Colours of Wildlife Special: The Birds and Forests Festival

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The Birds and Forests Festival

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

The weekend of the 20th, 21st and 22nd of October 2017, there was a festival held at the Magoebaskloof Hotel, just beyond the town of Haenertsburg, South Africa, to celebrate the forests and birds of the region. I could only attend on the 21st and the 22nd, having to work on the Friday. I'm happy I did! I missed the previous day's talks, but the Saturday's were great, dealing with: forest ecology; hole-nesting birds and bees; dragonflies; bats; orchids of the region; and butterflies. The speakers included renowned local experts Warwick Tarboton, Peter Taylor, Sarel Spies, Derek Engelbrecht, and up-and-coming experts Wiam Haddad and Megan Loftie-Eaton.

The talks on Saturday were followed by an outing into the forests, with a bit of grasslands preceding. The grassland of the region is also a vital ecosystem and much more threatened than the forests. Wiam guided us and told us much about the plants of the region and their interactions.

That evening, we tried to get some bats with the bat detectors Peter Taylor brought along – but sad to say it was cold and rainy, with no insects out – and consequently, no bats out either!

The next day was just one of outings. We went through a patch of forest down to a couple of pretty waterfalls, with a local guide named Paul. We (the friends with whom I came and I) then went on a walk of our own, through another patch of forest next to the hotel.

So here are the photos, taken on the three walks, just to show you what this forest region looks like. The first: a big tree fell over and now makes a natural bridge over our path. On it grows a little garden of mosses, ferns and other epiphytes. Dead trees are extremely important to the forest ecology. Their decaying wood is easy for hole-nesting birds like woodpeckers and barbets to excavate, these holes then often, later being used by other hole-dwelling birds, mammals, insects and other critters. As they decay even more, their substance returns to the forest floor where it becomes available for new plants. Forests have a surprisingly shallow 'living layer', even the tallest trees' roots being concentrated in the top metre or so of soil. Nutrients travel mostly through a closed cycle between the tree crowns and their roots.

BridgeCathedral tree

The next photo shows the Cathedral Tree, a huge strangling fig, likely Ficus craterostoma, which had germinated high up in a tree, sending down lots of roots which in time found the soil and formed several separate 'trunks', all supporting the huge crown. The original tree it rooted in is likely dead, 'strangled', by the mass of roots wrapping all around it. The fig thus 'steals' the work done to overcome gravity and the supportive, structural tissue set down by the host tree. Strangler figs are nevertheless very important in the forest ecology, since the abundant figs they make feed many mammals, birds and other critters.

The next photo shows beautiful, delicate ferns clothing a tree trunk. The misty, moist forests of our region support a huge diversity of fern species, this one being an Asplenium sandersonii. Ferns need moisture to reproduce, their sperms having to swim to meet up with the female eggs. We do have a few highly drought-resistant fern species, but most ferns prefer moisture-laden habitats.


Next we have a lovely orange fungus. Fungi, too, abound in the forests. They play a vital role in re-cycling organic material from dead leaves and trees so that they can again become food for living plants. The brightly coloured thing we see is just the spore-forming body of the fungus, you could think of it as a 'fruit'. The fungus itself is actually a dense network of thin threads extending over sometimes vast distances in the soil and leaf litter or in the bodies of dead trees. Certain fungal networks might turn out to be some of the most massive and oldest living beings in existence.

The next photo shows a charming little waterfall surrounded by greenery. The forests play a vital role as catchment areas; they're situated where the greatest amount of rain in South Africa falls, concentrated in mountainous regions. The trees and all the other plants absorb much of the water to grow, but also leave enough to flow off to drier lands. Destruction of the forests lead to deterioration in this water-carrying process: without the trees and other plants, the rain may soak quickly into the soil or rapidly run off carrying a lot of topsoil with it, causing erosion. Whereas with the trees and forest plants in place, there is a well-moderated and consistent flow of clear water. Trees also moderate the climate by releasing moisture from their leaves year-round, even where most rain naturally is concentrated in summer. So the forests actually keep the environment, the air and the soil, moist and life-sustaining during dry wintertimes as well. Indeed, the trees may actually even be able to stimulate rainfall, as has been hinted at by recent studies in the Amazon forest.

WaterfallOchna arborea

Then we see some beautiful red leaves of the Cape Plane tree, Ochna arborea. These are not autumn leaves but fresh young leaves! Many forest trees produce such pigments in the new flush of spring leaves; these may protect the leaves against whatever might want to eat them, some of these pigments coming from toxic substances, and also as protection against sunlight, the tender young leaves not yet able to photosynthesize at full strength. Forest trees mostly produce new leaves while still carrying active older leaves; these leaves fall later in the summer. Closed-canopy forests in South Africa are mostly evergreen – you'll see trees in full leaf throughout the year.

These pretty flowers are not in the forest, but in the surrounding grassland. And they're actually not supposed to be there! They're an invasive species of the Verbenaceae, one of many such invasives we have here. Actually it is one of the most benign, being found in small groups mostly close to roads. But there are many invasive plants which create big problems. We saw especially some brambles, and in and around the forest lots of bugweed. These were originally brought in by the Dutch and other Europeans for a variety of reasons, but then they 'escaped' from gardens or farms or orchards or wherever and are now growing wild in the countryside. They sometimes crowd out our native plants and so cause real ecological problems. They often lack natural predators, while plants like brambles and bugweed benefit from fruit-eating birds which spread their seeds wherever they defecate. The best protection against invasive species, is a healthy forest ecology with a closed canopy and intact forest-edge, since the invasives typically can only invade if there's some break in the forest cover. Sadly, so many roads that go through forests, even footpaths, cause enough disturbance to allow invaders to take hold.

ScrophulariaceaeRow of fungi

Finally, more fungi for you! A very pretty row of orange fungi growing with some bright green mosses on a tree trunk. Mosses are also amazing plants in their own right, being extremely successful in forests and other moist habitats in spite of not being as specialized as 'higher' plants with their well-developed roots, stems and water-and-food-conducting leaves.

That wraps it up! The festival was very informative and enjoyable, and I'm grateful for everyone who organized, presented talks or guided tours, attended, or were in any way involved and I hope it happens again!

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