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.

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!

JULY 2019 GARDEN BIRDS

The drought continues.

Laughing Doves never disappoint: they gather in the treetops to bask in the early morning sunshine; scour the ground for fallen seeds or cling onto the hanging feeders to eat the fine grass seed meant for the smaller birds; and fill the garden with their gentle cooing sound throughout the day. Our garden would be poorer without them.

It would probably be poorer without the Speckled Pigeons too, as messy as these home invaders are! The bright yellow Black-headed Orioles are a delight to see and hear every day. They tend to call to each other from the tree tops and swoop down in a flash of yellow to drink from the nectar feeder.

At this time of the year the Redwinged Starlings still fly around in flocks, making the most of the natural fruits and berries available in the neighbourhood.

A Cape Robin-chat regularly serenades me from the shrubbery while I am enjoying a cup of tea in the garden. There are fewer of the other songsters, the Olive Thrushes, about than usual. However, if I look around very carefully indeed, I can usually find one perched quietly in a tree watching me!

A Boubou has taken to helping itself to the offerings on Morrigan’s feeder from time to time.

Meanwhile, Amethyst and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds have been flitting around the garden making happy noises as if to say that spring is in the air. Black-collared Barbets are also calling to each other, but have been rather shy about appearing in the open this month – as have the ‘resident’ / regular pair of Knysna Turacos. The Fork-tailed Drongos never fail to please with their acrobatics and it is always a pleasure to spot Cape White-eyes.

A small flock of Crowned Hornbills paid a visit this month. They are always most welcome.

My July bird list is:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Barthroated Apalis
Blackcollared Barbet
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Crow (Black)
Cape Robin-chat
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Crowned Hornbill
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Redeyed Dove
Rednecked Spurfowl
Redwinged Starling
Sacred Ibis
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Village Weaver

NOTE: Click on a photograph if you would like a larger view.

RUDDY FACED RED-WINGED STARLING

This is what a Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) looks like.

Red-winged Starlings are opportunistic feeders that enjoy a variety of food such as fruit, seeds, insects, snails, spiders, and even lizards. They thus forage on the ground, in trees and in bushes. We see large flocks of them swirling about our neighbourhood out of breeding season, alighting en masse in our fig tree, or dropping out of sight when they spy something worthwhile to eat in another garden. They also enjoy perching in the Erythrina tree to catch the morning sun. I am thus familiar with this bird species – or thought I was, until I spotted this one perched a little distance from me:

Could it be a Red-winged Starling? Females have ash-grey heads and the males sport shiny black plumage that is almost iridescent. Neither of them look like this:

Upon closer inspection I realised that this is indeed an ordinary Red-winged Starling with its face covered in dust or pollen or … what? I couldn’t find anything growing in the area that was large enough to have provided so much pollen – and the colour isn’t right.

It was only when I could enlarge the photograph that I identified this facial covering as dust or mud. This bird had probably been in the throes of nest building – their nests are built using twigs and grass bound with mud, which is lined with grass and other fine material – and so it was not a new species after all!

NOTE: Click on a photograph for a larger view.

RED-WINGED STARLINGS

Red-winged Starlings (Onychognathus morio) were the iconic birds at Monteseel in KwaZulu-Natal, where I learned to rock climb in the early 1970s. Although I didn’t know much about birds at the time, the mixture of their mellifluous whistles and harsh grating sounds remain etched on my memory, along with the burnt orange of their wings glistening in the sunlight. There were large flocks of them, apparently unperturbed by the weekly intrusion of humans clambering up the rock faces.

With hindsight, perhaps they were, and it was rather the climbers who were unperturbed by the presence of these birds as they each focused on the next tiny hand- or foothold on their way up the crags. In the wild, Red-winged Starlings favour rocky ledged for nesting – not that I recall ever disturbing any nests. Like a number of other birds, they have sought out worthy substitutes in urban areas. For many years a pair of Red-winged Starlings annually built their untidy nests under the eaves of the school I worked at.

Red-winged Starlings visit our garden throughout the year. During the summer they frequently appear at the feeding tray in pairs, making a beeline for the fruit. The females are easily distinguished from the males as they sport a grey head.

This is a male Red-winged Starling perched in the Erythrina Caffra with a fig in his beak.

Large flocks of them sweep across the neighbourhood during winter, seeking out fruit, berries and other titbits to eat. We often see flocks of over fifty of them emerge from the Natal Fig tree when disturbed by traffic or other loud noises.

NOTE: Click on a photograph if you wish to see a larger view of it.