BIRDING IN SOUTH AFRICA (SUMMING UP 1)
Next week I'll return to the snow and dark of Tromsoe, N.Norway,
after three months sabbatical leave at the South African Museum in
Cape Town (in order to study amphipods, not birds!). But of course
I've used most weekends and some weeks of holidays to familiarize
myself with nature and especially birdlife in South Africa. I always
find it utterly fascinating to come to a completely new area, and
watch new players play the familiar roles (seed-eater,
insect-gleaner, shore-scavenger, predator, etc.). I do keep lists and
try to see many different bird species, but I do not consider myself
a twitcher. I am more fascinated by what birds do and how they
interact, as those who who have read the series of African
Impressions via email lists will have noticed.
Birding in South Africa has a number of logistic and practical
problems. You never notice much of this, when you are on a
well-organized tour, as I was e.g. during my Zululand week---the tour
leaders solve all the problems, and all you note yourself is the
amazingly comfortable infrastructure in the country, esp. in national
parks and other wildlife areas.
But when you are on your own, things become different, and e.g. the
lack of a safe and reliable public transport system most places
quickly becomes a problem. I solved this by buying an old and dented
car, and selling it again towards the end of my stay. Even though
this particular car turned out to be much more temperamental and
problematical than I had bargained for, I still think the decision
was a wise one: it would have been much more expensive to rent a car
for three months, even if only for the weekends most of the time.
Owning your own car, even a dented one, presupposes that you have a
safe place to park it (which I had) : "informal redistribution of
wealth" is quite prevalent in today's South Africa, and cars are
never quite safe on the streets, particularly at night. (When I
birded with Adam Riley in Natal, he absolutely refused to go and eat
somewhere where he could not keep an eye on his car from his
Petrol prices have gone up several times during this last year, and
people are grumbling a lot, but even so petrol costs only about a
third of what I pay in Norway, so by our standards it is cheap, as so
many commodities here. The roads are mainly excellent, although one
should always keep an eye open for potholes in tarred roads. Good
road maps are also readily available.
There have been many discussions about whether the high crime rate
in South Africa makes it dangerous, or even inadvisable, to go
birding there. I am unable to say much about the subject. I have
personally not had any problems at all, even though for much of the
time I was birding on my own. But there IS a high crime rate and much
random violence, and it does make for an often somewhat jittery
feeling when one is driving, especially in an unreliable car. I have
avoided as much as possible to drive at night, and I also refrained
from repairing the dents in my car, hoping this would make it less
attractive for would-be thieves.
To be quite honest, the problem may well largely be not the risk of
becoming a victim of crime one-self, but living in constant fear of
that risk. That has marred some of the pleasure in the driving and
walking through lonely areas; I am not a particularly courageous
person. I have, however, tried not to let that stop me, and have most
weekends driven out from 30-100 km outside Cape Town in order to go
on walks. I usually chose areas that were described in either one of
the many walks-booklets that are on the market here or/and in the
excellent "where to find birds" booklets (One for W.Cape, one for the
entire country) that someone kindly lent to me, and usually have
found the descriptions to the point and easy to follow.
CONTACT WITH LOCAL BIRDERS
Before coming to South Africa, I had subscribed to the SABirdnet,
and written a short self-introduction. Many people reacted to this,
a.o. a surprising number of professional bird guides that offered
various most enticing tours---unfortunately, the prices, while no
doubt quite reasonable , were still too high for me. So I decided to
take part in the one-week Zululand tour, of all things a
post-conference tour for a "microbiology of poultry' conference, and
afterwards to accept Adam Riley's very generous offer to show me a
lot of birds in a very short time (4 days) in Natal.
After arriving in Cape Town, I neglected, probably stupidly, to
contact the Cape Bird Club, and did most of my birding on my own.
Also, the SABirdnet was not interested in my African Impressions, so
I did not send them to that list anymore, and that too deprived me
from no doubt most useful contacts. Entirely my own fault, but I
suppose I've grown into the habit of going birding on my own after
all the years in Tromsoe.
Judy New, who farms near Paarl and who had
seen my pieces on some of the other lists, very kindly did invite me
to come and take part in the BBD a few Sundays ago: I had a wonderful
day there, and first then realized what I missed out on through not
contacting local birders earlier. (By the way, and harking back to
the always present dangers here, the neighbouring farmer couple who
also took part that day, have since been hold-up, severely beaten
and robbed in their own farm!).
As I said earlier, the infrastructure in South Africa, at least in
the Western Cape, is generally excellent. The roads are good, the
reserves usually have facilities (generally you note yourself down in
an open list as walking some trail), and the trails are well-marked
and excellently laid out. The country also has several first rate
field guides (Which one is the best, is hotly debated, and different
people I met had different opinions).
The wonderful thing, for somebody who grew up in Holland, where each
rare bird is surrounded by hundreds of birders, and where you more
often than not walk or bicycle in a long file, is that many times I
did not meet a single person all day, even though I mainly kept to
reserves and official trails! Nobody, who is not daily surrounded by
too many people, will realize what an unmitigated blessing such
solitude can be!.
During our holidays through the National Parks along the Garden
Route Riet and I usually met maybe 5-10 people during a longish hike
(longish for us, that is; we are at an age to avoid the most
strenuous and really long trails). But this last month in the Western
Cape I met no one at Sir Lowry's Pass, no one in Vrolijkheid, no one
on the Grijsbok Trail in Koeberg, and no one in the Tienie Versveld
flower reserve; and all these places I visited either on a Saturday
or on a Sunday (And after the Rugby World Cup had finished!). On
these trails I also never had any sense of danger, even though they
were so lonely.
In the second part of these summing up musings I'll try to say
something about the birds themselves, but do not expect a list of the
ca 420 species of birds that now grace my S African birdlist.
Wim Vader, c.o. S African Museum
after 14 Dec.
To unsubscribe from this list, please send a message to
Include ONLY "unsubscribe birding-aus" in the message body (without the