Colours of Wildlife: Bird Ringing Special, Part II

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Bird Ringing in the Polokwane Game Reserve, Part II

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!"

Last week, Willem began telling us about his adventures in bird ringing. Here's the rest of the story.

Blue waxbill.

One of the commonest waxbills around here is the Blue Waxbill. This is the male. We also caught Violeteared Waxbills, which are a bit larger and with bright red, reddish brown, violet and blue coloration. Unfortunately I didn’t get a shot of one of those. The blue waxbill is more social than the violeteared, the latter behaving much like the melba finch. Blue waxbills however are often seen in flocks, and often give themselves away with their thin, wheezy whistles.

Black Cheeked Waxbill.

Yet another waxbill that is common in the reserve is the Black-cheeked Waxbill. Unfortunately this little one lost its tail while struggling in the bag. The feathers will regrow in time. Black-cheeked waxbills occur in flocks like the blues, but are somewhat less common. They are extremely pretty though. A related waxbill that also occurs here is the common waxbill, which has a bright red bill, like sealing wax, from which the entire waxbill family gets its name. The family is very diverse in Africa and well-represented here in the south.

Goldenbreasted Bunting.

This is a Goldenbreasted Bunting. They’re related to canaries. It was interesting to me since I don’t think I’ve seen them in the reserve before. They do occur in the region, but aren’t particularly common. This one was panting and must have been suffering from the heat and stress. They are quite pretty with their orange-yellow breasts and bellies, and streaky heads.

Crested Barbet.

This is a Crested Barbet. These relatives of woodpeckers are widespread and common in South Africa, often entering gardens where their trilling calls are well known. They are mainly fruit and insect eaters, and use their stout bills to excavate their hole nests in soft wood. I am sad to say that this barbet was one of the casualties of the day. It had broken its wing while struggling in the net, or perhaps when removed from it. It was taken to a vet but the break was too bad and it was put down.

Diederik cuckoo

This is a juvenile Diederik Cuckoo. It is named for its ‘Dee-Dee-Dee-Deederik’ call which is a very well known sound of the bushveld. These cuckoos migrate inside Africa, and breed here. They lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds like weavers, who are then tasked with raising the gluttonous baby cuckoos. This youngster looks in fine condition. Juvenile cuckoos tend to be rather bold and placid birds, not easily scared. Here you see the lovely gloss and intricate patterns of the wing and back feathers of the cuckoo. The wings are long and strong since this young cuckoo would soon be flying (along with the others) to more northern African countries. The adults have more green on their backs, tails and wings.

Marico Flycatcher.

Here is another youngster, a Marico Flycatcher. These flycatchers are common in our region, hawking for flies and other flying insects from branches. Young birds have white spotting on their wings and bodies. Adult Marico flycatchers are plain brown above and white below. They occur in small groups, perching quite prominently on twigs at the edges of trees, from where they have a good view of their prey. Flycatchers are fast and agile on the wing.

African Paradise Flycatcher.

Another juvenile, this time an African Paradise Flycatcher. It kept its eyes closed; maybe it was too bright outside for it. Adults have bluish bills and blue rings around their eyes. The adult male in the breeding season grows its central tail feathers out very long, for lovely flying displays. They are extremely manoeuvrable and expert at catching flying insects. It seems that paradise flycatchers are actually not very closely related to the marico and many other flycatcher species, the similarities being due to having similar lifestyles.

Olive Tree Warbler.

This was for me the most special catch - an Olive-tree Warbler! They breed in a small part of Europe and the Middle East around the Mediterranean Sea. The entire population then flies to Southern Africa to spend the European winter here in the African summer! These warblers have been recorded, but very sparsely, in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It is probable that they are not uncommon, but rarely seen and recognized. They are very nondescript grey birds, the only colour being the bright orange insides of their mouths. For a warbler it is quite large. It can be identified by its size and shape, being long and slender, and by its harsh churring call.

Icterine and Willow Warbler.

Another warbler I haven’t positively identified until today is the Icterine Warbler. It is more yellow than the Olive-Tree Warbler, but can be greyish as well. Its song is higher-pitched than that of the Olive-Tree Warbler and it is smaller, with a comparatively shorter bill. Here is a comparison between the Icterine Warbler and another similar one, a Willow Warbler. Again the differences are relative. Both are greenish-yellow in colour, but the Willow Warbler is much smaller, with a proportionally much shorter bill. The Willow Warbler has a pale eyebrow stripe going back well beyond its eye. The Icterine Warbler’s eyebrow just goes to above its eye. Icterine and Willow Warblers are both migrants who breed in Europe and Asia and then come down here in our Spring and Summer to escape the cold. Willow warblers are very common here in the spring and summer, announcing their presence with their soft song. Olive-tree warblers are rather rarely seen, but might be more common than they seem, for being fairly secretive and nondescript. Warblers hunt by methodically hopping and flitting through the foliage of trees and bushes and catching small insects and spiders on the leaves and bark.

Red Backed Shrike.

Wrapping up, another migrant. This is a female Redbacked Shrike. She doesn’t have quite as bright reddish brown a back as the adult male does, and also lacks his distinct black mask. These shrikes also fly a very long distance down to southern Africa from Europe and Asia. They are frequently seen over here in the spring and summer. They usually sit right at the top of bushes or low trees, hunting their prey of invertebrates and small vertebrates like lizards, catching these mostly on the ground.

And that wraps it up! I did see more species and take more photos, but these will give you a very good idea what bird ringing is all about. There is a lot of information that 'science' gets along the way as well, about birds' habitat preferences, movements, populations sizes, how long they live, and more.

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