LOOKING AT RED-WINGED STARLINGS

Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio) are regular visitors to our garden, their numbers waxing and waning with the seasons. I find that their glossy-black feathers make them difficult to photograph and their brownish-red wings that are most beautiful when seen in flight – also a challenge to catch on film.

The males and females are easily told apart for the males have black heads, while the females sport an ash-grey head and upper breast.

While Red-winged Starlings are known to nest in rock cavities on cliffs in their natural environment, they have easily adapted to urban environments and commonly nest under eaves and in ducts or vents of tall buildings. This messy habit of theirs does not endear them to their suburban hosts!

While this omnivorous species of birds eats fruit, berries and happily destroy flowers to get at the nectar, their young are fed on a high protein diet consisting of worms and insects. I have often observed the Red-winged Starlings taking small pieces of meat from the feeding tray and flying off with them – presumably for their youngsters. I have featured this one with the deformed foot before.

They also peck at parasites on large mammals, such as this one giving a similar coloured cow a thorough going-over.

While they are often seen feeding in trees – they weigh down our Natal fig tree during the fruiting season – Red-winged Starlings also forage on the ground, moving with bounding hops. This male has pounced upon a crumb of fruit cake that fell on the patio.

COPING WITH CALAMITY

Red-winged Starlings are frequent visitors to our garden. With the breeding season approaching, we no longer see the large flocks of only a few weeks ago. They are pairing up, which gives me a better opportunity to observe their individual behaviour more closely whenever they visit the feeders. I was watching this one tucking into an orange when I realised there was something different about him.

It was the sharp upturned claws that first attracted my attention and made me reach for my camera.I cannot help wondering what calamity befell this bird and when. Perhaps it was born with a deformed foot; was it injured during an escape from a predator; got tangled in something? I observed it perching on the branches before flying off and have seen it a few times since. It has obviously found a way to deal with its curled up claws.

JULY 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

This month the Cape White-eyes were the first on my list as a few of them worked their way through the bushes and waited their turn at the nectar feeder. They are delightful birds to observe and I take pleasure in watching them peck at the cut fruit. Their sweet reedy notes that vary in pitch and volume are often a giveaway that they are nearby. Of course the ubiquitous Laughing Doves are not slow to float down from their lofty perches in either the Erythrina caffra or in the skeletal looking Dais cotinifolia – where they have been catching the early rays of sunlight – not long after the seed feeders have been filled.

It is good to hear the merry chirrup cheeping of the Grey-headed Sparrows. A pair of them are around more regularly now – usually after the doves have had their fill and there is both space and peace for these little birds to enjoy their food. While they have not been very prominent visitors over the past few months, the Fork-tailed Drongos are back to hawk insects in the air and to drink from the ‘pub’. This nectar feeder has had to be filled almost daily this month as there are few other readily available natural sources of nectar around.

One of the natural sources is the Erythrina caffra which is coming into bloom now. This tree hosts a variety of birds such as Cape White-eyes, Laughing Doves, all the weavers, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds and has attracted the return of the feisty Amethyst Sunbirds. The males seem to spend a lot of time chasing each other all over the garden.  There are Common Starlings galore as well as our indigenous Red-winged Starlings, all of which feast on either the blooms or the seeds still hanging from the branches, and come down to inspect what I have on offer.

You can see from its yellow beak that the breeding season is already upon us for some birds! A pair of Red-winged Starlings perched in the dry branches of the Cape Honeysuckle when the male decided to fly down for a closer look at the offerings.

There are times when all the bird song comes to an abrupt end and dead silence prevails. This is a sure sign of the presence of a raptor. Recently, I looked up in time to see a large African Harrier Hawk gliding towards the fig tree escorted by a pair of Red-winged Starlings. It had no sooner perched on one of the branches when a variety of birds flew up to pester it by calling loudly and flitting around it. The hawk soon left. Another, smaller, raptor made a rare appearance in our garden. This was a Black-shouldered Kite that flew low over the feeding area before perching on the telephone cable and then disappeared. The general avian chatter resumed straight after.

My bird list for this month:
African Green Pigeon
African Harrier Hawk
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Black-shouldered Kite
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Sombre Bulbul
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

JUNE 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

It is usually a toss-up between the Olive Thrushes or the Laughing Doves which will be the first to arrive at the replenished feeders each morning. Close on their heels come the Southern-masked Weavers – still the most dominant weaver in our garden by far. The male Cape Weavers are already looking ready for the breeding season, with some showing more deeply coloured faces than others:

I never tire of seeing the rather shy Spectacled Weaver that darts out of the shrubbery when the coast is clear and is quick to disappear in a flash:

Black-headed Orioles call from high in the tree tops and have only occasionally swooped down to refresh themselves at the nectar feeder. The Speckled Pigeons have had a bit of a shock this month as we have at last got the boards under the eaves repaired. With a bit of luck they will now seek someone else’s roof in which to raise their next families – they had become too much to deal with in terms of the mess they make and their propensity to chase each other around the ceiling at night. I might have mentioned before that one of them (the same one?) has taken to eating the fish or tiny bits of chicken I put out on occasion – it even chases other birds away until it has eaten its fill. That sounds a little macabre, so here is an ever-cheerful Black-eyed (dark-capped) Bulbul to lift the mood:

Several Common Starlings are coming to visit at a time now, their beaks have turned yellow within the last few weeks, so I imagine they too are thinking about the breeding season ahead. Also in a courting mood has been a pair of Knysna Turacos that have been following each other through the trees and occasionally showing me their beautiful red wings when they fly across the garden. The other morning one of them came to drink at the bird bath not very far from where I was sitting – I felt very privileged to be so close to one. The photograph below is a cheat not from this month, but we all need to see beautiful creatures from time to time and I would love to share this one:

The Bronze Mannikins give me great cause for delight with their daily visits:

Lastly, the Red-winged Starlings continue to fly around the suburb in large flocks. I think whatever fruit they had managed to find in the fig tree is over for now they gather in the Erythrina caffra, where they nibble at the remaining few flowers and at the seedpods. Up to six of them at a time fly down to investigate the apples I have placed in the feeding area – and tend to make short work of them! This is a female:

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cardinal Woodpecker
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Bush Shrike
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

MOBILE MEALS

We are used to seeing Cattle Egrets darting about in the company of cattle, zebras and buffalo so it is always interesting to see other birds making a meal of the ticks that attach themselves to animals as they walk through the grass. The first of these is a pair of sheep hosting a Fork-tailed Drongo and a Red-billed Oxpecker respectively:

I am always excited to spot an oxpecker around these parts.

Redwinged Starlings are common garden visitors and a large flock of them gather daily in the Natal fig. It was a strange sight, however, to turn a corner in town to find these ones astride a cow while they feasted on ticks:

The sun had already set, so the light is not good yet you can see the russet in the outstretched wings of the bird on the right.

There appeared to be a conflict of views being played out while the cow munched away placidly.