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!"
What I have for you today is a little piece of fluff called a Blackchested Prinia, Prinia flavicans. Apart from the fluff, it consists of two other components: a tail, and a voice. These are basically its 'raisons d'être'. Without the constant flicking of its long tail as it hops about the bushes, and its loud zitting and chirping calls, it could hardly be said to exist at all. Oh, and there's one more component: its bold, black breast band. Indeed, it sports the breast band only during the breeding season. In the long, dry winter, it has a uniform fawn or yellowish breast, and is difficult to distinguish from the Tawnyflanked Prinia with which it co-occurs over most of South Africa. The blackchested prinia generally lives in drier country, though. Over here in Polokwane, the tawnyflanked prinia is mostly found in rank riverside vegetation, while the blackchested prinia lives in savannah or in thickets amidst grassland.
A Bewilderment of LBJ's
This tiny bird, especially in the non-breeding season, is one of a plethora of species which we here in Africa call 'LBJ's'. No, not named for an American President from the latter part of the previous century – the initials stand for Little Brown Job. In South Africa and indeed in Africa as a whole, these are a major challenge for bird watchers. The poor blighter who first steps into the savannah or worse, the rainforest, armed with only binoculars and a bird guide, will soon curse their existence. LBJ's are small and hard to see under the best circumstances. To exacerbate things, they tend to be extremely active, hopping and flitting about constantly. Next, they will insist on inhabiting dense thicket or bush where even if they are glimpsed, they are glimpsed against the light or have their main features obscured by leaves and twigs. Or in the forest, they will be high overhead, giving you a sore neck after some dozens of minutes staring at tiny specks dashing from one tangle of creepers to another. But then, at last, miraculously you manage to get a decent glimpse of one … and it is just a small brownish/greyish/greenish bird, with no distinguishing markings or features apparent.
Now you turn to your bird guide. Heavens! Is it a bulbul, brownbul or greenbul, a babbler, a penduline tit, a scrub-robin, a flycatcher, an akalat, an illadopsis, a cisticola, an apalis, a prinia, a camaroptera, an eremomela, a crombec, a longbill, a white-eye, a speirops, a seed-eater, a warbler, a waxbill, or a weaver? Unless you're with a seasoned bird watcher who can give you the vital tips, you're likely at this point to either chuck your bird guide into the undergrowth or decide that 'LBJ' counts as a species designation and from that point focus on easier things like ostriches.
Actually once you get the hang of them, most LBJ's are fairly easy to distinguish from each other. To know what you're looking at, you must consider things like which part of the country you're in, and what the habitat is. These small birdies tend to have very specific requirements. Next, you should note their behaviour and their calls. Birds as a whole are big on recognizing each other, so they will have distinguishing calls or mannerisms. In the case of the prinias, that would be their zitting calls and their long, flicking tails. Along with that, things like general body shape and attitude will often help you to get your bird in the right general group. Finally, just about every LBJ will have at least one distinguishing feature. In the case of the black-chested prinia, that would be the black chest band. Both males and females have them while breeding. Outside the breeding season, there will often be at least a darker smudge across the breast region, by which to distinguish it (if habitat is no help) from the tawnyflanked. In the south of its range, it overlaps with the Karoo Prinia, which can be distinguished from it by its spotted chest.
Blackchested prinias have a very wide distribution, comprising most of the northern parts of South Africa, almost all of Botswana and Namibia, the southwest of Zimbabwe, and small parts of Angola and Zambia. It is especially characteristic of the Kalahari Desert, which is actually a dry savannah on deep sand. Prinias eat insects, spiders and other small invertebrates. This particular species often joins bird parties, groups consisting of a variety of species that forage differently and in different parts of the habitat, and yet remain together and move as a group. They might also form small groups with other prinias. Blackchested prinias often seek their food in trees and bushes, particularly favouring thorn trees and the wild Asparagus-bushes that grow in disturbed or overgrazed places. From time to time they will perch on trees or bushes and call loudly. Another kind of call is the alarm call, also frequently heard. Sometimes they will be alarmed by the presence of humans. But they also frequently scold predators like owls or snakes. This alerts other birds to these threats; without the element of stealth, they have little chance of snagging their prey.
The breeding season for prinias starts in spring. Male prinias call more frequently then, to mark out and defend territories. The female will choose her mate, and they will remain together. The nest is a wonderfully crafted little thing, tightly woven of fine grass and placed low in a bush, often an Asparagus. It is lined with soft plant down, gathered from grass seeds and other fluffy plant seeds and fruits. In this the female lays two to four eggs. They vary in colour, from greenish to bluish to brownish, with blotches equally varied in colour. The variation in egg colour might help them distinguish their own eggs from those of the parasitic Cuckoo Finch, not a cuckoo but also a bird that lays its eggs in the nests of others. The cuckoo finch in turn will try and choose a nest with eggs that look similar to its own, but the more the eggs of the prinias vary, the harder it will be for it to find a good match. Prinias incubate their eggs for 12-13 days, and the chicks fledge in two weeks.
The Prinias and their relatives in Africa
Prinias used to be classified in the Warbler Family or Sylviidae, a huge and cumbersome conglomerate of species that has since been broken up as it was found many similar species were in fact only distantly related to each other. It is still not clear exactly how they will all be reclassified. There are a great many species in Africa that are similar to prinias, or have affinities with them in spite of not looking very similar. The new family Cisticolidae has been proposed for them. Cisticolas proper constitute a huge genus of extremely similar LBJ's, best identified by habitat, behaviour and calls. The Cisticola family is almost entirely African, but a few species, considered to represent the base of the family, live in Madagascar, and the tailorbirds of the genus Orthotomus live in Asia. They have finely woven nests similar to those of prinias, poking holes in leaves through which they thread spiderweb to 'stitch' the leaves together. This technique is also used by a few other South African members of the family, including the tawnyflanked prinia. Crombecs are also close relatives, as are the Apalises, which I hope to feature here soon. Apalises include some of the most colourful and prettiest of the 'warblers', while other species are very nondescript. But the overall diversity of these little birds is vast, and it definitely pays to pay more attention to and get better acquainted with them. Even common species like this one are often still far from well-studied, and there are so many obscure ones we still know next to nothing about.