We conclude our series on our Cape urban wildlife for the time being while Liz posts photos from further afield and Wilf takes a break.
The most dramatic of the giants is the orca or killer whale, a relative of dolphins which lives up to its second name. They are the lions of the sea: nearly ten metres long, fast, lethal, hunting in prides and as playful with their victims as a cat with mice.
We don’t see them all that often but when we do they make a splendid spectacle with their sleek, glistening, black-and-white patterned bodies rising and plunging like a team as they roam the bay at high speed in search of prey, their tall black dorsal fins as erect as yacht sails.
A couple of years ago a local boat operator, David Hurwitz, captured stunning photos of a rare event: orcas hunting their cousins the bottle-nose dolphins. Fast though they are, the pony-size dolphins are no match for the speed and power of the of the orcas weighing up to six or seven tons, most of it muscle.
Hurwitz photographed them as they drove a large pod of dolphins past the lighthouse in our small harbour bay nearby and further – their glistening aquadynamic bodies creating hardly a ripple as they closed on the frenzied dolphins churning the sea into a boil. It is unknown how many they caught, not more than one each if that, out of the scores in the pod. Not a pretty sight, Nature at its rawest, but really no different to seeing a pride of lions slashing through a sounder of warthogs.
Luckily for the dolphins the orcas’ visits are infrequent. The dolphins visit often and then the role is reversed and they become the hunters. Their targets are huge schools of fingerlings of fish we cannot identify. Sometimes there may be a dozen such schools scattered within sight between us and the horizon maybe ten kilometres distant. So densely packed are the fingerlings that when they rise in flight from dolphins, sharks, snoek, tunny and other hunters below, the surface froths like bubbles from a freshly poured soda as thousands of tiny fish leap out of the water.
The hunt becomes a kind of marine festival. Hundreds of sea birds join in – all sorts of gulls, terns, squadrons of gannets folding their wings to dive like arrowheads, several kinds of cormorants, penguins.
Gulls are around all the time, especially the black-backed kelp gulls which float around the kelp forests to catch large snails. When it captures a snail in its strong yellow beak, a kelp gull flies to a nearby granite boulder with a more or less level surface, hovers three or four metres above it and drops the snail. It does this repeatedly until the snail’s shell cracks and the gull can get at the flesh inside – yet another example of a wild creature using a tool.
One of our rarest animal sightings was about ten years ago of a seal – but not just one of the thousands of Cape fur seals that populate much of the South African coast. Those are often seen in TV footage of great white sharks around Seal Island in False Bay because it is their unfortunate lot to be a favourite food the sharks.
This one was quite different. Fundi Dor first spotted it after sunrise one day lying on a large flat rock at the sea’s edge. It was much larger than a Cape fur seal, longer and fatter, and its colouring was very different.
Its back was dark a brownish hue with a reddish tinge, its chest was a dirty white and its belly was almost black. The most distinguishing feature was a crest of hair on top of its head which ran down to almost the level of its eyes, as if it had recently had a crewcut.
We dashed for our “bible” and there it was, unmistakeable: a Subatlantic fur seal. No other seal recorded in this corner of the world has the crewcut or colouring.
The Subatlantics’ home sea is, as the name indicates, the sub-Antarctic waters at islands like Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island, the St Paul islands, and the Marion and Prince Edward islands, the “bible” told us.
Photo credit: Nicolas Servera. The photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.
Sometimes they wander. We reported this sighting to the experts and they said our visitor (or his kin) had been recorded alive on the South African coast only 13 times before, although a number of carcases had been found.
Ours didn’t do much. He or she lay on the flat rock all day, occasionally turning on to its side. Towards evening high tide began to creep up its rock and next morning it was gone.
The bird parade is non-stop. Oyster catchers, a threatened species, frequently patrol at low tide to prise limpets from the rocks with their dagger beaks. Egyptian geese (they pose above their station, they are actually ducks) vie with gulls and starlings for vantage points on the boulders, cackling to distraction. Hadedas or green ibis stalk silently across the lawns prodding their long bills deep for insects, making terrific noise when they fly up in alarm.
When Fundi Dor goes out in the morning to hang the bird feeder (an earthenware thing with small holes which allow nectar drinkers to dip in their long thin beaks) from a branch she is immediately swamped by an avian circus. When the proteas are not in bloom the dominant are the sugarbirds with tails up to twice their own length, which swarm in so boldly they land on her hands to be in first.
When the level of the water lightly flavoured with sugar and honey falls below their reach, the orange-breasted sunbirds take over with their thinner beaks, their throats pulsing as they pump up juice with their tongues. They are among the most beautiful birds in the world with their golden breasts, dazzling royal blue shoulders and shining green caps – winged gems no jeweller could emulate. Cheeky white-eyes bob about constantly between them trying to get a beak in edgeways.
For a few hours every day the bird feeder is the scene of hectic activity watched longingly from the ground by mongeese unable to get up there – for the birds, not the nectar.
Everyone has their favourites. Mine are the cormorants. We have three kinds we see regularly, the Cape, the bank and the whitebreasted.
Cape cormorants are by far the most numerous. They fly past us in their thousands, sometimes tens of thousands when they may take an hour or more to pass. They are perfection in symmetry to behold, skimming the water at smooth speed in narrow, V-shaped formations of anything from a few dozen to hundreds – like long lines of musical notes strung across a page of sea. The leader of each formation cuts the air for the rest to ride his slipstream. They change position regularly as the leader tires and drops back to let another take over. They are all identical in shape and size.
Sometimes a bigger bank cormorant flies with them or a formation of banks joins the Cape cormorant skein. The whitebreasted do their own individualistic thing.
All seem to share one mystifying talent: knowing when and where to go to find fish. Sometimes several days may pass without a single cormorant in sight. Then suddenly early in the morning the air is full of them all heading south towards Cape Point and the ocean beyond, often having to battle against strong southerly winds.
What tells them there are schools of fish out there for the taking? When the schools are in the bay and the dolphins and gannets are making a visible fuss it’s obvious, but when the fish are kilometres offshore? We haven’t yet found anyone who can explain this.
Do they use scouts? We often see a few cormorants flying back home in the opposite direction to the masses. Who knows.
To be continued /_
Over the past several months you have been introduced to the leading characters in the everyday life of Our Urban Wilderness here in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa.
But that’s only our rather narrow domestic view. They are not the only members of the great family who share our larger world, just those who live around us and brighten our lives daily or at least once every week or so.
What makes our little urban wilderness so special is that it is wrapped in a hugely larger environment throbbing with life. Before us, to the east, lies False Bay, said by many to be one of the most beautiful and bountiful on earth. Up to 30km wide and 100 metres deep, it opens southwards to the chill Atlantic ocean and spill from the warm Indian ocean. Behind us soars the steep, boulder-strewn and cliff-edged spine of the Cape Peninsula, home to a host of animals large and small and the richest floral kingdom in the world. On the far side of False Bay looms the jagged row of ridges and peaks of the Hottentots Holland mountains, slashed by canyons and valleys so deep and mysterious you might well think “There be dragons . . .”
Well, dragons maybe not but certainly leopards and badgers and buck in the mountains on both sides plus a kaleiodoscope of birds from eagles to penguins, resident and migratory. And in the bay itself there is a profusion of marine life so varied that False Bay is a magnet to people from all over the world who like to fish for big game, study the fantastic marine ecology, swim with great white sharks, watch whales or simply enjoy nature at its best.
Nobody who has watched television can not have seen at least one of the multitude of documentary films of great whites leaping right out of the water in their hunt for seals, a technique they use nowhere else. Or of people clad in wet suits and breathing through snorkels while they stand in steel cages close enough to sharks to kiss them.
That particular entertainment we don’t indulge in. There is too much else. From as early as June every year until about the end of November we have an influx of whales, scores of them, maybe hundreds, it is impossible to count them accurately. They are southern rights, a close relative of the northern rights and for a couple of centuries one of the favourites of whale hunters for their oil, hence the name “right”. They came close to extinction before hunting was banned in the last century and their population is recovering rapidly now at a rate of about seven per cent a year. The population today is estimated at about 10000.
The average southern rights spend two to three years about 6000km from here in the South Atlantic seas rich in the minute krill they feed on, fattening up. Then they make the long trek north to the warm waters of South Africa’s southern shores (and top Australia and New Zealand) to mate and for the females to give birth to the calves they conceived about eleven months earlier. The females are ready to mate about every third year.
While in this bay (and at many other places on our south coast) they put on displays of awesome power and spectacle with an ease that belies their size. An adult is about 15 metres long and weighs between 15 and 50 metric tons depending on gender and age, males being the heavier. Yet a southern right can hurl itself vertically almost completely out of the water with only the tips of its flukes touching. It crashes back sideways, pectoral fins extended, in a huge bomb-like splash that can be heard kilometres away. Why they do this nobody can say for sure – it might be to wipe off body parasites or impress females or just for fun.
Sometimes they lie in the sea with one broad dorsal fin upraised. Or with just their flukes projecting like a double sail while they hang heads down . . . the only whales that do so; some watchers say it’s to catch the wind. Or they “stand” with their heads out, eyeballing what’s going on around them.
Southern rights are easily identifiable by their lack of dorsal fins and by large, cobbly patches of white on their jaws and head called callosities. These are actually areas of rough, puckered skin infested with parasites.
They have no fear of humans. One can bring a boat right up to them, which is illegal although a rare few boat operators are permitted to approach within a few metres. It’s not always easy to obey the law when the whale itself approaches a boat or canoe out of curiosity, which they often do.
At places on the bay where the coast plunges steeply they come so close to the shore one can look straight down at them, gentle giants larger than almost any animal that walked the land. (The blue whale is the biggest mammal that ever lived at over 30 metres and nearly 200 metric tons.)
A few years ago we had a partial view of a rare event: the birth of a whale. Early that afternoon an adult swam into a small stony bay in front of Hawkeye Kath’s home. We thought it was female because there was no reason any male would want to do this.
She lay there through the afternoon amid the kelp in water barely deep enough to carry her at low tide, moving uneasily as if in discomfort. Because only her back was exposed we could not see what was happening and guessed it could only be to give birth. She blew regularly, the V-shaped twin jet of a southern right.
At about ten o’clock that night she started moving slowly out of the small bay and past us close to the shore. The sea was almost still, slightly ruffled by wind and ripple. As she passed she crossed across the broad bright highway of light cast by a rising moon, and next to her we clearly saw the shape of her newborn struggling to keep up.
Other whales also use the bay but nowhere near as many and they are shy, seldom coming close to the shore. One is the Bryde’s whale, smaller than the southern right and distinguishable by its curved back with a dorsal fin. Another characteristic is that it never shows its head above water. Sometimes humpback whales make an appearance, also far out in the bay. Other kinds have also been recorded here but we have not seen them.
To be continued/-
Liz’s dramatic encounter with the caracal came in late afternoon when she was slaving over her computer.
“I heard a thud against our patio sliding doors. The sun blinds were down and thinking that one of the guinea fowl had run into the glass I was taken aback to see a rather bewildered caracal.
“It had obviously attacked its own reflection and took a moment to take stock before moving across the patio. To witness a carnivore species such as this out hunting in an urban space is an exciting event. At close quarters I was able to admire it’s sturdy build and powerful back legs as it padded past. The tufted ears with the long black-haired tassels added to its air of elegance.
“The drawcard for our caracal is the dassie colony: plump prey for the picking. I had a good vantage point to observe the action below and I could hear the dassie sentry emitting highly agitated alarm calls.
“The cat was quick and agile and camouflaged perfectly against the reddish brown of the boulders. It didn’t take long to scent out and catch it’s prey. Once it had pounced, a clean neck bite put the creature out of it’s misery instantly.
“As it returned across the patio carrying one of our dassie family, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for the loss to the colony, but at the same time admired the skill of the hunter.”
Residents of the Cape Peninsula have spotted this elusive cat in diverse areas, but there is no accurate data on their numbers or distribution. So it is heartening to follow the work being done by the Animal Demographic Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town with The Nature Conservation Corporation (NCC) and their use of trap cameras.
Members of the public can help by sending photographs and reporting sightings to add to data for the Cape Peninsula Mammal Atlas Project. This data of all mammals is stored in a “virtual museum” hosted by the ADU which contributes towards a better understanding and conservation of all the mammal species.
Research upcountry in the Cedarberg area, where caracals are tracked with GPS collars, is helping to learn much about this secretive animal’s spatial as well as behavioural ecology.
In the past the caracal was much maligned for raiding farmlands, especially after a couple of incidents when a pair went into killing frenzy and slaughtered dozens of sheep but ate off only one. Research shows their prey is more often wild creatures, including real pests like mice and rats.
We saw the caracal several more times in full daylight in our seashore wilderness. He was in no hurry and quite unworried by the presence of humans as he walked expertly across the tumbled rocks
I say “he” but the last time there was no doubt about the gender. She came strolling from the left again, where there is a dense growth of bush that could well hide a den, on to the lawn at a leisurely pace, looking straight ahead.
On either side of her, level with her flanks, walked two kittens about a third of her size, the same tawny russet colour, miniatures of mom.
Again she slowed when she passed us, glanced up and moved on. The kittens kept station but looked back over their shoulders at these strange long creatures gazing down at them.
It was a magic moment, one to be treasured, a rarity in any lifetime not just an urban one.
There were other sightings in the neighbourhood around the same time of a female with two kittens. The dassie population that year was on high alert and our colony decreased from fifteen adults to seven.
One neighbour living up the mountain reported finding the remains of a grysbok, a small buck, stashed in the branches of a low tree, a practice common to only the leopard and the caracal.