On mini walking safaris around our suburban garden here in KwaZulu-Natal I often take my camera with me as invariably I find something worth a second look. Here are some pics of a few of our visitors taken during the months of autumn into winter

Although I seem to be seeing fewer and a smaller variety of insects in the garden over the last few years we are still blessed with interesting insect visitors. They all have their place in the local ecology; for instance, many are pollinators, the larvae of some insect species parasitize other species of insects, and many insects are themselves food for birds and other animals.

This visiting bee-fly I found fascinating. It was tiny and wary so I had to push my camera to get this photo from a distance of the fly perching on a flower of a perennial basil plant. A bee-fly is able to hover while it accurately inserts its long proboscis into a flower while feeding. Bee-flies are important pollinators and their larvae parasitize a variety of other insect species. Amazingly, there are about 940 species of bee-flies (in the Bombyliidae family) in southern Africa.

I was charmed to see this cloudy forester butterfly (Tagiades flesus) nectaring from purple broom (Polygala virgata) flowers. The white underside of the butterfly is rather surprising.

Above is a handsome paper wasp that I saw warming up in morning sunshine on the leaf of an aloe plant. At one point it seemed to be licking moisture off the leaf and then it stopped to preen its antennae before flying off. Paper wasps are classed in the subfamily Polistinae. Being nectar feeders the adults play a role as pollinators. They feed their young on chewed-up caterpillars and so they also play a role in controlling caterpillar populations. When unmolested, including around their nests, we have not found these wasps to be aggressive, and their accomplishments as pollinators and pest-control agents are to be valued.

During early autumn, when taking our dogs for their customary late afternoon wander around the garden, for a few weeks almost every day we saw this juvenile ashy flycatcher (Muscicapa caerulescens) perching most confidingly in the branches of a dead tree. Sometimes, rather inexplicably it appeared to approach us as if expecting us to feed it.

Happily though, the parents were on hand to feed the youngster, and for several weeks at least one of them was around to watch us take our walk every evening. The adults too became very tame. Unfortunately though, the late afternoon/early evening autumnal light was so dim that it made photography a bit tricky.

By contrast, the black-backed puffbacks (Dryoscopus cubla) prefer to stay mostly up in the tree canopy and so are much harder to see. However, the other day I spotted this male black-backed puffback scratching around on the bark of a tree, removing bits of bark as presumably he was finding insects or spiders concealed underneath.  The name puffback comes from the territorial display during the breeding season of male black-backed puffbacks who puff up their back and rump feathers into a conspicuous white puffy ball.

Along with birds such as the puffbacks, in the margins of our mini-woodland I quite often see leopard butterflies. The one in the photo above is quite tatty with a piece missing from the left hindwing and the edges being a bit frayed. I think that this is an African leopard (Phalanta phalantha aethiopica), but it might also be the similar forest leopard (Phalanta eurytis).

Near our small garden pond I photographed this damselfly. In the bright sunlight the pale blue colouration appears bleached. I spent some time with my insect guidebook trying to ID the damselfly but I think discretion is wisest here rather than hazarding a guess. 

At our garden pond I spotted this honey bee seeking pollen from a flowering Nymphoides thunbergiana. This plant is known as floating hearts, referring to the shape of the leaves, and also as the fairy water lily, although strictly speaking it is not a water lily at all.

Also attracted to the pond was this dead-leaf (eared) commodore butterfly (Precis tugela tugela). I managed to sneak up on it as it perched on some water plants from where it took a drink of water.

Much of this autumn/winter activity – be it pollinating insects going about their business or birds visiting the birdbaths – takes place once the temperature has warmed up and the sun is relatively high, so there is little chance of golden-hour photography to capture these visitors or behaviours.

Another case in point is this dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) that visited the birdbath at midday when there was strong contrast between bright sunlight and shade. These weavers, formerly known as forest weavers, bathe with great energy submersing almost entirely while shaking their bodies and wings splashily.

The dark-backed weaver was most annoyed to have its bathing interrupted by the arrival of an unwitting thick-billed weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons ) who in the end decided not to hold its ground and so left the dark-backed weaver to carry on with its bath. Unfortunately the bright sunshine whited-outs parts of the photo, but I thought the encounter interesting enough to include this pic anyway.

Early in June I was delighted to discover that a black-legged golden orb spider (Nephila finestra) had spun her web between two shrubs near our house. It is a long-time since I have seen one of the larger golden orb spiders in our neighbourhood. When I was a child they were quite common.  The name golden orb refers to the golden colour and orb shape of the web. I went to admire the spider and her web every morning, but after her being around for only about a week one morning I was disappointed to find her gone with a large gaping hole in the centre of the web. I assume she had been caught by a bird or perhaps even by a bat.

Early winter this year has been unusually cold by our standards, with night-time temperatures dropping to 3 or 4 °C (5 to 7 °F) in recent weeks and with snow on the Drakensberg Mountains. As a result the leaves of the deciduous white stinkwood (Celtis africana) trees started turning in colour and dropping their leaves early in the winter. Usually in our relatively mild winters they drop their leaves later in the season as they are only briefly leafless before the early spring. The photo above was taken in late April.

Even when the nights are relatively cold, some of the days have been warm with temperatures in the low to mid-twenties Celsius (around 40° Fahrenheit). One afternoon I was walking past a flowerbed and happened to notice this eastern green snake (Philothamnus natalensis) suspended in a shrub absorbing the heat of the sun. I went and got my camera and when I got back it was a bit unsettled at having been spotted and so it slowly moved off. I was sorry to have disturbed it.

Another reptile in our garden – much tamer than the snake – is the eastern striped skink (Trachylepis striata). Like all reptiles the skinks need to warm up in the sunshine when possible and they spend a lot of time in winter sun-basking. Do you see the two baby skinks left and right at the top of the photo above the comparatively large adult? Eastern striped skinks give birth to live young, although some skinks lay eggs.

Also enjoying the sunshine was this hadeda ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) that I photographed while it was preening on the roof of the house. The sunshine shows up the lovely iridescence of the feathers.

Around the months of April and May the pigeon wood trees (Trema orientalis) are fruiting. Vervet monkeys and many birds are attracted by the berries, including this Cape white-eye (Zosterops capensis) that was flitting about in the tree pausing to reach up to pluck off berries.

Often seen in our garden are Cape robin chats (Cossypha caffra). Usually we see them on their own but sometimes in pairs and occasionally we see a parent feeding a juvenile. They are very active birds and often seen foraging for prey on the ground, sometimes stopping to flick the tail up to a jaunty angle as seen in the photo above.

Another regular presence in the garden is that of the common bush brown butterflies (Bicyclus safitza safitza). They are easier to photograph than most butterflies as they are more tolerant of being approached when they are settled in a sunny spot.

Another sighting in bright sunlight was of a small skipper-type butterfly that I think is in fact a dart butterly – likely a male Mackin’s dart butterfly (Acleros mackenii). It is warming itself up while perching on a flower of a giant salvia (Brilliantaisia subulugurica), a plant that occurs naturally further north in Zimbabwe and tropical Africa.

This unusually vivid sunrise, photographed in mid-June from our bedroom window, is a bit of a random feature in this collection but pleasing enough to be included anyway. Some aloe flowers can be seen in silhouette against the sky.

And back to butterflies – one of the small zebra blue butterflies decided to pause from flitting from plant to plant and flower to flower to sunbathe briefly, allowing me to appreciate the lovely blue sheen on the upper wings.

And here it is again with wings partially closed showing the intricate patterning of the underwings. I guess this is likely to be a common zebra blue (Leptotes pirithous). These butterflies lay their eggs on Plumbago or Fabaceae, the latter being the pea, bean and legume family of plants.

Meanwhile back at the birdbath a terrestrial brownbul (Phyllastrephus terrestris ) took a drink before indulging in its characteristic plunge style of bathing. These birds are more usually heard than seen as they rustle through fallen leaves in the understorey of woodlands often uttering repetitive chattering contact calls as they forage together in small groups.

Even more gregarious are the bronze mannikins (Lonchura cucullata) seen here bathing together on another sunny morning. What better way for us humans to enjoy a morning coffee than soaking up some sunshine while watching all the action at one of the birdbaths?

A shadow play of white stinkwood (Celtis africana) leaves on the fence between us and our neighbours.

In the midst of all that is going in this world of ours, I hope you too find the time and opportunity to observe the signs of life in your neighbourhood whatever they may be. I recall when I lived in a high-rise apartment area of Johannesburg many years ago, I had to find solace in feral pigeons and house sparrows that visited the street trees below my balcony, in the orange sunsets in polluted skies, and in the few pot plants that managed to survive in my flat that got very little direct sunlight.  

Posted by Carol