Category Archives: South African Wildlife

The inhabitants of South Africa’s wild places

African Pygmy Goose

Nettapus auritus

With a weight of only 260g, the African Pygmy Goose is one of the smallest members of the duck family to be found in South Africa. They’re seen in close association with bodies of clear water densely vegetated with water lilies, the flowers and seeds of which forms the bulk of their diet, and other floating and emergent plants amongst which they’ll often sit entirely motionless to avoid detection. When threatened they’ll more usually dive below the water surface than fly away.

African Pygmy Geese form monogamous pairs with a very strong bond and are usually seen in pairs or family groups. They make their nests in holes in trees and will readily use nest boxes erected for them. The breeding season stretches from the start of spring to the end of autumn. Clutches may number up to 13, but more usually 7-9, eggs. The female is solely responsible for incubating the eggs, which takes about 4 weeks. Soon after hatching the chicks jump from the nest to follow their mother to the water. The chicks can fly by the time they’re about 6 or 7 weeks old.

The IUCN considers the African Pygmy Goose as being of least concern. While it has a very wide distribution in sub-Saharan Africa and also occurs on Madagascar, in our country they are considered to be near-threatened and only encountered with any regularity in the wetlands along the northern coastline of Kwazulu-Natal.

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Green Malkoha

Ceuthmochares australis

Another very rarely seen bird with a limited distribution in South Africa – only found here along the coast of Kwazulu-Natal – and one that I saw for the first time on my recent trip to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park with my younger brother, is the Green Malkoha (also known as the Green Coucal or Whistling Yellowbill).

The Green Malkoha is a bird of coastal forest habitats and a member of the cuckoo-family. It feeds on a wide range of small vertebrates (with a special fondness for tree-living frogs) and insects, and also a limited selection of fruits. They are usually seen singly or in pairs, preferring to creep through the thick vegetation like a rodent rather than flying.

Green Malkohas form monogamous pairs in the spring breeding season, building rather flimsy platform nests in dense thicket on which clutches of 2-4 eggs are laid – rather unusual in the cuckoo-family, where most species are brood parasites. Aside from the fact that both parents take care of the young after they’ve hatched little else is known of this species’ breeding habits. Fully grown, Green Malkohas weigh about 70g and measure 33cm in length.

The IUCN considers the Green Malkoha to be of Least Concern. Beyond its limited South African occurrence it can be found along the Indian Ocean seaboard and adjacent interior as far north as southern Somalia, with an isolated population on the Ethiopian Highlands.

Subantarctic Fur Seal at Cape Vidal

Arctocephalus tropicalis

The Subantarctic Fur Seal is a sea living mammal that usually occurs in the chilly waters of the southern Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Finding one on the much more tropical beach at Cape Vidal in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on South Africa’s north-eastern coast, thousands of kilometers from where it belongs, was therefore a very unexpected surprise! Why and how exactly some seals roam so widely outside their usual range still is not really understood, but vagrants of this species has been recorded in South Africa before and even as far north as the Tanzanian coast. When we first noticed this individual it was lying far up the beach, trying its best to stay out of a strong wind, but I later noticed it enjoying the swell at the incoming tide. While to my opinion our visitor looked in good, energetic health I did alert the Park authorities as soon as I had connectivity again just in case they wanted to have a look themselves, as these long distance swimmers are often very tired and underfed by the time they reach our shore and are then looked after at a specialised rehabilitation centre until they can be shipped back to their natural homes.

Subantarctic Fur Seals live and breed around and on tiny islands just north of the Antarctic Polar Front at roughly 60°S latitude, including the South African territory of the Prince Edward islands. Fully grown males, at 1.8m long and 160kg in weight, is much larger than the females, which weigh only about 50kg. They feed mainly on fish and squid. Pups are born in the southern summer (most of them in December). It is estimated that they can live to 25 years of age in the wild.

With a population estimated at around 200,000 adults and considered to be stable, the IUCN lists the Subantarctic Fur Seal as being of least concern. This is a wonderful improvement as they were extensively hunted for their pelts in the 1800’s.

 

Candy-striped Veld Lily

Crinum stuhlmannii

(previously C. delagoense /C. forbesii)

The beautiful Candy-Striped Veld Lily occurs from our Kwazulu-Natal Province all along the Indian Ocean coastal plain to East Africa. It is a bulbous plant that grows best in sandy soil at low altitudes and out in the full sun. Its leaves grow up to 1.5m in length and a single plant can bear up to 30 of the distinctive flowers, typically during the months of spring.

White-backed Duck

Thalassornis leuconotus

Another bird of which sightings come highly regarded in South Africa is the White-backed Duck and I was very excited to finally catch sight of them during my recent trip to St. Lucia in Kwazulu-Natal.

A nomadic diving duck that feeds mainly on submerged plant material, the White-backed Duck inhabits natural and man-made dams and pans of any size and permanence with clear water and abundant floating and emergent plants, where they are exquisitely camouflaged and easily overlooked. The white patch on their backs from which they get their name is only seen in flight. They are usually seen in pairs or family groups but occasionally form larger flocks of over a hundred. White-backed Ducks rarely venture onto dry land.

Monogamous pairs of White-backed Ducks (perhaps life-long bonds) breed year-round in dense reed beds or other thick plant material standing in the water. Clutches of up to 9 eggs are laid on a nest platform built of the surrounding plant material, and incubated by both parents for 4-5 weeks. The ducklings are able to follow their parents onto and into the water less than a day after hatching and are fully grown by the time they’re 4 months old. Adults measure about 43cm in length and weigh around 650g.

In South Africa, the White-backed Duck has a rather patchy distribution, with concentrations in the Highveld grassland areas, in Kwazulu-Natal, the Garden Route and the Cape Winelands. Beyond our borders their range stretches to Ethiopia and Madagascar, with isolated populations in the Sahel. According to the IUCN it is of least concern.

Narina Trogon

Apaloderma narina

An infuriatingly difficult bird to see, thanks to their habit of sitting dead still for long periods in their dense forest habitat, the beautiful Narina Trogon is a prized target for bird watchers and wildlife photographers alike. Their call is often the first, and usually only, indication of their presence but is seldom heard outside of the breeding season. It feeds on a wide variety of insects, other invertebrates and even reptiles and amphibians the size of small chameleons. They’re usually found singly or in pairs.

Narina Trogons form monogamous pairs and breed in hollows in trees. During the summer breeding season the male is fiercely territorial and will even drive away birds of other species. Clutches of 2-4 eggs are incubated by both parents for between 2 and 3 weeks. The chicks leave the nest by 4 weeks of age but remain with their parents for several months more. Fully grown, Narina Trogons measure about 32cm long and weigh in the region of 67g.

The IUCN lists the Narina Trogon as being of least concern. While it has a very wide distribution over much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, in South Africa they’re mainly found only in a narrow stretch along the coast from the Garden Route through the Eastern Cape, into Kwazulu-Natal, and then along the forests of the escarpment into Mpumalanga and Limpopo as far as the Soutpansberg.

Buff-spotted Flufftail

Sarothrura elegans

A very secretive and rarely seen bird, the Buff-spotted Flufftail inhabits forests and other densely vegetated patches in areas of fairly high rainfall. These days they’re found in well planted gardens within their range with increasing frequency. It is mainly insectivorous, searching for invertebrates in the leaf litter of its dense habitat. They appear to be active throughout the day and night.

Pairs of Buff-spotted Flufftails are monogamous and territorial during the breeding season, which spans the months of spring to autumn. Using a wide range of plant material the female takes about 3 days to construct a well hidden dome-shaped nest with a side entrance underneath densely growing plants. Both partners take it in turns to incubate the clutch of 3-5 eggs over a two week period. The chicks leave the nest when they’re only a day or two old, accompanying their parents on foraging excursions. They grow quickly and can fly by the time they’re about 3 weeks old. At this point their parents will kick the chicks out of their territory and start breeding again – the pair may raise up to 4 broods in a season! Fully grown Buff-spotted Flufftails are about 15cm long and weigh around 50g.

In South Africa, the Buff-spotted Flufftail has a patchy and limited distribution, stretching from the Western and Eastern Cape through most of Kwazulu-Natal on to the escarpment in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. Beyond our borders they’re found over much of west, central and eastern Africa. The IUCN considers this species to be of least concern.

European Honey-Buzzard

Pernis apivorus

European Honey-Buzzards are rare visitors to South Africa during our summer months, arriving around November and departing again by May. While they’ve been recorded in all our provinces it seems most of the limited sightings are in and around Gauteng. Their breeding range stretches from western Europe to central Asia, migrating to sub-Saharan Arica when the northern climes get chilly. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern, with an estimated population of between a quarter- and half-a-million.

European Honey Buzzards are insectivorous and have a particular liking for wasp and bee larvae and pupae, even digging up nests from underground. They are usually encountered in densely vegetated habitats, like forest, woodland, plantations and gardens. They’re about 55cm long and weigh approximately 750g.

Pill-millipede

Genus Sphaerotherium

54 species of Pill-millipede from the genus Sphaerotherium are known from Southern Africa, and coastal Kwazulu-Natal Province is especially rich in the number of species found there.

South Africa’s largest species, the Giant Pill Millipede, can grow to 5cm in length and is the size of a ping-pong ball when it is curled up. This habit of rolling into an impenetrably tight ball when threatened is probably the most endearing characteristic of these fascinating creatures. Another unusual trait of Pill-millipedes is that the males intent on breeding can produce a sound by stridulation – rubbing modified back legs against ridges on the final segment produces a vibrating sound, unique to each species, that the female picks up and then allows the male to mate with her.

Pill-millipedes live in the moist leaf-litter on forest floors, feeding on decaying leaves, fruit and wood, and thus perform a vital ecological function by recycling nutrients. They’re mostly active at night.

African Small White Butterfly

Dixeia charina

One of the smaller species of the family, with a wingspan ranging only up to 4cm, the African Small White has a limited distribution stretching from the Garden Route to the southern Lowveld where they inhabit coastal, montane and riverine forests and dense woodlands. Larvae feed on the leaves of caperbushes. Adults fly year-round, reaching peak numbers towards the end of summer.