TORTOISES AT ADDO

Not to be outdone by the Cape buffalo, leopard tortoises were also out in force during our recent visit to the Addo Elephant National Park. These tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) are often called mountain tortoises from directly translating the Afrikaans name for them, bergskilpad. They grow to be the largest tortoises in South Africa, which makes the mature ones easy to spot in the veld – if they are around.

The first one we saw was in the vicinity of the Lismore Waterhole, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of so many elephants. Although we watched it closely for some time, marvelling at its size, the wise look in its eyes and the good condition of its carapace, it was only once I was studying its image on my computer that I noticed the tick on it!

leopard tortoise

Apparently it is not uncommon to find tortoises in the wild that are infested with ticks in the soft skin of their necks and upper limbs. Notice its well-developed back legs and the pigeon-toed front legs. The row of small nails helps the tortoise to manoeuvre over rocks and to walk at speed. You would be surprised to see how quickly these tortoises can move through the veld!

Another lone tortoise appeared near the road on our way to the Hapoor Waterhole.

leopard tortoise

This is not unusual for they tend to be loners except for during the mating season. That is when the males follow females for some distance and then butt them into submission. We couldn’t help wondering if this is what was happening near Ghwarrie. We watched these two pushing each other for about ten minutes – and they had been at it before we arrived. It could equally have been an example of competitor ramming, especially as these ones were head-to-head.

leopard tortoises

leopard tortoises

leopard tortoises

By the end of our trip we had lost count of the number of leopard tortoises we had seen – some striding ahead purposefully, others munching grass contentedly, and yet others ambling across the road with the confidence of knowing that they have right of way.

We spotted one angulate tortoise and it was not waiting around for any touristy shots. Instead, it was walking as fast as its legs could carry it across the road to where it could hide in the dry grass.

angulate tortoise

IN THE GRIP OF A DROUGHT

The most severe drought in over thirty years has bitten hard in the Kruger National Park, where the lack of grass is striking – even though this is the end of winter. I have already illustrated this with the contrasting images of Transport Dam from April last year to September this year. Another stark contrast is evident when crossing the N’wanestsi River. In April last year we were confronted by this magnificent scene:

N'wanetsi2015

Now it looks like this:

N'wanetsi2016

That many animals have succumbed to the drought or have been culled has been widely reported in the press. Along some of the roads one can occasionally be overwhelmed by the stench of rotting flesh and elsewhere bones are clearly visible.

bones

bones

bones

As the drought continues, sufficient nutritious food must be increasingly difficult to find. At some places one is left wondering what the animals are finding to ward off hunger.

barren veld

Browsers are, perhaps, more fortunate.

browsers

We happened upon a leopard gnawing at a long-dead carcass of a blue wildebeest.

leopard

Another leopard had clearly had an altercation with a porcupine.

Note the porcupine quill below the eye

Note the porcupine quill below the eye

At the N’wanetsi viewpoint we looked down on crocodiles eating a dead hippo.

crocodilesandhippo

Bear in mind that dead animals provide food for others.

vulture

lion

Pundits predict that rains are not expected until November. As bleak as the immediate future might seem to be, the hardy species survive. Even the most battered of trees know it is spring and are sprouting tender leaves.

springleaves

Even though these will be nibbled at by anything from a kudu to a Grey Lourie.

Grey Lourie

AUGUST 2016 GARDEN BIRDS

Spring is in the air – not officially for that only happens on 1st September. Nature does not adhere to those human desires to carve time into clear blocks of expectation. Headline news is that Whiterumped Swifts made their first appearance today – earlier than usual – and that means that the Lesserstriped Swallows cannot be far behind. Klaas’ Cuckoo has also made an early entrance this spring. African Green Pigeons now call regularly from within the thick foliage of the Natal Fig and with the warmer weather comes the melodious sounds of Fierynecked Nightjars. I am very pleased to have seen more of the Redbacked Shrike this month as well as the Spectacled Weaver.

Weavers are becoming more serious about their nest-building. The image below is the start of a Cape Weaver nest in a Pompon tree.

startofcapeweavernest

The Pintailed Whydahs – most of the males have almost divested themselves of their buff winter dress – are becoming more aggressive. I wonder which of the six males I saw bossing each other around this morning will claim our garden as its territory this summer.

Mrs. Greater Doublecollared Sunbird has been collecting feathers for nest lining. They seem to be enjoying the nectar in the brilliant orange flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle, while the Black Sunbirds are seen more frequently in the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina caffra.

Greaterdoublecollaredsunbird

Laughing Doves abound. This pair is perched in a Syringa tree, which is heavy with fruit.

laughingdoves

With so many domestic animals around the suburbs these days, Cattle Egrets are a common sight – they look especially beautiful in flight. A pair of Egyptian Geese have been honking overhead too lately and a pair of Knysna Louries regularly make their way through the trees to drink and bathe in one of our birdbaths. This Forktailed Drongo is perched in the Acacia caffra, which is just beginning to show its spring foliage.

forktaileddrongo

In non-birding news, Bryan – the angulate tortoise – emerged from his winter hideout under a tangle of aloes this morning and has been walking around in search of food.

angulatetortoise

Sammy – the Leopard tortoise – has only got as far as exposing himself to the sun, but has not budged all day. He spent the winter in a mass of Van Staden daisies nest to our swimming pool. Both are looking healthy after their period of torpidity.

leopardtortoise

My August list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Egyptian Goose
Fierynecked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbacked Shrike
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green Woodhoopoe)
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

MEET SAMMY

Sammy, a relatively young Leopard Tortoise, was brought to us after being found on a local junior school campus. He has already had quite a tough life as one can tell from the damage to the skirt of his carapace – doubtless stemming from the curiosity of dogs.

Leopard tortoise

He was brought to our garden on a very chilly afternoon, carefully conveyed in a beer box.

leopard tortoise

The shell pattern is very attractive – both on top and underneath.

leopard tortoise

Once Sammy had undergone the ignominy of being photographed from all angles, he found refuge under the Spekboom growing near the swimming pool.

leopard tortoise

It was a day or so later that we spotted him exploring the tangle of Plumbago before he disappeared for a while. Once the bout of cold weather gave way to warm sunshine, however, Sammy was on the move again and was last seen tucking himself away under the Van Stadens Daisies on the edge of the lawn. This is good news for Leopard Tortoises mostly eat grass – of which we have a variety in the garden. Sammy has the freedom to go wherever he pleases. I wonder when, and if, he will meet Bryan (the Angulate Tortoise) during his wanderings.

HA HA HADEDA

HA HA HADEDA

Love them or loathe them, the Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) has made itself at home in suburban area over much of the country. One cannot ignore their strident calls – particularly in the early mornings!

It often seems to me that upon waking, these sociable birds have conversations with others roosting elsewhere: “Anyone up yet?’ or “Where shall we meet today?” It sounds as if responses to these queries come in from near and far across the valley until some sort of consensus is reached and then we hear them flying off noisily, still calling out to others doing the same.

While several of these birds occasionally roost in the fig tree and the Erythrina caffra at night, there are two pairs who have regularly nested in these trees for many years. Each breeding season we watch the Hadedas bring in seemingly impossibly long or awkwardly shaped sticks to add to their untidy nests that are re-used.

Although several eggs and chicks have fallen out of these ungainly and flimsy looking structures, both pairs of Hadedas appear to have become more adept at parenting with time and usually successfully raise one or two chicks each. We are able to watch both nests with ease and enjoy monitoring the hatching process.

Once the chicks have left the nest to explore the garden, they still spend some time ‘test-flapping’ their wings and continue to ‘beg’ to be fed by the adults until they are old enough to be independent.

By the way, Daisy the tortoise was spotted yesterday and the Speckled Mousebird family must have flown the nest in the fig tree as it is not longer being visited.

I feel privileged to see Hadedas probing for worms and insects on the lawn or poking about in the flower beds with their scythe-like beaks. They might look drab to some, but are so beautiful when the sunlight catches their iridescent wing feathers!

They usually appear singly or in pairs in the garden yet occur in much larger groups in open spaces such as sports fields – especially after being watered – and on municipal lawns.

Apart from raucously reminding all in the valley of their presence in the early mornings and before settling at night, the cheerfully strident call of Hadedas can be heard at odd times throughout the day.

They seem to enjoy perching on roof tops and glide from there in the late afternoons to join others already perching in the fig tree. There they flap their wings noisily and appear to settle down for a few minutes, only to fly off to join others still circling the suburb, calling out as they do so. This ritual takes place at the end of every day before they return to at last settle for the night.

THE MEAL THAT GOT AWAY

THE MEAL THAT GOT AWAY

Meet Daisy. Not a friendly jersey cow, but an Angulate Tortoise (Chersina angulata). C christened it that as soon as she saw it.

Daisy crossed paths with us a couple of weeks ago when, while P was out walking, a passerby asked if he could borrow a knife.

Who carries a knife when out walking with the intention of enjoying the fresh air and exercise? A walking stick perhaps to ward off the odd over-zealous dog, but not a knife!

The chap indicated a small tortoise clasped in his hand and said he wished to remove the body from its shell in order to eat it. Feeling horrified at the thought, P gave him some cash instead and released Daisy in our sprawling garden.

We have discovered that it covers a wide area in the course of a day and can make a quick get away when it wants to. I can attest that it retreats for cover when the sun gets hot for I found it difficult to keep Daisy in the field of my lens while photographing it. This is one tortoise that could give the average hare a run for its money!

Angulate Tortoises eat grasses and succulents so Daisy has plenty to choose from in the garden and is welcome to chomp its way through the masses of Tradescantia (Wandering Jew) growing all over.

I was interested to read in Bill Branch’s Field Guide to the Snakes and other Reptiles of southern Africa that Angulate Tortoises drink water through their noses! These tortoises typically have a single gular shield below the head – I had to look that one up too: it means a chin shield.

SONY DSC

Daisy has the run of the garden and appears to be content for now. Last year a large Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) took up residence in our garden for a couple of weeks, disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived. We’ll have to see how long Daisy stays for.