Monthly Archives: May 2012

South African Adventure Thought for the Day – Beauty in the Skies, Survival in the Sounds

look at me, look at me!

look at me, look at me!

 

Can anything evade an eagle eye?

Can anything evade an eagle eye?

What do I spy with my little eye...

What do I spy with my little eye…

I’ve been learning South African birds.  Bird calls, bird flight patterns, bird mating rituals, etc. etc. etc.  What do you want to know about a bird, South African or otherwise?  Ask away and I will supply whatever answers I can.  I’m on this mission, and it is a mission, to learn about birds for several reasons.  One, after spending so much time around them, I’ve slowly built up an appreciation for them and honestly get a rush out of being able to identify them by their calls.  Two, like everything else I seem to learn out here, knowing your birds can be potentially life saving.

I’ll admit, begrudgingly, that another big motivator for me to learn these birds was the embarrassment I felt when asked by my fiance what some of the indigenous birds in New York and New Jersey were, and finding I could only name about five.  Obviously after learning the South African feathered flocks, I will have no greater knowledge of the avian armies of my childhood home, but one step at a time here.  The sheer fact that I’m bothering to learn them at all is huge for me.  Eventually I will learn at least a few dozen from my home region.  Eventually.  Right now I’m just happy to be able to distinguish the doves from the shrikes from the kingfishers.

It pays to know what the animals know when you live in the bush.  They use signals we’ve grown to ignore, signals we’ve insulated ourselves from in our little castles.  Certain bird behaviors and calls indicate danger, and when you have to live by your wits out here, it pays to know which birds do this, what they do, and how they sound.  The oxpecker is one such bird that it behooves you to know.  It might be the only alarm you’ve ever appreciated.

The oxpecker lives on ticks that parasitize just about every big animal out here.  You know them from wildlife documentaries – they’re the small, grey birds with brightly-colored eyes and beaks, rappelling down the necks of giraffes, tucking behind the ears and in the nostrils of buffalo, and nipping at the hindquarters of rhino and hippo.  They seem to steer clear of elephant, for some reason (maybe the trunk is simply too dexterous of an appendage for them to evade) and you don’t see them on the lions either.  But then again, I’m not sure if I’d be all over a lion either.

Oxpeckers practice mutualism, which means both parties involved benefit from the arrangement.  The oxpecker gets his meal of lovely bloodsucking parasites; the rhino/giraffe/buffalo/etc. gets a personal pest removal system free of charge.  However, that mutualism turns to parasitism when the oxpeckers still want a meal, and, for the next fix, turn to vampirism.  Oxpeckers have a tendency to home in on an animal’s preexisting wound and go for any bits of coagulated blood.  Munching away, the birds then reopen the wound, keeping it from healing.  This clearly oversteps the ‘mutually beneficial’ situation.  But that’s neither here nor there, really.  All I care about oxpeckers at this time is that they are alarm birds.

When you see a bunch of oxpeckers fly up suddenly out of the brush, you know there is something potentially dangerous lying in wait.  Same goes for certain terrestrial birds such as guinea fowl, spurfowl and francolins (also known as heart-attack birds).  These birds have a fascinating ability to pop out of nowhere and literally stop your heart.  You have to keep in mind, though, before you try to catch them and wring their scrawny little necks, that you are a threat to them too.  And I have to say, given how much damage we as people do, we are by far the most fearsome and dangerous animals anywhere.

Song for the day: ‘Hard to Handle’ – The Black Crowes

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Baby giraffe with oxpeckers

The Mobile Buffalo Cleaning Service

 

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #192 – The Rules of Engagement, and Impala Road Kill


There are two main reasons for the strict rules you see upon entry every time you visit a reserve here (and everywhere else in the world) – safety for you, and safety for the animals. These rules are the lifeline that keeps the vast majority of people who enter this natural world, as well as the animals they’ve come to see, alive. The irony of conservation these days is that we have to pimp out the wildlife in order to preserve it. This means the necessary evil of allowing the people who have never in their life encountered an elephant outside of a television documentary or a local zoo to drive among these creatures in several-ton weapons of mass destruction. There are bound to be bad interactions and casualties.

Newbie people in the bush are akin to true newborns, fresh to a world they don’t understand, and just as vulnerable and useless as a newborn human baby. Sometimes they cry just as much as well.  Without guidance, you’d be amazed at the stupid things they’ll do. I know; I was one of them. Luckily for me and the local wildlife, I managed to avoid damaging my surroundings. Other people aren’t so lucky.

The other day, a man killed seven impala while speeding through Kruger National Park. Seven. In a row. Now, it’s kind of difficult to hit one impala. They’re antelope – they move quickly. This is usually the case when your best defense is to outrun predators.

There are speed limits in the parks here of no more than 50km/hr, which translates to about 27mph. Plus, you’re usually looking for animals specifically so you DON’T hit them, so your speeds aren’t much above a rather feisty idle anyway. To hit something, anything, larger than a frog, not only takes top speeds, it takes barrels of stupidity, irresponsibility, and disrespect for the world around you. This guy took out seven animals IN A ROW! Seven animals that normally outmaneuver cheetah, the fastest land animal alive, no less.

The man did get fined, thankfully, though a paltry amount for the crime. The company he worked for got an even heftier fine, which I’m sure they didn’t appreciate, and probably didn’t help his line of defense when it came to keeping his job. Kruger National Park has banned him from entering the park for five years. He swears he wasn’t speeding, but you cannot possibly hit that many of that type of animal unless you have the pedal to the metal.

Now, speeding aside, the reason you aren’t allowed out of your car when driving through the reserves? What you DON’T see is even more dangerous than what you do. That lovely little bush back there may actually be hiding a rather large black rhino, and if you decide it’s the perfect place to take a wee (yup, that is what everyone, even the big, burly guys, call ‘peeing’ here), you may end up with a horn through your chest, though I’m sure your bladder will definitely empty. Or, again, the pride of lions that is right in front of your face, but you can’t see it because the lions all blend in so well with their surroundings? They will be on you faster than a chicken on speed.  Any sound that you could conceive of possibly emanating from your lips will not do so in time before that little light of yours goes out. Okay, you might get out a grunt when the wind gets knocked out of your lungs. But grunts don’t travel very far as far as sound goes. And like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, no one’s gonna hear you anyway.

As dopey as some of these creatures look when they play, they are smooth operators when it comes to their prey. You are no match for a hungry carnivore or an angry herbivore. Trust me. I have seen them in action. I have seen how a pack of wild dogs will be on top of, kill, and literally devour an entire impala, skin and all, in a matter of minutes. I have seen four lions take down a 400lb animal in less than half an hour, leaving only a skull and a few rib bones behind, just in case they get a hankering for a late-night snack. I have seen hyenas rip through a femur like it’s nothing more than a potato chip. I have heard of little duikers (teeny, adorable antelope that probably come up to my knee) rip open a person’s femoral artery, and have personally seen a bull nyala (another antelope) knock a grown man five feet in the air with minimal effort. What are you going to do, smack them?

Even if you manage to momentarily confuse an animal here, you likely can’t outrun it. We are slow at the best of times in comparison to pretty much any four-footed creature. And speaking of running, this is something you NEVER do in the bush. As soon as you run, they chase. Instinct. Running means you give the predator a reason to chase you. That’s really not a position you want to put yourself in when the animal you’re trying to avoid runs twice as fast, and weighs twice as much, as you. And can clear a fence 15 feet high and climb trees. And has a mouth like a chainsaw. Or try an elephant, whose every step is equal to about ten of yours, who can topple a full-sized tree with a mere twitch of its shoulders, and who can move up and down steep hills as adeptly as a mountain goat, while you clumsily struggle to gain footing and balance.

This, my friend, is the reality – we have nothing on these animals. Even our supposed brain capacity is useless out here. They will take us out before we even have time to process the first thought of what to do. So, I urge you – respect them, respect the rules, and stay alive. Survival is not a right out here – it’s a privilege. Stay in the damn car. And if you’re around baboons, lock the doors and keep the windows closed. I’ve seen a baboon open a car door and get inside, despite protests of the screaming family of humans inside. A packet of chips is too tempting a proposition for a clever primate. We of all creatures should understand that. And I’ve been on the receiving end of a baboon going after a bag of chips in my hand. It’s terrifying.

Many people, particularly tourists, and, evidently, delivery drivers, seem to have no idea what is out there. They have no idea how powerful a baboon is or how vicious. They look at hyenas and think, “Looks a little like a teddy bear. How could that possibly be dangerous?” And yet hyena can chew through solid bone, and often do.

Say a newbie thought it was okay to feed the hyenas and baboons, showing complete disregard for the signs all over the place that read “Do Not Feed the Animals.” Clearly, this person never thinks that by ignoring the warning and doing this they could not only lose an arm, but also that the animals could become acclimated to humans and their food, and thus become a menace to the camps and to anyone on foot. Why a menace from one measly breadcrumb? The animals become used to people, quickly learn to associate them with food, and start attacking to get to food. Then someone gets hurt. And then the animal needs to be shot. Not exactly fair to the animals, is it?

Just as a note, I personally ‘break the rules’ often. I have to get out of the vehicle to move animals off the road and out of danger, or to relocate an injured creature. I have to get out of the car to change tyres, check camera traps, and clear debris. That’s part of my job. Your job is to enjoy nature and to help us all ensure it’s there for generations to come. Please do your part. I promise you I will do mine.

That’s the buzz from the bush for today.

Song choice: Running Down a Dream, by Tom Petty

Check out the link below for more info on the impala story:

http://www.iol.co.za/motoring/industry-news/speeding-driver-kills-7-kruger-impala-1.1291327

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Soundtrack to the South African Bush LIfe

From now on, I’m going to try and have a corresponding song that I think goes with every new post.   Please feel free to add your own comments and thoughts on musical material you think would match the story.  I’d love to hear what other people associate with these stories!

Today, it is sunny, chilly, and after receiving news of the passing of Adam Yauch (one of the extraordinary Beastie Boys), I’m feeling nostalgia wash over my piping hot coffee.  As I watch the nyalas chew the lawn, I’m sending a shout-out to one of my favorite musical groups of all time.  Today I’m feeling inspired by a little ‘Paul Revere.’  There is always an appropriate moment for the Beastie Boys, even in the middle of the African bush (and especially on days when your car gets head-butted by a rhino – see close-up below).

Each day, take a moment and remember how amazing life is, how lucky we are to have the people who love us, who inspire us, who make us smile, who make us think, who challenge us, who support us, and who ask nothing more than that we return the favor.

Image

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #77 – Waldo

Waldo, our foam nest tree frog, in his natural environment

Apologies for the delay on posts this week.  No power, no internet, no blog.  Anyway, I’ve saved one of my favorite topics for this particular post: WALDO!

Waldo greets me at least once a week, sometimes by throwing himself dramatically at me from the depths of the darkness of my tent when I open the door, sometimes dropping on my head while I’m brushing my teeth.  Sometimes when I’m sitting on the bed, working on my laptop, he quietly sidles up next to me and plops on the keyboard.  Always he is silent, and always he manages to blend into whatever he is sitting on.  I love Waldo.  He’s our resident foam nest tree frog.  He might be my favorite local, quite possibly because he poses no threats, doesn’t make any noise, and he keeps me company instead of hiding in the bushes or running away.  And he’s adorable, as frogs go.

Most of the other wildlife here turns and makes tracks before you even know it’s there.  The ones that don’t disappear are the ones likely to attack and quite possibly eat you.  I’m not sure if I’d prefer to see the wildlife, or take my chances with the Houdinis of the wilderness.  Waldo doesn’t fit into either category, though.  He disappears for days at a time, but then reappears and hangs around, watching us and keeping the mosquito population in check.  Again, I love him.

Most of the amphibians I’ve met out here are loud.  I didn’t realize how loud a frog could be until after the first rains, when it seemed every amphibian within a 10km radius suddenly convened outside my tent and decided it was time to defend territory/find a mate/auditioning for Frog Idol.  It felt like I was at the frog equivalent of a heavy metal concert, a surround sound barrage of deafening squawks and brrrps and tinks.  Waldo’s species does normally fit into that bright little chorus, but for whatever reason, Waldo does not partake in those reindeer games.  I’m guessing it’s because he is safe within the confines of our home, and doesn’t feel the need to announce his presence to the animal kingdom.  That’s good for us and for him.  Or her.  To be honest, I don’t know what gender he/she is, and because amphibians have the fascinating ability to change sex if necessary, he/she is a sort of hermaphrodite anyway, so I guess what I call him/her doesn’t matter.  I’ve settled on thinking he’s a he, unless I suddenly find little foam nest tadpoles flitting about in my sink.

I named him Waldo because, like his namesake, I always find him blending in to different places in the tent.  Until recently, every time I came across him, he had staked claim to a new little patch in some random location amongst my clothes, books and whatever other random possessions were sitting around in our ‘house.’  He stayed in each location for a day or two at a time before moving on to new territory.  Once he was sitting on the vinyl chair outside, slightly hidden under my fiance’s t-shirt.  Another time, he was snuggling in the wires of our solar panel.  Yet another time, he was in a shoe, which makes me wonder if frogs have a sense of smell, because if they do, his clearly doesn’t work.  A few times he perched on my computer.  Then he found a very comfortable spot at the top of the solar panel converter.  Seemed like an ideal place for him – high vantage point from which to catch insects, good place to hide from potential predators.  Visible yet invisible.  He stayed put for a whole six days, which eventually started to concern me, and I thought he might’ve been dead.  Then one day when I was walking by, he jumped on my head.

He has become my favorite part of being out here.  Quiet, unobtrusive, and yet always a companion, Waldo is like that friend who listens and who sticks by you, no matter what.  He seems to prefer to fade into the background, figuratively and literally, and yet he finds funny ways to remind you he’s there, and he has your back.  When you work in an industry where you have almost no modern conveniences (and usually they don’t work anyway), no privacy, no set hours for your job, and no real time to yourself, having a little buddy like him is priceless.  Mastercard, where are you when advertising opportunities like this come about?  You might need to hire Waldo for your next commercial.  I’ll even let you shoot the footage in the tent for free.

Waldo, it’s time for your close-up.

A quick note about frogs.  They breathe through their skin, so you should never touch them if you have anything on your hands (like lotion, bug repellant, and even soap residue and perfume).  In fact, you really shouldn’t handle them at all if you can help it.  If you must, do so with clean, wet, open hands, and only for a very brief period of time.  I only held Waldo a handful of times, and that was only to remove him safely from my head or shoulder or thigh after one of his theatrical leaping forays.  Otherwise, I practiced a hand’s-free policy so I didn’t endanger him, very tough for someone like me, who loves to touch everything.  To be honest, frogs aren’t all that keen on being held anyway.  Makes them feel like they are about to be eaten, I guess.  And some of them excrete toxins through their skin, making them a hazard to you as well.  Best to simply observe from a distance, no matter how tempting it is to pick them up.

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Frog, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Eco Porn: Thrill of the Chase (Starring a Baby Giraffe and Other Cuties on the Prowl) | OnEarth Magazine

Ok, so I can’t take credit for anything on this particular post but tracking down the link.

Found another blogger with a love for wildlife and a sense of humor.  Clever to put such a cheeky spin on ‘eco.’  And everybody loves a baby animal.

Eco Porn: Thrill of the Chase (Starring a Baby Giraffe and Other Cuties on the Prowl) | OnEarth Magazine.

 

If you’re interested in reading other fascinating bits about conservation, check out the main website: www.onearth.org

Categories: Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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