Secretary Birds (Sagittaruis serpentarius) are endemic to the grasslands and open savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Should you be fortunate enough to spot one in the veld, look around very carefully for its mate might be foraging some distance away. They are known to pair for life.

These unique, elegant, long-legged birds stand out from their surroundings, yet do not dilly-dally if you see one in the distance for they can walk surprisingly fast in search of food.

They are known to cover up to 30 km a day in search of food, which includes not only snakes, but tortoises and rats, as well as the chicks of ground-nesting birds.

The crest of 20 long black feathers is distinctive as is the bare face which is usually yellow, orange or red. The body is covered in whitish-grey feathers, with two long, black-tipped tail feathers. Their wingspan has been measured up to 2.10 meters. If you look at them closely you will also notice their long eye-lashes and hooked beak.

They bend down to seize smaller food items in their bill, but stamp on more agile prey with the thickened soles of their feet, stunning it and then swallowing it whole. Akin to Ostriches, Secretary Birds ingest pebbles to aid their digestion. Even though they are mostly seen on the ground, Secretary Birds choose to nest in trees.

Sadly, even though they were declared a protected species in 1968, these magnificent birds are in decline, mostly due to habit destruction and they are susceptible to collisions with both power lines and fences.  I have mostly seen Secretary Birds in our national parks, but was very excited to see one on the edge of town during the course of last year.


We have got to know various members of the Urban Herd quite well over the years and have even named the more familiar among them. Before I return to them let me introduce you to an interesting South African breed of cattle called Bonsmara. Here are a few on a cattle farm in the Lothians area.

These reddish-looking cattle are the result of an extensive scientific breeding programme conducted by Professor Jan Bonsma from the Department of Agriculture to produce cattle that are well adapted to a sub-tropical climate; that will calve every year; and will produce good quality beef. The name is a combination of the name of the professor and ‘Mara’, the experimental farm on which they were bred. They animals have the attributes of both Bos indicus and Bos Taurus. Why this should make any difference I don’t know, but in order to conform to breed standards these cattle have to be de-horned!

Back to the Urban Herd. Look at the lovely shape of the horns on a cow we call The Master Hooter.

There are some interesting aspects about her, one of which you may have noticed is that, apart from an identifying notch in her ear, there is also a hole. Perhaps too many other cows have simple notches, although the pattern on the hide of this one is distinctive.

The other is that at some stage she lost the tuft at the end of her tail. The Urban Herd wander all over town and beyond, so who knows – it may have been grabbed by a dog or caught in a fence …

At this stage she and her companions are grazing along the road of our ‘industrial area’ on the edge of town. Behind her is a calf, sired no doubt by the Arctic Bull – who has sowed his wild oats across many of the Urban Herd cows!

Wait! Did you spot something interesting on the back of that calf? It looks equally interested and I felt ecstatic:

Red-billed Oxpeckers! How very exciting it is to spot these so close to home!

Cattle Egrets are the more usual companions of the Urban Herd, wherever they happen to wander.

Lastly, here is The Master Hooter’s Sister:


One of the best places, other than in my garden, to watch Cape Robin-Chats (Cossypha caffra) in action is Jack’s Picnic Site in the Addo Elephant National Park. There they have become so accustomed to the regular ebb and flow of human visitors that they happily perch in the shrubbery – and even on the picnic tables – while they watch out for a morsel of food. Here is a sample of some of the many photographs I have taken there of these absolutely delightful birds.

Occasionally a Cape Robin-chat will alight next to one’s vehicle as soon as the doors are open – quite ready to inspect the picnic fare.

Indeed, it has already found what may be a sunflower seed among the gravel – left by a previous visitor to the picnic site.

This one is perched on a wooden step leading down to a picnic site. Its gaze is quite intense.

You can tell that this Cape Robin-chat has a wary look about it.

This youngster is already learning the ropes and is keenly watching the ground on the off chance that some food might appear.


There were 48 birds on my list for last January and 45 this year. I doubt if there are really fewer birds that could be seen from our garden, rather I wasn’t necessarily there to see them. So much depends on when I am outside, how long I spend outside, where I settle to watch birds, and what the weather is like. Birds are scarce during high temperatures – and we have experienced some days of up to 40°C – and equally so during damp weather – very few of those this month!

Possibly the most exciting bird action for me this month was the unexpected arrival of a Steppe Buzzard that sent a flock of Laughing Doves scattering in all directions. I heard a loud, yet muffled, thump and there it was, only about two meters away from me! It blinked at me for a second or two and then flew off so silently that had I not witnessed its departure I would have wondered what had happened to it. Its hunting foray was unrewarded. This one is not in my garden but was photographed on the edge of town.

A pair of Southern Boubous have become regular visitors to the feeding area this month. They arrive either singly or together, waiting in the shrubbery until the coast is clear before coming out in the open.

Of course it is always a delight when the Bronze Manikins come to visit. They have been breeding very successfully for I have seen a whole flock of youngsters accompany the adults when feeding on seed that has fallen to the ground from the hanging feeders. Weavers too have been feeding grain to their chicks.

The Black-collared Barbets are keeping the doctor away by eating apple every day.

A pair of Black-eyed Bulbuls have been hard-pressed feeding their youngster, which is waiting on a rock – not too patiently – for the next bite of apple. The parents have been gradually enticing their youngster to come ever closer to the source of the apples.

Another bird that has just about been run ragged feeding offspring is the ringed Common Fiscal. Once I realised that it was frantically feeding not one chick but three, I helped out by providing some very finely chopped meat. This chick has a slice of sausage – that escaped the chopping – in its beak. I will show more photographs of these chicks in a later post.

I was fascinated to watch a Speckled Pigeon helping itself to some of the chopped meat – I assumed they only ate grain and occasionally fruit.

My January bird list:

African Darter
African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Crow
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pin-tailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Steppe Buzzard
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite