Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Under the charm of Chameleons

I haven't seen a Chameleon in my garden for about 10 years now. In fact, I can't remember when last I even saw one in the wild.Two decades ago I used to encounter them on virtually a daily basis and I can still remember the thrill every time I watched them change colour or catch a fly. Progress, loss of habitat, veld fires and the illegal trade in Chameleons all play a big factor in their plummeting numbers. I don't even have any photographs of one, except a very old one from about 15 years ago, taken in my garden, as he was scuttling for cover. So I've resorted to sketching and painting them.

There are about 200 species of chameleon with 19 recognised species in South Africa. They are found all over Africa and Madagascar, with a very few occurring in Europe or the Arabian Peninsula. There are no true chameleons in America except, interestingly, a species of chameleon that was imported into Hawaii and has now established a flourishing population there.

Having chameleons in the garden is very beneficial. They eat all the goggas and pests that gardeners don’t like and not only that, they are wonderful little animals, perfectly adapted to their lifestyle of camouflage and ambush. And there are some things we can do to help preserve this species, like refusing to buy them from street hawkers and creating a chameleon-friendly garden. I came upon this interesting article by Kay Montgomery published on IOL Lifestyle in 2014, and thought I would publish some of it here to help spread the word and save these wonderful little creatures.

The most important fact about chameleons is they need a fairly large area in which to roam. In Johannesburg, gardeners are being encouraged to link up chameleon-friendly gardens in a single neighbourhood. It is hoped that these gardens will merge to create corridors of chameleon habitat which will make it possible for populations of chameleon to flourish.

Here are some tips for developing a chameleon-friendly garden:
  • Reduce your lawn. To a chameleon, a large lawn is a giant desert. It contains no food, has no perches and no protective cover.
  • Thin out your trees. A garden filled with trees with low-hanging branches is a nightmare for chameleons. The branches of trees (pines and oaks in particular) are too thick for the chameleons to move along. They attract little insect life and offer no nectar.
  • Plant large thin-stemmed shrubs. Heaven for chameleons is a garden filled with a dense under-storey of shrubs with a range of perch sizes for juveniles and adults.
  • Provide food. Chameleons eat small insects such as moths, butterflies, flies, fruit flies, aphids, woodlice, beetles, spiders and small grasshoppers. 
  • Develop a compost heap in a quiet corner of the garden with the precise purpose of breeding insects. Baby chameleons will relish the tiny flies, grubs, beetles and gnats that thrive around a compost heap.
  • Build an insect hotel. Very fashionable in Europe, insect hotels are artistic columns or cubes of plant material that are glued or wired together. The common theme is that each material must be considered a suitable home by respectable insects and spiders. A hotel could include a mishmash of pinecones, hollow bamboo stems, lotus pods or even old pieces of wood with holes of different sizes drilled into the stem.
  • Plant flowering shrubs. Chameleons thrive in a garden that has a complete ecosystem of small, medium and large flowering shrubs which are constantly attracting insect activity. Smaller flowering shrubs covered in flowers are particularly loved by insects and are regarded as food table bridges between large twiggy shrubs. Many of the honeybee-friendly plants, such as euryops daisies, ribbon bushes, sage, fireball lilies, gazania and vygies will attract a variety of insects.
  • Plant large shrub trees: Adult chameleons thrive in the higher perches found in large shrubs or small trees such as the dune crowberry, pompon trees, sweet thorn acacias and wild olive.
  • Remove predators: Cats are one of the biggest threats to chameleons, birds and microfauna in the garden.
  • Avoid using pesticides that kill flies, crickets, ants and micro-insect life that chameleons rely on for their food.
  • Avoid illegal traders. If you see indigenous chameleons for sale, they are not legal. You are urged not to buy them.
What to plant

A chameleon-friendly garden is as much about the structure of the vegetation as it is about the plants. This notwithstanding, here is a list of chameleon-friendly plants:
  • Low-growing groundcovers: Try the lilac carpet geranium (Geranium multisectum), gazanias, bulbine, dwarf agapanthus or kingfisher daisy.
  • Shade-loving shrubs under trees: Try the spurflower (Plectranthus spp.), asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus), ribbon bush, arum and fireball lily.
  • Low-growing shrubs with thin branches: Confetti bush, euryops daisy, tea bush or azaleas.
  • Larger shrubs with thin branches: sage bush (Buddleja salviifolia), hop bush, mahonia, lion’s ear, polygala or dune crowberry (Searsia crenata).
Chamaeleo dilepis (Flap-neck chameleon) - The Flap-neck is the most common chameleon found in Gauteng (South Africa). The colouring here indicates that it is not feeling threatened but the change of spots is getting ready, just in case!

 Image credit - Here it is quite clear that he is very upset and not impressed at all!

It is very difficult to tell the different species apart. At first glance, they all look quite the same - all small, greenish-brown, with rolling eyes. But on closer inspection, it appears that there is a large amount of colour and scale variation, even within the same species. Luckily, with the help of genetic tests, it is now possible to make a better distinction between species, because each one has its own specific DNA code.
This makes further work on the morphological differences between species possible.

Any animal that can change colours and look in two directions at once is worth learning more about. Armed with a tongue you have to see to believe, the chameleon may be one of the coolest reptiles on the planet. I can only pray that in generations to come, that chameleons can still be found roaming the trees of South Africa freely.

Together we can make a difference.


Friday, 8 July 2016

Winter - Fire and Ice

Mid-winter (July) in South Africa and the Aloes flower fiery-red against the white of frost. I've been dreading the frost, as some years it has killed all the flowers in the bud. I do have one aloe (the largest of the three, pictured below, which started flowering last) which doesn't seem to be doing so well, the flowers don't seem to have much colour, but hopefully the flowers will still reach maturity, as long as we don't have any more stints of heavy frost.

My chooks have left large, bare patches all over the garden, scrounging for any available greenery as the lawn is all but non-existent.

Lots of mist this morning, a sign that, albeit cold, the day is going to be bright and sunny!

Early morning caught all the birds patiently waiting in the bare peach tree for the first rays of the sun and the feeding tables to be filled, a daily winter’s morning occurrence. This morning there weren’t as many, some mornings I’ve counted up to 50 before losing track. They mostly consist of Weavers, Laughing Doves, Bishops and Sparrows with the odd Bulbul.

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~ One of Robert Frost’s most popular poems, published in December 1920 in Harper’s Magazine


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Winter, Bonsai and other ramblings

It took a while for summer to admit to defeat, pummelling us with heat wave after heat wave even well into autumn and autumn was decidedly short-lived, dumping us straight into icy weather with lots of snow all over the country, Here in Tarlton (Gauteng, South Africa), we suffered low temps of only 11C during the day, with the nights and early mornings well below freezing point. And to make matters worse, we even had some rain. Rain in winter is not in the scheme of things here in Gauteng, we're a summer rainfall area. I was worried about my succulents, but I needn't have been, they didn't seem to mind the rain, it's frost that's deadly to them. And luckily we've not seen much of that yet. We just have to get through July and then the worst is over. Even my Chooks aren't particularly impressed with the cold - Kiep comes in every day for a stint in from of my gas heater, laying down, spreading her legs and wings, soaking up the heat and looking a lot like road kill!

And much to Jacko's chagrin, she commandeered his blanket in front of the heater, spending most of the morning until it was time to go outside for a snack.

Don't get me wrong, I much prefer the cold to the heat-waves we've been having, and I am extremely grateful to have a warm roof over my head, something many people don't have. Situated barely 100 miles (160km) south of the Tropic of Capricorn, you might expect Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, to be bathed in tropical heat all the year round. But this city of 4m inhabitants lies 5,500 feet (1,700 metres) above sea level and it is now mid-winter. So although the middle of the day is generally warm, with clear blue skies and a sun too hot to sit out in comfortably, the nights can be bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping below freezing. But apart from the fancier hotels and some upmarket office blocks and homes, almost no one has central heating—or adequate heating of any form for that matter. South Africa’s several million strong homeless population was particularly hard hit as temperatures plunged to record lows in many parts of the country and in May 2007, at least 17 people died from exposure, highlighting the country’s chronic housing shortage.

But winter is also the time when all my Aloes start flowering and when nature provides extra sustenance to her wildlife through nectar in these beautiful flowers. Every winter my garden is flooded with Sunbirds and nectar-loving insects, bringing great joy to my heart. Winter is also when nature gets rid of the old and weak, preparing the landscape for new life in spring.

Last spring I did the unthinkable - I planted my 1983 Natal Fig bonsai in the garden. I got him as a 3-year old in 1982 and for 33 years I've been tending him, neglecting him, tending him again, pruning him wrong, taking him to an expert to be fixed, pruning him wrong again, putting him outside every spring and carrying him into the house every late-Autumn for the winter. A symptom of the neglect is that he got very big. He has been in the same pot for years without me taking him out and trimming his roots to maintain a reasonable size. Getting heavier and heavier, it became a major job for two men to move him inside every winter and spring. His trunk is beautiful, thick and gnarled, with aerial roots hanging down the one side, anchoring him more firmly to the ground.

But as time went by, he started showing real signs of neglect. When I looked at this photo of him (above) which I took last July 2015 (winter) inside my flower room, it was clear to me that he was at the end of his tether and beyond saving. My heart broke. But now I've got this short-coming that I can't kill anything, not even an un-saveable plant, so in September last year (Spring), I chose a protected spot in the garden and plonked him in a well-prepared hole and said to myself, "que se ra, se ra". Deep in my heart I'm suffering because I've got this suspicion that this winter might kill him, being an Eastern Coastal Belt Forest resident of South Africa.

After a month in the garden, there was already a vast improvement, as can be seen in the pic of him in the garden. Most of the branches had already filled up with new leaves and he was looking bright green and much healthier. In the meantime I've read up a bit more about about this tree and it turns out that the versatile Ficus natalensis (also known as "Mutuba" to locals) is wind and drought resistant and tolerates temperatures from -5C – 30+C. It occurs naturally in both moist woodland and dry open areas of the country and is evergreen, which did not seem evident when I had him in the pot, as he lost a lot of his leaves every winter. With a height of 5m-20m and a spread of 4m-8m, I might just have to change my garden when he gets bigger, if he survives our severe Tarlton frost.

My "gardening skills " ego has been dealt a great blow with the "loss" of my Bonsai, as Ficus natalensis is one of the most widely used species by Bonsai enthusiasts. The fat stem and intricately gnarled roots are perfect for achieving a variety of popular Bonsai styles. This species grows ’banyan’ roots naturally which can be showcased as dramatic air-root or root over rock styles. The Natal Fig grows fast and is quite forgiving if incorrect watering methods are applied, making this the ideal choice for the novice enthusiast. So how "novice" am I ........? 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Lichens and mosses

A leafy foliose lichen (Xanthoparmelia substrigosa) on the trunk of my Acacia karroo tree

After heavy rains we had in early April, many of my trees, and rocks, sported lichens and mosses, totally fascinating! And now, two months later, they are still there, but have turned pale grey. But understanding lichens is complex (to me at least!), so I've had to resort to an internet search to explain them.

Worldwide, over 20,000 species are known. A lichen is not a single organism. Rather, it is a symbiosis between different organisms - a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium. Cyanobacteria are sometimes still referred to as 'blue-green algae', though they are quite distinct from the algae. The non-fungal partner contains chlorophyll and is called the photobiont. The fungal partner may be referred to as the mycobiont. While most lichen partnerships consist of one mycobiont and one photobiont, that's not universal for there are lichens with more than one photobiont partner. When looked at microscopically, the fungal partner is seen to be composed of filamentous cells and each such filament is called a hypha. These hyphae grow by extension and may branch but keep a constant diameter. Amongst the photobionts there are those that are also filamentous in structure while others are composed of chains or clusters of more-or-less globose cells.

Given that they contain chlorophyll, algae and cyanobacteria can manufacture carbohydrates with the help of light via the process of photosynthesis. By contrast, fungi do not make their own carbohydrates. Every fungus needs existing organic matter from which to obtain carbon. In a lichen some of the carbohydrate produced by the photobiont is of course used by the photobiont but some is 'harvested' by the mycobiont.

Lichens are classified with the fungi (being sometimes referred to as lichenized fungi) and can be found growing in almost all parts of the terrestrial world, from the ice-free polar areas to the tropics, from tropical rainforests to those desert areas free of mobile sand dunes.

Foliose lichens could be thought of as halfway between crustose (two dimensional) and fruticose (erect). Though obviously three dimensional, they grow in a more-or-less sheet-like form, but often with a lobed appearance. They are not attached by their entire lower surfaces to their substrates. Indeed, some foliose lichens are just centrally attached.

Another part of the same tree trunk, lower down, was covered in moss. Now Wikipedia says, "Mosses are small flowerless plants that typically grow in dense green clumps or mats, often in damp or shady locations. The individual plants are usually composed of simple, one-cell thick leaves, attached to a stem that may be branched or un-branched and has only a limited role in conducting water and nutrients."

The same thick mat of moss also formed on a rock on my patio, but both of them never quite got to the thick stage and have now all but disappeared. The moss life-cycle starts with a haploid spore that germinates to produce a protonema (pl. protonemata), which is either a mass of thread-like filaments or thalloid (flat and thallus-like). Massed moss protonemata typically look like a thin green felt, and may grow on damp soil, tree bark, rocks, concrete, or almost any other reasonably stable surface. This is a transitory stage in the life of a moss, but from the protonema grows the gametophore ("gamete-bearer") that is structurally differentiated into stems and leaves. A single mat of protonemata may develop several gametophore shoots, resulting in a clump of moss. But they do need a lot of damp to continue surviving.

Most mosses rely on the wind to disperse the spores, but It has recently been found that microarthropods, such as springtails and mites, can effect moss fertilization.

It seems that, given enough moisture, moss might still take over the world! lol!

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!


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