AN UNINVITED GUEST

Jack’s picnic site in the heart of the Addo Elephant National Park is a good place to stop for lunch and enjoy a break from driving. Each picnic site is separated from the next by a thick hedge of Spekboom and other indigenous plants, so one does not have to wait long to get close-up views of a variety of shrub-loving birds. We were able to admire a Bar-throated Apalis – a bird heard all over the park, but which is not easily seen whilst one is driving.

It wasn’t long before a Southern Boubou made an appearance.

A pair of Cape Robin-chats came to investigate the pickings.

We are always pleased to see a Sombre Greenbul (I still think of it is a Bulbul!), which is another bird more easily heard than seen when one drives through the park.

These birds have become accustomed to the regular arrival and departure of humans, for they appeared in quick succession to comb the gravel for anything edible the previous party might have left in their wake. Within minutes of our arrival they had retreated to the dense cover of the surrounding shrubbery as we settled down to enjoy our food and conversation.

Shortly afterwards I became aware of the Cape Robin-chats calling loudly behind me – I recognised the alarm call from the many times I have heard it in our garden. One of the pair spread its tail feathers out widely, while the other ruffled its feathers as if to increase its size.

The Southern Boubou emerged from the undergrowth, making a harsh grating alarm call, while the Bar-throated Apalis danced frantically along the top of the Spekboom hedge, snapping its bill and wings – it too was clearly agitated. Something untoward was happening.

I looked up in time to see a Boomslang launching itself from the shrubbery onto the roof shading our picnic table – far too fast for me to focus my camera! We could see no sign of it on the roof, so we continued our picnic until I looked up again and saw its sinuous length squeezed into the space between the roof and the wooden slats below it.

Some of our party felt it was too close for comfort

We decided then than it was time to pack up and continue our game viewing drive.

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THERE ARE BIRDS IN ADDO

Far too many tourists drive about seeking one species of animal after the other in their quest to chalk up as many as they can – even driving past elephants, zebra and kudu because of a  “we’ve seen them” attitude – with eyes peeled for the ultimate prize: the sight of a lion. We see bored faces in vehicles as the day progresses, listless looks of bafflement when a passing vehicle asks what we are looking at and we respond “birds” or even tell them what bird we might be looking at. “Birds,” one might say or simply give a nod of the head as they move on in their quest.

Watching out for birds in any game reserve adds to the enjoyment of the environment as a whole. Here are a few of the many seen on our recent trip to the Addo Elephant National Park:

A ubiquitous Common Fiscal. Note how it is holding on to the twigs to keep it steady in the stiff breeze.

A young Olive Thrush perching inquisitively on our picnic table. Notice that it is still covered with speckles.

Cape Bulbuls, such as this one abound in the rest camp.

Large flocks of Pied Starlings can be seen all over in the park.

It is always fun seeing Speckled Mousebirds fly across the road or to working their way through bushes as they look for leaves, berries or flowers to eat.

Beautiful Malachite Sunbirds show flashes of metallic green as they pass by in a flash.

Who can resist the delicate beauty of a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk?

How fortunate it was to find a Greater Striped Swallow at rest!

One can almost be guaranteed to find a Bar-throated Apalis at the picnic site.

Lastly, for now, is a Sombre Bulbul (now called a Sombre Greenbul!).

STONE THE CROWS

No, I do not mean that literally – that is the last kind of behaviour I would encourage! Rather, stone the crows is a phrase generally understood to be an exclamation of incredulity or annoyance. Although this is not a term widely used in South Africa, it occasionally springs to mind when crows squawk and gurgle as they fly over my garden or settle in one of the tall trees before being mobbed by some of the smaller denizens of the area.

Until about five years ago, crows of any kind were more often seen in the area known as Burnt Kraal and around the municipal dump, both on the outskirts of our town. Now I see both Cape Crows and Pied Crows daily in the suburbs – occasionally even a White-necked Raven.

The Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is the most common and widespread all over the country.

It is easily recognised by its white breast and neck, both while flying or when it is on the ground. They have been recorded as being on the increase in South Africa, partly because of the availability of nesting sites on electrical poles coupled with roadkill as an available source of food. Any traveller along our network of roads will attest to this. The Pied Crow is highly adaptable in terms of the food it eats, which includes an omnivorous diet of fruit, seeds, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. They are known to raid the nests of birds for either eggs or nestlings, so it is no surprise that the Fork-tailed Drongos nesting the fig tree regularly chase one off the property. I wonder if they say stone the crows, wishing they could do this literally!

Pied Crows also remind me of a song we used to sing in primary school. It began:

Aai, aai, die Witborskraai!

Hiervandaan na Mosselbaai

–Oompie wil na Tannie vry,

maar Tannie trek haar neus opsy.

You might find this an interesting site to visit:

http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/fitz/research/programmes/maintaining_global/pied_crows

The Cape Crow (Corvus capensis) used to be called (and is still widely known as) the Black Crow – perfectly understandable as it is a glossy black all over.

It is a common resident in grasslands as well as in the drier regions of the country. They are ubiquitous in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we saw flocks of close to fifty scattered across the veld in the vicinity of Carol’s Rest and elsewhere. They too are omnivorous birds, feeding on insects, small reptiles, birds, frogs, seeds, fruit and carrion.

A BLESSING OR A CURSE?

It is almost a given that camping at one of our national parks will involve at least one encounter with Vervet Monkeys. Seasoned campers keep their food out of sight and lock their caravans or tents when they are away from the camping area – be aware that if you do not have a built-in groundsheet, your food remains a target as monkeys know all about crawling underneath the canvas! Visitors are warned not to feed them – as ‘cute’ as they might look – and rubbish bins have been designed with a rolling lid to make it difficult for monkeys to pull anything out of them in their quest to find something to eat.

These bins are emptied regularly and every morning someone visits the campsites to clear away the remains of any braai fires from the night before. There is not a great deal more that the authorities can do. Yet, there must be enough pickings around to make it worthwhile for the monkeys to systematically comb the rest camp for food during the course of the morning and the early afternoons, when the rest camp is very quiet. That is when many visitors are driving through the wildlife area, sitting in the bird hide or … resting.

During such a lull one afternoon, I heard of someone’s car keys being snatched away by a monkey; our neighbours found moneys had entered their open vehicle while they were chatting to other neighbours nearby; and I watched as one by one monkeys would alight on our trailer parked next to a Spekboom hedge.

They used the roof of the neighbouring caravan as a lookout point.

One of the monkeys had stolen a muffin and sat on the caravan roof to enjoy his booty. It was quickly joined by two others. The first monkey was unwilling to share, so leapt up into the tall branches of the adjacent fig tree to eat it in solitude.

Seasoned camper that I am, I too fell victim to the monkeys whilst we were breaking camp and the trailer lid was left open for ease of packing: away went a bunch of bananas … away went the remains of the vanilla biscuits I had baked for the trip – they dropped my plastic container though.

A blessing – yes, because they are fun to watch; a curse – yes, because nothing is safe from their inherent inquisitiveness!

FRIEND OR FOE?

Farmers do not regard these wily creatures as friends, yet they are a delight to observe in their natural habitat.

Black-backed Jackals tend to mate for life and so, should you see one in the veld, you can virtually be certain there is another in the vicinity. A pair of them trotted purposefully along the edge of Ghwarrie Pan shortly after sunrise one morning. It was at Carol’s Rest though that we observed an interesting altercation between a Black-backed Jackal and a Pied Crow.

The latter had already experienced an unsuccessful attempt to share the small waterhole with an Egyptian Goose that had arrived out of the blue – with no intention of sharing the water with anyone!

Once the Egyptian Goose had drunk its fill and flown off, the Pied Crow was in no mood to be ousted from its drinking spot again and made sure the approaching Black-backed Jackal was aware of this. Doubtless, the jackal was thirsty too and so it kept trotting purposefully towards the water. The crow opted to make a pre-emptive strike.

It continued to harass the jackal until it gave up and moved away to drink from the overflow a little further down the slope.

ADDO ELEPHANTS

Elephants tend to move around in family groups led by a matriarch. These elephants in such a group were quenching their thirst at Ghwarrie Pan in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Male offspring are ousted from these closely-knit family groups once they reach the age of about twelve and they start to show a more than brotherly interest in the females. This must be a difficult period for these young bulls until they team up with other bulls or attach themselves to an older bull. This young bull had followed the family group pictured above from a discreet distance. It refrained from joining them, but constantly smelled the ground they had covered.

It waited patiently until the family group had crossed to the other side of the water before moving to where they had been drinking. It was only once his former family group began walking towards the lip of the hill that he finally began to drink from their last position at the dam.

Of course it is always exciting to get close to elephants in this park, where you often don’t really need a fancy camera to get pictures such as this:

Or this one:

Hapoor waterhole is a marvellous place to spend time watching groups of elephants greeting each other, young ones playing with each other, or simply to observe the actions of these majestic animals.

One shouldn’t become too complacent about the apparent gentleness or the tolerance the Addo elephants seem to have for tourists and their vehicles. It is best to maintain a healthy respect for them, to give way to them, and to allow them the space the need to move.