Today marks National Bird Day as well as World Migratory Day: the perfect excuse to celebrate the birds here at Nature’s Valley. And they are really worth celebrating.
It was here in Nature’s Valley that I first fell in love with birds. I remember when I was young, my grandmother put out leftover fruit every day for her cheerful Chorister Robin-Chat. I have early memories of going on the holiday programme bird walks, and we would ‘twitch’ at all the little brown jobs. When my grandmother and I used to walk amongst the giant old yellow woods, I remember vividly how her face would light up at the flash of a red ‘Loerie’ between the branches. These times instilled a love for birds in me that I am especially grateful for. My grandmother (who died in 2017) would be very pleased to know I am now working at NVT. Every flash of red I see reminds me of her and of my great-grandparents who enjoyed this place before me.
Since starting my internship here at NVT, birds have brought me a lot of joy. Each morning when I step outside with my coffee, I am greeted by my many friends; the Knysna Turacos, Black-headed Orioles and Fork-tailed Drongos. Sometimes, later in the day, I see a Collared Sunbird fluttering around the honeysuckle. I have also been given the chance to partake in the CWAC count (Coordinated Water Bird Count), with our Director, Duncan. We conduct this trip around the lagoon once a month to collect data on what water birds can be found around the estuary. This forms part of a larger citizen science project, monitoring water birds across the country and is an indication of estuary health. To me it feels like the ultimate treasure hunt and in February this year we were rewarded with a great sighting of a White-backed Night Heron and the Sandwich Tern.
The Sandwich Tern is an elegant Palearctic-breeding migrant who travels down the west coast of Africa from Western Europe. A few early-comers arrive in September, however, others arrive in December and some of the younger birds arrive as late as March. Once in Southern Africa, these birds will often move to where the food is. Once, a bird ringed in the Eastern Cape was spotted only 18 days later, 850km away in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. These birds are mostly found feeding in estuaries; however, some will sometimes venture out to sea to get a meal. They generally return to Western Europe for breeding and begin their journey back North as soon as they feel the pinch of our Southern Winter.
Another great sighting of a migratory bird that I was blessed with earlier this year was a juvenile, Red-Chested Cuckoo. This bird has the iconic call, ‘Piet-my-vrou’ or as known in isiZulu, ‘Phezu-kom-kono’, meaning ‘plant your maize’. We wonder if old Hendrik Bernado may have waited for such a call every spring before sowing his seed down here in the Valley. These birds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests to relieve themselves of the duty of rearing their young. Often mistaken for a Sparrow Hawk when in flight, these birds use this confusion to their advantage and can scare a host bird from its nest. Furthermore, the Cuckoo chick is so enticing that other birds passing by with no association to the nest at all, are known to deposit the food meant for their own young, in the mouth of the cute cuckoo chick’s mouth instead! This completely bizarre bird is probably somewhere around the equator right now having scammed many a Robin-chat and Cape wagtail in the Valley. These strategies are mischievous; however, one must appreciate the genius.
Nature’s Valley has a great array of different habitats which makes for very rewarding birding. Some of the best birding in Garden Route can be found right here. The Grootrivier Trail which starts on the eastern side of the river near de Vasselot is an excellent place to start. If you go, make sure you keep a look out around the bridge for the rare African finfoot and White-backed night heron which can be found skulking in overhanging vegetation. You will likely also see a Half-collared kingfisher darting across the river to a dead branch. Look out too for the four endemic fynbos bird species we have here in the fynbos; the Cape sugarbird, the Orange-breasted sunbird, the Victorin’s warbler, and the Cape siskin. If you take a walk through the beautiful Covie Trails at the top of the pass, you might be lucky enough to see these guys.