A FEW BIRDS IN PASSING

One cannot do any serious bird watching while in the company of those for whom animals are the most interesting. Here then is a sample of the birds I saw in passing whilst in the Mountain Zebra National Park. This Streaky-headed Seedeater (Crithagra gularis) was perched in a tree outside the communal kitchen in the rest camp. There were many of them all over the park:

Apart from seeds, they eat fruit, flowers, buds, nectar and insects. A similar diet is followed by the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali). The rest camp is awash with these birds and their untidy grass nests are evident everywhere in the park:

Having heard its melodious calls for two mornings in a row without seeing one, I felt privileged when this Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra) posed for me on a low branch outside the administration building. These birds eat insects, fruit and small vertebrates.

It is less easy to identify birds while driving. Could this be a Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota) posing on a termite mound?

There is no mistaking the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). These iconic birds grace any landscape as flocks of them pick their way through the veld looking for bulbs, roots, seeds and invertebrates.

This Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora) was easy to identify too.

Given how little water there is at the moment, it was a bonus coming across a Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) looking for insects, worms, tadpoles, or even small fish at the edge of a dam.

Lastly, this Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) showed no interest in posing for a photograph – he clearly had better things to do!

NOTE: Please click on a photograph if you wish to view a larger image.

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ANT-EATING CHAT

The Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora) makes up in character for what it might lack in looks – although I think it is rather a handsome bird. As it is sooty brown it blends into the environment and may easily be dismissed if one is driving past while on the lookout for birds with brighter colours or more striking features. As with so many creatures, look closely and the beauty will be revealed.

Ant-eating chats are common residents in the drier parts of the country, which is why we often see them in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock as well as in the Addo Elephant National Park. They often like to perch atop a rock, a shrub or bush to look for food. Ants are obviously on the menu, although they are also known to eat caterpillars, butterflies, bees and wasps.

I suspect this one is a female as it lacks the white carpal patch that is visible in males. You can just make this out in the following photograph.

The white carpal patch is more clearly visible here.

Here is another female for comparison.

Their pale wing panels can be clearly seen in flight.

It is interesting to observe the way they can perch so still and then take off in flight and hover, diving down to catch their prey. They can also be seen foraging on the ground: we once watched a pair of Ant-eating Chats gobbling up flying ants as they emerged from the ground.

Note: Double-click on the photographs if you want a larger image.

VACHELLIA KARROO

This is the time of the year when the Vachellia (formerly Acacia) karroo comes into its own. Also known as the sweet thorn (soetdoring in Afrikaans), this beautiful tree brightens the drought-stricken environment in the early summer with its bright show of fragrant yellow flowers shaped like tiny pompons which attract numerous insects.

The common name, sweet thorn, comes from the gum which is exuded from wounds in the bark. Although I have not tried it, the gum is reputed to taste pleasant enough to be eaten both by people and animals.

The trees are characterised by sharp white thorns that can grow to considerable lengths.

Here an Ant-eating Chat uses a Vachellia karroo as a handy perch.

A Vachellia karroo (which will always be an Acacia to many of us!) in its glory: