Africa, Books, Travel Africa, Wildlife, Game Reserves

Explorer 15. Galton

Francis Galton, (1822–1911) was an English polymath, geographer, meteorologist and much else. We are mainly interested here in his 1850 expedition to Namibia. For the rest – and there is a lot of it! – refer to the sources at the bottom. Grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Galton is best known as the founder of eugenics, but his interests and subsequent contributions as Victorian traveler and scientist were myriad. The most important and lasting part of Galton’s work was his realisation that science (biology as much as physics) needs mathematics rather than words. Like Darwin, he set out to become a doctor but his curiosity led him further afield—in Galton’s case, to Africa. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and was knighted in 1909.

He attended King’s College in London to study medicine, but became frustrated and discontented with his studies when he was confronted with his first cadaver, much like cousin Charles Darwin, and in 1840, went to study the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After suffering through three years of studying, he obtained a BA and was awarded an MA, but a nervous breakdown terminated his further studies. In February 1844 his father died and left him and his siblings a large inheritance. Now independently wealthy, he became a charming social snob who never had to work a day in his long life to earn a living. He stopped studying and became a gentleman of leisure, though he might have disputed my terminology! He became an athlete, a sportsman (hunter) and then decided to travel.

Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.

In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and decided to not just travel, but now to do some serious ‘exploring.’ Over the next two years he planned and mounted an expedition into then little-known South West Africa, now Namibia.

Between April 1850 and January 1852 Galton explored and charted ‘Damaraland’ and ‘Ovampoland’ in South West Africa, financing the expedition himself. In Cape Town he was warned by Sir Harry Smith about the “fierce Boers” that he might encounter in the interior, so he sailed to Walvis Bay and started his explorations from there instead. He was accompanied by Charles Andersson, who would stay on in the region to seek his fortune.  The original intention had been to penetrate from Damaraland to Lake Ngami, which had recently been described by Livingstone and promised an abundance of well-watered territory in the interior.  Galton’s party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovampoland in northern South-West Africa, where they came close to the Cunene river but were ultimately forced to withdraw short of it. 

– Galton’s travels in red –
– here’s the TLDR instead of the 344 pages of his book! – how very 21st century! –

Once again at leisure back in England, he wrote a book entitled Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa (1853). This book was very well written and illustrated with numerous colour plates produced from the sketches made by the artist that accompanied Galton. The book proved to be a huge success. He then went on to pursue his many theories, some genius, some rather nutty. He himself proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:

Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity. – Karl Pearson, ‘The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton,’

This from the introduction to his book on his South West African journeys by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany: Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for ‘the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world.’

In 1855 he also wrote a wonderful book on The Art of Travel in which he advised future travelers on things he had learnt from experience and the experience of others.

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Sources: galton.org; Prof Paul Kruger; Biography by Nicholas Wright Gillham; wikipedia;

Africa, Birds & Birding, KwaZuluNatal

Bufftail Hoot

It’s been a long time since I last heard the plaintive, mournful-sounding hoot of the Buff-spotted Flufftail, Sarothrura elegans. But the last few nights he has been hooting gently outside my window in Westville above the Palmiet River:

– sound from xeno-canto.org – thank you –

Hope they stay awhile . . .

– crispin hemson pic from pigeon valley durban – thank you –

I heard it for years at 7 River Drive on the Mkombaan River in Westville, but although I searched and stalked and lay in wait at all hours, the only one I saw was one the bloody next door cat killed! Something like this:

– not my pic –

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And then at last I saw one of Crispin Hemson’s flufftails at Pigeon Valley in Durban. One lone male. And just for a few seconds before he ducked into the undergrowth. I was pleased to see one of Crispin’s pictures has been used in wikipedia.

Africa, Birds & Birding, KwaZuluNatal, Wildlife, Game Reserves

Explorer 14. Gerrard

William Tyrer Gerrard sent a stuffed aardvark to Derby! How cool or how bad ass is that? You receive a parcel from your botanical collector: Here are some flowers and some leaves; oh, and one aardvark! Poor bloody aardvark had to stare out on grey Pommie skies from then on.

– Derby Museum and Library – thanks to Chris Harris on wikipedia –

I went looking for his story after seeing a Forest Iron Plum tree at Sand Forest Lodge in Zululand, the Drypetes gerrardii.

He was an English professional botanical (and anything else) collector in Natal and Madagascar in the 1860s. Born in Merseyside in 1831, he worked in Australia, then in Natal, where he collected over 150 previously unknown plant species and . . it was a Natal aardvark he stuffed and shipped to England. He left Natal in April 1865 for coastal Madagascar, where he made large collections of plants, insects, and birds. He died age 34 of yellow fever in Mahavelona on the north east coast of Madagascar, north of Toamasina.

Gerrard was obviously good at finding plants, as In the early 1860’s he gathered the only known specimens of an Emplectanthus and an Adenia species. Considered Critically Endangered and possibly Extinct according to IUCN Red List criteria, they were only re-discovered in the lower Msikaba River valley and the lower Tugela River Valley in 2006 and 2016 respectively.

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Africa, Birds & Birding, Wildlife, Game Reserves

Sand Forest Again

Just one night with Jessie and Jordi. At Sand Forest Lodge. An emergence of flying ants saw birds in profusion feeding on them. Despite a stiff breeze I saw plenty good birds. Some birders there had counted up over seventy in their 24 hour stay. Seven Broad-billed Rollers in one tree was special – this was the furthest south I’ve seen them. Then my first-ever sighting of African Bullfrogs! I’ve seen the Giant Bullfrog in Botswana – once – but had never seen the African.

– bottom, 2nd from left – African Bullfrog Pyxicephalus edulis –

Godfrey the owner came round to visit Saturday evening, having recognised my name on his guest list; we had a long chat about his trees. He is a huge dendrology enthusiast and his current project is photographing a new un-named Combretum ‘novospeciosa’ – new species. He takes daily pics as the leaves and buds unfold and has a daily whatsapp conversation with ace botanist Richard Boon (now living in Aussie). Fascinating. He is building up an amazing catalogue of images of the 180 tree species on his property. He soon lost me as I’ve grown rusty on the dendrology side! The purple flower below is a Vitex (I think). I didn’t get a good picture. His pictures are pin-point sharp. He tried to show me how to get better pictures, but I think the extra secret is practice, practice.

– Sand Forest Lodge Nov 2019 collage –

Godfrey showed me a number of his trees and they’re all beautiful, but I am so rusty and he knew mainly the common names of the ones he isn’t actively studying at present, so I couldn’t place them easily. One I do remember is the Forest Iron Plum, Drypetes gerrardii. I’ll slip in a little post about young Mr Gerrard after whom it was named.

– African Bullfrog, Pixycephalus edulus, bottom middle – Red Toad, Schismoderma carens, top middle –

On the way home we drove through Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Lots and lots of water after seeing it dry for a long time. Lots of greenery too, so very few animals, as they didn’t need to be anywhere near the roads. Four tiny little warthogs were the only sighting of note. Hot dog-sized.

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PS: On the way up I told Jess the Lodge owner’s names are Godfrey and Cary and she refused to believe me! There’s no such name as God-free she insisted. She’s heard of sugar-free and gluten-free but she just knew I was pulling her leg about God-free. When I introduced him to her she went wide-eyed and quiet like only my Jess-Jess can!

I now call them God-free and Care-free and that reminds me of Frank and Gretel Reitz who Sheila, Bess and Georgie used to call Frankful and Grateful.

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Bird list: Broad-billed Roller – seven of them, most I’ve ever seen together; Crested, White-eared and Black-collared Barbets; Yellow-rumped Tinker; Klaas’, Diederik, Red-chested and Emerald Cuckoos; The Emerald only heard, the Red-chested put on a big display and I got saturation views. He / She was being mobbed by a drongo and a __ (forget); Square-tailed Drongo; Red-eyed, Emerald-spotted and Tambourine Doves; Long-crested Eagle; Three dark sunbirds – I think Marico, Neergaards and Purple-chested, but I can’t claim them all for sure. The other birders had long lens cameras and were trying to get pics of all three to prove it; Scarlet-chested Sunbird; Lesser Honeyguide calling all day – didn’t spot him; Yellow-breasted and Rudd’s Apalis; A big flock of European Bee-eaters; Spectacled and Dark-backed Weavers; Dark-capped Bulbul; Yellow-bellied and Sombre Greenbuls; Terrestrial Brownbul; Purple-crested Turaco; Southern Boubou; Orange-breasted and Gorgeous Bush-shrikes (heard both only); Green-backed Camaroptera; Rattling Cisticola; Yellow-fronted Canary; Tawny-flanked Prinia; Long-billed Crombec; Crested Guineafowl; Natal Francolin; Pied Crow; Egyptian Goose; Paradise and Black Flycatchers; African Goshawk; Striped and Brown-hooded Kingfishers; Crowned and Trumpeter Hornbills; African Hoopoe; Green Wood-hoopoe; Rufous-naped Lark; Black-and-White Mannikin; Red-faced Mousebird; Black-headed Oriole; Yellow-throated Petronia; Red-capped Robin-Chat; Cape White-eye; Fiscal Shrike; Black-bellied Starling; Lesser Striped Swallow; Palm Swift; Kurrichane Thrush; Southern Black Tit; Heard the Nerina Trogon often on both days; Pied Wagtail; Golden-tailed Woodpecker;

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Godfrey was excited by something about a new tree in his sand forest: Dovyalis revoluta. I couldn’t quite get what was new; something about Richard Boon and Abraham van Wyk and a new discovery. So I went looking and found it. Dovyalis revoluta is a separate species, not just another Dovyalis zeyheri. So we have a new tree in the ‘Wild Apricot’ gang. My garden has plenty Dovyalis caffra surrounding it as a thorny hedge and bird and creature refuge.

– Richard Boon and Abraham van Wyk’s pics of D. revoluta –

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Africa, Birds & Birding, Wildlife, Game Reserves

Lazy Sunday Rainy Sunday

I woke to a confidential sort of murmuring / chirping outside my window. What birds are those, I wondered and peered through my window, then my bathroom window. Then I went to the scullery and peered through the window. Still nothing, so I opened the top of the stable door and they scattered.

Six Banded Mongooses on the back lawn outside my bedroom window! What a lovely sight! Had I been awake I’d have taken a camera to the door! Last week Jessie had called me to the lounge: ‘Dad! What are those! Come look!’ and showed me three mongooses on our front lawn. Hope they’re here to stay.

A lovely morning so I set off early for Pigeon Valley.

– a Pigeon Valley morning –

Soon after I got home the rain started – lovely lazy day listening to the rain on the roof; eating TomTom’s macaroni cheese, lots of bacon; its quite dark so maybe the sun is over the yardarm, I’ll have some vino now without looking at the clock.

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Africa, Birds & Birding, Family & Kids, Food, Motorcars_Automobiles, Travel Africa, Wildlife, Game Reserves

Nibela on Lake St Lucia

What luck! friends couldn’t make their timeshare for happy reasons (grandchild due) so we took over! With pleasure. Nibela is in prime Broadbill sand forest territory and I have dipped out on seeing a Broadbill, coming close a number of times, but no sighting. I was keen, so was Jess. Tom considered the fishing options and the food a la carte, but decided in the end that it was just too remote for a city slicker! ‘Enjoy your sticks and trees, Dad!’ he bid us farewell.

– chalet in sand forest overlooking Lake St Lucia –
– Nibela Sobhengu flowers –

Jess liked the place immediately. It had cellphone reception and DSTV. Also there was wifi at the main building. What was not to like?

– hey Dad, there’s DSTV! –

The food at the lodge was great. The one pork belly dish was the best I’ve had, and all their soups and veges were superbly done. We ate there three nights and I made supper one night.

– ’twas cordon red –

We searched for the African Broadbill, but no sign was seen or heard, so it remains on the wishlist. This is what its sand forest haunts look like, where it performs its little bird-of-paradise dance to get laid so an egg can get laid:

– Lucky at Nibela trying to call up broadbills – I soon put a stop to calling them – I’ll wait –

Lovely local specials we did see were Woodward’s Batis – a pair displaying and calling two metres away in a tree; Rudd’s Apalis; Purple-banded Sunbird; all good sightings and obligingly chirping as we watched. Narina Trogon, calling each day, but not seen; Heard but didn’t see a possible Neergard’s Sunbird. Two lovely bird parties popped up right in front of our chalet: One evening Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow White-Eye and Southern Black Tit; The next morning Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Pink-throated Twinspot, duetting Southern Boubous, Square-tailed Drongo, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Collared Sunbird.

Jessie’s Best Sighting:

In the grounds of the lodge Jess spotted something beautiful in a tree! Look! Dad! wifi! You didn’t even have go indoors to have wifi!

– wifi in the bush – a millennial’s delight –

A drive out to where the Mkhuze river flows into the lake brought back memories of my last trip there – by boat on a bird count with the game warden nearly forty years ago. Greater Flamingos, one Lesser Flamingo, White Pelicans, a Rosy-throated Longclaw, Common Ringed Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, Stilts, Yellow-billed Ducks, Hottentot Teals and many more.

– where the Mkhuze flows into Lake St Lucia –

Pelicans fishing in a ‘laager’ – surrounding the fish then dipping in: Heads up – Bums up.

– White Pelicans fishing near the Mkhuze mouth into Lake St Lucia –

Lots of creatures:

Nibela Sobhengu creatures collage

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Africa, Free State, Vrystaat

Likin’ Lichen

On our trip up Platberg one couldn’t help seeing all the lichens about; especially prominent on rocks, but also on the plants, especially on the ouhout, Leucosidea sericea and on the old oaks where we old okes had lunch.

Lichens are fascinating. Coincidentally a day or two after we got back from Platberg, a post from a wonderful blog I follow Fossils and Other Living Things arrived, which got me reading and searching:

The term “Lichen” applies to a symbiotic relationship, a way of life, that has married algae and fungi. The algae uses its photosynthetic power to manufacture carbohydrates, most of which are absorbed by the fungi with which they reside.  The fungi, in turn, provide the algae with essential moisture, shelter from harmful ultraviolet rays, and toxins that ward off predatory animals. There is no typical arrangement of algae and fungi in lichens. There’s huge, wonderful variety – diversity!

OK so far; What then, are “Algae” (singular alga – use a hard ‘g’)? No easy answer; no consensus answer. Ruth Kassinger in her book, Slime:  How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us (2019) notes that algae is a catchall term, a name for a group of diverse organisms; They are not plants, though they photosynthesize. Different algal taxa did not evolve from a common ancestor, and Kassinger describes three main groups:  single-celled blue-green algae or cyanobacteria; single-celled microalgae; and multicellular macroalgae (the seaweeds).

And what are fungi? “Fungi” (singular fungus) include microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms in a separate kingdom from the other well-known eukaryotic life kingdoms: plants and animals. Fungi evolved from a single common ancestor. They expand by growth or by emitting spores which float off and start new growth. Fungi are the principal decomposers in ecological systems.

In the past, mycology – the study of fungi – was regarded as a branch of botany, but it is now known fungi are genetically more closely related to us animals than to broccoli. Nice and humbling, innit?

So back to Lichens: Lichens are loosely divided into groups by the way they look: crustose lichens lie very flat against the substrate on which they are affixed; foliose lichens which are much more three-dimensional with lobed growths and some separation from the substrate on which they live ; fruticose lichens which can resemble miniature tumbleweeds and attach to a substrate at a single point. 

The relationship in lichens is symbiotic between the alga and the fungus but, Tony Edger points out that it seems to favour the fungus. Quite frequently in this relationship, according to Brodo in Lichens of North America (2001), Irwin M. Brodo et al., the fungi is killing the enveloped algae. That is safely offset by the algae’s rate of reproduction, though.

Lichens engage in a variety of ways of reproducing.  One approach is asexual:  When a fragment detaches and blows away, if it lands in a similar location, it attaches and starts growing as a new individual. For other lichen species, asexual reproduction is more deliberate and complicated.  These species create little balls (called soredia), each consisting of a single algae surrounded by fungi filaments.  If these reproductive spheres are detached from the lichen and come to rest in a hospitable environment, a new lichen can grow.  The fungi in most of these lichens produce spores which begin as sex cells (gametes) and then, after fusing with other sex cells, are released.  But these spores, cast to the winds, will create a new lichen only if they happen to land on an alga of a specific, requisite species.  Here the fungi appear to be playing against long odds. Producing huge quantities of spores helps improve their odds of success.

Lichens are found almost everywhere.

They are extremophiles, and are found from the poles to the tropics, from the intertidal zones to the peaks of mountains, and on every kind of surface from soil, rock, and tree bark to the backs of living insects! They are an evolutionary success story with around 14,000 different species covering some six percent of Earth’s surface.  Those lichens that employ rock as a substrate make soil – without which plants could not have invaded the land – by engaging in a very slow process of eroding the rock into soil. Their anchoring filaments penetrate cracks in the rocks and, as the weather alternatively moistens the lichens, expanding their anchoring filaments, and then dries them out, the substrate is broken up.  A slow process, sure, but rocks without lichens disintegrate even slower – maybe ten times slower!

– Leon also told us about the temperature contraction and expansion breaking rocks down into soil –

Three more fun facts I found: 1. Lichens are affected profoundly by air quality.  The diversity of species in a location is a gauge of how polluted its atmosphere is. 2. The long life-span and slow and regular growth rate of some lichens can be used to date events. One of its advantages is it can date the last 500 years, which most other dating techniques can’t. 3. Lichens are not related to moss. Moss are plants.

**(Even more fun fact: When searching for ‘dating by lichens’ I was shown lots of sites for ‘mature dating’ and ‘dating for over 60’s! and ‘Meet mature singles near you’!)**

The illustration below of the interior of a simplified foliose lichen, captures some of the essence of the lichen structure. By Tony Edger. So it seems all you see is fungus – the alga is inside the fungus structure.

Lichen - Tony Edger

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sources:

Tony Edger’s blog Fossils and Other Living Things

wikipedia