With time on your side, the hobby of observation often forces its way into your world. Never is this more enjoyable and rewarding than when the subject(s) of the observation becomes identifiable, and we draw an attachment to them for whatever reason.

Visitors of Londolozi may know what I’m talking about once they’ve seen a female leopard, for example, and then months or years later find out she has new cubs and is doing well. There is a relation to that particular leopard for those who saw it and heard its history, and so to discover of its progression in life awakens an emotion far greater than merely hearing about any leopard having cubs. Through careful observation of a specific subject the understanding of life’s precious nature can be refuelled.

It was actually the Ostrich family which reminded me of life’s great battle for survival and the reward of observing it, which inspired me to look back a couple months to a different scenario. With the incredible journey of the Ostrich family over the past few months and the knowledge that each new hatchling has less than 10% chance at survival, observing them has been fascinating. Of course, it is very sad to see that not all of the original six hatchlings are still alive, but the current state of the remaining four is testament to both the adults’ support and protection, and we can only hope this continues as strongly as possible. And so, in each one of the fluffy, tiny Ostrich chicks, lies a glimmer of hope and the potential for a long future.

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Three of the four remaining Ostrich chicks currently forage together on the almost unnoticeably delicate grass shoots coming through from last week’s showers. These chicks are still only chicken-sized, and have many challenges and threats ahead of them!

In mid-May of this year, we were unknowingly thrown into obsession after spotting a male African Jacana in a watering hole close to Varty Camp very sneakily sitting on a well-concealed nest. Every day we would come past several times and he would casually get up off of the nest and wonder around so as not to draw any unwanted attention to the incubating clutch, and without the keen eye and intuition of tracker Rob Hlatshwayo none of us would have been any the wiser. Not only did this bird’s cunning distractions fool most of us, but also the always-present Water Monitors and even a marauding Marsh Terrapin who we saw one day get very close to the four speckled eggs which were precariously balanced atop an intersection of lilies. It almost seemed the male Jacana had surreptitiously kept his nest afloat and out of danger for just long enough, and it was nearing the end of a 3-3.5 week incubation period!

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Early 2015 and I first laid my eyes on a male African Jacana protecting his chicks beneath his wings, and I was absolutely fascinated with the whole process!

More than a week went by before one morning’s bypass left us scanning the lilies for either the adult or the nest, which we feared had been swallowed whole by a Crocodile or any other of the water’s raiders. But to our utter delight we eventually got binoculars locked onto him trotting across the lilies on the far side of the water hole with four tiny chicks attempting to navigate their dense surroundings beside his long toes! Someone described them as “fluffy ping pong balls with legs”.

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Mid May of this year and our first view of the new Jacana chicks below their father. All four eggs hatched successfully and the chicks fumbled around the floating vegetation to our joy!

The hatchlings had survived the nesting stage which has about a 75% failure rate in Southern Africa. However, once the excitement died down I suddenly realised that despite managing to remain unnoticed as a nest, the real fight for individual survival was now only beginning as their list of predators effectively doubled. All raptors now joined the party and so the Jacana’s brilliant ability to move around on lilies and away from the water’s edge couldn’t keep them away from winged hunters too.

The process of observation then really took over and was easy to fully commit to for three reasons; the route in and out of Varty Camp went past this body of water with the newly popular Jacana family (father and four chicks), the body of water was close enough to go to at any time of day for a quick reconnaissance mission and update, and the territorial nature of the male Jacana would mean a vey small likelihood of them moving off. I was astonished as to how quickly the chicks grew in size and how agile and manoeuvrable they became over, between and through those very tricky lilies. But they had a long way to go.

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After several days, the chicks were seen more often out in the open waters, but always proved difficult to notice until they moved.

Over the next month we looked for them daily and were pleasantly surprised all were still alive, but that changed thereafter. After two months only two remained and it stayed that way for a while, as our active observation had practically come to a standstill and the two juvenile Jacana would be spotted on the odd occasion in the same body of water, either near to or quite some distance from their father.

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Late June, and at five weeks old their rapid growth was already evident! Here, two of the three remaining chicks at the time forage through the lilies with their father just out of frame to the right.

And so, going back to my introduction where I mention the Ostrich family’s significance, it was their current struggle for survival which prompted me to revisit my Jacana family obsession as Rob and I could recall seeing at least one of the juvenile Jacanas probably once a week for the past month or two, at the same location. And lo and behold, there they were! Two juvenile African Jacanas in the same watering hole in which they hatched and were raised, looking well matured and independent. They were doing their own thing and no longer scurrying around side by side or underneath their father’s wings; each looked content in their own worlds as they forage across the floating lilies. Although still not fully matured, they boast much more defined colours and markings and are fast on their way to adult plumage.

It was a beautiful reminder that the fight for survival is inevitable in nature, and it will be seen in the wild a lot. But that observing the growth and progress of even a few individuals out of many others brings a reward, and the lost lives of the other individuals directly contributed to not only the immediate environment and the balance ecosystem but the survival of another for the succession of life; a life which may be a future dominant and successful female leopard living on the land for over a decade, a life of an adult Ostrich exploring the open areas of Londolozi or the life of an African Jacana as it bumbles across a water surface with its world-record-breaking long toes!

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Late October, and so at six months old the two surviving chicks have developed such defining markings, closely resembling adult African Jacanas. A successfully independent young bird!

I actually went back to my mathematics books to work out how large my feet would be if humans had the same height-to-footspan ratio as the Jacana does; at 23-32cm tall and with a footspan of around 14,5-17,5cm these birds are somewhat comical with relatively the largest feet in the world.

I was always told to show my working, so:

[(23+32)/2]/[(14,5+17,5)/2] gave me the height-to-footspan ratio

By introducing my own height into this ratio I discovered what a Jacana Sean would look like. At 186cm (6’1’’ ft) tall my feet would be 109cm (3’ 6’’ ft) long, which may require about a size 42 shoe, painting an even more comical picture than that of the average lily-trotting Jacana. I think we’ll leave the long toes for them!

Filed under Birds Wildlife

About the Author

Sean Cresswell

Safari Guide

Sean is one of the humblest rangers you are likely to meet. Quietly going about his day, enriching the lives of the many guests he takes out into the bush, it is only when he posts a Week in Pictures or writes an ...

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13 Comments

on Long Toes and Long Necks: Jacana and Ostrich Chicks
    Frances Fearnhead says:

    With a bit of imagination, that last paragraph really made me laugh!!! 😂

    Jill Larone says:

    Thanks for a very interesting blog Sean, and great to hear that 2 of the Jacana chicks survived to adulthood! I’m really hoping that the 4 remaining Ostrich chicks have the same good fortune. Does the female Jacana not usually stay to help incubate and protect the chicks?

    Sean Cresswell says:

    Hi Jill, we are hoping for the same good fortune too!

    Good question, and the answer is no she does not, as the Jacana are polyandrous meaning that once the female has laid her eggs she starts seeking out a new male to repeat the process, and has no further role in the development of her clutch; that responsibility rests solely on the male. This works well as he is the smaller (and lighter) of the two adults, giving him a better ability to traverse the floating lilies with the chicks to avoid any danger. Nature is just incredible!

    Jenny says:

    Hysterical thought Sean! Thanks for such an informative blog about the survival of Lily Plodder babes and what a great Dad!

    Debbie and Frank Kohlenstein says:

    So wonderful to hear about the African Jacana chicks we saw while there in May. Looking for them every day when we headed out for our adventures was so special. And then to spot them tiptoeing out on the lilies following dad put such a smile on our faces. Reading your entries, Sean, takes us back to our special time at Varty Camp. Thank you!

    Sean Cresswell says:

    Great memories, Debbie and Frank! Keep well

    Sharon Blackburn says:

    Wonderful post! It is the wildlife, large and small, and the plants and insects that make observing nature such a joy! Thank you for reminding that each one has a life story worth telling! Ending with the foot size comparison was brilliant!

    Henry says:

    Nice article Sean. As you know I relate well to the Jacana! By the way how big would my feet be at 1.95m tall? 🙂

    Sean Cresswell says:

    Great to hear from you, H! Yes, a solid liking to the bird… After careful calculations I can conclude your foot size would be 1,15m (3’77”ft) which might be well over the size 50 shoe limit! That, you can raise your bat to, Henry!

    Wendy MacNicol says:

    Personally I would give my eye teeth to see a 6’1″ Jacana Sean! The mind boggles…..
    Wendy M

    Sean Cresswell says:

    Yes, Wendy, it would be great. Not confident about my driving capacity though with those clown shoes…

    Brenda Quatember says:

    Loved this , have followed the ostrich story from the beginning and so enjoy the updates.
    Jacana dad amazing, what a privilege for you to witness, nature never fails to amaze,
    Thank you!

    Jill Larone says:

    Thanks for your response Sean, and yes, nature really is incredible!

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