Written by: Callum Evans
I have always wanted to take part in wildlife research, and this June I was given the opportunity to assist in a research project on Benfontein Nature Reserve – a small but diverse reserve just south of Kimberley in South Africa.
Dr. Rita Covas of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology gave me the opportunity to assist a Masters student named Rita Leal for the course of 10 days. In that time, I had innumerable memorable experiences, but here are 10 aspects of the trip that really stood out for me.
1. Tracking the black-footed cat
While Rita and I were at Benfontein, we shared the research house with another Master’s student, who was tracking black-footed cats for the Black-Footed Cat Working Group. On two occasions, we joined her on her trips into the reserve, which were at night. On both occasions, we found a different male cat and spent an hour tracking each of them. It was absolutely thrilling to see a black-footed cat, let alone spend an hour tracking it as it went about its business.
The younger male, nicknamed Bolt, was especially confiding. We were able to follow close behind him as he wove his way through the grass, scent-marking every few metres or so, stalking a korhaan and even eating a small rodent. Once he sat down and groomed right in front of us, and I was able to get some great shots of him. The other male we followed, Odin, was a lot more skittish but he regularly went down into burrows, apparently something these cats do quite often. All in all, I will never forget those encounters as long as I live.
2. Researching the weaver birds
By assisting Rita in the weaver research, I learnt a lot about fieldwork. We had to check the individual weaver nests for chicks and new egg clutches, and given that we found new egg clutches every day, we also had to weigh and mark the eggs. If a nest had chicks that were either nine or 17 days old, Rita would ring them, take blood samples and weigh them, while I recorded the figures. After the chicks were returned to the nest, we set up cameras to record the feeding rates. It could be tiring, driving between 17 different colonies or having the adults fly right into your face, and sometimes painful as we would find dead chicks. But in the end it was rewarding knowing that I was gaining experience and helping to contribute to our understanding of these birds.
3. The bat-eared foxes
Practically every morning and afternoon as we drove to and from the camelthorn woodlands, we would run into a family of bat-eared foxes. They were possibly the cutest animals in the reserve and fascinating to watch. We were able to watch them search for ants with their massive ears or lie together for warmth, and we even witnessed one fox go on its belly in a submissive posture when it reached another. On most days we came across four foxes, but on our final evening we found 12 foxes grouped together.
4. The birdlife
Over the duration of my time in Benfontein, I was able to spot 77 different species of birds. Of those species, 24 of them were birds that I had never seen before. I spotted five different pygmy falcons which were always next to sociable weaver colonies. About 20 white-backed vultures lived on the reserve and we saw them every day, sitting on their nests or soaring effortlessly on the thermals. We saw black korhaans, ant-eating chats, drongos, and rufous-naped, clapper and spike-heeled larks every 20 metres or so. I was ecstatic to spot my first secretary bird – a female striding through the grassland, looking for prey. A pair of tawny eagles were also residents and I even spotted a juvenile martial eagle on my last day. We spotted pairs of double-banded coursers on three occasions and came across a family of well camouflaged Orange River francolins. However, perhaps the most memorable bird of all was a marsh owl that we saw land on a termite mound. I had never expected to find one here and was completely over the moon.
5. The nightlife
We were able to go on night drives after following the cats and once on the final night after sundowners. Using a spotlight, I would scan the plains around the car for eye shine. Most nights worked on a routine – first Cape hares would appear, hopping away from the oncoming vehicle, then gangs of springhares would materialise from the darkness. They are such wonderfully weird animals, with the body plan of a kangaroo and the head of a gerbil, and I was thrilled to see them.
Each night, we would find a family of bat-eared foxes without fail. Then we would find a really elusive animal. The second night it was the marsh owl. But the other two nights we were incredibly lucky to find the elusive aardwolf. The first night it was just a fleeting glimpse. But on the third night, I was sitting on top of the bakkie with the spotlight and we came across one just standing on the road, which then proceeded to lie down and groom itself. As we tried to follow it, it ran off into the grass with the typical loping gait of a hyena. To be able to see one of Africa’s most iconic elusive animals is an indescribable privilege. And a few days after I left, Rita spotted two aardvarks!
6. The herds
Benfontein is comprised of a massive depression that surrounds an ephemeral pan, which, in turn, is surrounded by hills with grasslands and camelthorn woodlands. Every day, when we drove down into the plains that surrounded the pan, we would see immense herds of springbok scattered across the plains. They usually fled at our approach, even pronking. It is quite a memorable sight to see a massive herd of springbok on the run. There were also small herds of black wildebeest and herds of plains zebra, which always kicked up spectacular clouds of dust as they raced away. Ostriches were a bit more trusting of us, but still never let us get too close. In the woodlands, we would find small herds of skittish red hartebeest and blesbok, but perhaps the best part was finding two massive herds of several hundred gemsbok. Now and then we would also see a lone eland or a small herd of them.
7. Surprises around every corner
The great thing about going out every day into the heart of the reserve was that I would never know what we would find. It was a game of chance. One morning we drove almost right up next to a black-backed jackal, but another morning we would see nothing at all. There were several families of meerkats on the reserve and we once witnessed one family intimidating another group that had entered their territory. On one drive to the pan, we came across red-naped larks, a Cape hare that was hiding in some brush, a large leopard tortoise hiding inside a termite mound, bat-eared foxes feeding on ants, and we nearly stepped on a female black-footed cat. There was also a one-horned gemsbok that we encountered twice.
8. The garden and the wetland
The garden in the research house always had some animals that would keep any nature lover entertained. A family of five ground squirrels made their home in the garden and yellow mongooses paid occasional visits. Swallow-tailed bee-eaters, cardinal woodpeckers, spotted thick-knees, chestnut-vented tit-babblers and a crested barbet were all residents to the garden. A few gabar goshawks were also residents in the trees nearby. In the wetlands below the house, grey duiker hid in the reeds and massive flocks of red bishops and red-billed queleas perched there too. Now and then, Swainson’s spurfowl and pale chanting goshawks would also fly by.
9. Frosty mornings
On a number of mornings, the previous nights had been so cold that the grass around the house and the wetland were covered in frost. The grass stems and buds were adorned with delicate frost crystals that formed a multitude of shapes, depending on the thickness of grass. Despite the fact that it was freezing cold, it was spectacular to see. Even the termite mounds near the weaver nests were dusted with a fine layer of frost crystals. This gave the mounds the appearance that they had been sprinkled with icing sugar. It was a winter wonderland on the edge of the Kalahari.
10. Sunsets and sundowners
On a few evenings I would walk out onto the pan and watch the sunset over the hills while the springbok herds grazed near. I would watch the subtle changes in light and the colour of the sky and clouds, while the moon rose higher in the sky and the stars began to appear. The shades of pink in the clouds would change, light blue would become dark blue and the orange on the western horizon would turn into dark orange. On my final evening there, we all went for a sundowner on a kopjie right on the edge of the reserve. From there, we could see the entire reserve and far beyond. It gave me a completely new perspective of that place.
The camelthorn woodlands looked a lot bigger than I thought they were, and they stood out against the golden grass. Martins soared above the kopjie on a light wind, and eland grazed in the far distance. Although it was a beautiful sight, that view did make us realise how small Benfontein was in such a vast landscape that was largely dominated by man. If places like Benfontein are to be safe-guarded for the foreseeable future, our attitudes and behaviour are going to have to change.