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!"
Today I bring to you a bird that is very dear to my heart. This is a Bald Ibis, Geronticus calvus. It is sometimes called the Southern Bald Ibis, to distinguish it from the Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita, which only occurs in Morocco and the Middle East. The northern species is seriously threatened. Our own Bald Ibis is somewhat more secure, but it is a rare species with a small population. It only occurs in South Africa and our two small neighbour/enclosed countries, Lesotho and Swaziland. I'm lucky to live in a town near to one of their breeding colonies, and I see the species every now and then, flying overhead, or stalking invertebrate critters on the made-to-order short grass sports fields of our local schools or university. They also turn up from time to time at the Polokwane bird sanctuary.
Mournful Cries over the Cliffs
Bald ibises are the only local ibis species to nest exclusively on cliffs. They build their sizeable twig platform nests on ledges under the shelters of overhangs. What's more, they prefer their nests to be within sight of water, such as a river, waterfall or lake. In suitable spots, they breed in small colonies. As I've said, there's one colony close to the town of Polokwane; the others are quite far away, mainly in Mpumalanga and further south. They are usually quiet, but around their colonies they utter their rather mournful, but melodious, 'kew-kou-kloup' calls. Breeding couples greet each other with piping calls. They breed mainly in the late winter to early spring. In the breeding season, the head and legs of males and females turn a brighter red. They court each other by grabbing a stick in their bills and waving it about, sometimes both holding onto one stick together. They also preen each other.
The clutch size is typically two or three pale bluish, red-spotted eggs. The chicks are covered in coarse, greyish down. Their bills start out short and straight, and lengthen and curve as they grow older. Only when they become sexually mature do their bills turn red and do they get the bright red swellings on top of their heads.
The habitat bald ibises prefer for feeding is short grassland over fairly moist soil. In some regions they've lost a lot of habitat to farming and human-induced landscape changes. But as I've said, they can also make use of man-changed environments, such as sports fields where the grass is kept short and the soil moist for them. They also frequent recently burned areas, and sometimes follow domestic cattle. They sometimes hunt in agricultural fields. They hunt invertebrates by poking their long bills into the soil, going by feel and grabbing what they can. They will turn over cow pats to find the little beetles and grubs these attract. They are so fond of beetles that they sometimes eat shiny plastic buttons by mistake; in the colony near my home town, these buttons have turned up in large numbers below the cliffs on which the bald ibises nest.
Being a rare species with a small global population, bald ibises are vulnerable to threats. Ongoing agricultural expansion is claiming more of the lush grassland pastures where they feed; overgrazing is degrading other grasslands. Humans used to hunt them, which practice may continue in some rural areas. They're also vulnerable to disturbance at their nest sites. There is some concern that they may suffer as a result of pesticide use on some of the farmlands or man-made expanses of grass where they occasionally feed. As such, we'd better keep careful watch of their numbers over here. It certainly is a beautiful bird species which more people should have the chance to see.