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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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 –