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Author: Peter Ryan
Birdwatching in Southern Africa addresses questions such as what to look for when purchasing equipment, what field guides and other resources exist, and how cultivate skills in the field.
In a down-to-earth, rich-in-experience style, the guide covers identification problems, aspects of sea- and nightbirding and the ways in which amateur birders help to make birds the best studied group of animals in the world.
Brief descriptions of Southern African habitats include a selection of top birding spots in each area. The guide ends with a well-compiled list of addresses and useful information for beginners and more experienced birders.
Peter Ryan is a senior lecturer at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, a partner of 'Birding Africa' and a keen birder who has led numerous birding tours in southern Africa.
A long-standing member of the SA Rarities Committee, his research interests include the evolutionary ecology of birds and island conservation. He is co-editor of the current revision of Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa.
1. Why watch birds?
People start watching birds for different reasons: they may see a spectacular bird, they may be press-ganged into it by friends or relatives, or they may simply run out of big and hairy mammals to tick off in game reserves. Whatever the reason, once you start, you tend to become a dedicated birder because of the enjoyment you derive from this hobby.
Birds, like humans, mostly use visual cues to communicate. They are, thus, much more rewarding to observe than mammals, many of which communicate largely through their sense of smell. Ultimately, it is our ability to relate to birds that makes them so fascinating to observe; one has only to witness the universal appeal of penguins.
Birdwatching is a relatively new pursuit. Early naturalists learned just about everything they knew about birds from dead specimens. Indeed, many of the famous explorer-naturalists hardly ever observed the birds they described, relying, instead, on 'native' shooters to collect specimens. Birding as a hobby (and indeed modern ornithology) became possible only with the development of effective optical aids in the first half of the twentieth century. The other significant development that promoted birdwatching was the publication in the 1930s of the first field guides.
Since then, birding has grown out of all proportion. It is no longer the preserve of elderly eccentrics; there are now millions of people who watch birds around the world. It is even considered a trendy pastime in some circles, and attracts a large following of obsessive characters who literally live to see new birds. But don't be put off by the condescending attitudes and jargon of many 'experienced' birders. Birdwatching can be enjoyed at many levels, and doesn't require great sacrifice.
There could hardly be a better place than southern Africa to nurture an interest in birds. Many southern African birds such as storks, hornbills, rollers and turacos (loeries) are large and colourful, making their identification easy. At the same time there are several tricky groups of birds such as larks, cisticolas and pipits that offer a challenge to more advanced birders.
Although it makes up only a fraction of the world's land area, southern Africa supports more than 950 bird species - some 10 per cent of the world's birds. Africa as a whole supports almost a quarter of all the bird species in the world. This diversity can be daunting when you first start out, but the rewards are great for those who persevere.
Perhaps the most important part of becoming a birder is that you become much more aware of the environment in which you live. Birds are good indicators of the state of the natural world, and most birdwatchers make excellent, environmentally aware citizens.