SCENES FROM NATIONAL PARKS

South Africa is blessed with several national parks. It takes time and travelling long distances to visit even some of them, yet none disappoint. Today I will feature scenes from a few of them. The Addo Elephant National Park is not very far from where we live and so, every now and then, we go there for a day visit. Given its name, visitors naturally expect to see elephants there:

It is also a good place for birding, where one might be fortunate to see raptors such as this Jackal Buzzard:

The Mountain Zebra National Park is also easily accessible to us and is the perfect place to spend a few days. Visitors here would obviously expect to see mountain zebras:

However, one might also be fortunate to spot a cheetah lying in the yellow grass:

There are red hartebeest in the Karoo National Park – which makes a good stopping point between where we live and Cape Town:

One can also enjoy seeing ostriches striding along the open veld:

The world famous Kruger National Park is several day’s journey from here and hosts an enormous variety of plants, birds, insects and animals. When we consider the alarming rate at which rhinos are killed in this country, we cannot help but feel privileged to see them from close quarters here:

The name on every visitor’s lips is ‘lion’. Mention the word and people speed up and jostle for space to see even the tip of the tail of one. Equally exciting to see though are leopards:

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the furthest away from us and – despite its remote location – is such a popular destination that one has to book accommodation about a year ahead. This is an incredible place for seeing lions:

It is also a marvellous place for seeing the very beautiful crimson-breasted shrike:

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.