Masai Mara, 2021

A couple of reluctantly honeymooning lions at sunrise

In late September, we flew to Kenya on as much of a whim as is possible given how many tests and paperwork you need to travel right now. We visited the incredible Masai Mara National Reserve, the northern tip of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem that spans about 40,000 square kilometers across Kenya and Tanzania.

Our first day in the Mara, we flew in midday and were out on the trails by afternoon. Though it began hot and sunny, clouds rolled in quickly near sunset and it started to rain in earnest, only clearing up just as the sun went down. Dwarf mongoose are residents at the camp. Masai giraffe, cape buffalo, lions (a pair of young brothers as well as a pride of females and juveniles, asleep in the bushes), blue wildebeest, a miserable East African ostrich in the rain, a serval cat hunting and her kittens, stashed in a hollow log, black-shouldered kite, Grant’s zebra, and spotted hyena.

The second day began with a beautiful sunrise over a nice male lion, though he seems to be missing the tassel on his tail. A lioness, cape buffalo (and yellow-billed oxpecker and wattled starling accompanying them), zebra, hyena, and assorted birds (the charismatic secretary bird, the somewhat less charismatic marabou stork, lappet-faced vulture, gray-backed fiscal [a type of large shrike], and the ubiquitous superb starling) filled the rest of the morning. As the sun rose higher, we approached a known river crossing on the Sand River for migratory blue wildebeest, where a truly vast number of animals were anxiously gathered.

The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem’s natural cycle of seasonal rains draws the animals back and forth across the various rivers of the system. They are apparently terrified of river crossings (and rightly so), but the instinct to follow the rains is incredibly strong. We watched this massive herd of wildebeest deliberate chaotically for several hours, racing from crossing to crossing with very little order short of the kind you might see in a fluid dynamics model. An elephant peacefully crossed the river in the meantime. Suddenly, a single bold animal broke the flood gates and the entire herd rushed in, some leaping high over the heads of the others, some just charging forward. In the flood of animals, some individuals got pushed too far to climb up the other bank easily, and turned back, exhausted. The crossing lasted about 20 minutes of pure chaos, at the end of which no fewer than fifty wildebeest were drowned, though thousands survived. Driving up from the crossing, the massive herd trailed out as far as the eye could see (and in the Mara, the eye can see pretty far). Some were still running high on adrenaline, others had given in to their exhaustion and settled in to graze. By the way, unnoticed by many during the excitement and chaos of the crossing, a brightly-colored Mwanza flat-headed rock agama, or Spider-Man agama (hopefully self-explanatory) displayed briefly on a rock.

Later in the afternoon, a secretary bird hunted in fields disturbed by the new arrivals… and we drove to a leopard sighting. The leopard was a huge male African leopard, for the most part asleep in the brush over a creek. While we waited for him to wake up, we enjoyed sightings of a white-browed coucal (a member of the cuckoo family), a pied kingfisher hunting, and striated heron, a species we’ve seen before across the world in Indonesia. Eventually the leopard awoke, but for the most part stayed obscured, with only one good view through the brush to his face. On our way back to camp for the evening, we encountered a trio of southern ground hornbills (quite possibly my favorite bird of the trip) foraging, a small group of yellow-throated sandgrouse, and just at dusk, when the light was gone, another serval cat and her older kitten. The mother had captured a small live mouse for him to learn to hunt on, but being a bit overfed by his excellent mother, he apparently was not motivated to put in too much hard work, instead mainly succeeding in torturing the little mouse as it attempted to escape. There was no rain on us today, but the clouds made for incredible lighting at sunset. As I mentioned in the moment, these landscapes could have used a helpful giraffe or two, but they’ll have to do.

The third day contained two big cat hunts, which is completely absurd. The morning started with a difficult decision (for me): stay on a spotted hyena kill that was mostly bones that we spotted from the road, or go onwards to find a reported leopard kill? We went to the leopard kill, which ended up being the site of some classic lion thievery instead. One male was ensconced in the tall grass with the remains of the poor leopard’s kill, what appeared to be a wildebeest. A radio-collared male (hence his scruffy appearance around the mane) spent the dawn being propositioned by a lioness, and responding (or rather, not) in such an apathetic manner that it staggers belief that the species continues. We searched briefly for the leopard in the bushes, finding mainly this striking bateleur, a relative of the snake eagles, before moving on to the territory of a group of four male cheetahs, four of the Tano Bora, formerly the largest known male cheetah coalition.

The brothers’ glory days as the Magnificent Five appear to be over, as they have exiled their fifth member and appear to now be two pairs of two brothers, one of whom is slightly beaten up, but their strength in numbers still allows them to take down large prey. They are topi hunting specialists. We were with them from their lazy morning wake-up call, through a several mile long journey to more prosperous hunting grounds, through the long, tense wait as they crouched in the tall grass, waiting for an opportunity to strike. A close call with some zebra who noticed them at the last moment and stampeded off almost made it seem as though this hunt would be a failure, but a group of topi moved in unawares, with young calves trailing the herd. The heat haze was intense and the light was harsh. Cheetahs sometimes use this to their advantage, choosing to hunt when prey are tired in the heat and have difficulty seeing them through the haze. All four cheetahs ran in two different directions, fast as lightning (conveniently right when Matt realized the battery in the designated video camera was dead). Two of the males initially appeared to be targeting a calf, but redirected when the largest male had claws on an adult female topi. Momentarily she broke free, but was run down again, and with all four cheetahs weighing her down, when she went down she didn’t get up again. While feeding, the cheetahs squabbled in remarkably dog-like voices. From the moment we came up on them sleeping to the moment of the kill, we waited about five hours.

Near our lunch tree, a group of yellow-billed stork were feeding in a small pond. Moving onwards, we stopped to view a small group of giraffe with three babies, yet another serval cat hunting (it’s incredibly unusual to see smaller cats at all, and this was our fourth sighting in three days), and a small group of African bush elephants with a single baby, who were rather suspicious of us and hurried the baby away, but not before it took a running leap with its clumsy legs and almost tripped on its own face.

As the afternoon grew dark with ominous rainclouds, we came up on our second leopard sighting. This individual was a tiny, elegant female, in the middle of assiduously stalking a reedbuck. She used the land rover as a blind, going so far as to crawl right underneath it, getting to within a few meters before she crouched, waiting. As we waited, the rain started in earnest. Sadly, due to the wind and sharp directionality of the raindrops, they found their way inside my lens hood and sloshed all over the front element. Praise be to good weatherproofing. Using the rain and wind as cover, the leopard crept to within a meter of the resting antelope, and with a mighty leap, just missed him. Sadly for her, he raced off into the bush, and she was forced to give up the chase within a few meters. This is the only frame I managed with both animals in frame and in focus. The rain continued into evening.

On our fourth day in the Mara, we rose early for the scheduled hot air balloon safari. Seeing the landscape and animals by air as the sun rose was an interesting experience, as was the extraordinary landing. I particularly enjoyed the views of pods of East African (river) hippopotamus wallowing in the Mara river. Also spotted from the air: some variety of egret, bush elephant, blue wildebeest, and other humans in hot air balloons. From the landing point driving to the open air breakfast location, we paused to view a long-crested eagle perched. Out of the blue, a black-shouldered kite began mobbing it, eventually upsetting the eagle so much it simply flew away. At breakfast, a massive processional of Grant’s zebra passed by for about an hour.

Our flight had brought us down to the Mara triangle, an area we had not visited before. Besides another black-shouldered kite, pictured taking flight with the remains of a rat it had spent the last twenty minutes slowly avulsing, we were lucky to have two extremely close encounters with two beautiful bull bush elephants. As one foraged in the grass, a swallow (probably a barn swallow) made passes directly in front of him, feeding on insects kicked up by his movement. Pictured is also an interesting gesture we observed several of the Mara bush elephants performing, wrapping their trunk in a loop around a tusk before unwinding it and returning to feeding. A group of lionesses relaxed under a tree on a hill, one idly playing with a stick in the growing heat of the afternoon. In a pond beneath the lion tree, a black crake foraged on some lily pads. A large cape buffalo wearing a crown of ripped up grass surfaced briefly from feeding. At some point we reached the border with Tanzania, and absolutely nobody illegally walked over to the other side to stand in the Serengeti.

When we crossed the Mara river, an unholy stench greeted us at the bridge, the smell of fifty wildebeest carcasses washed downstream from a crossing site, slowly growing fetid in the hot sun. Naturally the vulture population was active. Pictured are two critically endangered Rüppell’s Vulture, considered the highest-flying bird in the world, though we didn’t see evidence of that on this occasion. Moving onwards, the stink lingering, we came across a family of banded mongoose, then a troupe of olive baboons, and a lazy spotted hyena lounging in a puddle. No crossing seemed in the cards for the day, so we moved on to locate a group of three serval kittens, stashed in a clump of tall grass by their mother. They were quite well-behaved, playing within the confines of the two square meter clump, never fully visible. At sunset, a lappet-faced vulture sat stationary in a tree, before it was joined by another just as the light grew weak. Some of the predictable evening rain came thundering through as we came up on a pride of lions. Though they started out somewhat playful, the rain left them miserably hunched in a huddle, still enough for a slow shutter speed to blur the raindrops.

On day 5, the sun rose on lions and set on lions. A female and her admirer had wandered away from her pride on their “honeymoon.” Short of a few short conversations, they did not pass a particularly amorous morning, as a group of rival lionesses appeared on the horizon to aggressively see them out of their territory. An entrepreneurial black-backed jackal briefly made an appearance as the sun rose, seeming to consider approaching closer to scavenge before the beleaguered lioness pushed him off. Another early morning sighting was a Spur-winged Lapwing sheltering two chicks under its wings.

As the honeymooners moved off into tall grass to hide from the angry lionesses, we moved on to a different group of lions, passing several groups of topi on the way. Perhaps my greatest regret of the trip happened just as we pulled up: a playful lioness leapt out of the brush at a flushed starling, clapping her paws together, before landing. Sadly, she opted to not repeat this performance for a photo, or perhaps all the starlings in the area had grown too wise. Up on an elevated mound, a huge male lion lazed, with a several-month-old cub and a few lionesses near by. I really enjoy photos that show behavior and interaction, and these relaxed cats delivered, greeting each other briefly, or perhaps being told off by mothers or aunts.

Breakfast took place in my favorite location to date, above a hippo-filled river. Hippos are rather ignoble, famously grouchy, and despite their weak social ties and bad tempers, choose to live in extremely close quarters, often piled right on top of each other in their river wallows. They bellow frequently, each call seeming to elicit responses from hundreds of meters down the river. We watched a hippo foraging up on the high bank take what felt like hours to slowly approach the river again, only to suddenly rush into the water as soon as its toes touched wet mud. The emotional and physical rearrangement of the pod from this addition took some time to work out, during which a small squabble broke out, with one hippo brutally attacking another, neither of whom were the newcomer, and who had previously been peaceably laying side by side. Rüppell’s glossy-starling were also in attendance at breakfast, foraging in the grass.

We meandered back and forth from potential river crossings with no luck on that front, but along the way spotted plenty of brightly colored little bee-eaters, a pair of Coqui francolin (so named, apparently after the alarm call they make, as the male very graciously demonstrated at length), pied kingfisher, topi, giraffe, and of course, ubiquitous hippos. We spent some time also with a larger and friendlier group of bush elephants, feeding and spraying themselves with cooling mud-water during the hot day. The baby elephants were somewhat playful, whacking each other with grass and wrestling each other, in their somewhat clumsy baby elephant way. A herd of zebra moving through this same field each stopped for a dust bath in the exact same spot. Pictured is a zebra who upset its companion yellow-billed oxpecker when it suddenly collapsed into a roll.

The sighting of the afternoon was a beautiful leopard, a female called Bahati, who was traveling up from the river towards an impala she scented from over a mile away. She paused a few times on the way, giving us the chance for some exceptionally beautiful (and exclusive, luck of the first sighting) portraits in pretty light. The impala was lame in one leg and missing a horn, perhaps the loser of a fight, and as she settled in to wait, it seemed likely she would make the kill. Unfortunately, after a very long wait in perfect golden light, the rain moved in and the impala spooked, running out into open grassland where it’s difficult for leopards to hunt. She moved off into the brush, and we moved off to rejoin the sunrise honeymooners, who were finally actually honeymooning.

We were lucky to outrun the rain on our way to the lions, and had beautiful silhouette views of fighting and leaping antelope with the heavy rain falling in the background.

Our last full day in the Mara started with giraffe silhouettes at sunrise, and rim lighting on a brave spotted hyena making off with a mostly-stripped pelvis off a kill, past a pride of lazy lions who seemed to not even notice him. Following that, our morning was spent tracking a pair of lion brothers on a remarkable long march (about 5 kilometers… that’s long for a male lion, considering they spend the majority of their time flat on their sides). Breakfast took place with a backdrop of sparring Thompson’s gazelle.

Come afternoon, we watched waterbuck, some affectionate Grant’s zebra, lilac-breasted roller, helmeted guineafowl, grey-headed kingfisher, yellow-billed oxpecker on giraffe, and, of course, hippos in a river completely befouled by their own excrement. Pretty noxious. We had a brief encounter with a spotted hyena making off with a baby warthog corpse, and a pair of black-backed jackals, whose presence were suddenly explained when we encountered a den of at least six jackal puppies. Though they remind me remarkably of foxes I have photographed here in Washington, these pups were rather demure in temperament this afternoon, mostly sleeping with brief periods of play. The sun started to set before the parents returned, so we moved off to the last sunset acacia of the trip, and an unidentifiable ibis silhouette at dusk.

After an iconic Mara sunrise on our last morning, featuring topi silhouettes and blown-out retinas from staring directly at the sun through a viewfinder, we carefully approached a lone female topi, at the tail-end of giving birth. Within minutes, the baby was standing and clumsy, but ambulatory, and being aggressively cleaned by its mother. Also pictured are some older juvenile topi, staring each other down.

Rounding out the trip, we came up on the famous four brother cheetahs we had seen hunting earlier in the week. They weren’t quite in a hunting mood, but their elevation on a high mound made for some more unique sleepy cat pictures against the sunrise-lit plains.

Frankly this trip defies description for the most part so the photos will have to speak for themselves. Thank you to everyone with Pangolin Photo Safaris and our Mara guide, Lenny with Sunworld Safaris, whose combined effort made this trip the best so far in my life.

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  • Sabine StolsOctober 17, 2021 - 07:49

    Hey Lisa. I must say your images from the trip are impressive! Well done on putting in the effort, often lying low on the ground going the extra mile and being quick to get your settings right and therefore getting the shot. Really nice work and it was a pleasure to meet you and Matt! Greetings from Botswana, SabineReplyCancel

    • lsproatOctober 18, 2021 - 12:49

      Thank you, Sabine! I am so grateful to you and everyone from Pangolin for making this trip so wonderful! I hope we will be in Botswana soon!ReplyCancel

  • Malcolm AustwickOctober 22, 2021 - 09:56

    Hi Lisa, I have followed the link from Toby & Guts – ‘Friday Focu’ email. I’ve just read your blog and viewed your image. What an amazing experience. Your images are great, well done, some great memories! I think I need to book a trip for my 60th. Best wishes, Mal Austwick, North Yorkshire, England.ReplyCancel

    • lsproatOctober 22, 2021 - 10:10

      Thank you, Malcolm! I don’t think you can go wrong with the Mara! Happy 60th!ReplyCancel