SOUTHERN MASKED WEAVER

While they are commonly seen throughout southern Africa, Southern Masked Weavers (Ploceus velatus) have taken some years to become regular visitors to our garden. They are no strangers to this blog for during the past year or two they appear to have become the dominant weaver – outranking the Village Weavers that used to outnumber them by far. They are easily distinguished from Village Weaver by being slightly smaller and have a plain, rather than a blotchy, back.

Depending on the weather, their breeding season usually runs from September to January, although the peak of the season is in summer. During this time, breeding males sport a black face mask with a narrow black band on the forehead above the bill. During the non-breeding season they adopt a more drab appearance, akin to the females, other than the retention of their red eyes. Note their short, strong, conical bill.

The shape of its bill is eminently suited to it being mainly a seed-eater. They eat seeds both from the bird-feeders and from the ground. I have also observed them foraging through leaves and branches as well as fighting each other – and other birds – over any scraps of food I place on the tray. These birds have bent and broken the stems of the cosmos flowers – in search of insects or nectar?

When we had rain and I was able to grow African Marigolds, I would often see some of the Southern Masked Weavers ripping the petals apart.

Now is the time when the lovely orange blossoms of the Cape Honeysuckle come into bloom and the weavers waste no time in biting off the tubular flowers at the base to get at the nectar. They do the same to the Weeping Boer-bean, which is also blooming now. When our Erythrina caffra trees are in bloom, they join with a wide variety of birds doing much the same.

Lastly, these birds are not slow when it comes to feasting on the termites and flying ants that regularly appear in the garden!

ANT ON THE WALL

Digital photography has opened a new world for me. Some years ago I would barely have noticed this ant on an outside wall. I might have thought ‘that’s a large ant’ and walked on – there would be no point in photographing it. All I would have achieved is a dark spot on a blank wall. Now I know that if I photograph it I will be able to crop the image and actually see the ant. What is more, if I crop the image even more on my computer I will actually see what the ant is up to.

Even better: when I saw the ant on the wall, I had no idea it was carrying anything in its mandibles. What that might be I cannot tell, for any further enlargement renders an image too blurred to be useful. It might be a grain or even a slice of something. Whatever it is I am grateful to the wonders of digital photography that allows me to see things that were not easily visible before!

CAPE AUTUMN WIDOW III

It is that time of the year again when the season has changed. The sun rises later and sets noticeably earlier; there is a chill in the evening air and a crisp edge to the days. Autumn has arrived and so have the Cape Autumn Widow (Dira clytus) butterflies. This year they seem to be more abundant than ever: I counted over fifty of them congregated just above the lawn in our back garden this morning.

Despite their numbers, I assure you they are quite difficult to photograph as they’re never still for long. They flutter here, there, and everywhere. I have encountered them on our back lawn every morning from early on until about mid-morning, when they seemingly disappear. Fewer of them appear on our front lawn and I suspect this is because I have deliberately allowed a variety of wild grasses to grow round the back. After all, if I cannot grow vegetables during this drought, why not let the natural grasses take over and cover the ground at least.

The Cape Autumn Widows are dark brown with numerous eye-spots on their wings which are thought to confer some protection against predatory birds – although I watched a Fork-tailed Drongo feasting on them the other morning!

I mostly see these butterflies almost floating on the air, flying low over the grass. I understand the females do this to scatter their eggs, which are then attached to the grass stems. I certainly hope most of them have chosen the wild grasses, for our lawn will need to be mowed once more at least before the winter sets in!

FEBRUARY 2021 GARDEN

The drought continues. In fact, yesterday morning we woke to not a single drop of water in our taps! So far the rain forecast either comes to nothing or it might yield 5mm – that does little more than settle the dust for a little while. This is the second summer in a row that I have not been able to grow vegetables or much in the way of flowers. Yet, there continues to be some colour and things of interest in our garden. The ever faithful frangipani (also known as Plumeria) is blooming beautifully and exudes the most delightful scent once the sun sets and the garden settles down for the night.

No matter how hot and dry it gets, we can always rely on the Plumbago to provide colour – and such pleasing colour too.

The hibiscus shrubs were already mature when we moved here three decades ago. Their long-lasting blooms too never disappoint.

I am very pleased that the variety of petunias I planted in containers in December continue to provide happy splashes of colour.

Then there are insects, such as this bee foraging on the tiny flowers of a tall weed.

I come across a spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) outside the kitchen door.

It is under the lip of an outside windowsill that I see a potential danger lurking in the form of two South African Paper Wasps in the throes of building their intricate nest.

End note: The water supply is trickling back in our pipes.

ANTS ON STEPS

There are few conditions like drought and heat to bring the activity of ants to the fore. We have both in abundance. I happened to sit on the steps outside our kitchen for a few minutes the other day and captured these images with my cell phone. My attention was first drawn to this gap in the wall:

The fine grains of sand spilling out of it is detritus from the mining activities of the ants as they have burrowed deeper into the ground behind the stones that make up the edge of the steps leading up to the top of the terrace. A spider has taken advantage of this gap to catch unsuspecting passersby. Where there is ant activity, there must be ants. I didn’t have far to look:

Here some of them are, walking up and down the leaves of this succulent plant growing right next to the steps. All of them were busy – too busy to stop and look around; to chat to their fellow workers; or simply to take a rest. All were focused on whatever job they had to do. Now among these ants are some construction workers, some of which must have tunnelled holes between the stone risers and built these towers:

I cannot help wondering if these are ‘cooling towers’ such as we see at some of our (dysfunctional) power stations on the Highveld.