Mousebirds get their name from their soft fluffy greyish or brownish feathers that look more like fur than feathers, and from their mouse-like habits when they scurry through bushes in search of food. Although we occasionally get Red-faced Mousebirds visiting when there is a lot of fruit available, Speckled Mousebirds (Colius striatus) are resident in our garden throughout the year.
I find them difficult to photograph in the garden for they usually forage in the middle to upper tree canopy. This means that they tend to be hidden in the trees above my head. The tables were turned this morning though as I spotted them from my upstairs window!
Let us take a closer look at them:
Note the short crest, which gives the bird a rather jaunty appearance. In this portrait you can also clearly see the strong, decurved (curved downwards) bill with the distinctive blackish upper mandible and the white lower one.
Look at the fine barring of the mantle and breast of this bird.
This Speckled Mousebird stayed out of the foliage long enough to show off its long tail. The Colius part of their name is a reference to their long, slender tails resembling a sheath or scabbard.
Today has been a perfect sunny day – most welcome after two fierce thunderstorms over the past three days! While listening to the usual cacophony of birds in the garden, my attention was drawn to a scuffling sound outside the front gate that had the neighbouring hound barking furiously.
This small herd of unattended cows have recently become regular visitors to our suburb over weekends. Given that the municipality tends to be lax about mowing the verges, perhaps we should be grateful for this injection of rural living.
A beautiful morning such as this seemed perfect for sitting in the shade, a pot of Yorkshire tea at my elbow, my notebook at hand and, for a change, my camera at the ready.
Apart from the usual flock of Laughing Doves fluttering down to peck at seeds or to sun themselves on a sandy bank by spreading out their wings, I found it interesting to watch a Black-collared Barbet from close quarters as it made its way down the branches of the tree to reach the feeding station.
Note how large and sturdy its beak is!
It is fascinating watching the Village Weavers as they court each other, fight with each other, feed their young – and one even trying to build its nest on the bottom of the bird feeder! This one is in the throes of fanning its wings as part of its display behaviour.
A Cape Robin hopped about in the undergrowth – too dark for the camera – nearby; a Boubou Shrike treated me to a song from a branch just above me; a Paradise Flycatcher flitted enticingly from one bush to another – always too quick to be caught on camera; a flock of Speckled Mousebirds flew into the White Stinkwood tree and disappeared amongst the foliage; and Redwinged Starlings showed off their russet wingtips against the bright blue sky as they went in search of tasty morsels.
Best of all, I at last managed to capture a Lesser-striped Swallow peeping out of its nest. More of that later …
I was comfortable sitting in the shade of the forested part of the garden. The Cape– and Village Weavers were pecking away at the seed I had scattered earlier and would, now and then, latch onto a large (for them) piece of bread and fly up to a nearby branch to consume it at leisure.
My pot of Earl Grey tea was nearing its end when I turned my attention to the Forktailed Drongo up to its usual antics of stealing titbits from the beaks of other birds. It was good to hear the Sombre Bulbuls calling nearby; the Laughing Doves were combing the lawn for seeds and I idly watched Bryan the tortoise amble along, munching as he went. It was an idyllic scene.
The unusually persistent calls of the Cape Robin had barely registered in my languid state until the calls seemed to become louder and more agitated. I realised they came from the thick foliage near the pool, but was too comfortable to investigate – until I noticed the weavers, the Olive Thrush and the Forktailed Drongos swiftly fly towards the sound.
As I approached the pool, I noticed a flurry of feathers as the afore-mentioned birds flew in an out of the leaf cover, all flapping their wings and making a loud noise. I looked up at the leaf canopy from underneath in time to see a large Boomslang winding itself sinuously through the branches. As it looped across towards another tree, the slack, thick cable of its body was repeatedly attacked by robins, weavers, a Black-collared Barbet and even a Speckled Mousebird.
The snake moved swiftly and gracefully, winding in and out of the branches with ease towards a shallow nest balancing precariously in a fork of cotoneaster branches. Neither the mobbing of the birds nor the cacophony of their protests seemed of concern.
I turned away to call P to witness what was happening. My attention was diverted for seconds only … the Boomslang disappeared! As you can imagine, I checked the draping stems of canary creeper very carefully before moving an inch. The agitated birds began to disperse and soon all was quiet. The soporific air of a hot afternoon reasserted itself.
Cape White-eyes resumed their search for insects, the weavers returned to the seed tray, the Laughing Doves tramped across the lawn, and the Cape Robin – which had alerted me to this drama – flew off towards the direction of the fig tree.
Day Six of us having no water in our town. That, combined with the first cheerfully sunny day for a while, encouraged us to take a drive out to some sites of historical interest in the area.
The first stop along the road towards Fort Beaufort was the Governor’s Kop signal tower (see 21 March 2014). Given our lack of water at home, it was pleasing to see evidence of ground water in several small farm dams en route, spray irrigation and even a working windmill or two.
The wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) are coming into bloom, as are the coral trees – both Erythrina caffra and Erythrina lysistemon, providing bright splashes of colour in the veld that is slowly shaking off its winter mantle.
We turned off the tar onto a dirt road leading into the Coombs Valley in search of the well-known Clay Pits, where Xhosas traditionally used to collect yellow and red ochre with which to decorate themselves. The directions we had been given proved to be inaccurate. While I was photographing an old sneeze wood fence post, a passing farmer stopped to offer assistance. The Clay Pits happened to be on his farm another 4km away! How serendipitous that was.
They were not far from the farm house and so we walked through the veld to see them. I am not sure what I had expected, but it was not a heap of yellow and reddish stones next to a deep hollow, now overgrown with trees and shrubs as no-one seeks ochre here anymore.
Next, we drove through the beautiful Coombs Valley along a rough dirt road cutting through game farms before turning into the equally beautiful Trappes Valley leading towards Bathurst. Apart from the ubiquitous Vervet Monkeys, we saw herds of Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck and Impala.
Large swathes of indigenous bush hug the hillsides with flocks of Cape Glossy Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Crowned Hornbills flitting in between.
The dense cover of vegetation rouses admiration for the 1820 Settlers and others who were dumped in this (what to them must have been) inhospitable terrain with no amenities and expected to make a living for themselves.
It is disturbing, however, to note the infiltration of exotics such as wattle, eucalyptus, conifers and even palm trees – some possibly planted by those early inhabitants – along the road and water courses.
The Kowie museum in Port Alfred is housed in a beautiful dressed stone building that once was the station for the railway between Port Alfred and Grahamstown. This was officially opened on 1st October 1884 and remained in private hands until the government took it over in 1913.
All that remains of the original fort in Port Alfred is a low stone wall, now incorporated as the boundary wall of a private home in Hards Street.
We stopped at the historical Pig and Whistle Inn in Bathurst for a late lunch. This is said to be the oldest pub in South Africa, having been in operation since 1832.
There is a leisurely aspect to life in the countryside. The warm hospitality we’d received from the farmers in the morning had given us a taste of it. Instead of ‘popping into’ the historic St. John’s Anglican Church in Bathurst, known for sheltering women and children during the Sixth and Seventh Frontier Wars, we met the assistant verger who gave us a detailed tour of the church along with background stories of local interest and who pointed out the grave of the man who originally built the Pig and Whistle.
Leaving much later than intended, we wound our way further up the road to Battery Hill, where only the Powder Magazine remains of the original fort. This commands a superb view across the valley to the ocean at Port Alfred on the one side and across the Coombs Valley to Governor’s Kop on the other.
On our way back, we stopped briefly at the Bathurst Methodist Church, which also sheltered women and children during the Seventh Frontier War.
Our last stop was the Toposcope, sadly so vandalised now that few of the direction plaques are of any use. By now we were being blown about by the blast of the cold front that had been edging closer for most of the day. The strong wind brought with it curtains of haze and mizzle that blotted out the landscape in its wake and flattened the grass around the Toposcope. The sky clouded over completely and the temperature dropped to 8°C.
It was clearly time to drive through the rain and to head for home – where not a drop of water came out of the taps!
Last weekend the family gathered at the Addo Elephant National Park for a combination of celebrations. With two vehicles and plenty of drivers available, there were ample opportunities for game drives. Three of our party also went horse-riding, an experience they all recommend is worth repeating.
Instead of our usual style of camping, we ensconced ourselves in the Forest Cabins this time. These are very comfortable wooden structures discreetly hidden from their neighbours by thick hedges of Spekboom and other indigenous bush.
Driving out as soon as the gates open at half past six in the morning was the order of the day. While it is still too dark then to take photographs, there is a sense of wonder in seeing a herd of dawn-coloured Eland walk across the road to disappear into the veld despite their size.
As the sky lightens, it becomes easier to see the herds of Zebra, Kudu and Hartebeest dotted all over the Park. In our quest to see somethign ‘different’ we found that Warthogs have an uncanny ability to ‘disguise’ themselves as all sorts of creatures from a distance – even in broad daylight!
We enjoyed seeing Buffalo breathing out clouds of steam as the sun rose; Black-backed Jackals walking purposefully across the veld; Yellow Mongooses scurrying across the road; and – of course – the majestic Elephants this Park was created to protect.
Everyone returned from their drives with tales and pictures of what they had seen. Two of our party photographed a Caracal right next to the road. The rest of us were briefly envious until, on our last morning, we saw an enormous Lion making its way down a slope, crossing the road in front of us and striding along the valley below. We watched until it disappeared from sight then drove on towards Rooidam in the hope it would emerge there.
It didn’t, but another did (we later learned these two are brothers): walking with a slight limp, this Lion walked intently towards the edge of the dam and then dipped out of sight. By reversing slightly, we were able to watch it lap the water thirstily and then disappear over the dam wall. There was great excitement all round and a shared feeling that this was a satisfying ending to what had been a wonderful weekend.
The aloes are in bloom at this time of the year and brighten up the wintery landscape. Other blooms include the vygies and pelargoniums. I noticed that the canary creepers there are still creating splashes of yellow, whereas the flowers in our garden have been reduced to puff balls that scatter in the wind.
An outing such as this is not necessarily ideal for bird watching, although I was able to spot a surprising number of birds while the attention of others was focused on something else.A highlight was seeing a Secretary Bird preening itself on top of a low bush. Even the animal watchers enjoyed this. It was good to spot a Southern Black Korhaan in the grass and several Pied Avocets on the edges of the waterholes we stopped at.
I opted out of some drives to observe birds from the comfort of the Forest Cabin balcony. My patience was rewarded with close-up views of Cape Robin, Sombre Bulbul, Boubou Shrike, Cape Weaver and even a Bar-throated Apalis that made its way through the hedge at eye-level.
Birds I noted over the weekend were:
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Karoo Scrub Robin
Pale Chanting Goshawk
South African Shelduck
Southern Black Korhaan
Love them or loathe them, the Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) has made itself at home in suburban area over much of the country. One cannot ignore their strident calls – particularly in the early mornings!
It often seems to me that upon waking, these sociable birds have conversations with others roosting elsewhere: “Anyone up yet?’ or “Where shall we meet today?” It sounds as if responses to these queries come in from near and far across the valley until some sort of consensus is reached and then we hear them flying off noisily, still calling out to others doing the same.
While several of these birds occasionally roost in the fig tree and the Erythrina caffra at night, there are two pairs who have regularly nested in these trees for many years. Each breeding season we watch the Hadedas bring in seemingly impossibly long or awkwardly shaped sticks to add to their untidy nests that are re-used.
Although several eggs and chicks have fallen out of these ungainly and flimsy looking structures, both pairs of Hadedas appear to have become more adept at parenting with time and usually successfully raise one or two chicks each. We are able to watch both nests with ease and enjoy monitoring the hatching process.
Once the chicks have left the nest to explore the garden, they still spend some time ‘test-flapping’ their wings and continue to ‘beg’ to be fed by the adults until they are old enough to be independent.
By the way, Daisy the tortoise was spotted yesterday and the Speckled Mousebird family must have flown the nest in the fig tree as it is not longer being visited.
I feel privileged to see Hadedas probing for worms and insects on the lawn or poking about in the flower beds with their scythe-like beaks. They might look drab to some, but are so beautiful when the sunlight catches their iridescent wing feathers!
They usually appear singly or in pairs in the garden yet occur in much larger groups in open spaces such as sports fields – especially after being watered – and on municipal lawns.
Apart from raucously reminding all in the valley of their presence in the early mornings and before settling at night, the cheerfully strident call of Hadedas can be heard at odd times throughout the day.
They seem to enjoy perching on roof tops and glide from there in the late afternoons to join others already perching in the fig tree. There they flap their wings noisily and appear to settle down for a few minutes, only to fly off to join others still circling the suburb, calling out as they do so. This ritual takes place at the end of every day before they return to at last settle for the night.