To Tick or Not to Tick?


By Winnie Graham
Photography supplied by Duncan Pritchard & Marco Mendace

“No ticking!” Ken Newman said. “You’ve come a long way to see this bird, so enjoy the experience.” Then, thinking he was being unduly stern, he added gently: “You can tick the bird off your list when you are back at the hotel.”

The veteran birder and author of countless updated editions of The Birds of Southern Africa died two years ago, but his advice lingers on. His reputation as an authority on birds preceded him.

It was on these occasions he learned that bird-watching, or birding as it is more commonly called, is a great opportunity for one-upmanship. It wasn’t just the birds that mattered but whose ‘life list’ was the longest. And, more importantly, who had ‘ticked off’ the most birds on a particular excursion.

“Some people,” he remarked then, “go to extraordinary lengths to complete their life lists. It’s the competition they enjoy. That’s okay, but if you are seriously interested you would want to know more about the bird’s habits. That’s the true joy of bird-watching.”

And that, perhaps, is rule one for serious birders. There are people who willingly travel thousands of kilometres to see a particular bird, who clamber through thick bush and endure considerable discomfort to spot a specific species. Then, when they finally have their binoculars trained on the bird, they give it no more than a quick glance before exclaiming, “What’s next?”
The other sort of birders, the experts say, adopt a more relaxed approach to their favourite leisure activity. They are the kind who prefer to amble through the countryside, linger when necessary, have difficulty spotting a bird when everyone around them can see it, but when they do, they can ‘PI’ (positively identify) virtually every bird without a reference book. In short, they are passionate about birds and bird watch for the fun of it.

Nonetheless, the ticking habit remains an imperative for most birders and no one knows this better than author and noted birding enthusiast James Clarke. Those ‘ticks’ produce a long life list which, in turn, equals status in the birding fraternity. “When a fellow with a life list of 700 walks into a room, birders stand up and clutch at his sleeve,” he jokes.
According to James there are more than 8 000 known species, and the world record holder has apparently seen around 6 000. A lot of clutching must go on when that ‘lifer’ comes visiting.

A ‘lifer’, says James, is a relatively new word that has two meanings. It can refer either to a bird which a birder has never previously seen and which he can now add to his life list, or to a person who keeps a list of all the birds he or she has positively identified before the Lord mercifully plucks him from society.

“I say ‘mercifully’ because some lifers can be awful bores,” he adds. “Some will even fly—by plane mark you—thousands of kilometres just to tick off the name of a particular species on their list.”
It’s a major feat building up a list of considerable length yet, despite the difficulty, birding has become one of South Africa’s most popular leisure activities. Ken Newman’s book has reputedly outsold the Bible in this country, and he is just one of many excellent bird book authors. Once regarded as a pensioner’s pastime, young people—with their keen eyesight—are latching on and running up long lists of ‘ticks’.

In fact, in many places birding is replacing golf as corporate exercise. It is certainly more relaxing yet, for bright-eyed young executives, it poses an ever-present danger that they could make a career-limiting move by beating the boss. They are advised, for instance, always to give the chief a chance to be the first to call out the identification of a bird.

If he shouts, “Fiscal shrike,” and it is patently a fiscal flycatcher, they should not say, “It’s a bloody flycatcher.” 
Rather, they should comment: “The bill seems a little on the slender side, don’t you think, sir?” 
This will allow him to say, “Ah, I do believe it’s a fiscal flycatcher!” 
You then say: “Well spotted, sir!”

Where are the best places to go birding? BirdLife South Africa, the organisation that has done so much to advance interest in South Africa’s birds and the conservation of the various species, has prepared a useful little book listing the main birding routes throughout the country. In addition, the organisation trains guides from historically disadvantaged communities who, in turn, have become major ambassadors for avitourism in this country. Some have become fully-fledged tour operators whose services are recruited by visitors to a particular region.

Though the established routes provide birding enthusiasts with information and useful facilities such as lodges, bed-and-breakfast establishments and trained guides, virtually every birder has a favourite route. 

One of Newman’s was Botswana, which he once described as, “Africa’s giant aviary—pure pleasure to visit”. The garden of his home in Sandton was a paradise for birds, his binoculars close by, yet he used every opportunity to bird watch elsewhere. 
James Clarke claims one of the great birding routes in South Africa is none other than the N1 to Cape Town. “But you have to take three days and stay over at one of those Colesberg farms and rise early and walk for an hour. And then spend a few minutes en route at the occasional dam or stream side,” he says. He stayed at the Karoo National Park for a night—then continued via Ceres, notching up 210 species on the trip.

Time, of course, is of the essence, regardless of the route. The Garden Route is rewarding. The lakes along the N2 east of Wilderness are rich in water birds and the forests yield species that make Highveld birders ecstatic with delight. The route northwards along the N2 produces excellent birding at the Tugela Mouth (for waders) and at Mkuze—arguably the richest birding reserve in the country—which has 450 species, five per cent of the world’s known species.

For birders who are enthusiastic about, but not too experienced in, the best way of collecting ‘ticks’ (pardon, Mr Newman), it is worth considering a birding tour company with an expert on hand to help with PIs. But there are two prerequisites either way—a copy of Roberts or Newman and a pair of binoculars. 

For local guides or bird-friendly accommodation in a particular area, contact BirdLife or visit To join BirdLife South Africa or get information on upcoming events contact 011-789-1122 or visit For the Birding Route booklets, order online at

Which Route to Follow? 
The Great Limpopo Birding Route with more than 600 species in the region is a popular choice.  Bordering Zimbabwe, it is regarded as a frontier route and the most southerly point for species from east and central Africa. There is excellent birding along the banks of the Limpopo and in the Zoutpansberg mountains, Magoebaskloof and Nylsvlei wetlands.

The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route focuses on the biosphere of the same name, taking in the central parts of Kruger and the Blyde River Canyon, and including towns such as Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa. This route is exceptional owing to the high diversity of raptors. It is one of the few places where every species of South African owls can be found.

The Western Cape Birding Route, at the opposite end, has been described as South Africa’s secret birding spot, with its marvellous selection of avian species often overlooked by visitors who go there to see the wild flowers in the spring. The range of endemic species includes the Cape sugarbird, orange breasted sunbird, Victoria’s warbler, protea seedeater and Cape siskin.

The Mpumalanga Birding Route covers 80 000 sq kilometres, 12 different birding areas and more than 550 species, of which 50 are endemic. Birders who want to see the blue swallow should head for Kaapsehoop, to Dullstroom for the wattled crane and bald ibis, and to Wakkerstroom for the bluekorhaan and both Rodd’s and Botha’s lark. The Kruger Park with its huge number of bird species is part of the route.

The Southern KwaZulu Natal Birding Route, stretching from the coast to the Drakensberg Mountains, has been described as one of the world’s greatest avitourism destinations. There is a great variety of habitats with a bird list that includes many rare and high altitude endemics including, among others, the Cape parrot, Drakensberg rockjumper, all three South African crane species and the bearded vulture.

The Zululand Birding Route invariably produces the winner in the annual Big Birding Day competition (held at the end of November). This is where enthusiasts go if they want to see the Narina trogon, the pygmy goose and Pel’s fishing owl. The route includes a range of habitats from tropical coastal highlands and mist belt forests to lakes and riverine bush.

Want to Go on Tour? 
Chris Lotz of Birding Ecotours takes groups to all continents, with every tour accompanied by experienced guides. Along with scheduled birding safaris, custom-made birding tours are arranged for special interest groups. Destinations visited include Peru, Guyana, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Gabon, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, India, Finland, Spain, Eastern Europe and many more. 

Call Chris at 072 635 1501 or email

Grahame Snow of Reach Africa Birding Safaris personally accompanies flagship trips to southern and central Mozambique, Namibia and the Eastern and Western Caprivi. A favourite in the past two years has been the Richtersveld, with the Kgalagadi considered ‘very special’. In March, however, Reach Africa is planning a trip north of Xai Xai in Mozambique, where it will go in search of two sought after ‘specials’, the olive-headed weaver and crab plover.

Call Grahame for more info at 011-475-7436 or email: