Category Archives: At Home

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 2)

Just to repeat some of the background to our lockdown experience while in Mossel Bay…..

Top of my list of activities to keep me occupied under lockdown was birding / atlasing and to make it more interesting Birdlasser came up with a “South African Lockdown Challenge” for which I registered. Any species that I logged on the Birdlasser app would be counted towards my personal total during lockdown and could be compared with others doing the same. I knew that I would not be very competitive, but saw it as an inspiration to keep up regular birding / atlasing during the lockdown.

The rules were simple – any bird species recorded in or from the garden would count – the “from the garden” bit makes it really interesting as it means a bird flying overhead or at a distance, even a kilometre or more away, counts, as long as you can confidently ID it.

The Habitats

The central habitat is of course the garden itself – in our case a small one – literally a u-shaped strip of lawn between 1 and 2m wide on three sides of the house, with the front side having a well-established rockery type garden on both sides of the driveway.

Our patio and enclosed stoep, where we have meals and tend to spend most of our time, looks over our neighbour’s gardens and has a sweeping view of part of the golf course and of the open sea beyond the cliffs.

The Sunbirds

These colourful little bundles of energy are an absolute joy to watch as they fly from one sweet flower to another, hyper-actively on the go all day, fueled of course by the nectar of the aloes and honeysuckles which flower at this time of year.

One thing I discovered about the smallest of them – with one of the longest names in our region – the Southern Double-collared Sunbird, is that their wings beat so fast that they make a whirring sound as they fly about.

The wing beat of Hummingbirds is a lot faster, causing the humming sound after which they are named, but I would hazard a guess that sunbirds are high up in the rankings of birds with the fastest wing beats.

I had never noticed this whirring sound before, but it became a calling card of this species when we were in the garden during the lockdown period, immediately alerting us to their presence and was the signal for me to grab my camera, in the hope of capturing an image while they prodded the flowers with their long curved bills.

The bills are unique in that they are both long and slender, down-curved at just the right radius to reach deep into the similarly curved flowers that they prefer – just another example of nature’s perfect partnerships. The tongue of the sunbird can extend to almost the same length as the bill and is tubular with projections at the tip to suck up the nectar while feeding. So long flowers such as the honeysuckle suit them perfectly –

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Female), Mossel Bay

Four species of sunbird visit our garden, some more regularly than others, depending on the supply of nectar-producing flowers (and the neighbour’s feeders) and seasonal changes.

Most regular visitor is the Southern Double-collared Sunbird – like most of the sunbirds there is a distinct difference between the male and female colouring – known as dichromatism. Compare this colourful fellow with the photo of the female above and following the next one as an example.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Male), Mossel Bay

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Female), Mossel Bay

Occasionally the cousin of the last species, the Greater Double-collared Sunbird will pop in, but the smaller Southern species outnumbers it by at least ten to one in our garden. Although larger than the Southern species, this is not always discernible when there is nothing to compare it with, so I usually rely on the width of the red band across the chest, which is about double the width in the case of the Greater species.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

The Amethyst Sunbird with its all black glossy plumage is a regular at certain times of the year while completely absent at other times. It was a regular visitor during the lockdown period, but less conspicuous and seldom staying very long. I wasn’t able to capture an image of the male, so have included one from an earlier trip.

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie)

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie) (Female race amethystina), Mossel Bay

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie) (Female race amethystina), Mossel Bay

The most recognizable sunbird is the Malachite Sunbird, mainly because of its glossy green plumage and because it has a longer tail than any of the other sunbirds in the region. It was scarce during the lockdown months and seems to visit us more often during midsummer – November to February. This photo is from an earlier trip to the southern Cape

Malachite Sunbird, Valsriviermond

Cape Weaver in Action

Not far behind the sunbirds in the energy stakes are the weavers and I discovered that they also have a liking for a drop or two of nectar now and then (who doesn’t like a bit of sweetness after a meal?). Now weavers have a shortish, thick bill rather unsuited to prodding into flowers such as honeysuckle so they take a shorter route to get to the nectar – to my horror as a lover of flowers but interesting to watch.

They go straight for the jugular, as it were, nipping the entire flower off just above its base and so gaining direct access to the nectar, which they quickly take a sip of and move on to decimate the next flower. Fortunately they seem to be rapidly sated, so once again the natural balance remains intact.

One Cape Weaver was intent on building a nest and chose an overhanging branch of our neighbour’s tree which was no more than 2 metres from our patio window, affording us a grandstand view of its efforts. And did he keep us entertained!

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

I suspected the male was fairly young, otherwise he would not have been attempting to construct a nest so late in the season, with winter just around the corner. At a guess, he was possibly getting in some practice for the next breeding season, honing his all-important nest-building skills while impressing the female in his life, who was constantly around to inspect and comment on his prowess.

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

This carried on for around a month – some days there would be no interest on his part to continue, other days he would be coming and going for a large part of the day, modifying the grass structure, adding a few strands here and there, twisting and turning and hanging underneath all at the same time.

Here the female is bringing some weaving material to the nest – clearly not confident that the male would pick the right material

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Female), Mossel Bay

Don’t worry, I’ve got this …..

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

Eventually it seemed he was satisfied after checking it out from the top and bottom and getting the nod from the female, after which it all went quiet and the weavers became less conspicuous. Perhaps they had realised that the cold and windy weather was not conducive to raising youngsters and that they would be better off next season – let’s wait and see.

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 1)

Faced with the phychological challenge of being under “house arrest” due to lockdown regulations, amplified by our supposedly risky senior citizen status, Gerda and I resolved to keep ourselves as busy as possible with our various hobbies and activities while confined to our house in Mossel Bay. We have generally succeeded so far but are enjoying the extra freedom since 1st of June when the regulations changed from level 4 to level 3, while keeping ourselves as safe as we can.

Top of my list of activities to keep me occupied under lockdown was birding / atlasing (but you knew that anyway, didn’t you) and to make it more interesting Birdlasser came up with a “South African Lockdown Challenge” for which I registered. Any species that I logged on the Birdlasser app would be counted towards my personal total during lockdown and could be compared with others doing the same. I knew that I would not be very competitive, but saw it as an inspiration to keep up regular birding / atlasing during the lockdown.

The rules were simple – any bird species recorded in or from the garden would count – the “from the garden” bit makes it really interesting as it means a bird flying overhead or at a distance, even a kilometre or more away, counts, as long as you can confidently ID it.

The Habitats

The central habitat is of course the garden itself – in our case a small one – literally a u-shaped strip of lawn between 1 and 2m wide on three sides of the house, with the front side having a well-established rockery type garden on both sides of the driveway, featuring aloes, pincushions and proteas which are a major drawcard for Sugarbirds and Sunbirds, even Canaries.

The lack of trees in our garden is compensated for by the neighbours’ trees and bird feeders which attract a variety of birds, depending on the weather and how frequently we all restock our bird feeders. Our patio and enclosed stoep, where we have meals and tend to spend most of our time, has a sweeping view of part of the golf course and of the open sea beyond the cliffs, albeit partially obscured by said neighbour’s trees and the roofs of the houses between us and the sea.

So, with the scene set let me tell you about the birds that came to see us (rather than the other way around) and the often interesting behaviour that they displayed.

The Doves

I’ll start with the really mundane ones – the Doves. We are so used to having them around that one tends to take them for granted, but with time on hand I set out to try and photograph the three common species of Dove on their own and together to highlight differences of size, colour etc. All three occur in abundance across most of southern Africa

Starting with the smallest of them, the Laughing Dove – 25 cm; 100 g – quite easy to identify as it lacks the neck ring of the other two doves and the colouring is a lot more rufous with distinctive black spotting on the chest

Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Lemoenduif, Mossel Bay

Next up in size order is the Ring-necked Dove – 27 cm; 153 g, until recently known as the Cape Turtle-Dove. This is where ID starts getting a tad trickier as it and the next species both have distinctive neck rings, however there is a considerable size difference (which only helps if you have another dove or other species to compare with) and colouring is overall greyer than the Red-eyed Dove.

Ring-necked Dove (Streptopelia capicola / Gewone tortelduif), Mossel Bay

Last of the common doves is the largest as well – the Red-eyed Dove – 35 cm; 252 g – some two and a half times the weight of the Laughing Dove and one and a half times its length.

Red-eyed Dove (Streptopelia semitorquata / Grootringduif), Mossel Bay

Apart from the size difference the red eye ring and eye colour itself is an ID clincher, provided you are close enough to see it.

Red-eyed Dove (Streptopelia semitorquata / Grootringduif), Mossel Bay

Just don’t confuse it with the Speckled Pigeon ….. or should this one be renamed the Peeking Pigeon?

Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea / Kransduif), Mossel Bay

Some joint photos highlight the differences quite well, but they aren’t always this obliging by posing together

Here we have the Laughing Dove (front) and the Ring-necked Dove (back) . Very similar in size, but the lack of the neck ring on the Laughing Dove is what sets it apart. When seen together like this the colour difference is quite marked.

Ring-necked and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

This one of the Red-eyed Dove (left) and the Laughing Dove (right) shows the size difference, but this is not so obvious in the field when they are on their own and size is difficult to gauge. Here the red eye is just showing and the neck ring clearly differentiates it from the Laughing Dove.

Red-eyed and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

This one shows both of the doves with neck rings so at a quick glance they could be taken for the same species, however close scrutiny of the Red-eyed Dove on the right shows the red eye ring and eye itself, versus the plain ring-less dark eye of the Cape Turtle Dove / Ring-necked Dove

Ring-necked vs Red-eyed Dove, Mossel Bay

Cape Birds

Just for the fun of it I set out to photograph as many birds as I could with “Cape” as part of their name – there are 29 in southern Africa of which I managed to capture images of 10 in our garden. The neighbour’s Kiepersol tree with bare branches provided a perfect perch for photography, as the birds waited their turn at the feeders, but I wonder what the neighbours thought as I dashed out on to the balcony and knelt down every now and then with my camera, twisting to get the right angle and trying to avoid getting the railings in the way.

Cape Bulbul (Pycnonotus capensis / Kaapse tiptol), Mossel Bay

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie), Mossel Bay

Cape Weaver (Male) (Ploceus capensis / Kaapse wewer), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay
Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay

OK, this one is stretching it a bit but one of its alternative names is Cape Widow

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Female), Mossel Bay

Yellow Bishop / Cape Widow (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Male non-breeding), Mossel Bay

Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis / Rooivlerkstreepkoppie) (Male race capensis), Mossel Bay

Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris Kaapse kliplyster (Male), Mossel Bay

Cape White-eye (Zosterops capensis / Kaapse glasogie) (Race virens capensis), Mossel Bay

Two on one chimney was a bonus – but what contrasting companions – I can imagine the Sugarbird saying to the Rock-Thrush “you may have a more colourful breast but I have a spectacular tail, so there”

Odd couple, Mossel Bay

Next post will include the eye-catching nectar feeders – the Sunbirds – and a Weaver that was determined to show off his nest building skills

At the Bird Feeder

It never fails to amaze me how quickly birds of the seedeater variety react to my replenishing the feeder in our garden, usually descending on it en masse within half an hour of filling it.

This happened again recently after I had been away and had not filled the feeder for some weeks – the first birds were there in no time at all. I suspect they “do the rounds” of all potential feeding sites each day, otherwise how would they know? And there must be some system of communication that informs other birds of different species of the presence of food.

Whatever the case, it is always interesting to see which species turn up – often the same mix but sometimes a non-regular puts in an appearance.

Here is a selection of the birds that came to the feeder in the space of a couple of days recently –

Sparrows

Two of the four South African Sparrows are regulars in the garden – the House Sparrow, despite its name, does not come to the garden, preferring to scrounge for scraps at the local shopping centre’s parking area

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie)
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (Passer diffusus / Gryskopmossie)
Cape Sparrow (Female) and Grey-headed Sparrow

Finches

Both of the Amadina finches are fairly regular visitors and the males provide a splash of colour with their vivid red “cut-throat” and head. They also feed on insects and termites where they can

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Cut-throat Finch (Female) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Red-headed Finch (Male) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)
Red-headed Finch (Female) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)

Weavers

There are four weaver species in the residential estate that we live in, thanks mainly to the two small dams that form part of it. Two of them are regular visitors to the garden, being Southern Masked Weaver and Village Weaver, while the Cape Weaver is very seldom seen in the garden and the Thick-billed Weaver not at all

The regular weavers are, at first glance, quite similar but have a few distinguishing features – the black forehead of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the yellow forehead of the Village Weaver, the plainer mottled back of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the heavily blotched back of the village Weaver (not visible in these photos)

Southern Masked Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus velatus race tahatali / Swartkeelgeelvink)
Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

The photo below shows the difference in the forehead colours

Village and Southern Masked Weavers

Looking at the photos I had taken, I noticed that the Village Weaver had an elongated bill – this is an abnormality that occurs in various bird species. This individual did not seem to have a problem feeding

Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

Lovebirds

Over the last 3 to 4 years a feral population of Lovebirds has established a presence in our residential estate, probably being cage bird escapees originally. They most closely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird that occurs in Zambia but are quite hybridised, with some birds being almost entirely yellow. I am split between appreciating their bright colouring and disliking the fact that feral birds are spreading in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria

Feral Lovebird – Yellow-collared/Black-cheeked

Mannikins

These cute little birds appear in small flocks, twittering away happily

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata / Gewone fret)

Which all goes to show you don’t have to travel far from home to find interesting birds