REFLECTIONS 3

I lunched with a friend yesterday, who showed me a lovely oil painting of a scene from the Kruger National Park she had recently received as a gift. It is a place we both enjoy visiting and so, as I marvelled at the reflections on the river we were dining next to, I thought about some of the many river scenes I have enjoyed in the Bushveld.

Here are three of them:

Darters in the Olifants River

Darters

A Saddle-billed Stork in the Kruger National Park


A lone elephant at a waterhole in the Kruger National Park

elephant

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

Birding is an adventure around almost every corner in the Kruger National Park – even though the rain initially put a dampener on this activity. One’s experience starts in the camp on rising: a variety of birds from Redbilled Buffalo Weavers and Crested Barbets to Grey Louries and Great Sparrows – as well as starlings and Arrow-marked Babblers – scratched around in the leaf debris of the trees we were camping next to. From the first morning I was made very aware of the new world of birds that awaited me.

crested barbet

Cape Glossy Starlings abound, attracting one to their presence by their beautiful blue metallic sheen and bright orange eyes. One cheeky bird alighted on the counter of the camp kitchen and stole a slice of sausage from my pan while I was cooking! Burchell’s Starlings are reasonably easy to recognise from their longer tails, while I found the Greater Blue-eared Starlings more difficult to recognise in the field.

capeglossystarling

Spurfowl are abundant too, especially on the road early in the mornings and towards sunset. Swainson’s Spurfowl and Natal Spurfowl seemed to be the most common – several of the latter wandered around Satara Camp too – although we also saw Crested Francolin from time to time.

Natal spurfowl

What a delight to find Brown-headed Parrots feeding on the long pods of the Long-tail Cassia tree right next to our tent!

Brownheaded parrot

It is always interesting to see familiar ‘garden birds’ in a game reserve and there were plenty of Laughing Doves and Cape Turtle Doves around. Although I saw Namaqua Doves once, it is the African Mourning Dove that was dominant in the camp and at the various picnic spots where we stopped. Its melodious call became familiar to us during the week we were in Satara.

African Mourning Dove

Of course the Lilac-breasted Rollers are magnificent looking birds. They are eye-catching, both when sporting their beautiful blue feathers in flight and when perched conspicuously on the top of bushes and old tree stumps. Their presence brightened up any drive.

lilac-breasted roller

The Purple Rollers are beautiful to look at too.

purple roller

What I find interesting is that in our home garden, the Burchell’s Coucals are heard far more often than they are seen, preferring to skulk around in the thick foliage. Here they are commonly seen flying across the short amber grass to perch in low bushes, often right next to the road! These birds have a special place in my heart, for many years ago we raised a fledgling that had fallen out of a nest and broken its leg. In the then Eastern Transvaal, where I grew up, Burchell’s Coucals were commonly referred to as ‘rain birds’ for their calls were a welcome sound during periods of prolonged heat and drought: many people believed this presaged the coming of rain.

Burchell's coucal

A spectacular surprise awaited us in a dip where the S100 road crosses the N’wanetsi River. A mecca of birds were in and near the water: Saddle-billed Storks, Marabou Storks, Spoonbills, Egyptian Geese, Hamerkops, a Pied Kingfisher, Goliath heron, Blacksmith Plovers, a Great Egret, Woolly-necked Storks, Fish Eagles, a Black-headed Heron, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Moorhen, a Little Bittern, Yellow-billed Storks and a Squacco Heron all in one place!

saddlebilled stork

This was a magical place to park for a while in order to watch the mating rituals of the Yellow-billed Storks and the efficiency with which the Pied Kingfisher and the Hamerkops speared their prey.

yellow-billed storks

While this feast for the eyes was going on at water level, another fantastic spectacle was unfolding in the tall riverine trees: a pair of African Hawk Eagles flew about in impressive mating displays while – we presume – a juvenile remained perched in the top of one of the enormous trees lining the river bank.

African Hawk Eagle

It was equally exciting to watch the flight of those magnificent, iconic birds, the African Fish Eagles as they swooped down from their high perches or circled above us. Their call is a distinctive and thrilling one.

African Fish Eagle
The area around Satara afforded us the opportunity to see interesting and beautiful birds such as the Bronze-winged Coursers right next to the road.

Bronzewinged Courser

Another was a Golden-tailed Woodpecker working its way through an old log near a waterhole. Southern White-crowned Shrikes would appear from nowhere – usually in a most difficult spot (such as against the sun) for photographs.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker

 

southern white-crowned shrike

Generally speaking, I have found the photographic field guide, Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan, a useful companion to my trusty and well-thumbed Roberts’ Bird Guide. The Magpie Shrike is a good example of a bird easily identified in flight when the distinctive white patterns in their wings (as illustrated in Roberts’) are clearly visible. Seeing one perched on a branch with the white back showing was puzzling at first – that is where the photographic evidence came up trumps!

Magpie Shrike

There is always something to see in the KNP!

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (1)

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (1)

Three years ago we enjoyed the two days spent camping in the Satara camp so much that this time we booked to stay there for a whole week. The game viewing in that area is excellent with a variety of drives to choose from and a bonus is that the bird life within the camp is prolific. Then we had a Scops Owl roosting in a tree right next to our tent – this time there was a resident African wild cat, but more of that later. It is a complete change from urban living and sheer bliss listening to the whoop of hyena and the chorus of the high-pitched eerie calls of black-backed jackals at night, not far from the perimeter fence.

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A terrific thunderstorm broke the intense heat of our first night in Satara: sheet lightning, thunder and rain accompanied by strong wind that buffeted our tent until the early hours of the morning. The rain continued intermittently for several days after that, leaving everything from tents to birds looking sodden. The African wild cat I mentioned earlier briefly sought shelter from the rain under a trailer net to our campsite, where it leisurely cleaned itself before disappearing. It appeared sitting under our truck a few days later – this time possibly seeking shelter from the sun – then settled into a clump of bushes next to our tent. It must have made this part of the camp its home, for we later saw it lying comfortably in the dust unperturbed by the human activity around it.

africanwildcat

We saw large herds of both elephant and buffalo soon after entering the Kruger National Park through the Orpen Gate. As the elephants here have a reputation for being more aggressive and temperamental than the ones we are more familiar with in the Addo Elephant National Park – not that we witnessed any evidence of this – we nonetheless kept our distance from them and the engine running. A few days later we watched a herd of about fifty elephants gather at Nsemani Dam on the Orpen road – they are fascinating creatures to observe.

Several groups of them seemed to merge and separate in a prolonged ceremony of greeting: youngsters tussled with each other while small babies kept close to their respective mothers in that mass of enormous legs and swaying trunks. One group eventually parted from the rest and were quickly absorbed by the surrounding bush. The others edged along the dam to drink and it wasn’t long before a number of them had waded right into the water to drink and splash about.

A sudden loud trumpeting from the matriarch caused all the elephants to leave the water obediently and in a hurry to stand on the bank – bar one that had got stuck in the thick gooey mud. My heart lodged in my mouth while the hapless elephant tried lifting first one foot and then the other without success. Its companions remained silent and watchful; some had even turned away from the distressful spectacle.

At last the elephant turned around about 90 degrees and tried again. First it managed to free the front legs, then, scrabbling for a foothold in the knee-deep mud, it pulled one back foot free. To my immense relief it broke free shortly afterwards and made for the bank. At that point the waiting elephants moved off while the now freed elephant struck off on its own on a path parallel to the herd.

elephantstuckinmud

Unsurprisingly, impala were the first animals we spotted on entering the park. These mixed-feeders were described by the guide on a later night-drive as “the McDonalds of the park” as they provide food for most of the large carnivores. They are beautiful animals to watch closely, being rufous-fawn in colour with white underparts and delicate markings. It is the rutting season now and we often observed the dominant male chasing after his chosen female – snorting loudly , while she lead him a merry dance by running in circles through the veld with him in hot pursuit. The ferocious sound of that snorting reminded us of a night, many years ago, when we were stranded in the veld in Botswana and – not having heard it before – were concerned that the noise we were hearing came from something that might decide to eat us!

impala

On one occasion we watched several female waterbuck lying in the grass chewing the cud while the male gave them the once-over. Each obediently rose in turn when sniffed by the male and lay down again.

waterbuck

The most affectionate and amorous mating display was performed by a pair of giraffe: they seemed to caress each other by rubbing their heads up and down the neck of the other; they wound their necks around each other; put their heads close together; and even looked as though they were nuzzling in a kiss…

giraffe1

giraffe2

Nsemani Dam proved to be a wonderful place for watching hippos: blowing water in sprays from their nostrils; making their characteristic grunting sounds; squaring up to each other with their mouths open – South Africans of a certain generation will always associate that wide-mothed pose with an advertisement for Chomp chocolates. Hippos are so interesting out of the water too, when one can see how large and cumbersome looking they are. Several had small calves in tow. Like baby elephants, these look cuddly and so ‘touchable’!

hippos

Game viewing was good, even during the inclement weather. Once we saw a lioness followed by six cubs cross the road and on another occasion spent nearly two hours watching five sated lions sleeping off their meals from the night before. Every movement they made, from lifting a head or drinking water, seemed an effort for they would flop down again or roll over, stretching languidly and relax once more.

lions

Although signs in Satara Camp warn visitors to watch out for honey badgers (more commonly known as ratels in South Africa), we never came across them there. Early one morning though, we saw three of them trotting through the damp grass not far from the camp. It was a privilege too to spot two black rhinos close to the road – not for long though as they soon moved through the bush and out of sight. So much game viewing depends on the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

After the rain of the first few days, it was wonderful to experience the sunshine again and to witness some glorious sunsets.

satarasunset

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

This weekend saw us revisiting the Great Fish River Nature Reserve on a darkly overcast day. The maximum of 18°C felt much colder, thanks to the stiff, chilly breeze that blew across the landscape. We again entered and left through the Kamadolo Gate. This time though the guard on duty told us the gate actually closes at 6 p.m. – a whole hour later than on our previous visit. Methinks that fellow wanted to leave early as he knew we were the last visitors!

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We enjoyed travelling along the narrow, twisting dirt road – naturally expecting and hoping for a surprise around every corner.Sections of the road are in a very poor state of repair. In places though, gabions have been constructed to prevent erosion – particularly where water would otherwise flow across the road.

gabion

I mentioned last time (see GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE 10th February 2015) what a harsh environment this can be. These bones at the side of the road seem to epitomise this.

bones

Death was evident in the insect world too.

beetle

Less than two weeks later, the countryside looks greener and ‘softer’ and lavender-coloured cross berry (Grewia occidentallis) blooms are evident all over the area we drove through. Some of the shrubs have been cut back through browsing into compact forms, while others are still lanky and creep upwards through clumps of other thick bushes.

crossberry
Open areas are now carpeted with a wide variety of indigenous flowers, all beautiful in their own right, yet spectacular when seen en masse.

kdf1

I have not yet been able to identify them all, nonetheless these are a sample of some of the flowers we could see growing close to the road.

kdf2

kdf3

kdf4

kdf5

kdf6

kdf7

Three species of flower I recognise are the Common Gazania (Gazania krebsiana), which seem to thrive in harsh environments and often brighten the edges of the tarred roads in this region. I have not had much luck growing them in my garden though.

commongazania

The Bladder Hibiscus (Hibiscus trionum) is another beautiful flower I look forward to seeing in the veld.

kdhibiscus

Then there is the Plumbago auriculata, which is rampant in my garden – requiring regular pruning lest it takes over everything in its wake. This one is blooming unusually close to the ground – probably as a result of grazing. This goes to show how persistent nature can be to thrive against adversity.

kdplumbago

The only animals we saw this time round were Red Hartebeest. I think this new fashion of breeding them in different colours, such as gold or black, is a pity for they look wonderful in the sartorial splendour they are meant to be in.

Sredhartebeest

We walked quietly down the winding reed-fenced path towards the bird hide.

hidepath

The area next to the hide, facing away from the water, was covered with an enormous complex of golden-threaded spider webs. Two of these spiders held sway in different sections of this mass and looked ready to devour anything lurking within their domain.

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This time the water was shallower and the surface was dominated by a large flock of Yellow-billed Ducks.

ybduck

The dark, windy, chilly conditions – as well as the time constraint – did not lend themselves to good bird watching. My list is thus as modest as it was last time:
Barn swallow
Boubou shrike
Cape glossy starling
Cape turtle dove
Egyptian goose
Fiscal shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Laughing dove
Lesser kestrel
Little grebe
Ostrich
Redwinged starling
Sombre bulbul
Speckled mousebird
Yellow-billed duck.

THE SPRINGBOK

THE SPRINGBOK

Think of the South African national rugby team and the Springbok / Springbuck (Antidorca marsupialis) literally springs to mind. The emblem of that leaping antelope is synonymous with the green and gold and is proudly displayed on the shirts, jackets, blankets or beanies worn by loyal supporters of the team.

The Springbok also happens to be the national animal of South Africa. Its name is derived from the early Dutch, and later Afrikaans, description of this antelope’s ability to jump in a most magnificent fashion. While this is not commonly seen behaviour, and one would need to observe the animals for some time, the Springbok have the ability to walk stiff-legged for a few paces and then jump into the air with an arched back. Significantly, they lift a skin flap on their rump which reveals long white hairs underneath the tail.

This activity, known as pronking, is wonderful to behold. Pronking is an Afrikaans term for showing off and the aforementioned skin flap is responsible for the marsupialis in the scientific name of the Springbok. The animals do this both to ward off predators and when trying to attract a mate – truly showing off their prowess in that respect!

It is also wonderful to watch several of these animals leaping over low bushes and other obstacles in their path as they run from perceived danger. Apparently, they have been listed among the top ten fastest land animals in the world – over what distance, I cannot tell.

Springbok are easily recognised by their cinnamon upper bodies separated from their white underparts by a broad dark brown stripe running along their flanks. A thinner brown stripe colours their white heads and starts just above their eyes and ends at the upper lip. Their colouring and glossy coats make them a joy to see in the open veld – especially when the animals have gathered in a herd.

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We saw large herds of Springbok in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where they frequented the dry river beds especially. They are well adapted to such harsh, dry conditions for they can get by without ready access to drinking water, getting enough moisture from the grass and various leaves that they eat. It is nonetheless magnificent seeing herds of them edging an open pan and being reflected in the water as they drink their fill.

springbok4

More recently, we enjoyed seeing them in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock.

springbuckmzp

As a footnote, I am pleased to report that the Lesser Striped Swallows have resumed the laborious process of rebuilding their nest in the same spot as the other one that fell down (See THE HOUSE THE SWALLOWS BUILT).