DRAWN TO WATER

As we are experiencing the heat of summer, it seems fitting to draw attention to the attraction of water for birds and animals. I start in my garden then travel through my archives to a wonderful time spent – oh so long ago – in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

An Olive Thrush chooses a quiet moment to step into the shallow bird bath tucked into a shady section of the garden, where there is plenty of cover nearby to duck into should the need arise. It glances around whilst standing stock-still, as if it is assessing what dangers might be lurking around before it takes a few sips of water then splashes itself liberally in the bird bath.

Five Cape White-eyes gather for a communal drink and bathe at a different bird bath in a sunnier spot – still with plenty of cover to dive into if necessary.

This Speckled Pigeon casts a wary eye upwards before settling into the same bird bath for a drink.

Further afield, a lioness slakes her thirst at a water trough in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

So does a Gemsbok, accompanied by a trio of Cape Turtle Doves.

Lastly, a Yellow Mongoose ignores a swarm of thirsty bees to drink at a bird bath set underneath a communal tap in one of the rest camps in the Kgalagadi.

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

JUNE 2020 GARDEN BIRDS

Living through this lengthy, socially restrictive lock down brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic would be most unpleasant if it were not for the birds that visit our garden. They provide a pleasant rhythm to each day: Red-eyed Doves call out ‘better get started’ on these dark, cold mornings; the Hadeda Ibises provide a shrill wake-up call about half an hour before sunrise; and the Speckled Pigeons scuffle around in the ceiling, ready to chase any other birds off Morrigan’s feeder – in this case a Cape Weaver – as soon as the seed is put out.

Laughing Doves hug the tree tops to warm up in the morning sun.

Red-winged Starlings swoop over the suburb in ever larger flocks, while Black-eyed Bulbuls keep their sharp eyes open for the fruit on offer.

Olive Thrushes emerge from the shrubbery at the first sign of something tasty to eat – usually fruit, but this one took a fancy to peanut butter on toast!

Cape White-eyes queue at the nectar feeder.

They are occasionally chased off by the much larger Black-headed Oriole.

A Bar-throated Apalis regularly makes its shrill calls during the day as it pokes about looking for insects in the foliage; Greater Double-collared Sunbirds chase each other across the garden in between drinking their fill from the nectar feeder or visiting the aloes; and the Common Fiscal swoops down to see what food is available during quieter moments of the day. Another bird that prefers to inspect the offerings ‘in private’ is the Cape Robin-chat.

My June bird list is:

Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Boubou
Bronze Manikin
Cape Batis
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Fiery-necked Nightjar
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-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Southern Black Tit
Spectacled Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streakyheaded Seedeater
Village Weaver

TWO SPECKLED BIRDS

We are familiar with birds being named for certain physical characteristics that make them easy to identify. Short-tailed Pipit, Cape Glossy Staring, and Red-fronted Tinkerbird come to mind. A glance through a bird guide index reveals two speckled birds: the Speckled Pigeon and the Speckled Mousebird.

According to the Collins Concise English Dictionary, ‘speckled’ describes small marks, usually of a contrasting colour, as one might find on eggs. The source of the word is spekkel, which comes from Middle Dutch.

It is probably their white spotted wings that prompted the name change of the Rock Pigeon to Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea). The former name adequately described its penchant for choosing mountains, cliffs and rocky gorges for its habitat in the wild.

Speckled Pigeons have made themselves very at home in man-made structures, whether in towns, on farms, or in game reserves. One pair moved into a gap in our eaves several years ago. Our  home now hosts about six pairs!

While grain farmers might rightfully regard them as pests – they gather in large flocks when feeding in grain fields – they can be pesky in suburban gardens too. Apart from their increasing numbers, these birds are larger than the various doves that come down to feed on the grain I put out for them. A few have even learned how to muscle in and dominate Morrigan’s feeder, filled with fine seed to attract smaller birds such as weavers and the Bronze Manikins.

The Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus) survived the name changes. There is one on the left of the above photograph. They have the habit of clinging closely to the branches and disturb easily – especially when a camera is nearby!

A marked characteristic of Speckled Mousebirds is the bill, which is black on top and white underneath.

Granted, it isn’t always easy to see these overall grey-brown birds very clearly in between the branches and foliage, but where the speckled part of its name comes from, I am not sure. Some ornithologists describe a distinct fine barring on the mantle and rump that are visible at close range – perhaps this is visible when one is very close. What is understandable is that the texture and colour of their plumage, their long tails and their general behaviour resembles that of a mouse – hence ‘mousebird’.  The Colius part of their name means scabbard or long sheath – a clear reference to their tails. Flocks of them regularly work their way through the garden in search of fruit, leaves, buds, flowers and nectar.

PERSISTENCE COULDN’T PAY OFF

Persistence describes continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. An interesting meme I came across the other day reads a river cuts through a rock not because of its power, but its persistence. We are frequently told that willpower/persistence pays off in the end. Sometimes it doesn’t – and there are times when it simply cannot. While a Speckled Pigeon dominates the photographs below – as it dominates Morrigan’s feeder meant for smaller birds – I want you to observe the actions of the Speckled Mousebird in the background.

Here you can see the Speckled Mousebird eyeing the end of the string tied to Morrigan’s bench feeder, which has tilted under the weight of the Speckled Pigeon. A Laughing Dove is waiting in the wings for an opportunity to eat any grains that the larger bird may have left. The Speckled Mousebird is not interested in food, but the tuft of string.

Even though there has been no rain here for months, leaving the surrounding country looking dry and no fresh shoots of leaves on the trees, spring is in the air and breeding must happen willy-nilly. It is nesting time. The only Speckled Mousebird nest I have seen was built high up in the Natal fig tree a few years ago. Mousebirds build an untidy nest from grass and stems and then line it with softer materials – I have watched them break off fronds of new leaves, collect feathers and even bits of paper for this purpose before.  I am not sure if the string was intended for the construction or lining of the nest.

I have to tell you that the tufted end of this string has softened over the years as a result of being pulled and tugged at by weavers especially. Anyway, this mousebird was going to give it a try. It got a strand in its beak and pulled and pulled and pulled.

It was hard work. We all know that persistence is the key to success and this mousebird had plenty to spare. I watched it working at the string for nearly fifteen minutes, tugging it this way and that without success.

I haven’t seen it back at the string, so assume it found more suitable material with which to either build or line its nest.