SCENES FROM THE EASTERN CAPE …

… the part of the Eastern Cape where I live. Grahamstown is surrounded by farms, game reserves, hunting areas, and is close to the coast. We are not going to reach the sea on this virtual trip, but will stick closer to home. The first scene then is of an abandoned windmill. These wonderful wind-driven pumps were iconic structures of farming communities all over South Africa. Most have now been replaced by solar pumps and the old stalwarts have been left to rust … clanking uselessly in the wind.

Grass fires spell danger and destruction to anything and everyone who lives in their wake. Many fires are fanned by strong winds and recently our town was smothered in thick smoke coming from a bushfire on the side of the surrounding hills. In this view across the valley, you can see the brownish layers of smoke from grass fires somewhere in the region.

Now many of you are familiar with my tales of the Urban Herd: cattle that are left to wander around the suburbs to feed on the unmown grass verges, unkempt public parks – and to drink water from ditches and potholes. These two almost look as if they wish to pay the homeowner a visit!

The number of donkeys seen in town as well as in the suburbs has also increased over the years. These two are typical of many of them: finding grazing wherever they can in the suburbs:

From time to time some may be collected by their owners and in-spanned to pull a donkey cart. The latter are frequently used for collecting firewood, or wood from the wattle forests that are growing on the fringes of the town for building houses. In this case, these youngsters may have delivered something or are simply going on a ‘joy-ride’ through the suburbs at the end of the day:

We have become so used to seeing these domestic animals both in town and in the suburbs as well as along the road that skirts through what is euphemistically called the industrial area on the edge of town – there are no factories here – that we tend not to worry about them anymore. Yesterday evening a cow stood in the middle of a busy street while she suckled her calf: vehicles simply slowed down and moved past them without a fuss. A boon for the bird-watcher in me is that the presence of cattle in the area means that I occasionally see Red-billed Oxpeckers feasting on the ticks they carry:

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AN ORANGE THEME

The warmth of orange helps to keep the chill at bay and so I present to you some orange-themed photographs. The first is a bright morning sky as seen from my bedroom window:

Next come three flowers. The first is one of many more aloes likely to be shown here as the flowering season gets underway:

Deep orange Cape honeysuckle flowers are out already, brightening up gardens, hedges and the open veld:

The golden shower creepers are also showing buds and will soon provide cascades of orange too:

The colouring of the eyes of the Red-billed Oxpecker fits into this theme – just:

Lastly, here is a little boy’s dream:

COMING CLOSER

While we are used to seeing Red-billed Oxpeckers in places such as the Kruger National Park, their resident range has become greatly reduced over the years because of their need for ungulate hosts. Red-billed Oxpeckers feed on ticks and blood-sucking flies and so can usually be spotted on game such as zebra, buffalo, kudu as well as domestic animals like cattle and horses. With the increase in private game reserves and game farms, it became viable to re-introduce these birds to the Eastern Cape, where they had become extinct, partly due to the practice of dipping cattle with toxic chemicals. The first Red-billed Oxpeckers – from the Kruger National Park – were released in 1990 in places such as the Addo Elephant National Park, the Great Fish River Reserve and some years later on a private game farms and reserves.

It has been exciting to spot them in the Addo Elephant National Park. Last year I saw a few perched on cattle on the edge of our town, but they were too far away to photograph. It seemed to have been a chance sighting until last week when I spotted three of them on this pony only ten minutes from home:

In case you are wondering, the third bird is in the middle with only its red beak visible.

 

SYMBIOSIS

Symbiosis is an interesting word meaning ‘living together’ which derives from the Greek syn = together and biono = living. It is frequently used in the form of symbiotic relationships between plants / animals / birds. A very common example of a symbiotic relationship between birds and animals is the presence of Cattle Egrets that follow close in the wake of grazing cattle.

They are also often seen in the company of buffalo or zebra.

What these birds are doing is catching insects that are disturbed by the movements of the grazing animals. This is a type of commensalism whereby the birds benefit enormously from the animals, although what the latter get out of the relationship is uncertain – unless the birds act as a warning system perhaps.

I suspect this Red-winged Starling was using the bull as a convenient perch for the same reason – there were several other cattle grazing nearby.

A symbiotic relationship with more mutual benefit would be this one between the Red-billed Oxpeckers and the Nyala bull: the oxpeckers probe the skin and ears of animals in order to feed on the parasites harboured there. This benefits both them and the animal concerned.

In the case of these oxpeckers on a Cape buffalo, only one appears to be ‘working’, while the others are enjoying a free ride!

RED BIRDS

A number of South African birds have ‘red’ in their name, although this appellation does not necessarily refer to bright red feathers such as those of the Scarlet-chested Sunbird, this one seen in the Kruger National Park:

Or the Black-collared Barbet, as seen in my garden:

Instead, these birds have red in their name because it is a defining feature of their appearance. Among them are the African Red-eyed Bulbul, which has reddish eye-rings and is a common resident in the drier northwest region of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. This one was photographed in the Augrabies Falls National Park:

The Red-knobbed Coot, this one photographed in Cape Town, not only has two distinctive red knobs – which turn bright red during the breeding season – on its head but red eyes too. They are common resident water birds in South Africa and, interestingly, do not have webbed feet!

Delightful birds to watch are the Red-headed Finches. While they tend to live in the dry savannah areas, I photographed this one in Boksburg:

Hornbills are comical birds and the Kruger National Park hosts several varieties, among which is the Red-billed Hornbill. Although it is one of the smaller hornbills, the Red-billed Hornbill is one of the characteristic birds in the park:

While there are many more birds with ‘red’ in their name, such as the Red-eyed Dove, Red-necked Spurfowl, and the Red-winged Starling, I leave you with a particularly interesting bird, the Red-billed Oxpecker – also photographed in the Kruger National Park. This one is feasting on ticks on an impala:

NOTE: Click on a photograph for a larger view.