Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tree Squirrels of South Africa - Wildlife and Nature Pictures

Tree Squirrels (Paraxerus cepapi) of South and Southern Africa

There are many names for these playful and inquisitive little tree squirrels which we find in South and Southern Africa. Tree Squirrels, Smith's Bush Squirrel, Yellow-footed Squirrel are all covered by the scientific name of (Paraxerus cepapi). Again we see the importance of using the scientific names where ever possible, together with its 'local' name to clear up any local or regional colloquialisms and thus ensuring the learner is clear on what is being discussed and or taught.

That said these delightful inquisitive tree squirrels are a common sight in South Africa, in fact I have a family of them living in our 'chimney' on top of my roof at home. We often see them clambering around searching for food, chasing and generally having a good time with each other. Its part of our daily lives, my wife says 'the tree squirrels did this' and the 'tree squirrels did that' today.

Tree squirrels are small 'diurnal' (active during the day) creatures, only about 350mm long (12inch) and weigh in at only 200g (7 oz) generally with a rusty/buff colour body and white bellies, although the body colour sometimes can have 'regional' slight differences but all have long bushy tails which are extended out behind them. 

These generally 'arboreal' (living in trees) tree squirrels spend a lot of time on the ground foraging for food, which as they are rodents would include insects, but as you would generally expect to see them eating nuts, seeds and  fruits.

Male tree squirrels are fiercely territorial and the families spend the nights together usually in a hole, in a tree. Tree squirrels use a defence  mechanism when under threat, which is what is called the 'mobbing' tactic. This usually means all the members of the colony make harsh clicking sounds while they flick their tails, building up momentum and gradually getting louder until the intruder and or danger has passed. The tree squirrel  in the picture below was sat on a dirt mound in South Africa's Kruger National Park loudly screeching and clicking at me while I took this photo, he only stopped when I left.

Tree Squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi) sat on top a 'mud mound' in Kruger National Park
Tree Squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi) Kruger National Park, South Africa

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Southern Masked Weaver Bird- Natures Craftsman

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Southern Masked Weaver - Natures Craftsman

At 14cm (6in) the Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus)  is a common resident breeding bird of South and Southern Africa's numerous wildlife species. Of the taxon 'Ploceidae' or 'Weavers' of which there are many species around the world, the Southern Masked Weaver is widespread over virtually all of South Africa, which can count its self fortunate to have approximately 10 other  'Ploceus' species besides the Southern Masked Weaver. Male weavers are when breeding generally bright striking yellows, black and or reds in colour and the yellow and black of the Southern Masked weaver is one of its striking features. Females are not nearly as striking as the males of the species as we so often find in nature.

Mother nature has provided the Southern Masked Weaver with all the necessary tools required for its survival. The Southern Masked Weaver  is what is known a 'Passerine' a species of bird which includes more than half of the worlds bird species.  One of the most notable features of 'passerines' is the toe arrangement, this arrangement of three toes pointing forwards and one backwards  helps facilitate 'perching' thus the Passerines like the Southern Masked Weaver are commonly known as 'perching' birds for which the Southern Masked Weaver is very apt.

Further notable features of the Southern Masked Weaver is its 'bill,' it is generally known as a 'seed' eating bird for which it strong 'conical' shaped bill is ideally suited for cracking those hard grass seed husks which it feeds upon. Also it is possible sometimes to tell which species of weaver bird  is in 'residence' purely by looking at the shape of the nest as certain weavers have a 'signature' style. 

This brings me on to the nests of the Southern Masked Weaver, for this is what weavers generally are most renowned for, nest building. The Southern Masked Weavers nest is generally constructed of intricately woven grass, and lined with feathers by the female and the entrance of the nest is always facing downwards, certain other weavers also use leaf fibre, and fine twigs. 

Like most weavers the Southern Masked Weaver is a gregarious sociable bird and they build their nests close together often on the same branch and often over bodies of water, which of course being so close together affords them a certain degree of protection as well.  The male breeding Southern Masked Weaver has several breeding partners (known as Polygyny not Polyandry) during the breeding season, which maybe between as many as 20-30, for which this little industrious bird builds nest for each and everyone of his females partners. Sometimes parasitised by cuckoos the female Southern Masked Weaver has a clever trick 'up her sleeve' or should I say 'under her wing' she actually lays different coloured eggs and the cuckoo has no way of knowing what colour the eggs are until it enters the nest to lay one itself. 

Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) clinging upside down on his grass nest
Male Southern Masked Weaver
Inspecting His Intricately Woven Grass Nest
Picture of Spectacled Weavers Grass Nest
The 'Signature' Grass Nest of  a Spectacled Weaver

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Greater Kudu-South Africa's Large Antelope

Wildlife and Nature Pictures -The Greater Kudu - Large Antelope of South Africa.

The wildlife on the African continent as we know is numerous and varied, South Africa is no exception with many wildlife species. One of the largest species of antelope in Africa is found in South Africa, it is the Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros). The 'Greater Kudu' antelope is one of 2 species of Kudu antelope found in Africa the other being the 'Lesser Kudu' (Tragelaphus imberbis) which is found more towards Africa's eastern side, as well as the 'Greater Kudu' already mentioned. If you come southwards however to South Africa's Kruger National Park you will see throughout its vast 2 million hectares great numbers of the 'Greater Kudu',  as well as the other national parks and nature reserves South Africa has to offer. All over South Africa you will see large numbers of these stunning antelope. 

Male 'Greater Kudu' antelope typically are about 200 cm (7 ft) in length, stand approximately 165 cm (65 in) tall at the shoulder and weigh in at a 'hefty' average of about 230 Kg or well over 550 lbs. Female 'Greater Kudu' on the other hand are considerably smaller, standing only about 100 cm (40 in) to the shoulder and weighing in at about 170kg or well over 300 lbs. The male 'Greater Kudu' is easily distinguishable from most other antelope as it has 'impressively' long spiral/twisted horns (usually about 2.5 twists) that on average reach about 100 cm (40 in) in length which also slant back slightly. Another distinguishing feature can only be described as a 'mane' along the throat  of the male 'Greater Kudu' also very large forward pointing ears on both the male and female.

'Greater Kudu' are what we describe as a 'browser' antelope and not a 'grazer'. What this actually means is that they 'pick' or 'browser' their food stuffs from tree's, bushes and shrubs, sometimes taking fruits. A grazer on the other hand takes their food from grasses and foods stuffs that grow and form along the ground. 

Female 'Greater Kudu' are normally found in small herds with their calves of around 5-15 individuals, with males being normally solitary, although they do sometimes form an all male 'bachelor' group.  They are often preyed upon by Africa's large carnivores the Lion, Leopard, Hyenas and Wild Dog, in-fact only a few weeks ago a female 'Greater Kudu' succumbed to a Leopard on the game reserve where I live, mother nature at work.

South Africa wildlife -Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus stepsiceros) 'Browsing' for food
A Male 'Greater Kudu '(Tragelaphus strepsiceros) 'browsing  for food' and showing his 'throat mane'

African wildlife - Greater Kudu (Tragelaphus stepsiceros) Kruger National Park-South Africa
Male 'Greater Kudu' (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) Showing off his 'spriral' 2.5 twisted  horns

Monday, 20 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Leopard Tortoise

Africa is Not Only About the Big Five -Wildlife on a Smaller Scale

Over the recent months with my trips into South Africa's Kruger National Park, I have experienced  an incredible amount and variety of South Africa wildlife. However, one thing I have noticed on numerous occasions and somewhat more than most,  is one of South Africa's smaller wildlife species, although small it is a very interesting subject to study and take pictures/photographs of.  I'm talking about the 'Leopard Tortoise' (Stigmochelys pardalis). This long living species (typically between 80 - 100 years) is a select member of an exclusive club known in South Africa as the 'Little Five' .

As most of us know, traditionally the 'Big Five' in Africa consists of  the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhino (Black or White).  How many of us on visits to Africa and its national parks have actually ticked off the 'Little Five'  ? - not many I would hazard a guess, me included. The 'Little Five' consists of  the Leopard Tortoise, Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver, Lionant and finally the Rhino Beetle, look them up for yourselves and keep an eye out for them next time you visit.

Back to my 'Leopard Tortoise'.  While I was sat there for a few minutes watching this Leopard Tortoise drinking water from this pool under the hot African sun, albeit it was still only 7:45am and temperatures were well into the thirties,  I wondered at this most ancient of wildlife species, generally solitary, a herbivore (plant eater) and one of the largest species of tortoise in the world, typically reaching 450mm long and weighing in at a hefty 20kg. I thought then that mother nature has truly allowed this and similar reptile  species to adapt over the millennia, as tortoises are one of the oldest of reptile groups and have been around for over 200 million years.   

I came to think of its beautifully patterned and unusual  shell called a 'carapace'  and one very interesting thing about the Leopard Tortoise and tortoises in general, it is the way they get rid of their waste products.  It is a common belief that tortoises get most of their water from the food they consume this in fact is not correct and they need regular water supplies.

As tortoises are found indeed in more arid areas, it has itself adapted and is able to excrete and urinate at the same time should it require, ridding the body of its waste products via urine and also what we call uric acid, (soft  semi solid white deposits). The latter can be excreted by, in this instance the Leopard Tortoise using substantially less water than if they were to urinate. Thus eliminating their waste products with far greater water conservation and not waste their valuable bodily fluids ie.. water. Indeed tortoises are normally programmed to only urinate when water replenishment is available. 

Much of the water drunk by tortoises is stored in its 'cloaca bursa' (anal pouch) this serves as a 'water reserve' and which amongst other things tortoises can also use this anal sac as a 'defence' mechanism. This is why its always best NOT to pick up tortoises, certainly in the wild as they may loose (eject in defence) its 'water supply' it has stored in its 'cloaca' that they would normally have used to 'survive'  the dryer months. 

African Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) one of the worlds largest species of Tortoise
Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) drinking water
Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) replenishing its 'cloaca bursa'

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Natures Female Swingers (Polyandry)

Wildlife Species-Grey Foam Nest-Tree Frogs  

In the wonderful world of nature many wildlife species do not stick to the general rules of 'one' mate during a breeding season. ie.. one male-one female or visa -versa..  In our human world it is broadly categorised as 'Polygamy' (having more than one spouse)  In natures animal kingdom, species that mate with more than one member of the opposite sex  during a breeding season is  termed as  'Polygyny' (A male mates with more than one female during a breeding season) or 'Polyandry' (A female mates with more than one male during a breeding season).

It is the latter 'Polyandry' on a grand scale that this female species of frog known as the Grey Foam Nest-Tree Frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) participates in. Currently all over Limpopo province where I live as well as in the rest of South Africa, I see dam's (pool's, lakes, pond's or general standing water) with the intriguing nests of this industrious and clever medium sized (+/- 100mm) frog .

The female Grey Foam Nest-Tree Frog  starts by climbing up the vegetation which will be overhanging water, sometimes this maybe many meters up from the waters surface. She then starts to deposit her eggs (many hundreds) on a branch or over a hanging protrusion over the water. At the same time she also secretes a 'sticky liquid' which is manipulated and kicked and worked up by her back legs to form a large 'foam nest', some I have seen are as big as footballs! At this point, it is where the many attendant males, as many as 12 or so ('simultaneous polyandry') fertilise the eggs with their sperm. 

The 'foam nest' helps prevent dessication of the eggs (drying out) and also minimise predation of her eggs and tadpoles, as frogs and toads that would normally lay their eggs in the water are susceptible to this problem. Once the eggs have hatched in the nest  and after 3-5 days the little tadpoles wriggle and drop out the 'foam nest' into the water below to continue their feeding and metamorphosis life cycle after being given the best possible start in life.

Wildlife and nature are full of interesting facts, one of these facts concerning the Grey Foam Nest-Tree Frog is also quite interesting.  Like most frogs the Grey Foam Nest-Tree Frog is susceptible to 'drying out' and the reason why most frogs are nocturnal and active during the cooler parts of the day. However,  mother nature provides these frogs with the ability to produce a 'mucus' type skin all over their bodies which combined with the with-drawing of their limbs 'close' to their bodies, it helps prevent the 'drying out' happening and thus retain their  body moisture.

Grey Foam Nest Frog and Foam Nest- Nature and Polyandry
Grey Foam Nest Tree Frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) - (limbs withdrawn to help loss of body moisture)
and a 'Foam Nest'

Monday, 13 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Natures Mating Rituals

Mother Nature and her Mating Game

Wildlife, if you live your life daily in the South African bush can take on a whole new meaning. You can immerse yourself in a whole new world of mystery and intrigue, the  'toings' and 'froings' of many of mother natures wildlife's interesting characters. This spectacle  is played out daily in front of you and it can take a 'life time' to fully understand, but only a mere moment to enjoy, if you are lucky enough to witness such happeneings. I count myself very lucky to witness  and photograph many such spectacles to share with you all. 

As the months come and go you start to notice the bush's wildlife changing their behaviour, colour, attitudes and as in my last few post they may even 'disappear' or 'appear' all together as seasonal migrations take place or they hibernate.

For the various species of wildlife that actually breed in South Africa, the time eventually comes around when love is in the air, which in most cases is the onset of Spring. Mother nature provides many ways in which certain species choose a 'mate' and how they are chosen. One of the interesting processes many wildlife species go through to choose a mate initially, is a system which is called 'Lekking'. Lekking usually takes place before or during the breeding season.

Many of natures wildlife species like Birds, Antelope, Frogs, Seals, Crabs, even Butterflies use this system. Briefly then  'Lekking' is conducted is an area or arena called a 'Lek' where a 'aggregation' (gathering) of  males  form 'small territories', to 'defend' and display themselves to potential females mates.

Dependant on size of species, this could be anything from a few centimetres to 20 or 30 meters  but the areas are solely for competitive display purposes (as 'resourced regional territories' and or 'home ranges' of animals is another subject altogether and best kept for another post) and are defended by males against each other with a view to establishing a 'hierarchy' and attracting female mates. 

Many females of the species on the other hand  visit  these areas/arenas 'Leks' primarily to find a mate. Those males that are noticed by females are those perhaps with large horns or antlers, bright coloured coats or feathers, large in statue, audible noises like snorting and or singing displays (birds) all go to make up a 'display' in a 'Lek' to attract a female mate and continue the gene pool.

Natures fine specimen - Impala ram, a species which uses the 'lekking' system to find a mate
A fine male specimen (ram) 'Impala'
A species of Antelope found in South Africa which uses the 'lekking' system to help find a mate.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Nature's Big Roller's (The Dung Beetles)

Wildlife's Smallest of Creatures

Although generally accepted  the insects are some of the smallest of mother natures  wildlife wonders. 'Insecta' (insects) are in fact the largest group of animals and represent approximately three quarters of all the animal species recorded to date.  They are possibly the only animals that occur worldwide from the -40C in the Arctic Circle to the worlds deserts, with its temperatures in excess of 65C.

Wildlife genre and in particular insects is a large, complex subject to delve into but basically insects are split into 3 groups as far as their 'life cycle' development is concerned, these being in the simplest of 'life cycle' changes called 'Ametabolism' in this process, young insects  have the same body shape as the  adult. After emerging from the egg, the insect undergoes only changes in size, but not shape, as it matures. Take that of Silverfish, they develop through 'Ametabolism'. 

'Hemimetabolic' in which the metamorphosis (transformation)  from the egg> nymph> and onward through the stages of development is similar to that of an adult insect and various stages of 'moults' called 'instars' (periods of change) until it reaches adulthood and is able to breed. Like that of cockroaches and locusts.

The other group of insects and most common of 'life cycles' are what is called 'Holometabolic'. This group of insects once the egg has been laid go through a total transformation (Life Cycle) which unlike the Hemimetabolic orders doesn't resemble the final adult form at any stage. Like that of a butterfly or moth, which goes through the egg>larvae>pupa (Crystalist)> and then adult stages.

One of the most fascinating aspects of wildlife in  Africa's insect world to sit and watch is the industrious 'dung beetle', I have watch 'amazed' as these little insects roll 'dung balls' many times their own size quite freely around the sometimes quite arduous terrain. These dung beetles which as explained above come under the 'Holometabolic' group of insects. The dung beetle is further split by mother nature into those that 'roll' their  dung balls and those that just move around freely, mate and and lay their eggs in dung, mainly of herbivores (animals that eat plant material). 

Of those that roll their dung, a male prepares a 'nuptial ball' and rolls it away with the female in hot pursuit. Once he finds a suitable spot, he digs a hole and buries the ball then both him and the female go down into the hole where they mate and eat the 'ball of dung'. Once  this has been done which could take several days, either the male or female prepares a second ball of dung called a 'brood ball'. This ball is again taken into the hole and the female alone goes down into the chamber left by the first ball and proceeds to deposit her eggs 'in' the 'brood ball'. The female then goes off and closes the entrance to the tunnel to start this process again elsewhere.

In a week or so the eggs hatch into 'larvae' which devours the dung ball from the 'inside'  after 2 or 3 weeks the 'larvae'  changes to a 'pupa' which later gives rise to an adult beetle all protected inside a 'crusted' shell which stopped the food from drying out during the life cycle process. 

Dung Beetles, Natures most industrious insects and one of wildlife's smallest creatures
A male 'Dung Beetle' (Family: Scarabaeidae) rolling his 'nuptial' dung ball

Monday, 6 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - South African Bird Migration (Part 3)

Natures Wonders of Bird Migration (Part 3)

Wildlife and nature in pictures and words, what a wanderous  genre it is. 

In my last post 'Natures Wonders of Bird Migration (Part 2) I advised on the different migratory patterns we find here in South Africa. Namely Intra African migrants,vagrants (all as discussed in my last post) and lastly and what I want to touch on in this post, Afro Paleartic migrants.

Wildlife is wonderful and strange in many ways and none more so than Afro Paleartic migratory birds. These migratory birds are species that migrate between Europe/Northern - Southern Asia and South/Southern Africa). In South Africa we have 44 recorded species of Afro Paleartic migratory birds as denoted by SABAP2 (South African Bird Atlas Project 2). These migratory birds, some large, some small and some in the middle!!  Fly thousands of kilometers to spend the summer months in South and Southern Africa and return all the way back home again to spend the summer months in Europe and Asia mostly but not all to breed.

Some of the well recognised Afro Paleartic migrants here in South Africa by the 'man in the street' are possibly the Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus) and the Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis) (medium sized raptors/birds of prey) which fly all the way from their breeding grounds in eastern Europe, Southern Russia and the central Asian 'steppes' and as far east a Mongolia. Afro Paleartic migrant birds most recognised from Europe include the 'Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) and the colorful European Bee Eater (Merops apiaste) and the ever present European Roller (Coracias garrulus). These Afro Paleartic migrants start to arrive in South Africa between August - November each year and start their departure March -April the following year. Bird migration is a fascinating and interesting subject  which I urge you to research further which ever part of the world you maybe in.

Probably the most travelled of our Afro Paleartic migrant birds is a small insectivorous raptor (eats insects) the 'Amur Falcon' (Falco amurensis). This small raptor breeds in south eastern Siberia and northern China before migrating in very large flocks across India and over the Arabian Sea to winter in South/Southern Africa a round trip of over 22,000km!!

Finally a  question one must ask in all of the last 3 posts on bird migration, why do birds migrate? It is generally understood the reasons for migration are 2 fold. Birds migrate to move from areas of low or decreasing resources to areas of high or increasing resources. The two primary resources being sought by them  are food and nesting locations. 

Wildlifes Afro Paleartic migrant - Amur Falcon one of natures wanders
A female 'Amur Falcon' an Afro Paleartic migrant to South Africa. She flies over 22,000km on her migration to and from South Africa

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Wildlife and Nature Pictures - South African Bird Migration (Part 2)

Natures Wonders of Bird Migration (Part 2)

Following on from my last post, Wildlife and Nature Pictures - Bird Migration (Part 1) I touched on the various migrant birds we have in South Africa, breeding, non breeding, Intra-African migrants and Paleartic migrants or more precise Afro Paleartic migrants. Of course we also have the 'Vagrants' which grace our shores periodically. 'Vagrants' are rare and or uncommon birds that are 'known' but are far out of their normal geographical range. For example the 'Citrine Wagtail' normally found in North and Central Asia and normally migrate to Southern Asia, was spotted at a South African river mouth  'Gamtoos' in 1998. This would be denoted as a 'rare vagrant' with no records since.

Breeding and non breeding migrant birds speak for themselves really and as mentioned previously, they fall under our two main categories either Intra African migrants or Afro Paleartic migrants. In this post I would like to explain what we mean by Intra-African migrants.

Intra African migrants quite simply are 'birds that migrate within Africa' and here in South Africa we have 35 recorded species as denoted by SABAP2 (South African Bird Atlas Project 2). - African Paradise Flycatcher, Diderick Cuckoo - (Breeding), Horus Swift- (Breeding), Southern Carmine Bee-eater and Woodlands Kingfisher to name but a few are all birds that migrate to South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries for the summer months and I have seen and photographed the above many times this summer.

As an approximate date these Intra-African migrants start arriving in South Africa from Sub-Equatorial Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa between Sept-Nov and start to leave between Mar-April. Birds north of this Sub-Saharan region generally migrate between mainland Europe and Asia. Interestingly it should be noted and has been reported and researched that due to climatic change arrival/departure times seem to be changing. 

Colourful wildlife picture of a Southern Carmine Bee-eater perched in a tree, one of natures Intra-African migrants
The Southern Carmine Bee-eater
is a Intra-African Migrant Visitor to South Africa's Kruger National Park