Socializing in a Grass Condo

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of wildlife photography is the unusual things you get to see in remote places. I find the more remote the place is, the more you find that small things make a big impact.

South Africa’s northern cape region is one such place. Its a land of big sky and unspoiled scrubland vistas from horizon to horizon. The few roads it has seem to be roads to nowhere, flat and straight as far as you can see. As you drive it you can’t help but become tired of the monotony, but after a while you start to appreciate its serenity and beauty and adapt to its rhythms. This is when you start to notice things….like big grass balls on top of telephone poles!

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These are the grass homes of the Sociable Weaver, a small gregarious sparrow-like bird that lives and breeds in colonies of upwards of hundreds of birds, all sharing the huge grass structures. Some of the nests are so huge they collapse the poles leaving the nests hanging suspended from the wires. When you see this you can’t help but be amazed by the engineering brilliance of these small birds. Look closely and you see a dense mass of small sticks and grass interwoven into a stable mass that utilizes the structural dynamics its host tree or pole to the max. Its an amazing sight. One of those natural wonders of the world that is definitely a privilege to see.

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In summer, when temperatures reach into the high thirty degrees C, the grass thatch is cooling, maintaining a comfortable twenty degrees. In winter when night temperatures can fall way below zero, the thatch is a warming insulator that protects the birds from the cold. Nest structures commonly accommodate anything from ten up to to five hundred birds, each responsible for tending to the maintenance and continued extension of the structure by poking small shards of grass into the thatch.

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When suitable trees and poles are at a premium, road signs make a good alternative!

The entrance to the nests face down protected by protruding stalks of grass that makes it very difficult for predators like snakes to penetrate. The older larger nests may be up to a hundred years old, testament to the resilience of the birds in such a harsh environment. Its only when you view the nests from close up, and see how small a bird the sociable weaver is, that you start to fully comprehend the enormity and complexity of their nest structure. I’ll go as far to say that they are definitely in my top ten list of “must see” things in this world.

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What is even more amazing is the fact that sociable weaver nests are the heart of quite a complex micro eco system. The nests commonly accommodate several guests in the form of Pigmy Falcons as well as other species of barbets, chats, finches and tits who all enjoy the cosy nesting chambers. The large rather flat tops of the nests are also home to larger birds such as Vultures, Owls and Eagles who use the nest structure as a base for their own nests. All together they combine to form a formidable guard against their arch predator the Cape Cobra, for which the birds and their young are a prime source of food.

 

 

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