The small flock of Common Waxbills that had been feeding on the seeds of long wavy grass stems flew off in panic as dozens of rushing dusty cattle came bellowing up the dirt track. Above them thousands of Barn Swallows swooped and dipped after the black swarm of flies that were accompanying the cattle. Cattle Egrets ran rapidly alongside, trying to spear and swallow grasshoppers that were disturbed by the heavy feet of the cattle whilst also dodging the numerous dogs that were herding the huge beasts by yapping at their feet. White-Throated Swallow, Brown-Throated Martin, Fork-Tailed Drongos, Cape Wagtail, Yellow Throated Longclaw and Cape Longclaw also soon joined in on the action of snatching up any insects that were flushed into the open.
To say that this amazing birding spectacle was rather unexpected is a bit of an understatement, but then again, here I was in a strange contrast, a stones throw away from the rushing city of Pietermaritzburg with the sounds of cockerels crowing and sheep blearing in the background whilst I was sitting amongst an amazing variety of birds at the Darville Sewage Works.
1 of 8: Red-Knobbed Coot.
My main reason for visiting the sewage works was to try and get good views of waterfowl and for the chance of seeing Grey Crowned Cranes which were reputed to be regular visitors. After obtaining permission to visit the numerous settling ponds, I drove down the small tracks to be confronted by the spectacle mentioned above. Across the open fields, Spur-winged and Egyptian Geese were silhouetted against the morning sunlight as they wandered below giant sprinkler systems that watered the lawns that would soon be cut into blocks to provide instant greenery to households. African Palm Swifts flew in the skies above and an occasional African Black Swift and White-Rumped Swift also joined them, hawking unseen insects with open mouths. African Sacred Ibis, African Spoonbills and Hadeda Ibis’s flew constantly backwards and forwards and somewhere high above, I could hear the distinctive call of an African Goshawk as it proclaimed its territory.
2 of 8: Darville Sewage Works:
Driving up onto the wall of the first settling pan, I was in time to see a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes disappear with their two half-fledged youngsters into the thick reeds that surrounded the pans. While I waited for them to re-emerge, I scanned the rest of the pan and was pleased to see an African Openbill standing quietly and surrounded by Ruff, Blacksmith Lapwings, Kitlitz Plover, Three-Banded Plovers, Black-Winged Stilts and a group of Pied Avocets that scythed the water in a backwards and forwards movement, filtering food from the water surface. The African Openbill was a real bonus and was obviously part of the unusual eruption of these birds that was taking place across KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape. Normally one would have to travel to Botswana or the northern parts of the Limpopo province to have such a sighting. Alighting from the vehicle with camera and tripod, I snuck around to photograph the bird and was rewarded with being able to get a few shots but not before realising that I had crouched down in a patch of stinging nettles which sent fire like sensations up the length of my legs. Retreating in a sorrowful mood back to the vehicle, my spirits were lifted again as two African Goshawks aggressively attacked a much slower flying African Harrier-Hawk.
3 of 8: Barn Swallow.
The next pan held much deeper waters and this was covered in feeding Cape Shoveller, Yellow-Billed Duck, Fulvous Duck and White-Faced Duck. African Purple Swamphen and Black Crake added contrasting colours as they appeared briefly and intermittently amongst the greenery of the reedbeds and an African Snipe sat dead still in the hope of avoiding detection. An African Fish Eagle flying overhead caused panic with birds scattering in every direction and a pair of Blacksmith Lapwings took out their frustrations by dive-bombing a Grey Heron that landed again after the eagle had passed.
4 of 8: White-Faced Duck.
At yet another pan, Red-Billed Teal, Maccoa Duck, White-Backed Duck, Hottentot Teal and Southern Pochard pushed up the species list of ducks sighted to a hard to beat eleven. Red-Knobbed Coot collected water weeds, dragging them to piles in the centre of the pan that would later be trampled into nesting platforms. At this pan the thick reeds were somehow better than those around the other pans as Southern Red Bishop, Yellow-Bishop, White-Winged Widow and Masked Weavers were all building nests amongst them. A lone Purple Heron rose out of the reeds to be joined by three Black-Crowned Night Herons and all flew off out of sight together.
5 of 8: Dusky Acraeae Butterfly.
Amongst the reed beds, I constantly heard the calling of small warblers and it was only after a lengthy time that I finally managed to sight the Lesser-Swamp Warblers and Levalliant’s Cisticolas that had been calling. I once again caught up with the cattle and this time they were grazing sedately and the numerous dogs were lazing around in the warmth of the sun and eyeing me with half-opened eyes. Above the cattle, Lesser-Striped Swallows, Black Sawings and Pearl-Breasted Swallows now swooped past and nearby Zitting Cisticolas flew high into the air, all the while calling. The bush near the cattle was covered in large, bright orange coloured flowers that attracted numerous butterflies and other insects. Tawny-Flanked Prinia and Yellow-Fronted Canary moved through the bushes near the flowers. African Stone Chats sat on prominent perches and small flocks of Bronze Mannikin fed on the seed laden grasses. In a patch of bushveld trees, Common Fiscal and Southern Boubou squabbled with one another and Sombre Greenbuls called, hidden by the thick vegetation. Spectacled Weavers and a Jacobins Cuckoo also briefly showed themselves and a pair of Burchell’s Coucals flew heavily across an opening. Examination of a nearby stand of gum trees revealed a Black Sparrowhawk perched against the tree truck with one leg tucked up and ruffled feathers as it beadily watched the activity around it.
6 of 8: African Openbill.
Making another turn past the pans, I was able to add sightings of Yellow-Billed Egret, Hammerkop and Common Moorhen to my ever growing list. White-Breasted Cormorant had also arrived together with the smaller Reed Cormorants and as I watched an African Darter with its long snake-like neck flew in and landed in a dead tree. Two Pied Kingfishers hovered over the middle of the pan and a careful scan of the reed fringes added a brightly coloured Malachite Kingfisher. Now that it was warming up a bit, a variety of dragonflies started to show themselves and varied from dainty pale blue damselflies through to bright red and brilliant blue drop-wings and the giant blues. Returning to the spot where I first sighted the Grey Crowned Cranes, I was rewarded to watch as the adults fed in the open grasses, though their youngsters remained hidden safely somewhere nearby. My mission was accomplished and Darville Sewage Works had delivered not only the cranes but also brought an exciting array of other birds.
7 of 8: Lesser Swamp Warbler:
Season and weather: Summers can be extremely hot and humid in the Pietermaritzburg valley, with late afternoon rain and thunder showers occurring. Winters are generally mild.
Habitats: The main attraction is the sewage settling ponds which draw large numbers of waterbirds. Thick reedbeds surround some of the ponds. Open grasslands lie adjacent to the ponds and small patches of indigenous bush attract a variety of bushveld bird species.
8 of 8: Black-Winged Stilt preening.
Specials: Africa Openbill, Maccoa Duck, White-Backed Duck, Grey-Crowned Crane, Ballions Crake, African Snipe, Red-Headed Quelia
Getting There: Darville Sewage Works lies on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg and can be reached from the N3. Take the Scottsville/New England turnoff and head east along the New England road. Bear left at the service station and continue along this road until reaching the entrance gate which is about two kilometers beyond the golf course.