Preparing To Be Your Own Bird Guide

I know lots of people who have gone on organized birding tours with professional tour companies. VENT, Wings, Eagle-Eye, Rockjumper, Field Guides, and Topical Birding are just some of the many outfits that offer full service tours and guiding. There are lots of reasons to go with a guided tour, and most of the stories I’ve heard from my friends who have participated in these types of trips have been nothing but positive. All of that being said, the trip that Neil and I were planning wouldn’t be that kind of adventure. No one would be figuring out all of the logistics ahead of time, driving us to the next location, or carrying the scope. Perhaps most importantly, no one would be pointing out and identifying the birds for us. That would all be up to us. And on a trip where we might conceivably encounter north of 400 different species, this would be a challenge as great as figuring out where to stay or how to get there.

To prepare for this aspect of the trip, I started with my trusty field guide (Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition) and my custom checklist. Normally I buy at least a couple different field guides when I’m travelling to a totally new region of the world, but this one from Princeton Field Guides seemed excellent and comprehensive, and there were no other comparable books that were easily obtainable in the US at that time. Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, includes over 950 different species. My custom checklist suggested that I should learn about 450 species from the eastern and northern halves of the country. So my first order of business was to make small blue pen marks in my field guide next to the species that I should be learning in advance of our trip.

During this process, I discovered the unfortunate truth about cisticolas. Cisticolas are a genus of small, insect-eating Old World warblers. They seem to spend most of the time skulking about in dense vegetation, and when they do appear, they are often quite a challenge to identify due to their striking similarities with one another. There seemed to be a rather extensive number of them on my list of birds to learn. Thirteen to be precise. They are often identified at least in part by their calls and songs, and this perhaps explains why so many of them are named for their vocalizations. I studied the Wailing Cisticola and the Rattling Cisticola. Also the Croaking and Zitting Cisticolas. And… wait, there’s a Tinkling Cisticola? Also, their cousins, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Ayres’ Wing-snapping Cisticola, and the Lazy Cisticola. When I finally made it through the entire cisticola genus, I turned the page and saw the Burnt-necked Eremomela and all of his cisticola-like friends. My kids found me later that night on the floor of the living room in the fetal position, croaking and wailing softly. This was going to be harder than I thought. Luckily, it was about this time that my buddy Neil came through in a huge way. One afternoon I found a medium-sized Priority Mail box on my front porch; inside were hundreds of 4×6 note cards. The front of each one featured one of the birds we had to learn for our trip. Its name was on the back.

Cisticola Study Time!

Neil had made us two batches of custom flash cards, and sent one to me in Seattle. This was just what I needed to kick start my studying regime. Fortunately, I had begun learning my birds about six months in advance, so I had time to get myself back on track. I also made a few photo quizzes for myself using pictures I downloaded from Google Images. Between the field guide, flash cards, and photo quizzes, I made some good progress in the months leading up to our departure. As my visual ID prowess increased, I began to become a little concerned that I would need to learn some songs and calls as well, especially for the hard-to-ID species like the cisticolas. I downloaded the iOS version of the Sinclair field guide (called Sasol eBirds in the app store) for my phone. It included images, range maps, written descriptions, and most importantly vocalizations. I amused my cats (and myself) for hours trying out different calls, like the sustained trill of the Crested Barbet.

I had grand ambitions of building an entire electronic song study guide from the Xeno-Canto website, but this just didn’t happen. I mostly contented myself with trying to learn some common species, the cisticolas, and some night birds.

Beyond learning the birds, I did some general reading up about South Africa in my Rough Guide and on the internet. I read over the US State Department website about travel to South Africa, and checked to make sure my passport was still valid. I called Verizon to get a one-month international data plan for my phone, and the credit card company to let them know I would be travelling to South Africa. I also sprayed my birding clothes with permethrin, and visited the Hall Health Travel Clinic at the University of Washington. The Travel Clinic is a fantastic community resource for anyone in the Seattle area who is planning on traveling abroad, especially to developing countries or to places where communicable or mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent. An appointment at the clinic includes an extensive consultation with a physician specializing in travel medicine. You can also get any vaccines you need right in the office, and pick up travel-related prescriptions at the in-house pharmacy. Although the clinic primarily serves the UW community, it is open to the general public. You usually need to call several weeks in advance to get an appointment. South Africa is a pretty low risk country for infectious diseases, but I did pick up some malaria pills and a course of antibiotics.

As the days ticked down, my excitement began to build. Would this trip live up to my expectations? Would all of our planning pay off? Would we actually be able to identify any cisticolas in the wild? Answers to these questions and more in the next installment!

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Filed under Birding, South Africa

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