Another of the Winter highlights of the Garden is the annual migration of the Half-collared Kingfishers from the sub tropical Wild Coast to our more temperate area. These large, magnificent Kingfishers are usually found on quiet rivers with entangled, over hanging vegetation from which they plunge dive for their prey. They are much larger than the similar Malachite Kingfisher and are separated by the black, not red, beak as well as more white on the breast. This bird was one of my “bogey’s” for many years. I would travel to sites where it was “guaranteed”, but I never found it where it was supposed to be. I did eventually track it down and since then, the drought being broken, have seen it regularly.
The various back water’s along the Garden Route are ideal habitat and I set out early last Saturday morning to canoe the Wolwe River in search of the Kingfishers in order to see if they where back yet. This river is the western tributary of Swartvlei estuary, named for the Brown Hyena that used to occur here, and large areas of mudflats are bisected by a narrow channel that threads between overhanging trees, ideal habitat.
Wolwe River Mudflats
Canoeing this backwater we did see this glorious bird, as well as Malachite, Giant and Pied Kingfishers. Other specials were African Black Duck, Glossy Ibis, African Fish Eagle and a true special of a White-backed Night Heron.This secretive bird is very difficult to see all along its range especially due to its nocturnal habits and the juvenile that we saw was tucked safely, sleeping in a collapsed tree. This is only the second time I have seen this bird and am planning a return to the spot soon to try and get a photograph.
Orion is slowly sinking into the West and as Scorpio begins to rise you can feel that Winter has started to make its’ mark.
For me, one of the first signs of change is the high pitched call of the Malachite Sunbird. These magnificent birds are normally found much higher up, in the mountain ranges that parallel the coast. When the cold starts to be felt they descend onto the warmer coastal flats and target the Winter flowering succulents such as the Aloes and Pig’s Ear(Cotyledon orbiculta), another favourite is the bright orange Wild Dagga flowers that are filled with nectar.
A pair of Brown-backed Honeybird’s have also been seen a couple of times and it would be fantastic if these uncommon birds become resident at Reflections. While mentioning honey I should add that our 2 bee hives where both raided by a now resident Honey Badger. I am so excited that this incredible animal has graced us with its presence and hopefully it too will stay(although I will have to re-reinforce my hives).
Our pair of Fish Eagles have begun their mating so we will be watching carefully for further progress and the mating display flights of the pairs of African Marsh Harriers are being heard throughout the day. Grass-birds are being heard regularly in the mornings at the moment as well, and these are new birds for us since we removed the Pine trees. They like rank grass tufts and fynbos and for me they are indicative of our maturing eco-system and restored habitat.
The Brown-hooded Kingfisher trail is one of my favourite walking and birding trails in the area and it gives consistently good forest birds but I was very pleasantly surprised when walking there yesterday with sightings of both a Black Stork as well as a Black Harrier. Both of these are uncommon in this area and yet I saw them both flying together, another example of unpredictable nature.
We recently had the pleasure of hosting Roddy and Rachel Bray here at Reflections. They are busy with an amazing project that has had them travelling between Cape Town and Kenya recording audio guided experiences with local specialists. They have an incredibly diverse group of people involved: covering the big cats of the Masai Mara to the various colonial wars in Africa. I would encourage everyone with an interest in the continent to visit their site www.greatguides.org and read my feature here. I contributed with an audio recording for the Garden Route. It is a great way for those planning a visit to experience the area and for local residents to learn something new.
Click the player below to listen:
Spring has, once again, been spectacular. Mass displays of pale yellow wild Iris’s, pink Daisies, yellow Bietou and golden Ursinia. One that I always wait for with great anticipation is the flowering of the Orchid’s. We get a couple of different species such as Disa, Satyrium and Bonatea.
These complex flowers have developed some of natures most remarkable adaptions for pollination, including the mimicking of a female wasp’s pheromones that will cause a male wasp to attempt to mate with the flower. It then picks up pollen that is transported to another orchid.
One species even attaches its pollen to the tongue of Sun-bird’s.
The benefits of our rehabilitation are really starting to become apparent and one of the things we have noticed is an increase in insect diversity. When we began this project we saw few insects. We would see the big bumbling Carpenter Bees as they moved around the Keurboom trees, we would see Mosquitoes and we would see the odd Rain Spider.
Each year there has been an increase in diversity that includes plants and insects and I was reminded of this while on a walk a few days ago when I encountered a Garden Orb spider. These beautifully marked spiders should be common but this is the first one we have seen at Reflections. These spiders have always been a favourite of mine and is always a great subject for conversation on my walks.
Garden Orb female
The web they spin can be in excess of 6 feet across and has a beautiful golden sheen to it. It is one of the thickest and strongest of all spider webs. One of the more noticeable features is the zig-zagging white stabilimentum in the centre. This adds elasticity as well as possibly acting as a visual cue for birds so that they can avoid flying into it.
The female spider would have arrived first and the much smaller male would have arrived later after following a scent trail of pheromones. He avoids her by staying in corner out of here way and will only mate with her while she is occupied with feeding.
Garden Orb male
The large Orb spiders often catch small flying insects that they don’t bother with but these are used by a smaller, parasitic spider that ” borrows” the web. It is called a Mercury spider because it looks just like a small silver dot of Mercury.
White Dune Freesia
For many people travelling up the South East coast of South Africa the name Garden Route” is a misnomer as there is no garden and the floral diversity does not compete with other parts of the country. In part this is correct as large areas of floral extravagance have been swallowed up in a wave of out competing alien vegetation, Hakea, Pine and Wattle.
Our property has been clear of Pine now for almost 2 years and the natural rehabilitation is ongoing and marvelous. Each season new highlights emerge and slowly we are seeing a recovering ecosystem.
There are at the moment 2 flowers that I find remarkable . One in particular has always been a favourite of mine as they seem to typify Spring and this is the Freesias. The one that occurs here is Freesia leichtlinii and is a white form. It is a beautiful, delicate low growing plant with a very strong sweet scent and is one of the Freesias used to create the popular hybrid that is now found world wide.
- Water Holly
- Ixia orientalis
The other plant that is flowering is a shrub or bushy tree called the Blue kuni-bush or Rhus glauca. It has flowers that are completely different but no less noticeable, also because of their scent. The flower is a tiny yellow-green flower that is bunched en-masse on the end of the branchlets.
What strikes me with both these flowers is not what they look like, but what they smell like. All plants, being inanimate, must find ways to pollinate each other and have developed a number of fascinating strategies to do this. The most common technique though, is to recruit insects or birds to do the work for you. Birds, like mammals, have a poorly developed sense of smell but well developed eyesight, so that bird pollinated plants tend to be large, bright,often red and they don’t waste energy producing a scent. On the other extreme, insects have a phenomenal sense of smell and are less interested in colour or in the colour spectrum that is visible to us.
The two different plants mentioned, the Rhus and the Freesia are both pollinated by insects and so both have a strong scent, but the similarity stops here.The Freesia has a sweetly scented flower that attracts insects lured by the promise of sweet nectar and in the process pick up pollen and the Rhus has a very strong smell of yeast and fermentation and it uses this to attract flies for its pollination
At last. We were starting to think this year they weren’t going to nest. It has happened and they are definitely incubating eggs. We don’t know how many but this pair is normally pretty good as raising two or three chicks.
On the Southern Cape’s coast we have spectacular diversity: long sweeping sandy beaches, rocky headlands with intriguing rock pools, boulder strewn cliffs and gorges where rivers and forest meet the sea.
If you were walking along a rocky path on a warm day this scene will repeat itself often. It has all the ingredients of a typical coastal scene; a False Saffron tree (Cassine species) that can withstand salt spray, sun and wind, a Lichen encrusted boulder and a Rock Agamma . The males have a striking breeding display of a magnificent, iridescent blue head which they bob up and down energetically to attract the females.
Another aspect that is typical of our Winter days is be the beautiful clear blue skies.
We have had an on going land rehabilitation project for close on two years and we are starting to see so much more diversity in the plant life because of this. Almost every time we go for a walk we find something”new”. Probably our most successful plants are those that naturally pioneer new areas. The two most populous ones at Reflections are the Keurboom(Virgilia Species) and the Bitou(Chrysanthemoides species).
The Keurboom is a member of the pea family and has the characteristic pods and flower shape as well as a beautiful delicate scent. Being a member of the pea family it has the ability to replace Nitrogen in the soil, this is an element much needed by plants and normally in short supply. Decomposition of living organism’s would normally provide Nitrogen but that wouldn’t have happened here for many years. Therefor the Keurbooms play a vital role in fixing the damage from poor land use in the past.
Keurboom in flower
The other advantage of the Keurboom is that it is a prolific seeder, so all round, for us, it is a wonderful tree.
The other one that has been wonderfully successful is the Bitou or Tick berry, so called because the small glossy fruits look just like bunches of engorged Tick’s. The fruits are, however, far more pleasant and taste just like Sugar Cane. This has been appreciated for thousands of years as shown by the seeds being present in many of the stone age middens in this area. It is also thought that the decorated Bitou seeds found in this area might be the oldest jewellery known to man. These particular ones are thought to be from around 70 000 years ago.
They are most highly regarded these days for their ability to bind dune sand and thereby stabilizing loose soil.
After last years breeding resulted in two fledged youngsters, we have been watching and waiting to see if their saga continues and indeed on the 23 of May they were seen mating again. They have 3 different nests on our property and we will watch with great interest to see which one they choose to utilize. A sure sign would be when they start carrying green leafy branches to the nest. Most Eagles do this and there are some interesting theories as to why this happens. An obvious answer is to protect and insulate the eggs but it might be more than this. It is possible that trees are used that have a natural insecticide to help keep nest lice out, an example here would be a Eucalyptus species. When we were living in arid areas we would see a few species using Wild Rosemary (Eriocephalus species) for possibly the same reason.
Raptor nests’ are fascinating to watch and because of the bird’s being long lived the nest’s can be immense. I have not measured these nests but examples from other study sites include nest’s that were taller than 6m.
The Garden Route is fortunately provided with areas of spectacular diversity and beauty. It includes lakes, forests, mountains and within a short drive’s distance a dry country side dominated by succulents. We try and encourage people to get off the main tourist routes and experience the area as we know it. One my favourite areas is Kranshoek.
It is within the Garden Route National Park and provides the spectacular meeting point of Forest and Ocean with the remnant of Gondwanaland’s spectacular break-up. The walk is relatively easy, although sections are steep. Immediately you are struck by the scenery which is dominated by a forested gorge that has been carved out of a cliff face by a small stream.
Except while in the dense Forest, the sound of the ocean is everywhere. It is interspersed with the trilling of the Sunbirds that are attracted to the many flowering Erica species. The plant life is prolific and includes wet forest, fynbos and succulents that grow along the ocean. Another unmissable “plant” is the spectacular orange Lichen on the rocks along the coastal section.
Rondevlei, where I live, is an estuarine lake on the Garden Route. It is part of a series of lakes that are connected to each other and enter the sea at Wilderness.It is a beautiful area and contribute in a large way to the Garden Routes scenery. Two of the lakes are designated Ramsar sites, which identifies them as areas of international importance to migratory birds. It therefore goes without saying that there is amazing bird-life here, and I try to take advantage of this whenever I can. The Rondevlei has a fantastic hide that is very productive, it doesn’t produce rarities very often but does provide regular, rewarding birding in a beautiful environment. Common birds seen are African Rail, African Marsh Harrier, African Fish Eagle, Hottentot Teal, Cape Teal, White Backed Duck and depending on the level of the lake, good waders attracted to the mud flats.
One bird that we see quite often has, of late, been prolific. The African(Ethiopian) Snipe. It is a beautiful bird that is not common in many areas and with the Rondevlei being low at the moment, we can see between 5 and 9 different birds feeding together. I recent highlight was for me a maximum count of 15 birds.
At one stage Snipe were popular Game birds(this is where we get words like “sniper”) and so it is wonderful to see aggregations like this, they have a very distinct breeding display that involves Drumming of the wings. There has been no sign of this as yet so it is possible that they are en route to another breeding site.
Life is strange! In nature in order to survive a species must breed and in order to breed a species must survive! What I find fascinating, as a naturalist, is the endless designs that nature has evolved to solve this conundrum.
Southern Red Bishops are small birds that provide a great local example. They are common, nest communally and don’t appear to be remarkably agile in flight. Easy pickings for a Sparrowhawk, or maybe not .
In order to survive they are incredibly non- descript and camouflaged. The difficulty is, being territorial, the males need, at certain times of the year, to see each other and need to be seen by the females. The solution is a quick and timely moult of all that drabness into breeding splendour. The change is quite remarkable and has to be timed perfectly. If they change to early they risk being eaten before mating and if they change back out of the plumage to late they risk not making it to the following breeding season. Survival sits on a very thin line indeed!
Along the Garden Route we have magnificent forests and within these forests are some magnificent trees. White Ironwood (Vepris species) Cape Chestnuts (Calodendrum species) Perdepis (Clausena species) and Knobwoods (Zanthoxylum species) all belong to the Rutaceae family known to us all from the domestic citrus trees. This time of the year all of these are being happily munched by the arch survivalists, the insects and by one in particular.
An "Orange Dog" caterpillar
The larva of the Citrus Swallowtail butterfly has taken the art of deception to a higher level. Referred to as “Orange Dogs” these caterpillars have evolved the strategy of looking just like a bird’s dropping’s, stunning in its simplicity and very effective .
They have solved the survival balance of finding a partner in a more intricate manner , it involves the changing of the physical structure to facilitate the changing needs. Having survived being viewed as a slow moving tasty morsel they undergo a stunning metamorphosis from a “ bird dropping “ to a fast moving, highly visible , regal Adult Citrus Swallowtail butterfly.
Isn’t nature incredible!
We went down to Swartvlei beach for some sunrise photography, a magnificent beach dominated by a rocky penninsular. It was absolutely awesome as the night before was spring high tide and the phosphorescence was still in the sand. Every step we took the sand would light up and glow for a few seconds. My 6 year old son was with us and he just thought this was amazing!
It was always our goal to do a Rehabilitation that is sensitive to existing life and adds to the beauty and diversity of the Southern Cape. In 2007 we moved to Reflections Eco Reserve, a private nature reserve on the Rondevlei lake on the Garden Route in South Africa.
This attractive land was overgrown with dense stands of alien vegetation. Our first priority was the rehabilitation and restoration of the land. In order to do this we decided to clear all the alien pine trees except a line of trees adjacent to the Garden Route National Park. The reason for this was that a pair of African Fish Eagles had been nesting there for many years and great care was taken not to disturb them.
The restoration was successfully in that they bred in August 2008 and two young adults are now being fledged or edged out by their parents. At present we are being treated to marvelous sights and sounds of aerial combat between juveniles and adults including other youngsters from neighboring territories.
Up to eight eagles are seen on any given day making this the prime Garden Route location for Fish Eagle sightings. Other raptors frequently seen here include Martial Eagle, Forest Buzzard, Steppe Buzzard, Black Sparrow Hawk, African Marsh Harrier, Black Shouldered Kite, Peregrine Falcon, Rufous Breasted Sparrow Hawk and Jackal Buzzard. The level of interaction between these raptors provides precious and spectacular viewing.