Cresting the ridge we had just walked up, a carpet of aloes and flat top acacia’s cascades into the retreating valley below. The last half hour had been nothing short of exciting.
We are on our last and final visit of a series of four bird monitoring sessions on a proposed wind farm in the Karoo. We were busy with a pair of walked transects, the first of which was normally unproductive and boring.
The morning had started off cold and overcast with a light north breeze. The first 600m had been quiet as usual with barely a few Eastern Clapper Lark’s and the odd Neddicky making an appearance for our records.
To be honest, the reason that we did the walk was for the end point, a precipice that plunged into a hidden valley. A valley with all the mystique and enigma of the Karoo prior to settlement by European settlement for mutton farming.
This was the lip of a valley at which we finished our first walked transect on, to spend an indulgent half hour soaking up the ambience. A chorus of bird song more remeniscent of sub tropical forests bubbles up. On each of our visits a shrill whistle has signalrd the alarm call of the resident Mountain Rheebuck which frequent the upper reaches, their bobbing white tails threading through the cluster of trees and cabbage trees as they flee from us. So it was with this end in sight that we plodded on with the walk.
And then it happened. A Rock Pipit called to the east. Half way through a lazy arc searching for the Pipit, I noticed the grass start moving through my field of vision. A small sandy coloured furry critter gliding up the slope. Not a hare. And then recognition dawned – an Aardwolf, an elusive termite eating mammal which had evaded us on our previous visits. Here, no less than 50m away, we got the clearest view in our lives. With the Aardwolf safetly out of sight, we edged forward to see if there was a burrow opening close to the initial location that we saw it. Cautiously moving forward, we crossed a small erosion gully and approached the only shrub near a termite mound. Nestled in a collapsed hole at the base of the shrub were the intact skeletal remains of a small mammal. A few steps further was a minute burrow opening. At first glance we were both convinced that it was too small for an Aardwolf. Stooping down to check for spoor we found strands of mottled hair and a depression indicating that something had been resting in front of the burrow. Without a doubt the hairs indicated that this was indeed the burrow of the Aardwolf. This was a moment to cherish, for both of us the most comprehensive encounter with this rare and elusive species.
Continuing to the precipice, the thrill was still coursing through our mind, complimented by the burbling avian chorus erupting from the secret valley below.
Inspired, we started with the second walk, scarcely covering 100m before we stumbled across a newly excavated burrow. A closer inspection yeilded more Aardwolf hairs. How could we not have seen it before? Saving the location on the GPS, we moved on.
The next 600m of the transect was uneventful before reaching the crest of the hill. To the east of the carpet of aloes, in a small meadow, stood a Mountain Rheebuck, oblivious to our arrival. Dropping down from the skyline our course headed directly to the meadow.
Pausing en route to record birds, a quick scan of the meadow confirmed that the Rheebuck had moved off. Still focused on the scene, a termite mound moved, or rather something moved from behind a termite mound. Not one, but two Bat Eared Foxes, out in broad daylight. A privilege indeed, these small mammalian insectivores feed primarily on termites. Crepuscular by nature, it is rare to see them out during mid morning and even more unusual to see them so closely on foot.
So as two nature lovers and birders from the Garden Route, we sat down and watched as the Bat Eared Foxes foraged, their large ears scouting for scurrying termites beneath the ground before they pounced amid a bout of frantic digging to unearth all potential morsels.
For a moment science could wait as we basked in the pleasure of having seen two of Africa’s more elusive nocturnal mammals, all in the space of half an hour.
Moments Amanda and I will cherish forever.