Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Having a whale of a time

A bit late posting due to work getting in the way of fun, this is the last of the 5 blogs about our southern Africa holiday. This section focuses on our last 4 days, in south Africa itself, mainly around Hermanus.
Leaving Victoria Falls was interesting in itself. Our trip there coincided with a SADAC conference, which basically meant most of the presidents/ prime ministers of the southern african states were in town. Unfortunately when we got to Vic Falls airport they were leaving as well, and important people leave with ceremony. this meant they would arrive one at a time, thier private, very large jet, would pull up in front of our plane, a crowd of flunkies would arrive, dancers would perform and they would slowly depart!!! We as mere paying customers of course were left to wait. Eventually we were told to basically run to the plane when there was a gap and the Captain dashed us down the runway before the next one started to leave....
Anyway, we got to Hermanus after dark, but the route in looked interesting with lots of road-signs about whales, our main reason for going.
At first light we threw back the curtains to look out on Hermanus bay.

 In Winter, the bay is home to numerous southern right whales and their calves. The tourist blurb talks about seeing them from the beach but I assumed that was a bit like "oh you should have been here last week....". Actually, it's true. The weather was a bit rough, so the boats weren't going but that really didn't matter. For all the 3 days we were there we saw whales, and not at 2 miles distance across the bay. They were far out, they were almost on the beach, they were full-body breaching, there were calves and mothers, there were basically loads of them.

Best views were either from our window with a beer in hand on about 2 minutes walk where it seemed there was a favourite spot for them to lie in the surf. One looked like it was waving to all the tourists lined up on the rocks and the cliff path.

This one kept rolling over onto it's back, which i don't think I've seen before.

So what else was there to see? Very little by way of mammals, but there was some very sweet rock hyrax, locally called dassies, hanging about.

One of the birds you wouldn't expect to see is penguins, but there is a reasonably sized colony of African penguins all along the coast from Boulder's Beach to Simonstown

These are quite a tourist attraction, with walkways going in between the birds. It's quite strange really. Last year we were watching whales adn penguins in Antarctica, now seeing the same in Africa!

Being on the coast there were a number of aquatic or wading birds as well, most of which were new for the trip list.
African black oystercatchers are a speciality of the region, In fact, there are many endemics in this part of Africa, often called African xxxxxx to mark out their unique status.

 This little chap is a lesser sand plover. He/ she was quite tame searching in the rocks and seaweed for insects to eat.

 These handsome creatures are spotted thick-knees, related to our stone curlews. Rather bizarrely, or perhaps not as I have no idea of their normal behaviour, they were on somebodies lawn in front of their garage. They seemed very tame as well. I don't think this bit of coast is tourist central away from Hermanus itself.

Neat to the thick-knees was another type of bird altogether. This is a fiscal shrike. As well as blatantly trespassing, and in South Africa you do that at your peril, it was eating some sort of insect it had speared onto the barbed wire fence. You can just see the remains of it at the right of the picture below.

 Related by name, food source and somewhat by plumage is the fiscal flycatcher. This one was right outside out hotel. I have no idea why they are called fiscal, which normally relates to government revenue and taxes. Apparently the flycatcher is named because of it's resemblance to the shrike, but even Wikipedia can't help on the shrikes etymology.

The poster bird of the region is the blue crane. This was once critically endangered, and is still rare, but changes in farming practices have now meant they are recovering in numbers. We saw two large flocks, both in fields near the road driving inland from Hermanus.

I will cover off more of this later, but as well as the wildlife, many people visit the southern Cape for the flowers. This is called fynboss, and is characterized by many different species of proteas. Although not in the peak season, there were a lot still in flower and with that came specialised nectar feeders.

With the long tail is another endemic, the cape sugarbird. They were relatively numerous where the flowers were including in the middle of Hermanus in parks and gardens. They used their long bill to probe the flowers for nectar but you mainly notice the enormous long tail streaming out behind them when they fly. 

Feeding on the same types of plants but in an different way is the amethyst sunbird. This has vivid metallic plumage and also feeds on nectar. Rather than balancing and feeding, like most sunbirds it behaves more like a hummingbird and hovers.

Finally, we have another endemic, the cape white eye. Clearly named after its distinctive eye-ring, this small bird also loves nectar, but gets it by probing into the flowers with its much smaller bill. In behaviour it is like a goldcrest, flitting fast between the blooms.

Finally, i'll leave you with some of the fynboss flowers we saw around the Cape. Stunning scenery and despite the negative publicity surrounding it, a great place to visit.