Shaded by mighty Jackalberry trees, EcoTraining Karongwe Camp waits patiently for its first group of 2020 students. The expectant energy is palatable. The new students will be embarking on a 55-day EcoTraining Field Guide Course which will solidify the bedrock of each participant’s potential career as a field guide.
The unfenced solar-powered camp area lies unobtrusively adjacent to the dry Karongwe riverbed where new students will delight in discovering numerous bird and mammal species. At this time of year, the bush is alive with activity. The summer rains have washed away the dust and replaced it with emerald abundance.
The resident Nyala family feeds below a canopy of Tamboti trees and even they seem anxious to welcome the new students. The lambs bounce around excitedly jostling for front row seats and above them in the eaves, Paradise Flycatchers flit in a boastful aerial display.
The open-air classroom entices all sounds and smells of the wilderness in. A library of textbooks and a collection of skulls, tortoise shells and animal bones are lined tidily for students to explore. Yet the space beyond the formal classroom boundaries will invite students on a much greater journey of enquiry beyond their wildest dreams. Every bird that chirps, every leaf that falls, every flower that blooms and every insect that rattles in song is an opportunity to gain knowledge and connection with the fauna and flora of the Lowveld wilderness.
At the edge of the camp lies the fireplace. As dusk stretches the shadows and awakens the stars, the earth has the power to draw everyone magnetically in. It is around this blazing campfire that learning will transcend facts and figures and where wisdom will be shared through storytelling.
As an African barred owlet hoots somewhere in the distance and his message for the new students is clear… “Protect this wilderness, for you are the guardians of its future.”
It is a privilege to be an EcoTraining student because you hold these wild spaces in your hands and in your heart, and have the collective ability to nurture it for future generations. Karongwe is a classroom sanctuary where custodians of nature are born and inspired.
Good luck to all the students of 2020!
Want to know what you can expect from an EcoTraining course? Freelance content creator David Batzofin, chatted with Senior Instructor Steve Baillie to get his opinion about our 1-year Professional Field Guide Course.
David’s first question was “Talk me through what a participant can expect”. Listen to our latest podcast to learn more.
Want to start a career as a Field Guide? Or if you want to learn more about EcoTraining, follow us on social, either Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to be apart of our students’ and instructors’ amazing journeys through the African wilderness.
Over a short distance, the cheetah has been recognized as the fastest land mammal on the planet. Encounters with these special predators feature on the bucket lists of both local and international travellers who visit the various natural wilderness regions throughout Africa. International Cheetah Day is a day in which we focus on these phenomenal creatures and the plight that they face in conservation.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are found mainly in Africa and with a small remaining population in Northern Iran. A sighting of these rather elusive felines is always memorable and never easily forgotten. To call attention to the plight of this vulnerable species, we celebrate International Cheetah Day with some interesting facts that you can share when trading wildlife stories and bushveld encounters.
- Cheetahs are physically designed for speed! From nose to tail they are aerodynamically designed to achieve maximum acceleration in the shortest time.
- Their tails that can be used as a rudder when running, are almost as long as their bodies. In full hunting mode, it is used to balance the animal when it executes tight turns at high speed.
- To retain their fastest-land-mammal crown, they can get from 0 to 100 km/ph in 3 seconds. Faster than most supercars! However, they can only maintain their top speed of +/- 120 km/ph for a short period.
- Although cheetahs are generally regarded as solitary creatures, the males occasionally form coalitions that will allow them to hunt larger prey species. These groups consist of between two and four animals, usually siblings, but they can also be non-related animals that band together to be more effective hunters.
- It is hot work…when hunting, a cheetah can raise the body temperature from an average 38.3°C to over 40°C. They expend a lot of energy in the chase which often leaves them prone to overheating. Although they have a success rate of about 50%, their post-hunt recovery time means that they regularly lose their meal to opportunistic predators like jackal and hyena.
- You would think that with all the expended energy, they would have to drink regularly, but they are the least water-dependent of the cats, getting most of their moisture from the prey they eat.
- Unlike the roar of the lion or the sawing grunt of the leopard, cheetahs communicate through almost bird-like chirps and purrs. They are the only cat out of the big cats that actually purr.
- The dark lines running on either side of the nose are used to absorb light in order to cut-out the visible glare whilst hunting during the day. NFL football players in the USA have adopted similar markings to help them when playing under stadium lights.
- As a solitary animal, a cheetah mom gets no help from either the father of the cubs or other females in the raising and training of the cubs. The cubs are born with a grey ruff along their backs that mimics the colouration of a Honey Badger, a small animal with the attitude of an elephant!
- The fossilized remains of a Giant Cheetah have been carbon-dated, showing that it to be around 1 to 2 million years old!
Would you like to be able to learn to identify the tracks of a cheetah? Or perhaps even track one on foot? If this educational experience is on your bucket list, then why not celebrate International Cheetah Day by signing up and joining one of the EcoTraining Courses? For more information, contact email@example.com
They may have a bad rap in literature (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Midwich Cuckoos for example) but there are few more fascinating birds than cuckoos. In Southern Africa, cuckoos are all migrants, except for the Klaas’s Cuckoo which is a resident in some lowland areas. This means that they are absent from the region for most of the year, only moving down from further north in Africa and Asia during the rainy season.
While cuckoos tend to migrate from as early as September, typically most arrive in late October to November. Most of the 15 species we have in South Africa are intra-African migrants, which means that they come down from countries further north within Africa, down to the south of the continent. There are also a few Palearctic migrants, namely the Common (European) Cuckoo and the Lesser Cuckoo, with the Common Cuckoo coming from China, Korea and Japan and the Lesser Cuckoo coming from Afghanistan and the foothills of the Himalayas. These Palearctic migrants are, however, much less common than the intra-African migrants.
One of the reasons cuckoos migrate down to our neck of the woods is to feast upon the vast insect numbers that come to life after the early summer rains have fallen – specifically to eat the processionary worms (hairy caterpillars) that you will often see huddled together on tree branches, particularly on the Velvet Corkwood tree (Commiphora mollis). In fact, cuckoos are specialised in eating the hairy caterpillars, which are – for good reason – avoided by most other birds. For their meals, cuckoos smash the caterpillars against branches and other objects to remove the caterpillar’s irritating hairs. These caterpillars are the larval stage of the reticulate bagnest moth (Anaphe reticulata).
In spite of their dark reputation (see the books mentioned above and the saying “you’ve gone cuckoo”!), cuckoos are renowned for having very musical songs. That said, not all species are known for holding a tune with the Clamator cuckoos (Levaillant’s, Jacobin and great spotted cuckoo’s) have more of a chattering, unmusical call. But a few have such characteristic songs that it has resulted in their actual common name. For example, the red-chested cuckoo is called the Piet-my-vrou in Afrikaans, which is an onomatopoeic rendition of the distinct “quid-pro-quo” sounding call it monotonously sings. The Diederick cuckoo is called a Diederikkie in Afrikaans which is also a reference to its call which sounds like “dee-dee-deederick”.
Most cuckoos that migrate to Southern Africa breed during their stay here. Their breeding behaviour is very interesting and unlike that of most other birds. All of the locally occurring cuckoos are what we call “brood parasites”. A “brood parasite” is a bird that lays its eggs or egg in another bird’s nest, in the hopes that their clutch will outcompete the host’s eggs and the host bird will incubate and raise the cuckoo’s chicks. This is done for a few reasons: the cuckoo expends less energy as it does not need to raise its own chick and by laying eggs in a few different nests, the risk is spread and therefore the chances of the chicks being successfully raised is increased. To achieve this parasitism, cuckoos have developed techniques to trick their host birds: most cuckoos have developed what is called “egg-mimicry” in which their eggs look similar in size, colour and shape to that of the host’s egg. Typically, the cuckoo will also evict an egg from the host nest, for each one she lays. When they hatch, some cuckoos – like the African emerald cuckoo and the Diederick – will even evict unhatched host eggs. After hatching (and while still blind) the hatchling will back up to the host’s egg, collect it in a special cavity and then toss it over the edge of the nest. They may do this to the host’s young chicks as well. Alternatively, the cuckoo chick will hack and peck the host chicks to death once they have hatched – and which might just help explain their reputation in popular culture! However, in some cases, the parasite and host chicks are raised together without any hostility.
Another interesting point to add is that males often perform “courtship-feeding”, in which they feed caterpillars to females in an attempt to court them. This often leads people to believe that the cuckoo is feeding one of its own, yet this is not true as no local cuckoo species raises its young.
Cuckoos are amazing birds and are fascinating even to non-twitchers, particularly for their long-distance travel, nesting behaviour and beautiful melodic calls. Unfortunately, however, catching sight of a cuckoo is not easy as they are only seen – and more often just heard – in the rainy season.
This, however, just makes their presence more special as they are here to tell us that summer has well and truly begun!
Are you keen on birds or learning more about them, have a look at our Birding in the Bush course we offer.
Still want to learn something more today, have a look at the bird quizzes we have available: