Lipstick or Blush?

Common Waxbills (Estrilda astrild), Nelspruit, South Africa © Duncan Butchart, 2013.

It’s about 07h30 and Josie the Labrador is walking ahead of me on the narrow path. On both sides we are crowded in by tall grasses heavy with seed and sparkling with dew. A sprinkling of frost has settled in the shadows on this brilliant winter morning. Josie’s sharp nose picks up a scent, so she freezes and breathes in the crisp morning air. Small clouds of smokey breath escape her nostrils and mouth. I stand motionless. Then, the faint snapping of small twigs beneath a Paperbark Thorn tree some way off followed by a soft snort and a hurried scrabble of trotters. Bushpig!

A Yellow-throated Longclaw calls from the top the same Paperbark then parachutes out – above our heads – to perform its aerial display over the grass. Rather odd for mid-winter, I thought.

We carry on our way and soon encounter a bustling flock of finches in the seeding grasses. The majority are Red-collared Widowbirds in their drab, sparrowesque non-breeding plumage and they fly as one – as if coordinated by some hidden choreographer – banking to the left, then swishing past our right to settle in some low scrub about 20 metres away. Left behind are a gathering of smaller birds. Perhaps 50 or so Common Waxbills and maybe half that number of Bronze Mannikins. These tiny seed-eaters cling to the grassheads, snipping off seeds from the Hyparrhenia while keeping an eye on us. The mannikins soon depart and we are left to watch and study the busy little waxbills – such delicate, feathered fairies.

Not for the first time, I wonder how these lovely little birds ended up with such an uninspiring epithet to their family name. “Common”! Well, yes, they are in fact usually quite common where they occur, but why not something more imaginative to celebrate their fragile pink beauty? Rosy Waxbill? Lipstick Waxbill? or Blushing Waxbill? At least the family name is appropriate – the bills of these birds really do look like they are made out of sealing wax!

Captivated, I get a little too close and they peel off singly or in small groups to join up again with the widowbirds and mannikins. Josie and I turn around at this point and head back to the car.

Boschrand Farm (adjacent to Penryn College), Nelspruit, South Africa, June 2013 

Yellow-throated Longclaw display

0 Responses

  1. Duncan

    Your drawings are great, but your text captures the magic of an early morning spring walk, and makes me want to join you on one of these early morning adventures.


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