JUNE 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

It is usually a toss-up between the Olive Thrushes or the Laughing Doves which will be the first to arrive at the replenished feeders each morning. Close on their heels come the Southern-masked Weavers – still the most dominant weaver in our garden by far. The male Cape Weavers are already looking ready for the breeding season, with some showing more deeply coloured faces than others:

I never tire of seeing the rather shy Spectacled Weaver that darts out of the shrubbery when the coast is clear and is quick to disappear in a flash:

Black-headed Orioles call from high in the tree tops and have only occasionally swooped down to refresh themselves at the nectar feeder. The Speckled Pigeons have had a bit of a shock this month as we have at last got the boards under the eaves repaired. With a bit of luck they will now seek someone else’s roof in which to raise their next families – they had become too much to deal with in terms of the mess they make and their propensity to chase each other around the ceiling at night. I might have mentioned before that one of them (the same one?) has taken to eating the fish or tiny bits of chicken I put out on occasion – it even chases other birds away until it has eaten its fill. That sounds a little macabre, so here is an ever-cheerful Black-eyed (dark-capped) Bulbul to lift the mood:

Several Common Starlings are coming to visit at a time now, their beaks have turned yellow within the last few weeks, so I imagine they too are thinking about the breeding season ahead. Also in a courting mood has been a pair of Knysna Turacos that have been following each other through the trees and occasionally showing me their beautiful red wings when they fly across the garden. The other morning one of them came to drink at the bird bath not very far from where I was sitting – I felt very privileged to be so close to one. The photograph below is a cheat not from this month, but we all need to see beautiful creatures from time to time and I would love to share this one:

The Bronze Mannikins give me great cause for delight with their daily visits:

Lastly, the Red-winged Starlings continue to fly around the suburb in large flocks. I think whatever fruit they had managed to find in the fig tree is over for now they gather in the Erythrina caffra, where they nibble at the remaining few flowers and at the seedpods. Up to six of them at a time fly down to investigate the apples I have placed in the feeding area – and tend to make short work of them! This is a female:

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Bush Shrike
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

MILNER DAM

Many regular readers have been flummoxed by my reports of the long-lasting drought in this area; of our taps occasionally running dry; the water supply being switched off at night; and now the town’s water supply frequently being switched off every second day. If you live in an area where it rains often – some of you have even complained about getting too much rain – and where you do not think twice about watering your garden; taking a shower – or even washing your car – simply because the water is always there, then our situation must seem very strange.

Grahamstown has always suffered from a shortage of water and, over the years, various plans have been put into place to bring more water to the town. The original town nestles in a valley but with time the suburbs have crept up the hills on the west and east – and the population has increased several fold. In pre-Covid times we also have a huge influx of university students and scholars who fill the boarding houses of a number of schools.

I have mentioned that we now depend on water from the Orange River that reaches us via the Fish River. Of course it is a lot more complicated than that. Here is an explanatory excerpt from an article that appeared in our local newspaper:

[The] Eastern supply system draws water from the Orange-Fish River Inter Basin Transfer Scheme. This water has a long journey, starting at the Katse Dam in the highland mountains of Lesotho, then down the Orange River which flows into the Gariep Dam in the Free State, from there water is diverted through a long tunnel into the Fish River which is diverted to a weir and another tunnel to the Glen Melville Dam north-east of Grahamstown.

The western supply system relies exclusively on rain falling into catchments above four local dams. Jamieson and Milner Dams, two very small dams (about 12% of the total western supply) at the top of the New Year’s River catchment, are unreliable during drought and can contribute about 1ML/day.

I drive past the Jamieson and Milner dams almost every week. Both dams, next to each other, are situated on the upper reaches of the New Year’s River and would normally have a combined capacity of 830 000m³. When we arrived here thirty three years ago, both dams were filled to the brim and supplied our town with additional water. You wouldn’t recognise Jamieson as a dam in a photograph as you are more likely to mistake it as a hollow between hills. Look at the photograph of Milner Dam below and know that you are looking at the face of a drought and an aspect of a town with a water crisis:

MAY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

Days are cooling down and the nights are becoming uncomfortably cold. Red-winged Starlings are gathering in ever-larger flocks as they swoop around the neighbourhood in search of food. I counted twenty of them in the Erythrina caffra yesterday – nibbling at the few scarlet blossoms that are left on the tree. African Green Pigeons continue to hide effectively in the dark green foliage of the Natal fig, although I can hear them chuckling daily. I often feature Olive Thrushes, so will spare you yet another photograph of these delightful birds. Nonetheless, it has been fun watching a spotty youngster grow in confidence so quickly that it now even chases adults away from the fruit on the feeding tray if it wishes.

The fruit I provide regularly attracts a pair of Black-collared Barbets. One alights on the tray first, while the other waits in the branches above for a while before joining the first. They are either the first to visit, or come after the main feeding rush is over.

The Cape Robin-chat has been particularly shy and skittish this year. It peeps out from between the leaves and even advances towards the feeding tray, but flies off as soon as any other bird approaches.

Last month I mentioned seeing a female Thick-billed Weaver. I have spotted it several times this month, either perched on the edge of the bird bath or in the shrubbery.

I was delighted to spot a Hoopoe on our back lawn the other day. It was so busy pecking at the grass that I doubt if it noticed my approach.

Bronze Mannikins are such a delight to watch as they flit around the garden and especially when they crowd around the feeder to eat the seeds.

Then there are the Common Starlings. Usually only one or two come to the feeding area. Today a large flock of them were perched in first the Erythrina caffra and then moved into the Natal fig.

Having observed an unusual bird for three days in a row, I was at last able to identify it as a Brown Scrub-Robin – a first for my garden – only to have it disappear again! There is so much dead wood around the garden that the Cardinal Woodpecker can frequently be heard bashing away at it. Unfortunately it is usually far too high up for me to take a photograph worthy of showing off. The same applies to a pair of Crowned Hornbills that attracted my attention by pecking loudly at a window pane in our neighbour’s house. They flew into the Natal fig as I approached them – and that was the end of that! Both the Spectacled Weaver and the Grey-headed Sparrows have made a welcome return to the garden – and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Long-billed Crombec. It might be cold, yet this has been a good month for garden birding.

My bird list for this month:
African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Mannikin
Brown Scrub-Robin
Cape Batis
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Forest Canary
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Long-billed Crombec
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Thick-billed Weaver
Village Weaver

FIBRE IS COMING TO TOWN

We might have potholes you can almost swim in; we might have dry taps now and then; we are often sans electricity; we have cattle and donkeys roaming through the town … streets are breaking up; sewage bubbles to the surface in places; and clean water pours down the streets at times. This beautiful town is creaking at the seams and yet … fibre is coming to town.

Trench diggers have been working for months, from one side of town to the other, readying the ground for the laying of fibre. They reached our area last week – the netting along our pavement is hiding the open trenches, which were covered over only a day later.

Some people have complained about the constant digging, the sound of machinery, and (quite rightly) the litter that gets left behind as the workmen make their way through the suburb. The time will come though when this will all be forgotten and they, in their turn, will connect to fibre so that their internet speed and capacity can improve. The picture below shows the section next to our drive that has been cordoned off before a moling machine was used to tunnel under it to feed the fibre through without damaging the driveway.

Yes, our town is fraying like a piece of old cloth. Despite all its problems, it is still a beautiful place to live. Now, the town is seamed with a fibre network filled with potential. Time will tell

SOME SCENIC VIEWS

These are some of the views I enjoy while driving along the Highlands road in the Lothians area not far from town:

It is along this road that we sometimes see a variety of wild animals as well as cattle, horses and sheep. It is a tranquil place to be: the area is filled with birdsong, butterflies, insects and spider webs. It is a place to forget about COVID-19 and to relish living in this beautiful country.