Photo: © Smith. Cape sugarbird: a cock bird typically perching on a flowerhead 

How do you cope when you’re confronted with a whole new world of birds? Rob Innes ponders the question after a debut visit to South Africa.

NOVEMBER 2017: my first time ever in sub-Saharan Africa, a two-week circuit around the Western and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. The landscapes were wonderful, the roads excellent, the people welcoming and the birds… almost overwhelming.

Over that fortnight I encountered 11 bird families for the first time. Some, of course, I knew from aviculture (e.g. the mousebirds), yet that wasn’t the same as meeting them in their natural habitat. They all felt like new birds.

To me, birdwatching should be less like ticking off a list and more like working on a family tree: you discover new branches, but also firm up connections with what you already know.

Let’s start with the new branches. Southern Africa is rich in endemic species (birds unique to the region) and hosts two magnificent endemic families, which are compulsory viewing for softbill enthusiasts. In the weird heathlike fynbos habitat of the far southern peninsula lives a representative of the first: the Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer). On sunny mornings, these strange softbills, resembling gigantic sunbirds, aren’t hard to spot as they perch up to feed on flowers or when the males clatter their wings and tail in display. Actually, they aren’t closely related to sunbirds nor to the sugarbirds of the New World; they are much nearer to the zosterops and fairy bluebirds, though you’d never guess.

A wacky and unmissable bird, let down only by its gruff gabbling voice… oh dear. More charismatic (to me) was the local representative of the other endemic family: the Cape rockjumper (Chaetops frenatus). What a bird! A bit like a big, long-tailed, long-billed chat and a bit like a miniature kangaroo. Rockjumpers live in desolate boulder fields, and roam around in groups. Usually they are foraging down in the crevices out of view, but if you’re lucky they may spring atop a boulder (and boy, do they spring) and display crazily to one another. You need luck and patience to find rockjumpers. When you succeed, they’re unforgettable: I’d give this bird 11 out of 10.

So much for the absolute novelties. This trip was also when I caught up with my first wild waxbills. That was a buzz! I didn’t actually see all that many; still, it was fantastic to admire not only the violet-eared waxbill (Uraeginthus granatinus) but also its parasite the shaft-tailed whydah (Vidua regia): both stunning birds, with an unreal “pinch-me” quality. And one unexpected delight was the abundance, in the northern savannas, of a little charmer that the scientists tell us is a weaver but “felt” more like an estrildid. This was the scaly-feathered weaver (Sporopipes squamifrons), the most numerous hardbill at many waterholes and troughs. This one was wholly new to me, and I’d be interested to know if any readers have come across it in captivity.

But if you wanted to pick two groups of birds as being most typical of South Africa’s avifauna, strong candidates would be the larks and canaries: birds I could certainly connect with. There are larks almost all over the world (including Britain’s own skylark and woodlark), yet Africa holds by far the greatest diversity of species in its deserts and grasslands; one or two are even adapted to woodland life. South Africa’s larks are plentiful, albeit often difficult to watch and identify. Within some species there is baffling regional variation in plumage, which in certain cases appears to mimic the amount of grey, brown, sandy or red in the local soil! Troublesome birds; however, when a lark begins to sing, you forget any troubles and simply enjoy it.

The jumbled sweetness of canary song is a familiar sound throughout South Africa, where various canary species seem to take the place of the cardueline finches that are familiar in our avifauna. Most challenging to find is the very local protea canary (Crithagra leucoptera), though in truth it’s no looker. (Proteas, which lend their name to the South African cricket team, are flowering shrubs sometimes called sugarbushes.)

A last connection I was keen to experience was the presence of migrant birds from Europe and Asia, fleeing the northern winter. Few wintering songbirds penetrate this far south in Africa, though swallows were widespread and it was pleasing to speculate that some could have been “our” British birds. More obvious were the waders on the coast: plovers, sandpipers and whimbrels that had bred in the Arctic and now thronged the saltmarshes of the Western Cape. And inland we met the migrant raptors: steppe buzzards (Buteo buteo vulpinus), pallid harriers (Circus macrourus) and delicate lesser kestrels (Falco naumanni), all species I’d admired in Central Asia the previous spring.

Had we taken very different routes for our paths to cross again? Stranger things have happened!

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