Long weekends in the Buckham household are eagerly awaited. Not only by the kids, but by Jeanie and I. There is nothing better than having that one extra day to squeeze in even more activities in a weekend than normal.
This most recent Youth Day weekend was no exception. My work had been extremely stressful of late and I was looking forward to the weekend more than I had for any other weekend for a very long time. Not only was it that the stressful week had been a cause for the anticipation but also since we were heading to George to spend the weekend with my parents.
We had not been to George for a while and, in fact, I had not had a decent opportunity to test my new found skills in frog and lizard finding in George on any previous occasion. There were definitely some new animals for us to look for and with the weather predictions looking good we were hoping to add to our lists.
Being a Father’s Day weekend I was also hopeful that I would be able to indulge myself with as much “me time” as possible. Sure, many of my activities would involve Jeanie, the boys and Emma but it is always useful to have that tiny bit more leeway in order to make sure all bases are covered when searching for new animals, particularly when some of them would be quite tough.
So, on that note I had a wish list of five specific species, the identity of which will be revealed in good time.
The first on the list was a Red-chested Flufftail.
I had seen Red-chested Flufftails on a number of occasions but Adam had always missed out when we did see them and I had also not managed a decent photograph. We set out on Saturday morning to a reliable spot I had found before and, although the weather was extremely cold and windy under leaden skies, I was hopeful of a sighting. A bright sunshine morning was less likely to be successful with super-skulkers like flufftails.
We found our spot and took up our position and played a short burst of the tape. Within seconds we had at least two males on either side of the path calling back at us. We felt our chances were really good and so got our cameras ready to fire but everything just went completely quiet.
We waited for a good half an hour or so and as we decided to pack up and try somewhere else a male called again no more than 4 or 5 metres away from us. So, it was back down again in patient mode and finally, within the space of 30 seconds, two males crossed the path in opposite directions to one another.
The views were very good but extremely quick and I barely had a chance to lift my camera, never mind take a photograph. Adam was pretty satisfied, though, and so we had ticked off our single bird target for the weekend.
I guess on a family weekend it is important to maintain a balance and shortly after our flufftail tick we set off on the Outeniqua Power Van from the George Transport Museum. The Power Van is a small engine driven railway carriage that trundles up the railway line that crosses the Outeniqua mountains from the coastal plain in George to the Little Karoo towards Oudtshoorn. It is a real tourist experience but it is one of the most enjoyable outings we have had as a family in a long time.
The line itself rises gently up the contours of the mountains in a series of convoluted twists and turns before reaching “the Topping” which is where the line starts the descent into the Little Karoo. For most of the journey the old Montagu Pass snakes its way upward at a far more severe gradient below the railway line until the two meet at the Topping.
We got out for a quick leg stretch before the driver of the van moved from the front of the van (which was now the back) to the back of the van (which had now become the front) and we tipped our seats over, faced the opposite direction and enjoyed the views of the descent. The scenery all along the line was beautiful despite the scudding low clouds threatening to dump rain on our journey. A stop at a viewpoint for a quick picnic was very welcome but we were on a schedule and so at 12:09 we got back into the carriage and headed back down for the remainder of the journey.
Our next target species was a Knysna Dwarf Chameleon.
It must be said that everyone loves a chameleon. Many reptiles are a little slimy or scary but chameleons are neither. They are gentle, serene creatures that are simply endearing in almost every way. They don’t bite and when found they are always just as comfortable clambering on one’s hand as they are climbing on the branches of a tree.
Their very nature, though, makes them hard to find but we had been given some good gen for this tricky localised endemic. We had been given the locality of a private garden in the centre of George which was apparently a pretty reliable spot to find them. The garden was said to be accessible but the possibility of a locked gate would thwart our opportunity. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon and I was feeling a little pessimistic of our chances. We jumped in the car and headed to the garden where we found an open gate we were even luckier to find the caretaker of the garden available to give us full permission for our search. We still had limited time not wanting to keep our host waiting too long. We needn’t have worried. It took no longer than 10 seconds for Tommy to find our target and so we were able to spend a few minutes taking our pics before we felt we had overstayed our welcome.
We were on a roll so we headed for our next target which was a Knysna Leaf-folding Frog. This was a really tricky one and I knew our chances were particularly slim. I had been told that our timing was wrong and that proved to be the case. We hit the right spot just before darkness fell and although we may have been a little early in the evening for the best opportunity for finding the leaf-folder we quickly discovered that our target pond was bone dry and our chances went from very slim to zero.
It wasn’t the end of the world as Tommy, Adam and I were happy to head home for a very relaxing braai with the rest of the family. It was the eve of Father’s Day and the weather was clearing and we had two more days to make headway into the remainder of our list of two target species.
We woke up on Father’s Day Sunday with the sky a perfect blue and not a breath of wind. It was a vast improvement on the day before and we were out nice and early to fill our day with as much as possible.
My dad and I took the two older boys out for some early morning birding which was pretty quiet but we managed to add one or two species to our list.
Our main targets for the day would wait till a little later in the morning when a bit of sunlight and warmth would get them going.
Number four on our list was another localised reptile – Blue-spotted Girdled Lizard.
This one turned out to be pretty simple. Our biggest challenge for this species was to find appropriate habitat (rock faces) in the sunshine. We had been told that the Montagu Pass was the best place to find them, sitting in the warm sun on the beautifully stacked stone walls that were laid by Henry Fancourt White, the road engineer that built the pass in the 1840s.
The problem we now had was that the mid-winter sun was far from hitting the stone walls of the pass and there was no way they would be out and about on a chilly morning. I figured that there was no good reason why we would not find the girdled lizards on the newer Outeniqua Pass which was bathed in sunshine being on the right side of the sun at that time of the morning.
It turned out to be easier than expected with the first lay-bye on the way up the pass presenting a beautiful sunny stone wall. We had no sooner stopped the car when Adam shouted out that there was a lizard right next to the car on the rock face. We had to wait a minute or two for it to reappear as Adam had frightened the poor thing back into the depths of its crack but when it did it was clear as the morning was bright that this was a Blue-spotted Girdled Lizard. In certain light conditions the blue spots are apparently tricky to see but in perfect light like we had there was no doubt we were looking at the right animal.
The ease with which we had found the lizard gave us a little bit of extra time for our last objective for the weekend. This, like the leaf folding frog, was one which I just never expected to find. We would be looking for a Southern Ghost Frog which finds its home in rocky, fast flowing rivers in the Garden Route area and although we had a bit of time before the family lunch we knew that we would need to be extremely lucky to find one. Adam had been the finder of the Eastern Ghost Frog last year, which he found in Grootvadersbosch, so I was pleased to have him along with Tommy as backup because we would have to turn over a lot of rocks in our river of choice.
We started our search and within about an hour we had worked our way about a hundred metres up the stream and I had turned over about 200 rocks. My companions were doing their fare share and all we had to show for our efforts was about 25 River Frogs which was far from what we are looking for. The frogs dart around when the rocks are lifted so there is always that brief moment of excitement when finding a frog, but excitement would turn to despair as we realised we were looking at a web-footed river frog rather than a Ghost Frog with those gollum-like toes.
I was reaching the moment when I figured that it was time to stick our tails between our legs and accept that three out of five for the weekend was a pretty good hit rate, when I decided to scratch underneath some rocks a little away from the water, amongst some leaf litter, when I suddenly saw this tiny little frog which was quite clearly not a river frog.
Our hard work had finally paid off and here was our most unlikely success – a Southern Ghost Frog. It brought my tally of Ghost Frogs to two and it confirmed my opinion that these are definitely the most appealing of all frog species that I have seen. The huge bulging eyes, the beautiful colourful patterns on its skin, the sleek body shape and of course those long toes with bulbous ends. I have to acknowledge that this little ghost frog looked remarkably similar to the last one we had found at Grootvadersbosch but I now know that my identification skills when it comes to frogs is based purely on what people tell me to expect rather than any degree of knowledge. I was happy to accept that this was a Southern Ghost Frog.
We took our fair share of photographs and carefully put this little creature back to where it had come from.
The Ghost Frog wrapped up our biodiversity activities for the weekend and we happily headed for a well deserved Father’s Day lunch at a nearby restaurant to share with my parents, Jeanie, Emma, the boys and Jeanie’s mom, Annetjie.
My day was not over though. I had not spent an afternoon on the golf course with my father for a very long time and it was an awesome way for us to spend some time together. Jack and Adam decided that they would give it a skip but Tommy joined us on the golf cart and we spent a memorable few hours together to round off a perfect day.
The rest of the weekend was spent with the binoculars and camera stuck away in my bag but I was very pleased with the final results. 4 out of 5 of my targets dealt with and some awesome time spent with the family.