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.

LET IT RAIN

Last week I was lured outdoors, camera in hand, by the rumbling of thunder. Thunder? We haven’t heard that sound for months! The engrailed edges of the cloud against the bright blue sky couldn’t be the source.

The darkened sky above the fig tree looked more promising.

A strong wind bent the branches of the trees and sent leaves scurrying down to carpet the bare lawn.

Such dramatic scenes covered the sky.

The clouds boiled and grew.

Then the sun came out without a drop of rain falling to the ground.  It was now nearly two weeks since we had received our first rain for months. The disappointment was palpable. Last night, quietly and without any fanfare or drama, the heavens opened its fine muslin cover and allowed 20 mm of rain to float down softly, almost silently, to leave sparkling drops of water on the leaves.

To laugh at our swimming pool wrapped up to preserve the water within.

To make splashes in the bird baths.

And to wet the old stone steps.

It is still raining very softly, very softly indeed. It is RAINING!

 

INVASIVE ALIENS: CANNA INDICA

The common garden plant, Canna indica (Indian shot), has been declared as an alien invader plant in South Africa, falling into Category 1b of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act which means it must be removed from your garden. To prevent these tough perennial plants from spreading, it is best to remove them carefully, ensuring that all the dense clumps of tubers have also been dug out. Unfortunately, the Canna indica has the propensity to invade stream banks, forests and other natural areas, crowding out and destroying the indigenous vegetation.

Note both the narrow leaves and the narrow red flowers.

Canna indica is a tall and vigorous grower, bearing copious small and narrow mainly red flowers. The green or bronze leaves are also narrow. The flowers are followed by fruits that are at first green and spiny. These turn brown before splitting open and releasing multitudes of black, pea-like seeds with a hard outer coating. This plant spreads by seed and underground rhizomes.

The seed pods are visible.

As with so many garden plants have proved to be invasive, Canna indica was introduced as an ornamental plant – they originate from the Caribbean and tropical America.

TWO DROUGHT FLOWERS

I happened upon a ‘survivor’ in our local Currie Park. This Giant Candelabra Lily had miraculously missed being chomped by the Urban Herd that have eaten most of the saplings planted there over the years to provide shade.

The background to this lovely flower shows that between the cattle and the drought there is no lawn left; a brave Vachellia is valiantly putting out new leaves from what is left of its stem; and a ‘visiting card’ has been left on the right.

A real bonus for my drought-stricken garden has been the magnificent blooming of Spekboom for the second summer in a row!

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