As residents in a ‘rural' area, we invariably need to protect our living space against ‘invaders' that would otherwise threaten our health and property. We spray for mosquitoes and plant ‘pests', trap for rats and mice, throw poison around for cockroaches, ants and termites in an unending battle against the ‘attackers'. Many people bare the area around their dwellings in the hope that such a hostile environment will deter the ‘ground army'.
Growing up in this life-style produces perceptions which are not assisted by uninformed and exaggerated advertising in the media. We develop attitudes that are intolerant of any other forms of life in or around our dwelling space. We fail to see the necessity of the intricate, life sustaining systems around us.
Our quest for neatness and order is often tainted by our wish to ‘impress' others. We whisk away every spider web and knock down any mud-wasp nests (and sometimes swallow nests) that dare ‘dirty' our buildings.
We annihilate any creatures that deposit small droppings on our walls or floors. Alone and aloof we exist in our sterile surroundings - except for the unseen but necessary company of billions of internal and external bodily bacteria. The fastidious nature of modern humanity too often reduces the quality of our own environment.
Little Things Around Us
The unseasonably warm weather is stirring the dormant phase of ‘winter'. New plant growth and flowering, triggered by higher temperatures and humidity, provides food for diverse insect life. The resulting activity among the smaller creatures produces wondrous and vibrant interactions for those with the ability to notice. Sunbirds hovering under the eaves of houses and around window ledges, searching for spider web with which to bind their intricate nests.
Many bird species use spider web in nest construction. Drongos, bulbuls, batis, paradise flycatchers, white-crowned and helmet shrikes, puffbacks, crombecs, tits, warblers and others all use spider web which they normally collect from webs festooning the bushes in the veld. Without the spiders many birds would not be able to construct their nests.
Paper wasps chewing on vegetation to form a mash with which to construct their delicate, honeycomb nests. Mud wasps and various swallows visiting small puddles to collect daubs of clay to strengthen their varied fortresses. They may drop some of the material if it is sandy mud which does not adhere well to the base.
Ant colonies carrying their eggs as they shift home due to heat or flooding. ‘Red ants' attacking crickets down their holes in the lawn or cleaning up a dog's bone. Small ants feeding off aphids on certain garden plants or larger ants attacking a termite colony.
Spiders wrapping up prey caught in their webs. Solifuges or ‘sun spiders' racing around cleaning up any insect prey in their path to satisfy their voracious appetites. It is all more fascinating than any ‘soap' on TV.
As opposed to snakes, ‘lizards' have eye lids, even if they don't have very obvious legs, and none of the southern African species are venomous. They are all fascinating and beneficial creatures to have around. The ‘skinks' and ‘geckos' all lose their tails easily if ‘attacked', as a distraction to predators.
The tails re-grow in time but the secondary tails are always more ‘stumpy'. ‘Lizards' with ‘electric'- blue tails sunning or racing around the stone patio. These are the immature and females of the ‘rainbow rkinks' - Mabuya quinquetaeniata - the adult males of which have reddish tails. The plainer coloured ‘skinks', more commonly seen around buildings, taking refuge under pot plants or verandah furniture are ‘striped skinks' - Mabuya striata.
Many other species prefer the more natural habitat of rockeries and sandy areas. Generally speaking, all the smooth scaled lizards with developed legs are ‘skinks' while the rougher scaled ones are termed ‘lizards'. ‘Sand lizards' of the latter group can often be seen lifting their feet alternately to cool them from the hot ground.
Their young are black and white and hobble around with hunched backs to imitate ‘poisonous' ‘ground beetles' as a defence against predators. The large (20 - 25 cm) ‘bloukop' - blue headed tree agamas - Agama atricollis - are ‘lizards' that are often observed on tree trunks.
The agamas are rough scaled and have large heads. The males of the tree agama have blue heads which they frequently bob up and down while signalling to each other. They are restricted to the northern bushveld and eastern lowveld areas while the smaller, plain coloured, ground Agamas - Agama aculeata - are more wide spread over most of South Africa.
The tree agamas, like certain other ‘lizards', become highly territorial resulting in chases and displays between competitors. The ‘nocturnal' lizards that one may encounter in and around buildings will inevitably be species of gecko. The diurnal species are rarely active at night time. All geckos are very useful and voracious insect eaters.
They have specialised feet with scales and minute hairs arranged in rows or paired pads called ‘scansors' which allow them to walk upside down and on seemingly smooth surfaces. They will not fall on you unless ‘attacked'. The gecko most commonly seen in rest huts and other buildings is the medium sized tropical house gecko - Hemidactylus mabouia - which is a pan-tropical species.
It is a highly successful species which competes with our other indigenous species for available food. They often make a ‘tik-tik-tiking' sound and vary from light to dark grey in colour - some appearing almost transparent. Wide spread but not as common as the house gecko is the cape gecko - Pachydactylus capensis - which prefers more natural habitat.
The large, robust, rough-scaled gecko, often encountered in houses is the wide spread Bibron's gecko - Pachydactylus bibronii - which is powerful enough to make short work of even large moths and beetles.
Another large but smooth skinned gecko, restricted to the bushveld and lowveld regions and less commonly encountered, is the velvet gecko - Homopholis wahlbergii. Both are fascinating creatures and completely harmless to humans.
The tiny (6 - 7 cm) dwarf gecko most commonly seen on the outside of houses and on vegetation is the cape dwarf gecko - Lygodactylus capensis. It is a diurnal species which, although variable, is normally a dark grey colour. There are many species of gecko in the sub-continent which are not commonly seen in our area.
Frogs And Toads
We can't end off without mentioning our amphibious allies. They are a fascinating and useful group of creatures that deserve better understanding. Very generally, ‘frogs' have sharp noses, can normally jump quite far and lay batches of single eggs, while ‘Toads' have blunt noses, tend to ‘hop', have rougher skin and lay ‘strings' of eggs.
Toads are most commonly encountered in buildings, where they choose to ‘over winter' in cool, humid conditions. They can climb well and can be found in a variety of places. The red-backed toad and common toads are most frequently encountered in buildings and there is no need to eject them as they are completely harmless creatures.
They do NOT cause warts on humans but can exude a bitter fluid from their skins, if roughly handled, to deter certain predators. Another fascinating species often encountered in or around buildings is the grey tree frog. They vary their colour from almost white to dark grey to try and match their background.
At the height of the dry season when ‘over wintering' they tuck up their legs and ‘seal' all touching parts of their body to reduce the area of exposed skin. They can slow down their metabolism to the extent that they breath through their skins. When found in this position leave them strictly alone as any disturbance will ‘open them up' to loss of valuable moisture, which will invariably lead to their death through desiccation.
They will make a duck-like croak when they sense a significant rise in humidity. These are the ‘foam nest frogs' that make the white foam nests over water during the wet season. For the interested observer there is an unending variety of species and fascinating interactions.
To experience the peace and contentment of a diverse, balanced and interesting environment, one must accept the equal right of all other species to exist and function naturally. Counteract your own excesses and disturbances.
Withdraw from being over fastidious while maintaining your own, rightful place in the ‘natural' community of life. Concentrate less on how ‘clean' you are on the outside and more on how ‘clean' you are on the inside - in your soul. Only then will you realise the true happiness and contentment of a quality environment.