SPOTTED THICK-KNEE

The poor Spotted Dikkop (Burhinus capensis) having been re-named the Spotted Thick-kneewhat an undignified name that is for a bird, and all because of the bulging tibio-tarsal joint midway up its legs! ‘Thick-knee’ indeed! Then, Trevor Carnaby in his wonderful book entitled Beat about the bush: birds, informs us that that is not the knee anyway, but the bird’s ankle! He also maintains that the new name is “far better than the old name of dikkop, an Afrikaans name literally translated as ‘thick-head’” – referring to the dorso-ventrally flattened head that bulges to the sides. I beg to differ: no-one has ever suggested that dikkops are stupid in any way – in fact their amazing ability to stand stock still and to blend into their surroundings is anything but stupid! The renaming of birds does not always make sense to many of us, who remain more comfortable with the old nomenclature.

We do need to move with the times though and so I will share with you the only reasonable picture I have of the Spotted Thick-knee that recently paid us a visit during the gloomy crepuscular time of the day, once the sun was well set and the last of the light was beginning to lose the battle against the creeping dark.

Note the large eyes that are suited to their nocturnal activities as well as the cryptic colouring of its plumage. This is the first time I have seen one so close to home, although they occur all over the Eastern Cape and elsewhere in the country.

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CANNON ROCKS

Cannon Rocks is one of several coastal villages between Port Elizabeth and East London.

The name is said to derive from cannons retrieved from the wrecks of Portuguese sailing ships that sank in the area – some of the many ships that have come to grief along the shore over the centuries.

After a short walk below the mounted cannons, one is met by water gushing out of this pipe – the origin or purpose of which I cannot tell, although the water looks clean.

The beach is a haven for peace.

SHARDS FROM THE PAST

When our forebears travelled from their countries of origin – initially by sea – to South Africa and then – by ox-wagon – to settle in various parts of the country, they had to be completely self-reliant. That meant packing for the future: clothing – and the means to make more; tools (so many initially unsuited to this part of the world); seeds; furniture; basic domestic goods and so on – including all their crockery and cutlery.

Now when we go camping we take unbreakable plates, cups, and even wine ‘glasses’ – these people travelled with the real McCoy: real glassware, and real crockery. Imagine packing those precious, breakable things for a journey into the unknown with the knowledge that they would not easily be replaced!

We have visited sites all over the country where early settlers would have made their homes, be it farm homesteads or early fortifications. A careful survey of the veld around these areas generally reveals some shards of the domesticity of those days.

This first example comes from Fort Willshire, in the Eastern Cape, which was erected by the British military in 1818-1819 and abandoned in 1836. Left to the elements, it is now a ruin that has become overgrown by natural vegetation.

The next comes from an area close to the old stone homestead at Hell’s Poort, a farm not very far from Grahamstown.

These shards of crockery have been picked up from various places in KwaZulu-Natal.

With the exception of the pink piece, the others all show various patterns of blue and white. Notice how thick they are. These shards are typical of the porcelain brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company and by the early settlers and give us an inkling into the domestic lives of those who came before us.

GLADIOLUS DALENII

Newly greened grass stretched either side of the road I was travelling along – a glorious sight after such a long period of shades of brown. When my attention was drawn to a small splash of red – I had to stop for a closer look.

The long bracts of hooded-shaped flowers and the fan of sword-shaped leaves immediately identified it as one of our indigenous Gladiolus species. As I neared it, I was assailed by the memory of swathes of these plants growing in a patch of garden on the farm where I grew up. My mother used to collect bulbs from around the farm to plant in the garden – for which there was never enough water – and over the years these multiplied to provide a glorious show of flowers. This is the Gladiolus dalenii, also known as the Parrot Gladiolus or – a name I am unfamiliar with – the Natal Lily.

Although this was the only specimen I could see in the area, this plant generally thrives in grasslands throughout the eastern parts of South Africa.

PORTRAIT OF A CAPE ROBIN-CHAT

It is inevitable that at this time of the year British robins appear on blogs and feature on Christmas cards – I saw a few packs of the latter in the supermarket this morning. As lovely as these birds are, I think it is an opportune moment to show off the Cape Robin-chats that grace many Eastern Cape gardens at this time of the year. This one obligingly posed for me over the weekend.

The Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra) prefers to forage in the proximity of cover, and  is not often seen out in the open – unless it is flitting from one position in the garden to another – although they can become fairly confiding after a while. I frequently see one, or a pair, picking up tit-bits at the base of the tree where the feeding tray is and love to observe them following a devious route (from their perspective) to their nest well hidden low down in the shrubbery.  Here it is looking for a tasty treat on the ground.

As you can see, its orange breast and grey belly are offset by white eyebrows. The black band across its face resembles a mask when you look at it face-on. There are a number of fairly prominent positions from where these birds sing very melodiously – which they do from very early in the morning.

Note the curious look in its eye and the subtle beauty of the orange hue of the tail feathers – the latter seen to better advantage in the first picture.

REMNANTS OF BUSH

The Eastern Cape is one of the most ecologically diverse regions of Southern Africa, including as it does mountains, semi-desert areas, Cape Fynbos and Albany Thicket. At one time swathes of it would have been thickly covered with virtually impenetrable bush that has since been cleared in places to allow for the farming of livestock and certain crops. Small pockets of thicket remain as a reminder of the diversity of plants that have made way for such human endeavours.

Here a tiny clump of trees has been left on the open expanse of pasture on an Eastern Cape farm:

You can get an idea of what the countryside may have looked like by focusing on the background of this picture of animals taken in the Addo Elephant National Park: