The Sky At Night
Here's a single frame from the starlight camera last night - a dark starry night ie most of the stars obscured by clouds and thin haze over the others reducing their brightness
Most days we set off about 4pm, to find our lions and film whatever we can of their daytime behaviour (you guessed it - mostly sleeping).
Just around sunset, hungry lions will usually move a little to get a better view of the surrounding plains. If they have cubs like the two mothers we followed last night, this is when the youngsters run about chasing, watching anything that moves, playing with stuff they find. Sadly, last night these items consisted of a black plastic bag and a small item of clothing. I’m sure nobody was eaten, but clearly the world has changed for us as well as lions.
Not until darkness closes in do the lions make their move. By this time, we’ve changed from daytime camera to night time cameras. Daytime camera: HD video camcorder - ie one that you put on the tripod, look through the viewfinder and press the button if you like the picture. Night time cameras: a whole other story. For various reasons the cameras we have to use will only record to computers. And laptops aren’t fast enough, so we have two desktop computers in the car running off inverters and car batteries. To see the images, we have a variety small computer monitors placed in strategic positions. The cabling of all this electronic hardware always starts off with the best of intentions but by the end of the night it usually resembles a Gordian knot. We’re working on the cable discipline.
Before we can follow the lions Stanley needs to get his night goggles correctly adjusted, and we have to mark our position on the GPS so at the worst we can back track. Once landmarks disappear into the gloom, it is very easy to become disoriented, especially if a layer of clouds covers the stars.
In this kind of darkness, the Starlight camera can’t see very far without infra red light. Even then, its amazing ability to see animals is completely overshadowed by the thermal camera which allows us to identify lions or hyenas up to three kilometres away. It should therefore be easy keeping up with the lions.
A typical dark night lion hunt will start with a bit of a move, then a bit of a rest, wait and listen, followed by another bit of a move. This night after a couple of starts the two mothers heard something in the bushes and moved quickly towards it. We were in a bad position, and had to go out up onto the hill to see what was going on. A herd of buffalo were coming down to drink, and there in front of them were our two lionesses. One of the buffalo smelt a cat and gave an alarm at which point the entire herd came charging out of the lugga.
Buffalo routinely chase lions in daylight, and present a real danger to the cubs. These two mothers were not starving and so would never attack a healthy buffalo in a herd returning instead to the waiting cubs. This place, with its multitude of dry river beds, luggas and bushes is hard enough to navigate in daylight. Even with the thermal camera we soon lost the lions and the buffalo. So we moved up to the place we now call Lazy Boy Hill (after two lazy male lions) to see if we could find the Monico bunch - or at the least film a bit of starry scenery.
Once I give my eyes time to adjust to the gloom, the beauty of the milky way over the plains never ceases to astound me and is always a small compensation for having lost the lions - again.