Sometimes finding new stuff is very hard work. Our recent road trip showed us that our new interest in reptiles and frogs was not going to be plain sailing. We worked so hard for each new reptile and even when we thought we had found something new, our thrill was dashed as we were told by those in the know that it was just another colour form of something we had already seen.
However, there are some experiences that are the complete opposite – when finding new things happens far too easily. Friday night was one of those nights.
Our good friends had recently moved into a wonderful property in Bishop’s Court, alongside the river, and when they invited us for a braai on a completely unseasonal wet and windy October night I thought it would be well worth taking my camera along in the hope of finding a rain frog or two.
When we arrived in the pouring rain the rain frogs were predictably in full chorus and after a few pleasantries and one or two beers I would be setting out amongst their shrubs looking for their very special garden inhabitants. Our good friends are now fully aware of my strange habits and it was not considered to be anti-social behaviour to be looking for a few frogs whilst all the mature adults sipped on their wine and tended to the braai. On such a miserable night I think the parents were grateful that I would be providing a form of entertainment for the kids.
Before I even finished my first beer Adam got a head start and he was patrolling their garden turning over as many rocks as he could find. After a few rocks I heard him calling me with a calm “dad, there’s a snake under this rock”.
I was out of my chair in a split second and rushed over to look at what he had found. I have made it very clear to the boys (especially Adam who will literally pick up anything) that they should not pick up any snakes until we know what it is, so when I got there this very cold reptile was still curled on the ground hoping to be left alone.
At a first glance I knew straight away that this was not a snake. The dead giveaway was that it had a pair of legs. Albeit very small legs, but legs nonetheless. In Adam’s defence, while it was curled up it did look a lot like it was legless. Once I determined it was not a snake Adam’s hands were in there and he grabbed a new reptile for us.
This time I knew we were not going to be disappointed – as much as I had absolutely no idea what it was just yet, I knew that it was something different. The slender body and extraordinarily long tail resembled a skink. In fact, that is what I confidently called it for quite some time while we showed it off to the other kids and the adults that were interested. Something didn’t sit right as a skink and so a quick call to Trevor and a brief description led Trevor to suggest that it may be a seps. Now, I am a complete novice to reptiles but I had actually encountered a picture of a seps in my reptile book and I was suddenly pretty confident that that was what we had. A check of the field guide when we got home confirmed it as a Short-legged Seps which the field guide mentioned was a special animal to see being particularly hard to find despite being locally quite common.
Well, it wasn’t a rain frog but it was possibly even more exciting – a new reptile for our list.
Invigorated by this relatively easy success I decided to put my beer down and head into the garden myself to see what I could find. As is always the case I had a few kids in tow as I walked up into the section of the garden where the rain frogs were most vocal. I approached a large concrete slab lying in the garden next to a palm tree and nonchalantly lifted it up. Now, over the last 4 or 5 months I have turned over hundreds of rocks. For the most part it is difficult, unrewarding work. For every 100 rocks turned over we may find 1 frog or reptile. Not a great hit rate.
I was therefore completely blown away when I lifted the slab and underneath there was not one, but two snakes curled up in the cold weather. As is my traditional response to finding a snake, I immediately lowered the stone and stood there wondering what I do now that the proverbial dog has actually caught the proverbial bus.
As was the case with the seps I had no idea at all what these two snakes were. They were certainly different species but beyond that I was clueless. I rushed back to the house, grabbed my camera and called everyone to come have a look. I had left Adam and his good friend Ben in charge of the slab making sure that our quarry did not slink away and on our return lifting the stone revealed that they had not moved. Amongst at least 7 kids and a fair number of adults we tried to manoeuvre the two snakes into a decent position for a photo.
The smaller, livelier one was quite quickly heading for a quieter place to spend the evening and for a few seconds my brain went through an interesting process of elimination. I was absolutely certain that this was not a puffadder or cobra thereby ruling out two deadly possibilities. I then struggled to think of what other poisonous options there were and came up with nothing. There was nothing else for it but to grab it before it disappeared for good. My brain told me it was okay and so I pinched the slender body between my fingers and grabbed it. I was absolutely delighted when it did not turn around and sink any fangs into my fingers. It was quite agitated and tried hard to get away but it had now curled its body around my fingers and for the moment it was secure…and harmless.
At the same time the second snake had woken up a little and was making a bee-line for the same dark hole from where it would never come out again. This snake was larger and this time I was not prepared to play the same game of Russian Roulette, so I decided I would snap a few picture before it disappeared for good. My photos were therefore predictably terrible but at least I got something. In no time at all it was gone. But, at least I had a photo or two and the smaller one was in my hand.
We then spent a few minutes getting a few pics therefore enabling us to get an ID. Each of the kids had their turn to handle it and whilst it was quite active it never appeared aggressive.
The pictures were sent on to Trevor and we finally had our ID. The smaller, livelier one was a Brown Water Snake whilst the larger one was a Common Slug-eater. Both of them were new for my list and all the moms were delighted to find out that neither of them was in the least bit dangerous.
The rest of the evening was spent the way most Friday evenings should be spent – a few glasses of wine, some lively conversation and some excellent food. The three new reptiles were a completely unexpected bonus.
Friday evening would ordinarily have been enough biodiversity for one weekend but I got a call from Dom Rollinson on Saturday morning to let me know that he had found a Dunlin at the West Coast National Park. I had turned down the offer to join him in the park on Saturday morning due to other commitments but it meant that I missed out on a seriously rare bird. With a quiet Sunday morning on the cards I decided (after some negotiating for a pink ticket) that it would be wrong not to try for it. With most of the Western Cape’s (and a few of Gauteng’s) top birders planning to do a search for the bird on Sunday morning my best chance at this serious vagrant would be to strike when the iron was hot. With all the very knowledgeable guys out there it would give me some chance at adding this one to my list. My wader watching skills are not bad but they are not great either and I fear my patience to sift through thousands of waders on my own at some future date would be relatively fruitless. I had to do it straight away to avoid the inevitable feelings of regret.
Tommy was keen (as always) and so we made a late start for the park and arrived there when there were already at least 50 people on the boardwalk at Geelbek.
I will cut a long story short and say that of the 50 people on the boardwalk, there were several that will tick the bird and probably the vast majority that won’t. The subject of everyone’s search was a single bird with a dark belly in amongst hundreds of Curlew Sandpipers. Not only was it “needle in a haystack” stuff but the birds were well over 150m away and the wind was blowing at a furious pace buffeting all our scopes making it very difficult to get a steady view. I had several glimpses of a dark bellied bird but whether it was a Dunlin, or a moulting Curlew Sandpiper, or just a normal Curlew Sandpiper with a shadowed belly I will never know.
I am confident that Dom had the real thing the previous day and earlier that morning but the conditions when we were there just made it impossible to be satisfied with any chance of a tick.
This was birding at its most hardcore and Adam had made the right decision to stay at home. I actually remarked to Dom that birding and twitching had taken on a whole new direction in SA these days with the extraordinary number of committed birders pitching up to look for such a small, non-descript bird. 5 years ago there may have been 2 or 3 hardcore listers out there trying to find the bird but now we had a huge group arriving to add it to their lists.
One would think that it was a disappointing morning out there but with our new interest in reptiles we spent some spare time turning over a few rocks and sifting through molehills. The rocks revealed a Striped Dwarf Leaf-toed Gecko that escaped before we could get a photo and a Cape Skink as well as a beautiful scorpion, whilst the molehills delivered three separate Cuvier’s Blind Legless Skinks and three Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skinks. None of these were lifers but it was so good to put our searching methods to the test and come up with something.
So, it was another weekend spent squeezing as much life out of it as possible. We wouldn’t have it any other way…