Weavers! I was sure that the hanging nests of carefully woven grass belonged to some sort of weaver bird. After all, I’d seen such things in National Geographic. Now, here I was in southern Africa and the Jacaranda tree in front of me was decorated with dozens of these nests! Bluebird-sized birds fluttered around, and if I squinted, I could see them entering and leaving these cocoons through holes at the bottom.
As I mentioned last month, I recently returned from a trip to Swaziland. Fifteen people from my church were there to love on some AIDS orphans, and I was the team photographer. While my focus was on the kids, I couldn’t help but scan my surroundings for birds. After all—how often was I going to get to Africa?
After back-to-back red-eye flights, each lasting over ten hours, we were finally on the ground. Our minibus was heading east from Johannesburg, South Africa to Swaziland. I stared out the window, trying unsuccessfully to ID the infrequent raptors sitting on telephone poles, zipping past at 90 kph.
Then we slowed and rolled to a stop, and I realized we were at the South Africa – Swaziland border. Our host, a missionary from Alabama, explained the drill: everyone out, grab your passport, leave your stuff in the bus. As we piled out and headed across the street to the customs office, I looked up and there they were. All those nests and birds—unmistakably weavers—and both my binos and my camera were out of reach. Not only that, but it was against the law to take photos at the border. Talk about frustrating!
When we arrived at our guest house in Manzini, I quickly unpacked and headed outside to see what was what. An undeveloped area across the street was filled with tall grass and scraggly bushes, brown and dead from the long, dry winter. Eucalyptus and other trees protruded above the thick brush. And—one of the trees was full of weaver nests! I was eager to get closer, but I remembered the several species of cobra, black mambas, and half dozen other snakes, all extremely dangerous, that lived in the area. Maybe I could see enough from the road?
As you can see, I never did get good pictures of the nests there, but the nest owners foraged in the guest house garden and posed for me in the palms and mango tree. Their speckled backs identified them as Village Weavers.
During the days that followed I saw many more weaver-infested trees, always too far away (or we were moving too fast) to identify. Apparently, weavers were pretty common. That didn’t make them any less interesting, though—I couldn’t get enough of them.
Finally, at the end of our trip, we stopped at a handicraft shop to buy gifts for those back home. I got pretty excited when I realized that the tree right outside the door was loaded with nests, all at eye level. (Unfortunately, my presence scared the birds enough so that they stopped going in and out of their nests, and I never got photos of the tricky process.)
Curious about these remarkable birds, I did a bit of research when I got home. I learned that weavers are in the family Ploceidae and that they are related to finches. Most species are African, although some are found in parts of Asia and Australia.
The beaks seemed awfully sharp for seed-eaters; perhaps the point was used to build those incredible nests? Sure enough—weaving grasses and other fine vegetation into a nest is quite an engineering feat. You can watch it happen in this remarkable video from the BBC.
It is the male who builds the nest, and he’s highly motivated to do a good job—a female weaver mates with the male whose nest impresses her the most. Village Weavers breed from August through April, Southern Masked Weavers breed ten months of the year (all except May and June), while the Cape Weavers start in June and end in February. That seems like a lot of time to be building nests, incubating eggs, and raising young, but since these birds don’t migrate, maybe they don’t have a lot of other items on their to-do lists!
If you ever go to southern Africa, I can almost guarantee you’ll see weaver birds. Seeing a tree full of nests dangling from the branches like Christmas ornaments should be on every birder’s bucket list!
Photos, from top: Village Weaver, Village Weaver nests, Village Weaver, Cape Weaver nests, Cape Weaver, Southern Masked Weaver.