Snakes – Slitherers II

The Cape cobra’s young are independent from birth and just as poisonous as their mother. They cannot deliver the same volume of venom as mom’s maximum of over 200mg (of which only 20 are enough to kill a human – equal to the mamba’s), but still enough to make you very ill indeed. We have found a number of young in the garden, most of them very small and dead. How they died we do not know. Some were torn and battered as if stomped by large birds like the ravens, hadedas or guinea fowl. Most of the smaller babies, we believe, are eaten by the mongeese and other snakes. Another nemesis is a stork which we watched spear its long beak into the thick grass and come up with a wriggling snake of about 10cm. It tried to wrap itself around the beak but failed and became supper. We have seen several cobras about half a metre long, still young and shy. They all fled into undergrowth when they saw us. One made the mistake of choosing the wrong undergrowth, a small garden in the corner of the portico at our front door leaving only one way out, past us. This created a problem. We couldn’t abandon it there in case an unexpected visitor went too close and was bitten. Nor was I inclined to reach in and fumble around the mass of greenery to pluck it out. In our neighbourhood there is an emergency centre whose duty officer recommended a certain police sergeant as an expert on snakes. He duly arrived at our house and we showed him the problem. “Please find me a box,” he said, “A cardboard carton.” I brought a box long relieved of its contents of whisky. He produced a pocket knife and cut a small opening about 5cm square in a bottom corner, making a little door hinged on the edge of the box. He pushed the box close to the greenery with the door open. He borrowed a walking stick, stuck it into the mass of plants and wiggled it around among them, banging the end against the wooden wall behind. In less than a minute the cobra’s head emerged and it shot through the mini-door into the box. The sergeant pushed the door shut and sealed it with a piece of sticky tape. “Remember this,” he said, “When a snake is scared and wants to hide it will always head for the darkest place it can see, into a hole like this. But don’t try it with a big one.” “What are you going to do with it?” “Oh, we’ll take it up the mountain somewhere and let it go. Snakes do a lot of good.” One up for our much maligned policemen. It is several months since Queen Cobra last graced us with a royal presence. There is no doubt she is around though. The regular cacophony of dassie alarm calls when there is no visible danger is evidence enough There is a standing population of small snakes in our wilderness, some only 10cm or less, which live on snails, slugs and other insects. Most are not venomous and among those which are the venom is so weak it is harmless. One snake that scares people witless although it is also non-poisonous is the mole snake. That’s because it is so big – averaging over a metre in length with some more than two metres or more than six feet. Mole snake_DSC_0713 As its name implies it lives largely on moles and also on the bane of gardeners tired of seeing their bulb plants sliding underground as if growing in reverse, the mole rats. Our golden moles are insect eaters and don’t do more damage than leaving little, ridges of earth across flower beds and lawns. Mole rats, which grow as big as guinea pigs and sport fearsomely large incisor teeth, thrive on plant bulbs and roots and do much damage, including pushing up unsightly mounds of earth. Thus mole snakes are the gardener’s ally. Here in the Cape they are black and look alarmingly like a fat mamba, but there are no mambas here so they are tolerated, even welcomed. A bowling club in a Cape Town suburb once had a serious problem with mole rats constantly pushing up heaps of black earth all over their bowling greens. To a dedicated bowler damaging a green is a crime worse than matricide or treason. They called in the pest control experts who tried everything without success. The managed to remove some of the mole rats but before they could grow enough new grass to repair the damage, the rats were back, migrating from the neighbourhood. Someone then told the club committee all about mole snakes. They found a sympathetic reptile fundi who caught a medium-sized mole snake, opened up a mole rat mound to expose the hole beneath, and released the snake into it. It immediately vanished into the maze of rat tunnels under the bowling green, which is why mole snakes are seldom seen, being underground. The mole rat population began to diminish and the snake grew fat and large. Another mole snake was introduced. The number of rats dwindled fast until their green was restored almost to pristine condition and the club members could bowl along happily. Then . . . disaster! Molehills began to appear again. What on earth, or under it, could have gone wrong? They recalled the fundi who did his homework and announced that the mole snake had departed for richer fields, having denuded this one of its rat crop. He shrugged; that’s nature, the way it goes. Maybe two mole snakes was too many. So they started all over again, this time with a much larger mole snake. And as a precaution lest it, too, should decide to take off for richer fields, they found a non-poisonous, long-lasting paint and painted along the snake’s side “DO NOT HARM. PROPERTY OF THE XXXX BOWLING CLUB. REWARD FOR RETURN”. It worked. Their mole snake was brought home several times and the bowling returned to its usual bias. The only snake we definitely do not want on our territory despite is entrancing colouration is the puffadder. It is thought to cause more deaths in Africa than any other, not because of its aggression but because it is lazy. It does not get out of the way. Its custom is to ambush, to lie still and wait for prey. So people step on it, or too close to it. There is no way to prevent them from visiting us. The Cape Peninsula is home to many of them. When approached it does have the courtesy to give a slight warning – a short expulsion of air, like a cough, not the clear hiss of many other snakes – which is sometimes not heard. Then it strikes. The strike is lightning fast and backed by a muscular body which drives its long fangs deep. It doesn’t grow to great length, seldom more than a metre. It makes up for this with a thick, powerful middle twice the width of its head. It is superbly camouflaged therefore difficult to see when one goes for a stroll in the bush. Its colouring is a blend of yellow, brown and black chevrons and stripes and colour-edged scales from head to tail in almost geometric patterns. When lying coiled in wait for a victim its head is difficult to distinguish but for the small dark eyes. The entire body almost disappears among fallen leaves and the other detritus of a forest floor, or even a tangled garden. We have seen them here only a couple of times, fortunately, because they are not the kind one wants around when the grandkids visit. Recently our neighbour spotted one in the service road above our garden, crossing towards our house, and raised the alarm. We found the puffadder lying at the base of a large garden pot, coiled tight as a spring with the head aimed and ready to fire. As the photo shows, it was difficult to see all of it clearly, so effective is the camouflage. It was about 75cm long, quite large for them. Puffadder in garden Unlike the cobra’s venom, which attacks the nervous system, the puffadder’s attacks the blood and organs and causes serious swelling and necrosis. Its large fangs deliver a large dose. The effect is much slower than that of cobra venom so if treatment is given quickly the chance of death is small. Most deaths (one authority says 60 per cent of snakebite deaths in Southern Africa) occur because puffadder victims are far from help. Disinclined to put this one’s skills to the test, I phoned for help again and this time was given the name of an amateur herpetologist who lives nearby. He arrived with a long rod with a horizontal hook at one end and a long cardboard tube like those architects and engineers use to carry their plans around. After admiring our unwanted visitor he pushed the rod under it and lifted. The puffadder had other ideas and tried to slide away but he was ready for it. As fast as it moved he shifted the rod until the snake was draped on the hook, hanging in the air. Holding the tube in one hand, he moved the rod so the snake’s head hung over the open end then lowered it in and shook the rod. The thick body fell into the tube head first. He quickly clamped a cap over it. Another one destined for the mountain heights or the nearby game reserve. We have learned to live with them. It’s their world as much as ours.

Check in on Fridays as Wilf continues his wildlife tales and next week the Mongeese are the highlight of the show…….


Snakes – The slitherers

The caracal is the recognised King of our urban wilderness by virtue of his variety of extraordinary skills, cunning and beauty. The real ruler, however, is the Queen, as in so many monarchies.
Our queen has absolutely no kinship with the caracal and they had half a chance they would kill each other, again as in so many monarchies.
She is very long and slender.

The sinuous curves of our Queen Cape Cobra.
The sinuous curves of our Queen Cape Cobra.
She slinks along in fine style.
She slinks along in fine style.

Photos © J Warner

She is sometimes beautiful depending on her mood. She is highly temperamental. She can move extremely fast. And she is undoubtedly deadly – as befits a Cape cobra.
We are sure our particular snake has been here for years. She has grown considerably in size and from the dozen or so times we have seen her since we came we think she is now almost two metres or over six feet – longer than the recorded maximum of six feet and one inch. We are disinclined to check her with a tape measure.
Our territory is hers too and there is little here to challenge her. We have no badgers or secretary birds, two of the cobra’s worst enemies, and our little Cape grey mongeese, while they are intrepid snake hunters, probably find her a bit too much to tackle. Badgers and mongeese are less susceptible to cobra poison than other creatures.
We first met her some fifteen years ago when we entered our side street off the main road. As we came around a curve she was crossing just ahead of us and we stopped almost within her striking range.
We had caught her by surprise. She stopped and reared high, a good half metre from the tar, flaring her hood wide and aiming her shining eyes at the front of the car. She wouldn’t have done much damage to the Mercedes, ancient though it was, but might have hurt herself. So we waited a couple of minutes until she slowly folded her hood, lowered herself to the tar and slid into Our Urban Wilderness between street and sea.
With that hood unfolded she was spectacular. It framed her head like the wide ruffled collars the first Queen Elizabeth wore. That and her unblinking gaze promising death, and the tongue flickering from her broad head, sent a clear message: Don’t try it!
We watched her for a long time on one occasion because she didn’t know we were there. We happened to lean on a fence atop a three-metre retaining wall near our home and there she was way down below, sunning herself on a bare concrete slab at the bottom. Her body, glowing like polished copper, lay in loose coils, parts draped over other parts, her head lying relaxed in the  middle.
After some ten minutes she decided to end her sunbath. Her head slid smoothly into a nearby tangle of shrubbery and her body, thick as my forearm, followed the same line until the tail vanished with a little twitch. She oozed power.
Another time we caught her in a moment embarrassing for her and potentially very dangerous for anyone coming too close. She was shedding remnants of her old skin. All snakes do this when their bodies outgrow their skins. It is awkward for them; the action must itch and possibly hurt, it takes much effort to slough off the old skin and they understandably become bad tempered and inclined to resent intruders.
The Queen was on a strip of lawn behind Hawkeye Kathy’s house, looking very strange. Her copper-gold body was spectacularly blotched with what appeared to be the shreds of a black plastic bin bag. It takes time for these last bits to come unstuck from the tender new skin underneath and she was moving her head up and down her body, rubbing at them.
I was walking up the road from our gate and first noticed her when I was about ten metres away. She saw me at about the same time, reared and hissed.
I stopped in my tracks. In South Africa Cape cobras are one of the biggest people killers among snakes, I think second only to the puffadder. They are nervous and if confronted they will not give way. They are not as aggressive as the mamba, which will attack at the blink of en eye, but I was not going to take chances by getting any closer. I watched her for a few minutes until she subsided and continued her rubbing, and backed off.
Since then we have seen her several times and she has seen us and is probably accustomed to our presence by now. My only fear is that I might accidentally bump into her one day when I stroll through the green jungle we call the garden.  So reclusive are cobras, however, I think she will hear me coming and move out of the way before I reach her. Of more concern are her offspring. Cobras lay ten to twenty eggs and we have several times come across juveniles– which presupposes we have not one but two large cobras around, a male being necessary for this event.

A juvennile crosses the swiming pool net.
A juvenile crosses the swiming pool net.

The young are independent from birth and just as poisonous as their mother. They cannot deliver the same volume of venom as mom’s maximum of over 200mg (of which only 20 are enough to kill a human – equal to the mamba’s), but still enough to make you very ill indeed.
We have found a number of young in the garden, most of them very small and dead. How they died we do not know. Some were torn and battered as if stomped by large birds like the ravens, hadedas or guinea fowl. Most of the smaller babies, we believe, are eaten by the mongeese and other snakes. Another nemesis is a stork which we watched spear its long beak into the thick grass and come up with a wriggling snake of about 10cm. It tried to wrap itself around the beak but failed and became supper.

To be continued/ Friday 31 October …..

Otters 4 – Mating and eating

In mid-winter we saw a pair courting. One walked around an area of kikuyu grass several metres long close to the high water mark and sprayed into the slope exactly as a cat does: rear end hoisted high, tail erect and quivering. Or so it seemed because we could not see the actual spray from about 20 metres.

The two then moved on over the “beach” touching each other with their chins in a sinuous stroking motion. When they reached a flat rock they lay down side by side and continued the caressing action, first one’s head and throat across the other’s, then the reverse.

The female rolled onto her back and the male mounted her face to face, thrusting rapidly half a dozen times before they broke apart. We supposed this was a successful coupling because once completed they stopped the caressing, moved to the sea and swam away.

A mating pair on the left.
A mating pair on the left.

A few rainy days later we watched a solitary otter washing and eating its catch in a pool of rainwater. The catch appeared to be one of the small, multi-finned pyjama sharks which live in the kelp forests.

The otter held the prey in the pool, pulled off strips of meat with its paws and carried them to its mouth instead of tearing meat off with its teeth. It ate like this for about ten minutes until the rainwater flow ceased then carried the rest of the shark away in its mouth.

Clawless otters do not confine their diet to seafood. They eat pretty much what they can catch which includes frogs, the nestlings of other water birds including ducklings, and various shellfish.

I saw a demonstration of this on a sunny afternoon when the sun shone right into the usually shadowed caves between the big boulders, the world of the dassie and sometimes snakes.

I was watching the dassie families lazing in the sunshine, the adults lying on top of the boulders while more than a dozen babies, two or three weeks old, sported here there and everywhere, dark little bodies dashing in and out of cracks and crevices and up and down vertical surfaces as if gravity didn’t exist.

Baby dassies just out of reach.
Baby dassies just out of reach.
The dassies generally pay no attention to the otters, except when chased!
The dassies generally pay no attention to the otters, except when chased!

The largest crevice was in the shape of an inverted V about a metre high formed by two rounded boulders lying against each other. Baby dassies were chasing their siblings around its pebbled floor when two large otters appeared, one at the narrow back entrance to the little cave, the other at the wide front on my side.

With the sunlight beaming right in I had a grandstand view. Uh-oh I thought, this is the end for those babies, the otters will have them for snacks. If that’s what the otters also thought they were badly mistaken.

The one at my end charged at the babies but they dodged like lightning, skipping back and forth as fast as ping pong balls in a high speed match. They were far more manoeuverable and quicker than the hunters and despite the otters’ speed and agility made them look clumsy. The dassies literally bounced around in the cave from floor to wall to wall to floor and back, passing centimetres from the gaping jaws of the otters, under them, over them, behind them, all over the place.

And as each baby spotted a gap, it shot out of the cave mouth and up the nearest boulder. Once up top there was no way an otter could catch them.

Within about five minutes two bemused otters stood looking at each other across an empty cavern, no doubt wondering what on earth had happened. New lesson learned.

To Be Continued/ … in next week’s installment meet our Queen of the cobras.

Otters 3 – Fishing and fun

We have established that they have holts in our midst, a holt being the name for the lair of an otter, though never used for other animals as far as I know.

One holt is in a thick hedgerow of bush with densely packed twigs and leaves about two metres high, an almost solid wall of vegetation running downhill almost to the boulders washed by the sea. At its bottom end is the entrance to a tunnel just about the right size for a large otter to enter on its stubby legs. It smells of otter, quite rankly at times, less so when they have moved on. We don’t know how deep it goes and have no intention of finding out.

Their behaviour is constantly entertaining. We watched two sub-adults, one lying at the peak of a sloped boulder in the sea eating a fish grasped in its front paws. The other lay below it on the slope, keening. It approached the one with the fish several times and was rebuffed. The eating otter swung its head back sharply but made no sound. The other retreated, lay flat and opened its mouth in a big O to make the keening sound. Only when the fish was nearly finished did the first otter allowed the second to feed on it.

Three more otters appeared and all six emerged to roam aimlessly about the rocks. The one which had been keening continued to do so intermittently and the attitude of the others towards it became aggressive.

One large otter on top of a rock crouched low on its forequarters, raised its rump and rapidly stamped its hindfeet alternately while swinging its tail violently from side to side. Others in the group made feints or lunges at the keening one, which kept its head raised and moving from side to side. At one point two others attacked it in a flurry of movement so fast it was not possible to see if any were actually bitten. It lasted no more than two or three seconds.

The otters’ arrival is always unexpected. They will suddenly appear from among the boulders, dripping water, and amble up to the narrow strip of wild lawn between the sea and our homes. Their destination is a patch of bare sand about two metres wide and long, a luxurious otter lounge.

There they roll and squirm on their backs, tummies and sides, rubbing against each other sensually with visible pleasure. This can go on for half an hour or more, with one or two peeling off now and then for a quick dip in the sea then back to the pleasure pit. Why? We can only guess that it’s a pleasant change from the water and may help get rid of parasites like ticks and lice. Then they troop down to the well for a dip, and vanish back into the sea.

They appear to be good parents. Liz once spotted a mother otter enter the sea with two very young babies hanging on to her shoulders, accustoming them to the surf.

At dusk one day when the sky was clear and the light still good, an adult otter emerged on the grass with another half its size behind it, clearly mother and offspring. They made their way north, junior struggling to cope with the rubble of rocks, stones and boulders, falling between them, tail waving, while mother waited and turned back and encouraged.

They entered the sea and re-emerged on rocks further north. Junior continued to struggle with the rough passage. At one point mother grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and hauled it across a rock.

A few minutes later five adult otters, all large, appeared on the grass verge where mother and child had been. They made their way north, pausing to frolic and eat pieces of a large fish then took to the water and vanished in the sea.

Question: was the mother deliberately taking her child away before the adults arrived? From past viewing adults can be very rough on the juveniles of other families.

Our freshwater well is the main attraction for them at this bay. It is a round, very old stone-and-cement shaft about a metre in diameter with a flat-topped wall which rises some fifty centimetres above the surrounding rocks. The water is clean – except after use by the otters.

They like to swim in it after emerging from the sea. They dive in and through to come out at the opposite side, or make a turn or two in the water before leaving. They stand on the flat wall and shake themselves vigorously to shed the water.

The level of water in the well varies considerably because it is fed by the underground flow from the mountains and that in turn depends on the rain.

Liz’s husband one day spotted a baby otter trying frantically to get out of the well when the level was so low it could not reach the parapet. He guessed it had been left behind by its family. He went down and rescued it, checked and found it unhurt and released it. To provide escape in the future he jammed the trunk of a dead tree into the well, which we have kept in place ever since.

The abandoned baby otter.
The abandoned baby otter.

Sadly, nature sometimes takes a cruel course. The baby met up with the wrong family and they killed it, judging from the injuries he found next day.

To be continued/ Otters 4 – 17 Oct 2014 …

Otters 2 – Midnight cacophony

The Cape clawless is one of the thirteen sub-species found around the world. The largest by far is the giant otter of the Amazon.

Information board at the Wetlands Center in London
Information board at the Wetlands Center in London

The taxonomic name of our residents is quite pleasant: Aonyx capensis. The “clawless”, obviously, is because it doesn’t have claws, like a cousin found in the Congo. It has small fingernails. Its grip, strong enough to hold the slipperiest fish, is provided by a large pad in the middle or palm of each foot and thick pads under each finger, all of them rough. The fingers are partly webbed and the heavy tail provides the main driving power. The colour is light or dark brown with some grey-white underneath. When wet the otter glistens like a polished car.

Adults usually weigh around 10 kg. Skinner’s and Smithers’ “The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion”, the bible for naturalists, records males just short of two metres and nearly 16 kg. Guessing that their strength is probably about twice that of a man, ounce for ounce, that’s a lot of power they can call on to swim for long periods and at high speed on the hunt.

One of our first sightings of otters was most unusual. One bright sunny morning Fundi Doreen called me to the picture windows overlooking the bay.

Below us, not thirty metres away, a family of otters was crossing the rocky “beach” in single file – not the usual family of five or six recorded by the scientists, but eleven.

They ambled across without haste led by two very large otters (we assumed mom and dad), then several medium-sized juveniles or teenagers and bringing up the rear four babies which struggled a little to get from rock to rock.

It took the leaders a few minutes to reach the giant boulders at the other end of the “beach” and the stragglers a deal longer. There they vanished amid the granite and we assume they took to the water because we did not see them again. An otter is hard to discern swimming among the kelp clusters with only its head showing.

We estimated the two leaders to be well over a metre and a half. Since then we have often seen single otters and pairs and families of up to six but nothing like that first unique viewing. They come and go erratically. We may see none for weeks then comes a moment, usually at about 1 am, we’re woken from deep sleep by a cacophony of screeches and wails from outside like battalions of feral cats at war.

The otters have arrived.

What the racket is about we do not know. We assume it is something to do with mating, or establishing who’s boss. Sometimes these calls in the night are brief and almost conversational as if they are discussing the weather. At other times their voices rise almost to screaming pitch as if they are fighting.

They appear to wander up and down the long Cape Peninsula coast, constantly seeking richer sea pastures. They foray close to the coastline through the undersea kelp forests and reefs, hunting mainly fish and crabs, sometimes bringing ashore a small octopus with its tentacles clamped grimly but vainly around the catcher’s head.

Otters 3 – To be continued/ 10 October ….