When I visited Rhebokskloof in late December no trace remained of the spring flush of delicate bulbs; nor of the stark Art Deco styled proteas or sugar bushes. Vegetation above the verdant vineyards has now turned a monotone dull green. Has all life departed with the flowers? Of course not!
Now is the time to use your ears and eyes for small and insignificant cues. Ears? Plip-plip-plip calls a hidden creature from deep within a thicket, but to see it is near impossible. Here is a little secret: if you hear what you think is a concealed bird, clench your teeth and “swish” the air out. As if by magic, hidden birds pop up, bright eyes looking for this universal warning sound. And it’s a Bar Throated Apalis, one of the fynbos’s most elusive insectivores!
It is a tiny bird, weighing about 11gms, commonly found throughout fynbos. It has a distinctive, narrow black breast band, which is slightly broader in the males. The general colour varies across the range and it has a wonderfully bright and beady eye. Next time you hear plip-plip-plip, call them up!
Moving between the rocky outcrops on higher ground, I found the striking balloon milkweed, or Gomphocarpus physocarpus. While poisonous to people and animals, insects adore this plant. When flying insects visit it, the plant traps them and attaches a parcel of pollen to the insect, which the insect flies with to cross-pollinate the next plant! The African Monarch Butterfly also uses the milkweed as a host food plant for its larvae, transferring its poison to the butterfly and making it foul-tasting to any predator.
Today there was an ominous visitor on the milkweed; the Red Foam Grasshopper! Wherever you see yellow, red and black (known as aposematic colouring), be warned, because nature is telling you to avoid this creature. These spectacular grasshoppers adore milkweed and derive their highly irritating foam from these plants. The youngsters, known as nymphs, form bands and chomp their way through the veld and gardens like “weed eaters”.
When next you take your mountain bike out to Rhebokskloof, keep a sharp lookout for a flash of red, and prick your ears for Plip-plip-plip! This time you’ll know what you are seeing and hearing, adding value to your sport.
Photograph 1: Bar Throated Apalis, one of the most secretive birds in Fynbos
Photograph 2: Nature’s warning in red, black and yellow – the Red Foam Grasshopper
Photograph 3: The familiar Baloon Milkweed