Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Another small, pretty heron! The Rufousbellied Heron, Ardeola rufescens, is a relative of the Chinese Pond Heron, Ardeola bacchus. Its scientific name means ‘reddish little heron’. This species is indeed small for a heron, at about 40 cm/16" in total length. It is not entirely reddish, being slate grey on the neck and back, but has reddish brown patches on its wings, and also a rufous belly and tail. In poor light or from far away it can seem very dark and confused with the Black Egret or the Slaty Egret, but both those are more slender birds, while the rufousbellied heron has a compact, dumpy look. Its bright yellow eyes, bill and legs are also a giveaway if seen well.
A Skulking Demeanor
Unfortunately I haven't seen this species yet. It is very rare in South Africa, having been glimpsed only a few times in the north and east of the country. Although this is where I live, I am not the one who managed to catch those glimpses. This is properly a species of tropical Africa, and its range is centred on south-central and eastern Africa as far as Uganda and Kenya. It inhabits large swamps, flood plains, or sometimes rice paddies, and tends to keep itself very well hidden amidst flooded grass, reeds, rushes or papyrus. If approached it will freeze in position, but if the intruder keeps coming it will fly off and into a tree, or drop back into the vegetation a good distance off.
This heron is one that often does not stick to fixed territories. Its preferred habitat is seasonally flooded savannah, and it is most commonly found in the large floodplains and seasonal swamps in and around Zambia, for instance around river basins such as the Kafue, or the swamps around Lake Bangweulu. The huge floodplains dry out quite thoroughly every winter (the dry season here), but when the spring rains come, the rivers overflood their banks and inundate thousands of square kilometres of savannah. Grass responds by growing tall, and reeds and sedges resprout after a long dormancy. Fishes, frogs and other aquatic creatures move from the river itself into the flooded savannah. It is a situation rich in food and opportunity. This heron, along with many other creatures, make the most of the plenty. When the dry season returns and the water retreats back to the river's main course, and the final pools dry up, the rufousbellied herons and many others will leave in search of fresh habitat. This they will frequently find after a short flight across the equator, because now the wet season will start in the opposite hemisphere. So this little heron will never have to go dry.
In Southern Africa, the place you can most easily see the rufousbellied heron is the Okavango Swamps of Botswana. These swamps are the last resting place of the Okavango River, which starts in the cool, moist highlands of Angola and ends swallowed up by the deep sands of the Kalahari Desert, never reaching the ocean. But before the river disappears it branches into thousands of rivulets feeding a vast swamp region, with lush reeds and tall trees and palms despite the dry desert climate. The swamps, while expanding and contracting seasonally, remain year-round and here the herons are more sedentary than elsewhere. Outside of the Okavango, rufousbellied herons can be seen in some regions of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but they are rather rare and not frequently encountered. They can move into South Africa during years of exceptional rainfall when there's been a sort of population explosion in its regular haunts, and many young herons are forced to set out in search of living space. But they rarely stay for long. The only place where they have been seen to breed in South Africa is the Nyl River floodplain, a bit to the south of where I live.
Down in the Swamps
Not much is known of the lifestyle of the rufousbellied heron. It stalks its quarry amidst the tall marshy vegetation, walking in the shallow water, mostly keeping its body horizontal, and rapidly flicking its neck forward to catch its prey with its sharp bill. Sometimes it will stand still in one place and wait for the food to come to it. It feeds during the day, but sometimes at dawn or dusk, and perhaps sometimes even during the night. Its food is mostly fish, frogs, worms and other invertebrates.
These little herons mostly occur solitarily, but sometimes in small flocks … occasionally in large flocks, roosting and nesting together. Breeding happens when the flood waters are highest. Rufousbellied herons often breed in colonies along with other herons or storks. Their nests can be in flooded trees (many of which are adapted to survive this yearly flooding) or in reedbeds. The nests are untidy, shallow bowls of twigs and grass. The clutch can be one to four eggs, but mostly three. Newly hatched rufousbellied herons are naked apart from scruffy patches of down, and apparently very ugly! Their parents bring them food, stored in their expansive crops and regurgitated into the nests for the chicks to gobble up. The chicks grow rapidly and start clambering around in the nest tree at the age of two weeks, but returning to the nest for feeding. They fledge after 25-30 days. Juvenile rufousbellied herons are streaky and dull brown, but the colours darken and intensify as they age.
Because the swampy territory where rufousbellied herons live is so extensive, and little frequented by people, they can overall be considered safe in spite of their apparent rarity.