Just to prove that a visit to a game reserve isn’t all about the “hairies and scaries”, one of the most memorable sightings of the trip we took to Marakele National Park last weekend wasn’t of one of the “Big Five” or another large mammal, bird or reptile. Instead, we watched in awe as a wasp carried (sometimes through the air, but mostly along the ground) a large, paralysed caterpillar to a specially prepared tunnel. In there, the wasp’s young can grow to adulthood by feeding on the hapless immature insect.
Our local Rietvlei Nature Reserve is often just what the doctor ordered when I need a quick nature fix. Located just 13km from our home, with a very fair rate of admission (R50 for adults currently, roughly $3.50), decent facilities, an extensive road network and an amazing diversity of wildlife, Rietvlei never fails to recharge the batteries! A week or so ago, in serious need of getting my head cleared following a few health worries, that’s exactly where I headed for a solo trip.
In all the years we’ve been visiting Rietvlei the reserve’s cheetahs have always eluded us – these large spotted cats are experts at hiding! I therefore felt extremely pleased when at long last I encountered a female with her three cubs, just after they had their fill of a freshly caught blesbok. I returned to the site several times later during the day, hoping that the family might still be in the vicinity, only to find the remains of the carcass variously attended by nervous black-backed jackals and pied crows squabbling over the left overs.
At one of the bird-viewing hides I had another encounter that will live in my memory forever. A reedbuck ewe hid her young lamb in a dense stand of reeds nearby, which is quite normal behaviour for the species. The curious (or should that be naughty?) youngster however did not want to stay put where his mom told him to, and quite unafraid approached me where I was sitting flat on the ground taking photos of him from a distance. Eventually he got so close that I had to get up and walk away, afraid that if he was to rub up against me his mother might catch my scent on him and abandon him. If I was pleased after the earlier cheetah sighting this experience really had me feeling utterly blessed!
Winter is getting a firm hold on South Africa’s Highveld now and early morning at Rietvlei is a pleasure to behold as mist rises from the waterways and the rising sun starts to thaw the frost covering the grass and trees.
For a reserve almost entirely surrounded by urban sprawl and industries, Rietvlei harbours an impressive collection of large and easily visible mammalian inhabitants. My sightings included black wildebeest, blesbok, buffalo, eland, meerkat, plains zebra, hartebeest, springbok, waterbuck, white rhinos and yellow mongoose (as well as the already mentioned cheetahs, jackals and reedbuck).
I also managed to identify 55 different kinds of birds in the few hours I spent at Rietvlei!
All in all a very pleasant day’s outing; one that certainly got my head back in the right place!
Some of the most impressive sights of our recent visit to the Satara area of the Kruger National Park was the enormous flocks of Red-billed Quelea occupying the grasslands of the central plains. Following the good rains that bought respite from an awful drought, the savannas are heavy with a rich harvest of seeding grasses, and literally millions of the little birds are making the most of the abundant foodsource. When their population reaches a peak, as it currently has, there could be as many as 33-million Red-billed Queleas swirling in cloudy swarms over the Park!
The Red-billed Quelea is a small (20g) seed-eating sparrow-like nomad inhabiting grasslands and grainfields (causing enormous losses to farming communities). Swarms that could number in the millions descend on watering holes at least twice daily. While feeding they “roll” over the grasslands in a wave-like motion, most impressive to witness! While seeds make up the vast majority of their diet they do catch small insects as well, especially when raising chicks.
Nesting occurs communally in the rainy months and hundreds, even thousands, of nests are woven per tree (prefers thorn trees) by the males. Breeding colonies could consist of more than 2 million monogamous pairs, and is a magnet for every imaginable predatory bird, reptile and mammal that is large enough to take adults and chicks. Clutches normally number three eggs and the female incubates them for only 12 days, whereafter the chicks fledge within another two weeks!
The Red-billed Quelea may well be the most abundant bird on the planet, with an estimated population as large as ten billion, and as such is considered as being of least concern by the IUCN. It occurs widely in the savannas of Sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in every one of South Africa’s provinces, where it must number in the hundreds of millions.
(The photos in the following gallery were taken on previous visits to the Kruger Park and elsewhere)
While driving around the uMkhuze Game Reserve one afternoon in March, we happened upon a seemingly insatiable Woolly-Necked Stork catching juvenile catfish in a drying mudpool. We watched the stork gorge itself on one fish after another, amazed at the ease with which it could grab its slippery, squirming quarry from the “all you can eat buffet table”, until there was no more splashing from the pool at his approach…
While I doubt it reached proportions that would convince the Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, the “eruption” of little froglets we saw at uMkhuze Game Reserve during our recent visit was quite fascinating. Rain or shine, literally hundreds (if not more) of tiny frogs could be seen jumping around on the roads all over the reserve, making driving quite tricky if you didn’t want to squash them under the vehicle’s wheels.
Thanks to the help of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park the little ones were identified as juvenile Edible Bullfrogs (or Lesser Bullfrogs), a species that occurs over wide areas of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, and indeed is eaten by humans in many countries where they occur. Though these newly metamorphosed juveniles were only about the size of a thumbnail, the Edible Bullfrog can grow to 12cm in length.
They can be found in seasonally flooded savannas and grassy woodlands, remaining dormant underground for most of the year (up to 10 months) and emerging only when sufficient rain has fallen for breeding to commence. During the breeding season males act very aggressively towards one another and will even kill each other. Eggs are laid in well vegetated, shallow, seasonal bodies of water where the males guard the eggs and tadpoles against other males and predators. Interestingly, when the tadpoles’ pools start drying up the males will dig channels to deeper pools. Edible Bullfrogs feed on a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates, including other frogs, and feature in turn in the diets of various species of birds, reptiles and mammals (humans included).
Believe it or not, but in the middle of this picture there’s a leopard hidden in the grass. Don’t worry; If I didn’t see her walk in there I wouldn’t have known it either.
Luckily she grew tired of her hiding spot, got up and walked into even denser vegetation, allowing just one quickly fired shot as proof…
This leopard was lying not two meters from our car and was totally invisible – what wonderful camouflage these cats have!