A bird by any name

Barn Swal­lows are busy eat­ing as much as they can for the long trip

Weekend Witness - - Arts - Birds JOHN­SON

SALLY I PROMISED in my last ar­ti­cle that I would note the last day I saw a Yel­low­billed Kite.

Well, that was March 15, and nary a one since then. These birds must have a re­ally good com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem. It is amaz­ing that a group of birds so widely spread over our prov­ince (and else­where too) can agree on a date to go north to­wards the equa­tor and their win­ter hol­i­day grounds. Some­how they achieve this and we wish them a happy time up there with no parental cares, no ter­ri­to­rial prob­lems — just time to re­lax and moult, and beef up for the next breed­ing sea­son.

The Barn Swal­lows are still here as I write, but they too will be think­ing of the long jour­ney ahead and eat­ing as much as they can to put on that lit­tle bit of ex­tra weight so nec­es­sary for a suc­cess­ful mi­gra­tion. Birds can­not put on a lot of ex­tra weight, for then they would not be able to fly, but a cou­ple of grams can make all the dif­fer­ence to sur­viv­ing a long trip. The change of so many com­mon names of birds is still a prob­lem for me and I have only just be­come used to call­ing the Euro­pean Swal­low a Barn Swal­low. We have just had keen Bri­tish bird­ers vis­it­ing, and they in­formed us that the name used in Eng­land on many of the com­puter­gen­ er­ated lists is now back to Euro­pean Swal­low.

Oh, when will “they” just make a de­ci­sion and stick to it? I am to­tally con­fused now.

Ju­ve­nile birds can be so con­fus­ing, as we found out on a re­cent visit to Cum­ber­land Na­ture Re­serve. There was this bright yel­low bird with black on the wings and no fa­cial mark­ings, busily fossicking around as an in­sec­ti­vore would in an Aca­cia siebe­ri­ana. Was the eye dark or pale, was the beak dark or pink­ish, what colour were the legs, how big was the bird — big­ger than a weaver, weaver size, as big as an ori­ole, how many cen­time­tres head to tail?

This was the busiest bird you have ever seen, never still for a mo­ment, usu­ally half hid­den be­hind the feath­ery fo­liage. Eight pairs of binoc­u­lars and eight dif­fer­ent opin­ions. We stood there un­til the bird fi­nally tired of be­ing gazed at and stiff necks drove us back to our pic­nic site.

Any de­ci­sion on what we had been look­ing at?

Not re­ally, prob­a­bly a ju­ve­nile Spec­ta­cled Weaver said some, oth­ers just mum­bled “don’t know” — and I was one of those. It would have been nice to turn it into a nice rar­ity like an African Golden Ori­ole, but it was prob­a­bly too small; and now we will never know. Oh, the many joys of bird watch­ing.

The hail­storm that dev­as­tated our gar­den last Mon­day must have also dam­aged large ar­eas of nat­u­ral seed­ing grasses as the que­leas are back en­joy­ing my daily food of­fer­ing. There’s a pos­i­tive to ev­ery neg­a­tive if you just look for it.


Barn Swal­low.


Me­gan Bon­netard’s ‘Tran­sience’ (de­tail) 2014, from her ex­hi­bi­tion, Traces.


In­grid Adams’s ‘23 Wave’, which forms part of her ex­hi­bi­tion SUMI­E.

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