Kruger Park: magic at Panic

A cryptic title perhaps but this post describes one of the most fascinating experiences I have had in the bush for a while and one that is deeply etched in my consciousness. It was a wonderful example of the complexity and inter-connectedness in nature. What we saw and experienced powerfully confirmed and reinforced my ideas about the bush.

Lake Panic is a well-known and favourite bird hide located a few kilometres west of Skukuza, the headquarters of Kruger National Park in South Africa. We visited the hide on a few mornings during our week’s stay at Burchell’s Lodge just outside the Kruger gate. This particular morning it was raining and the light was low. I was well armed with all my photographic kit and a head full of expectation. While the rainy overcast weather was not going to provide instant gratification, I knew that a degree of patience and quiet observance would yield something unusual and unexpected – and it did.

“Rain hangs about the place, like a friendly ghost. If it’s not coming down in delicate droplets, then it’s in buckets; and if neither, it tends to lurk suspiciously in the atmosphere.” ~    Barbara Acton-Bond

There was prolific birdlife all around with White faced whistling ducks flying in, White-breasted cormorants trying to dry off, African darters fishing, wide-eyed Spotted thick-knees, African jacanas lily trotting, Pied and Malachite kingfishers fishing, Fish eagles waiting for opportunities, goshawks and sparrowhawks hunting and an assortment of small herons foraging along the water’s edge. To add a little extra variety, terrapins and elephants also came to visit.

Amongst all the wildlife’s comings and goings there were moments of apparent inactivity. The pond at the hide end of Lake Panic is surrounded by large trees, some of which were acacias with large branches hanging over the water. There were two weaver colonies around the pond. The first was to the left of the pond shown in the next image. The further the nest hangs out over the water, the greater the protection from snakes and baboons.

“Nothing shouts “spring” louder than a frenzied colony of weaverbirds building new nests and their emergence of dazzling breeding plumages… ” ~South

The second larger colony was positioned directly across the pond in a well armoured, large acacia tree.

Weavers are gregarious and build their nests in colonies usually above the water. Newman’s Birds describes the weaver’s call as a prolonged swizzling sound with a sharp “zit zit” sound. Imagine hundreds of these weavers all calling simultaneously in a colony. The whole side of the tree seemed to be alive and making that swizzling sound.

There are 14 weaver species in southern Africa, of which 12 are found in South Africa and all but three have predominately yellow plumage.

I noticed two types of weavers at Lake Panic, the Village weaver and the Lesser masked weaver. I did not get an image of a Southern masked weaver and at the time mistook the Village for a Southern masked weaver. All three species prefer to live in large colonies and build similar sized nests in trees with branches which hang over water.

Many birds build unusual nests but the weaver bird is the only one that has the ability to weave and tie knots. The weaver tears strips of fresh grass or shreds reed streamers off their stem and selects a suitable thin branch which extends out over the water to start tying its knots to anchor the nest to the branch. The first knots are structurally critical as they secure the nest chamber to the branch. The males do the structural building of the nest. The next image is of a male Village weaver in the early stage of his construction, assembling the structural hanging frame.

The male will build the basic structure of the nest by weaving threads of grass and reed to form a sturdy shell fully enclosed but for a circular entrance under the front of the nest. The nest is accessed from beneath to make access more difficult for anything but a weaver bird. Different species of weavers have there own style and shape of nest, each with its own different shaped entrance, some even have a long tunnel entrance into the nest shell.

Weavers are known for their roofed nests which are complex hanging woven chambers which male weaver birds construct during mating season to attract prospective mates.

Once the male has completed the basic structure of the nest he will go out of his way to attract a passing female with lots of calls. He also displays by hanging underneath the nest and twists and turns while flapping his wings. His bright yellow plumage must catch the female’s eye and then his display under the nest shows how well it has been constructed.

Impressed with the position, structural integrity of the woven nest shell and the male’s virile display, the female will then inspect the nest. If it passes her inspection she will begin to line the nest in preparation for mating and egg laying. The females are extremely choosy and males often have to tear apart their hard built nest and start again until he meets a female’s demanding standards. The nest building and attracting females continued irrespective of the rain.

“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”   G. K. Chesterton

The rain was intermittent and all of the “birders”, apart from Helen and I left the hide because of the rain and because there was nothing obvious going on. Both species of weaver continued flying from their nests to the reeds directly in front of the hide to gather nest building material. The male weaver would carefully strip off a long thread of reed or strand of grass and fly back to his nest and busily weave it into his nest structure.

All the weavers in the colony were very talkative as they were nest building and trying to attract partners. The chatter was noisy. Then all of a sudden, in unison, the entire colony went silent. Not one weaver flew to or from his nest. The entire pond area became dead quiet. It was so noticeable we were quite taken aback for a while and then realised there must be a raptor or predator around. We scanned the banks of the pond and could see nothing. Then, at the top of a dead tree overlooking the large acacia at the opposite side of the pond, was a Little Sparrowhawk.

These Little Sparrowhawks like riverine forests and woodlands and they also like weavers. The Little Sparrowhawk likes to perch concealed in a nearby tree then ambushes the unsuspecting weaver by swooping down on it before it has time to escape. We never saw this Little Sparrowhawk catch a weaver but it tried quite a few times before giving up and flying off. Each time the raptor flew into the colony the chattering stopped immediately and the weavers froze. The colony operated as one living organism and each member cooperated for the safety of the whole.

“Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotion Africa creates? You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you see it all from above.” ~ Francesca Marciano

Colonial nest building is a defence against predators There are more eyes to look for danger so there is safety in numbers. That does not seem to stop predation from small raptors and harrierhawks, or brood parasitism from cuckoos, honeyguides, Indigobirds, whydahs and cuckoo-finches. The Diederick’s cuckoo and Greater honeyguide are generalist parasitic breeders. We heard many Diedericks cuckoos in the surrounding trees, possibly for good reason, as the weaver breeding season is from October to March and we were there right in the middle of the breeding season.

“… fortune is not in time or place or things; but, good or bad, in the man’s own self for him alone to find and prove.” ~ Percy FitzPatrick

The more I watched the weavers flying back and forth gathering nesting material more I noticed differences in them. I had never noticed the mixed colony before with Village and Lesser masked weavers all co-mingled in the same large colony. The Village, Southern masked and Lesser masked weavers all have yellow plumage on the throat, breast and under tail coverts. Below the nape, the back feathers are speckled yellow and black, and the wing feathers are dark brown to black with yellow borders.

The main physical differences lie in their size and the position of the black face mask and eye colour. The Village weaver has a black face mask and a yellow crown which extends down to its beak, and it has red eyes and pinkish legs. The Southern masked weaver looks very similar but is smaller. It also has a black mask but its mask extends over its forehead just above the beak. It also has red eyes and pinkish legs. The Lesser masked weaver is the smallest of the three masked weavers. Its black face mask extends over the top of its forehead and it has yellow eyes and dark grey legs.

Time and again all the chattering in the colony would suddenly stop. There would be no sounds from any of the weavers. Every weaver was dead still. Even the weavers stripping strands off the reeds directly in front of the hide went dead quiet and still. We now knew that the sudden quiet signalled danger for the colony. This time it turned out to be a Gabar goshawk. It must have flown in (out of sight) from behind the trees and then settled down semi concealed in the branches near the weaver nests to wait for a hunting opportunity. The Gabar goshawk is identified by its grey plumage, red cere and red legs. It has light horizontal barring on its breast and belly and a white rump. It has horizontal thick black and grey bars on its tail feathers.

This Gabar had a few sorties among the weavers without success and eventually flew off. These small raptors do a good job of terrorising the weavers. It was fascinating to watch how this colony worked cooperatively to ensure its safety.

Research done by Nicholas E. Collias of the University of California has shown that social signals of a species are social signals and guides to its social life. Vocal signals are composed of basic elements that vary in duration, frequency, loudness, and tonality of notes. Sound spectrograms were made of 21 of the 26 vocal signals in the extensive vocal repertoire of the African Village Weaver. Short-distance contact calls are given in favorable situations and are generally characterized by low amplitude and great brevity of notes. Alarm cries are longer, louder, and often strident calls with much energy at high frequencies, whereas threat notes, also relatively long and harsh, emphasize lower frequencies. Each male displays his newest nest in a colony with an individually distinctive call to unmated females. The most harmonic calls of the species include a loud call by a male when an unmated female first enters his nest, and also very soft, brief notes given by parent birds to attract a fledgling. Males use somewhat different songs to defend territory, for courtship, and for advertisement.

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”~
John Burroughs

I will never again look at a humble weaver colony the same way, I will always stop and take some time to take in the dynamics of the colony and its surroundings.

“Art helps us see with new eyes what we knew was there but never really recognized. I photograph not to record or document—but rather, to capture and hold, just for a moment, the essence of what exists beyond the scene.” ~ Robert Hall

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

Have fun, Mike

2 thoughts on “Kruger Park: magic at Panic

  1. Weavers are fascinating to watch. Some Village Weavers are still feeding their young in our garden. I have also witnessed the collective alarm calls made by a variety of birds when the presence of a snake is detected in the garden.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s