A CLOSER LOOK AT RED-WINGED STARLINGS

Large flocks of Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio) visit the Natal fig in our garden during the fruiting season. Then their mellifluous whistles and harsh grating sounds fill the garden with sound. Should a loud vehicle pass by then up to a hundred of them will briefly darken the sky as they flee from the sound. They form breeding pairs during the summer months and so we see far fewer of them. Several pairs – and later their offspring –  nonetheless regularly visit the feeding areas to see what fruit and other food is available.

Males and females are glossily black and sport brick-red / russet windows in their wings that are particularly striking in flight. The head of the male is black, while the head of the female is grey – making it easy to tell them apart.

Although I put out fruit almost daily, I notice that the Red-winged Starlings seem to wait until the main rush of birds is over before they come down to feed. Their size must be intimidating to other birds, such as the tiny Cape White-eyes and even the larger Olive Thrushes, as they tend to give way immediately and scuttle into the bushes. Perhaps this deference could also have something to do with the strong sharp beak of the Red-winged Starling!

They have adapted well to living in urban spaces, where they nest on buildings instead of the cliffs they would have chosen in their natural environment. I regularly observe a pair of Red-winged Starlings inspecting a large hole in the eaves above my study window, only to be rebuffed by the regular residents – Speckled Pigeons – who have no intention of giving up their real estate! This young male Red-winged Starling, seen in the Mountain Zebra National Park, has been ringed.

DECEMBER 2020 GARDEN BIRDS

We have come to the end of a year, the form of which none of us could have imagined. Watching the birds in our garden has been a saviour to me in terms of pleasure, variety and purpose – especially during the early days of the pandemic lockdown when we couldn’t even leave our homes. We have endured a dreadful drought, relieved a little by some light rain this month. Yet, the birds have endured. Their comings and goings are proof that life continues and their hope and the justification of their behaviour in terms of a belief in the future is one worth emulating: we need to dream, to make plans, and to believe in our future. Never mind that we have pandemic-related restrictions placed on us with little warning, that our plans have to change … we are adaptable creatures and are able to ‘make a plan’ in order to make the best of what we have. I take heart from the Lesser-striped Swallows that have had to wait for the rain to produce the mud they need to build their nest – only to have it fall down soon after completion. They take stock of the situation and try again!

An interesting variety of birds have visited our garden this month. Many are residents, while others are summer visitors. A Brown-hooded Kingfisher perched above one of our bird baths shortly before Christmas – the first I have seen here for some time. The ‘Friendly Fiscal’ has faced stiff opposition as the ringed one has become bolder and a third Common Fiscal has discovered a ready source of food. The three of them clash fairly often and the Friendly Fiscal has to keep a beady eye open when he comes. I was absolutely thrilled when it ate from my young grandson’s hands twice during his short visit here with his family.

Laughing Doves abound, as usual, and some are adept at clinging on to the hanging bird feeders to get to the source of the seed instead of pecking at the seed that has fallen to the ground. Meanwhile, we have been entertained by the calls of the Red-chested Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoos and a Klaas’ Cuckoo. I am delighted to at last get a photograph – albeit not a good one – of the latter for they are not easy to spot among the thick foliage. This one is perched in a Pompon tree in which the buds are clearly visible before they burst open to reveal their beautiful pink blossoms.

Other birds that are notoriously difficult to photograph because of their ability to ‘disappear’ in the foliage are the African Green Pigeons, of which there are several feasting on the figs of the Natal fig tree.

Several Speckled Pigeons live in our roof yet they too enjoy the shade of the fig tree during the December heat.

Red-winged Starlings visit the figs daily to get their fill.

My December bird list:

African Green Pigeon
African Hoopoe
Barthroated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-headed Heron
Black-headed Oriole
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Dark-capped Bulbul
Diederik Cuckoo
Fork-tailed Drongo
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesserstriped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redchested Cuckoo
Red-eyed Dove
Red-throated Wryneck
Red-winged Starling
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift
Yellowfronted Canary

AUGUST 2020 GARDEN BIRDS

This has been an interesting month for watching birds in our garden, beginning with the unmistakable sound of Red-necked Spurfowl under my bedroom window early in the morning. I counted six – not regular visitors, yet I am pleased to see how far they have ventured into the garden. One even hopped up onto the raised bird bath for a drink.

The Black-eyed Bulbuls (Dark-capped these days!) are courting – I watched a pair canoodling on the branches, looking very lovey-dovey – in numbers. This morning I counted eight of them in the feeding area. Several Speckled Mousebirds can also be seen cosying up to each other. The two Common Fiscals (one ringed and the other not) are clearly rivals and dart in and out trying to avoid each other. When they do meet they set up a loud haranguing match and have even attacked each other! I have observed a fiscal spreading out its tail feathers when confronted by a Black-collared Barbet at the feeding tray – determined to stand its ground. The barbets nearly always arrive as a pair. Another regular pair of visitors is the Streakyheaded Seedeater.

I put out both fine and coarse seed daily as well as filling up the nectar feeder. Other fare usually includes fruit, finely chopped pieces of meat, cat crumbles, or fat smeared on biscuits or thin slices of bread. This month I decided to take careful note of who ate what:

Dark-capped Bulbuls have enjoyed fat, cheese and fruit.

Both Common Fiscals seem to eat anything that is not fruit and are particularly partial to meat. This one, however, snitched part of my breakfast!

While the Red-winged Starlings are partial to fruit, they also eat cheese. This female is about to tuck into the pears.

Speckled Mousebirds prefer fruit and are prepared to wait their turn for it.

I usually associate weavers with eating the grain. These Cape Weavers, however, are tucking into a piece of fish. They also eat cat food, cheese, and fat.

The pair of Cape Robin-chats usually wait in the wings for the main rush to be over before they feed. I have seen them eating fat, as well as tiny portions of meat. This one has been eating cat food.

Common Starlings seem to eat anything. They tuck into fruit, cheese, fat, bread and cat food with relish.

I associate Cape White-eyes with fruit, nectar, and aphids. Yesterday though a few of them made off with tiny cubes of cheese.

My August bird list is:
African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul (Black-cap)
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Longbilled Crombec
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pintailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-throated Wryneck
Red-winged Starling
Spectacled Weaver
Sombre Greenbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver
Yellowfronted Canary

NOVEMBER 2019 GARDEN BIRDS

The heat and drought continues unabated, yet I have been blessed with another bumper month of bird-watching in our garden. Delightful visitors are the Black-eyed Bulbuls (their new name, Dark-capped Bulbul, doesn’t trip off my tongue yet) that frequent both the nectar feeder and partake of the cut apples, although I have occasionally seen them hawking insects too. Here a pair of them are seeking some respite in the shade.

The Black-headed Oriole is always a welcome visitor to the nectar feeder. It swoops down now and then to feed on apples too.

This Bronze Mannikin is perched on a branch with its beak agape while it waits for a turn at the seed feeder – mostly dominated by Southern Masked Weavers and Streaky-headed Seedeaters. Although they are said to eat fruit and nectar, I have not observed them doing either in our garden.

The Common Fiscal is a regular visitor – quite happy to inspect my breakfast or what we are having to eat with our mid-morning tea – and is often the first to inspect what has been placed on the feeding tray. There are two: one without a ring and this one that has been ringed. Checking through my archived photographs, the latter has been seen in our garden over a couple of years and must be resident near here. Both have been collecting fruit and flying off to what I presume is a nest in a neighbouring garden.

As much as we often malign Common Starlings in this country, they can be amusing to watch. They tend to perch on the telephone wire above the feeding area to assess the availability of food then come down straight, akin to the landing of a helicopter, to guzzle whatever is there as quickly as possible. This one appears to be voicing its dissatisfaction that a pair of Redwinged Starlings beat it to the apple.

I have mentioned before how important it is to provide water for the birds to drink and bathe in during this hot and dry period. This Laughing Dove is making its way to one of the bird baths, with very little water in it – I filled it up after taking this photograph. The bird baths get filled twice, and sometimes even three times a day of late.

There is a saga attached to the Lesser-striped Swallows which I will relate in another post.

The daily sound of the squeaky ‘kweek, kweek, kweek’ notes emanating from the Red-throated Wryneck has been frustrating as this bird has been so difficult to locate! I used the binoculars and managed to get a better photograph of this warbler-like bird from an upstairs window yesterday – see how well it blends into the lichen-covered branches of the Tipuana tree.

I cannot resist showing you this picture of a Red-winged Starling about to tuck into an apple.

The Speckled Mousebirds are going to bag a post of their own soon. Meanwhile, this one is waiting for an opportunity to eat the apples on the tray below. Note how well it too blends into its surroundings.

My November bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Crowned Hornbill
Diederik Cuckoo
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Klaas’ Cuckoo
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Paradise Flycatcher
Pied Crow
Red-chested Cuckoo
Redeyed Dove
Red-fronted Tinkerbird
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-throated Wryneck
Redwinged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Thickbilled Weaver
Village Weaver
Whiterumped Swift
Yellow-billed Kite

NUPTIAL FLIGHTS

The conditions were perfect yesterday for the air after lunch was warm and humid; not a leaf moved it was so still. My attention was drawn to a slight ‘rubbing’ noise akin to stockings rubbing together or a coarse polishing cloth being used around the corner from where I was sitting. When I looked up the air was filled with winged ants.

These flying ants, known as alates, emerged from at least three places quite close to each other – hundreds of them. I watched as several of them poked their heads through the gaps at a time, shook their delicate wings and flew off. Onward and upward seemed to be the clarion call.

The ground around the openings was crawling with tiny white termites, newly emerged alates and discarded wings. Careful observation occasionally revealed two ants (these would have been males and females) flying joined together in their nuptial flight. Although they emerge at the same time, the queens release pheromones to attract males before mating and usually mates with several males if they can.

I wasn’t the only one watching for even the Laughing Doves and the Speckled Pigeons were ready for a feast:

Red-winged Starlings swooped down to catch as many ants in one go as they could:

Black-collared Barbets preferred to catch the flying ants on the wing as they flew passed them perched on the higher branches:

We have a number of lizards and geckos all over the garden. The two on the wall closest to the origin of this feast scuttled back and forth catching unsuspecting flying ants on the trot until their bellies were fully extended.

At a higher level, they were being caught by Fork-tailed Drongos and White-rumped Swifts. It is thus easy to understand that appearing in such large numbers at once provides the flying ants with a degree of protection from potential predators.