Most of the photographs I have posted of a Black-headed Oriole (Oriolus larvatus) have been taken while one has been visiting the nectar feeder. It has been easier this way as they tend to frequent the tall trees and so are hidden by the foliage. The latter is thinning out now that winter is upon us, making it easier to spot this one perched in the branches of the Erythrina caffra growing in the back garden.

There were two of them – too far apart to frame together – calling to each other, their liquid sounds passing to and fro between them. This one has been captured whilst calling to its mate. You can see its strong bill, which aids its diet of fruit, berries and insects – apart from nectar, which it is partial to.



That is what this pair of Speckled Pigeons seem to be saying as they watch me having tea below them.


Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio) were the iconic birds at Monteseel in KwaZulu-Natal, where I learned to rock climb in the early 1970s. Although I didn’t know much about birds at the time, the mixture of their mellifluous whistles and harsh grating sounds remain etched on my memory, along with the burnt orange of their wings glistening in the sunlight. There were large flocks of them, apparently unperturbed by the weekly intrusion of humans clambering up the rock faces.

With hindsight, perhaps they were, and it was rather the climbers who were unperturbed by the presence of these birds as they each focused on the next tiny hand- or foothold on their way up the crags. In the wild, Red-winged Starlings favour rocky ledged for nesting – not that I recall ever disturbing any nests. Like a number of other birds, they have sought out worthy substitutes in urban areas. For many years a pair of Red-winged Starlings annually built their untidy nests under the eaves of the school I worked at.

Red-winged Starlings visit our garden throughout the year. During the summer they frequently appear at the feeding tray in pairs, making a beeline for the fruit. The females are easily distinguished from the males as they sport a grey head.

This is a male Red-winged Starling perched in the Erythrina Caffra with a fig in his beak.

Large flocks of them sweep across the neighbourhood during winter, seeking out fruit, berries and other titbits to eat. We often see flocks of over fifty of them emerge from the Natal Fig tree when disturbed by traffic or other loud noises.

NOTE: Click on a photograph if you wish to see a larger view of it.



I usually scatter crushed mealies on the ground for the doves and pigeons to eat and fill this hanging feeder with the finer seeds for the smaller birds to feed on. Thus was the order for many months. The Laughing Doves became dissatisfied with this arrangement. Having tasted the smaller seeds that are inevitably dropped by the weavers – really messy eaters – as well as the Streaky-headed Seedeaters, they wanted more. They wanted to get to the source of this tasty food. Several tried and failed to get a perch on this hanging feeder. Where there’s a will there is a way, however and their persistence paid off in the end.

This Laughing Dove launched itself off a nearby branch and, after missing its footing more than once, got a grip and began pecking away. As it tips the feeder this way and that more fine seed falls out, to the delight of the other doves below. Later in the day there were actually three Laughing Doves on the feeder – not for long at a time though. I think the third one is one too many and gets bumped off its perch! The willpower or determination of these doves to achieve their goal, no matter how difficult it is, has proved to be a good example of this proverb that has been in use since the 1600s.


It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.


A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.


I cannot adequately convey how wonderful it is to hear the sounds of the Cape Turtle Dove in our garden at different times of the day. They used to be regular visitors to the feeders until elbowed out by the sheer number of Laughing Doves and Speckled Pigeons that wolf up the grain within twenty minutes of it being scattered outside. So, I hear the Cape Turtle Doves calling from the Erythrina trees in the back garden and see them pecking for food in the kitchen beds more often than they come to the front to see what the masses have left. Cape Turtle doves remind me of my childhood in the Lowveld and our visits to the Kruger National Park as well as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where this photograph was taken.

My favourite visitors are the Cape Robins that are among the first birds to greet the dawn and which come to peck at the fruit and other titbits when the garden is quiet and most of the other birds have left to seek food elsewhere.

A pair of Greyheaded Sparrows also prefer to visit the feeders after the doves and weavers have left. Some of the weavers are beginning to sport their winter tweeds, yet there are still many males looking as though they are ready to find a mate. A few males have been seen carrying strips of grass to tie onto thin branches – perhaps we need a really cold spell of weather to make them realise that there is still the winter to get through!

Of some concern is that the population of Speckled Pigeons nesting in our roof has increased to the point that they may have to be moved on and we will have to reseal the eaves. They are lovely birds to look at, however the mess they make is awful – our front steps and some of the outside walls are covered with their faeces, which cannot be a healthy situation in the long run.

Redwinged Starlings have been gathering in large flocks over the past few weeks. They fly around in flocks of between fifty and a hundred, sometimes breaking off to fly in different directions and meeting up again. They often settle in the Natal Fig, only to be frightened by loud noises from passing vehicles and a cloud of black rises up noisily to whirl about again: their reddish wings look beautiful against the light.

So do the bright red wings of the Knysna Turaco. How fortunate I was yesterday morning to watch a pair of them flitting around in the trees near to where I was sitting and then to drink from the bird bath situated only a few metres away from me!

A really interesting sight was an African Harrier Hawk (Gymnogene) flying low over the garden before perching in the Natal Fig. It wasn’t there long before I saw it take off with a single Fork-tailed Drongo in hot pursuit. The Drongo chased it right across the garden and back before the hawk changed direction to fly further afield. I am impressed with the feistiness of the Drongo!

I have already highlighted my photographs of the Green Wood-hoopoes that visited our garden last weekend, so will end with a photograph of an Amethyst Sunbird that posed for me briefly, albeit in the shade:

My May bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
African Harrier-Hawk (Gymnogene)
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Collared Sunbird
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Wood-hoopoe
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Rednecked Spurfowl
Redwinged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Village Weaver


I have been reluctant to change the name of the Red-billed Wood-Hoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureas), known in Afrikaans as Rooibekkakelaar, to that of Green Wood-Hoopoe. My argument has always been that its long decurved red bill is an excellent mode of identification and that when they are seen looking for insects in trees they look black – not green! How could they be described as being ‘glossy green’? I have allowed my many sightings of them in the shade to obscure my thinking and deceive my eyes – even after photographing this one in KwaZulu-Natal three years ago. Change isn’t always easy to embrace.

So many bird names have changed that I hold on to previous editions of bird books so that I can look up the familiar names to see what the birds are called now – it is rather like finding my way around a town such as Pietermaritzburg (where I lived for years) and feeling like an alien because all the street names have been changed! I began to accept the name change when I chanced upon a pair of Common Scimitarbills in the campsite of the Mountain Zebra National Park: these large glossy black birds looked like what I still stubbornly referred to as Red-billed Wood-Hoopoes; they had white bars on the primaries and I could see white tips to their outer tail feathers in flight … no red bill though and their feet weren’t red. A photographer stalking them for a good picture put me right on that score and I had to reflect on my resistance to change.

When I heard the familiar garrulous chatting and cackling in the garden last weekend I rushed out camera in hand. A small flock of what I can now confidently call Green Wood-Hoopoes were exploring the aloes and the Erythrina caffra in our back garden. Now I can agree with the description of its bottle-green head and back – in good light this is obvious.

You can clearly see its definitive red beak and feet.

This one has been inspecting the bark of the Erythrina caffra. Its specialised claws enable it to cling easily to the underside of branches while closely inspecting the bark for insects.

There was a final pose on the back gate before the flock cackled their way to the garden over the road.

The name Phoeniculus is a reference to the Greek Phoenix, that mythical bird of Arabia that was reputed to fly to Egypt every 500 years to be reborn.

NOTE: Click on a photograph for a larger view.