KEEPING AN EYE OPEN

There is little that the resident Common Fiscal misses when it comes to food. No matter what I put out on the feeder tray, it is there within minutes to inspect and taste. The fiscal is not above chasing other birds away either until it has had its fill – and lately it has been taking food away to feed its young. Here it is in a typical stance, keeping an eye open for the next opportunity to grab a bite to eat.

THREE BIRD BATH VISITORS

Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing – never more so than during this drought – and so I keep the bird baths in our garden topped up daily. The one featured in the photographs below is an upturned lid from a broken garden light. These three birds visited the bird bath while I was having breakfast. The first is a Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris). It is a regular visitor and, of late, comes to inspect my breakfast or to see what we might be eating with our morning tea.

Directly translated, its Afrikaans name, Fiskaallaksman, means Fiscal Executioner or Butcher-bird. The latter is an appellation which is proving difficult for it to slough off in English and comes about from its habit of sometimes caching large prey on thorn ‘larders’. At one time it was also commonly known as Jackie Hangman for this reason. I also see it referred to as the Southern Fiscal and as a Fiscal Shrike, so take your pick. You can see its heavy hooked bill, typical of shrikes.

The next visitor is a Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra), one of at least two pairs that are nesting in the garden. I enjoy listening to their melodious phrases – often among the first of the dawn chorus – early in the morning and during the latter part of the afternoon. Their alarm calls are both persistent and distinctive and have attracted me to snakes in our garden twice and, more recently, to the presence of a Brown Mongoose.

You might notice a drop of water on its beak as it had just lifted its head when I clicked on the camera. These robins chase each other around the garden from time to time yet are quick to scurry for cover in the undergrowth when alarmed. I think they have become used to me for one or other of them sometimes perches not far away and sings regardless of my presence. Its Afrikaans name  is Gewone Janfrederik – Ordinary Jan Frederik – which relates to rhythmic phrases in the song of the Cape Robin-chat which sounds like ‘Jan Frederik’ if you listen very carefully as the variable short passages of musical notes, always start with low slurred whistle cherooo-weet-weet-weeeet.

The third visitor to this bird bath is a familiar one I have featured before, the Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus), as it is a frequent caller, whether it is to drink or to bathe. This time I am showing you a rear view of one, also with a droplet of water on its beak.

The Afrikaans name is Olyf Lyster – I presume Lyster means Thrush (i.e. Olive Thrush) but it doesn’t appear in my dictionary. The richly melodic song of the Olive Thrushes also form part of the dawn chorus. I cannot resist quoting this stanza from the poem Olyf-Lyster by Evelyn van der Merwe, which not only describes the call, but hints at the familiarity the thrushes develop towards people. This stanza refers to the thrush obviously waiting for the speaker to stand on the veranda (with the implication that she will be bringing food for the thrush):

Elke oggend douvoordag

Trap jy doudruppels met jou fyn toontjies plat

En hoor jou skril twieeet – twieeet roep

En sien jou wag dat ek moet verskyn op die stoep

You can read the poem in its entirety at http://www.woes.co.za/bydrae/gedig/olyf-lyster

 

IN DEFENCE OF THE COMMON FISCAL

This strikingly handsome bird is burdened with an unfair reputation for cruelty. Imagine being known as Jackie Hangman, the Butcher Bird, or Fiscal Shrike. What is in a name you might ask – a lot, especially if the connotations of it are negative! What does hangman bring to mind? Synonyms for butcher include destroyer, killer, murderer, slaughterer, and slayer. Fiscal is a word associated with budgets, bursars, and being pecuniary. These names have come about because the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is known to sometimes impale its prey on thorns – or even barbed wire fences – for later consumption. If you visit the interesting blog run by the De Wet family at https://dewetswild.com/2018/09/26/common-fiscal/ you will find a photograph of a rather large frog impaled on barbed wire.

Does anyone condemn a spider for catching unsuspecting moths or beetles in its delicately spun web? Are spiders considered cruel when they wrap their prey in silken thread to eat later? Are people who work in abattoirs and butcheries condemned by society and treated like outcasts? We have to eat, some may argue, and would rather someone else did the killing, the cleaning, the cutting up and the packaging of the meat that we buy in neatly wrapped polystyrene packaging in the supermarkets or carefully wrapped in butcheries so that we can store it in our refrigerators or freezers for later consumption. Perhaps if we had to kill for our daily meat, more of us would prefer to bake our daily bread and grow our own beans and pumpkins. We have to eat. The Common Fiscal has to eat too. Its diet consists mainly of insects, although it has been recorded as eating small birds, reptiles and rodents too. I have frequently observed these birds eating seeds, fruit and even food scraps in my garden. This one has just been pecking at apples on the feeding tray.

As they also eat locusts, crickets, and caterpillars they should be appreciated for ridding gardens of potential pests – they perform a valuable function. Usually the Common Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it closely observes its prey before dropping down to catch it. This Common Fiscal is cleaning its beak on a branch.

The next time you are in a game reserve or see a Common Fiscal in your garden, watch it carefully: it often returns to the same perch over and again. I suspect they have marked out territories for the ones I see in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example, appear to be fairly evenly spaced from each other and they seem to scare away any other birds that venture into their space.  I see their aggression relating to food sources when there is something to their liking on the feeding tray, such as the bacon rind this one is eating.

A Common Fiscal will not tolerate other birds feeding with it – the Black-collared Barbet doesn’t either and the size of the Red-winged Starlings ensures a solitary meal for them too. It has been claimed that this habit of theirs negates efforts to create a bird-friendly garden. A glance at my monthly garden bird list is proof that this is not the case.

Their hooked beaks are adapted to their diet – nature finds ways to fill niches – and are described by the uninformed as ‘cruel’. Have you ever carefully looked inside your pet cat or dog’s mouth? Why do tourists marvel at the sight of a lion’s teeth and yet shrink from the beak of a Common Fiscal? Large raptors are described as ‘majestic’: what are their beaks and talons designed to do?

Despite its unfair reputation, I consider the Common Fiscal as being well worth having around for they definitely do much more good than harm!

A HOT SUMMER AFTERNOON

The temperature has reached 36°C, turning the outside air into a furnace. The brick paving shaded by the house radiates heat, while the bricks still in the sun are too hot to walk on barefoot.

What is left of the lawn grass crunches underfoot.

It hasn’t rained for months and the sky obstinately remains a beautiful clear blue.

Not a leaf stirs, only the heat waves bouncing off the walls and the brick paving. The Hadeda Ibises sitting on their nest in the Natal Fig tree keep making ‘bib-bib’ sounds.

A Cape Weaver drinks deeply from the nectar feeder, arriving and leaving silently as if there is no energy left to make a sound.

A hot breeze sets a few leaves in motion and then dies abruptly. Hark! There is a wisp of cloud creating patterns in the sky!

It dissipates while I watch. A young Common Fiscal seeks food on the hard-baked ground then flies into the shrubbery, its quest unsuccessful.

Nothing stays in the direct sunlight for long.

COMMON FISCAL (2)

I have mentioned before that the Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris) is a regular visitor to our garden, coming to feed on what is on the tray or filching food from the beaks of other birds – similar behaviour to that of the Fork-tailed Drongo. This particular one has been ringed, which makes it clearly identifiable as an individual. You can clearly see its ring on this photograph:

There are more than one of them – I frequently see a pair of them at the feeding tray or perched on the telephone wire in the back garden, and have even watched them raise a chick. This particular one though is most often seen poised to eat or about to catch something, so I enjoy these two more ‘relaxed’ views of it:

THERE ARE BIRDS IN ADDO

Far too many tourists drive about seeking one species of animal after the other in their quest to chalk up as many as they can – even driving past elephants, zebra and kudu because of a  “we’ve seen them” attitude – with eyes peeled for the ultimate prize: the sight of a lion. We see bored faces in vehicles as the day progresses, listless looks of bafflement when a passing vehicle asks what we are looking at and we respond “birds” or even tell them what bird we might be looking at. “Birds,” one might say or simply give a nod of the head as they move on in their quest.

Watching out for birds in any game reserve adds to the enjoyment of the environment as a whole. Here are a few of the many seen on our recent trip to the Addo Elephant National Park:

A ubiquitous Common Fiscal. Note how it is holding on to the twigs to keep it steady in the stiff breeze.

A young Olive Thrush perching inquisitively on our picnic table. Notice that it is still covered with speckles.

Cape Bulbuls, such as this one abound in the rest camp.

Large flocks of Pied Starlings can be seen all over in the park.

It is always fun seeing Speckled Mousebirds fly across the road or to working their way through bushes as they look for leaves, berries or flowers to eat.

Beautiful Malachite Sunbirds show flashes of metallic green as they pass by in a flash.

Who can resist the delicate beauty of a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk?

How fortunate it was to find a Greater Striped Swallow at rest!

One can almost be guaranteed to find a Bar-throated Apalis at the picnic site.

Lastly, for now, is a Sombre Bulbul (now called a Sombre Greenbul!).