Category Archives: Birding

Mammal Guide of Southern Africa

Over the years many people and institutions have shown a keen interest in our website, particularly in the photos that we’ve included with our blogs.  We’ve had requests from all over the world for our pictures to be used in books, on posters, magazines and as logos for products.  One publishing house in Namibia uses our photos regularly in school text books to show learners the wonders of their beautiful country.  We’re always happy to allow folks to use our photos, but we don’t usually get to see where they have been published.  It was with great delight and appreciation therefore, that we received a copy of Burger Cillie’s latest book – Mammal Guide of Southern Africa – in which three of Rob’s photos featured (two of a Striped Polecat and one of a Black Mongoose).

Book cover

This is an excellent handbook to take into the bush, even if you think you already know all about the animals you are seeing.  It gives comprehensive information about markings, sex, behaviour, distribution, habitats, etc.  But what brings this book into the twenty-first century is that it makes use of advanced technology as many of the photos are able to be scanned by a Callfinder* to play the sound made by a particular animal.  What a valuable tool for identifying those mysterious sounds in the night!  At the moment only about fifty calls can be activated, but as new ones are added, updated versions can be obtained.

Black Mongoose

We have blogged previously about the brilliant Callfinder* and how well it works for identifying bird calls.  If you already own one you will be pleased to hear that you can download the sound track of the Mammal Guide of Southern Africa directly onto your device from the Briza Publication website at a fraction of the cost of a whole new Callfinder*.  We will definitely be doing this to get the full benefit out of our lovely new book.

Striped Polecat

We wish Burger well with his latest book and look forward to seeing many more of his books being published.

An Obliging Cuckoo

Birds are difficult to photograph.  They are, with a few exceptions, small and nervous, and they move quickly.  They fly.  They hide in thickets.  They can disappear in a flash.  Just sitting still they can become invisible.  From a photographer’s point of view, when they perch they are usually too high or too low.   99 times out of 100 they are too far away, regardless of what lens you have on your camera.  Rob has a theory that birds can read the focal length engraved on the front of a camera lens and know exactly how far away they must be to taunt the photographer, so it’s no use changing the lens for a longer model!  To add to a photographer’s woes, so many birds are most active at dawn or dusk when the light is approaching its worst in the deep thickets and under the forest canopy where birds spend so much of their time.

Levaillant's Cuckoo

But there are exceptions and it is for these special times that photographers spend their days behind their cameras.  Days of waiting for a split second exposure.

Levaillant's Cuckoo

Recently the Kruger National Park delivered such an exception.  We came upon a Levaillant’s Cuckoo perched in the open, reasonably close to the road and, at 5.30 in the afternoon, in fair light – and he (or she; the sexes are alike) didn’t fly.  He had located a patch of sparsely vegetated veld rich in hairy caterpillars and was not leaving!

Levaillant's Cuckoo

For several minutes we sat and watched his antics as he feasted, downing a dozen or more caterpillars in half as many minutes.  From the car the angle for photography was not ideal, but just watching him was enthralling.

Levaillant's Cuckoo

Typical of what happens in any national park, several folks stopped to see what we were watching and moved on disappointed when seeing that it was “just a bird”.  The cuckoo was not offended.

Levaillant's Cuckoo

Levaillant’s Cuckoos are not rare;  they are fairly common breeding migrants to Southern Africa, where obliging Bulbuls and Southern Fiscals generously raise the next generation for them, but we still felt privileged to witness this little feeding frenzy.

The identification of this particular bird has caused some head-scratching in our circle.  We were undecided whether it was a Levaillant’s Cuckoo or a Jacobin Cuckoo.  The Jacobin has a pure white breast, however, the streaking on this cuckoo’s chest is not very heavy.  If any of our readers feel strongly that we have misidentified this bird, please feel free to drop us a line.  We would welcome your input.

Hitting the bottle

Rob and I have been feeding birds in our garden for years – a pastime that has given us both so much pleasure and the opportunity to observe the local avian communities closely.  In Namibia, where we lived for almost seven years, the birds were extremely colourful and the variety was staggering.  Here in our new hometown of Knysna in the Western Cape, we have continued to feed them.  Although not as brightly coloured as their Namibian cousins, the birds here are plentiful and word has spread that there is a constant source of food for them in our yard.  We’ve now added a nectar feeder to the menu to attract those birds that prefer liquid nourishment.

Greater double-coloured sunbird

It took all of ten minutes after hanging the bottle up outside our kitchen window for our first guest to arrive.  Since then we’ve had a steady stream of birds eager to sip the sweet water.  If you can get your hands on a good nectar feeder you will have a wonderful time watching the antics of the birds as they vie for position.

Black-headed oriole

I particularly like watching the Speckled mousebirds that clamber on, sometimes six at a time.  Some sunbirds can be quite territorial and chase away anyone small enough to be intimidated by them.  At the moment we are enjoying a wide variety of birds, as can be seen from the photos in this blog.

Speckled mousebirds

The formula for the feeder is 600ml of water to which a third of a cup of brown sugar has been added.  After stirring well we add a few drops of food colouring to give the liquid a nice red colour.

Cape weaver

I must warn you not to add any aritificial sweeteners to your water.  A while back someone who lived near Hermanus inadvertently (and tragically) killed about thirty Cape sugarbirds (Promerops cafer) when it was found that the sugar in his nectar solution contained Xylitol, which is deadly to birds and some animals.  The nectar found naturally in flowers usually contains either fructose, glucose or sucrose.   Some garden and pet shops sell the nectar solution, but it’s expensive, so it is easier to make it at home.  Please just make sure that your food colouring does not contain any artificial sweeteners.

Amethyst sunbird

I’m not sure if this method of feeding birds is harmful to the environment (I sincerely hope not), as birds do a marvelous job of pollination when they flit from flower to flower to sip nectar.  We have noticed that in spite of our bottle of nectar, the days when our hedges and garden flowers are blooming, the birds go au natural and don’t spend as much time at our bottle as usual. When the flowers die off they come back.  Perhaps readers could comment on this aspect – it would be interesting to hear other opinions.

Cape white-eye

Obviously I can’t show photos of all the birds that come to the feeder, but the list we’ve had so far is as follows :  Cape white-eyes, Black-headed orioles, Speckled mousebirds, Amethyst sunbirds, Southern and Greater double-collared sunbirds, Fork-tailed drongos, Cape bulbuls and a variety of weavers.

Birding in Tankwa Karoo National Park

Last week I blogged about our camping trip to the Tankwa Karoo National Park.  As I said, we were blown away by the beautiful scenery, but that isn’t the only charm of this tiny arid park.  The bird life is also exciting and Rob was able to get some nice photos of the local avian residents.  So, before I start, let me ask you this – when is a tent not a tent?  When it’s a bird hide, of course!  Rob took his camera and wandered off along the dry river bed near the campsite, hoping to get photos of birds and animals, while I sat reading in our tent.  Imagine my surprise and delight when loads of birds came into our camp.  They didn’t see me and I had a wonderful couple of hours watching them unnoticed from our tent.  When Rob came back he immediately set up his camera and captured the shots that follow.

Southern double-collared sunbird

Most campsites have resident birds that are relatively tame, and this site was no exception.  A beautiful Familiar chat was quite at home around the tent, as was his constant companion, a Cape bunting.  They seemed to hang out together which was rather nice to watch.

Familiar chat

At times they were joined by two other buntings and happily pecked around on the ground for crumbs and insects.

Cape bunting

Two of the more colourful visitors were a Bokmakierie and this female African paradise flycatcher.  She came back often and wasn’t put off by the clicking of Rob’s camera at all.

African paradise flycatcher

Acting as if they owned the place was a pair of Cape spurfowl.  They wandered around and at times even got under our feet.  What beautiful feather markings these birds have.

Cape spurfowl

It being the Karoo, it wasn’t surprising that we were visited by a Karoo prinia.  These rather shy birds are not that easy to photograph as they flit about restlessly and hardly seem to sit still for a moment.

Karoo prinia

We placed a bowl of water on the ground hoping to see the birds drinking or bathing, but in spite of the heat and the desert-like conditions they weren’t interested in it at all.  It wasn’t in vain though, as we were soon visited by a field mouse that spent ages slaking its thirst.  It was so enchanted by this unexpected new water source that it disappeared into the bush and came back later with three more of its family.  They all drank as if they hadn’t seen water for years.  We tried this in the Central Kalahari once and our generosity had unintended consequences.  We had lots of birds drinking and bathing, but we also had a visit from a puffadder that wanted some water as well.  Not wanting to encourage snakes, we moved the water a long way from the campsite itself.

Karoo lark

Karoo larks, robins and batis’s were also spotted from out tent.  Later in the day we took a drive to a rather large dam where there was an abundance of waterbirds, but we couldn’t stay there for very long as there was no shade and the heat was a bit over-bearing.  If SANParks wanted any suggestions for improvements at Tankwa, I would happily recommend they erect a small shelter at the dam where people could sit in shade and watch the birds.

Next week I will chat about our drive up the stunning Gannaga Pass.

Inquisitive Burchell’s Coucal

When Rob and I were in the Kruger National Park earlier this year we came across a number of  Burchell’s Coucals.  It was the rainy season and there were more about than usual.  The one I’m blogging about today was sitting quite far away which made it difficult for Rob to get a good photograph.  We sat patiently watching the bird for a  while hoping that it would move into a better position.  Imagine our delight and surprise when the bird actually decided to watch us instead and flew to within a few meters of our car!

Young Burchell's Coucal

It’s not often than one has an inquisitive bird that comes to say hello so readily.  In South Africa we call these Coucal’s “rain birds” because they usually start calling loudly shortly before it rains.  Their rain predictions are extremely accurate too! They are normally quite shy and and prefer to take refuge or move about deep in the bushes.

Young Burchell's Coucal

This is obviously a juvenile bird as it doesn’t have the dark markings of an adult.

Young Burchell's Coucal

Having one come right out into the open and close to our car was rather exciting and Rob was able to get a couple of good photos after all.

Saddle-billed Storks – My Favourite

It’s always nice to come across storks in nature and one that really excites us, not only for its size, but also its beauty, is the Saddle-billed stork.  It is the largest of the storks, standing about 150cm tall, and looks magnificent when it takes to the air, with a wingspan of approx. 2.5 meters.  These storks are listed as endangered in South Africa, which makes a sighting of them rather special.

Saddle-billed stork - Moremi, Botswana

Saddle-billed storks are easily identifiable by the red and black bands across their bills and the yellow saddle, made of leathery skin, straddling the top of their bills.  Males and females look almost identical in their black and white plumage, but it is actually easy to tell the sexes apart as the female has bright yellow eyes as opposed to the male’s which are a dark colour.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

Males also have yellow wattles that hang just below the head at the base of the bill and they are slightly larger and heavier than the females. The female has an exposed red patch on her chest that darkens during the breeding season.

Mother and chick - Saddle-billed storks

Looking at our pictures it would appear that they are all of females – unless this rather motley-looking juvenile is a little boy!

Juvenile Saddle-billed stork

Their habitat is mainly in wetlands and along rivers and lakes as their diet consists mostly of fish, frogs, crabs and the occasional bird or small reptile.  They are territorial and are usually found singly or in pairs.  Mating is for life and they never breed in colonies.  Together they build a stick nest at the top of a tree close to water.  The nest is deep enough to conceal the bird sitting on the two to three eggs that are laid.  Incubation takes about six to seven weeks and chicks are ready to fledge  two to three months later.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

As I said, it’s a treat seeing these birds and well worth spending some time watching them gracefully going about their business along the water’s edge.

Long-tailed widowbird – What a display!

I’ve always had the utmost admiration for Long-tailed widowbirds – when they’re in their full plumage, that is.  Watching them fly laboriously over the grasslands displaying their magnificent tail feathers is a wondrous sight to see.  However, after seeing the recent photos of a woodpecker carrying a weasel on its back, my admiration is somewhat diminished!  Just kidding – I still love these gorgeous birds and never tire of watching them in their quest to attract the females of the species.

Long-tailed widowbird

On our recent trip to Wakkerstroom (in Mpumalanga, South Africa) we saw many of these birds and spent time enjoying the spectacle of their mating ritual.  It is hard to believe, when you see them decked out in their full mating regalia, that when they are not breeding, the males are rather dowdy and almost identical to the females.  Then it’s only their black flight feathers and red epaulets that distinguish them from the ladies.

Long-tailed widowbird

For obvious reasons, flying is kept to a minimum when they are breeding, and they spend a lot of their time then sitting on fences or sturdy branches or bushes (most probably to catch their breath).

Long-tailed widowbird

Long-tailed widowbirds are polygynous, meaning that they mate with many females during a season, which explains why are seen with quite large flocks.

Long-tailed widowbird

They mainly eat seeds, but insects, berries and nectar also form part of their diet.  Nest are built just off the ground in thick grass.

Long-tailed widowbird

Next time you’re fortunate enough to see them, spare a thought for all the effort that is being taken to attract a female.

Wakkerstroom – a Birders Paradise

Apparently you cannot call yourself a serious birder in South Africa until you’ve been to Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.  It’s an IBA (Important Bird Area) and with its diverse habitats, the opportunity exists to see over 370 bird species, with nine endemics.  We wanted to add the title “serious birders” to our names and see a few lifers, so stopped off in Wakkerstroom en route to the Kruger National Park in early February.  And we weren’t disappointed.  Everything they boast about the place is absolutely true – from the beautiful wetland areas, to the grasslands and forests abuzz with bird activity.  This tiny little village certainly is situated in a birders paradise and well worth a visit.

Bush blackcap

We stayed in a comfortable little cottage called The Gables and hired a knowledgeable guide, Lucky, through BirdLife South Africa.

Bird guide - Lucky

Lucky was so keen to fill our wish list that he kept us going for about eleven hours non-stop and we covered a distance of over 250kms in our quest to see some of the endemics of the area.  At the end of the day we were exhausted, but happy with our total of 98 species.  We probably could have seen more if we hadn’t driven around so much, but Lucky knew where the different birds could be found and some required a  lot of driving to locate.  His enthusiasm and pleasure when he spotted them was infectious, and as an added bonus, we got to see the scenery of the area, which at this time of the year is really spectacular.  Knowledge of the area is key to finding the rare birds and it would be crazy not to use the talents of the local guides.

White-bellied koorhaan

It’s great to see all the different birds, but sometimes rather difficult to photograph them from the car, especially when the birds are not perched in trees.  When we returned home and looked at our photos we noticed that many of the birds were sitting on fences.  Rob really doesn’t like taking photos of birds on poles or fences, but sometimes there is no choice.  Pictured below are Amur falcons, which were there in large numbers.

Male and Female Amur falcons

Of all the habitats we saw, perhaps the most rewarding for us were the grasslands.  Apart from the numerous birds, they were bedecked with wild flowers of every description.  But, as always, it was our feathered friends that really delighted us.

Cape longclaw

Long-tailed widowbirds were everywhere, displaying their magnificent tails to the ladies, while Red bishops and Yellow-crowned bishops added colour to the long grass.  We saw both the rare Rudd’s lark and Botha’s lark, thanks to Lucky’s efforts.  Crowned and Blue cranes strutted elegantly through the long grass and we also saw Koorhaans and Southern bald ibis’s.  Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all, but I will blog about more of the birds in the weeks ahead.

Spotted flycatcher

It was disappointing not to see the Flufftails that are found in the area, and also the Yellow-breasted pipits, but that is all the more reason for us to pay Wakkerstroom another visit sometime in the near future.

Bishops and Monkeys

I always feel so sorry for the birds and animals that are driven away from their habitats by urbanisation.  We take over their areas and then complain when they come into our homes and gardens foraging for food.  Fortunately Durban has some amazing parks and public gardens in many suburbs and the famous Durban Botanical Gardens is a haven for some of these poor displaced creatures.  Rob and I often go to this oasis in the concrete jungle to photograph the birds and enjoy the beautiful trees and flowers.  On a visit this month we were privileged to see Southern red bishops in their striking breeding colours.

Southern red bishop

The Lotus plants growing in the little lake provide a lush backdrop for photographs, as well as a perfect place for the bishops to build their nests.  I could sit here for hours just watching these busy little birds as they go about their business.

Southern red bishop Southern red bishop

If you want to read more about them, click here for Rob’s post which gives details about the birds.

Southern red bishop

It’s not only the Southern red bishops that are the attraction at the Durban Botanical Gardens – we also quite fancy visiting the charity kiosk to indulge in tea and scones or crumpets after watching the birds.  We had an audience as we relaxed with a cuppa – this monkey and her baby were looking for an opportunity to grab a scone if they could.

Mother and baby monkey

Feeding the monkeys is forbidden, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying to look cute enough to win you over enough to break the rules.

Swee Waxbills at Kirstenbosch

When we lived in Namibia we were fortunate enough to come across a number of different kinds of waxbills and were always delighted when the colourful Blue and Violet-eared waxbills came to feed in our garden.  We don’t see enough of these sweet little birds in our garden here in Durban for some strange reason, so imagine how pleased we were to have a chance to photograph Swee waxbills (Coccopygia melanotis) during our visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town in December.  We also saw Common waxbills whilst we were there, but, as their name suggests, they are fairly common, so our focus was on the Swees.

Swee waxbill

We followed a happy pair flitting about in the flowers, calling to each other with gentle ‘swee swee‘ sounds.  They are easy to tell apart as the male’s cheeks and ear coverts are black, whilst the female has a pale grey face.  Both have reddish orange tail markings and distinctive black upper and red lower mandibles.

Swee waxbill Swee waxbill

They are mainly seed-eaters, but also forage on the ground or on plant stems for small insects and larvae.  They’re mainly found in small groups or pairs, which are monogamous and territorial.  When they are ready to breed (between October and April) the building of the nest is a team effort, with the male bringing in the material.  According to Roberts Birds of S A, larger clutches of eggs are sometimes laid by two different males (between three and nine eggs) at one day intervals.  Both parents are involved in the incubation and the feeding.

Swee waxbill

It certainly was a treat to see these lovely little birds in such a nice setting and to be able to add a few more photos to our collection.