Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Awesome Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park

HelpX volunteer Tom Amey had been working hard with us for nearly three weeks, getting up early to help me ring birds through the morning, and then varnishing and painting through the afternoons. On his gap-year African adventure, his next destination was northern KwaZulu Natal on a bus ride that would depart from Port Elizabeth (PE). And with the opening of the southern gate to Addo Elephant National Park located only twenty minutes from PE it seemed like a worthy reward to take Tom to PE via Addo. It had been 7 years since my last visit, and I was keen to see what had changed, and introduce my daughter (2) to what she endearingly calls “Groesse”, being short for “Big Elephants” from her favourite German nursery rhyme.
At 180 000 hectares, Addo is South Africa’s fastest growing National Park in terms of land acquisition, and the 3rd largest after Kruger and the Kalahari. It stretches from the sea, to the Zuurberg mountains and beyond – although the later sections can only be accessed on pay-extra 4x4 routes. But most of the animals can be seen in the central section, although one does have to get a little lucky in order to spot lion or other top predators in the impenetrable Albany thicket. 
While to the purist, Addo may be viewed as a tourist trap, this in fact works to the visitors benefit as the wildlife is so habituated to the presence of vehicles, that you are guaranteed close encounters with wildlife of the kind that won’t have the family car insurer chewing his knuckles.

While the leopard may still be my technical answer to the question: “what is your favourite animal?”, the animals I most enjoy watching are the world’s biggest land mammal – African Elephants (Loxodonta africana).
One of the standard interesting facts about elephants you will hear from game guides is that they spend up to 18 hours a day eating. But just like people around a dinner table, eating is only half the game. We could just as easily say that Elephants spend 18 hours a day socialising. That means they are even more socially networked than a modern day teenager with iPhone, Facebook and unlimited broadband. They are constantly rumbling, nudging, caressing, bumping, squealing, trumpeting, scenting and batting their eyelids – and that is just the adults! The list of verbs that could be used to describe the activities of youngsters would roll over to several pages.
What can be more awesome than viewing wild elephants on foot? There are two places in the park where one can do this: the Spekboom Hide (albeit screened behind electric fences and wooden wall), and the Domkrag Dam in the main game viewing area in the northern section of the park. At both locations we were treated to a range of social interactions, from child care, to adolescent insolence, to public displays of affection, personal hygiene (how to have your own shower) and various forms of exercise from running to weight-lifting. By the end of our full day in the park, my camera was over heating, and I’ve had immense difficulty in choosing my favourite photos for this blog article. 

Elephants Kiss


Elephant shower

Greeting the dawn

Tourists get excited by the presence of a wild elephant at the Domkrag Dam lookout point

A breeding herd of elephant raise clouds of dust on their approach to a drinking hole
Baby elephants are just too cute
The early morning riser is sure to catch glimpses of Black-backed Jackal heading home after a night out
Kudu seem to be the most common antelope in the park

Although I hate to end this article on a gripe – I do have to warn prospective overnighters to the Park that the campsite is one of the worst of any – SANParks or otherwise – I have visited. Ablution facilities are fine, but the 10 campsites are at the back end of the otherwise spacious caravan area in what can only be described as a cul-de-sac alleyway. Camp spots are tiny – no more than 4x4 meters, have no view, and subject to noise pollution from the nearby trainline, passing vehicles and other park residents – the tented camp on the one side hosting drunken Germans singing ‘Buffalo Soldier’ all night, and I was kept awake by snoring residents of the camp itself on the second night. To round it all off, on attempting to check out the conversation with the receptionist when something like this:

Receptionist “All I need is your key”
AL: “I was camping”
Receptionist “Ah the tented camp…”
AL “No, in my own tent”
Receptionist: Pause to register that they have a campsite. “O, you can just go.”
AL: Thinks “What did I do wrong?!”

There is a lot of secondary tourism that has grown up around the park, and there are accommodation options between Addo and Kirkwood to suit all tastes, as well as a variety of other entertainment and eating options. The only benefit of staying in the park is one is given a 30 minute head start on the opening times at the gate. When the target animals are elephants, this is meaningless, but it does enhance the feeling of being in the wild a bit more in the early morning compared to later on when one has to deal with increasing volumes of vehicle traffic.

After all that you may be tempted to ask if I’ll be going again. The answer is a whole-hearted YES. Watching elephants is exciting, mesmerising, and tonic for the soul. They are the epitomy of the magnificence of the African megafauna.  The tuskless females are a reminder of human ruthlessness as we continue to exterminate hundreds for ivory, and at the same time the elephant’s continued presence is a symbol of hope of how humans also care and desire to save and protect the victims of our conquest of the planet. Long may the Elephants of Addo send their rumbles across the plains of Africa.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Fynbos Autumn

The poplars seemed to have changed from their summer garb of green to their orange underwear overnight, in preparation of their winter undressing. Yet the Bokmakierie still stakes his claim to the hills around the houses with his loud and exuberant call. Autumn isn't putting him off. Now that the kids have flown the nest, the resident Red-winged Starlings have had some quiet time to snuggle and re-establish their pair bond. And our resident House Sparrows, Jack and House (after pirate Jack Sparrow and cheeky Dr Gregory House), have recruited another young male to the entourage of crumb-beggars outside the kitchen door.
But Fynbos is about the Proteas – so while the rest of the southern Hemisphere may be mourning the departure of the swallows and waders as they dessert us for Europe and Asia, the hills around us are PUMPING nectar, thanks to the prolifically flower Protea repens, with Protea neriifolia and Protea lorifolia just coming into bloom. Their deep roots are tapping into the soils still moist from last years record rainfalls, while the beautiful flowers are engines turning water and carbon dioxide into sugar.
This bonanza of food means the unburnt areas around us are full of fancy flying feathers, and Tom Amey (volunteer from the UK) and myself have been ringing for hours on end to see who is enjoying the Fynbos Feast.
The great thing about ringing is you really get a chance to see who is what. So, are those untidy Malachite Sunbirds non-breeding males or juveniles? Turns out that at the moment the hills are alive with hundreds of young Malachites as well as Southern Double-collared Sunbirds that would have fledged over the warmer summer months. Up close and in the hand, one can confirm the presence of the yellowish juvenile gape.
Other highlights from the past couple of weeks include the first ever recapture of a Protea Seedeater, and locally our longest recorded movement for a Cape Bulbul – just over 5km.
Today it is 5 degrees outside, and drizzling – the first winter greeting of a winter that seems to be approaching a little too fast. But now there is time to update blogs and enter data.
Beautiful Bokmakierie, eternally announcing their presence to the world with their loud, distinctive calls
Bokmakierie tails look like the elaborate ornamental feather headdresses worn by some Amazon Indian tribes
Adult male Southern Double-collared Sunbirds are so much prettier than the upcoming juveniles

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Black Stork Black Hole

The Black Stork is a beautiful bird that has a wide distribution from southern Africa to Asia. In the northern parts of its range it is migratory, but the southern African population is considered sedentary (but moving widely from the core breeding areas centred in Zimbabwe). Although generally rare, it is considered as a species of Least Concern by Birdlife International. But this is one of the species that appears to be doing very badly now in South Africa as it is very sensitive to disturbance – this article summarizes how the reported range has decreased between bird atlas projects:

In 2010 I was lucky enough to view a Black Stork on the Hartbeesrivier road that leads to Baviaanskloof on the western side. It looked sad and bedraggled. This photo shows the first Black Stork I have seen since then – a few kilometers from the initial sighting, but 3 years later and looking rather handsome.

Is the species returning – i.e. does it move more than we think? If we look at the reporting rates, this shows a spike for April 2013. Last year we experienced record rainfalls, and dams and rivers have been full for a long time – perhaps fish stocks have bounced back and this has meant there is food again for this beleaguered species. Of course, it might just be a respite on the inevitable track toward extinction. Where they are going to... no one knows (perhaps they are disappearing into a Black Hole!)

Unfortunately the photos were taken under low light conditions, so they are more documentary than works of art.


Ciconia nigra in flight

Monday, 1 April 2013

New species of Buffalo found in the Baviaanskloof!

The Ivory-horned Buffalo has just been described from the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve. Very similar to the Cape Buffalo, the Ivory-horned Buffalo sports horns very similar in composition to the tusks of African Elephants. The discovery of the species was confirmed recently by a ground expedition, which ventured into the hidden valleys of the wilderness area to ground truth reports of unusual color patterns observed during a recent aerial census of the reserve.

Much of the terrain of the Baviaanskloof is very mountainous, with high grass covered hills separated by untraversable canyons. It was probably this isolation that led to the evolution of this distinctive form of Buffalo. The herd that was encountered appeared fairly docile, probably never having encountered humans before. Good news for conservationists is that they are breeding, and so alive and well.

Only one road traverses the heart of the 200 000 ha Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, and much of it remains unexplored – especially the deep valleys that lie beyond the high mountains.

The following are exclusive images of the Ivory-horned Buffalo captured by our intrepid expedition photographer:


These photos are of course of Cape Buffalo covered in mud. Happy April Fool's Day!
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