Colours of Wildlife: African Paradise Flycatchers

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African Paradise Flycatchers

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!"

African Paradise Flycatchers by Willem

Here you have a couple of Africa's most stunning birds – Paradise Flycatchers, Terpsiphone viridis. Though called 'African Paradise Flycatcher', this species is in fact just one of several paradise flycatcher species occurring in Africa – albeit that it is indeed the most widely distributed of them all. What's more, it comes in a few different colour schemes. All have greyish underparts and bluish-grey crests, but they can have rich rufous-brown backs and tails, or white backs and tails, or rufous-and-white (typically, rufous back and outside tail, with white wing-stripes and central tail feathers). Only the adult males have the lengthened tails. Paradise flycatchers occur in savannah, woodland and moist forests. They're regulars in many well-vegetated suburban gardens as well!

Paradise flycatchers are a group that occurs in Africa and the warmer parts of Asia. They've also colonized islands such as Madagascar, the Mascarene Islands (where they accompanied the now-sadly-extinct dodos) and the Seychelles, where one of the rarest species is found. In Africa they occur mainly in forests, and about half the species have short tails, the others having lengthened central tail feathers. These birds, though called 'flycatchers', and having been classified in the large Old-world flycatcher family, the Muscicapidae, turns out to be not that closely related to proper flycatchers, now being classified in a new family, the Monarchidae or Monarch flycatchers.

Male paradise flycatchers, in the breeding season, are spectacular little birds. Out of the season they're still pretty, but lack the long tails. The male has a larger and brighter blue eye wattle than the female. Come breeding time, the central tail feathers of the male grow out, more than doubling his overall length. He parades this magnificent tail for the female, twirling and waving it like those female gymnasts do with their ribbons. He also utters a cheerful little song, a few zitting notes followed by a short, warbled phrase.

In South Africa, paradise flycatchers are mainly breeding visitors. Spring and Summer see them arriving, pairing up, displaying to each other and building their nests. These are charming, thimble-like little cups constructed of plant fibres plastered together with spider's web and decorated on the outside with bits of lichen. This doesn't seem to be much for the sake of camouflage, since paradise flycatcher nests are often very conspicuously placed. They're even more conspicuous if the male is sitting on the eggs, his long tail sticking out over the nest's edge and drooping down behind him. Male and female both incubate the one to four eggs. These hatch in about 13 days; the parents then feed the chicks, which fledge in another 11 or so days. Indeed, the flycatcher parents usually go on to raise a second brood, sometimes even a third, during the same season! It occasionally happens that a blissfully ignorant pair of paradise flycatchers raise the chick of a Diederik Cuckoo instead of their own.

After the breeding season, most of the flycatchers – adults and their now-grown offspring – depart for other climes. They're not master migrants, not heading for Europe and Asia, but merely move up into equatorial Africa, to escape the cool to cold winters we have here down south. But the southernmost group of paradise flycatchers only move a short distance northwards, mostly up the subtropical eastern coast and to the warm lowveld of northeastern South Africa, and into adjacent Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Paradise flycatchers are agile fliers, and catch much of their insect food on the wing. But they also glean small insects off leaves. Outside the breeding season they will often join flocks of mixed species, accompanying warblers or bush shrikes or other birds on hunting parties. It is believed that these parties benefit from the presence of various different bird species with diverse hunting strategies; insects that escape from one bird get snatched by another.

These birds are bold and confiding; they're easy to approach, and actually make themselves conspicuous especially in the early breeding season. They often build their charming little nests close to houses and the males on the nests make for great photographs. The species is still common and by adapting to suburban gardens has even managed to extend its range into otherwise open, dry regions.

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