Seasonal changes

I really enjoy going to new places to photograph wildlife but there is something revealing about going back to the same place over and over. Helen and I do this when we go to Marievale bird sanctuary. This is a wetland with a wonderful diversity of birdlife about 45 minutes drive south of Johannesburg in South Africa.

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

What makes it so interesting is that there are marked seasonal changes in the bird sightings, breeding colours and behaviours. The changing water levels in the wetland dictate that you can see quite different selections of birds at different times of the year, according to the water levels.

On this occasion we visting Marievale in mid-October, which is early spring in South Africa. The maturing male long-tailed widow birds were just starting to grow their long tail feathers but many of them were still plumed in their brown winter colours.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell

The more mature male long-tailed widow birds had already grown their long luxurious black tail feathers and there body plumage had mostly moulted from the winter browns to their breeding black.

The male long-tailed widow birds wasted no time impressing the females and chasing off rivals from their patch of grassland.

This long-tailed widowbird had all but shed its winter colours and was declaring his territory from a old dead stem of statis.

When displaying the long-tailed widowbird has a slow exaggerated flight. It is designed to show the female widowbirds his male prowness, his long tail feathers and flashy epaulets.

The water levels in the reed and marsh areas were still low in early spring which allowed the smaller waders to get to work on the muddy banks along the shallow waters. This little stint was busy foraging for small invertebrates in the mud. It is a very small wader which breeds in Arctic Europe and Asia, so is a long-distance migrant, flying south to Africa and south Asia in non-breeding times. 

The numbers of this species depend on the population of lemmings. In poor lemming years, predatory species such as skuas and snowy owls take Arctic-breeding waders instead.

“Nature has its own rhythms and laws and it is always very patient with everything that it accomplishes. Growth requires time, patience and peace, and nature knows this best. As we admire the works of nature, we can learn how to enter the same natural flow.” ~Spirit Button

The water was still shallow enough in the deeper sections for this glossy ibis to forage. These long decurved billed waders prefer wetlands, marshes, muddy lake-shores and flooded grasslands.

This glossy ibis had moulted into its summer breeding colour which, in good light, are gorgeous. The glossy ibis is a tactile forager, probing the riverbed with its long, decurved bill. Its long bill is adapted to the removal of long prey (e.g. worms) from mudflats. The decurved bill is inserted into crab burrows in marshes and mudflats and into gaps under rocks next to the water’s edge. Curved bills penetrate further than straight ones into both types of cavity. Curved bills are also capable of greater rotation at maximum penetration. These ibises will eat insects, snails, crabs, frogs, and small fish.

“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” ~ Claude Monet

The flora at the water’s edge was starting to come out in bloom offering a greater variety of insects upon which to feed. Although we only saw individuals, glossy ibises nest in colonies, often nesting together in mixed heronries with other species.

Summer visitors such as the ruff had also arrived all the way from Russia. This migratory bird did not have its breeding colours which it takes on back in Russia. Ruffs from Siberia tend to migrate down to southern Africa and India. The maximum distances known to be traversed in a single flight is 4000kms.

“Intuitions are like migratory birds, they come without a map without a reason.” ~ Amit Ray

The ruff is a long-necked, pot-bellied bird. This species shows marked sexual dimorphism; the male is much larger than the female (the reeve), and has breeding plumage which includes brightly coloured head tufts, bare orange facial skin, extensive black on the breast, and the large collar of ornamental feathers that inspired this bird’s English name. The female and the non-breeding male have grey-brown upperparts and mainly white underparts.

A Levailliant’s cisticola. These are small insectivorous birds closely related to warblers. The genus contains about 50 species, of which only two are not found in Africa. These are non-migratory birds and they prefer open grasslands, preferably along side wetlands.

A hottentot teal foraging. This is a dabbling duck which means it upends itself to feed underwater on the riverbed. The colourful teal speculums are difficult to see when the bird’s wings are folded, but these irridescent speculums can be very obvious in flight. The speculum is a patch, often distinctly coloured, on the secondary wing feathers, or remiges, of some birds, often seen on ducks

A pair of yellow billed ducks. There is no sexual dimorphism in these ducks. They are dabbling ducks and have a typical colourful iridescent green speculum on their secondary wing feathers which are only visible in flight. The male’s call is described as a teal-like whistle while the female’s call is more of a mallard-like quack.

“Many people look but few see. Looking might render the physical appearance but seeing will tie in linkages and expose complexities hidden to the glance.”~ Mike Haworth

A common moorhen foraging amongst the red algae. This is known as the waterhen, or swamp chicken, and as the common gallinule is a bird species in the rail family (Rallidae). The frontal sheild above the upper mandible is thought to play several roles including protection when forgaing, mate identification, sexual selection, and territorial defense.

The water level was shallow enough for Avocets to wade and forage in.

Once the water level deepens the Avocets disappear to other more suitable shallower feeding waters. Apart from its pied markings and blue legs, this wader’s is especially unique because of its upwardly curved bill. It feeds on mostly insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, fish and amphibians. Avocets sweep their curved beak from side to side underwater as they slowly walk through shallow water. This stirs up aquatic insects, crustaceans, small fish and seeds which they feed on.

“Stop in your haste. That glance is not enough. Give it a little time and you will begin to see previously unnoticed patterns and behaviours. New context and connections will become apparent. Now you are learning to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A very busy Sacred ibis foraging for frogs, crabs and other crustaceans

We watched this Sacred ibis grab a large crab but the image was spoilt by a pair of grey-headed gulls lurking beside it in case it dropped its meal,

“Don’t just look at the bird. Look at its surroundings, look at its behaviours, look at its colours, look at the shape of its body, bill, feet and eyes. Each element will offer an insight. You will marvel at the complexity and you will begin to see.” ~ Mike Haworth

A nursery of Greater flamingo juveniles. The wind was blowing from right to left and all the youngsters were resting on one leg with their head resting on their backs. A closer look reveals that they were all awake and watching what was going on behind them. Flamingos stand on one leg because it’s physiologically easier for them to do so. The way their legs work means they can rest all of their weight on one side without having to use their muscles to maintain balance. Flamingo joints have a “locked” resting position that secures them in place — as long as they’re standing on one leg.

Adult Greater flamingos feeding in the shallow spring waters at Marievale. Greater flamingos tend to feed in deeper water than the smaller lesser flamingos.

The Greater flamingo has a distinctive pinkish/white colur with red wing coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. The greater flamingo is a filter feeder. It uses its long legs to stir up the substrate after which it sweeps its bill from side to side to filter out its food. These flamingos usually feed with their head fully immersed in the water. They can remain, head under water, for up to 20 seconds. Flamingos pump their tongues up and down, 5 – 6 times per second, pushing the water out of their beak to generate the filtration process.

The flamingo’s pink colouration comes from its diet of shrimp and other pink crustaceans.

“Learning to see – accustoming the eye to calm, to patience, to letting-things-come-to-it; learnings to defer judgement, to encircle and encompass the question on all sides.” ~ Fredrich Nietzsche

What makes birds so fascinating is their incredible diversity, colour and behaviours. They are much more active than mammals. I can only marvel at the incredible variety of shapes, beaks and colours.

To make birds even more intriguing they are living dinosaurs. Birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods. Over the 66 million years since the extintion of dinosaurs, birds have evolved in many ways, enabling them to survive in diverse habitats. Today there are at least 11,000 bird species.

A humble bird photography practice session can turn into a profound natural history lesson.

“Life is the blossoming of flowers in the spring, the ripening of fruit in the fall, the rhythm of the earth and of nature. Life is the cry of cicadas signalling the end of summer, migratory birds winging south in a transparent autumn sky, fish frolicking in a stream. Life is the joy beautiful music installs in us, the thrilling sight of a mountain peak reddened by the rising sun, the myriad combinations and permutations of visible and invisible phenomena.” ~ Daisaku Ikeda

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

Have fun, Mike

3 thoughts on “Seasonal changes

  1. Thx for reminding me that there is a lot of photographic opportunities around us and what is more lthere are a lot of lessons to be learned at all levels on our doorstep. Thx for sharing.

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