Text and photographs by Annabelle Venter
Spring is my favourite time of year because I truly feel I’m waking up from a cold winter slumber.
When September arrives, there’s an almost immediate change in the air, with a promise of warmer weather to come.
We look around and suddenly along roadsides all over the country the acacia trees start blooming in shades of creamy yellow. The shepherd’s tree has its moment of floral glory as its puts on a beautiful show of fluffy green flowers.
We can slowly start bringing out our summer clothes and enjoying longer days, but don’t stow your woollies away just yet! Inland during September we might still experience a last cold snap, and unsuspecting gardeners might fall prey to a spot of late frost. Up in Caprivi in the north-east, spring takes off a tad earlier, with the arboreal flower show starting in earnest in August.
SPRING GAME VIEWING
Red hartebees and calf. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
If you thought winter was good for game viewing, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. In September and October it reaches its peak – until the first short rains fall in October. Tension mounts at the waterholes this time of the year, since the last good rains were around April and the animals need to drink every day. As it’s also a popular time for tourists to visit Etosha, the waterholes become quite crowded by humans too!
Antelope such as springbok, black-faced impala and red hartebeest will be nearing the end of their gestation periods, usually giving birth at the onset of the rainy season. Red hartebeest carry their calves for about eight months, typically giving birth just before the summer rains begin.
While driving along Namibia’s roads, you’re likely to see more animals, as by now the grass is all but gone. But be warned. The first rains bring out a flush of spring green along the verges, which attracts small antelope and warthogs and poses a risk for drivers.
Spring is all about new beginnings, and what represents this better than flowers!
Acacia nigrescens (knob-thorn) flowers. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
- The water-thorn, Acacia nebrownii (yellow flowers), is now at its flowering peak. In spring thickets of this straggly shrub can be seen lining the roadsides in Etosha for most of the route from Okaukuejo to Namutoni.
- Also at its flowering peak and seen commonly along Namibia’s roads is the black-thorn acacia or ‘swarthaak’, A. mellifera, with its cream-coloured blossoms. This species invades farmlands that have been overgrazed, which has become a considerable problem in certain areas, as it competes with grass for moisture and nutrition, and interferes with stock movement.
- Up in the Caprivi, the knob-thorn, A. nigrescens, is now flowering with a profusion of long creamy inflorescences – a feast for birds and animals that can climb.
- Later in spring, the umbrella thorn, A. tortillis; mountain-thorn, A. hereroensis; and the sweet-thorn, A. karroo, enjoy their peak flowering seasons in November.
- With its distinctive yellow flower balls, the stately and ubiquitous camel-thorn, A. erioloba, can be seen in and around Windhoek.
- And lastly the less common monkey-thorn, A. galpinii, found only along rivers in the Caprivi, is a popular choice for gardens in Windhoek, as it grows quite quickly and is flowering now.
Aloe hereoensis, of which you can see orange and yellow specimens at the petrol pump at Okaukuejo in Etosha. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
- In southern Namibia, Aloe claviflora can be seen flowering in large groups on the Hobas-Seeheim road. It is often the only colour you’ll see in the desert at this time of year, and will now be sporting beautiful dense shows of orange blossoms.
- Aloe hereroensis, of which you can see orange and yellow specimens at the petrol pump at Okaukuejo in Etosha, flowers until September.
- Flowering in spring in the north-east are sausage trees, Kigelia africana, (there’s a lovely specimen in Windhoek at the National Botanical Research Institute), and the attractive rain tree (Philenoptera violacea) in the Caprivi Region.
- In Windhoek you’ll see many examples of the common coral tree, Erythrina lysistemon, not indigenous to Namibia but colourful enough to brighten up the city.
- Our indigenous version, the Namib coral tree, Erythrina decora, also flowers in spring. You’ll see it less often, but there is a specimen at Dolomite Camp in western Etosha.
- The sickle bush, Dichrostachys cinerea, begins flowering in October all over Namibia. It bears a small, delicate hanging flower in pink and yellow.
- The trumpet thorn, Catophractes alexandri, is now starting to produce large, soft white flowers on bare branches.
“Spring is sprung, the grass is ris, I wonder where the birdies is.”
Well, you won’t have to look very far to hear the first sounds of spring-nesting birds, especially in Windhoek, as trees in gardens all over town are already sporting the first southern masked-weaver nests.
Masked weaver nest building. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
The sound of weavers becomes synonymous with spring when you hear the ‘swizzling’ calls the males make while competing for the females’ attention. This is done while hanging upside down from a nest, twirling from side to side and frantically flapping their wings. It’s a lovely sound that I look forward to every year, always hoping they’ll come and nest in my garden.
These weavers particularly favour thorn trees and methodically pluck the leaves from the intended branch, presumably so that they can see predators approaching. The first few nests are often practice attempts, with the female discarding the offerings of the male until he has perfected the art. Even established males seem to forget the art of nest building during winter and have to practise a bit first. When the female has chosen, he rips the other nests apart and starts afresh, keen to attract more females, until a whole colony has been established.
Skimmmers at the Zambezi. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
By October lots of birds are catching spring fever and starting to nest, so that their chicks will be ready to fledge when the first rains begin. These include:
- AT THE COAST: Damara terns (endemics) start returning to Namibia from further north by September, so that they can start breeding in November. This little bird is an endangered species due to jackal predation and off-road driving. They nest in shallow scrapes on the gravel plains along the coast, up to 2 km inland.
- IN ETOSHA: The white-crested helmet shrike nests from September to December. These birds live in small flocks, and breed co-operatively, taking turns to incubate the eggs in a cup-shaped nest. A good place to see these little birds is in the Halali Rest Camp.
- IN THE CAPRIVI: See if you can spot a southern ground-hornbill along the roadsides. The males will be foraging to feed the nesting females from October onwards.
- Now is also time for African skimmers (photo) to arrive and start mating and nesting. They lay up to three eggs in a scraped-out hollow on the sandbanks in the middle of the big rivers up in the north-east. See them on the Zambezi, Okavango and Kwando rivers.
- You will also see large colonies of southern carmine bee-eaters nesting on the riverbanks in the north-east from September onwards – a spectacular sight indeed. By November the summer avian visitor birds start arriving to feed and breed in warmer climates.
A male southern ground-hornbill with a food parcels for the nesting female. Photo ©Annabelle Venter
- IN THE NAMIBIAN INTERIOR: Hornbills make their preparations to breed between October and February. These birds nest in holes in trees, which the females seal from inside.
- Crimson-breasted shrikes are also preparing for the breeding season, with October/November being their time.
- Southern red bishops don their colourful red plumage now to start vying for mates. You’ll find them in wetland areas and Windhoek gardens.
- As the rains start earlier up north, the endangered blue cranes will start looking for nesting sites in Etosha from October onwards.
- IN THE DESERT: Namibia’s famous endemic dune lark is a species that breeds all year round, and can be seen without difficulty at Elim Dune near Sossusvlei.
This article originally appeared in the 2013 Spring Travel News Namibia publication.