Some warm seasonal cheer from my home to yours. Enjoy the warmth of friendships and family and may the coming year be filled with interesting times and pleasant surprises.
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
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
I often mention the beauty of aloes at this time of the year when their bright flowers stand out in the winter drabness of the veld. This was so evident along the road to Port Alfred on Tuesday. The Aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe) are looking particularly attractive. We have some growing in the garden.
They grow taller by the year and are particularly lovely when the sun shines on the tubular, reddish flowers.
The Aloe ferox is also coming into bloom.
As are other aloes growing around the swimming pool. At the moment they look like this:
And will look like this within a few weeks:
This Aloe tenuior (also known as a Fence Aloe) is the first of the aloes in my garden to come into full bloom. The name ‘tenuior‘ means ‘very thin’ and refers to their thin rambling stems.
It is an aloe which occurs naturally in the Eastern Cape and forms large clumps topped with masses of delicate yellow or red flowers. The sprawling yellow ones spilling over the rocky terrace have still to bloom, but this one is blooming almost at ground level from a length of stem that broke off the original plant sometime during last summer. I simply stuck it into the ground and hoped for the best.
When we arrived in the Eastern Cape, our garden contained the remnants of a considerable collection of exotic cacti, roses on their last legs, and a number of other exotic shrubs which did not survive the subsequent years of drought and severe water restrictions. How fortunate we were to meet someone who actually wanted to swop the cacti for several aloe species she had growing aplenty on her nearby farm!
Those early drought years drummed home the value of planting indigenous trees and shrubs. Not only have these reduced the traffic noise from the main road into town, they provide glorious deep shade during our hot summers and are a haven for a variety of bird species. The wondrous aspect of indigenous plants is that they survive drought and high winds, are low maintenance and provide the right kind of sustenance for birds and insects in the garden.
These are some of the indigenous bounty that brighten our garden at different times of the year:
I have read that these are the perfect plants for our sunburnt country. They are marvellous the way they provide bright splashes of colour in the veld during the otherwise drab-looking winter months. Several species grow in our garden and they all attract bees, wasps, beetles, sunbirds, Blackheaded Orioles, weavers, Blackeyed Bulbuls. Mousebirds, Streakyheaded Canaries and Redwinged Starlings.
The heavy clusters of purple flowers exude a lovely lilac-like fragrance and attract a variety of butterflies – hence it is also known as the Butterfly Bush – as well as bees, Cape White-eyes, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape Robins and the Barthroated Apalis. The shrub has attractive grey-green leaves reminiscent of the culinary sage. This plant is named after the Rev. Adam Buddle (1660 – 1715), an English amateur botanist and vicar of Farnham in Essex.
Canary creeper (Senecio tamoides)
The masses of golden yellow flowers with deeply fringed petals make this climber a very popular garden plant. When we were living in both Pietermaritzburg and Mmabatho we actually paid what seemed like a fortune for plants from the nursery. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape, however, and so – once the flowering season is over – I end up pulling it off trees and tossing bundles of it on the compost heap! The flowers have an aromatic scent that also attracts bees, butterflies, weavers, Cape White-eyes, mousebirds and the Barthroated Apalis.
Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)
[kalos means beautiful, and dendron tree in Greek, capense is Latin for from the Cape]
This sub-tropical tree is truly beautiful to look at even when it is not in flower – the shape of the tree is marvellous. They take several years to establish themselves before producing their characteristic curly, pink-spotted-lavender flowers from November to January. The blooms are especially attractive to butterflies.
Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis)
This vigorous growing scrambling shrub is another that we used to buy from nurseries until we found ourselves inundated with it in our Eastern Cape garden – turn your back on it and it can take over! It is popular as a hedge plant in this town. I am not into such fine and regular pruning but have to cut back masses of it throughout the year. Its bright tubular red-orange flowers appear erratically and are attractive to bees, butterflies, sunbirds, weavers, Streakyheaded Canaries, Blackheaded Orioles, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Redwinged Starlings as well as mousebirds.
These beautiful flowers are a genus of monocot flowering plants from the Amaryllidacae flowers. They occur naturally in forested areas and so prefer to grow in shade or semi-shade. I have grown some from seed but also transplant the seedlings that cluster around the large clumps. Clivias were named after Lady Charlotte Florentina Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, who was the granddaughter of Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India.
Crossberry (Grewia occidentalis)
I wrote about Crossberries in a recent blog (see 15 November). Suffice it to say they are coming into bloom now and are looking beautiful in the garden.
The clusters of starry pink flowers have given this tree the common name of Pom-pom tree. They lose their leaves briefly at the end of winter, but are wonderful to have in the garden when covered in blossoms. These trees are special to me for their first blooms used to herald the arrival of my late mother for her annual visit over the Christmas period. Be warned: turn your back on the seedlings and you will have a forest of them on your hands – I have!
This is one of several Coral trees that grow in this country. I often mention the Erythrina trees in my blog as we have three enormous ones growing in our back garden which have housed the nests of Hadeda Ibises, Olive Thrushes, Laughing Doves and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds over the years. These trees are alive with birds throughout the year and provide a sunny perch for African Green Pigeons too. Not only are the scarlet flowers beautiful to look at, but so are the scarlet seeds that fall to the ground and burst from the black pods.
There are a number of these fleshy plants bearing bright flowers – all self-sown. Here they are commonly known by their Afrikaans name, vygies, probably because it is less of a mouthful.
Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)
These beautiful blue flowers are very attractive to butterflies. The plant needs regular pruning to keep it in check. It is another wonderful indigenous plant that requires little attention and rewards one with masses of flowers in season.
Spekboom (Portulacaria afra)
This bush is native to the Eastern Cape and forms an important part of the diet of elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example. We have seen swathes of it being replanted in the Great Fish Rover Reserve and elsewhere because of its ability to capture carbon and to restore natural ecosystems. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is comparable to that of moist, subtropical forests. It is drought-resistant and produces delicate pink flowers.
How can one reduce the wonders of South Africa to a mere ten? I thought I would choose five, then it stretched to eight and then I knew I would have to stop at ten – even then I have had to be ruthless. So here they are in alphabetical order to save me from ranking them.
Aloes: These beautiful flowers stand out in the veld during the otherwise dry winter months and attract myriads of insects and birds at a time when food is not as plentiful as in other seasons. There are over 500 species of them – enough to warrant whole books to themselves.
Black-backed Jackal: I am well aware that small stock farmers curse these beautiful, wily creatures at times, but having watched them closely in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Kruger National Park and in the Addo Elephant National Park I regard them as one of the ‘must see’ animals on any visit.
Dirt roads: Venture onto a dirt road in this country and you know you are headed for an adventure. Kilometres of them criss-cross the land away from the main highways.
Elephants: We are so fortunate to live within easy visiting distance of the Addo Elephant National Park for we never tire of seeing these wondrous animals either on their own or in family groups. One can spend hours observing them at a water hole – meeting, greeting, drinking, mock charging, wallowing in the mud, blowing bubbles … they are endlessly fascinating.
Erythrinas: The scarlet blossoms of these trees, also known as coral trees, are also a feature of late winter and attract a wide variety of birds and insects. The red ‘lucky beans’ that fall to the ground are also beautiful.
Grass: It may sound odd to some, but I love the tawny coloured grass growing tall in the veld.
Giraffe: Not only are giraffe very photogenic, they are elegant and peaceful as they move between trees or bend down to drink.
Thorns: The long spines of the thorns of the Acacia trees have always fascinated me.
Windmills: Sadly these hardy icons of rural South Africa are becoming rarer with the more widespread use of solar-powered pumps. The clanking sound of the windmill as it turns in the wind is unforgettable.
Zebra: I cannot leave the zebra off my list – always sleek, beautiful, photogenic and very watchable creatures they are.
I wonder what your favourite things are.
This has been a short month for bird watching, thanks to my sojourn in the Kruger National Park as well as the onset of the chilly weather that has seen me busying myself indoors a lot more than usual.
The change of season has wrought changes in the garden and its visitors too: the lawn remains shadowed (and often damp with dew) for much longer in the mornings, hence the seed lies untouched until the sun brightens and dries the area; there is a magnificent display of aloes and wild dagga blooms – and a single Cape Chestnut flower (usually only expected in November-December); Bryan the tortoise has retreated to the pool pump house area and occasionally basks on the warm bricks there; and the fig tree and other indigenous berry-bearing trees both in my garden and in others nearby attract very large flocks of Redwinged Starlings as well as African Green Pigeons. There seem to be very few weavers about, leaving doves as the main visitors enjoying the seed I provide.
By the way, the mystery of where the Sacred Ibises go at the end of each day has been solved: they roost in a tall tree in the CBD with Cattle Egrets in a neighbouring one only a few metres away in the same street.
The month began well with my first-ever sighting of a Collared Sunbird in my garden and the welcome annual return of a pair of Olive Sunbirds.
On two occasions this morning I was drawn away from watching the Comrades Marathon on television by bird activity in the garden. The first was by the loud chorus of a flock of Red-billed Woodhoopoes flitting in and out of the fig tree and working their way through the Pompon trees near the swimming pool. The second time was to watch a Red-eyed Dove vigorously chasing a Grey-headed Bush Shrike all over the garden!
My May list is:
African Green Pigeon
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)