It’s already February and I haven’t written a newsletter for months. I apologise, but life has just been too exciting.Tonight as I was looking back on my adventures in order to choose a theme for a newsletter, I was flooded with wonderful recollections of times with friends and clients in Victoria Falls, Hwange, Cape Town, Uganda, Belgium, Singita, Table Mountain, Timbavati, The Succulent Karoo, Namibia, The winelands, The Cederberg . . .
I hope to share all of these adventures with you but the one that is demanding to be heard now is “the adventure of Bill and the birders”. I had the incredible privilege of guiding a group together with Bill Buskirk, former Professor of Biology at Earlham University. The trip was organised by Solaris Expeditions and most of the participants had been students of Bill’s, particularly his legendary ornithology class. Prior to the trip Bill reassured me that none of them were particularly keen (read “obsessive”) birders. I was soon to discover that this was not at all true. In fact, almost every one of them was obsessed with birds. But Bill taught me some great life lessons through birding. Spending time with him is like Zen and the art of birdwatching and by the time we were part way through the trip I had rediscovered my childhood passions and was a born-again birder.
As I flipped through the photographs that I took on that tour a theme leapt out at me, and the theme is “adaptive patterns in nature”.
Early on in the trip we saw some Helmeted Guinea Fowl adults with very young chicks (known as “keets”).
Notice the remarkable difference in appearance between the adults and the young. The adults have conspicuous blue heads with a bright red knob and their dark feathers are liberally sprinkled with white pearls. These conspicuous features help them find and identify conspecific mates as well as assisting the males to advertise their territories. The keets in contrast are very cryptically coloured, because they are extremely vulnerable and are a favoured food on the menu of many predators.
One of their potential predators is this Spotted Eagle Owl. These owls are very unpopular with the diurnal birds and so they are excellently camouflaged as they sit still in the trees during the day. Notice also how the area around the eyes is lighter in colour – in order to collect as much light as possible to enhance night vision.
We also saw this beautiful Long horned Grasshopper (Family Tettigoniidae) that very closley resembled the restio on which it was resting – right down to matching with the red colour of the plant sheaths.
Up the West Coast we visited a Cape Gannet colony. These intriguing birds nest in a handful of locations and at incredibly high densities. In order to maintain territories and court females and make their way through the throng, these birds have developed very ritualised elaborate displays, which are essentially a visual vocabulary. In order to accentuate the visual messages they have conspicuous markings that create directional arrows which emphasize their upwardly extended necks in some of the more common displays.
Another special sighting that we had was of this rarely seen Cape Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion pumilum). These wonderful creatures are extremely well camouflaged and difficult to see as they move slowly through the vegetation in search of their insect prey, which they capture by shooting-out a tongue that is twice the length of their body.
Their camouflage is enhanced by the way they shake their body as they slowly move, making them resemble a leaf shaking in the wind. However, when seen up close they are very beautiful.
One of the highlights for the birders was the excellent sightings that we had of Cape Sugarbirds (Promerops cafer), one of the bird species endemic to The Fynbos. These birds are always found in close association with Protea, from which they obtain their main food – nectar. They are very important in the pollination of proteas. In the picture below a dusting of pollen can be seen on the forehead of this bird that had been probing in the protea flowers.
The males of this species have very long tails which are very conspicuous as they fly above the low-growing scrub that is characteristic of the fynbos. In this way and together with their raucous calls, they advertise their territory and attract females. At the time that I snapped this photograph, I did not notice that this bird had been ringed for research (note his right leg).
I hope that you have enjoyed this article – inspired in equal parts by Bill, his birders and the beautiful surroundings of my current home.