birding-aus african impressions

Subject: birding-aus african impressions
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Wed, 17 Feb 1999 17:34:43 +0100


Early in January I had the opportunity to flee the dark, frost and snow of
my hometown Tromsø, N.Norway, and for the first time in my life to visit
South Africa. The "meat" of the visit was to be participation in a 3 weeks
benthic fisheries survey along the west coast of S.Africa on the RV
"Africana", and my most attentive host was collection manager Michelle van
der Merwe of the South African Museum.

I find it always extremely fascinating to come to an entirely new place in
the world, walk around in the neighbourhood and try to come to grips with
its common birds. Suburban gardens are much the same most places, so the
theatre is the same, only the players vary from place to place.

I arrived in Cape Town on an unseasonally rainy and cool day. Still, the
contrast with Tromsø on a winter day was of course enormous: here clearly
it was full summer and some kind of Mediterranean summer at that. In the
suburb where I spend the first day and where I walked around in the rain to
collect these first impressions, most people had small villas with often
walled gardens, bristling with "armed response" signs (reminding me
strongly of the area of La Jolla in California where I lived for some months).
 The gardens contained mostly large numbers of dense green bushes and
coniferans, and birding there often reminded me uncomfortably of snooping.
When one arrives at a new place as a newcomer one does not know what to
expect, and it takes some time before one gradually begions to bring some
order in the bewildering array of peeps and whistles that emanate from the
bushes; I am one of those people who does most of his bird spotting by ear.

My host has 7 cats and yearns for more, so clearly her garden is not among
the most bird-rich in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, as soon as I stepped
into this garden (and virtually everywhere and always that whole afternoon)
my ear was struck by a soft, but insistent whistling, coming from nearby
bushes. These turned out to be the contact calls of small flocks of Cape
White-eyes Zosterops capensis, probably the most common bird of all in
these suburban gardens. They are to European eyes something of a cross
between Willow warblers and tits, but with a character all their own,
unafraid, but always in movement.
As a great contrast the very next sound I heard was the hooting
"name-calling " of the Hadeda Ibis Bostrychia hagedash! These too are
suburban birds, and make up by volume what they lack in numbers.

Walking around, the most conspicuous birds were the various doves; I can
not remember having seen a suburban environment with quite so many doves!
They were intrepid singers even now in mid summer, and also quite easy to
see well. But there were clearly several species, some with, some without
the black neck-patch. The former also seemed to come in several sizes. And
all had their own intricate pattern of cooing.
The very common Laughing Dove Stretopelia senegalensis I knew from
elsewhere, but the neck-patch clan were all new to me, although the smaller
type reminded me quite strongly of the Collared Dove of Europe, both in
appearance and in voice. This was the Cape Turtle Dove S. capensis. The
other neck-patch dove was quite a bit bigger, the size of a feral pigeon,
with a bigger neck-patch and a more elaborate pattern of cooing. These were
the Red-eyed Doves S. semitorquata. Feral Pigeons there were also, and some
buildings had yet another pigeon, with speckled mantle and a red patch
around the eye, Columba guinea, the somewhat confusingly named Rock Pigeon.

The next sounds I managed to sort out were the clear musical whistles of
the Red-winged Starlings Onychognathus morio, a mostly black bird with
startlingly red wing-patches in flight. These starlings really still treat
house-roofs as cliffs and often cling to them in the most unexpected
postures. They also raided the fruit trees in the gardens.

Another cheerful, although somewhat uncoordinated whistle-call (peet peet
patata, says the book, something I would never have guessed) belonged
indeed, as I already had surmised, to a bulbul, in this case the Cape
Bulbul Pycnonotus capensis. They appear to have the same perky and jaunty
personality as all these garden bulbuls, in this case still accentuated by
the white around the eye.

After these early successes, augmented by the Barn Swallows and Common
Swifts (I think) overhead, and the sonorous caws of pairs of Black Crows
Corvus capensis flying over, things became more difficult, and many voices
from the gardens remained just that in the rain. A few birds obligingly
showed themselves, however, long enough to be identified: Some Olive
Thrushes Turdus olivaceus popped up in a fruiting bush, a female-coloured
long-billed sunbird I made, I hope correctly, into a Greater
Double-collared Sunbird Nectarinia afra, and a largish black and white bird
turned out to be not, as I immediately and too hastily concluded, a Fiscal
Shrike, but its lookalike the Fiscal Flycatcher Sigelus silens.

Anybody who has visited Cape Town knows that these meagre notes give a most
misleading impression of the richness of birdlife also in suburban Cape
Town. This was just a short walk in the rain, on my first day in a foreign
country, without a guide, and in the late summer, not the best time to
watch birds by ear. But I find such first impressions always intriguing,
and they raise questions as: why are there just here so very many doves and
pigeons, but no sparrows at all? A longer stay would probably give the
answer to these questions, buit that will not happen this time around.

                                CAPE TOWN HARBOUR

The purpose of my visit to Cape Town was participation in a fisheries
benthic fish survey cruise with the RV "Africana". Departure was some hours
delayed, so that I had the opportunity to see a little of the birdlife
here, so different a surroundings from the leafy suburb where I stayed before.

All the warehouses along the quays were festooned with gulls, nicely
showing the individual distance that every gull demands and squabbling as
soon as this was threatened; curiously so late in the season, there was
also a great deal of copulations still going on.
The gulls here were predominantly Hartlaub's Gulls Larus hartlaubi, so
close a relative of my old friend the Silver Gull from Australia, that they
used to be considered to be a single species. In my impression both the
exterior and the behaviour of these gulls deviated in many respects from
the Silver Gulls, although they share their elegance and their Black-headed
Gull-type incessant shrieking. The display gestures of these small gulls
seem to be almost overdeveloped compared to their relatives; all the
posturings seem somehow exaggerated.
These are really harbour gulls and we lost them as soon as we left the
shore. When we e.g. anchored up for many hours near Robben island in the
Table Bay, we never saw Hartlaub Gulls there; the only gulls to visit us
there were the Kelp Gulls L. dominicanus, who also roam out to the fishing
banks. Also these black-mantled medium large gulls with their dark eyes,
olive-green feet, and white rimmed black wings were common in the harbour.

The harbour also had several species of terns. The largest, Swift Terns
Sterna bergii, only rested here, while the two smaller species , Common and
Sandwich terns S. hirundo and S. sandvicensis, also fished in the harbour.
This happened often in conjunction with small flocks or single cormorants,
in the harbour most often the smallish Crowned Cormorants Phalacrocorax
coronatus, while outside the harbour the long skeins of the Cape Cormorants
Ph.capensis dominated. The third species, the largest of all, the Bank
Cormorant Ph. neglectus, appeared to be quite uncommon just here.
Out in the Table bay our ship got visits not only from the irrepressible
Cape Fur seals, that also loafed and fished inside the harbour proper, but
also from the surprisingly large Jackass Penguins Spheniscus demersus,
often two parents with a single young, of which there is a famous colony on
Robben Island just outside the bay. The only shorebird I saw was a single
Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini.

On the quays a mixed flock of House Sparrows and Cape Sparrows Passer
capensis, of which the males have much darker faces, and the females
conspicuous light eye stripes. I saw no differences whatsoever in their
behaviour in these flocks. The starlings here were the European Starling,
and also here doves and pigeons were common; I saw both feral pigeons, Rock
Pigeons, Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves.
The only other bird in this rather stark harbour landscape was the Cape
Wagtail Motacilla capensis, often surprisingly tame, and acting as
"sparrows" at some pavement cafes. The Afrikaanders have then also called
this bird "het Gewone Kwikkie"!
The next snapshot will concern the birds behind our trawler off the coast.

                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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