Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch Garden

Kirstenbosch Garden

Fresh off the plane from hours and hours of travel (Providence to Philly to London to Cape Town for me), our little band of safariers loaded into a van and headed to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, one of the world’s greatest gardens.  It sits on the eastern slope of Table Mountain, a sandstone uplift that dominates the skyline of Cape Town, South Africa.  Home to a multitude of flowering plants, many from the unique fynbos floristic kingdom, Kirstenbosch also attracts a wide variety of birds.  We walked around, crossing the canopy bridge, then ate lunch at the tea room.  After lunch we walked more, then stumbled back into the van for the drive to our lodging at De Noordhoek Hotel.  Many names in South Africa are from the Afrikaans language.  “Noord” means north and “hoek” means corner, so we were staying in the north part of Cape Town.

Our guide, Kim Walsh, works for Lawson’s Safaris, and is thoroughly versed in local wildlife, providing us with both common and scientific names of birds and plants.  It was a pleasure being with her for the first week of our trip.  Kim explained that fynbos is an Afrikaans name meaning “fine-leaved bush.”  Also, “y” in Afrikaans is pronounced like a long “a”.  Fynbos refers both to a biome and a vegetation type occurring on nutrient-poor sandy soils.  The dramatically balanced sculpture “Cheetah Chasing Buck” invites visitors to explore the garden’s treasures.

Cheetah Chasing Buck

Cheetah Chasing Buck

Some birds, like the Helmeted Guineafowl, were plentiful and easily seen.  Others, when seen, are back-lit, making their brilliant colors harder to see but not to appreciate.  Still others, like the Sombre Greenbul, shun the light, preferring to shelter deep in the branches of trees.

Helmeted Guineafowl

Helmeted Guineafowl

Brimstone Canary, Front

Brimstone Canary, Front

Sombre Greenbul

Sombre Greenbul

Among the most colorful and songful are the sunbirds.  No hummingbirds are found in the Eastern Hemisphere, but that ecological niche needs to be filled.  Both sunbirds and sugarbirds provide the service of pollinating nectar-producing flowers.  They are larger than our hummers and do not hover, but they do move about quickly, sometimes perching in the open to sing, like this Southern Double-collared Sunbird.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Singing

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Singing

Enjoy this little taste of Kirstenbosch. 

South Africa

South Africa's Flag

South Africa’s Flag

I’ve just returned from two very special weeks in South Africa.  I was part of a group traveling with Julie Zickefoose, looking for birds, animals, and plants.  We began in Cape Town, traveled down the peninsula to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, drove along the coast, visited De Hoop Nature Reserve, went over to the West Coast National Park, then flew to the eastern part of the country.  In the east we visited Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, and Sabi-Sands Private Game Reserve.  You will be hearing of several of these places, with an emphasis on the birds we saw, as I work my way through processing the thousands of images I brought home.

I thought I’d start you off with something not native to South Africa.  On our second day in the Cape Town area we visited the Strandfontein Wetlands.  Actually, it’s a sewage treatment area, but most attractive to birds and with little olfactory reminder of its intended function.  We happened to hit a special day there, and chanced upon Cercotrichas galactotes (or Erythropygia galactotes, depending upon your source).  Never heard of it?  Well, you won’t find it in a field guide of southern African birds.  The bird was well off course, over 5,000 km from its normal range in southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa north of the Sahara.  Its common name (again, depending on your source) is Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin.  Several versions of the common name are around–some just call it a Robin, others hyphenate Scrub-robin, etc.  I’ll be following the conventions in Birds of Southern Africa, fourth edition, by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton, and Peter Ryan.

We chanced upon a group of Twitchers, the nick-name for people who rush to see any bird rarity, close to home or not, mostly not.  A Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin in South Africa is a mega-twitch, for sure.  It was seen earlier, but was down in the grass when we arrived.  We watched a while, looked at other birds, then came back, just as the bird popped up into view and perched on a log.  Here’s my most-fortunate photo of this most-unfortunately lost bird.

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

North American birders traveling to South Africa are confronted with many more species than are found on their home continent.  My Southern Africa field guide lists more than 950 species, including pelagics, or oceanic birds.  In our two weeks we saw nearly 225 species, a lot, but a mere drop in the bucket of possibilities.  Several families of birds are found in South Africa that do not exist in North America.  There are Scrub Robins and Robin-chats, Buzzards and Bustards, Wagtails and White-eyes, Bulbuls, Boubous, and Brubrus. Waxbills and Weavers, Hoopoes and Hornbills, and the strangely-coiffed Hamerkop, which you’ll see later on.

 

Bird Atlas, Part 2016-03

Flicker-Front

Flicker-Front

We were atlasing in East Providence yesterday, in the woods behind Gate of Heaven Cemetery.  We saw some interesting things, some saved for a later post.  For today, however, I want to share with all of you who have ever had a bad hair day.  This bird certainly did.  This is a Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker.  You can tell, in this view, by the black crescent shape near the neck, as well as the spots on the breast.  Well, in a well-groomed bird you can see the spots!  Another identification mark is the red marking on the back of the head, seen here.

Flicker-Side

Flicker-Side

Unlike many other woodpeckers, red on the head does not distinguish males from females.  For this species, the males have a black malar stripe, which this and other females lack.  The malar stripe extends backward from the base of the bill, and is named for the malar, or jaw bone.

Flickers also have a white patch at the base of the tail, visible here.

Flicker-Tail Coverts

Flicker-Tail Coverts

This feature is frequently seen as the bird flies up from the ground, where it has been foraging for ants.  That’s right, flickers seem to spend more time on the ground than they do in trees, since ants are their primary food source.  The tail, as with all woodpeckers, is very stiff, and the tail feathers end in sharp points.  All of that enables woodpeckers to use the tail as a third leg to steady themselves as they peck wood.  Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in dead trees.  (There is an exception, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, that excavates nest cavities in live trees.)  They may make several nest cavities before settling on one to actually use.  The flicker’s tail is visible here.

Flicker-Tail Covertse

Flicker-Tail Coverts

Flickers have undergone an identity crisis in the nearly 60 years I’ve been birding.  I first learned this species as the Yellow-shafted Flicker.  The flicker part of the name comes from its habit of flicking its bill.  The yellow-shafted part of the name is apparent in this photo.

Flicker-Shafts

Flicker-Shafts

The yellow shafts are coloration in the primary flight feathers.  Although I don’t currently have a picture, the underwing of the bird is a beautiful yellow, especially if seen in good light.  There is another similar species, the Red-shafted Flicker, that resides in the western United States.  These were originally considered separate species.  One criterion that aids in speciation is whether individuals in two populations interbreed.  The Red- and Yellow-shafted Flickers originally were isolated from each other, so they met this criterion.  However, Americans joined east and west with telegraph wires in the 19th century–1861, to be precise.  The flickers followed the wire and met in the middle.  Love at first sight, I suppose, as one finds individuals cross-breeding near the 100th latitudinal line.  The hybrid offspring may have a mixture of characteristics.  The basic differences between the two now subspecies are that the Red-shafted Flickers have red shafts, lack the red on the back of the head, and males have a red malar stripe.

Bird Atlas, Part 2016-02

April provided more opportunities for finding birds.  The weather was sometimes on the cool side, but we had some luck, rewarding our hours of effort.  Here’s a little sample.

Red-bellied Woodpecker.  No, that's not a typo.  It's NOT a Red-headed Woodpecker, although there is such a species.

Red-bellied Woodpecker. No, that’s not a typo. It’s NOT a Red-headed Woodpecker, although there is such a species.

We heard this Red-bellied Woodpecker for quite a while before locating him.  He was drumming on several trees and checking out various holes.  Finally we spotted him, and he nicely obliged by posing in the morning sunlight.  You may make a common error in thinking this is really a Red-headed Woodpecker, but it’s not.  That is a different species, with an entirely red head and a black back with large white patches in the wings.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

This little Tufted Titmouse is a year-round resident and a frequenter of bird feeders.  Starting in the spring you can hear his ringing “Peter-Peter, Peter-Peter” call throughout the forest.  They are cavity nesters, so check out holes you find, especially in Oak trees.

This White-breasted Nuthatch male was guarding the nest hole, right after he fed his mate, incubating the eggs inside.

This White-breasted Nuthatch male was guarding the nest hole, right after he fed his mate, incubating the eggs inside.

Speaking of cavity nesters, the White-breasted Nuthatch is another one.  This little fellow flew in, landed on the tree, worked his way down the trunk (nuthatches are the only birds that do that), and stuck his head in to feed his mate.  Of course that’s the shot I missed!  Then he posted guard, as shown here.

White-throated Sparrow, tan phase.

White-throated Sparrow, tan phase.

Sometimes photography is very useful in identifying the species to which a bird belongs.  That was the case with this White-throated Sparrow.  The white-throat, as it’s called, is primarily a winter visitor.  Sometimes you hear it’s “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” call in early spring.  This one, seen in April, was a bit of a puzzle, as it is lighter than most individuals seen.  It is a tan morph of the species, a less common color form.  The trick to identification is the white throat and the yellow areas above the eyes, called lores.

This Yellow Warbler male was quite a show-off.

This Yellow Warbler male was quite a show-off.

Yellow, that’s the word for the Yellow Warbler.  This male was duking it out, song-wise, with another male.  Both had recently arrived (they were the first of the species we’d seen for the season), and may well simply be passing through to more northern territories.  Often the males arrive first, stake out territory, and wait for the females to arrive.  Yellow Warblers are easy to spot, as they frequently stay at lower elevations than other warblers.  My mother loved to hear their songs in the back yard: “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”  This little guy hopped around in the bush for a bit before popping right out in the sun.  Then, of course, he departed.

Sometimes you're lucky to get even this much of a departing bird.

Sometimes you’re lucky to get even this much of a departing bird.

Bird Atlas, Part 2016-01

I haven’t posted recently because it’s busy, busy time for birding.  I’m participating in a new project, the Rhode Island Bird Atlas 2.0.  A little more than 30 years ago Rhode Island conducted a breeding bird atlas.  This consisted in surveying the state over several years to determine which species of birds were actually breeding in the state.  It’s now time to update that data, only now wintering birds will be included as well.  This current effort is a five year project.  It works like this.  The state is divided into 165 blocks, each 10 square miles.  For each block there is a volunteer coordinator and, in many cases, volunteer contributors.  I have assumed responsibility as the coordinator for seven blocks, a task made possible only because I am now retired and have a couple of very able contributors to assist me.

I will be posting photos from our ventures from time to time.  First, a disclaimer.  These photos are catch-as-catch-can.  They are here because of their informational content, not necessarily their photographic quality.  I’m using a Nikon D7100 camera body, which has a sensor that’s 24x16mm, approximately 2/3 the size of 35mm film.  This is commonly called a crop sensor, but it has the advantage of yielding 1.5x the focal length of the lens used on it.  I am using a Nikon 300mm f/4 PE lens.  With the crop effect, this is equivalent to having a 450mm lens.  Photos are taken hand-held, and of whatever view the bird may present.  Sometimes they will have branches or other interference impacting the image.  Occasionally they’ll be slightly out of focus.  I’m posting them for their informational content, and will provide some detail about the species or specifics of the situation involved.

Here are a few photos from April.  We were birding in Lonsdale Marsh, in Lincoln, RI this day.  This Mourning Dove was in a low shrub.  We suspected there was a nest nearby.

Mourning Dove, possibly near nest

Mourning Dove, possibly near nest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Mourning Dove was on a branch.  I happened to capture the image just as the bird blinked.

Mourning Dove Blink

Mourning Dove Blink

 

Here’s a pair of Mourning Doves.

Mourning Dove Pair

Mourning Dove Pair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These final two images are of a Swamp Sparrow.  We puzzled over the identification because all the field guides we consulted showed a different pattern on the side of the head.  But, a Swamp Sparrow it is.  Often there is some variability from bird to bird.  Some birders prefer guides with photographs.  The advantage of photos is that the guide presents actual birds, as observed in the field.  The limitation, however, is that the photos only show a point in time for a specific bird.  Other birders prefer guides with illustrations.  The advantage of this approach is that the artist can generalize from study of several specimens.  The limitation is that no actual bird may look exactly like the representation.  It’s a matter of taste, although most birders have at least one guide of each sort.

Swamp Sparrow, front view

Swamp Sparrow, front view

Swamp Sparrow, side view

Swamp Sparrow, side view