Marievale’s birds

Marievale is a wonderful place to visit to practice your bird photography and sharpen your bird identification skills. I learn new things every time I visit. There is always new bird behaviour to observe and new birds to see, some of which are just visiting.

“Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”

~ Marc Riboud

The water level in the wetlands is highly variable depending on the seasons. If you are interested in grasses and wild flowers early summer opens a veritable treasure chest of specimens.

“When it rains, look for rainbows. When it’s dark, look for stars.”

~ Oscar Wilde

Every time I visit Marievale, I invariably see a different variety of birds. There are some old faithfuls, but also some wanderers. This is because some are migrants and others are storm followers,  and others still are nomadic following the food and water. One resident frequently seen in Marievale in the Burchell’s Coucal.

“For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.”

~Henri Cartier-Bresson

Marievale is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg so we leave at 5h30 to get the best light. We found this Burchell’s Coucal on a dead tree stump as we drove into the embankment area of the wetland. These Coucals are often shy but this character did not budge and seemed quite content to sit out the photo shoot.

We see Yellow-billed ducks every time we got to Marievale. That bright yellow bill is a give-away in what is otherwise cryptic plumage.

We do not see Cape Shovellers every time. This duck has a distinctive spatula shaped dark bill. It has bright yellow eyes and legs. The male has a yellowish tinge to the feathers on his head. The female is duller and more mottled colouring on her head and neck. This duck is a dabbler and uses its unique bill shape to filter food out of the water.  This male Cape Shoveller was on his own.

“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.”

~ Unknown

A Reed cormorant resting  on a wooden stump after an energetic morning swimming and diving for food. Its feathers were still wet and it was drying out in the early morning sun.

A Black-headed heron walking along a gravel track. This heron likes to hunt in the grasslands adjacent to the waterways hunting anything it can find from frogs to rats to insects and even small birds. It uses its long beak to spear its prey. These herons do not walk and hunt in open water like Goliath herons.

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

~Henri Cartier-Bresson

A male Golden Crowned Bishop all puffed up in display for passing females. This gorgeous little bishop flies just like a bumble bee and is just as fast. He will lose his vivid yellow plumage at the end of the breeding season.


A male Southern red bishop also all puffed up displaying to passing females.  The Black-winged bishop looks very similar but is not found in South Africa. The shape of this bishop’s beak indicates it is a seed-eater.

A Blacksmith lapwing guarding a puddle in a dirt track. Its pied plumage is distinctive as is its red eye. They are also very noisy and are a dead giveaway anything moving  near them.

“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” – ~Unknown

A male Hottentot teal poised on a floating raft of reeds. He stopped just to assess what we were doing. Not keen to be photographed he soon swam away deeper into the waterway.


Another Golden-crowned bishop in full display mode trying to attract females. One of our own diminutive birds of paradise but without the dancing.

A secretive African Crake wandering along the track on an embankment. I could not get a clear image as it was walking away from me and my f-stop was not enough to achieve an adequate the depth of field. The image does though give you an idea of one of the more secretive birds you can see in this wetland. I have also seen many Black crakes and on occasion, an African Rail.

“Photography is the story I fail to put into words.”

~ Destin Sparks

A Red-knobbed coot with her chick. This coot has all black plumage but for a white frontal shield with two red knobs which are only present in breeding season. There are hundreds of these coots in the waterways of Marievale and the males are forever chasing each other in a mad dash across the water.

“Keep your love of nature, for that is the true way to understand art more and more.” ~Vincent Van Gogh

Another male Southern red bishop. This time his attention on seeds, not females.

One of the summer migrants, an male Amur falcon sitting on one of the power lines stretching along the border of the bird sanctuary. There are a number of trees for these falcons to perch on but they seem to prefer the power lines presumably because they have a better view of their killing area.

This is an aggressive noisy seed-eater –  a male pin-tailed Whydah. The male will assume a territory and aggressively defend it. If he is not chasing females he is attacking any male nearby. The long tail regrows every breeding season. Whydahs are usually brood parasites, and the Pin-tailed whydahs often parasitise waxbill nests. Male Whydahs unlike Widowbirds are not all dressed in black.

A female long tailed Widowbird (?) watching the other females being chased by a male. The red bishop females are a lighter buff colour with less heavy streaking on their front and back.


There are many pairs of Stonechats in Marievale. I particularly liked this male Stonechat perched  in this florescence of  small yellow flowers. 

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
~ Robert Lynd

We don’t always get a good sighting of a Purple Gallenule but this time we were treated to watching a female feeding her chick. It is hard to believe that this drab coloured chick will transform into the glorious plumage of the adult with its blended blue, green and purples, all of which have a beautiful sheen in the sun.

This female Purple Gallenule was stripping the outer sheath of succulent stems to expose the pith and giving it to her chick.

 The north west side of Marievale borders an old gold mine. I liked the different textures when looking across the grass in the foreground to the pampas grass above the crushed stone pile with the old corrugated mine dump in the background.

It was quite an overcast morning on the Sunday when we went to Marievale. The dark skies added even more contrast to the textured scene looking west.

The soft wispy texture of the pampas grass was a strong contrast to the crushed stone dump behind it.

“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.”
~ Stephen King

Whiskered tern hunting over the waterways in Marievale. These terns are highly agile fliers turning sharply and diving to pluck insects and small fish out of the water. Most of South Africa’s terns have a black forehead, crown and nape, a red beak and legs. the body is mostly grey but for their white cheeks and throat.


Whiskered terns have a lazy, banking flight pattern and patrol up and down the waterways looking for food. This tern has a high aspect ratio ( wingspan/wing area) which is ideal for gliding. The long narrow wing have a high wing-loading ratio ( bird mass/wing area). The combination of aspect ratio and wing loading will determine how agile the bird will be in flight.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

~Ansel Adams

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

Have fun,


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