Surprises everywhere

For those of you that are dedicated followers of my blogs (don’t all shout at once), you will have noticed that my pages have been static for a number of weeks.  The last outing is actually so far back in my memory that I can barely remember what it was.

It is certainly not to say that our lives have been quiet – quite the contrary.  There has been a lot going on but it has involved very little of value from a biodiversity point of view.  We have been out a few times but I have had nothing particularly interesting to share and I have made a point of not posting rehashed blogs of the same thing over and over again.

Well, this weekend has certainly made up for the lack of the last few weeks.  Today was definitely one of the most exciting days I have had in a long time.  For the birders out there I am afraid it will be very limited but for those of you that enjoy some of the frogs and reptiles there may be something in this update that will keep you interested.

It hasn’t only been about the “herps” (a generic term for reptiles and frogs).  We also had some excellent family moments.  One of the true highlights of the school year is the interhouse cross country at the Klein Constantia Wine Estate.  All three of my boys participated in their respective races and acquitted themselves extremely well.

Jacky Jack

We also celebrated Emma’s first birthday.  It is so hard to believe that a year has gone by since she joined us.


Sunday morning, however, was where it was all going to happen.  I had not visited the West Coast National Park for a very long time and although we are in the depths of one of the best flower seasons in a very long time I felt quite confident that the rainy weather that had been forecast would keep the masses away.  Ordinarily, a wet day at the West Coast National Park is a disappointing one but that is when one is looking for birds.  This morning we would have a completely different approach – we would be looking for frogs and reptiles.

West Coast National Park

My knowledge of frogs has improved a lot over the last few months so I knew what my targets were.  I was hoping to add to my rain frog list by finding Namaqua or Sand Rain Frog.  I knew neither of them would be easy but it was definitely worth a go on a rainy day.  The Sand Rain Frog calls from the depths of the strandveld where it is virtually impossible to find whilst the Namaqua Rain Frog is known from the mole hills that are scattered throughout the park.  With such a low likelihood of success with the frogs I was adamant that I would give the reptiles a real go to make sure I did not return home empty handed.

Now whilst I know quite a bit about birds and a reasonable amount about Western Cape frogs I am not shy to admit that my knowledge of reptiles is pretty non-existent.  I know that, for the most part, skinks, geckos, lizards and tortoises are pretty harmless creatures but I am also fully aware that snakes often have a dangerous sharp end and it is best to keep away from that.  Inevitably, where the less harmful reptiles are found is usually a good place for some of the slightly more dangerous ones.  And, in fact, in some cases some of the snakes that lie in their little hidey holes are extremely dangerous.

With my reptile knowledge as bare as it is I gave Trevor Hardaker a call to get some key advice of how to enjoy the harmless creatures whilst making sure we avoided the dangerous ones.  For the most part, Trevor told me casually, the snakes found under the pieces of debris that are found in the park are particularly harmless.  We would have no trouble with the Sand Snakes, the Skaapstekers and the Egg-eaters.  The Molesnakes are mostly harmless, but don’t get bitten, whilst the Puffadder is not to be messed with and neither is a Cape Cobra.  I assured Trevor that we would be staying far away from those nasty ones.

With Adam committed to a good mate’s birthday party he would be unable to join us but Tommy was keen as anything and Dave Winter was possibly even keener.  It was good timing as it is getting trickier these days to coincide our pink tickets.  Both our better halves were feeling particularly benevolent and so we would not pause to question the generosity of a full morning at the park.

An early start had us in the park just as the sun came up and surprisingly it was a beautiful morning to begin with.  We had mixed feelings about the strong sunshine as it meant the place would be full of people to look at the flowers and we were not sure we wanted to fight the masses.  Fortunately, it was a brief sunny interlude and within minutes the clouds came over and it would be patchy at best for the rest of the day.  We were lucky to coincide some of the drenching rain with our time in the car so we got away with the worst of it.

Our first worthwhile sighting of the day turned out to be a bird which was not really what we expected.  Having birded WCNP as often as I have I seldom see anything particularly new and even though a Southern Black Korhaan wasn’t particularly “new” for me, the fact that this one was standing right next to the road belting out its croaking call was quite special.

Southern Black Korhaan

We spent a few minutes with it and then got on with the serious stuff.  We were going to be working for our lifers today and I have quickly learnt that herping comes with a bit of physical exertion.  We found some nice looking corrugated iron and asbestos roofing and set about searching for our treasures.

Trevor had given me a list of more or less what to expect so it was with great authority that I started calling out the names of the creatures that were revealed as we turned over the pieces of iron and asbestos.  I know Trevor is likely to be appalled by the errors I will have made with some of these but, in my defense, the reptiles books that are available do not compare to the bird guides that we take for granted.  The list we had been given numbered about 12 to 14 species and Dave and I said we would have been delighted with three of them.  Well, within 5 minutes we already had our three species.

The first was a desperately cold and inert Large-scaled Girdled Lizard.  We took some pics and then picked it up and it actually felt as though it was frozen solid.  The poor creature was certainly not interested in moving which made the practicality of taking some pics quite easy but the resulting photos show a pretty miserable looking creature.

Large-scaled Girdled Lizard
Tommy with a very cold Girdled Lizard

The second and third animals were considerably more upbeat.  They were both skinks and we had expected that.  They were pretty tricky to catch but given the cold morning they at least gave us a chance.  I labelled them confidently as Variegated and Cape Skinks and whilst Dave was nodding his head with a degree of admiration I am certain I may have got one of these wrong (if not both).

Cape Skink
Cape Skink
Variegated Skink

The fourth creature was a rather run of the mill Angulate Tortoise, which counts despite the fact that they are some of the easier reptiles in the park to catch and photograph.

Angulate Tortoise

We then encountered some Striped Dwarf Geckos and displaying our complete lack of knowledge we noted that these would be very easy to identify given the bright red markings at the bases of the forelimbs and along the flanks.  What a bonus that we had found something so obviously identifiable.  It is embarrassing to admit that the red markings are, in fact, a type of mite that attaches itself to the geckos and they would not help us at all in identifying them.  A small dark one without any red spots had us thinking that we had a different species but now we know that we only had one gecko tick.

Striped Dwarf Gecko
Striped Dwarf Gecko
Photographing a Striped Dwarf Gecko

It was at about this time that I hopefully told my herping companions that I would really like to find a snake.  Trevor had told us about all these cute little harmless snakes that we would find under the corrugated iron nice and early in the morning and so far we had turned up nothing.  I had expected a little more.

Well, “more” was what we would be getting.

As a little precursor to this part of the tale I need to mention that we have an anti-swearing policy in our household.  Tommy is the custodian of the swearing jar and any use of the “F” word will elicit a demand for R10 into the jar.  I have been particularly good of late with Jeanie being well ahead of me as a contributor.

We thought we had covered most of the debris in the area that we were working but I revisited a spot that I felt had not quite had enough attention.  There were a few large sheets of corrugated iron lying on top of one another and I mentioned to Dave that we should give one or two of them a try.  We approached a section from different sides and as Dave lifted the one sheet from the one side, I lifted a separate sheet from the other and as I peered underneath all I could see was a huge pile of golden yellow coiled scales.  I immediately dropped the sheet, jumped back and at the top of my voice let out a tirade of colourful words.

Tommy very quickly pointed out that I would be contributing R30 tothe swearing jar.

Once I was over the initial panic of what I had found I discovered that Dave had not, in fact, seen the snake and so was absolutely no help at all in helping me assess what frightening thing I had uncovered.

It took a while before we were able to find a piece of wood long enough to act as a lever to help us lift the corrugated iron again making sure any part of our body was far enough from the dangerous bits.  We would need to make these movements count so we would be in and out, fire off a few quick pics and then get the hell out of there.  Dave levered the sheet upwards and I crouched down, a good safe distance away, and stared into the black eyes of a pretty sizeable Cape Cobra.  It was hard to tell how big this one was and snake stories tend to follow the same pattern as fishing stories so I won’t even attempt to estimate.  All I knew was that we would be making sure we got out of its way as soon as possible.

Cape Cobra
Relief after a Cape Cobra episode

As much as it was a frightening experience, I really feel as though we were never in any danger whatsoever.  The general reaction of all the reptiles we found, and that included the large venomous Cape Cobra, was to move away from us.  At no point did the Cobra rear its head and we never made it feel as though it was cornered.  We kept a safe distance and we treated it with an enormous amount of respect.  I had not expected that our first snake of the day would be something so frightening and although I had hoped we would find a docile little Cape Sand Snake, this was certainly a great experience and one not easily forgotten.

So, with another reptile added to the list we headed for Seeberg hide where we would spend a few minutes looking for some birds, as well as to try and get close to a Sand Rain Frog.  The frogs were calling all around us on the boardwalk down to the hide but any attempt to triangulate was completely futile so we satisfied ourselves with distant views of the regularly appearing European Oystercatcher.  On our way back to the car we attempted another new reptile-finding technique which was to slowly spread some of the molehills looking for some burrowing animals.  Our hope was that we would actually find a Namaqua Rain Frog but the likelihood of that was miniscule.

Looking for Rain Frogs

We weren’t disappointed when we turned up a fantastic looking animal that looked initially like a legless skink of some sort.  After consultation with the book we had discovered our first Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink.  It is not every day you see a lifer that you didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the day.  In fact, we turned up at least 10 of them in the molehills but did not manage to find a rain frog.

Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink
Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink

We had another brief patch of sunshine which allowed for the obligatory photos of the flower display and then soon enough we glanced at our watches and realised that we would soon all be turning into pumpkins as our half day passes dwindled to a close.

The sun comes out…
…and the flowers follow

We hit the road south and with a very satisfactory haul of 7 reptile species we were pretty happy campers.  The weather had also turned again and the rain was now bucketing down.  Pretty good weather for rain frogs but we decided that it would wait for another day.

That was what we thought, but those plans changed when Trevor phoned us from Melkbosstrand asking us if we were anywhere near. We were no more than 20 minutes away and we were told that it would be worth our while swinging past.  Trevor did not give it away but judging from the huge chorus of Sand Rain Frogs I could hear in the background I was hopeful that he had found one.  We keyed the co-ords into the GPS and we were there pretty quickly.  We arrived to find Margaret holding the most spectacular looking female Sand Rain Frog.

Sand Rain Frog
Sand Rain Frog

I have expressed on one of my previous blogs that the rain frogs are the most amazing looking animals.  I had previously only seen a Cape Rain Frog but seeing this Sand Rain Frog was certainly confirmation for me that the Breviceps family is the most intriguing and enjoyable of all the frog families.  They are exceptionally difficult to find, they look like someone has closed a door on their faces and their habit of blowing themselves up makes then look so vulnerable.  This specimen was even more amazingly coloured than the Cape Rain Frog I had seen before.  Between Dave, Tommy and Margaret they decided that rain frogs feel a lot like a partially braaied marshmallow – just a little bit crusty on the outside but nice and squichy on the inside.

Knowing that Trevor and Margaret had spent the better part of several weekends looking for this fantastical amphibian we felt like we had really cheated to be delivered it on a plate.  It was a most unexpected bonus which felt just a little bit like cheating.

We spent a good while getting some really nice pics of the rain frog and although the females are extremely mobile trying to hunt down the calling males they are actually very photogenic when compared to so many other animals.

Our stop in Melkbosstrand was not only rewarded with a Sand Rain Frog but over the next half an hour Trevor and Margaret revealed three more new reptiles that they found in the surrounding area.  Who knew that the strandveld of Melkbosstrand was so full of life?

The first was a close relative of the Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink – a Silvery Dwarf Burrowing Skink.  Very similar in appearance and size but perhaps just a little more shiny, hence the name.

Silvery Dwarf Burrowing Skink

The next one was a Cuvier’s Blind Legless Skink, which is also an amazing looking thing with a little useless black dot for an eye and a hard nose for burrowing.  Although the pink colouring reminded me of an earthworm this was far larger and the body seemed far more hard and “plated”.  It was tricky to photograph as it writhed around on the hard ground desperately trying to find a spot to burrow into.  After a few minutes of taking some pics we found a nice soft piece of soil for it to get into.

Cuvier’s Blind Legless Skink
Cuvier’s Blind Legless Skink
Photographing a Burrowing Skink

The final reptile for the day was close to being the highlight for me but after the Rain Frog and the Cape Cobra it had to take third place.  It was a young and beautifully marked Spotted Skaapsteker which was finally the kind of snake that we had hoped to find when we set out this morning.  It was small and dainty and was completely harmless as we all were able to handle it without fear of deadly poisoning.  Even Tommy had his turn.

Spotted Skaapsteker
Spotted Skaapsteker
Dad and Tommy with a Spotted Skaapsteker

As we set off home quite a lot later than we had anticipated I said to Dave that I can hardly remember ever having a day like we had today.  The most amazing thing about it was the fact that it was a day just like any other in an area that I had visited on tens of occasions in the past. All it took was a little guidance from a few very knowledgeable people and it opened my eyes to the almost endless number of possibilities on our doorstep.

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