Marievale’s herons

Marievale bird sanctuary is located outside the town of Nigel about 65 kilometres south of Johannesburg in South Africa. This is my “go to” bird photography practice ground. It is mid-spring in this part of the world, and the first migrants have just started to arrive. The European Bee-eaters have just arrived with that familiar liquid  “prreee or prruup” call as they hunt insects in the early evening, flying about 30 metres above the ground. We have not yet heard a cuckoo calling and neither have we seen the Amur falcons on the overhead power lines.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”

–Charlotte Brontë

The weather is warm and the avian residents were out in force. We are still waiting for our first good rains of the season but there was water in the Marievale wetland. It was not too deep so we found avocets and many of the waders were in their element. Also enjoying the shallow water were a variety of herons. Last Sunday at Marievale, we had some good sightings of several of our local heron species.

It is always special to see a Black-crowned night heron. This is a nocturnal hunter so I was surprised to see it out hunting in the bright sunlight at around 7h00.

A yellow-billed egret in breeding colours. The breeding colours become apparent at this time of the year. The top of the legs turn a yellowish colour and at times the skin around the eye turns a green colour.  In the breeding season many of the egrets develop plumes on their necks and backs. The Yellow-billed egret is distinguished from its larger great White egret cousin as its gape finishes below its eye and not behind it as with the Great White egret and it is smaller.

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.” ~John James Audubon

We found many Squacco herons, all hunting individually. They are beautifully adorned with buff and cream coloured feathers. The wings are white and their legs and beak are yellow.

Squaccos have an ability to elongate their necks when perch hunting above the water. They are also capable gymnasts, precariously hanging on to reeds to give them a superior hunting position. They are also capable of hunting from branches over the water.

Squacco herons are crepuscular hunters normally feeding in the twilight times, generally in the shallow water among the vegetation at the edge of a pond or river.

Squaccos are versatile feeders eating anything from flies to snails and when the opportunity presents itself a small fish, and there is no sharing.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children”.~ John James Audubon

We have two types of night heron in south Africa, the Black-crowned and the White-backed. Both are nocturnal hunters so are not regularly seen. Usually we see them at last light.

These Night herons have a distinctive black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. They have pale grey wings and white under parts. They have two or three long white plumes which extend from the back of the head, and which stand out during greeting and courtship displays. As with many herons, the male is larger.

This Black-crowned night heron happened to get too close to a Red-knobbed coot. During breeding season these coots are territorial and aggressive, chasing away birds ranging from ducks to herons.

“As long as I live, I hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.”~ John Muir

A heron which we normally see hunting in the grass along the road through the wetland is the Black-headed heron but for some reason, perhaps it was too dry, we did not see one. We did see many Grey herons.

They have a white head and neck with a broad black stripe that extends from the eye to the black crest. Its body and wings are grey. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are black. These herons can stand motionless for longer than you can sit and wait for them to strike.

Heron have a varied  diet and will eating anything from fish to insects and even small birds. This particular Grey heron caught a large Catfish which it was determined to swallow. We never saw the end result as it flew into the reeds to eat in peace.

“The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.”~Marlee Matlin

This was the first time I have seen a Goliath heron at Marievale. This is a large heron standing up to 1. 5 metres tall. Its distinguishing features are firstly its size and secondly its colour. From far, you might mistake it for a Purple heron, but as soon as you get closer you see its size and its striking and unique colouring.

The Goliath heron’s head and its bushy crest, face, back and sides of the neck are chestnut. This character had especially dark colouring. The back and upper wings are slate-grey, with a chestnut shoulder patch at the bend of the wings. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are grey.

The Goliath heron has a distinct deep “kowoork” sounding bark which can be heard from far off. This species of heron sticks to the watery environment. It also hunts alone and is aggressively territorial. Goliath herons often have to cope with Fish eagles trying to steal their catch. Although there is a pair of Fish eagles at Marievale, this character got to hunt in peace.  

We did not see the Black-headed heron or the Green-backed heron but it was a fruitful photographic morning.

“Get up before sunrise and get out to a river or lake. You will see nature’s bounty. You will be greeted by the cool freshness of the air, birds singing, and soft colours and long shadows. The morn sheds its cloak of darkness and heralds a new day full of hope and charm.”~ Mike Haworth

There are 64 species of heron around the world. They are carnivorous feeders and have managed to thrive and are not considered threatened or endangered – a celebration of life for sure. Herons, by evolutionary adaptation, have long beaks.  Although herons resemble  storks and cranes, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched for longitudinal balance. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down. Herons wade and stork usually do not.

“Exploration is curiosity put into action.” ~Don Walsh

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Black Eagles and sandstone cliffs along the upper Olifants

The Olifant’s river water catchment area is divided into three sections, the upper, middle and lower reaches. The Olifant’s River has its origin between Breyten and Bethal, in the Mpumalanga Province. This river flows past the Eagle Rock estate between the Witbank and Loskop dams. The Wilge river joins the Olifants just before the Loskop dam in the middle section. Beyond that the Olifants is joined by the Elands river near Marble Hall and flows down to the lower section where the Steelpoort river joins it and further downstream the Blyde river joins and further still in the Klaserie area the Ga-Selati river joins the flow. The Olifants flows through Kruger Park and is joined by the Shingwedzi river. The combined flow joins the Limpopo river in Mozambique on its way to the sea.

“Always remember to fall asleep with a dream and wake up with a purpose.”~ Unknown

This was the second morning while staying with friends Bill and Judy at their lodge in Eagle Rock estate.  As a photographer, it is obligatory to get up before sunrise, otherwise you will miss the start of the day when the light is soft and the morn offers a warm palette of colours. At that time it was cool and the breeze was light. The birds were singing and there was a real sense of a new beginning. This image was taken at sunrise as I was walking along a sandstone ridge to the Black eagles nest viewpoint.

“Purpose fuels passion.”

There was no one around and it was peaceful despite all the wildlife stirrings. Just above the rock in the foreground on the left third of the image on a ledge in the cliff was the black eagle’s nest.

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~ Neil Armstrong
Viewing the nest was best in the morning because of the direction of the light. By late morning and afternoon the nest was in deep shadow. Photographing from this sandstone rock shelf was not without its risks. Two steps to the right was a straight three hundred metre fall. This is one little fact worth keeping in mind when the photography gets exciting.

The black eagle chick was alone and looked to be around six weeks old. Possibly within a month or so it would be fledged.

Like most eagles, two eggs are laid during a three day interval. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 45 days. The hatching usually takes place two to three days apart. Sometimes one egg is infertile but Black eagles are “obligate cainists”, meaning the older sibling usually kills the younger one by either starvation or direct attacks. Fledging happens between 90 to 99 days after hatching. The speckled pigeons have little to fear from the black eagles but the resident Lanner falcons are a different matter.

The parent black eagles never visited the nest in the two days that I was watching. The closest the adults got to the nest was to land on a sandstone outcrop about four hundred metres away for about 15 minutes.

“Collect moments not things!!

The male, the smaller of the two, landed first and was followed by the female about five minutes later. She was noticeably larger.

“We pair for life but fly alone. We have roles but hunt as a pair.”~ Mike Haworth

Verreaux’s eagles, also called black eagles, prefer hilly and mountainous terrain with cliffs, rocks ledges and caves. Their nests are usually built on ledges which baboons, genets and Monitor lizards cannot access.

The Verreaux’s Eagle is a large bird of prey that is highly specialised. Its life history and distribution revolves around its main prey of Rock hyraxes and preferred habitat of hilly and mountainous terrain. It is wide spread throughout Africa and occurs as far north as Eritrea and as far south as South Africa. (source SANBI.org). The Verreaux or black eagle is unmistakable. It is a large black eagle with black feathers down to its talons. In flight it has a distinctive white ‘V’ is evident on its back between its shoulders.

Later in the morning the wind started to blow quite hard and the eagle chick squatted down low at the back of the nest for some protection.

The adult black eagle was impressive in flight. It is a large raptor with a wing span of around two metres.

“Stand on the cliff top and look out. You will see a multitude of living things and millennia in the making. Colour will flood your senses while a breeze cools your face. Soft flora scents waft and an eagle calls from above. You are floating in a wonderful sensory world.”~Mike Haworth

Verreaux’s eagles are usually found in pairs and they form life-long partnerships. Like golden eagles they hunt collaboratively, with the lead bird trying to flush the prey into the open for the other bird to ambush.

The flora in these sandstone ridges and cliffs is unique to the terrain. The mystery lies in the detail.

A Rock Hyrax warming itself on a rock in the early morning light just what the black eagles look for.

“Deep ravines, unfathomable time. The Olifants flow is joined by many, its power benign. It seeks the sea, its patience sublime.”~ Mike Haworth

The Olifant’s river has over millennia carved a deep wide channel through the fractured sandstone. Even though there was only a light flow of water in the river it could be heard from the top of the cliff.

A pair of black eagles watching us from afar. It was about 8h00 and the wind started to pick up so they did not stay for long.

The world is full of wonderful fascinating things so go out and explore.

“We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” ~Gandalf from Lord of the Rings

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Eagle Rock

Last weekend friends, Bill and Judy invited Helen and I to join them at the Eagle Rock wildlife estate where they have a private lodge. Eagle Rock is located about 15 kilometres west of Witbank in Mpumalanga province in the highveld of South Africa. The eastern boundary of the estate is  the Olifants river which is fed by the Witbank dam and flows down to the Loskop dam. The flow of this river is determined by the release of water from the Witbank dam. During the peak rainy season it can be in flood but in late September, spring in this part of the world, it was dry so the water level in the river was low. 

“Springtime on the highveld is a time of expectancy. Certain trees and bushes start to blossom. The skies are blue and cloudless and there is no sign of rain. The sunrises and sunsets are dusty infused with warm mauves, peaches and pinks. The days are warm and the evenings cool. The migrant birds are on their way. It is a magical time of the year, pregnant with new beginnings.” ~ Mike Haworth

Bill and Judy are long standing friends so the first afternoon was spent catching up and just enjoying the quiet and beautiful scene from their lodge. Being a passionate nature photographer, regardless of the merriment the night before, I got up early the next morning, before sunrise, in search for a few  images which captured the mood of the sunrise in this unique landscape. This first image was taken just as the sun was rising. It had just climbed above the horizon but the light was very hazy so the sun was just a ball of yellow and orange in the purple, apricot and pink sky. There are many coal-fired power stations in this part of South Africa. They create the haze, mother nature creates the beauty.

The haze was thick, the sun had climbed quite high in the morning sky and it was still quite dark and moody.

“The early morning sun illuminated the sandstone cliffs, painting them with a palette of ochre, peach, pink, buff, beige and brown. New green shoots punctuated the textured sandstone cliff face with splashes of vibrant green. Rock martins played in the gentle updraft along the cliffs while Egyptian geese cavorted along the river in the valley floor.” ~ Mike Haworth

As the sun rose in the hazy sky, the filtered light began to illuminate the sandstone cliffs towering over the river.

This was a standpoint which we used to look at the Black Eagle’s nest. The nest was located on the cliff edge away from prying attentions of baboons, genets and rock monitors.

 

Back for breakfast, the outlook from the lodge patio looking onto the sandstone cliffs.

“For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
Rachel Carson

A short walk from the lodge and we were overlooking the Olifants river. It was low  but spring has brought out the vibrant greens in some of the trees.

After breakfast we wandered around the estate. We found a lone red hartebeest grazing in  one of the verdant valleys. It was strange that it was alone but there are no predators on the estate save a clandestine leopard or two.

Early in the morning the rock hyraxes come out onto the rocks to warm up.  They stay in the rocky outcrops for cover. Despite this many fall prey to the Black Eagles which live in the area.

“…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.”
Rachel Carson

The morning dew was still on the grass. A pair of Natal francolin were foraging in the middle section of a road track. It was blissfully peaceful. I watched them quietly going about their business for about half an hour before they moved off into the surrounding vegetation.

Along the same valley were many ferns, briars and flora which was waiting for the rains to burst into life. This grass bird was singing its heart out unperturbed by me.

An ubiquitous male Stonechat calling to his mate.

The Eagle Rock estate is sited on weathered sandstone. Staring at the weather structures along the cliff face images start to form – the head of a roman soldier with helmet on. 

 

In next week’s post, I will show you some of the images of the black eagles which live and hunt along these sandstone cliffs on Eagle Rock estate.

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”
Rachel Carson

Explore, seek to understand marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Pilansberg with Mick

I was fortunate enough to spend a day with my life-long friend, Mick Condy. He now owns and runs a Safari company called Mike Condy Tours and Safaris. Mick invited me to spend a day with him in the Pilansberg Game Reserve next to Sun City in the North West province of South Africa. We had an early start and were up and out on the road at 5h00 to get to the Bakubung gate at the Pilansberg Game Reserve by 7h00, just as the sun was rising.

“The friendship began at nursery school. Grew in primary school, found space and dimension at senior school. Endured separation during the war and later at varsity. Reconnected later in life. By then many decades had past and the life investment was yielding evergreen respect, recognition and liking. Now fifty years down the road of life it is great fun, mixed with deep appreciation and respect. You don’t have to be the same but there is golden thread of memories, experiences and camaraderie which create a unique bond.” ~ Mike Haworth

Being life long friends there was much to talk about for the two hour drive to the park. We have shared a love of the bush all our lives and it is only as we have got older that we could be afford the time and money to spend more time in the bush. One of the wonderful aspects about growing older with life long friends it that time spent together is used to share insights we have found out about life. It is both interesting and inspiring.

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”~ William Shakespeare

Prior to its proclamation as a reserve in 1979, the Pilanesberg National Park Complex was degraded of indigenous game populations due to intense settlement by commercial farmers. At considerable expense, the land  was developed during the first 15 years after 1979. This development was the largest and most expensive game stocking and land rehabilitation project ever undertaken in any African game reserve at that time. The objective being to restock the park with wildlife and facilitate the regrowth after the degradation from human settlement. More than 6,000 head of game were introduced during the Operation Genesis game trans-location programme, which  received worldwide acclaim.

This area is unique from a geological perspective. Its structure, termed the “Pilanesberg National Park Alkaline Ring Complex” was formed by volcanic eruptions some 1 200 million years ago. This extinct volcano is old even in the context of a geological time scale and is the best example of an alkaline ring complex. There are only two other alkaline volcanoes in the world, in Russia and in Greenland. Neither are as clearly defined as Pilansberg National Park.

Near the centre of the park in Mankwe dam. It is surrounded by rocky outcrops, open grasslands, wooded valleys and thickets which provide a varied natural environment for the wildlife. This is typical of the ‘Bushveld’ which occurs in the transition zone between the dry Kalahari and wetter Lowveld vegetation. There is much to do in and around this park but we preferred to get away from the maddening crowd and see nature in her element. 

“No matter how few possessions you own or how little money you have, loving wildlife and nature will make you rich beyond measure.”
~ Paul Oxton

Still early in the morning around 8h00 we found two young males which had left the pride and were on their own, nomads. They were very playful with each other.

Two young nomads who see to have formed a coalition.  Their manes had still to fully develop. They were playful, cavorting around in the waterways at the head of the Mankwe dam.

Mick and I went down to the Mankwe dam hide to see what was going on. It was busy, people wise, so not much happening from a nature point of view. Nevertheless we were graced by our avian friends. It was an overcast day and quite chilly early in the morning so this lesser-striped swallow had puffed itself out to keep warm.

The air was still and cool so this probably kept these lesser-striped swallows on their perch as the insect activity must have been quite subdued.

This lesser egret was busy hunting in the shallows around the Mankwe dam hide. It seemed to be successful in its hunting efforts catching several little fish.

In the car park, there were a few Crested francolins pecking in the sand looking for seed. This character came running towards us habitually expecting food.

“The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.”
~ Aldo Leopold

A little later we wandered our way up toward Makorwane dam, west of Mankwe. On the way we were told there was a leopard sighting next to the road a few hundred metres ahead.

This was handsome male leopard which seemed unfazed by the vehicles and remained focused on the bush around him.

After spending a while watching the male leopard, he wandered off into the bush so we carried on up the road. A little further on from our leopard sighting we found a pair of Black-capped wheatears. They were foraging in some burnt grass for insects.

“Colours are the smiles of nature.” ~ Leigh Hunt

Winter can be a magical time for fora in the bush. Winter can bring out some spectacular colours in the bushes and trees.

We found a small family of wathogs browsing in a burnt area of bush. They use their snouts to dig into the the earth and uncover succulent roots and tubers.

We travelled east to Ratihogo hide which has provided many extraordinary sightings in the past, but it was very quiet this time but for a brown-headed kingfisher hunting for insects from its perch in the trees overhanging the dam.

From the Ratihogo hide we wandered along the Korwe drive down to twin dams which, being winter, had dried up,  We were rewarded by a sighting of two large bull white rhinos basking in the warm winter sun.

There is a wide variety of habitat to see in the Pilansberg reserve and in winter the bush offers a vivid palette of colours.

We found numerous small herds of blue wildebeest. They had huddled together due to the wind. The wildlife adapts to the wind because it disrupts two key senses, smell and hearing. It was good to see many youngsters in the herds.

A small family herd of zebra grazing at the foot of a range of hills along Mankwe way.

“Nature’s beauty is a gift that cultivates appreciation and gratitude.” ~ Louie Schwartzberg

In the afternoon we returned to Makorwane dam and on the way we found a large breeding herd of elephant next to the road. Two teenage bull elephants came onto the road to “play fight” and push each other around trying to assert their dominance. the two were evenly matched so there was no winner.

On our way back to the Kubu road, after having seen the leopard, we found this unlikely pair warming themselves on a road next to the bridge. A Water monitor lizard and a terrapin. Not long after this image was taken, others saw the leopard had wandered down to the bridge and found and killed the Water monitor lizard. Leopards are not fussy predators.

There were no sighting highlights as it was special to see all the wildlife, big and small, animal and bird. The leopard was surprisingly relaxed which gave us a unique opportunity to spend some time watching this normally secretive feline.

Unfortunately last weekend, the Pilansberg National Park was ravaged by fire. Park authorities said it began in the north of the park‚ and burnt through the park on Sunday, fanned by the wind blowing south. The park has a number of hides favoured by many to watch the bird and animal life come down to the dams to drink. The largest hide overlooking Mankwe dam was destroyed by the fire.

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” ~ Albert Camus

Mick thanks again for a wonderful day in the park together, it was special and much appreciated http://www.mikecondytoursandsafaris.com/

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

Ukhahlamba majesty

This is the last post from our Drakensberg trip showing some of the majesty of the Giant’s Castle area of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg in central South Africa. We went there in mid-winter hoping to see snow. No luck, it was cold at night and in the early mornings there was frost on the lower reaches next to the Bushman’s river but no snow up on the mountain tops.

“Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.”~ Henri Frederic Ariel

The majesty of the scenery dictated that we rose well before sunrise which was around 7h00. This was the scene looking east at the sunrise from behind the vulture’s hide.

Slowly the sun peered over the middle berg to shine on basalt buttresses in the distant upper berg. The colours were soft, infused with purples and mauves.

“As knowledge increases, wonder deepens.” – Charles Morgan

As the sun rose it brightened revealing a pallet of unexpected colours.

On the edge of the ridge in front of the hide this pair of Black-backed jackals came to steal some of the bones we put out for the bearded vultures.

The Giant’s Castle vulture hide perched on the edge of a steep cliff in the middle berg.

The White-necked ravens were ever present even when the jackals were looking for food. Needless to say the jackals got whatever they wanted.

A view from inside the vulture’s hide looking south west across the ridge and off to the upper berg.

A Lanner falcon came to visit and stirred things up among the ravens.

A view of the terrain on the way to the vulture’s hide. Vast, magnificent and quiet but for the wind singing in the grasses.

A Bearded vulture sitting looking out from the edge of a cliff in the middle berg.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” ~ Rachel Carson

Breathtaking views and colours as seen from the hide-early morning views.

Two juvenile Bearded vultures sparring high above the valley floor.

Early morning before the sun had risen -there was a stillness but the colours were vibrant and the scene sublime.

A Bearded vulture flying with the basalt buttresses in the distant background.

An adult and juvenile flying together way above the valley floor.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ~  William Butler Yeats

Late afternoon just above the hide looking south west.

Freedom, space and grandeur.

Below the middle berg, this time along the Bushman’s river. It was early morning with the first light illuminating the tops of the middle ground hilltops. The white you can see in the foreground was frost. It was ice cold at that time. Nothing a cup of hot coffee and rusk could not ward off.

The sun had not yet peered into the valley but some of the reflections of the light from the hilltops were beginning to be caught in the reflections in the river.

Just stop on your walk and look around. You might be surprised at the eclectic colour and textures you might see.

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” – Robert Louis Stevenson.

A short walk up the one of the valleys – verdant even in mid-winter.

The sunlight was now filling the valley. The river was strewn with rounded boulders which have been shaped over hundreds of years. The sun illuminated the river course beautifully.

“Have you ever sat in absolute quiet,

Have you ever been bathed in the warm morning light,

Does your heart not sing at the sight,

Does something deep inside you not stir just a mite.”~ Mike Haworth

On our last evening, once it was too dark to photograph from the hide, we drove to an adjacent area south west of the hide to watch the sun setting in the west.

The spectrum of colours melted from warm to cool with a warm hue. It is at times like this when you feel alive and grateful to be able to witness this incredible beauty.

The last light show from what was a spectacular day.

“Have you heard the wind singing in the trees and seen the branches swaying in rhythm. The wind was telling us where it had come from and where it was going. Then in between times the breeze whispered stories to the grass which waved in delight.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

 

 

 

Guardians of the Castle

Ravens and starlings are the guardians of the castle.  

“When you do what you want, not what you wish” said the first raven. “When you no longer seek your reflection in others eyes” said the second raven. “When you see yourselves face to face” said the third raven. “Then”, the ravens intoned in unison, “you will have found what you truly seek.” ~ Adam Gidwitz

The setting is the vulture hide at Giant’s Castle located in the middle berg of the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, a spectacular mountain range in the middle of South Africa.

The starlings were sitting in the bushes around the hide as we arrived before sunrise. The ravens were circling, flying passed,  and landing and taking off from rocky ledges close by.

For most people there would be nothing unusual about this scene but I have some context.

“Memories are contrary things; if you quit chasing them and turn your back, they often return on their own.” ~ Stephen King

I went to a boarding school about 35 miles south east of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, called Falcon College. I arrived at the school in early 1966. As a junior everything was new, bigger and more intimidating than usual. Every Saturday evening the school showed a movie on a reel-to-reel movie projector. Not too many weeks after we arrived at the college, the movie one the Saturday evening was ‘The Birds’.  A 1963 American horror-thriller film ‘The Birds’ and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, loosely based on the 1952 story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

The story began in 1963, when Melanie Daniels, a young socialite known for rather racy behavior and playing pranks, meets criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner in a San Francisco bird shop. He wanted to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s eleventh birthday, but the shop had none. Mitch, knowing she was a lawyer, plays a prank on Melanie by pretending to mistake her for a salesperson. She is infuriated but intrigued by his veiled advance. She finds his weekend address in Bodega Bay, purchases a pair of lovebirds, and makes the long drive to deliver them. While he goes into the barn she sneaks the birdcage inside the Brenner family home with a note. While leaving she is attacked near shore on the town side and injured by a seagull. Melanie gets to know Mitch and his family, mother Lydia, and  younger sister Cathy. She also befriends local school teacher Annie Hayworth.

When Melanie spends the night at Annie’s house they are startled by a loud thud; a gull had killed itself by flying into the front door. At Cathy’s birthday party the next day, the guests are set upon by seagulls. The following evening, sparrows invade the Brenner home through the chimney. The next morning, Lydia, a widow who still sees to the family farmstead, pays a visit to a neighbouring farmer to discuss the unusual behavior of her chickens. Finding his eyeless corpse, pecked lifeless by birds, she flees in terror. After being comforted by Melanie and Mitch she expresses concern for Cathy’s safety at school. Melanie drives there and waits for class to end, unaware that a large flock of crows were massing in the nearby playground. Unnerved when she sees its jungle gym engulfed by the birds, she warns Annie, and they unwisely evacuate the children. The commotion stirs the crows into attacking, injuring several of the children. An amateur ornithologist dismisses the reports as fanciful and argues with Melanie over them. Shortly thereafter birds begin to attack people outside the restaurant they are in, knocking a gas station attendant unconscious while he is filling a car with fuel, which spills out onto the street. A bystander attempts to light a cigar, igniting a pool of gas and is incinerated. The explosion attracts a mass of gulls, which begin to swarm menacingly as townsfolk attempt to tackle the fire. Melanie is forced to take refuge in a phone booth. Rescued by Mitch, she returns to the restaurant, where Melanie is accused of causing the attacks, which began with her arrival. The pair return to Annie’s house and find that she has been killed by the crows while ushering Cathy to safety.

“The pattern created an association which revived a memory! I closed my eyes and was transported. The image was vivid, the feelings returned, as did the smells. I could hear the wind in the trees- I was back there again. Oh the timelessness of these memories.” ~ Mike Haworth

Melanie and the Brenners seek refuge inside the family home. It is attacked by waves of birds of many different species, which several times nearly break in through barricaded doors and windows. During a night-time lull between attacks, Melanie hears the sound of fluttering wings. Not wanting to disturb the others’ sleep, she enters the kitchen and sees the lovebirds are still. Realizing the sounds are emanating from above, she cautiously climbs the staircase and enters Cathy’s bedroom, where she finds the birds have broken through the roof. They violently attack her, trapping her in the room until Mitch comes to her rescue. She is badly injured and nearly catatonic; Mitch insists they must get her to the hospital and suggests they drive away to San Francisco. When he looks outside, it is dawn and a sea of birds ripple menacingly around the Brenner’s house as he prepares her car for their escape.

The radio reports the spread of bird attacks to nearby communities, and suggests that “the military” may be required to intervene because civil authorities are unable to combat the unexplained attacks. In the final shot, the car carrying Melanie, the Brenners, and the lovebirds slowly makes its way through a landscape in which thousands of birds are ominously perching. The plot was sourced from Wikipedia. A group of ravens is called an “unkindness” or “conspiracy,” which seems fitting, since ravens are traditionally considered creepy; and seeing many of them in one place can induce “Hitchcockian” flashbacks. A murder of crows also seems fitting in this context.

“Passages in time shall leave timeless evidence in their wake.” ~ Anthony T. Hincks.

The thing that made the movie so scary was the peculiarity of it all. Perhaps the moral of the story is beware of people bearing lovebirds as gifts. After the movie was finished we had to run back to our dorms in the pitch dark along a road with large trees on one side, with strong winds blowing their branches causing them to creak in the wind!  I still have a clear recollection of that evening over 50 years later. 

The congregation of starlings in the bushes around the hide and the ravens flying around the hide in numbers just reminded me of some of the scenes in the ‘The Birds’. Thank you Alfred Hitchcock for the memory, thankfully I was never ornithophobic ( a fear of birds)

“Look, listen, consider and then make your own mind up.” ~ Mike Haworth

Fifty five year old movies aside, many birds were attracted by the bones in front of the hide. White-necked ravens were the dominant species. They ruled the bones and even managed to fly off with some of them. There are three species of crow in south Africa, the Pied, Black and White necked raven. There is a physical difference between crows and ravens. The latter are bigger, have a larger deeper bill and make more of a croaking sound whereas the crows make more of a ‘caw-caw’ sound.

The White-necked raven has a much shorter tail than the common raven. Its  bill is large and looks laterally compressed and is deeply curved in profile giving the bird a very distinctive appearance. This bill, the largest of any passerine at 8–9 cm in length, is black with a white tip and has deep nasal grooves with only light nasal bristle covers. The White-necked raven is very similar to the Thick-billed raven found in the horn of Africa. This powerful beak enables the raven to effectively tear meat and fat off the bones. It is also strong enough to fly off with surprising large and heavy bones.

Crows and ravens are known to be highly intelligent birds and are able to use tools, form cooperative units and are able to mimic the human voice when in captivity.

We only found White-necked ravens up in the middle berg. 

Ravens are known to mate for life and live in pairs in a fixed territory. When their youngsters reach adolescence, they join gangs and these flocks of young birds live and eat together until they mate and pair off. It was quite possible that we saw a gang of adolescent ravens dominating the non-raptors around the hide. One raptor that had them scattering for cover was the Lanner falcon. It was so much faster and more agile than the ravens. It stooped on them multiple times for about half an hour and certainly had them on edge for quite a while thereafter. 

“Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” – Harry Houdini

In the early to mid morning, the ravens just sat around feeding on the fat on the bones and chasing away any other birds which wanted to join in the feast. By lunchtime and in the early afternoon, when the wind got up, the ravens started to play in the wind in what looked to be just for the sheer joy of it. There was a natural updraft on along the ridge in front of the hide and the wind gave it extra power. The ravens spent hours just frolicking way above the valley in the wind.

The ravens were good fliers showing remarkable aerobatic feats in midair.

The White-necked raven is a persistent and tenacious bird and seems to enjoy mobbing the passing Bearded vultures. On one occasion a raven dive-bombed a Bearded vulture and hit it so hard that we heard it from the hide.

Needless to say the ravens gave way to the Black-backed jackals which regularly stole the bones in front of the hide.

Red-winged starlings also loved the fat on the bones. They formed pairs and would protect one another at the bones, when the ravens were not around. These starlings have distinctive red-primary wing feathers. The male has a mainly iridescent dark blue-black plumage. The female is similar but has a greyish head and neck.

This starling is a cliff nester, breeding on rocky cliffs, outcrops and gorges. There is a pale-winged and red-winged starling found in southern Africa. The pale-winged has mainly white outer primary wing feathers with a slight orange colouring on the outmost primaries. It has a yellow eye and is found mainly in the west side and the Cape of south Africa and Namibia, whereas the red-winged starling is found mainly in the north and east of southern Africa.

Similar to other starling species, the red-winged starling is an omnivore, feeding on a wide range of seeds, berries, nectar from plants such as Aloes and  invertebrates such as the beetles. As we saw from the hide, they will also scavenge on carrion and food scraps from humans.

“I marvel at the richness, variety and unexpectedness of it all – there is more to see than you can imagine” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

The giant’s small but colourful raiders

This is the fourth post from our trip to Giant’s Castle in the central berg which is part of the Drakensberg mountain range in the centre of South Africa. One of the main attractions is the vulture hide which is about five kilometres from the Giant’s Castle camp where the hide is located on the edge of a plateau in the middle berg. The hide is for bird watchers and photographers alike. Being in high demand the hide has to be booked, especially over weekends. One of the main functions of the hide is to put bones out in the open to feed the bearded vultures. This has become necessary because  the bearded vultures have become endangered due to humans encroaching on their habitat.

“Fascination is one step beyond interest. Interested people want to know if it works. Fascinated people want to learn how it works.” ~Jim Rohn

We leave bones out on the grass shelf in front of the hide. Raiders such as White-necked ravens and Red-winged starlings are the first to tuck into the daily feast. The Jackal buzzards and Cape vultures also come in to have a look. More surprisingly, there are an amazing assortment of small feathered visitors which come into partake in the feast. Some come in to feed on the grass seed and insects in front of the hide. For some unknown reason, there seems to be a regular routine to the visitors arrival. The Yellow bishops come in at first light to feed on the grass seed as do the Speckled pigeons. After an hour or so they leave. It makes me wonder whether the grass exposes its seed at intervals.

“I think everyone has some fascination with what’s outside our existence. It’s a constant journey to find the truth.”Nicholas Lea

A view from the west side of the hide at around 7h30 in the morning.

As the sun rises higher in the sky the light changes and the distant mountains take on a blue hue.

The hide is located high on the side of a ridge in the middle berg. There is a steep drop off below the hide. If you look carefully the hide is on the skyline of the ridge, about two fifths from the left hand side of the image. .

If all life were eternal all interest and anticipation would vanish. It is uncertainty which lends its fascination.”~ Yoshida Kenko

A female Yellow bishop puffed up as it was quite chilly first thing in the morning, being winter.

The female Yellow bishops came in twice a day – in the early morning and again around mid-afternoon. They are seed eaters and I wonder why they would visit twice a day –  it makes me wonder whether the grasses progressively expose their seeds?

The Speckled pigeons came in first thing in the morning and only foraged for seeds. We only saw one pair at a time.

The male fluffed out his neck feathers as a sign he was impressed by the female close by.

I was surprised to see a Fiscal shrike, or “Butcher bird” as we call it, at such a high elevation.  I would not have thought there were many insects  at that altitude in mid-winter. The one thing I have learnt about the hide is that my expectations are frequently confounded.

Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into.” ~ Wayne Dyer

When birds are able, they carry a bit of fat to use as ‘fuel’ during their day-to-day lives. It looks like a smear of butter under their pink, almost translucent, skin.  Fat is what keeps birds going through the day and, more importantly, the night. A bird has to eat enough to make sure it has the energy it needs – not just for flying, running and singing, but also to keep itself alive overnight. Keeping warm takes a considerable amount of energy, so heavier (fatter) birds are more likely to survive a cold snap. Birds weigh less in the mornings than in the evenings before they go to roost, because of the fat they ‘burn’ overnight. Fat reserves can also see a bird through periods of bad weather when feeding is difficult or impossible, and migrating birds feed up before setting off. In this context it is understandable that these smaller birds congregate around the hide to feed on the fat on the bones put out for the Bearded vultures. Wild birds don’t get obese. They live high-energy lives, but by putting out food we give them a little more leeway.

A pair of Orange-throated longclaws, now called Cape longclaws, arrived. They  are endemic to South Africa.

These longclaws were foraging for insects but were also partial to the fat on the bones.The long claw on the back toes is distinctive but you need to see them on rocks not in the grass to see the toes. I am not sure why they have long toes other than because they forage in long grass and need to grasp the grass stems.

“For the 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunter and gatherers, our lives depend on knowing the fine, small details of our world.  Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.”  ~ Janine M. Benyus

This bird looks like a pipit but stands more upright and has a distinctive orange throat and upper breast patch bordered by a black necklace marking.

“When you realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~ Lao Tzu

A Familiar chat is a drab greyish brown colour. They arrived to forage for insects but also seemed to enjoy the fat on the bones. Being small they had to wait for the larger birds to move away before they could partake. Size counts in the feast.

Chats have that distinctive three or four flicks of their wings just after they have landed.

The Familiar chat is found throughout southern Africa but prefers rocky and mountainous terrain.

A female Cape rock thrush. Like the Familiar chat this species prefers rocky and mountainous terrain.

A male Cape rock thrush. This species differs from the Sentinel rock thrush in that it does not have blue on its back. The grey-blue colouring is only on the head and neck.

“Man is not himself only…He is all that he sees; all that flows to him from a thousand sources…He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, the reach of its valleys.”  ~ Mary Austin

The view from just above the hide in the late afternoon looking south west into the upper berg.

We were fortunate to see Greater double-collared sunbirds and Gurney sugarbirds but I was not able to photograph them. One of the more colourful visitors was this Bokmakierie. 

We heard the beautiful call of the Bokmakierie before we saw it. Birds do not have vocal chords like humans but use their tongue and mouth to create their unique calls. Birds have a syrinx, our equivalent of a voice box, but it is at the bottom of the windpipe not at the top as in humans. Bokmakieries are also known for their duets. The duet is thought to be musical rather than a visual means of bonding.

With a little patience and quiet nature will slowly reveal herself.

“Go out, go out, I beg of you!
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth,
With all the wonder of a child.” ~ Edna Jaques

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike