Category Archives: South African Wildlife

The inhabitants of South Africa’s wild places

Limpopo Ramble 2022: Eastern Rock Sengi

During our recent visit to Marakele National Park, while enjoying the magnificent view from the Lenong Viewpoint, we spied a little Eastern Rock Sengi basking in the early morning sun – a habit they are particularly fond of – behind a fence surrounding one of the communication towers also built atop the mountain. While the fence is a rather irritating obtrusion in these photo’s of ours, it is probably because of it that the Sengi felt comfortable enough to be out and about, safe in the knowledge that neither us humans nor any other predator could reach it!

Elephantulus myurus

The Sengis, or Elephant Shrews, (order Macroscelidea) are a family of 20 small, insectivorous mammal species occurring only in Africa. While they’re superficially very shrew-like they are in fact not related to shrews at all (and they are in fact more closely related to elephants, even if their “trunks” aren’t nearly as long and prehensile), which is why the scientific community is trying to move away from the old moniker in favour of Sengi, a name based in indigenous African languages.

The Eastern Rock Elephant Shrew, or Sengi then, occurs widely in South Africa’s northern and eastern provinces and throughout Zimbabwe, extending into portions of Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana and Mozambique south of the Zambezi. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.

As suggested by its name, the Eastern Rock Sengi is always found in close association with rocky areas where they hide in cracks and tiny caves among the boulders. Here they subsist on a diet that consist of insects (mainly ants and termites) and other invertebrates, though they will also eat seeds. They are diurnal, very rarely venturing out in the dark. They are also very alert and nervous, usually dashing for cover at the slightest disturbance.

Eastern Rock Sengi’s are mainly solitary and seen in pairs only while they breed during spring and summer. Females usually give birth to twins after a two-month long gestation. The young are very well developed and can move around with their mother soon after birth. Fully grown, Eastern Rock Sengi’s measure about 26cm long (of which the tail is more than half) and weigh approximately 60g. They have a very short lifespan and may live to only around 18 months of age in the wild.

Limpopo Ramble 2022: Pel’s Fishing Owl

Now, searching for the Pel’s Fishing Owl can make you feel like Indiana Jones searching for some long lost artefact only to be thwarted at every turn. We have spent many, many hours over the years slowly driving through prime habitat in search of this elusive bird and have always come off second best.

Upon arrival at Mapungubwe National Park on the 25th of June, and while completing the usual formalities at the entrance gate, I enquired about whether there had been any recent sightings of Fishing Owls in the Park and whether we might book a special guided drive to search for them in case there was. Without hesitation the kind receptionist picked up the phone, and minutes later we were being escorted down to the banks of the Limpopo River by Leonard Luula, one of the excellent guides at Mapungubwe.

Leonard’s expert eye quickly picked out the bird that has eluded us for so long sitting in a tall riparian tree. We were ecstatic.

We went back to the same area early the following day and were very grateful to see the owl once again before it shuffled out of view along its perch to behind the screen of leaves.

Scotopelia peli

As its name suggests, the Pel’s Fishing Owl subsists on a diet of fish (and the occasional frog, crab and even baby crocodile!) which it catches at night by swooping down over the water to snatch its prey from it. They live in riverine forests on the banks of large rivers and swamps.

Pel’s Fishing Owl usually nests in deep cavities or old hamerkop nests in tall trees near the water’s edge, mainly during the months of summer and autumn. The female incubates the clutch of two eggs for around 5 weeks while being provided food by the male. Both eggs usually hatch, but only one chick survives to fledging as the parents feed mainly the stronger chick and neglect the weaker, which dies of starvation within a few days of hatching. The chick remains in the nest for almost 10 weeks and is dependent on its parents for up to 9 months months after fledging. Due to it taking so long to raise a chick, pairs generally breed only every second year.

Pel’s Fishing Owl is the second largest owl on the African continent (after Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl). Adults have a wingspan of around 1.5m, sit about 60cm tall, and weigh approximately 2kg. Their call can be heard up to 3km away.

While overall Pel’s Fishing Owl is considered to be of least concern, it is listed as endangered in South Africa, with a population estimated at only between 70 and 100 mature individuals. Here, these enigmatic birds are found in the north of Kwazulu-Natal, along large Lowveld rivers – notably the Olifants and Luvuvhu – and along the course of the Limpopo on the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. Thankfully, most of this restricted range is covered by formal protected areas, such as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kruger National Park and of course Mapungubwe National Park. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and threatened by habitat loss. Beyond our borders, Pel’s Fishing Owls are found widely, if somewhat patchily, over much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Banded Gold Tip Butterfly

Teracolus (Colotis) eris

The Banded Gold Tip is a common and widespread butterfly that can be found in corners of all South Africa’s provinces. While reaching their highest densities in forest and savanna, they have a wide habitat tolerance, avoiding only succulent karoo, fynbos and mountain grasslands. They’re very fond of settling on flowers, fluttering rapidly around them before landing, are fast fliers and usually don’t fly higher than 2m off the ground. Adults have a wingspan of between 4 and 5cm and are on the wing year-round, their numbers peaking in autumn. The larvae feed on the leaves of shepherd’s bushes.

This post was scheduled to publish while we are exploring two of South Africa’s national parks during the South African winter holidays. We will respond to comments on our return. Stay safe and well!

European Nightjar

Caprimulgus europaeus

The European Nightjar is a summer visitor to South Africa, mainly northern Kwazulu-Natal and the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, arriving between September and November and departing again by April. They breed over an enormous area of Eurasia and overwinter in west, east and southern Africa. According to the IUCN, which sites a total population of at least 3-million, the European Nightjar is of least concern, though it also mentions that the population is probably in decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use.

Locally, European Nightjars inhabit savannas, woodlands, exotic plantations and parks. They’re most active just after sunset and again a few hours before dawn, sleeping mostly on tree branches up to 20m high during the day (unlike local nightjars, which always sleep on the ground or on rocks). These roosts are often used continuously and for consecutive years. When they feel threatened they’ll flatten themselves and only take flight when the perceived danger gets very close to them. They feed exclusively on insects caught in flight, especially beetles and moths, and also drink in flight like swifts and swallows do. Adults are about 27cm long and weigh around 67g.

This post was scheduled to publish while we are exploring two of South Africa’s national parks during the South African winter holidays. We will respond to comments on our return. Stay safe and well!

Kudu Lily

Pachypodium saundersii

The beautiful Kudu Lily has a limited distribution, being restricted to the Lebombo Mountains and surrounds in the north of Kwazulu-Natal and the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, as well as in Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Its natural distribution range reflects its preference for dry, hot and rocky terrain. This shrubby succulent may grow as tall as 1.5m. The extravagant flowers appear in autumn and the sharp spines can inflict serious damage.

The Kudu Lily is available as a garden plant and can be trained into a fascinating bonsai. Like others in the genus the Kudu Lily is poisonous and this is used, with caution, in traditional medicine to treat bacterial infections and cancer, and also as a poison for arrows used in hunting.

This post was scheduled to publish while we are exploring two of South Africa’s national parks during the South African winter holidays. We will respond to comments on our return. Stay safe and well!

Ant-heap White Butterfly

Dixeia pigea

The Ant-heap White is one of those confusing kinds of butterflies where the males and females look quite different, and even differ from season to season in their appearance – in general the males are more white and the females more yellow.

They fly fairly slowly and quite fluttery, and can be seen throughout the year though they may reach extraordinary numbers in late summer and early autumn when they make for quite a spectacle as they chase each other around flowering plants in the full sun.

The larvae feed on the leaves of caperbushes, and the strong association between plants of the genus Maerua and termite-mounds is where this butterfly gets their common name. The eggs are laid in groups on the underside of the leaves of these fodder plants. Fully grown they have a wingspan of about 5cm.

Ant-heap Whites inhabit moist woodland, riverine thickets and forests and are found from the coastal regions of the Eastern Cape, throughout Kwazulu-Natal and into the Lowveld and Escarpment of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Mountain Wagtail

Motacilla clara

Of the three kinds of resident wagtails that occur in South Africa, the Mountain Wagtail has by far the most limited and patchy distribution. In the Eastern Cape it occurs along the coast east of Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) and in the mountains around Hogsback. In Kwazulu-Natal they’re found on the south coast, in the Midlands and in the Drakensberg, with fewer records from further north in the province. in Mpumalanga and Limpopo they frequent the mountains of the escarpment. The distribution range of this species is equally disjointed through the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. According to the IUCN, the Mountain Wagtail is of least concern. These confiding birds are found along pristine mountain streams strewn with boulders and bordered by dense vegetation, seldom venturing out into open areas like lawns like the others of its family. They feed mainly on insects and bathe regularly.

Adult Mountain Wagtails form monogamous territorial pairs that remain strong life-long, and unless one of the pair is on the nest they’re always seen together, often joined by their offspring. Mountain Wagtails nest in spring and summer, with both partners involved in constructing the cup-shaped nest in a cavity in the river bank, rock face, or among flood debris. Clutches contain 1-4 eggs which are incubated for 2 weeks. The chicks leave the nest 2-3 weeks after hatching, and then remain with their parents for up to 2 months more. Fully grown they measure about 20cm in length and weigh approximately 20g.

Convict Surgeonfish

Acanthurus triostegus

With a very wide distribution along the tropical coastlines of the Indo-Pacific, stretching from South Africa to California, the Convict Surgeonfish, or Convict Tang, is one of the most numerous and well-known of its family. Apart from the six obvious stripes on its body, its name comes from the sharp, scalpel-like spines on either side of the base of its tail that it keeps retracted until it needs to deploy them in self-defense.

Living along shallow reefs (usually less than 90m deep) and rocky shores, and even in harbours, the Convict Surgeonfish feed exclusively on algae they scrape from the rocks. Young fish are often seen in rock pools at low tide. They’re social fish, living in schools numbering from a few individuals to several thousand. They breed during full moon in late winter and spring. Most grow to only about 17cm in length, though some specimens may grow to as much as 27cm.

Convict Surgeonfish are often seen in home marine aquaria, but suffer high mortality if they cannot be provided with copious amounts of fresh seaweed. According to the IUCN this species is of least concern.

Tailed Black-eye Butterfly

Leptomyrina hirundo

The Tailed Black-eye is a little butterfly – with a wingspan less than 3cm – that often goes unnoticed, despite being quite common where it occurs, which in South Africa is in the various kinds of forests and the bushveld savanna regions of the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. They’ll even visit gardens in these parts, are quite confiding and often found in close proximity to others of its kind. They fly very near to the ground. Adults are on the wing year round, but they’re most numerous in November and March. The tiny larvae feed on succulent plants from the genera Cotyledon, Kalanchoe and Crassula – many of which are popular in local gardens – and bore into the leaf to eat out the inside before leaving the “empty” leaf for another.

Giant Kingfisher

Megaceryle maxima

Africa’s biggest kingfisher, the Giant Kingfisher weighs in at about 360g and measure around 44cm in length. They feed mainly on crabs, fish (up to 18cm long!), frogs and other water-living creatures and are therefore almost always encountered at or near a source of water with adequate perches (natural or man-made) from which it can strike an attack. They seldom dive from a hovering position like many other kingfishers do. The prey is killed by repeatedly bashing it against the perch before it is swallowed.

Giant Kingfishers are monogamous and territorial, with each pair laying claim to a stretch of water up to 4km long. Pairs construct a tunnel of about 2 or 3m deep (extraordinarily up to 8m deep) into a sturdy river bank (this could take a week or even more), at the end of which a chamber is prepared for the pair to incubate the clutch of 3 – 5 eggs over a 4 week period. In South Africa Giant Kingfishers breed in spring and summer. The chicks stay in the nest for 5 – 6 weeks after hatching and remain dependent on their parents for at least another 3 weeks or so after leaving the nest.

In our country Giant Kingfishers may be found in all provinces, though in the Northern Cape they’re mainly restricted to the course of the Orange River and its tributaries. It further occurs over most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, reflecting that vegetation type is not as important a habitat consideration for this species as is the presence of a reliable water source providing a sufficient food supply. The IUCN considers the Giant Kingfisher to be of least concern.