FEBRUARY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

There are a few mysteries about the avian visitors to our garden that have had me puzzled this month. Among them are: why are the apples I have put out been pecked at only a few times and then left to shrivel? I have tried two different kinds (both have been tasty and juicy for me); why am I seeing ever fewer Village Weavers – are the Southern Masked Weavers finally taking over this territory? Where have the Speckled Mousebirds gone? I hear both Olive Thrushes and Cape Robin-chats in the shrubbery and yet see very little of them in the feeding area. Common Starlings pop in only every now and then; and the Black-headed Orioles very seldom visit the nectar feeder … Drought cannot be the only answer, for I provide fresh water daily; the seed is replenished daily and I regularly replenish any other food I happen to put out.

Such questions continue to mull over in my mind as I settle to watch birds every morning and as often as I can during the afternoon. February is a time of change: our weather remains very hot albeit with increasingly cooler days between; leaves on the deciduous trees are yellowing, turning brown and float to the ground in the slightest breeze; thin layers of cloud arrive – some even tower up enticingly high on the horizon to catch the pinkish light of the setting sun, yet hardly any rain worth mentioning has fallen. The Common Fiscals and Southern Masked Weavers are still feeding their impatient young; the Lesser-striped Swallows have mostly disappeared and the White-rumped Swifts will be off before long.

The Cape White-eyes continue to provide joy as they visit the nectar feeder often and work their way through the shrubbery.

I had a magnificent view of an African Harrier-Hawk flying low over our garden for two days in a row. On the first occasion I was alerted to its presence by the birds I was watching disappearing in a whoosh of feathers and dust as they sought shelter in the surrounding trees and shrubs. The following day I watched as a pair of Red winged Starlings escorted it out of ‘their’ airspace.

A pair of Hadeda Ibises regularly forage through the leaf litter in the garden – very quietly for such large birds until something gives them a fright and they soar away with loud ‘ha-ha-hadeda’ sounds.

Having had another eye operation this month has made using binoculars impossible, nor can I use my usual spectacles with any confidence yet, so my identification of this as a Forest Canary may be way off and I am happy for it to be placed into its correct ‘box’:

My bird list for February contains both the regulars as well as some new arrivals:

African Green Pigeon
African Harrier-Hawk
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Forest Canary
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Long-billed Crombec
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pin-tailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Pigeon
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift
Yellow-fronted Canary

DOMKRAG WATERHOLE

It is worth spending time at a waterhole. Patience and careful observation can reap many unexpected rewards. Take the well-known Domkrag Waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park: this is unusual in that visitors are welcome to get out and can look down on the waterhole, over a short hedge of Spekboom. A familiar sight here is a Karoo Scrub-robin that watches one carefully from within the Spekboom hedge before emerging to see if anything worthwhile to eat has been dropped by visitors.

Signs warn of the risks, making it worthwhile focusing on the whole environment and not only the water below.

A Hadeda Ibis preened itself at the edge of the water, the early morning sunshine highlighting its iridescent feathers.

Not far away, a pair of Egyptian Geese warmed themselves in the sun, sitting close to the ground and out of the way of an icy breeze.

Standing next to the reeds, a Black-headed Heron stood motionless – watching the water with the kind of patience few of us would be able to maintain for long.

While an African Spoonbill waded about more actively to find its food.

There was so much more to see, but those will have to wait for another post.

WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.

No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.

It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!

While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.

The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.

Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.

We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.

We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.

A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.

A MORNING HERALD

No-one can accuse a Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) of waking up quietly. Such is their enthusiasm for each new day that it overflows into the neighbourhood, making sure that we are all awake and ready to face a new round of: exploring outside our homes before 9 a.m.; checking the cupboards to see if there is any flour left to bake; dreaming of what can be delivered now that e-trade has been set free (only to realise that there is such a backlog of orders that one might forget what it was we were so enthusiastic about). Back to Hadedas though. They are delightfully cheerful birds to have around.

They wander around the garden, usually head down, during the day as they poke around looking for food. Their carnivorous diet consists of earthworms, millipedes, insects, spiders and snails.

Hadedas might look ungainly at first glance, but see one flying and you will appreciate their grace. The heavy body with grey-brown feathers might look rather bland – until the sunlight catches the beautiful iridescent pink or greenish splash on its shoulders.

While they tend to forage in silence, if Hadeda Ibises are disturbed in our garden, they fly noisily to perch in a tall tree – or often on the roof of our house. These morning heralds are welcome in our garden.

PREENING HADEDAS

South Africans tend to be dismissive about Hadeda Ibises (Bostrychia hagedash). We see them regularly over large parts of the country so, they are ‘just there’. Mind you, no-one can ignore their strident calls which can be ear-piercing if you are on the edge of sleep in the early hours of the morning or indulging in a quiet contemplation of the late afternoon. That is when they seem to be the noisiest – in town anyway. I am horrified by advice about getting rid of such ‘pests’ and the bad press these delightful birds get from people who hear the calls yet do not observe these birds closely enough to appreciate their character and, yes, their personalities. Anyway, why try to get rid of Hadedas when traffic continues to roar at all hours of the day?

I seldom see vehicles halted in a game reserve, for example, to watch Hadeda Ibises. Like the Cape Crows or Pied Crows – also large birds – visitors tend to take them in at a glance and move on, even if they are interested in birds. I was thus able to enjoy this pair of preening ibises to the full. Both have tiny bits of fluff or feathers sticking to the end of their long de-curved beaks.

Their grey-brown feathers are being lifted by the wind, while the sunlight just catches their patches of iridescence. In this photograph you can see that both wings are held slightly away from the body as the lower Hadeda tucks its beak under one to set the feathers right or, perhaps, to get rid of some annoyance.

Here it is bending its sinuous neck to do the same on the other side.

Apart from several Hadeda Ibises roosting in our garden, I often come across one or two foraging among the remaining shrubs and under trees where the soil has not yet baked hard. It is surprising that such a large bird can be so well camouflaged that I often hear the rustling of leaves before actually seeing one probing the leaf litter. They generally walk away quickly if I come too close, but occasionally rise up with a flutter, yelling blue murder, only to settle a little distance away as though nothing has happened to disturb them.