It was a relaxed, peaceful morning at the Durban Botanical Gardens on 16th May, 2013. I was on my way back to Johannesburg, but decided to spend a few hours strolling through the lush sub-tropical gardens in the hope of photographing a few birds.
The birds were plentiful, with a feeding mob of bronze manikins (Spermestes cucullatus) having breakfast, a family of Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) strolling on the grass, two dark-capped bulbuls (Pycnonotus tricolor) exploring a leafy tree, a spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) resting next to the pond, a fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis) surveying the gardens and grey herons (Ardea cinerea) perched precariously on the top-most branches of tall trees.
Then I saw the bizarre African spoonbill (Platalea alba) giving me a rather peculiar stare, like some aristocrat rudely interrupted on the golf course. The bright pinkish red stilt-like legs, flattened spoonbill and puffy white feathers stood out starkly against the lush green background. It resumed its walk around the pond, all the while giving me a sideways glance every time the cameras shutter clicked.
The ‘aristocrat’ was soon joined by his ‘caddy’, presumably a juvenile judging by the black legs and bill. Of course this could have been a mother and sibling, but my bird skills don’t go so far as differentiating between male and female spoonbills. I watched these two for almost an hour before heading back to the car park.
What’s in the name?
Platalea is derived from Latin, meaning spoonbill, a name used by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC), a Roman philosopher, orator and politician. The species name alba is Latin for white, referring to the snowy white plumage of these birds. The common name spoonbill refers to the distinctive spatula-like bill.
African spoonbills are widely distributed throughout southern Africa and are particularly common around Highveld wetlands as well as the eastern coastal regions. Their range has expanded over time with the development of man-made dams in the drier regions of South Africa.
The bill is uniquely designed for feeding in the water. Spoonbills swing their heads from side to side in a wide arc, with the bill slicing through the water and snapping up aquatic invertebrates such as molluscs, as well as small fish and probably tadpoles as well.
BreedingAfrican spoonbills are monogamous and egg-laying in South Africa takes place between February to November. Females lay 2-4 long oval eggs and these hatch after an incubation period of 25-29 days. Apparently the female sits on the eggs during the day and the male takes over during the evening. Juveniles leave the colony at around five weeks.
For more information on African spoonbills and other amazing animals from South Africa, visit: http://www.biodiversitynature.com/african-spoonbill-platalea-alba/