Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Meerkat Neighbourhood: Part 1 - Non-threatening birds

Welcome to Part 1 of my Kalahari exploration series where we explore the surroundings in which our Kalahari meerkats reside. In this episode we will gaze skywards and take a closer look at the feathered friendlies of the Kalahari. These avian action heroes can be found on the ground or sky-high above our meerkat groups and each has a lifestyle and characteristic of their own. Below are a select few that inhabit our area of the Southern Kalahari.

Yellow-Billed Hornbill: This quirky bird often moves around in groups of 2 or more. Swooping  low from tree to tree, hornbills are generally exceptionally clever and are a typical trademark bird of the African bush. Hornbills are classed as insectivorous but are opportunistic and will take whatever they can get. Their most noticeable feature is their large broad bill which almost makes them look like royalty. Their call is similar to an annoying neighbour knocking on your door: “tok tok tok tok tok tok tokatokatokatokatoka”.

Sociable Weaver: If there was ever any doubt as to which birds attended the most parties out in the Kalahari, it would undoubtedly be the sociable weaver. Natural engineers, these birds construct elaborate communal nests that can house over a hundred breeding pairs. In the mornings the birds fly out of the communal nest in waves similar to World War 2 bomber squadrons taking off from an airfield in Dover. The reason for this, however, is a very smart tactic; safety in numbers! By flying out sporadically in large groups, the birds reduce their chances of being predated upon if there is a predator waiting in ambush. Due to their social nature, their call is similar to a party shaker: “chicker-chicker”.

White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver: The only Kalahari bird that builds two separate entrances to their nests, Sparrow weavers are the mini-gladiators of the dunes. Patchy colourations bolstered by a very strong personality bring these little birds to the fore of what can only be described as ‘adventurous’ in the avian world. Sparrow-weavers also have the bragging rights of being the longest studied bird species on the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. Their call is a complicated “cheeoop-preeoo-chop” whistle.

Double-Banded Sandgrouse: These little fellows specialise in one thing: get to the waterhole and make noise. Plenty of it! Exceptionally well camouflaged, double-banded sandgrouse move around in groups of two or three and, contrary to their name, do not play in any bands. They often stay very still when danger approaches and at the last moment explode into the air with a loud “Chwee-chee-chee” call.

Namaqua (Na-ma-kwa) Sandgrouse: If sociable weavers can be likened to bombers when they leave the nest, then these guys are Spitfires while they cruise the skies. Every evening without fail, flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse start circling above the waterhole. Lower and lower they manoeuvre until they come in low and hit the brakes before landing. What's more is that most bird books describe their call as them saying the words "Kelkie-vein" (What!?).

Blacksmith Lapwing: A serious bird with a serious expression, Blacksmith Lapwings are generally found around the waterhole and owe their name to their “tink tink tink” call which reportedly sounds like a blacksmith hammering away at a piece of iron. Admittedly, it sounds more like a child randomly tapping away at a piece of aluminium, but no matter! This is a bird with attitude! Blacksmith lapwings are always the first to raise the alarm call! 

Helmeted Guineafowl: A favourite game bird of Southern Africa, the guineafowl is a mixture of black feathers with white spots, a blue face, red wattle, and a bland crest (helmet) on its head. Many, many many South Africans firmly believe that the Gods of Africa gave this low IQ bird a helmet because it keeps running in front of game drive vehicles! Usually moving around in large groups, the birds have a long call that starts out with an initial "kek-kek-kaa, kek-kek-kaa, kek-kek-kaa" and then crescendos into a loud "krrdii-krrdii krrdii-krrdii". 

African Pygmy Falcon: The smallest raptor on the African continent (no larger than your hand), this little fighter pilot moves like a cruise missile between the Camelthorns. All these little birds need is a Luke Skywalker helmet with a dark visor and they would look the part! Incredibly swift and silent, these birds mainly prey on insects, small reptiles and very small mammals such as mice. Their call is a high-pitched "ki-ki-ki-ki-ki"

Now, this is only a small sample of the myriad birds out here in the Kalahari but I'm sure you'll agree with me that if I were to try and entirely describe the variety of species we have here, I would have to write a book! Luckily though I am no book-writer and prefer a sharp witty excursion into the blog world every now and then. The birds mentioned here are those we commonly see during our daily adventures with the meerkats during our Live broadcasts, and are all an integral part of the Kalahari ecosystem. Join e next time as we explore the hoofed inhabitants of 'The Land of The Big Sky'.

Rob’s song for the day: Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd

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Monday, 16 April 2012

A scientist so cool he even has a rock song after him

As you may well know, life for the WildEarth crew here in the Kalahari is full of meerkats, 3D filming, Live broadcasts, Land Rovers (The Ganda!), laundry, good meals, Land Rovers (Still the Ganda!), porcupines, snakes, tech issues, signal towers, daily shifts and everything else in between. Now it’s a tough job, but we do it well! However, your body starts to take some strain at times and it’s important to exercise and stretch properly so that you keep your body fighting fit.

Obviously a good stretch goes a long way, and I often put on a song or two to get me going. However, there is one song that I play without fail. One song. About one man. A scientist so incredibly cool he even has a rock song in his honour!

Dr. Martin Whiting

During my days studying ecology and conservation at University, he was among the top 5 of the coolest cats on campus! He’s exceptionally smart, exceptionally witty, and exceptionally down to earth. He even has a pet pig I think? An evolutionary behaviouralist who has a passion for reptiles, he now resides in Australia and runs The Lizard Lab. Now, let’s have a quick rewind into the songs origins. Admittedly I’ve forgotten a few details, but it basically starts off with a random, totally by-chance meeting of Gregg Lawless and Martin Whiting crossing each other’s paths somewhere in Southern Africa. Naturally, when they met, Gregg Lawless looked at him and said “Prof. Whiting I presume?” and from there the group spent time with the Lizard Legend before returning to Canada. Some time later, Dr. Whiting received word from the group that they had written a song about him and it was on their latest album. When he received the song, this is what he heard (This is just a sample from the beginning):

And so! The man! The legend! Martin Whiting! PhD! Rocketed into the annals of scientific history by being the first, if not the only, super-scientist with a rock song to his name! The song has been in the top charts in the scientific community for some time now, and it never gets old!

And that my fellow readers, is how to get psyched up and exercise in the Kalahari! I started my “Martin Whiting Exercise Schedule” when I first worked in the Kalahari in 2007, and now that I’m back here I shall continue the tradition! Call me crazy, but you’ll get hooked on it too!

This just goes to show that Science is not just a bunch of grey-bearded bald men shuffling around a lab in faded white overcoats with coffee constantly on the go and large thick glasses on the edge of their nose! Science is incredibly amazing, in fact, Science is actually an acronym for Super Cool Intellectuals Engaging New Concepts Everyday.

So the next time you decide to call someone a nerd, ask yourself this question: "Do I have a song written about me?"

You can download the song here for 99c. Enjoy the exercising!  

Rob’s song for the day: Isn’t that obvious ;)

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Sunday, 15 April 2012

The BIG Gosa update

Let me start with a well-deserved apology. I have been exceptionally busy with our 3D Kalahari Meerkats project these past few weeks and so I have not even had time to iron my underwear, let alone put out a blog two.

However! Here we are my dear Watson, and my-oh-my do I have a story to tell!!

Firstly, while I’ve been working with the meerkats I’ve definitely noticed a few trends in the Gosa gang group. Let’s deal with these quickly before we get to the really juicy Kalahari drama!

Gosa meerkat personality traits
Gandalf on duty
Matimba is an exceptional forager. This little lady is a lean, mean, Kalahari digging machine! She eats well and it shows; sometimes she ends up giving food to other members of the group! Then we have Gandalf, the Alpha male of the Gosa meerkat gang. Gandalf loves to climb up exceptionally high when on sentry duty and stays there for up to half an hour. Although he is wise and experienced, I sometimes get the feeling that he is more of a thrill-seeker! Having said this, he is a brilliant Alpha male and often high up on sentry duty list (Pun intended). And last but not least, Starsky. Ah, young Starsky. Throughout the sands of the Kalahari you can find no better meerkat that fits the position of “clown” than this youngster. If he’s not trying to scent mark everything including his own family members, he’s trying to start up a playful fight with the other teenagers. Sometimes he tries to act mature and mimics Gandalf while he is on sentry duty, but he quickly loses interest and ambushes whoever is nearest to him!

Crunchies for the munchies
The Gosa meerkats really love the large yellowish-white beetle larvae that we find out here in the Kalahari. These larvae belong to the insect family called the Tenebrionidae and this is a large diverse family of predominantly large black beetles. While you’re watching Live you can always tell if a meerkat has sniffed one of these juicy treats out as the meerkats will frantically dig deeper and deeper to find this tantalising treasure! The larvae sit anywhere between ½ft and 2ft deep and this is generally the only time that the meerkats will go into overdrive as they dig! Watch for it next time you’re watching with us.

Finally, let us start unpacking the meerkat drama that has unfolded over the past week here at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve!

Let us set the scene shall we. Picture the Southern Kalahari. A vast arid savannah with scattered trees and Hornbills who sit in the Camelthorn trees and watch crazy cameramen run through the Kalahari following a bunch of meerkats. Now, in this scene, imagine you are facing North. To the far West (Your Left), we have a meerkat group known as the Rock Stars. Closer Eastwards (In front of you) we have what is known as the Jacos (pronounced Ya-kooo-s) Dune group. Finally, even further East (Your Right) and bordering on the small mountain range, we have the Gosa gang. Now, recently the Rock Star group have been fighting with the Jacos Dune group. The Rock Stars seem to have won the day out on the Western front and so the Jacos Dune group have shifted Eastwards into the Gosa gang territory. In turn, the Gosa gang have lost the fight against the much larger Jacos Dune group and have started to shift Northwards. Still with me? Great! Now, caught up in the midst of all this madness were the WildEarth crew! The description that follows is definitely the Kalahari equivalent of an exceptional game of Chess!

So, to help you through this explanation I have added a map for you to view, otherwise you will become cross-eyed and pass out on your keyboard like I did. On the map are the 5 burrows in the Gosa gang territory. These are Camelthorn, Gosa Dam, Sour Grass, Birds Nest and Northern burrow.

Ok, so we are now in the main territory of the Gosa gang. The Gosa family had slept at Gosa dam burrow for a few nights before moving to Birds Nest burrow. During this time the group foraged on the Eastern boundary of their territory. However, the day after they moved to the Birds Nest burrow, Delilah, Brutus, Dingaan and Napoleon vanished. Just like that. No signs, no warnings, nothing. They simply melted away into the Kalahari. The Gosa gang were now down to 6, and Cleo and the remaining family members slept at Birds nest that night again. The next day, with the Gosa gang short 4 members,the group foraged fairly far East before making their way to the Gosa dam burrow. As they approached from the North East, the Gosa group were suddenly all on the alert. Something in the South had their attention. I looked towards the dam and saw 3 meerkats sitting on top of Gosa Dam burrow. “Ah there’s the rest of the group” I thought. But when I looked again there were 5 on the top. I looked back at the Gosa gang who were now firmly on the alert when I looked back in the direction of the dam there were 8 meerkats! I looked frantically back at the 6 Gosa members, and then back to the dam, and now there were 11! Is this a mirage? Where did all these meerkats come from!? And then it hit me: Jacos Dune have launched an expedition deep into the Gosa territory! The 6 Gosa gang members moved forwards, bounding and chirping as they came closer to the Gosa Dam burrow. Both groups of meerkats were now at DEFCON 1; tails raised, backs arched, ready for action! Suddenly, Jacos Dune rushed down the embankment towards the Gosa gang, bounding bravely forward with tails aimed sky-high! And what did the Gosa gang do? They turned tail and literally flew back to their Birds Nest burrow! Six little brown bolts of lightning whipped past the camera and disappeared faster than a good piece of tuna at a penguin banquet! Outnumbered and outmatched, the Gosa gang didn’t have a fighting chance against the more aggressive Jacos Dune group. Unable to run with the camera, we huffed and puffed after the Gosa gang until we met up with them again. Nervous and very taken aback, the group sat on top of Birds Nest burrow and stared back in the direction of the Gosa Dam. They had just lost a piece of prime meerkat real estate to a bunch of invaders!

A very worried Gosa gang
After 20mins or so the Gosa gang relaxed and started foraging Eastwards again. The crew and I could not contain our excitement! What an incredible thing to witness! Then, the atmosphere of the group changed. All of a sudden, the group started to move Southwards; back towards Gosa Dam burrow! Could this be happening AGAIN!? All the signs were there, and the Gosa gang weren’t slowing down. This time they changed their tactics and approached the Gosa Dam burrow from the North West. But alas, Jacos Dune were ready for them and the entire scene was repeated. Rush! Whoosh! Puff-pant-puff-pant! Back to Birds Nest burrow! Sigh, oh well. You have to hand it to the Gosa gang for trying. But that was it, the Gosa Dam Burrow was lost to the invading Jacos Dune group from the West. With such a slice in their territory, I think it’s safe to say that Jacos Dune also have a firm grasp on the Gosa gang’s Southern burrow; Camelthorn. 

There were no confrontations the next day, and the Gosa gang decided to play it safe and move further Northwards to their Northern burrow. Upon arrival, who do we meet up with? Delilah, Brutus, Dingaan and Napoleon! These 4 little rascals had been hiding out here the whole time! After a quick reunion, the Gosa gang all headed underground for the night. That was on Wednesday 11th April.

Jacos Dune pups taking in the sunset at Birds Nest 
Today, Saturday 14th April, Jacos Dune did the unthinkable; they pushed further North and took hold of Birds Nest burrow. These guys never give up! Now the Gosa gang only really have one burrow left to use on their Northern territory, and who knows what meerkat gang is living further North from there? But fear not! For what the Gosa gang lack in strength, they make up for in strategy! While the Jacos Dune group raided Birds Nest burrow, the Gosa gang headed Eastwards and then Southwards, slipping around Jacos Dune, and retaking Gosa Dam!! Yeehaa! A brilliant chess move!

And so, the Gosa gang are still in the fight! What an incredible turn of events! Now, meerkat territories are always shifting, but this looks like it may well turn into a game of strategies. And what about our 4 Gosa companions who jumped ship before the fight? Well, we will have to monitor them, along with the rest of the Gosa gang and the Jacos Dune group!

Don’t forget to follow me on my adventures on Facebook and visit my website for a free weekly wallpaper

Rob’s song for the day: We are the champions - Queen

Warm regards wherever you are in the world,


Friday, 13 April 2012

Stuttering meerkats

As those of you who watched will no doubt have noticed the streaming of the meerkats from Tswalu hit a snag this week. After a 5 day test period with near-perfect streaming this was very disappointing, not to mention puzzling. We've been doing various tests and have breaking our heads this week to find the cause(s) of the problem.

We now think we've identified them and are working with the network provider to get them resolved as soon as possible.

Some were technical, but the upheaval in the meerkat world also played its part. When the Gosa Gang was pushed further north after the Jaco Dune group usurped part of their territory they entered an area where our network repeater could not see.

So we have decided to move our repeater to a location where it can see further north and continue work on the network tuning over the weekend. We expect this to resolve all or at least most of the difficulties and that soon the meerkat broadcast will be running smoothly again so we will all be able to follow the further developments in the Gosa Gang and in their battle over Gosa Dam with the Jaco Dune group.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Meerkats go LIVE

Well after a great deal of work and preparation WildEarth is finally ready to 'go LIVE' with the meerkat cam!

From 07h00 CAT (22h00 PST | 01h00 EST | 05h00 GMT) tomorrow morning the 6th April 2012 WE will be broadcasting the lives of the Gosa meerkat gang (www.facebook.com/Gosa.meerkat.gang) LIVE from Tswalu (www.tswalu.com), in the southern Kalahari, everyday at www.wildearth.tv/meerkats and www.ustream.tv/meerkats

The crew of 4 intrepid adventurers: Rob, Paul, Garth and Terry will take it in turns to carry the 3D rig for one hour at a time. The rig (pictured below) is a completely unique design that allows us to not only film the Gosa gang's every waking moment from meerkat eye level, but to do so in High Definition 3D and to broadcast a LIVE 2D stream directly to the Internet. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before and WE are super excited to once again pioneer in the world of wildlife filmmaking.

The crew have spent the past month and a bit walking with the gang all day and getting to know them. You will see that the meerkats have now completely accepted the crew and the rig into their world and we can get so close that the meerkats stick their noses on the lens sometimes! There are a number of characters in the gang of 10 and some like us more than others, but the matriarch, Cleo, and her mate, Gandalf, have not only come to accept us, but seem to like having us around. Please take the time to read some of the Blog posts at blog.wildearth.tv to catch up on the characters and you will find many answers to your questions here as well.

Please direct your questions about meerkats, the gang and the broadcast to the 'social stream' where those viewers that know a bit more will try and answer. If you have been a part of the beta testing team or know a bit about meerkats or take the time to read all you can about Tswalu, the gang and meerkats PLEASE share your knowledge by answering the questions of others.

By 'social stream' we mean the chat rooms next to the cam players at www.wildearth.tv/meerkats and www.ustream.tv/meerkats as well as the Facebook Pages: www.facebook.com/Gosa.meerkat.gang and www.facebook.com/WildEarth.TV as well as on Twitter, just remember to always use the hashtag: #meerkats

WE sincerely hope that you enjoy this broadcast as much as we have enjoyed preparing it for you and ask that you share the opportunity as widely as possible with everyone that you know.

Written by Graham Wallington