I love sitting in bird hides, especially just as the sun is coming up over a wetland. But it can become a bit boring after a while. And there’s a huge wetland just begging to be explored. Perhaps we can try and locate the heronry, but be warned: it will take some sloshing through the shallows to get there. So take your shoes off and let’s wade in!

Read along:

[Yawn!] Sorry…I struggled to fall asleep last night. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the great birds we might see today. And then I kept waking up thinking that I had overslept. Anyways…

You know, this is actually one of the best bird hides I’ve ever been in. And I’ve been in my fair share. It helps a lot that it is a bit higher above the water. And it’s nice and open in front of the hide. Sometimes hides get so overgrown by reeds that all you can see are, well…reed warblers! And out timing is spot-on! The sun is rising behind us, so the light is sublime. And this wetland is absolutely alive with birds. 

See all these herons flying around? It’s still a bit dark to make out their colours, but we can probably figure out what they are just by their sizes. That big one there, flying by itself? That must be a Grey Heron. Yip. That’s his call. And the white ones? They sound like…Little Egrets. Yes, you can make out their yellow toes actually. And why are those flying in the opposite direction to the other herons? Oh, they are Black-crowned Night Herons. Hear that kwak sound? So they are returning to their day-roost, from wherever they were fishing in the night. All the other herons are now moving out towards their fishing grounds. Oh, and some White-faced Whistling Ducks coming in. Lovely sound hey?

It’s still early enough for rallids to be out and about. Scan carefully along the edges and in the secluded corners. We might get lucky with a crake or something. Where? Uhm, oh yes, I see something moving there. No, that’s a Three-banded Plover, but well spotted! But there! That trilling call – African Rail! From up close it’s got that deep, bass undertone. I love that sound. And another pair answering further back in that reedbed there. That would be a nice one to see. Keep scanning! Something walking around far at the back there. Straight ahead, across that little channel, on the lilies. I can just see its head at the moment. Oh, it’s an African Jacana. Can you hear him?

Can you hear or see anything else? Which call? Oh yes, I can hear that. It’s a Whiskered Tern. Probably flying out over the open water…uhm, yeah there. Just above those two Greater Flamingos. Got it? And there’s something moving in the grass right close to us here. See the movement there? By that bent reed? What is that? Oh! That’s what it is. Black Crake. What a cool sound! Especially at this close range. And there’s something jumping around among the stems above the crake…LBJ-type bird. I can see it in a gap here. White eyebrow, white underparts. Looks like a Lesser Swamp Warbler. Yes, confirmed! One of my favourite bird sounds. And it somehow just seems to fit in waterside habitats, don’t you think?

Thanks, I’d love some more coffee. [Pour]. Thanks, that’s great. [Sip]. The light’s getting a bit stronger. Let’s see what’s swimming about on the open water. Looks like mostly Red-knobbed Coots; that’s them calling now. There’s Yellow-billed Duck. Quack, quack! About as close to a classical duck sound as you can get. What else? What else? Oh, Little Grebe. That high, trilling sound? Dabchick. Egyptian Goose of course. Bunch of them towards that mud bank on the left. Pied Kingfisher hovering…hovering…and down he goes! [Splash]. Did he catch anything? No, better luck next time friend.

I can hear some White-throated Swallows flitting about around the hide here. Yes, here comes one. What is it doing? Check, he’s hovering right here by the window. Wait, let me check something. Yip, come look back here in the corner. See up there? They’ve built a nest inside the hide. That little half-cup of mud pellets. Very cool.

Maybe we should leave these swallows in peace and go and explore the rest of the wetland. Remember earlier we saw those herons flying in that direction? Carrying sticks. I’m sure there must be a heronry there somewhere. Maybe we should try and get a bit closer.

Uhm, I think the best route is straight through this tall stuff, and then we can cut across that inlet there. Ready? Let’s go. [Walking through tall grass]. Sho, these wetland plants are taller than I thought. A bit of a struggle. Listen! African Reed Warbler singing. Or I guess, Common Reed Warbler now, I should say. Can you hear how he makes every note two or three times, and then switches to a new note? Chirry-chirry-chirry, chek-chek-chek, tzee-tzee-tzee, kirrik-kirrik-kirrik… How do you like my impression? Ha! Ja, I know, not quite as good as the real thing. Oh, Rooiassies! Orange-breasted Waxbills. See them flitting up ahead? We’re almost to the open water, just have to fight through this last patch…

We made it! That was pretty tough! This wetland is dense. I guess there used to be hippos and buffaloes and other large animals here before that opened up paths through the vegetation. And then occasional fires also help to cycle nutrients back into the soil and open things up a bit. But it should be more easy-going from here. The heronry we’re aiming for is just up ahead. We’ll have to slosh through the water a bit to get there. I don’t think it’s too deep though. I’m gonna take my shoes off – I don’t think there are thorns or anything. Just don’t step on a crab! Let’s do it.

This feels great! This shallow water is surprisingly warm. Actually nice to wash some of the blood off from all these cuts on my shins from that tall grass! Check you can even see little fish and tadpoles darting about. Keep an eye open for… ha! I was JUST gonna say. Keep an eye open for African Snipes! There goes another one! See how fast they fly? And it that zig-zag way? That’s where the word “sniper” comes from. Back in the day when snipes were hunted in large numbers for sport, only the best marksmen could hit a snipe. Hence, sniper. Yeah, agreed, I much prefer to shoot them with a camera!

Oh, some Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawking above us. They often sit in dead trees in the water. Mmm, yeah over there. Uhm, six of them on that dead tree there. Listen! Hear that kirr-kirr-kirr-kirrik that goes faster and faster? There! Do you know that call? Yes! Little Rush Warbler. I can’t see him right now, but at the end of their songs they often fly like two or three metres. There! Did you see him? Just above the plants? Nice! Hold on! Hear that chewy-chewy-chewy in the distance? That’s a Red-chested Flufftail. That’s a good record, wow!

The Common Moorhens have spotted us. Hear that? I always enjoy watching them – they always seem so nervous – flicking their tails up, clambering clumsily through the plants, and jogging for cover at the slightest hint of danger. When a moorhen hear a splash or some other loud sound they always make these calls. Even at night! Oh look, a Spur-winged Goose coming over…like a jumbo jet! Very impressive! 

Common Greenshank! Yes, waders are tough, but that tew-tew-tew call of Greenshanks is unmistakable. Also quite a big wader. We’ll probably flush a Wood Sandpiper in a bit, and you’ll see that it’s much smaller. Whoa! Did you see that? That little blur of blue and orange? Malachite Kingfisher that flashed by. You can hear him! He probably landed in those sedges just around that bend. He might even have a nest tunnel in that little soil bank there. Speaking of which, these Black-winged Stilts sound a bit upset. Maybe they are also nesting somewhere close by. Let’s move on before they completely freak out. Poor things.

There we go! That’s a Wood Sandpiper. See, Woodies look a lot smaller than Greenshanks, and they are darker and browner, with lots of little white dots above. And their call is different: chiff-if-if, instead of tew-tew-tew. They are generally the most common sandpiper-type birds in freshwater habitats. Ruffs too, but Ruffs almost never make a sound.

Let met catch my breath and have a sip of water. Blacksmith Lapwings calling. And this call on the left is a Levaillant’s Cisticola. Yeah, that’s the most common cisticola in wetlands. Hence the Afrikaans name, Vleitinktinkie…[sip, sip]…In fact, one of the most common birds in general.

We’re getting closer to the heronry…it’s getting noisier…and smellier! Let’s sit down here and scan. If we get too close we might cause the whole breeding colony to take flight. What can you see? Yes, that’s right. Most of the birds are Cattle Egrets. But quite a few Little Egrets among them as well. They’re the ones making that funny gurgling sound. A few Grey Heron pairs are nesting in the upper branches – see those stick platforms? And of course the African Sacred Ibises – how many do you think? Probably something like 50 pairs?

It’s just glorious chaos isn’t it? Look at that baby egret there – he’s trying to climb back up to his nest but his siblings are having none of it. And here comes Mom (or Dad? I can’t really tell)…now the siblings have forgotten about their game and only care about their next meal! Each bird seems to be doing something different. Buildings nests, flaring out their plumage to attract mates, males fighting, moms feeding babies, youngsters stretching their wings, catching a nap. Man, I could sit here and watch these birds all day. But I have to admit that my stomach is starting to rumble. It may be time for us to make our way back to the camp site for breakfast. And we’ve still got a whole day of birding ahead of us! I can’t wait!

Birds featured:

Grey Heron | Bloureier (p. 85) | 01:00, 14:35

Little Egret | Kleinwitreier (p. 82) | 01:12, 14:24

Black-crowned Night Heron | Gewone Nagreier (p. 88) | 01:26

White-faced Whistling Duck | Nonnetjie-eend (p. 62) | 01:43

Three-banded Plover | Driebandstrandkiewiet (p. 100) | 02:06

African Rail | Grootriethaan (p. 90) | 02:17

African Jacana | Grootlangtoon (p. 98) | 02:50

Whiskered Tern | Witbaardsterretjie (p. 42) | 03:04

Greater Flamingo | Grootflamink (p. 72) | 03:17

Black Crake | Swartriethaan (p. 91) | 03:45

Lesser Swamp Warbler | Kaapse Rietsanger (p. 388) | 04:18

Red-knobbed Coot | Bleshoender (p. 56) | 04:54

Yellow-billed Duck | Geelbekeend (p. 63) | 05:01

Little Grebe | Kleindobbertjie (p. 55) | 05:11

Egyptian Goose | Kolgans (p. 60) | 05:30

Pied Kingfisher | Bontvisvanger (p. 236) | 05:43

White-throated Swallow | Witkeelswael (p. 264) | 05:57

Common Reed Warbler | Kleinrietsanger (p. 389) | 07:33

Orange-breasted Waxbill | Rooiassie (p. 452) | 08:14

African Snipe | Afrikaanse Snip (p. 105) | 09:29

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater | Blouwangbyvreter (p. 239) | 09:56

Little Rush Warbler | Kaapse Vleisanger (p. 391) | 10:14

Red-chested Flufftail | Rooiborsvleikuiken (p. 94) | 10:45

Common Moorhen | Grootwaterhoender (p. 57) | 10:56

Spur-winged Goose | Wildemakou (p. 59) | 11:18

Common Greenshank | Groenpootruiter (p. 113) | 11:36

Malachite Kingfisher | Kuifkopvisvanger (p. 237) | 12:01

Black-winged Stilt | Rooipootelsie (p. 97) | 12:13

Wood Sandpiper | Bosruiter (p. 112) | 12:39

Blacksmith Lapwing | Bontkiewiet (p. 142) | 13:13

Levaillant’s Cisticola | Vleitinktinkie (p. 399) | 13:25

Cattle Egret | Veereier (p. 82) | 14:14

African Sacred Ibis | Skoorsteenveër (p. 75) | 14:48