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Jaime-Lee Gardner
072 171 1979

Louise Martin
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For the birds

By Jennifer Stern

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For the birds

By Jennifer Stern

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5 min read

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the world, and it’s far more interesting than just peering into a tree, muttering to yourself, ‘that’s a lesser-spotted grey-winged hooplededoop’, ticking it off on a list, and then moving on – binos glued to your face, pencil poised, ready to add another metaphorical notch to your binocular strap.

What’s the big deal?

Birding is not just about ticking off as many birds as you can in a flurry of one-upmanship. Most birders do actually enjoy themselves, and will gleefully watch birds they’ve ticked off many times – in fact, that’s how you get to know the fascinating behaviour of birds really well. And some birders (make that most birders) develop a fondness for certain birds that almost borders on silliness. I have my few favourites and, I discovered when chatting to experienced birder Rob Little, so does he. So we ended up comparing our favourite birds. Rob’s list is longer than mine, and there was some overlap, but our choices were pretty consistent with our respective statuses of seasoned ornithologist and enthusiastic wannabe. Rob tends to be intrigued by the biologically interesting birds, while I favour birds that are weird and wonderful – or just pretty.

Our favourite birds – and why

  • Rob loves the Namaqua Sandgrouse, which lives in very dry areas, so it has developed a cunning strategy for obtaining water for its young chicks. The males fly off to the nearest water source, which may be quite far away, and then loll about in the water until their belly feathers are soaked. They then fly back to the flightless chicks, which ‘drink’ the transported water. This practice goes by the charming term ‘belly wetting’.
  • I love Helmeted Guineafowls – firstly because they are beautiful, and they have turquoise faces, but also because they are kind of crazy, and very entertaining. They’re found all over – including in suburbia – and the thing that I think is so cool about them is that, all of a sudden, the madness comes upon them, and they start running around crazily in circles. I once saw a guineafowl in a parking lot running circles around a parked Toyota Yaris. It went on for about three minutes. I asked Rob why they do this, and he explained it’s to show off their fitness to any pretty female birds and any potential rival males.
  • Rob loves the Pygmy Falcon – so much so, he has a photo of it on his latest book. It is the smallest raptor in South Africa, and – unlike most raptors – it is adorably cute. They cohabit with Sociable Weavers, which build those huge ‘residential estates’ for birds. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The Pygmy Falcon predates on any small snakes that may come by to snack on weavers, and the weavers provide a warm and cosy home for the falcons.
  • I also love Secretarybirds. They are raptors but – unlike eagles, hawks, kestrels and other birds of prey – they don’t hunt ‘red in tooth and claw’. They use their long, powerful legs to kick and stomp potential meals. How’s this: a Secretarybird can kick a cobra to death. Beat that, Jackie Chan!
  • Rob also loves Ground Woodpeckers because they are different. Unlike most woodpeckers that nest in holes in trees, the Ground Woodpecker – you’d never guess it – nests in the ground. They ‘dig’ tunnels with their beak, working much the way a jackhammer does. Like other woodpeckers, they have a spongy, plate-like bone structure in their heads that acts as a shock absorber and protects their brains. They can be found in the mountains of the Western Cape – including the higher suburbs of Cape Town.
  • Another favourite of mine are hadedas (Hadeda Ibis) because they are weird-looking, prehistoric, dinosaur-like birds with an astonishing sense of humour. They’re relatively new to the Western Cape, having expanded their range from further east and north, but they have become an integral feature of suburban life. The thing I love most about them is how they tease dogs. They hang out in popular dog-walking spots, like the Constantia Greenbelt, and pretend to be totally preoccupied, looking the other way while some unsuspecting Jack Russel, Rottweiler or Yorkie sneaks up on them. When it thinks it’s close enough, the dog will charge, and the hadeda – at the very last moment – will casually take off vertically till it’s just out of reach, screeching in glee, ‘Ha-ha-hahahaha-ha-dee-dee’, like the demented evil villain in a superhero movie. They don’t actually have middle fingers, but you can almost see them.
  • Also among Rob’s favourites are Southern Ground Hornbills, even though they have faces that – really – one would think only a mother could love. They’re weird, turkey-like birds that can fly but spend almost all their time on the ground. They are very, very, slow breeders. They live about as long as humans – between 60 and 70 years – and, also much like humans, reach sexual maturity in their teens. Living in groups led by an alpha female, they are co-operative breeders with what appear to be some rather inefficient strategies. There is only one female in the group, she breeds only with the alpha male, and lays only two eggs. The alpha female incubates the eggs for about six weeks and, once they’ve hatched, the parents will choose a favourite on which they will lavish all their attention while the lesser sibling, usually from the second-laid egg, quietly starves to death. Fledged chicks are dependent on their parents for an astonishingly long period of well over a year, sometimes two years. So each female will usually only lay eggs every three years. Do the maths: one female plus a minimum of three – maybe more – males rear one chick every three years. Not surprising they’re classified as vulnerable – and that’s why conservationists have a new strategy of rescuing the Cinderella sibling to bring up and release into the wild as new founder groups.
  • And I just love Lilac-breasted Rollers because they are unutterably beautiful, and I can’t help smiling whenever I see one.

See – birding can be far more interesting than just ticking off a list of birds.

Getting started

You really need a good bird book, or you’ll just go crazy trying to figure out what you are looking at. The three big names in South Africa are Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa and Sasol Birds of Southern Africa. There’s not much to choose between them, although each has a dedicated following that would not consider switching. A useful addition – especially for beginners – is Newman’s Birds by Colour, a user-friendly book that groups birds by features any newbie can figure out. And then you need a pair of binoculars, and perhaps a notebook and pen. That’s it. Oh – and somewhere to watch birds.

Now you really can start in your own back yard, especially if you live in an estate with a lot of open space, And, until travel opens up, you may need to limit your bird-watching to your estate and whatever open land you have nearby. But, once we are able to travel again, you will almost certainly feel the need to go further afield to see new, different and interesting birds. And there’s nowhere better to do that than our amazing national parks. While lots of people visit the parks to look at mammals, and just consider it a bit of a bonus if they see a pretty bird, there is an ever-growing group of people who drive past the lions and leopards because they’re keen to tick off a Kori Bustard or a Saddle-billed Stork. So Birding in South Africa’s National Parks is written specifically for them – people who have a pretty good idea what they’re looking at, and want to explore further, but aren’t really sure where to go or why.


Images by : Maans Booysen.

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