THREE VISITORS

On each of the three days we camped at Mountain Zebra National Park we were entertained by a special visitor, other than the delightful presence of a number of birds of course. The first was what is commonly known in South Africa as a Shongololo. This popular name for a millipede is derived from the Xhosa and Zulu word ‘ukushonga’ which means ‘to roll up’ – which is what the shongololo does when disturbed in order to protect its vulnerable underside. They are fascinating to watch for as they walk, their legs move in a synchronised, wave-like motion. There were actually a whole lot of them, in various shades and sizes, all over the rest camp area and crossing the roads through the park. One had to watch out to avoid stepping on them at times!

Apart from the many ordinary looking ants that were around, there were particularly large ones, such as this one, that seemed to be on their own. I was struck both by its size and its colouring, but am stumped about its identification.

While being careful not to touch it or feed it, we were enchanted by the Striped Mouse that often appeared from behind a rock near our tent to scamper across to see what it could find to eat. It was easily scared off by birds and, on more than one occasion, was deliberately chased away by a White-browed Sparrow Weaver.

stripedmouse1

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ACTION STATION ZEBRA

Life is not always calm and peaceful for these dazzling photogenic animals. These two Cape Mountain Zebras are gracing the skyline in the Mountain Zebra National Park.

Sometimes there is more to the rough and tumble than meets the eye. These Burchell’s Zebra in the Addo Elephant National Park were pushing, shoving, biting and kicking each other until one gave up the fight and walked away.

One or both managed to nip the other.

More than once.

These rivalry fights were nothing to compare, however, with what this zebra must have experienced in the Mountain Zebra National Park. A closer look at the puncture marks on its buttocks and flank already suggest that it had a close encounter with a lion – and the large bite out of its neck tells us it had a fortunate escape.

If zebras could talk, this one would have an enthralling tale to tell!

NOTE: Click on the photographs if you wish to view a larger image.

ROCKY LANDSCAPE

There are no soft, rolling green hills here, instead this part of the Karoo is noted for its rocky landscape.

A White-browed Sparrow Weaver blends into the stony environment as it looks for seeds to eat.

These tiny grains of sand have been used to build an entrance to an ant nest.

Enormous smooth boulders swell out from some of the hills.

As barren as this might seem, a Cussonia has found a foothold between the cracks of the rock.

Survival is everything here. On the valley floor a tree has a tenuous hold.

For, as you can see, the rocky substrata is friable.

IT IS DRY

… and very hot! The sun sucks the moisture from the ground and desiccates the grass. It beats down on the rocks, creating shimmers of heat waves above them. The bees and flies seek whatever water they can find.

Bees and flies seeking water.

There have been recent newspaper reports on the plight of vultures in South Africa suffering from dehydration in this drought – everything needs water to survive. A tiny leak in a pipe becomes a welcome source of hydration for Pied Starlings.

Pied Starling

Even though we are at the height of summer, there is little in the way of green grass to be seen.

Black Wildebeest

In places one can only wonder how the animals find enough food to sustain them.

Springbuck

Beautiful vistas of the Karoo show how yellow the grass is – what will be left for winter grazing if the rains do not come?

Mountain Zebra National Park

We have spent a few glorious days camping in the Mountain Zebra National Park. It is a peaceful wonderland with an abundance of interesting birds, animals and insects to see.

Cape Mountain Zebra

The swimming pool at the rest camp is a ‘life-saver’ though after a game drive during which the temperature has soared to 38°C.

NOTE: Click on the photographs for a larger view.

PIED STARLINGS GALORE

Pied Starlings (Spreo bicolor) are cheerful looking birds. There are large flocks of them both in the Mountain Zebra National Park and the Addo Elephant National Park, where they are very quick to home in on any morsel of food left behind in the rest camp.

When seeing them out in the open grasslands, one can better appreciate how well they blend in with their environment – despite the conspicuous white vent and under-tail coverts as well as the pale irises of the adult birds. We saw a number of them catching small green caterpillars in the grass next to the road.

This Pied Starling was photographed some time ago catching a spider in the Mountain Zebra National Park.

WHITE-BROWED SPARROW WEAVER

The White-browed Sparrow Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) were first described by one Andrew Smith after his trip to the interior in 1836. The mahali part of the scientific name comes from the Setswana word for the bird. These are iconic birds of the rest camp in the Mountain Zebra National Park, where some of them have been ringed.

They are always on the lookout for seeds, usually foraging in flocks of four to ten birds. If one bird spots a source of food, the others join it in a flash. I say ‘it’ for males and females look the same, although males are said to be slightly larger than the females. Their plumage does not alter with the seasons.

We watched as they collected several seeds in their beaks at once and observed how easily they crack some of the harder seeds open.

White-browed Sparrow Weavers make untidy nests in the thorn trees that abound in the national park. These are maintained throughout the year and seem to favour the western side of the trees.

These sociable birds adopt a variety of roles during the breeding season. This is when breeding pairs are assisted by their previous offspring, and non-related birds help to defend the breeding territory.

NATIONAL GRAZING STRATEGY

On the 5th May 1989, the South African Post Office issued a series of stamps to highlight the National Grazing Strategy. Internal postage for ordinary letters at the time was 18 cents and the image, designed by Denis Murphy, is a frightening one titled Mensgemaakte woestyn (Man-made desert).

The 30 cent one is titled Die aarde breek (The earth breaks) and depicts the same scene some years later, when most of the earth has been eroded away to form a deep donga (a steep-sided gully formed by soil erosion – an Afrikaans word that originated in the nineteenth century from Nguni donga, meaning washed out gully).

Here is an example of such a donga in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Before you blame the National Parks for negligence, bear in mind that this donga would have been on one of the original farms purchased to create this park.

Much is being done on farms, nature reserves and in national parks to curb the adverse effects of soil erosion. Examples include:

Planting Spekboom in the Great Fish River Nature Reserve:

The provision of gabions on top of and next to culverts under the road in the Great Fish River nature Reserve:

Breaking the flow of storm water run-off from the roads in the Mountain Zebra National Park:

A land rehabilitation project in the Mountain Zebra National Park:

Getting back to the stamps: I do not have copies at hand, but the 40 cent stamp, titled The helping hand, depicts a dam that has been built in that deep donga. The 50 cent stamp moves on by several years, by which time the dam is full and the area is grassed over – there is even a leafy tree growing in the foreground – I can’t help thinking this is wishful thinking combined with artistic licence! This one is aptly titled The land rejoices.

Let us all take care of the soil and the vegetation that covers it!