REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.

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IN DEFENCE OF THE COMMON FISCAL

This strikingly handsome bird is burdened with an unfair reputation for cruelty. Imagine being known as Jackie Hangman, the Butcher Bird, or Fiscal Shrike. What is in a name you might ask – a lot, especially if the connotations of it are negative! What does hangman bring to mind? Synonyms for butcher include destroyer, killer, murderer, slaughterer, and slayer. Fiscal is a word associated with budgets, bursars, and being pecuniary. These names have come about because the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is known to sometimes impale its prey on thorns – or even barbed wire fences – for later consumption. If you visit the interesting blog run by the De Wet family at https://dewetswild.com/2018/09/26/common-fiscal/ you will find a photograph of a rather large frog impaled on barbed wire.

Does anyone condemn a spider for catching unsuspecting moths or beetles in its delicately spun web? Are spiders considered cruel when they wrap their prey in silken thread to eat later? Are people who work in abattoirs and butcheries condemned by society and treated like outcasts? We have to eat, some may argue, and would rather someone else did the killing, the cleaning, the cutting up and the packaging of the meat that we buy in neatly wrapped polystyrene packaging in the supermarkets or carefully wrapped in butcheries so that we can store it in our refrigerators or freezers for later consumption. Perhaps if we had to kill for our daily meat, more of us would prefer to bake our daily bread and grow our own beans and pumpkins. We have to eat. The Common Fiscal has to eat too. Its diet consists mainly of insects, although it has been recorded as eating small birds, reptiles and rodents too. I have frequently observed these birds eating seeds, fruit and even food scraps in my garden. This one has just been pecking at apples on the feeding tray.

As they also eat locusts, crickets, and caterpillars they should be appreciated for ridding gardens of potential pests – they perform a valuable function. Usually the Common Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it closely observes its prey before dropping down to catch it. This Common Fiscal is cleaning its beak on a branch.

The next time you are in a game reserve or see a Common Fiscal in your garden, watch it carefully: it often returns to the same perch over and again. I suspect they have marked out territories for the ones I see in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example, appear to be fairly evenly spaced from each other and they seem to scare away any other birds that venture into their space.  I see their aggression relating to food sources when there is something to their liking on the feeding tray, such as the bacon rind this one is eating.

A Common Fiscal will not tolerate other birds feeding with it – the Black-collared Barbet doesn’t either and the size of the Red-winged Starlings ensures a solitary meal for them too. It has been claimed that this habit of theirs negates efforts to create a bird-friendly garden. A glance at my monthly garden bird list is proof that this is not the case.

Their hooked beaks are adapted to their diet – nature finds ways to fill niches – and are described by the uninformed as ‘cruel’. Have you ever carefully looked inside your pet cat or dog’s mouth? Why do tourists marvel at the sight of a lion’s teeth and yet shrink from the beak of a Common Fiscal? Large raptors are described as ‘majestic’: what are their beaks and talons designed to do?

Despite its unfair reputation, I consider the Common Fiscal as being well worth having around for they definitely do much more good than harm!

LIONS

It was while I was listening to the sound track of Born Free this morning that it struck me how fortunate I have been to have seen lions so often in the wild. It is the one animal that tourists – and not only the ones from abroad – have at the top of their wish lists when they enter game areas such as the Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. We have enjoyed some of the best sightings at the latter place and yet have also spent ten days there without seeing a single one!

We had been waiting patiently at a water hole shortly after sunrise. Our attention was focused on birds and the activity of a couple of jackals nearby when this pair of lions came padding across the dry river bed. Notice the dust being thrown up by their large padded paws.

They drank deeply and for a long time.

Early on another morning our attention was drawn to definite sounds of distress not far from the camp we were staying at. The gates had opened not long before and we were met by this scene of two lionesses doing battle with a wildebeest, kicking up a lot of dust in the process!

Within minutes Black-backed jackals had come to investigate within a safe distance as the two lionesses settled down to rip open the carcass – only to be usurped by an enormous male that appeared from nowhere! While on the subject of males, tourists would give their eye teeth for a sight such as this one strolling across the road in front of us in the Kruger National Park. This photograph gives you a good idea of how large their paws are.

Much closer to home, here is a lion seen in the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape.

NOTE: Click on a photograph if you wish to see a larger view.

CRESTED BARBET

My mother used to refer to the Crested Barbet (Trachyphonus vaillantii) as the ‘clown bird’ because of its black, yellow and red plumage – an unusually brightly coloured bird to visit one’s garden – yet these colours blend well in the bush. This is not one of ‘my’ garden birds (the Black-collared Barbet frequents our Eastern Cape garden) as it occurs in the north-eastern parts of the country. It remains an important bird for me, however, as it is a reminder of my youth spent in the Lowveld and is one of the first birds to spark my interest in bird-watching as a hobby. You can clearly see its distinctive shaggy crest in this photograph as well as the long tail which provides balance.

Trachyphonus comes from the Greek word meaning ‘rough voice’ which describes the sustained trilling of the male and especially the ‘puka-puka’ response of the female. The vaillantii comes from the French ornithologist-cum-explorer, Francois Le Vaillant, who explored this country during the 1700s. His name is also associated with a cuckoo, a cisticola and two francolins.

They make their nests in the cavities of trees. Note its thick bill.

This one looks like a juvenile.

These photographs were taken in the Kruger National Park.

Crested Barbets are commonly found in woodland areas, riverine forests, and the savanna as well as in gardens. This one is perched on a roof in Boksburg, Gauteng.

Then it flew down to seek a meal on the lawn. They often feed on snails, which they extract from the shell by bashing it on a rock or the hard ground. Other food includes termites, grasshoppers, fruit and the eggs of other birds.

CAUGHT IN THE WING

These images have all been caught in the wing mirror of our vehicle. The first is of me trying out the technique.

A more attractive option is catching the setting sun whilst we were driving along a dirt road.

You can see an elephant approaching us from the rear.

A different elephant crossing the road behind us. Note the row of vehicles stretching round the corner. One doesn’t mess with elephants. Look carefully and you will see there are others in the background.

NOTE: Click on the images for a larger view.

A REFLECTIVE BLACKHEADED HERON

Herons possess the patience of Job: the ability to stand still and look out for prey without drawing undue attention to themselves. That is what this one had been doing for several minutes on the edge of Rooidam in the Addo Elephant National Park.

A very slight adjustment of its head is the only indication of a shift in focus.

There might be something worth a closer investigation down there.

Now that looks interesting!

Let me see …

Nah, it’s not really worth my while.

NOTE: Please click on a photograph if you want a larger view.

BLACK-BACKED JACKAL 2

I have written about the Black-backed Jackal (Canus mesomelus) before and am happy to mention them again because seeing them in the wild gives me great joy. They usually mate for life, so when you see one you know the other one cannot be too far away. I watched this pair trotting across the veld a little distance from each other, their heads held low, stopping to sniff at something now and then. Here they are moving close together as they inspect the ground. Note the one on the left appears to have a deep scar on its flank.

The bitch moved away from her mate in a purposeful manner to investigate the vegetation a little distance from him.

She had personal business to attend to.

Here a different pair of jackals have found some leftovers from a kill to share.

They are mainly nocturnal animals and so the best time to look out for them is early in the morning or late in the afternoons. These photographs were taken in the Addo Elephant National Park.

NOTE: Click on a photograph if you wish to see a larger view.