MAY GARDEN 2018

The bounty of fruit of the Natal Fig (Ficus natalensis) has been eaten, leaving lean pickings for the Redwinged Starlings and causing the majority of African Green Pigeons to seek fruit elsewhere – although some still return to roost here overnight. Apart from a wide variety of birds, such as Speckled Mousebirds, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Blackcollared Barbets, Cape White-eyes, Blackheaded Orioles, Olive Thrushes, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, and Grey-headed Sparrows, the fruit also attracts a variety of insects and the small insectivorous bats that swoop around the garden as the day ends. The latter often remind me of D.H. Lawrence’s description of bats in the poem of the same name:

Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop…
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,  
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

In the back garden, the Erythrina caffra (Coral tree) is sporting clusters of seedpods split open to reveal their coral-red seeds which, in due course, fall to the ground. These small, shiny seeds marked on the one side with a black spot are also known as lucky beans. Laughing Doves and Forktailed Drongos perch in the high branches to catch the warmth of the early morning sun and again in the late afternoon.

The Black Sunbirds and Greater Double-collared sunbirds as well as Blackcollared Barbets, Blackheaded Orioles, Cape- and Village Weavers as well as Redwinged starlings are regular visitors too.

I have mentioned before that the name Erythrina, originates from the Greek word erythros meaning red and alludes to the bright red flowers and seeds. Caffra is derived from the Arabic word for an unbeliever, and as used in older botanical works generally indicates that the plant was found well to the south of the range of Arab traders, that is, along the [south] eastern seaboard of South Africa. Carl Thunberg, known as the father of South African botany, gave the names in 1770.

In parts of South Africa, both the Erythrina caffra and the Erythrina lysistemon are regarded as a royal tree; much respected and admired in Zulu culture and believed to have magic properties. Specimens have been planted on the graves of many Zulu chiefs. In parts of the Eastern Cape, local inhabitants will not burn the wood of Erythrina caffra for fear of attracting lightning.

The indigenous Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) has come into full bloom, covering the trees and shrubs with a canopy of bright golden yellow flowers that attract the Barthroated Apalis, Cape White-eyes and a variety of butterflies. These flowers also exude a delightful aromatic scent that adds to the pleasure of being in the garden.

Equally beautiful are the bright orange tubular flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) that are coming into bloom. These attract the nectar-feeding Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared sunbirds, Streaky-headed Seedeaters, Cape Weavers and Village Weavers as well as several butterflies.

Trusses of the beautiful pale blue Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) flowers are also starting to appear.

The first aloes are coming into bloom too and are visited regularly by the Amethyst Sunbirds, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, Streakyheaded Seedeaters, Cape Weavers, Village Weavers, Blackheaded Orioles and Cape White-eyes.

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DECEMBER 2017 GARDEN BIRDS

This has been an excellent month for watching birds in our garden. However, in between entertaining friends and family, celebrating Christmas, and sneaking in a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park before the year ended, there have not been many photographic opportunities, and so you may have seen some of these pictures before.

Village Weavers have continued to entertain us with their cheerful chattering, bright yellow plumage and their constant bickering at the feeding stations. Despite several nests having been crafted all over the garden, few have actually been used for breeding.

Laughing Doves are regulars too: they queue up on the telephone cable in the mornings, waiting for me to scatter seed on the lawn. They gradually move from the cable to the trees, coming ever closer until they alight cautiously. The flock (for there are many of them now) rise in an audible ‘whoosh’ at the slightest movement or sound that triggers their alarm system, only to return moments later.

Cape White-eyes are among the first garden birds to stir before first light. They are making a meal of the ripening plums at the moment! These are figs in the picture below – I haven’t one of them gorging on the plums to show you.

The Greater Double-collared Sunbird has been making ‘guest appearances’ this month as there is plenty of other food about. I always enjoy the metallic sheen of its feathers.

After a brief absence, it feels good to have the Barthroated Apalis back.

My December bird list is:

African Darter
African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Cuckoo
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
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 Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Lourie (Turaco)
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redchested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Speckled Mousebird
Spectacled Weaver
Streakyheaded Canary (Seedeater)
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift

SOUTHERN DOUBLE-COLLARED SUNBIRD

I was watching a pair of Greater Double-collared Sunbirds feeding on the aloes blooming next to our swimming pool this morning when the thought struck me how often people get mixed up between a Cape Turtle Dove and a Red-eyed Dove – the ring around the neck being a superficial identification, until one looks more closely and sees just how different these birds really are. The same applies to the Greater Double-collared Sunbird and the Southern Double-collared Sunbird (formerly known as the Lesser Double-collared Sunbird) – the double band on their chests being a superficial identification, until one looks more closely …

To be fair, while the doves mentioned above are regularly seen in the same area and can even occur in the same flock of doves feeding on the ground, we rarely see these two sunbird species in the same place to make an easy comparison. Both have beaks well adapted for collecting nectar from tubular flowers – clearly illustrated by this Southern Double-collared Sunbird:

The Southern Double-collared Sunbird has a shorter and more slender beak than the Greater Double-collared Sunbird – an aspect that is not always easily discernible in the field.

Both species of sunbird have an attractive green iridescence on their head back and wings. The males sport a double band of blue and red on their breasts – and this is where the most visible difference comes in. The bands are much narrower on the Southern Double-collared Sunbird, particularly the more noticeable red band:

For comparison, here is a Greater Double-collared Sunbird – a year-round resident in our garden.

The photographs of its lesser cousin were all taken in Cape Town.

MAY 2017 GARDEN BIRDS

May has been a quiet birding month in our garden. The tall trees block out the rising sun and leave the lawn in shade until nearly lunch time now. The regular flock of Laughing Doves gather in the top of the Erythrina caffra and the Cape Chestnut, catching the warming rays of the sun; only coming down to feed on the seed I have put out once the day has warmed up somewhat – that seems counter-intuitive to me, but they must have their reason for doing so.

Village Weavers, now in their non-breeding plumage, tend to only visit the garden in the afternoons – appearing to be more interested in what the flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle have to offer than the seeds still lying un-pecked at on the lawn. Perhaps they have found a sunnier source of food elsewhere to satisfy their morning hunger.

The aloes are in bloom though – and what a wonderful show they make.

They regularly attract the attention of Black Sunbirds and the Greater Double-collared Sunbirds. A Malachite Sunbird also pays them a fleeting visit now and then. Shown below is a Greater Double-collared Sunbird feeding on a Cape Honeysuckle flower this morning:

Some African Green Pigeons make us aware of their presence in the fig tree now and then, even though there is nothing to eat there at this time of the year. I have always been rather puzzled where these birds move to once the fig tree is bare. I happened to be on the campus of a school at the bottom of the hill late yesterday afternoon when I counted over twenty African Green Pigeons coming to roost in the oak trees growing there!

What has been exciting is the regular appearance of at least one Knysna Lourie – sometimes two – that moves effortlessly through our treed garden. We have become used to some of its variety of calls that alert us to its presence and I watched in awe this morning as it dropped down to drink copiously from the bird bath situated below my study window.

My May bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Crowned Plover
Common Starling
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Malachite Sunbird
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Village Weaver

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.

FEBRUARY 2016 GARDEN BIRDS

I was away for a good part of February so I blame my absence rather than the weather or the season for my relatively short bird list.

The Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus) is usually fairly secretive and rather solitary in our garden – except when courting. The synchronised duets of courting pairs are beautiful to listen to. I feel fairly privileged whenever I see one skulking about in the undergrowth and very privileged if it deigns to inspect the offerings on the feeding tray to peck at the fruit. They mainly eat earthworms, insects and snails. According to the Roberts Bird Guide they also eat mice – please Boubou, won’t you gobble up the rat that regards the feeding tray as its private banquet?

Boubou

While on the subject of food: I have mentioned Fork-tailed Drongos diving down to catch hapless caterpillars exposed during my gardening activities, stealing food from weavers on the wing, featured images of them drinking from the nectar feeder, and voiced my suspicion that they may have raided – and broken – the nest of the Lesser-striped Swallows last season. While they mostly appear to be insect eaters, small birds and nectar have also been recorded. It wasn’t until this month that I witnessed a Fork-tailed Drongo eating a bird. This is not a good photograph yet I include it as a record of a Fork-tailed Drongo eating a Cape White-eye.

Fork-tailed Drongo

I also observed a female Greater Double-collared Sunbird collecting feathers with which to line her nest hidden in the back garden.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

The burdens of the breeding season are not yet over. Here is an Olive Thrush gathering breakfast for its offspring:

Olive Thrush

My February list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Cuckoo
Black Harrier
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin (Cape Robin-chat)
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Knysna Loerie
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pintailed Whydah
Redeyed Dove
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellowfronted Canary

APRIL 2015 GARDEN BIRDS

I will shortly be on the road again and so am posting my list of garden birds early this month. The only ‘new’ bird on my list is a Knysna Lourie, which flew across our garden into the fig tree – now boasting its early flush of fruit. The late afternoon sun caught the beautiful colours of its outspread wings. What a privilege it is to have them visit now and then!

Birdwatching has been good this month, despite the rain and unexpectedly cold weather. Even though they have been far too quick for me to photograph, it is the Greater Double-collared Sunbirds that have attracted my attention as they titter around the garden and regularly visit the ‘pub’ or call from the top of the ironwood tree. The metallic green sheen of the male is particularly beautiful when caught in the sunlight.

Ten years ago I was fortunate to be able to watch a Greater Double-collared Sunbird build its nest at the end of a branch of an Acacia karoo that, at the time, was almost within touching distance of my upstairs study window – before I had a digital camera, alas.

The closed oval nest began with a few twists of grass around the thin branch. This was gradually added to during the week – by grass, lichen and other plant material, bound together with spider webs – until a definite cup shape was apparent below the defined entrance. I watched closely as, over two days, the female brought a variety of soft materials with which to line the inside. At first these were simply dropped inside before she flew off to collect more. Later I saw the female frequently entering the nest, apparently scuffling around, pop her head out now and then, and fly off to repeat the exercise.

My notes of the time reveal that there was no visible activity at all around the nest for three days after which I noted: “On the contrary, the female is obviously incubating the eggs!”

It was some days later that I was attracted by a number of raucous sounding calls and saw the female Greater Double-collared Sunbird, a Black-eyed Bulbul and some Cape White-eyes behaving in an oddly agitated manner. By craning my neck out of the window I could just see a Grey headed Bush Shrike perched perilously close to the nest. As it skulked ever closer, the other birds left the sunbird to emit frantic, high-pitched sounds as she flapped her wings furiously and made darting movements towards the much larger bird. As soon as the shrike moved away, the sunbird flew back to her nest and disappeared. Peace reigned, but not for long for I fear that within a day or two the Shrike successfully raided the nest, which was then abandoned. I have mentioned before that, having watched a different nest being built, it was blown out of the tree during a storm.

greaterd-csunbirdnest

Greater Double-collared Sunbirds feed on nectar. Apart from the artificial ‘nectar’ available in the ‘pub’ other sources of nectar are readily available at the moment in the form of some early blooming aloes, Cape Honeysuckle, hibiscus flowers, Plumbago and, of course, the figs. I also often see these birds hovering in front of the webs under the outside windowsills to extract spiders.

capehoneysuckle

My early April list is:

African Green Pigeon
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Starling
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Lourie
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Redeyed Dove
Redfronted Tinkerbird
Redwinged Starling
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Sacred Ibis
Sombre Bulbul
Speckled Mousebird
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow Weaver