Marievale in March

March is late summer on the Highveld in South Africa. We visited Marievale, an important bird sanctuary in Gauteng, in March to do some birding and for me to practice my bird photography. Marievale is well known to birders and bird photographers alike.

What makes this area unique is that it is a protected wetland. It is a Ramsar site which is a wetland designated to be of international importance, especially as a waterfowl habitat, under the Ramsar Convention.

What is interesting about this area is that it is a wetland amongst old gold mines. There are mine dumps in the background and although most of the mining activity has now stopped, the water is still polluted by the mining activities of yesteryear. The water pollution does not seem to have unduly affected the wetland vegetation or the birdlife.

“It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.” ~ Aristotle

Marievale is just outside Nigel in Gauteng and about 45 minutes drive from Johannesburg. The idea is to get there by sunrise as the bird activity seems to be best for the first few hours after sunrise.

“In that dawn chorus one hears the throb of life itself.” ~ Rachel Carson

Marievale is known for its waterfowl, but all the grasslands around it provide a wonderful habitat for herons and seedeaters.

Cape Shovelers can be found, but not always seen at Marievale. They are dabbling ducks, meaning they swim in shallow water and feed by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic plants on the bed of the waterway. They also eat lavae and insects when available. This duck is cryptically brown coloured and has a characteristic large spatulate bill and yellow eyes and legs.

You are not likely to go to a wetland or open grassland and not find a lapwing. On this particular trip to Marievale we saw an plethora of blacksmith lapwings. Not just the old pair but hundreds. Lapwings play an important role as alarm systems for other birds and animals. Adult blacksmith lapwings have unmistakable black grey and white markings. You can hear them from afar.

The one thing you can be sure of at Marievale is that you will see a base of familiar wetland birds but there will always be a few interesting characters which pop out of the reeds. One such surprise was this lone juvenile common moorhen.

One of the aspects about bird photography I have found is that you can spend hours trying to get a image of a species of bird that is skittish and always moving around. Then all of a sudden one specimen just stops and provides the perfect photographic opportunity. This juvenile common moorhen knew we there, it could see us, but was not phased by our presence at all. these birds are normally very skittish.

This was a juvenile blacksmith lapwing, one of the hundreds we saw that day. This youngster was resting. Lapwings like storks and herons sit with their legs bent forward from the knee.

I have been to Marievale many times over the past ten years and this was the first time I had seen a South African Shelduck. It looks like a small goose and sounds like a goose. They have very distinctive markings with ruddy colored body feathers and wings strikingly marked with black, white and green. The male has a grey head, and the female has a white face and black crown, nape and neck sides. The only other times I have seen this shelduck has been in the Kalagadigadi and Etosha.

There are numerous black headed herons at Marievale. They occupy the grasslands adjacent to the open water in the marshy areas. These birds are supreme predators capable of eating anything from a frog to a fish, rat, rabbit or terrapin. This black-headed heron had its neck retracted during flight for longitudinal stability.

In March it is still summer in Marievale and this was a red-shouldered or fan-tailed widowbird. It looks like a long tailed widowbird without the long tail. The red-shouldered widowbird does not grow a long tail and it has a pure orange-red shoulder with no white border to its red shoulder. This widowbird prefers swampy areas so Marievale was ideal.

One of the most common plovers in Marievale is the three-ringed plover. This is a very small bird with the characteristics three rings on its collar. It also has distinctive red eye ring.

All plovers and lapwings are in the same family and are all considered wading birds. There are eight South African ‘lapwings’ which are easily identified by their larger size, bold colouring, active habits, and very loud calls. They are often found in grasslands away from water. There are ten Plovers in southern Africa and all are small waders which are found along the edge of water.

The southern red bishop looks like a jewel in the golden grass waving in the breeze. The southern red bishop has a red crown, neck, back, rump and a black belly, chest and face. The southern red bishop is not to be mistaken for a fire-crowned bishop which also has both a red crown but it has a red breast band. The male of this species is hyperactive during breeding season trying to solicit females. As one passes by or comes close he puffs his chest out and fluffs up his back feathers

Marievale is a wetland in amongst disused mine dumps from the surrounding gold mines.

This Levaillant’s Cisticola posed beautifully for a few seconds on the end of a dead reed stem. This little cisticola has a ruddy coloured cap and buff coloured breast and heavily streaked back feathers.

This is one of my favourites, a golden crowned bishop. This male is, like the red bishop, hyperactive when females are anywhere near in breeding season. It flies around like a little golden bumble bee.

Don’t confuse a golden-crowned bishop with a yellow bishop. The latter has an all black head.

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A red-billed teal flying over some open water with reeds in the background.

A male golden crowned bishop in full breeding plumage. He was perched at the top of a dead reed, looking out for passing females.

A yellow billed duck. They are usually seen in pairs. These are also dabbling ducks. It is much bigger than a teal and more the size of a mallard duck.

It has taken me ages to get some decent images of a long-tailed widowbird displaying in flight. On this particular occasion the light was behind me and the widowbird must have been about 30 metres away and its was around 8h00 in the morning

The long-tailed widowbird puts on a spectacular plumage display in flight. The display consists of a slow emphasised wing flaps with its tail between its legs. Its tail comprises around eight or nine long luxuriant black feathers which it fans out. This widowbird has broad black wings with red shoulders underlined by a white stripe.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Widowbirds are so called because they are all dressed in black.

These widowbirds are often found communally with bishops and weavers. They are all seedeaters.

The breeding male regularly performs slow display flights low over his territory. The flight displays are aimed at attracting females. Each display comprises slow and erratic wing flapping, while extending and pushing down its long tail feathers between its legs.

The luxurious black tail feathers of a male long-tailed widowbird in breeding plumage must be three times longer than the body of the bird.

“At the heart of art is learning to see.”~ Seth Godin

A long tailed widow bird with a degree of backlighting to illuminate its wing and tail feathers.

A reed cormorant drying itself on a dead reed. Once you look closely they have very attractive colouring on their faces and backs.

A southern red bishop in breeding plumage perched near the top of a dead reed stem on the look out for female and ready to chase away other males in an instant.

We always see a black headed heron on the narrow track from the Duiker hide down to the old Marsh owl hide. I am always impressed by these voracious predators. Herons are carnivorous and the black headed heron seems to be capable of devouring the most surprising mammals, birds and reptiles. It clearly had swallowed something large. Herons just swallow their catch down their flexible esophagus’s and into their loose and stretchable stomachs. They do not have a crop like most birds.

An adult African Purple Swamphen. This bird is part of the rail family. It is a skulker. It is found in swamps and reedbeds. This swamphen has especially large feet which helps it to spread its weight across the reeds making its movement easier. It is also very dexterous with those feet holding stems of water-based plants while stripping the outer layers to feed on the soft inner pith.

The African Purple Gallinule has a new name the African Purple Swamphen. It is a beautifully coloured bird with blue and purple feathers on this head, neck and body. Its back and the top of its wing feathers are an olive green. It has distinctive red bill and frontal shield and pink legs with exceptionally large feet with long toes.

This is a skittish waterfowl and not often seen clearly but for some unknown reason this adult wandered around in the open in front of us for about half an hour. The African Purple Swamphen has white feathers under its tail which it flashes regularly by flicking its tail up.

Wetlands play a vital role in our hydrological systems. It was only in Dr Steve Boyes video “Into the Okavango” that I begun to realise how important these wetlands are in controlling the flow, for storing water like a sponge and clean up the water flowing through them. These wetland areas also provide a vital sanctuary and food for a diverse range of waterfowl, seed-eating birds and numerous insects, reptiles and small mammals.

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” ~ Sandra Postel

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

Have fun, Mike

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