Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A budgie of a day

Today has not been a good day.

An unknown beasty has gnawed through the water pipe that runs from the borehole to my house. I've been without water for three days now and things (i.e. me) are starting to smell. I'm having to water my plants with Evian, and even the cats are beginning to look askance at what's sprouting on the tower of dirty dishes (OK, some of the dishes were already there when the water cut out, but I was just about to do them; honest).

Last time the water pipe succumbed, the culprit was a thirsty elephant who'd decided that uprooting a pipe was more exciting than sauntering 100m down to the river; but there are no elephants around right now. I'm putting my money on the ever-helpful porcupines, who chew anything, just for the joy of it. The current rupture, which is gushing water so vigorously the dogs are afraid to go near it, is only 5 metres from the dam, so thirst was not the motivation. Perhaps it was a consortium of local wildlife, making a stand against the crocodiles.

When food gets scarce at the end of the dry season, some of Kruger's elephants come moseying up the Oliphants River to my place. Photo taken in my front yard, Nov '08.

On top of the annoyance of no water, I've made two fruitless excursions into town (70 km a trip) to collect an 'overnight' consignment of mealworms sent from Cape Town last week. The postal service now admits that the package has been sent 'somewhere else'. Where?? I pity whoever receives it - can you imagine opening up an unexpected parcel to find 3,000 mealworms?

Is this a pipe-vandal??

And then, to finish off a perfect day, the farm workers arrived in the evening with a sick bird they'd found. It was a tame, blue budgerigar. Heaven knows how it got here because its wings were clipped and it could only flutter short distances. Unfortunately, I think it had fed on something toxic, and - after many hideous spasms - it was dead within the hour. Believe me, I could've lived without sharing in its final death throes.

Maybe tomorrow will be better...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Weird sunbather

One of the challenges of winter is getting out of bed.
But if it's cold here, at least it's sunny, with glorious blue skies every day.

As I waddle out to the car every morning, swathed in jumpers, scarves and gloves, I gaze longingly at the pools of golden sunshine. Ah... just to sit and soak up the warmth... Then, moments later, I drive past someone doing exactly that.

About 300m from my house, my drive mounts the embankment of a manmade dam, and runs along the dam wall amid a jungle of tall reeds and grasses.
It's here that I meet the sun-worshipper.
Pressed against the tangle of reeds, wings extended and tail lowered, he epitomises sun-soaking contentment. Slowly he opens his eyes as I approach and then, as my car makes its second faltering attempt to crest the slope, he gives an irritated shrug, shuffling his raised feathers back into place. But he doesn't move away, mind you, even though we both know I must drive within a couple of metres. Only if I stop beside him does he scramble away into the undergrowth.

He's a Burchell's coucal (Centropus burchelli) and like all his kind he's got attitude. Coucals are large striking birds with bright chestnut wings, a black hood and creamy front. Their flight is slow and clumsy (and they've a tendency to crash land) but on the ground they run with speed and agility.

A Burchell's coucal basking in the sun. Unlike most birds, coucals have two toes that face forward and two that point backward (zygodactylism) to help them clamber in the shrubbery. They also sport a huge, scimitar-like claw on one of their rear toes. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Coucals used to be members of the cuckoo family, but they've now been banished to a family of their own (Centropodidae), probably because they subversively raise their own chicks. Actually, it's only the male coucal who's made this radical break from tradition; his mate continues to fritter away her time, mating and egg-laying. The diligent male (distrustful of foster families?) weaves the domed grass nest, sits on the eggs and ferries assorted bugs to the chicks. The closely related black coucal (Centropus grilli) takes this domestic arrangement even further. Female black coucals team up with multiple males and each one raises a nestful of chicks just for her.

Burchell's coucals are fierce predators, doing in large insects, eggs, nestlings and any other unfortunate beast that crosses their path. They happily raid mist-nets, and sprint along ahead of grassfires snatching up fleeing refugees. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Whether it's a consequence of maternal neglect, or the embarrassment of being reared by a biological parent, coucal chicks turn out VERY weird. They look like gremlins, with ink black skin and spiky white hair. Actually, the hairs are really simple, tubular feathers (called trichoptiles) which bear an unhealthy resemblance to the earliest feathers of the earliest birds. When the coucals' nest is threatened, the chicks give an excellent rendition of snake-like hissing, and if this fails to deflect the intruder, they high-tail out of the nest, squirting a foul-smelling jet of excrement as they go. Their legs develop much more rapidly than their wings, so even young nestlings are well equipped to scramble off into the undergrowth. Once the danger's passed, they all come clambering back into the nest to resume the pretence of normality.

This chick is actually an Australian pheasant coucal (Centropus phasianinus) and the photo was taken by Ian Sutton. Click here to see pictures of Burchell's coucal chicks (different but still mighty weird).

If Burchell's coucals have a strange family life (and who doesn't) at least they have beautiful calls. Colloquially known as rainbirds, pairs tend to duet when the humidity climbs. Their resonating calls have an other-worldly feel and are reminiscent of water gurgling from a bottle (I know that doesn't sound like it would be nice, but it is). Decide for yourself by listening to the call here (the second recording - a pair dueting - is best).

There are around 30 species of coucal loitering in the rank thickets of the world, with five species living in southern Africa. This Burchell's coucal was photographed by Arno Meintjes.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A seedy tale

Can you identify the mystery object? 

This is a 'gripe post'.
You know the sort: someone working in one of the world's most beautiful places rants about the ghastly field conditions they must endure daily.
It's all a front, of course, so you won't realise what a great time they're really having.

You may remember that - back in April - heavy rain brought on an explosion of wildflowers. Well, all those lovely flowers have now gone to seed. And all those unlovely seeds are enmeshed in my socks.

I know what you're thinking: a pathetic excuse for a gripe. You haven't seen my socks. Actually you can't see my socks. The fabric is totally obscured under a solid mat of plant progeny. After a morning in the field, my boot laces are two inches wide; a knobbly testament to the fecundity of the local flora.

I've nothing against seeds per se, the problem is their dispersal paraphernalia. Within my socks are seeds armed with barbs, thorns and spikes, seeds shaped like tiny harpoons, seeds fortified with spurs, claws and hooks and seeds whose long, twisted awns screw their needle-tips into the flesh. And then there are the burs so dire you can't touch them without drawing blood.

These horrific little seeds, only 2mm long, are the evil spawn of a prolific ground-cover. They're so tough and microscopically sharp they embed in anything, forming large spiky wads on the soles of boots and car tyres.

During my first year here, I optimistically set my socks aside, intending to remove the seeds before washing. But I never got around to it and the socks - stiffly ensnaring on one another - coalesced into a ghastly, impenetrable mass (this is more than you need to know, isn't it). Sandal-clad, I surreptitiously crept to the supermarket to replenish stocks. Since then, I've accepted the sad fact that I'll never have the diligence to pick out seeds, and I just toss the wretched things into the wash. The result of this - apart from the daily torment of forcing one's feet into wire-wool - is seed-studded underwear.

I was debating whether to illustrate this post with a picture of the offending socks (but who wants to look at socks?) when my dogs created the perfect photo opportunity. While I was at the mongooses, they got out (Magic shinnies up the wire-netting in a most un-doglike fashion and then incites Wizard to dig out). In the course of terrorizing the local cane rats, the pair transformed into a credible impersonation of my socks. If you haven't already guessed, the mystery object above is Magic's tail. And it's still in this deplorable state because I've no idea how to get the burs out.

But if seeds are a source of irritation for me (quite literally), at least they aren't lethal. This cannot be said for the local avifauna. Last week, when I was walking back to the car after a morning with Koppiekats, I was startled when a bird burst from a shrub at my feet. Only it didn't. That's to say it made all the right noises: the squawk of alarm and the panicked whirr of wings, but nothing emerged from the bush. Crouching down, I found a blue waxbill hanging upside down, madly flapping; its tail and rump were ensnared by the plant's sticky burs. Fortunately, I was able to set it free.

Blue waxbills (Uraeginthus angolensis) use plumes of seeding grass to court their lady love, performing a baton-twirling dance of bobbing, jumping and head-nodding. But if they tangle with the wrong seeds, the results can be fatal. Photo by Arno Meintjes and borrowed from here.

A few days ago I came across a second victim. I think it was a juvenile mannikin, but I was too busy trying to release it quickly to identify it properly (or to take in-focus photos!).

These small burs stick with great tenacity. You can see the young mannikin dangling upside down.

Burred in the hand. Lovely shot of my chewed fingernail.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Update from Ecthelion

It's sooo COLD!

What's going on? I live within spitting distance of the Tropic of Capricorn (that was poetic licence, actually it's about 100 km away). The weather's supposed to be balmy and warm. South Africa is experiencing its coldest winter in 50 years. I blame the World Cup; all those soccer-groupies from northern climes trailing their weather behind them.

With nightly temperatures plummeting to near-zero, all the cats have moved into my bed (note the use of into not on to) and the resident geckos have shifted from the curtain railings to skulk in the meagre warmth behind the fridge.

The ability of huskies to tolerate harsh Arctic conditions has been honed by centuries of selective breeding, and they're able to sleep in the snow. Alternatively, they fight over who gets the heater.

While lying awake at night, hemmed in by cats, I've been worrying about dog-chewed Jen. Being so small, dwarf mongooses don't handle the cold well, even when fully-furred. How was Jen coping, encumbered by large swathes of naked skin? Last time I saw him he was shivering with the cold and that was before the cold snap.

I visited Ecthelion this morning and the little darlings had chosen to sleep in an easy-access, roadside termite mound. When I arrived, they were all draped about the mound, happily soaking up the morning sun. I was both amazed and delighted when I spotted Jen. His wounds have healed completely and he's grown back most of his missing fur. And he was dashing about, as bright and confident as ever.

Four weeks after being mauled by a dog, Jen's scars are barely visible.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One less mongoose

For a young mongoose, life in the wild is fraught with hazards. When you weigh less than 200g, everybody thinks they can make a meal of you. And sometimes they do.
For the mongoose researcher - who inevitably grows fond of her subjects - the loss of a youngster is distressing. Particularly, if the said researcher fears she's indirectly responsible.

It happened about three weeks ago, soon after dawn on a Saturday morning. I was tramping through the bush in search of Ecthelion when I heard the piercing whistle of a mongoose alarm call. It didn't take long to find the termite mound in which the frightened mongoose was hiding. It was located right on the edge of Ecthelion's territory, so I wasn't sure whether I'd found them or the neighbouring group, Yarra. Either way, they shouldn't have been alarming at me. While I was trying to puzzle this out, a flurry of barking broke out. It sounded as if a dog had bailed up a mongoose about 80 metres away, at one of Ecthelion's favourite sleeping mounds.

Now dogs at my study site are bad news; both for me and the mongooses. At this remote locality, the only dogs one meets are those accompanying poachers. The local poachers usually set snares (lethal wire nooses strung across game trails) to trap bush meat, but sometimes they bring hunting dogs to chase and pull down antelope. Although I was keen to intervene in whatever might be happening to my mongooses, I'd no desire to march into the middle of a group of poachers, pepper spray or no. Eventually, I withdrew to the car, rang the ranger and then headed off to Halcyon instead.

Cadellin, a young male in Ecthelion; photographed in early May. He was named after the wizard in Alan Garner's children's fantasy 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'.

However, I couldn't stop feeling anxious about Ecthelion. Wild animals that have learnt to trust humans are very vulnerable. To help reduce this risk, I use special calls whenever I approach, or walk with, the groups. This makes it easy for them to distinguish between researchers and strangers. Although this technique worked well with meerkats (where the local farm workers catch meerkats to sell as pets or 'bush meat', and hunters occasionally shoot them 'for fun'), my dwarf mongooses almost never saw humans on foot, other than researchers. This meant they'd never had to learn to differentiate between friend and foe. I was afraid that Ecthelion had confidently trotted up to the poachers, only to be attacked by their dogs.

I searched for the group again the next day but was unable to find them. This went on for almost a week; the group had gone into hiding which was not a good sign. Often when a mongoose is sick or injured the group will curtail its movements, foraging around the sleeping mound and returning there night after night. This lets the ailing animal 'stay in bed' and gives it a chance to recover. The fact that Ecthelion had not appeared at one of their other termite mounds was ominous.

After a week of searching, I finally found them. A hasty count revealed that someone was missing: Cadellin, a seven-month old male. And then I saw his litter mate Jen. He'd been severely mauled. He had two gaping wounds piercing his side and large strips of skin had been torn away to expose the raw flesh of his side and stomach. He was also skeletally thin, having been too badly injured to forage. But at least his wounds were healing and he was now able to keep up with the group.
Over the last two weeks, Jen has regained the weight he lost, and although his wounds (legacy of the dog's canine teeth?) are still open, he's behaving normally. I even saw him rolling about in play with his sister yesterday. I'm hoping the poachers don't come back!

Jen two-weeks after the attack. He was named after the hero in 'The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen' by Lloyd Alexander.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The rhinos return

Yesterday, while I was searching for Koppiekats, I walked slap into a rhino and her calf ('slap' is an exaggeration; there was 5m between us). Fortunately, they were white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum), which are much less aggressive than black rhinos (Diceros bicornis). On the other hand, white rhinos are twice the mass of black rhinos.

 The other problem with white rhinos is that they're social in a laidback sort of way. Many are the times I've thought "Oh my goodness, there's a rhino over there. Well, I'll just walk this way inst...ARRGH!"
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes and borrowed from here.

Meeting a rhino on foot is utterly terrifying. They're just soooo BIG. Imagine stepping around a bush to find yourself face to face with a creature whose shoulder is higher than your head (1.8 m) and who weighs in at a horrifying 2,000 kg. On top of all this, they sport a metre-long skewer on their nose.

Today's rhino did not charge. She snorted and tossed her massive head at me, and I rapidly retreated at a VERY fast walk.

Sadly, this is just the beginning. You see, for a couple of months each year, at the start of the dry season, my study site transforms into a magnet for rhinos. I don't know why. The massive beasts come trundling from all over the reserve to congregate in my mongooses' home-ranges, and leave behind their gigantic middens of dung. As you can imagine, it's a nerve-wracking time.

On my very first day with the dwarf mongooses, I was crouched watching Koppiekats peeping shyly from their mound, when I heard branches cracking in the nearby bushes. Obviously a large animal was moving about but, in my naivety, I thought, "No, it won't be a rhino; rhinos are too rare. It's probably a giraffe". Moments later a rhino and her calf burst out of the shrubbery. Seriously spooked because they could smell my presence but not locate me, the pair thundered past at a gallop, crashing between me and the mongooses (who were equally horrified) and coming within a meter of trampling me. After that, any close-encounters-of-the-rhino-kind left me trembling for upwards of half an hour.

Among land animals, white rhinos are second only in size to the elephants. Nevertheless, I suppose I should be thankful; rhinos were once much more prevalent (more than 40 genera) and they included Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal to have ever lived, standing 5.5 m at the shoulder. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes and borrowed from here.

After this first interaction, I adopted a 'making a noise' strategy. The logic seemed flawless: rhinos are afraid of people and they've got good hearing; if they can hear me coming, they'll run off and we'll never meet. For some time I strode confidently around the study area, singing with operatic gusto or talking to myself (or the birds or the trees) in an exceptionally loud voice. After about the third time I'd marched straight into a rhino, standing staring at me bemusedly, I began to suspect my cunning plan was flawed. It gradually dawned on me that the rhinos didn't associate voices with human beings. After all, how many rhino poachers or hunters undertake their fell trade while lustily bellowing out 'Like a virgin'.

The coup de grace occurred one day when I accidently stumbled on a large, impressively-horned female with two calves. They were only about 3 m away and were jogging back and forth in agitation, so I immediately scrambled up the nearest corkwood tree (another time-honoured anti-rhino stratagem). For the next hour, I perched up there shouting, clapping, yelling and cajoling ("Shoo rhino, shoo") with no effect whatsoever. Despite my rumpus, the trio gradually relaxed (I can only assume they thought I was a baboon) and then - much to my dismay – they all lay down underneath my tree. After prolonged internal debate, I finally edged down the far side of the trunk and ran like crazy.

So think of me for the next month or two, creeping cautiously around my study area, peering over bushes and edging around heaps of steaming dung. I'll probably need a fingernail transplant before they all trundle off again, to winter down on the river flats.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

No sleep

Winter is sleep-in time for me.
Mongooses are wimpy about the cold, so when the nights grow chilly (down to 7C last night) they stay tucked up snugly in their termite mound until a couple of hours after dawn. This means I too can stay tucked up snugly asleep.
Or it usually does.
At 6 am this morning I was torn from my dreams by an electric buzz saw – no, three electric buzz saws - screaming outside my window.
Not renovations or a mad clear-felling operation: trumpeter hornbills.
Trumpeter hornbills are not aptly named. They're considerably louder than your average trumpet. Their beaks are cunningly designed to amplify their ghastly, chainsaw-like shrieks, with the sound reverberating in a natty, hollow casque on their upper bill. Despite their excruciating voices, they are spectacular birds - something you'd expect to find in a rainforest in Borneo, not the African bush.

Trumpeter hornbills (Bycanistes bucinator) dine almost exclusively on fruit and, around here, while away their days in the trees along the river. Photo by Francesco Veronesi and borrowed from here.

As with all hornbills (other than ground hornbills), the female trumpeter is the ultimate stay-at-home mum.
Once she and hubby have chosen their dream tree-hollow, she starts on the plastering, closing up the front entrance with a wall of mud. Squirming inside through a small hole, she pastes this closed (leaving only a thin vertical slit) using her own droppings. Here she sits alone in the dark, brooding her eggs, and later the chicks. With house-wifely efficiency, she uses this downtime to upgrade her wardrobe, indulging in a full-monty feather moult. Meanwhile dad is responsible for feeding the family, poking bits of fruit in through the mail chute, and receiving the little packages of bird-droppings that mum posts out in return.
Although some hornbill mothers stay locked indoors until their youngsters fledge (four months), trumpeters usually make a break for it when their little darlings are half grown. And who can blame them. Can you imagine that racket, resonating inside a hollow tree?

 Photo by Martin Heigan and borrowed from here.
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