Monday, 8 August 2016

Spring is nigh - Help your garden birds in their nest-building efforts

Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) building his nest in my garden

Winter (and what a winter it has been! With snow, hail, floods and tornadoes, not our usual winter weather!) is slowly coming to an end here in South Africa and soon the birds in your garden will be thinking of nesting, and a top priority for them will be nesting materials. One of the best parts of providing habitat for birds in your yard is the possibility of your garden being chosen as a nesting site.

Upon searching "nesting materials for birds", I came upon a wonderful article on Habitat Network, which I'm placing here for ease of reference.

Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra) 
--> nest and babies in my garden
The initial excitement of discovering a new nest tucked away in a shrub you planted, or one perched up on a ledge, is rivalled only by the joy of finding that precious clutch of eggs gently nestled within. The fledglings’ eventual success or failure depends on several environmental factors, some of which you can influence, and some of which are in the hands of the parents and chance.

Birds use a variety of materials to build a strong nest and hold it in place. You can help by putting out supportive materials like:
  • Piles of rigid and flexible sticks of different sizes
  • Pieces of native grape vine or Virginia Creeper
  • A collection of coconut fibres or horse hair
  • Mud in a bowl or create a small puddle nearby

Insulation is another very important feature in a well built nest. Heat loss due to wind and wet conditions will cool eggs in a nest during incubation recesses and the parent has to regenerate that heat upon return. You can put out a wide range of insulating materials that birds like to use:

  • Wool from sheep, goat, or alpaca, cotton batting, and animal fur
  • Grass, hay or straw, and leaf mulch can also be easily offered
  • Non-dyed Crafting Feathers are excellent and can be a favourite among Tree Swallows

For hiding the nest, deterring predators and for decoration to help attract a mate, offer:
  • Pieces of lichen and moss
  • Snake skins and spider webs
  • Green Material such as pine needles or sprigs of herbs or shrubs
There are numerous ways to offer building materials. We do, however, encourage the use of natural materials to lessen the risk of entanglement in synthetic fibres like netting, twine, or fishing line. Avoid using animal fur that has been exposed to flea or tick treatments or dryer lint because it may contain harmful residues. Keeping all of this in mind when offering building materials will help the birds in your yard produce high-quality, safe, and secure nests.

And, finally, some birds nest in trees and shrubs and are called “open cup” nesters, while others require use of a “cavity” to nest. Historically, these cavities were in dead trees, called snags, but people also provide nest boxes that meet this need as well.

So give the birds in your garden a fighting chance this year by planting indigenous, providing food, water, cover and nesting materials and your joy will be unparalleled!


Thursday, 4 August 2016

What a winter!

Winter is winter, I know, and why anything surprises me is a good question! But this year the seasons have been extremely peculiar. Unlike South Africa's weather, sunny, warm, clear blue skies, even in winter. No. More like the rest of the world's weather!

25th July 2016

After the hectic heat waves we had this past summer, winter has brought in absolutely freezing temperatures and stuff like snow!, hail, floods and tornadoes! Tornadoes? In South Africa?! Well, there you have it. We actually had a few tornadoes.

As the hail started, I thought of running out and moving some of my succulents under cover, but it was already too fierce. 25th July 2016

And rain, In the middle of winter. Not Gauteng weather at all, we are a summer rainfall area. And hail, LOTS of hail, big hail! When it started, my mind was racing. What can I save? My plants are going to be annihilated! What about my garden birds?!

I watched helplessly as the storm got worse and worse, pounding the trees, the plants and wreaking havoc. Luckily my chooks were already in their coop as I had suspected some foul play earlier in the morning and had left them inside.

The hailstorm lasted for about 20 minutes, followed by heavy rain the rest of the day and night. And it took my gardener a full day to clear all the leaves, broken branches and rubble. Mr. Brown, a stray rooster, was in the aviary at the back of the pic, hiding in the shelter provided and the sound of the hail on the tin roof must have been deafening, it certainly was in my house, we couldn't even hear one another talking.

My experience is that, if we have late-winter rain, then probably we are in for a good rainfall season, so that's one positive to look forward to!


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Under the charm of Chameleons

I haven't seen a Chameleon in my garden for about 10 years now. In fact, I can't remember when last I even saw one in the wild.Two decades ago I used to encounter them on virtually a daily basis and I can still remember the thrill every time I watched them change colour or catch a fly. Progress, loss of habitat, veld fires and the illegal trade in Chameleons all play a big factor in their plummeting numbers. I don't even have any photographs of one, except a very old one from about 15 years ago, taken in my garden, as he was scuttling for cover. So I've resorted to sketching and painting them.

There are about 200 species of chameleon with 19 recognised species in South Africa. They are found all over Africa and Madagascar, with a very few occurring in Europe or the Arabian Peninsula. There are no true chameleons in America except, interestingly, a species of chameleon that was imported into Hawaii and has now established a flourishing population there.

Having chameleons in the garden is very beneficial. They eat all the goggas and pests that gardeners don’t like and not only that, they are wonderful little animals, perfectly adapted to their lifestyle of camouflage and ambush. And there are some things we can do to help preserve this species, like refusing to buy them from street hawkers and creating a chameleon-friendly garden. I came upon this interesting article by Kay Montgomery published on IOL Lifestyle in 2014, and thought I would publish some of it here to help spread the word and save these wonderful little creatures.

The most important fact about chameleons is they need a fairly large area in which to roam. In Johannesburg, gardeners are being encouraged to link up chameleon-friendly gardens in a single neighbourhood. It is hoped that these gardens will merge to create corridors of chameleon habitat which will make it possible for populations of chameleon to flourish.

Here are some tips for developing a chameleon-friendly garden:
  • Reduce your lawn. To a chameleon, a large lawn is a giant desert. It contains no food, has no perches and no protective cover.
  • Thin out your trees. A garden filled with trees with low-hanging branches is a nightmare for chameleons. The branches of trees (pines and oaks in particular) are too thick for the chameleons to move along. They attract little insect life and offer no nectar.
  • Plant large thin-stemmed shrubs. Heaven for chameleons is a garden filled with a dense under-storey of shrubs with a range of perch sizes for juveniles and adults.
  • Provide food. Chameleons eat small insects such as moths, butterflies, flies, fruit flies, aphids, woodlice, beetles, spiders and small grasshoppers. 
  • Develop a compost heap in a quiet corner of the garden with the precise purpose of breeding insects. Baby chameleons will relish the tiny flies, grubs, beetles and gnats that thrive around a compost heap.
  • Build an insect hotel. Very fashionable in Europe, insect hotels are artistic columns or cubes of plant material that are glued or wired together. The common theme is that each material must be considered a suitable home by respectable insects and spiders. A hotel could include a mishmash of pinecones, hollow bamboo stems, lotus pods or even old pieces of wood with holes of different sizes drilled into the stem.
  • Plant flowering shrubs. Chameleons thrive in a garden that has a complete ecosystem of small, medium and large flowering shrubs which are constantly attracting insect activity. Smaller flowering shrubs covered in flowers are particularly loved by insects and are regarded as food table bridges between large twiggy shrubs. Many of the honeybee-friendly plants, such as euryops daisies, ribbon bushes, sage, fireball lilies, gazania and vygies will attract a variety of insects.
  • Plant large shrub trees: Adult chameleons thrive in the higher perches found in large shrubs or small trees such as the dune crowberry, pompon trees, sweet thorn acacias and wild olive.
  • Remove predators: Cats are one of the biggest threats to chameleons, birds and microfauna in the garden.
  • Avoid using pesticides that kill flies, crickets, ants and micro-insect life that chameleons rely on for their food.
  • Avoid illegal traders. If you see indigenous chameleons for sale, they are not legal. You are urged not to buy them.
What to plant

A chameleon-friendly garden is as much about the structure of the vegetation as it is about the plants. This notwithstanding, here is a list of chameleon-friendly plants:
  • Low-growing groundcovers: Try the lilac carpet geranium (Geranium multisectum), gazanias, bulbine, dwarf agapanthus or kingfisher daisy.
  • Shade-loving shrubs under trees: Try the spurflower (Plectranthus spp.), asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus), ribbon bush, arum and fireball lily.
  • Low-growing shrubs with thin branches: Confetti bush, euryops daisy, tea bush or azaleas.
  • Larger shrubs with thin branches: sage bush (Buddleja salviifolia), hop bush, mahonia, lion’s ear, polygala or dune crowberry (Searsia crenata).
Chamaeleo dilepis (Flap-neck chameleon) - The Flap-neck is the most common chameleon found in Gauteng (South Africa). The colouring here indicates that it is not feeling threatened but the change of spots is getting ready, just in case!

 Image credit - Here it is quite clear that he is very upset and not impressed at all!

It is very difficult to tell the different species apart. At first glance, they all look quite the same - all small, greenish-brown, with rolling eyes. But on closer inspection, it appears that there is a large amount of colour and scale variation, even within the same species. Luckily, with the help of genetic tests, it is now possible to make a better distinction between species, because each one has its own specific DNA code.
This makes further work on the morphological differences between species possible.

Any animal that can change colours and look in two directions at once is worth learning more about. Armed with a tongue you have to see to believe, the chameleon may be one of the coolest reptiles on the planet. I can only pray that in generations to come, chameleons can still be found roaming the trees of South Africa freely.

Together we can make a difference.

(Source for most of the information from the internet.)

Friday, 8 July 2016

Winter - Fire and Ice

Mid-winter (July) in South Africa and the Aloes flower fiery-red against the white of frost. I've been dreading the frost, as some years it has killed all the flowers in the bud. I do have one aloe (the largest of the three, pictured below, which started flowering last) which doesn't seem to be doing so well, the flowers don't seem to have much colour, but hopefully the flowers will still reach maturity, as long as we don't have any more stints of heavy frost.

My chooks have left large, bare patches all over the garden, scrounging for any available greenery as the lawn is all but non-existent.

Lots of mist this morning, a sign that, albeit cold, the day is going to be bright and sunny!

Early morning caught all the birds patiently waiting in the bare peach tree for the first rays of the sun and the feeding tables to be filled, a daily winter’s morning occurrence. This morning there weren’t as many, some mornings I’ve counted up to 50 before losing track. They mostly consist of Weavers, Laughing Doves, Bishops and Sparrows with the odd Bulbul.

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~ One of Robert Frost’s most popular poems, published in December 1920 in Harper’s Magazine


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Winter, Bonsai and other ramblings

It took a while for summer to admit to defeat, pummelling us with heat wave after heat wave even well into autumn and autumn was decidedly short-lived, dumping us straight into icy weather with lots of snow all over the country, Here in Tarlton (Gauteng, South Africa), we suffered low temps of only 11C during the day, with the nights and early mornings well below freezing point. And to make matters worse, we even had some rain. Rain in winter is not in the scheme of things here in Gauteng, we're a summer rainfall area. I was worried about my succulents, but I needn't have been, they didn't seem to mind the rain, it's frost that's deadly to them. And luckily we've not seen much of that yet. We just have to get through July and then the worst is over. Even my Chooks aren't particularly impressed with the cold - Kiep comes in every day for a stint in from of my gas heater, laying down, spreading her legs and wings, soaking up the heat and looking a lot like road kill!

And much to Jacko's chagrin, she commandeered his blanket in front of the heater, spending most of the morning until it was time to go outside for a snack.

Don't get me wrong, I much prefer the cold to the heat-waves we've been having, and I am extremely grateful to have a warm roof over my head, something many people don't have. Situated barely 100 miles (160km) south of the Tropic of Capricorn, you might expect Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, to be bathed in tropical heat all the year round. But this city of 4m inhabitants lies 5,500 feet (1,700 metres) above sea level and it is now mid-winter. So although the middle of the day is generally warm, with clear blue skies and a sun too hot to sit out in comfortably, the nights can be bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping below freezing. But apart from the fancier hotels and some upmarket office blocks and homes, almost no one has central heating—or adequate heating of any form for that matter. South Africa’s several million strong homeless population was particularly hard hit as temperatures plunged to record lows in many parts of the country and in May 2007, at least 17 people died from exposure, highlighting the country’s chronic housing shortage.

But winter is also the time when all my Aloes start flowering and when nature provides extra sustenance to her wildlife through nectar in these beautiful flowers. Every winter my garden is flooded with Sunbirds and nectar-loving insects, bringing great joy to my heart. Winter is also when nature gets rid of the old and weak, preparing the landscape for new life in spring.

Last spring I did the unthinkable - I planted my 1983 Natal Fig bonsai in the garden. I got him as a 3-year old in 1982 and for 33 years I've been tending him, neglecting him, tending him again, pruning him wrong, taking him to an expert to be fixed, pruning him wrong again, putting him outside every spring and carrying him into the house every late-Autumn for the winter. A symptom of the neglect is that he got very big. He has been in the same pot for years without me taking him out and trimming his roots to maintain a reasonable size. Getting heavier and heavier, it became a major job for two men to move him inside every winter and spring. His trunk is beautiful, thick and gnarled, with aerial roots hanging down the one side, anchoring him more firmly to the ground.

But as time went by, he started showing real signs of neglect. When I looked at this photo of him (above) which I took last July 2015 (winter) inside my flower room, it was clear to me that he was at the end of his tether and beyond saving. My heart broke. But now I've got this short-coming that I can't kill anything, not even an un-saveable plant, so in September last year (Spring), I chose a protected spot in the garden and plonked him in a well-prepared hole and said to myself, "que se ra, se ra". Deep in my heart I'm suffering because I've got this suspicion that this winter might kill him, being an Eastern Coastal Belt Forest resident of South Africa.

After a month in the garden, there was already a vast improvement, as can be seen in the pic of him in the garden. Most of the branches had already filled up with new leaves and he was looking bright green and much healthier. In the meantime I've read up a bit more about about this tree and it turns out that the versatile Ficus natalensis (also known as "Mutuba" to locals) is wind and drought resistant and tolerates temperatures from -5C – 30+C. It occurs naturally in both moist woodland and dry open areas of the country and is evergreen, which did not seem evident when I had him in the pot, as he lost a lot of his leaves every winter. With a height of 5m-20m and a spread of 4m-8m, I might just have to change my garden when he gets bigger, if he survives our severe Tarlton frost.

My "gardening skills " ego has been dealt a great blow with the "loss" of my Bonsai, as Ficus natalensis is one of the most widely used species by Bonsai enthusiasts. The fat stem and intricately gnarled roots are perfect for achieving a variety of popular Bonsai styles. This species grows ’banyan’ roots naturally which can be showcased as dramatic air-root or root over rock styles. The Natal Fig grows fast and is quite forgiving if incorrect watering methods are applied, making this the ideal choice for the novice enthusiast. So how "novice" am I ........? 


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