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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It’s Happened … a Gull Moment!

When I set up this blog a few years ago, I thought I’d be smart and come up with a cute wordplay for the title, thinking that I might even produce a book with this name (using the better material) one fine day . . .

So, the popular phrase ‘Never a Dull Moment’ inspired ‘Never a Gull Moment’ (this being a blog about birds) and I even had this to say in my intro: “I have watched birds on six continents, but have yet to have a memorable moment with a gull of any kind. . . .”

Well, in the midst of a wild storm that battered this southern tip of Africa these past few days, I clearly wasn’t paying attention, and I actually had a gull moment!

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Kelp Gulls feeding on mussels ripped up by the huge waves, Kwaaiwater Beach, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa.

 

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The Sounds of silens, Sigelus silens.

 

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There are very few birds to be seen around our new home in the Hermanus suburb of Westcliff. Gangs of inquisitive Common Starlings inspect the gutters, a pair of Southern Fiscal use the wi-fi dish as a perch and Red-eyed Doves call mournfully from the bare rooftop. It’s a small stand, and I’ve stripped out virtually all of the previous owner’s ragged collection of exotic plants ahead of growing a selection of berry- and nectar-producing trees and shrubs – native to the area – that will hopefully lure in a few bulbuls, sunbirds and plenty of insects to attract robin-chats and flycatchers.

For now, though, my working days are without the avian distractions I became so used to at Turaco Wood in Nelspruit, or at our rented house surrounded by indigenous coastal strandveld of Vermont (just 10km west of here).

At any rate, there I was, out at the back door, picking up the dog bowls, when a burst of high-pitched, warbling whistles stopped me in my tracks. I knew the call, I knew this bird, but I was momentarily stumped. Our boundary wall is two metres high, so visibility of the outside world is limited, but I didn’t have to wait long for the songster to reveal itself. A flash of black and white, as a male Fiscal Flycatcher swooped over my head and perched on the telephone wire, followed by another male and then a female. The two males were posturing towards each other and facing the object of their affection – the less-glossy, brownish hen; tails were fanned-out into sharp triangles, bills were pointed to the cloudless skies, and ripples of ecstatic song accompanied the show. I gained a higher vantage point, and two more flycatchers were seen across the road, calling from the neighbour’s rooftop. This was clearly a territorial dispute, combined with courtship ritual, but why now, at the onset of winter? The earliest breeding records here in the Cape seem to be in late July, but pairs must be cementing their bonds, or forming up, well in advance. The seasonal rains are hopefully on their way after months of parched, bleached-out weather, so that will spur on the lifecycles of the winged insects that these flycatchers eat.

The scientific name of this bird is Sigelus silens, the latter part (its specific name) apparently based on the Latin word for silence, which my males were anything but! To be fair, however, these birds usually are quiet and unobtrusive. As for the generic name Sigelus, this has recently been abandoned by lab-based taxonomists who evidently concluded on the results of trendy ‘molecular phylogenetic’ study, that it should be lumped with the Marico and Southern Black Flycatchers into the genus Melaenornis. Thus, the Fiscal Flycatcher has lost its monotypic status which I find strange because its behaviour and morphology is in no way similar to these other flycatchers.

Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa. 22 May, 2017.

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Ribbon-tailed Beauty

 

On the edge a mango orchard, alongside the paddock of a domestic water buffalo, hawked this male Asian Paradise-Flycatcher. The ripening fruit and ruminating bovine enticed a profusion of flies – sheer bliss for this ribbon-tailed beauty.

Bordering Gir National Park, Gujurat, India. March 2017

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India’s Avian Glitterball

Peacock.copy.jpgIt is mid March in Gujurat. The dry, teak woodlands are coated with dust and papery, plate-sized leaves have formed a brittle carpet on the floor of the Gir forest. With midday temperatures peaking in the high thirties, trees are rapidly shedding their old leaves, yet at the same time bursting into flower. Parakeets and starlings sip nectar from the abundant Butea whose flame red blooms illuminate the landscape. Along the dry luggas, jasmine-scented Carissa shrubs perfume the air. The monsoon rains are eagerly awaited but they are a good ten or twelve weeks off.

We are on the back of an open jeep, in search of the iconic Asiatic Lions that have their last refuge here, but there is much else to see in the Gir National Park. A pair of Oriental Scops-Owls sit outside their tree cavity home, with cryptic plumage perfectly matching the teak bark. A troop of long-limbed Hanuman Langurs are assembled in the shade of a massive Banyan tree, mothers grooming their young, teenagers taunting one another, and vigilant males on sentry. A Chital stag rubs and sharpens his antlers on a favoured stump. And into this world struts a male Indian Peafowl.

Is it possible to capture – in words or pictures – the startling magnificence of a peacock appearing in this muted, tawny landscape? I think not.

Cloaked in iridescent sapphire and emerald, the breeding male carries a train of tail feathers twice the length of his body. In full display, these elaborate plumes are raised up and fanned to create a dazzling arc that has inspired human pageants and parades the world over. Right now, there are no hens about and so the cock holds his tail flat as he approaches a waterhole to quench its thirst.

Almost as remarkable as the bejewelled visage of a peacock, is how unmoved so many people are at seeing one. Were this improbable creature not such an ubiquitous presence in animal parks, farmyards and estate gardens all around the world, it might rank alongside the Resplendent Quetzal or Wilson’s Birds-of-Paradise as the most decorative of all birds. As it is, many of us have grown up seeing these elaborate fowl alongside turkeys, geese and chickens, scratching about in yards or crying out from the roofs of barns and even suburban houses. All of them a long, long way from their true home.

Familiarity may have diminished the peacock’s lustre in mundane, man-made settings, but not here in India. Not here in Gujurat. Here it is the prince of the Gir forest keeping royal company with lions, leopards, monkeys and deer.

Gir National Park, Gujurat, India. March 2017

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Note: The name peacock refers to the male peafowl, a member of the family Phasianidae; females are known as peahens. There are actually two species of peafowl, the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), and the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) of Thailand and other parts of SE Asia.

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Night Moves

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Every night, just before bed, I take Josie out into the small park opposite our house where she sniffs around and has a pee. Last night we were joined by a moon-white Barn Owl that circled low above us, seemingly intrigued by the pale-coated Labrador in the torch beam . It’s always such a thrill to witness the buoyant, utterly silent flight of these ghostly owls and no wonder that so many people associate them with a spirit world.

Watercolour sketch; Vermont, west of Hermanus, South Africa.

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Dipping Out on the Big Twitch

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Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin (well, not the bird exactly, but its perch), Zeekoeivlei, Cape Town

Picture the scene. A disorientated man somehow boards the wrong aeroplane and ends up at an airport in a foreign country. He cannot speak the language, he’s wearing unusual clothes and he has lost his passport and wallet. As this odd and bewildered individual paces back and forth across the terminal, somebody spots him, reaches for their camera and takes a snap. Another two people notice this and point at the man. By now, the image is out on instagram and people are so fascinated by the wayward traveller that they get in their cars and drive to the airport to see him. Soon enough, a crowd has gathered and they have circled the shy and fidgety man who is now moving restlessly from pillar to post trying to figure out his next move.

This, in a nutshell, is what twitching is all about – seeking out birds that have turned up in places where they are not supposed to be. Here in South Africa, the latest vagabond to pitch up is a Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin that has been knocking about at a place called Zeekoeivlei for the past week. This species has never been observed in South Africa before – it’s not in the books – and this individual has evidently taken the wrong direction home from its wintering grounds in equatorial Africa. It should be nesting in the Mediterranean now, not being blasted by gale force winds and doused with cold drizzle at a public picnic site on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Personally, I’m not in the habit of running down these lost birds, but am always fascinated by local birding guru Trevor Hardaker’s ‘Rare Bird News’ and read his regular reports with interest. At any rate, since I had to drive through to Cape Town for meetings on Tuesday 19 July, I thought that it would have been churlish of me not to pay this straggler a visit. For days now, I’ve read that the bird has been perching out in the open, low down on wooden posts were everyone can see and photograph it.

So it was, that I joined a bunch of binocular-wielding, anorak-clad voyeurs sheltering under a sparsely foliaged myrtle tree at the sodden picnic site. A cold wind was cutting across the wetland, driving rain into the faces of the twitchers while the object of their desire – the scrub-robin – was apparently hunkered down, out of sight. I was on a tight schedule, so couldn’t wait it out and got back in my car and drove off after about 15 minutes, wiper blades at double speed.

Two hours later, meetings done, I was back. A different group of birders were in place but the weather hadn’t changed. The scrub-robin was allegedly hiding in a particular bush, so any move on its part would have been rapidly detected by the hardy twitchers, as their scopes, cameras and binoculars were all pointed fiercely at that greenery. I left the group to their business, thinking that if it had secretly slipped from its cover, as birds do, someone had better be casting the net a little wider. Traipsing along the well-beaten pathways through high grass at the water’s edge I flushed three ducks that heaved themselves out of the grey water and rose up into the leaden sky. A wagtail with a missing foot limped ahead of me. I was expecting a shout, “there it is!” at any moment, but it never came. Twenty minutes later, there were only three people left, all drenched, and I was looking at my watch.

Five more minutes is all I could do, the rush-hour traffic was about to build up and I had a 150 km drive ahead of me. A minute passed, followed by another minute, then, a different minute passed. It was time to go, I had dipped out. But, in some bizarre way, I felt strangely relieved. I hadn’t had to lock eyes with the bird that was never going to make it home.

Duncan Butchart

 

 

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