SIX BIRDS FROM BONTEBOK NATIONAL PARK

The Spur-Winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is the largest waterfowl occurring in Africa and is named after the spurs on its wings. I spotted many of them flying across the wheat and canola fields as we drove through the Western Cape, but it was on the bank of the Breede River in the Bontebok National Park that I saw this pair of Spur-winged Geese from fairly close-up.

These birds forage in wetlands and moist grasslands, eating grasses, roots and other plant matter. As you can see, they are mainly black, with a white face with a warty red bill, and large white wing patches. Their legs are flesh-coloured.

Driving through the park, one cannot help seeing the rather dark, grey-brown Karoo Scrub-robins (Cercotrichas coryphoeus) perched atop the dry fynbos. I was fortunate to spot this one with a spider in its beak.

A happy surprise awaited me at the reception buildings: the White-throated Swallows (Hirundo albigularis) have arrived – one cannot ask for a surer sign that the season has turned! They are intra-African migrants that breed in South Africa and over-winter in countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola.

These swallows sport a small rufous patch on the forehead and a dark blue breast band which forms a white throat patch.

Sparrows are very common – and thus largely overlooked – birds. We host a pair of Southern Grey-headed Sparrows in our garden and frequently see House Sparrows in the car-park of our local shopping mall. It was thus refreshing to observe a pair of Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus) in the Bontebok National Park. The males and females look very different: the female has a pale grey head with a diffuse pale crescent. These sparrows usually feed on the ground as they eat seeds, fruit and occasionally insects. This female is eating a tiny flower.

The males have a brighter, more distinctive livery with a distinctive white ‘C’ shape on the side of their heads.

Although these are not the only birds seen in the park, I cannot resist leaving you with a bird that regular readers will be very familiar with from my monthly garden bird reports: the Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra). Why bother with it then, you might ask. The main reason is because these birds, which sport a distinctive white eyebrow and a rufous chest, are undeniably pretty and it was good to see them in a habitat other than my garden.

CONFIDENCE IS THE KEY PART II

Several readers encouraged me to explore what happened to Nicholas after he had screamed. Part I ended thus:

“We’re almost there,” Nicholas said encouragingly as he turned back to face them. “If you look carefully, you should be able to spot our shelter between those trees down there. Just be careful as you step over these last rocks.” One man and all these girls … they’d be eating out of his hand before long.

As that thought drifted through his mind, Nicholas walked straight into the web of a golden orb spider stretched across the path. He screamed and dropped his rifle …

The girls shrieked too. Nicholas knew it was now or never. He retrieved his rifle and faced the group, smiling broadly. “Now that wasn’t an inspiring sight was it?”

“Or sound.” Siobhan added sourly.

“Or sound,” Nicholas repeated. “The thing is, you are bound to come across spider webs strung across the path when we walk through the forested area early tomorrow morning. If you all react the way I have just demonstrated, we won’t see or hear anything and might as well go home.”

‘Keep them busy, Nicholas. Show them you’re in charge’ thundered through his head. “Now is a good time for tea, decide where you are going to sleep, and who is going to help me make supper tonight.”

To his relief, everyone got busy and the spider incident seemed to have been forgotten. The girls were hungry and tired, yet perked up when Nicholas produced some packs of cards and set them a challenge playing sevens. “The final winner won’t have to do any night watch duty tonight.”

He joined Siobhan with a mug of coffee during her night watch session between three and four in the morning. They watched the girls sleeping a little distance from the low embers and listened to the night sounds. It was Siobhan’s third such trip, so she was familiar with the routine and didn’t say much until she had drained her mug.

“Did you study drama at some stage?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“That spider performance was so realistic, I could have sworn you were genuinely frightened.” She stirred the embers with a stick and appeared to be focused on the tiny sparks that flew up into the darkness.

Nicholas placed another log on the fire. “It was only a spider,” he replied nonchalantly. “The girls seemed out of sorts; I thought it might cheer them up a little.”

”You’ve been a wonder with them so far, Nick.”

After an early breakfast, Nicholas tasked one group of girls to keep an eye out for birds while the others were to note any insects seen along the way. He was relieved to see Siobhan nodding her approval. He identified some of the trees in the forest area and encouraged the girls to make bark rubbings and to either collect or draw the leaves for their hiking journals he had asked them to compile.

Conversations were animated around the fire that night. Nicholas found a happy medium between joking with the group and choosing moments in which to impart more serious information. He felt they enjoyed showing him their hiking journals and smiled inwardly at the way some seemed to vie with each other to ask him questions.

There was a collective reluctance to move away from the communal fire on their last night together and so it was already late when the solo night watches began. As silence mantled the group, Nicholas snuggled into his sleeping bag, feeling relaxed enough at last to drift off to sleep for a couple of hours.

Later, he heard someone waking Siobhan for her turn of duty. She groaned softly and thanked whoever had brewed her a mug of tea. Nicholas stretched out and allowed a satisfied sigh to escape as he rolled over.

An ear-splitting shriek broke the silence of the early hours, followed immediately by a blood-curdling scream that woke everyone. The shriek came again as Siobhan played her powerful torch beam around the camp. “Nick!” She yelled loudly with a note of rising hysteria. “Nick!”

He wriggled out of his sleeping bag.

“Nick! Bring your rifle!” Siobhan was clearly scared out of her wits. He indicated to the wide-eyed girls to remain in their sleeping bags and held a finger to his lips. Siobhan was sobbing now and cowered when another high-pitched scream rent the air.

Nicholas smiled in the dark as he sat beside her. His rifle lay on the ground in front of them. “Shine your torch into the trees,” he instructed quietly, “and you’ll see the eyes.” Confidence really is the key, he couldn’t help thinking.

“In the trees?” Siobhan shuddered. Nearly everyone had their torches trained upwards by now.

“No need to panic. These are galagos, also known as bush babies. You are very lucky to see them.” He spoke in a conversational tone as he placed another log on the fire and adjusted the metal trivet over the coals. “Anyone for tea?”

Nicholas didn’t try to quieten the girls during their short walk on that last morning. He actually enjoyed their cheerful singing as he drove them back to the reception area and was taken aback to be hugged by each one in turn as they got into their minibus. “Do you feel okay to drive this lot?” He watched as Siobhan ticked off her checklist before shutting the sliding door of the minibus.

“I’ll be fine. We’re overnighting at a farm along the way, so I don’t have too far to go.” She moved forward and hugged him too then slid into the driver’s seat.

Ten days later Nicholas again faced William Barlow, who had called him away from a bird identification course he was running with Simon. “I need to see you about birds of a different kind,” he had said tersely before leading the way to his office.

“I’ve received an e-mailed report on your trip with the girls”, he said gruffly as they sat down. “Miss Davidson is pleased with your performance. This has been her best trip yet.” He passed across the e-mail he had printed. “The Headmaster has recommended you too.” William looked pleased. “He ‘phoned this morning. He tells me that this was a particularly difficult group of girls and you have worked wonders with them.” He smiled at Nicholas. “Apparently it all started with a performance over a spider. Would you like to tell me about it?”

Nicholas could feel the flush on his face. ‘Confidence is the key’, he told himself sternly. “Nothing to tell really. I just put on a bit of a show to spark an interest.”

“Well done lad!” You’re a credit to us.” William perused his list. “A group of eight women collectively celebrating their fiftieth birthdays arrive on Friday. I’m going to ask Gillian to assist you with this one.”

APRIL 2022 GARDEN

As we will be away for a while, I thought of taking stock of our garden this morning. Here is a frog rescued from the swimming pool:

The Hairy Golden Orb-weaver spider is still standing guard over the front path. If anything, its web is even larger than before. I caught it in the midst of its breakfast:

Moving towards a shady part of the garden, my eyes lit up at the sight of a few Crocosmia blossoms:

The carpet of moss under the trees is doing well, especially after a light shower of rain yesterday:

Even though something has been attacking the zinnia plants growing in a pot, I was pleased to see this bud a day or two ago:

Which, by today, had opened to reveal the beauty within:

WE ARE BEING HELD HOSTAGE

Note: Should you suffer from arachnophobia, read no further.

Relax, this is not a terrorist situation. Well, depending on your perception, it is a situation which can indeed strike terror into even the stoutest of hearts. I discovered the trap late on Sunday afternoon when I walked down the garden path to open the gate: my head and face became swathed in something sticky … so sticky that whatever it was brushed off with some difficulty. As it must have been a spider web, I crouched low to avoid it on my return journey – walking in the crouched position far longer than required I might add – then stood up to see what I had just missed.

Even in the glow of the almost setting sunlight I could see the unmistakeable golden strands running in all directions right across the garden path. Thankfully I am too short to have walked into the actual spider which stood guard plonk in the middle:

This is a member of the golden orb spider family known as Trichonephila fenestrata or more commonly as the Hairy Golden Orb-weaver. I cannot help noticing that from this angle its markings look like a face complete with teeth. It is this spider that is keeping us hostage for the time being – how can we expect visitors to come up the garden path only to walk into this large, very strong and rather sticky web and even come face to face with the spider? Happily we have a back entrance that we will use until such time the spider decides it is time to go. One look at its long dark brown or black legs with hairy brushes and I feel sure you would do the same.

The web not only stretches right across the garden path, but seems to have multiple supporting lines that provide considerable depth to the web. These threads take on a beautiful golden colour in the sunlight. While I was photographing it this afternoon, an unsuspecting bee flew into the web. The spider was off in a second, ready to deal with its prey.

Here it appears to be puncturing the bee. This would be to paralyse it prior to wrapping it up in silk to consume later.

It is difficult to see in the light, but I think the spider may be wrapping up its prey here.

The smaller spider in the image below appeared as I was about to leave. I cannot help wondering if this is the male – they are much smaller than the females and generally have to approach the female with great care or they might end up as a meal!

By looking back in my journals, I note that we have hosted a number of golden orb spiders in our garden over the years – usually in March. One took over a large portion of my wash line; another set up home just outside our kitchen door – that one even caused a pair of burly, bullet-proof vested security guards to shiver in their combat boots when they came to check why our burglar alarm had gone off. Mostly the webs have been spun fairly high up and out of the way.

 

REVISITING THE RAIN SPIDER

I recently published this photograph of a rain spider on its nest tucked under a roof outside our kitchen:

My attention was focused on the large spider and how protective it appears in this photograph. Some of the comments indicated much the same focus. At the time I wondered about the fluffy appearance of the exterior of the nest and I even peered into those holes, leaving none the wiser. The sharp-eyed among my readers kept silent, perhaps taking what they observed for granted. This morning I noticed that the spider had disappeared and, in its absence, peered at the nest more closely for those fringes of fluff had a definite shape to them. Hooray for the magnifying qualities of a cellphone camera:

The ‘fluff’ are clearly the skins sloughed off by the hundreds of tiny spiders that must have hatched within the nest! This leaves me wondering what their survival rate is.