The start of the school holidays is usually a bit of a non event for me. It is often difficult for me to get time off when the kids are on holiday so I always feel pretty sad as they run around on holiday while I am at my desk. You’d think after 16 years of being formally employed I would have gotten used to a shorter amount of holiday than I had as a kid.
This time round, however, it was a short school holiday of just one week and I would be taking the whole week off to spend time with the family.
We would be spending the weekend with a bunch of mates at Frog Mountain near Swellendam and then we would hit the road as a family on our first ever road trip.
I was pretty excited about Frog Mountain. The kids would have an absolute ball as there would be 5 families with 16 kids and I would be visiting what should be a very good frogging spot, given the name. We had previously visited Frog Mountain on a number of occasions but never before had I given the frogs of the area the slightest degree of attention.
I had a few special frogs of the area on my target list but I was cautious about my chances of success as I was not too sure of how much time I would get to go to the special areas to find them. Frogging is also most easily done with a group of like-minded people as finding ghost frogs and rain frogs can be a tedious affair when having to do all the work alone.
Our arrival was a good sign. No sooner had I hauled the bikes off the car when the kids raced off to explore. They were back within minutes telling me that they could hear plenty of frogs calling. I finished my unpacking and grabbed my wellies and headed to a small canal in front of one of the houses and heard tens, if not hundreds, of flat cacos tick-ticking away in the canal. It wasn’t going to be a lifer but my history with this frog has never been good and I was excited about the prospect of finding a few more in relative comfort. They are also remarkably variable and it would be pretty interesting to see some of the colour variations.
In no time at all we had found our first one and within seconds I was surrounded by about ten kids all clamouring for a view of it. Not exactly ideal conditions for getting a close look at the frog and taking some pics. Every kid wanted to hold it and as it jumped out of several little pairs of hands it ended up on the grass in the dark and ran a very real risk of being squished by a 4 year old’s boots. I fired off some horrendous pics before deciding that the livelihood of the poor frog was likely to be under severe threat if I continued to hold onto it.
The theme of the weekend was set with the menagerie of kids following me around waiting for me to find something whilst the respective parents stood by and watched as a grown man entertained their kids. I am not sure if they were grateful or whether they felt a little uncomfortable leaving their kids alone with someone quite as strange as me. Fortunately Tommy and Adam were every bit as accomplished as me (if not more so) at finding Flat Cacos and when I eventually grew tired of looking for the cacos the two of them continued to entertain the others. Adam, in fact, at the young age of 7, mentioned to me the one night that he had a “date” with one of the girls to find frogs for her. Here this innocent little girl was going to be charmed by my little boy for finding frogs. How sad it is that things change so dramatically. Somehow it seems as if the men stay just as they are but the ladies are no longer interested in our charming little hobbies as they grow older.
On our first night at Frog Mountain we were all done with dinner pretty early and so it gave me a chance to do some night-time exploration. I had seen some likely looking wet areas on the road in and I was convinced they would be pretty good for two of the frogs that I was keen to see. The Striped Stream Frog would hopefully be reasonably common but I was really hoping to find a Rattling Frog. It is a striking little frog with bold brown, tan and black patterns on its back. I had etched the croak into my mind and I knew what I was looking for when I heard it.
I politely excused myself from the adult gathering and I headed out on the farm road back to where I had seen some suitable habitat. I had donned my wellies over the bottom of my jeans and I felt like I was all set. I had a few fruitless stops until I parked next to a reed filled flooded area and opened the car window. The Striped Stream Frogs were in full chorus with at least 10 loud whistles emanating from the pond but there was also the unmistakable short, but loud, rattle of my prize target – Rattling Frog.
I spent no time contemplating my next move – I went straight into the pond. It was a mere 10 seconds by the time the water was pouring into the top of my wellies and the bottoms of my jeans were soaked.
I pressed on.
10 seconds after that my jeans were wet right up to my crotch and I decided I needed to stop and think about my next move. I wasn’t particularly worried about my wet jeans. I was more worried that they were dragging me down.
No matter – I shed the jeans and waded back into the pond in my wellies and my underpants. I am very pleased I was alone as it must have been a rather disturbing sight. The most disturbing part of the tale, though, is that I never got close enough to the rattling frog to make it count. The water got continually deeper and the reeds got ever thicker. I was now soaked and had nothing to show for it.
I packed it in at that pond and moved to the next, still wearing standard frogging kit which consisted of wellies and underpants. Yet again there were more Rattling Frogs calling but I could not get close enough to them.
It all dawned on me how crazy this was when I heard a distant car. I was in a real quandary. I could simply turn off my torch and no one would know that I was waist deep in a farm squelch a mere 20 meters from the road. It seemed like the best option but surely they would wonder why a car was parked at such a random location.
The other alternative was to make myself obvious by carrying on with what I was doing making me quite noticeable with my torchlight but that had a real downside. If there was a Buffeljagsfontein loony bin I would be carted off to it in no time at all when they found me.
Common sense prevailed and I dashed to the car leaving unseen Rattling Frogs mocking me as I bailed. A least I knew I wouldn’t be the subject of a back page article in the Swellendam weekly newspaper:
“Middle-aged father of four found wandering farmlands in underpants”.
Jeanie was not impressed when I arrived back at our cottage in my boots and underpants after having waded through some dubious farm water. I was sent straight to the shower before I was to go anywhere near the bed.
The evening was not a total waste. I managed a reasonable shot of a Scrub Hare before it scrambled up the rocky slope and disappeared.
I am saddened to report that several more visits to the same site did not yield a Rattling Frog. I was careful to dress a little more appropriately on further visits but I was still unable to find one. At one stage I was standing directly above one that was calling and I could still not find it. Stupid, damn Rattling Frog…
The only other decent frogs we found near Frog Mountain was a nice Clicking Stream Frog and a young Raucous Toad.
The frogging was not all bad though as I got my opportunity to head east to Grootvadersbosch for a few hours the one morning. I was accompanied by Tommy and Adam as well as Tommy’s good mate Alley and his dad Alastair. Alley would be getting his hands dirty helping us look whilst Alastair was there to document the strange behaviour that he had only heard about but never seen.
My main targets were primarily Eastern Ghost Frog and van Dijk’s River Frog – Two pretty special frogs that inhabit the gloomy interior of the forest. I was also hoping for a Strawberry Rain Frog but time was not on our side and that would have required considerably greater effort. The beautiful sunny morning meant that there were no rain frogs in voice and that just made it that much less likely that we would find one.
The ghost frog was my real “must have” as I was yet to see any kind of ghost frog and as bizarre as rain frogs look the ghost frogs are definitely the Narina Trogons of the frog world – very tricky to find and very appealing to look at.
My chances were enhanced as Trevor Hardaker had been to the same site a week previously and come right with a few of these and had been kind enough to share some gen.
We found the spot quite easily and set about turning rocks over in the stream. My very first rock had a frog under it and since I was so unprepared for that possibility it disappeared into the dark water before I could grab it. I was absolutely mortified that I may have let a ghost frog slip through my fingers in such a careless manner.
Undeterred we carried on and before long there were quite a few frogs giving us the run around. Quite a few slipped through our fingers until, eventually, Adam and I managed to combine our skills and grab one before it disappeared. In the gloom of the forest it was hard to tell what we had but after careful examination we were sort of convinced we had a van Dijk’s River Frog. I will admit to being quite uncertain with this ID but I had the foresight to confirm it was a river frog by checking the webbing on the hind toes and also the fact that it appeared to be a far smaller and darker frog than the Cape River Frogs I have seen. Subsequent discussion has revealed that Cape River Frog is a real possibility in that stream and so this one will go unidentified to a species level.
As exciting as this frog was it was certainly not the one I was absolutely hoping to see. We continued to work our way up the stream with Tommy, Alley and I turning over every rock we could find whilst Alastair spent his time taking a few pics. At this point Adam was trawling the river bank rather than the river itself. I couldn’t argue with his method as I clearly didn’t know exactly what I was doing but it did seem a long shot for finding a frog that generally specializes in living in fast flowing rivers.
The next thing I knew Adam was telling me he had a frog in his hands. He had found it under a dry rock on the edge of the river. I was quite excited as I suspected he may have a rain frog but when he opened his hands and I saw the beautiful blotched red patterns on a greenish background, those big bulgy, veined eyes and the impossibly long fingers and toes with tubercles at the end I knew that we had our first Eastern Ghost Frog. In a funny sort of way it looked a little like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings.
To say I was excited is an understatement. Earlier, I compared the ghost frogs to a Narina Trogon and this confirmed it for me. I was as excited at seeing this little thing as I was about seeing my first trogon. I know that would upset a few of my hardened “birding-only” followers but if you look at these pics it is hard to deny that it is an attractive little thing.
We spent some time taking a lot of pics before putting it (no idea whether it was a he or a she) under the very same rock under which Adam had found it and we then pressed on into the forest looking for a few new birds for Alley and Alastair.
The forest birding can be awfully tough but we bumped into a nice little bird party and I was able to point out Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Olive Woodpecker, Cape Batis, African Dusky-flycatcher, Forest Canary, Blue-mantled and African Paradise Flycatchers and eventually a really nice view of a Grey Cuckooshrike.
Speaking of trogons we heard the hoot of a single bird on the opposite side of the valley but my imitation through cupped hands did not bring it any closer. It would have been asking a little too much to fill our morning with the Crown Jewels of the birding and frogging world.
A remarkable sighting in Grootvadersbosch was the biggest earthworm I have ever seen. I reckon it was at least a metre long and in no time at all it was in the hands of the boys to pose for a photograph.
There were quite a few other birds over the weekend but nothing particularly fancy. Aside from a few dedicated hours to a bit of frogging and birding much time was spent enjoying the company of good friends in a fantastic place with great weather to boot.
We would make sure we enjoyed the company as we were off on our road trip early on Monday morning and we would be a tight little unit once again.