CRUNCH... CRUNCH... CRUNCH...
This is me trying to walk quietly at my study site.
Rattle... scuff... rustle, rustle... crackle...
This is a passing mongoose.
Ah, the dry season. It's like being lost in a watercolour painting: everything is muted cream, fawn or gold.
With no rain since May, the corkwood and marula trees have now lost their leaves, and the smaller shrubs are busily shedding. This profligate loss of foliage has turned my world into wall-to-wall, crispy leaves. The mongooses have to burrow beneath this crunchy layer to hunt for food. Like a cartoon mouse under a carpet, they create moving eruptions of leaves as they pursue bugs 'below leaf', and then pop back up into the daylight crowned with leaf fragments. I get nervous that I'll inadvertently step on someone who's resting under cover.
The autumnal colours of a red bushwillow (Combretum apiculatum). Humour me, OK. This is the nearest I get to 'Fall'.
As the dry season progresses, my popularity at the study site grows. And not just with the mongooses.
This morning, when I placed a small bowl of water at the foot of Ecthelion's termite mound (bribery's a vital part of maintaining good relations with one's study subjects), I was beleaguered by a twittering cloud of locals.
With no access to standing water for about eight months of the year, the resident fauna is adapted to scrounging sufficient moisture from its victuals. But just because the locals can survive without drinking, it doesn't mean they don't like a drink.
Happy hour at Halcyon.
While Ecthelion crowded around the water, the waxbills and fire-finches gathered in the surrounding bushes, chirping for all they were worth. The moment the mongooses turned their backs, the birds fluttered down en masse, to jostle at the bowl's rim. Generally, adult mongooses ignore these thirsty interlopers, even though they'll prey on birds unable to fly. But juvenile mongooses are another story.
Moxa, the youngest member of Ecthelion, was in top form today. Every time he glimpsed the waxbills and fire-finches crowded around the water bowl, he'd hurtle into their midst, leaping up to half a metre in the air and plummeting down among them. With a great whirring and clatter of wings, the birds fled, simply resuming their perches above the bowl and leaving Moxa to crouch fiercely by the dish (like a runner awaiting the starter's gun), glaring up at them with alarming intensity. I haven't figured out whether this activity – popular with all mongoose pups - is a game or a serious attempt at predation (it's never successful). However, Moxa certainly seemed peeved at the audacity of mere prey items, and I secretly sympathised with him. The birds don't just filch a sip of water, they can't resist taking a bath as well, wantonly splashing water everywhere and - to my neurotic mind – transmitting their 'bird germs' (avian TB, psittacosis??) to my mongooses.
Of course birds aren't the only thirsty locals. This morning a rough-scaled plated lizard (who resides at this particular termite mound) cautiously joined the fray. Even when sharing a home, he and the mongooses ignore one another; an act of great forbearance on the lizard's part, considering that the juvenile mongooses like to pounce on him in play. The only time his equanimity falters is when they gnaw on his legs; then he whisks around with unexpected agility to lash at them with his tail (much to their excited delight).
Rough-scaled plated lizards (Gerrhosaurus major) won't indulge in drinking games. They're omnivores and during the winter dry season they like to make a meal of fresh mongoose faeces (arrgh! I'm trying to document the size of mongoose latrines!).