A female Red-winged Starling shakes herself dry after a bath. Her grey head distinguishes her from the males of this species, as they have glossy blue-black heads. The predominant call of the Red-winged Starling is a sweet, wistful whistle which is easily recognisable. They are very adaptable and they can occupy a wide range of habitats and draw on various food sources. This starling is one of the earliest African birds to have been described by the Swedish ‘father of modern taxonomy’, Carl Linneaus, back in 1766.
The African Fish Eagle is probably Southern Africa’s most well-known bird of prey. Its striking white head and chocolate-brown body and its plaintive, echoing call make it easily distinguishable from every other bird of prey. Fish Eagles also nest along major rivers so they are not particularly difficult to find. Their favourite food is large fish, but they also eat baby crocodiles and snakes, and are known to snatch prey from other birds.
Thick-tailed bushbabies are the largest of Africa’s smallest primates. They are nocturnal woodland-dwellers, and their huge eyes assist them to see in the dark. During the day, they curl up in furry bundles in hollow trees. They have a sweet tooth, and at night they emerge from their nests to snack on acacia gum, fruit and insects. Bushbabies are named for their plaintive, baby-like shrieks and cries.
Black-collared barbets are common in the eastern half of southern Africa, and can often be seen in parks and gardens. They are somewhat weirdly named because their bright red heads are vastly more striking than their black collars! They also have a very recognisable ‘two-puddly’ call which is often heard in summer. It is a rapid duet by two birds that bob up and down as they call.
The weird-looking Trumpeter Hornbill is a gregarious bird most commonly seen in groups of three to five birds, although they have been found in flocks of up to fifty birds. The enlarged section of beak atop their upper mandible is called a casque. Some hornbills' casques seem to be simply for beak reinforcement, while others are very hard and used for aerial jousting. It is thought that the Trumpeter Hornbill’s hollow casque acts as a resonance chamber to amplify its call.
From a distance, the Bennett’s Woodpecker and the Golden-tailed Woodpecker have similar colouring, so it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. Both of these woodpeckers inhabit roughly the same woodland territories in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the northern parts of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. Luckily, the Golden-tailed Woodpecker has a striped throat, breast and cheek, which is clearly visible in this photograph, while the Bennett’s has clearly-defined white areas on its throat and cheek.
It’s hard to be objective about the bat-eared fox. This small canid is pretty adorable with its densely furred body, fluffy tail, and oversized ears. However, bat-eared foxes are remarkably adaptable creatures. Fossil remains indicate that the bat-eared fox first appeared on earth 800 000 years ago! They are predominantly insectivorous and they get all their water from the insects they eat, so they can survive harsh desert climates. Their large ears assist them to avoid danger and find food.
Lilac-breasted rollers are often very easy to see because they sit atop telephone poles or tall branches, and as they swoop down to catch their prey, their wings and forked tail feathers flash an incredible electric blue. In the dry winter season they are often amongst the only brilliantly-coloured things in their savannah and woodland habitats, so seeing this bird is sometimes a bit like seeing an ice-cream shop in a desert - their pastel loveliness is truly breathtaking.
A common eland rests peacefully in the sun, showing just how graceful these creatures can be. They have extraordinary features and can sometimes look quite alien and magical with their strange long faces, large torsos, and protuberant humps and dewlaps. The eland is a very sacred animal for the San or Bushman people, and was an important food source for them. Many mythical figures in San religion take the form of an eland, and there are countless depictions of eland in San rock paintings.
Crested Guineafowl love forested areas and they often follow a troop of monkeys through a forest, feeding from the half-eaten fruit the monkeys drop from the trees. The Crested Guineafowls’ slick pompadour hairdos, weird red eyes, and clucking, neurotic movements are endearingly comical, while the mosaic of white spots on their dark chocolate feathers is so exquisite it boggles the eyes.
This chacma baboon displays the strong canine teeth that prompted early explorers to call baboons ‘dog-headed men’. These primates are amongst the largest of all the monkeys and are sometimes uncannily like humans. They have a very strong social bond and live in large troops, roosting at night in high trees or cliffs. A troop moves out to forage for food in the morning, and sentries posted high in the trees watch over them during the day. Their characteristic warning barks can often be heard echoing across valleys.
Proclaimed in 1937, Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape is a photographer's delight. With grassy plains giving way to mountainous ridges, your photos usually have a stunning backdrop, and there is sufficient game as subjects. You might even spot one of the recently introduced lion or cheetah if you are very lucky.
With their blonde heads, blue eyes and perfect black eyeliner, Cape Gannets are one of the most striking birds on the planet. They are well known for the exuberant and tender way they greet their partners - opening their wings, tapping their beaks together, and vocalizing. The breeding range of these birds is restricted to only a few sites in Southern Africa, so their vibrant, cacophonous and foul-smelling breeding colonies are well protected by conservationists. They might look like avian versions of Nordic supermodels, but their guano was once far more prized than their good looks.
So we are still waiting for the rain. The frogs grow hoarse with their yelling, the river continues to dry, the dust continues to coat my supper when I try to eat outside. There are, however, a few residents of the lowveld where I live that don’t seem to give a flying fig whether the rain ever comes.
Over the last four weeks, the number of insects in the atmosphere has increased exponentially. Beetles, mantids and moths fill the night sky above any light source. If you happen to be reading a tome beneath the light, then you quickly become a crash site for the lowveld’s flying arthropod diversity. I have given up brushing them off – I now just pretend the crawling on my body is an exotic form of massage.
The most enthusiastic, of course, are the cicadas. Released of their year-long celibacy underground, they scream at the heat of the day with a ceaseless quest to attract females. From the catastrophic volume of the shrill outside my window, I can only assume that I am in the midst of the most unsuccessful cicada choir in history.
– James Hendry
Early summer lowveld clouds are like ANC politicians. Full of promise, inescapably short on delivery. Every day for the last week I have woken to leaden skies low enough to bang your head on and winds that would make Cape Point jealous. Then, by 11h00 they have gone away and we are left rushing for the shade.
A week ago, I woke at 05h00 to a sky blacker than the inside of a mamba’s mouth. Today! There will be rain today! I rejoiced to myself while donning my rain jacket in anticipation. And rain it did. About 65 drops. Enough to wet the seats of my open Land Rover but not enough to make any self-respecting grass plant sprout a leaf. Meanwhile, the wind continues to cover everything in a fine layer of dust – each week I sweep a bucket full out of my bedroom (along with hundreds of beetles, moths and assorted other insects that commit suicide on my bedside lamp).
Still, we wait with great excitement for the first storm of the summer. The sense of anticipation is heightened by the songs of frogs on the warm nights and the mopane trees which have started to flush beautiful pink, orange and translucent minty green.
– James Hendry
On the 2nd of September, I woke up in a pool of sweat and panicked.
Malaria! What else could possibly explain the sweating?
I flung off the sodden bedclothes and retrieved a malaria test kit. I frantically tore the box open, lacerated my left middle finger and poured a litre of blood into the little tester thingy, applied the solution and sat back gasping.
Five minutes later, only one line. No malaria.
In the lowveld, especially the northern reaches, winter is pleasant. The nights seldom drop below six degrees and the days are a normally a balmy 25ish. At higher latitudes, summer gives you a bit of a warning. This warning is called spring. It allows your body to acclimatise to the increasing temperatures such that when summer is in full force, your body is ok with it.
This is not the case here. There is no warning. There is no spring. There is winter and then one day, the air has gone from balmy to that at the centre of a neutron star. The day summer arrives, the dawn sky is just a bit bleached and, then, once you have checked for dread disease, you know summer is here.
While the midday heat is a shock, the evenings are different – the light softens, the heat eases and the frogs and insects begin their summer songs.
– James Hendry