A feast of reptiles in Swakopmund

Dayne - he with magical skills

Dayne – he with magical skills

I have visited Namibia on at least six occasions and have covered most of the country, searching for the endemic birds. It is a fantastic birding destination with several endemics and near-endemics that make it a country that you just have to visit if you want to add meaningfully to your Southern African list. There are a few tough ones to find that are way out of the way in a vast country (like the recently discovered population of Angola Cave-chat) but there are equally as many that are relatively ubiquitous and don’t take much effort, such as Monteiro’s Hornbill and the extremely dapper little White-tailed Shrike. Aside from that pesky Cave-chat and one or two others in the Caprivi, my Namibian wanted sheet is pretty short and the most likely “outstanding”, being the Black-faced Babbler, was cleaned up a few days ago at Mushara Lodge just east of Etosha.

Adam’s birthday trip to Namibia was a great opportunity for me to assist him in starting his process of ticking off some of the great Namibian birds, but with our growing interest in other creatures, less great, but mostly small, Namibia was the perfect place to boost our reptile lists.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Namibia is to reptiles what Colombia is to birding. As far as I know it has the highest number of reptiles for a country, worldwide. It certainly has the highest diversity of lizards and, furthermore, it has a huge degree of endemism, mostly due to the unusual combination of the extremely dry Namib Desert and the almost daily mists that come across the desert from the cold Benguela currents off the coast.

The dune system that swept its way over millions of years from the mouth of the Orange River north-eastwards as far north as the Swakop River and as far east as the escarpment has also played its part in creating a unique system that has the ability to support a large diversity of life.

The mist settles on the dunes providing water for harvesting and the dunes provide shelter from prey and the extreme heat giving an opportunity for an amazing amount of life to survive out there.

A geography lesson in the desert

A geography lesson in the desert

Adam standing in Angola

Adam standing in “Angola”

We had bumbled our way around the northern sector of our trip (Etosha and Erongo) trying to add what reptile species we could, using our very limited skills and, although we were pleased with a few lifers we really were pretty clueless in what to look for and where to look for them.

I used my deductive skills in getting us the right person to help us whilst we were in Swakop. I googled the reptile park, contacted the owner and asked him who might be a reptile freak, and he immediately put me in touch with Dayne Braine from Batis Birding. Dayne’s father Steve used to run Hobatere Lodge on the western side of Etosha for many years and my father and I actually had the privilege of spending time with Steve, and his remarkable vision, in the field about 15 years ago, so I had a good feeling that anyone related to Steve would know their oats.

Dayne and I had sent a few mails back and forth which helped me prepare for what we might find, and it was with an immense amount of excitement that we were fetched from our accommodation in the murky mists of a typical Swaopkmund morning for an excursion in the dunes. Tommy and Adam’s seats were reserved early on and I was very pleased that my father decided to join us along with Jack, who is yet to discover the same passion for birds and lizards as I have, but I am sure, over time, the osmosis will seep through.

We drove south over the Swakop River and shortly thereafter due east into the dune system just south of the banks of the river. The Dorob National Park was our playground for the morning and it would be across a set of dune fields and gravel plains that we would concentrate our searches. These dune fields had also become a playground for all sorts of adrenaline activities as Swakopmund became the centre of Namibia’s tourism focus, and I even recall a previous trip where we had fallen victims to the appeal of the destructive quad biking that is so popular in this part of the world. Latterly, the quad biking trails have been minimized as the collateral damage to the desert animals was just so high. It still operates but their range is significantly restricted in comparison to what it was before.

Those are not the only pressures on this fragile environment. Foreign movie-making revenue is hard for the Namibian authorities to turn away, and the self-same dunes and plains we were accessing was the movie set for the recent Mad Max movie. As we drove along the plains, Dayne would talk about how he was taking guests through the dunes to find reptiles whilst futuristic vehicles were dashing across the desert while scenes were being shot. It must have been a surreal experience.

Anyway, I have digressed in setting the background.

We spent the earlier part of the morning, whilst the mist still hung low over the landscape, getting a detailed overview of the geography and geology of the vast Namib Desert, as well as some history behind the effect the World Wars had had on Swakopmund, being a German occupied region. But it was the wildlife we were itching to see.

Our first encounter with wildlife was actually a bird. There are not too many to speak of in this barren wasteland, but the real speciality is Gray’s Lark. It is basically a bundle of grey feathers atop two short little legs and it spends its time alternately pausing to toss aside some sand for some desert invertebrates and running across the ground. They are tricky to see in the half-light of the mist and they do blend in very well, but they are easily picked up by the short little contact call as they go about their business. We took a few snaps and then returned to a different class of animals.

Gray's Lark

Gray’s Lark

Dayne and his assistant Cleo have spent many hours in these dunes and they have obviously worked out the best places to find each of the specially adapted animals, but it was still very impressive watching the way they went about their searches. Dayne has a remarkable ability to track the marks in the sand and on every occasion we never missed what he was looking for.

Whilst we bumbled about the vegetated sections of the dunes “looking” for signs of life, Dayne and Cleo would work far more efficiently and every now and again we would be called across to see something new.

It is relatively easy to get into laundry lists when talking about what we saw but when the total list is so special (and relatively short) I guess it doesn’t hurt to talk about each animal.

The first was the most obvious. The enormous Namaqua Chameleon is a pretty noticeable animal (although we certainly couldn’t find it ourselves). It couldn’t have been more chameleon-like as it turned from charcoal black to a pale grey in a matter of seconds as it jerkingly moved off the desert vegetation and onto the dune. Chameleons will always make me smile as they are such photogenic animals.

Namaqua Chameleon

Namaqua Chameleon

Namaqua Chameleon

Namaqua Chameleon

We soon moved onto something seriously beautiful. It is a pretty popular tourist attraction in this part of the world, from a biodiversity point of view – partly due to its specific adaptations and secondly because of its beauty.

The Web-footed Gecko is a true desert specialist that lives under the sand out of the harsh light and the intense heat. It burrows under the sand during the day, using its webbed feet and emerges at night to hunt insects on the gravel plains and the dunes. It is a remarkable looking creature with a translucent skin and all sorts of bright colours around its head, on its back and specifically around its eyes.

Web-footed Gecko

Web-footed Gecko

Web-footed Gecko

Web-footed Gecko

Web-footed Gecko

Web-footed Gecko

The third and fourth animals were both snakes and snakes are always exciting, especially for young boys (and older ones too).

The first, however, was the most exciting animal we saw all morning from a rarity point of view. Dayne would find a snake at some distance away from us and call us over to have a look. He would keep us in suspense, not revealing its identity, until we were on top of it and then he would tell us what we were looking at. I had expected two species here – Horned Adder and the real crowd-pleaser, Peringuey’s Adder – but this was neither.

What was most impressive is that Dayne had found this snake about 20 minutes previously and had simply left it where he had found it and then continued searching for other animals. He had absolutely no fear that he would not be able to relocate it on this seemingly monotonous landscape.

I was a little bit in a panic that he would not find it again, as he returned to the spot, dragging us along. I asked Dayne if it was under a rock, or asleep under a bush, expecting that was the only way he had confidence in finding it, but he simply replied “no, it was moving across the dunes”.

Absolutely incredibly, he relocated the tracks and followed them over the small dune hummocks, saying “yip, it came over this one and then moved across the gravel, and then over this one. It should be very close as these tracks are very fresh.”

His “big reveal” was actually taken away by Tommy, who managed to spot it first, but I suspected that was what he was hoping for, making the experience even more enjoyable for an impressionable 12 year old.

It was a Dwarf Beaked Snake and apparently exceptionally hard to find here in the Namib. Cleo had never seen one himself and it was quite remarkable sharing a lifer with a guide.

Dwarf Beaked Snake

Dwarf Beaked Snake

We spent a bit of time taking some pics and then moved on to the next snake, which was a little more commonplace, being a Horned Adder. In fact, Dayne found two of them within 40 metres of one another so we got a chance to compare their colouring. Each Horned Adder comes with a fingerprint-like uniqueness in its colouring and, after spending so much time in these dunes, Dayne has got to know many of the ones he seems to re-find. Thankfully, he has stopped one step short of naming each of these snakes.

Horned Adder

Horned Adder

Horned Adder

Horned Adder

We added another gecko shortly thereafter, being Namib Day Gecko and then it was the lightning fast Reticulated Lizard that is yet another endemic to the Namib Desert.

Namib Day Gecko

Namib Day Gecko

Reticulated Desert Lizard

Reticulated Desert Lizard

We progressed from the small piles of sand on the desert plains to the true dunes. Here we were looking for a few more specialists.

The first was the Shovel-snouted Lizard, a remarkable creature that provided quite a bit of entertainment. As we drove alongside the base of the dunes we would see these wonderful creatures running along the sand but, as soon as we approached too near, they would dive straight into the sand and completely disappear. The only telltale sign would be a tiny disturbance in the face of the dune. Once we got up close we could easily see the shovel snout that allows it to get under the sand so quickly. It also revealed some spectacular colouring.

Shovel-snouted Lizard

Shovel-snouted Lizard

Shovel-snouted Lizard

Shovel-snouted Lizard

Then it was the endemic Namib Dune Burrowing Skink. I have found burrowing skinks myself on the West Coast but this one took a special effort and a special technique. The marks in the sand were pretty easy to see, with a haphazard line breaking the perfection of the surface, with a clear beginning and clear end but it was hard to tell which was which. Dayne dug into the one end and found nothing so the natural assumption was that it was at the other end. He took one large scoop of sand and as he did so the skink was revealed. He took another large scoop at it and managed to get it before it dived back into the sand. According to Dayne, you get one chance at these endemics before they dive so quickly that they will never be found again.

Fortunately we were able to take a few pics before we set it down on the sand again and it returned to the safety of its natural environment.

Namibia Burrowing Skink

Namibia Burrowing Skink

We did add another bird in the desert at this point.  A pair of the pale form Tractrac Chats make their home near the dunes and were extremely obliging for a few photos.

Tractrac Chat

Tractrac Chat

We had virtually cleaned up in the desert but there was one glaring omission – Peringuey’s Adder.

This is definitely the reptile that all herpetologists come to Namibia to see. It is a dwarf adder and pretty small in size, and it has adapted better than most to live in the sand. It is the only African snake with dorsal eyes, allowing it to bury itself in the sand, yet still keep an eye out for prey and threats. The Horned Adder we had seen earlier will hide in the base of a bush and ambush hunt from there, but Peringuey’s buries itself on a dune and uses that concealment for its ambush-hunting.

We had struggled to find any tracks in the dunes, which is the only way to find this creature, but Dayne had one more spot to try before we had to call it a day.

In circumstances like this I am usually resigned to failure, but Dayne stopped anyway. He mentioned that he had seen tracks of a Peringuey’s in that spot a few days before and he thought it might be worth a try. He jumped out of the car, asking us to wait a few minutes (much like the rangers at the exclusive lodges do when they are off to track a leopard) and he started his search. It wasn’t long before we heard a yelp of delight (I am sure Dayne won’t mind me referring to it as a yelp as that is the closest I can get). We all jumped out of the car and rushed over. We lent over to look at where he was pointing and there was absolutely nothing to see. I will acknowledge that there was a rough coil shape in the sand but it wasn’t exactly obvious. It also seemed obvious to me that there was no snake underneath the surface of the sand.

He grabbed Adam’s camera and bent down to the level of the sand and took a photograph of a few loose stones. He zoomed in the picture and it was hard to believe what he was showing us. In the middle of all the stones was a single eye with a narrow pupil, quite obviously the eye of the Peringuey’s. I looked away from the screen of the camera back down to the ground and I still could not see anything. It was almost like one of those “Where’s Wally” books where someone is standing at your shoulder saying “can’t you see him yet?” but no matter how hard you look you just cannot see it.

It was only when I was down almost at eye level with the ground that I suddenly saw the eye. It was like nothing I had every seen before. It was admittedly tiny but it was the most camouflaged animal I can recall seeing. Only at point blank range was it possible to make out that there was a snake there.

Peringuey's Adder

Peringuey’s Adder

When we had taken snaps of the camouflaged head, Dayne blew the sand gently away revealing the Peringuey’s in all its naked glory.

Peringuey's Adder

Peringuey’s Adder

We didn’t spend too long with it and shortly after taking a few pics it found another suitable spot and performed its body wriggle that sinks the entire animal, except the two little eyes, into the sand.

The treat was now over and we had ticked 9 new reptiles, 5 of which were endemic to the Namib.

We still had a bit more fun before the party was over. We had a night walk with Dayne on the flatter plains a bit further inland from Swakop, where we looked for some of the nocturnal geckos. It was a quieter night out than we had in the morning but we added one more gecko in a Carp’s Barking Gecko. It was yet another new one for us.

Carp's Barking Gecko

Carp’s Barking Gecko

Almost as interesting as the reptiles were a few of the arachnids that Dayne found for us. There was only one scorpion, which shines a most remarkable colour in the UV lights that we used and then we had three species of spider, the most charismatic being the Dancing White Lady which is also a dune specialist. It made for some eerie Sci-fi-like photographs.

Dancing White Lady

Dancing White Lady

Dancing White Lady

Dancing White Lady

Two more spiders were the Six-eyed Sand Spider which apparently packs a serious punch if you get bitten and then a sporacidae species which also looked a lot more interesting close-up than it did from far.

Six-eyed Sand Spider

Six-eyed Sand Spider

Sporacidae spp

Sporacidae spp

Having come to the most reptile-rich country in the world it was a real treat to spend a day with someone that knows more than just about anyone. There are more commercialized tours in the Swakop area that pack in a lot more people but if you are interested in a true specialist tour and the smaller, more interesting animals I couldn’t recommend Batis Birding more highly and specifically, Dayne, who not only knows how to find what we were hoping to see but also excites in finding the stuff as much as it seems he did the first time he found them.

You can contact Dayne and Batis Birding through their website at www.batisbirding.co.za.

For the next instalment in our trip click here.

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