Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
The Cinnamon Dove, Aplopelia larvata, is a beautiful and rarely seen dove of South Africa. It occurs in much of the rest of Africa as well, mostly in the cooler, moister forests, avoiding hot, equatorial lowland forest (but not always – it is found down to sea level for instance in Cameroon and on the island Bioko) as well as drier savannahs. It is called a dove, but might be closer to a pigeon, sometimes being placed in the same genus, Colomba as the typical pigeons. But it is not a typical pigeon. It is fairly small, reaching 30 cm/12" in length, solitary and shy. 'Aplopelia' means 'Single/Simple Dove', and 'larvata' means 'ghostly' or 'bewitched'. These all refer to its solitary, secretive life hidden in the shady forest.
I have fond memories of seeing this species. I've seen it only a few times, in the forests of the Magoebaskloof region which lies about an hour's drive to the east of Polokwane. Those are beautiful moist mountain forests, not very tall, most trees being less than 20 m/70 ft in height, but they are dense and shady. The cinnamon dove usually walks quietly in the understory, choosing more open patches rather than ones full of ferns and undergrowth. Most of the time it will see you before you see it, and you'll only glimpse it as it flies away low over the ground, diving into a dense tangle of ferns, shrubs or vines. But actually it will freeze when it first spots you – blending in with the dark forest floor so well as to make it almost invisible. So if you are very perceptive and see it in freeze mode, you can observe it and see how close you can get before it flies off. In the shade it looks very dark, apart from its white face. In good light you'll see that its body is a rich reddish brown, for which it has been named. Its wings and tail are darker brown. In bright light it shows a pinkish to bronzy-green gloss to the head, neck and upper-back feathers. If you manage to get a photo of it, you're even luckier. I have only found a few good photos of this dove online.
But there was one occasion on which I got a really good view – and also a very endearing one! My father and I were driving along the forest drive in the Woodbush and De Hoek state forests. Much of the drive we spent admiring the scenery, but at one beautiful spot where we parked I noticed something peering out at me from some dense foliage. It was a cinnamon dove sitting tight – sitting on a nest! This time it did not fly away even when we got very close, its duty to its eggs being more important. But we did not go so close as to seriously worry it! Still, we could see it well, its little white face being quite conspicuous.
In South Africa we have very few natural forests – they cover less than half a percent of the total land surface. Still, since South Africa is a large country, there are some substantial forested areas. The most substantial of these are the Knysna and Tsitsikamma forests of the Western and Eastern Cape, but in the north of South Africa the forests of the Magoebaskloof region are also quite extensive. They receive up to 2500 mm/100” of rain each year. The climate is subtropical to temperate, the lower parts being warm year-round while the higher parts experience cool or even cold winters. Over a hundred species of trees grow in them, some being weird and/or spectacular, like the Outeniqua Yellowwood, forest cabbage trees and forest fever trees, and some with lovely, mass floral displays like the forest elders. The tree trunks are often covered in dense, soft mats of mosses, lichens and liverworts. Numerous species of fern grow not only on the ground but also on and in the trees. The understory contains many patches devoid of plant growth because of the deep shade. It is in this gloom that the cinnamon dove walks about. It is a very terrestrial dove. It seeks out fallen seeds and berries amidst the leaf litter. But it also catches and eats small critters like slugs and snails that it finds in the process. Foraging doves will also sometimes dig up and eat the shallow tubers of ground orchids.
These doves are also solitary, or at most found together as pairs. Most of the pigeons and doves found in South Africa are social, occurring in flocks or congregations numbering from a few to many hundreds. Living in open areas and frequently coming into towns and gardens, they are some of the easiest birds to see … it is almost impossible *not* to see them in fact. Polokwane must have a population of laughing doves, to name just one, substantially exceeding the human population. These are very well known. By contrast, the Cinnamon Dove is one of the most poorly known birds of our country. It might actually be commoner than one would think from observations, being able to hide itself so well. Many forest birds can be found by their calls … in some cases you will perhaps never in your life see the species, but hear it calling every time you go into the forest. The presence of cinnamon doves can also be determined by listening to their calls: a low, soft hoot rising towards the end. They usually call from a hiding place in the undergrowth early in the morning or late in the afternoon. They also make growling, hissing and squeaking sounds, the purpose of which we're not yet sure of. When a foraging dove is scared into flight, it claps its wings together, making a startling noise as many other birds do when flushed. But sometimes you might realize a dove is close from the rustling sounds it makes by brushing leaves aside as it forages. The only time these doves can be found in small groups is when trees such as Cape Chestnuts or Wild Peaches have produced a good harvest of fruit and have dropped these to the ground. There are a few places, such as at Knysna, where these doves will be attracted to picnickers, picking up the crumbs they leave behind.
When cinnamon doves come together to breed, the pair will defend a territory. We still don't know what their courtship display looks and sounds like. They will build a nest in a well-sheltered place such as a bush clump or amidst a tangle of forest vines or creepers or in a bunch of debris caught in the fork of a tree. The cinnamon dove's nest is not as flimsy as that of most other doves and pigeons, and built of twigs and rootlets. Most of the time the clutch consists of two eggs, rarely one or three. The chick hatches after about two weeks and is sparsely covered in golden-yellow down. Both parents feed it. We also still don't know how long it takes to fledge, or how long these doves can live. In their native environment they are probably preyed on by raptors such as goshawks, and small carnivores such as genets.