APRIL 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

I am delighted to report that the African Green Pigeons are back in full force this month. Their characteristic grunting sounds are heard from early in the morning and, if I look carefully at the shaking leaves in the fig tree, I catch sight of some of them most afternoons. An exciting visitor, even though I only saw it once, was a single male Dusky Indigo bird – I have not seen these in my garden for some years. Yet another interesting visitor has been a single female Thick-billed Weaver: she has made several forays into the feeding area and has perched on the edge of the bird bath a few times – never when I have my camera though!

In other news, the ‘tame’ Common Fiscal we call Meneer still comes to collect his handout from me several times a week. These days he usually collects a maximum of two tiny pieces of meat and flies away. His rival, the ringed Common Fiscal, frequently sits in the branches above my head and eyes my offerings, but prefers to go to the feeding tray for his meals.

Depending on what is on offer, the feeding tray can get rather busy at times – look at these weavers having a feast.

While these females might appear to be chatting while they eat, it is not always a harmonious scene. Here a female weaver is telling off a Black-eyed Bulbul. He looks quite affronted.

It wasn’t a good day for the bulbuls, for here an Olive Thrush is approaching one in a threatening manner.

As we still have no rain, there is sunshine aplenty. These Laughing Doves are sunning themselves on the bare ground underneath the seed feeders.

Lastly, a pair of Southern Boubous have become regular visitors. They skulk around in the undergrowth or call loudly to each other from hidden perches. I have only seen one of them coming out into the open to feed at any one time.

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Batis
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Dusky Indigo Bird
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Forest Canary
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Bush Shrike
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Thick-billed Weaver
Village Weaver
Yellow Weaver

I VALUE MY GARDEN

I am in awe of beautiful gardens with carefully landscaped paths leading through various ‘rooms’, some of which may have a water feature or a focus on flowers in a particular palette of colours. In these water-wise days there are also gardens featuring aloes, cacti and a wide variety of succulents. I read about gardeners bringing in truckloads of soil, or even hiring earth-moving equipment to reshape the landscape; of bringing in – or removing – large rocks; and of installing elaborate irrigation systems. I see diagrams of gardening plans to be followed throughout the year. Gardens like these featured in magazines always look beautiful.  In my garden a mixture of indigenous flower seeds – such as these African daisies and cosmos – scattered in a bed bring me joy.

While most visitors enthuse over my ‘wild’ garden, others openly declare it to be ‘messy’ and ‘overgrown’. Some express an itch to cut down the trees – many of which we planted decades ago – and to prune the hedges. This is understandable for my garden tends to be ‘wildly creative’ rather than ordered into shape. For example, I let the canary creeper grow and flower where it pleases before trimming it back so that the weight of it won’t break other plants.

There are many practical reasons for this: the garden is too large for me to manage in an orderly fashion on my own; we are – and have several times before – experiencing a prolonged drought and so there is no water with which to maintain lush flower beds and a prolifically productive vegetable garden; and, until I retired a few years ago, I was seldom home for long enough to mow the lawn, never mind prune, weed, dig and plant. This is a section of what I call the ‘secret garden’, where nature takes it course.

I have always valued my garden for what it is: a place for solitude and relaxation if I need it, and a haven for birds – such as the Village Weaver below – as well as insects and any other creatures that require a home within our suburb. Over the years I have recorded 107 different species of birds seen either in or from our garden; have come across several snakes, a variety of butterflies, spiders and moths; observed bats, beetles, praying mantids, lizards and geckos; there have been swarms of bees, several frogs and toads, mole rats, a mongoose and even a couple of tortoises. We once even found a terrapin in our swimming pool – and still don’t know how it got there.

It is easy to tell why I value my garden for its tranquillity and its diversity. Never has this been truer than since the arrival of COVID-19 and the hard lock-down that came in its wake. For over three decades I have watched the garden evolve from a gravel and cactus ‘desert’ to a forest of trees and shrubs; from a hot and shade less place to a haven of shade and dappled sunlight’; from a habitat birds would rather fly over to one where many have chosen to nest and to seek food for their offspring.

Thanks to all of these visitors, I value my garden for the bird song that begins before sunrise to the haunting sounds of the Fiery-necked Nightjars late at night. I have enjoyed seeing an Olive Thrush pulling up a long earthworm from a crack in the old kitchen steps; watching a Fork-tailed Drongo swooping down to catch a caterpillar unearthed while I am weeding; observing a flock of Cape White-eyes splashing about in the bird bath; and have thrilled to the light touch of a Common Fiscal as it perches on my hand or foot to receive a tiny offering of food.

I garden for peace. I garden for the therapeutic quality of my hands connecting with the soil. I garden for the excitement of watching bright yellow flowers taking on the form of a butternut or a gem squash; for the joy of transplanting seedlings that have sprouted in the compost; and for the pleasure of finding self-seeded flowers or herbs growing in a place of their own choosing.

My sentiments about gardening echo those of the essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who has been quoted as saying I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.

MENEER

The relatively tame Common Fiscal we have dubbed Meneer used to fly back and forth collecting food to feed a growing family. Competition was fierce for not only was there the long-established ringed Common Fiscal to contend with, but at one point a third one joined the fray. Meneer was in the pound seats though for he had early on established a relationship with me as a source of food. He began by perching on my toe, then on my knee, or he sometimes perched on the edge of my bowl of breakfast. Each time he would gently take a small titbit of food from my hand and fly off, to return again and again. He could thus afford to bypass the other two fiercely fighting fiscals and come straight to me. Then he stopped. The breeding season has tailed off and there is no longer an urgent need to fill frantically gaping mouths. I thought our relationship had ended until Meneer recently perched on the trunk of a cabbage tree, just above my head.

He looked at me quizzically as if to say “Where’s the food?” I was drinking tea. “Wait there,” I told him and rose to cut a piece of fish into tiny blocks.

I moved to the garden table and he followed. Instead of snatching the food from the shallow dish, Meneer remembered his manners and looked at me intently, waiting for me to place a piece of fish in my hand. He took it gently and flew into the tangle of branches nearby to eat it. He returned for another handout before flying off.

He still appears now and then and, if I do not have anything immediately at hand, waits until I fetch something for him. He never stays for long and usually only takes one offering. It is almost as if he is telling me not to forget him, for the time will come again when he will require my assistance once more.

JANUARY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

There were 48 birds on my list for last January and 45 this year. I doubt if there are really fewer birds that could be seen from our garden, rather I wasn’t necessarily there to see them. So much depends on when I am outside, how long I spend outside, where I settle to watch birds, and what the weather is like. Birds are scarce during high temperatures – and we have experienced some days of up to 40°C – and equally so during damp weather – very few of those this month!

Possibly the most exciting bird action for me this month was the unexpected arrival of a Steppe Buzzard that sent a flock of Laughing Doves scattering in all directions. I heard a loud, yet muffled, thump and there it was, only about two meters away from me! It blinked at me for a second or two and then flew off so silently that had I not witnessed its departure I would have wondered what had happened to it. Its hunting foray was unrewarded. This one is not in my garden but was photographed on the edge of town.

A pair of Southern Boubous have become regular visitors to the feeding area this month. They arrive either singly or together, waiting in the shrubbery until the coast is clear before coming out in the open.

Of course it is always a delight when the Bronze Manikins come to visit. They have been breeding very successfully for I have seen a whole flock of youngsters accompany the adults when feeding on seed that has fallen to the ground from the hanging feeders. Weavers too have been feeding grain to their chicks.

The Black-collared Barbets are keeping the doctor away by eating apple every day.

A pair of Black-eyed Bulbuls have been hard-pressed feeding their youngster, which is waiting on a rock – not too patiently – for the next bite of apple. The parents have been gradually enticing their youngster to come ever closer to the source of the apples.

Another bird that has just about been run ragged feeding offspring is the ringed Common Fiscal. Once I realised that it was frantically feeding not one chick but three, I helped out by providing some very finely chopped meat. This chick has a slice of sausage – that escaped the chopping – in its beak. I will show more photographs of these chicks in a later post.

I was fascinated to watch a Speckled Pigeon helping itself to some of the chopped meat – I assumed they only ate grain and occasionally fruit.

My January bird list:

African Darter
African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Mannikin
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Crow
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pin-tailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Steppe Buzzard
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite

THE COLOUR OF DROUGHT

This is the colour of drought:

The green thicket in the background has bare ground between the trees. The ‘grassland’ in the centre of the scene looks like this:

How can this sustain life, one cannot help wondering. Yet it does. Here a pair of Helmeted Guineafowl look out for something to eat:

While a Common Fiscal keeps its sharp eyes open for an insect or two that dares to move in its presence:

These photographs were taken in the Addo Elephant National Park.