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Serengeti Photo Safari recap – April 2013

Were back! and an overview on our recent photo safari “Big Cats and the Great Migration” is in order. In short: they were, it was… and vise versa.

Sometimes everything lines up better than one can reasonably hope for – such was the case on this last safari. We enjoyed terrific weather and light everyday, spectacular landscapes, and most importantly – wildlife encounters that surpassed our wildest expectations. Keep in mind, this is the Serengeti, and amazing wildlife sightings are commonplace… but this was at another level.

Our group was made up of experienced (and fun) photographers / videographers – and they were enthusiastic from start to finish. We worked hard everyday – all day… departing before sunrise – and usually getting back in the dark around 8pm. Many photo-ops presented themselves like gifts – others we worked for with persistence and patience, at times waiting hours for the right shot. Overall, it was an all you can eat buffet of nature experiences and photo-ops… and we gorged.

 (James Blue)

Roughing it: Our lodge on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater ~ 1DX, EF14mm 2.8L @ f5.6, 6 sec, ISO 1600

As I typically plan, our safari started with a photography warm-up by shooting in the Ngorongoro Crater for a few days. I just love this place, especially at this time of year… as it’s a verdant wonderland with very few other people, and the plethora of wildlife seams particularly active and cooperative. We photographed the biggest of the big tuskers, several heavy maned male lions, many black rhinos… the list goes on. This is a great place to start burning up the memory cards and getting in the photography groove.

Male lion (Panthera leo) waving his tail as a signal for his pride to follow, Ngorongoro Crater (James Blue)

Crater Cat: male lion waving his tail for his pride to follow ~ 1DX, EF500mm + 1.4x, f8, 1/400, ISO 320

Large bull elephant in the Ngorongoro Crater (James Blue)

Crater Tusker: One of the craters 50+ year old bulls with huge tusks ~ 1DX, 165mm, f5.6, 1/800, ISO 400

 (James Blue)

Crater black rhino mother and calf  ~ 1DX, EF500mm + 1.4x, f6.3, 1/30, iso 1600

From the crater we moved on to the woodlands and short grass plains – within both the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and in the Serengeti National Park proper. The latter being where we would begin to explore remote (off the beaten track) areas and utilizing our special filming permits. These permits allowed us to access habitat and wildlife rarely seen, and are a privilege for sure.

 (James Blue)

Solitude on the savanna ~ 1DX, 24-70mm 2.8 II @ 70mm, f8, 1/200, iso 160

 (James Blue)

Milky Way over our tented lodge at Lake Masek ~ 1DX, 14mmL, f3,2, 25 sec, iso 3200

While we photographed a lot of the wildlife diversity the Serengeti offers, but our objective was to stay focused on finding and shooting the cats – and we did so in spades. To say the cats were active would be an understatement, as we photographed more dramatic hunts than ever before. In addition, we witnessed several cats get into territorial skirmishes with other wildlife – like a big male lion vs a black rhino; cheetahs vs a cory bustard; and leopard cubs vs a barn owl… to name a few. In total, we had opportunities to shoot and film 114 lions, 22 cheetahs, 7 leopards, 9 serval cats, 3 wildcats, and 2 civet cats – and those are different cats – many of which we encountered multiple times. In truth, the cumulative quantity and quality of our big cat photo-ops was beyond outstanding.

Lioness and her three cubs high on the kopje rocks at sunset, Serengeti, 2013 (James Blue)

Lioness and her three cubs high on the kopje rocks at sunset ~ 1DX, 500mm, f11, 1/800, ISO 320

Our cheetah encounters were simply spectacular. The sign of things to come was evident from our very first sighting: It was our first morning in prime cheetah habitat and we were exploring a remote area (with no one else as far as the eye could see). From about a quarter mile away, we spotted what appeared to be a couple cheetahs hunkered down with just their heads above the brush. As we were moving closer to check it out, our vehicle flushed an African hare from the underbrush – which ran directly at the resting cheetahs. The cats saw the running hare, which then triggered an explosion of five cheetahs emerging – and instantly running full tilt boogie trying to catch it …which also happened to be straight at us!  We had a crazy few minutes of shooting the high speed zig-zagging chase at close quarters. It was a mother and four sub-adult cubs, and they made quick work of their small snack.

Three cheetahs, close-up of a mother and two sub-adult cubs in morning light, Serengeti (James Blue)

Mother cheetah and her two sub-adult cubs ~ 1DX, EF500mm, f8, 1/640, ISO 320

Then, after the excitement had settled down and the cheetah fivesom had wandered off – we proceeded to fix a flat tire on one of the vehicles. A few minutes later we looked up to see an orphaned wildebeest calf less than 50 yards away – and just about the time we were joking how lucky the calf was that the cheetahs had departed – the mother cheetah looked back and saw the calf. They made an about face and proceeded to stalk the calf in  perfect squadron formation …and again, straight back at us! The whole thing played out right in front of us – and no, it did not end well for the calf. This all while were just trying to fix a flat.

 (James Blue)

Squadron of five cheetahs stalking a wildebeest calf …mother in the lead ~ 1DX, EF500mm, f9, 1/500, iso 400

While still parked near the kill, I glassed up yet another cheetah hunting about a half mile away…so off we went to follow and photograph him. Later that same day we shot a couple beautiful male lions, a couple very small cute lion cubs – then spent the last couple hours of light with a beautiful male leopard lounging in a tree during a beautiful sunset. Wow, what a day that was, and one that would be very hard to repeat or improve upon – but we did, the very next day.

Cheetah chasing wildebeest, Serengeti (James Blue)

The turf was really flying on this cheetah chase  ~ 1DX, EF500mm + 1.4x, f6.3, 1/1000, iso 320

 (James Blue)

Wanting the calf, but keeping a careful eye on the protective mother wildebeest ~ 1DX, EF500mm, iso 320

At first light the following day we found another mother cheetah, and again, against all odds, she also had four sub-adult cubs. We spent the entire day with them as they hunted, with the good mother intent on giving all the cubs a chance to practice the skills they would need to survive. We were along for an amazing day of observing cheetah hunting school. It was spot, stalk, chase – and repeat… all day long.

 (James Blue)

Taking down a wildebeest calf  ~ 1DX, EF500mm, f4, 1/2000, iso 400

Most of the chases were unsuccessful, but the many near misses were very exciting, especially when they took down a calf only to be attacked by the mother wildebeest. No doubt the cubs learned some valuable lessons, and so did we. The day ended with a sunset kill of a Thompson’s gazelle fawn – which included all the cubs taking turns showing mom their chase down and trip-up skills.

Cheetah cub tripping a gazelle fawn with the cubs mother looking on enthusiastically, Serengeti (James Blue)

An enthusiastic cheetah mother looks on as her cub trips a gazelle fawn ~ 1DX, EF500mm, f4, 1/500, iso 2500

Lions were an everyday staple – from magnificent males to cute little cubs. We had big male lions roaring their heads off a few times while we shot them, which is always cool beyond belief. You can hear a male lions roar from miles away, so just imagine what it’s like from 50 ft and strait at you… you can feel the power reverberate in your bones! Moreover, on many nights they were roaring just outside our luxury tents at Mbuzi Mawe. No rest for the timid.

 (James Blue)

Can you hear me now: Roaring lion  {1DX, EF500mm, f4, 1/1250, iso 640}

 (James Blue)

Beautiful male lion with the great migration in the background {1DX, EF500mm, f4, 1/2000, iso 320}

 (© James Blue)

Wide view of a male lion and his date on top of a kopje  {1D mkIV, EF70-200mm@70mm, f13, iso 100}

 (James Blue)

Male lion on the kopje rocks  {1DX, EF500mm, f5.6, 1/2000, iso 320}

 (© James Blue)

Run for your life: A reedbuck after a narrow escape from a lioness {1DX, EF500mm, f8, 1/200, iso 320}

Leopards: While we saw and shot many leopards, it was the mother with a couple four month old cubs that provided the most memorable experience. We found them in a Sausage tree first thing one morning, having a yummy breakfast of Aardwolf (not a typical menu item) We were able to watch and photograph them in varying light and conditions over a 5 day period, which gave us the opportunity to shoot them both with their mother and also while they were alone. One thing you can count on with cubs – when moms away, they will play! We photographed and filmed them in a perpetual game of chasing each other – and a Barn owl – up, down and around the tree… such fun.

 (© James Blue)

One of two leopard cubs we enjoyed shooting {1D mk IV, 500mm, f4, 1/1250, iso 320}

Leopard lounging in a tree at sunset. (James Blue)

Adult male leopard lounging in a tree at last light {1DX, EF500mm + 2x III, f8, 1/200, iso 400}

 (James Blue)

Coming down: A leopard rapidly descends a tree {1DX, EF500mm, f8, 1/200, iso 320}

The great Migration was as spectacular as I’ve ever seen it, probably more so – we were literally wading through continual herds on the short grass plains – it was mostly wildebeest, but also zebra, thompson’s and grants gazelles and eland for as far as the eye could see. While I’m still working on learning Swahili, I do happen to be fluent in wildebeest speak. So yes, I’m bilingual.

 (© James Blue)

A glorious day with the great migration on the short grass plains… {1D mk IV, 200mm, f13, 1/200, iso 200}

 (James Blue)

Top of the rock: Lunch on a Kopje… yours truly on the far left {1DX, 39mm, f10, 1/250, iso 200 -by remote}

 (James Blue)

Another day of fantastic weather searching the kopjes for big cats {1DX, 14mmL, f8, 1/1250, iso 320}

 

 (James Blue)

Golden Serengeti sunset during a thunderstorm ~ 1DX, 57mm, f8, 1/400, ISO 320

This recap is just a snippet of the experiences we had… leaving room for several more detailed accounts for future blog posts. I’ll close with a big “Thank You” (Asante Sana) to the guests/film crew that I shared this safari with; our partner Proud African Safaris; Adam and Sitta – the unequivocal best guides in the Serengeti; and lastly, the dedicated game rangers of the Serengeti – who work tirelessly to protect this amazing ecosystem.

Please note: We are offering two similar photo safaris in March/April 2014, one of which will include the exclusive filming permits… see the details in our safari page. In addition, we will have several excellent safaris that will be a bit shorter and offer a more relaxed pace.

 

Comments (8)

  1. Walt Kowalski

    You all were blessed to experience this wonderful outing, making the rest of very jealous ! What beautiful photography.

    • James

      Walt, thank you for looking and the kind comments. You are so right, we really were blessed.

      Jim

  2. Peter Heistein

    What an amazing trip! This is my second trip to Africa with Jim and this one surpassed my expectations by a wide margin. Being surrounded by the migration day after day is truly an amazing experience. To see over a million animals on the move is something you will never forget. The organization, accommodations and guides were top notch.

    Thanks again for a truly memorable experience!

    Peter

    • James

      Hey Peter, thanks so much for the comments! It was great to share this safari with you …the pleasure was mine. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of your images.

      Jim

  3. Marcy Starnes

    This was our first safari and best trip ever – we had no real idea as to what would happen – it was magical – Don and I still talk about events each day and how much we enjoyed the trip – each day I process pictures and relive the experience -thinking about joining another adventure next year – thanks for all the help and patience –
    Marcy & Don

    • James

      Marcy and Don, thank you for the comments. I thoroughly enjoyed your company and enthusiasm, as did everyone else. I’m looking forward to our paths crossing again soon. Stay well in your non-stop travel adventures!

      Jim

  4. Jim Del Re

    Jim,
    Great photos and all I can tell you is my group is fired up to go next year. You never cease to amaze me in your fantastic adventures and how well you bring “spectacular” into the lives of others. I am looking forward to catching up with you in Phoenix and the beginning stages of our adventure!

  5. Rajiv Welikala

    Hi,

    I really liked your blogpost as well as the photographs. I also dream of going to Africa one day.

    I would like to know when is the best time to visit?

    Was the above tour done in April? isnt it raining during that time? how would the rain affect the tour?

    Would like to know some info as I hope to plan a trip there soon.

    Regards

    Rajiv

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