Birds of the Magaliesberg 2023


It is 8 am on a June morning, with a cold front of icy wind pushing through from the Cape, but the sun is shining and I am drawn into a famous indigenous bush garden by a commotion of Bronze Mannikins arguing for space on a Sickle Bush. Sitting tightly together, individuals moving back and forth in a hustle for the warm sun. Further on there are four large Aloes where Dark-capped Bulbuls have already started their nectar feed and move anxiously between flowers in a bid to warm up too. Fortunately for the birds, the Aloes also love the sun, standing in all their splendour and bursting at the racemes with red or orange. It feels sacred, vulnerable and stirs up quiet emotions not found in our familiar world of digital technology and unpleasant noise. A Striated Heron drops in to the edge of the Tilapia pond, which is also a favourite for the frogs when seasons change, but my attention is drawn to some well-spaced Thick billed Weaver nests above in the reeds, who also have a claim to lay in this little ecosystem. Where are those male weavers who so diligently guard their nests in summer? These perfectly built homes now deserted. I get distracted by a busy group of Common Waxbills, Red-billed Firefinch and Cut-throat Finch pairs who decide to join in on the sunning frenzy. Packed together like best friends and weighing down on branches that seem not to mind. But it doesn’t last as they sense my closing in for a better look. In one motion they are off to the next sunning bush which of course they know so well and has held them many times over. With some regret I decide to go back to the office, to get there, it is a short stroll between hundreds of Aloes. It feels as if the Aloes are speaking to me, and I cannot help but think they are saying something important. It is difficult to ignore these expressive flowers, and you can feel the life in them. Yellow, orange, red, some faint shades of white and pink supported by strong enduring bases of great shades of green. White-bellied and Amethyst Sunbirds fly with urgency between the Aloes, ambitious in their pursuit for nectar on this cold morning. Maybe it is the cold that makes them want as much nectar as quickly as possible. I then start asking myself, why the Aloe flowers now in June? They need sunbirds to be working hard? The two are perfectly aligned with each other, a marriage made in heaven, a great example of mutualism. Moving pollen from one Aloe to the other, they are the key to survival of this great plant. With their long bills ideally adapted for Aloes with long pedicels, they have access to nectar that other birds could only wish for. Weavers and bulbuls, amongst others, may also have some of this nectar feast but only from flowers with short pedicels. The relationship between bill length variations of birds and pedicel length of an Aloe flower plays an important role in lessening the chances of hybrids out in natural habitat.Aloes are especially adapted for sunbirds as the flower is too narrow for bees, forcing them to settle for other plant types which depend on them. Walking back to the office and looking up at the sky hoping to see my favourite bird, the Cape Vulture. Strongly on the wing, soaring higher in search of thermals, I count 11. There

Immature male White-bellied Sunbird. PHOTOGRAPH: MARTIN BRASG

is a large colony that breeds just on the other side of the mountain (Magaliesberg), and every morning after 9 am hundreds of vultures take to the sky. With vulture populations plummeting due to poisoning, habitat loss and reduced predator numbers, we are truly blessed to see them here, and my only wish is that we are able to pass this privilege down to our children, to be able to stand in wonder of a perfect living organism which plays such a vital role in a bushveld ecosystem. Losing track of time and getting caught up in watching these magnificent creatures, my cell phone rings, and I am pulled back into what we call the ‘real world’.

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