Lockdown luxuries

Focussing on what I have

Olive Pigeon (used to be called the Rameron Pigeon)

I woke up yesterday morning – day 16 of South Africa’s, what is now, 5 week lockdown due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and I was greeted by a large flock of Olive Pigeons in the Eucalyptus trees near my little cottage; approximately 50 of them.

It is the Easter long weekend; meant to be the busiest weekend of the year for me, as it is the weekend that a highly successful walking festival runs in the Garden Route. Instead, I find myself with frustratingly little to do, and nowhere I am allowed to go, as a result of our very strict lockdown.

As I, like so many small businesses in the country, face the very real prospect of absolute financial ruin, I remind myself many times through each day, how lucky I am to live where I do through all this uncertainty. With so many people stuck in large blocks of flats, or in the middle of big cities, or overcrowded in small houses, I am eternally grateful for my lockdown luxuries.

Just a few bird species that I can see right outside my cottage are; Southern Boubou, Olive Woodpecker, Speckled Mousebird, Burchell’s Coucal, Cape Sugarbird, White-faced Whistling Duck, White-necked Raven, Black Crow, Forest & Jackal Buzzard, odd flyovers of the African Fish Eagle, and many more. I spot the odd Three-striped Mice and Vlei Rats too, and there are a myriad of insect species, and their relatives, around.

I also have access to some of the surrounding Fynbos, as it is part of the property. As a person having spent most of the past 20-odd years outdoors in wild environments, it is difficult for me, not only because I can’t go walking, but also because I am not out teaching. Guiding has that double enjoyment factor; being out in amazing surroundings, and being in a position to teach about those surroundings. I need both!

I choose to focus on these positive things in my life, and I take moments every day to enjoy the little nature pleasures that surround me. I was out on a short walk yesterday morning, after enjoying the Olive Pigeon flock, and today’s blog is a very simple ‘this is what I got to see’. But first, one more pigeon photo!

Olive Pigeon in preening mode

Flowers aside

One of the true pleasures of walking in Fynbos is that, no matter the time of year, there are always a variety of species of plants in flower. As a result of this, there is a wonderful array of insects around, and wonderfully colourful and chatty birds to enjoy. This is the enjoyable part. The frustrating part is to actually get photographic evidence of what you are seeing, hearing and identifying. The birds are often distant, the insects quite small, and the bush thick and tall. I record at least dozens more than I ever photograph. Haven’t we invented a camera for the eye yet?

One of those butterfly species I can never be sure of

There is hardly a day out and about that you don’t see a few butterflies. Some are fairly obvious and easy to identify, some not so easy and take a bit of work, some are near impossible unless you start asking experts. The above photo is one of the latter.

My best guess is a Geranium Bronze, but I can’t be certain unfortunately. 

A beautiful Painted Lady

Painted Ladies are part of the Pansy family, with six species in South Africa. They are found all over the world and are abundant in South Africa. These are striking butterflies and, thanks to the fact that they sit mostly with their wings open, you can get really good sightings of them.

Cape Autumn Widow

Cape Autumn Widows are more active in the South African autumn period and, as the larvae mostly eat grass, they are quite common in our gardens. Most butterflies lay their eggs on leaves of the plants that are their primary food source during the larval stage, but the female Autumn Widows tend to scatter their eggs during flight. There are at least ten species of Widows, with this one being the most common for this area.

Spotting birds

Cape Sugarbird, female

Cape Sugarbirds are autumn/winter breeders and are, as a result, pleasantly active at this time of the year. I have seen quite a few flying around with sticks and leaves in their beaks. They prefer the Protea flowers above all else, and will do mini-migrations in the area to follow the flowering plants. As a result, they have a symbiotic relationship with tiny mites that inhabit the flower heads. These mites can’t move to neighbouring plants, and actually climb onto the heads of the Sugarbirds as they thrust their heads into the Protea flower heads. They then act as taxis, transporting these mites to other flowers, where they then climb off again; never harming the bird.

A Sombre Greenbul

One of the most common birds that you hear all around the Garden Route, in the forests as well as the Fynbos, is the Sombre Greenbul. You, in fact, hear them a thousand times more than you see them! They have a number of different calls and can cause many hours of frustration as you slowly learn the various sounds.

They are not a particularly shy bird, and you can get some wonderful sightings of them, but their natural behaviour is to remain in thicker bush.

There are many beautiful and colourful birds in the Fynbos that I could highlight here, but I am purposefully sticking to the ones I got pictures of on the day and, sadly, I only shot these two species on the day. I recorded at least a dozen other species on this little wander, but they never count unless you have proof!

Then there's the ones we're not interested in

A Common Metallic Longhorn Beetle

I have yet to find an animal in this world that I don’t like, and this includes the usual suspects that most of us have no interest in (or absolute repulsion for); cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, etc.

As a guide, I have always tried to ensure that my guests get a good overview on my walks and/or drives; mammals, birds, plants, insects and everything in-between. I don’t particularly care whether you love something or not, but rather that you understand their functions in life, and have some respect for them.

I didn’t spot any of the ‘detestables’ on this walk, but the two I’m showing aren’t exactly high up on people’s lists to see either. Longhorn larvae are all wood borers, and some species are pests of timber. As soon as an animal of any kind is labelled as a pest, our brains convince us that it is of no use, and that we don’t like it anymore. These are beautiful beetles, with some species being very colourful, but do take care if you decide to handle. The mandibles (jaws) are large and strong, especially in males, and the bigger species can give you quite a sore nip. 

The shed skin of a grasshopper

There always so many different types of grasshoppers in the Fynbos, and I haven’t come close to identifying them all yet. Grasshoppers can only grow by shedding their hard outer covering, or exoskeleton, and I found such a skin of a grasshopper on this walk; pictured above.

All insects fit into one of two groups. There are holometabolous insects, such as the butterflies, where they go from egg to larvae to pupa, and then adult. Grasshoppers are hemimetabolous insects, meaning their larval stages resemble the adults. All they do is go through multiple sheds as they grow, and some will slowly develop wings as they become an adult.

If you are an insect and need to climb out of your own skin, the best way to do that is to cling onto something; a grass or restios stalk, a leaf, or a branch. This is what you see above. The tear in the exoskeleton appears on the middle area of the back, and the animal literally climbs out of its skin. It is, at this stage, rather vulnerable to predation and injury, as the new body is quite soft. The insects tend to sit still for a while, waiting for the body to harden up and dry, before it moves off.

Insects and their relatives (spiders, mites, scorpions, etc.) are by far the most common things you will encounter on any walk along the Garden Route. If you have no interest in them, you’re in for a bit of a boring walk I’m afraid. Keep an eye open for various types just in your garden and perhaps, hopefully, you will develop a keener interest and respect for them. Go spend some time outside, and let’s see what you can find! I am always happy for people to send me photos of various creatures for identification, and you can do so through email or WhatsApp. My details are on my Let’s Talk page 

Not that those Olive Pigeons were especially lovely to see or anything, but I sign off from today’s blog with a final look at them. Keep safe, and keep looking at, and enjoying, the beauty that is always around us, no matter where you are… 

The striking Olive Pigeon
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