17 October 2013

Ornithological Notes

After the drama of last week’s Twitch, the news of arrests in the murder of Daan Wybenga is good indeed and reminds us that criminals in our society are not fireproof, even if the courts have a habit of letting them walk all too soon.  So, we can turn our attention to matters ornithological again.

First, the matter of the Piet-my-Vrou: Yes, he is back – well a few of them actually, signalling in a plaintive way that summer is really here.  A member of the Cuculidae family, this entertaining little fellow is actually more formally known as the Red Chested Cuckoo.  His common (Afrikaans) name stems from his song, which will be familiar to everyone in the village, unless you don’t have a tree in your little corner of God’s green acre.  Usually solitary, the Piet-my-Vrou is highly vocal and lives in forests and plantations, eating insects to pass the time between romantic encounters.  As a model for Clarens residents this bird does not necessarily score big on propriety, as it is voraciously bigamous and uses the nests of other birds to lay its eggs.  Just a thought.

Hopefully this begins the restoral of my credentials as a dedicated ornithologist.  But wait, there’s more.

On a return journey from the micro-city of Bethlehem this week, I chanced to spot a Secretary Bird stalking through the veld!  This is a very large, mostly terrestrial bird of prey (like most secretaries, now I come to think of it) called Sagittarius serpentarius.  It is endemic to Africa, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, and is actually related to diurnal raptors such as Kites, Buzzards, Harriers and Vultures.  Ringing any bells yet?  Well, it should, as it appears on our National Coat of Arms, as well as those of Sudan (North, South, who knows anymore?).  That association should score you some points in the next pub quiz, should Clarens ever have one.   Of more quizzical interest, perhaps, is the alleged origin of its name: It is popularly thought to derive from the crest of long quill-like feathers on its head, lending the bird the appearance of a secretary with quill pens tucked behind his or her ear – as was once common practice before the invasion of the dreaded computer.

Somewhat bigger, in fact seriously big, is our old friend the Ostrich.  The Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the largest living bird in the world and can perambulate over the countryside at up to 70kms per hour, making its capture an unpredictable event.  Not surprisingly, it also lays the largest eggs of any living bird which brings me to the reason for this lesson: Ten such eggs have successfully hatched just the other side of the nek and the chicks are now obediently following their proud parents about on foraging expeditions.  Quite a sight for my tired old eyes but nice to know that these magnificent birds are not on the endangered list.

Finally, just when you thought it was safe to go roaming in the hills, there are rumours of very large footprints being found on the trails again.  Do not let it be said that I was in any way responsible for starting unsettling tales, but could it be that Kaal Voet has stirred from his long winter hibernation and is striding the valleys once more?  Watch this space.

The Twitcher