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!

NOVEMBER 2019 GARDEN BIRDS

The heat and drought continues unabated, yet I have been blessed with another bumper month of bird-watching in our garden. Delightful visitors are the Black-eyed Bulbuls (their new name, Dark-capped Bulbul, doesn’t trip off my tongue yet) that frequent both the nectar feeder and partake of the cut apples, although I have occasionally seen them hawking insects too. Here a pair of them are seeking some respite in the shade.

The Black-headed Oriole is always a welcome visitor to the nectar feeder. It swoops down now and then to feed on apples too.

This Bronze Mannikin is perched on a branch with its beak agape while it waits for a turn at the seed feeder – mostly dominated by Southern Masked Weavers and Streaky-headed Seedeaters. Although they are said to eat fruit and nectar, I have not observed them doing either in our garden.

The Common Fiscal is a regular visitor – quite happy to inspect my breakfast or what we are having to eat with our mid-morning tea – and is often the first to inspect what has been placed on the feeding tray. There are two: one without a ring and this one that has been ringed. Checking through my archived photographs, the latter has been seen in our garden over a couple of years and must be resident near here. Both have been collecting fruit and flying off to what I presume is a nest in a neighbouring garden.

As much as we often malign Common Starlings in this country, they can be amusing to watch. They tend to perch on the telephone wire above the feeding area to assess the availability of food then come down straight, akin to the landing of a helicopter, to guzzle whatever is there as quickly as possible. This one appears to be voicing its dissatisfaction that a pair of Redwinged Starlings beat it to the apple.

I have mentioned before how important it is to provide water for the birds to drink and bathe in during this hot and dry period. This Laughing Dove is making its way to one of the bird baths, with very little water in it – I filled it up after taking this photograph. The bird baths get filled twice, and sometimes even three times a day of late.

There is a saga attached to the Lesser-striped Swallows which I will relate in another post.

The daily sound of the squeaky ‘kweek, kweek, kweek’ notes emanating from the Red-throated Wryneck has been frustrating as this bird has been so difficult to locate! I used the binoculars and managed to get a better photograph of this warbler-like bird from an upstairs window yesterday – see how well it blends into the lichen-covered branches of the Tipuana tree.

I cannot resist showing you this picture of a Red-winged Starling about to tuck into an apple.

The Speckled Mousebirds are going to bag a post of their own soon. Meanwhile, this one is waiting for an opportunity to eat the apples on the tray below. Note how well it too blends into its surroundings.

My November bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Red-chested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Red-fronted Tinkerbird
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-throated Wryneck
Redwinged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite

IN FLIGHT

A pair of Common Starlings that clearly have a nest elsewhere in the neighbourhood drop in regularly to oust the other birds from the feeding tray so that they can stuff their beaks with whatever food is available. They take it in turns to grab a beakful of food then fly to the left of the neighbouring house and return to the right of it before nonchalantly making their way through the leaves to drop down for the next load.