Monday, June 8, 2015

Tanzania 2015

I visited this East African country for the first time in 1997 and then returned yearly from 2000 to 20003, again in 2007 and this year. Tanzania has two unique treasures, the Ngorongoro Crater and the calving of the herds in the Serengeti during late January to early March. The crater is considered one of the Wonder and is largest volcanic caldera in the world.  Descend into the crater is by a steep road as well as the ascent. What is interesting is that driving into it the vegetation to the sides of road are mostly candelabra, cacti, whistling acacias and other kinds of desert type plants.  But in the way out, the vegetation is different and the wall of the crater is covered by vegetation resembling a tropical forest.  There are two micro climates controlled by their location in the rim of the crater. The first time I visited, the Maasai were not permitted to bring their cattle into the crater for grazing.  But this has changed and they are allowed to bring the cattle in and out daily. This is a hard life; you can see them bringing the cattle early in the morning and listen to the cows’ bells.  The wildlife in the crater is no different from that of the Serengeti other that for a population of lions that seems to have a darker mane.  Black rhinos are found here and are constantly guarded to prevent their poaching for the horns as well as other ungulates.

 Birds’ area abundant particularly in the winter because of the northern hemisphere migrants that come here for the season.  While I there, the yellow-billed storks were getting ready to return to Europe and they could be seen circling the thermals overhead ready to head north in the evening, the next morning they were gone.  Other birds are locals and stay all year round such as the Egyptian Geese, the Black Crowned cranes and the Abdim’s storks.

 Driving west from the crater I headed to the Serengeti and after registering at Naabi Hill gate, entered the park proper.  The facilities at Naabi Hill, has grown and now there are several tented camps there as well as a trail up the hill to view the plains of the Serengeti interrupted by the rock outcrops called Kopjes.  These rocks formations are unique and during migration, one can see lions resting in the top waiting for the approaching migrating herds; once these get close, they descend for their meals.  The kopjes are also a great to spots leopards that often use them as dens to raise their cubs.

 Witnessing the calving is a privilege, I was lucky to see it twice during pass visits.  This year due to the drought, the herds were dispersed and not all have calved in unison as is customary; not many calves were being born.  The dropping of the calves by both the wildebeests and the zebras that migrate together, it tied to the rains.  Still, lots of activities in the drying-up waterholes is going on.  After so many years of visiting Africa I had never seen a male bushbuck, finally one late evening at sunset there it was, walking towards the waterhole.  The male bushbucks tend to be solitary and mostly active at night; probably the reason why I had not seen one before.

These waterholes also provide habitat for the birds to feed and built their nest.  I had the opportunity to observe the interactions between Black winged Stilts and a Goliath heron, the biggest in the world.  The heron was encroaching into the stilts nest and they were defending it.  Notice in the second image below that the heron was standing in the nest with the eggs.  The encounter went on for considerable time but eventually the heron walked away without damaging the nest.

The Retina Hippopotamus pool in my opinion is the best place to photograph these animals of what I know of Africa where they can be found here in great numbers.  The best time to go is early in the morning when the light is best and the tourist tours have not arrived yet. Another plus for going earlier is that the hippos are returning to the pool after spending the night out grazing in the nearby areas. There is always a fight going on, those in the pool trying to keep the incoming ones from taking their places.  Sometimes the fights get bloody but they are mostly limited posturing with a lot of noise.  Back in 2007, I had positioned myself below the bank of the river so that I could photograph the hippos at eye level with the surface of the water.  Suddenly my drive yelled at me that there was a crocodile swimming underwater heading for me; I did not bother to looks and flew up the cliff.  I guess the guide did not want to lose an old costumer since I had traveled with him several times.  Notice in the first image below the yellow-billed ox-peckers feeding in the blood of the hippos.  They peck these wounds open but it appears not to bother the hippos much.

Backtracking from the Serengeti east I headed for Ndutu Lake. In the past this area has been very productive for sighting leopards and the only place I had seen bat-eared foxes in Africa.  As the rest of the area, the drought has keep everything dry of the lake, just a few wet green areas left. However, the giraffes, cheetahs, warthogs, some antelopes and the lions were there but very few elephants

 Ndutu Lake was a dust bowl and the few safari vehicles there raised large clouds of dust.  This and the heat, made the visit not too pleasant but I was greatly rewarded photographically.  One photographic safari vehicle had so many photographers that the cheetah got mad for not been tipped.  Another first for me was the sighting of a Steenbok, a species of antelope rarely seen here.

 Great wildlife photographs are captured two ways; (1) by been at the right place at the right time (lucky) or (2) by stalking a subject, positioning to get the best light and framing, being patient and alert for when the action happens; usually no second chances.  I had seen the leopard below the evening before so I knew where he was and returned the next morning and found him.  I followed him and when he lay down next to a tree, I waited.  It was still cool in the morning and I knew that when it got hotter later on in the day, he will climb the tree to catch the breeze.  I got the image!!!

Finally I stopped at Tarangire Park, that has the largest concentration of elephants.  These giants are intriguing to watch and I spent hours with them just watching and learning about their behavior. How they protect their young, the ways they communicate by sounds, flapping of the ears, touching each other with the trunks or by the way they position them; kind of a sign language.  How many elephants in the first image below?  The second image shows a young ones playing with dried mud balls.  The one to the right will pick a ball with its trunk, put in its mouth, rolled around and dropped it.  Then will repeat the process with other ball again and again. Notice the younger one to the right also playing in the dirt…just like human children.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tierra del Fuego 2015

On my way to the Tierra del Fuego made a stop at Hacienda San Gregorio, once owned by Jose Menendez who was considered at one time, the richest man in South America during the late XIX and early XX centuries.   The main reason for the stop was that there are Magellan Owls who lives in the old trees surrounding the old mansion.  If you go back in my blogs of 2013, you can see a more extensive collection of the abandoned buildings once thriving hacienda.  We searched for the owls and were about to leave when once was spotted.  It was so well camouflaged that we almost missed it, we were searching for them high on the trees, but were much lower, could have grabbed it by hand…but who wants to tangle with those talons.

After crossing by ferry the Straits of Magellan’s from Punta Delgada, arrived at Puerto Espora in the Tierra del Fuego.   Drove to Porvenir, arriving at the hotel just in time for a bottle of wine and choice beef. The next day departed early for the King Penguins colony in Bahia Inutil. The wind was strong and the skies overcasted with intermittent rains, typical weather for this part of the world.  One peculiar behavior that I observed of the penguins, was that they appear to play with the foam accumulated on the shoreline.  They will stick their bills on the foam and lift it to see it been blown away by the wind.  It was like children blowing soap bubbles.   After a while they just walked over the sand dunes to the colony.  There were a few “pinguinitos”, they looked like brown cotton balls with a beak and wings, and the center of attention of the colony; always next to their mother and surrounded by adults, some of them pecking at the small ones.

We were invited for lunch to a sheep hacienda.  After lunch, we sat around the fire in the living room listening to tales of the way of life of the original settlers, while the lady of the house made carded the sheep’s wool.  She processed the wool into threads and then made clothing and hats for the family.  Then we returned to the pinguinera for the late afternoon photo session.  While leaving the beach that morning, I saw a sick Magellan Penguin just hiding next to a pile of seaweeds, when we returned in the afternoon, all that was left was a carcass, the skuas wasted no time.  Though posting this image but will pass. Penguins like selfies too.

We spent the night back in Porvenir and the next day started to Punta Arenas by backtracking the way we came. When we got to Puerto Espora, the ferries were not navigating because of the heavy winds in the strait.  We were advised to return to Porvenir and take the ferry from there to Punta Arenas but by the time we got back, the Chilean Navy has closed navigation of the larger ferry too due to the heavy winds.  So we had to wait until 5 PM when navigation was permitted.  Why did we initially want to go back via the way we came?  We were planning to stop again in the way at the Hacienda San Geronimo to photograph particularly the old shipwrecks on the beach and check the owls one more time.  The action of the waves has further broken the hulls of the rusted ships and I wanted to have images to compare to those I took 1.5 years earlier.

While waiting for the ferry to depart, I ventured around Porvenir to photograph the old houses and visit the local museum, a worthwhile visit.  There is an interesting mural at the museum that tells the story of a famous British hunter of Selknam or Ona Indians who inhabited Tierra del Fuego.  Back in the late 1880’s there were wars between the Indians and the colonizers.  The Indians considered the sheep no different than guanacos and hunted them.  This caused the sheep farmers to start hunting the Indians but there were also conflicts with the gold miners.  Julius Popper, the developer of the gold mines started to pay for killing the Indians. So there was a bounty and the hunters were paid according to the number of pairs of ears or hands and later on, the heads that were brought for payment.

The museum houses a large collection of birds as well as whale skeletons and a mummy of a woman named Kela that was found in the island of 3 Mogotes in 1974; it was carbon dated approximately back to 1424.  There is also a reproduction of an old store circa 1900’s.  On the grounds there is an observatory named Mercury, but could not figure out its background.

Porvenir is an interesting place.  During my previous visit I gave its beach the title of the most polluted one in the world; I may have embarrassed the citizens, beach now is cleaner.  In a way, the city was no different than those out west in the USA that grew when the gold mines were found.  Once the gold was exhausted, their heydays were done.  The city was at one time the Hollywood of Chile where the first movie was made.  The first image below is the Red Cross building and the second is the home childhood home of Vicente Gonzalez Mimica, a prominent photographer now based in Punta Arenas.  One of the rewards of travel, are the people you meet.  During the ferry crossing to Punta Arenas met a British motorcyclist that was in his seventh year of traveling around the world…now that is an adventure!!!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Pumas of Torres del Paine

 These elusive animals inhabit most of the American Continent and it is said that largest concentrations and body size are found in Torres del Paine. Therefore it attracts lots of photographers attempting to capture their images.  I have visited here regularly since 2004.  In my opinion, there is no other place in the world that offers the greatest opportunity for spectacular landscape photography that is enhanced by the frequent weather changes.

 I saw the pumas during two different visits in 2013 but did not get photos worth sharing until March 2015.  I spent 8 days looking for pumas with a famous wildlife photographer from the USA and two friends from Chile who also assisted as guides/spotters.  We searched for the pumas early in the mornings and then again about 2 hours before sunset. This required long walks in the mountain areas where the pumas had been recently seen, scan the landscape and wait.  One of the advantages of having local guides is that they networked with others and information of sighting was shared.

 The guanacos are the major prey of the pumas, they roam in herds and while they feed, the males act as lookouts and stand at a nearby elevation to watch for predators.  If one is seen, the alarm is sounded and in no time the herd localizes the predator and approaches it…strange behavior.  So it is difficult for a puma to make a kill.  Although there are not many fences inside the park, they are at the boundaries.  Some of the pumas have learned the strategy of chasing the herds to push them towards the fences.  The adults can leap the fences easily but the young ones called chulengos, are not able to jump and become prey for the pumas. We saw this behavior once; 4 chulengos were trapped against a fence. On this occasion the puma did not make a kill and just sat down and went to rest.  The fields near the fences are covered with guanacos bones left from previous kills.

 Torres del Paine has become in recent years a popular destination for landscape and puma photography. As a result, various wildlife photo outfits bring groups there.  We encountered these groups, one with 12 photographers walking the trails when a puma was sighted; see the first image below.  All started running to get a choice spot and in the excitement, they blocked the field of view of the others, tripped on their tripods…pandemonium.  It reminded me of similar situations that happen in African when a kill or action it taking place and the animals get surrounded by a circle of vehicles; not a pleasant sight.

 There were rumors plan between CONAF and a private environmental organization to fit pumas with tracking collars.  I have seen these practices in the Pantanal (see image below), Africa and the USA and question their value; of course it is done for the benefit of the animals and the advancement science.  Who wants to go and photograph a collared animal?  I did not hear of proposals for collaring foxes or guanacos too.

 Torres del Paine is the premier tourist attraction in Chile with hundreds of visitors coming daily on bus tours from Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, as well as Argentina.  These buses pose a threat to the ecology of the park due to the dust that they generate while speeding along the dirt roads inside the park, not to mention the safety hazards.  The roads are in what appears to be a continuous state of repair and the trucks bringing the material with open load beds also add to the dust pollution. One can see a dust cast over snow fields and glaciers, not to mention the vegetation next to the road. These darker surfaces do not reflect the sun’s heat, increasing the rate of the melting of the glaciers and snow cover. The answer is simple, pave the roads! Some are opposing this alleging it will destroy the pristine state of the park and increase erosion.  My answer is that most countries’ premier national parks have paved roads.  When properly designed and constructed they prevent further damage to the environment. Yellowstone National Park has paved roads resulting in safer and more comfortable rides and greater access for visitors without undue impact to the wildlife.

 CONAF ( ) suffers from a fragmented institutional design, and as a consequence, it responds to conflicting mandates and influence-peddling.  I was in Torres del Paine in 2012 during the fire; from my observations and talking with the locals at the time, there was a lack of firefighting personnel, equipment and expertise.  In 2012 and 2013 CONAF had a helicopter in the park for fire protection, but when I when I was there this year, it was gone. When I asked why, I was told that it was too costly to maintain. Chilean Parks and ecotourism will be better served if separated into its own agency with a single mission. Torres del Paine is my favorite place in the world, hope it remains that way.