My Journal entries about what we saw, discussed and afterthoughts for the 3 walks undertaken in the Pilanesberg National Park from November 30th to December 1st 2019.
REPORT BY Geoff Hall (In the slow group)
EDITED BY Pauline Walker, Jillian Burgess-Buchan and Greg Jarvis.
2 Around Boma. Tracks and signs practical with Bennet De Klerk
3 Sefara Valley (New walk)
Organizer: Pauline Walker.
Guides: Greg Jarvis, Bennet De Klerk, Francois, Andre, Eugene, Dylan and Colin.
Walkers: Pauline Walker, Geoff Hall, Jillian Burgess-Buchan, Johan van Rooyen, Bevan Richard, Braam Luus, Cindy Reiderer, Dustin van Helsdingen, Frank Beswick, George Dawson, Gerry de Leeuw, Ian Gordon-Cumming, Peter Gordon-Cumming, Rose Simpson, Sue Temple.
A walk in the bush is an exercise in whatever turns up. It is a walk back in history when we needed to know the environment thoroughly to survive. The bush takes over and becomes the teacher. We are witnesses to discovering who the earth really belongs to when we take ourselves out of the picture.
There are ecosystems within ecosystems within ecosystems and a multitude of overlapping territories.
Each species or sub species has a niche, a role to play. A way of being the fittest to survive.
It all seems complex, yet nature is orderly and unwasteful. It is also brutal but incredibly beautiful.
The Beginning of any walk.
All our walks began at dawn. The hills to the east were covered by a warm red glow. The air was cool and still. Later the temperature would rise to over 35C.
It is worthwhile piecing together all aspects which appertain at the beginning of a walk.
o The guides are the ultimate authority on a walk.
o We had sufficient water and snacks.
o First Aid kits were on hand.
o Were there any medical issues and were we carrying our necessary medication.
o What is the current wind direction? If you carry a little talc, the wind direction is easy to see. Is it in our favour if we encounter a dangerous animal?
o What is the lay of the land we are about to walk in?
” For instance, do we know anything about the route we are to take.
” Where are the water sources.
” A Hippo would want to get back to it.
” Buffalo, Elephant and lion may feel trapped between the water and us.
” Are there other barriers to animal movement like hills, rocky outcrops or thickets along our intended route?
” It is important to respect the space between us and say an elephant. So when and if we need to break cover from a thicket into open space we do so with enough space which translates into respect.
o The weather works the same way for dangerous animals as it does for us. For instance a lion might change its risk for reward strategy due to the extra energy it has if the air is cool.
o Other animals might move for longer periods at different times of the day and perhaps move faster.
o The importance of walking as silently as possible and sometimes stopping is to pick up signs of disturbance.
” animal snorts and grunts of communication,
” bird alarm calls such as oxpeckers,
” francolins scuttling to low tree branches
” Guinea Fowl cackling.
o The importance of looking around and up at the bird life or circling birds of prey, and not just at your feet stumbling over the rocks.
o So after establishing a simple system of communication between us (pssssst) and whether we were going to rotate our position in the line or stick to a set order we were on our way with two rifles in front and 8 HO’s behind.
” We began our walk at dawn and were witness to the bird’s dawn chorus waking and stating who they are and what belongs to them. It is a good time to be still and listen. The calls are generally louder and more frequent prior to sunrise.
o Spotted Eagle Owl
o Pearl spotted Owlet
o Hadeda Ibis
o Chinspot Batis
o Black-crowned Tchagra
o Diderick Cuckoo
o Red-chested Cuckoo
o Klaas’s Cuckoo
o Black Cuckoo
o Rufous-naped Lark
o Crested Barbet
o Black-collared Barbet
o Dark-capped Bulbul
o Grey Go away Bird
White Rhino Midden next to path.
” It is typically understood that a midden in the plain is created by a male white rhino but we must not forget that along the path where a midden is likely found a black rhino might walk from thicket to thicket.
” Yellow in dung generally indicates tannin and together with pieces of twigs will indicate a black rhino.
” At the midden there were growing some wide leafed plants.
” Malpitte, (Datura stramonium), seeds of madness is a halucenogenic plant.
” In the plain we witnessed some Blue Wildebeest prancing and chasing away some Tsesebee when there seemed to be plenty of sweet grass to eat. Someone suggested that they had eaten some malpitte seeds.
Notes while walking through Plains area
” On the path through the plain we encountered tufts of Zebra mane hair. Zebras are known to be quite aggressive. At least more aggressive than their cousins the horses. The jury is still out as to the reason for Zebra stripes.
” A reminder that Plains animals have developed eyes to the side of their faces to have a wide vision so that they can be permanently on the look-out for danger all around them. Predators like the cats have developed binocular vision in order to focus on where the prey is.
” Incidentally, a Zebra has the largest eyes of any land mammal.
” White Rhino dung . If it was fresh and hot to the touch you would probably see the Rhino, but in this particular case the dung was cool which indicates that the Rhino is hours away. The temperature of the dung is a good indication of how far away the animal is and is thus quite an art.
” A very large parasitic botfly Gyrostigma rhinocerontis, formerly Gyrostigma pavesii can sometimes be found in the nostrils, around the nose, horns and head of Black and White Rhinos, where it lays its eggs. The larvae find their way through the digestive tract to the anus, having fed on blood and tissues. Upon defacation the larvae leave the dung and complete 6 weeks of pupation in the ground. It is a huge sluggish fly with a waxy red/orange head and can reach 4cm long with a wingspan of 7cm.
Spoor of Mother and calf Rhino near midden initiated discussion of dung beetles.
There is a symbiotic relationship between so many animals and plants in our world. This is one reason why every living species is so important and extinction causes havoc in ecology.
The dung beetles can be seen flying from dung pile to dung pile and rely on the wind for fresh scent. They have a keen sense of smell and are remarkable decomposers in the bush.
When tracking, fresh dung is a good indicator of direction. If we watch and wait, dung beetles in flight will always be there to help us look.
They do not waste time in finding fresh droppings as they prefer to work with soft and delicious dung, which is almost exclusively herbivorous, as there is plenty of nutrient value remaining in the dung for eating and their larvae.
Dung beetles of many kinds have been around for 65 million years and as herbivorous mammals grew larger, after the dinosaur decline, their niche became bigger.
There are 2 kinds of balls made by the dung beetles.
The small nuptial ball to attract a female
The brood ball for the larvae
Dung beetles have enemies like the white tailed Mongoose and the Ratel (Honey badger).
There are 4 types of dung beetles we find in the bush.
Can roll dung 50 times their weight.
If it’s hot on the ground the dung beetle will climb onto the ball to cool off. It may even secrete saliva onto its feet.
Often dig a hole many metres from the dung pile and bury as many as 3 balls for their larvae
Navigate by the night sky and sun. More experiments are needed.
Dig beneath the dung deposits to lay their eggs.
It is said that this is the largest group of dung beetles comprising up to 90%
Remain in the dung to lay their eggs
There are always thieves.
These are parasites and locate other dung balls to use for their own eggs.
The larvae have been known to kill the host larvae.
Bird tracks with other spoor
If we are early and there are fresh bird tracks across an animals spoor, it may mean that the animal passed before dawn. But if those tracks are interrupted by the spoor, it may mean that the animal passed after dawn. Also it is important to note whether the bird is nocturnal or diurnal.
Passerine birds have a toe protruding backwards and 3 protruding forwards, whereas non passerine birds do not have a toe protruding backwards as they do not perch.
Non passerine birds often alight in a safe area with prey so that they can eat undisturbed. A path on a plains area is ideal for this.
We saw where possibly a Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) or the Speckled Mousebird ( Colius striatus ) had landed and taken off along a path through the plains.
The Nightjar is a ground nesting bird and feeds on insects. Their call is “Lord God deliver us”. They are both nocturnal and crepuscular. Their feet are zyndactylous (one toe does protrude backwards)which allows them to perch on branches in a parallel fashion. So although they are ground dwelling birds they are not truly non passerine.
The Mousebird nests in low lying bushes and feeds on vegetation. They are social birds and sun bathe on their backs to help digestion. Their feet are semi zygodactyl which gives them more dexterity on the ground as well as the ability to perch. This foot structure often shows as a ”K” impression.
Grey Go Away bird (lourie) (Corythaixodes concolor)
It has been noted that when making an alarm call
For an aerial predator it ends with more of an “A” vowel sound.
For a terrestrial predator it ends with more of an “E” vowel sound.
Animal Calls in general
Are made with the nose and in general fall into 3 categories:
Mating calls, distress calls and alarm calls. Learning to distinguish these would tell us a lot more about signs of the bush when we listen. Therefore it is important to stand still and listen every so often.
Of course there would be a lot more sound communication between say a pack of dogs or a pride of lions.
An idea of the wisdom needed to uncover the story of life in the bush.
There are many sounds, signs and tracks. Putting them all together we would perhaps appreciate and understand the wisdom of the hunter gatherers. This makes going on a walk an exciting learning-curve. Even though we do not see many animals, the tracks, signs and sounds piece together an unfolding story of what happened when nobody was looking.
When tracking we need to look up often rather than just down at the ground at the spoor. By looking up we may see ahead an obstacle to walking, like a rock or a path through a thicket. In this way we can progress quicker and guess the direction the animal would have taken. Was the animal moving towards the thicket along a path to browse or through a thicket to more grazing. Perhaps the animal was seeking shade or protection.
So we are looking for the following indications of life as well as many more:
Paths, lay of the land, vegetation, sweet grass areas and tall grass areas.
Broken vegetation from perhaps elephants.
Middens, latrines, faeces, scat, dung, secretions and pellets.
For instance: how moist and warm is the dung.
Bones, rubbing posts, ground depressions and holes.
Nests and bird activity like the oxpecker.
Whether walking or running.
Whether tracks are registered
For instance ; by birds
Animal tracking. A note.
Tracks are best seen in damp sand but we had had no rain for many weeks so any tracks we saw were in loose sand which tends to blur as the dry sand grains roll. In cases like this it is important to scout the area a bit for other similar tracks and any other signs.
It is also important to know that we all seek shade when possible, so we are more likely to see signs of resting, walking and standing tracks in areas of shade or previous shade. This later point helps determine the age of spoor.
At the pool we sat around to rest.
Greg Jarvis, our guide, brought up a book and a motivational speaker who was well worth getting to know. The book is “Power of the Pride’ and the author and speaker is Ian Thomas. Ian relates the life and strategies of a pride of lions to Business team building.
We saw the remains of the Foam nest tree frog’s foam on a rock across the pool. The foam itself helps to prevent the dessication of the eggs.
After our rest
We were very privileged to see 2 White Rhinos mating from about 30 metres. Copulation didn’t last more than a minute or two but a lot of hard work and patience is needed by the male once he has caught the scent of a female in heat in his territory. The male is usually older than the female and will stay with her for about a month after copulation probably in order to make sure no other males mate with her.
Rolling in scat and urine is something that dogs definitely do and one reason put forward was that of camouflage, disguising their own scent.
Jackals are omnivorous and will try new foods which can be seen in their scat. They will almost always defecate on some form of higher ground such as a mound, elephant dung or a rock.
A Civet is also omnivorous but its scat is larger than a jackal and is more sausage-shaped . it also defecates in a civetry (latrine).
Wood scratchings. Always note the difference where the horns have made their marks. Eg there would be a difference in the height of the horn marks between an Impala, a Buffalo and a Wildebeeste.
Tracks and signs practical around Boma with Bennet De Klerk
It could be Lion, Leopard or Hyena. The chances that it is a Hyena are far greater as the Hyenas are later onto the carcass usually and there would be more bone involved in what they digest.
That bone calcium produces the white colour of the scat. Their stronger teeth would suggest that they crush a lot of bone.
You can often find scent markings called pasting, made by the large anal gland of the Hyena, left on the grass stalks, generally around intersections or latrine sites. They are more than territorial markings. They are communication markings. These scent markings were possible confirmation of Brown Hyena scat. Although one young male Spotted Hyena has been seen recently in the Pilanesberg. There are usually 2 different coloured pastes from the Brown Hyena but as they age they become less distinguishable.
The white part of bird droppings is uric acid. It is the urine without the water.
Giraffe often suck and chew on bones for the calcium and phosphorous which they need. Their dung rarely shows signs of this as the minerals are absorbed. This is known as Osteophagia and is practised by several herbivores as vegetation lacks sufficient amounts of these minerals.
Another distinguishing feature of a predator’s scat is if it is dark which shows the presence of blood. Predators that have killed and eaten first will more likely have digested more of the bloodier parts of the prey.
Part of being a good tracker or Guide is having the knowledge of how an animal will behave in different circumstances.
What are the animals defending? Is it young or food?
Could they be frightened of something? Are they cornered?
The word “mock charge” is discouraged, as any animal charging is dangerous and may or may not be giving a warning. However Hippos and Buffalos are less likely to be giving a warning.
Differentiating between the Black and White rhino.
A White Rhino has a better sense of smell than a Black Rhino but poorer eyesight.
A White Rhino produces more contact calls than a Black Rhino.
A Black Rhino bends twigs with its lips making for a diagonal cut on any branches and evidence of this is found in the dung and on the browsed branches. White Rhinos graze grass.
While running, a Black Rhino will register its hind and fore feet. A White Rhino will not, as its body length is longer than that of a Black Rhino.
A White Rhino’s feet are bigger than those of a Black Rhino. The Whites toes are bigger and there is less of a gap between the toes.
When urinating or defecating the White Rhino will drag or scuff it’s hind feet in a straight line whereas a Black Rhino will swing it’s leg in a bow-like movement.
The Wild pear (Drolpeer) (Dombeya rotundifolia).
One of first trees to flower in spring in the Pilanesberg.
Lots of white flowers appear before the leaves come out
The leaves are round and hairy.
” Bark can be used for string or rope fibre.
” Wood is hard and heavy and can be used as implement handles.
” You can chew the leaves to clean your teeth.
The Acacia Karroo ( Vachellia karroo) was in bloom with its puffy yellow flowers.
The Acacia Karroo has now changed to Vachellia karroo but it is still Southern Africa’s sweet thorn.
The word acacia comes from the Greek word “akis” which means a point or barb which is why, in their folly the IBC (International Botanical Congress) in 2011 decided to grant the genus to the non-pointed or non-thorned acacias of Australia. They should have looked up the word acacia when they named their un-thorned trees in the first place. Anyway this would have involved a lot of work in reclassification by the Australians and something to do with their national emblem changing from the Wattle. So anyway I’m sticking to what the Greeks intended
It is very resistant to drought and grows in unshaded areas, over-grazed areas and recent bush fire areas. The bark of the young trees are reddish in colour.
” The wood is very useful as fencing.
” The gum, which exudes from the bark, is used to make royal icing.
” The bark is used in tanning.
” The seeds are ground to make a coffee substitute.
The Scrub hare.
The Scrub Hare is a lagomorph. It is a solitary and nocturnal animal. Its dung is small and round as opposed to a squirrel’s which is slightly longer. What we saw was therefore more likely to be that of a Scub Hare which frequents the Pilanesberg park. What is interesting about the Scrub Hare and other small rodents is their habit of Refraction. During a rest period the animal will lick the dung from its anus and redigest it to get more value from its mainly grass diet. Hence the light-coloured dung is not a favourite of dung beetles due to its dispersion and value. The Hares have hairy feet and therefore their spoor is not so clear. Hence if in doubt it’s probably a Hare.
A Klaas’s Cuckoo breaks the silence with its monotonous call.
The spoor of a small ungulate.
It was showing a lot of movement. Possibly a Steenbok or Impala calf but why can’t it be a jumpy Klipspringer coming down from the higher rocky areas to take advantage of the minerals being leached from this dry area. So this is why we studied geology on our nature course. A story is made up of a wide and diverse general knowledge as well as the detail in front of a tracker.
Likely to be where Francolins and Spurfowl have been rooting for food. They are omnivorous and enjoy a wide variety of food often found in the leaf litter.
Spoor plus gait, animal shape and registering.
There was a great deal of discussion and learning around this expert level of tracking.
In general, when standing and walking, spoor is sharper but becomes more blurred when the animal is trotting, galloping, hopping or even stotting because there is more sliding and disturbance with the change in position, increased speed and pressure. Tracking is also made more difficult with increased speed because there are fewer feet on the ground at any one time and greater distances between the spoor.
Registering is when the hind feet land on where the fore feet were.
When walking, a cat’s hind feet will follow the fore feet due to the length of the body and the shorter legs.
Also Blue Wildebeeste have shorter hind quarters relative to the height of their shoulders and therefore their feet do not register.
Some animals have a direct register of hind feet over fore feet. These animals usually have shorter bodies and longer hind legs, such that their rear is raised relative to their shoulders.
Small straight hole in the ground.
Difficult to know what is there. Ants dig out sand and deposit it onto the surface as a loose anthill (A dump) whereas termites build a hill or extend their underground home using sand, saliva and faeces. This makes a stronger and more rigid structure above and below ground.
An Ant lion has a more cone shaped hole.
Cats and Dogs
Dogs:- An “X” can separate
the Metacarpal pad in the back quadrant
2 front digital pads in the front quadrant
One digital pad in each of the left and right quadrants
Caracal and Serval:-
With a Caracal, a horizontal line, drawn from the bottom of the outer digital pads, will cut the metacarpal pad, whereas with a Serval, the line will just skim the top of the metacarpal pad.
Difference between a male and female cat’s paw.
If the width of the foot, measured from the outer digital pads, is the same as the vertical distance, measured from the bottom of the front digital pad to the bottom of the metacarpal pad, then it is a male.
A new walk in the Sefara valley
The tall grasses that we saw were
Yellow thatching grass (Hiperthelia dissoluta )and
Turpentine grass ( Cymbopogon caesius)
Other grasses were
Blue Buffalo grass (Cenchrus ciliaris )
It is a palatable grass with high leaf production. It is a perennial and as the plant matures its palatability decreases.
It grows well in semi-arid areas.
Sawtooth love grass ( Eragrostis superba )
It is a palatable, quick growing and well grazed grass, particularly in spring when it is softer.
It grows well in drier areas on a variety of soils.
Fever tea bush
Lippia javanica – Fever tea bush – The Med lemon of the Bush
Tea is made by boiling the leaves – strong minty lemon fragrance good for colds, flu and headaches
Leaves and twigs can be burnt – strong lemon smell which aids in keeping insects [including Mozzis] away
Strong brew of the tea can produce a lotion which helps to sooth stings, skin irritations, rashes and grazes
Now used commercially as mosquito repellent.
Liked by Black Rhino.
Red-headed Flies (Bromophila caffra ) (Buzzard Signal Fly)
Little is known about this fly. Current research has shown that the fly eats decaying food and breeds in dung or rotten fungus. It is prevalent in the grass land areas of the savannah.
Used by many impalas, but a male will scent mark a midden frequently within its territory
Saw Rhino midden dug out over time by much rolling and scratching.
From Plain area path to foothill rugged path. Awkward terrain.
Sourplum ( Ximenia caffra )
They are dioecious which means that each tree has a specific gender.
Edible and tasty fruit but bitter. Makes a good jelly.
Bark and leaves used medicinally.
Seeds yield an oil which is used to soften leather and for cosmetics.
Wild Fig ( Ficus thonningii )
Figs eaten by birds, bats and antelope
Up to 28 species of fig wasp associated with the fruit making the fig larger than normal.
Flappet Lark. ( Mirafra rufocinnamomea )A shrill two tone call.
Woodpecker drumming in the distance.
19 or so beats a second for a second at a time on wood to establish a nest or drill for beetles
They have air sacs in their heads to cushion the vibration.
Chinspot Batis ( Batis molitor) A clear but less melodic call. “Three blind mice” or just “Three blind”
Black-crowned Tchagra . ( Tchagra senegala )A beautiful melodic call
Flesh flies. Family Sarcophagidae
Characterised by 2 red eyes. These are ovoviviparious, meaning they deposit hatched and hatching maggots instead of eggs. They deposit the maggots on decaying matter and open wounds of animals, hence their name.
Lavender Feverberry ( Croton gratissimus )
It provides a beautiful scent when in the wind, as opposed to close up.
The Khoi used to powder down the aromatic, dried young twigs for a perfume.
The small fruits explode, dispersing their seed.
There is a fine balance between water dependent animals and water independent animals.
Waterbuck numbers would rise in consistently wet regions whereas in drought ridden lands animals such as Tsessebe and Red Hartebees would flourish.
Elands wattle Elephants root ( Elephantorrhiza elephantina )
Looks like a short fern but is in fact an underground tree.
It is the most widespread underground tree in southern Africa.
The rhyzomes are valuable medicinal sources and are usually large. (Hence the name Elephants root or foot).
Pollinated by the honeybee.
Why did the tree evolve to live underground? Probably to thrive in the hot Savannah bushfires.
We sat to rest on a rocky screed.
The Resurrection bush ( Myrothamnus flabellifolius).
The leaves shrink and appear dead in the dry season but as soon as there has been rain they miraculously turn green.
The bush can reach 1 metre and will grow in the crevices of rocks.
The leaves contain eucalyptol and camphor oils.
Through the valley, on our way back to the vehicle.
Elephants, contrary to common belief, are not destructive.
They have a niche in the ecosystem which provides other animals with a niche.
They pull down branches and trees and in so doing provide life for a multitude of insects in the debris.
They are hind fermenters and so provide rich nutrients in their dung for insects and tree seeds which they disperse.
Maroela trees ( Scelerocarya birrea )
The main trunk usually divides about a third of the way up the trunk.
They are dioecious which means that each tree has a specific gender.
The fruit is high in vitamin C and is widely used. Also the bark, leaves and nuts are valuable. It has been called a botanical treasure. Many animals including Elephants have been noted to become intoxicated after feeding on the lightly fermenting fruit on the ground.
Blue waxbill ( Uraeginthus angolenis ) chirping
A thought, as we are trudging back through the valley, after stopping to listen to the birds. – We are so conspicuous.