My Home, Your Home
We were drifting. The process of going with the flow, with little effort but much to gain. Entranced by the peace and quiet, we were focused but none the less drifting. Up in the open grasslands close to where Welgevonden Game Reserve and Marakele National Park meet, an area dotted with numerous segwapi or white sugarbush protea, a large common wild fig and views that leave your eyes caught in a gaze far and near.
There they were. A short distance from the track, walking steadily, parallel with us, heading in the same direction. Moving in the grass, shoulders hunched, we lost them briefly as they paused, using a small stand of white sugarbush as a hiding prop. They had spotted something, we couldn’t see what, but they were now more focussed than us. The sisters of the western pride’s tracks had given our drifting a purpose and so we shifted gear with them. The early setting late winter sun provided a glare of additional cover for them. With the sun on their backs, numerous shrubs to conceal their intentions, they edged towards their unknown quarry. A white rhino cow and her calf came ambling up the road towards us seemingly completely oblivious to the unfolding drama a mere thirty meters away. A tired grey shape moved up ahead, slowly. We couldn’t yet make it out, but it was coming our way, weaving its way through the line of sugarbush shrubs coming closer to us and its impending end. A brief flash and within a second it had fallen, just twenty meters from us. Cause of death, the sisters desire to hunt and duty to provide. The old kudu bull hadn’t a chance and he fell a mere meter from where he last stood, majestic and proud, now reduced to a crumpled heap. It was over and yet it many ways it was just the beginning, for the loss in death is the gain in life. These lionesses would share this meal with a host of creatures. The kudu’s life, a deck of cards being dealt out before a game of survival.
We left in subdued excitement, the thrill of the chase and resulting kill had left us with mixed feelings of purpose and of a lack of understanding. Now we were really drifting. We stopped to enjoy the last moments the sun would share with us that day and enjoyed a refreshment, a snack and a stretch. As the day gave way to night, there were many things preparing to rest along with those getting ready for the night of activity ahead. Close by, a pair of little bee-eaters were darting in and out of a disused aardvark hole. I wondered if they were catching flies or other insects attracted to the once inhabited hole. I watched them for a while until they both disappeared into the hole, never to come out. This was their home.
There is no doubt we share the Reserve with a myriad of beautiful both flora and fauna, many of whom we never see and know nothing of. The perfect neighbours that busy themselves daily, completely unnoticed. We tend to focus on the more star-like neighbours on our street as with the lionesses or the rhino cow and calf. The truth is, out on the Reserve the animals and plants are coexisting, not getting in each other’s way, but sharing spaces and time to simply make it through each day. An immense team of players, playing life’s game in their own way. This is their home, and we are fortunate enough to call it ours too.
Many animals on the Reserve share resources to achieve their daily needs. Be it for nourishment, protection, breeding or temporary shelter, all resources are put to good use and innovative ways for using these are witnessed daily. The finely woven links between all the organisms out there is inspiring and their versatility enables them to achieve more with shared resources than they would without. The concept of co-existing is necessary and when competition is absent, the ability to use your neighbour to your own advantages presents many more opportunities.
Driving to the main gate to collect guests, I have been driven past a particular tree that has a nest that I have been eyeing. At first, I suspected it was the nest of a species of social spider, which I had not seen in this area before. In more typically thornveld areas, the social spiders belonging to the genera Stegodyphus and Magunia, are relatively common. Since we are not dominated by thornveld on the Reserve, I found this find interesting and yet was not convinced this was the case. In the eastern low-lying areas of South Africa, we have seen these spiders in great numbers and their nests are seen hanging stretched between branches of thorn trees of all types. These social spiders live in colonies and work together to secure prey, repair or maintain the web and naturally breed. At the centre of the web is a large ball or labyrinth of silk where the spiders reside and breed; the nest.
The intricate but vast net of silk spun around this hub provides a great catching net. Once an insect is caught in the web, the spiders swarm out en masse subduing their prey and dragging it back to the nest for all to share communally. This cooperation between the spiders makes them incredibly successful, so living in a colony has vast benefits. As with humans, when the colony grows too large, pairs of spiders will relocate to begin new colonies. The nest I had seen was very similar to those I had watched before, only I did not and could not see any spiders to verify this. My second assumption on this matter was that it was an old or disused rain spider or lizard eating spider’s nest. The collection of leaves neatly woven into the nest part of the web appeared very similar to other nests of this spider, I have seen before. The fact that the leaves were very exposed could also be due to the spiderlings eating their way of the nest after hatching, giving the nest an almost incomplete appearance. Again, with no occupants to be found, this could only be a speculation that would not be confirmed. These spiders will nest, breed and abandon the nest when the process is complete, so finding a spider with it was unlikely. Unlike the Social Spiders who continue to live in the established colony for quite some time. None the less, the presence of this spider nest, reminded me of a particular species of bird that I had seen for the first time in April 2021 on this Reserve, the Gabar Goshawk.
The nest of a Gabar Goshwak consists of a platform of sticks about thirty centimetres across. The centre is cuplike, lined with dry material (leaves, grass, wool, fur and old nests of smaller birds) providing padding for the eggs and chicks. A notable key feature of their nests is the presence of active social spider nests. The goshawks add these spider nests to the edges of their own nests. With time the spiders’ nest and web envelops the goshawks nest. It is speculated that this behaviour of using active spider nests is used as a pest control measure. With food brought to the nest for the chicks, attracting flies and other pests, the spiders help to keep these under control. A great food source for them, providing a great service to the goshawk in turn. Perhaps living with a raptor and adept bird of prey has other advantages for the spiders in that they are less likely to be attacked by potential predators, such as birds and other larger spiders. The real purpose of this behaviour could be nest camouflage; however, it is uncertain and the above is purely speculation. None the less, the use of the spider’s home to adorn your own is a novel idea.
Cobweb makes for great binding twine for other birds building their nests. Spiders are numerous in this environment and thus so is their silk. The silk of a disused or abandoned rain spiders nest makes for the perfect building material. The African Paradise Flycatcher nest is a delicate cup of grass and other soft vegetative material, lined with lichen for concealment. The nest is bound to a twig or branch with cobweb, securing it in its intended place. Re-purposing products left unused is part of natures secret. Nothing goes to waste; everything has a place and purpose.
Whilst in the case of the goshawk or the flycatcher where spiders and their cobweb are sought out to enhance the nesting capabilities of these birds, in other bird species, making someone elses home yours is frowned upon.
The Diderick Cuckoo, a typical brood parasite is one of a number of species of brood parasites that has taken to home invasion. Brood parasites are birds that lay their eggs in the nests of carefully chosen host birds who are expected to incubate and raise the chicks as their own. Many mechanisms have arisen that ensure the success of the parasite birds in tricking the host species into believing that the strange looking chick relative to their own, is actually their own. These include matching egg colour, matching colour and patterns of the flanges on the inside of the chicks’ gaping mouths, rapid egg laying (brood parasites can lay eggs in seconds in some cases, much faster than other birds), coinciding laying of eggs with the host species and ensuring the number of eggs in the nest remain the same. Brood parasitism is a broad topic and a fascinating one, that deserves a story of its own.
There are a number of host species that the Diderick Cuckoo parasitises. In fact, they are known to have more host species to raise their young than any of the other species of brood parasites, from the cuckoos, the indigobirds, whydahs and honeyguides.
The Southern Masked Weaver is one of the host species of the Diderick Cuckoo. They start building home late September once the rains start in early summer. The Diderick Cuckoos, who spend the winter in equatorial Africa, arrive in the southern breeding areas of Africa at the same time. The male weavers attract a number of females and can be building nests for up to as many as three females at a given time. The males alone build nests and their expertly woven baskets are easily recognisable. Females courted to a nest, must first inspect their new homes before accepting a males’ advances. If satisfied, then brooding occurs, opening up opportunities for the cuckoos to take advantage of the new couple’s comfy abode. Its December now and the weavers are building furiously, with their excited chattering occasionally broken by the characteristic die-die-die – diederick call of the cuckoo. A most unwanted house guest.
Within the birding community, there are those that are the home builders, rather than the home wreckers. They create stylish, practical ready to move in spaces that a host of other bird and also mammal species will use. The builders supplying a real estate market. The Cardinal Woodpecker, who frequents the area around Makweti Safari Lodge and who nests in the area each year, are renowned cavity creators. The knocking of a woodpecker that echoes through the hazel morning light has one of three purposes. To find a suitable meal hidden within the wood or under the bark, to build nests and cavities and to communicate. The early morning call is primarily the latter, forming the base beat of the dawn chorus. This drumming is effective for long distance communication and tends to be less heard once the birds start nesting so as to not draw to much attention to the family hidden somewhere near-by, for although these home providers supply a demanding market, they too fall victim to home invaders; the honeyguides.
Always in the market for a suitable family home to raise a brood, the Lilac-breasted Roller seeks out a cavity already created by others such as the woodpeckers. A monogamous couple, the rollers are a committed pair who breed once in a season. They do not excavate their own nest cavities, leaving that to the experts. They will seldomly use the same nest in successive breeding years, but prefer to shop the market in case a new pad comes along with a better view, and out the way of prying eyes. I have watched a number of pairs breed each season over the past five years and have not seen the same nest occupied by rollers the following breeding season. Nests are however re-used within a season, but by other species once the rollers family have matured and moved out.
Within the medium to larger mammal species community on the Reserve, the best-known occupiers of previously developed and up for rent homes are the Warthog. They will make use of disused Aardvark holes, which are in great supply. Warthogs do create or excavate their own holes on occasion, but in areas where aardvark are prevalent, there is no need to develop from scratch when you can simply move in. Aardvark are adept diggers and will excavate new holes for themselves to overnight in or in the process of searching for food. Aardvark can burrow at a prodigious rate digging a burrow of several meters in as little as thirty minutes, being out of sight very quickly from potential predators. They leave many unoccupied holes in the bushveld as a result of their nightly activity and it is no wonder that many other species make use of these shelters. In some areas even leopard is known to use the odd aardvark digging to rest up in, particularly in areas where trees are scarce as are caves or other suitable naturally occurring shelters.
This brings us back to our late winter afternoon refreshment break where the Little Bee-eaters have disappeared into the old aardvark burrow. Since this discovery, which I had read about but never seen, I have noticed a number of similar nesting sites for these common bee-eaters on the Reserve. Recently, on the main road heading to the gate, a pair was in the early stages of nesting before moving away to a more suitable, far less noisy place to raise a family. Elsewhere on the Reserve, in a far calmer area, we have been watching a pair nesting in an old aardvark burrow.
In the roof of this abandoned burrow, the bee-eaters have burrowed their own little tunnel in which they have laid their eggs. Both male and female will dig the tunnel using the nest sight only once, unless the first breeding attempt is unsuccessful. The same nest site is not used in successive years. The tunnel in the roof of the burrow is well hidden, with the activities of the parents in the vicinity of the nest, being the only give away. They too fall victim to brood parasites (Greater Honeyguide) and so moving home each year is important, to keep the home invaders guessing. Two to as many as six eggs are laid and once the fledglings leave the nest, they will stay with the parents for several weeks.
We watched a family on the access road to Makweti Safari Lodge three years ago. Each morning as we returned from game drive, they would be hawking for insects around the large fig tree at the start of our entrance road. The following year, a pair of little bee-eaters nested in the vicinity but it is uncertain if it was the same pair. I never found that nest, not that we searched too extensively, as I would hate to disturb them at this critical and vulnerable time of year.
Its summer now, and the vacant burrows and dens are full of parents and their little ones. A number of Black-backed Jackal have denned on the Reserve and the pups provide endless entertainment, as they wonder out to explore this strange new world. The warthog too, are denning and a number of little piglets are seen trotting close behind their mothers, tail raised, as they navigate their way through the towering grasses. One day they will look down on these same grasses.
A Peeling Plane Tree outside our bedroom window, three meters high in the canopy, and each summer we share its beauty with a number of birds, beetles and butterflies. The swordtail butterflies love it in flower and will feed through the cool mornings.
We no doubt have a wonderful place to call home and are privileged enough to be permitted by the true inhabitants of Welgevonden Game Reserve, to share in this beauty.
Text – Neil Davison
Photographs – Neil Davison
- 30 years of personal observations by the author on various Reserves in South Africa including Welgevonden Game Reserve
- D. Skinner and R. H. N. Smithers, The Mammals of the Southern African subregion, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, 1990
- Gordon Lindsay Maclean, Ornithology for Africa, Natal University Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1990,
- A.R. Hockey, W.R.J. Dean, P.G. Ryan, Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, VII Edition, John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Jacana, Cape Town, 2009
- Trevor Carnaby, Beat about the Bush: Birds, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2018
- Tarboton, Roberts Nests & Eggs, John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Jacana Media, Cape Town,