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South Africa: Rooi Els, Looking for Rockjumpers

Thursday, December 31, 2015


Asking around a bit, I figured out that the widespread wildfires that blew through the slopes in March and scorched the mountain flanks (started by lightning, and part of the natural cycle here) had sparked a robust bloom of wildflowers on the Cape. Everywhere were the charred stems of shrubs, many of them doubtless proteas. But these things have all evolved with wildfire, and it's necessary for some of their seedpods to open. 
I was so dazzled by the miniature show, and only wished I knew what some of them were. We got up early and headed out to find some special plants and birds. 

We drove on toward Rooi Els, famed for its population of Cape Rockjumper, a very special endemic bird.  The wind was so strong that it was blowing spindrift off small waves, and that spindrift was catching the sun and making rainbows that shimmered and moved! 

You can see one at the base of the mountain. This was a phenomenon better experienced than captured in an image. And better experienced from within the comfort of our van. Getting out in that gale was like being beaten over the head with a rolling pin.

I knew we were going someplace special when this hove on the horizon!

Once out at Rooi Els, we gathered our hopes for birds, despite the gale. The plants stepped in to dazzle us. 

What a show! Protea family...

This calla lily I recognized, growing out of a crack in a boulder. How does something that grows from a bulb get there?

It sure had its nitrophilous lichens in good order. These splashy red and orange lichens thrive on rocks where birds poop. Nitrogen-loving=nitrophilous.

We would have been fine if we couldn't find the Cape rockjumper. The Lilliputian landscapes, set against mountains of Brobdingnagian proportions, were blowing us away.

This one's a legume, that much I can say. Aren't I good?? But oh my gosh. This place.

We walked up and down the road, meeting the wind head on, watching birds. 
It was a surreal landscape, and we felt very small. 

Overhead, jackal buzzards circled. These gorgeous birds occupy quite a range of habitats from highlands and canyons to low marshy places. They're quite redtaily, except for the white wing panels and overall flashiness. They look like our hubba hubba Western race called Harlan's redtail, but with a bonus red tail! I love 'em.

Same bird, different angle.

Suddenly my bird began harrassing a huge Verreaux's eagle! Its mate materialized, and then the eagle's mate...oooh. Nesty nest nest.

Suspecting that the conflict arose from a territorial dispute, I scanned the backlit mountainside for a nest and boom! This may look like a bunch of Tillandsias on a small boulder, until you realize that there are two coal black, golden-eagle sized Verreaux's eagles perched atop a massive stick nest. So that makes those funny looking "bromeliads" probably giant aloes, the nest being perhaps 8' tall. Yow. Distance and unfamiliar vegetation forms can really play tricks on the eye.

That was satisfying. 

A Karoo prinia worked on its nest, patiently ferrying long strands of green grass or sedge into a thick shrub.

We stared long and hard for a couple of hours into the hard sun on the mountain slopes, and finally spotted the springy thrashery Rockjumpers doing what they do best. Better look desired, but we got 'em. My "best" shot at least shows the habitat, its alert military posture and a hint of its fabboness.

My early attempt at digiscoping in a gale, before I realized that I couldn't zoom my phone up without getting Impressionist bird art...still, you can see the bird's jaunty jumpy self.

I've borrowed a couple of shots from our guide Leon Marais, taken on other occasions, to show what it really looks like, and why the Cape Rockjumper is such a sexy beast to add to one's life list! Like a mockingbird at Mardi Gras! 

photo by Leon Marais

Cape Rockjumper is a superfun bird to look for, because the habitat is smashing, and the bird is beautiful, and it jumps up suddenly, shows itself, then jumps back down to grab an insect. Like Whack-a-Mole for birders. They're distant and skulky and ever so much fun to try to spot.

photo by Leon Marais

A lovely little butterfly, (Meadow White on a Senecio species) topped off our wind-whipped visit to Rooi Els by the sea. 

Thanks to Callan Cohen for bug/flower ID.

South Africa: On My Knees in Wildflowers

Monday, December 28, 2015


We knew we weren't in Kansas any more when a pigeon foraging calmly in the grass at a roadside rest stop turned out to be Speckled, and crazily beautiful. Common here, but nothing any of us Americans had ever dreamt of.

And the views were like this, all along our drive.

We had stopped to take it all in and look for southern right whales, which we saw in good numbers, right from shore. And Bryde's whales, too, a life mammal for our guide Leon Marais! When your guide gets a life mammal, well, you're in tall corn. We knew we were seeing Bryde's whales, because they were rorquals with a fin, and we were in South Africa. Whoot!!! Lifer for all of us. I was happy to get a number of shots of the fin for confirmation.

We were getting low, down out of the wind, just taking the scene in, thanking our lucky stars to be in this glorious place, and I looked downslope from the picnic table and saw many multicolored dots in the vegetation on the steep slopes leading down to the bay. I put my binoculars up and saw they were wildflowers!

This was not the first time I was glad I'd worn my Keen hikers. I was to repeat this performance many, many times on this safari. I scramble-clambered down the slope and into a dreamy bed of the most incredible wildflower diversity I'd ever seen. 

There follows a bunch of aimless speculation on my part. And around 10 AM Dec. 29, in the comments section of this blog, I got a late Christmas present from South African guide Callan Cohen. Callan, Phoebe, Liam, Bill and I shared a riotous climb up a very high mountain in Park City Utah at an American Birding Association meeting some years ago. The delightful digiscoping marvel Bill Schmoker was along for the hike, too, and he taught us how to butt-ski. We saw pikas PIKAS!! at the top, and butt-skiied much of the way down. I'll never forget that wonderful day, the constant gales of laughter, or the excellent company we enjoyed. Here's Callan's analysis of my photos. I've gone in and inserted the ID's in the captions below. Oh, joy! Thank you, CC!!! Ride in any old time with corrections, I'm all eyes!

Great blog, Julie! Here are some IDs from the details I can see so you can put some "names to faces" (sorry, very few of these have common names, when you have 3000 species just around Cape Town it's tricky): Berkheya barbata, Trachyandra (probably tabularis), Cleretum herrei (sprawling "ice plant"), Erica cerinthoides "Fire Heath" red hairy tubular bell flowers, Oxalis probably purpurea, the Osteospermum is Arctotheca calendula "Cape Weed", white daisy = Dimorphotheca pluvialis "Rain Daisy", white daisy with feathery leaves = Cotula turbinata. Cheers, Callan 

Here: Berkheya barbata (yellow) and white: Trachyandra sp. (probably tabularis) fide Callan Cohen. Did I get that right?

And the Science Chimp didn't know what any of them were. Tiny vines with watermelon leaves, hairy and glandulose. Callan says Cleretum herrei.

Brilliant scarlet firecrackers, (probably ericaceous) (Fire Heath, Erica cerenthoides) and shocking pink Oxalis! That one I recognized, but it was Oxalis on acid. Oxalis sp., probably purpurea, fide Callan. Egad. I got one to genus.

For an amateur botanist, there is really no more delicious thing than to be ankle-deep in miniature flowers of every rainbow color, and to have almost no idea what any of them are. I burned to know! Who wouldn't, with that Oxalis doing a great impression of our grocery-store primroses?!

 But all I could do is appreciate them. And there is a beauty in that. This one's a composite. How's that for some high-brow botanizing? If I had to guess, and I am guessing, Osteospermum?
Nope. Arctotheca calendula, or Cape Weed. The white daisy is Dimorphotheca pluvialis, or Rain Daisy. Ahh, thanks, Callan!

I dunno. I just loved them. I was down on my hands and knees, crawling through a miniature botanic garden. And, having found it myself, it was ever so much  more wonderful than something that was planned and planted and contained by walkways and beds. 
And this, some kind of freaky little chamomile? Nope. This is Cotula turbinata.

Some, I could see, were from bulbs, and others herbaceous.  They looked like the great granddaddies of my gladioli.

But all of them were rioting, partying like it was 1999. Everywhere I could see charred stalks and stems of shrubbery that must have been shading them out before the fires. 

So this is what I'd only read about--the rebirth of a sort of Southern Hemisphere alpine meadow after a fire has gone through. 

And the one with blazing red tubular bells, telling stories of the flame that had passed. 
Fire Heath. Yes. So. 

And just above that, a pelargonium (geranium). Not in bloom now, but I recognized the leaves. They smelled familiar too. I was grinning like a fool. 
So THIS is what they mean when they talk about botanizing in the Cape Region of South Africa. 

I get it, I get it, I get it. And I couldn't get enough. I scrambled back up the slope, oh so reluctantly, and rejoined the group. I showed them my iPhone photos, babbling excitedly about the floral display below. Apologizing for not knowing much of what any of it was. But that, too, was the wonder, the excitement. 

I was filled with joy and wonder. I felt like Gulliver, coming back from the land of the Liliputs. It was nothing I could describe. I could only show my photos and exclaim and shake my head. I wanted everyone to come down and see, too, but that slope gave wiser women pause.

We would spend the next three nights in Noordhoek, taking all this in.

All this, and southern right and Bryde's whales from shore. It sure is a wonderful world. 

Landing in Oz: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Table Mountain, a mountain of many and varied moods. Seen on our way from the Cape Town airport...our destination perches on its flank.

Eros School. Teach me tonight?

Something special was bound to happen. It's September 18, 2015, and a ragtag band of Americans, led by me and Leon Marais of Lawson's Natural History Tours and Custom Safaris, is making its way from the airport to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens near Capetown, South Africa. 

We were all pretty much flattened by our respective trips, and the easy walking, fresh air, spectacular birds and botanicals of KBG were just the ticket. It was take it in or fall flat on our faces. We walked, zombielike, from one amazing sight to the next. 

A giant bird of paradise, Kandis and Barb firmly in its bill. Wak Wak!
Look out Jennnyyyyyy!!! Those things are ravenous!

Such sights we never had seen. This gaudy little member of the Iridaceae (Iris family) has the common name of Blowsyblom. Love it! Blowsy it is, but hardly frowsy.

Right off the bat, I'm seeing plants and having no idea what they are. Most, I can't even get to family. Thank goodness for tags. Sorry, I didn't catch the name of these beauties. They remind me of lobelias, but chances are vast that they're something not-lobelia.

I do a bit better with the birds. This is a Cape bulbul. I kept rubbing my red-rimmed eyes. It's all so different and lovely.

A Cape spurfowl strolls by, all vermiculate tweedy feathers and red legs.

We quickly learn that the Cape is all about proteas. These big, gorgeously architectural darlings of highbrow florists grow everywhere in the Fynbos, a shrubby vegetational type found all over the Cape, in the western coastal part of South Africa.

And where there are lots of proteas, there are Cape sugarbirds! 

These thrasher-sized charmers drink nectar with specialized bills and feathered tongues.

Adult males have spectacularly long swirly tail feathers, and they sing a squeaky song. And Kirstenbosch is the easy place to see them up close. Don't miss that tail...

What a charmer. It seems you see dozens of females and immature birds for every long-tailed male.
It's such a treat to see a specialist like the Cape sugarbird be reasonably common. 
Well, so are proteas. The sugarbirds seem to travel in small flocks, feeding madly on nectar, then moving on to the next blooming patch of proteas. The photo ops are many and delish.

One of the really fun parts of blogging is going back through my photos and finding hidden treasures like this one: a Cape sugarbird who has nabbed a bee in mid-flight! Might want to click on this one to see the bee. Whoop! Thank you, Canon, for your nimble 7D.

I grow these sweet periwinkle blue Cape daisies in hanging baskets on my porch back in Ohio. So many of the flowers I was seeing have been adopted by horticulturists the world around. That's what made visiting the Cape region such a hoot for me, as an avid gardener. Here, Rootie and Barb page through their field guide, puzzling out something they've just seen.

One of the first things I found upon entering the garden was a giant hissing cockroach, rooting around in some mulch. Picked it up and showed it to everyone as it squirmed, kicked and cussed in a high thin voice. It was a kind of icebreaker, to reaffirm that we'd be appreciating a little bit of everything on this trip. I was pleased by the women's collective interest. No yikers or shudderers here! Jenny even asked for a lesson on holding such a creature. The only thing: not to fear it.

Egyptian goose was to be our most ubiquitous bird country-wide, being seen on every single day of the three-week trip, from highlands to seacoast.

But we'd never see the "Gyppo," as Leon calls it, better than we did on this day!

 Forest canary was a target bird, and the small green birds didn't disappoint. So pretty, and so confiding.

Helmeted guineafowl were pretty much everywhere, too, talking and squawking and walking through the gardens. The moire of their plumage casts a hypnotic spell if you stop long enough to appreicate it. Yes, the domestic ones have barely changed from their wild progenitors. Except, of course, where we've seen fit to breed them pure white. Why? How is that better than padded in elegant dotted Swiss?

It was windy and cool and so refreshing, looking out over Capetown from the heights of the botanical garden.

Mountain light played over indigenous metal sculptures of dinosaurs, stomping through ancient cycads.

We looked, rested, talked, got to know each other. 

I practically needed a bib to make my hurried way through the garden's nursery shop. I was drooling over baby plants I was sure I could grow in my greenhouse. No, Zick, you can't take ANYTHING home with you. You're flying, remember?

So I got a little glass-beaded zebra for Liam back home. I needed a souvenir already; it was that kind of trip. We filled our empty bellies with delicious food at the garden's cafe (I got a Middle Eastern platter)

and resumed our leisurely tour of this magical place

where a malachite sunbird paused for a split second, giving me my only decent look and shot of the trip. Sunbirds are maddening to photograph, staying still approximately half as long as hummingbirds do. They're the hummingbird's Old World ecological equivalent, but sunbirds are too big and heavy to hover, so they've perfected clinging!

Proteas glowed in the cloud shadows.

Protea bushes gave bursts of color in shafts of sun as the wind raked across Table Mountain.

Here, we were to learn, grow wild the progenitors of our treasured pelargoniums. Our cultivars, more flower-heavy but hardly different. Even the leaves smelt the same.

But we've nothing like proteas. Ohh proteas. They're so amazing, so primitive, sturdy, sculptural.

A school group came chattering through, each child carrying a big leaf.

A Cape robin-chat bounced on the ground while

a southern double-collared sunbird probed an aloe for its nectar inside a greenhouse
(she'd gained entry and egress by a vent)

Outside, a resplendant male southern double-collared sunbird showed his colors oh so briefly in a bank of proteas. I'd say the female got the short end of the color stick...

 As we exited the garden, Leon showed us one of the resident spotted eagle-owls (Bubo africanus), hauntingly reminiscent of our great-horned owl.

 The trip was off to a smashing start! Next: Botanical gardens are great. But oh, give me wildflowers!

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