RED-HEADED FINCH II

My first encounter with Red-headed Finches (Amadina erythrocephala) in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park left me in awe of them – so pretty they are, well the males are particularly attractive with their distinctive red heads! I have since seen them in my brother’s Boksburg garden and marvel at them each time I visit.

A number of these uniformly grey-brown little birds caught our eye whilst we were driving through the Mountain Zebra National Park. Sometimes there seemed to be large flocks of them, but often there were only a couple that settled on branches of bushes near the road. One cannot always hope for ideal conditions and so I photographed this one.

The slightly barred underside with flecks of white attracted my attention yet had me puzzled for a while. One gets out of practice when away from the wild for as long as we have and so, as we drove through the grassland habitat I kept an eye open whenever I saw these sparrow-like birds fly about. At last … a pair settled closely enough for me to make out the red head of the male: Red-headed Finches – of course that is what they were!

I suspect this male is not yet in full breeding plumage – especially if you compare it with the one in the first photograph. Somehow, having identified them, we actually saw more red-heads among the several flocks we passed along our route.

 

ROADS OF DISCOVERY

Having already given you a sense of the expansiveness of the Mountain Zebra National Park, I am  going to show you some of the roads of discovery that run through it. This is the road leading from the entrance gate to the reception at the rest camp.

I love dirt roads with the grass and bush growing right to the edges. They spell adventure and immediately encourage a scanning of the environment on either side of it. What lies over that hump? What could be lurking behind that bush? What can we see in hidden in the dry yellow grass?

Usually the car park outside the reception area is filled with vehicles arriving and departing. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic it was empty, allowing a clear view of the Karee trees on the traffic island.

The late afternoon light not only lengthens the shadows of the grass but enriches its colour. The worn tracks indicate the narrow width of the road that winds through the patches of trees, allowing a view of the mountains stretching far into the distance.

See how this steep road winds down from the plateau to the valley below – and how the view stretches to forever and beyond!

THE OPEN SPACE OF MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Having been ‘pandemically confined’ for months and only recently being allowed to venture forth – almost inch by inch – or so it felt, it was a treat to spend a day in the Addo Elephant National Park. As soon as overnight accommodation was allowed, we opted to spend two nights at the Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock.

As you can see in the photograph below, the sky was heavily overcast when we arrived – that in itself has been a rare sight in our part of the Eastern Cape. Being the end of winter, the grass is dry and golden: look at the beautiful wide open expanse of the grassland with the mountain rising above it. Such space gives one the feeling of freedom!

Here is a closer look at the mountain, with an ostrich in the foreground.

The grassland in the valley seems to go on forever.

When you get close to the mountain, driving up to the plateau, you become entranced by the bulging rocks, loose boulders and the vegetation growing in between. The pale coloured trees are all Cussonia spp., known colloquially as Cabbage Trees.

Once on the plateau, you can almost see to the end of the earth – mountains and valleys that change with the light of the day. It is scenery that one can absorb in great gulps; difficult to take in all at once; the openness, the beauty, and all that space is ‘cleansing’ and healing. There is a feeling of freedom (one can forget about the pandemic there) and ‘wholesomeness’ that made me feel ‘normal’ for those few days.

CADABA APHYLLA

These bright red flowers stand out all over the Addo Elephant National Park, giving the Schotia brachypetala (Weeping Boer-boon) a run for its money. Its name has eluded me for some time until now: Cadaba aphylla is commonly known in Afrikaans as either Bobbejaanarm (arm of a baboon) or Swartstormbos (black storm bush). It is colloquially called a Leafless Wormbush in English. It looks a little like a broom plant.

These leafless tangled shrubs are often thorny at the tops. It is the clusters of red flowers that catch the eye as one drives through the park.

Characteristic of the flowers is that the long stamens protrude above the bright red petals – rather like a flag calling attention to passing pollinators!

The Cadaba aphyllum are hardy plants that survive frost as well as drought – which is why it is an ever-present delight to see in the park.

HELMETED GUINEAFOWL

The Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) is an iconic grassland bird that has endeared itself to residents and tourists alike. Curios abound showing off their clearly identifiable black or grey plumage with vivid white spots: tiny clay figurines, cloths, mugs, brooches and table mats.

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Everyone seems to feel an affinity for these birds with characteristically bald faces and necks covered with blue skin. The wattles are red and they have a triangular horn-shaped casque or ‘helmet’ on their crown.

Flocks of them were present on my father’s farm. He didn’t use insecticide when growing cotton, arguing that the guineafowl did the job for him as they ranged through the cotton lands, picking off the pests as they went. They make for good eating too and have been hunted for sport. My father, however, would only shoot one now and then – strictly for the pot – as he wished to encourage their presence on the farm.

They forage on the ground, although fly up when disturbed. As evening approached I would sometimes see them roosting in the lower branches of trees on the farm. Their chuckling cackle remains one of my favourite sounds in the wild. I was delighted to hear that sound when we moved to the Eastern Cape and loved seeing them out in the open when we walked through the veld on the hill opposite our home. Alas, the area has become pitted with houses and the guineafowl have either been hunted out or chased away by dogs, people or the traffic.

Catching sight of them in the veld still lifts my spirits and transports me back to my growing up years, so far in time and distance from where I am now.

Here a small flock of Helmeted Guineafowl can be seen pecking in the grass in front of the Ngulube Waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park.