SOUTHERN MASKED WEAVER

While they are commonly seen throughout southern Africa, Southern Masked Weavers (Ploceus velatus) have taken some years to become regular visitors to our garden. They are no strangers to this blog for during the past year or two they appear to have become the dominant weaver – outranking the Village Weavers that used to outnumber them by far. They are easily distinguished from Village Weaver by being slightly smaller and have a plain, rather than a blotchy, back.

Depending on the weather, their breeding season usually runs from September to January, although the peak of the season is in summer. During this time, breeding males sport a black face mask with a narrow black band on the forehead above the bill. During the non-breeding season they adopt a more drab appearance, akin to the females, other than the retention of their red eyes. Note their short, strong, conical bill.

The shape of its bill is eminently suited to it being mainly a seed-eater. They eat seeds both from the bird-feeders and from the ground. I have also observed them foraging through leaves and branches as well as fighting each other – and other birds – over any scraps of food I place on the tray. These birds have bent and broken the stems of the cosmos flowers – in search of insects or nectar?

When we had rain and I was able to grow African Marigolds, I would often see some of the Southern Masked Weavers ripping the petals apart.

Now is the time when the lovely orange blossoms of the Cape Honeysuckle come into bloom and the weavers waste no time in biting off the tubular flowers at the base to get at the nectar. They do the same to the Weeping Boer-bean, which is also blooming now. When our Erythrina caffra trees are in bloom, they join with a wide variety of birds doing much the same.

Lastly, these birds are not slow when it comes to feasting on the termites and flying ants that regularly appear in the garden!

TAKING THE PATH OUT

One tires of simply walking around the block and getting barked at by the same dogs in the same places and stepping round the same sewerage leaks … every now and then it is good to walk to the end of the road and along the path decorated with (on this day) donkey droppings acting as a starter marker for a jaunt out of the suburb.

It doesn’t go far for it serves merely as a shortcut to the nominal industrial area and the road that bypasses the town. The area is not as barren or as uninteresting as it might appear at first glance. Tiny pelargoniums look up brightly:

Spiderwebs catch some of the 2mm of rain that fell during the night:

An abandoned hollowed out termite heap gives a glimpse of the layers inside – I am sorry about the litter, but felt disinclined to remove it sans gloves:

At the top of the low rise one gets a lovely view across town on this overcast day:

The return path wends it way through patches of long grass:

In several places termites have been hard at work repairing their heaps:

On our return, we meet a single cow with her calf:

ANT BUILDING

Nature has its way of taking over man-made structures that have been neglected. See what is happening on a grave in the Eastern Cape countryside: what from a distance looked like an animal crouching over the grave turns out to be a mound built by termites.

 

AARDWOLF

The Aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is neither a wolf nor a jackal, but is the smallest member of the Hyena family. Proteles means ‘complete in front’, referring to the fact that they have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws, while cristatus means ‘provided with a comb’, referring to their mane. They are highly territorial and define their territory by extensive scent marking. When threatened, the Aardwolf (Earth Wolf) raises the stiff bristles of hair forming the black stripe on its back in order to look larger and, hopefully, more menacing. This has given rise to its common Afrikaans epithet of Maanhaar Jakkals (Mane Hair Jackal). One rarely comes across one either in or out of game reserves. This is because these solitary creatures are nocturnal and feed mainly on termites. The Aardwolf laps up termites from the ground using its long, sticky tongue.

It was very sad to see an Aardwolf had caught a blow from a passing vehicle during the night and had died on the road.

These and Bat-eared Foxes are prone to being hit by vehicles travelling at night. I wonder if they are dazzled by the headlights and ‘freeze’ or if they simply cannot get out of the way quickly enough.

We visited the Cradock Club (established in 1881) and came across two mounted specimens of Aardwolf decorating a pub – they had clearly been hunted a very long time ago. Still, it seemed a strange coincidence to see evidence of these shy creatures in two very different places on the same day.

Now, to hope that we will come across a live one in the wild one day!

AGRICULTURAL TERMITES

Our front garden must be an enormous colony for subterranean termites. I imagine they obtain some moisture from underground – there certainly has not been much above ground for months! I recently illustrated hundreds of alates emerging on a particularly humid day.

termites

On Monday my attention was drawn to the same spot in the garden when I saw a pair of Olive Thrushes feasting on something there. They would peck at the ground, fly away and returned often enough for me to become curious. The normally hard section of earth was covered with light-coloured grains of sand sprinkled with tiny white specks and there were several termites about. That is possibly what the thrushes were eating. I rubbed a little white speck between my fingers and it disintegrated in a squishy sort of way. The air was humid and the temperature of the day was hot. I wondered idly if the termites had brought their eggs to the surface (why?) and if this presaged rain for us at last.

It transpires that these were not eggs after all, yet rain poured down on Tuesday, accompanied by a light sprinkling of hail and a rush of wind. None of this lasted very long and only yielded 15 mm in the rain gauge. The compacted, dry soil could not absorb the water fast enough and so fierce rivulets tore through the garden and in doing so washed away whatever I had seen re the termites the day before.

aftermathofrain

Yesterday the strange light-coloured mounds were back, spreading far into the lawn and again sprinkled with these minute white specks.

fungi

A completely different and unexpected sight greeted me this morning: swathes of tiny mushrooms!

fungi

I do not know what kind of mushrooms these are, although I am aware that termites keep fungus gardens underground and assume that the light coloured soil must have been pushed to the surface by them. According to African Insect Life by S.H. Skaife, termites may bring material from the fungus beds to the surface after rains. They then spread it in the shade on the surface near their nest. The small white mushrooms develop very quickly, produce spores that are dispersed by the wind and then die.

fungiThe next day:

These mushrooms have opened out in the bright sunshine.

mushrooms