Martha's Vineyard Garden Club Report : Images of Africa
Allan Keith, Island naturalist and writer of three books on birds of the West Indies, and more recently, "Island Life, A Catalog of the Biodiversity on and around Martha's Vineyard," which he co-authored with Stephen A. Spongberg, spoke on the flora and fauna of South Africa at the January meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club. Braving the chill of a winter's afternoon, members, friends, and guests, were treated to a power point presentation of 88 colorful slides of landscapes, animals, plants, and birds indigenous to Namibia and Botswana, the modern states that make up what was once German West Africa.
Traveling with his daughter and a group of ornithologists in a van from the capital city of Namibia, Windhoek, down to Walvis Bay on the coast and up to the mountainous areas of Namibia, and then by plane to Botswana, Mr. Keith re-traced his journey in pictures and commentary in a talk that transported his audience to those countries.
He reported that Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, "a pleasant place to visit," is a pretty city, lush and green, where residents are tri-lingual, speaking English, Afrikaans (a blend of Dutch and German and local languages) and German.
A series of photographic landscapes depicting the dry, austere country beyond the city included images of the red hardibeast, a fairly common animal, and the sesabe, the fastest antelope in world.
A most striking example of a type of cactus, hoodia, is singled out by Bushmen who eat the pith of this plant for its "remarkable properties" which increase stamina to an "incredible" degree. As Mr. Keith explained, Bushmen will spend three days running and hunting down an antelope with hardly any water or food, and without exhaustion, thanks to their ingesting of the Hoodia's pith before the hunt.
Mr. Keith showed spectacular scenes along the coast of mountainous sand dunes, some reaching heights of 900 feet, and explained that the amazing dunes were created by winds reaching 100 miles an hour in an earlier age, which blew the sands of the interior's Kalahari Desert hundreds of miles to the coast of western Africa. Here in what is probably the driest part of the country, is found a remarkable plant, wilwetchia mirabilis, which dates back 15 centuries.
No talk of Mr. Keith's would be complete without mention and pictures of birds, like the secretary bird, whose principal prey is snakes, and white browned sparrow weavers, who were pictured eating a watermelon slice, and from the mountainous country, a pair of rock hyraxes, "little critters related to elephants and manatees." There were slides of a black-chested snake eagle, birchal starling, bush bok, and the shrike, a striking bird with white wing patches and red throat shown eating a small lizard.
Mr. Keith made frequent references to a map of the region, pointing out the origin and flow of the Okavanga River, which forms the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, and referring to the area as, "quite a beautiful place, full of water birds, hippos and water lilies." His talk included facts about hippos ("not friendly animals and quite happy to eat meat"), Cape buffaloes, and the brown hyenas - all aggressive and threatening. The audience learned that adult warthogs have tusks at the sides of their jaws to enable them to dig open nests and that nature has provided the young warthog with white hair in place of the missing tusks so as to fool a predator into thinking that it is an adult capable of defending itself.
It was hard to choose a favorite slide from among the depictions of a stalking leopard, a big female kudu, a herd of zebras, a male lion and his mate, an exotically colored swallow-tailed bee-eater, and the herd of springboks, very pretty animals, graceful, fast, the characteristic antelope of South Africa.
Also, I can't fail to mention the orange-breasted songbird, the South African counterpart to our hummingbird, the Lilac Breasted Roller who lives only in the Eastern Hemisphere or the Tawny Eagle who normally lives in Central Asia but takes off for Africa as winter approaches, where, according to Mr. Keith, the living is easier.
The speaker ended his photographic journey with a story about the sandgrouse, which nest in "God-forsaken desert country" with relatively few predators. The various species of sandgrouse flock together to fly long distances to a watering hole. Here, the male of each species is identified by specially developed feathers between his skin and breast feathers which act as a sponge, soaking up and absorbing water. When the male bird flies off to his thirsty chicks, he has only to shake his feathers. "I don't think there is any other species of bird besides the Sandgrouse that carries water to its young in this fashion," said Mr. Keith.