IMPOSING GARDEN GATE

This rather imposing garden gate caught my eye recently.

A paper sign reads along the lines of: Please use the gate next door. This gate does not work. Then I wonder, has the stone work shifted? The wooden gate has swollen? The shrubs next to the path have become overgrown?

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FOUR LONG-TAILED BIRDS

A number of South African birds sport long tails. Only four of them will feature today. Some gardens host a resident Pintailed Whydah (Vidua macroura). At the start of spring the males gradually slough their winter tweedy feathers to don their black and white ‘tuxedo’ look, complete with long tail feathers which can grow up to 20cm in length. They are aggressive little birds that will readily chase larger birds, such as pigeons or doves, from food sources within what they have claimed as their territory. People either love them or hate them, but I have found that other garden birds soon get used to their aggressive behaviour and feed quite happily while the male is chasing after one or other of his harem.

Another common garden bird with a long tail is the Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus). They cover a large range within sub-Saharan Africa and one seldom sees them on their own for they are sociable birds, as you can see in the photograph below. They even roost pressed closely together! It amusing to watch them move from one part of the garden to another, for their flight is far from graceful and it often appears as if they have crash-landed in the next tree.

While it occurs elsewhere in Africa, the Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudata) only occurs in the northern part of this country – a truly beautiful bird that is fairly commonly observed in the Kruger National Park. These birds are territorial and so, when one drives along the roads in the park, one can see them spaced out across the veld – often perched on a tree stump or the top of a low bush from where they can keep an eye on their territory. Their tails are long and forked.

Lastly, what used to be called a Grey Lourie and is now been saddled with the awkward name of Grey Go-away-bird (Corythaixoides concolor), also occurs mainly in the northern parts of the country and is also commonly seen in gardens in Gauteng. Its shaggy-looking crest can be raised or flattened. Like the Speckled Mousebird, these birds do not seem to be particularly adept at flying and can often be seen climbing up tree branches.

KINGFISHERS: PIED AND GIANT

There can be no mistaking the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) in the field. Not only is it a large bird, but its black and white plumage is distinctive – even from afar. They are common over much of South Africa, where I have seen them near rivers and dams. This one is a male as it has a double breast band.

Apparently the Pied Kingfisher is the only kingfisher that hovers over the water before diving in bill-first to catch its prey.

The Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maximus) is even larger with a massive dark bill, spotted upper parts and the distinctive rufous underparts.

This one is probably a female as it has a white chest with blackish spots and a chestnut belly.

These birds are noted for diving into the water from its perch – usually a branch overhanging water – and returning to the same perch to eat its prey. This is useful for photographers – providing the sun is in the right place!

KURRICHANE VS OLIVE THRUSH

My real interest in birds was still in its fledging years when I met a Kurrichane Thrush (Turdus libonyanus) for the first time whilst travelling through Botswana. This bird was named by the explorer and naturalist, Andrew Smith, in the late 19th century: Turdus is Latin for ‘thrush’, while libonyanus is derived from a Tswana name for this bird, which is fairly common in the north-eastern part of southern Africa. I found them enchanting birds to watch as they scuffled their way through fallen leaves to find invertebrates or pecked at wild fruit.

Their bright orange beaks, large brown eyes with an orange eye ring and the confiding way they looked at us were charming attributes – as is the black speckling on their throats creating a dark malar stripe. The breast of a Kurrichane Thrush is light grey brown grading towards a dull, rather pale, orange colour. Quite noticeable is that the centre of the belly is whitish. The orange eye-ring can clearly be seen in the photograph below.

When I first saw a thrush in our Eastern Cape garden I automatically assumed it was a Kurrichane Thrush. How wrong I was: closer observation made me realise that the orange underparts are more conspicuous and, while there was black streaking on the throat, there was no malar stripe. In contrast to the Kurrichane Thrush, their eye-ring is a dullish brown. I was actually seeing an Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus).

This common name is derived from the olive-grey colouring on the back of the bird. Here you can see the beak of the Olive Thrush is paler as well as the heavy streaking on the throat.

Olive Thrushes like to forage on the ground and in leaf litter – often clearing away the latter that gathers in the gutters of roofs! Both of these thrushes enjoy bathing and drinking from a bird bath – so it is worth investing in at least one for your garden.

Both of these thrushes look similar to the American Robin (Turdus migratorius).

FOUR HUNGRY BIRDS

The birds in our garden are regularly supplied with seeds and fruit, although there are a number of berries on indigenous trees at this time of the year as well as succulent flowers on the Erythrina caffra tree especially. Weavers and other smaller birds are provided with fine grass seeds in the hanging feeders and coarse seeds, such as crushed maize and millet are scattered on the ground for doves and pigeons. Well, that is the way it is supposed to work. Here is one of many Cape Weavers making the most of the abundance of Erythrina caffra flowers.

Amethyst sunbirds, Speckled Mousebirds, Common Starlings, Black-headed Orioles, Fork-tailed Drongos, Laughing Doves, African Green Pigeons, Black-eyed Bulbuls and a variety of other birds visit these blossoms during the day. Laughing Doves, Red-eyed Doves and the Speckled Pigeons also gather below the hanging feeders to eat the seeds that fall to the ground. These Laughing Doves have decided to get to the source:

Not to be outdone, a Speckled Pigeon has usurped Morrigan’s feeder for a good meal:

There are a lot of berries and seeds around for the Speckled Mousebirds to feed on, but here they have homed in on an orange I put out on the feeding tray: