Sometimes it’s not only what you DO that matters, but WHO you do it with that makes an experience extra-special. Much like the difference between seeing a bird and ‘smashing’ it (which, in case you’re wondering, is not an action of violent intent but rather a common expression used by these adrenalized young birders once they’ve successfully located a desired species!) “Yeah! We smashed that Cape Eagle Owl!” they would say. And boy did we smash it (but more on that later).
First I’d like to introduce you to the Birding Ecotours guides – a group of down-to-earth, tremendously passionate feather-fanatics who I was lucky enough to spend a few days with recently. In the process, I rediscovered my love for birds. I would even go so far as to say that it wasn’t necessarily the birds themselves that inspired this, but the birders, who most generously welcomed me (a complete novice) into their very exhilarating world.
Birding Ecotours was founded by Chris Lotz, a gentle, unassuming man whose adores birds more than anything on Earth (apart from his lovely wife Megan of course). Chris has a doctorate in African sunbirds, and also spent 2 and a half years at the University of Wyoming studying hummingbirds. But this intense research interfered with actual birding time (where Chris is truly happiest) so he founded Birding Ecotours, which has taken him on world-wide birding adventures. His favourite African bird is the Knysna Turaco and Bwindi National Park in Uganda tops his list of birding spots in Africa. Chris also has a gift for growing and mentoring young birders, which is why most of Birding Ecotours’s guides are youngsters, still in their early 20’s. He is certainly a man to look up to.
John Kinghorn is the youngest bird guide (19 years old) and currently mid-way into his Big Birding Year. He’s clocked in an impressive 673 species so far within Southern Africa, which will hopefully be 800 by the end of the year (Holding thumbs for you John!). Read more about him in an interview I did earlier in the year.
Dylan Vasapolli is 21 years old and there is absolutely no African birdcall that he can’t identify within a matter of seconds. I witnessed this firsthand when the group was out to dinner in Dullstroom. While waiting for our food to arrive, I was assigned to holding the iPhone and switching through a playlist of shuffled bird sounds (as you do). The aim was to see who could guess them first. Dylan was a champion at this.”I’m living my lifelong dream of being a bird guide” he tells me.
Jason Boyce is 24 years old. Apart from being mad about birds, he is fascinated by all kinds of creatures – frogs, butterflies, you name it! He can often be seen picking up rocks to look for scorpions and snakes. Jason is studying environmental science and, when he isn’t’ birding, he plays guitar in the worship band at his local church.
Two other wonderful guides who I met (not pictured above unfortunately) are Errol de Beer and Martin Bernadie. Errol is an experienced birder and grew up on a farm in South Africa’s North West Province where he started birding at an early age. Martin is both a brilliant bird guide and loving Dad to his precious daughter Hayley (who I spent some time with at the Sasol Bird Fair). This lucky little girl is going to grow up to be a birder for sure! (and it seems that South Africa is in need of more female birders). I absolutely adore your little daughter Martin ( you and Carien have a very willing babysitter here! )
The Owling Adventure Begins… oh yeah
The expedition began with us “flocking off” to Dullstroom (as John would put it). Dullstroom is a quaint, farmy town snuggled between peaceful rocky outcrops, golden-yellow grasslands, and dams reflecting autumn. It’s in the Mpumalanga Provence, and only a few hours from Johannesburg. Although the area is one of South Africa’s premier fly fishing destinations, we had our sights set on something else. Something large, taloned, nocturnal, sighted mainly in the crepuscular hours and rather shy… a Cape Eagle Owl. This raptor is known to frequent the rocky crevices and caves on a hilltop close to where we were staying.
We set off as if to conquer a snow-topped mountain; with beanies, boots, jackets, scarves and layers of warm clothes. The only thing missing was a donkey to carry all the fancy camera equipment, binoculars and similar contraptions! The sun was just sinking and the chilly evening air mingling with our tangible twitchy excitement. We clambered up a hill to a craggy area with crevices and caves between some of the rocks, a favourite spot or ‘stakeout’ for these owls.
“This is it”, said Chris. “This is where we saw them last time. Let’s settle here… keep an eye out everyone, scan all the grassy areas in case there is one roosting on the ground…” But I was too excited to settle! I asked if I could go on climbing and “scout’ for the owls. Chris agreed so off I rock- hopped, free and light and utterly delighted to be out and about and part of something so special.
Let me just say now that if you thought birding was a tame pastime reserved only for the elderly couple sipping tea and peering through binoculars from their stoep, you would be much mistaken! While there’s nothing wrong with delighting in the gorgeous garden birds in your own backyard, birding can take you on amazing local or globe-trotting adventures to incredible locations! Often these are places you wouldn’t have otherwise thought to visit, Dullstroom for instance.
Suddenly, out exploded the owl, flushing it’s great blotchy tawny-brown wings. My heart jumped. Perhaps I should have shouted out to the others below me but it all happened in a flash,and, somewhat startled, I lost my voice. When I found it again, a few seconds later, I called to the others, hoping that they would have seen the owl too.
But none of them had. Oh now I have to find him, I thought to myself. I decided to walk around the top of the hill to where the bird (hopefully) would have landed. My intention was to ‘chase’ him towards the other birders. Meanwhile a few of the guys set out behind me and succeeded in flushing it from the grass. Apparently the owl flew over beautifully, right out in the open for them to see!
Even though it was a BVD (Better view desired) for me, I was at least happy to have had a glimpse of this gorgeous owl, and even happier to have contributed to a sighting for the others. Another tick in my growing life-list!
We came. We searched. We enjoyed. We “smashed”… that pretty much makes for a perfect stint of birding, doesn’t it?
As I made my way down the hill, trying not to trip over rocks in the darkness, my heart was full to the brim. Nobody could see the big smile on my face in the absence of light, but it was most definitely there; a big secret smile in the darkness from the joyful adrenalin of a satisfying day and of making new friends. By now the weather had turned full-on freezing, and, having worked up quite an appetite, we found a cosy local pub for dinner.
Dullstroom is also home to a number of other special birds too, many of which we enjoyed the next day! Here are just a few…
An Instagram pic of John, Dylan and Jason stalking the Gurney’s Sugarbird, this is serious stuff…for those of you thinking of taking up birding here’s a warning: It is seriously addictive!
Thank you Chris and Birding Ecotours for treating me to such an incredible weekend! My birding lifelist grew by at least 50 birds while spending time with you. I’m also now the proud owner of an awesome pair of Vortex optics, which I am incredibly excited about!
Cheers to you all! And may there be more adventures to come!
If you haven’t yet, check out Birding Ecotours’s awesome website and the amazing world-wide birding trips offered, I suggest you do: http://www.birdingecotours.co.za
You can also chat to the team about local day trips, a great way to begin your adventure into birding!
Email Chris: firstname.lastname@example.org