5 animals we LOVE that we only see in Summer
Although there are many things to love about a winter safari, there are some truly special creatures that only make an appearance during the warm and wet summer months.
In this week's blog article, Elly tells us about some of her favourite summertime sightings so that you can keep an eye out for them on your next safari!
1. Southern Foam Nest Frogs:
With the onset of the rainy season in the Lowveld and the long-awaited replenishment of dams and waterways, water-loving amphibians make a seasonal comeback. Having spent winter tucked away in leaf litter and debris, Southern foam nest frogs (Chiromantis xerampelina) are among the many species to emerge from their winter burrows and begin their stupendous nightly chorus in search of a mate.
Most amphibians breathe through their lungs and their skin, meaning their skin must stay moist to facilitate the absorption of oxygen into their bodies, yet Southern foam nest frogs spend much of their time outside of water. These remakable frogs are very well-adapted to their arboreal lifestyle, with large discs on their fingers and toes allowing them to scale tall trees with superhero-like ease.
To prevent their skin from dessicating in the midday sun, these remarkable, little frogs turn chalky white to reflect light and heat. They sit perched on branches throughout the day with their feet tucked under their bodies to reduce water loss and, on extremely hot days, will secrete sweat droplets to cool themselves through evaporation off the skin.
As their name suggest, Foam nest frogs also have a very unique breeding strategy which takes place from October to February every year. When darkness descends, males will selectively choose their call site in a tree that is overhanging water. As this male begins calling, others will move in closer to him and join in, squeaking and croaking - a sound that personally reminds me of a creaky floorboard.
Females are lured in by the males' seductive songs and, as she approaches the leading male he clasps her and the pair position themselves on his branch. Surrounded by other males jostling for the opportunity to mate, the female releases a secretion which she and the males churn into a white foam using their back legs.
After about 15 minutes, the female begins to deposit her eggs into this foam, all the while continuing to secrete the special foam-making fluid. Commonly mistaken for pieces of plastic in the trees by first-time safari-goers, these white nests can contain up to 1,200 eggs!
The outer crust of the foam nest hardens slightly to protect the developing tadpoles from dessication and extremes in temperature, and may also protect them from predators. After four to six days, the tadpoles begin to wriggle to freedom, dropping out of the bottom of the nest and into the water below where they continue their transformation into frogs.
2. Flap-necked Chameleons:
Much like amphibians, reptiles also spend the cold, winter months in brumation (a type of reptilian hibernation). Due to their cold-bloodedness, reptiles like snakes, tortoises and lizards are unable to regulate their body temperature internally. Brumation is a process in which reptiles slow down their metabolism and limit their movement, thereby conserving precious energy until the climate warms again.
Although it is not known exactly where the Flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) spends the winter months, it is thought they bury into underground tunnels until the warm, summer rainfall brings them out of their torpor. With plentiful insects to feed on at this time of year, the chameleon is well-equipped to harvest them with one of the fastest tongues on earth. Accelerating 100 km/hour in 100th of a second and extending two and a half times its body length, chameleons seamlessly pluck insects out of the air.
Chameleons are famous for their colour-changing ability, however, the real question is how do they do this? Unlike other mystifying colour-changers like octopus and cuttlefish, chameleons have two layers of skin populated with special iridescent cells that contain pigment and reflect light.
Chameleons can change the colour of their skin by relaxing or contracting these cells, known as chromatophores, and thereby determine how much of a certain pigment colour is shown. Flap-necked chameleons in a relaxed state, such as resting on a branch, often appear more bluish in colour, whereas those in an excited or stressed state appear more yellow. A selective mixture of these blue and yellow pigments creates a vibrant green colour, which helps to camoflage them in the leafy trees during the summer months.
Like all chameleons, this species has the remarkable ability to rotate its eyes independently. Internally, the eye balls are mounted in twin conical turrets (like two upside down ice cream cones). The muscular, fused eyelids prevent the eyes from falling out of their sockets and control the rotation of the eyes nearly 180 degrees backwards and forwards. Unfortunately, this skill has led to the supersition in local African cultures that chameleons can see both into the past and the future simultaneously; something that no animal should be able to do.
3. Woodland Kingfishers:
Anyone who has been on a Lowveld safari in the summer months will be well-acquainted with the familiar, descending trill of the Woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) - there's no doubt this is a small bird with a BIG voice! Sporting brilliant, blue plumage on its back, black wing panels and a white belly, the Woodland kingfisher is discernible from the similarly-coloured Mangrove kingfisher by the black lower mandible on the beak.
This species is an intra-African migrant, meaning they reappear in South Africa during the summer months having wintered as far north as South Sudan from April to September. These amazing birds migrate south during the night, either by themselves or in small groups. Not only does this nocturnal journey make them less vulnerable to sleeping predators, but the skies are often less turbulent at night, making for an easier flight.
Contrary to what their name suggests, most kingfishers do not feed on fish. In fact, insects make up the bulk of the Woodland kingfisher's diet and it can often be seen hunting from a perch by flying down swiftly and accurately to capture food on the ground. It has also been documented feeding on frogs, lizards, small snakes, rodents and chicks of other small birds, such as Red-billed Quelea.
Woodland kingfishers are highly territorial and pairs will advertise their territory by trilling conspicuously from the treetops with their wings spread wide, turning from side to side. If another pair has entered their territory, they can often be seen circling an area in flight, calling incessantly and frequently swooping the intruders. With the greatest of gusto, these little birds will even chase away other, larger predators like African Harrier-hawks and even humans!
Where riverine kingfishers tend to nest in riverbank burrows, the Woodland kingfisher prefers to utilise tree cavities, particularly deserted hollows that were previously excavated by Barbets and Woodpeckers. Pairs of kingfishers have been known to return to the same nest hollow up to 6 years in a row, and if they find another, unwelcome occupant in their hollow, they are very quick to eject them!
4. Leopard Tortoises:
The Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) is the largest and most abundant tortoise species in sub-Saharan Africa. Like many other members of the tortoise family, they are extremely long-lived, with some even reaching the ripe old age of 100 years!
Like chameleons, tortoises are cold-blooded reptiles and therefore keep a low profile in the colder, winter months. Towards the end of May, Leopard tortoises will begin searching for a suitable place to overwinter, usually occupying holes in the ground or settling among rocks and logs where only the shell remains visible.
During the warm, summer months, Leopard tortoises enter their breeding season, which usually peaks from September to November. Males start moving further afield in search of a female to mate and will monogamously breed with only one female per year. As Leopard tortoises occur in relatively low densities, and are not particularly speedy travellers, you can imagine that this quest for a mate takes some time!
After successfully mating, the female will dig a hole in the ground in which she deposits anywhere between 5 and 30 eggs. They will remain there, incubating in the soil, for almost a whole year until the next season's rainfall prompts the emergence of the scaley youngsters from their underground nursery.
These little hatchlings are immediately independent and begin feeding on the rich, succulent grass brought about by the summer rains. Leopard tortoises have also been known to chew on bones (osteophagia) or hyena dung (coprophagia) as the high calcium content of each provides a healthy supplement to keep the tortoise's shell in good condition and aid eggshell production in females.
5. Dung beetles:
Insects are not usually on the radar for many safari-goers, but these little beetles are by far some of the most fascinating (and under-rated) creatures out here in the bush. Having spent much of winter in a state of torpor, the first rains of summer awaken them and suddenly the air is filled with the hum of their tiny wings.
Contrary to popular thought, not all dung beetles roll their neat dung balls around. In fact, dung beetles can be broken down into four distinct categories: endocoprids, who lay their eggs directly into a dung pile; paracoprids, who dig down below a dung pile; telecoprids, who famously roll their dung balls away from the dung site; and kleptocoprids, who attempt to steal the dung balls from the telecoprids.
Dung beetles feed on these dung balls themselves, and also provision them as food for their developing offspring. In summer, we quite often see male dung beetles rolling their beautifully-spherical dung balls along as a female clings tightly to its side. Once the pair have found a suitable location in which to bury their ball, the female lays a single egg inside. When the larvae hatches, it is well-supplied with food which allows them to complete their development from the underground safety of their dung nest.
Every year, dung beetles can bury up to one tonne of dung, making them vitally important for their environment. By acting as nature's waste removers, dung beetles are aerating and returning much-needed nutrients into the soil and creating fertile environments for the surrounding plants to grow. In winter, when dung beetles retreat underground, termites take over the responsibility of the 'clean-up crew.'
Not only are they serving an important ecological role, dung beetles are also champion heavyweights. Fashioning and transporting dung balls up to 50 times their own body weight makes these powerful, little beetles one of the strongest insects in the world!
For those that have been lucky enough to watch a dung beetle steadfastly roll his dung ball through the bush, you will know that no obstacle is too large for these determined, little coprophages! Although many may turn their nose up at the dung beetle's diet, the bush simply would not be the same without them.
Photos and article by Elly Gearing.