Updated: Dec 29, 2020
In response to our rising COVID numbers in South Africa, the president has announced that as a country we will be going onto a Level 3 lock-down until the 15 January. In writing this article, I do not wish to undermine the seriousness of this pandemic in our country with many people having lost loved ones to this disease over the course of the year. I too have seen its tragic effects in the lives of people that I love, and personally know many that have lost their lives.
When the announcement was made, I thought back to a Zululand trip that I did with some friends a few weeks ago to chase after some of the rare birds that had shown up at various spots. We left at 4am and only got home at 10:30pm that night. It was a long day with a few special birds added to my life list (along with a sunburn on the arm that was on the window side of the car). It is days like that that many birders live for – the thrill of the chase – waking up at crazy hours and chasing after special birds. Along with all of this making sure to get the photo and if you are lucky, get a mention in uncle Trevor's rare bird email.
The curfew times have now changed – you are only allowed to leave you house at 6am and you need to be back in by 9pm. What this means is that day trips to these far-flung locations are now out of the equation (or at least a lot harder to do logistically). There are also restrictions in terms of certain parks and nature reserves being closed. I had planned some atlassing in a local nature reserve, which sadly now I am now not able to do. All this means there will possibly be some rare and special birds that will be inaccessible for the next few weeks.
There will be a lot of disappointed birders out there – but with the seriousness of the pandemic I do encourage you to obey the restrictions put in place. No bird is worth risking your life and the lives of your loved ones.
This level 3 lock-down does however provide birders with fresh opportunity to explore and discover birds. The difference is that we will get to spend more time doing local birding and discovering the birds that are on our doorstep.
During the lockdown earlier this year when we were allowed to exercise in our local areas, I used this as an opportunity to do birding walks around the neighbourhood. I got some good exercise (which helped me deal with the growing 'lock-down belly'), while discovering some birds and birding habitats that I did not even know were in our area. So, just maybe this level 3 lock down is an opportunity to slow down and simply enjoy the birds that are all around us. Does it really matter if you do not add another ‘tick’ to your life-list in 2020?
Lock-down birding allows us to:
1) Get to know the birds in our gardens
I have fed the birds in my garden for a while now on my feeders. I get some decent flocks of seedeaters that converge on the seed daily and feast on that which is laid out. My brag bird for the last few years has been the Red-headed Quelea, that for many is still a sought-after bird (I have had a few up-country birders visiting my garden to see this species). While on the level 5 lock-down earlier this year, while we could not leave our homes, I recorded over 60 species in my garden. I looked beyond the feeders that I filled daily, and started to see the birds that were in the trees, that flew over, and even heard the birds that called. I have seen the African Hoopoe many times, but I can still remember how excited I was when one landed in my garden and I was able to add it to my garden list. I was amazed at some of the birds that I was able to see – including a healthy number of raptors. There are probably a lot more birds in your garden than you realise, and this lock-down is the perfect opportunity to grow your garden list.
2) Explore your neighbourhood
The restrictions allow you to take a walk around your neighbourhood see what birds you can see. Earlier this year, I used my Birdlasser App (you could also use Google Earth) to get a satellite view of my neighbourhood. I was then able to look for different habitats that might be good for birds in the area. I was amazed at the diversity of habitats with many species of birds within walking distance of my house. I found a place, no more than 1 kilometre from my house which has stunning natural habitats all along the sides of the road. It felt as if I was walking through a nature reserve right in the middle of my neighbourhood! I was able to spend many hours walking the short stretch of road and finding the avian treasures that it contained. I was able to record nearly 100 birds on a full protocol card just by exploring the area (I must add that it did involve a lot of walking). What did surprise me was how many Little Sparrowhawk’s there were in the neighbourhood – this was a bird that I didn’t see that often before this.
3) Slow down and observe the birds you see
I was able to learn things during the lockdowns about birds that I didn’t know before. This was not book knowledge information – but things I learnt through observance.
I learnt a lot about the Black Sparrowhawk in our area. Firstly, I saw just how many there were in the area, which surprised me. There is a tree that protrudes a little higher than the other trees that is about 200 meters from my front door. By sitting on my couch for extending periods, I saw how raptors frequented this tree (as well as many other species). Secondly, I saw how their presence had an affect on other birds. When the Feral Pigeons started flying around in a panicked state, very often within a few minutes a Black Sparrowhawk would arrive. I was able to watch these powerful beasts of the air hunt amongst these large flocks of pigeons.
This might be a good time to get a book and start nature journaling. Simply slow down, observe, then record that which you see.
4) Learn the birds in your area
By birding a smaller area, you will have a smaller number of birds that you see. Although this sounds like a negative, the good thing is that this will allow you to learn these birds well.
You can spend some time observing their shape and plumage. Don’t simply look at what the book says you should see, look at the bird through your eyes and take note of what you see.
You can learn about their behaviour. In many species the behaviour is an important part of bird identification. How does the bird move around? What does it eat? What trees and plants does it visit often?
You can also learn the calls of the birds in your area. When you hear a call you do not know, don’t rush off – rather slow down and look for the bird. I carried a little note book where I would write down an explanation of how I though the call sounded when I heard it on the field, and then when I got home I would listen to the call on my bird app.
These four things may be different to your normal way of birding, but it will possibly in some way make you a better birder. I know that some of you reading this may be experienced birders, but the reality is that we should never lose the hunger to learn and discover new things.
We can either see this as a negative, or we can use this as an opportunity to explore and discover our local spots. Who knows, just maybe as you explore your local patch, you may just discover your own rare or special bird…