HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

December 18, 2011

Creatures of the Night

               One of my favourite parts of safari is the brief but always exciting nocturnal excursion.  Unfortunately we only get limited time to attempt to find some of Sabi Sabi’s rarer, shyer inhabitants due to dinner commitments but there are no rules in the bush and you never know what you might stumble upon.  Often this part of the drive is quiet unless you are lucky enough to bump into a cat or hyena but there is always just the faint hope of catching a glimpse of some of the more illusive members of the wildlife community.

The ever oppoortunistic hyena out of the prowl

              The lack of animals seen during nature’s shroud of darkness can be put down to a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the 2 most obvious are the high cat population in the area that will either eat, or out compete smaller nocturnal animals; and that we have been conducting safaris in this area for about 30 years.  It is probably no surprise then that the animals have adapted their behavior to avoid us.  Let’s also not forget that there are numerically fewer night time dwellers and most are either solitary or in small family groups.  However, when the powerful spotlight picks up a set of reflecting eyes in the distance, my heart always starts to race.  More often than not, it’s a daylight animal but every so often we chance across a jackal, genet, civet or bushbaby. 
               One of the most common sights on the night drive is the chameleon.  Once you know what to look for, a chameleon is easier to spot than you realize.  However, it takes a honed set of eyes on the tracker seat to locate them whilst driving.  They are a slightly paler colour than the surrounding leaves and thus standout a little within the vegetation.  The reason for this is complicated and not having a phd in chemistry I can’t give the full details, but in a nutshell, the chameleon’s colour changing ability is helped by a reflective layer of cells beneath the skin.  During daylight this layer is able to pick up the surrounding colours and alter the skin accordingly.  At night, there is no surrounding colour to reflect and therefore the skin doesn’t know how to react and becomes a creamy ‘blank canvas’.

A flap necked chameleon grasps the vegetation

               The lesser bushbaby is always a firm favourite amongst guides and guests alike.  They are simply incredibly cute and the way that they bounce around the trees like a pygmy kangaroo on speed is hypnotic.  They are often found around acacia trees in the winter as they supplement their diet of insects with acacia gum.  Their close relative, the thick tailed bushbaby is seen less frequently in our parts but can be heard sometimes as night.  It sounds like a crying baby and is a very eerie sound if you don’t know what you are listening to.  These two form the entirety of Southern Africa’s nocturnal primates.

A lesser bushbaby stares into the caera with its huge eyes moments before launching itself from the branch

               As an avid birder, I am always on the close look for an owl during these early hours of the evening.  Mainly thought of as crepuscular animals, which means most active just after dusk and before dawn, they have always struck me as one of the most beautiful creatures in the bush.  To have an owl swoop past you only a few metres away and to not hear a sound, is quite a surreal experience.  The leading edges of their flight feathers are not rigid like most birds, but fluffy to allow the air to diffuse through them and limit excess noise from friction.  They also have asymmetrical ears to allow them to hunt more effectively.  Sound reaches each ear at minutely different times and this allows the owl to form a 3-D map of exactly where the prey is, without the need for clear vision.  Whilst they have very good night vision, this is due to massive eyes and multiple rods within them, they lack the ‘tapetum lucidium’ or reflective layer that gives the retina a second chance to process the image; and enables us to view the eye shine with the spotlight.  Therefore, these 2 adaptations are essential in their habits – to hear well and also not to make too much noise yourself!

A spotted eagle owl looking imperiously down from its perch

               Every now and again, we hit nature’s equivalent of the jackpot.  There are a big 5 of nocturnal animals that we as guides get very excited about.  The last time I bumped one of its members, I lost the ability to explain anything to my guests as I flapped around like a girl, making incoherent babbling noises as I fumbled with my camera!  Ben’s nocturnal big 5 are as follows: Aardvark, Pangolin, Honey Badger, Caracal and Serval.  To give you an idea why we get so excited by these hidden gems of the night, here is the number of times I have seen each in the wild in 6 years of guiding:
Aardvark – 7 times
Pangolin – Once
Honey Badger – 3 times at Sabi Sabi, perhaps 10 in total
Serval – Unknown but not more than 15
Caracal – Twice

A rare picture of the illusive serval cat

The very relaxed serval gives us the eyes before continuing is night of hunting

            Most of these sightings are brief and poor quality and I fear that the majority of guests lucky enough to view any of the animals mentioned here do not realize how lucky they have been.  If nothing else, they will remember the ridiculous antics of their guide and maybe our reaction will at least persuade them that they have seen something special.  The bush at night can be a daunting place and the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next corner will never grow old.  Even viewing cats and hyenas after dark is a totally different experience.  To know that they can see you perfectly in almost complete darkness and that you have truly entered their domain is a humbling experience.  Admittedly photographic opportunity is limited but the experience and accompanying fear should more than make up for that.

The Selati male confidently strides past the land rover allowing us to take in his beauty