Highveld Thunderstorms December 2017
  Wowee! We started the month with day after day of the most amazing thunderstorms - and lots of rain. A bit of a late but good start to the growing season. All the plants are grateful for the abundant water and have started frantic growth spurts. And we gained a few hours of every day to do other stuff and not have to water everything manually.

Some of the approaching highveld thunderstorms have been spectacular. Below two pictures of one coming in from the south late one afternoon. The light cloud cover ahead of the storm still giving good light on the garage block, house and trees, while the really dark aproaching storm clouds contrasting in the background.

 
 

  Dam Levels
  And with all the rain all the dam levels have risen nicely. At the dam nearest us, those ugly cow sludge banks have been covered over with new water and for the first weekend of the month the dam looked perfect for swimming. The water and weather was still a bit too cold for us humans but the dogs just loved it.

The dam level is at about the same level which it was highest last year but water is still flowing strongly down the gorges from the hills. If the rains continue, the dam level should get much higher.

The dogs thoroughly enjoyed their first swim of the season, fetching sticks tirelessly from far into the dam that we threw in as far as we could. We eventually got tired of throwing sticks - those Collies just have much too much energy. And Tess spent her time hunting the banks for mice and frogs.

Dogs just love fetching sticks thrown far into the dam
    Water still flowing into the dam


  Chasing Eland
  While on our way back from the dam we got that "being watched" feeling. The eland were back again and were watching up from the top of the hill.

While we walked back back to the farm they moved ahead of us and all stopped at the new cow fence. We passed by them with a comfortable space between us without incident and then I sneaked around the back of the forest on the hillside and gave them a good fright (a bit of shouting and loud hand clapping does the trick). They stampeded around the foot of the hill off towards the dam and I climbed to the top of the hill to be able to see where they went. They only stopped when they got to the dam and there started casually grazing again. Hopefully they got the message and will head back to their side of the game farm.

 
Being watched from the hilltop     
Stopped at the new cow fence

Chased back down to the dam and hopefully away for a few days
 

After that quick climb to the top of the hill I needed a rest so took a few minutes to just sit on a comfortable rock and enjoy the silence up there - and the scenery. What a view!

They've started ploughing the field across the road and it is being seeded with maize and soya beans. It's a really big area and there's lots of work going on there. If you scroll across to the right on the picture below, our little farm buildings can be seen in our forest "alcove".

 

  Then off to check on the Stream in the Gorge
 
 

  After the big eland chase Martie went back to the farm to put Dakota away (the long walks are just getting a bit too much for old Dakota now) and then she headed off towards the gorge to see how strong the stream was running. I headed across from the top of the hill in that direction to meet her and the dogs there.

We met at the foot of the hill about halfway there, where I was just in time to snap a picture of the waterbuck bull herd scared off by our dogs, running across the field between Martie and the back of Kallie's farm (picture above).

The stream in the gorge was running nicely down from the hills in abundant and beautifully clear waterfalls. We took a break to wade in the cool water and we all had a lovely refreshing drink.

 
  The background to this posting is of the undergrowth under the indigenous trees around the stream. So lush and green with the warm late afternoon light shining through to the grass.

There's not much happenning on new construction developments around the farm right now. We're just carrying on with our normal daily chores and are thankful to be able to take long breaks every now and again to enjoy the wonders of nature after the rains . . .












. . . and nature is at it's best right now.


  Sheep Ticks
  One morning we noticed that one of our sheep was limping when we let them out to graze. We thought hopefully that during the night the leg may have "gone to sleep" or a muscles had gone a bit stiff, so gave it a few hours. But things didn't improve much.

Martie then got onto the phone with one of the local farmers and he said we should check their hooves for ticks. To our surprise we found quite a few ticks had got in between the hooves and that was obviously causing the problem. Those Dorpers are pretty hardy, but seems they're still susceptible to tick problems.

The solution was to flip them over one at a time and pick the ticks out of the hooves of each foot with a tweezer. Sheep are fairly docile when upside down but you still have to be careful - they can kick with force as Martie found out while she was holding the back legs while we were
 
picking ticks out of the front hooves. One second she was holding the legs, the next she was sitting on her bum a metre away from us. While we had them upside down we checked the sensitive bits under their tails and removed a few ticks from there as well.

The long term solution was to paint some greasy tick goo into the slits between their hooves and under their tails. In an hour or so they were all right way up and out grazing again.

. . . and we continue to learn.


  Apricot Jam
  Our first batch of apricot jam of the season has just been processed (and we're still having some of last year's on our breakfast toast).

Thea from the farm across the road cleared her apricot tree and after making enough jam for her family, still had a big pot of apricots left over. I dropped in to fetch them on my way back from town one day. Martie spent a morning cutting them up, making the jam and bottling it in some neat little glass bottles we bought from the local plastic shop.

It looks like the apricots in Che's apricot orchard will ripen a week or so later this year - probably something to do with the weather. When they're ripe we'll go picking there as well and Martie will make more jam and chutney. Martie's looking at a new apricot and mango jam recipe. Sounds delicious.


  Drilling New Log Fence Holes
  Back to a bit of farm development work. We had already decided to separate the entire north western back section of the property, which included the pumphouse structure, the large crop area and our fruit tree orchard to try and protect our plants from invading omnivores (and even our own sheep). The plan is to plant more fruit trees between the pumphouse and our perimeter log fence soon, but it's a constant battle even protecting our existing fruit tree orchard.

We need a better fencing system, so the plan is to continue with our log fencing, and add poles and some wire strands above it. This will prevent the eland jumping the fence and not mess with the aesthetics fo the farmyard.

We had already cut and painted all the upright poles with carbolineum for the new log fence extension and were waiting for some rain to soften the soil so we could drill the holes. The rain came, the soil was soft, and it was now time to drill the holes.

The post hole drill was already on the tractor and waiting for the opportunity to get going on this job. So one afternoon I did all the measurements and ran a new level line, marked off all the hole positions and then started up the tractor and drilled all the holes. The big drill bit went into the moist soil like butter and the job was done in no time.


  Weeds and Grass
  With good rains come lots of weeds. And they seem to grow so much faster than useful plants.

In the large crop growing area our maize and sunflower plants are now about 30cm high, the weeds around them are flourishing and the veld grass is threatening to take back the area.

Looks like lots of work is going to have to go in to cleaning up that area soon.


  Waterbuck Visit
  It seems they are getting quite friendly, those five waterbuck bulls. They now come down regularly to drink the sheep's water. Here they are just beyond our dry grass haystack. The sheep's water bucket is just behind the shade net protected little monkey plum bush.
 

  Picking Apricots and Dam Levels Still Rising
  Just after mid December the apricots in Che's orchard started ripening. We had visitors from town out for the day and went across to pick some. They were small and the birds had already had their pick at the best of them, but we did collect a basket full to make some jam.

On the way back we stopped off at the dam and the kids and dogs had a quick swim. The dam was the fullest we have ever seen it - the inlet waterfall was submerged and water was still flowing in down the gorge from the hills.

 

  Ovambo Sparrowhawks
  We often have the odd raptor flying over the farm and have great difficult identifying them as they zoom past quickly across the sky or sometimes stop to circle a few times in thermals overhead. But now that we have positively identified a pair of Ovambo Sparrowhawks setting up their nest in our forest and being able to watch them in flight in and around the forest, I can safely say we've seen them flying over from time to time before, specifically noticed in the late afternoons. They mostly live in dry woodlands and, in some areas, exotic tree plantations and they move into surrounding open areas of savanna and grassland for hunting. So our farm environement should suit them just perfectly.

The Ovambo Sparrowhawk is a medium sized raptor about 35cm in length, mid-sized between the larger 50cm Black and the 25cm Little Sparrowhawks. They are relatively widespread and common in sub-Saharan Africa and seem to be extending their territories further south. It is
 
Back markings . . .

. . . front markings . . .

. . . and calling
 
almost exclusively a hunter of smaller birds and has a hunting technique is more like that of a falcon rather than a typical sparrowhawk. They hunt their prey in flight by soaring at a relatively high altitude and diving in towards their prey, capturing them after fast low level pursuits for quite a distance before actually making the kill. When not hunting they normally perch quietly within the forest canopy.

They are monogamous and pairs are usually solitary. Both the male and female participate in the nest construction, creating a platform of sticks lined with bark chips and occasionally green leaves. It is typically placed in a multi-branch fork high in either a native tree or an alien tree such as eucalyptus. The eggs are laid in August to November, peaking in August and September and the clutch is between one and five eggs. The female incubates the eggs, while the male brings her food, usually 2-3 times a day. The male continues to be the sole provider of food for both the female and the chicks for 18 days after hatching, after which the female starts to hunt too. The young fledge after 33-39 days and become fully independent about a month after that.

So by now the female of our pair should be incubating the

      Excellent camouflage in our eucalyptus
      forest. Very lucky to spot this one sitting
      there while the other was flying around
      through the trees and calling.
eggs and they should be hatching soon. We are so looking forward to watching the little ones learning their flying and hunting skills around our forest area.

While researching our Sparrowhawks I came across some very interesting video links. They feature the Eurasian Sparrowhawk (a little different from our Ovambo Sparrowhawks), but show the Sparrowhawk's amazing flying and hunting skills:

BBC One - "Life in the Air" Series

Dave Culley - "Secret Life of the Sparrowhawk"

  I've recently spent many hours sitting in the forest watching our pair of Sparrowhawks and still not sure if there's eggs or chicks in the nest. They're normally flying around the forest but every now and then one of them will return to the nest for a few minutes and then fly off again. They're very difficult to photograph in the eucalyptus tree twigs but below is what I've managed to get so far. Below left, just launched from a branch and below right, leaving the nest. The nest is that bunch of twigs in the fork of the tree to the middle-left of the picture.
 
 

And below some more flight pictures. This one taking a break from the forest environment to get out and thermal a bit in the open skies with the swallows. And inset, fast flight profile as it's on it's way back into the forest.

 

 

  Thunderstorm Shows and the Weather
  After a really good rainfall start to December from extremely active thunderstorm skies (over 70mm in the first week after over 30mm on the last days of November), we had a two week mid-December dry period before a new wave of evening thunderstorms came through to bring us a very welcome 22mm of rainfall just before Christmas, and then another 17mm just before the end of the year. The last two rainy spells came in the form of late evening and "throughout the night" rain.

Night rains are great as we can still get our normal farm work done outside and get almost full plant growing and essential battery charging sunshine during the days.

But it's those continual two week dry spells that are making it so difficult for us to grow our vegetables and crops. With the summer daytime heat and what seems like a much windier season (we're not keeping wind stats yet), three days after the rain we have to get back into manual watering routines again, with careful water resource management from our weak little borehole.

On the right, the last of the early December thunderstorms before our two week dry spell - the leading edge cumulonimbus cloud activity in the south "blowing out" westwards spectacularly into the remaining late afternoon sunlight.


  Planting New Log Fence Poles
  While the soil was still soft and moist I got going on planting those poles for our new log fence. About thirty of them needed to be planted to separate the undeveloped (except for Martie's kitchen garden) eastern side of the back yard from the western side which already had our large crop area and fruit tree orchard well developed.

The plan is for the western side of the yard to be a "no animal zone" - but still got to figure out how to stop them from coming in from the forest side.


  Waterbuck Bullfights
  Must be the season as the waterbuck bulls are starting to interact. We're not noticing much agression - seems to be more like playful banter. But there's a lot of muscle and weight out there and some very sharp horns, so accidents could easily happen.

The four bulls that drifted into the area a few weeks after the first bull (he's the one with the broken horn and we think he's older) seem to be taking turns in challenging the older bull.


  Voodoo Lily Babies
  They've come up a bit late this year - probably because I just haven't been able to give them the attention they deserve over the winter months. After this summer season when the leaves die back I must really get to digging up each baby bulb carefully and replant each one into it's own pot.

The Voodoo Lily is unlike many plants in that the flower appears first, and the foliage may not make an appearance for another month. The original "mommy plant" is still in the original black bag and has already flowered but hasn't yet produced it's foliage. It's foliage should be quite a bit bigger than that of it's "babies". The babies don't seem to shoot noticable flowers before they shoot their foliage.

It would be so great to have a "Voodoo Lily patch" in the forest one day, even though I doubt our species is of the giant variety seen on some of the botanical websites.


  First Grass Cutting
  Time to ride tractor again. What fun. The little tractor is going really well since it's air and fuel filter changes at the end of the last cutting season. Still have to change the oil, though. Maybe we'll give it a treat at the end of this cutting season. I took the big post hole drill off, fitted the slasher and we were ready to go.

I started with the long run inside and outside our log fence and then cut us a wide path from the garage block to the pumphouse and "quickly" mowed a road from our gate in the log fence to the new cow fence gate on the way to the dam. Then the whole section to the north west of the new log fence above and below the pumphouse around our large crop area. And with a bit of diesel left, down the driveway, two runs across the front game fence and the little open area between the spooky forest and Kallie's boundary fence.

Now that's a lot of grass cutting - a few hours each day over a few days. And there's still a lot more to cut. But for now it's down to the tedious job of raking, gathering and haystacking.

 
Along the top log fence towards Che's farm . . .   
   . . . then toward Kallie's farm . . .
 
. . . down to the pumphouse . . .   
   . . . and mowing a road out to the gate to the dam
 
With the smell of freshly gathered grass still hanging in the late afternoon air, a waterbuck bull takes a rest

  Two Years Old
  On the 28th of December our two Collie puppies Eva and Spot were two years old. And to celebrate the occasion Martie went out to our local butcher in town and got a bag of big bones enough for everyone.

The two teenagers have grown into really great dogs. Eva was the smallest of the litter and Spot the largest. And they each have their unique and very different characters, Eva being very shy and reserved and Spot the boistrous outgoing and extremely affectionate character.

Here they are with Martie. Left to right, Eva, Spot and mommy Charlie. Those bones kept them busy for most of the day.


  Moving the Haystack
  The haystack location in front of the garage block was really only a temporary solution for grass storage as it was conveniently close by to take grass from the pile for food and bedding for all
 
Mandla loading the grass from the old haystack onto the bakkie . . .    

. . . offloading down at the new location. New pile of grass    
in the foreground gathered and ready to be added . . .    

. . . and the old haystack location ready for rehabilitation.    
the animals. But with so much more grass to gather now, it was time for it to be moved to a more "out of the way" location. The spot selected was the sandy patch of ground down at the entrance to the spooky forest. We have a floodwater wash away problem there and hopefully the haystack will also help slow the water down before it gets to run down the forest road.

So before gathering too much new grass, all the grass from the old haystack was loaded onto the bakkie. The fresher good grass moved to the new haystack location and the older grass from the bottom of the haystack that had now started decomposing, was moved to the compost heap near the big crop growing area. We'll mix it in with some horse manure to make good compost for our next growing season. All that was a few bakkie loads and a morning's work and now we're ready to collect all the newly cut grass bundles and move it all onto the new haystack.

The new location is not too much further to walk to fetch grass for the animals but now it's out of our way. And we can now start rehabilitation of the old haystack location, which is just a big bare patch. We've got a bag of eragrostis seed ready for the job and I don't think it's too late in the season to plant grass. As soon as we get regular rains we'll dig up the sandy patch and sow the new grass seed.


  New Chicks
  First day out for four new bantam chicks hatched the week before Christmas.

One of our freerange hens went broody early December and we quickly moved her into the coop where she set up a little nest and started laying. All four of her eggs hatched and it's wonderful to have some little white bantams about again. They're going to be free range like their mommy and will help to clean up around the growing tunnels. Just got to keep them from the predators, especially those sparrowhawks nesting down in the forest.


  Up on the Hill
  To end off the year we had an unusual visit from a lone White Stork. Not sure why he chose to land on the hillside but he looked fine physically and just went about looking around for something to eat between the rocks and bushes.
 
  It was all just grass work on the farm and it was late afternoon so I decided to take a break and go up and try and take some close-up pictures of the stork. I managed to get quite close, got my pictures and then it flew up gracefully over the hill.

And seeing as I was halfway up the hill already and it was a lovely calm weather late afternoon, I headed for the top of the hill and spent some time enjoying the silence and great thunderstorm sunset.

 
Four diesel-electric engines pulling a really long coal train on the main Durban line in the valley

Our little farm from the top of the hill. New log fence poles nice and straight up to the top fence.

The sun just setting below the hills to the west, beaming it's last rays up into the fragmented clouds

After the climb down the hill, a thnderstorm developing in the north-west. Still enough sunlight
at high altitude to brighten up the southern sides of the cold dark clouds with some warm light.