BirdPixing blues: look up and see birds

It’s clear that the world on the far side of the lockdown is going to be different. It also seems that birding will change. Birders will look up more! And see the blue sky birds.

It is striking how many of the recent submissions to BirdPix are variations of this theme:

Kelp Gull
Kelp Gull over Rondebosch on the 7th of Lockdown, otherwise known as 2 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Itxaso Quintana (BirdPix 108342)

This is the bluest photo in the whole of BirdPix. And there have been dozens more blue sky birds since the start of the lockdown in South Africa on Friday 27 March. The theme of this blog is something like “the birds and the blues”.

When you run out of garden birds, or if you don’t have a garden, lockdown birding needs a new strategy. And judging by the photos submitted in the past two weeks, BirdPixers are looking up more and more.

Salome Willemse, based at Botuin Olives in Vanrhynsdorp, has submitted about half a dozen blue sky birds to BirdPix. She says: “I have realised that we have far more birds if you pay attention to the sky as well. I have recorded 64 species from my garden. Maybe 20 or so flew over.” This is the first African Black Swift she has seen in her pentad, which she atlases regularly.

African Black Swift. Blue sky bird
African Black Swift over Botuin Olives on the outskirts of Vanryhnsdorp, Western Cape. 11 Lockdown = 6 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Salome Willemse (BirdPix 108575)

This is also the first BirdPix record of African Black Swift in quarter degree grid cell 3118DB and becomes its 132nd species. It’s not surprising that it took 336 BirdPix records for the grid cell to record this species, because the normal range of African Black Swift fades out at about the Olifants River, about 50 km to the south.

African Sacred Ibis in moult. Blue sky bird
African Sacred Ibis over Botuin Olives on the outskirts of Vanryhnsdorp, Western Cape. 11 Lockdown = 6 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Salome Willemse (BirdPix 108576)

Another of Salome’s blue sky birds is this African Sacred Ibis. Besides being a beautiful photo showing the translucence of the wings, what is fascinating about this photo is that the ibis is doing primary moult. The five outermost primaries look a bit duller than the inner ones, and the sixth one from the outside is not quite fully grown. The black tip of the feather is the first to be produced, and finally ends up in position on the trailing edge of the wing. Rather little is known about the moult of the African Sacred Ibis. So this record makes a contribution to ornithology.

Mark Stanton, in Randberg, says: “The garden certainly has its limits! …” So he looked up and found …

African Palm Swift. Blue sky bird
African Palm-Swift over Randburg, Gauteng. 12 Lockdown = 7 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Mark Stanton (BirdPix 108653)

… African Palm-Swift. “This was a lifer for me in my garden! I just never bothered to try and get images of them before, I always assumed they were White-rumped Swifts which are common around here. This was in among the 100 images I took.” This is the second record of African Palm-Swift in grid cell 2627BB; the previous record was made in April 2017, so it was overdue for “refreshment“. This grid cell has 1,874 BirdPix records for 166 species.

Great White Pelicans. Blue sky bird
Great White Pelicans over Riebeek Kasteel, Western Cape. 13 Lockdown = 8 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Fiona Hellmann (BirdPix 108783)

One of Fiona Hellmann’s blue sky birds submitted to BirdPix was these two Great White Pelicans flying over her home in Riebeek Kasteel. Most pelicans in the Western Cape are based on Dassen Island. Every day the birds radiate out from the island and many feed at the farm dams in the Swartland, so they are fairly common in the area. Even so, this is the first BirdPix record for this grid cell (3318BD). Fiona says: “I’m not spending more time looking at the sky – just more time sitting on the stoep and watching everything fly past.
My strategy is to listen out for the Pied Crows and White-necked Ravens. Most often when I hear them they are mobbing or harassing a bird of prey.” Her stoep view is below.

Riebeek mountains
The view from Fiona Hellmann’s stoep over the Riebeek Mountains, Western Cape

But if you live in the suburbs, the view of the blue is interrupted by street furniture. Aesthetically, this might be a negative, but it provides a practical positive. Perches.

House Crow and street furniture. Blue sky bird
House Crow in Rondebosch East, Western Cape. 8 Lockdown = 3 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Fanie Rautenbach (BirdPix 108510)

So you thought the House Crows had been eliminated from the Western Cape? They are still around. This blue sky bird was recorded by Fanie Rautenbach. Fanie plays a pivotal role in LepiMAP, and most of the records he submits to the Virtual Museum are butterflies, and he has also made some impressive contributions to other sections of the Virtual Museum. He does the identifications of almost all the butterflies, and does them amazingly fast. We owe him a special vote of thanks. He says: “At the moment, I have no other choice but to look skywards. Not much going on here in terms of butterflies here in my non-existent garden. Sometimes the House Crows wake me up with their persistent caws.”

Red-eyed Dove on electricity line. Blue sky bird
Red-eyed Dove in Plumstead, Western Cape. 8 Lockdown = 3 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Rene Navarro (BirdPix 108391)

Even Rene Navarro, the information systems specialist responsible for the original design of the Virtual Museum, for its development and for keeping it running, is staring up into the sky from time to time in his garden in Plumstead , camera at the ready. The scalloped edges of the breast feathers of this Red-eyed Dove indicate that it is a juvenile. The complex texture of the electricity cables is as interesting as the bird!

Jackal Buzzard in flight. Blue sky bird
Jackal Buzzard in St Francis Bay, Eastern Cape. 8 Lockdown = 3 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Desire and Gregg Darling (BirdPix 108552)

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, a fair proportion of the blue sky birds are of raptors. Desire and Gregg Darling submitted this awesome Jackal Buzzard from St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape. This is the 19th record of Jackal Buzzard from grid cell 3424BB; the previous record was in July 2019, so it was due for “refreshment“. Other blue sky raptors are Verreaux’s Eagle from the northern Cederberg, African Harrier-Hawk from Randburg and African Fish-Eagle from Riebeek Kasteel.

The most frequently recorded blue sky bird was the ubiquitous Pied Crow. If you ignore the crows, the fascinating thing about this collage is the variety of shades of blue sky.

Swift Tern with fish. Blue sky bird
Swift Tern over Rondebosch, Western Cape. 9 Lockdown = 4 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Karis Daniel
(BirdPix 108475)

Karis Daniel photographed this Swift Tern flying north over suburban Rondebosch. It was one of many carrying a fish. The tide goes out a long way from Rondebosch! What’s going on? Currently Swift Terns are breeding on Robben Island. So the ultimate destination of each fish is a chick on the island. The terns must be catching the fish in False Bay, and taking the short cut across the peninsula between False Bay and Table Bay. The distance between the breeding colony and False Bay is about 45 km. So these birds are flying 90 km to fetch one fish for their chick.

Swift Tern colony on Robben Island
This is a small part of the Swift Tern breeding colony on Robben Island on 8 March 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Les Underhill (BirdPix 106285)

By good luck, BirdPix has a record of the 2020 Swift Tern breeding colony on Robben Island. The photo was taken on 8 March. At that stage, the terns were tightly on their nests, incubating eggs. On 4 April, when Karis took the photo with the fish, the eggs would have hatched, and parents would have to cope with hungry chicks. The nearest suitable fish must have been in False Bay. At least the birds didn’t take the long sea-route around Cape Point to get there.

Subantarctic Skua off Stilbaai. Blue sky bird
Subantarctic Skua, offshore of Stilbaai, Western Cape. 7 Lockdown = 2 April 2020. Submitted to BirdPix by Menno and Krysia Stenvert (BirdPix 108631)

The blue is not only sky, it can also be sea. Of the 16 records of Subantarctic Skua in the BirdPix database, this is probably the only one taken from land. The remainder are at sea, often 20 or more kilometres from the shore. Menno Stenvert estimates that this Subantarctic Skua was about 1.5 km offshore of his home at Stilbaai.

What a lot of blue photographs. I hope you will go outside with your camera and patiently search the sky for birds. Please upload them to the Virtual Museum. The method for doing the submissions is described here.

Les Underhill
Les Underhill
Prof Les Underhill has been Director of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town since it started in 1991. Although citizen science in biology is Les’s passion, his academic background is in mathematical statistics. He was awarded his PhD in abstract multivariate analyses in 1973 at UCT and what he likes to say about his PhD is that he solved a problem that no one has ever had. He soon grasped that this was not the field to which he wanted to devote his life, so he retrained himself as an applied statistician, solving real-world problems.


  1. We miss a lot if we do not look up. It is a different kind of blue which reveals sudden surprises. It is not the Monday blues. It is the heavenly blue. Black Sprrowhawks whip over our houses with such suddenness causing all birds in ones garden to exit in a second and then there is silence. But they come back.

  2. What a fascinating and most interesting article!
    Covid-19 came ‘out of the blue’, taking us by surprise (nasty shock, actually!), but has forced us to stand in our own back/front yards and look up into the blue sky! This is something good and positive!

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