How I became a birder. And, more importantly, how did you become a birder?

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This is my story about how I got into birding. I wrote this mainly to try and encourage you to share your story. Please do e-mail us ([email protected]) with your story of how you got into birding. We’ll give you 5 % off a tour with us that you haven’t yet booked if you write the best story.

I actually can’t remember exactly how I got into birding. I was born at a young age (ha ha!), and as soon as I was old enough to start remembering things, I remembered birds. So, basically, I seemed to just have a spontaneous interest in birds. I just liked them (more than anything else around me) and was very much aware of them. One of my earliest memories, as a very young child, was “correcting” my older brother when he said “there’s a bird” and I said “well, it’s a sparrow” – even though he was a year older than me I wanted to be more specific. I didn’t know it was a Cape Sparrow, though, but at least I identified it to family level!

Two of my most vivid childhood memories both revolved around beautiful African barbets that lurked around our Johannesburg, South Africa, home. Laying eyes on my first Crested Barbet was, quite simply, a life-changing experience. This bird is just such a medley of bright colors, and, as if that’s not enough, it also has a great, big crest! After admiring this fantastic bird I ran inside, asking my mom for a field guide. She located the classic old “Roberts Birds of southern Africa” that she’d given my dad as a gift, and I paged through it and found Crested Barbet – an unmistakable beauty of a bird! That was the first bird I remember identifying with a field guide.  And I took the Roberts as mine, from that point onward.


Crested Barbet

A few weeks later I was outside when suddenly I noticed a noisy pair of spectacular Black-collared Barbets (which should really be called “Red-headed Barbets”) duetting from atop a tall tree. I was completely amazed by how beautiful they were, but I didn’t know what on earth they were until I paged through the Roberts again and managed to identify my second barbet species.

Family vacations also must have played a role in my burgeoning interest in birds. I was lucky enough to be taken to the Kruger National Park pretty often, as my parents liked animals (but not specifically birds), not to mention my family holidays to Plettenberg Bay in the middle of South Africa’s superb and bird-rich Garden Route. The birds in these parts of the world are just so abundant and dazzling that it’s difficult not to get enamored with them. Quite honestly, I also got a bit bored with Africa’s megafauna in Kruger and other incredible game parks we visited, but birds always kept me entertained. These days I have a renewed interest in mammals, but as a child I saw so many elephants, lions, etc., that I wanted to find other things to entertain me.

Around Plettenberg Bay during family holidays I made it one of my biggest goals to find the elusive Knysna Turaco, which, I noticed from the field guides, must occur in the area. Once again an incredibly spectacular bird, and quite prehistoric and peculiar-looking, really. Laying my eyes on my first flock of these unbelievable bright-green birds with crimson wings, bounding from branch to branch, was one of my best life experiences ever. Even today, at age 46, this is my favorite bird. I’ve now seen almost all of Africa’s turacos but have yet to see the two red-crested species, both of which occur localized in West Africa.


Knysna Turaco

At a young age I decided to count the number of bird species I’d seen, and I could hardly believe it when I realized I’d seen over 100 species! I immediately made it my life’s ambition to see all 900 bird species in the southern African field guide. At the time I didn’t realize that quite a number of them had only been seen in the region once or twice, meaning that it was highly improbable that I’d ever actually find them in southern Africa. I did (eventually!) manage to see all the regularly-occurring species, my last one being the Critically Endangered (IUCN) White-winged Flufftail.

While trying to see all 900 southern African birds I kept getting tantalized by looking at the distribution maps of the many species only occurring in northern Namibia, the Okavango Delta, Zimbabwe, or Mozambique, seemingly out of reach for someone who had never left the borders of South Africa. (The southern African field guides include six and a half countries south of the Zambezi and Kunene Rivers – only the southern half of Mozambique). I started asking (or shall I say nagging?) my parents if we could start visiting these countries neighboring my home South Africa. And eventually my parents did get excited about the idea; while they weren’t specifically interested in birds, they did start getting curious as to what these other countries looked like (scenery-wise, etc.). My dad even let me plan the itineraries, and so I designed routes that would enable us to see the sites (e.g. Victoria Falls, Etosha National Park, the highest sand dunes in the world at Sossusvlei in Namibia, etc.) as well as get me lifers. And eventually this allowed me to get my life list to 775 bird species! Guiding for Birding Ecotours then (some years later!) got me over the magical 800 mark, and then I set my sites on 850, which I eventually also reached.

Birding is the stuff that memories are made of, and I have so many fantastic memories from our family expeditions all over the subregion. Once, for example, my brother Nick “called me in” by broadcasting the call of African Barred Owlet, which made me come running back to the camp for lunch. I was angry with my brother, who just stood there laughing. I really thought I was about to get a lifer, and all I saw was my brother’s laughing face.

Some of these African countries are really wild, and I also had an experience once where I found a massive heard of dangerous African Buffalos (with babies they wanted to protect) between me and the lodge. There was no way for me to get back, as I was on foot, and it was getting dark. Luckily a car arrived, and I stood in the middle of the road to stop it. Fortunately the driver realized that I was in real trouble and gave me a ride straight through the herd of buffalos.

Because of my passion for birds I ended up studying ornithology at the University of Cape Town and then did a post-doc on hummingbirds in Wyoming. But while I was busy with this I decided that I wanted to see a large proportion of the world’s birds rather than to do research (not that academics was bad, it’s just that birding the world seemed even better). So I started a birding tour company, Birding Ecotours, and have never looked back! Now my biggest concern is to get to grips with my colleagues – my current pet hate is all the times Andy sends me photos of Spoon-billed Sandpipers. I need to get to Thailand ASAP just to stop this nonsense!

Again, please do send us your story (to [email protected]) and we can give you 5 % off a tour with us that you haven’t yet booked if it is the best story we’ve received.

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