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Green pigeons and red berries – a theatre of nature in my garden
The cotoneaster stage
In our garden are large cotoneaster bushes which at this time of year (mid autumn, April, in South Africa) are laden with the wonderfully decorative berries that characterise this bush. The bushes are a delight to look at and the berries attract a wonderful selection of birds.
Of particular note was the presence of a few green pigeons.
One morning, bright and sunny with little wind, I stood outside under the bushes and waited with my camera at the ready.
My wait was not in vain.
Very soon a few of the rather timid, but very attractive, birds arrived to get their fill of the lovely red berries, heavy with juice after the good rains we have been having in the past few weeks.
The African Green Pigeon
The African Green Pigeon is fairly widely-spread in sub-Saharan Africa, though until now I had not actually seen one. It is not easy to spot in the wild as it tends to remain very still and its cryptic colouring conceals it well in the wild figs (ficus species) and other fruiting trees that it frequents.
Certainly we have been in this house for more than three years now and this is the first time, to my knowledge that these birds have visited us. Perhaps that is evidence of the effectiveness of their plumage – but I'm fairly observant and love birds so really I think I would have spotted them had they been here before.
These birds are about 30 cm (12 inches) in length. The description of their plumage in The Complete Book of South African Birds (Struik, 1989) is beautiful in itself: “Entire head dark green and upper throat yellowish-olive merging into grey on hindneck; mantle, rump and upper-tail coverts olive-green. Yellow tips to outer-tail feathers visible in flight. Underparts below upper upper throat greyish yellow-green, flanks olive, the feathers edged with white giving a streaked appearance; belly feathers fringed yellow; under-tail coverts olive-green grading to cinnamon on longer feathers, edged with white; lilac shoulder patches. Primaries and secondaries black. Cere scarlet, and extends on to the bluish-white bill. Legs and feet orange.”
If, like me, you wonder at that word “cere”, I looked it up in the glossary of the same book which defines it as: “A morphologically distinct area of area skin at the base of the upper mandible of certain birds, surrounding the nostrils.
For the meaning of the other terms in the description see that accompanying diagram from the same book.
A gallery of illustrations by Kenneth Newman
Your lifetime ticket to the theater of nature
For Nature is love, and finds haunts for true love,
Where nothing can hear or intrude;
It hides from the eagle and joins with the dove,
In beautiful green solitude.
From “Evening” by John Clare
I am by no means an expert bird watcher, but I do love birds. They are fascinating in their ability to fly, in the beautiful sounds many of them make, and in the often spectacular beauty of their plumage.
Birds also provide so much of interest to observe, and one doesn't have to travel far to see them – they are everywhere, even in the most built up areas, and so provide easy access to nature. As one birding site has it, birding is: “Your lifetime ticket to the theater of nature.”
Birdwatching, or birding, as a pastime had its beginnings in the late 18th Century and was celebrated by poets like John Clare (1793 – 1864). Typical of the aesthetic appreciation of birds at that time was his poem “The Thrush's Nest”:
Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day -
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature's minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.
Early bird enthusiasts were mostly interested in collecting eggs and skins, especially of rarer species from the growing empires of the metropolitan European states.
By the early 20th Century the serious scientific study of birds had overtaken the “collector” ethos and bird watching as opposed to collecting became more popular with non-scientists. Societies were founded in many countries to protect birds and the collecting aspect became limited to collecting sightings of bird species and keeping records of such sightings.
With the growth of popular photography the photographing of birds became a passion for some.
The digital revolution in photography has also led to new techniques in the photography of birds, in particular the technique known as “digiscoping.” This neologism refers to the practice of attaching a digital camera to a spotting telescope to take photos of birds at a distance without the need for expensive long telephoto lenses.
Bird calls are also important in the identification of species and so the recording of bird sounds is very important to birders.
A spin-off from the popularity of birding has been the proliferation of bird books to feed the hunger of bird lovers for information about birds. Many of these are focused on local birds, but there are some which take a broader perspective.
My own bird book is Kenneth Newman's Birds of Southern Africa (Sappi, 2002). The standard reference on South African birds is simply known as "Roberts", after the original author, famous ornithologist Austin Roberts, formerly of Pretoria. The actual title is Robert's Birds of South Africa
All birds in South Africa are referenced by a number; for example, the grey lourie is R373. The "R" standing for Roberts and the number is the number originally given to the bird by Roberts.
The birds in the bush
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” goes the old saying, but I have to confess I much prefer the birds in the bush, especially where I can see them.
The lush red berries of the large cotoneaster in our garden has attracted a large variety of birds in the past few weeks, giving me great delight in the sights and sounds of them.
In addition to the green pigeons the bush has been visited by black-eyed bulbuls (Pycnonatus barbatus); Karoo or Sombre thrushes (Turdus smithi); Crested barbets (Trachyphonus vaillantii); Grey louries, also called the “Go-away bird” because its call sounds like someone shouting “go away” (Corythaixoides concolor); Red-faced mousebirds (Urocolius indicus); some small rufous birds which at first I thought might be a cisticola species, though I'm not at all sure; and, of course, the green pigeons (Treron calva).
With the exceptions of the thrushes and the tiny rufous birds I have managed to get photos of all of them, though not always too successfully. The thrushes are amazingly sensitive – they will let me look at them for long periods, and then as soon as I point the camera at them they fly away.
The louries are the comedians of nature. They are large and ungainly-looking birds and have a habit of sitting as close to the ends of branches as they can get. The branches usually cannot hold the birds who then have to frantically and comically find another perch, amid much squawking and flapping of wings, often choosing another perch equally unsuitable for their weight, and the whole pantomime is repeated.
They have not always been well-thought of. Hunters especially don't like them, as described in Sir Percy Fitzpatrick's famous book for “the likkle people”, Jock of the Bushveld , (first published in 1907, and the only South African book to have been in print continuously for more than 100 years). In the story from this book entitled “Lost in the Veld” Sir Percy wrote:
“No doubt they have another name, but in the Bushveld they were known as Go 'way birds, because of this cry and because they are supposed to warn the game when an enemy is coming. I do not believe they care a rap about the game; they only want to worry you.”
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011