Here is a closer look at some of the regular visitors to our garden:
We have come to the end of a year, the form of which none of us could have imagined. Watching the birds in our garden has been a saviour to me in terms of pleasure, variety and purpose – especially during the early days of the pandemic lockdown when we couldn’t even leave our homes. We have endured a dreadful drought, relieved a little by some light rain this month. Yet, the birds have endured. Their comings and goings are proof that life continues and their hope and the justification of their behaviour in terms of a belief in the future is one worth emulating: we need to dream, to make plans, and to believe in our future. Never mind that we have pandemic-related restrictions placed on us with little warning, that our plans have to change … we are adaptable creatures and are able to ‘make a plan’ in order to make the best of what we have. I take heart from the Lesser-striped Swallows that have had to wait for the rain to produce the mud they need to build their nest – only to have it fall down soon after completion. They take stock of the situation and try again!
An interesting variety of birds have visited our garden this month. Many are residents, while others are summer visitors. A Brown-hooded Kingfisher perched above one of our bird baths shortly before Christmas – the first I have seen here for some time. The ‘Friendly Fiscal’ has faced stiff opposition as the ringed one has become bolder and a third Common Fiscal has discovered a ready source of food. The three of them clash fairly often and the Friendly Fiscal has to keep a beady eye open when he comes. I was absolutely thrilled when it ate from my young grandson’s hands twice during his short visit here with his family.
Laughing Doves abound, as usual, and some are adept at clinging on to the hanging bird feeders to get to the source of the seed instead of pecking at the seed that has fallen to the ground. Meanwhile, we have been entertained by the calls of the Red-chested Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoos and a Klaas’ Cuckoo. I am delighted to at last get a photograph – albeit not a good one – of the latter for they are not easy to spot among the thick foliage. This one is perched in a Pompon tree in which the buds are clearly visible before they burst open to reveal their beautiful pink blossoms.
Other birds that are notoriously difficult to photograph because of their ability to ‘disappear’ in the foliage are the African Green Pigeons, of which there are several feasting on the figs of the Natal fig tree.
Several Speckled Pigeons live in our roof yet they too enjoy the shade of the fig tree during the December heat.
Red-winged Starlings visit the figs daily to get their fill.
My December bird list:
African Green Pigeon
Cape Turtle Dove
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.
No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.
It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!
While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.
The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.
Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.
We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.
We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.
A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.
The theme for this year’s Arbour Week is Forests and Sustainable Cities. My garden is a microcosm of this and could be termed Forests and Sustainable Gardens. Early readers will know that we inherited a rather barren garden and set about planting as many indigenous trees as we could soon after our arrival. The initial hard work has paid off: we may not have a prize-winning looking garden, but the intention has always been to provide a haven for birds and other small creatures – including snakes that find their way here – such as at least one tortoise and a Brown Mongoose.
One of the highlighted trees of the year is the Boscia albitrunca, otherwise known as the Shepherd’s Tree. We do not have one in our garden, but see them growing in the wild around here. A lovely example is this one growing in the Great Fish Nature Reserve.
I often mention the trees in our garden and the birds that use them for either food or shelter. This is the enormous Natal Fig that dominates the ‘wild’ section of our garden. It must be at least seventy years old, having been planted soon after the end of the Second World War when our house was built. It is looking a little bare at the moment, yet will soon be covered with thick foliage.
A flock of Hadeda Ibises roost in it every night and a variety of birds feed off the tiny fruits. These include African Green Pigeons, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape White-eyes, Blackcollared Barbets, Blackheaded Orioles, Greyheaded Sparrows, Olive Thrushes, Knysna Turacos and many more!
This Cussonia spicata (Cabbage Tree) was grown from seed by a friend. As you can see, it has had to bend away from the encroaching ‘jungle’ to reach the light. Keeping that ‘jungle’ in check is an ongoing battle – which I am nowhere near winning, yet it provides a perfect haven for nesting Cape Robin-chats, Cape White-eyes, Fork-tailed Drongos – and is where we have seen several snakes.
Whenever I mention the Erythrina caffra trees in our back garden, I tend to show you what its magnificent flowers look like.
Here you can see the base of one of these trees. They are enormous and are also very old. Near the top of the picture you can see where some of the branches have shrivelled with age and fallen off.
I will leave you with a partial view of our front garden.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. – Chinese Proverb
March is a time of subtle seasonal changes. Despite it being the official start of autumn, it is ironic that we sometimes experience some of the hottest days here – in between some that are so chilly that one cannot help wondering if winter is being impatient! On one such morning I looked out of the window to see some African Green Pigeons catching the warmth of the early rays of the sun whilst perched in the top of the Erythrina caffra.
The evenings remain balmy and in the still night air we are regularly entertained by the comforting sound of Fiery-necked Nightjars along with the pinging noises made by the insectivorous bats that swoop all over the garden just after the sun sets. One morning I was sitting outdoors when the flock of doves swished into the air as one and disappeared in a flash – so did the weavers – and the Pintailed Whydah that had been pecking at seeds below the feeder. An eerie silence mantled the garden, leaving me baffled – until I saw a Eurasian Hobby alight from the fig tree and settle into the Cape Chestnut, where it stayed for some minutes. Within seconds of it flying off, the garden came alive again! The Village Weavers continued to scatter seed from the feeder.
A Spectacled Weaver inspected the nectar feeder.
A more cautious Redeyed Dove perched on a branch and observed the other birds feeding on the lawn for some time before deciding to join them.
My March bird list is:
African Green Pigeon
African Harrier-Hawk (Gymnogene)
Black Crow (Cape)
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)