JULY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

This month the Cape White-eyes were the first on my list as a few of them worked their way through the bushes and waited their turn at the nectar feeder. They are delightful birds to observe and I take pleasure in watching them peck at the cut fruit. Their sweet reedy notes that vary in pitch and volume are often a giveaway that they are nearby. Of course the ubiquitous Laughing Doves are not slow to float down from their lofty perches in either the Erythrina caffra or in the skeletal looking Dais cotinifolia – where they have been catching the early rays of sunlight – not long after the seed feeders have been filled.

It is good to hear the merry chirrup cheeping of the Grey-headed Sparrows. A pair of them are around more regularly now – usually after the doves have had their fill and there is both space and peace for these little birds to enjoy their food. While they have not been very prominent visitors over the past few months, the Fork-tailed Drongos are back to hawk insects in the air and to drink from the ‘pub’. This nectar feeder has had to be filled almost daily this month as there are few other readily available natural sources of nectar around.

One of the natural sources is the Erythrina caffra which is coming into bloom now. This tree hosts a variety of birds such as Cape White-eyes, Laughing Doves, all the weavers, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds and has attracted the return of the feisty Amethyst Sunbirds. The males seem to spend a lot of time chasing each other all over the garden.  There are Common Starlings galore as well as our indigenous Red-winged Starlings, all of which feast on either the blooms or the seeds still hanging from the branches, and come down to inspect what I have on offer.

You can see from its yellow beak that the breeding season is already upon us for some birds! A pair of Red-winged Starlings perched in the dry branches of the Cape Honeysuckle when the male decided to fly down for a closer look at the offerings.

There are times when all the bird song comes to an abrupt end and dead silence prevails. This is a sure sign of the presence of a raptor. Recently, I looked up in time to see a large African Harrier Hawk gliding towards the fig tree escorted by a pair of Red-winged Starlings. It had no sooner perched on one of the branches when a variety of birds flew up to pester it by calling loudly and flitting around it. The hawk soon left. Another, smaller, raptor made a rare appearance in our garden. This was a Black-shouldered Kite that flew low over the feeding area before perching on the telephone cable and then disappeared. The general avian chatter resumed straight after.

My bird list for this month:
African Green Pigeon
African Harrier Hawk
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Black-shouldered Kite
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
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
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

MAY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

Days are cooling down and the nights are becoming uncomfortably cold. Red-winged Starlings are gathering in ever-larger flocks as they swoop around the neighbourhood in search of food. I counted twenty of them in the Erythrina caffra yesterday – nibbling at the few scarlet blossoms that are left on the tree. African Green Pigeons continue to hide effectively in the dark green foliage of the Natal fig, although I can hear them chuckling daily. I often feature Olive Thrushes, so will spare you yet another photograph of these delightful birds. Nonetheless, it has been fun watching a spotty youngster grow in confidence so quickly that it now even chases adults away from the fruit on the feeding tray if it wishes.

The fruit I provide regularly attracts a pair of Black-collared Barbets. One alights on the tray first, while the other waits in the branches above for a while before joining the first. They are either the first to visit, or come after the main feeding rush is over.

The Cape Robin-chat has been particularly shy and skittish this year. It peeps out from between the leaves and even advances towards the feeding tray, but flies off as soon as any other bird approaches.

Last month I mentioned seeing a female Thick-billed Weaver. I have spotted it several times this month, either perched on the edge of the bird bath or in the shrubbery.

I was delighted to spot a Hoopoe on our back lawn the other day. It was so busy pecking at the grass that I doubt if it noticed my approach.

Bronze Mannikins are such a delight to watch as they flit around the garden and especially when they crowd around the feeder to eat the seeds.

Then there are the Common Starlings. Usually only one or two come to the feeding area. Today a large flock of them were perched in first the Erythrina caffra and then moved into the Natal fig.

Having observed an unusual bird for three days in a row, I was at last able to identify it as a Brown Scrub-Robin – a first for my garden – only to have it disappear again! There is so much dead wood around the garden that the Cardinal Woodpecker can frequently be heard bashing away at it. Unfortunately it is usually far too high up for me to take a photograph worthy of showing off. The same applies to a pair of Crowned Hornbills that attracted my attention by pecking loudly at a window pane in our neighbour’s house. They flew into the Natal fig as I approached them – and that was the end of that! Both the Spectacled Weaver and the Grey-headed Sparrows have made a welcome return to the garden – and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Long-billed Crombec. It might be cold, yet this has been a good month for garden birding.

My bird list for this month:
African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Mannikin
Brown Scrub-Robin
Cape Batis
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Forest Canary
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Long-billed Crombec
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Thick-billed Weaver
Village Weaver

JULY 2020 GARDEN BIRDS

The traditional calendar notwithstanding – nor the fluctuations in temperature between very cold and fairly summery – the birds seem to know a thing or two about when to court, when to breed, and when spring is on its way. The Olive Thrushes, usually quick to see what is on offer, have been more furtive of late. Instead of eating their fill, drinking or bathing afterwards and then perching on a nearby branch until they are ready for the next round, two of them arrive one after the other – disappearing in different directions – to gobble what they can and then carry off bits of food to their nest. I think one is located in our bottom ‘wild’ garden but am disinclined to disturb them. The other day an Olive Thrush took a dislike to a Speckled Pigeon right across the garden for no apparent reason.

Laughing Doves court throughout the year. I counted twenty-six of them the other day – and have yet to come across a single nest!

The yellow beaks of the Common Starlings are an indication that they are also in breeding mode.

There are two Common Fiscals that arrive separately every day – distinguishable only because one has been ringed.

A female Greater Double-collared Sunbird has spent about four days gathering tiny fragments of lichen, small feathers, and even soft grass seeds with which to line her nest – which is possibly in the hedge between us and our neighbours – while Mr Sunbird drinks his fill at the nectar feeder and makes loud territorial noises from on high in the Erythrina tree in the back garden.

The Streakyheaded Seedeaters always arrive as a pair.

Most of the Village Weavers and Southern Masked Weavers are looking a little worse for wear at the moment as they are growing into their breeding plumage.

One Cape Weaver has already built a nest in the side garden, while others arrive with strips of reed leaves in their beaks only to drop them when they tuck into the seeds for a meal.

Here you can see the difference in the shape of the beak of a Blackcollared Barbet and a Black-eyed Bulbul as they feed on cut apples.

Speckled Mousebirds perch patiently in the shrubbery for an opportunity to come down to eat the fruit.

My July bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Blackshouldered Kite
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Batis
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Crowned Hornbill
Crowned Plover
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Spectacled Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Yellowfronted Canary

AN APOLOGY TO THE COMMON STARLING

I am aware of not having been particularly kind about the Common Starlings that visit our garden – as attractive as they are, sporting as they do, a glossy plumage of black, purple or green feathers dotted with white. I am guilty too of having rather gleefully expressed the aptness of their scientific name, Sturnus vulgaris, because of the way they ‘elbow’ out other birds at the feeders. Sturnus simply means ‘a starling’, whilst vulgaris in Latin means ‘common’. The derogatory connotation of ‘common’ is something that is vulgar or inferior – I rest my case. We used to know it as the Eurasian Starling or the European Starling – common names strongly implying that they do not belong here. However, just because this species was introduced to this country during the late 19th century, decided that this country is eminently inhabitable and has happily adapted to this environment does not justify feelings of enmity towards it. Do any of us ‘belong’ here or anywhere else in the world that we have settled and inhabited for centuries?

Part of the success of these birds must lie in the fact that, as omnivores, they eat anything: I have watched them feeding on grain, fruit, and insects as well as pecking at the fat I sometimes spread on bread crusts and put on the feeder. They forage on the ground in an energetic manner, having perched on a branch, their beady eyes on the lookout for anything edible, before swooping down for a meal. As I have mentioned before, their ‘table manners’ leave a lot to be desired. There is no waiting their turn. I watched a pair of Black-eyed Bulbuls arrive at the feeder yesterday, for example: one waited on a branch until its mate had fed from an apple and then flew down for its turn – these starlings would have chased any other bird out of the way. They seem to believe that they have the right of way!

I hereby apologise to the Common Starlings for having denigrated them so.

Note: This is Day 2 of the national lock-down in an effort to curb the corona virus – a day for contemplation!

COMMON STARLINGS REVISITED

What were once known as European Starlings have now become the Common Starling, doubtless because they have spread so successfully around the globe and continue to breed prolifically. They are not my favourite bird, simply because they don’t belong here. Don’t they? Surely after a period of over 120 years, since their introduction to South Africa, they should be regarded as belonging? It might have been the constant reminder of them being European starlings that drummed into us the exotic nature of their origin. Their scientific name, Sturnus vulgaris, doesn’t endear them to one either – given their strutting, rather rude manners at feeding stations. They were introduced in Cape Town by Cecil John Rhodes sometime between 1897 and 1899 and have been expanding their territory and establishing their presence here ever since.

Negative responses to this bird by the general public are emotive, so let us be fair and acknowledge their attractiveness – look at the iridescent green and purple gloss of their feathers and the white flecking / spots created by the white tips of the feathers. We used to get the odd one visiting our garden, but over the past twenty years these numbers have increased to periodic visits by a handful of birds – much larger flocks have been visible on school sports fields – and over the past three years or so, Common Starlings have become regular visitors to the garden. I am gradually accepting them as ‘belonging’ and actually find that they display interesting characteristics when observed closely. Look at this one’s slicked-back ‘hairstyle’:

An interesting observation is that their bills are dark during winter and gradually change to yellow during the summer breeding season. The photographs above and below were taken during November last year – see the yellow bill – and the first one taken earlier this month – the bill has already darkened as summer is coming to an end.

Common Starlings are here to stay and we simply have to accept that they ‘belong’ after all!