Marievale practice

Back in the “big smoke”, our less affectionate name for Gauteng, I can last only a few weekends in town before having a deep need to get out into more natural surrounds again, away from sirens and barking dogs. I also need to practice with my camera. This post shows just a few images from a recent Sunday morning trip to Marievale Bird Sanctuary just outside Nigel south of Johannesburg, South Africa. Marievale is approximately 1 000 hectares in area. The sanctuary is home to a combination of 240 resident and migrant bird species. The sanctuary has  two main biomes, the wetlands where you can see everything from coots, grebes, a variety of ducks, comorants, snipe, gallenules, egrets, herons, terns and flamingoes, and least 65 waterbird species, to large grassland areas which support seed eaters such as queleas, wydahs, larks, starlings, stone chats and bishops and many more. You are also likely to see raptors such as Fish Eagles, kites and harriers hunting in the area. As is always the case in SA you need to be aware of safety, especially when carrying expensive camera kit.

“…no other life form needed man, man needed all the others in which to survive.”
~ Barry Babcock

In the grasslands you will see wydahs, queleas, cuckoos (in summer) and bishops. The most common whydah is the Pin-tailed. There are many widowbirds in the grasslands, especially long-tailed and red-collared, but one could also see White-winged Widowbirds. The main difference between the wydah and widow birds are that the wydahs have a coloured belly and breast feathers while the widowbirds are dressed in black (hence the name) and have either coloured collars or shoulders. Both wydahs and widowbirds are seed eaters.

“Never stop exploring… with Mother Nature by your side, the possibilities are endless.”
~ Cheryl Aguiar

There are three wydahs found in southern Africa, the Pin-tailed, Shaft-tailed and Paradise Wydah. Wydah males grow elaborate long tail feathers. Outside the summer breeding season the male looks similar to the females. The Pin-tailed Wydah is an aggressive male fiercely guarding his harem of females. Like all wydahs, the Pin-tailed Whydah is parasitic and often lays its eggs in the nests of the Common Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin and Orange-breasted Waxbill –  among others. The male Pin-tailed Whydah is territorial, and despite having his harem of females, has an elaborate courtship flight display, which includes hovering over the female to display his tail. Unfortunately, I never saw him displaying but I have seen it in the Masai Mara and I think I was more impressed than the female in front of him.


The Common Waxbill, so distinctive with its red bill and red eye stripe and a pinkish red underbelly. These seed eaters are quite skittish so do not stay around for too long  and seldom let you get close enough for a perfect shot.


When it comes to displaying bright colours to attract females, Southern Red Bishops rank near the top of the list.  The phrase “nuptial plumage” applies to many male bird species which change the colour of their plumage during the breeding season.  The male Red Bishop appears as follows: black beak, the top of the head and area around the eyes are black, the abdomen is black, the wings are brown, and the rest of the bird (chin, throat, chest, nape of the neck, back, under tail, and upper tail coverts) are orange to red in color. Otherwise called the Orange weaver.


Red Bishops nest preferentially in reeds growing in shallow water. The males build several nests and perform  display flights and cling onto reeds with their black breast and red back feathers fluffed up to attract females. They are polygamous and mate with several females. There is another bishop bird that looks like a Southern Red Bishop, the Fire-crowned but has an entirely red crown and is only found along the Zambezi river environs. Strangely this time we saw no Golden-crowned Bishops or Yellow Bishops – perhaps the drought which we had until the end of the year (2016) had something to do with it.


“Speaking of happiness, those distinctive moments are found outdoors – in the fall, in the winter and always in the mountains where people are few, wildlife is abundant and there is peace in the quiet.”
~ Donna Lynn Hope

When it comes to Cisticolas, identification become a little trickier. I think this is a juvenile Levaillant’s Cisticola because of its colouring and distribution.


The Levaillant’s Cisticola are known to perch conspiciously and sing away. They are also found around streams, dams and marshes. This character might easily be mistaken for a Rattling Cisticola but for the fact that it is smaller and its Rattling cousin prefers  bushveld and thornveld areas.


The Male Stonechat has very distinctive markings with a black head and rufous belly, black wing feathers and a white rump. You usually see them in pairs in open grassland areas. 


The female Stonechat is paler overall with brown head and a less rufous coloured belly. The Stonechat is an insect eater and although a local migrant, does seem to protect its food patch.


“Stop and unplug,” say I; “look around you, at the vastness and greatness of the natural world.” Some stop. Others need binoculars to tie their shoelaces.”
~ Fennel Hudson

The African Rail is a strange-looking bird  and is usually heard but not seen. The adult has a red beak and legs, brown back and blue-grey face and chest, and black and white barring on its belly, flanks and under tail. The colouring is hardly cryptic but perhaps from the top it would be difficult to distinguish it from a Marsh Harrier when seeing it in the reeds. Rails, like crakes and flufftails are skulkers which is why they are usually not seen. The adult African Rail is quite big, around 30 cm long.


Rails, like Snipe, have short tails suggesting that they have short highly manoeuverable flight patterns.  This Rail is bigger than a crake and has a much longer beak. The long bill is used to probe the reeds for insects, crabs and other small aquatic animals and their feet have long toes to be able to walk across the reeds .


Widowbirds are also found in the grasslands –  being predominately seed-eaters. These birds are called widows because their nuptial plumage is black and there long black tail feathers resemble the 18th-century grieving widow’s long black veil and train. Male widowbirds are all black in the breeding season but have elaborate colourful collar and wing coverts. The next image is of a Long-tailed Widow with its distinctive pale bill and red shoulders. The male grows his black plumage and long tail feathers for his nuptial displays.


A long-tailed widow in full nuptial display flight. It is impressive, the tail feathers hang down and the male flies slowly, what looks to be just above stall speed, and very deliberately. Like other widows this species is territorial and will aggressively chase away others males.  You will also find the White-winged and Red-collared Widow in Marievale.


The Long-tailed Widow is easily identified by its red shoulder patch and pale grey bill in the summer breeding season. Those wide stubby wings with a low aspect ratio (wing length to width) allow them to fly slowly and in a very pronounced way during their nuptial flights. Outside the breeding season the male looks similar to the female and loses his spectacular tail feathers.


You are likely to see all of the large Herons at Marievale, the Black Headed, Grey, Purple and Goliath. Every time we go to Marievale, we find the Black-headed Herons hunting alongside the road. With a quick glance, the grey and Black-headed Herons could be incorrectly identified but the Black-headed Heron has a Black head and, nape and back of the neck and its legs are black, not yellow like the Grey Heron. This Black-headed Heron will eat anything from rats and mice to small birds, terrapins and insects.


The Black Heron is the size of an egret and used to be called a Black Egret. We watched it using its umbrella type hunting style but I could not get a decent unobstructed image of this hunting technique.


“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

Another ubiquitous resident of Marievale is the Whiskered Tern. It is easily recognised by its red bill, black head and grey belly and white wings with grey trailing edges. They are good fliers. Their wing shape  indicates a great deal about how a bird lives. 


Flat, rather high-aspect-ratio wings which lacking slots, and with feathers at the base that streamline the trailing edge in with the body, are found in  high-speed flight specialists like terns. These Whiskered Terns flew hunting runs up and down the length of the open water sections looking for fish close to the water surface. Once they spotted their prey, they would abruptly turn and dive down to the water and pluck the fish from the surface of the water using their beak. 


This was a juvenile Whiskered Tern which seemed to have mastered the hunting technique.


The diversity of bird life in Marievale Bird Sanctuary will gladden any birders heart, and avian photographer’s for that matter. We often see members of a bird club who have gathered to see an unusual bird, the news gets around fast now days with social media.

“Only when the last of the animals horns, tusks, skin and bones have been sold, will mankind realize that money can never buy back our wildlife”
~ Paul Oxton

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

Have fun,


One thought on “Marievale practice

  1. You describe a wonderful day out, which proves we should not overlook what is on our doorstep. This summer our garden appears to have been delcared a neutral feeding territory for we often have several male Pin-tailed Whydahs feeding at a time – although the territorial aggression remains just under the surface at all times!

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