BIRD BATHS AND BEES

Just as people, birds and animals seek water to drink when the weather is hot and dry, so do bees. The water in this shallow bird bath at the entrance to the Mountain Zebra National Park is edged with bees and flies taking in much-needed moisture.

Communal taps inevitably drip. Some taps in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park have simple cement bird baths placed under them which both helps to save water and provides for the thirst of bees – lots of them. One actually has to approach these taps with care.

Birds and animals have to approach these watering points with care too.

I was thus impressed to see that in the Karoo National Park not only are bird baths provided under the communal taps, but clear signs warn one to be careful of the bees that will inevitably come to share the water during the hot weather.

Or … perhaps these signs sensitize visitors to the importance of bees and the role they play in keeping our environment healthy.

Either way, it was good to see them.

GREY RHEBUCK

I have driven along the Highlands road so many times over the past two years that I can guess with a degree of accuracy where we might spot what wildlife – although there are always surprises in store. One of these surprises was our first sighting of a small group of about five Grey Rhebuck (Pelea capreolus) that had been resting in the tall grass and jumped up to run away as we approached them along the road. As they tend to be territorial animals, I have seen (presumably) that group a few more times in more or less the same place. Grey Rhebok are usually seen in rocky hills, on grassy mountain slopes, as well as on plateau grasslands, so this – and the places described below – is a recognised habitat for them. These ones were sighted in the Mountain Zebra National Park.

A chance sighting of a small group of these animals on the lower slopes of a hill alerted us to another place where we have been able to observe them from time to time. Then, late one afternoon, a large empty grassy valley, which we had always thought to be devoid of any wild animals, yielded a much larger herd – again we have spotted them there more than once. Lastly, we have discovered a small family group that is frequently visible on some rocky slopes as the road dips down towards some farmland. The photographs in this post are all from that group – by far the closest I can get to them by road. The colouring isn’t all that good for these photographs were taken through a fence shortly before sunset.

Their cryptic colouring of a grey woolly coat with white underparts makes the Grey Rhebuck difficult to see even when the sun is shining brightly. Only the rams have upright, straight, spike-like horns.

Grey Rhebuck are able to derive sufficient moisture from the plants they graze and browse, so they do not need a stable source of water to survive. I have not seen any farm dams, for example, within their immediate vicinity. This final photograph was also taken in the Mountain Zebra National Park.

 

CAPE BUNTING

The Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis) is one of the delightful birds that occurs over much of South Africa, where they can be seen in rocky areas as well as in grassland and along dry watercourses.

Even though the boldly striped head and bright chestnut wings immediately draws attention, their colouring helps them to easily blend into their environment.

Their chestnut wing coverts contrast beautifully with their greyish nape and mantle.

These sparrow-like birds hop on the ground in search of seeds, although they also catch insects and feed on fruit and flower buds.

Cape Buntings are not the easiest birds to photograph as they seldom remain still enough. These ones were seen around the rest camp in the Mountain Zebra National Park, where they have possibly become habituated to human company – and so are a delight to observe.

 

MOUNTAIN WHEATEAR

Let me get confusion out of the way first: the Mountain Wheatear (Oenanthe monticola) used to be known as a Mountain Chat.

I puzzled over the name ‘wheatear’ until I discovered that this is an Old English term for a white rump – who could have guessed that. I actually prefer the Afrikaans name for it, Bergwagter, which sounds like a sentinel of the mountains – rather a pertinent name given that they are frequently seen perched on rocks. In this case it is posing on a rocky step.

Until we spent some time in the Mountain Zebra National Park, I had the impression of these being a rather shy birds for I found them difficult to photograph while driving through the veld. As they prefer a rocky and mountainous terrain, this park is a perfect place to observe them. The ones around the rest camp were actually rather inquisitive and became fairly ‘trusting’ over the few days that I observed them with camera at hand. I nonetheless almost felt I had to get to know it all over again now that its name has been changed. We should be used to that in this country by now for all over streets, airports, towns, cities and even regiments have undergone a similar process!

The male Mountain Wheatears are rather handsome looking birds sporting black upper parts with white shoulder patches and a grey crown. As is common in the bird world, the females tend to be a plain duller black to brown, although both sexes have white bellies and rumps.

While they mostly forage on the ground to feed on insects, they can also be seen hawking for insects in the air or flying down from a perch to catch their prey.

I also observed them eating seeds and dry berries.

A PAIR OF BLUE CRANES

It has been estimated that there are only about 25 000 Blue Cranes left in the wild in South Africa, where a lot of good work is being done to protect these beautiful birds – the national bird of this country. Continued growth of the human population – and the urbanisation that goes with it – has led to considerable habitat loss vital for the survival of these cranes. Although their population appears to be stable, they remain susceptible to poisoning as well as to collisions with the vast network of power-lines that criss-cross this country.

While it is always to see them gathering in reasonable numbers in the Overberg region of the Western Cape, I find it quite special to see the odd small group of them – mostly pairs – here in the Eastern Cape. I photographed this pair in the Mountain Zebra National Park in October.

Beautifully elegant birds!