Sunday, 18 February 2018

Late summer visit to the Western Heights (Thursday 15 February 2018)

We woke up to a clear day and soon it was hot enough for us to question whether we should have made an earlier start but fortunately a wind got up and the clouds rolled in, which made for very pleasant walking conditions. We had decided to go to the Western Heights to see if there were similar swathes of Watsonia to those we saw last week. However, when we reached the gate it was some far off Kniphofia that attracted our attention.

Walking towards them to determine the species, we came across Aspalathus gerrardii in flower and large numbers of Alectra sessiliflora. Low down in some of the wet spots we saw Genlisea hispida and after tussock-hopping into the wetland, determined that the Kniphofia was K. linearifolia. 

Aspalathus gerrardii

Alectra sessiliflora

Genlisea hispida

Kniphofia linearifolia

After driving a short distance along the track, we stopped to investigate a far off spread of white flowers that turned out to be Melasma scabra. This brought us to a damp depression we knew of and here, despite the depression being dry, there were a few Nymphoides thunbergiana flowering and these were accompanied by colour-coded Utricularia prehensilis.

Melasma scabra

Nymphoides thunbergiana

Utricularia prehensilis

We drove on further and had to stop again when we saw a Pachycarpus grandiflorus near the side of the track. We then realised that there were many of these plants, sporting flowers in a range of different sizes and colours.

Pachycarpus grandiflorus

The next time we drove on we managed a more substantial distance until we reached where we thought the Watsonia might be flowering. Apart from a single sporadic Watsonia densiflora the Watsonia in this area were dormant. We set off walking and found a tall Gnidia woodii amongst the grasses. We reached a small stream and followed this down to where it became enclosed in forest. At the forest edge we came across another Kniphofia species - after resorting to the key we determined this to be K. gracilis.

Gnidia woodii

Kniphofia gracilis

We found a spot with a view and stopped to have our lunch. Once lunch was over we decided to explore the forested stream bed. Growing out of a crack in a large rock was the odd fern, Psilotum nudum. Next to the rock was the undescribed Clutia sp. nov. We detected a strong floral scent and saw this was drifting off the flowers on a Hyperacanthus amoenus. In the understorey of the forest we found Plectranthus ciliatus and P. saccatus subsp. pondoensis.  

Psilotum nudum

Plectranthus ciliatus

Hyperacanthus amoenus

Clutia sp. nov.

Plectranthus saccatus subsp. pondoensis

Closer to the stream we found Justicia campylostemon and Indigofera natalensis in flower.  The shady stream banks were covered in Plectranthus hilliardiae, a Pondoland special, not yet in flower.Gail got a bit of a fright when she tried to bring her camera up to take a photo and found herself grasping a forest tree frog instead - he jumped off but obligingly posed in his camouflage outfit. 

Indigofera natalensis

Justicia campylostemon

Forest tree frog in full camouflage gear

We emerged from the riverine forest to find a view down towards the Umtamvuna river. On the grassy slopes here we found many more Kniphofia gracilis and up above a small scarp were several Habenaria lithophila.

View down the Umtamvuna gorge

Habenaria lithophila

We returned to our bags in the forest and then decided to walk back on the opposite slope outside the forest. This was a lucky decision as we found a small population of Cineraria dryogeton, a local endemic we previously knew only from a very restricted area on the other side of the Bulolo River gorge. As we walked back we could see many Tephrosia polystachya shrubs, several very tall Senecio discodregeanus and a few clumps of Aspalathus spinifera. 

Tephrosia polystachya

Senecio discodregeanus

Aspalathus spinifera

Driving back slowly, Gail spotted a big bird dropping down into the Umtamvuna River gorge and we stopped for a closer look. We were amazed and gratified to find about 20 Cape Vultures flying lazily around and then noticed several sitting on the cliffs. While this is too early for nesting attempts, it is possible these birds are establishing nesting spots for the coming breeding season. It is many years since the Umtamvuna breeding colony abandoned these cliffs and it would be great to see them returning. This activity will be monitored to see if it is indeed a re-establishment of the breeding colony.

While sitting at the cliff edge watching the vultures we came across Stenosemis angustifolia, Hesperantha baurii and Crassula ericoides.

Stenosemis angustifolia

Hesperantha baurii

Crassula ericoides

Participants: Anne S, Dorothy M, Elaine L, Gail B-W, Graham G, Kate G, Maggie A

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