Birdie magic at a sewage works

2014-02-19 00:00

I DIDN’T expect to find magic at a sewage works.

The occasion was a walk around Darvill Wastewater Treatment Plant in Hollingwood last week.

“Hang on, that looks nice,” exclaimed Gordon Bennett, president of Birdlife KZN Midlands, in mid sentence. His eyes had darted upwards and he was gazing intently at a large bird flying by.

“That’s a Black-headed Heron.”

It was yet another bird to add to our growing list.

Bennett’s club, started as an offshoot of the Natal Bird Club in 1989, turns 25 this year, and he was sharing some of the delights of the pastime at one of the province’s premier birding spots.

Birds come to Darvill for the abundant insect life around the plant’s many ponds, and Bennett said he’s seen 230 species in the area alone. In the whole of Pietermaritzburg, he’s seen 340 different species.

A retired quantity surveyor who moved to Pietermaritzburg from Perth, Scotland, in 1969, Bennett first got interested in birding when he was “18 or 19. It was regarded as weird then. Now I tell my grandson it’s a cool pastime.”

Which it is, sort of. Both here and abroad birding is growing in popularity. According to Shireen Gould of Birdlife SA, the organisation is gaining 20 to 30 new members every month, although they’re mostly retired people. “There are younger people out there who are birders but they’re not part of organisations,” she said.

It’s a reality faced by the Midlands club too, which has well over 200 members. “The way of life is changing,” is Bennett’s explanation. “Club attendance at functions has dropped. Members are getting older and we can’t get young people to attend.”

Those who do, participate in a busy programme of talks, outings and helping out with conservation projects like various bird counts. They’ve contributed to funding the establishment of hides and trails in Bisley Valley, trails in the Botanical Gardens and a cable bridge across the Mkuze River into the Fig Forest in the Mkuze Game Reserve.

Bennett regularly leads walks around Darvill and has an appreciation of the place that completely escapes the untrained eye. “It’s my favourite birding spot. On a good day you can see 50-60 species. But it’s undergoing change, and the birdlife is falling away drastically,” he said. This he puts down to environmental changes wrought by climate change, pollution and industrialisation.

He pointed at large white birds circling above. “White Storks. They’re looking for food and riding thermals. In the nineties, because of the use of insecticides, they were badly affected. Now they are increasing again.”

Darvill is like an international airport for birds, which come from countries as far flung as Finland, the Netherlands, Hungary, Central Africa and Kenya. Bennett is a font of knowledge about their arrivals and departures, and added engaging explanations of the constant soundtrack all around us. The Blacksmith Plover — “very common here now, because of all the dams in the midlands” — is named because of the “tink-tink-tink” sound it makes. Another bird, the Little Rush Warbler, sounds like “something stuck in the spokes of a bicycle”.

His approach to birding is old school. “Some people use technology for spotting birds,” he said. “I once went out with an American who had a thing you pointed at the sound a bird was making and it would tell you what it was. But I’m not keen on being told everything. I like to work things out.”

We were heading for our last point of interest, the largest dam. Bennett had been told a few days before of a rare sighting of the Yellow Wagtail, which he hadn’t seen since the nineties. Another birder appeared clutching binoculars and there was a rapid exchange about the Yellow Wagtail; he’d also heard the news and was searching for it.

The birder scanned the shore and reeds ahead while talking in a distracted fashion. “There it is. On the near bank,” he announced. The elusive bird was about six metres away. “That’s quite rare,” Bennett told me, pleased. A small creature, yellow underneath and grey-brown on top, darted quickly across the sand, oblivious to our gaze.

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