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.

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ADDO DAWN

The mournful calls of Emerald Spotted Wood Doves wafted across the Spekboom from around four in the morning. By first light several birds had begun methodically combing the camping area for bits of food that may have been dropped during suppers the night before. Among them were:

A Southern Boubou looking quizzically at the camera before resuming its search between the gravel stones.

An adult Olive Thrush that seized upon a baby tomato at the base of the Spekboom hedge, crushed it in its beak, and then fed it to the spotted juvenile following it around.

This Laughing Dove looks as if it has just woken up!

A more alert Redeyed Dove stretching to pick up a tiny seed lodged between the gravel.

This brightly coloured Cape Weaver flew down to see what may be hiding behind the leaves.

As did a sharp-eyed Southern Masked Weaver. You can tell the sun had risen by then!

While a curious Cape Bulbul watched the proceedings from on high.

Of course there were many more, but we had poured a warm drink and gone off to explore …

FOUR CAPES

Open any field guide to flowers, mammals or birds in South Africa and you will find many species named Cape … This is probably because the first collections began in the Cape.

Flowers: Cape Agapanthus, Cape Forget-me-not, Cape Speckled Aloe and Cape Snapdragon.

Mammals: Cape Ground Squirrel, Cape Otter, Cape Fox and Cape Hyrax.

Birds: Cape Sugarbird, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Shoveler and Cape Penduline-Tit.

These are names randomly culled from the index of each of field guides on my bookshelf. I am going to focus on four Cape-named birds seen in my garden this morning – although the photographs are older than that.

Cape Robin-Chat

This popular garden bird is perched on the edge of the feeding tray which has been filled with cut up apples. Cape Robin-chats have been resident in our garden for many years. They tend to be cautious when coming out in the open, preferring to emerge once the flurry of other birds have finished feeding. Even then, they usually forage for bits of apple that have fallen to the ground and are frequently chased off by the more aggressive Olive Thrushes or the very cheeky Common Starlings. Much of their time is spent foraging in leaf litter, flicking through plant debris in search of food. The beautifully melodious calls of the Cape Robin-chats are frequently among the first to be heard before dawn and in the late afternoon. One has to be very observant, however, to find the source of the lovely sounds, for the Cape Robin-chats like to perch half hidden among the foliage of trees. Another place to see them is bathing in one of several bird baths in our garden. The nest of the Cape Robin-chat is made from a coarse foundation of dead leaves, moss, grass, bark, and twigs lined with fine hair or rootlets. Once this has been built, the birds take an elaborately circuitous route to and from the nest – I have seen their nests raided by Fork-tailed Drongos and Bucrchell’s Coucals.

Cape Turtle Dove

I have grown up with these delicately coloured birds that occur all over South Africa. Their distinctive calls especially remind me of our family farm and of the bushveld. They tend to be out-manoeuvred by the multitude of Laughing Doves that swoop in to feed on the seed I scatter outside every morning – so this photograph is not from my garden – but they make their presence felt during the quieter parts of the day and their constant calls from the trees in the back garden provide a comforting sense of perpetuity. They can be seen in droves pecking at the crushed figs in the street during the fruiting season and feeding on the nectar of the flowers in the Erythrina trees. They can sometimes be seen drinking from the bird baths in the early mornings or late in the afternoon.

Cape Weaver

It is always interesting to watch the Cape Weavers grow into their bright breeding plumage. The males sport an orange-brown blush on their faces that varies from fairly pale, such as the one in the photograph, to very dark. This Cape Weaver is perched on a branch above the feeding tray, probably waiting its turn – although patience is not a virtue practised by these birds. Cape Weavers are active – they happily biff other birds out of their way either to get at the seeds or to use the nectar feeder! There are a lot of them in the garden and they happily socialise with Village Weavers – also common in our garden. When they are not visible they can still be heard, their calls providing a cheerful backdrop to the spring and summer months. Apart from seeds and fruit, these omnivorous birds can be seen biting holes in the base of Aloe flowers and Erythrina blossoms to reach the nectar.

Cape White-eye

This Cape White-eye is perched on the nectar feeder. It is such a joy hearing flocks of these birds work their way through the foliage in the garden. I feel it is a privilege to see these birds gleaning leaves for tiny insects and often watch them hanging upside down to reach elusive morsels. They come to feed on the fruit I put out and love to bathe in the bird baths. On very hot days during the summer (providing the water restrictions have been lifted) they are prone to approach very closely while I am watering the garden to get wet in the spray. They too are among the early risers, often calling to each other before the sun rises. Their nest is a tiny cup built in the branches of trees – they often nest in the thick tangles of the Tecomaria capensis hedge behind our garage.

AUGUST 2017 GARDEN BIRDS

August has been a wonderful month for watching birds in our garden. As the season gradually turns towards spring, the birds have responded by donning their breeding plumage and getting down to the serious business of courting. These are Cape Weavers sporting their breeding plumage.

A Blackbacked Puffback made a fleeting visit last week and, having bemoaned the absence of Malachite Sunbirds last month, I have seen several of them feeding on the Erythrina caffra – much too high up for a decent photograph of them though. I was fortunate to be sitting outdoors when a Cardinal Woodpecker visited a nearby tree and remained there for some minutes before finding one further on that was more likely to have food tucked under the loose bark. It is said that one swallow doesn’t make summer – nothing has been said about swifts, although I was taken aback to see a pair of Whiterumped Swifts flying overhead. I thought I must be mistaken, but they have appeared on more than one occasion since then. The joy of keeping records is that I could look up my bird list for last August and see that the swifts indeed arrived ahead of the much-awaited Lesser-striped Swallows – they will be the harbingers of summer.

The Black (Cape) Crow is not an easy subject to photograph – either absorbing all the light to become a dark blob or reflecting so much light that its features are lost. This time I have nabbed one in reasonable light, so include it here.

At this time of the year we get a regular mix of Cape Weavers and Village Weavers, with a handful of Southern Masked Weavers thrown in. One has to observe them very carefully to distinguish between the latter two. Every now and then a Spectacled Weaver joins the fray at the feeding tray or visits the ‘pub’.  With the drought still plaguing us, the bird baths are very popular. Here are some Cape White-eyes enjoying a bathe.

My August bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Blackbacked Puffback
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Harrier
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Boubou
Brimstone Canary
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Fierynecked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

JULY 2017 GARDEN BIRDS

What an enjoyable month for watching garden birds! The on-going drought means that the food I put out is appreciated by the locals – they have been through a lot of fruit and seed this month! The latest addition to the feeding table are seed cakes which Ceridwen from next door and a friend made for me over the weekend. These have been devoured by the Fiscal Shrikes, Blackcollared Barbets, Boubous, Blackheaded Orioles – and even the Laughing Doves.

Fiscal Shrike

Morrigan’s feeder is a popular haunt in the early mornings and even has queues of birds either waiting their turn or preparing to muscle in on the fine seed I put there.

Laughing Doves

No Lanner Falcon this month, but I had a wonderful view of a Black Harrier being mobbed by a pair of Pied Crows all the way across the garden until they disappeared into the bright sun already lowering in the sky. I have often noticed a Black Harrier perched on telephone wires on the hill above our house over the past few weeks.

Other welcome newcomers to this month’s list include a Hoopoe, a couple of Spectacled Weavers and Pintailed Whydahs. The latter are still in their winter tweeds, although a few are beginning to show a paler breast – the beginnings of their summer sartorial splendour of black and white tuxedo.

Pintailed Whydah with Laughing Doves in the background

The Cape Weavers are showing their breeding blush of colour around their faces – some are almost a deep russet. With winter nearing its end (according to the calendar, if not the current temperature) Village Weavers are also coming out in their breeding colours.

Cape Weaver on the left with a Village Weaver on the right

My July bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow
Black Harrier
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Darter
Fierynecked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver
Whitenecked Raven

SPEKBOOM

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) grows primarily in the dry areas of the Eastern Cape.

Recent research has shown Spekboom to be an excellent ‘carbon sponge’ with the ability to sequestrate (absorb) free carbon from the atmosphere which is used to make plant tissue. It does so particularly efficiently, which means that a stand of Spekboom has the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest. Spekboom is unique in that it stores solar energy to photosynthesise at night. This makes it ten times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than a tropical rain forest. Each hectare of Spekboom can capture 4,2 tons of carbon every year.

Note the thicket of Spekboom behind this Cape buffalo.

You can see the shape of the leaves of the Spekboom in this picture of a Cape Weaver.

Because of its ability to capture carbon, Spekboom is being replanted in degraded thicket areas in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, the Addo Elephant National Park, and in the Great Fish Nature Reserve. These projects not only help to restore natural ecosystems, but as they are labour-intensive, they provide a source of income for rural communities and thereby help to alleviate poverty. The picture below illustrates an area of the Great Fish River Nature Reserve where cuttings of Spekboom have been planted.

Here you can see how other cuttings have bushed out over time.

Small star-shaped pink flowers are borne en masse from late winter to spring, usually after the first rains. They are a rich source of nectar for many insects, which in turn attract insectivorous birds.

This dragonfly is resting on a sprig of Spekboom.

Here a Cape Sparrow perches on Spekboom.

The ubiquitous dense stands of succulent Spekboom form an important part of the diet of the elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park. Their top-down browsing habits apparently help the plants to spread and thrive by promoting the natural umbrella-shaped canopy. Spekboom regenerates quickly, ensuring a regular food supply. Note the baby elephant feeding on Spekboom in the picture below.