Category Archives: Birding

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.

Southern double-collared sunbirds at Kirstenbosch

Last week I posted some photographs of the Orange-breasted sunbirds that we saw at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town.  This week their cousins take centre stage; the beautiful Southern double-collared sunbirds, which flit amongst the Proteas and Ericas of Kirstenbosch gathering nectar and doing their bit for pollination.  Also known as the Lesser double-collared sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus) this little sunbird has a wider habitat than the Orange-breasted sunbird and, not being restricted to fynbos, is found further afield in the Karoo, and in the forests and gardens in the eastern parts of  South Africa.

Southern double-coloured sunbird

The sunbirds that we photographed here don’t have the familiar broad red breast band as they are in their eclipse plumage The adult males in the Western Cape moult in October to December, so we were probably just a little early to see these beautiful birds in their full finery.  We often find birds quite a puzzle to identify when they aren’t dressed in their full colours.

Southern double-coloured sunbird Southern double-coloured sunbird

Their diet mainly consists of nectar, which is drawn up after inserting their long curved bill into the corolla tube of the flower.  If there is no tube, the bill is used to pierce the base of the flower.  During this feeding pollen sticks to the bill and tongue and is transported to the next flower, allowing the bird to perform its pollinating function without any effort.  These sunbirds don’t only rely on nectar for their nourishment, but also eat small invertebrates like beetles, insects, spiders and larvae.

Southern double-coloured sunbird

Breeding pairs are monogamous and quite territorial during the breeding season.  The female lays between one and three eggs that she incubates over a period of thirteen to sixteen days.  The eggs are oval and vary enormously in colour.  Nests are occasionally parasitised by Klaas’s Cuckoo, which, as you can imagine, must have these little sunbirds worn out finding food for their ever-hungry and much larger adoptees!

Southern double-coloured sunbird

The flowers at Kirstenbosch certainly provide a beautiful backdrop for enjoying these happy little birds.  Next time I’ll blog about the waxbills that we saw in the same area.

Orange-breasted Sunbirds at Kirstenbosch

One of the fun things about being a bird lover is that it gives you an opportunity to seek out places where you know certain birds are found.  This happened to us this Christmas when we visited Cape Town for a couple of days.  We knew that Kirstenbosch (our national botanical garden), with its beds of colourful Proteas and Ericas attracted a variety of birds, so a plan was made to brave the crowds to photograph the local feathered residents.  We were mainly on the hunt for Sugarbirds (which alas proved elusive on the day) and Sunbirds that are endemic to fynbos, and what a delightful few hours we spent there.  I will focus on the Orange-breasted sunbird this week, as this beautiful bird is extremely photogenic and fortunately not too camera shy.


I photographed their detailed information board which saves me from writing about them myself – how clever was that!  Just click on the photo to enlarge it for reading.

Detailed information on sunbirds Orange-breasted-sunbird-Kirstenbosch

The flowers at this time of the year are quite beautiful and are obviously full of nectar for the birds.

Orange-breasted-sunbird - female

The females are rather drab compared to their gorgeous male counterparts.



Next week I’ll put up pictures of the Lesser double-collared sunbirds – also very sweet and quite active in the fynbos.

Four frogs, a cricket and a snake

So let’s assume you’re a young man who’d like to attract a partner.  What would you have to do to make yourself appealing?  I guess you’d probably opt for personal grooming and fancy clothes and jewellery to enhance yourself, then you’d add an accessory like a smart car and you’d flash your credit card around.  Unless you’re really ugly and arrogant you’d probably catch the eye of some eligible female pretty quickly.  This sort of mating behaviour isn’t peculiar to homo-sapiens – birds have to do it as well in order to attract a mate.  Obviously they don’t have the same tools as humans, but they do have to be quite well equipped to prove their capabilities of providing for the needs of a mate.

Southern ground hornbills

Most male birds have lovely plumage to make themselves attractive to the rather dowdy females of the species.  They often have beautiful long tail feathers or are brightly coloured, like the Southern ground hornbill.  Sometimes they even have their legs adorned with jewellery!  This hornbill is quite a heavy bird that looks rather like a turkey, with a gorgeous red face and a red inflatable throat.  It uses a deep booming call to advertise its territory and then struts around gathering food to show that it’s a good hunter.

Southern ground hornbills

It’s always exciting for us to come across Southern ground hornbills in a game reserve.  They are not often found outside protected areas and are listed as vulnerable in southern Africa, so we feel quite privileged when we see them.  They’re usually found in pairs or in groups of up to five birds and because they spend their time foraging, it’s not uncommon to see them with loads of food in their beaks.   This must make them very appealing to the opposite sex – what mate wouldn’t like to be presented with a number of crickets, frogs and a snake to snack on or to feed her young with.

What a mouthful!

Good providers they may be, but when it comes to feeding babies, they don’t measure up at all.  They usually have two little ones and the firstborn, being stronger, is fed all the food.  The second young one usually dies of starvation within a few days.  Perhaps this is why there are so few of them around.


They are excellent foragers and spend their time gathering insects and small reptiles and mammals, often co-operating with each other in the quest for food.  Once they find it, they keep adding more to the collection, often putting the food down on the ground and then gathering it up again until they have full beaks.

Look out for them next time you’re in a national park – and check out what they’re having for dinner!

Callfinder© – A winner from SAPPI

What would life be like if we were unable to get out into nature to rejuvenate and restore our minds and spirits?  I can’t imagine actually.  For me, getting out into the garden or into the bush and watching the birds and wildlife is an integral part of my life.  So imagine my delight when my family (thanks Pete and Lauren) gave us a wonderful tool as a Christmas gift.  Not just any garden or household tool, but a nature tool!  An innovative tool that teaches you about the birds and their calls and actually helps you call them to you.  Let me tell you more …

African Paradise Flycatcher

SAPPI (originally South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd) is big in conservation in South Africa and they are a major contributor to education and knowledge in the field of birds.  Together with other sponsors they have collaborated with birding experts to bring out the amazing Sappi Birds of South Africa Callfinder©.

Sappi Birds of SA Callfinder

Not only did we get an informative bird book with beautiful photos, but it came with an electronic device that communicates with the photo of the bird and plays its call.  How neat is that!  This of course adds an entirely new dimension to birding and should be an absolute boon to beginners and experts alike.

A nifty device - Callfinder

We tried ours out in the Kruger National Park with mixed results.  We had seen an Indigobird on a tree in the distance and couldn’t make out the colour of its beak and legs, which obviously is key to identifying it.  We decided to play the Callfinder© to see if we could match the call it was making.  Rob pointed the device at the photo of the Village Indigobird and its call rang out.  Imagine our amazement when the bird flew right up to our vehicle.  We were able to identify it immediately.  We unfortunately thought that we’d be able to call all birds with the device, but the majority weren’t quite as obliging as the Indigobird.

Magpie Shrike

We have by no means tried every photo in the book, but on our trip we found quite a few birds that came closer on hearing a call, and they were :  Magpie Shrikes, the African Paradise Flycatcher, White-crested Helmet Shrikes and a Grey-headed Bush Shrike.  The Magpie Shrikes were most successful – we were trying to photograph one, played the call and about twelve flew up to our car.  So it looks like the Shrike family is the most curious of the lot.  The Grey-headed Parrots shrieked back at us on hearing the call and we were able to locate them in the tree above us.  Such fun!

Grey-headed Bush Shrike

I doubt whether it was the developers’ intention to call the birds to one, but it does happen and great care has to be taken not to distress the birds by playing their calls repeatedly. The calling of birds needs to be done judiciously at all times.  This is a wonderful tool for identifying their calls and committing them to memory for your field trips.

This fabulous book and Callfinder© will really help folks learn more and aid them in identifying all those birds that have previously been labelled as Unidentified Flying Objects!  And I certainly hope that my blog helps boost their sales – they really have brought out a winner in my humble opinion.  Well done Sappi!

Lilac-breasted roller eating a snake

Hello, hello!!  What have we got here?  Looks like it could be interesting …….  I think I’ll check it out.

Lilac-breasted roller has spotted something

So someone ran over a snake.  Well, that’s surely good news for me.  Now I don’t have to go out there and catch one for myself.

Lilac-breasted roller

Hmmn.  Could be quite tasty if I take the time to eat it.

Lilac-breasted roller eating a snake

If only I had a knife and fork to chop it into little pieces, I’m sure it would be easier.  Oh well …

Lilac-breasted roller eating a snake

Perseverance wins.

Lilac-breasted roller eating a snake

Now that was worth the effort.  Thanks to the benefactor who rode over my meal.

Lilac-breasted roller eating a snake


Bird of the Week – Week 144 – Common moorhen

There are at least twenty-two birds in the southern African region that have the adjective “Common” in their name, and some of them are not common (in the sense of plentiful) at all. The Common moorhen, though, is. It is found throughout the region, save for the dry central Kalahari, occurring on most bodies of fresh water with appropriate vegetation. Outside the region they have quite an extensive worldwide distribution, although they are absent from Australia.

Common moorhen

The male and female Common moorhen are alike in plumage colouration and the male is a little larger than the female, with a length of approximately 34 cm. They are predominantly black, with an olive-brown rump; white flank stripe and red frontal shield. The bill is red with a yellow tip; eyes are red; legs and feet are yellow.


Generally found in small groups, or as solitary birds, they forage while swimming, walking on floating vegetation or on land. They feed on plants and berries as well as on insects, tadpoles and the like. Common moorhens utter a range of clucking sounds, and call in a high-pitched “krrrik”.

Common moorhen

Common moorhens are monogamous and they build a shallow bowl nest of plant material, which is usually well concealed in the reeds or other vegetation near the water’s edge. The female lays a clutch of between four and eight eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 21 days.

Common moorhen

The scientific binomial for the Common moorhen is Gallinula chloropus; Gallinula from the Latin for “a small hen”; and chloropus from the Latin for a “green foot”. Thus the name describes a little hen with green feet; a little odd as its feet are more yellow than green. It does have a relative, though, the Lesser moorhen that really does have green(ish) feet.

Common moorhen

Bird of the Week – Week 143 – White-fronted bee-eater

The bee-eaters are a delightful family of birds and the White-fronted bee-eater is one of the few members of the family that can be found fairly commonly within its territory throughout the year. Its preferred habitat is along riverbanks in the north-east of the southern African region, where it is gregarious and usually to be found in groups of varying size.

White-fronted bee-eater

With a fairly average size, as bee-eaters in the region go, with a length of approximately 23 cm, the sexes are similar in both size and  plumage colouration. They have predominantly green upper parts; white forehead; a red throat with an upper band of white; brown under parts and a blue vent. Eyes are dark brown; legs and feet are dark grey and the curved bill is black.

White-fronted bee-eater

White-fronted bee-eaters forage predominantly from a perch, and feed almost entirely on insects such a honey bees, flies, moths and butterflies. They may hawk the insects in flight, or take them up from the ground or foliage without alighting. They return to the perch to feed, carefully removing the sting from the honey bees before consuming it.

White-fronted bee-eater

White-fronted bee-eaters are monogamous and pairs appear to mate for life. Their nest is in a burrow up to one metre long that they excavate in river banks. The female lays a cluth of between two and five white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 21 days. The nests may be parasitized by the Greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator).

White-fronted bee-eater

The scientific binomial for the White-fronted bee-eater is Merops bullockoides; Merops from the Greek for the bee-eater, and bullockoides from the Latin for resembling Merops bullocki, the Red-throated bee-eater which in turn was named after William Bullock. Thus the name tells us that this bee-eater looks similar to another bee-eater, which is singularly unhelpful.

White-fronted bee-eater

Bird of the Week – Week 141 – Crested barbet

The Crested barbet is fairly common in the north-eastern parts of the southern African region, where it favours drier woodland especially areas with plenty of acacias. They also seem to be quite comfortable in camp sites and in parks and gardens. (Check out our blog about a silly Crested barbet at Kalizo Lodge in Namibia.)

Crested barbet

The Crested barbet is the largest of the barbets in the region, with a length of approximately 24 cm. It has a yellow head, speckled with red and surmounted by a black crest. Underparts are yellow, save for a black chest band spotted with white. Wings and tail are black spotted with white; legs and feet are grey-black; bill is pale yellow with a black tip; eyes are brownish-red. Males and females are similar in size, but are less brightly coloured.

Crested barbet

The Crested barbet’s loud and sustained trilling “tr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r” is often heard before the bird itself is sighted. Both the males and females sing, and on occasion this rather unmusical song takes the form of a duet.

Crested barbets forage mainly on the ground, feeding on termites, grasshoppers and other insects as well as snails, but it is omnivorous and also feeds on fruit and nectar.

Crested barbet

These barbets are monogamous and generally make a nest hole in a dead tree stump or other convenient place, but may also take over the nests of other hole-nesters such as Red-throated wrynecks (Jynx ruficollis). In suburbia they may nest in nest boxes. The female lays a clutch of two to five eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 17 days. Their nests may be parasitized by the Greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) or the Lesser honeyguide (Indicator minor).

Crested barbet

The scientific binomial for the Crested barbet is Trachyphonus vaillantii; Trachyphonus from the Greek for a “rough voice”; and vaillantii after the ornithologist Francois Le Vaillant who travelled in South Africa in the late 1700’s. I don’t know about the “rough-voice” in the case of the Crested barbet, but it is nice to see the earlier pioneer ornithologists honoured in this way.

Crested barbet

Entertaining a Woolly-necked stork

This time last year Rob and I were anticipating spending Christmas alone in Windhoek because he had to work over the festive period.  We decided to liven things up by starting what we called “The Mongoose Project” which was our name for attracting mongooses into our little garden and photographing them.  I can’t believe that a whole year has passed since then – an eventful year too with our move back to Durban, South Africa – and that we are now approaching another Christmas.  This year we have a new and very different visitor to our garden in the form of a Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus).  How privileged we are to be host to this magnificent (and near-endangered) bird.

Beautiful close-up of a Woolly-necked stork

About two months ago I came across three Woolly-necked storks in our driveway when I was on my way to collect the post.  I watched fascinated as my neighbour’s gate opened and a cat dashed out and proceeded to herd the three storks in their garden.  I asked my neighbour about this and she said that the birds were regular visitors because she fed them chicken.

Woolly-necked stork

Thinking of an opportunity for Rob to get some photos of Woolly-necked storks, I decided to keep an eye out for them in the future.  It just so happened that the day one came onto our lawn Rob and I had some leftover roast chicken.  I grabbed the chicken carcass, Rob grabbed his camera and we spent a few happy minutes watching our dinner guest appreciate his meal.  He learned fast, because he was back the next day for more!

Mmm, food fit for a stork!

He has since come back regularly and now that we have a cat again, we have packets of Bob Martins chicken chunks available to feed our feathered friend.  Just have to train the cat not to chase him.

Not your usual garden bird

It is strange to see Woolly-necked storks deep in suburbia, as their preferred habitat is wetlands and river margins.  I guess with all the rain we’ve had lately we do qualify somewhat in that regard.  It makes quite a change from the usual weavers and mannikins that we feed. Apart from tasty chicken morsels, these storks eat most of the goggas that are found in our garden, like insects, frogs and certain molluscs.  Yesterday, after polishing off a bowl of chicken pieces, our visitor also picked up half a lizard, compliments of our cat!

So we can tick off mongooses and Woolly-necked storks as Christmas visitors.  I wonder who we will be entertaining next year – can’t wait to see.