Seven grasslands wonders | WWF South Africa

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Seven grasslands wonders

One of the things I always look forward to when I travel to KwaZulu-Natal during summer is the beautiful landscape covered with charming green grass. If you have had a chance to visit inland KwaZulu-Natal, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Grassland landscape KZN
These vast open grasslands in northern KwaZulu-Natal look devoid of life, but they are home to many different types of plants, animals, birds and insects.

But, have you taken the time to walk or drive along rural roads to spot the many amazing creatures that live there?

There are a few special plants, as well as some spectacular birds and little insects that take my breath away every time I spot them in these grass-rich wonderlands.

1. Dancing rituals

We were lucky to spot nine of these grey crowned cranes, especially as they are classified as endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It looked like they were showing off when they started flapping their wings as we stopped to watch them. But these gorgeous birds were dancing to show affection to attract their mates.

The grey crowned crane is also Uganda’s national bird and is represented on their national flag. It is one of only three species of cranes that occur in southern Africa including South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane, together with the wattled crane.

The grey crowned crane is known as uNohemu in isiZulu, a name derived from their loud honking call – “ma-HEM’
The grey crowned crane is known as uNohemu in isiZulu, a name derived from their loud honking call – “ma-HEM’

2. A hunting spectacular

Another bird I am always excited to see is the secretary bird. This charismatic long-legged bird also known as Intinginono in isiZulu – a casual word used to refer to its long legs, only occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its English name is thought to derive from the crest of long feathers that look like the quill pens 19th century office workers used to tuck behind their ears.

With its eagle-like head and hooked beak, secretary birds mostly hunt their prey on the ground. They have amazing skills for hunting reptiles, including snakes. While it is a bird of prey, it is often mistaken for a crane from a distance or when in flight.

The secretary bird has a long tail and stands about 1.3m tall, making them longer and taller than any other raptor.
The secretary bird has a long tail and stands about 1.3m tall, making them longer and taller than any other raptor.

3. Bringer of babies

White storks are found in various areas around the world, across Africa, Europe and east Asia. Interestingly, they mostly migrate to Africa during their breeding season.

Taking most of its food from the ground or from shallow water, they are carnivorous and eat insects, fish, amphibians and reptiles as well as small birds and small mammals. Its isiZulu name is Nogolantethe meaning, “insect eater”.

The widely-known species has been the tale of many myths, with the best known being the story of babies being brought by storks.

While the white stork’s plumage is mostly white, it has black flight feathers and a striking red pointed beak and long red legs.
While the white stork’s plumage is mostly white, it has black flight feathers and a striking red pointed beak and long red legs.

4. Chatting birdsong

Another bird which I almost did not see when pointed in its direction, was the ant-eating chat. This small bird is dark in colour and camouflages well with its surroundings. Can you spot it?

And you would be right for guessing that this bird feeds on ants, as its name indicates. It is also known as the southern anteater-chat and is found in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

The ant-eating chat got its isiZulu name Indundumela from the cheerful whistling chirping birdsong it produces, which is used almost exclusively for courtship.
The ant-eating chat got its isiZulu name “Indundumela” from the cheerful whistling, chirping birdsong it produces which is used almost exclusively for courtship.

5. Colourful pollinators

The grasslands are home to many diverse insects hidden among the dense plant life. The beautiful colours and patterns of this day-flying moth caught my attention as it came to land on a long piece of grass.

Moths act as pollinators to many different types of plants, making them a vital part of the web of life in the grasslands
Moths act as pollinators to many different types of plants, making them a vital part of the web of life in the grasslands.

6. Protectors of plants

As I was looking closely at the grass, there was no way that I could miss a brightly-coloured ladybird, often also called a ladybug.

Many people love ladybirds because of their gorgeous colours, oval shape and petite size. But if you are a farmer or own a vegetable garden, this might be one of your favourite insects because of the beneficial role they play in protecting crops.

While not all are indigenous to South Africa nor to the grasslands, many of these ladybugs feed on plant-eating pests such as aphids, white flies and mites and so they keep the vegetables safe.

The characteristic spots and eye-catching colours of the ladybird are meant to make them unattractive to predators.
The characteristic spots and eye-catching colours of the ladybird are meant to make them unattractive to predators.

7. Plants with a purpose

As with any other habitat, birds, insects and other animals are not the only natural life that exists in grasslands. Plants are a vital part of an area’s ecosystem – both for creatures and people. Amongst the plants we saw was this strange looking one called Umsolo – an isiXhosa and isiZulu name meaning skin rash. It is one of many plants used in traditional medicine.

Umsolo plant
In some rural areas of South Africa, Umsolo is used as a home remedy to wash skin rashes.

It is amazing how many wonders of natural life can be found in the grasslands when we look.

From a distance it might look like only grass with a few wild flowers and trees, however, the grasslands biome is regarded as one of the highest areas of natural biodiversity in South Africa, second to the fynbos biome in the Western Cape.

They are home to so much more than grass – they are a micro-world full of wonders!

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.

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