Thai Elephant Conservation Center: up close and bathing

After seeing adult and baby elephants from afar in Tanzania and Botswana, we looked forward to seeing elephants on our Southeast Asia vacation, and we were not disappointed. With a wonderful guide hired the day before, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), an hour outside Chiang Mai, was a highpoint of our trip. Above, a male elephant with long tusks strains to get closer to the children.

Owned by the Thai government, TECC allows visitors to get close to elephants, feed them, watch them bathe, see a show, visit the elephant hospital and nursery, and ride an elephant. We did most of these, skipping the elephant ride.

Continue reading Thai Elephant Conservation Center: up close and bathing

Yellowstone: Mountain Goats

This is part of a series of posts about wildlife we saw in Yellowstone National Park during our June vacation in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The mountain goat is a white mammal found only in North America. A sure-footed relative of antelopes, gazelles, and cattle, mountain goats usually are found on ice or cliffs. Mountain goats are not native to Yellowstone NP, introduced to Montana in the 1940s. Mountain goats inhabit the same rocky cliffs that mountain sheep, so they might compete for scarce resources at some point.

The photo above shows the cliff where we first saw mountain goats. The photo is at 400 mm, 8x magnification.

On our first day in Yellowstone NP, a person at the Lamar River osprey nest told us they had seen mountain goats and told us to keep driving east on the road through the Lamar Valley. We drove east on the road until we got to the east park entrance — we had missed the mountain goats. We asked the park ranger, and she told us to look for Barronette Peak on the right-hand side of the road.

We turned around and drove a few miles and stopped at the Barronette Peak turnout. We looked at the mountain and even walked a couple hundred yards closer, but we still didn’t see mountain goats. The mountain is large and far away. A couple cars drove up. the people got out, set up spotting scopes, and started pointing up the mountain.

I walked up and asked them if they saw mountain goats, and they said they did. They explained several times where to look, but I still didn’t see anything. They finally had me look through their spotting scope, and I saw mountain goats!

The mountain goats were so far away that we could barely see them through our binoculars. I took the above photo that day, just to record what was there. The photo is at 400 mm, with a tripod. From the center of the photo, look toward the bottom-right corner, and stop when you see a look for a triangular patch of snow. The snow is white. If you found the patch of snow, do you see four white dots under the patch of snow?

The white dots are four mountain goats. Here’s a tight crop from the above photo.

crop with four mountain goats at Barronette Peak
crop with four mountain goats at Barronette Peak (click to expand)

Talking with the owner of the apartment later that day, he said he’s never seen mountain goats. He had worked for the Park Service for over 20 years.

We drove through Lamar Valley on several days, so we visited Barronette Peak on another day. Here’s a photo at 100 mm, to show the mountain. The clouds were lower, so we couldn’t see the mountain top.

Baronnette Peak, 100 mm
Baronnette Peak, 100 mm

Once again, some folks were looking at the mountain through a spotting scope and pointing to the mountain. And once again, we were clueless and had to ask for help. To make a long story short, here’s a crop from a photo shot at 400 mm, when you know where to look. We saw smaller goats (kids) that stay close to an adult.

mountain goats on cliff
mountain goats on cliff, 400 mm cropped (click to enlarge)

After we know where to look, we could follow the mountain goats as they walked on the cliff, but this cropped photo is better than what we could see with our binoculars. The mountain goats are far from the road, and this was about a close as we could get. We appreciated the power of a spotting scope, and we’d learn this lesson again with several other animals.

Yellowstone: Bison

This is part of a series of posts about wildlife we saw in Yellowstone National Park during our June vacation in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The American bison is the largest living mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Related to the cape buffalo and cattle, thundering herds of bison once roamed the US Great Plains, but they were almost driven to extinction by overhunting and disease.

This video of a herd of bison crossing the Lamar River shows us a glimpse of what used to be. Notice all the lighter-colored calves. This HD video was taken with a DLSR and a 400 mm lens, producing an 8x magnification, and the bison still look small. To get a better view, click the YouTube icon and select a larger size and bitrate.

Driving through Yellowstone’s Hayden River Valley, we stopped to watch bison near the road. The bison bull in the above photo walked in front by our parked car. In the above photo, the bull is walking toward the road filled with cars. He kept walking, and the oncoming cars stopped. Fifteen seconds later, he’s across the road. Between the cars forced to stop and tourists getting a better look and taking pictures, he brought traffic to a standstill.

bison bull crossing the road
bison bull crossing the road

And then a second bull walked up to the road.

second bull crossing the road
second bull crossing the road

As seen in this video, he stopped traffic, looked back at his herd, and nodded his head. They then crossed the road as he held up traffic. After they were all safely across, he finished crossing the road!

Notice the people in the video who approached the bison? From wikipedia, “Between 1980 and 1999, more than three times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were injured by bison than by bears. During this period, bison charged and injured 79 people, with injuries ranging from goring puncture wounds and broken bones to bruises and abrasions.” We filmed from inside our car.

Bison are faster than humans, they’re very strong, and they can be aggressive. This video catches the end of two bulls butting heads.

Here’s the dust wallow pit they were fighting for.

bison wallowing in dust
bison wallowing in dust (click to enlarge)

Despite their size and strength, bison are also prey. Looking across Yellowstone’s Lamar River where we had seen a wolf eating the remains of a bison the day before, we noticed a bouncing black object in the distance. Looking through binoculars, we saw that it’s a bison limping. The bison jerks up its head in order to take a step with its front legs — it appears that one of its front legs can’t take any weight. The bison is tired and rests occasionally. Not too hard to imagine what’s going to happen real soon…

On a happier note, here’s a pair of bison calves, a lighter color than adults.

baby bison
baby bison (click to enlarge)

And a mother nursing. The mother has a collar, probably to record where she goes.

collared bison nursing
collared bison nursing (click to enlarge)

This was our first visit to Yellowstone NP, and these are the first bison we’ve seen in the wild.

Most of the photos in this post were taken in the Hayden Valley, where we were able to get closer to the bison. In Yellowstone NP, we could only drive on roads, and there are very few roads. The road in the Hayden Valley runs through the center of the valley; bison do cross the road so you can get closer. The Lamar Valley road runs on the edge of the valley, and the bison are much farther away.

Yellowstone: Pronghorn

This is part of a series of posts about wildlife we saw in Yellowstone National Park during our June vacation in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The pronghorn, related to antelopes such as the gazelle or springbok, is the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, reaching speeds up to 55 mph for a half mile. Although there are no antelope species native to North America, that didn’t stop millions of American school children from singing about pronghorns in the song “Home on the Range” about the American West:

Home, home on the range,

Where the deer and the antelope play;

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Males have larger, pronged horns than females. Like their African brethren, pronghorn hang out in fields of grass or low shrubs, where they can spot predators and run to safety. Pronghorn neared extinction a hundred years ago, but they have rebounded since then. There are several hundred pronghorn in Yellowstone.

Fawns are born in late May, and twins are common. In late June we saw these two fawns nursing.

pronghorn nursing two fawns
pronghorn nursing two fawns

Below, the male stands between the road and two females and two fawns, watching.

pronghorn family
pronghorn family

We saw these pronghorns near the Lamar River west of the Tower Junction. The Lamar River valley is noted for its wildlife. We drove through there on our first full day in Yellowstone, and we kept going back.

Game Drive to Serondella

On our Botswana safari, the next day we moved to another part of Chobe National Park, the Serondella area. Compared to the Savuti Channel, the Serondella area is closer to the Chobe River, with more elephants.

Yet another African fish eagle. We like fish eagles, which are similar to the American bald eagle.

African fish eagle
African fish eagle

Dwarf mongooses sunning themselves in the morning.

dwarf mongoose
dwarf mongoose

In the still waters of the early morning, the reflection of a tree with yellow-billed storks.

tree of yellow-billed storks
tree of yellow-billed storks

We visited a site with drawing of African animals, where our guide told us about the native San people and some of their customs.

200 years old
eland, elephant, gemsbok
200-year-old
 drawings of eland, elephant, gemsbok

A black-backed jackal approaching a large, bleached bone as big as the jackal.

black-backed jackal
black-backed jackal

The bushbuck is a mediums-sized antelope with sharp horns.

bushbuck
male bushbuck

In the afternoon we saw the Chobe River. A grey heron and sacred ibis.

grey heron, African sacred ibis
grey heron, African sacred ibis

The Chobe River is quite wide. Below, an elephant feeding on water plants.

elephant in Chobe River
elephant in Chobe River

The river provides water and supports much wildlife.

warthog
warthog

The cape buffalo has never been domesticated and kills or gores over 200 people a year. This cape buffalo looks quite stern. We quickly moved on.

cape buffalo
cape buffalo

Baboons are cute and fun to watch, especially the babies. Babies can hang on for a ride below or sit on top.

baby baboon holding on to ears
baby baboon holding on to ears
baby baboon clinging on below
baby baboon clinging on below

We encountered this elephant at sunset and kept rolling back to camp. This elephant approached us as we drove by, which is unusual.

ornery elephant
ornery elephant

Moremi to Chobe National Park

On our Botswana safari we stayed in a mobile camp that moved as we moved. The drive from Moremi to the Savuti Channel in Chobe National Park was longer than usual due to flooded roads — the truck would have take the flooded road where the warden got stuck. To give the camp crew time to tear down the camp, move through the flooded road, drive to the new campsite, and set up camp for our arrival, we had the longest game drive of our safari.

We returned to where we saw the leopard guarding its impala the day before. Both the impala and leopard were gone. Our guide thought that other animals stole the kill from the leopard, because the leopard couldn’t move the impala by itself and the impala was gone.

This elephant approached our truck.

elephant coming toward us
elephant coming toward us
ornery male elephant
ornery male elephant

We watched this herd of elephants with babies. There are two baby elephants in this photo: one on the right in front of the elephant raising its trunk and a smaller one on the left in front of the left-most elephant.

elephants protecting babies
elephants protecting babies

The small baby elephant is covered with fine hair.

baby elephant
baby elephant

The elephants crossed the road behind our other land cruiser.

watching elephants
watching elephants

After the herd crossed the road, this elephant charged back and shook its head at us, as if to warn us not to follow them.

shaking its head at us
shaking its head at us

After our truck passed the flooded area, we drove to Chobe National Park. We stopped for lunch on the Khwai River. The African openbill feeds on snails and mussels. Its beak has a gap near the tip to make it easier to grasp and pry open snails and mussels.

openbill stork
African openbill

The openbill caught a snail and is pouring water out of the snail.

African openbill catching a snail
African openbill catching a snail

Chobe National Park has lots of elephants, even more later in the year when the grass dries up and the elephants head for water. This elephant got up close; this photo was taken at 275 mm with a full-frame camera, and the elephant nearly fills the frame.

elephant
elephant

As I was taking a photo of these crowned hornbills, one took flight.

crowned hornbill
crowned hornbill taking off

We finally pulled into camp near dusk, grateful for a place to clean up and get ready for dinner. The camp crew worked hard to get the camp ready for us, with hot water for showers.

Moremi, Day One – Babies and Rain

On the first day in the Moremi Game Reserve on our Botswana safari, it was cloudy and rainy.

In the early morning, this elephant extended its trunk toward us, to better sniff us.

elephant smelling
elephant smelling us

We saw two Burchell’s zebras nursing. Found in southern Africa, Burchell’s zebras have a light gray stripe between the black stripes on their flanks.

baby zebra nursing
baby zebra nursing
Burchell's zebra nursing
Burchell’s zebra nursing

And a baby giraffe.

baby giraffe
baby giraffe

Look at the closeup below to see a wound and scab on the left rear leg, and a bird hidden behind the tail.

baby giraffe wound
baby giraffe wound

A yellow-billed stork perched on a termite mound.

stork on termite mound
stork on termite mound

A female kudu.

female kudu
female kudu

At the end of the day, we headed back to camp early because we weren’t seeing much.

During heavy rain, low spots in the dirt roads fill with water. The game warden in the photo below tried to drive through the puddle and got stuck. He’s getting his bag from his truck before we give him a ride to the warden office. The next day our camp crew got his truck out. Dirt roads can become impassable in the wet season.

warden with stuck truck
warden with stuck truck