August 25th of 2021

©Photography byMatt Foulsham

When booking a safari in a “big 5” game reserve, most people target seeing mammals, whether it’s a predator they are after or encountering a large herd of elephants, and rightly so. But animals in a game reserve are free to move around and there are no guarantees that they will be where you want them, when you want them. So what do we do to keep entertained when we don’t see mammals on safari? We look to our feathered friends. 

Birding is not normally on the top of many people’s “special interests” when on safari, but it really should be! By paying a little more attention to birds, we can turn a good game drive into a great one. There are a few reasons why birding on drives can make your safari experience more enjoyable:

A chance to see something new
There have been over 800 recorded species of birds within South Africa alone, with near to1000 recorded species in Southern Africa. With species diversity as great as this, there’s always something new to see.

Appeals to the inner “collector”
Many birders create lists by ticking off the birds they have seen, this appeals to the “collector” in all of us. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing that new lifer (a bird you are seeing for the first time in your life), ticking it off on your list and watching that total species number climb. There’s also a chance for rarer birds, and along with seeing them, the bragging rights with fellow birders.

Puzzle solving
When we do spot a bird that we don’t know, we delve into our bird books.The act of trying to identify the bird becomes a puzzle and, very often, a spot the difference exercise - sometimes against the clock before the bird flies away.

Photographic opportunities
If you are a keen photographer, birds can sometimes be the perfect muse. Take the Lilac Breasted Roller as an example. In the right light it has a beautiful plumage of up to 8 different colours. This bird is also seen perching close to roads as it waits for insects to cross the open area and is typically quite brave when cars approach. No wonder it is South Africa’s most photographed bird!

Unique interactions
If you actually stop and watch birds, they can provide an interesting insight into their social constructs and their link with nature as a whole. Take theWhite-Crested Helmetshrike as an example. These birds live in family groups, with an alpha male and alpha female being “chosen” for breeding purposes. All of the other birds within the group will assist with breeding duties; nest making, incubation, feeding, etc. When the time comes to switch on incubation duties, the flock will fly into the nesting tree and “pretend” to be feeding whilst the birds swap over duties. They do this so that potential predators aren’t aware of where the nesting site actually is and thus keeping the eggs/offspring relatively safe.

So next time you are on safari, and things are maybe a little slow on the sightings side of things, maybe pick up your binoculars, grab a bird book and start pointing birds out to your guide. You might just see something special to tick off your “life list”.  

Fair warning though, birding can become addictive!

Matt Foulsham