African Penguins

Click For Animation

Click For Animation

A colony of African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), also known as Jackass Penguins because of their call, nestles on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.  Nestled as well are the penguins in their nesting burrows.  Other residents include Rock Hyraxes and visitors such as Cape Wagtails, Egyptian Geese, and Blacksmith Lapwings.

Penguin With Wagtail

Penguin With Cape Wagtail

African penguins are closely related to Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) and Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti).  The three  species can be distinguished by their location.  As their name suggests, African Penguins come to land to breed along the southern border of South Africa, whereas Magellanic Penguins breed along the southern coast of South American, in greater concentrations on the Atlantic side of that continent, and Humboldt Penguins nest further north, along the coast of Peru.  They also vary in appearance.  African Penguins generally have a bare (pink) skin patch that extends over the eye, and have a single dark breast band.  Magellanic Penguins have a less extensive bare patch and a double breast band.  In Humboldt Penguins, by contrast, the bare patch extends under the chin, and there is a single breast band.

Visitors access the colony via an extensive boardwalk.  As one walks along, one sees Rock Hyraxes feeding and adult and juvenile penguins near their nesting burrows.  The young birds are of various ages, as breeding is poorly synchronized.  Some are still in their downy plumage from birth, others have more adult plumage, still others are already heading out to the near shore to feed for themselves.  It takes approximately 14 months for the birds to reach adult plumage.

Juvenile Penguin

Juvenile Penguin

Penguins Heading Out To Feed

Penguins Heading Out To Feed

The birds head out to feed singly or in groups.  Watching them return to land and an upright posture can be very entertaining.  In the next image, “Penguins Heading Out To Feed,” I think the animal further out is a Southern White Sea Catfish, but that is only an educated guess.  If anyone reading this can provide a more definitive identification, I’d be glad to know of it.  It is not a shark, I am fairly certain.

Upon returning, the adult birds frequently reinforce their pair bonds by calling and by posturing and bowing to one another.

Young Penguin After Swim

Young Penguin After Swim

Penguins Renewing Pair Bond

Penguins Renewing Pair Bond

Enjoy this little gallery of penguin pics!

Cape Sugarbirds

Cape Sugarbird Male Singing, #1

Cape Sugarbird Male Singing, #1

Did you know there is an entire floristic kingdom almost exclusively found in South Africa?  It’s called “fynbos,” the Afrikaans name meaning fine-leaved.  In Afrikaans, “y” is pronounced as a long “a”, so “fynbos” would sound like “fain-boss”.  Fynbos is also the name of an ecological biome, confined almost exclusively to South Africa.  During our trip we saw several plants endemic (found exclusively in) to the fynbos of South Africa.  A number of fynbos plants belong to the genus Protea, also known as sugarbushes.  These beautiful plants are quite varied, having nectar-rich flowers and beautiful bracts colored pink, red, yellow, and/or orange.  Unfortunately, I’m a very long way from being a botanist, so I was totally overwhelmed by the plant species we encountered.  I had enough difficulty with the new bird groups with no counterparts in North America.  I cannot identify the species of protea these birds are feeding on.

One species of bird did put on quite a show for us on the third day (August 27), however, the Cape Sugarbird.  I was able to get enough photos of this bird to warrant its own post.  As you might expect, Sugarbirds feed on the sugarbush plants.  They are relatively large, larger than the Sunbirds, being 10-17 inches long, including the tail.  There are only two species found in Southern Africa, the ones we saw being Cape Sugarbirds.  This species is endemic to the fynbos, feeding almost exclusively on proteas and associated arthropods.  No hummingbirds are found in the Eastern Hemisphere, so Sunbirds and Sugarbirds fill the same ecological niche, feeding on nectar and thus pollinating the nectar-producing plants.

Looking For A Better Flower, #2

Looking For A Better Flower, #2

Male Sugarbirds have very long tails, with some variety in the length.  The one at the beginning of this post fared well in this regard.  Males will fly up and make a remarkable display, flapping their wings and clattering their tails.  Apparently females find this attractive, for various studies have found that longer tail length yields greater pair bonding success, but not necessarily greater reproductive success.  Those wiley females sometimes mate with shorter-tailed males in addition to their longer-tailed social partners!

We saw two males, one with a longer tail and one with a shorter tail.  Also hopping around and begging for food was a juvenile.

Enjoy this series of images of Cape Sugarbirds. 

Strandfontein Wetlands

From Strandfontein Wetlands

From Strandfontein Wetlands

We were blessed with good weather while at the Cape.  Prepared for rain and low temperatures, we were happily spared both, although South Africa as a whole needs rain.

Our second day, August 26, we traveled south from Cape Town to Strandfontein Wetlands.  This is actually a sewerage treatment area, but there’s little olfactory evidence of its actual purpose.  (In the US, we would use “sewage” instead of “sewerage,” the word used by the facility in South Africa.)  The area is also highly attractive to birds, both grassland species and waterbirds.  We saw some little grassland species, such as the Karoo Prinia and Levaillant’s Cisticola.  The Prinia’s call is a regular buzzy call, but the Cisticola’s is more melodious.

Levaillant's Cisticola, Front

Levaillant’s Cisticola, Front

When we arrived we learned that several avid birders, Twitchers by nick-name, were hoping for another glance of the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, the wayward migrant I mentioned in an earlier post.  We had several brief glimpses of the Fiscal Flycatcher while waiting.  We walked along, looked at the Prinia and Cisticola, then returned, just as the Scrub Robin appeared on a log, perking up its tail similarly to a wren.

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julie Zickefoose Amid Flowers

Julie Zickefoose Amid Flowers

That lovely surprise was followed by beautiful flowers and lots of waterbirds.  We saw Cape Teal and Red-billed Teal.  Teal are small ducks; we have a few species in North America, as well.  Both the Red-billed Teal and the Cape Teal have red bills.  The Red-billed, however, also has a black head.  Easy to tell them apart with that field mark.  We also saw Cape Shovelers, with that unique filtering bill that shovelers have.  The sexes look alike except for eye color; the male’s is yellow.

Cape Shoveler Pair, #1

Cape Shoveler Pair, #1

The teal seemed to enjoy the company of a Black-winged Stilt.  The reason for its name is obvious!  We made our way to an observation blind, called a hide locally, where Greater Flamingos abounded, flying back and forth.  Trying to capture these beautiful, but ungainly, flyers was quite a challenge.

Greater Flamingo Duet

Greater Flamingo Duet

Hanging out on some piers were Sacred Ibis, Hartlaub’s Gulls, and Swift Terns, also known as Greater Crested Terns.

Swift Tern Landing

Swift Tern Landing

After a long but lovely morning at the wetlands we sought out some lunch, then made our way to Table Mountain.  It was a beautiful day–no rain, not a lot of wind–so our hopes were high that we would ride the cable car to the top for some magnificent views of Cape Town and the rest of the vicinity.  No such luck.  We unloaded from the van, which Kim parked, then strolled down to the ticket booth, only to learn that summer hours didn’t begin until next week.  Nor were we the only ones disappointed.  As we engaged (argued) with the agent, another tour guide, with her entourage and a similar understanding as ours, aonly to be equally surprised and disappointed.  The cable cars were indeed running, but the final group had already ascended, and the cars were only bringing people down.  We debated briefly about trying to come the next day, but rejected that plan since it would come at the cost of something else more desirable.  Still, the view of Cape Town from the parking area is nevertheless lovely.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town from Table Mountain

We ended the day with a beautiful sunset over Chapman’s Bay.

Chapman's Bay Sunset

Chapman’s Bay Sunset

Enjoy these images from south of Cape Town. 

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.