Marula

A while back, I wrote a post about a magic tree. A magic penis tree. It was, of course, not really magic at all. It just had such strange, unlikely fruit that it some odd beliefs got attached to it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any magic trees down in the Lowveld. Here’s one.

Abracadabrah!

Abracadabrah!

It’s called a Marula. If you want to be picky, I suppose it isn’t really magic either. But it may as well be, because it is so staggeringly useful that it would be the poster child of the intelligent design squad if they knew about it. Yes folks, it’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem post. I’m doing a tree again. I hope you can contain yourselves.

The Marula is an old friend of ours. A very old friend indeed. Some Marula seed pods left there by humans were found in Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe. About 24 million of them. From 10 000 BC. But we’ve been eating them since a little before that, when we were hairier and better at climbing.

So reliant were the ancient people of Africa on Marulas that some experts think the distribution of the Marula was influenced by the movement of Africa’s Bantu people.

There are not 24 million Marulas here. I counted. Twice.

There are not 24 million Marulas here. I counted. Twice.

Certainly today the trees are treated with reverence. They are not cut down when other trees are cleared for farming, and among some people, it is taboo to do so. This is quite a sensible way to go about things. Marulas are kind of useful. I’m not even sure where to start. So I’ll start with food.

Some food.

Some food.

 

Marulas are tasty. Which is quite handy, since a tree can produce about 500kg of fruit a year. They’re related to mangos, but have a flavour all of their own. They’re also related to poison ivy. Just saying. But they’re not just tasty; they’re good for you, too. Marula fruit has four times more vitamin C than oranges. They are eaten ripe or ground up to make porridge. They can also be boiled down and made into a jelly that is eaten with roast meat.

Marula jelly. Or I’m just making this all up for the purpose of sneaking pictures of honey into your subconscious for purposes which you will never understand.

Marula jelly. Or I’m just making this all up for the purpose of sneaking pictures of honey into your subconscious for purposes which you will never understand.

And that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. These funny looking things are empty Marula seed pods.

Or Leprechaun skulls. I’ve never learned to tell the difference.

Or Leprechaun skulls. I’ve never learned to tell the difference.

The seeds themselves sit behind hard-to-find trap-doors in the pods hard shell. They might be hard to find, but they are worth finding. They, too, are rich in vitamin C, and they are rich in protein and minerals. Which is a little trying, as they are quite hard to get at. It can take a day to fill up a small tin with kernels.

So you’d better bloody well enjoy them!

So you’d better bloody well enjoy them!

 

All this eating stuff is quite nice for the people who harvest them. We humans like to eat. But what we love to do is drink. This is a clip from an old wildlife documentary called “Animals are Beautiful People, Too”, made by the guy who made “The Gods Must be Crazy”.

Sadly it was probably staged. The bush is not filled with drunken animals every year when the Marulas get ripe. There is one animal that really does get drunk on Marulas, though. Us. These fine ladies are making Marula beer.

 

They have a way to go still.

They have a way to go still.

Marula beer is not drunk-making beer. It is of enormous cultural significance, being used in ceremonies like weddings. If you want to get drunk, you need to find this stuff.

The barbed wire is there to keep out mice.

The barbed wire is there to keep out mice.

It’s called mampoer. It’s the South African version of moonshine. It tears your throat out on the way down, but you don’t need much. It’s also good for stripping paint.

Bottles with barbed wire around them do not scream urbane sophistication. But fear not. If you want to get fancy, there’s this stuff.

 

Aren’t we all just so lah-de-dah.

Aren’t we all just so lah-de-dah.

If you ever find any, buy it. Drink it over crushed ice. It really is delicious. And you won’t go blind.

If you drink too much, never fear. A coffee substitute can be made from the skins of the fruit.

But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there’s more. Oil from the kernels makes a very good cosmetic cream. Which is nice if you want to look pretty. If you are pretty enough already, you can cook with the oil or use it as a condiment.

I am not pretty enough already. No condiments for me.

I am not pretty enough already. No condiments for me.

The tree is also good if you’re actually sick. The bark contains an antihistamine, and is used to treat insect and scorpion bites. The bark is good for diarrhoea and dysentery. The tree even has anti-malarial qualities. And if you get heartburn from all the eating and drinking you’ve been doing, the leaves should soon sort you out.

And on we go. You can make rope from the bark, as well as a brown dye. You can mix the gum with soot and water to make ink. And the wood is nice and soft, so it’s good for carving.

You can carve a bowl to keep your bowls in.

You can carve a bowl to keep your bowls in.

And just in case you thought we were done, the Marula can save your life. If you find yourself dying of thirst out in the bush, you can dig up the roots of a Marula and literally squeeze enough water from them to survive.

Phew. That’s just about it.

It’s not just us who like Marulas. Most herbivores love them. Which can be a bit of a problem. Specifically, it’s a bit of a problem that these guys love them.

What the hell are you doing in my garden?

What the hell are you doing in my garden?

Marula fruits fall to the ground when they are ripe. It can be incongruously funny to watch a four ton behemoth picking up fruits the size of plums one by one with the tips of their trunks and popping them into their mouths.

But elephants are not always so patient. Sometimes they do this.

Either an elephant did this, or that guy shot it down using his patented “over the shoulder” technique.

Either an elephant did this, or that guy shot it down using his patented “over the shoulder” technique.

It’s hard to believe, what with all the poaching that goes on up North of us, but there are far too many elephants in the Lowveld. Their numbers have been swelled to above carrying capacity by the building of artificial water points. And it’s starting to have an impact.

Every time we go down to the bush, there are fewer big Marulas still standing. But we’ll discuss the elephant issue some other time, when I’m feeling sharper. It’s complicated.

Right now, I’m off to have a nightcap and go to bed. I’m sure I have a bottle of Amarula somewhere….

I don’t. I don’t have a bottle of Amarula somewhere. I was just saying that for effect. And now I am very sad.

I don’t. I don’t have a bottle of Amarula somewhere. I was just saying that for effect. And now I am very sad.

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Posted in African Wildlife, humor, long reads, nature, plants, South Africa, trees, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Owls. Again. For the last time. I promise.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I have, of late, been writing about owls. Lowveld owls. Lots of them. I like owls. But I must confess to being just about over writing about them.

My dreams have become a little peculiar.

My dreams have become a little peculiar.

I’m sure you all feel the same. But come with me one last time and we’ll be done. These are the big ones.

The Spotted Eagle owl.

And having just told you that, the first owl actually isn’t all that big, only about 700g or so. But I have a soft spot for spotted eagle owls, because there is a pair of them that visits our home every now and then. We will be sitting outside as the sun goes down, and hear a quiet hoot or two. We know where their favourite roosts are, so all we have to do is stand up and there they will be. And they look pretty big in the suburbs.

I, too, am big in the suburbs.

I, too, am big in the suburbs.

Surprisingly, for a fairly big owl, they, like many of the owls I’ve written about, live mostly on insects. They also eat a fair number of rodents and birds. And they eat something else, too. They eat carrion. This is just super down in the Lowveld, where everything obligingly kills everything else, and leaves the scraps lying around.

It’s not quite so super everywhere else. Where man has moved in and removed most of the ecosystem, the major source of carrion is roadkill. Lurking about on busy roads at night is not a very sensible thing for a large bird to do. They, too, become roadkill. Often. So much so that on my most recent trip up to the bush, I saw a road sign warning not of deer crossing, but of owls.

Like this, but with an owl on it.

Like this, but with an owl on it.

If this doesn’t make you feel sad enough, I can throw something else. Spotted Eagle Owls mate for life. They get married. Those calls I was talking about earlier are as much to serenade their spouses as they are to advertise their territory. And they form part of a duet. Which means that for every owl driven over by a careless or unknowing driver, somewhere out there is a sad and lonely “Too-wit” without a “too-woo”.

Depressed? Sorry. Let’s move along.

The Pel’s Fishing Owl.

And now, at last, we get to the big buggers. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is properly big. It weighs about two kilograms, which is massive for a flying bird. You would think that this would let it stand out in a crowd. No. This is a sneaky, sneaky owl.

This one is letting the entire species down by being bad at sneaking

This one is letting the entire species down by being bad at sneaking

 

So sneaky is it that for years no-one knew it occurred in the Lowveld at all. But they are there, lurking along the perennial rivers. There are not a lot of them, but even those that are there are hardly ever seen. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, there aren’t a hell of a lot of perennial rivers in the Lowveld. And secondly, the ones that are there are surrounded by tall, dense trees, like elongated oases of forest in a sea of open savannah. But most of all, Pel’s Fishing Owls are very good at hiding.

There are seven Pel’s Fishing Owls in this picture.

There are seven Pel’s Fishing Owls in this picture.

They have to be. Most owls eat other birds when they can. As a result, they get mobbed mercilessly by other birds if they are exposed during the day. I’ve actually spotted a couple of owls this way. Your attention is attracted by a cloud of shrieking and clamouring birds. Small birds. Starlings and seed-eaters and the like.

No such luck for the Pel’s Fishing Owl. Exposed Pel’s Fishing Owls are mobbed by eagles. Fish Eagles. Every patch of permanent water in the Lowveld is occupied by Fish Eagles. And they’re big. They’re the African version of America’s Bald Eagle. They even look the same.

 We don’t put ours on flags. We put ours on whiskey bottles.


We don’t put ours on flags. We put ours on whiskey bottles.

Which is a very good reason for the Pel’s Fishing Owl to hide away.

Pel’s Fishing Owls, surprisingly enough, live on fish, mostly barbell, and have specially adapted claws for the purpose. When they get bored they might take a crab or a baby crocodile or two, but they are fairly specialised.

I’ve never seen one, and probably never will. Even dedicated birders are lucky to spot them. But it’s nice to know they’re there.

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl.

This is the big guy. He’s the third heaviest owl in the world. So big is he that he used to be called the Giant Eagle Owl. Which seems pretty sensible to me. But not to the people who take it upon themselves to rename birds at random.

It’s absolutely huge! Let’s name it after a dead French guy to avoid confusion.

It’s absolutely huge! Let’s name it after a dead French guy to avoid confusion.

 

They weigh over two kilograms, slightly more than the Pel’s. And live like it. Like most owls, they will take rodents. But they don’t stop there. They eat birds. Big birds. They will happily take down ducks and geese. As a starter. They also cheerfully eat other owls, and birds as big a Secretary Birds.

Which is this big, and does karate on snakes.

Which is this big, and does karate on snakes.

They eat bigger mammals than rats, too. They will take half-grown monkeys and baby warthogs, and have been seen flying with a 1,8kg mongoose, nearly their own weight.

There is something awe inspiring about them. They just look massive and powerful. And they sound like it, too. They grunt. Like pigs. The first time I heard them, they scared the life out of me. I was walking alone through some thick bush when I heard a guttural “Hunk hunk.” I spun around, coiled and ready to take whatever action a soft pink thing could take when confronted by an angry beast, but there was nothing there.

And it was damn lucky it wasn’t. I know a bit of karate myself!

And it was damn lucky it wasn’t. I know a bit of karate myself!

I only realised a few years later it was just an owl. A two kilogram, two foot tall owl with freaky pink eyelids, but an owl no less. Because yes, they do have freaky pink eyelids. And no, I don’t know why. It must have something to do with communication, because they really do stand out.

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is one of the few birds capable of showing embarrassment.

The Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is one of the few birds capable of showing embarrassment.

They, too, are mobbed by raptors, but it doesn’t seem to bother them as much. They frequently hunt during the day, and besides, they sometimes catch and eat raptors, so maybe it’s just a case of them playing with their food.

And that, good people, is that when it comes to owls. I will never write about them again, I promise. Unless our garden owls try to take one of the children. That might be worth a post or two.

Posted in birding, birds, humor, long reads, nature, South Africa, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged | 1 Comment

More owls.

I’ve never seen a Bushpig. I have loved wildlife for as long as I can remember, and wherever I go, I keep an eye open for things that creep and crawl and growl and bustle about in the undergrowth. I’ve seen quite a lot over the years, and in terms of mammals, I can page through a South African mammal guide and tick off most of the list, not counting rats and mice and bats, because life is too short.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

There are a couple of ticks missing. I’ve never seen a Serval, or a Pangolin. But that’s OK. Hardly anyone has. They’re pretty rare. But I’ve never seen that Bushpig, either.  And they are not rare at all. Better yet, they tend to cling on in areas where most other big mammals have been wiped out. They are pests for farmers, and lurk around in thickets along hiking trails and wilderness areas.

They just don’t want me to see them. Which is hurtful and unkind. But I’ve learned to cope. We live in an age when real men are allowed to cry. And today I realised that it’s not just the Bushpigs. The owls have been doing it to me too.

 Nature.


Nature.

I’m not a birdwatcher. I’ve learned to identify quite a few of them over the years, and know a little bit about them, but I’ve never set out to find them. They’re just there.

Owls are different though. Owls are cool. I would happily go out looking for owls. Yep, it’s time for yet another post on the owls of the Lowveld. There’s a seemingly endless supply of the buggers. And today was going to be a bit tricky, because two of the three were rare. Hard to find. Little known. Seldom seen. Or so I thought.

They really are cool. I defy you to tell me this doesn’t somehow just seem right.

They really are cool. I defy you to tell me this doesn’t somehow just seem right.

The Marsh Owl.

The name says it all. These rare, seldom seen birds lurk about in deep, dank, inaccessible areas, hiding out in deep, rank beds of tall reeds, almost unknown to science due to the impenetrable and moist nature of their chosen habitat. which explains why I’ve never seen one. Or.

Or, as I learned today, they are one of the most commonly seen owls in the Lowveld. The way the guide books speak about them, it’s a surprise that there isn’t a mandatory speed-limit of 10km/h for Lowveld cyclists to stop them getting caught in bicycle spokes.

A Marsh Owl. I think. It might be a Pangolin

A Marsh Owl. I think. It might be a Pangolin

They are fairly common, for a start. But it’s more than that. A marsh, certainly in South Africa, is usually just an area of open grassland that happens to be quite moist. And Marsh owls are not perfectly named. It seems to be the open grass, rather than the moist, that they’re after. You can find them in fairly dry areas. If you happen not to be me.

They aren’t small, about 36cm tall, and in the grassland have nowhere to hide. And it gets better. They spend much more time flying around and hunting during the day than most other owls. But wait. As in any good infomercial, there’s more. They are less territorial than other owls, but when they are breeding, they launch into spectacular display flights, with wing clapping and deep croaks. In broad daylight.

But wait. Sigh. There is, as always, more. When they’re not breeding, they roost together. In groups up to 75 strong. In the open grassland. On prominent perches. In the daytime.

Like this. Only with no hands.

Like this. Only with no hands.

And I’ve never seen one. Neither hide nor hair of one. This is quite an achievement, even if I say so myself. This is like going to a Grateful Dead concern and not being able to find any high people. Like going to an online gaming convention and not being able to find a virgin. I’d hardly even heard of them.

Maybe next time. They are actually fairly interesting owls. I kept talking about how open grassland is. It is, for us. But if you go and throw a fieldmouse into a field of knee-high grass and then try to find it, you will find that in a lot of ways it isn’t. Rats and mice are actually much easier to find in forests.

This woman, for example, is holding seven large rats and a gerbil.

This woman, for example, is holding seven large rats and a gerbil.

It also just so happens that grassland supports more rats and mice that almost any other habitat. There is a rich resource to be exploited, but it’s hard to exploit it. The Marsh Owl manages to do so. All owls rely on their hearing to hunt, but the Marsh owl does so more than most. It’s the only way to find their prey. And it’s not a hugely successful way. About 80% of their hunts fail.

The Wood Owl.

And then there’s the Wood Owl. I’ve never seen him, either. But that’s OK. Neither has anyone else. Wood Owls hang out in deep, forested areas of the Lowveld along the rivers. They are strictly nocturnal. And they are uncommon.

Wood Owls. I think. They might be Pangolins.

Wood Owls. I think. They might be Pangolins.

They live on insects and birds, with the odd snake or Bushbaby thrown in. And that’s about it. Seldom seen equates with little known.

But they do have one thing that stands out. Their call. They say “Who”. A lot. And they are fiercely territorial.

The Barn Owl.

We call them Barn Owls. You might have a different name for them. Take a look and pick out the one you recognise;

White Owl, Silver Owl, Golden Owl, Demon Owl, Ghost Owl, Death Owl, Night Owl, Rat Owl, Church Owl, Cave Owl, Stone Owl, Monkey-faced Owl, Hissing Owl, Hobgoblin Owl, Hobby Owl, Dobby Owl, White-breasted Owl, Golden Owl, Scritch Owl, Screech Owl, Straw Owl, Barnyard Owl, and Delicate Owl.

One of the above.

One of the above.

There’s a reason for all these names. Barn Owls are one of the most widely distributed birds on the planet. You find them everywhere. They are missing from a few islands, the polar circles, and some of the deserts. And in some of the places you don’t find them, you find very close cousins.

One of the reasons for their international success is that they are very good at what they do. And what they do is eat rodents. They eat other things, too, birds and insects, but nothing that flies is better equipped to deal with rats and mice.

By “dealing with”, I mean this.

By “dealing with”, I mean this.

That pale, heart shaped facial disk is actually an extension of their ears. And their ears are phenomenal. They are asymmetrically placed on the skull, to aid the owl in pinpointing the source of a sound. And they are very, very good at pinpointing the source of a sound. A Barn Owl can catch a mouse in a completely darkened room by sound alone.

But that, as you are no doubt growing accustomed to hearing, is not all. Rodents have plagues. Under the right circumstances, local populations of mice and rats explode. I’ve been down to the bush during a mouse plague where they used to run over us while we were sleeping, and every piece of exposed food, and even electrical wiring, had tooth-marks in it.

I knew owl-proofing the kitchen was a mistake!

I knew owl-proofing the kitchen was a mistake!

The Barn Owls are ready. They can have broods of up to ten owlets in a year, and during a plague, there can be a nest every 50 metres or so. A rodent plague leads to a Barn Owl plague. And a Barn Owl plague can be very cute indeed.

Some birds, when laying their eggs, wait until all have been laid before starting to incubate them, so that all of the nestlings are born at once. Barn Owls take the other route, and start incubating the moment the first egg is laid. This means that a brood of baby Barn Owls can range in size from nearly fledged to newly hatched. I’ve been lucky enough to see a family of Barn Owls taking a bit of air on a branch next to their nest, lined up like an unpacked set of Russian babushka dolls, all geeky and awkward looking in slightly different ways.

At last little Timmy was accepted into the cool crowd.

At last little Timmy was accepted into the cool crowd.

If you look at that list of names up there, you will see that some people can find Barn Owls a little creepy. Over and above the “flying silently through the night” thing, there are a couple of different reasons for this.

Firstly, while there is a bit of variation in colouring, most Barn Owls are pale and ghostly looking. Then there’s the call. They are pretty vocal, but the usual call, given as they hunt on the wing, is an unearthly shriek.

And there’s this.

All that adds up to the Barn Owl probably being the source of the superstitious dread with which owls are treated.

That’s it for now. Nearly done. Just one more owl post to go. But they are the cool ones. The big guys. Hope to see you there.

Posted in African Wildlife, birding, birds, long reads, nature, South Africa, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged | 9 Comments

Some owls. Or owlets. Or Scops-Owls. Some birds.

When most people think of owls, they tend to picture the sorts of birds that flapped around in the Harry Potter movies; large, powerful birds that would have no problem carrying obscure magical packages around. These are not those sorts of owls we are looking at today. Today, we look at small owls. Tiny owls.

Not these.

Not these.

They are so small that a shadowy, sinister group of birding anarchists is trying to rename some of them “Owlets”. Why are they doing this? Easy. It’s to “prevent confusion”. Ha! I was going to write about the Scops Owl, the White Faced Owl, and the Barred Owl. Now I’m writing about the African Scops-Owl, the Southern White Faced Scops-Owl and the African Barred Owlet.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that this renaming of birds and plants thing is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. But hobbyhorses are made for riding, so here we go again; as one of my loyal readers pointed out, an owlet is a baby owl. They might be small, but the Barred Owls I’m going to talk about are all growed up. As far as I’m aware, not a single birdwatcher has collapsed to the ground with a stroke while watching Barred Owls, clutching desperately at the legs of his companions and muttering “It’s too small! It’s too small! How can they call it an owl? It’s too small!”

The Scops Owl and the White Faced Owl look pretty similar. But not similar enough to cause major confusion. This situation has been remedied by calling them both “Scops-Owls”. The renamers obviously had a bunch of spare hyphens lying around. Last week a long-time birdwatcher fell to the ground with a stroke. Clutching desperately at the legs of his companions and muttering “Is it a Scops Owl or is it a Scops Owl? Scops Owl or Scops Owl? Scops? Scops?”

I just wanted a tick for my little book!

I just wanted a tick for my little book!

We need to find these people and put them in the stocks for a week. We can throw owls at them. Or Owlets. But I digress. On with the Owls. Or Owlets,

The Barred Owl. Or African Barred Owlet. If you are a bad person.

Ho, hum. Face the front please. Thanks.

Ho, hum. Face the front please. Thanks.

Not much to say, really. It’s an owl. A small one. So small is it, as a matter of fact, that some might even be inclined to call it an owlet. It’s a handsome little fellow, looking rather a lot like the Pearl Spotted Owl I wrote about last time.

Right, a quick shot from the back. Thanks. You can go now.

Right, a quick shot from the back. Thanks. You can go now.

Most of its diet is made up of invertebrates, but like most of the tiny Lowveld owls, it hasn’t forgotten its roots, and will occasionally take on birds bigger than itself, lizards, frogs, and snakes. And that’s about it. We can’t all be superstars. It does have a slightly spooky call, I suppose.

The Scops Owl. Or African Scops-Owl. If you have a thing for hyphens.

Now things get more interesting. I implied, when I wrote about Pearl Spotted Owls, that they were the Lowveld’s smallest. They aren’t. This guy is;

What do you mean, where? It’s right there!

What do you mean, where? It’s right there!

He weighs just 65g. He, too, eats mostly insects, with the odd bit of red meat thrown in to stop the other owls from laughing at him. But that’s not the really cool thing about him. Here’s another picture;

It? What do you mean “you see it”? Them. This is a them.

It? What do you mean “you see it”? Them. This is a them.

Vast swathes of the Lowveld are covered by almost single species stands of trees called the Mopane. The bark looks like this;

No. There are no owls here. Move along please.

No. There are no owls here. Move along please.

So does the Scops Owl;

It’s staring right back at you!

It’s staring right back at you!

You would think, then, that you would never see them. But it’s actually quite easy, if you are a callous, cold-hearted animal-teaser. This is the noise a Scops Owl makes.

It’s one of the characteristic sounds of the bush at night. Play it to anyone who has spent any time out there and their eyes will glaze over as they slip away to another time and place. Play it down in the bush, and you’ll see a Scops Owl.

You can actually do this with most owls. Set yourself up a deckchair, a beer, and a recording of an owl calling, and sit back and wait. You can even do this during the day. Soon, you will begin to hear an answer, and before long, the owl will make an appearance. If it’s a Scops Owl, he won’t even be looking like a stick any more.

What do you mean “You still can’t see it”?!?

What do you mean “You still can’t see it”?!?

He will be looking for a fight. Owls are fiercely territorial. All that tu-whitting and tu-whooing, or prrrping, in the Scops Owl’s case, is done to tell the neighbours to bugger off. Playing back the calls of a stranger in the middle of an owl’s territory is like setting up a picnic in a stranger’s garden; it’s going to provoke a reaction.

It is not, however, nice. When you step into nature, you should be doing it on nature’s terms. Challenging wild animals to an imaginary fight is all well and good, but it interrupts the pattern of their lives and is best avoided.

I shouldn’t be encouraging you, but you can do this with lions, too. I’ve seen it done. You do, however, need to decide beforehand whether you would like an angry 250kg murder-beast to come bursting out of the bush looking for a fight while you sit by in an open vehicle. It’s not an owl.

The White-Faced Owl. Or Southern White-Faced Scops-Owl. If you like lots of words.

As I mentioned, the White-Faced Owl looks quite a bit like a Scops Owl. It is substantially bigger, about 190g, and eats a lot more meat, in the form of rodents and birds. It also takes its fair share of insects.

As you saw from the pictures above, the Scops Owl is a bit of a shape-shifter. It can go from being a perfectly normal looking owl to being a dead Mopane branch with a slight ruffling of the feathers. But it can’t hold up a candle to this guy. This is a White Faced Owl;

I’m an owl!

I’m an owl!

So is this;

I’m a peacock!

I’m a peacock!

And so is this;

I’m a little odd!

I’m a little odd!

It has been called the transformer owl. The Scops Owl uses its transforming ability to hide away. The White Faced Owl does something a little different. It uses its remarkable ability to change its appearance to freak its enemies out. I’m going to show you a YouTube video. It is an absolutely perfect demonstration of how the White faced Owl defends itself through bluff and surprise.

It’s not a video I like. For a start, it has random people laughing up in one corner because Japan. It also has, for reasons which escape me, a dubstep soundtrack.

But most of all, like the owl-call playback trick, it’s not nice. Have a look;

What that owl is doing is called a defensive threat. It’s looking scary because it’s scared. It’s bluffing. And it’s scared for a reason. Random Japanese people keep pointing its most dreaded enemies at it. Big owls eat little owls. That clip up there looks like part of some sort of bird show. Somewhere up in Japan there is a White Faced Owl with ulcers and a drinking problem because, twice a day, every day, and three times on the weekend, a crowd of people gathers to laugh at it while its handlers threaten it with imminent death. Nice one.

And that, good people, is that. Four down and six to go. I have no idea when I’ll get round to the rest of the Lowveld owls, but when I do, I hope you’ll be there to see them.

*****

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The Leadwood.

I threatened you with an avalanche of owls. They’re coming. But not quite yet. They don’t have anywhere to sit. Fear not. I’m on it. They can sit in one of these, in a few centuries time;

It will be well worth the wait. Look at those fine, spreading branches!

It will be well worth the wait. Look at those fine, spreading branches!

That, good people, is a Leadwood tree. A  combretum imberbe. And on that hopelessly slim pretext, I’m going to tell you all about it. It is, if you’re into that sort of thing, a genuinely remarkable tree. Even if you’re not it is, as trees go, pretty interesting.

There are lots of different types of combretum down in the Lowveld. So many, in fact, that there is a particular type of vegetation named after them. Combretum Veld. The Leadwood is their god-emperor. Compared to the others, it’s huge, about 20 metres tall, which is unusual in the Lowveld. But what makes it interesting, as you may have gathered from the name, is its wood.

And what wood it is. It weighs 1235 kg per cubic metre. Water weighs 1000. Leadwood sinks in water. It does so because the wood contains a huge amount of silica. Sand. It takes years for a tree to accumulate that much silica. The Leadwood grows incredibly slowly. but it lives for a very long time. Leadwoods regularly live to over a thousand years.

Few people know that silicone implants are actually harvested from the Leadwood tree.

Few people know that silicone implants are actually harvested from the Leadwood tree.

But, as far as those owls, and other birds with a keen interest in looking picturesque are concerned, it is after it dies that the Leadwood comes into its own. Most dead trees rot and fall over pretty quickly. A dead Leadwood can remain standing for nearly a century. And dead trees are good for owls. And Eagles. And Vultures. Owls hide away in dense cover all day, hidden from the birds which will mob them and harry them mercilessly the moment they are spotted. But come night time, they have a very different set of needs.

Some owls, like barn owls, hunt on the wing, quartering the sky along an imaginary grid. Others need somewhere to perch. Somewhere open, unobscured by leaves and with clear lines of sight and hearing. Somewhere, over and above that, that won’t be falling down any time soon. So here you go;

Hello.

Hello.

It’s not just owls that have these needs. Eagles do, too;

Hi.

Hi.

Vultures just know when they look cool;

Yo! ‘Sup?

Yo! ‘Sup?

Ground Hornbills don’t understand that they don’t;

Hullo. What is up with you?

Hullo. What is up with you?

You might think that those are some pretty cool bird photos. They are, but it’s not the birds that make them cool. It’s the tree. There is something sculptural about a dead Leadwood. Something skeletal. They look pretty cool during the day;

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And really dramatic against a clear blue sky;

article_feelingalive_leadwood

But it is at sunset that they really come into their own;

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But I promised you “interesting”, not “pretty”, so here goes;

The amount of silica in Leadwood influences everything about it. First of all, it makes it incredibly strong. Before metal became widely available, it was used to make implements like hoes. Its strength also lets it stand up to these;

No, it’s not just there for a closer look.

No, it’s not just there for a closer look.

Elephants are staggeringly destructive, especially when they are overpopulating an area, which, believe it or not, is happening down in the Lowveld. Elephants can casually knock down really big trees that are hundreds of years old. But not Leadwoods. They can, however, pull down fairly big branches. Which is great. For us.

Leadwood is, if you ask any self-respecting South African, the single best wood in the world for making fires with. The Afrikaans name is Hardekool, which means “hard coal”. The coals take ages to break down into ash, and they stay red hot forever. It is not at all unusual to make a Leadwood fire one night, and be able to start it again the next by throwing on some more wood and blowing on it a few times.

Leadwood has also been measured as having three times the ambience of ordinary woods.

Leadwood has also been measured as having three times the ambience of ordinary woods.

Once it has broken down to ash, it still has its uses. A whitewash is made out of the ash and painted on houses, and almost every ranger that has taken me out into the bush has told me that if I’m ever stranded out in the wild I can  use the ash as a toothpaste substitute. This is one of the most useful pieces of information I have ever been told. I can just picture the scene.

There I am. Lost. An endless sea of browns and greens surrounds me. I’m thirsty. I’m going to need water soon. But how will I find it? That can be a problem for later. There are wild animals around. I’ll need shelter. Later. Food. Later. I cannot panic. I need to get my priorities right. All these things can be taken care of once I’ve dealt with the big issue: How the hell am I going to brush my teeth?

Don’t panic! Think, man! There must be something you can do!

Don’t panic! Think, man! There must be something you can do!

We used to kill Leadwoods for firewood. What’s a thousand years of growth when you can cook a really good steak? But now they are protected. Sort of.

You see, it lasts so long that dead Leadwood is as important to the environment as live Leadwood. Things have evolved to live in it and on it. But every time a branch or dead trunk hits the ground, someone whips it off to use it to heat up some coffee.

Leadwood should at least be safe from the carpenters of the world. It’s very, very hard to work with. Literally. All that silica blunts saws and woodworking tools in no time. But we are nothing if not a perverse species. Since it is so very hard to work with, people are now using it to make furniture;

elephant20sanctuary_preview

Hideous furniture.

big20five20coffee20table_preview

Really just startlingly ugly stuff;

hippo-waterhole-coffee-tabl_0_preview

But it’s worth having, because it took a thousand years to grow.

It is, luckily, a fairly limited market. There simply aren’t that many people out there with that much money and that little taste. So hopefully, our owls will have somewhere picturesque to sit for a little while longer, and if they don’t, we’ll get some really cool coffee tables in exchange.

*****

Posted in African Wildlife, long reads, nature, plants, South Africa, trees, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A leprechaun with eyes on the back of his head.

I had threatened you with an avalanche of owls. It starts today. But it is to be a brief start. I’ve been called away on an emergency. I have to go the bush for a night. There I will be forced to spend an afternoon driving around looking at elephants and rhinos while sipping an ice-cold beer before being forced to endure yet another African sunset, while the meat sizzles over the fire and I choke down a glass of chilled white wine.

How much does this suck?

How much does this suck?

Still, I have just enough time to deal with an owl. Or rather an owlet. If you look out over a patch of the Lowveld, this is what you see.

Not quite the Amazon jungle.

Not quite the Amazon jungle.

It doesn’t look like much. But it supports a staggering amount of life. There are the sprawling herds of big game; the elephants and the buffalos, the teeming masses of buck, and the lions and the hyenas that feed on them. But there is other life here, too. Life you don’t spot as easily. The undergrowth crawls with rats and mice, mongooses and snakes, hares and lizards. Masses of them. And they, in turn, are food for owls.

Most places support one or two types of owl. The Lowveld has ten. Some, like the Pel’s Fishing Owl, are very seldom seen, but most pop up every now and then. They come in all shapes and sizes. This guy is the biggest;

2012-giant-eagle-owl

He’s a Verreaux’s Eagle owl, and he’s huge. He stands over two feet tall and weighs three kilograms; the third heaviest owl in the world. But we’re not going to talk about him. We’re going to talk about a leprechaun with eyes in the back of his head.

This is a Pearl Spotted Owl. Or rather a Pearl Spotted Owlet. They changed the name to annoy me.

A proud and noble beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing hare.

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing hare.

Noble looking beast, isn’t he. He’s a rather typical looking owl; large, dome shaped head, rounded shoulders, viciously sharp beak, large, piercing eyes, talons like meat hooks. Except for one thing. Here’s a shot of one that might give you a better perspective;

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing grasshopper.

A proud and fearsome beast, ever ready to swoop down on a passing grasshopper.

He’s tiny. He weighs in at less than 100g. But he makes up for it in attitude. He’s a very engaging little fellow indeed. Despite his diminutive size, he’s actually quite easy to find. For a start, Pearl Spotted Owls are far more active during the day than other owls. He also has a very characteristic flight pattern, making him easier to spot on the wing than most birds. And you can often tell when he’s in the area, because he does this;

Which is kind of distinctive. Unsurprisingly, for a bird that size, most of his diet is made up of insects. But don’t be fooled for a second. He hasn’t forgotten he’s an owl. He will cheerfully pounce on small rodents and lizards, and can take out birds the size of turtle-doves, which are nearly twice as big as him.

And that is just about that for the Pearl Spotted Owl. Owlet. Whatever. I have to pack for my ordeal.

Oh, I almost forgot. He really does have eyes on the back of his head. And no, I don’t mean he can turn his head right round. All owls can do that. Look at these;

Please note that I did not, at any point. describe these eyes as “Piercing”.

Please note that I did not, at any point. describe these eyes as “Piercing”.

They are there for a very good reason. He’s an owl. I said earlier that he hadn’t forgotten that. But neither have the other birds. If owls, or certainly Lowveld owls, are spotted during the day, they are mobbed mercilessly by large, mixed gangs of birds. Which must be quite annoying if you’re a Verreaux’s Eagle owl. It doesn’t happen often, though, because owls hide themselves away in deep cover during the day.

Pearl spotted owls don’t hide away though. And they do get mobbed. Which must seem a little more threatening to them than it does for the Eagle Owls, because they are smaller than most of the birds doing the mobbing. The eyes are there to fool the mobbers into thinking that he’s watching them. And he’s a fierce little bugger. It would be a very foolish songbird that tried to tackle him head on. The eye spots don’t exactly chase the mobbers away, but they do stop them from sneaking up behind him and knocking him off his perch.

And that, good people, is that. I would go on, but I need to go and find my khaki pants and a wine opener.

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Not owls.

Prepare yourselves for an avalanche of owls. The Lowveld has an unusual number of owls. It has seven of them, while most ecosystems have room for one or two. And I like owls, so instead of picking one or two, I’ve gone and written about all of them. But you won’t be reading about them yet. There’s something in the way that must be dealt with first. The not-owls.

At a glance, the night belongs to the bats. There are tens of millions of them, flitting unseen through the dark. They are hugely successful; about 20 per cent of all mammal species are bats. But bats have their limitations. There are some things evolution hasn’t had time to do to their basic design yet. They have left some room, out there in the cold and the dark, for those other denizens of the air; the birds.

And now you are thinking of owls. But there are other birds out there in the dark. Certainly there are down in the Lowveld. So let’s get those out of the way before we tackle the owls.

The Bat Hawk.

It may look intense, but this is the worlds laziest bird.

It may look intense, but this is the worlds laziest bird.

Let’s start as we wish to continue by cheating. Nature, the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. All that means, really, is that nature tends to take care of untapped resources. And all those bats are an untapped resource. This is the guy that taps them.

He’s called a Bat Hawk. Because he lives on bats. So why am I cheating by putting him in here? He is not, technically speaking, nocturnal. But he comes close. He is active in the murkier depths of twilight. He only does his thing at dusk and at dawn. He is, in other words, crepuscular.

Say it out loud. It will make you happy. Roll the “r” a little, like a child making a truck noise; “rrrrrr”. Pop the “p”. Practise for a while. Ask your partner to join you for a crrrrePuscular perambulation. It can only improve your day. But I digress. If I carry on on this track, we’ll be talking about “lozenges” and “chevrons”, and we’ll never get done.

Being crepuscular has some interesting consequences for a Bat Hawk. He has about twenty minutes within which to catch his prey. And he’s very good at it. He can catch, and eat on the fly, about a bat a minute. And then, when it gets too dark, he goes to bed. The same thing happens in the morning.

What this all boils down to is that the Bat Hawk does all the essential Bat Hawk things in about half an hour, and for the other twenty three and a half hours, it does bugger all. Nothing. It can’t even lounge around in the sun. It has to hide away in bushy trees, or it will be mobbed by smaller birds.

So an interesting, but not a very exciting bird. Unless you catch it during those twenty or so minutes. Then you’ve got a show on your hands.

Nightjars

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

There are several different types of nightjar down in the Lowveld. There are Mozambique Nightjars, Fiery Necked Nightjars, Freckled Nightjars, and more. And none of that matters. You don’t see them during the day, and at night, it’s dark. They all look the same. Except this one;

Look at me! Look! Look! Look!

Look at me! Look! Look! Look!

He’s a bit of a show-off. He’s called a Pennant Winged Nightjar. Nightjars all live in pretty similar ways, too. They fly through the night catching flying insects. With these;

Gwaaap!

Gwaaap!

They are essentially like tiny flying funnels. Their beaks are rather short, but they have a huge gape, made wider and more effective by the stiff, highly sensitive bristle-like feathers surrounding them.

Those huge gapes gave rise to their Latin name “Caprimulgus”, which means “goatsucker”, because people used to believe that they lived by drinking goats’ milk. Why anyone would look at a bird and think “Hmmm. I bet that thing spends its nights hanging underneath goats like some sort of biomechanical horror from a sci-fi movie” is beyond me, but this was in the days before television, when people needed to make their own entertainment, so it is best not to judge..

There is little value in having bright, flashy colours in the dark. So some of the nightjars use their calls to show off. My favourite of these, a sound which forms as much a part of the soundtrack of the bush as a lion’s roar or a hyena’s whoop, is the Fiery-necked Nightjar. Only we don’t call it that. We call it the “Good Lord Deliver Us” bird. See if you can see why;

We used to love trying to catch them when we were younger. They have reflective eyes, like a cat’s, and they often used to sit on the ground in the middle of the road. When, whilst out driving at night, we would spot one, we would stop the car, and one of us would hop out and try to stalk up to it. Distracted by the bright lights, it would just sit there. You could get right up close. But we never caught one. They were like flies. They seemed to be psychic. They would always know you were about to pounce, and would flit off into the dark.

The Bronze Winged Courser.

Unlike the Bronze Winged Courser. I can be smug about the Bronze Winged Courser, because I did actually catch one of those. And hardly anyone else has even seen one. They are uncommon but not rare, but because they are nocturnal, and hide away during the day, few people even spot them, let alone hold them.

The Bronze Winged Courser, wiliest of Africa’s big game. Dangerous when cornered.

The Bronze Winged Courser, wiliest of Africa’s big game. Dangerous when cornered.

And how does a seasoned old bush-hand like myself catch a Bronze Winged Courser? It’s not easy. I started early in the afternoon, just sitting alone out in the bush, meditating, for hours, becoming one with the ecosystem around me, until I, too, was part of Africa’s ancient rhythm, her energy ebbing and flowing in me like some mysterious tide.

Before we set out, I rubbed myself down with the aromatic leaves of a Potato Bush, to conceal the hated scent of man. I painted my face the colour of the night, a ghost, a shard of darkness itself made flesh.

Then we hopped into the car, drove off around the corner, and nearly drove over a Courser. It flew straight up into the air. Confused by the lights, it fluttered down again. Into my lap.

Why am I waffling on about this? Because there is little else to tell about the courser. The experts can guess, based on the shape of the body and beak, what they eat, but that’s about it. Clearly they need my help with their research.

Dikkops.

dikkop_-_burhinus_capensisThere are two types of Dikkops down in the bush. The Water Dikkop and the Spotted Dikkop. Actually there aren’t any anymore. Some unmandated fool changed their name to Thick-knee, which is a really pretty name that rolls off the tongue like warm treacle. They have stuck with the water and the spots, which seems a pity. What about the “Found-around-wet-places Thick-knee” and the “Covered-in small-round-markings Thick-knee”?

GOOD GOD! Look at the size of those knees!

GOOD GOD! Look at the size of those knees!

But I digress. For me, they are still Dikkops, which means, incidentally, “thick-head”. Should you choose to adopt this as a term of endearment for your significant other, I will not judge you. I will, however, expect some sort of gratuity.

They are one of those unlikely birds, like Hadedas and Crows, which have moved into the suburbs. There’s something slightly otherworldly about them, with their huge eyes bulging as they seem to float above the ground in the twilight.

Night Herons

There are two types of night herons in the Lowveld. The Black-crowned and the White-backed. And they have a little cousin, the Dwarf Bittern. They hang around the water in overgrown reed-beds at night, eating frogs, snails and fish. Not that that matters.

I’m no expert, but I think this might be lurking.

I’m no expert, but I think this might be lurking.

You can tell all you need to know about them from the words that the guide books use to describe them. “Skulking” featured quite prominently. They were accused of “lurking”. The places that they “haunt” are both “dank” and “rank”, as well as being “tangled” and “impenetrable”.

Skulking. Definitely skulking.

Skulking. Definitely skulking.

Should you, then, ever spot a night-heron, it can only mean that you yourself are lurking and skulking in, and possibly even haunting, a dank, rank, impenetrable, and tangled swamp in the dead of night, and your needs are beyond the scope of this humble blog.

Right! I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can move on to the proper night birds. Brace yourselves. The owls are coming.

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