Mashatu foxes, cats and jackals

It was late spring in Mashatu in October and it was hot and dry.  The first good rains had yet to fall. The wildlife was pairing up for what looked like preparation for the breeding season. We saw numerous pairs of Bat-eared foxes and Black-backed jackals, and in the twilight, Wild cats.

“The best things in life aren’t things.”~ Art Buchwald

What was particularly heartening was that we found numerous pairs of Bat-eared foxes. We have not seen Bat-eared foxes since 2011. The general speculation was that many of the Bat-eared fox families drowned in their den at night when the Limpopo river flooded its banks in a massive flood in early 2012. The miracle of nature, if left alone, it will slowly rebuild itself. All the Bat-eared foxes we saw were in pairs. They were very wary and so they should be of humans!

The male Bat-eared foxes frequently moved away from their den perhaps as a decoy.

The Bat-eared fox females never seemed to venture far from their dens, preferring to hunker down or dive into the den.

One of the intriguing aspects about photographing wildlife and wild birds is that you can spend many hours trying to get a decent image of a particular animal or bird with not avail. Then out of then blue one particular animal or bird poses beautifully completely unperturbed by you. These are treasured moments when you get an insight into that animal’s life and its behaviour, if only for a brief period..

This Black-backed jackal female lay down in a hollow in the road where the sand must have been soft and cool and she relished it.

We must have spent about fifteen minutes watching her just sunbathing in the early morning light as the sun was beginning to warm up.

At first light one morning on our way out of camp we found this female Black-backed jackal tending to her pups. 

She had kept them out of harms way in a small drainage pipe under the road.

“Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live unreflectively and begins
to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to raise it to its true value.
To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will to live.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

Not 200 metres away was a hyaena den. Needless to say any one of the hyaenas would have happily  taken a jackal pup as a meal.

The jackal den was effective and the female was an attentive mother. The pups were still nursing and we were very fortunate to get a glimpse of them when she called them out of their confined den.

Bat-eared foxes are fairly common throughout the drier regions of Southern and Eastern Africa, where they are most often seen foraging at night or in the early morning in warmer months and during the day when the weather turns colder.

Bat eared foxes dig their dens to provide shelter for their young from high temperatures and predators. They eat small invertebrates such as ants, termites, spiders, scorpions and crickets but will also eat small birds, mammals and reptiles, and even desert truffle if the opportunity arises.

In the late afternoon, the crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife becomes more active. We saw quite a few African wildcats but they were very skittish.

This was the only African wildcat which stayed put long enough to get a photograph. Somewhat ambitiously, the wildcat moved off to the right through the thicket as a Swainson’s spurfowl  wandered past and the wildcat thought it had an opportunity for an early meal. Unfortunately the wildcat missed the spurfowl so dinner would be later.

Large-spotted genet. This not particularly good image was taken on our way back to camp one evening after the sun had set. The Large-spotted species is clearly distinguished because it is bigger than the Small-spotted genet and it has a black tip to its tail. The Small-spotted genet has a white tip to its tail and has more distinct black and white coat markings.

“If you look at the creation of the earth, you’ll see that all the forces of physics combined to create an ebb and flow that keeps everything running in a continuous, harmonious circle of life.”
~ Amy Leigh Mercree

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

Have fun,

Mike

A fallen elephant calf

It was early in the morning in Mashatu game reserve. We had been driving for about an hour. The sun was rising and it was warming up. We were driving along the Majale river in a section we had seen a large elephant herd walk through the afternoon before. By chance we stumbled upon a baby elephant carcass. Our guide, Justice, suggested that this calf must have been still-born and was probably born to one of the females in the herd we has seen the afternoon before. The fact that there were no elephants around was a tell-tale sign of what may have happened the day before.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”~Gilbert K. Chesterton

This scene was in an open area with bushes around it and a large Mashatu tree adjacent, casting deep shadow over most of the area. There were two pairs of black-backed jackals around the carcass which had already be partly eaten.

The jackals had to assert their dominance over the squadrons of vultures which were arriving.

“Learn a little patience. You never know what might be around the corner.”~Chris d’Lacey

It was both interesting and amusing to watch what must have been over 50 vultures, white-backed and Cape species, flying in and out of nowhere. Before we found the carcass, we did not see any vultures in the air. We watched them arriving stacked like planes above Heathrow airport. Each vulture approached the scene differently. Some came in conventionally on finals in an orderly manner. Others tucked in their wings and came spiralling down from great height. Some came in “hot” and over shot the runway and had to fly around. The vultures have excellent eyesight and must watch each other from great distances in the sky. They are also capable of flying great distances each day.

Most of the vultures which arrived were white-backed and the odd Cape vulture joined the fray.

“Rest and be thankful.” ~ William Wordsworth

By the look of it all the flying and fighting around the carcass got too much. Some of the vultures chose to wait in the periphery while the jackals were having their fill.

The jackals were very wary while feeding, looking beyond the vultures for possible (arriving) hyaenas and lions.

The jackals would clear space for themselves to feed on the carcass for a while and eventually the mob of vultures would crowd in on the jackals.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.”~ William Burchell

Sometimes the jackals and vultures gave each other a fright and everyone scattered with leaves, dust and feathers flying.

The White-backed vulture is a large bird but smaller than a Cape vulture.  Despite their size and numbers, the jackals would take the vultures on for position at the carcass.

It did not happen often but there were brief spells when the jackals had the carcass to themselves. Each jackal would eat quickly then look up to ensure that a hyaena or lion was not about to spoil the party.

Inevitably the number of vultures arriving would signal to both hyaenas and lions that there was food around which could be stolen.

The Cape vulture is noticeably bigger than its White-backed cousin. It is also more aggressive.

This next image show that the jackals did not have breakfast all their own way and a single jackal would be chased off the carcass by the mass of vultures.

Once there were three or four jackals they won back the carcass but there was also rivalry between the pairs of jackals.

“Always be careful of where you run to. When the going gets tough, take it easy and slow down, else you venture into the den of lions.” ~ Michael Bassey Johnson

With all the noise of the vultures it must have been difficult for the jackals to hear any approaching predators so they frequently looked up in between snatching pieces of meat off the carcass.

Peace would return for a few minutes while the jackals tucked into the carcass but inevitably the vultures would start pressing. The odd bold vulturine soul would try to fly in but the jackals soon sorted out that tactic,

“Be ever vigilant but never suspicious.”~Old English proverb

The vultures were aggressive to each other with numerous spats for dominance. Surprisingly, in what appeared to  be aggressive fights I did not see any vulture draw blood on another vulture.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” ~Aldo Leopold

Once the jackals had their fill they left the scene. The risk of staying around was too high once the incoming vultures had signalled to all the predators in the area that there was a carcass available.

Once the vultures get stuck in they can strip a carcass very quickly.  Despite all the noise and activity, we did not see one other predator come in to challenge the vultures and jackals.

The vultures were coming into the feeding scene and in doing so would cast a shadow as they flew in. The large shadow cast by the incoming vulture caused the jackals to look up and see what was going on.

Although unfortunate that the elephant calf had died, it was fascinating to watch nature’s actors perform in this scene. It was spell binding and we hardly noticed the two hours which flew by. Usually I have seen lions or hyaenas dominate the scene but never seen this to and fro interaction between jackals and vultures. We never got back to this scene again but I have no doubt that there was nothing left after two or three days after natures’ waste disposal teams of hyaena, jackals and vultures had finished.

“If you are intelligent, if you are alert, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.” ~ Osho

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu lions

It is the end of the dry season, late spring, in Mashatu Game Reserve in south Eastern Botswana. It is very hot and dry but the rains are coming, how good they will be we do not know! For herbivores it is a question of hanging on; for the lions it is a time of plenty.

“These are the animals that are the reason why you don’t see old animals in the wild. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild, and its all because of the predator: the lion, the tiger, the leopard, all the cats.” ~ Tippi Hedren

We left camp at 6h00 to get into the park while the light was still soft and the predators were still active. Less than 15 minutes into the drive, we found two lionesses walking along the dam wall in the south east of the reserve. They were relaxed and stopped periodically to just look around. At one point both the lionesses stopped and lay down on top of the dam wall in the early morning light.

Later that morning, we found a second group of lionesses with cubs. The cubs looked well fed and alert.

“Watch, don’t stare. Listen, don’t talk. Sense, don’t opine. There is more going on here than you are remotely aware of! ~ Mike Haworth

This well-fed cub must have been around six months old. I liked the reclined pose and just look at that small bulging belly.

Other cubs were more inquisitive. The two lionesses in this pride had two cubs each.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the light grew brighter and the contrast stronger.  At this point I decided a black and white treatment would suit the image better. I liked the shadows on the the lioness.

“Why are wild lions in danger? Habitat loss which has led to a reduction of prey!~ Mike Haworth

The next day we set out looking for the dominant large male Lion in Mashatu. This king has dominated this territory for around the last four years.

This is a large, muscular male lion, in his prime with little competition. Most of the young males in this area have been pushed out into the surrounding territories.

This side view gives a sense of the size and muscular build of this male. I liked the different tones of light on him.

“His size triggers primal fear. His silent gaze hides intention. A regal and confident pose. Little fazes him and there is little to dispose him.”~ Mike Haworth

A regal, dominant male lying in the shade of a Shepard tree away from his family who were about forty metres away.

He looks so docile lying in his position….but don’t try getting out of the vehicle!

I always try to take a close up of one feature of an animal. This male’s mane looked is perfect condition, well groomed with highlights and all.

“Is the lion walking across the road or is the road crossing the lion’s path?~Mike Haworth.

A black and white image of this magnificent male to show his bulk, all of which is pure muscle. This is a big, burly male lion quite capable of defending his territory and family.

An up close facial image of this male lion showing his regal pose and varied tones in his mane.. 

There is something awe inspiring about being close to a large male lion. You get a first hand impression of the size of this predator. It is very humbling to be sitting in the protection of vehicle so close to this apex predator.

“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,

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu bird bath

This the second post from my recent trip to Mashatu Game Reserve in south-east Botswana. The game drives through Mashatu provide exceptional wildlife sightings and opportunities to photograph wildlife. The game drives usually take place first thing in the morning from 5h30 to 9h30  and 16h00 to 19h30 in the evening in the summer. After each morning game drive we have a hearty brunch when everyone discusses the morning’s sightings. After brunch  it is usually very hot so everyone either goes for a swim or a snooze. There is nothing better than a lunchtime sleep after a morning of fresh air and excitement.

“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird.” ~David Attenborough

A few bird baths formed from natural rocks have been placed around the camps and these baths are regularly filled with water. This attracts many birds and small mammals into the camp, especially when the area is very dry and still waiting for its first good summer rains.

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”  ~ Robert Lynd 

Once everyone had retired to relax, the areas around the bird baths were quiet and undisturbed.  This is the time when the potential for bird bath photography starts and you need to be part of the quiet. I set up my camera with a 840mm focal length lens on a tripod and began my vigil knowing a key ingredient for success would be patience.

Many of the birds call as they approach the area of the bird baths. The white-helmeted shrikes chatter, the arrow-marked babblers babble and sparrows and waxbills twitter. Most of the birds normally fly into a nearby shrub or tree just to see whether it is safe to come down to the bird bath.

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” ~William Wordsworth

A family group of white helmetshrikes were frequent visitors to the bird bath in the six days we were in the camp. These birds are cooperative breeders with an alpha pair which bonds for life.

The Arrow-marked babblers also came in groups, they were very noisy and seemed to love to bathe in, as much as drink from the bird baths. This babbler’s name is derived from the downward pointing arrow marks on its throat, breast and belly plumage.

A female Kurricane thrush, like her partner arrived very quietly. This means that you have to be attentive at all times as some of the birds arrive unannounced. These thrushes prefer the woodland vegetation and avoid forest and grasslands.

The Grey-headed sparrows always flew into the nearby branches with much twittering to check if it was safe to come down to drink. This sparrow has a diagnostic grey head and is larger than a waxbill and smaller than a weaver.

Blue waxbills, like the Grey-headed sparrows, were wary drinkers never just flew straight down to the bird bath. This waxbill has a beautiful powder blue face, breast, rump and flanks.

“The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life, large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song.” ~John Burroughs
A male Southern Masked weaver in full breeding plumage. He was quite an aggressive character. This weaver could be confused with a Village weaver but the Southern Masked weaver has a red eye and the Village weaver a yellow eye. The latter is a slightly larger weaver. The Village weaver’s back is much more darkly speckled  and its back face mask extends further down its throat than the Southern masked weaver.

A White Helmet shrike looking for the rest of its flock. This Helmet shrike has a white crest which it raises when alarmed.

A female Southern Red-headed weaver.

A male Southern Red-headed weaver in full breeding plumage.

A Crested Barbet, colloquially called the marmalade bird because of its red and yellow colouring and its crest which is raised when excited or alarmed.

A male Kurricane thrush wandering around in the brush next to the bird bath.

A Jameson’s Firefinch came down to drink in groups and individually. It can be identified by its pinkish-red colouring and blackish bill. It is a similar size to the Blue waxbill.

“I don’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful.”~ Pete Hamill
A grey-headed shrike came down to drink at the bird baths in the shade of a large Mashatu tree next to the patio of the camp. Its haunting piping whistled call could be heard throughout the day. This bird is unmistakable because of its colouring and cannot be confused with an other shrike. This is a large shrike quite capable of killing a Bloomslang, a venomous green tree snake which can grow up to two metres in length.

A male Kurricane thrush can be identified by its speckled throat and broad malar stripes and bright orange bill and orange sides to its breast.

A female Paradise flycatcher flew around the bird bath without ever coming down to drink, when I was watching. These flycatchers seem to dance around in the trees and do not perch on a branch for any length of time making them tricky to photograph.

A male Red-billed Buffalo weaver having a drink. This is also an aggressive bird which does not tolerate smaller birds drinking next to it. These weavers breed in colonies and usually make their untidy nests on the west side of a thorn or Shepherd tree.

A Crested barbet sitting in a nearby sapling checking to see if the bird bath areas was safe. This barbet has a distinctive black collar dotted with white spots.

A male Southern red-headed weaver enjoying its drink of water in the hot part of the early afternoon. The dappled light around the bird bath was constantly changing dictating the use of a flash and single point exposure metering.

“Nature’s colour combinations are beyond our imagination. The subtlety, the contrast, the blending and the tonal balance only become apparent when we look closer. Have you ever noticed that birds colours seldom look dirty and yet birds seldom see themselves other than perhaps in their reflection in the water.”~ Mike Haworth

A common but beautifully adorned Laughing dove walking on the sand next to the bird bath. A flash helped to softly illuminate this subtly coloured dove.

A male Southern red-billed weaver taking off after drinking his fill and showing its contrasting red head and white belly.

A White helmeted shrike with its striking yellow wattled eye ring.

A Tropical boubou in the shade of the large Mashatu tree next to the camp patio. The male and female of this species are identical in colouring. This boubou is more often heard than seen. It has a wide repertoire and one of its calls could be mistaken for the Grey-headed shrike’s call. This bird has a voicebox called a syrinx not a larynx which enables it to sing in two voices at the same time.

A male Red-billed weaver enjoying its morning drink of water. The female has the same red-bill but a brown plumage. 

A male Jameson’s firefinch on the left of its female flanked on the right hand side by a Red-billed firefinch. The male on the right had side has a blue top mandible and red lower mandible and does not have the same all over pink breast. 

A Fork-tailed Drongo came down for a drink, they are usually alone. These birds are amazing mimics so you can be deceived by its call.

“Man can now fly in the air like a bird, swim under the ocean like a fish, he can burrow into the ground like a mole. Now if only he could walk the earth like a man, this would be paradise.”~ Tommy Douglas
This Natal spurfowl came very quietly to drink next to the large Mashatu tree in the shade. The Natal spurfowl has a red bill with a yellow base, its eye is black and it has heavy dark barring on its breast feathers. The distribution area in which it is found does not overlap between the Natal spurfowl and Red-billed spurfowl. The Red-billed spurfowl is usually not found in the centre of Southern Africa and it has a yellow eye ring and pure red bill.

A thirsty lone male Red-billed firefinch differentiated from the Jameson’s firefinch by its different coloured mandibles with the lower mandible being pinkish red.

A ubiquitous Grey-headed sparrow.

A Blue waxbill. You have to be quick to get a shot of this small seedeater as it comes in for a quick “in and out” drink.

“Each day has a story to – deserves to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories.”~ Eduardo Galeano

A female Paradise flycatcher- a brief furtive visitor.

A juvenile Southern masked weaver developing his adult yellow breeding plumage.

A Brown-hooded kingfisher having just had a bath.

A male Puff-backed shrike with its black and white plumage and bright red-eye. When excited the male puffs up its back feathers hence the name. The female has a white forehead and eyebrow.

The beautiful but shyly obliging female Paradise flycatcher. I got shots of the male with his long tail but in the close up images, I cut off his long tail feathers.

There is a meditation in being quiet and alone for an extended period just sitting, watching and listening to all the bird life around. Although not quiet there is something very soothing about all the bird activity around you. I saw many more birds than I photographed and could not get a decent shot of Hammerkops, various woodpeckers, Grey louries and more. Even though 11h30 to 15h30 was a snoozy time of the day, there were times during that period when the paradise flycatcher or grey-headed shrike came to visit which was thrilling.

“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

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

Have fun,

Mike

Mashatu rosettes

Last week I visited Mashatu Game Reserve for six days. Mashatu is a privately owned 29,000 hectare game reserve in a conservation wilderness area in south east Botswana known as the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. This game reserve has a uniquely diverse landscape with its wide open plains patterned with Shepard trees, stunted Mopanis and Mustard bushes, Croton groves, riverine forests with towering Mashatu trees, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs, rocky hills, marshland and majestic sandstone ridges. It has three main rivers flowing through it – the Majale, the Matabole and the Pitsani all of which flow into the Limpopo river. This reserve is located where the Rudyard Kipling’s “Great Green Greasy” Limpopo river meets the Shashe river. This is the confluence of three countries Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

“Late spring in southern Africa comes with mixed blessings.The predators have bounty but the land is parched and the herbivores survive on scant offerings.  In the dryness and dust of the parched earth lies millions of seeds pregnant with the next season’s abundance, just waiting for the first rains. The rain brings life. The rivers start to flow and the parched earth transforms into green grass and flowers and the landscape is renewed. Mashatu reveals the miracle of the seasons”. ~ Mike Haworth

In late October in this part of the world it is very hot – 30 degrees centigrade in the shade and over 40 in the sun and very dry as the parched landscape waits for the first rains of the summer season. The rivers are dry. The river courses are lined with Mashatu trees, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs and there are Croton groves on each side of sections of the Majale river. It is in these treed courses and groves that we find Africa’s secretive independent predator, the leopard. Mashatu is well known for its exceptional leopard sightings. 

“I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy” ~ Ernest Hemingway

On our first morning out game viewing, our guide called Justice, who had particularly sharp eyes, saw this female leopard crouched on a sand bank under some Croton bushes close to the Majale river. She was perfectly camouflaged in the dappled light, so much so that a small group of impala were walking past her, about twenty metres away, and they had not seen her.

The impala moved off after seeing the vehicle but I do not think they saw their nemesis at all, such is the effectiveness of the leopard’s camouflage in the dappled light.

Once this leopard flattened herself  on the sandbank among the leaf litter she was incredibly well camouflaged.

After watching this beautiful female leopard for about half an a hour and having scared off her prey she decided to rest where she was.

“I hope you have an experience that alters the course of your life because, after Africa, nothing has ever been the same”~ Suzanne Evans

There are numerous leopards along the Majale, Matabole and Limpopo rivers. This young leopard peered at us through a gap in his arboreal hideout.

“Humankind must begin to learn that the life of an animal is in no way less precious than our own.” ~ Paul Oxton

On our way back to camp one morning at around 9h30, we passed an extensive rock outcrop which is home to many Rock Hyraxes and rarely seen Black Eagles and leopards. To our surprise we had a young male leopard watching us making our way back to camp for brunch. It was only his white under belly that revealed his presence. As soon as we stopped he quickly slunk away into the rocks out of sight.

The next morning up at 4h30 and after a requisite cup of hot coffee and rusk we were on our way by 5h30 as the sun was rising. If you want to see the cats, the best time is in the early morning. Unless you are lucky, the leopards are up in the trees and lions have become “flat cats” two hours after sunrise. This was a young female lying on the ground at around 6h30. There were two large Mashatu trees in a Croton grove. A young male leopard had an impala kill stashed up one of the Mashatu trees and was guarding it. This young female was nearby but very wary of the young male who was from the same father but a different mother.

When a leopard lounges on the large branches of a tree it usually provides cameo photographic opportunities.

This was the young male up in the Mashatu tree carefully watching his kill and ensuring the young female did not steal a few mouthfuls.

Young and relaxed but not prepared to share his kill. What was so unusual about this sighting was that there were two adult leopards in and around the same tree. It seemed that they had both recently been separated from their mothers.

The young female was taking in the scent from what looked like a midden of antelope droppings.

A playful young female leopard stalking and pouncing on a piece of wood close by.

Catching the scent and sight of prey, the play was forgotten and she went into full alert mode. She walked off in the direction of some impala she had seen and that was the last we saw of her that day.

We went back to see the two young leopards a few times. The last time we visited these two Mashatu trees we only found the young male up the tree. The guide said that the young female had come back to the two Mashatu trees but had been chased away by a troop of baboons which had passed through the area.

“I have great respect for leopards. They are powerful, independent, and skilled hunters. Being solitary they have no backup. They choose their fights carefully. You only see them when they want you to and it is then you see their striking beauty”~ Mike Haworth 

On our last morning after watching two different families of cheetahs, we found this young male at the base of large Mashatu tree overlooking a patch of wild sage. It was a perfect place as it was cool and gave this leopard a good view of the passing parade in front of him and he had his back covered by the massive tree.

The young male leopard climbed up onto a large fallen branch of the Mashatu tree for a better view. As usual we found all the adult leopards alone as they are solitary by nature only coming together to mate or fight.

Ever alert, independent and ready to take advantage of an opportunity.

The young male leopard at the base of a large Mashatu tree.

.

This character was very relaxed and not fussed about us at all. He was much more interested in dosing and watching all the animal movement behind us.

Well rooted!!

“Nature only reveals her complexity and wisdom to those who take the time and care to seek and learn her patterns and rhythms”~Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

Marievale selection

In this post I have shown a selection of birds which you are likely to see at Marievale Bird Sanctuary in springtime. Marievale, located near Nigel in the Gauteng province in South Africa, comprises the wetlands of the Blesbokspruit Ramsar site plus over 1 000 hectares of open grasslands, reed beds and open water. This is a perfect place for birders and avian photographers alike.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ H. D. Thoreau

An adult Grey-headed gull in flight. It has a characteristic grey head with a red bill, red-eye ring and red legs and feet.

This is a freshwater gull which is found around in land lakes and dams and seldom along the coast.

The grey head colouring is this gull’s breeding plumage. In winter it loses the grey colouring on its head.

A skein of Spur Winged geese flying over the wetland.

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.“ ~ Vincent Van Gogh

A wide variety of ducks can be found at Marievale. The next image is a pair of Fluvous Whistling ducks with their distinctive bluish gray legs and bill. They have cinnamon brown feathers and dark brown wings with a silvery-white stripe on the edges. Males and females look alike, though the males are slightly larger.

The Spoonbill has a unique shaped bill ideal for catching fish, insects, larvae and crustaceans. Its bill is highly tactile, feeding with lateral movements (sweeping) and for pecking, but not for probing into sediments. Its long legs are ideal for wading through shallow water searching for food.

Once the Spoonbill has caught a morsel in the spoon part of is bill, it flicks the food into the air and catches it in its mouth.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder

A Three-banded plover. Both lapwings and plovers are classified in the Charadriidae family. The essential difference is that plovers are the smaller cousins and lapwings the larger ones.

The Three-banded plover has two black breast bands separated by a white band which gives this species its name. It has a distinctive red eye-ring. This is a tiny plover  growing to 18cm in length.

You will see many Whiskered terns trawling back and forth along the open waterways in the wetland search for  edibles at the water’s surface. These terns are highly nibble with long wings, and are able to turn and stall in an instant to plunge onto the surface of the water to catch a fish.

A Red-billed teal sunning itself in the warmth of the early morning spring sun. Like the Fluvous whistling duck this is a dabbling duck, meaning these ducks feed mainly on the surface of the water with their neck stretched out while quickly “chewing” or “nibbling” at the water with little bites. They also sweep their head from side to side at the same time to cover more surface area. Dabbling ducks also feed by tipping headfirst into the water to forage on aquatic vegetation and insects in the shallow water. Often all you will see is their tails sticking up into the air. 

A pair of Red-billed teal in flight over the wetland in Marievale.

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.“ ~ E. O. Wilson

A Levaillant’s cisticola preening itself in the early morning after foraging in the dew laden grass for insects. This cisticola has a distinctive red cap and grey back with heavy black streaking.

A White-breasted cormorant is so-called because of its white breast. This species is often found in inland waterways together with its smaller cousin the Reed cormorant and darters. 

Perhaps my favourite teal is the Hottentot teal because of its colouring. I think all the teals are exquisitely coloured ducks. Teals are petite ducks and are characterised by short necks and short tails.

The Hottentot teal is a small dabbling duck. It has a dark brown crown, a fawn face and neck and mottled brown back with green sheen on its secondary feathers. This teal has a characteristic blue bill. Females have lighter brown crowns, they have less contrasting facial markings.

“We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy

We don’t always see Avocets at Marievale. We get Pied Avocets in South Africa. This is a really unusual bird. It has long legs, webbed feet and a long thin upward curved bill. The Pied Avocet has a black crown, nape and neck, a white throat and breast.

Avocets feed by sweeping their long thin bill from side to side in the water to catch food.

This was a first for me. I have never seen a Little-ringed plover before. This Little plover is easily recognisable by its black and white head pattern with a brown crown.

This little character was foraging along the water’s edge for insects and aquatic invertebrates. It looked to be even smaller than the Small three-banded plover.

A male Stone chat, a ubiquitous species in this area.

This female Blacksmith lapwing was disturbed off her nest. This lapwing species has a unique, noisy, metallic-sounding ‘klink klink klink’ or ‘tink tink tink’ call which it repeats loudly and continuously, especially when disturbed. The clinking notes sound like a hammer on an anvil, hence its name.

“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

After careful searching we saw the four cryptically coloured eggs of a Blacksmith lapwing. This was a loosely formed nest formed next to the water’s edge. This was a precarious position which would be flooded if more rains came along and raised the level of the water in the wetland.

This ruff was an early arrival of this long distance migrant. It is a migratory sandpiper journeying to this part of the world for summer from Europe and Russia.

 This little stint’s beak is perfect for probing  the soft mud for insects and invertebrates.

A male Long-tailed widowbird  which was starting to take on its breeding plumage. Once fully plumed, it is black all over except for a red shoulder with a white strip.

This male Long-tailed widow bird has attained most of his breeding plumage but his tail feathers have still further to grow.  These long black tail feathers are used in slow flight displays when females are around. 

A family of Egyptian geese, with mother and five goslings.

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” ~ John Ruskin

A pair of Cape shovellers, with the male behind and the female in front. The Cape shoveller is endemic to South Africa.  This is also a dabbling duck. Many of the dabbling ducks use their flat bills to strain food items from the water, but the big spatulate bill of the Cape Shoveller is adapted to take this habit to the extreme. Flocks of shovellers often swim along with their big bills barely submerged in front of them, straining food from the muddy soup of shallow waters.

The Cape shoveller has a dark, large spatula-shaped bill. Its eyes are yellow and its legs and webbed feet are bright orange-yellow.

“Nothing in nature lives for itself. Rivers don’t drink their own water. Trees don’t eat their own fruit. The sun doesn’t shine for itself. A flower’s fragrance is not for itself.”~Unknown

A head shot of a sacred ibis. The Sacred ibis, was often mummified as a symbol of the god, Thoth, in ancient African and Egyptian traditions. Thoth was said to have the head of an ibis, and was responsible for writing, mathematics and measurement as well as the God of the moon and magic.

The Sacred ibis is a wading bird often found along the edge of rivers and lakes foraging in the reeds and vegetation. It uses its long beak to prone the reeds and mud for fish, insects, frogs worms and crustaceans. 

A Glossy ibis has a long, decurved bill, and in good light its plumage is metallic bronze with a striking mauve and green tinge. The non-breeding plumage is similar but much duller appearing darker brown in colour, with dense white streaks on the head and neck.

A Glossy ibis preening itself with the morning light illuminating the green sheen on its wings

Over 240 bird species have been seen at Marievale. It is best known for its birding but you might be lucky to see Water or Yellow mongooses, Cape Clawless Otters or even Reedbuck. This a wonderful example of humanity just giving mother nature a chance to establish herself,  and she delivers a bounty for all to enjoy.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.“ ~ John Burroughs

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

Have fun,

Mike

Marievale’s herons

Marievale bird sanctuary is located outside the town of Nigel about 65 kilometres south of Johannesburg in South Africa. This is my “go to” bird photography practice ground. It is mid-spring in this part of the world, and the first migrants have just started to arrive. The European Bee-eaters have just arrived with that familiar liquid  “prreee or prruup” call as they hunt insects in the early evening, flying about 30 metres above the ground. We have not yet heard a cuckoo calling and neither have we seen the Amur falcons on the overhead power lines.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”

–Charlotte Brontë

The weather is warm and the avian residents were out in force. We are still waiting for our first good rains of the season but there was water in the Marievale wetland. It was not too deep so we found avocets and many of the waders were in their element. Also enjoying the shallow water were a variety of herons. Last Sunday at Marievale, we had some good sightings of several of our local heron species.

It is always special to see a Black-crowned night heron. This is a nocturnal hunter so I was surprised to see it out hunting in the bright sunlight at around 7h00.

A yellow-billed egret in breeding colours. The breeding colours become apparent at this time of the year. The top of the legs turn a yellowish colour and at times the skin around the eye turns a green colour.  In the breeding season many of the egrets develop plumes on their necks and backs. The Yellow-billed egret is distinguished from its larger great White egret cousin as its gape finishes below its eye and not behind it as with the Great White egret and it is smaller.

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.” ~John James Audubon

We found many Squacco herons, all hunting individually. They are beautifully adorned with buff and cream coloured feathers. The wings are white and their legs and beak are yellow.

Squaccos have an ability to elongate their necks when perch hunting above the water. They are also capable gymnasts, precariously hanging on to reeds to give them a superior hunting position. They are also capable of hunting from branches over the water.

Squacco herons are crepuscular hunters normally feeding in the twilight times, generally in the shallow water among the vegetation at the edge of a pond or river.

Squaccos are versatile feeders eating anything from flies to snails and when the opportunity presents itself a small fish, and there is no sharing.

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children”.~ John James Audubon

We have two types of night heron in south Africa, the Black-crowned and the White-backed. Both are nocturnal hunters so are not regularly seen. Usually we see them at last light.

These Night herons have a distinctive black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. They have pale grey wings and white under parts. They have two or three long white plumes which extend from the back of the head, and which stand out during greeting and courtship displays. As with many herons, the male is larger.

This Black-crowned night heron happened to get too close to a Red-knobbed coot. During breeding season these coots are territorial and aggressive, chasing away birds ranging from ducks to herons.

“As long as I live, I hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.”~ John Muir

A heron which we normally see hunting in the grass along the road through the wetland is the Black-headed heron but for some reason, perhaps it was too dry, we did not see one. We did see many Grey herons.

They have a white head and neck with a broad black stripe that extends from the eye to the black crest. Its body and wings are grey. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are black. These herons can stand motionless for longer than you can sit and wait for them to strike.

Heron have a varied  diet and will eating anything from fish to insects and even small birds. This particular Grey heron caught a large Catfish which it was determined to swallow. We never saw the end result as it flew into the reeds to eat in peace.

“The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.”~Marlee Matlin

This was the first time I have seen a Goliath heron at Marievale. This is a large heron standing up to 1. 5 metres tall. Its distinguishing features are firstly its size and secondly its colour. From far, you might mistake it for a Purple heron, but as soon as you get closer you see its size and its striking and unique colouring.

The Goliath heron’s head and its bushy crest, face, back and sides of the neck are chestnut. This character had especially dark colouring. The back and upper wings are slate-grey, with a chestnut shoulder patch at the bend of the wings. Its primary and secondary wing feathers are grey.

The Goliath heron has a distinct deep “kowoork” sounding bark which can be heard from far off. This species of heron sticks to the watery environment. It also hunts alone and is aggressively territorial. Goliath herons often have to cope with Fish eagles trying to steal their catch. Although there is a pair of Fish eagles at Marievale, this character got to hunt in peace.  

We did not see the Black-headed heron or the Green-backed heron but it was a fruitful photographic morning.

“Get up before sunrise and get out to a river or lake. You will see nature’s bounty. You will be greeted by the cool freshness of the air, birds singing, and soft colours and long shadows. The morn sheds its cloak of darkness and heralds a new day full of hope and charm.”~ Mike Haworth

There are 64 species of heron around the world. They are carnivorous feeders and have managed to thrive and are not considered threatened or endangered – a celebration of life for sure. Herons, by evolutionary adaptation, have long beaks.  Although herons resemble  storks and cranes, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched for longitudinal balance. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down. Herons wade and stork usually do not.

“Exploration is curiosity put into action.” ~Don Walsh

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

Have fun,

Mike