Red

You would think that is in this heat of October, the colour red would be just too much. But red is like the lighthouse lantern sending outs its warning. It simply grabs your attention in spite of yourself. And all the cool, soft green and white in the world, or garden, just can’t seem to compete.

Amaryllis Lily in my garden, Southern Province, Zambia.

Scientifically speaking, red catches the eye because it has the longest wavelength, second only to yellow. So there is that.

But to many people it is so much more. It appears in our language- such as the expression, “seeing red” to denote anger and “being in the red” when one is broke. Red is a colour with heart and soul. Red is hot and contradictory ; it can symbolise power and rage and yet also love and passion. But whatever its meaning in popular culture, this siren of colours certainly seems to suit October’s temperament.

This month in Zambian and Zimbabwe gardens right now, the beautiful blooms of the Amaryllis are in full flower in an array of stunning shades. But as you might guess, the one which catches my eye the most in my own garden, is a dark red beauty with velvety petals and long stamens.

Elsewhere in the garden, the poinsettia is covered in scarlet, the leaf bracts looking for all the world like enormous bright red, flowers. If I am lucky I will see the Sunbirds in there – although the Scarlet-Chested Sunbird is harder to spot in amongst all that red. But if seen against the blue Summer sky, I am in for a treat as he radiates beauty, with his dark sheeny black feathers and the emblem of his name, his scarlet chest, glowing like a beacon. It truly gladdens my heart to see him.

Male Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Southern Province, Zambia.

In fact, the sight of the colour red is known to elevate blood pressure, enhance metabolism, increase heart rate and breathing rate ; I once owned a red dress with that kind of pulling power.

Red certainly has an energy that other colours do not share. I read that in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, competitors in four sports—boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling, and taekwondo—were randomly assigned red or blue clothing. In all four competitions, red-clad contestants won more fights. That does not completely surprise me. Red has always been associated with war for it is the colour of blood and therefore perhaps, also, a call to arms.

Red in the natural world is not particularly common which is probably why it stands out. (Yes, yes, I’ve not forgotten the length of the colour wave…but if all the mystery and power of red is just reduced to one simple scientific fact, then there’s not much to get excited about. And not much to write about either.) So, moving along…

Red-Veined Darter Dragonfly, Southern Province, Zambia

I’ve had the pleasure of a nesting Red Bishop in the long grass at the bottom of my garden. Against the khaki stems of grass that joyful quick flash of crimson was all that alerted me to their presence. And drew me back day after day to watch them. I’ve also had the enjoyment of watching bright orange red dragonflies beside a rocky stream. They don’t always make the best photographic subjects because they move at such speed and at the smallest disturbance. But I struck it lucky with one particularly indolent specimen who landed and stayed, the sun glinting on his glorious red body and wings. I snapped a photo. And another. Still he stayed. We sat and watched him. The sun was hot and the sound of the water was cool. The photos came out rather nicely too, which made it rather a red letter day.

From the most moving and wonderful musical I have ever had the fortune to watch, Les Miserables – this is “Red and Black” sung by the wonderful Michael Ball as Marius and Ramin Karimloo as Enroljas. In this truly magnificent song the young Frenchmen are revving themselves up for the battle ahead – the first of the French Revolution. Meanwhile one of them – Marius – is trying to explain how he saw a beautiful woman and fell in love…

For that famous poem “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns and a sweet old Irish folk song called Red is the Rose, please follow this link https://shellbell.home.blog/contact/verse/

A King and his Kingdom

It’s an early October morning and the air is still cool. We have gone out to have our first cup of tea of the day, out in the bush. On our way, we pass by one of the stock dams. The sky is grey, for now. Later, this will change as the sun climbs upward, going from shades of pale rose and orange, to a dusky blue. In this month of summer, the dryness and the bush fires change the colour of the sky, coating it with an overlay of dust and smoke, muting the blueness, draining away its colour.

Silhouetted in a large tree on the edge of the water I see that icon of African rivers – and Zambia’s national bird – the African Fish Eagle.  He is perched in silence so I do not hear his distinctive, head-thrown back call. This song, sometimes called the sound of Africa, is plaintive and hair-stirring. It has a primeval quality; once heard, never forgotten. Some might even say it is absorbed into their very bones.

African Fish Eagle, Southern Province of Zambia.

This Fish Eagle is still silent. He looks out over the dam and I catch a glimpse of his sturdy yellow beak, tipped with black. This is an awesome hunter. He will go fishing and sometimes requires great feats of strength to lift his catch free of the water. He will prey on waterfowl and other birds. And in times of need, he will scavenge. He will even steal food from such birds as a Goliath Heron.

 Aside from his voice, the  fish eagle is instantly recognisable by his distinctive plumage. The body feathers are tan and brown and like a medieval king, he wears a collared hood, all in white. From his lofty throne he watches the world go by.  He studies me too but I am considerably less interesting than the water below him. I watch him in the hope that he will call,  but he does not oblige. So I turn my own attention to the water itself.

Early October morning on a stock dam, Southern Province, Zambia

The water in the dam is quite motionless. It mirrors sky and trees in perfect, pristine, pin-point detail. The water lilies have not all yet fully opened. They lie serenely still, except where they are being agitated by the activity of a trio of African Lily Trotters. I imagine the water itself is cold but the Lily Trotters do not seem to notice or mind. On spindly legs, and long, outspread toes, they make small runs from pad to pad. Now and then they stop to stab at some morsel with their long, pointed beak, fashioned for just that purpose. The water ripples beneath them as they move, causing the water lily pads to undulate and bob, like small, circular boats.

African Lily Trotters, Southern Province, Zambia

Across the dam, a group of Knob-billed Geese are also on the water.  They paddle slowly, with no great sense of direction or urgency. Like that sleepy, not-a-morning person that I’m sure we all know, they seem reluctant to get moving at all and float gently, aimlessly upon the water.  

I think that is what life should be like, sometimes. These days there always seems to be some great rush, some red-tape-embroiled paperwork to get done, some arduous journey to undertake. How good it is then, to simply stop and stare, and listen for the call of the Fish Eagle. And it doesn’t matter that I didn’t hear it this time; – just to stand beneath him as he surveyed his kingdom, was really quite enough.  

Like the song of the Fish Eagle, the music of Johnny Clegg has the ability to seep into my soul. These sounds remind me of my youth and of the beautiful continent I live on. Here he performs “I call your Name”.

If you’ve never heard a Fish Eagle call, and you long for the “Peace of the Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, please follow this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/contact/verse/

September Repeat

If I go back to a previous blog I have written in the same month a year or two ago, I often find some things are the same. That is probably one of the things I enjoy most about doing a Nature-inspired blog. It not only makes me stop and observe, here and now, it gives me proof, if ever I needed it, that Nature follows cyclical patterns. And in these infinite and intricate plans of hers, my small and humble part is simply to marvel.

Tree Squirrel eating a Mnondo pod.

September’s seasonal change and bounty means that the squirrels are particularly active, once again. They bound from rooftop to treetop and back, and in the process, drive the dogs into a barking frenzy. When they are not in the Wild Fig tree, they can be seen darting around in a large Mnondo tree, their tails flicking in and out of the foliage as they find just the pod they are looking for. When they find it, they will stop and sit, and holding the pod with their paws, they nibble their way all round the edges. Rather like me with a peanut butter and apricot jam sandwich – munching the crusts off first and then that perfectly blissful bite of the soft, best, middle bit! To the squirrels, the pods are obviously just as tasty – nothing is left, not even a tiny bit of the hard shell.

In this month the bird activity increases after the slight pause in the Winter months, for September is the time when some species find their mate and nest building begins. And in this garden, certain birds (wearing their more eye-catching breeding plumage) are always more visible at this time; like the handsome Red-Headed Weaver, and the Red-Chested Sunbird.

Last September, readers of a previous blog may recall there had in fact been an altercation between  a Red-Headed Weaver and some Scarlet-Chested Sunbirds. And just imagine – they are at it again! Of course, I can’t be absolutely certain that the birds I watched arguing with each other last September, were exactly the two I saw a week or so ago, but since it was the same species involved, I can’t help wondering…

Red-Headed Weaver and female Scarlet-Chested Sunbird in dispute.

Last time the Red-headed Weaver almost succeeded in chasing a pair of Scarlet-Chested Sunbirds from their nest. This time, he has managed it! They have vacated and he has built his own nest in almost exactly the same spot. A few days after his success, I saw him sitting on a trellis beneath the nest having a confrontation with a female Sunbird. They seemed to be squaring up to one another and I couldn’t help imagining the conversation.

“You again!” says the sunbird, puffing up her small brown body. “I hope you’re proud of yourself – chasing us away from the spot we had chosen!”

“I have just as much right to that spot as you!” replies the weaver, cocking his bright-coloured head to one side. “Just because you’ve got a curved beak and a shiny mate, don’t think you have special privileges!”

“Well you’re nothing but a bully and I don’t have to talk to you!” she snaps at him and flies away.

“Well…well… my nest is much more intricate than yours!” he calls after her, determined to have the last word.

Of course it’s not likely that their encounter was quite as human as that.  Still it did rather intrigue me to watch them apparently having a proper go at one another. And all the more so because I had seen that behaviour before.

Meanwhile, out back, in considerably more silent attitudes, the Epauletted Fruit Bats are back. In the day time they hang from the branches of the same fir tree I saw them in last year. I peer up into the tree they roost in. Their little noses are v shaped and bony-looking, their wings folded like an intricate origami toy. Silently they stare down at me out of doleful brown eyes that shine like polished agate.

Epauletted Fruit Bats, Southern Province of Zambia.

In the Cassia Abbreviata, all decked in her yellow blooms, a Brownbul is putting on a show. I’ve seen its like before, in September. He hops and flaps his wings, his fixed attention on a female sitting above him. She seems to be watching his performance with intent. He is singing his little heart out. After all, it’s September.

One of the many beautiful hits from the superlative Neil Diamond, this one written in 1979. This is September Morn.

For a lovely piece of music “Spring Song” by Mendelssohn and a poem by the great pastoral poet, John Clare, please follow this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/contact/verse/

The Way of the World

It’s September – that month of change and possibility. Here in our southern hemisphere, September means that Spring hovers on the cusp of Summer. And in our house, there is now an absence of play station soundtracks, baking smells and heart-lifting, girlish laughter, for the holidays are over and the girl is back at school again. Still, it was with some sense of anticipation she returned; the prospect of milestone exams something of a challenge to her, a chance perhaps to make her mark.

And so it is with September in Nature. If there is a month in the year when Nature makes her seasonal mark, it is September. Almost from one day to the next, the days are warmer, and out in the bush, the leaves on the Msasa and Mnondo trees have turned from red to green and gleam against a blue, blue sky.

Gone green – the Mnondo trees in Brachystegia woodland.

Here in the Southern part of Zambia, it is not quite proper Summer – the nights are still quite cool, the duvet still necessary, but like a travelling show, there are signs which tell of Summer’s imminent arrival.

In the veld many of the wild trees are covered in flowers and others are crowned with gleaming pods. Flowers and pods catch the eye and dance in the wind, like colourful banners heralding the start of the procession. Yellow Cassia Abbreviata and white Dombeya, or Wild Pear, are a mass of blooms and here and there a singular Erythrina (Lucky Bean) strikes a cheery scarlet note in the brown bushveld.

Blossoms on the Dombeya, the Wild Pear.

Like a band tuning up, pods rattle and branches creak when the wind blows through, whilst the expectant audience, the leaves and twigs, sigh and whisper and lean towards each other. The music truly begins with bird song which is suddenly more notable and more varied than in August. The plaintiff high chirrup of the Scarlet-Chested Sunbird competes with the mellifluous song of the Heuglin’s Robin and the sweet notes of the Brownbul are in a higher range than the Cape Turtle Dove. As Trumpeter Hornbills swoop in flocks of 6 or 7, they call raucously to one another as they dip and glide over the stirring tree tops. Now and then one or two are blown slightly off course which for some reason always makes me laugh; September is a windy month.

Scarlet topped Erythrina, Lucky Bean tree, in the veld.

Beneath the trees, dead leaves have been blown about. Here and there, they lie in deep piles, brown and crackle-dry beneath my feet, but on the trees themselves, many new leaves and shoots have appeared. In Brachystegia woodland the newest lime-green leaves are accompanied by flowers. These delicate blooms are not easy to see, being predominantly green and white, but as I pass beneath the trees I smell the sweetness of them; it’s lingering scent, quite as fragrant as jasmine, stays with me as I walk along the country road.

In the undergrowth Francolin and Guinea Fowl call to one another, a prelude to pairing-up for the breeding season ahead. The grass is now dry and at watering places animals will gather more often. A colony of mongoose dash over the road ahead of me although one stands tall, watching me with intent. The others urge each other on, the larger adults shepherding the smaller members of the group. They seem to be heading somewhere. There is a feeling that to all things there is an added sense of purpose at this time of year.

A feast of figs for the Brownbul.

It’s a catchy feeling. I would rather be doing something anyway -I’ve never been that good at just twiddling my thumbs. So I find myself cooking up the last of the kumquats into a sticky marmalade and although Spring is now all but departed, spring-cleaning is high on my list of To Do. Winter blankets can be washed and stored away. One of these days I will do the same with the clothes in my wardrobe which I always like to change around by season. It’s like having new clothes when I unpack them from their winter quarters – a suitcase clean-smelling of moth balls. Which reminds me of an old joke about a big moth…

Meanwhile out in the the back yard the birds sing and call and pair up. Some fledglings can be heard in the nest of the Red-Headed Weavers and those dear little Blue Waxbills have returned to nest in the herbaceous border in the front garden. The Brownbuls sing rather sweet songs How blessed I feel to have these September signs of Nature around me; for when our daughter is away these are the things which bring me solace. And remind me that it is the way of the world for things to change.

This song is a favourite of my daughter’s. It is called “Thumbs” and sung by Sabrina Carpenter, a diminutive American singer with understated power in her voice. (By the way I do love her boots which would have to be called nose-dives if I wore them…) Meanwhile, the tune is upbeat and catchy, the lyrics true; and the video fun to watch. All of which pretty much sums up my daughter too.

For a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Vivaldi’s lovely piece, “Spring”, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Seasons Come, Seasons Go

An old folk song goes, “The rustling leaves beneath my feet swirl in a colourful kaleidescope; the seasons come, the seasons go.” And it’s true, they do.

Here in Zambia we are now in our dry season, our winter. The seasons do come and go, and so it is with the months which follow in their turn, wearing their seasonal clothing, as Nature sees fit. In July, the sky is sometimes dotted with very white, fluffy clouds which hang extremely high, but mostly it is blue and clear. The bush, having been slowly drying out since the last rains fell in the summer, turns steadily more grey and brown, and the pathways and tracks are littered with leaves beneath the trees from which they fell. This is the general pattern. Sometimes, however, the bushveld dries out more slowly in winter because the rains of the summer that came before, were good. And then there is a different aspect to the veld.

Such is the case with this July.

Studying photos of an area on the farm where a stand of Mukwa (Pterocarpus anglosensis) trees grow in a copse, I see how dry and desiccated the bushveld looked one year. That was 2019, a year when we had a drought. Going to the same spot this July, there is a marked difference. The grass is longer and more plentiful, and there is still a tinge of green too; a feeling almost of rare bounty at a time when the pickings are often scarce. And yet the Mukwa trees are less laden with pods this season, than they were back then.

This is what I have noted before; that in the years when the bushveld is very dry, there are more pods and more flowers on the wild trees. I think this is Nature’s way of compensating, a way to make sure these species survive despite the season. Against a dry, grey backdrop the wild flowering trees seem brighter because, as in the garden, trees also produce more flowers in times of stress. In a July like we are having this year, there seem to be less flowers on the trees and fewer pods. But I believe this is a sign of a less harsh winter.

This year, even now, there are still has some areas of green not only in trees and shrubs but even in the wild grass itself. Flushes of green are unusual in July unless the area has been burnt, but this year there was more moisture in the soil as the winter months came on. And the benefit to the wild foliage is quite plain to see.

The dams are higher than they usually are in the winter. In a very dry season there are visible tide marks on those trees which stand in the water and you can see an almost daily descent of the dam level. In a July like this, some of those trees are still chest-high in water. There is a notable difference in the water level at one of the stock dams, as can be seen by comparing two photos taken of the same large group of petrified, dead trees. In 2019 they are surrounded by bare ground and a clump of hardy grass. This year, it is as if they are standing on their own leaf-green reed island.

At a different dam there are several trees which stand in the water. Beyond them, water lilies adorn the water’s surface with bright and beautiful abundance. There are always water fowl here; Egyptian geese and White-faced Ducks, particularly when the water is high. I have seen a Grey Heron too but I wonder if he moves between dams when the levels drop so that fish are easier to catch. The rise and fall of the water level can probably be used to some birds’ advantage.

Hammerkop on a stock dam, Southern Province, Zambia.

But on this particular July day there is another difference; a pair of Hammerkop sitting in a dead tree surrounded by dam water. I’ve not seen them here before. Perhaps they came because the dam is still almost full. I would guess that they are a pair. They sit side by side in silent contemplation and seem to be just quietly enjoying the seasonal winter sun upon their backs.

Thank you for reading. I will be taking a break in August and will be back in a few weeks’ time. I hope you can join me again then.

Bobby Gentry was a folk country singer who was born in Chickasaw County in Mississippi in 1942. She grew up without electricity or plumbing but when she was young her grandmother traded a cow with neighbours, for their piano. At age seven, Bobby wrote her first song. One of the first female artists in America to write and release her own material, she rose to international fame with “Ode to Billy Joe”. This particular song, “Seasons come, Seasons Go”, was released in 1969.

For a beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a fine, rollicking tune by Mumford and Sons, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

The Way You Found Me!

I find driving in Zambia pretty challenging. And judging by the slogans I see painted on the back  of some vehicles, some would agree. But there are those that wouldn’t.  Crawling through yet another built up area snarled up with pedestrians,  bicycles, trucks and the odd goat, I come up behind  a taxi  called, “Speed Miracle.” Alright then. He is either very optimistic or, as I suspect, a cut-in, get-out-of-my-way driver who hurtles along without worrying about the consequences. 

Sitting behind yet another taxi who proclaims, “Only God Knows”. I find myself wondering if this is a statement, an appeal or a warning.  I don’t reach a conclusion for “Only God Knows” has just cut in front of someone who had indicated to turn. There is a loud honking of hooters and a few shouted words and then the two vehicles involved move off again. All in a day’s driving.

As is this – yet another police road block. This one is not too banked-up with trucks thank goodness. Still, it gives me  time to think. And to read all the information on the trailer in front of me.”Thinks afety” it proclaims proudly and wouldn’t it have been nice if only they had thought before sticking the letters on…. But we are moving and I consider, once again, how all the towns which dot the road to the capital, are on the main highway of Zambia. Also, that there is no servitude to speak of since it is always covered in hawkers` stalls or actual shops or houses. And lots of people. This means there are also speed bumps to negotiate in every small town or settlement you come upon. Unwary or careless drivers can find themselves launched into the air if they hit one of the particularly nasty ones at anything faster than 1km per hour.  Speed Miracle indeed!

Sometimes, in between trucks and leviathan ‘Abnormal Loads’ vehicles carrying mining equipment up to the Copperbelt, I pass a little cart being pulled along by fast trotting donkeys. Honestly, to me this is the very height of mixed emotion. I find very few animals more endearing than a donkey and I so love to see them. But not, no never, in traffic! Their little hooves clipping the tarmac is probably music to the ears of their handlers who don’t have another means of transport but it worries me terribly. I have also seen an ox-pulled cart once but it was very early morning and he was crossing the road and not traveling along it for which I gave thanks! Draught animals are still used here in Zambia but most often you see them on the dirt tracks which sometimes run adjacent to the road. In one place I stay there are a pair of large oxen who collect the rubbish bins. This pair of power houses, called ‘Black and ‘Brown’ are lucky. They are not destined to brave the traffic of the Zambian highways.

For out on the highway there are potholes,  livestock wandering on to the road and  seriously, I mean seriously, really, really, no place for the bicycles which you have to negotiate with as they wobble their way beside truck and traffic. It can be quite chaotic but the most challenging thing perhaps, is the volume  of truck traffic which has increased massively since we first came to Zambia nearly 20 years ago.

Black and Brown, draught oxen in Zambia.

Coming up behind “Big Big” – a huge tarp-covered rig with a bright yellow horse, I would agree – he is. His name is a fact, like the refrigerated carrier, “Great Dimension” whilst ” Great Wise One” just sounds preposterous. “Time-Time” is often on the road and always makes me laugh. It’s a positive slogan made to convince you that time means something ….hmmm are we saying that? Still there are those who are much more optimistic about their Zambian trips – like the large grey carrier who boasts,”Impossibilities we do Every Day!”

No wonder it is so hectic; this is the only route to several of the the main towns of Zambia and the capital city of Lusaka. What`s more this main highway is single lane for nearly the entire length of the country. And Zambia is big. From the southern border at Livingstone to its Northern border at Tanduma, into Tanzania, it is a nearly 1500km. The road I take regularly from Choma to Chisamba is a mere 350km. But it will take you 6 hours at least.

All of this means there is a lot of time spent sitting behind trucks. And reading their slogans. Or adverts. I come up behind “Need More Payload” on the back of a large trailer. Having just missed a big pothole I find myself shouting, “No! No! We do Not need more pay load… you load and we pay when we hit all the potholes your heavy load created!”

Nearing my destination I find myself smiling for there, in front of me is the taxi which caused my girl so much mirth when we first saw it. It makes me smile again because I remember her pointing and reading it aloud. There were no signs of damage upon it and yet the words printed boldly on the back bumper seemed to hint at some past misfortune. She wondered what he could have been through. I remember how we laughed. And how she read it again, in a very plaintive voice,“Please! Leave me the way you found me!”

One of the great driving songs by that truly stellar rock band, The Eagles, here with Jackson Browne and Linda Rondstadt (who was once in a band with members of The Eagles, called The Stone Poneys). Good advice from them for drivers everywhere… Take it Easy.

For a poem about Zambian traffic by my daughter and that old 80s song Fast Car by Tracy Chapman, please follow the link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

The Less Usual Suspects

Here on this farm in Zambia we see certain animals quite regularly. And some almost daily. Like monkeys. And baboons.

Monkeys follow the fruiting trees and those which drop edible pods. In Winter they often come into my garden in search of water too, which they may find leaking from a hosepipe, dripping from a tap or simply by drinking their fill from the bird baths. Baboon also come for water – I have watched one wrapping his mouth around a tap where the water was leaking from the join in the attached hose. I expect he would quickly learn to gnaw through the hosepipe if he came often enough. In fact these primates don’t really need to come into the garden for water because they can find it in a trough in the small paddock behind our house; it is mainly there for the bulls but we keep it full of water all year round.

Monkeys are very alert to human and dogs. They will take to the trees as soon as the dogs appear. But even though they see us as regularly, they don’t like to be stared at. They will fidget and twitch and balk. And if you stare at them for long enough they will run off as if they can’t cope with it any more. Baboons will also, but to a lesser extent, and some of the bigger males will appear to ignore you. The fact that they are regular visitors does not make them much less wary of us, or we of them. We keep our distance and so do they, even though it is almost commonplace to see them.

But now and then, once in a while, we are also treated to a view of the much less usual suspects.

Out on a drive on the farm, one particular day, the wintry sunshine brought out some beautiful small antelope, the Oribi. They are such dainty and pretty buck, with rather beautiful markings. I don’t often see them myself, so it was a treat to come upon them. And in fact there were three of them against a backdrop of thick, golden grass and they watched us intently as we passed by.

Oribi antelope, Southern Province, Zambia.

Passing over the dam wall, my husband recently came across a small African Python, lying perfectly still in the warm winter sun. It did not move as he drove by, nor when he stopped. It was not particularly long and it markings were clear and striking. Its slightly triangular-shaped head was kinked at a slight angle to its body. Further on into the grass it would have been considerably harder to see. We learnt later that it was a hatchling, so perhaps it was unaware that it might have been prudent to move away from a human at great speed. Luckily for the python, on this occasion, it was in no danger from this particular human.

Baby Southern African Python lying on a dam wall, Southern Province, Choma.

But we had an even more unusual visitor, right in our garden, one afternoon after a walk in the bushveld.

It was my husband who spotted something dash beneath the pile of wooden planks in the wood shed. The planks are up on bricks to protect them from ants and there is a fairly large crawl space beneath. (Not that I’d crawl in there mind!) Whatever had run in was definitely bigger than a squirrel, and almost cat-like. Before I could stop her, my dog followed it under the wood. A second later there was an angry sounding squawk and my dog shot back out, her tail between her legs. For her it’s all beer and skittles until the chased becomes the chaser! After that she wasn’t keen on playing any more. Finally, with all the dogs closed inside, we went to have a good look ourselves. Peering into the dark space, I saw a pair of enormous round eyes and the fluffiest, round body. It looked like a Rock Hyrax, a Dassie – pronounced Dussy – as we call them – but since there are no large granite outcrops near us, this seemed most unlikely. And was. We were close though – it turned out to be a Tree Hyrax, an animal of which I had never heard.

Tree Hyrax, or Tree Dassie, Southern Province, Choma.

Even though it could see us watching it, the Hyrax was in no hurry to move. I was charmed by its grey furry body, its sweet, round black nose and winsome, shiny black eyes. Once a whisker twitched but apart from that, it sat quite still, staring intently at us. It did not even flinch when the flash automatically went off as I took its photo.

Later I was so glad to see that my photos had come out quite well. Even out in the Zambian bushveld, and certainly in my garden, it’s just not every day you see a Tree Hyrax.

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They are certainly very sweet to look at, but their call has terrified more than one camper at night in the bush! Have a listen…

From one singular call to another – please follow this link for that superb African foot-tapper “I call Your Name” by the late, great Johnny Clegg and Savuka and an evocative African poem, “Song of the Seasons” by South African poet, W.C. Scully : https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

July Diary

The mid-term school break is over and my girl is back at boarding school. The house is too quiet. I find it almost ghostly for a time, after she is gone. I can’t settle to much of anything for a day or two after her departure; it is as if I have to reset or to refill that glass of mine so it is once again half full. I remind myself that it is only a month or so before she will be home. Soon, I know I will be myself again and not least because I have labour for my hands and a blank page on which to share my rambling thoughts. Or I will find my solace in veld and garden.

Crowned Hornbill, July, Southern Province of Zambia.

I walk in the rambling bushveld behind the house and stop to admire the grey tangle of leafless branches in a tree overhead. These bare bones are beautiful just as they are. But in fact today there is an added attraction; a Hornbill is perched in there. His grey body blends almost seamlessly with the faded, wintry boughs but his bright red beak and his large, round and rather fierce eye, gives his position away. I discover later that he is a Crowned Hornbill, which is less common around my garden than the Trumpeter Hornbill. It is certainly good to see him for on a cold day in July, you can sometimes walk without seeing any creatures at all.

A Lizard Buzzard in July, Southern Province, Choma.

Still, to all things the season will come. This is certainly true of July and the Lizard Buzzard. Looking back over my photos and blog notes, I see he always finds his way here at this time of the year. I love the shape of him and his lovely, soft colouring, so contrasting with his big bright feet. He always comes into the garden in Winter, in search of food.

One particular afternoon he is joined by other birds and soon a small crowd of White-browed Robin-Chats and Kurricane Thrushes are gathered around him, on the lawn. I can only think a slant of brief sunlight brought out some flying ants or other insects, to attract such a diverse group. The smaller birds ignore the raptor at first but when he flies upward to land on an overhead branch, the Brownbuls start to dive-bomb him. He takes absolutely no notice of them however. He preens himself a little, his beak working in amongst the grey and white feathers on his breast. He fluffs himself up. From this angle I can’t see the black barring which runs along his throat. He takes little notice of me either for he appears to still be intent on whatever it was they are all feeding on, on the ground. He stays around for a while longer and then disappears for the sun is slowly going down and the insect feast is done.

Little Bee-Eaters visiting my garden in July. Southern Province, Zambia.

In the morning, I wake to my favourite kind of Winter day. It is blue-skied and fresh, and the sun is warm upon the back of bird and beast. Like a siren song, that Winter sun truly calls to me. And not just the sun. I have heard a new bird call; it is the short, sweet chirp of the Little Bee-Eaters who arrived in the garden a day or two ago. Out in the garden I follow the call of the birds. The sunshine has again aroused some insect life, this time around the Elderflower bushes. The Bee-Eaters swoop and dive as they catch themselves a morsel to eat. I watch them and think again how lovely they are; not only for their striking green, black and yellow plumage, but also for their simple, single-minded pursuit of life.

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The song “Let it Be” was released by the Beatles in May 1970. It is probably no coincidence that the lyrics are concerned with finding peace in troubled times, as the band had been experiencing much friction and already broken up by the time the song came out. It was not the big hit that some Beatles songs were but for my part, I have always liked it. Paul McCartney has said he wrote it after a dream he had of his own late mother, Mary.

For that perfect Winter song, “Let It Go” from the Disney film Frozen, and a winter poem by Walter De La Mare, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Following the Flowers

We really have been having some very chill and gloomy days! The sky is a dismal grey shroud overhead and gives a cold and uninviting aspect to the bushveld and the garden. Birds and animals seem to disappear; perhaps, wisely, staying in their nests and burrows or in other sheltered places.

This extra cold snap will of course pass. For in Zambia, the sunshine is never very far away. It may be less intense in Winter than it is in the balmy and hot months of Summer, but when the sun does come out at this time of year, the outdoors suddenly come alive. Especially with bird life.

Variable Sunbirds cling to Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia) in the Winter sun, Southern Province, Zambia.

Out in my garden last week, when the sun was out, I would hear the sweet high trill of a Sunbird as he flitted from tree to tree. He seemed to be calling for a mate. Or perhaps he was the sweet fluffy youngster, I had seen, now almost grown, who used to call to his parent birds all day long and was still in the habit of doing so. Whichever bird it was, they were not alone. There were other Variable Sunbirds flying around in the back yard. I would catch glimpses of their gleaming emerald and bright yellow feathers as they flitted between the trees and bushes. They were always busy, in search I expect, of food.

Fortunately for them (and me) I had planted Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia), a striking addition to any garden and a particularly welcoming sight on a bleak mid-Winter day. It always gladdened my heart that on some days there would be three or four gorgeous little Sunbirds hanging on the Red Hot Poker flowers, their curved beaks finding a sweet treat within. It was a glorious sight; but I knew it could not last. I kept counting the orange-red blooms and watching for the Sunbirds. One final flower that appeared a particular morning was cause for some happiness because already I could see that the other blooms were starting to fade, and that soon they would be brown and dry. Then the little Sunbirds would have to go elsewhere for their meals.

Late afternoon and a Variable Sunbird on Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) Southern Province, Zambia.

Now the flowers are mostly dead, for their time is done. The plant still has its strappy green leaves, giving a little colour but there will be no more blooms this Winter. The blooms have turned into long, husky brown spires which I leave on the plant because I like the way they look and because I think other small creatures might feast on them too.

As for the Sunbirds, I have not lost them after all. Birds are, after all, the absolute masters at making the most of their local produce and so it is with the Sunbirds. They have now found the Aloes which are blooming in all their flame colours. And when those are done, the Sunbirds may move on, but I know they’ll be back, wherever there are nectar-filled blossoms in the garden again. For they follow the flowers.

And not just in the garden itself. In these cold Winter days, I have also heard them when I walk in the bush outside our front gate. I am pretty sure they are finding food in a wild, flowering creeper that hangs in the Mnondo thickets at this time of year.

With the rain gauge stored away till the Summer, a Variable Sunbird fledgling makes use of the empty frame as a vantage point. Southern Province, Zambia.

Meanwhile I can hear them from my kitchen as I make myself a hot cup of coffee. I am always surprised to hear them up so early when the weather is so cold and the sky still so dark. Even the Heuglin’s Robin (White Browed Robin Chat) does not sing with as much gusto these mornings. If the sun comes out, though, he will sing in the late afternoon instead but the Sunbirds seem to be busy the day long. I catch sight of them as they go into a wild tree in bloom, in the back garden, for still they follow the flowers. It’s rather high and not as easy to see them up there. But there’s an obvious solution – next year I must make sure I have planted a whole lot more Red Hot Pokers, for them, and me, to enjoy.

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The Kingston Trio had a huge hit with Where Have All the Flowers Gone, in 1962. The song was written by well-known protest singer and lyricist, Pete Seeger, in the 1950s. The folk style makes it easy and lyrical to listen to, but it has a serious side, since it is an anti-war song.

For an old Neil Young song, “Winterlong” and a poem about that beautiful bird, the robin, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Nocturne

On a winter’s night, the sky in the Zambian bush is very beautiful. Away from city lights, here on the farm, the sky is very, very dark. I love the wrap of this onyx night. I always struggle to sleep when I go to places where there are many lights.  Here, there is only star light. And here, the stars are like crystals of ice suspended on a black velvet.  In winter, the stars seem to twinkle more as if they too shivered with the crisp, icy air. And if you stand and look up you can see them gleam and glimmer for they seem to dance as they span the African sky to the edge of forever. The silence is so intense you could be forgiven for thinking that all the wild things are asleep.

But you’d be wrong.

The million insects which have sung ceaselessly during the day may suspend their music in the darkest, coldest hours of night but out there in the bushveld, Nature’s business of life, and death, does not stop. Sometimes a Bush Baby’s harsh wail is flung into the silence. Meanwhile the Eagle Owls call  to one another, low and sonorous and far away a jackal barks for his mate.

I lie listening to the night sounds and imagine the Barn Owl flying silently past the window. For we have footage of him; our camera trap caught him sitting on the verandah beams from where he hunts at night. His image on camera is ghostly; he almost gleams in the dark. He has a slightly startled look upon his face courtesy of the flash, but judging by the next series of photos, he does not vacate the premises. Perhaps it is a good vantage point for his nightly hunt. And while owls hunt, no doubt small animals scurry for cover.

Barn Owl on the verandah, Southern Province, Zambia.

And as if to further prove my point, just then, I hear a noise inside as if something just came in through our bedroom window. There is a sort of sliding sound and then a thump as if some creature fell off the window ledge on to the floor. I know I will have to look and see what it is. Very, very tentatively I pull the curtain aside with my torch shining ahead of me to try and see what it is. Something is there. I can’t quite make it out. It’s brownish. Dropping the curtain again I step away and plan my next move. Suddenly there is a movement and a small thud; some creature has leapt on to the trunk that stands in the corner of our room. I give a little shriek and clutch at my pounding heart. But in the next second I feel hugely relieved too; at least it can’t be a snake as they don’t leap up on to stuff! That I know of. I still have to force myself, however, to point my torch at the spot where I heard the sound. Then I start to laugh. A pair of enormous round eyes look out at me. The tiny creature leaps off the chest and dashes to a hollow in the wall where he hopes to exit but as there is no actual hole I can still see him, his furry little tail sticking out into the room. It is a very dear little dormouse. We’ve had one of them in our room before. They are so sweet to look at but extraordinarily destructive on a shelf of wool clothing. Still, neither my husband nor myself can bring ourselves to dispatch it. That face!

As I climb back into bed I can hear the dormouse climbing up the curtain. Then silence. I wonder if he has found his way out again. I will have to look for him in our cupboards in the morning and chase him out in case he is planning to build a nest inside. For the moment I am not that bothered. As I fall asleep I do hope he has gone somewhere safe, and hopefully, undetected by the Barn Owl.

One of my cherub’s favourite musicians is Owl City who came to fame in 2007. Singer Adam Young hails from Minnesota. Here he sings a song for his father, which rings very true to me. Since Fathers’ Day has just recently been celebrated, it seems appropriate to me to share it with you. I dedicate this song to my Pa and to all the dads out there doing their best for their kids – “Not All Heroes Wear Capes.”

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For that wonderful childhood favourite, “The Owl and the Pussycat”, and an amazing clip of a Barn Owl’s flight, please follow this link: https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

June-Moon Morning

In the chill of these June winter mornings, I lie in bed until the last possible moment. The dogs, who have crowded on to my bed while I drink my early morning tea, leap off when I stir. They always have great expectancy for this might be a morning walk day.  It is still quite dark when I venture outside and the full moon, like an enormous pearl, hangs on the breast of a cold June sky. There is something about the moon in the morning; by her very presence at daybreak she is ethereal and otherworldly. I pause alongside the Pod Mahogany tree to have a look at her and for a moment she is apparently trapped in its thick, sinuous boughs and tangle of leaves.

The moon in June – Southern Province, Zambia.

But, I can’t linger too long for the dogs have set off. They race ahead; one to bark at the monkeys which have just started their own early morning routines, another to investigate as closely as possible every baboon dropping along the dusty farm road. The more odoriferous, the better he likes it. (And if not instantly checked will roll in it with great relish.) The third dog has raced into the newly-cut grass, and I see her long plumy tail waving like a banner as she goes round and about the hay bales.

As I walk I zip my jacket up to my neck and think about the break I have had from my blog. I have not been home much in the past few weeks, travelling between home and my daughter’s school. In between that there has been no actual break from technology for I have been busy getting all the online paperwork sorted out for a holiday visa which we need. Good! Grief! I could really, really go on about it, but I will say just this; just exactly who are these people who compile the questions for visa applications! Anyway. It’s done now and all we have to do is wait and hope for its arrival. I have at least done my bit. I can put it out of mind, for the moment.

Early morning moon in June, Southern Province, Zambia.

I think instead of the quote I recently saw by a favourite writer of mine, that great American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said, “In the morning a man walks with his whole body; in the evening, only with his legs.” For me, this is very true. Especially on a cold Winter morning when I’d rather walk with arms swinging and get the blood pumping than stumble along hunched up against the weather. I think too, that the world is a different place at this time of the day; a place where revival and inspiration go hand in hand, for the senses are keener and the mind clearer than at any other time. All the promise of a perfect new day lies ahead and there is time to savour the moment before the day actually gets going and all the wheels fall off…..

Meanwhile, one of the dogs seems to have found a scent which is leading him a delightfully merry dance across the field. His concentration is so intense he almost collides with a hay bale. The Jack Russell has heard voices in the tobacco seedbeds ahead of us, which has made her turn tail and run home again. No amount of calling and cajoling can persuade her back. This is quite usual for her. She loves us but other people make her very nervous. Oh well, the rest of us will go on without her.

Rhodes Grass baled for Winter, Southern Province, Zambia.

The Red-Eyed doves are already calling – clearly they are among the early risers. I can hear a Schallows Turaco’s raucous cry and it is echoed by another from the opposite side of the road. Nearby in a tangled thicket, there is the high, sweet sound of a Sunbird and I wonder if it is one of the three I have been seeing in my garden. The monkeys sporting about in the Mnondo trees are full of chatter and energy. And further away in the bushveld, the sound of bass-pitch barking comes to me; some baboon have started their morning roll call.

This walk along field and furrow is one I always enjoy and especially for its changing palette. In the Summer it is green and wet, the trees hang heavy with thick, emerald foliage and underfoot the pathways are rich and dark, with mud. In these Winter days, however, the tones are muted, earthy and pared back. Some trees are still green but some have lost their leaves and their rather beautiful bones are exposed in intricate patterns of bare, grey branches. In the top of one tree a wild creeper bears russet red flowers. In the field below, both the short, shorn grass and that which has been baled is a beautiful, dusty gold.

It is lighter now and still the Winter morning moon glides ahead of us. In the cold, crisp air, she glows like a beacon high in the pale sky. This morning she has truly outdone herself.

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If there is a dog more connected to Winter than a Husky, then I don’t know it. And if you’ve ever wondered what a singing Husky sounds like, you’ve come to the right place. Meanwhile the human who has written and compiled this rather sweet song is musician extraordinaire from Cape Town, South Africa – The Kiffness. I am sure it’ll put a smile on your face. I give you Haiku, the Husky, The Kiffness and “Ancient Husky Melody”. P.S. In case you didn’t know, “kiffness” is a pop-culture word in South Africa. It simply means excellent, brilliant, cool, something to enjoy.

The following video was created by Nhu Le, whose YouTube channel Morning Nhu was started in 2019. This stunning original footage of a Super Full Moon from 2020, is accompanied by Beethoven’s beautiful and timeless, Moonlight Sonata.

For a poem by Henry David Thoreau, and another chance to listen to Moonlight Sonata this time accompanying a gallery of beautiful classical paintings which contain the moon, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Not so Ordinary

There are some sights, and sounds, in the bushveld around my house that are perfectly commonplace, yet still lovely to see.

The ubiquitous Helmeted Guinea Fowl – whose distinctive spotted feathers I often find when I walk in the veld – is everywhere, and in great numbers. I see them not only in the bush but in my garden too, especially on a Sunday when there are no staff around. They make sweet, clucking noises when they pick their way through the back yard in the early morning, and a loud claxon call if any of us go outside.  Guinea fowl may seem ordinary, but to me, they are not. I read that it is the males who mostly like to take dust baths and preen themselves to keep in top notch condition. Since these birds live in large social groups there is always a bit of jostling for position, and males will chase each other to claim top spot. During breeding he is a most attentive mate, even feeding the female. When the actual eggs have been laid he will leave but will return to the female after the chicks are hatched. He plays a vital role in teaching the young ones how to forage for food and without him, the young ones would die as the female, in low condition after incubation, cannot manage her large brood and herself, on her own.

Helmeted Guinea fowl on an April afternoon, Southern Province, Zambia.

Usually when I see guinea fowl they are walking or running through the grass or flapping upward in great panic, or sprinting in front of the vehicle in apparent ignorance of the fact that they can fly.  The fact is they prefer to run, choosing only to fly under great provocation. Which begs the question; would not a several ton vehicle bearing down on one be considered, well, you know, pretty severe? Anyway. These four guineas – we hardly ever add the fowl around here – I come upon perched on the branch of a fallen tree, are quite a surprise to me. Not only are they apparently unbothered by me, but to see them resting side by side on a bough like that, and in the day time, is really quite different.

The tree they are perched in has fallen over but undefeated by such calamity, it has pushed out new shoots and is growing again. It is festooned in a number of other plants including a particular eye-catching creeper, yet another common sight in the bushveld and in my garden too. This is the Brazilian Nightshade, a naturalised plant originally from South America.  Belonging to the potato and tomato family this plant – Solanum Seaforthianum – is extremely vigorous and grows everywhere. It has sprays of vivid purple flowers and the slim, springy branches are often weighed down with the most beautiful bright red berries. These berries, though toxic to humans, must be delicious to some birds and animals, judging by the number of plants which spring up all over the garden and in the veld. When I first came to the country quite some years ago, I would see it growing in the wild and think it a slightly curious sight to see in the middle of the Zambian bushveld. Now that I am used to it, I think it looks natural and very much a part of its habitat.  Like the Helmeted Guinea Fowl.

The berries of Solanum Searforthium or Brazillian Nightshade, Southern Province, Zambia.

Guinea Fowl calls and shrieks can be heard practically every day, all year round. The call is very distinctive and could quite easily be taken for granted because it is such a regular occurrence. Less regular but still heard often, is the penny-whistle trill of the Black-Collared Barbet. Since living here, I have come to think of it as a truly iconic sound of this farm, but it was also a part of my childhood in Zimbabwe. And I see from its distribution that these are not the only African countries to get this striking bird. It occurs all over the Africa. So I expect people in other parts of the continent, like South Africa and Mozambique, to name just two, might feel the same about its call as I do.

This Barbet call once caused some mirth in our household when it was used in an old television advert for a beauty product containing cocoa butter. The catch line was that “women of the islands” used this product and were obviously more beautiful as a result. The scene was set with palm trees and a lovely girl wearing a grass skirt and a garland of flowers. The only problem was that the “island” soundtrack was the ringing call of the Black-Collared Barbet. Now, whenever I hear it I can’t help but remember this and have myself a little laugh.

Black-Collared Barbets in a tree on the farm, Southern Province, Zambia.

As the name suggests, the Black-Collared Barbet has a dark collar but its head is bright red. And still,  no matter how often I hear it, I do not always see it.  Imagine my delight on managing to capture a trio of them on camera! They had been evident at dusk the day before and on this particularly grey April day, were a very welcome sight. I watch them calling, accompanied by wing-flicking. I am truly astounded to discover that this call is not from one bird but two! In further reading on this, I find theirs is described as an antiphonal duet; the first note sung by one bird and the rest of the call by the other. How very far from ordinary!

I really do try not to take anything for granted, and certainly in the place where I live, I find there is so much rich beauty, even in the every-day sights. They say familiarity breeds contempt. Which may be true – for them. For me, in the case of the Helmeted Guinea Fowl and the Black-Collared Barbets, at least, familiarity breeds only content.

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

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A clip of Black-Collared Barbets calling, footage taken in South Africa.

For a short poem by Christina Rossetti, and a good country song “Bluebird” by Miranda Lambert, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

It’s April, it’s Autumn

Autumn is here.  The sunshiny crops of April sunflowers, with their faces lifted skyward, are now coming to an end. How I have loved to see their happy blooms in fields beside the road! And judging by the abundant stands of them I have seen, those wise farmers who planted them will this year have a very bountiful harvest.  Summer sun and rainfall began what Autumn will finish. As the flowers dry off, those beautiful heads once crowned with bright petals will slowly bow beneath a heavy load of black, oil-laden seeds which swell with goodness, day by day. 

Although the sunflowers are dwindling now, the colour yellow still catches the eye as the daisy-like flower of Bidens Schimperi (which is related to the Black jack) spring up in great swathes beside the road and in the bushveld. They have sticky seeds similar to the pesky Black Jack plant which clings most tenaciously to whatever can get it to a new location. It is a fact of April that there are plenty of burs and prickles as all manner of plants find ingenious ways to disperse their harbingers of a future generation.

The grass has begun to dry and there is more crunch underfoot as you walk on the leaf litter, as it too is drying out, but because of late Summer rain, there is still lots of green in the undergrowth and copses, and many trees still have green leaves. Overhead, the sky cannot seem to decide whether it is blue or grey, nor quite what to do with the clouds, but the wind is certainly more chill. Outside my bedroom window, too, the trio of Heuglin’s Robins (White Browed Robin-Chats) who always sing at dawn, present their song later in the morning, now. 

Monarch Butterfly in April, Southern Province, Zambia.

Butterflies abound at this time of year, and a myriad of them can be seen flitting endlessly over the long grasses, wild flowers and weeds. Common Pansies and Brown-Veined White seem to gather together in the afternoon whilst singular Monarchs appear to keep to themselves. Whatever they are, they all take flight in the hot sun and find themselves blown about as a cool wind kicks off, for April days are nothing if not fickle.

Afternoon April stormy sky, Southern Province, Choma.

Some mornings the skies are clear, others close and cloudy and yet on other days the sky looks like a child’s painting with fluffy white clouds scudding by. We have heard occasional April thunder but only in the distance. There is something very powerful about the look of an afternoon sky in Autumn, with the promise of a storm. The wind blows in gusts, and the light is moody and changeable, like a toddler who needs a nap. And as the sky closes in I hope we are in for some very welcome April rain.

A few nights ago, we were treated to the full Easter moon. It was particularly spectacular and since it began to wane, the early evening skies have been something to see, at once grey and heavy with cloud as if the air is filled with moisture, but overlaid with a slightly eerie light as if a water colour artist added a wash of yellow ochre over it all. On a distant farm where the horizon is clearer, they’ve had sunset after sunset in rich purple, red and gold – wildly exuberant, flame-coloured skies, and the deep, dark Zambian night rolling in behind them.  

Phone-captured sky in April, Southern Province, Zambia (Photo by S. Kloppers)

Autumn nights are cooler, but not yet exactly cold. It is 8. 45 p.m and I am in bed, reading. My husband has gone out to check his tobacco barns. I like to stay awake until he returns. Because it’s April, in the room adjoining ours, the girl is home. She is sleeping and if I go to the doorway, I can hear her gentle breathing. The back door creaks. He is back. I set my book down and sink into my blankets. And floating in at the window, as if on cue, it’s the perfect end to an April day; it’s the lovely whistling call of a solitary Fiery-Necked Night Jar.

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The inimitable mega rock star, Pink, here singing the sweetest song with her daughter Willow. “Cover me in Sunshine”, came out in 2021. An anthem for moms and daughters everywhere, it always makes me smile. And it’s perfect to me, for April.

For a bittersweet song by Simon & Garfunkel “the Leaves that are Green”, and one of my favourite poems, “Ode to Autumn” by English poet John Keats, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

You’re Welcome Here

I saw a meme recently of a winged man lying exhausted, flat out on the ground. The caption was, “My guardian angel, after a day of trying to control me on social media.”

Ha-ha-ha! Yes. 

The ability to keep in touch with those we care about is the blessing of social media; the larger net of acquaintances it gives you, considerably less so. Especially when I read yet another piece of forwarded, rabble-rousing nonsense that has nothing to do with the actual facts.  I do find it hard sometimes (and judging by phone traffic, I am not the only one) to just let it go. This is coupled with the fact that many of the people who forward everything they read, aren’t really interested in being told the facts. Unless it is as they see them. What social media has taught me above all, is that there are a surprising number of people who don’t actually think like me. Perhaps you have learnt this too. It follows therefore, that although our opinions might matter to a select few, in the grand scheme of it all, they are actually much, much less important than we think they are. Which turns out to be fine by me. After all, self-importance is such an unattractive quality.

Early morning April sun on wild grass, Southern Province, Zambia.

I don’t care what’s trending on any social media platform nor could be bothered to find out. As for what the so-called famous people are up to, or have to say about it any of it, I literally could not care less about that. If I want real news on the really important things – like the terrible war raging in Ukraine – I find out from my husband because he visits several different news sites daily. And when I want, I can deliberately disengage myself from what’s happening on certain phone groups because really, I’m much more interested to know what’s going on in the world of uncut grass at the bottom of my garden.

In these April days, the grass is saturated with moisture in the early morning, and the first sun makes the dew drops sparkle and gleam. It is not yet time to cut it as the veld is still green and I’d probably have a little tantrum if anyone tried to. In this grass-waving world, I am Gulliver in a world of giants, for most of it towers over my head. In here there is only the sound of the wind and the grass and  the occasional beat of birds’ wings.  In here, there are always treasures to find, like the birds’ nests I come upon as I venture carefully in. Busy Bronze Mannequins can be seen flying in and out all around me. There are several pairs; one pair appear to be building their nest elsewhere as they fly off from time to time, with long strands in their beaks. Others disappear into the thickets of the grass as if their nest is in here somewhere. I am reluctant to disturb them so don’t go any further but back track to the edge.

Nest belonging to a Southern Red Bishop, Southern Province, Choma.

Besides, it is here, near where this stand of wild grass begins, that one nest in particular has caught my eye. I’ve not seen this particular shape in my garden before. It is much neater than the wispy and seeded confection knotted and cobbled together by a Blue Waxbill. It is oval and woven, like a Moses basket, and quite small, no bigger than my hand. When the wind blows through the grass, the nest moves gently, but it is well secured to the waving fronds. There is another one like it, nearby. I watch a small brownish bird disappear inside and am at a complete loss as to what she might be, until I see her mate nearby. He arrives with a sudden, bright flash of orange-red and black and alights on a strand of grass. It’s a Southern Red Bishop. The grass doesn’t seem strong enough to hold even such a small bird, but it is. The feathery topped seed heads lift and drift as a gust of wind blows them around but through it all, the Bishop clings steadfastly on. He has a bright beady black eye as he surveys his grassy kingdom. I have never seen his kind in my garden before, let alone seen him nesting here. It’s an instant of pure joy to watch him. How delighted I am he is here! Until my dogs appear which makes him fly away to the safety of a high tree.

Southern Red Bishop, Southern Province, Zambia.

As I head back to the house I feel once again, the privilege of appreciating the vitality and rhythms of Nature. I am grateful that I am able to find solace in these. I think on a quote by the famous children’s author Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. She said, “Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”

I can definitely go along with this splendid advice  – although the “behave yourself” part is quite difficult for me in this technologically-connected world we all live in.  Still, I’ve always been inclined not to mind the rest; I’m not really the one who you come to if you need to know the latest fashion, or dish the latest dirt. But, if you’ve a mind to come out on an April day, and to treasure small birds going about their business  in a beautiful sea of grass, I’m definitely the one. And you’re very welcome here.

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This week’s song, is “I Promise You” sung by James Corden. It is from the movie, “Peter Rabbit” – the most famous of the characters created by author Beatrix Potter. Have a listen. “Life’s rough when you feel confused, Still rough when you hear the news, that each day gotta pick and choose, The same old sides, the mes and yous, but don’t be sad, you’re welcome here”. With Easter around the corner, who better to bring a little happiness to us all, than Peter Rabbit. This song is a tonic – I promise you!


For a beautiful Nature poem by John Clare and a 2016 song by that former icon of British pop music, Rick Astley, called “Angels on My Side,” please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Sanctuary

I’ve always been glad there are people who choose to live in the cities – otherwise I might have to!

Of course I am aware that there are those who need to, due to the nature of their work. And to be honest there are some very old cities I have visited which I really loved, but I believe it was the novelty of seeing beautiful cathedrals and temples, of engaging museums and quirky shops. But not all cities are fascinating and then you are left with only the bustle of thousands of strangers, the noise, the grubbiness and the traffic. To me that would be a huge challenge although I have heard city people saying it’s too quiet in the countryside for them. Still, even they would benefit from that single vitality, the green space.

To my mind, the value of green space in cities and towns cannot be exaggerated.

Palm trees in a Lusaka garden.

That is why I lament so much when I see trees being chopped down in the towns of Zambia. These trees, often having been planted by people with foresight decades ago, are now removed to make way for yet another building or another overhead cable. If some people were left to it, there would be only concrete (with the resulting dire lack of drainage) and that particular apparent Zambian delight; the billboard.  I never realised how much I could come to despise it. Here in Zambia, there are vast numbers of them crowding every entrance to nearly every town. Add to that the fact that many of them have replaced established avenues of trees and I just sometimes despair of this world. To me, it’s partly symptomatic of the appalling madness that prevails when too many people live too close to one another…

Family of mine recently moved from one area of the city of Lusaka, to another. They left for a number of reasons but the final straw was when the landlord cut most of the beautiful established trees down, some in their yard and some protecting them from noise and sun, on the perimeter. He claimed these stalwarts were in danger of collapse. All I know is that their old house now contains a beauty parlour and business premises no doubt, earn considerably more in rent than houses. But after some initial indignation and disbelief, we all find it doesn’t matter because the move was the best thing they could have done for themselves.

Young Vervet Monkey on an urban water tower.

Instead of a hectic road with noisy trucks screeching to a halt before they hit the speed bump a few metres from their house, or full volume political and commercial broadcasts emanating from tinny megaphones at 4.00 on a Sunday afternoon, they have a garden full of trees and birds. Instead of being slowly but surely surrounded by business premises with delivery vehicles coming and going at all hours, they are now in a more residential area. There are neighbours’ dogs to contend with of course, – that’s unavoidable in cities – but on a scale of 1 to cacophonous base music driving past their house regularly at 3.00 a.m on a week day, the dogs are manageable.

Now, they have sanctuary. In this tropical oasis they are surrounded by trees, by palms, enormous cycads and a Giant Strelitzia. Birds thrive in this place; in the flowers, Sunbirds, whilst in the wild trees all around them, Green Hoopoes call. Vocal Brownbuls flit from bush to tree and shout at the Barn Owls who have moved into the owl nesting box which my brother hung on the roof. The family have added flowering shrubs and annuals to this space, each of which bring their own reward of colour and fragrance.

Long established bamboo, Lusaka.

Beautiful indigenous trees, a large thicket of bamboo and a grove of bananas provide sanctuary (and food) not only for themselves but also Jennets and White-Faced Owls. Monkeys climb around in the trees that overhang the garden and the young ones cavort around on the top of the water tower stand, whilst their parents forage for food.  With no vegetable garden to be concerned about, the monkeys are welcome, even though they do steal bananas – but my family see this as a small price to pay for the joy of watching these entertaining wild creatures in their own backyard.

In my ideal world, everyone would value and be able and willing, to create a space like this serene sanctuary. It wouldn’t have to be a big or impressive; just a place that’s nurtured and cared for, which will in turn nurture its carer. For here, at the end of the day, when the sun starts to go down, the garden draws you out. Out on the green lawn, my sister in law and I sit and enjoy a glass of wine at sundown and watch the Zambian sky change colour. Sometimes there is the distant drone of a vehicle but that only reminds you how far away you are from it all. In this cool green seclusion, birdsong is mingled with the symphony of the bamboo, conducted by the wind.  This is music to my ear – this constant flow of movement which makes the towering yellow trunks sway against each other and rustles the finger-like leaves on their long spindly branches.   Like self-conscious girls at parties, the bamboo trees murmur and giggle as they lean towards each other, and they only dance if and when, their companions do.

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This song, “Sit Down” performed by English band James, was released in 1989. It was written by lead singer Tim Booth, who had been battling depression and found inspiration in music and books he had read, which showed he was not alone and made him feel better able to deal with it. The song is an invitation to all who feel alone to join together, to find sanctuary with each other.

For a wonderful poem about an enchanting flute – Krishna’s Flute – and arguably the most famous piece of classical music in the world, Pachelbel’s Canon in D for Flute, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

So Much More

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog about turning 40. She titled it “Not Just a Number”. And oh, how I agree! It’s a thing people like to tell us these days, that age is just a number but I only have to think about these numbers – my daughter’s first Christmas and her 16th birthday, to know they are wrong.  Moreover, my father recently celebrated his 83rd birthday and my father-in-law, his 82nd.  Those are some serious milestones! And so very much more than just numbers.

If I think of their lives and all that they have seen and all that they have been through, I am humbled by the vastness of their experience and the obstacles they have both overcome.  War has touched them both and shaped their destinies. So has political expedience and political greed, and other such evils as they had no control over. Their lives have spanned several iconic inventions; from the first ballpoint pen and the first helicopter, to the first cell phone, home computer, internet and so much in between. With all that they have done and no matter how the cards have often been stacked against them, these two amazing men have both raised loving families and given their children the best life we could have had. And if you consider that between them they now have an array of beautiful and talented grandchildren, they are so much more than just the sum of their years.

Beautiful tree bark, gnarled with age and weathered by the years.

Numbers themselves have no emotion – except when it comes to age. There is a world of difference in the celebration of a baby’s first birthday and the coming of age of a beloved child who will soon fly the nest. One can’t help but view these moments differently; the one because it is the sign of hope and new life and a reassurance that the world goes on, the second of the bittersweet naturalness of life’s seasons, but also, perhaps, of our own mortality.

In Nature, of course, it is less complicated. The cycle of life is straightforward, for the simple reason that in their world it is eat or be eaten, and breed or die out. In Nature there is birth and life and death, before the cycle begins again. Right now, the Bronze Mannekins have a nest tucked under the large leaves of a Dombeya tree, and outside my window Red-Headed Weavers can be seen going in and out of their own elongated, boot-like nest. If I stand beneath them now, I can hear the sound of fledglings. It won’t be long and they will be gone. Meanwhile in the bushveld, the Munondo trees are crowned with their warm-brown pods which catch the sunlight and look pale. In a while the pods will drop, and the trees will have done what they could to keep their own species alive.

Of course, in our world, for most of us fortunately, there is room for so much more than simply survival. There is room for the sprightly septuagenarian or the glamourous grandmother. There has even been room recently for a 90 year old man who wanted to go into Space. But what they all share is a life and an age which marks them each down in a certain place in the history of the world.

Munondo pods sticking up above the canopy of their mother tree, Julbernadia Globiflora.

Now look, I do understand why they like to say it,  these hale and hearty pundits of the modern attitude and good mental health.  What they mean in saying that age is simply a number is that we should try not to have to leave this world with the feeling that age is just a number of the things we wish we’d done. What they mean is, is don’t limit yourself because of your age. But the real truth is, there are limits and some of these are down to just plain common sense. I hardly think an old person who needs help to get out of their chair could manage to climb Mount Everest.  For that matter, I’m not that old myself – and yet, if the truth be told, I wouldn’t mind some help sometimes being pulled up out of my chair! Let alone attempting Everest… This age thing, in my opinion, is anything but just a number, unless it is a number of things you probably can’t do anymore – that is, (at least in my case) if you ever could!

Azanza garckeana or Snot apple tree, with fruit and flowers as its life cycle continues.

So when I hear this little gem about age just being a number, I can’t help cringe a little, or rolling my eyes. Again. Along with a number of the other little stock phrases that people like to latch on to, it just sounds glib and trendy and really quite thoughtless. And in regard to my Pa and my Dad, each with their 80-something years of life’s joys and struggles, I say age is most definitely not just a number – in their case, it’s a triumph!

To my mind, one of the most beautiful songs ever written is “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof”. Nowhere done more justice than in the film, by the magnificent Chaim Topol and the wonderful Norma Crane who reflect on their lives as their oldest daughter gets married.

For a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and a considerably more light-hearted song, “When I’m 64” by the Beatles, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

This blog called “It isn’t Just a Number” is written by a friend of mine. Her post inspired mine. You might like to take a look. https://lifeinz.wordpress.com/

Bushveld Trumpet

As if blown in overnight, suddenly it is March. As usual, it arrives with scudding clouds, intermittent downpours and some bright blue skies. In my garden and in the veld, the trees sway and bend, sometimes quite alarmingly. March winds blowing through the leaves sound like a river splashing over rocks.

The unmistakeable silhouette of the Trumpeter Hornbill, Southern Province, Zambia.

But the sound I hear the most right now, is the call of the Trumpeter Hornbill (Bycanistes bucinator) whose melancholy wail can be heard ringing out over veld and vlei, and garden. It is a loud call and carries a long distance and like the cavalcade for some visiting dignitary, it trumpets their arrival, long before they come in sight.

Trumpeter Hornbill in a Mnondo tree, Southern Province, Zambia.

Out of the breeding season, Trumpeter Hornbills are gregarious birds; I often see and hear them, in groups. They fly over or into the garden every day and on one particularly stormy afternoon, they can be seen hunkered down in a large, commodious tree, just sitting it out. After which they resume their feasting in a wild fruit tree.

Their flight pattern is very distinctive; like a slow-moving roller coaster, they glide and drop and climb, repeat. Their silhouette too, is unmistakeable, for the beak is crowned with a decorative, curved structure, a casque, so-named for the French word for helmet. In one of the Hornbill species, the casque is near solid, a fact which has caused its great destruction. I read that the Helmeted Hornbill, which is found in the forests of Indonesia and other countries in that region, have been poached to near extinction for this casque, which is used to make jewellery and other artefacts and traded, especially to China. They are now on the critically endangered list. The greed and ignorance and entitlement of people never seems to abate. And how tragic that this bird cannot simply be appreciated for its own remarkable, sake.

I personally find Hornbills quite fascinating. When it comes to breeding, the Trumpeter Hornbill has a rather unique way of nesting. The male will collect mud with which the female will seal herself up inside a hollowed tree to lay her eggs. She leaves only a small opening in the mud and it is through this aperture that the male will feed her, and the young chicks when they hatch. When the fledglings are old enough, the male will break her out of her self-imposed prison and the entire family will forage together for another week or so. They will eat insects and even small animals, such as frogs, as well as seeds and fruit. In fact, the bird is a vital seed disperser.

The black and white feathers can sometimes be found on the ground below where they have sat. I saw one recently which I picked up. The bird was still in the tree above me. He looked down at me from his superior height, the red ring around his eye shining in the sun. He was calling to a companion who sat a little way off. His voice was loud and I thought of the superstition I was told about when we first came to Zambia, that this call is believed to be a premonition of bad news. I can’t say I feel that when I hear it. Let’s face it, you can find bad news anywhere, and often without trying too hard; on an entirely personal level, for instance, the girl goes back to school this weekend because her half term break is over. But, for me, I’d rather seek out the good news – which is that the April holidays aren’t very, very far away.

And when it comes to the case of the Trumpeter Hornbill, I rather like its call; as plaintive as it may be. It does not fill me with foreboding or concern; rather the opposite, in fact. To me, it is a sign that things are right and as they should be. It is the sound of the natural Zambian bushveld; the wail of the Trumpeter Hornbil is instantly recognisable, evocative and entirely unique. Rather like the instrument it is named for.

I grew up listening to the trumpet music of Bert Kaempfert. This one , African Beat, I remember very well, here played by street musicians in Brazil.

For a thought-provoking poem The Bells of Heaven and a beautiful piece of trumpet music called “The Lonely Trumpet”, please follow this link – https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Feasts in February

Between the twittering of the Swallows, the chirruping of the Bee-Eaters and the drone of a thousand insects, summer’s song is in full swing. In the lush wet grasslands and sodden vleis, it’s an insect paradise – and a rich, satisfying feasting-time for the birds.

European Bee-Eater, Southern Province, Zambia.

This year, the midges are out in force – we can tell this by the fact that from late in the afternoon, if outside, you are driven inside the house and even then you are not safe from this tiny pest whose bite is astonishingly itchy.  I don’t recall having been so troubled by midges indoors before and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this is the first year we have had a different migrant, not seen by us before – the European Bee Eater – and these too,  in great numbers. There are so many in the area that some farmers have expressed concern for the bee populations on their farms, which they actively been trying to increase. To my mind, however, the presence of many bee-eating birds simply means there are considerably more bees, for Nature follows these patterns. Also, like most birds, Bee-Eaters do not have an exclusive diet, they eat many other flying insects as well. Which, like the midges, have also increased this season. The Bee-Eaters have come for the plentiful food on offer.

This day they can be found on the structure of the centre pivot. They sit in small groups and watch for insects in the tobacco lands below. They are larger than the Little Bee Eater that we usually get, but their colouring just as crisp and striking. They swoop suddenly and return to their perch on the pivot, beaks working, swallowing their insect morsels.  Beside them, teams of swallows, also watch and wait. Now and then they lift off, like fighter jets from the deck of a an aircraft carrier. They dart and dive, changing direction at break-neck speed as they pursue their prey. For them, the long grass in the meadows is alive with things to eat. And they are not the only ones.

Swallows on the centre pivot, catching a little afternoon sun, and insects, Southern Province, Zambia.

Here, where Crowsfoot and Timothy grass waft and bend with the wind, several squadrons of dragonflies have gathered. They alternately hover and criss-cross the air in sudden bursts of energy; whatever they are catching is too small to see but I am guessing midges. I am hoping so. The more they eat, the less will eat us…

Meanwhile, as is usual in February, the sky has suddenly changed. It has darkened. Rain is imminent. And away from the pivot and the meadow-lands of grass, a Zambian bushveld spectacle is about to occur, for in the midst of a ploughed land, there is a sudden, simultaneous explosion of flying ants from several anthills at once.

Wahlberg’s Eagle arriving to take part in a flying ant feast, Southern Province, Zambia.

In less than a minute the sky is a-flurry with birds. Wood hoopoes, Bee-Eaters, Doves and Widow-birds, Sparrows and more; all have come for the feast. There is nothing quite like it. Flying ants are clearly delicious and nutritious. Several eagles head towards the frenzy – one moment merely dots on the horizon, the next, they are present and gargantuan amongst the smaller birds. This time they do not indulge in any of their usual lazy circling in the sky. This time their flight is fast and they drop to the earth. Some of their dignity is rather lost as they scuttle after thousands of emerging ants. Along with the Guinea Fowl who have already arrived, other birds run around on the ground, ignoring each other, intent only on catching a very tasty treat. Above them Swallows and Bee-Eaters cut through the air in their own pursuit of ants. For a while there is only this intense activity on land and in the air. Then, as suddenly as it began, the feeding is done.

Some Trumpeter Hornbills hop around on an anthill still gorging on the flying ants that have landed and discarded their wings. I idly wonder what number of flying ants have been consumed. The smaller birds disappear. The eagles fly lazily away. I expect they are all quite full, for today. At least, I hope so.

Zambia has the African Fish Eagle as her national bird. In the USA, it is the Bald Eagle. This mesmerising clip with rather beautiful soundtrack shows the flight of the Bald Eagle, in slow motion. You can see the wing and tail feathers steering the bird and its apparently effortless and undeniably graceful flight.

For a poem “The Early Bird”, and a clip showing Hornbills feasting on flying ants, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Wild Flower February

Recently the man has taken to pointing out flowers to me wherever we see them – in the supermarket, in the mall, on the side of the road, or in the veld. This in response to an old standing joke between us, a proclamation that he never brings me flowers. I only say it so I can croon that old tune at him. You know the one – don’t make me sing it…. uh-oh – too late! Takes a deep breath and yodels, ”you don’t bring me flowww-aazzz…”

Crinum lily after rain, Southern Province, Zambia.

Actually it’s not true, he does. We’re not talking bouquets of hot-house roses here you understand – we do live in the wilds of Zambia –  but certainly if there are roses on the bushes in my garden, he will pick me one for Valentines’ Day. Which is thoughtful and funny.  But what I love most are the flowers (and grasses)  he will sometimes bring me, from the veld. 

And what a wild and wonderful array there are, not to mention the ones which bloom unseen, for just a day. The life span of most wild flowers is quite short – and it is only in perfect conditions that they will appear.  In this fecund month of February, with days of rain followed by some of sunshine, many wild flowers find their moment.  From tiny blooms which nestle in the lawn and which you can step on if you aren’t careful, to luscious sprays of white star-like jasmine, which smell as sweet as their domestic relation, they can be seen in many different places in the bushveld, depending on their habits.

Sunshine after rain – Ipomea or Morning Glory, Southern Province, Zambia.

In the lower-lying areas, lilies make their home. On this farm, in particular, Crinum or Pyjama Lilies with their white and pink striped petals gleaming amidst the wet green of the vleis or dambos, always compel my attention. Here too, but perhaps in slightly less wet ground, can sometimes be seen a personal favourite of mine, the singular, striking fan-like Tumbleweed plant. In flower it becomes a large ball of glowing crimson florets which will later turn into that excellent carrier of seeds, for which it is named, as it rolls and bounces along with the wind. The Latin is Boophane Disticha and comes from the words for ox and poison, since if eaten by cattle, it is toxic to them. What a powerful sounding name!

A particularly scarlet specimen, Flame Lily (Goriosa Superba) in the veld, Southern Province, Zambia.

 And whilst on the subject of names for lilies, there is one even better. Less common here, but just as distinctive, is the Flame Lily, so aptly named, not only in English but in Latin too. For Gloriosa Superba it really is. Here in this southern area of Zambia, the curling petals which mimic flame in shape and colour,  can be scarlet, but tend mostly towards the maroon and yellow combination, and not as bright an orange as can be seen in Zimbabwe, along the road between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo.  

There are other species who do not entwine as readily with their neighbours, nor produce as many flowers on one stem. The Wild Stock Rose (a member of the Hibiscus family) is particularly eye-catching, growing in wild profusion in the Miombo thickets, it is a bright yellow flower, with a dark purple centre.  There are others, smaller and less noticeable until you almost walk upon them and in all colours. Some have delicate petals, like Ipomea or Morning Glory whilst others seem a little stronger like the Copper Plant (Becium Grandiflora) so named for its ability to grow where copper in the soil prevents other wild flowers from doing so. The flowers look delicate and lacy but the plant itself is sturdy and shrubby.

Wild Stock Rose (a member of the Hibiscus family) growing in Miombo woodland, Southern Province, Zambia.

In every season, there are flowers growing in the wild here in Zambia, but at this time of year, there seem to be more varieties. I mark the spot where they are seen but they don’t always appear in the same place again; last year’s Miombo woodland Flame Lilies growing against a fence did not emerge, but the man found some others along the road. It is the same with many other wild flowers and I think that is part of their charm; that they usually make an entrance which is as unexpected as it is joyous.

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A favoured group of mine, Canadian “The Wailin’ Jennys” do their own distinctive version of Tom Petty’s beautiful song, “Wildflowers”. Love their harmonies and tones.

For a short poem about wildflowers by William Blake, and the original version of the song “Wildflowers” by the unforgettable Tom Petty, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Mist in the Morning

I always think there is something intriguing and rather beautiful about a misty morning in Zambia. Here, it is an uncommon way to start the day.  Mist in this part of Zambia is quite unusual; even the early morning sun is too warm for it to last for long and once the sun has risen, the mist evaporates quickly.    

Miombo woodland on an early, misty morning, Southern Province, Zambia.

Walking along the shadowy bushveld pathway, overhung on both sides by leafy green boughs, I lift my face to the moist, air; a rare treat for the skin. Close to me, it is clear and I can see a little way into the bush, but further away the air is opaque and thick with mist. Like great clouds of warm breath on a winter’s morning,  it hangs especially dense around the thickets of trees. The air looks cold, but in fact it is cool and pleasant upon the skin.

The raucous Schallows Turaco is even more elusive than usual in this early morning obscurity. As I walk, I can actually hear two of them calling on opposite sides of the road, but they are in the trees and hidden in the blanket of mist. The clarion call of guinea fowl rings out and startles one of my dogs who has moments before been nosing her way into the murky grass. Of the two, I’m not sure who gets the bigger fright; the guinea fowl who bursts out of the bushveld with a furious flap of wings, or the dog who gives a sudden bark, then wags her plumy tail.

Early morning mist begins to evaporate, Southern Province, Zambia.

The rains this year, have been so plentiful. The pathway is damp, and the grass saturated, on both sides. The farm road makes a slightly satisfying, crunching noise, like wet beach sand, as I walk along. Rivulets flow down the road and mingle with one another,  making pleasing patterns in the soil, rather like an abstract water colour wash. The road winds its sloping way towards a small, reed-filled stream and here and there I can see where a much faster and more furious stream of water passed by at some earlier time, and deposited grass and debris from higher up the road.  

Tiny nest of foam clings to a blade of grass.

With the rain we have had some high winds and an enormous branch has snapped and fallen to the ground. It is a branch I have noticed before. I had wondered when it would fall as it seemed to be dead. In the mist, from faraway it is an amorphous pile.  Up close, details emerge. Many lichen-covered pieces of wood are scattered everywhere. There is a strong smell of fungus and earth mingled together as I stand over and peer into the debris. I wonder for a moment if there was anything living in this branch before it fell. I can only imagine how startling and loud it must have been.  

Wild flower in Miombo woodland, Southern Province, Zambia.

As the morning air becomes lighter, small things catch my eye.  I pause to look at a tiny foam nest on a single, slender blade of grass. It is about the size of a marble. I fancy I can see something lurking inside it. Further along, some small brown toadstools cling to a cow pat. As I turn for home once more, already the mist is clearing but the sky is overcast and grey, the sun up, but deeply shrouded in clouds. The trees are blowing in the morning wind. I stop to look at some tiny white, wild flowers which catch the light. They shine like small beacons in the lessening gloom.

But my companions, the dogs, have other things on their minds. They race ahead of me, intent on home, and breakfast.

Beautiful male voices singing “The Misty Mountains Cold”, from the film, “The Hobbit”. This is featured in the soundtrack of the movie. It is also called Thorin’s Song, Thorin being the leader of the Dwarves. It appeared as a poem in Tolkien’s wonderful book. In this version, the actor who plays Thorin, Richard Armitage, is the solo singer, with members of the cast backing.

To me, there are few poets as adept as Henri Thoreau at capturing scenes of nature. His lovely poem “Mist” tells of a very different misty morning to my own. To read it, and listen to that rather epic piece, “Morning Mood” from the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Garden Joy

“If you have a library and a garden, you have everything you need.” So said Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher and politician.  I would add hot, buttered honey toast. And a nice cup of tea. With sugar.  But hey, that’s just me. I certainly agree with him, that books, and gardens, are vital to our well-being.

Along the roads in Zambia, I have passed gardens which catch the eye. It doesn’t matter if I myself wouldn’t have a stone carved lion surrounded by orange marigolds; that is someone’s joy and it gives me great delight to see it and know that someone took the time to make their environment more beautiful to them. Garden fashions change just as much as other trends and personal taste will always be particular, even unique. To me, these are not necessarily the things which make a garden worth another look.  To my mind, it is the tangible presence of joy in the creation of it.

Spectacular cacti in the succulent bed, alongside a pottery owl made by my mother, gardener and potter.

Such a garden belongs to my mother, who has always created gardens of distinction, wherever she has lived. This one is built on a stony hillside, in a place where rain is not always plentiful, and where the water supply, coming as it does, from old mine shafts, is saturated with plenty of minerals and some of these not agreeable to some plants.  The good bones were there when they built their home on the hill; some of the beautiful indigenous trees of Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland province. Here my mother has created a small herb and succulent garden decorated with her own-made pottery owls. Real birds are abundant here too, dove and drongo fly beneath the leafy boughs, and you can hear the sweet song of the oriole. Under the trees are aloes and indigenous lilies and behind the house, hibiscus plants in an array of splendid colours. In the garden there are challenges; top soil washed to the bottom of the hill is carefully sifted for stones and put back into the flower beds and on the lawn.

Jamesons’ Firefinches on the bird table in my parent’s Matabeleland garden, Zimbabwe.

The garden had to be adapted to the climate and the water, and there were some false starts as favourite flowers were planted and found to be unsuitable. And that, to me, is one of the things that make a successful gardener; the ability and the inclination to adapt.

In the same place where my parents live, my sister in law grows those sweet old favourites, African Violets, and the much less common but fascinating, Venus Flytrap, on her veranda. Of course, for these singular specials, she cannot use the mineral-abundant water that comes out of the taps! They both need particular water and for the Fly trap, it even has to be distilled. To mind, therefore, she is a gardener, who enjoys plants she can see daily and which need constant nurturing and care.

Venus Fly Trap needs insects, and distilled water, this specimen thriving on a veranda in the Matabeleland province of Zimbabwe.

Some people are natural gardeners, some, not so much. Some want only what they can grow to eat, whilst others want an ornamented, expensive-looking showstopper. I always think good rose-growers are probably attentive and consistent. And the gardener who makes bonsai trees must love precision and be considerably more patient than I am!  In my own garden, I tend to be the “let them get on with it” kind of gardener; although I have been known to put protective twig hats around new trees, and thorny coverings over new seedlings. I am surrounded by the bushveld which is after all Nature’s own garden. Which is a privilege beyond words. But it does mean the plants I have need to be strong enough to survive, even after being nibbled by a bushbuck.  

Some of you may remember I used this song before. Sorry for that one! It is a constant favourite and who can argue about the beauty of an English country garden. Not me, that’s for sure! Jimmy Rogers singing his 1961 hit “In an English Country Garden”, here accompanied by lovely images of English gardens and birds.

For a lovely garden poem by Amy Lowell and a funny, sweet song called Home Grown Tomatoes, sung by that giant of country music, John Denver, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

More than meets the Eye

The sudden appearance of mushrooms and toadstools is one of the many things I love about the summer rains in January. Overnight they spring from their dark place in the earth and come out into the light.

But what we see is only a tiny fraction of what actually lies beneath. We see only the temporary fruiting bodies of the main organism which is mostly underground. In fact a fungi is the world’s largest living organism;  the honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, is believed not only to be thousands of years old, but also covers an area of nearly 4km.

Newly-spawned Hymenoagaricus in my garden, Southern Province, Zambia.

I read that 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world are currently unknown to science. Which does not really surprise me if I consider the ones I have observed in my own back yard.  They are really quite difficult to identify  and one of the main reasons I think this is so, is because some of them change so radically in their short life span.

On a mossy step in my garden I come across a beautiful fairy-world of fungi; small and delicate, each has a glossy, bulb-like cap set upon a white prickly-looking stem.  White-cream and brown and clustered together on a bed of emerald moss, they look very much like an illustration out of a child’s storybook. A few days later, they are completely brown, with a very dark centre, and their caps have all flattened out, like an open umbrella. It is only at this stage that I am able to identify them but I have to use my phone-a-friend. (Who just happens to be a mycologist.)

Hymenoagaricus a few days after appearing.

Meanwhile, south of the border, over in Zimbabwe, a wildly-different and enormous fungus catches the eye of my family in the Esidgodini area. This one I know – it is from the family Boletus. These are meaty-looking fungi, usually growing under trees and of different sizes. This particular specimen, growing at the bottom of a Marula tree, is enormous. Looking at it, they snicker. My niece posts the photo. I snort. It is shaped like a bottom. Snigger. I said bottom. Twice.

A very large Bolete Phlebophus, Western Province of Zimbabwe.

Fungi are wonderful and strange ; they are actually closer to animals than plants in their biology.  And appear, in some cases to have a split personality; some cause disease in plants and humans, others are utterly beneficial.  In fact fungi as a whole, are essential to life on earth. Many plants cannot grow without the help of fungi. They are nature’s recyclers, breaking down dead plant material into minerals and gases which can be used by new plants. They also help transport food and water to plants. Not to mention how delicious some of them are!

Bolete Phlebophus beneath a Marula tree in Zimbabwe.

And as if all that was not enough for one organism to contribute to our earth, scientists in various institutions around the world have discovered some different fungi that actually break plastics down! One such discovery was made quite by accident, when the fungi was found to be “making a break for it” – it had gone over the top the jar it was being grown in and had achieved this by consuming the plastic sponge that was being used as a lid…

 I can hardly imagine something which seems quite delicate devouring something so tough and permanent as plastic. There really is more to mushrooms than meets the eye.

A rather lovely time-lapse film showing several fungi life cycle, including the other-world Earth Star, filmed in the UK by Neil Bromhall. Look for his channel on YouTube for all his fascinating time-lapse clips on growing seeds, Dandelion clocks, and a Monarch butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

For a sweet poem about an elf, a dormouse and a toadstool (and that’s how umbrellas were invented), and a piece of serene instrumental music called the Mushroom Fairies, by the Fiechters, please follow this link: https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Water, Water, Everywhere!

Like my farmer coming in for his breakfast out of the rain, January arrived complete with sodden raincoat and water dripping from her hat. It’s wet and that might be an understatement. Some readers may recall my final December blog was all about waiting for the rain which had not yet arrived. Well, it’s here. In spades. And buckets. These days we fall asleep to the sound of rain and wake up to it too. I like to walk beneath the dripping leaves and feel beneath my feet, the lawn springing back with moisture. Sipping my morning coffee I do, sometimes, remember to spare a thought for those who have to work out all day in the wet. But for me, snug inside, the sight and sound of rain is balm to the soul.  And on those in-between perfect days, when the rain stops, the sun comes out and then there is music; the gentle ring of raindrops dropping from the eaves into the puddles below.

Flood waters in Southern Province, Choma.

In my garden the giant snails can be seen now – a sure sign of wet weather. I find some on the fleshy leaves and others munching on the lawn. On the kitchen floor every morning for the past week, I have had poor stranded earth worms who, apparently finding the earth too sodden, make for dry ground. I scoop them up with difficulty – earthworms are notorious wrigglers – and put them into the relatively dry potted plants I have which stand under the eaves of the thatch and therefore don’t get the full downpours. After days and days of rain, earthworms are not the only creatures who find it difficult; the cattle huddle together with their heads down and the birds in the garden are less visible,  keeping themselves to the shrubberies and trees.

On the farm the low lying vleis or dambos, are wet now.

On a very wet evening, down at the tobacco barns, the man, watching the temperature gauge and waiting for it to move upward, finds himself with a companion – a Fork-tailed Drongo who has come in out of the storm. Finding itself not only dry but also considerably warmer, the bird fluffs its feathers up and sits with eyes at half-mast. When the man leaves the barn and closes the door, the bird flies out but with apparent reluctance.

Wet rainy seasons means rivers fill up and low level bridges can be impassable – for a time. One friend has a dam which has spilled for the first time in years. Another, whose home is on the edge of a small stock dam, finds herself now with more dam and less front garden. Sometimes a dam can overflow due to the huge amount of water arriving from the catchment area in a very short space of time.

A neighbour’s dam going over the spillway with some force.

This was the case with some neighbours. When it was apparent that the dam was overflowing and there was concern that it might even break – which fortunately did not happen – there was a mad race by one of the farmers towards the little village downstream to warn the police and suggest immediate evacuation. I believe the sound of the distantly thundering river could be heard as she spoke to them. I hear that all but one of those caught in the water were safe; some having had to spend a few hours in the relative safety of trees whilst waiting for rescue or the water to subside to safe levels.

Rain falling on tobacco, Southern Province, Zambia.

A wet January is mostly a good way to start the year; and a favourite month of mine because of the rains. On the other hand there is also the imminent departure of the girl, back to boarding school. When she leaves, there is a girl-sized gap in the fabric of the family home but we are glad she is able to go back to school in the normal way. There has been a flurry of name-tape sewing and trunk packing, at the end of which will be the long trek to her school in the central province. But for a few days more, there is her, and her laughter. Today we will have her favourite pancakes for breakfast. And when I come home to an empty house next week, I will have the bushveld, and innumerable fungi and wild flowers just waiting to be found.

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The beautiful tones of that iconic South African group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, here singing Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.

For that classic old song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and a beautiful poem about rain by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Almost Christmas

It is hard to write a Christmas blog when the rains have not yet come! Oh, we have had a teeny shower here and there, but the proper, splish-splash, muddy-puddle, drumming-on-the-roof-top rain  has not yet started. We watch the blue sky and white fluffy clouds and sigh. I grumble under my breath. And loudly. I think there are signs that it may be on the way… the humidity is pretty high for one thing and for another, there is some sign of cloud-building. But not nearly enough for my liking.

Still. It’s December, the holidays are in full swing and the girl is home.

A pair of Bushbuck drinking water at the stock dam, Southern Province, Choma.

We had a recent belated birthday celebration for her – after a couple of anxious months waiting for a special parcel from the USA for her. When it arrived, I think it is fair to say her father and I were almost as excited as we knew she would be when she opened it! I was only hoping frantically to have had a little cooling shower by then otherwise goodness knows what was going to happen to the cake – at a temperature of 30*C (86*F) and humidity at 36* (96*) all icing bets were definitely off! I feared the sweet fox face I was intending was going to end up looking more like an ageing were-wolf painted by Picasso.  Oh well, at least I thought, I could blame the weather. This time.

Did I mention it’s hot? It is though, and sadly, still pretty dry.  As if to prove my point, I still have bushbuck wandering around my garden. It is unusual for them to be here in December, but the wild grass, after a first flush of green, is dry in some places now, so the areas of green lawn in my garden are a great attraction. As is the water trough, filled to the brim and often visited by all manner of wild things. We have even had regular visits from the warthog.  In the bushveld, the trees are still green and many laden with fruit, so there is something for the animals to eat. And really, it won’t take much rain to get the grass green again too…but we do need some!

BrANCHES DAMP after a little shower of rain.

I am reminded of the poem by AA Milne about bad King John, who starts his Christmas list with a heap of things, but most of all wanting a red India-rubber ball. Finally, fearful that he won’t get even that, he asks only for the ball. That’s how I feel about the rain. The man can safely forego a present under the tree for me this year (or can he, evil laughter mwa ha ha!) as long as we get some rain! If we don’t, whooeey people, he better bring his A game in the gift department, otherwise it will be a less than festive season, with much banging of pots in the hot kitchen, deep sighing and a bottom lip constantly on the point of wobble.

For the rain has that effect on me (and I suspect I am not alone in this). Only the arrival of it can magically change everything. Only the arrival of December rain spells the real Christmas season here in Zambia. The lack of it is like a heavy burden you can’t safely put down, one that you have to keep carrying, while still trying to get on with everyday tasks. Not to mention the niggling worry, which you try not to think about, let alone discuss, that it really won’t come. That’s a thought which can keep you awake on a hot, cloudless night.

In the morning you try and shake the thought off and get on with the day. Speaking for myself, I turn to work for my hands when I feel worried. And in December work for my hands is my favourite kind; crafting and decorating in preparation for Christmas. This always includes forays into the wild bush behind our house to pick up twigs and such other bits as catch my eye and I carry these home in great triumph making the man no doubt sometimes wonder if he might as well be living out there himself. It wouldn’t help; I’d collect him too.

Collecting things has always been a hobby of mine; especially bushveld treasures. So when he says he’s going for a drive into the game park, or down to the dam, I’m there, with bells on! So to speak.

Tetchy Zebra having a go at a smaller companion, Southern Province, Zambia.

Down at the dam, which has water in it, and will hopefully soon have more, there are signs of animals coming down from the surrounding bushveld, in the footprints depressed into the muddy banks.  In the late afternoon sun, a pair of Bushbuck, male and female, approach cautiously and drink their fill. On the opposite side, three zebra are grazing on the green grass which grows in the wet area around the dam. Suddenly one of them takes off with mouth wide, attempting to bite the smallest member of the group. It’s strange to me as they all appear to be females. Perhaps the heat is getting to them too! Perhaps it is hierarchy or simply a case of middle age being annoyed by youth. I really can’t fathom it. Meanwhile closer to me, I see the head of a Water Monitor, or Legavaan, swimming slowly between two large water-logged stumps. There is a turtle here too, but I have never been able to catch him on camera, only fleeting glimpses as the man points him out. Perhaps one of these days I will see him properly. Perhaps one of these days, I will see him – and it will really rain.  

Suddenly, thunder. I hear it rumbling away in the distance for now. It’s a sound we’ve not yet heard this season.  The sky looks considerably more promising, clouds moisture-filled and the air clammy and close. Also, I am told it is pouring in Choma town. So I think – I hope – it is here.

This will be my last blog of the year. Thank you for sticking with me all this time! I appreciate your support and interest so very much. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a considerably better New Year for us all. I plan to continue this writing journey in January… hope to see you there.

A song which is beautiful, haunting and always brings a tear to my eye – Celtic Thunder singing Christmas 1915. Get the tissues. You may need them.

For a complete change of mood and tempo, have a listen to this cover by First to Eleven, one of the girl’s favourite bands with “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Well, inside my house, it certainly is starting to.

For the funny, whimsical poem King John’s Christmas, by A. A. Milne, and a lovely rendition of Carol of the Bells, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

In the Time of the Figs

Long ago and faraway, I loved a magic, fictional tree which can still be found along a well-worn path, in the woodland of my childhood memories. An array of strange and wonderful beings moved and lived along the highways and byways of this tree. I am inclined to believe that this is when my love of real trees began, for long after I had stopped looking for fairies – sorry, no. Let me now confess it;- I’ve never stopped looking for fairies. So, let me put it this way – long after I was a small child, I kept finding treasure in trees, as I began to notice the real and lovely qualities about them.

Vervet Monkey in a Wild Fig Tree, Southern Province, Zambia.

Decades later I find myself with just such a singular tree in my own back garden. This one is real and of course it is not little magical people with round, moon-shaped faces or golden, silky hair who live amongst its branches (although I’m not ruling that out completely; they may be there – I’ve just not seen them) This particular tree is a beautiful wild fig, Ficus, and stands a few metres from my sewing room window.  And from here, I sometimes watch as her worlds go by.

I also love to stand beneath her, for she makes the deepest shade at this extremely hot time of year. I cannot get my arms around her trunk – she has a sizeable girth. Besides, her bark is quite rough and would not be particularly comfortable. But weighty and buttressed, there is something reassuring about her that makes me want to. Like all trees, she is maternal; for she provides shelter and sustenance and home. There is security in her expanse and strength in the wonderful roots that keep her earthbound. To me, she literally embodies Mother Nature. Resplendent in green right now, her shape (like mine) changes according to the dance of the seasons. In Winter she loses some, but not all of her leaves and a watery sunlight streams through her partially exposed, barer branches. But in Summer she becomes full canopied again. Right now, she is rich with dark green leaves and sweet, small figs. And life.

Trumpeter Hornbill foraging for wild figs, Southern Province, Zambia.

The bird count in this tree is nigh on innumerable, with a such a variety of different species as I can hardly keep track of. There are some short stay residents like the Paradise Flycatcher who has his perfect cup-shaped nest on a branch tucked behind leaves. There are Dark-capped Bullbuls and Blue Waxbills and at least one pair of Masked Weavers have their own intricately woven nest in these branches. The Schalows Turaco arrived more than two years ago and has never left, but in the dense Ficus canopy is seldom seen, other than a flash of emerald, but heard certainly, every day.

Now, in the time of the figs, there are more bird visitors than usual in the tree; a Trumpeter Hornbill has been gorging on fruit for days, his sharp eye and equally sharp beak picking out the choicest ones as he forages. Along with him, came a flock of those jewel-coloured birds that we fondly still call Plum-coloured Starlings even though they were renamed Violet Backed….is she about to kick off? Is she? Their contrast colouring catches the eye, both the white and the rich plum-coloured (Ha!) feathers gleaming in the sun as they hop about the tree and fly from one fruit-laden twig to another.  

Violet-Backed Starling IN THE WILD FIG TREE. ITS BEAK IS OPEN TO KEEP ITSELF COOL in the blazing November heat, Southern Province, Zambia.

Here too, there are squirrels – as told of in a previous blog (Bright-eyed and Bushy-tailed, April 2021). I watch them scamper amongst the leaves. They run nimbly along the limbs of the tree and nibble at the abundance of wild figs. Sometimes they stop simply to shout at me standing below. They have their home here; I have seen them disappear into their squirrel’s drey, which is nestled in a hollow at the fork where two great branches meet.  

Do the animals smell the fruits I wonder? For suddenly one morning, I have Vervet Monkeys swarming over the branches. Thinking themselves unnoticed they sit relaxed and comfortable, intent only upon picking and eating. Suddenly they see me and they start; the younger ones peer at me out of huge brown eyes and their faces are dear little dark wedges in a sea of green. The large ones rock jerkily back and forth, in the hopes perhaps that this will baulk me and make me run away. When it doesn’t, they get skittish and move away into an area where they can’t be seen as easily. But don’t leave the tree. Why would they? For these are the days of plenty, of fruit and feasting. Indeed, these are the days in the time of the figs.

Tales from the Vienna Woods was composed by the great Austrian composer, Johann Strauss and became much beloved all round the world. When I was young, I could imagine the leaves dancing to this music. It still evokes to me, all the wonder and life of a tree. Here Andre Rieu and company give it their own special magical touch. For me, what’s not to love about these musicians, beautiful in ballgowns and dashing in formal attire, who clearly enjoy what they are doing so much, their enthusiasm is catching. In a good way.

For another lilting classic by Johann Strauss, The Beautiful Blue Danube, and a poem by the great Robert Frost, please follow this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Just an Early Morning Walk

I seldom take my camera on my early morning walk because it is for exercise rather than loitering. With or without intent. Walking briskly with a camera bouncing against you at every step starts to get a little tiresome. I don’t have to document everything; I just enjoy the cool serenity of the morning. And sometimes I see something different.

Like this morning, for instance, as I walk out of the house, a family of warthog are busy crossing the road just outside our front gate. After a moment or two of watching me with whiskery, wary intent, they dash off into the bush. I am glad my dogs have not spotted them – that would have broken the peace! And besides, there are some animals that I’d rather my dogs did not get too near, and warthog with babies are just some of them!

Lilac-Breasted Roller in Southern Zambia.

I set off with the dogs bounding joyfully along beside me, making occasional forays into the veld. Them, not me. Not this time. The earth is damp but not wet, and the dogs will not yet be tracking muddy feet back inside the house when we get home. Around me the grass is long and mainly still ochre-coloured, but the trees are bright green. The contrast is breathtaking. And that’s not just because I’ve been walking fast. There is something very beautiful about these late November days; there is intense heat, but there is also the hint of moisture in a sky building up. Those billowy white clouds have not yet piled up into enormous, dark grey towers – but they will.

On a fence post, I see the Lilac-Breasted Roller. I’ve seen him before. And got a photograph. But that was on a different walk. The dogs don’t take much notice of him. They nose about on the verges and one of them makes me laugh as he rushes into the waving grass which is way over his head. He makes small standing jumps to see what he can see – or chase. He is pretty good at stopping if I call him back, but oh, a rabbit is a huge temptation! Happily we don’t see any today. On both sides I am surrounded by green trees and golden grass. I keep walking. Sometimes, it is just good to be.

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An old tune from when my brothers and I were kids. (The eagle-eyed amongst you might remember I’ve had a track from this guy before.) If I had the urge to play music while I walked – which I don’t as I am lucky enough to have a bushveld soundtrack – but if I did, then this would have to be on the list to get my feet moving. Bert Kaempfert doing one of those happy tunes of his, “That Happy Feeling.”

For a pastoral poem by the great John Clare, and another happy melody, Swinging Safari, by Bert Kaempfert, please follow this link :- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Sweet Sixteen

Today it is my daughter’s 16th birthday and I am not with her. What more can I say? I am beset with the bittersweet joy of knowing my child is one year older and the sorrow of not sharing this special milestone with her.

She is of course, away at boarding school and in the middle of exams. How I wish I was like the amazing impala antelope who can hold on to their young and give birth only in better times – in their case, when the rain has come. Imagine! I’d have held on to her until at least after exam time!

Oh well.

fuzzy BUMBLE BEE Insect on duranTA.

I am comforted by the knowledge of at least three birthday angels who will surprise her with treats today; I am so grateful for these other mothers who will step into the breach for a moment today and hug my child for me. I hope, I think – they won’t be the only ones who remember it’s her special day.

But here, back on the farm, I do what I always do when I feel bowed down by life; I go into the garden. But today I am looking at everything through my daughter’s eyes. On the Duranta a striped bumble bee insect finds nectar in the flowers. She’s always loved their fuzzy, neat stripes.

Caladium – a favourite with its pink-striped leaves.

I am drawn to the Caladium whose leaves veined with the brightest pink, remind me of how much she loved that colour when she was a little girl. In the herb bed I see new Bracket fungi are growing… small, round and green. By the time they are starting to look like the polished wood for which they are known, the girl will be home again. For now, they are still soft and wait, as do we all, for the rain.  It has not yet started in earnest. We are told there will be rain at the weekend. Actually, it should start today since it usually rains on her birthday. I look at the sky – it still looks a little too clear to me. But it is hot. So maybe…

Lichen MANTIS in Southern Zambia.

Meanwhile, I have spotted something strange – a small piece of grey lichen on a the horn of one of my twig reindeer. It does not fit and catches my eye.  I go to pick it up. Imagine my great surprise when it moves! To my amazement, I find it is an insect. Like the girl, it is quirky, secretive and beautiful. Like her, it chooses not to be the centre of attention. Unlike her, it looks exactly like the tree lichen it emulates. I take a photo. I know she will love this little creature and its chimera-like existence will fascinate her.

Trust Mother Nature to come up with a treasure on a day I really need one; a treasure, moreover, that I can share with my girl when she comes home. In the meantime, happy, blessed birthday, Sweet Sixteen.

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A favourite of my daughter’s…Hey Brother, a song of unity and love in the face of adversity by Avicii. Avicii was the stage name of Swedish born Tim Bergling, a dj and musician, who became something of a world-wide music phenomenon during his short life.

For a pith and wit, it’s hard to beat an Ogden Nash poem. And aha! It’s Aha…another of the girl’s favourites. Please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Fruit Bat in Residence

I am delighted to find a small colony of fruit bats have moved into my garden. I expect they heard, via the grapevine, that there was already a fruit bat in residence. Although as I don’t usually spend my day hanging upside down from strong-gripping toes, I am not sure I quite qualify as a bat. Well, not that sort anyway. Moreover, these particular beauties are, I am told, Epauletted Fruit Bats, which sounds far too smart for my usual November attire of sundress and slops, or flip flops.  

This particular group have chosen a large conifer in the back garden, from which they hang like early Christmas ornaments. Their presence has not gone unnoticed by our Jack Russell dog. Every late afternoon, she has taken to sitting below the tree and staring upward in longing and expectation. As the sun drops the bats suddenly emerge from their roost and swooping upward, fly towards the large wild Fig tree. The dog immediately goes into a mad frenzy of barking, and racing below them on terra-firma, if ever a dog wished it could fly, I believe that would the moment. Meanwhile I yell at her to leave the bats alone and come inside. Which she does. In due course.

EPAULLETED FRUIT BAT HANGING FROM A CONIFER TREE, ITS DAYTIME ROOST, SOUTHERN ZAMBIA.

Epaulleted Fruit Bats are rather endearing to look at. Their fur is pale gold. It looks silky although I cannot vouch for this, because no matter how appealing they look, I’d not dream of actually touching a wild bat. Their ears are sweet and singular, and like the wings, have a glossy, leather look. Their noses are long and mouse-like. On the points of their shoulders you can see where they get their name from and these points can be puffed up when the males wish to attract females. I go to take a photo. They hang rather defencelessly and stare down out of enormous, soulful dark eyes. I am loathe to stay too long and take only one or two photos as I really don’t want to disturb them – or give them arc eye – because in the gloom beneath the overhang of fir tree branches, the camera always wants to go into flash mode. Just like someone I used to know. 

Meanwhile, crawling about on the front wall of the house, high up under the eaves,  is another kind, with the look of the archetypal bat. Their name suggests the mystique which people apply to them ; for they are the Mauritian Tomb Bat or Taphazous mauritanus. They are grey-brown, with fur over their backs and cute, bat-shaped ears. Funnily enough.  Camera in hand, I find they make reluctant photographic subjects which skitter away across the wall if I come too close. This combined with their round brown eyes and rather determined chins makes me re-think my own description of myself. Except, tomb bat sounds rather dark; and anyway, I’d rather eat fruit than insects; rose beetle, anyone?

In Zambia there are 64 species of bat which eat insects and 13 species of fruit bats. Among the most famous of fruit bat are African Straw-coloured Fruit Bats which descend upon the Kasanka National Park in Central Zambia, in their millions, just in time for the ripening of the Musuku, or Wild Loquat (Uapaca kirkiana), also known as  Mahobohobo, and other fruit trees such as Mangoes.  Flying over thousands of kilometres, all the way from the Congo and numbering over 10 million, these bats make up the largest mammal migration in the world.

Mauritian Tomb Bat clinging to the Exterior WALL OF THE HOUSE DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS, SOUTHERN ZAMBIA.

Bats can of course be a pest at times, to the locally grown fruit crops, but their place in the cycle of the life of certain tropical plants is absolutely vital. Many of these plants won’t grow in the shade of their parent plant. Their seeds must be carried away. Fig seeds, in fact, will not germinate unless having first passed through digestive tract of bird, or bat.  In this way, fruit bats are excellent agents of seed dispersal and in playing this critical part, they have huge value in the preservation and even expansion of forests.

I think bats are much misunderstood and the fear and superstitions around them date back millennia. Even in our English language, joke-filled bat references abound and are related to a crazy person; batty, the old bat, the fruit bat. There is a wide-held belief that all bats always carry rabies and other viruses. This is not the case, just as it is not true that all people are always infected with a virus, all the time. Of course it is always wise to give wild animals their space and bats are no exception. But let’s be utterly clear about this; bats are brilliant! The insect eaters consume vast numbers of insect pests and the fruit eaters will ensure the continuing survival of any plant species they feast on.

And while on that subject, I do have to wonder at the person who looked at a bat and thought it would be good to eat! And don’t we all wish they had left well, well alone! Still, I am happy to say here in Zambia,  there are groups of  knowledgeable people working to educate others about the value of bats and the pivotal role they play in this little circle we call life. As more people learn more about bats, I hope they too will come to admire and protect them. As for me, I will always be their champion; after all, we fruit bats need to stick together.

Ever seen 10 million bats in one place? Watch this truly spectacular scene here as they arrive in the Kasanka National Park, in south Central Zambian district of Serenje.

Right now, these beautiful bats and many other creatures, are under threat. There is a huge drive going on in Zambia right now to save the habitat in the Kasanka National Park which is under great threat from mining and development. If you are at all interested to help, please follow the link below.

For a sweet, short poem about bats and the brilliant rock song, “Bat out of Hell” by Meatloaf, please follow this link:- https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Flamboyant Perfection

I always look forward to the flowering of the Flamboyant tree; to me, one of the loveliest trees in the region. And at last, at last – it is flowering! Flamboyant both by name and by nature, it also has an aptly regal Latin name – Delonix regia.

Flamboyant tree (Delonix regia) in my garden.

This large, so-called exotic, umbrella-shaped tree with soft feathery leaves and a glorious canopy of red and orange flowers stands out head and shoulders, wherever it is growing. I can quite see why it is sometimes called the Flame Tree. In Zambia I have seen them flanking a few smart driveways in red, regal splendour. But mostly, here and there, and often lone specimens, they light up the otherwise dry, drab hillside habitations like beacons, before the rains arrive. And it seems to me, the less attention they get, the more they seem to flower and put on a show.

Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted my use of “so-called exotic” and detected a whiff of disapproval…oh dear…she’s off again!

Flamboyant in flower in my November garden.

It’s just that I would rather not say exotic for a tree which arrived in this part of the world more than 200 years ago. Yes, yes, the botanists and scientists will say that’s not a long time but personally, after two centuries, I am perfectly happy to say they are local. Flamboyants, in any case, did originate in Africa, on the island of Madagascar. But then, I’m not one of those fanatic purists who think only indigenous trees are worth considering or having around them. I love all trees. And I definitely disapprove of the past practice of removing indigenous trees so that foreign trees could be planted. But I believe we have moved on from that! I do understand that some introduced species are very invasive but this is also true of some native trees too. Flamboyant trees are  not considered a particular problem but to be honest, I would not remove mine even if they were. Not only are they beautiful and shade-giving, I would say we need all the air-refreshing, oxygen-producing trees we can get in this ever-expanding population of our world!

The largest Flamboyant in my November garden is one of my favourite trees. It survived a most heinous pruning as a mere sapling, when an over-zealous gardener thought he could improve it by just chopping the top of it off completely. I won’t go into the details but I am sure you can guess that some very ripe, choice language was used when I saw what he had done. Somehow, though, it survived this and in fact grew into a splendid large adult. Earlier in the year it was laden with its long pods which make a charming rattle when the seeds are dry inside – and I read that in parts of the Caribbean, they are called “shak-shaks”.  The pods are popular with insects and insect-hunting birds and when they are very dry they sometimes burst open, and twist and turn into intriguing shape, like fanciful canoes to float in a puddle. Or natural ornaments for the sideboard in my house. Because, you know; that’s what I do.  

Each year I wait for it to flower and some years, I won’t lie, it’s been quite…shrugs…meh. This year what a change! It is laden with flowers, considerably more than ever before and I think this is because we watered it less this season. There does seem to be a connection between the amount of water or rain that a tree gets and the number of flowers it produces. It is quite fascinating to me, to consider this and see which trees are flowering more than usual. And that brings me to the actual flowers on this beautiful tree.

Close up of Flamboyant Tree flowers.

I learnt recently that they can be used in floral arrangements, a fact which I have stored away in the attic of my brain. Goodness knows if I will ever unearth it again… Anyway….the flowers. It was just a week or two ago, that I really looked at them properly, individually, for the first time. The detail is sublime. Six, claw-shaped, curling petals encircle a crown of yellow-topped, bold red stamens. Here and there, a petal has a flash of white or pink and sometimes orange. With bloom upon bloom and sprays of hundreds, the effect is spectacular.

For me, above all, Flamboyants are trees of my childhood. They evoke memories of the small Zimbabwean town where I grew up, and others which I visited, and lived in, when I was grown. They marked the season with hope. For when they flowered, the rains were soon coming. Like a splendid parade they lined many streets and avenues and created a vibrant archway of radiant colour as you drove beneath them. And a carpet of gleaming, red petals to walk on, after a high wind, or rain, had passed overhead. I am still transported back in time whenever I look upon the Flamboyant in flower.

And on a hot November day, I love to stand beneath the one in my garden; I am shaded from the sun and bathed in a soft red glow. Add to that the drone of bees and the chirping of birds moving purposefully among the blooms and what you’ve got is perfection; flamboyant perfection.

And speaking of perfection, how about the Ladysmith Black Mambazo here singing with Jeremy Loops, making another uplifting and evocative South African piece of music together, “This Town.”

For a nostalgic old tv theme “The Flame Trees of Thika” and my poem about the Flamboyant, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Babbler

When it comes to identifying birds, I am much more at home in my own garden. In new locations I expect the more expert birders would not have this problem being, as they are, more familiar with a lot more species. And also probably considerably more observant.

I stumble about peering up into trees and trying in vain to figure out what that yellowish bird is…Taking photos does help. As long as they come out of course. Honestly, I have more photos of empty branches, piles of leaves and empty telephone lines than anyone I know! I could produce a veritable coffee table book of them. If, you know, these things were of interest. And then there is a selection, of course, of apparently headless birds – their heads in fact buried in flowers or behind leaves.

Unidentified bird enjoying the flowers on the Erythrina tree.

From this you might gather that I do not have the reactions of a young leopard; not even, if I am honest, those of an old moggy with only one good eye, dozing in the summer sun. Still, from time to time I surprise myself with quite a nice photo.

Such was the case with the Arrow-Marked Babbler I recently spotted on the bird count day. What was particularly interesting about him, was that he only appeared to have one leg. He was not as agile as his companions certainly, but I was intrigued at how well he had adapted to his lack of limb. He had a certain reckless fling-myself-into it sort of gait, lurching a little from side to side as he hopped around the ground in search of food. He reminded me of myself in fact – and not just for his habitual chatter. But also, I imagine I present a similar picture, trailing camera and tripod; in my habitual clumsiness I stumble as I stand on unseen large stones, step in holes and staggering sideways into the foliage, generally cause mayhem amongst the bird population who dwell in hedge and bush. In fact, on reflection, the one-legged Babbler is much more adept than I at getting about and certainly better adapted.

Birds are truly remarkable at adapting in fact. There are many instances of this but one which always fascinates me is the presence of the magnificent, wild peregrine falcons in various cities around the world, who have taken to dwelling on the outsides of city buildings, their nests a skyscraper eyrie. From there they must have an incredible view of the ground below them, but it intrigues me that they have somehow learnt to live with the noise of traffic and the often polluted air.

One legged Arrow-Marked Babbler seen at Ibis Gardens, Chisamba

One of the famous and fascinating cases, to me, of adaptation, concerns the Carrion Crows of Tokyo. Crows are of course known for their intelligence and ability to learn, but these have taken smart thinking to their own level. They drop walnuts into the traffic and then retrieve the kernel after cars’ wheels have smashed the shell. But what is even more astonishing to me is that these birds have learnt not to fly into the traffic to get at the nuts; they drop their walnuts at pedestrian crossings and then, when the humans step out and cross over, so do the crows.

In nearly every hotel or inn I have stayed at, here in Zambia, and in Mauritius, sparrows can be seen scavenging amongst the breakfast tables, in search of crumbs and bits of fruit. In some places they become so used to people, they have to be shooed away since they are quite happy to land on the breakfast table and have a go at your newly-buttered toast.

In new environments I do try to adapt. Wherever I stay, I go and armed with camera, bird apps on my phone and bird books in my bag. I am part of an excellent bird group who are a WhatsApp message away and often come to my assistance. Then there are the four highly proficient bird enthusiasts in my own family that I can call on, who are almost always able to help me with identifying. Sometimes it is hopeless, beyond even them. For after all, it’s not their fault that the photo is so blurry that the only impression one has from it is that those things might be feathers… or that the only sound recording I manage to capture is almost instantly out-decibled by a fellow guest calling out to a friend in the car park, roughly 1km away…

I will be taking a break for a while. See you in November sometime!

A favourite Bruce Springsteen song of mine and that of the man, from the film The Wrestler. “If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony….you’ve seen me. ”

For a poem Lullaby of the Birds, and a clip from one of David Attenborough’s fascinating documentaries, showing crows using the city to their advantage, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Of Nests and Neighbours

Good fences make good neighbours, goes a line from a poem by Robert Frost. I would agree that it is certainly true in the human world and, judging by a little drama I recently saw in my garden, it would also be true in the birding kingdom if birds built fences to keep each other out!

It all started with a Red- Headed Weaver who built his nest hanging high from the eaves, on the gable end of our thatched house.

I watched his progress and captured him in action. Weaver nest-building always astounds me; all that dexterity and tailoring skill – and only with a beak! Up into the eaves he would fly, always carrying a piece of leaf stripped from palm or ornamental grass. In a couple of days his nest was done. I was not sure how secure it would be hanging on the windward end of the house and my concern was not misplaced when I found the new nest lying on the ground, a day or two later. And above, the little weaver male, calling insistently. He sounded so forlorn.

Meanwhile, right next to the house high up on the old radio mast, a pair of Scarlet-Chested Sunbirds could be seen beside their own spider web woven nest. It looked pretty safe and I watched the female going in and out with various bits of twig and fluff. The male sat nearby and made occasional forays into the garden to return a moment later and sing to his mate. I did not see him actually building but as he is beautuful and has such a sweet voice, maybe his mate does not expect him to do anything except serenade her and look gorgeous. For now. (When the chicks come I know he will he help her raise them because I have had the joy of watching a pair outside my kitchen window.) In sunbird world, then, all was well.

But. Cue dramatic music – minor keys of course – enter the Red-Headed Weaver. From his desolate perch on the roof, he watched the sunbirds. Then he flew across and landed right beside their nest. The female was inside and she peered out at him as if to say, yes what do you want, or no, I won’t or maybe just, go away! The male sunbird called and his high notes trilled through the air, more in apparent indignation and concern this time, than in courtship. For a day that weaver kept harassing the sunbirds as if he planned to invade their home. From time to time the female sunbird would fly out and her mate would follow her and they would chase that weaver into the sky. A few minutes later they would return. And so would he. This went on for a day. Finally, next morning I saw that the weaver had given up and mama Scarlet-Chested Sunbird was snug in her nest, with only her curved beak showing.

Of course not all nest building is so fraught with tension. Peering up into the sky a few mornings later, I discovered a Cape Turtle Dove sitting on her nest. She looked the picture of perfect contentment. Her nest seemed to be a simple structure, made only of small twigs but I think probably well sheltered from the weather, tucked as it was, in the fork of the tree and overhung with leafy foliage. It was not that easy to spot either. I wondered how many days she had been sitting there, watching an oblivious me, from her treetop nursery.

Outside the garden, a considerably larger nest was being built in a huge Mnondo tree. Also made of sticks, this nest, a couple of metres in width and depth, was home to a pair of eagles, perhaps the African Crowned. I never got quite close enough to be really certain but the size of the nest and the magnificent silhouette of the bird standing on it seemed to suggest that. The eagle did not stay; he soon joined his mate who appeared to be hunting. Soon they were both flying high, circling in almost lazy fashion, their height and phenomenal eyesight giving them a far reaching view of any prey below. Once, one of the pair dropped to the tree line and there was a flutter of bird wings but in a moment there were two eagles up in the blue once more so I expect something got away. When we returned to the site of the nest some days later, there was no sign of them. We found only some white markings on the ground and on the bark of the tree – eagle fecal matter, or mutes as they are known – was all that told of them having been there at all.

It is time for the Big Bird Day, when bird lovers around the world take note of the birds they see and submit a list to Cornell University to be counted. It is simple and fun. Just follow the link below, to be part of this amazing global event.

https://ebird.org/news/october-big-day-2021

This sweet old song, written in 1919 by Ernest Ball, is an absolute favourite of mine. It reminds me of my Pa who once wrote the words down in his youth, because he loved the lyrics, some of which are, “We”‘ll build our own little nest, out there in the West, and let the rest of the world go by. ” This version by the Jazz Pirates is much more up tempo than usual. Putting up two versions….which do you like the best?

This slow version may be familiar to those who watched the film “Out of Africa”. It harks back to the days when music was played on a wind-up gramaphone and gives me nostalgia in spite of the fact that that was before my time.

For the Robert Frost poem “Mending wall” and a fun country song about neighbours, please follow this link. https://shellbell.home.blog/verse/

Game Drive (In the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park Part 3)

It’s September in the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. It’s a good time to be here. Quite apart from the magnificent Zambezi river, which flows alongside us, we see plenty of wild animals as we head off on our game drive. With the river on one side and the bushveld on the other, we are literally spoiled for choice; my eyes constantly move between the two, desperate not to miss a thing. Out in the veld, animals everywhere are looking for food or eating; inside the car there are happy munching noises and occasional rustlings from the girl as she delves into the crisps.

Large herds of Impala move through the park as they search for food.

Around anthills tall Mopane and Acacia trees throw shade and there is still some grass in the park, although it is not very plentiful. Still there are pockets of good grass here and there, and inevitably, something to eat it; stripy-rumped Impala in groups, doe-eyed Bushbuck in pairs, and a single Puku. We stop to watch some sleek zebra who are travelling with a group of giraffe. I feel this is sensible as the giraffe must make the best look-outs….For a while we sit and watch the giraffe; so stately in spite of their rather strange proportions. They move steadily through the veld, browsing in the trees, their long black tongues reaching beyond thorn and twig to encircle the tastiest sweet leaves.

Along the way, baboons in large extended family groups gather under wild fruit trees. The young baboons clown about and play while the larger ones sit intently grooming, or strut around as if trying to impress each other. A female warthog and two tiny piglets suddenly appear amongst them. I am quite surprised to see her snuffling for food alongside the baboons; her babies seem so very young and some of the male baboons are big. Their canines, when they yawn, are lethal-looking. Still, she has splendid weapons of her own so perhaps the baboons would think twice. She gives the odd snort as she roots around in the leaves. The girl and I make ooh-aah noises as we watch the little ones. I have never seen such tiny warthogs; I’d say these are only a day or two old. One of them stands close to its mother but the other races around the clearing, going as fast as those little legs can go; testing them, strengthening them. A large baboon watches. I worry. Then the mother moves off and her offspring trundle after her.

IN DEEP SHADE, A Tiny warthog piglet racing round the clearing, while a male baboon looks on.

What is it about a young warthog that makes it so adorable? Is it the fuzzy, baby hair sticking up in all directions, the round, barrel body, the unbelievably fast little legs, or the unmistakeable, sweet piggy snout? I’d say all of these and then of course there’s the tail! It’s both comical and genius because it goes straight up in the air like an aerial when they run, and serves as a homing beacon with which to follow each other when charging through the bushveld.

One watchful, the others asleep – a bundle of Warthogs take time out.

When we see warthog they usually run off, so you can imagine our delighted surprise when we come upon a sleepy bundle of (off) road hogs. They have found a shady tree and taking the sensible approach to the heat, are having a midday nap. The largest of them is so fast asleep I can almost hear him snoring. We count 7 in the group; all stretched out, lying cheek by snout, their coarsely-haired bodies butted up against one another, making me warm just looking at them. One of the younger ones suddenly wakes up, and feeling a little disturbed by us, stands up as if not quite sure what to do. He seems to be wondering if he should be sounding an alarm but after a moment decides it is not necessary and lies down again. After a while, we drive away. From a distance the warthogs become an amorphous shape, and look, for all the world, like an outcrop of silent, large grey stones lying in the Zambian bushveld.

Requested by a friend; at least I agree with the words, “I bless the rains down in Africa.” Already feeling the heat and looking forward to those rains that will come later in the year. We certainly bless them. And so would the wild animals if they were, you know, human. Anyway, this is Toto, with their huge hit, “Africa.”

And speaking of rains, or rather let me say, this is our dry season. In the park, there are some White Rhino, including a two year old baby. The rhino are in need of food so Destination Livingstone 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 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

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!

If you want to subscribe you can find the subscribe/follow me button at the bottom of the blog. If you are viewing this on your phone, then you will need to scroll right down to find it. Thanks for reading!

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/