Marievale mid-winter

In mid-July, Helen and I spent a Sunday morning at Marievale Bird Sanctuary. As any of you who have spent a winter on the South African Highveld will attest, it can be icey cold early in the morning. Unusually, this particular morning was clear and not heavily mist laden.

“Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but must always participate in the swell of the ocean, so we can never experience life by ourselves, but must always share the experience of life that takes place all around us.”

 Albert Schweitzer

To the east of Johannesburg, in a floodplain just outside the small town of Nigel, is the Marievale Bird Sanctuary. It is situated in the southern half of the Blesbokspruit RAMSAR site, an area that is also a designated Important Bird Area (IBA SA021) in South Africa. 


One of the most amazing thing about birds in general, but waterbirds in particular is how they cope with the icey cold water in the winter.

Birds like humans and other mammals are homeothermic or warm-blooded. Birds regulate their body temperature through metabolic heat production which means balancing the intake of energy with what they have eaten. As long as birds can find a suitable food source, their bodies can convert that food into energy. It is finding food and ensuring they eat enough of it to build, and maintain, adequate fat supplies to store on the body and ‘burn’ for energy that are the greatest tests for wild birds in winter. Hard winter weather may mean a change in behaviour rather than a change of location. Birds have to feed at an accelerated rate, but must also take adequate time out to rest and conserve energy.

They reduce heat loss through their unique circulatory system of arteries and veins. In many birds, arteries and veins in their legs lie in contact with or adjacent to each other in order to exchange heat and maintain temperature. Arterial blood is usually at body temperature when sent to the feet and runs along side the cooler returning blood in veins. This unique circulatory system keeps warm blood of arteries warming the returning cooler blood of the veins. 

By fluffing up, birds create air space between feathers as well as feathers and skin, equivalent to putting on an extra jacket.

Wet feathers under very cold conditions could cause major problems and possibly death for waterbirds but they have oil-producing glands that allow them to preen a coating of waterproof oil onto their feathers to avoid their so-called ‘warm jacket’ from getting wet.

There are many Red-knobbed Coots at Marievale. The red knobs are extensions at the top of their white frontal shield that extends from the base of their upper mandible to the forehead. The size of the red knobs vary considerably by individual and are found on both males and females.

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Coots are gregarious and huge flocks can be seen at Marievale. When breeding, a pair is monogamous and highly territorial.

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These Coots can be very aggressive and do not hesitate to attack any species of waterbird in their breeding territory. They have four webbed toes which helps propel them when swimming and when attacking other waterbirds they are able to virtually run on water with the aid of their wings

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These displays of aggression can be dramatic and stunning to watch. They seem to start spontaneously and so are difficult to predict to get good photographic sequences. Two key threats to these Coots are Grey-headed Herons and pollutants in the water from surrounding mining activity.

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There had been a major fire which had cleared out of large sections of the reed beds.  The fire had  improved the visibility in some areas and in others backgrounds for photography had worsened.

This African Hoopoe was busy foraging for insects in the burnt patch alongside the road. It uses its long bill to probe the ground for invertebrates. These Hoopoes are mainly terrestrial unlike their cousins the Wood-Hoopoes.

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The variety of bird life at Marievale is astounding which is why it is a favoured birding destination on the Highveld. While watching the Red-knobbed Coots, we saw squadrons of Spurwing Geese flying into the area. They came in groups of up to 50 birds at a time, arriving for almost an hour.

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I am not sure where these Spurwing Geese were coming from but the only other place I have seen big congregations like this was along the Chobe  river and also in mid-winter. The spurs visible on the wrist of the wing are actually rudimentary “thumbs”.

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Along the main road which runs directly through the pans in the floodplain, we spent about half an hour watching a pair of Malachite Kingfishers hunting. They were patient, focused and accurate fishermen.

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They are extremely quick and I could not see the area of water they were diving into, but more than likely I would have missed the shot anyway.

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Ducks are always weary of vehicles and people at the water’s edge. You really need to be in a hide to get decent images of wild duck. Invariably this pair of Hotentot Teal would steer away from us so I could not a shot from the front. I think these are one of most beautiful ducks we have in southern Africa.

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Red-knobbed Coots feed mainly on aquatic plant material but will eat molluscs and crustaceans. I liked the colour contrast of the pink surface algae and sooty black feathers.

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Among Red-knobbed Coots, the males are much larger but there no is sexual colour dimorphism. The red knobs, red eyes and a white front shield created a striking colouring offset by the sooty black feather colour.

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This Little Grebe, previously called a Dabchick, was foraging among pink surface algae and diving under the water for quite long periods seemly oblivious of the icey cold temperature of the water. The Little Grebe is prone to running across the surface of the water like the Red-knobbed Coot.

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“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

 – Elizabeth A.Johnson
Alongside the main access road close to where we watched the Malachites, we found this African Snipe. As a true wader it was probing the pan bed for invertebrates. It did not to seem to worry about the icey cold water either.

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The African Snipe has cryptic colouring and must be nearly impossible to see from above. This species of Snipe is able to bend the end of its upper mandible when probing the pan bed to catch its prey. It then sequentially opens and closes  adjacent sections of its bill to shift it prey up it bill into its mouth without pulling its bill out of the sand or mud.

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The bills of waders vary in length and shape and each  feeds at a different level of the pan substrate and on different food. Amazingly, this allows a variety of waders to forage in the same area at the same time. It was feeding time early that winter’s morning with no time for their characteristic spectacular diving which male African Snipes often do with their unique “tail drumming” during territorial displays.

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On our way out of the sanctuary, we stopped to photograph this Black-shouldered Kite just passed the Hadeda hide.

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The stalk it was perched on was flimsy but it had a good outlook. Unusually, this Black-shouldered Kite took off towards us clearly showing us its black shoulders. Whatever it saw in the low grass between us disappeared and it flew off. I was rather hoping it would hover in front of us, but not that time.

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We also two juvenile Fish Eagles but they were too far to get a decent shot. We did not see the Marsh Harrier this time.

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It is always inspiring to see the wonderful variety of bird life at Marievale. One thing that was not inspiring was to see the hard work some dedicated individuals had put into building hides and ablution facilities in some areas had been vandalised and almost totally destroyed.

“There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

The truth is that there’s more than enough good to go around. There is more than enough creative ideas. There is more than enough power. There is more than enough love. There’s more than enough joy. All of this begins to come through a mind that is aware of its own infinite nature.

There is enough for everyone. If you believe it, if you can see it, if you act from it, it will show up for you. That’s the truth.”

 – Michael Beckwith

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,



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