They say that timing is everything and there is nothing that illustrates it better than frogging.
Over the last weekend Cape Town saw one of the most dramatic two days of weather. We had drenching rain, thunder and lightning, hail stones and snow on the mountains far earlier than one would ordinarily expect. It wasn’t great weather for most, but it was perfect weather for my next targeted frog.
Last year in June I had spent a fruitless evening wandering around the fallow fields near Klipheuwel with my two good birding/frogging mates, Dom Rollinson and Dave Winter, looking for one of the Western Cape’s most endangered frogs – Cape Caco. It really is not the prettiest frog in the world with a wide, squashed face, a rather flattened body with flabby looking skin and weird wart-like protuberances over most of its body. The thing about a Cape Caco is that it really does not look like a caco at all. The other cacos I have seen are tiny little frogs no bigger than a thumbnail with sleek elegant bodies that are relatively flattened, with a relatively pointy nose. Their vocalisation is also very different with most cacos that I have heard making a quickening clicking. The Cape Caco sounds far more like a toad with a load, rather elongated “qwaark” sound.
Anyway, back to my lack of success last year with my Cape Caco hunt.
On that occasion, almost exactly a year ago, we had arrived at our locality and been hugely disappointed at the lack of noise coming from the darkness. We had heard a few Flat Cacos (none of which we managed to find) and we thought we had heard a single Cape Caco, but after two hours of chasing what might have been a trick on our ears we had given up our quest.
I need to expand the story a little and say that I didn’t only spend one evening looking for it, but I actually went out on a separate occasion, on my own, and wandered around the base of the Klipheuwel wind turbines searching numerous ponds in the dark for this most elusive of creatures. It was an eerie experience and one that really defied much logic. I recall calling Jeanie on the drive home and said to her that I think I had finally lost it. She didn’t disagree.
So, following the heaps of rain that came down on the weekend I suggested to Dave and Dom that we give it another go. The breeding season begins in May and probably only opens for a window of less than a month. It is also so weather dependant and I was hopeful that the seasonal ponds that form in the dips and hollows of the fallow fields had filled with water and created the correct conditions for a few Cape Cacos.
We arrived at the site at around 8pm and although the fields are well known for these amazing little creatures it hasn’t really caught on as a major tourist attraction. One doesn’t find a nice big information board welcoming one to the best spot in the world for such an endangered animal. There also isn’t a nice safe parking lot with arrows pointing you in the direction of the ponds. Essentially there is a field with a fence marked only by a big cellphone tower right in the middle of the field.
Last year we had simply parked on the side of the road and accessed the field rather “informally”, shall I say. This year we decided on a slightly different approach. The cellphone tower is obviously an item of value and in the corner of the field there is a small bricked house with a very sturdy razor wire fence around it, most probably with the objective of protecting the valuable asset in the middle of the field. To add to the levels of security there was a rather frisky looking German Shepherd, attended to by a very serious looking security guard.
I reckon, though, that the security guard was more terrified than we were, as the three of us got out of the car wearing our head torches, beanies and wellies. He probably thought we were there to bury a body, and at some point in time I am not sure he wasn’t convinced that he may have been that body.
Whilst we were in the midst of our innocent approach, ensuring that we didn’t scare the bejesus out of him (it turned out that his name was Joshua), it was hard to ignore the fact that we had hit the motherload with respect to the potential for our evening’s frogging. The sound of the frog calls was virtually deafening with the most dominant species being the ubiquitous Clicking Stream Frogs but clearly accompanied by many Flat Cacos and then the unmistakable toad-like “qwaark” of countless Cape Cacos. It was absolutely amazing to hear the overwhelming sounds of the night and mostly amazing to hear the burgeoning voice of our main target coming from less than ten metres away. The problem was that we had not yet been cleared for our wanderings and Joshua set about making contact with his supervisor before he would let us out of the car. So, there we sat with our windows open on a freezing cold night out in the northern suburbs, Cape Cacos belching out their mating calls, whilst Joshua tried to give us the go ahead.
We were pretty convinced that the end result would be a firm no, but despite being unable to make contact with his boss, Joshua decided we did not look that weird (which must have been due to the poor light conditions) and he let us loose on the darkness.
Well, it was a bit of an anticlimax. Within a total of thirty seconds I had managed to find a male Cape Caco, half submerged in the water, clinging to a strand of grass with its vocal sac filled with air, calling for a female. Unfortunately I missed the shot of him in mid-call but we easily managed to take a few pics of him on some dry ground. It seemed way too easy.
We remarked several times at how it had seemed so impossible a year earlier when we had simply got the timing wrong. There is no doubt that there are still quite a large number of these range restricted frogs in the area but there is just no point in looking for them unless you get the conditions right. We spent as much time as Joshua allowed looking for a number of specimens and I also managed to get a pic of a pair of Clicking Stream Frogs in an amplexus embrace. Note how tiny the male looks in comparison to the female.
Aside from the Cape Caco another real highlight was a lifer mammal in the form of a Pygmy Mouse which Dom managed to spot just before Joshua called time on our expedition. I had always wondered how one gets decent photos of these little rodents but this one proved to be quite easy to get in a nice position for a photo or two.
Our night was almost over but not before hearing the most remarkable noise emanating from the darkness. It can only be described as a combination of a barking dog and a croaking korhaan. We managed to get our torches on the eyes of a fast retreating small mammal and the only conclusion we could come to was that it was a Cape Fox. It was a real pity we did not get a better view but still pretty special to know it was out there.
Pumpkin hour came quickly with an ever increasing watchfulness coming from Joshua, so we decided to call it a night after a very successful venture.
Who knows how long these conditions will last but it was pretty special to experience them.