Brian Roberts recently got to add some real beauties to his ever-growing bird life-list during his second safari at Rhino Sands. We asked him six questions about his experience birding in Manyoni, tips and tricks for beginner birders and photographers, and of course what have been his favourite sightings while in Manyoni.
Please give us a brief background about who you are.
I am a born and bred KZN North Coaster. I attended Umhlali Primary School from 1973 to 1979, my wife is also a graduate of Umhlali Primary School but she finished MANY years after me! I work in the corporate property world and spent the 12 years prior to Covid commuting to Johannesburg for three days a week. If there is a positive to come out of the dreadful pandemic, it’s that it introduced the world to virtual meetings, and this has greatly reduced travelling for me and given me so much more time with my Luelle (my wife), Josh and Meg (kids).
How did you get interested in birding?
On the 23rd of March 2020 we were locked down as a country. I am a bit ADD so there is no way I could just sit around doing nothing. I decided then and there that we live in a fantastic eco-friendly estate, and I was going to make it my mission to see how many bird species I could see from our front veranda. I am colour blind and decided that it would make sense to take photographs of the birds that I saw so that I could identify them post the sighting without having to remember distinguishing features.
I had always had a camera but had also always only shot on auto. I did a photography course in lockdown to help me take better photos of the birds I saw. Both my birding and photography hobbies are a direct result of being forced to sit on my veranda for those six months or so. Once we were allowed out, I just continued to add birds to my list but could now walk around the estate and as the rules were relaxed, I could continue adding to my list at wonderful places like Rhino Sands that catered for us locals in the midst of the pandemic.
What do you think birding adds to the safari experience?
Birding enhances your awareness of the surroundings. There are over 400 bird species in Manyoni; if you add the cheetah, the pangolin and a few of the other beautiful species to the famous Big 5, there are probably 15 to 20 animals that the average safari guest will be looking for. As fantastic as the rangers are, it is often completely out of their control as to whether you see the animals. Birds, on the other hand, are always there. Birding adds an entirely new dimension to the experience. There is ALWAYS something to see.
I liken birding to fishing, I am a keen fisherman explain to people fishing is the experience of being outdoors, catching a fish whilst fishing is a bonus. It’s the anticipation of the catch that is so thrilling and appealing. Birding to me is walking around my estate or driving around the reserve, you are constantly aware of your surroundings; be it grassland, sand forest, watering holes, whatever the environment, there is always the possibility of seeing a bird. Birding is what I love, seeing a bird is the bonus.
What are the most remarkable birds (or simply your favourite) you’ve seen while staying with us?
There are so many remarkable birds at Manyoni so I will make it easier for myself and limit my answer to the remarkable birds we have seen at the Rhino Camp site itself. We have seen pink-throated twinspots; a female narina trogan who came to watch us eat lunch; I watched a grey-headed bushshrike pluck a chameleon off a tree in front of our room; we have seen an orange-breasted bushshrike as well. One of my favourites was a very good sighting of a female black buckooshrike – the black cuckooshrike is one of the few species where (IMHO) the female is so much more attractive than the male. There is an abundance of birdlife around the lodge, it is difficult to make a ‘short’ list of the great birds.
What tips would you have for the beginning birder?
Birding goes from “there is a bird”, to “there is a yellow bird”, to “there is a village weaver”, to “there is a juvenile male village weaver in non-breeding plumage”. Everyone starts at “there is a bird”. Persevere! Birding is all about practice. Do not be scared to ask silly questions, I am yet to meet a birder that knows everything. Birders crave new information and birders love to share knowledge. Try your hardest to ID a bird from the many books and many apps. It is the awareness of the distinguishing features that help you learn. If you’re always asking someone else for ID help you are not teaching yourself to pick up those small distinguishing features.
Any gear or equipment recommendations for the first-time safari goer?
Binoculars, a camera (it doesn’t have to be a fancy one), a bird book or app, and of course a place to record your bird list. They say that everyone likes to collect things, a bird list is a collection of birds you have seen. A life list (what birders call their list of birds) and a trip list add that little bit of competitiveness to the hobby, not necessarily to compete with others, simply to compete with yourself. I also find it increases the enthusiasm of the younger generation!
Any photography tips for guests on safari?
I am a birder first and a photographer second. There is nothing more satisfying than a great shot of a rare bird but the opportunities to get these shots are rare. I have tried to train myself to look first, take an ID shot second, and try and get that good shot third. I have missed out on ID shots many times because I am trying to get the focus, the shutter speed or the aperture setting just right. Once the bird has flown away (as birds do) you will never know what it was. Get the ID shot first, it may just be one species that you have never seen before.
If you’re a keen birder looking for new opportunities to spot some of Southern Africa’s feathered beauties, our Rangers look forward to taking you out into Manyoni to do just that. Please contact us or enquire and book using our online form.