Category Archives: The World around Us

Furry Caterpillars Congregating

I went for my usual walk this morning, accompanied by Saartjie (pronounced Sarkie) the Border Terrier that is almost like another grandchild when we visit Mossel Bay, being the darling of our daughter’s family and right across the road from our house in the golf estate where we are spending the lockdown period.

Saartjie loves a walk around the estate and insists on hugging the perimeter of the fairways which are mostly lined with dense bush – she has power in her little legs that defies belief, dragging me across open stretches to the closest bush, then sniffing and poking her nose into the bush as we walk.

On the way back, passing yet another bush, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a twig that seemed unnaturally hairy and on closer inspection saw it was covered in a layer of small hairy caterpillars – clearly some form of lepidoptera but I have not been able to put a name to it.

They have definitely not heard about the need for social distancing!

Fun in the Forest – Fungi, Frogs and Fangs

You would think that a walk in the forest, with the intent to do some casual birding, would be a safe, relaxing pursuit …. despite having grown up with fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and the like where all kinds of monsters lurked among the trees. Well, that’s what I thought when we went on a day trip in January this year to the Woodville “Big Tree”, near Hoekwil in the southern Cape and I persuaded Gerda to walk the trail through the pristine forest that surrounds the Tree.

Alert readers (that’s all of you, I’m sure) may remember my story of the ghostly dove in this same forest -(https://mostlybirding.com/2018/02/06/into-the-wilderness-a-forest-a-big-tree-and-a-ghostly-dove/) – I was expecting a similar experience of secretive birds with soft calls, but as it turned out, the birds were scarce. And yet there were plenty of other interesting, even exciting things that had us stopping frequently along the trail ……

Fungi

The forest holds a remarkable variety of fungi of different shapes and colours, some of which I photographed – unfortunately I have no idea of their names as this is one part of nature that I have no expertise in at all (and I don’t own a field guide). Nevertheless I was fascinated by their variety

Here are two in one photo – the whitish ones shaped like funnels and the large flat brown one to the left of the photo.

Another photo of the whitish funnel shaped fungi, this time with my hand included to give an idea of size

Another example of a large disc shaped fungus – about the size of a large dinner plate

And lastly this delicate umbrella shaped fungus – it has the appearance of the mushrooms we eat, but this one could easily be of the poisonous variety. It was about the size of a large mug

Frogs

Well, frog singular, actually – it leapt into the undergrowth as we approached and I was just able to get a partly concealed photo as it did its best to remain hidden from view. I am hesitant to put a name to it (but we can call it Freddie the Frog if you like) as my frogs reference book is under lockdown in Pretoria while we are likewise under lockdown, but in Mossel Bay. However an App that I downloaded points to it being a Raucous Toad (Sclerophrys rangeri) based on colour, markings and distribution

(Possible) Raucous Toad

Fangs

The major excitement of the day was provided by none other than a dark green, almost black, snake that slithered across the track a few metres in front of us. It was a Boomslang – known to be docile rather than aggressive – but scary nonetheless. It was around 1,5m long and I was happy to grab a photo or two from what I felt was a safe position on the opposite side of the track to where it was weaving its way through the leafy green undergrowth. After a couple of heart-pumping minutes trying to follow its progress, it disappeared from view and we continued on our way along the forest path, now a tad more alert for any movement around us.

Feathered friends

Birds were scarce, other than in the vicinity of the Big Tree itself and, as expected in forest habitat, it was all about the calls – as we commenced the walk, there were some calls that I could not immediately identify, but I eventually decided it had to be Olive Bushshrikes, which have a variety of calls.

On the other hand, the shrill “Willie” calls of Sombre Greenbuls were more obvious, their calls following us all the way along the walk. Black-headed Oriole and Terrestial Brownbul each called once during our walk and the cry of a distant African Fish-Eagle confirmed its presence – probably at a dam beyond the forest perimeter. On the way out, at last, a Cape Batis hopping about in the branches actually showed itself, making our day in the forest just a little more pleasurable.

Flora

And for good measure (and the chance for one more alliterative heading) this flower caught my eye – I believe its name is Scadoxus puniceus, commonly known as the paintbrush lily

Which all goes to show that birding just has to be the best pastime – you never know what is around the next corner.

I hope that the current lockdown period finds you in a safe and comfortable place …….

Shelldon Goes on Holiday

My name is Shelldon and I’m a tortoise who loves travelling – slowly, it has to be said, but I get there in the end.

This past holiday season I managed to get to a few places, mostly in the Western Cape – funny thing though, I kept bumping into an older human who seemed to be following me around, but I guess that was just a coincidence. I knew it was the same person because of the binoculars he had around his neck every time – I mean, who walks around with binos hanging from his neck all day?

Anyway here are a few of my holiday photos ……

Here I am in Karoo National Park, on my way to have nap. Not sure who this is following me ……

Karoo National Park

I made it to Mossel Bay after a long trip and was pleased to find a tasty and colourful lunch laid on – very considerate of these humans to plant such delicious fare

Mossel Bay

I found my way to Gamka Eco-Estate near Calitzdorp and took a late afternoon walk alongside the river, albeit dry at that time

Calitzdorp

And here I am west of Mossel Bay, just pottering about at the side of the road

Mossel Bay west

Same spot and there’s the car of that older human with the binos that I mentioned earlier – guess he was looking for something as he wandered around for a while aiming his binos at goodness knows what. I mean what could be more interesting than a lively tortoise?

Mossel Bay west

Here’s looking forward to my next trip ….

A Swim to Remember

It was going to be just another late afternoon swim at Santos beach, a favourite in Mossel Bay for the visitors that stream into the town over the holiday season, stretching its resources to the limit. Late afternoon is usually when the crowds have thinned out, the sun is less fierce and you can actually swim without bumping into others.

By the time we got to the beach on this particular afternoon, it was cloudy with a cool breeze and a light spatter of rain – driving there, the usual comments of “it’s raining, we are going to get wet” were being bandied about, raising a few chuckles. It all worked in our favour as, by the time we had parked and walked across the cool sand to deposit our towels and gear near the water, there was but a handful of people in the water and we joined them eagerly.

The sea was calm, quite chilly, but we were soon in and enjoying the refreshing conditions, not expecting the natural extravaganza that was to unfold before us.

I noticed some terns gathering further out and plunge diving, so I guessed that there were fish around. Soon a few gulls joined the terns, settling on the sea in the same spot. Then we saw dark forms in the water quite close to where we were swimming, the forms changing shape as we watched, moving about like black ghosts.

Kelp Gull

Suddenly, a large, black, shiny seal surfaced nearby, causing a missed heartbeat or two….. it’s well known that these waters are favoured by large sharks which have a predeliction for these meaty creatures. We watched it move about nearby, then swim into deeper waters, half expecting a shark to rise out of the water and grab it with mighty jaws.

There was clearly food available for predators and seabirds alike – the numbers of terns and gulls was increasing by the minute, literally as we watched from our waist-deep position in the water. Moving closer to shore, until we felt a tad safer, we watched enthralled as the bird numbers grew further. Terns were plunge diving less than 10 metres from us and when the dark shapes we had seen earlier rose to the surface and magically turned into a mass of tiny silver fish, the terns took it in turn to fly in, dip down gracefully to scoop a fish or two, then fly off and let the next bird in line repeat the process.

Swift Tern (Thalasseus Bergii)

The Swift (Greater Crested) Terns were so adept at this that many emerged with 3 or 4 of the fish held sideways in their bills – much like the famous Puffin images that one sees. A fisherman informed us that the fish were anchovies – something was causing them to rise to the surface, creating a brief maelstrom of silver bodies and turning the surface of the sea into a frothy jumble. The terns were queueing up to take part in the bonanza, like tiny planes coming in to land on an aircraft carrier.

Swift Tern (Thalasseus Bergii)

By now the shoals of anchovies were so close to shore that some were being caught by the small waves and washed up onto the sand, where they were left in tiny desparation until kids came to scoop them up and throw them back in the water – their lucky day, except if they were taken in the seabird feeding frenzy of course.

As we slowly left the water, picked up our belongings and headed to where the car was parked, there were perhaps a couple of hundred seabirds filling the sky above the sea. More proof, if needed at all, that amazing experiences happen when least expected – this one will remain with me for ever.

Footnote : I did not have my camera with me, something which I initially regretted as I could have taken some memorable shots, but thinking about it I decided it was for the best – not everything has to be recorded digitally – that’s why we have a brain…

Fire Lily

Nature is full of surprises – more so when you come across something amazing when you least expect it. We were on a holiday season outing from Mossel Bay with friends Koos and Rianda, which included a lunch at one of our favourite spots – Eight Bells Mountain Inn. This is an old-fashioned family resort located in the lower part of the Robinson Pass between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, with well-developed gardens and a very peaceful ambience.

After a filling lunch of Ostrich burgers and apple pie, we ventured further up the pass, stopping at a few spots where the gravel shoulder widens to allow you to pull off and enjoy the views across the hills and down to the coast in the distance. At each stop we checked the surroundings for any sign of bird life, hoping for some of the special species that inhabit the mountain slopes, but were a little disappointed to find very few birds.

At the last stop before turning around to head back down the pass, we had a good look around and found a few birds but nothing too unusual. However, while scanning the lower mountain slopes in the distance, I noticed what looked like red flowers standing out against the green growth and my binoculars confirmed this.

We just could not resist getting closer for a better view and perhaps a photo, even though we had only our cellphones with us, so Koos and I set out across the slopes through the low bush, more or less following the path of the baboons we had seen a few minutes earlier. The results of this effort were certainly worth thetrouble as we reached the first of the flowers – bright red in colour and beautifully shaped.

Later, Gerda consulted her fynbos books and was able to identify the plant species as one of the Fire Lilies – so called due to their rapid flowering response to natural bush fires. This particular plant species is commonly known as the George Lily (Cyrtanthus elatus) with a limited natural distribution along the southern coast of the Western Cape, but is now grown world-wide for its cut flowers.

So here’s a photo or two – one of the flower and one of the incredible view from the same spot.

The view with Mossel Bay in the distance

As a bonus we found the sought after Victorin’s Warbler at a spot further down the pass, the same place where I have found it on two previous occasions. As usual, it played hide-and-seek amongst the bushes while calling loudly and constantly, frustrating our attempts to get a decent view of the bird despite being about 3 metres away from us!

At the Bird Feeder

It never fails to amaze me how quickly birds of the seedeater variety react to my replenishing the feeder in our garden, usually descending on it en masse within half an hour of filling it.

This happened again recently after I had been away and had not filled the feeder for some weeks – the first birds were there in no time at all. I suspect they “do the rounds” of all potential feeding sites each day, otherwise how would they know? And there must be some system of communication that informs other birds of different species of the presence of food.

Whatever the case, it is always interesting to see which species turn up – often the same mix but sometimes a non-regular puts in an appearance.

Here is a selection of the birds that came to the feeder in the space of a couple of days recently –

Sparrows

Two of the four South African Sparrows are regulars in the garden – the House Sparrow, despite its name, does not come to the garden, preferring to scrounge for scraps at the local shopping centre’s parking area

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie)
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (Passer diffusus / Gryskopmossie)
Cape Sparrow (Female) and Grey-headed Sparrow

Finches

Both of the Amadina finches are fairly regular visitors and the males provide a splash of colour with their vivid red “cut-throat” and head. They also feed on insects and termites where they can

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Cut-throat Finch (Female) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Red-headed Finch (Male) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)
Red-headed Finch (Female) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)

Weavers

There are four weaver species in the residential estate that we live in, thanks mainly to the two small dams that form part of it. Two of them are regular visitors to the garden, being Southern Masked Weaver and Village Weaver, while the Cape Weaver is very seldom seen in the garden and the Thick-billed Weaver not at all

The regular weavers are, at first glance, quite similar but have a few distinguishing features – the black forehead of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the yellow forehead of the Village Weaver, the plainer mottled back of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the heavily blotched back of the village Weaver (not visible in these photos)

Southern Masked Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus velatus race tahatali / Swartkeelgeelvink)
Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

The photo below shows the difference in the forehead colours

Village and Southern Masked Weavers

Looking at the photos I had taken, I noticed that the Village Weaver had an elongated bill – this is an abnormality that occurs in various bird species. This individual did not seem to have a problem feeding

Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

Lovebirds

Over the last 3 to 4 years a feral population of Lovebirds has established a presence in our residential estate, probably being cage bird escapees originally. They most closely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird that occurs in Zambia but are quite hybridised, with some birds being almost entirely yellow. I am split between appreciating their bright colouring and disliking the fact that feral birds are spreading in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria

Feral Lovebird – Yellow-collared/Black-cheeked

Mannikins

These cute little birds appear in small flocks, twittering away happily

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata / Gewone fret)

Which all goes to show you don’t have to travel far from home to find interesting birds

Australian Adventure – Going Walkabout in Sale Town Centre

I love walking and have always found that it is by far the best way to explore a new town or city – you may not get to see everything they tell you about in the guide books but it lets you get closer to the soul of a place, discovering little gems as you go, watching people going about their business, seeing all the many ordinary things that make a town what it is.

So when Gerda and Liesl went shopping one afternoon. I took the opportunity to tag along, but only as far as the main shopping street where I left them and started my random walk.

The main shopping street is called Raymond Street and is lined with a variety of “small town” shops along both sides with the road reduced to a minimum size to allow maximum pedestrian space and room for parking and landscaping.

Sale map

I started by walking up to an intersection where a tall brick clock tower stands – there I found a second-hand book store to browse in and came away half an hour later with a very readable novel for $8 (R80). From there I meandered around the block past the shopping centre and came upon my first surprise – an old Railway Signal Box building, looking spick-and-span but rather forlorn and out of place across the road from the shopping centre parking area.

Clock Tower, Sale

Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

I later found it was erected in 1888 on the site of the original Railway Station, which was demolished in 1983 to make way for the shopping centre. The Signal Box, railway gates and 2 signals were left as a reminder.

Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

Wandering further, I passed the Catholic School with its neat brick buildings and came to the busy main road through Sale, which I crossed. On the other side, signage pointing to “Port of Sale” piqued my curiosity – carrying the name “Port” implies being located at the sea or at least on a major waterway, neither of which apply to Sale, so what was this about?

I had read about the Sale Canal but hadn’t absorbed the details – later I read up more on the subject and found that the pioneers of the area, seeing the advantage of access to the Gippsland Lakes, cut the 2,5 km long canal which links the town to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes, establishing Sale as a busy port for steamers plying the 400 square kms of the lakes system.

Port of Sale, Victoria

Port of Sale, Victoria

Port of Sale, Victoria

Now it’s a dock for pleasure boats and the precinct has been developed into an attractive spot for picnics and leisure activities. I wasn’t planning to bird so had left my binos at home, but sight of some waterbirds on the water had me using my backup plan – the telephoto lens on my camera which brought them digitally closer for ID purposes – Australasian Grebe as it turned out.

Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria

Eurasian Coot, Sale, Victoria

Next, I was drawn to the new-looking Port of Sale civic centre, got several pamphlets from the Visitor Centre and did a quick tour of the Art Gallery, before heading back towards the town centre.

Civic Centre, Sale

Art Gallery, Sale

On the way I passed a few older buildings – the Court House, Victory Hall and some charming houses that have been beautifully maintained with their Victorian style architecture.

Court House, Sale

Court House, Sale

Victoria Hall, Sale

Old House, now offices

Old house, Sale

Seeing Sale’s Cinema took me back to Saturday mornings at the Scala cinema in Cape Town back in the ….. oops almost gave my age away. Anyway, it was quite a long time ago.

Cinema, Sale, Victoria

By now it was close to 2 hours since I had left the girls and I met them for coffee at the Centre Bakery, housed in a tiny old church in Cunningham Street, concluding a lovely walk through this most civilised town

A House Abandoned, A Mysterious Shoe

While atlasing along the back roads of the Little Karoo south of the small town of Van Wyksdorp, I was drawn to an abandoned house not far from the gravel road, all on its own and looking picturesque in the soft, filtered light of a cloud-covered sky.

I just could not resist taking a few photos with my iPhone and walked up the short slope to where the house stood, picking my way through low bushes and across the stony ground.

All went well as I carefully made my way around the old house, choosing my angles while stepping around the rubble, bent wire and various other remnants of a once simple but proud home, which was probably occupied by workers on a nearby farm.

I had done a full circuit of the house and was rounding the last corner when I was stopped in my tracks by what lay on the ground, the only real sign of the previous habitants. I picked it up to make sure it was what I thought it was – indeed, a small child’s orthopaedic shoe with steel leg brace, left behind as a poignant reminder of whoever had lived and played here. At a guess the shoe would have fitted a child of no more than 3 or 4 years old.

I could hardly concentrate on my birding for the next while as my mind conjured up all kinds of questions on what I had found – who did the shoe belong to, why did they leave, where are they now, why did they leave this one shoe and nothing else?

I’ll leave you to ponder these and other questions yourself.