in dribs and drabs, with the sudden heavy and sustained rain, the flowers have come out en masse this time, like snow across the landscape. Do you know the feeling when something is so beautiful, it hurts to look at it? This is how I feel when I look at these blossoming Bauhinia bushes, with their pungent yet delicate scent like roses. Each flower-laden bough looks like a ready-made wedding bouquet. Even as they start drying out – ever so soon, for the blossom is short-lived, turning pinkish and shedding its petals like confetti after just 24 hours – they retain an aching beauty.

Bauhinia driveway

Our driveway, adorned with Bauhinia taitensis bushes in full bloom

Bauhinia flowersSweet-scented Bauhinia

Drying bauhinia

Turning pink, as they start to dry out…

Other flowers are blossoming too, including the pink grewia lilacina and clumps of small yellow flowers which I think are triumfetta flavescens. The yellow-flowered creeper on our lawn (which shall remain nameless for the simple reason that I don’t know what it’s called) has produced a wonderful looking fruit that resembles a melon. In our balcony flowerbeds, the most incredible white lilies have self-seeded (pictures below) – they’re similar but not the same as the white lilies I photographed during the last rainy season. They took us completely by surprise – all of a sudden they were there on our balcony in all their glory, and the next day, they were withered and gone…but what a flush of beauty while they lasted!

balcony lilies 1

balcony lilies 2

balcony lilies 3

And with a mighty roar, down came the flood…

Hippos are strange, unpredictable creatures. It was 8.15 last Thursday morning, and just as we were finishing breakfast, already sweating in the wake of another stiflingly hot day, a hippo emerged from the river. In the bright, scorching sunlight it walked up out of the water (at a time when most hippos were finding what shade they could in the cover of the reeds, or in secluded pools left in the shallow stream, which was all that was left of our river…). The lumbering beast made its steady way up the steep sandbank, and plodded away into the thick bush. It occurred to me that the hippo probably had a very good reason for its unusual morning meander, but I was none the wiser – perhaps the thick bush provided more respite from the heat than the dwindling river? Or perhaps the hippo had an inkling of what was coming?

Hippo leaving river in heat of the day

Hippo climbs up sandbank

Hippo disappears into bushland

Hippo leaving the river as the sun bakes the river…

That afternoon, the first splashes of rain cascaded down from an angry sky, hard and stinging, bringing instant relief and releasing us from the clinging, claustrophobic heat. The shower was short and sharp, and did not last long, but while they fell, the raindrops were fat and full of promise… What joy! The rains have broken!

Yellow-billed stork fishing as the first rain falls on the river

A Yellow-billed Stork continues fishing as the first raindrops fall on the river…

In the evening we watched the sky for hours, bewitched by the huge electric storms raging all around us, massive fronts of lighting illuminating the entire firmament like a giant fireworks display, on and on into the night. I felt awe-struck, and privileged, and very, very small before that gigantic stage. There is nothing quite like Nature for putting you in your place, for confirming that – in the big picture – you’re really not all that significant…

Fast forward to 3.15am and I am awoken from a deep sleep by a fantastic roar. For a moment I am disorientated, and don’t know what’s happening. And then, in the haze of my early morning mind, it dawns on me: the river is flooding. I stumble out of bed, the moon is large and luminous, and I can see the huge river tumbling and crashing below our balcony. The roar was from this wall of water, plunging its way coastwards in one massive flash flood, whipping yesterday’s placid shallow stream into a frenzied deluge.

Low River

From this…

…to this, in the blink of a sleepy eye

Flood morning

There’s something quite awe-inspiring about a big river in full flood. Even though you know you are safely above its danger zone, you still have to fight your animal instinct of fear which makes you want to run from it, such is the power of that water and the thundering sound it makes as it crashes beneath you, red and muddy from its cascade through upcountry farming areas where poor land management has left the earth bare and vulnerable to erosion with every bout of rain.

Mirror moth

It has rained ever since then (with the obligatory accompaniment of an insect invasion, including a very pretty moth that landed on our bathroom mirror, above), the stormy clouds obliterating all view of the full moon rising at the weekend. A foray into beautiful Tsavo West National Park rewarded us with muddy elephants, a herd of giraffe, a couple of elegant Lesser Kudu and more than a few buffalo…

Lesser Kudu doe

Tsavo West elephant

Tsavo West giraffe

A lovely Lesser Kudu doe, a wonderfully muddy bull Elephant, and a herd of haughty-looking Giraffe were just a few of the animals we saw in Tsavo West…

Yesterday, it was cloudy and rainy all day, the crocodiles starved of any sunlight and barely any warmth…then today we awoke to a totally different morning: back to the scorching heat and the crocodiles returning in droves to bask on the sandbanks, while the Goliath Heron, too hot even to finish washing, just sat down in the river and stayed there (and who could blame it?) I had to take a cold shower at midday, just to fortify myself for the onslaught of the afternoon heat.

Big Crocodile

Hot Goliath Heron

The crocodiles were happy to see the sun again, but it was too hot for the Goliath Heron who, half way through its wash, just sat down in the river and stayed there!

Tonight, as might be expected, the thunder and lightning are raging again, huge storm clouds fomented in the heat of the day, now towering overhead…and the rain continues, and the bugs multiply, and the flowers prepare to launch into their reproductive cycles once again…the tiny pretty blue commelina flowers are already blooming everywhere you look (including on our nascent lawn) and the sanseviera we transplanted into our garden (both on the balcony and outside) are sending up a proliferation of shoots, the new spikes breaking the surface of the earth like spiky aliens, and reaching up towards the light…

Lawn commelina

Delicate blue Commelina flowers colonizing our new lawn

Garden Sanseviera

Sanseviera (above and below) sending up new spikes

New sanseviera spikes

Honey and Big Skies

Honeycomb bucketful

Look at this feast! Today our trusty beehives delivered this bounty, despite there being rather a shortage of bees around this year…obviously enough to make enough honey to go round for us and the guys that work for us. The hives we use are traditional Wakamba beehives: hollowed out logs hung in the trees with wire. They’re not the most efficient type of beehive in the world: we’re planning to buy some more modern, more efficient hives soon. In the meantime, it’s important when harvesting the honey not to take all the combs out of each hive, otherwise there’s nothing left for the bees…I squeezed the incredibly sweet honey out of the combs by hand, which was a sticky experience but well worth it…there’s nothing quite like a slice of homemade bread, fresh out the oven and still warm, with honey from one’s very own beehives…

Squeezing honeycomb

On the culinary front, I’ve recently started making kefir – for anyone who doesn’t know what this is, it’s a drink/food very like natural yoghurt but apparently with even more health benefits. You start with some ‘grains’ – an ugly-looking lump consisting of bacteria and yeast (which I got from a friend – her grandmother kept the same culture going for 60 years by carefully looking after those all-important grains), put them in milk overnight, and by morning you have a thin yoghurt-like mixture with myriad health benefits. (Even Ian has been persuaded of this, and has a daily glass into which he mixes a little honey.) After making a jugful, you have to carefully sieve the kefir to extract the grain, then place the ugly, magical lump in some water (or milk) to keep it alive and ready to make the next batch.

Sieving kefir Kefir grain

Ian thinks it’s like “The Good Life” all over again [a 1970s English comedy series where a Do-It-Yourself couple tried to live off the land in their tiny English town house, overlooked with amused disdain by their upper-crust neighbours.]….just wait until we have own elephant- and baboon-proof, super-fortified veggie patch!

Sand formations

My goodness it has been HOT – you sweat just getting out of the bed in the morning! The river has been very low, and a huge new mud flat has opened up on Hippo Bend, with interesting sand formations being created by the wind where the mud meets the sand. There were lots of ‘track stories’ on the beach when we were down there the other evening…telling of the passing elephants, and the baboons who were running just ahead of us on the beach, and of storks walking in perfect parallel, and even of the cheetah who’s been back here drinking again….or is this a hyena footprint? They are so difficult to tell apart, and we’ve been hearing a lot of hyena noise around the house recently, loud whooping and the distinctive chuckling noise they make which leads people to say that hyenas laugh…

Elephant footprint patterns in the mud

Storks walking in parallel

Baboon footprint in the sand (the thumb makes it distinctive)

Cheetah footprint (notice the claws – unlike other cats, cheetahs cannot retract their claws)

The searing heat has been pulling great tall rain clouds and it looks like the rainy season is about to start any day now, with huge wild skies and towering clouds and the smell of moisture on the hot, hot air. Because the last rainy season ended so late here in Tsavo, it seems strange to be contemplating rain again already, but it certainly does seem to be on its way. The wind in the evenings, as the sun slips below the horizon and the temperature drops, has been unbelievably fierce…in fact, it’s been blowing so hard, we think something has snapped in our wind turbine which is looking decidedly sluggish despite the raging winds…

Stormy weather behind wind turbine

Click to enlarge…

These two young impala rams, which have just about taken up permanent residence on our Little Serengeti, have got the right idea – resting up in the shade on the beach during the heat of the day.

Young impala rams resting on the beach at midday

Impalas on the beach…

The baobab trees have only just dropped all their leaves, which had turned such a bright yellow colour that the trees looked like they were in blossom. They are now bare-boughed again. If the thunder and lighting outside my window beyond the Yatta have anything to say about it though, it seems the trees will be coming out in leaf before too long again…

Yellow-leafed baobab

A yellow-leafed Baobab Tree at the end of February – you would be forgiven it was in flower!

Bare-boughed, leafless Baobab

The Baobabs are bare-boughed now, but if the gathering storm clouds have anything to say about it, it won’t be long before they’re coming out in leaf again…

Jean-Genie [plural – our genet cats – we initially thought there was just one, but it now turns out there are at least two or three] have become tamer and tamer, and now come right up to our chairs when we’re on the balcony eating dinner. Soon they’ll be tame enough to photograph but I don’t want to frighten them away at this early, delicate stage by using the flash. What the genets leave behind, the ants tidy up – how about this for cooperative labour?

Ants carrying wishbone

Ants carrying away the chicken scraps after the genet cats have had their fill.

More Pictures from March 2008:
Wild Animals
Birdlife
Tree Watch
Miscellaneous Views of the Landscape
Big African Skies
People Pics: Our Life in the Wild
Track Stories: Tales Left Behind in the Sand