Driving a maze of roads with some of some wonderful return guests last week, I was keeping a keen eye open for the any sign of the leopard that filled my thoughts whenever I drove though that particular area. I had half been hoping that by talking about him, he would magically show himself. Whilst in the middle of a typical waffling session, Glen suddenly raised his hand and pointed at a termite mound near the road. I fully expected to glance in that direction and see the impressive Ntsongwaan tom resting atop the earthen red mound. Instead of a spotted cat, all I saw was a scaled reptile sticking its head out of a hole in the mound. The contrasting countershading on the reptile’s head combined with the relative enthusiasm with which Glen raised his hand made me exclaim “ooooh, a snouted cobra!”
I continued on this line of thought and species identification for a little while before picking up my binoculars for a closer look; the very rough, keeled scales weren’t very serpent-like, but it was probably the presence of a pair of legs sticking out of the hole that gave it away, and I had to quickly retract my initial identification! Glen found this most humorous, and I could just see his shoulders bouncing up and down as he sat in the tracker seat chuckling away at me. I was pleased that he still found the funny side of my constant misidentifications, as he has had to put up with a load of them during our years together! As it turned out, the lizard was a rough-scaled plated lizard, and a species that not only had I not seen before, but it was also one which I didn’t know even existed.
Glen – like all of Tanda Tula’s trackers – seldom needs a pair of binoculars to see even distant animals, and is blessed with what I am sure amounts to close to 20/10 vision. In other words, what most people can see clearly at 10 feet away, Glen can still see clearly at 20ft. I on the other hand, am blessed with a visual acuity that includes at least one additional zero on the end. Together, we make a wonderful combination; Glen can spot things from a mile away and point them out. I then pretend that I have seen it, and either confidently identify the incorrect bird and begin a long dialogue about what I think it is, or never actually take in the entire scene in front of me. Once I am done, Glen will then casually correct me by pointing out that that despite me having spent five minutes hypothesising as to why the giraffe is alone, there are in fact three others standing in the bush just behind it…or that the female elephant actually has an extra “trunk”.
I am sure there have been many times when even the guests must have mentally questioned what I was talking about, as what they could see in front of them was clearly different from what I was talking about. I remember one morning when I think I almost gave my tracker whiplash as he swung around with such gusto to check if I was seriously believing what I had just said; as usual, it involved a bird. I had heard a bird calling overhead, subconsciously identified it before having a quick glance and saying to my guests “look up there, it is a tawny eagle” – a common, brown raptor measuring some 71cm in length and weighing in at just shy of 2kgs. Seeing the look of astonishment on my tracker’s face, I realised that I had said something wrong and should probably double check on the bird that was still flying above us. It was then that I realised I may have made a slight error. Not only was the bird less than half the size of a tawny eagle and weighed a tenth of the weight of a tawny eagle…but it was also purple! The bird in question was none other than a purple roller, and as much as the birders may be laughing at me right now, the truth is that it is an easy mistake to make, especially if you hear it calling. So easy in fact, that I never learnt my lesson this first time, and repeated the same mistake again a few months later!! In fairness to myself, the two species do have a call that sounds very similar, and when looking at a bird against the blue sky, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge the size…even it is by a factor of ten!
Luckily, I am a quick learner and after my third (!!!) faux pas of misidentifying a colourful roller as a large eagle, I think I am starting to learn from my mistakes, and what I have come to realise is that I don’t need to get better at identifying vastly different birds in flight, but rather that I just need to keep my mouth shut for a few seconds longer and actually look at something before I start to speak; something I am sure that both Glen and Monique wish I would do more often
Until next time, cheers!