AUTUMN

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
– John Keats

Seeds of the Erythrina caffra

These are not the kind of fruits Keats would have had in mind when he penned his ode To Autumn, but as we do not have well-defined seasons in the Eastern Cape, a definite sign of autumn comes in the form of the dry, rustling leaves of the Erythrina caffra settling on the ground, followed by the black seed pods that burst open to reveal the scarlet seeds – often called lucky beans – within.

 

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A DOZEN INDIGENOUS FLOWERING PLANTS IN MY GARDEN

When we arrived in the Eastern Cape, our garden contained the remnants of a considerable collection of exotic cacti, roses on their last legs, and a number of other exotic shrubs which did not survive the subsequent years of drought and severe water restrictions. How fortunate we were to meet someone who actually wanted to swop the cacti for several aloe species she had growing aplenty on her nearby farm!

Those early drought years drummed home the value of planting indigenous trees and shrubs. Not only have these reduced the traffic noise from the main road into town, they provide glorious deep shade during our hot summers and are a haven for a variety of bird species. The wondrous aspect of indigenous plants is that they survive drought and high winds, are low maintenance and provide the right kind of sustenance for birds and insects in the garden.

These are some of the indigenous bounty that brighten our garden at different times of the year:

Aloes

I have read that these are the perfect plants for our sunburnt country. They are marvellous the way they provide bright splashes of colour in the veld during the otherwise drab-looking winter months. Several species grow in our garden and they all attract bees, wasps, beetles, sunbirds, Blackheaded Orioles, weavers, Blackeyed Bulbuls. Mousebirds, Streakyheaded Canaries and Redwinged Starlings.

Buddleia salviifolia

buddleia

The heavy clusters of purple flowers exude a lovely lilac-like fragrance and attract a variety of butterflies – hence it is also known as the Butterfly Bush – as well as bees, Cape White-eyes, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape Robins and the Barthroated Apalis. The shrub has attractive grey-green leaves reminiscent of the culinary sage. This plant is named after the Rev. Adam Buddle (1660 – 1715), an English amateur botanist and vicar of Farnham in Essex.

Canary creeper (Senecio tamoides)

canary creeper

The masses of golden yellow flowers with deeply fringed petals make this climber a very popular garden plant. When we were living in both Pietermaritzburg and Mmabatho we actually paid what seemed like a fortune for plants from the nursery. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape, however, and so – once the flowering season is over – I end up pulling it off trees and tossing bundles of it on the compost heap! The flowers have an aromatic scent that also attracts bees, butterflies, weavers, Cape White-eyes, mousebirds and the Barthroated Apalis.

Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)

cape chestnut

[kalos means beautiful, and dendron tree in Greek, capense is Latin for from the Cape]

This sub-tropical tree is truly beautiful to look at even when it is not in flower – the shape of the tree is marvellous. They take several years to establish themselves before producing their characteristic curly, pink-spotted-lavender flowers from November to January. The blooms are especially attractive to butterflies.

Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis)

cape honeysuckle

This vigorous growing scrambling shrub is another that we used to buy from nurseries until we found ourselves inundated with it in our Eastern Cape garden – turn your back on it and it can take over! It is popular as a hedge plant in this town. I am not into such fine and regular pruning but have to cut back masses of it throughout the year. Its bright tubular red-orange flowers appear erratically and are attractive to bees, butterflies, sunbirds, weavers, Streakyheaded Canaries, Blackheaded Orioles, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Redwinged Starlings as well as mousebirds.

Clivia

clivia

These beautiful flowers are a genus of monocot flowering plants from the Amaryllidacae flowers. They occur naturally in forested areas and so prefer to grow in shade or semi-shade. I have grown some from seed but also transplant the seedlings that cluster around the large clumps. Clivias were named after Lady Charlotte Florentina Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, who was the granddaughter of Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India.

Crossberry (Grewia occidentalis)

crossberry

I wrote about Crossberries in a recent blog (see 15 November). Suffice it to say they are coming into bloom now and are looking beautiful in the garden.

Dais cotonifolia

Dais cotonifolia

The clusters of starry pink flowers have given this tree the common name of Pom-pom tree. They lose their leaves briefly at the end of winter, but are wonderful to have in the garden when covered in blossoms. These trees are special to me for their first blooms used to herald the arrival of my late mother for her annual visit over the Christmas period. Be warned: turn your back on the seedlings and you will have a forest of them on your hands – I have!

Erythrina caffra

Erythrina caffra

This is one of several Coral trees that grow in this country. I often mention the Erythrina trees in my blog as we have three enormous ones growing in our back garden which have housed the nests of Hadeda Ibises, Olive Thrushes, Laughing Doves and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds over the years. These trees are alive with birds throughout the year and provide a sunny perch for African Green Pigeons too. Not only are the scarlet flowers beautiful to look at, but so are the scarlet seeds that fall to the ground and burst from the black pods.

Mesembryanthenum

mesembryanthenum

There are a number of these fleshy plants bearing bright flowers – all self-sown. Here they are commonly known by their Afrikaans name, vygies, probably because it is less of a mouthful.

Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)

plumbago

These beautiful blue flowers are very attractive to butterflies. The plant needs regular pruning to keep it in check. It is another wonderful indigenous plant that requires little attention and rewards one with masses of flowers in season.

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra)

spekboom

This bush is native to the Eastern Cape and forms an important part of the diet of elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example. We have seen swathes of it being replanted in the Great Fish Rover Reserve and elsewhere because of its ability to capture carbon and to restore natural ecosystems. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is comparable to that of moist, subtropical forests. It is drought-resistant and produces delicate pink flowers.

TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA

How can one reduce the wonders of South Africa to a mere ten? I thought I would choose five, then it stretched to eight and then I knew I would have to stop at ten – even then I have had to be ruthless. So here they are in alphabetical order to save me from ranking them.

Aloes: These beautiful flowers stand out in the veld during the otherwise dry winter months and attract myriads of insects and birds at a time when food is not as plentiful as in other seasons. There are over 500 species of them – enough to warrant whole books to themselves.

Aloes

Black-backed Jackal: I am well aware that small stock farmers curse these beautiful, wily creatures at times, but having watched them closely in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Kruger National Park and in the Addo Elephant National Park I regard them as one of the ‘must see’ animals on any visit.

black-backed jackal

Dirt roads: Venture onto a dirt road in this country and you know you are headed for an adventure. Kilometres of them criss-cross the land away from the main highways.

dirtroad

Elephants: We are so fortunate to live within easy visiting distance of the Addo Elephant National Park for we never tire of seeing these wondrous animals either on their own or in family groups. One can spend hours observing them at a water hole – meeting, greeting, drinking, mock charging, wallowing in the mud, blowing bubbles … they are endlessly fascinating.

elephants

Erythrinas: The scarlet blossoms of these trees, also known as coral trees, are also a feature of late winter and attract a wide variety of birds and insects. The red ‘lucky beans’ that fall to the ground are also beautiful.

erythrinas

Grass: It may sound odd to some, but I love the tawny coloured grass growing tall in the veld.

grass

Giraffe: Not only are giraffe very photogenic, they are elegant and peaceful as they move between trees or bend down to drink.

giraffe

Thorns: The long spines of the thorns of the Acacia trees have always fascinated me.

thorns

Windmills: Sadly these hardy icons of rural South Africa are becoming rarer with the more widespread use of solar-powered pumps. The clanking sound of the windmill as it turns in the wind is unforgettable.

windmill

Zebra: I cannot leave the zebra off my list – always sleek, beautiful, photogenic and very watchable creatures they are.

zebra

I wonder what your favourite things are.

AUGUST 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

AUGUST 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

How different each month is from another – and one month in one year from the same month in another. Birding is not a static occupation at all for the birds do not always follow a predictable pattern of movement.

The Klaas’ Cuckoo, for example, has not yet made its presence heard, while the Black Cuckoo is already telling us in the most mournful drawn out tones that “I am sick” – that is how its call is described in the Roberts Bird Guide. It certainly sounds very melancholy. Last August the Pin-tailed Whydahs were out in force. This month I have seen only one – a male – whose tail feathers are gradually getting longer.

The Bronze Manikins are so pleased that I have managed to source some fine bird seed at last and compete for space on the bird feeder early in the afternoon during the lull between the morning and late afternoon rush by the weavers and the Laughing Doves.

Burchell’s Coucals on the other hand make waking a pleasure. Their cascading bubbling sounds soon compete, however, with the musical notes of the Cape Robin that stations itself near my bedroom window.

It is also lovely hearing the cheerful cackling sounds of the Red-billed Wood-Hoopoes. I watched a pair of them for at least half an hour the other morning as they used their long beaks to probe for insects behind the peeling bark of the older trees, investigated the masses of air plants, and even pecked at the bread spread with fat at the feeding station. I know their name has been changed to Green Wood-Hoopoe and that the illustration in the Roberts Bird Guide clearly indicates a green iridescent sheen. Perhaps this colouring only becomes evident in the sunlight? I could not spot it as the birds flitted about the foliage and in the shade of the trees in the front garden.

The synchronised duets of both the Southern Boubou and the Black-headed Orioles have become more evident in recent weeks. Both have been frequenting the feeding station more often recently – the orioles appearing as a pair more often than not.

I saw six Fork-tailed Drongos in the Erythrina tree yesterday morning, although I regularly only see two of them at a time in the garden. Streakyheaded Canaries are back: feeding on the Cape Honeysuckle blossoms and, occasionally visiting the seed tray.

Forktailed Drongo

My August list is:

Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Cuckoo
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Common Starling
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green Woodhoopoe)
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver

SEPTEMBER 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

SEPTEMBER 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

September has been an exciting month in the garden: leaves sprouting on hitherto bare branches; the lawn greening up after the spring rains; beautiful clivias brightening shady areas; and such a welcome variety of birds!

A pair of Forktailed Drongos started the month off with their antics around the feeding area. Apart from chasing each other around the garden, at least one of them seems to have taken a dislike to the Bokmakierie: the latter is chased as soon as the Drongo catches sight of it. The drongos make frequent use of the nectar feeder and perch on either the acacia or pompon tree nearby to hawk insects in the air. I mentioned last month that these fine acrobatic flyers are adept at stealing food from weavers while they are in flight.

Forktailed drongo

The Common Waxbill is a complete newcomer to my garden, for I have not recorded a sighting of one before. They remind me of happy trips to the Addo Elephant National Park, where they are frequently seen in large flocks.

Welcome returnees are the Hoopoe and the very beautiful Paradise Flycatcher.

I have learned to look skyward whenever the birds flee to the shelter of trees en masse and, this month, was rewarded with the sighting of a Gymnogene flying overhead. A pair of them have been resident in this town for years, so it is good to see them still around.

gymnogene

Looking up also rewarded me with the welcome return of the Whiterumped Swifts and Lesserstriped Swallows. A pair of the latter are already toiling at rebuilding their mud nest under the eaves above the kitchen. They do this every year – it looks like painstaking work – only to have it fall down as the breeding season draws to a close.

In other nesting news, a pair of Olive Thrushes have built their nest high up in the fig tree and can regularly be spotted taking titbits of fruit and insects to the nest via a circuitous route that has become familiar to me over time.

oliive thrush nest

A pair of Greater Doublecollared Sunbirds have been nesting in the ironwood, painstakingly collecting leaves and feathers with which to line it. Sadly, the strong winds we experienced last week caused the nest to come adrift from its moorings and I found it lying at the foot of the tree. This has nonetheless provided an interesting opportunity to see how it was constructed.

Greater Doublecollared sunbird nest

As we have come to expect, two pairs of Hadeda Ibises have taken up residence in the fig tree and Erythrina tree respectively, laboriously bringing in new twigs to strengthen the existing structures that are several years old already.

The month ended on a glorious note with the return of the euphonious calls of the Burchell’s Coucals early in the mornings. It is many years since we raised one as a chick that had fallen from its nest – a story on its own. I thus have a close affinity for these lovely birds that tend to be heard more often than they are seen.

My September list is:
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow
Black Cuckoo Shrike
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Common Waxbill
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey Heron
Greyheaded Sparrow
Gymnogene
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

AUGUST 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

AUGUST 2014 GARDEN BIRDS

What a rewarding month this has been for watching birds in my garden! A flock of Bronze Manikins (Lonchura cucullata) were the first to fly onto my list. I love watching these tiny birds fluttering like leaves from branch to branch; nestling close to each other at the seed tray; dropping so lightly onto the ground; and seeming to move everywhere in groups. I often see them sitting on the edge of the bird bath shortly before sunset, taking turns at dipping their beaks into the water and flying up to perch in either the Pompon tree or Plumbago growing nearby.

I have mentioned before that the Klaas’ Cuckoo is making itself heard calling stridently across the valley. These days we hear the calls from early in the mornings and at intervals throughout the day.

A most welcome visitor to the garden this month is the Malachite Sunbird. I was beginning to wonder if they were going to skip us this season when I caught sight of its magnificently irridescent emerald metallic sheen and long tail flitting among the scarlet flowers of the Erythrina caffra and the orange tubes of the Golden Shower creeper and Cape honeysuckle.

This morning a Knysna Lourie (also known as the Knysna Turaco) flitted silently through the tops of the trees in the front garden, affording me a beautiful view of the sun highlighting its bright red primary feathers as it flew into the fig tree and out of sight.

A Bokmakierie paid a rare visit to the feeding table only to be chased off by one of a pair of Forktailed Drongos that have commandeered this as part of their territory. It is interesting to observe that while the drongos tend not to take food directly from the table, they are adept at stealing food from the beaks of other birds in mid-flight! Many a weaver has flown off with a large titbit to eat elsewhere and has been robbed of its booty in this way.

The Pintailed Whydahs are out in force now. I counted ten of them in the garden yesterday, only three of which were females. The males are changing into their black and white sartorial splendour, the length of their tail feathers seemingly increasing by the day.

My August list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow
Black Cuckoo
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey Heron
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Streakyheaded Canary
Village Weaver