December in the Lowveld: how the bush decorates for the holidays
Updated: Nov 15
BY: Annie DuPre, FGASA NQF2 and Apprentice Trails Guide
In the northern hemisphere, the cold December weather arrives and brings snow, winter coats, and warm beverages. On the opposite side of the world, here in the Lowveld of South Africa, Bushwise students are donning shorts and sandals, and trying not to sweat through their clothes on game drives!
December is a magical time of year. We relax, enjoy seasonally-themed food and drink, and exchange gifts. No matter how you celebrate, this time of year typically means a break from work, time with loved ones, and if you’re lucky, a bit of holiday.
But, the holiday season means something different in the wilderness. Lions don’t gather together to swap gifts. There are no baby elephants waiting by the chimney to see Santa. And magpie shrikes don’t light the menorah.
However, there is definitely a palpable change in the bush during this time of year! The seasons are shifting, bringing visible changes in local flora and fauna.
So, how does the bush celebrate the holidays?
November showers bring holiday flowers
November and December sees the return of summer rain here in the Lowveld. Afternoon thunderstorms and long, sustained showers soak the savannah and grassland, bringing much-needed nutrients to the vegetation.
Shrubs, bushes and trees that have been practically dormant throughout winter suddenly start to sprout green leaves, and flowering plants burst forth with bright colours and patterns.
One flowering plant is sickle bush, a thorny shrub that quickly encroaches, often causing a tremendous headache for farmers and property owners. But, the flowers of the sickle bush are quite beautiful. True to the shrub’s other common names, the Chinese lantern or Kalahari Christmas tree, its flowers look like little ornaments adorning its branches.
There are many other trees and plants that flower at this time, including numerous wild flowers that pop up as if from nowhere, dotting the bush with multi-coloured blossoms.
Purple pod terminalia and silver cluster leaf trees sprout thousands of tiny cream-coloured fragrant flowers. String of stars has cascading white flowers that look almost like twinkling lights blanketing the ground. Other flowering plants include candy stripe lilies, wild basil and aniseed, blue haze, lion’s eye hibiscus, African violets, and many more.
Returning home for the holidays
Along with the rain and change in temperature, comes the return of many migratory bird species. The majority of these species are insect- or seed-eaters, so they return to southern Africa to feed. Think of this as coming home for the holidays for the up to 4.5 billion individuals that flock from their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia.
European bee-eaters, with their vibrant, turquoise-blue bellies and chestnut heads, have massive seasonal gatherings of 20-100 individuals. They’re like colourful decorations flying through the sky and roosting in trees.
A popular sign of the season is the return of the woodland kingfisher. Its call rings out through the bush, almost like carol singers echoing their song. Guides often bet on when this vocal bird will return to the Lowveld. Of course they aren’t the only species to sing their song this time of year. Diederik cuckoos, red-chested cuckoos, green-backed camaropteras and African hoopoes join the chorus of birds ringing in the holiday season.
Arrival of new additions
This is also the time of year when many prey species give birth, bringing new life into the Lowveld. Impala give birth at around the same time in November and December. They do this because there’s safety in numbers, and because there’s typically plenty of food and water to go around.
Other species, like wildebeest and blesbok, also deliver their babies this time of year. If you pay a visit to the Greater Kruger over the holidays, you won’t be able to stop yourself from cooing over the adorable baby antelope sprinting back and forth around the adults.
Photo by: Annie DuPre
But, prey species aren’t the only ones with young over the holiday period. African wild dogs give birth between May and June, and keep their young ones in the den until around October. By December, the pups are typically mobile with their pack, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of this highly social predator!
Many other species, both prey and predator, will give birth throughout the year. So you may still get lucky and see many different kinds of cubs, lambs, piglets, or calves over the holiday period.
The holiday tourism rush
Things are a bit different this year, but typically, the festive season invites a wave of tourists to safari lodges throughout southern Africa. There’s certainly something novel about spending Christmas in summer weather, especially if you’re from the northern hemisphere.
Game drives and bush walks are exceptionally hot this time of year. It’s even more festive to pack extra sundowners for your afternoon drive, or to find a bird hide near a dam to relax and enjoy the sights.
What’s better than appreciating wildlife and nature with your friends and family? That’s the kind of holiday Bushwise guides love to celebrate!
If you can’t be with us here in the bush this holiday, take time to walk outside and see how nature is celebrating, wherever you are.
And, with 2022 just around the corner, now’s the perfect time to book your bush adventure. There are just a few spots left in our January intake for the Professional Field Guide Course. What better way to celebrate the holidays than by rewarding yourself with a career move of a lifetime?
Don’t wait for the next holiday season, apply for your Bush adventure now!