A COMMUNITY PULLS TOGETHER

A strong Berg wind has blown today, shaking trees, creating eddies of dry leaves on the ground – and fanning a veld fire, funnelling the thick smoke down into the valley to smother our town.

The smoke grew thicker as the wind strengthened and the fire spread across the hills, threatening the hospital, a retirement centre and other buildings. A local school evacuated their scholars when the fire came too close.

It does not take long for a fire to eat its way through tinder dry grass and drought-stricken vegetation when there is a strong wind to egg it on. In no time at all the flames crossed the disused railway line and the smoke billowed upward.

The extent of the fire and the smoke attracted dozens of onlookers – we haven’t experienced such a veld fire so close at hand for a season or so.

Even though all the municipal fire trucks had been fully deployed they couldn’t fill the gaps. This is where the community pulled together. The university bowser came to assist.

Other assistance came from schools, the army base, a neighbouring municipality and even a nearby game reserve.

So much water has been used to fight a blaze when there is already so little to spare.

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JUNE 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

This month has been cold and very windy at times. What remains of the lawn is covered with the dried up leaves from the Cape Chestnut and the many Pompon (Dias cotonifolia) trees. The sun rising later and remaining lower above the horizon for longer has meant that the front garden remains in full shade until well past mid-morning. Generally, this means that the birds seek the highest branches to perch on while the sun warms them up and only come down to inspect the seed I have put out much later. This has caused me to change my routine too: I only provide seed at mid-morning, when I take a break for a cup of tea and also try to find warmth in the weak sunlight.

Here a Village Weaver perches on the hanging feeder:

Although there is no fruit in the garden, there must be something to eat for a flock of at least a hundred Redwinged Starlings wheel about the suburb daily, flying from one garden to the next and filling the air with their mellifluous sounds. A flock of a similar size of Laughing Doves gather in the Erythrina caffra in the back garden almost as soon as the rays of the sun reach its uppermost branches. They gradually work their way towards the front garden, fluttering from one tree to another until one or two finally pluck up the courage to settle down to test the crushed mealie seeds sprinkled on the patches of lawn beaten hard and bare by their myriad feet. I can almost tell the time they will arrive: fifteen to twenty minutes after I have sat down.

A pair of Blackeyed Bulbuls usually arrive mid-morning to investigate what is on offer – cut apples are a favourite. Their cheerful calls from within the yellowing foliage of the Pompon trees are always welcome. With most of the aloes having finished blooming, the nectar feeder has become more popular again, attracting the Amethyst Sunbird, Forktailed Drongos, Cape Weavers, and Blackheaded Orioles among others.

My June bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
African harrier Hawk (Gymnogene)
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Barn Swallow
Blackbacked Puffback
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Heron
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Eurasian Hobby
Fierynecked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Southern Black Tit
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver

A DRIVE OUT

It is such a beautifully sunny day that we drove along the Bathurst road this morning and returned via the Belmont Valley road. Here is a very different view of Grahamstown from the one from our side of town. The CBD is on the left and Makana’s Kop is on the right.

The narrow tar road that wends its way along the Rietberg Mountains exposes layers of underlying rock in places, showing evidence of the stresses involved in shaping our landscape.

For most of the way there are no clear shoulders, instead the grass verges grow right to the edge of the tar. During summer, the grass is generally taller than this.

Here the road is about to wind down the very steep Blaauwkrantz Pass.

The reason for our drive was to look at some of the many beautiful aloes that are still in bloom in the veld.

The dirt road that winds through the Belmont Valley passes productive farmland, much of it under drip irrigation. Near the end of our drive along this road, we had to stop and wait for this to move aside for us.

MAY 2018 GARDEN BIRDS

This has been an in-between month for watching birds in the garden. Several days have passed with no need to top of the seed in the feeders; during some mornings or afternoons the garden has been silent – as if all avian life had departed for a different planet. Several aloes have bloomed and faded with nary a visitor … then, just when you think some plague has hit, Redwinged Starlings fly over in large flocks to settle in the branches of the Erythrina caffra; the cheerful sound of weavers spill through the jungle of leaves threaded together by the Canary Creeper and the Golden Shower; and flocks of tiny Bronze Manikins cluster around the feeder or flit through the creepers, constantly ‘chatting’ as they do so. Here is one of them:

African Green Pigeons play hide-and-seek, calling mysteriously either from the Natal Fig or the Erythrina caffra during the late afternoon – perhaps when they come to roost – but provide only fleeting glimpses of themselves. A pair of Knysna Turacos purr and snort softly within their leafy world – they move silently for such large birds – so I felt privileged watching them flitting through the foliage the other day and drink from the stone bird bath situated in the shade. The Black-collared Barbets are also heard more often than they are seen these days, although three of them spent a leisurely time feeding on the apples I had put out this morning.

Black-headed Orioles call from the tree tops almost daily and occasionally come to the nectar feeder:

I simply have to share again a photograph of one of the Crowned Hornbills that graced our garden for a few days before exploring somewhere else:

It is an odd time of the year to be hearing the familiar calls of Klaas’ Cuckoo and a tad disappointing to see so little of the Cape Robins, although they continue to sing quietly from deep within the undergrowth. Waves of Cattle Egrets pass over every evening, having kept the Urban Herd company during the day, as they head for their chosen roosting trees in the centre of town. May is an in-between month of warm days followed by cold; of a warm Berg Wind shaking leaves from trees heralding days of gloomy skies and dampness; it is a month of weak sunshine and dark nights … the birds may come and go, but there are always enough around to provide real pleasure!

My May bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird (Black)
Barthroated Apalis
Barn Swallow
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Shrike (Fiscal)
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Egyptian Goose
Eurasian Hobby
Fierynecked Nightjar
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon (Rock)
Spectacled Weaver
Village Weaver
Yellowbilled Kite

ASCENSION DAY

Today is Ascension Day, one of the earliest Christian festivals, dating back to the year 68. It marks the end of the Easter season and is celebrated on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday because, according to Christian beliefs, Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples after he rose from death before he ascended to heaven.

There was a time when Ascension Day was a public holiday in South Africa, but this fell away when the number of public holidays were rationalised to twelve – although the Public Holidays Act (Act No 36 of 1994) determines that whenever a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday following on it shall be a public holiday!

The windows shown above are in the chapel of the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown.

With it no longer being a public holiday, everyone has to go to work as usual in this country. I was interested to read, though, that according to Welsh superstition, it is unlucky to do any work on Ascension Day!

BIBLE MONUMENT

The average visitor to Grahamstown wouldn’t know of its existence, unless they had been taken there by a local resident. To tell visitors that the Bible Monument is just off Strowan Road wouldn’t be of much use either: for even if told to turn right at the T-Junction that comes off the N2, visitors could be forgiven for not seeing anything and being horrified to find themselves instead at the litter strewn approach to the municipal dump!

Yet, the Bible Monument isn’t small; merely that it is beautiful in its simplicity so that it blends easily into its semi-rural surroundings. The surrounding veld grass grows tall in season; the aloes bloom in season; birds perch on the sturdy walls; and doubtless little animals scurry around it in the dark and when no-one is about.

Few people visit it – not regularly anyway – so there is not even a dedicated road or well-trodden path leading to it: it is simply there. Yet, it is no ordinary monument; rather it is one that represents an extraordinary event. During April 1837, a group of trekkers under the leadership of Jacobus Uys encamped on the outskirts of Grahamstown, on their way to the interior. It was here that they were met by a party of British settlers from the town, who presented them with a Dutch Bible. This is why the monument has been built to represent an open Bible. It faces the direction towards which the trekkers departed, and marks the place where this exchange took place.

This exchange was, above all, about friendship. It was a gesture of friendship between two groups of people who were often in conflict in those turbulent times of our history.

Friendship, such an all-embracing word suggesting a relationship of mutual respect and affection between people. Perhaps it is because of its fairly remote location, or because the monument is so seldom visited, but fifty-five years after the erection of the monument, the brass plaques were stolen – probably to sell as scrap metal! The wall remained empty and faceless, rendering them meaningless to any casual observer.

Fortunately, replicas of these plaques were erected in April this year. They have been made from black granite sourced in Zimbabwe and etched using laser technology. Arranging this, and paying for it, was no simple task and required the goodwill of many individuals and organisations within the community of Grahamstown.

The actual Bible handed over all those years ago is now on display at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.