Marievale in May

May is late autumn in South Africa. We took a Sunday morning trip to Marievale to get some bird photography practice and just enjoy all the birdlife at Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the Highveld near Nigel about 75 kilometres south west of Johannesburg.

“Every creature was designed to serve a purpose. Learn from animals for they are there to teach you the way of life. There is a wealth of knowledge that is openly accessible in nature. Our ancestors knew this and embraced the natural cures found in the bosoms of the earth. Their classroom was nature. They studied the lessons to be learned from animals. Much of human behavior can be explained by watching the wild beasts around us. They are constantly teaching us things about ourselves and the way of the universe, but most people are too blind to watch and listen.” ~ Suzy Kassem

Most bird photographers know to get to their destination before sunrise. The Highveld, especially around Marievale, in late autumn and early winter is prone to thick mist which burns off after sunrise. The mist creates a very moody scene and some interesting potential photographic opportunities.

As the sun rises and the mist thins out so the colour starts to change introducing blues from the cloudless sky. It is cold but there is a surprising amount of bird activity at this time of the day.

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

The misty atmosphere creates a heavy dew which provides photographers with many opportunities for interesting and unique images. The dry grass in this next image was heavily laden with dew creating delicate detail. Spider webs make particularly attractive dew-laden subjects.

This Hottentot teal was happily swimming around in the frigid water. The water never freezes but the temperature must fall very low. The duck’s feet have no feathers so are fully exposed to the cold water. The remarkable adaptation is that veins and arteries to and from the feet are located close together and act as a heat transfer system. The hot blood carried in the arteries to the feet transfer heat to the cold blood in the veins from the feet. This ensures body heat is not lost unnecessarily through the feet and the heart is not supplied with blood which is icy cold.

Birds retain their body heat by fluffing up their feathers which acts as a insulator. Bird’s body temperatures also drop at night which reduces the temperature differential and therefore heat loss.

Teals are smaller, petite ducks characterised by short necks and short tails. The Hottentot teal is a dabbling duck which upends itself with it tail sticking vertically upwards as its head reaches down to the river bed to feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans and aquatic vegetation. These teals have a green wing speculum ( a patch of iridescent colour on the secondary wing feathers) and a blue bill with a black/dark brown crown on their head.

“Photograph: a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

You will find a variety of herons at Marievale. Although not abundant, you are likely to see a Goliath heron. Invariably you will only see an individual. This is the largest of the African herons. It is a wading bird with slate grey plumage with a chestnut coloured feathers on its head, neck and belly. The chin and throat are white in colour.

The Goliath heron feeds mainly on fish but will also eat frogs, small mammals and reptiles. This heron spears its prey and swallows it whole once it has subdued it. Since the Goliath heron often catches large fish it is regularly subject to kleptoparasitism by fish eagles.

In late autumn, once the mist has burned off the days can be sunny with little wind. There are old gold mine dumps in the background from the mining activties of yesteryear.

In autumn there is plenty of grass seed around which attracts queleas. We do not see the swarms of queleas around Marievale which are often seen in the bushveld or on farmlands because this is predominately a wetland area. The next image is of a male red-billed quelea in flight. It still has its breeding colours. This quelea is a small sparrow like bird of the weaver family. Queleas most often seen feeding and drinking in large flocks which form murmurations.

The Squacco heron is a small heron about 43 centimetres in height weighing around 300 grams. This small heron is uniquely coloured in tawny buff and brown feathers. It has a yellow iris and yellow legs. Its neck and breast have light brown streak and its belly and sides are white. This character was crossing the access road from the Duiker hide to the old bridge. It stooping in the middle of the road to assess what we were doing.

A Burchell’s coucal climbed up to to the higher sections of grass to get into the sun and dry out. The grass was still very wet from the dew. These coucals skulk through the underground looking for prey. This coucal is predatory and a member of the cuckoo family. It is often seen in pairs and can be heard dueting. It is affectionately called the rainbird because is it regularly heard during and after rains.

A male long-tailed widowbird in non breeding plumage. This plumage colouration is in stark contrast to its breeding plumage which is black with long luxuriant tail feathers.This widowbird retains its red-orange shoulder feathers and white trim below the red shoulder. Its beak shape infers that it is a seedeater.

A peaceful scene looking west, from the access road between the Duiker hide and the old bridge across, the wetland to the old mine dumps in the background.

“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful. An endless prospect of magic and wonder.”~ Ansel Adams

To see a black heron is always a treat. This small heron the size of a Squacco heron. Although black in colour it appears slate grey in the sunlight. Its legs are black but it looks like it stepped in a puddle of yellow road paint because its feet are bright yellow.

What makes the black heron unique is its hunting method. Many storks use their wings to cast a shadow on the water which attracts the fish and enables the bird to see into the water more easily. The black heron goes one step further, it lifts both its wings into a umbrella shape with its head underneath its wings. The fish swim into the shade and the heron has a good visual so can catch them easily. This method is called canopy feeding. The black heron is diurnal.

I have not often seen a purple heron at Marievale. This heron is so called because of its purple colouring from a distance. This heron is similar in size to the grey heron and is clearly distinguished by its reddish brown plumage. It also has a more elongated and narrow appearance with a long thin head. Its body shape and size of feet are well adapted for living among the reeds. This heron feeds mainly on fish.

The purple heron is distinctive in flight with its large feet and its distinctively chestnut to orange buff to red buff colouring on the sides of its head and neck. It has a clear black streak which runs from its eye down the side of its neck.

“Cherish the natural world because you are part of its and you depend on it.”~ Sir David Attenborough

You will always see Stonechats when you visit Marievale, they are ubiquitous. This is a female Stonechat perched on top of a dead broken reed. The male was close by but did not pose.

Spoonbills are attracted to Marievale because the water level in the wetland is usually shallow and suits their size. Spoonbills are not abundant but you are likely to see one or two each time you visit this bird sanctuary.

This was an unusual find. A common moorhen with unusual plumage. Two birds you will always see at Marievale are red-knobbed coots and common moorhens. Usually, the adult common moorhen has black body and wing feathers. Its rump is a olive-brown colour and its has white tail feathers. It also has a white stripe down the side of its body and on its shoulders. It has a red facial shield and red bill with a yellow tip. Its legs are yellow but half way up the femur it turns red.

“Nature experiments with life and celebrates diversity.”~ Willis Harman

This particular adult had all white body and wing feathers. Its primary wing feathers looked to be grey and its neck was a blotched black and white. The colouring of its head, front facial shield, bill and legs were the same as a normal common moorhen.

The lesser moorhen is much less common. It looks like a common moorhen though is a lighter black. Its legs are a pinkish colour and its bill and front facial shield are mostly yellow. The top of its facial shield is red but the shield is predominately yellow in colour. The lesser moorhen can be found in the northern part of South Africa, but I have never seen one.

“With our cameras we capture moments which remind us of how extraordinary this world is that we move through.” ~ Mike Haworth

The only bird list I have is the “to find” one.

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

Have fun, Mike

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