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Three Ways to Make the Most of Your Garden Birding

Red-headed Quelea

With my first cup of coffee for the morning in hand, I settled down with by binoculars and camera on the well-worn two-seater couch that I had placed near the glass doors overlooking my bird feeders.

The birds slowly started to fly in to devour the ‘seedy’ feast that had been prepared – weavers, bulbuls, bishops – all the usual birds that visited the garden made an appearance.

I looked through the binoculars and saw a bird – another non-breeding plumage bishop was the guess. I was about to write it off as another difficult to identify LBJ – and then I started to look closer.

I pulled my Faansie Peacock LBJ book off the shelf and decided to work out what I was looking at. As I observed the bird, I noticed a slight tinge of red to the head – which is what made me think initially that it was a Southern Red Bishop. Then I noticed a yellow panel along the edge of the wings. As I looked more at the bird, more features started to show – I noticed the shape of the bill. As I paged through the book armed with all this information, I was able to identify the bird as a non-breeding Red-headed Quelea. This information allowed me to start to enjoy these birds more as they came to the feeders daily – firstly in a small flock, and then in a larger flock. Eventually they were joined by a large flock of Red-billed Queleas. As the seasons changed, I was able to observe their transition from non-breeding plumage into the breeding plumage with their beautiful red heads.

Last year during the Level 5 and later 4 Lockdown, Birdlife eThekwini KZN organised a challenge where club members were asked to record the birds that they had seen in their gardens. What was amazing was that from the 27th of March till the 31st of May 2020 there were more than 286 species recorded in member’s gardens! The sizes of the gardens were varied – with one member lucky enough to live on a farm (they only recorded what was seen from the garden of their house on the farm), but there were even members that lived in blocks of flats. But the comment that came up again and again, is how the members were amazed at just how many species they got to see in their gardens.

The sad thing is that as we were to leave the confines of our gardens and spread our ‘wings’ further, many stopped taking as much note of what was in their gardens. My sad confession is that I have moved to a new place this year, and I have spent hardly anytime exploring the treasures that my new garden contains.

For birders, our gardens – no matter how small – allows us a level of access with the birds that frequent our gardens. This access will help us have a greater understanding of the bird’s behaviour and ways, which will enhance our enjoyment of birds and birding. For newer birders, their gardens may be one of the best tools to learning to identify birds, thereby building a strong foundation for their birding journey going forward.

So here are three ways to maximise your garden birding:

1) Learn to Identify what you see.

With all the fantastic online birding platforms we have in this technological age, sometimes we can forget the thrill of working out a tricky bird ID ourselves. Get your binoculars strapped on, get your bird book and app, and start to look at what you can find. When you see a bird in your garden that you can’t identify, instead of just saying you don’t know, spend a few minutes observing the bird. In a notebook write down as much as you can about the features of the bird – learn to look past only the colour of the bird and look for other details such as bill shape, size of the bird, wing shape, how the bird flies, and even listening the call of the bird.

David Sibley points out the following, ‘There is a natural inclination to put a lot of emphasis on a bird’s colour, but again and again in bird identification, you will find that certain aspects of shape and structure are more meaningful than colour. Features like bill shape and wing shape are very consistent within each species. The male and female, adult and juvenile, of nearly all species share a characteristic size, structure, and habits, and these contribute to the fundamental “look” of the species.’