Consider the birds

2014-05-23 00:00

BIRDS have historically exercised a peculiar hold over the human imagination. In part, this no doubt stems from our fascination with flight. Deep down, we envy them their freedom, their ability to climb, soar, hover and dive with such breath-taking speed.

Which brings me on to my big confession: I am a closet “twitcher”.

Okay, so there is something a bit Victorian about birdwatching. It’s a throwback to that era’s mania for collecting and categorising, except the prism binoculars has now replaced the breech loader and dust-shot as a means of seeing birds up close.

But there’s much more to it than that, as I will try to explain.

Avian behaviour is complex and, even after centuries of study, remains imperfectly understood.

I am constantly amazed, for example, that the fragile-looking Willow Warbler hopping unobtrusively along the branch above me has just flown all the way over from Europe, braving extreme weather and predators along the way, or that that scruffy feral pigeon perched on top of a statue of some once-important old dignitary has a magnet in its nose that helps it to navigate.

Then there are the sheer numbers. We are lucky still to have a great variety of animals in South Africa but we have far more birds. There are over 850 species.

Some of them — the ostrich for example — anybody with even the most cursory knowledge of birds can immediately identify; others are virtually impossible to tell apart (the Pipits for example). Trying to work out which is what is where much of the fun comes in.

Birds also have another attractive quality, as the English sport’s journalist Simon Barnes has pointed out in his classic little tome, How to be a Bad Birdwatcher . Unlike their mammalian counterparts, they are not obsessed with defecation and urination.

They don’t mark out their territory with piles of dung or sniff each other’s orifices to find out whether they are ready to mate.

They are much classier than that, relying on a combination of colour and song in their courtship rituals.

I also love the pure thrill of the chase. Twitching reignites that basic desire to track down and corner your quarry, but without any subsequent spilling of blood.

Earlier this year, I spent a good two hours over lunch time, on what was probably the hottest and most humid day of the year, trying to locate a Yellow Wagtail that had been reported to have put in an appearance at the Darvill Sewerage Works. Eventually I spotted it. I could tell from its shape that it was a wagtail and even caught a glimpse of green on its back, but could still not see enough to make a positive identification.

The bird seemed determined not to make things easy for me. No matter which side of that stinking, fetid pond I went, it persisted in staying just out of range.

By this stage my tongue was beginning to feel like a bit of dried old leather in my mouth and I could feel dehydration setting in, but I wasn’t going to give up. Not when I was so close to my prize.

I think the bird finally took pity on me for it suddenly came strutting out across the sandbar, from its hiding place in the reeds, like a model on a ramp, displayed its variable yellow underparts, did a little pirouette, dipped its tail a couple of times and took off.

There have been many similar moments of excitement, such as when I saw my first Pel’s Fishing Owl, without the help of a guide, on the Limpopo just across the river from Botswana, or had my sighting of a rare Gull-billed Tern winging its way across my true spirit home, the Nyamithi Pan in Ndumo.

This is another aspect of it: birding caters to my own migratory instincts. It’s like being given a passport to a different world or worlds.

In pursuit of my passion, I have travelled to some of the most beautiful parts of the country and beyond. I have flown south and summered in the Winterberg, I have torn off my clothes and jumped into the Orange River where it passes through the Richtersveld, I have watched Bearded Vultures gliding in the thermals above Giant’s Castle, and I have sat in the pink afterglow of a Zambezi sunset, sipping wine and watching the river change colour as darkness descends.

Way beyond any scientific curiosity, there is the sheer Zen-like joy of it all. No other activity makes me feel so centred, so living in the moment, so glad to be alive.

Birdwatching is not something I do to fill in the hours when I am not scribbling away at my desk. It’s an essential part of the process, a way of uncluttering the mind and restoring my inner calm.

• Anthony Stidolph is The Witness cartoonist.


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