The Magical World of Birds – Your How, Where & Why Guide

 

I think it was the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull that did it. That served as my gateway to the magical world of birds.

I grew up with an aviary of lovebirds and a pet African Grey, hand-reared a variety of fledgling cockatiels and budgies, sat with the white-eyes in my childhood garden, waiting for their daily swim in our bird bath… But Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach showed me the way of the wild bird, the uncaged, the one whose bird bath is the great ocean or the fierce rivers of the world.

The book is testament to the incredible freedom birds are privy to, but it also teaches that human beings can achieve a similar freedom if they only change their mindset. Birds are indeed great teachers – all we need to do is sit and watch them in nature. Birdwatchers know that. They are the masters of great meditation, for the art of birdwatching takes patience and stillness.


Camp Jabulani by Tamlin Wightman

Camp Jabulani by Tamlin Wightman

Above: The lilac breasted roller and woodpecker at Camp Jabulani. By Tamlin Wightman

“He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.

“Set aside,” came a voice from the multitude, “even if it be the Law of the Flock?”

“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said. “There is no other.”
― Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Discover the art on your own twitcher expedition. In today’s blog we’re highlighting the tools you’ll need for your birdwatching adventure as well as some of our favourite places in Africa to put them to practice.


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above: the African fish eagle on the banks of the Zambezi River at Royal Chundu

Terms for Twitchers

Twitcher – noun: A committed birder who travels far and wide to spot as many new bird species as possible to add to their life list; refers to the nervous, twitchy behaviour of British birdwatcher Howard Medhurst. 

  • Bins – Binoculars
  • BOP – Bird of prey
  • Crippler – A rare and spectacular bird, so brilliant that it prevents birders from moving on to seek other birds
  • Dip out (or dip) – To miss a bird you were looking for
  • LBJ – Little brown job; a small, brown bird that resembles many other small, brown birds, mostly a young or female bird
  • Lifer – A first-ever sighting of a bird species by an observer; an addition to one’s life list
  • Mega or Megatick – A very rare bird
  • Pish – An imitation birdcall (made through pursed lips) used to attract species you may not otherwise see
  • String – A dubious record

Zarafa Camp

above: on a birding safari at Zarafa Camp

Tools of the Trade

You’re going to need a few tools of the twitcher trade for your birding safari. For beginners, the first thing you will need is a good bird book, for when your safari guide isn’t around. For Southern African birds there is the “Roberts Birds of Southern Africa”, which astounds with its size, signalling the immense diversity of birdlife in this part of the world – from the colonies of carmine bee-eaters on the riverbanks of Zambia or the swathes of pink flamingos on Tanzania’s Lake Natron.

If you’re tech-savvy, there are many birding and stargazing apps available for your phone or tablet – handy tools when you need to travel light.

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For your birding expedition you’ll also need a good pair of binoculars, such as the Vortex 8×42 Razor HD or the impressive Swarovski HD binoculars provided at Zarafa Camp in Botswana. To document your sightings you will need a camera – birding is, after all, a bit like fishing. No one will believe you unless you have evidence. While almost any DSLR camera will do, the bigger the zoom lens the better. A birder’s journal is also handy for jotting down points as you go about tracking and identifying your bird.

For the photographers, read Londolozi’s blog, Six tricks to bird photography.

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Above: Woodland Kingfisher feeding at Zarafa Camp in Botswana by Beverly Joubert

The Birds of Prey

Meet nature’s most effective weapon. The birds of prey.

Also known as raptors, from the Latin word rapere (“to seize or take by force”), they are expert hunters, with keen eyesight that allows them to detect prey mid-flight. With their speed and perfectly adapted body, namely their strong legs and powerful talons for catching or killing prey and hooked beaks for tearing flesh, Africa’s birds of prey are deadly. Besides their incredible hunting prowess, they are also a beautiful sight with regal postures, distinctive habits, and bold combinations of colours and feathers.

There are 233 species of birds of prey worldwide and 59 species just in Southern Africa. The birds of prey that you are likely to find soaring the skies on your safari include kites, harriers, snake-eagles, goshawks, sparrowhawks, buzzards and old world vultures.


Royal Chundu

Above: Listen for the call of the African Fish Eagle from your canoe as you wind down the Zambezi at Royal Chundu

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Where To Go Birding

South Africa

  • Madikwe Game Reserve: The remote and unusual terrain of Madikwe Private Game Reserve attracts more than 340 bird species, including a rare few to make the birder in you twitch. Stay: Morukuru. In the stillness of Morukuru’s private reserve, the soar of the Bateleur and flash of the Roller stand out as strikingly as a curtain of elephants on the plains.
  • The Sabi Sand is not only a land of the Big 5 but a hidden birding treasure as well. Stay: Nestled right in the heart of the Lowveld, Londolozi Private Game Reserve is home to many feathered beauties. Read more in Crazy About A Bird by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger, and take a look at Londolozi’s Bird Checklist.
  • Kapama Private Game Reserve: This is a land that cannot be confined to a mere list of five. The sky rejects this limitation on its own merits with an impressive 350 species roaming the expanse of blue. Stay: Camp Jabulani

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Above: friends of the rhinos – the birds at Camp Jabulani

Botswana

  • Selinda Reserve: The private 320,000 acre Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana is without doubt one of the more curious biospheres. Its combination of wet and dry habitats attracts a large variety of birdlife, as it connects the Okavango Delta and Chobe-Savute corridors. Stay: Zarafa Camp. While big cats and great elephant herds might trump all other sights on your safari wishlist, the profusion of birdlife at Zarafa Camp will thrill even novice birders.

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above: in flight at Zarafa Camp, Botswana. By Ryan Rapaport

Islands

  • Madagascar: The rainforests of this Indian Ocean island buzz with a chorus of bird species that lure keen birders from far and wide. Stay: Anjajavy l’Hôtel is a true birding destination, with around 130 species of birds, including endemic and critically endangered species.

Madagascar

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above: Love birds grazing at Anjajavy in Madagascar

There are many more African destinations that make for a great birding safari. Discover more here or chat to us to find out more about planning your own twitcher expedition.

The Call of the African Waterhole

Elephants at Camp Jabulani 2
waterhole –ˈwɔːtəhəʊl/ 
noun: a depression in which water collects, especially one that is regularly drunk from by animals.

The waterhole is where the magic happens. Both in the cities and the wilder corners of the world.

On safari, in the plains and savannahs of Africa, it is to the waterhole that the birds and wildlife flock. The waterhole is their oasis, breaking up the day’s journey.

During the rainy season, animals find water sources more easily, as rivulets, streams and lush plant life spread across their prideland. But during the dry season, after the rains have passed, the call of the waterhole and its promise of refreshment lures them out. We as travellers follow after them, hoping to glimpse those special safari moments that play out at waterholes – moments that very often include none other than the African elephant.

Elephants cannot help themselves around water. They are the Labradors of the African bush. And they love water not merely for drinking – which they do a lot of – but also for playing, keeping cool and swimming. They may be the only mammals to not be able to jump but they sure can swim, and unlike us humans, they don’t need to be taught to do it.

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Lured by the call of the waterhole ourselves, we recently visited the elephants of Camp Jabulani in the Kapama Private Game Reverse in South Africa.

The herds here can be divided into two groups – the wild and the saved. The latter include a family of orphaned elephants that have been taken in by another family, one of humans, souls who have dedicated their lives to caring for these beings. Along with the Roode Family who own the lodge, the elephants’ handlers help to protect them from the wild and its creatures, while enabling their herd of rescued elephants enjoy it simultaneously.

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To do this, handlers, the humblest, most caring of men, spend their days walking with the elephants through the reserve around Camp Jabulani, within the 13 000 hectares of savannah and riverine forest that make up the greater Kapama reserve. The lodge is a similar refuge to many of the handlers themselves, men who left Zimbabwe, the same birthplace as many of the elephants, to seek a better life across the border.

On safari at Camp Jabulani, we sat back in our game vehicle, watching these elephants, Jabulani, after whom the lodge is named, along with the rest of the herd, swimming in their waterhole one late afternoon. Labradors, was all I could think, watching young ones playing with sticks in their pool – water be damned.

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Meet Camp Jabulani’s elephant family here and find out more about elephants and their love affair with water in our top 10 facts below.

Elephants at Camp Jabulani

10 Facts About Elephants & Water

1. Elephants require fresh water daily. A trunkful of water amounts to 5–10 litres and an elephant will drink between 100 and 200 litres per day.

2. Elephants don’t drink with their trunks, but use them as “tools” to drink with. This is accomplished by filling the trunk with water and then using it as a hose to pour it into the elephant’s mouth.

3. Elephants enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it all over themselves.

4. The dry season sees elephants spending a lot of time around permanent water sources. Knowing where the water is, the smell of it as they approach rouses their excitement and a herd can often be seen accelerating as they approach until they are actually running towards the water.

 

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5. Elephants in Africa have been recorded to have travelled a distance of 48 kilometers across water, and swimming for six hours continuously.

6. They swim completely submerged, with their head above the water and their mouths below, and use all four legs to paddle.

7. Elephants also use their trunk like a snorkel, so that they can breathe normally when swimming – especially handy for long distances.

8. Baby elephants often try to climb on the backs of older and bigger elephants and then splash back in the water. Calves will suck water into their trunks and spray each other playfully.

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9. By splaying the soles of their feet, elephants can propel their huge bulk forward when swimming in water.

10. Elephants’ massive bodies are surprisingly buoyant, letting them float with ease.

Source:
(1) Sanbi
(2) Elephant Conservation
(3) National Geographic
(4) Londolozi
(5-10) Wild Animal Park

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Elephants at Camp Jabulani 5

All images above taken on our safari at Camp Jabulani

Elsewhere in Africa…

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Morukuru

Above: The elephants of Morukuru in the Madikwe Game Reserve finding respite from the afternoon heat in the local waterhole. We spotted this herd on a drive from the airport to the lodge – our first sighting on safari and a most magical one at that. Find out more about Morukuru in our blog, 10 Questions with Morukuru’s Wild Man.

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Above: Elephants congregate around waterholes during the dry months. Photograph taken at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand in South Africa, by Elsa Young. Read more about when to visit Londolozi here.

IMG_68902 (1)Resident bulls at the oL Donyo Lodge waterhole

Above: Resident bulls at the ol Donyo Lodge in Kenya. Dry grassland in the Mbirikani group ranch means more wildlife visiting the waterhole, making for wonderful sightings from the viewing hide. The resident bull elephants – One Ton, Torn Ear, Ozzie, Pug, Jagged, Kali and Tom – dominate the waterhole, their combined massive bulks making it tough going for smaller creatures who have to wait their turn patiently on the sidelines.

6 Lessons Leopards Can Teach Us About Life

She did not want to be found. Were it not for the herd of impalas surrounding her, she wouldn’t have been. The young female leopard’s spots made her almost undetectable behind the low branches of the bush, as she hunched over her kill – the impala that didn’t get away.

The herd, as if tattletaling on the leopard, barked loudly to alert others of the danger. We followed the call in our safari vehicle in the Kapama Private Game Reserve around Camp Jabulani, and locked eyes with the big cat through the trees. About ten metres from us, she sat unmoving, heavy panting and startling eyes giving away the life inside her.

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One of us shifted in the vehicle (not the experienced ranger), trying to focus the camera lens on the cat, but spooking the leopard in the process. The leopard darted instantly, leaving her prey behind.

We idled the vehicle a little closer to the site of the kill. To get a better look at the leopard we had to be just as stealthy as this big cat. We placed a GoPro camera beside the lone impala and continued on our way.

A short while later, after watching elephants swimming in a nearby dam, we returned to find the impala missing and our cameras opportunely perched overlooking leopard tracks. We raced back to the lodge to view the footage captured. What we found is perhaps the closest you’ll ever get to one of these elusive cats in the wild. What I gained was a greater appreciation for leopard kind, the introvert of the Animal Kingdom.

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Take a look at the video below as well as the six lessons that our encounter with Africa’s elusive leopard taught us about life – besides from the most critical lesson of them all…

NB. It is for moments such as this that it’s best to leave for game drives with a fully-charged camera battery and an empty memory card – even when you don’t suspect that you’ll see anything, when the light is getting dim or the rain clouds moving in.



6 Things Leopards Can Teach Us About Life

1. Fear is a gift

Fear helps us to avoid danger, and, when danger does strike, it guides us in how best to react, in reading the threat. Leopards are experts at tapping into intuition – that animal instinct that keeps them safe, even if it means leaving their hard-earned dinner unattended while they bolt to safety. This is specifically important considering that leopard populations in South Africa are under threat due to habitat loss, through agriculture and human encroachment, and hunting.

When coming across these big cats on foot, fear reminds us to be cautious. According to Sanbi, “It is believed that when you encounter a leopard in the wild, the best thing to do to avoid being attacked is to create lots of noise and walk the other way. Several people have said that talking loudly or singing had saved them during an encounter with a leopard.” Something to remember for the streets of more urban settings too…

Discover more about the threat leopards face in Don Pinnock’s article, “Leopard hunting: Restricted but not banned“.

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2. The beauty of solitude

Leopards are solitary creatures. Adult males and females only come together briefly during mating and then go their separate ways, leaving the female leopards to raise the new cubs alone.

We can learn a lot from their solitary lives – namely the value of solitude, a largely misunderstood and undervalued state. “We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone,” says novelist Sara Maitland. “We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is ‘sad, mad or bad’. Or all three at once.”

However, Maitland says, the solitary are “those courageous people who want to dare to live; and to do so believe you have to explore the depths of yourself, undistracted and unprotected by social conventions and norms.”

Solitude means getting to “live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own,” as Richard Byrd, the American admiral and explorer, wrote in his book, “Alone”, about his solo adventure in the Antarctic.

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3. The subtle art of flirting

The female leopard is a master seductress. “To indicate their readiness for mating, females will approach the male and sway in front of him, swat him in the face with her tail while emitting a low rumbling growl. She will then lie in front of him with her rear slightly lifted, inviting him to mate.”*

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4. Honour your senses

Many of us take the gift of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste for granted. We spend so much time trying to numb or distort our senses, trying to step outside our minds. We would never survive in the wild this way. In the wild, you need all your senses, to protect yourself and your young, and to find food, for instance. Leopards depend on their senses for life.

“Leopards have large eyes, which provide them with binocular vision to determine distance accurately. A leopard’s night vision is six to eight times better than that of humans. Their eyesight is the most important sense used for hunting. Leopards have an acute sense of hearing and smell, and have long whiskers that can help detect prey in dark spots and also give an indication of the size of the place being investigated to prevent the head and body getting stuck.”*

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5. The importance of having a home to call your own

Like humans, leopards are very territorial and their methods for marking out their homes are only slightly dissimilar to our own.

“Leopards mark their territory with scent and loud calls, making their presence known without coming into contact with each other. These loud calls are of great advantage for solitary animals that rely only on themselves and avoid unnecessary confrontation with other leopards that may be found within the same territory. Scent marking is achieved by spraying urine upwards to facilitate marking at head height and sometimes cheek and neck glands are used to mark bushes that are positioned at head height. Territory may also be marked with droppings and tree-scratching points. Tree-scratching is used to clean the claws and also spread the scent produced between the claws.”*

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6. The underrated strength of the single mother

In the leopard kingdom, all mothers are single. They are strong and fierce and can remind us of the inherent strength of the mother and her aptness in raising her young, single or not.

Leopard moms protect and move their cubs from place to place until they reach independence at about 12 months old. The cubs drink milk from their mother for four months and start to practice their own kills from eight months.

Meet the mothers of Camp Jabulani in our blog, The Passion of Compassion at Camp Jabulani.

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Above: Our expert ranger at Camp Jabulani, Chané Jacobs

according to Sanbi.

Discover more about Camp Jabulani on our website and our interview with innkeeper, Lente Roode.