The Karoo at its best

The slopes of the Touwsberg

The beginning of September marks the onset of Spring here in the Southern Hemisphere.  It also marks the beginning of a busy period for our family.  It seems as if the long, cold, wet winter is mostly behind us and, as a family, we will be making the most of the weeks to come.  In fact, we will be away for four consecutive weekends, which is just the way we like it.  Sitting still does not suit us that well.

It is also a great time of year to be out and about.  The flowers are blooming, the birds are breeding, the weather is warming up and the days are getting longer – a recipe for plenty of time out in the field.  Another exciting aspect is my newly acquired taste for animals that don’t have wings.

The winter months were great for discovering a few frogs and although, at times, this did not go down that well with Jeanie, I think she has begun to realise that she has to put up with some of my quirks.  Now that the frogging is getting a little quieter it seems entirely natural that the warmer weather is a perfect time to look out for some reptiles.  My trip to the West Coast National Park with Tommy last weekend (see blog here) was a phenomenal way to get a solid introduction to what is really out there if you just look under a few rocks and pieces of metal (who knew?) but this last weekend was a very nice continuation of that theme.

We were exceptionally lucky to be invited by very good friends of ours (Sue and Dean and their daughters Jasmine and Anna) to join them at a family house at a reserve adjacent to the Touwsberg Nature Reserve.  Touwsberg is a giant of a standalone mountain range situated just north of the R62 between Barrydale and Ladismith.  The turn-off to the farm is more or less right next to Ronnie’s Sex Shop which always raises a few interesting questions from the rabble in the back of the car.

I had been looking forward to this weekend for some time and to make sure that we made most of the time out there we decided to take a day off school/work.  The drive is well over 3 hours and it would not have done justice to the destination to be there for a short weekend.  We had to incur the wrath of the school headmaster but we assured him that it would involve plenty of educational moments as we dived under rocks and bushes looking for anything that moved.

The house we stayed in is a beautiful stone house built just above a river that flows throughout the year.  Permanent water in the little Karoo is particularly unusual but nothing is more therapeutic than the sound of bubbling water outside the door during the night.  The decks of the house look straight up to the Touwberg mountain and we were entertained at times by the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagles soaring above the lower ridges.

Our humble abode
The view from the deck
Adam at the source of the stream
Tommy at the source of the stream
Jasmine at the source of the stream
Anna at the source of the stream

The excitement about this weekend was due to a variety of factors.  We were to spend time in a wonderfully remote spot with very good friends; we were also going to spend some time out in the field exploring a bit more of what is always around us and we were also going to have our first summer weekend which did not involve sweaters and battening down the hatches like we had done on numerous occasions over the last 3 or 4 months.  It was going to be swimming costumes and shorts and t-shirts the whole time.

It was especially appealing to get back into a bit of birding.  The Karoo scrub in that part of the world at this time of the year is full of activity.  Many of the birds we encountered were at the peak of the breeding preparation with plenty of nest material being carried and some of the most responsive birds I have seen in a long time.  It seemed as if territories were at a premium and they were being defended tooth and nail.

My primary objective for the weekend from a birding perspective was to photograph a Karoo Eremomela.  I have seen plenty of Karoo Eremomelas over the years, mostly at the classic site of Eierkop in the Tanqua Karoo but I had never really had a chance to take a pic of one.  They can be elusive and they are fast movers making photography really challenging.  I had noted that the atlas cards that had been submitted for the Touwsberg pentad (12 in all) had an almost 100 percent recording rate for Karoo Eremomela.  I was hopeful that the abundance of this tricky little endemic would give me a good chance to finally capture a pic of one.

Well, that was not too tough.  On our first morning out the low hills were ringing with their song which sounds disturbingly like our neighbours alarm siren.  Pairs and small parties were moving through the veld at pace and a bit of patience and perseverance meant that I finally got my pic.  Amazingly the very first pic I took was taken in semi-dark conditions therefore requiring the flash and it turned out to be one of the better shots.  It still did not stop me taking almost a hundred more just to make sure.  It was also a lifer for Tommy and Adam and they also managed to snap a pic or two.

Karoo Eremomela
Karoo Eremomela
Tommy photographing Karoo Eremomelas

The birding for the remainder of the weekend was very rewarding.  It was a nice change to have sunlight bathing the scrub for the entire time we were there and aside from some of the shots that were taken before the sun had even risen the results were generally a bit better than the offerings from the dead of winter where I seldom got my camera out for birds at all.

Cape Penduline Tit
Karoo Scrub-robin
Layard’s Titbabbler
Namaqua Warbler
White-throated Canary
Yellow-bellied Eremomela

The most annoying bird was a Fairy Flycatcher.  Unsurprisingly this striking little bird has not made it easy for a photograph over the years.  I think I have a pretty terrible pic from many years ago but try as I might I have not managed to improve it.  The acacia riverbed below the house was alive with Fairy Flycatchers.  From the minute we arrived I could hear its sweet little warble from all directions.  The occasional pied flash would give its location away but then it was too late as it plunged into another thicket and started the game of hide and seek all over again.  I spent far too long on our last morning chasing at least two of them from one thicket to another.  I would see the creeping movement behind countless thorns until finally it would perch at the top of the tree about to be photographed and as the shutter was pressed I would end up with a few tail feathers at the corner of the image and nothing to show for it.  Thank goodness for digital as I ended up with a lot of binned habitat images.  It seems as if I still have not found a way to get a decent pic.  This was my best effort…

Fairy Flycatcher

On the contrary, a group of birds that usually uses a lot of memory space with plenty of habitat and no bird is the swifts, but this weekend I got lucky.  For some reason I find it quite relaxing photographing swifts.  Sure, I miss a huge amount of the time but when you get a relatively in-focus shot it is quite rewarding.  This occasion was unusual in that I aimed at a mixed flock of swifts that flooded the skies above me for just a few minutes, fired off no more than ten shots and hit with two of them.  A minute or two later the flock was gone but I did not suffer any post flock blues with the pics that I ended up with.

African Black Swift
Alpine Swift

The weekend, though, was most exciting for me as it was going to give me a chance to find some new reptiles.  I knew that the possibility of new frogs was very slim so I made sure I did some research as to what reptiles I could expect.  Thanks to some good advice from a few people I was able to narrow down my list of possibilities to less than 6 or 7 species and this made it a lot easier when we found some of them.

Where reptiles are so different from birds and frogs is the fact that they do not make any sound at all.  Or, at least none that I am aware of.  Whilst my ears will allow me to identify many bird species during a morning of birding in the Karoo, I get absolutely no warning for the reptiles that I am looking for.  Frogs are also easily identified and tracked down to a general area through their croaks but the best one can hope for with reptiles is to see one sitting on top of a rock basking in the sun or, alternatively,  darting out from under your feet at a million miles an hour with no hope of an ID.  Unfortunately, the latter happens far more regularly than the former.

Some are easier than others but the skinks and sand lizards are ridiculously fast, especially when they warm up with the heat of the day and it is often pure chance to get a decent view that will allow for identification.

My first lifer reptile was spotted during the middle of our lunch just after arriving on Saturday.  Dean and Sue are relatively uninitiated when it comes to my rather impulsive and erratic behaviour when there are birds/frogs/reptiles around and so they were rather taken aback when I leapt to my feet, mid-mouthful and started clambering on my hands and knees trying to get a photograph of a Western Rock Skink that had appeared out of nowhere from a crack in the wall.  After quite a lot of chasing and with Tommy and Adam shepherding the two specimens that were running around I managed to get some usable evidence to confirm my ID (I hope).

Western Rock Skink
Western Rock Skink

The second encounter was during our Karoo Eremomela search.  We were coming up with very little from a bird point of view but whilst Tommy, Adam, Jasmine and I were scouring the top of a small ridge a lightning fast lizard darted in front of us and ran from bush to bush until we eventually got a decent view and some decent pics.  I was able to confirm that we had found a Common Sand Lizard which I suspect is a very common animal as we saw plenty of them scurrying between bushes on the rocky ridges.  At one point my three optimistic companions decided they should try catching the lizard, so they were all crowded around a bush trying to narrow down the area of escape when I had to tell them that it had moved so fast out of their targeted bush that they didn’t even know that it wasn’t there anymore.

Tommy, Adam and Jasmine looking for reptiles
We have the bush surrounded
Common Sand Lizard

As exciting as the lizard and skink were the third new reptile for the weekend was far and away the best of all.

Being the guests for the weekend, Jeanie and I had been assigned the separate, free-standing “honeymoon suite” which was set away from the house just a little.  Dean and Sue had unselfishly opted to share the section of the house where all five kids would be sleeping, whilst Jeanie and I had some peace and quiet.  One of the major benefits of the honeymoon suite was the outdoor bath which was set against the stone wall of the room with a view looking straight over the rocky stream up at the Touwsberg.  On our second night, we decided to take advantage of this romantic setting and once the kids were bathed and fed and were sitting in front of a DVD I poured Jeanie a glass of wine, lit a candle or two and we sat in a nice warm bath to enjoy the onset of a peaceful Karoo evening with a star show, second to none.  I must admit that for someone as unromantic as I am I was even starting to appreciate the appeal of this kind of sentimentality.

The romantic setting

Jeanie only has herself to blame for shattering the moment.  In the glow of the candles she noticed a large “lizard” running up the wall chasing moths and other small insects.  She made the crucial error of alerting me to this and within seconds I was out of the bath, towel wrapped around me running around trying to find my torch, camera, flash and two reptile-mad children.  Within seconds we were all standing there looking at our first Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko.

Jeanie just managed to get a towel around her before being completely invaded, but the moment was over and our romantic interlude was ruined by an absolutely amazing looking gecko.  I am pretty sure these geckos are very common in the Karoo but now that my eyes are open to these kinds of things I was blown away by how amazing it looked up close.  Between Adam and I we managed to catch one (there were quite a few of them catching all kinds of insects on the walls and windows of the house) and we both received a friendly little bite for our troubles; but it was worth it.

Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko
Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko

The upperparts of the gecko were rough and scaly whilst the underparts had an amazingly silky feel to them.  Once it was in our hands it was completely calm and even Dean took a turn at holding it, much to the horror of Sue.

Dean with the gecko
Adam with the gecko

There were two other relatively run of the mill reptiles (even for me) which included a Southern Rock Agama and a Leopard Tortoise.

Southern Rock Agama

Sue found Leopard Tortoise as we climbed a small peak above house to enjoy the sunset.  The tortoise was half way up the mountain and we remarked that it had probably started walking up the mountain in 1987.  It certainly looked like a very old specimen.

Leopard Tortoise

The hike was a real highlight of the weekend as every member in our group got to the top (Emma being ably assisted by her dad) and the views were spectacular.

Dad and Emma hiking up the mountain
The McCoubreys at the top of the mountain
The Buckhams at the top of the mountain
The view from the top

It was all too soon that we were back in the car driving home lamenting the fact that we would be back at work the next day.  Well, at least we have a few more weekends away to look forward to.

One comment on “The Karoo at its best”

  • Sue McCoubrey says:

    That sums it’s up so well! What a special time with such energetic,positive,awesome mates. Jazzy and Anna have new eyes when it comes to the Karoo and I reackon many more chilled lunches,braai’s and romantic baths will erupt into mad scrambling to see a skink or anything that moves..thanks to The Buckhams!


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