SW journey

“The Sociable Weaver Project started in 1993 thanks to the efforts of Mark Anderson, now CEO of Birdlife South Africa and at the time Ornithologist working for Northern Cape Nature Conservation.

Mark started capturing sociable weaver colonies at Benfontein Reserve, near Kimberley (Northern Cape). He was interested in finding out more about the demography and movements of sociable weavers, and also in bringing people out to the field to show them what bird ringing was about. Mark captured these colonies regularly for five years building an important data-set which provided the basis for the future research conducted on this population.

I first came to Benfontein at the end of May 1998 to start the fieldwork for a PhD that would be investigating cooperative breeding behaviour in this species under the supervision of Morné du Plessis. The plan for the first field trip was to capture all the individuals in the study colonies, to make sure all immigrants and new recruits were ringed. I arrived late in the evening with Morné and a field assistant, and Mark met us before dawn the next morning to lead us to one of the colonies and show us how to set up the nets for the captures. It was both strange and exciting to arrive and be led to the colonies in the dark, not knowing exactly where I was and what to expect. After setting up the nets in the chilly winter morning and warming my hands around a cup of coffee I saw the daylight slowly rising over the beautiful savannah that was going to become such a central part of my life for the decades to come. 

I spent four happy years doing my PhD research on the sociable weavers, having had the bonus of being joined by my friend and long-term-collaborator-to-be Claire Doutrelant. Claire came to visit Benfontein to explore possibilities for a post-doc project after a planned project on red-billed woodhoepoes failed because of exceptional climactic conditions. She ended up staying at Benfontein and we initiated our long-term collaboration that lasts to this day.

I left Benfontein for work on the Gulf of Guinea islands at the end of my PhD in 2002, but the sociable weaver system and the Benfontein set-up were too good to leave aside and, together with Claire, we returned to re-launch the study in 2008. We have continued the yearly captures and detailed monitoring of our 12-15 study colonies since 2010.”

Rita Covas

Fieldwork Memories

Overnight sleep in the savannah next to the colony to capture the birds before the sunrise… Termites queens flights all over the savanah before sunset. Apparition of hundreds of desert rain frogs one evening in the field. The savannah completely white in a cold morning, green as an English field or all sandy. The clouds in the sky… The sound of the larks…The captures and the field each season, the observations of the behaviour of colour rings sociable weavers.The teamwork and life, the roof of the bakkie… This project between science and friendship.

Claire Doutrelant

 My colleagues make this joke about a “Fortuna effect” since every time I go to the field, the sociable weavers don’t lay eggs. Once I’ve waited for 5 months and the breeding season only started the month after I’ve left. This sort of thing happened on 3 different years, so everyone started believing (including myself) the lack of breeding activity was my fault. A very convincing plot has been built with this data! Luckily, my time in this project has lasted long enough to prove this correlation faulty, as the weavers fledged a record number of chicks during my 4th field season. Time to make another plot, Franck!

Rita Fortuna

…general excitation of a starting season, the challenge to catch most of the birds, the management of all the tasks and people. All the wonderful and colds breakfasts looking at dawn. The warmth of the sun when it rises up and you are untaggeling the birds from the nets. The team spirit and precision we share when we need to process the birds before releasing them. The big tables with everyone’s stories and thoughts. The unique sundowners and braais with the field team and local people…this is part of all I like in this project!

Franck Theron

 It seemed just like another very busy day in the field. We wake up early and got the material packed in the car and were ready to go. The work schedule was long with plenty of nests to check and chicks to ring. We ended spending the whole day in the field with a great achievement of ringing more than 46 chicks in one day – it was up to that date the most ringed chicks in one day in the project. We were tired and while going back home with a nice cinematographic sunset, we were discussing about which reward we should get to ourselves. Maybe a nice dinner at the pub would make up for all the hard work, but the savannah rewarded us with something much better. We hear a strong clashing sound and, just in front of our car, two oryx appeared contesting with each other. We were so close that we could hear the weight and the strength of those two beautiful animals. They were so focused in their coordinated fight that did not even notice the presence of the car until a few long minutes later. It was great to take some pictures and to appreciate the amazing gifts that nature can offer to those attempting to study it. Gifts that can come also in the form of “unioryx”

Liliana Silva

During my first field season on the Sociable Weaver project I once found a completely dehydrated dead frog near one of the sociable weavers’ colonies. I knew that frogs could be found in such arid regions, but I still found this encounter quite odd. I finished fieldwork late that day, sun was already set when I was going from my observation spot to the car where I found another frog, this time it was alive and going on with its life. I took a closer look and I realized that there was not one but thousands if not millions of frogs everywhere. The scenario of a savannah like landscape covered with frogs was simply amazing. It took me a really long time to get back to the house as I had to sweep out thousands of frogs from the road. Even though the rest of the team believed my words back home, I got the feeling that no one really understood the dimension of the event and the number of frogs that were actually out that night. Few days later I was lucky enough to see this rare event again and this time the whole field team was in the field with me and were able to experience what I described to them before. Besides the frogs, at the same time, the nuptial flight of the termites was occurring adding an additional touch of natural magic to a scenario that was already unique.

André Ferreira

%d bloggers like this: