Thursday, August 8, 2013

Balloon Ride! - 06 Jul 2013

Robin so desperately wanted to take a hot air balloon ride while here in Kenya, so when she found out that the Mara Serena Lodge here offered them, she was going to skip a morning game drive and sign up for one.  The rest of us (including me) decided to join her. Charles even came, and he had never been in a plane or balloon before. So, at 5:30 am we were loading into a van and driving thru the dark to open fields below the lodge. Along the way we spotted an African Hare and an African Genet, a small mongoose-sized cat with a long, bushy striped tail. When we arrived at our destination next to the river Barry and Shelley, the tour operators, warned us to stay in the area of the vehicles because we were parked next to the Hippo trail. So we hung around while the crew fired up the butane tanks and inflated the balloon!

With the balloon inflated we all climbed into the basket compartments and lifted off. Skies were clear and cool, and as we lifted up over the river we could see several of the hippos in the river below. As we drifted over the plains of the Masai Mara we could see animal tracks in all directions. A few Elephants were seen but we still failed to see a rhinoceros.

Mara Serena Lodge

We floated for several kilometers with spectacular views of the plains. While drifting I was able to ID a Black-shouldered Kite in a tree below, a Kori Bustard and White-browed Coucal in flight, and a family of White-fronted Whistling Ducks in a tiny marsh. Out on the Mara River I could see several Egyptian Geese, a Black Kite, and Sacred Ibis. Barry pointed out a van full of researchers from the University of Michigan who were studying the Hyenas of the Masai Mara.

After about an hour we touched down in the grass near the Picnic trees. Well, more like we crashed into the grass, but we walked away unscathed. As we climbed out of the basket a buffet breakfast, complete with champagne, was waiting for us. Never in my entire life would I ever dream of eating breakfast on the Masai Mara with a herd of Wildebeest, Zebra, Impala and Thompson's Gazelles just yards away. Simply incredible!

The tour company drove us back to the lodge, but that also included a mini game drive. Along the way we spotted White-backed Vultures, Lilac-breasted Rollers, and Lappet-faced Vultures. The highlight of the ride was seeing a Cheetah and cub at a fresh kill (a Thommy). We only stayed a minute or two so as not to disturb the family. The beautiful Masai Mara spread out ahead of us miles, so we drove on past Wildebeest and Giraffe and more Zebra.

Just before arriving at the lodge we took a swing by the river. There were no zebra on our side, but they were packed on the opposite shore just like yesterday. A crossing was imminent, so Moses, our driver, took us back to the lodge so that Charles could take whoever wanted to go back to the river. Andrew, Sandi and I decided to go. So while Charles went to get the van I chased a pair of Tropical Boubou around the driveway. They have a neat, flute-like call that is loud and and lovely!

We arrived back at the river with the crossing already in progress. Hundreds of zebra were already on this side and quite a ruckus was occurring on both sides. We moved the van between two others next to the river and, for the next hour, watched the zebra vs crocodile battle commence.

Over a thousand zebra crossed the river this morning, and although there were five huge crocs making several lunges at young and old zebra alike, there were NO fatalities or injuries. I got another hundred photos of the interactions on both sides of the river, as well as in the river. In between the action I watched a Little Bee-eater forage next to the river, and a pair of African Hawk Eagles soar overhead.

Once most of the zebras had finally crossed unscathed, we headed back for lunch. We think the crocs were sated enough from yesterday that their hearts or stomachs weren't in for more than just harrassing the zebras (and the three Wildebeest among them). Along the way we had a bull Elephant next to the road, so we stopped for a few more photos. We nodded to the Topi that were standing guard atop the huge termite mounds.

As we sat around before lunch Robin informed me of the reports coup in Egypt, and of possible trouble for Americans in Nairobi, so we will have to keep a low profile for the next week or so. Meantime I spotted a pair of Marico Sunbirds next the terrace and got some stunning pics from just a few feet away! These African versions of our hummingbirds have brilliant, irridescent green and blue heads, blue and red collars, but lack the yellow feather tufts under their wings that the more common Northern Double-collared Sunbirds have.

Common Bulbuls were everywhere, as were several Tropical Boubous. Incidentally, these birds are identical to the Black-backed Puffbirds but lack the bright red eyes and have the distinctive flute-like song. Just before meeting for the afternoon game drive I got poor photos of an African Blue Flycatcher, a cerulean blue warbler with white chest that fans it's tail much like our redstarts.

For the afternoon game drive we headed back to the Mara Bridge, where the entrance to the Trans-Mara portion of the reserve was located. After going through the checkpoint we drove down side trails to the Sand River where Wildebeest were starting to congregate. However, when we got there we found only a couple dozen animals and a dry riverbed. So we decided to head back to the lodge and see what we could see. The area had the lingering smell of burning grass or smoke from campfires. It was dry and desolate looking, especially in the late afternoon, when it was hot and there was no wind. A dried Cape Buffalo carcass attested to the harsh conditions. Trails were thin but drivable, so there was little worry about being stranded. A small herd of Impala had Red-billed Oxpeckers clinging to their backs.

We saw our first family of Olive Baboons walking across the trail in front of us, with adults and babies. Lighting was harsh so I took few pictures.

We then came across a colony of Banded Mongoose running down the trail. They were a bit more photogenic. An oxbow in the Sand River gave us nice views of Cape Buffalo drinking in the open.

We returned to the Mara Bridge where Charles and I did a little birding. Besides the Social Weaver colony next to the checkpoint we spotted White-headed Saw-wings (black swallow w white head), a pair of Chin-spot Battis, African Grey Flycatcher, and a family of (possible) Rattling Cisticolas. A Bare-faced Go-away Bird flew across a small gulch but would not show itself. As we retuned to the van I stopped to photograph a bright red-headed Agama Lizard.

Driving back to the lodge along the main road we encountered Ruppel's Starlings, Slate-colored Boubous (noisy black flycatcher size of a pew-wee), Sooty Chats, and another Lilac-breasted Roller. This time I was able to catch it taking off in flight at point blank range.

A small herd of zebra were next the road on on the move so we paused in case they tried to cross. Up ahead we spotted a pair of young Hyena snoozing in the afternoon sun. One little guy provided some lovely back-lit photos from 20' away. The parents were sleeping behind a dirt mound out of view.

The small roadside pond held the same Egyptian Goose and Wattled Plovers from this morning, but now I spotted a Squacco Heron, a bird that has the head and back of an American Bittern but the body and wings of a Great Egret. Up ahead a Black-headed Heron posed nicely in the late afternoon sun and provided nice portraits. Before reaching the lodge to call it a day a pair of Drongo (small black flycatcher with V-notched tail and red eyes) were perched on the roadside. A pair of Black Flycatchers were perched high in the trees next to the lodge courtyard that overlooks the Mara.


We reached the lodge to call it a day and toast our (and the zebra's) good success!

More photos can be seen here!

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