“There’s NOTHING at the waterhole…”

“There’s NOTHING at the waterhole…”

As a field guide, you tend to notice EVERYTHING. That’s partly because of your love of the wilderness in its entirety, and partly because there aren’t always lion, rhino and elephant around to discuss (and you need to keep the guests entertained one way or another)!

Many times, you come to a waterhole, and people comment “Nothing here…” in an authoritative tone. Well, how sure are you? If you sit for a while, enjoying and soaking up the silence and the peace of the bush, you will often notice stuff that was invisible before. An animal may wander down to the water, or something may move – revealing its presence. For instance, take this view over Mankwe Lake in the Pilanesberg. At first glance, according to those chasing the big five ‘ticks’, there really isn’t much to see…

Terrapins are often seen sunning themselves on a rock, on the branch of a dead tree protruding out of the water and sometimes even on a hippo’s back! But why do they do this? As cold-blooded creatures, they rely on their surrounding environment to warm them up or cool them down. The also absorb UVB rays from the sunlight to produce Vitamin D3, which is required to process Calcium for the healthy development of their shells. The sunlight also helps them absorb other essential nutrients and regulate their metabolism.

Do you know the difference between a turtle, a tortoise and a terrapin? Tortoises are only found on land (terrestrial), whilst the others are aquatic creatures – terrapins in fresh water and turtles in salt water (marine environment). Turtles and terrapins are generally omnivores, whereas tortoises are primarily herbivores. You will, however, find all of these terms used interchangeably in different countries… Turtles have apparently been on earth for around 230 million years, which makes them VERY ancient animals by comparison to humans, whose ancestors walked the earth about six million years ago.

Whilst Cormorants are considered to be “seabirds” by many, they are more correctly known as “waterbirds” because they don’t often venture out to sea. The White-breasted or Great Cormorant is unique amongst the southern African cormorants in that it has both marine and freshwater populations. This bird is regularly seen perching with its wings spread… There have been four main functions proposed for wing-spreading in cormorants (wing-drying, thermoregulation, balance, and intra-specific signalling). At one stage it was also suggested that it is to warm the stomach contents (as an aid to digestion), but this theory has since been disproved. Lately, evidence overwhelmingly supports the wing-drying hypothesis – with length of immersion, ambient temperature and prevailing winds having a direct impact on the time spent on this activity.

When the African Darter swims, only the head and neck are above the water, hence its colloquial name “Snakebird”. It glides through the water like this, leaving barely a ripple. To dive, it slowly lowers its neck forward into the water and quietly submerges. Its wettable body plumage absorbs more water than those of the cormorant, and if you add less pneumatised (having air-filled cavities) bones into the equation, you have the answer as to why only the head and neck are above water when swimming. Interestingly, its flight feathers are waterproof, allowing flight even after prolonged immersion in water. After spending time in the water foraging, its preference is to clamber up onto a rock or dead tree to allow its body feathers to drain. 

A little Pied Kingfisher was busily preening on this branch. They can often be seen hovering over the water, before diving rapidly down to grab their prey. While they generally eat small prey on the wing, I once sat and watched one of these birds beat a ‘large’ fish to death on this branch for well over 10 minutes (I guess having a fish fight back when in your gullet could be a nasty experience ?). It then continued for a long time, breaking the bones in the fish’s body, until it could eventually be swallowed. Note that with all birds, fish are swallowed headfirst – so that the scales and the spines on their fins don’t lodge in the bird’s throat. Pellets of undigested bones are regurgitated – usually before feeding again.

On the walkway back to the carpark at Mankwe Hide we came across this bright little fellow (a Crimson-breasted Shrike) hopping around on the grass, hoping to find a titbit. It looked like a bouncy little Christmas decoration. These monogamous birds can often be heard singing in duet.

And this is all only a superficial observation at one ‘uneventful’ waterhole in Pilanesberg. There is a way of being that subscribes to the notion of being still, sitting patiently in silence and allowing the wilderness to reveal its secrets to you. I believe this to be a very judicious and relaxing use of time, and the rewards are always worth the wait…

Happy Travels!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Two video’s detailing Pied Kingfishers beating a fish:

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