Seen and read

Curious and humorous observations.

Gaboon viper

From the moment I learnt about the existence of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) it entered, together with the Pangolin, in my “Hall of Fame” of animals I would like to see in the wild. I saw it “live” for the first time at a snake park in Tanzania and my interest increased.

Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons (2/11/190

It is a species found in the rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Later on, reading about it I realized that it also collects a few gold medals. It is of course highly venomous and the largest member of the genus Bitis. With its record 5 cm fangs it is capable of innoculating the largest volume of venom of any snake! It measures in average between 80–130 cm, with a maximum total length of 175 cm and its body is rather large.

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Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons. Downloaded on 2/11/19.

Luckily for us bush walkers they are usually nocturnal, slow moving and placid and are very tolerant, but, if threatened they can side wind and even hiss. As they ambush their prey that can be up to rabbit size, their slowness is not an impediment and they are one of the fastest snakes when they strike!

C.J.P. Ionides (1901-1968), the well known snake catcher of East Africa, would capture them by first touching them lightly on the top of the head with his tongs to test their reactions. Most did not react angrily and he would grasp them from their necks with his hands while supporting their bodies with the other and then bag them where they stayed rather calm!

As I mention Ionides, one of my favourite African historical characters, I should mention that he estimated to having caught a few thousand Gaboon vipers, and he measured the number of black mambas caught in hundreds and the green mambas in thousands. [1].

You would agree with my decision to look for them when, in the late 90s, I learnt that they were present in Zimbabwe as these snakes are rare in southern Africa. Even in Zimbabwe they can only be found in the Honde valley, located in the Eastern Highlands, between the Nyanga Nationl Park and Mozambique, in the Gleanegles forest reserve.

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So, last week we went in search for the Gaboon viper despite the misgivings of Mabel who I managed to convince that there were many orchids there that she could look at while I searched for the snake. Of course she did not believe any of it but still agreed to come!

“…After driving through the beautiful Honde Valley and the Eastern Highlands Tea plantations you arrive at … Aberfoyle Lodge … situated in a very special part of Zimbabwe. With rolling tea plantations, riparian forests and the Nyamkombe river surrounding the lodge, you feel as though you are in an oasis of true serenity…” [2] The description is accurate as you really enter into a “different” Zimbabwe with strong similarities with the Kericho area in Kenya but with much less human presence.

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Tea was established in Zimbabwe in the Chipinge area in the 1920’s and the first tea at Aberfoyle was planted in 1954 and we saw sections of the plantations that have been there from 1960-61. The present Aberfoyle lodge was the Club for the tea estate. Originally planned as an Italian villa, lack of resources and the Zimbabwe civil war changed plans and it was finally built in a simpler way and completed in 1960.

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Our first thoughts were that, although the tea plantations are rather spectacular, lots of trees must have been removed to achieve this! However, reading about how the plantations were done, the damage to the forest was more from tree cutting for fuel for the factory rather than for planting tea. This was not because owners were ecologically minded but because it was cheaper to plant in open areas than to clear the forest.

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Later, the Gleaneagles mountain reserve -located between the tea plantations and the Nyanga National Park- was created to preserve what is left of the forest. In addition to tea, coffee was also planted and most of it removed and there are also pepper plantations and new ones of macadamia trees.

We stayed at the self-catering Hornbill House, part of the Aberfoyle lodge, a house once upon a time occupied by a farm manager and excellently positioned on a hill that offered great views not only of the undulating tea plantations but also of the far off mountains. To the west Mtaka, Kayumba and Dzunzwa peaks and to the east the rugged Tawangwena in Mozambique. They were mostly shrouded in smoke from the frequent bush fires as it was very hot and dry.

As we were new in the area we thought it was a good idea to join guided walks and so we went with the lodge’s birding guide Morgan who did not flinch when I asked to go looking for Gaboon vipers! He only quietly replied: “We will try”.

In fact, we went also looking for birds as the area is renowned for having several unique bird species but we placed a ban on little brown jobs (LBJs).

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Morgan and Mabel looking at a “No LBJ”!

I am quite sure that by now you have realized that, despite the efforts of Morgan and myself, the snake watching trip failed although we covered a few miles looking for it and threading carefully on the leaf-covered floor. I am pretty sure that no snake was to be found, otherwise Mabel would have found it miles before we would have done!

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The forest floor offered excellent camouflage for our target snake!

Luckily, thanks to Morgan’s skills and despite the LBJs ban, we saw a number of very interesting birds apart from Palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) that nest near the 9-hole golf course of the lodge. Despite being residents we only saw their nest and the birds very far away like white and black dots.

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Narina’s trogon.

We had better luck in our forst walks. We found a few Narina’s trogon (Apaloderma narina) in several places and also sightings of White-eared barbet (Stactolaema leucotis), Grey cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia), Blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer), Blue-mantled creasted flycatcher (Thrococercus cyanomelas), Red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Livingstone’s turaco (Tauraco livingstonii), Red-throated twinspot (Hypargos niveoguttatus), Dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) and Green-backed woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii).

Two views of a Cardinal woodpecker, pale flycatchers having a bath, Narina’s trogon, and brown-hooded kingfisher.

We also enjoyed finding a number of butterflies along the paths we walked. We saw a few swallowtail butterflies and, thanks to Morgan, we found them congregated by the … River that traverses the tea estate. It was just amazing to watch these beautiful creatures fluttering and sucking up some nutrients at one particular spot. Unforgettable!

 

The visit was very enjoyable despite having failed to achieve its primary objective as we not only saw several bird species for the first time but also because discovered a real gem of an area in this amazing country.

As for the snake failure, it only fuelled my hunger to find it in the wild but, in the meantime, I will invite friends on Sunday to visit the ones at Snakeworld in Harare to see them there and get them out of my system, at least for a few months until we return to the Honde next year!

 

[1] Although rare, two books deal with his life, Margaret Lane’s ” Life with Ionides” written in 1964 and published by Readers Union; Book Club edition and his autobiography “A Hunter’s Story” published in 1966 by W.H. Allen. If found, both are worth reading!

[2] See: https://www.aberfoylelodge.com/

 

Note: This post is not meant as an endorsement of the Aberfoyle lodge and it only contains the opinion of the author who was a paying guest there.

 

Piggybacked

We do have scorpions in the garden. They are small, about 4-5 cm in length and dark brown. I believe they belong to the genus Uroplectes but I am not sure. Occasionally they enter in the house where they scurry fast with their tails extended straight back, trying to get away.

A few weeks back, something that I could not see stung me while handling one of the chairs in the patio. I have been stung by bees and wasps several times but this was a different kind of pain, stronger and durable! I suspect that it was a scorpion.

Yesterday Stephen, our caretaker, brought a scorpion that he found in the garden. At first I was surprised but then, when I looked at it I realized that there was a reason. It was a female carrying its progeny on its back as scorpions do until the babies first moult. Scorpions are viviparous, producing live offspring rather than eggs.

Here are some pictures taken with my usual camera as well as with the cellphonwe super macro that my son Julio A. gave me as a present. This small gadget has been a great success for these kind of findings that require detailed pictures.

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I will re-visit the scorpions subject in the future as i have some more interesting facts and pictures to share with you.

Too close!

During our recent visit to Mana Pools National Park we saw a Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) feeding in one of the pools that give the name to the park. This was nothing strange as we often see these birds in that pool.

What was unusual was that the stork was feeding very close to a semi-submerged crocodile of a size that could have gone for it!

What else can I add? My immediate thought was that the stork meat must be so bad tasting that this is its best defence!

Spot the beast 57

See if you can spot this one. Please, do not look too much if you fail to find it in a few seconds…

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This one is really a different “Spot” as it is quite clear that we have a terrapin in front of us. However, have a good look at it.

I did not notice anything strange until my son, said “look at the terrapin doing Yoga”!

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It was rather hot in Roma so the beast was sunning one leg at a time at leisure!

Rococo

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A rococo is a large toad as you would expect with such spectacular name! It has been classified as Rhinella schneideri and it is also known as cururú toad in other parts of South America. In English it goes under the much less spectacular name of Schneider’s toad.

As toads go, a rococo is a large one: the males can measure between 15-17cm and the females between 18-25cm with a maximum weight of  2kg of weight! Pretty sizable if you ask me.

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Rhinella schneideri is a widespread and very common species that occurs in a variety of habitats but most commonly in open and urban ones. It breeds in permanent and temporary ponds.They are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil where they are sometimes kept as pets. I remember my aunt in Salto, Uruguay that used to have one in her garden that would come every evening from the cover of the plants to get its mince meat!

Luckily, at Salta, although we are at about 1,500 m above sea level we do get rococos and we see them sometimes around the house, feeding on the insects attracted to the outside lights. They are fierce predators feeding not only on invertebrates but they have been seen feeding on rodents, snakes, small birds and even fish and other amphibians.

Despite this, it a a shy animal that itself falls prey to snakes and birds of prey.  In fact, just a few days ago we saw a roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) catching one on the road but our approach by car scared the bird that -luckily for the toad- dropped it unharmed (as we stopped to check it). They are able to pump themselves up to avoid being swallowed by snakes but this is clearly no defense against birds.

They are mainly nocturnal and very imposing creatures with a rather large body but rather weak hind legs that makes rather slow. They are distinguished by their supraorbital crests and their pupils are large and slit-shaped. Apart from their size they also have tibial glands located in their hind legs that secrete a milky bufotoxin. The later causes nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis and death in potential predators.

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Luckily, they are not threatened despite being collected for the pet trade.

 

 

Landscape

While in Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña in the Chaco Province of Argentina (on our way to Salta) we came across this sighting. I wonder if you can guess what it is?

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It looks like some kind of terraces that could be of volcanic origin?

Not so. It is a finding I have not seen before: ant nests!

 

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They “sprouted” in the front of our hotel and their builders were some species of leaf-cutting ants busy carrying stuff to their nests. However, this cargo was not the usual green bits but yellow.

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Here they are in motion…

Curious, we followed the yellow ribbons for quite a long distance around the corner and immediately saw the “victim” about 50m away: a smallish tree still covered with yellow flowers despite the ongoing harvest.

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I am sure that in a couple of days the ants will have to look for other source of sustenance as the flowers would have gone!

 

 

A rhino in Rome

During earlier visits I have seen some of the big five in Rome and I described one of them already [1]. During our brief visit this month we were treated to a nowadays rare sight: an endangered white rhino under the Arc of Janus at the Via del Velabro, very close to the church of Santa María in Cosmedin where the famous Bocca della Veritá (Mouth of Truth) mask is located.

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IMG_3956 copyThe Arch of Janus, seen behind the rhino, is the only quadrifrons [2] arch in Rome. This arch has four facades and it was built at an important place and crossroads in antiquity, where the slope of the Palatine Hill (where most Emperors lived) coming from the centre of Rome met an important port on the Tiber River.

Interestingly, the experts say that the structure was built from pieces of other ruins, including the marble slabs that cover it. This construction method has enabled archaeologists to date the structure to the second half of the Fourth century.

Unfortunately, following an explosion that took place in the area in 1993, the arch was fenced and remained inaccessible to the public since then and it also remains unrestored. But now it has a rhino inside the fence…

The white rhino is there as part of a drive by the Fendi Foundation to give this less known area of Rome some visibility through the promotion of art at their Palazzo Rhinoceros nearby [3].

Hopefully, the presence of this very real-looking rhino that somehow surprised me will also promote its conservation!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/07/24/roman-elephant/

[2] In Greek “tetrapylon”, and in Latin “quadrifrons”, is a kind of ancient Roman arch of cubic shape, with a gate on each of the four sides. These kind of arches were generally built at crossroads.

[3] See: http://fondazionealdafendi-esperimenti.it/info/ and https://www.forbes.com/sites/liviahengel/2018/12/13/why-alda-fendi-is-giving-back-to-rome-with-new-arts-foundation/ – f4a4b7774d28

 

 

Thieves…

We have a few macadamia trees at home that have not yielded very much for luck of water. Last year we had very good rains so we were rewarded with a good harvest and we are busy drying them under the sun so that I can then proceed with the rather time-consuming exercise of opening them.

Macadamia’s shells are extremely hard and, after trying various methods, I have resorted to a vise in the workshop that so far is still working until its thread gives in!

Some time ago we have discovered hollowed out nuts in the garden and we could not believe that an animal could be so powerful as to gnaw such thick and hard shells! Eventually we found lots of empty nuts near a large hole and realized that we had a colony of Southern Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) [1].

After a while we stopped seeing them and they disappeared. Apparently they moved off our house one night in a group and entered under the gate of a neighbouring house but I was not a witness to this Pied-piper of Hamelin-like migration!

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The empty shells after the rats ate the tasty inside.

More recently, we noted that the nuts we were drying were being peeled from their green outer cover and taken away whole from the sunning box. We “smelled a rat”!

A search up and down the garden was organized and, eventually, a large hole was discovered at the farther corner of the garden. Suspecting that the giant rats were there I set up a camera trap pointing towards the suspected burrow and this is what I got:

We confirmed our fears as the various videos taken showed one rat at a time either entering or leaving the burrow. As I was curious to see how many there were, I decided to put some food hoping that they would gather to feed. Although I got over 180 ten-second videos, I still failed to get a rat gathering! However, I got a few that prompted me to write this post!

I have selected a few that I find interesting and/or funny. Please note that one is eating a few carrot pieces on the ground while the others are chewing a chunk of (delicious for humans at least) butternut hanging from a bush, the idea being that they would not drag it into their nest!

This giant rats are widely distributed in mainly tropical regions of southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I first saw them in Monze, Zambia while driving on the main road and I had difficulties stopping my Zambian workers from jumping from the moving vehicle to catch them as they consider them a delicacy!

Later, also in Zambia, Bruno, a colleague from Belgium, invited me with a surprise roast that happened to be delicious and it was a giant rat -as tasty as a piglet- with baked potatoes (tasting like potatoes!)! Giant rats were very abundant in that area at the time and I am sure contributed to food security of the village where the project was based.

Giant pouched rats are named after their large cheek pouches and they are only distantly related to the true rats. Recent studies place them in the family Nesomyidae and not in the Muridae as they used to be [2].

They are able to produce up to 10 litters of one to five young per annum and they are nocturnal and omnivorous with special taste for palm nuts and, as we have experienced, also for macadamia nuts. Interestingly, they are hind gut fermenters and coprophagous, producing pellets of semi-digested food that are consumed.

They are not only easily tamed as pets but useful for detecting land mines as they have an excellent sense of smell, particularly sniffing TNT while being too light to detonate the mines! But this is not all. They are also being trained to detect tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. This procedure is faster than the normal diagnostic test and remarkably increases the sample processing. [3]

So a few disappeared nuts ended up producing an interesting story and  I am now positive that we  have a colony of rats (being fed on expensive macadamia nuts) that could potentially be bred to remove mines and improve human lives!

I regret now having eaten one (and liked it!) and I will not do it again!

 

[1] I am not a rat taxonomist so I base my identification more on distribution and abundance than on their morphology. The other possible species in Zimbabwe would be C. gambianus but the whole pouched rat taxonomy is under review. See: Olayemi, A. et. al. (2012). Taxonomy of the African giant pouched rats (Nesomyidae: Cricetomys): molecular and craniometric evidence support an unexpected high species diversity. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 165, 700–719.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_pouched_rat#cite_note-MetH-1. Seen on 6/12/18.

[3] https://www.apopo.org/en. Seen on 6/12/18.

 

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.