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Seven simple steps to seeing more birds in a Birdlasser Challenge

Black-headed Oriole

The beginning of a year marks the commencement of various Birdlasser challenges. These challenges allow birders to compete against each other, aiming to identify the most species within the specified challenge area throughout the year.

Birders approach these challenges with varying degrees of seriousness. Some go all out, sparing no expense in their quest to top the leaderboard. These dedicated birders invest significant time noting special species recorded by others, hoping to add these species to their own list.

Other birders, or birdwatchers as the more extreme enthusiasts may call them, take a more relaxed approach. They use the challenges as a tool for self-improvement in birding from year to year. While they may compete against certain birders on the list, they aren't necessarily aiming to win a challenge and may even scoff at those opting for a more extreme approach.

Regardless of their approach, what holds true for most birders is their desire to see more species in the challenges they participate in, whether to surpass their previous year's list or to clinch victory in a challenge.

I participate in several Birdlasser challenges, each with different goals, leading me to approach them differently. In the 'DBN/PMB (150k) Birding Challenge,' where winning seems unlikely due to financial and time constraints, I adopt a leisurely pace, simply enjoying the experience and checking my standing on the leaderboard with minimal effort. Conversely, in 'The Sapphire Coast Bird Challenge,' my local Birdlasser challenge, I aim to top the leaderboard and break the record for the number of species observed in the challenge over the year.

My planning and commitment to these two challenges differ significantly. The approach outlined in this article is tailored for 'The Sapphire Coast Bird Challenge.' When determining your approach and commitment, it is essential to start with the question: 'WHY?' What is your goal when participating in the challenge? Additionally, assess the time and resources available for the year-long challenge, as this will shape your preparation and approach.

For Southern African birders seeking to expand their species list, one of the most valuable tools is the SABAP website. This article will reference this site and its tools multiple times.

  1. Make a List

First, compile a list of all the species recorded in the challenge area. Visit the Sabap website and click on the 'coverage' tab. The pop-down menu will enable you to choose various areas in the region. Upon selection, a map of the chosen area will appear, displaying all the pentads that constitute the area. Note that the map may take some time to load.

To create your list, form a Pentad Group. Adjacent to the map, you'll find an option to 'create a new group.' This will generate a species list for all pentads in the chosen area, including those at the boundary. Clicking this option prompts you to click on the map in the desired area for your pentad list. A red box with white circles will appear; adjust the circles to shape the box, covering the area you wish to include. Once satisfied, name your group and save it.

You now have a list of all the species that have been observed in the pentads within your selected area. You'll want to start sorting your list to proceed to the next step.

Simply click on the arrow next to "FP (RR%)" in the header of the list. This action will sort the list, allowing you to see how frequently species have been recorded in the challenge area.

2. Rate your list

Once I have sorted out the reporting rate, I proceed to rate each species based on the likelihood of seeing them throughout the year. I transfer the list to Excel on my laptop and assign a numerical rating to each bird, ranging from 3 to 1.

In general, any species with a reporting rate of 10 percent or higher receives a rating of 3. Species with a reporting rate between 5 and 10 percent are given a rating of 2, while species with a reporting rate under 5 percent receive a rating of 1. This rating system implies that species rated 3 should be relatively easy to spot, those with a rating of 2 may require a bit more effort, and those rated 1 might be more challenging to observe.

However, local knowledge can refine this list further. Some species with a lower rating based on reporting rate may be easier for you to find in the area due to your familiarity with specific locations. For instance, the African Wood Owl, despite having a reporting rate of only 0.6 percent in the Pentad Group I created, can be found more easily in certain spots I know in the area. In such cases, I adjust the rating for this species from 1 to 2.

3. Set a Plan

It's not sufficient to merely assign a rating and start birding. You must go through the list and initially take note of the best locations to see each species.

There are three ways you could do this:

a) Visit the SABAP home page and click on the 'species' tab. This action will open a page where you can search for different species in the region. If I do this for the African Wood Owl, it will display a map indicating how frequently the species has been recorded in different pentads. The higher the reporting rate, the more likely you are to spot it in that specific pentad.

b) After completing this step, examine where the species might be found within the pentad. One way to do this is to identify the habitat in which the species is most likely to be located. Look for locations in the pentads where that specific habitat is present.

c) Another valuable tool is the goBirding website. This site provides birders with an overview of various birding sites and potential species that could be observed at those locations.

Utilizing these three steps will help you identify WHERE species on the list can be seen.

Another crucial aspect to consider when planning is to take note of the seasons in which species are most likely to be observed. Many species migrate during the year, either to other countries or altitudinally. You need to ensure that you target the right species at the right time of the year. As an example of my approach, I tend to spend more time on beach and estuary birding in summer than in winter because many of our wader species migrate during the South African winter.

During the planning process, you need to factor in both the WHERE and the WHEN.

4. Go and Bird

The next step is to get out and bird as often as possible. Don't limit your birding to designated birding locations only on weekends; actively seek opportunities to bird in your local area. You never know what special species you might find right on your 'doorstep'. Birding frequently helps keep my 'birding senses' sharp. I've noticed that when I engage in regular birding, both near and far, I can quickly spot and identify birds by sight and sound.

A key to observing more species while birding is to explore as many different habitats as possible. The more habitats you cover, the greater the potential for encountering various species. This is what I enjoy about atlassing when I bird. I focus on covering as much of the pentad as possible, leading me to explore a variety of habitats.

5. Get social

There are numerous negative aspects to social media, but for birders, this could be one of the most important tools for information.

Various Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups exist where birders share special sightings they have had. Another excellent tool is Trevor Hardaker's Free Rare Birds email, which is sent out a few times a week and provides updates from around the country on rare birds that have been observed (to sign up for the rare bird email, contact Trevor at or 082 780 0376).

Many birders are more than happy to share their special sightings on these groups, so be sure to sign up for those that are relevant to the challenges you are participating in.

6. Be urgent

This was one of the pieces of advice given to me by Mark Tittley when I started birding: If a rare bird shows up, go as soon as you can to see it. The longer you wait, the lower your chances are of seeing the bird.

If you want to add some special species to your challenge lists for the year, make sure that as soon as the alert goes out that the bird has been seen, get out as soon after that as possible. A few weeks ago, a Chestnut-banded Plover was spotted near where I stay late one Sunday afternoon. I was too lazy to go out and decided to wait until the next morning. Sadly, the bird was not seen again... I should have gone on the day that it was seen.

Chestnut-banded Plover - Gavin Walter

7. Make friends

Get to know other people in the birding community. You will find that many experienced birders are more than happy to share their knowledge with others. Look to bird with people who are more skilled birders than you. Use this as an opportunity to learn from them and draw from their knowledge.

Also, look to get out and bird with other people. It always helps to have more eyes and ears around when birding. Not only will you get to see species that you may not spot if you bird alone, but it also helps to save on fuel costs when you travel together with other people.

I hope this article adds some value to your birding journey and helps you find some special birds.

To find out more about the Birdlasser app and sign up for challenges, visit their website


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