Jacobin Cuckoo

Clamator jacobinus

The pied plumage (though some birds are almost entirely black) gave rise to the Jacobin Cuckoo’s name as it is reminiscent of the clothes of Dominican monks, aka Jacobins. It is found in South Africa only during our warmer months, visiting us from the Indian subcontinent and further north in Africa between October and April. While here they’re most common in the northern and central parts of the country, although they are also found in lower densities in parts of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces. Jacobin Cuckoos inhabit a wide variety of savanna and woodland habitats. They feed mainly on caterpillars which they catch among the greenery. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.

Being a brood parasite, the female Jacobin Cuckoo will lay her eggs in the nests of other birds, with about 17 host species recorded locally. Of these they mainly target the Cape, Red-eyed and Dark-capped Bulbuls, Sombre Greenbul and Common Fiscal. In a breeding season the pair may lay up to 25 eggs, one per nest, by working together – the male distracts the hosts from their nest while the female then sneaks in to lay the egg, usually without hurting the other eggs already in the nest. The Cuckoo egg then hatches after about two weeks of being incubated by the surrogate parents, and usually does not evict its nest mates like many other cuckoos do, though by claiming most of the food brought back to the nest it may still cause the other chicks to starve. The chick stays in the nest for almost 3 weeks after hatching and leaves its adoptive parents when it is about a month old. Fully grown they weigh about 80g and are around 34cm long.

Giant African Land Snails

Family Achatinidae

South Africa is home to 27 known species of snail in four genera from the family Achatinidae, also known as the Giant African Land Snails, with different species found in the various provinces. What they have in common is their herbivorous diets, extraordinary sizes and longevity of up to 5 years. The shell of the largest South African species, the Brownlipped Agate (Metachatina kraussi) which inhabits forests and savanna woodland in Kwazulu-Natal, can grow to 16cm in length.

Several kinds of Giant African Land Snails are kept as pets, however this is also the most likely source of introductions outside their natural range which has caused enormous environmental problems in many other parts of the world – in fact, the East African species Achatina fulica is considered to be one of the 100 worst invading species in the world

Painted Lady Butterfly

Vanessa cardui

The Painted Lady is the most widespread butterfly in the world, being found on every continent except South America and Antarctica. There isn’t a corner of South Africa where they do not occur and they inhabit every habitat, from desert to forests, including parks and gardens.

Adults have a wingspan of between 4 and 5cm, with females being slightly larger than males. The males are territorial and defend small areas of bare ground as their patch. They can fly rapidly but often only glide close to the ground, flapping their wings only occasionally, and settling often with wings spread out. These butterflies have a habit of swarming and migrating in various parts of their cosmopolitan range, also here in South Africa. Painted Ladies can be seen year round, being most numerous in spring and autumn. The larvae are raised on a wide variety of food plants.

Yellow-breasted Apalis

Apalis flavida

The Yellow-breasted Apalis is a bird of forest and mature woodland habitats with a patchy distribution over sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa they occur from the Eastern Cape through Kwazulu-Natal and into Mpumalanga and Limpopo. The IUCN considers the species to be of least concern.

A shy insectivorous bird, the Yellow-breasted Apalis is usually seen in pairs or small family groups, and even as part of mixed-species flocks known as “bird parties” moving through the tree canopy, gleaning invertebrates from leaves and twigs.

During the breeding season, which spans spring and summer, both members of the monogamous pair work to construct the ball-shaped nest (with a side entrance) in a tree or shrub using fine plant material and lichens. Clutches of 2 or 3 eggs are incubated over a two week period, with both parents taking turns on the eggs. The chicks leave the nest before they’re 3 weeks old. Fully grown they weigh only about 8g and measure about 12cm in length.


Sclerocarya birrea

One of Africa’s most iconic trees, the Marula is widespread over sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. In South Africa it is found in Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and Northwest. It grows in savanna and woodland.

The Marula is a large tree, growing up to 18m tall, with a wide spreading crown. Its fruit and leaves are popular with a very wide range of animals, from moth larvae and rodents to giraffes and elephants.

Marula fruit are edible, either fresh or made into jam. Fermented it is used to make traditional beer and Marula cream liqueur is exported the world over. The nut is used as food by itself or mixed with vegetables. In traditional medicine various parts of the Marula tree is used to treat allergies, diarrhoea, rheumatism, haemorrhoids , constipation, even gonorrhoea. The wood is good enough to manufacture furniture and floors and strong rope can be made from the inside layer of the bark.

Natal Acraea Butterfly

Acraea natalica

The striking Natal Acraea is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of between 5 and 7cm. In South Africa it occurs commonly through all our northern and eastern provinces, where it is found in forest and savanna habitats. Like most others in the genus the Natal Acraea flies slowly and settles often on flowers, its seemingly lackadaisical attitude being a clue to the fact that it is foul tasting and avoided by predators.

Rattling Cisticola

Cisticola chiniana

The Rattling Cisticola occurs in savannas, especially those dominated by thorny trees and bushes, and woodland. It feeds mainly on insects and other invertebrates, but have also been observed taking nectar from aloes.

Rattling Cisticolas are usually seen in monogamous pairs or family groups, and breed in spring and summer. They construct ball-shaped nests near the ground in a shrub or tuft of grass. The female takes sole responsibility for incubating the clutch of 2-5 eggs for 2 weeks, with the chicks leaving the nest about the same length of time after hatching. Adults are approximately 15cm long and weigh around 16g.

According to the IUCN the Rattling Cisticola is of least concern, and it occurs from Ethiopia southwards. In South Africa it is commonly found through most of Kwazulu-Natal, in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, North West, the eastern reaches of the Northern Cape and the north-western parts of the Free State, often being one of the most numerous bird species where they’re found.

Bushveld Gardenia

Gardenia volkensii

The Bushveld Gardenia is a small to medium-sized shrub or tree growing to a height of up to 10m and with its spreading branches often reaching down to the ground. The large, white flowers (older flowers turn yellow) have a sweet aroma and are carried from July to December. They open at night and are probably pollinated by moths. The leaves of the Bushveld Gardenia are browsed by a wide range of animals, including giraffes and kudus. The hard fruit ripen between December and April and are favoured by primates, antelope and elephants.

In traditional medicine the Bushveld Gardenia is used to treat intestinal parasites, while the hard wood is used for carving ornaments and utensils.

The Bushveld Gardenia grows in savanna and open woodland and in South Africa occurs through much of Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West Province.

Grey-backed Camaroptera

Camaroptera brevicaudata

Many authorities, including the IUCN and Birdlife International, consider the Grey-backed Camaroptera to be the same species as the Green-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brachyura), and hybrids between the two are recorded from time-to-time. In South Africa the Grey-backed Camaroptera occurs mainly in the North West Province, Gauteng and Limpopo, where it inhabits thickets and riverine vegetation in the savanna biome and feeds on a wide variety of invertebrates. These are shy birds, usually encountered singly or in pairs, that rarely ventures from low, dense vegetation.

Their nests are constructed of living leaves woven and stitched together into a ball shape low to the ground in dense foliage. The nesting season stretches through spring and summer and into early autumn, with clutches of 2-4 eggs being incubated over a two week period. The chicks leave the nest when they’re approximately two weeks old – even before they can fly. Fully grown, the Grey-backed Camaroptera weighs around 10g and measure about 12cm long.

Large-leaved Rock Fig

Ficus abutilifolia

Seen growing on rocky outcrops and cliffs from northern Kwazulu-Natal through Mpumalanga and Limpopo to North West Province (and beyond our borders as far afield as Guinea in the west and Somalia in the north-east), the Large-leaved Rock Fig is an easily noticed and impressive tree not necessarily for its size but because it is capable of flourishing in apparently precarious locations and of splitting rocks with its roots. These trees seldom grow taller than 5m, though their roots can stretch up to 60m deep!

In keeping with many other kinds of fig, the Large-leaved Rock Fig is pollinated by wasps. Ripe fruit are much sought after by frugivorous birds, bats and primates (humans included!), and antelope and wild pigs are very fond of figs that have fallen to the ground. Though their use in a garden is limited due to the strong and expansive roots, these trees work excellently as bonsai.