NOVEMBER 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

I wonder if you also found November hurtling through time with gathering momentum. I have at last found a moment to reflect on an interesting month of birding in my garden. Only two newcomers this month: a Hoopoe – the ground is so hard at the moment that I am not surprised they have not featured on our lawn since February! The other is a pair of the very beautiful Paradise Flycatchers that we sometimes glimpse flitting between trees.

Redbilled Woodhoopoes have been regular visitors. Not only do they probe the cracks in the bark of older trees, but I see them using their long curved beaks to probe deep between the aloe leaves. They also occasionally visit the feeding tray to eat apples – and cheese!  Speaking of which, it is interesting to observe how meticulous all the birds are about wiping their beaks clean on the branches after eating, and even after drinking at the ‘nectar pub’.

Cape White-eyes are regular visitors to the nectar feeder. They look left and right between every sip and seldom stay for long at a time, preferring to fly off and return a few minutes later. They too enjoy pecking at the apples I put out.

A really beautiful sight is that of the Sacred Ibises flying in formation over the garden at the end of the day. They fly just high enough for the setting sun to highlight their white wings. I usually count about seventeen of them at flying graciously together after having spent their day at a dam on the edge of town.

I have already featured the nest of the Fork-tailed Drongo, but think it is worth showing it again. The parents are still taking turns to incubate the eggs and have been seen mobbing a Pied Crow more than once.

The fig tree remains a favourite place for the African Green Pigeons to roost – the thick foliage makes them very difficult to see unless they move. For the first time the other day, I observed one feeding another and wonder if this is part of a courting ritual. A pair of Red-winged Starlings are well beyond that stage for they have been filling their beaks with fruit to take off to feed their youngsters. One comes down to fill up on apples, waits for the other to arrive and do the same, then the two fly off together in the direction of their nest.

Nests: the Lesser-striped Swallows have had such a to-do already. Long-time readers will be aware that this pair has built numerous nests under our eaves. Sometimes they have managed to breed successfully, but every summer their mud nest collapses at least once and they have to start from scratch. Last summer they built their best nest yet: solid, beautifully formed and well positioned outside our front door. This nest was usurped by a pair of White-rumped Swifts and they had to build elsewhere. That beautiful nest was still intact on their return and they wasted no time in laying an egg – wonderful, I thought, until I came home to find an egg dashed on the floor and had to duck as the swifts flew above my head. They had grabbed the home for themselves again.

There was nothing for it. Despite the paucity of mud, the intrepid swallows mustered their courage to build a nest from scratch on the site of their original endeavours. It was coming on well – very well.

Then, alas, for reasons I am unable to fathom, the structure came tumbling down and turned to dust. They are now trying to build a nest at a different site they have used before. We need rain badly for all sorts of reasons, but especially to provide good building material for this plucky pair of birds!

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FINDING A FORK-TAILED DRONGO NEST

How do you find the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)? Close observation and caution are required. Observation, because you will need to watch where the drongos appear from and disappear to, and you will need to listen for the sound of their altercations with other birds. The latter ties in with why you need to exercise caution when looking for the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo: they are aggressive birds that will defend their nest and young regardless of the shape, size or origin of the perceived intruder – that includes you, the human!

I may have mentioned before that for a couple of breeding seasons in a row, the main path leading towards the administration block of the school I taught at had to be blocked off with danger tape and a sign erected requesting visitors to approach via the library. This is because the drongos, nesting very high up in a jacaranda tree, would dive-bomb unsuspecting visitors innocently walking underneath ‘their’ territory – drawing blood on more than one occasion with their sharp beaks!

Finding the nest of a Fork-tailed Drongo begins with observing their courting behaviour. These birds enjoy a monogamous breeding relationship and so one can be entertained for a while by the wonderful aerobatic displays that involve swooping, diving, and chasing each other – and any interlopers – around the garden, accompanied by a variety of vocal noises. Such activity quietens down once the rivals have been dispensed with and minds focus on close family matters.

I had a fair idea that a pair might be nesting in the Natal Fig – that is where I observed a youngster being fed last summer – but peering up into the branches yielded nothing. The birds would often appear from somewhere in the canopy to hawk insects, to drink from the nectar pub, or to see what was on offer at the feeding tray, and they would disappear in the same direction. It is with good cause that they are frequently described as feisty and fearless birds. My hunch grew stronger when I heard the pair of Fork-tailed Drongos attacking the Knysna Turacos perching in the fig tree … then I saw one of them mobbing a Pied Crow until it was well past the perimeter of several gardens away – its crime had been to fly too low over the fig tree … then late yesterday afternoon both drongos loudly attacked the hapless Hadeda Ibises that have traditionally roosted in the branches of the fig tree for the past two decades at least. Their nest had to be there!

Fork-tailed Drongos build their nests where the branches of a tree form a fork. This provides a steady platform on which they can create their cup-shaped nests out of grass, roots, lichen, tendrils and twigs, all bound together with spider web. As I observed last summer, the eggs appear to be incubated by both parents, both of which certainly take turns feeding their chicks. Armed with this knowledge, I continued to scan the branches to no avail until this morning when I witnessed an altercation between a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Red-eyed Dove – another denizen of the fig tree. After a brief flurry of feathers, all was silent … I looked up once more and was rewarded by the sight of a Drongo sitting on its nest, the tell-tale forked tail hanging over the edge.

Perseverance wins in the end: I have found the Fork-tailed Drongo nest at last – and witnessed the ‘changing of the guard’, as one parent took over from the other!

WONDERFUL WEAVERS

Weavers are amazing birds – you only have to watch the males weaving their intricate nests from grass to know that. We, with all our fingers and thumbs, would be hard-pressed to even try, yet they manage this process – often hanging upside down to get their work done, using their beaks only!

They are gregarious and rather noisy birds. The most common weaver in our garden is the Village Weaver, closely followed by the Cape Weaver. Both are present in fairly large numbers that wax and wane throughout the year, so we can observe them in the full flush of their breeding plumage as well as in their drab winter tweeds. Southern Masked Weavers occasionally drop by and – very infrequently – a Spectacled Weaver pays a visit. Singular, because I have only ever observed one of them at a time.

There is plenty of food in our garden to sustain them throughout the year as the weavers not only eat seeds, but tuck into the fruit I put out, and readily feed off the nectar from the aloes or the Erythrina blossoms as well as visiting our nectar feeder when the natural sources are scarce. I have also observed them eating termite alates.

Village Weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) used to be known as Spotted-backed Weavers as its characteristic feature is … its spotted or mottled back! The cucullatus part of their name refers to their hood or crown. The name Village Weaver probably derives from their habit of nesting near human settlements. The completed nests are kidney- shaped with a large entrance on the underside.

Casual observers often confuse them with the Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) which looks similar in passing, but only superficially.

The Southern Masked Weaver has a dullish red-brown eye and, notably, a mostly plain back with a greenish tinge. The crown of breeding males is bright yellow with a narrow black forehead and black facial mask that forms a point at the throat.

Apart from its mottled black and yellow back, the Village Weaver has a distinctive dark red eye and its black hood extends further down its throat than that of the Southern Masked Weaver.

Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis) are endemic to South Africa and are easily recognisable by their bright yellow colouring and the orange facial blush of the males during the breeding season. The irises of these birds are very pale. Capensis refers to the bird first being identified in the Cape peninsula.

The Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis) is also yellow, but sports a neat black eye-stripe. I have yet to get a good photograph of one in our garden and am re-using one of the very few I have. Ocularis refers to the eyes. It is interesting to note that these weavers retain their distinctive plumage throughout the year. Unlike the gregariousness of other weavers, the Spectacled Weavers tend to be solitary, forming a permanent pair bond.

Their nest is of a particularly interesting shape. This one, seen in the Addo Elephant National Park, was too far away for a clear photograph but you can get an at least see the long entrance tube.

OCTOBER 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

October has been a bumper month for watching birds in our garden, including two visitors not seen for some time: the Bokmakierie and a Southern Red Bishop.  The arrival of the Redchested Cuckoo and the Lesserstriped Swallows serve as confirmation that winter is definitely behind us.

Two male Pintailed Whydahs have made regular forays into the garden and spend a lot of time chasing each other around and both behave aggressively towards other birds eating seeds on the ground.

At least one of them has learned how to sit on Morrigan’s feeder to eat seeds from there! The photograph below shows that this one’s full breeding plumage is not yet present – note the blotches of brown on its back and wings.

Hadeda Ibises have been collecting sticks for their flimsy nests – the strong winds experienced this month have left plenty of such nesting material on the ground for them. Female Village Weavers regularly collect feathers to line their nests.  I watched a pair of Blackcollared Barbets mating the other day.

We found the nest of a Greater Doublecollared Sunbird dangling from the end of a twig in the Natal Fig.

Some Olive Thrushes have already bred successfully and are seen feeding their youngsters.

My October bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Black Harrier (Gymnogene)
Black Saw-wing
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Jackal Buzzard
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green)
Redchested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Rednecked Spurfowl
Redwinged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Southern Black Tit
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellowbilled Kite
Yellowfronted Canary

WHITE-BROWED SPARROW WEAVER

The White-browed Sparrow Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) were first described by one Andrew Smith after his trip to the interior in 1836. The mahali part of the scientific name comes from the Setswana word for the bird. These are iconic birds of the rest camp in the Mountain Zebra National Park, where some of them have been ringed.

They are always on the lookout for seeds, usually foraging in flocks of four to ten birds. If one bird spots a source of food, the others join it in a flash. I say ‘it’ for males and females look the same, although males are said to be slightly larger than the females. Their plumage does not alter with the seasons.

We watched as they collected several seeds in their beaks at once and observed how easily they crack some of the harder seeds open.

White-browed Sparrow Weavers make untidy nests in the thorn trees that abound in the national park. These are maintained throughout the year and seem to favour the western side of the trees.

These sociable birds adopt a variety of roles during the breeding season. This is when breeding pairs are assisted by their previous offspring, and non-related birds help to defend the breeding territory.

CAPE WHITE-EYE NEST

I frequently hear the Cape White-eyes long before dawn. Their cheerful calls are surprisingly loud, given their diminutive size when compared with weavers, doves and starlings. They are very sociable birds, often seen in flocks as they glean leaves for tiny insects, such as aphids. This morning I watched a pair of them hanging upside down below the bird bath to reach elusive morsels that were invisible to me.  They regularly visit the feeding station to tuck into the fruit and to drink from the sugar-water feeder.  Cape White-eyes always seem to be ‘on the go’, either feeding or bathing – they love garden sprayers, although we have not been able to use one for years because of the drought.

Cape White-eye

A recent strong wind dislodged a Cape White-eye nest from the thick hedge outside our garage. Their tiny cup-shaped nests are usually well concealed in the foliage anything from 1 to 6 meters above the ground.  I was intrigued for I have never actually spotted them nesting and so was interested in its construction.

Cape White-eye nest

As you can see, it is a small cup made of lichens, dry grass, rootlets, tendrils and other dry plant fibres, bound together with spider webs. I notice two white plastic strips from the bags I get the grain in – snippets of these sometimes get into the coarse seed I sprinkle on the lawn. This nest feels spongy and springy as most of it seems to consist of lichen.

Cape White-eye nest

The nest is built by both sexes and both parents incubate the clutch of two to four eggs for 10 to 14 days.  As both sexes look alike, I have assumed that they both feed the chicks – having seen a pair of them doing so at the feeding station.  This is the underneath of the nest – there is no indication of how the nest is attached to the branches.

Underneath of cape white-eye nest

Footnote: The Red-eyed Dove appears to have abandoned its flimsy nest in the fig tree.