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Torrent Duck (pair, male on left), Merganetta armata armata, Chile.

Ducks, it has to be said, may not be the most interesting of birds. With a few exceptions they are all rather alike in general body shape and behaviour, generally conforming to the familiar visage of a farmyard duck (this being a descendent of the Mallard).

Not so the truly remarkable Torrent Duck! This extraordinary bird occurs in fast-flowing streams and rivers of South America, where pairs occupy – and vigorously defend – linear territories. As if they were made out of rubber, these ducks throw themselves into the most tumultuous of rapids with wild abandon, bobbing about fearlessly in search of caddis fly larvae and other invertebrate prey. Most food, however, is taken in eddies and vegetated fringes. The pair invariably swim and feed together, hauling themselves up onto slippery boulders where they keep a constant look-out for rivals. If a rival appears, there is much energetic chasing, accompanied by head-bowing and tail-cocking displays.

My first encounter with one of these striking ducks was in Peru on a small mountain stream rushing beneath mossy forest on the fabled Manu Road that snakes its way down the eastern slopes of the Andes, from the altiplano to the Amazon. I’d been walking down the road, following a mixed flock of tanagers and other insectivorous birds, when I came to a small bridge. Perched on the bridge post was a tiny little flycatcher with a dark head – a Torrent Tyrannulet. As this little sprite flitted out across the water, its namesake – a male Torrent Duck – peered up at me briefly, then slid quietly off its boulder perch to disappear beneath the froth and bubbles. It was a fleeting observation, but memorable.

Later, still in Peru, I was to get much better views of these ducks along the spectacular Urubamba River which divides the little tourist town of Aguas Calientas from the former Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Here I was able to watch fearless Torrent Ducks swimming, feeding and engaged in territorial disputes in the chilly waters that flow from the snow-capped Andean peaks.

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Torrent Ducks, Urubamba River, Peru.

Underwater, I suppose these tough little ducks swim much like cormorants, propelling themselves with their webbed feet and with neck outstretched. Interestingly, the stiff tail feathers are evidently used in a similar manner to those of woodpeckers in that they help to provide balance on the smooth boulders. Underwater, the tail is no doubt used as a rudder.

There are six regional subspecies of Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata), with the males being quite different in plumage, but the rufous and grey females being more or less identical. The male of the northernmost subspecies (Venezuela to N.Ecuador – M. a. colombiana) has pale underparts with black streaks, while the male of the southernmost subspecies (the nominate M.a. armata occupies most of Chile and southern Argentina to Tierra del Fuego) has black chest and flanks with a cinnamon underbelly; this is the form in my illustration above.

Duncan Butchart

 

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My Brush with Royalty

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A column of army ants are crossing the path as we enter a clearing where a giant forest tree has fallen. The small gap in the canopy is flooded with light and dozens of small yellow butterflies are dancing above the luxuriant growth of ferns and large-leaved pioneers. A family of capuchin monkeys are working their way through the branches on one side, searching for cicadas, katydids and the like.

These monkeys are being followed by a rather inconspicuous fawn-brown bird which perches lower down, hoping, I’m sure, to snap up anything that escapes the furry little inspectors. At first, it looks like any of the confusingly similar tyrant flycatchers that inhabit Neotropical forests, but when it turns, the head is anvil shaped, with a definite folded crest. Mmmm. Interesting. Could it be?

As is the way with flycatchers, the bird remains stationery for minutes on end. We do the same – watching and waiting. Like any perch hunter, it must remain still until the last moment – suddenly flipping out to grasp a moth or some other winged insect. And then it happens. For no apparent reason, the bird tilts its head, and flashes its impossibly ornate crest – a flaming burst of orange and indigo. We only see the back, and its over in an instant, but its enough. You take whatever brief sightings offer themselves up in the rainforest. The clammy heat, the sweat-bees and the mosquitoes have been worth it  . . . it’s a Royal Flycatcher in the Amazon.

Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Brazil; July, 2007

 

 

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Art Print – Birds of Africa – Now Available

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Over the years, I have created hundreds of small watercolour illustrations of birds and other wildlife. Sometime last year, I had the idea to bring a selection of them together in a meaningful way by creating a large A1 design that celebrates the splendid diversity of Africa’s birds.

This project proved to be a much larger undertaking than I had anticipated as I needed to create completely new illustrations of many species, and each individual artwork had to be deep-etched, scaled and placed in an appropriate part of the continent.  Then, as I neared completion of the whole design, I had to decide how I was going to produce and market it.

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Printed on deluxe 170gsm art paper (rolled in a tube, for framing or mounting) @ ZAR250.00.

Great care has been taken to place each of the 338 featured birds in a locality where it is known to occur, so the design is scientifically accurate. To allow the identification of every bird, each art print is provided with a numbered key chart.

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At least one member of Africa’s 142 bird families is featured, but some ended up with better representation than others – the turacos, bee-eaters, barbets, hornbills, kingfishers, owls, eagles and vultures are among my favourite birds! The design also represents Africa’s ‘associated islands’ all of which are important breeding sites for albatrosses, frigatebirds, terns or other marine species. Due to format limitations, Mauritius (some way east of Madagascar) could not be included.

North Africa falls within the so-called Palearctic zoogeographical region so it may come as a surprise to many people that several typically European species such as the European Robin, Eurasian Wren and Blue Tit can be found in Morocco. In addition, millions of migrant birds from Europe and Asia move in and out of Africa each year, some crossing the vast Sahara Desert which is an ecological barrier to resident species. No political boundaries are shown on the underlying map – birds take no heed of these arbitrary lines.

To place an ORDER for this unique art print please email me directly  – duncan@dbnatureworks.com. Once we have established the delivery options (local or overseas, courier or post), I will then send you an invoice with banking details and – upon receipt of payment – the print will signed, packaged and dispatched.

* Actual size = A1 is 60 x 84 cm . .  24 x 33 inches.

Duncan Butchart, Hermanus, South Africa

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Coming Soon – Birds of Africa – art print

Over the past few years I have created hundreds of watercolour illustrations of African birds. Many of these – as well as dozens of newly prepared illustrations – are being assembled for my next publication – a large poster that celebrates the diversity of Africa’s birds. At least one member of each of Africa’s 142 bird families is illustrated, and all associated islands are included. Further details will be announced in the next few weeks.

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Woodpeckers that don’t Peck Wood

Anyone who has spent time walking through mountain fynbos in the south-western Cape will know that birds, of any kind, are few and far between. Its actually quite startling just how few birds – or other vertebrates – inhabit what is widely known as one of the most diverse floral kingdoms on the planet.  Nectarivores such as sunbirds and sugarbirds can be abundant at certain times, but it is otherwise just a few nomadic seedeaters and a handful of hardy insectivorous species that are able to make a living among the astonishing array of proteas, ericas, pincushions and conebushes that cover the hillsides. Insects certainly seem to be sparse, and this low ‘invertebrate productivity’ on soils that are said to be nutrient-deficient, is evidently responsible for the paucity of birds.

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Since arriving in this part of South Africa about four years ago, I have been forever on the lookout for one of the most unusual birds of the fynbos – a woodpecker that doesn’t peck wood and rarely even perches in trees. I have had a few people tell me that they’ve seen these woodpeckers in the mountains above Hermanus, and I’ve walked those trails flat with my companion Josie, our energetic labrador. Rockjumpers, siskins, prinias and grassbirds we have encountered, as well as three species of sunbird and the charismatic Cape Sugarbird. But never a terrestrial woodpecker, not a glimpse, not a knock, not a peep.

My favourite afternoon walk is a little-used trail on the lower slopes of the mountain in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. I have come to terms with not seeing or expecting many birds on this route, but it is an invigorating walk that traverses several micro-habitats and there are always fascinating and often lovely flowers to be seen. I much prefer the mountain walks in winter, but after an unseasonal summer downpour this week, followed by a Friday morning of drizzle and mist, I decided to venture out onto this pathway after work. At around 17h45, while ambling along the lower flat section I was stopped in my tracks by an explosive, rasping call, coming from the hillside above. I didn’t recognise this strange call at first, but then the penny dropped. Woodpecker! . . must be Ground Woodpecker!! I scanned the exposed rocks with my binoculars and soon picked up the distinctive shape on the rim a large sandstone outcrop. Then there were two more woodpeckers, and the calling continued as they bounced across the lichen-clad rocks, and flew short distances between outcrops.  Luckily, the second part of the trail follows a contour of the hillside and I was able to get into a position where I could watch the woodpeckers without disturbing them. In my limited experience, these are very alert and shy birds, so I was fortunate indeed. It was clear that they were picking up food from the rocks and open ground, so when they moved on I went off the trail to investigate. Numerous ants were moving around, many carrying papery seeds larger than themselves – these were Harvester Ants and I suspect that the rain and wet sandy soil had stimulated their activity. The woodpeckers were clearly having an ant feast, but they were not alone. In a period of about fifteen minutes, I observed three Olive Thrush, four Cape Robinchat, two Fiscal Flycatcher, two Streaky-headed Canary, several Brimstone Canary, two Cape Bulbul, a Karoo Prinia and a flock of about 20 Cape White-eyes moving through the area. Of these birds, I had previously only seen the prinia and canary on this part of the trail and, all- told, I think I saw more individual birds here than ALL previous walks combined! There were sugarbirds and sunbirds about too, and to cap it all, a Peregrine Falcon passed high overhead. It was a memorable afternoon!

Fernkloof Nature Reserve, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa

** The Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) is endemic to South Africa (as well as parts of Swaziland and Lesotho) where it occupies high altitude grasslands in the summer rainfall region, and mountain fynbos in the winter-rainfall region.

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Painted Snipe

For more years than I care to remember, the Painted Snipe was my number one ‘bogey bird’ – no matter where I travelled, I never happened upon one of these unusual wetland dwellers. True, it is a shy skulker, but if you are patient and look in the right places (swamps, in this case) you do expect to eventually bump into such quarry. For those in the know, I dubbed this elusive beast the ‘Plascon Bird’.

But then, one splendid afternoon in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, I encountered a pair of these fabulous fowl feeding in a roadside rain puddle. No skulking was observed, they strode about calmly, almost within arms reach. Two weeks later, I was back in South Africa and travelled through the Kruger Park from Nelspruit to Ngala. And, would you believe it – I had three separate sightings, each individual at a puddle in an otherwise dry riverbed!

Never seen any since. Funny thing, birdwatching.

Painted.Snipes.dbInterestingly, the female Painted Snipe is more brightly coloured than the male and she plays no part in the incubation or care of the young. 

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Garden Birds . . . a new book.

For those of us who find birds compelling, fascinating, worth chasing, or taking a photograph of, the first contact we have is invariably with a common bird seen outside the kitchen window.

In my case, I have vivid recollections of backyard birds in the English garden that I grew up  in: Blackbird, Blue Tit, Goldfinch and – of course – the trusty little European Robin. On one occasion, I remember watching in awe as a Great Spotted Woodpecker fought-off a Grey Squirrel at the hanging nut-feeder my mum had put up. Way back then, one bird that really captured my imagination was the tiny, mouse-like Eurasian Wren that would burrow through the climbing rose then hop out and burst into song.

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Some English garden birds: Blackbird, European Robin, Goldfinch, Blue Tit and Eurasian Wren.

I left England as a 12 year old kid, but soon became acquainted with a whole new range of garden birds in the family home south of Johannesburg. Now, I was entertained by the likes of Crested Barbet, Fiscal Flycatcher, Speckled Mousebird, Southern Fiscal and Cape Weaver. Each summer a lone Spotted Flycatcher would arrive from Europe to occupy one corner, and Barn Swallows would dip-drink from our swimming pool at dusk. A pair of Cape Robin-Chats – the African counterpart of the European – would hop around the back door and pick scraps from our dog’s bowl. One of my favourite things to do (unaware as I then was of wise water use) was to put the garden sprinkler on at midday and watch the iridescent Malachite Sunbirds come in for cooling showers. Black-collared Barbets raised several broods in the nest boxes I built for them and thus began a particular interest in this family of birds.

Having finished with school, and fledged from my parents’ nest, my next garden setting was a small plot on a farm north of Fourways (then little more than a road intersection; now a mass of upmarket housing complexes and glitzy shopping malls), where a friend and I rented a refurbished barn. Here, Grey Go-away Birds, Red-throated Wryneck, Dark-capped Bulbul and Cape Glossy Starlings were daily companions, while Barn Owl, Green Woodhoopoe and Cardinal Woodpecker sometimes put in an appearance. It was here that I first experimented with mixed fruit servings for birds: overripe pawpaw, bruised apples and squished peaches were placed on feeding tables and the action was non-stop.

I rented two garden cottages in the leafy suburb of Parkhurst after that, sharing space with birds such as Karoo Thrush, Red-chested Cuckoo and the vocally-challenged Hadeda Ibis. Here, I was able to study the delightful African Paradise-Flycatcher – a pair of which built their egg-cup nest right outside my window. Later still, newly married, and living in Randpark Ridge on the edge of a golf course, my wife Tracey and I would wake in summer to watch ‘our’ pair of migratory Woodland Kingfishers taking crickets and grasshoppers off the lawn. After dark, Spotted Thick-knees would take their place.

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Some birds of Johannesburg gardens: Cape White-eye, Hadeda Ibis, Crested Barbet, Southern Masked Weaver and Grey Go-away-bird.

In 1994, I finally had the opportunity to actually shape a garden space for birds. We moved to the subtropical town of Nelspruit, buying a simple bungalow-style house bordering the municipal nature reserve. To us, the location and the number of established trees was more important than the number of bedrooms or what the roof was made of. Naturally, we kept all the indigenous trees, but felled several alien palms and other species to make room for a host of native plants that would provide birds with berries or nectar, or attract invertebrates as part of a natural food web. Apart from mowing a small lawn, very little actual gardening ever went on; my objective was for the property to be an extension of the nature reserve – a haven for all creatures. Due to the presence of inquisitive and highly-intelligent Vervet Monkeys, putting out fruit or grain for birds was out of the question. In time, I added a pond, a wetland and a miniature stream, while a tree house built for our daughter Julia Lily doubled-up as a mini ‘canopy observation tower’. We spent 20 years at what came to be called ‘Turaco Wood’ and the list of birds and the number of memorable observations are too long to present here. Among the absolute highlights were a resident pair of African Wood-Owls that would serenade us with their lovely duet calls on warm summer nights; a pair of African Goshawks that built a nest and raised young in a fig tree that I had planted as a sapling 15 years earlier; the wild barking calls of Purple-crested Turacos as they bounced through the trees or drank from our bird bath; and the strident, liquid song of the White-browed Robin-Chats that welcomed each new dawn. Among the sporadic but memorable visitors we had in this wonderful ‘garden’ were Green Twinspot, Emerald Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, Pygmy Kingfisher, Olive Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Eastern Nicator, Retz’s Helmetshrike and Gorgeous Bushshrike.

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Some birds of Turaco Wood: African Goshawk, African Wood-Owl, White-browed Robin-Chat, Purple-crested Turaco and African Paradise-Flycatcher.

By 2014, our time in the Lowveld was up and we found ourselves living close to the southern tip of Africa in the Western Cape. Renting a house in the Hermanus suburb of Vermont was a transitory situation, but remarkably good for a different variety of garden birds. There was no option for me to modify the garden space but there were two big positives: one, the owner had planted only indigenous shrubs and trees; two, municipal greenbelts of ‘strandveld’ ran through the suburbs down to the coastal paths. Oh, there was another thing: we could see the Atlantic Ocean from the balcony! Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Bulbul, Southern Boubou, Southern Tchagra, Bar-throated Apalis and Brimstone Canary could be counted on every day. A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls called from street lamps most evenings and Black Sparrowhawks could be seen hunting pigeons above the rooftops. Now and again, a Kelp Gull would drift over the house – and surreally – flocks of Greater Flamingo would sometimes pass low overhead. But, more than these, I was delighted to be reunited with immaculate Malachite Sunbirds – the same species that I had encouraged to come into my parents’ Mondeor garden forty years earlier. 

As I write this, we are living in the Hermanus suburb of Westcliff, in a house that we have recently purchased. The garden is tiny, the walls are high and the birds are few. Luring in the avian locals will be a challenge, but I am onto it.

Looking back, there is one bird that has been with me in all the various parts of South Africa that I have lived. Gregarious by nature, the little Cape White-eye is happy to forage close to people, picking aphids off bushes, nibbling on bananas or quenching its thirst in a birdbath.

** my newly released book ‘Garden Birds of Southern Africa’ is published by StruikNature. It profiles 101 bird species (with photographs not illustrations) that regularly occur in gardens of major cities and larger towns of the region, and provides information on how to create garden spaces that provide feeding and nesting niches for birds. The book costs R230 and is available in good bookshops in South Africa, or on-line from http://www.netbooks.co.za. Signed copies can be ordered directly from me : duncan@dbnatureworks.com

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