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.


  1. I remember those burs and other nasties. They loved my sister's cocker spaniel and were impossible to remove. The result was a spaniel with a short back and sides haircut. He looked ridiculous, but at least he was comfortable.

  2. As for your socks, how about wearing gaiters?
    As for Magic & Co., how about cutting off the burs piece by piece? However, most probably you have to expect that they proudly will wear new burs again the next day...
    I so love your humor and your detailed knowledge behind everything aswell!
    So good you've crossed the path of the little blue waxbill and mannikin at the right moment, great shots, indeed!

  3. Oh dear. You brought back a memory of one of my experiences. We had just switched off daylight savings time and I ended up taking my Sheltie (lovely long-haired dog) for a walk in the dark. In daylight I remember to keep him near when we are near 'begger-lice' -- a tiny little bur very common here. Well, poor Ferguss got so many burs in his long hair that we put a tarp on the dining room table and the four of us took turns combing him out. It took four hours to do it gently! ... and he wasn't half as burred as your poor pussy cat.

  4. Now that's no fun. (Well, it was a lot of fun to read, but you know what I mean.)

    Gaiters do sound like a good option.

  5. See, now i am wincing as i read this, having very "ouchy" seeds here and being harpooned. Frankly, i don't know how you can re-wear your socks! I am such a wuss. I am glad you stated that was a tail in the top photo, i thought it was your sock! That poor dog-eegads!

    Perfectly legimate gripe!

    You get a GREAT BIG GOLD STAR!!!! for helping those birds. Isn't that blue waxbill gorgeous and oh that sweet, sweet face on the mannikin!

  6. Max-e,
    I can't imagine a military cocker spaniel. Did your sister get him a heavy leather collar with big metal studs to complement his new look?

    Yes, I think I should invest in gaiters. Normally the seed explosion occurs in Feb. and March when the weather is still in the high 30s C and I just can't face the prospect of gaiters; but this year's late crop makes it's feasible.
    I'm about to attack Magic's tail with the scissors. I can't stand it any longer; everytime she wags it's like being beaten with a mace.

    You've much more patience than I do. I always end up resorting to the scissors. Magic looks like she's had a serious altercation with an irate whipper-snipper. I'm just about to start on her tail. I was forced to cut all the fur off it a couple of years ago (same reason) and it's a hideous little curled, pig-like thing under all the fur!
    BTW I love the name 'beggar-lice'.

    I wonder if you can get gaiters for pets? If sledge-pulling huskies can wear silly little boots (I'm sure they've got an official, serious-sounding name), why shouldn't savannah-romping huskies sport gaiters?

    I think I'm developing super tough, callused ankles (I hope so anyway!).
    I've never been granted a gold star before (or at least not that I can remember). It's sad to think how frequently these little birds must get ensnared if I'm able to stumble across two just by chance.

  7. You can have my gaiters, Lynda. I don't wear it because I love the meerkats playing with my shoe laces :-)

  8. Oh how I feel for you Lynda!! This HAS to be my pet hate too. :) I wonder how many pairs of socks I threw away until I decided that I was not going to wear them any more if I walked in the bush at this time of year. :) The worst is the sticky grass as that NEVER comes out.

  9. Joan,
    I think sticky grass is striving to take over the world; one sock at a time.


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