Category Archives: South Africa

Planning an International Birding Trip

So Neil and I had decided to go to South Africa on our birding trip (as I discussed in my last post), but we had no idea where to go or what there was to see. The next step was to gather information. A lot of information. For this phase of the trip planning, it’s helpful if you like to play with data. The first thing I did was order Princeton Field Guide’s Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, by Sinclair et al.

This book has seen some wear and tear…

I love this book. It has thorough coverage of the entire region, outstanding artwork, informative text, and a great layout (with drawings, text, and range maps for each bird organized together on facing pages). The first thing I did was just flip through the book, looking for “cool birds,” and noting in which part of the country they could be found.

Wanna see some awesome barbets? Check out the northeast quadrant of the country!

I also ordered the Southern African Birdfinder book by Cohen et al. It covers all of South Africa, in addition to several neighboring countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the huge (3 ft x 2 ft) foldout map that came with it, showing all of the hotspots listed in the book. The map really helped to give me some perspective on South African geography.

The Birdfinder book was definitely helpful, but certainly not sufficient. It has about 200 pages to cover South Africa’s nearly half a million square miles. At almost twice the size of Texas, South Africa is a vast country covering a huge multitude of habitats. I needed more information, and I turned once more to eBird. The trusty Explore Hotspots feature suggested that popular birding areas with high species diversity included the northeastern part of the country and the southwest near Cape Town.

As I didn’t have time to cover the entire country, I decided to focus my attention on the northeast quadrant. I liked the look of those orange and red pixels. Zooming in, I could see many different promising hotspots. What was that really dark red one about 200 km northeast of Johannesburg? Nylsvley Nature Reserve! According to eBird, 385 species have been recorded there.

Notice that there are buttons in the dialog box to see Bar Charts and View Details. The Bar Charts button takes you to an annotated list of species, showing each one’s relative abundance every week of the year.

You can change the dates to include only species that are there during certain times of the year, say the austral winter between June and August. But the coolest feature is located at the bottom of the bar chart. There is an option to Download Histogram Data in the bottom right corner.

Once you download the data from eBird, you can copy it into the spreadsheet of your choice. Now the real fun begins! I averaged the frequency of observations for each species for all of the weeks from June through August for Nylsvley Reserve.

So we really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ostriches at Nylsvley – they are recorded there on 28.4% of eBird lists during the austral winter. I guess I was just surprised to see them IN MY FACE.

I poked around the map of northeastern South Africa using eBird’s Explore Hotspots feature until I had a couple dozen sites picked out, and downloaded all of their data into a single Excel workbook. I cross-referenced this list of possible sites with the Birdfinder book, and made sure to add any locations recommended by the authors. I put each hotspot in its own separate tab. Then I made a master checklist of every common species in South Africa (thanks to eBird for that as well). By using the VLOOKUP function, I was able to see the frequency for each species at each different location on the master list tab.

I used the MAX function to determine the best place to see each bird. A column using the SUM function gave me a rough idea how common and widespread each species was. Using these columns, I created a custom abundance code for each species at these couple dozen selected locations. I let “1” be the code for the most common 100 species, “2” be the code for the next 100 most common species, and so on. This gave me a shorthand way think about how “findable” each species is, for studying and planning purposes. I added conditional formatting which highlighted in orange better than average places to see each bird. By summing the total probabilities for each site, I could also get a rough idea about how important each site was, and how long I might want to spend at each place.

Not being familiar with South Africa previously, I decided that I needed to see visually where all of these new hotspots were. The map from the Birdfinder book was helpful, but it didn’t include all of the new locations I found on eBird. Also, I didn’t know how long it would take to get from place to place. Neil and I used the “My Map” feature on Google to create a custom map showing the locations of all of the promising hotspots we had found.

Google My Map showing NE South Africa

Google maps also helped us figure out how long it would take to drive from one birding site to the next. I was a little skeptical about how accurate these drive times would be, but they turned out to be excellent estimates.

We also needed a place to spend the night. Neil suggested that if we drank enough coffee, we could bird 24 hours a day for several weeks straight. I insisted that we sleep at least some every night. He grudgingly agreed. Google once again helped us find places to stay near the locations we wanted to go birding.

Apparently Dinonyane Lodge is just minutes away from Nylsvley – and 3.8 stars for about $51/night!

I cross-referenced the accommodation suggestions I found with TripAdvisor and the accommodation’s own website (if they had one). South Africa was surprisingly inexpensively. Every place that Neil and I stayed was clean, safe, and quite comfortable, and we usually spent between $20 to 35 each per night. You could frequently get a delicious hot meal for $2 to 4. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and value to be had in food and accommodations throughout the country.

By this point, we were constructing a tentative daily itinerary for our trip.

The itinerary starts to take shape

Then we hit a bit of a snag. We had planned to stay at least four nights in world famous Kruger National Park, but the dates for our arrival there coincided with the week of Nelson Mandela’s birthday (July 18). Mandela is, of course, a national hero in South Africa, and many South Africans go on holiday to celebrate his birthday. Some of the rest camps where we wanted to stay overnight in Kruger, like Satara and Skukuze, were completely booked up. This was a real problem, since the only place to stay in all of vast Kruger Park is the official rest camps, operated by South African National Parks (SANParks). I was really surprised by the unavailability of places to stay, given that our trip was still almost six months away. In the end, flexibility and persistence paid off. We snagged one of the last few “bungalows” available at Letaba and Oliphants rest camps, and I continued to check for openings at the other rest camps on a daily basis. One day I spied an opening at Skukuze, and grabbed that one, too. We were almost set.

As our itinerary on the ground firmed up, we were also shopping for car rentals and flights. Neil reserved us a great all wheel drive small SUV that would be perfect for our epic road trip across the southern tip of Africa. Using Expedia, Kayak, and Google Flights, I figured out that I could get a ONE STOP flight from Seattle to Johannesburg (with a layover in Dubai) for about $1100 round trip on Emirates. Not too bad! I was even more impressed when I discovered that South Africa is pretty much on the exact opposite side of the world as Seattle. There is a cool website that allows you to find the antipode (direct other side of the world) of your current location. It turns out if you tunnel directly down through the center of the earth starting at my house, you pop out in the Indian Ocean southeast of South Africa.

Here’s a trivia question for you geography buffs out there. If you fly the shortest route from Seattle to Dubai (the great circle route), what direction do you head leaving Seattle? The answer will appear in a future post!

Our major planning was nearly complete at this point. Neil surprised me by sending me a beautiful custom spiral-bound book for our trip.

It included all manner of checklists, logs, maps, accommodation and travel details, info from the internet, etc. In addition to having all of our critical info in the same place, it provided a fun place to record our sightings every evening in South Africa over a couple of beers.

At this point, we had answered some of the most important questions surrounding our trip: Where to go? Where to stay? How to get there? What will we see? But there was one major bit of preparation that remained: How will we identify what birds we are hearing and seeing? Since our trip would be almost entirely self-guided, it would be up to us to learn about 450 South African birds by sight (and a smaller number by sound as well). This enterprise would turn out to be challenging and full of hard work, but also fun and interesting. I will detail more about this process in my next post.

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South Africa Birding Adventure: A How To Guide

Edging along the dirt path through the thorn scrub forest, I could almost see the watering hole in the distance. The early morning sun was starting to warm my back, and I unzipped my lightweight jacket but did not take it off. A cisticola rattled, unseen, in the nearby weeds. My friend Neil was a few steps up the path (as usual), and already peering through his binoculars. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the dry vegetation was bathed in the golden light of an July winter morning. “I see some blesbok, and some wildebeest… and I think a Marabou Stork,” whispered Neil. Three days earlier I was packing my bags in summery Seattle. Now I was exploring the wildlands of the Nylsvley Nature Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. There was a rustling through the trees, a stone’s throw distance away. I froze. Neil glanced up from his binoculars. There was silence. Then came the crashing sounds of a large animal moving towards us. I caught a glimpse of something dark and shaggy bounding in our general direction. An 7-foot male ostrich burst onto the path, gave us a quick look, and then slipped away back through the forest. My eyes were big as saucers, my mouth had formed a round “O” shape but no sound had escaped my lips. I looked at Neil, whose face mirrored mine. Then he grinned, and said, “Welcome to Africa.”

When I told some of my friends that I was planning an independent birding trip to South Africa, they were quite surprised. How will you know where to go? How do you know where to stay? How do you know what birds you’ll see, or how to identify them? Is it safe? How will you get around? While an international birding trip, like our visit to South Africa, certainly requires some advance planning, it’s not a particularly difficult task. And traveling by yourself or in a small group can be hugely rewarding and much cheaper than going with an organized tour. In this post and the ones that follow, I’ll explain how I planned and executed my recent birding trip to South Africa.

The first step is to figure out if you are travelling alone or going with a group. For this trip, my traveling companion would be Neil Hayward, famous birder, author, adventurer, retired biochemist, and international man of mystery. I first met Neil during my big year in 2013, and we spent four memorable days birding Nome, Alaska. In 2015, we birded our way across Costa Rica for two weeks in August.

Neil Hayward, in his element

Neil checks all of the boxes for a birding buddy. He is a brilliant birder, adept at spotting skulking individuals and ID-ing cryptic species. He can survive for days on a diet of dried almonds and coffee, and is comfortable driving all manner of vehicles on both the left and right sides of the road. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of ornithology and his dry but hysterical sense of humor.

The next step was deciding on a destination. Neil and I talked about a number of different options, including Peru and Ecuador, southeast Asia, Australia, and South Africa. I perused the eBird.org website, using the Explore Hotspots feature. This function allows you to see where other people have submitted checklists, and color-codes the established hotspots according to the number of species which have been observed there (as recorded on eBird). Higher numbers of species diversity is indicated by warmer colors. Thus, if you want to see a lot of species, it helps to go someplace red and orange on the maps.

Latin American eBird Hotspots

Central America was promising, but we just went there in 2015. Peru and Ecuador were strong contenders, and we debated about planning a trip there.

Australasia Hotspots

Southern and southeast Asia were also very promising. We investigated several countries in that region of the world, but ultimately decided that this was not the time for them for several reasons. (One reason was that our travel window in July was extremely hot and/or rainy in many of these destinations.) Eastern Australia was tempting, but both Neil and I had been there before, and we decided to save that for another trip.

Africa eBird Hotspots

And then there was Africa, a continent that neither of us had visited. After some research, we settled on South Africa. The country has a mix of many different ecosystems hosting a huge array of avian species. Visiting South Africa is very safe and relatively inexpensive, and the people there are very friendly. Their infrastructure is excellent, with good roads and lots of birder-friendly places to stay. There are also excellent field guide and bird finding books, and a lot of information on eBird and other websites about where to go and what to see. It was now time to begin to plan our trip in earnest, which is the topic of my next post.

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