Birds are the most beautiful and accessible animals on earth. Birds are
literally everywhere, and if one appreciates nature, one cannot but
appreciate birds. There are almost no places on earth where there are
There are a tremendous variety of birds. Worldwide
there are 9730 different species. Birds exhibit a vast array of
different behaviors, including many which humans can relate to. Many
birds are sociable and exhibit a remarkable range of adaptive
behaviors. Even some of the more common species (for example the Arrow
marked Babbler) have habits which bird scientists (Ornithologists) are
only beginning to understand.
Bird-watching takes one to many
of the most beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric places on earth. If
you want to meet someone who has seen the country, and knows every
hidden treasure - just find an obsessive birder. Quite apart from
Forests and Mountains, Bushveld and Vleis, some of the most sought
after birds are found out in the open ocean, in remote river valleys,
close to famous waterfalls or even at the Big Hole of Kimberley!
What is Bird watching?
may be exactly that - watching birds. More generally bird watching is
actually about observing and identifying the birds around us. Once one
has noticed a bird and seen how it behaves the next question is: What
is it? This is where bird watching (as most people enjoy it) starts.
The next step is a pair of binoculars to help get a better view of the
birds you see, as well as a field-guide or reference book to help with
identification. Birding has grown enormously in popularity over the
last few years and a look at the shelves of your local news agency
gives an indication of how much interest birds now generate in Southern
What is the appeal of Bird watching?
Bird watching has
grown in appeal alongside a whole host of other outdoor activities. It
is generally a leisurely and relaxing hobby which fulfils our natural
curiosity and desire to learn as well as meeting the need to challenge
oneself. While people bird watch for many different reasons some of the
attractions of bird watching are as follows:
Bird watching takes you to great places! Once birding becomes
more serious it can involve a great deal of travelling and is an
excellent excuse to see new parts of the planet. Many of the best
places for birds are also scenically attractive and exciting to visit.
Birding is a challenge. The key challenge is to identify the
birds you see, and to find and identify particular birds you want to
see. Birding grows from being an interest to being a skill. The skill
of finding and identifying birds involves knowledge about the habitat,
habits plumage and shape of a bird. The more one gets to know about
birds, the greater the degree to which one can judge size and shape
from a distance, or pick up a fast moving bird quickly and notice the
key features which tell you with certainty, what kind of sparrow hawk
• Birding is sociable. Contrary to some
of the stereotypes about birders, most birders are highly sociable and
spend a great deal of time discussion birding with other birders.
Keeping Lists (or ticking)
one had got into the fun and challenge of identifying birds, the next
step is to keep some sort of record of what you have seen. This is
where listing starts, and for most birders the most important list is a
life list - a list of all the birds seen in ones lifetime. But listing
is far more than just about a life list, it is a way of keeping track
of observations, or of organizing a vast number of experiences and
ensuring that they are not lost. Listing is given particular meaning
and value when it is part of an organized "scientific" effort to gather
information. The Southern African Bird Atlas Project involved thousands
of birdwatchers who collected millions of bits of data and built up a
comprehensive picture on the distribution and movement of most of our
The Southern African Region
is that part of Africa south of the Cunene and Zambezi River systems.
It includes the countries of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho,
Swaziland and the Southern part of Mozambique. The variety of habitats
in this region is extraordinary, from the true desert of the Namib, to
the Lowland Rainforest of the North East. It includes moderately high
mountain ranges, warm and cold ocean currents, swamps, grasslands and
the richest floral kingdom in the world - the Cape Fynbos. Much of the
region is covered by African Savannah or Bushveld, and it here that
most of the big game is found, as well as the largest variety of birds.
South Africa’s newfound democracy has ushered in an era of relative
peace and stability in the region, and good infrastructure in some of
the countries mentioned, make travel relatively easy.
900 species are found in the region. While the majority are found
widely throughout Africa, about 160 species are either completely
endemic to the region, or are "near endemics". Families which are
particularly well represented include:
• Eagles (13 species)
• Storks (8 species)
• Francolins (13 species)
• Cuckoos (14 species)
• Kingfishers (10 species)
• Larks (27 species)
• Shrikes & allies (26 species)
• Waxbills & allies (28 species)
Transvaal Museum has an on-line list of all birds on the Southern
African List. To download: go to the Transvaal Museums list of
Birds of South Africa
Many of Africa's unique
and spectacular birds are easily seen in Southern Africa. Of the ten
families of birds found only in Africa and related islands the
following are found in Southern Africa.
• Secretary Bird
• Guinea fowl
• Mouse birds
• Turacos (Louries)
• Wood hoopoes
• Ground Hornbills
• African Barbets
Birds endemic to the region.
are species which are normally only found within the Southern African
region. Near endemics are those species also found in neighboring
areas, or which may be classified as vagrants to other parts of the
world. Altogether, more than 160 species are classified as endemics or
Few birds can match the striking appearance and aerial prowess of the
Bateleur. It is certainly the most strikingly marked of the world's eagles and
symbolic of Africa's wild places.
NOISY DECEIVERS - Parasitic Cuckoos
Although elusive and seldom seen, cuckoos are among the most vociferous
all birds. Fascinating birds in every way, there is still much to learn
about their behavior. The cuckoo family in Africa includes the true
which are brood-parasites, and the coucals which build their own nests
and rear their own young.
With their long curved bills and jaunty disposition, hornbills are among the
most conspicuous of African birds, and also among the most interesting.
Although not brightly coloured - most have black, white or grey plumage -
many species have colourful bills or bare facial skin, and all are striking
birds. The males of many species possess a raised section on the upper
mandible, known as a casque, and this probably plays some role in display
or mate selection.
Owls of the African night
With their haunting calls and silent flight, owls are among the most elusive
and misunderstood of all birds. Legends and fables from across the world
describe the owl as a supernatural being, often associated with death,
while in other cultures, the owl is revered as being “wise”. Perhaps their
forward-facing eyes - just like those of a human - are partly responsible
for the attention they have received from people through the ages.
Vultures - Supreme Scavengers
Along with snakes, spiders, hyenas and sharks, vultures are regarded as
the "bad guys" of the animal kingdom. All creatures do, of course, have a
role to play in nature and it is only though the subjective and emotive
thinking of humans that labels such as "evil", "horrid", "cruel" and
"merciless" arise. No animals possess such traits - they are all engaged
in a struggle for survival which sees them trying to optimize on feeding and
reproductive opportunities within the ecosystems in which they have
evolved, and the particular niches that they occupy.
Due to their extraordinary shape and striking pink coloration, flamingos
are immediately recognizable. There are five species of these remarkable
birds. The Chilean, Andean and Puna Flamingos are confined to South
America, the Lesser Flamingo ranges across Africa (but also has
populations in Arabia and India), and the widespread Greater Flamingo
occurs on five continents. They are thought to be one of the most ancient
of bird families, with fossils having been found across the globe including
Australia, where no modern-day flamingos are found despite there being
ideal environmental conditions.
Bee-Eaters - Colourful Acrobats
Closely related to Kingfishers and Rollers - and certainly just as colourful -
Bee-eaters are skilled and specialized predators of bees and other winged
insects. Their prey is taken in mid air, usually after some accomplished
acrobatics, and often brought to a perch to be immobilized and swallowed.
Watching these bold and energetic birds is hugely entertaining and because
many species are quite relaxed in the presence of man, photographic
opportunities come readily. For these reasons, Bee-eaters are among the
most admired of birds.
Across the world, ducks and geese are symbolic of wild places, even
though an increasing number are adapting to man-made environments.
Together with swans, the ducks and geese belong to the family Anatidae,
which are sometimes known collectively as 'waterfowl'.
Kingfishers - Avian Jewels of the Waterways
Kingfishers are among the most brilliantly-coloured of all birds, and many
have strident voices and dramatic courtship displays. Most species have
some blue plumage, and many have red bills. Some are confiding and adapt
well to man's alteration of natural habitats, and can even be seen in
Shrikes - Raptors in miniature
Throughout Africa, shrikes of numerous species enliven woodlands,
forests, gardens and scrublands with their ringing calls and often bold
presence. Shrikes fall into several groups or sub-families. They are all
primarily insectivorous, but some of the larger species frequently prey
upon the nestlings of other birds, lizards and other small reptiles. All have
robust beaks, often with a fierce hook at its tip. Most appear to pair for life,
and the characteristic duet calls are a way of keeping in touch and
maintaining the 'marital' bond.
Barbets - Noisy Excavators
Closely related to woodpeckers, barbets are colourful and vociferous birds.
Many species adapt well to man's alteration of the environment and are
popular garden visitors. As a family, they are thick-set birds with heavy bills
set in a rather large head. In common with woodpeckers, barbets feet are
zydactylic, with two toes facing forwards and two back. This configuration
allows them to cling easily to trees so as to excavate their own breeding
Weavers - Basket cases
Weavers (Ploceinae) are members of the finch tribe. Most species are
seed-eaters with short conical bills, but some are insectivorous with
dagger-like bills. Almost all members of the family have bright yellow
plumage, with males acquiring strong black facial patterns in the breeding
season. A few species have red plumage and some are entirely black.
They are not in the least musical, but their harsh rasping notes are
characteristic of many habitats, including suburban gardens.
Storks - long-beaked predators
Storks are large, long-beaked and long-legged birds with wonderful soaring
abilities. Although they bear a superficial resemblance to herons, they are
not related to them, nor to ibises. In fact, recent analysis supports the view
that the closest relatives of storks are the condors and other New World
vultures (in addition to skeletal similarities which suggest a common
ancestor, both groups of birds share the habit of defecating onto their
legs as a cooling mechanism).
Blue Crane - Endangered Icon
Cranes are among the most graceful and enchanting of all birds, but also
among the most endangered. Fifteen species occur across the world, on
all continents except for South America. The North American Whooping
Crane was perilously close to extinction in 1941, with just 16 individuals
remaining, but concerted and imaginative conservation efforts have brought
the population up to around 150 birds.
Waterside Elegance - Herons, Egrets and Bitterns
Herons, egrets and bitterns all belong to the same family - Ardeidae. They
are medium-sized to large birds normally associated with water. Most are
long-legged and long-billed, with slender bodies. In flight they can be
distinguished from storks or ibises by their kinked (S-shaped) necks. In
general, those species which are predominantly white are known as
egrets, and those which are not are herons. Bitterns are short-legged,
cryptically plumaged, retiring and seldom seen.
The Ostrich - Longest legs, largest eyes
The Ostrich is the largest living bird and also the heaviest. It is completely
flightless but able to cover large distances with speed and stamina on its
powerful legs. Due to its size and preferred habitat of open country, it is
regularly encountered in wildlife areas where it frequently associates
with antelope, zebra and other herbivorous animals.
Turacos are uniquely African, with 23 species recognized by most
authorities. The forest-living species are undoubtedly among the most
spectacularly colourful of birds, while the savanna-dwellers (known as
"go-away birds") are predominantly grey in plumage. In South Africa,
these birds are better known as louries. All are frugivores, specializing in
fruit (particularly figs) and sometimes feeding on leaves, buds and flowers.
They are usually gregarious, and frequently associate with Green Pigeons,
parrots, hornbills and barbets, with individuals and groups often returning
day after day to the same fruiting tree, until the crop is exhausted.
Knock, Knock, who’s there? - Woodpeckers
As their names suggest, woodpeckers are birds which specialize in
pecking into wood. This they do to extract food (most species are
insectivorous) and also to excavate nesting chambers. There are 221
recognized species in 28 genera and they occur throughout the world
except in Australasia. Although all members of the family confirm to a
rather standard body shape, there is considerable variation in size with
the tiny piculets measuring less that 10cm and the huge Imperial
Woodpecker (sadly thought to be extinct) up to 60cm. Southeast Asia’s
Great Slaty Woodpecker measures 50cm from the tip of its pointed bill to its
hooked toes. In temperate regions and in Africa, woodpeckers are rather
drably coloured, with olive green, brown and black being dominant colors;
although males typically have vivid scarlet crests or mallard stripes. In tropical
America and Asia, woodpeckers are much more glamorous with brilliant
yellows, greens, and reds commonplace.
Rollers - Multicolored Sky Warriors
many people visiting African game parks to see large mammals, the first
bird which is likely to attract their admiration is the Lilac-breasted
Roller. Few photographers can resist an attempt to capture the bird on
film. This striking, dove-sized bird is common in savanna and open
woodland, where it perches conspicuously on outermost branch tips,
termite mounds and tree tops. With its electric blue wings, pink and
powder blue under parts, and elongated tail feathers it is indeed a
magnificent creature. Seeing this bird swoop from its perch in pursuit
of a flying insect is a dazzling sight.
Penguins - Spheniscus demersus
African Penguin is endemic to South African waters. They are found on
24 islands around Southern Africa, from Namibia to St. Croy island at
Port Elizabeth but nowhere else in the world.
There are three
mainland colonies; Simon's Town, Betty's Bay and Namibia. The African
Penguin is a cause for concern as it is listed in the Red Data Book as
an endangered species. There were once more than 1.2 million in number
in 1930 but by the end of 1980's there were less than 200,000.
many, the Jackass, black footed or African Penguin Spheniscus Demerus
is a cute little bird, beloved of cartoonists and refrigerator
Without the penguin however, South Africa as
we know it would be quite different. In the early days of the
establishment of the fort at Cape Town, the penguins killed at
Robben-Island colony in Table Bay kept the Dutch from starving. Since
the settlement was originally founded to provide provisions to passing
ships of the Dutch East India Company, the company would probably not
have bothered with attempting to re-establish that, that could not even