Dawn Kennedy

A beginner’s guide to bird-watching at Milnerton’s Rietvlei

It had been a disappointing weekend. I’d been looking forward to joining an excursion to see pelagic seabirds. Now, I know nothing about birds, pelagic or otherwise, but I liked the idea of travelling 25 nautical miles out to sea, to the Grand Canyon of the ocean, where the continental shelf falls dramatically away and the water becomes unfathomably deep. It is here that fishing trawlers line up to catch fish, attracting swarms of birds, some of which are not seen outside the Antarctic. The prize is the albatross, that near-mythical bird that inspired Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

As is the way of things, just as my interest in bird-watching was piqued, suddenly birds were everywhere. Reading Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays, Farther Away, he describes his unlikely passion for bird-watching, about which he is somewhat sheepish – it’s hardly Hemingway-like. His passion for birds in general gradually becomes a more specific passion for songbirds in particular, until he eventually goes through tremendous ordeals to see the world’s rarest songbird, the Masafuera Rayadito on the desolate island of Alejandro Selkirk, next to Robinson Crusoe Island in the Pacific.

Closer to home, at the local takeaway, a man arrives sporting a lurid green parrot on his shoulder, which he places on my arm. As it pecks its way towards my shoulder, it emits a dribble of white bird poop. At about the same time I receive an SMS: Pelagic trip cancelled due to unfavourable conditions. So sorry but we have to trust our slippers. I’m guessing they mean skippers. So what with the bird poop and the cancelled trip, my attempt at bird-watching gets off to an inauspicious start.

The next day, an image of a red-beaked black-wing bird jumps off the page of the Cape Times. The headline announces that a black skimmer never before officially recorded in Africa, had been seen at Table Bay Nature Reserve’s Rietvlei Section on Thursday 4 October.

A member of the public photographed the black skimmer during a birding outing, thinking that it was an African skimmer. However, the Environmental Resource Management Department’s biodiversity coordinator Cliff Dorse, and bird expert Trevor Hardaker, confirmed that it was in fact the first official sighting of a black skimmer in Africa. Since the sighting, birders as far as Gauteng flocked to try to see it, and the reserve’s opening hours were extended from sunrise to sunset.

On Sunday, my companion and I set off without any equipment to check out the furore that one bird could cause. I guess that when the tern didn’t reappear for three days, the excitement had died down. Rietvlei was very quiet. The first group that we saw were all under 30, braaing burgers and rather unlikely bird-watchers. We passed an ancient couple with a remarkably similar set of prominent dentures (two for the price of one?) who shook their heads sadly when we enquired if they had seen the tern. The next couple were probably in their fifties and carried a camera that looked as though it belonged at the observatory in Observatory. With such a powerful lens, surely they could spot the tern in its native America. We made small talk and moved on to the wooden bird hide.

Before entering, my sensitive friend warned me that inside the hut it was imperative to be quiet, as bird-watching is done in reverential silence. Inside, a man was sitting, binoculars perched, peering through a slit in the wood. He struck up conversation: “You can only sit on this side because of the wind.” Indeed the hide was racked by gusts and the reeds outside rustled like noisy rattles. The birds seemed unperturbed: the swallows darted like a conductor’s baton through the air while the pelicans ambled like airbuses.

We exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves. Our acquaintance, Wim, had been a bird-watcher for 30 years. I confessed that I was an absolute novice bird-watcher. “Look there, among the reeds,” he said, shoving the R2500 Olympia binoculars in my hand. I saw nothing until he guided me in the direction of a black dot in the distance, when, wow, indeed, a glorious creature, its head buried under water, emerged displaying a red knob on the back of its head. My first bird spotted – the red-knobbed coot!

How to convey the excitement of spotting and naming a bird? It’s perhaps akin to the toddler’s glee at pointing and naming an object correctly. I felt like jumping up and down blabbing “red-knobbed coot”. It’s like getting a sensory boost that makes the world come alive, warbling in Technicolor. I begin thinking that the next superhero could be a bird-watcher, or have special bird-watching powers.

Then, suddenly Wim leaps up, yelling “There it is – the tern!” Windows are flung open, binoculars and cameras thrust out. Then, reverential silence. We revel in our good fortune for about five minutes before doubt begins to creep in. We know the tern has a red beak, but doesn’t it also have black not grey wings like the one we are so zealously observing? Time to consult the bird-watcher’s bible: Birds of Southern Africa. Looking at the variety of terns, we are forced to concede that this is in fact the common Caspian tern.

Disappointment is emerging as a central theme of bird-watching.

But never mind, there is plenty else on display. For the next hour, Wim generously shares his binoculars and knowledge. I saw and identified birds with cabaret-style long red legs – a black-winged stilt. And a bird with a fabulous plume – a pin-tailed whydah.

Not all birds have striking plumage and clear colour coding, though. Some can only be recognised by their song. Wim does a few interesting impressions of bird cries. In between, he explains the allure of bird-watching: “It takes you out to the most wonderful places. As long as I have my binoculars, I’m never bored.” Currently Wim has volunteered his expertise and is systematically identifying all the birds at Agulhas National Park.

Wim confesses that it’s not the flamboyant birds that attract him the most. “I have a passion for LBJ’s – little brown jobs,” he says. It’s larks that he loves, explaining that it’s practically impossible to tell them apart. He shows me the lark section of the bird book. Pages of virtually indistinguishable brown birds. He’s also very fond of swallows, and we try to identify a tiny black bird darting madly about. Fixing a hyperactive swallow in the viewfinder of your binoculars is not easy. Then you have to identify it. Wim takes methodical steps to narrow down the choice. Finally, observing that the black bird has a square, not kite-shaped tail, he admits that he is still stumped.

Then Wim gasps with excitement and points me in the direction of nothing but reedy marshes until, binoculars in hand, a magnificent creature emerges that seems to have been dipped in a magical elixir that makes it glow in the sun. A glossy ibis! Next to it waddles the humble yellow-billed duck, with a fabulous parrot-yellow beak.

The highlight of my afternoon was when Wim pointed at a brown blob in a bush, which on closer inspection revealed a stunning saffron breast: an orange-throated longclaw. What a stunner! Another bush dweller is the Karoo Prinia. Birds do a lot of hiding in bushes, which are much busier places than you’d think.

I felt so enriched after my first hour of bird-watching. I know that it was a stroke of good fortune to meet Wim. Without him the birds that I now feel such a fond affinity for, whose names I am rolling over in my brain, would have remained either invisible or nondescript.

Bird-watching is a bit like falling in love. You want to eulogise about the specific characteristics of the beloved birds: their long red legs, their orange bosom. But unlike human love, it eschews fidelity. Bird-watchers love ticking off their visual conquests. I admit, I did the same. I ticked off 16 out of a possible 173 species that I could see. I thought I’d done quite well until I saw that all the birds I had identified were common and easily spotted. The fact is that 157 species had eluded me, among them the rare fiscal flycatcher, and bar-throated apalis.

Already I want to go back and tick off more on that list.

Dec 11th 2012, 15:54

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