Harare

Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

Screenshot 2019-11-02 at 10.22.38

Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

Embed from Getty Images

While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

Piet-my-vrou_&_cape_robin

A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

News from Africa – Goats trouble

Although we are in Argentina at the moment, Stephen, our Zimbabwe housekeeper for the past 20 years, periodically keeps us up to date of the situation in the country, city and house. Like this we learnt that the rains in Harare have been good so far and that he is already starting to enjoy the first fresh mealies (corns) from his nearby field. Unfortunately this event, together with the ripening of the mangoes in the garden happens when we are away!

Through his message we learnt that he spotted a gravid chameleon laying eggs in the garden and we hope they will hatch next year. In our experience, chameleon eggs spend the entire dry season buried and only hatch during the rains the following year, probably when the earth gets soft and they can dig themselves out of the ground in a wise “delayed” development.

We also had an account of what happened to him recently that I believe is worth telling in his own words. The news came in a Whatsapp message we got on 18 February. I have only inserted clarifications in brackets.

“…I have been so busy since late Friday afternoon (15 February) running around to try and find my goats which I almost lost to thieves in the rural area (near Mukumbura in the border with Mozambique), if it wasn’t for my brother who quickly alerted me that they have gone missing the previous day. I agreed with the suspicion because there had been a truck seen loaded with goats in the area destined for sale in Harare where they fetch good prices.

After getting the news, I asked if there was anyone with the contacts of the driver or anyone amongst the people in the truck. When I got the driver’s number, I phoned him pretending to be someone who was in the business of buying and selling goats and wanted to know to which abattoir he had gone to sale the animals or if he had encountered any problem with police along the way.

He told me he was at one of the abattoirs along Seke road, close to the airport in Harare (about 25km from our house).

I quickly boarded a commuter omnibus to the abattoir. When I arrived I was shocked to discover and identify my six goats among the animals, which were about to be sold and slaughtered.

I managed to recover them and they arrived back home late evening yesterday. The same truck was asked to take them back. Unfortunately, with (the) difficulties people are facing, they are grabbing and selling anything they see can give them money to survive.

There was lots of celebration in my rural area.”

Later he gave more details:

“They were boys from my village and happen to be my relative even though not close, he raided them from the grazing area. In my area goats move freely and the owners only collect them in the evening and check if they are none missing to lock them in the kraal and open in the morning.

I had to make a report to the police to make it easy for them to facilitate the transportation of the goats back home (otherwise) it was not going to be easy for me to get them back home because I should have spent money to hire a truck, get a permit & explain to the police how the reason the goats end up in Harare.”

As you can see from the story, the “bush telegraph” is working more efficiently these days and I cannot but admire Stephen’s quick reaction that enabled him not only to recover the stolen goats but also to arrange for the culprits to return them to his home in the bush!

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!

IMG-4401

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.

 

Purple rain

Prince explained the meaning of “Purple Rain” as follows: “When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple… purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” [1]

I frankly have no idea if the late Prince ever saw the Harare jacarandas in October but I am sure that they could have inspired him to some lyric description that I am not able to do.

DSCN2583 copy

However, I do not get tired to travel through purple lined avenues and to watch the jacaranda tree in our garden. It is not only the colour and the flower rain that takes place but its perfume and the bees that visit the falling flowers in search of their nectar wealth. So much so that you should not wear flipflops when you wade the stagnant purple rain.

DSCN2586 copy.jpg

Looking forward to next year’s purple October…

 

[1] NME.COM. “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Purple Rain”NME.COM. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

 

 

Spot the beast 47

DSCN1714 copy

Today, while walking in the garden, we spotted this beast. It is not easy to see as it was already late when I took the pictures…

If you do not see it, follow the telephone wire…

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
In any case, here it is. What I believe to be one of our rat control team: a Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus). We did have years back a lady tenant that used to rehabilitate injured owls so perhaps this is one of their offspring? Whatever, it is amazing to have them in the garden!

DSCN1713 copy

Regret that the image is a bit blurred but these are crepuscular birds and pictures are  challenge!

Spot the beast 45

After a few weeks of silence, I return to blogging for one day to let you have this beast for you to search for.

IMG_3711 copy

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

IMG_3709 copy

I am sure it was not that hard. It is the first chameleon we find this year in our Harare garden. I think it came out a bit early as it is still quite cold and it was in good condition but moving slowly like the bushsnob in cold weather!

Spot the beast 37

From the rather prolific garden in Harare for you to find:

DSCN9950 copy

?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?
?

DSCN9949 copy

A young praying mantis doing its job in insect control.

Closely related to cockroaches and termites, there are over 2,400 species of mantises -both flying and flightless- worldwide. They feed on other insects but not necessarily all of them damaging to agriculture!. Larger species can even hunt small reptiles and birds and about 30% of wild males get cannibalized by their sexual partners.

They have flexible necks that enables them to turn their heads 180 degrees, a feat that no other insect can do and, although they have two large and bulging eyes, they only have one “ear” located in their abdomen so their hearing is limited.

 

Live Cham 4

A short update of the situation with the gravid chameleon.

We saw the female again in the early hours of the 28 Jan and it was moving in the poinsettia bush. IMG_3156 copy

An hour later it had disappeared and despite our thorough search in the original poinsettia and surrounding bushes, we could not find it! We checked on the ground as we were convinced that it would not walk more than a few metres around the bush. Still nothing!

We got concerned about its fate as we know that pied crows are around and that they are capable of killing chameleons. However, there was not much else we could do. Stephen would have found it but it was his day off so there was no hope there.

There was lots of hope in other parts of the garden though. The female we saw digging the nest during the night of the 26 Jan (Live Cham 3) had finished its job as described and then it left quietly. The nest area is now fenced and protected.

In addition, a third female was spotted at a passion fruit plant and she was also gravid and very active.

IMG_3162 copy.jpg

Yesterday (28 Jan) it changed position to a lemon tree, walking about 10m to get to it.

DSCN1601 copy

The female moving through the grass.

DSCN1604 copy

Searching for a suitable spot.

It climbed on the tree through a stick and remained on the tree for rest of the day.

DSCN1610 copy

It eventually decided to climb up a lemon tree. The eggs bulging through the skin can be seen in its ventral part.

Luckily yesterday (28 Jan) Stephen returned home by mid afternoon and immediately located the missing female that we had lost earlier during the morning! It had moved 33m! to another area of soft earth and it was busy digging, despite its rather bulgy belly. By the time we left it last night, it could go in its totality inside the hole but it was already dark for pictures. We protected her again to avoid dog interference and left.

This morning, as with the previous female, it had finished and covered the hole, looking dark and rather quiet. I am sure it will soon recover and move away.

DSCN1622 copy

So we are now left with the third female that has now climbed down from the lemon tree and it is -again- walking in the garden, looking for the right spot to lay her eggs.

As we are traveling to Uruguay before dawn tomorrow, this is the last post from Zimbabwe but I will resume once I touch down at the other end.

In any case, I am beginning to think that next year we will have a “chameleon population explosion”!