Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Trip Report
Tanzania's Serengeti/Ngorongoro Photo Safaris
The Great Gnu Migration

January-February 2009

A new born gnu calf greets its mother, while nearby, another gnu enters the world.
All photos are either Joe or Mary Ann McDonald's - a combination of our portfolios.

It has been nearly five years since we last visited Tanzania, and I had mixed feelings about returning. Why?

Tanzania is a harder trip than Kenya, requiring at times full days of game drives. In contrast, it is quite rare to have a full day game drive in Kenya, so lunch is usually back at camp, and we generally have the afternoon free (before the 4PM game drive) to rest, download, edit, or whatever. Tanzania's Serengeti is so vast, that it is often more practical to be out all day, and those days are, of course, a bit more tiring and leaves much less time for downloading and editing. So, going into the trips I knew I'd be working harder and getting less rest and time to keep up with editing.

We did very well with cheetahs, especially on the first safari where we encountered a mother with four cubs several times.

I forgot, however, how spectacularly beautiful the Serengeti can be, how intoxicating the vastness, how pleasant -- a true understatement -- the tented camp and the incredible camp staff is, and how much we enjoyed that experience. Granted, the shooting in Tanzania is not as fast and furious as it is in Kenya, but what we often had were truly quality experiences that rivaled anything that we shot in Kenya. In short, we absolutely loved returning to Tanzania, we had a terrific shoot, and we can't wait to return.

We did two safaris, back-to-back, and while both were excellent they could not have been more different. The trips were timed to coincide with the birthing of the wildebeest, or gnu, where over a million animals gather to give birth, en masse, in a two month period. More than 500,000 babies are born during this time, with as many as 7,000 born per day, and by doing so the sheer number of easy prey, new born gnus, overwhelms the attrition caused by predation. Gnus give birth between mid-January and early March, although there is a peak period of a few weeks some where during that time. We hoped that, by scheduling two trips, one, or both, groups would hit the birthing at its peak.

A Batelur Eagle in flight; and one of the most haunting and impressive sights of the entire trip - a ghost-like tree that,
in the predawn light, glowed with the plumage of hundreds of roosting cattle egrets

When we arrived in the Serengeti, driving down from the Ngorongoro Crater highlands to the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti, we expected to see the countless numbers of gnus that amass on these plains for birthing. The soils here are unique, producing a grass especially nutritious for the gnus and young calves, and it is here that the gnus usually gather to give birth. But there were no gnus!

Over the next several days however scattered rains in the area triggered the migration, and the transition, from barren, seemingly lifeless grasslands to plains filled with zebras and gnus was simply breath-taking. One morning, as we left our tented camp on Naabi Hill, the plains around our camp were vacant, and as far as we could see -- a huge distance here -- there was no life. That evening, after a very complete day of shooting in the acacia woodlands of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we returned to the short grasses and, as we neared Naabi Hill, we discovered the gnus had arrived, in the thousands. It was as if the rains that had passed through the area had literally germinated wildebeest - just add water and out sprouts gnus! In many ways, seeing the migration as it arrives, witnessing the incredible transformation from barren grasslands to a landscape teeming with wildlife, offered the most dramatic impression of this incredible event.

Two dwarf mongooses spar in the courtyard of our lodge; two huge tuskers in the Ngorongoro Crater;
a gnu on a very foggy morning at dawn; a greeting ceremony with spotted hyenas.

On our second safari the gnus were 'in,' but they were highly transitory, appearing by the thousands one day and gone the next. Again, the changes were so abrupt and without explanation -- not that the gnus bother explaining, but we should be able to come up with some reason why, that the sense of the migration and its impact were lasting. Each safari saw baby gnus, but the birthing had just begun on our first trip. On the second, we had to travel far to find gnus birthing in the Serengeti, but when we arrived at Ngorongoro Crater it was an entirely different story.

The Crater, a world heritage site famous for its concentration of wildlife in the treeless, 12 mile wide volcanic caldera, is the semi-permanent home for a vast array of animals. Some stay inside the crater their entire lives, while others migrate in and out, as rains or the seasons dictate. The animals in the crater are tame, and unlike virtually anywhere else in Africa one can drive within feet of zebras, gnus, or warthogs that graze or rest literally right next to the road. When the gnus are birthing, it's relatively easy to photograph the process, as the animals completely ignore the vehicles.

Complaining Egyptian geese; an ink flower; collared practincole; and a Secretary Bird eating a puff adder - the first time I've ever seen this bird eat a snake!

On our second safari, our time in the Crater coincided with the gnu birthing. The afternoon we arrived we were stunned by the number of new born gnus, tawny, black-faced and cute versions of the ungainly looking adults. That evening, a friend I met at the lodge told me that he had had 5 gnu births in five minutes that morning, and I worried that we may have been too late for the maximum birthing activity. That fear proved unfounded.

The next morning as we descended into the crater we found gnu herds close to the road, and it wasn't long before we spotted a female gnu with the tiny hooves of a newborn protruding from her backside. One of our other vehicles spotted another, and as we watched and waited we discovered as many as five mothers about to give birth! While we watched one, we'd find that another had birthed without our knowing, but we were successful in shooting the entire process. Unfortunately, all of the mothers were further off the road than we'd have liked, and slightly side-lighted, and we hoped that we'd have better luck the next day, for it is shortly after dawn when the majority of gnus drop their calves.

The next morning we were disappointed, as lions had moved into the birthing plains and had scattered the herds widely. We did get some great shots of small family groups drinking, and carrying off newly captured gnu calves, but all of the herds were too far off for usable shots of birthing. Towards mid-morning, however, after the lions had retreated into the shade of surrounding brush, a large herd of gnus had moved back towards the game track, and there, right next to the road, we found several gnus in the process of birthing. In great light, close, we had the best shooting opportunities we've ever had, and it was simply incredible.

Gnus give birth either standing up or lying down, often starting the process prone but as the baby emerges the mother may stand and do a series of circles, seemingly flinging the baby out by her rotations. The baby flops out head-first, and within a few seconds its attempts to stand. Within three minutes the baby is up and standing, but generally falls. By 7 or 8 minutes most babies are standing, and in as little as 10 minutes they are off and walking, or even running, with their mothers. Here's the log, frantically scratched out while I was shooting images, of one birth:

11:08AM - mother lays down for final push
11:13AM - birth
11:13:38AM - baby tries to stand, raising its head and forelegs
11:14:36AM - baby stands up on all four legs, but falls down almost immediately
11:15:20AM - baby is up and remains standing. Almost fell down backwards but kept its hind legs up and remains standing.
11:16AM - baby starts following mother
11:18AM - investigates mom, looking for udder
11:19AM - success! Nursing
11:29AM - first run, almost fell over but remained standing
11:30:25AM - mother and baby slowly walk off and away from the road, and are swallowed up by the herd

As indicated, each trip was different, and each had its unique highlights. On trip one, we did incredibly well with one extremely difficult to see or photograph mammal, the honey badger or ratel. This African badger is nocturnal, shy, and elusive, and up to then I'd only see a few in all my 20 years of safari shooting. Mary had only seen one on one other occasion, but this time she got full-frame shots as a badger attempted to burrow in the open ground. On trip one we did an incredible shoot, ok, we over-shot, a flap-necked chameleon, and had great luck with several cheetahs, including one mother with four young cubs.

Left and right, the very rare side-striped jackal; middle - black back jackals playing.

A kopje scenic; gong rocks at the Moru kopjes; a leopard on a kopje.

On trip two we had great luck with one of the iconic shots of the Serengeti, lions on the kopjes, the granite, head-like boulders that form unique, island-like ecosystems in the Serengeti grasslands. Each trip did well with leopards, elephants, and a huge variety of birds.

Truly, however, one of the trip highlights, if not THE highlight of the trip for many participants, was the camping experience. We were staying in a luxury mobile tented camp, complete with a normal, very comfortable bed, electricity via a generator, hot water on demand, and an attached toilet/shower facility to each tent. The staff was as gracious, accommodating, and helpful as one could ever imagine, and the food superb and copious. Some nights we'd be awakened by the sound of lions roaring close-by, or the barks of zebras or grunts of gnus as they moved into the woodlands. One evening, while we dined at our mess tent, the camp staff spied two lions drinking from the washbasin that stood in front of our tent! These lions remind me of the trip highlight for me, a story we jokingly call, Incident at Moru Kopjes.

While there are various size and concentrations of kopjes throughout the southern Serengeti, those at Moru are the largest -- some are almost little mountains in size, and support an ecosystem quite different from the surrounding grasslands. Leopards are common here, and the area has a greater diversity of game than is found elsewhere. The scenery is spectacular and at selected sites there are campsites designated, and, indeed, we've camped in Moru on previous trips and have had leopards giving their coughing rasping call just outside the light of our camp fire.

On our first trip we spent a few hours photographing one of these kopjes at a designated camp site, and we roamed around the rocks shooting wide-angles of the plants and assorted rock formations. On our second trip we planned to do the same, and as we arrived at the site I went investigating the rocks looking for some new angles and compositions, as a heavy rain had produced great reflecting pools on the granite rocks. We'd spotted a few lion cubs high up on the rocks of a distant kopje, but they were so far away that they were not a concern.

A young lion resting on a kopje; two male lions playing after a heavy rain -- something you never see!

The group had only been photographing a short time, everyone queued up for a particular scene with a reflecting pool and bouquet of blue flowers blooming at pond's edge, when one in our group, Suzi, excitedly said she was going back to the car, the lions were coming! We looked up and could see the lion cubs, still perched on the distant rocks. We said so, and Suzi said (or words to this effect), 'Not those lions. Look to the right!' We did, and less than 100 yards away two young lions, a young male just sprouting the beginning of a mane, and a lioness, were rapidly walking towards us. We got the group in gear, with Mary shepherding everyone towards the vehicle, cautioning them to walk, not run, to the vehicles parked about 40 yards away. I wasn't too worried, and I moved towards the edge of the kopje and started yelling, taking off and waving my hat to appear formidable and frightening.

It didn't work. The lions, much to my surprise, didn't even pause, but just kept on coming. By then most everyone was at the vehicles, and luckily one Landcruiser was parked close. The occupants of that vehicle climbed in, and I joined them, now being too far from the other vehicles to safely get to mine. One in our group recorded the time sequence, via her digital shots, and four minutes had elapsed from the time she took her flower shot until she photographed one of the lions, now calmly sitting where we had previously been standing! The encounter was certainly exciting, and instructive to me, as I really thought I could intimidate a lion by standing ground, and perhaps the cats would have only come so close. Indeed, one of our guides had to retrieve a piece of camera equipment accidentally left behind, and he got out of his vehicle and shouted and threw stones and the cat ran off a short distance. There was a very happy ending to all this, for the cats moved past us, directly to the camp site spot, and climbed a fallen tree that lay nearby. There we were treated with some of the best portraits we've ever made of lions in a tree, a wonderful conclusion to a very interesting encounter.

The highlights of these trips were many. We had probably the best hyena den I've ever encountered, the best bat-eared fox portraits, ever, the best honey badger, gnu birthing sequence, and more. We had incredible bull elephants -- those in the Ngorongoro Crater sport tusks that may be the largest still in Africa, huge ivory that nearly reach the ground. We had leopards on kopjes, and cheetahs, and a leopard cub playing on a tree and successfully making a kill right in front of us -- a mouse! In all, the trips were great, and while I'm still catching up on my editing -- I did not have time! -- each safari seemed to just zoom by, and we honestly can't wait to go back. The Crater was far more enjoyable than I had remembered, and yielded some wonderful shooting opportunities, including golden jackal and the best-ever African wild cat, and the Serengeti, and the camp, were a pure joy.

A honey badger, or ratel - a very rarely seen mammal (we've seen fewer than 6 in twenty years), a Ruppell's vulture
bouncing in to a kill; a yellow-throated sandgrouse flying in to drink.

We may return in February of 2010, if our schedule permits, but we are definitely planning two back-to-back safaris to Ngorongoro Crater for January-February of 2011. Plan on joining us!


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