Seldom is an award-winning hotel and a birding hotspot found in the same place. Nestling among the mountains of the Drakensberg, near the beginnings of the great Tugela River, is a paradise for nature lovers called The Cavern. This family run hotel is conveniently situated half way between Gauteng and Durban and offers very affordable accommodation, excellent food and a wonderful friendly atmosphere. Birding enthusiasts from South Africa and overseas come here to enjoy the rich and varied birdlife. The Cavern boasts a bird list spiced with more than 20 endemics, some exciting rarities and a garden full of avian surprises.
Situated at the head of a valley, the south-facing slopes are clothed in montane forest, and drier north facing aspects offer unspoilt grassland with Protea caffra and a myriad of wonderful wildflowers, with Acacia sieberiana a surprising component of the warmer hilly folds. The hotel sits comfortably between forest and grassland and the extensive gardens are filled with a happy mix of local indigenous flora and flowering exotics, the boundary between garden and veld gloriously blurred, making it the perfect spot for birds and birders alike. The resident pair of Black Duck has included the ponds in their territory and Giant Kingfishers compete with fishermen for fat trout. Two small dams and a twinkling mountain stream are part of the garden and here you can see the tiny Malachite and have a chance to compare it to the elusive Half-collared Kingfisher.
Flowering Aloes, Calpurnia and the exuberant nectar feast offered by the Mountain Bottlebrush make sure that the gardens are always filled with sunbirds. In the April to June autumn season, Gurney’s Sugarbirds and Malachite Sunbirds jostle for ownership of the aloe spires all around you as you enjoy a cooling drink or buffet lunch. Early morning bird walks begin on this terrace and before leaving the reception area one can “tick” at least twenty species. Mocking and Familiar Chats join Redwing Starlings and doves on the thatched roof, swallows and swifts provide the aerial acrobatics, while an African Goshawk clicks his territorial claims. The view back down the valley is panoramic and punctuated by tall trees – even just sitting here for the morning would produce a bird list to be proud of. The resident flock of Arrowmarked Babblers provide comic relief and Cape and Masked Weavers decorate the trees with their woven nests.
A very short walk takes you into the Fern Forest where Cape Batis, Olive Woodpecker, Yellowthroated Warbler, Olive Bushshrike and Bush Blackcap await you. Just beyond the garden you are free to roam the 3000 ha of unspoilt montane grassland that is The Cavern nature reserve. Gazing skywards you could be rewarded with Lammergeyer, Cape Vulture, Longcrested Eagle, Bald Ibis and many more. The sky really is the limit at this wonderful birding destination.
Rare birds are always making the news, even though a little lost soul blundering beyond its usual range is rarely of significance. Recently (October 2003) the Cape White-eye is in the lime-light at The Cavern. This is one of our most common species, especially in the garden. But right now only about half of these birds are of resident stock. They can be recognized, as in the case throughout KZN, by being mainly dull yellow-green with uniformly coloured underparts. However, birds from the Southern Cape and beyond have a pale grey belly, and these have arrived in large numbers. They can only have come from somewhere hundreds of kms away in the west. White-eyes do not normally migrate, but may be copying other species of birds that are known to move eastwards in response to drought, returning, sometimes years later, when wetter conditions return to their normal haunts. Perhaps our garden White-eyes are giving us a sort of long-term weather report.
Watching birds, what they do and what they say, is a continual source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I was struck by how much we can learn about birds and their habits by just noticing little seemingly unimportant things. A walk round the bird-friendly hotel gardens is always rewarding and this morning was no different. A rather weedy rendering of the Klaas’s Cuckoo call came from a thick shrubbery – a Chorister Robin at work. The robin never gets the call quite perfect, sometimes good enough to fool us mere mortals for a while, but if you listen carefully you can detect a wobble here and there and start working out which mimic is at work. The Chorister Robin is reputed to be the best there is; this is most likely the reason for the name ‘chorister’; a member of a choir, a singer. This one gave us renderings of a few other calls and then suddenly switched to that of the Crowned Eagle. Now we were confused, because the Crowned Eagle does not occur at The Cavern so how on earth did this robin learn the song? Bit of lateral thinking here and we worked out that the Chorister Robin is one of the many altitudinal migrants we have in KwaZulu-Natal; birds that move down hill to a lower and warmer altitude during the cold winter months. So this particular bird had spent some time down in the Karkloof or Dargle during winter and had learnt the call of the Crowned Eagle there, and brought it back to impress the lady robins of The Cavern. This is the only possible explanation and we were pretty pleased with our detective work. Sometimes it works the other way; we can be alerted to look for a bird we were not sure was in that area, just by hearing a robin mimicking it. Real forensic stuff this – very stimulating and exciting.
A common sight in dairy or beef farming country is a field filled with cattle, and each animal with a Cattle Egret standing close to its head. One of the old fashioned names for the Cattle Egret, one that I grew up with, is the Tick Bird. This must have led people to believe that the egrets were eating ticks off the cattle, and when the birds occasionally hitch a ride on a cow’s back it is even easier to believe. The truth is that the egrets are there, at the front end of the cow, in the best place to catch the grasshoppers and other delicious insects that the cows disturb as they move around finding the tastiest grass clumps. Not quite a symbiotic relationship as the cow gets nothing from the association, but it is certainly a peaceful partnership, and who knows, maybe cows enjoy the company of egrets? The less attractive job of eating the ticks is left to the oxpeckers.
A week or so ago I wrote about the Longcrested Eagle expanding its range, so it was particularly exciting to find one of these “expanded” eagles last week. Some of you may have noticed that we have become “frequent flyers” to the Cavern and it was there that we saw a Longcrested Eagle last week, the first ever recorded on their bird list. It did all the right things, like flying overhead to show its great white hand patches; it landed in a nearby tree to show off the almost comic long crest; there was no chance of mis-identification here. This bird had to work quite hard to find this little haven of indigenous forest. To get to the ‘berg one passes through a lot of flat, mealie country but I suppose that there are plenty of telegraph posts along the way providing excellent hunting vantage points. I am sure that the stately rows of plumed mealies have their fair share of vlei rats and other tasty morsels bustling about in their leafy avenues. Another factor to consider is that an “expanding” bird will be a young bird, not yet fully qualified to own a nest and mate and territory, so a tall tree to build a nest in will not be a necessity for the journey, but rather the reason to travel. So a high perch from which to hunt and a safe roost for the night can be equated to a restaurant along N3 and an adequate B&B! Now we have to hope that a bird of the opposite sex follows this same route and ends up at the Cavern.
The antics of the Pintailed Whydah continue to fascinate me and I am beginning to think that their behaviour in a real wild situation is definitely different to that in our suburban gardens. In my garden, “The Punk” as he has been named, continues to chase and harry anyone brave enough to come to the feeder and still steadfastly ignores the couple of lady whydahs that feed there. Size does matter as the Speckled Mousebirds and Blackcollared Barbets are left alone to devour their apple, even though this all takes place on the same swinging feeder. But how different it was up at the Cavern. There, over a patch of damp grassland, I watched as a smart male whydah primped and pranced and when exhausted, retired to a nearby telegraph wire to rest. The waving grasses below him held an assortment of lady widows and bishops and whydahs and the different males appeared more intent on attracting their own ladies than trying to chase anyone else away. The dance routine and the length of the tail seemed more important than the ability to duff over an innocent bystander. The Pintailed Whydah’s favoured host is the Common Waxbill but I have not noticed this bird getting any special attention either. The life of a brood parasite does seem to be quite a hit and miss affair in this instance!
Migration of Birds
As Summer slowly quietens into Autumn, so the birds too slide gently from the frantic frenzy of being a parent to the more decorous state of grandparent-hood. The season’s young have been packed off to fend for themselves as best they can, and the parents can now potter about satisfying only their own simple needs. With a nest full of hungry chicks, nearly all our bird species are driven to find an almost unending supply of good insect food; protein for the fast growing youngsters. Once the chicks are fledged and self sufficient, the pressure to find protein-rich food is gone and the exhausted parents can take a well earned break from bug-hunting. Now a vegetarian diet of fruit and berries with an occasional nutritious worm is quite enough to keep body and soul together.
As winter approaches it is interesting to note how many of the local trees choose this seemingly inhospitable time of year to fruit. One good explanation of this phenomenon is that if the trees fruited in summer when insects abound, the birds would not be interested in such second-class food as berries, and the trees would not benefit in the dispersal stakes.
There are of course another group of birds not at all interested in helping the trees move their “children” around. These are the Palaearctic migrants who have come here to enjoy our summer and must now take the long and arduous journey back to Europe and Britain to breed. The European or Barn Swallow is a good example, along with the Willow Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher and many others. These birds must actually put on weight in order to have enough energy for the long flight ahead so need all the protein they can find. A small bird can actually increase its weight by half again without falling out of the sky! Migrating birds do feed along the way but seem to beef up before leaving just in case the wayside cafes are not up to scratch. Aerial feeders like the swallow stand a better chance of finding food en route, whereas a bird that has to land to feed can get into all kinds of trouble.
Winter Birds at The Cavern
Everyone knows that summer is the best time for birds. Migrants come from all over the world to join the hardy residents. Winter, by comparison, seems almost birdless, especially as the local birds have given up singing. Its dry cold may seem daunting, but it actually brings in birds from other areas where winters are worse. Winter also brings a few local birds more into the public eye.
The Fairy Flycatcher breeds on the very top of the Berg, but moves to lower altitudes in cold weather, especially during snow. It is the smallest of all South African birds. The plumage is a delicate blend of black and grey, with a pink tinge to the white underparts. It can often be seen flitting between bushes just beyond the formal garden. Another winter flycatcher comes from the Karoo. This is the Fiscal Flycatcher, much larger and bold in black and white, and often mistaken for a Fiscal Shrike. It perches on a protruding branch, watching for insects to fly in front of it, or drops to the ground onto other small prey.
Summer sees six species of swallow and martin here, but winter only one. This is the Rock Martin, plain brown. It nests under rock overhangs on the Little Berg. Only a few frequent the Cavern in summer, but it becomes common in winter when most of the martins from higher up congregate at lower altitude.
The Black Stork is another winter special. It is present year-round, but breeds in winter. Seems crazy, and nobody knows why. The nest is a large pile of sticks on a remote ledge. While one parent looks after the nest, the other is often seen flying high to and from a favourite feeding ground somewhere in the surrounding grassland.
The most famous of all the birds round here is the Bald Ibis. It is resident, but winter is the best time to see it. This is because it forages on the ground, like any other ibis, but especially likes freshly burnt grass. Fried grasshoppers are no doubt delicious, and insects that escape the fire are more easily found in burnt areas. So winter fires are its best thing. The bird’s fame rests on it being endemic to a small area centred on the Drakensberg. Its nearest relative lives in the mountains of Morocco. This strange distribution dates back a million or so years to when Africa was drier and colder, and the ancestor of both species ranged throughout the highlands. As the climate warmed, this cold-loving bird retreated to refuges at the opposite ends of Africa. They have now been separated long enough to have evolved into distinct species.
Amazing what you can learn when visiting the Cavern…………………….
The month of June seems filled with shivery winter days – I am so glad that mid-winter has now passed by and there in the not too distant future lurks that wonderful season called spring! I wonder if the birds feel the bite of cold as they hop about on frozen spindly legs, searching for hardy bugs that have not themselves succumbed. It is definitely a time of fewer birds to watch, but as I mentioned before with the House Sparrow story, also a time to really concentrate on those we see.
Back from my brief visit to the warm Kruger Park, this happy intra-South-African migrant winged her way to The Cavern in the Drakensberg once more. Very chilly indeed, but with clear sunny skies during the day the winter birding was good. The banks of Aloe arborescens were still holding their spires of flaming flowers and the Gurney’s Sugarbirds, and Malachite and Greater Doublecollared Sunbirds enchanted even those guests who did not consider themselves bird-watchers. It is impossible to get tired of Gurney’s Sugarbirds, a bird endemic to a narrow stretch of Eastern South Africa but so common in the Cavern gardens during aloe flowering time. Protea roupelliae, one of the tree proteas of the area, is what they really hanker after and as soon as these begin to flower, the sugarbirds will leave the gardens and attend these, their favourite plants.
At this time of year the male Malachite Sunbirds have lost their incredible green-ness and a little shiny green on the shoulders and a few spots here and there on the chest are all that remains. But they are easily told from their lady friends by their mightily elongated central tail feathers. The large slashing red collar of the male Greater Doublecollared Sunbird is always there to alert one to its presence. Oh dear, why is it that I so often have to say that the female is a definitely more drab bird? Afraid it is really true in this instance and this makes identifying them much more difficult.
Did you know that birds can be right or left-winged, in the same way that we are right or left-handed? There is an open grassy area just below the formal Cavern garden where one can be pretty certain of seeing Groundscraper Thrushes. At present there is a family of Mom and Dad plus the two teenagers from their last brood. I had not really noticed their habit of moving and then “saluting”. Sort of like the Familiar Chat who actually flicks both wings each time it lands, giving us a wonderful identification handle, for it is a very plain little bird otherwise I always think. Well, the Groundscraper Thrush only salutes with one wing, and they are not all “right-winged”. I became quite bemused watching this group of four rushing about demonstrating their left-or-right-wingedness – and they don’t seem to be ambidextrous either! This added a whole new dimension to my bird watching.