MEET NELSON

Once upon a time we enjoyed Springbok Radio in this country – the demise of which has caused great sadness among those of us who grew up with its offerings. In about 1971 we probably all sang along with the South African folk singers Des and Dawn Lindberg whenever the radio played their song about a little boy who rescued an oil soaked seagull from the sea.

… And the seagull’s name was Nelson

Nelson who came from the sea

And the seagull’s name was Nelson

Nelson the seagull free…

It was thus natural to temporarily name our seagull visitor Nelson [Nelson who came from the sea]. Our introduction to Nelson came about when he came into the chalet at Tsitsikamma to snatch a large square of quiche from the coffee table near the open door – this is Nelson polishing off the last of the crumbs.

Little did we realise that Nelson was to become a daily visitor – always on the lookout for a bite to eat. He was so quick that I learned to hide my early morning rusk under my sunhat whilst enjoying the view of the waves crashing over the rocks.

Nelson is a Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) – also called the Southern Black-backed Gull – of which there was an abundance. Its bill is bright yellow with a red spot near the tip. Note too, the orange eye-ring.

We became familiar with Nelson’s feet planted firmly on the narrow ledge of the deck.

Before leaving the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, we came across this gull sitting on its nest.

… And the seagull’s name was Nelson …

A NEST UNPACKED

This nest blew down from the Erythrina tree during a recent period of strong winds and landed on the verge outside our gate.

It provides an interesting opportunity to see what has gone into its construction. Apart from the expected grass and twigs, I recognise the following items: blue twine, guinea-fowl feathers (a flock of tame guinea-fowl live in a garden not far from our home), narrow strips of plastic, balls of upholstery stuffing, bark, tiny roots, and feathers from unidentified birds. Other items might have blown away in the wind.

I suspect this might be the nest of a Greater Double-collared Sunbird.

WHITE-BROWED SPARROW-WEAVER II

Visitors to the Mountain Zebra National Park are unlikely to come away without having become familiar with the White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) that are the iconic birds of the rest camp. The combination of blackish, brown, and white on their plumage is distinctive – as are their cheerful calls variously described as cheeoop-preoo-chop or the harsher call of chik-chik. The morning chorus of these birds is well worth waking up to! Note the clear white stripe above its eye. Although males and females look very similar, the black bill of this one tells us it is a male.

The bill of the female is horn-coloured.

Their intricate, yet seemingly untidy, nests – which look like bundles of grass tucked into the edge of the trees – abound in the park and are easy to recognise. Both the male and female build their nest, which has two entrances – one of which is closed off during the breeding season. These nests are used throughout the year.

EMPTY NEST

This is not going to be about empty nest syndrome – although my children have all ‘flown the nest’ as it were – but about an empty nest.

Although it is winter now, think back to the mating season when a male weaver wished to breed. He cannot breed without a mate, but even though he is wearing his best mating outfit this is not enough to guarantee him finding one. What he has to do – and do this fairly quickly for just about every other male is doing the same – is locate a suitable site and start constructing an intricate nest that will impress a potential mate.

These birds are not called weavers for nothing. Armed with only his beak, our male weaver has to find suitable material to weave with – usually grass or the long leaves of reeds, although leaves, twigs and even fine roots can be used as part of the construction. The material must be easily available – you don’t want to expend too much energy collecting it – and pliable enough to weave with. He starts making a knot around the twig or thin branch of his chosen site with a long blade of grass. Then he constructs a circular structure by weaving blades of grass in and out with the aid of his beak and feet.

Next, he begins to weave the grass around this ring to form what will become a ball-shaped nest. The nest gradually takes shape as each blade of grass is woven through the rest and tied with a knot to make the nest secure – all done with his beak and feet. Bear in mind too that our male weaver often has to do this while hanging in an upside down position.

Once his nest is secure and nearly complete, the male weaver proceeds to strip the leaves from the rest of the thin branch. As the nest nears completion, our male is happy to display and draw attention to his handiwork – for once a female has approved it, she will mate and may even assist him with finishing off the nest. I have watched both males and females bringing in soft grass and even collecting the fallen feathers of other birds with which to line the nest before the eggs are laid.

All of these activities are completed against a background of a lot of weaver chatting and displaying, chasing other males, attracting females, looking for and eating enough food for energy, finding water … and before we know it there is a brood of young weavers which need feeding. Males might end up constructing – or at least starting – several nests in a season for their females are picky: nests need to be strong and waterproof; perhaps they need to feel comfortable inside; and they certainly must be sturdy enough to withstand the buffeting of strong winds.

Autumn passed with a frenzy of feeding the latest brood; our male weaver is ready for a winter break spent foraging for food and building up his reserves for the start of the next cycle. The chattering of weavers has all but disappeared for the time being. All that is left in a tree now bereft of its leaves and flowers are the vestiges of those initial strong knots with which he began constructing this nest: it is now indeed an empty nest.

MUD, MUD, GLORIOUS MUD

So sings the hippopotamus to his fair hippopotamus maid in The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swann:

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow

And there let us wallow in glorious mud.

Hippos spend up to sixteen hours a day wallowing in rivers or waterholes –– submerging themselves to keep their bodies cool during the day.

Elephants also cover themselves with mud not only to keep cool, but to protect their skin from parasites. It is enjoyable watching elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park either rolling in mud or squirting it over themselves.

Rhinos also use mud to cool their bodies as they have no sweat glands. As with elephants, a thick layer of mud both helps to protect the rhinos from biting insects and traps parasites that might otherwise burrow into their hide.

Buffalos like a mud bath too. They also use mud as a protection from parasites.

Closer to home, every summer we witness the trials and tribulations of the Lesser-striped Swallows that build their nest from globules of mud.

Mud or dust can be important for humans too: geophagy is the habit of eating mud or dust to augment a mineral deficient diet. Some people feel the need to eat a fingertip of dust every now and then for this reason. This craving to eat earth is also known as pica, and may be an indication that young children have an iron deficiency.