Yellow-throated Plated Lizard

Gerrhosaurus flavigularis

The Yellow-throated Plated Lizard is a medium-sized (45cm total length, of which two-thirds are made up by the tail) and very graceful reptile occurring in all South Africa’s provinces, being absent only from the arid western and central parts of the country, and northwards to Ethiopia and Sudan. They’re a diurnal and burrowing species and live in a wide range of habitats, from high mountain grasslands to coastal forests, and are surprisingly common in many towns and cities. They are very quick and feed on quite a diverse menu of invertebrate prey. About a month after mating females lay clutches of 4-8 eggs in tunnels they dig beneath bushes or rocks, with the babies emerging in the late summer roughly three months later. Sadly some of them are traded as exotic pets as they tame easily.

Spotted Eagle-owl

Bubo africanus

The Spotted Eagle-owl is one of our most frequently encountered nocturnal birds, even in towns and cities where they can become quite confiding with humans (beware though that they will defend their nests ferociously!). They’re not very picky about their habitat and feed on an enormous variety of rodents and other small mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, fish, bats, frogs and carrion. Standing about 45cm high, with a wingspan of just over a metre and a weight of 700g the Spotted Eagle Owl is one of the smaller members of its family.

Spotted Eagle Owls breed at anytime of year, though peaking in spring and summer, and nesting in any suitable location be it in a concealed spot on the ground, or in a gully, tree or building (such as our local library’s gutters!) or somewhere else they find to their liking. Broods usually number two or three chicks, hatched after an incubation period lasting almost 5 weeks, but as many as six chicks have been recorded. Pairs are monogamous and while the female is responsible for incubating the clutch of eggs the male supplies her with food at the nest. Juveniles become fully independent about four months after leaving the nest, which happens about 5 weeks after they’ve hatched. Spotted Eagle Owls may live for about ten years in the wild and much longer in captivity.

The Spotted Eagle Owl occurs over virtually all of Africa south of the equator, with a separate population on the Arabian peninsula. The IUCN lists it as being of least concern. It is also a common species in South Africa and can be found in every province. Sadly they are often killed by vehicles when scavenging at road kills at night.

Solifuges

Order Solifugae

The Solifuges, or Sun Spiders, are a diverse order of Arachnids of which 241 species (of 6 different families) occur here in the southern parts of the African continent – that’s almost a quarter of all the Solifugae species found on earth. While most species are associated with arid scrub and deserts, there are species occurring in virtually every corner of South Africa.

Some species are exceptionally large, with bodies measuring 7cm in length and boasting a leg span of as much as 16cm – the size of a side plate!

Solifuges are solitary creatures, and depending on the species are either diurnal or nocturnal. When not actively out hunting they hide in tunnels up to 23cm deep that they dig themselves under logs and rocks. Females reproduce only once, laying as many as 200 eggs in a tunnel she digs and often guards until the eggs hatch about a month later.

Though they look scary, are fast moving and quite aggressive, Solifuges pose no danger to humans other than a painful bite. They are not venomous at all and rely on their speed and imposingly grotesque jaws to catch and overpower their prey – mainly insects and other invertebrates, but they have even been recorded catching small reptiles and rodents much larger than themselves!

Their colloquial Afrikaans name “Baardskeerder”, meaning “Beardshaver”, comes from a (probably) mistaken belief that they will cut pieces of hair or beard from sleeping humans – females of some species are known to use hair and fur to line their tunnels but this is probably collected rather than harvested. To my mind their impressive jaws are also reminiscent of sheep-shears. On hot days diurnal species seek out shade, and if that shade happens to be provided by a moving human, they will follow you around at whatever speed you’re trying to use to put distance between the solifuge and yourself with hilarious consequences and leading to another traditional Afrikaans name of “jaagspinnekop” (chasing spider) for these creatures.

Solifuges have difficulty adapting to captivity, usually dying within a week or two of being captured, though they can live for up to a year in the wild. Attempting to keep one as a pet is therefore strongly discouraged.

Senegal Lapwing

Vanellus lugubris

The Senegal Lapwing, also known as the Lesser Black-winged Plover, is a rather uncommon denizen of open savannas and woodlands with a covering of short grass, being especially fond of recently burned veld, and prone to localised migrations as soon as the grass cover grows too long for them to easily find the termites that make up the majority of their diet.

Senegal Lapwings are partly nocturnal (especially so on moonlit nights), move around in small flocks, and breed in spring and summer with monogamous pairs forming loose colonies when nesting. The nest is little more than a scrape in the ground in which a clutch of 3 or 4 eggs are incubated for a month by both parents. The chicks are precocious, leaving the nest about 4 hours after hatching to follow their parents around and feeding themselves. The chicks learn to fly from around a month old, but may stay with the parents until the next breeding season. Adults weigh around 115g and measure 24cm in length.

Listed as being of least concern by the IUCN, the Senegal Lapwing has a discontinuous distribution over parts of west, central, east and southern Africa. In South Africa it occurs only in the north of Kwazulu-Natal and in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province.

Little Bee-eater

Merops pusillus

The Little Bee-eater is, at a weight of about 15g and length of around 16cm, the smallest of Africa’s bee-eaters and probably also in the world. Despite their small size they’re excellent at catching the bees, wasps and hornets that make up the bulk of their diet. Seldomly encountered far from water, Little Bee-eaters inhabit open woodlands and savannas where it catches its prey on the wing. Before swallowing their potentially dangerous prey they disarm the stingers by swiping it against a branch or other hard surface.

Contrary to most other bee-eaters, Little Bee-eaters are solitary breeders, making nest in long tunnels (up to 1.3m!) they dig themselves in earthen walls and riverbanks, usually in spring and early summer before the peak of the rainy season endangers their nesting sites. The pair is monogamous and take it in turns to incubate the clutch of 2-6 eggs over a period of around 19 days. The chicks leave the nest between 3 and 4 weeks after hatching and stay with the parents for several weeks more afterwards. Little Bee-eaters are normally seen in pairs or family groups of up to ten that roost tightly together at night.

Little Bee-eaters occur in all South Africa’s provinces with the exception of the Northern, Eastern and Western CapeNorth of our borders, the Little Bee-eater occurs over most of sub-Saharan Africa. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern despite noting that efforts to control insect outbreaks are contributing to a decline in their population, which, at an estimated 60-million+, is likely the most numerous of all Africa’s bee-eaters.

African Migrant

Catopsilia florella

The African Migrant is one of the most widespread butterflies occurring in South Africa and can be found in every corner of the country in an extensive variety of habitats, reaching their highest densities in savanna areas. Adults are on the wing throughout the year. This species is well known for its migrating behaviour which reaches a peak in the late summer months, heading in their numbers in a north-easterly direction at a steady pace, stopping only occasionally to feed or lay eggs. Their larvae subsist on a variety of plants from the genera Cassia and Senna. Adults have a wingspan of 6cm.

Green-winged Pytilia

Pytilia melba

The Green-winged Pytilia is a beautiful little finch occurring in all South Africa’s provinces with the exception of the Eastern and Western Cape. It has a wide, if patchy, distribution over much of sub-Saharan Africa and is listed as being of least concern by the IUCN, with its range reflecting the species’ preference for dry and thorny savannas with ready access to a reliable water source. They forage on open ground for the grass seeds that make up the bulk of their diet, occasionally also pecking at termites.

Green-winged Pytilias are monogamous and territorial, and breed throughout the year, though there’s a distinct peak in the summer and early autumn. Their untidy grass-nests are built in the shape of a ball (with a side entrance) in thorny shrubs and trees. Both parents take it in turns to incubate the clutch of up to 6 eggs over a two week period. The chicks grow quickly and leave the nest before they’re 3 weeks old.

Common Diadem

Hypolimnas misippus

The Common Diadem is a large butterfly with a wingspan of 6 to 8cm. The males are distinctive with a velvety black and blue sheen and striking white blotches to the top of their wings, while the females are excellent mimics of the notoriously foul-tasting African Monarch, which supposedly aids in evading predators. With the exclusion of the arid western parts of the country the Common Diadem is widely distributed in South Africa, being found in habitats ranging from grassland and savanna to forest edges, parks and gardens. It is one of the most widespread species of butterfly and, apart from Africa, is also found in parts of Asia, Australia and the Caribbean (the females in different parts of the world mimic different kinds of butterflies). Adults can be seen throughout the year though they’re much more common in the late summer months.

Diederik Cuckoo

Chrysococcyx caprius

The Cuckoos are a family of birds notorious for their excellent hiding skills, and most of them are seldomly seen in the open (and even more difficult to photograph!) despite their often well-known calls attracting the attention of bird-watchers like ourselves. One notable exception to this frustrating trait is the Diederik Cuckoo, which is not averse to showing off its beautifully metallic green and copper plumage together with its giveaway “dee-dee-dee-dee-diederik” call (Diederik being a traditional masculine Afrikaans name).

The “Diederikkie” occurs over virtually the entire African continent south of the Sahara and in parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and it is only in the driest north-westernmost reaches of our country where you’re unlikely to hear them calling in our summer. A handful even stay here right through winter, though the majority departs northwards to central Africa at the start of autumn and then return with the onset of spring. The IUCN classifies the Diederik Cuckoo as being of least concern.

Diederik Cuckoos are usually seen singly or in pairs, and are not very picky about their habitat, though they do seem to prefer the more wooded areas even in otherwise open biomes like grasslands and the Karoo. They are also commonly encountered in suburban parks and gardens and feed almost exclusively on invertebrates, being especially fond of caterpillars, and thus great friends to the gardener.

The Diederik Cuckoo is a brood parasite, with females laying a single egg at a time (as many as 24 in a summer breeding season) in the nests of a wide variety of other birds (two dozen species recorded, with wagtails, weavers and sparrows being especially targeted) after getting rid of any eggs the host birds may already have laid. Shortly after hatching the Diederik chick will then dispatch any other eggs or chicks in the nest so that it can hog all the adoptive parents’ attention. The chick fledges about 3 weeks after hatching and stays with its foster parents for around 3 weeks more afterwards. Fully grown, Diederik Cuckoos measure 19cm in length and weigh around 30g.

Wahlberg’s Bush Cricket

Clonia wahlbergii

I wish I was brave enough to put one of these insects on my hand and show you just how gigantic they are. But I am not… And my fear isn’t entirely irrational as these katydids, whose bodies measure up to 7cm without including any appendages in the calculation, are reported to have a very nasty bite. Something which I hope never to have to put to the test.

Clonia walhbergii is a nocturnal predator, ferociously feeding on large insects and other invertebrates unlucky enough to cross its path. In South Africa this species is found from the Eastern Cape, through the coastal and bushveld areas of Kwazulu-Natal, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Province, along the Limpopo Valley right through to the Kalahari regions of North West and the Northern Cape, occurring in habitats that varies from forest margins to arid savanna. It seems not much is known about their reproductive cycle except that eggs are laid in the ground.