Feb 072018
White-backed and lappet-faced vultures

“Unless you include some decent photos of us in this post, I’m out of here,” said the vulture who wasn’t at Mahango or Etosha.

An Animal-Sign Mytery

Animal signs are one of my things, whether I’m at home or traveling. I wrote a book about them. Of course I’m looking for animal signs here in Africa; Mike is, too.

In some cases, spotting an animal sign can be more fun than spotting an animal because signs present a puzzle or mystery. An animal sign presents a story we have to figure out; an animal presents a story we can watch unfold. As much as I enjoy watching a wildlife story happen, I think it can be more fun to puzzle one out from clues.

The Clue that Starts it All

While driving on the dry, sandy, wooded side of the Mahango Park, we happened upon this clue:

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

A clue!

See the clue?

It’s a tree full of vultures, white-backed vultures, I believe.

White-backed vultures in tree at Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

The clue, closer

Know what mystery this presents?

The Theory

It wasn’t time to roost for the evening, so they weren’t hunkering down for the night. Vultures are scavengers, and I believed there was something dead nearby. My first thought—and hope, I guess—was that a predator made a kill nearby, and maybe that predator was still around. Spotting a predator is somewhat rare, which makes it special. (Dear herbivores, I love seeing you, too.)

We looked and looked, moving the car forward and back, watching all around for movement.

We saw nothing. The vultures weren’t budging, so they weren’t yet being permitted near the thing. Something had to be present to prevent them from feasting.

We waited. We watched. We slowly rolled along the road.

Another Clue

And then Mike caught it: movement.

This guy . . . or gal:

Yellow-billed kite, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Yellow-billed kite

It dove behind some brush, then returned here.

Does anyone else think it’s crazy that a single kite can fend off a passel of vultures? Come on, vultures, you can take him! Get together. Organize!

We focused in on the brush and could just make out a large, smooth, black-ish lump. We didn’t bother taking a picture because you wouldn’t be able to see anything. My brain leaped to “hippo,” but the terrain was all wrong for a hippo, and we were too far from the river. That couldn’t be right.

Oh, to be able to get out of the truck for a closer look! We were not supposed to; it’s against Park rules. We are, mostly, rule followers, but it was also really brushy, and there could be cats, lions or leopards, in the brush. Or a grumpy herbivore. Black rhino? Or a terrified antelope with pointy horns and sharp hooves. Ya never know!

The Final Clue and Conclusion

We continued farther along the sand road until we looked back on the lumpy, brushy area. Here, on the other side of the tallest brush, we had a slightly better view, just enough to see part of the horns and conclude it was a cape buffalo, still largely intact, and thus probably not the victim of a predator. We also picked up the reeking stench. Gah! It was vulture time, for sure. Clean-up on aisle 6!

We returned the following day, and the lump was flattened. The scavengers worked fast! We also saw live buffalo in the area.

Cape buffalo, Mahango area, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Female and male buffalo specimens

And thus concluded our mystery. We solved it, starting with the vulture clue. It took some doing: patience, searching, thinking, guessing.

More Vulture-sign Stories

It wasn’t the first time vultures led us to a story. Thanks to vultures in Etosha National Park, we discovered four jackals eating a dead springbok one day, and hyenas and jackals eating a zebra the next.

Vulture sign in Etosha National Park, Namibia

A bunch of vultures is a sign

That’s just a few of the many vultures on the scene. They were far away. The dead animal and diners were visible only with the help of binoculars, patience, and some experience, but the stories were there, and we enjoyed figuring them out.

Without the vultures getting our attention, we never would have stopped, zoomed in, and seen what was happening. We would have driven right by, as some people did, even while we sat there.

Hyenas and jackal eating zebra kill, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Left to right: jackal, hyena, dead zebra, hyena. Look closely!

Now, if I told you I made this oil painting of one of the dining jackals and two hovering vultures, you’d be at least a little impressed, right? Heck, I would be!

Jackal and vultures, Etosha National Park, Namibia

An oil painting or a really bad photo?

But the truth is, it’s a really bad photo, zooming in with the digital zoom. I only wish I’d painted this.

How about some better shots of our heroes, the vultures?

Lappet-faced vulture

Lappet-faced vulture, good ol’ F222

White-backed vulture

White-backed vulture

Though our Mahango vulture-sign story didn’t have the exciting and dramatic conclusion we hoped for, it was fun and satisfying. The more mundane endings such as this enhance the exciting ones.

And there have been exciting ones. Stay tuned!

Have you ever solved an animal-sign mystery? Tell me about it!

Feb 062018

Mike and I are big fans of Mahango, which is an area within the Bwabwata National Park in northeastern Namibia. I’m also a fan of saying “Bwabwata.”

We can cover the whole Mahango park road, sit and watch animals for several hours, and even revisit the river portion of the road three times in a single day. That is to say, the Mahango area is tiny. It’s also crawling with running, leaping, and just-standing-there wildlife.

Oh, and very few people visit it.

It’s where I saw my first leopard three years ago, but I’d love it just as much had I never seen a cat there.

Topping off this great park is a great nearby private lodge with tents, cottages, campsites, and restaurant/bar/lounge: Nunda River Lodge. Don’t go thinking it’s on the Nunda River. It’s not. I don’t know of a Nunda River. The lodge is on the Okavango River. “Nunda,” I just learned, is the Hambukushu name for the fruit of the jackalberry tree.

Many of the cottages and campsites are on the banks of the river, but this time we were in campsite #5, not on the river. I could have been disappointed, but the site was grassy and shaded, and shared every single night by these lovelies:

Four white-fronted bee-eaters perched at night, Namibia

White-fronted bee eaters

These are white-fronted bee eaters. We saw this group and two sets of pairs one night, and then various pairs or quads every other night during our stay. I was surprised by the flimsy branches they chose. They must enjoy rocking and swaying at night. Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at all: Who doesn’t like that?

I know that birds will roost together at night—at home, chickadees rely on their warm-bodied feathered friends to survive Alaska’s cold nights—but I’ve never seen it. Now I have, and I’ll look harder at home for roosting chickadees.

But . . . Mahango . . .

The park hours are 6 AM to 6 PM. We were at the gate at 6:00 AM, and as we expected, we were the only ones. Reception wasn’t open, but the gate was, so we considered that an invitation and let ourselves in. We spent the entire day there, despite being able to drive the available roads in a couple of hours. We stopped by reception on our way out, and I paid for that day and the next. The woman smiled, a bit incredulous, when she confirmed that we’d been in the park since 6 AM, but she didn’t give me a hard time about letting ourselves in, and she allowed me to pay for the next day, too, since we would likely show up early again. You might think this would be normal procedure, to take someone’s money any time it’s offered, but I assure you it’s not.

Here—along with the photo above, Mike, even though it’s a repeat—are a Daily Dozen of the day’s highlights.


The Fabio of warthogs!

Hairy warthog, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Hairy warthog

Hairy warthog family, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

The whole hairy warthog family

Seriously, this family is notable for it’s extra-full and lustrous locks. And their muttonchops . . . or should that be porkchops? They appear to have exchanged their warts for extra hair.


Woot-woo! (That’s me whistling.) Check out that drumstick!

Ostrich with naked leg, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

The ostrich’s leotards

Ostrich with head hanging, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

That’s so embarrassing


Loads of kudu here, the antelope easily distinguished by their pince-nez, milk mustaches, and icing (or oxpecker) drizzles down their sides.

I want to design a pastry called a “kudu horn” that is twisted like the full-grown male’s horns and drizzled with icing. In fact, I’m dreaming up all sorts of Africa-themed bakery tasties for when I move here and open my bakery. (Calm down, Mother; I’m pretty sure that’s a pipe dream.)

Young kudus, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Young kudus

Water Monitor

A blast from the prehistoric past, and a blast of yellow color. Of course I’m going to like it if it’s yellow.

There’s an ant on me

Connect the Dots anyone?

Go-away Bird

This bird has two things to recommend it, one of which is not its boring gray color. (Sorry, gray lovers. It’s my opinion and my blog. Deal with it.) The crest and longish tail compensate for the lack of interesting color, but the best thing about this bird is its call, from which it gets its name: the go-away bird. Actually, the call is whiny and would be extremely annoying if it didn’t sound like an old lady screeching “go away.” Smash those two words into “g’way” and say it in a high, whiny voice, like this.

I like a bird with attitude.

Go-away bird, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia


Crimson-breasted Shrike

But I also like a bird with screaming-red color.

Crimson-breasted shrike, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia


Antelope We See Less Often


Reedbuck, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Where would you expect to find a reedbuck if not in the reeds?


We don’t see these often, and we don’t see many clumped together.

While gemsbok win my Best Coat award, I love the rich red-brown with black colors the tsetsebe sport. And they have a great name, no matter how you pronounce (or mispronounce) it. I’ve been saying “tse-TSE-bee,” but Ali says “SE-se-bee.” Who are you going to believe—me or the lifelong African? Yeah, me, too. It won’t be the first time I knowingly mispronounce something.

Tsetsebe in brush, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

You found me

Buffalo and Lechwe

We’ve been light on buffalo this time around, so it’s great to finally see some. I’ve missed their horndos. You know, the standard girl, flip hairdo sculpted into horns.

Cape buffalo and lechwe, Mahango, Bwabwata National Park, Namibia

Buffalo – lechwe tete-a-tete

Lechwe horns are nice, but it’s their leap that most impresses me. Plus I like saying, “leaping lechwe,” as in “Leaping lechwe, it was another great wildlife-spotting day!” And I didn’t even get to tell you about the elephants, giraffes, sables, roan, vultures . . . .