December has been a frantically busy month during which bird watching in our garden has often had to take second place to other activities – as wonderful as they were. I need not have worried though for one of the dubious benefits of the drought has been the attraction of a greater variety of birds to the garden. A Chin-spot Batis was a welcome newcomer that worked its way through the remaining ivy leaves in a more sheltered spot and it has been pleasing to see the return of Yellow-fronted Canaries. This one is inspecting the new feeder I received from my family in Norway.
The most wonderful sound to hear outside since 2018 was the bubbling calls of a Burchell’s Coucal. It paid the garden a very fleeting visit though. These camera-shy birds tend to take refuge in the bushes and the call of one was particularly exciting to hear for they are colloquially known as ‘rain birds’ – said to predict rain, which we need so desperately in the Eastern Cape. Perhaps its prediction was accurately short for we received a whole millimetre of rain not long afterwards! Although I hear their high-pitched calls daily and frequently see them working their way quickly through the remains of the dry Cape Honeysuckle hedge, I was pleased to photograph this Bar-throated Apalis on the ground near our wash line.
A pair of Red-necked Spurfowl have been making more frequent forays into our garden to seek out the crushed maize I scatter for the doves. This is not a good photograph of one for they are still very skittish and move off very quickly should I approach too close for their comfort. I am hoping they will become regular visitors.
The number of Black-eyed Bulbuls gathering around the fruit has increased from the usual three or four to up to seventeen individuals this month! This must be related to the paucity of naturally available food in these drought conditions. I love watching their antics and listening to their cheerful calls. Despite them being sociable birds, they can be fairly aggressive towards each other at times. I have observed, for example how a bird may spread its tail feathers and raise its crest when confronting another in order to protect its turn at an apple.
Male Pin-tailed Whydahs are generally aggressive towards other birds. This one is an exception for, as I have seen no females, I am guessing that my garden is not his territory to defend and he only comes here to feed. He is sporting a magnificent tail at the moment.
My December bird list is:
African Green Pigeon
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
The drought may have robbed us of a fine display of wild spring and summer flowers in the veld, yet there are some indigenous trees that have defied all odds to produce beautiful blooms. The first are some lovely specimens of Virgilia oroboides, commonly known as the Keurboom (tree of choice). Several growing along the lower slopes of the hills around Grahamstown are covered with beautiful, sweetly scented, sweet-pea-like flowers in dense terminal sprays that are proving attractive to bees and butterflies in great numbers.
Although the Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense) in our garden is completely out of kilter with the seasons, there are some lovely specimens blooming along the street not far from where I live. Their pink canopies of flowers are a beautiful sight.
Further afield, in the Addo Elephant National Park, one’s attention is drawn away from the bare ground by the bright red flowers of the Huilboerboon trees (Schotia brachypetala).
Also known as a Tree Fuschia, these trees are sporting clusters of nectar-filled flowers that attract insects as well as birds. I have seen beautiful specimens of these trees growing in gardens. In the Addo Elephant National Park, however, they tend to be straggly and stunted with very gnarled trunks, thanks to being browsed by game.
When all you have is grass …
You will find there is beauty …
In the wind …
And in the golden sunshine …
The long dry period we are experiencing is taking its toll. This is what the heat did to the egg I showed yesterday: within a few hours the soft shell burst open revealing what could have been a carefully coddled egg – even the yolk looked partially cooked, baked by the sun and the heat of the path it was resting on:
I have mentioned that an unprecedented number of birds have been found dead, not only in our garden but elsewhere too. This Laughing Dove has presumably succumbed to the heat:
The leaves of even the indigenous trees are shrivelling in the heat fanned by warm winds now and then:
The ivy that used to hide the brick wall separating our garden from the neighbouring one has died – every leaf of it is now brown and crisp as if it had been put through an industrial oven:
In the words of Maaya Sokomoto, I am waiting for the rain:
I’m waiting for the rain
I’m bracing for the thunder
A twig that wouldn’t sway
In the wind …
The full lyrics can be read at https://genius.com/Maaya-sakamoto-waiting-for-the-rain-lyrics
Donkeys roam all over our town. The other day we came across one that had been waiting patiently at a gate, lost patience and began braying and stamping its feet. We assume it is used to being given a carrot or some other food there. Early one morning in another part of town we saw a donkey walking up and down along a stretch of the pavement when a woman came out, still wearing her dressing gown, with a basin of water and a bunch of carrots. “I feed them every morning”, she told us. In fact, driving around the suburbs, I have become conscious of several plastic basins of water placed on the pavements outside homes and imagine these are mostly for the benefit of donkeys.
Yes, these donkeys do have owners. They are occasionally rounded up to pull carts to collect firewood or to transport other goods from one place to the next. One can tell that not all have been treated well for many bear the marks of having been lashed, while others have open sores. An elderly couple were spotted recently rubbing salve on the leg of a donkey outside their home. Other donkeys have their tails trimmed in different ways, to differentiate one from another: I have seen several with the tail hairs cut short around the edges, leaving a long section in the middle; some tails have been cut straight at the bottom; others at an angle – all to make it easier for their owners to recognise them.
We have seen this particular trio of donkeys grazing in the veld on the hill opposite our house and have named them the ‘forest donkeys’. Okay, there is no forest there; there never was, but all the young trees that have been growing since the area was devastated by fire a few years ago have been eaten by herds of cattle that roam the area.
These donkeys are on the road leading to the army base on the edge of town – the buildings in the background – and are next to the aerodrome. The latter is well fenced and we have not yet seen any animals grazing on it.
While donkeys do not belong in urban areas, we have become used to their presence and who can resist the plight of these creatures that are used and abandoned at will by their owners. Until this area receives the rain it so sorely needs, many kind-hearted residents will continue to provide water and carrots to help them along.
Apart from the vehicle entrance, the pedestrian entry to the campus of the school I used to teach at was a small lych gate. Lych gates are more commonly seen as entrances to a churchyard or consecrated ground.
This is a church school and the gate is really only a stone’s throw from the school chapel, so the choice may be forgiven – I believe it was erected as a memorial to someone, although there is no sign of that on the gate. When I was there, very few of the girls attending the school knew what a lych gate represents. To them it was simply the name of a place: “meet me at the Lych Gate” was no different from “meet me at the drinking fountain”. The school, well over a century old, is peppered with names commemorating people or events from the past that have simply become names in the present – the historical significance gradually disappearing over time. The amusing aspect of this particular lych gate though is that a long-serving member of the administrative staff would regularly refer to it as the LYNCH gate! This might have been related to the spellcheck in MSWord – which duly underlined every ‘lych’ in this paragraph and suggested it be replaced with ‘lynch’. It was an interesting slip though for the word ‘lych’ comes from the Old English līc, meaning corpse.
In practical terms, a lych gate is a covered gate that was traditionally where the corpse bearers would wait for the priest to receive the corpse for burial. The one I mentioned earlier has low wooden gates, but this modern one at the entrance to the New Cemetery in Grahamstown, is a drive-through one.
Following tradition it has a pitched roof, this one covered with clay tiles. It also has small bench seats on either side, which would originally have been a resting place for the shroud-wrapped body or coffin. In these days of hearses, the best these narrow benches could offer perhaps is some shelter for a few people from the rain.
These were the first two animals of one of the Urban Herds to walk past my front gate on Sunday.
Another Urban Herd temporarily blocked our way along Somerset Street later in the morning.
They ambled down African Street quite oblivious to the vehicles travelling in both directions.
Part of yet another Urban Herd had made itself at home in someone’s garden. I couldn’t help wondering if they have become adept at opening gates.
We saw these two looking bewildered at the side of the road on our way home. They both sniffed at the air and turned their heads in different directions. One mooed loudly and they seemed to be listening carefully for a response. After a few minutes they set off at a steady pace in the direction of the bridge on the main road – doubtless to join the rest of their herd which had gathered on the outskirts of the suburbs.
Having seen enough of them for one morning, we didn’t follow them.