BUTTON BIRDING ENDEMIC/NEAR-ENDEMIC SPECIES

While actively farming here I first located Black-rumped Buttonquail in the early ‘80s when the property was not yet fully developed. The habitat was a field of Eragrostis curvula. This grass type produces small seeds and grows in tussocks with bare ground around the base. Perfect for a small quail with short legs. As the farm developed the bird disappeared. I relocated it in old fallow maize lands, directly across the Umzimkulu River, in what was then the Transkei enclave. They are there to this day, I suspect resident, calling in early summer. The soft repetitive hoot, seemingly ventiloquil at times, is best heard early in the morning when wind, agricultural  and/or traffic noise is minimal. The bird must be flushed for a typical brief view as it flies away low over the grass, flaring the dark (graphite) rump feathers prior to landing.

Jackal Buzzards breed in the Valley successfully, sharing hunting perches (especially transmission poles) with other raptors such as Long-crested Eagles, Steppe Buzzards, Yellow-billed and Black-shouldered Kites.

Grey-crowned Cranes are well represented (the current group numbers 75) breeding in dense reed-beds usually above farm dams, fenced off to limit access to dairy cattle. It is pleasing to see that Eskom has put measures in place to stop both electrocutions at transformers (with plastic pipe insulation) and line collisions (with flags). These beautiful cranes have learnt to roost on the centre-pivot structures at night, so that they are well clear of the ground, then during the day, forage on the moist irrigated lands under these pivots. They share with probing Bald, Sacred and Hadeda Ibis plus soft grass feeders like Egyptian and Spurwing Geese.

Not common, but found in the vicinity of our indigenous forest patches Martial Eagles seem to be hanging on. Their traditional prey source of Monitor Lizard must surely be limited which is probably why I see them soaring above rural villages where their eye will certainly be on alternatives like free-range chickens and puppies.

Fiscal Flycatchers   occur from time to time in low numbers on the shrubby vegetation along the banks of the Nkonza River draining the lower Creighton Valley. This area is quiet and undeveloped.

Cape Grassbird with very black gape and striking upper plumage is seen and heard throughout the area. The call is strident. The tail feathers a shambles.

African Marsh Harrier faithfully quarter the few remaining unaltered grasslands here. Undoubtedly a species under pressure because of habitat loss yet probably sustained by the high rodent population associated with grain and seed crops under cultivation.

Surprising perhaps but a fact is that our Valley and its periphery host at least 4 groups of magnificent Southern Ground Hornbills. For some reason, ancient eucalyptus have been targeted by saw-millers lately which will surely impact the availability of nest sites for this species. It is old eucalyptus that are likely to have splits or cavities large enough for these birds. It is perhaps time to consider artificial boxes. When observed while foraging, it is clear that they have mastered the art of flicking over cow-pats for the beetles that hide from sunlight there. The prey, peanut sized, is tossed into the back of the throat with dexterity.

Some good news is that Cape Parrot numbers are slowly but surely increasing, not just here (100), but in our province (275). Historically when short of indigenous forest fruit they learnt to visit properties with orchards or fruit trees like plums, pears or apples. This did not go without the risk of being shot. It is unclear when wattle seeds and seringa berries (toxic at times) were included on their menu. Another odd exotic in favour is the hard dry bell-like seed found in eucalyptus leaves. One wonders if these are therapeutic.  Cape Parrots fly significant distances for the dubious rewards to be gained by feeding on Pecan nuts. The owners of these labour intensive, slow growing, expensive trees invariably take offence, not surprising, when half-eaten portions of the over-sized nuts (for a parrot foot) rain down onto the ground. Parrot observers watch with trepidation when the birds fly down to pick these up since they are by default at cat or Jack-Russel height. It seems that this fare is not always good for them since dead birds are picked up from time to time in the proximity of these trees. These deaths may be due to over-eating or the quantity of oils or fats in these nuts. For  viewers however there are rewards when their behaviour can be observed while listening to a repertoire of calls, grunts and squeaks, seemingly of pleasure. Photographers will discover that the combination of various shades of greens, browns, and dark flecking in Cape Parrot plumage, has a way of blending with the very tree in which they are feeding.

Both species of Double-Collared Sunbirds are to found around Creighton. The Lesser usually near or in indigenous forests particularly where Halleria Lucida is in flower, which they visit repeatedly, sometimes hourly. Greater Double-Collared are fairly widespread, especially in winter, when nectar is in short supply. They can then be found feeding on Aloes or Leonotis, sharing with Malachite Sunbird. This is a spectacle on a bright sunny winter morning.

A fairly recent study of tagged Cape Vultures breeding in the huge Msikaba colony on the Wild Coast has revealed that their foraging forays follow (fortunately for us) an approximate 5 day anti-clockwise circuit, commencing with a northerly route up the Umzimkhulu drainage system as far as Creighton, before turning west to Underberg, then the Drakensberg, then Eastern Cape/ Mount Ayliff/ Collywobbles area, before returning to the coast. There will be slim pickings for them over Creighton, as we have few beef farms, but it seems that rural herds to the west of the Umzimkulu River are unable to withstand extreme climatic variances without supplement feeding. The vultures take advantage of any livestock mortality (including feral horses) since carcasses there are not buried. An important development in the Underberg /Himeville area is a vulture-friendly programme of strictly controlled and managed “Vulture Restaurants” on private land. Vulture numbers there regularly exceed 70 birds. One hopes the news spreads between vultures.  There are recent reports of new sightings of White-backed. Bearded are seen regularly. We wait eagerly for Hooded, White-headed, Lappet (already recorded in the Central Berg), or Palm-nut (seen locally but a long time ago).There is also a glimmer of hope that the mysterious vulture, glimpsed from time to time in the Mqanduli area between the Tina and Tsitsa Rivers of the Transkei, will travel north-east along the Drakensberg to see what the fuss is about.

Barratt’s Warbler can be a frustrating species to chase. Despite being strongly vocal when not threatened, and then changing to a soft warning “chick-chick” when it is. Barratt’s is a master at hide and seek in his preferred dense forest-edge shrubbery. The bird creeps restlessly with mouse-like horizontal movement so affording nothing but the briefest of glimpses. To see a Barratt’s Warbler, calling from the top of a shrub, is a very rare occurrence indeed (try 3 times in 30 years).

Swee Waxbill is the sort of little jewel that can turn a bad birding day into a good one. By keeping one’s distance, with patience, Swees can be seen in groups of a half-dozen, keen to get out of the tall grasses and down onto open ground to feed on something miniscule. The male is stunning.

By no means beautiful (although the male does try with face full of pollen) but certainly endemic, is Cape Weaver. He is common in this area. Seen feeding on most of our farms, and suspending his nests over water from river-bank vegetation.

Cape White-eyes are first out of bed in the Guesthouse Garden, where they can be heard talking quietly amongst themselves as they forage in the shrubbery. I have observed them fluttering wings on dew-covered leaves as an alternative bathing ritual.