Saturday, January 31, 2009

Agama Confusion

I'm moving on "unknown territory" today because I'm no expert on reptiles; yet I have some photos I'd like to share of what I used to simply classify as geckos but learned in the mean time are Agamas.

Reptiles are cold-blooded vertebrates and to become "active" they first have to regulate their body temperature - which usually means that they bask in the sun. Lizards are the largest group (suborder) of living reptiles, and there are more than 200 lizard species indigenous to South Africa. Agamas is genus of lizards (rock agama - photo above) whilst snakes evolved from lizards and are the most "modern" form of reptiles.

Rock agama (right) have short and triangular heads. The body is covered in small scales with a cluster of spines. The eyes are large and bulging (similar as a chameleon) with round pupils. The head is often blue, although that's not the case in the photos I present today.

The first four photos of rock agama were taken at Twyfelfontein in Namibia where I "discovered" the greatest diversity of this lizard genus.

Did you know that there are NO poisonous lizards in southern Africa? (In contrast to 2 species of poisonous lizards in North & South America).

The rock agama's diet consists mainly of ants and termites. Rock agama are well-known because their range is extensive. Although agamas (= lizards) aren't poisonous, a rock agama can inflict a painful bite, which draws blood - it has 2 fang-like teeth in its upper jaw. Also similar to the chameleon is the rock agama's ability to change its body colour.

In South Africa ALL reptiles are protected by law and without a permit it's illegal to keep any specimen in captivity.

Another "type" of rock agama (left), which I "found" on Table Mountain (Cape Town). The difference between an agama, gecko & skink is: agama have an "armoury" of scales, a gecko (the tiniest of the 3) is soft skinned and a skink has smooth and shiny scales.

This is another kind of rock agama (right), which I photographed on Table Mountain - which reminds me of a dragon!? (especially from the way it "poses").

This rock agama (left) also "originates" from Table Mountain.

And now for "comparison's sake" - a tree agama (right). Tree agamas are large and the head only turns blue when the agama is fully grown. A tree agama lays its eggs in a hole in the ground (= most female reptiles are egg-laying).

Did you know that a gecko's tail, if "lost", can re-grow, but an agama's tail can't!?

The diet of a tree agama (left = a close-up photo of the same agama above) consists of caterpillars, grasshoppers + beetles (= flying insects).

Last but not least - a ground agama (left). Like the other agama species, it has a broad, toad-like head and a long, thin tail. The ground agama is "bulky and less spritely" and its armoury of scales is very spiny.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Moody Mountain

My photo "subject today is Table Mountain - known to the Khoi-Khoi (or the Quae-Quae, as I prefer what the original Dutch settlers at the Cape called "Hottentot") as Hoerikwaggo, the Sea Mountain.

The view (above) of Table Mountain with Devil's Peak in front and Lion's Head to the right is from a north-westerly direction, where my brother and his family live in Plattekloof.

A view from the "front" (from Bloubergstrand) with Devil's Peak and Lion's Head flanking Table Mountain. Whilst Table Mountain is Cape Town's premier tourist attraction, I think of the mountain as "moody" - you'll see what I mean from my selection of photographs today. At its highest point the mountain is 1085m above sea level and the flat summit measures nearly 3km from end to end. 350 recognised paths lead to the summit; or the easier route - use the Cableway, which was originally opened in 1929. The cableway was upgraded in 1997 and the 2 cars are known as Rotairs = they have turning floors which allow the passengers a 360 degree panoramic view during the approx. 5 minute drive (up or down).

The mountain as seen from Cape Town's city-"bowl" during sunrise (right). On a clear day, it is said, Table
Mountain is visible from 200km out at sea. On the other hand and from the summit, a visitor has spectacular views all around or a birds-eye-view of the city. The most common vegetation on Table Mt is fynbos (= Cape Floral Kingdom = richest floristic region in the world!) and over 1500 species of plants occur on the mountain alone! Amongst a great variety of fauna (mainly invertebrates) visitors will encounter the Dassie (= rock hyrax).

OK here we go - why do I think of it as The Moody Mountain? Because the weather in Cape Town is so unpredictable, so much so that Capetonians agree - all 4 seasons can be experienced on 1 day! The reason? The wind, especially when it blows from a south-easterly direction or from False Bay. The clouds over Table Mt (above) and the city centre at it's northern "foot" are still harmless.

You see? The "mood" has definitely changed (right). There's a meteorological explanation for that. The moisture-laden south-easterly wind is blowing against (the back of) Table Mt and at a height of about 900m reaches the colder layers of air - thick clouds form. The clouds are then "forced" (by the wind) over the mountain and down towards the city - and voila, we have the characteristic tablecloth (which forms when the clouds reach the warmer, lower layers again and dissolve).

A "pretty" picture - from the infamous Robben Island (left). Through the ages seafarers viewed Table Mt as a beacon. Nobody said it better though than Nelson Mandela: "To us (political prisoners) on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return."

Recently Table Mountain was chosen as South Africa's representative for the New 7 Wonders of Nature Competition. The "race" is on (internet voting until 7 July 2009)! Table Mt also qualifies as one of the most instantly recognisable geographical landmarks in the world (what a mouthful!).

The south-easterly wind (responsible for the "tablecloth") blows mainly in summer and is also known as the "Cape Doctor" - because this powerful wind clears the air of pollution along the Cape Peninsula (and surrounds) and "delivers" (like a good doctor) rain to the country's interior. On the previous photo the "start"of the tablecloth is visible (between Devil's Peak and Table Mt) whilst on this photo (above) the tablecloth is starting to "deck" the mountain.

The Cape-Doctor part is for real, BUT there's a legend of how the tablecloth originated: a pirate and eventually a successful businessman in Cape Town during the 18th century, Van Hunks, retired to live on the slopes of Devil's Peak. He often sat on the mountain smoking his pipe. One day a stranger approached him and challenged Van Hunks to a smoking contest. Since this lasted for days, smoke clouds built up and a strong wind blew them over Table Mountain. Van Hunks eventually won the competition and the stranger revealed himself - it was the Devil. Since nobody can meet the Devil and live to tell the story, the two disappeared in a puff of smoke.

So today, those who love this story, as many in the Coloured community in Cape Town do, say: Van Hunk and the Devil (= Devil's Peak!) are at it again, smoking up a storm; isn't that much more "romantic" than calling it a tablecloth?

I'm aware that various variations exist to this story/legend/myth, but I presented "my version" to you.

I've posted this photo (left) on this blog before with other magnificent sunsets (Thursday, 1 Jan 2009) but think it "deserves a place" again today - the "angle" from which this photo was taken is from the same location as today's first photo.
Can you see Van Hunk and the Devil smoking?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Colourful Plumage

Time to go birding again! Since I haven't "dedicated" a posting to birds (my favourite subject) lately, I certainly think it's time to do that again.

I think of a Carmine bee-eater (right) as coming in many guises - every time I have the opportunity to photograph one, it looks different - mostly it's a matter of lighting (from which angle the sun shines) but everyone still has its own "character". Bee-eaters in general are highly coloured and aerial acrobats.

Why do goshawks and the like often have to perch on overhead cables? Since our son-in-law mentioned it I also prefer to snap birds on branches or dry stumps. This Dark Chanting goshawk (left) was too fine a specimen though (and "posing" so nicely) for me not to click away. Goshawks are known as ferocious raptors and chanting goshawks owe their name to their melodious call - rather a surprising performance for a bird of prey?

Did you know that goshawks (= goose-hawks) were once used for hunting wild geese and other fowl?

Like the bee-eater above, I think that a Lilac-breasted roller (right) also has many guises - every time I photograph one it looks different. I've "published" a photo or two of this bird on this blog before, but since I can't get enough of this bird and its magnificent plumage, I'm "sharing" it again today. Rollers are said to take their name from the habit of turning over in the air, tumble-like, when in the vicinity of their nesting sites (in tree holes).

Ugly yet interesting - that's how I tend to classify the Marabou stork. Although it's a member of the stork family, it has a lot in common with vultures, e.g. it's predominantly a scavenger and also soars high on thermal currents - with grace! The skin-pouch under the marabou's bill is inflatable.

When I saw this Longtoed plover recently during a trip at the Chobe River (Botswana), I was very excited because I "met" it for the very first time. According to our bird books it's an uncommon localised resident - so I understand now why I haven't seen it (in the same environment) before. The word 'plover' rhymes with 'lover' (not 'rover') and is said to be derived from the French word pluvier (= 'to rain') - possibly because plovers tend to be restless especially before rain?

I know this is a heron (left) but a night heron or a bittern? Is someone "out there" who can help me identify this bird? I would greatly appreciate that. Location (if that can be of any help) - I photographed it on the grounds of the Sabi River Sun (just outside Hazyview, Mpumalanga).

Cute - that's the first word I think of when looking at a Blue waxbill (right) with its combination of pastel and bright blue plumage. The one in my photo must be a male because the females are overall much paler than the males.

Here is the photo of a Plumcoloured starling of which I wrote before that I first saw it as a purple "flash" flying past me whilst I concentrated on what to photograph first - a cute tree squirrel, a "mass" of birds having fun bathing or a bushbuck hiding amongst foliage. Well the "purple flash" got first choice but unfortunately, this is the only relatively "clear" photo I managed to snap before it flew away.

And this is (photo right) what the Plumcoloured starling looks like from the front - photograph "by courtesy" (= "stolen") from our son-in-laws photo collection.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Zebra Crossing

Zebra's are native to central and southern Africa.

I've known for quite a while that there are 3 species of zebra, but until I did a bit of research for today's entry, I always thought that 3 species are: 1) Burchell's 2) Cape Mountain & 3) Hartmann's zebra. Well, now I know that the Burchell's zebra is one of 5 Plains zebra (the other: Grant's, Chapman's, Selous' & Quagga) and that the Cape Mountain & Hartmann's zebra are 2 (related) subspecies of the Mountain zebra.

The 3rd and to me (so far) "unknown" species is the Grevy's zebra, said to be the largest type with an erect mane and a narrow (mule-like) head. It is found in Ethiopia, Somalia & Kenya (Note to self: time to visit at least one of these countries!?).

All zebra have vividly black and white VERTICAL stripes (mainly on forequarters) after which THE zebra crossing is named!

I chose photos for today's entry (according to the 3 species of zebra I thought until today were THE 3) to "demonstrate" the difference between the species. I snapped this photo of a Burchell's zebra mare and foal (above) at Etosha, Namibia, where this zebra species have a whiter/lighter look about them.

Distinctive on the Burchell's zebra are the "shadow" stripes (between the black ones) mainly on the hindquarters.

Another example of a Burchell's zebra, snapped at the Seaview Game Park just outside Port Elizabeth. There's a notable difference between the zebras on the first 2 photos, yet if I'm not wrong (??) they belong to the same subspecies (= Burchell's zebra) of the Plains zebra species.

Burchell's zebra are gregarious by nature and often associate with other animals, especially wildebeest. Note the short ears of the Burchell's zebra species!

The Cape Mountain zebra (left) is known to be more cautious and more aggressive than the larger Burchell's zebra. I snapped this "specimen" at the Mountain Zebra National Park (near Craddock) where this highly endangered species has a "home" to ensure its survival.

The Mountain zebra is 1 of the world's rarest large mammals.

By way of distinguishing between the 3 species of zebra featuring on my photos today - note that the black stripes on the Cape Mountain zebra (right and above) are much broader on the rump than on the neck and back. The belly is white except for a single black central stripe running from the chest along the belly. Another characteristic of this species is the orange-coloured muzzle.

Did you know that some old male mountain zebra have the "distressing" habit of gelding young males?

The only Hartmann zebra I've "met" so far are kept on the grounds of the Zambezi Sun hotel-complex (Zambia). Yet that doesn't represent their natural habitat - in nature they tend to graze on tufted grass mostly found under arid conditions, e.g. in parts of the Namib desert.

By way of distinction from the other 2 species - it appears that "more" HORIZONTAL stripes feature on the Hartmann's zebra hindquarters. The Hartmann's zebra also looks more "white" than the Cape Mountain zebra.

The Hartmann zebra is slightly larger than the Cape Mountain zebra but like the latter, the leg stripes "wrap around" the entire leg. Note the stripe covering the spine and top portion of the tail - it is said to have a "zipper-like" appearance!?

On a similar note: once, a cabinet minister is supposed to have called zebras (in general) "donkeys in football jerseys". We, as tourist guides, often say teasingly: "donkey in pyjamas".

Burchell's zebra at a water-whole in Etosha - from the front........

- from the back..........

- and the same ones from the back after something scared them.

Doesn't it look as if these 2 zebra males (right) are smooching? Well, they aren't - they are actually fighting/biting each other (as I've written before on a previous blog entry, together with another photo of this fight).

Friday, January 9, 2009

Festive Cheer

Wishing all my "visitors" happiness and success for the new year!

During the holiday season we spent some time with our daughter and son-in-law, who live and work in Port Elizabeth - and today's photos "stem" from that visit. Since all 4 of us enjoy birding and wildlife, we "couldn't resist" taking a "walk on the wild side".

Whilst taking a "break" during our walk through Settler's Valley, this dragonfly came to rest on a flower-stalk at the river and right next to me. I noticed that it's 2 "back" wings were damaged - probably the result of a fierce aerial combat with a rival, in which dragonflies tend to engage regularly.

Did you know that there are about 130 species of dragonflies in South Africa? [Not to be confused with the less robust and less active damselflies].

The Addo National Park (less than an hour's drive from PE) is famous for its elephants - but the other tusk-bearing animal, the warthog, is also "well-presented" in this park. Whilst feeding, this animal often goes down on its front knees to make the task of digging for underground food easier. This animal gets its name from 2 pairs of wart-like skin outgrowths on the face - one set just below the eyes and the other on the cheeks (far more pronounced on the males).

Did you know that the tusks of a warthog are actually upper canine teeth curled upwards?

It looks as if this tortoise is sticking out its tongue - it was actually feeding. Instead of teeth, the upper jaw of a tortoise is equipped with a smooth, horn-like cutting edge and the lower jaw with a serrated one.

In South African terminology, tortoises are land animals; turtles = sea-dwelling; and terrapins = fresh water species.

Did you know that all reptiles are creatures of a very ancient "lineage"? Their "ancestors" roamed earth (and seas) even before dinosaurs "held sway".

I don't understand how this appealing bird, a dikkop (English equivalent = "thickhead") got its name!? We detected this Spotted dikkop also in Addo. This bird tends to run off, head down, before it flies away when disturbed, but in this case, it just looked "crossly" at us, because its female was sitting brooding on her nest close by - and right next to the road!

Can't this Cape bulbul read?

Did you know that 'bulbul' is an Arabic word? And that it was the "name" for a Persian nightingale?

In SA, bulbuls are less fabulous birds, but some of them do utter melodious and cheerful calls.

Our son-in-law suggested that we go on a night-game drive. Unfortunately (and probably because of windy conditions that night) we didn't encounter many night-active animals. But this pair of male lions certainly was a "treat".

King of the jungle? This generally greedy and lazy cat?

Do these 2 Burchell's zebra "share a secret"? It certainly looks as if the one is whispering into the other's ear!?

Zebra are unique to Africa but probably counts as one of the most photographed of wild animals.

Did you know that a zebra's stripes are as unique as a human's fingerprint?

Hallo!! Do this Cape gannet and African penguin also "share a secret"? Cetainly looks like it!?

I photographed this pair at BayWorld (Oceanarium) in PE. Previously known as the Jackass penguin (because of its donkey-like braying, which it exhibits on its breeding grounds), this is the only penguin species resident on the African continent.

Yet and to my delight, I also discovered this "resident" Rockhopper penguin at BayWorld. This species is known as a vagrant on our shores - individuals occasionally visit the Cape coast. Otherwise it's a summer breeder on Bouvet, Marion and Prince Edward Islands. The rockhopper's head-plumes make it an "interesting" bird to photograph - as the next and the last photo today, "testifies".