Everyone knows that summer is the best time for birds. Migrants come from all over the world to join the hardy residents. Winter, by comparison, seems almost birdless, especially as the residents have given up singing. Its dry cold may seem daunting, but it actually brings in birds from other areas where winters are worse. Winter also rings a few local birds more into the public eye.

The dry cold of mid winter may seem daunting, but it actually brings in birds from areas where the winters are worse. The Fairy Flycatcher breeds on the very top of the Berg, but moves to lower altitudes in cold weather, especially during snow. It is the smallest of all South African birds. The plumage is a delicate blend of black and grey, with a pink tinge to the white underparts. It can often be seen flitting between bushes just beyond the formal garden. Another winter flycatcher comes from the Karoo. This is the Fiscal Flycatcher, much larger and bold in black and white and often mistaken for a Fiscal Shrike. It perches on a protruding branch, watching for insects to fly in front of it, or drops to the ground onto other small prey.

Summer sees six species of swallow and martin here, but winter only one. This is the Rock Martin, plain brown. It nests under rock overhangs on the Little Berg. Only a few frequent the Cavern in summer, but become common in winter when most of the martins from higher up congregate at lower altitude.

The Black Stork is another winter special. It is present year-round, but breeds in winter. Seems crazy, and nobody knows why. The nest is a large pile of sticks on a remote ledge. While one parent looks after the nest, the other is often seen flying high to and from a favourite feeding ground somewhere in the surrounding grassland.

The most famous of all the birds round here is the Bald Ibis. It is resident, but winter is the best time to see it. This is because it forages on the ground, like any other ibis, but especially likes freshly burnt grass. Fried grasshoppers are no doubt delicious, and insects that escape the fire are more easily found in burnt areas. So winter fires are its best thing. The birds’ fame rests on it being endemic to a small area centred in the Drakensberg. Its nearest relative lives in the mountains of Morocco. This strange distribution dates back a million or so years to when Africa was drier and colder, and the ancestor of both species ranged throughout the highlands. As the climate warmed, this cold-loving bird retreated to refuges at the opposite ends of Africa. They have now been separated long enough to have evolved into distinct species.

Amazing what you can learn when visiting the Cavern…

by David Johnson