Snippets from the field, May 2016:
On our April 2015 South Australian Zoo Volunteers’ Safari we were ending off our Kruger stay at Lower Sabie Rest Camp, a very popular camp in one of the best game viewing regions of the park. After settling in we decided to take a drive along the Sabie River, hoping for that Leopard that was still eluding us. But we were on the lookout for anything of interest (well, us guides were at least!), and a few kilometers up the road something caught my eye, a reflection of light from a dead branch. Yet dead branches should offer almost zero reflection, and I immediately realised that I was looking at a smallish African Rock Python lying in ambush position on the end of a dead branch, waiting for doves to alight before drinking in the river. It was a phenomenal spot, one of my best ever, and soon the people in gathering cars were marveling, aghast at how I could have seen it. Anyway, we moved on, and on my following visit in June, and all subsequent visits, I scanned the branch as I passed by, but the snake had moved on. In May this year I was again at Lower Sabie, with the same group of people in fact, and once again we headed up the river late one afternoon to end off the day. I was leading and decided to make the ‘snake tree’ my turn-around point to get back to camp in time for the 17h30 gate closing time. As I approached the tree (basically a dead tree with one single branch) I saw that it’s shape had changed slightly, and sure enough, just over one year since the last time, the snake (we assume it’s the same snake, it’s at least the same size) was back on the branch, leaving us a little nonplussed, to say the least. Jason Stewart, who was guiding with me on both occasions, is our resident herp expert, with plenty of experience with Pythons, and is also at a loss to explain it. Maybe just a coincidence? Well, that’s the thing I guess, you never know what to expect on a safari… Here’s some insight from Jason: “Pythons don’t really have a territory in the true sense of the word but they will stay in an area like a home range if conditions are suitable. It is probably a spot he/she uses fairly often during certain times of the year. During the hotter months it’s unlikely to use it, being exposed to the heat during the day as we saw it but you never know what happens later on. Such ambush tactics – where they go up onto an exposed branch and wait for birds to land and catch them – have been documented before and likely the birds wouldn’t see him when coming in to perch. If it stays in the area longer and increases in size it will stop using it as the prey will be too small, there will be better pickings on the ground like francolins etc”.
Here are two other examples of small African Rock Pythons in ambush position on branches. In all three cases they were close to water, which makes sense, as the chances of a bird landing on a particular branch increase significantly when there’s water in the immediate vicinity – birds like to perch first to scope the area before going down to drink. And in the last photo, taken in Botswana’s Tuli Game Reserve with a small ‘point-and-shoot’ back in 2007, we see the results of the ambush as a Python grabs a Cape Turtle Dove that landed on the wrong ‘branch’.