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.

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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!

KAROO SCENERY

The Mountain  Zebra  National  Park  is  situated  on  the  northern  slopes  of  the Bankberg mountain range, near Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Apart from seeing animals, birds and appreciating the natural vegetation, it is worth visiting the area for the scenery alone: the high peaks and plateau provide unparalleled views across the Karoo; then there are the ridges, wonderfully shaped rocky outcrops, and deeply incised valleys caused by the Wilgerboom River.

Generally, the dirt roads are in good condition, with some sections either tarred or have had concrete strips laid down.

It is while driving along some of the steep winding roads that lead down to such valleys from the plateau that one becomes aware of the underlying geological  formations  consisting of  sandstone,  siltstone  and  mudstone  of  the Beaufort  Group  of  the  Karoo  Supergroup,  with  dolerite  plates  and  dykes.

ANTELOPE IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Naturally enough, we expect to see Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra zebra) in the Mountain Zebra National Park situated on the northern slopes of the Bankberg near Cradock.

While we saw a lot of them, a variety of antelope populate the area too. Among these are Red Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus caama):

This is a predominantly grazing species that prefers medium-height grass and so are plentiful in the plateau area of Rooiplaat and Juriesdam.

It is wonderful to see large herds of South Africa’s national animal, the Springbuck (Antidorcas marsupialis), grazing in the veld all over the Park.

We did not see as many Gemsbok (Oryx gazelle) as we have on previous visits. This one was bounding across the grassland with considerable haste.

It was very interesting to happen upon a small herd of Mountain Reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula) and to watch how quickly and nimbly they could run up the steep, rocky, mountain slope!

The Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) were scattered here and there. They are mainly browsers rather than grazers.

Sizeable herds of Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) as well as individuals abound in the Park.

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.

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