Tag Archives: outdoors

Olive Grass Snake

Psammophis mossambicus

A common inhabitant of moist savannas and grasslands, often found in marshy areas, the Olive Grass Snake is distributed from Uganda and the Republic of Congo southwards to the northeastern provinces of South Africa (Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal).

These snakes are diurnal, strongly built, very fast, and great climbers. They prey mainly on lizards, frogs, small mammals and birds and even other snakes, including venomous species, that is subdued by its own venom while being held in the mouth. Olive Grass Snakes will easily bite when handled and their venom has a mild effect on humans, leading mainly to nausea and localized pain and swelling.

During the summer months females lay clutches of 10-30 eggs. The eggs hatch about 2 months after laying. Adults may attain a length of 1.8m, with females being larger than males.

The IUCN lists the Olive Grass Snake as being of least concern.

African Pipit

Anthus cinnamomeus

The African Pipit, also sometimes called the Grassland Pipit, is a common but fairly inconspicuous bird of open savanna, short grasslands and dry floodplains, though it is also often encountered on sports fields, airfields, agricultural land, roadsides and recently burnt patches. They feed almost exclusively on insects and other small invertebrates.

African Pipits are monogamous, with the male using aerial displays and song to proclaim his breeding territory while the female builds the neat cup-shaped nest on the ground at the base of a bush or tuft of grass (they also sleep on the ground, often in a favourite location). When not breeding they form loose flocks that may number up to a hundred and often associate with birds of other species. African Pipits may breed at any time of the year, though mostly in spring and summer, with clutches of 1-5 eggs being incubated by both parents over a 2 week period. The chicks leave the nest at between 2 and 3 weeks old, but remain near it – and dependent on their parents – for a while longer. Parents will attempt to lure predators away from the chicks by feigning a broken wing. Adults measure around 16cm in length and weigh about 24g.

The IUCN lists the African Pipit as a species of least concern. It is found over much of sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the south-western corner of the Arabian Peninsula. African Pipits occur all over South Africa.

Wanderer

Bematistes aganice

The Wanderer inhabits montane, coastal and riverine forests. It normally stays high in the canopy of lofty forest trees, moving around with slow, confident wing beats – having a rather disagreeable taste most predators stay well clear of them. The male is territorial and will chase any other butterflies, not only of their own kind, that venture into his patch. Adults have a wingspan of about 7cm and can be seen year-round.

In South Africa it is found in the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and beyond our borders as far afield as East Africa.

Common Waxbill

Estrilda astrild

The Common Waxbill is an adaptable little finch that occurs in a wide-range of habitats, but is especially fond of densely growing vegetation in wetlands and along watercourses, and also enters gardens and parks in towns and cities. They’re social birds, moving around in flocks that usually number up to 50 individuals (though sometimes into the hundreds or even thousands) and feed mainly on grass flowers and seeds and the occasional soft-bodied insect.

Common Waxbills may breed throughout the year but predominantly during the warmer months of spring and summer. The male builds the intricate nest – a horizontal, pear-shaped construction of grass stems and leaves with a nesting chamber and a “dummy” nest cavity to confuse predators – that is usually placed on or near the ground at the base of thick vegetation. Both parents take turns to incubate the clutch of 4-6 (sometimes up to 9) eggs over a two-week period. The chicks fledge about three weeks after hatching, but often returns to the nest for a few days more to roost at night. Fully grown they weigh around 8g and measure up to 12cm long. The Common Waxbill is the main breeding host for the Pin-tailed Whydah, which lays 1-4 of their eggs in the nest of the Waxbill, often removing some or all of the Waxbill’s eggs, for the Waxbill to incubate their eggs and raise their chicks.

Common Waxbills have a patchy distribution over Sub-Saharan Africa; from Guinea in the west and Ethiopia in the northeast to South Africa, where it can be found in every one of our provinces. According to the IUCN, the Common Waxbill is of least concern. It is commonly found in the cage-bird trade and feral populations have become established in other parts of the world.

Doornkop Fish & Wildlife Reserve

Doornkop Fish & Wildlife Reserve is a private 2,000 hectare conservation area nestled in the rolling foothills of the Drakensberg near Carolina on the Mpumalanga Highveld.

The undulating terrain of the reserve is covered by open grasslands and bushveld, with a wide variety of non-threatening indigenous mammals and more than a hundred kinds of birds to be seen.

Aside from several crystal-clear mountain streams the reserve is watered by the Komati and Swartwaterspruit Rivers, both home to healthy populations of indigenous yellowfish, while ten dams situated near the chalets are stocked with exotic trout, a magnet for fly fishermen. At night, the banks of the dams are alive with various kinds of toads and frogs.

The reserve’s game-viewing roads – a 4×4 vehicle is a definite advantage – stretches to almost every corner of it, while the more energetic visitors relish in the network of horse trails, hiking trails, running trails and cycling trails that traverse the valleys and hills.

This past weekend we had our first taste of this very beautiful destination and we’re quite certain we’ll be returning before too long. We were allocated one of the spacious chalets along the bank of the Swartwaterspruit for our two night stay and from our shady veranda could have spent hours taking in the vast hillside dotted with herds of grazing animals just beyond the stream or the regular visits from feathered friends – could have if there wasn’t so much else to do on the property, even with some very inclement weather from time to time. The resort offers 6, 8 and 10 sleeper chalets, all fully equipped with everything required for a comfortable self-catered stay. At the main building guests can make use of the swimming pools, games room, indoor and outdoor kids play areas, tennis court and little tuck shop and fly shop.

Doornkop is only about 2½ hours easy driving distance from Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Introduced Bird Species in South Africa

South Africa observes the “National Invasive Species Week” in October annually. Hosted by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, the campaign focuses on creating awareness among the South African public about the threats non-native species pose to our ecosystems. In this edition of de Wets Wild, we’ll be focusing on a handful of the introduced bird species found in our country.

Common Myna – Acridotheres tristis 

The Common Myna was introduced to South Africa from India and Sri Lanka between 1900 (Durban) and 1938 (Johannesburg), and has become one of the most common urban birds in almost all the cities and towns in the north-east half of our country with newly established populations also noted in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and elsewhere – no wonder it is considered one of the 100 worst invasive species, not only in South Africa but the world over. Very worryingly, they now seem to have thrown off their urban shackles and are increasingly being recorded in several of our national parks as well. Common Myna are highly intelligent and quite aggressive and easily outcompete several indigenous kinds of birds for nests and food, even destroying their eggs and killing their chicks. They carry foreign diseases and parasites that afflict not only other birds but also humans.

Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris

Another species considered to be among the 100 worst invasive species on the planet is the Common Starling, which first arrived in South Africa (Cape Town) in 1897, having been introduced from England by Cecil John Rhodes, himself a controversial figure. Not only is it responsible for immense damage to crops and orchards, but it too outcompetes native birds for resources like nests and food. While the distantly related Common Myna has taken control of the north-east of our country, it seems this member of the starling family has claimed the south-west of South Africa, especially the Western and Eastern Cape, and is staging its invasion of the rest of the country from there.

Thankfully two other species Rhodes tried to establish at the Cape of Good Hope, the Common Chaffinch and Grey Squirrel, while still resident in and around Cape Town, have not become as entrenched in South Africa as the Common Starling.

House Sparrow – Passer Domesticus

Today, the House Sparrow occurs in virtually every corner of South Africa – if there are people permanently settled anywhere, you can be sure there are House Sparrows too. It would appear that they first arrived in Durban from India around 1880, from whence they rapidly spread throughout South Africa and to our neighbouring countries – it is estimated that there are 8,000 of them in the various rest camps of the Kruger National Park alone!  Thankfully they are not a major threat to any indigenous bird species nor are they a pest to agricultural interests, rarely being found far from human habitation.

Lovebirds – Agapornis species

Africa and Madagascar is home to nine species of Lovebird – a family of small parrots – but only one, the Rosy-faced Lovebird, occurs naturally in South Africa;  in a tiny corner of the Northern Cape along the border with Namibia. Lovebirds are very popular in the pet trade, and it is probably due to escapees that feral populations of Lovebirds have become established in Pretoria and a few other locations in South Africa. Many of the Lovebirds now flying wild around our suburb have features in common with the Rosy-faced, Black-cheeked, Fischer’sLilian’s and Yellow-collared Lovebirds, but they are probably all hybrids of these and other kinds.

Rose-ringed Parakeet – Psittacula krameri

Rose-ringed Parakeets are native to the Indian subcontinent and a band stretching through Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia. Being popular in the pet trade escapees have established feral populations in various parts of the world, including South Africa, where large populations are found in Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Thankfully a population that occurred around Sodwana in what is today the iSimangaliso Wetland Park seems to have died out. In large flocks Rose-ringed Parakeets can be a serious pest in orchards, and they displace native hole-nesting birds from prime habitat.

Rock Dove – Columba livia

The Rock Dove, also known as the Common Pigeon, arrived in South Africa along with the first Dutch settlers in 1652 and soon became feral when they escaped domesticity. While today they are found in virtually every town and city in the country, their reliance on human habitation for food and nesting sites means that they are seldom encountered in our protected areas. Nevertheless they can be a serious nuisance and disease carrier.

Indian Peafowl – Pavo cristatus

The beautiful peacock is another bird that made its way to South Africa as an ornamental many decades ago. While they were purposefully released on Robben Island, some of these birds escaped from farms and zoos and free-ranging populations can now be found widely in South Africa and especially in and around major urban centres.

Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos

The exotic Mallard, and its domesticated descendants, started invading South African wetlands around the 1980’s after escaping from farms and the collections of bird fanciers. They’re now found widely across the country with the biggest populations in and around the larger towns and cities. The Mallard poses a confirmed risk of crossbreeding with our indigenous African Black Duck and Yellow-billed Duck, diluting the genetic purity of these native species.

What is interesting is that these species are not problematic in their natural habitats and ranges, and only get their “bad rap” due to humans introducing them to places they don’t belong. In the same way some species that are native to South Africa have become invasive in other parts of the world – the blue kurper (Mozambique tilapia) for instance also counts among the 100 worst invaders in the world.

 

Green-backed Camaroptera

Camaroptera brachyura

The Green-backed Camaroptera, also called the Bleating Camaroptera for its easily recognizable call, is found widely over sub-Saharan Africa in dense vegetation ranging from thickets in savannas to forests, where they feed almost exclusively on insects and other invertebrates caught in the undergrowth. In South Africa they’re found in the Lowveld and escarpment of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, through most of Kwazulu-Natal and as far south as the Garden Route along the Indian Ocean coast.

Adult Green-backed Camaropteras are usually encountered in pairs – they’re monogamous and breed in spring and summer. Their nests are ball-shaped formations of leaves held together by spider webs and fibres, built by both members of the pair. Parents take turns to incubate the clutch of 2-4 eggs over a 2 week period and both parents provide food for the hatchlings at the nest until they fledge about 2 weeks after hatching. Fully grown they measure around 13cm in length and weigh only about 11g.

The IUCN lists the Green-backed Camaroptera as being of least concern.

Southern African Rock Python

Python sebae natalensis

The largest snake occurring in Africa, and one of the biggest in the world, the African Rock Python is an impressive creature. Adult females are quite a bit heavier built than males and weigh around 55kg on average, attaining a length of around 4.8m though there are reports of snakes longer than 6m.

African Rock Pythons occur in a variety of habitats, from semi-arid scrub to riverine forests, and are fond of submerging in pools of water to ambush their prey. Adults will take prey as large as antelope and primates, constricting their prey before swallowing it whole. While it happens only very rarely, African Rock Pythons are capable of attacking and killing humans. They love to sunbathe on exposed rocks, especially after eating.

Females lay between 30 and 100 eggs, the size of tennis balls, in disused animal burrows, caves or termite mounds, and then curl around the clutch to protect them until they hatch after a 2-3 month incubation. She may even stay with the hatchlings until about two weeks after they’ve hatched. They may live from 12 to 27 years old in the wild.

Some authorities, including the IUCN, consider the southern race, P. s. natalenis, to be a separate species from the northern race (P. s. sebae). The Southern African Rock Python occurs from Kenya and the DRC southwards to South Africa, where they’re found in pockets of all provinces except the Western Cape and is considered a vulnerable and protected species. The IUCN considers the Southern African Rock Python to be of least concern. The Northern African Rock Python in turn is found from Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia to Senegal. Due to a decreasing population the IUCN considers it to be near-threatened.

Long-billed Crombec

Sylvietta rufescens

An endearing and confiding little bird with a peculiarly short tail, the Long-billed Crombec is usually encountered singly or in pairs as they actively search for insects, seeds and fruit among the leaves and branches of trees and shrubs, often joining other kinds of insectivorous birds in feeding parties. They inhabit a wide range of wooded habitats, from thorny thickets along drainage lines in the arid Karoo to various woodland associations. They also readily venture into parks and suburban gardens.

Long-billed Crombecs form territorial, monogamous pairs and nest in the months of spring and summer. Their bag-shaped nests, hung from a branch and constructed of spider web, fibres, leaves, grass and wood chips, take at least a week to build. Clutches count 1-3 eggs and are incubated by both parents in turns over a 2 week period. The chicks leave the nest when they’re two weeks old and usually become independent of their parents around ten days after fledging. Adults weigh around 11g.

The Long-billed Crombec has a wide distribution in South Africa, occurring in every province of our country. North of our borders they can be found as far as Angola and the southern DRC. The IUCN considers the Long-billed Crombec to be of least concern.

The Birthday Boy, The Angry Lions, and the Sweni Wilderness Trail

For almost as long as he’s been able to talk, Joubert expressed a wish to go walking in the Kruger National Park. The challenge with that however was that children younger than twelve years old are not allowed to take part in the guided walks on offer, due to the danger and distances covered (and, I suppose in some cases, short attention spans).

However, at short notice we were made aware of availability on the Sweni Wilderness Trail – the most popular of the trails in Kruger – running from the 18th of August 2021 and, with that being Joubert’s 12 birthday it seemed a blessing straight out of heaven, too good to pass up even if it meant he’d have to miss a week of school…

Unfortunately work commitments meant Marilize wouldn’t be able to join us, so it was just the two de Wet boys that departed Pretoria on the 15th of August for our wilderness adventure. Over the past few weeks we showed you most of what we saw and experienced in the three days leading up to the trail as we traversed the southern reaches of the Kruger Park and then made our slow way up to Satara on the 18th of August.

It is at Satara Rest Camp that the ranger-guides meet their guests at the start of the Sweni Wilderness Trail, every Wednesday and Sunday. Having been introduced to our fellow trailists as well as rangers Orbet and Rhulani who’d be guiding the trail, and with all our luggage stowed in the trailer, it was finally time to get onto the open safari vehicle and head into the wilderness. With some wonderful sightings along the way it took us quite some time to cover the distance between Satara and the Sweni Trails camp, and so it is already almost dark when we arrive. Finally Joubert’s wish was coming true, and on his birthday no less.

Guests spend three nights in a rustic, remote base camp on the southern bank of the Sweni stream, from where they are taken out into the wilderness on four guided walking excursions before being brought back to Satara at the end of the trail. Joubert and I were allocated the sleeping hut in the furthest corner of the camp. After settling in we all could sit down to the delicious cooking of James, the camp caretaker and chef, rounding off our meal with a slice of birthday cake before Orbet and Rhulani made us aware of the rules of walking in the wilderness in the days to come. Lions roaring nearby lulled us to sleep that night. What would tomorrow hold?

At sunrise, and after enjoying hot coffee and rusks, we were ready to set out exploring. A beautiful clear morning forewarned that it was going to be a hot day, so we made sure we had plenty to drink in our backpacks, in addition to the fare we’d be enjoying whilst having a picnic somewhere in the bush later.

A short drive westwards out of camp, and in the direction from where the lions were roaring the previous evening, brought us to the area where our ranger-guides determined we’d be walking this first morning. Our walk followed the course of the Sweni stream where the tracks of numerous animals around the remaining pools of water was a sure sign that we’d be encountering lots of wildlife on our morning amble.

When we came across the lion pride feeding on their wildebeest kill, I was surprised at how close we were to them. Surprised and excited, and entirely unafraid. A good chance at having close encounters with lions while on foot is after all the reason why Sweni is the most sought-after wilderness trail offered in Kruger, and the rangers are experts at keeping their guests safe under such circumstances. One of the lioness were keeping a calm eye on the approaching humans, while the others – three more females, one male and seven cubs – were feeding entirely oblivious to our presence. That was until the male looked up. When he saw the humans just a stone’s throw from where he and his pride were feasting the great beast gave a mighty growl – and fled for his life! This sent the cubs fleeing in every direction while the females were immediately ready to go to war to protect their cubs and their prey. While one female slinked away to go round up the cubs, and the male turned around after a hundred meter dash to stare at us from  a distance, the three remaining females left us with no confusion that we were not welcome at their breakfast table. The intensity of their growls was like thunder rumbling from inside the earth; you could feel it resonating in your chest. With lightning in their eyes, their snarls exposing their deadly weaponry, ears pulled back and tails flicking from side to side there was only one way for us to go. Backwards. Slowly. Don’t turn your back on them, or they will charge. And when they do charge, stand still and face them. When she stops, you move backwards again. Slowly, without any sudden movements. And without turning your back! An amazing experience I will never forget. And I don’t believe Joubert will forget it either. No fear, just an amazing sense of respect and gratefulness for being there in the moment.

After the exciting encounter with the lions we continue along the Sweni, criss-crossing it and its tributaries at several points, enjoying a well deserved picnic at a beautiful turn in the stream and just soaking in the wildness around us.

Just before we arrive back at the vehicle, and with the sun sitting very high and very hot already, we sneak up on a herd of elephants sleeping in the shade of a tree.

The hot midday hours we spent in camp (after enjoying the delicious lunch James welcomed us back with). The waterhole in front of camp is a magnet for thirsty animals, there’s a lot of habituated birds attracted to the birdbath and there was even a brief appearance by a good-sized African Rock Python in one of the large trees next to the river, meaning there was more than enough entertainment to keep us occupied until the afternoon outing.

On the way to the area where we’d be walking in the afternoon, our guides took a detour to the feasting lions we encountered in the morning. They were still in the same spot, and still gnawing on the remains of their wildebeest prize. We didn’t venture off the vehicle this time, enjoying this meeting from even closer and much safer quarters.

The afternoon walks cover a shorter distance, and take in a pleasing spot from which the African sunset can be enjoyed with something cold in hand. While we didn’t cover as much ground in the afternoon we were again treated to an encounter with lions – this time a mating pair some distance away – as well as lots of other animals and inspiring scenery. From atop the rocky outcrop where we sat enjoying the sunset we also realised that the mating pair of lions were in fact a threesome – two males attending to one female in oestrus.

We arrive back at camp around 7pm that evening, but not before we enjoy some thrilling night time sightings along the way – and of course we paid “our” lions another visit!

The next morning is a lot chiller than the previous, and it soon clouds over. Our route takes along the Nungwini stream and past a natural fountain. Despite the inclement weather we again have wonderful encounters with a wide range of animals, including a lone male lion, elephant bulls, giraffes and honey badgers, and by the time the vehicle comes into sight again I’m sure all of us still had a good few kilometers in the tank.

Back at camp for lunch and (if you were so inclined) a siesta, a wildebeest bull harassing cows around the waterhole had Joubert happily clicking away, and later the little birds at the birdbath received his full attention.

On the way to our sundowner spot, Orbet and Rhulani took us to a beautiful stretch of water along the Nungwini stream, just a short walk away. We weren’t there very long, when we had to vacate our prime spot at the water’s edge to allow an approaching herd of elephants to have right of way.

Ted’s Place, a cliff in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains looking out over the plains of the central Kruger Park with the course of the Sweni River snaking through the scene, was a fitting location to reflect on a memorable trail before heading back to base camp, where a pair of honey badgers were waiting for us to return.

It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to the Sweni Trail’s base camp that final morning, and the drizzly weather certainly reflected our mood. Aside from a wet family of spotted hyenas, there wasn’t a lot of animals to be seen along the road back to Satara.

After saying goodbye to Orbet, Rhulani, James and the other guests that shared our experiences in the wilderness in those three short days, it was time for Joubert and me to head for home… Leaving through Orpen Gate really was our only option if we wanted to beat the government COVID-curfew, though we delayed our departure just a smidgeon by detouring past Muzandzeni Picnic Site and Talamati Bushveld Camp.

We were already quite some distance out the gate at Orpen, and passing one of the many game farms along the road, when we saw a leopard next to the fence of one of these farms. While we were still despondent about no longer being in Kruger this unexpected find made us realise all over again that we were still in Africa, which means we’re more blessed than 6.5-billion other people on earth…