Colours of Wildlife: Makgeng Outing

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Makgeng Outing 2021

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

On Saturday, 26th June 2021, the Tzaneen Eco Club hosted its annual walk in the Makgeng region, just beyond Zion City. This is the time of year for the flowering of several aloe species, primarily Aloe marlothii, the Mountain Aloe. Thousands of these aloes occur in these hills, some of them reaching a height of 6 m, the nectar of their flowers attracting a variety of different birds, even ones otherwise not considered nectar-feeders. All of us were 'general' nature lovers, so we would be looking at anything at all interesting biodiversity-wise. It turned out to be a good day for plants.

This year we decided to take a bit of a different route than on previous occasions, so we can visit some of the southern aspects of the hills, whereas in the past we focused on the northern slopes. First of all what was different that not many of the large aloes on the south were actually flowering! Southern slopes are somewhat cooler and shadier than northern slopes, and this may have an effect on the flowering times of the aloes. But we saw many of the smaller aloes, such as Aloe greatheadii, and Aloe cryptopoda, in full flower. The small, spiny herb Blepharis subvolubilis was also livening up the environs with its purple-blue flowers. You've seen the photo last week, so here's the story – I was lucky to take a shot of a flower at the precise moment a bee landed on it!

Blepharis subvolubilis by WillemBlepharis subvolubilis by Willem
Blepharis subvolubilis
Blepharis subvolubilis
Carrion flower follicles by WillemMystery tree by Willem
Carrion Flower Follicles
Mystery Tree

While not abounding in flowering aloes as we'd have liked, the southern slope was an interesting biodiversity-experience. The bush, while not impressive from afar, proved to include a large variety of tree, shrub, herb and succulent species. Some warning signs about the ecological integrity of the area were several trees, some of which were substantial in size, that were cut down; some alien invasive plant species growing along a small river we crossed; and signs of recent burning. Yet, the burning wasn't necessarily that bad. It appeared to be a low-temperature burn, hardly damaging many of the smaller plants. We saw what looked like completely undamaged carrion flower plants, Orbea melanantha, growing right in the middle of a burnt patch. It is also interesting to see how many of the plants cope with fire. Trees such as the Corkbush, Mundulea sericea, and the Caterpillar Pod, Ormocarpum trichocarpum, have thick, corky bark that protect the main stem from fire damage. Succulents like the carrion flowers and others might get some protection from the thick sap in their stems … it's something I'd like to try to find out more about. Bulbous plants such as Crinum-lilies survive in their subterranean bulbs, while above the soil the dry winter leaves are consumed by the fire. The dense bushes of Kleinia longiflora, the Sjambok Bush, took fire damage only on their outer stems, the stems on the inside of the clumps escaping harm. All this shows that fire is a natural factor the plants can cope with, unless it happens too frequently. At the same time, fires that are too infrequent can also be a problem, leading to a change in the plant composition of the region. Generally, much of South Africa is experiencing bush encroachment into grassland regions, that in fact threatens the integrity of our grasslands. This region of Makgeng however seems to be 'naturally' an area dominated by trees and shrubs.

Schotia brachypetala by WillemSenecio barbertonicus and Wilmien Luus Powell by Willem
Schotia brachypetala
Senecio barbertonicus
and Wilmien Luus Powell

While a great diversity of trees grow there, not many of them are large. Exceptions were some fine Weeping Boer Bean trees, Schotia brachypetala, and large Mountain Cabbage Trees, Cussonia natalensis, growing in the rockier parts. Here is a shot of me with a very gnarled and ancient-looking Boer Bean tree growing beside the road. In addition to the tall aloes there are also fine specimens of the Tree Euphorbia, Euphorbia ingens, some covered in their yellow flowers, others already in fruit. Some tree species were new to some of the participants. We puzzled over but eventually agreed on the identity of the Transvaal Saffronwood, Elaeodendron transvaalense. A related species bearing beautiful red fruit was the Kooboo Berry, Mystroxylon aethiopicum. Both these trees are sometimes classified in the genusCassine. I include here a shot of a 'mystery tree' which might be a White Pear, Apodytes dimidiata, just to give you a sense of what the dry, winter environment on the hills looks like. Other interesting trees were the Weeping Wattle, Peltophorum africanum, the Small Knobwood, Zanthoxylum capense, the Parsley Tree, Heteromorpha arborescens, the Bushman's Poison, Acokanthera oppositifolia, and the Turkey Berry, Canthium inerme.

Smaller plants of interest included many succulents such as the large, shrubby Senecio barbertonicus, a few different species of Crassula, Kalanchoe and Cotyledon, some Mother-in-Law's Tongues, Sansevieria aethiopica and Sansevieria hyacinthoides, and a small Euphorbia of a probably yet-unnamed species. We found two different kinds of orchids, Bonatea antennifera and the very hardy, succulent Eulophia petersii.

We came across a large clump of an indigenous species of Mistletoe, Viscum verrucosum. These are parasitic plants. They grow on trees and shrubs, with root-like organs called haustoria that penetrate into the tissues of their hosts, siphoning off sap from them. While the mistletoe thus obtain a lot of nutrition from its host, it can still photosynthesize for itself, using water from its host and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to manufacture sugars. These plants have sweet, enticing berries, eaten by birds. The seeds inside are extremely sticky; they cling to the bird's beak or (if excreted) to its vent feathers. The bird has to wipe the seed off onto a twig; this is perfect for then the seed can germinate and send its haustorium into the twig it is stuck on, ideally becoming a new clump. While mistletoe do inconvenience their hosts, they can grow for many years on them without killing them. The host plants do however sometimes succumb.

Viscum verrucosum by WillemBagworm by Willem
Viscum verrucosum
Kalanchoe thyrsiflora by WillemDead Owl by Willem
Kalanchoe thyrsiflora
Dead Owl

Another interesting thing we saw all over the place was the little 'homes' of bagworms. These are larvae (and occasionally adult females) of moths in the family Psychidae. In Afrikaans we call them 'Broekmannetjies' ('little pants-men'). The little caterpillars bite off twigs and thorns from the trees they live in, binding these together with tough silk to make a little protective case. There is an opening on one end – though the caterpillar can close it – through which it can protrude its head and forelegs to creep along the twigs. The caterpillar feeds on leaves. They pupate inside the cases; in some species, the females then also remain inside the cases, resembling the larvae, but the males turn into moths that fly away. They then seek out adult females which they impregnate inside their cases. The males lack mouthparts and don't feed; after mating they die. Females then produce eggs; some species of bag worms even have females that can produce eggs without having been impregnated by males! This is called parthenogenesis. The females lay their eggs and die, never having left their cases. Some females are even adapted to be eaten by birds – the eggs pass through the digestive tracts of the birds unharmed, like the seeds of some fruits, primed for hatching! This way the birds help to propagate the bagworms.

There were birds of many species about, with at least one having been a 'lifer' for at least one of us – a Brimstone (or Bully) Canary, Crithagra sulphurata. Several pretty waxbills were flitting about, including blue and common, and some firefinches though I'm not sure which species. We were a bit saddened to find a dead Spotted Eagle Owl, Bubo africanus. It was intact and we weren't sure what killed it.

All in all, it was a rather quick excursion, but nevertheless it offered much of interest. I thank Marianne McKenzie for organising it, and everybody for having made it a pleasant and stimulating outing.

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