ALIEN AUDIT (3) Cotoneaster

A number of different species of Cotoneaster are grown in South African gardens, five of which have been declared as invasive aliens. Existing plants may be retained in one’s garden providing they do not grow within 30 m from the 1:50 year flood line of watercourses or wetlands, and that all reasonable steps are taken to keep the plant from spreading. They used to be popular hedging plants and we were advised to plant them as such in our Pietermaritzburg garden. They have been planted in some gardens specifically for their attractive clusters of red berries.

These trees originated from Asia and are spread by birds feeding on the berries – as we have discovered to our cost in our present garden. While this plant is a particular problem in the Western Cape, our experience is that we ignore a seedling at our peril because before long there will be a forest of fully-fledged trees. Unless removed, they can form dense stands which shade out indigenous plants. They can reduce available grazing land and, when eaten in quantity, the berries are toxic to animals.

Cape White-eyes have a predilection for the berries. Black-eyed Bulbuls, Black-headed orioles, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Olive Thrushes feast on them too.

We have severely pruned some impossibly large Cotoneaster trees and actually removed others to little avail: seedlings continue to pop up all over the garden.

CAPE GREY MONGOOSE

This was no April Fool’s joke: as I was about to open the French doors leading to the pool area I halted at the sight of a Cape Grey Mongoose (also known as the Small Grey Mongoose) snuffling around at the base of the tree housing the bird feeding tray. I watched in awe as it picked up titbits dropped by the birds while it circled the tree.

There was little chance of it waiting for me to fetch my camera from upstairs, so I opened a window from above as quietly as I could – hence the photographs are not as clear as I would have liked – to get photographic evidence that these creatures are indeed residents of, or visitors to, our garden.

We have seen glimpses of a mongoose from time to time over the past year or two. Once I even caught sight of a mongoose sunning itself on the bricks at the end of the swimming pool. It disappeared into the thicket of aloes so quickly that it was difficult to identify which mongoose it was. A year or two ago, a neighbour reported seeing a mongoose running across the street to scuttle into our property …

From the storey above I could see the mongoose sniff the air cautiously before leaping up into the fork of the tree to remove some bread that had been left there for the birds. At that point the neighbouring Hound came lumbering along to see what he could find below the bird feeders and the mongoose disappeared in a flash!

The Cape Grey Mongoose (Galerella pulverulenta) is a solitary creature and I imagine our garden must be a comfortable site for it as they prefer bushy areas and feed on insects and small rodents – perhaps it is the mongoose presence that is keeping the rat population at bay – fruit and birds. Although the Cape Grey Mongoose is diurnal, it prefers to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day – which may explain why the birds tend to visit the feeders later in the day.

T IS FOR TECOMA CAPENSIS

Commonly known as Cape Honeysuckle and formerly named Tecomaria capensis, this plant was recommended to us by a nursery as an ornamental screen for our garden in a newly established suburb in Pietermaritzburg. Years later, we purchased some plants at considerable expense at a nursery in Lichtenburg for our fledging garden in Mafikeng – and nurtured it. Imagine our surprise to find it indigenous to this part of the Eastern Cape, where we now live.

It grows rampantly in our garden: wherever a bit of its stem touches the ground it forms new roots and another shoot of vigorous growth clambers through the trees or weaves it way through the undergrowth. Over years it forms a hard woody stem that is difficult to cut. I prune it abundantly, yet never stem the tide. This makes it sound like a monster. It is far from that.

The flowers of the Tecoma capensis provide bright colouring during the change of season from warm to cold (we do not have clearly defined seasons here) and attract a variety of birds such as the Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, Cape white-eyes, Black-eyed Bulbuls, and Bar-throated Apalis. The tubular flowers also attract bees and butterflies.

CAPE WHITE-EYE NEST

I frequently hear the Cape White-eyes long before dawn. Their cheerful calls are surprisingly loud, given their diminutive size when compared with weavers, doves and starlings. They are very sociable birds, often seen in flocks as they glean leaves for tiny insects, such as aphids. This morning I watched a pair of them hanging upside down below the bird bath to reach elusive morsels that were invisible to me.  They regularly visit the feeding station to tuck into the fruit and to drink from the sugar-water feeder.  Cape White-eyes always seem to be ‘on the go’, either feeding or bathing – they love garden sprayers, although we have not been able to use one for years because of the drought.

Cape White-eye

A recent strong wind dislodged a Cape White-eye nest from the thick hedge outside our garage. Their tiny cup-shaped nests are usually well concealed in the foliage anything from 1 to 6 meters above the ground.  I was intrigued for I have never actually spotted them nesting and so was interested in its construction.

Cape White-eye nest

As you can see, it is a small cup made of lichens, dry grass, rootlets, tendrils and other dry plant fibres, bound together with spider webs. I notice two white plastic strips from the bags I get the grain in – snippets of these sometimes get into the coarse seed I sprinkle on the lawn. This nest feels spongy and springy as most of it seems to consist of lichen.

Cape White-eye nest

The nest is built by both sexes and both parents incubate the clutch of two to four eggs for 10 to 14 days.  As both sexes look alike, I have assumed that they both feed the chicks – having seen a pair of them doing so at the feeding station.  This is the underneath of the nest – there is no indication of how the nest is attached to the branches.

Underneath of cape white-eye nest

Footnote: The Red-eyed Dove appears to have abandoned its flimsy nest in the fig tree.

PRIDE-OF-DE-KAAP

A handful of successful specimens of Bauhinia galpinii (Pride-of-De-Kaap) growing in this town encouraged me to plant one in our garden soon after we moved here. Why plant a native to the De Kaap valley in Mpumalanga in my Eastern Cape garden? The simple answer is that I grew up there and these beautiful flowers are as much part of my childhood memories as the Ginger Bush (Tetradenia riparia) is that I wrote about earlier.

Pride-of-De-Kaap

Even though it grows successfully in some Eastern Cape gardens, I think the conditions were too dry in mine and the plant possibly received too little sun as the trees and shrubs we planted grew up. The Pride-of-De-Kaap prefers the moister bushveld areas of the country and so planting it here was a long shot on my part. It held on valiantly for nearly two decades – never flowered – and now has given up the task.

I would still like to try one so that I can enjoy the lovely flowers and have a reminder of my youth spent in a place so very different from where I live now.

Pride-of-De-Kaap

SEPTEMBER 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

This has been an exciting birding month in my garden. It began with the welcome return of the Lesserstriped Swallows on the 4th. Although they have not yet begun working on the remains of the mud nest under the eaves, a pair of them regularly perch on a nearby cable and twitter as if contemplating where to begin. With so much rain having fallen in recent weeks, there is bound to be plenty of mud around for when they are ready. Klaas’ Cuckoo has also made its appearance at last.

Lesserstriped Swallows

I walked outdoors the other day just in time to witness a Black Sparrowhawk swooping down to catch an unsuspecting Village Weaver perching at the top of a white stinkwood tree (Celtis africana). It mainly feeds on pigeons and doves, which may account for the clusters of dove feathers I sometimes find on the lawn – meanwhile I have been mentally chastising a neighbouring cat!

The many blossoms in the garden attract numerous foraging bees, which are eagerly gobbled up by Forktailed Drongoes.

Laughing Doves can be a treat to watch. Not only have some of them at last worked out how to perch two at a time on the ‘seed house’ – albeit in an uncomfortable looking position, but last week I watched as one ousted a Blackcollared Barbet from the feeding station and proceeded to eat an apple. A pair of them have been kept busy industriously collecting twigs from the syringa trees (Melia azedarach) growing on the pavement for their nest in a neighbouring garden. As an aside, it puzzles me why our municipality chose to plant these alien invasive trees in the first place – perhaps because they are fast-growing?

I felt privileged when a Knysna Lourie alighted on a branch near me while I was sitting in the shade of my ‘forest’. It eyed me for a few minutes before departing silently to feed on syringa berries. Another large bird that moves silently is the Burchell’s Coucal. Having remarked before that we seldom actually see them in our garden, one has been particularly visible this month as it has called from trees such as the Pompon, white stinkwood and the Erythrina caffra.

Burchell's Coucal

I have counted up to eight Pintailed Whydahs in the garden at one time. So far none have openly laid claim to it as a home territory, although a couple of males have, at times, acted in an aggressive manner towards Bronze Manikins and Village Weavers when feeding.

Pintailed Whydah

Aggression from an unexpected quarter was witnessed in the form of a Black Sunbird hot on the tail of a Laughing Dove. The latter was chased in this manner beyond the confines of my garden. Why, I cannot guess.

My September list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sparrowhawk
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
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Crowned Plover
Fierynecked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Gymnogene
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green Woodhoopoe)
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Streakyheaded Canary
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

JUNE 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

JUNE 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

At this time of the year the sun seems to hang low above the horizon and hides behind the Natal Fig for longer than usual in the early mornings. As mentioned before, the front lawn remains in shade for much of the day and there is a discernible chill in the crisp, clear air.

A flock of Laughing Doves weigh down the bare, spindly branches of the acacia tree as if waiting for the ground level of air to warm up before they venture down to pick up the scattered seeds.

The first birds on my list this month, the Redwinged Starlings, do not have that problem. Dark, noisy clouds of them arrive daily to feed on the ripening figs, near the top of the tree shortly after sunrise and explore further down as the day warms up. They also like to take figs across to the Erythrina tree, where they can eat in the sunshine.

redwingedstarling

Olive Thrushes poke around to see what fruit and other morsels are available on the feeding tray, as do the Blackeyed Bulbuls.

olivethrush

It is usually only when a particularly noisy vehicle passes on the road below the garden and frightens the birds that we can fully appreciate what a large flock of African Green Pigeons are camouflaged in the fig tree. They tend to be heard much more often than they are seen.

I was pleased to hear first, and then see, a Cardinal Woodpecker the other day. This morning a small flock of Redbilled Woodhoopoes cackled their way through the garden.

Despite the cold, our winter garden is still cheered by yellow canary creeper blossoms lingering long after the main show of blooms have turned into white puffballs of seed; a variety of aloes are still attracting sunbirds; some blue Plumbago flowers are peeking through the greenery; and the lone Cape Chestnut blossom I mentioned last month continues to adorn the top of the tree.

My June list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Crowned Plover
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Olive Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Village Weaver