I recently took a South African road trip from Johannesburg to Durban. Starting in the hills of Wakkerstroom, we drove through Kwazulu-Natal skirting the Swaziland border, heading almost to the border with Mozambique and then down to the coast. There were encounters with intricately patterned butterflies and moths, fancy birds, tiny many-legged bugs and large hairy spiders and , of course, the huge, small, downright ugly and impossibly cute mammals – plenty to keep a wildlife buff like me happy. Here’s an account of just one of those encounters……..
Piggy grunts, amplified by the bridge, confirmed that the smooth, polished boulders pushing up gently through the river’s waterline were, in fact, a pair of hippos. Their home, the St Lucia estuary (a World Heritage Site no less), was running cloudy brown below me and, as one of the largest estuaries in Africa, would do so for at least another 53 miles. I tentatively pushed my stomach against the cool metal railing. It seemed sturdy enough so I leaned over further. My left foot lifted off the bridge, my right staying firmly rooted. I could smell a tired water staleness mixed with something faint; a saltiness that was wafting in from the nearby Indian Ocean. It promised to heighten as the day lengthened and the heat strengthened. A hippo yawned so wide that I could see teeth. My left foot automatically found the bridge.
But the hippos didn’t hold my attention for long. A tear-drop reeded island, abutting the bridge, held life of an altogether different kind; Yellow Weavers. A whole colony of them. A multitude of egg-yolk yellow streaks flitting in, out and on the reeds. These birds kept my eyes moving and filled my ears with persistent whittering wheezes. It was as if they were blowing me noisy, lip-smacking air kisses. I was smitten.
They continued to flit, never stopping. Or so it seemed. I started to see detail. They weren’t all flitting. Some were straddled between reeds; balancing, stretching and holding on like an Olympic gymnast grips the rings.
As a member of the finch family, the Yellow Weaver reminded me of the Common Crossbill less the crossed bill; 15 cm give or take, powerful seed-eating beaks, eye-catching feather colour, chunky, the females duller and greener. I looked through my binoculars. The one I was looking at had a red eye that caught the light in the way that a genuine ruby does. It turns out that this is an important feature distinguishing it from other pure yellow weavers such as the Cape Weaver. The only other weavers with red eyes, such as the Southern Masked-weaver, cannot be confused with the yellow weaver as they have jet black faces.
I continued to watch the male I’d singled out. He was straddled between two reeds, almost doing the splits. He was surrounded by a tangle of cut grasses criss-crossing between the reeds at his feet and above his head. A few of these flat, matt blades of grass stuck out from the reeds at all angles. The weaver looked up to his right, took one of these grass blades in his beak and passed it diagonally across the front of his belly to his left foot. He then slowly wound the blade around the reed, looping it through so that the end stuck vertically upwards; the end was now near his left eye. He took this again in his beak and brought it diagonally across his belly in the opposite direction. This time, he wrapped it around the other reed near his right foot and looped it through so the end just about pointed upwards. He went back up to his right, took another blade and repeated the process. He was weaving his nest.
Females were perching on the reeds nearby. It is they that that choose a partner. The choice they make is predominantly based on the male’s nest building qualities; design and comfort are both vital but not as important as location, location, location.
I was, by now, used to seeing weaver birds nests. Each species of weaver weaves a differently shaped nest; some elongated, some scruffy. Some, like the yellow weavers, are compact, spherical and neat. I looked across the island. There were many tightly woven, ball shaped nests already built. Some were green; new and ready to go. Others were older; dried out and an insignificant beige. I wasn’t sure whether these were in use or abandoned.
Once a nest is ready to occupy, the male displays to the female that it’s ready. If she approves, she enters through the entrance located towards the base of the nest and lays eggs. If a female doesn’t like his nest, he’ll abandon it and make another within a matter of days. That’s an awful lot of work for not much gain. I watched as the male continued to weave, completing intricate turns and knots. I wondered if he knew that the odds of this nest being chosen were stacked against him. I wondered how many he’d built already this season.
My travelling companions were calling me. They were not far from where I’d left them when they were taking photos of a tiny chameleon. We were ready to get on with our road trip. I reluctantly walked back over the bridge to the van and got in. I may have physically left them behind but my head was still full of those weaving yellow weavers and I couldn’t help but wonder whether my particular Yellow Weaver ever became a chosen one. I will never find out.
If this has piqued your interest…..St Lucia is situated on a peninsula in the north east of South Africa and is famous for its night-time wandering hippos. The bridge is situated on the R618. It’s the only road bridge over the estuary onto the St Lucia Peninsula so is very easy to find. Parking can be found on the far side of the bridge from St Lucia itself. The car parks are used for boat safaris (to see the hippos) and for the boat club at the Siyabonga Jetty, Mtubatuba so are signposted as such. The bridge itself is a road bridge but has good pavements to each side. Even so, as always, take care when crossing and viewing wildlife. You’re likely to see crocs, hippos and a large variety of birds but sightings are not always guaranteed. If you ever fancy going for a swim, the sculpture on the jetty pretty much tells you why you shouldn’t! It’s the most disturbing sculpture I’ve ever seen!
Have you ever seen any interesting wildlife from a bridge? I seem to be making a habit of it – see my post on seeing crocs in Costa Rica. I’d love to hear about any wildlife encounters you’ve seen from a bridge or any other wildlife encounters for that matter so, as always, drop me a comment below.
Watch out for future posts on wildlife encounters in South Africa, there will be more!
So informative and beautifully written Nicky. Many thanks for posting.