TO FALL OFF ONE’S PERCH

To fall off one’s perch is a rather irreverent way of saying that someone has died. It is a rather old-fashioned idiom which, believe it or not, is meant to be humorous. Another meaning I came across for it is to fail, or suffer damage to your status or position.

I have mentioned before that during this drought a number of doves especially seem to have died inexplicably not only in our garden, but in neighbouring ones. Someone suggested a cat may be responsible, having punctured the birds with its claws. It is awful to think of birds dying a slow death as a result. There has been no evidence on any of these birds of obvious marks of an attack or of the deaths resulting from them having flown into the windows.

Yesterday morning, we were enjoying a cup of tea in the shade of the trees on the lawn while watching a few Bronze Mannikins enjoying a meal at one of the feeders, when we heard the sound of something falling through the branches of the tree in front of us. I looked up, expecting to see a twig, and was taken aback by the sight of a bundle of what looked like fur. The object dropped with a thud onto the ground – it was a Speckled Mousebird. It landed on its back, its claws twitched briefly and the long tail feathers lifted slightly then fell back. The bird was dead.

It had literally fallen off its perch! We scanned the tree and the sky for any sign of a snake or a raptor – nothing. Again, there is not a mark on the bird to suggest it had been attacked by anything untoward. Intriguingly, there were no other mousebirds in the area – they are most frequently seen in groups. According to https://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/bird-life-expectancy-speckled-mousebird the lifespan of a Speckled Mousebird is eight to ten years. Had this bird simply reached the end of its life?

When I went out this morning, thinking to dispose of the dead bird, all signs of it had disappeared! What took it away during the night? I see no feathers or any sign of it having been eaten on the spot. A trail cam would have been useful.

BAR-THROATED APALIS

I remember hearing this bird long before actually seeing it in my garden. I heard its call in the veld too as well as along coastal thickets. It seemed to be such a distinct sound, yet I couldn’t tell what made it. Isn’t it strange how once one is able to match a bird to its call, it seems to ‘stand out’ more than ever before. The first Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica) I identified was in our garden. It was flitting through the hedge of Cape Honeysuckle behind our kitchen while I was cooking. I saw this bird … then I heard it making that distinctive call … and the connection was made! Now I see and hear them regularly.

While they commonly occur within South Africa, these birds can be seen all along the eastern side of Africa, through Tanzania and even into Kenya. It is known in Afrikaans as Bandkeelkleinjantjie. The ‘bar-throated’ refers to the distinctive black band that separates the throat from the breast. Another distinctive aspect is its long and strongly graduated tail.

Their black bill is fairly long and slender. I usually see these birds flitting about in the foliage of the trees and shrubs in our garden, gleaning food from the bark and twigs, although they also forage for food on the ground.

They generally eat insects such as butterflies, caterpillars, bees, wasps, locusts and I have watched them catching and eating ants. The Bar-throated Apalis also eats fruits and seeds. I frequently wonder how such relatively small birds cope with being parasitized by the larger Klaas’s Cuckoo or the Red-chested Cuckoo.

These photographs were all taken during various visits to the Addo Elephant National Park.

IMMATURE MARTIAL EAGLE

It landed in a tree ahead of us, obscured by the branches of course. Later, seeing photographs of what must be the same bird taken with a far superior lens to mine, made me look at my pictures more closely and to revise my original hasty identification of it as a Booted Eagle. The more I look at them, the more I am inclined to believe that this is indeed an immature Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus).

Most visitors to a game park tend to be more interested in the animals than birds. Drivers of passing vehicles, seeing mine stopped and spotting my camera poking out of the window, would halt next to me and  eagerly ask what I was looking at … their disappointment was palpable. The phrase ‘only a bird’ scribbled itself across the faces behind the benign smiles and head nodding. It seemed an age before I could inch my vehicle forward for a better view – the occupants of the others were totally charmed by zebra and red hartebeest drinking at the waterhole on the opposite side of the road. Just a hint of the crest is visible in this photograph.

Several birds of prey can be spotted during a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park, the most common being the Pale Chanting Goshawk, Jackal Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite and the Black-shouldered Kite. Ones with such a powerful demeanour are not frequently observed: Martial Eagles are claimed to be among the most powerful eagles in Africa.

Although there is no mistaking its barred tail and huge talons in this photograph, this immature bird is creamy-white, bearing none of the dark streaky markings so definitive in the adult birds. They reach adult plumage after about seven years.

This is what the adult looks like – the photograph was taken five years ago in the Kruger National Park.

The Martial Eagle is currently classified with the status of vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

BLACKHEADED HERON SWIMMING

Blackheaded Herons are commonly seen on their own in the veld or standing at the edge of water patiently waiting for something to eat. This one needed to beat the heat and have a swim.

It moved to the centre of Carol’s Rest waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park and contemplated for a minute or two before having a good splash.

The Hadeda Ibises on the edge never flinched from the drops that sprayed them generously. Then the heron straightened up.

And headed for the side of the waterhole, where it could fluff out its feathers and set them to order once more.

DECEMBER 2019 GARDEN BIRDS

December has been a frantically busy month during which bird watching in our garden has often had to take second place to other activities – as wonderful as they were. I need not have worried though for one of the dubious benefits of the drought has been the attraction of a greater variety of birds to the garden. A Chin-spot Batis was a welcome newcomer that worked its way through the remaining ivy leaves in a more sheltered spot and it has been pleasing to see the return of Yellow-fronted Canaries. This one is inspecting the new feeder I received from my family in Norway.

The most wonderful sound to hear outside since 2018 was the bubbling calls of a Burchell’s Coucal. It paid the garden a very fleeting visit though. These camera-shy birds tend to take refuge in the bushes and the call of one was particularly exciting to hear for they are colloquially known as ‘rain birds’ – said to predict rain, which we need so desperately in the Eastern Cape. Perhaps its prediction was accurately short for we received a whole millimetre of rain not long afterwards! Although I hear their high-pitched calls daily and frequently see them working their way quickly through the remains of the dry Cape Honeysuckle hedge, I was pleased to photograph this Bar-throated Apalis on the ground near our wash line.

A pair of Red-necked Spurfowl have been making more frequent forays into our garden to seek out the crushed maize I scatter for the doves. This is not a good photograph of one for they are still very skittish and move off very quickly should I approach too close for their comfort. I am hoping they will become regular visitors.

The number of Black-eyed Bulbuls gathering around the fruit has increased from the usual three or four to up to seventeen individuals this month! This must be related to the paucity of naturally available food in these drought conditions. I love watching their antics and listening to their cheerful calls. Despite them being sociable birds, they can be fairly aggressive towards each other at times. I have observed, for example how a bird may spread its tail feathers and raise its crest when confronting another in order to protect its turn at an apple.

Male Pin-tailed Whydahs are generally aggressive towards other birds. This one is an exception for, as I have seen no females, I am guessing that my garden is not his territory to defend and he only comes here to feed. He is sporting a magnificent tail at the moment.

My December bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Chinspot Batis
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Red-chested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-throated Wryneck
Redwinged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite
Yellowfronted Canary

THREE VIEWS OF AN OLIVE THRUSH

Drinking water. Olive Thrushes drink deeply and often bathe in the shallow bird baths, then perch on a branch nearby to fluff out their feathers and get dry.

Searching for something to eat among the dry twigs in our drought-stricken garden. If you think its colouring blends well with its environment then look what happens when it turns its back:

It is well camouflaged against the stone wall in front of it.