Kruger National Park
It took us about six hours to get from the park gate to our tent even though I think it is less than 10 kilometers. We noticed some of the birders had a bumper sticker that said, “Please pass, I am looking at birds.” That would have been helpful. It was just insane. Insane. We saw so many birds as soon as we entered the park. There were Red-billed Hornbills for goodness sake!
Punda Maria is a magical place. It is perched on a ridge in the sandveld region and is nice and quiet. “I’ve never been fenced into a more diverse landscape” reads my journal. Starting at the northern end of the park meant that we slowly got to know the animals. They are less dense up there, so that when we saw our first zebra or elephant, we got some nice one on one time with them before seeing herds as we drove south. I might have cried a little the first time we saw an elephant. The plants were spectacular too!
Once you leave your fenced rest camp, you cannot get out of your car, but luckily Punda Maria has a nice little hike and all of the camps have great birds and smaller animals safely within the fence. Our first day was about 91F and the sun seemed to really fuel the fancy flights of the Lilac Rollers. I once got a card from my sister who was away at college with a Lilac Roller on it. I never thought I'd actually see a real one. We watched a family of baboons grooming and running about, our first Hamerkop at a water hole, and Warthogs eating while kneeling down on their elbows…or are they called front-knees (??), Burchell’s Zebras, Impalas, Nylas, and many others. We did a night drive and got glimpses of a Spotted Eagle, Fiery-necked nightjar, African elephants, Springhares, Small-spotted Genets, Spotted eagle owls, Water buffalo, Common Duiker, and a Leopard. I got a really blurry photo of the Leopard's bum...if anyone wants to see it.
The road to warthog land on the left and the road to Mozambique on the right and the feather of a Crested Guinea Fowl
We stayed in what was called a “safari tent,” but it had a nice bathroom and a kitchen on our braii (deck/porch). We cooked our meals and ate while watching the valley down below.
Coffee and yogurt with rasperries and Cape gooseberries ( Physalis peruviana)
Tiny Chacma baboon female and a momma with a little one holding on for a run
Pride of De Kaap (Bauhinia galpanii)
Chacma baboons in the shade
Tasty biltong (toothpick included) and the best way to watch animals without being eaten by a lion
The first African elephant we saw at dusk before we had to get back to camp. It looked like a shadow and then it moved and had wrinkles. It was giant and seemed a little shy, so we gave it some space. Turns out, it was much cooler than seeing one at a zoo or experiencing the terror of riding one with my siblings (and dad) at age 3.
Mid-day listing and zebras eating grass
Some Vervet monkeys raided our lunch bag and scored some fruit. I was impressed with their satsuma eating style!
Southern yellow-billed hornbill
On our drive south toward Shingwedzi, we saw our first giraffes eating leaves from Acacia trees (formerly known as Acacia trees) with their wildly precise lips...just like we had learned it. It was a nicely cloudy day and we were just in total awe.
Babalala picnic area was a nice little spot to walk around and watch elephants and have some tea (they provide the hot water).
Female impala in some sort of male-guided formation
Pin-tailed wydah in the middle of an elaborate display
Sad to see this as roadkill - Double-barred sand grouse
South African Honeymoon, 2016
I figure I might only make it to Africa once in this lifetime, so I better make a few notes to keep it as fresh as possible in my mind and to honor the opportunity. Because I took thousands of photos, I divided these posts up into geographic regions. A note on the photos: many people who visit Africa to watch wildlife have fancy lenses so that they can nicely photograph animals from a distance, but these are all point and shoot (a lovely one) and iPhone 4s. My wildlife photos are taken through binoculars and are terrible quality, but provide me with a memory that I once got to feast my eyes on such creatures. The photos are also totally lacking many of the things I found to be most wonderfully interesting about the people and the culture.
Our general route took us to Johannesburg where we rented a car and drove up into the Drakensburg escarpment to the Magoebaskloof region near a town called Haenertsburg for a couple of days, through Tzaneen for groceries, and then into Kruger National Park via the Punda Maria gate. We then took 10 days/9 nights to drive south stopping at various rest camps for a night or two. We stayed at Punda Maria, Shingwedzi, Olifants, Lower Sabie and Skukuza. After leaving the park, we explored more of the escarpment near Sabie and then up to some native remnant forest to find the Gurney's Sugarbird before driving to Old Joe’s Kaya for a wonderful night’s rest and then on to Joburg to fly down to Cape Town. We spent a couple of days in Cape Town and then two more in Simon’s Town before heading home.
NYC under our wing
We had a funky couple of months before leaving and some travel for work so I was overwhelmed with the thought of making plans for this epic trip, but I tried. There were quite a few details to get together just hours before leaving. After a mad-dash at making last minute reservations and plans we were as ready as we were going to be. We left Ellis Hollow in the middle of the night to head to New York City for our flight to Johannesburg. We navigated rush hour while making further last last minute plans before settling in for our fourteen-hour flight. We enjoyed “Totally Anura” wine, aka sleep juice from a flight attendant with perfectly shiny dark periwinkle fingernails. Wine and frogs are a better match than I would have thought.
After landing in Joburg, we drove up into the most amazing mountains for a couple of nights and some serious birding. Lesson number one in how dumb my iPhone has made me was with navigation. We were smart enough to get a GPS for the car because I didn’t have an international data plan and Eliot didn’t have tons of data. We didn’t have a paper map, but the GPS got us close and some directions from helpful people got us to destinations eventually. Just outside of Pretoria, we got a look at African culture and we saw so many beautiful fruit stands, lots of baby wearing, children playing, very young children caring for other children, women balancing giant cases of yellow soda or 5 gallon buckets on their heads and men drinking at these little pop up stores under the shade of expansive trees, roadside car washes, older women with wheelbarrows stacked high with branches and the trees (just like the ones in my textbooks that always used African examples). Acacias, or at least the family formerly known as acacias. Acacias, oh my gosh, we were in Africa. We had to keep reminding ourselves.
We stopped for a few groceries and directions in the adorable town of Haenertsburg and then on to our quaint lodgings at Diggersrest. You see, I tried to book a little bungalow for us, but only the “main lodge” was available and it wasn’t much more, so we took it. It was giant and absolutely delightful! We swam, we lounged, we battled our jet lag and we birded our hearts out!
One of my favorite sensations is to leave winter and arrive in a blooming and sunny warm place. Well, this ticked all those boxes. The grounds were full of various Sunbirds and flowers and nooks and crannies and fairy crowns. We wondered around in the sudden warmth wearing our swimsuits (with binoculars) looking like the giant tourists that we were. That is the official relaxation cue: swimsuit/binocular wondering.
Agroforestry is a pretty big deal there. Lots of pine and eucalyptus.
My dear friend Taryn, who I was in grad school with at CU, is South African AND a birder, so she gave us some materials that helped us plan our Afromontane birding adventure.
I often get distracted when Eliot's birding enthusiasm outlasts mine and I look around for other stuff to check out. That day, I found a chameleon!
We spent a nice solid day in Afromontane forest. It reminded me of afternoons on Mauna Kea when the clouds would roll in or Pojo, Bolivia with the cotton clouds flowing over the mountains or near the divide in Costa Rica where the fog hangs out with the Quetzals, but no, we were in Africa (pinch yourself). We could drink the water, drive on amazing roads, and we had a wood fired pizza for dinner in an English pub where everyone was watching a cricket match.
A hike in Woodbush Forest
Watch out! If the American Dipper is the reigning bird king of your heart, this Grey Wagtail might steal its thrown. It was bobbing and dipping and hanging out in white water.
Leaving the escarpment (highveld) to head down into the lowveld.
My 700 photos from our South Africa trip are still too daunting to finish editing just yet, so here are some iphone 4s (yes, time for a new phone!) shots I've taken since we got home in late April. I have a looming...aggressively looming deadline at work and I've been procrastinating. Sometimes I do that when I am close to finishing something. There are ways to procrastinate that make me feel less guilty than others. These include: exercise, cooking, reading things printed on paper, taking pictures, birding, and spending time with friends and family. Then, there is the bad television and excessive facebook scrolling. When you spend too much time wondering what on earth Tami Taylor would think of what has happened to the show Nashville, maybe it's time to stop watching. Anyway, I am going to make an attempt to better spend my procrastination time. We will see.
Luckily things have been warmer, greener and much birdier. We have been really enjoying spring migration in the east after so many years on the other side of the country. I had forgotten just how dramatic it is to see all the warblers, thrushes and tanagers who are returning from their wintering grounds. I have been spending time searching the canopy and watching the leaf litter as something new pops up every day.
I feel very lucky to have a position that allows me to take students on biodiversity survey walks a few days a week this month and next. Their knowledge and enthusiasm have been refreshing. The photos are from Sapsucker Woods, Ellis Hollow Preserve, Ringwood Natural Area, Hammond Hill State Forest, Roy H. Park Preserve and our yard.
Avicaching in the rain as things were slowly starting to leaf out.
Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum )
Some kind of Viburnum and Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum)
False helibore (Veratrum viride)
On that day, I had so much to work through in my head that I walked and walked until I was too many miles onto private property. Ooops. Luckily it is only turkey season.
Mayapple with some leaves still attached.
Whole wheat biscuits with treats, id help from husband, and a Trillium.
A retirement party at the lab and yet another tree I don't know.
That time a Virginia Rail visited the lab.
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaf out!
Proud to plant my beets before work only to realize I forgot to prep the rocky soil with compost.
Garlic mustard pesto prep and part of a local cow we split with some friends.
One apple tree with Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, American robins, and in the background: Indigo buntings, Eastern phoebes, Swamp sparrows and on and on.
Some kind of pupae situation and a trillium
I spotted one Red-spotted newt today before we got snow flurries.
Future oaks of Ellis Hollow
On March 10th we had about 24 hours of rain and an increase in temperature, so we were pretty sure that would be the night. The salamanders would be slithering to their spawning grounds! My only experience with this was a game we used to play when I did environmental education at Pickering Creek Audubon Center where students would learn about salamanders migrating to and from spawning grounds crossing the very dangerous human-made road. Some students were cars and some were salamanders, some got squished, and some made it through. This is a pretty easy concept to grasp, but I didn't realize just how much of a mass movement it is. When we first moved to this little spot by Cascadilla Creek we were really excited about the nature preserve at the top of our hill. Ringwood Nature Preserve is known to be an important area for herps, including the locally rare, Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonii).
The ponds fill with water and the warm rain helps to defrost the soil. The herps are stirred by something - perhaps it is the warmer temperature, the warm rain drumming on their winter home, the ice thawing around them, or maybe it is a smell we humans are unaware of, or fairies. They stir and move toward the site of their birth, you know, the kind of birth something that hatches from a gelatinous egg in a pond has. So, they move to these ponds where they were laid by their parents. Go read about salamander spawning if you have time. Some crazy stuff happens!
We aren't entirely sure how they navigate, but they might end up passing perfectly perfect ponds on their way to their one and only place of first home. These ponds are so small that they don't support fish, which might like a tasty amphibian or amphibian egg treat.The adults spawn and lay eggs that they attach to vegetation in the water and then move onto land. Spotted salamander eggs sometimes contain green algae which will consume the carbon dioxide salamander embryos produce and turn it into oxygen that the embryos can use. I am not even joking.
Young salamanders feed on small invertebrates once they hatch out. Some species may take as long as 5 years to reach sexual maturity and some species, like the Spotted salamander can live for more than 30 years. Can you believe that!!!??? Who knew? Not this bird nerd.
So, we bundled up with more layers than we needed because warm air was just too crazy to comprehend and we are birders and birding is very slow and can be quite chilly when it is raining. We scrubbed our hands and we headed up the road to find some neighbor friends already out and about with flashlights and we walked the road near the ponds. There are salamander fences up that guide them to a safe culvert (like bumpers at the bowling alley), but of course there were individuals that didn't get caught and funneled by the fence, so we helped those get to the right side.
There is something so heart-warming about watching grown men hunch over and try their hardest to pick up little frogs and salamanders and gently walk them to the other side of the road. I honestly haven't had so much fun in a while. What's more warm and fuzzy feeling than getting animals to safety with your neighbors? Below are some blurry attempts at capturing the magic. Heaps of herps in all sorts of varieties!
A Spotted salamander moving along and halfway across!
A Spring peeper and the entrance to the culvert with fencing on either side.
A local hand model and a Spotted salamander
I think this is a Jefferson's slithering along!
Not so lucky - there was a lot of this.
I am pretty sure this is a Jefferson's that Eliot found in our yard later that night.
As I write this, it is snowing, but on the 7th of March when I first saw this stuff, it was toasty warm. Now, I didn't grow up knowing skunk cabbage, but I saw it in my sister's photos for the last few springs while she was living in Boston. She called it a harbinger of spring. On Moores Creek, our first harbinger spring celebrants are the Spring peepers that start around Valentine's Day, in Colorado the Oregon grape usually peeps out from under the snow, a very different and more fragrant skunk cabbage sprung up in cold streams in Idaho, and this year while on a run through Sapsucker Woods, the eastern skunk cabbage caught my eye and pulled me over the boardwalk and into a low squat to watch for pollinators. Bees zoomed in and out with powerful looking bee thighs laden with yellow pollen.
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) emerges early in spring through snow and the part that you see first (and the part in the photos below) is the flower. The leaves emerge later in the spring. Inside of the mottled magenta spathe is the spadix.
It is called skunk cabbage because it produces a foul smell when the plant is disturbed. The smell attracts pollinators (mainly flies, stoneflies and bees). Why does this funk work to lure pollinators in? The insects aren't seeking out foul smelling food, they are seeking out a place for their eggs to be placed, which is usually a potent carcass or a stinky pile of poo. While being tricked into this plant smelling of poo or rotting flesh, they inadvertently pollinate it! Plant production of the insect-luring funk has actually evolved independently in at least five different families. The smell is is from chemicals that contain sulfury dimethyl disulfide.
Also, thermogenesis! I did not know this and the discovery knocked my socks right off! These plants can generate heat. Generating your own heat = harbinger of spring. My husband, raised in Massachusetts, knew this fact. There is a bit of theory about why they do this, but the heat likely helps spread the smell to pollinators. Some people hypothesize that the heat generated is meant to melt the snow and ice, but because many of these plants that use thermogenesis are found in the tropics that theory has less support. Because of that peeping out of the snow quality, we do see them before we see other things lurking under snow blankets.
After way too many months at the lab without exploring the trails, I finally started with the onset of longer days. On a recent run, I happened upon the Andy Goldsworthy sculpture just as the sun was coming into contact with the horizon. As much as I loved him as a teen, and tried to re-create his style on rocky riverbanks and forest floors, I had no idea how much precision he brings to his work. This cairn is overwhelmingly perfectly puzzle pieced together.
Last weekend, we found more skunk cabbage on the Cayuga Trail. Eliot braved a foot soak in Fall Creek and then we stopped at Hopshire for some absolutely wonderful beer (Acer's Wild brewed with New York maple syrup and Cascade hops) and picnic table seating while looking at one of our favorite oaks and talking about the olden days of field biology. For now, we just need to make sure we are getting to the woods as much as possible and crouching low for peeks at pollen-laden powerful thighs.