Competition, presents and a busman’s holiday

With work taking up 9 hours/day for 6 days/week, and early nights from all the fresh air induced tiredness, we tend not to have too much free time outside of fieldwork. And that’s not adding in the mundane stuff – cooking dinner, data entry, etc. A lack of TV dish and proper internet means that we each have our own activities to concentrate on – research, editing photos, preparing blog posts.

To create a bit more excitement, we’ve had some extra adventures. For my first month here, we had a Rocky Road Off, a cross between Come Dine With Me and The Great British Bake Off. This was my first time making a Rocky Road and I stuck with a traditional recipe, only swapping digestive biscuits for my homemade orange-flavoured biscuits. It turns out I had beginner’s luck as I scored the highest and won the competition!

More recently we filled our evenings with preparation for a big day – Christmas in the Bush. Preparation included creating Secret Santa gifts, making snowflakes and paper chains, and planning food. We held Christmas at a friends’ house, where the first activity was the opening of a stocking present each, followed by Secret Santa. I’d made chocolate dipped orange biscuits (same type as I used in the Rocky Road Off) and received chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cornflake cakes. I tried my best to not eat them all at once.

Yummy present!

Yummy present!

Presents were followed by team activities. First up was a treasure hunt around the house and garden, in which my team came first! A break was called for an amazing Christmas lunch, and after some post-lunch lazing around, we commenced with a quiz which my team did ok at. Our win from the morning pulled us through and we won the day by 5 points!

Barcode at Christmas

Barcode at Christmas

Our other big time filler is going on game drives. You might think that spending all day in the bush could quench our desire to see more wildlife, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Namely, they are very different experiences. Our working days do bring us into contact with the occasional game animal, but the animal normally runs off when it spots you. So the usual wildlife to focus on are the dwarf mongoose (obviously), and the smaller things – the occasional lizard, a variety of insects and plants. Game drives enable us to see the bigger animals. You could say it is a busman’s holiday, but we are more than happy to spend our days off out seeing more animals. Last week, we spent a day at Kruger (leaving ours at 5am!) watching a variety of wildlife. But I shan’t reveal more details as Kruger deserves its own blog post I think.

A little blurry but I like this photo nonetheless. From a recent game drive

A little blurry but I like this photo nonetheless. From a recent game drive

So that’s how we have been keeping occupied out here, and it has been very good fun. I wonder what we’ll plan during the rest of my time here? Suggestions welcome. 

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SA Animal Profile – The Dwarf Mongoose (an introduction)

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you will hopefully have noticed that the common thread, or my current raison d’être, is a particularly lovely species, the Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula). Similar looking to a mustelid, such as the UK weasel or stoat, this small (hence the name) animal is one of a range of mongoose species, and is found in the southern savanna and parts of the south west of the African continent. In the Limpopo Province of South Africa (where I’m located), they are a fairly common animal.


Dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula)

The dwarf mongoose is beautiful creature – slim, glossy-coated and fascinating. A highly sociable animal, they live in groups consisting of a dominant alpha pair, their offspring and other subordinate adults. The dominant male and female are the only ones to breed, producing an average litter size of three pups. All adults contribute to the care of the offspring – babysitting, warming and transporting them. Additionally, other females may lactate to feed the pups, despite not breeding themselves.

Each group has a territory, which may overlap between adjacent groups and cause hostility. If two packs do meet, the smaller group usually avoids the larger one. Within the range of their territory, the mongoose have a network of sleeping burrows, day refuges and latrines. The former are normally termite mounds, although trees are also used.

A standard day for a dwarf mongoose starts quite casually. Upon getting up from the sleeping burrow, the group usually spend some time sunbathing and grooming. The amount of time can vary from group to group, and from day to day. When they’re ready, they leave the sleeping burrow for a day of foraging.


Mutual grooming at a refuge

The diet of a dwarf mongoose typically consists of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and larvae, though small vertebrates may also be taken. Foraging occurs in grass, through leaf litter and around logs and trees. As they often need to dig for food, dwarf mongoose are vulnerable to predators including birds of prey, jackals and snakes. While an individual will often pause foraging to scan for predators, they cannot be vigilant during the actual digging process. One mongoose may act as a sentinel, where it sits in a prominent position such as on a rock or log and will alarm call if a threat appears. A sentinel is posted for about 40% of foraging time.


Sentinal mongoose on a rock

The end of the day is reverse to the beginning. The dwarf mongoose will return to their sleeping burrow at some point in the few hours of sunset (it can be two hours before, or less than half hour before), either the same burrow as the morning or a different one within their territory. They normally spend some time sunbathing and grooming before heading down to sleep.

There are many aspects of their behaviour that I haven’t covered, but this has been only a general overview and introduction to the dwarf mongoose species.


These aren’t the mongoose you’re looking for

Also known as, the frustrating third week. It started off hopefully, looking for a dwarf mongoose group I’d not yet met. However, after two days of walking through the bush without finding them, my mood was not so cheerful. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those two days, I saw a number of new insects and birds, and potentially even a crocodile down at the waterhole! I’m undecided about this last one. I had just arrived at the waterhole, when I saw something rather large on the opposite side, sliding into the water. Logic indicates that it probably was a crocodile.

Image The waterhole/lake where I (maybe) saw the crocodile

The following days I was with a different group, one that found easily. They are a lovely group, though following them through the scrub was quite exasperating as the weather was quite cool and chilly. When the wind blows, foraging mongoose just stop their activity, leaving you to panic that you’ve lost them because they’ve moved during the windy time and you didn’t hear. Sometimes true, sometimes they have just stopped moving. I lost them once that way, and spent a couple of hours wandering around calling them. At one point, I thought I had found them, but it turned out to be a neighbouring group where their territory overlaps. I rewarded the group nonetheless for coming to my call. The training needs to be reinforced even if they weren’t the mongoose I was looking for. I lost them again the following day, but luckily found them both times.

To cap off the week, I spent Saturday with a recently habituated group. This meant moving slowly and carefully throughout the day, trying not to cause an alarm call and for them to scatter in all directions. As a recent group, only a few are comfortable coming close, but I’d been told of a confident individual. I was a little wary, confident individuals in other groups are usually quite bad-tempered and growl at the others for the food, or spend the whole time in the weights box. This one was different though, she was calm and patient, able to handfeed without biting your finger. But what made me fall for her was the fact that she licks your fingers to get the crumbs of food. She is absolutely adorable. Later in the day when I was following the group, I had settled onto a rock whilst they foraged around me. She happily climbed up onto the rock next to me, and looked up at me, as if to say “time for more food?” Unfortunately it wasn’t, so she soon left my side to forage, but I think that may be one of my favourite mongoose memories during this fieldwork.


Scientifically Macabre – examining skulls and bones

From 1st July 2013

The start of a new week and I was hiking through the bush, fruitlessly trying to find the dwarf mongoose. To keep my mind occupied, I begun a rough outline for a blog post. It was going to be “The Sorabi Skull”, about the skull that I found last week. Then in a dramatic twist of fate, mid-thought and macabre-minded already, I stumbled across another skull! And not just that, a number of other bones in the immediate area, presumably from the same animal. Oh the excitement.

Now, as mentioned, this is slightly macabre. Getting excited over bits of a dead animal? My non-biological friends look at me weirdly when I show them the skulls I have at home (sheep, small mammals and a bird). However to me, bones – particularly skulls – are fascinating. I love taking apart owl pellets and otter spraints, identifying animals from the bones and comparing the different skulls. In addition, thinking about how an animal’s body neatly fits together with the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and tendons. It puzzles me when someone doesn’t find it even remotely interesting, but each to their own and all that jazz.

So, the Sorabi skull, i.e. my first South Africa skull this year. Oddly enough, this one wasn’t on the ground. In fact, it was hung in a bush. At first, I wondered as to a leopard perhaps eating in a tree and dropping it, but there were no branches above. Maybe someone else had found it, and just chucked it away, and it landed in a bush? The mystery remains. Even more so, to the species. I will admit to poor identification skills on larger mammal skulls – especially in a different country. 

The skull in a bush. Odd.


Back to the new skeleton, and it was a decent number of bones, I shall not lie. Not least that there was a complete upper skull and two lower jawbones. Now, I could identify this one – zebra! Jackpot! Why you ask? My undergraduate dissertation was on zebras, and I like to know as much as possible about a study animal, even if it is from a dead one. I even know what zebra steak tastes like (pretty good by the way).


This was definitely making up for the lack of dwarf mongoose. And the day got even better when I found two African Land Snail shells, followed by a tortoise shell! The tortoise isn’t fully decomposed yet though … desiccated thankfully. With any luck it will decompose completely and I can take a proper look at the shell without touching bits of dead tortoise. Now that is rather macabre.

To finish off, I hope that you either agree with me in finding skulls/bones/shells fascinating, or that you don’t judge me too much. And, it goes without saying, though I will say it anyway, that I don’t ever kill anything in order to gain the bones/shells. I just stumble across them in the bush (sometimes literally). Or in the case of owl pellets and otter spraints, I analyse them for ecological purposes. 


Also found since: an impala skull



Close Encounters, of the Jumping Spider kind

From 31st June 2013

Have you just read that title and shuddered? Me too. And I was the one that experienced it! Quickly, a preliminary foreword about my viewpoint and ability to deal with insects. Normally I am pretty good and can cope with most things – spiders, wasps, centipedes, etc. This is despite a couple of traumatic experiences, including a wasp whilst working at ZSL London Zoo that was very determined and reduced me to tears and hyperventilating. I still have a scar, and it was over four years ago.

However, one thing that is guaranteed to help you deal with shudder-inspiring insects/arachnids is working with children. You just can’t freak out about them then, because that would encourage them to do so and that isn’t a great introduction to nature. So I’ve got over most of these fears, even the wasps.

This weekend, I realised that there is something I may never get over. Jumping spiders. Spiders in normal form, yes, they are usually ok (UK house spiders excepting, because the ones in my house are huge!). In the bush, I came across a small jumping spider (species unknown currently), and I was ok. It didn’t jump much and besides, it was rather cute. About the size of my little fingernail. All fine.


Sunday however. I was at the nearest restaurant using their WiFi, and suddenly there was a spider on my laptop screen. Initially, I wasn’t freaked out, although it did concern me whenever the spider tilted its head to look at me. And then the spider jumped.

Not onto me thankfully, but onto my keyboard. I shuffled back on my seat, not daring to touch my keyboard. It kept looking up at me. My mind went into panic mode, my thoughts consisting of “Oh my word, it jumps … the spider jumps … it’s looking at me … it jumps … aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”.

I was in luck, it scurried off my keyboard onto the table and down the table leg. I let out a sigh. But too soon, the spider was still looking at me and next thing I knew, it had jumped onto me. Oh my word, adrenaline and panic and freaking out. I struck out to get it off my leg, and with luck, it disappeared under the table. Out of sight, out of mind.


So, maybe you’re fine with arachnids and even jumping arachnids, and you’re thinking that I’m a complete wuss. Possibly. But we all have little fears, and I think this may continue to be one of mine for a while yet. Maybe I shouldn’t visit Australia, I hear that they have big jumping spiders there, on top of all the other poisonous creatures trying to kill you. 


The first day

From 24th July

I’ve had my first full day here in South Africa, and crikey, already there is so much to tell. I shall attempt to keep it brief and focussed on the main events, though I may occasionally go off on a tangent.

The first evening here was a great reintroduction to SA. Five of us (myself, the researchers and two of their friends) had a braai out on the back verandah. And what better way to get back into the culture of SA than a braai. Pork fillet and chicken sizzled, whilst a mix of tasty vegetables were cooked up. As an exhausted and weary traveller, I was excused from helping out though of course, I still offered to. I sat on the outdoor sofa, snuggled under the spare duvet and generally enjoyed life. The sound of the SA accent was music to my ears, and I thoroughly enjoyed the squeaky accompaniment of bats as they swooped through the verandah in search of a very different type of meal.

Bed was a welcome affair and I believe that I zonked out fairly quickly. After catching up on some sleep, it was into Heodspruit quickly to stock up on food and essentials. For me, this immediately meant two things – chocolate and biscuits. Now this sounds rather sad I admit, but I’ll explain these specific ones aren’t available in the UK.

I feel I should share something that made me chuckle. As we drove into Heodspruit, we passed a road sign. You’ll know the type I mean – triangular with a red border with a simple black picture inside, it may be related to the road or another warning. This one contained a picture of an animal. Now, the last one of these animal signs that I’d seen had been in the UK, near the RSPB Ynys-hir Reserve, and it had been a frog (or toad? Hard to tell from a simple picture!). This had amused me in itself as I’d not soon one like that before. So imagine my delight and amusement to see an elephant warning sign on the road. Somewhat different! Luckily (in terms of driving safety), I was assured that the elephants are quite rare to see on the road.

The journey back to the reserve also provided something new – a vervet monkey ambling across the road, seemingly uncaring to a car hurtling towards it. Of course, we drove around it, though it didn’t seem to even notice that it had been in our path.

So to the work reserve, where almost immediately I saw my first few impala as they dashed across the road in front of the car. They bring back fond memories of my first visit to SA as they were a frequent sighting during my stalking of zebras (there will definitely be a later post about zebras, I am slightly obsessed). Once in the reserve, we set off on foot to find the study animal – dwarf mongoose. Instead our first sighting was something rather larger – a female kudu off in the trees. Now these are fab animals, such delicate features.

We did manage to find the dwarf mongoose, but I shan’t go into details as they will fill a number of future blog posts, being the main study animal and all. Suffice to say, I was introduced to the habituation process and I fell in love with them, they are such endearing little mammals.

On the way back out of the reserve we drove past another animal that contrasted to the small dwarf mongoose – a giraffe. And a very placid one at that, it just stood there, munching away and calmly gazing at us. A certain two people reading this blog are likely to be very jealous of this close run-in, and I won’t lie when I say that my heart skipped in excitement. Two years since my last wild giraffe, then one on my first day and so close!

It has been a great start, and what I’ve written here is just skimming the surface of what I could write, but I’m trying not to bore you with the ALL the details. One other thing, dinner is being cooked currently (taken in turns each night) and it is cottage pie. Except, it is with ostrich rather than beef. So, I don’t know what kind of pie it is … but it’ll be delicious that’s for sure.

I’ve not learnt any Afrikaans or other local languages yet, so I’ll just say, so long and thanks for all the fish!