NOVEMBER 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

I wonder if you also found November hurtling through time with gathering momentum. I have at last found a moment to reflect on an interesting month of birding in my garden. Only two newcomers this month: a Hoopoe – the ground is so hard at the moment that I am not surprised they have not featured on our lawn since February! The other is a pair of the very beautiful Paradise Flycatchers that we sometimes glimpse flitting between trees.

Redbilled Woodhoopoes have been regular visitors. Not only do they probe the cracks in the bark of older trees, but I see them using their long curved beaks to probe deep between the aloe leaves. They also occasionally visit the feeding tray to eat apples – and cheese!  Speaking of which, it is interesting to observe how meticulous all the birds are about wiping their beaks clean on the branches after eating, and even after drinking at the ‘nectar pub’.

Cape White-eyes are regular visitors to the nectar feeder. They look left and right between every sip and seldom stay for long at a time, preferring to fly off and return a few minutes later. They too enjoy pecking at the apples I put out.

A really beautiful sight is that of the Sacred Ibises flying in formation over the garden at the end of the day. They fly just high enough for the setting sun to highlight their white wings. I usually count about seventeen of them at flying graciously together after having spent their day at a dam on the edge of town.

I have already featured the nest of the Fork-tailed Drongo, but think it is worth showing it again. The parents are still taking turns to incubate the eggs and have been seen mobbing a Pied Crow more than once.

The fig tree remains a favourite place for the African Green Pigeons to roost – the thick foliage makes them very difficult to see unless they move. For the first time the other day, I observed one feeding another and wonder if this is part of a courting ritual. A pair of Red-winged Starlings are well beyond that stage for they have been filling their beaks with fruit to take off to feed their youngsters. One comes down to fill up on apples, waits for the other to arrive and do the same, then the two fly off together in the direction of their nest.

Nests: the Lesser-striped Swallows have had such a to-do already. Long-time readers will be aware that this pair has built numerous nests under our eaves. Sometimes they have managed to breed successfully, but every summer their mud nest collapses at least once and they have to start from scratch. Last summer they built their best nest yet: solid, beautifully formed and well positioned outside our front door. This nest was usurped by a pair of White-rumped Swifts and they had to build elsewhere. That beautiful nest was still intact on their return and they wasted no time in laying an egg – wonderful, I thought, until I came home to find an egg dashed on the floor and had to duck as the swifts flew above my head. They had grabbed the home for themselves again.

There was nothing for it. Despite the paucity of mud, the intrepid swallows mustered their courage to build a nest from scratch on the site of their original endeavours. It was coming on well – very well.

Then, alas, for reasons I am unable to fathom, the structure came tumbling down and turned to dust. They are now trying to build a nest at a different site they have used before. We need rain badly for all sorts of reasons, but especially to provide good building material for this plucky pair of birds!

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STONE THE CROWS

No, I do not mean that literally – that is the last kind of behaviour I would encourage! Rather, stone the crows is a phrase generally understood to be an exclamation of incredulity or annoyance. Although this is not a term widely used in South Africa, it occasionally springs to mind when crows squawk and gurgle as they fly over my garden or settle in one of the tall trees before being mobbed by some of the smaller denizens of the area.

Until about five years ago, crows of any kind were more often seen in the area known as Burnt Kraal and around the municipal dump, both on the outskirts of our town. Now I see both Cape Crows and Pied Crows daily in the suburbs – occasionally even a White-necked Raven.

The Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is the most common and widespread all over the country.

It is easily recognised by its white breast and neck, both while flying or when it is on the ground. They have been recorded as being on the increase in South Africa, partly because of the availability of nesting sites on electrical poles coupled with roadkill as an available source of food. Any traveller along our network of roads will attest to this. The Pied Crow is highly adaptable in terms of the food it eats, which includes an omnivorous diet of fruit, seeds, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. They are known to raid the nests of birds for either eggs or nestlings, so it is no surprise that the Fork-tailed Drongos nesting the fig tree regularly chase one off the property. I wonder if they say stone the crows, wishing they could do this literally!

Pied Crows also remind me of a song we used to sing in primary school. It began:

Aai, aai, die Witborskraai!

Hiervandaan na Mosselbaai

–Oompie wil na Tannie vry,

maar Tannie trek haar neus opsy.

You might find this an interesting site to visit:

http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/fitz/research/programmes/maintaining_global/pied_crows

The Cape Crow (Corvus capensis) used to be called (and is still widely known as) the Black Crow – perfectly understandable as it is a glossy black all over.

It is a common resident in grasslands as well as in the drier regions of the country. They are ubiquitous in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we saw flocks of close to fifty scattered across the veld in the vicinity of Carol’s Rest and elsewhere. They too are omnivorous birds, feeding on insects, small reptiles, birds, frogs, seeds, fruit and carrion.

A LUCKY BREAK

Regular readers might be aware that much of our garden has been given over to indigenous forest. This makes photographing birds a challenge, given the poor light, the foliage, and an amazing number of branches and twigs that get in the way! The advantages outweigh the disadvantages though for we now see a greater variety of birds than we could have dreamed possible in the cactus-covered garden we took over thirty years ago. We even have Knysna Turacos coming down from the canopy to drink, bathe and eat fruit in full view while we are sitting outside – that is a real privilege.

The plethora of trees makes it imperative that we get to recognise the sounds birds make in order to differentiate between them, simply because they are not always visible. The African Green Pigeons, for example, have been roosting in our garden for the past couple of months and yet we rarely see them unless they happen to fly in or move while we happen to be looking at the fig tree.

For some weeks now there have been some rather harsh krrr krrr calls in the very early mornings as well as a variety of whistles that have teased my memory without taking hold. Some bird was living in or visiting my garden sans identification!

The familiar alarm calls of a pair of nesting Cape Robin-chats attracted me to the forest at the side of our house the other morning when I chanced to have my camera in hand. I eagerly scanned the canopy in the hope of seeing either a snake or a Burchell’s Coucal. I saw neither, but did hear those strange whistling sounds again. Once I had identified the source at last, I had time to snap only two photographs and the source was gone – remaining a mystery.

So, these photographs are not the best by a log chalk. They do, however, illustrate how even a ‘snap’ can be useful when viewed on the computer. I had to lighten both images to get a reasonable view of the bird and then enlarge them on the screen to make out what it was I had photographed.

That ‘mysterious’ bird is none other than an Olive Bush-Shrike (Telophorus olivaceus)! It was only by looking at the fixed image on the screen that I could make out the olive feathers and the pinkish-buff throat that had been too dark in the forest to make out with the naked eye. The large eye of the bird pointed to something out of the ordinary.  A closer inspection of the second image revealed the typical shrike beak, the black mask and that this particular bird has been ringed.

Olive Bush-shrikes are near-endemic to southern Africa, particularly along the coastal regions, where their preferred habitats are woodlands and riverine forests. They mainly eat insects, foraging in the tree canopy and gleaning insects from leaves and twigs, but they are also known to eat small birds and fruit – which is probably why the nesting Robin-chats were making their frantic alarm calls.

I have recorded Grey-headed Bush-shrikes in my garden before, but this is the first Olive Bush-shrike I have positively identified – definitely a lucky break for me!

FINDING A FORK-TAILED DRONGO NEST

How do you find the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)? Close observation and caution are required. Observation, because you will need to watch where the drongos appear from and disappear to, and you will need to listen for the sound of their altercations with other birds. The latter ties in with why you need to exercise caution when looking for the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo: they are aggressive birds that will defend their nest and young regardless of the shape, size or origin of the perceived intruder – that includes you, the human!

I may have mentioned before that for a couple of breeding seasons in a row, the main path leading towards the administration block of the school I taught at had to be blocked off with danger tape and a sign erected requesting visitors to approach via the library. This is because the drongos, nesting very high up in a jacaranda tree, would dive-bomb unsuspecting visitors innocently walking underneath ‘their’ territory – drawing blood on more than one occasion with their sharp beaks!

Finding the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo begins with observing their courting behaviour. These birds enjoy a monogamous breeding relationship and so one can be entertained for a while by the wonderful aerobatic displays that involve swooping, diving, and chasing each other – and any interlopers – around the garden, accompanied by a variety of vocal noises. Such activity quietens down once the rivals have been dispensed with and minds focus on close family matters.

I had a fair idea that a pair might be nesting in the Natal Fig – that is where I observed a youngster being fed last summer – but peering up into the branches yielded nothing. The birds would often appear from somewhere in the canopy to hawk insects, to drink from the nectar pub, or to see what was on offer at the feeding tray, and they would disappear in the same direction. It is with good cause that they are frequently described as feisty and fearless birds. My hunch grew stronger when I heard the pair of Fork-tailed Drongos attacking the Knysna Turacos perching in the fig tree … then I saw one of them mobbing a Pied Crow until it was well past the perimeter of several gardens away – its crime had been to fly too low over the fig tree … then late yesterday afternoon both drongos loudly attacked the hapless Hadeda Ibises that have traditionally roosted in the branches of the fig tree for the past two decades at least. Their nest had to be there!

Fork-tailed Drongos build their nests where the branches of a tree form a fork. This provides a steady platform on which they can create their cup-shaped nests out of grass, roots, lichen, tendrils and twigs, all bound together with spider web. As I observed last summer, the eggs appear to be incubated by both parents, both of which certainly take turns feeding their chicks. Armed with this knowledge, I continued to scan the branches to no avail until this morning when I witnessed an altercation between a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Red-eyed Dove – another denizen of the fig tree. After a brief flurry of feathers, all was silent … I looked up once more and was rewarded by the sight of a Drongo sitting on its nest, the tell-tale forked tail hanging over the edge.

Perseverance wins in the end: I have found the Fork-tailed Drongo nest at last – and witnessed the ‘changing of the guard’, as one parent took over from the other!

HUNGRY WEAVERS

Weavers commonly feed on grass seeds on the ground in the wild or are seen clinging to stalks of grass to nibble on the seed heads. As part of their adaptation to suburban life, however, they have learned to spy out differently packaged sources of food – such as the seeds in the hanging feeder. Their conical beaks enable them to easily extract the seeds from the narrow opening – although they are such messy eaters that a lot of seeds fall to the ground, where they are eaten by Laughing Doves, Red-eyed Doves, Speckled Pigeons, and Pin-tailed Whydahs. I have observed that no more than three weavers can eat from this particular feeder at one time, and preferably only two. This is because it appears that they do not like to share their space, in the sense of seeing another weaver eating next to them. A lot of scrapping and arguments frequently take place – causing even more seed to fall!

A Village Weaver and a Cape Weaver feed opposite each other.

 

The Village Weaver constantly looks round whilst feeding – checking on possible foes or competition?

 

A Village Weaver holding on precariously – he is probably used to this position from nest-building.

OCTOBER 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

October has been a bumper month for watching birds in our garden, including two visitors not seen for some time: the Bokmakierie and a Southern Red Bishop.  The arrival of the Redchested Cuckoo and the Lesserstriped Swallows serve as confirmation that winter is definitely behind us.

Two male Pintailed Whydahs have made regular forays into the garden and spend a lot of time chasing each other around and both behave aggressively towards other birds eating seeds on the ground.

At least one of them has learned how to sit on Morrigan’s feeder to eat seeds from there! The photograph below shows that this one’s full breeding plumage is not yet present – note the blotches of brown on its back and wings.

Hadeda Ibises have been collecting sticks for their flimsy nests – the strong winds experienced this month have left plenty of such nesting material on the ground for them. Female Village Weavers regularly collect feathers to line their nests.  I watched a pair of Blackcollared Barbets mating the other day.

We found the nest of a Greater Doublecollared Sunbird dangling from the end of a twig in the Natal Fig.

Some Olive Thrushes have already bred successfully and are seen feeding their youngsters.

My October bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Black Harrier (Gymnogene)
Black Saw-wing
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Jackal Buzzard
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green)
Redchested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Rednecked Spurfowl
Redwinged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Southern Black Tit
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellowbilled Kite
Yellowfronted Canary

FOUR CAPES

Open any field guide to flowers, mammals or birds in South Africa and you will find many species named Cape … This is probably because the first collections began in the Cape.

Flowers: Cape Agapanthus, Cape Forget-me-not, Cape Speckled Aloe and Cape Snapdragon.

Mammals: Cape Ground Squirrel, Cape Otter, Cape Fox and Cape Hyrax.

Birds: Cape Sugarbird, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Shoveler and Cape Penduline-Tit.

These are names randomly culled from the index of each of field guides on my bookshelf. I am going to focus on four Cape-named birds seen in my garden this morning – although the photographs are older than that.

Cape Robin-Chat

This popular garden bird is perched on the edge of the feeding tray which has been filled with cut up apples. Cape Robin-chats have been resident in our garden for many years. They tend to be cautious when coming out in the open, preferring to emerge once the flurry of other birds have finished feeding. Even then, they usually forage for bits of apple that have fallen to the ground and are frequently chased off by the more aggressive Olive Thrushes or the very cheeky Common Starlings. Much of their time is spent foraging in leaf litter, flicking through plant debris in search of food. The beautifully melodious calls of the Cape Robin-chats are frequently among the first to be heard before dawn and in the late afternoon. One has to be very observant, however, to find the source of the lovely sounds, for the Cape Robin-chats like to perch half hidden among the foliage of trees. Another place to see them is bathing in one of several bird baths in our garden. The nest of the Cape Robin-chat is made from a coarse foundation of dead leaves, moss, grass, bark, and twigs lined with fine hair or rootlets. Once this has been built, the birds take an elaborately circuitous route to and from the nest – I have seen their nests raided by Fork-tailed Drongos and Bucrchell’s Coucals.

Cape Turtle Dove

I have grown up with these delicately coloured birds that occur all over South Africa. Their distinctive calls especially remind me of our family farm and of the bushveld. They tend to be out-manoeuvred by the multitude of Laughing Doves that swoop in to feed on the seed I scatter outside every morning – so this photograph is not from my garden – but they make their presence felt during the quieter parts of the day and their constant calls from the trees in the back garden provide a comforting sense of perpetuity. They can be seen in droves pecking at the crushed figs in the street during the fruiting season and feeding on the nectar of the flowers in the Erythrina trees. They can sometimes be seen drinking from the bird baths in the early mornings or late in the afternoon.

Cape Weaver

It is always interesting to watch the Cape Weavers grow into their bright breeding plumage. The males sport an orange-brown blush on their faces that varies from fairly pale, such as the one in the photograph, to very dark. This Cape Weaver is perched on a branch above the feeding tray, probably waiting its turn – although patience is not a virtue practised by these birds. Cape Weavers are active – they happily biff other birds out of their way either to get at the seeds or to use the nectar feeder! There are a lot of them in the garden and they happily socialise with Village Weavers – also common in our garden. When they are not visible they can still be heard, their calls providing a cheerful backdrop to the spring and summer months. Apart from seeds and fruit, these omnivorous birds can be seen biting holes in the base of Aloe flowers and Erythrina blossoms to reach the nectar.

Cape White-eye

This Cape White-eye is perched on the nectar feeder. It is such a joy hearing flocks of these birds work their way through the foliage in the garden. I feel it is a privilege to see these birds gleaning leaves for tiny insects and often watch them hanging upside down to reach elusive morsels. They come to feed on the fruit I put out and love to bathe in the bird baths. On very hot days during the summer (providing the water restrictions have been lifted) they are prone to approach very closely while I am watering the garden to get wet in the spray. They too are among the early risers, often calling to each other before the sun rises. Their nest is a tiny cup built in the branches of trees – they often nest in the thick tangles of the Tecomaria capensis hedge behind our garage.