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.

A FEW BIRDS IN PASSING

One cannot do any serious bird watching while in the company of those for whom animals are the most interesting. Here then is a sample of the birds I saw in passing whilst in the Mountain Zebra National Park. This Streaky-headed Seedeater (Crithagra gularis) was perched in a tree outside the communal kitchen in the rest camp. There were many of them all over the park:

Apart from seeds, they eat fruit, flowers, buds, nectar and insects. A similar diet is followed by the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali). The rest camp is awash with these birds and their untidy grass nests are evident everywhere in the park:

Having heard its melodious calls for two mornings in a row without seeing one, I felt privileged when this Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra) posed for me on a low branch outside the administration building. These birds eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates.

It is less easy to identify birds while driving. Could this be a Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota) posing on a termite mound?

There is no mistaking the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). These iconic birds grace any landscape as flocks of them pick their way through the veld looking for bulbs, roots, seeds and invertebrates.

This Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora) was easy to identify too.

Given how little water there is at the moment, it was a bonus coming across a Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) looking for insects, worms, tadpoles, or even small fish at the edge of a dam.

Lastly, this Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) showed no interest in posing for a photograph – he clearly had better things to do!

NOTE: Please click on a photograph if you wish to view a larger image.

LOOKING BACK: OSTRICH EGG BREAKFAST

It is a good 57 years ago since our family took a road trip from our farm in the then Eastern Transvaal, through what is now KwaZulu Natal and on to what was still known as the Western Cape. This was an exciting experience which broadened our horizons in terms of the wonderful landscapes South Africa has to offer.

Although I had seen Ostriches in the Johannesburg Zoo before then, it was very exciting to see them in great numbers in the Oudtshoorn area on that trip. The image of the male Ostrich below was taken much more recently in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Even more exciting was actually seeing ostrich eggs in the veld. My father bought some eggs and, not wishing to break the shells (which are very hard, by the way), a hole was made in order to blow the egg to release the contents. As one Ostrich egg is said to contain the equivalent of two dozen hen eggs, there was plenty to feed a family of six for breakfast! In the image below I am holding the bucket to catch the contents, while my eldest brother is blowing an ostrich egg and my youngest brother is holding it carefully.

Judging from the background, I imagine we must have pulled off the road somewhere to make breakfast whilst travelling. You can see our Volkswagen single-cab truck had a canvas canopy on the back with roll-down sides; this is where we children made ourselves very comfortable on our journey around the country. Note the split windscreen – something we do not see anymore!