Saturday, July 24, 2010

The dry season

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'.

The colourful senescence of a blue thorn (Acacia erubescens), the most hated plant in the lowveld (well, in my study site at least). It has wicked black-tipped thorns (indestructible) and yellow papery bark that peels off (probably as a result of the caustic verbal abuse heaped upon it by those unfortunate enough to brush it).

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.

Blue waxbills (Uraeginthus angolensis) wetting their whistle. By the end of the dry season, clouds of these little guys accompany me while I search for the mongooses, waiting impatiently to thieve the mongooses' water.

 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!).


  1. Every one of your blog posts is a minor masterpiece. I saw a large, dark brown Plated Lizard in Kruger. How many species of Plated Lizard live in the region?

  2. You must feel a little like St. Francis when you wander around with your water in the dry season. Wonderful post!

  3. So now you have taken to abusing trees have you? :) All of this sounds SO familiar Lynda, at least the study groups know you and will remain near and not scatter but can you imagine trying to stalk up on something else in order to get a photo? No ways!! They scatter before you can get close.

    Moxa sounds like a treat to watch and he reminds me of an elephant we had at one lodge in Tibivati who would not let anyone come near "his" watering hole. LOL!! It was fun to watch.

    This time of year can be a problem as far as water is concerned but it is still a few weeks till the first showers will fall. I was there during the early 90's when they had no rain at all for a few years and it broke my heart to see what happened there!! A person is so helpless in those situations, I hope and pray every year for good rains in Kruger.

    As always, a wonderful post!!

  4. John,
    There are four species of plated lizards living around here, but the one you saw was almost certainly a Giant Plated Lizard (Gerrhosaurus validus). They're big and very conspicuous (being less shy than the other species). They're plain dark brown, and when breeding, get a dark reddish tinge to their lips, throat and chest that makes them look like they've been eating something they shouldn't.

    It always makes me feel like Snow White or some other 'enchanted' Disney character. However, it is annoying, because the little creatures cheep constantly, making it very difficult for me to detect the mongooses' small peeping calls.

    Oh yes, cursing plants takes up quite a large proportion of my day. There are so many malevolent species here, all toting thorns, prickles, spines and barbs, that I feel the use of verbal abuse is an essential survival skill.

    I hate the end of the dry season: watching all the flora/fauna teetering on the edge and getting anxious about when it will rain. Can't expect anything here before October though.

  5. Wonderful. I lap this up like a mongoose, or a waxbill, or a plated lizard, or whoever else is thirsty. Your posts are hugely informative.

  6. LOL!! Cant blame you for the strong language Lynda as I sometimes let go on it myself!! :)

    I saw them saying over the weekend that Kruger might get a bit of rain in the next few days. I have not been there for ages but I am betting it is very dry now. I will keep my fingers crossed that you get some before the end of August. Here too we can do with some. I saw my first butterfly emerging this morning so it looks like spring is on the way. To be honest I cannot complain as this winter has been very mild except a few days of icy wind now and then.

    Have a great week Lynda.

  7. Lynda who can blame those little blue waxbill's sometimes thirst overcomes fear I did see once a blue waxbill dive bomb a banded mongoose over a water hole they are sometimes quite cheeky :)

  8. Hugh,
    I'm glad you find the posts palatable; but please refrain from bathing.

    Yes, they're certainly quite cocky (maybe all that showy blue has gone to their heads). It takes a lot of courage to get that close and personal with a banded mongoose!


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