birding-aus african impressions 4. Willie

Subject: birding-aus african impressions 4. Willie
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Mon, 22 Feb 1999 10:17:39 +0100


At the end of my short stay in Cape Town I suddenly had an extra day
available: as a good professor, I had erred with the date of my flight
home. That day my hosts kindly drove me out to the Botanical Garden in
Kirstenbosch and promised to pick me up again some hours later. As so often
in Cape Town , it was a quite windy day, and the dense scrub gave problems
to someone accustomed to alpine and tundra biotopes.

Especially one bird song gave me trouble: I heard it everywhere around me,
but for a long time I could not see the bird (or birds, as I first thought
this was the sound of a duetting species). The song was in three parts: an
emphatic and shrill "wee" or "wee-wee", a short chuckling melodious phrase,
and finally--audible only from nearby-- a sort of weak descending
The birds were quite common and sang all the time. But if you are in
unknown country, it is hard to know what to expect, and it was not before I
crouched and looked under the bushes that I finally got to see the bird, a
rather non-descript brownish bird with white eyes, now easily identified as
the Sombre Bulbul Andropadus importunus.
The SASOL guide describes the song as "a piercing wee-wee, followed by a
liquid chortle", but the description that makes that I shall never ever
forget this song, stands in Newman's guide: "a strident "Willie!", in the
breeding season followed by a babbling trill sounding like "Willie! Come
out and fight!...scaaaared", the last phrase barely audible." It is one of
those happy descriptions that, although they make very little sense before
one has actually heard the bird, burn themselves in your memory  for ever
In Afrikaans this bird is known as "Willie", just like the Cape Robin is
"Jan Fredrik" and the Bokmakierie also has an onomatopeic name. Anneke de
Vries recently has (in Birdchat) once more given examples of the very many
onomatopeic bird names that exist in Dutch, far more than in English,
German or the Scandinavian languages. I have always wondered why that is
so, and have not found a good answer. But looking through the S.African
guides, the same difference clearly exists between Afrikaans and English
names, with the Afrikaans names usually far more descriptive and far more
often onomatopeic.
 Not only Sombre Bulbul vs Willie or Cape Robin vs JanFredrik, but the same
trend exists for the cuckoos (Red-chested Cuckoo vs Piet-my-vrou, Emerald
cuckoo vs Mooimeissie, and Klaas's Cuckoo vs Meitjie), or for warblers
(Chestnut-vented warbler vs (Bosveld)tjeriktik, or Cisticola vs Klopkloppie
or Tinktinkie), to choose only a few examples. Why should this be??
This is a distraction, however, and nothing to do with my wonderful
afternoon of strolling through the many great plantings and bush of
Kirstenbosch. I did not really see all that many birds that day: I sought
in vain for the Sugarbirds, and missed out on many more species that I
ought to have found here. Of course there were Whiteeyes everywhere, I
regularly came across the Cape Batis and learned to recognize their soft
calls; and I found thrushes, shrikes, canaries, doves and pigeons.

The Helmeted Guineafowl and Cape Francolins were surprisingly tame here,
and clearly are fed regularly by the visitors. Also very tame, but in a
different way (people are of no interest for them at all, neither as a
danger or a source of food), were the delightful sunbirds. A field of deep
violet-blue flowers (Agapanthus?) attracted them in droves, mostly the
Orange-breasted Sunbird, but also a few Lesser Double-collared and at least
one Malachite Sunbird. There were so many in fact, that I suspect a sleek
well-fed Siamese cat, that was invariably present in this area, to have
specialized on sunbirds, although I never actually saw him catch one.

"Did you really not see more?" people who know Kirstenbosch will no doubt
say now. I saw some more birds, a sparrow-hawk in the Silver trees, a
pochard strayed into the pump basin, and a few odds and ends here and
there. But mostly I just strolled, marveled at the so aptly named
Proteaceae (Proteus could change into a thousand different shapes) and
enjoyed sun and summer, this last day before my return to snow and
mid-winter in Tromsø. I hope to return to Cape Town for a somewhat longer
stay later this year, so there was no hurry.

This concludes these "first impressions" from my first ever visit to Cape
Town and South Africa. It has definitely given me the impetus to come back
here and enjoy more birds and landscapes. Once more many thank to my hosts
for making this possible, and for all their helpand hospitality during this
month, that passed so all too quickly!

                                                                Tromsø, 22-2-99
                                                                Wim Vader, 
Tromsø Museum
                                                                9037 Tromsø, 

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