When I visit Johannesburg, Gauteng (South Africa) one of the birds I most look forward to seeing is the Long-tailed Widowbird Euplectes progne, a member of the Bishop family. Sexually dimorphic, female widowbirds are all rather similar and tricky to separate (though Long-taileds are the largest widowbirds) and outside of the breeding season male Long-tailed Widowbirds are large, streaky, but relatively unspectacular birds. Come late October though and this is a species that – in the (almost) avian equivalent of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly – transforms into a spectacularly well-endowed sexual show-off with a most unlikely bundle of tail plumes…
Non-breeding male Long-tailed Widowbird, September
Female Long-tailed Widowbird, September
Male Long-tailed Widowbirds, October
Interesting enough when they’re perched, Long-tailed Widowbirds really become one of the most enchanting species in southern Africa when they take off and display. Males flutter slowly over the grasslands where they’re typically found like huge black butterflies, their tails trailing behind them like banners blowing in the wind. Also known as the ‘Sakabula’, this display flight can last several minutes and at the height of the breeding season when males are busily trying to attract females some favoured sites can be dotted in all directions with widowbirds rising up and down before dropping back out of sight into the long grass. It really is the most fantastic sight, and one well worth getting to see if you ever get the chance.
Displaying male Long-tailed Widowbirds
There are three forms of E. progne and southern African birds extend from the eastern Cape Province north through the Free State, Lesotho, KZN, and western Swaziland into the central highveld where it is most common. It occurs up to 2750m in the Drakensberg Mountains, and is found especially in mixed grasslands typical of the highveld. While not totally a grassland obligate it’s likely that continued (rapid) development of the grasslands in eastern South Africa may well see the species decline, though as yet it’s still considered to be of Least Concern by Birdlife International.
Typical Long-tailed Widowbird grassland habitat, Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve
Housing development in the Midrand, 2006
All photos by Charlie Moores 2008