Monday, 29 August 2011

Windhoek wonders

A fairly rapid follow on from the last post... turns out I didn't have to go far to find some opportunity to get my bird geek on in Windhoek, Namibia. Large flocks of swifts can be seen from the yard of the backpackers I'm staying at, and red-eyed bulbuls, go-away-birds, and white-backed mousebirds are also commonly seen, including one mousebird building a nest. Given my unfamiliarity with the region there are a few other birds I'm still working on ID's for. Also, not more than five metres from the front door a southern masked weaver bird (Ploceus velatus) has also been busy building a nest, and trying his best to attract a mate. 

Southern masked weavers are the most widely distributed of all the african weavers, and can be found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and of course Namibia. Although they typically form colonies in large trees, isolated nests aren't uncommon, nor are breeding attempts in suburbia. The male weaver bird will build the structure of the nest, and if it meets the approval of a female she will line it with soft grass and feathers. If it doesn't meet her standards it will be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. Once she has committed to the nest by laying the male will start work on a new nest for a new lady. So far, however, this weaver bird hasn't had much luck with the first...

Suburban southern masked weaver at work in Windhoek, Namibia.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Capetown kingfisher

Continuing the urban kingfisher theme-this morning I had a very enjoyable visit to Rondevlei Nature Reserve, as part of my first visit to Capetown. Thanks in large part to the generous hospitality of my colleague Susie, the jetlag recovery and orientation to being in a new country was (almost) seamless. While Capetown has the usual unfortunate drawbacks of african cities, it is blessed with a great network of parks and reserves which support a fantastic diversity of birds. Rondevlei Nature Reserve forms a part of the False Bay Ecology Park, and is tucked between the coast and the bustling metropolis. In the park have been counted 320 plant species, including 17 endangered, 235 bird species, including 7 endangered, 29 reptile species, 23 mammal species, 8 amphibian species, 2 of which are endangered, and the reserve is also home to the Cape’s only hippopotamus population. All this within the city bounds. With the area of land undergoing urban development continuing to grow exponentially, this is a great example of the importance of allowing for nature conservation within our towns and cities. 

Despite the best attempts of the weather to thwart our efforts to get our bird geek on, we were able to spot and identify a large number of bird species that were new to me. We were lucky to spot a goliath heron (Ardea goliath), well outside it's normal range. Although there was no shortage of competition for the most exciting observation, the prize has to go to the malachite (Alcedo cristata), a fairly common small kingfisher-one of the smallest in Africa. We had lingered in one particular hide a bit longer than the others, not because there were any more birds there, but it was in a spot sheltered from the building southerly wind. Although the malachite only lingered long enough for a few rushed pictures, it was enough to expose the depth of my geekiness by getting the heart racing. 

I'm now in Windhoek, in the heart of Namibia. I'm giving a seminar at the university on urban bird research, and another public lecture hosted by the Namibian Scientific Society on bird conservation in New Zealand in a few days. Until then I'm looking forward to seeing what avian gems the urban wilds of Windhoek can throw at me.

Malachite kingfisher, Rondevlei Nature Reserve, Capetown. 

A more geographically minded goliath heron, within it's normal range (lower Zambezi, 2008).

Thursday, 4 August 2011


My first ever blog post. I'm not really sure if there's any sort of etiquette or 'done thing' for blog posts, so I'll just start how I intend to continue-with some stuff that's happening in my life, and a nice story about some birds.

Today I finished the first draft of the second chapter of my PhD thesis. It's about the foraging behaviour of silvereyes in urban trees, and the importance of adaptive opportunistic behaviour in birds (a phrase I made up, and I hope will catch on). Obviously I've been spending a fair bit of time in front of the computer writing, but lucky for me there is a nice bike path at the bottom of the hill which takes me most of the way to uni. The bike path runs along the edge of the harbour, and the ride in and out of school is a great way to relax, and get my daily fix of nature.

Yesterday morning I was biking along, as usual, when I spotted a kingfisher, (Halcyon sancta, kotare), amongst the rocks just above the shoreline. He (or she) flew up and perched on a powerline clutching a crab in its bill, then proceeded to systematically break off all the legs and nippers by bashing it against the wire before sending it down the hatch. This was only the second occasion I've had the opportunity to watch a kingfisher handling prey. The first was a little further from home, in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. I had arrived at a small watering hole where I had seen some fish eagles earlier in the day, and was hoping to snap a few pics in the fantastic african evening light. The fish eagles weren't to be seen, but a pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) was, it flew in and landed on a branch not far away from me, having evidently just captured a small fish. As the New Zealand kingfisher had done with the crab, the African kingfisher, grasping the fish as shown below, proceeded to pound the fish into submission against the branch. This battering continued long after the fish had been stunned. Maybe the kingfisher was tenderising it, maybe it wanted to make sure the fish was well and truly dead and wasn't going to start wriggling around in its gullet. Or maybe (I like to think) it was being obliging and allowing me plenty of time to snap off some nice pics. I hope you enjoy the picture, I have certainly enjoyed my experiences watching some very similar behaviour in two very different locations. It's certainly a good reminder that you don't have to travel to some exotic location to have a memorable wildlife viewing experience and get your bird geek on.

With my chapter finished, I'm off to the pub.

Bird geek out.

Pied kingfisher with prey, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.