PORCUPINES LEAVE THEIR MARK

It is always fun coming across the odd porcupine quill whilst walking in the veld. These nocturnal animals are seldom seen during the day as they mostly feed at night. Many campers in the Addo Elephant National Park can probably attest to the fact that a porcupine that used to be resident near the campsite would wander through the tents at night – woe betide any potato salad or apples one might inadvertently have left uncovered, for porcupines are largely vegetarian.

The natural diet of the porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) consists of tubers, bulbs, roots and even bark. Below is an example of the damage to a tree caused by porcupines in the Mountain Zebra National Park. The tree now has a fence around it for protection.

The white and black crest of spines and quills can be erected at will to increase the apparent size of the porcupine in a threatening manner. Some spines on the tail are hollow and make a rattling sound when shaken. These very sharp spines and quills of the porcupine come off when touched by a predator or can be shaken off, but grow back rapidly. Here are two examples of porcupine quills becoming embedded in animals that have come too close. The first is a leopard in the Kruger National Park.

The second example is a Cape buffalo in the Addo Elephant National Park.

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OBSERVATIONS IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK – 4

Of course one also visits a national park to observe game. Even though we did not spot rhinoceros or cheetah as some of our fellow campers did, we were seldom out of sight of wild animals of one species or another. Apart from the kudu, springbuck and vervet monkeys which I mentioned earlier, some of the other animals we observed included the black wildebeest with their characteristic white tails.

Black Wildebeest

Gemsbok are beautiful, majestic-looking animals.

Gemsbok

Large herds of blesbuck occurred all over the park and were always a pleasure to watch.

Blesbuck

It was fascinating watching the antics of a large chacma baboon sitting on a branch while yawning and scratching himself. He was joined briefly by a female and clearly enjoyed the grooming session that followed.

Chacma Baboon

Equally interesting were the antics of the yellow mongoose.

Yellow Mongoose

On our last morning we came across two lions that were sated after feeding on an eland they had killed. We were fortunate to see the one lion sitting up briefly for as soon as they flopped down they were hidden from view even though the grass is sparse and short. The other lion is just visible in the bottom left of the image below.

Lion

Finally, I have to show you the snakeskin that had been sloughed off in a bush just below the level of the road winding down from the plateau.

snake skin

OBSERVATIONS IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK – 2

The two most common birds in the rest camp were Pied Starlings and the loquacious White-browed Sparrow Weavers (Plocepasser mahali).

Pied Starling

Pied Starling

 

White-browed Sparrow Weaver

White-browed Sparrow Weaver

The latter live in flocks and build several very scruffy-looking nests on the leeward side of the acacia trees all over the park.

back view of nest

back view of nest

 

Front view of nest

Front view of nest

Their loud musical chirping lends a cheerful air to the camping area and is easily recognisable while one is driving through the veld. Many of those seen around the rest camp have been ringed. They swoop down to pick up seeds or any fallen crumbs around the tents and caravans, although I also observed them feeding on seed pods and catching insects.

Other interesting birds seen in the park include Grey-winged Francolin (Scleroptila africanus that were feasting on termites scurrying around a mound that had been broken open in the montane grassland.

greywinged francolin

Dusky Flycatchers were typically perched atop thorn bushes.

Dusky Flycatcher

There were numerous Ant-eating Chats that were also feasting on termites, which had perhaps surfaced after the rain.

Anteating chat

These nutritious insects were busily occupied carrying blades of grass back to their colonies. This must have been a hazardous business, given how many other creatures were out to enjoy them as a snack, including Pale Chanting Goshawks.

termites

It was interesting to watch a pair of Verreauxs’ Eagles (Aquila verrauxii) coursing just below the top of the cliffs as we wound up the steep Kranskop Loop. One seemed to ‘disappear’ into the face of the cliff and it was only when we rose higher that we realised they must be nesting on one of the rocky ledges. This was confirmed a while later when one alighted on the ground just ahead of us to collect sticks in its beak for the nest.

While we passed several birds – especially larks – that I was unable to identify, my bird list is as follows:

African Redeyed Bulbul
African Stone Chat
Ant-eating Chat
Barthroated Apalis
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blacksmith Plover
Blue Crane
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Cape Robin
Cape Sparrow
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Vulture
Cape Wagtail
Cardinal Woodpecker
Common Waxbill
Crowned Guineafowl
Crowned Plover (Lapwing)
Dusky Flycatcher
Egyptian Goose
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greywinged Francolin
Hadeda Ibis
Jackal Buzzard
Laughing Dove
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Pied Crow
Pied Starling
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Kestrel
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Rufous-naped Lark
Sabota Lark
Scaly-feathered Finch
Secretary Bird
South African Shelduck
Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Verrauxs’ Eagle
White-breasted Cormorant
White-browed Sparrow Weaver

OBSERVATIONS IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK – 1

Camping in the Karoo during the winter is not for sissies: we pitched our tent in the pouring rain, experienced a light shower of hail, icy wind and bright sunshine. During our four days in the Mountain Zebra National Park the temperature ranged from below freezing to a pleasant high of 18°C.

Mountain Zebra National Park

The windy, wet conditions on our arrival had most animals seeking some form of shelter, like this herd of Springbuck huddled in the short grass with their faces pointed to the wind.

wet springbuck

These Cape Mountain Zebra were soggy.

wet mountain zbra

As was this Kudu doe.

wet kudu

Ostriches walked through the veld with wet feathers hanging limply from their bodies.

wet ostrich

Water shone in pools and ribbons in the wet landscape.

mountainzebranationalpark

In the days to follow there would be a lot of interesting animals, birds and insects to see – enough to make us eager to get out into the veld at the first opportunity!

OSTRICHES

My first introduction to ostriches was in the Johannesburg Zoo. I was four years old when my father held me up to feed peanuts to the ostriches penned behind a thick fence. I will never forget that ‘scary-happy-tickling’ feeling of the ostriches nibbling the palm of my hand. It was there that I first learned that ostriches also swallow pebbles to help grind their food as they have no teeth – at the time I was very relieved about the latter!

We all know that ostriches are the world’s largest birds and that they cannot fly. They can run very fast though – up to 70 km/h. Once we experienced some ostriches sprinting ahead of us on the Makgadikgadi Pan in Botswana and were amazed to discover how long their strides were: at least five metres!

On another occasion we were enthralled by the loud booming noise and dramatic flapping of wings in an ostrich mating ritual close to the Hapoor Waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park. Males and females take it in turns to incubate the eggs. The more drab colouring of the female suit the day, while the dark male blends more easily into the night vigil. Here are two images of a female sitting on eggs. The first was taken in the dry landscape of the Mountain Zebra National Park and the second in the currently flower-strewn Addo Elephant National Park.

ostricmtzebrapark

ostraddoelephnp

Ostriches also indulge in dust bathing as this one is at the Addo Elephant National Park.

ostrichdustbath

Apart from the joy of spotting ostriches in the wild, we have become used to seeing them on farms in both the Eastern and Western Cape. Even so, they remain fascinating creatures to observe.

LURE OF LIONS

LURE OF LIONS

What is it about the anticipation of sighting a lion in the wild that excites visitors to game reserves? We spent ten days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park several years ago without coming across a lion, in spite of regularly following trails of clear pug marks along the dusty roads.

Almost every vehicle we passed in any direction halted us with the question “Lions?” on the lips of their drivers. The overseas visitors with us were also desperate to see a ‘King of the Beasts’ and, practically on the final day of our stay, had to make do with a glimpse of an ear or a shoulder – all that was visible through the thick scrub some distance from the road.

Even this tiny bit of a lion in the African scenery served to satisfy the cravings of many of the visitors, some of whom had travelled thousands of kilometres, who now craned their necks and strained their eyes while passing on excited messages about any movement sighted.

Don’t get me wrong: having kept a close watch out for lions while driving through the Mountain Zebra National Park in August, we too were pleased to come across a single paw print in the soft sand – at least this was tangible evidence of their presence in the Park.

lionprint

The introduction of lions into the Addo Elephant National Park brought some of that ‘wilderness magic’ within easier reach of the thousands of local and foreign visitors who flock to this Park every year.

At first they were very elusive – one can still count oneself fortunate to see them. They appear to be more widely dispersed now though, so the chances of spotting a lion appears to be ‘fairer’ as visitors explore the different roads that wind through the Park.

Driving a high clearance vehicle helps – as does a sharp eye. We drove right past a lion once while driving our car and would have missed it altogether had not a fellow visitor, almost looking down at us from his large 4 x 4, alerted us to it.

The rising cost of fuel notwithstanding, we realised there is no point in visiting game areas without the height advantage of our 4 x 4. This was especially valuable during last year’s trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. During that visit we were fortunate enough to see lions every day throughout our two-week visit: sleeping off a meal on a sandy river bank; striding across the dry river bed in front of us; roaring fiercely next to the perimeter fence of our camp site; or bringing down a wildebeest in clouds of dust. These lions were all active and very interesting to observe.

   lionkill

Does one ever become sated with seeing lions? Probably not, but when we came across lions in the Addo Elephant National Park some weeks after our return, we enjoyed seeing them and moved on with the feeling we ought to let others have a turn as we had already been so privileged.

We have since come across lions in this Park and continue to enjoy their presence. They tend to become a highlight of a visit without meaning to! Possibly the most exciting view was when we saw two lions walking towards Rooidam early one morning. We followed them slowly as they changed direction ahead of us: one continued down a track and out of sight while the other headed for the dam, affording us a wonderful view of him lapping up the water before he too disappeared over the dam wall.

lionwalking  lionrooidam

That the lure of the lion is strong was clearly illustrated this weekend when we sighted a lion sitting with his back to the road in the pouring rain.

wetlion

It didn’t move; there wasn’t much to see of it either and yet vehicles waited in long queues, parked at various angles, jostled for space, inched forward or waited stationary for hours as their occupants feasted their eyes on and pointed their cameras towards this ‘mighty’ beast.

The heavy concentration of vehicles at that spot was evident throughout the day, suggesting that the lion had not strayed much.

Seeing lions brings smiles to the faces of tourists. This was the opinion expressed by the security guard when we left the Park at the end of the day. “Everybody is smiling today”, he observed cheerfully as he checked our day pass. “When there are lions the people are happy”. He flashed a broad smile as if that made him happy too.

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.

SONY DSC

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).