I’m on the N4 highway, moving at about 100 km per hour towards Johannesburg. Outside, the air is as sharp as glass and two colours dominate the landscape – honey-blonde grassland below a muted, cobalt sky. There are no clouds and no trees, save for some weatherbeaten and naked willows along the drainage lines. Large areas have been burnt to stubble and even larger areas have been ploughed over. As with the American prairies, natural grasslands have shrunk to a fraction of their former extent in South Africa.
It is bitterly cold, but the sun is warming the back of any creature that ventures out. At about 09h30, I am approaching the town of Bronkhorstspruit, when the unmistakeable shape of a Marsh Owl floats into view. It is a warm, umber brown owl, with buffy wing markings perfectly matching the winter grassland. Immediately, I am transported back in time to when I lived on the Highveld and would regularly watch these owls hunting in the morning and afternoon during the winter months.
The Marsh Owl feeds primarily on rodents which – like the owl – are probably less nocturnal in winter, sleeping through much of the cold night to rather forage when the sun can warm their backs. The owls course above the grassland on their broad wings, pivoting as though suddenly tugged by chord, to drop to the ground and snatch their prey. My own observations suggested that they were hit-and-miss specialists, however, with less than a 20% success rate, but they clearly get enough to eat with this hunting method.
I came upon an active nest site once: an indistinct bowl on the edge of a dense grass tussock fringing a seasonal wetland. Three scruffy nestlings snapped their bills at me, while the adults circled above, uttering their strange croaking calls. I had no intention of disturbing them, but one of the adults then landed several metres away and began to feign injury by dragging one its wings along the ground. It hopped around in a clumsy manner, in what must be an effective distraction technique for potential nest predators. I find it fascinating that unrelated birds such a thick-knees and lapwings – which share such open grassy habitats – employ this same strategy.
Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa, July 2012