Birding 101 | Beginner’s guide to birdwatching

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’ve always had this vision in my mind of birders; they wear camouflage zip-off pants with a bird guide fitting snugly into the side pocket, a khaki-vest, a big wide-brimmed hat, hiking boots and for balance there is dangling binoculars on one side and a camera with a bazooka-lens on the other side.

Kitted out from head to toe.

With a pair of jeans, no guidebook, no vest, no hat, no-grip sneakers, no binoculars and a camera that’s the bazooka-lens’ much older yet much smaller stepsister, I set off into Woodlands Forest as a birdwatching newbie for my first proper birding experience with Paul Nkhumane, one of South Africa’s best qualified bird guides.

The path winded down into the green heart of Limpopo; trees covered with moss reached up to the sky, dense ferns chattered below and eager branches twirled and wrapped itself around the arms of other forest friends.

Five minutes into the walk, hypnotised by the evergreen sight of an indigenous forest, I slipped on the muddy path and landed on my knees and one hand, as the other hand kept the camera up high.

Paul quickly turned around to help.

As I brushed the dirt off my hands, I thought: “Yes, I’m definitely not a birder; I don’t have the right gear and didn’t even pack the right shoes”.

With mud-brown knee patches on my pants we continued down the trail.

Paul stopped in his tracks.

“Did you hear that?” he asked, “it is the very rare Black-fronted Bush-shrike”.

With heads tilted to the forest canopy we searched for the bird while Paul quietly shared his wealth of birding knowledge explaining everything from birds’ behaviours to colours to calls and even forest facts. I soaked up every bit of information, asked questions and received detailed answers which left my mouth open multiple times with a stretched out, “oh wooow,” every now and then as we spotted the shy red-winged Knysna Lourie in flight and listened to the chatter of smaller bird parties.

“There! Look!” Paul said as he pointed with his laser high up in a tree, “it is the Black-fronted Bush-srike. Do you see it?”.

I take the bird guide’s binoculars and there, in the middle of the Limpopo’s green heart with my neck tilted to the green sky I see it; a Black-fronted Bush-Shrike fluttering from one branch to the next.

With my muddy jeans, no-grip shoes, non-professional camera and borrowed binoculars I let out another “oh wooow” as the yellow-orange-coloured bird’s unparalleled beauty captivated my eyes.

I handed the bincoluars back to Paul with another “oh wooow” and tilted my head back to earth.

I’m not a birder – this is all new to me, I went into the forest as a newbie and I came out as a beginner – but in a province as diverse as Limpopo, the only question I could ask was, “Where to next Paul?”.

Beginner’s guide to birdwatching (also known as: Tips from someone who doesn’t know a lot)

1) Be patient.

2) Be curious.

3) Get some binoculars (and be kind to your wallet, don’t go Swarovski on yourself). Test a pair before you use it, make sure it is not too heavy, that it feels comfortable enough to handle and if you wear glasses make sure you have enough eye relief (the distance between the eyepiece and your eye provided by those cups that can be turned in or out).

4) If you’re not an early riser, start getting used to being up and awake (like actually awake and semi-functioning). Early morning is a great time for birdwatching. Early bird gets the worm, early human gets the bird.

5) Get a bird guide (Roberts Bird Guide or Sasol Bird Guide are popular).

6) Download an app.
The Newman’s Birds app is R239.99 (there is a smaller free version as well) includes 975 bird species with detailed descriptions (illustrations and photos), 800 bird calls with multiple call type and you will download the full app so no need to have internet connectivity.
Then there is also the Sasol eBirds app at R394.99 (often described more detailed and accurate than other apps) with 950 bird species, audible calls and a smart search function. 
Beginners can get the Sasol Birds for Beginners app (free) that provides quick facts, photos and videos of 46 common southern African birds.
Please note: Birds call/songs have different meanings; whether it is to defend territories, announce danger or attract another winged beauty. When you use the birds calls in your app to attract birds it can confuse the feathers of a bed and actually have damaging repercussions.

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6) Start familiarising yourself with different bird species; look at the heads and beaks, the shape and size, does it have a tail, what about the legs and feet, the colours and patterns?

7) Listen to the sounds.

8) Go on a birdwatching tour; it is quite something to see a bird guide in action.

9) Join a birding club; depending on where you are going you might look like a high level stalker with binoculars.

10) Respect the environment as well as other birders, be mindful, leave no trace, be quiet and don’t make sudden movements.

Bonus tip: Pay extra attention to the birds in Kruger National Park, they do some suicidal wing stunts and movement (yes, even when you are adhering to the speed limit). 

Garden Route 7
High in Kruger
High in Kruger 7

Serious birders travel great distances to spend hours and hours in search of specific bucket list birds. And South Africa is a firm favourite with 841 bird species recorded (about eight percent of the world’s bird species) throughout the different habitats; from fynbos, grasslands, wetlands and forests, to savannahs, the seaside and oceans.

Some of the best places in South Africa for birdwatching include the West Coast, Kruger National Park, Isimangaliso Wetland Park, Magoebaskloof and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Parkto name a few. Join a birdwatching club close to you, visit a bird hide and explore the numerous birding routes in South Africa; www.birdlife.org.za is PACKED with valuable information.

So, where to next?

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