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

Bucket-list birds – Part 1

“The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.” This quote by American writer and biologist Julie Zickefoose truly encapsulates what birding is about – especially for avid birders who want to tick off those once-in-a-lifetime sightings. ANDREW DE BLOCQ, Avitourism Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa, marvels about the Pel’s Fishing Owl and Pennant-winged Nightjar in this first part of our ‘bucket-list birds’.

Birds have long fascinated people for different and varied reasons. Some birds are exquisitely beautiful, while others are extremely rare, some are iconic, and others have intriguing and unique habits. These connections that people make with birds are very personal as they are driven by individual interests and experiences.

With the advent of modern travel and improved access to information, birders now have the ability to broaden their search for birds. A select few dedicate their lives to finding as many birds as possible. While not quite as obsessive, others will plan their travels around seeking out specific bird species that they have always wanted to see. Birders typically keep a so-called life list of the birds they have encountered, but there is another list that excites birders (and most nature enthusiasts) even more – the ‘bucket-list birds’ they yearn to see in their lifetime.

The selection of bucket-list birds will, naturally, vary from one individual to the next. However, there are a few that crop up time and time again, across the board. This series will feature some of these classic bucket-listers.

Pel’s Fishing Owl

This bird’s nickname, the ‘Great Ginger Ghost’, tells you everything you need to know about it. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is an oversized owl, which is ultra-secretive and has oddly ruddy plumage. It is a bit of an enigma among South Africa’s owls, being more adapted to dropping heavily out of fig trees onto unsuspecting barbel than silently swooping through the crisp night air.

Despite its bulk and out-there looks, it remains a challenge to find. Firstly, they are naturally rare, and secondly, they are easy to overlook. To add to this, their numbers have declined significantly, most likely in response to the loss of big trees in which they nest along the riverways of South Africa’s northeast, particularly after floods and elephant damage. This means that locating one in South Africa has become ever more difficult. Trust me – I have endured many owl-less hours on the Levubu Bridge in northern Kruger and walking the fig forests of Mkuze without the tick to show for it in South Africa (although I must add, I once glimpsed one in Mozambique – most certainly a lifetime highlight).

Pennant-winged Nightjar

Another bird that I am yet to see in South Africa – but that is merely because I haven’t ensured that I am in exactly the right place at exactly the right time – is the beautiful Pennant-winged Nightjar. I am yet to meet a birder who does not lust after a sighting of these extraordinarily long-winged birds!

Nightjars are cryptic and difficult to identify for the most part, yet the males of this species are some of the most improbably proportioned and iconic birds around. The clincher is that this emblematic feature is temporary and fleeting. The pennants are extensions of the bird’s primary or flight feathers and are used in courtship, but once the mating season ends and the hormones subside, they simply drop off, and the bird returns to being nondescript and unremarkable.

The classic way to see these birds is to organise a sunset drive out of Punda Maria Rest Camp in the northern Kruger during November. The guides keep track of the locations of the leks – the areas where males come to display each night – and drive there with the singular purpose of showing this marvel to their guests. It’s still not a sure thing, though! But boy, oh boy – what an incredible sight this is! You will hear even the non-birders gasp in amazement as one of these birds glides past!

As you will notice, both birds highlighted are most likely to be found in the northern Kruger National Park. There are good reasons for this. The northern stretch of the Kruger holds unique habitats and environments in South Africa and is relatively undisturbed and protected from human influence. This allows a diverse and unique range of birds and other species to thrive. For that reason, combined with the natural beauty and the privilege of being in one of the world’s best game-viewing locations, the northern Kruger National Park is what could be called a birding bucket-list destination.

*Look out for Part 2 and further bucket-list birds coming soon! – Ed.

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