Two visits to the Addo Elephant National Park, in December and again this month, tell the tale of drought. In this photograph elephants crowd around the Hapoor waterhole.
The veld around this waterhole is almost completely bare of vegetation and so it is not surprising to see dust devils such as this one nearby.
December has been a frantically busy month during which bird watching in our garden has often had to take second place to other activities – as wonderful as they were. I need not have worried though for one of the dubious benefits of the drought has been the attraction of a greater variety of birds to the garden. A Chin-spot Batis was a welcome newcomer that worked its way through the remaining ivy leaves in a more sheltered spot and it has been pleasing to see the return of Yellow-fronted Canaries. This one is inspecting the new feeder I received from my family in Norway.
The most wonderful sound to hear outside since 2018 was the bubbling calls of a Burchell’s Coucal. It paid the garden a very fleeting visit though. These camera-shy birds tend to take refuge in the bushes and the call of one was particularly exciting to hear for they are colloquially known as ‘rain birds’ – said to predict rain, which we need so desperately in the Eastern Cape. Perhaps its prediction was accurately short for we received a whole millimetre of rain not long afterwards! Although I hear their high-pitched calls daily and frequently see them working their way quickly through the remains of the dry Cape Honeysuckle hedge, I was pleased to photograph this Bar-throated Apalis on the ground near our wash line.
A pair of Red-necked Spurfowl have been making more frequent forays into our garden to seek out the crushed maize I scatter for the doves. This is not a good photograph of one for they are still very skittish and move off very quickly should I approach too close for their comfort. I am hoping they will become regular visitors.
The number of Black-eyed Bulbuls gathering around the fruit has increased from the usual three or four to up to seventeen individuals this month! This must be related to the paucity of naturally available food in these drought conditions. I love watching their antics and listening to their cheerful calls. Despite them being sociable birds, they can be fairly aggressive towards each other at times. I have observed, for example how a bird may spread its tail feathers and raise its crest when confronting another in order to protect its turn at an apple.
Male Pin-tailed Whydahs are generally aggressive towards other birds. This one is an exception for, as I have seen no females, I am guessing that my garden is not his territory to defend and he only comes here to feed. He is sporting a magnificent tail at the moment.
My December bird list is:
African Green Pigeon
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
At this time the summer temperatures can rise to over 40°C, making everyone thirsty. It is no different in the wild, where this threesome of elephants were the forerunners of a larger herd making their way across the dusty veld to drink at Rooidam in the Addo Elephant National Park. The elephant on the right has earlier submerged itself in either this or another waterhole nearby – as the darker ‘tide mark’ on its body shows. The darkened trunks also indicate that all three have already tasted the water at least and the dark ‘socks’ on the left elephant indicates how shallow the water is on the edge.
A warthog is taking advantage of the lull in animal traffic to enjoy a quiet drink of water from the waterhole at Woodlands. The water is so calm that it might even be admiring its reflection in the water while it quenches it thirst. All the waterholes in the Addo Elephant National Park are supplied by boreholes. That might be a covered pump next to the warthog. You can clearly see the concrete base of this waterhole and elephant dung in the background.
Sometimes it is not water one needs, but mother’s milk. Certainly that is what this zebra foal wanted in the middle of the day. Note how fluffy its hair is and the loving gesture of the mother placing her chin on its rump – the closest she can come to what we would call a hug, perhaps.
Birds require sustenance too and this Greater Double-collared Sunbird settled down to a good drink of nectar at Jack’s Picnic Place, quite unperturbed at being photographed in action. It visited each flower in turn before moving on to the next cluster.
The drought may have robbed us of a fine display of wild spring and summer flowers in the veld, yet there are some indigenous trees that have defied all odds to produce beautiful blooms. The first are some lovely specimens of Virgilia oroboides, commonly known as the Keurboom (tree of choice). Several growing along the lower slopes of the hills around Grahamstown are covered with beautiful, sweetly scented, sweet-pea-like flowers in dense terminal sprays that are proving attractive to bees and butterflies in great numbers.
Although the Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense) in our garden is completely out of kilter with the seasons, there are some lovely specimens blooming along the street not far from where I live. Their pink canopies of flowers are a beautiful sight.
Further afield, in the Addo Elephant National Park, one’s attention is drawn away from the bare ground by the bright red flowers of the Huilboerboon trees (Schotia brachypetala).
Also known as a Tree Fuschia, these trees are sporting clusters of nectar-filled flowers that attract insects as well as birds. I have seen beautiful specimens of these trees growing in gardens. In the Addo Elephant National Park, however, they tend to be straggly and stunted with very gnarled trunks, thanks to being browsed by game.
When all you have is grass …
You will find there is beauty …
In the wind …
And in the golden sunshine …
One can find beauty even in the driest periods and a particularly beautiful evergreen shrub blooming in the veld at the moment is the Wild Pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina), which belongs to a part of the coffee family called Rubiaceae. These shrubs are found in forested habitats, as well as in montane grassland and scrub. This one is growing on a rocky outcrop on top of the Rietberg. Note the way the short main stem is twisted and multi-stemmed.
The bright orange to red flowers appear from early spring to mid-summer.
The copious nectar in these flowers attracts birds, butterflies and other insects.
The tree was named after W.J. Burchell (1782-1863), an early English explorer, naturalist and artist who worked at Kew Gardens. During his travels in South Africa in 1810 he is said to have collected about 50 000 specimens which he took back to the UK. Bubalina means buff-coloured in Latin which is possibly a reference to the yellowish hairs found on the young stems. The Afrikaans name for this shrub, Buffelshoring, refers to the buffalo-like horns of the old calyx lobes on the fruit.
Other interesting information can be read at:
One always has to drive with care in areas where animals are free roaming. We have been doing that in our town for years as the Urban Herd of cattle – and now donkeys – has expanded. In a game reserve, careful driving at slow speeds is a must. You can never tell what might be crossing the road around a corner – or for how long you might have to wait.
Each time visitors thought there might be a break – these were not the first elephants to cross – more would appear from the bushes on the right of the picture.
Motorists had to wait patiently.
And just when they thought the coast was clear …
… another elephant appeared!
These elephants were heading across the road to drink and bathe in the Ghwarrie waterhole to the left of the pictures, whilst most of the visitors were waiting to observe an even large herd of elephants at Rooidam, from where we had just come.