Needed: perches for pest controllers


THIS can be a win-win situation. Recent photographs I took of raptors often show them sitting on a pole: both while scouting for prey on the ground below, or to consume the prey once caught. While traveling in the Eastern Cape earlier this year I caught a glimpse of a Jackal Buzzard carrying what looked like a wig while flying across the road and alighting on a telephone pole. It turned out to be a hapless Long-tailed Widowbird and the buzzard spent the next 10 minutes or so to rip it to pieces and swallowing it. Back at home in Boston I saw a Long-crested Eagle sitting on a fence pole in the wetland. Its patience paid off when it pounced and emerged from the vegetation with a rodent. That was supper sorted. Another picture of a Rock Kestrel on a pole revealed the bird holding a rat it had caught. Some of the perches used by the raptors include temporary structures, like an irrigation pivot, or freshly cut hay bales. A pair of juvenile Jackal Buzzards wasted no time to install themselves on a bale in a field cut the day before, while Gustav found a feather from a Spotted Eagle-Owl next to a gate pole. Finally the penny dropped, and I thought that if farmers and landowners were to put up more perches for raptors in agricultural fields without trees or telephone poles nearby, that would be to the benefit of both parties. It will make it easier for the pest controllers to hunt from a perch and farmers won’t need to use expensive poisons which are potentially harmful to the environment.

The sun stands still


IT is the shortest day of the year, and once again we choose Durban’s beachfront as the place to be to watch the solstice sunrise. Midwinter is without a doubt the best time of the year to be in the city. The humidity of summer is a dim memory, the days are balmy, the sea mostly calm – and in the park there is a new  girlfriend putting the seal on Gustav’s happiness.

Dance with my father


“THIS bird is a survivor”. That was how Tanya Smith described the Grey Crowned Crane chick she was trying to catch at our place in Boston in the KZN Midlands in March this year. Tanya is the regional manager of the African Crane Conservation Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and she was keen to ring the bird and take blood samples for testing.
The pair of cranes nesting in our wetland produced three chicks this year, but two of them were predated. By trying to catch this one as it leopard crawled into thick vegetation to hide, it became clear why it has survived so far. It was only a week later on her second attempt that Tanya managed to get hold of it and put colour rings on its legs.
Since then I have been following its progress as it is growing stronger and learning to fly. Grey Crowned Cranes are the only species of the 15 species of cranes worldwide that can perch and roost in trees overnight. But the chicks have to grow up first, and it is quite nerve-wracking to see the parents coming back to the nest at night to put the youngster to bed before flying off themselves to roost in a tree at a dam near the house. Listening to the jackals calling during the night, and knowing there are mongoose and otters at the river, you can’t help but fear that it will suffer the same fate as its siblings.
Last weekend I was delighted to see what looked like the parents teaching their chick to dance. Cranes mate for life, and singing duets and dancing form part of their pair bonding rituals. On Sunday evening the three arrived on the hillside near the dam and did some last feeding in the fading sunlight. The young craneling picked up a stick, dropped it and picked it up again. Following this playful behaviour the adults then began dancing. Junior watched, and they danced towards it, inviting it to join in. Everyone appeared quite pleased with its attempts and eventually they flew off again. Now all that remains is for the young bird to manage landing in a tree to roost overnight as well. And soon it will be ready to be introduced to the floater flock of cranes that moves around in the district. Long may it survive, and in a few years’ time I hope it will have its own mate to dance with.

Birds reveal their vital statistics


IMAGINE finding a tick on a bird weighing less than two teaspoons of sugar. But it does happen, although it is not that common, according to Dr Dieter Oschadleus of the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. Dieter is the co-ordinater of the South African Bird Ringing Unit and an international expert on weavers. Despite being on holiday with his family in KwaZulu-Natal, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit us over the weekend at the farm at Boston with the aim of ringing weavers and widowbirds in the wetland adjoining the Elands River, which in summer is a hive of activity. By now the breeding season is over and many birds have moved on, but Dieter was satisfied with his catch of 14 birds on Sunday morning. These included a Fan-tailed Widowbird, Village Weavers, Red-billed Queleas, Levaillant’s Cisticola, African Stonechat, Lesser Swamp Warbler and the African Reed Warbler on which we saw the tick. The tick was removed and placed in surgical spirits to be used for research as well.
Dieter is passionate about the benefits of ringing birds to advance knowledge about birds, which includes information about their movements and survival, as well as obtaining detailed measurements of individual species. Birds are trapped in mist nets which are set up in their flight paths. They are quickly removed and placed in cloth bags before being processed, ringed and released as soon as possible. There are special instruments to measure the length of wings, feathers, beaks, heads and legs, and a tiny scale the size of a cell phone is used to weigh them. The African Reed Warbler weighed 9,5 grams while a Village Weaver clocked up a hefty 36 grams. The condition of the feathers reveal information about age and whether the bird is moulting or has mites on them, as the tiny dots on the primaries of the Lesser Swamp Warbler showed.
We were delighted to provide a ringing venue and hope that Dieter will be back in summer to increase his catch of weavers and widows. And the presence of the tick reminded me to make sure that Gustav’s anti-tick protection was up to date.

Birding the Eastern Cape: colour is not the key


BY now I should have learned that colour is not important in the new South Africa. And when it comes to distinguishing one species of bird from another, it can be downright confusing. Especially when dealing with raptors. For instance, a Jackal Buzzard has such a distinctive colour pattern that no one can possibly mistake it for anything else. Except for juvenile birds. Then even birders with many hours of experience in the field can be mistaken when an individual displays the colour pattern of a totally different bird. This is where cameras are becoming an increasingly more valuable tool in the arsenal of birdwatching equipment. Birds don’t tend to linger so one can study them in detail. But when you have managed to snap a few pictures you can spend much more time on photographs, even when they are not of top quality.

Yesterday it was eagle-eyed Ingrid Weiersbye, artist and illustrator for Roberts Birds, who spotted that what we thought was a Booted Eagle being harassed by a Cape Crow, was in fact a juvenile Jackal Buzzard. (Birding the Eastern Cape 3/4: eagle gives crow the boot). Field guides describe the eagle as having white patches on the wing near the neck. These “landing lights” are a diagnostic feature for Booted Eagle, so when we saw a pale coloured raptor with white patches in the right place, that is what we assumed it was. Ingrid, however, pointed out that juvenile Jackal Buzzards can also have these white patches.

Since our visit to the Eastern Cape I’ve attended a very informative workshop on identifying raptors held in Howick last weekend by conservationist and author Ulrich Oberprieler. The thrust of his lecture was to leave the colour of the bird to last on the list when it comes to trying to identify it. More important is its appearance, the general impression of size and shape (or GISS as most birders refer to it) and behaviour. Looking at my pictures I could see that the bird was behaving like a buzzard and not an eagle. And most telling, which we should have picked up on at the time, was that its legs, or tarsi, were bare and not feathered as it would’ve been in an eagle.

Birders find raptors notoriously difficult to identify because of the difference in colour patterns between adults and juveniles which can differ from year to year until the bird matures in about five to six years. But according to Ulrich, if you work systematically with key features, it becomes much easier. Thank you to the publishers who bring out field guides to help us mere mortals, you are doing a great job! I have it on good authority that the next Roberts Bird Guide will have far more illustrations of juvenile birds.

As far as Gustav is concerned, he doesn’t care what colour or shape other dogs are, as long as they smell good, he is interested.

Birding the Eastern Cape 3/4: eagle gives crow the boot


ONE would have thought with the sky stretching limitless into infinity that there is enough space for all creatures to share. Not so. Territorial disputes  between the masters of the skies often erupts, like we witnessed on a remote farm near Barkly East. An ambitious Cape Crow took on a Booted Eagle and after a brief skirmish they settled on nearby gate posts, with the crow continuing to hurl abuse at the eagle. But this was short-lived when the eagle launched itself at the crow, asserting its authority and the crow having to beat a retreat. In the car Gustav barely resisted from snarling at his canine companion, Vlakkie, when she decided to share the back seat with him. Gustav usually doesn’t tolerate anything on the seat with him and will think nothing of chucking off any items thoughtlessly placed next to him. This time he had to share the space with me, while Vlakkie was happy to sit on the floor in her usual spot behind her owners’ seats. But when there was some excitement and she got onto the seat to see what was happening, Gustav stood with stiff legs and his back turned to her with admirable restraint. After all, she was a lady, his hostess and older than him, so it would not do to klap her. But outside the car there was no problem, and they happily shared hunting experiences.

Birding the Eastern Cape 2/4: Fifty shades of brown

24_EC birding_hawk

WHAT can be a better way to start a day’s birding than with a lifer? This is what birders call birds they can tick off on their life lists for the first time. Our first day at Prospect Mountain Cottage near Barkly East dawned misty and chilly. I almost mistook the grey shape huddled on top of a tall tree next to the house for a dove, except it was far too large. When we grabbed our binoculars it turned out to be a Red-chested Sparrowhawk. I saw the bird for the first time only a month ago at home in the KZN Midlands, to the envy of my fellow atlasers who said they had been trying to find it for a long time. And here it was, a lifer for them and our first tick for the excursion. We saw it flying again the next day, in better light which confirmed the sighting. After coffee, it was down to business, making sure that we put the right names to the Little Brown Jobs we found sitting on fences, shrubs or stones. And at the end of the breeding season one has to keep in mind that juvenile birds haven’t yet developed the full coloration of adult plumage, all set to trick the unwary.