FARM GATE

I am fascinated by farm gates: what stories lie behind them – and what a variety of fastenings they have. This metal one is of a modern design and it is kept locked with a metal chain. I suspect the wooden fence posts have shifted with the seasons for there is not longer the ‘neat fit’ that would have been intended when the gate was hung.

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BIRDING IN THE GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE

The dry winter is not the best time to observe birds in the Great Fish River Nature Reserve – certainly not from within the confines of one’s vehicle over very rough roads which jolt one from side to side, along with having to be extra vigilant about avoiding being scratched by the Vachellia thorns on the branches that protrude well into the road in places. Birding is often an adventure waiting to happen.

This is the reed-lined entrance to the Kentucky Bird Hide overlooking the Khwalamanzi Dam.

Given the prolonged drought in the Eastern Cape, we should not have been surprised to be greeted by this:

In February 2015 the dam looked like this.

Then we saw a flock of Yellow-billed Ducks.

And a pair of Egyptian Geese were nesting on a mound in front of the bird hide.

At least there was a small herd of kudu to see this time!

A careful scrutiny of the surrounds and much patience revealed a Brown-hooded Kingfisher waiting to catch – who can tell what?

I later spotted another one at the picnic site adjacent to the Great Fish River.

On our way out, I saw a Cape Wagtail posing on a fence.

My bird list for this visit is as follows:

Bar-throated Apalis
Black-eyed Bulbul
Bokmakierie
Boubou
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin
Cape Wagtail
Egyptian Goose
Emerald-spotted Wood-dove
Fiscal Shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Pied Wagtail
Speckled Mousebird

SPEKBOOM

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) grows primarily in the dry areas of the Eastern Cape.

Recent research has shown Spekboom to be an excellent ‘carbon sponge’ with the ability to sequestrate (absorb) free carbon from the atmosphere which is used to make plant tissue. It does so particularly efficiently, which means that a stand of Spekboom has the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest. Spekboom is unique in that it stores solar energy to photosynthesise at night. This makes it ten times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than a tropical rain forest. Each hectare of Spekboom can capture 4,2 tons of carbon every year.

Note the thicket of Spekboom behind this Cape buffalo.

You can see the shape of the leaves of the Spekboom in this picture of a Cape Weaver.

Because of its ability to capture carbon, Spekboom is being replanted in degraded thicket areas in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, the Addo Elephant National Park, and in the Great Fish Nature Reserve. These projects not only help to restore natural ecosystems, but as they are labour-intensive, they provide a source of income for rural communities and thereby help to alleviate poverty. The picture below illustrates an area of the Great Fish River Nature Reserve where cuttings of Spekboom have been planted.

Here you can see how other cuttings have bushed out over time.

Small star-shaped pink flowers are borne en masse from late winter to spring, usually after the first rains. They are a rich source of nectar for many insects, which in turn attract insectivorous birds.

This dragonfly is resting on a sprig of Spekboom.

Here a Cape Sparrow perches on Spekboom.

The ubiquitous dense stands of succulent Spekboom form an important part of the diet of the elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park. Their top-down browsing habits apparently help the plants to spread and thrive by promoting the natural umbrella-shaped canopy. Spekboom regenerates quickly, ensuring a regular food supply. Note the baby elephant feeding on Spekboom in the picture below.

SHEPHERD’S BUSH

While it grows all in many of the more arid areas of South Africa as well as in Botswana and Namibia, I most readily associate the evergreen Shepherd’s Bush (Boscia albitrunca) with the Eastern Cape. The bare whitish-grey trunk and dense rounded crown are both attractive and distinctive, making this tree easily recognisable in the bush. If you look at the picture below, taken in the Great Fish Nature Reserve, you should notice the white trunk standing out from the rest of the trees.

One generally comes across a single Shepherd’s Bush as they tend not occur in groups. Their neat, seemingly ‘clipped’, crowns are the result of herbivores browsing the leaves.

The genus name Boscia is in honour of a French professor of agriculture, Louis A.G. Bosc (1777-1850), while the specific name is a combination of albi (white) and trunca (trunk), and refers to the whitish trunk of the species. Sometimes the trunk appears very white, such as this specimen.

As you can tell, not all Shepherd’s Bush trees have a single stem.

They are often referred to as the ‘tree of life’, as nearly every part of the Shepherd’s Bush can be used by humans and animals. The fruit is consumed by people and animals; the leaves are particularly nutritious for animals; the wood is used to make utensils; and various parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. The dried roots can be pounded to form a powder that is used to make a drink said to be a suitable substitute for coffee. The Boers commonly called this ‘kommetjie gat’ (cup of coffee) when they were unable to source proper coffee during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). A kommetjie refers to a small basin, bowl or mug. Due to the high regard for its nutrition as well as the many cultural beliefs relating to it, Shepherd’s Bush trees are rarely felled outside of protected areas except to provide feed for domestic livestock during times of drought. This practice may, however, have a detrimental effect on the trees in the long run.

SNEEZEWOOD POST

National tree number 292, Sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum), has been used as fence posts on farms all over the Eastern Cape for centuries. During that time they have survived the onslaught of sun, wind, decay, fungi and even termites and continue to hold up fences. This is a typical example of a Sneezewood fence post on a local farm.

Sneezewood has also been used for railway sleepers. It is believed that Sneezewood sawdust can be used as an insect repellent. With so many of the original farm fences having been uprooted over the years to make way for larger lands or for game reserves, Sneezewood fence posts have been collected to make benches, for garden steps and to make decorative fences around homes and lodges. The weathered patterns of the wood – and its longevity – suggest a knowledge of the many changes that have taken place where they have stood steadfastly through time.

TSITSIKAMMA NATIONAL PARK

If you are seeking a place in which to relax in a pleasant environment, the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park is a wonderful destination to consider. We recently spent four days camping at the Storms River Mouth and can attest to its natural beauty. The first hint of the spectacular scenery comes from the Paul Sauer Bridge over the Storms River on the N2. There is something magical about those deep, rocky gorges and the fynbos-stained water so far below.

I never tire of the distinctive smell of fynbos and seaweed as one drives down the road winding through the forest to reach the rest camp. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, “place of much water”. There is plenty of it too, from the booming breakers crashing over dark rocks to the little streams one crosses on the forest walk – and the Storms River. The waves and the verdant landscape of trees hugging the steep cliffs are endlessly photogenic – especially at sunrise and in the late afternoon.

There is a lot to do too, from swimming in the pool watched by Kelp Gulls and dassies (rock hyrax), bird watching, exploring the rock pools, and walking through the forest.

On previous visits we have walked the start of the Otter Trail as far as the waterfall (a 6km round trip) but on this visit – in the company of very young children – we confined ourselves to the 1 km Loerie Trail through the forest and a walk to the suspension bridge over the Storms River Mouth. It was from this vantage point that we saw a group of visitors kayaking in the sea.

The latter walk is very pleasant for one follows the boardwalk through coastal forest. Every now and then one gets spectacular views of the sea through the trees.

The suspension bridge crossing the Storms River Mouth leads to a pebble beach, which is a lovely place for a snack.

The Loerie Trail is a very pleasant way of experiencing the indigenous forest. There are steps to help one up the steep slopes.

Steps leading down.

One can appreciate the patterns on tree trunks;

The colours of the forest floor;

Get a feel of the ancient legacy of the trees;

A pair of African Dusky Flycatchers took little notice of us as they perched on the fence nearby to hawk their prey throughout our stay. We were fortunate to see a pair of African oystercatchers near the pool late one afternoon as well as Paradise Flycatchers flitting through the coastal bush next to our campsite.