IS THAT A GHOST IN MY GARDEN?

Background: From time to time we rescue frogs of various sizes from our salt water swimming pool. I usually scoop them out and tip them into the bird bath on the lawn. From there they generally hop away – I hope feeling well, for we seldom see them nearby after they have spent a while of recovery in the fresh water.

Context: What is left of our lawn is covered with a carpet of dry leaves, mostly shed by the Cape Chestnut tree.

The ghost: I was crunching along these leaves when I spotted something white among them. Bending down, I could see what looked like the lifeless shape of (what I presumed) was a dried out little frog. A desiccated victim of the pool I thought – hence the ‘ghost’ of the title. I moved a leaf to get a better look. The ‘lifeless’ frog opened its eyes and hopped!

I whipped out my phone for I had spotted something else: its tiny red toes.

In two ticks it had hopped away to nestle among the leaves at the base of the Cape Chestnut tree – and then it was gone!

None of my home references showed a dramatic picture of a tiny white frog with red toes. I contacted Chad Keates (see the reference to his blog) to ask if it was a type of Reed Frog. His speedy reply was: Painted reed frog, they go white in the day. For more useful information and a host of excellent photographs, do visit his blog about these frogs at https://nextgenherpetologist.co.za/2018/04/03/painted-reed-frogs-of-southern-africa/

So, it wasn’t a ghost in my garden. Instead it turned out to be a privileged view of a special creature!

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BLOUKOP KOGGELMANDER

Well, that is what I grew up calling the Blue Headed Lizard or Southern Rock Agama (Agama atra). Actually, we simply called it a ‘bloukop’ whenever we saw one in the Lowveld where I grew up. As exotic as they look, they were simply part of our environment as far as we were concerned: nothing out of the ordinary. I feel very different about them since moving away from that part of the country, for I have not seen any in the Eastern Cape.

Only the males sport a bright blue head; the head of the female is smaller and paler in colour. This photograph was taken at Satara Camp in the Kruger National Park some time ago.

CLAY POT

It is well over fifty years ago since I accompanied my Dad to the smaller portion of his farm, Dunduff, in the De Kaap Valley. This section had access to water from the Noord Kaap River, which he used to plant various vegetables – mostly gem squash – under irrigation. What was particularly special about this visit is that when we stopped at the home of the Swazi family who kept an eye on the farm during my Dad’s absence, I was presented with a gift of two small clay pots decorated with beads.

Sadly, only one has survived my many moves around the country. Still, all these years later, this little clay pot brings to the fore memories of the happy times we spent on that farm as children. We used to pick up delicately honed stone arrow heads and even larger hand axes – learning from my Dad about the ancient cultures that had lived on this land long before we did. I discovered the ‘soap plant’ (I wish I could still recognise it!) that grew along the edges of the irrigation furrow – it exuded a soapy liquid that would foam slightly if you rubbed it between your hands, which would have a lovely ‘clean’ scent after rinsing in the water. My Mom would sometimes walk in the veld with me to look at wild flowers blooming (all nameless at the time, except for the ubiquitous Barberton Daisy, yet greatly appreciated). My brothers and I would find large stick insects, try to catch frogs and watched birds in the veld. This little clay pot still conjures up such memories and more!

ANTLION PIT

Antlions are often referred to as one of South Africa’s ‘little five’, although their presence is not confined to this country. As children we were endlessly fascinated by the conical holes made by the antlion larva in sandy soil.

Every time I see one I am reminded of how we would take a fine stick or a piece of grass and gently stir the fine grains of sand around the edge while chanting Molletjie, molletjie kom tog uit until the mysterious looking larva would appear – probably disappointed that the movements of its ant trap had not been caused by prey after all!

For years I wondered why we said molletjie, molletjie … until a colleague explained to me that the antlion larvae are called a molletjie in Afrikaans – such is the charm of childhood that we do not necessarily question what is an obvious ritual. I learned then too that the whole chant (although I never recall anyone saying it in full) is

Molletjie, molletjie kom tog uit,

Sout en peper en boerbeskuit!

Perhaps my developing understanding of Afrikaans at that stage meant that part was lost on me. Nonetheless, I diligently taught my children the same abbreviated chant as we teased the antlions from their traps while they grew up in Mmabatho – where there was plenty of sand!

These pits are made by the larvae reversing in a ‘cork-screw’ fashion into the sand. We sometimes used to watch them through a magnifying glass (a wonderful gift for a young child!) as they flicked out the sand with their mandibles until they had formed a smooth-sided, cone shaped hole. Ants walking along the edge would slide towards the bottom of the hole where they would be grabbed by the ant lion larva.  We would sometimes catch ants to put into the trap and wait to see the action!

MAY GARDEN 2018

The bounty of fruit of the Natal Fig (Ficus natalensis) has been eaten, leaving lean pickings for the Redwinged Starlings and causing the majority of African Green Pigeons to seek fruit elsewhere – although some still return to roost here overnight. Apart from a wide variety of birds, such as Speckled Mousebirds, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Blackcollared Barbets, Cape White-eyes, Blackheaded Orioles, Olive Thrushes, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, and Grey-headed Sparrows, the fruit also attracts a variety of insects and the small insectivorous bats that swoop around the garden as the day ends. The latter often remind me of D.H. Lawrence’s description of bats in the poem of the same name:

Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop…
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,  
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

In the back garden, the Erythrina caffra (Coral tree) is sporting clusters of seedpods split open to reveal their coral-red seeds which, in due course, fall to the ground. These small, shiny seeds marked on the one side with a black spot are also known as lucky beans. Laughing Doves and Forktailed Drongos perch in the high branches to catch the warmth of the early morning sun and again in the late afternoon.

The Black Sunbirds and Greater Double-collared sunbirds as well as Blackcollared Barbets, Blackheaded Orioles, Cape- and Village Weavers as well as Redwinged starlings are regular visitors too.

I have mentioned before that the name Erythrina, originates from the Greek word erythros meaning red and alludes to the bright red flowers and seeds. Caffra is derived from the Arabic word for an unbeliever, and as used in older botanical works generally indicates that the plant was found well to the south of the range of Arab traders, that is, along the [south] eastern seaboard of South Africa. Carl Thunberg, known as the father of South African botany, gave the names in 1770.

In parts of South Africa, both the Erythrina caffra and the Erythrina lysistemon are regarded as a royal tree; much respected and admired in Zulu culture and believed to have magic properties. Specimens have been planted on the graves of many Zulu chiefs. In parts of the Eastern Cape, local inhabitants will not burn the wood of Erythrina caffra for fear of attracting lightning.

The indigenous Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) has come into full bloom, covering the trees and shrubs with a canopy of bright golden yellow flowers that attract the Barthroated Apalis, Cape White-eyes and a variety of butterflies. These flowers also exude a delightful aromatic scent that adds to the pleasure of being in the garden.

Equally beautiful are the bright orange tubular flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) that are coming into bloom. These attract the nectar-feeding Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared sunbirds, Streaky-headed Seedeaters, Cape Weavers and Village Weavers as well as several butterflies.

Trusses of the beautiful pale blue Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) flowers are also starting to appear.

The first aloes are coming into bloom too and are visited regularly by the Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, Streakyheaded Seedeaters, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, Blackheaded Orioles and Cape White-eyes.

FAIRY PARASOL

Some fairy parasols (Coprinus plicatilis) have appeared on our lawn again. Some sources indicate that the scientific name has now changed to (Parasola plicatilis) – that makes sense, for they do look like miniature parasols when the caps first open.

The pleated cap is so thin that it almost appears to be transparent. These mushrooms spring up in the grass after even the lightest rain or even heavy dew, but quickly shrivel to nothing.

SCABIOSA COLUMBARIA

Scabiosa columbaria, also known as Bitterbos or Wild Scabious, is widespread in South Africa, occurring mostly in grasslands, on rocky slopes and in bushveld habitats. Scabiosa, is derived from the Latin scabies meaning ‘to scratch’ – possibly because the plants were used medicinally to relieve the itch of scabies and skin sores. The flowers attract a number of butterflies and make a beautiful show when growing en masse – it is not always easy to appreciate this effect in the grasslands though!

They are in bloom at the moment and are well worth looking out for.

References:

Gledhill Eily Veldblomme van Oos-Kaapland Cape Nature Conservation (undated).

Manning John Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa Struik Nature 2009.