Category Archives: Bird behaviour

Spring Flowers Trip 2022 – Tietiesbaai : Bay of Plenty….. Birds

The Background

With wonderful memories of our Spring Flowers trip through parts of the Western Cape in September 2021 still fresh in our minds, we decided to do a similar, but different, trip in September 2022. Our planned route was to take us to Tulbagh for one night, then three nights each in Clanwilliam and Paternoster. To round off the trip we treated ourselves to a three-night stay in Cape Town’s Vineyard Hotel, in celebration of our birthdays which “book-ended” the trip,

Not just Flowers

My previous post described the rugged beauty of Tietiesbaai, particularly during the ‘flower season’ when rafts of colourful flowers add to the already spectacular views of sea and rocky shorelines.

What we found during our previous visit, and again this September, is that Tietiesbaai can also lay claim to being a birding spot that is the equal of some of the better known and more recognised birding destinations in this part of the country

From the moment we entered the main gate into the reserve the birding was interesting and took our attention away from the flowers many times.

A Familiar Raptor

We came across several raptors during this trip, none more so than the Rock Kestrel, which we encountered many times. Before reaching the reserve proper, we found one on a utility pole, surveying the landscape, probably hoping to find a field mouse or small lizard to swoop down on. Raptors generally get edgy when you slow down and stop and will often fly off, only to settle on the pole a bit further away. This one was no exception, so I made sure my camera was ready before stopping, leapt out and tracked the kestrel with my camera as it took off – fortunately capturing an image in flight, albeit from behind.

Rock Kestrel, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

Birds among the Fynbos and the Flowers

Once we were through the gate there was abundant bird life with the typical birds of the fynbos prominent – Grey-backed Cisticola, Yellow Canary, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Karoo Prinia and Cape Bunting.

Yellow Canary Crithagra flaviventris Geelkanarie, (male race flaviventris) Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Karoo Scrub Robin Erythropygia coryphaeus Slangverklikker (race cinerea), Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

Even more prominent were the Karoo Larks (SA Endemic) which we came across a few times, some of which were foraging on the ground, while others were calling and displaying avidly, no doubt hoping to attract the ‘right sort’ as it were

Karoo Lark Calendulauda albescens Karoolewerik (race albescens), Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Karoo Lark Calendulauda albescens Karoolewerik (race albescens), Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Karoo Lark calling and displaying

A particular thrill was finding a covey of Grey-winged Francolins among the flowers – always difficult to photograph as they tend to dash off into the bushes as you approach, so I was happy to be able to snatch a few images before they disappeared

Grey-winged Francolin Scleroptila africana Bergpatrys, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

Birds among the Rocks

Our stop for tea was in the same spot as a year ago – along a short, narrow, bumpy track between the rocks near the “Sea Shacks” (basic accommodation for visitors).

Nearby many Cape Cormorants were resting on the rocks and as we drove along the track we came across Ruddy Turnstones – no less than 30 of them according to my quick count! Now, Turnstones are fairly common summer migrants to our country from the arctic tundra region, but seldom have I seen more than a couple at a time, so this was a sight to behold!

Even from a few metres they can be surprisingly hard to spot as the next photo illustrates – their colouration blends in with the rocks, stones and kelp littering the shoreline

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Steenloper, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Steenloper, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

Another summer migrant to SA – from the Palearctic region – Curlew Sandpipers, were also around in numbers but nowhere near those of the Turnstones – the two species seemed happy to share each other’s space

Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea Krombekstrandloper, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Ruddy Turnstone and Curlew Sandpiper, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

A (Turn) stone’s throw away was a single White-fronted Plover, a common coastal resident most often seen on open beaches – if you can spot them – they are masters of “hiding in full sight”

White-fronted Plover Charadrius marginatus Vaalstrandkiewiet (race marginatus), Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

Protective Plover Parents

And then the highlight of our day ……

Heading back to the main track after enjoying our tea among the rocks, we spotted a pair of Kittlitz’s Plovers – looking rather anxious it seemed to us. The reason was obvious when we saw two juveniles in the short grass nearby – looking oh so cute – two balls of fluff with long legs and huge feet

Kittlitz’s Plover Charadrius pecuarius Geelborsstrandkiewiet, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Kittlitz’s Plover juvenile, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

As we spotted them, one of the chicks scurried across the shale to its parent and literally disappeared before our eyes. The following sequence of photos shows how it “buries” itself in the belly feathers of the parent until just the legs are left dangling out

Meanwhile the second chick, much braver, walked about in the track, then rather hesitantly across the rocks, before heading to the adult as well.

Kittlitz’s Plover, (Very young juvenile) Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

We had gradually edged the car past this scene to avoid disturbing them any further when the other adult set about trying to lead our “metal monster” away by doing its “mortally wounded act” right in front of our vehicle

Kittlitz’s Plover acting wounded to distract us

Eventually I was able to edge past this adult as well and we continued on our way

Discovering a Nest

Further along I spotted a small bird in the distance flying towards a shrub with yellow flowers, then promptly disappearing from view – into the middle of the shrub it seemed. I watched carefully as we got closer to see where it had got to, only to see it emerge from the shrub and fly off low and rapidly.

It was all too quick to ID the bird which was small and brownish, but my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped alongside the shrub, got out and walked around the car to have a closer look as I had a hunch there was a reason for the bird’s behaviour.

Sure enough, when I carefully parted the branches a nest with three eggs was revealed and I set about finding the parent’s ID by going through some of the possible suspects on my Roberts app. My second guess was correct – Cape Bunting

Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai
Cape Bunting nest, Cape Columbine NR – Tietiesbaai

So, our flower-viewing day at Tietiesbaai had turned into a birding bonanza as well, much to our delight!

Weaver at work (Again) – Winter 2022

When we returned to our Mossel Bay home recently we were once again thrilled to find the Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis/ Kaapse wewer) working diligently at building nests right outside our upper floor living area. It was a repeat of the scene of a year ago, which I featured in a post at the time (https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/10946)

They are a source of entertainment from dawn to dusk and leave me feeling quite exhausted just watching their frenetic activity as they build one nest after another, hoping to impress the female weaver who “pops in” for an inspection at fairly regular intervals.

We have had up to four male weavers nest-building at a time and currently there are at least two vying for the attention of the female, whose arrival is greeted by a display by the anxious males, who hang below their best nest and display.

The display is nicely described by Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa as follows :

Once nest initiated, male displays at nest by ruffling feathers, shivering partly spread wings, swivelling body and singing. If female enters territory, male displays either hanging below nest or perched alongside; may also pluck leaves from near nest. If female enters nest, male responds with high-intensity wheezing song, either while hanging below nest or during circular display flight. Female apparently tests nest strength by pulling at material inside nest, then, once male leaves nest entrance, sits in nest chamber looking out of entrance; chases off male if he approaches at this stage

The images I took of one of the males show some of the above behaviour

The male will even get upside down in order to impress the female …

Great fun to watch!

An Ostrich Encounter

My last post (“Birds on the Beach”) highlighted one of Southern Africa’s most iconic birds, the African Penguin. This time the spotlight falls on another iconic species, this one being about as far removed from penguins as it is possible to imagine. Not that I had intended to write about this species at this juncture, but it drew attention to itself in ways that I simply could not ignore…..

Here’s how it happened –

I was on an atlasing trip out of Mossel Bay, which I try and do once a week, and was heading along a minor gravel road north-west of the town. After many years I have found that the most efficient way of atlasing (recording species in a defined area called a pentad) requires a combination of very slow driving, with windows open to pick up bird calls, combined with regular stops to get out of the car and scan the habitat all around.

Just as an aside, the ‘window open’ part had already paid huge dividends when I picked up a call which sounded warbler-like, emanating from roadside bush. I stopped and got out to listen carefully and when the bird carried on its warble I recorded it on my Iphone, knowing that it would probably not show itself and I would have to ID it on call alone.

This was fortunate as I realised that it could be a Marsh Warbler, considered a rarity in the Western Cape, which I duly reported to the SA Rare Bird News along with my recording. It was confirmed by Trevor Hardaker who runs the news service and he included it in that evening’s emailed report.

Anyway, back to the main theme of the post –

At one of my stops next to a wide field, I noticed a lone male Common Ostrich on the far side and, as I did so, he began trotting in determined fashion towards where I was standing alongside my SUV.

‘Hello’, I thought, ‘this could be interesting’ – but my camera was in the car and the ostrich was approaching quickly so I grabbed my phone, set it to video and started filming. Halfway across the field the ostrich stopped and called, a deep booming call that has been likened to that of a lion in the distance.

Turn your sound up to maximum to hear the call….

The ostrich continued coming towards me until it was just a few metres away, then suddenly went down onto its haunches and performed its courtship display, swinging its neck from side to side with wings spread wide. At that stage I was glad of the fence separating us – who knows what he might get up to next!

Still not satisfied that he had attracted my attention, it seems, the ostrich came even closer, just a metre or two from where I stood amazed, with just a flimsy fence separating us, and once again performed the courtship display.

This is when I believe the ostrich started having second thoughts about my suitability as a partner and he went behind the bushes for a minute or so then reappeared, giving me the once over and, I imagined, showing signs of mild doubt, even confusion as he eyed me from behind the bushes. That final tail flip is very telling…

I decided not to confuse the misguided bird any further and drove on….

However, I couldn’t help wondering about this strange encounter for the next day or two and came up with a few possibilities to explain it –

  • It was a very short-sighted ostrich
  • It was very lonely in that field all on its own
  • It was trying to prove its ‘wildness’ so that I might be persuaded to add it to my records for the pentad list*

* This last one probably needs some explanation for those not familiar with atlasing protocols and the status of the Common Ostrich in the southern Cape. Ostriches in this part of South Africa have been farmed for well over 100 years and most ostriches encountered are in fact of the ‘domesticated’ type, although not distinguishable from ‘wild’ ostriches which are generally only found in game and nature reserves. Atlasing protocols allow for recording of ‘free flying’ birds only which translates to ‘wild’ birds in the case of ostriches which of course are flightless, so none of the ostriches in the farming areas will be eligible.

  • Oh, and there’s one more possibility – perhaps I look more like a female ostrich than I had previously imagined….. Here’s a recent photo of me to let you decide

Birds on the Beach

Now these are not just any old birds on any old beach that I’m referring to, both the birds and their beach habitat are – well – very special and wonderfully unique.

Let’s start with the beach …….

Boulders Beach is a small beach at Simon’s Town, which lies on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula, some 40 kms south of central Cape Town. For many years it was a little known, ‘out of the way’ beach favoured by couples and young families seeking a quiet spot to spend a day, Perfect for a picnic and safe for the kids to paddle and swim, with hardly a wave in sight due to the protective ring of large boulders which all but shut out the sea’s power.

Growing up in Cape Town, I can recall the occasional trip from our home in the suburbs, via bus and train, to Simon’s Town to spend a day at Seaforth beach, which adjoins Boulders beach. Later in my student years, I ‘graduated’ to joining my elder brother and his family in a leisurely day at Boulders itself.

Seaforth beach, Simon’s Town

I left Cape Town in 1970 to pursue my career ‘up north’ (actually my future wife played a major role in that decision, but don’t let on to her) and Boulders beach gradually drifted from my memory, until much later……

Some 12 years later, two breeding pairs of African Penguins decided that the beach would be a good place to settle, probably influenced by the availability of fish in nearby waters

From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds in recent years. This is partly due to the prohibition of commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovy, which form part of the penguins’ diet. (Ref : Wikipedia)

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Since those first two pairs settled there, Boulders has gone from an obscure swimming beach to one of Cape Town’s best known tourist attractions and now forms part of the Table Mountain National Park

We had a reason to travel to Cape Town in January last year and decided to use the accommodation that we were going to use in March 2020 but which we had to cancel when Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown changed all our lives. The B&B sits high up on a hill overlooking Simon’s Town with sweeping views of the town, the naval dockyard and False Bay beyond and turned out to be an excellent choice.

The daytime view from the B&B
Even prettier in the evening

With the ‘business’ part of our trip done and dusted, we thought about what to do with the rest of our stay in Simon’s Town and first on my list was Boulders beach which we had last visited many years ago.

The Penguins

The thing with Penguins is that most people know what they look like from films and images, adverts and the like – they are just so endearing and marketable. But Penguins tend to choose remote spots to breed and live, often on islands, so relatively few people get the chance to see them in real life, outside of zoos that is.

Which makes Boulders a perfect choice for anyone wanting to see these birds in their natural habitat. After gaining entry with my Wild Card I walked along the boardwalk which snakes its way down to the beach, with a platform at the bottom for viewing the beach and nesting area.

Boulders beach Simon’s Town
Boulders beach Simon’s Town – the boardwalk to the Penguin’s habitat

Looking back from the upper part of the boardwalk, the view across the bay is quite striking

View from the boardwalk at Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you are past the densely vegetated dunes, the first of the penguins comes into view, quite relaxed and unperturbed by human presence. Not the smallest or the largest penguins in the world, they would reach to about your knee height when standing. (Incidentally, we saw the smallest penguin, called a Little Penguin – obviously – during a visit to Philip Island near Melbourne Australia – the subject of a post a few years ago – https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/8353 )

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

At various points on the boardwalk, information boards are placed with interesting facts about the colony and the habits of the African Penguins

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you get to the lower viewing platform, you can see some of the residents of the colony – those not involved in breeding activities will be out in the deep sea looking for food, so what you see here is a small part of the colony

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

I took a few shots of some of the penguins in their burrows, only realising when I edited the photos and lightened up the shadows that I had captured a glimpse of an egg under one penguin’s belly.

African Penguin incubating an egg

There was constant movement of penguins to and from the sea – such a comical sight as they waddle towards the water but once in they are in their element, swimming swiftly and soon disappearing from sight.

African Penguins on the beach

I couldn’t help thinking of an elderly yet elegant gent tentatively going for a swim in cold water as I watched one penguin entering the sea…..

As the one penguin swam off, more entered the water

A little bit more…

The African Penguin is the only penguin that breeds in Africa and is restricted to the coastline and seas of Southern Africa. Penguin numbers fell from over a million pairs a hundred years ago, to just 18,000 pairs today so they are justly classified as Endangered.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s egg collecting and guano scraping (which I can remember being taught about at school with not a hint of criticism, such was the relaxed attitude to conservation in those days) caused havoc with the survival of penguins. Nowadays the decline in availability of fish due to overfishing is the major cause of the further downward trend

Their ‘wings’ are in reality efficient flippers for swimming at speeds up to 20 km/h – which may not sound that fast but they would easily beat any Olympic swimmer you can think of – and they can dive to depths of 130m while holding their breath for an average 2,5 minutes, when feeding.

Their black and white colouring aids in camouflaging them from predators, both from above (black back blending in with dark sea for predators looking down) and below (white front melding with light skies for predators looking up).

These unique aquatic birds are certainly deserving of conservation – hats off to Birdlife South Africa for being at the forefront of penguin conservation efforts.

References :

  • Table Mountain National Park information boards at Boulders
  • African Birdlife Magazine September/October 2021, published by Birdlife SA
  • Firefinch – Birding app by Faansie Peacock

Blue Crane Breeding

At the end of a memorable year which has left many of us with a somewhat negative feeling about 2021 and hopeful for a better experience in 2022, it seemed appropriate to write about something which holds promise for the future. and what is more promising than the sight of an iconic bird in breeding mode.

We were recently privileged to view a Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (Bloukraanvoel) on its nest, something we have never seen before and our short ‘stay’ with this National Bird of South Africa was truly uplifting.

It happened purely by chance, as is often the case with special bird sightings, and only a few days into our latest stay in Mossel Bay over the December/January summer ‘season’

We had travelled to Plettenberg Bay from our Mossel Bay home (both part of the famous Garden Route of South Africa and some 150 kms distance from each other) to follow up on a sighting of a rarity that had been located at the Keurbooms River Estuary (more about that in a future post) and were on the road from the estuary back to the N2 National Road for our return trip home.

Gerda spotted a bird in a field and I duly stopped on the quiet road to see what it was. A car going in the opposite direction had also stopped almost alongside us and I wondered if they were also birding, whereupon one of the occupants got out and told us “There’s a Blue Crane on a nest if you are interested” and proceeded with a description of where we could find it. I didn’t pick it all up but thanked him and we set off in search of the spot he had described.

Fortunately between Gerda and myself we had understood enough of this thoughtful birder’s directions to find our way to the road along the Bitou River just outside Plett (which is how most South Africans refer to this Popular town) and after carefully scanning the river and vleis for a few kms we came to the spot he had described, with a pair of Blue Cranes in attendance a short distance from the road.

One was clearly on a nest and this was confirmed moments later when he/she stood up so that we could see at least one egg, which turned into two when I later studied the photos.

Blue Crane on nest
Blue Crane at nest, two eggs visible
The Blue Crane fussing over the eggs

The other Blue Crane was a short distance away in shallow vlei water, seemingly keeping an eye on the situation. According to Roberts VII the male and female spend almost equal amounts of time incubating the eggs over a period of around 30 days.

We had no way of knowing how long they had been incubating so it’s impossible to say when they may hatch – perhaps we will travel that way in a couple of weeks time and see if there has been a change in status.

Blue Cranes form monogamous pairs when breeding and are well known for their spectacular pairing and courtship displays, which we were fortunate to witness some time ago and which I featured in an earlier post – a couple of the images from that post are repeated below

Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay
Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay

My last post for 2021 comes with best wishes for a peaceful and healthy New Year

Sweet little Sugarbirds

Observing birds going about their daily business is often fascinating – when that business involves raising youngsters it becomes really special.

We were treated to a very special “show” during the late winter / early spring months of August and September this year while resident in our Mossel Bay home, which started with a casual comment from our neighbour (a non-birder who happens to be our brother-in-law).

My journal chronicles it as follows :

Day 1 : (1st August 2021)

Brother-in-law – let’s call him Tienie (mainly because that’s his name) – posed a question “what’s that bird in the garden with the long tail that likes the Protea bushes ?”. Well, there weren’t too many options so I surmised immediately that he was talking about the Cape Sugarbirds that frequent our garden almost year round.

So I eagerly followed up with “why do you ask?” and it turned out he had noticed a nest in one of the Protea bushes in his garden, with said Sugarbird in attendance and when he investigated further he was able to spot what he thought were “two fluffy babies” in the nest. My guess is that the chicks had been born in the last day or so.

Day 2

Tienie’s comment had sparked my interest more than he could realise, even though he knows I am a keen birder, and Gerda and I commenced a daily check from our bedroom balcony, which has a good view of the Protea bush in his garden.

The nest was quite well concealed among the stems and leaves and it was not always easy to pick up details, so I started by doing a recce from Tienie’s garden, carefully approaching the bush on foot to confirm for myself that there were chicks in the nest.

The nest

The only evidence I could pick up was an adult female apparently feeding the chicks which I could not see, while the adult male stayed in the vicinity, occasionally going to the nest himself.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult at the nest

We continued to monitor their progress at various times during the following days, but had to interrupt our observations as we had booked a trip to Franschhoek from 6 to 11 August, after which we resumed keeping an eye on the activities around the nest.

Day 19

I was thrilled to see that the chicks were preparing to fledge as they were clearly visible in the nest and spent time perched on top of the nest, presumably working up the courage to explore the world around them.

Cape Sugarbird chick
Cape Sugarbird chicks
Cape Sugarbird chick

Both adults were never very far from the nest, venturing out to forage for something and taking turns to feed the chicks, whose appetite had by now increased exponentially.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult with insect ready to feed chick
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding chicks
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding chicks

Day 20

As I had suspected, the chicks had fledged and the great news was that they had chosen to spend their day in the trees right in front of our enclosed braai room which is almost level with the canopy of the trees, so we had the best views of the two young Sugarbirds.

Cape Sugarbird fledgling

They were still being fed by both adults and were moving about now and again, but chose to spend most of their time on a small but sturdy branch, as the wind was strong and was testing their ability to balance themselves to the utmost.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding fledgling
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding fledgling

Day 22

The fledglings were getting stronger by the day and starting to lose their “baby fluff” but had no tail to speak of and were still dependant on the adults for food

Cape Sugarbird fledgling
Cape Sugarbird fledgling
Cape Sugarbird fledgling

They hung around for another day or two and soon we were not able to find them at all, so presumed they had moved elsewhere in the vicinity. We didn’t spot them again until –

Day 35

What a nice surprise to find one of the youngsters feeding itself on a Protea flower in our front garden, its tail now well developed and the young bird now confident and strong, which it displayed by flying quickly and directly from one bush to the other with none of the hesitancy of an inexperienced bird.

Cape Sugarbird juvenile

It was a real privilege to see these Sugarbirds develop from new-born chicks to their juvenile independence and to be able to observe them at such close quarters

The Call of Summer

There are numbers of migrant birds to southern Africa that herald the start of the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer from September each year, but two stand out as the icons of summer’s arrival and become the subject of excited messages on the various birding chat groups as they are spotted or heard for the first time in the early summer months

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)

One is the Barn Swallow, which has become the best-known of the migrant swallows, certainly because it outnumbers the others, is highly visible and occurs virtually across southern Africa.

Barn Swallow, Kendal area, Gauteng, South Africa

A staggering, estimated 20 to 40 million “Barnies” (as they are known to birders who like nicknames) migrate to Africa from western Europe and another 40 to 80 million from eastern Europe and Asia annually on their southward migration, many of which end up in southern Africa.

Barn Swallows, Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria, South Africa

In southern Africa, during the summer months, they can be found just about anywhere outside the built up areas of cities, preferring moister, open areas such as grassland, pastures, cultivated fields and vleis and occurring in loose flocks of varying numbers.

Barn Swallow, Devon near Johannesburg , Gauteng, South Africa

Anyone who has witnessed Barn Swallows settling in their thousands into their roost at the end of the day, as we did many years ago near Umhlanga, will not forget this amazing sight.

I have been fortunate to see Barn Swallows in other parts of the world during our travels in the northern hemisphere summer, including Europe, Canada, Malaysia, Cuba and Egypt.

Barn Swallow, Annasrust farm Hoopstad, Free State, South Africa

Their status in southern Africa is ‘non-breeding Palaearctic migrant’ which means they breed ‘at home’ in the northern hemisphere, so we do not see any nesting behaviour, which is why I was particularly excited to find a nest tucked under a roof overhang during a trip to western Canada some years ago.

Barn Swallow on nest, Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada

Interestingly, these Barnies looked a little different to what we are used to seeing in SA – clearly these particular swallows would not be seen in our country as their migration path southwards would take them to South America.

Another encounter on a different continent, during a cruise on the Danube River, had me equally excited – it was April and Barn Swallows were flying above the river right next to our river cruise boat and I realised that they must have just arrived back from their return migration at the end of the Austral summer, with anything up to 10,000 kms ‘under their belt’.

Barn Swallow, Danube River at Linz, Austria

Which brings me to what inspired this post ……

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou)

First some background –

My bird atlasing trip this past week took me to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve some 70 kms north-east of Pretoria, a small nature reserve comprising mainly rolling grasslands. Before arriving at the entrance gate at the entry time for day visitors, I had managed to complete 2 hours of atlasing in the pentad immediately west of Ezemvelo and was looking forward to spending time in the reserve, which I had last visited in 2013.

After completing the gate formalities, I headed to the Reception a few kms from the gate, paid for my day visit and parked at the nearby picnic spot, nicely located under large trees near a low tree covered hill and overlooking a small dam.

I literally had the whole place to myself – I’m sure it gets busier over weekends but on a weekday the only visitors are probably keen nature lovers such as myself, of that rather pleasant age when you, rather than others, decide how you are going to spend your day.

As I enjoyed coffee and rusks, I heard the familiar summer sound of a Red-chested Cuckoo – or Piet-my vrou (pronounced piet-may-frow) as most South Africans know it, a name based on the 3-syllable call which carries long distances and is often difficult to trace.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I would hazard a guess that, doves aside, this is one of the best known calls of all birds in South Africa, with farmers often referring to it, somewhat hopefully, as the “Rain Bird” because it’s arrival coincides with the hoped for start of the summer rains in large parts of SA.

The call I heard suddenly sounded very close and I walked to the nearby trees, camera in hand, to see if I could find it. This is a bird not easily seen as they tend to choose a branch in the depth of well-foliaged trees to perch on and call. I followed the call and was thrilled to find the Cuckoo after a short search and approached carefully, not wanting to scare it away.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I took a couple of photos, thrilled at getting this rare chance to photograph the species, but mildly disappointed that it refused to turn around and show its front. With a few photos under the belt I decided to try to get a video while it was calling and managed to complete a short clip before the bird flew off, leaving me very pleased with my first reasonable images of a Red-chested Cuckoo in 40 or so years of birding!

Here’s the video –

Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou)

Knock knock …… who’s there?

We are getting back into our Pretoria routine after 3 months in Mossel Bay, and I decided to go out atlasing in Roodeplaat Nature Reserve one morning this week. Heading into summer the weather in Pretoria is already warm with temperatures in the low 30’s and the skies are clear – some rain has fallen but the ‘big’ summer rains accompanied by the typical highveld thunderstorms have not yet arrived – hopefully they are not far off.

It was a good morning’s atlasing with 71 species logged on the Birdlasser app, including one which put on a brief display for me (well that’s what I like to think) ….

I was out of the car listening to a Lesser Honeyguide calling near the nature reserve offices, when I saw what looked like a woodpecker fly from a tree to a bare wooden utility pole. I could not make out what it was as it seemed to be purposely hiding from me so I approached carefully until I had a partial view and took a few record photos.

It then started pecking at the pole in a rhythmic fashion creating a loud drumming sound and I immediately wondered why, as there was no hope of anything edible to be found and the pole was completely unsuitable for nesting or similar purposes.

Here’s the short clip I filmed of the woodpecker, which I later identified as a Bearded Woodpecker, in action – do excuse the shakiness of the images – I had to film it at a distance on full zoom so as not to scare it away and the wind blowing didn’t help matters.

Best viewed in full screen mode ….

Bearded Woodpecker (Female) ‘drumming’ (Baardspeg / Dendropicos namaquus)

A read through of the species habits on the Roberts app on my phone provided the following insights into this behaviour – nothing to do with food or nesting it seems –

Presence often given away by loud, distinctive call, or by loud tapping (while foraging), or drumming.

Moves out of sight behind a branch in response to danger.

Both sexes drum frequently, mostly early morning; used in territorial advertisement and to establish contact with partner.

Drums in bursts of ca 1 sec at ca 12 strikes/sec, beginning fast, then slowing; usually on a high dead branch (same branch often reused); audible to 1 km.

Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

It flew off after a while and I continued with my atlasing, pleased at having witnessed this behaviour and at having everything one wants to know about birds available on my iphone.

Sparrow shadow-boxing

While parked at a material shop, waiting for Gerda, I was entertained by a female Cape Sparrow who was “shadow-boxing” a supposed rival she saw in the chrome frame to the grille on my SUV

I have seen several birds doing something similar but usually when they see their reflection in a glass window or door or occasionally the car mirrors, I haven’t seen one doing it in the reflection of the chrome

Just shows there’s always an entertainment potential with birds…..

Here’s a short video I took with my iPhone

Hornbills in Lockdown

Stoepsitter Birding

Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.

(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)

It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.

Satara Rest Camp

During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.

This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).

The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger

A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.

Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger), KNP – Satara

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu

Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Male), KNP – Satara

And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Female), KNP – Satara

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger

The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger), KNP – Satara – Muzandzeni

Moving home

On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .

Southern Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus rufirostris / Rooibekneushoringvoël

Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.

Satara Rest Camp
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.

Cavity sealed from inside with small hole for feeding

Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.

That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.

All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.

Red-billed Hornbill seeing his reflection