Clive Stockil and I have helped to host some wonderful guests at Chilo Gorge and in Gonarezhou Park over the last few weeks.
It has been a very busy time, with Safari guides Thomas Mutombeni, Lionel Muzengi, John Laing, Clive and Terry Anders working extremely hard to give the guests memorable bush experiences.
Every day has been an adventure, starting with a walk or poling across the Runde river to climb into Safari vehicles and explore our pristine wilderness.
Our Safari experiences have been as varied and as wonderful as our guests, and have included some special birds….
Red Billed hornbill by Gwen Wawn….
Can not resist, must add another red billed hornbill by Gwen, her photography is superb…
Each morning I wake early to walk the Chilo gardens and chat with the gardeners …what a joy it is to plan and improve these gorgeous spaces on an ongoing basis. The bonus is that I hear so many birds all before 5.30 am! From my bed I hear the Natal spurfowl, Ground hornbills, Fiery necked nightjars, Fish eagles, Whistling ducks, guinea fowl, Red eyed turtle doves, coucals, Pearl spotted owlet…all greeting the dawn. A young baboon yells from his tree roost downriver…disciplined for waking too early perhaps…!
Good friend and fellow naturalist, Dave Dell (of Strachans Photography in Harare) has supplied me with this image of a fish eagle…..
As I stand on the verandah of my room, I am amused by the un-neighbourly antics of the various pairs of Egyptian geese, who fly past each others territories honking loudly, males challenging each other to engage in battle, with their loud ladies egging them on!
Have not heard the special Pels fishing owls for a while, perhaps they will start calling again with winter coming. Walking the garden pathways, I come across Bleating bush warbler, Sombre bulbul, Red capped robin, grey and trumpeter hornbills, and the cherry on the cake is that sometimes I catch the elephant bulls crossing the river downstream, whilst sipping my cup of fresh-filtered, locally grown La Lucie coffee.
The river is slowly receding as the weather dries out and we approach our glorious winter season of dry warm days and cool nights. With the falling water, some plump hippo mamas and a baby have taken to lolling on the more exposed sandbank, right below the breakfast deck! The resident bull hippo is very attentive to one of the ladies…
As a digression from birds, I must mention the drama that is being enacted in the bush as I write this…the rutting season is in full swing, with fierce Impala rams snorting and clashing over possession of groups of females, their ‘harems’…..
These two males in the photograph, captured by Chatty Dobson, ignored us until they were almost on top of us, broke away and dashed around us to continue fighting beyond us!
They have often been known to fight to the death………maybe Chatty’s boyfriend, Patrick Mavros junior, will be inspired to create a silver sculpture of fighting impalas!
The baobabs of Gonarezhou are legendary in shape, colour and size, and they always host a multitude of interesting birds, reptiles and mammals…my favourite being the two species of parrot that we are lucky to have, the large and endangered Grey-headed parrots and the smaller Brown-headed parrots, both of whom are dependant on holes in baobabs for their nests. They breed in the dry winter season, and so at this time of the year I am on the look out for their nests, peering into every baobab we pass…..
We stop to look at some late season baobab flowers on a magnificent tree near the Runde River, and I spot a Brown-headed parrot reclining, dog-like, at the entrance to its nest- a parrot siesta!
Clive’s photo of Brown headed parrots…………
A subsequent bush drive with Ross Kennedy of Africa Albida Tourism, and his delightful family, reveals our resident herd of magnificent buffalo and a huge Kori Bustard strolling along the road near the Runde River. I stand to be corrected but I think this is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world.
Due to our heavy rains this season, the inland pans dotted like jewels between the Save and Runde Rivers, which would normally be drying up by now, are still full and occupied by numerous water birds such as jacanas, ibises, storks, herons, egrets, geese and Knob billed ducks.
On one stop at Tembweharta Pan, we see yellow- billed storks, African spoonbills, grey headed heron, all the ducks, jacanas, and so many more…no sign today of the flamingos or pelicans which sometimes find their way her, en route between the Indian ocean and Botswana…
Other smaller pans are starry with ethereal blue water lilies. (Special little Pygmy geese are to be found among these water lilies, if one is lucky!)
One of my sketches of White faced ducks and lilies….
A few days later, Clive and I move on to stay at Chipinda Pools Tented Camp with Gwen Wawn, who runs Safaris 4 Africa. An avid naturalist and photographer Gwen is one of Zimbabwe’s most experienced inbound tour operators, and a great supporter of Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge. Driving through Sililojo Loop road with Gwen and friends, we hear a vociferous pair of Grey-headed parrots circling a baobab. On walking around the tree we discover the hole that they are claiming….and are treated to close views of them as they cheekily perch right above us, the female displaying her characteristic red forehead, and both of them with gorgeous red flashes on their wings. A honeymoon couple who mate for life…..
Here are Gwen’s fabulous photos of these birds…
Derek and Sarah Solomon of Kuyimba Trading are staying at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, with a group of 22 American guests who are enjoying one of their superb inter-Africa tours.
On their request, on evening Clive shares video clips and the story of his Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, an honour conferred on him by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, at a glittering event in London last year, hosted by Tusk Trust
The Duke of Cambridge makes meaningful committments to Conservation worldwide…He is president of United for Wildlife, and He joined the United for Wildlife organisations on the 12 February 2014 at the symposium hosted by the Zoological Society of London to discuss the coordinated international effort that is required to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
We eagerly look forward to finding out the winner of the meaningful Tusk Awards in 2014, spearheaded by Prince William and Tusk.
Meanwhile the Award wears Clive Stockil’s hat……..!
Here is Derek’s great photo of a Grey headed female parrot, flashing her red epaulettes……
Terry gives his safari group a close up elephant experience, a group of cows with babies, which has everybody gasping with joy, and Thomas finds a Collared palm thrush in the Ilala palm forest, to show his delighted birding guests.
Back in the park, on our Sililojo Loop drive, we find a group of four young lions eying up potential meals of zebra and wildebeeste.
Because it is daylight, the lions are wary of us, staring from a distance then evaporating into the densely wooded landscape. Warthog also abound, tails up and speeding all over the place. They have to be fast……they are favourite lion food!
Next stop is Chilojo Cliffs for spectacular red and pink sandstone views. This winter season in Zimbabwe is nesting time for many raptors, and we have great aerial views of the pair of Black Eagles which nest at the Chilojo Cliffs. Clive even identifies the female eagle perched on the edge of her distant cliff-side nest, with binoculars! Paired for life, they will be mating and preparing the nest for eggs….
We are excited to spot a pair of rarely-sighted White-headed Vultures soaring and interacting above us, plus a pair of Lappet-faced vultures. White backed vultures are more common, nesting in their dozens along the ridge of baobabs near Tembwehata Pan. Vultures and opportunistic scavengers such as Bateleur Eagles and Ground Hornbills, are severely threatened due to use of poisons, both deliberate, (to trade for body parts), and accidental ( as a knock on effect from agricultural pesticides). Check out latest facts on vulture threats at Vulpro, managed by Kerri Wolter, who is dedicated to the well-being of these vital birds. Kerri was a nominee for the Tusk Conservation Awards in 2013.
Here is Clive’s photograph of a white backed vulture in Gonarezhou National Park……
Black storks also nest in pairs on the cliffs, and we have high populations of this rare bird. On a game drive from Chilo Gorge we have recently seen a group of eleven Black storks gathered on a sand bank of the Runde River…an unusually large number! Very special.
We watch three Hammerkops flying indignantly around our tent on the edge of the river at Chipinda Pools Tented Camp. They seem to be trying to scare us away from their huge nest- a stack of twigs added on to over years, and wedged in the fork of the large tree overhanging the Runde River. They then fly off to a reed mass on a river island , and we see them mating. They will lay eggs soon.
The same huge nest is the object of interest for a pair of Egyptian geese who circle the tree regularly, honking loudly, looking to see if the flat top of the nest is suitable for them to lay their eggs and hatch their multitude of goslings. The fascinating part of the story is that the new-hatched goslings will almost immediately jump off the edge of the high structure, hitting the hard ground or the water below, to follow their protective parents on foot to a preferred spot on the river bank, where they will be taught to swim, and eventually fly…
From this same tent we regularly see White fronted bee-eaters who have holes in the steep bank below us, and a female Giant kingfisher, who has a favourite fishing perch on a combretum vine immediately below us.
Pied kingfishers hover constantly on a never-ending search for fish.
A giant eagle owl mutters and calls nightly above our tent.
Woodland kingfishers, inter-african migrants, are still calling…they should have departed Zimbabwe by now…perhaps the late and heavy rains have produced extra insects, encouraging them to stay on….
Driving to the Cliffs on Easter morning, with Gwen and friends, we see a lone Wild dog pop out of the grass, full bellied from hunting. He rapidly disappears around the bend and down the road, as if he never was….
He has disappeared too fast for a photo, but my memory will serve….and here is a photo of one of our wild dogs on a previous safari….
What a joy for me to see this endangered animal, knowing that the rest of the pack is nearby and thriving….wonder if their Alpha female is pregnant. Denning could be any time now….
I am hitting a deadline ….I had told ZimArtist magazine that I could do a step-by-step article on painting for them this month, but that it would not be wild dogs due to the fact that they are hard to find this time of year, with thick grass and grown, mobile pups….and I like to paint what I am seeing, experiencing……
Hmmmm…now I have no excuse, I have this elusive dog in my head and will reference some of my previous sketches as well, to capture the mood….
Wow! It is still early in the day, and we spot a slinky leopard in the road ahead. Her long, curled tail flicks and she slides into the long grass, melting into her secret world with a few lingering glances back at us. I think she is female, with a small neat head…..
One of my tiny acrylic paintings, 20 x 20 cm……
Arriving at the magnificent Chilojo Cliffs, we set up an Easter brunch, cooking aromatic sausages and eggs while we scan the cliffs for birds.
What gorgeous light. Working on A3 brown craft paper, I begin a sketch of the cliffs. Love this paper, it is very forgiving if you make a mistake, as it is not too expensive to start again!
Cobalt blue and white, smeared on thickly with my palette knife, create the background sky and some foreground reflections….I enjoy the immediacy and abstract quality of this treasured old palette knife inherited from my father.
In the field, pencil, oil pastel or charcoal sketches are ofen my first step. I prefer softer pencils and charcoal, which are more expressive. Then the palette knife and acrylic come into use, capturing form, shape and sky.
As I sketch, Thomas Mutombeni arrives with guests from Chilo Gorge, and they walk across the sand to stand in awe beneath the cliffs. They are dwarfed….
As I paste in the shapes of the cliffs, I discover that flesh tint is the perfect base colour to capture that gorgeous glow….
Before the paint dries, the wind catches the sketch and blows it against my leg…creating extra texture in the painting, which I like, and decide to leave…a happy accident! By the time we depart the Cliffs the painting still is not quite dry, so I store it carefully, to continue another day….my leg is imprinted with colour…
Leaving Chilo Gorge, Clive Stockil and I get home to Tsavene, our bush house at Senuko Ranch in the Save Valley Conservancy. Sadly we get home to no water, as the river pump is in Harare for repair-no showers or washing of clothes, just bucket baths….all part of life in the bush I guess, but this has gone on for weeks now. The other much greater stress factor is the lack of resolution to the indigenisation of the Save Valley Conservancy. Constant meetings and phone conferences between bush and Harare are the order of the day for poor Clive, who is so deeply committed to the preservation of both communities and wilderness interests that his every waking hour is spent to that end.
Two baby Barn owls, born recently in our chimney, have fallen off the ledge of their nest and plummeted down into the grate, as so often happens. We rescue them….the typical variation in size that occurs between owl chicks is obvious, but both will survive.
Parent owls can lay multiple batches of eggs and bring up various sized babies all at the same time. I have put them into the nesting box that I have made for previous barn owl babies, high near our roof. They call and hiss when night comes, until their parents find them. As in previous seasons, the adults are bringing them mice in their new abode, until they safely fledge. We count more than nine mice per nights, from the remains in the box in the mornings!
In my Tsavene bush studio, while Clive is on conference calls, I get back to the Chilojo Cliffs painting. I mix a darker tone of the flesh colour and block it in….
In between checking on the owls, I continue to add texture and reflections to the painting…..
trying to keep the simplicity and abstract quality…..
After a few hours of drying, I then mix a subtle cool tone of green for the distant grassy slopes which cloak the feet of the main cliffs. After the good rains we have had, the grass is still quite green, normally at this time of the year it would be much drier….
I lay the soft green colour down on the paper thickly,
then wait for it to dry…and wait….and wait…..have a cup of hot chocolate……
Realising this process will take more than a day, (weather is humid), I decide to start working on the Wild dog painting that is in my head, beginning with an abstract background. With my recent real wild dog sighting fresh and glorious in my mind, and referring to my various previous field sketches, I sketch the form of two running dogs, shapes I have often used and loved. Soft waxy pencil.
Using acrylics, and my trusty palette knife, I lay down areas of darker ochre …
Then the paler tones of the neck fur….allowing plenty time for each layer of colour to dry…
Now, one day later , I can go back to the dry Chilojo Cliffs painting…..
Using torn paper I create an edge for the green bushes and trees that line the foreground cliff edges and use an onion bag to create texture………………
Chilojo Cliffs painting completed….
Back to the dog painting, next day, I add white patches…
After extensive drying of the thick paint, after a day or so, black areas and details are worked.
The final product is a large A1 finished sketch, which I can then use to build up ideas for a larger canvas painting if I wish….
The immediacy of these sketches is dependant on real experience…no matter where an artist works, or what the subject. There is inspiration everywhere, whether human form, still life, animals, landscape, trees or abstract. Drawing and sketching from real experiences gives an immediate quality to art which can be achieved no other way than by drawing, drawing, drawing!