With the upcoming birth of my son at any moment, plus several looming and synchronised deadlines, birding has not really been a priority. But I did hear a few good birds, and I even managed to steal a few glimpses out of the bathroom window while I was peeing. What birds would you classify as winter immigrants to your neck of the woods? Here in Pretoria, the quintessential winter immigrant is the tiny Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita – a hyperactive blur of grey, black and white in the thorny canopy, this taxonomically engimatic endemic is South Africa’s lightest bird. Having had the pleasure of handling some of these chaps, I can promise you they weigh absolutely nothing! Well, about 6 grams to be fair. Where do our Fairies come from? That is still unclear…some have suggested that they may hail from as far as the Tanqua Karoo region of the Western Cape, while others think they might have fled the winter snows of the Lesotho highlands. Ironically, this is the one winter immigrant that has (so far) been absent from my garden this year.
Another occasional visitor to Pretoria’s gardens, especially but not exclusively in winter, is the African Grey Hornbill Tockus nasutus, whose cheerful whistled calls brighten even the coldest winter day. What else? During the last few weeks I’ve been hearing the blood-curdling screech of a Grey-headed Bush-Shrike Malaconotus blanchoti, from the same tree at the same time each morning. I have not heard the normal ‘ghost’ call of this species, so I suspect that my bird is a female. As you may have guessed from the image above, a family of Arrow-marked Babblers Turdoides jardineii have also appeared recently, alongside a party of sound-alike but non-related Green Wood-hoopoes Phoeniculus purpureus. The former used to be a relatively common garden bird, but their numbers have dwindled greatly in the last two decades. That reminds me – I must do a post about Yellow-billed Kites at some stage.
One of the most numerous winter immigrants to Pretoria’s suburban gardens is the Amethyst Sunbird Chalcomitra amethystina, which then competes with the much smaller resident White-bellied Sunbirds Cinnyris talatala. Black-backed Puffbacks Dryoscopus cubla are around in the garden throughout the year, but I suspect that their numbers increase in winter. Chinspot Batises Batis molitor are usually around in small numbers in winter, but are very easily overlooked as they give only short, clipped contact notes, and not their usual three-blind-mice songs. Another surprisingly inconspicuous winter visitor is the Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus. Ditto for Brown-hooded Kingfisher Halcyon albiventris. Yesterday I also heard an African Green Pigeon Treron calvus calling in the big tree by my office – whether it is a winter visitor, or just a seasonal visitor in search of fruiting trees is unclear though.
Another cool thing to watch for in winter, is that the pairs of Cape White-eyes Zosterops capensis (or Green White-eyes Z. virens if you prefer) coalesce into huge roving flocks, that can number more than 100 birds. Two other winter species that are definitely worth of a mention are Fiscal Flycatcher Sigelus silens, and Pearl-breasted Swallow Hirundo dimidiata. While I don’t get these in my garden as such, both are common in Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve in winter, only about 5 minutes down the road from me.
An encounter with a party of exquisite Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters Merops hirundineus is a special winter treat. While these small, agile insectivores have a huge African range, they are scarce, predominately winter visitors to the Pretoria region. I found a small group of about 7 birds roosting in the tall bluegum trees below the restaurant in Moreleta Kloof Nature Reserve, where we often go for afternoon walks. Since I reported these birds on 25 May they have apparently been quite cooperative, and a number of local twitchers have connected with them. While I occasionally bump into Swallowtails, a wholly unexpected winter surprise this year was a Lizard Buzzard Kaupifalco monogrammicus, sitting on a street lamp in the suburb of Elardus Park, Pretoria – to be precise, on the corner of Boeing and Boston streets. This bird was remarkably unperturbed by the pedestrians, cyclists and car passing right below it, and seemed completely focused on hunting the few Montane Speckled Skinks braving the winter chill in search of some sun. I saw the Lizard Buzzard a few times in the same vicinity on subsequent days. Another very unexpected, but welcome, visitor that we had in the garden last year was a transient Pearl-spotted Owlet Glaucidium perlatum.