It is inevitable that at this time of the year British robins appear on blogs and feature on Christmas cards – I saw a few packs of the latter in the supermarket this morning. As lovely as these birds are, I think it is an opportune moment to show off the Cape Robin-chats that grace many Eastern Cape gardens at this time of the year. This one obligingly posed for me over the weekend.
The Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra) prefers to forage in the proximity of cover, and is not often seen out in the open – unless it is flitting from one position in the garden to another – although they can become fairly confiding after a while. I frequently see one, or a pair, picking up tit-bits at the base of the tree where the feeding tray is and love to observe them following a devious route (from their perspective) to their nest well hidden low down in the shrubbery. Here it is looking for a tasty treat on the ground.
As you can see, its orange breast and grey belly are offset by white eyebrows. The black band across its face resembles a mask when you look at it face-on. There are a number of fairly prominent positions from where these birds sing very melodiously – which they do from very early in the morning.
Note the curious look in its eye and the subtle beauty of the orange hue of the tail feathers – the latter seen to better advantage in the first picture.
What an enjoyable month for watching garden birds! The on-going drought means that the food I put out is appreciated by the locals – they have been through a lot of fruit and seed this month! The latest addition to the feeding table are seed cakes which Ceridwen from next door and a friend made for me over the weekend. These have been devoured by the Fiscal Shrikes, Blackcollared Barbets, Boubous, Blackheaded Orioles – and even the Laughing Doves.
Morrigan’s feeder is a popular haunt in the early mornings and even has queues of birds either waiting their turn or preparing to muscle in on the fine seed I put there.
No Lanner Falcon this month, but I had a wonderful view of a Black Harrier being mobbed by a pair of Pied Crows all the way across the garden until they disappeared into the bright sun already lowering in the sky. I have often noticed a Black Harrier perched on telephone wires on the hill above our house over the past few weeks.
Other welcome newcomers to this month’s list include a Hoopoe, a couple of Spectacled Weavers and Pintailed Whydahs. The latter are still in their winter tweeds, although a few are beginning to show a paler breast – the beginnings of their summer sartorial splendour of black and white tuxedo.
Pintailed Whydah with Laughing Doves in the background
The Cape Weavers are showing their breeding blush of colour around their faces – some are almost a deep russet. With winter nearing its end (according to the calendar, if not the current temperature) Village Weavers are also coming out in their breeding colours.
Cape Weaver on the left with a Village Weaver on the right
My July bird list is:
African Green Pigeon
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
The Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) is a vine that occurs naturally from tropical East Africa to eastern South Africa. It grows on forest margins and is attractive to both bees and butterflies. I have a self-sown one growing next to our swimming pool.
These flowers have also featured on South African postage stamps, which are illustrated below:
I have only now noticed – 17 years later – that the Black-eyed Susan is referred to on the stamps as Black eyed Susy (a name I am not familiar with)! These stamps were first issued in 2000 and reissued in 2003 as part of the standard postage series, which continued for a long time afterwards. In the image you can see them featured alongside a giant girdle-tailed lizard (a 5c stamp issued in 2000) and a much older stamp in a series that featured wild animals of South Africa, this one being a blue wildebeest, issued in 1998.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Footnote: The Red-eyed Dove appears to have abandoned its flimsy nest in the fig tree.