Monday, 9 May 2016

Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala)

I had an awesome visitor this morning, a Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala). We don't often see them, mostly just after a veld fire, when they will snack on some unfortunate crispy tit-bits left in the wake of the fire. But this morning he was close to my garden fence and, as previously, didn't seem that perturbed about me taking some photos.

They mostly hunt near water, but will also hunt well away from water, taking large insects, small mammals, and birds. It will wait motionless for its prey, or slowly stalk its victim. It's fascinating to watch, but his patience long outlives mine, as he can stand motionless for longer than 10 minutes and by that time I think he's fallen asleep! Both sexes are alike, so I have no idea whether this is a male or a female.

Monogamous and usually colonial, they breed in small, mixed-species heronries. The male calls from a perch to attract a mate, raising its head and giving a loud yelp, sometimes extending its bill vertically as it does so. I've only heard that sound once, and I was totally thrilled!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

African Striped Skink (Trachylepsis striata)

This Striped Skink was enjoying the sun on the wall of my bathroom court-yard garden and she was heavily pregnant (pic taken last October). Mating occurs between October and November, with a gestation period are 90 to 100 days, so I presume she was to give birth within a month or two, usually a single litter of 3 – 9 babies. Growth is relatively fast, sexual maturity is reached in 15 – 18 months. Last summer, my Skinks had several litters in my bathroom court-yard garden, much to my delight.

The African Striped Skink (Trachylepsis striata), commonly called the Striped Skink, is a lizard in the skink family (Scincidae). The species is widespread in Southern Africa, including extreme southern Angola and Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and parts of central and eastern South Africa.

Skinks typically seek out sheltered environments out of the elements, such as thick foliage, underneath man-made structures, and ground-level buildings such as garages and first-floor apartments. When two or more skinks are seen in a small area, it is typical to find a nest nearby. Skinks are considered to be territorial and often are seen standing in front of or "guarding" their nest area.

Two males squaring it off, ready to defend their territory

This skink is brown or bronze coloured with two yellowish stripes that run lengthwise on either side of the spine. Both sexes grow to a length of 25 cm.1 Their tails are often missing due to predators.

Monday, 18 April 2016

To bless this kind earth... and yourself

Now that we're over the worst of summer (and it really was the pits, with extreme heat-waves, temps in the 40℃'s and drought) and had some lovely rain to break the heat and drought, I'm enjoying time outside in my garden again. I just get absolutely cranky, and listless, when it gets that hot, and can't seem to get around to doing anything outside. But as we all know, we NEED to get outside, we need to spend time in nature, otherwise life becomes unbearable. Well, for me anyway. My plants and the birds in my garden are part of my family, and I feel as though I've lost track of what's going on in their lives. I just did the bare necessities during that heat, filling the water bowls and feed tables and the rest, like watering the garden, was left up to my trusty garden manger, Chrissie. I even thought of telling her to chat to the birds, because I wasn't getting round to it!

But my garden doesn't seem to have minded my absence. It's like a jungle out there after all the rain. Nature's revenge to neglect is that, when left undisturbed and given time, she will reclaim anything built by humanity. So basically, no need to feel guilty here, life winds a way.

 There's a pathway somewhere in there, totally covered now by Bulbine and Sword ferns.

Even the birds don't seem to have noticed my absence. No excitement or fluttering or welcoming twittering when I started spending time in the garden again. Maybe they were even pleased about not being constantly stalked by my camera. Eating and bathing and nesting carried on as usual, making me feel a bit unwanted...


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Hedgehog lore and legends - Snakes alive!

Are hedgehogs in danger from snakes?

It's not surprising that such a strange-looking little animal as a hedgehog should be the subject of some extraordinary legends and beliefs. Strange hedgehog activities such as running in circles and 'self-anointing' (smearing their spines with their own frothy saliva), are definitely fact, not fiction, through we don't know why they do these things.

But there are also a number of intriguing legends about hedgehogs, most of them dating back to the distant past.

The myth, particularly prevalent in South Africa, that snakes have been found with hedgehogs in their stomaches, is a long stretch of the imagination. It would be quite impossible for a snake, no matter how big, to swallow a rolled-up hedgehog.

A hedgehog under attack from a snake would immediate roll up and protect itself with its bristling spines. If the snake persists, it is likely to damage itself severely on the spines, and the hedgehog may seize the opportunity to sink its teeth into the snake and roll up again. In the end, the hedgehog often makes a meal of its former enemy!


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Have we evolved for the better?

The animal kingdom is filled with almost an infinite variety of creatures. Scientists discover new species and sub species every year. Each one is a wonder onto itself and one could labour for years to uncover its secrets. It is an unfortunate fact that the closest that most of us get to wildlife is through bars at the zoo. Our urban lifestyle has the effect of cutting us off from the glorious world of the animal kingdom.

Every animal has a lesson to teach us that we are not hearing. We may think that we have evolved, the question is, at what cost?

A Butterfly Life
As the caterpillar sleeps inside its cocoon

Like a baby wrapped in her blanket 

She waits and waits until she blooms 
Into a beautiful new life 

With wings of deep sapphire blue

She takes her first flight, soaring high
Into the clear cornflower sky

She flutters over to perch on the pink flowers 

To sip the sweet nectar of pure gold 

But this butterfly is daintier than a ballerina

Like a leaf in the wind, but controlled

So delicate and fragile

But so free, so free this butterfly will always be.


Sunday, 7 February 2016

BULLFROG at my pond - 1am 10 Nov 2015

Image from Milan Zygmunt 500px

The most wonderful sound to wake up to - the call of a Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus) at my pond! I haven’t heard one for years, so I immediately jumped out of bed (at 1am!), grabbed the torch and rushed to the pond. It took me quite a while to find him - first of all he heard me, so kept quiet for a while, but then continued - and secondly the torch light was rather dim. But eventually I found him. There he was! Cleverly hidden under a large rock in the shallows. I did have my camera with me, but the pics showed nothing in the darkness. So I looked for him the next morning and did find him (I in fact found two), but he was not nearby the size of the pics below - a youngster, about 10cm (4”) long and the minute he saw me, he left the safety of the rock he was hiding under and swam to deeper waters. So once again, no pic. It’s hard to believe that such a small chap can have such a booming voice!

The large rock (top right) under which he was hiding

Their loud booming calls (to attract a female) can be heard for miles and the first time you hear it (for me it was in the early 80’s at my previous wildlife pond), you’re not sure whether to investigate or to flee!

This species occurs widely in South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, extending north to southern Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya. One of the most adaptable amphibians on earth, Pyxicephalus can tolerate some of the harshest environments in Africa. Certain areas of their range can be completely dry for years at a time, and can reach surface temperatures over 100 degrees F, and drop to below freezing during the winter. Protected in an underground estivation chamber, the frogs wait it out until more suitable conditions occur. When the rainy season begins (usually November), they come out of their chamber, occupy temporary floodplains and rapidly drying puddles scattered around the African countryside, just for a few short days or a couple of weeks.

I am totally thrilled that they have taken up residence in my garden!

Image from BioLib

It is the largest amphibian found in southern Africa. Males can reach a snout-vent length of 24,5 cm and a mass of 1.4 kg

It is common in many of the southern parts of its range, it has apparently declined in South Africa, especially in Gauteng Province, but it is still locally common in some places. Boycott (2001) declared the species to be extinct in Swaziland. It seems to be very uncommon in the northern parts of its range, with very few confirmed records from Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya (though this might in part be due to identification problems)..

Photo African bullfrog SA Reptiles
It is a species of drier savannahs. It is fossorial for most of the year, remaining buried in cocoons. They emerge at the start of the rains, and breed in shallow, temporary waters in pools, pans and ditches. They are active by day during the breeding season. They can tolerate habitat alteration, but not urbanization.

Male Pyxicephalus adspersus can reach lengths of more than 9 inches and weigh over 2 pounds. Females are much smaller. Males are olive in colour, with yellow to orange on the throat region. Females are olive to light brown with cream to white throat areas. Both sexes have ridges running laterally on the dorsal surface. Juveniles are much more colourful than adults. Several white to yellow lines run down the animal's dorsal area on an overall mottled background. Both these dorsal lines, and mottling disappear with age. Adults have a spade like metatarsal tubercle on each hind foot to aid in digging. The front toes are thick and blunt with no webbing, the rear toes are slightly webbed. These frogs have massive skeletons with extremely large, heavy skulls. The bottom jaw has three odontodes which act as huge teeth, and are used in restraining struggling prey.

During the breeding season, males will congregate in large groups. Much aggression occurs in these groups with larger males pushing, pursuing, biting, even consuming smaller males. The large males will push their way to the centre of the group, establish and defend a small area and begin calling. The call lasts about a second and can be described as a deep low-pitched whoop. The females will hear this call and swim underwater to the centre of the group, to avoid the smaller males and surface in the defended area of a larger male. As they surface, they are persuaded until finally being seized by a male. Amplexus occurs in shallow water to allow the pair to stand on the bottom. Eggs are fertilized above the water's surface. As many as 4000 eggs may be released. The males exhibit parental care. Males will watch over and defend the eggs which hatch in two days. After hatching, the tadpoles will feed on each other, as well as on small fish and invertebrates. Defending males will continue to watch over the tadpoles which will metamorphose within three weeks.

These frogs have a short active period depending on the rainy season. The majority of their lives are spent estivating underground. Adults will burrow underground using the metatarsal tubercle on their powerful hind legs. Juveniles lack this tubercle and must resort to utilising an existing burrow made by some other animal. They slough off several layers of their skin's epidermal cells which form a tough cocoon. Most of their bodily functions slow or shut down all together. This period of dormancy may last a year or more. During the rainy season frogs will sit partially buried with the nose exposed, taking advantage of any smaller animal unfortunate enough to pass by

Food Habits
Pyxicephalus adspersus is carnivorous and will consume nearly any animal that can be overpowered and can fit in their huge mouths. Cannibalism is a common occurrence beginning the moment they metamorphose. Many of their first meals will be a member of the same egg mass. Other prey items may include invertebrates, other species of frogs, reptiles, small mammals, and even small birds. The tongue is folded over inside the mouth. To capture a potential meal, it will drop its lower jaw with considerable force, causing the tongue to flip over and out of the animal's mouth, seizing the prey

Did you know?
Certain areas of their range can be completely dry for years at a time, and can reach surface temperatures over 38 degrees C, and drop to below freezing during the winter. Protected in an underground estivation chamber, the frogs wait it out until more suitable conditions occur. In fact, the majority of their lives are spent estivating underground. They slough off several layers of their skin's epidermal cells which form a tough cocoon, which prevents the evaporation of body fluids. Most of their bodily functions slow or shut down all together. They absorb water stored in their bladder. This period of dormancy may last a year or more. When the rainy season begins, they occupy temporary floodplains and rapidly drying puddles scattered around the African countryside.Males have two breeding strategies, depending on their age: Younger males congregate in a small area, perhaps only 1 or 2 square meters of shallow water. The larger males occupy the centre of these breeding arenas or leks and attempt to chase off other males. In fact they fight, causing injury and even killing one another. The dominant male attempt to prevent other males from participating in breeding. A female approaches the group of males by swimming along at the surface until she is within a few meters of the group. Then the female dives to avoid the smaller males and surfaces in the defended area of a larger male in the middle of the group. She is soon grasped by one of the larger males, and mating ensures. Most of the females are mated by the dominant male in his territory.

The major threat through most of its range is harvesting of frogs for local consumption, which is believed to be responsible for some population declines. In South Africa, breeding habitat has been lost due to urbanisation. This species is sometimes found in the international pet trade but at levels that do not currently constitute a major threat.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
African bullfrogs are eaten by humans, and have been collected for the commercial pet trade.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Because these frogs are such resilient animals, they might potentially have negative effects on the surrounding ecosystem if introduced by humans beyond their natural range.

Listed as Least Concern because, although it is losing breeding habitat in places due to urbanisation, and it is also eaten in parts of its range, it has a wide distribution, is tolerant of a broad range of habitats and has a presumed large population.
(Much of this info from Animal Diversity Web)

Giant Bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus). This fascinating frog species can be viewed by the general public at The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (NZG). NZG has decided that, in addition to having several amphibian species on display, it will also want to play a role in the conservation of frog species in situ (in the wild). A starting point for the NZG will be to install an on-line weather station on the site in order to correlate amphibian behaviour with environmental conditions.

NZG details :
Tel: +27 12 328 3265, Fax: +27 12 323 4540 | 232 Boom St, Box 754, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa.

At last somebody is doing something about our declining amphibian population! Thank you NZG!


Friday, 5 February 2016

Hedgehog Lore and Legends - Morning milk

Do hedgehogs suck cows' udders?

It's not surprising that such a strange-looking little animal as a hedgehog should be the subject of some extraordinary legends and beliefs. Strange hedgehog activities such as running in circles and 'self-anointing' (smearing their spines with their own frothy saliva), are definitely fact, not fiction, through we don't know why they do these things.

But there are also a number of intriguing legends about hedgehogs, most of them dating back to the distant past.

It is possible that hedgehogs occasionally attempt to suck milk direct from recumbent cows. And there's another way they obtain milk in the wild - early on a summer morning, cows sit quietly chewing the cud and waiting to be taken for milking. Their full udders often ooze drops of warm, sweet-smelling milk onto the grass, attracting any passing hedgehogs.

But nobody really knows!


Monday, 1 February 2016

Hedgehog lore and legends - Fruit picking

Why should Hedgehogs collect apples?

It's not surprising that such a strange-looking little animal as a hedgehog should be the subject of some extraordinary legends and beliefs. Strange hedgehog activities such as running in circles and 'self-anointing' - smearing their spines with their own frothy saliva - are definitely a fact, not fiction, though we don't know why they do these things. But there are also a number of intriguing legends about hedgehogs, most of them dating back to the distant past.

Some people claim to have seen apples punctured as though by spines around a hedgehog nest. Others tell of a hedgehog picking up apples in its mouth, assembling them in a group, then turning over on its back and rocking to and fro on top of them. Others say they have seen a hedgehog waling away from a tree, carrying apples impaled on its spines.

But even if hedgehogs are physically able to carry apples, there's no point in doing so. They eat hardly any fruit and can easily take what they find lying on the ground. Nor do they hoard food for the winter; they store their energy supplies in the form of fat.

So don't believe everything you hear! A dose of good common sense goes a long way in protecting these beautiful little creatures from any misunderstandings.


Monday, 25 January 2016

Mother Nature's blessings and her fury

After months of drought, the Sabie River in full flood in the Kruger National Park, South Africa

After some weeks of suffering a terrible heat wave leading to loss of life, coupled with serious drought in parts of our country (South Africa), Mother Nature blessed us with lots of rain but also some of her worst-ever fury, dumping days of rain and hail bigger than golf balls, causing extensive flooding and damage to properties in Krugersdorp in the second week of January.

KeyWest Shopping Mall roof collapses under the weight of the hail

The roof of our local shopping mall in Krugersdorp, KeyWest, collapsed from the weight of the hail, causing makor damage to most of the shops in the mall, with flooding and ceilings falling in, resulting in the closure of the mall until repairs could be done.

Damage to The Hub retail shop

It's been raining almost every day ever since and this morning I woke up to dark skies and with the rising sun beautifully highlighting the foliage on the trees with a light drizzle to boot. My garden is smiling in leaps and bounds!

Yesterday's rain

Solly's chooks were by no means intimidated by the black skies or the rain and kept on having their early 6am breakfast (this drive-way is in dire need of renovation! It's on my list ...!)

Extreme weather is occurring all over the globe at the moment, and it's easy to consider an apocalypse could be on the horizon. While we hope this is far from true, it's impossible to ignore the droughts, fires, storms and heat waves we've experienced lately, with Pretoria (Gauteng, South Africa), experiencing temperatures in the 40℃'s, the hottest it's ever been since 1865. And here at home, our temps hit 39℃, something I've never experienced in my 40 years of living in Tarlton.


Friday, 1 January 2016

May today there be peace within - New Year 2016

New Year's Day at my wildlife pond

May you trust your highest power that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.

May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.

May you be content knowing you are a child of the Universe.

Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

It is there for each and every one of us.

On this day and for the rest of our lives.

Goodbye to a wonderful 2015 and Happy New Year!


Thursday, 31 December 2015

Goodbye 2015

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine. 
-Anne Bronte

"Golden wheat" - painted with NescafĂ© instant coffee, strong and black - ©Maree Clarkson

As the year draws to a close, I want to take a moment to thank you for allowing me to be an important part of your daily life. I've immensely enjoyed reading all of your blogs (even though I don't comment much!) and learnt so much and I'm always thrilled when you leave a comment and we can have a bit of discussion.

This year has had it's ups and downs in my garden (I've lost two big trees and a few frost-tender plants) and Mother Nature has taken and given in abundance, both in fauna and flora. I've seen many a brood of baby birds being raised but I've also experienced the loss of the baby Robins and a few of my beloved chooks. But overal-ly it's been a good year and I hope we will all still be together for many more years to come!

And remember, life is short. Laugh regularly and connect with nature - it helps you find peace in your busy life while making the world a better place!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Season's Greetings from my home to yours 2015

My sincerest wishes for hope, happiness and peace during this Holiday Season. May you spend wonderful, happy hours with friends, family and loved ones!

Saturday, 19 December 2015

It's Agapanthus time!

Every summer I look forward to the few Agapanthus (A. praecox) that I have, flowering. I say “few”, because I struggle to grow these beauties in my garden (Tarlton, Gauteng, South Africa) – too much shade. I have found that they prefer full sun and not too much water.

The evergreen species is indigenous to the winter rainfall Western Cape and all-year rainfall Eastern Cape and shed a few of their old outer leaves every year and replace them with new leaves from the apex of the growing shoot. The deciduous species come from the summer rainfall Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Free State, Lesotho, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and Mozambique, and grow rapidly in spring with the onset of the rains, and then lose their leaves completely and lie dormant during winter.

Agapanthus species are easily able to hybridize with each other, particularly when grown in close proximity and as a result, a bewildering array of garden hybrids have arisen.

Insects just absolutely love Agapanthus and the Agapanthus is undoubtedly one of our indigenous botanical treasures. It has been exported to all corners of the earth, but occurs naturally only in Southern Africa, where it grows in the wild in all our provinces except the Northern Cape, as well as in Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.

I doubt that there is a South African gardener alive that has not come across an Agapanthus somewhere! They line our roads, and are in most gardens and parks, from the tall globular-headed ones to the ever-shrinking dwarf cultivars now available at garden centres. This one above is the smaller praecox minimus species I have in my bathroom court-yard garden.

Here's to another bloomin' blue summer!

. .

Monday, 14 December 2015

Friday, 20 November 2015

They crept into my heart

I must say that, after the Fiscal Shrike (Lanius collaris) killed my Cape Robin-chat's babies to feed her brood of four, I was totally pissed off with her and swore no more interaction with that mean little bird. 

Mean little bird!

But as the days passed and I saw how the parents were struggling to keep up with four hungry little mouths, I broke down and started offering little pieces of minced meat on the feeding table again. The parents were SO thankful and immediately took little pieces, endlessly flying between the four hungry youngsters, who shrieked and flapped their wings in anticipation.

Since they hatched in late September (about 4 weeks ago), they have grown in leaps and bounds and it wasn't long before they would be waiting at the feeding table for me, knowing what's coming. For a while they still preferred Mommy to pick up the pieces and feed them, which she obligingly did but about a week and a half ago I observed her behaviour changing as she with-held the food from them, swallowing it herself and then turning on the shrieking little one, chasing it into the next tree. Mommy was saying, "It's time to leave home, children!"

For a day or two they still tried coaxing Mommy into feeding them, flapping and screeching, to no avail, and soon they were eagerly hopping onto the feeding table as soon as I appeared, hardly giving me a chance to put anything down! I would sometimes have three of them sitting there, helping themselves as fast as I could supply.

I now have them taking little bits of mince straight from my fingers, albeit a quick grab, and retreating to the nearest branch to enjoy it. What a wonderful experience that is! and all the while staring me straight in the eye with absolute trust in their little eyes.

During the day, as soon as I appear in the garden, all four would fly towards me, sitting close-by, intently watching my every move just in case a snack is forth-coming. I only feed them twice a day, early in the morning and again late-afternoon. If I'm in the garden and I don't see them anywhere, I just have to whistle and they're there like a flash.

These little birds are totally fearless, secure in the knowledge of their "raptor" status. When the Thrush or Robin see an insect on the ground and go to retrieve it, they will immediately land at the same spot, and as young as they are, immediately send the Thrush and Robin scurrying away in a hurry.

Little Raptor in the making!

Looking for all the world like a small hawk!

"I'm going to be fierce, can you see?"

These little darlings have crept deep into my heart and will really miss them when they leave (if they leave!), but already this morning only three came to feed. The eldest one has always been a bit more independent, always coming to get food after the fact of the matter and I think it might already have left for greener pastures.  C'est la vie little one!



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