Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cheetah Spotting in the Serengeti

     Best Place to find Cheetah in the Wild

Cheetah cub walking close by
Africa Photos
Cheetahs are the rarest of all the big cats in Africa. According the the Cheetah Outreach in South Africa, there are an estimated 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild. Even more disturbing is that this beautiful cat is now restricted to a meager 9% of its historic range. So as you can imagine tracking one down while on a safari in Africa can be one of the major highlights of the trip.

Mother and cubs on the hunt
Cheetah carcass in a tree
  These beautiful cats are built for speed. They are capable of reaching speeds of 100km (68mph), over short distances. Because of this it is often referred to as the greyhound of cats. It uses this speed and acceleration to hunt in the open grasslands and woodlands for small gazelles. However some times cheetahs will work together to take down bigger game like a wildebeest.

Cheetah brothers with a fresh kill
Wildebeest down

   In my travels around Africa I found myself always trying to track down a sighting of one of these rare cats. Most of the populations that do still exist are separated and small in numbers. So I was blown away by the amount of cheetah encounters we had on this latest trip into the southern Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. In three days we saw mother with two older cubs stalking gazelles in the woods, a lone cheetah way out in the plains, two brothers who took down a wildebeest, and even a cheetah carcass that had been pulled up into a tree by a leopard a week earlier.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Birding in Kenya, East Africa

Bird Watching in Kenya

  With over 1,000 species of birds East Africa can be a birders dream trip. You can find them in all sizes from the tiny ruby breasted sunbird to the heaviest flying bird, the kory bustard. They come in every color imaginable and some you have probably never imagined before. The experienced birder will be in birding heaven, but what I also see happen here time and time again is novice birders get hooked on bird watching and gain a lifelong passion.

Bateleur Eagle
Combing birding and photography is also a wonderful challenge in a place like Kenya. You may end up seeing six different species of eagles on one game drive. The birds-of-prey are often out hunting over the plains and perched up in the acacia trees. The brightly colored bateleur eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) is always a favorite with its orange and yellow beak contrasting its dark body feathers.

Lilac Breasted Roller
European Roller
  My ultimate Kenyan bird species to photograph is the beautiful Lilac Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus), pictured here on the left. To see this beautiful bird at its most brilliant, in flight, check out my photos for sale here. The European Roller (Coracias garrulus), is the often overlooked relative which isn't as bright but still shines in the eyes of birders.

  Kenya has such a vast array of bird species because of all the open land as well as the different climates throughout the country. The soda lakes like Nakuru house uncountable pink flamingos from time to time while rare species can be spotted high in the moors in the Aberdare Mountains.

Crowned Crane
Vulturine Guineafowl
   Other birds enjoy the open grasslands that the big mammals share. Cranes, bustards, and ostrich work the plains looking for food underfoot. Big flocks of guinea fowl also spend a lot of time on the planes. Kory bustards, the heaviest flying bird native to Africa, also work the tall grass, sometimes putting on incredible dancing shows when a female is nearby.
Kory Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

 Kenya isn't the only major birdwatching destination in Africa. Some people will claim that the Okavango Delta in Botswana is the place to be which may very well be true. Just across the border into South Africa I've always had good luck self-driving through Kruger National Park. There are some dedicated hides at waterholes here that are perfect for the advanced or enthusiastic birder. You can my post on bird photography in Kruger here

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Biggest Adventure Yet: Catalina

  From Glimmer in our Eyes to Baby in our Arms

Catalina at 6 days old
  What an amazing thing to witness, the birth of your first child. There are so many unknowns and it seems like no matter what people tell you before hand you will still be shocked at the super power of mom to go through labor and give birth, and then again with just how much you are going to love your child. I finally realized all of this at 10:04pm, on the night of January 19th, 2008. That is the moment that our daughter came into this world.

8 months pregnant
  It doesn't seem that long ago that Heidi was sharing this ultrasound picture with me. This was nine weeks in and our first visual of our future child. However, at least for me, the reality of the situation doesn't really settle in until you see a crying, breathing human come out of mom. It was also the moment we found out it was a girl.

 We named her Catalina Blinn Tamarack. 'Catalina' after the island Heidi and I met sailing around on the tall ship Tole Mour. She tipped the scales at 7 lbs 13.6 ozs, and was a tall 20 inches. She had dark hair and even darker eyes. One detail everyone noticed was Catalina had very long slender fingers. She wasted no time in latching on to Heidi's breast and over the next day and a half became known amongst the nurses as the most veracious feeder in the mommy baby ward.

  It has been one week now, and as Catalina sleeps peacefully in my lap, I find myself thinking back to how amazing this entire experience has been. (And trying to write this with my one free hand.) I wonder if Catalina already knows that she has all of these people that will love her unconditionally for the rest of her life. Some who haven't even met her yet.

  One piece of advice that I am keeping in the forefront of my mind is to soak up as much from this newborn time as I can. Luckily I have another three weeks off from work and I might just spend all of it holding her close like I am doing right now.

  Here is to becoming a father, a mother, and a family, and embarking on our biggest adventure yet.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Snow and Puppy Time in Vermont

She is just the cutest
What a change! After the hot African plains, and the tropical Spice Islands, I've returned to the wintry countryside of Vermont. I got my first go around with sub-zero temperatures and some quality snow time with Neka the puppy. You may remember her from such post as Puppy in Vermont, and Back in Vermont.

  She has grown a bit now and seems to be enjoying her first Vermont winter. And she really enjoys her yellow softball. She tumbles around in the snow, loves going on snowshoes, and I'm pretty sure she could stay our all day if we let her.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

East Africa: Trip in Review

As i sit here watching the snow come down in Vermont, I can't help but think back on our amazing trip to East Africa. There were so many highlights, so before the new year really gets rolling I thought I would write them down so we can always look back and remember.

Nairobi: Everyone makes their flights and finds me waiting for them right outside the arrivals gate of Jomo Kenyatta Airport. We kick back our first night in a quiet part of Nairobi at the historic Norfolk hotel, with everyone reuniting at breakfast the next morning in the Lord Delamere Terrace. Then we jump on our first of many small safari plane rides. We are able to see the slums, Nairobi National Park, the Abedares, and Mt. Kenya before landing at Samburu.

Samburu National Reserve: We find the Samburu 5 almost before our first game drive. We visited Gabriel's village to dance with the Samburu warriors. We worked hard to see a leopard, and a lion, although the ostrich may have been an even bigger hit. Larsens Tent Camp was a big hit as we saw elephants crossing the river that our tents looked out on. It was a great place to have Christmas as Santa Clause made an appearance and the local choir gave a moving performance. The group was introduced to Africa's amazing birds and survived a charging elephant that gave one of our cars a very close call. 

Masai Mara: So many highlights from this one. Flying in we lost count of all the animals filling up the fields. A beautiful welcome table with drinks and snacks was waiting for us as well as our all-star guides Jackson and Massek. We almost saw a river crossing as several zebras came close. The crocodiles were closing in. We found our final Big 5 with a black rhino encounter. Then we watched as three lions narrowly missed a warthog. We got closer to the small stuff on a walking safari. Our nighttime sundowners on the airstrip with nearby hunting lions and grazing hippos really got everyones attentions. We traveled to the border to have lunch with two cheetah brothers who work the gorgeous open lands between the Mara and the Serengeti. On the way we were very lucky to see a lion hunt from start to finish with only our group, no one else around. Another drink break was high stakes as we had to jump back into the vehicles with elephants trumpeting in the nearby bush. The group had another leopard at night right before being blown away by our first bush dinner complete with chanting Maasai and hyenas walking through the area. Even with all the amazing wildlife it was hard to leave our amazing accommodations at the exclusive andBeyond Bateleur Camp.

Serengeti: This was big cat central. Right off the bat we saw two male lions followed by two females. It seemed if we couldn't see lions we could hear them, including all night long from our tents at andBeyond's Under Canvas Mobile Tent Camp. We found hunting cheetah, cheetah with a fresh wildebeest kill, and even a cheetah carcass hanging from a tree compliments of a local leopard. Lion skirmishes broke out across the Ndutu region due to a neighboring pride invading this area. Sherry was given a new name by the Maasai here which translates to 'Lion Queen.' We chased after the Great Migration, taught our guide Justice the dance, and had a wonderful encounter with a rare Serval cat. We roughed it with bucket showers in a tent fit for royalty.

Ngorongoro Crater: Driving from the adjacent Serengeti took us past the enigmatic shifting sands and into the cradle of mankind, the Olduvai Gorge. Made it to one of the best lodges in the world, Ngorogoro Crater Lodge for a once in a lifetime New Years Eve. A little hail and rain early on wouldn't dampen the festivities later which included 100 chanting Maasai warriors leading us on a winding dance through camp. Sunrise over the crater and an all day game drive into the famous Ngorongoro Crater followed. We counted 32 lions, hyena, flying flamingos, another rhino, and a serval. Everyone loved the close encounters with zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo. Although the encounter with the black kite was a little too close for comfort. We spent time enjoying the lodge with make-yourself-gin and tonics, fireplaces in the rooms, fudge samples, and drawn baths. And we'll always remember our private happy hour overlooking the crater.

Mnemba Island, Zanzibar: Kicking back tropical island style after safariing in the bush at andBeyond's private Mnemba Island. Scuba diving, snorkeling, stand up paddleboarding, sundowners sailing on traditional dhows, and fly fishing kept us busy. Breakfast and coffee delivered to our open air bungalows was a good way to start our days and amazing dinners with great conversation provided a solid end. Not wearing shoes for four days is how every adventure vacation should end.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Stone Town, Zanzibar: Historical Walking Tour

Walking the markets of Zanzibar

Welcome to the Spice Island
  While walking through the open air bazaars and ancient Persian architecture of Zanzibar's Stone Town we couldn't feel farther away from the dancing Maasai and hunting lions of East Africa. It is like walking through a different continent.
Monument to the slaves
 Known as possibly the most famous of the Spice Islands, Zanzibar's main hub is Stone Town. For years it was the haunt of the ruling Omani class. In 1840 the Sultan of Oman moved his seat from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town. This is when much of the stone work was begun.

 In the late 1800's it was also the site of one of the most prolific slave markets in the Indian Ocean. A lot of Americans think that the slave trade was limited to the Atlantic Ocean, so the group was surprised to hear about a second major trade from the East coast of Africa sending slaves up to the Middle East. However, once the British outlawed slavery the fortunes of the Sultanate collapsed.
Maneuvering narrow alleys
Vertical panorama

  Zanzibar gained its Independence from Oman in 1963, and then joined Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964. Zanzibar would remain a semi-autonomous part of the new nation. We did have to go through a semi-customs on the way in.

  One of my favorite parts of Stone Town is walking through the narrow alleyways and admiring the beautiful wooden doors that mark the entryways to some of the town more prestigious abodes. The doors are decorated with iron spikes, modeled after the doors in India secured against charging elephants.
Local Zanzibar art style
No elephant getting in here
  We walked by beautiful art galleries and even Freddy Mercury's childhood home before jumping into our waiting motorcade which whisked us off to the Zanzibar airport. Our trip had come to an end, but we really packed fun things into every possible moment. Now it's time to sit back on the plane and reflect all that we have experienced. It has been a wild and wonderful ride.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Scuba Diving Mnemba Island, Day 2: Zanzibar

Heading to the boat
After our first day of diving in the warm, beautiful waters around Mnemba Island the group woke up ready for more today. We decided to head out as a united front today, scuba diving in one large group so everyone could share in the experience.

Emperor Anglefish
Fire dartfish (Nemateleotris magnifica)
  I wasn't able to bring my big camera setup this trip due to the weight limitations of all the small safari planes, but I did bring Heidi's compact camera, a Canon PowerShot S110 in an underwater housing to record some of the underwater action out here off the coast. All of these pictures were taken with that, and you can see the underwater video capabilities in the previous post.

Clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean
Fi in her element
  We saw many of the same fish and nudibranchs from yesterdays dives, although the schools were even bigger and denser today. A couple of beautiful angelfish showed up as well as a sleeping green sea turtle who we found hiding out inside a big coral bommie about 60ft down.

Schools of fish for days
Beautiful anthias

Oriental Sweetlips
Indian Ocean Green Sea Turtle

Skunk Anemonefish
Flying Gurnard

Curious Blenny looking out
Lionfish in its natural habitat

Fiona, aka the 'dirt dart'
Relaxing on the safety stop

A well camouflaged Crocodile Fish