Bird watching is a fascinating pastime because you don’t need to be an expert, just have a real interest. It’s easy to get involved, and the only requirements are a guide book, a set of binoculars, and some time. The variety of birds, their habitats, and behaviour ensures there’s always something new and interesting to observe.
With over 850 recorded bird species in South Africa, it’s essential you buy one of the excellent bird guide books that are readily available. Start with an inexpensive, compact edition that’s easy to use. Some books feature drawings of birds and others have photographs: either are useful for identifying unusual species or one of the numerous but nondescript small birds that inhabit our grasslands.
Unless you have keen eyesight, a set of binoculars is indispensible. Choose a pair with a magnification of between eight and ten times, taking note of the size and weight of the binoculars. Although large, powerful binoculars are great for looking at distant birds, they are difficult to keep steady and lots of birdwatchers prefer smaller, compact pairs.
Before buying, check the close focus of the binoculars; the closest focus point of many binoculars is such that you won’t be able to focus on a bird that’s only a few metres away.
Getting Out There
Birds are everywhere, and it’s likely there are at least a dozen or so in your immediate vicinity. Start off by identifying them. Most guide books give pointers on recognising birds. The shape and size of the beak, colour of the eyes, head, chest, rump, and wing feathers, size, and call are all distinguishing marks. You’ll notice several guide books group birds according to their species, and with a little practice you’ll begin to discern the difference between the species. Initially, when identifying a bird, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of possibilities. However, books usually include distribution maps, and this allows you to exclude birds not resident in the area.
Record What You See
Keep a log of the birds you have recognised and where they were. This helps future identification and develops a sense of achievement as you realise how many birds you have classified. Some birders have what they call a “lifer list”, others simply make a note in their favourite bird book. If you cannot classify a bird, try to photograph it or record as much information as possible so when you get home you can use the Internet to help you identify it.
Many species prefer specific habitats. Some live in grasslands, others in forests. Some are easily seen, while other birds skulk deep inside bushes and are hard to see. Certain birds are very rare. When visiting a reserve such as Kruger Park, you will usually be able to obtain a list of the birds found in the park. Use this as a guide to identify birds you see.
Although there are species such as the Fork-tailed Drongo that mimic other birds, most bird calls are unique, and as you learn them, you will discover this is an excellent way to recognize birds. Buy a DVD of bird calls or specialised bird call software to load onto your phone, tablet or PC, and listen to bird calls to aid in their identification.
Birds Are Everywhere
No matter where you go, you will find birds. Their songs fill the air and their colours flash before your eyes. Whether you’re relaxing in a rest camp or driving through a reserve, enjoy their presence and add each new bird you identify to your list.