Kalahari Blog

Adventures of a field biologist and wildlife photographer living and working in the Kalahari.


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Back from the Kalahari!

I’m finally back from the Kalahari and thanks to my parents, my return was via the kgalagadi, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia! I have actually been back for a few days but haven’t got around to getting a blog post up yet.

In the next few weeks I will be very busy trying to sort out all my images from this year, choosing some to submit to wildlife photographer of the year, working on a new, fully professional looking website, and a new blog!

My plan is to keep the Kalahari Blog going alongside my new blog for a little while as there are several posts that I have been intending to write but never got around to doing whilst in Africa.

Meanwhile here’s a picture of a Leopard from the Kgalagadi!

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Meerkat Pups!

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In the past couple of months several of the groups have had pups. Meerkats can give birth at any time of the year however most mating usually occurs after the first rain of the season when males split off from their natal groups and go “roving” in search of unrelated females. Meerkat pregnancies are roughly two months long which coincides with peak invertebrate abundance after a bout of rain. The pups born in the last month were probably conceived after a couple of days light rain that we had here in July. July is in the middle of winter here in the Kalahari which is usually the dry season however as last summer was almost a complete drought the brief showers out of season have caused the first births to occur fairly early this year.

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Dominant females often evict the older subordinate females in the early stages of pregnancy to reduce the risk of infanticide. The stress caused by eviction may cause any pregnant subordinates to abort which will stop any subordinate litters competing with the dominant’s.

Subordinate females do occasionally raise successful litters but usually only in good years where there is enough food to go around and the dominant already has a successful litter or when the dominant is not pregnant for some reason. In the later stages of pregnancy dominant females also become very aggressive towards subordinates and steal a lot of their food items so subordinate litters often consist of fewer pups that weigh less than a dominant’s litter.

A fairly pregnant Meerkat.

A fairly pregnant Meerkat.

Meerkats usually give birth overnight in a burrow and dominants usually will go foraging with the group the next day leaving behind a subordinate babysitter to look after the pups. Apart from lactating, dominant females usually contribute relatively little to pup care leaving most of the work to subordinates. Unusually for a cooperatively breeding species subordinates can also lactate for a dominants litter even if she hasn’t been pregnant

Pups And Babysitters only a couple of days after first emergence.

Pups And Babysitters only a couple of days after first emergence.

Meerkat litters are between one and five but as many as seven has been recorded. Meerkat pups will usually stay in the burrow for about two weeks before emerging above ground. They will then stay at the burrow for another week or two before going foraging with the group.

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Once foraging with the group the pups will be fed prey items by members of the group, often with stings or mouth parts removed by an adult. They will then gradually learn to forage for themselves and should be fully independent by three months of age when they will be classed as a juvenile rather than a pup.

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A babysitter carrying a pup.

A babysitter carrying a pup.

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Scorpions

Scorpions

There are quite a lot of scorpions about as they are perfectly adapted for the dry (semi) desert conditions. There are two main types of scorpion out here: the thick-tailed Paraboothids and the Cape Burrowing Scorpions. The Paraboothids are the more dangerous type.

There are four main species of Paraboothids found here and two main species of burrowing scorpion. They can all deliver a painful sting however a sting from a paraboothid is much more serious and would need immediate medical attention whereas a burrowing scorpion would merely hurt for a bit. Thankfully the two types are easy to tell apart with the paraboothids having long thick tails and small thin claws and the burrowing scorpions having small tails and large powerful claws.

All scorpions will glow under UV light and it is still unknown exactly why this happens however it does make them very easy to find at night. There are far more scorpions in the summertime as they prefer the warmer weather. Most scorpions at the moment are hiding in their oval shaped burrows or under rocks but in the summer they roam about especially on windy nights and can even be found sitting on top of bushes waiting for flying insect prey.

Scorpions appear to be the Meerkat’s favourite food item and they will dig for a good ten minutes to unearth a nice juicy one. They like them so much that injecting the scorpions and feeding them to the Meerkats is being trialed as a reliable way to give them oral doses of hormones for an experiment on the effects of anxiety on social behavior and also to administer antibiotics if necessary.

The Meerkats seem to have very high resistance to toxins from scorpions and also from snakes as quite a few have large snake bite scars from bites that would have killed a human if left untreated. However Meerkats learn at quite a young age how to handle scorpions and quickly bite off the stings before eating them.

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, Opistophthalmus capensis

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, Opistophthalmus capensis

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, O. capensis under UV light.

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, O. capensis under UV light.

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, O. capensis under UV light.

Cape Burrwing Scorpion, O. capensis under UV light.

Opistophthalmus whalbergii

Opistophthalmus whalbergii

Parabuthus granulatus

Parabuthus granulatus

Parabuthus raudus

Parabuthus raudus

P. raudus threat display.

P. raudus threat display.

Uroplectes spp.

Uroplectes spp.


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Birds of the Kalahari – Part 2.

This is a follow up to my first bird post that had some of the birds that I see on a daily basis. This post has birds that are slightly rarer or a bit more seasonal.

See the first post here: Birds of the Kalahari – Part 1.

 

Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater

There were a pair of these Bee-eaters that used to hang around the pool in the summer, picking off the dragonflies that were around. Hopefully they come back when it gets warmer.

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Pygmy Falcon

These are the smallest birds of prey in Africa, they are probably a bit smaller than a blackbird. They use unoccupied chambers in the Sociable Weavers nests to roost in so waiting by one of the weaver’s nests will give you a good chance of seeing one.

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Pearl-Spotted Owlet

Another very small bird of prey, they aren’t much bigger than the pygmy falcons. The bird books say’s that “they stare furiously at intruders” and that was definitely true of this one.

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Martial Eagle

From two of the smallest birds of prey to one of the largest, these guys are huge. Martial eagles are one of the main predators of the Meerkats but can also take much larger prey. The meerkats will run and hide in a bolt hole if one flies over or stand and bark if they see one sitting in a tree. Last week someone spotted one flying over with the dominant male of one of our groups in its talons!

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Acacia Pied Barbet

Very cool little bird, we had a pair nesting in a tree right next to the farmhouse. I sat with my camera and waited for them to return and was lucky to catch one poking it’s head out.

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Shaft-Tailed Whydah

I have only seen one of these and luckilly it was from my hide that I have set up by one of the cattle watering holes. They are a brood parasite of the Violet-Earred Waxbill (another cool bird that I haven’t managed to get a good picture of).

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Red-Headed Finch

Another bird only seen at my hide.

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Bennett’s Woodpecker

There are loads of woodpeckers around as there is a lot of dead trees. I often here them pecking however getting pictures is a little more difficult. They all look very similar but this is one of the rarer ones that happens to forage more on the ground.

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Namaqua Dove

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Game Capture

The Helicopter taking off!

The Helicopter taking off!

Back in June we had a Game capture with the aim of removing 70% of the animals on the reserve. As there was a drought this year the grass hasn’t had much time to grow so the livestock on the reserve has had to be supplemented with leucerne which is quite expensive. Capturing and selling some of the animals should bring the levels of game back to a more sustainable level.

The capture itself involves flying a helicopter around to manoeuvre the game into a large V-shaped enclosure called a boamer, with a livestock truck at one end and curtains which are pulled across to stop the game running back out of the enclosure.

All of us Meerkat volunteers got to help and it was our job to pull the curtains across. It was quite exciting staying hidden behind the curtain with a heard of Wildebeest or Gemsbok running by waiting for the siren from the helicopter to tell you to run across.

One of the guys out here with a gopro gave it to the helicopter pilot and got an awesome video which clearly shows the structure of the boamer, some of the landscape of the reserve, how the pilot herds a group of Gemsbok into the boamer with the siren and the curtains getting pulled across. You can also see that one of the Gemsbok gets separated from the group, runs back to the first set of curtains and also how close a couple of the people are to the Gemsbok. On this run I was on the last set of curtains and it was pretty hard to tell what was going on as the heard had already run past.

We got to  have a go for about 6 runs at least one of Gemsbok, a run of Red Hartebeest, one of Wildebeest, and a couple with Springbok. Most of the animals just run straight up the ramp and into the truck however the springbok try to jump the fence and get very stressed out in the truck so they have a big net which most of them get caught in and any stragglers have to be grabbed. We then had to hold them down whilst we waited for them to be injected with a sedative before carrying them into the truck. Some of the Springbok were quite lively and quite difficult to hold onto their legs whilst they were kicking!

Vanessa demonstrating the curtain mechanism.

Vanessa demonstrating the curtain mechanism.

Peering through the netting.

Peering through the netting.

Pushing the Gemsbok up the ramp into the truck.

Pushing the Gemsbok up the ramp into the truck.

Hitting the protectors onto the horns.

Hitting the protectors onto the horns.

Quite exiting being this close to stampeding Wildebeest with just a curtain as protection.

Quite exiting being this close to stampeding Wildebeest with just a curtain as protection.

Unfortunately this one broke its leg and had to be killed.

Unfortunately this one broke its leg and had to be killed.

Here come the springbok!

Here come the springbok!

Try to grab one....

Try to grab one….

Me holding down a Springbok. It looks quite calm here but they are difficult to hold when they start to struggle! Thanks to Rachael for the picture.

Me holding down a Springbok. It looks quite calm here but they are difficult to hold when they start to struggle! Thanks to Rachael for the picture.


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Birds of the Kalahari – Part 1.

I’m on holiday in Cape Town at the moment so I finally have access to some good internet! I will upload a load of pictures and prepare a bunch of posts that I have been meaning to get up for a while and hopefully all I’ll have to do when I get back to the Kalahari is to click “post”!

There is quite a high diversity of birds around the reserve and this post is a collection of photos showing just some of the birds I see on a daily basis. It is by no means an exhaustive list as there are many more birds I see daily that I have not managed to get a good image of. I will have another post showing some of the rarer birds I have photographed very soon.

Yellow Hornbill

These Hornbills tend to hang around in pairs or small family groups, there is a family of them that hangs around the farmhouse and they tap on the kitchen window demanding bits of bread that people sometimes feed them. I have seen them use their large beaks to dig in the sand for insects and this one somehow managed to catch a bat in the tree next to the farmhouse! It was trying to kill the bat before swallowing it by bashing it against the tree but was having difficulties due to a lack of hands with opposable thumbs!

Yellow Hornbill

Yellow Hornbill

A Yellow Hornbill eating a bat.

A Yellow Hornbill eating a bat.

Cape Glossy Starling

There are lots of these starlings around and they are just as common as blackbirds in the UK but with the iridescent plumage and bright orange eye they are better looking. The often follow the Meerkats around (as do many other birds) waiting for them to uncover ants and other small insects.

Cape Glossy Starling

Cape Glossy Starling

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Rollers are some of the most colourful of all African birds. They get their name from the display flight they have where they fly up high and tumble back down. Whilst they may have pretty plumage, they also make a pretty awful noise. They are quite common but quite difficult to get pictures of because they tend to sit right at the top of trees and don’t let people approach very closely however they don’t seem to be too afraid of cars so you have to be lucky enough to get one close to the road.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Lilac-Breasted Roller

 

Fork-Tailed Drongo

The Fork-Tailed Drongos are one of the most interesting and most intelligent birds in the Kaklahari. If you watched the Kalahari episode of the BBC’s Africa you will have seen the Fork-Tailed Drongo’s kleptoparsitising (stealing food from) the Meerkats. The footage from that segment was actually filmed at the KMP. The Drongo’s have several false alarm calls which they use to scare the Meerkats enough so they can steal their food. The Meerkats only tend to react once to each particular alarm call however the Drongos have several calls that they cycle through when the Meerkats don’t react. Apart from the Meerkats the Drongos also kleptoparsitise other bird species and have a sentry call which attracts social weavers, this is believed to be a mutualistic behaviour as the Drongos snatch up any insects that the foraging weavers flush out and the weavers gain an extra pair of eyes to look out for predators. The reserve is also the base for researchers working on the Drongos.

Fork-Tailed Drongo

Fork-Tailed Drongo

Fork-Tailed Drongo.

Fork-Tailed Drongo.

Sparrow Weaver

These weavers build small round nests you see hanging from trees out of grass, they are quite loud and also follow the Meerkats about looking for unearthed insects. Like many species in the Kalahari (including Meerkats) Sparrow weavers are cooperative breaders.

White-Browed Sparrow Weaver in evening light.

White-Browed Sparrow Weaver in evening light.

White-Browed Sparrow Weaver.

White-Browed Sparrow Weaver.

Social Weaver

These weavers build huge tent shaped nests in which colonies of up to several hundred weavers live. They often choose to build their nests on telegraph poles and are responsible for power shortages when the nests get too heavy for the poles to handle. Many other species also used the abandoned compartments of the weaver’s nests such as Pygmy Falcons. Cape Cobras are often found in them looking to eat the weaver’s chicks. Like the Sparrow Weavers they are cooperative breeders.

Sociable Weaver at the nest.

Sociable Weaver at the nest.

Sociable Weavers being sociable.

Sociable Weavers being sociable.

Pied Babbler

The Pied Babblers are yet another cooperative breeder and live in groups of 5 to 15. In many ways they behave much more like Meerkats than other birds for example they have a sentry system and inter-group conflicts happen in a very similar way to Meerkats. There is also a project running on these birds based at the KMP.

Pied Babbler.

Pied Babbler.

Kalahari Scrub-Robin

Very curious but quite shy little birds with a characteristic tail flick they will hop right up to you sometimes if you sit very still but will retreat into dense bushes if you move.

An inquisitive Kalahari Scrub-Robin.

An inquisitive Kalahari Scrub-Robin.

Red-Eyed Bulbul

These guys hang around in the trees around the farmhouse eating the berries.

A Red-Eyed Bulbul eating a berry.

A Red-Eyed Bulbul eating a berry.

A pair of Bulbuls looking for insects.

A pair of Bulbuls looking for insects.

Namaqua Sandgrouse

Large flocks of Sandgrouse fly over everyday when I’m out with the Meerkats but catching them on the ground is far more difficult. They make a very distinctive noise which I will forever associate with being out in the field collecting data.

Namaqua Sandgrouse pair.

Namaqua Sandgrouse pair.

Namaqua Sandgrouse female.

Namaqua Sandgrouse female.

Marico Flycatcher

Seemingly quite boring plumage but these guys have a lot of character and watching them hunting small insects on the wing is very cool.

Marico Flycatcher

Marico Flycatcher


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More Meerkat Pictures!

 

 

 

 

 

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A cute group shot.

It’s been a while since my last post and it’s getting into winter here in the Kalahari with the nights and mornings getting very cold, days are still quite warm as long as there is no breeze blowing. The internet here is as bad as ever making uploading photos very difficult, it has taken at least a couple of weeks to get this one done.

The Meerkats are getting up much later these days as they don’t like the cold so the time we have to get up for “field o clock” is an almost reasonable 7:00am whereas in the summer it is more like 4:30am!

Due to the cold there are are a lot of Bat-Earred Foxes, usually only seen at night, foraging in the daytime. I still haven’t seen an Aardvark yet but as it gets colder they should also start appearing in daylight so hopefully I will be able to post some Aardvark pictures soon.

Anyway here’s a few of my best Meerkat pictures of the hundreds I have taken so far, I have plenty of pictures of the other wildlife as well so hopefully if the internet is ok I’ll get a post about birds, another with some more reptiles and hopefully one with some Bat-Earred Foxes and an Aardvark!

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The “ring of fire” technique.

 

 

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A Meerkat with a tasty Scorpion snack.

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An early morning yawn.

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A standard Meerkat portrait.

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On guard duty.

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Playtime.