Marievale- drought check

Helen and I went off to Marievale on 27 December to have a look to see whether the little bit of rain over Christmas had made a difference to the wetland bird sanctuary. This part of the world has had very little rain this summer season. I have never seen the Marievale wetlands this dry. Many of the waterways had become mud flats with large areas of dead reeds. There still seemed to be as many wetland and grassland birds but that is a casual passerby’s observation. I am sure there are many more subtle changes in the bird population and behaviours as a result of the drought.

“Nature, it seems, has a way of returning things to how they should be.”
Fennel Hudson

Adult Black Crake skulking around in among the reeds looking for food. Like other members of the Rail family these birds are secretive.


I had to “shoot” as this adult Black Crake walked between reed clusters, as it would not come out into the open.These birds are diurnal and feed on  invertebrates, small fish, frogs and seeds. They are even known to eat the eggs of other birds.


Female Ruff looking for food in the mud flats, exposed by the lack of rain.


Upon reflection, these Ruffs are truly amazing having flown from Europe and Russia for our summer.


A lone Black Shouldered Kite perched on a dead tree looking for mice and any small reptiles it could find.


The piercing ruby eyes of a Black Shouldered Kite.


There I was minding my own business enjoying the early morning sun when a flock of Greater Flamingoes suddenly flew overhead in formation.


We drove to the northern part of the bird sanctuary hoping that the Flamingoes had landed in some of the remaining shallow pools of water in that part of the wetland and sure enough there they were!!


These Greater Flamingoes were a fair distance away, so a long prime lens was needed. Unfortunately, I could not find any group with a decent background. The dry reeds behind them back made the background very busy.


We saw many seed eating birds. The Widowbirds and Bishops were feeding together in great numbers. This is a female southern Red Bishop.


You will find Grey, Purple and Black Headed Herons in Marievale Bird Sanctuary. I captured this shot as this Black Headed Heron was flying past us. 


Something must have been wrong with one of this Black Headed Heron’s legs, as they usually  have both legs equally extended in flight with their heads tucked in for longitudinal balance.


On this particular trip we saw more Grassbirds than I have ever seen before.


A Grassbird doing gymnastics in the dry Statice stems.


A male Pin-tailed Wydah. I waited for quite a while, without luck to get him with a less busy background. This was the spot that he felt was best for catching the eye of the passing females.


Pied Avocet about to take off.


I did not manage to get a Pied Avocet in flight but the pied colouring on the top side of its wings is striking.


Juvenile Three banded Plover striding around the mud flat exposed in the wetland by the lack of rain. The adults have more definitively coloured eye rings and neck bands.


Cape Longclaw also known as the Orange Throated Longclaw. It has cryptic colouring on its back but is very beautiful from the front with a black throat ring emphasising its orange throat.


“As the natural world grows smaller, so too does its intensity and the size of the window through which it may be viewed.
Fennel Hudson

A small group within the thirty to forty Greater Flamingoes which were sieving the very shallow water for algae.


These Flamingoes seemed to be too busy feeding to undertake any displays or even to fight. It got close at times but nothing extravagant transpired.


A male Southern Red Bishop in full breeding colours.


The Southern Red Bishop should not be confused with the Fire-crowned Bishop who has an entirely red head but for a black mask. They Fore-crowned Bishops are usually only found in northern Mozambique and along the souther Zambezi river.


Golden Crowned Bishop with his distinctive golden crown. Most bishop birds seem comfortable holding onto vertical reed stems.The male Golden-crowned Bishop should not be confused with the male Yellow Bishop in his breeding plumage which is black apart from his bright yellow lower back, rump, and shoulder patches, and brown edging to the wing feathers.


The Southern Red and Golden-crowned Bishops are seed eaters and they were abundant and thriving in the current conditions. Perhaps the late and light rains have helped over produce grass seed.


Greater Egret fishing at the edge of the reeds.


A lone Spoonbill having a good scratch.


Red-collared Widow bird. All male Widowbirds are dressed in black during the breeding season whereas Whydahs are not. Also Widowbirds are not brood parasites like Whydahs.


Red-winged Widowbird looks similar to the long-tailed in terms of body shape and size but lacks the long tail and its shouldering colouring is just red.


Long-tailed Widow bird in flight. Unfortunately, I did not see the males displaying to the females which can be really impressive. The male flies slowly and almost fans out those ceremonial long tail feathers and he seems to hop in the sky.


Long-tailed Widowbird taking off from a dried old Statice stem. The purple flowers in the foreground are the new season’s Statice.


This male Long-tailed Widow bird dressed in his full breeding regalia. They tend to congregate in flocks of a few males and many females.


There were many Long-tailed Widow birds and I was waiting for them to fly and display but they were too busy eating the grass seed.


Black-winged Stilt. These birds have proportionately the longest legs in the bird world. That slim long bill is loaded with tactile sensors enabling it to forage on insects and small aquatic vertebrates.


“A wise old owl sat upon an oak,

The more he saw the less he spoke,

The less he spoke the more he heard,

Why aren’t we like that wise old bird.”
Edward Hersey Richards

Black Heron, previous called a Black Egret. It has bright yellow feet which makes it look as if it had walked in a pool of yellow road marking paint. It was standing in shallow water so you could not see its fancy feet.


A pair of Hottentot Teal foraging. All teal have a wing speculum, a panel on their secondary wing feathers which are a different colour.


This Hottentot Teal stopped to preen itself in the warmth of the sunny morning. Teal are the smallest in the duck family.


A female Brimstone Canary singing its heart out from a dead Statice stem.


Whiskered Tern scouting the remain pools of water for small fish and reptiles.


These Whiskered Terns are highly agile fliers, and seem to be the most prevalent inland terns. They have long pointed wings which enable them to glide over the water surface and you will notice they do not have deep slotted wing tips which are prevalent in soaring birds.


I am not sure but I think this is a Little Stint. Common in these parts though I have never stopped to have a good look before.


Purple Gallenule striding through an exposed dead reed bed.


There were not many green bushes in the dead reed beds but this Purple Gallinule was very interested in this one.


It is interesting to see how often these wetland birds look at the sky, presumably they are very wary of Marsh Harriers and the like.


A pair of Red-billed Teal sunning themselves on this Sunday morning.


You are likely to see many Yellow-billed Duck at Marievale and they don’t seem to be as skittish as the Teal.


African Hoopoe scouting for grubs and insects in the road. Hoopoe is an onomatopoeic name – its name sounds like its call. 


This character was quite relaxed. If they are alarmed they normally spread that crest into an impressive fan shape on their head. Its long beak is used to probe the ground when searching for insects.


We have been to Marievale many times but in the last two occasions we have seen more Avocets than in all the previous visits combined. As a visitor it is not obvious what conditions have changed to attract more than usual numbers of Avocets. I am sure it is not the drought. The most distinctive feature on the body of Avocet is its long, upward curled beak. Unusual beak is specific adaptation to the life in swampy areas. When searching for food, Avocet relies on the eyesight. As soon as the prey is located, the Avocet will sweep its long beak through the water to grab it.


They are good swimmers and very busy feeders.


Their pied colouring makes them particularly attractive birds.


Marievale is a fascinating place to visit if you are a birder and or a photographer. The diversity of birds is quite amazing.

We are experiencing a devastating drought in South Africa. So many songbirds rely on insects such as flies and other bugs for food. Less water in the environment means lower hatching levels for these insects. This drop in insects can be due to less standing water or a reduction in flowering trees. The fact of a severe drought can have a long tail meaning that it can take a few years to really see the impact of drought. In most cases, birds don’t just visibly die. Instead, they just don’t reproduce, and you’ll see the population levels decline for several year.

Birds must replenish body water lost to respiration, evaporation and defecation on a daily basis. With an absence of sufficient water, a bird’s body raids its own cells of water, and the cells begin drying up and dying. Blood volume plummets, and the heart, liver and kidneys become inefficient.
Adult birds must leave the nest daily to obtain fresh water and food. If they have to travel greater distances to find these resources, the nestlings are exposed to sun and predators for longer periods increasing their risk of mortality.

“There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy”
Michael McCarthy

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

Have fun,


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