Parks & reserves: Masai Mara National Reserve
Masai Mara boils with wildlife. During the dry season from July to October, when the big herds roam through these grounds, the wildlife spectacle is unparalleled, evoking what Africa must have been in the old days of the 'great white hunters'.
It must be made clear that Masai Mara is mostly a reserve for watching mammals. Though the number of bird species is well above 450, the dispersed geography makes birdwatching here a less rewarding experience than in places where bird life is more concentrated, such as Samburu or the great lakeside sanctuaries.
In such a vast territory, it is useful to know where to look at and when. The second question has an easier answer. Dusk, and better dawn, are the best moments for wildlife watching. Specially at sunrise, nocturnal mammals are still active, while the diurnals enjoy the cool hours to move around or chase their prey. It is at this time when it is likely to witness a kill, or simply watch the big cats wandering around the grasslands, before the sun plummets over the plains and it is time to look for a shade to ease the day out.
During the central daylight hours, the excessive heat impregnates the bush with a state of lassitude that shows up in the animals' behaviours. Movements are slow, racing is out of the question and wildlife flees for a shade beneath the nearest acacia. This is why safari companies schedule their game drives for dawn and dusk, leaving tourists at their lodges for the rest of the day.
But actually, the central hours are also very interesting for the wildlife watcher. First, fewer tourists allow for a more tranquil enjoyment devoid of the hectic minivan races searching for lions at dawn. Besides, big cats are the only diurnal animals that may be more difficult to find when the sun is up (though they can still be found amongst the bush or under a tree). But the remaining wildlife is visible also at this time and, unless you are only interested in watching the 'reality show' of the kill, you will enjoy your drives at any time of the day.
Further, you might also witness a kill even at full daylight: many animals don't easily admit encroachment by human visitors and have modified their habits accordingly. It is becoming more frequent to watch cheetah killing at midday, which requires from them a much bigger effort and reduces the output of their races, but this is the only moment when these shy and solitary cats can perform their speedy chases without the annoying interference of vehicles.
Seasonality is also worth mentioning. A frequent question is whether during the dry season there are less animals at sight. It is all the way round: the dry season is optimal for wildlife watching. Many animals like to remain concealed for as long as they can, either to chase their prey or to avoid being prey. When there is water everywhere, animals can hide in the bush or deep in the woods and use any small puddle for their water needs. But during dry times, seasonal ponds dry up and animals are bound to visit the permanent water sources, where they are an easy target.
Another question is where to look for animals. Lions are arguably the main attraction in Masai Mara. Their population here, the biggest in Kenya, is so large that it is nearly impossible to leave the reserve without spotting many of them. They can be found almost anywhere throughout, but the plains from Mara river to Soit Ololol Escarpment (also spelled as Esoit Oloololo, and also called Siria), at the west section, are a favourite haunt. During the day, stop your vehicle from time to time and scan the tree's shades with your binoculars to look for their characteristic black manes. This area also sports beautiful scenics, the flat topped trees vanishing in the haze against the backdrop of the far-off bluish mountains. Another place to find lions is Musiara Swamps, which actually remain dry for a good part of the year.
Cheetah can also be found between the Mara and Oloololo, as well as in the Talek area, along the Sekenani-Talek road. The solitary prairies near Sand River are also a good place to spot these beautiful animals lying beneath the acacia trees. Servals and caracals are also present in Masai Mara, though sightings are less common.
Leopards abound in Masai Mara, but their nocturnal and tree-climbing habits make them difficult targets, usually camouflaged among the high branches on top of the acacia canopy, not far away from the water courses. In Masai Mara there are uncountable trees and plenty of streams, reason why spotting them is a hard job. You may find their prints on the sandy Mara riverbanks at the north end, outside the limits of the reserve. But more probably, you will see in the distance a dozen or more vehicles gathered under a tree, which will reveal that a leopard is to be seen there.
The spotted hyena's ungraceful silhouette can be seen romping about at anytime. They usually drop by the big herds, coveting the remains of the lions' or cheetah's banquets. But far from this cliché which has granted them the general dislike -partly enhanced by the Disney factory-, the truth is that hyenas also earn for a living, but usually kill by night. It wouldn't be atypical that the carcass you find at dawn surrounded by a lion pride really corresponds to prey killed by hyenas during the night. On the other hand, and despite their ugly looks, watching the activity in a hyenas' den makes for a very enjoyable time, specially when cubs are around.
Hippos remain submerged during the day in the plentiful Mara pools, specially around Mara Serena Lodge and next to the New Mara Bridge at the southern limit. At the latter place there is also a basking crocodile colony. If night falls while you are still on the road, which is unusual due to the time restrictions for driving, you may sight the elephantine shadow of a hippo crossing the road with a dancer's agility that hardly fits its gawkish image. By night, these animals graze quietly -or not so- on the grasslands and embark themselves in long treks across the plains, making the illusion that they pop up spontaneously in every waterhole as if they had fallen from the sky with the rains.
Herbivores can be seen anywhere at the reserve. Elephants feed on the foliage beside the rivers and they can be sighted in family groups marching through the plains, as well as around the Musiara Swamps. Black rhinos are a hard prey for the photographer, since they seem to be always on the run, hiding amongst the bush to browse the trees and shrubs, but it is possible to get a glance of their far-off silhouette standing out against the shrubbery over a hill at Rhino Ridge. Concerning white rhinos, due to frequent poaching some of them have been translocated to other more secure locations like Nairobi National Park.
Elands, with their corpulent ox-like aspect, can be observed around the bushlands and at the hills' slopes. Wildebeests, zebras, Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, Maasai giraffes, Coke's hartebeests or Kongonis, impalas, warthogs and buffalos inhabit nearly every region in the park. And of course there is the great migration, one of Masai Mara's main attractions. You can read more about it here.
Masai Mara is a haunt for some mammals not to be found in other Kenyan parks. The topi, a bluish antelope with a glossy coat and resembling a Kongoni, is seldom seen in other locations. Highly gregarious, topis make up big herds which usually appoint a sentinel on duty. Other species with limited distribution is Roan antelope, a voluminous animal with a proud standing and thick and long curved horns that in Kenya can only be seen at the southwestern section of Masai Mara, at Shimba Hills National Reserve and at Ruma National Park. Finally, the bat-eared fox, a nice pet with unmeasured ears, is quite a common sighting, since its bulky lairs are easily identified.
Regarding birds, raptors are the stars, with more than 50 species. Vultures are omnipresent, flying in circles above the herds stalked by predators, or on the ground at a cautious distance from the lions and their fresh prey, or finally dipping their beaks and their whole heads into the carcasses, once lions and hyenas have enjoyed the most exquisite portions. Marabou storks, probably the weirdest and ugliest birds in the universe, also prowl around carrion. Looking at their seemingly disfigured faces, it is hard to believe that their feathers were once a luxury article for high-cradle ladies and high-bed starlettes.
Other birds of prey that populate the grassy plains are the secretary birds, with their look of civil servants wearing visor and oversleeves, wandering about in search for reptiles with their 'arms' folded at their backs. Crowned cranes roam around the marshes, as do many species of migratory water birds, specially during the rains. The riverbanks shelter beautiful Schalow´s and Ross's turacos, Pel's fishing owls and nervous flocks of crested Guinea fowls. The driest lands are the habitat for ground hornbills and Jackson's and Hartlaub's bustards.