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.

Advertisement

NOVEMBER 2022 GARDEN BIRDS

November is a month that seems to have sped by. I have been on the road more than usual and we have had inconvenient time slots for power outages – all of which have contributed to the late posting of my monthly overview of the birds visiting our garden. The third of November heralded the blooming of the first Pompon tree flowers and now our garden is brightened with the trees covered in beautiful pink blossoms.

November is also the start of having pesky mosquitoes around and is the time from which I can expect ants, spiders and beetles to land on me from the shady branches I sit under whilst watching birds! The first bird to draw my attention was a Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul displaying the avian version of panting in the heat – called gular fluttering.

We have experienced temperatures of up to 36°C, so there has been need for all of us to pant a little! Red-eyed Doves are more sensible and generally remain within the shade of the trees and have seldom been seen in the open during the hottest parts of the day. The heat has meant that Cape White-eyes have been visiting the nectar feeder regularly – they have also been enjoying the apples and pears. The Bronze Manikins continue to delight as they fill the feeders with their little bodies.

While the Laughing Doves generally gather in the nearby trees for at least twenty minutes before coming down to feed, there are always a few of them that prefer to filch seed from the feeder rather than joining the masses on the ground. I found the antics of this one particularly amusing.

Southern Masked Weavers have been kept busy feeding their chicks. I enjoy watching them stuff their beaks with fruit to feed their chicks perched nearby. At one point this month the Cape Weavers appeared to be the dominant weaver in the garden. They have now been usurped by Village Weavers.

The Common Fiscals have also been taking food away for their chicks. Meneer still seems to prefer the titbits I offer in my hand rather than helping himself from the dish. While on the subject of feeding, it has been interesting to note that the Black-headed Orioles have shown a definite preference for meat over fruit, which makes me think they too might be feeding chicks hidden somewhere in the dense foliage.

To round off, the Hadeda Ibis chick has made the successful progress from being nest-bound to walking around the garden in the company of one or both parents.

My bird list for this month:
African Green Pigeon
African Hoopoe
Black-collared Barbet
Black Cuckoo-Shrike
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bokmakierie
Bronze Manikin
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Diederik Cuckoo
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Laughing Dove
Lesser-striped Swallow
Olive Thrush
Pin-tailed Whydah
Pied Crow
Red-eyed Dove
Red-throated Wryneck
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Village Weaver
White-rumped Swift
Yellow-fronted Canary

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

AUGUST 2021 GARDEN BIRDS

Birding sessions in my garden would be incomplete without seeing an Olive Thrush. These birds are real characters the way they put their heads down to chase after each other on the ground … round and round the bushes and rocks they go. They are incredibly alert too and you can see from the dirt at the end of its beak that this one has been grubbing around between the flowers to find something to eat. It drank water after I had taken this photograph and then enjoyed a quick bath.

Of course Meneer, the friendly Common Fiscal, is a daily joy too. The other morning it came flying towards me as I opened the door to come outside and grabbed something from the tray I was carrying before flying off. It comes every day, usually perching next to my breakfast before taking a piece of meat or cheese from my hand. The ritual remains the same, even when I place a little dish to one side especially for it. Here it is waiting on the edge of the flower pot near my feet. You can see its white eyebrows very clearly.

Although I recently highlighted Spotty, the ringed Common Fiscal, this image clearly shows his eponymous dark spot.

I have mentioned before that this year the Cape Robin-chat is much more reticent to come out than we have enjoyed in the past. Here it has just alighted on a rock, clearly focused on the food in the feeding tray below. It generally waits until the coast is clear and sometimes gets tantalisingly close to the food before being chased off by the arrival of another bird.

One of the highlights of this month was finally getting an opportunity to photograph the Brown-hooded Kingfisher that has taken to perching on the wash line outside our kitchen. This time it was co-operative enough for me to rush upstairs to get my camera and even stayed still while I quietly opened the door and focused on it. I am very pleased to show it off.

At the moment the Common Starlings are looking very smart in their breeding outfits.

Lastly, to add a little brighter colour, here is a Village Weaver.

Overall, this has been another good month for seeing birds in our garden. The Amethyst Sunbirds regularly visit the nectar feeder; the Black Cuckoo occasionally emits its mournful cry about feeling so sick; some Cape Glossy Starlings paid a very brief visit – as did a Red-necked Spurfowl; and the Pin-tailed Whydahs pop in now and then.

My bird list for this month:

African Green Pigeon
Amethyst Sunbird
Bar-throated Apalis
Black-collared Barbet
Black Cuckoo
Black-eyed (Dark-capped) Bulbul
Black-headed Oriole
Bronze Mannikin
Brownhooded Kingfisher
Cape Crow
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cape White-eye
Cattle Egret
Common Fiscal
Common Starling
Fork-tailed Drongo
Green Woodhoopoe
Grey-headed Sparrow
Hadeda Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Olive Thrush
Pied Crow
Pin-tailed Whydah
Red-eyed Dove
Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-winged Starling
Southern Boubou
Southern Masked Weaver
Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Pigeon
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Village Weaver

I VALUE MY GARDEN

I am in awe of beautiful gardens with carefully landscaped paths leading through various ‘rooms’, some of which may have a water feature or a focus on flowers in a particular palette of colours. In these water-wise days there are also gardens featuring aloes, cacti and a wide variety of succulents. I read about gardeners bringing in truckloads of soil, or even hiring earth-moving equipment to reshape the landscape; of bringing in – or removing – large rocks; and of installing elaborate irrigation systems. I see diagrams of gardening plans to be followed throughout the year. Gardens like these featured in magazines always look beautiful.  In my garden a mixture of indigenous flower seeds – such as these African daisies and cosmos – scattered in a bed bring me joy.

While most visitors enthuse over my ‘wild’ garden, others openly declare it to be ‘messy’ and ‘overgrown’. Some express an itch to cut down the trees – many of which we planted decades ago – and to prune the hedges. This is understandable for my garden tends to be ‘wildly creative’ rather than ordered into shape. For example, I let the canary creeper grow and flower where it pleases before trimming it back so that the weight of it won’t break other plants.

There are many practical reasons for this: the garden is too large for me to manage in an orderly fashion on my own; we are – and have several times before – experiencing a prolonged drought and so there is no water with which to maintain lush flower beds and a prolifically productive vegetable garden; and, until I retired a few years ago, I was seldom home for long enough to mow the lawn, never mind prune, weed, dig and plant. This is a section of what I call the ‘secret garden’, where nature takes it course.

I have always valued my garden for what it is: a place for solitude and relaxation if I need it, and a haven for birds – such as the Village Weaver below – as well as insects and any other creatures that require a home within our suburb. Over the years I have recorded 107 different species of birds seen either in or from our garden; have come across several snakes, a variety of butterflies, spiders and moths; observed bats, beetles, praying mantids, lizards and geckos; there have been swarms of bees, several frogs and toads, mole rats, a mongoose and even a couple of tortoises. We once even found a terrapin in our swimming pool – and still don’t know how it got there.

It is easy to tell why I value my garden for its tranquillity and its diversity. Never has this been truer than since the arrival of COVID-19 and the hard lock-down that came in its wake. For over three decades I have watched the garden evolve from a gravel and cactus ‘desert’ to a forest of trees and shrubs; from a hot and shade less place to a haven of shade and dappled sunlight’; from a habitat birds would rather fly over to one where many have chosen to nest and to seek food for their offspring.

Thanks to all of these visitors, I value my garden for the bird song that begins before sunrise to the haunting sounds of the Fiery-necked Nightjars late at night. I have enjoyed seeing an Olive Thrush pulling up a long earthworm from a crack in the old kitchen steps; watching a Fork-tailed Drongo swooping down to catch a caterpillar unearthed while I am weeding; observing a flock of Cape White-eyes splashing about in the bird bath; and have thrilled to the light touch of a Common Fiscal as it perches on my hand or foot to receive a tiny offering of food.

I garden for peace. I garden for the therapeutic quality of my hands connecting with the soil. I garden for the excitement of watching bright yellow flowers taking on the form of a butternut or a gem squash; for the joy of transplanting seedlings that have sprouted in the compost; and for the pleasure of finding self-seeded flowers or herbs growing in a place of their own choosing.

My sentiments about gardening echo those of the essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who has been quoted as saying I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.