An in-camp wildlife experience: Weavers

Text: Ranger Pieter van Wyk

Birds. They’re some our planet’s finest builders, nature’s architects and engineers, crafting homes of spectacular design in every corner of the earth. Some are elegantly simple, others are surprisingly complex. From nature’s most mundane materials, birds weave wonders that share a universal purpose: to keep their inhabitants and their young safe.

Every summer a buzz of activity emanates from the large tree outside reception. The fever tree, with its characteristic, almost luminous, lime green to greenish-yellow bark is, at this time of year, home to a colony of Weavers. In fact, closer inspection may reveal up to three different species; the Village Weaver, the Southern Masked Weaver and the Lesser Masked Weaver. As they’re more abundant in this scenario we’ll focus briefly on the latter.

A male collecting building material.

Lesser Masked Weavers are most easily distinguished from other Weavers by their pale yellow iris. They are widely spread throughout eastern Africa and the northern parts of southern Africa. The breeding season varies across their range but here at MalaMala it falls between the months of October and February. During this period males don a black mask as their breeding plumage to help impress females (out of season this returns to a dull plumage in an attempt to save energy and avoid predation). These birds are polygynous with two or three females per male.

The round globes, elaborately woven from grass, reeds or palm leaves with an entrance hole are their nests. An early morning or late afternoon visit to this tree will reveal just how industrious these birds are. Their work ethic is something to be admired but watch closely and you may notice a few shortcuts being taken as some individuals are prone to stealing material from the nearby nest of a rival. The male builds the basic nest structure at the end of a small branch overhanging water or open ground, which along with a song and dance, he uses to attract a female. If she deems the nest suitable she’ll then add the finishing touches to the interior before laying a clutch of eggs. The female incubates the eggs over a period of 13 days after which the chicks are fed by her with little help from the male over a nestling period of 15 days. As with most creatures out here, the early stages of a Weaver’s life are fraught with dangers.

A female begins inspecting a nest.

As the females start laying their eggs keep an eye out for the mischievous Diederik’s Cuckoo, a brood-parasite that will lay its eggs in a Weavers nest then expect the host to incubate and raise the chicks. They have developed some sly mechanisms to help them get their eggs into the targeted nest and then to fool the host into accepting the eggs: The male Cuckoo will fly up to the target nest while the female hides in nearby vegetation. The female Weaver, recognizing the parasite, will launch an attack and chase the male Cuckoo. The distraction lures her away from the nest and allows the female Cuckoo to slip in, remove the host’s eggs and then lay the corresponding number, within seconds! The Diederik’s Cuckoo is larger than its host but lays relatively small eggs that closely resemble the smaller Weaver eggs, not only in size but also in shape and colour.

A male Boomslang.

Another thorn in the Weaver’s side is the Boomslang, which not only goes after the eggs and hatchlings but also actively hunts adults on occasion. The snake’s name translated into English means ‘tree snake’ and yes, it spends most of its time in trees or shrubs. Although venomous, this shy reptile very seldom bites – most victims are snake handlers. There is a lot of truth to the saying ‘Snakes don’t bite people. People get bitten’. The Boomslang is easily recognized by its enormous eyes and short stubby head with most females being light to olive brown in colour and the males being green.

This fever tree was actually planted here, as they do not occur naturally in this area. Low-lying swampy regions are where they like to grow. These places are also associated with malaria and early pioneers believed that the trees were the cause of the fever, hence the name, fever tree.

If you have time to spare, we highly recommend taking a moment to observe the many interactions taking place in this tree.

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better” ~Albert Einstein