Does this track have a dewclaw, or is that just a bump in the sand? Is that the sound of a car being locked, or the call of the crimson breasted shrike? And how on earth am I going to be able to identify these trees now their leaves have come back, covering the distinctive branching structures I learned midwinter?
In the middle of the bush, on a field guiding course with the Limpopo Field Guiding Academy, these are the daily worries as we set off on our practicals in the morning. A few weeks after graduating I left for South Africa without a return ticket, and now I’m dredging up all the bits and pieces I’ve learned from my trips to South Africa over the years, throwing myself into learning as much as I can about the layers of life that lock together to form the African bush.
It starts off with the geology, which I haven’t studied since I was thirteen. The rocky foundations of Mabula Game Reserve, where we started our course, were formed when hot magma rose up from the depths of the earth and cooled slowly just below the surface of the earth, forming large mineral crystals known as granite. The granite has risen to the surface and been eroded by wind and rain to form rounded hills (or kopjies, as they are known here) with rocky outcrops perfect for harbouring pairs of agile and elegant klipspringer, a small antelope whose Afrikaans name translates to ‘rockjumper’, or ‘rabbit’ from the Xhosa name mvundla.
As the granite has eroded, the large crystals mentioned create a coarse soil which struggles to retain water, so the trees which grow here tend to have large leaves which, if you think of a tree like a straw trying to suck water from the soil, create a stronger sucking effect to pull water out from underground rivers or seeplines.
The granite soil is not as nutritious as other soils, and also has acidic properties, which affects the grass species which can grow there. These grasses form what is known as sourveld, a landscape full of grasses which store their nutrients underground, which makes them less palatable to herbivores such as blue wildebeest, blesbok, gemsbok and red hartebeest. For the game rangers managing reserves such as Mabula, they can use certain grass species as indicators that their veld is being overgrazed by livestock, damaged by overzealous fire management or trampling.
My course here may not sound so exciting now I’m telling you about the grasses and soils we have been learning about, but in order to understand the bush dynamics at a higher level- the exciting stuff about lions hunting buffalo in large prides, interpreting the behaviour of the big game- you have to start with what kind of animals your reserve can support. And this knowledge can help you interpret some of the strange behaviours you see in the bush- take for example, a giraffe I witnessed a few years ago sucking on the bones of a buffalo like you and I would eat a lollipop. This practice is known as ‘osteophagia’ or bone eating, and when nutrients in the vegetation of a reserve are lacking giraffes will visit old animal remains and chew on bones to draw out trace elements such as calcium and phosphorus.
Another curious incident we had which links into the nutrient-poor soil and grasses in our area (especially in winter) was a pile of dung pellets which no-one could identify. Obviously not for the faint-hearted, but paying attention to poo is very important as a field guide or when conducting field research on wild animals. With the exception of impala, which seem to be waiting for you around every corner, many animals in the bush are quite elusive and the only signs you see of their existence and habits are in the ‘presents’ they leave behind on their paths. And these ‘presents’ can give you more information than simply ‘I was here’ (think of the ‘check in’ statuses on Facebook) but also ‘This is what I’ve been eating’ (think of the sepia filtered Starbucks muffin photos on Instagram). In some cases, such as rhino middens, the large heaps of flattened dung with urinations and feet scrapings, can also leave information about the rhino’s age, sex and mating status (think Tinder).
Anyway, looking at poo is part of the daily routine here, and the dung pellets I found were characteristic of impala, were a strange pale brown colour that none of us had really seen before. It turns out that the impala had ben engaging in another form of ‘alternative dieting’ called geophasia, eating soil and digging for salt licks, which gives the dung a paler appearance.
So that’s my brief summary of bush knowledge learned in the first week of my course! I’m a bit behind on blogposts, so hopefully I’ll be able to put up another few posts about the following weeks soon (but internet is scarce, we’re so busy and when we’re free it’s difficult to not spend more time outside!). I’m absolutely loving it back in the bush, and I’m just trying to figure out how I can stay here longer. If anyone hears of field guiding job opportunities please let me know!