A FEW BIRDS IN THE KAROO NATIONAL PARK

Having previously experienced an abundance of birds around the camping area of the Karoo National Park, I found it disappointing this time that sparrows ruled the roost. Granted, there were House Sparrows, Cape Sparrows as well as a few Southern Grey-headed Sparrows that kept a close watch on the tents and caravans at the site – always ready to eat a crumb or two. Now and then a Southern Masked Weaver would muscle its way among the sparrows as did a few Laughing Doves. Red-winged Starlings flew overhead and we could hear the calls of Hadeda Ibises in the early morning and late afternoon. It was also fun to hear the familiar calls of the Red-eyed Doves and a pair of Bokmakieries perched in the treetops near our tent and sang lustily to each other.

The bird list provided by the Park is enticing and spending only one full day driving around the area is not sufficient to do it justice. I saw a few Speckled Mousebirds flying across the road as well as several smaller birds that could be both heard and seen from afar. Most were neither easy to identify nor to photograph as they tended to fly off as soon as our vehicle stopped or as I had almost got my camera focused! This Rufous-eared Warbler was difficult to focus on as it kept moving between these branches:

Some of the more co-operative ones were a pair of South African Shelducks in flight:

House Sparrows:

Familiar Chat:

Laughing Dove

Of course the Common Ostriches were easy to spot as we drove around the park – there were plenty of them too. It is interesting to note that these birds are able to regulate their body temperature via their long necks and their large wings. They also use gular fluttering to cool down on exceptionally hot days.

We plan to spend a lot more time in this beautiful place during our next visit!

NOT A SITTING DUCK

One does not often come across a male Ostrich sitting down in the middle of the day. This one didn’t move as we drew to a halt near it.

Apart from straightening its neck – as if to say “I am on the alert and know you are there” – it remained still and looked ahead. So did we. All was quiet except for the faint rustling of the wind over the dry grass in the open veld. The ostrich looked ahead. We looked at the ostrich. Was it, perhaps, doing egg duty during the day? Where was its mate then? The females usually sit on the eggs during the day and the males take over the duty at night – at least that is what common wisdom tells us. At last the ostrich deigned to turn its head to look straight at us.

“Is it any of your business to know what I am doing?” The expression was not particularly friendly. “Haven’t you got other things to do?” Then he stood up and walked away a short distance – not an egg in sight.

“Sometimes a chap simply needs to sit and think”, he seemed to say. He drew himself up to his full height – which is considerable – fluffed his fine feathers and continued his amble through the veld.

THE OPEN SPACE OF MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Having been ‘pandemically confined’ for months and only recently being allowed to venture forth – almost inch by inch – or so it felt, it was a treat to spend a day in the Addo Elephant National Park. As soon as overnight accommodation was allowed, we opted to spend two nights at the Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock.

As you can see in the photograph below, the sky was heavily overcast when we arrived – that in itself has been a rare sight in our part of the Eastern Cape. Being the end of winter, the grass is dry and golden: look at the beautiful wide open expanse of the grassland with the mountain rising above it. Such space gives one the feeling of freedom!

Here is a closer look at the mountain, with an ostrich in the foreground.

The grassland in the valley seems to go on forever.

When you get close to the mountain, driving up to the plateau, you become entranced by the bulging rocks, loose boulders and the vegetation growing in between. The pale coloured trees are all Cussonia spp., known colloquially as Cabbage Trees.

Once on the plateau, you can almost see to the end of the earth – mountains and valleys that change with the light of the day. It is scenery that one can absorb in great gulps; difficult to take in all at once; the openness, the beauty, and all that space is ‘cleansing’ and healing. There is a feeling of freedom (one can forget about the pandemic there) and ‘wholesomeness’ that made me feel ‘normal’ for those few days.

SAND BATHING

Birds don’t only use water for cleaning themselves, they also ‘sand bathe’. This is a rather interesting phenomenon to observe and so it is worth leaving open sandy patches in your garden. A variety of birds use the fine loose sand to keep their feathers in peak condition and to reduce the number of parasites in them. I first noticed the Laughing Doves doing this in our garden.

Small flocks of them congregate in sandy areas to scoop up the sand with their wings. They then shake their wings, allowing the sand to penetrate between the feathers. Allied to this is the habit of sunbathing, which is when the birds lie down with their wings outstretched. The sun is thought to straighten the feathers and at the same time spread the preen oil throughout the feathers.   Olive Thrushes also engage in this kind of sand bathing.

Dust bathing helps absorb any excess oil and also removes dry skin and other debris. Ostriches sand bathe too.

EARTH DAY 2020

Does one say ‘Happy Earth Day?’ Can it be a happy Earth Day when the planet is mantled by an unseen enemy that has brought the world’s population to its knees, caused hunger, uncertainty, fear, suspicion and concern to the fore on a scale that no climate change warnings, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes have managed to do? The spread of the COVID-19 virus has isolated us, caused us to look inwards, to contemplate where we are, what we do and to question our future.

There is much to celebrate and Earth Day is an opportunity to focus on those good things: biodiversity, water, clean(er) air … life, living, loving, and caring for and about others – these are aspects that the down time the virus has brought to us. Time to think about the food we eat, where it comes from, what we eat, how much food we really need, how to be innovative about making meals from food we already have at home instead making a needless trip to the local supermarket.

The internet abounds with ideas on how to cook / bake with ever fewer ingredients; how versatile other ingredients can be as substitutes for those we have run out of. Are we eating less / more healthy food / snacking less? Those with gardens appear to be appreciating them more – I certainly do – and have greater empathy for those who do not.

Earth Day this year is one of contemplation and appreciation. As we have been housebound for 27 days now I look back with a sense of nostalgia to various trips we have undertaken to game reserves in South Africa – at the time, never doubting that we could return whenever we had both the time and the resources to get there. The virus had other ideas.

We do not have to travel very far to observe Cattle Egrets as flocks of them follow the Urban Herd around all day and many fly over our garden at the end of each day on their way to perch in one of the tall trees near the centre of town.

Ostriches are always a delight to see in the various game reserves we have visited in the country. We used to see a lot more being farmed around here – South Africa provides 60% of the ostrich-meat supply market despite farmers having to battle with problems such as drought and avian influenza – which has made these birds very familiar over time. They are still wondrous to see in the wild.

Now we can only imagine and remember the joy of driving round the corner of a dirt road to meet an Elephant and her calf walking towards us.

When will I see a Waterbuck again?

Or Impala grazing in the rain?

Or a Lioness looking at me contemplatively?

These and all the other birds and animals will still be there when we are ‘free’ again. I remain thankful for that.

Enjoy Earth Day in your own way.