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.

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.

FOUR HUNGRY BIRDS

The birds in our garden are regularly supplied with seeds and fruit, although there are a number of berries on indigenous trees at this time of the year as well as succulent flowers on the Erythrina caffra tree especially. Weavers and other smaller birds are provided with fine grass seeds in the hanging feeders and coarse seeds, such as crushed maize and millet are scattered on the ground for doves and pigeons. Well, that is the way it is supposed to work. Here is one of many Cape Weavers making the most of the abundance of Erythrina caffra flowers.

Amethyst sunbirds, Speckled Mousebirds, Common Starlings, Black-headed Orioles, Fork-tailed Drongos, Laughing Doves, African Green Pigeons, Black-eyed Bulbuls and a variety of other birds visit these blossoms during the day. Laughing Doves, Red-eyed Doves and the Speckled Pigeons also gather below the hanging feeders to eat the seeds that fall to the ground. These Laughing Doves have decided to get to the source:

Not to be outdone, a Speckled Pigeon has usurped Morrigan’s feeder for a good meal:

There are a lot of berries and seeds around for the Speckled Mousebirds to feed on, but here they have homed in on an orange I put out on the feeding tray: