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Text and pictures: Peter Chadwick. Article from the August 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.

As part of a Ramsar wetland with adjoining grassland, Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the East Rand simply abounds with birds

The main causeway is an excellent place to search the reed edges for skulking birds. Marievale signage.

“Eish, you are very early,” the security guard at the entrance gate to Marievale Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of Nigel, Gauteng, said while stretching and stifling a yawn after standing up from his extremely rickety looking chair. He was not far off the mark, as only the first hints of dawn were touching the horizon.

Marievale Bird SanctuaryExpecting the usual rush of traffic, I had departed from the other side of Johannesburg at 04h00, only to find the highways pretty much clear of vehicles, so I had an easy trip to this well-known Ramsar site. I’d last visited it over 20 years ago and was thus extremely eager to get through the gate and into the birding hides, but it was only as flying skeins of Fulvous Duck and Spur-winged Geese became visible in the orange-tinted sky that the guard finally unlocked the padlock to let me in.

Cape Sparrows and Speckled Pigeons huddled around the buildings of the administrative block, trying to catch spots of warmth as the sun crested the horizon and cut through the light mist hanging over the whole area. After leaving the block I drove onto a rough dirt track from where Common Reedbuck could be seen feeding in the neighbouring farmlands. Glossy Ibis waded in puddles in the road, with Blacksmith Lapwings scolding them loudly if they came too close.

Common Moorhen preening.My first stop was at the Hamerkop Hide, which is probably the most popular for photographers as a series of natural-looking perches have been placed close by and brightly coloured Malachite Kingfishers are its star attraction. Despite it being so early in the day, three other photographers had already set up their lenses in anticipation of the arrival of the first birds. As we all waited for the light to improve sufficiently for photography, we watched Greater Painted-Snipe, African Rail and African Purple Swamphen feeding on the edges of the reed beds. Black Crake and Little Bittern (6 on checklist) soon joined these usually reclusive species.

Two Red-knobbed Coots battling it out in open water.Further out in open water, Yellow-billed Duck were plentiful, together with Egyptian Geese, Red-billed Teal, Common Moorhen and Cape Shoveller. The countless Red-knobbed Coots that were feeding among the water weeds exploded into action occasionally as vicious fights broke out between individuals, resulting in much wing thrashing, clawing and pecking. White-winged Terns made regular patrols over the wetland, stooping down onto the water’s surface to snatch up tasty morsels. Higher in the sky an African Fish-Eagle cruised by, and shortly afterwards a Yellow-billed Stork followed it. African Marsh-Harriers quartered back and forth over the reeds, causing much consternation whenever they flew too close to the waterbirds, which scattered in panic in different directions.

Lesser-striped Swallows and White-throated Swallows together with their recently fledged youngsters zooted at high speed in and out of the hide, making us flinch and duck out of their way. Lesser Swamp-Warblers (10 on checklist), Southern Masked-Weavers and African Reed-Warblers (2 on checklist) also kept us entertained as they fed in the reeds directly in front of the hide.

The brightly coloured Malachite Kingfishers are popular photographic subjects at Marievale.In a flash, an adult and a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher arrived to sit on the carefully placed perches.The row of expensive cameras exploded into action like a row of machine guns opening up and, within seconds, hundreds of pictures had been taken. Ignorant of their fame, the two tiny kingfishers preened themselves and then settled down to the serious business of catching their breakfast. Watching the water below them intently, they repeatedly dived in to snatch up small aquatic insects and fish, which they then tenderised by beating before swallowing head first, much to the delight of the photographers. After a few minutes the kingfishers flew off – and with them went the other photographers, who had achieved their goal for the day.

Deciding to stay on in the hide for a while longer, I watched as Squacco Herons (7 on checklist) ventured onto the weed, where they would stand motionlessly until something caught their attention. They’d then dance after their intended victims with long strides and half open wings. My patience was rewarded when a lone Spotted-necked Otter cruised slowly past the hide, diving down and reappearing among the by now very nervous Red-knobbed Coots. Only when the otter had disappeared from sight did I decide it was also time for me to explore the sanctuary further.

Pied Starling looking skywards at a passing raptor.Driving through lush grasslands and thick reed beds, I flushed a Common Duiker which bounded off immediately. In the process I also flushed an African Crake that landed momentarily on the road before scuttling back into cover Yellow-crowned Bishop, Southern Red Bishop (5 on checklist), Long-tailed Widowbird and Red-collared Widowbird were plentiful among Levalliant’s Cisticolas and Common Waxbills. In a more open area of grassland, African Wattled Lapwing pairs fed together with a small flock of Crowned Lapwing. Cape Wagtail and Cape Longclaw (4 on checklist) walked unfazed between the larger lapwings, snatching small insects from the grass.

At the Duiker Hide, a group of serious twitchers were having a heated debate over the call of an unseen warbler, with one individual pushing hard for it to be a species which he could then add to his life list. Ignoring the debate, I settled down in the hide to watch a Goliath Heron and a Purple Heron squabbling over a patch of open water among the reeds, with the smaller Purple Heron obviously getting the worst of it and having to move to a new hunting area. African Darter (8 on checklist), Reed Cormorant and White-breasted Cormorant sunned themselves on a dead tree, and Little Egrets stood patiently in the shallows and on the nearby causeway. Also present on the causeway was a pair of Giant Kingfishers (3 on checklist), which flew off calling loudly as I approached to cross over the water.

Rufous-naped Lark landing with open wings on top of a bush.Back in my vehicle again, I was passed by a group of mountain bikers who were using the reserve for exercise and ignored the vast array of birdlife around them. A large patch of flowering grass aloes had attracted a flock of Helmeted Guineafowl and Swainson’s Spurfowl and these were scratching and kicking up dirt at the base of the aloes. Pied Starlings and Cape Turtle-Doves sat in large flocks in the dead pine trees, and high in the crown of one of the trees, a Common Fiscal mobbed a Black-shouldered Kite (9 on checklist).

Leaving the waterways behind me and heading towards the weathered remnants of mine dumps, I stopped to watch Little and White-rumped Swifts wheeling in the skies above. Below them, European Bee-eaters, Banded Martins (1 in checklist) and Brown-throated Martin swooped low over the grasslands.

Egyptian Goose preening after feeding on open water.Having reached the end of the road network, I retraced my steps, stopping again at the Hamerkop Hide. Despite all of the feathered action of earlier that morning, everything was now quiet as the sun neared its highest point and families became engrossed in the braais they were enjoying on the open lawns of the picnic areas.


Season and Weather Typical Highveld climate with about 700mm of rain falling mainly in summer and frost common on winter nights.

Habitats The wetlands of the Blesbokspruit Ramsar site plus over 1 000 hectares of open grasslands, reed beds and open water. Specials: Black Heron, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Marsh Owl, Grass Owl, Spotted-necked Otter.

Gauteng - Marievale Bird SanctuaryGetting There Head south from Johannesburg on the N3 and take the R550 off-ramp.  Turn left and follow this road for 20km.  Turn right at the T-junction and pass through Nigel.  The reserve is signposted with the entrance on the right-hand side of the road.

Accommodation & Activities As Marievale is extremely popular it’s advisable to arrive early to find a good position at the hides. Hadedah Hide is probably the best for morning photography and Shelduck Hide for afternoon photography. Overnight accommodation is available in two fully equipped, self-catering chalets sleeping four people each.


10 specials to try to spot in Marievale Bird Sanctuary.

  1. The Banded Martin (Gebande Oewerswael) is a common intra-African migrant found over open grasslands, often in the company of other swallows.
  2. 10 Specials to try to spot in Marievale Bird SanctuaryThe African Reed-Warbler (Kleinrietsanger) is a small brown bird with a dull white throat and breast.
  3. The Giant Kingfisher (Reusevisvanger) male differs from the female in chestnut breast and white belly. Both the chest and belly of the female are chestnut.
  4. The adult Cape Longclaw (Oranjekeelkalkoentjie) is easily identifiable by its bright orange throat patch encircled by a black band.
  5. The male Southern Red Bishop (Rooivink) gains its vibrant black and red plumage only during the breeding season. At other times it resembles the drab brown females.
  6. The Little Bittern (Kleinrietreier) is generally an uncommon nomad of reed beds but occurs in good numbers at Marievale.
  7. Squacco Herons (Ralreier) are usually seen standing motionless on the edges of thickly vegetated, wetlands.
  8. African Darters (Slanghalsvoël) breed throughout the year; peaking in early summer when they occur in mixed colonies with Reed Cormorants, White-Breasted Cormorants and various herons.
  9. Black-shouldered Kites (Blouvalk) hunt mainly for small rodents from prominent positions, or by hovering and then ‘parachuting’ down onto their prey.
  10. Most commonly heard calling from deep within reed beds, the Lesser Swamp-Warbler (Kaapse Rietsanger) is probably the most common of the reed warblers.

Open 6:00 to 18:00 Daily. Tel: 011 364 5900.

Directions: From Johannesburg via N17: Exit N17 in Springs area at Wit Road, turn south to Nigel on M63, this road joins R550 at Nigel, take R42 out of Nigel, immediately after crossing over the Blesbokspruit turn left off the R42 into the Marievale Bird Sanctuary.

More info on the quaint town of Nigel More info on the Ekurhuleni area


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