KEY IN THE DOOR

St. Augustine’s Catholic Cathedral, Port Elizabeth.

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THERE ARE BIRDS IN ADDO

Far too many tourists drive about seeking one species of animal after the other in their quest to chalk up as many as they can – even driving past elephants, zebra and kudu because of a  “we’ve seen them” attitude – with eyes peeled for the ultimate prize: the sight of a lion. We see bored faces in vehicles as the day progresses, listless looks of bafflement when a passing vehicle asks what we are looking at and we respond “birds” or even tell them what bird we might be looking at. “Birds,” one might say or simply give a nod of the head as they move on in their quest.

Watching out for birds in any game reserve adds to the enjoyment of the environment as a whole. Here are a few of the many seen on our recent trip to the Addo Elephant National Park:

A ubiquitous Common Fiscal. Note how it is holding on to the twigs to keep it steady in the stiff breeze.

A young Olive Thrush perching inquisitively on our picnic table. Notice that it is still covered with speckles.

Cape Bulbuls, such as this one abound in the rest camp.

Large flocks of Pied Starlings can be seen all over in the park.

It is always fun seeing Speckled Mousebirds fly across the road or to working their way through bushes as they look for leaves, berries or flowers to eat.

Beautiful Malachite Sunbirds show flashes of metallic green as they pass by in a flash.

Who can resist the delicate beauty of a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk?

How fortunate it was to find a Greater Striped Swallow at rest!

One can almost be guaranteed to find a Bar-throated Apalis at the picnic site.

Lastly, for now, is a Sombre Bulbul (now called a Sombre Greenbul!).

CHILDHOOD GAMES: HIDE-AND-SEEK

A traditional childhood game I never particularly enjoyed playing as a very young child was Hide-and-Seek. It wasn’t so bad when we played it at home, for at least the environment was familiar. For me the worst was playing it at a neighbour’s house while my parents were visiting. We nearly always played this game in the dark. This made it much scarier – which was probably the whole idea! I didn’t mind the hiding, but loathed the prospect of having to look for anyone in the dark – especially in a home I was not familiar with.

I eventually tumbled on a way of avoiding having to be ‘it’ for as long as possible – always hopeful that someone would think of another game to play in the interim. I would flatten myself against the wall as close to the ‘den’ as possible – fully aware that it would take time for the eyes of the seeker to adjust from the light to the dark. If I was passed by I knew I would be reasonably safe for the time being. If there was a strong chance of being discovered, I would give the seeker a fright, which would in turn give me a fractional advantage to reach the ‘den’ first.

My older grandchildren often play Hide-and-Seek with friends in either their garden or mine. They play it during the day, which is friendlier, I think, even though hiding successfully may be more of a challenge. I listen to the laying down of the rules – usually relating to places where one may not hide. Then comes the hotly contested decision about who the first ‘seeker’ will be and up to how much the counting should go – obviously the higher the number, the more time there is to seek a hiding place. My heart lifts at the sounds of muffled laughter, the skittering of leaves or snapping of twigs against the backdrop of very loud counting.

“Ready or not, here I come!” The seeker announces this loudly and starts prowling around the most obvious sites in the garden. More muffled giggles come from the hidden ones, followed by squeals of laughter when discovered. Sometimes I hear the inevitable shouts of “You cheated! You must have peeped!” if someone was found ‘too quickly’.  Some children seek out the same hiding place time and again – and continue to be surprised when they are pounced upon.

Did you enjoy playing Hide-and-Seek when you were very young?

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!

A BLESSING OR A CURSE?

It is almost a given that camping at one of our national parks will involve at least one encounter with Vervet Monkeys. Seasoned campers keep their food out of sight and lock their caravans or tents when they are away from the camping area – be aware that if you do not have a built-in groundsheet, your food remains a target as monkeys know all about crawling underneath the canvas! Visitors are warned not to feed them – as ‘cute’ as they might look – and rubbish bins have been designed with a rolling lid to make it difficult for monkeys to pull anything out of them in their quest to find something to eat.

These bins are emptied regularly and every morning someone visits the campsites to clear away the remains of any braai fires from the night before. There is not a great deal more that the authorities can do. Yet, there must be enough pickings around to make it worthwhile for the monkeys to systematically comb the rest camp for food during the course of the morning and the early afternoons, when the rest camp is very quiet. That is when many visitors are driving through the wildlife area, sitting in the bird hide or … resting.

During such a lull one afternoon, I heard of someone’s car keys being snatched away by a monkey; our neighbours found moneys had entered their open vehicle while they were chatting to other neighbours nearby; and I watched as one by one monkeys would alight on our trailer parked next to a Spekboom hedge.

They used the roof of the neighbouring caravan as a lookout point.

One of the monkeys had stolen a muffin and sat on the caravan roof to enjoy his booty. It was quickly joined by two others. The first monkey was unwilling to share, so leapt up into the tall branches of the adjacent fig tree to eat it in solitude.

Seasoned camper that I am, I too fell victim to the monkeys whilst we were breaking camp and the trailer lid was left open for ease of packing: away went a bunch of bananas … away went the remains of the vanilla biscuits I had baked for the trip – they dropped my plastic container though.

A blessing – yes, because they are fun to watch; a curse – yes, because nothing is safe from their inherent inquisitiveness!