Winter in the Drakensberg

One of my self-imposed tasks at the Cavern is to help keep the garden at the little school in good order. It’s a great pre-primary and primary school with over 50 pupils, many of whom are sponsored by the wonderful Cavern guests. I have created a garden with a winding path, crawl-through drum and a bridge over a pebble-strewn “pretend” stream and while down there today I was joined by a Familiar Chat. This little guy was eager to take advantage of the various bugs and beetles that I was disturbing with my digging and didn’t seem at all worried by my presence. This got me thinking about the name; this little bird is certainly familiar in the sense of being around people and seemingly enjoying their presence. Although a rather dull chap, sort of brownish with a reddish rump, the wing-flick that it gives each time it moves position is a dead give-away to its identity. One quick flick if it has only moved a small distance and at least two flicks if the new position is quite far away. This is not only for our edification; other little brown birds also need to know who’s who and some have identifying songs while others do things like this wing-flick.

Although I am not a winter person, I do love the aloe season here at the Cavern; great banks of Aloe arborescens are in flower at the moment. At any time of the day you can enjoy the antics of Gurney’s Sugarbird, Malachite Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and any number of nectar pirates all enjoying the feast put on by the lovely orange flowering spikes. The male Malachite Sunbirds are no longer resplendent in their glorious shiny green breeding plumage, but they keep their long tails and a splash of green on the shoulder so we can still tell the boys from the girls. The lure of the nectar is so great that one can stand a couple of metres from the plants and binoculars are quite superfluous.

Winter is also the time to look out for the dear little Fairy Flycatcher, definitely one of my absolute favourites. A gentle grey and white with a soft pink-coloured tummy, the Fairy Flycatcher is one of our altitudinal migrants, birds that breed on the top of the berg and then when winter starts to bite, they move downhill and we have the pleasure of them right in the Cavern garden. A short walk down to the bottom dam this afternoon turned up one of these charming little visitors; it was in no hurry and we were able to watch it for about ten minutes – what a pleasure!

Nectar feeders are becoming more and more popular both with people and the birds. One of the problems can be attracting bees, which in turn drive the birds away. Bees are quite fussy and only like a sugar solution of over 20%, so to keep them away make the concentration 20% or a little less.

– by Sally Johnson

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