A few strange birthday presents

Birthday boy

It was another long weekend and another one spent away.  This time we would be spending the weekend with my parents and my brother, David, his wife Natalie and their daughter Chiara.  We would be spending our time at Bartholomeus Klip, a wonderful guest house set alongside a 5 star lodge, at the base of the Elandsberg Mountains on the edge of the Elandsberg Nature Reserve.  The reserve is about 25kms from Wellington in the direction of Tulbagh and is a critical reserve in that it preserves a patch of Renosterveld, most of which has been converted to pasture in the Swartland and so less than 5% remains intact.  In fact, much of the Elandsberg Nature Reserve was originally farmland but it was proclaimed as a reserve and now has been left to recover to its natural state.

View from the slopes of the Elandsberg mountains
View from our house

The focus of the weekend would be on Adam.  It was for the celebration of his 7th birthday and it had also been some time before my side of the family had all been together.  With our rather overwhelming numbers we tended to overrun the place and I think little Chiara took some time to adjust to her older cousins.  Fortunately she hit it off with Emma but perhaps as she grows a little older it will be her boy cousins that will be a little more appealing.

Being in a slightly different area it also meant we would be doing some biodiversity stuff.  Jeanie and I had been to Bartholomeus on two previous occasions but it was a long time ago and my interests were far more squarely of the avian sort.  I had never cared to even notice the other animals.  This time I would be changing that.  Sure, there are always plenty of birds to see considering the mix between farmland and nature reserve but aside from some atlassing the birding would be a secondary activity.

My focus this weekend would be on an animal that had received some very prominent press in the last week or two but unfortunately for very depressing reasons.  A consortium of scientists had gathered in London of late and had proclaimed the 100 animals and plants that were at the highest risk of extinction.  South Africa featured four times in that list with a yam from Mpumalanga, a pipefish from the Eastern Cape, the Table Mountain Ghost Frog from the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and the Geometric Tortoise which is only found on the foothills of the Elandsberg Mountains and in some remaining Renosterveld in the Worcester area.  The latter would be my primary target.

For whatever reason, people that are keen on nature are always fascinated most by those animals that are rarest.  It is seldom that we remark on how many Cape Turtle Doves we saw while birding, or, how amazing the Impala were on that game drive in the Kruger Park.  Interesting stories usually involve those “once in a lifetime” encounters and the rarer the animal is the more you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seat as you regale your fortunate encounter.  I suppose we are also drawn by these rare animals as there is a degree of privilege associated with a sighting.  Perhaps to take it even further we know we need to see these things as they may not exist in ten years’ time.

My new found interest in reptiles was also a strong driving factor and since we were going to be in the heart of Geometric Tortoise territory I would be trying my hardest to make sure I found one.

I had been told by a good friend that “it’s a tortoise – how hard can it be?”, but following a game drive with our ranger, Johan, I was a lot less optimistic about our chances.  Firstly, this tortoise is a lot smaller than the usual Angulate or Leopard Tortoises we usually see.  Secondly the ornate patterning on the shell provides an extraordinary degree of camouflage.  Finally, we were also told that following a fire during February this year that swept through the Elandsberg range due to a carelessly controlled braai alongside the nearby Bains Kloof Pass, the number estimates had been downgraded significantly.   The staff of the reserve had trawled the fire remains picking up countless carcasses of the tortoises.  The exercise also allowed for a more accurate census and it was determined that there were most likely fewer than 500 remaining.  From original estimates of over 2000 this was a bit of an eye opener and a huge cause for concern.  It was no wonder that this animal found itself on the list of the top 100.

Not only would we be facing all the odds due to its rarity but the weather was not really playing along.  We were quite early on in the summer season and with miserable weather predicted for most of the weekend the chances that there would be enough heat to get the tortoises moving was slim.  Our game drive was particularly chilly and had most of the participants mumbling with descent every time I got Johan to stop for some seemingly uninteresting animal.  The Cape Clapper Larks were in full display and even the least hardened of our group were entertained by the antics.

Cape Clapper Lark
Cape Clapper Lark – display flight

We also had a lifer reptile in the form of a Marsh Terrapin and the group as a whole were appalled as I jumped out of the vehicle, shed my shoes and waded into the flooded grassland and picked up the smelly terrapin.  For an animal that lives its whole life in rapidly deteriorating water quality it is no surprise that it rivalled most animals I have ever seen (or smelt) for body odour.  Johan gave me a useful warning to avoid the mouth of the terrapin as it harbours a nasty bite.  After a few pics we were happy to send it back into the murk of the flooded area.

Marsh Terrapin
Marsh Terrapin – pic courtesy Tommy Buckham

Johan also managed to find a tiny little toad amongst the vegetation.  How he ever found it is still a mystery to me as it was no bigger than my thumbnail and it was so camouflaged amongst the sandy areas that it was hard to see when it was right under our nose.  Johan wasn’t quite aware how exciting a frog find would be for me and since I had never seen anything like this one I emptied a fair portion of my memory card taking pics of this creature from all angles.  We even contemplated that it was possible we had found a new species to science and it would be named in Johan’s honour!

Baby toad

When getting back to the lodge a little later we thumbed through our books and settled on a bizarre ID that just went to show how “green” I really am when it comes to amphibians.  I got it so unbelievably wrong that I am too embarrassed to share what I actually thought it was.  Trevor and Cliff set me right a little later on in the day and sanity prevailed when we settled on a baby toad of the rather common variety.  Cliff’s opinion was that it was a baby Raucous Toad, which is not particularly exciting, but it was still a bit of a learning curve.

Needless to say we returned to the lodge without clapping eyes on a Geometric Tortoise.  We did, however, return with a bit of useful gen and Johan suggested we give it another try when the sun peaked out from the clouds and started warming things up.

Jeanie had planned on dragging us out for some wine tasting in Riebeek Kasteel but as the sun started to shine and the day warmed up a bit I suggested to Tommy that we take a walk to the area that Johan had suggested.  The wine tasting was shelved.

I offered the same to Adam but a bike ride with his mom held much greater appeal than a “low likelihood” animal search.

Tommy and I set out and we were surprised and pleased at how rapidly the day had warmed.  This was a good sign.  What was not so good was that the warmer weather coupled with the very wet conditions meant that things could not have been better for the “miggies”.  I am not sure what the scientific name is but I am sure you all know what I mean – those tiny winged insects that don’t seem big enough to cause any hassles but when they come in swarms of several thousand they make an impact.  To add insult to injury the conditions were ripe for a couple of horse flies and after traipsing the area for a relatively short while I was starting to think that this was going to end badly.  Tommy, as always, was a trooper, moaning a lot less than his dad but when a swarm of bees entered the mix we knew that our time in the field was going to be short.

Geometric Tortoise habitat

We were standing in humid renosterveld, up to our eyeballs in insect infestations of plague-like quantity and we had not set eyes on a tortoise of any description.

Just as things could not get any worse, I glimpsed the unmistakeable shell patterning of a Geometric Tortoise a few metres to my left.

What a relief.

Within seconds we both had our cameras clicking away and we had at least put ourselves through the unpleasantness for a good reason.  Standing next to the tortoise, I decided that this animal could be extinct by the time Adam gets a chance to see it so we phoned home and called my dad and Adam out to see it.  Since no cars are allowed in the reserve it was a good 20 minutes before they arrived on their bikes and so it meant another twenty minutes putting up with the miggies and horse flies.  It was a real labour of love but I was very pleased that they got the chance to see it.

Geometric Tortoise

Our walk back to the house was one of the most unpleasant I can ever remember.  We were completely overwhelmed by the miggies.  It was also interesting to note some sibling negotiation in my oldest.  Tommy “offered” to ride Adam’s bike back to the house.  Adam, being the generous soul that he is agreed to walk back.  I like to think he jumped at the chance to spend time with his dad but within 5 minutes he was regretting his decision.  We both eventually decided that running was the only way to lessen the pain – we got back faster and the wind whistling past our ears reduced the numbers of critters landing on us.  It was our only foray to find a tortoise – we couldn’t cope with the miggies again.

The heat on Saturday was very short-lived.  We woke up on Sunday to drizzly weather that worsened to full blown rain forcing us all indoors for most of the day.  It wasn’t a total disaster though as it was the day of Adam’s 7th birthday and much time was spent opening presents, eating cake and watching DVD’s that had been part of the treasure trove that he had reaped.

Present time

Fortunately for my new found interest in frogs, rainy weather is often welcomed just as much as sunny weather is welcomed for bird photography.  When we had arrived on Friday night I had immediately noticed that there were quite a few Cape Rain Frogs calling from a section of bush quite near the lodge.  Tommy and I had tried our luck at finding one earlier on in the weekend but they were no easier to find here than they were to find in Newlands and the southern suburbs.  The calls are quite ventriloquial and just as they start up and you think you are getting close, they stop and leave you wondering where they are coming from.  We also noted that a lot of the calls were coming from thick bushes which, mostly, had deep Aardvark and Porcupine burrows at their bases and although I was quite keen to throw one of the boys down the holes to see what they could find I realised it would not be responsible behaviour.

On the Sunday night after the birthday festivities had died down and all the kids were in their pyjamas I decided to head out and try find one.  I would be going solo which was a good thing since it was dark and the rain was coming down.  It wasn’t raining hard but just enough to be a little irritating.  It was irritating for me but it was invigorating for the rain frogs as they were calling en masse all around me.  It was hard to pin point exactly where the calls were coming from but I reckon there were more than 25 males in a very small area.  If there were 25 males then there must have been at least 25 females so I was loving my chances.

Cape Rain Frog habitat

I had reason to feel optimistic as my search had only just begun in the sodden grass when I looked down at my feet in the torchlight and noticed this round, plump little ball that resembled a small wet stone, sitting hunched up in a small clearing between the grass tufts.  I could only believe that I had struck gold when I leaned down and picked it up and stared into the grumpy little face that was a Cape Rain Frog.  It was amazing to have found one so quickly.  Certainly no skill – just sheer luck.

Now I had a huge dilemma.  I only had a single torch, I had no phone and I was about 200m from the house.  There was no way I was going to get away with not showing this awesome find to the boys.  I had seen a Cape Rain Frog without them on a previous occasion and they wouldn’t let me get away with it again.  If I left the frog at the spot I would never find it again in the dark nor would it stay put, particularly after being handled.

There was only one thing for it.  I would take it back to the house with me.

I also needed to make sure that I returned it to the same spot.  Who knows – it may have been about to embark on an evening of procreation with a mate and it would be wrong to deny it.  So, since I did not have my GPS with me, I wedged my torch in amongst the grass so it shone up into the sky.  I had hoped it would create a similar effect to those power beams that they shine at concerts but after walking 20 metres away I could barely see a speck of light.  Not only was I likely to return the frog to a different spot but I would also be very likely to lose my torch.

Fortunately I was not too far from the house and I trusted my sense of direction and so started my way back to the house in the dark.  I got there a few minutes later bursting with pride at my latest find and walked in while everyone was winding down watching a bit of quiet television.

My prize was not quite as coveted as I had hoped.

Sure, Tommy and Adam were in raptures and rushed around grabbing their cameras but I got a steely glance from Jeanie.  Words were not needed for that look – what on earth was I doing throwing the house into turmoil 5 minutes before bed time?  My brother and sister-in-law were quite bemused by the whole incident, struggling to understand my fascination with something that is quite as ugly as a Cape Rain Frog.  My mother wouldn’t come near although she later admitted to getting a quick glance at my slimy treasure.  My dad, at least, showed a keen interest and assisted me in calling Johan from his house to come and look at the frog.  He acknowledged that it was the first Cape Rain Frog he had ever seen on the farm and he was at least appreciative of my hard work…

Cape Rain Frog
Cape Rain Frog

Jeanie was probably right though.  Five minutes into taking a few pics, for a variety of reasons that I am still unable to understand, poor little Adam and Jack were in floods of tears and there was no way to console them.  Perhaps the pumpkin hour had finally been breached and they were in full meltdown.  I was shooed out of the house and set on my way to take it back to where it had come from.

It was a lesson learned but I suspect it won’t stop me from bringing goodies home after dark in the future.

Fortunately I was also able to find my way back to my searchlight and I placed the frog right back to where I had found it.

The weekend was predictably too short and Monday morning brought an end to our time out there.  The only return I had from a quick birding drive with Tommy and Emma on Monday morning was a few pics of some of the birds and especially a nice pic of the textrix subspecies of Cloud Cisticola.

My birding companions
Banded Martin
Capped Wheatear
Rock Martin
Cloud Cisticola

Despite the weather and despite my sometimes strange behaviour we had an amazing time at Bartholomeus Klip.  We have agreed to do a family get together once a year but I am sure the rest of the family might pick somewhere a little less diverse the next time around…

Picture perfect



One comment on “A few strange birthday presents”

  • So great to see you in action with your enthusiastic partners in crime, Tommy & Adam, in tow. What great outdoor boys’ bonding. Long may it last!


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