Sunbird Songpost

A rapid, scratchy whistle pierces the crisp morning air and I look outside to see him back on his favoured perch. This glorious male Malachite Sunbird is in full breeding colours now – complete with tail streamers – and he patrols his local patch vigorously. Lucky for me, the top of the Tarconanthus tree alongside our house is one of several ‘song posts’ he has staked out, and he returns every hour or so throughout the day.

From his lofty perch, this emerald beauty stretches out his neck and points his long bill skyward, in a striking balletic pose.

Now and again, he is accompanied by a female – less showy in olive and fawn - who is chased in speedy spirals of passion. There are likely to be a few females within his range, but they may also be checking out other possible suitors in adjacent territories.

It is midwinter now and aloes are in full flower in the gardens all around us. Sunbirds, white-eyes and weavers are drawn to the sweet nectar of these spectacular succulents, performing a vital pollination role in the process.

The females have probably made their purse-shaped nests already and will be laying soon.

Cape Robin Crescent, Vermont, Hermanus, South Africa. June 2014

 

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Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa), male.

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Resplendent Quetzal

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Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), Savegre, Costa Rica, May 2003.

There are many reasons to visit Costa Rica but seeing the largest member of the trogon family is high on the list. Sparkling in shades of viridian and gold, with a scarlet underbelly, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is nothing short of breathtaking. It occurs in mossy cloud forests on the mountain ranges of this biologically diverse country, feeding on insects such as cicadas and fruit such as the wild avocado.

Occurring from Mexico to Panama, this spectacular bird has played an important role in mythology and folklore throughout Central America. One Mayan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing splendidly before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, but has been silent ever since. Like all trogons, however, the beauty of this bird’s plumage and demeanor is not matched by its hoarse voice!

Only the male possesses the ribbon-like tail streamers and – with these – it measures almost a metre in length.

Choosing the most beautiful or awesome of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species is an impossible task but the Resplendent Quetzal must surely be a contender.

Savegre Mountain Hotel, Costa Rica. May 2003.

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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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