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The eels in the Palmiet River down the road lead an interesting life. And there’s still lots we don’t know about them. Especially me, so know that this is a story of our eels written by someone who’d like to know more.
Firstly, there are about four species. I say ‘about’ as the number is likely to change as we find out more. So this is a composite of the interesting things I have found out. OK?
The thing about being an eel is you should never have children. Never. This is good advice for other species too, like Homo sapiens, but especially for eels, cos once you spawn, YOU DIE! You’ve been warned. Ask yourself, eel: Is that single orgasm worth your life? Usually eels can spawn after seven years, but if they don’t, they can live to eighty five years of age! Child-free!
Parts of this story won’t actually pertain to our Palmiet eels, but to other Anguillidae eels world-wide, especially European and American eels on which most research has been done. They are fascinating river fishes who go to sea at the end of their lives to spawn.
The eels we actually see in the Palmiet River are usually adults. They could leave on vacation at any time, downstream to the confluence with the Umgeni River of Duzi Canoe Marathon fame near the Papwa Sewgolum golf course; then on downstream to the famous / infamous Blue Lagoon; then out into the Indian Ocean and the inshore counter-currents heading north; I would warn them they should think twice about leaving our beautiful valley, but you know how these primal urges are.
All the way up between Mocambique and Madagascar, past Beira, past the mouth of the Zambezi River, to where Africa bulges eastward around Mocambique Island, and into the open ocean where they spawn. Once. The larger females laying up to twenty million eggs, the males emitting their sperm onto the eggs. This is likely done in very deep water, as it has never been observed. And maybe they’re shy. Because it has never been seen, scientists speculate about ‘mass eel orgies.’ You know how people are when speculating.
The tiny larvae hatch and drift with the current back to Southern Africa; the southward currents which flow east and west of Madagascar and join to form the warm Agulhas current flowing away from the equator. They’re now often called ‘Glass Eels’ for obvious reasons:
They drift southwards, and by the time they get the mouth of the Umgeni they can also swim – they have grown quite a lot. As they approach, they lift their snouts and say Hey! Listen! and Smell! They recognise Blue Lagoon at night by the pumping music and the whiff of bluetop and dagga drifting to sea; so up the Umgeni they go, till they can taste industrial pollution in the water; then the offspring of our Palmiet clan hang a left up the Palmiet River. Others carry on up the Umgeni. All the while going through larval stages and getting more pigment as they go.
There they live their river fish lives until, one day, seven to eighty five years later, they may get an urge, just as their parents did before them (you know that feeling, right?) and head for the ocean again. ‘Again,’ in our story, but for the first time for each of them. Each one only does the homeward journey once, as a juvenile, and the spawning one-way journey once, as an adult.
The well-known story of the salmon migration has been told and shown so often it helps to explain the eel migration; Just the opposite of the salmon, our eels are freshwater river fish that spawn in the sea; Ours spend most of their lives in the Palmiet, just taking this incredible, Every-Vaalie’s-Dream vakansie by die see to spawn.
We might be thinking what a hard journey. But ours have it easy. If an eel needs to get back to where Mom and Dad lived on the Zambezi it has to bypass Cahora Bassa and Kariba dams! Is that even possible!? Indeed it seems to be. They move overland if they have to!
Of course with everything in nature the story includes Homo sapiens. What we do. We transport eels, elvers and eggs to where they shouldn’t be; We introduce parasites from one area to another; We farm them, chopping up other fish to feed to them; We catch them to sell as sushi or jellied eel by the ton – so much so that catches are down to 10 to 14% of what they used to be in Europe. When the scarcity became known we stopped catching and eating them, right? No, the price just went up, businessmen offering over R20 000 per kilogram. Don’t eat eels; Don’t buy eels! Please. They’re endangered. Never eat anything if you don’t know how many there are.
Next time I see an eel in the Palmiet I’m going to tell him or her: Stay put! It’s a minefield out there! That vacation has no return ticket!
Palmiet Nature Reserve is ready for Spring! We’ve had a cold winter, some early rain, wind storms and today a hot ‘Berg wind.’ Nature lovers in the Palmiet Rangers group have been spotting all sorts of interesting life in our valley.
Then some Palmetians went to Roosfontein and shot a Nightjar!
Meantime, Pigeon Valley in Glenwood has also been busy, with ‘Friends of PV’ honcho Crispin Hemson keeping us all up-to-date about his patch as always:
Oh, and babies! I forgot about the babies. When Spring springs, babies pop out . . Warren Friedman is the host daddy to these two broods. And the videographer.
An exciting weekend in the valley; good sightings, plants to identify and maybe even a new species discovered!
The eggs – ?? – brought some guessing! I asked vegetable or animal? No-one knew. Fish eggs, with a water mongoose being the predator? Berries? Frog eggs? Crab eggs? Eel? Turns out Ingrid D’eathe had found them on the edge of her pond. Then Suncana posted a lovely flap-necked chameleon picture and she looked nice and chubby so I asked chameleon eggs?
Meanwhile on iNaturalist experts looked at them: Tony Rebelo thought regurgitated seeds? Wynand Uys thought eggs, reptilian or amphibian; Marion karoopixie said angazi; Johan Marais said not herp, maybe SNAIL; The mystery continues . . . So much we don’t know.
And the spider might be a new one provisionally dubbed The Red Widow; no ID yet; It (or one that looks very much like it) has recently been newly discovered on Table Mountain in Cape Town. Suncana has it on iNaturalist as a Cobweb SpidersFamily Theridiidae. She’ll soon get comments and support, I’m sure.
I suddenly realised yesterday that the Yellow-bellied Greenbul was in bright light, as was the Purple-crested Turaco that was the next lady for a shave. It was 8am and the trouble with my birdbath is that it’s in deep shade and the morning light from behind makes photography difficult.
Took me a while to work it out. So this morning I recorded what happened. Watch how the sun is behind the trees, then suddenly appears between the pickup and left of the trees! Then the sunlight moves from left to right till the birdbath is bathed in its glory.
What the heck? I walked out onto the lawn and looked back:
The building behind us on the crest of the hill reflects the winter morning sun down onto my birdbath! Whattapleasure! It’ll only last a little while as the sun moves towards winter solstice. I’ll try’n get a good picture while it lasts. This morning was windy and nothing came to the bath while I watched. Not a sausage!
Whattahoot! Just last week I had used a shaving mirror to reflect the sun onto a butterfly in shade. Here it was being done for me!
I always have little ‘blues’ on my lawn; small butterflies, some tiny that flit about too small, too fast and too pale for my camera to get a decent shot. They usually look little pale grey beauties.
But yesterday one was different, bigger; so I out with the camera and managed to get two fuzzy pics:
I thought ‘Hairtail;’ iNaturalist got back in seconds and said ‘Hairstreak;’ Now I’m thinking maybe one of the Sapphires? The fascinating thing about identifying creatures is . . names change! Knowledge is constantly being updated. Often the only real way to know what you’re looking at is to ask an expert, as even the most recent books are out of date to different extents. They keep up to the minute and usually instantly have a pretty good idea of what they’re looking at, taking image, location, time of year, etc into account.
I’ll update when I find out what this beauty is. And I’ll keep an eye out for a better picture.
Ah! Suncana says its Iolaus silas, the Southern Sapphire! Sun is our in-house entomologist on our Palmiet Rangers whatsapp group, and has a Palmiet project on iNaturalist, which I have now joined. She sent a better pic – Steve Woodhall’s from biodiversityexplorer.info
Bonus! Pictures from a Palmiet neighbour who’s a great photographer. Most (all?) taken right here in our valley:
Lockdown has given us the opportunity to share pictures of birds and mammals and insects and other creatures seen. And plants, which I’ll show in another post. Thanks to the lovely gang of Palmiet Rangers for sharing these! I’m afraid I don’t know all their full names, but the top pic was by Roy Smith, and Roger Hogg took all these bird pics; the butterfly, scorpion and mamba are Sun’s.
This one showcases the reason we’re here! Bird pics and green hawk moth Roger; Citrus Swallowtail butterfly Elize Taylor; White-barred Emperor at bottom, vervet and stick insect mine; Big moth on white is Cay Hickson’s; I don’t know who shot the bushbuck nkonka, but believe it was in their garden in David Maclean road – let me know pls!
. . and lastly, when one of these grows up they want to be the other one:
Then it rained and I remembered a bit late about my duvet! I had put it out to dry in the sun! So I brought it inside – wet – and stayed inside. Mistake! I shouldn’t have! ALL the neighbours showed me what I missed – a rainbow in a sunset!
I spotted this in my garden and verily I kneweth it was not good.
But what was it?
I asked the Palmiet Rangers, elite volunteer conservation defence force ably led by Field Marshall Geoffrey Poncenby-Carruthers GCMG.
The answer came swiftly:
CHERRY TREE! That immediately brought an important history lesson – or myth? – to mind. Didn’t Des Lindbergh warn us about this in the sixties? Have a listen:
In Suriname, which was a Dutch colony (our explorer Levaillant was born there) this cherry Eugenia uniflora is known as Monkimonki Kersie – or Monkey Cherry. Because the seeds are distributed by fruit-eating birds it can become a weed in suitable sub-tropical habitats – like ours – displacing native flora.
Kids – six of them! – driving me crazy so I pack a flask of coffee, some buttermilk rusks, grab my binocs and waai. Three minutes away to the Palmiet Nature Reserve on my doorstep. Just me.
Two hours later off to Pigeon Valley in town for another two hours. Palmiet is only 90ha in size and Pigeon Valley a tiny 10ha, but they’re rich in plant and birdlife. These collages are just some of the birds I saw and heard today in the two reserves:
I spotted an old landsnail shell in a tree hollow. New life sprouting out of it.
I tried to get a good picture of a Mountain Wagtail from above; As it flew the pattern was so beautiful. I didn’t get one, and I haven’t found a good one on the internet so far, that shows it as well as I remember it. Here’s the best so far, from Derek Keats at stellenboschbirds.com :
I pinched the pics from all over the internet, and some from Friends of Pigeon Valley‘s Crispin Hemson and Sheryl Halstead. Thank you!
Found this tiny snake in my pool weir. Immediately set off to find my net – I have a dark little net they often just crawl into for refuge, making catching them easy. I very seldom handle a snake. Besides caution, I really don’t want to injure them. Also, I suspected this one may have been injured. Dropped into the pool by a kingfisher maybe, I was thinking.
But – frustration and disorganisation – I couldn’t find my net or anything else to scoop it up with, and the bowl I wanted to use to take pictures in didn’t fit into the weir. So – convinced it was some kind of worm snake – I reached in and lifted it gently and placed it in the bowl.
Took pics and sent them to Nick Evans, Westville’s herpetologist extraordinaire.
Ooh! Confession time: Actually Nick, I did handle it!
So then he sent this:
Weirdly, I had read up on the stiletto snake this very week and noted that: “This snake cannot be held safely and you will, in all likelihood, get bitten if you attempt to hold one.”
But at average length 40cm and the fact that the stiletto “is an irascible snake that bites readily” and my little snake was so docile, I “knew” my snake was harmless!
Here can be seen how the stiletto snake can bend its neck and how a tiny side-swipe could allow a fang to prick you. Thanks Johan Marais (see his site and here).
postscript: When Tommy read this he grin-snorted: “Very caucasian to be handling a venomous snake, Dad, very caucasian.”
Steve Reed: That oke is a hoot! Sensahuma second to none.