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Unlocking the Secrets of Swebeswebe: Adventures in Bird Ringing at Nature's Oasis

Joseph Heymans is a good character. He is a botanist, a bird ringer (registered) co-authored a book on the flowers of the Waterberg, and one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

            Joseph and his team of bird ringers have been actively ringing birds on Swebeswebe for the last 16 years. During this time, they have managed to ammas a great deal of information on the longevity and breeding biology of the birds in the Waterberg.

            How does it work?

            The team, consisting of a dedicated group of professionals, will arrive on the reserve the day before the actual work begins. It is a time for investigating, finding the old spots where last year’s birds were caught and a cold one around the fire.

            At around 4.00 am the next morning, the nets go up. These nets, specially made for live capture of our avian friends, are gossamer thin. They are all but invisible to the human eye at a distance. They are stretched between poles, usually close to known nests and food sources. It is then a waiting game until the first birds fly into the nets.





There is a special technique for removing a caught bird. First, look at where the belly is pointing. This will allow you to see what angle the bird flew into the net from. Then remove the feet… carefully…

            The wings are next. And then you carefully hold it, head between the fore and index finger, and deliver it into a small muslin bag fitted with a drawstring. This sounds cruel, but robbing the bird of its sight seems to calm it and makes it docile enough to handle.

            At the ringing station under our big Marula tree, the birds are hung on a line. The team will process them from here.




            First, the bird is measured and weighed. Vital information includes its total length, wing-to-wing ratio, beak shape and size, breeding status (the females lose some feathers on the belly to allow for greater heat distribution to the developing eggs) and general condition. A good few birds will be fitted with a small aluminium ring, almost like a wedding band, with vital information printed on it.

            These rings are vital to our understanding of bird migrations and longevity. One bird, receiving its ring in South Africa, was caught again in Yugoslavia at the end of its migration. Another lived for 15 years before its ring number was sent in for verification. One, a Mocking Chat, was caught and on closer inspection seen to have lost both its feet. Not that such a disability keeps her back.

There is even some healthy competition amongst the team on who can catch the most birds, the most species and personal life listers!

            By mid-morning the action is over. Nets are drawn, the coffee comes out, and a good amount of banter is exchanged. A quick lunch, a nap, and then the next place is explored, hopefully with new species and a few old favourites visiting the waiting nets.


Bird ringing numbers 2023 Joseph Heymans
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