Sunday, December 26, 2010

A slew of new gnu

Common (or brindled) wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus). Photo by Dom Cram.

The 'miracle of birth' is one of those tired clichés that slide past us without making the slightest impact.

(Don't panic this is NOT a schmaltzy Christmas post.)

And it's not just the phrase that's world-weary; it's the concept too.
Oh yeah, another birth, another miracle... ho hum.
Unless you're involved personally, unless a small, mewling being is actually placed in your own hands, the creation of a new life - where none existed before - is something we bizarrely take for granted.

Well this week I encountered an antidote to this blasé approach to natural miracles.
It was brought to me by my local wildebeest herd.

Wildebeests (or gnus) are the itchy-hoofed members of the antelope family. They're dedicated believers in the old 'grass is always greener...' adage. Let them perceive the distant rumbles of a far-flung thunderstorm and off they'll go, happily trudging 50 km (31 miles) in search of that greener grass. And of course you'll have seen footage of wildebeest herds - a thousand strong - trekking through East Africa on their annual migratory romp.

A new gnu. Gnu is the Hottentot name for the species. To produce a convincing imitation of the male's territorial call, pinch your nose and say 'g-noo' in a deep voice. Photo posted on Flickr by naddel.

But not all wildebeests migrate. Give a wildebeest a generous supply of short, green grass and a drinking fountain and he'll hunker down with all the gusto of a limpet (surely limpets have gusto). Alternatively you can just build a fence. This may, of course, have dire consequences, as demonstrated by the 50,000 wildebeests that met their maker along Botswana's veterinary fences during the mid-1980s' drought. But I'm getting sidetracked here. The point is that many wildebeests (including the ones living around here) enjoy a happy and fulfilling sedentary life.

But regardless of whether they're nomads or couch potatoes, wildebeests are built to roam. Unlike every other antelope, they don't hide their calves away during the first days or months of life; that would be a sure-fire way of getting left behind. The newborns must find their feet immediately, and they can totter after Mum within - on average - six minutes of birth. But such tiny calves, moving openly with the herd, are dreadfully vulnerable to anything with big teeth. So what's to be done?

Mastering stilt-galloping. Notice that the legs of this newborn are almost as long as his mum's. Wildebeest calves are born during the morning to maximize their practice time before the nightly predators rock up. Photo posted on Flickr by Kibuyu.

I witnessed the solution to this problem firsthand this week. You see I usually pass a herd of wildebeests on my way to the mongooses each day. Black-coated with large, heavy heads topped with devil horns, they remind me of those medieval depictions of demons. The well-grown yearlings cavort and prance, tossing their bearded heads, while the females - bellies rounded and taut - pause in their grazing to gaze at me through long black lashes. Patrolling the herd is a macho territory-owner, bigger and darker than the rest. He stands regally side-on, striving to show off his majestic physique.

Now I can't say I haven't been expecting it; it happens just before Xmas every year. But it's always a shock, anticipated or not. You see when I passed the herd on Tuesday, it had almost doubled in size. Tottering by the side of every female was a wobbly-legged calf. The sudden, miraculous appearance of a whole herd full of little tan calves is utterly awe-inspiring and, of course, a real joy.

To outfox predators, wildebeests opt for the old predator satiation strategy, flooding the market with all their yummy calves at once. And when I say 'at once' that's exactly what I mean. Expectant mums congregate (hundreds at a time in the large migratory herds) at special calving grounds (normally open, short-grassed areas) dropping their calves together. This en masse calf-production begins very abruptly because no one can afford to be early; a calf arriving even one day ahead of its peers is destined for consumption. And any latecomers, being littler than the rest, are also prone to be munched.

I defy anyone to experience this sudden magical conjuring of wildebeest calves without feeling awe, wonder and a renewed appreciation for the 'miracle of birth'.

Built for speed, a calf tests his legs. Wildebeests begin to lose their tan coats at two months old. Photo posted on Flickr by Picture Taker 2.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The stink of Paradise

My house reeks of something VERY dead.
And for once my poor housekeeping skills are not to blame.

At night the sweet, cloying stench is so powerful it makes my head throb. No, one of Silver's post-prandial snacks didn't escape to expire behind the refrigerator. And Magic hasn't been dragging carrion home again.
In fact, the odour isn't even seeping from the roof, home to a Large Predatory Beast. I hear this ogre devouring rodents and bats regularly, but I haven't had the courage to poke my head through one of the (scarily numerous) gaps in the ceiling to see what it is. Ignorance is bliss, or so I tell myself.

Baby animal: a very dwarf dwarf mongoose.
This is Galadan from Ecthelion.
So why the smell?

Because it's a jungle out there.

Since the rains have come, the bush has turned into a lush, verdant tangle, vibrant with birdsong and flitting butterflies. It's the closest thing to Paradise I can imagine. Baby animals of every kind peek wide-eyed from the undergrowth, and the trees and shrubs are scrambling to send their come-hither signals to potential pollinators.
Here are some of their efforts.

The buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) is popular with the religious: Christ's crown of thorns was woven from a species of Ziziphus, and the local Zulu and Swazi people traditionally believe that the twigs can attract, and carry, the spirit of a deceased person.

The silver raisin bush (Grewia monticola) will be covered in small, orange berries come February. Although dry and current-like, these fruits are scoffed by almost everyone (jackals, baboons, guinea-fowl, vervets, peckish zoologists).

Seasonally appropriate, the sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea) is decked out like a Christmas tree.

My first encounter with a sickle bush occurred in Melbourne when I was a mere teenager. I blush to admit that I was filching sprigs of labelled plants from the Botanic Gardens to fraudulently fulfil a Botany assignment on plant identification (oh come on, my abiding passion was Zoology!). Accustomed to the flowers of the ubiquitous Aussie wattles (golden fluff, creamy fluff, yellow fluff... ) I was blown away by this plant. Of course, here in its native land, the sickle bush is considered an invasive weed because it enthusiastically transforms disturbed ground into impenetrable thickets.

The weeping wattle (Peltophorum africanum) is not for the squeamish. It's named after the constant mist of pee which rains down from its foliage. Who does the peeing? Tiny, sap-sucking 'cuckoo-spit' insects (Ptyelus grossus).

With all these plants madly competing for pollinators, it pays to stand out. And the lowveld cluster-leaf certainly does that. This tree isn't content to just lay on copious amounts of nectar. In the evenings it widens its client-base by pumping out perfume: a sickening odour of decay. Unfortunately my front yard is ringed by these trees.

The stinky culprit: the lowveld cluster-leaf (Terminalia pruniodes).

Whom is it hoping to attract?  Hyenas?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The plenitude of Mwanzamala

I'm writing this post in celebration of Mwanzamala.

What is it?

It's the Shangaan name for the present month.

Unlike us, the local Shangaan people don't go about commemorating megalomaniacs, obsolete gods or erroneous numbering systems. Traditionally they divvy up their year using a lunar calendar, naming each cycle of the moon after notable natural events.
Wouldn't you love to exchange 'December' for 'first snow' (if you're unlucky enough to live in the Northern Hemisphere)?

Well here, right now, it's Mwanzamala.

Yes, yes, I'll tell you what it means in a moment. First let me share with you an experience I had during Mwanzamala some years ago.
I was diligently working at my laptop (honest) at a picnic area in Kruger National Park (Pretoriuskop camp) when I was distracted (oh no, not easily done) by a movement in the hedge that divided the sprawling lawns. The hedge was about chin-height, very dense and neatly clipped, and some small animal had just popped out of the top, only to immediately disappear again.

There it was again. Furred in soft reddish brown, it sprang up, almost like a jack-in-the-box, before diving back into the foliage. And again! It certainly wasn't a squirrel or a hyrax (dassie) but for the life of me I couldn't make out what it was. I sat staring at the hedge mystified as the creature kept popping in and out. Once I was certain I glimpsed the edge of a long, hare-like ear. And look, a tuft of fuzzy white, like a rabbit's scut.

What was even more strange, was that the creature didn't always appear at the same spot, but was popping out at different places along the top of the hedge. Was it dashing about within the foliage? Or was there a whole colony of the beasts? Could someone at Pretoriuskop be surreptitiously breeding rufous, tree-dwelling rabbits?

Utterly baffled, I crept closer, only to realise that the animal wasn't actually in the hedge at all, but was popping up from behind it. But what on earth was it? I quickly back-tracked along the line of the hedge and - feeling a certain amount of trepidation – tiptoed around the end to see what lurked behind.

Boy did I feel stupid!

On the lawn before me was a crèche of a dozen capering impala fawns. They were playing follow-the-leader: galloping and pronking around the lawn in a large circle, like a roundabout come to life. As the string of fawns raced along beside the hedge, each one gave a prodigious leap, soaring through the air for several meters. It was the noses, ears and tails of these airborne antelope (the only bits to protrude above the top of the hedge) that I'd seen from the far side. Oh the embarrassment!

Photo by Melanie Lukesh.

Adult impalas (Aepyceros melampus) demonstrating the manoeuvre (notice everyone is at least a metre off the ground).
Photo by Martin Heigan.

Experiences such as this are common place during Mwanzamala, the month of 'more impalas'.

In the space of just 2 or 3 weeks, all the impalas in southern Africa (and there's well over a million) give birth to their wobbly-legged lambs. Skittish with huge ears and eyes, the fawns gather in large nursery herds and crèches. The idea is to glut the market; even the most voracious predator can't scoff everyone. But of course they give it their best shot, and everywhere you see predators lying snoozing contentedly with bellies grossly bulging.

Impala mums usually give birth around midday, leaving the newborn concealed in cover for its first couple of days.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Dinner. As well as the usual carnivores, impala lambs are munched by pythons, baboons and martial eagles.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But it's not just the carnivores that revel in Mwanzamala; it's holiday time for everyone.
Zebras, wildebeest and waterbuck all suddenly adopt an insouciant, relaxed manner; you can almost see them laying out their beach towels and slapping on the sunscreen. Predators? Who needs to concern themselves with those indolent, overindulged gluttons?

This year, I've joined the rank and file, and am also relying on the plenitude of Mwanzamala. You see my study site is currently the domicile of a large male lion who's wandered in from Kruger; may he wander off again soon!

Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Sorry I haven't posted for so long but I was disempowered.
One of my charming, well-furred neighbours unplugged me.

Who me?
Chacma baboon, Papio ursinus. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

An electricity cable that's been tugged from its socket by mischievous paws should be simple to fix, or so you'd think. Unfortunately, the furry culprit executed this fell deed at the very apex of the power-pole outside my house.

Handymen gathered from far and wide to stand and stare at the pole and shake their heads.
"No way to get up there."
"You need a trained monkey" someone quipped (grrr!).

So I've just had to wait - electricity-free - until a team of electricians could come out from town with their whizz-bang pole-climbing equipment (i.e. a VERY long ladder).

And let me tell you, the wait has not been pretty. I've no idea how people coped before the advent of electricity: thawing pet meat, sour milk, first-degree burns, candle wax dribbled everywhere, singed eyebrows (my camping stove is frighteningly unpredictable) and bruised limbs (from tripping over cats who refuse to believe they're invisible in candle-lit gloom).

Still, I do enjoy having the baboons around, and they're normally well-behaved. We did have a couple of tense weeks when I first moved in. The baboons lounged on the garden fence taunting my madly barking dogs, and every now and again a swaggering adolescent male would leap down and dash across the yard; dogs in frenzied pursuit. I didn't witness the denouement of this saga (thankfully), but I suspect it was painful for both parties: the baboons now stay well clear of the fence and my dogs pointedly ignore them, refusing to chase any baboon, even when we're out walking.

Of course I know baboons can be problematic. The youngsters love to play on roofs for example. On my iron shed roof, they beat out a rackety tattoo as they leap and wrestle, but on my landlord's roof of thatch, they clasp fistfuls of straw as they race up and down the steep pitch, tearing out great tufts of roofing as they go.
Still, others have it worse.

Hmm, I've never driven an automatic before... Photo by Tim Ellis.

The driver of this car pulled over to photograph the view on the scenic drive to Cape Point (the peninsula south of Cape Town). Unfortunately, the car doors weren't locked, and the baboon opened a rear door and hopped in. This photograph was taken after the driver and passenger had fled out the front doors, leaving their car to the baboon.

Friday, November 26, 2010

New addition

There's a new arrival on the block.
Or perhaps I should say on the tree.

The vervet troop that sleeps in the big nyala tree outside my backdoor has a brand new member.

He's black, meagrely furred and very unsteady on his pins.
And he spends most of his time upside down.

At the moment (actually during most of his moments), he's clinging to his mum's tummy, his tiny fingers and toes entwined in her silvery fur, and his tail encircling her leg. Every now and then, while everyone else is busy nibbling buds and flowers, he clambers down to poke about, carefully examining twigs and leaves with an air of enraptured wonderment.

I haven't even tried to take his photograph because his mum's so protective. Each time she sees me watching him tottering about, she hauls him back by the tail, bundles him up against her stomach and retreats to a more sheltered spot. But I tracked down some photos so you can share in the pleasure of seeing him. I mean, one baby vervet looks much the same as the next, doesn't it? (I may be committing vervet sacrilege here).

New vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops).
Photo by Louise and Arno Meintjes.

Well, yes I know that troop members discriminate between babies. You see infants possess a strong allure in vervet society, and mothers are happy for other group members to babysit their kids. In my local troop, the young females spend lots of time sifting through the little one's sparse fur, tickling him and rolling him about in play, and retrieving him from real and imagined perils. Meanwhile, last year's youngster (whom I think is much more appealing in his coat of soft grey) is now spending his time sitting alone looking forlorn. I considered hurling an apple at him, but I suppose I mustn't encourage him in bad habits (ah, the perils of comfort eating...).

Vervets lose their black baby-fur at around three months of age.
Photo by Louise and Arno Meintjes.

Research has shown that vervets prefer to fuss over the kids of family members, and babies with high-ranking mums are more popular than those whose mums are lower on the social scale. But the monkeys aren't just babysitting to curry favour, because - just as in humans - first-born infants top the popularity stakes, regardless of their mum's social standing (written with the gritted teeth of a fifth-born child).

Vervet mothers might be relaxed about letting their companions dandle their babes, but if a dispute arises, they rush to their little darling's aid, regardless of who instigated the trouble. As a result of this blind dedication, baby vervets enjoy the same social standing as their mums; so if she's top dog, the little monster can pretty much rule the roost.

Angelic innocence? Take a closer look.
 This little guy has two nipples clamped in its jaws (you can just see its darker pink tongue in between). The nipples of female vervets are positioned close together and it's routine for infants to guzzle from both nipples at once.
Photo by Louise and Arno Meintjes.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hopping into housework

Today I'm doing housework.
Not momentous, you think?
Well you're quite wrong.

If cleanliness is next to godliness, I'm playing out-field for the atheists.
Being blessed with an astonishing tolerance for grime and clutter, and living alone, I'm happy to wallow in slovenliness. In truth, I simply don't notice the carpeting of dust, the haunted-house cobwebs billowing around the lights or the snowy drifts of dog fur under the sofa. It takes something unusual to make me stop and think, 'oh, I suppose I should clean up'.

Of course the most dreadful manifestation of this is the Unexpected Visitor (oh my God, oh my God...). But such ordeals are rare (thank Heaven) and my wake-up calls are usually more subtle. You know the sort of thing (well you probably don't, and if you do, it's best not to admit it): the computer refuses to type S and P because cat fur is sprouting from the keyboard, a procession of dung beetles trundles past on route to the kitchen bin, the dog starts licking random places on the floor, or a strange green fluid is seeping from the fridge.

Well today's wake-up call was a bit different.

It was uttered by a frog.
'A series of discordant croaks or squeaks', to quote my frog guide.
Not your usual call to dish mop, I admit.

But this is the call of the foam nest frog. To be precise, the foam nest frog that perches by day on the cupboard above my sink. Still don't see the problem? Then let me fill you in on the idiosyncrasies of foam nest frogs.

The Southern foam nest frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) is one of 15 species of foam nest frog which gallivant about in tropical Africa and South East Asia. This photo was snapped on a cool, rainy evening and features the same individual (my croaking sink-dweller) as the last two photos below (taken on a hot, sunny day).

These attractive little amphibians, with their big round eyes and sucker-like toes, suffer paranoia. Rightly or wrongly, they're convinced that every body of water is brimful with ghastly predators whose sole purpose in life is the annihilation of frogs' eggs. To avoid this rampant egg-consumption, foam nest frogs deposit their spawn in trees. Courting males find themselves a romantic spot with a waterside view - preferably a branch overhanging water – and then tell the world about it. If a lady frog gives their potential nursery the thumbs up, she'll secrete a gelatinous goo which the pair treadle into foam. It's into this confection of froth that the female lays her eggs. Additional gentlemen will help in the arduous whisking operation, surreptitiously fertilising some of the lady's eggs while they kick up a storm.

Southern foam nest frogs building the nursery.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

The meringue-like nest hardens on the outside, forming a crust that protects the little embryos from harsh temperatures and drying out. After 4 to 6 days the young tadpoles wriggle down to the base of the nest, where the crust softens, dropping them - with a plop - into the water below.

So the frog sitting croaking above my kitchen sink, believes he's found the ideal nursery.

OK, I admit that my sink probably does qualify as 'permanent water'. Filled with a clutter of encrusted pots, half-empty coffee mugs and milk-rimmed cat bowls, it does provide an alluring mosaic of puddles and pools. And while I realise that it isn't every day one gets the opportunity to witness the miracle of amphibian procreation in one's own kitchen, the prospect of 1200 tadpoles (no exaggeration, according to my frog book) plopping down among my dirty dishes is more than I can face.

So today I'm doing housework.

Starting with the washing-up.

When they aren't loitering in my house, foam nest frogs sit in trees, exposed to the elements. To avoid heatstroke, they turn chalky white (to reflect heat) and secrete tiny droplets of sweat. Unlike other frogs, they don't pee, excreting nitrogen waste as uric acid (rather than ammonia or urea) in an almost water-free, white paste.

Foiled foam nest frog.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The pitter patter of little paws

The time has come!

Far and wide, baby mongooses are tottering out of their termite mounds to view the world for the very first time.

Of course, it can be a shock.

At this tender age (2.5 weeks), the pups haven't yet learnt the meaning of alarm calls.

Goshawk?  What's a goshawk??

So they can't be left on their own.

When the group heads off on their daily hunting trip, one family member has to stay behind to babysit.

A hungry and tedious job.

But then everyone loves a pup.

The two little guys featured here are the newest members of Bugbears: Urchin and Squirt (named after marine invertebrates).

They're only two inches (5cm) long, excluding tail.
At almost three weeks old, they're just discovering the delights of solid food (if you consider beetle larva delightful), but won't be up to travelling with the group for another week or so.

Plenty of time to snooze.

And discover the world.



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Look before you leap

When I was fourteen I met the love of my life.

Alright, I admit it, he wasn't human.

He was a small Arab gelding. Dark chestnut and flaunting a blonde mane and tail, he danced along with all the grace and elegance of his breed.
And for me - during my fraught teenage years - he epitomised everything joyous and good.

Of course being highly strung (the horse not me), he also had his foibles. For example, he refused to set hoof in puddles (not an issue in the Arabian desert but endlessly problematic during Melbournian winters). But his most distressing eccentricity related to jumping.

Without fail, we'd come galloping boldly up to a hurdle, only to have him slither to an abrupt stop with his chest almost against the bar. He'd then carefully inspect the far side of the obstacle and, once he'd ascertained a lack of large, fanged beasts lying in wait, he'd rear up on his hind legs and leap the obstacle from a standstill. As you can imagine, this was miserably uncomfortable for me, and utterly heart-stopping to watch. Nevertheless it seemed to work, and the dire predictions of everyone who'd seen us in the jumping ring (that sooner or later he'd kill us both) never materialised; he remained my dearest companion for almost 25 years.

Why am I telling you this? Because since coming here, I've realised that my horse's idiosyncratic approach to show jumping wasn't that idiosyncratic at all.

Take yesterday for example. While out on our evening stroll, the dogs and I met a kudu. Now kudus are my all-time favourite antelope. They're regal and stately, and they stand 1.4 m (4 ft 8") at the shoulder. They remind me of those computer-enhanced images of lingerie models, where the elegant legs just go on and on. Clothed in soft fawn or dove grey, kudus are drizzled with trickles of white, to break up their outline and help them blend in. And their faces are simply gorgeous: huge ears, an irresistible bambi nose and big dark eyes.

The horns of the greater kudu (Tragelaphus scriptus) are the longest of any antelope, reaching 1.8 m (6 ft) in length. When making a getaway through the dense thickets in which they live, kudu bulls raise their chins like haughty aristocrats, so their horns lie harmlessly along their backs. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Yesterday, as we ambled along a track that follows a game fence, the dogs heard something in a thicket on the fence line. Trembling with eagerness, the pair dragged me forward. I couldn't see what was hiding there (kudus put their camouflaged coats to good use, freezing in the face of danger) until we were about 12 m (40 ft) away. Then a huge kudu bull leapt out. Much to my surprise he didn't gallop away from the fence, he just gave one massive leap (from a standing start) up and over the 2.3 m (7 ft 6") fence. There was a ricocheting boing as his forelegs rapped the top wire and the fence swayed precariously, but the knock didn't slow his flight and within seconds he was gone.
With my usual photographic ineptitude, I failed to capture the event but I did snap a dreary photo of the kudu-less fence, once all the excitement was over.

The fence the kudu leapt. Grubby husky included for scale.

Careening kudu. Renowned for their jumping ability, greater kudus can easily clear 2.5 m (8 ft). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.
Thanks to this impressive disregard for fences, kudus are free to indulge in seasonal pilgrimages. I don't see hide nor hair of them in the wet season (because they're off roaming far and wide) but once food gets short, they all come trooping back, to hang out near the koppies and the river. Kudus dine almost exclusively on foliage and, because of their size, they need plenty of it; especially the males (who are 50% heftier). Late in the dry season, I often come across emaciated bulls tottering about, and many starve if the rains are late to arrive. A study in Kruger found that a six-year-old kudu bull (who's just attained adult size) has only a 50% chance of reaching his seventh birthday. In contrast, svelte lady kudus often live to fifteen.

Crown of thorns. Cryptic and stealthy, greater kudus are able to survive outside protected areas and are gradually infiltrating much of their former range (after rinderpest epidemics almost annihilated them early last century). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Fortunately, all the kudus I've met this year are looking OK (thanks to the heavy rain last April) so I don't have to feel guilty about chasing them over fences. But the prodigious leap I witnessed was by no means unique. I've also seen impala, bushbuck, duiker and eland leap over large obstacles from a stationary start. And, thinking about it, both my dogs and cats jump from a standstill. Maybe my darling horse was just behaving naturally??

When love is in the air (around May), kudu bulls slap on the neck muscles. Why? Because rival males lock horns and neck-wrestle to win the hoof of lady kudus.
 Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes (who clearly share my love of kudus).

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Last night we received our first good dowsing of rain.

Although the runoff seeped in to flood my kitchen, and the pets took fright at the golf-ball sized ice-chunks crashing on the roof, we're now all celebrating (a doubling of chocolate consumption).
Well, perhaps all isn't strictly accurate, since the composition of my household has undergone a change.
Last night all my resident red toads (eight, it turned out) lined up at the door to be let outside. As they hopped off into the rain to do their froggy thing, I felt I should be waving a handkerchief or something. But as they say, 'Nature abhors a vacuum', and I now have several foam nest frogs calling the place home.

A foam nest frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) enjoying the view from my curtain rail.

After one light shower of rain last week, the bush is already edging its way toward green. Its absolute faith in the coming of rain terrifies me. I guess I spent too long in the Kalahari where all the plants lie doggo until there's been enough rainfall for them to sprout, bloom and set seed all in one hit.

With everything breaking out in leaf and the air scented with flowers, the first summer migrants are starting to wing in. I heard a red-chested cuckoo calling for the first time this morning (cause for nervousness, no doubt, in all hairy caterpillars, thrushes and robin-chats).

Red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitaries). Photo by Johann du Preez.

I'm now going to inflict on you photos of some of the flowers that are currently burgeoning (sorry, I can't resist them).

The mopane pomegranate (Rhigozum zambesiacum) pins its sweet-scented flowers on a stark thicket of bare twigs.

The weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala) literally drips nectar, attracting a deafening buzz of insects. Around here, these trees grow almost exclusively on termite mounds, sucking up the moisture generated by these little control freaks (a mound is not a home unless it's humidity-controlled!). Every man and his dog (well maybe not his dog) eats this tree: starlings, monkeys and baboons scoff the flowers, antelope nibble the leaves, and both monkeys and people chomp the carb-rich beans (apparently you roast the pods). Oh, and black rhinos (who've presumably been partying) like to gnaw the bark, which is said to cure heartburn and hangovers.

The red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum) is a handy plant for practical jokers. The seeds, although consumed by birds, are poisonous to humans, causing prolonged hiccupping.

Natal plane (Ochna natalitia). These lovely perfumed flowers last only a day or so. Then they fall to create drifts of golden petals.

The blood flower or fireball lily (Scadoxus multiflorus) is utterly bizarre. Once a year it sprouts a single flower head (26cm/10" across) comprised of about 200 individual flowers. Laden with alkaloids, the plant snuffs out livestock, and is used to coat poison arrows in Cameroon and Gabon, and as a fishing poison in Guinea and Nigeria.

Another species of plane (Ochna spp.) that I've yet to identify.

The migratory yellow-billed kites (Milvus aegyptius) began to rock up last week. Each morning at dawn, as I drive to the study site, I follow one skimming along the road – kilometre after kilometre - searching for beasties that were flattened in the night.
Photo by Matt MacGillivray.
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