On to Botswana

A few more memories of our visit to Namaqualand before we leave for the Okavango delta today.

Black or Verreaux's Eagle

Black (or Verreaux’s) Eagle are specialists, preying almost exclusively on Rock Hyrax, but they will take small antelope and hare when Hyrax populations crash. They are one of the largest eagles in the world and have a distinctive white cross pattern on their back.

Rock Hyrax or Dassies in South Africa

A large group of Rock Hyrax sunned themselves on their rocky outcropping just at sunset.  This group had effectively denuded the vegetation surrounding their rocky outcrop, and it looked like someone had mowed the wild flowers.  But the further they get away from their rocky protection, the more vulnerable to the Black Eagle they become.

Aramid lizard from South Africa

Another rock lover, an Agamid rock lizard, basked to warm up in the morning sun.

Yellow bishop

Yellow Bishops remind me of American Blackbirds in their behavior and their male and female coloration, but they really are more closely related to House sparrows.

Black-capped Wheat-ear among Namaqualand flowers

A Black-capped wheatear posed among the Namaqualand flowers.  The name has nothing to do with eating wheat or their ears, but is a corruption of “white” and “arse”, which refers to the white patch of feathers on their rump.

Wildlife of Namaqualand — mammals

While looking at flowers we managed to see quite a variety of animals in the Namaqualand National Parks near Kamieskroon and Springbok, in the northern Cape region of South Africa. This is a harsh environment for warm-blooded birds and mammals, with its searing summer daytime temperatures and extreme aridity, but life finds a way to survive, even here.

gemsbok at Goegap National Park, near Springbok, South Africa

A gemsbok (Oryx) foraged among the wildflowers at Goegap National Park near Springbok.

Gemsbok are the largest antelope in the Oryx genus, found only in the arid regions of southern Africa, including the Kalahari Desert and sand dunes of Namibia.  Gemsbok are so well adapted to the desert that they do not need to drink, getting moisture from the dew that forms on plants overnight, and can keep their brain cooler than their body temperature by passing arterial blood flowing to their head through a network of venous blood that has been cooled by evaporation from nasal sinuses.

Mountain Zebra at Goegap National Park near Springbok, South Africa

A herd of Mountain Zebra (different species than those in East Africa) checked us out before running off in a cloud of dust.

Mountain Zebra at Goegap National Park near Springbok, South Africa

And they do run together in a herd, heads aligned in a row.

Mountain zebra inhabit the dry, shrubby deserts of Angola, South Africa, and Namibia.  They not only look different than their cousins in east Africa, their behavior is quite different too.  Instead of forming large herds that mingle with other antelope that migrate over vast expanses of grasslands, Mountain zebra roam the rocky, hilly, steppe lands in small family groups of one stallion, several mares, and their recent offspring. Small groups of bachelor males might try to poach the mares of a family group, and stallions may spend a lot of time fighting these interlopers off.

Springbok at Goegap National Park, near Springbok, South Africa

Springbok are small antelopes named for their unusual habit of spring stiff-legged into the air. This “pronking” or “spotting” usually occurs when the animal is excited about something.

Springbok were once the most numerous antelope in southern Africa, but their numbers have been reduced by hunting pressure and fences that limit their migration.  Like the Gemsbok, they can live independent of water all year, or for most of their lives, by obtaining water from dew-laden plants.  Grazers when grasses are plentiful and browsers when forage is limited, these little antelope can adapt to a variety of habitats in their arid desert range in Namibia and western South Africa.

Red Hartebeest in Namaqualand National Park, South Africa

A herd of Red Hartebeest topped the hill just at sunset in Namaqualand National Park.

Hartebeest (or Kongoni) are nomadic grazers that forage along the boundary between grassland and scrub in southwestern Africa.  They are more dependent on water than Gemsbok and springbok and can be found near water sources in the evening.

Native ungulate (hoofed) mammals have to contend with grazing cattle as well as the occasional mules and horses belonging to the local farmers.

Mules on farms in the northern Cape region of South Africa

Mules were brought into the copper mining regions of the Northern cape region to haul ore carts.  Now they are handy to have when you need transportation over the rough back roads.

Mule-drawn cart in copper mining region near Springbok, South Africa


Flowers and more flowers

Namaqualand in the spring is truly an amazing sight.  There are hundreds of closely related species of several large families of plants all synchronizing their bloom time to capitalize on the soil moisture and warm temperatures.

Namaqualand flowers

Namaqualand flowers

The ubiquitous Namaqualand Daisy creates a carpet of flowers so dense you can hardly see the soil between them. They start to close up late in the day as the sun dims and the temperatures fall, as in this scene from the National Park near Skilpad.

Namaqualand flowers

Gazanias and ice plants (mesembryanthemum) are two of the most common plants on display.

Monkey Beetle on Namaqualand Daisy

Strangely, there are few to no bees present, despite all these flowers. Instead the flowers are full of small to large beetles which may tolerate the harsh summer conditions better. Monkey beetles devour the pollen and decimate the flowers, so it’s not clear whether they really are pollinators.

Iris flowers in the Namaqualand desert

Delicate Iris poke their fragile stems above the coarse, sandy soil. In other sites, they too formed a dense carpet of blooms.

Namaqualand butterfly

Butterflies are few and far between in this sea of flowers. So many plants to choose from…

Namaqualand flowers

On the rocks

Namaqualand flowersTraveling north of Cape Town about 250 miles, we have arrived in Namaqualand, where wild flowers abound in the spring.  It is mountain region interspersed with valleys of lush wild flowers, even though the spring rains have not been particularly plentiful.  The diversity of plants, both annual and perennial is astounding, far greater than what is seen in our southwestern US deserts.

Namaqualand flowers

Along roadsides are great places to see a wide diversity of flowers.

Namaqualand flowers

Rocky outcrops harbor a number of animals as well.  On top of this now was a meerkat sentry.

Meerkat sentry on top of a rocky outcrop in Namaqualand

Black eagle from Namaquaplaned South Africa

A Black Eagle, South Africa’s largest bird of prey sat atop another rocky outcrop.

Rock hyrax, Namaqualand, South Africa

Rock Hyrax, or Dassies as they are known here, also love the rocky outcrops, for protection from those predatory eagles.

Robins of another sort

It’s true that you can always find a Robin in a park, but at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, there seemed to be two different ones.

OliveThrush, Cape Town, South Africa

It looks just like an American Robin, and acts like one as well, digging through leafy litter, scratching at the base of plants, and hopping up to peer at you with its head cocked to one side.  This is the Olive Thrush, in the same genus (Turdus) as the American Robin.

Another Robin look-alike is the Cape Robin-Chat. But this cute little guy is related to the old world flycatchers, instead of Thrushes.

Cape Robin-Chat, CapeTown, South Africa

The Robin-Chat hops through litter on the ground, foraging in nooks and crannies at the base of trees and shrubs, acting much like the thrushes do.

Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Town, South Africa

So then…not really two robins here after all.  Just one robin relative and one pretender. 

A garden with a view

I am in Cape Town, South Africa, one of my favorite places on earth, and in that beautiful city, is the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, one of the best in the world. The gardens are situated on the eastern slope of the iconic Table Mountain that looms above the city.

table mountain from the harbor in CapeTown

Table Mountain from the harbor area in Cape Town.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town SouthAfrica

One of the many flowering trees in the garden, the African Coral Tree

canopy walk at Kirstenbosch Garden, Cape Town

A newly constructed canopy walk allows visitors to walk among the tops of the trees, admiring the flowers, the birds flying through, as well as the magnificent landscape views.

The flora at the southern tip of Africa comprise the unique Cape Floral Kingdom, found only here. Among these are the Proteas, with their highly unusual looking flowers.

Protea at Kirstenbosch Garden, CapeTown

Protea at Kirstenbosch Garden, CapeTown

Protea at Kirstenbosch Garden, CapeTown

Flying away

The blog will be taking a vacation while we are traveling in southern Africa for the next few weeks.  If I find some internet availability there, I may be able to post a photo or two of our travels.  But there will be plenty of shots of exotic wildlife from the African backyard when I return.

In the meantime, enjoy a few of my favorite “flying away” photos of herons and egrets (the ones that are always flying away from me).

great egret flying

Just once — could they fly toward me instead of away from me?

great egret flying


great blue heron flying

great-blue-heron flying

Ciao for now…

The patient hunter

Nothing exemplifies patience better (in the bird world) than herons and egrets fishing.  On a recent morning walk at the marsh at Wood Lake nature center, I spied these statues along the shore.

great white egret fishing

I love the mirror image of this statuesque bird.  Unfortunately, I disturbed its hunting and it flew off.

If they are undisturbed by a photographer’s presence, they will stand, unmoving in a fixed stance, for minutes on end, patiently waiting for the unwary fish or invertebrate to swim by.

great blue heron fishing

I was so far away from this bird that it continued its imitation of a bird statue for 10 minutes while I stood there.

great blue heron fishing

An imperceptible lowering of the bird’s head must mean there is something interesting there, but another 5 minutes went by with the bird in this position with no action. I moved on.

green heron fishing

Further along the marsh shore I spied a juvenile Green Heron repositioning itself on a branch. It assumed the statue stance… while I hid behind a tree to capture what I hope would be some fishing action.

green heron fishing

Sure enough, within a minute of landing, the heron started into its attack stance.

green heron fishing

Another lesson in patience — holding a pose while upside down clinging to a branch. Waiting…waiting…(me with my finger on the shutter, I mean).

green heron fishing

The strike and grab happened in a blink. To make up for my slow trigger finger, I just pressed down on the shutter and rapidly clicked off multiple shots.

green heron fishing

It’s a tiny little fish, but every calorie taken in counts when you’re trying to put on fat to migrate.

green heron fishing

Toss that baby back in the throat, just like you would a much bigger fish.

green heron fishing

And now back to pose number one — the statue impression.

The patient hunter reaps a reward!  Herons and Egrets have an astounding 70% average success rate (# of captures/# of strikes) in both natural and man-made aquatic environments in the southeastern U.S*.  I assume it’s roughly the same up here in the northland.  Great Blue Herons were by far the most successful hunters in estuary habitat, racking up a 93% success rate there.  Great Egrets enjoyed their greatest success along rivers (94%).  Snowy Egrets were almost equally successful in a variety of aquatic habitats (65-75% success) but were not able to match the prey catching efficiency of their larger cousins.

*data from H.D. Mincey, 2006.  MS Thesis, Georgia Southern University.

Safety in numbers

The warblers are back.  They must have flown in with the last storm front this week and are just as busy as they were last spring flitting about the trees and shrubs in search of food.  Since they don’t sing or chirp very much on their way south, I discovered the best way to find them was to listen for Chickadees making the “dee-dee” call.  Every time I found/heard a flock of chickadees, I saw a variety of warblers with them.

black capped chickadee stashing a seed

This chickadee found a sunflower seed somewhere and is trying to find a good place to stash it.  “Dee-dee-dee” calls vary in length; the greater the number of “dees”, the greater the threat.  High-pitched “see” notes indicate the presence of a predator.

It seems the warblers like to hang out with the local insectivores, forming mixed flocks of several species all cruising through the shrubbery and leaves together. Chickadee calls impart a wealth of information about the environment, especially the presence of potential threats, so perhaps migrating warblers rely on the local chickadee experts for information.  In addition, more eyes to watch for predators equals greater safety.

american redstart female or juvenile

An American Redstart female or juvenile bird sports flashy yellow rather than the scarlet-orange patches in the wings and tail of the male.

american redstart flashing its tail

The Redstart signature behavior of flashing its colorful tail feathers makes the ID for this bird pretty easy.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

That bright yellow cap gives this bird’s identity away — only one warbler has a golden cap like this one: a Chesnut-sided Warbler.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

No chestnut sides or black facial markings until molting season next spring.  The white eye ring is typical of juvenile Chestnut-sided Warblers.

Warblers are notoriously difficult to identify in the fall, mostly because they are not singing and the typical bright and distinctive male plumage may be dulled, looking more like the less distinctive female of that species.  Adding juvenile birds into the mix further confuses us.  So here’s a bird ID quiz.

Below are two photos of what I thought was two individuals of the same species.

magnolia warbler-juvenile

Gray head, yellow belly and throat, white eye-ring. Should be easy to ID, right?

nashville warbler

Here it is again — gray head, yellow throat and belly, white eye-ring.  Disregard that pale branch obscuring part of the bird’s belly.  It’s really all yellow.  Is the same species as the one in the previous photo?

What do you think?  One species or two?  List your reasons in the comments, and I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.

Shooting under

Under what?  Under challenging light conditions, underneath your subject, under-exposed? All of the above?  I learned an important lesson in how to use my equipment that made a big difference in the outcome.  What I discovered about light metering and exposure values might not be news to seasoned photographers, but it might save some frustration for other beginners out there.

Let’s say you want to take a decent photo of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, sitting up high on a plant in a brightly lit environment.

ruby-throated hummingbird

The bird is very pale, with its white belly and throat and pale green back. In fact, it’s the brightest thing in the well-lit environment. You have four choices on most SLRs for metering the light in this scene. Here’s what happens when you set the light metering mode to evaluative metering (the default mode that measures light across the whole frame).

ruby-throated hummingbird-overexposed; scene exposed with evaluative metering mode

All the details in the bright white subject are lost, and frankly the focus is not as sharp as it should be because the edges are washed out. The background looks nice though.  Evaluative metering would be a better choice for a landscape.

The most appropriate metering mode for this type of shot (small, bright object in the middle of a darker field) is spot metering, which measures the light intensity just in the circular area around the spot on which you focus (i.e., the head or other high contrast area on the bird).  The result looks more like the first photo — better contrast and better detail.

Pushing this focus on the light intensity of just the bird a little further, I decreased the exposure compensation by one stop (i.e., underexposed), and I like the result even better.  The details are much sharper in an underexposed photo, and the black background kind of makes the bird just pop out of the photo.

ruby-throated hummingbird-underexposed-using spot metering

For even more dramatic contrast, even more underexposure produces something like this.

ruby-throated hummingbird-underexposed

I am 20 feet below the bird, so the background is very dark.  Spot metering is necessary, and undexexposure helps highlight the subject.  The bird is sticking its tongue out at me.

The Digital Camera World website has some excellent discussions of subjects like this – here’s a link to one on Metering Modes that explains all four light metering modes very clearly.