The Sounds of silens, Sigelus silens.

There are very few birds to be seen around our new home in the Hermanus suburb of Westcliff. Gangs of inquisitive Common Starlings inspect the gutters, a pair of Southern Fiscal use the wi-fi dish as a perch and Red-eyed Doves call mournfully from the bare rooftop. It’s a small stand, and I’ve stripped out virtually all of the previous owner’s ragged collection of exotic plants ahead of growing a selection of berry- and nectar-producing trees and shrubs – native to the area – that will hopefully lure in a few bulbuls, sunbirds and plenty of insects to attract robin-chats and flycatchers.

For now, though, my working days are without the avian distractions I became so used to at Turaco Wood in Nelspruit, or at our rented house surrounded by indigenous coastal strandveld of Vermont (just 10km west of here).

At any rate, there I was, out at the back door, picking up the dog bowls, when a burst of high-pitched, warbling whistles stopped me in my tracks. I knew the call, I knew this bird, but I was momentarily stumped. Our boundary wall is two metres high, so visibility of the outside world is limited, but I didn’t have to wait long for the songster to reveal itself. A flash of black and white, as a male Fiscal Flycatcher swooped over my head and perched on the telephone wire, followed by another male and then a female. The two males were posturing towards each other and facing the object of their affection – the less-glossy, brownish hen; tails were fanned-out into sharp triangles, bills were pointed to the cloudless skies, and ripples of ecstatic song accompanied the show. I gained a higher vantage point, and two more flycatchers were seen across the road, calling from the neighbour’s rooftop. This was clearly a territorial dispute, combined with courtship ritual, but why now, at the onset of winter? The earliest breeding records here in the Cape seem to be in late July, but pairs must be cementing their bonds, or forming up, well in advance. The seasonal rains are hopefully on their way after months of parched, bleached-out weather, so that will spur on the lifecycles of the winged insects that these flycatchers eat.

The scientific name of this bird is Sigelus silens, the latter part (its specific name) apparently based on the Latin word for silence, which my males were anything but! To be fair, however, these birds usually are quiet and unobtrusive. As for the generic name Sigelus, this has recently been abandoned by lab-based taxonomists who evidently concluded on the results of trendy ‘molecular phylogenetic’ study, that it should be lumped with the Marico and Southern Black Flycatchers into the genus Melaenornis. Thus, the Fiscal Flycatcher has lost its monotypic status which I find strange because its behaviour and morphology is in no way similar to these other flycatchers.

Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa. 22 May, 2017.

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