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.

HADEDA IBIS:2

I cannot resist drawing your attention to the Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) again for they wake ever earlier now that the sun rises ever earlier too. Some people find their raucous onomatopoeic cackling call annoying, especially during the early mornings and evenings – believe me, you would miss them if you moved away for these unglamorous birds have a way of endearing themselves to one. I love listening to them as one groups sets off another perching in a tree further away and those to another and another, until you can hear the cacophany being repeated way down the valley. Several of them perch together in tall trees at night and one can see large flocks of them gathered on a school sports field or around water holes in a national park. In my garden I generally encounter them singly or in pairs. Their rump and wing feathers have a beautiful metallic purple and green sheen that glistens in the sunlight.

Hadeda Ibises make rather flimsy nests from sticks and lined with grass. The sticks for the nest are gathered by the male and then ceremoniously offered to its mate. Sometimes these sticks are so large that I wonder at the bird’s ability to carry them so far and so high. A pair of Hadedas have been raising chicks in the Natal Fig in our garden for some years. Another pair has chosen the Erythrina trees in our back garden for their nest.

They move around surprisingly quietly for such large birds, probing the ground with their beaks to find earthworms, slugs, snails, crickets or other insects as they go. This probing thus assists with the aerating of soil and the control of insect populations. 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.