Malachite Sunbird

Nectarinia famosa

The Malachite Sunbird, specifically the adult males in breeding plumage, is undeniably among the most beautiful birds occurring in South Africa. Though normally seen singly or in pairs, at times they congregate in enormous numbers – hundreds and even thousands – when a favourite kind of plant is in bloom in a limited area. Malachite Sunbirds feed principally on the nectar of aloes, proteas and other plants, and as pollinators are a crucial part of a healthy ecosystem. They also include a portion of invertebrates in their diet.

Pairs are monogamous when breeding, which peaks in spring and summer, but the pair bond isn’t very strong and apart from protecting the pair’s breeding territory (against birds of all description, not only other sunbirds) the male plays little to no part in the building of the nest, incubation of the eggs or rearing of the chicks. Clutches of 1-4 eggs hatch about 2 weeks after laying, with the chicks leaving the nest less than three weeks after hatching and becoming independent before they’re a month old. Fully grown, males measure up to 25cm in length, including their long tails, and weigh only up to 25g. Adult females are about 14cm long.

The Malachite Sunbird has a very patchy distribution stretching from Ethiopia to South Africa, where it inhabits coastal and montane grassland, heathland and scrub, as well as suburban parks and gardens, from sea-level to 3,500m above. Within the borders of South Africa, Malachite Sunbirds are found in parts of all nine provinces, being generally absent from most of the Great Karoo, the Kalahari, the Bushveld and the LowveldThe IUCN lists it as being of least concern.

African Wood White

Leptosia alcesta

The Afrikaans name for the African Wood White, “Fladderpapiertjie”, which translates to “fluttering piece of paper”, perfectly describes the undulating motion of this tiny,  bright white butterfly as it restlessly flies around in the deep shade of the forest understory.

Eggs are laid singly on plants from the Capparis or Maerua genera on which the larvae feeds. The pupae are equally tiny, being only slightly bigger than the head of a match. Adults have a wingspan of only 3-4cm and are seen throughout the year.

In South Africa, the African Wood White is found in coastal, riverine and montane forest habitats in Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. It further occurs in suitable habitat throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Neddicky

Cisticola fulvicapilla

The Neddicky is a common and conspicuous member of the Cisticola-family, usually being seen singly, in pairs or small family groups (the latter at the end of the breeding season), with the male especially often singing from a prominent perch. It is a bird of moist heathland, savanna and open woodland habitats, though they have adapted to exotic plantations and suburban gardens. It feeds on insects, searching on and close to the ground for its prey.

Neddickys nest in spring and summer. The female builds the ball-shaped nest all by herself, using dry grass, spider-web and down to complete the job. The nest is usually well-hidden low in a bush or grass tussock. Incubating the clutch of 2-5 eggs takes about two weeks, with the chicks leaving the nest about the same length of time after hatching. Like other members of the family, Neddickys are small birds, weighing only 9g and measuring around 11cm in length when fully grown.

The Neddicky occurs almost throughout South Africa, avoiding only the dry Karoo and Kalahari in the west of our country. Beyond our borders it is found as far north as Gabon in the west and Tanzania in the east. The IUCN considers the species to be of least concern.

Bushpig

Potamochoerus larvatus

By far the more secretive of the two wild pigs native to South Africa, the Bushpig is a shy denizen of forests, riverine thickets, reedbeds and other similarly densely vegetated habitats, in contrast with the warthog that prefers more open environments. They’re dependent on a reliable source of water. Also in contrast with the warthog, the Bushpig is nocturnal, rarely venturing out into the open to feed before darkness has fallen. They have a largely vegetative diet – roots, tubers, fungus, bark, seeds, pods, fruit, grass, water plants, etc. – but will also eat carrion, eggs, and even small vertebrates ranging from frogs to the young of antelope. Their omnivorous tendencies also extend to farm produce, and apart from chewing off the stems of banana and papaya trees to get to the fruit and laying waste to maize crops they’ve also been recorded as feasting on chickens, sheep, goats and even domestic pigs!

Bushpigs are social animals, moving around in family groups called sounders usually numbering around ten animals and consisting of a single, dominant, adult boar, a dominant sow, other sows, and their youngsters. They are great swimmers, fast runners and highly intelligent, making them difficult to trap. Despite their retiring nature, bushpigs are aggressive and deadly when cornered or protecting their young. In the wild only leopards and lions dare to tangle with them, and many a hunting dog, and hunter, have been lost to their slashing tusks.

Baby Bushpigs are usually born in the spring and summer months after a four month gestation. Litters number up to eight, but four is more usual. The piglets are weaned at about 4 months of age. Fully grown, adult stand between 60cm and 1m tall at the shoulder, with the sows, at an average of 60kg being considerably less bulky than the boars which may weigh up to 130kg! In the wild Bushpigs have a life expectancy of between 12 and 20 years.

The Bushpig has a wide distribution over southern, central and eastern Africa as well as Madagascar, where it was probably introduced by humans. In South Africa, where their population is estimated at over 10,000 animals, the Bushpig is found in the provinces in the north and east of the country – Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal – with a separate population found in the Garden Route and the valley bushveld of the Eastern Cape. The IUCN considers the species to be of least concern, despite threats to their habitat and being hunted for destroying agricultural crops – a testament to their rapid rate of reproduction and adaptive nature.

During our visit to Cape Vidal in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in January of this year, there was neither hide nor hair to be seen of Bushpig in the camp during the day. Under cover of darkness however they’d emerge from their hiding places in numbers, being regularly caught by the little camera trap we set up outside our cabin as they foraged in the open terrain.

We also encountered this sounder of Bushpigs just after sunrise one morning during our visit to Cape Vidal. Their reaction was typical of the species – while they were feeding overnight out in the open, at the first sight of humans they made a bee-line straight for the swamp forest.

Livingstone’s Turaco

Tauraco livingstonii

Livingstone’s Turaco is a beautiful but very shy bird of evergreen forests, where it feeds on buds, fruits and flowers. It is very similar in appearance and closely related to, and was previously considered a subspecies of, the Knysna Turaco. They’re usually encountered in pairs or family groups foraging in the forest canopy. Pairs are monogamous and normally raise two chicks during the spring and summer months. Adults measure about 45cm in length and weigh between 260 and 370g.

Livingstone’s Turaco has a very limited distribution in South Africa, being found only in the north-east corner of Kwazulu-Natal where it is common, though much easier heard than seen, in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Beyond our borders it occurs as far north as Tanzania and Burundi. The IUCN considers this species to be of least concern, though citing habitat loss as a concern.

Sweet Thorn

Vachellia (Acacia) karroo

The Sweet Thorn is a cosmopolitan tree, occurring in almost every corner of South Africa and beyond our borders as far as Angola and Zambia. Depending on the depth and water content of the soil where it grows, the Sweet Thorn may be shrub-like in appearance or grow to a tree 5 to12m high. The formidable paired thorns, or spines, are often longest on younger plants and may be as long as 17cm!

The bane of hay fever sufferers all over the country, masses of yellow pom-pom flowers are produced during the summer months. These flowers are pollinated by a large variety of insects. Sweet Thorns are hardy, thanks to their deep en extensive root systems, live for up to 40 years, and does become invasive in areas suffering from overgrazing. The IUCN lists the Sweet Thorn as being of least concern.

The Sweet Thorn is an integral part of the history of many South African cultures, with uses as wide-ranging as traditional medicine, a coffee-substitute, bee farming, fodder for game and stock, fencing, tanning of hides, making ropes, and even needles! Even its name is suggestive of the sweet and tasty gum exuding from wounds on the trunk and branches, prized not only by humans but also animals like the lesser bushbaby.

Black-bellied Starling

Notopholia corusca

(previously Lamprotornis corruscus)

The smallest of the five “glossy” starlings occurring in South Africa, with a weight of around 50g and a length of 18cm, the Black-bellied Starling is also the most melodious of the family and capable of mimicking the calls of quite a number of other bird species.

Black-bellied Starlings feed mainly on a wide variety of fruit, supplementing their diet with the occasional snail, insect or spider. They drink and bathe regularly and may congregate in large flocks, at times numbering more than a hundred, during the non-breeding season but are found in monogamous, solitary pairs during the breeding season. They nest in holes in trees during the summer months, with the female being solely responsible for incubating the clutch of 2-4 eggs, though the male does do his fair share when it comes to the feeding of the hatchlings.

Its distribution being reflective of its preference for dense, high-rainfall coastal and riverine forest habitats, the Black-bellied Starling occurs along our eastern coastline, from the Garden Route through to the border with Mozambique, extending marginally into the extreme south-east corner of Mpumalanga. Beyond our borders its distribution extends along Africa’s Indian Ocean coast as far north as Somalia. Throughout this range it is very rarely found more than 100km inland. The IUCN lists the Black-bellied Starling as being of least concern.

Novice Butterfly

Amauris ochlea

The Novice is a foul-tasting butterfly that flies slowly and settles often on flowers and wilting plants. It inhabits forests and dense woodlands and the edges of these. Adults have a wingspan of 7cm and are on the wing throughout the year. In South Africa it is common along the Kwazulu-Natal coast and adjacent interior as well as in the Lowveld and escarpment of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

The Deceptive Diadem (Hypolimnas deceptor) mimics the Novice in appearance and thus avoids predators.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Merops persicus

The Blue-cheeked Bee-eater visits South Africa during our summer months after migrating from their breeding grounds stretching from North Africa to central Asia, arriving from October and departing again by April, some stay as late as May. Locally, most Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters head for the north-coast of Kwazulu-Natal and locations in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, but individuals occasionally pop-up in other parts of the country as well.

While here these insectivorous birds (they have a preference for dragonflies caught in flight) inhabit moist savannas, wooded grasslands and swamps. They’re quite gregarious and usually encountered in small flocks of around 20 with individuals roosting tightly together. Adults weigh around 50g and measure approximately 30cm in length.

The IUCN considers the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater to be of least concern.

Eastern Coastal Skink

Trachylepis depressa

Largely endemic to southern Mozambique, the distribution of the Eastern Coastal Skink extends only marginally into South Africa, where it is found in the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park and the north coast of Kwazulu-Natal, being commonly seen in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The IUCN hasn’t yet evaluated this species’ conservation status, and little is known of its biology, except that it inhabits dense vegetation on sandy soils and will actually hide from danger by digging itself into the sand. Adults measure around 8cm in length, excluding their tails.