SCENES FROM NATIONAL PARKS

South Africa is blessed with several national parks. It takes time and travelling long distances to visit even some of them, yet none disappoint. Today I will feature scenes from a few of them. The Addo Elephant National Park is not very far from where we live and so, every now and then, we go there for a day visit. Given its name, visitors naturally expect to see elephants there:

It is also a good place for birding, where one might be fortunate to see raptors such as this Jackal Buzzard:

The Mountain Zebra National Park is also easily accessible to us and is the perfect place to spend a few days. Visitors here would obviously expect to see mountain zebras:

However, one might also be fortunate to spot a cheetah lying in the yellow grass:

There are red hartebeest in the Karoo National Park – which makes a good stopping point between where we live and Cape Town:

One can also enjoy seeing ostriches striding along the open veld:

The world famous Kruger National Park is several day’s journey from here and hosts an enormous variety of plants, birds, insects and animals. When we consider the alarming rate at which rhinos are killed in this country, we cannot help but feel privileged to see them from close quarters here:

The name on every visitor’s lips is ‘lion’. Mention the word and people speed up and jostle for space to see even the tip of the tail of one. Equally exciting to see though are leopards:

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the furthest away from us and – despite its remote location – is such a popular destination that one has to book accommodation about a year ahead. This is an incredible place for seeing lions:

It is also a marvellous place for seeing the very beautiful crimson-breasted shrike:

DAGGA BOY

This might seem a strange description for a lone African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) seen wallowing in the mud, walking ever so slowly towards a waterhole or grazing in the veld. The double ‘g’ in dagga is pronounced as you would the ‘g’ in ‘gold’ or ‘glory’. The term ‘dagga’ in this context most likely has its origins in the Zulu word udaka (meaning mud or clay). In fact, you might frequently see remnants of mud caked on the hide of these lone buffalo. This is because they seem to spend a lot of time either rolling in mud or immersing themselves in muddy wallows.

These solitary old buffalo are past their prime – you can usually see how their covering of hair has thinned so that bald spots appear. By wallowing in thick mud the buffalo ensure they have a barrier against both the sun and the parasites that might infest these bald spots. Here two of these old dagga boys have teamed up in the Kruger National Park to seek water. Note the Red-billed Oxpeckers on their backs – they too help rid these animals of pesky parasites.

This lone dagga boy is grazing in the Addo Elephant National Park – not far from water, yet with no other buffalo to be seen in the area. He is possibly staying in this area with soft green grass because his teeth have worn down with age and so it is easier to eat. Note his heavy boss and upward curved horns – he must have been a formidable bull in his prime.

Now he lives away from the herd. He might team up with another dagga boy. Either way, as he weakens with age – and without the protection of the herd – he will become a target for predators.

Rest well old chap.

APPEARING FROM NOWHERE …

Look at this road:

Apart from the vegetation, there is not a living thing to be seen along the road that passes the Doornhoek Dam in the Mountain Zebra National Park. Now, look at the scrubby bush on the left hand corner and use that small flat stone in front of it as a marker, for – as we were about to turn left – this appeared as if from nowhere:

This Leopard Tortoise – also commonly known as a Mountain Tortoise – carrying the scientific name of Stigmochelys pardalis came ambling towards us. You can see the small flat stone almost behind it now on the left of the image. It stopped for a moment or two and stared at the large obstacle in its path before veering off into the grassy verge. The flat stone is now behind it to the right of the image below:

As you can tell from the specimen below, photographed in the Kruger National Park, it has a high domed carapace. This one is clearly marked with black blotches and spots on a yellow background – an indication that it is still relatively young. Mature adults appear as a nondescript brown once these markings have faded with time.

We come across these tortoises fairly often in the Addo Elephant National Park. This  is a particularly attractive specimen.

These hardy tortoises usually eat grass and succulents, although they have been observed gnawing bones and hyena faeces – we choose easier means to get our calcium and essential minerals! I leave you with an apparently cheerful smile from another – showing off its ‘leopard-like’ appearance.

IMMATURE MARTIAL EAGLE

It landed in a tree ahead of us, obscured by the branches of course. Later, seeing photographs of what must be the same bird taken with a far superior lens to mine, made me look at my pictures more closely and to revise my original hasty identification of it as a Booted Eagle. The more I look at them, the more I am inclined to believe that this is indeed an immature Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus).

Most visitors to a game park tend to be more interested in the animals than birds. Drivers of passing vehicles, seeing mine stopped and spotting my camera poking out of the window, would halt next to me and  eagerly ask what I was looking at … their disappointment was palpable. The phrase ‘only a bird’ scribbled itself across the faces behind the benign smiles and head nodding. It seemed an age before I could inch my vehicle forward for a better view – the occupants of the others were totally charmed by zebra and red hartebeest drinking at the waterhole on the opposite side of the road. Just a hint of the crest is visible in this photograph.

Several birds of prey can be spotted during a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park, the most common being the Pale Chanting Goshawk, Jackal Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite and the Black-shouldered Kite. Ones with such a powerful demeanour are not frequently observed: Martial Eagles are claimed to be among the most powerful eagles in Africa.

Although there is no mistaking its barred tail and huge talons in this photograph, this immature bird is creamy-white, bearing none of the dark streaky markings so definitive in the adult birds. They reach adult plumage after about seven years.

This is what the adult looks like – the photograph was taken five years ago in the Kruger National Park.

The Martial Eagle is currently classified with the status of vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.