WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

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.

ARBOUR WEEK

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 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

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)
Barthroated Apalis
Barn Swallow
Black Crow (Cape)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Common Starling
Egyptian Goose
Eurasian Hobby
Fierynecked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

AFRICAN GREEN PIGEONS

I first noticed African Green Pigeons (Treron calvus) in our garden in 2004, when a few of them were barely visible in the fig tree. It was only then that I realised that the odd croaks, wails and whinnying calls I had been hearing for a while was theirs.

They mainly eat fruit and so are quite at home in the fig tree – yet, thanks to their cryptically coloured plumage that effectively camouflages them among the leaves, they are notoriously difficult to spot while they clamber around on the branches in the canopy of the tree. While they forage, they often hang upside down or flap their wings to keep their balance. I have never seen one coming down to the ground in my garden, although I have spotted them on bushes almost at ground level in other parts of town – as well as in the Kruger National Park!

When they emerge from the foliage you can truly appreciate their beautiful colouring: the upperparts are greyish green to yellowish green and the thighs are yellow with mauve patches on the top of the wing.

Their bills are whitish with a red cere. Their feet are also a reddish colour. I find their blue eyes to be most striking.

They are gregarious birds and although I seldom see more than a few at a time, if there is a sudden loud noise (such as a large vehicle rumbling past) it is amazing to see well over thirty birds flying away from the tree at once! Their flight is fast and direct as they generally head towards the Erythrina trees at the back of the garden. They can sometimes be seeing sunning themselves there on a chilly winter morning.

MAY 2017 GARDEN BIRDS

May has been a quiet birding month in our garden. The tall trees block out the rising sun and leave the lawn in shade until nearly lunch time now. The regular flock of Laughing Doves gather in the top of the Erythrina caffra and the Cape Chestnut, catching the warming rays of the sun; only coming down to feed on the seed I have put out once the day has warmed up somewhat – that seems counter-intuitive to me, but they must have their reason for doing so.

Village Weavers, now in their non-breeding plumage, tend to only visit the garden in the afternoons – appearing to be more interested in what the flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle have to offer than the seeds still lying un-pecked at on the lawn. Perhaps they have found a sunnier source of food elsewhere to satisfy their morning hunger.

The aloes are in bloom though – and what a wonderful show they make.

They regularly attract the attention of Black Sunbirds and the Greater Double-collared Sunbirds. A Malachite Sunbird also pays them a fleeting visit now and then. Shown below is a Greater Double-collared Sunbird feeding on a Cape Honeysuckle flower this morning:

Some African Green Pigeons make us aware of their presence in the fig tree now and then, even though there is nothing to eat there at this time of the year. I have always been rather puzzled where these birds move to once the fig tree is bare. I happened to be on the campus of a school at the bottom of the hill late yesterday afternoon when I counted over twenty African Green Pigeons coming to roost in the oak trees growing there!

What has been exciting is the regular appearance of at least one Knysna Lourie – sometimes two – that moves effortlessly through our treed garden. We have become used to some of its variety of calls that alert us to its presence and I watched in awe this morning as it dropped down to drink copiously from the bird bath situated below my study window.

My May bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Crowned Plover
Common Starling
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Village Weaver