The night before we ventured into the Wilderness…

Earlier this month I was joined by my mother, sister and brother in the Kruger National Park, chiefly to participate in the Napi Wilderness Trail, one of several guided multi-day walking trails available in the Park.

However, with the trail only starting on Sunday afternoon, we weren’t going to let the weekend go to waste and got underway from Gauteng to Kruger in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Arriving at Kruger’s Malelane Gate around 07:30 allowed us time to enjoy a quick picnic breakfast and coffee before following a meandering route along the quieter gravel roads as we made our slow way to Lower Sabie, making frequent stops to appreciate the wildlife and scenery for which the Kruger Park is world renowned.

Our accommodation for the night was a basic but comfortable 4-bed hut located close to a communal kitchen and bathroom at Lower Sabie‘s eastern fenceline. These huts are surrounded by enormous trees and indigenous shrubbery frequented by a myriad of birds and small reptiles that are quite used to having humans poking lenses in their faces…

Our game drive for the afternoon took us first to Sunset Dam just outside the camp’s gates, then a quick detour across the causeway over the Sabie River, and then along the S28, S137 and H4-2 roads to the south of Lower Sabie, returning to camp just before the gates closed.

Walking around camp in the dark after dinner, looking for nocturnal wildlife with a flashlight, is a firmly entrenched tradition for the de Wets. Both inside and outside Lower Sabie, there’s always plenty to see, and we’re almost unwilling to go to bed for fear of missing out on something interesting!

Being one of the first vehicles to leave Lower Sabie when the gates opened at 06:00 on Sunday morning, we opted to take the main road to Skukuza before this hugely popular route gets too busy with traffic. A quick detour along the short Nwatimhiri causeway-loop rewarded us handsomly with a sighting of three young lions trying to hide, with limited success, in the thick riverine vegetation. Along the way we also popped into Nkuhlu Picnic Spot, Skukuza’s airport, the Skukuza Golf Club and Lake Panic birdhide, before heading for historic Pretoriuskop, all the time enjoying some more of the Kruger Park’s sights, sounds and smells.

After arriving at Pretoriuskop there’s more than enough time to pop into reception to complete all the necessary formalities for the Napi Trail and then take a gentle stroll through the camp appreciating the astounding variety of birdlife that occurs there.

Right on time (at 15:00) we were met at the designated spot by our two guides and group of four fellow trailists for the main event; the Napi Wilderness Trail (more about that wonderful experience in our next post, so stay tuned!).

 

 

Pink-backed Pelican

Pelecanus rufescens

Pink-backed Pelicans inhabit a variety of large water bodies and wetlands, including dams, lakes, slow-moving rivers, marshes, lagoons, estuaries and sheltered bays. They are diurnal in habit and feed exclusively on fish and amphibians caught underwater in their large bill pouches. Although one of the smaller kinds of pelican, at a weight of up to 7kg with a wingspan of up to 2.9m, it is still a very large bird.

Although they normally forage singly or in small groups, Pink-backed Pelicans breed communally in colonies numbering from 15-500 pairs, often associating with other species of waterbird at these localities. Pairs are monogamous, and usually build their stick-platform nests in the tops of trees (rarely on the ground) and use them for several consecutive years. In South Africa they breed in the summer rainy season, though further north breeding has been recorded throughout the year. Both sexes incubate the clutch of 1-4 eggs for a period of around 35 days. There’s much squabbling among the nestlings, often leading to smaller chicks dying of starvation or falling from the nest. The chicks start flying at about 3 months old.

The Pink-backed Pelican occurs patchily and irregularly in the provinces of South Africa’s northeast, with the iSimangaliso Wetland Park‘s Lake St. Lucia and Nsumo Pan probably the most reliable spots for viewing this species in our country, hosting an estimated 600 – 900 individuals at one of only three known nesting sites of this species in the country. They’re considered vulnerable in South Africa, suffering due to wetland loss and degradation. North of our borders the Pink-backed Pelican occurs over most of Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula and is considered of least concern, with a stable population, by the IUCN.

 

Tawny Eagle

Aquila rapax

A species of dry, open woodlands, savannas and semi-deserts, Tawny Eagles have a very wide prey base; hunting anything from amphibians to mammals up to the size of rabbits and young warthogs, and regularly feeding on roadkill or carrion or food stolen from other birds of prey. Tawny Eagles have a wingspan of up to 2m, and weigh up to 3kg.

These large eagles are mostly seen alone or in pairs as they are territorial and resident year-round. They breed on large nests built of sticks and bones on top of isolated trees or utility pylons. They’ll also take over the similarly constructed nests of other large birds like storks and vultures. In South Africa most pairs breed in winter. Clutches contain 1 – 3 eggs and is mainly incubated by the female for a month-and-a-half. For the first few days after hatching the female broods the chicks and the male brings back food to the nest for both her and the chicks. The chicks take their first flight at about 12 weeks old and remain with the parents for another 6 weeks or so thereafter.

Although the Tawny Eagle is still listed as “least concern”, the IUCN notes that its populations are declining over much of its African range, possibly due to persecution through poisoned carcasses and deliberate shooting. The largest part of the population occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of the equatorial forests and southern South Africa) and on the Indian subcontinent, with smaller populations in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In South Africa, where they are considered vulnerable, Tawny Eagles are commonly encountered in the north of Kwazulu-Natal, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo (where there is an estimated 670 in the Kruger National Park), the Limpopo Valley and the Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park, but seldom elsewhere, indicating that its populations in this country are now mostly confined to major conservation areas, as with many other large raptors.

African Jacana

Actophilornis africanus

Often seen walking across floating vegetation or the backs of hippos with its exceptionally long toes, the African Jacana is a species closely associated with permanent or seasonally flooded wetlands, pans, dams, ponds and rivers, with floating vegetation (especially waterlilies) and densely vegetated banks for cover. African Jacanas forage singly, in pairs or in family groups, sometimes gathering in small flocks, feeding on insects, worms, crustaceans and molluscs.

Male African Jacanas are highly territorial and, unlike most other kinds of birds, it is the male that is responsible for incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks – the female departs to find another mate as soon as the eggs have been laid, mating with several males over the course of the breeding season. While breeding has been recorded throughout the year there is a definite peak in the summer months. Three to five eggs are laid precariously on a platform of clammy plant material set down on floating vegetation, and incubated by the male alone for just over 3 weeks. The male then looks after the chicks for the next two months until they become independent. When they are small, the male picks up the chicks under his wings and carries them around. At an average of 140g, the male African Jacana is considerably more lightly built than the female (average 230g).

With a stable population, estimated at a million birds, distributed over most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the IUCN considers the African Jacana as being of least concern. In South Africa they occur widely and commonly in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal, is less commonly encountered in the Free State, North West, Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces, and almost entirely absent from the Northern Cape.

Back from the bush… Again!

I’ve just arrived back home again after another fantastic trip to the Kruger National Park, this time to participate in the Napi Wilderness Trail along with my mom, sister and brother.

Sunset on the Napi Trail

It will be a few days before I’ll be ready to tell you all about our experiences on the trail, and in the meantime will get to all the comments you’ve left while I was away and line up some more scheduled posts on interesting South African wildlife.

African Black Duck

Anas sparsa

African Black Ducks are mostly found on shallow, fast-flowing, rocky streams and rivers, often in mountainous or wooded areas, though they do also utilise other natural and man-made water bodies nearby. They follow an omnivorous diet, feeding on aquatic plants, grain, fruits and berries, insects, fish eggs, crustaceans and tadpoles. African Black Ducks are diurnal, doing most of their foraging at dawn and dusk, and weigh around 1kg.

African Black Ducks are territorial throughout the year, each pair occupying a considerable stretch of river. They are usually seen singly or in pairs, rarely congregating in large numbers (when they do, it is usually unmated or immature birds without a territory gathering at a popular roost). The breeding season spans most of the year with a peak in autumn and winter in South Africa. The nest is a cup of plant material lined with down, usually built on the ground on islands and river banks near the water, and surrounded by dense grass, reeds or driftwood. The female is responsible for building the nest, incubating the eggs (of which there are between 4 and 11 in a clutch) and caring for the chicks. Incubation takes about 4 weeks, the ducklings fledge at between 2 and 3 months old, and then stay with their parents for another month or two.

Despite a decreasing population, caused by degradation of their preferred riverine habitats and hybridization with feral populations of the exotic Mallard, the IUCN lists the African Black Duck as being of least concern. They are widespread over much of southern, central and east Africa, and in South Africa occurs in all our provinces, though only patchily in the arid Northern Cape.

Bold, begging crocodile and terrapins near Olifants

Nile Crocodile

Crocodylus niloticus

One of Africa’s most dangerous animals, the Nile Crocodile is also by far the largest and one of the most widespread reptiles found on the continent. Adults measure on average around 3.5m long , but the largest accurately recorded specimen (from Tanzania) had a length of 6.45m and weighed 1090kg!

Nile Crocodiles inhabit rivers, marshes, lakes, lagoons and estuaries, and even venture out to sea at times. From hatching crocodiles are entirely carnivorous, feeding at first on small fish, insects, crustaceans and frogs. Fish also make up about ¾ of the diet of adult Nile Crocodiles, though they are capable of drowning animals up to the size of an adult buffalo when the opportunity presents itself! Such a large meal can sustain the crocodile for many weeks. When a meal is too large to swallow in one gulp, Nile Crocodiles will take a large bite and then spin their bodies in the water to tear a mouthful of flesh from the carcass. We’ve also seen Nile Crocodiles using their bodies and tails to trap schools of fish against the bank and pick off their hapless prey one at a time.

Often living in close proximity to sizable human populations, it is no surprise that Nile Crocodiles are responsible for hundreds of human deaths annually, especially when people are directly reliant on waters inhabited by crocodiles for their daily needs (fetching drinking water, fishing, washing clothes, bathing, etc).

At times, Nile Crocodiles can congregate in huge numbers, especially when water resources dwindle during the dry season or at a favourite nesting area. They are surprisingly fast on land, and capable of running at up to 17km/h! By day they like to bask in the sun on a rock or sandbank with their mouths wide open when they start to overheat, preferring to stay in the water at night. They hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, approaching prey on land with only their nose and eyes breaking the surface of the water.

Adult male Nile Crocodiles are territorial, and often get involved in deadly battles with other males. In South Africa the mating season stretches through winter, with the females then moving to a favourite, suitably sunny spot high enough above the floodline, to dig their nest –  a hole in the sand between 20 and 45cm deep. Here she lays up to a 100 eggs, which she then covers again with sand. She diligently guards the nest for the next three months until the eggs hatch. The hatchlings call out to their mother, who digs them out and moves them, very carefully, to the water in her mouth. She looks after them for another 2 to 6 months in a nursery area, which is usually a densely vegetated stretch of water (they feed themselves from hatching). The eggs and hatchlings are a delicacy for a wide range of predators both on land and in the water, and despite the mother’s best efforts only about 2% of eggs laid reach maturity. The temperature at which the eggs are incubated determines the sex of the babies – lower temperatures produce females. Young crocodiles spend much of their time out of the water catching insect prey. It is estimated that Nile Crocodiles can live to an age of 100 years in the wild.

The IUCN lists the Nile Crocodile as “lower risk / least concern“, and while the species is threatened by habitat loss, environmental poisoning and poaching their numbers across their distribution range are estimated at between 250,000 and 500,000. It is found from the upper reaches of the Nile in Egypt, and most of West Africa south of the Sahara, southwards through Equatorial and East Africa to Angola in the West and to South Africa’s east-flowing rivers from the Tugela nortwards. They are also found on Madagascar and farmed for their meat and leather in several countries. In South Africa wild Nile Crocodile populations are considered to be vulnerable. The country’s largest wild populations are to be seen in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Kruger National Park, while the Crocodile Centre on the outskirts of the town of Saint Lucia in Kwazulu-Natal is a must visit for anyone interested in this species as well as the two other African species of crocodiles (few authorities have as yet recognised the West African Crocodile (C. suchus) as a seperate species).