Occasionally I visit Birdlife Africa’s head office which is situated on Jan Smuts avenue in a green part of Johannesburg. It’s a beautiful, eco-friendly environment and offers a range of talks and various other functions on a fairly regular basis.
My last visit in 2019 was to the launch of Duncan Butchart’s book “Garden Birds in Southern Africa”, as Duncan would be there to sign copies of the book. The opportunity also presented itself to chat to the Birdlife folk as well as many keen birders who were there. Southern Africa offers a range of birding habitats starting with the oceans and seashore, and moving inland to forests, savannahs, deserts, and fynbos areas. These areas home a widely diverse range of birdlife from the rare Orange-breasted sunbird to the desert-adapted Ludwigs Bustard. We have more than 850 bird species in South Africa which represents roughly eight percent of the world’s species. Over 70 birds are endemic to South Africa in that they only occur here. Birdlife South Africa has a membership of over 6700 members, many of whom are also members of the numerous bird clubs around the country.
Birdwatching and identification can be rather daunting and exposes you to a different way of life. Birdlife Africa suggests that you attend a few courses, walk with professionals and joining a club. In this way you will be in the company of seasoned birders and will grow your confidence. It’s also a whole new dialogue, especially when you learn the difference between a “birder” and a “twitcher”; a birder takes time and enjoys ticking off lists of sightings whilst a twitcher is a more active individual generally seeking the sighting of a particular bird.
The Cape has the most specific sites followed by Gauteng and Kwa Zulu Natal. Gauteng seems to have the largest population of birders possibly linked to the fact that there are over 400 species in the province. To some, it becomes a competition to see how many species can be ticked in a day, yet to others it’s a great opportunity simply to get out and enjoy the sunshine and the open spaces. Many birders are averse to ticking lists and are more content to know they have seen the bird and record its behaviour.
A good pair of binoculars is essential, as is a good bird book. Technology now allows us to download apps onto smartphones that give a full description of the bird sighted as well as playing a recording of its call. A different category of bird watcher is the birding photographer who invests heavily in expensive equipment and long lenses to capture their sightings.
Birdwatching in South Africa is best in Spring and Summer and peaks between November and February. Migrant species are prevalent and birds are breeding, so there is lots of song and activity. On a more somber note, we do have birds that are facing extinction and they make incredible sightings. Many are in national parks where they are monitored and protected to a degree. Some of the most exciting sightings will range from the Cape Vulture, Martial Eagle, Pel’s fishing owl and the Denham’s bustard to name a few. The Kruger National Park and the Hluhluwe -Imfolozi Park are two of the parks that are home to many endangered species. Our most critically endangered bird is the White-winged Flufftail. However, a trust has been established to protect this rare species. Conservation of birdlife is critical due to the impact it makes of domestic and international ecotourism.
So given the climate and multitude of birds, it’s a good call to get out there with a book and a pair of binos, enjoy the sunshine and fresh air and explore the life of our avian companions – and you don’t have to travel far… many species can be found in the green belts that dot our cities.