Beach Patrol

Walk along any beach in Africa and – sooner or later – you’ll see a small, pale plover hurrying away from you. Typically, there will be a pair of these active little birds and at no time will they take their beady, deep-brown eyes off of you.

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White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus). Benguerra Island, Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. February 2014.

The White-fronted Plover feeds on small invertebrates such as isopods and larval crabs which are chased and then snatched up with the sharp bill. Like many coast-living birds, these plovers occupy and defend linear territories the size (length) of which is dependent upon the density of prey. On a recent short visit to Benguerra Island in Mozambique, I counted four pairs over a three kilometre stretch which gave an average territory size of 750 metres. When they move up and down their stretch of the shore, these chubby little plovers are not only in pursuit of  food, they are on active beach patrol, keeping others of their kind away.

Two or three superbly camouflaged eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in the sand on the upper beach, often among shell shards or the trailing stems of the Beach Morning-Glory (Ipomea pes-caprae). And should a potential predator threaten the clutch, one or both parents will perform a distraction display – which may involve feigning injury – to lure the danger towards them and away from the eggs or young.

Benguerra Island, Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique. February 2014

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Kilmorna King

The temperate, evergreen forests of South Africa are home to a community of trees, plants, birds and other wildlife which occur in pockets from the southern Cape to the Drakensberg escarpment in the north-east. Since average maximum temperature is a limiting factor, the further north one goes, the higher the elevation of the forests above sea level. Our home town of Nelspruit is within easy striking distance of numerous small Afro-montane ‘cloud forests’ – including those at Kaapschehoop and in the Schoemanskloof at around 1,500 metres – where a host of  interesting birds can be found in the cool, mossy kloofs.

One forest bird stands out above all others, however, and that is the regal yet often elusive Narina Trogon. Dressed in complimentary shades of viridian and vermillion, the male has a truly royal appearance. The deep, double-note hoot of the territorial trogon is a common enough sound in spring and summer, but getting a good view of the king is another matter.

That is, unless you visit Kilmorna Manor during October or November. Here, nestled below the escarpment ridge of the Schoemanskloof, one male trogon has taken up residence in the gardens of the authentic Tudor-style guest house, an abode truly fit for a king. The trogon brightens up the day of anyone who sees him, as he perches on mossy tree limbs, lichen-painted stone walls, or even – wait for it – the washing line! Wherever he sits, the trogon hoots relentlessly, letting his partner know that he is on his throne, and advising rivals of his presence. Twisting and tilting his head to detect the movement of a katydid, a cicada or some other insect, he glides out to snatch it from the foliage, his rictal bristles serving to guide moths and smaller invertebrates into his gullet.

I think I found his mate (not quite so resplendent and with a buffy-brown face and chest) alongside the gurgling stream deep in the forest, some way up from the Manor, but could not locate their nest where the pair must now surely be raising a family.

Kilmorna Manor, Schoemanskloof, South Africa. November 2103 

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Narina Trogon Apaloderma narina, Kilmorna Manor, South Africa. November 2013

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Helmet Strike

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African Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) being mobbed by White-crested Helmet-Shrikes (Prionops plumatus), Southern Cross Estate, Nelspruit, South Africa

While driving through the savanna landscape of Southern Cross Estate (about 15km due south of Nelspruit on the edge of the Barberton Valley) I noticed a large eagle perched close to the top of a massive skeletal gum tree. The tree was at least 30 metres tall and had probably been ringbarked and killed as part of the estate policy to remove alien vegetation. Raptors just love to perch in big bare trees, however, and when I got my binoculars onto it, I could see that it was an African Crowned Eagle. Huge and awesome, it is regarded as the continent’s most powerful eagle – feeding mostly on monkeys, hyrax and duikers.

Although some way off, I was quite certain it was female – always considerably larger than the male. I came to this conclusion because I was able to compare it with a small group of birds that were mobbing it in an attempt to drive it away. The birds in question were White-crested Helmet-Shrikes and it was quite astonishing to witness their aerial prowess and bravery in taking on such an adversary. These small birds go about in family groups (they are cooperative breeders) and typically forage for insects low-down in trees, less often in the canopy – I’ve never before seen them in such an exposed position. They were obviously so concerned about the eagle that they attacked it at the top of this giant Eucalyptus.

The helmet-shrikes took turns to dive-bomb the eagle and I couldn’t help thinking how strangely appropriate their name had become (in reality, the ‘helmet’ is nothing more than a short, forward-pointing crest of feathers!). Each bird would fly up from a perch, get a few metres above the eagle, then fold-its wings to stoop like a falcon and actually clip the top of the eagle’s head! Several times I saw this happen, but the eagle did not appear to be overly concerned by the repeated strikes and held its position.

It is quite normal for small birds to mob goshawks, owls and eagles – in a bid to drive them out of their own territories – but such bold anti-predator behaviour is something that I have previously only ever seen Fork-tailed Drongos engage in.

Southern Cross Estate, Nelspruit, South Africa. November 2013

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Still Life (with woodpecker)

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Deceased Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni) – female – visited by Banded Blowfly (Chrysomya albiceps). October, 2013.

As a birdwatcher, one inevitably comes across a dead bird now and again. More often than not, these casualties are caused by windows or motor vehicles, and the statistics of how many birds are actually killed by collisions with glass or steel are horrendous.

However, as an artist, I make a point of collecting dead birds when it is feasible. Typically, they will be sealed in a bag and placed in the freezer compartment of our fridge – frozen until I have time to examine them closely and make a drawing or two. Over the years, this has caused some consternation for my wife Tracey as ice-cream and fish-fingers have jostled for space with deceased doves, cuckoos and trogons. Studying a lifeless bird is undoubtedly morbid, but always fascinating, as so many details of anatomy and plumage are revealed. The resultant drawings are then useful to me as references for painting or sculpting.

A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted (through an obscure electronic grapevine known as ‘facebook’) that a female Golden-tailed Woodpecker had been found dead outside a house at Raptor’s View in Hoedspruit. There was no murder mystery for Patrick Jane to unravel, it seemed a clear case of death by collision. The remarkable skull structure of the woodpecker (adapted to withstand impact from the bird’s habitual knocking and drumming on wood) could not prevent its demise so it must have been flying at great speed, perhaps being chased by a rival or predator. At any rate, resident naturalist Derek Solomon had picked up the unfortunate bird and kindly agreed to pass it on to me. As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have a particular fascination with woodpeckers and have tracked them down on five continents. As well as illustrating or painting pictures of them, I am busy with a protracted series of life-sized wood-carvings as well as miniature clay sculptures which will ultimately be part of framed dioramas.

So it was that I spent a hot Sunday afternoon producing these drawings, noticing details such as the finely spotted forecrown, the tiny bristles that cover the woodpecker’s nostrils (so that it does not inhale sawdust when excavating a nesting cavity), and the remarkable tail feathers with their stiff vanes that allow the woodpecker to brace itself against the trunk of a tree. As the hours went by, the frozen woodpecker became increasingly limp and the corpse was visited by a solitary blowfly who had intentions rather different to mine . . .

‘Turaco Wood’, Nelspruit, South Africa, October 2013

Note 1: Once a drawing is completed, the corpse should ideally be lodged with a natural history museum so that it can be added to their specimen collection, but this is not always practical in my case, as there is no such institution in our region. Often, I will simply hand the body over to the blowflies and carnivorous ants which ensure that the nutrients are recycled in the most efficient way.

Note 2: My title for this post has been unabashedly hijacked from Tom Robbins’ 1980 novel Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), concerning the love affair between an environmentalist princess and an outlaw.

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Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni) – female. October, 2013

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Parrot Land

Twenty years ago to the day – 15 September 1993 – and I have left Africa for the first time (since arriving as a 13 year old British immigrant in 1969) and am walking – and birding – on another continent. With so much wildlife to see and explore in southern Africa, my mind has hitherto been occupied with all things African.

However, at the invitation of the Australian Tourist Commission I have found myself on an all-expenses-paid junket for journalists. The idea is to promote Australia as a travel destination for global ecotoursits, birders and naturalists – and my brief is to visit a range of prime localities, absorb the natural wonders, take photographs, then go home and have a minimum of four magazine articles published.

Australia, of course, is hardly a mystery to anyone with an interest in nature. Kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras are iconic creatures and the whole gigantic island is home to an astonishing variety of unique plants, mammals and birds, not to mention dramatically beautiful landscapes and the oceanic biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless, and without a moment’s hesitation, “Count me in!” is what I said when approached. It was simply irresistible.

Over 14 days, I got around a bit. I visited the extreme south-western corner where the Mediterranean climate has given rise to a flora so strikingly similar to the ‘fynbos’ of South Africa. Here, among the flowering Banksia and Melaleuca, I encountered wondrous birds such as the New Holland Honeyeater, Southern Emu-Wren, Splendid Fairy-Wren and Tawny Frogmouth. Along the Goodradigbee River below the Snowy Mountains, I followed fresh spoor of Duck-billed Platypus (the egg-laying mammalian oddity eluded me although I did find a Wombat) and came face-to-face with Eastern Whipbird, Pied Currawong and Noisy Friarbird. In the Eucalyptus woodlands near Narooma (south of Sydney) I heard the remarkable calls of the Superb Lyrebird, watched a Satin Bowerbird gather blue berries to decorate his courtship bower, and came to understand why the Laughing Kookaburra got its name. Everything was all so completely new and exciting – it was like being a kid in a toyshop with money to spend.

But, everywhere I went,  it was really the parrots that stole the show. With 53 species, Australia has been richly endowed with these colourful and voiciferous birds. From cockatoos and corellas, to lorikeets and rosellas, there is no terrestrial habitat without a variety of species exploiting the resource of nuts, kernels, seeds, figs and nectar. Most species of parrot are gregarious, so it is quite normal to see a flock of snow-white Sulphur-crested Cockatoos feeding on the ground like so many egrets, or a frenzied mob of Rainbow Lorikeets sucking up sweet nectar from a flowering gum like victorious football fans at their local pub. Some Aussie parrots are rare and endangered, others are embarrasingly common. Few are as unobtrusive as the gentle little Rock Parrot which I photographed near Albany, none as regal as the aptly named King Parrot which came to the bird feeders at Brindabella Station, and none so pastel-perfect as the homely Galah which lives happily around farm buildings and in the suburbs.

I’ve been back to Australia since this first trip (of which more in future blogs), and seen many other parrots in different places. Anyone with an interest in the natural world could never get enough of it. Somewhere in my future is a great road-trip from Adelaide to Darwin, taking in Uluru, the Olgas and Alice Springs through the vast Simpson Desert. It is here that I will hope to encounter that most familiar of all parrots – the Budgerigar – in wild swirling swarms that can contain 20,000 individuals or more.

Perth and Porongorup to Brindabella and Sydney, Australia, September 1993

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Heart Spotted

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Heart-spotted Woodpeckers (Hemicircus canente), Khao Yai NP, Thailand © Duncan Butchart, 2013

Thailand is home to 35 species of woodpecker (more than any other country apart from neighbouring Myanmar) and – incredibly – we had five of them in view, at one time, as we looked out at the forested slope from our vantage point on the roadside in Khao Yai National Park. A pair of Greater Flameback were engaged in a courtship display, as one, then the other, braced itself against a tree trunk, fanned open its wings, then let out a shrill rattle. Lower down in the same tree was a male Laced Woodpecker, named for the delicate tracery of fine scallops on its belly. Lower still, and deep in the shadows, a Rufous Woodpecker was licking up ants pouring out of their arboreal mud nest. Its bright yellow-ochre crest contrasting sharply with a cinnamon crown, a large and elegant Greater Yellownape flew across a gap in front of us, landing at the base of a large Fishtail Palm and knocking into the dry leaf sheaths with its chisel bill. So, that was four species, what was the fifth?

Two small, black-and-white woodpeckers were moving up and down a tangle of dry stems in the crown of a Teak tree, hanging upside down at times as they tapped away in search of grubs, termites, caterpillars or other insect prey.  No larger than a canary, and one of the smallest members of its family, this was the Heart-spotted Woodpecker – a tiny but agile and charismatic bird. Undeniably cute, this little woodpecker goes about in pairs, exploring smaller twigs and leaf clusters for insect prey. Its name comes from the perfect heart-shaped pattern on its tertial feathers and some of the wing coverts. The female, distinguished from the male by her white forecrown, made a squeaky chirrick call as she flew towards her mate, and sidled up to him before the pair peered down at us.

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Forested hills in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand © Duncan Butchart, 2006.

I was at Khao Yai with Kamol Komolphalin  - renowned Thai watercolour artist – and we explored the forests for woodpeckers, hornbills, pittas, broadbills, minivets and other birds to observe and sketch. Covering some 2,000 square kilometres, Khao Yai is Thailand’s third largest national park, protecting tropical rainforest in hilly terrain between 400 and 1,300 metres above sea level (by way of comparison, Khao Yai is somewhat larger than Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, or about four times the size of Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa). Over 320 bird species (including 12 woodpeckers) occur in Khao Yai which also supports healthy populations of Asian Elephant, White-handed Gibbon and Sambar Deer. The reserve is about three hours drive east of Bangkok, with several accommodation options within the reserve, and just outside.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, September 2006.

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The Dove and the Parasol Tree

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Lemon Dove (Aplopelia larvata), Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa  © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

About 16 years ago, I planted a little Parasol Tree (Polyscias fulva) sapling at the bottom of ‘Turaco Wood’ – our garden in the suburbs of Nelspruit, South Africa. This tree is native to the highlands of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, where it occurs in higher-altitude forests. It is a fast-growing, straight-boled tree that reaches a height of 30 metres, and may rise above the forest as an emergent. In some situations, it may colonise disturbed areas as a pioneer species, much like the Cecropia trees of tropical America.

Our Polyscias has grown steadily over the years (probably faster than any other tree we’ve planted) and now stands at about 18 metres tall. But, crowded-in by other trees, all we really see of it is its smooth, pale grey trunk disappearing into the foliage of its smaller neighbours. From the higher vantage point of our back garden, however, we can see its splendid crown – a fan-like arrangement of huge, velvety, compound leaves. When the tree flowers (July) it is visited by bees, wasps and other pollinating insects (the flowers are small, greenish-yellow and inconspicuous), and I’ve noticed birds such as Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul, Black-capped Bulbul and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird feeding on its berries.

Earlier this week, I was excited to see a Lemon Dove foraging among fallen leaves in the shade of our man-made forest. This is a secretive and rarely seen bird which most people see only as a blur of wings ahead of them on forest trails. We’ve had sporadic sightings over the years and sometimes hear its deep, cooing call from the adjacent nature reserve.

Late yesterday afternoon, I was armed with a rake and about to tidy up some scrub along our bottom fence when I noticed a slight movement out of the corner of one eye. There, just about 2 metres away, was a Lemon Dove – surely the same individual from earlier in the week. As one does with such an encounter, I stood stock-still and enjoyed the moment. The dove’s back is a warm umber, the underparts rich cinnamon, turning to iridescent copper and a hint of pale emerald on the neck and nape; its deep crimson eyes are set in a luminous silvery-white face.  It is truly a subtly beautiful bird. After about a minute, and to my amazement, the dove put its head down and carried on feeding. Sensing the potential for a photograph, I retreated quietly then dashed up to the house to get my camera.

A few minutes later, I am lying on my stomach, having inched along in leopard-crawl mode, from behind the truck of a tree – the Parasol Tree – and am barely a metre from the dove. Why am I on the ground? Because my favourite angle for photographing any animal is eye-level, and since the dove was uncharacteristically relaxed I was pushing my luck. I rattled off a bunch of images, taking in the gentle beauty of the dove and watching it forage and feed. It was probing around, flipping over leaves and small twigs, and finding small shell-shaped seeds – some green, some black. And there, under my chin and elbows were the same seeds. They were, unmistakeably, the seeds of the Parasol Tree towering right above us! This is why the dove was here! It was gorging itself silly on the seeds, so lost in culinary abandonment as to pay no heed to the prostrate primate watching it so intently.

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Lemon Dove (Aplopelia larvata), Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa. © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

What a neat way to close a loop in the circle of life. One day you dig a hole and plant a tiny tree sapling, then – sixteen years later – you are lying underneath the tree photographing a secretive bird that is gaining sustenance and will later disperse the seeds in its own nutrient-rich droppings.

Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa. August 2013

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Crown of Parasol Tree (Polyscias fulva), Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

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Seeds of Parasol Tree (Polyscias fulva), Turaco Wood, Nelspruit, South Africa © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

Note: this appears to be the first documented record of the Lemon Dove feeding on the seeds of Polyscias fulva – no published accounts I could find list this species in its diet.

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