Big Year Birding with the Widdows | Justin Ponder


Forrest Buzzard - Craig Widdows

Recently, I had the privilege of birding with the Widdows family, helping to add a few birds to their year list. Birds, car troubles, mud, rain, and a lot of fun later, we had five new birds in the bag for their year list!


For those of you who don’t know about the Widdows, here is a quick recap!


The Widdows Family is a family of four who have set out to do what all birders dream of. Throughout the year of 2021, they are traveling the entirety of South Africa in search of as many birds as possible. Craig, Christine, four-year-old Wrenna, and two-year-old Finn are sharing their whole journey on their Instagram and Facebook pages as they push to reach their target of 700 species before the end of the year: @our_birding_big_year_2021.

Tim Carr, the Widdows and I met up on the first evening, catching up and planning the birding for the next few days. We went over birds, discussed routes and trails, and set a plan in motion to get both birds and good rest over the next three days. There were two birds we could not miss: Forest Buzzard, and Protea Canary. All the other targets would be great to get out the way, but we could afford to miss.


Day one – Reflections Eco Reserve, Woodville Big Tree, Bergplaas


The team met up early on the first morning on the one and only Reflections, ready to search for our first target – African Rail. The kids were amped, and so were we. We reached our Rail spot to find that the water had risen, and our spot was covered in mud and water. A quick chat through the group, and we all agreed that we would not back down here. Shoes came off, and pants were rolled up to the knees. Finn sat on my shoulders, Christine helped Wrenna through the mud, Craig manned the camera, and Tim led the way through the cold water and reeds. We could hear the Rail calling, so we trudged on despite our toes feeling like ice blocks. We catch a glimpse of movement right in front of us, and all eyes shoot toward it. The next thing, our target flushes up in front of us, giving us undeniable views! Species number 606 – African Rail – in the bag!


From Reflections, it was time to move into the forest. We reached Woodville big tree and started walking along the trail. We find Knysna Turaco, Olive Bushshrike, and Cape Batis, but no new birds. We start to make our way back to the car when we hear an unmistakable call for this time of year. Necks are craning, and eyes are straining through the leaves, but our second target comes straight toward us. It flutters around us for several minutes, providing some amazing views of a usually shy species. Number 607 – Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – seen well and photographed!

Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher - Craig Widdows

We had one more target for the day and photographing it would prove to be a frustrating task. We drive up the Bergplaas road, and it does not take long to find the bird, but it was too far away to get it as a tick. We find five more of the same bird, but every single one is either flying away fast, or just too far away. We stand at one spot, watching four flying together in the distance, when we spot on coming toward us. And this one decided to put on a show. Our Forest Buzzard flew right over our heads and allowed Craig to catch some stunning photos. Number 608, and the third new bird for the day! We celebrated with Cheesecake afterward, stoked about a successful day of birding!




Day Two – Brown Hooded Kingfisher Trail


Our second morning started a bit later than usual since we had no targets. Our plan was to take a slow morning walk and enjoy the scenery. Minutes after we start walking, it starts to rain. Despite the weather, we continue through the trail, getting great sightings of Olive Woodpecker, Blue Mantled Crested Flycatcher, and Terrestrial Brownbul. Eventually the clouds clear up and the sun comes out. Around midday, we decide to call it a day and spend the rest of the day resting. Despite the rain, it was still a great walk, and a fantastic way to spend a morning!

Olive Woodpecker - Craig Widdows

Final day – Swartberg, Klein Karoo

We start early and make our way toward Oudtshoorn. But it soon realizes that we have a slight problem with the car. Now I know about as much about cars as I know about engineering. I know nothing about engineering. So, I nod my ahead along with everything that Tim and Craig say. Eventually, after a lot of head nodding on my part, we think we may have fixed the problem, which was something with the water or radiator, or pipes, or something. I was so confused, but I was learning more about cars then I had when I found out how to close a car door. We got to our first spot, and it took mere seconds to find number 609. At least four Karoo Larks singing and displaying around us – what a way to get a new tick! With the bird already in the bag, we had more time to find our main target. However, we soon realized that our car troubles were not over yet. The engine heat had risen to its max, and we find that there is a leak in the water tank. But what is an engine leak to stop us from birding? So, we trek on, using our water bottles to fill the engine every half an hour or so. We reach the base of Swartberg Pass, and we stop in a patch of proteas by a stream to fill up the car once again. While we get the car ready, I hear a familiar call. I alert the group and we have eyes searching in all directions. Soon, we pick up a small brown bird flying toward the road. Our bird lands a bush twenty meters from the road, and we photograph a cracker Protea Canary, number 610! But the day was not over yet, and we dragged the poor car up the pass to enjoy the view at the top, and to photograph Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, and Orange Breasted Sunbird. We rolled the car back down the pass and got into Oudtshoorn to get the car ready for the rest of the drive home.


Back at home, we enjoy a great dinner and reflect on the last few days of birding with our friends. All or troubles had turned into adventures that we laughed our way through. Great birds, great people, and in a great area!

To book your Western Cape Birding Experience, be sure to visit our Birding Directory https://www.thebirdinglife.com/western-cape

Cape Siskin - Craig Widdows