I didn’t go to Africa to see the birds. I will be the first one to hold my hands up and admit that. In fact, I was one of those people who thought someone parading around with a species book, binoculars, and a homemade checklist was possibly a few levels on the ladder below foolish. Feel free to decide exactly what that level is. We all have different ladders. We all have different levels. But seriously, I travelled to Africa to see big cats, elephants, rhinos, and all of the other 4-legged beasties that used to enthral me at zoos. Birds were an afterthought. Seagulls would steal French fries from the ground in parking lots, magpies would steal anything they could, and most species would shit on my car. Not exactly a reason for me to be excited. But all of that would change shortly after my 40th birthday.
When I first got to Saudi Arabia for my new job and adventure, I immediately started counting down the days until I go on my first overland safari. I hit Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. I met some great people, saw some great sights, but a lion was not one of them in all of the 28 days I was on that trip. I knew I needed to go back. Fast forward three years to 2011, and my next trip to South Africa. I booked with a company called Drifters – they specialize in Africa – and I was not disappointed. Their 18-day tour covering the Rainbow Nation has something for everyone – nature reserves, hikes, staying in lodges instead of tents, culture, and it covers the entire country. It is incredible. And even more incredible was our guide, driver, chef, and resident stand-up comedian: Milton Mpache. Milton was originally from Zimbabwe, and that’s where his family was, but he was African first he told us. As wide at the shoulders as he was tall, he was the last person I expected to be a “birder”, but the guy was seriously in love with the birds of Africa. And he had every reason to be. Through him, and that trip, I have fervently been trying to spy new birds every time I have been back (4 times since that trip).
According to SANParks, there are an estimated 477 species of birds that can be found in the Kruger National Park area, depending on the season. I have seen roughly 50 of these birds, or about 10% of them. As far as birding goes, I’m pretty much at the bottom of the pile. And with each trip I take, I aim to check off at least 5 new species. My problem is, and it is quite a big problem in the grand scheme of things, I always travel in the South African winter when it is easier to spot the big animals that live on the ground (or the leopard who does like the canopy). For a truly birding safari, I would have to go in the South African summer when the trees are fuller, the bush is thicker, the bugs are everywhere, and the birds come out in droves. While I do have a new appreciation for birds; it’s still the call of the lion that has me skirting bankruptcy every time I go on vacation. But I digress.
Without going in to too much detail about each bird I have seen or where I saw them, I’ll just post a few photos of some of my favourite birds; or even just some of my favourite bird photos I’ve taken. I am not a professional photographer, nor have I ever posed as one to shoot scantily clad ladies (just throwing that out there), but I am getting better and in the past few years I’ve purchased some gear to help me capture some better photos. Hopefully you find these images and birds as wonderful as I do.
It was this guy, the yellow-billed hornbill that first got my attention. I was sitting outside the lodge, looking down towards the small man-made watering hole in the vast plain beneath me, hoping upon hoping that something other than an impala would show up. I heard this guy squawking to my left, and when he posed at this funny angle, I realized that perhaps birds could have a personality too.
A few days later on this trip, while stopping for lunch in one of Kruger Park’s picnic sites, we were visited by about 5 Cape Glossy Starlings. These birds are bright blue and the vivid yellow eyes really draw you in. Since then, they have been my second favourite bird in South Africa … a long ways behind this one …
The Lilac-Breasted Roller is without doubt my favourite bird in the area. The colours are amazing, and they get their name from the way they “roll” while in flight. They seem to be everywhere as well, although getting them to pose long enough for a good photo seems to be beyond my skill level. The goal is to capture one in flight (well it’s my goal at least). But that is something that has so far eluded me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see the two largest birds in southern Africa – the Ostrich and the Kori Bustard, and enough little birds to keep me guessing. I have seen the largest owl in Africa as well – the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. And there will always be numerous sightings of the raptors when you’re on safari. I haven’t seen them all, some I cannot recognize (even with the help of guides—apparently the juveniles of some species can look similar to adults of another species). I have included a few shots of the ones I have been able to identify though. I could have included some photos from inside conservation centres but I wanted to include only photos I took out in the wild: no cages, no tags on their legs, no barriers for them to stop from flying away.
Birds might not be high on your list of things to see in Africa or anywhere else, but I’m betting if you gave them a chance, they may just climb the list a little higher. They are closer to dinosaurs than many people give them credit for; and that should be cool enough.