OBSERVATIONS WHILST INVIGILATING AN EXAMINATION

It was on 2nd November seven years ago that I found myself ensconced in a tiny room adjacent to a school hall. The room was only large enough to hold a single school desk and two chairs. This is where a Grade 11 pupil was in the throes of writing a Life Orientation examination. I had read the question paper to her – her concession required her to have a reader and so I doubled up as her invigilator. I had reread several questions at her request and she had finally reached the last question which required an answer in the form of an essay. This gave me a brief respite in which to observe my surroundings.

Apart from keeping an eye on the time, I was now more or less left to my own devices until the end of the examination. By turning my chair slightly, I could see the 1820 Settler’s Monument brooding above the bush-covered Signal Hill that overlooks the town.

In the late afternoon its sombre brick exterior looked foreboding against the heavy grey sky above it. Bulges of dark clouds moved slowly across the hilly horizon before merging with the steely mass above.

The wind whistled and howled, sounding at times like a banshee and at others like waves curling and crashing in a stormy sea. Raindrops began to fall solidly. The heavy streaks of rain fell at an oblique angle that formed silvery slivers against the moisture-darkened trunks of the oak trees in the foreground.

The lighter branches of a wild olive tree swayed and shook as the wind picked up speed and roared past as if in a rush to move on. Only the deep red clusters of huilboerboon flowers provided colourful relief in the grim, wet, cold landscape I could see from the narrow doorway.

As the wind abated, these flowers were visited by redwinged starlings and green woodhoopoes feeding on their rich source of nourishing nectar. Almost unnoticed, growing as it was at the base of a wild olive tree, a yellow dandelion nodded in the wind.

It seemed to be greeting a damp speckled pigeon strutting passed it along the wet brick pathway where blades of bright green grass, too short to bow to the wind, poked between the cracks.

At last the wind died down to a low hum that barely caressed the leaves of the trees growing outside the examination venue. Patches of blue sky appeared as the grey clouds turned paler before dissipating. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted remnants of the distant towers of cumulus clouds. It briefly turned their tops into a brilliant white, while shadows lower down emphasised still boiling bulges in the clouds.

For a moment the Monument donned a more benign mantle, its walls looked brighter and is west-facing windows winked in the golden sunlight. The grass and bushes on Signal Hill appeared to glow from within as the sun lowered towards the horizon.

The sun had won the battle against the clouds. Its mellowing light enhanced the hues of green, enriched the colour of the crimson flowers and made the tiny dandelion appear larger than it was. Raindrops sparkled on the grass. Hadeda ibises rejoiced raucously as they flew across the valley and a village weaver emerged from its temporary shelter to inspect the huilboerboon flowers.

The examination was over and we were both free to leave.

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SOME RANDOM BIRDS

I tend to publish photographs of birds seen in my garden during a particular month, always meaning to return to some of the others I have photographed over time. The first four in this post are from ‘my patch’ and we will travel to the Addo Elephant National Park for the final two. Regular readers will be familiar with the Common Fiscals that vie with each other for food at the feeding station. I have mentioned that Spotty has brought youngsters closer to the food source yet have seldom featured what a young Common Fiscal looks like.

The Speckled Pigeons became a real nuisance once they multiplied and moved holus-bolus into our roof. Happily, they moved off once we had the eaves fixed and now appear in more reasonable numbers – although at least two couples have taken to roosting on ledges overnight: one outside the upstairs bathroom and the other outside my study window.

African Green Pigeons are heard more often than they can be seen amidst the dense foliage of the Natal fig tree.

A rare sighting around here is that of the Dikkop – now known as the Spotted Thick-knee. This one is on the pavement.

Why travel all the way to the Addo Elephant National Park for the next two birds? Well, although I have spotted a Secretary Bird on the edge of town it has always been too far away to photograph. These are really interesting looking birds I want to share with readers from abroad. This one is standing near its nest.

Lastly, recent comments in another post relating to birds highlighted how we tend to take the familiar for granted. I mentioned that Ostriches are no real cause for excitement here because we see them so often – yet overseas tourists are excited to see such an enormous bird for the first time. It is in honour of those of you for whom the Ostrich is an exotic creature that I present to you … an Ostrich.

A BIRD FEEDER IN HOUT BAY

It is fun watching birds in someone else’s garden and what better way to do so than keeping an eye on the local bird feeder. Among the first visitors to arrive in this Hout Bay garden was a Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus), a familiar visitor in my own garden. There it tends to seek out anything meaty or fruity, so I was surprised to see this one tucking into the seeds:

Another familiar bird arrived, a Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra). These are beloved garden birds that eat fruit, insects and scraps of any kind. This one was combing the lawn for dried meal worms – something I have never provided for the birds in my garden:

Yet another familiar bird arrived with a loud fluttering of its wings – one of a pair of Speckled Pigeons (Columba guinea). These birds are ubiquitous over the whole country, so their presence was no surprise:

Ah, not only birds visited this bird feeder. The mystery of why the cut apples disappear so quickly was solved with the sighting of this Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) in the act. These are not indigenous, having been imported by Cecil John Rhodes during the 19th century:

Mmm … there was another non-avian contender for the fallen seed below the feeder. Such a regular visitor in fact that it has made a getaway tunnel among the plants growing next to the fence. This is a Four-striped Grass Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio):

Try as I might, I ended having to photograph these delightful visitors through the window. What an absolute delight it was to watch small groups of Swee Waxbills (Coccopygia melanotis) fluttering down from the branches to cluster around the feeder. They never seemed to be still and would fly off at a moment’s notice leaving their high-pitched ‘swee-swee’ contact call in their wake:

Now, a bonus picture that brought great joy to the pre-schooler who had made this elaborate feeder – unidentified visitors (taken through a window with a cell phone) investigating the seed therein at last!

Proof indeed that this carnival-like contraption was also attractive to birds.

JUNE 2022 GARDEN BIRDS

Even though the colder winter weather has settled in, there is plenty of fruit on the Natal fig tree in the bottom corner of our garden. A flock of African Green Pigeons seem to have taken up residence there for the time being – only flying out to seek the sun elsewhere during the late afternoons or if startled by loud noises on the street below. In the first photograph of the two below you see how well these fairly large birds blend into the foliage:

Here one of these birds is feasting on a fig:

Enormous flocks of Redwinged Starlings visit this tree daily too, as do doves, Olive Thrushes, Black-collared Barbets, Speckled Mousebirds and weavers. Black-headed Orioles enjoy the figs too and visit the nectar feeder regularly. Although this isn’t a good picture at all – taken with my cell phone from some distance – it illustrates how these birds also enjoy the nectar from aloe flowers:

Laughing Doves congregate in high branches in order to catch the early morning sun. This is one of several perched in the almost bare branches of a pompon tree:

Welcome sounds and sightings this month mark the return of a pair of Cape Wagtails that prance around the edge of our swimming pool and the beautiful bubbling call of a Burchell’s Coucal from deep within the foliage. I have also heard a pair of Bar-throated Apalises nearby. They too are not easy to spot between the leaves, although I caught a glimpse of one in the kitchen hedge whilst I was hanging up the laundry the other day. I see Cape Weavers around more often now, still looking a little tatty in their winter garb:

The other weaver I simply cannot resist showing you more of is the Spectacled Weaver. This one is becoming very bold and visits the bird feeders daily, eating fruit, cheese, fish and seeds during the course of the week:

With aloes, Cape honeysuckle and other winter flowers blooming, there is probably enough nectar to go around – the mixture I put out goes down fairly slowly at the moment – and so it was fun seeing a Cape White-eye sampling my fare:

Fork-tailed Drongos, Pied Crows and a flock of about six Cape Crows have been regular visitors this month too. The Speckled Pigeons appear to have decreased in number – one still roosts on a ledge near our front door and makes an awful mess below. This one is peering down at me from the gutter – which is in desperate need of cleaning!

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
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
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Spectacled Weaver
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

APRIL 2022 GARDEN BIRDS

Not only is this post woefully late, but this is probably the shortest bird list for a long time – mainly because I was away from our garden for half of the month! Once again, photographs have been sourced from my archives.

A pair of Southern Boubous creep out from the thicket behind the bird feeders once they have established that the coast is clear. The first port of call is the birdbath on a stand before one or other ventures down to inspect the feeding tray. Laughing Doves still congregate in the trees or on the telephone cable, but are a lot more wary about fluttering down to feed on the ground. Perhaps they too wish to make certain there are no cats around before they do. It is very pleasing to hear the happy chirps from the weavers after their absence. Southern Masked Weavers were the first to return and now Village Weavers are making a come-back.

Several Speckled Pigeons keep watch on proceedings from the roof – one roosts on our bathroom window every night!

Olive Thrushes still call from within the trees and shrubs, yet have become shyer about coming out in the open since the neighbouring cats appeared. By contrast, it is lovely to both see and hear Red-winged Starlings in ever-increasing numbers as the figs begin to ripen on the Natal fig tree. It is always a pleasure to see a Black-headed Oriole.

Several Black-eyed Bulbuls chatter merrily in the foliage before tucking into the fruit put out for them.

There is plenty of natural fruit and seeds around to attract Cape White-eyes as well as the Speckled Mousebirds that are such fun to observe.

I will round off April’s round-up of garden birds with the real stalwarts, the Bronze Manikins, that arrive daily to flit about the feeder – always shifting up to make room for yet another one to join them there.

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Manikin
Cape Crow
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape White-eye
Common Fiscal
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Red-eyed Dove
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift