The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 670/Zoological Rambles in and around the Transvaal

Zoological Rambles in and around the Transvaal (1897)
by William Lucas Distant
4044752Zoological Rambles in and around the Transvaal1897William Lucas Distant


By W.L. Distant.

In that very stirring Christmas week of 1895, and quite unconscious that we were projecting a journey that, a few days later, would have almost brought us in contact with Dr. Jameson and his merrie men, my son and self decided to spend the vacation at Rustenburg, there to collect, under the guidance of that good field naturalist, W. Ayres, who has made the sleepy spot his home for a number of years. We started on the afternoon of December 22nd, driving a light cart, attended by our Zulu "boy" John, and armed with necessary apparatus for a successful ornithological and entomological raid. Guns, nets, a taxidermal box of sundries, stifling-bottles, boxes, &c, helped to crowd the already well-filled vehicle, and incited a wish that the "roads" might not prove too heavy.

After leaving Pretoria and passing through Daas Poort—a spot ten days later to mark the nightly vigil of armed Boers—the road crosses a level veld between two ranges of hills. Here one may generally see an occasional Secretary Vulture, Serpentarius secretarius, and as there is now not only a heavy penalty for killing one of these birds, but also an inducement offered to the "common informer" by giving him a share of the legal plunder, the "Secretary" is seldom molested. It is, however, an overrated bird, so far as its snake-destroying propensities are concerned; its usual food—and I have conducted more than one post-mortem—consists of small lizards, especially Agama hispida, and, in the season, orthopterous insects. To approach one of these birds on the open veld with only a shot-gun is frequently a vain quest. As you walk towards it, so does it walk away; as you quicken your pace the bird does the same. Still there are times and seasons when a casual and nearer acquaintance is made, though a rifle is the best weapon with which to supply a museum. The Secretary-bird has a peculiar and stately demeanour which any one acquainted with the bird in a state of nature does not easily forget, and nothing seems more inexact than the description given by Brehm, when he writes, it "runs about among the tall grass-stems, or hovers above them."[1] An excellent figure of the bird in a state of nature is given by Mr. J.G. Millais, in his 'A Breath from the Veldt.' The weight of a very large specimen, whose skin I possess, was in the flesh only 10 lbs. My son once came across one roosting in a tree, or "thorn-bush," at sundown.

Driving along this road, and when one passes a swampy space, or crosses a sluit, it is not unusual to disturb a Hammerkop, Scopus umbretta, when it takes to its slow and heavy flight. A writer in the excellent 'Royal Natural History,' recently completed, states:—"Everywhere these birds are mainly crepuscular, and are but seldom seen in full daylight." This is certainly not my own experience, for, especially in the winter season, these birds are in evidence all day long to one who goes far afield and in their haunts. The Hammerkop is plentiful around Pretoria, wherever sluits, water-holes or marshes are found. It is an unsuspecting bird and easily approached. I once marked one down that had settled in a water-hole not more than six feet broad though moderately deep, and I actually reached its edge before the bird took flight. It is much scarcer near the town in the summer, when it has probably retired to breed.

Along the road, and especially on telegraph-poles, one usually sees Buzzards, especially Buteo desertorum. This was the prevalent species near Pretoria when I visited the country before, but seems now—or was during my second sojourn—much scarcer; while, per contra, the Black-shouldered Kite, Elanus cæruleus, which I formerly described as scarce, hovering high in the air, and generally out of reach of the gun, was now plentiful close to the town, and to be seen in trees near dwellings. The real habits of birds are not to be discovered except under prolonged observation.

After crossing the Crocodile river, over which there is now a good bridge, we outspanned at a roadside canteen, kept by the inevitable "Peruvian"[2] or Russian Jew, whose inferior liquors, with the illustration of drunken Kafirs around the establishment, proved once more that, with few exceptions, these people should never be entrusted with a licence. The best law passed by the Transvaal Government of recent years, and, to their credit be it said, in the face of great opposition by some of their interested and selfish supporters, is one which now prohibits the sale of intoxicants to natives, entirely necessitated by the vile compounds supplied to the Kafirs at the mines. However, by pushing on we reached another roadside house kept by an English Colonial and a Dane, and there we passed the night.

This thickly wooded spot, in the vicinity of a well-known Nek, is an excellent halt for the ornithologist. It was here I first met with the African Grey Hornbill, Tockus nasutus, a bird, strange to say, which became rather common in the gardens of Pretoria during the winter months of 1896. Hornbills are not averse to human habitations, and I had brought to me the yellow- and red-billed species, Lophoceros leucomelas and L. erythrorynchus, both killed in town gardens.

Although the season had been abnormally dry, we now found many boggy and loose sandy tracks, to avoid which loop ways had been made through the trees, though these were often little better than the discarded road. In these sandy tracks I found the Cicindelid beetle, Manticora tuberculata, and later on I was able to add to the list of its victims a small member of the Cicadidæ, Callipsaltria longula, which I extracted from its closed mandibles. It is often thought and frequently stated that the Cicadas are a highly protected group, owing to their generally assimilative hue, when at rest, to the twigs or boughs which they frequent, and certainly some species are difficult to detect. But any concealment thus acquired is more than negatived by the stridulation of the males, and protective resemblance can scarcely be a factor in the insect's existence when by its piercing notes it proclaims the place of its concealment. In collecting I was usually apprised of their whereabouts by their stridulating music, and the difficulty I experienced in finding them among the bush would improbably be felt by birds. As if aware of the danger they incur by their noise, they become absolutely silent when one approaches the tree lately resonant with the efforts of the cicadan orchestra; but that is too late for protection. They have many enemies in all parts of the world in which they are found, being not only eaten by birds but attacked by such varied insects as Mantidæ, dragonflies and hornets, whilst, as remarked above, the beetle (Manticora) can now be added to the recorded list. They also fall a prey to spiders, are attacked in the egg condition by larvæ of ichneumons, and are also sometimes afflicted by a fungoid growth.

Further along the road our way lay across what to S. African travellers is so well known as turf, and after prolonged wet this remains in a terrible condition for vehicular traffic, though in other parts the country may be baked and burnt up, as it was at this time. Our faithful Zulu had to lead our horse, and did so cheerfully and uncomplaining for ten hours at a stretch. I provided him with a bottle of "Cape smoke" as some sort of stimulant under the strain, which he consumed and seemed none the worse for. But when we reached the Hex River, and John led our horse—an animal with a strong dislike for fords—across it, he entered the river on one side sober, and, dreadful and strange to relate, came out the other side in a state of intoxication, the effects probably of the lukewarm and swiftly-flowing water. With a demoralized Zulu fastened to the back of our trap, we made an inglorious entry into Rustenburg about 9 p.m. However, once at the 'Masonic Hotel,' a good supper soon put us to rights, while our faithful servitor speedily became again clothed and in his right mind.

The next morning we were joined by our good friend Ayres, who acted as our guide during the stay, and whose acquaintance with the lives and habits of the living creatures that frequented the country around was equal to the combined knowledge of a field-naturalist and a sportsman.

We had arrived at a bad time. No rain had fallen for some weeks, and the country was parched up. Birds were practically absent, and so we decided to try and find the good things of the place.

Rustenburg is famous for some fine beetles, and we made long excursions in search of a few rare species. In the Cetoniidæ the pride of place centres in Goliathus albosignatus. This beetle is to be netted as it flies among its favourite trees, a species of Zizyphus,[3] but it is very rare, and only a few are annually secured. The beautiful Ceratorrhina burkei and the resplendent C. derbyana are found on the twigs or silky leaves of a species of Combretum, probably C. holosericum; but though the second species can usually at the right time be found, the first is a beetle to be "hoped for." We walked many miles to a nook found by Ayres to be a peculiarly favoured spot in the restricted area of this species. A fine large Prionid Tithoes confinis is found under the bark of dead trees, and we procured an example of the large Cicindelid Ophrydera rufomarginata; so it will be seen that Rustenburg has some attractions for the coleopterist, but it should be visited early in the summer, and shortly after the rains have commenced.

In the search for these insects we reached the hills and the narrow perpendicular waterfall, which can be often seen a long distance away. Here, enclosed by trees and rising ground, we experienced that peculiar charm of South African scenery that is gradually acquired, never forgotten, and yet is so difficult to analyse or describe. But, as is so frequently the case among these surroundings, animal life was abnormally absent and there were no flowers; it seems a country—to the naturalist—of the past. The water after its long perpendicular drop flows through some rocky pools beneath, and I never drank any that possessed such a tonic and highly stimulating effect. After drinking it we seemed to have left all fatigue behind, and to be invigorated for a fresh march. This was once a fern paradise; a few tree ferns are still left, but unfortunately a market has been found for them, and civilisation has once more ransacked nature.

Among birds the South African Paradise Flycatcher, Terpsiphone cristata, is not uncommon at Rustenburg, and I found the nest during my stay. It is well described in Layard's 'Birds of South Africa,' as "composed of fibres and dead leaves, stuck over with bits of bark, cobwebs, and lichens to resemble a knot in the tree." The last sentence, however, is not to be taken as denoting concealment, for the nest is thoroughly exposed. I found this one on a projecting branch on which were very few leaves. In the work referred to it is stated to be found "generally in the neighbourhood of water," but this is not invariable, for the nest I found was on a rocky mound in a most arid spot. It contained two eggs, so I presume December is the time of nidification. The internal cavity of my nest is 60 by 50 millim. expanse, and 25 millim. deep. The rarest bird I procured was the Red-headed Weaver Bird, Malimbus rubriceps, but this I obtained from W. Ayres, and but one other specimen had ever passed through his hands during a life-time's collecting in the South African bush. I also brought away with me the skin of Scops capensis, the Cape Scops Owl, and Centropus senegalensis, the Lark-heeled Cuckoo. A flying visit of a few days, after all, gives little opportunity of grasping the real peculiarities of a local fauna, and the short time spent at Rustenburg would have been almost barren in result but for the guidance of the local naturalist. We worked hard during our stay, finishing real work on Christmas Eve, when I smoked the evening pipe with the well-known Anglican Prebendary who has settled in the home of the Dopper Boers, with a small church, a small flock, and no intention of leaving. We had our last insect hunt on Christmas morning, and then after a mid-day banquet—of Rustenburg limitations—shook the hand of our genial guide and companion, and started on the homeward track. We had some good shooting in the afternoon among Crowned Lapwings, Chettusia coronata, and Yellow-throated Sand-grouse, Pterocles guttularis, as we drove along, but the drought dominated, and little animal life was to be seen. On the banks of a sluit we disturbed a Monitor, Varanus niloticus, but this is neither worth shooting nor keeping alive, or rather endeavouring to do so. I once had one in my possession for three months, and during the whole of that time it abstained from food, though I supplied it liberally with small lizards, frogs, eggs, meat, orthoptera, and on one occasion tried to tempt its appetite by the offer of a small harmless water-snake. I kept it in a large tank of water with an artificial rockery in the centre, on which it could rest above the surface, which it usually did; but it refused all food and ultimately died of exhaustion, when, by request, I packed its body off to the Grahamstown Museum.

It was interesting to watch the behaviour of the frogs, most of which spent the whole time with this Varanus. They were at first evidently imbued with the most abject terror when the Monitor approached them, and would huddle together immovable, and with their eyes fixed on their enemy; but in the course of a few weeks, when they found they were not attacked, and familiarity breeding either contempt or friendship, they frequently rested on the reptile's back. The frogs were varied, belonging at least to several genera, so that they could not have been all "distasteful." The frogs rapidly acquired experience, and overcame what may loosely be called an "instinctive" fear.

  1. 'From North Pole to Equator,' p. 187
  2. S. African corruption of a local European name for these people.
  3. For the botanical determinations I am indebted to my friend Dr. S. Schonland, of the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, to whom I submitted specimens.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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