Spring 6 October 2016 Living with Lizards


Living With Lizards (…and flowers for the ladies!)

The beautiful blossom of the Cassia abreviata, The Sjambok pod

The dry landscape that is enduring the worst drought in decades is coming to life in splashes of colour as the bush acknowledges the change of seasons and the passing of the spring equinox. Days are warmer. Hotter even, with temperatures rising to 40 plus in the shade, in between occasional cloudy, windy days.

The first trees to bloom were the Knobthorns, their creamy, pale yellow blossoms arriving much later than they have over the last few years. In fact, everything is happening later than the seasons following the 2012 flood that saw the Knobthorns blooming as early as the end of June and many others coming to life through July and August.

Combretum sp, Bushwillow at sunset

Now, nearing the end of September, they are joined by the pale yellow spikes of Bushwillows and bright yellow flowers of the Grewias. However, nothing quite compares to the bright yellow, lollipop bursts of the Cassias; these little trees, dotted amongst the harsh Mopane veld, remain quite inconspicuous until they wake up in spring.

Bright yellow Grewia or Raisin Bush


A Cassia in full bloom

The Cassias usually flower and then leaf all together, as with most trees who time blossom, bloom or leaf together. This year, these conditions are rather extreme and I guess it all depends on the soil, their roots and their reserves, which result in some trees yet to begin while some trees are in full leaf with the last of their flowers drying out in the occasional hot oven-like northerly wind. All in all, so much is happening despite the fact that it has been so long since the last rain.

A Giant Jackalberry, Diospyros mespiliformis

Elsewhere, to the West, beyond this Combretum/Mopani veld with its stony ridges, where the mountain range looms and blocks the horizon from as far south as one can see to the curving tail of the Drakensberg bending into the bushveld of the Northern Limpopo, there lies land rich in soils and richer still in the rainfall that comes in from the South, moving up the escarpment. These lands are mostly farmland now but patches of wildlife areas are increasing and amongst these natural areas, especially at the foot of the mountain, are trees so old and so big, it is like travelling to another time or another world.

Here too are splashes of colour that tell the tales of other trees, the likes of which I don’t have close to home. 

Schotia brachypetella, the Weeping Boerbean

The Boerbean or Schotia, a weeping tree that, with its nectar-rich flowers, pleases the birds and the bees and a buzzing of so many other insects, as well as the eye, with crowns of crimson and the rainbows of colours of its visitors, hooked on its honey.

There is Wild Pear, having mostly blossomed already, their dying floral show of off-white to pale pink fading to tan and brown.

Although inconspicuous, the Jackalberry flowers have come and gone and it is their fruits that are finding favour amongst dozens of birds and mammals. Their seeds from trees closer to home even finding their way here to Mopane Grove via the crops of go-way birds who regurgitate indigestibles when they sit around the tree above the birdbath.

Against this backdrop of seasonal change, despite the dry conditions, some of the residents here at the Grove continue their lives oblivious to all this change around them; their worlds are so small that what lies beyond sight may as well be another galaxy.

Some of these little creatures that share my space (or I theirs) continue their daily lives as they have done for weeks or months, sometimes years.

In one case it has been months.

Timotee

One of the luckiest little lizards who discovered a way to get into the hearts of a couple of humans. 

More accurately, Tim is a gecko, A Dwarf Gecko of the Genus Lygodactylis and is one of the few diurnal geckos with a whole host of enemies.

Unable to compete with a variety of nocturnal cousins that are considerably bigger, dwarf geckos found their niche in a diurnal world and Mopane Grove has a healthy population of them. It is one thing to find a niche but another to have to deal with a far more diverse diurnal predator population but somehow they thrive. Their abilities to climb, to cling to any surface, even glass, with their almost prehensile tails that have the same clinging abilities as their toes, help them escape even the most determined of predators.

I see many of these little geckos in their little territories as I move about during the day. There are some individuals who are always in the same place and although I can scarcely tell one from the other, it’s their consistency that tells them apart.

 Timotee appears on the table at the side of the day-bed in the short time between me coming out to sit and actually sitting. We call him Timo for short. He obviously spends time elsewhere when I’m inside or elsewhere myself and, on passing by during my daily routine, he’s nowhere to be found, so I have to conclude that he enjoys our presence as much as we do his.

Of course, his is a dual-purpose acceptance because my presence just happens to create more opportunities to fill his little belly with the increase in insect activity around me as well as our mutual appreciation of green tea and honey.

Not that I am smelly or anything although sometimes a day can be truly trying in 45-degree heat and, in this drought, I do try to conserve water. It’s just that I am just another large moving mammal that flies and mosquitoes are programmed to seek out regardless and I guess my appearance on the day-bed means their appearance too.

And so it is that, whilst sitting outside, wracking my brain to a solution to a crisis, reading, writing my thoughts or playing Gin, I swat at these persistent antagonists and occasionally, accidentally, actually manage to hit one. Now, not one to waste, I usually have a spider that I give food aid to but sadly, since something (a wasp, I suspect), abducted Charlotte the only golden orb at mopane grove this last summer and the tent spider that disappeared from under the window, the next best candidate was a scrawny gecko, a dwarf gecko, I might add, that jumped on my shoulder one day and ran down my arm. On eventually landing on the bed he turned and looked up at me and held my gaze for a few seconds.

The next morning, having morning tea and biscuits with Fabienne and the resident impala rams, whilst we were playing another round of rummy, I noticed that it wasn’t only the usual ants that came to the moisture where I accidentally spill tea on the table, a gecko was licking at the liquid too.

Shortly after that, I noticed that he would appear anytime I sat down and when it came time to dispose of a fly, he was there, on the table, looking up at me with a few wrinkles in his neck and a plea for a fly.

We were in a drought. We’re still in a drought but this was supposed to be the height of summer with insects swarming the lights at night and hot nights abuzz with sound yet very few insects bugged us and nights were eerily quiet.

 Insect eaters, from birds to reptiles, frogs and fish and spiders and even insects, themselves, struggled to find food and populations were crashing. Insect eaters were hungry!

It was almost as if he knew my intention. As I leaned over to drop the fly on the table, he anticipated it and it had barely landed on the table when he slammed it in his jaws like a hungry croc launching at an impala. Then he looked up at me, expectantly. As he does every time I sit down.

He first started training me in February.  Being out of work and mostly confined to MG for most of the day, I have developed a routine of my own and I guess this coincides with the routines of the other residents amongst whom I am so lucky to live. No sooner was he aware that a fly was coming, he began coming closer to my hand and perhaps driven by hunger or simply opportunism, he eventually began taking insects from my fingers, sometimes running from the aloe next to the table, scaling the leg of the table as soon as he knew I had swatted something.

As months wore on, winter came along and I was once again at home alone. I was still having my daily tea and spilling it on the table. Timo and another gecko were alternately licking the moisture and it was only Timo who waited for food aid. There were days of cold and grey when no self-respecting reptile would be seen outdoors, that I would find Timo on the inside of the window frame above my inside bed hiding from the weather. There were times when I couldn’t find the little thing for more than a week and became worried as each day the tea on the table would dry up and I would have to continue with my daily chores.

As I’ve said, it’s hard to tell who is who with little things that all look alike but Timo is so distinctive; there are asymmetrical spots at the base of his tail whereas, with all others that live here, their spots line up. And so it was quite easy to find him again after he must have had an encounter that made him shed his tail and it was with huge relief that the tail was lost on the vertebra just below these very unique spots.

This was a wonderful opportunity to watch a gecko regenerate its tail and I looked forward to the ensuing months especially since spring was on its way.

I mentioned that there was another gecko, albeit a bit less adventurous that visited the table with Timo. He was quite distinctive as he had already regenerated a tail after losing his original so he was quite distinct in his own right.

Recently, after months of interaction and spilling tea and catching flies, Timo moved and seldom visited the table but we did see activity close by. You can imagine our surprise when we found the two of them together and they weren’t exactly fighting! Timo was clearly not a male but suddenly it was evident that she was indeed Mrs Timo and so the other is now known as MR.

They were in a lover’s embrace. Well, as reptiles go, he was. She could hardly do anything about it as he gripped her hard with his forearms and wrapped his body around hers. I felt guilty about photographing them but I wanted a record and it’s educational.

After this ordeal, she rarely visited the table, spending her time on a makeshift pole bench that has been at the door since the bungalow was built sometime in the middle of the last century. We occasionally saw her there and there were no more tea parties but if a fly interrupted the morning game of gin and we could catch it, it became more imperative to give her a treat since I believed she was going to be laying eggs pretty soon. The tail stub began to grow and instead of a blunt and red end to her stump, a little pointy protuberance began to show.

Then she disappeared. For the longest time ever. Perhaps more than two weeks. We were having a sunset drink on the patio with my friend Nelson when she appeared on a log at my feet and looked up at me with that reptilian smirk. We were happy to see her again and happier still that she was not dependent on the supply of flies that had been coming her way.

A couple of days later, I was alone on the day-bed, tea and cards were done, I was reading a novel and Fabienne was working inside. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye on the log I had last seen her. I jumped up with camera in hand and was stunned to see that one of the resident skinks had just caught a dwarf gecko. The gecko was fighting back but could do very little as the skink had it by the neck. My presence and my angling to see better made the skink run under an aloe and deeper into the Euphorbia and out of sight. The incident was so quick and, although I managed to get a couple of really bad shots with soft focus, it was very clear that the little gecko that was caught was missing its tail. Whether that was a result of the attack that I witnessed or whether it was our friend Timo, it is hard to say. I am still trying to focus on the blurry image and the spots on the tail just above the break!

I will also look at every gecko that is regenerating its tail to see if there are those two irregular spots where new tail meets old.

 Larry, a friendly fireless dragon

There’s another lizard that is a resident here at Mopane Grove, we call him Larry. He, on the other hand, has no concept of a name and thus is unmoved when I say “hi Larry!” every time I see him out of his cave.

His cave is a hole that has been excavated underneath a small pond that I built about 30 years ago. Over the years vegetation has come and gone but the dominant feature now is the huge euphorbia that we planted in the early nineties. The pond is dry and full of leaves and is protected by the overhanging, thorny branches of the Euphorbia. It provides a lot of cover for the many residents that shelter under it.

Larry is a Rough Scaled Plated Lizard, which is a mouthful. So he’s Larry. He’s quite a remarcable reptile with dragon-like features and a very secretive nature.

He was here on my return to the Grove in 2008, after an absence of almost seven years and therefore don’t know where he came from or when he took residence. I remember filming him eating a millipede in the summer of 2011 but it is only over the last year, that I have been able to share every day of every season with him and at times I get quite worried when he doesn’t show his scales for days on end. Usually it’s weather-related. 

There have been times when he has allowed me to be close and quite by accident, I discovered that he is rather fond of fruit. Certain types of soft fruit.

I eat papaya as often as I can for breakfast and I hang the skins on the spines of an old sicklebush for the birds. Mostly grey louries, the go-way birds, who are not only clumsy but can rival lion in the way they squabble and fight for a bite and in the process, tend to drop a lot to the ground where Larry finds easy pickings. But then a drought has gripped life pretty hard at the moment so there’s a lot of squabbling over scraps.

Anyway, I noticed Larry helping himself to the fragments that the birds were dropping and so I began to inadvertently drop some near one of his entrances to his kaya.

I was eating a banana one day and I always leave an inch or so for the birds and especially the butterflies and moths that are drawn to its minerals. As I approached the old dead Sickle Bush that has the fruit station, Larry was outside his northern cave and I bent down and offered him a bite of the last of the banana.

One can imagine how astounded I was that this plated dragon, who usually slides back into the darkness of his cave if I approach, stretched up to accept my offer! Needless to say, it hasn’t happened again and so, instead, I leave fruit on a rock at his entrance and I hope the rains will soon come, bringing millipedes and frogs and insects and a more varied diet for him. 

My days here at MG are pretty routine. I mean, irrespective of what I do during the day, I am in and out of the bungalow and alternate between being inside or being in only a handful of places outside, the main resting place being the day-bed outside, which happens to be just opposite two of Larry’s entrances. His main cave entrance is beyond my feet, when on the bed, and there are times when he is sunning himself in the late afternoons that I have a one-sided conversation with him. A sort of self-administered therapy for, well, myself. Larry just sits and listens. Like a good therapist.

I know he hears, I can’t tell if he’s listening or not but he doesn’t hide and that’s always a good sign that I can go on ranting.

One day, after I had spent most of the day indoors because of a cold front that had a strong southerly blowing a cold gale in from the snowy peaks of the southern Drakensberg, I finally ventured out in the late afternoon as clouds cleared and the wind dropped under a pale blue sky that had the remnants of cloud burning orange as the sun sank onto the escarpment. I noticed that Larry wasn’t interested in this fading glow and had a startling realisation as I started thinking about our similarities.

We are no different in some respects.

To him I am another creature that hides in my hole and comes out for periods during the day to laze around a stare into space, retreating to the sanctity of my cave whenever any human presence is detected or when the wind blows or the rain comes or it gets dark and it’s time to curl up and sleep. 

Only to emerge with the new day or the sun or the departure of humans.

I’m living like a lizard!

Basking in sunshine.

Retreating from the world when it ventures too close to my space yet mostly at one with the day-to-day world around me.

And yet the world around me carries on regardless of me.

The birds, the reptiles, the mongoose clans, the squirrels, sometimes elephants, the nocturnal regulars like Cyril the civet, the as yet unnamed genets, porcupines, hyena and hares.

I could be invisible.

To us, this little island of Mopane, in a sea of drought-stricken bushveld, is home and the lives of those of us simple things that inhabit it continue to interact and we are all comfortable in our space, regardless of seasons and weather. 

Night falls on Mopane Grove

Thank you for reading this glimpse of my life, more will follow...in time...