Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

LBJs – harder than you think

LBJs are widely regarded as the most challenging group of birds to tell apart,

because they are all… well, pretty small, brown, drab, and uncannily similar in appearance. But we’re here to put your mind at ease and help you enjoy your next feathered foray, whether that’s at a hide overlooking a reed bed, or along a dusty farm road. BirdLife South Arica’s Communications Manager, ANDY WASSUNG and MEL TRIPP, gets into the serious business of LBJs (little brown jobs).

Cape Long-billed Lark

Of the five species of long-billed larks that occur throughout South Africa, the Cape Long-billed Lark is the one you will see along the West Coast. All have similar song-flights given by the males, as they rise up steeply from the ground, sometimes up to 15m in the air. At the top of their ascent, they give a drawn-out, descending whistle, as they plummet down in a dive with wings closed before landing back on the ground. This spectacular and dramatic display will often be repeated two or three times. The Cape Long-billed Lark is the largest of the long-billed larks, and it has the longest, hoopoe-like, decurved bill of them all.

Cloud Cisticola

Like all cisticolas, the Cloud Cisticola is well and truly an LBJ. Small and brown with no distinctive plumage, they’re often quite difficult to tell apart from other cisticolas in the field. However, the call and display flight are quite distinctive. It rises, with whirring wings at a steep angle high into the sky, often out of sight of the naked eye, seemingly flying among the clouds. Its high-level display then ends with a vertical dive back down to earth, with a rapid stream of ‘chik-chik-chikchik’ notes.

Lesser Swamp Warbler

The Lesser Swamp Warbler is a very common resident species that is highly vocal, and its song is richly melodic with trilling notes and bubbling phrases. Widespread throughout South Africa, it can be heard – but not easily seen – at any wetland habitat with dense reeds or bulrushes. In older field guides, this species was formerly known as the Cape Reed Warbler.

LBJs like larks, cisticolas and warblers may all seem like one bird masquerading as another when you first get into birding (actually even a lifetime of birding later, come to think of it), but once you spend enough time in the field learning to tell the differences, you’ll see that they are each special and unique in their own way. And perhaps you’ll even start to appreciate the subtle differences that keep even the most advanced birders guessing!

Tips for differentiating LBJs

Location, location, location

Shortlist a few species according to which part of the country, and what sort of habitat, you find yourself in. Is it flitting around a reed bed in a wetland? Is it running along a farm road in the arid Karoo? Check the distribution maps in your bird book or app and follow a process of elimination.


Now that you’re familiar with the LBJs in your area, the most helpful way to distinguish one species from another is by listening. Even the best binoculars on the market will only get you so far with these identical-looking twins. It’s a good idea to listen to the bird calls of the more common LBJs in your bird app before your trip commences, because then you’re bound to recognise a few calls quite quickly. And this is easier, and more ethical, than sitting in your car in the 40-degree heat playing 30 bird calls out of the window, and confusing the local birds and nearby birders in the process.

Flight pattern

Now we’re getting a bit more advanced, but if location and bird call don’t help you shorten the list of which LBJ you’re looking at, then it’s time to zoom in on flight pattern (that’s if you can keep your binoculars focused on them for long enough). There’s a reason they’re called Flappet vs. Clapper Lark, or Cloud vs. Wing-snapping Cisticola. Many bird books and apps do great justice to the flight patterns of these tricksters, and you could even consider an LBJ-specific bird book if you want to take your little brown birding to the next level.

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