The Sounds of silens, Sigelus silens.



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

peacock1 copy.jpg

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


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

scrub-robin perch

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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Albatross astern!

Wandering.Royal copy copyA couple of months ago, I would hardly have known the difference between an albatross and an armadillo. Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve been used to skipping impatiently past the albatross plates in my field guides for the past 30 years as my dry-land birding in grassland, savanna and forest offered little prospect of seeing birds that require howling seawinds to stay airborne and live off squid.


But, after two trips out to sea with Hennie Otto’s Pelagic Encounters, I’m slowly learning about albatrosses and their cousins – the petrels and shearwaters. These full-day  excursions head about 80km south from Kleinbaai (just around Danger Point from Gansbaai) on South Africa’s southern Cape coast to where the continental shelf breaks up and greedy fishing fleets trawl relentlessly for hake.

Ocean-going, fish-eating birds have learned to follow the trawlers and they often gather in great numbers to provide an unmatched wildlife spectacle – albeit unnatural as it is dependent on mankind’s pilfering of the sea. And the scavenging habit is not without risk to the big birds –  taking baited hooks from longliners or colliding with cables on trawler nets has decimated most albatross species and virtually all of them are threatened. Good news, however, is that BirdLife International’s Albatross Task Force has found ways to work with fishing fleets and implemented strategies to reduce and even eliminate the dreadful ‘by-catch’ of albatrosses.

Out at sea myself, I’ve been paying attention to the way the different species move – their characteristic shapes and postures, the angles of their wings. I’ve found it impossible to sketch while trying to balance myself on a boat that is bouncing across troughs and being bucked by swells, so I’ve been taking lots of photographs to study and draw from (and for their own sake). Drawing the birds from these reference photographs is a great way to learn about the plumage traits as well as the precise structure and colouration of the bill, and forces me to look more carefully.


Albatrosses are long-lived birds and undergo distinct plumage changes during the first five years and more. Experts – of which I am far from being – can age them quite precisely, up to breeding adult. I’m still making mistakes and overlooking things, but each time I scroll through the photographs I took out at sea, I notice something I missed before.


So it was, that in studying the bill shape of Wandering Albatrosses in my photographs, I came upon an anomaly. A few photographs taken on 22 June when we were surrounded by dozens of albatrosses – Shy, Black-browed, Indian Yellow-nosed and at least six huge Wandering, feeding behind a trawler. Here among them, I now noticed, was an equally large albatross with a gently sloped forehead and a black line on the cutting edge of its upper mandible; the whole bill also looking somewhat paler pink and longer (the Wanderer has a domed forehead and no dark cutting edge on its bill). The black cutting edge is a diagnostic trait of Royal Albatross but this species has been split into Northern Royal and Southern Royal, so which was it? Enter local seabird enthusiast and topnotch birder Trevor Hardaker, who, upon seeing my photograph of the bill, agreed that it was indeed a Royal but needed more imagery to determine whether it was N or S. By this time, I had hauled out my Australian and New Zealand field guides to see what they had to say in addition to Ian Sinclair et al’s Sasol Birds of Southern Africa. Years ago, while still living in the Lowveld, I had traded away my old but unused Seabirds – an identification guide by Peter Harrison, so that was not to hand.

At any rate, there is no difference between the two as regards bill colouration, one needs to see outstretched wings . . . is there a white leading edge to the wing? (that’s Southern) and how extensive is the black patch on the white underwing near the carpal joint (‘wrist’)? If there is a decent amount of black, it is Northern. There are other details too, the amount of black on the tips of the short tail feathers, the degree of speckling on the white back. . . . Luckily, the photographs were enough for Trevor to confirm the bird as a young Northern Royal Albatross – I’d learned a great deal, and snagged a ‘new’ bird!


Duncan Butchart



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Seen from the Shore

During the first few months of this year, I spent quite a bit of time observing shorebirds along our little part of the coastline in Hermanus, and further afield at De Mond, Velddrift and Langebaan. Having been able to closely observe the Common Whimbrel along the rocky shore, I was keen to track down its larger relative – the Eurasian Curlew – which is undergoing a population crash in its northern Hemisphere breeding range and is now a scarce summer migrant to South Africa. This larger bird occurs only on mudflats, and a description of my eventual encounters with this wonderful, scythe-billed wader will appear in my next blog entry. But now, with winter on its way and the Palearctic shorebirds having left for their breeding haunts, my attention has turned to birds of the open sea. Never having lived – or even spent much time – by the ocean, there is so much to learn . . .

Here are a few recent observations made along our local coastal path in Vermont, west of Hermanus.


Swift Tern (Thalasseus bergii) pair above Walker Bay in sunset courtship flight.


Cape Gannets (Morus capensis) close inshore, flying rapidly above the waves.


A number of Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) appeared during stormy weather.


Cape Gannets (Morus capensis) plunging for their fish prey.

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