Road-tripping and birdwatching in SA

Long drives across South Africa offer perfect opportunities for birdwatching, says Muller Janse van Rensburg, who lives in Bethlehem in the Free State. Since he and his family discovered the pastime, their annual holiday has become even more exciting and enjoyable.

Road-tripping and birdwatching in SA
One of the pleasures of birdwatching is to sit quietly and simply study birds, such as this Gurney‘s sugarbird (Promerops gurneyi), as they go about their business.
Photo: Muller Janse van Rensburg
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“I ‘d like to welcome Farmer’s Weekly readers to the wonderful world of birdwatching! Observing and identifying bird species is a relaxing pastime that can be practised virtually anywhere. It’s a healthy hobby that connects you with nature.”

This is according to broker and ardent birdwatcher Muller Janse van Rensburg, who says there are a few basics that every prospective birdwatcher needs in order to locate, identify and watch birds, as well as equipment that can be used to record and identify bird sounds.

Binoculars and field guides
He adds that birding, in its simplest form, calls only for the eyes and ears of a birdwatcher. However, a pair of binoculars is an essential tool for viewing and identifying birds without disturbing them. He recommends a 10 x 42, which offers useful magnification and ensures bright images.

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A smartphone provides access to a vast assortment of indispensable tools for birdwatching, such as field guides. He admits, however, that old-fashioned paper is still his first choice.

“A number of field guides are available online, but I still prefer a field guide in actual book form. My family and I derive much joy from paging through our guides, recalling which species we saw where, and searching for rare species,” he says.

A smartphone also doubles as a camera and recording device, and birdsong apps are available. Janse van Rensburg is adamant, however, that song apps should never be used to call birds, as the basis of the hobby is to view birds without agitating them.

An often-recommended approach to identifying a bird in the wild is to focus on the following:

  • Size and general shape;
  • Bill (shape and colour);
  • Legs (length and colour);
  • Plumage (colours and any distinct markings, such as around the eyes or on the tail);
  • Habitat (in a tree in the bushveld, or on the muddy edge of a pond, for example);
  • Behaviour (hopping, pecking on a tree trunk, for example).

Janse van Rensburg says he has often identified birds from a fleeting glance simply by noting the colours of their legs and wings.

Rife with birdlife
The route from Gauteng to KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)is rich in bird species, says Janse van Rensburg.

The secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is high on his family’s list of favourite birds, and can often be seen stalking through the grass plains of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, on the lookout for snakes and rodents. This very large, mostly terrestrial, bird hunts and catches its prey on the ground, often stomping on its victims to kill them.

The southern bald ibis (Geronticus calvus), another iconic species, can be found roosting on the cliffs of the Drakensberg. This bird is listed as vulnerable, with an estimated population of only 8 000 left in South Africa. It has a pale, featherless face and a long red bill, making it relatively easy to distinguish.

The eastern clapper lark (Mirafra fasciolata) is also easily identified. It is a small bird that flies high up, clapping its wings together, and then ‘parachutes’ downwards, calling enthusiastically as it descends.

KwaZulu-Natal is home to a wide variety of raptors, including the long-crested eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis), which is easy to spot, thanks to its dark plumage and long, shaggy crest. It often perches on telephone lines, on the lookout for its next meal.

Birds of Limpopo and Mpumalanga
For Janse van Rensburg, Limpopo is the birdwatching mecca of South Africa. One
of his son Hendrik’s favourite birds in that province is the African emerald cuckoo (Chrysococcyx cupreus), recognisable by its shiny green plumage. It is quite common in the northern parts of the country.

“And let’s not forget the variety of hornbill species and the ever-present go-away bird [Crinifer concolor], or the grey lourie, as it’s also known. My family and I are particularly fond of these species and love watching their antics. [We also like watching the antics of] the clown of the trees, which is what we call the southern yellow-billed hornbill [Tockus leucomelas].”

Tourists between Gauteng and Mbombela in Mpumalanga should be on the lookout for the gorgeous bushshrike (Telophorus viridis), one of the most beautiful bird species in the Lowveld. It has a brilliant red throat and a yellow breast, making it very striking.

Janse van Rensburg says another jewel of a bird along this route is the purple-crested turaco (Gallirex porphyreolophus) with its purplish-blue crown and red wing feathers that show in flight.

From bridges to bushes
The route between Gauteng and the Western Cape can be tedious, but not if you’re interested in birds. According to Janse van Rensburg, the South African cliff swallows (Petrochelidon spilodera) that nest under bridges along the way make for excellent watching.

“And one of our much-loved species in the southern and south-western Cape is the Cape sugarbird [Promerops cafer], which darts between protea bushes to find nectar.”

Amongst the specials on the family’s life list so far are the Pel’s fishing owl (Scotopelia peli), and the green barbet (Stactolaema olivacea), which in South Africa occurs only in KZN’s oNgoye Forest.

Janse van Rensburg adds that the satisfaction of ticking off species spotted is only part of the hobby. There is even more enjoyment in spending time studying the behaviour of birds, and learning about their likes and dislikes, the interaction between individual birds, and the group dynamics of a flock.

It’s also an excellent activity for children, and he recommends Faansie’s Bird Book to introduce children to the pastime. It explains everything in simple terms and guides children through the basic steps of recognising species.

Big birding day
“BirdLife South Africa’s annual Big Birding Day is one of the highlights of the year for our family,” says Janse van Rensburg. “The objective of the day is for a team of two to four birdwatchers to identify as many species as possible in a 50km radius within 24 hours.

“My advice to prospective birdwatchers is to start your holiday drive with birdwatching in mind, record the number of birds spotted along the way, and learn as much about them as possible. The kilometres will be covered in a jiffy.”

Phone Muller Janse van Rensburg on 082 907 1525, or email him at [email protected].

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Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.