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.

GLEANING WEAVER

A casual glance at this stony ground reveals nothing that is obviously edible, yet, this Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus) kept flitting down from the nearby shrubbery to make a thorough search of the area – akin to gleaning a harvested wheat field. He certainly found a number of tiny morsels to eat, as this photograph shows.

Its plain back and red eyes distinguish it firstly from the Village Weaver and secondly from the Lesser Masked-Weaver. The latter does not occur in this region, while both the Village Weaver and the Southern Masked-Weaver visit our garden – along with Cape Weavers, the occasional Spectacled Weaver and – even more rarely – a Yellow Weaver or two.

In common with other members of the weaver family, the Southern Masked-Weaver usually eats insects, seeds, and a variety of plant material as well as nectar – they love aloes! I suspect this one was finding seeds lodged within the gravel. The slightly damp look is a result of the briefest of light drizzle showers that swept over us at the time – not even long enough for us to get wet.

Here is a Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus) for comparison:

GETTING TO GRIPS WITH FOOD

One needs to get a firm grip on one’s food if you are not going to miss it – or fall off your perch. You can tell birds were not consulted when this feeder was designed. I need to get a good grip here by holding onto the grid as there isn’t much space for two feet.

Village Weaver

Landing can be rather awkward – even if you are a tad more elegantly proportioned. At least we can be more comfortably seated for snacking once that has been accomplished.

Bronze Mannikins

This is an elegant way to perch.

Village Weaver

Actually eating is not always comfortable though.

Southern Masked Weaver