Winter Bird News

The month of June seems filled with shivery winter days – I am so glad that mid-winter has now passed by and there in the not too distant future lurks that wonderful season called spring! I wonder if the birds feel the bite of cold as they hop about on frozen spindly legs, searching for hardy bugs that have not themselves succumbed. It is definitely a time of fewer birds to watch, but as I mentioned a few weeks ago with the House Sparrow story, also a time to really concentrate on those we see.

Back from my brief visit to the warm Kruger Park (and the chill of Sabie), this happy intra-South-African migrant winged her way to The Cavern in the Drakensberg once more. Very chilly indeed, but with clear sunny skies during the day the winter birding was good. The banks of Aloe arborescens were still holding their spires of flaming flowers and the Gurney’s Sugarbirds, and Malachite and Greater Doublecollared Sunbirds enchanted even those guests who did not consider themselves bird-watchers. It is impossible to get tired of Gurney’s Sugarbirds, a bird endemic to a narrow stretch of Eastern South Africa but so common in the Cavern gardens during aloe flowering time. Protea roupelliae, one of the tree proteas of the area, is what they really hanker after and as soon as these begin to flower, the sugarbirds will leave the gardens and attend these, their favourite plants.

At this time of year the male Malachite Sunbirds have lost their incredible green-ness and a little shiny green on the shoulders and a few spots here and there on the chest are all that remains. But they are easily told from their lady friends by their mightily elongated central tail feathers. The large slashing red collar of the male Greater Doublecollared Sunbird is always there to alert one to its presence. Oh dear, why is it that I so often have to say that the female is a definitely more drab bird? Afraid it is really true in this instance and this makes identifying them much more difficult.

Did you know that birds can be right or left-winged, in the same way that we are right or left-handed? There is an open grassy area just below the formal Cavern garden where one can be pretty certain of seeing Groundscraper Thrushes. At present there is a family of Mom and Dad plus the two teenagers from their last brood. I had not really noticed their habit of moving and then “saluting”. Sort of like the Familiar Chat who actually flicks both wings each time it lands, giving us a wonderful identification handle, for it is a very plain little bird otherwise I always think. Well, the Groundscraper Thrush only salutes with one wing, and they are not all “right-winged”. I became quite bemused watching this group of four rushing about demonstrating their left-or-right-wingedness – and they don’t seem to be ambidextrous either! This added a whole new dimension to my bird watching.

By Sally Johnson

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