What every new birder needs to know

With over 850 species of birds, South Africa can be a daunting prospect for any newbie birder. Where do you start and how do you get to grips with so many species of birds?

While there is no simple solution, South Africa’s best birding experts have dedicated a lifetime to this pursuit. We do have a couple of tips that can make the transition from birding beginner to seasoned birder a bit simpler.

Red-headed Weaver

Red-headed Weaver

#1) Grab a Good Field Guide

Even the best birders don’t leave home without their bird book. So before you buy your binoculars or even consider going out on your first birding excursion make sure you’ve bought yours. But don’t leave it in its packet until you’re off on your first adventure. Make sure you’ve spent some time becoming familiar with how to use it first!

There are a number of great bird books on the market, including the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa and Roberts Birds of South Africa. The main differences goes down to personal preferences, what we would suggest is to shell out the few extra rand and get the PVC covered version of whichever book you choose. We also suggest getting your hands on the Sappi call finder and book series as well as the Sasol Birds Mobile Application.

#2) Great Binoculars

Binoculars are synonymous with birdwatching and with prices dropping dramatically over the last few years a great set of bino‘s isn’t going to cost a small fortune.

Even so, don’t be tempted by the cheapest pair on the market. The difference between identifying a crystal clear view of a bird at 100 meters and just seeing a fuzzy ball of feathers is all down to the quality of your binoculars and you get what you pay for!

What should you look for?

We’d suggest beginners look at either a 7x or 8x power binoculars, this means they will make what you’re looking at appear 7 or 8 times closer. These midrange binoculars are perfect for novice birders as they give a good enough magnification strength, while ensuring a wide enough field of vision to make sure the bird doesn’t keep hopping out of your view!

#3) Know What to Expect

A bit of research goes a long way in the birding world. Before you go off on your birding adventure, make sure you have done a bit of research into what species you can expect to see. This also makes identification in the field a lot easier too, especially when it comes to the LBJ’s (or Little Brown Jobs)!

Most great birding spots, like Likweti Bushveld Farm Estate, have an area checklist. This means you won’t waste your time searching for species that have never been seen there. So make sure you download this and get familiar with it.

#4) …and Where to Look

So you know what you should be looking for, but do you know where it is most likely to be found? Looking in the right place greatly increases your chance of having a bumper bird day and even spotting a lifer or three!

Make sure you learn the behavioural patterns of some of the birds you are likely to find. Do they spend their time at the top of trees or on the ground, are they associated with a specific time of day or plant, do they spend most of their time foraging or preening. These small tit-bits of information can really make all the difference.

But what should you learn?

For beginners, we’d suggest learning the patterns of groups of birds – weavers, finches, warblers etc. and as you become more accustomed to these you can start learning the specifics.

#5) Record Your Sightings

This sounds so obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of experienced birders who didn’t record their early sightings and are now missing lifer’s on their lists that they know they’ve seen but just didn’t record the date and location.

The pocket sized Sasol Bird Checklist is one of the easiest ways to record your sightings and can be slotted inside your bird book or binocular case. There are also numerous great phone apps and other ways of recording your list. So again it’s all down to personal preference, just make sure you keep a backup.

#6) Get Into a Group

Probably the best way to get the most out of birding is to get involved in a bird club. By doing this you will rapidly increase you bird list, meet likeminded people who will willingly share their birding expertise and be introduced to a number birding hotspots most people don’t know about.

Here are the details of just two of the great birding groups in the Lowveld:

  • The Lowveld branch of Birdlife, Birdlife Lowveld – Karen Bullen is the Membership Secretary, who you can contact on lowveld@gmail.com or 082 893 8804
  • Barberton Bird Club – David Mourant is the chairman, contact him at amourant@iafrica.com

Good luck and enjoy the birds!

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