A BLOCK OF CHEESE IN CLAW

Watching our friendly Common Fiscal, Meneer, eating a tiny block of cheese led me to wonder if birds are the equivalent of left- or right-handed. Certainly this and the ringed Common Fiscal, Spotty, both hold food in their right claws when eating.

Holding onto the block of cheese.

The first bite tastes alright.

A fine breakfast this is.

AUGUST 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

Birding sessions in my garden would be incomplete without seeing an Olive Thrush. These birds are real characters the way they put their heads down to chase after each other on the ground … round and round the bushes and rocks they go. They are incredibly alert too and you can see from the dirt at the end of its beak that this one has been grubbing around between the flowers to find something to eat. It drank water after I had taken this photograph and then enjoyed a quick bath.

Of course Meneer, the friendly Common Fiscal, is a daily joy too. The other morning it came flying towards me as I opened the door to come outside and grabbed something from the tray I was carrying before flying off. It comes every day, usually perching next to my breakfast before taking a piece of meat or cheese from my hand. The ritual remains the same, even when I place a little dish to one side especially for it. Here it is waiting on the edge of the flower pot near my feet. You can see its white eyebrows very clearly.

Although I recently highlighted Spotty, the ringed Common Fiscal, this image clearly shows his eponymous dark spot.

I have mentioned before that this year the Cape Robin-chat is much more reticent to come out than we have enjoyed in the past. Here it has just alighted on a rock, clearly focused on the food in the feeding tray below. It generally waits until the coast is clear and sometimes gets tantalisingly close to the food before being chased off by the arrival of another bird.

One of the highlights of this month was finally getting an opportunity to photograph the Brown-hooded Kingfisher that has taken to perching on the wash line outside our kitchen. This time it was co-operative enough for me to rush upstairs to get my camera and even stayed still while I quietly opened the door and focused on it. I am very pleased to show it off.

At the moment the Common Starlings are looking very smart in their breeding outfits.

Lastly, to add a little brighter colour, here is a Village Weaver.

Overall, this has been another good month for seeing birds in our garden. The Amethyst Sunbirds regularly visit the nectar feeder; the Black Cuckoo occasionally emits its mournful cry about feeling so sick; some Cape Glossy Starlings paid a very brief visit – as did a Red-necked Spurfowl; and the Pin-tailed Whydahs pop in now and then.

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black Cuckoo
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Brownhooded Kingfisher
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fork-tailed Drongo
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pin-tailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

SPOTTY’S STORY

If I had known he was going to be around for so long, or that he would become such a well-known character, I would have documented his presence more carefully. When I first became aware of him in the garden he didn’t even have a name. It was only once I looked at one of the photographs I had taken of him that I realised he wore a ring! That made him easy to identify, but then he seemed to be the only one of his kind so it was not all that significant. Meet Spotty, the Common Fiscal that has been around since at least 2016:

As if his ring is not distinctive enough, Spotty has a faint black spot in the middle of his white tummy – which is not particularly evident in the photographs I have taken. At first I thought it was a dirty spot, then perhaps it was because of some stray black feathers … they are still evident five years later! He was ‘just around’ and I didn’t really pay much photographic attention to him until I noticed him feeding a youngster in 2018:

You might just be able to make out his spot in this photograph of him taken in 2020:

This is also a 2020 photograph of him:

In January this year, Spotty was hard-pressed trying to feed three chicks. He flew back and forth from the feeding area with little respite, carrying small bits of food in quick succession – and following the same route to wherever the offspring were waiting with beaks agape. Gradually he enticed them ever closer to an easy source of sustenance until one of them perched on a nearby aloe:

He looked like this in April 2021 – again, his tiny dark spot is not visible, yet I assure you it is there:

During all these years, Spotty has never made an attempt to engage with me in the way Meneer has done – waiting nearby ready to swoop down on food when it arrives, or even collecting it from my hand. He has remained both alert and aloof. It cannot have passed him by that Meneer manages to get some choice pieces of meat or cheese even when such items are not freely available for the general avian population. Gradually, very gradually over the past few weeks, Spotty has taken to perching in a branch above where I sit outside for breakfast. He has fluttered down – oh so close – to inspect the offerings only to fly away at the last moment. This week though he has collected his own morsels from a little dish on the table in movements faster than your eye can blink. This photograph was taken of him only a day or two ago:

Note: As with Meneer, I have dubbed Spotty ‘him’ as there is no sign in either of them of the rufous lower flank that is present in the females.

MENEER’S STORY

Little did I realise in August 2020 that the odd visit from a Common Fiscal perching on the edge of a flower pot near me would develop into a relationship that continues to give me a lot of pleasure.

It would often perch on my knee or my toes, looking up at me in expectation of a morsel of whatever I happened to be eating at the time.

By October this bird was boldly visiting the table when I was breakfasting outside.

It was making itself quite at home a month later.

Meneer, as we have now dubbed it, continues to make regular inspections of what I am eating.

Only now he has come to expect a private dish of titbits of meat or cheese whenever I sit outside for tea.

Meneer is easily recognisable thanks to its white eyebrows and its friendly nature. Spotty – which is not only ringed but has a small black spot on its stomach – has been a visitor to this garden for years. It often has a run-in with Meneer, yet confines itself to food on the feeding tray. It is only twice in the past month that Spotty has felt emboldened enough to grab a bit of food I have left on the far edge of the table whilst pretending not to notice its approach.

A third Common Fiscal has joined the fray too now – all three make it clear they are not on the friendliest terms with each other – Number Three is bold enough to chase other birds from the feeding tray and even to loudly call out its indignation at the presence of one of its rivals in the vicinity. It has eyed the food on my table but won’t venture near.

A year has passed. Meneer still alights on the table and waits for me to place a morsel in my hand, which it takes delicately to either chew and swallow while perched on a branch above me, or flies away with it. Our relationship remains on its terms: it will come when and if it feels like it – sometimes what is on the tray is more appealing and I do not even merit a glance. I prefer it this way.