Birding South Africa – Trip Report

Well, I’ve finally finished updating my records with all of the birds I observed in South Africa (and Lesotho) and it appears that I saw and/or heard a rather whopping 439 bird species on the trip! 419 of these were birds I had never seen before!! Read on if you’re really into birds, otherwise, this gets a tad stats-heavy. If it’s too much for you, you may wish to skip to the bottom for the Rockjumper trip report compiled by our incredible guide, Andre Bernon (some of my photos are featured in the report).

Many of the 439 species we encountered were endemic or near-endemic birds that I’m likely never to see again (unless, of course, I get to go back to South Africa some time). Keep in mind too that, while the non-endemic birds occur outside of South Africa in some (sometimes very small) areas, many of the birds seen on this trip are still found only on the African continent. Some of the exciting southern African endemics we saw were: Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Parrot, Cape Rockjumper, Karoo Lark, Botha’s Lark, Cape Bulbul, Victorin’s Warbler, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cape Siskin, and Protea Canary.

To give you an idea of what we’re looking at range-wise, here are the ranges for three of the endemics:

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Yellow-breasted Pipit range: a swath of highland across eastern South African (Source: Birdlife.org)
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Botha’s Lark range: a small patch of relatively high-altitude grassland (Source: Birdlife.org)
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Cape Bulbul range: a larger, coastal patch in the southwest, but no less endemic (Source: Birdlife.org)

Another (partially overlapping with the previous) subset of the birds we saw were near-threatened or threatened species whose numbers are dropping rapidly or might vanish altogether. Sadly, we saw a large number of birds who fall under these classifications (I’ve put “EN” next to endangered species, while the others listed are “vulnerable” or “near-threatened”): Maccoa Duck, Shy Albatross, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross (EN), White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Lesser Flamingo, Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Gannet, Bank Cormorant (EN), Cape Cormorant, Secretarybird, Hooded Vulture (EN), White-backed Vulture, Cape Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Bateleur, Crowned Eagle, Martial Eagle, Black Harrier, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Gray-Crowned Crane, Blue Crane, Wattled Crane, African Oystercatcher, Southern Ground Hornbill, Cape Parrot (EN), Botha’s Lark (EN), Bush Blackcap, and Yellow-breasted Pipit.

Some of these birds appear to have reached scarily low numbers. For example, a recent estimate suggests no more than 1500-5000 Botha’s Larks exist (of course this number is particularly low, due to their small range). This is similarly the case with the 2500-6500 Yellow-breasted Pipits estimated in the wild.

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Yellow-breasted Pipit (Wakkerstroom area) © James Palmer
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Botha’s Lark (digiscoped near Wakkerstroom) © James Palmer

As is the case elsewhere on Earth, seafaring birds and large raptors are particularly common on the list above. For the seafaring birds, the largest issue tends to be habitat loss for breeding colonies as shorelines–and sometimes entire crucial island habitats–are lapped up and repurposed for various human needs. The raptors, however, often struggle more with problems with their prey: death by lead poisoning is a common problem for California Condors in North America for example, as they ingest lead when their food source has been shot and not collected. You might also note that the smaller members of the list are quite range-restricted for the most part and thus lose a larger proportion of their habitat every time any kind of habitat destruction/degradation occurs.

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You may think what you like about vultures, but they are a very important part of any ecosystem. Here, mostly White-backed Vultures, with a couple of Hooded Vultures, and a single Lappet-faced Vulture, crowd around a water source at Kruger NP. All of these vultures are endangered or close. © James Palmer

For my own part, I felt privileged and honoured to get to know a few individuals of these species; to observe their feeding, singing, and mating habits and just to hang out with them while they roosted somewhere. Sometimes I feel like us birders are being watched by the birds just as much as we’re watching them and I thoroughly enjoy sharing this mutual curiosity. Other times it’s an incredible and enjoyable challenge just to be able to glimpse a bird at all!

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Author: Nick Downes (from Readers’ Digest)

If you’re interested in checking in on my eBird checklists from the trip, please feel free to visit my eBird profile. I should note that, due to the rapid pace of the trip and the many different (sometimes unknown) sites we visited each day, many of the lists are only partial. Nevertheless, at least one record of each species I observed has been added to eBird [this is still in progress].

Finally, as promised, here’s the trip report from our incredible adventure: Rockjumper South Africa V 2016 – Trip Report.

I sincerely hope you enjoyed following along with my blog as much as I enjoyed sharing the incredible experience with you!

In closing, I have one small request for those of you non-birders who nevertheless made it all the way through this blog: next time you see a bird, stop for a second to look, listen, and appreciate him/her a little. I guarantee it’ll brighten your day. =)

 

 

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