Our neighbourhood is at the foot of an escarpment that would have been part of a mosaic of Afro-montane forest and grassland prior to extensive exploitation of the forests for timber and the widespread introduction of intensive agriculture and the establishment of urban areas, which commenced with the colonial era.

Many of the forest patches were eradicated, and in current times, on the local escarpment only tiny pockets of Afro-montane and mistbelt forest remain and the grasslands have all but disappeared – displaced largely by commercial timber plantations and urban development.

Despite such massive changes, there are species of birds associated with woodland and forest that occur in the region – and visit our garden. It is not only the bushbucks, which featured in last week’s post that have adapted to living in the dense vegetation on the margins of the eucalyptus and wattle plantations but many other species too. So this week, I thought I would feature some of the woodland and forest birds that visit our garden – even though many of them are difficult to photograph

Black-backed puffback  (Dryoscopus cubla)

First up is the black-backed puffback, a species that feeds up in the tree canopy, searching for insects that form the bulk of its diet. It is found in riverine forest, on the edges of lowland evergreen forest, in closed and open woodland, and it has adapted to Eucalyptus plantations and gardens (Roberts). In the header photo above, a Black-backed puffback is intent on finding prey among the branches, foliage and flowers of a wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) in the garden.

Black-backed puffback showing success in catching an insect

Puffbacks form monogamous pairs, and can sometimes be seen foraging in small family groups. When displaying, especially in courtship display, the male erects his white rump and back feathers to form a powderpuff like ball of snowy and fluffy feathers – hence the name ‘puffback’. Unfortunately, I have not been able to photograph that.

Photographed through a window pane, a black-backed puffback showing the long white feathers on his back. These feathers and the feathers on his rump are erected forming a white puffy ball of feathers on his back when displaying and flying from branch to branch, and tree to tree

Nesting materials show the puffback’s dependence on wooded habitat – the small, cup-shaped nest is built from grass, roots and bark, and is bound with spider web and with downy material from plants. The nest is lined with fine grass. It is attached to the nesting site in the pronged fork of a tree usually up in the canopy with more spider web and strips of bark. As she builds it, the female shapes the nest with her breast. The outside of the nest may be decorated with lichens, dry leaves and bark.

Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus)

Very difficult to photograph in our garden are the pair of southern boubou that frequently visit and move around secretively, usually concealed in the vegetation as they are searching for prey, mainly insects and snails, and also geckoes, mice, nestlings, eggs, earthworms and fruit and nectar. Despite them being secretive about showing themselves, we are often alerted to their presence by their variety of clear whistling calls including call-and-response duets. One of the duets gave them their name – a whistling note from one receives a three-note response: bou-bou-bou.

A female southern boubou – the male’s head and mantle are blacker rather than grey and the throat and chest are paler, often white

Southern boubous need dense vegetation to sustain them and habitats include woodlands, forest and thicket. Monogamous pairs remain in the same territory for life, defending it aggressively. The female builds the loosely put together bowl-shaped nest, made with slender twigs, roots and grasses, sometimes bound with spider web, and lined with fine grass and rootlets.

Grey Cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia)

Another bird that can be difficult to see because it spends most of its time up in the tree canopy is the grey cuckooshrike. I am always thrilled to see this unusual and strangely elegant bird.  It occurs in the eastern and southern parts of the country, mostly in a strip along the coast and adjacent inland regions in evergreen or coastal forests.

The strangely elongated shape of a grey cuckooshrike

Grey cuckooshrikes feed mostly on insects and caterpillars. They glean prey from trunks, branches and leaves, and can often be seen peering upwards while perching on a branch, scanning the undersides of leaves. When a prey item is spotted, it flies up to snatch the prey from below a leaf, and then flies back to its perch to swallow its prey (Roberts).

A grey cuckooshrike peering, presumably for prey

The nest is built by both the male and female, with the female shaping the nest. The nest is a shallow bowl of old-man’s beard lichen which is bound with spider web and plastered onto a sloping fork or branch of a tree at the forests edge very high up from the ground (Roberts).

Tambourine Dove (Turtur tympanistria)

One of my (many) favourites to see (and hear) in the garden is the lovely tambourine dove, the only dove in the southern African region with pure white underparts. We used to see small parties of about 6 birds toddling around a patch in the garden searching the ground for food. Sadly, in recent years we only ever see one or two.

Tambourine doves are very skittish – this photograph was taken from a window a long way from where the bird was foraging on the ground

The tambourine has a lovely call, rather similar to that of the emerald-spotted wood dove, but in a longer and deeper toned sequence that starts with about 10 unevenly spaced coos followed by a more rapid series of about 18 notes going “doo doo do do do do do…”.

Occurring in the eastern and southernmost areas of South Africa, the tambourine dove can be found in lowland evergreen forest, riverine woodland and forest, and in the south Western Cape in coastal forest. It forages largely on the ground searching for fallen seeds and fruits, but it can also take small fruits from the tree. In addition to seeds and small fruits, food includes invertebrates such as termites and small molluscs.

Also taken through a window, and having to resort to digital zoom, the distance and bright morning sunshine do not do justice to the beauty of the lovely tambourine dove. Even though I was behind a window and at a distance, the dove was extremely wary of my presence

As I have seen other doves do, the male tambourine dove collects the nesting material which he gives to the female although they build the nest together. Roberts reports on a pair that took 7 days to build a nest, with both birds working until 11 a.m. and again in the late afternoon. The nest is a frail saucer of twigs, leaf stalks and roots, lined with finer rootlets, placed above the ground among tangled branches such as of a creeper.

Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna collaris)

The tiny collared sunbird feeds on nectar from flowers, but also feeds on insects perhaps more so than other sunbirds (Roberts). It is another species associated with woodlands and forests, and it favours forest edges and clearings, and can also be found in gardens adjacent to forests.

A female collared sunbird with entirely yellow underparts. Only the male sports a collar

The female collared sunbird builds the nest on her own. The nest building commences with constructing a ring of grass which will become the side entrance. The oval outer shell is made of mainly dried grass, twigs, tendrils, rootlets and leaves woven around the ring. The flimsy, untidy and loosely knit nest is bound together with spider web. The nest is lined with wiry plant fibres, horse hair, rootlets and some feathers. The male may assist with lining the nest. While the nest is in the process of being lined a porch of grass or grass seed-heads is added. The nest is suspended from a sapling, shrub or creeper and often faces east towards the morning sun and is sometimes built close to a wasps’ nest (Roberts).

A fallen nest that I found, most likely a nest from a species of sunbird, which I propped up on a fence to photograph

The oval nest that I found was loosely woven with grass stems and fine twigs and decorated with fluffy seeds and bits of lichen. It had obviously been suspended from the top so as to hang down pendulum style. The inside of the nest was thickly lined with a fine fibre. I was not sure if the lining included downy material from a plant, fine and short hairs from an animal or even from something manufactured such as a blanket or mat, which the bird had found.

White-starred Robin (Pogonocichla stellate)

I have featured the lovely and shy white-starred robin in a previous post. According to Roberts, breeding populations are restricted to Afromontane evergreen forest. These robins avoid forests without tangles of undergrowth. Some white-starred robins are altitudinal migrants, moving from higher altitudes in autumn to spend the winter in warmer low-altitude regions.

One of my very few sightings of a white-starred robin in the garden. I photographed it sneakily from a distance in low light while it took a bath in the garden pond

The domed nest with a roof or porch is built of dead leaves, rootlets, tendrils and moss. Living stems of ferns or wild asparagus are frequently incorporated into the structure of the nest. The lining comprises large, soft skeletonised leaves and fine flower material. Animal hair, including from horses or bushbucks may also be incorporated into the lining. The female selects the site, gathers the material and builds the nest. Most nests are on the ground on slopes or at the base of a moss-covered rock or tree trunk, hidden in dense ground cover. Others may be built against banks or on top of boulders or fallen tree trunks, concealed among moss or ferns.

Only the female incubates the eggs and broods the young, but both parents raise and feed the young even after they have left the nest.

Late one afternoon I was down in the garden sitting on the ground watching a dusky flycatcher when I noticed a small bird low down in the vegetation on the edge of our mini-woodland. I could see it was robin-like but I had not seen one like it before. Although it was in the shade in the dimming late afternoon light I was able to take some photographs and I hoped to be able to identify it. It turned out to be a juvenile white-starred robin.

A juvenile white-starred robin photographed in understory vegetation in the part of the garden that adjoins the well-vegetated and treed area on the margins of the plantation

I was hugely excited to discover that the white-starred robins are breeding in our neighbourhood. These quiet little birds are easy to overlook, and I have only glimpsed one once since that sighting.

Another photo of the same juvenile white-starred robin

And another showing the back of the juvenile white-starred robin

One of the reasons why I have described the complex nests and variable nesting materials used by some of these forest/woodland species of birds is to show that bird feeders are limited in what they provide. Planting indigenous plants and creating bird-friendly habitats in at least a corner of the garden provides not only food but also cover, and not only potential nesting sites for birds but material for the nests too, as well as habitat for the insects and other creatures that the birds feed on. In a previous post, The understorey: The tale of the white starred robin, I learn from the robin how a secret part of a garden can provide special sanctuary even in suburban spaces.

And to end, here are some photos of some other avian visitors whose habitats are woodlands, forests or forest edges – and sometimes also nearby gardens.

The tiny African Dusky Flycatcher (Muscicapa adusta). This is the bird I was watching when I noticed the juvenile white-starred robin

A swee waxbill (Estrilda melanotis), another species that favours forest edges

A terrestrial brownbul (Phyllastrephus terrestris) visiting one of the birdbaths. As the name implies, they hang out low down in the dense understorey of woodlands, forests and thickets

The elusive, at least in our garden, Southern Black Tit (Parus niger), photographed through a window. It spends most of its time foraging in the tree canopies of woodland habitats

Another predominantly forest and woodland species, is the Chorister Robin-Chat (Cossypha dichroa). See also the post on nesting chorister robins here

Other posts featuring woodland birds that visit our garden include the lemon dove, the forest canary, the bush blackcap, and raptors including the crowned eagle, the wood owl and the African black sparrowhawk.

Source: Roberts VII Multimedia PC Edition.  1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/portal.html

Posted by Carol