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Dawn Chorus – at 5.00 PM!

~ Zambezi Cruise and Safaris

Taking a late afternoon stroll by the river in search of new Dragonfly species I was amazed to hear a volume of birdsong normally associated with those hours of the morning when I, at least, wish I was still in the land of nod but find, regrettably, that I am not.

There is a small island in the river just in front of the outside dining deck at Pamuzinda and this was the source of the evening cacophony. A large thorn tree there has become the chosen nesting site of a colony of Southern Masked Weavers – Ploceus velatus. These delightfully brightly coloured yellow, black and orange birds are ubiquitous through much of Southern Africa and we are lucky enough to be home to a great many colonies of various sizes throughout the park.

In the build-up to the breeding season the males of this, and many other Weaver species, adopt Breeding or Nuptial plumage whilst the females are much more drab and remain so throughout the year. After the Breeding season the males revert to Winter or Eclipse plumage which closely resembles that of the female save only that the males retain their red eyes which are lacking in the females. Their diet is somewhat omnivorous as they will take seeds, nectar and insects and, in fact, time their breeding season to coincide with the onset of the rains when many termite colonies take to the air. This provides a rich source of instant protein in, often, prodigious numbers.

Some Wildlife species pair for life and this strategy offers a tremendous energy saving bonus as each breeding season approaches. The benefit of this cunning plan on the part of nature is in the time and effort saved having to find, attract and convince a potential partner to set up home. There’s no need for many of the standard courtship rituals as they have been through it all before and know one another intimately. Gone is the need to meet the in-laws, go out for expensive meals, buy flowers, share the washing up and trail to the shops – when you’d rather be at home with your feet up!

This is not the case with Southern Masked Weavers and each season they have to start at the beginning. Being a Male Weaver, particularly in this species, is some kind of job of work. Males take on a number of mates and to attract them have to build a whole housing estate of potential nests

Each one takes the best part of a day or more to construct and each male can build up to over 20. He normally constructs them to a “not quite finished” stage and then, should it be deemed suitable by a female he completes the main construction by adding an entrance porch while the female takes care of the interior decorating.

In order to deter predators such as lizards, snakes and monkeys the nests are usually suspended from the very tips of branches or palm fronds, often above water, and bob about wildly in the wind.

Many nests, especially those of young males who have failed to attend construction classes and chosen to ignore local building regs, are not properly secured and fall off into the undergrowth or water where a host of scavengers will be waiting to feast on the contents.

Weaver colonies are a constant source of noise throughout the day. Not strident but more a background buzzing. I remember some years ago when I was based at our sister lodge – Chengeta – I had a one to one, face to face, right of way dispute with a Puff Adder. To give him his due he did try to warn me and I could see him hissing away fit to bust – but couldn’t hear a thing. Too much time on a rifle range when young and too much deep diving were catching up with me.

On a visit to the UK shortly afterwards I bought a one size fits all hearing aid at great expense and it worked fine until I got back to Chengeta where it developed a strange interference noise and was discarded accordingly. A week later I tried it again and got the same interference but this time I happened to be looking up and could see a Weaver bird chattering and realised that what I had put down to a malfunction was in fact the background noise of a weaver colony that despite all my years in Africa I had never heard before and so did not recognize it!

As to the title of this blog entry. Having erected what must be the equivalent of a small village, our over worked male then needs to attract female residents.

This seems to take place predominantly in the late afternoon about 4.30 to 5.00 o’clock. The proscribed method appears to be to hang upside down from one of your nests, flap your wings madly and yell and screech at the top of your voice. This seems to be a group activity as all male residents of the site coordinate their timing, giving rise to the “Dawn Chorus” which had attracted my attention in the first place.

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