Appreciating birds

Appreciating birds

by Leon van Wyk

I hope it is reasonable to say that the majority of guests who come on safari have at least some appreciation of birds. In well over two decades of guiding, there have been very few occasions when I have guided guests who have had absolutely zero interest whatsoever in any form of birdlife. There have been plenty of guests who have had minimal interest in birdlife, some who have had limited interest in birdlife and a good number who have had a healthy interest in birdlife. As a guide, I believe that I have a healthy, above-average interest in birds, and a sound, but not exceptional knowledge of these creatures. My interest in them is high, but it is not obsessive. I would probably put myself in a category somewhere between “very keen” and “avid” when it comes to birding. There are many guides who are more avid birders than I am, and of course, a significant number (but small percentage) of guests are also more avid birders than I am.
What I strive to do as a guide is to give my guests a well-rounded safari experience, that will exceed their expectations in terms of how much they enjoy it and take away from it when they leave. In terms of their interest in birds, I like to be able to arouse a dormant curiosity, and sow the seeds of a new field of wildlife appreciation. Ideally, I would like them to go away with an increased appreciation of birds, or a heightened interest. If somebody arrives on safari with zero interest in birds, the challenge is to instill at least a tiny interest. Those who arrive with a minimal interest in birds could, perhaps, leave a few days later with a limited, but growing interest in birds. Those who begin their safari with a limited interest in birds, could quite easily have the door opened wider for them, so that they leave with a healthy interest and greater appreciation of birds. For me, this is great fun – to somehow stimulate or evoke an interest, and to see how well and quickly it can develop. Probably the largest percentage of guests, particularly first- or second-time visitors to the bush, fall into this category – they have a limited interest in birds at the beginning, but are open-minded, and leave a few days later with a much greater appreciation of birds.


Silhouette of a common buzzard at sunrise. Image by Daniella Kueck.

So, how does one go about stimulating a new interest in birds? I think it makes sense to start new birders off with birds which are rather striking – either by being very colourful, like the lilac-breasted roller, very impressive, like a Martial eagle, or very entertaining, like a flock of helmeted guinea-fowl.


Lilac breasted roller. Image by Daniella Kueck.

The lilac-breasted roller is so ridiculously beautiful that it must surely be appreciated by even the majority of people with minimal interest in birds. Not only is it beautiful, but it is also common and generally quite easy to find. They are bold birds, often perching out in the open just a few metres from the Land Rover, and more or less at eye level. In the summer months, European rollers are present in high numbers. A little larger than lilac-breasted rollers, they are not quite as colourful, but still very beautiful.


European roller. Image by Daniella Kueck.

Purple rollers are less common, considerably larger and not quite as brightly coloured, but still very beautiful. They often perch somewhat higher off the ground and so it is not as easy to appreciate their beauty, unless viewed through high quality binoculars. This species is probably more for the guest who has a healthy interest in birds, rather than the beginner.


Purple roller. Image by Leon van Wyk.

A really spectacular bird, which also offers excellent viewing when found, is the saddle-billed stork. Large, impressive and beautiful, this bird is also confident and bold, so can generally be viewed at reasonably close quarters out in the open. Even “non-birders” will generally be more than a little impressed by a good sighting of a pair of saddle-billed storks (or indeed a single individual – male and female are not always together.)


A male saddle billed stork. Image by Daniella Kueck.

Even the ubiquitous starlings, of which there are several colourful species, often evoke admiring comments from visitors. Seasoned safari-goers often tend to overlook them, because they are so common – but the fact that they are very common should not detract from their beauty! Yes, obviously a keen birder will get a much bigger thrill from seeing an uncommon pretty bird than from seeing a common pretty one; but for first-time visitors, the common pretty ones are often a very useful starting point.


Greater blue-eared Starlings and a Cape glossy starling (right hand side). Image by Daniella Kueck.

It is often the case that the very colourful or striking birds do not have the most melodious calls. Lilac-breasted rollers and Burchell’s starlings are certainly good examples of birds with beautiful plumage but not very attractive voices – I guess you can’t have everything!
Bee-eaters are probably among my favourite birds of all. In the summer months, the European bee-eaters are present in large numbers, and carmine bee-eaters also put in an appearance, but for a shorter period of time and in smaller numbers. Both of them are absolutely spectacular. White-fronted bee-eaters and little bee-eaters can be seen at any time of the year. Both are very beautiful, but somewhat smaller and more subtle in their colouration than those species which visit us only in summer.


White-fronted bee-eater. Image by Leon van Wyk.

There are so many other examples of really colourful or spectacular birds which will almost always be appreciated by guests when seen for the first time – bateleur, black-headed oriole, African fish-eagle, ground hornbill, even yellow-billed hornbill…not to mention some of the vultures. To me, however, there is so much more to appreciating birds than just acknowledging their beautiful colours or impressive external features. What is really interesting is to watch their behaviour, and any interactions between members of the same species or between different species. Just a few examples here include watching red-billed oxpeckers at work on the hides / in the ears of various mammalian herbivores, watching hornbills and dwarf mongooses work co-operatively in flushing and capturing insects, and watching fork-tailed drongos follow any creature moving though the grass, capturing insects which are flushed by the feet of the moving animal. Watching a drongo mobbing any predator is also most entertaining, particularly if the predator is a good sized eagle perched on top of a dead tree.


A red-billed oxpecker on the back of a cape buffalo. Image by Leon van Wyk.

The more one gets to know and recognise different bird species, the more enjoyable bird watching becomes. It would be a mistake for a guide to introduce new birders to birding by focusing too much on the little brown jobs (LBJs), such as cisticolas, warblers and larks. Get to them later, but to spend too much time on the first game drive, peering into a thicket to try to get a view of a rather nondescript LBJ, is likely to get the first time safari-goer fidgeting restlessly and asking where the lions and elephants are!
Something which I fervently believe, and I will stand by this, is that by watching and appreciating birds, one is in no way sacrificing the big game viewing. On the contrary, while watching and listening to birds, we often pick up signals which will lead us to discovering bigger creatures. Many a predator has been found by following up on alarm calls that have been heard while the engine was off and we were watching birds. People who appreciate the birds will benefit greatly from this appreciation, as it enables them to add a whole extra dimension to the safari experience.
Apart from viewing birds, a great deal of enjoyment can be derived from listening to them. While sitting quietly and listening to a dawn chorus of birds, or to the various birds singing during the day, it is really not always necessary for the guide to identify out loud every bird species that he / she is hearing. Just to listen, and to take it all in, along with the beautiful sights and evocative smells, is often quite enough. It can be really therapeutic and should never be underestimated!


Rufous-naped lark singing. Image by Leon van Wyk.

“Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there’s a certain amount of expectation we’ll see something, maybe even a species we’ve never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don’t see anything remarkable – and sometimes that happens – we come home filled with light anyway.”
― Lynn Thomson

Some of my multiple repeat guests will remember that when they first came on safari, they had very little interest in birds. They wanted to see the Big Five. Now there are some of them who have better bird knowledge and longer “life lists” than I do! This really gives me great satisfaction – that in some small way, I have contributed to a vastly more complete and enjoyable safari experience to a considerable number of guests, simply by opening their eyes to a little more of what is out there. Birding can be competitive, it can be relaxing, it can be intense…it is up to the individual. Most importantly, it should be FUN! Life is short, and we need to have fun. By appreciating birds, we can greatly increase the amount of fun we have in life.


A pair of yellow billed hornbills at the entrance to Singita in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Image by Daniella Kueck.










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