Category Archives: South African Wildlife

The inhabitants of South Africa’s wild places

Mountain Wheatear

Myrmecocichla monticola

Mountain Wheatears are shy birds, inhabiting rocky and mountainous terrain where they feed mainly on insects and other invertebrates, only occasionally ingesting berries and seeds. They’re also quite at home around abandoned open mines, quarries and old stone-built farmyards.

Mountain Wheatears form monogamous pairs that may last several breeding seasons (spanning spring and summer). While the male defends their territory it is the female that is responsible for building the nest – an untidy cup made of almost any material available – placed in a sheltered spot beneath a boulder, in a cave or in a hole in a cliff face or wall. Clutches of 2-4 eggs are incubated for 2 weeks, also by the female only, and once hatched both parents provide food for the chicks at the nest until they fledge at between 2 and 3 weeks of age. The youngsters will remain with their parents until they’re about 2 months old.

The Mountain Wheatear is a bird restricted to the southern part of Africa, occurring only in Angola, Namibia, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho and South Africa (parts of all provinces). According to the IUCN, the Mountain Wheatear is of least concern.

African Civet

Civettictis civetta

The African Civet is an animal that we are always thrilled to encounter whenever we get the rare chance. They are quite large, standing up to 40cm high at the shoulder, measuring up to 1.4m in length and weighing up to 20kg. They’re not aggressive but can put up a good defence when cornered. Secretions from their anal glands, a defensive adaptation, is used to a small extent in the perfume industry – a practice that is to be frowned upon in an enlightened world.

Inhabiting a wide range of wooded habitats, provided there is shelter in the form of burrows, thickets or reedbeds, African Civets feed on fruits and seeds, carrion, insects, reptiles, frogs, smaller birds and mammals (even domestic cats and poultry), and they’re among the very few creatures that will eat substantial quantities of foul-tasting millipedes.

African Civets are usually seen alone or in pairs, and frequently travel along well-trodden paths through their home ranges. They’re most active during the night and only rarely venture out in daylight. They’re not adept at climbing and usually stay on the ground, but they are good swimmers. Females give birth to 1-4 pups after a 10 week gestation, The youngsters are weaned at 5 months of age. African Civets live to about 12 years of age in the wild.

In South Africa, the African Civet is found mainly in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, with scattered pockets of occurrence in the North West, Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. North of our borders, Civets are distributed almost all over sub-Saharan Africa with only a few areas where they have not been recorded. The IUCN considers the African Civet to be of least concern.

Wahlberg’s Eagle

Hieraaetus wahlbergi

Wahlberg’s Eagle is a relatively small eagle, with variable plumage, that inhabits woodland and savannas in higher rainfall areas, showing a marked preference for wooded riversides and their floodplains. These raptors follow a diverse diet, preying on anything from insects, frogs, reptiles and birds to mammals as large as hares.

Wahlberg’s Eagles breed in spring and summer, preferring to nest in tall riparian trees. Pairs are monogamous and both partners work at the construction of the small stick platform, lined with green leaves and often used for several consecutive years, in which a single egg – rarely 2 – will be incubated for almost 7 weeks. The chick leaves the nest when it is 10-11 weeks old. Fully grown, the female of the species is much larger than the male and weighs around 1.3kg.

According to the IUCN, Wahlberg’s Eagle is considered to be of least concern, and it may well be the most numerous of all Africa’s eagles. They’re distributed throughout Africa’s savanna regions, in a band from Senegal to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan and then southwards to Angola and South Africa. Generally they’re found in our country (Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West) only during spring, summer and autumn, moving back to the more northerly regions of its distribution to spend our colder May-July period there.

 

Sharptooth Catfish

Clarias gariepinus

Distributed naturally over almost all of sub-Saharan Africa and in a few river systems in the Middle East as well, the Sharptooth Catfish is a most adaptable species capable of living in almost any freshwater habitat; adapting even to life in sewerage treatment works or very muddy, drying pools. This is thanks to their ability to breathe air directly and their ability to travel across dry ground, especially in wet weather.

One of the biggest freshwater fish in Africa, Sharptooth Catfish may grow to 1.7m in length and weigh up to 60kg. They’re omnivores and will feed on anything living or dead that will fit in their sizable mouths. In turn they fall victim to many predatory birds, mammals and crocodiles.

Sharptooth Catfish spawn in seasonally inundated areas surrounding their home waters, usually at night following good rains. Males become involved in serious fights for dominance and the right to mate with females. Females are very fertile – even a catfish weighing only 2kg can produce 45,000 eggs! The eggs hatch within 1-3 days of being laid, and the fry develop exceptionally quickly. There is no maternal care for the eggs or newly hatched fry – in fact, cannibalism is very common in this species.

The IUCN lists the Sharptooth Catfish as being of least concern. – it is probably the most widely distributed fish species on the continent of Africa. It is a popular aquaculture species (especially in poorer communities) and has been introduced in various other parts of the world, where escaped populations are a serious danger to indigenous fish and other water-living creatures. In South Africa they occur naturally in all provinces except the Eastern and Western Cape, though they have invaded freshwater systems in these provinces as well thanks to water transfer schemes and stocking by farmers and anglers.

Wire-tailed Swallow

Hirundo smithii

Named for the two elongated, very thin tail feathers that trails behind it like antennae, the Wire-tailed Swallow is a beautiful bird that occurs over much of Africa and South Asia. Unlike many of their kin, Wire-tailed Swallows are mostly resident in their African home range year-round and do not migrate seasonally. In South Africa they’re to be found across northern Kwazulu-Natal, the Lowveld and Limpopo valley.

Wire-tailed Swallows are always to be found over or near fresh water bodies of any description, seemingly being less concerned with the habitat that surrounds these dams, rivers, streams and floodplains. They feed almost exclusively on insects caught in flight, and often mingle with other kinds of swallows in mixed flocks.

Wire-tailed Swallows breed throughout the year, peaking in spring and autumn. Pairs remain monogamous throughout the breeding season and possibly life-long. Their nests are cups of mud constructed in natural or man-made shelters like under overhanging rocks or under bridges, and usually used repeatedly season after season, being repaired annually before the clutch of 2-4 eggs are laid. The female takes responsibility for incubation over a 2-3 week period, but both parents feed the chicks once they’ve hatched. The chicks fledge when they’re about 3 weeks old but remain with their parents, and usually roost at the nest, for a considerable length of time – even till the next clutch of eggs are laid.

The IUCN considers the Wire-tailed Swallow to be of least concern.

Natal Sand Frog

Tomopterna natalensis

A small frog, only about 4cm long, with variable colouration, the Natal Sand Frog occurs in grasslands and savanna habitats, where they usually breed in shallow water – standing or flowing – soon after the first rains of the season. The tadpoles grow exceptionally quickly, completing their metamorphosis in just two to three weeks! They hibernate underground in sandy soils, and dig themselves into the ground backwards with their hind legs.

In South Africa the Natal Sand Frog is distributed from the Eastern Cape through Kwazulu-Natal and into Mpumalanga, Gauteng and Limpopo. They’re also found in Mozambique and Eswatini (Swaziland) and is considered to be of least concern.

Red-breasted Swallow

Cecropis semirufa

To my mind the most beautiful member of the family, the Red-breasted Swallow (aka Rufous-chested Swallow) is a summer visitor to South Africa, arriving here from equatorial Africa from August and staying until around March or April. While spending the summer months locally these beautiful birds can be seen in the Free State, Kwazulu-Natal, North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, inhabiting open grasslands and savanna habitats. They feed mainly on flying insects.

Red-breasted Swallows form monogamous pairs in the breeding season, which starts almost as soon as they arrive here in South Africa. Their nests are built of mud in animal burrows and other cavities in the ground – and even inside man-made structures such as culverts – and comprise a bowl-shaped nesting chamber with a long tunnel leading to it. Both partners work on the construction of the nest, which may take longer than a month! The female is solely responsible for the incubation of the clutch of up to 6 eggs over a 3 week period. Once hatched, both parents provide food for the chicks until they leave the nest 3-4 weeks later. The youngsters remain with their parents for about 2 weeks after fledging. Pairs usually produce a second clutch of eggs 2-4 weeks after the first brood leaves the parents.

The IUCN lists the Red-breasted Swallow as being of least concern, noting that their populations are increasing and their distribution expanding.

Long-crested Eagle

Lophaetus occipitalis

The Long-created Eagle is easy to identify thanks to the couple of extended feathers on its head that is so conspicuous when it sits prominently on an exposed tree top or utility pole along the road. They’re medium-sized raptors, weighing up to 1.5kg and measuring around 55cm in length – females are heavier than males. Long-crested Eagles inhabit moist woodland and forest adjacent to open patches, often in association with wetlands or along river courses, and seems especially fond of high-lying areas. Rodents make up the largest portion of their diet, though they will also take ground birds, frogs, reptiles and even crabs and fish.

Long-crested Eagles nest in the canopy of tall trees, usually during the summer months though breeding attempts are recorded throughout the year. Pairs are monogamous and territorial and perform acrobatic courtship displays at the start of their breeding cycle. Their nests are platforms built of sticks and lined with softer materials such as green leaves. Females lay clutches of 1 or 2 eggs and incubate them for around 6 weeks. The male provides food to the female at the nest while she incubates the eggs and then broods the chicks after they’ve emerged from the eggs. The chicks fledge at two months old and remain with their parents for 2-3 months more.

The IUCN lists the Long-crested Eagle as a species of least concern. It has a very wide distribution over sub-Saharan Africa, absent only from the most open and arid areas. In South Africa they’re found along the Eastern Cape coast, through most of Kwazulu-Natal and marginally into the eastern Free State, and also in the high-lying parts of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo (especially along the escarpment). It seems that this species has benefitted from the establishment of commercial forestry in South Africa and could expand its range as a result.

Blue Pansy Butterfly

Junonia oenone

The outer (under) side of the Blue Pansy’s wings blends in so beautifully with its surroundings that when this butterfly opens its wings and flashes the bright blue, red and white markings on a black background on the inside (topside) of its 5cm wingspan, it often comes as quite a surprise, especially if you didn’t notice it sitting on the bare ground or a rock, as they often do.

Blue Pansies inhabit woodland and savanna, as well as suburban parks and gardens, and occurs over the moister eastern half of South Africa. Adults may be seen throughout the year though they’re much more numerous in spring and autumn. They’re very active during the warmest hours of the day and males, which are territorial, can often be seen chasing each other and other kinds of butterflies around on hilltops.

Osprey

Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey occurs throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica. In South Africa Ospreys are rare, and any sightings we have of them are always a thrilling surprise whenever and wherever we’re lucky to find them. Feeding almost exclusively on fish snatched from the water, Ospreys are found in close association with natural and man-made lakes, rivers, estuaries and along the coast.

Most Ospreys seen here in South Africa are visiting summer migrants arriving from October and departing again by May, though there are records of birds staying through winter and even a few attempts at breeding. They’re usually seen alone, but have been found in groups numbering up to five on occasion.

The IUCN considers the Osprey to be of least concern.