Hear, in order to see…
By Ivan Botha

The sounds of nature are truly incredible – and very important when it comes to birding. I cannot begin to tell you how many days have gone by where I hear a sound that ends up leading me to a new sighting, and when it comes to the winged world, being quiet often brings the greatest rewards. Taking the time to listen is vital to getting the full experience of the bush and spotting as many feathered friends as possible…

So much of what we perceive is through sight, but your best chance of actually seeing birds like the Karoo prinia (below left) is made possible once you recognise their call and pinpoint the shrub that they may be perched on. Prinias like to breed in areas with winter rainfall, so this time of year is a good bet for spotting that tell-tale long tail and streaky chest. Just make sure to keep your ears open, as well as your eyes….

This ground woodpecker (above right) was an amazing find. It is one of three species of ground-dwelling woodpeckers found in the world, and also lays claim to the title of largest woodpecker in South Africa. They love nesting in tunnels dug into the ground and are often found in vertical sand banks near a water source. It was only after turning off the engine that I finally got my first chance to see one by looking around at a bridge crossing in the Great Fish River and hearing the call. Incredible!

Birds that are usually heard instead of seen are always a treat to lay your eyes upon, and the Burchell’s coucal definitely fall into that category. Their calls are beautiful and are most often heard in duet, but also in concert, and the birds are frequently referred to as “rainbirds” thanks to their habit of calling before, during and after rainfall. They also prefer densely-covered habitats, which adds to the difficulty in spotting but on this particular day, I was lucky enough to see one out in the open with a juvenile by her side, making the moment even more special (pictured below left).

Distinctive calls are all very well, but sometimes even when you hear the birds, they can still be hard to find. The photo on the above right is a Double-banded courser, a master of camouflage, and even though he was standing very still, he blends almost seamlessly into the surroundings. These birds can also be found in countries Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania and it took me a while to see one for the first time – really, I only needed to visit Kwandwe

At the other end of the spectrum, there are birds that are really quite easy to spot. The European roller (pictured below left) is incredibly colourful and whilst it can only be seen at certain times of year, this sometimes aids sightings – at least you know when to start looking! The European roller is the the only one of the roller family that breeds in Europe; that is roughly 8,731 km as the crow (or roller!) flies to South Africa. They are usually to be found perched on top of trees, excellent lookout spots a variety of prey, including large insects, reptiles, rodents and even frogs.

Last, but not least is another colourful species, and an iconic one at that. You might recognise the distinctive red bill, casque, and yellow eye colour- yes, it’s Zazu from the Lion King! Officially known as Crowned hornbills (pictured above right), they are easy and fun to spot and can also be recognised by their characteristic flight pattern: slow, deep wingbeats followed by a glide. These ones will always remind me of my inner child.

In my life I have found many species of birds and I am eager to see so many more. Who knows what I may see next? I will continue looking and listening. Today, and forever more … the search continues.