For those of us who find birds compelling, fascinating, worth chasing, or taking a photograph of, the first contact we have is invariably with a common bird seen outside the kitchen window.
In my case, I have vivid recollections of backyard birds in the English garden that I grew up in: Blackbird, Blue Tit, Goldfinch and – of course – the trusty little European Robin. On one occasion, I remember watching in awe as a Great Spotted Woodpecker fought-off a Grey Squirrel at the hanging nut-feeder my mum had put up. Way back then, one bird that really captured my imagination was the tiny, mouse-like Eurasian Wren that would burrow through the climbing rose then hop out and burst into song.
I left England as a 12 year old kid, but soon became acquainted with a whole new range of garden birds in the family home south of Johannesburg. Now, I was entertained by the likes of Crested Barbet, Fiscal Flycatcher, Speckled Mousebird, Southern Fiscal and Cape Weaver. Each summer a lone Spotted Flycatcher would arrive from Europe to occupy one corner, and Barn Swallows would dip-drink from our swimming pool at dusk. A pair of Cape Robin-Chats – the African counterpart of the European – would hop around the back door and pick scraps from our dog’s bowl. One of my favourite things to do (unaware as I then was of wise water use) was to put the garden sprinkler on at midday and watch the iridescent Malachite Sunbirds come in for cooling showers. Black-collared Barbets raised several broods in the nest boxes I built for them and thus began a particular interest in this family of birds.
Having finished with school, and fledged from my parents’ nest, my next garden setting was a small plot on a farm north of Fourways (then little more than a road intersection; now a mass of upmarket housing complexes and glitzy shopping malls), where a friend and I rented a refurbished barn. Here, Grey Go-away Birds, Red-throated Wryneck, Dark-capped Bulbul and Cape Glossy Starlings were daily companions, while Barn Owl, Green Woodhoopoe and Cardinal Woodpecker sometimes put in an appearance. It was here that I first experimented with mixed fruit servings for birds: overripe pawpaw, bruised apples and squished peaches were placed on feeding tables and the action was non-stop.
I rented two garden cottages in the leafy suburb of Parkhurst after that, sharing space with birds such as Karoo Thrush, Red-chested Cuckoo and the vocally-challenged Hadeda Ibis. Here, I was able to study the delightful African Paradise-Flycatcher – a pair of which built their egg-cup nest right outside my window. Later still, newly married, and living in Randpark Ridge on the edge of a golf course, my wife Tracey and I would wake in summer to watch ‘our’ pair of migratory Woodland Kingfishers taking crickets and grasshoppers off the lawn. After dark, Spotted Thick-knees would take their place.
In 1994, I finally had the opportunity to actually shape a garden space for birds. We moved to the subtropical town of Nelspruit, buying a simple bungalow-style house bordering the municipal nature reserve. To us, the location and the number of established trees was more important than the number of bedrooms or what the roof was made of. Naturally, we kept all the indigenous trees, but felled several alien palms and other species to make room for a host of native plants that would provide birds with berries or nectar, or attract invertebrates as part of a natural food web. Apart from mowing a small lawn, very little actual gardening ever went on; my objective was for the property to be an extension of the nature reserve – a haven for all creatures. Due to the presence of inquisitive and highly-intelligent Vervet Monkeys, putting out fruit or grain for birds was out of the question. In time, I added a pond, a wetland and a miniature stream, while a tree house built for our daughter Julia Lily doubled-up as a mini ‘canopy observation tower’. We spent 20 years at what came to be called ‘Turaco Wood’ and the list of birds and the number of memorable observations are too long to present here. Among the absolute highlights were a resident pair of African Wood-Owls that would serenade us with their lovely duet calls on warm summer nights; a pair of African Goshawks that built a nest and raised young in a fig tree that I had planted as a sapling 15 years earlier; the wild barking calls of Purple-crested Turacos as they bounced through the trees or drank from our bird bath; and the strident, liquid song of the White-browed Robin-Chats that welcomed each new dawn. Among the sporadic but memorable visitors we had in this wonderful ‘garden’ were Green Twinspot, Emerald Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, Pygmy Kingfisher, Olive Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Eastern Nicator, Retz’s Helmetshrike and Gorgeous Bushshrike.
By 2014, our time in the Lowveld was up and we found ourselves living close to the southern tip of Africa in the Western Cape. Renting a house in the Hermanus suburb of Vermont was a transitory situation, but remarkably good for a different variety of garden birds. There was no option for me to modify the garden space but there were two big positives: one, the owner had planted only indigenous shrubs and trees; two, municipal greenbelts of ‘strandveld’ ran through the suburbs down to the coastal paths. Oh, there was another thing: we could see the Atlantic Ocean from the balcony! Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Bulbul, Southern Boubou, Southern Tchagra, Bar-throated Apalis and Brimstone Canary could be counted on every day. A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls called from street lamps most evenings and Black Sparrowhawks could be seen hunting pigeons above the rooftops. Now and again, a Kelp Gull would drift over the house – and surreally – flocks of Greater Flamingo would sometimes pass low overhead. But, more than these, I was delighted to be reunited with immaculate Malachite Sunbirds – the same species that I had encouraged to come into my parents’ Mondeor garden forty years earlier.
As I write this, we are living in the Hermanus suburb of Westcliff, in a house that we have recently purchased. The garden is tiny, the walls are high and the birds are few. Luring in the avian locals will be a challenge, but I am onto it.
Looking back, there is one bird that has been with me in all the various parts of South Africa that I have lived. Gregarious by nature, the little Cape White-eye is happy to forage close to people, picking aphids off bushes, nibbling on bananas or quenching its thirst in a birdbath.
** my newly released book ‘Garden Birds of Southern Africa’ is published by StruikNature. It profiles 101 bird species (with photographs not illustrations) that regularly occur in gardens of major cities and larger towns of the region, and provides information on how to create garden spaces that provide feeding and nesting niches for birds.