King penguin: a long way from home

We’ll never know what influenced a king penguin to swim thousands of kilometers off course to arrive here at Buffels Bay, on the Cape Peninsula.  Spotted by surfski paddlers on Wednesday, when this regal creature waddled up the beach it was captured on video by Jasper Mocke.  It’s arrival created a flurry of excitement as the news got out on social media and birdwatchers flocked to view this unusual visitor.

Almost a meter in height and about 12.5 kgs in weight,  it’s elegant markings and dignified character had the crowds enraptured.  Inhabiting the sub-Antarctic regions, there is concern that it could be suffering adversely from the heat.  A veterinarian was called in to examine the bird, which was proclaimed to be in good health.  They breed on just a handful of ice-free islands in the Southern Ocean and presently though they are not endangered, climate change is affecting the ocean currents and impacting their prey resulting in the species having to swim further to reach the nutrient-rich stretches of ocean.

Our ‘fellow’ has a magnificent puffed-up satin white chest and what appeared to be quite a relaxed attitude, sitting back on it’s heels and propped up by a bony tail (in a position referred to as the tripod).  Another reason for adopting the raised feet position, could be a thermoregulating adaptation to avoid the transfer of heat from the tarred surface.

Showing off the stiff tail feathers, which when leaning backwards prevents the penguin from falling over.

The underside of the webbed-feet are textured for gripping surfaces and the long nails would be useful for added stability.  King penguins adopt the same brooding strategy as Emperor penguins by not building nests, instead using their feet and a folded brooding pouch to hatch eggs.

The elegant throat lines and yellow head patches look duller in colour compared to some of the species which have a more defined orange hue.  Still, this is one handsome creature.

Shot using a telephoto lens (70-200mm plus a x2 teleconverter) and a cropped view to show up the elegant details of the throat and head lines.

Though there were park rangers on hand to keep the crowds back, not everybody adhered to the request not to get too close.  A wise decision was made to move the bird to a more secluded beach so it could be kept out of harm’s way until it returns to the sea.  With the fate of so many marine creatures at risk, we can only hope that this magnificent creature finds its way home.

Angkor: Myth and Mystery

There are layers here, interwoven with mystery and symbolism, in this ancient capital of the Khmer Empire.  Set in the dense jungles of northwestern Cambodia, the Archaeological Park stretches over some 400 square kilometers across hot and torpid plains.   Wandering through the labyrinthine sites, where rampant vegetation threatens to devour the masonry, one can’t help but be cast under a spell.  The added effect of the dark, storm clouds gathering through the heat of the day,  made it feel quite atmospheric.

Historical stories are revealed through bas reliefs carved into wall panels and over pediments.  Hindu legends based on the Ramayama and the Mahabharata portray fabulous scenes: epic battles, cosmic myths, of sentinels and guardians who protect portals and the primordial conflict between gods and demons.   There’s celebration too, dancing nymphs and triumphant processions in the gathering of amrita, the ambrosial nectar that guaranteed immortality.

There are revered animal avatars too.  The king of the monkeys, Lord Hanuman, who was the son of the god of wind and who could thus fly, was sent on missions of reconnaissance; and the monkey soldiers went out to support good deeds. As did the elephant deities, Ganesha and the three-headed elephant Airavata.  They appear represented in stone carvings on pedestals and at victory gates, so tall and proud.   Depicted in a principal scene, carved into a 300 meter long terrace, elephants are hunting under the guidance of the mahouts charging through the foliage using their trunks to fight off tigers. Elsewhere they can be seen holding a cow or holding a man upside down.  Another scene shows them decked out for a Royal procession led by the King and attended by his royal court.   The three headed elephant – Airavata, flanks the stairway, representing rain and prosperity.

An immense green backdrop of trees rise like giants on the landscape.  Stunning silk cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra) grow to heights of 30-40 meters and tower above with magnificent spreading crowns.   Strangler figs (Ficus gibbosa), ensnare the temples in terrific coiling root systems, looking more like enormous reptiles than plants.  The Chheuteal trees (Dipterocarpus alatus), colloquially known as Resin trees, dominate the Angkor forests.  They grow up to 50 meters tall, a true species of tropical evergreen forests.  They also often occur gregariously along river banks.

Against this evocative backdrop, other characters appear, shape shifting into view – the monkeys scaling temple stones, posing like gods.  An elephant carrying sightseers, a shadow passing by as his long gone ancestors would have done crossing the parade ground in front of the elephant terrace.  Avatars moving in temporal shifts.

The perilous seas around Cape Point – False Bay

Some visual images pack a visceral punch.  In June over a period of just one fortnight, three whale entanglements in octopus trap lines occurred here in False Bay.   Two Bryde whales died; a third, a juvenile humpback survived after being cut free.  Photographs showed horrific injuries where ropes cut deeply into flesh and death by drowning, caused bloating.  That’s not the worst of it, other whales prior to this had also died through entanglement.  A tally of 8 apparently in recent years, but no one knows for sure.   Activists sparked outrage over social media and Allison Thomson organised a petition addressed to our Minister of Environmental Affairs, Fisheries and Forestry to stop the octopus fishing.  A temporary suspension was called while further assessment could be undertaken in this an “experimental” fishery.  Without any scientific data to back up the sustainable viability of the octopus population an “exploratory” license was initially issued for a five year period for a catch of up to 50 tonnes per year.  The experiment was to have been monitored by the Department, but apparently has now been running for seventeen years without any scientific oversight.  How can the trophic impact to the food web be accurately assessed when one specie is targeted?  Do the predators which hunt octopus – eg. seals, or otters or sharks prey instead on penguins?  Have the shark species move off somewhere else?  No one knows for sure what the knock on effect is on other marine species.

Through the years we have observed the octopus fishing boats laying out the gear  – multiple traps fixed over long lines set with bouys and anchors.  There are at least twenty-two traps over a kilometer of line attached each end to a bouy.  The traps lie on the ocean bed and the submerged lines are supposed to be heavy enough to sink except for section up to the bouys.    When the catch is retrieved all the traps need to be pulled up on deck to be emptied and then returned to the water and the gear reset along the edge of the kelp forests, and in some areas quite close to marine reserves.

Meanwhile apparently all the gear has been removed after the license was suspended and the officials debate the ethics of killing whale species over the economic validity of the industry.

Humpbacked whale carcass washed onto the rocky coast near Buffels Bay, Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

Haemanthus – Paintbrush lilies

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Like symbols of defiance, the gorgeous blooms of the paintbrush lilies are putting on a show in the midst of one of the worst droughts in years.  These geophytes cope  by storing moisture in their bulbs through times of restricted water ensuring the plants needs in producing the next generation through the cycle of flowers and fruit.