Marievale in December

South Africa is fortunate to have a stunning diversity of birds. We have several well known sanctuaries for our avian friends. One of them is close to where we live in Johannesburg. It is Marievale bird sanctuary near Nigel about a 45 minute drive away. It is Ramsar site which is a wetland site designated to be of international importance. Marievale has an especially diverse array of wetland birds which attracts birders and wildlife photographers alike.

“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

Helen and I go to Marievale several times a year. Each time the weather and the water level in the wetland are different. These changing wetland conditions attract different combinations of waders, ducks and geese, raptors, seed eaters and insectivores. It is never the same.

Being an enthusiastic wildlife photographer I also get much needed photographic practice. Photography like any language needs constant practice.

I am a keen birder, not the “list ticking” kind but I am very interested in bird physiology and flight and why you finds certain birds in particular places at specific times. There is a fascinating natural intelligence at play which I am keen to tap into to better understand behaviour which should help me anticipate what my subject will do next and so get that more interesting images.

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” ~ Wendell Berry

A male Stonechat, a little wet from the grass after it had rained earlier that morning. These little chats are ubiquitous in Marievale and the male can be seen staking out his territory.

A female Stonechat perched on top of purple statis.

A male Long-tailed widowbird in full breeding plumage. This male was displaying with his slow deliberate flight with his luxurious tail feathers between his legs. His short broad wing shape allows him to display in flight the way he does.

Another image of a male Long-tailed widow bird. This character was perched on an old statis stem. He was displaying to passing females. His display when perched consists of puffing out his head and body feathers and opening his wings to show his colourful epaulets.

A Squacco heron wading through the shallow marsh water to warn off a nearby competitor. The main diet consists of relatively small prey, particularly fish, frogs and tadpoles, and insects and insect larvae, depending on the area. It is a solitary feeder and will defend its feeding territory against other Squacco herons using forward displays (when the back, crest and breast feathers held erect and puffed out to make the defender look bigger) and supplanting flights, where the heron suddenly and aggressively flies and lands either on top of its opponent or on the spot it has just vacated.

The Squacco heron is very comfortable in water but also forages in the short grass for insects. It has an amazing ability to stretch its neck which comes in handy when fishing from an overhanging branch or when walking through longish grass.

“Hardly any one is able to see what is before him, just as it is in itself. He comes expecting one thing, he finds another thing, he sees through the veil of his preconception, he criticizes before he has apprehended, he condemns without allowing his instinct the chance of asserting itself.” ~ Arthur Symons

A male Swanson’s spurfowl. It was early and the sun had just risen. This male was noisily declaring his territory. Looking at the spurs on the back of his legs, he was a youngster who had not been in many territorial fights.

A Black shouldered kite perched on a power line which traverses the wetland. This is an ideal perch from which to look for prey scurrying below in the grass. This kite feeds on mainly rodents and larger insects,but not fish. This kite has an incredible ability to hover when aerial hunting. Once locked onto its prey it dives into the grass to capture it. It can often be seen feeding on the wing. If the prey is too big it will find a suitable perch to support it while it feasts.

A Purple swamphen was feeding on something in the reeds. I could not see what it was, but its beak had plenty of yellow residue on it. This image gives a good idea of the large size of its feet. It can remain elevated in the reeds by bunching the reeds together with its feet. The large feet help spread its weight out over a large area enabling it to walk easily over fallen reedbeds along the water’s edge. These swamphens are also good swimmers.

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” ~ Wendell Berry

As we arrived this is the scene we were confronted with – a Black headed heron had caught a large rat in the grass and had just started to swallow it whole and semi-alive. You can see the nictitating membrane covered its eye as it began to swallow its prey as the front legs of the rat were still moving. This heron’s neck is able to kink in an S-shape, due to the modified shape of their 20 cervical vertebrae.

It was incredible to watch this Black headed heron swallow this rat head first and whole. No taste involved and it went straight into its stomach. A special vertebrae in their necks enable it to create an “s” shape, almost like a recoil which allows them to snap their necks deep into water or in the air to catch their prey at lighting fast speeds. Their razor sharp beaks allow them to stab their prey. Herons do not have gizzards which are in most other birds and help break down tougher parts of the food like bones. Instead herons just swallow their prey down their flexible esophagus and into their loose and stretchable stomachs.

Seeing this hunting Black headed heron as we entered Marievale was a good reminder that you need your camera set up and ready before you drive into the sanctuary. You just never know what is around the corner. Also understanding the hunting behaviour of a Black headed heron helps exercise a little patience as you can anticipate this kind of image.

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
~ Wendell Berry

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

Have fun, Mike

3 thoughts on “Marievale in December

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