Birds in the Bush (In Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park-Part 2)

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But what if that bush contains hundreds of birds? Astonishing to say the least and could certainly be worth more than one bird in the hand…..still, you can judge for yourself. When we get there.

Hammerkop on a dead branch overlooking the Zambezi River, Zambian side.

For now, we have just entered the park and the heat, even on this early September morning, is noticeable. By contrast, watching the river under a blue sky makes me feel cool. The river itself gleams silver in the sun and is lined with tall, rustling Palms, both Ebony and Ivory, and leafy, green Waterberry and Mahogany trees. I find it quite mesmeric and occasionally have to remind myself to look in the opposite direction for on the driver’s side of the vehicle, the park stretches into the  varied tangle of bush, anthill and enormous trees that make up this rich and varied habitat. In this park, Mopane and Acacia woodland sit side by side with mixed scrub-land and Kalahari veld. In all, I read that there are 6 distinctive vegetation types, including riverine, which is evident along the banks of the river, and swampland, which I expect is more noticeable in the rainy season.

In such sublime surroundings, as you would expect, the bird life is stunning, abundant and diverse. Trumpeter Hornbills swoop through the trees in small noisy groups whilst Marabou Storks assemble in a vast hubbub of numbers in the drier, low and open areas where water will collect when the rains come later in the year. Bee Eaters sit on branches which overhang the river, as do Kingfishers, whilst far from the bank, African Darters perch on half-submerged, leafless trees, keeping watch on the water. Overhead an African Fish Eagle soars and keeps a sharp, birds’ eye view out for any fish swimming in the Zambezi flowing beneath him. From a dead tree stump on the river bank beside us, a Hammerkop watches us drive by and further along a Wood Hoopoe eats the tiny fruits from a Wild Fig.

Oxpeckers cling to the neck of a giraffe in Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia.

For some birds, their meal is mobile; the Oxpeckers live alongside the game. We see a pair of them on the neck of a giraffe. They flutter around that long neck or sit companionably on their chosen ride and meal ticket, feasting not only the parasites such as ticks which accumulate on the game, but also sometimes, less favourably, on the blood from a wound on any animal.

With our windows wound down to watch oxpeckers and giraffe, we are aware just then, of constant, piercing noise; the sound of thousands of shrill birds all chirruping simultaneously. I am reminded of Weaver nesting time in my garden. This noise however, is much, much louder and we search for its source. I am expecting to find Weavers and look for them in the high tree canopy but there are no nests, no birds, nothing there.

Red-Billed Quelea on the bank of the Zambezi River.

We finally pinpoint the sound as coming from a single, squat and shrubby tree. And as we approach it, we realise that it is not the only one, for there are others like it, along the river bank, and from each, an astonishing bird cacophony arises. A closer look reveals there are literally hundreds of small birds in these trees; so many in fact, that each tree itself appears to be a single, constantly moving entity. As they flutter and jostle with each other in the confines of the branches I find these birds are small, streaked with pale brown and white, and have bright red beaks. I see at once they are not Weavers at all, but that small African native from the Finch family, the Quelea – and later I’m told, the Red-billed Quelea. I have seen these birds before, in smaller flocks on the farm. And they are perhaps most famous for their voracious appetites amongst a farmer’s hard-won grain fields. But I am astounded by the sight; I certainly never expected to see them here, perhaps even in their thousands, gathered in a few small trees along the banks of the Zambezi River.

In the park, there are some White Rhino, including a two year old baby. The rhino are in need of food so Destination Livingstone have started a campaign.We are trying to raise $10,000 so that the last remaining 8 white rhinos within the Zambia National Parks, can be fed through our dry season when there is very little grass. With very few international visitors, the income for Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park has drastically reduced during the last 18 months. Please watch the wonderful uplifting video taken earlier this year. It shows the excitement of Livingstone residents seeing our rhinos “up close and personal” for the first time. We don’t want this to stop just because we can’t afford to feed them. That’s why we are asking for your help.”

If you are enjoying my blog diary about the park please consider making a donation. There are excellent future plans to have lucerne grown locally but for now, the rhinos need our help, and even the smallest amount can make a big, big difference. Please follow the link for more information and to donate.

https://globalgiving.org/projects/feed-a-hero-be-a-hero

Watch White Rhino in the National Park by following this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

African Giants (In Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park-Part 1)

There is a true gem on the Zambian banks of the beautiful Zambezi River. It is an outstanding place that I particularly love. It’s a place to watch both wildlife and the river – the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, Zambia’s smallest National park. Its twin, the Victoria Falls National Park, lies over the river, in Zimbabwe.

There are two roads into the park. The one we know and use, is perfect to me. It is a dirt road that invites us to take it slowly as we pass beneath occasional canopies of shady trees and open areas of bushveld. And travelling along just beside us (but in the opposite direction) the Zambezi flows on towards where it will plunge over the Victoria Falls. The river and its banks draw the eye, for this is a truly water-blessed, riverine habitat.

Meanwhile, in the bushveld there is a lot to look for, the anticipation almost as enjoyable as the sighting. And in September the veld is less lush than it will be when the rains come so it is easier now, to spot wildlife. The drying leaves and sparser vegetation open windows into this wonderful, wild habitat.

Elephant pushing against a palm tree to force the fruit to drop.

All along the road, there is evidence of African giants….here and there, an enormous tree pushed over, tells us that elephant passed this way some time. Some of these trees now lean drunkenly against a neighbour. Others have collapsed completely. Over time, dried out by the elements, they eventually become hollowed-out husk habitats for much smaller creatures.  In the road we see the unmistakeable mounds of elephant dung, some newer than others. And then – suddenly – the elephant themselves. For such large animals they often seem to appear out of nowhere, having apparently been hiding in plain sight. But of course they were always there – we just don’t see them at once. We watch them. I am struck anew by the sheer size of these leviathans. And yet, they walk in almost complete silence, in spite of their enormous feet; – complete silence if not for the crunching of the dried leaves and snapping twigs upon which they tread so carefully.

We stop to allow one lone elephant to cross the road in front of us. He walks with purpose and takes little notice of us, his trunk swinging slightly with his gently rolling gait. He seems to have a destination in mind and later we see him again, around the corner, eating fruit from a Wild Fig.

In a different part of the park, one large, older bull with a broken tusk and who appears to be blind in one milky eye, is more concerned by us than any of the others we have slowed down to observe. I expect it is because he can’t see us as well as he would like to. His companion is not worried by us but the bull sniffs the air with his trunk and turns to stare in our direction. He holds his trunk up and moves it about, as if unsure of how far away we are. We don’t stay watching him too long. I feel deep pity for his handicapped eye sight.  It must cause him moments of concern.  For that reason too, it seems prudent, to us, to move on.

in MOSI-OA-TUNYA PARK, AN ELEPHANT with a broken tusk watches us.

Another bend and another small group of elephant; in all we count nearly 30 in the park this day. Some of them have a wet tide mark around their bodies and we realise they must just have been in the river, either simply cooling off, or having swum across from the Zimbabwe side.

We stop to watch one pushing against a palm tree, shaking the fruit to the ground. The fruit drops and other elephants join him in the feast. Another slowly strips leaves and stuffing them into his cavernous mouth, ignores us while he chews. There are quite a few elephant under this clump of shady trees and they pick their way through torn-off, dried out palm tree leaves. We wonder if these are part of the large herd that is often seen passing through the edge of Livingstone town.

Close up of browsing elephant on the banks of the Zambezi, Zambia.

As we near the exit we are rewarded with yet another elephant, this one browsing along the river bank. He is so close to us that my camera picks up his eyelashes. And the hairs on his face. There is something wonderful about an elephant’s eyes. Beneath long fluttery eyelashes there seems to be a deep and ancient wisdom. (I expect an angry elephant eye would look quite different and may I declare, loud and clear; I never wish to find out for certain!) This elephant however, appears perfectly comfortable with us gazing up at him from our car. In his eye I fancy I see a gleam of understanding. Or perhaps it is simply the gleam of satisfaction at having found exactly what he wanted to eat, for lunch.

I hope you enjoyed this first chapter. Expect more from the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Park next week!

Watch some lovely footage of elephants, including the most adorable babies, set to that iconic piece of music by the great Henry Mancini, “Baby Elephant Walk” which he wrote in 1961 for the 1962 film Hatari. It is sure to make you smile.

For an old poem about the elephant, African Giant, by Noel Brettell, and to listen to that cheery little song from Disney’s original “The Jungle Book”, the Elephant Marching Song, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Zambezi Reflections

If there is a sight more beautiful in this wide world than sunrise over the Zambezi, I do not know it.

Sunrise over the Zambezi River.

This sight not only fills the eyes with wonder, but the heart with pride; for this is ours! It is both uplifting and humbling to see this masterpiece of Nature. We will of course loan this spectacle to anyone who wishes to come and see it for themselves, but for those of us who were born here, this river has a hold upon us that is both mystical, like an enchantment, and physical, like a hand pressed to the heart.

The Zambezi is a big river. It has a catchment area of 1 390 000km² and is almost 3000km long. Its vitality and significance on the lives of those who dwell upon its banks cannot be over emphasised. And on any given day, the Zambezi means different things to different people. To the local fishermen in the dugout canoe we saw there, the river means food, albeit at great personal risk from hippo and crocodile. To the visitor fishermen who left their beds at dawn to take a guided fishing trip, it meant a day of sport and recreation, such as they won’t ever forget.  To some, like me, it is simply the sheer joy of watching this glorious body of water. 

Of course, to the many diverse animals and living creatures who dwell alongside and in this river, it is the place where they live, and breed, and sometimes die. Like the sun that rises and sets, they have no awareness of human cares. All along the river, life plays out; baboons gambol and bark, hippo surface and disappear and a giraffe towers among the palm trees. These creatures do not know that we come to find them, so that we may lose ourselves.

They have no notion of what ever human emotion we may feel when we look at them; the ageing buffalo male rolling in the mud on the river bank will never know the awe he inspires as we watch him from our boat. He rolls in the very place where his companions drink but this does not seem to bother them. He butts his head into the softness of the wet river bank, coating his face and his powerful boss, with Zambezi mud. For us watching him, this is the real privilege; the privilege in being able to see a buffalo in the wilderness take a moment out of the hard business of his life, to do something which seems to give him so very much satisfaction.

Buffalo AT DUSK, on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River.

The African Darters which fish these waters themselves cannot know they look serpentine as they bob along in the water, their entire body submerged up to the long, snaking neck, as they watch for fish. The Wire-tailed Swallow skimming like a small rocket over the surface, scooping up some insect too tiny for our human eyes to see, will never know how breathlessly fast he is, he just is. Unbelievably fast.

On the Zimbabwe bank of the river, the crocodile we see lying supine in the sun, does not even know we watch him for we are on the Zambian side, nor would he care, unless we come too close. His spine is notched and dark grey against a pale yellow sand bank; he lies near trees with roots so gnarled and twisted, like a Banyan, a knot of tangled woody stays and lines, to keep the tree upright even when the water rises, as it does.

Just before the sun riseS, a view of the Zambezi, looking over into the National park on the Zimbabwean side.

For the river is endlessly changing; it does not stay the same. In the winter you can see evidence of where it was at its height; the debris and driftwood a giveaway to its tide mark in Summer. But even daily, there is change. In the early morning before the sun comes up fully, there is calm and the water looks perfectly still. Like a mirror polished to such perfection, it is so serene, you can scarcely tell what is real and what is reflection. But as the sun hits the top of the tree line the temperature drops and the wind picks up. At once, the river currents are visible again. As the wind increases, so too the waves on the water and in some places where rocks are near the surface, there are short bursts of white water. Out on an evening cruise we see up close how the widest part of the river is also the wildest; the waves roll over one another and cause the boat to rock in all directions.

We have been on the river and once again we are richer for it. We disembark. The river slips away from us as she continues on her journey and we walk back to our cosy bungalow. We have been able to call the Zambezi home for a bittersweet, short while. When we drive away, I am already longing to return.

The Zambezi River is mighty. There are few pieces of music that can truly capture its essence. This one comes quite close. It is Heart of Courage, by Two Steps from Hell, a music production company established by Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix in 2006. Their music has been used in many films and advertisements and they have released 14 albums. Take two minutes to click on the music link and listen while you scroll up to a photo of the river. You may even find yourself there.

For my poem “Zambezi” and a great, short clip about this magnificent river, please follow the link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Planning a trip to the beautiful Zambezi? We stayed in this lovely place and I can highly recommend it!

In the Shade of the Sausage Tree

Zambia is a big country. At over 750 000 km², it is about the size of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland combined. And bigger than Texas. No wonder then, that the vegetation and the bird populations can vary so much from one province to another. Many of the trees which occur naturally in Zambia can be found all over, but there are certain species which flourish more in one area than another, due to climate. Here in the South, we are much cooler. Zambia is only 1700km or so south of the Equator, so it stands to reason, that the further North in the country you travel,  the closer to the equator and the warmer it becomes. And for me, there are certain trees which typify this heat. The beautiful Baobab is one of these; the other is the magnificent Sausage Tree.

Kigelia Africana – the Sausage Tree, on a farm in Chisamba area in AuGUST.

I have a little Sausage Tree in my garden and notwithstanding the fact that it had its top eaten off some years ago by a bushbuck (I don’t want to talk about it) I know it will take many years before, if ever, it reaches the splendour of its relatives that grow in the hot Zambezi valley or in the wetter, hotter Northern areas of Zambia. The Sausage Tree is in fact,  Kigelia Africana, a native to this continent.  I find it a fascinating tree and not just for its good looks.

Sausage Tree fruit is long and sausage-shaped (Well of course it is.) Up to a 1m in length, each fruit can weigh as much as 10kg each! Inside, the fibrous pulp is embedded with seeds and when dry, the seed makes a soft rattling sound. The fresh pulp is devoured by elephants, monkeys, baboons and birds. Meanwhile the  dark maroon flowers borne in late Winter, when there is very little other food around, are not only beautiful, but rich in nectar and an extremely popular sustenance for many different animals, from bats to antelope.  What’s more, rather miraculously, the blooms don’t all open at once; this offering of flowery food is spread over several evenings, even weeks.

The fruit of the Sausage Tree, Kigelia Africana.

And if you also consider that Kigelia has long been the subject of tests for the treatment of various skin ailments,  and that you can get Kigelia ointment which is used for sun burn, you can the enormous value of this truly amazing tree.

Recently the man and I came upon a spectacular specimen on a farm in hot country north of Lusaka.  The overhang and spread of the branches was vast and there were more fruit on that tree than I had ever seen on one before. It was dotted with blooms too, rich dark red against the green and grey of the tree. Looking at it, I thought it is both typically African but with an air of the exotic; since for me,  it is intrinsically linked to the hot Zambezi valley, to game drives, to wild elephant and a river of great power. To see it out in on farm track walk therefore, was both a surprise and a delight.

Rather like the Marabou Storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) we saw on the same farm, and on the same walk. Like the Sausage Tree they are reminiscent to me of visits to Zambian and Zimbabwean game parks, because I have only ever seen them in such places. The flock we first saw turned out to be one of several, some hanging around an area with old, bleached, cattle bones and some perched in the spiny branches of a huge dead tree. Yet another group stood about in the shade of the Sausage Tree. We saw about 100 storks in all.

Marabou Storks in Chisamba area of Zambia.

Up close, they are truly enormous birds! I read that their average wing span is three metres or 11 feet. Certainly, quite a few of the ones we saw, fitted that description. They walk very slowly on thin white legs. I read that the white comes from their own mute, or defecation, which keeps them cool. Ewww, as my girl would say! Between that and the fact of being carrion-eaters, no wonder they are quite pungent downwind! Like other storks they fly with their legs trailing behind but Marabou are able to tuck their powerful neck in, creating an s shape, which helps them carry the weight of their heavy, dagger-shaped beaks.

Marabou Storks in the late afternoon sun.

A Marabou Stork is chiefly a carrion-eater, feeding off dead carcasses, but it will fly ahead of the flames during a wild fire, and prey upon the small creatures fleeing on the ground.  The Marabou is social, gregarious and quite noisy considering it apparently does not have a voice box!  To us, they seem to rattle their beaks but we heard honks and other guttural sounds emanating from them as they flew off, alighted and jostled with one another, moving just ahead of us as we walked.  

To me, this is an extremely intriguing bird, but not a beautiful one. A tuft of white hair sprouts from its pinkish, wrinkled, bald head and its eye is beady,  giving it the appearance of a wizened and cantankerous old man who has spent too much time in the sun, waiting impatiently for someone to bring his gin and tonic. Or in this case, perhaps, a Bloody Mary. With ice. And be sharp about it.

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Watch elephants, giraffe and other African animals, and learn more about the Sausage Tree in this short clip from by Discovery UK. It was filmed in Zambia.

For a lovely old poem about trees and interesting footage of baboon eating Sausage Tree fruit in South Africa, please follow this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A New Day

This morning from the depths of my bed, I heard the night jar calling. I haven’t heard him for a while and the sound was most welcome. Later, when I got up, three Heuglin’s Robins (yes, yes – White-browed Robin Chats – allow me an eye roll) sang with full, sweet voice. The dawn chorus had begun.

And what a dawn it was! That glorious light, that birdsong, that crowing cockerel… wait a minute – I don’t even own a cockerel! But often, on a clear, crisp day you can hear cockerels from the neighbouring farm or from the workers’ compound. It is a quintessential African sound, heard at dawn. Or as in the case of a cockerel on the farm where I grew up, heard earlier and earlier in the morning, until finally a 3.am. crowing resulted in him being covered with an old drum in the hope of keeping him quiet until the drum was removed at a respectable hour. Still, usually, farm cockerels crow as the sun comes up, to herald a new day.

And so it was today, both literally and figuratively; and not just on the farm, for all around Zambia there is a happy feeling of optimism as a new government was overwhelmingly voted into power just days ago and people have hope, once again.

FLOWERS ON BAUHINIA GALPINI.

I have a hope of my own, meanwhile on this August day, that Winter is drawing to a close and Spring may be on the way. The early mornings are still cold but later the days are warm, even hot. The grass is long and dry, and seed-heads bounce in the wind. Burs and thorns attach themselves to me as I walk and I arrived back home, this morning, with a passenger; a tiny brown caterpillar who had fallen on to the sleeve of my jacket. And there are other signs, should I care to look for them.

Pods appear on many of the wild trees, whilst some have the first signs of fruit. Others, like the Wild Fig (Ficus) have been bearing fruit for a Winter bounty, whilst the Wild Pear (Dombeya) and Bauhinia (Galpini) are covered in lovely pink blooms. Beneath the trees, fallen leaves lie thickly. They crunch when you walk upon them although I usually try to be careful where I step. All manner of things can be found lying in our leaves. In thickets the leaves may lie undisturbed, but sometimes, in an open grassland area, a whirlwind whips them up into a wild, whirling dance. It is astonishing how high the wind can sometimes take them.

FUTURE TREAT – THE Unripe fruit on the Monkey Orange (in this case, Strychnos Madagascariensis)

Not all the trees lose their leaves in winter, or if they do, it is only for a very short time. On the Monkey Orange (Strychnos Madagascariensis), a small tree with greyish bark, are tennis-ball sized green globes, as yet unripe. But tell that to the baboons we saw raiding the tree! One large male ran across the road in front of us, bearing his trophy triumphantly in his teeth. I wondered if baboons can eat green fruit without getting a stomach ache… For myself, when the fruits have turned yellow, they contain small segments of such fragrance and tart deliciousness as I can remember from my childhood. Only the flesh was to be consumed because the pips were said to contain poison and I do recall the panic I felt once, after having swallowed one. Nothing happened and I did not stop eating them. I always loved them. And still do but you have to be quick to get your hands on a ripe one; they are much in demand!

Mnondo tree in all its SEASONAL glory.

Perhaps the most unmistakeable sign that Spring is imminent in this part of the world, is the changing of the leaves on Msasa and Mnondo. These magnificent, iconic trees of the veld are now crowned in shades of russet and gold, and soon will be a lime green which darkens as the season goes on. This August palette, which in Zimbabwe, usually happens in September, is short-lived here in Zambia, much like our Spring. In the space of one day, I have seen a tree go from pale red to orange and by next morning, be green. I know I am not alone in my love of this time of year and this transformation. To me, the changing of the foliage marks the cusp between one season and the next, as if Nature herself gave us a chance to pause and reflect, and then go forwards with anticipation, gladness and hope for the season to come.

From archetypal trees to that classic sound of African music – the high wailing trumpet, inevitably coupled with a repetitive foot-stomping rhythm. This one, an old favourite of mine; was composed by Zimbabwean, August Musarurwa. It has been covered by other bands and artists, but this, the original, played by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band, is my favourite version. The tune is called Chikokiyana (say Chee-kor-key-aarna) or Skokiaan (say Score-key-aarn) which is an illicit home-brewed beer made from yeast, sugar and water. No wonder it’s happy music and perfect for a happy day!

For a poem, and that great swinging son by Michael Bublé, It’s a New Day, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

African Farm

There is a sign on the way to the north of Zambia which I favour above all others. It has a simple message; “If you ate today, thank a farmer.”

And yet it has become quite fashionable to accuse farmers of spoiling the land. But I don’t get that at all. Why would someone damage that from which his very livelihood springs? I believe that this kind of inaccurate, and self-righteous claim stems from trendy, foreign pseudo-intellectuals living in ivory towers. I am as far removed from them as they are from reality. To me, they are so far from the real world that the rest of us live in, they may as well be on another planet. And oh, how I wish they were….

Young Avocado trees with PROTECTIVE teepees.

I hold them partly responsible for the fact that the family farm, passed down over the generations, is under threat, everywhere. For many different reasons. And yet how is that a good thing? Family-owned farms have been kept and passed down through the years, preserving and improving the land for the next generation. Family-owned farms have been providing food in countries all over the world, for centuries. And will continue to do so if allowed to. Earlier generations may have done some things differently; certainly they had less red tape and officious scrutiny to contend with, but in the end the land is the important thing, and the ability to make a living. For make no mistake, farming is not just a lifestyle or some romantic idyll. A good farmer is a nurturer, a pragmatist and a juggler. You’d think that a world that wants to eat, would let a farmer simply go about his business. Wouldn’t you?

Monkey and Bushbuck beside the grass-planted field.

On this farm, like many others in the region, there is an abundance of wild life and not only in the natural areas of bushveld. Whilst baboon and monkey move in the canopy of the trees down in the fields Bushbuck pick their careful way, nibbling as they go. A myriad of birds dwell here; guinea fowl in vast flocks and francolin in family groups, find both forage and shelter in these planted cathedrals of grass. Where the prey are, so too the hunters; like the Civet that the man spotted one dew-drenched morning. This piece of earth is valued and cared for and managed. It supports wild life as well as livestock, just as the farm itself supports not only the family who owns it, but an abundance of other families too, who work and live upon it. Meanwhile the world’s habits and food demands keep changing, and so too must the successful farm. Evolution is inevitable. For us, it was the introduction of Avocado trees three years or so ago.

Out in the lands, the newest Avocado trees have small teepees of shade cloth to protect them from the wind and cold.  The larger, older trees stand bare but seemed to have survived the frost that we had. This might in part, be due to the protection of a special coat of paint which covers their trunks. The paint, in fact protects them against sun burn – who’d have known it – but as with so many simple solutions, ends up serving a duel purpose. All the trees are also mulched which is so vital in these dryer days of Winter. I have seen, in my own garden how well it works. The soil beneath a cloak of leaves and grass is cool and stays moist long after an exposed bed has utterly dried out. The Avo trees are mulched with hay, cut from the grass grown for that purpose. I really do like the simple perfection of that process.

Hay bales for the mulching of the Avocado trees.

The hay bales themselves are stacked neatly beside the fields.  They always get my attention. Call me strange, but there is something enchanting about a hay bale…to me it is not only the epitome of practicality and planning, but it has also some romantic, bucolic appeal, with all the charm of an old countryside painting. Here the golden grassy cylinders are towered over by a Msasa tree which has already changed colour in preparation for Spring, its red-brown leaves against a deep blue sky.  To me, hay bales and Msasa trees do indeed paint a picture; that of an unmistakeably African farm.

A favourite of mine – African Dream, sung here by that voice of South Africa, Vicky Sampson.

For a poem by Zimbabwe-born poet, Colin Styles, and “Fields of Gold by Sting, please follow:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Winter’s for the Birds

Out and about on the farm, on an early August morning in Zambia, it is not unusual to see the birds fluffed up against the cold. I believe I can relate to that!

In Winter I must add several layers to reach my own optimum temperature – and let’s face it, being an African, I’d much rather it was on the balmy side. Birds of course, don’t need jackets and socks, nor do they hop around like a loon, trying to pull on one fake-fur-lined boot after the after. I mean why use the perfectly good chair to sit on, when you can hop around? And as I have no answer to that, I will move on.

Puffed up against a Winter’s morning cold in Zambia.

Birds of course, use their feathers, which are perfect for insulation. Feathers are literally marvels of engineering. And definitely deserve their own blog. Sometime. In the colder weather, birds move their versatile feathers around and trap pockets of warm air against themselves. Some will also stand on one foot, tucking one up into all that cosy, trapped heat, then swapping it to warm the other. They also find sheltered corners and cosy places for themselves. So much so that I don’t see many birds early in the morning; they are not that active in my very shaded garden. In Winter, an enormous ant hill and big trees that stand upon it cast long shadows and block out the early morning sunshine till quite a bit later in the day. But this is not the case everywhere.

Beside the cattle pens, in the top of a Paperbark Thorn tree (Acacia sieberiana), I see a flock of birds catching the first warm beams of sunlight before they set off for the day. They look so round and puffy against the cold, I find them difficult to identify. I ask for help from more expert people than myself and discover, even so, that opinion is divided. They may be female Lesser Masked Weavers or Southern Red Bishops, but both are identified to be in their non-breeding plumage. I gather that in this state, there are many smaller birds which are very difficult to identify. Whatever they may be, I love to watch them warming themselves. They flutter in and out of the branches, and some do a little preening. Then, at some unknown signal, as one, they suddenly take off, and creating a small cloud of birds, they head into the nearby grasslands.

Greater Blue-Eared Starlings coming to drink water.

There is water at the cattle pens and water being a huge draw card in our dry winters, means several species of birds can be seen at the water troughs during the day. This early in the morning I see a shimmering flock of Greater Blue-Eared Starlings (Glossy is so much easier to say…) They bob along the fences and swoop in and out, taking turns to drink rather daintily, from the water in the trough. I imagine it must be rather cold at this time of the morning but the starlings don’t seem bothered by that. They hop about and here and there, small squabbles break out. Meanwhile, the early-morning sun catches on their iridescent feathers, turning them to jewels.

In a tree nearby, a Fork-Tailed Drongo is eating some insect morsel that he picked out of the grass fence which surrounds the tobacco seed beds. I think his shiny black feathers make him look warmer than the tiny little Blue Waxbill I spy in a green bush who is so fluffed up against the cold he is almost all body and no head. On the power line that passes along the farm road, some Wire-Tailed Swallows crowd together for warmth. Huddled, in a row, individual birds suddenly take off and sweep into the Winter sky. They loop upward and turn in a blur, then come back to alight on the line once again, but in a different position from where they took off. For a moment I think about how it might be if they were more like us; I get the feeling there would be a conversation going on…

Oy, Gulp! It’s your turn to be on the outside!

Gulp (muttering to himself) Oh for goodness sake! I just got here you know!

Blue Waxbill on a winter morning in Zambia.

As I turn back towards home, I pass beneath a magnificent, tall Mnondo tree. Sitting at the very tip top, I see  a Long-crested Eagle. In this light he seems more black than his actual dark brown. His crest is slightly ruffled by an early morning breeze and he watches me with much less attention than he will later scour the veld for food. For the moment he is just apparently enjoying the sun on his back. Now that, I can definitely relate to!

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A beautiful piece of music called Serenata (Sometimes called the Nightingale Serenade) composed by Italian composer, Enrico Toselli, is here put to stunning photos of some of the winter birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Serenata is one of those pieces of music which I had heard before, but not known its name. Such a beautiful array of birds but all that snow makes me need another blanket over my knees! And I am pretty sure our African birds would find this cold a bit too cold!

Because we have been watching the Tokyo Olympics I have had Japan on my mind. Please follow this link for a beautiful Japanese folk song and some classic examples of my favourite Japanese form poetry – the haiku:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Fascinating Fact

At least once a day my finger hovers over the “leave group” button on my Whatsapp. I cannot adequately explain how annoyed I get with the many ridiculous comments and the amount of absolute nonsense that is posted. The fact that it is often “forwarded many times” is of great concern to me; how many foolish people are there in the world exactly?! Sadly, technology doesn’t discriminate.

Of course, the problem with social media is that we are very dependent on it for communication. But some people use it as a news channel. Which in itself is not that surprising considering how much fake news has been pedalled by so-called real news channels in the past couple of years. But, and like the one belonging to a famous tv reality star, it’s a big one –  the problem with all of this is that so much of what is passed around as news or fact is very, very far from either.

Which is why I’d rather be thinking about Nature. For in Nature, facts are facts. We may learn new ones which support the old knowledge or change our way of looking at something, but in many cases there are absolute truths which cannot be denied. Like the fact that after a frost, such as we had a day or two ago, the lawn grass goes brown. Or the fact that on a very cold July morning, the bushbuck can wander along the swathes of bushveld in my garden without being much disturbed because my dogs are lying under their warm blankets. And won’t easily move.  And the fact that the bushbuck, in search of food, will come into my garden in this winter month of July, more than any other time of the year. And this is true, even in a year such as this one, when humans are still trying to come to grips with the virus and with the many pieces of “information” that have gone viral.  So to speak.

Bushbuck female on the edge of my garden in July.

The pandemic has given rise to its own mythologies and tall tales; most often related to the various miraculous homemade recipes and self-medications that can cure Covid. Steaming was one such home recommended remedy. And, as a means to clear the head and nose when one has the flu, I’d say, excellent. But as a means to “kill” the covid virus….hmmm, not so much. The problem – and this according to a young doctor I know –  is that the steam would have to be so hot that it would in fact damage or even kill the patient!

Like many of these things, I believe a fact or even a sensible suggestion only has to pass through the hands of one keyboard warrior or worrier – both are equally to blame –  before it becomes contorted. Whatever the issue, they will rush to attack or defend; and apparently, not knowing much about the subject does not stop them either! I have come to the conclusion that facts (and sensible suggestions) are like used tissues -they used to be pristine and clean….

Which is why I personally, would rather learn facts about Nature. I’d rather know that there are birds – like the Three-banded Courser, who will half bury their eggs to protect them from predators. Or that in the very hot Zambezi valley, a Water Thick-knee (Waterdikkop) will incubate her eggs during the day to protect them from the heat, and forage at night, when the warm sand will keep them insulated while she hunts for food.

I’d rather know more about a particular, knotty grass that I came upon some time ago. And for once, here is an instance when technology played a good role.  After posting a photo and asking a question on my blog, I was answered, both by an old school friend via social media and by my father, who could tell me what the grass was.

Heteropogon Contortus or Spear Grass, a novel way to self-seed.

“Heteropogon contortus” is the Latin name, or Spear grass. In America it is called Tanglehead. And in its name is the clue to its behaviour. For it contorts. And this was the strange thing I came upon; that it was tied up with its neighbour, as if someone had come along and knotted two grass plants together.  In fact this action is all of its own doing. It will twist and turn, apparently anti-clockwise – until two adjacent plants are knotted together. The name was easier to learn than the why. But I read that the awn, or bearded, spiky part of grass, is hygroscopically – wooo – now that’s a big word – active. That means it is activated by moisture. The drying florets get dew on them in the morning which causes them to quickly turn. Between this action of twisting – dependent on moisture content – and the sharp, barbed tip of the actual seed, Nature ensures that this grass is able to bury its own seed in the soil – if not in the coat of a passing animal, or walker’s sock…

Call me strange, but now that is the kind of fact that I find fascinating…and worth passing along.

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“Here is the News”, by the Electric Light Orchestra or ELO, came out in 1981. ELO, an English rock band was formed in Birmingham in 1970 by songwriters-multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, with drummer Bev Bevan.

Some classic old poems are still relevant today. Such is William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us”. And this great song – First World Problems – by Ian Brown of The Stone Roses, please follow this link: https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Bugs and Butterflies

Here in my corner of Zambia, I’d say July comes in like a butterfly; with all that erratic, unpredictable and flighty loveliness. For in July the butterflies seem even more highly visible than usual; the dry cold air seems to make them more energetic.  And this in spite of the fact that I don’t have many flowers in my winter garden.

Little Orange Acraea ( Acraea eponina manjaca ) and Plebeja blue (Lepidochrysops plebeja) On PointsettIA.

What I do have is a great, sprawling Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that reaches to the eaves of the roof. At noon on a Winter day it is simply alive with insects. All through the enormous blooms, hornets, wasps and tiny winged creatures alight and move from flower to flower, each partaking of the nectar they seek. An iridescent green bug lands but, clearly camera shy, does not stay for long.

Then there are the butterflies.  They seem more energetic, because they are more energetic. Because they have to be, due to the weather. They flit between blooms, landing briefly here and there, opening and closing their wings. I recently discovered this movement helps them warm up and keeps their wings in good order for flight. Their open wings act like a solar panel, absorbing heat.  Conversely, when closed, the wings act like a radiator, and allow the butterfly to cool down again. Watching them flit around, I have often wondered at their erratic flying patterns. I came to the conclusion that this helps them evade predators, which begs the question, why are they so vivid and eye-catching?   

African Caper White (Belenois creona severina) AND POINSETTIA BLOOM.

American scientists have asked and answered that very same question. They believe the colouring is part of the butterfly escape plan. Young inexperienced birds will see butterflies and go after them but soon find they are very difficult to catch. And if caught, they will find that butterflies are slippery for their wings have tiny scales – Who knew! The young birds eventually learn it is not really worth their energy  going after these large, brightly-coloured insects and seek out other prey, elsewhere.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in a shadier part of my garden, there is a beautiful Dombeya tree – a flowering pear, today being rather blown about. Like girls in softly-fragrant pink ball gowns, the Dombeya blooms dance as the wind blows. I notice two beetles feeding on them, one almost entirely covered in pollen. Also on the small tree is a tiny beetle with red and black stripes. He has teeny feelers which wave as if gently scenting the air. To me he seems precariously placed on the edge of  leaf which bounces and sways with the wind. I think how fortunate it is that insects don’t get motion sickness. That I know of. I move a little closer to take another look at him and he flies off.

Tiny BEETLE on a Dombeya leaf.

Beneath the tangled branches of the Moon-flower (Brugmansia Sauveolens) a Boubou and a Heuglin’s Robin (White-browed Robin Chat) unaware of me for the moment, hop through the deep pile of dead leaves that have dropped from the trees above. The Robin scatters them with apparent impatience whilst the Boubou has a more measured approach. But both are hunting insects.  And out in the hot midday sun there is  more than one Brownbul hanging upon the dried up pods of the leafless Cassia Abreviata. They pick at such insects as they can find but I expect there are fewer than in the summer months. Here in the garden, they find food such as they need to sustain them; insects don’t disappear completely in Winter. And it won’t be long before the weather changes.

For the seasons are like the butterflies, you can’t take them for granted.  With their ethereal wings and gossamer lightness upon the air, butterfly beauty, like their life, is ephemeral. Their time on the earth is so very short. Like the seasons. Blink and the butterflies are gone; but if you’ve been paying attention, not before they’ve left you with a little butterfly bliss. And so it is with the seasons; for each has a gift to share if you just know where to look.

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I can’t write the word butterfly without thinking of the famous opera “Madame Butterfly”. It tells how East meets West with tragic consequences. Like most operas, it is sad story told with unforgettable, heart-stirring music and this piece, to me, more haunting than most. And like most opera music, you need to turn it up to fully appreciate it…This is the Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly.

For a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson and that sweet old classic song Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Under this African Sky

In this month of July the Zambian sunlight catches the opened pods on the Pod Mahogany tree (Afzelia Quanzensis) and turns them to silver. There are pods on the Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis) and the Mnondo (Julbernardia globiflora) and some trees, like the Wild Fig, still have fruit. Some of the trees are brown now, some perennially green, but all are beautiful.  I watch for the many different birds that dwell in this wonderful canopy; a Barbet catches my eye, with a flash of its red head.  Down below, if one has a mind to look for them, there is something to marvel at in the smallest of insects. Insects here come in such an array of shapes and colours; literally every year, we see a species we have never seen before.  

An Eland watching me.

I feel so very privileged to be able to walk in this place that I have on my doorstep. This small pocket of semi-wilderness behind our house has a myriad of trails, and dark holes secreted in the twiggy byways. It is also home to that Zambian icon, the anthill. This place I love is wild in that it is a game park, but also part of a working farm so there are occasional crops of tobacco in the fields and cattle grazing on the grass. To my mind, semi-wilderness describes it best.

For it is a fact – and this not grasped by many people who live overseas – that there are few, if any, true and complete wilderness areas left under this African sky. Even in game parks, no matter the size, the game populations have to be managed.  And everywhere else, there are settlements, villages, cities, people.   

Eland and CATTLE in the game park.

That is why, to me, those who are fortunate enough to own a piece of land on this continent have a great responsibility upon their shoulders; for they are custodians not only of a personal legacy that may have been passed down from their fathers, but also as guardians of these small wild spaces, they are partly responsible for the well-being of a community, of a country and taken as a whole, even a continent.

I count myself lucky that I am able to appreciate the beauty of the animals and trees just because they are there; my life is so much richer because of that appreciation. It is of course much easier for me, than one who lives hand to mouth and has no concept of loving something for other than what it can provide. I wish I could communicate this feeling to those who don’t get it. Whenever I get that chance, I try. I have so much admiration for those who make it their life’s work – the rangers, the guides and the true conservationists, who try and walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Sometimes I think education is the answer. Other times, I just don’t know.

Eland and Cattle.

What I do know is that in this wild space behind my home there is an eagle I have yet to identify who sits high up in a magnificent Mnondo tree atop an anthill, and surveys his domain like a king. What I do know is that there are guinea fowl by the hundreds and the grass hums with life. What I do know for certain, is that wherever I go into these bushveld places, I am always in anticipation of what I might see – and I am never disappointed.

Sometimes it’s small, like a fluffy pair of Swainsons Francolin chicks which don’t wait around with the parents shrieking alarm. Sometimes, it’s something big, like a stunning group of Eland antelope that we come upon standing beneath the trees. There is much majesty in their posture and wary watchfulness in their gaze. And to my eye, their horns, partly obscured by the long grass and partly glistening in the late afternoon sun, have an ethereal quality which they do not in reality possess.

 Under African Skies from the great Paul Simon here accompanied by that icon of South Africa, Miriam Makeba, which immediately takes this haunting song to another level of power and beauty.

For a beautiful poem from South Africa and the brilliant Click Song (Qongqothwane) from Miriam Makeba, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Caught on Camera

By day, we see the wild life which ventures into our Zambian garden. At night, not so much. We thought how interesting it would be to know for sure. So, the man bought a new toy; a motion sensor camera. His idea was to put it up in the garden and so capture hours of exciting footage of all the animals that we know come into the garden.

Nocturnal visitor setting off the camera trap.

What we have mostly captured, in fact, is our dogs, me, more of our dogs, an occasional gardener and me. In most of the footage I am standing so close to the camera, I am almost on top of it – utterly oblivious. No matter where it is put. I literally never notice it. It does not feature on my radar at all. Looking back, here I am wondering around the garden, trying to get some pictures of birds. I am dressed in black, like a Ninja, holding the tripod out in front of me as if to ward off attack – clearly, I mean business. Here am I again one dusky evening, and oh dear, in my nightdress – so sorry – secateurs in hand, ready to attack some luckless flowers. But most telling of all, here am I some early morning, in my exercise clothes, having apparently forgotten what I’m supposed to be doing. For why else would I be lugging around the twig mannequin my crafty gardener made, instead of doing my squats? I seem to be pondering what to do next with it, and what’s more I have a tape measure in hand. And not I think, to measure the distance I plan to long jump. Er, squats, tyre pulls, planking – sheepish grin…

It is a hard fact that I often get distracted, especially when I have a crafting project on the go; cups of tea go unmade and lunch gets burnt to a crisp while I glue stuff to stuff and wash paint off my hands. I am rather obsessive and do hate to stop my cutting out just to do something as unimportant as make lunch.  Lunch? Who needs it? Here, have a banana.

Bushbuck male in my garden, Southern Province, Zambia.

But, all that said, there is something rather exciting about sitting down to check the latest batch of photos and video clips. Sometimes it’s some small memories; here it was in the Summer for the man and I are having a sun-downer in the front garden. And there, same place, different night- as a family, the man, the girl and I, all standing huddled around my tablet. I recall it was a warm evening. We were trying to map the stars.

Kudu female eating Spider Lily plants in my garden, Southern Province, Zambia.

The dogs of course set the camera trap off, here a bright-eyed bound and a plumy tail, there a little tan and white body snuffling through the flowerbed. Or our most chilled and fluffy dog who likes to lie flat on the grass on his tummy. At night, they are not out for long, but the camera gives them an intense bright eye. We see other things too; like the startled stare of a rabbit caught on camera, and the streak of unmistakeable spots belonging to a Genet. Something in the grass, too, less defined which we are inclined to feel was a Slender Mongoose.

Kudu male and female, garden Foraging, Southern Province, Zambia.

But we do have some much larger visitors. One thing this new toy of my husband’s has given me in spades, is proof, if I needed it, of all the many buck who come and dine in our Winter garden on a nightly basis! There is literally hours of footage of Kudu chomping on my Spider lilies, Bushbuck going at the Agapanthus and for them both, an endless smorgasbord of plants they find deliciously palatable.  They too have a surprised aspect to the eye and the flash possibly startles them. Not that it stops them eating. To be honest, I am really quite surprised we can’t hear all the chewing at night!

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No song on this page this week but footage instead of really interesting nocturnal visitors caught on camera in the South Luangwa National Park, here in Zambia. Give it a few moments; the music stops for a moment so you can hear the eerie whoop of the hyena. Now that’s a sound to hear at night!

For that great old great song “Photograph” by Ringo Starr, and my poem “The Camera Hates Me”, please follow this link; https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Reflections

One bright Winter’s morning I find the stock dam as still and clear as glass, mirroring both sky and earth in pristine perfection.  No matter where I look, from every tree and plant, to every other living thing beside or on the water, I can scarcely tell where reality ends and reflection begins.

Winter trees at the dam.

Sometimes my mind is a bit like that; but my imagination can take me down tortuous, dark pathways. Then I stop myself in mid thought for to worry about things that may never happen is to worry needlessly. That is one of the many things I love about going into the wild places; for here there is no tomorrow nor yesterday, only a sense of now. Here in Nature I am small, without significance and worry is a human concern. Here, the present is all and I immerse myself in it. Here at the dam I only I have to stop and listen. As that beautiful Enya song, Wild Child, goes, “you don’t need a reason, let the day go on an on.”

Cormorant drying his wings in the winter sun.

There is much life here. The constant call of Cape Turtle and Red-Eyed Doves is background music to the piercing whistles of kingfishers and the high piping notes from some swallows. I watch them soar and plummet. They scoop up insects from the top of the dam then changing direction at breakneck, breathless speed, they fly towards the spillway and swoop effortlessly under the eaves of the pump house roof. I am certain they have a nest under there. This spot is usually a viewing place for kingfishers, because it is on a pontoon and bobs gently out upon the water, and the metal gangway which joins it to the land is a perfect place from which to spot fish in the water below.

Judging by the number of different kingfishers, both Woodland and Pied, I would say there is still plenty of fish in this dam. I watch a large Pied hover and dive to catch, and successfully come away with a silvery, slippery morsel which he carries to a dead tree, to devour.  In the dam I hear a big splash but I see only ripples where a fish jumped and further away another splash, another fish heard, but not seen.  I look down into the water. I expect they are lurking beneath these filmy petticoats of algae, or swimming in that silent, unseen world beneath lily pad and water weed.

KnoB-billed ducks aMID WATER PLANTS on the dam.

A heron passes overhead and gives his croaking call. On the water some Knob-billed Ducks seem to answer but in reality I expect they are communicating with each other. There are a pair close to where I am standing. They stand in the water, at the edge. One of them is preening, his bill working effortlessly at his wing feathers.  The other takes to swimming. Soon his mate follows. Looking like relaxed holiday-makers on a pedal boat, they take a leisurely turn through the water lilies and out into open water. Beyond them an African Jacana, that famous trotter of lilies, is picking his careful way from pad to pad. His handsome plumage always catches my eye. On the overhang of a tree a Cormorant comes into land. He has just been in the water himself and stretches out his wings to catch the warm, winter sun.

Watching them all working at the serious business of life is paradoxically soothing to me. They are not putting on a show nor much concerned with me – unless I get too close. I listen to the metallic sound of insect song, a never-ending buzz that endures from dawn to dawn.  The dam acts like an echo chamber and adds its own particular watery notes.   As I climb into the truck to leave I watch the view recede in my wing mirror. I think that when I am gone it will be as if I was never there. I reflect that this has been the perfect way to spend a Winter morning.

Enya Brennan, Irish singer, songwriter and musician, came to fame in the 1980s, whilst in her family’s Celtic folk band, Clannad. This particular song came out in 2001. Once heard the song has haunted me…and in particular the violins.

For the bittersweet “Reflections of My Life by The Marmalade, that great old hit from the 60s, and a poem about a day dream by William Allingham, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Talking Baboons

These Winter afternoons I have been getting a different kind of visitor. They’re not the sort of folk you’d invite in for tea unless you relished mayhem and destruction. But they’re certainly the kind you’d like to watch. From a safe distance. I’m talking baboons of course.

Having discovered there is food and water being put out for the bulls in the backyard, the baboons, ever resourceful and opportunist, arrive to take advantage of both. They  troop in every afternoon, but only when there are no staff around in the garden, to chase them out.

Baboon in my backyard, Zambia.

We don’t generally encourage baboon too close to the house. For in spite of their comical looks and playful antics, make no mistake, they can be dangerous – especially those that become too accustomed to humans. That is the case indeed, with many of the incidents between man and wild animal, the behaviour of both changes when the animals get too used to humans and the people forget they are wild.  There are plenty of  instances where this has lead to disaster.

Still this time, in the interest of getting photos for my blog, I thought I might forgo my usual standing -on-a-box-to-make-myself-look-bigger-gesticulating-with-my-arms-shouting-get-outta-my-garden pose.  It works up to a point; that point when the larger males in the troop hear my high female voice. That’s when they usually pause in their running away as if thinking, wait a minute, is that scary, hmm, I think not and would you look at that, I’m scratching my armpit….

The thing with baboons is they are canny. It does not take them long to work out what is a threat and what’s not. And of course they have superb eyesight. That, coupled with the fact that I am probably the least stealthy person on the planet, means it doesn’t matter if I am not in fact wearing this bright pink jersey, even if I was to put on khaki and olive green and paint a camouflage pattern on my face, (cue Mission Impossible music) they’d still see me coming. From a mile off. So I need to approach it in a different way.

Large male baboon, mouth rimmed with cattle feed, Southern Province of Zambia.

That approach is that the baboons will know I’m there but they must not feel I’m moving too much or too close for comfort. So here I go, camera in hand and I scuttle from tree to tree, trying to time my movement with the moment that that big male sitting in the feed bin has his head down. It is a challenge all round for me. I keep moving when he looks up and then have to stand stock still for him to go back to eating. I am not looking at my feet so inevitably I stumble and then forgetting I am supposed to be quiet, curse myself. The camera lens which I’ve tucked into my bra (no pockets today) is wedged in a most uncomfortable spot and as if to add insult to injury, a very noisy Trumpeter Hornbill watching me, keeps announcing my progress with loud raucous chuckles.  But in spite of all this, I manage to get to the fence and from here I have a good view of the baboon in question.  I am aware of course that should things turn nasty, that this barbed wire fence will be as fresh air to him and that he could cover the ground in the time it would take me to turn around but I am fairly confident that we will reach no such calamity. I’m keeping my distance and he is enjoying that cattle food too much.

The food is a mixture of maize bran and salt. I wonder idly whether he is picking out only the salt or, like a true gourmet, is he taking alternate nibbles of both, so as to have the full taste in his mouth?  He picks at it rather delicately at first. By the end he is pushing his whole powerful, dog-shaped muzzle into it. Behind him, the young ones play and gambol along the top of the water trough. One almost falls in which causes him much consternation but in a moment all is forgotten as he rough houses with his playmates. The  young ones always make me smile; they are impossibly cute-faced. They shriek when about to be issued with discipline by an adult, especially a male. They will set up a caterwauling and start running away long before he reaches them, perhaps in the hope that he will feel his message has got through.

Youngster, in classic baboon-style, sitting on a fence post.

I recently read that there are several kinds of baboon in Zambia; the Chacra which is mostly found south of the Zambezi River, the Yellow, which is the most common and the Kinda, once considered a sub species of the Yellow, which inhabits mostly Miombo woodland, in the more Northern areas of the country. To know which I’m looking at exactly is more of an intellectual exercise. It would be good to know but I’m not too fussed what kind they are. What I do know is that when you’re talking baboons, whatever the type, it’s inevitably a fascinating mix of comedy, curiosity and awe.

Here is a great clip of baboon sounds and antics. Filmed in South Africa by Photos of Africa VR Safari. How cute are the babies!

For a short poem and If you love baboons and want to learn a few more facts about the many different kinds found on our African continent, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Winter Quarters

 When Winter is here, there is one particularly chilly little corner in my house…..and wouldn’t you just know it – it’s the corner where I write my blog. For here an outside wall contains a tiny hole through which internet and television cables enter. And also little puffs of Wintry wind.  I drape the chair and myself in blankets and put a rug on the floor; a rug which at any other time would cause me to mutter as it catches under the wheels of my typist’s chair, but which at this time of the year, provides a rather essential barrier between the cold tiles and my slowly numbing feet. During the day I gravitate towards the heater and stand over it as I ponder the big questions of the universe; like – what am I going to make for lunch today? I wonder if I need another layer on? And, why are there so many wasps inside my house?

CLUSTERS OF WASPS ON THE GARAGE WALL

Honestly, there are bunches of wasps everywhere, inside and out, in the garage and on the verandah. They love to congregate behind curtains in particular, and from the ceiling here and there and on the walls, they congregate in squirming, brown clusters. They don’t seem to do much in this colder weather, except gather. Every now and then you realise that one of the gatherings has dissipated again. It is true that on sunny winter days it is much warmer outside than in my house. And it’s not as if we have central heating so it seems strange that they find the house better. I see from our garden group that ours is not the only home beset by wasps. I’m not that surprised; we have been in Zambia long enough to know that when insects arrive, they usually do so in vast numbers. Still, I’d have thought outdoors was the place for all wildlife and that my house was not their ideal Winter quarters.

Jeremy Fischer turns out to be a Southern Foam Nest Frog, here in his paler colouring.

But tell that to the frog in the bathroom! He has been sitting (rather precariously in my view) on the small piece of dowel that serves as a curtain rod across the window. In fact he’s been there so long I’ve now named him. He appeared way back in April. I didn’t have the heart to move him as he looked very comfortable thank you very much. Most of the time he sits with his eyes at half mast but every now and then a loud noise will cause his eyes to widen. No other part of him appears to move unless you look very closely when you will see a slight gulping in his throat. In the beginning the noise of the toilet flush would get his attention but this he now takes in his stride. Or should I say lack of stride. Singing in the bath will get a bit of a reaction – and I think he rather likes a rock song. If I go right up to the curtain rod and peer at him he will look back at me but I get the feeling that it would take a lot to make him actually move. There is something rather peaceful about him. His calm demeanour and his sweet half smile make him rather an engaging occupant of the house.

He is not the only frog in the house; there is another, much smaller, who must have had quite a climb since he is settled on to the very tip-top of the antique wardrobe.

My froggy friend, Jeremiah, also a southern foam nest frog.

Earlier in the month before it got really cold, we had frogs everywhere; I was constantly carrying them out into the garden but they would keep coming back. I think they would call their friends too. One large pale one appeared at the glass sliding door one afternoon. He braced his front feet against the glass as if to push. He looked slightly indignant that I did not immediately rush to open it for him. Still, I think he found his way in. I’m pretty sure, as I type this, that it is him sitting on the top of the tapestry wall-hanging in my bedroom. All of which means I have Kermit on the wardrobe, Jeremy Fischer on the tapestry and in the bathroom, although he’s no bullfrog, is Jeremiah.

AUTHOR’S NOTE – In correspondence sparked by the above piece, I have been made aware that what I called wasps are in fact hornets. I am grateful for both the conversation and the correction.

Joy to the World, the Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog version, was a sweet nonsensical song by Three Dog Night, that went to Number one in the top of the pop charts in 1971.

For a poem by Christina Rosetti and for fans of The Wind in the Willows, a song from the film; When the Toad Came Home. This one is especially for my girl and for a friend and neighbour, both of whom just happen to love Toad. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

In the Eye of a Bull

It’s one of my favourite times of year again, when I have bulls roaming in my backyard.

Early each morning they go into nearby fields to graze for the day and then in late afternoon they return to chew their cud and sleep in the fenced paddock behind the house. They have made a definite path between the backyard and the front gate which they follow back and forth, quite calmly. In the morning their herder arrives to push them out and stoically they walk ahead of him, ready to get down to the serious business of eating. Before he arrives they sometimes gather at the paddock gate and there is an occasional bit of jostling, rather like a group of hungry schoolboys waiting for breakfast. Later in the day when they return, they sometimes wander off course on to my tempting green lawn and take tentative sniffs at various plants they encounter. But mostly they just follow their own well-worn path into the paddock as the herdsman closes the gate behind them, for the night.

THE BULLS HEADING OUT IN THE EARLY MORNING

 I do like to lean on a nearby fence post and wait for them, when they come in. They each have their own particular walk and their own way of arriving back in the yard. They are restful as they stand relaxed and idle, chewing cud or simply staring. One of them usually has a long piece of grass dangling out of the corner of his mouth. The grass moves around slowly, methodically, as he chews. One has an itch on his head and he rubs it vigorously and I imagine, satisfyingly, back and forth against a rough tree trunk. Two of them are Boran and have large humps on the back of their necks. Their colouring is shaded from pale to dark, whereas the others are uniformly brown. All have enormous heads and an intense and curious brown gaze. In the eye of a bull there is something of velvet – but also of steel. And a quicksilver gleam from one to the other. Bulls are inquisitive. They seem to find me as interesting as I find them. If I stand and stare, so do they, matching me stare for stare, but not in an aggressive oy-is-this-yours-pointing-at-my-shirt kind of way, just in sheer curiosity. I can watch them for ages; all that implicit strength and power is a magnet to my eyes.  In fact a friend put it rather perfectly the other day; she too loves to watch them. I mean, what can I say – we are farmers’ wives and there isn’t that much entertainment in the country. Anyway…. She said, and I agree, that bulls are literally mesmerising.

Most of the time they don’t do much but that is rather the point.  Most of the time they just get on and live quite peaceably together. But then, as you might guess, there is always that one. He likes to try stir up trouble. And of course he is the smallest – isn’t it always that way?  He will walk up to the gate so that he arrives first, then he will stop and stand stock-still. He seems to lower his head and his eyes become watchful as if waiting to see if anyone will challenge him for effectively, he is blocking the way. I mean the others could go either side of him, but we’re talking bulls here. There is a whole set of bull ethics for them to follow. They cannot simply pass the stationary one, for they don’t know his intention. He might butt at them as they draw level with him. And in fact does sometimes. The fact that any one of them could probably take him down (I mean he is really quite a shrimp compared to the others) is something he seems unaware of. The others do not challenge him, for real bull fights are a very serious business and most bulls won’t enter into it lightly. The other bulls simply wait behind him. Sometimes I can see they are restive but they don’t make any real move. Until he does. When he gets bored, he will start walking again and so will the others.  

BORAN BULLS IN THE PADDOCK

The man tells me there were another pair of bulls on the farm, one much larger than the other. The large one used to follow the smaller one around and the little guy was very much in charge. One morning, the man noticed things had changed. The smaller one had become the acolyte. Of course, when it comes to the mating season, all bets are off as to who will win the toss. For bulls, it’s all about pecking order and your place in the herd.  But that’s the thing about bulls, by their very nature, they are both calm and unpredictable.  They are creatures of habit; but only if it really suits them.

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“El Toro” is a ballad about a bull and a bullfighter and a favourite old song of mine sung by the everlastingly sublime Elvis Presley. From the film “Fun in Acapulco”.

You have most likely heard the “Toreador” song from the opera Carmen. But not like this. Here it is reinvented as “Bull in a China Shop”. If you need a giggle, have a listen. For this and a short, allegorical tale about two bulls and a frog, please follow this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Things Going Bump in the Night

In colder parts of the world, on a Winter’s day, the best place to be is usually inside. This is not always true for us, however, in our thatched farm house. The coolness which serves us extremely well during most of the year, is something of challenge in the few cold months. Inside I am wrapped in a thick pullover and warm boots; out there the sunlight catches the leaves, the wings of a bird, a brisk, bright butterfly and makes everything sparkle. Sometimes I am half tempted to transfer myself to the outdoors to write but I think I would get too easily distracted or too comfortable…the morning winter sun is warm enough to have a blissful, soporific effect.

THE VIEW FROM MY WINDOW – Should I go sit and write outdoors today?

Unlike the early morning walk. That’ll snap your eyes open and put a sting in your cheeks. The dogs race ahead apparently oblivious to the temperature. I bring up the rear, walking briskly in the hope of defeating the doughnut that I enjoyed so much yesterday. I am not entirely focused on the walking; the Winter sky is particularly spectacular this morning. It shines like a water colour painting, with distinct layers of colour, each crisp and clean, which blend seamlessly into the next.  And as if that weren’t beautiful enough, the moon is still high, a full May moon, gleaming like a pearl, still casting her lovely, bewitching light.

The moon in May performs a lot of trickery. If I wake up in the middle of the night during a full moon, the moonlight can befuddle me for a moment – although the man would probably say that is not unusual for it’s I that generally goes bump in the night as I walk into things on my way to the bathroom and on my return, sit up ready for my tea – at 4.00 am – misjudging both space and time.

But I am not the only one who can become confused – just ask the guinea fowl who started shrieking at 2.00 a.m a couple of mornings ago. We were staying at a charming farm bed and breakfast. Nestled in our toasty beds, replete with splendid supper, we slept. Suddenly, shockingly, the tranquillity of the African night was smashed by a very loud crash coming from our daughter’s room.

“Are you okay?” I called to her, sitting bolt upright, whilst her father fumbled into some clothing before heading to her room to investigate. “Mmhmmok” was the muffled response from under her bedclothes. Like a mole, she peeked blearily out at the man and muttered. “Whatwuzatnoise?”

In the moonlight we could just make out the shape of the standard lamp that had toppled over, finally giving way beneath the weight of the school blazer hanging on it. Meanwhile in the garden tree outside, the guinea fowl set up a mighty clamour and caterwauling of their own. The crash had woken them and the moonlight was so bright they thought it was time to get up. It took them quite some time to work out that it was not.

NOISY GUINEA FOWL IN MY BACK GARDEN

In the morning, sitting at our outdoor breakfast table we had hot coffee to wake us up properly and warm pretzels and a brazier to stave off the early morning chill. It was too cold for birds. Those sensible creatures were still in bed. The guinea fowl were now mercifully silent but so was that early-morning troubadour, the Heuglin’s Robin (White-browed Robin Chat). We thought perhaps he had overslept. Perhaps he too had been disturbed by things going bump in the night.

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Al Jolson was born, Asa Joelson, in the Russian Empire in 1886 and moved to America with his family a few years later. His version of this very popular 1926 song became the most successful. He sings, “There’s a time I always feel happy….when the red red robbin comes bob bob bobbin along.. “It’s a different robin here in Zambia of course, but still, I’d agree wholeheartedly.

I recently discovered a band called the Fleet Foxes. Love their style. Have a listen to their song “White Winter Hymnal” and watch the mesmeric stop-motion clip showing an old man who rewinds time. While you’re there, read the lovely old poem Winter by Robert Louis Stevenson, both on this link;- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Meander in May

“What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” These famous words by Welsh poet W.H Davies, were never truer than they are now. Davies was making the point that the human spirit cannot sustain being constantly busy and under pressure.  Even back then, in 1911, when he wrote his poem “Leisure”, from which these words come, he felt people did not value serenity and simplicity in their lives. To me, his words could have been written yesterday. They strike a chord with me and I expect, with many others too. Like him, I too believe that it is important to take stock of our lives. We should all take the time to dwell in the present, to stop and to stare. We should listen more and talk less; this last thing, no easy task for a chatterbox….

For me, the best way to disengage from the rat-race of life is to walk, especially in Nature. To venture into a garden or a park is good; green spaces soothe and refresh me. It is one of the things that I most love about living on a farm; that I am blessed to have a vast expanse of the beautiful Zambian bushveld to venture into at any time. And do.

Butterflies in May.

On any given day the veld sings a siren song to me; today a symphony such as I may only hear on an African morning in May. For here is the sonorous, low whump of the Giant Eagle Owl which hoots from a tree, and there the clear, clarion call of the Schalows Turaco as he flaps from branch to branch. In the grasses below, a grasshopper sings. Or perhaps it is the ubiquitous cricket. No matter, I heed these calls and soon find myself in tangled byways amid bowers and thickets. At 6.00 a.m it is not yet fully light, and enormous trees are just silhouettes against a mellow sky. In between them are phantom dark shapes which slowly disappear then reveal themselves, as the sky lightens, to be smaller trees and shrubs, or tufts of tall dew-drenched grass. If I am lucky I may even see a family of francolin.

A late morning walk in May is much warmer and has its own rewards. For one thing I have the man with me. For another, butterflies; scores of them fly over swathes of bright yellow Black-jack flowers (Bidens Pilosa). They land for only a second before they flutter off again; from flower to flower they flit, a never-ending quest for sustenance.  As we approach a small stream we see dozens of them have settled on the ground. Near the water’s edge they congregate in muddy puddles and as we carefully walk through them they rise in living clouds which will settle again as soon as we have passed.  

Tiny grasshopper on driftwood.

Beside a small dam, a large tree fell over some time ago and is now a perfectly-positioned drift wood hide. we duck behind it and see a warthog snuffling through the reeds. The veld is silent except for the occasional splash of a fish. On the far bank, I watch a great grey heron. But something is watching me. I have not yet noticed. The man nudges me. I look to where he’s pointing. It is a tiny creature, no larger than the nail on my thumb; a little grey-brown grasshopper. He stares at me; I stare at him. Am I his stand and stare subject I wonder?

Later, in the evening, the man and I walk in the lands and there is a sense, just then, that all is well with the world. High in a tall tree on an anthill, an eagle is a silhouette against the gathering gloom of dusk. Guinea fowl are calling to each other as they run through the tillage. Overhead, the cattle egrets are heading home.

An eagle at dusk.

Today has almost passed but there is no regret to see it go. For this was not a day wasted. Today I did what I needed to do but more than that, I stopped and stared. I even found treasures which uplifted me. Walking in the woods is like that. Later, when I pull the warm duvet close up to my neck and sink into sleep, I feel a satisfying sense, a sense of having done something good, for body and for soul.

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This version of “Is this the Way to Amarillo” was taken up a cast of famous British personalities in an effort to raise money for Comic Relief. Accompanied by the great Tony Christie himself ( the original singer) comedian Peter Kay mimes along and is joined along his walk by various British celebrities. I can never watch it without smiling. If you’ve not seen it before, watch out for some famous Rock stars from Queen, the charismatic Michael Parkinson and my personal favourite comedian, supremely funny and sadly late, Ronnie Corbett.

For the complete poem by WH Davies, and a very funny behind the scenes look at the making of the above video with Michael Parkinson, Ronnie Corbett and Peter Kay, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Follow that Bird

One of the best things for me, about being a bird watcher, is actually watching birds. Marking them off on a list is another thing entirely. It is not a thing I usually do of my own accord; except on the world-wide bird count, the global Big Day. On that day I relish putting my bird brain to work, pouring over my books, recording calls and getting help with identifications from people who are considerably more knowledgeable than I am. 

The 2021 Big Day for May, was held a few days ago. The numbers speak for themselves; more than 50 000 people from 192 countries went birding and more than 140 000 birds were identified. But the most exciting milestone of all is that this year the bird count reached one billion – that is one billion birds that have been counted and observed since the Big Day was first introduced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 19 years ago. The numbers are brilliant but the details catch my eye; I am fascinated to read that the first bird record of the day was a Rufous-Banded Owl from Ecuador. Meanwhile the billionth bird was on a list submitted from Australia – an Australasian Swamphen. It gives me pause to think of people in such far-flung places doing what I was doing…watching for birds.

BROWNHOODED KINGFISHER IN OUR GARDEN ON THE FARM IN THE SOUTHERN PROVINCE OF ZAMBIA.

This Big Day I was not in my usual stomping ground. There were birds of course that I knew from my own backyard but there were some I had not seen before. There were recordings to take when a sighting proved impossible. And in the midst of it all, I noticed that people look at you funny when you stand stock still holding your phone out into the air. They can see you are not taking a selfie because you are almost standing on one leg with your head cocked to the side as you listen, frowning intently. When you start moving (in the direction of the call you are listening to) their mild interest turns to genuine puzzlement. Non bird watchers probably couldn’t begin to explain your behaviour. The fact that you have apparently deliberately walked into a bush and are currently scrambling up again, still holding the phone aloft, probably does not help. They are not to know you are following a bird. So I wave and smile at the looks of concern and go about my birding business.

On the farm at home, the man was also counting birds, including a Woodland Kingfisher which most obligingly flew into the kitchen to be identified. In other parts of Zambia, vast numbers and more exotic birds were being sighted and counted but I was delighted with my Heuglin’s Robin (White-Browed Robin Chat) and small flocks of cheeky, charming Pied Wagtails. In a berry-filled bush a Red-Faced Mousebird was gorging himself whilst two different kinds of Sunbird flitted through the flowers on a beautiful Bauhinia tree. In a Mnondo tree near the cottage we were staying in, a Bearded Woodpecker could be seen, battering away at the bark. Under the garden sprinklers, there were flurries of Firefinches and Blue Waxbills bathing, whilst House Sparrows hopped through the dining area with eyes bright on titbits dropped from tables.  

TWO OUT OF THE 150 CROWNED CRANES COUNTED IN LOCHINVAR NATIONAL PARK, PART OF WHICH LIES ON THE KAFUE FLATS FLOODPLAIN OF ZAMBIA. (WITH APPRECIATION AND GRATEFUL THANKS TO SALIM LEE fOR THE USE OF HIS PHOTOGRAPH)

I feel so glad to be part of this global bird count. For one thing I notice more birds than I usually do because I am actively trying to find them. For another, it’s the sheer elation of being out in the veld or garden. For here in Zambia, being out under an early Winter blue sky is in itself a great delight.  I feel the day-time warmth of May on my face and in my nose the scent of vegetation and the beginnings of dry-season dust. There is a feast for the eyes with fruit-laden, pod-strewn or flower-topped trees, not just for their own magnificent selves, but also for the various communities of birds that they all attract. Which in turn attract me. For me it isn’t always all about knowing exactly what I’m watching. That will be for the next Big Day, in October. In the meantime I will keep watching birds for the simple joy of it. And I do hope you will too!

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Love birds? Want to learn more about the Global Big Day or join the Birding community on the Cornell-run ebird website or just enjoy birding news, please follow this link. https://ebird.org/news/global-big-day-2021-reaches-new-heights

Take a couple of minutes for this haunting and beautiful piece of music and breathtaking cinematography. It is part of the musical score and scenes from the nature documentary “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos”, with original music from The Cinematic Orchestra and played together with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. The flamingos were filmed on Lake Natron in Tanzania, here on our beautiful African continent.

The mellow rich voice of Anne Murray singing an old favourite of mine, Snowbird. Sing along with the lyrics or just enjoy the song and the beautiful bird images.

For a joyful song by Neil Diamond “Skybird” and two lovely bird Haiku poems, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

April Love

I have always loved the month of April. Evocative images of green spring grass, fluffy chicks and beautiful birds’ eggs, not to mention Easter bunny baskets laden with chocolate; these things have always charmed me even though, here in Zambia, April is Autumn. And it shows.

The April sky is a deeper shade of blue than other months. In mid- Summer there are days when the air is so bright that all sky colour seems to disappear as if bleached out by the sun. But in these days of Autumn, as the early mornings and nights begin to cool, the daytime sky changes and will keep changing, becoming ever darker blue as Winter comes on.

The sky change reflects the changes down on the earth. And as always, there are seasonal riches to enjoy.

Sunflowers against an April sky in Southern Zambia.

One of the things I most love about this time of year, is the sight of sunflowers against an April sky. The cobalt blue Autumn sky makes a perfect backdrop to the spectacular yellow sunflower.  Beside some maize fields, you can see them now – stands of stately sunflowers beaming into the sunlight. They always put a smile on my face. As if in conversations, the shorter varieties nod their bright and bonny heads at the earth, while the taller ones turn glorious, golden faces towards the heavens. The dried seeds are wildly popular with all manner of beast and bird; and pressed will produce a perfect oil.

Along the Great North Road, right now, in the many pockets of semi-rural habitation that flank it, you can see fields of maize at almost every small village. The leaves are turning brown and dry upon the waving plants and such cobs as there are will not take on more moisture now. It is too late for young, green maize but not for the full-bodied yellow dried cob which can be roasted for eating or ground into flour. Some roadside vendors are selling pumpkins now and sweet potatoes aplenty. There is a feeling that the harvest has been good and that there will be enough to put some by for the Winter months for the those who have a mind to.

Waxbill nest and a bounty of kumquats.

They would be wise to. A sure sign of the changing season is the length of the day. April days are shorter. The sun sets earlier. In my garden, the Heuglin Robin’s song rings out later than before.  In April, my citrus trees are laden; lemons timeously ripening as the cold season comes.  The Kumquat tree bears a Blue Waxbill nest and a harvest of bitter orange fruit which transforms, in marmalade, into something sweet and sticky.  And perfect for my extra piece of toast on Sundays.

April days are mellow and still warm; in the cool house I wear one extra layer but have no need, just yet, for socks. Meanwhile, my morning shower is warmer now but I have not yet had to go out into the sun to warm my bones. When that happens I will know April has left. Until next year.

I will be taking a break from the blog for a few weeks. See you soon!

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Neil Sedaka had a hit with Calendar Girl in 1961. “March – I’m gonna march you down the aisle, April you’re the Easter Bunny when you smile “. Cheesy lyrics? Of course. They’re the best kind. Regardless, this is a Neil Sedaka favourite of mine.

For an old sweet song, “April Love” by 1950s heartthrob Pat Boone and a classic little poem from tthe great Ogden Nash please follow this link; https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Bright-eyed and Bushy-tailed

There is a chill in the early morning air now, but yet at noon the sun is still hot.  Between the cooling nights and the hot days, we pause between two seasons. Easter is inevitably the turning point. It is always a little cooler than the days that went before. Like the silvery April moon sometimes hangs between the last drifts of Summer cloud, we are suspended on the cusp of late Summer and Autumn. Unlike Northern climes, Autumn does not linger here. You could be forgiven for not noticing her, for thinking that there is no Autumn at all.  

Still, in bushveld and in my backyard, there are signs of this change, in this turning world of ours.

On some of the trees the young pods have now appeared. Most, if not all, of the trees are still vibrant and green due to a plentiful rainy season. I expect that the ones which usually lose their leaves in Winter, will not do so as early as last year. The enormous wild Fig in my back garden is laden with thousands of small berries, some green and new, others plump and purple-brown.  Its fruits have been abundant for a couple of months and many creatures, visitor and resident, have made the most of the bounty.  

Tree Squirrel in my garden in Southern Zambia.

One such resident in my garden, is the sprightly Tree Squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi). He is also known as Smith’s Squirrel. His colouring is grey and light brown but he is spared complete anonymity by a pair of beautiful, bright brown eyes. And he has the dearest round nose. Watching him spring through the branches of the Ficus, it’s obvious how they came upon the phrase “bright eyed and bushy-tailed”; although in fact, his tail is less bushy than some of his kind. Watching him spring anywhere, I can’t help thinking that the next time someone asks me if I am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – bushy-tailed – do you mind; I will have to say no. Those circus antics and extraordinary co-ordination have never been in my arsenal.

I have seen these same squirrels, tail held high, springing between wood shed and tree, eluding my frantic dogs. They chatter from the safety of the roof while the dogs bark wildly from the ground below. Squirrels are quick-silver fast. They traverse tree branches in sure-footed bursts of speed. One of my dogs, however, seems not to have realised this. She will gaze longingly upwards into the branches waiting (and hoping) for a squirrel to drop like ripened fruit.

You won’t often see a squirrel at midday for they take shelter from the hot sun in their cool burrows. Now, at this turning of the season, they are suddenly more active, trying to fatten themselves up and gather reserves of energy for the coming Winter. Tree squirrels don’t hibernate but they will spend the colder days in their cosy nests which they usually make in hollow trees. On warmer days they will emerge to forage for food.

Tree Squirrel in scolding mode, Southern Zambia.

I recently watched a little group of squirrels in the wild Fig tree, feasting furiously on the tiny figs; there was an urgency about them as they rapidly chewed on one and moved on to another. The branches of the tree shook and rustled as they darted about. They took very little notice of me, simply moving from one clump of fruits to another with a singular purpose. Suddenly they erupted in a frenzy of movement till all but one had disappeared into the tree. The one who stayed, gave piercing little chirrups and clicked with great alarm. I then saw that the object of his displeasure was the shadowy shape of a raptor, mostly hidden in the branches overhead. The squirrel shouted at the hawk for some time before the bird flew off. I had not got as good a look at the raptor as the squirrel had! Afterwards, perhaps feeling he had seen it off he ran a little way up the tree and bounced his tail before disappearing fully into the hollow from which he had been scolding the bird.

The squirrel was gone but the dog had been attracted by his calls of alarm. She sat beneath the Ficus staring up intently at the place where she last saw the squirrel. And giving the occasional bark. As if she thought, that would make it come back.

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Watch a pair of Tree Squirrels building their home in a tree in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. There seems to be a lot of scratching required first. And is it just me, or is one doing more work than the other…

Arguably the most famous storybook squirrel is Nutkin, from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by the wonderful Beatrix Potter. “I’ve got a tail, a truly wonderful tail and a finer tail you never did spy, than my tail when I hold it high”…these words sung by the undaunted squirrel attest to his vanity about his tail. This was one of my favourite stories on an old LP we had. Especially for little kids (and big ones like me) here is a tale about a tail narrated by the famous Vivien Leigh, and a comic song or two on this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Veranda Varanus

You might not think you could be taken by surprise by a very large reptile, but you’d be wrong. Certainly, I have been, twice. The reptile in question is that common garden visitor of mine and permanent farm-resident, the Monitor Lizard. I call him legavaan but his Scientific name is Varanus.

Water Monitor on a fence post at the dam, Southern Zambia.

Snapping pictures one morning at the stock dam, of a Red Bishop collecting nesting materials from the water reeds, I was completely focused on the bird as back and forth he flitted. Suddenly there was a big splash and we realised that something had launched itself into the water nearby. Later, in the photos I was surprised and delighted to find I had captured a water monitor lying upon a leaning fence post. Especially since my bird photos were rubbish. Sigh. Never mind. A legavaan is something special…and there he had been right under my nose!

The word legavaan is derived from a mixture of Dutch and the French word “l’iguane” – the iguana or lizard and is used in Southern Africa, for both Rock and Water Monitor lizards. Of these, the Water Monitor, also called the Nile Monitor (Varanus Niloticus ) is the larger, and can get up to a hefty 15kg in weight and up to 2m in length. The young ones, however, are considerably smaller and somewhat sweeter too.

I was lucky enough, one morning to come upon some small Water Monitors, no more than 30cm long each. They were lying supine and restful upon a log sticking up out of the water in a dam. Perhaps from there they had a good hunting vantage point, or as it seemed to me, perhaps they were simply sunning themselves under a warm March sky. With their dark colouring and yellow markings, I thought them rather beautiful.

Young Water Monitor lizard (Varanus Niloticus) at the stock dam, southern Zambia.

I cannot say the same, however, for the one which surprised me on my veranda some days ago; not that his markings weren’t black and yellow, but that he was beautiful. Awesome, in the original sense of the word, certainly. Formidable, magnificent – definitely. But there is too much that is fearful about a large monitor for simple beauty; apart from the obvious power in that sturdy body and long tail, in that cold, calculating eye is a warning, and just in case you needed more encouragement to keep your distance, there is a sound it will make when feeling threatened, which you will never forget.

I had caught sight of the monitor from my lounge, through a glass door which I quickly closed in case he felt the urge, you know, to come on in. Having made his way on to the veranda perhaps in search of a frog (of which there are plenty right now) he found himself in a tangle of dining room table and chair legs. And he did not like me coming out to take a photo of him one bit. I kept a safe distance for I am no reptile wrangler. For one thing I am not the stealthy type – ask anyone who has heard me walking up the passage – but for another, I am constantly annoyed anyway, by internet danger rangers who give the impression that it is perfectly fine to approach and even encourage proximity to wild animals. For the uninitiated, make no mistake, this erroneous impression can lead to disaster and tragedy.  The monitor in question was making his displeasure at sight of me very evident. I thought I should respect that. I suspect most sensible people would. The signs were clear, his throat was fully inflated and his obsidian stare unblinking with reptilian intent. And from deep in his throat came a sound – three parts hiss and one part low, primeval growl; I felt it lift the hairs upon my neck. Surely only a fool would ignore that sound!

Not Larry-the-Lounge Lizard but Veranda Varanus.

Having taken my photos I backed away and returned to the house, making sure my dogs were inside with me, before I closed the kitchen door. By the time I was inside and peering once again through the glass door, the big lizard had literally legged it. He had gone as suddenly as he appeared and that was also a surprise since he had quite a few obstacles to navigate.

The one I had inadvertently taken a photo of was quite a lot smaller than this specimen whom I would later dub Larry-the-Not-In-My-Lounge lizard. Or for the scientists among us, veranda Varanus. But whether large or small, it is always, always a privilege to see a legavaan. As long as, you know, they keep out of my lounge and off my veranda….

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What do a Mongolian folk rock band and a big lizard from Africa have in common? They both make me want to watch and listen…from a safe distance. From behind a locked door. Nervous laughter. No. Really. Just look at these guys! Have a listen. It might not be your cup of tea but it is very definitely mine.This is the HU, and features a technique of singing known as Mongolian Throat singing…I hear you say everyone sort of sings with their throat. Ye-eh-s… but not quite like this.

For an old poem called The Lizard – one considerably smaller than the legavaan – and another intriguing song by the HU, this one about Genghis Khan, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Simple Gifts

When I walk out into the bushveld beyond the house, I am spoilt for choice. I can go the way of the open grassland into a world of furrow and field, turn instead towards trees and woodland, or I can go down to the dam. The trees are always inviting to me and this is my most well-worn path. The dam has its own unmistakeable charm. Whichever road I take will bring me simple gifts but today I choose the way of the wind-blown grasslands and softly-beckoning farm meadows.

Brown Locust on a leafy meadow weed.

Helmeted Guinea fowl race ahead of me on the pathway which circles the fields. They are always apparently uncertain of which way to go. A month or so ago, their young were tiny – I did not see any this size myself, but the man came across several broods of fluffy striped chicks which the parents quickly chivvied into the long grass to hide. Swainson’s Francolin are common around here but they don’t hang around. Often I have not seen them until they suddenly erupt from the grass in front of me with loud, clamouring calls of alarm, flying off to the safety of more long grass further away.

The grass is plentiful and alive with life. Grasshoppers and locusts seem to be impulsive creatures; they will stay still upon a leaf for a long time and then for no apparent reason, leap with sudden determination and fly to somewhere else. All around me – though I cannot see them – below the waving seed heads, small insects whirr and buzz. Butterflies are abundant now; on the pathways they gather at the muddy puddles; in the fields themselves, they flit from plant to plant and sometimes alight long enough for me to watch them for a short while. 

Beautiful Dotted Border on a Black-Jack plant (Bidens Pilosa family)

The birds of the meadows are quick-moving and often so well-camouflaged that they are only seen because they move. There are often seed-eaters in this world of grass.  Ahead of me on the taller billowing fronds, a small flock of Bronze Mannikins move as one entity as they fly from place to place, foraging for their food. In the grass too, I catch sight of a brilliant flash of colour and know it to be the bold black and scarlet plumage of a Red Bishop, who hangs on a single stem for just a moment. I am always surprised that the grass can hold him for though he is small, he looks solid and dense.  Over my head I  hear the distinctive sound of a Flappet Lark but when I look for him, he is simply a small spot in the wide, blue expanse of sky above.  

Crowned Plovers in the field.

This day I see Crowned Plovers in the resting lands. For this is their usual terrain, here and and in the grasses which grow when the crop is off.  Although I have never seen it, they will sometimes pretend to have a broken wing as they lure potential predators away from their nests on the ground. They certainly sound an alarm when I come towards them, and take off with legs dangling down, to come down just over there. If I go towards them they will repeat this pattern, or run along the furrows, always moving just far enough for them to feel safe again. I have heard their repetitious, piercing call at dusk when the cattle were in the field in front of our house; I thought perhaps one bovine had disturbed their nest.They sometimes run along the furrows and ploughed till, intent on food and I have seen them catching small insects. They run behind the tractor as it works; the newly-turned soil providing the gift of a feast, not just for plovers, but other birds as well. When insects are disturbed by tractor activity, cattle egrets, rollers and storks will come as if from nowhere; as if the rumble of the tractor were a siren’s song, to them.

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A sweet and stirring piece of music, an old Shaker hymn called Simple Gifts, was incorporated into his ballet, Appalachian Spring, by composer Aaron Copland.

If you have the tune in your head now, you can find the words to this old song and a truly stirring performance by a Drum Corps, by following this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Tropical Beauty

I love to wander through someone else’s garden. I don’t mean that I trespass. And people don’t run out of their houses shaking their fists at me; although I have set small dogs yapping furiously when I paused one early morning to admire a rose garden. But, after a long hot drive there is nothing nicer than working the kinks out of my spine whilst strolling beneath a shady tree canopy in a hotel or private garden. It is therapy and inspiration. For I am often inspired and enchanted  by other people’s planting ideas and their artistry.

Here in Zambia of course, there is such a profusion of plants which grow well it is a plantsman’s paradise. And certain ones stand out for me. Like palm trees for instance.

Palm trees are quite common here because several varieties grow well in Zambia, and many of them also wild in the bushveld. My own particular favourite has a trunk shaped rather like a bottle. I can’t say exactly what it is but to me, there is something deeply satisfying about the shape, the spread of leaves and the clustered fruit beneath. Wild Palm trees are exotic and evoke memories of journeys in places far from home. If you stand beneath them in a wind, the sound they make is unique; almost like a living thing, now a guttural rasp, now a soft whispery sigh. In our area the locals call them Chilala, which to me is onomatopeic. Say it; you will hear palm trees in the wind.

Palm trees, to me, are the epitome of tropical.

Splendid Palm trees at a roadside country hotel in Zambia.

Tropical gardens have a charm of their own, and after good rains the lush foliage and rich, damp smelling beds seem to hold the promise of even more goodness to come. There is something mysterious in the depths of all that green and in the canopy overhead, a veritable symphony of  birdsong. Large leaved Colocasia, or Elephants Ears, so-named for the shape of the enormous leaves, form the backdrop. So too the Delicious Monster (Monstera deliciosa) a name I once heard someone call their sweetheart. I never found out if this was because like the plant, he was dramatic, had a tendency to take over or because he needed support in case of falling over…

Meanwhile there are some specials that flourish in these tropical spaces.

Strelitzia Regina – Bird of Paradise flower.

Some, like the strelitzia or aptly-named Bird of Paradise plant, native to South Africa, remind me of gardens I knew in Zimbabwe. Like many of the tropical flowers, the Strelitzia is complex and fascinating in form and extremely eye catching in colour. On my walk I stop to admire one particularly handsome specimen and marvel at its size. The golden-orange and rich indigo petals  against the tall shards of green leaves make for a perfect picture. No wonder it is a much loved subject for painters.

Lobsters’s Claw – Heliconia rostrata – in a Zambian garden.

But to me, for a truely tropical stand out you can’t do much better than the brilliant carmine–coloured Lobster’s Claw. And I am always excited to see one. Like the people here, Heliconia rostrata does not like the cold. It thrives in these hot, sunny climes although it wouldn’t say no to a little afternoon shade. Named for the shape of each flower, (and called also Parrot’s Beak for the same reason) it hangs in splendid, singular style and I can never pass one by without stopping to have a closer look. Unlike other members of the family, its flower hangs down which, I read, is one of the reasons it is much sought after by humming birds in its native regions. Now that would be something to see! It has always been a favourite of mine not only for its vivid and extreme colour scheme. There is nothing soft about it, nor does it have a floral perfume, but in its measured order of bright flower bracts, I see a stunning beauty literally like no other.

This piece from the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens, The swan, is majestic and lovely. Hope you enjoy it.

For another lovely piece of music and a lyrical, evocative poem by the great John Masefield, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Notes from the Night Jar

“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”

For me, in my world, these words from Terry Tempest Williams (US author, conservationist and activist) make me stop and think.  Here in my garden and the bushveld beyond, it is certainly easy to celebrate the world. At least my small piece of it. It is especially enriching if you venture out when this world is wet. For if ever a time was worthy of celebration, it is now. But celebration, you understand, not in the way of parties and paper hats, but rather in the business of life.

At dawn I listen to the whistling of the Fiery Necked Night Jar and I once see its distinctive silhouette in a tree outside my bedroom window. This surprises me for I’ve only ever seen Night Jars on warm dirt roads at dusk. Sometimes in the very early morning, before the sun comes up, I can hear an owl out back, and sometimes the far-reaching, clarion call of a lonely Francolin looking for company.

The Bobbin’ Robin – Heuglin’s Robin (White Browed Robin Chat) One of a few in my garden.

In the morning, I know it is time to rise when the robin sings. I have several Heuglin’s Robins (White Browed Robin Chats)  who sit outside my window. Sometimes I fondly imagine they are waiting for me to put my head out as I usually do, for it is perfectly true that they sing until they see me and then they fly away.

Of course these birds are simply getting on with life. Their purpose is not connected to me but mine is linked to them. For just to hear them is to feel uplifted, and to watch them and know some small portion of their habits, is to make this world that much richer.  

SCARLET-CHESTED SUNBIRD AGAINST A MARCH SKY

The Bronze Mannikins twitter as they fly back and forth between long seeded grass and telegraph pole where they are building their nest. The Masked Weavers seem to go in cycles of labour; a few weeks with the mad bustle of nest-building, then the continuous piercing clamour of the unseen chicks begging for food and the yellow flash of parents back and forth, then silence and  somewhat bedraggled, empty nests. Until the next time.

Feasting on the wild mistletoe flowers that festoon several trees, I often see and hear sun birds. As they move around the blooms with purpose, their resplendent plumage is seen only in snatches; sometimes a glowing red,  a gorgeous green and even, but not seen as often, rich purple.  They sing with high-frequency, penetrating calls.

In my garden the Blue Waxbills are possibly my favourites; their sweet squat beaks and small, round bodies just adorable in my eyes. They tweet and twitter and have no particular song but I always know they are there for they do not stop moving around and in any case, those blue feathers are unmistakeable. They usually hop in and out of low level bushes or find seeds on the ground, and once I have come upon a preening pair, at almost-dusk.

BLUE WAXBILLS AT DUSK

When dusk comes, so too the Western Cattle Egrets home to their roost somewhere in the bushveld far from our house. I often see a lone Heron flying overhead at this time; and have heard his singular call.The Schalows Turaco often call as they move between trees when shadows lengthen and the sun starts to drop, and in the low light, it is hard to see their spectacular colours.  Garrulous Green Hoopoes and bickering Trumpeter Hornbills arrive as the sun goes down, for their home is the in the bushveld just beyond the fence.

As the sun disappears there is a little moment of silence before the night sounds start. Somewhere, far away this time, I hear once again, the haunting song of the night jar. I listen to it as the darkness closes around us. To me, it is a song of beginnings and of endings; and a fitting way to celebrate both, in this world of mine.

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Listen to the evocative call of the Fiery Necked Nightjar. And isn’t he simply beautiful?

A sweet old song originally sung by the great Al Jolson. This version is sung by Wayne Potash and Friends who just happen to be kids. Have a listen. It’s bound to cheer you up if you’re feeling down…

For a poem by Sara Teasdale and the lovely piece of music “Morning” from the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Knotty Question

It was two years ago in February that I started this blog. Looking back over previous posts from February, I see that in the rhythms of Nature, little has changed. This year it is particularly wet and green, although February has always been abundant like that.  And in this month, there are always more birds, more insects and plentiful small creatures in my garden. February skies have always been changeable; now a serene blue with soft white fluffy clouds scudding by, now dark and heavy, then grey as the rain falls from heaven in vast, silvery sheets.

A MORNING SKY IN FEBRUARY

What is different , this February, is what I have learned on this blogging journey. I now know, for instance, that the lovely, melancholy call which I am listening to right now, and which I heard all through my childhood, is in fact, the Emerald Spotted Wood Dove. I have learned that birds vocalise in a manner so much more complex than our own. I know that bats help pollinate the legendary Baobab and that larvae of Charaxes butterflies feed on the leaves of the regal Pod Mahogany tree. I have seen that beautiful Blue Waxbills build wildly untidy nests with a perfectly neat, arched entryway. And that Verreaux’s Eagle Owl really is a giant among birds.

TWILIGHT IN FEBRUARY

Sharing my love of Nature has in fact made me look at it anew. I have become more observant than I used to be. I wonder if age has made me more interested in learning about these everyday treasures; I sometimes wish my old Biology teacher and I could have a conversation. I think he would be glad to know that some of what he taught me did in fact stay with me. Do you ever wish you could have a do-over? I do. Often.

CURIOUS KNOTS IN THE WILD GRASS BEHIND MY HOUSE.

Continuity is a thing I most love in Nature. The grasses, Natal Redtop and Timothy – such a lovely name for a grass don’t you think – are plentiful as they have always been in this month of the year. I know now why the name Timothy grass has always had a ring of antiquity and legend, to me; Timothy was a Greek evangelist who died in AD97. Timothy grass itself was in fact named after an American agriculturalist called Timothy Hanson. And perhaps he was named for the small, less-known book of the Bible. But that, of course, is pure speculation. What I do know is that Timothy grass is very palatable to cattle and prefers moist soils. Also, that it is a grass good for making hay.

CLOSE UP OF THE KNOT…AND I AM NO CLOSER TO WORKING OUT THE WHY OR THE WHEREFORE.

I know too, that there is another wild grass which seems to knot with its neighbour. The man and I came upon this intriguing phenomenon some time ago whilst out on a walk together. Since then I have tried several times to find out more about it but on this one I have failed. All I do know is that there will be a purpose to it, for in Nature there is a reason for most things and for some, a rhyme too.

If you are reading this and you can tell me why the grass behaves in this rather strange way, I would certainly love to know! For that is one thing I can say with great certainty, there will always be more to know about Nature and I will always want to learn. For me, at any rate, that’s enough of a reason to go on with this blogging journey.

I am so happy to share this lovely song by John Denver with you. Rhymes and Reasons. Arguably one of his best.

For a poem by the great Carl Sandberg and a sweet old pop tune, “Timothy” by South African band, Four Jacks and A Jill, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Gecko Feet

I can tell you exactly what it is about geckos that I love, but I hope you’re sitting comfortably because it’s a long list. For a start, geckos eat insects, which for us, includes flies and mosquitoes. I mean, I don’t really need another reason to like them. But I do.

Gecko eyes are beautiful, and unlike other reptiles, not cold. And they use them to superb effect when hunting across their territories, the walls in our house.

Researchers have found that gecko eyes are 350 times more sensitive to low light than human eyes. Apparently they can even distinguish colours by the light of the moon! By day, the pupil of the gecko eye is little more than a narrow slit. By night, their pupils grow round and very large. No wonder I like them so much. To me, gecko eyes are warm and shiny, like molten chocolate.

Gecko on the wall at night, hunting a large mosquito which I hope he caught.

Gecko feet are sweet. Don’t you think? Those little pads on the end of each toe serve a great purpose as well as looking perfectly cute. Geckos are famous for being able to run across walls and ceilings effortlessly, no matter their weight. I recently discovered why. Their toes are covered with hundreds of microscopic hairs called setae. The hair molecules and wall molecules interact with each other and create electromagnetic attraction. Talk about hanging on by a hair!

Geckos live in warm regions the world over, with about 1450 known species. Meanwhile their fossil record goes back more than 100 million years. They are a true evolutionary success story. After all, geckos can shed their tail if grabbed by a predator and some may grow a new one but others simply learn to live with a stump.  There is one group of geckos who thrive in spite of not being able to climb walls and yet another who have no legs at all! A legless gecko? Oh well. I suspect we’ve all seen someone in that state…

The geckos in my house communicate with each other in rather endearing squeaks and clicks. They roam where they will and are a much-protected species. No cupboards can be moved without first checking if there is a gecko hiding behind – they do seem to relish the dark spaces during the day – and dogs may not go near them. And if I find a teeny one on the floor or near a doorway, as I did recently, I carefully move it into a safer place.

Teeny gecko in my hand.

In our last home there were plenty and I became quite fond of  them, sometimes peering at me from behind a cupboard door or darting across the walls while hunting at night. When we moved house I was really quite sad to leave them behind. Imagine then my delight, when, on offloading and opening one of my cupboards in the new house, three little geckos scurried out. I was so very happy to see we had inadvertently brought some with us!

And it reminded me of an old joke of my father’s. A family, much haunted and harassed by a resident ghost, decided to move. Early one morning they packed their belongings and furniture on top of their old pickup. As they pulled out of the driveway, a neighbour asked them what they they were up to. At once, from the pile of furniture on the pickup, a cupboard door opened and the ghost put his head out. “We’re moving house!” he announced with great satisfaction.

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No song this week but rather a narration by the great Sir David Attenborough as he talks about this intriguing investigation into the incredible sticking power of the gecko.

For a great clip with dance scenes from 1980 movies, set of course to “Dancing on the Ceiling” by Lionel Ritchie, and a little poem on the baby gecko by me, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Sounds of the Country

They say it’s quiet in the countryside – and compared to the noise of traffic and other people’s dogs barking in the towns and cities – this is true. But only to an extent. There are sounds even here. The big difference, to a country mouse like me, is that the sounds I am lucky enough to wake up to are something to appreciate. And in opposition to the old adage; Nature often seems to rule that her children should be heard, but not seen…

This is especially true in the grey light of dawn when the glorious song of the Heuglin’s Robin (White-browed Robin Chat) rings out sweet and true. You hear him but if you try to find him at that time of the morning, he is just some nebulous shape in the bushes. Still you will see him later in the day for he is not shy. The same cannot be said for the Schalows Turaco, several of which have been resident for some months. They constantly utter their raucous, loud calls but if ever there were birds who did not wish to be seen, it is these! The odd glimpse of that stunning ruby and amethyst wing is sometimes all you catch as they suddenly move from one hideout to another.

Bull in the long grass drinking water.

Further out, in the bushveld that surrounds my garden, the Emerald Cuckoo has been calling for a couple of months now, but try as I might, I have never been able to catch even a glimpse of him. And the same is true of the lonely-sounding Chin Spot Batis, a permanent resident. I hear the call but can never find him.

Suddenly, the sound of an owl; it is the beautiful, basso profondo whump of Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (Giant Eagle Owl) I have the joy, just recently, of seeing a pair, but thereafter, no matter how many times that tantalising call lures me into the bushveld, no sight of them. I expect they fly away when I approach and being, as they are, owls; their flight is silent.  Still, I know they are there, for I hear them at dusk, in the deep night, and sometimes in the early morning too.

Meanwhile also out back in the bush, the long, green grass sways in a particular way for it is tall enough, just now, in places, to hide the bulls which have been brought down here to graze. At times the only sign of their presence is their sonorous lowing which reverberates within my ear, and the occasional loud bellow, which fairly assaults it. A lot of the time they cannot be seen. Sometimes there is a rippling motion in the grass created by something other than wind. Sometimes the flick of a tail or an ear, is just visible as these mostly ponderous beasts move around to find good eating or come to the trough to drink.

There be crickets in these fields.

In the grass itself I have looked for that one cricket whose high-pitched, zither-like recital seems to go on day and night. The sound is loud as I approach and my ear guides me to the spot where it strums. I pause. At once the music stops. I peer down and move grass fronds about, all the while searching. This was after all, the very blade of grass from which he played. Wasn’t it?

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Sir Cliff Richard – now there’s a man who definitely deserved his knighthood in my opinion. “In the Country” came out in 1967 – it is just one of many of his up-lifting and joyful songs !

For one of the most beautiful pieces of classical music – Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

An Eye on the Sky

I open my eyes to the sound of the Fiery necked Night jar. Ooh, that’s number one, I think to myself!

It’s the morning of another bird count; I’m a very tiny part of the second Annual Southern Zambia Birding Festival, celebrating the richly abundant bird life of Zambia. For the counting, some teams head out with the express purpose of recording birds. For me, it’s one eye on the sky and another on the pie I’m baking as I make bird-seeking forays into the garden, into the expansive backyard and wild woodland behind the farmhouse.

Wisps of grass from the Bronze Mannikins’ nest.

One of the things I like most about doing a bird count is that days later, I am still inclined to pay more than the usual attention to the birds in the garden. I do try to go out every day but sometimes life gets in the way. So I count myself lucky when I see something extra special; like the fact that a pair of Bronze Mannikins are nesting on the electricity pole in our back yard.  Or the myriad of swallows swooping around my head catching midges.  At least I hope they are. (The midges are particularly biting this year.)  I try and take a photo of one – swallow that is, not midge;– ha , it goes – missed me!  Swallows are spectacular athletes. They travel at scorching speeds. I, on the other hand, have such slow reactions, you’d need a calendar to time me. It’s not the camera that needs “sports mode”…it’s me. Roll on the floor laughing my ass-orted socks off. By mistake.

And speaking of co-ordination here I am venturing out with camera and phone. This is tricky for me, because, as I have mentioned, I am not well-versed in the ability to put one foot in front of the other without the odd stumble. Oh well. I hope to take photos which can help me identify what I am looking at and the phone is to record calls which I hear. These I can send to my personal birding experts, my brothers. Turns out my sister in law can also help, since one of the calls I hear just happens to be her friend’s ring tone. How serendipitous is that! Meanwhile said brothers of mine identify the bird calls with ease. They also have no trouble with the heavy-footed mammal heard stomping through the undergrowth – me; and the sound of something crashing into a hole followed by cursing – also me.

Western Cattle Egrets flying home to roost.

In the grey early morning light, two or three groups of Western Cattle Egrets pass overhead, flying as ever, in arrow formation. Except for two stragglers. They make me laugh because they are flying considerably faster than the previous steady-beating group which has already gone by. I can’t help feeling these two are the late risers of the flock and finding themselves left behind, are now frantically trying to catch up. I expect they were warned too.

Much later in the day, very high in the sky above, I see a quartet of large birds and with the help of books and those brothers of mine, I identify them as White-backed Vultures. They soar and drift on the thermals overhead. I watch their ever-increasing circles until they disappear from sight.

White Backed Vulture in the summer thermals.

I am beside myself with delight to hear the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (formerly the Giant Eagle Owl). I had come across a pair of them some days earlier and actually watched as they were mobbed by a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles! Today I only hear the owl, but I see again the eagles – and I reminded of the beautiful Wahlberg’s we had for a while when I was a girl. I recall the moment he was ready to be released back into the wild. It was a bittersweet day for us since we were all attached to him, having had him since he was young. With great ceremony we gathered to watch him go. But he wouldn’t! He hung around the house for days and we kept hearing his sweet, heart-wrenching eagle’s cry. Eventually he responded to that call of the wild but we would from time to time, hear a Wahlberg’s overhead and we were certain it was him.

Another morning and another chance to look up at birds. I am quite excited to see a black bird which I feel I have not seen before. Could it be something interesting I wonder? Turns out it’s a Fork-tailed Drongo. Which is nice of course. What a drongo. I am.  

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The sublime Everly Brothers sing “On the Wings of a Nightingale”. This, one of their most popular songs, was written and composed by Paul McCartney and recorded by them in 1984 for their album, EB 84, which Dave Edmunds produced.

For the poem “Swallows” by Lenora Speyer and a beautiful folk song “Donna Donna”, by Joan Baez, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

At Snail’s Pace

This fecund and wet time is a paradise for that dread of the avid gardener, the snail. And how enormous they are this season! From the bushveld and in the garden, I watch their slow, silvery progress with a kind of fascination. I have not seen such large ones before, only found their empty shells.

In fact I have a couple of sun-bleached white shells from the Giant African snail. (Achatina achatina). I think they are rather beautiful. Both have been picked up on walks in Zambia. And Zimbabwe. And about that one – when we moved from Zimbabwe to Zambia, the snail shell was packed with great care along with various pods, stones, rocks and seashells. Picture us unpacking boxes at our destination and the man’s face when he comes across this trove of my treasures. Such delight on his face! Sorry, no, that is not the word I was looking for………give me a moment…. disbelief – that’s it! Two parts dropped jaw and one part head shake. Sometimes when I am feeling predictable and dull, I recall that expression on his face and I am filled with glee that for at least one moment, I was neither.

Anyway. Back to the snails. One I came across a week or so ago, was so large, I decided to measure it. Fortunately this does not require much coordination or dexterity. It was 15 cm long and its shell about 12cm high. It was inching up one of the great supporting tree trunks on our veranda. I couldn’t imagine what the silly creature was going to do when it got to the top and found no leaves, only thatch from the roof and the odd cobweb. So I decided to move it.

Have you ever moved a large snail? It is an extraordinary business!

Shelly the snail climbing a verandah pole.

For one thing, they watch you out of their funny little eyes on the ends of those famous snail horns or tentacles. It’s really quite unnerving. Having had to steal myself to do it, I forced myself to take it gently by the shell. I gave a little pull. Ha! What a surprise! Like a small child unwilling to be dropped at school wraps his arms around his mother’s legs, or a limpet when touched, sticks fast to a seaside rock, so too that snail! I was quite startled at its strength. Clearly a new strategy was needed. I got a piece of stiff card and inserted it carefully, gently, beneath the foot. It was pretty slow going. Snail’s pace, in fact. I shouted to the the man that he was possibly going to have to make lunch. And supper.

I read, by the way, that the speed of snails is around 10 cm per second. If they moved without stopping, it would take more than a week to complete 1 kilometer. Do you know, that is exactly how long it would take me to run the same distance?! Who knew we had so much in common, the snail and I!

But back, once again to my snail. So much time had passed by now, that I had decided I should name it. Shelly of course. Finally, finally, Shelly was on the cardboard. With my one hand carefully supporting the shell, I transported Shelly to the green lawn at the base of a leafy tree in the garden. You know it’s going to eat your garden, said the man. For a moment I considered the fact that Shelly could have up to oh, 20000 teeth…and everyone of them designed to munch vegetation. Oh well, I said I think the garden is big enough for the two of us.

Later I read that the Giant African Snail is known to eat more than 500 different types of plants. Perhaps I should have taken Shelly somewhere other than my garden…

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The first few lines of this Donovan song are fairly odd. “The lock upon my garden gate’s a snail that’s what it is..”. Well okay then. Still, it’s catchy and it’s Donovan. And I do like Donovan.

For an old children’s poem “The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast” follow this link. Fans of Julia Donaldson will also find an excerpt from her stunning children’s tale – “The Snail and the Whale.” https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Beginning with Flame Lilies

The month of January is almost done but last year’s big problem has followed us into the new year and isn’t that a load we could have done without! All the usual feeling of promise, joy and renewed faith in a new year was soon lost. In the bushveld, however, it’s another story altogether. And how I feel the privilege of being able to share it!

It’s a story of Flame Lilies – Gloriosa Superba – and if ever a wild flower could uplift your heart, it would be this one. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful wild flowers that grow here in Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, they are closer to the heart of people who grew up in Zimbabwe, as I did, than any other. And this particular January I’ve seen more of them in the bushveld than ever before. They are easy to spot; all that fiery radiance against the green, green veld, is unmistakeable. The red flowers tinged with bright yellow are fluted and upwardly curled and when the wind blows they dance on the end of their long, leafy stems. Beneath the petals is a bright green centre from which spring the stamens, always deeply coated with pollen. The leaves are dark green and arc-shaped, ending in a tendril which has a great tendency to twirl and tangle around any close neighbouring plant.

Taken in a resting crop land in Southern Province of Choma, a Flame Lily; Gloriosa Superba

Surprisingly, the specimens we came across have all been in land that has been disturbed or worked at some stage. Having always believed that they did not like disturbance, this is evidence to the contrary, for none of the many Flame Lilies we have seen have been growing in virgin bush. I do know that for the flowers to appear, they need good rain. Which they got.

Indeed the rain is still ongoing; bringing yet another abundance this January – that of toadstools and mushrooms. But whilst Flame Lilies tend to flourish in the open, most fungi thrive in secretive spots. And this year many fungi have sprung up in places where they have not been seen for some years. All through the shaded woodlands around our house, the plants and trees have made leafy bowers beneath which the soil smells gloriously dank, and rich. And is, judging by the number of different toadstools that cluster between lichen-covered tree roots and emerge, gleaming, from beneath the cover of leaf litter and twiggy, woodland debris.

Chanterelles in a Zambian woodland. (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)

On our Sunday afternoon walk I spy something glowing beneath an enormous Mnondo tree beside the road. It turns out to be a sprawling outcrop of bright orange mushrooms. Here and there, the sunlight is slanting through the leaves, and overhead the Black Cuckoo is singing her repeated, wistful, three note song. In these African woodlands I am always careful where I walk. And yet in this serene and sylvan setting I am transported for a moment into a storybook fairy village. Indeed, I almost expect to find a tiny door and window in each one. Of course I don’t. But then, if I did, I would never tell.

In a little country long ago, Ode To Joy, by Beethoven, was the national anthem. The country is of course Zimbabwe. And even though it has not been the national anthem for many decades, it is still a beautiful piece of music and rather a perfect pairing with that joyful flower, the Flame Lily, which is the national flower of Zimbabwe.

For two poems about Flame Lilies, one an extremely powerful piece by Zimbabwe-born poet, MA.Moyo, please follow this link https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

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T’is the Season

T’is the season to be jolly delighted with all the rain we’ve been having. Nothing quite like the smell of the bushveld after rain; and the sight of a myriad of tiny droplets trembling on every leaf and twig  is utterly magical. 

The rain can have other consequences. After a windy rain yesterday we heard a tremendous explosive crash. An enormous tree, about 2m in girth, had simply snapped in two; the mighty trunk now ringed with jagged spears of wood. On the ground, chaos; the large moisture-heavy branches broke other trees and plants as they smashed to the ground. On closer inspection we found the tree was almost hollow inside; it simply didn’t have the inner strength to stand the storm.  

Stunning lichens up close.

And it’s the same for people I think; if you have no reserve within you, no inner certainty or fortitude, then a storm like the one that washed over the world this year, may fell you. If you let it. But, unlike a tree which cannot make a conscious decision to change its inner heart, people can. Like Vincent Van Gogh, I too believe that “the heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths it has its pearls too.”

Small wildflower growing in Miombo woodland, Zambia. If you can identify it I would love to know!

Perhaps the codicil to this is that if these pearls are never fully appreciated, it can lead someone to lose all hope. Sometimes it seems as if you have to look very hard for the treasures of the human heart; and in fact when you find them, they may be fake. For in times of great stress, many things you did not realise are revealed about the people you know. Still, it’s worth remembering that everyone literally has to deal with a crisis in their own way. That is just the way it is.

For my part I find great comfort in being close to Nature. I feel pity for those who cannot draw the same strength from her, either because of geography or inclination. Nature’s unerring sense of direction and purpose is thing of great inspiration to me. That is not to say sometimes, that I always agree with her. The death of that beautiful tree is not something I delight in.

But what I do delight in is the fascinating fungi and lichens growing along these fallen trunks, to which I can now get up close and personal. A hitherto unseen world is revealed and I marvel at the tiny whorls and patterns created by these living things which are neither plant nor animal, but somewhere between the two.

And having stopped to look at the fallen branches, I discover other small delights; small blue wildflowers and a shrub, usually overlooked, now covered in green berries with skirts of scarlet.

Rain-drenched Ochna (commonly called the Mickey Mouse flower I believe).

The blue wildflowers remind me of a song I heard again recently, “Blue Christmas.” It’s a song I love but it reminds me that this year it is the season, too, to be jolly sad that my family cannot be all together for the festive day. I suspect  however, that I am not the only one in this situation. I do feel for everyone around the world this Christmas season who is not able to be with their loved ones. I hope and pray that we all will get another chance, next year.

Like the shrub, overshadowed by the large wild tree before it broke, will now get a chance to grow into the light, I hope the same for you, wherever you are.  It’s a Happy Christmas from me and a thank you too, for being my wonderful, faithful reader. I will see you next year. Which will of course, be better.

One of my daughter’s favourite bands “First to Eleven” doing that fantastic Elvis number, Blue Christmas. The lead singer is Audra Miller and just listen to this voice – it is simply sublime!

If Blue Christmas left you feeling a little blue, turn up the volume and listen to this uplifting and beautiful song – Joy Unto the World, by the Afters. We had the joy of hearing our daughter sing it recently at their school’s Christmas Carol concert. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to share it with you all.

Jingle Bells and a most unique pairing; Andrea Bocelli with the Muppets! Two of my favourites together. Happy Christmas to you all!

“Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat.” Find this sweet old child’s poem and the fabulous Boney M with Drummer Boy on this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Some See a Wish

There are few better places to be than in my garden early in the morning, in December. With the rains everything is green and lush. The air smells fresh; the earth, deliciously damp and musty. Once again, toadstools and mushrooms spring up in an array of wondrous shapes and shades. Wild flowers and grasses appear in the unkempt areas of garden. I love that when I walk beneath the trees, the leaves glisten with moisture and if I brush against any plant, I will get wet. At my feet the leaf litter lies thick and nourishing; I can practically see the garden grow.

In Zambia, it seems to me, plants burst forth almost overnight, and in December, especially, everything seems to have a sudden growth spurt. It can quite get away from you if you are the tidy, dedicated gardener who does not wish to see a weed or a leaf out of place.

A view of the garden soon after we moved in, April 2011.

I am not such a gardener. I am rather haphazard and many things survive and thrive in spite of my inconsistent attention. From time to time I dive back into it and there is furious activity where shrubs are moved or pot plants re-positioned. In December especially I find myself out in the garden more than usual; the cooler, damp weather makes me feel renewed. I become inspired to work. Or to plan. I love to plan.

I hate to prune. Which let’s face it, is rather a failing in a true gardener. Fortunately the man has no such weakness and because of his attention, shrubs and trees take on new life and not long from now, they will look magical again instead of rank and overgrown. I do love flowers but I have never been quite dedicated enough to have a truly spectacular, annual-heavy garden. Shrubs are my stand by (especially those loved by the birds) and of all the plants, if I have to choose, I’d rather have trees.

In every garden we have lived, we have always planted trees. I like to think that we have improved each space we have occupied by doing so. In this garden I see the impact we have made. Certainly there are more birds here now than when we first moved in. I feel blessed for having this beautiful green space around me. And that it is not entirely tamed, suits me very well. Like that saying, a favourite of mine, about the dandelion – some see a weed, others see a wish – I am definitely the latter. I love to live in a place where the wild things grow. I feel the joy of it in my bones.

The same view, December 2020

Just like the sheer happiness of having our girl home again after what has been a long and testing year, is a gift like no other, so is a garden. Gardens urge us to focus on the here and now; they are intrinsic to some of  our most beloved memories and there is always, always something to look forward to, in any garden.

Pyjama Lilies ready to bloom in my Zambian garden. (Crinum macowani)

It’s appropriate, right now, that we are waiting for the imminent blooming of  the Crinum macowani – or as we call them, Pyjama Lilies. Since she was small, this has been a favourite of the girl’s.  They grow wild in the wet, vlei areas of Zambia. Here in the garden we had just one, but now there are several as it has generously multiplied. Ours are just on the point of opening, their creamy white and red striped buds heavy with promise. It won’t be long now. One of these December mornings, when I go out, there will be flowers.

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John Denver and The Muppets. Seriously. Is there any better combination?! His lyrical, sweet tones suit The Garden Song” perfectly. I love the words… ” someone bless these seeds I sow, someone warm them from below, till the rain comes tumbling down.” And if JD isn’t enough for you…there are singing flowers too 🙂

For an Amy Lowell poem “Behind the Wall” and a very lovely old piece of music “In a Monastery Garden” composed by Ketelby – a garden as different from mine as one could get, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Baby in the Bush

November has always been a month of promise to me. The bushveld greens up almost overnight and wild flowers appear in the woodlands and vleis. This November already there were wild mushrooms being sold on the side of the road.  A cicada symphony is in full swing now – and to some people the noise is too deafening – but I love that it reminds me of the season. Like the sudden appearance of mushrooms and flowers, cicadas are part of a usual November. That continuity is a thing I treasure more as I get older; it gives me a sense that all is well – or will be.

But this November threw up a surprise – and what a one it was!

In the woodland behind our house, I heard my dogs barking like the loons they are and there was another animal sound in amongst the canine clamour. It is usually monkeys who frequently come into the garden and clamber around in our trees.  This time, however, I realised the sound was different. It was more high- pitched than monkey calls and had a note of definite alarm, as if some small creature was in great anguish.

All set to abandon some friends who were in the garden with me, I  began to run towards where the sound was coming from, because my first thought was that my male dog had caught some little animal. But the Man said he would go and we friends continued inside. Then my phone rang.

“Come, “ he said, “And bring your camera.”

The Brachystegia woodland behind our house is tangled now and leafy so it took me a moment to spot what he was pointing at.  And when I did, my heart just flew towards it.  For halfway up and clinging on to a long twiggy branch,  was a very baby Bush Baby (Galago).

What an astonishing sight! I would simply never have expected to see one of these small, nocturnal primates by day.  Even at night all I’ve ever seen of one is its enormous eyes which glow diamond-bright if caught by torch light.

Apparently when the man arrived he saw that two adults had been engaged in some kind of confrontation, with one leaping from one tree towards the other. The barking dogs however, interrupted the little scene and the aggressor clambered away into another tree and headed quickly off. And during the melee the baby suddenly appeared, as if trying to keep out of the way.

Baby Bush Baby in Zambian woodland.

Oh, he was just the most precious thing! From the tops of his big bat-like ears to the tip of his sweetly-curled tail, I fell in love. His tiny fingers look adorable but more importantly, enable him to be an expert climber and very strong at gripping. As he hung there, gazing upward with enormous eyes, he was making, it must be said, a most dreadful din. Then he stopped and the dogs stopped barking and soon lost interest. When it was quiet again and with dogs no longer beneath him, I watched as with gathering confidence, he made his way back up to home, and mother.

I read that it is fairly difficult to identify the different species of which there are 20 found in Africa, but each has a distinctive call. Having heard Bush Babies calling in the night in Zimbabwe, many times,  I deduced that this was a different species since it was not a call I recognised. What kind it might be I cannot say; clearly I am no scientist for my conclusion is simply that it was the cutest kind.

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This famous melody came from Africa and was written by South African Solomon Linda, in Zulu, in 1939. It found its way to the US where it was given English lyrics and became a huge hit.

For footage of a Bush Baby filmed at night and a beautiful poem about Africa, please follow this link: https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Something to Crow About

I have always thought of crows as urban but perhaps not urbane. However, having recently watched Pied Crows (Corvus Albus) in a garden in Lusaka, I may have been wrong.

Ravens and crows, who let’s face it, get mostly bad press, are comical and quirky, and rather fascinating to watch. And when it comes to sound, they are not the one-trick pony I always believed they were. Of course, the most prevalent sound is their usual harsh cawing and if there are a lot of crows together, it can be murder on the ears… 

But sitting beneath the overhanging boughs of a jacaranda tree in which they were roosting I realised that in close proximity to one another they communicate in a quite a complex way. They do not sing of course, but they converse using such an array of high and low notes, as astonished me. They murmur, croon and gurgle. I heard gentle, light clicks and sweet, soft notes as if one were trying to cajole another.

Crows in a jacaranda tree in Lusaka.

I watched one uttering soft sounds as he hopped along a branch towards another who kept hopping away. To my ears it was if he was entreating the other to stop. Finally they were side by side and the crow that had been following the other, offered a morsel of something to eat. The first inspected the tidbit and then took it most politely and they sat for a moment in companionable silence, surveying the earth beneath them.  

On the other side of the same tree a different scene was being played out. A crow came into land beside one who was already sitting there. The second waddled a step or two towards him and pushed him in the chest with his beak, as if trying to push him off the branch. The first gave an indignant squawk and flapped off. The second moved into the spot which had been vacated as if that had been his intention all along.

Crows are intelligent birds. I read that they are known for their problem-solving and amazing communication skills. Having listened to them and watched them, I can believe this. Research apparently shows that crows don’t forget a face either. In fact, if they encounter a human who is unkind to them, they will teach others within their group to identify the human and even, to mob him.  On the other hand, if habitually fed by a human, they will very quickly learn to return there – and sometimes bring their buddies. A crow and raven diet consists mainly of insects, small animals, fruit and seeds but they have also developed scavenging habits in the many cities where they live around the world. Sometimes they don’t only pick up things to eat.

Crows gather at dusk.

I know of a crow who used to invade the classroom where my mother once taught, for the express purpose of stealing pens or things left on desks. Once, he even snatched a piece of white chalk right out of my mother’s hand as she was about to write! They seem to be attracted to shiny objects. Which got me thinking back to that pair I watched. I imagine a conversation went like this;

“I got you a present.”

“Ooh, ooh –  is it a diamond? I love diamonds!”

“ Well, no now that you mention it. Not a diamond. It’s a bit of stale bread. Sorry.

“Ooh, I love stale bread!”

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This sweet and mischievous White-necked Raven called Mischief repeats what his trainer says. Sometimes….

For a short poem by Robert Frost and a Madonna song accompanied by eerie raven imagery, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Notes in November

In the early morning while it is still relatively cool, I listen to the Heuglin’s Robin (White Browed Robin Chat), His melodious song is the first of the day and rings out sweet and clear in an otherwise silent world. It is not long and his is not the only music; from a distance the call of several Crested Francolin mingles with the raucous clamour from a group of Trumpeter Hornbills who swoop past my window. Out beneath the trees I can hear a woodpecker but I don’t see him – I only hear his rapid labours as he searches for food in the Brachystegia woodland behind the house.

It has been extremely hot over the past few November days, culminating in thunder and lightning last evening, but no rain, at least not on my garden. Still, there has been water enough to keep it all quite green. And I have been rewarded with some beautiful flowers.

Amaryllis bloom in my Zambian garden.

My newly-planted Amaryllis (Amaryllis) have been prolific, pushing out their gorgeous, showy blooms one after the other and giving me something to delight in every time I pass them at the kitchen door. I put the pots close to the house in fear of antelope eating them but I’m told by a neighbour that the buck in her garden don’t seem to go for them. Still, I was taking no chances…

Yesterday in the garden, I saw the first Bushbuck that I have seen since September. In these much hotter days they are probably as much in search of the cool water in my many birdbaths, as the grass which grows undisturbed in the back yard.

Fragrant Frangipani flowers in my Zambian garden.

The Spider Lilies were munched way back in the Winter and they have not yet recovered, but the Frangipani (Plumeria) tree has a sudden flush of flowers as the Kudu have not come to visit for a while. Frangipani fragrance is heady in the heat and its pearl gleam of white at dusk, is magical.

Under the solar panels which we had put up over our walkway, I have pots; with maroon Day Lilies (Hemerocallis) and one sweet pink rose that has not stopped flowering all year.

Day Lilies under the solar panel walkway and a family of metal ducks.

The solar panels certainly come into their own right now; at least when we are in the midst of one of our regular power cuts, we are able to run a fan in the heat of the November night. That blast of cool air combined with a spray of water on the bed-sheets, makes sleeping in this Zambian heat so much more comfortable. Lying wakeful in the dark night I listen to a distant rumble of thunder and a flash, far away, of lightning. I sigh and reach for my spritzer – one of those plastic bottles that florists use to refresh their flowers – a quick squirt on the feet and on the sheet beneath and I am comfortable for a while. Beside me the man is gently snoring. He sounds peaceful. I don’t suppose he’d appreciate a sudden spray. Or…..evil laughter….would he?

Have a listen to this happy little tune “Leaves and Lemons”, by Patty Gurdy (Patricia Büchler) a hurdy-gurdy musician, singer and songwriter from Germany. She took up the instrument in 2014 and describes her genre as “Dark Folk Pop”. She was a member of German band Harpyie (under the stage name Io) in 2016 and Storm Seeker from 2016–2018.

For a poem by the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott and a favourite old song of mine “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” by the wonderful Doris Day, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Society and Solitude

Like people, some birds make their presence known by their clamour and their vast numbers, while others are singular and easily missed. As this October draws to a close I find myself thinking about some of the birds I have seen around the farm this month and which fall into both these groups. Some of them are habitual residents, even commonplace, others considerably less so, suddenly appearing one morning and will no doubt disappear in just the same way.

Grey Heron roosting in a Mnondo tree on the farm.

One such group is a flock of Grey Heron that suddenly bursts from the sky, like raucous holidaymakers descending, after a long flight, upon some quiet village, who find their way into the top of a Mnondo tree where they proceed to set up camp. The gleam of their grey and white feathers sparkles in the afternoon sun and they stand firm on their long, spindly-looking legs, as the branches sway beneath them in a sudden gust of wind. An occasional flap of wings is sometimes needed to regain balance otherwise they are perfectly stable as they go about the noisy business of building an untidy nest of mostly sticks. Arguments seem to break out from time to time between neighbours but once harmony is restored, they are content to stand sentinel, watching the sky and the earth below.

In the surrounding bushveld at this time of year, I hear the cries of the Swainsons’ Francolin (Pternistis swainsonii) who always sound extremely agitated when they call. They explode from the undergrowth as I walk, often in little family groups. I hardly have time to notice the charming speckling on their feathers and the splash of red on their heads, before they have disappeared once more into the cover of the long grass. 

Guinea Fowl in my garden.

The Helmeted Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris) are just as noisy and sound just as alarmed. There are plenty of them now and they descend upon the garden in flocks of more than 30 at a time. They particularly like the early morning and the evening. On a Sunday when there is no-one working in the garden, they will spread their wings in the dirt and give themselves a good dust bath (which helps to rid them of annoying insect pests). Then they move into the leafy green shade of a tree and sit there as if just enjoying the cool. They make sweet, soft, high-pitched sounds of contentment when they bath and while they hunt for insects and seeds in the garden. I put out wild bird seed for them and they scrabble for it but they are not too tame; if I get too close they take off at once, sounding their clarion calls. And there is always that one; that runs along the fence for ages, shrieking in wild panic at having been left behind, and apparently having forgotten he can fly…

African Hoopoe on the farm.

One afternoon, I come upon one of my favourite residents walking along the dusty road. His plumage of tan, white and black always delights me in its striking simplicity and the crest on his head is pure perfection. He is the pretty African Hoopoe (Upupa africana ). He is looking for food and his scimitar-shaped beak is slightly ajar as he tries to control the temperature of his little body in the intense heat of the day. Finding him so close to me is a real treat. I love also, the sound he makes; for his is an unadorned, flute-like call which rings softly through the bushveld, and holds a note of wistful solitude.

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Gheorghe Zamfir, who was born April 6, 1941 is Romanian. He is known as the Master of the Pan Flute. He is the author of over 300 works; has sold over 120 million records worldwide, recorded over 160 albums and has more than 100 gold and platinum discs, along with countless awards and honors worldwide. He says “When you take the pan flute it is like you hold in your hands the Psalter, a holy  prayer”. To me, it sounds very much like it too – especially in this particular piece.

For another beautiful piece by Gheorghe Zamfir – El Condor Pasa (If I could) and a poem called The Eagle please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

A Little Bit of Bliss

When it rains in October – a rare event but not unprecedented – there is instantly a change in the air. This I discovered when it rained here a week or so ago. For a few days afterwards there was moisture in the air and a little trace of a most delicious scent – the smell of wet leaves. It was much less hot too although I knew this cooler weather was not to last long – indeed, the heat has now returned and so it must –  but this brief respite was very welcome. To me. It was less welcome for the farmers trying to get their ripened wheat off before the rain spoiled it. And to the man planting tobacco, it was a less than happy event because the fields became muddy traps for tractors and the deluge stopped all work.

A morning after October rain.

But for me, walking through my garden and in the bushveld beyond, it was bliss. I reveled in those few days of rain. The cooler air was kinder on the skin and seemed to bring a lightness to the soul. And to top it all, the leaves, washed clean of layers of October dust, were brighter and the plentiful leaf litter certainly richer in colour.

Now we are back to the usual October heat but it does not have the fatal feeling of last year’s. For there is still green grass here and there in the bushveld and this I know because the wild animals have not come into my garden as much to find food, as they usually do at this time of year.

Monotes Katangesis (Yellow Wood) tree in full fruit.

The trees have mostly donned their green and khaki Summer foliage now, but occasionally there are splashes of yellow, orange and red. In a thicket of otherwise grey twigs, the smattering of yellow flowers gently fluttering on a small Cassia Abbreviata catch my eye as I walk beneath it.  The leaves on many of the wild trees are burnt orange and on the beautiful Monotes Katangesis (Yellow Wood) which I spy in some Brachystegia woodland, there is a display of red fruit and flowers which is simply spectacular.

These tones of flame can also be seen in our October early morning sun. And to me the most breath-taking of them is at a fleeting moment of glorious orange which the camera does not seem able to quite capture. The colour is there and then it is gone. Of course later in the day it becomes increasingly more uncomfortable to look at the sun, and indeed inadvisable, to do so. In October in particular, there is a blinding quality to strong sunlight; it has a white heat that has gone way beyond the friendly yellow sun in a child’s painting. I think this is especially true after rain has washed away the dust in the atmosphere. After rain at this time of the year, the sun always feels more intense than usual.

Early morning October sun.

It’s most definitely wear-your-hat and cold-showers-even-in-the-early-morning weather. In the garden it’s that time of year when I move from shady tree to shady tree as much as I can, and in the house, we close the curtains in the day, to keep out the sun. It might even get to the old bed-sheets-in-the-freezer-trick weather. Oh sorry. Do you not know it? You simply stick your bed sheets in the freezer and take them out a moment before climbing into bed at night. Now that’s another little bit of bliss!

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The Beatles are the most successful musical act of all time, having sold more than 600 million units (albums and singles) worldwide. In the states they are also the top act, with certified sales of 183 million units. They hold the record for most number-one albums on the UK Albums Chart, the most singles sold in UK and the most number one hits on Billboard Hot 100 chart. People who love the Beatles’ music all have their favourite – this is one of mine.

For a rather lovely poem, October’s Party and the old, upbeat country classic, “Walkin’ in the Sunshine”, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Not so Mellow Yellow

Yellow to me, is a happy colour and one of energy. It is the colour of sunflowers and buzzing bees, of bright-eyed, busy weavers whose nonstop labours equal their chatter. Teamed with black, however, as seen on a small reptile I found in my garden, yellow takes on quite a different aspect.

This small black and yellow creature, who was about 15 cm from his nose to the tip of his tail, was in my opinion, a skink, and a most unexpected and rather exquisite little treasure to come upon. Later, having consulted considerably more knowledgeable people than myself, I discovered that the general consensus was that he was, in fact, a baby Nile Monitor Lizard or Water Monitor as they are sometime called. (Varanus niloticus). We grew up calling these and the Rock Monitors, legavaans. I could never have imagined them being so tiny, nor so beautifully detailed in colour and pattern. Considering an adult can grow to as long as 2m, this rather sweet little specimen must have been quite a baby.

Baby Water Monitor Lizard, Southern Province, Zambia.

I first saw him on a stone in the garden. Later in the day I heard my dogs barking because they had found him. Fearful of them causing him damage, I decided to move him. But that black and yellow striping – as striking as it was – gave me pause. I decided it would be better to scoop him into my hat rather than actually touch him. Which I did with the utmost care. Holding the edges of my hat together, to make a bag, I made my cautious way towards the leafy ferns and undergrowth where I thought he had the best chance of escaping my dogs. Suddenly, there was a small black and yellow explosion from the confines of my hat and the sweet little lizard bolted up my arm, eyes beady upon me, his hissing mouth ajar, ready to, you know, take me by the jugular.

But look, it’s no good asking me if the bite of a baby water monitor lizard is painful because I wouldn’t know. And don’t ask me if they really do have forked tongues, like snakes, because, again, I’m sorry, I just wouldn’t know.

What I do know is that when a lizard comes at you with mouth agape you tend to forget to have a look at his tongue. And you do tend to forget you were worried about touching him. Without hesitation I grabbed the feisty little fellow with my free hand and flung him into the ferns where I had intended to gently set him down. He made a little plopping sound and then there was a fierce rustling and a moment later when I peered into the greenery, he was gone.

All that was left was me and my empty hat, as well as the resounding thud of my heart and the dying echo of the trumpeting shriek I gave when I… sent him on his way.

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This song, “The Happy Trumpeter” was composed and arranged by Bert Kaempfert, a German orchestra leader, music producer and composer. He made easy listening and jazz-oriented records and wrote the music for a number of well-known songs, including “Strangers in the Night”. This composition comes from an album called “Swinging Safari”. It was a favourite of ours, played on the old portable record player in my grandparents’ house.

For another Bert Kaempfert tune “Swinging Safari” and a short, sweet poem about a lizard, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Down to the Dam

Ever since I was a small girl, I always loved to go down to the farm dam. Any dam – but especially any farm dam. On the banks of even the most modest, there was a world of magical loveliness. There still is. Back then, I was always filled with anticipation at what I might see on the water’s edge. I still am.

Cormorants perched on old waterlogged tree stumps.

Call me strange but I have always admired the line of the inevitable farm fence, whitened by sunlight, that cuts across the terrain and leans towards the water in some places. It is reminiscent of man’s work and an attempt at order which I cannot despise and yet, whitened by sunlight and pulled downward by water and mud, Mother Nature exerts upon such fences, her superiority, albeit quite gently, this time.

The water reeds are lithe and lovely but walker beware; they will cut you if you venture into them. Bulrushes are a favourite sight, those heavy bronze coloured heads nodding gently in the embrace of slim, green leaves. And on a still stock dam there are often water lilies, bright and beautiful, lying upon the cool and gleaming surface of the water.

The stock dam this October.

There might be wild ducks and geese, perhaps a fish eagle or an African Jacana, miraculously walking on watery foliage. Inevitably there are doves whose calls are forever entrenched in the memories of my youth. There is always something to delight; on a particular stretch of water – a pan – on a farm from long ago, there were even Crowned Cranes strutting like super models on some cosmopolitan promenade.

Sometimes there are animals. Calm and curious cattle come to drink water or graze green grass growing at the water’s edge. They always stop chewing for a moment and stare as you approach. Bushbuck arrive in solitude or with a young one at foot, and warthog barrel towards the water in noisy family gatherings.

Going down to the dam is simply one of the best things to do – especially on a hot October day on the farm. Especially when the dam is almost full, as it is this October.

This time a solitary heron stands motionless, staring into the water down the length of his long, sharp beak, while he waits for a fish or frog. He looks rather elegant and his slim grey silhouette almost disappears into the grey bank beyond and into the haze of the hot October sky. As I approach to take a photograph he takes off and his great wing span is visible as he flaps slowly away from me, coming down on the far side of the dam. I walk around to the other side. And yes. You guessed it. Back he flies to where we were. I don’t use too much bad language as I head back that way again…

Grey Heron in hunting mode.

While I walk I turn my attention to a trio of Dabchicks (Little Grebes) paddling rigorously on the water and a small flock of Egyptian Geese dabbling on the shore. On strategic stumps in the deeper areas, White-Breasted Cormorants sit motionless, occasionally moving their serpentine necks to watch something beneath then.

Around these small stock dams life is abundant and the green of September still lingers in the leaves and in thickets of wild shrubs which have not yet dried out. There is a smell too, which is very particular to this time of year; it floats around you in an aromatic dance of dust and desiccated cattle dung. At the water’s edge this scent mingles with the musky smell of mud and soured vegetation, and the salty tang of fish.  I quite like this Nature-concocted fragrance. The hint of moisture in it, however, pungent, is truly pleasing in the hot October air, which is as dry as parchment.

Chris De Burgh, British singer and songwriter, was born in Argentina and lived in various countries around the world, many of them on the African continent. His career started in 1974 and he soon acquired a cult following although it was not until the 1980s that his music went mainstream and he had several hits in the charts in UK and USA. This one released in 1982, is one of my favourites.

Karine Polwart is a Scottish singer and songwriter, whose music is inspired by her home land. Here she sings her song “Follow the Heron”. I tried…

“By night and day we’ll sport and we’ll play
And delight as the dawn dances over the bay
Sleep blows the breath of the morning away
And we follow the heron home.”

For a beautiful folk song “The Water” by Brit Awards Winner Laura Marling and actor and folk singer Johnny Flynn (half brother to Jerome Flynn of Robson and Jerome) and sweet poem of childhood, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

September Songs

I believe the power of music may actually be unlimited. Music can move the world. I feel blessed to have grown up in a house where the sound of music rang. I am sure my early-found love for music increased also, my love for the music of birds.

Yellow-bellied Greenbull sings and seems to laughs at his song.

For in bird song, there is music of a different kind but no less beautiful and complex. In my garden, if I was to describe this month in a simple phrase it would be, September – the month of birdsong. Right now, if I stand quietly and listen, it is as if every bird that inhabits my garden is in full voice, whether they are seeking their mate, singing to a newly-acquired partner or simply whistling while they work – for the nest-building is as feverish as the singing.  

I recently found out that birds do not use their larynx to sing, as we do. Nearly all birds produce their sound through a vocal organ unique to them, called the syrinx. Astonishingly, in many songbirds, the syrinx is not much bigger than a raindrop! But while birds use nearly all the air that passes through their syrinx, we humans create sound using only about 2% of the air exhaled through our larynx. And unlike the human larynx which holds the vocal chords in the throat, the syrinx in birds, holds their vocal chords deeper in their bodies. What is more, whilst humans have only one set of vocal chords, a bird has two, enabling it to produce two different sounds simultaneously, in harmony with itself. How utterly astonishing is that!

All of which brings me to my father, a man who loves music and who used to sing in his bath, when I was young. It is an abiding, fond memory for me and I recall that he had his favourites; one of them being the truly magnificent Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhauser by Wagner. We would hear the base notes resonating through the bathroom door, for he was harmonising to the tune he would be hearing in his head. Sometimes the tune would ring out clear and dulcet for a time until he would feel a need for the harmony and he would descend once again to the lower scales – interspersed, of course – with the odd sound of splashing.

Music was something which played all the time in our house. When I was young, my mother used to listen to the radio and sing along to her favourite tunes. Like my father, she had an excellent ear and could keep a tune effortlessly. She taught us children the popular songs of her own youth and we learned to love “There’ ll be Blue Birds over the White Cliffs of Dover” as much as she does. I think it has probably been one of the hardest things she has had to bear, becoming deaf as she has grown older. Hearing aids have helped to an extent but they are simply not a complete substitute for the complexities of the human ear. Many of the gradations and nuances of music, are now lost to her, although the higher notes, she finds easier to hear.

Perhaps that is also the case with birds, for so many of them sing and vocalise in the higher end of a musical scale. There are of course the bassists – the Giant Eagle Owl and Ground Hornbill, to name a couple – whose voices strike the very bottom chords and reverberate along the hairs on my arms. At the other end, are the Sunbirds whose delightful high notes strike the ear, the insistently chattering Weavers with their loud chirruping, and the Greenbull, whose high trill suddenly ascends into a raucous clamour as if he mocked his own song. From the bushveld I hear the African Fish Eagle’s familiar, fluted whistle. And then there are the doves, whose middle range voices ring out over the bushveld; a regular, repeated array of calls that soothe the soul and stir the senses.

In my garden, the Heuglin’s Robin (White Browed Robin Chat) is the most perfect illustration of the complexity and marvel of birdsong. His repertoire is unlimited because he not only sings his own mellifluous melodies, but the songs of other birds as well.

My favourite garden singer – Heuglin’s Robin (White-browed Robin Chat)

I read that birds vocalise in different accents, depending on where they live. This is quite astonishing to me and yet, perhaps, not that surprising if one considers their sophisticated vocalising physiology. It makes me wonder if the Heuglin’s Robin from my garden was to go and sing in a garden in South Africa, would the other Robins understand him? And even further afield?

It is a fanciful thought I know, but I’d so love to think his voice could become as well-known and loved,  as that recent music phenomenon, “Jerusalema,” created by South African DJ (Master KG) whilst on location in Angola. From here it jumped to Europe, having already been picked up in other African countries.  Interesting to me, on further research, I find that some of the dance moves contained in the song come out of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe – where they call the dance, “Jerusarema.”  It’s that accent thing again.

But it’s origin is almost of less importance. The beat is irresistible. The words are an entreaty to God. The language is Zulu. The voice – oh my goodness the voice; South African singer Nomcebo – is vibrant, rich and heart-tugging beautiful. “Jerusalema” has been taken to heart by many millions of people around the world, regardless of their location, their lineage or their colour;  at last look, 250 million views on YouTube, and counting. And with people performing the dance routine in places as diverse as Nigeria, India, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica and Italy, to name just a few, the dance has spread literally world-wide.    

It  certainly makes me all the more sure that most people, like a song in harmony, could get along very well with one another, were it not for the nefarious few, with their hidden and blatant agenda, the malevolent and fanatical, who seek to sew social discord, disharmony and chaos in our world today. It’s enough to make me sigh.  I do a lot of sighing these days. And shaking of the head. I think my neck muscles have strengthened this year. Which is just as well. Looking up into the trees to find my singing Robin needs good neck muscles… and so does singing and dancing to “Jerusalema.”  

“Jerusalema ikhaya lami” means “Jerusalem is my home.” This song is a declaration of faith and of hope. Its foot-tapping power to me, undeniable. Turn it up. If you find you’re dancing, you won’t be alone – millions are doing it with you.

A song from my childhood – as heart-stirring a piece of music as has ever been written in the world – The Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser”. It needs volume. As you listen consider the power of music and of song. You may even be inspired.

For a poem by Wilfrid Owen and the utterly different but equally powerful, old classic song penned during World War Two, “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Season of Hope

“Try to remember the kind of September, when life was slow, and oh so mellow. Try to remember…..and if you remember, then follow.”

These words from an old Nana Mouskouri song have always been evocative of bittersweet memories for me, and like ripened wheat that is gathered up, they are golden. For it is our memories that make us who we are.

Recently a dear old friend from my youth passed away unexpectedly. A few days later it was the birthday of a very beloved aunt who is no longer with us. This harvest of human souls can be terrible to take but perhaps the best way to bear these burdens of sadness is to recall the good and sweet memories we have. And somehow, September is the very month to do so. For we who live in the southern hemisphere, September is Spring. And Spring, as everyone knows, is the season of renewal and hope.

Red Tip butterfly (Colotis antevippe gavisa) in its winter form, sipping nectar from Kalanchoe Rotundifolia.

Speaking for myself, I find comfort in Nature, both in my garden and in the bushveld which I am blessed to have on my back step. For in Nature the seasons are most noticeable. And as the great poet Percy Bysse Shelley wrote, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” And in the treasures of Nature, it is easier to believe in hope, in renewal and a promise that even the saddest of days will pass.

Hope is the delicate Red Tip butterfly that flits amongst the bright red blossoms of the Kalanchoe at the bottom of my garden.  Hope is the single-minded labour of the Masked Weaver, building a nest under the eaves once again, whilst his mate looks on with critical eye. Renewal is the buzz of bees in fragrant lavender and lacy yarrow; pollinating as they go. Promise is in the sudden, sunshine yellow blooms on Cassia Abreviata and in the new green shoots on the Pod Mahogany, which you have to look for since they are all but obscured by tawny twigs and deep brown pods. There is richness too and plenty, in the Brownbul pecking madly at insects on long velvety pods and in ripe green fruits upon the wild fig, Ficus, beset by birds of all feathers every Spring morning.

Green canopy of the Mnondo (Julbernadia Globiflora)

In my back garden, I stand for a moment under the vast spread of the supreme Mnondo – Julbernadia Globifora – and look up. I am mesmerised by the cool green canopy that hangs against a blue September sky. The sunlight glints off the leaves and suddenly I see my friend the Heuglin’s Robin. (Yes I know his name has changed.) His orange breast gleams and swells as he sings. If it is true that green is the colour of Spring then I believe it is also true that if you “keep a tree green in your heart, the singing bird will come.”

“Try to Remember” was released in 1969. Ionna- Nana- Mouskouri was born in October, 1934. In her singing career she has made 200 albums in at least twelve different languages. The lilting tones and clear, sweet notes are what make hers voice much listened to and much loved.

For a beautiful poem about September and one of my favourite songs of all, Autumn Rendevous, by the wonderfully evocative Francoise Hardy, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Winds of Change

The wind has always fascinated me. And set me to worrying about nests, and trees and roofs and crops. And this past August how it blew! So much so, that like the famous umbrella-wielding nanny, Mary Poppins, who was carried in on a wind, September and Spring, came in on a wind too. This wind did not, of course, carry iconic English actresses wearing pointed, polished black shoes and crisp white shirts, but rather dust and garden debris in great whirlwinds and flurries. In the garden you would watch the trees branches tremble and quiver and let drop a whirling waterfall of russet leaves. For the leaf that didn’t go where the wind would blow, it would be a soft landing amongst its companions and soon the ground was deep in leaf litter in every shade of gold and brown.

Leaf-strewn carpet created by the wind.

In weather the wind does bring changes; sometimes a cold snap or a surprising, unlikely fall of rain. To animals, the wind can be friend or foe; friend to the prey who catches scent, foe to the predator no longer anonymous to his prey.

People react differently when winds blow. As the saying goes, when the wind blows, some people build walls and others, windmills. In fact wind has long been used to pump water using the windmill – a simple, iconic shape I have always loved – and in modern times, to produce power using the mighty but controversial wind turbine, which I am considerably less enamoured of. That the wind has power, is indisputable.

Wind in the Gum trees.

The wind has a myriad of voices; on a hot sunny afternoon, it is the welcome soft sigh of a breeze which makes the leaves twitch and titter, as if they were being tickled. At night, the ghost-like moan as it moves over the roof can keep you awake especially if it rises in pitch to a howl that batters at the windows like some hungry beast trying to get in…

After such a night of unearthly tempestuous weather, I always rush into the garden to see if there have been consequences, especially nests blown down. More often, there has been little or no damage and I am reminded how much Nature can withstand; that the trees which bent with the wind, have not broken. And that the nests which were built strong and secure – by far in the majority – remain so.

Persistent pods still hanging on the Pod Mahogany tree.

After a windy day in September, I am always glad to see there are still plenty of Spring blossoms on the wild trees and fruit trees, and that the Pod Mahogany still wears her pods, for they are tenacious and refuse to budge. I am always happy to see the wild fig is heavy with the fruit to which the monkeys and birds, will come. The pretty Bauhinia, is somehow still adorned in pink fluttery flowers like butterflies and the weavers’ nests still cling to the thorn trees like young ones to their mother.

A mass of blooms in the Mango tree.

The wind is tangible and yet always set me to fanciful thoughts. I can imagine forces flying in even though I cannot see them. Warm winds can bring us rain and cool winds chase it away. Although the reverse is also true because the wind is elemental and moody. And brings change. After all, as Mark Danielewski, American author, wrote, “this great blue world of ours, is but a house of leaves, moments before the wind.”

As I write I can hear the wind wild in the trees. Autumn has made way for Spring; the season has turned. Still I have a sense that this is not all. A mystic might say there is something in the wind. Way back in 1960 there was once talk of winds of change. I think it is possible that they are blowing again.

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Cat Stevens or Yusuf was born Steven Demetre Georgiou. No matter by which name you know him, the voice is the same. As sweet and soul-stirring as ever. Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that I have posted this song before. But I make no apology for that. This is literally the most beautiful song, in my mind, ever written about the wind.

No piece about the wind would be complete without this famous show tune – one of my daughter’s favourites – from Paint Your Wagon. Like all the best songs, this one stirs the blood, not to mention the superb voice of Harve Presnell. “Maria blows the stars around, and sets the clouds a’flyin’. Maria makes the mountains moan, like folks were up there dyin’.”

For that golden oldie, Against the Wind, by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and Christina Rosetti’s poem, Who Has seen the Wind, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Goodbye July

Last Winter we tucked fallen leaves and dry grass around the trees and on my few flower beds, like blankets, to keep the scarce moisture in. Moreover, the dried-out grass had to be cut in June last year – a usual precaution against bush-fires. This year, we have only just had to do it in late July, because the grass has been so green. This year we have even had enough water to put some on the garden, although we are not extravagant with it. Still, I have enjoyed being able to use water; not least because the birds in the garden enjoy it so!

Tropical Boubou tends to be a loner.

Many birds congregate around the water in my Winter garden; the Brownbuls with chatter, the Starlings with song. The Boubou doesn’t like a crowd so he hangs back. The Blue Waxbills, fluffed up against the cold won’t approach an early-morning sprinkler, but later in the day, if it warms up they too will join the gathering. When the water is turned off again, it’s the turn of the Pied Wagtails, bobbing their tails to flush out insects, along with the Heuglin’s Robin (or White-Browed Robin Chat if you must) who hops around, his bright eye beady on the next grasshopper that makes a leap for it.

I am always quite sorry that the grass has to be cut, to see its friendly, waving fronds laid low, but it is a necessary chore, especially in light of our thatched roof. But this year, it has had time to seed and the beautiful Bronze Mannekins and winsome Blue Waxbills have not only feasted in it, but also used it for making their nests.

Blue Waxbill feathering his nest.

I have seen more nests this winter than I have seen before at this time. All along the shrubby borders and in leafy tangles, Sunbirds, Waxbills and Firefinches have nests, whilst in one tall Conifer I have spied a Yellow-bellied Greenbull regularly popping in and out of the branches. Some of my summer visitors have stayed for the Winter. And I have seen at least four species of bird this year that I’ve not seen in my garden before, including the rather gorgeous Green Pigeon.

Some of my garden residents have always been here and seem to stay all year round. The Cape Turtle Doves like to perch on a particularly tall Msasa (Brachystegia) tree – their sweet call is filled with a bittersweet nostalgia for me. It is the sound of happy but lost days of childhood and I am glad for the memories these birds evoke.

A first-time Winter visitor – Green Pigeon.

Indeed, how very much poorer the garden would be without birds!

Birds add the colour, the charm and the life. Like the Pied Wagtails. My amiable, late grandfather – a man with a hint of mischief, much loved by his grandchildren – used to call them Seargant Major birds. And it’s true; they do strut self-importantly around the lawn and bob their tails when stationary. They chirp loudly from the apex of the roof, as if issuing instructions. Or perhaps just saying goodbye. To July.

The August School Holidays are around the corner, so I will be taking a break from the blog. I hope very much to see you again in September!

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This sweet, children’s song, sung by Lazarus Tembo, one of the country’s most popular singers, is an old Zambian favourite. He was born in the Eastern province of Zambia, and sadly, went blind at the age of eight. In spite of this however, under President Kaunda, he became Zambia’s Junior Minister of Culture. His song is about a Wagtail called Kola.

For that lovely old song “Snowbird” sung by Anne Murray and a poem by Alice Cary, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Special Sunbird Star

This Winter has been one of the coldest that I remember in Zambia and yet, there is something to gladden the soul in my rambling farm garden – the glow of the flame-red poinsettia. Unlike the poised and perfectly-shaped house plant much loved for Christmas displays in the Northern hemisphere, my Zambian garden Poinsettia (Euphorbia Pulcherima) is wild tangle of twisting branches with few leaves, but with the bright red flower-bracts glowing against the winter-blue sky. It is enormous. And much-loved; any new shoots are quickly snapped off by the visiting Bush Buck and Kudu that come into the garden, especially at night. And yet, it not only survives this onslaught, it continues to give a radiant display. And of course, I am not the only one who notices it.

Collared Sunbird on a Poinsettia flower in my Zambian winter garden.
Collared Sunbird on a Poinsettia flower in my Zambian winter garden.

These fascinating flowers have a glowing allure for butterflies who flutter around them by the hundreds,  and for the breathtaking, busy Sunbirds, those bright little beacons of joy, who live and breed in my garden.  

As you watch, the poinsettia flower bracts move; a Sunbird emerges for  a moment. It gets your attention at once. As sunlight dances on its glorious feathers, the little bird gleams like a gem; with the green glint of emerald as in the case of the Collared Sunbird, the ruby-red radiance of the Scarlet Chested or the lustre of amethyst in the White-bellied.  These jewel-bright beauties, these Sunbirds, are some of the special stars in my garden.

Hard to spot.... the Collared Sunbird near its nest in the Mistletoe.
Hard to spot…. the Collared Sunbird near its nest in the Mistletoe.

Tracking the path of a Collared Sunbird I watch it flit between Poinsettia and a wild mistletoe (Loranthacae, Globimetula rubripes ) that is growing in a small tree. The little bird calls – a high pitched, insistent song which is immediately answered by a series of similar but tiny cheeps. Tucked in the tangle of the creeper and foliage of the tree, I spy a nest.  I move away but now that I know it’s there, I watch it almost daily and wait for the fledglings to fly. I don’t see that happen and it’s just as well; my dogs are usually following me around and they have been known to snatch at unwary fledglings much to my despair and fury. So I am glad to see the nest empty and hope this means another Sunbird or two has joined my garden community.

Scarlet-chested Sunbird in the garden in Winter.
Scarlet-chested Sunbird in the garden in Winter.

The Sunbird belongs to a group of small, tropical, Old World birds, which means they are found only in Africa, Asia and Australia. They are passerine birds which feed chiefly……hold on, hold on… passerine? That, I gather, basically means having toes arranged in such a way as to enable it to hold on, to a branch. Or you know, perch. I had to look it up. Anyway. Tip-toeing on. They belong to the family Nectariniidae because they eat mostly nectar, for which that rather beautiful curving beak and long, tubular tongue – now, honestly, who knew that – are sheer perfection. They will take insects too, mostly when feeding their young.

Like me, their wings are short, their flight direct – still sounding like me – and fast. Aand, suddenly, not so much like me. Sunbirds always seem to take the shortest path between two points which means you have to be jolly – sorry, I need to catch my breath – quick, if you’re trying to see where one lands so you can take a photograph. And once you’ve spotted him again – it is the males after all, who have the showy colours – you just hope he will just sit still long enough, you know, to be a star. But actually, just catching sight of one of them is enough to lift the heart. For Sunbirds, like real stars, are bright beacons of hope; a promise of something so much greater than ourselves and indeed, of warm and wonderful days to come.

Mango Groove fans will remember this superb song – Special Star – a foot-tapper for sure! Written in memory of Spokes Mashiyane , the King of Kwela, that distinctive South African music – a potent mix of penny-whistle, jazz and catchy repetitive rhythms. Certainly makes me want to get up and dance….you?

For a sweet, short poem and a little clip of gorgeous Sunbirds in a garden in South Africa, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Epitaph for a Baobab

There used to be a beautiful behemoth – a colossal, old Baobab – standing tall along the Great North Road of Zambia, near the Munali hills. It was one of a few that grow in that sparse and rather arid region. I say used to be, because when I go past there again, I know it won’t be there anymore. The reason – roadworks.  

As I drove by a few days ago, I saw the Baobab and a huge piece of machinery, a digger, already gouging that beauty  from her ancient place in the earth. If you can picture that I was also listening, at that precise moment, to the melancholy, heart-rending Adagio for Strings in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni – (you will find it at the end of this blog) – then you can imagine how very sad I felt.

Baobab beauty in the Zambian sun, near the border town of Chirundu.
Baobab beauty in the Zambian sun, near the border town of Chirundu.

The problem with progress is that it is necessary but sometimes the ensuing damage to the environment is just too heart breaking. I wish so much that someone living near that stupendous specimen had taken up its cause; I wish the road builders had decided it should stay, and kept it on its own island, with signs to slow people down as they drove around it to appreciate its magnificence…such are the fanciful dreams of one who inhabits Planet Shellbell.  Having slowed down myself to appreciate it one last time, I don’t mind telling you I whispered a sorrowful goodbye to it as I drove on again. Or that I cried, a little.

I know of course, that she is not the only tree that has been taken down; the speed with which our wild and natural forests are disappearing all over the region, is truly devastating. Commercial logging on an enormous scale, often by Chinese nationals, many working temporarily on this continent, is very big business but add to that, in Zambia, the illegal but rife practice of making charcoal, and you can guess the enormity of the calamity. The problem is, many people in Zambia – I might go so far as to say Most – still have to cook and get warmth in winter, from fires, because not everyone has power.  So until that problem is solved, and the value of using sustainable plantations for timber is realised, not only by governments, but by ordinary people, the wild trees will continue to be cut down.

Baobab tree near Hwange, Zimbabwe.
Baobab tree near Hwange, Zimbabwe

Trees are vital – the very lungs of the earth. And few are more iconic or eye-catching than the Baobab.

When my brothers and I were children, our family would sometimes travel through low-lying, Baobab country in Zimbabwe, to go on our holidays. And there was always a competition to see who could spot the first one. They were singular. Spectacular. And exotic to us, because we did not live where they grew.

And they have been growing for such a very long time. The Baobab  or Adansonia digitata – is prehistoric; it predates not only mankind but the splitting apart of the continents over 2 million years ago.  It can live for up to 5,000 years, grow as high as 30 metres and an enormous 50 metres in circumference. It is in fact, a succulent. During the rainy season it absorbs and stores water in its huge trunk which means it can produce a rich, nutritious fruit in the dry, winter season and in arid regions.

My girl and I hugging a leviathan Baobab near Mazabuka, Zambia, 2018
My girl and I hugging a leviathan Baobab near Mazabuka, Zambia, 2018.

In more gentle climes, trees are often pollinated by butterflies. But here, the Baobab has the bats to thank for this vital task.  Bats swarm over the trees at night when its white blossoms are in bloom in early summer. The flowers, which open in the late afternoon, are sweetly fragrant at first, but as they age into the night, they begin to give off a smell of putrescence, or rotten meat.

Baobab bark and flesh are soft, fibrous and sometimes used to weave rope and cloth. The young leaves are cooked, like spinach, and the fruit is tangy and vitamin-rich. (The fruit was once used to make cream of Tartar, but this baking essential is now a by-product of wine production.) Baobab fruit is much prized not only by people but by many animals too, ranging from the smallest of insects to that most enormous of African beasts, the elephant. Baobabs provide so much.

And to have seen one destroyed, so purposefully, is a thing I will not forget.

And yet. There could be hope.  For ancient as they are, Baobab trees can be cultivated. And what’s more, recent research has shown by grafting the branches of fruiting trees to seedlings they can fruit in five years. And if we can grow a Baobab, surely we can grow any tree? I just wish we all would.

But in the meantime, like an elephant, I won’t forget. That there used to be a beautiful behemoth, a Baobab, standing resplendent on the side of the Great North Road of Zambia, as you approach the Munali Hills.

This sombre composition by Tomaso Albinoni, Adagio for Strings and Organ, here arranged by Remi Giazotto, seems to me, to be a fitting epitaph for a Baobab tree.

Another Adagio for Strings this time by the great American composer, Samuel Barber and one of my own poems, A Baobab Tale on this link:https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Wild Animals and a Waterfall

It is quite common to see elephants if you drive through the Zambian border town of Livingstone. These momentous mammals pass through on the main road or stop to drink from standing pools of water, since the edge of the town not only borders on three other countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia) but also a National Park.

Elephants coming for a drink on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia.
Elephants coming for a drink on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia.

We pull over to watch some elephants as they come for a drink. They arrive in ponderous procession and take no notice of us. We take photos but we do not get out. I have watched with horror and rage,  a man climb out of his car, carrying his small child, towards a herd of elephants which included their own small baby, to have a closer look! Why can’t people be sensible about wild animals! Do you hear a rant coming on? Well, luckily for you, I’m just not in the mood to go there today…because in fact going to Livingstone, even for just  a night, is a holiday. After all, aside from elephants, the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls are here. And as this tourist town is cautiously open for locals, how lucky we are to be able to turn a mundane (car-service) trip into a little bit of luxury leave.

As we drive towards our hotel, travelling the road which will continue on through the border with Zimbabwe, the Zambezi is flowing alongside us and there is a spot – one which always catches at my heart – where the river sweeps around a corner. Rolling onward between land and tree-bedecked islands,  we can see the famous “smoke that thunders”, as this incredible river plunges furiously into the chasm below, creating the Victoria Falls.  Later, we will go and see that stupendous spectacle.

On the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia, the Zambezi River sweeps around a curve before it plunges over the Victoria Falls chasm.
On the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia, the Zambezi River sweeps around a curve before it plunges over the Victoria Falls chasm.

For now we are content to wander through the restful, sylvan grounds of the hotel. There is old forest, and careful new planting as well as a man-made lake. We are alone as we walk the leaf-strewn pathways; the few other guests have chosen to stay beside the pool for the afternoon. But for us, this woodland walk, always a vital part of any stay, will refresh and recharge us.

Bird life here is richly abundant. Monkeys play and search for food in the tree tops and down at foot. In this carefully protected piece of semi-wilderness along the river, there are also herds of resident wild animals, which for now, outnumber the people. That is why, I suspect, we see a colony of mongoose; animals we have not seen here before. We stand aside to let the hesitant zebra go by on the pathway; they have a young one with them. A herd of impala mostly ignore us as they move through the thickets, nibbling on the green grass.We stop and stand back to watch for a while, a graceful giraffe who towers overhead. He forages in the upper leaves with his black tongue, while keeping a dreamy, dark eye upon on us.

Baby Zebra keeping an eye on us.
Baby Zebra keeping an eye on us.

Later we walk down to the Falls; it is the main reason we are staying over. The good rains of the recent Summer brought the river up to record levels and the Victoria Falls is so loud and so very proud!  So much for that well-known journalist who stood beside the falls last December- after one of the hardest but cyclical droughts the region had experienced – pronouncing that climate change was drying it up; but I’m not going to rant about her either-

instead I’m going to tell you how drenched we get; and how cold that spray is – it is Winter after all! And how a party of local young ladies are peeling off saturated layers, their peals of hilarity and mirth not quite smothered by the resplendent roar of the falls. And how there is actually some algae growing on the handrail of the bridge, as well as springy beds of moss everywhere.  Let’s not forget, the mighty wonder of the Victoria Falls herself; the upward surge of dense water vapour literally hiding the hot, afternoon African sun.  And, fittingly, like the breathtaking bridge which spans the gorge, there is a rainbow spanning land and water, dancing in an arc of glorious enchantment.  

View from the Zambian side, Victoria Falls, July 2020.
View from the Zambian side, Victoria Falls, July 2020.

On the Zambian side of the Falls you can walk around to where the Zambezi river surges towards the precipice rock face. You can see the opposite side of that gargantuan gorge and the tiny people gazing in awe as we are, from various viewing points. As for the river itself, it is flowing furious and foamy,  and as if in testament to that, we see no hippo upstream, as we usually do.  

That night, as we three nestle into spotless-white, downy duvets, surrounded by an enormous mosquito net, I am so glad that we came. (And that we could.) Just as soon as you can, you really, really, should, too.   

I came across this amazing short film on the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River which I thought I would share with you. There are no words, for none are necessary. It’s a brilliant bird’s eye view of these icons which are so close to people’s hearts; enjoy!

 

In MEMORY of the great Italian composer, Ennio Morricone who has recently passed away, follow this:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/ for his simply stunning cinematic masterpiece, “The Mission.” You will also find a poem by the renowned wit, Dorothy Parker, here in more serious mood, as she sits hearth-side and dreams of travelling.

Watery Worlds

In an ocean rock pool is a world of fascination although we, being in land-locked Zambia, have to travel quite a long way to peer into one; in our case, Mauritius and South Africa. Of course this year, as for everyone, such travel plans had to be postponed. But it’s mid-winter here and this is when I start dreaming of being somewhere warm with the sound of the sea and the smell of the salt on a breeze. You may dream of lying on a beach…for me  it is less that and more the mesmerising and magical world-within-a-world of the ocean rock pool, that I hanker for.  

On the North Western coast of Mauritius, alongside the silky stretches of sand, there are compelling, black volcanic rock outcrops, perfect for catching the incoming warm Indian ocean – and corralling curious creatures, at least until the tide goes out again.

Longfin Bannerfish – Heniochus acuminatus in a rock pool at Balaclava, Mauritius.

We have found intricate, pink and blue sea anemones and striking sea urchins with purple spikes, as well as fat, five-fingered star fish and the ethereal Brittle star – Ophiurida –  with its feathery frond-like arms. Sometimes fish are trapped for a time. There is a flash of yellow as a bewitching Banner Fish darts for cover. Meanwhile, Chinese Trumpet-fish (Aulostomus chinensis) with their curious, long snout-like appearance, slip around your bare legs as you balance yourself precariously, trying not to stand on live coral or prickly urchins.  On the sea bed your feet are soon submerged in pieces of bleached white coral, small pebbles and shells, many of them whole, because the wave action is more gentle here on some of these protected beaches, than it is on the coasts of South Africa.

Rock pool at Melkbosstrand, near Cape Town, South Africa.

On the Southern-most tip of Africa, in South Africa, is Cape Agulhas. Here the rock pools are pounded with the gigantic cold surf of the Atlantic ocean and the warm swell of the Indian, for here the two oceans meet. In these South African rock pools the Cape urchin (Parechinus angulosus) can be overlooked since it covers itself with bits of shell and ocean debris to protect itself from the sun, whilst all around it are hypnotic fern-like sea plants and silky-smooth small stones in a myriad of colours, that have been pounded and rounded by the sea.  

Rock pool at Cape Agulhas, South Africa.

Like the cycle of life, seaside rock pools are constantly changing and it seems to me that an ocean rock pool is rather like a seaside town, with the tides like the seasons. When the tide comes in, the new arrivals pour in like Summer visitors and stay. For a time. Later, when the tide goes out, they depart like the many guests who return home as the season ends and establishments close for the Winter. Of course, there are permanent residents (in these holiday towns) and in these intriguing pools created by sea and stone, but the ebb and flow of time and tide are what make these watery worlds so vital – and so very alluring.

Under the Sea is a favourite Disney song of mine from a favourite Disney film, The Little Mermaid. When I first saw it, I thought the animations of the sea creatures was enchanting. And even now, when the world of technology has moved so much further on, it is still up there with the best of animated films.

For a catchy song The Ocean Song, by Ukulele Jim and a short, sublime poem about the sea by Russell Hoban called Old Man Ocean, please follow this link: – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

For fun facts about rocks pools in Mauritius (and beautiful photos) you can go to this professional photographer’s blog:- https://nataliejamesphotography.com/blog/

Rock Pool Reflections

Water is life, so they say. And for once, “they” are right. At its most fundamental, every living thing needs a certain amount of water to survive. And as humans of course, we have come to need it for a great deal more than that. If I say the word water, everyone has their own mind’s picture, but what if I say rock pool…

Rocks and River reeds ( Phragmites mauritianus) against a Zambian Winter sky.

In the Zimbabwean rock pools, rivers and streams of my childhood, there was always a kind of magic. Rock pools had a particular allure for my brothers and I as children, and would have for our children too. I suspect it was the same for our parents, and for theirs. But even now I am intrigued and charmed by them; the appeal of a rock pool does not diminish with time.  

Back then the appeal of a rock pool was intrinsically linked with personality; for my brothers it was the concentrated hours of enjoyment catching wriggling black tadpoles with small, homemade fishing nets, sometimes to carry home in a bottle or an old jam jar, sometimes to simply release back into the water. For me it was the bulrushes or water lilies. For us all it was the bird’s nest in the water reeds, and the jewel-bright dragonflies that hovered overhead, and that all-too-brief moment of stillness when they landed. Sometimes it was the pond-skaters, those fascinating insects with long legs and supersonic speed.  Always it was the shape and smoothness of the rocks and the way the water flowed over them.  Moving water was particularly enticing for it was often clear, which is not always the case in African rivers and streams. Spying some small swimming fish was the ultimate reward.

In some rivers, the granite rocks over which they flowed had been carved into hollows and hills. In the dry season one could climb and explore these river-carved canyons because there was little or no water flowing over them, although there were still pools in the deepest recesses. Some rock pools were large and deep and overhung by a tangle of vegetation, others shallow and clear and you could see the stones on the bottom. All had a charm of their own.

Rock pool reflections.

The rock pool on this Zambian farm is still and mostly silent. Some days, the only sound is a small trickle of water where the river is still running in. On a windy day the water reeds strike up a symphony of sounds, of rustling and faint piping sounds, as if an orchestra was tuning up. Once the silence was broken by the splash of a Legavaan or Water Monitor, who unseen till then, had launched himself off the bank and into the water.

There are many butterflies upon the edges of the water; as always they seem to favour the muddier puddles. For this is no crystal clear pool like you might find in considerably colder climes. The water here is very seldom clear; and algae grows along the edges of the pool and crawls over the rocks beneath.  Sometimes cattle may come here and they will certainly churn the water up.  But this muddy, dark green opalescence is usual in African rivers and pools, which mirror the bright blue sky and the trees.

As I watch the sunlight upon the surface, I wonder what else lies beneath; perhaps be-whiskered Barbel lie lazy and supine upon the bottom. In the summer I expect there will be tadpoles. I need to invite my brothers. And tell them to not to forget their bottles.

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The great Jim Croce composed this song. When I think of some of my childhood days spent in these wild, watery places, I too wish I could save time in a bottle. But at least the song reminds us that we can save our memories of our particularly golden days.

For a sweet, short poem by American poet Carl Sandburg and an old country song by Frankie Laine,” Cool Water” – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Followers of the last Dog Blog should go here. https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

Country Roads

I’m always glad of a chance to take a drive around the farm. Sometimes it is with intention; a need to check on the irrigation, how the Avocado trees are growing. It may be that cattle have been moved from one paddock to another. Or a need to confirm how much tobacco is still to be reaped. Sometimes it is just a drive for its own sake. Regardless, there is always something to see. And often, something different from what you saw the last time you went.

But it is not just the scenery that I love to look at.

Farm track in Winter.

When you drive around the farm in Winter, the pick-up cab fills with the smell of dust, and the scent of wild, sun-warmed grass. Sunshine through the windscreen warms you up and soon you can take off the jacket you’ve been wearing. Sitting in the pickup gives you a different view of the bushveld. It can be a time for reflection or conversation, or simply watching the world go by. And what a world it is.

Hemmed in by trees on both sides, we enter a leafy domain that sighs and stirs with the wind, as we go by. Ahead of us, the winding road through the country seems to me, to beckon us on as if just around the next bend there will be something special. A flash of white and tan is the only sign of a solitary Bushbuck that leaps away into the trees. Sitting in khaki-coloured grass, a Swainson’s Francolin and her mate are enjoying the wintry sun. For a brief moment those bright red heads are visible,  before she takes off on foot, disappearing into a thicket, her mate not far behind her. Further on a flock of guinea fowl scrabbling in a bare patch of earth rise up in alarm as we pass by, before settling back down to their scratching again.

At a small river we stop to check on the level of water which is still available for the cattle. There is still a little water, now trickling in from the river as it arrives in a rock pool.  On the bank, I catch sight of a  plant I have not seen before – it has pods, like a pea and small butterfly-like flowers of maroon and yellow. It is the Rattle Pod.  On the edge of the water, the river reeds grow lush. They sway as the wind passes through.

Rattle Pod (Crotalaria family)

Further up the road, our destination; the cattle we have come to see. We smelt them before we saw them; that sweet, distinctive musk. These are cows whose calves have just been weaned. Although it has only been days since they were separated from their calves, the cows have already picked up in condition; they have grown fatter and their coats gleam in the sun. We have had to drive through the entire paddock to find them. We find them lying up against the gate, as they are so wont to do. Some of them stand around and watch us with mild curiosity, others lie chewing their cud – I’m not moving, thank you very much. I don’t blame them. Replete with grass, bellies full, and the winter sun on their backs, they’ve made themselves very comfortable on the dusty, warm road.

Contented cows watching me, watching them.

It is with some reluctance we drive away; there are few scenes as restful on the farm, as a gathering of contented cattle. The cattle get smaller in the rear-view mirror but ahead, the country road beckons once more.

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This cover of that old John Denver classic, Country Roads, is by a well-known Bluegrass band, a family group called The Petersens, who come from Missouri.

A classic children’s poem this week from Robert Louis Stevenson and a rather fascinating clip – the beautiful Swedish artist and singer, Jonna Jinton calling the cows in Sweden, using an ancient method. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Soaking up the Winter Sun

The wind may be icy but the sun is wonderfully warm in our Zambian winters. Sitting near my kitchen door looking out over the back yard, with a mug of tea in hand, I lean my head back against the wall, my face up-tilted towards the sun.  I feel it through to my bones and soon my feet are too warm in their socks and boots. Problem is, it took me at least seven minutes to put them on this morning and I can’t be bothered to go through that more than once a day…. When I’m finally at boiling point I go back inside because it is quite cold inside my thatched house. I go back and forth between house and garden; if I get too cold inside I go out into the sun, when I overheat, back into the cool interior. I am my own mobile air conditioner…

Sunning myself in the garden during Winter is a simple pleasure that nourishes body and soul.  But it isn’t only people who bask in the African winter sun. I’ve seen birds, fluffed up against the cold, sitting with their eyes half-mast as they soak up some sunshine.

Beautiful Bronze Mannikin Photo by Alastair Newman

Here there are many places to walk and feel the sun on your back. Just nearby over the long, swaying swathes of grass, drifts a busy cloud of Bronze Mannikins, those exquisite, elfin seed-eaters. The sun on their feathers is simply sublime. There are more Mannikins this season, than I have seen before, probably because there is more grass. In a chorus of sweet conversation, they alight as one, pick off the best seeds, then move on again.

A female Bushbuck who sprang away as I walked in the land nearby, has meanwhile gone back to her grazing, some way off. She looks in good condition considering it’s Winter. That better rainy season we had in December has long-reaching consequences. And as she moves slowly along, picking at the still-green grass, the sun catches her coat, making it gleam like copper. In the long grass a bull Eland pauses as if to show off his regal magnificence before he trots away into the sun-lit, golden grass.

In Winter, lizards lie stick-still on any available stone surface until the dogs catch sight of them with which they scurry for cover under the nearest brick or potted plant. When the dogs have lost interest, the lizards re-emerge and go back to their sun-baking.

Bull Eland in golden grass – Photo by Jamie Rutherford.

Snakes too. In early Winter we see more of them (when it gets too cold they disappear again) although not as  many as people who don’t live here, might imagine. At this time of year,  when we do see them, it is usually on the road, which heats up during the day. 

One morning I come upon a Black Mamba who lies sunning himself on the road. He instantly raises himself up, lifting a third or so of his long, dark grey body into the air and turning that distinctive coffin-shaped head sharply to look at me.  I catch sight of him whilst slowly driving the last winding stretch of dirt road that leads to our house. I stop. I get gooseflesh at the sight of him. To me snakes are incredible and intimidating in equal measure. And especially the Mamba. As for this particular specimen,  I think I’ve seen him before – they are territorial – I think he moves across the road near our house, from time to time. I’ve waited for him to cross the road before. And I’ve seen his big drag tracks in the soft sand. Judging by the size of him –  I’d say he’s a fair age.  He gives me a long, measured look  out of intense, onyx-black eyes before dropping to the ground and moving swiftly off into the long grass. As I drive on, I am thinking to myself I probably won’t walk in that place today….

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Sheryl Crow’s hits, “Soak Up the Sun” was released in 2002. Missouri-born, she apparently had a few lessons in surfing especially for this video. Like many of her other songs, it’s up-beat and I particularly like the line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got” – a message for the world. From Ms Crow. And me 🙂

Followers of Dog Blog, it is here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/dog-blog/

For that Golden Oldie by the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” and a poem by the Canadian poet, Archibald Lampman, please go here:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/